Gongol.com Archives: March 2021
March 1, 2021
"Berkshire [Hathaway] has spent about $4.4 billion buying back its stock in the first six weeks of this year". Another way to look at it: Berkshire issued a large, tax-free dividend to the shareholders who remained. There are good repurchases, and then there are bad ones. Bad ones happen, for instance, when a company issues shares as rewards to insiders (like executives and board members), then repurchases them as an accounting stunt. Berkshire Hathaway's current repurchases are happening because management thinks the market is under-pricing the company. That's good repurchasing.
What reasonable person pays $100,000 in tuition for a journalism degree?
Someone's offering that as a menu price, which causes Matthew Martin to ask: "Is a masters in journalism a conspicuous consumption good[?]". It might truly be, and that's neither good for the journalists nor for the public.
How do you raise the profiles of governors?
Jonathan Martin: "Solution: Compulsory TV coverage of summer and winter NGAs". We could start by making the winter meeting a Festivus Special. Tune in for the airing of grievances! Don't miss the feats of strength! Superficially, it's a gag, of course. But the fact remains that most national reporting on politics comes from people working and living mainly in two places: DC and New York. That skews perceptions of what is, in fact, a great big country. Or, perhaps more closely, a great big collection of mini-Americas, each with its own special take on how government is done.
March 2, 2021
Maintenance tip: Give your equipment humane names
Serial numbers are tremendously important, of course, but it's much better to name important pieces of equipment like they're pets or people. The Minnesota Department of Transportation held a contest to name their snowplows, and you really have to admit that "Darth Blader", "Plowy McPlowFace", and "Ope, Just Gonna Plow Right Past Ya" are just vastly better names for those machines than something like "A47T14". It sounds frivolous until you realize that humane names help us shift our thinking about objects in a way that makes us more conscientious. There's just no comparison between tail numbers registered with the FAA and the classic Pan Am "Clipper" names.
Vaccine-research patron Dolly Parton gets a vaccination against Covid-19. No one should get involved in a cult of personality. But if you're inclined to join one, it would sure be nice if you'd choose a personality like Dolly Parton instead of...well, let's just say some of the lesser ones people have been joining lately.
Banker's hours have gotten out of hand
One of the 25 largest banks in the United States offers no way to reach a branch office outside the local hours of 9:30 am and 4:00 pm.
March 3, 2021
New rule: Take no opinion seriously unless it acknowledges some kind of nuance, exception, or subtlety. ■ Obviously, nobody gets to single-handedly impose a norm on everyone else, but our culture needs to start ranking "comfort with gray areas" above "emphatic about my own righteousness". That's a thing we need to develop, and that's probably going to require as snappy a name as "cancel culture".
The old "if anyone was offended" excuse
(Video) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo trots out the threadbare "if anyone was offended" excuse for his own behavior, having been called out for attempting to kiss women who obviously wanted not to be kissed. His excuse? That it's his "customary way" of greeting people -- including men and children. Which sounds like no kind of excuse at all. Anyone with even a modicum of literacy in body language would recognize the pained look on Anna Ruch's face as he grasps her face in a photograph. That's no time for "if anyone was offended". It's time for "I realize I was doing something manifestly out of bounds, I am deeply sorry, and I'm not going to do that anymore".
March 4, 2021
Introspection through ad targeting
Jennifer Doleac: "Ad targeting has gotten so good that I now consider new ads an opportunity for self-reflection. (What have I done that makes me the target audience for this product/service?) It's big data as therapy." You can try to avoid it by clearing your browser cookies daily, but then things might get weird.
Setting unrealistically high expectations
The Apple TV show "For All Mankind" is being teased with a preview backed by the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams". If you're going to bring Annie Lennox into something, that's setting the bar pretty high.
A sane analysis of Warren Buffett's latest letter to shareholders
In a more rational world, the stock analysts would lose their seat at the Berkshire question-and-answer session, and they would be replaced by Lawrence Cunningham, who actually studies the company instead of trying to divine arcane conclusions about it like they're reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.
Setting the grift level to "11"
A recent former President seeks to make himself the one and only route to deciding what belongs in the Republican Party. His argument carries the depth of thought and thematic consistency of the label on a jar of expired mayonnaise.
March 5, 2021
Which religious thinkers reach outside their particular sects?
A quarter of American adults say they are "spiritual but not religious". This is a rapidly-growing identity, and yet it isn't really an identity at all, since it's really just a statement of a negative. This raises an important question: Who among the religious thinkers is trying to reach out to them? Who among the religious thinkers is doing anything at all to reach out to anyone who isn't already a co-religionist? ■ This isn't a question about evangelism, really, but rather a question about the place for thoughtful religious introspection in a time when religion really isn't popular. The majority of American adults only attend religious services a few times a year. Monthly (or more frequent) attendance fell by almost ten percentage points between 2007 and 2019. ■ Yet the "eternal questions" of religion haven't gone anywhere. So, again, who is saying or writing things to reach the people who aren't already in their flocks? For instance, the Catholic Church once commissioned the Jesuits as "soldiers of God". The times of sending missionaries to convert "uncivilized" peoples are over -- but where are the missions to speak to the "spiritual but not religious" who are greater in number than any single church?
There's an ad for a Type 2 diabetes medication that uses an off-brand version of a song by the Sugarhill Gang and it's not clear that we shouldn't just declare civilization DOA.
"The 42nd reported expressway shooting just this year"
Exactly the kind of stomach-churning statistic that sets the nerves of the visitor on edge when in Chicago. A great city with a vast history and an always-promising future, but all too often riddled with bullets.
Lent conveniently reminds one of the simple pleasure of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich
China's relentless mission to destroy Hong Kong
Writes Matthew Brooker: "Xia Baolong, Beijing's top official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, declared that only 'patriots' can hold positions in all three branches of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. Xia and others have effectively equated patriotism with loyalty to the Communist Party". ■ It says something extraordinary that China's ruling class would torch everything that Hong Kong has to offer -- just to show they have zero tolerance for dissent. It's an incredible (and, long-term, wildly irrational) preference to reveal. Imagine being so terrified of the very idea of individual liberty that you would set fire to the crown jewel of your economy.
The time will come (someday, one hopes) when we collectively realize it's possible to enjoy and even learn from some of a person's work without having to defend their entire canon like it's Gospel. And that it's possible to walk away from the bad stuff without making a scene about it. This is the cure we need for overheated culture wars and "cancellation".
March 7, 2021
Looking at the way that the Royal Family's troubles have brought unfavorable attention to the UK, and how the United States recently spent four years under a President who wanted to do the ceremonial stuff without having to do the hard work of governing, it really seems like we ought to consider having an elected, ceremonial head of government. Elect someone to serve for a single year (with a strict single-term limit) and have them run around playing the part of the national id in a way that can't really hurt anybody. After we let Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Betty White have a shot, we can move along to other people who represent how the country is feeling at any given moment. (Maybe, just to be safe, we should let Betty go first.)
A Nebraska State Trooper caught a grass fire on a dashcam video -- and it moves much, much faster than you'd likely imagine
March 8, 2021
"The price we pay for democracy, which is worth it"
George Will's summary of the minimum wage is a satisfying way to describe quite a number of things that might also be called our "social-cohesion taxes". Sometimes we accept policies which we don't think work very well, because we have been unsuccessful at persuading others and we know that the underpinnings of democracy are more important than individual policy victories.
"Know your self worth and then add tax"
Great advice from Anna Gifty
Special-Purpose Acquisition Companies: Shell companies formed for the purpose of buying other companies. There's nothing immoral about them, but once you hear that something's a "hot trend" in investing, there's an excellent chance it's already way too overheated to be a value-investing opportunity. But given the simultaneous booms in SPACs, nostalgia programming, and streaming media, it's only a matter of time before Netflixx rolls out "Return of Laverne and Shirley". Follow their zany antics as the girls revive Hasenpfeffer Incorporated as a SPAC while chasing love in the Covid Era and trying to stay one step ahead of the SEC.
One-paragraph book review: "The Moment of Lift" by Melinda Gates
Verdict: A vital topic explored with humility
Great questions in demographics and geography
"What's the country with the biggest drop-off in population between its first city and its second city?" It would be interesting to see this graphed for a large number of countries. There's a power law to the size of cities in many or most places, to be sure. But it would be worthwhile to investigate whether the countries with flatter relationships between their 1st- and 2nd-tier cities perform better, economically, than places where all the action is found in one place. ■ From a development standpoint, this is a really important question: Can more be gained by putting all of a country's eggs in one basket and leaving some places behind? Or is that such a morally unacceptable choice that no country should choose to do it, even if that comes with a net deadweight loss to society as a whole. And the same questions that make sense for a country make sense for a state, too -- should a state like Iowa just put everything into making Des Moines and Cedar Rapids grow as much as possible? Or would the returns be higher to invest in growth in Jefferson and Oskaloosa and Clinton, too?
Small-r republican fairy tales are much harder to script
It would be nice, though, if from time to time kids could learn stories that don't involve kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Enough already with all of that monarchist garbage.
The high-credential version of screaming, "I'm an influencer!"
A lawyer is proud that he was once described by opposing counsel as an uncontrollable publicity hound
March 9, 2021
Should America lead the world in high-speed rail?
(Video) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says "I want the US to be leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail...especially with the bipartisan appetite for real investments". There's no escaping the fact that America has a historically romantic view of rail travel -- it's a huge part of our identity as a continental nation, and it feels like something that was once great and is now lost. But the very idea of our being a giant, sprawling country is one of the reasons rail has such an uphill climb in America. Italy's high-speed rail network, for example, really came together in the first decade of the 2000s, and it's quite magnificent to ride. But the entirety of Italy would fit roughly between Chicago and Raleigh, NC, and is only about the width of Indiana. In that space live 62 million people. That's in a country just 116,000 square miles in area -- about the size of Arizona, which only has about 7 million people. The population density of places with well-known high-speed rail systems like Italy and Germany and Japan is often almost a factor of ten higher than the density in the United States. That doesn't make high-speed rail impossible, but it does radically affect the economics involved. ■ To remove our romantic blinders and get serious about the question, what we need to ask is "What makes high-speed rail attractive?" Three factors stand out: What we really want is transportation that is high-efficency (and, consequently, low-cost), non-weather-dependent, and reliably scheduled.
Four dozen HuffPost employees laid off via email
What a profoundly unethical way to treat other human beings.
FBI releases video showing DC pipe bomber
Find and prosecute this terrorist and anyone who collaborated with them
Somehow, in light of the Covid-19 shutdown anniversary this week, ads for paper towels and toilet paper sound...odd
A lawyer shares a story about a client who spent 30 years in prison before being released this year. How is he supposed to know how to navigate a digitally-dependent world? There are times when one is reminded that, although we call it "corrections", we don't always make the choices necessary to produce "corrected" fellow citizens who are capable of reintegration with society.
The only thing you need to read about the Royal Family
Patrick Freyne: "They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire." This writing sizzles. ■ However, events like the "Meghan and Harry" interview offer a reminder that some commentators have nothing productive to add to the public conversation. It's possible to let the event pass without any comment at all -- and yet some commentators cannot help but make fools of themselves by revealing how little they actually think about what they say. Those people (who do not deserve to be named here) can be safely ignored. We really, really need to stop making celebrities out of people who are profoundly emotionally stunted. It's not good for them, and it's terrible for the rest of us.
Incoming winter storm probably won't drop 111" of snow
Computer-based weather models are great, but sometimes they come up with implausible results. There's a reason human beings are still involved.
March 10, 2021
Visas to help repopulate shrinking communities in the Midwest
Accepting the proposed precondition that it be voluntary on the part of both the community and the visa-holder, this idea really makes a lot of good plain sense.
The danger of wearing headphones while opining
Certain talk-show hosts -- mainly men -- fall victim to an effect that may not have a name, but which is very real. When he talks into a microphone, he hears himself (through his earpiece or headphones) on a nearly-imperceptible delay. That delay causes him to think he's hearing himself as the voice of God. It's a technologically-induced form of auditory schizophrenia, and if a person isn't careful to mitigate the effects (for instance, by wearing only one headphone of a pair), it really does turn some people into monsters. When Rush Limbaugh said he was using "talent on loan from God", he was revealing a hidden truth about what was happening inside his own head.
Could we please pause NFTs for a while?
Could we please just wait until the financial (and carbon) cost of energy drops to near-zero before finding new ways to waste it? Basically everything "crypto" is just a way to light the environment on fire, and it's just not a great idea to keep engaging in it until we can make and use energy with fewer consequences.
Stay away from the triple point
"Triple point" remains one of the best meteorological terms out there. Not that you want to actually be where a triple point is happening, but it's a great name.
March 11, 2021
An observation on Clubhouse vs. podcasting
There's always been a niche place for drop-in conversation (just look at ham radio). It's never been enormous, but it has been durable. People like to be surprised, and if an application like Clubhouse can replicate that ham radio, "drop-in" conversational feeling, then there will be a place for it. ■ There will always be a big place for live-to-tape conversations, on radio or podcasts. So long as there are interesting people, there will be others who want to hear them speak. And a good interviewer (like Anne McElvoy) is capable of asking conversational questions of an interesting person that exceed the quality of the content that person may be able to generate on their own. ■ What podcasting has brought to America is scripted, heavily-produced audio programming. It's not something we've done very much -- certainly not by contrast with the work of public broadcasters like CBC Radio One and BBC Radio 4. In those markets, speech-based radio programming (that isn't "talk radio" in the American political sense) is very popular. That makes similar programming a growth market in America, and it ought to long persist in growing as producers become more sophisticated.
What would your Y2K-era self have said if you came back to report that in 2021, everyone is required to wear masks inside of banks, we don't know yet where Donald Trump is going to put his Presidential library, and Apple is selling a Dick Tracy watch with a built-in electrocardiogram?
Women in our armed forces are no "mockery" of defense, no matter how much a reactionary pundit tries to argue it. Women are half of our country's talent, hold half of America's skills, and possess half of our national brain power. Tucker Carlson and Fox News should be ashamed for advocating that we only half-defend ourselves.
If you thought these definitions were difficult before, they're an order of magnitude harder with the arrival of deepfakes. It's not just that the train has left the station -- it split into twelve trains, each leaving in a different direction, and two entered new dimensions.
Someone voted "present" as the Chinese government voted to break Hong Kong's democracy. Everyone else voted "yes".
Snapshot from the big-tool economy
We'll always need industrial work to be done, but it's often taking place farther and farther away from our view
Should the President hold a press conference?
Americans should expect their Presidents to be accountable, and direct accountability to the press is a component of that. But the reaction to whether President Biden has held a press conference yet is a bit over-wrought. Even the staunchest defender of the press has to temper that criticism through the lens of the recent performance of the White House press corps, and it would be easy to care a great deal more if the last four years had been characterized by tenacious and detailed on-the-record questioning rather than by "access journalism" and an infinite loop of anonymous quotes. Some did right. Many did not.
March 12, 2021
Rating fish sandwiches for Lent
Wendy's came to Lent this year with their "A" game. Their sandwich tastes like fish without tasting fishy, and that's well beyond expectations for fast food.
March 13, 2021
Should you sketch on slides during a live presentation?
Low-fi sketching done live while you're talking can deliver some messages with lower cognitive loading than any of the alternatives.
Strange rabbit holes on Wikipedia
Thanks to someone's detailed research, one can be sure that if they remember watching "CHiPs" during the daytime, it was on NBC between April and September of 1982. Did anyone really need to know that? No. Is it a fascinating way to triangulate hazy memories? Yes.
March 14, 2021
"Ignoring [stupidity] won't make it go away"
Jim Golby offers sound advice to military leadership: "Leaders must be judicious on when to engage, but total silence isn't a good option, either -- even if it is tempting. After something like the Carlson segment, their soldiers will be talking about it and their formations may be divided. Ignoring that won't make it go away." Of course, there are options for talking about things without saying certain things (like a television host's name) out loud. When in doubt, the carefully-crafted subtweet can be even more effective than taking on a target directly. It takes more thought than addressing someone head-on, but the results can be devastating. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "[I]f you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction and prevent a candid Attention". Franklin knew that sometimes the best thing to do is to address a principle directly at a time when everyone knows exactly what hot topic you're talking about -- but without hovering around the topic itself. Sometimes, the bully must be punched right in the nose. But at other times, it can be enough -- especially for people who don't want to be dragged into the mud to wrestle with the pigs -- to say something that can't be mistaken for neutrality, without dignifying the name of the pig. And there are plenty of pigs begging to grapple: Sen. Ted Cruz wants military leaders to show up to take a beating for some tweets that were issued by those under their command. Cruz, lest we not forget, was the man who just a month ago threw his kids under the bus for his choice to go on a trip to Mexico. What kind of honor is found in that?
Beware apps masquerading as "American"
There remain certain "tells" in the English language that non-English speakers think we use but which we simply do not. One of those is to start a sentence with "Nice day," (inclusive of the comma), which just isn't how Americans use that phrase. Ever. And when it shows up in social-media ads promoting applications of dubious provenance, there's no reason to do anything but walk away.
...that changing the clocks twice a year is an exercise in futility imposed on the population at large by people who selfishly think that imposing a time change by government fiat is more important than just changing their own schedules voluntarily and leaving the rest of us alone.
March 15, 2021
Tesla has filed a Form 8-K with the SEC granting the CEO the additional title of "Technoking". And it's titled its CFO as the "Master of Coin". But...why? ■ No one has ever needed a sidekick quite like Elon Musk needs one right now. Like most good top-tier leaders, he needs a right-hand person who can be implicitly trusted to veto the #1 person's worst impulses. Musk is imaginative, smart, aggressively innovative -- and also quite clearly impulsive. Perhaps he's a genius, but intellect alone isn't enough to achieve the greatest results. Temperament is essential, too. ■ Most great business geniuses have done better by working with partners. Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Soichiro Honda had Takeo Fujisawa. Warren Buffett has Charlie Munger. Part of the value of a great partner is in balancing one's ideas or offering a broader perspective on tough questions. Another part, though, is in offering a temperamental counterweight. And it's hard to imagine that a "Technoking" doesn't need to add a little bit of yin to his yang.
The people of Hong Kong have a right to their opinions...
...but only if they're already the opinions that Beijing wants them to have. That's the basic message coming from the Chinese government, as it pretends to be "all ears" about changes to the legal and government system while imposing radical changes without the people's consent. ■ Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Democracy is imperfect at the beginning and will remain so. But men and women still crave it: It alone affords human beings the dignity that comes when those who would govern them have to ask for their consent. There is simply no alternative." There's scarcely a better way to put it. And there is no possible way to interpret the behavior of China's Communist Party as "asking for consent". Thus, they afford the people of Hong Kong exactly no dignity. Sooner or later, any system that fails to respect human dignity is bound to collapse. ■ Whoever runs the social media tools for Radio-Television Hong Kong deserves an award for cramming devastating commentary into a brief story summary: "HKMAO deputy Zhang Xiaoming says the central government is 'all ears' when it comes to views on the planned overhaul to #HongKong's electoral system, as long as people's opinions are based on the decision that Beijing has already made."
Of all the strange things to see at a gas station...
Like the sands through the hourglass
How should we start measuring time? The period between required password resets? Or by notifications that your credit card has been compromised?
Government troops kill 20 pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar
20 people were murdered because they expected their government to obtain their consent first. 20 lives stolen.
March 16, 2021
Utterly outrageous behavior by China's government
Foreign Policy reports on truly obscene policies in China -- like "...the 'Pair Up and Become Family' program, which has seen more than 1 million Han officials move in with minority families. A common scenario is a Uyghur family's father figure is detained while a Han man lives with the Uyghur woman and children."
A distant second to Chocolate Rain
Dust storms in the South carried particles into the atmosphere over the Midwest and resulted in "muddy rain" over Kansas and Nebraska
Until we can get "a taco truck on every corner", how about a Taco Dome near every home?
When the opposition has been run out of town
Hong Kong no longer has opposition members in its governing legislature. Everyone who's left has passed a pro-Beijing litmus test. The world should be paying attention, but there's so much else going on that this really awful development may well escape the attention it deserves.
Don't undercook your corned beef
If you're going to enjoy it on St. Patrick's Day, then start cooking it on St. Patrick's Day Eve.
March 17, 2021
We must not dehumanize victims after death
The victims of the Atlanta murder spree had lives that were entitled to dignity, just as much as anyone else's. A murderer stole those lives. Nobody in good conscience should speak of those deaths without putting the victims before the perpetrator.
Running secret hospitals in Syria
If you think speech-based radio can be better than just some malcontent with a mic, you're right: This CBC Radio interview with a Syrian doctor is at once riveting, heartbreaking, and uplifting.
When Irish-American eyes are smiling
May you find one thing in life that makes you as joyful as an Irish-American politician on St. Patrick's Day.
Why kids like dinosaur knowledge
It's especially fun because most parents learned about dinosaurs in early school years, too, but the facts continue to change. Just ask bronto...oops, make that apatosaurus.
The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center sees an extremely bad day ahead for the South
March 18, 2021
Thinking about the next big war
James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman: "What we need most is an active imagination; we should enlist insights not only from security professionals, but also historians, writers, foreign policy experts and representatives from the arts. If any hesitation existed before, the pandemic should demonstrate to our leaders the importance of unconventional thinking when it comes to anticipating future threats to our country and taking steps to avert a crisis before it arrives on our doorstep." ■ They're absolutely right. But also: Ordinary citizens need to invest at least as much interest and energy in our changing national defense as we put into, say, arguing about Dr. Seuss books. You don't have to read Clausewitz, but maybe glance at the Texas National Security Review or Defense One occasionally. ■ The extremely lazy thinking that has contaminated most of the American discussion about military power has reduced us to the empty polarities of "Support the troops" and "No more foreign wars". That just isn't enough. The battlefield is no longer guaranteed to be "over there", nor is it guaranteed to be any place we put on a map. China hacked Equifax. Russia treats cyberwarfare as a primary tool. North Korea attacked Sony. It's nonsense to think that we can just withdraw to our own little corner of the world and ignore everything else. That doesn't mean we have to be overzealous expeditionaries. It does mean we (as citizens) have to become critical thinkers about battlefields and threats that don't fit neatly into a context that suits our historical memory. But if civilians are going to have political control of the military (as we should), then civilians need to engage in the training required to be responsible operators. ■ The rush to create a Space Force bypassed the bigger step we should have taken, which is to spin up a Cyber Force with its own dedicated rules of engagement, understanding of threats, command structure, and even a standalone service academy. And we need to examine how other asymmetric and unconventional threats are going to come at us, so that we can figure out the best ways to deploy force (whether kinetic or otherwise), commit resources (of people, money, time, and whatever else we have), and cooperate with allies while engaging with adversaries. And we should be doing it while considering a whole-picture context, particularly in light of the risk that this pandemic will persist and the next could be right around the corner. Not everything that threatens us will happen at gunpoint.
The stupidest argument is that we're running out of space
To think there is no vacancy left in America (an unreality one pundit is trying to insert into the nation's dialogue) is to be utterly without knowledge about our geography. Many states are less dense than the country as a whole, which is near the bottom of the list for population density worldwide. Even our cities aren't especially dense, but there's a serious problem of depopulation taking place across much of the Midwest and elsewhere. As communities shrink, it becomes harder to sustain a private-sector economy and harder to pay for basic infrastructure and essential services. There's well more than enough room for many, many, many more people in America -- and don't worry about growing food: Aside from some marginal effects in places immediately adjacent to growing metropolitan areas, population growth really has nothing to do with the price of rural land.
Foreign Policy reports: "Last year, researcher Adrian Zenz found the region poured $37 million into programs -- featuring forced sterilizations and IUD implantations -- meant to slash birth rates, which dropped 24% in 2019 in Xinjiang compared with 4.2% nationwide."
"How to be a better parent during the pandemic"
"The Economist Asks" is one of the ten best podcasts in circulation generally, and this episode is particularly good.
March 19, 2021
Why the US should redirect its excess vaccines to other countries
Writing about WWII, Eisenhower noted with awe, "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." This has been America's not-at-all-secret weapon for almost a century: The unrivaled capacity of our economic system to move faster than any other, and to scale up in a way no other economy can. It's not just that our economy is really big, it's that we select for decisive action, risk-taking, and a disposition in favor of innovation. Command economies can't match it. ■ There are cases where the government can act as a catalyst -- and should. The choice to facilitate the simultaneous development of multiple Covid-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed is a fine example of this, and it's a lesson that ought to be remembered. The many-eggs-in-many-baskets approach may result in a surplus of outputs (like vaccine doses) that may be inefficient by strictly economic terms, but there are circumstances so exigent that it's better to overshoot than to undershoot. As Bill Gates once put it, "Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ A lesson worth taking away from Operation Warp Speed is that government can get more of highly desirable outcomes when it does enough to bulk up the rewards for achieving them. Subsidizing a guaranteed market for vaccine purchases gave the pharmaceutical companies the requisite incentives to pursue the goal at flank speed. This makes a compelling case for our government to fund results-based inducement prizes to achieve other worthwhile goals where the public interest could be served by speedy innovation. If the private sector receives a clear signal that a successful solution to a major public problem will be rewarded mightily, then the market will do more to find that solution than it otherwise might. This is a lesson we ought to apply to issues like energy and transportation innovations that can have huge effects on public-interest goals in areas like defense and environmental quality. ■ While we're at it, it's evidently time to do a lot more thinking about issues of ventilation and climate control inside our buildings. A New York Times headline puts it: "How Windows are Crucial to Reopening Schools". Even if we had unfailing certainty that we could stop Covid-19 with vaccines, we need to be thinking ahead to the next pandemic while we're fighting this one. Respiratory viruses aren't going away, and if there's anything we should be learning (and reflecting upon) about pre-pandemic life, it's that we've been really complacent about making each other sick -- in workplaces, schools, and other settings. The CDC says that influenza rates this season have been one-quarter of the rates seen in a previously low-severity flu season. We're not going to be eager to put up with social distancing forever, but we shouldn't lose sight of how careful management of air quality has done to keep us from getting sick in this extraordinary year. This, again, would be an area ripe for inducement prizes to incentivize big new innovations for making our indoor air quality healthier, even after the pandemic is gone. ■ "American exceptionalism" shouldn't be a lazy catchphrase -- we really should be more conscious of how we benefit from an extraordinary system that can do really big things faster and more competently than any rival system. And we don't even need to be selfish about it: Sharing our successes and rallying other countries to ally themselves with our vision of the world will only help us grow stronger over the long term. We don't need vassal states; we need friendly collaborators and eager trading partners.
Because our two biggest population centers are only two hours apart, it only makes sense for Iowa and Nebraska to do things like practicing Severe Weather Awareness Week together. This kind of coordination especially makes sense, considering that the vast majority of Nebraskans are covered by the Omaha National Weather Service office, which also has responsibility for eight of Iowa's 99 counties. But for perspective: It would take you no less than 12 hours to drive from Chadron, Nebraska, to Keokuk, Iowa. It's about 675 miles (as the crow flies) from the northwest corner of the combined two-state area to the southeast. In Europe, that would be roughly the distance from Brussels to Budapest.
Cruise industry looks to resume sailing in June
Royal Caribbean is going to let vaccinated passengers aboard in the summer, with stops in a handful of places around the Caribbean. One expected stop will be in Sint Maarten, where four in five workers does something tied to tourism.
Chicago dyed the river green after all
Name a holiday that can beat St. Patrick's Day for pure frivolity of celebration.
Contested Iowa Congressional seat should have been decided for good -- in Iowa
Josh Douglas: "[W]e should reinforce a democratic norm that elections are final when certified or that losing candidates must use the more neutral procedures in state law to challenge the result". The fact the losing candidate is appealing the result to Congress itself is a real problem. She lost a close race; she didn't die.
Sometimes one encounters a story that serves as a reminder of just how much cultural and social convergence is taking place around the world. It's not happening because anyone is forcing it, but because most people just want to be happy and left alone to make their own choices. Such is the case in India, where a social-media-driven response to a politician's lament about women wearing ripped jeans illustrates just how little people really differ.
Performative-outrage artists whine about tough times
Some people have little to offer beyond being a malcontent with a mic, and those people ought to leave the media so that the airwaves can be used for conversations that further the public interest.
A grieving son shares a profile of his mother, who was murdered in Atlanta
The Milky Way, 100,000 pixels across
Truly mesmerizing work
March 20, 2021
What's the Netflix model for news?
For a rising-but-still-reasonable price, Netflix offers a vast spread of both original and previously-created content for on-demand consumption anywhere, anytime. At a time when news outlets are facing a lot of budgetary pain, it's a model worth some additional study, especially for those who believe in the vitality of the free press. ■ First and foremost is the problem of high subscription fees: News outlets keep vacillating wildly back and forth between giving everything away for free and trying to charge prices for digital access that match what they used to charge for dead-tree editions of newspapers. ■ Given a reasonable subscription option, many consumers would gladly pay for news from more outlets, but in most cases, there's no such thing as the $5 or $10 annual "supporting reader" deal. That's a shame, because it means that many people subscribe to one or two high-priced services and then pay nothing to the rest, even when many of us really do value local news reporting from communities other than our own hometowns. ■ It's criminal that there's no subscription reciprocity for people who really do believe in paying for local news -- but not at full price in every single market. Zoos, aquariums, and museums have this figured out. Toll roads in more than a dozen states have figured out how to harmonize electronic toll systems. So why is this so elusive for news outlets? ■ Basic economic thinking would suggest that a product with a high fixed production cost (reporters' and editors' salaries) and almost zero marginal distribution cost (like news when it is delivered digitally) ought to focus on collecting small payments from the largest number of customers possible. The option for micropayments and other forms of goodwill support would be welcomed by people who think news is valuable. ■ Failing to get our heads wrapped around this issue is going to lead, sooner or later, to a news landscape that either depends almost entirely upon charitable support and benefactor (or vanity) ownership -- or we'll risk that the only "news" that is available for many will be whatever serves someone's interests. ■ Environmental news coverage, just for example, is already heavily influenced by opposing forces like the Heartland Institute on one side and the Environmental Working Group on the other. Both can claim to be "non-profit", but that doesn't mean "neutral" nor "disinterested" nor "objective". It just means that nobody literally owns the organization that is the source of the material being served up. ■ This could have a much more nefarious tinge, as well: A lot of Americans respect the BBC, but not every state-run broadcaster shares the values of a free society. When you see China Daily being distributed in the United States, or CCTV on hotel televisions, you're seeing what the Communist Party of China wants you to see. If we don't find reasonable economic ways of sustaining lots of private-sector news coverage in the United States, we're at risk of seeing the free (whatever its source may be) crowd out the good.
Shameful agitprop from an "institute" head
The president of the Claremont Institute uses his platform to spread the kind of propaganda that brings cheer to the enemies of freedom. It's shameful that he chooses to do this, because Americans live in a perpetual project to be, and do, better. It's un-American to give up on that perpetual project by saying we "deserve" to lose wars or to succumb to "regime collapse" -- all because the Defense Department issued a memo.
Positive rules beat negative ones -- for kids
In the short run, it's easier to give your kid negative rules ("Don't do X"). In the long run, it's so much easier to parent if you give them affirmative ones ("Please do Z"). If only this knowledge could be transmitted telepathically to every parent shouting at their little ones. One good affirmative rule (applied consistently) takes the place of dozens of negative ones. For instance, "Clean up after yourself" takes the place of "Don't leave your toys on the floor", "Don't make a mess there", "Don't spill your juice", "Don't track mud in here", and many others. Not only is it easier for kids to follow affirmative rules (because they're looking for guidance), it also helps them work on ways they can comply happily since they can devote their energies to meeting expectations instead of complaining about yet another boundary.
What's it going to take to land post-pandemic convention business?
Chicago has a huge convention center that tries to draw a lot of business to the city, but...it has some drawbacks. It helped a lot to get the CTA Green Line to stop nearby, but six blocks is still quite a hike if it's warm outside and you're dressed professionally. There's also the matter of the Byzantine union regulations that apply to the place.
The Onion: "Unmasked Members Of Daft Punk Obliviously Stand Near Each Other At Bus Stop"
Ferrari and McGowan are just other ways to say "Smith"
It turns out that "(iron)smith" has a lot of range
Pricing parity approaches for meat substitutes
Ordinary beef and chicken still have the price advantages, but their plant-based and bio-cultured rivals are rapidly closing in on competitive costs. It's happening much faster than people might imagine, given how much the meat alternatives cost just a couple of years ago. The more choices we have for feeding the world, the better.
March 21, 2021
Hot housing market? List at a higher price.
If you praise your agent for "selling your house quickly" instead of cursing them for "recommending a listing price below equilibrium", then you really should have taken economics in school. ■ The problem here is a pure misalignment of incentives. The difference in commission between an easy sale at $250,000 and a hard one at $275,000 isn't much (to the listing agent). It's $875 if they're taking only the seller's half of a 7% fee, or $1,750 if they're working both sides of the deal. How much work would you do for an incremental $875? A day's worth? Two days? A week? Yet that $25,000 bump in the transaction price means $23,250 in difference to the homeowner selling the house. ■ The bulk of the commission is in the baseline market price, not in the marginal difference they obtain for the seller. And while that's standard practice, it doesn't authentically align their incentives with those of the homeowner -- any more than a 1% annual fee for money managers aligns their interests with those of the client. In both cases, the way to get results is to tie the reward to the marginal difference that the professional makes to their client. ■ In 1961, Warren Buffett wrote about his fee structure for managing money (this was before he took over Berkshire Hathaway). Most of the people entrusting him with their money took a deal where Buffett was paid nothing for the first 4% of returns each year, and where he took 25% of the returns over that amount (or nothing for the first 6% and 33% of anything over that). While 25% or 33% sounds like a lot, it's actually a much better alignment of incentives than 1% of total assets. With a 1% annual fee, the money manager has no incentive but to hold the total pot steady and just look busy. The more the apparent alchemy, the better for the manager. But if the manager makes nothing -- zip -- until they've earned a 6% return, then their incentives turn strictly to outperforming the market. And that, of course, is what Buffett did for his partners: He outperformed. ■ In the real-estate universe, this would be the equivalent of paying the agent nothing (or a flat fee of, say, $1,000) for selling the house at its assessed value, but giving them 33% of any price over the assessment. That, you see, would align the incentives of the homeowner and the agent. The speed to sell a listing isn't itself a signal that the agent has done what's most important to the homeowner -- there's a price at which any house would sell instantly, and that price is $1. Somewhere between $1 and $160 million is a selling price for every home. The price that sells the home overnight is almost certainly not the optimal price for the benefit of the seller (unless, of course, they actually need to sell the home instantly). ■ If you want to know how a system really works, look to how the incentives are aligned. Lots of people get paid to look busy. It doesn't mean they're doing anything evil -- it just means that the system in which they operate is not designed for the outcome that would be demanded by a suitably well-informed client.
China sails destroyers near Japan
"The Chinese law that recently took effect enables its coast guard ships to fire on vessels around the Japanese-controlled, Beijing-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea." Serious provocation? Minor distraction? Meaningful escalation? The problem is that it's often hard to know what's a serious move until it's much too late.
Forget looking for flowers. Just look ahead to the first night the solar-powered lights collect enough juice to remain on.
Drone footage of the Icelandic volcano eruption
Truly some of the most spectacular nature footage ever seen
March 22, 2021
A free Krispy Kreme doughnut every day if you get a Covid-19 vaccine
This has some people worked up over comorbidity issues, but it's silly to get overheated about it. If a doughnut is the incentive necessary to get more people to vaccinate, then so be it. ■ The beauty of liberal democratic capitalism is that we don't need for everyone's motivations to be as pure as the driven snow...just, on balance, more good than not. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. ■ We are extremely close to having a surplus of vaccines available and not enough willing patients to vaccinate. That crossover moment could be just a few weeks away. Whatever it takes to get the reluctant over their hesitancy and into the clinics to get the shot is a victory for herd immunity. ■ Almost nobody is going to take such frequent advantage of the Krispy Kreme offer that it will change their BMI, and even if they did, then the slow expansion of a few waistlines is better than sending thousands of additional patients to the hospital with a deadly respiratory virus. The person who will go to get a free Krispy Kreme doughnut every morning wasn't going to have a bowl of Wheaties and go for a 5-mile run instead. ■ As Greg Mankiw puts it in his authoritative textbook on economics, "People respond to incentives". If a free-doughnut offer is enough incentive to push even a few hundred people over the line, then Krispy Kreme is doing a giant public service while also earning a lot of publicity. Pure? No. But definitely good enough.
March Madness never seems to teach us Math Mania
Every March, millions of Americans pick their NCAA brackets and watch them get blown up almost instantly...then go right back to complaining that meteorologists, economists, and pollsters can't predict the future with perfect certainty.
Taiwan situation draws US and Japan closer on defense
Given the general thrust of US-China relations, it seems surprising that we don't hear a more robust debate about a statehood option for Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas. China's government makes no apologies for rattling its sabers all over the Pacific right now, and it really is surprising that we aren't talking about binding our far-flung territories a little closer.
Lawyer who took center stage in Trump election claims now says she was making it all up
In a court filing, Sidney Powell claims "no reasonable person could conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact". This sort of spectacular bravado would be worthy of applause if it were merely a matter of showmanship. But it wasn't -- it was a set of claims that went directly to the central matter of a Presidential election, and the lies ultimately served the undermining thereof. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "To err is human, to repent divine, to persist devilish." It seems pretty clear that this behavior -- malignant disingenuousness -- would fall under "to persist".
With no disrespect intended to those who are helping people to express themselves and to bear with their feelings, there is some hazard involved with telling people that they can have a "truth" that is independent of objective facts. So writes Elisabeth Braw: "[E]stablishing the real facts isn't easy, and in a liberal democracy, citizens have the right to challenge experts. But the real problem is when enough people decide they're not even interested in seeking the truth, preferring their own ideas about how the world works instead."
Idle thought: It's hard to come up with any real-estate deal that has paid off quite like the one that Virginia got in exchange for DC. The state gave up a few square miles, took them back 57 years later, and today has three of the highest-income counties in the country.
Some people are patient by nature
For the rest of us, there's the ability to speed up podcast playback to 2.4x speed. Superficial as it may seem, that kind of hyper-customization of the listener experience is a huge advantage in favor of on-demand streaming services and reinforces how important it is for radio broadcasts to focus on their core competency: Being live and talking about what's immediate.
March 23, 2021
Why doesn't the American Psychological Association accredit online doctoral programs?
Seriously, why is there no industry-accredited path into the profession of psychology via online programs? Everyone knows the last year has taken a massive toll on mental health, and yet this obvious reform to expand service capacity hasn't been enacted to help. ■ For example: Iowa's current law requires licensed psychologists to possess a doctoral degree from a program that is accredited by the APA, the Canadian equivalent, or "designated by the ASPPB" -- but the ASPPB stopped its designation program in 2018. So that really leaves the APA, which explicitly says "there are no APA-accredited programs available that ONLY use online methods of instruction". ■ The distinction between programs based upon the mode of course delivery certainly seems like an artifact of a bygone era now. Almost every college became an online school when the first Covid-19 shutdowns began a year ago. Even Harvard Medical School went online for its entire first-year cohort. Any lingering prejudice against online learning ought to have gone right out the window with the events of last twelve months. ■ This matters in particular for psychology because the need has never been as broad (nor, likely, as deep) for accessible and affordable mental health care. Virtually everything about the pandemic has exacted a mental-health toll. It's gigantic: The CDC has been surveying Americans and concludes that 40% of American adults have symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression right now. That's an astonishingly high figure. ■ The brain is an organ, just like the heart or the lungs or even the spleen. We ought to treat it not as something that awaits some kind of acute crisis for treatment, but as something deserving of ongoing clinical care. Getting mental-wellness checkups ought to be as routine (and as free of stigma) as going to the dentist for a semiannual cleaning. But it's clear that we have far too few practitioners available. The shortage was obvious well before the pandemic, and demand is (or at least ought to be) much higher now. We can't have rates of depression and anxiety effectively quadruple and not recognize that an urgent problem is upon us. ■ Social distancing requirements and other measures to protect people's physical health launched online sessions with mental-health care providers straight into the mainstream. It is past time for organizations that have the legal authority to act as gatekeepers to the professions to act in the public interest and acknowledge that if telemedicine is good enough for patients and if online classes are good enough for Harvard Med, then it's certainly time to drop the pretense that there is a mode of education for psychological professionals that is arbitrarily deemed beneath their dignity. We aren't going to get over the mental-health toll of Covid-19 without some help. So, as a matter of public health and in the public interest, why aren't we training more of that help?
China's government turns to genocidal whataboutism
This isn't like economic development, where a lower-income country may get some global leniency for producing extra pollution as it industrializes and pulls its population out of poverty. China's government isn't entitled to a free pass for what it's doing in Xinjiang. Nor for what it's doing in Hong Kong, which may be less explicitly genocidal but remains a vast insult to human rights. Of course, nations ought to try to do the right thing and be above reproach -- but it's the refuge of the truly awful government to claim that criticism is invalid unless the critic is without historical stain.
Yakov Smirnoff is actually Ukrainian
This might not mean much to Millennials and Zoomers, but for a Gen Xer, this is a geographical realignment on par with finding out that Eminem is really from Windsor, Ontario. Also: He has a Ph.D. now. What a country, indeed.
March 24, 2021
Fake nudes are cheaper than you think
And that means it's only a matter of time before a whole lot of people find themselves targeted -- but it's likely to be an especially big problem for women in the public spotlight. Note this warning: "[T]he FBI is warning about threats that have yet to materialize in a big way, with nary a word for those that already exist [...] Telegram channels with over 100,000 members have used a bot to generate nonconsensual nude images of at least 680,000 women for $1.25 each."
Fisher sinks truck on Canadian lake
Just because they're made from aluminum now doesn't mean they float. If you're going to drive on a frozen lake, better to do it when there's still plenty of ice beneath you.
Needed: A way to come clean about past mistakes
What's worse than making good-faith mistakes? Never giving anyone the room to grow from the mistakes they've made. The entire point of a world built on classical liberalism is that individuals can and should grow and change. If you sacrifice the process, you prohibit the results. We are not all dead at the same time. Lives overlap, experiences reach different individuals at different stages, and self-awareness does not always come cheap. Particularly now that the Internet archives and publishes the mistakes of all, forever, we need to think about what it means to correct ourselves and forgive others' past errors.
(Video) Equal parts "Isn't that the truth?" and "Die-hard libertarians are bonkers". But, in whole, a laugh-out-loud funny video from Reason Magazine.
Our adversaries are watching our vulnerabilities
True, and alarming: "The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn't very hard) that large numbers of Americans [...] are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it."
Texas man arrested for carrying a rifle outside the VP's official residence
It's not just that he was arrested with a gun. He had 113 rounds of ammunition, too. (Of note: The Vice President is living at Blair House while renovations take place at the official residence at the Naval Observatory.) We shouldn't casually shrug off the idea that a person was out to threaten the Vice President like this.
A rough weather system comes to the South
Three of the biggest metro areas in Texas under a tornado watch until 4:00 in the morning? That alone would be rough, but then morning will come and the Sun will start pouring energy right back into the system.
March 25, 2021
Ford tells 30,000 employees that work-from-home options will remain after the pandemic subsides
Cities are always going to have at least some magnetism due to agglomeration effects. But the pivot to broad acceptance of working from home (WFH) and hybrid working models might detour a lot of future commercial office construction. Just because some workers may always need to be within reach of the home office (as opposed to the offices in their homes) doesn't necessarily mean that we will forevermore need to stack them floor after floor above one another. ■ In other words: If your skyline doesn't have skyscrapers now, maybe it never really will. Or, if it does, they won't be purely commercial, but will be multi-use right from the start. The "vertical city" may yet have its day. ■ It's not like the multi-use building is a new concept. Living "above the shop" has been an accepted mode of habitation for centuries. Quite obviously, farmers have long lived where they worked -- but the connection between dwelling place and workplace remained strong even after the Industrial Revolution got well underway. We still use the phrase "cottage industry", often without realizing that the term quite literally refers to work that can be produced from home. Even in modern times, buildings like the John Hancock Center have been intentionally designed for mixed use, as places where people might live, work, and shop. ■ The question is: How might the financing for tall buildings change? Life insurance companies (like John Hancock) once had significant incentives to build giant, long-term buildings. Among other reasons, insurance companies with lots of incoming float from premiums might look at that float as a cheap way to fund major construction if the interest rates available to other builders were very high. If you have ready money and your rivals have to pay 10% interest rates (or higher), then getting into the business of owning tall buildings can be very attractive. But the interest rates that prevail today are literally a fraction of the rates that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that comparative advantage has evaporated for insurance companies. And if demand for office space might truly be on a long-term downward trajectory (thus putting downward pressure on the rent payments they could hope to collect), that doesn't bode well for new construction. Will those conventional backers of big buildings be as interested in new mixed-use projects as they were in the skyscrapers of the past? Moreover, now that it's easy to invest in bundles of real-estate properties through tools like REITs, insurance companies and other investors have less incentive to invest a great deal in significant properties of their own rather than to spread out their investments into chunks that can be bought and sold with greater ease. ■ It seems less and less likely that companies will build many office towers (like the Chrysler Building or Sears Tower) in their own names, and there's usually at least someone's ego to stroke when building bold new towers. If it's not the executives in the C-suite, who will it be? The answer to that question may well shape the future of many American skylines -- or decide whether they will be remarkable at all.
On the surface, it's barely even a nuisance worth noting if you're frequently stopped in stores by other customers who mistake you for a manager. But when you're dressed entirely wrong for the job and people still make assumptions, then it's worth examining why that's happening. And it's hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of Americans still assume that the stereotypical manager is a tall white male. We need to get beyond that stereotype, because it favors some people and that means it implicitly disadvantages others.
Please put two-factor authentication on your email and social-media accounts
There's a rash of fraud going on right now. This is a small, free, and highly effective step that can make a big difference.
Storm-spotting drones capture close-up tornado angles
Drones are still under-utilized as a live storm-spotting tool. It's going to take a while before they can be coordinated safely and effectively, but there's a great deal of potential there to improve upon what spotters can see from the ground. And don't take the value of storm spotting for granted: The lack of a coordinated, widespread effort to use trained spotters contributed to one of the deadliest tornado events in Illinois history, only a little more than 50 years ago. Getting better at forecasting and spotting severe weather is no trivial matter: 55 million people are under a non-trivial threat of severe weather today. The day looks especially ominous for Mississippi and Alabama.
Two facts are utterly indisputable: (1.) Even among a terrifically talented cast, Jessica Walter was THE star of "Arrested Development". (2.) If you thought she was funny on the show, you won't believe how hard she will make you laugh on the DVD commentary.
How will the Suez Canal get reopened?
Just don't get Elon Musk started on this. He probably has a secret blimp the size of New Jersey just waiting somewhere for this very moment.
Tom Nichols: "'I've done my own research" is always the air horn that announces the arrival of a crackpot". Oddly, that research is never, ever accompanied by footnotes. But peer review isn't much of a standard when all the peers are cranks.
March 26, 2021
How can we get big improvements without big disasters?
The awful conditions of the last year have at least a few silver linings: They've catalyzed some technological improvements that are here to stay. We've had to do so much to accommodate not being together with other people that we've had to make extraordinary progress on things like telemedicine and remote work just to muddle through. The really interesting question is: Is it possible to get some of those really big, really fast changes without having to go through something terrible like a pandemic or a war to get there? Why are so many things stalled by the status quo?
There's no such thing as a "nobody"
Kawaski Trawick was having a mental-health incident when two police officers showed up in response to a 911 call. Within two minutes, one of the officers had killed him. When a supervisor showed up to ask whether anyone was injured, someone responded "Nobody. Just a perp." That's a profoundly terrible thing for anyone to say, much less someone entrusted with the tools of lethal force. There's no such thing as a "nobody", and the dehumanization of others -- even "perps", which this victim really wasn't -- is an intolerable practice. ■ It is this very same kind of dehumanization of others that deprives us of the open acknowledgment of the fact that the murders in Atlanta were rooted in racism, whether that was the murderer's avowed belief or not. That racism is a form of dehumanization.
Lots of vulnerable housing in the path of Alabama tornadoes
A disaster geographer did some quick analysis and found a lot of mobile homes right in the damaged areas. It always takes a combination of natural conditions and social conditions to turn a storm into a disaster.
California's new rules could mean a lot of new housing
Rules that effectively liberalize government policy on ADUs (auxiliary dwelling units -- things like granny cottages in the back yard) could well mean that a state widely recognized as suffering a housing shortage could make up for some lost time. Suppliers are moving extremely fast to enter the market, and according to Bloomberg CityLab, "Backyard flats may wind up accounting for a sizable share of the new housing built in California during the 2020-21 pandemic years." It's amazing what can happen in the public interest when people have the option to pursue their own self-interest.
Why doesn't Swatch make a smartwatch?
You can't deny there would be a massive nostalgia opportunity in making a Swatch smartwatch. Combine it with a slap bracelet, and no 40-something would be able to resist.
March 27, 2021
Just-in-time gets stuck in the Suez Canal
New York Times journalist Peter Goodman wrote an analysis of the global trade crunch being caused by the Ever Given -- the cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal. Goodman describes the analysis as "the latest warning about excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing". Peculiarly, though, someone at the Times made the headline "In Suez Canal, Stuck Ship Is a Warning About Excessive Globalization". ■ The simplest explanation is that some editor carelessly thought "globalization" was a more economical way to say "just in time manufacturing". Occam's Razor and Hanlon's Razor would both tell us to accept that explanation, so we probably should. ■ Yet it's still a bit odd that someone at such a venerable publication as the Times would have taken that kind of shortcut. "Excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing" is a much narrower critique than "excessive globalization". The narrow critique is defensible. The broad one just...isn't. Someone should ask why the editor involved felt the need to put a Juche spin on it. Was it just for clickbait? ■ We're living through an extraordinary event: A pandemic that raced across the world like a wildfire, and one that has massively disrupted life and commerce for billions. Yet the path out of the pandemic is indisputably through a globalized path. It's one thing to say, for instance, that America found itself at the mercy of fragile supply chains for tools like PPE that failed the stress test of the onset of the pandemic. That's a valid critique of just-in-time manufacturing. Critical thought and attention should go into redeeming those failures. ■ But we're also seeing a truly revolutionary effort that is producing amazingly effective vaccines in totally unprecedented time. The development process has absolutely been facilitated by "globalization", international teamwork is the only way to produce and distribute enough of the vaccine to stop the disease, and long-term international cooperation and coordination are going to be indispensable. ■ A ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. That probably was the result of some combination of human error and mechanical failure. It's been disruptive. It highlights several issues that ought to be fixed. But there's a big difference between casting a critical eye on just-in-time networks and disclaiming globalization generally. Nobody needs to be rooting for the pirates.
Behold, the most under-appreciated test in all of politics. There are plenty of ways to dislike what is -- but it's crazy not to imagine how something else might be worse.
What's up with "Austrian economics"?
Everyone should start by reading Hayek and Mises. They just shouldn't stop there.
How do nerdy obsessions start?
Markets beget division of labor. Division of labor begets comparative advantage. Comparative advantage begets specialization. Specialization begets efficiency. Efficiency begets leisure time. Leisure time begets nerdy obsessions. Nerdy obsessions beget new markets. That's how.
Derecho-related mulch pile catches fire
Anyone who's ever seen the heat that can come off a compost pile can understand how this could have led to spontaneous combustion, which is what appears to have happened in Hiawatha, Iowa. Linn County lost an astonishing half of its tree cover in the August derecho, so there's just a stupefying amount of vegetation that is still being processed and disposed of. Weird incidents like this are going to be inevitable for a while.
March 28, 2021
Maryland police officers dealing with an unruly child last January were caught shouting at, berating, and handcuffing the 5-year-old boy. It happened on video. He might have been a downright terrible brat, but a kindergartener is not a hardened criminal, and his treatment truly was outrageous. ■ Naturally, any discipline for the cops' behavior needs to follow due course. But there are some things one doesn't expect to see or hear along the way. A blanket statement from the police union? Maybe. But the police union's statement on the incident includes this flabbergasting line: "Montgomery County police officers do not receive training on how to effectively communicate with a young child in distress." ■ The word "shocking" gets over-used. But that's a truly shocking claim: We tell children to go to police officers and firefighters without hesitation when they are in danger. That's part of why impersonating a police officer is treated as a serious crime; the sight of a police officer must be, without exception, a moment of relief for young people (and, really, for anyone). But it cannot be a relief unless there is adequate trust that the officer is truly there to protect and serve. ■ At the barest of minimums, if the statement really is correct, it is imperative that the police department involved immediately implement a training system for "communicat[ing] with a child in distress". And so should every agency invested with the public's faith and entrusted with guns.
China menaces Taiwan with airspace incursion by 20 military aircraft
A rule of thumb: Things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we can imagine. That rule seems unnervingly appropriate here.
Berkshire Hathaway proposes an $8 billion fix for Texas energy problems
The company -- a massive utility operator already -- has proposed an $8.3 billion generation network to ensure the reliability of the grid so that February's weather-induced blackouts don't happen again. While the prediction was made before the blackouts, at one commentator called a utility expansion "a thoroughly satisfactory way of staying the course without holding still" for Berkshire in 2021.
Ship blocking the Suez Canal has been freed
But that doesn't necessarily mean the route will be immediately re-opened to traffic. Apparently we're about to hear a lot about the meaning of "necessary but not sufficient".
Fancy garage doors and their shortcomings
Conor Fridersdorf has an amusing obsession with expensive garage doors. One thing many of them have in common is their use of windows -- which seems like an oddly contra-indicated choice from a home-security standpoint.
The real story behind children's books
The book is "Bread and Jam for Frances", but the real plot is "Holy Cow, Frances's Mom Does a Ton of Unpaid Work". Her kid eats like she's got an executive chef. The book concludes with Frances chowing down on tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, cherries, and vanilla pudding. ■ This is no knock on the book itself, per se -- the intended underlying message is that kids ought to be open to trying new things, and that's a pretty defensible position among parents. But even though the book is only from 1964 (making it the same age as Vice President Kamala Harris and only a year older than the first members of Generation X), aspects of it seem both wildly antiquated and unfortunately current. ■ Keeping up a household (cleaning, cooking, performing maintenance, groundskeeping, paying bills, and in many cases, caring for children) is a major consumer of resources. The allure of devices like dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers is self-evident to any functioning adult who has had to perform those tasks manually. And the amount we are willing to pay to get devices that make other tasks even easier -- like Roombas and robotic lawn mowers -- reveals that at least some people in the modern world know how to place a value on their non-working hours. ■ Just as we place a price tag on the work we do outside the home, we really ought to place a value on the work done inside the home, as well. This non-market housework is valuable. Even if most parents aren't making their children Frances-quality meals for lunch, it all adds up: While it isn't counted in our GDP, the estimated value is in the trillions of dollars each year. It does appear that some of the time spent on this labor has decreased overall in the last two decades, but a yawning gender gap between women and men has remained. The average employed woman does more than the average non-employed man, and the average employed woman spends about 50% more weekly hours on that household work than the average employed man. ■ Measurement is hard, but that shouldn't stop us from acknowledging that household work is an important component of how people spend their time. And even more than that, it is valuable -- to the tune of something around one-fifth of measured GDP. That's a whole lot of tomato soup and lobster-salad sandwiches.
Noted academic Albert Einstein doesn't have a verified email address on his Google Scholar page. He should get on that -- relatively quickly.
March 29, 2021
Cross-ownership deal links Toyota and Isuzu in big project to develop better trucks
From the Japan Times: "Toyota, Isuzu, and Hino [a Toyota subsidiary] will set up a joint venture named Commercial Japan Partnership Technologies Corp. in April to co-develop small electric and fuel-cell trucks as well as autonomous driving technologies for such vehicles." Toyota will own the majority of the joint venture. They're also buying equal-sized stakes in one another, which is the kind of activity that would set up an circular-reference error in a spreadsheet. ■ At the press conference announcing the plan, Toyota president Akio Toyoda said, "[I]t is becoming more important not to only compete but to also cooperate." And while there are some American companies and business leaders who have said good things about selectively cooperating with competitors, it's a pretty big practice for Toyota: The company has other such deals with Mazda, Subaru, and Suzuki. ■ Why is it that Japanese companies are so comfortable with joint ventures and American companies are not? Obviously, there are differences in industrial policy (Japan has one and the United States really does not), but it can't all be attributable to the influence of MITI (the Japanese government ministry that coordinated industrial policy from the immediate post-war era until the turn of the century), can it? MITI's power waned from the 1970s onward, and there are notable Japanese industrial success stories that resulted despite the government's influence (Honda being the most recognizable one). The ministry may still be around (now as METI), but it doesn't seem like it's in the driver's seat like it once was. The Toyota/Isuzu deal is being reported as an organic development rather than a government-instigated one. ■ So, how come it's so rare to hear of American companies -- industrial or otherwise -- entering joint ventures with one another? Outright acquisitions and takeovers (hostile or otherwise) are an everyday occurrence, but not long-term agreemeents to do things hand-in-hand. The few American companies that prominently joined hands with others are themselves notable success stories: Corning, for instance, had a number of JVs, including Dow Corning and dozens of others. But Corning stands out as the exception that proves the rule. It's worth pondering: Should American business be more open to the idea of formal cooperation without resorting to the takeover? Toyota is no fly-by-night company: It's the world's largest automaker. If a practice clearly works for them, why shouldn't America take note?
The heartbreaking risks of unsecured guns in the home
Dr. Denise Dowd: "There's this mythical idea that you can teach kids not to want to handle a gun...You can't train or educate curiosity out of a little kid, and teenagers are impulsive, and they act without any thought to the future"
The first few photos of this Baltimore house listing are a bit odd and strangely monochromatic, but it's not until the viewer gets a few rooms in before it becomes clear this is one weird abode. At first, one might think, "Wouldn't it be a shock to live next door and have no idea what was going on inside until you saw this listing?" But by the time you click through to the pictures of the giant "Cemetery" and "Crypt" signs in the backyard, it's pretty clear: The neighbors already know.
Cardinals falling short of MLB vaccination target
They brag a lot about having the "Best Fans in Baseball", but what St. Louis apparently needs are the Best Epidemiologists in Baseball.
March 25th Alabama tornado outbreak packed a strong punch
80 miles is an eye-popping track length for a single tornado
March 30, 2021
Conspiracy theorists are growing exhausted
After a Presidential term dominated by the false promises of "Q", some are still hoping to see their darker imaginations realized. Some were hoping that the ship stuck in the Suez Canal was actually going to be a conduit for human trafficking, and that the ship getting stuck was merely cover for the "good guys" to sweep in. The conspiracy theorists are, of course, only bound for further disappointment. ■ That really raises questions about the psychology of belonging: On one hand, membership in organized religion and fraternal clubs is in decline. Gallup says fewer than half of American adults belonged to an organized religious group in 2020. It's never been lower in the poll's history. Regular religious attendance is even lower. Non-religious groups like fraternal organizations are in no better shape. ■ On the other had, the people clamoring for conspiracy theories are desperate to belong to something. So are the people who rush to social media to try to gain measurable approval from their peers. There is a psychological need for humans to have some kind of social membership, whether it's formally structured or not. So why are people turning to the informal channels (often found online) while abandoning the formal ones (like clubs and churches) that mainly exist in the "real world"? ■ Is it simply a matter of low barriers to entry? That it's easy to join the QAnon cult and harder to volunteer as a church usher? Is it that the formal institutions of old have failed to keep up with demands for convenience? Or have people gotten all their signals crossed, and the dopamine hit that comes from seeing clicks and likes is displacing the more durable (but less intense) sense of belonging that comes from real-world interactions? It's not just a speculative matter: People need feedback that they matter to the world, and there's no way to get that from conspiracy rabbit holes.
We should see our fellow Americans
The New Yorker's cover art is a subtle but compelling illustration of a woman and her daughter, waiting anxiously for a subway train. Its artist says, "I wanted a gesture that was somewhere between vigilant and fearful." It isn't right that our fellow Americans should be made to feel this way. Racism deserves no place here.
The ship is free, and so are the jokes
With the Ever Given set free from the Suez Canal, people are out with their jokes. ■ Political science professor Ken Schultz notes, "Bucking global trends, container ship upgraded from 'Not Free' to 'Partly Free' and then to 'Free.'" (That, naturally, raises the question whether the answer to backsliding is backhoeing.) ■ Think-tanker Shoshana Weissmann teases that "What was lost in economic output bc of the canal jam, was gained 10 fold in joy and memes". (Using a multiplier effect previously only seen used to justify public financing for sports stadiums.)
March 31, 2021
Do they really think this sloppy nonsense works?
China's state-run Xinhua "news" agency shares an editorial cartoon that appears to try to deflect attention from China's slave-labor abuses in Xinjiang by making a reference to the practice of slavery on cotton plantations in the United States. There are really two different things that are amazing about this episode. ■ First, this isn't just the work of someone freelancing. In places like the United States, where freedom of speech prevails, an individual can have his or her idea published in an outlet that doesn't endorse that idea. In fact, the very practice of publishing opposing viewpoints is pretty central to the idea of the op/ed page or the letter to the editor. That's just not how it goes with a state-run outlet in an authoritarian regime, and everybody knows it. Nobody just "puts an idea out there" through Xinhua. Anything they publish had to have been approved by a whole chain of people. Not just edited -- approved. ■ Second, it becomes self-evident that nobody in the entire chain of approval understands how shame works. Aside from a trivial number of extremists, nobody in America defends slavery. Far too many people still fail to get the message that we need to end racism, but you couldn't gather 100 Americans chosen at random and find even one of them to defend slavery. We're rightly ashamed of that part of our history as a nation. It's our original sin; an inexcusable crime against humanity. Even James Madison knew it was wrong to permit slavery to continue, defending his proposed Constitution in Federalist Paper 38 with the line, "Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever." In other words, "It's bad, and we shouldn't let it go on, but at least we know well enough to end it." ■ Anyone who understands how shame works would recognize that no serious person in America today rises to the defense of slavery, and any attempt to remind Americans of the practice only reminds us how abhorrent and unforgivable it was -- and is, as it is being practiced by China's ruling powers today. Loftier minds even use the reminder of our forebearers' failure to ponder the need to continue improving. Condoleezza Rice said it well: "These are the tensions and contradictions that the admirable effort to overcome our nation's birth defect of slavery and prejudice has produced. That we are still struggling with these issues today, after more than two centuries as a nation, is yet another reminder that nothing is smooth on democracy's path." We have to take pride in the effort to struggle with our failures and overcome our sins. That only makes it easier to cast an unforgiving eye on those who practice those sins today, with the full knowledge of how wrong they are.
China's government will require "patriotism checks" before anyone is allowed to run for office in Hong Kong. What a repugnant way for a government to behave. From the outside looking in, it sure seems like the Communist Party is willing to torch everything that made Hong Kong a gem, merely to prop up the illusion that the party is, was, and always shall be the sole rightful power in China. Heartbreaking.
Where are the Covid vaccination lapel pins?
It's been a few years since our last lapel-ribbon craze. How long before we're pinning different colors of ribbons on our shirts to indicate vaccination status? Green ribbons for the fully vaccinated, yellow ribbons for those waiting eagerly, and red ribbons for the vaccine refuseniks.
Spotify enters the live-chat game
Live audio is a pretty tough thing to get right without heavy curation. A lunatic once took over a CB channel in central Iowa, just repeating over and over: "Raisins and pancakes...pancakes and raisins."
Better nursing rooms and changing stations at ballparks
A welcome sign of the times. We need to continue normalizing the idea of parenting in public.
Chinese government chases BBC reporter out of the country
There is no surer sign that a regime is destined for failure than when it puts its energy into silencing bad or critical news rather than fixing it. That's exactly what China's government is doing by persecuting reporters and whistleblowers -- and it is a colossally self-defeating practice. ■ Good news can take its sweet time to bubble up, but able managers always want to get alerted to bad news as soon as possible. The sooner you know what's going wrong, the sooner you can fix it. And something is always going wrong somewhere inside a big organization, whether it's a government, a firm, or a non-governmental organization. The most important thing leadership can do about it is get the bad news fast. ■ We may complain a lot as Americans about the fact that our politicians never seem to "work together" to "solve problems", but that's driven in no small part because every vote has some marginal value, and politicians (and parties) have to compete to win those votes. Consequently, some contentiousness is baked into the cake. (That doesn't excuse incivility, of course, but voters are free to punish that, too.) ■ But the consequence of freedom within a democratic framework is that there is a built-in institutional incentive on the part of multiple groups to root out shortcomings, failures, wrongdoing, corruption, and other bad things. The Fourth Estate has that incentive. So does a loyal opposition. Civil-society groups that depend upon their reputations for fundraising purposes have those incentives, and so do institutions with interests in public policies (including religious groups). ■ Of course there's room for bipartisanship and problem solvers. America could do with less cynicism and more mutual trust and common facts. But we should never mistake our fundamentally messy, combative, and sometimes lumbering processes for getting things done for a bad thing. The complications, fighting, and naysaying are features, not bugs. Voters remain capable of rewarding the things they want at any time, and if we collectively really wanted more pragmatic, less ideological politics, then we would get them. But part of that requires sacrificing a little ideological commitment -- which, if the Chinese experience is any guide, wouldn't be a bad idea at all.
Library book returns -- 50 years overdue
Who would have imagined that the person who checked out "Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook" wasn't a committed rule-follower?
That's pretty normal for springtime in Iowa