Gongol.com Archives: April 2021

Brian Gongol


April 2021
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April 1, 2021

Broadcasting Putting a new stretch on "career"

KWWL television news anchor Ron Steele reaches his 47th anniversary at the station


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April 2, 2021

News Unlovable main characters can still tell important stories

When there's a compulsion to share everything that we're reading, watching, and hearing, there's also a risk that people will jump to the wrong conclusions about what others are consuming. Sometimes it's important to read books with unlovable main characters because they are essential to telling necessary stories. Kudos to the teachers who know and practice that, even in a time when it's all too easy for parents to make a fuss over imperfect books (and certain school boards to do the same with imperfect historical figures). ■ It's too much to expect that an author writing in the early 20th Century would have been adequately sensitive to the mainstream of what we consider right today. And yet, Sinclair Lewis has much to say to people living today, with books like "It Can't Happen Here" (profoundly relevant in the shadow of Donald Trump), "Babbitt" (which speaks directly to our modern crisis of meaning), and "Arrowsmith" (which addressed the wrenching ethics of epidemiology). ■ We shouldn't look past the shortcomings of the stories our forebears wrote, and we shouldn't be satisfied with any modern curriculum or syllabus that overlooks the historically under-represented stories of people who weren't white men. Yet we also shouldn't purge imperfect works and imperfect authors and imperfect protagonists. It's important to recognize at what stages we truly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. The society we occupy today is evolving all the time, and whether that evolution is a positive one -- marked by growth and liberality -- depends heavily upon whether we recognize society-building as a conscious choice. Uncivilized barbarians walk among us all the time: They're called children. We have to choose to teach them (and ourselves) along the way. ■ A common mistake is imagining that we are headed for some kind of perfect end times, that some kind of perfect past can be restored (as from an idealized edition of the 1950s), or that there is some kind of utopian state that can be achieved if only the right conditions are established. The fact is that society is imperfect (and permanently imperfectible) because it's made up of people, and we ourselves are imperfect. Far better to accept the inevitability of that imperfection and in the process face up to the perpetual hard work of making both people and society better than to succumb to the false notion that if we only purge hard enough, we'll make the perfect come true.

Humor and Good News Unicode gains a dumpling icon

Some brand-new emoji are more trans-national than others.

Threats and Hazards A real creep in the halls of Congress

"When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man." - Calvin Coolidge

News US Marshals bring 7 missing Iowa kids home

They persevered in this important work to protect vulnerable kids, even as the Justice Department was getting kicked in the teeth almost daily for the political gain of a few.

Humor and Good News A better noodle comes forward

Three cheers for innovation in the analog world!


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April 3, 2021

Broadcasting "Unbundled" radio sounds a lot like full-service radio

Ezra Eeman, who works for the European Broadcasting Union (promoting public broadcasters on the continent), shared a vision of what he called "unbundled" radio -- a radio-like experience of audio programming that comes to the listener across a range of applications streamed directly to the smartphone. The most insightful part of this interesting article is the final graphic, illustrating how a person might easily consume audio from seven or more divergent sources across the day, from a news podcast to a live-streamed interview to customized music apps. ■ What's striking is how much Eeman's mockup of a personalized listening experience looks like the programming clock for what we once fondly knew as "full-service radio" here in the United States. While full-service radio is still around in a handful of places (usually in micro-sized markets where the "general store" approach still works on the air because there may only be one radio station in town), it's surprising that bigger markets haven't tried streaming it. Not broadcasting it over the airwaves -- just streaming it. ■ A never-ending stream of music alone isn't very satisfying (certainly no more than sitting by a jukebox in a bar, especially when someone else is picking all the songs). But on the other hand, the popular malcontent-with-a-mic approach to talk programming isn't very good for companionship. For as much as people repeat the trope that Rush Limbaugh "saved" AM radio, all he can be credited with doing for certain is ensuring that Americans think of speech-based radio as a genre dominated by men with an axe to grind. ■ As Eeman's article suggests, we may well be watching "the great unbundling" of radio right before our eyes, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones (and, boy, was it ever a screwup to fail to get FM receivers activated in all of those phones). But the hangup with the unbundled listener day is that curating one's own highly satisfying day-long listening experience takes...well, programming skill. Not computer programming, but audio programming. And most of us don't want to be part-time radio program directors on top of being listeners. It's quite enough to ask the individual listener to put their podcasting playlist in order, much less to schedule out listening for the entirety of a day. ■ There's still time for radio to offer more complex, richer listening experiences than "perpetual jukebox" and "shouty man". And with an infinite number of streams possible, it's really quite insane for programmers not to try. The rush to try every new live streaming service, from Twitter Live to Clubhouse to Spotify/Locker Room and inevitably more, shows that listeners are eager for an experience they aren't getting today -- one with a richness of content not adequately supplied by the incumbent sources of audio programming. It's likely to take a while for the optimal listening experience to emerge -- but it's probably not going to consist solely of pre-selected tunes, nor of mindlessly-provocative talkers. It's as good a time as any for alert radio programmers to think beyond.


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April 4, 2021

Computers and the Internet Why is policy and political reform so slow?

With all kinds of innovation taking place in the digital environment, we shouldn't neglect the ways in which our physical, real-world interactions ought to be improved, too. That very much ought to include our political systems. ■ If you find that kind of innovation lacking, you're not the only one. Notably, as the rest of our lives become more information-dense (thanks to that digital innovation), it's extremely rare to find any forms of public meetings, hearings, or other engagement that have increased any of their information density since the Cold War. Sure, we can watch Congressional hearings on C-SPAN and watch committee meetings on-demand, and that's great. Sometimes state legislatures and city councils stream their meetings, too. That's good for transparency, at least. ■ But thanks to bad PowerPoint habits and the ability to electronically dump 50- and 100-page PDFs on council and board members, we may actually have less information density in our public decision-making than in the past. A solid one-page narrative report is hard. A bad PowerPoint deck is easy. ■ Information density is under-appreciated. Anyone who really wants to increase the information-to-ink ratio in their reports ought to study "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by the fascinating Yale emeritus professor Edward Tufte. Tufte's deconstructions of how NASA missed the bright-red warning signs that should have prevented the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia missions are vastly important. What matters is not just how much data can be documented, but how well it is reported. ■ This is no small matter. Board and council members are exhausted by bad communication from the people who work to deliver government services. Reform can't really happen if everyone is too exhausted by the status quo. And it won't happen, either, if expert staff members aren't available to help decision-makers understand what's important and what's not. ■ Lots of people seem to pin their hopes on radical changes in politics and government. Often, much too radical. Where we really should put our attention, instead, is in going beyond the livestream and finding ways to increase the density of valuable information provided to the public and public representatives alike. Only then will we really have a framework that matches our experiences in the rest of life. It's as though we've unwittingly accepted Baumol's cost disease, but for decision-maker data. We shouldn't settle for that -- innovation shouldn't be exclusive to the digital world when there's so much real life yet to improve.


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April 5, 2021

News More footnotes, please

Publishers ought to offer special editions of nonfiction books, wherein the author takes all of the content they wrote down just because they wanted them in a permanent record somewhere...and moves them to the footnotes. Nobody can deny that there is a natural "padding" effect that dominates a lot of nonfiction: If an author has gone to the trouble of researching something, they're incentivized to document what they've found, and thus into the book it goes -- even when what's been uncovered isn't all that important. ■ Reader-optimized versions of these nonfiction books would really be a grand invention. Not Reader's Digest or Blinkist versions of these books (in which an outside editor does the stripping), but rather versions where the author him/herself is charged with identifying which parts of the book really matter versus which parts are really just documentation for its own sake. ■ Documentation for its own sake isn't a bad thing, per se: The problem arises when the documentation turns what ought to be a brief work into a tome so laborious that it fails to reach the audience it deserves. Few people were better-positioned to write the history of World War II than Winston Churchill, but it's especially hard for anyone who lived an experience to leave out the details -- and that's why Churchill's series on the war takes up 5,142 pages across six volumes. Footnotes are at once the best and most under-used features of nonfiction books. They let the author come up with a "director's cut" that lets the reader see exactly what's in or out. The stuff the author labored to produce doesn't have to get kicked to the curb -- but it's only fair to the reader for the author to make the distinction. ■ Most nonfiction books could really be wrapped up in 100 to 150 pages of the real meat and potatoes. Any number of people have been attributed with variations on the quote that "I wrote a long piece because I didn't have time to write a short one", and the durability of the statement is a credit to its truth. It takes longer for an author to shave things down than to dump everything on the page the first time around. But considering how complex our world already is, and how inevitable it is that the world will become more complex, we need more readers to spend more time learning broadly about all kinds of things that matter -- and books simply cannot be beaten for their efficiency in transmitting knowledge. Footnotes would still let authors pad their books until they can meet some mystical 250-page quota or 80,000-page word count, but without exhausting readers by drowning them in minutiae. Brief, thoughtful books can say a great deal that needs to be said.

Threats and Hazards China steams an aircraft carrier past Okinawa

Nikkei Asia notes, "The movements come as the U.S. Navy intensifies cooperation with the Quad partners of Japan, India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific." But let's not mistake correlation for causality here. China's regime has certain ambitions. Cooperation among the Quad didn't create those, and it's ill-serving to try to reach a false equivalence.

News Winning the peace, are we?

Just five years after WWII was over, Japan was already a major supplier of trucks to the US Army as America pivoted to the Korean conflict. The United States still occupied Japan at the time. Considering how long we have been engaged in conflicts abroad just this century, we should be asking ourselves whether we can do better at winning the peace. Our trade with Iraq, for instance, isn't much to be impressed by.

Health Iowa opens vaccines to all adults

Time to run up the scoreboard

Iowa Iowans betting hard with online sports gambling

One of the ubiquitous video ads for these sports-betting sites comes right out and says that you'll become a more intense sports fan if you have some "skin in the game". Considering America's unimpressive record with sports-related rioting, do fans really need reasons to be more intense?

Health Pfizer data indicates 100% efficacy against severe Covid-19

These numbers are just jaw-droppingly good. It's hard to contextualize how impressive the Covid-19 vaccines are turning out to be, not just for public health but on an individual basis.


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April 6, 2021

Humor and Good News Cubs to get special-edition Nike jerseys

A city with a signature attachment to Art Deco fonts, an unmistakable skyline, and the best municipal flag in America should probably get away with a most distinctive "city" jersey. (Nike already did a pretty superb job with the special Bulls jersey.)

Weather and Disasters Skywatch

Being a Midwesterner means getting a general sense for when those clouds in the sky aren't going to stay light and fluffy. It's when you get a puffy, unstable-looking layer below a higher cloud deck that you really have to take notice.


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April 7, 2021

Science and Technology When the lazy solution isn't the easiest solution

A scientific study of bears found that they often choose to move even slower than would be the most calorie-efficient speed, "choosing" (if they can be said to be considering the question) to be superficially lazy but unintentionally making themselves work harder. It's an intriguing insight, since warm-blooded animals ideally wouldn't want to waste valuable energy. We already burn a lot of fuel just staying warm, so anything that puts even more draw on our resources seems ultimately disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective. If calories are precious, then why wouldn't nature select for behaviors that reduce any additional waste? That part of the insight is much more interesting than just calling them lazy, which is unfortunately the easy (some might say...lazy?) headline.


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April 8, 2021

Health 3 million shots a day

The United States is now vaccinating against Covid-19 at a pace that covers literally 1% of the entire population each day. That is a mind-boggling mobilization at scale.

News The Titanic wouldn't seem so titanic today

RMS Titanic -- so named because of her enormous size -- was 1/5th the tonnage of the biggest class of ships built for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in the modern day. The Oasis class is rated at upwards of 225,000 gross tons. Everything is relative to something.

Threats and Hazards Large riots in Northern Ireland

Disturbing news: "[P]olice are investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement, given the level of pre-planning and orchestration. Police came under sustained attack after more than 600 people gathered at an interface between loyalist and republican areas."


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April 9, 2021

Health Side effects of long-term quarantining probably don't include personality change

After a year of spending far less time around other people than would ordinarily be the case for most Americans, it's natural to wonder whether all that time in quasi-quarantine is going to have an effect on our personalities. There's some reason to believe that it's going to take a little while for people to readjust to a vaccinated, somewhat-back-to-normal world, but it's unlikely that confirmed extroverts are going to become introverts or vice-versa. ■ To a great extent, we are who we are from birth. Most people are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, anyway. Some of our traits are more mutable than others, but it's a pretty big stretch to expect one of the big five personality characteristics to be so plastic that a year of enforced isolation is going to change it. ■ There's a much better chance that people will find themselves hesitantly adapting to a complex environment for a while, but don't expect radical changes out of anyone. In the meantime, though, we're going to have strange new conversations with strangers as "How about the weather?" turns into "Which vaccine did you get?" And what's interesting about that is -- God willing -- this will be the biggest positive cultural event Americans will have shared in common since the final episode of M*A*S*H (which was seen by 77% of television-watching households and 60% of the entire country at the time). ■ Television doesn't satisfy that mass-experience feeling anymore, nor do other positive events. We barely have any synchronized cultural experiences anymore -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, since it reflects the fact that people are able to choose cultural content much more satisfying to them than books, movies, music, and television programmed for a lowest-common-denominator audience. But it does deprive us of generic things we can all talk about at the same time. "Hamilton" has been touring for half a decade, but there are still plenty of people who haven't seen it. ■ Most adults of a certain age can easily answer where they were on 9/11, but that's not the kind of subject that comes up in casual conversation. Which vaccine did you get? Now there's a question we're free to chit-chat about. And it feels especially weird to be chit-chatting again after a year of social distancing -- but it's going to be good for us.

News Remember those lost to the Holocaust

Each one was an individual, entitled to life and to dignity. The legacy of those millions of murders still has a literally measurable impact today.

Threats and Hazards Contra what the extremists say, Texas can't just secede

"[S]editions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body [...] An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government." - Federalist Paper 28

Broadcasting Johnny Carson learns the Heimlich maneuver

It's all to easy to forget that the Heimlich maneuver is a modern invention -- it only came out in the 1970s. When Carson brought informative guests onto his show, he wielded more power than ten thousand professors.

Health We're reaching the 50% vaccination mark

Typical of many places, about half of the eligible adults have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Lincoln, Nebraska


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April 10, 2021

Threats and Hazards Boston Globe reports shocking allegations about its city's police union

"A Globe investigation has found that the Boston Police Department in 1995 filed a criminal complaint against [the former president of the police union] for sexual assault on a 12-year-old, and, even after the complaint was dropped, proceeded with an internal investigation that concluded that he likely committed a crime. Despite that finding, Rose kept his badge, remained on patrol for another 21 years, and rose to power in the union that represents patrol officers. Today Boston police are fighting to keep secret how the department handled the allegations against Rose, and what, if any, penalty he faced." ■ If true, this ought to be grounds for immediate dissolution of the union. And a massive reckoning would be overdue within the police force as well.

Weather and Disasters Satellite view of the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent

Fair to say that GOES-16 is worth every penny. The imagery includes high-resolution views of the ash from La Soufriere and the sulfur dioxide discharges.

Iowa April showers bring...April flowers

To repurpose the great philosopher Ferris Bueller: Spring moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.


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April 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards Some things matter more than attention

Jonathan V. Last concludes that we're in a precipitous state as a result of the rise of attention-seeking behavior as one of the key motivators in politics, and he's right to be worried. Yet there's still something to the idea that self-government is subject to laws that are much like gravity. As the economist Herb Stein famously said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop". ■ Antics cannot go on forever in politics -- at least, not if voters eventually want their government to be responsive. Think of one of America's worst political stunt artists: Sen. Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by his colleagues and left politically neutered until his death. ■ McCarthy's reign of terror could have gone on much longer under another system -- especially one in which the government itself behaves like an extensive criminal syndicate. China's Communist Party embraces supposed "anti-corruption" campaigns as a way to neutralize rival sources of power. They're not about fighting corruption -- they're about strangling any opposition. Under such a system, antics can go on almost indefinitely -- or at least until there's seemingly nobody left to purge. (Even in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev ultimately denounced Stalin's terroristic ways.) ■ This is not to say that stunts and bad behavior cannot go on for quite some time and do a great deal of damage in the process. The stunts can go on for years and through both direct injury and neglect can inflict serious harm -- often of a lasting variety. But within a system where voters retain control, performance art cannot substitute for results forever. In the end, a government that does not deliver finds itself involuntarily unemployed. (Sometimes, even success is rewarded with electoral defeat; see: Churchill, W.) ■ The forecast for clowns, buffoons, and stunt artists with little to offer but cable television hits cannot be any better than the forecast for those who actually do their jobs and still sometimes lose. How long the empty spectacle goes on depends upon the patience of the people paying the bills. If we're smart, we'll change the channel.

Weather and Disasters Middle-of-the-night EF-3 tornado hits Louisiana

It's hard to imagine a worse scenario than a large tornado striking a town at 2:16 in the morning.

Business and Finance Never trust an economist who doesn't own a hard hat

It may seem silly that the Federal Reserve chair has a hard hat and a high-visibility vest in his office. But in reality, it's a very good thing if the people who think about the economy have tangible ties to it. Jay Powell's accessories may be mainly ceremonial, but it's good for the people who think about the economy in the abstract to have first-hand experience with how it works in practice.

Health Progress towards mass vaccination accelerates

Per Axios: "At the current U.S. vaccination rate, all of those vaccine-enthusiastic adults could be inoculated by the end of April." It's obviously great news on one hand -- if everyone who wants one can get a vaccine dose within a matter of weeks, then we've reached an amazing milestone. But on the other hand, if the number who want the vaccine is markedly less than 100% of the entire population, then it's a symptom that we need to stimulate demand.


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April 13, 2021

Weather and Disasters Might as well be blocking out the Sun

If you're willing to take the threat of rising global temperatures seriously, then you'll want to understand the full spectrum of solutions available. As Bill Gates put it in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone: "[W]e have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ It's broadly agreed that the root cause of the problem is atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which have risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. As long as we keep on burning carbon-based fuels, the combustion is going to produce carbon dioxide. ■ De-carbonization is the ultimate goal -- if we perform less combustion, there ought to be commensurately less carbon dioxide produced. Animals are still going to breathe, but hypothetically, we can basically zero out artificial carbon dioxide production by converting from combustion engines to electric motors and powering those motors with energy that comes from non-carbon sources. Some emissions will still come from agriculture, but more than three-quarters of US greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, electrical generation, and industrial use. ■ Here's the problem: The United States is already decreasing per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, and if we start combining renewable electricity with better batteries and expanded nuclear power generation, we can get to a fairly near-zero state. Expanding nuclear power generation remains a big "if" -- capacity hasn't increased in 35 years -- but serious people must take the solution seriously. But even if the USA went to zero-carbon tomorrow, China's use exploded over the last two decades, and India's use is growing. With many more people, their per-capita effects are magnified relative to the cuts the United States can make. ■ There is also the question of equity: If it's more expensive to de-carbonize (or to grow into a low-carbon advanced economy from the start), then can the willpower be found to join in an international effort that might (at least at the outset) appear to put poorer economies on a slower growth rate? Equity is even a contested matter within countries, too. ■ A "many-solutions" approach to global warming requires us to consider harm-mitigation measures on top of efforts to avoid the problem. We may be able to slam the metaphorical brakes, but the collision could occur anyway and we'll want our seat belts fastened. Bjorn Lomborg has famously argued that climate-change consequences are bad but manageable, and that we're better off investing in mitigating the effects rather than preventing it altogether. Other smart people say we have to do both, and urgently. ■ Among the ideas floated to manage the situation is the radical proposal to try geoengineering the planet to create more clouds to block the incoming sunlight. All choices tend to come with unintended consequences, but that one in particular seems fraught. Among other problems, it's quite possible that miscalculating or carrying out the geoengineering in the wrong way could actually make the problem worse. ■ After all, the idea of trapping solar heat with the help of human-made clouds is the backbone of proposals to terraform Mars to move it from "cold and uninhabitable" to "marginally Earth-like". (The technology, alas, is not in our hands yet.) But that's what clouds do -- they reflect off their tops (albedo), but they also trap existing heat. And, of course, if an experiment goes wrong high in the atmosphere, the effects could easily become global. (Again, if the consequences weren't far-reaching, they wouldn't be worth trying against a problem the size of global warming.) ■ Considering the global risk we already face from unpredictable volcanic eruptions devastating agriculture across most of the planet, it's probably best to keep geoengineering behind a glass to break only in case of the most dire emergency. Other approaches may be difficult, costly, and hard to mobilize on a planetary scale -- but they also tend not to come with a non-zero level of existential risk.


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April 14, 2021

Health Caffeinate your naps

It takes a short period of time for caffeine to make its way from your drink into your bloodstream, so taking a short power nap right after taking a caffeine hit may be just the thing to maximize post-wakeup alertness. 12 minutes works for some. Napping for too long just makes most people sluggish.


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April 15, 2021

Health Public polling takes wicked turn on vaccine safety perceptions

The CDC's reaction to possible side effects from the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine appears to have dealt a non-trivial blow to public confidence in that vaccine. A poll by YouGov found that 52% of US adults considered the vaccine "safe" before the CDC recommended a pause in its use, but only 37% said it was "safe" after. ■ Putting aside for a moment how preposterously low the original 52% figure was, we really need to come to terms with a big problem of framing. There are inherent limitations to polling, to be sure. But asking a binary question like "Is this vaccine safe or unsafe?" is a disservice, because it trains people to examine important questons as though they are simple binaries. For all the good binary math does us in making digital calculations possible, we mostly make analog decisions. ■ Think of it like this: Lying in a bed full of puppies isn't completely "safe" -- maybe one of them will bite you. Dogs commonly carry germs in their saliva that could kill some humans. Yet still, on a scale rating safety with a value from 1 to 10, playing with puppies is probably a 9.95. Does the missing 0.05 make the activity unsafe? Of course not -- unless you're strictly adhering to a mindset that something is either "completely safe" or not. ■ We deal competently with gray areas, odds, and uncertainty all the time. There may be a chance of rain when you're planning to grill a steak medium-well while thinking about your fantasy baseball roster. Many of us profess to know little about math yet turn out to be very good at understanding complex conditional probabiliies when it's time to set up NCAA basketball tournament brackets. ■ We ought to use that comfort to learn not to be quite so innumerate. Public discourse needs to make room for more gray areas, and one step in the right direction would be to reject the framing that something like a vaccine ought to be labeled so simply as "safe" or "unsafe". ■ The side effect of concern with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be a potential issue with blood clots that has occurred a reported 6 times after nearly 7 million doses. To call that "extremely rare" is extreme understatement. If something bad happens once per million people per year, that's roughly on par with the odds of being struck by lightning. Prudent behavior accounts for those kinds of risks, but doesn't overreact to them: We don't live every moment inside Faraday cages; we just observe the maxim "When thunder roars, go indoors". ■ The same should apply to how we discuss matters like vaccine safety. Asking the public whether they think the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "safe" is a lot like asking whether a blue sky with sporadic clouds is "sunny". Strictly sunny? No. But meaningfully so? Of course. If we can't acknowledge gray spaces as an ordinary fact of life, then it becomes basically impossible to distinguish when a tiny change really doesn't alter the truth. And in the case of the vaccine, supposing that a 6-in-7-million side effect were to be found consistently, that would represent a baseline change in "safety" of 0.0000882%. Put another way, you could give the vaccine to the entire population of the United States (330,000,000 people) and fewer people would suffer the side effect (around 300) than the 356 people who are currently in the ICU with Covid-19 -- just in Ohio. ■ We need to be able to see that "safe" is not only a vague term, it is wholly unhelpful in most human contexts. And though it may seem paradoxical, the best way to deal with human risks is to use more math in our language and fewer absolutes.

Computers and the Internet Canadian politician shows up naked to a (Zoom) meeting of Parliament

Remember, you can get a webcam cover for, like, 50 cents. Even in Canada.

Humor and Good News Satellite-photography nerds to the rescue

Satellite photo enthusiast deduces location of missing hiker. Hiker found by rescuers. Awesome.


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April 16, 2021

Aviation News France considers plan to ban short-haul domestic airline travel

The parliament approved a rule to abolish short flights that could also be made by rail in less than 2.5 hours, as part of a broader bill about climate change. ■ Assuming that the "distance" tool on Google Maps is telling the truth, all points within mainland France are within 700 miles of one another...as the crow flies. But the road trip from Brest (in the northwest) to Nice (in the southeast) is almost 900 miles long, suggesting that there's some meaningful inefficiency in getting around the country via overland methods. ■ France does possess a high-speed rail option: the famed TGV. As a representative trip, the TGV will get you from Brest to Paris much faster than driving (perhaps 6 hours by road and 4.5 by rail), but it'll still take much longer than 2.5 hours. That's for a distance of a little over 300 miles as the crow flies -- but more like 370 by road. ■ Thus it's hard to see how the proposal banning shorter flights would be massively restrictive. Marginally, yes, it would prohibit flights that presumably might be plausible for commercial flights. But it's likely not the kind of restriction that has much practical effect: By the Brest-to-Paris metric, the climate-related rule would only do away with trips shorter than about 175 miles. Thus, a flight from Des Moines to Omaha would be prohibited by law, but not from Des Moines to Minneapolis. At that stage, the real constraint is whether it's worth one's time to bother driving to the airport, parking, checking in, passing through security, and being there sufficiently in advance of the flight to board...and then wait. ■ France's high-speed rail network is pretty enticing -- but it appears to serve most effectively as a way to get to and from Paris. It's a hub-and-spoke model on steroids. The rest of the country is well-connected, but by slower service. Extending rail networks (especially for high-speed service) is expensive and slow work. ■ What could be interesting, though, is if the French idea ends up fueling demand in the market for electric-based air travel. Oh, yes, that day is coming. And if it facilitates the arrival of flying taxis, then so much the better. It's not as far-fetched as you might think: If we can de-carbonize air travel with battery-powered electric flight, things could change quickly for the better. Long-haul electric flight may be far outside the capacity of current technology, but short-haul electric flights have already been conducted. ■ If generated from clean sources, electricity can be quite green (we already know how to get to zero-carbon using nuclear and renewables) -- and electric motors are much simpler than combustion engines, which means less complexity and less demand for complicated maintenance. This is why serious companies like Airbus are working on small electric aircraft already. And if air taxis can fly in and out of small, under-utilized airports that already exist (like the 98 general-aviation airports in Iowa alone) and bypass the massive deadweight of security theater associated with airline travel today, their time advantages over road and rail could add up in a hurry. ■ Keep an eye on France: It might be just the right market to prove whether air taxis will be the ride of the future.

News Race for the cities

Could you confidently name the world's ten largest megacities? The UN says they are (in descending order) Tokyo, Delhi, Shanhai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Dhaka, and Osaka. Sorry, New York.

News First-grader lobbies for pockets in girls' pants

And she wins coverage in the Washington Post for doing it: As 7-year-old Kamryn Gardner argued in her letter to Old Navy, "I want front pockets because I want to put my hands in them. I also would like to put things in them." ■ As trivial as the status of kids' pants might seem, it's a question that demands an answer. What is the message to girls if their pants are decorated with fake pockets? There isn't a single defensible reason that doesn't ultimately lead back to imposing weird standards of beauty on girls, and doing so at an imprudently young age. (Come to think of it, is there even a good age at which those standards shouldn't be set by the wearers themselves?) ■ To make decorative pockets is strictly an aesthetic choice, and it's one that nobody is applying to boys' pants. So that means it's a gender-specific aesthetic choice. And more than that, it's a choice that signals one thing as "normal" (pockets are normal) and another thing as a matter of deprivation (boys get pockets they can use; girls don't). The wearer, of course, is ultimately free to put nothing in their pockets at all. ■ Pockets are useful, by definition. The more utilitarian the clothing, the more likely it contains an abundance of pockets: Scrubs come with bunches of them. The same goes for carpenter pants. And whether we like it or not, we start forming impressions from very early ages about usefulness. It's unwise to let one gender's clothing become equated -- even subliminally -- with lesser usefulness. ■ It was all the way back in 1859 that John Stuart Mill wrote, "That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." Perhaps bland conformity is a recurring problem in human nature. But it's a delight to see that kids can recognize even the mild injustices around them, and that some of them feel good about insisting on their right to something better. ■ The kid who can call out faulty design judgments in pants today is well-equipped to recognize injustices later, and it's up to adults to cultivate and applaud that kind of spirit whenever we see it.

Health 50% of Minnesota adults have gotten vaccinated

At least with a first dose. One county is at 74%.

Business and Finance Putting a puppy in a home listing is a stroke of genius

Dogs in Zillow listings are the new cookie-scented air freshener for real estate agents. But they still don't make paying $918/square foot make sense. That's just plain crazy.


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April 17, 2021

Health Bring back lapel ribbons (just this once)

For the moment, people who are vaccinated wear masks to show solidarity. Some may call it performative, but until it's easily evident whether someone has been vaccinated, there's going to be some remaining unease on the part of those who haven't been fully vaccinated yet -- or those who cannot, like the immuno-compromised and children who are not yet eligible. Until the pandemic is actually stopped (and, since it's a completely global event, that's going to be a while), some behaviors are going to serve signaling functions well past the time they serve their primary epidemiological functions. Some kind of button, pin, or ribbon would be a fine way to indicate one's vaccination status if and when mask requirements ease. Vaccine supply is already outpacing demand in some American communities. It's going to take sustained social signaling to nudge the numbers higher.

Threats and Hazards Terrorists should be prosecuted

That includes anyone who set foot inside the US Capitol building on January 6th, or who engaged in violence outside it.

Weather and Disasters Snow in the south, none in the north

One of those situations where the normal rules are reversed -- better chances of snow in the south, lower chances in the north. Either way: April snow is a bear.


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April 18, 2021

The United States of America What is "infrastructure"?

Rep. Peter Meijer's sardonic take on the abuse of the word "infrastructure" is that "Respecting the meaning of words is infrastructure." And he's not wrong about that -- words have meaning, and they matter. ■ It's too easy to dismiss "words matter" as a cliche. Yet our entire legal system depends upon the written word -- not oral history, not personal impressions, not interpretive dance. The conflict over how to interpret the words of the past in light of the present is perhaps the central dispute in American jurisprudence: Do the words of the law mean what they meant when they were first written down? As the language changes over time, do the standards set by the words evolve, too? Do intentions matter most, or do dictionaries? ■ Those are big debates, and they are not amenable to unanimous assent. If they were, we could long ago have resolved whether an Equal Rights Amendment would shore up rights that are not clearly guaranteed for women -- or if they were already guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Or, further still, whether "all men" meant "all humans" when the words were used to declare independence. ■ It should be self-evident that we need to seek common linguistic ground if we are to have any kind of productive political speech and debate. And common ground requires everyone to hold themselves to a kind of linguistic precision that isn't always practiced in places where words are constrained (e.g., by a 280-character limit or by a 2-minute video news package). ■ Americans ought to start crusading for common definitions when it comes to spending debates, where matters ought to be at their clearest. For instance, it's easy to find people who use the phrase "Health care is a human right". That's an imprecise and ultimately counterproductive use of language. As it was well-stated by neurosurgeon Philip Barlow in the British Medical Journal in 1999, "A human right is a moral right of paramount importance applicable to every human being." Health care, by contrast, is a universal need. ■ The language of the debate matters: A human right is a thing which cannot be denied and to which every person has an inalienable claim. A universal need is a thing which must be produced from limited resources, and the allocation of which can place people in conflict. We can't resolve the imbalance between the number of Covid-19 vaccines produced and the number demanded by calling the vaccine a "human right". We can only make up the shortfall by figuring out how to produce and distribute more doses, and that is a question of tangible, measurable inputs and outputs. ■ The same kind of definitional discipline should apply to words like "infrastructure", too. Other things, like child care, may be worthy of consideration, funding, and debate -- but if it doesn't involve aspects like engineering or construction, it really doesn't fit a universally acceptable definition of infrastructure. We know what infrastructure is from its root words: The underlying stuff that supports everything else. Other worthy things shouldn't be shoehorned into a definition that doesn't fit. They either need to stand on their own definitions, or they need new names that describe more precisely what they do. ■ If we're truly interested in bipartisan consensus, perhaps we ought to issue a copy of Strunk & White to every household in America. That, at least, might start the process of talking about things with common definitions.


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April 19, 2021

Business and Finance Do people still not understand the Brown M&M's Test?

Van Halen's concert contract famously included a line strictly forbidding brown M&M's from the snack area. It wasn't because they taste different. It was a test to see who was reading the contract and following the terms faithfully. In fact, it was a pretty elegant test, since a bowl of candy is easy to inspect at no more than a glance and without raising any eyebrows. ■ Given notice that a venue had failed to check everything carefully, the band then knew to raise its own level of pre-show scrutiny. Given the technical sophistication of a big rock concert, those brown candies were like big red warning lights. ■ Carelessness is nothing new, nor is the resulting harm. In his booklet "The Way to Wealth", Benjamin Franklin warned that "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." ■ The world looks profoundly different to people who live on opposite sides of the Brown M&M's Test divide. There are those who look at details and see careful scrutiny as the right thing to do. These people have proverbs aplenty on their side -- which isn't itself a guarantee that they're right, though it's a fairly strong indication. On the other side of the divide are the people who either haven't been educated by hard knocks or who refuse to learn the lessons. ■ The extreme on one side is the bureaucrat who won't take any action that isn't strictly authorized by a form somewhere, even when circumstances call for it. The extreme on the other is the daredevil who goes urban free-climbing against the advice of all common sense. Both extremes are to be avoided, but taking care itself is not. ■ In a more modest sense, it can be smart to apply little Brown M&M's Tests where one side of an exchange has a lot to gain and the other side carries the preponderance of the risk. For instance, some cold-callers selling their business-to-business services will churn through as many prospects as possible, seeking to make up for a low rate of success with high volume. (And make no mistake: Anyone in business who answers front-line phone calls hears from cold callers virtually every day.) ■ There are a million "experts" out there training and advising the cold-callers. They offer tips and psychological hacks to increase the caller's control over the conversation. To be on the receiving end of one of those calls is to be on guard from the opening gambit. ■ Since time is precious (and can't be replaced once lost), the simplest and most elegant test for someone on the receiving end of one of those calls is to say, "Send me your information in the mail." Not by email. Via the US Postal Service. ■ What makes this a good test? First, it tells you what the caller's expected value from the conversation really is. A glossy brochure and a stamp might together cost $2.00. The time required to stuff the brochure in an envelope and mark the address might be 2 minutes -- perhaps 4 minutes, if the caller has to look up the recipient's address. In total, the investment might represent $5.00 total in direct and indirect costs. ■ Of course, most callers won't follow through. They'll try to make the sale over the phone or send the information via email (at zero direct cost to them, and perhaps a few seconds' time). Shifting the burden to the caller effectively asks, "Do you think the expected value of your call is greater than $5.00?" If it isn't, then the call itself probably isn't much worth the caller's time -- and it almost certainly isn't worth the receiver's. (Or they can just send you a bag of M&M's with the brown ones removed.)

Iowa Wind turbines have "become Iowa's chief source of net electricity generation"

Chicago may be the Windy City, but Iowa is the Wind-Powered State.

Health 4 million shots a day

Vaccinations are open to every adult in America now. If you've ever used the phrase "for the children" unironically, then you really must get vaccinated against Covid-19. Until kids are eligible to be vaccinated, the children are counting on adults to step up and halt the spread.

Iowa Snow on April 19th

Getting a bit late in the season for this nonsense.

Humor and Good News American English needs to import the word "chuffed"

It's one of the best words in British English, and we're dumb not to incorporate it here.


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April 20, 2021

Health EU decides Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe enough

From the available evidence, this is the right decision on a cost/benefit basis. We're in a race against time with this virus. For that matter, though, any new regulatory decisions need to move at warp speed (to borrow a phrase). Among of the biggest questions facing the world right now: How much of the world's population needs to be vaccinated to bring this to a halt, how fast can we get there, and what are the odds of success? There are so many variables -- and yet, we know we're nowhere near having enough of the planet vaccinated, and we know that the virus presents a terrible and known risk. That means we would have to see pretty terrible and highly likely side effects to justify any delays in getting shots into arms. ■ We do face a danger from those who seek to profit from stoking overreaction to anything bad that comes with vaccination. A single story about a bad reaction can occupy a much bigger space in an audience member's head than all of the overwhelming statistics about success. You don't read about the millions of safe flights that take place; you read about the tiny number of crashes. ■ In a media environment where the economic pressures are perhaps at their worst ever, what we get isn't "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- it's "afflict everybody, 'cause fear porn gets clicks". The problem is that with many people glued to the constant low-quality stimulus of social media, we're often too indiscriminate about what stupid ideas we let in the door. This is already having tangible consequences in our fight against Covid-19; we're already running out of people willing to be vaccinated, and while things like this are always multivariate, there isn't a shred of doubt that vaccine hesitancy is being fueled by claims that just don't reflect reality or scientific evidence. ■ If someone on Twitter is a perpetual source of agitation and propaganda, mute them. Wait for others to highlight their nonsense in a quote-tweet and force yourself to read it only after a conscious choice to enter the right frame of mind. The same principle applies to Facebook: You can remain "friends" without subjecting yourself to someone's worst impulses: Just hit the "snooze" button, and in a month, see if they've proven themselves worthy of your time again. Time is fleeting, and not every connection is of equal value. Social media tools do a great job of connecting us, but it's up to everyone to be mindful of whether the right connections are being made. Not every connection is good.

Broadcasting How we spend our time

Most of us would probably benefit from an occasional crawl across our screens (all of them -- TVs, tablets, phones) that just loops the words "Memento mori". There's absolutely no question that some things we watch can make us better and wiser. Some programs provide valuable entertainment and relief. And then there's a giant industry devoted to burning up the precious few hours people spend on this Earth, vaporizing them like the breath of ants. ■ If this country spent half as many person-hours reading books (non-fiction books, and not those idiotic ghostwritten fluff tomes "written" by talking heads) as watching cable news channels, it feels like we would have cured cancer already and have a colony on Mars. ■ Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe things people would buy in order to show off their ability to spend. The world is a vastly more economically-productive one than what Veblen inhabited a century ago. Even modest consumption today would look extraordinary by comparison with the 1950s, and unfathomable compared with the 1800s. But for each of us, the supply of time is finite. ■ Some recreation will always have its place, but we need more "conscientious consumption" of time -- and especially when it comes to media. People ask, for instance, whether it makes sense to keep a reading list -- and whether some people use those to be conspicuous among their peers. The answer to the latter is "Of course some do". But done properly, a reading list is really just a basic manifestation of metacognition. Keeping a reading list is how you think about the reading without being immersed in the reading. It's a good practice, and it would be a good practice for those movies or television shows we watch as well. ■ Being aware of the consumption process doesn't have to be burdensome or overly time-consuming, but you are merely dollars and cents to media companies. They want your time and attention. It is a naked drive to capture a share of the 42 hours of television, 30 hours of apps, and almost 8 hours of web surfing that the average American adult spends each week -- and to convert those hours into dollars. Unfortunately for each of us, our hours eventually run out. Without a little conscious attention to how they are spent, we risk unconsciously exhausting our own supply in service of someone else's profit.

News A thoroughly different approach to the strip mall

They get a bad rap, but maybe some aesthetic improvements will turn out to be just what strip malls need


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April 21, 2021

News 1,127 people were killed by police in America last year

Every one of these cases, no matter how justified it may seem, should be investigated by an independent, Federal-level fact-finding body, modeled on the NTSB. Not to punish, but to find and address root causes. 1,127 is just too many. ■ Some of those killings, obviously, were themselves entirely unjust and criminal. It is right and proper that those involved be prosecuted under the law. In other cases, police had entirely reasonable needs to defend themselves or others using lethal force. ■ The point of investigating every single incident -- independently, at the arm's length provided by a Federal agency rather than local authorities -- is to dispassionately ascertain which incidents could have been avoided and why they were not. Just as the NTSB investigates serious transportation accidents for the purpose of honestly and transparently finding the root causes and recommending remedies, so should a similar agency do the very same things with incidents in which people die due to the actions of police. ■ Every occupation has a share of miscreants and bad actors. One of the marks of a profession is that it establishes and enforces internal codes to root out the bad and expel them. Professions of all sorts are distinct from other occupations in that their practitioners forfeit some of the benefits they might be able to obtain from their work in exchange for some degree of legal protection and social esteem. ■ In the case of law enforcement, internal safeguards are not enough. The public gives the state a monopoly on violence, which is uniquely powerful and thus ultimately requires unique safeguards. Among those safeguards is the right to a clear and unambiguous depiction of exactly what happened when force is used. ■ What made Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo's testimony against Derek Chauvin so historic is that, in effect, it pierced the "blue wall of silence". He deserves credit for his testimony: Confidence in police (and, consequently, their legitimacy) is enhanced by those who turn their backs on bad actors within their own ranks. ■ However, the fact alone that such a wall is known to exist is exactly why civilian oversight is essential: The monopoly on force is only legitimate if it is supervised and controlled by those to whom it belongs -- the public. It is fundamentally a matter of consent -- enshrined by the Declaration of Independence as something granted only by the governed. ■ In Federalist 51, Publius (either Hamilton or Madison) wrote, "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." The law should and really must be the tool by which the use of lethal force is properly controlled. But honest accounting is necessary, too. ■ After-action reviews aid the armed forces, medicine, and many other fields, and they are essential where force is involved. The NTSB proves how much value comes from separating the act of punishment from the act of objectively determining the facts. It is high time to make the tiny investment necessary to bring an objective, NTSB-style agency to policing as well. 1,127 is too many.

News Fears and uniforms

"You hope having the uniform on will help, to say 'You don't have to be afraid of me'". These are really haunting words. It's not right that some of our fellow Americans have to prove themselves against others' reflexive fears.

Business and Finance Antitrust types shouldn't have a monopoly on fun

Serious note: Apple makes a ton of money from apps they didn't build. Controlling the network is a big deal.


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April 22, 2021

Health Catastrophic situation in India as pandemic rages

This should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wonders why universal vaccination must remain a top priority here in the US. We're part of a global community, and this virus has to be stomped out, conclusively, everywhere. "Distressing but necessary", indeed.

Threats and Hazards Telltale signs of paranoia

Andy Grove of Intel once wrote that "only the paranoid survive", but that was probably more salient advice for business than for civic leaders. From time to time, we are reminded of the North Korean regime's level of paranoia, of which the BBC reports: "When Kim Jong-il was alive, there was a ratio of one bodyguard to two of the senior officials accompanying him."


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April 23, 2021

Threats and Hazards Consequences or collapse

A big bag of water-softener salt weighs 40 lbs. It's a heavy thing to lift, and the act of merely picking it up gives the individual a moment to consider just how much material is inside. Some lunatic doubled that amount in explosive material to set up a gender reveal. Foreseeable results occurred: When the Tannerite bomb exploded, it literally shook the ground for miles around. ■ There have to start being consequences for this recklessness. In order to live in anything resembling a civilization, we have to be able to assume that the people around us are going to behave in a prudent manner. Blowing up 80 lbs. of explosive material to show off whether a baby is going to be a girl or a boy is anything but prudent. ■ The gender-reveal madness is well past its prime and ought to be retired immediately. Explosive stunts have caused enormous wildfires and killed parents-to-be. One would have to have been living under a rock to not know this by now. And yet, people are still dying for sake of totally unnecessary stunts. ■ Too many people define their sense of the world in the most absolute terms possible -- from the nonsense of believing that words are violence to the nonsense of believing that the 2nd Amendment is unlimited in its scope. Boundaries must always be drawn; no one has a right to bear a hydrogen bomb in their backyard. ■ Warren Buffett has famously preached the economic advantages of knowing the boundaries of one's personal competence. But knowing the boundaries of rights, privileges, ideologies, and philosophies is similarly powerful. That is, ultimately, the value of a truly liberal education in itself: The more heterogenous the sources of knowledge one learns to study (and criticize), the better they're able to understand the limits of useful ideas. ■ This isn't to draw a straight line from "decline of liberal education" to "people breaking things and killing bystanders with gender-reveal parties". But it is to say that we under-value prudence and self-restraint at our societal peril. Nobody puts on a stunt like an explosive gender reveal in a vacuum -- they do it because they seek (and expect to receive) social approval for doing it. The boundaries around acceptable behavior matter, and they have to be imposed socially. We need to be able to say "We're thrilled for your baby" without saying "Bring out pyrotechnics to amuse us". ■ It's possible and necessary to say "That's too much" without saying "You can do nothing at all". Ending the lazy practice of turning everything into an irrational argument about slippery slopes is a social imperative right now, particularly in our politics, where partisanship has too widely replaced prudence. Far more things exist in a Goldilocks Zone than on a slippery slope, and we need to start acting like it.

Health CDC panel recommends dosing with Johnson & Johnson vaccine again

One need only look at India or Brazil for a reminder that the virus is the much larger risk.

News What you probably didn't know about the Trans-Canada Highway

Despite its lofty name, the Trans-Canada Highway is not a controlled-access freeway (like one of the US Interstate Highways). In many places, it's just a wide highway with at-grade crossings. That's...surprising.


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April 24, 2021

Business and Finance What kind of house you can get for $2.4 million in California

The New York Times profiles some California real estate that has positively eye-watering prices. Two of these $2.4 million homes sit on lots that are equivalent to 50' x 50'. One costs $1,200 per square foot of house. ■ For comparison's sake, $2.4 million would buy you a 57-room Super 8 hotel currently for sale in Sioux City, Iowa...with $300,000 to spare. With the remaining $300,000, you could buy two really big motorhomes (plus diesel for years). ■ The market will adjust to whatever supply and demand will produce. But it's really hard to look at housing that costs $1,200 per square foot and not conclude that something is really out of alignment in order to produce that valuation. No other tangible good has costs that swing by that much from one part of the country to another. One of the most expensive homes currently for sale in the Des Moines area is a 5,000-square-foot, 5-bedroom custom home listed for $1.4 million -- with a full acre lot. At $280 per square foot, it's much more expensive than most homes in the area -- and yet it's only a quarter of the square-foot price of the homes featured in California. Make that make sense without resorting to an explanation that says landlords are participating in some extraordinary excess capture in the Golden State.

Broadcasting "The Last Blockbuster"

Surprisingly good. Both the movie and the store it depicts are like self-aware time capsules. It could have been a little shorter without losing much, but that's a small complaint.

Business and Finance 25 of the best quotes from Jeff Bezos's letters to shareholders

Amazon's founder seems to have absorbed some lessons from Warren Buffett

Humor and Good News How $8 will save your leftovers

A box of grease pencils costs about $8. They pay for themselves in the first week if you use them to label and date your leftovers (instead of playing "Press Your Luck" every time you reach into the fridge).


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April 25, 2021

Weather and Disasters Giant thunderstorms over the Sandhills

Fact: Watching one of those particular storms in that particular part of the country will permanently reset your perspective on your own size relative to the scale of nature. The Great Plains are quite something to begin with, but it's really hard to get a sense of scale in the flattest parts. The Sandhills provide just enough elevation (and just enough variety) to provide some perspective when one looks out toward the horizon. And the horizon can be very, very far away. When you can look so far into the distance that the road narrows to a dot and there are no cars, no houses, and virtually no other signs of life, it can really do a number on your mind. When you combine that static backdrop with a supercell thunderstorm -- a fluid complex that can be 50,000 feet tall (or even taller), the effect can be even more breathtaking than a mountain. Imagine a cloud multiple times taller than Pikes Peak, moving and discharging lightning over such a landscape. The experience will stay with you.

Weather and Disasters Spring is beautiful, except for the allergies

If you're allergic to tree pollen, Des Moines is a rotten place to be right now


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April 26, 2021

Computers and the Internet Loose security at Facebook

Ars Technica reports: "A video circulating on Tuesday showed a researcher demonstrating a tool named Facebook Email Search v1.0, which he said could link Facebook accounts to as many as 5 million email addresses per day." ■ Back in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced his "personal challenge" for the year: "Facebook has a lot of work to do -- whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent. My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues." ■ But what ever came from that "personal challenge"? Anything tangible? Any marked improvement? What he promised was a grand ambition. Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on him for a reach that exceeds his grasp. ■ Yet at the same time, Zuckerberg maintains a degree of dictatorship over his company that would make most other leaders blush. Read Facebook's own annual filing with the SEC: Under risk factors, it notes "limitations on the ability of holders of our Class A Common Stock to influence corporate matters due to the dual class structure of our common stock and the control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock by our founder, Chairman, and CEO." Likely not since William S. Paley owned CBS has one individual held so much control over such a powerful media institution. ■ This degree of control means that Zuckerberg's principles are embedded within Facebook. What he believes is what the company does. Consequently, when the company fails to take a matter seriously, it reflects an institutional assumption that he, as controlling shareholder, doesn't take it seriously either. That applies to how the company responds to security threats as well as how it responds to its role in the society that it purports to serve. Within the company, at least some have acknowledged that Facebook failed to understand it was a vector for what became the January 6th insurrection, or to realize "that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement." ■ Facebook still seems to be run with the main priority to avoid the worst of trouble. But considering how the company specifically seeks to take advantage of human psychology in order to get users to do things like spend more time with the service, "avoiding the worst" really isn't enough; particularly not, because that's a reactive framework. ■ No, what Facebook really needs is an affirmative and normative philosophy -- a positive thing it seeks to be. Being anti-bad isn't enough. For all the money it makes and the influence it wields, Facebook (and its controlling shareholder) really ought to be striving to be something specifically good.

Health Vaccines turned the tide on Covid-19 in the United States

Dramatically -- in fact, almost shockingly. The graph depicting the change in case rates, with its rapid growth in November and December mirrored by an even sharper decline in January and February (as vaccines became available), is the kind of artifact that will show up in history textbooks, under a subchapter heading titled "The first mRNA vaccines". Just as early January marked a turning point in the spread of the disease in the United States, so will these new vaccines almost certainly mark a turning point in the fight against viral infections.

Weather and Disasters Taco watch vs. taco warning

The field of meteorology has made considerable strides since realizing that half of the job consists of social science rather than just atmospheric science. People need to know what you're trying to tell them. And one of the things that has caused the most grief for the longest time is the public's misunderstanding of the difference between a weather watch and a weather warning. Well, now there's a graphic to explain the difference, conclusively and authoritatively.

News English is a perfectly ridiculous language

The best way to get out of a rut is to find a new groove. Try explaining that to a beginning English-language learner.

Humor and Good News Science says

David Boaz suggests, "There ought to be a game, 'science says,' like 'Simon says'". ■ He's right. Science says: Cover your cough! Science says: Wear a seat belt! Check your horoscope! ...Ha! Science didn't say to do that!

News Do the right thing

Epictetus: "When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shrink from being seen to do it, even though the world should misunderstand it; for if you are not acting rightly, shun the action itself; if you are, why fear those who wrongly censure you?"


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April 27, 2021

Humor and Good News Man conquers local parking lot, one space at a time

Humans have more intelligence than is absolutely necessary for individual survival. As a consequence of that surplus brainpower, sometimes we do silly, pointless, hilarious things...like trying to park in every space at the local grocery store. And making a spreadsheet about it. ■ Yes, such an exercise is profoundly silly. No, it has no direct meaningful social benefits whatsoever. And yet: We really ought to stand up and applaud when someone puts their mind to work on a nerdy side project and commits to performing it as though it really matters. ■ If you read Dwight Eisenhower's memoir of World War II, "Crusade in Europe", you'll find a number of themes that emerge across its hundreds of pages. The most important one, though, may well be that the United States came into the war completely unprepared -- Eisenhower is devastating in his critiques of prewar military preparedness -- but the country won victory because of a massive reservoir of potential that just needed to be stirred to action. ■ Ike put it like this: "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." Just think: American shipyards, once brought up to capacity, produced 2,710 Liberty Ships over the course of the war. They were cheap and ugly, but they could be built in days and delivered the essential cargo needed to win a war. ■ It might not be obvious, but the connection between idle productive capacity and pointless, nerdy pursuits is quite real. The Wright Brothers are often portrayed in our superficial understanding of history as a couple of tinkerers who stumbled upon powered flight. The reality is they were dedicated, methodical, and driven almost to obsession (remember: Orville nearly died in an early crash that killed a passenger). ■ Most of the problems we face today are much too complex for a couple of brothers to solve working out of a bicycle shop. But they can be solved by teams working together -- and not always by the ones you might expect. Some large firms work hard to bring innovations to market quickly, but the era of the "skunk works" has in many ways been pushed aside by the popular but flawed practice of innovation through acquisition. ■ But look around and you'll see people channeling their interests and energies in useful ways through open-source program development and citizen science and self-organizing teams. ■ To solve big problems, we need a culture that values a nerdy willingness to do frivolous things well, because those are the sandboxes where we practice the skills that can be called upon when we need a nerdy willingness to do really important things well. So, three cheers for the goofball who walks every street in their town or studies satellite imagery for fun or figures out ship speeds from wake patterns. It's never particularly clear in advance when we'll need the people with these obsessions. But within open, free societies, the nerds are often our secret weapons.

Business and Finance Huawei might go public

The worst job in the world might well be trying to honestly, lawfully, and transparently list the risk factors for taking a Chinese state-owned or state-controlled enterprise into the stock market, through filings that bear the risk of legal consequences if filed untruthfully: "Risk factors, huh? I need to list risk factors? Hmm. Can I get some kind of amnesty first? Like, a guarantee that I won't be sent to a prison camp? No? Can we see if someone else wants to write this part?"

Threats and Hazards "I think you're hot" is not a sufficient reason to knock on someone's car window

Short of "I think you left your phone on top of your vehicle", "I think the trunk of your car is on fire", or "I think you left your 2-year-old in the shopping cart", there are really no good reasons to ever stop someone in a parking lot by walking up to their car. If you're overwhelmed by someone's beauty, just allow the moment to pass in the same way you can admire a beautiful sunset without shouting out loud to the Sun itself.


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April 28, 2021

Threats and Hazards A nightmare scenario to haunt your dreams

Considering the behavior of the People's Republic of China -- menacing Taiwan, abrogating its obligations to Hong Kong, and showing off its naval might near Japan -- reasonable observers may well find themselves gaming out the possibilities of an escalatory environment. It's not a rosy picture. ■ In particular, this threat ticks all the boxes for "plausible and sufficiently nefarious": Weapons systems mounted within shipping containers, using the containers as camouflage. ■ Global trade depends upon the humble shipping container, an innovation we don't usually give its due; its ubiquity has made it possible for the entire global economy to move predictably and efficiently (except when a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal). But at the same time, familiarity has a way of dulling vigilance. ■ Shipping containers have been widely used to facilitate smuggling, including for human trafficking. And without a firm (and expensive) commitment to thorough inspections of shipments from end-to-end of a shipping journey, both our land and sea borders are potentially much more porous than we might think. ■ If you thought it looked bad to get through the lines for customs and immigration in March 2020, imagine the backlogs that might ensue from trying to visually inspect every one of the ten thousand shipping containers on a single large vessel, both at the port of departure and the destination (and, of course, tracking the container to ensure it wasn't opened at an undeclared stop along the way). ■ But what is the risk if we don't increase our attention to what's making its way here aboard those nondescript boxes? The prospect that someone might be smuggling missiles into Long Beach is frightening enough, but this is the 21st Century: The biggest threats aren't always kinetic. It really isn't that hard to imagine a scenario in which containers could be weaponized not with missiles, but with weapons capable of delivering an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could disable electrical grids or cripple computer networks. ■ Balances must be struck in our world. Low-friction connectedness generally pays tremendous dividends in terms of world progress and improving standards of living. The freest possible movement of goods, money, ideas, and people generally enhances the prospects for all of us. But there is good reason to look at the need for inspection, tracking, and verification as a necessary limitation on that freedom. The weather is natural and mostly unchangeable -- but that doesn't stop us from using radar to be vigilant about what it's doing and to deliver advance warning of what might go wrong. ■ The Trojan Horse is a durable metaphor for very good reason. Unless and until the Communist Party that rules China demonstrates far better faith than they've been wont to show for the last decade, the American public ought to demand transparency and heightened scrutiny about what's aboard.

Threats and Hazards The shameful turn of Rudy Giuliani

A search warrant has been executed at his apartment. He had the choice to remain forever fixed in our minds as "America's Mayor".

Threats and Hazards Woman pleads guilty to hate-driven attempted murders

Two counts of attempted murder in a deeply upsetting crime spree

Humor and Good News Why conservatives should get their shots

The notion of making a health decision based on partisan affiliations is baffling. But if that's what it takes, Kyle Smith offers some delightfully tongue-in-cheek arguments in favor of the Covid-19 vaccine, including "Since when do we turn down a shooting opportunity?". ■ On a related note, more than 1 million Iowans have now been fully vaccinated.


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April 29, 2021

The United States of America America is an idea

Guided all too often by the European conception of a nation-state as so often learned in high school, it's easy for Americans to slip into a use of the word "nation" that equates to "country". We shouldn't do that. ■ The Merriam-Webster definition of a nationality says, "a people having a common origin, tradition, and language". Not every nation is fortunate enough to have a state. In fact, the list of stateless nations is long and includes hundreds of millions of people. ■ Within Europe alone, one finds dozens of stateless nations: Some have gone basically extinct, absorbed into other cultures -- like the Slovincians. Some, like the Kashubs, have some official recognition without strict self-determination. Some, like the Scottish, are actively pressing for independent states of their own. The strained and often bloody history of separatism in Spain ought to be quite enough to convince the thoughtful onlooker that "national" attachments may have little to do with the country named on one's passport. ■ "Nationhood" and "statehood" are two different things. There can be many nations bound together within a common government. And people can be members of more than one nation, depending on heritage, upbringing, and self-identification. This is precisely why tribal registration can be such an important issue among the First Nations of North America. The Navajo code-talkers gave honorable and patriotic service to the United States in WWII, but they still possess a nation. ■ The United States of America is a country (a political state). And it is much bigger than a nation. In his first address to Congress, President Biden remarked that he told China's President Xi "America is an idea -- the most unique idea in history: We are created, all of us, equal. It's who we are, and we cannot walk away from that principle and, in fact, say we're dealing with the American idea." ■ In response, National Review editor Rich Lowry impulsively tweeted, "America is a nation, not an idea." Lowry is talking his own book -- literally. But his statement is utter nonsense. ■ Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. It is from that work that everything else we know today as the United States of America emerges. And the Declaration begins by saying, in essence, "We need to explain ourselves." And its first act of explanation is a bold assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Truths are ideas, and the Declaration says that the security of those truths is the very essence of why "Governments are instituted among Men". ■ Had the Declaration of Independence been premised upon a statement of religious faith, a territorial claim, an origin story, or a creation myth, then it might have been a statement of nationhood. But it did not. The very first among our organic laws is a statement of principles. America is ideas-based. ■ It denigrates America to say we are anything less than a great, important, and challenging idea. Great in the way that this is by far the most desired destination of the world's immigrants. Important as it seeks to remain, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of Earth". Challenging enough that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could summon the Declaration of Independence as the "promissory note" of freedom. America is an idea, and we are lucky to make a country of it.

Threats and Hazards "Energy attack" near the White House last November

Our openness as a society is a big deal and it can certainly make us vulnerable to attacks in ways that don't similarly threaten places that wall off their powerful. But openness is one of our most vital sources of competitive advantage, too. It must be a priority to preserve the benefits while defending against the hazards.

Science and Technology A fire truck that can turn corners like an SUV

High tech could make cities much better -- if an electric-driven fire truck is any indication

Humor and Good News Baseball is supposed to be fun

Anthony Rizzo maintains a lifetime 0.00 ERA with a strikeout dominated mostly by pitcher and batter giggling at each other


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April 30, 2021

Agriculture Are we doing carbon storage right?

ProPublica reports that a program in California that was supposed to offset carbon dioxide emissions with matching carbon capture (through forest plantings) hasn't really resulted in net carbon storage and is instead facilitating higher emissions (permitted by the offsets). ■ Everyone knows that plants consume carbon dioxide, "exhale" the oxygen, and use the carbon to grow. So far, so good. And big plants will tend to contain more carbon than small ones (at least, per square foot of ground covered). ■ We look at trees in particular because forests are aesthetically pleasing, they can grow in places that are otherwise not ideal for agriculture or habitation, and they can sequester quite a lot of net carbon. ■ As long as the trees are allowed to mature, they can store a lot of carbon. That, clearly, sequesters the carbon away from the atmosphere. But even though that storage has been increasing for the last three decades, it's not the kind of increase we can accelerate very quickly. Most of the carbon in a tree is stored in the trunks and branches, and trunks don't grow very quickly. ■ Presumably, the way to passively remove carbon from the atmosphere at the highest speed is to find the fastest-growing plants that can then be harvested and stabilized (since it doesn't do any good to capture the carbon only to have it decompose quickly and return to the atmosphere). Fast growth is the champion. Decomposition is the enemy. ■ Bamboo is the fastest-growing woody perennial plant, and it is useful for long-duration carbon sequestration in textiles and building materials. For any plant (tree, bamboo, or otherwise), the optimal solution from a carbon-sequestration perspective is if it can be harvested and used in some durable way that doesn't involve combustion or consumption and digestion by an animal. Then, the harvested plant can be replaced with a new plant cultivated in its place, increasing the net impact. ■ Thus, this question: Is there a reason why we aren't genetically modifying bamboo so it grows more productively and easily in cold-weather climates? Wouldn't bamboo capture and store more carbon than trees in less time? Bamboo certainly shouldn't be used to replace trees, but if carefully managed, it might well serve as a fast-acting enhancement to carbon sequestration.

Broadcasting Short-lived corporate siblinghood ends for KWWL and KCRG

The two longstanding television rivals in Eastern Iowa were briefly under the same ownership this year

News No place in England is more than 85 miles from the sea

Certain factoids would have been useful in history class, like the fact that no place in Britain is more than 85 miles away from the sea. That's the kind of scale that it helps to understand before you go on with the Vikings and the Normans and World War II. It's no wonder the country developed differently than many others, and it certainly helps to explain why the country became a seafaring nation. But the value comes from explaining that key fact at the beginning of the process.

Humor and Good News Talent draws from a common well

Jon Batiste: "God gave us 12 notes; it's the same 12 notes that Duke Ellington had, that Bach had, Nina Simone..." ■ Art is in the constraints. Those twelve notes are a constraint, and yet they make infinite combinations possible.

Humor and Good News On neologisms

Most neologisms are wisely held at arm's length, but the word "slaps" is a worthy exception. It has an almost onomatopoeic quality, requires no explanation at all, and makes sense almost immediately. When a song "slaps", it just makes sense. But many other newly-coined words are train wrecks.

Iowa Three cheers for tiny homes

A group in Davenport, Iowa, is using them to help provide stable housing for people who might otherwise slip into homelessness. From the Quad-City Times: "Boruff said it's his hope the tiny homes would help program graduates from back-sliding into old ways of homelessness, addiction, incarceration or domestic abuse. He said the 14-month program boasted a 90% success rate." Too often, the obstacles to good polices are other policies of our own making -- like building ordinances that don't account for the full spectrum of housing needs that exist.

Business and Finance Protect Charlie

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting won't be held in Omaha in 2021, but that's OK: They're doing it so shareholders can get a dose of Charlie Munger, and that's reason enough.


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