Gongol.com Archives: May 2021

Brian Gongol

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May 1, 2021

The American Way The most wonderful day of the capitalist year

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting may not be "Woodstock for Capitalists" in 2021 due to the pandemic, but at least Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett are on stage together. ■ Every such meeting is a worthwhile experience; it's not that Buffett and Munger are perfect, but they are wise. They've accumulated wisdom through observation and practice alike, and -- importantly -- openly confess their mistakes. At the 2014 meeting, Munger professed, "If we hadn't been so good at removing our ignorance step by step, we would be a fraction of ourselves today [...] We're very good at ignorance-removal, and fortunately for us, we have a lot more ignorance to remove." It's that kind of humility that undergirds the wisdom -- constantly seeking to understand the boundaries of their knowledge and to push that frontier outward. ■ And then there is the benefit of having that wisdom applied to value judgments. Hearing Charlie Munger decry speculation in moral terms is always refreshing. When he says that Bitcoin is "contrary to the interests of civilization", he's not saying so because he's jealous; the man is wealthy far beyond his own needs. Nor is he afraid of "missing out" on the rise of the investment; he's 97 years old. If he's criticizing something for being harmful to civilization, that's strictly what he means. ■ The world could use a great deal more of Munger's market moralism -- not just from him, but from many corners. Aside from the practice of teaching "business ethics" in college, we rarely see public figures apply moral thought to the marketplace. The problem with isolating "business ethics" as a discrete field is that it effectively dis-integrates the person. To put the qualifier "business" out front is to say "There are ethics for your life, and then there are different rules that apply if you do something in the workplace." ■ This is not to say that there aren't unique ethical questions that arise in the world of business; there certainly are, and they deserve careful examination. But, by and large, an untrained person from outside the world of business should generally be able to ascertain what is right and wrong, because business is merely an arena in which humans interact with other humans. The Greek agora wasn't reserved exclusively for buying and selling. Divorcing our modern notion of a holistically ethical life from what we do when money becomes involved is a categorical error. ■ Now, it may be necessary to teach business ethics because there are people who enter the world of business with no personal ethics to speak of. But for the vast majority of people and cases, "business ethics" should just be "ethics". Integrity comes from being whole. You can't really carve up who you are or the standards you observe based upon whether you're in the boardroom, on the tennis court, in the grocery store, or playing a card game with friends. A person who is a liar, cheat, or slouch in one area probably shouldn't be intrinsically trusted in others. ■ Yet, aside from exceptional individuals like Charlie Munger, we don't have a lot of people who make deep value judgments out loud in the world of commerce. Sure, there is money to be made from speculation on things like Bitcoin. But is it a good profit? Does it enhance human life? Is it expanding human dignity by getting more useful goods and services to places where there are needed? Or is it profit derived from consuming a vast amount of electricity in order to duplicate the work of fiat currencies? Bubbles are not generally productive, and some wisdom consists of recognizing when speculation has a grip on a market. ■ We are (and should be) free to do a lot of things unfettered by the intervention of the state; just because something can or might do harm doesn't mean it has to be prohibited. But just because something is a legal transaction doesn't mean it is a good one, either. We need role models and exemplars who are willing to say just that.

The American Way "Vamos! Let's Go Eat!" is the children's book for classical liberals

A bilingual, pro-market children's book about taco trucks. It's cheerful, delightfully illustrated, and entirely good-natured. Author Raul the 3rd is up to something good.

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May 2, 2021

Business and Finance Markets encourage specialization

Someone apparently orders a drink at a coffee shop that requires something on the order of 25 unique ingredients or steps. It looks utterly disgusting, and some people note that it's a real mess for the serving staff to prepare. And most certainly, on one hand, everything about the drink order looks disgusting. But! On the other hand, many of us have very happily used Coca-Cola Freestyle machines...and robots don't judge our drink orders, no matter how unfathomably nasty. So we need to consider: If people can get their hyper-personalized orders from machines with no judgment (or sense of guilt), then where might we expect consumers to gravitate?

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May 3, 2021

Threats and Hazards "China will get old before it gets rich"

A problem that will undoubtedly be magnified if the country enters a malevolent feedback loop in which heavy-handed political repression discourages creativity of thought, contributing to slower growth, making the Party even more desperate, leading to more repression...

Humor and Good News George Washington as photorealistic modern-day politician

Once you imagine him with real hair instead of a wig, you'll definitely see it. (Though, in fairness to GW, he was only 57 when he was inaugurated. The guy portrayed in the viral picture is much older.)

Science and Technology Dutch build 3D-printed home

The 3D printing itself is a "wow" technology, but where it could get really interesting is if we can find printing materials with less of a carbon footprint than conventional concrete. (Cement is estimated to produce 7% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, and you can't make concrete without cement.) There is tremendous potential to do good globally if we can combine better processes with better inputs.

Weather and Disasters Drone footage from right next to a tornado

There is so much untapped potential waiting for us if we can really start to harness the power of drones for storm-spotting. They have great potential to help save lives, especially for storms happening where radar coverage is distant. Especially useful on days when much of the country is under threat.


May 4, 2021

Health If you had Covid-19 before, you should still get vaccinated

That's the public-health consensus

Humor and Good News May 4th brings out the "Star Wars" nerds

And, regardless of ideology or partisan stripe, we could use a few more self-identified nerds in Congress

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May 5, 2021

Health When the mind plays tricks

Everyone sleeps, and dreams are an essential part of that sleep. But what happens when your brain lies to you during a dream?

Health Canadian data shows Covid vaccines spectacularly effective

Toronto Star: "Public Health Ontario reported 2,223 Ontarians developed COVID-19 symptoms after receiving one or two doses of a COVID vaccine [...] just 0.06 per cent of the 3.5 million people in the province who had received at least one vaccine dose by April 17."

@briangongol on Twitter

May 6, 2021

News One-paragraph book review: "To Heal a Fractured World", by Jonathan Sacks

A deeply worthwhile book that will expand the reader's moral imagination

News One-paragraph book review: "The Enchiridion", by Epictetus

Rewards those who know that human nature is fundamentally unchanging

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway Class A stock price breaks the Nasdaq

It's all because they only saved room for 32-bit integers and they calculate stock prices down to hundredths of a cent. BRK-A prices have just topped that value. Oops.

Iowa Classic photos of the UNI student union

A classic of concrete modernism (and a fine tornado shelter, too)

Business and Finance In praise of classic corporate names

There aren't enough companies named Amalgamated _____ anymore

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May 7, 2021

Threats and Hazards "Decadent" is the worst inverse shibboleth

When "Anonymous", a "senior Trump Administration official", published the book "A Warning" in late 2019, there was a rush to try to unmask the author. It was an understandable rush -- the nameless official had previously submitted an opinion to the New York Times saying that the President was "erratic", "chaotic", unstable, and amoral. Just how high did the self-identified member of "a quiet resistance within the administration" rank? ■ While Anonymous was later revealed to be Miles Taylor, there were those who thought it might have been a Cabinet official, or perhaps even the Vice President. Certain tell-tale words were used to try to pinpoint the author's identity, with some people arguing that the frequent use of the uncommon word "lodestar" pointed to Mike Pence. ■ To be sure, stylometry is a fascinating way to try to read between the lines to find out who might have authored a document. Computers make the statistical analysis easier: People give themselves away through their choice of words. Just ask a teacher reading an essay that has been plagiarized, in whole or in part, by a student who doesn't take care to cover their tracks. The writer's "voice" is distinctive. ■ While shibboleths are typically used to signal in-group membership (and, sometimes, to sort out double agents), they can also inadvertently reveal an author's adherence to a way of thinking that needs to be held at arm's length. ■ One of those negative shibboleths is the word "decadence". If someone is using the word "decadence" -- especially when talking about their own country -- there's a very good chance they're on a completely wrong track. ■ The word "decadence", unless the author is talking about a particularly rich piece of chocolate cake, is a dead giveaway that the author thinks other people are enjoying themselves too much, in large numbers. While it is entirely possible for people to engage in behavior that takes fun too far, one of the basic premises of American civilization, at least, is that we have the "unalienable" right to pursue happiness. That's one of the basic purposes for having formed this country in the first place. ■ Thus when someone like an editor at the New York Post declares that "America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower", he's not passing a sound judgment on his fellow Americans -- he's declaring that he cares not for the American experiment in self-government itself. Sohrab Ahmari is, of course, entirely free to hold an opinion like that, as untethered to reality as it might be. But the rest of us are not obligated to pay such an opinion any serious respect. ■ In fact, when someone pulls out "decadence" as their linguistic weapon of choice, they're joining in a habit engaged by murderous, evil political regimes. The accusation of "decadence" is a value judgment with no objective standard. Thus it can mean "anything I do not like". In an authoritarian regime, that means the state can use the subjectivity as a tool of oppression. In a freer society, it screams of illiberalism. ■ If one holds an objective belief that a society has gotten soft around the edges and needs toughening up, then one ought to make a specific, fact-based case about what behaviors, rules, or practices need reform. That's how a democratic republic finds its way to the right path. ■ As it has been said, America isn't very good at being right, but we're pretty good at getting it right. We get it right by engaging in a process of course correction over time. We swing too far in one direction, then we overcorrect in the other, and ultimately the pendulum finds its equilibrium. Merely disclaiming the zeitgeist as "decadent" is a sneer in the direction of thoughtful debate, and without robust debate, how can we ever expect to correct our way? ■ We get a lot of things wrong in America, and we surely always will. But one of the main engines of our success as a vibrant, rich, and free nation is a perpetual commitment to openness. Our adversaries and rivals have never embraced that commitment, and it's hard to imagine that they will. The saddest turn of events would be for us to surrender that commitment on our own -- just because some people were having a good time.

Aviation News China's careless rocket debris could land almost anywhere on Earth this weekend

23 tons worth of space waste will come crashing down "anywhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude". (Des Moines is at 41.58°N.) China's behavior here is an exceptionally irresponsible case of ignoring the basic principle that you should clean up after yourself.

Business and Finance Who's going back to the office?

The CEO of a company in Washington, DC, has taken the peculiar step of sharing an opinion piece with the Washington Post, saying "I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion." ■ Even taking her "concern" at face value, Cathy Merrill chose a strange forum in which to express her thoughts. In the pages of her own magazine, she waxes nostaltic about the way her company embraces long-term employees. But one doesn't just publish an op/ed in the Washington Post hoping that it reaches merely a niche readership. The Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are America's three newspapers where people go if they want to be read by the elites. ■ Some work environments have agglomeration effects. Some don't. Most are probably on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremes. But it is downright kooky to suggest a one-size-fits-all rule of "If we don't see you, you don't count." ■ Office culture undoubtedly means something. Human beings often like to work in proximity to other human beings, even when they're not working together -- hence the etiquette of working from a coffee shop and the emergence of co-working sites and business incubators. ■ But unless you believe that the entire white-collar economy of the United States has been artificially inflated since March 11, 2020, there's no denying that working from home has worked out satisfactorily for a lot of people. ■ We were forced to make extremely rapid adaptations in the spring of 2020, with technological innovations filling voids created by the disrupted workplace. But now that everyone's been forced to learn how to behave during a Zoom meeting, there's no reason to pretend like that isn't a default component of the standard worker's skill set. A workplace skill, once broadly acquired, easily becomes an expectation. ■ Some environments will always need a physical presence -- nobody's going to start building heavy machinery from home. But the productivity numbers suggest that now that we're over the initial learning curve, it's perfectly fine for many office workers to remain home-office workers, without any excessive pain for their employers or the economy as a whole. But as for the "things that drive office culture"? If they're important, competitive forces will find ways to bring them back. If they're not, then like bell bottoms and slap bracelets, they'll find their proper place in a dusty old nostalgia bin. ■ Instead of hand-wringing over "office culture", more of our energy ought to be devoted to considering the broader need for mental well-being. The last year has put a spotlight on the need to train a lot more people to provide support for mental health. As in, possibly by at least an order of magnitude more than we already have. The people who are actively seeking professional therapeutic help are almost certainly outnumbered by the people who would probably benefit from some form of mental-wellness support. ■ Victor Frankl observed that "Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days." And that was in 1946, before religious identification and participation had met their modern decline. The quests for self-understanding, meaning, and belonging are rightly to be satisfied beyond the purview of the HR department. Addressing those needs holistically would a much better use of our time and efforts than worrying about who gets the last slice of office birthday cake.

Health Sharing spare vaccines across the border

Good neighbors: "The Blackfeet Nation in northern Montana provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines last month to its First Nations relatives and others from across the border"

Computers and the Internet Open-source Audacity program sold to private company

It's a very good audio editing program; whether things remain the same under new management is a whole new question altogether. Open-source programs are usually passion projects, which means they do risk becoming orphans without some form of incentive to keep them going.

@briangongol on Twitter

May 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards China's errant rocket could crash anytime

China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat of reentry by the Long March 5B rocket. It is truly one of the stupidest games of roulette ever played.

Humor and Good News "Vaccine side effect, or have you just been alive for 40 years?"

Medical news you can use

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May 9, 2021

Broadcasting Using classic MTV to show today's college students what the Cold War was like

It's really hard to communicate to people who didn't live through the Cold War how the culture was permeated by the existential threat of nuclear war. That threat really did frame everything, even when it wasn't top-of-mind.

Health People respond to incentives: Immunization edition

County official in New York, at a vaccination event pairing Covid-19 shots with free beer: "We're going to do more people today at our first-dose clinics than most of our first-dose clinics in the last week combined". Americans in particular are motivated by the quest for free stuff, and if free beer is what it takes to get to herd immunity, then that's what public health agencies ought to be giving out.

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May 10, 2021

News Rahm Emanuel to become ambassador to Japan

A heartwarming tale of a small-town boy moving to the big city. (Tokyo's metropolitan area has 37 million people. Chicago's has just short of 9 million.)

The United States of America Gen X eclipsed by successor generations in the US electorate

Will Gen X ever produce a President? (Vice President Kamala Harris, born in 1964, just barely squeezes into the Baby Boom rather than the Slacker Generation.)

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May 11, 2021

Threats and Hazards The rocket didn't hit anything, but the criticism should

The world got lucky when China's wayward Long March 5B rocket reentered the atmosphere and seems mostly to have splashed into the Indian Ocean. The odds favored an uncontrolled water arrival (let's not call it a "landing"), since 71% of the Earth's surface is water. ■ But neither the rest of the world nor the Chinese public should be satisfied that the authorities in China were willing to be so reckless about it landing somewhere on the remaining 29%. Nature already drops things from space onto our heads from time to time, like the 440-kiloton fireball that crashed into Russia in 2013. There's no reason to add to that risk with man-made debris, certainly not when better alternatives are available. ■ Four simple rules offer a pretty good set of guidelines for living according to classical liberal principles: Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business. Ever since China steered into "socialism with Chinese characteristics" under Deng Xiaoping, the country's ruling powers have been willing to look favorably upon the "making money" part. (A growing economy, after all, is one of the main tools they have for pacifying the public.) ■ But those other guiding virtues don't have much of a place under an authoritarian regime. And while those of us outside the country can have strong opinions about the regime's conduct as it relates to the others, it is "cleaning up after yourself" where we have a first-degree right to demand better (as opposed to, say, speaking out on behalf of people within China whose universal human rights are being denied). ■ Letting rocket debris rain down uncontrollably over the planet is inexcusable when controlled re-entry is something humankind has been able to do for decades. China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat. Just because we all got lucky and avoided the worst possible outcome of their stupid game of rocket-reentry roulette doesn't mean we should just forgive and forget. ■ Along the way to getting rich and making material progress, every culture is likely to pass through a phase of abnormally intense pollution and waste. But there's no reason to accept rampant carelessness as an unavoidable cost of doing business. This applies whether we're talking about carbon dioxide emissions, high-risk scientific experimentation, or launching space stations into orbit. Clean up after yourself: It's not too much for the rest of us to expect.

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May 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline."

For decades, the standard anecdote about ridiculous consumer-safety warnings has been the story of the woman who sued after she spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap. While the story has often been ridiculed in the abstract, we've probably been unfair to the plaintiff: The coffee was, indeed, being served at dangerously high temperatures. Today, however, we have a whole new standard for consumer recklessness which ought forever to displace "McDonald's hot coffee": Garbage bags of gasoline. ■ Due to the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline from Texas to the East Coast, wildly unsafe behavior has been documented as people seek to stockpile gasoline for themselves. A particularly egregious photo showing gasoline in clear plastic bags stuffed into the trunk of a car isn't from the current incident -- it's actually from a theft in Mexico in 2019. ■ But the point has been taken with sufficient seriousness that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a tweet warning, "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline." Regrettably, that's probably a necessary announcement, since bad ideas can go viral. ■ The "bags of gasoline" photo may be getting lampooned as it goes around, but there's no stopping it from putting panic into the minds of some people and inadvertently suggesting they try the same thing. It's not unlike the problem of videos that show people taking shelter from a tornado beneath a bridge: That's actually one of the most dangerous places to be, but the visual message overwhelms the real lesson. Loud, consistent, frequent messaging to the contrary becomes necessary to counteract the bad images that go viral on their own. ■ There's no disputing that our world is becoming more complex every day. Nobody had to worry about cyberattacks in the 1950s. Many of the things that add up to making life far more advanced, more convenient, and generally safer today than in the past also add up to making it much more complicated to navigate, at least in the finer details. When the "Check Engine" light illuminates, the first thing your mechanic is likely to do is break out the diagnostic scanner, rather than opening the hood. ■ In exchange for that complexity, we get cars that are much safer, more comfortable, and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. Anyone in their right minds would take a 2021 Kia Rio (MSRP: $16,050) over a 1972 Ford Pinto (MSRP: $2,078 in 1972 prices, or $13,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars today). ■ The problem we face, though, is that increasing complexity scares some people. It opens the door to lots of faulty and counterproductive responses. And it paves the way for people to make disingenuous claims and other bad-faith arguments under the guise that heavy-handed intervention alone can stop "big tech" or whichever boogeyman is in fashion at any given moment. ■ The tools we most need in a complex world -- especially from those who make big decisions -- are curiosity, competence, and humility. We need them from our lawmakers and other leaders, most especially. But we need them at the grass roots, too. Curiosity in particular gets stifled when people become addicted to the instant-gratification model. Paradoxically, marketers have become sophisticated at utilizing the "curiosity gap" to trick people into clicking on links that end up deadening real curiosity about the world. ■ And that's what we should be interested in fixing: The gap between the gawking type of curiosity we satisfy by clicking through to the latest outrage and the deeper and more virtuous sense of curiosity about how things really work in a complex world. We can say we want to see more common sense in the world, but the thing most of us really want is for people to slow down long enough to think about their problems, have the humility to ask questions, put their curiosity to good use, and ultimately achieve some kind of competence in the end. ■ It may seem ridiculous that a government agency has to say, "Use only containers approved for fuel", but if we don't routinely treat thoughtful curiosity as a virtue (and train its habits into our children), then people will continue to engage in the stupid, the circus-like, and the ridiculous -- sometimes to the peril of us all.

Humor and Good News Tina Turner wins second induction into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

She got there once before (with Ike). Now she's being inducted on her own. The integrity of this most solemn institution remains intact.

Health Ohio offers a $1 million vaccination lottery

Get vaccinated, get entered in a $1 million weekly prize drawing. There is huge social surplus involved with getting the maximum number of people vaccinated, so if it takes turning a little of that social benefit and channeling it into private gain in order to stretch out the effect, then so be it.

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May 13, 2021

News Go ahead and tear up that memo

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking some heat for how her "staff is turning over at an alarming rate", according to a Chicago Tribune reporter. As evidence of her demanding style as a manager is submitted an email in which she shared a photo of a torn-up memo with her staff. Lightfoot's declaration: "Here's my new practice for memos that come in at the last minute." She goes on to offer a reminder that memos are due "48 hours before the decision is needed". Tough? Maybe. But she's also managing America's 3rd-largest city. ■ If the staff isn't following an established process for delivering her memos, how is she supposed to respond? A process exists around a principal for a reason -- to ensure discipline and avoid wasting bandwidth. Was the torn-up memo the first one submitted late? Then, yeah, it looks like a tantrum. Was it the 48th one submitted late? Different story altogether. ■ People can go all too far in catering to the whims of a tyrannical leader, of course -- we see plenty of examples of brilliant jerks who get tolerated for far too long in all sectors of the working environment, and a long-overdue public accounting of downright abusive behavior in Hollywood has finally eroded some of the myth that has permitted people to get away with abuse as the cost of admission to their creative work. ■ But policies and rules are different from the perverted whims of a director's couch. If our institutions are doing anything right to try to elevate people of good judgment into positions of authority, then the only point of giving someone the duties of mayor (or governor, or President) is because they bring some valuable skills for discernment to the table. If a big-city mayor says "I need 48 hours to think about important decisions", then those are the conditions under which she thinks her decision-making skills ought to be exercised. That's not unlike Barack Obama wanting to use his BlackBerry in the Oval Office or Winston Churchill demanding short memos and brief meetings. ■ Discipline cuts both ways, too: Mitt Romney credits a rule firmly prohibiting work meetings on Sundays for keeping him focused as a venture capitalist. Just as the principal has a reasonable expectation for performance, their subordinates benefit from clear performance expectations and reasonable boundaries. Consistent procedures and structures, like the Toyota A3 problem-solving worksheet, keep hard work from going to waste. ■ In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Pardoning the bad, is injuring the good." If a boss is tough merely because they have a difficult personality, then that's "the bad", and it ought to be called out. A leader's "emotional intelligence" really does matter. ■ But if a staff can't find a way to accommodate the needs of the principal, then it's the good staff members who are punished most by a failure to enforce the rules that optimize the key figure's work. Good subordinates want to make the boss look good, and voters have a fair expectation of getting the most value from the work of their elected officials. If a 48-hour review period is what it takes to get the most from your team, then Mayor Lightfoot, go ahead and tear up those late-arriving memos.

Iowa West Des Moines Valley High School names 6th US Presidential Scholar

Dorothy Junginger becomes the district's first Presidential Scholar since 2006

Humor and Good News Grandmother, grandson graduate together from Indiana University

Grandson graduates with his bachelor's degree as his grandma graduates with her master's. On its own, the story of Rosecedar Byrd and Keith Taylor is a feel-good human-interest story. But their story really shows how much more we need to do to normalize life-long learning. ■ Virtually every American adult should be on some kind of path to learning more. The full spectrum of economic, cultural, scientific, and technological changes arriving year after year isn't going to slow down. Like the Mandelbrot set (or any other fractal), complexity is unbounded -- and the deeper you look, the more complexity there remains to be discovered. ■ "Grandma goes back to college" deserves to be a ho-hum event. We should have many more on-ramps and pathways for adults to pursue further education in structured ways. Lots of people have tried to name our post-industrial economic era, but the name it really deserves is the teach-yourself economy. The natural human desire to satisfy curiosity can be seen everywhere, from the dominance of "how to" as a search term on YouTube to the way many people satisfied their Covid-19 lockdown anxieties by learning to make bread. ■ Of course, people should always remain free to teach themselves whatever satisfies their curiosity (within the bounds of not harming others, of course). But it would be sound public policy to recognize that there is an overlap between what is good for individuals and what is good for society overall. There is an undeniable inverse relationship between unemployment and educational attainment. And it is clear that the needs for retraining and upskilling are growing -- probably at an accelerating pace. Even useful skills become obsolete -- one study says skills go bad at an average rate of 2.6% a year. ■ We shouldn't just leave people to try to figure out how to backfill that skills obsolescence all on their own. One proposal floated among the Nordic countries would make adult education compulsory, and there's at least a little bit of sense to that, especially if the public sector has to provide support when people are unemployed or need to lean on the social safety net. ■ Ultimately, you can tell what a people value by where the commit their resources -- especially of time and money. Similarly, you can tell where vested interests are protecting themselves by how hard they work to keep others out. Together, those observations suggest that we need to broaden access to formal systems for higher education and reform occupational licensing so that individuals have the greatest possible freedom to adapt to circumstances as times change, jobs evolve, and old skills fade away. ■ We remain in the early stages of seeing affordable and accessible college programs emerge so that adults with work and family responsibilities can obtain further education without having to drop everything. One would think that, after the Covid-19 shutdowns sent all colleges into virtual mode at once, perhaps we would come to rethink the processes of higher education with some urgency. Alas, the academy is slow to reform itself -- professional associations resist accrediting online programs and most colleges insist on teaching mainly with bricks and mortar. There will always be a place for four-year residential degrees as a personally-formative life experience -- but we need a whole lot more ongoing options to provide economically-transformative ones. ■ Ongoing education should be coincidental with other life obligations -- existing alongside the other things ordinary people do, not displacing them. So for now, three cheers for Keith and Rosecedar. But we ought to work hard to make today's very special story into tomorrow's very unremarkable one. The sooner we get there, the better.

Threats and Hazards Why Taiwan has reason to be nervous

On US military engagement with Taiwan: "They don't stay there for very long. They don't learn the language. They don't develop a deep relationship with their counterparts."

Threats and Hazards People really are filling up buckets with gasoline

New rule: If you can't explain the concept of vapor pressure in plain language without assistance, you don't get to put gasoline in a Homer Bucket. The explosions caused by dispersion of combustibles aren't pretty.

Business and Finance Futures of Des Moines and Omaha just got bound closer together

The heir-apparent to the throne at Berkshire Hathaway (headquartered in Omaha) is Greg Abel of Des Moines. Nobody who follows the company is surprised by this announcement; Abel has been the obvious choice for a decade.

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May 14, 2021

News Scarcity increases relative value, right?

Erica Dhawan's use of the phrase "geriatric Millennials" to describe people born between 1980 and 1985 certainly garnered some attention among those who take "geriatric" as a slight and those who are happy to have escaped the label. But it is worth noting just what a nosedive births took in the United States during the age cohort we now know as Generation X. Births peaked in 1957 at 4.3 million, dropped to 3.7 million at the start of Generation X in 1965, bottomed out at 3.1 million between 1973 and 1976, and only got back to a steady 3.6 million pace by 1980. In other words, the babies of the 1970s are a precious rare vintage.

News Spilling your guts on I-80

A trucker seems to have spilled a bunch of pig guts all over Interstate 80 in Omaha. Yuck.

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May 15, 2021

Threats and Hazards Past service is no free pass for present bad behavior

A group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves "Flag Officers 4 America" signed an open letter clearly seeking to leverage the gravitas of their service as former flag officers of the United States military to add weight to their status as political commentators. ■ Their letter is full of conspiratorial thinking, sloppy writing, and squishy logic. It deserves to be read as the cranky wingnuttery that it is, and little more. In no way should it be granted special immunity from criticism because its writers once wore high-ranking uniforms. Paula Thornhill -- herself a retired Air Force brigadier general -- did a good job of breaking down why the open letter is more embarrassing than alarming. In her words, "We can appreciate what retired flag officers did on active duty, but until we know what they've done since their retirement, we should not privilege their perspectives." ■ The public owes no indefinite deference to the judgment of people who once wore stars on their uniforms, nor for that matter to those who once wore any uniform at all. Stratocracy is a choice, but it's not one that America has made (nor should we make). The military obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted by the people through the states, the Congress, and the Constitution. It does not work the other way around. ■ The perspectives of veterans matter, just as do the perspectives of countless other groups who share some form of common experience or mutual identity. Their interests are even addressed directly by an entire Cabinet department. But their perspectives do not matter in a way that excuses faulty logic or corner-cutting arguments. ■ Should we defer to retired computer programmers about technology policy? To retired surgeons on health-care policy? To retired teachers on educational immigration policy? No -- not outside their field of knowledge, and not unless they can demonstrate that their thinking has kept pace with developments related to their expertise. Officers who retired from military service decades ago should similarly be viewed with deep skepticism when they attempt to weigh in by arguing to the authority of their former ranks. ■ Claims like "We must counter this on all fronts beginning with removing Section 230 protection from big tech" don't extend in any way from special insight they might have gained while in uniform, and the retired officer's uniform itself shouldn't be used as a cloak for what is a claim without substance. In fact, the use of retired titles as a political bludgeon is exactly the kind of behavior that undermines public trust in the active duty military. ■ More than anything, the open letter suggests that we are too slow to find ways in which to keep people like our retired flag officers productively engaged in constructing a productive future. Cincinnatus may have been satisfied to return to his plow, but with most people likely to live for at least one decade (but often a few) after retirement, it would be wise for us as a society to find productive outlets for the energies of our most senior retired officers -- lest they grow restless and turn their minds over to the consumption of conspiratorial media. Only the 5-star generals never retire. ■ You can like or respect what a person did in the past and choose to disrespect their conduct later -- or vice-versa. Expect people to grow. Hold them accountable when they don't. Don't cut slack for people cruising on past glories. People can hold terrible ideas with the best of intentions, and people who do great things can go on to make terrible choices later (see, for instance, the atrocious choices of latter-day Charles Lindbergh). ■ Once one comes to realize that human nature itself changes very little over the centuries, one is liberated to see that each individual is a perpetual work in progress. Deep down, we today are very much like the people about whom we read in Shakespeare, the Bible, or even ancient Sumerian literature. We tend to seek pleasant things in life, fear death, and long for a sense of meaning and belonging. Our mistakes call for atonement and redemption. And no good deed any one of us performed in the past is a free pass forever.


May 17, 2021

Threats and Hazards They're really not thinking 100 years ahead

Most people have probably heard the trope that China's leaders have an inherent advantage over their Western rivals because they supposedly plan 100 years in advance. Former American diplomat Michael Pillsbury claims in a book called "The Hundred-Year Marathon" that China's government has been guided by such a plan since 1949. ■ If such a plan exists beyond rumors, we don't seem to know for certain. It isn't implausible, since there's nothing that necessarily stops any organization (from a government to a business to a church) from writing ultra-long-term plans. In fact, writing an ultra-long-term business plan may well be a very good way to obtain very good results in the medium term, especially if competitors are only thinking about quarterly results. Warren Buffett has long touted that his "favorite holding period is forever", and that's served his corporate fortunes extraordinarily well. ■ Using the long term for strategic advantage was also the express philosophy espoused by Abram Pritzker. He may not be a household name, but he established one of the most spectacular family fortunes of the 20th Century with the mindset that "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." He kept his family interests almost entirely private, and they grew astronomically -- to a fortune worth some $15 billion after just a few decades. But what he wasn't able to stop was a massive family feud that ultimately divided that fortune. ■ So, there is most certainly an advantage to be gained from thinking about the long term, and it's likely that any good plan of that type would also be enhanced by keeping it quiet. Thus it's entirely possible China's government has such a plan. ■ But if they do, it's either being ignored or it isn't being revised in light of new facts. Nothing undermines the trope that "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" like the way they're dismantling Hong Kong. It's short-sighted and insane. Pro-democracy media outlets are being frozen. Candidates for office are being subjected to "patriotism" background checks. Trade unions are being silenced. The regime in Beijing is nakedly grabbing power and, as the world has seen, squelching protest. ■ It's easy to understand why the Communist Party doesn't want to tolerate the freedoms cherished in Hong Kong. It's much harder to understand why they have calculated that they're better off with a neutered Hong Kong than with a vibrant one. ■ If you could simply wave a wand and clone Hong Kong in its entirety, there isn't a sane government on the planet that wouldn't say "We'll take one of those, please". It's a place with nearly $50,000 in annual GDP per capita -- the world's 45th-largest economy (just ahead of Ireland, Peru, and Israel), sitting on just 427 square miles of land and water -- smaller than the city of San Antonio, Texas. It is a (rightly) self-proclaimed international financial center and the world's 7th busiest port city. That's a lot of success for a place with only 7.5 million people. ■ And yet: What China's government is doing to Hong Kong right now is completely and inexcusably nuts -- and obviously wrong. But even if we can't count on their sense of justice, it's downright daffy that they aren't acting in their own self-interest. The UK is trying to welcome hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong, and why wouldn't they? Beyond their historical and legal ties to the city, the British at least recognize that the people leaving are a proven resource, not a deadweight. ■ Maybe China has a 100-year plan sitting somewhere gathering dust on a shelf in Zhongnanhai. But plans are only worth the paper on which they are printed, unless they can be turned into action. And any plan that would lead you to knowingly destroy a gem like Hong Kong isn't even worth the paper itself. It's not a 100-year plan: It's a plan for self-destruction.

Health Amateur oncologists should keep their speculation to themselves

Dr. Mark Lewis, a Utah-based oncologist, laments: "Please stop telling my patients they wouldn't have gotten cancer if they'd eaten more vegetables." ■ While most amateur oncologists don't actually mean ill, they reveal a hopeless ignorance of the fact that a normal cancer patient has already been through a psychological ultramarathon of existential angst, self-doubt, and second-guessing about how it happened to them -- long before sharing the news outside of their closest friends and family. ■ That traumatizing psychological aspect of the cancer experience is surely as significant to many people as the physical one: Very few things can compare with cancer for giving a person a one-way ticket straight to deep and sobering questions about the meaning of life and death. ■ Even if the cancer itself comes with favorable statistics -- low mortality, highly successful treatment standards, low rates of recurrence -- that doesn't mean anyone should call it a "good" cancer to get (yes, that happens). Cancer happens to individuals, not to statistics. Real support means caring for the one. And that one may look at a cancer with a 95% five-year survival rate and still be plagued by fears that they'll be the 1 in 20 who will die. ■ Here's a rare bright spot from the Covid-19 pandemic: It may be possible to take the same mRNA technology that delivered incredibly effective vaccines in astonishing time and use it to personalize vaccines to stop tumors from spreading in the blood. This immuno-oncology could be life-saving, and anything that gives people with cancer a better shot at survival ought to be a target for whatever support we can reasonably give it. ■ That support matters because, in the end, people end up with cancer from all kinds of sources -- lifestyle behaviors, environmental exposure, and genetics each can be causes on their own or in combination. If it were as simple as "you should have eaten more vegetables", oncogenesis wouldn't be much of a field. ■ As Dr. Lewis has previously noted, "Virtue doesn't necessarily guarantee health". (A message that surely resonates at St. Jude.) Taking that seriously means putting aside our amateur speculations, caring for the individuals who have cancer, and putting our support behind efforts to prevent, treat, and cure all cancers -- no matter where they came from.

Humor and Good News Unexpected headlines

Seems like "50 Cent Shows Up at an Omaha Hy-Vee Store to Sell Cognac" should have been much bigger news.

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May 18, 2021

Business and Finance You should probably plan on some inflation

American manufacturers tend to take lots of inputs and turn them into high-value goods, and they're going to have rough waters to navigate for a while to come. Supply chains are backed up and demand is accelerating for a lot of stuff.

Agriculture Iowa's fields are getting planted well ahead of time

USDA: "Eighty-three percent of the [Iowa] soybean crop has been planted, 18 days ahead of the five-year average"

Threats and Hazards An awful, awful litany

48 people -- 48! -- were shot in Chicago over the weekend. One victim is just 2 years old.

News He swings Schrodinger's bat

Peter Hamby: "Albert Pujols is either 25 or 78 years old". However old he really is, people have doubts.

News Morons take mortar to Nimrod Bar

The bomb squad had to be called after some treasure hunters discovered a mortar and brought it to the local bar in Nimrod, Minnesota. Instead of, you know, calling the police when they first uncovered it.

@briangongol on Twitter

May 19, 2021

Health We're at the pick-your-brand phase of vaccinations

A year ago right now, the world was effectively at a standstill because of a dreadful disease -- one which now you can prevent with extraordinary efficacy by showing up at a walk-in clinic in a hotel lobby in an Iowa college town, where you will be offered your choice of vaccine brands. That's just a gobsmacking turn of events.

Weather and Disasters Twin tornadoes south of the Twin Cities

In Owatonna, to be precise

Iowa Anyone have a discount code for Scythes 'R' Us?

Iowa has been getting almost non-stop rainfall for several days, with more to come. It certainly hasn't remained dry enough for anyone to get around to mowing (at least, not safely).


May 20, 2021

Computers and the Internet Farewell (or good riddance) to MSIE

Microsoft has made it official: As of June 2022, Internet Explorer is history. While there's very little reason to weep for the soon-to-be-departed browser itself, its sunset does bring to mind what things were like at its dawn. ■ When Microsoft first introduced Internet Explorer (MSIE) in 1995, we were a long way from the contemporary Internet as we know it. 54% of American adults used computers at the time. Not the Internet, not certain devices, not a particular social-media platform: Used computers at all. By comparison, in 2021, 69% of American adults use Facebook, and 81% use YouTube. The percentage who used any online platform in 1995 barely cracked double digits. And, in the words of a 1995 Pew survey, "Only one in five of all online users (3% of Americans) have ever signed onto the Web." It's hard to communicate just how much of a difference just one quarter-century has made. ■ At the time, it was widely heralded as the Information Age. It was more like a little bit of information age. But the prospect, at least, seemed grand. ■ Not long after MSIE came along, it became the subject of a bitter antitrust battle. Indeed, it almost seems quaint now that so much effort went into a battle over browser usage, but it was a massive fight at the time. ■ The battles today are not fought over browser usage, but over issues like user time, attention, and personal data. It's no longer Bill Gates in the hot seat, it's Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. But in the quarter-century of MSIE's existence, something else has happened: We've landed in a confused economic state. Nobody really knows what to call it -- a problem explored at some depth in Ben Sasse's book, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal". His lament is that our inability to name the thing has the same effect as Frankenstein's monster, frightening in its haziness -- in Sasse's words, "A powerful entity with no name is unnerving." ■ What we should call it is the "Teach-Yourself Economy". It's not the arrival of abundant information, per se, that dramatically changes the economy. This may be an "information age", but information alone isn't doing the work. Instead, what makes this era particularly disruptive is that there is a lot to learn, a deficit in our systems and frameworks for teaching it, and a significant amount of turnover in who's doing the work. As a result, there's far more autodidactism in far more places than there ever was before. ■ Periodically, American policymakers have made big moves to help people teach themselves. The most prominent example was the rise of the land-grant university and its offshoot, ag extension. But that model far predates the Internet. Furthermore, it's hard to communicate just how much workplace knowledge and experience is going out the door as the Baby Boom generation retires en masse. The oldest members of Generation X are now in their mid-fifties, which means they are filling senior management and leadership positions -- but the numbers are inescapable: There aren't nearly as many Gen-Xers as Boomers, so even if institutional knowledge was being formally handed down, there are far more prospective teachers than pupils. ■ Thus, of all the skills that might be valuable in the modern world, one that may have the highest payoff is the ability to teach yourself. It might be easy to learn how to do basic activities from a YouTube or TikTok video (and, indeed, satisfying the emerging curiosity gaps is a business model for some) -- but anything teachable in a "I was today years old" tweet or an "adulting" video isn't something the market is eager to compensate highly. The really valuable things that need to be learned are complex and often intersect multiple fields at once. ■ And, paradoxically, the way in which the Internet has developed means that very little of what happened (or even what was written or recorded) prior to about the year 2000 is simply not to be found online -- even if it contains hugely valuable knowledge. Despite the best efforts of the good people of the Internet Archive, there are massive troves of proven, detailed, and authoritative information that are orphaned because they appeared in print instead of pixels. ■ We're fortunate that standards overcame the early browser wars and delivered us from a world in which websites were only functional on Mozilla or MSIE (you can thank the W3C for that). But as we prepare to send Internet Explorer off into that good night, it's worth grappling with the reality that the Teach-Yourself Economy is here to stay. The future belongs not to the country with the cleverest app developers (for their skills come and go), but to the society that learns and adapts quickest without forgetting what its people once knew. We've had enough time being enamored with the technology itself; it's well past time to return it to its proper place as a tool.

News Get a double major

Given the option, it's best to get a double-major in college, preferably from two very different fields. The really interesting stuff happens in the overlaps -- like where lawyers have to figure out statistics or meteorologists have to understand sociology.

The United States of America We need a Madisonian Federalist party

It's a rare political breed, but that shouldn't stop us

Weather and Disasters Most of CONUS under threat of thunderstorms

It's unusual to see that much of the country under one contiguous hazard area

Computers and the Internet In praise of dashes

Alas, em/en dashes don't copy and paste well into HTML, so those who write for digital publication of any sort are often hamstrung by the incompatibility if they're also trying to remain W3C-standards-compliant.

Health Number of US Covid-19 cases drops to lowest in nearly a year

An extraordinary testament to the vaccines.

Threats and Hazards Shaky Chinese skyscraper creates understandable panic

AFP: "Building collapses are not rare in China, where lax construction standards and breakneck urbanisation over recent decades has led to buildings being thrown up in haste." ■ Related: Mario Salvadori's "Why Buildings Stand Up" is a delightful book.

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May 21, 2021

Broadcasting In praise of the screenwriter

Thanks to the explosive growth in streaming platforms and related options, we went with lightning speed from a world dominated by double-digit choices in cable channels straight to the a video multiverse. We started at "57 channels and nothing's on", blew right past the promised step of 500 channels, and landed in more options than can be accurately counted. ■ Many of these options are worthless or even harmful. One does have the choice to watch an idiot TikTok creator try to remove her own mole, but that isn't going to edify anyone. And the shock-jock appeal of bite-sized content on Snapchat isn't any more enriching. ■ Despite all the unscripted and semi-scripted visual sludge, a sincere and reasonable case can be made that we live in the golden age of television writing. Today's "average" show is often more densely written and more intensely engaging than all but the very best programs of yesteryear. The pace of a "Seinfeld" rerun -- groundbreaking in its own time -- is positively lackadaisical compared with many contemporary programs. ■ Thanks for this is due to the writers. We fawn over the acting, but it's the writing that makes or breaks a piece of work. Screenwriters should have the same kind of celebrity as Hollywood stars. Yet they don't, and it's a mild mystery why. ■ Perhaps the second-screen phenomenon will help, as people are not only free but encouraged to do more than just watch passively. And the emergence of the writers' room Twitter feed opens whole new doors. All due respect still goes to the actors who can breathe life into the characters they are given, but when a show lets us down, we (deservedly) blame the writers. The good ones ought to be celebritized a bit, too.

News Don't remove your own moles

Dermatologists are the ones to call for issues with your skin, not TikTok. Regrettably, someone missed that advice and tried a DIY treatment using a nail drill. Some people are about half a case of Busch Light away from pulling all their own teeth and replacing them with tiger fangs drilled from cubic zirconium and backlit with LEDs.

Business and Finance Keep looking for root causes, even when it hurts

Reporter Natalie Moore of Chicago public radio station WBEZ reveals in a detailed report that differences in the racial composition of Chicago neighborhoods appears to account for a shocking degree of difference in the value of otherwise comparable homes in Chicagoland. ■ The WBEZ reporting builds on academic research on the disparity, but also identifies individual case studies illustrating gaps that just don't make sense: Appraisals that appear to miss the rightful objective value by tens of thousands of dollars, and a gap of hundreds of thousands of dollars between comparable homes found in communities with different racial demographics. ■ Policies that nudge Americans toward thinking of (and treating) their homes as a household's biggest financial asset have a whole lot of pernicious side effects. One of those is to disproportionately depress the wealth of some people based on the color of their skin. It's not right. ■ There are obviously multiple root causes of this problem -- racism clearly being one of them. But we also can't deal honestly with the problem without acknowledging that we've built and preserved a whole lot of public policies that enshrine homeownership as a financial investment and that protect entrenched interests. ■ We treat new housing starts as a key financial metric (in no small part because construction represents more than 4% of the economy). With lots of cheerleaders (and policies like mortgage-interest deductibility), it's no surprise that Americans build bigger homes than most of the rest of the world. ■ Those incentives, though, do some real practical harm to other interests. The mortgage-interest deduction favors families with high incomes and expensive homes. Treating homes as investments to be preserved rather than "machines for living in" (in the words of Le Corbusier) leads to NIMBYism and contributes to obstacles to the supply of middle-density housing (also known as the "missing middle" problem). ■ And there is the undeniable aspect that anyone who owns an asset benefits from the scarcity of that asset (merely as a function of supply and demand), so the roughly 65% of households have an inherent and perverse incentive to oppose the construction of new housing (even if that housing is smaller or cheaper than their own) -- which makes it difficult to forthrightly address homelessness with solutions like the construction of tiny homes. ■ Which loops us back to the problem of neighborhood disparities: Those who benefit from real-estate booms tend to be those who already have wealth. The rich simply do get richer. That widens the financial gap between the housing-wealthy and those who are not, and perversely sets those with meager household wealth and real-estate equity at even greater odds with what might otherwise be desirable policies for expanding housing overall, if those policies enlarge the supply of housing that would compete in the market with the housing other people already own -- and consider their biggest assets. (Households in the bottom half of the US income distribution have a median net housing equity of $89,000 -- versus $346,000 for the top 10%.) ■ Easy solutions are elusive, since these are complex problems with lots of contributing factors. But with median home prices breaking new records, there is no time like the present to examine the root causes of housing inequities and to consider what useful policies might contribute to disentangling the universal need to get people into housing from the good that comes from helping people to increase their household wealth.

Humor and Good News Simone Biles does the seemingly impossible

Her gymnastics displays are as impressive as any touchdown pass you'll ever see. Truly an incredible athlete.

Humor and Good News President Biden's yellow eyes?

Anti-Biden propaganda emanating from China shows the President with glowing yellow eyes. Now you know why he wears those aviator sunglasses all the time.

News Good criticism is an art form

The very best kind of criticism is specific, clear, and supported, without any name-calling or cheap shots at the authors.

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May 24, 2021

Science and Technology Are UFOs visiting Earth?

In a sign that the news may be slowly returning to normal, another UFO craze seems to have landed in the media -- particularly in light of hints that a Pentagon report to Congress is about to reveal evidence not previously revealed in public. After the last year, "UFOs could be real" seems almost refreshing as a headline. ■ It seems virtually certain that there is alien life out there in the universe. We know of at least 4,000 exoplanets and the number grows all the time. Surely we're barely in the infancy of being able to count. If there truly are 1024 stars in the Universe, then even if only one in a million had a planet, then there would be 1018 planets. That's an unfathomably large number all on its own, and it's surely a wild underestimate. The odds alone make it virtually certain that life has emerged at least one other time somewhere out there. ■ But -- even if the likelihood is great that other planets exist and that at least some of them contain life, it seems far less likely that any such life would expend the tremendous resources necessary just to come here and check us out. Traveling from even some of the nearest stars would require considerable resources in terms of energy and time. ■ We measure space distances in light years, and so far, we are profoundly behind the curve in figuring out how to make solid objects go nearly as fast as the speed of light. If any life from elsewhere has made it here, it either tapped into rules we're profoundly incapable of understanding -- or it buckled in for a long, long trip. In human terms, we're looking at measuring those distances in generations. ■ Sure, we're confined by our own thinking about how quickly time passes or how long a life might be, but the distances required to hop to any known planets outside our solar system would still seem long to life forms that had life expectancies ten times ours. And certain non-biological limitations -- like our inability to find anything that travels faster than the speed of light -- suggests that it would take an extraordinary confluence of circumstances to warrant sending any living beings here. ■ Even if an alien experienced an Earth year the same way we experienced an Earth minute (like speeding up our sense of time by a factor of 525,600), then sending a message on a round trip to even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, would still feel like an 8-minute lag between call and response. Not to project human values on hypothetical alien beings, but that would seem prohibitively isolating -- again, unless we're missing something quite extreme in either the laws of physics or the relative experience of time. ■ We shouldn't dismiss the possibility that intelligent alien life could send unpiloted vehicles across time and space to conduct investigations and report back. We fired off Voyager to go as far as possible and send back reports, too. But do consider that as Voyager 1 and 2 have gone interstellar, a bunch of their instruments have been shut down just to save power. Things could be entirely different in an alien technological world, but they would need to have cracked some pretty incredible limits to have the technology to go long distances, remain in contact with home, move around freely while checking out Earth, and then presumably move along to visit somewhere else or return home. ■ It's neat to imagine that we might be important enough to merit a visit from outer space. And it's statistically logical to conclude that there's probably something out there. But whatever unknown phenomena we encounter in our skies, we should likely hold back from assuming it's alien life coming for a visit.

Threats and Hazards Is this not terrorism?

An Irish-owned plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus over a fake bomb threat, just so that a private citizen could be arrested. Is this not terrorism? ■ This much should be clear: Starting a fight aboard an airplane with the express intent of forcing an emergency landing would be grounds for arrest and prosecution virtually anywhere. Using fighter jets to force that landing has the clear hallmarks of an act of state aggression. And the target of the incident was an individual whose capture was motivated by politics. ■ Terrorism, by definition, is the use of violent or dangerous acts to achieve political ends. If this event in Belarus doesn't fit the definition, it's hard to understand why. And in this case, it doesn't take much imagination to say it was committed against not only a Belarussian citizen, but that two NATO member states (Greece and Lithuania) and one neutral but NATO-affiliated state (Ireland). So in State Department terms, the United States ought to be interested, alarmed, and prepared to respond. ■ But getting the American public to care may be an uphill climb. Clear violations of international law aren't always easy topics to pitch, and we're pretty good at giving up interest when the cognitive load of a story seems too large. This case is a matter that appears to require some understanding of civil aviation law, international airspace classifications, and the intricacies of domestic politics in a country where the language is written in Cyrillic and a dictator has been in power since 1994. Not fertile ground for sparking interest or close attention. ■ And yet, it is a flashpoint like this that can easily set the direction of the international order for a decade or more to come. Are we to become a more open world or a more closed one? If a person isn't safe going from country "A" to country "B" without being hijacked and kidnapped by the government of country "C", it's most assuredly trending more closed -- unless we do something about it. ■ Maybe, as an American, you should care because you want to take the forbidden step of criticizing China's government in a tweet saying that you stand with Hong Kong or the Uighurs. Think they're not tracking outsiders' behavior? Don't forget that China has hacked the personal data of virtually every American adult. Don't think they're not trying to use databases of personal information to influence or pressure outsiders -- it is 100% clear they already are. Governments around the world take their cues from what others get away with doing. ■ Maybe, as an American, you want to be able to travel freely without fearing your own kidnapping. You may not be a dissident and you may not even be thinking of traveling abroad anytime soon. But the rules enforced now -- or left unenforced -- have long-lasting consequences. We still remember the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which resulted in the murder of an American tourist. Whose passports have protective value -- if any do at all in a world where governments become the hijackers? ■ Or maybe, as an American, you find reason to care because you remember that we are just 4% of the global population. A tiny fraction. A powerful one, for sure, but not vast in number among the total of our co-Earthlings. And if we're going to share it peacefully, we have to do it with the help of rules. In the words of John McCain and his writing partner Mark Salter, "We need friends in the world, and they need us. The bell tolls for us, my friends. Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that." ■ Perhaps if this were spun as a television drama, it would raise the right amount of alarm: 170 people held hostage on a plane and forced to go to a place where almost none even spoke the language. But we need to care about these issues even when they're only in the abstract. The bully only sees his success and imagines the next step he can take...until the schoolyard defies him.

Weather and Disasters Science in action

(Video) A portable radar system captures a tornado from just four miles away. Compelling research, indeed.

Iowa Young Iowa artists get a virtual exhibit

Nice to get to see the work of some talented students from the comfort of home.

@briangongol on Twitter

May 25, 2021

Science and Technology Slowing down to speed up

One of the big trends in American transportation engineering for the last several years has been the push to replace four-way stops and signalized intersections with roundabouts. With a roundabout, the driver accepts a certain predictable slowdown in speed in exchange for knowing they won't have to wait for seemingly interminable lengths at a stop. Everyone gets a turn, often without having to stop at all. ■ The United States is a peculiar place for transportation -- compared with many of the European countries we consider our peers, we're positively empty. Germany has 6.6 times as many people per square mile as the US. The UK has 7.6 times as many. And that's not an effect attributable solely to Alaska. Giant swathes of the United States have fewer than 20 people per square mile. Our major cities are few and far between. ■ We have a spectacular Interstate highway system to connect us, but road trips still take a long time. Since we don't have high-speed passenger rail outside of the Acela Corridor, Americans trying to cover long distances quickly turn to air travel. ■ But one of the big headaches afflicting both of our predominant methods of travel is weather. Winter storms shut down our Interstate thoroughfares at least a few times most years. And weather is the cause of generally around 40% of all delay-minutes in air travel each year. Yet passenger planes still fly at hundreds of miles an hour, when they're in the air. Would high-speed rail be immune to those problems? Could slowing down (versus air travel) lead, on average, to speeding up? ■ One widely-cited 2019 study conducted by Ohio State University researchers using data from transportation routes in China concluded that "In general, HSR [high-speed rail] is less vulnerable than aviation to most severe weather events." In Japan, noted for its exceptional high-speed service, "Weather impacts are essentially 'engineered out' of many railway networks". ■ The British rail service Network Rail points to wind-blown debris as their most significant weather impact, but notes that it generally takes "extreme" weather to really have a major impact on service. And in Sweden, quite a lot of effort has gone into maintaining high-speed rail service in long, harsh winters. Overall, European authorities appear to be counting on trains to be more resistant to both severe weather and climate changes than aviation. ■ Domestically, the Acela is sometimes slowed or scaled back due to winter weather. Ice storms in particular may be problematic for rail service, but in general, weather is not a main problem Amtrak faces. Heat, wind, and flooding appear to be the biggest weather factors causing trouble for existing US railroads. But, given the reliability of rail networks elsewhere, that may reflect a consequence of American behavior rather than inherent risk, suggesting that engineering and investment may make weather a much more "solvable" issue should we someday choose to go the bullet-train route. ■ If nothing else, high-speed rail elsewhere appears to put competitive pressure on airlines to improve their on-time performance -- at least for travel across short- and mid-range distances. And at speeds of 120 mph or greater, those trains would have a substantial inherent advantage over individual vehicles traveling at freeway speeds -- and if they can be more reliable during severe and winter weather conditions, they should have even more of a leg up. ■ The economics of rail and the wide distribution of American population centers pose substantial obstacles to the most optimistic visions of developing a national high-speed rail network. But if the proponents really want to make their case stick, they may well want to steer clear of romantic visions of rail travel and dial down the talk about its environmental benefits (even if passenger rail really is more efficient than other modes) and instead focus on service reliability. That's a message that might really stick the next time a blizzard in Chicago, a storm in Houston, or a computer glitch affecting Atlanta and Miami sends ripples through the country's air network or even brings it to a standstill. Going slower than an airplane -- but without the slowdowns -- could be a way of speeding up.

Threats and Hazards Belarussian hijacking victim has probably been tortured

And that may have coerced a forced "confession" out of him. Remember John McCain's words: "The moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history of our efforts to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation."

News "No former U.S. president has ever been charged with a crime."

But there's a grand jury looking at what the Trump Organization has been up to

Health "Hip implants literally look like something Fisher Price dreamed up"

Ashley Holub's clever observation brings up a good point: A lot of Fisher Price toys make it through multiple generations of childhood play, so perhaps the resemblance is a good thing

Broadcasting Five AM radio stations give up their licenses

Easy money propped up radio station valuations for a long time, but take a look at this development. It's not necessarily a trend...yet.

Threats and Hazards Insurance company reveals how it will use super-snooping to set rates

China's "social credit" system could not be reached for comment.

Recent radio podcasts

May 26, 2021

Threats and Hazards Soldier featured in recruitment video gets more public applause

Sen. Ted Cruz invoked the word "emasculated" to compare an American soldier (a woman) with Russian soldiers (men). It's incredibly childish, particularly since the American soldier is actively serving her country. The roid-rage, faux-masculine routine is an idiotic ruse to fall for. A 21st Century defense policy has to look for intelligence, grit, and originality without making lazy assumptions about the physical package that will contain them. ■ James Mattis once said, "How can we coach anything if we don't know a lot more than just the tactics, techniques, and procedures?" When people like Sen. Cruz talk about the military as if it is reducible to how much weight a person can lift rather than how well they can learn to execute complex tasks, they denigrate the professionalized armed forces upon which we depend. ■ Trench warfare went out with WWI. The need for sophisticated fighting forces was obvious certainly no later than WWII, of which Dwight Eisenhower wrote, "Thorough technical, psychological, and physical training is one protection and one weapon that every nation can give to its soldiers before committing them to battle, but since war always comes to a democracy as an unexpected emergency, this training must be largely accomplished in peace." Note the order of Eisenhower's words: Technical and psychological training were listed first, and it's unlikely that was a mere accident. ■ It's odd to cling so tightly to this false equivalence among masculinity, physical strength, and perceived military dominance (especially so for a United States Senator amplifying Russian propaganda). There certainly are people who are made uncomfortable by celebrities like Demi Lovato and Elliot Page, who have publicly defied conventional gender orientations this year. Some of those people may even be elected officials. Their discomfort may even be authentic. But that discomfort -- however personal or sincere -- doesn't have a place in public policy. ■ And that is where the performative, faux-masculine displays get into trouble. There's a whole lot of play-acting going on among people who owe it to their fellow Americans to behave better. Patriotic men and women alike owe everyone else their best judgment, their temperance, and their willingness to engage complexity with humility. Jack Bauer slapping a terrorist is fiction: The real-life CIA needs female leaders and male ones not for their physiques but for their brains. Osama bin Laden was hunted down by a female-dominated team of analysts. ■ Our adversaries can have all the nonsense displays of muscle-bound aggression fan service they want. If it gives them a false sense of security, then so much the better. Last year's hand-to-hand combat in the Himalayas was extraordinary expressly because it was so out of place. The martial advantage of today and tomorrow comes from putting brains to work using tools. Little or nothing about that combination depends upon gender: We should be thinking of how we could double our supply of great leaders by looking not just for the next George Washington, George C. Marshall, or George S. Patton -- but for Georgia Washington, Georgia C. Marshall, and Georgia S. Patton, too. ■ Let us praise people for the qualities they bring to their work and the character they demonstrate on and off the job. Let us demand that our policymakers steer clear of pointlessly adhering to notions of security that were already outdated 80 years ago. And particularly as we observe Memorial Day, let us have sufficient regard for our armed forces that we not only expect them to demonstrate professionalism but that we treat them with professional regard in return -- seeing that it's not the hairstyles that matter to our national safety but the minds underneath.

Threats and Hazards Can democracy be saved in Hong Kong?

A depressing take -- more so because it's hard to think of a counterargument: "I think that at this point, the political system in Hong Kong is beyond, really, any sense of representativeness, beyond any sense of redemption. Democrats participating in this system would indeed be, essentially, window dressing"

Agriculture Viewer discretion advised

The cottonwood trees are getting a little frisky

Weather and Disasters Ugly tornado outbreak in western Nebraska

Six unique but interlocked tornado warning polygons in the southwest corner of the state

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 27, 2021

Computers and the Internet What hath artificial intelligence wrought?

Decide for yourself whether this is a mere idle thought: There exists a really fascinating platform called Aiva that generates original music using artificial intelligence. It is targeted at those who need to compose large quantities of soundtrack music -- especially for video productions. Some of what it produces now is surprisingly appealing to the ear. With some human nudges, the user can make some of its compositions very good indeed. Because it's based on AI, it gets better with time. ■ We are likely not that far from a time when the Aiva AI won't need many human nudges to come up with some compositions that are really outstanding. Other programmers working in other labs are undoubtedly coming up with similar technologies, too. ■ This is more than merely putting a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters for a thousand years and expecting them to compose Shakespeare. Artificial intelligence, by definition, is supposed to learn how to work better and better. ■ Here's where it gets weird: Given enough time and training input, it's not impossible to imagine that someday an AI could produce the Singular Best Piece of Music Ever Composed. Seems like a stretch now, but it's no longer an impossibility. ■ Obviously, calling a piece of music the "singular best" is a subjective label -- but by the same token, it wouldn't be hard to find fairly broad agreement among experts that some music is objectively better than other music -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is objectively better than the Kars 4 Kids jingle, and anyone who says otherwise is a dolt. So for the sake of argument, let's suspend our disbelief just a little and suppose that a specific individual piece could in fact be named the best. If it helps, pretend that it's merely the best in a particular genre. ■ Suppose, then, that an individual user of Aiva (or a comparable AI tool) clicks "compose" and the AI creates the song, but then the user never actually listens to it, never downloads it, and simply clicks "delete". This means it is possible that someone could entirely unintentionally and unwittingly destroy the Best Song Ever Composed. ■ Certainly, great works are created and lost all the time. There are tremendous stories of professional musicians going to great lengths to try to capture a fleeting moment in song -- Prince built an extensive recording studio to capture those moments of inspiration. "Gimme Shelter" was recorded in the middle of the night. Paul McCartney heard "Yesterday" in a dream. ■ Now, if you were to imagine the Best Song Ever in a dream, then you may not be able to record it anywhere or share it with anyone. But at least you would have dreamt it and experienced it, if only subconsciously. But if an AI composes the song but a human deletes it without ever listening, then it was never heard at all -- an existence even more ethereal than a dream, since it in fact existed in the known, conscious world, but was never experienced. ■ It is hard not to find it peculiar that, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is now technologically possible to create and then accidentally destroy a phenomenal piece of art without ever knowing that it existed. This isn't just a question of "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it" -- it's a matter of something potentially perfect being created and then never being replicated (because, ultimately, each and every AI-generated song ought to be in some way unique). ■ This bizarre ability to potentially destroy something amazing without ever knowing it existed (beyond, perhaps, reading a file name) seems almost worse than the problem of works created and recorded in the analog world that may not ever make the leap into the digital domain. At least there are conscientious people working at projects like the Internet Archive who are trying to rescue analog materials and digitize them so that they aren't accidentally lost. ■ Historians look to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria as one of humanity's great unforced errors -- a colossal waste that almost certainly did some measurable damage to the progress of human knowledge. How strange it is, indeed, that anyone with access to our increasingly powerful tools of artificial intelligence may entirely without intention and without malice destroy great works with no more thought than a keystroke.

Computers and the Internet Where the cloud meets bricks and mortar

On the east side of the Des Moines metro, Facebook is going to build its 9th and 10th buildings at a vast data center. Your files have to be stored somewhere, you know.

Health The ethics of dropping out of a vaccine trial

An interesting perspective on being a trial participant for an unproven vaccine after proven vaccines become available: "What if you stay in the placebo group and you get infected and you infect somebody else and that person dies?" Let us be perfectly clear: These kinds of conflicts are exactly why people with a strong orientation towards the practical and scientific schools of thought need to be trained in the "soft" sciences of the humanities, and why people who study the humanities need to be science-literate. We have to be able to communicate across conventional boundaries if we are to have any hope of addressing complex issues.

Recent radio podcasts

May 28, 2021

Business and Finance You don't have to live in an apartment to favor building more multifamily housing

A person's individual preferences may well evolve with time and market conditions. Sometimes apartments and other medium-density options are either uncompetitively priced or in such a shortage as to be unavailable to the potential tenant or buyer. There's nothing wrong with someone recognizing that fact -- even if they're homeowners in a single-family dwelling -- and advocating for more of those options to exist.

Threats and Hazards When the only seasoning you need is salmonella

It's obvious that some videos -- like one depicting the making of a dish involving frozen macaroni, ground beef, and biscuit dough -- are posted mainly for the shock effect, but at some point, you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask: Are gullible people going to get food poisoning because of my clickbait?

News Delay the belay for today, okay?

President Biden visits a climbing center

Threats and Hazards Man's video-recorded attacks on 2-year-old child merit unforgiving punishment

In principle, the death penalty is too extreme a punishment for any crime. But if a man hangs a child, causing the child to lose consciousness, and records the act on video, it's hard to summon a reason why that perpetrator should be permitted to live.

Iowa Solar farming in eastern Iowa

A power company wants to replace a retired nuclear plant with a solar farm, and many of the neighbors are...stridently against it, apparently.

Threats and Hazards Member of Congress treats 2nd Amendment as remedy for the 1st

"If a man does not have an ideal and try to live up to it, then he becomes a mean, base, and sordid creature, no matter how successful." - Theodore Roosevelt

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May 29, 2021

News Should locals resent it when kids graduate and leave?

Graduation season is surfacing a certain traditionalist viewpoint that seems to resent the idea of paying to educate children who will depart for greener pastures. Besides the peculiar supposition that there's a viable alternative (should people be tied to their family land forever?), the very idea that taxpayers should resent the cost of educating the community's children is itself contrary to the long tradition of expecting to see one's offspring live healthier and wealthier than their predecessors. ■ John Stuart Mill wrote that "[T]o bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society", and he was right. Having children may obviously be a response to our basic instincts as animals -- but it is also a deeply moral act. ■ Socially, we've chosen (wisely) to make the education of children compulsory. A child is born into a family, but that child is also part of a community -- one that has a duty to preserve good things for the future. Part of cleaning up after ourselves (one of the basic duties of American citizenship) is to prepare the best possible intellectual foundation for our successors, whether they're from our own blood or not. That means paying for things like schools. ■ It also means expecting those schools to perform well. We shouldn't mistake "public funding" for a good or service with the insistence that it also means "government delivery". We should have very high expectations of schools, and we shouldn't be afraid of either reform or competition, where appropriately regulated. But we should have those high expectations in the sole interest of the children, not of the local economy. ■ Who knows whether a graduate will stay behind, move away, or perhaps both (in either order)? The community doesn't pay for compulsory education for its own benefit; it pays for the benefit of the children. Enlightened local leadership often figures out that good schools can substantially enhance the community's economic standing -- either as a magnet for parents seeking good places to live, or as an endogenous driver of growth. ■ But basic primary and secondary education isn't first and foremost about the benefit of the present and near-future community. It's about the well-being of the children themselves. We clean up pollution not because we're going to breathe the polluted air or drink the contaminated water (at least not generally), but because we have a moral duty not to send those contaminants downwind and downstream to our neighbors. ■ Similarly, we don't educate children because we expect it to boost the local economy over the coming decade, but because having brought children into the world, we have a duty to "clean up after ourselves" by ensuring that those children become adults who can support themselves, experience the joys and mysteries of life, and behave like thoughtful citizens and voters, wherever they choose to reside. Like air and water, our offspring may end up in lots of places far from where we deposited them. ■ Americans move measurably less than we used to, but we still move around a lot -- to the tune of about 10% of us a year. We are intermixed quite a lot, and on that count alone we owe it to our fellow Americans not to "pollute" the population with mis-, mal-, or under-educated offspring. But even more than that, we have the duty to send people out into the world who are prepared to live full and meaningful lives -- even if they should move abroad. The appropriate financial return on investment for a community to expect from educating its children is zero. Paradoxically, though, the community that educates them well should not be surprised if that success itself pays off in accounting terms down the road. It just shouldn't be the basis for the investment.

Threats and Hazards Remains of more than 200 children found at Canadian school

Flat-out shocking. The site was a "residential school", where indigenous children were sent (from 1890 until 1969) to be separated from their families and detached from their culture.

Health Stunning Covid-19 vaccine performance in one chart

Iowa's number of daily positive tests is now averaging well below 200 per day, and the cumulative number of positive tests on a 14-day rolling basis has fallen below 2000. For a state with a population of 3.2 million people, the virus is being stopped cold in its tracks. There is no denying it: The vaccines are amazingly effective.

Agriculture The rose is authentically a "knockout"

The color intensity of the Knock Out rose variety is quite stunning

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 31, 2021

The United States of America Honoring Memorial Day by becoming smarter voters

Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day isn't one we "celebrate". Instead, it is proper that we honor it. And one of the ways it is most deserving of honor is for ordinary Americans to demonstrate that they don't just know how to say "Thank you for your service" or remove their caps for the national anthem, but to behave as responsible trustees of the world's most awesome military force. ■ One of the things the Defense Department does admirably is to place a focus (even if imperfect) on Professional Military Education (PME). Certainly some people pay it only lip service, but there are true believers out there who feel a deep responsiblity for the quality of the education their people receive. As James Mattis put it, "The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience) -- that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences -- generally a better way to do business -- especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men." ■ Fundamentally, a responsibility to learn about the armed forces rests with voters, too. Not in the same way or to the same depth as it belongs to, say, career officers. But there is a responsibility. The military answers ultimately to Congress, and Congress to the people. The people need to have a sense of how to commit military forces responsibly and thoughtfully so that we avoid those gravest "consequences of incompetence" that Mattis warns about. ■ There will be times when a small commitment of force today may stave off a great escalation of violence tomorrow. There will be other times when a cause is so hopeless that the potential casualties may be unlimited. Still other cases will be dominated not by the actual use of force but the mere credible threat of it. The choice to commit military force to a situation is ultimately a political one under our system of government, and it rests on the shoulders of responsible voters to know something -- anything -- about their armed forces beyond one-line political slogans about ending "endless wars" and jingoistic pop-country songs about kicking butts while waving the flag. ■ Fortunately, we have access to more high-quality Voter Military Education than ever before. We have access to the professional reading lists recommended by leadership in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps (the Space Force may still need some time to incubate its own list). ■ We have free access to websites publishing thoughtful and challenging materials on conflict, like The Strategy Bridge, Texas National Security Review, Defense One, Task and Purpose, and War on the Rocks. ■ There are think tanks and research centers devoted to national security, many of which share their work on a daily basis, including the Modern War Institute the American Enterprise Institute the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security -- to name only a few. ■ And there are podcasts galore (like "Thank You For Your Service" and "Rational Security") and an abundance of qualified national-security commentators on Twitter -- many of whom hold thoughtful conversations with one another, engaging in a necessarily robust debate. The daily ins and outs of military-related news are covered by the Military Times, Stars and Stripes, Defense News, and the Defense Department's own media organization. ■ The conscientious voter doesn't have to follow every source of defense and national-security-related news. But at least some of that news ought to be a component of a balanced media and information diet. The latest Defense Department budget proposal is $753 billion -- no mere drop in the bucket for a country with an annual GDP of $21 trillion. Knowing how and why those resources will be spent is a basic act of civic responsibility. ■ But even more significnatly -- and particularly so on Memorial Day -- good citizenship requires informed engagement because it is ultimately the duty of voters to send the signals that tell political representatives how and when to commit living, breathing servicemembers to a task. Doing that wisely is a solemn responsibility. To borrow again from James Mattis: "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." Just as commanding generals should take that duty seriously, so should anyone who casts a ballot. Voter Military Education should be an expectation of us all, not just those wearing stars on their shoulders.

News Let's talk about those 1970s-era safety standards

As countries grow richer, the people can afford (and begin to demand) better environmental, health, and safety standards. The United States of the Carter Era was a poorer place than the United States today, which is why classic photos of now-obviously unsafe behavior is so jarring. Lawyers and insurance companies change these things quietly but forcefully. It's mainly the development of civil institutions that leads to standards taking hold. Institutional knowledge and memory are massively important to living in a safer world. Safety is defined by what the formal and informal rules tolerate. Decisions that were tolerated just a couple of generations ago look totally unreal today.

Computers and the Internet Kids these days...

...probably will never know the joy of reading a computer program in print (or even written by hand) and then making it work by turning it into digital code

Aviation News Is there a cooler job than astronaut?

And: Do you suppose there are diminishing marginal returns to additional turns in orbit?

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