Gongol.com Archives: June 2021

Brian Gongol


June 2021
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June 1, 2021

Threats and Hazards When propaganda turns against its own country

Fox News host Tucker Carlson says "our military at times does not seem interested in protecting the country", declaring that "a big change" and a "real story". It's evident that Carlson's toxic schtick isn't about informing or edifying his viewers, but about attaching himself to a nationalist-populist movement for personal gain. For now, it's monetary -- but it may well turn political, since some of the things he says are inexplicable except as dog whistles. Carlson has attached himself to the former President's cult of personality in a noticeable way. The only good thing about unprincipled cults of personality is that they inevitably collapse in waves of purity tests and loyalty purges. Surely if gasbags within the cult are taking aim at the military itself, they can't be far from purging and counter-purging one another.

Computers and the Internet Footnotes

Everyone says they want an edit button for Twitter. A footnote button would be much more useful.

Threats and Hazards China flagrantly breaches Malaysian airspace with 16 military aircraft

Lee Kuan Yew was prescient when he said, "[China] will make a fateful decision -- whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence...or to continue as a good international citizen..." It just would have been nice if China's rulers would have picked "good international citizen" instead.

News Some idiot bought an "invisible sculpture" for $18,300

"Hello, Jake from State Farm? Yes, I'd like to talk about my $500,000 homeowners policy. You're never going to believe what happened to my $499,995 collection of invisible sculptures..."


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June 2, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Changing course after hitting the iceberg

China's Communist Party -- which cannot be practically distinguished from its civil government -- has changed course on the country's notorious and odious One Child Per Family past and will now "allow" families to have as many as three children. The country had a one-child limit starting more than 40 years ago, then relaxed the rules to permit two children in 2016. ■ This abrupt course change is yet another data point that runs contrary (and massively so) to the "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" trope. Any demographic trend evident now surely was obvious five years ago. And any trend that was obvious five years ago undoubtedly could have been noticed fifteen years prior to that. From a perspective of mere government competence, the failure to project how badly this would play out should be profoundly embarrassing to the authorities. Assuming families immediately went out and conceived second children upon the change in 2016, it's going to be the middle of the next decade before those "extra" children start to have families of their own. ■ So, the demographic problem was easily foreseeable. But the idea that a government has any say whatsoever in the number of children people are "allowed" to have is so hard to fathom that it's difficult to sustain the kind of gobsmacked outrage that it truly deserves. The original appalling policy was in place for so long that it largely became background noise. ■ Yet, we should try to remain outraged. We're not talking about something beneficial (like a government insisting on compulsory education for children). We're not talking about something benign (like a government prohibiting parents from giving their children obscene names). We're talking about a policy backed by law, and enforced with government-mandated abortions and deprivation of second children's legal right to exist. ■ This isn't even to mention the obvious first-order consequence of China's government-imposed family limits: A wildly out-of-balance gender imbalance. The country's sex ratio has resulted in 34 million more men than women. Even in a country with a population of more than a billion, that's more than just rounding error: It's a population of "excess" males that outnumbers all the people in Texas. ■ But the fundamental problem here isn't even the awful consequences of the policy. It's the assumption that such a policy has any legitimacy in the first place. Having a child is a profoundly hopeful act. It is also one that belongs, in the most intimate way, to the individuals involved. Deeply embedded within the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is the right to create life itself. Nothing could demonstrate a more obvious disregard for the sanctity of the individual human life than a policy mercilessly enforcing limits on the number of individuals who are recognized with a "right" to exist. ■ It wasn't what Gerald Ford was talking about, but his words apply: "[A] government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." Ford was talking about material wants. In this case, the rulers of China have a government big enough to take away everything their people might want. On their behalf, and on behalf of the inherent rights of human beings everywhere, we should look with certain disgust upon the very assumption that government has any such power in the first place to tell people how many children they are allowed to have -- whether three, two, one, or any at all.

News On getting reviewed

Any review is ultimately based upon tastes, and no two people have the same ones. A critic whose opinions the reader always finds wrong could be just as helpful as one whose opinions the reader always shares. As long as the critic is transparent about the "why" of the review, even bad critiques can be good.

Humor and Good News The world needs more googly eyes

A little levity wouldn't hurt us

Business and Finance America's two most significant economic inputs

WiFi and caffeine

Business and Finance SEC says Tesla doesn't monitor Elon Musk's tweets adequately

New dream job: Get paid $200,000 a year to shadow Elon Musk and slap the phone right out of his hand every time he starts to compose a tweet. Nobody in modern business history has needed a trusted sidekick more than Elon Musk. He really does need someone who could literally and figuratively slap the phone right out of his hands -- a Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett.


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June 3, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Photos of Tiananmen Square from 1989

Photos #16 and #17 in this series are particularly haunting.

Weather and Disasters A much-less-active-than-normal spring severe weather season

One of those rare times when being in the red on a weather map is a really good thing.

News Retired Army Lt. Col. gets mic cut as he describes history of Memorial Day

Barnard Kemter's microphone may have been cut in the moment at an Ohio Memorial Day ceremony, but his words are being amplified by the news coverage -- and that's a good thing. We can make our future better by choosing to study the full spectrum of our past.

Broadcasting Manuela Saragosa leaves BBC to do podcasts

Sign of the times: Highly-regarded BBC radio journalist leaving that august institution to become a podcast boss. She's not leaving for some fly-by-night operation -- it is the Financial Times, after all -- but talent like Saragosa doesn't move into a job with lower status. This reveals quite a lot about just how much the status of on-demand listening has risen: It now represents at least a lateral move (if not an upgrade) from working at the BBC World Service.


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June 4, 2021

Iowa Tolerance is a good word

Traveling the length of Ashworth Road in West Des Moines, you'll pass a lot of churches. A whole lot. Open Bible, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Latter-Day Saints, Lutheran (Missouri Synod), United Methodist, Community of Christ, Baptist, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, and Lutheran (ELCA). All up and down a single street, about five and a half miles long. Not far away are a wide variety of other Christian and non-Christian places of worship, as well. ■ Despite all of the (sometimes significant) sectarian differences among them, the churches and the worshippers who belong to them relate quite peacefully with one another. The Catholic and ELCA churches have to work a bit to harmonize their service times on Christmas and Easter so as not to cause gridlock at their shared traffic light. The Episcopalian and Presbyterian congregations have a community garden they tend in common. Yet despite the well-worn history of religious disputes as the root of countless violent conflicts, nothing of the sort is on display along Ashworth Road. ■ That peaceful detente -- on matters involving people's most sacred beliefs -- is a real contrast with the way some people choose to engage with other Americans who disagree with them on things like politics. Imagine -- there are people who are willing to make death threats over mask mandates, brandish a rifle at a protest march, and participate in a violent riot in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol building, all while their fellow Iowans are content to peacefully live in mutual tolerance of different opinions on matters like the salvation of the soul. ■ Given the long history of religious violence in the world, it seems strange to look to people's faith lives as a model for how we ought to be de-escalating the intensity of our political feelings. Yet that's certainly one place we ought to look, particularly as many people are bundling their media consumption habits with their religious and political beliefs. ■ The central problem is that people are wrapping their identities around messages like "But he fights!" and "There should be no billionaires", instead of grounding their identities in the communities around us. Pugilistic slogans are no substitute for civic belonging. ■ Political tolerance ought to be easier to achieve than religious tolerance, and it should be easier to identify peacefully with one's neighbors than with artificial and nationalized voter archetypes. If we find that kind of neighborly peaceful tolerance hard to achieve, that's a real problem for our souls.

News Watch "The Tank Man"

Worth re-watching every June 4th. A very well-produced documentary, even 15 years after its first airing. It's extremely hard to fathom what it takes for a single person to stand in front of a tank, daring its driver to take his life. ■ Also worth noting: What has become of the anniversary vigil in Hong Kong.

Humor and Good News How the "Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup" happened

The SNL sketch that launched a cult following that even includes a Twitter account is one of the finest things to have come from the Fleetwood Mac oeuvre, and that's no knock on the performers behind "Little Lies".

News Are America's European allies too weak?

In theory, at least, it should be good for the U.S. to have like-minded allies who are strong, while our more authoritarian rivals look for client and vassal states who are weak. Have to put that theory into practice, though.

Computers and the Internet Why not a "Site Commodore"?

Why did the progenitors of the WWW go with the language of Dungeons and Dragons instead of obscure Commonwealth military titles? Being a "site commodore" would have been much cooler than a "webmaster". Or, if in the nascent days of the web we were still too close to the Commodore 64 to have recycled that title, what about "Digital Fieldmarshal" instead?


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June 5, 2021

Health The pandemic that should stir a revolution in ventilation

The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is in sight -- at least for some countries. But even if vaccines are getting the virus under control, we ought to be paying more attention to ventilation -- to help ward off the next pandemic, and to make us generally healthier. For instance: That drowsy feeling you often get from sitting in a lecture? It might be the unavoidable byproduct of carbon dioxide building up due to inadequate ventilation. ■ Related: We're letting a huge opportunity go to waste if the pandemic doesn't lead to better understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses.

Computers and the Internet Ancient wisdom, applicable to modern social media

Maimonides: "Man is created in such a way that his character traits and actions are influenced by his neighbors and friends, and he follows the custom of the people in his country. Therefore a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." In other words: Mute the bad people on Twitter and Facebook and follow all of the good ones you can find.


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June 6, 2021

News "My mother, the nun"

A man offers a digital eulogy for his mother, a 92-year-old cloistered nun who joine the Carmelite order at age 61. What a story. And yes, cloistered, contemplative orders really still are a thing.


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June 7, 2021

Business and Finance Can we start talking about housing affordability yet?

It's hard to escape the news that housing prices have jumped by quite a lot, across many markets, in a very short period of time. Low interest rates, changing work patterns (especially the growing option to work from home), and other factors all play into what's going on. And it certainly doesn't help that lumber prices have risen 300% since last April. If new construction becomes more expensive, that adds fuel to the prices of existing homes. ■ Amid the momentary boom cycle, we ought to make ourselves think seriously about what housing is for. As Le Corbusier said, "A house is a machine for living in". While that was a statement of architectural principle, it has merit as a statement on finances and policymaking, too. ■ Housing is a universal need. Some would call it a human right, but that language isn't helpful -- human rights are the things you possess by virtue of birth, like your right to free expression, and they can only be taken away by the deliberate actions of others. Universal needs, by contrast, are things we have to pay for, using the world's finite resources. This may seem like a trivial difference in language, but it's rather significant. Unless scarcity is a part of our context for thinking about how we supply universal needs, we can't come to reasonable conclusions about how to deliver them. ■ The way we've responded to that scarcity in the United States reflects the demands of some strongly vested interests. The real-estate industry, for instance, benefits from lots of churn and rising prices. The construction sector broadly benefits from lots of site-built, single-family projects that keep lots of people at work. The financial sector benefits from people borrowing the largest amounts they can possibly afford and from taking out further loans for renovations and expansions over time. These vested interests tend to encourage a perspective that rewards American households for sinking as much money into housing as possible, which is broadly encouraged by our habit of referring to housing as a family's "biggest financial asset". ■ It isn't hard to find critics of more-permissive zoning regulations who equate enthusiasm for expanding the supply of housing with pimping for private developers. But just because it's easy to create a meme doesn't mean the logic behind it is sound. There's no inherent hypocrisy in choosing to live in a single-family home while cheering on the development of new housing at higher densities. ■ The root cause of the problem is that, in treating housing as a financial instrument, we create a whole lot of private incentives for people to oppose the creation of new, attractive supplies of housing stock at affordable prices. Manufactured and modular housing, for example, can be delivered at much lower costs per square foot than comparable site-built single-family housing. Backyard housing (in the form of auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) can be produced in 30 days -- where the laws will allow. Innovations from other countries (like Japan's mass-customized housing industry) could have much to teach us. ■ With prices rising and supplies unusually tight, there is no better time than now to look at the root causes and to ask whether our incentive structures and rules are set up in ways that have too many people committing too much of their hard-earned money to shelter (in the name of "investment") when there could be far better returns available from putting their money to work elsewhere -- whether in financial investments, educational opportunities, or even goods like vacations. Housing is a universal need -- and that means our minds should turn to how best to supply the maximum amount of it so that people can satisfy their needs while having resources left over to put elsewhere.

Computers and the Internet One part of government that should be expanded: Cyber Force

One of the reasons the United States needs a Cyber Force (and needed one before we needed a Space Force) is because we need a recognizable service academy for that part of defense. It's no different, really, from branching the Air Force away from the Army -- new technology has opened a new domain of warfare. With that new domain come new challenges, new areas needing devoted study, new legal requirements, and a new need to be taken seriously. ■ One way to lend credibility to a sector is to devote research and academic discipline to it. Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation establishing West Point in 1802; the Naval Academy didn't come to fruition until the mid-1800s. In between, James Madison asked Congress in 1810 for "the establishment of an additional [military] academy at the seat of Government or elsewhere", justifying his request thus: "Even among nations whose large standing armies and frequent wars afford every other opportunity of instruction[,] these establishments are found to be indispensable for the due attainment of the branches of military science which require a regular course of study and experiment." ■ The four legacy armed services each have a specific domain of fighting: Land (Army), sea (Navy), air (Air Force), and amphibious zones (Marines). A project to re-focus the Marine Corps on that amphibious mission has stirred some controversy, but they're ditching the tanks and spending more time in the water. The new Space Force narrows the focus of the Air Force to the airspace closer to the ground. Taken altogether, the defense posture of the Pentagon is taking an increasingly precise look at where each fighting force conducts its operations. ■ None of these places -- space, air, land, sea, or beaches -- fits neatly with the digital world. And yet cyberspace is exactly where an increasing amount of conflict is taking place. Some of the bad things that are happening are criminal (like the ransomware attack on the meatpacker JBS). Some of them are military-driven (like Russia's attack on Ukraine's power grid). Some affect highly sensitive areas that have clear-cut national security implications (like the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack). Still others are self-evidently motivated by the strategic interests of state-level adversaries (like China's repeated assaults on databases containing data on Federal employees). ■ It is exactly because the cyber domain is complicated -- not only from a technological standpoint, but from legal and strategic viewpoints as well -- that the United States really ought to have a distinct defense branch commissioned explicitly to protect the country's security interests in that realm. To borrow from Madison's words, we need to regularize both "study and experiment". If foreign governments were facilitating, say, bands of airborne pirates parachuting into the country to rob American companies at gunpoint, one might reasonably expect us to treat it like a national-security risk. What's happening is, functionally, little different. ■ It has long been noted that one of the issues that hamstrings our cyber defense is that it's really hard for the Pentagon to compete with the private sector for computing talent. A different kind of workforce approach is needed -- so different from the incumbent service branches that it has to stand on its own. ■ A stand-alone Cyber Force would encourage the cultivation of a more comprehensive way of looking at cyber defense -- complete with theories of conflict, rules of engagement, approaches to recruitment, skill development, and even a distinct "look and feel". And perhaps even more than in the other branches, the need for a respected, research-focused, state-of-the-art training academy would be a distinctive tool for a Cyber Force to advance the national defense. ■ Any sound analysis of the future would have to conclude that the high-technology domains are going to play a more significant role in the conflicts to come than they have in the past. And just as code-breaking was a profoundly powerful weapon in WWII, so will the technological advantages we can accrue in cyber warfare. We shouldn't be afraid to put a name and a mission statement on what we know is inevitably going to be needed next.


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June 8, 2021

Broadcasting What journalist leaves a gig at the BBC?

Two recognizable names in the BBC's much-lauded journalistic universe have announced plans to move this summer to other media operations. People leave jobs from time to time, of course, but the BBC is one of those institutions so highly regarded that it's often considered a career destination. Just for example, business journalist Peter Day retired after 28 years presenting the same program. A sportscaster there put in 50 years behind the microphone. ■ What makes this summer's departures so interesting is not just that they are happening, but where the journalists' new destinations will be. Katty Kay is going to Ozy Media, a digital-first media company. And Manuela Saragosa is leaving the BBC World Service after 22 years to become a podcasting boss at the Financial Times. ■ Talented people like Kay and Saragosa don't just leave high-status positions for lower-status ones. And that reveals quite a lot about the apparent pecking order of media institutions these days: Quality digital-based media outlets are now at least a lateral move from the august and revered BBC. That's really saying something. ■ Nielsen says that a majority of American adults consume radio, television, and Internet-based content every week, with an average of more than 30 hours per week on live or recorded TV. But smartphone applications are good for another 20 hours per week, more than any other mode of content delivery. But wait: If further research is to be believed, people are listening to 16 hours of online audio each week, and there's no reason to think the numbers are going to decline. ■ Historically, most journalists were institutionalists at heart -- people who went to work for institutions with which they could be associated for the long term. At The Economist, that approach runs so deep that the stories don't come with individual bylines. But the economics of mass media have gotten so bad that it seems nobody is safe from the threat of ruthless layoffs -- hundreds of people fired at a time, with reporters desperate to recruit deep-pocketed saviors before their institutions get sold off to slash-and-burn owners. ■ That economic turn may well signal the death knell for institutionalism, at least as a career path. Some individuals may still hang on to long careers, though few will hang on for more than 40 years like Bob Schieffer did at CBS. But most will be forced -- whether they like it or not -- to focus not on building reverence for their institutions, but on name recognition for themselves. That does have consequences, whether we like it or not. Legendary columnists like Mike Royko were once the only ones encouraged to personalize their stories. That's almost impossible to expect now, when virtually everyone who appears on television is also supposed to have a social-media presence (to draw "engagement" -- and viewers) and newspaper reporters are expected to report even the tiniest "scooplet" to encourage clicking and sharing. ■ Indeed, this new dynamic could go well -- if that means individual journalists and commentators invest heavily in better writing, clearer reporting, and more insightful questioning, doing their best to become trustworthy institutions in and of themselves. Every journalist is effectively now a freelancer. But it could also go badly, if the public decides it's just too hard to know who to trust anymore and abandon their own judgment as news consumers for being persuaded to digest whatever is the most enticing red meat that comes their way. People love sharing stories about other people, but not every story reduces to an impassioned anecdote from a reporter's personal life history. ■ We can be hopeful that the departure of credible, well-seasoned journalists from brand-name institutions means that our media marketplace has room for even more high-quality reporting. But we should also realize that media literacy is perhaps now more important than ever.

News Human lives in extremely large numbers

The Census Bureau says there are approximately 7,768,000,000 people alive in the world today. That's a lot of people -- far more than the human brain can easily conceptualize. (Apparently, our brains make an inconvenient jump from simple primate math to object-based math, making us think of "billions" much the same way we might think of "bananas". Alas.) ■ If you were to take a single day on Earth and add up the 7.7 billion individual days experienced by every one of us, you'd accumulate quite the diary. There was a rather ambitious film project that tried to do something like that, capturing a glimpse of the same day in every country on the planet. But even that film was compressed into just 104 minutes. ■ But supposing instead that you could take those 7.7 billion days and play them out in sequence, one at a time, one after another non-stop, how long would it take? The math seems obvious: 7.7 billion person-days, divided by 365.25 days per year, yields 21,081,451 years' worth of human experience taking place for every 24 hours on this pale blue dot. ■ How long is 21 million years? The dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but they're pretty hard to conceptualize outside of myth anyway. Looking closer to our own family tree, the closest science has documented is an early primate that might have walked upright 7 million years ago. ■ So what this means is that every 24 hours on Earth, human beings experience a cumulative passage of time that is three times longer than every day that has passed since the earliest possible hominids emerged. (Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestry until 13 million years ago. ■ The point to this conceptual math is deceptively simple: Anything we can do to improve material standards of living or the dignity of the common person on a mass scale, we should seek to do with a sense of urgency about the impact. A non-trivial number of the people who have ever lived are alive right now, so we shouldn't be shy about doing our best to make those lives better. ■ We should approach our decisions with appropriate modesty, of course -- we can be embarrassingly wrong if we're not careful. But there is much work to do in the world, and every little increment of progress -- if it reaches enough lives -- can have an impact that far outstrips (in human-days of life experience) the number of days humans have even walked the face of Earth. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, "The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others -- politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners -- making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf." Every day is worth 21 million years.

Iowa NIMBYs just can't help themselves

The City of West Des Moines has approved a plan to build a three-story mixed-use development in Valley Junction (the "old town" neighborhood and shopping district). Rather than welcoming the built-in customer base who will live on the top two floors of the building, a local merchant complains that "This is the worst thing the city has ever done to Valley Junction. We are a shopping and dining experience, and apartment buildings don't fit in with that at all." ■ Really, now? Someone wants to enhance the neighborhood by adding places for people to live (which can only serve to add a little vibrance to the area), and it's "the worst thing the city has ever done"? Nonsense. Valley Junction was devastated by the floods of 1993, and the government has spent huge sums of money to protect it in the future. Adding some valuable new real estate and a few residents to the area is perhaps the best thing the city could do.

Humor and Good News Blunting the spread of Covid-19

The State of Washington approves a "joints for jabs" offer

Humor and Good News A horse with no name

(Video) Sometimes you get what you deserve

Health What should Iowa's health priorities be?

The Iowa Department of Public Health has a survey available for people to rank their priorities for the state's health efforts

News The only acceptable camouflage on the high seas

Dazzle paint on ships is great. Blue camouflage on sailors...not so great.


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June 9, 2021

Science and Technology Imagine a parallel universe

One where your cell phone is built by Western Electric, runs on an IBM platform, and connects to a network operated by Northwestern Bell. AT&T made big promises, but lots of other firms delivered. ■ America's free-market economy accepts a challenging trade-off: We give up a whole lot of marketplace stability in exchange for a high degree of dynamism -- most of it productive. ■ The lack of stability renders itself all over the place: Products beloved by hard-core fans disappear (farewell forever, Tab Cola), one era's entertainment giant becomes the next era's pawn (as 27-year-old Amazon buys 97-year-old MGM), and the rise of a new industry decimates the prospects of another (whither the newspaper classified ad). ■ The consequences can be pretty harsh for customers, suppliers, shareholders, and most especially employees, if firms are unwilling or unable to adapt, change, or pivot as the market deems necessary. And sometimes the conditions they face are insurmountable: Some production innovations, new competitors, or substitute goods are too much for any industry to overcome. ■ But for all the comforts that stability can bring, it also tends to stifle innovation. If everyone is reasonably satisfied with their position, then the opponent is change itself. And that's why we can look back on the era of the telephone monopoly and wonder at just how much has changed since 1984 by comparison with what had changed between 1947 and the breakup of the Bell System (for the record: not nearly as much). ■ A lot of praise and attention gets lavished on people who call themselves "disruptors", but one of the things we really ought to encourage more in places like our business schools is the art of institutional evolution. Companies like Textron, which started as a small textile producer and is now a major aviation manufacturer, are the kinds of firms that deserve considerable attention from the people who run our institutions -- not just our for-profit businesses, but also our government agencies, non-profit organizations, co-ops, and family businesses, as well. ■ Dynamism doesn't have to hurt -- at least, not very much. But it's up to sound, forward-thinking leadership to make sure that the comfortable status quo doesn't take the place of continuous growth and development. A dynamic economy is the harder path, but it's clearly one with desirable payoffs, too.


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June 14, 2021

Business and Finance To be a new graduate

The end of graduation season brings the beginning of "new job advice" season. Not everyone will be pulled aside at a graduation party to hear someone else whisper just one word in their ear (like "plastics"). A lot of that advice will instead circulate on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, where quality control leaves something to be desired. ■ One exhibit in the Bad Job Advice Hall of Fame was entered by a venture capitalist by the name of Jordan Kong: "Unpopular opinion: the best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends." ■ She's right: That advice is and deserves to be unpopular. Not because it challenges people to do something they don't want to do but should. It deserves to be unpopular because it's bad advice, and not just because it's a recipe for an unbalanced life and psychological burnout (though surely it is that). ■ "Work on weekends" suggests that quantity of time spent on the clock is more important than the quality of that time. That alone makes it unsound advice. Some people certainly might benefit from putting in many extra hours, if those are going to be quality hours of high-value, high-productivity work. But that isn't usually the case for someone just entering the workforce. ■ Despite the confidence with which many a recent graduate may enter the working world, the newly-minted graduate is rarely more than a malleable piece of clay, needing to be formed. The new worker is rarely like a new machine that can and should be operated at full speed fresh out of the crate. (And, even at that, most machinery needs a breaking-in period.) Instead, the new worker is a vessel that needs to be handled and filled thoughtfully in order to be of real use. As an alternative to "work on weekends", consider these four recommendations instead. ■ First: Attach yourself to a mentor who wants to pay it forward. This cannot be overstated. A good mentor -- someone who can act as a guide with the benefit of some advanced experience -- is the very best thing a young worker can find. There are many, many people who are willing to share their advice, their war stories, their habits, and most importantly their warnings with someone just starting out. The key is to find someone intent on doing so selflessly -- because they authentically and deeply believe that it's important to selflessly do something good for others. ■ There are false mentors out there -- people who just want to build an entourage, or who might share a nugget or two of advice without any real sustained interest in their proteges. But, though it may seem paradoxical, the relationships that begin with a mentor who gives most selflessly are the most likely to become mutualistic later on. Regrettably, there is no ideal field guide to finding a good mentor. One must look consciously, open-mindedly, and in good faith. (Fortunately, a lot of employers and industry organizations are learning to help facilitate these relationships. That's good for everyone.) ■ Second: Make your boss look good. There is a very good chance your boss will not be a suitable mentor. Your boss is, instead, the person whose success will tend to have the most immediate short-term effect on your own success. Look for ways to help the boss succeed in ways that make them look good to their own bosses and customers. Everyone has a boss of some sort -- even the self-employed, for whom the effective "boss" may be a key customer, a vital principal account, a community of voters, or a regulator. Making one's own boss look good (strictly within the bounds of ethical behavior) is one of the highest-return investments to make early in a career. ■ Third: Make yourself indispensable by being willing to learn everything. The new worker is lucky if he or she knows 10% of what they really need to know on the job. There's a reason doctors perform a residency -- schoolwork alone just isn't enough. Learn everything you can, especially by being willing to do the little jobs that crop up. A diploma is far less a certification about what you know than it is a signal that you know how to learn. Once you're on the job, you have to prove that piece of paper was more than just a signal. You do that by learning. ■ Fourth: Do honest work for honest pay. If you're being paid fairly, do the work you're expected to do. You are not an indentured servant, and unreasonable expectations (like, for instance, working excessive hours on nights and weekends) are a sign you're not dealing with an honest party at the other end of your employment contract. If you detect dishonesty, bad faith, or illegality in your work, the time to get out of it is right away. A company that tells its employees one thing and tells its investors, customers, or regulators another is a company that will take down your career if you stick around. Honesty goes far beyond avoiding just the lies that will get you in trouble. ■ If you're being paid to do work that is such a joy that you would do it without pay, that's a fine reason to punch the clock for more than just your contracted hours per week. But if you're in those shoes, you probably already know it. For everyone else, boundaries matter. And so does the measure of humility that comes with knowing that as a new worker, you have much to learn. The best thing a young person can do early in their career isn't to ruin their weekends: It's to make every effort to learn.

Aviation News DFW marks 40 years as an American Airlines hub

Everything else about DFW notwithstanding, it has excellent wayfinding signage.


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June 15, 2021

The United States of America Less wallpaper patriotism, please

Every June 14th, Americans recognize Flag Day. The holiday is itself a perfectly innocuous event; it's a nice excuse to unfurl a fresh new Stars and Stripes in front of homes, workplaces, and public buildings. It also serves as a worthy day for the appropriate disposal of worn flags. ■ But it's all too easy for people to mistake the symbolism of the flag for patriotic substance. We would be much better off if people paid as much reverence to the Constitution as many do to the flag. ■ For example: When Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we offer that allegiance "to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands". That seems like a fairly large mistake. We really ought to say "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic therein guaranteed." ■ Perhaps that doesn't sound quite as poetic. But the flag is a symbol, while the Constitution is the glue that actually binds us together as a Union. It's not a thing which "stands" for another; the Constitution is actually the thing -- the object of our allegiance. ■ The Constitution is the object of the Presidential oath of office. It is the same for the Congressional oath of office, and for military officers as well. They do not pledge allegiance to a symbol, they pledge to defend the Constitution -- the law itself. ■ We would do well to focus our civic statements of loyalty, such as they are, on the Constitution rather than on a symbol. It is a fine symbol, with a long-revered history. But other countries have flags, too. Not all of them have written constitutions. Even fewer have constitutions that expressly derive their authority from the consent of the governed. ■ Symbols too often give rise to willful misrepresentation and unhealthy posturing. Some people even wrapped themselves in the flag while terrorizing the US Capitol and threatening the seat of the nation's law itself. Others modify symbols like the flag with the intention to divide. That is the central problem of symbolism -- symbols are easily co-opted and their meanings changed without the consent of people already using them. ■ We should have no patience for "wallpaper patriotism" among us -- those paper-thin displays that exist only for decoration, having nothing to do with the structure underneath. Displaying, celebrating, and honoring the flag are fine things to do. But we should focus our energies on doing the utmost to celebrate and respect the structure itself by pledging our allegiance to the Constitution.

Health Only the unvaccinated are ending up hospitalized from Covid-19

Has any measure ever moved so swiftly from the category of "public health" to "individual health"? These vaccines appear to be working so well that it's next to impossible to understand how even the crankiest misanthrope wouldn't be motivated to get one by self-interest alone. It's an exceptional testament to science that the vaccines are working so well, and a curious social problem that people are still hesitant to get them. Suppose the most extreme possible case against the vaccines -- that, somehow, they set off some kind of deadly chain reaction (purely imaginary, but suppose the case giving the greatest possible credence to vaccine opposition). Even in such an event, so many people have already been treated with the vaccines that the mobilization to find a remedy would be equal to or greater than the mobilization to create the vaccines in the first place. It makes not a shred of sense for adults to shy away from the vaccines now, given the known grave risks attendant to getting Covid-19 itself.

Science and Technology Our biggest problems aren't becoming any less complex

We've made tremendous advancements as a civilization, particularly when it comes to technology. But we're still human beings, and human nature doesn't do much to change -- at least not in any fundamental ways. Reading up on philosophy, ethics, and religion still makes lots of sense, even for the technological enthusiast. In Ben Sasse's words, "Moral dilemmas can't be resolved by a computer. More quantitative power doesn't inexorably solve fundamentally qualitative problems."

Water News Water shortage plans go into effect

Central Iowa is in a pretty nasty drought and it's time to take conservation measures with our water


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June 16, 2021

Science and Technology Waiting for my chips to come

The mighty American automotive industry isn't making much headway right now as a shortage of computer chips has put the pinch on vehicle production. Some riveting images of trucks packing the parking lot at the Kentucky Speedway bring the abstraction of a "chip shortage" to highly tangible reality. There are hundreds of F-150 trucks backing up all over the Detroit area, as well. These images are easier to grasp than the equally significant lack of inventory being found at dealerships. ■ It's strange to think that the problem with producing cars and trucks right now isn't the machinery but the tiniest of electronics. Yet that's the impact of the global chip shortage being made worse by an apparent increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, the world's unrivaled semiconductor powerhouse. ■ The situation, for all its resulting headaches, is a reminder that progress rarely occurs in a straight line. We make lots of incremental progress in lots of areas, and over time the world ends up looking a lot different than it once did. If you were a passenger in a new car built in the 1970s or early 1980s, you almost certainly had no air bags, no rear shoulder restraints, often no FM radio, and no automatic windows. Padded dashboards and seat belts weren't required until 1968, and front-seat airbags weren't mandatory until 1998. Cassette tape decks were still a new thing in the Carter era, and CD players didn't appear until the mid-1980s. ■ It's the accumulation of lots of relatively small improvements that make today's vehicles much better (and safer) than yesterday's. A chip shortage may well seem like a strange reason to have a shortage of cars, but a world with backup cameras is surely safer than one without. So, nuisance though it is, we ought to be thankful that today's cars are so sophisticated. After all, it took 25 years to get rid of leaded gasoline. We can put up with a shortage of inventory for a few months longer if all we're waiting on is a little silicon.

Threats and Hazards The FBI did not commit the January 6th attack

No alternate-history sleight-of-hand, no mental gymnastics, and no fatuous conspiracy theory can change a plain, undeniable fact: Attacking the Capitol was a choice. Anyone making that choice engaged in terrorism. And choices have consequences. Lots of people need to go to prison for what they did.

Humor and Good News Queen Elizabeth cuts her birthday cake with a sword

(Video) Possibly the most likeable thing any monarch has ever done.


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June 17, 2021

News So, what are you reading?

Below every social-media profile -- or even prominently attached to it -- should be a list of the books a person is reading at the moment. The great curse of social media is that everyone gets a sense for what short-form things others are reading right now -- articles, memes, and other bursts of thought -- but rarely do we find out what others are consuming more deeply (and, hopefully, more thoughtfully). ■ Sure, there are tools for sharing one's ongoing reading progress (like Goodreads), and there is plenty of room to share "favorite" books on a Facebook profile, but those are deliberate acts. Some might even call them performative -- it's easy to say you've read "War and Peace", but was that really something you did 20 years ago? ■ It's easy to take solace in self-identifying with the help of a contemporary label. That's what makes it so appealing to take a personality test and identify with an easy shorthand biography ("I'm an ENTJ!"), and it's why people struggle to find very specific names for their political affiliations (like Red Dog Democrats and Country-First Conservatives). ■ But not only are we individuals more complex than easy archetypes would suggest, we're also works in progress. Human nature may generally be deeply unchanging, but individuals can, do, and should evolve over time. And one of the ways people change is through reading. Look all you want, but you'll almost never find a more efficient tool of knowledge transfer than a well-written book. Books force discipline and clarity of thought upon the writer, and when a book is written well, it can be useful for readers for generations to come. ■ Nor are non-fiction books the only useful ones. Even the "Great Books" curriculum leans heavily upon literature. There are plenty of books that would never pass for "high art" that can still be good for the reader. Sometimes, it's because the underlying message is significant (see, for instance, the works of Douglas Adams, which would never pass for highbrow, but yet are guaranteed to be read centuries from now). Other times, it's good for the reader in that moment. Even the trashiest novels have their proponents. ■ Instead of trying hard to find satisfying ways to identify ourselves based upon who we think we are (or what we'd like others to think of us), it would actually be a great exercise to tell one another what thoughts we're allowing to rattle around inside our brains through the act of reading. The act of reading a book isn't necessarily about agreeing with the author -- properly done, it's about grappling with the ideas inside. That's why librarians make such a cause out of defending banned books. ■ What we're reading (or if we're reading nothing at all) can have a profound effect on who we're in the process of becoming. Sharing that would be a much more satisfying way to self-identify than any stale old labels we borrow from others.

News Columnist Frank Bruni exits the pages with an apology

Noteworthy words: "There aren't as many clicks in cooling tempers and complicating people's understanding of situations as there are in stoking their rage...It's a profitable brand. But it's also a trap."

Broadcasting What's new on the neighborhood watch

The near-universality of large flat-screen televisions means your neighbors often can see quite clearly (and unavoidably) what you're watching just by driving or walking down the block. And someone is watching "Ted" tonight.

Humor and Good News Barbecue "university"

Once Hamburger University came on the scene, this kind of accreditation mission creep was probably unavoidable. (N.B.: The highest form of barbecue is dry rub.)


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June 18, 2021

The United States of America Juneteenth

It isn't often one lives to witness the birth of a new Federal holiday, yet that's what has just happened as Juneteenth has been proclaimed a permanent part of the government calendar. There will be some education required ahead: A majority of American adults have little or no knowledge of the holiday. ■ The holiday presents us with an opportunity to fill that gap of knowledge, and to look for others as well. Considering that it represents the date in 1865 when people enslaved in Texas learned of their rightful freedom two and a half years after their freedom had already been declared in the Emancipation Proclamation (and even half a year after Congress passed the 13th Amendment), the holiday ought to be an annual reminder for us as a country to examine the disparities that linger and to shine light on the knowledge of our past that may have been hidden in the shadows. ■ Part of the insidious design behind slavery was to deprive enslaved people people of literacy. That forced a profound disadvantage on them, and on their offspring, too. Imagine what an extraordinary toll it imposed that most slave states actually forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write. Not only was that an immense burden to impose on those people in their own time, it served to erase (or at least hide) their presence from popular attention and historical memory. Even when freed, most of those previously-enslaved people couldn't write their own history. ■ Belatedly, America has stepped in the direction of correcting those cruel misdeeds. We're acknowledging that those stories need to be told. But that reveals the cruel paradox of annotating history to make up for the omissions of the past: It looks like history is being re-written, when in truth we are only filling in the blanks. To those with a disposition toward resentment, it looks like they're losing their own place in history, rather than gaining a fuller understanding of where others had been either intentionally or systematically left out. The sooner we act to recover those parts of the American story that were omitted, the wiser a people we become. ■ We're still not very far in time from when literacy tests were used to keep the descendants of slaves from exercising their right to vote, so it's important to see the act of correcting the record as the most American thing we can do. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." Knowledge (or, perhaps more exactly, the withholding of it) must not be used as a weapon by a virtuous people. ■ The United States has never been perfect -- even in our founding documents, we are merely promised a "more" perfect union as something to be pursued. Even that document followed the failure of the Articles of Confederation. But as we show ourselves willing to learn, we demonstrate the ability to become better. As we commence recognizing Juneteenth as a Federal holiday, we ought to use it as an annual reminder to be willing to learn, to rectify inequities and oppression, and to ensure that we tell the truth (and the whole truth) about our history.

The United States of America Too much screeching

There is a class of person devoted to screeching the worst possible interpretation of their fellow humans' actions every hour of the day, like air-raid sirens of bad faith. Don't be in that class. Don't listen to that class. Don't let that class live rent-free in your head.

News "All forms of tyranny are odious"

Wisdom from Winston Churchill: "All forms of tyranny are odious. It makes very little difference to the citizen[...] whether tyranny comes from a royal or imperial despot, or from a Pope or Inquisitor, or from a military caste[...] or worst of all, from a terrified and infuriated mob."

Business and Finance If it's infrastructure, it's about to cost more

There are those who think that the inflationary signals out there are merely passing. Others take a more structural view. Here's a word to the wise: Lots of mid-year price increases are going into effect on July 1st. Don't expect them to be rolled back.


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June 20, 2021

Weather and Disasters Cedar Rapids turns red

A storm is to blame, but it's fun to blame the new lights in the Quaker Oats sign instead

Health When mental wellness is relegated to the back seat

A compelling obituary tells the story of an Iowan who had a lot going for him -- and who did a lot of good in life -- but whose addiction to methamphetamine killed him. And the root cause of his troubles, it seems, is that he needed more and better care for his mental wellness than the system around him was able to provide.

Socialism Doesn't Work China uses "law" to shut down Hong Kong's freedom of the Internet

The Great Firewall is being expanded to isolate even more territory

Humor and Good News The 8,400-page e-book

That's the equivalent printed length of the complete works of Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune. (And the Tribune was his third newspaper in Chicago.) Compiling his years of daily columns into a single work gives an exceptional illustration of just how many words one person can write. Not all of the columns are great, but many are still readable decades after his death, and it wasn't for nothing that he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the early phase of his career as a columnist. The sheer expansiveness of Royko's work is something to behold.


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June 21, 2021

News One-paragraph book review: "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read"

Everyone is or has been at least one of these things: Parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew. Most of us inhabit more than one of those roles, and they can define us, shape us, and not uncommonly, dominate our self-understanding in ways both good and bad. There is no shortage of specific advice to parents on subjects from children's sleeping habits to discipline, and it comes in a vast range of qualities, from excellent to dreadful. ■ A theme common to many of these parental-advice books is to frame matters in training terms: Sleep training, potty training, discipline training, and so on. While the training mindset may be useful for specific subjects a child needs to learn, it's inadequate to the big picture of parenting. That's what makes Philippa Perry's "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read" a refreshing and highly worthwhile alternative to read. ■ Perry, who practices as a psychotherapist and admits to her own parenting faults refreshingly and openly in her book, makes the excellent case that, fundamentally, "we should not see our babies, children, and teenagers as chores to feed and clean or otherwise fix but as people from the start, people we are going to have lifelong relationships with". In an engaging and warm tone, Perry offers thoughtful and accessible advice useful not only for parents, but for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even adult children as well. Over and over, she directs many of the common complaints and conflicts of adult-and-child interactions to the root cause of considering the underlying relationship. ■ It's hard to look at a newborn and imagine that in very little time at all, that diapered bundle of cries will turn into an adult. But the more deliberately the adults around that child consider their relationships with the child (especially in times of conflict, but also when laying the groundwork to avoid conflict), the better the outlook for how both individuals and the relationship between them will mature. ■ This is a book with insights containing value for anyone -- even a childless orphan of advanced years, unless perhaps that individual is cloistered away from all human contact. But everyone else can gain at least some useful insight into relationships between generations, whether for current relationships or for understanding past ones. Perry reminds the reader that, even though we are all imperfect, parents (and other adults) don't have to strive to perfect the children in their orbits, because "[Y]ou are creating a person to love, not a work of art". The book's title may be over-the-top, but its advice is exceedingly well-grounded.

Weather and Disasters Something awful happened in Chicagoland

A strong tornado went through a densely-populated area. That's a recipe for real trouble. And if it seems like modern storms are different from those of the past, look at how much we have changed the target environment. It's called the "Expanding Bull's-Eye Effect", and it's a reminder that physical science and social science don't stay neatly in their own lanes.


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June 22, 2021

Health What were they thinking?

A tragic story joins a list that has grown far too long since early 2020: Two co-workers in a Florida government office have died of Covid-19, and three others in the same office have been hospitalized with serious cases of the same disease. Local news reporting on the story includes these crucial facts: "One staffer in the department who worked closely with the other five and didn't contract the coronavirus was vaccinated. All five who contracted the virus were known not to be vaccinated". ■ This raises a most important question: What were they thinking? It's important that this question be asked without judging the victims; basic decency requires at least some respect for the dead and goodwill towards the others who are seriously ill. ■ But the question is objectively important. Vaccines are abundantly available (Florida's map of vaccination sites shows them seemingly everywhere), and the United States as a whole has millions of surplus doses available. By now, the side effects of vaccination are well-known and trivial by comparison with the known risks of contracting the deadly disease the vaccines prevent. ■ This is far from the first case in which the vaccines have been demonstrably protective. In particular, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been statistically outstanding. The protection afforded by the vaccines is virtually complete. And yet Florida's statewide vaccination rate (for the eligible 12+ population) remains below 60%. ■ It's not a matter of scarcity or cost, so it's either a matter of choice or of motivation. But with the entire country only 46% vaccinated (for the total population), and some individual states in the 20s, we really need to figure out the psychological and sociological reasons why people are still holding back. ■ Without heartless judgment, and indeed with sympathetic due concern for the welfare of our fellow human beings, it's imperative that we figure out the root causes of the hesitancy of so many people to step out of the line of fire. Covid-19 isn't the only bad thing for which easy preventatives are available, and it won't be the last pandemic, either. Medical science has done some astonishing heavy lifting so far. It's time for social science to flex its muscles, too.

News It's a parrot (and not even an ex-parrot)

There are, apparently, feral parrot colonies in California, and it sounds a lot like the gulls of Wrigley Field.

Weather and Disasters Can't scare us now

April Glaser, on the summer solstice: "The longest day of the year also marks a gradual descent into darkness for the rest of the year fwiw". But we all just lived through 2020. The whole thing. Nothing you can say about a "descent into darkness" should be capable of scaring us. Doesn't matter how literal that descent or that darkness may be.

Humor and Good News The week after Father's Day

The entire week after Father's Day should be reserved for writers to get the worst puns out of their systems. Today's New York Times "eel amore" gag is Exhibit #1.

Science and Technology Jurassic National Park?

It's a fanciful joke for now, but we shouldn't be unmindful of the possibilities that could be unleashed if and when synthetic biology permits us to put some really wild flora and fauna into places like national parks. For the time being, though, maybe some of the parks ought to try offering augmented-reality tours to boost attendance?


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June 23, 2021

Threats and Hazards The wrong kind of silence

"Good luck, and goodbye." Those are the parting words of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper serving Hong Kong that has been forced to close because it was too much a voice of dissent for the Communist Party of China to handle. ■ But why should we care? Hong Kong is more than 6,000 miles away from the mainland United States, and its transfer from British to Chinese authority was sealed in 1997. In a sense, it's not as though the world couldn't see this day coming. Besides, Britney Spears finally spoke for herself in court and cheerleaders are swearing on Snapchat. ■ The problems of Hong Kong -- and, indeed, all of China -- may seem very remote indeed, but we're fools if we don't take them seriously. From our very beginning, the United States has been required to look outward. In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security." Since that time, powers have emerged and strengthened outside of Europe (that is, we have more rivals about which to be concerned), and the world's distances have been made much shorter (that is, those rivals are effectively much closer). ■ People with bad intentions never have small aims. And it's undeniable that a system so intent on crushing dissent that it would smash basic liberties (like that of a free press) is a system for evil. And it's not just about rough interactions between the press and the government: It's about erasing the institutions of freedom altogether. ■ It is in the nature of evil systems to be perpetually driven to expand. They have to expand because they have to be feared. It starts with domestic fear -- those who are directly under the thumb of the bad regime. Then it stretches to those abroad who have something to lose at home. Then it creeps into threatening foreigners inside the system. Then it begins to target economic interests abroad. And then it's on to threatening anyone who might fight back, even far from the regime. Odds are, all of us are potential targets. ■ That's because, on balance, people given the choice will pick individual freedom and liberty. But those things don't perpetuate themselves automatically. An individual's incentive to get incensed about encroachments against lofty human rights like freedom of speech or dissent isn't all that great. Certainly not when the nibbles of the shark seem small and far away. But the drive to keep reaching farther and farther is an inherent feature of an oppressive system. Their motivations -- to remain in power and to expand that power -- are driving and insatiable. Are we equally motivated to care? If not, what will it take?

Broadcasting Getting used to local news from the studio again

After so many local newscasts ended up broadcasting (literally) from home because of pandemic-related lockdowns, viewers might see changes in set design. Next thing you know, Magid is going to tell everyone to put a "Live, Laugh, Love" sign on every set. Some of the Tegna stations have already gone way outside of the box with their sets: See how KARE in Minneapolis delivers "Breaking the News" or WKYC in Cleveland serves up an afternoon newscast called "What's New" on a color-saturated set.

Threats and Hazards Bad-faith behavior begets bad blood

China went after Australian economic interests as a means of putting pressure on the country over politics. The result? Australian attitudes on China have turned sour, fast.


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June 24, 2021

Threats and Hazards You have to blow on the soup

Any democracy is bound to be a place where conflicting opinions occasionally lead to tensions. In general, the gift of a system of self-government is that everyone broadly agrees to disagree within the bounds of a predictable system for winning and losing, permitting us to blow off the steam of having a fair chance at expressing our wants and trying to persuade others to come around to our side before agreeing to abide by the will of the majority (within bounds that protect the rights of all). ■ Unfortunately, there is profit -- unusually quick profit -- to be made by catering to the heat rather than to the resolution. On one of the more disreputable programming streams now found on some cable and satellite television systems, someone appears to have come right out and expressed hope that people would be executed over the last general election. Right out loud. ■ In his book, "Them", Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote that "A republic can't survive if it's filled with fanatics." And he's right. (It's doubtful any system can survive indefinitely if filled with fanatics, but self-government is particularly susceptible to the character of the governed.) Anyone concerned about matters like polarization ought to take note of the many ways polarization has heated up, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. ■ The distasteful consequences of polarization undoubtedly turn off lots of people, who seek refuge by claiming not to take any part in politics. Others are staying quiet for fear that they'll suffer consequences for expressing "wrong" opinions. ■ But in withdrawal and silence, we uncover a problem: The most polarized among us aren't going to shut up. In fact, they're bound to turn up the volume. On cable TV or social media, polarization tends to pay -- and some people subscribe to an expressed policy of "flooding the zone" with misinformation intended to confuse and agitate everyone around. ■ When you're served a bowl of hot soup, you can wait for it to cool itself. As long as it isn't sitting on a burner, it will probably cool off...eventually. But most people know that it cools off faster if you blow on it. What's the equivalent to "blowing on the soup" in our larger world? For many of us, it's a matter of sharing more -- but deliberately sharing news, opinions, insights, and observations that don't have anything to do with what riles everyone up. ■ Left to battle it out with one another, the extremists and agitators will continue to "flood the zone" with content that makes everything seem worse. It's the job of people of goodwill to flood the zone with worthwhile items worth knowing. The misguided and mal-intentioned are going to continue trying to tickle our amygdalas with fear, anger, hostility, and hate. It's up to the rest of us to blow on the soup -- diluting the junk, the rot, and the agitprop with counter-programming of our own. ■ That means talking about things that look to the broader world beyond hyper-partisan conflict. The soup isn't cooling itself. It's time to take a deep breath -- and blow on it.

Threats and Hazards The most reliable confirmation is the Party's official denial

Headline from the Straits Times: "HK leader Carrie Lam says action against Apple Daily does not target press freedom". Double-speak must be so exhausting for apparatchiks like Lam. Apple Daily wasn't shut down for demonstrating slobbering fealty to the Communist regime.

Health "Unvaccinated individuals are really gambling with their lives in terms of facing this"

The warning from a doctor in Missouri, where one county has a total-population vaccination rate of just 13.7%

Threats and Hazards China's provocative language threatening Taiwan

"Any attempt to 'rely on the United States for independence' is doomed to failure."

Threats and Hazards Building collapse in Florida

The video is shocking and offers real perspective on what a significant building collapse happened


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June 25, 2021

Computers and the Internet Like it or not, analog literacy is incomplete

Sharing a snapshot of his child's summer reading packet instructing the student to "compose four tweets to tell about a book you read", economist Joshua Goodman asks, "Anyone else worried that their kids are being exposed to social media at too young an age?" ■ The question is certainly fair game, and the particular exercise in question is certainly too cute by half. Considering that Twitter itself is only 15 years old, most adult parents would be within reason to find the very assignment unrelatable. ■ The notion of normalizing social-media interaction as part of a reading assignment is prone to feeling forced -- and perhaps even a bit unhealthy. Young people can be impulsive and easily harmed by the hazards of social media, especially if they aren't practicing good technology hygiene or learning healthy boundaries between their digital and real-world lives. ■ But on the other hand, Benjamin Franklin continues to reach us nearly three centuries later via the pithy quotes in his Poor Richard's Almanack. Franklin's aphorisms were, effectively, 18th Century tweets. And we are better off for having them. ■ The form of a work may vary, and the form it takes can influence the content. Illuminated manuscripts are by definition different from 280-character bursts of thought and speed selfies. ■ Discovering a subject-matter expert with a lot of interesting things to say -- but no social-media presence -- is a lot like finding a book you can't read on a Kindle or a movie you can't stream. Convenience matters more than it rightly should. Yet the other side to that same coin is that there are people devoting far more writing to social media than they do to long-form published works, when they really could do a world of good by piecing together thousands of scattered thoughts into coherent works. ■ So the reality is that educators (and parents) probably should teach a balanced approach: Yes, young people should read books. But they should learn how to be digitally literate, too. They should learn how to write critical essays. But they should probably know how to compose a clever tweet, too. Literacy is bigger in both its reach and its consequences than it used to be -- and if you doubt that, consider going through the Cuban Missile Crisis with a Twitter-addicted President at the helm. As uncomfortable as it often makes generations older than the digital natives, there's no going back.

Business and Finance The US Treasury is still borrowing at near-zero interest

Even with a small uptick in 10-year rates, the country is still borrowing at about 1.5% (nominal). It was only a generation ago that kids could get 5% interest on their miniature savings accounts and buy savings bonds that doubled in value after ten years.

News John McAfee found dead in a Spanish prison

Drew Cline offers wise counsel: "A new lesson in our family is: Live your life so that no part of your obituary reads 'found dead in a Spanish prison.'" Other words to avoid: "exiled", "disgraced", and "crypto".

Weather and Disasters "Ope, it's gross"

Almost as good a weather graphic as "Taco Watch/Taco Warning". Speaking of gross, Seattle faces coin-flip odds of breaking its all-time high temperature record in the next few days.

Humor and Good News Happy mid-summer from the King of Sweden

Try, just try, to come up with a cushier-sounding job than "Strictly ceremonial hereditary monarch with zero executive authority over a rich country with a population about the same as North Carolina's".

News Human-adjacent history just got more interesting

"The team said that Homo longi, and not the Neanderthals, was the extinct human species mostly closely related to our own."


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June 27, 2021

Health Shots work. Get them.

"COVID-19 infected everyone who attended a Sydney birthday party except for the six people who were vaccinated"


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June 28, 2021

Computers and the Internet Not so smart now, eh?

We live in a world awash in the word "smart". We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart homes, and even smart refrigerators. The word is everywhere. And yet, when it comes to human beings, we don't seem to know how to call people anything other than "smart". ■ That's more than a mild linguistic curiosity. Language shapes how we think about subjects. Consider the scores of words Icelanders can use to describe "snow". The breadth of word choices available makes it possible to describe the subject with precision and detail. ■ So, what is "smart", at least in a person? Educators and psychologists talk about Gardner's multiple intelligence types (linguistic, mathematic, spatial, musical, and so on), and that concept certainly has a useful broadening effect beyond a flat understanding of general intelligence (sometimes called "g"). Yet it's still not enough. ■ Even within the "multiple intelligences", different people can be smart in different ways. Some can process information quickly. Some can retain lots of knowledge. Some synthesize with ease. Some learn quickly. Some test well. ■ Failing to broaden our vocabulary for "smart" unnecessarily constrains us in thinking about what makes individual human beings "smart". That also keeps us from appreciating the differences in why we consider individuals smart (or less so), and more importantly, it constrains our vision of how we can leverage each individual's intellectual strengths and accommodate their weaknesses. ■ That's a real unforced error to make at a time when educational attainment levels are rising and outcomes like lifetime earnings track, on average, very closely with education. If we, as a society, want to pave the way for people to freely make the most of their own potential, then we need to take account of all the ways people can make the most of their inborn potential. That also means taking obstacles out of the way when they are artificially imposed by a narrow view of what makes people "smart enough" to pursue more education. ■ How much we value something should be reflected in the richness of our vocabulary for describing it. It's not intimidating to consider chip speeds, the number of cores in a CPU, the speed of a graphics processor, the transfer speeds of an Internet connection, or the number of terabytes in a hard drive. All of these computer specifications have parallels in human intelligence, yet we have a more vivid lexicon for describing the performance capabilities of a laptop than for a person. In a world where "smart" is used as often to describe a device as a person, we ought to put a little more care into making our language smarter.

Socialism Doesn't Work A visit to Stalin's birthplace

The inimitable Mike Murphy: "The most dangerous place to stand in the Soviet Union was next to Stalin and in front of a photographer. Every flashbulb begat a death sentence."

Health WNBA reports that "99% of the league's players are now fully vaccinated"

This deserves applause as a demonstration of real leadership in sports.

News People are on the other side of most problems

A truly staggering number of our problems, both past and present, can be attributed directly to the failure to see other people as human beings rather than objects.

Threats and Hazards A better institutional response is needed on privacy

Calli Schroeder: "When you're angry about surveillance, what do you do? Where do you go? We have to have institutions that allow people to be heard and that push back on surveillance." ■ These are questions well worth considering. The shortcut answers (like a generalized rage against "Big Tech") are unproductive or even counterproductive. It really does call for an institutionalized response that can be both alert and nuanced. Considering how important privacy, technology, and surveillance have all become to modern life, it's distressing that we haven't seen a better or more coherent institutional response to the risks and problems that we face. Too many people seem interested in fighting old debates like trench warfare.


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June 29, 2021

Computers and the Internet What's missing is serendipity

As was proven when the world locked down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's possible to do a lot of things online that didn't seem like urgent possibilities even 18 months ago. Concerts went moved from auditoriums to living rooms, while even Harvard Medical School went online for the 2020 fall semester. ■ With many places, like much of Australia, still enduring lockdowns, the share of life that now happens in a digital environment rather than a physical one seems set to remain permanently and substantially larger than seemed possible even in 2019. Many of our experiences may actually be enhanced by going virtual. But the migration is -- and will remain -- uneven, and there are some things that can't be properly replicated. ■ One of the great sensory experiences to be had is to meander aimlessly through a well-stocked library -- especially if it's an academic library with a big collection of old theses or stacks of old periodicals. There's lots of embedded knowledge to be found in those stacks -- even in things like the condition of the spine on a bound volume of old magazines. It may be well-worn, telling the passerby that other people have spent lots of time with a collection. Or it may appear completely pristine, hinting at long-forgotten treasures within. And with that embedded knowledge comes serendipity, as the searcher discovers things unexpectedly. ■ There are some tremendous digitization projects underway. Most notable is probably the Internet Archive, which does yeoman's work at trying to provide a free "digital library" of vast reaches of content. But other projects are merely incomplete efforts. ■ Take, for instance, the Google News Archive, which appears promising at first glance, with hundreds of sources. But many of those sources have only few dozen issues to offer digitally. 68 issues of the New York Age from 1890 to 1892 won't get the researcher very far. And the Google book-digitization project, which once drew much fanfare, doesn't seem to be going anywhere due to legal issues and flagging institutional enthusiasm. ■ All of this could be deeply unfortunate if it means that we end up with a patchy and incomplete digital record of the world prior to the Internet era. One can be fairly sure that some kind of digital record will linger somewhere for most books published after Y2K, but there are plenty of publications from prior to 2000 that don't really have advocates to help them make the transition. ■ Just for instance: The recently-deceased Walter Mondale, a one-time Vice President of the United States and the 1984 Democratic candidate for President, wrote a book called "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". One can find hard-cover copies available on the second-hand market, but nobody's publishing it anew, nor is it available to purchase for download. One can search inside the book using Google, but not obtain the whole thing that way. Maybe someday that book will make the leap into the digital sphere, but for now it remains mostly stranded in the analog world of the built environment and physical libraries. And Mondale was a highly prominent public figure, even into the Internet era, and his book is on a subject that would seem to be of particular contemporary interest. Yet without anyone advocating for his work to make the digital leap, it may never effectively cross over. ■ It's important to be aware of the biases that affect how we think, and what consequences those have. Omission can be one of those important sources of bias: If we only go looking for information where it's easy to search, we may well miss valuable knowledge whose only sin is having been generated before the digital age.


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June 30, 2021

Iowa Out of time

We sometimes say that a place is "stuck in the past" if it doesn't make any effort to accommodate the progress of the present. But something else is going on outside of Stuart, Iowa, where a billboard along Interstate 80 is still advertising Tulsi Gabbard's campaign for President in 2020. ■ The election is entirely over. There is no recount, no overturning coming. Yet the ad is still in place. Either somebody got the most incredible rental deal of all time for that billboard -- or the salesperson has incomparable skills of persuasion. Maybe they're trying to get ahead on the 2024 cycle. ■ Living in Iowa is like being in a land outside of time when it comes to politics. The campaigns of the past follow us like ghosts everywhere we go, and the campaigns of the future show begin the day the last votes are counted. Tom Cotton is already here doing push-ups with Chuck Grassley. Nikki Haley just gambled on a trip to Nevada...Iowa. Mike Pence is coming next month. The campaign season literally never ends in Iowa. ■ Some people may be seen jealous of that until they realize what it's really like to live through it. But if New Yorkers thought their mayoral race was a long haul, they wouldn't want to trade. It ain't pretty. So, while other states may want to leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire in the Presidential primary cycle, they should be careful what they wish for. Living outside of political time means living in a Mobius strip of campaign seasons. There's no getting out.


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