Gongol.com Archives: July 2021

Brian Gongol

July 2021
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July 1, 2021

Threats and Hazards A right implies a remedy

A conspiracy theory continues to circulate -- to the alarm of Homeland Security officials -- that the outcome of last year's Presidential election, the subsequent certification of the election results by Congress, and the inauguration of Joe Biden as President could be overturned. ■ The election result was clear: Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost. The popular vote totals (which are not dispositive) and the Electoral College results (which are) delivered the same result. Anyone who wants can check the only ballots that count. Yet the talk of a restoration of the previous administration lingers. ■ In Federalist Paper 43, James Madison wrote that "a right implies a remedy; and where else could the remedy be deposited, than where it is deposited by the Constitution?" As a Constitutional authority, nobody rivals Madison: He was one of the Constitution's primary authors. ■ Madison's question is the definitive statement on the matter of reconsidering, retracting, or somehow overturning a Constitutional election. If there were a right to do so, the remedy would be found in the document. The Constitution says a great deal about how a Presidential election is conducted. It says nothing about retraction. Not a word. There is no do-over. No challenging the umpire. No stripping the title from the victor. No asterisk on the power of the elected. ■ The United States -- and the powers vested in its officers, including the President -- has no sovereign. There is no individual of final appeal. We have people who grant power by their own consent to their government, and we have states which each have organic legal standing all their own Don't forget: a state is admitted to the Union; states are not willed into existence by some mysterious authority residing in DC. (Delaware was a state before it became the first "united" state.) The Constitution is the final say on our law, and if a matter or a process is documented in that law, there is no ethereal plane of law standing by to sweep it aside. ■ A right implies a remedy. And there is no Constitutional remedy for re-counting a result of the Electoral College -- thus there is no right to demand a do-over. The election of 2020 is over. The President has been duly elected. And anyone who adheres to a belief that Joe Biden can be jettisoned from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- other than strictly by the Constitutional mechanism of impeachment and removal -- is professing a belief that the Constitution isn't the final word on matters. Madison says otherwise.

News Rural routes and embedded knowledge

The next time you travel down a gravel road, take note of the number of tracks. Depending on the width of the road, the frequency of travel, and the level of maintenance being supplied by the county, you'll likely notice either two or three tracks -- two for the loneliest of roads, three for the real thoroughfares. The middle of the road gets used either way, which makes sense, considering that the hazards of ending up in a ditch are greater than those of scraping a curb on a paved city street. ■ Nonetheless, if you pay careful attention, you'll often find that the tracks diverge as you approach the crest of a hill. That's because of the natural tendency of the practiced driver to ease off the gas and drift to the right-hand side to avoid a head-on collision where visibility is lacking. The two-track road tends to become three; the three-track road tends to become four as you approach the local peak. ■ This pattern illustrates the under-appreciated phenomenon of embedded knowledge. Embedded knowledge is just about everywhere in our physical world, though by its nature we often don't even realize that it's there. Suppose, for instance, that you've been dropped off at a lonely old farmhouse on a cloudy night. If you were told you had to walk five miles west to get a ride home, you wouldn't want to set off in the wrong direction. ■ But a virtually foolproof compass can be found in the trees around the farmstead -- even if you can't see where the moss is growing. The preponderance of the time, you'll find evergreen trees to the north and west of the house, and deciduous trees to the south and east. Evergreens to block the cold winds and driving snows of winter (predominantly from the north and west, at least in the U.S. Midwest), and deciduous trees to offer shade in the summertime but letting light percolate through in the winter. Once you start to look for the pattern, you'll see it everywhere. ■ We have to train ourselves to recognize embedded knowledge. It doesn't leap out and grab us -- yet we often follow it automatically and unconsciously. The wise university groundskeeper doesn't fight the natural curves and zig-zags of the cowpaths that students end up leaving in the well-manicured grass. Instead, he or she learns to put the paved walkways where the students have revealed they are already going. ■ The more we learn to appreciate the embedded knowledge of life around us -- not just in the physical world, but in the abstract and non-material worlds around us, too -- the more we can realize what we know (and what sometimes we "know" that "just isn't so"). In the commercial world, embedded knowledge can become a source of competitive advantage. But it can also be pernicious -- or, at least, it can record and reveal pernicious human behaviors. ■ Government policies led to real-estate redlining that still has a sizable impact on integration and race relations today. And you can tell in 2021 which communities lacked wealth and political power when the urban Interstate highways were laid out in the 1950s. ■ Becoming aware of embedded knowledge and how it functions in the world around us is a vital step in learning to live smarter and better, both individually and at scale. It also serves to help us see our foibles and to become more conscious of the mistakes of the past that become hard-wired into our behavior. Humans are social beings and we sometimes share memory both unconsciously and in common. Learning to recognize that memory for what it is and how it affects us (especially without our active awareness) is a habit to cultivate.

Computers and the Internet "Facebook Doesn't Care in the Slightest About Obviously Fraudulent Accounts"

A play in four acts: Patently fake friend request, solitary post clearly selling a fraud, honest report to Facebook of a fraudulent account, and Facebook refusing to do anything about it.

Threats and Hazards Collapsed tower in Florida was falling apart behind the scenes

Altogether too many aspects of our built environment can be described like this: What the public sees looks fine, just as long as nobody looks behind the scenes.

Weather and Disasters BC town destroyed by wildfires just set temperature record

The town that attracted attention for setting Canada's all-time highest temperatures on record just burned to the ground -- 90% destroyed, according to the CBC. The high temperatures contributed significantly to the conditions that led to the fire that appears to have destroyed Lytton, BC.

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July 3, 2021

The United States of America A thought afore the Fourth

Everyone on Earth gets a 4th of July. The lucky ones get an Independence Day.


July 4, 2021

The United States of America A more perfect union -- not a perfect one

Condoleezza Rice: "The United States has been a north star for those seeking liberty not because it is perfect, but because it was born imperfect and is still struggling with imperfection."

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July 5, 2021

The United States of America No one likes an ingrate

Technologies are value-neutral. The knife does not know whether it's being used to slice bread to feed the hungry or to stab an innocent bystander. This ambiguity can and often does create conflict as we seek to figure out how new technologies ought to be used, judged, and regulated -- just ask Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of his eponymous prize for peace. ■ Human systems (political, economic, religious, and so on) are less value-neutral than raw technologies, but not completely so. Any form of self-government clearly has a definitional moral advantage over any authoritarian system, merely because human beings have a fundamental right to self-determination. All people possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A system that deprives people of the right to decide important matters for themselves is a worse system than one that secures popular sovereignty, period. The "benevolent dictator" model is garbage. ■ But there is room for nuance among systems, depending on the character of the people within them. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, "A vote is like a rifle: Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user." ■ Americans are right to celebrate Independence Day with pride and fanfare. The Declaration of Independence really was a landmark event in human history, and one that should attract the notice and envy of many living today. But it would make us ingrates to think that the work was done in 1776, or to think that it is finished today. ■ What we do to take the system we have to create good in the world is just as important as what the Founders did 245 years ago. To borrow the language of computer programming, we're not exactly in beta mode anymore, but that doesn't mean we're at the final release. Further updates will be required indefinitely. ■ Contemplating that and being comfortable with the incomplete nature of our progress is a vital part of being an American. At its birth, this country still tolerated such glaring wrongs as chattel slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and the brutal (sometimes outright genocidal) treatment of American Indians. Even at the time when Roosevelt wrote about the "character of the user", he was addressing a population that had yet to ratify the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women's right to vote, and was still decades from the modern civil rights movement. We do better than our predecessors, but we can do better still. Doing better requires thinking first about how America can be good -- not "great" in the sense of power, but "good" in the sense of moral imagination. ■ Paying honest attention to our pursuit of goodness is how best we can show our gratitude for what our forebears did on our behalf. Many generations tolerated exceptional hardships in order to set us in our current place. Many of those hardships were endured by one generation hoping to better their own lot, but even more so to better the lives of their immediate children. ■ But at each step along the way, we have faced choices to make things better in an enduring way, not merely in a material sense, but in the moral one as well. Getting richer and doing more good are not definitionally at odds. The more we can afford to cure our ills, the more history counts on us to do so. ■ In her book, "Democracy", Condoleezza Rice wrote, "The United States has been a north star for those seeking liberty not because it is perfect, but because it was born imperfect and is still struggling with imperfection.". As we celebrate, we also need to look at our choices and challenge ourselves to keep making the ones that make us better -- as in, better people, not just better off. To do any less would show insufficient gratitude for how far we have come -- and no one likes an ingrate.

The United States of America The greatest pop song about America

(Video) Hands down, it's Neil Diamond's "America", a love letter to immigrants

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July 6, 2021

Business and Finance How dumb is too dumb?

As a general rule, people enjoy the benefits of competition as consumers far more than as producers. As a producer, it would seem like the ideal circumstance is one of no competition at all -- a monopoly. Monopolies (and monopoly profits) are enticing, particularly if it appears that they can be put on cruise control and ridden indefinitely. ■ The allure of monopoly-like profits undoubtedly drives some of our most well-known technology companies -- Facebook, Amazon, and Google, in particular. Amazon, for instance, for years plowed almost all of its profits back into developing a permanent competitive advantage over any prospective rivals. ■ But being unrivaled comes with consequences, too. Google's share of desktop search traffic is upwards of 85%. That much dominance brings with it heightened scrutiny -- including from those who can make plausible arguments that utility-like regulation is necessary. ■ It's quite likely that at least a few of the technology giants really would prefer to be treated like public utilities, if that would mean they could have a say in their own regulation and benefit from the sort of institutional protection that would come from being the incumbent protected monopolist. ■ Most of the time, though, it's better to have competitors -- as long as those competitors behave honorably and aren't stupid. There is such a thing as a competitor that is too dumb for the good of its rivals. That may seem counterintuitive, but it usually takes a while for a company to flop. It's not uncommon for a company to have a period of five or even ten years of decline as it burns through goodwill (and cash), and in that time, a dumb competitor can do a lot of damage to its rivals. ■ That damage happens when promises are made (and believed by customers) but not fulfilled. Expectations can be ratcheted up quickly -- but disappointment takes a while to settle in. That's the origin of the phrase "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." The problem for the good producer is that it's easy to get customers hooked on the sweet. ■ If you're a producer, you want your competitors to be about 25% slower than you, but you definitely don't want them to be completely stupid. Healthy competition forces a producer to be responsive, to innovate, and to look out for the customer -- something that doesn't always happen when an incumbent isn't forced to try harder (see, for instance, Facebook's embarrassing failure to do anything useful about fraudulent accounts). "Completely stupid" competitors wreck the market and that always comes back to haunt the survivors.

Computers and the Internet Russian elements behind "biggest ransomware attack on record"

This incident only serves to underscore the need for a Cyber Force within the Pentagon. This isn't conventional crime, it isn't conventional war, and it isn't happening within conventional boundaries. It is, however, a matter of national security.

Health Southwest Missouri hospital runs out of ventilators over Covid-19

This tragic situation is entirely preventable. All that people have to do is get vaccinated. Hundreds of millions of people have done it already.

Broadcasting The perfectly-cast Lebowski

A role so flawlessly inhabited by its actor that it is impossible to imagine a prequel, for that would render it impossible to use Jeff Bridges again and nobody else could do justice to the original.

Humor and Good News If you can't always be right...

...then at least try to not always be wrong. If you ever find a microwave with "Popcorn" button that works favorably, buy it. Then tell the rest of us where to find it.

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July 7, 2021

Computers and the Internet Read the syllabus

One of the great cliches in higher education is "Read the syllabus". There have been impassioned articles about it. Bundles of tips shared about it. Twitter handles registered with the phrase. Even a Cameo by Snoop Dogg imploring students to "Read the syllabus". ■ It seems that more often than not, professors and instructors want students to read the syllabus because it contains details on mechanical issues -- like when to come for office hours, how to communicate with the teacher, and how grades will be assigned. And those mechanical matters are certainly important. But for those who haven't realized it yet, we have moved into a new economic era: The Teach-Yourself Economy. And the syllabus, properly constructed, is more valuable than ever before. ■ Data is abundant. Information can be found everywhere. And there are lots of people with vested interests in "teaching" others online -- often for direct or indirect profit. Search for the words "How to" on YouTube, and you'll find more video content than you could watch in a lifetime. ■ Some of this information surplus is quite nice to have. It's good to be able to learn how to do rote tasks like folding a fitted sheet. And there are even sophisticated topics addressed online, too -- like what makes a complex song appealing and why highway underpasses are deadly in a tornado. ■ But when it comes to learning a topic comprehensively, there's nothing better than a thoughtful, detailed syllabus developed by experts on the subject. That, after all, is what a collegiate syllabus ought to be. The student needs to know where to begin, where to go next, and what ultimately they need to cover before thinking they've truly learned a subject. Obviously, knowledge on most subjects remains open-ended -- we are, as a human species, continuing to learn more all the time. ■ Yet the hardest thing to know is what it is we don't know. Blind spots in our knowledge -- either collectively, or as individuals -- are incredibly hard to perceive and rectify. When people use the throwaway line "do your own research" to dismiss those with whom they disagree, what they often omit is the challenging fact that a lone individual rarely knows what it is they actually need to "research" in order to have useful knowledge. ■ The more we become dependent on teaching ourselves -- either out of necessity or simple curiosity -- the more we will find that the much-maligned syllabus is, when done right, the most important thing an instructor can offer their students.

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July 8, 2021

News Defiant is not resolute

When people confront a challenge together, it's usually the case that they emerge with a heightened sense of community on the other side. It's true on the smallest scale, as when a team celebrates a come-from-behind victory on the playing field. And it's true on the largest of scales, as when Great Britain survived the great suffering and deprivation of World War II before emerging victorious in the end. ■ People can endure quite a lot when they think that the outcome is worthwhile. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, "The combat soldier wants to be recognized; he wants to know that his sufferings and privations are known to others and, presumably, appreciated." Even in the absence of real suffering, a well-embraced struggle to overcome something difficult can be meaningful and motivating. ■ That was the essence of the public spirit around America's missions to the Moon, captured rhetorically by John F. Kennedy's words, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard". Embracing a challenge -- either voluntarily or one thrust upon us -- requires a sense of resolution. ■ We seem not to have done enough to celebrate what it means to be resolute. There are many struggles worth undertaking, with eyes fixed on a goal and minds resolved to see the better end. And yet it's much easier to find people who confuse resolution for defiance. ■ Defiance can be justified -- it can even be resolute. A struggle against an occupying army can be both defiant and resolute. But even a child can be defiant without cause or reason (some even manifest their defiance as a disorder). ■ It has been six months since a criminal terrorist assault took place at the United States Capitol. It was a violent outbreak of defiance. Perhaps more than at any time in modern history, Americans need to discover a common matter on which we can be resolute instead. We need a sense of community to emerge from a shared, worthwhile struggle to do something hard. ■ It's hard to name what that might be, but it doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to be all-encompassing, and it must be constructive. We have too many voices profiting from defiance, and that energy (and the energy rallied against it) needs to be channeled into something difficult but worth doing. ■ The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a survivor of the concentration camps of WWII, wrote that "There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life." Each person needs to find that meaning on their own. But communities need a sense of that meaning, too -- even communities as large as a continent. The sooner we find and fix on a resolution, the better.

Threats and Hazards Incoherent ignorance is no defense

One has to admit, there's a brutal audacity to a propaganda cartoonist misusing Don Quixote as a symbol, and then saying, "I know the metaphor, but I assume my target audience is insufficiently literate to challenge my use of it meaning the exact opposite thing". Even if it's a sham excuse, which it obviously is.

News Fascinating research on helping kids learn in really poor countries

Every child can learn. It's up to the adults of the world to figure out how to help them have the chance to do it.

Health Juvenile sings "Vax That Thang Up"

(Video) Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes

Health No spectators to be allowed at the (delayed) Olympics in Japan

BBC reports: "[J]ust over 15% of the country is fully vaccinated"

Humor and Good News Norm from "Cheers" as a hirsute Millennial

Less a statement on how facial hair affects a man's looks (objectively, it still makes a man look older) than on how much we have come to associate the look of long hair and scruffy beards with "Millennial".

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July 9, 2021

News Bad advice from the sages

One of the great temptations of a hyper-connected, social-media-drenched age is to flit about pointlessly from one tweet to another, doomscrolling endlessly through Facebook, and going down low-value YouTube wormholes. The short-term sense of stimulation one gets from the illusion of being connected to "right now" turns out to be insufficiently satisfying in the long run. ■ A great alternative, of course, is to read books -- particularly those books that have stood the test of time. At the very least, it makes sense to consume a media "diet" balanced between the timely and the timeless. Human nature really hasn't changed that much in thousands of years of history -- things that mattered to people in the past, like the quests for love and belonging and the fear of pain and death, are the same things that still matter to human beings today. They will matter for millennia to come. ■ But occasionally one encounters really bad advice from the past. Not just advice on matters like "how to deal with your slaves", but on deeper things, too -- like what comprises a good media diet. Indeed, Lucius Seneca -- who lived at roughly the same time as Jesus -- offers some specific advice to his correspondent in his letter #2: "You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends." ■ At the surface, this may seem like a valid recommendation: Get to know subjects thoroughly. Don't be a mile wide and an inch deep. The jack of all trades is the master of none. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that the advice is hollow, at least in the modern world. ■ There may have been a time when it was possible to read all the works that anyone had ever written on a subject. Certainly, there weren't all that many books published before there was a printing press to make them en masse. That isn't the case today; there are uncounted numbers of books, papers, articles, and electronic documents that have been published on the whole spectrum of human knowledge -- with vast amounts yet to be learned. Ask a graduate student conducting research: A literature review alone can take up a vast share of a research paper. ■ Yet there is more to it than that. It's not that mastery of any one subject is an illusion (though it may well be). It's that the fish does not know that it is wet. It's hard to know where one's knowledge is bounded without crossing outside the boundary. The most interesting things happen at the margins between subjects, where matters from different fields intersect. The more complex the world becomes, the more important it is to have a multidisciplinary view of the universe. ■ Law and technology are each interesting, but the really hard questions emerge where they intersect, in questions of privacy, national security, and property rights to things that exist only as bits and bytes. Physical sciences like meteorology make tremendous progress on their own, but the social sciences (like psychology and communications) are needed to put those developments to work for the most people -- that's how lives are saved. ■ Isolating ourselves to exhaustively reading all of the "great" writing on just one or two subjects may well constrain us from actually knowing where that knowledge will turn out to be useful in human existence. So while it may be unhealthy to doomscroll, never having an anchor in any particular area of knowledge, it may also be a fool's errand to "linger among a limited number of master-thinkers" without probing the boundaries of that knowledge from the outside. To be a fundamentalist -- even a Stoic fundamentalist or perhaps an astrophysics fundamentalist -- is to put yourself at risk of not knowing where the boundaries of that fundamental knowledge may be.

Business and Finance Warren Buffett still looks up to Charlie Munger

It takes humility to have other people whose approval matters to you. Humility is a good thing.

Weather and Disasters Never trust a storm coming into Iowa from South Dakota

They get that weird jackalope energy.

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July 10, 2021

Aviation News Some people have more fun than the rest of us

The space-bound Richard Branson is one of those people

Weather and Disasters Tornado sirens and chirping birds

Quite the Iowa summer combination

Weather and Disasters Winds in Omaha rotated street lights by 90 degrees

A signal for northbound traffic now faces westbound traffic. That's a mighty storm. With the National Weather Service forecasting "hail up to lime size", this is a good time to avoid being an insurance adjuster in Omaha.


July 11, 2021

Humor and Good News Unopened copy of Super Mario 64 sells for more than $1 million

And the now-governor of Colorado didn't have the foresight to leave his in the box. He probably drank all his Crystal Pepsi, too.

Humor and Good News "Basically every map showing data on Europe"

Hint: The Nordic countries have a habit of standing out

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July 12, 2021

Business and Finance The cost of anything is what you have to give up to get it

One of the ten basic principles of economics taught in the inimitable introductory textbooks by Greg Mankiw is this: The cost of something is what you give up to get it. In other words, opportunity costs matter. Everyone who's ever thought about the value of their time has at least a glancing familiarity with this principle, but we too often miss the opportunity to put the opportunity-cost principle into action. ■ For instance: Right now is the ideal moment for people concerned about affordable housing to get ordinary homeowners to rally to their cause. Once a person becomes a homeowner, they tend to become fixated on preserving the value of that home. That's because a significant portion of American household wealth is tied up in home values. For the median household that owns a home, home equity is the biggest asset. And families that don't own a home fare dramatically worse. ■ The argument can be made that this reflects the consequences of a lot of counterproductive polices (and, indeed, it does). Some form of shelter is a universal need -- not a human right, in the sense that free speech is an inalienable right, but a thing that everyone needs and which somehow must be paid for. ■ One of the other basic laws of economics is that the natural market-clearing price occurs where the supply curve and the demand curve intersect. Anyone paying attention to the housing market right now knows that supply is on a tear, but prices are still perceived as being sky-high. ■ This presents a special opportunity when it comes to public policy: Right at this moment, many homeowners are aware that their property values have risen. They might even be receiving unsolicited offers for their homes, while their mailboxes fill with flyers from local real-estate agents hunting for inventory. In other words: This is the moment at which the ordinary homeowner probably feels the least threatened about their own home equity that they have felt in a decade or more -- at least since the 2008/2009 panic, when home values last took a meaningful downturn. ■ That makes right now the optimal moment for advancing the cause of housing affordability. There are a wide range of possible policies that could help, from reforming or rolling back restrictive zoning measures (which may be the toughest hill to climb) to easing back on parking requirements to making multi-family housing more attractive to focusing attention on the very real impact of transportation costs on housing. ■ By the time the housing market cools off (which history suggests it will), it will be too late for further reforms. This is the moment when the average homeowner -- who, on average, carries the most weight in local politics -- can be most easily persuaded to see their own self-interest in encouraging the supply of housing while giving up the least.

Threats and Hazards Today's the day to share your stupidest opinion

No matter what stupid thing you say today, someone else has you beaten: A Chinese government spokespersion has tweeted that "the #CPC is not only blameless on #humanrights issues, but it should also be awarded gold medals". There's propaganda, and then there's fiction so far removed from the realm of truth and reality that it breaks right through the boundaries of self-parody. The CPC (Communist Party of China) is a scourge upon the earth.

News Lazy headline writing

An epidemic has broken out, of headlines that read "Here's what we know about _____". Here's a good rule of thumb: If it sounds dumber than something that would have been written by artificial intelligence, then please try another draft.

Science and Technology Doorbell cameras everywhere

An anecdotal observation needing actual study: Doorbell cameras tend to appear in pairs, across the street from one another.


July 13, 2021

News Cuba libre?

Cuba has just experienced its largest demonstrations in decades as seemingly spontaneous, organic protests spread across the country in expression of anger over a hobbled economy and a poor response to Covid-19. ■ The news has gotten the attention of many Americans, certainly in no small part because of the large and vocal Cuban-American population in Florida, where people took to the streets in solidarity with the Cuban protesters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio took up the cause in a Senate speech. The State Department is "considering an array of options" to support the people of Cuba. ■ Deep down, most people seem to have an instinctive understanding that liberty is better than tyranny, so these expressions of support are a good sign. But we often run the risk of thinking of the cause of basic human liberty as something that other people fight to secure in other places, in a way that is cost-free to us as we cheer from the sidelines (or, perhaps it's more fair to say from the luxury suite). ■ But the cause of human liberty isn't one for "over there", nor is it for "them". The interconnectedness of our world means that it is a cause fought everywhere (including here) and it requires an investment from everyone (including us). The situation in Cuba is hard to ignore because it's happening 90 miles from Florida. Our history is complicated and interconnected -- not least because the US occupied Cuba until 1902. ■ We shouldn't just cheer when it seems convenient and cost-free. We need to be humble about what we can achieve -- despite America's vast military and economic might, we're not going to topple an authoritarian regime like the Communist Party of China just by threatening to invade if they don't step down. But we can use our tangible power and our less-tangible influence to put some real muscle behind the platitudes of freedom. ■ So when China curtails freedoms in Hong Kong, we can welcome those who seek asylum. But we can also act to reassure our peaceful neighbors in the region, including by conducting freedom of navigation drills in places where China's government isn't acting in good faith. And our private sector shouldn't be hesitant to walk away from commercial deals that might be lucrative but make them complicit in harming the cause of freedom. These actions come with costs, and we should openly acknowledge those costs while being happy to pay them. They are the price of universal human liberty. ■ The same goes elsewhere, whether it's against Communism in Cuba or totalitarianism in North Korea or even the repugnant and repressive behavior of some of our nominal "allies" in the Middle East. Doing the right thing isn't often cost-free, but it is a price worth paying. ■ There is, everywhere, a longing for human liberty. We can see it right before our eyes just as much as we can feel it in our own souls. It is a human birthright, but for now many are deprived of it. Unless and until the day comes when liberty is secured for all, the steps in that direction will not be cost-free -- and we shouldn't be reluctant to ask how we can pick up the check.

Threats and Hazards Run for office, pocket the campaign funds

A loophole in Illinois law allows politicians in office prior to 1998 to treat their old campaign contributions like personal cash

Threats and Hazards 160 more lives disposed of without respect

The Vancouver Sun headline, "More than 160 unmarked graves found at site of former residential school near Vancouver Island" tells an awful story. This was a "residential school" in Canada still in operation up until the 1970s. It was funded by the Canadian government and operated by the Catholic Church, and the thought that at least 160 children were buried there in unmarked graves is abhorrent. What happened to them? Why did they die? Why weren't they buried with dignity? How were they treated with such dehumanization?

Weather and Disasters Most of Iowa is getting wetter

On average, at least. The latest 30-year averages were noticeably wetter for virtually the entire state than in the prior 30 years.

Iowa Severe weather outlook has bad news for Iowa

Looking like storms to come

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July 14, 2021

Business and Finance What's the 350° for maintenance spending?

If you were told to bake an item of food without any further instructions, your best guess would be to start at about 350°. If you had to guess the speed limit on a residential street, you'd probably guess 25 miles an hour. If you were told you had to save for retirement all on your own with no further guidance, you'd probably guess to save about 10% of your income. ■ These numbers aren't necessarily universally valid, but they're pretty good starting points -- "Goldilocks zones" for their respective questions. They give a good baseline for figuring out where to start. ■ These Goldilocks values are useful because they are culturally embedded. A person doesn't have to become an expert to know that these values are a good place to start. Culturally embedded values are pretty useful if they help pass along common knowledge or collective wisdom in a way that helps people discern when things look too hot, too cold, or just about right. ■ Economists could do a huge amount of public good if they would come up with a good Goldilocks value for the amount that ought to be reinvested in repairs, maintenance, upkeep and ultimate replacement of expensive capital items. Accountants offer something like this in the form of depreciation schedules, but those numbers tend to be contaminated by adjustments made according to what offers tax advantages, rather than what strictly works in the tangible world. That doesn't give us the value that should be replaced or spent over time in order to keep a useful thing in good functioning order. ■ The deadly collapse at the condominium tower in Surfside, Florida, puts this problem in stark relief. Too many people go without the expectation that ongoing maintenance and upkeep cost real money. Hesitation, resistance, and reluctance are stoked by the lack of a common language for how often and how much we ought to be spending to rebuild, rehabilitate, and maintain the things the make life work. ■ Without a culturally embedded expectation of how much is "just about right", it's hard to know when we're spending too little or when we're spending too much. If we don't have a good baseline, we really can't tell whether we're in the right zone. ■ Perhaps nothing reveals the vacuum of a common cultural understanding of the right value for reinvestment than how we treat infrastructure spending at the national level. There's no reason for a society that is reasonably paying for its own maintenance and repair to have to spend trillions of dollars at a time on infrastructure. That reflects a mindset that says we only "fix on failure". We let the failures grow to the point where the spending seems absolutely unavoidable and then we spend money measured in the trillions of dollars in a single fell swoop. ■ That is neither responsible citizenship nor good custodianship. And it's not economically responsible either. But because we don't have an expectation for what is "just about right", we don't have a sense of when we are under-investing or spending more than we should. ■ It's often lamented that infrastructure projects in the United States appear to cost much more than comparable work in many of our peer countries around the world. Of course, failure has many fathers. But always putting off our spending until a crisis really doesn't offer us the opportunity to spend in responsible ways with a sensible payoff. ■ We don't need a perfect Goldilocks value for all of this -- we just need a decent starting point. Whether you're a state legislator, a city council member, a condominium board member, or just an ordinary taxpayer, you need some sense of how much ought to be the right point to start our budgeting. ■ Without it, we're left scrambling to fix on failure and treat every situation as a crisis. That offers us neither the ability to budget responsibly in advance, nor the mental space to think through whether we're getting the right value for our spending.

News Find a way to let Afghan allies in

An evacuation is being planned for late July, which seems late considering the US armed forces have already largely exited. The United States made room stateside for nearly half a million Axis POWs during WWII. We had fewer people then (making those POWs a larger imposition relative to the country's resources), and our economy wasn't nearly as mighty as it is now. Surely we can find a way to accommodate 70,000 people whose lives are now at risk because they chose to help us in Afghanistan. And while we're at it, we ought to be happy to make room for lots of other asylum-seekers and refugees, as well.

Iowa Wishing didn't make it go away

Iowa is in the cross-hairs for severe weather

Humor and Good News Tacos are the happiest food

McCormick is going to pay someone "$25,000/month not to exceed $100,000" to prove it as a short-term contract "Director of Taco Relations"

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July 15, 2021

Health The insufferable life

We've been through quite a lot over the last 18 months. "We" being, basically, every single person alive on Planet Earth. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the entire planet, all at once and at the same time, through extraordinary stress and no small amount of emotional deprivation. We are social beings -- even the introverts among us -- and we thrive only through our contact and cooperation with others. We form families, friendships, and social tribes of many forms because our evolutionary makeup has rewarded cooperation and social learning. It's literally in our blood to work together. ■ Being forced to stay apart from one another, observing standards for paradoxically-named "social distancing", and conducting many facets of life from home has been difficult for virtually all of us. Some places have been better equipped than others to handle the changes. Some parts of the world (and some aspects of life) have been better able to adapt than others. But it's hard to think of anyone who might have escaped entirely untouched by some form of preventative measure undertaken to limit the spread of a dreadful contagious disease. ■ And in that time, we have still lost more than 4 million lives worldwide. The arrival of fantastic, effective, and world-changing vaccines has been a profound blessing. It is too soon to forget what happened in New York and Seattle when the pandemic was new -- nor the way it shook Italy. And it's too early to forget that the United States had a second close scrape with disaster again in late 2020. The vaccines arrived not a moment too soon. ■ Now we must grapple with the cleanup (and, lest we forget, only a limited portion of the world has yet been vaccinated -- there's still a long way to go). The economic cost of the pandemic has been real, and now we're starting to assess the consequences for mental health. Drug overdoses grew dramatically in 2020, and parents are reaching out for help in vast numbers as they care for the mental wellness of their children. ■ It is entirely unfair what has happened to kids. Around the world, many were deprived of in-person contact with their friends and teachers for some or even all of the last 16 months. And some school systems can be well and vigorously faulted for remaining closed to in-person learning long after the protocols for safe re-opening had been shown effective in other places. ■ We could look back on the precautions imposed to contain the pandemic with resentment and anger. Some people already have. But we are free to see instead that once the pandemic was underway, many people in positions of authority had to make the best choices they could with the information available to them at the time. Many, if not most, of those choices were made in good faith. They may have been too cautious or too cavalier. Those choices may have been based on faulty assumptions that were later corrected (remember how much fear was associated with transmission via contaminated surfaces?). Many of those choices would be revised now in light of what is now known in retrospect. ■ But one thing it would be not only nuts but self-injuring to do is to harbor broad-based resentment and anger over difficult decisions made in a pandemic-driven fog of war. The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that "In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice." We ought to reflect on the sacrifices that were made -- to varying degrees, by virtually everyone on Earth -- as burdens we carried because we, as social beings, wanted to keep large numbers of other people from dying. ■ The data and the decisions were imperfect. And we undeniably owe ourselves and our fellow humans some relief -- there is no time like the immediate present to seriously examine what can and should be done on a society-wide basis for mental wellness care. It's long overdue to make mental health as much a mainstream matter of concern as dental care, and nothing has made it a more universal subject of personal concern as the pandemic. We all know that we have all been struggling. ■ But to choose to live in resentment, or to look at hard decisions confronted in good faith guided only by imperfect information and label them unforgivable and "largely for nothing", is to choose to be tied to a boat anchor sunk in a painful past. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." ■ Kids themselves are inclined to see their struggles as stories of triumph over adversity. What humans undertook in the last year and a half was hard -- but the objective of saving countless lives was noble, and a worthwhile endeavor. We won't emerge better from it if we deny that the response was imperfect. But we will only compound our self-harm if we cling to a false impression that perfection was within reach and was stolen from us. We can either try to repair the injury that was done along the way, or wallow in bitter resentment that the injury ever happened. Only the former choice affirms that there is much more life to be lived.

News From two houses into 27 apartments

A transformation planned for two lots in Los Angeles would replace two single-family homes with one apartment building containing 27 units. It's not a transformation to be expected everywhere, but as a matter of general principle, the burden of proof ought to rest with the opponents of a plan that would so dramatically move the lots from one lower tier of value to a much higher one.

Agriculture Bold new innovations in bacon

How do you make bacon for people who don't eat pork? One answer: Lamb.

Humor and Good News Frings for all

Limited government is the way it ought to be, but maybe Congress should go ahead and mandate that all fast-food places offer Frings as a side, like Runza already does. They're magical.

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July 16, 2021

News Indivisible after all?

There is no more zeitgeist-friendly column or opinion piece to write right now than the one lamenting the sad state of division among Americans. Sober institutions like the Pew Research Center have scores of studies to offer on polarization, ordinary voters in some circles embrace talk of a civil war, and unserious people in Texas are wasting time and energy on pipe dreams of secession. ■ It's no wonder that it has become de rigueur to jot down a few hundred words on division in political life. Indeed, there are important matters on which we have significant public disagreement. But politics are not all that matters in life. ■ Counterintuitive though it may seem, we have more in common than ever. It wasn't that long ago there was a vast moral panic over the observation that America was growing profoundly homogenized -- at least if you looked at things like our commercial culture. Walmart was murdering Main Street, suburban ennui was film-worthy stuff, and chain restaurants had made cuisine all too much the same everywhere -- so much so that the very uniformity of experience was making chain restaurants too boring to show on Instagram. ■ What we often fail to appreciate is that these experiences -- our shopping, our dining, and our homebuying, not to mention our membership in clubs, churches, and causes -- make up the bulk of the human experience. There's always someone new with whom you can argue about politics online, but most reasonable people don't engage non-stop in politics and the related (quasi-)news coverage of our disputes. Most people are too busy doing lots of other things. ■ And it is downright remarkable that, in 2021, so many of these things Americans do are virtually identical all across a country shared by 332 million people. It's downright astonishing, really. The United States is the third-largest country in the world by population. And yet, rather than growing farther apart, we're tending more towards the median on a whole host of things outside the reach of politics. ■ Take, for instance, regional accents. They're still around, of course, but they're fading just about everywhere. As elites (particularly on television) abandoned affected accents like Mid-Atlantic and standardized around General American instead, the same effect spread to just about every other part of the country. ■ Our high mobility rate ensures that there's a payoff to not sticking out too much when moving from place to place, and a flattening of the national accent is a ticket there. Our accents and local dialects persist, but they're nothing compared with the vast differences among regional British accents -- in a country with about one-fifth the number living in America. Here, even the Southern drawl is fading. ■ Or consider the way we are keen to recognize cultural differences like Swedish design, Danish coziness, or Norwegian Viking history. Even today, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have distinct languages and cultural touchstones -- even though they are populated by just 10 million, 6 million, and 5 million people, respectively -- all together, just a few more than live in the state of New York. And the countries are so close together that you can drive a 10-mile bridge/tunnel combination from Denmark to Sweden. ■ Benjamin Franklin once noted that "They who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing." Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, coined the term "narcissism of minor differences" to describe the way people may quarrel over differences that seem utterly insignificant to outsiders. It takes some self-control for us to realize not only how alike we Americans really are, but that we can have healthy and even vigorous disagreements about our common choices -- without sacrificing the hard-won benefits of commonality. Taking our differences seriously (and soberly) is an essential aspect of democracy. But those who profit from stoking artificial divisions or inflated notions of difference should be seen as the hucksters and frauds that they are.

Weather and Disasters The scent of a tornado

Others' impressions may vary, but the smell of a tornado outbreak is similar to baby-food peas that have been left outside too long. A little sweet, but not in a pleasant way. Chemists note that atmospheric ozone plays a role.

Broadcasting His words, but not his voice

A documentarian has synthesized Anthony Bourdain's voice to make audible some words he didn't actually speak aloud, arguing, "There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology." This is extremely hazardous ethical space to tread. It is terribly inconvenient that people haven't recorded all of the things we wished they had said aloud. But the spoken word and the written word can be two very different things, even when emanating from the same source. This is not unlike the controversy over whether Winston Churchill used a voice double in his wartime broadcasts (which the society that bears his name says he did not). Reenactments are always an area where extra care must be taken so as to reassure the audience that the difference between authentic recordings and replacements has been adequately respected. AI is creating a whole new void into which we risk stepping uncautiously.

Broadcasting Kasie Hunt leaves MSNBC

Following high-profile BBC departures for streaming/online news ventures, now this one from MSNBC, heading to a CNN Internet-driven venture

Humor and Good News What do you call the old-timers of Newcomerstown?

Naming a place "Newcomerstown" seems like a decision that may not have been all that well-thought-out.

@briangongol on Twitter

July 17, 2021

Broadcasting Reel-to-reel tape

Anyone going into audio production today is missing out on the hard-won knowledge of reel-to-reel tape management, like "How to re-thread a reel", "Oops! You snapped the tape again!", and "Bulk eraser fun: Wiping the tape clean, and possibly your genetic code, too".

Humor and Good News When paywalls don't make sense

The Des Moines Register has paywalled (for subscribers only) an article with the headline "Here's why Iowans are flocking to Illinois to buy marijuana". Real probing investigative journalism going on there...

The United States of America How much things change

In 1940, more than twice as many people lived in Reno, Nevada, as in Las Vegas...which wasn't hard to achieve, since Las Vegas was a town of just 8,422 people at the time. It's now one of our 30 largest metros.

Humor and Good News Instagram unreality

Is it a $1 box of noodles with some cherry tomatoes and sliced kielbasa, or is it "Mediterranean-Baltic fusion cuisine using locally-sourced ingredients"?

Weather and Disasters Mesmerizing but terrible

Satellite loops of a giant wildfire would be beautiful if only they didn't depict so much destruction

@briangongol on Twitter

July 18, 2021

Weather and Disasters More than 150 people killed in German flooding

Deutsche Welle: "Heavy rain in such mountainous terrain is particularly dangerous because water collects in the valleys instead of spreading evenly across other surfaces"

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July 19, 2021

Humor and Good News The pocketknife mentality

Writer Michael Harriot comments that "If you watch regular season baseball, I GUARANTEE your grandfather carried a pocketknife." Putting aside the strict veracity of that claim (and it certainly rings true in the light-hearted anecdotal sense), what does it mean to carry a pocketknife? It's not like the description has some deeply embedded cultural cachet, but yet it seems like people still got what he meant. ■ But what does it mean to carry a pocketknife -- not metaphorically, but literally? Like virtually all other tools and technologies, knives themselves are morally neutral; they only mean what the tool user brings to them. Should we think of them only as things carried by old men? ■ The answer is: No. The pocketknife is actually quite a good metaphor for general preparedness -- it is a tool to be carried by those who are ready, willing, and able to take care of matters for themselves (and often for others). ■ Those three words mean a lot. Readiness means alertness, vigilance, and preparation for the unexpected in life. Willingness is a choice to have the disposition to do what needs to be done, rather than to wait for others to act instead. Ability is a measure of having both the skills and the resources to take the action needed. ■ It's important not to read too much into an individual signal like carrying a pocketknife. Plenty of highly capable people never carry them, and plenty of unprepared dunces never leave home without them. But there's something to the metaphorical significance of the tool itself. The Swiss Army knife (or its American cousin, the Leatherman multi-tool) is a device of great potential utility. It is no substitute for a kit full of heavy-duty, professional-grade tools. But a professional toolkit is carried by professionals when their specialty help is called upon. ■ A pocketknife, by contrast, is carried not for defined purpose, but for preparedness in the face of the unexpected. Americans sometimes take "rugged individualism" to an unhealthy extreme, but we really shouldn't under-appreciate the value of having a country full of pocketknife-carriers -- at least in the metaphorical sense, if not the literal one: People ready, willing, and able to do things for themselves and to help others when needed.

Humor and Good News Weather-themed cupcakes

If you want to bake thunderstorm-colored cupcakes, you'll need a convection oven

Weather and Disasters Right beneath a tornado

Video from Shell Rock, Iowa

Humor and Good News Buddies, ages 2 and 100

(Video) It's unlikely the actual story can be more concentratedly cute than the tease. All of us should have friends both older and younger than ourselves.

News You don't have to say "You've gained weight!"

The compulsion to note another person's weight (either more or less than upon last meeting) just doesn't make any sense when "Good to see you" is available as a greeting.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

July 20, 2021

Aviation News Rocket Man

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a private rocket into space, and other than the innumerable comments on the rocket's distinctive shape, all appears to have gone very well. The trip went smoothly, earned the applause of private-spaceflight rival Elon Musk, and made it 66.5 miles above Earth. A paying customer was aboard for the trip, and the booster rocket was even returned safely (and upright) to the launch pad. ■ Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury therefore produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?" Franklin knew human nature -- and it doesn't change very much. It is indisputably the case that private spaceflight has become an obsession -- for Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and certainly lots of other people with money to spend. Tickets are already on sale for more paying passengers. ■ As with virtually any choice people make with their money, private space flight has its critics. Why should we commit resources on rocket fuel when those resources could be spent on Earth-bound needs? Why should zero-g recreation happen when there's still so much research left to be done? Why should some people have all the fun? (That last one may not get spoken aloud much, but have no doubt: It's in the subtext.) ■ If you think that the world has strictly limited resources, then this kind of activity can certainly look amiss. But if you see that most of the world's economic activity consists not of goods being sold but of services being provided, then you'll begin to see that Benjamin Franklin's words are more salient than ever. ■ There are, of course, certain material resources in the world that are indeed finite. But one of the paradoxes of growth is that the more advanced an economy becomes, the fewer resources it tends to waste -- particularly when profits are involved. As long as we have reasonable regulatory schemes for making people clean up after themselves (that is, not letting them pollute or create other harms that are imposed on others without tidying up the mess), then the more efficiently goods and services alike can be delivered, the greater the return to the providers. ■ As the futurist Ian Pearson wrote, "If we want a world where everyone can have a good lifestyle, we need to accept and even encourage rapid obsolescence, driving the technology quickly towards low environmental impact." Once the space race got underway, humankind wasn't going to look back. China sent a rover to the Moon. India sent an orbiter to Mars. The world is not about to become less space-oriented -- not when we know humans have been transfixed by the stars for all of recorded history. ■ And, after all, isn't it better for humankind overall that people are now going to space just for the pure joy of it? Let's not forget that part of what spurred the Apollo program was the need to prove (and improve) American ICBM technology. Surely, no matter how you feel about spacefaring billionaires, it is better that space is becoming a destination for joy than merely one more battleground. The militarization and weaponization of space has been well underway, with a half-century head start over recreation. Let's be glad people are going for fun. Many more of us may soon follow.

Computers and the Internet Why do we still say "cyberspace"?

It remains the standard nomenclature of government policymaking, but it's also true most people just say "the Internet". Ah, but: cyberspace is a place for cyberwar. The internet is not a place for interwar.

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July 21, 2021

Computers and the Internet Asynchronous friendships

In an effort to shore up its public image, Facebook is running a series of video ads around the theme the Facebook groups facilitate get-togethers among real people who might have felt isolated without the help of their platform. Ads like "Deaf Hoops" and "Dance Accepts Everyone" aim to leave the impression that the world is better off with Facebook encouraging the creation of new connections. ■ Of course, not all connections are created equal -- or even, for that matter, are they all created good. Connections that make it easier for anonymous trolls to harass members of a religious minority, for example, are not good connections. ■ But there is good to be found in catalyzing the formation of online friendships. Not mere connections, but actual friendships. But what does that actually mean? Can we consider online friends to be real friends, even if we haven't met them? ■ One of the counter-intuitive aspects to making friends online is that the exchanges tend to take place asynchronously. One person shares, another responds -- but not usually at the same time. The friendships that get struck up talking across the neighbor's chain-link fence are more thoroughly informed by things like non-verbal communication and shared real-time experiences (like "How about the weather today?"), but synchronicity isn't everything. ■ For as long as couriers have been willing to carry letters, people have been conducting asynchronous friendships. Consider the letters of St. Paul or Lucius Seneca's epistles to Lucilius, or the legendary 50-year running exchange between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Physical presence and shared time aren't prerequisites to maintaining a friendship bond. ■ By the same token, most of the great correspondence-based friendships emerged between partners who already shared a common bond and then turned to their letters as a tool of sustaining friendships. Not many have emerged between randomly-assigned pen pals. ■ That is where Internet-originated friendships have stepped in. If we look beyond "followers" and instead consider only "mutuals" (people who reciprocally follow one another's online updates), then it really isn't that hard to find authentic asynchronous friendships. ■ A friend is a person about whom it can be said that "Your joy brings me joy". And for all of the bad consequences of saturating our world with social-media updates, staged pictures, and how-to guides for becoming a TikTok "influencer", it is worth noting that many people are, in fact, happier because they can follow the joy of others -- including people they've never met. ■ Epictetus asked, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" Lots of "friends" are for sale today (sometimes quite literally). As the race to regulate "big tech" continues to accelerate, it's worthwhile to take a step back and appreciate the existing friendships made easier to sustain through technology as well as the new friendships brokered entirely by online contact. To the extent we genuinely cheer on our asynchronous friends and bring one another authentic feelings of joy, those virtual friendships are good -- and entirely real.

Weather and Disasters Apocalyptic scenes from China

Flooding traps people in Zhengzhou, including inside subway cars filling with water. Even though it's not rational, extreme weather events make far more convincing data points regarding climate change than a few inches of sea-level rise. Thus, a city taking on a year's worth of rain in just days should arrest at least some of our attention.

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July 22, 2021

The United States of America For the children, we should stop saying "it's for the children"

One of the surest signs that someone is pushing a self-interested agenda is that they insist their pet project is "for the kids". Since children have a limited or nonexistent voice in the political processes that make things happen, they make for convenient human shields against criticism. ■ There is something more than a little untoward about using children's interests in that cynical way, just as there is something unsettling about using children as spokespeople for causes. There is no way to engage in a robust and thoughtful way with someone like child activist Greta Thunberg, since any criticism coming from adults is, by definition, launched from a place of power imbalance -- unfair at best, obscene at worst. Kids should be free to be kids (learning, making mistakes, and finding their voices along the way), and adults should debate with adults. Don't make children your heroes and don't make them your foils. ■ If we were indeed serious about taking action on behalf of children, we would find a way to orient at least some of our decision-making -- private, public, political, personal, and beyond -- around specific future goals. People saving for retirement have the option to invest in target-date funds, which are at least nominally intended to have in mind the interests of people retiring around certain future dates. It is odd that we don't have corresponding views represented in bodies like Congress. ■ There are Congressional caucuses organized around obvious interest groups based on ideology, and race, veteran status. The caucuses are so granular, there is even a dairy farmers caucus. There are Congressional caucuses for cut flowers, fragrances, rugby, and tires. But there are no "target date" caucuses: No 2030 Caucus. No 2040 Caucus. No 2099 Caucus. No caucuses (unless they've been cleverly named) addressing specific visions for what ought to come in the future, and how we might steer towards healthy, productive objectives. ■ We shouldn't have more visibility about future Olympic host cities than we do about our country's policy orientation. Yet we do: We know where the 2032 Olympics will be held, but you would have to obtain a crystal ball to see what will develop in American policymaking by then. ■ This is not to fetishize an over-reliance on planning and planners. Lots of people ascribe far more wisdom to the supposed long-term plans of China's ruling class than is actually on display. But Dwight Eisenhower's reflections on planning for war have salience in peacetime, too: "[T]here is a vast difference between a definite plan of battle or campaign and the hoped-for eventual results of the operation. In committing troops to battle there are certain minimum objectives to be attained, else the operation is a failure. Beyond this lies the area of reasonable expectation, while still further beyond lies the realm of hope -- all that might happen if fortune persistently smiles upon us." ■ At all levels of self-organization, from the family to the city to the state, and right up through the national and international levels, we do (and always will) face really big problems. These problems almost always start upstream of ideology, but when they migrate into politics, they all too often get retrospectively labeled with "left" and "right" solutions. Those labels are quite frequently no more than reflections of what was most convenient or expedient to a group of people at the moment they first became aware of the problem. ■ Planning isn't a dirty word; Madison and Hamilton used it repeatedly when describing the Constitution itself, and Franklin wrote, "Look before, or you'll find yourself behind." There are thoroughly legitimate things that we should be doing in public life "for the children". But the future is a big place, and most of us will find ourselves living there. It makes no sense to avoid thinking about the inevitable just because it's easier to quarrel over the familiar. Of all the caucuses in Congress, only four even bother to use the word "future". Factions and party divides may be inevitable, but it would be a worthy leap for us to invest some share of our attention and energy in thinking about the "target dates" for our civilization, and how we're steering along the way.

The United States of America How Americans spent our time in 2020

More time on gardening, leisure, and recreation. Less time on commuting, shopping, and socializing. Not shown: Answering robocalls about your car's extended warranty.

News The Big 12 might be back to just 8

College athletic conferences are engaged in the same kind of math that makes it impossible to comparison-shop for toilet paper.

Weather and Disasters National Weather Service to send mobile alerts for really bad thunderstorms

Another step in the right direction: Warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself. Last year's Iowa derecho did way more cumulative damage than any single tornado.

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway sells Kirby vacuum division

One hopes Buffett didn't have to go door-to-door to sell it.

Business and Finance Why big companies like regulations

Once you're on the inside, high barriers to entry start to sound really good. That's the perverse power of incumbency.

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July 23, 2021

News Audits of apparel

It's unlikely that even one in ten Americans could describe the first thing about the rules of beach handball. But the International Handball Federation not only exists, it has strong opinions regarding the acceptable apparel for players. In short: Men are to dress like they're playing a sport, and women are to dress like they're going for a swim. And the Norwegian women's national team took a stand and said "no" to playing in bikini bottoms. ■ This protest -- conducted in shorts -- resulted in fines, which the national organization will cover for the players. Now, the European Handball Federation says it "will do all it can to ensure that a change of athlete uniform regulations can be implemented", whatever that means. In its statement of support, the European organization pled innocence to the rule, saying that only the international governing body could do anything about it. ■ For its part, the International Handball Federation issued the kind of mealy-mouthed defense-de-bureaucratese that the world has come to expect from unaccountable worldwide governing bodies. Its defense begins "First of all, both the European Handball Federation and the International Handball Federation are committed to popularising beach handball" and leans on "the ideal presentation of the sport" as its most important objective. ■ They have the option to prove otherwise, but that sounds like veiled language for a pretty obvious pretext: They want female players to bring sex appeal to the game. There's no serious justification for the difference between the men's and women's uniforms, and three cheers for the women of Team Norway for taking a stand. Three additional cheers for the officials backing them. ■ And it's not just handball: Gymnasts from Germany have taken a stand on women's uniforms in that sport, as well. If a uniform has something to do with the actual performance of the sport, then elite athletes will choose it on their own. If the uniform is being selected merely because it shows more skin, then those same athletes should be free to make reasonable choices for themselves and their own level of comfort. ■ Rules like the IHB's tend to reflect a thoughtless sexual objectification of women. Sometimes, along the way to some enlightenment on the matter, men (almost always older than the women affected by their policies) will go from (a) not considering the humanity of the affected women at all to (b) thinking "That's somebody's daughter". And while that's better than no consideration at all, it has to be no more than a way station before whittling down "That's somebody's daughter" to "That's somebody". ■ Protests like the present Norwegian case are vital for urging as many people as possible down the path to "That's somebody". It's a cause in the same spirit as the justified drive to permit swimmers to cover their natural hair in a sensibly accommodating way. ■ Athletes empowered to make their own choices may choose to expose more of themselves or less -- but what matters is leaving it up to them, within the bounds of fair competition. ■ We're not returning to the ancient practice of nude Olympics, but there's no shame in an athlete choosing to appear in the ESPN Body Issue, either. What matters is the person who makes the choice. May the 2020(-ish) Olympics bring the world more than a few instances when we can appreciate what the athletes do more than how they look, and who they are more than what shapes they occupy.

News Cleveland's new baseball team name: The Guardians

Some geniuses in the comments seem to think this isn't a powerful-enough mascot, as though there aren't two teams named after footwear. Honestly, how many team names aren't somehow objectively silly? Boston and the South Siders are named after footwear. Oakland is blandly named for an "Athletic Club". Toronto picked a notorious jerk of a songbird. KC is named for a livestock show. Cleveland did the right thing in getting rid of an archaic mascot name that objectified people. People are not objects.

News Architecture and the Olympics

Both wood and wind are put to use in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium


July 24, 2021

Computers and the Internet Know when to say when

Philosophically, the explosive growth of DIY publishing platforms like Substack is a great thing. But some lovely writers need to cut themselves off around the thousand-word mark. 3,500 words is too many, and profoundly too much for the screen.

Weather and Disasters Massive flooding far from the Zhengzhou disaster

If conditions are consistently like this throughout the 200 km in between, this is a magnitude of disaster that's hard to comprehend.

Aviation News Maybe it fell off the back of a truck

A Soviet-era MiG on display at a museum indicates that "Its service history remains unknown"...which raises some questions about how it was retrieved in the first place. The US Air Force did have a special program for aircraft of Soviet origin flow by pilots trained to fly like Soviets. For obvious reasons, the program was kept secret.

@briangongol on Twitter

July 26, 2021

Broadcasting Conan O'Brien teaches economics

Conan O'Brien signed off his final TBS broadcast with some delightful words about how he had devoted an entire late-night television career to the pursuit of a "strange phantom intersection between smart and stupid". It's a lovely sentiment, and it describes well the sort of work he's done -- a Harvard graduate unafraid of telling silly self-deprecating jokes from behind a flashlight. ■ O'Brien isn't disappearing from the spotlight. His quirky and very funny podcast has an enormous following (it was rated among the top 20 most-downloaded of 2020) and he's starting a new show in the HBO universe. His production company is expanding its reach with new programming, too. ■ But it is notable that O'Brien, who has been in the cultural mainstream since starting his first TV show in 1993, is done not only with network television but with basic cable, too. His embrace of digital and on-demand platforms is complete. ■ Baumol's cost disease says that wages will rise for certain jobs even when they are no more efficient and have no hope of becoming more efficient, because the people delivering those services have to be attracted away from alternatives. The go-to example is that a string quartet can't perform any faster for an audience today than they could have 100 years ago, but each of the musicians must be paid more now than in the past because their wages have to keep up with inflation -- and with the pay those musicians could have earned by seeking alternative employment. ■ The entertainment mainstream is being shattered into millions of pieces right now. Bruce Springsteen might have lamented that there were 57 channels with nothing on back in 1992, but now the channel choices are literally limitless. Fame is still a great launching point for new content: The other 19 shows in the top-20 podcasting universe are almost entirely composed of people who were already famous or media outlets that already had brand-name status. ■ As the old pipelines for content delivery are being fragmented, the opportunities for content creation flourish. In particular, clever famous people will find that they can devote relatively small amounts of their time to creating media products that are not only popular but profitable. Andrew Sullivan left a major print magazine to start a subscription e-newsletter and now claims to have more than doubled his income to $500,000 a year. A few YouTube creators are estimated to bring in tens of millions a year. Conan O'Brien's podcast is said to generate millions of dollars a year. ■ This puts Baumol's cost disease in a fascinating light: Creative people may well find that they can only create as much material as they used to, but because their transmission and distribution costs have basically evaporated, they may be able to earn as much as they did in the past with less work, or more with the same work. And for others, the act of leveraging fame might convert relatively small investments of time into attractive amounts of income (see, for instance, the "Office Ladies" and "SmartLess" podcasts). ■ This competition, meanwhile, puts still greater pressure on the incumbent media outlets from which many of these creatives obtained their fame. Even the late-night shows (like "Conan") are scrambling for YouTube and TikTok views as they each pull in only a few hundred thousand viewers under the age of 50. ■ No matter what else develops, it's still going to take a program host at least an hour of real time to deliver an hour of content time (obviously, much more if there's additional production, writing, or other overhead involved). But we may well be witnessing a curious moment in which not only is there still ample social status to be obtained from working all-digital, but also a much more relatively lucrative return to be had from doing it. ■ It tells us almost nothing about where fame will come from in the future, and less still about where the farm teams for creative talent will even have economic room to exist. But for certain, we can see that much-coveted jobs like "late-night host" that once benefitted enormously from Baumol's cost disease may well be finding themselves launched into another economic world altogether.

Business and Finance James Madison: Regulatory reform advocate

"Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences"

Science and Technology SimCity really ruined us, didn't it?

Some academics are playing with the notion that we live in a giant simulation and that it's getting too boring for our shadowy overlords to keep watching

Broadcasting What are the Summer Olympics without Bob Costas?

The games are taking place a year late, the athletes are wearing masks, and the stadiums are empty of spectators, but it's the absence of Costas that makes the whole affair seem strangest

Business and Finance Let college athletes make money -- above the table

It should be news to nobody that money was already finding its way into collegiate athletics in a big way. We've known it for a long time. Transparency accrues to the benefit of the rule-followers.

Business and Finance Everything's taking longer to get here

And it doesn't matter much where "here" is. Delivery times for all kinds of products are far slower than usual right now, by a margin that is just off the charts.

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July 27, 2021

Threats and Hazards Reality is the best friend of liberty

The Olympic Games are supposed to be apolitical, but that ideal has rarely been achieved. Even when it is accomplished on the field of play, what happens in sports invariably finds its way into relations among countries, as well as into the domestic politics of individual nations. ■ Just as sports reveal differences between athletes, so do international affairs reveal differences among governments. The People's Republic of China (PRC), for example, is governed by a regime that hates to be criticized. How much does the regime hate it? So much that censors cut off the broadcast of the opening ceremonies when the delegation from Taiwan was introduced. ■ On the matter of Taiwan, the PRC's government is extremely touchy. Domestically, a memo was circulated at Radio Television Hong Kong warning against any hint that Taiwan is an independent state. Abroad, the Chinese consulate in New York has complained that NBC's map of the PRC omitted Taiwan and other territorial claims, "hurt[ing] the dignity and emotions of the Chinese people", and tweeting a complaint at NBC as if it manages American diplomacy. And the PRC has blasted Japan's public broadcaster for using the word "Taiwan", as well. ■ It's a recurring theme for the PRC: Image above all. The dispute over international recognition of Taiwan's independence is complex and has a long history, but the plain reality is that it is an island of 23 million people with their own government and legal system that does not behave like the PRC's. ■ Taiwan's path to a high rating for freedom was long. It got there not by disputing reality, but by embracing it: Reality is the best friend of liberty. ■ That statement has meaning on two levels. First, nobody has to run away from reality in order to embrace liberty. Human liberty is the natural order of the world. The more you see of reality, the more the truth pushes you in favor of a paradigm of ordered liberty ("ordered" in the sense that one person's rights end where another's begin). It can be complicated, tumultuous, and noisy, but we possess rights merely by cause of being born as human beings, and nobody is entitled to take those rights away. ■ The other meaning is that illiberal systems of government get by via deprivation. Individuals can be deprived of their natural rights for a long time and not fight back, but ultimately, when a political system fails to deliver the goods (so to speak), people get angry and revolt. When the Soviet Union failed miserably in its duties at Chernobyl, people revolted against the system. ■ What happened to the USSR could happen to the PRC, if the government shows itself incapable of delivering competent responses to reality. If it cannot show itself capable of preventing or responding to catastrophic floods in a city of 12 million people, that reality is pretty hard to hide -- even if the state-controlled television news tries to distract the audience with 29 minutes of news about Xi Jinping going to Tibet before talking about the disaster. ■ Sooner or later, systems that deny basic human dignity and natural human rights fail to deliver results as a practical matter. They cannot do otherwise, because they require a denial of reality -- not just the reality of those natural rights, but often a denial of realities as plain as the nose on one's face. When photographs must be erased because of the inconvenient realities they display, then the detachment from reality is terminal. ■ Personal liberty inevitably invites conflicts -- conflicts that we choose to resolve through ordered processes, like courts of law. Liberty does not require words to be rendered taboo or elections to be "fixed" to protect the interests of the powerful. Instead, it requires the attitude expressed by Theodore Roosevelt: "[W]e must face the facts as they are." Reality is the best friend of liberty.


July 28, 2021

Health Let's not do this again

Congressmember Clay Higgins of Louisiana says he has contracted Covid-19 for a second time. It's likely a moment of personal anxiety, and all people of goodwill should hope for his speedy recovery. Whatever the Representative wants to say about his apparent reinfection, it's not hard to draw a connection between his announcement and the memo from the attending physician for Congress asking the House of Representatives to resume mask-wearing. ■ One of the major hangups over vaccination appears to be this particular cloudiness about natural immunity. Some people who had (or at least think they had) Covid-19 believe they are sufficiently protected by natural immunity that it isn't necessary for them to take one of the available vaccines. But Rep. Higgins illustrates the peril of that approach: Either he did have Covid-19 before and he got it again (meaning that natural immunity failed him) or he mistook some other virus for Covid-19 and was misled into relying on natural immunity. ■ We plainly do not know conclusively whether this natural immunity is durable. The World Health Organization says most people who survive Covid-19 have antibodies within four weeks of infection. The CDC says we just don't know how long that protection might last. The WHO says the strength and duration of that natural immunity varies depending on the patient and the severity of the symptoms, and that there's no strong evidence supporting more than a few months of sustained protection. That might change with further evidence, but for now, confidence wanes after 8 months. ■ The word "novel" has meant a lot when applied to this "novel" coronavirus: We don't know everything about it yet, and circumstances are changing as we go. One of those things that has changed is the arrival of the "Delta" variant. It is much better at spreading itself than its predecessors. It spreads 50% faster than the Alpha variant, which spread 50% faster than the original virus. ■ People who may have counted upon natural immunity before deserve to know the facts: The new variant is an accelerant. It makes circumstances much more hazardous than before for people who are not protected by a vaccine. And make no mistake about it: The available vaccines are keeping people out of harm's way. The odds of dying from Covid-19 after vaccination fall literally into the 1-in-200,000 range. By comparison, your odds of dying in a car crash are about 1 in 9,000. That's more than a full order of magnitude of difference in risk, and yet most everyone still gets on the road. ■ Material facts about the disease have changed, and as Dwight Eisenhower once said regarding war, "Rigidity inevitably defeats itself, and the analysts who point to a changed detail as evidence of a plan's weakness are completely unaware of the characteristics of the battlefield." The material facts here are that new cases are picking up because of the new variant, but it's almost exclusively a serious risk to the unvaccinated. ■ Some people have been hesitant to get vaccinated over fears of unknown side effects, but they ought to know that side effects simply don't show up long after vaccines are administered. Serious side effects from any vaccine have only happened within a few weeks -- or a handful of months, tops. And in particular, it's notable that the mRNA vaccines are eliminated by the body almost immediately, even though the immune system gets to work building protection. ■ But while there's no known mechanism by which a vaccine will come back to haunt you by surprise years later, we've long known that some viruses can linger and cause further damage long after the initial infection. If you've had chickenpox, you could get shingles later. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can later give you cancer. Long-term infections by the hepatitis virus can cause liver failure. ■ We already know that some people are experiencing "long Covid", and there's no guarantee Covid-19 won't turn out to be as insidious as, for instance, the chickenpox-shingles connection. And we know that viruses can mutate right around natural immunity -- it's why we haven't yet cured the common cold. Taken what we already know through hard experience, avoiding Covid is the only rational thing to do. ■ So, on one side of the risk equation, we have a virus that is spreading much faster than it did before, uncertainty about the long-term consequences of the disease, and no reason for high confidence in sustained natural immunity. On the other, we have vaccines that have been administered to billions of people with extremely good track records of both safety and efficacy. ■ We don't know whether natural immunity protects people for long (and if Rep. Higgins is right, that confidence should be waning), but we know with extraordinary (and continually growing) confidence that the vaccines do. When the facts change, reasonable people should be open to changing their minds.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

July 29, 2021

Threats and Hazards It is a crime to lie to Congress

The first witnesses to testify before the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol were four police officers: Two from the US Capitol Police, and two from the DC Metropolitan Police Department. ■ Though they testified only in their personal capacities, the witnesses were subject to the same rules that apply to anyone who testifies before Congress. That includes 18 U.S.C. Section 1001, under which it is a Federal crime to lie to Congress. It's a good law: Congress needs to be able to obtain truthful information if it is to be able to make appropriate laws. And in the order of operations of the Federal government, Congress literally comes first. Some say that it is "first among equals", but the reality is that Congress can dismiss the President, not the other way around. The legislative branch is more equal than the others. ■ Thus, what people say to Congress matters. Cynicism aside, what a person says to Congress, they say to the American people. And they're not allowed to lie when they do. Testimony to Congress must faithfully represent the truth. ■ In his testimony, Officer Daniel Hodges of the DC Metro Police made specific note of some of the flags being carried: "It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians: I saw the Christian Flag directly to my front. Another read 'Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.'" ■ It is distressing testimony, since it gives evidence that at least some of the people participating in the attack saw their religious and political identities as one, and that the merger of the two gave them some reason to commit an attack on the very seat of the national government. ■ In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin noted that "Tho' I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an Opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted". But Franklin also said this about what he saw in the various churches of his time: "I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix'd with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv'd principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another." ■ Much is rightly said of Thomas Jefferson's contributions to religious liberty. Few things are more important to our civil laws than the First Amendment and its protection of religious freedom. But it is very much in the founding spirit of the country, too, to expect religious leaders and teachers to heed Franklin's words and avoid any tendency "to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another".

@briangongol on Twitter

July 30, 2021

News Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you

Aside from a semiannual checkup at the dentist's office, almost no one ever has the experience of someone else flossing their teeth. The incentives to floss are almost entirely personal, and so is the effort required. It all comes from you: Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you. ■ That being said, we aren't born knowing how to floss, either. Everyone has to learn somewhere. Mostly, we expect this to be the kind of life skill learned from conscientious parents and other caregivers. If not there, perhaps we learn it from the dentist or dental hygienist. And if all of those fail, then perhaps the skill will be transmitted at school, during a health class. (If you count on learning from a YouTube video, there's a risk you'll accidentally learn to dance instead.) ■ But in the end, once the skill is learned, it's up to the individual to do it. It's a pure case of capacity-building: Once a person develops the skill, it's up to them to execute. Capacity-building is almost categorically under-appreciated. ■ Debates over the "true purpose" of education -- from elementary through post-secondary -- are perpetual and practically infinite. Some say the purpose is to create good citizens. Some say the purpose is to equip students to become lifelong learners. Some say it is to create a population ready for gainful employment. ■ Isn't the "true purpose" all three? In essence, isn't the educational system in which we invest so much really a giant, complex project in capacity development? No single solution fixes all problems. No one test measures all success. No isolated outcome determines the return on the investment. But taken all together, isn't formal education really a process of maximizing the capacity of each individual to, in the words made famous by Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are"? ■ Education can't make a person "Do what you can", nor does it decide "Where you are", but it can certainly make a difference about "What you've got". We can't and shouldn't expect formal education to do all things -- but we should have a rather expansive understanding of what capacities it ought to develop. In the end, once capacity has been developed, it's up to the individual to find the motivation and the initiative to act. Those are powerful internal forces, and they are impressed upon us by families, friends, and the institutions we use to seek higher meaning in life -- religious communities, service organizations, civic groups, and the like. ■ The pandemic experience has forced a global reckoning with meaning and illustrated how fragile mental wellness can be, especially when people are distanced from social support. But it has also revealed unexpected reservoirs of resilience. That is the stuff of meaning -- the "Do what you can". When we combine it with capacity -- the "With what you've got" -- it turns out that there remains plenty of room to be optimistic about the human future. ■ We ought to think hard about how the things we can do in structured and formal ways to build capacity enable people to make the most of the meaning and motivation they find within. They are different things, and we ought to be comfortable looking to different sources for them. Our most vicious political disputes over matters like education often reflect habits of misinterpreting how those roles differ, as some combatants bring their most uncharitable assumptions about meaning and others institutionally resist reforms and evolving performance expectations. ■ Some good faith is needed all around. We ask educational systems to do many things -- and it's not unreasonable for that list to grow. Almost everyone in every sector has to do more than their predecessors did, because the world invariably grows more complex. But as the list grows, we're well-advised to respect the appropriate lanes: Capacity-building, yes; personal motivation and meaning, no. Failing to know the difference and assigning the wrong expectations only results in a sort of trench warfare of policy that leaves no one satisfied. It's no good for us to surrender to a self-perpetuating cycle of motivated acrimony. ■ Schools can teach people how to read the Constitution, but they can't make people decide to vote. They can train students to understand and use the scientific method, but not motivate them to become impassioned climate activists. They can teach personal wellness, but they can't floss your teeth for you.

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