Gongol.com Archives: August 2021

Brian Gongol

August 2021
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August 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet What's in a surname?

One of the things a global event like the Summer Olympics offers us is a chance to consider small differences in habits. As a matter of practice, Americans are used to putting a given name first (Sally) and a family name second (Smith). In 2020 Olympics host country Japan, the family name typically comes first (i.e., Smith Sally). This opens the door to confusion if one doesn't know whether a name has been Romanized, so there is a simple clarifying convention: Placing the family name in all-capitals. Thus, whether it's printed Sally SMITH or SMITH Sally, it remains clear which name is which. ■ In a way, it's funny that we have surnames at all. The famed Leonardo was from the town of Vinci; "da Vinci" wasn't his family name. In Iceland, one's last name only indicates the name of a parent -- Magnus's son or Jon's daughter -- and isn't shared by an extended family, which makes organizing their telephone directories a bit complicated. Many Hispanic cultures incorporate two surnames for each person. And if you're really getting down to it, European surnames from McGowan to Ferrari to Schmidt are all just local variations on "smith", all because some long-ago ancestor was the village ironsmith. ■ The computer-driven need for unique usernames has made this especially complicated. There can be only one JohnSmith, despite the tens of thousands of John Smiths out there. Mononyms like Teller and Madonna used to make people stand out, but now anyone with a presence online has to compete with everyone else to find a string of unbroken characters entirely their own. Unless you're one of the few to have a unique prosoponym, finding one can be hard enough to do even without username rules. ■ Besides, surnames can be troublesome, especially if one happens to show up in the news for the wrong reasons. Gerald Ford was merely being self-deprecating when he declared himself, "A Ford, not a Lincoln", but the Ford name alone has had its ups and downs -- including a spell associated with a notorious anti-Semite, and prior to that, as the namesake of the site of Lincoln's assassination. (It's a lot of weight to carry for a name derived from people who lived near a stream crossing.) And it's hard to avoid associations with a surname like Lee/Li, borne by probably 100 million people or more worldwide. ■ The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child includes as one of its very first articles the right to have a name from birth. Such is the power of a personal name. But perhaps we're not so far away as we think from people being known once again by names not based upon family relations, but upon what they do. This is already the way of the digital world, where people choose handles to match their working identities: Raven the Science Maven, Econo Todd, and Epi Ellie. ■ There is no perfect naming system, any more than there is a perfect voting system. Real surnames go extinct (though it's a problem with a mathematical solution, for those willing to try it), and sometimes self-chosen names outlive their usefulness (as when a journalist with a name tied to one institution goes to work for another outlet, or when deliberate anonymity outlives its professional usefulness). ■ It seems safe to forecast that the names of the future will be a lot more fluid than the names of the past. We won't all go through as many iterations as Prince, but it may not be a foregone conclusion that the athletes of the next Summer Olympics won't ask to be identified by something other than their conventional legal names. Not everyone will want to be called "Backstroke Bob" or "Marathoner Marissa", but there may be athletes like Jade Carey and Suni Lee, who share their names with others, who may end up finding value in creative onomastics.

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August 3, 2021

The United States of America Respect for what culture?

Only a couple of months ago, one man was so aggrieved by Disney World's efforts to keep up with contemporary community standards that he issued a full-length op-ed to the Orlando Sentinel, which they dutifully published -- including these words: "The more Disney moves away from the values and vision of Walt Disney, the less Disney World means to me." These values, says the writer, are incorporated into rides like Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle Cruise. ■ It is of no use to publicly flay the author; everyone is entitled to hold preferences and beliefs about culture, including ones widely rejected by others. As the Latin phrase goes, "de gustibus non est disputandum": There is no disputing about taste. ■ But there is use in examining what, exactly, are the values transmitted by Disney's cultural iconography. Objectively stated, Mickey Mouse is a rodent who has been stringing along his girlfriend for the past 93 years, and his best friend is a duck who refuses to wear pants. But that's not fair, is it? They are meant to be lighthearted characters, not to be taken too seriously (lest someone figure out why Goofy talks but Pluto doesn't). ■ Yet even lighthearted characters can transmit the wrong ideas. One doesn't have to think there was specific malice involved in displaying a shrunken-head salesman character on a ride long ago, but coming to terms with what was (at best) a gross cultural insensitivity in the past means it probably makes sense to remove the offending image in the present. ■ Part of celebrating American culture means cheering for incremental steps towards "a more perfect union". That process can be additive -- like creating new stories that make female characters the stars and not just damsels-in-distress (as in "Brave", "Moana", and "The Princess and the Frog"). It can also be subtractive -- like removing songs and other references to old content with racist connotations from the present-day experience. ■ Choosing what to emphasize or to de-emphasize doesn't erase the past, but it does reflect how we want to address the present and the future. James Madison himself wrote that ""[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good". Correcting what past Americans got wrong isn't dishonoring them -- it's honoring a common fidelity to getting things as right as we can in the time we are living. Invariably that will be an imperfect process, and sometimes jarring, but it's the only road worth traveling.

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August 4, 2021

News "I can't be a part of the story"

One of the finest subtle jokes packed into the magnificent first season of "Arrested Development" is the reaction of news anchor John Beard -- playing a fictionalized version of himself -- witnessing an incident at a restaurant and dashing out, mumbling that he "can't be a part of the story". It's a hilarious sendup of the classic image of news reporter objectivity: Anchoring a news report on the incident later, the para-John Beard attributes the reporting with the well-worn "sources say". ■ On one hand, the notion of strict journalistic neutrality and objectivity has always been more of an ideal than it has been a perfect standard for reality. A person cannot report events without observations, and observations are inevitably influenced by prior experiences and pre-existing perceptions. But there are ways and standards of trying -- even if only asymptotically -- to approach objectivity. ■ One of those, of course, is to avoid being part of the story. Unfortunately, though, the neutral voice of a third-party observer of events is rarely as engaging as someone's first-person account of events. Some writers are good enough to overcome the limitations of that objective voice, but it generally takes a long period of apprenticeship to develop the skill, and extra time to apply it each time a story is written. ■ The Internet doesn't tend to reward that extra time, and the Internet is where so much news is now engaged. The result is that we are awash in first-person narrative reporting -- from travel to natural disasters, from the "access journalism" of politics to reporting deliberately intertwined with the reporter's identity. ■ In some cases, first-person accounts can lend necessary color to a story, or offer grounds for a journalist's analysis. In the case of a regular columnist, first-person accounts may paradoxically be the most effective way to establish credibility -- particularly if a column depends upon the columnist being "one of us" among his or her audience. But there's a lurking danger if every journalist is just waiting to unleash their inner Hunter S. Thompson. The danger is that the "I" can become more significant than the subject of the reporting itself. ■ "News" is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Lots of other things -- specifically, "events" (things that merely have happened) and "information" (things that inform us without any particular effect on our understanding of the world) -- are often reported alongside news, and can fill the gaps when there isn't enough news to fill a 30-minute television broadcast or a 32-page newspaper edition. Our problem is that a first-person narrative of events can easily seem like news, particularly if the experience was new to the reporter. But it's not the same. ■ The temptation to report those "I" events might be diminished if the standard practice were to replace every instance of the word "I" with "your humble correspondent". Such an archaic-sounding construction might be a helpful reminder that "news" is inherently a matter of "we", not "I". News is about a communal understanding of what is and what has changed in ways that we (as communities, both large and small) need to know. ■ As more and more attention is given to the fragmentation of news audiences, the easy short-term answer is to dig deeper into first-person accounts -- and it's not helping matters that the employment situation of many journalists has become so precarious that they have to "build personal brands" as an insurance policy against unemployment. But the long-run answer lingers somewhere down the path of hearing less from "your humble correspondent" and more from the practiced voice of a shared understanding of what really matters.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 5, 2021

News It's OK to love the Olympics unironically

One of the great triumphs of the modern world has been its relative shrinking. A person can now board a plane in the New York City area and arrive in Singapore 18 hours later -- a historic accomplishment, when one pauses to consider that from the same origin, it wasn't even possible to cross the Rocky Mountains in 18 hours of air travel in 1930, or to make it to eastern Ohio in a week of travel in 1830. ■ "Communication" used to mean both the act of sending messages and the means of going somewhere, and either way, faster communication is all around us. It is much, much faster to communicate than in generations past. As long as layovers don't bother you and you're comfortable with a little bit of video lag, more of the world is within easy reach than at any time in history. ■ This speed is both good and bad; it makes spreading a pandemic much more efficient, but it also facilitates easier collaboration among global experts on the development and distribution of things like vaccines. ■ Despite all of this better communication, what we talk about around the world remains fragmented. Even when cultural phenomena sweep the globe, the fragmentation of media consumption is only compounded by differing rules on rights in different countries. People can find hacks like VPNs to escape geographical Netflix restrictions and buy region-free players for their DVDs, but rivalrous approaches to matters like privacy keep us from sharing global experiences in real time. ■ The Olympics are a rare exception. It's possible to exempt oneself from a lot of other cultural phenomena, but even if you're not watching the Olympic Games live on television, you're the odd person out if you're not aware of them happening at all. ■ It's strange that in this time of such intense communication, we still don't really have a global, real-time conversation. A few outlets, like the BBC World Service, CNN, and Bloomberg all get part of the way there -- but not everyone's a news junkie, and even fewer are financial news junkies. People can watch Twitch streams or tune in to YouTube live streams, but those tend to serve niche audiences and not a global mass market. ■ Common experiences build community, and the Olympics are a nice common experience for the world to share. It's satisfying to watch people do things well, and the games are a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of people doing things amazingly well. We may not know what makes a particular world record amazing, but we know it's neat to see one broken. ■ Even the most committed internationalist and the most ardent believer in a trans-national future ought to agree that no matter what problems exist within the governing body itself, it's fine to sit back and cheer for your compatriots. The only thing missing is to figure out how to have more of these global experiences that can bind us together.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 6, 2021

The United States of America Reap the benefit

In the abstract, 1776 seems like a very long time ago. But in terms of human life, it's really not that many generations before us. The usual shorthand says that a "generation" is about 30 years (somewhere around the mean age for a mother at childbirth), but many of us could find a path back to 1776 in our own family trees that might only require five or six generations. After all, the last widow of a Civil War veteran died in 2020. ■ Because we're really not that far removed from the generation of the Founders, it seems all that much more peculiar that we really never have developed much of a culture of family traditions in office. We can point to obvious exceptions to the rule (like the Kennedy family, who can't seem to quit running for office in Massachusetts and nearby states), but few other political family legacies endure past a second or third generation. ■ And there really aren't any that last back to the Founding generation. Washington had no children, nor did Madison. No powerhouse family political dynasties were set afoot by Adams, Monroe, or Hamilton. Jefferson likely produced quite a few children, but none were privileged to enter politics with his name. ■ It's not as though some of the Founders weren't trying to set up their offspring for success. Benjamin Franklin expressly pointed out in his autobiography the things that he hoped his descendants would learn from his own experience, writing, "I hope therefore that some of my Descendants may follow the Example and reap the Benefit." ■ No matter what one generation does to try to lay the groundwork for their children and generations to follow, people have to pick up those lessons and learn them on their own. It's a decision, and it turns out that it's pretty hard to listen to your great-great-great-grandfather. ■ But one of the really liberating aspects about a democratic system like ours is that everyone is at liberty to pick their own intellectual forbearers, even if they can't pick the ones who sent them their bloodline. Everyone makes choices about their intellectual heritage, whether consciously or not. Benjamin Franklin may not have been your great-great-great-grandfather by virtue of birth, but there's nothing to stop you or anyone else from adopting him as an intellectual ancestor. ■ We have a lot of Americans today who want to be considered patriots through the ease of their birth identity. That's hardly the American way. We're much better off looking to the people who choose the harder route of making deliberate choices about whose habits and practices of thought to adopt.

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August 9, 2021

Water News Not a drop to drink

Des Moines sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Des Moines and the Raccoon. And because of a long-running drought, more than half of the state of Iowa is in some state of moderate to extreme drought -- including the watersheds for both of those rivers. The result is that the Raccoon River is barely a neighborhood stream rather than the meaningful river (and major source of drinking water) to which Central Iowans are accustomed. ■ Surface waters supply public drinking water systems in the US with more gallons per day than groundwater wells, by quite a margin. Obviously, though, surface waters are subject to the effects of conditions like drought (and, significantly, runoff pollution). ■ Our politicians love to talk about "infrastructure", and our voters love to applaud it, but water rarely makes anyone's hot list. Roads, bridges, airports, and other related investments in transportation all rank much higher. Yet drinking water ought to be a spectacular stepping-off point for getting the public to think about the water-energy nexus. ■ It is entirely possible to keep almost all of the water we need circulating within a closed loop. The proof can be found aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts drink recycled urine. We shouldn't blanch too much at the idea -- ultimately, all water is recycled; the only thing that changes is how far removed you are from the previous use. ■ What makes old water ready for re-use is treatment, and treatment requires energy. Surprisingly little is needed in the way of chemistry in order to make water safe -- but we do need a great deal of energy. Whether through distillation or aeration, reverse osmosis or ozonation, much of what's actually done to make water safe for consumption involves energy more than just about any other input. ■ Given enough energy, in fact, it is possible to desalinate seawater or collect atmospheric vapor in useable quantities. And, given enough energy, it is possible to move water from any place to any other place (typically by pumping, but even possibly by sea). ■ The crux of the matter is that all problems of water scarcity can be overcome -- as long as energy is in tremendous, cheap supply. Either it can be moved from where it is abundant to where it is scarce, it can be recycled almost indefinitely, or it can be captured from the atmosphere or from the sea and turned into potable form. That should not stop us from implementing as many reasonable measures for conservation as we can find, and it is worth noting that gentle nudges in the direction of high-efficiency appliances and low-flow plumbing devices have contributed to considerable declines in domestic demand. The rule of thumb used to be that indoor household consumption was about 100 gallons per person per day, but that figure has fallen to 82 gallons nationally and less than 75 gallons in some states (including Iowa and a few of our neighbors). ■ Nevertheless, we haven't arrived at that blissful moment of energy superabundance -- at least not yet. So the water sector, while it struggles for the attention and investment it so badly needs in order to face the droughts and other troubles of the present, needs also to press hard for energy innovations, particularly in the field of electrical generation and transmission. There may even come a time someday when energy is so cheap and super-abundant that we could apply it almost recreationally to problems like removing excess nutrients from rivers and streams before they cause algal blooms and dead zones downstream. But in the shorter term, careful use and responsible local management are of the utmost importance.

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August 10, 2021

Computers and the Internet The emoji we need right now

Emoji (or do we say emojis?) may leave a lot of matters up for dispute, but they are a convenient way of integrating feelings into what otherwise might be misconstrued text. Thus, an upside-down smiley face represents sarcasm or "frustrated resignation", while the thinking-face emoji can stand in for the user's skepticism or bemusement. Emotional texture like this makes the language more useful and vibrant, especially in public forums like social media, where character limits and social norms discourage us from writing out what we mean in greater detail. ■ Yet even as we approach an official emoji catalog numbering nearly 2,000 entries, there is one emoji we still need above all: One that says, "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?" ■ We are surrounded by too many fanatics, and the Internet is rocket fuel for most of them. This is neither a partisan nor a sectarian point. It is merely an observation that, objectively, too many among us obsess about too little, and the resulting narrowness of debate and discussion impoverishes the public square (such as it is in the Internet Age). ■ It is not just that our worst obsessives cannot have vigorous discussions with people who disagree with them. It is not only that there are assumptions of bad faith everywhere that discourage good people from engaging outside their comfort zones. It is not merely that some people cannot help but see every event as a moment to try to score another point on some vast cosmic argument scoreboard. ■ No, even though it is all of those things, the worst thing is that it makes our zeitgeist utterly and insufferably predictable. We're stifling legitimate curiosity with a never-ending buffet of mental comfort food. We live in the most advanced, most prosperous, most complex moment in human history -- yet how often do people with national audiences and giant platforms truly seek to surprise? Life should be abundant with serendipity, and yet there is little that will ever surprise the consumer of cable television news, major daily opinion pages, syndicated radio programming, or even the infinite stream of commentary on Twitter. So much of the public discourse is so predictable that there's little sense in indulging in it. ■ Part of the problem is, of course, partisanship -- and perhaps negative partisanship even more than that: It's easier to speak up when you can expect the usual suspects to call you names while an amen chorus rises to your defense. Part of the problem is credentialism: If the experts on a given subject work hard enough, they can clear the space of any curious outsiders who might try to venture a new opinion that crosses out of "their lane". Part of the problem is the devolution of politics into team sports: If social acceptance is preordained by your membership in a tribe, why would you ever venture an original idea outside of the canon, lest you be distrusted on all sides? ■ Consequently, with most everyone -- including, perhaps especially, the smartest among us -- afraid to be wrong, be original, or be curious outside the bounds of what "everyone's talking about", we're not so much amusing ourselves to death as we are boring ourselves to death. A small number of fanatics commit themselves to hijacking every discussion and routing it back to familiar battlegrounds, and it scares away people of more moderate temperaments. It's a quasi-industrial outrage complex that crowds out nuanced and complex original thoughts. ■ It happens nationally, it happens locally, and it even happens among friends and family. It's the Facebook friend who won't stop sharing anti-vaccination tirades, the local blogger with a vendetta against an elected official, the radio host who still provides a platform for election misinformation, and the columnist whose only beat is martyrdom. ■ It's deathly boring, and it's keeping us from thinking beyond a carefully-rehearsed set of opinions on a tiny handful of subjects. We need to know better than to get trapped in the familiar intellectual cul-de-sacs, and we need to be willing to transgress among our own supposed friends and allies to remind the obsessives: "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?"

Weather and Disasters Bad 2020 flashbacks

On what otherwise seemed a nondescript Monday morning among others in pandemic-locked-down 2020, a derecho roared across Iowa and into points east, causing in excess of $11 billion in damage -- more than any other thunderstorm event in American history. Straight-line wind speeds peaked at 140 miles an hour around Cedar Rapids, which ended up losing half of its tree canopy. ■ It's hard to explain the scale of damage that occurs when everything in a band 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long struck almost simultaneously by winds of 70 mph or greater. Corn everywhere was laid flat to the ground, trees were shredded and permanently bent, and debris was scattered everywhere. The storm was frightening on the ground and stunning from the sky. The proper meteorological term was derecho, but it deserved to be called a windquake -- it was abrupt, widespread, and devastating. ■ The silence and darkness on the nights that followed the storm were eerie. So much of the state lost power -- including huge portions of Iowa's two largest metro areas, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids -- that it took a remarkable surge of electrical workers from all over the country to restore power to the more than 400,000 customers who lost it. ■ It's not only cliche but also inaccurate to say that the derecho left a huge share of Iowans living in what felt like a developing country. 90% of the world's population had access to electricity as of 2019 (and that number continues rising fast). More than a billion people gained access to electricity between 2005 and 2016. ■ Along with power outages came Internet outages, and not only because it's hard to access Wi-Fi without a functioning router. 49% of the world's people had Internet access by 2019, and though access varies by region, more than half of the people in each of North America, Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, East Asia, and the Pacific can get online. ■ As Iowans found when we were forced to go without, services like electricity and Internet access aren't mere creature comforts: They are essential tools for getting work done, for making use of most modern amenities (like refrigeration), and for engaging with the world. While there are still too many of our fellow Earthlings living in poverty, we should take cheer that the global middle class is a majority and growing. ■ The good news is that some lessons were learned: The National Weather Service now issues alerts for especially destructive thunderstorms (warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself), and people who experienced the derecho have in many cases brought forward new ideas and plans for resiliency in anticipation of the next high-impact event. Derechos will happen again, and even ordinary severe thunderstorms can happen on the anniversary of the big one. ■ But in addition to giving us lessons in self-sufficiency and neighborly cooperation, memories of that brief, painful step backward in time ought to make us cheerleaders for the continued progress of people living all over the world as so many continue escaping extreme poverty and deprivation. Going without electricity (just for a while) put Iowans in the bottom global 10%. It was an unpleasant place to be, but with planning, attention, and continued growth, our next stay will be shorter and there will be even fewer other people joining us there.

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August 11, 2021

Business and Finance If you were a conglomerate, would you eat yourself?

In character as a sort of deranged Harry Caray, Will Ferrell once posed the enduring question, "If you were a hot dog, and you were starving, would you eat yourself?" As the nonsensical ranting of a impersonated sportscaster, it's a question nobody needs to answer. But as a financial matter, it's very real indeed. ■ Six months into the year 2021, Berkshire Hathaway has brought in $13.7 billion in operating earnings -- actual profits resulting from business, not counting the ups and downs of the investments the company owns. This is a meaningful figure, since Berkshire Hathaway is by any measure one of the largest companies in America. Its profitability is up nicely over the comparable period in 2020, and that bodes well as a signal for how the American economy is doing as a whole. ■ In those same six months, Berkshire Hathaway has repurchased $12.6 billion worth of its own shares. While both are very large numbers, there isn't much of a relative gap between $13.7 billion and $12.6 billion. In effect, Berkshire Hathaway is eating itself at roughly the pace that it is making new profits. ■ What makes this news is that Berkshire Hathaway is the lovingly-curated investment vehicle of Warren Buffett. Buffett has spent most of his adult life carefully curating the company into the incomparable conglomerate it has become. He is the most recognizable face of both value investing and the strategy of buy-and-hold, famously as protective of the company's stock as of his own personal shareholdings. At the company's 2011 shareholder meeting, Buffett proclaimed, "We hate issuing shares. It's selling off a slice of every good business we already own." ■ That makes the inverse behavior significant, too: Berkshire isn't just choosing not to issue shares -- it's actively purchasing them. In so doing, it is effectively consolidating the slice of every good business it already owns. And this, too, is a practice about which Buffett has been notoriously cautious. At the 2013 shareholder meeting, Buffett laid his cards right on the table: "The calculus is that you take care of the business with your money first, then if you can buy additional businesses in a way that adds value to the per-share value of the business, then you do that, and then if you can buy the shares of your own business at less than the intrinsic value, it's like spending $0.90 to get $1.00." ■ Thus, with Berkshire Hathaway spending almost all of its income to repurchase shares, it says something about two matters at once. Specific to the share price of the company itself, it says that management (most prominently, Buffett himself) thinks that they're "spending 90 cents to get $1", well in excess of what is required to "take care of the business" with the money coming in. ■ But, more broadly, it signals that they are unable to find additional businesses "in a way that adds value" on a per-share basis. It's not for want of dry powder: The company is sitting on a truly unbelievable $140 billion in cash and US Treasury bills. Even setting aside tens of billions of dollars as an emergency fund for its insurance businesses, Berkshire could comfortably buy out just about any business not in the list of the world's top 100. The $12.6 billion that have gone into share repurchases could have swallowed The Gap or Morningstar in full, with cash leftover to spare. ■ Berkshire Hathaway isn't a hot dog, but it's self-evidently starving for good deal opportunities in the market all around. Instead of making suboptimal deals, it's choosing to eat itself -- which in the long run ought to be the most attractive service it can perform for the shareholders who choose to stick around instead of selling out. But the starvation it's feeling for deals on the outside ought to be a warning to anyone deploying their own money. If a team with Berkshire's cash pile and Buffett's brains can't find better things to do with their money than to circle back to itself, it's hard to believe the stage is set for the rest of us to get rich quick.


August 12, 2021

News Everyone gets restless sometimes

The Census Bureau reports that between 2010 and 2020, 52% of all US counties shrank in population. The number may seem stark (and the map illustrating the change certainly is), but it's not a new phenomenon: Urbanization has been the inexorable path not only in America over the last century, but for the world as well. 55% of the world lives in urban areas today, and the UN projects that figure to grow to 68% by mid-century. ■ Not every city will grow in the same way nor at the same pace. Metropolitan Tokyo's 38 million people outnumber the entire population of Canada, Afghanistan, or Peru. Las Vegas had 2,304 people in 1920, and now it's a metro well over 2 million, for some of the fastest urban growth in America. ■ People move for many reasons, but ultimately it happens because we get restless. We move to pursue economic opportunity, cultural stimulation, and social interactions. Most of those things are found where other people are, and that's what makes urbanization unavoidable. ■ We're endowed by nature with giant brains wired to look for problems to solve. That kind of mental capacity has real usefulness for nomads, and the resulting skills like pattern recognition are what make us the most highly evolved animals of all. ■ That mental restlessness needs to be channeled someplace, lest it end up going to bad or destructive purposes. And the more we are able to do away with existential threats and move away from survival mode (which is exactly how we define the move into a true majority-middle-class world), the more it will matter where that surplus mental energy will go. ■ We can talk ourselves in circles about theories around a "clash of civilizations", particularly with China's ruling party, but also with other forms of authoritarianism. But in the long term, any conflicts between authoritarianism and the free world won't be fair fights: One side will have mostly brute force, and the other will have all of that restless energy. ■ The free world -- that is, the places governed by liberal democracy and enriched through broadly-defined economic liberty -- has ways to channel that restless energy when it isn't needed for survival. Inventors are free to innovate, politicians are free to bloviate, authors and artists are free to create, and entrepreneurs are free to contrive new wants to satisfy. Left alone to our devices, we can indulge in 5.5 hours a day of leisure time, make hundreds of thousands of patent applications, start more than a million podcasts, register four million new businesses (even in the middle of a pandemic), and stream billions of hours of homemade video. ■ This is the spare energy of human liberty. It is amazing stuff. And it can't be utilized where people must watch over their shoulders at all times because Big Brother might take a dim view of their activities and throw them in prison. Think of the mental deadweight imposed by the awareness that your "social credit" score is being monitored and that your own person is subject to sophisticated electronic surveillance by powers outside your reach. ■ Success in conflict is never pre-ordained, and it would be a terrible mistake not to take very seriously the potential for significant conflict -- including armed conflict -- with regimes that have no patience for freedom. What starts with insults like "arrogant" can escalate into much more than that. Deterrence matters; as a rule, things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we imagine. ■ Yet, beneath it all, the fundamentals line up in favor of the system that best deploys humans' restless energy. It makes things better by increments when times are easy, and it's the ultimate reservoir for powering giant leaps forward when times are hard. It doesn't take form like an aircraft carrier in a shipyard, but it matters far more. ■ In World War II, Dwight Eisenhower said, "[A] favorite question of mine was to inquire whether the particular squad or platoon had figured out any new trick or gadget for use in infantry fighting." Eisenhower knew then, just as we should know now, that people become the secret weapon when they are habituated to individual liberty and free to put their restless energy to work. Good ideas bubble up if we let them, but people need the freedom to be restless.

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August 16, 2021

Threats and Hazards Everything happens faster; everything takes longer

It took just a matter of days for the Taliban to sweep through and take over Afghanistan. It was only mid-May when US forces rapidly left Kandahar Airfield, and the United States hadn't planned to complete the troop withdrawal from the country until the end of August. Yet the collapse of the country's formal government and uniformed armed forces happened in what seemed like an instant. ■ We live within a peculiarly modern tension: Everything destructive happens faster than ever before, but everything productive takes longer. ■ Example #1: Six of California's ten largest wildfires have happened since August 2020, and we are told that they are very likely being made worse by climate change. Yet we are told that no matter what we do about carbon emissions (including stomping on the brakes completely), "Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century". ■ Example #2: Covid-19 was first identified by the WHO on January 9, 2020, and it had killed more than 100,000 people in America alone by May 28th. While the first mRNA vaccine was designed within days of getting the first map of the virus's genetic sequence, it will probably take until the end of 2022 to supply vaccinations to every willing person on Earth. ■ Example #3: Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, under the promise that the "One country, two systems" policy would be respected for 50 years. But less than 25 years into that agreement, China has implemented a rapid about-face and turned a "security law" against democratic protest. It took just two years for the government in China to undermine democratic institutions and individual freedoms that took decades of practice to establish. ■ To observe all of this is not to be fatalistic. In his first inaugural address, more than 200 years ago, James Madison proclaimed that "The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel and that of our own country full of difficulties." (Indeed it was, considering the War of 1812 would soon ensue.) Things have always gone wrong in human history, and recency bias generally makes us think that we're always living through the worst of times. ■ But it is also true that the pace of change is accelerating, and especially true that bad actors have access to the very same tools as good actors, and it's always easier to commit an offense than to keep up a perfect defense. After a failed plot to kill Margaret Thatcher, terrorists issued a statement saying "we only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky always". ■ When it comes to Afghanistan (and, for that matter, to any other engagement around the world), the military and strategic options deserve a robust debate. What to do in cases of armed conflict shouldn't be the province of uniformed military or diplomatic experts alone. In a self-governed society like the United States, responsibility for the use of the military falls ultimately on the shoulders of voters. We get what we demand from the elected officials who act on our behalf. If they lack vision, or try to score short-sighted popularity points against one another, or demonstrate a wafer-thin understanding of global issues, they only do so because voters don't insist otherwise. ■ There is something desperately sad about people trying to score short-term points while people halfway around the world are dying to get out as their country descends into an illiberal nightmare. There is good that can still be done -- like the state of Maryland saying it will take in refugees from the crisis. The good, however, takes time. ■ It seems that everything bad is happening faster, while everything good is taking longer. The dichotomy may not be inevitable and it may not be iron-clad. But it does tell us that the future of a good civilization is going to require the cultivation of patience for long-term work that doesn't always pay off in obvious ways nor on satisfying timelines. Much of the future, though, will depend on whether we are capable of remaining resolute in the face of all of the bad actors who only need to "be lucky once". That sense of resolution can't be cultivated overnight. It takes longer.

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August 17, 2021

Science and Technology A pound of cure still has something going for it

Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin's maxim that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". It was great advice in 1736, and it still has great advisory power to guide us today. ■ But advice usually rings true only if it directs us away from hazards we already recognize. There may be a pithy way to tell us how to be responsible space co-habitants on Mars, but that isn't a problem any of us encounter...yet. We do, however, recognize the perils of having to apply a pound of cure. ■ That's what makes the BeBot beach-cleaning robot so applause-worthy. It's a beefy electric robot that trawls beaches with a sand-sifting attachment that can clean about half to three-quarters of an acre per hour, picking up debris down to a 10-cm depth -- about as deep as an adult hand can scoop. ■ Yes, prevention certainly is better than cure. But participants in prevention shouldn't have to suffer because others won't, so three cheers for cures, too. Whether it's on a scale as small as a local beach or as large as global carbon emissions, some people are going to be ready, willing, and able to do the right thing -- and others are going to remain unrepentant polluters. ■ "Clean up after yourself" should be an axiomatic principle of good behavior. But for those cases when people -- either as individuals or in groups -- choose not to do so, there's nothing but good to be found in developing technologies that perform cleanup so that those who behave decently can still enjoy the benefits. The case to be made for public investment in those cleanup activities is very strong, especially when performed alongside (and even funded by) measures that place taxes on pollution. (Even better still if some of those funds are used to stimulate innovation on behalf of the "cure".) ■ The company behind the robotic beach-cleaner says that part of the point of the technology is to remind beach-goers that their litter has consequences -- and seeing the amount of debris picked up and concentrated in one place really drives home the consequences of that waste. One of Franklin's many other wise maxims is that "'Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them." Cleanup isn't cost-free, but the more we can habituate people to cleaning up after themselves, the better.


August 18, 2021

Threats and Hazards Evacuations and free cities

Airlifts, sealifts, and frenzied evacuations have a complex history. Events like the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Berlin airlift loom large in our historical memories because they represent heroic efforts of massive scale against immense odds. The heroics are remembered, as well they should be. But the lessons of the terrible vulnerabilities that make such heroics necessary are often lost because they are far less spectacular. It's easier to make a riveting movie about soldiers, sailors, and pilots than about the complex deterioration of military alliances. ■ What is happening right now in Afghanistan is terrible and heartbreaking on a giant scale. People are desperately trying to escape via the one airport under American control. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing, and 80% of those on the move now are women and children. Wrenching individual stories are no more than a tweet away. Images of hundreds of people being packed aboard US military aircraft in search of refuge remind the viewer of the legacy of referring to the number of "souls" aboard a craft. So many souls are in peril. ■ Aside from the criticisms that can and must be aired of the errors and misjudgments that led to the present crisis, we ought to be asking more broadly whether solutions are available to prevent calamity when people face circumstances so terrible that they are forced to flee their homes. ■ The United Nations counts tens of millions of refugees worldwide at this very moment. And there are crises aplenty that feed that number: Economic collapse (Venezuela), civil war (Yemen), famine (Sudan), and political oppression (Hong Kong). It is obviously impractical to promise to airlift them all -- though states from Utah to Maryland are offering to help, at least with Afghan refugee resettlement. ■ It wasn't that long ago in history that city-states could be found in both Europe and Asia, and the Treaty of Versailles established the Free City of Danzig after World War I in order to preserve Poland's access to the Baltic Sea. That "free city" served as a destination of refuge between the two World Wars (until it was overrun by Germany in 1939). ■ Thus it seems peculiar that the United States, unique in its ability to project power around the globe, hasn't laid out the terms by which we would recognize new "free cities" and offer them something like protectorate status, similar to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. As a country, we adhere to principles like the right to self-determination, and we stand on a legal foundation that depended upon a clear statement of principles for breaking away from a government our forebears deemed no longer legitimate. Why, then, do we not have a clear statement of policy that might have told, for instance, how we might have responded to the establishment of a "Free City of Kabul" by people seeking voluntarily to escape the illegitimate rule of the Taliban? ■ The question is complex, and it's really too late to do such a thing in the midst of the chaos. There are much more urgent needs to attend, and we have a moral duty to act. But Afghanistan won't be the last refugee crisis, and we can't depend upon international institutions to act on our moral imperatives (after all, China, Russia, and Venezuela all have seats on the UN Human Rights Council). But just as a few thousand American servicemembers were enough to hold the line in Afghanistan, so might clear statements of recognition and protection be enough to shelter millions of people seeking safety. Perfect solutions may elude us, but we shouldn't depend upon heroic airlifts to make all things right in a complicated world.


August 19, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

One question pays greater dividends than almost any other: "And then, what happens next?" You see, the law of unintended consequences follows us everywhere, because we are fallible human beings without the omniscience to see all possible results of our behavior. But that iron law doesn't excuse us from blustering recklessly into mistakes. ■ Once you become aware of a blind spot, it becomes a moral imperative to try to erase it, at least to the most reasonable extent of your capacities and the resources available. Rear-view mirrors are better than nothing, and backup cameras are generally better than rear-view mirrors alone. Being conscious of the potential for unintended consequences is a duty for anyone trying to make good decisions. ■ Anyone who cares for a garden or who plays groundskeeper for their own lawn is familiar with an unavoidable pattern: Any space that is cleared to bare soil will quickly sprout seeds unless someone is there to pull them or to cultivate the soil with something else. Nature is tough that way. ■ One doesn't have to actively play full-time gardener to still choose the kind of things that will sprout up. But even wildflowers still need some soil preparation, seeding, and early care in order to take hold of a space, and a healthy grass lawn still needs overseeding from time to time so that the grass prevails over invasive weeds. ■ Some of the most alarming aspects of the present situation in Afghanistan reflect a failure to apprehend "And then, what happens next?" When President Biden says of the Afghan military's collapse, "I don't think anybody anticipated that", then someone should be asking, "Why not?" We should never expect good to fill a vacuum faster than bad. ■ In the time outside forces have been in that country, some good has been seeded: Look, for example, to the way literacy among young women there soars above literacy among their elders. But we cannot look away from the fact that the departure of just a few thousand American troops has left thousands of people in crisis. Abruptly clearing the ground invited an invasion -- and not by wildflowers. ■ It is sometimes pointed out that free societies can choose different visions of the garden: The French garden is tightly controlled and purposely ordered, the English garden embraces the impulses of nature. But whatever vision is put to work, unintended consequences will still emerge, and ongoing attention is still required. ■ In the movie "Being There", the joke is that Chance the Gardener advised the President knowing only as much as he had learned from tending to his flowers, and what people perceived as his metaphorical wisdom was nothing more than practical advice gained from managing a rose bed. The garden, though, is a place where even the simplest person can see the importance of asking, "And then, what happens next?" Perhaps we ought to insist that more of our powerful decision-makers spend more time working the earth with their own bare hands.


August 20, 2021

Broadcasting National Radio Day

Periodically, the FCC auctions off portions of the radio spectrum for the establishment of local broadcasting outlets. Radio spectrum space is finite, and too many stations too close to one another (on the dial and on the map) contribute to interference that ruins the listening experience. But in the latest FCC auction, many channels went unsold. One sold for just $750. ■ These are not heady days to be in the radio business. The largest radio company in America lost $1.7 billion on operations last year, and that's before it had to pay another $343 million in interest on its $5.3 billion in debt. It's not alone; times are tough for other big ownership groups, too. ■ Yet the people who work in radio soldier on, despite round after round of layoffs and unpaid furloughs in most of America's large and medium markets. Careers of 25, 30, and 35 years can be ended overnight. It can make events like National Radio Day bittersweet for many. ■ Audio choices abound in the Internet age. Podcasts are thoroughly mainstream and growing. Artists release new albums on YouTube. Spotify claims that 13,000 artists earned $50,000 or more in royalties from its service last year (it claims to have paid more than $5 billion in royalties in 2020. It's well worth noting that the company that owned Radio.com says it's "sunsetting" the name. Ominous indeed. ■ The challenge that radio faces as a product is how to approach its customers -- listeners and the advertisers who hope to reach them. Radio's historic advantage has been its relationship to place. ■ Radio is the conversation a place has with itself. Or, at least, that's the way it was and ought to be. The trademark phrase of the BBC World Service is "This is London." Radio's connection with place is a natural consequence of the fact that radio signals travel outward from an antenna location (and degrade the farther away they travel, except when skywave propagation delivers a boost). That's what introduced generations of radio listeners to the concept of DXing -- the hobby of listening for distant radio stations. In America, up until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ownership was limited to relatively small groups. That act repealed the main limits and led to a rush of consolidation. ■ Those ownership rules complicated radio's relationship with place. No longer tethered by law to geographically-based small groups, the trend moved in the direction of programming less for place than for interest. Network programming had, of course, been around since the 1920s. But the incentive to target people with common interests rather than common geography has played no small part in the increasingly ideological character of much speech-based programming and the nationalization even of morning shows. ■ That turn to interest rather than place is a dangerous game for the radio stations that play it. Podcasts and specialty streams have an intrinsic advantage in that listeners can choose exactly what they want to hear about, from exactly the sources, and at whatever times they might choose. It's tough to beat that kind of specialization with "appointment listening" -- especially when Alexa will play whatever the listener requests with nothing more than a vocal cue. ■ Digital media sources have been slow to pivot, but they're going to learn about place next. And there are a lot of professionals who have been cut loose from the radio industry who have the skills to make viable efforts to serve up place-based programming that is available on-demand. Radio is important and has a vital role to play -- particularly in case of local emergencies, like when a hurricane takes aim at New England or when fires burn in the West. ■ Radio's ability to serve everyone in a place instantly remains its most valuable asset. Those owners and managers who prize that asset can do "live and local" things to survive -- and profit -- for another year. But assets can depreciate if neglected and can decline in value if rivals move in and serve a purpose better. Place and immediacy still matter.

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August 23, 2021

News What fuels the outrage machine?

In his 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Richard Hofstadter wrote that "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point." While he directed his attention towards the right wing of American politics, Hofstadter noted in his very first paragraph that the "paranoid style" was "a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing". ■ Hofstadter's argument is still hotly debated today. But there is another style that also invades contemporary American cultural and political commentary, and it truly is neither exclusively left-wing nor right-wing: It's a mindset. The mindset is one of studied humorlessness. ■ One doesn't have to search far to find it. The right-winger who pines for pre-Revolutionary days. The left-winger who takes pride in hating whatever makes others happy. The Congressman who sides with the Taliban. The writer whose entire brand is pandemonium and civilizational collapse. ■ From time to time, the quasi-professionally humorless may attempt to go for a laugh. But it's usually a laugh of direct or indirect insult at others, often as a sign of solidarity with a cause. In addition to it being cruel, laughing at the expense of others is a hollow approximation at humor. ■ Virtuous humor requires the ability to laugh at life itself. To be a just person, you can't take yourself so seriously that you don't know how to laugh at yourself. To laugh at oneself is a confession of fallibility. The world is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. We are limited beings, not omnipotent demigods. We trip up, we fail, we make fools of ourselves. We misunderstand, misjudge, and miscommunicate. To laugh at those human limitations -- especially within ourselves -- is an act of modesty. It takes humility to know that one's best is never perfect. ■ The humorless style in American politics reflects a peculiar aspiration to be a martyr behind the keyboard or the microphone -- to use words as an all-purpose weapon against the human condition. And it's unfortunate, because it gets in the way of grappling with the complicated and messy aspects of life that are often what make us the most alike, even when we appear to have the least in common. Jonathan Sacks, the prolific author and rabbi, wrote that "Those who can laugh at fate, redeem it from tragedy. One who rejects his enemy's interpretation of events cannot be made a victim. Psychologically, he or she remains free. Humour is first cousin to hope." ■ No one person holds the keys to shut off the outrage machine. But it is within the hands of anyone who engages in the public square, even as a passive consumer, to discourage it. Anymore, it's the clicks that count. Pageviews and other forms of "engagement" are interpreted as the closest substitute for votes. We don't have to reward the kind of hubris it takes to be humorless.

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August 24, 2021

News Time for major decisions

Every new school year brings with it a predictable round of news stories and research papers touting the most profitable college majors and most important courses to take. The very cyclicality of it is comforting. ■ The shortcoming of any such advice is that it can only be based upon either the author's subjective experience or the cold impartiality of aggregated data on tuition rates and salaries. Advice to take classes in communications or business is often fairly wise, but it's not much upon which to build a choice of major. ■ The advice that everyone should get (but that almost nobody knows how to communicate) is: Find the path with the biggest gap between what you can create and what you have to give up to do it. ■ The easy way out is to say "Do what you love and the money will follow", but that's deceptively bad advice. Not only are there plenty of "loveable" career paths that leave people entirely upside-down financially, the advice threatens to leave people terribly un-rounded. Many things are extremely well worth doing as hobbies, volunteer work, or side gigs that a person ought to keep carefully cordoned-off from the risk of an unsatisfying career or an inopportune moment to enter a particular job market. Warren Buffett plays enough bridge to count as a part-time job, but he does it to make himself happy, not to make more money for Berkshire Hathaway. ■ This isn't to say that a career shouldn't be rewarding, or that we shouldn't be able to find joy in work. Work will take up about a quarter of the hours in every week, and those hours should not be joyless and unrewarding. But to take the whole picture of a person, we have to look at the other three-quarters of the hours, too. You can be laid off from a job, but not from a family, a hobby, or your chosen communities. ■ Economically, work is about the creation of value. On balance, being a productive person means creating more value than you consume -- and, in the modern economy, most of what gets created is in the form of services, not stuff. So anyone with a view toward education as a path toward economic productivity needs to think about the value they will be able to create. ■ But we can't only measure one side of that balance sheet. What also matters is what it takes to reach the point where you can create that value, and what it takes out of you to do it. Daniel Day-Lewis may be a profoundly gifted actor, but when he retired, he said, "the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do." The value he created was enormous -- measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office receipts. But the gap between what he created and what it took from him shrank, and he retired. ■ One doesn't have to be a film star to consider that same gap. People drop out of medical school and leave their hard-earned law degrees behind. Sabbaticals and career breaks are mainstream. Career burnout is real. ■ Yet, so is the problem of living paycheck-to-paycheck. So looking at both sides of the balance sheet -- and taking the value a person creates and subtracting what it takes from them to create it -- gives a more complete picture of the college-major decision than any ranking of the most in-demand careers on one hand or the most motivational commencement addresses on the other. (Remember especially that any advice you get on following your dreams usually comes from someone who benefits from survivorship bias -- we hear from Mozart, not Salieri.) ■ Just as a company's net worth is the assets minus the liabilities, an individual's choices balance out to what they get minus what they had to give up to get it. "What you get" isn't merely the sum total of all your annual salaries, and "what you give up" isn't just the time you spend in school. Looking only to one measure is a hazardous form of personal myopia, and looking to find most of a life's fulfillment from a career is another.

Broadcasting "The Ps of Queues"

Highly recommended for listening next time you're stuck in traffic or waiting in a line somewhere.

Computers and the Internet New Gmail tabs arrive

Google is like that flaky pal who's a lot of fun when you're actually together. But half the time he RSVPs to your party and then never shows up, and the other half, he doesn't respond to your invitation but shows up on your doorstep at 10:30 with a Suburban full of friends.

Weather and Disasters A beautiful golden hour

Sometimes Mother Nature is kind to Iowa

News Get the Afghan allies out

(Video) Sen. Ben Sasse: "When you've fought on behalf of Americans to protect our people, you're welcome in my neighborhood." Those are the words of someone who understands the consequences (and moral imperatives) of upholding ideals.

Health Putting off Covid-19 vaccine costs man 6 weeks in the ICU

"The vaccine clearly is a way to keep us safe. This hole in my neck, the scar anyway, will always be there to remind me of the miracle."

Aviation News American Airlines goes retro

The company has been painting some of its current fleet in the classic livery of heritage airlines that have been folded into AA, including TWA and Piedmont (which, with the possible exception of the AstroJet paint scheme, is the best of all -- including the modern-day look). In general, retro liveries are fun.

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August 25, 2021

News Don't fence me out

While it's hazardous to deify the Founders, the United States counted some true geniuses among its first national leaders. Thomas Jefferson wasn't just the main author of the Declaration of Independence, he was an inventor, an architect, and the keeper of such a vast personal library that it became the foundation of the Library of Congress after the first one was burned. James Madison was the father of the Constitution (in only his late 30s) and an academic groundbreaker. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton are all widely acknowledged for their exceptional intellects. One study estimated Adams, Jefferson, and Madison each with smoking-hot IQs of 155 to 160. ■ One might look at the late 1700s and be bewildered at the country's good luck at having so much intelligence assembled in its service. Or one might look instead and assume that with a population just shy of 4 million compared with today's 332 million, we ought to have 83 times as many people of the Founders' native intelligence living among us today. (And, considering how women and racial minorities were systemically excluded from decision-making at the time, the true number is probably more than double that again.) ■ Just imagine that: Statistically speaking, we ought to have among us no fewer than 166 modern-day Jeffersons, 166 Hamiltons, 166 Franklins, and 166 Madisons. And that is to say nothing of improvements made to our educational system since then, nor of our ability to attract many of the world's smartest and most ambitious immigrants. ■ With that much talent on hand, it seems so much stranger that people are so wary of committing "epistemic trespassing" (that is, the power of making strong assertions outside one's personal field of expertise). It's not that expertise isn't real (it certainly is), nor that people would do well to bring some humility to bear on any debates which they enter (they certainly would). But to get riled up about "epistemic trespassing" sounds very much like rising to the defense of gatekeeping and credentialism. ■ The whole idea of representative democracy is that politicians think themselves fit to be able to make decisions about nearly everything, and voters think themselves fit to select the deciders. By definition, self-government is an assertion of being able to figure out everything we do not know, either by ourselves or by proxy. ■ That's a pretty heady assertion. But there's no real alternative. There is no technocracy or epistocracy that has proven itself superior to a system based upon votes. We are forced, by our choice to have any say in the matter of how we are governed, to have a say in every matter. ■ Thus the role of experts isn't (and mustn't be) to keep others out of the debate, but rather to bring everyone else in and to win them over to whatever their legitimate authority on a subject says is right. Bad persuasion with good evidence is a failure: Experts must be able to convince others just as well as they judge for themselves, as long as everyone is obligated to argue in good faith. ■ Even experts depend upon reviewing the literature before embarking on the rigorous study of a question. No expert gets to pass unquestioned in their own field, nor should they expect to remain respectable if they aren't aware of what others are saying. Self-government effectively insists that we be able to "review the literature" on virtually every field that might be touched by public policy, even if we aren't doing the original research itself. ■ It's hard not to be troubled by the rise of credentialism (prejudicially putting formal academic credentials above all else), nor by the rise in people who think reciting the phrase "Do your own research" is a substitute for research itself (it's not), nor by the rise in people leveraging professional credentials for personal gain (in express contradiction of the purpose of having professions in the first place). It's a goulash of factors that obscure the truth. ■ A world with ever-increasing gray space is a strong argument against pure deference to academic silos and expert gatekeepers. Interdisciplinary exposure should only serve to enhance decision-making by testing new ideas from many angles. Not everyone is a polymath like Isaac Asimov, but we do have to see that complex problems rarely fit neatly into a single field of expertise. Is online privacy a subject for computer science or law? Is extreme weather a problem for meteorology or sociology? Is the job of avoiding war a matter for generals or economists? ■ Obviously, all of those problems (and most of the ones we face) require attention from people with all kinds of differing perspectives. Should people with limited expertise to offer remain humble about what they do or do not know? Absolutely. At the same time, people who engage in a debate that may be outside their "lane" -- so long as they do so in good faith -- ought to be met with charity and respect by the incumbent experts. ■ The idea that crossing lanes is a matter of "trespass" rather than of cross-pollination isn't just a perilous conceit, it's an abandonment of the very nucleus of self-government. The American Founding Fathers may have been dense with geniuses, but they also neglected to appeal to the ideas of women and the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. With at least 166 times as many equally gifted people circulating among us today as were permitted "in the room" to make decisions at the time of the Founding, we should be hesitant to see anyone excluded from good-faith debates on any matter that touches public policy. The common good doesn't have enough room for turf wars.

Health Vaccines work

"One hundred percent of the patients in Bryan Health's Intensive Care Unit are unvaccinated and 100% of the patients on ventilators are unvaccinated." It doesn't have to be this way. It just doesn't.

News Don't infer intent from results

It's the Law of Unintended Consequences, not the "Law of I Always Meant to Do Exactly That".

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August 26, 2021

News It's back-to-school season

Social media feeds in late August overflow with photos of children going through the ritual of "back to school" photos. Some pose with glee. Some are sullen about it. And parents and grandparents invariably gush about how those kids are growing up so fast. The ritual of it makes the unusual aspects stand out: The first day of kindergarten, the first year with a driver's license, and now, the years of pandemic accommodations. ■ What gets overlooked in the rituals is how strange it is that we break school apart into discrete chunks at all. It's strange not only because the idea of a long summer break separating school years is an artifact of compromises forged long ago, but also because individual students are on different curriculum tracks as early as the first years of elementary school. Differentiated instruction in core skills like reading can start as soon as kindergarten. By the time a grade cohort has entered the senior year of high school, some students may be spending virtually all of their time in Advanced Placement classes and concurrent enrollment at a nearby college, while other students are using alternative high schools and co-ops to customize their pathways to graduation. ■ School, of course, is often as much about social skills as about the kind of learning that shows up on standardized tests. Thus, there is no rational reason to expect grade levels to go the way of the dodo. There is evidence that some skills are even learned best in groups of mixed ability. ■ But we should be alert to an unintended consequence of the mentality of "back to school" and grade-level promotion: It imprints on us a mindset that education is a set of boxes to be checked and milestones to be reached, rather than a life-cycle continuum. ■ It doesn't take much effort to find educators who talk with sincerity and enthusiasm about "life-long learners". Increased access to lifelong learning is listed as a strategic objective of the US Department of Education. It is a concept praised by respected outlets like the Harvard Business Review and The Economist. A Pew survey found that 73% of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners. ■ Yet, culturally, we don't fundamentally treat learning as an aspect of life that occurs along a continuum. It's rather more likely to be seen as a punchline in our TV shows and movies (Pierce Hawthorne at community college, Alexis Rose belatedly completing high school, under-educated Penny struggling to earn the respect of her graduate-educated "Big Bang" neighbors) than as a routine part of mainstream life. Senator Chuck Grassley's feud with the History Channel is practically performance art by now, and let's not even begin to think of what now occupies what used to be known as The Learning Channel. ■ So while it's good and timely and natural that we celebrate kids going "back to school" every fall, in the long run, it would serve us well if it became harder to tell when education "begins" and "ends". We should practice as though we really do believe that every child (and every adult) can learn, that learning really is a life-long choice, and that education shouldn't strictly be about vocation. The back-to-school pictures are often delightful, but it would be much better for us all if it never really felt like anyone truly left.

Humor and Good News Just about the best reflex-recovery you will ever see

(Video) A Marine standing guard at the White House recovers his composure from an all-too-close lightning strike faster than just about anyone you could ever imagine

Weather and Disasters Hurricane-to-be Ida

Storm to hit the Gulf Coast "at or near major hurricane intensity" this weekend

News We wanted the rain...

...now here it comes

News It's just not news

Reuters headline: "JoJo Siwa joins 'Dancing With the Stars' in first same-sex pairing". News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Whatever this is, "news" it is not.

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August 27, 2021

The United States of America One at a time

Anyone who has attended a big concert or sporting event knows that it's possible to look at a sea of faces and be completely unable to see past the crowd and focus on an individual. The crowd itself is a sort of organism -- witness what happens when a stadium full of people sings along with an artist's signature hit, or breaks into The Wave during a lull in the action. Yet even though it's hard to see, the crowd is still made up of individuals. ■ Regrettably, the same thing can happen when we look at other groups of people -- including those who are in need. It is with appalling ease that people can transition from being perfectly good and decent in their personal lives to having a cold and inhumane attitude about "others". ■ America is in the midst of one of the largest-scale evacuations in history. The White House says that more than 110,000 people have been extracted from Afghanistan since the end of July. Many of the evacuees are Americans, but many are Afghans, including thousands who worked with and on behalf of American armed forces in the country. ■ But for some people, there is too much mercy on display. One commentator, for instance, declares that "able-bodied Afghani men of fighting age are not refugees. They should be left at home to fight for their country and not rewarded with cowardice." ■ It is categorically cruel and hypocritical to call refugees "cowards". By the established definition of international law, a refugee is "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." Note that the definition includes nothing exclusive to a gender or an age. ■ There is no honor in dismissing people in this way. Abandoning "able-bodied men of fighting age" (and undoubtedly condemning some of them to death) is utterly incompatible with an individual-first view of humanity. If you say that "Children need their fathers", then so do refugee children. If you say that "All lives matter", then so do the lives of "men of fighting age". If you say that you are "Pro-life from conception to grave", then it is indecent to send some people into certain death because of how and when they were born. ■ It is telling that the Americans who have seen some of the people of Afghanistan up-close -- the veterans who served with them -- are in many cases the most vocal proponents of rescue. They aren't seeing crowds; they're seeing people worth rescuing. And some influential people do see it that way: Sen. Ben Sasse put it well when he said, "When you've fought on behalf of Americans to protect our people, you're welcome in my neighborhood." ■ To be "pro-life" is to believe that the baby born aboard an evacuation flight is fully as human as anyone else -- as are the child's mother and father. Americans (as a group) ought to grieve that some of our compatriots cannot see the individuals that compose the crowds they fear. ■ The attempt to turn human beings seeking refuge into objects shouldn't be rewarded -- not with clicks, not with votes, not with donations, and not with any form of applause. Dwight Eisenhower said that "We believe individual liberty, rooted in human dignity, is man's greatest treasure. We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism." It's a strange and distressing turn indeed when Americans -- any Americans -- turn their backs on the primacy of the individual and resort to seeing only the collective.

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August 30, 2021

Weather and Disasters How do we quickly replace housing?

Americans have no problem adopting a lot of new habits and hobbies when the circumstances warrant. When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down a lot of the ordinary recreational and travel options that people expected to enjoy, there was a widely-noted rush to spend more time outdoors, particularly noticeable with a giant surge in sales of campers and recreational vehicles. Those new owners joined a large number of Americans already in possession of highly-mobile living spaces. It's estimated that 11.2 million US households own some kind of recreational vehicle. ■ That number is far from trivial. And yet, the recreational vehicle industry estimates that the average RV is used only 20 days out of the year. In a sense, that means we as a country have what might be considered a ready housing reserve equal to 8% of all of the estimated 140,775,530 households in the country sitting idle a median of 345 days of the year. ■ Obviously, that's not how we treat housing; RVs and campers may largely sit dormant, but they are not all that easily shared on demand, nor do they sit waiting for deployment like a housing equivalent of the Army Reserve. ■ But with wildfires effectively destroying entire towns in California, rapidly-intensifying major hurricanes erupting in the Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of refugees seeking shelter, and countless other major natural and man-made disasters emerging all the time, it's worth conducting a small thought experiment. ■ The need for emergency housing is already periodically evident, and with population growth continuing (and population density increasing in disaster-prone areas), that need is likely to increase both in frequency and intensity. Thus, a question: Why have we not settled on a common national standard for an emergency housing supply that could be rapidly deployed during times of need? ■ It has been widely noted that the development of the standardized shipping container has revolutionized international trade because it enables the standardization of container movement by road, rail, and sea. It simply cannot be beyond our capacities to come up with a comparable (if not compatible) approach to emergency housing -- a standardized size and shape, with consistent connections for basic utility access (water, wastewater, electricity, and telecommunications). ■ The biggest advantage to a standardized system would be that it could enable two forms of modularity. First, it would make it possible for manufacturers to develop a consistent product (the housing module itself) that could be built in volume, stockpiled as necessary, and even forward-deployed in advance of need. Particularly in a time when natural disasters seem to be intensifying in severity much faster than we have accepted historically, deployment speed and scale of preparation are both of the essence. ■ The second form of modularity would be to enable the standardization of receiving systems. From time to time, architects have proposed (and some developers have even constructed) structures like towers that could hold lots of independent modular units around a common superstructure. These ideas have never really taken off in the ordinary housing market, but the increasing sophistication of certain advanced construction techniques like 3D printing and mass timber (including some being demonstrated outside the United States) could permit the speedy deployment of facilities ready to accept the housing modules in a true "plug-and-play" fashion. ■ Ideally, people needing emergency housing due to a major disaster could be speedily settled into some kind of home they could not only consider their own, but also move and use as a foundation (metaphorically) to rebuild. The notorious "FEMA trailer" took on a bad reputation in part because they were intended to be temporary and to remain government-owned. ■ But ownership matters, and even a modest module intended to be permanent and occupant-owned may be a more satisfactory option than a larger or more well-appointed system intended to be returned at the end of the housing emergency. If the rise of tiny homes is any indication, there is plenty of room for innovative and creative thinking that could be applied to emergency housing. California's rush to fill vacant spaces with "granny flats" (auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) could well be a source of real innovation. And enterprising thinkers might even find ways to develop compatibility between RV platforms and emergency housing modules, so that those households who wanted them could purchase such units during good times, customize them to suit their preferences, and have them available on short notice in case of disaster. ■ Thinking small, thinking about permanence, thinking about economies of scale, and thinking about modularity in the big things (like where utility connections would go) and about customization in the little ones might add up to some useful solutions in the years ahead. There's no reason to believe that the problems that create housing emergencies are going to shrink in scale anytime in the foreseeable future. The cleverness and ingenuity that have manifested themselves in RVs and ADUs could serve us well if applied to housing emergencies, too. What may make the most difference is establishing the right (limited) standards and priming the market to respond.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 31, 2021

Business and Finance Where's the property line?

The inaugural Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams in rural Iowa was, by every account, a smashing success. The TV ratings were a hit, the game itself was perfect for the moment, the views were out of this world, and MLB has already committed to coming back. ■ The whispered promise in the movie, as everyone knows, is "If you build it, he will come". But of course, that's not how things work in reality. Look carefully, and you'll find that the Field of Dreams is zoned within the corporate limits of the city of Dyersville, Iowa. And wherever zoning is involved, the "If you build it" can turn iffy in a hurry. ■ Communities routinely choose to make decisions about what may or may not be permitted within their boundaries. A small few choose a libertarian approach (Houston has no zoning), most American municipalities have some regulations, and a few (like San Francisco and environs) are battlegrounds for NIMBYism ("Not In My Back Yard"). (In San Francisco, a business location can hinge not only on what type of company is being operated, but on what floor it is located.) ■ At its heart, zoning seeks to tell people what they can do with their private property, and that's no small thing for a government to do. Consequently, zoning ought to default to the lightest possible touch that a community can agree to accept. Most places won't go for the laissez-faire of Houston, but many ought to try to come close. A modest amount of planning may of course be necessary as a community seeks to lay out the basic orientation of its physical infrastructure. But much more than that risks sacrificing lots of prospective good in order to preserve vague notions of "character" or "feel". ■ The basic assumption at heart is that most projects affected by zoning involve someone seeking to move some form of real property from a lower state of value to a higher one -- like constructing a new building on vacant land. Most people don't get into real estate or construction projects with the intention of turning a high-value estate into a low-value one. But what happens on one piece of land obviously has the potential to affect neighboring properties. ■ Thus, there are really three main tests at the heart of what a community might seek to restrict. Does the proposal meet reasonable and established community standards? Does it do so without imposing any extraordinary burdens on others? And does it create more value than it extracts? ■ If a proposal meets those tests -- and that can include remedies that make a project Pareto-efficient (that is, they compensate one party for the negative consequences of something done by another) -- then it's unlikely that the intervention of government planning authority will do, on balance, more good than harm. Nobody has, for instance, a right to arbitrarily dump radioactive waste in their back yard. But it's not hard to find people who get riled into full-throated opposition even to green energy installations and other projects, particularly when they occur at scale. ■ A good system of private-property rights is based upon predictability for all parties involved. As the Coase theorem would have it, the key is to define property rights carefully and minimize the transaction costs of working out the differences that inevitably arise when people have different interests in the same place. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Love your neighbor; yet don't pull down your hedge."

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