Gongol.com Archives: December 2021

Brian Gongol

December 2021
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December 1, 2021

Business and Finance Freely associating to do some business

People like to see themselves as part of larger stories, and Giving Tuesday creates a narrative into which we can insert ourselves. Whether the event actually instigates additional giving that people may not have performed otherwise or just time-shifts already-planned giving so that it takes place around a specific date, charitable fundraisers say it's a $2.5 billion day for donations. ■ The American tradition of charitable giving is strong and remains distinctively so in the world. While a charitable spirit deserves to be a source of pride, we too often skip a step between "for-profit" and "charity" -- the self-helping sector, populated with organizations like cooperatives and mutual companies. ■ Alexis de Tocqueville made note of how those were a distinctive characteristic of America nearly 200 years ago, writing: "The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools [...] Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." ■ But these sorts of organizations take motivation, leadership, and stewardship. And times have been tough: For example, there were 7,239 Federally-insured credit unions in the United States in June 2011, but as of June 2021, the number had fallen to 5,029. Membership and assets both grew in that time, but the significant decline in total organizations suggests a high degree of consolidation -- a symptom, typically, of a maturing industry rather than a growing one. In agriculture, the USDA counted 3,346 farmer co-ops in 2000, and 1,871 in 2017. (For historical context, that figure was estimated at 14,000 around 1920.) ■ Cooperative forms of ownership are not entirely without risk -- some evidence suggests that it's tough to make governance work inside democratically-organized firms, perhaps because some aspects of reward are diminished for individual initiative. (Others have observed that they may be just as good at growing as for-profit competitors, but that they do so differently.) ■ Yet it's entirely possible for cooperative firms to succeed: REI (the outdoor retailer) is a co-op, and Best Western Hotels is a member-owned nonprofit whose member-owners shot down a plan to convert into a for-profit company in 2019. ■ There are reasons to think we should commit more effort, discussion, and (when appropriate) occasional tacit support through government policy to these business forms, particularly if they demonstrate a capacity to correct certain market failures. They may be especially sensible in settings where macroeconomic factors have squeezed out proprietor-owners, employee-owned firms, and other forms where pride of ownership plays a role in governance. It may especially make sense to look at how cooperative forms may fill the gaps in markets where conventional owners have departed and "vulture capitalists" have worked their way in -- a common symptom of decline. ■ Perhaps as much as anything, working for a cooperative-type firm needs to represent a combination of both financial reward and social esteem for prospective employees, especially senior leadership. People make trade-offs all the time between social status and pure financial remuneration, but in order to attract bright, innovative, and capable leadership, cooperative organizations have to be able to pay somewhat competitively with the high-performance parts of the private sector, while holding some of the status that attracts others to the charitable nonprofit sector. ■ That may be a significant hurdle to overcome, since it belongs strictly to neither and sits instead on a sort of middle ground of the production possibilities curve between the two. But it's well worth considering, especially since we know ourselves to be living through a particularly disruptive economic period, and we also know the same model was seen in another disruptive era as a means to preserve a market economy while democratizing some of its benefits. Something of a revival may be due, but it's hard to see that happening without breathing some life into the narrative.

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December 2, 2021

Broadcasting Are you even listening to yourself?

It was in December 2019 that the first cluster of Covid-19 patients were identified in Wuhan, China. But it wasn't really until the very abrupt escalation of circumstances in March 2020 that the massive adjustment to a work-from-home economy took hold in the United States. At one point in 2020, 54% of Americans were working exclusively from home. That number has fallen to about a quarter, but about half of the American workforce is still working from home at least some of the time, according to Gallup data. ■ Working from home has shown itself to be both easy and hard. Aside from the initial learning curve required to implement technologies like videoconferencing, Americans found the basic functional transition easy, but discovered it was harder to do things like maintain focus and motivation. The "soft" parts of working from home (like drawing boundaries around personal time and keeping up on water-cooler talk without a water cooler) have turned out to be much more difficult than adapting to the "hard" skills required. ■ The economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic was terrible for productivity in sectors like arts and entertainment (which have an obvious sensitivity to whether people can gather), but appears to have left work-from-home-friendly sectors like IT, finance, and professional services largely unscathed. It should surprise nobody at all if working remotely (from home or elsewhere) remains not only an option but a robust and permanent feature of a lot of white-collar work. It's terrible for downtown stores, restaurants, and landlords, but it's an adjustment that is almost undoubtedly here to stay. ■ In addition to how working from home has vaporized a lot of conventional office chatter, it's also reshaped a lot of media habits -- there's no point in listening to drive-time radio for traffic reports if you're only commuting to the kitchen. This adjustment makes it seem strange that nobody seems to have developed a "Working from Home" radio format. Human beings like to feel as though we have a sense of what's happening around us -- either that we can see it for ourselves (it's one reason why we love having windows), or that someone will tell us right away if something is noteworthy (which serves to explain at least some part of the endemic of social-media addiction). ■ This deep into a social and cultural shift, it's odd that something bigger hasn't caught on in response. People have obvious attachments to their Spotify playlists and their Pandora streams, but a giant rotating library of music is insufficient if part of the reason for listening to something during the day is to gather a sense of being aware and connected to what is happening. The idea that an audio programming service could provide satisfying background sounds with occasional live updates on the relevant "here and now" is nothing new. It was the cornerstone of full-service radio decades ago, though that particular format has gone almost extinct today. ■ But no matter whether delivered by terrestrial transmitters or by an Internet stream, it seems like a tremendous missed opportunity for programmers to have ignored how a modern revival of a full-service format could be just what a lot of people working from home didn't know they wanted. And with the technological capabilities in place to address the musical tastes and preferences of lots of listener demographics, it seems even more obvious that enterprising programmers could arrange lots of carefully-targeted musical formats around a shared "clock" of useful, live, and local updates from amiable hosts. ■ The BBC World Service had its origins in the "Empire Service" -- when radio was used to offer a sense of companionship to the "remote workers" of a far-flung empire. It seems obvious that a similar companionship approach would find a market in the digital "empire" of working from home.

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December 3, 2021

The United States of America Move along now

If you were to build a house in the Northern Hemisphere with a wide expanse of windows on the south face, you might well expect that the rooms on the south end of the home would turn out to be warm and comfortable in the winter, but hard to keep cool in the summer. You might also expect that the rooms on the north side of the home would offer relief from the summer heat, but be left relatively chilly in the wintertime. ■ You could enhance the circulation of air between the rooms simply by leaving the interior doors open. By closing them off, you would only serve to compound the effects of different rooms being too warm or too cold. ■ Beyond the mostly passive act of leaving doors open or closed, you could take an active step by installing a circulating fan, moving the air from warmer rooms to colder rooms in the winter and vice-versa in the summer. The fan wouldn't actually create more heat, but would merely move the existing heat around to spread it more evenly. Better distribution of that passively collected solar heat would enhance the comfort over a broader footprint of the home for a larger portion of the year than without. ■ What seems like an obvious "best practice" for energy efficiency offers lessons for the marketplace, too. In principle, the principles of classical liberalism we inherited from the Enlightenment era would tend to endorse the freest possible movement of people, money, goods, and ideas. But it's a practical approach, too: The United States functions as a giant free-trade zone, much to the cumulative benefit of the country as a whole (not to mention its constituent states). The freedom of interstate commerce has a big part to play in explaining why West Virginia is richer than Shanghai. ■ But economic growth and development is not evenly spread across the country, which is why it's wise to consider when steps beyond leaving people free to move around (the equivalent of leaving the doors open) could benefit from gentle interventions to enhance circulation (the equivalent of adding a circulating fan). People don't always migrate to places where opportunities are abundant, and it's the job of policy-makers to examine why. ■ Some experiments have been conducted to offer active interventions -- like vouchers to help families "move to opportunity". Such experiments have offered intriguing experimental results. But there are other interventions that matter, too: For instance, the structure of our tax policy affects how families accrue wealth. How we tax property (and how we treat deductions for things like mortgage interest) have a big effect on whether people treat their primary homes as a primary source of household wealth -- and that effect is magnified among lower-income households. If people are hesitant to move because doing so could erase their biggest stock of wealth, then that's a problem worthy of attention. ■ Wherever we find obstacles to that free circulation of people, it would be prudent to look at ways to remove them. And to the extent that people are reluctant to migrate from one state to another, it would be sensible to dive into the underlying causes: Americans still move a lot, but also move a lot less than we used to. If there are light-touch interventions that would help people "circulate" to places where their economic and social outcomes might be improved -- or if there are artificial barriers that could be removed by fixing bad policies -- that could be a laudable and efficient way to make Americans better off, on average and on the whole.


December 6, 2021

News A change would do you good

Human misjudgments come in all sorts of flavors. Charlie Munger's famous speech and extended essay on the subject documents 25 such tendencies that lead us to faulty conclusions. Similar tendencies of the mind cause us to make common mistakes about the future. One of those might be termed the "5/15 Rule". ■ Forecasts of change are often too optimistic (that is, they assume too much will change) on a five-year horizon. But they are often too pessimistic on a fifteen-year horizon (that is, they assume things will remain too much the same). Hence, 5/15. Optimism and pessimism are relative things, of course; one person's progress might be another person's regress. But in general, things tend to get better in a free and open society: Material well-being improves, technology moves forward, and freedoms are newly enshrined into law. For most purposes, then, we look forward to change since on balance it brings about a better quality of life. ■ Consider progress in space flight: Between 2006 and 2011, there were 21 launches of NASA's Space Shuttle, culminating with the retirement of the program in July 2011. Nothing technologically substantial was different between the first of those flights and the last. But between 2006 and 2021, an entire industry of private space flight emerged, with reusable rockets that land vertically and tourists like a 90-year-old William Shatner going to space. ■ In consumer technology, Facebook opened to universal access in 2006, and the iPhone was introduced in 2007. By the end of 2011, Facebook claimed a large number of users -- some 845 million, but the experience and impact of the site remained largely unchanged. In early 2012, The Guardian could unironically submit that "Digital analysts predict this will be the first election cycle in which Facebook could become a dominant political force." But 15 years after 2006, Facebook's impact on electoral activity was so great that Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress for a joint hearing on "Social Media's Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation" -- a session precipitated by the January 6th riot at the Capitol. ■ Over the five years from 2006 to 2011, America's per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide fell by about 12%. But over 15 years, they fell by 30%, in no small part because of developments like an increase in wind-power generation from 11,575 megawatts to 122,465 megawatts. As technologies improve incrementally and industries grow to scale, factors like price can change by orders of magnitude -- like the 70% to 80% decline in the cost of photovoltaic solar power generation in just one decade. ■ Within a five-year window, political change tends to move like molasses. A seat in the U.S. Senate isn't even up for re-election before six years are over, and even in the House of Representatives, the mean tenure was 8.9 years as of January 2021. Over any given five-year period, very little changes about the makeup of Congress. But on a 15-year basis, the national government can change quite radically: In 2006, Barack Obama had been in the Senate for just a year. Fifteen years later, not only had he left the Senate and broken the color barrier in the Article II branch of government, but so had Kamala Harris (who in 2006 was a district attorney). ■ Margaret Thatcher once said, "I do not believe that history is writ clear and unchallengeable. It doesn't just happen. History is made by people: its movement depends on small currents as well as great tides, on ideas, perceptions, will and courage, the ability to sense a trend, the will to act on understanding and intuition." (Note that nine years before she won the job, Thatcher said "There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime".) It may be counterintuitive to recalibrate our expectations so that we can accept how slowly things might change in five years and how dramatically in fifteen. But given how quickly a snail's pace can accelerate to supersonic speed, a 5/15 Rule is well worth keeping in mind.

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December 7, 2021

The United States of America Home(land security) for the holidays

The holiday season puts a spotlight on a range of unusual national and cultural traditions -- like an annual Christmas-tree formation flight by the Swedish air force. Certain places loom large in the American imagination -- Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are great examples. We buy products from Ikea and Saab, read books about hygge and lykke, and cover lefse bakes on the evening news (at least in the Nordic-influenced parts of the Midwest). ■ In practice (and with no disrespect intended), the Nordic countries are like medium-sized states. Norway has 5.5 million people, Finland has 5.6 million, and Denmark has 5.9 million. (This makes each of them comparable to, if not a little smaller than, Wisconsin.) Sweden is a little larger, with 10.2 million. But that still doesn't make it as large as North Carolina. ■ Obviously, historical patterns of migration have a lot to do with the effect. But it's also somewhat distortionary: Nigeria has almost 220 million people and Bangladesh has 164 million, but it's a safe bet that the vast preponderance of Americans have heard more recently in the news about any one of the Nordic countries than about Nigeria or Bangladesh, which combined are home to almost 50 million more people than live in the US. ■ This disproportionate share of the common imagination has two peculiar effects that skew our thinking: For one, it leaves us under- or un-informed about the condition of many of our fellow Earthlings, which is a real shame considering how much shared interest we have in resolving trans-national issues. From the Covid-19 pandemic to rising sea levels to the need to protect 82 million refugees, in very few cases does any large problem remain isolated within a single country's borders. The better our sense of scale and proportion, the better our ability to address important questions of cooperation, competition, and resource allocation. ■ The other peculiar effect is that it diminishes our ability to see what might be within our own power. Holding distorted perceptions of other places leaves us with constrained imaginations about what we can do. Being one among many states (that is, E Pluribus Unum), individual states don't have to waste energy on shared issues like defense or foreign policy, like comparable standalone countries of the same size might have to do. Certainly, a state might send a friendship delegation abroad, establish a sister-state relationship, or participate in a trade-boosting mission. But we can do those things at leisure, while Norway has to maintain embassies and Denmark has to keep up its own Army, Navy, and Air Force. ■ Yet, even though our states can share the load of those national-level issues, the public and our pundits often think smaller about those things which we could do much more boldly and imaginatively. Calling the states "laboratories of democracy" is almost trite: There is in fact no reason we shouldn't be willing to think of most countries as our states' peer groups, because they are. So much emphasis is placed on duking out high-conflict debates on the national stage (in forums like the Supreme Court), when we could well see how our peers can reach different conclusions across borders while remaining friendly and cooperative with one another. ■ Americans need to trust ourselves to work many matters out at what we call the "state" level, but what would be the "national" level anywhere else. Escalating too many things to debate in Washington, DC, only leaves us artificially alarmed by one another. In Federalist Paper 16, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart." ■ Even in binding the states together, the Constitution was modeled on responsiveness, imagination, and uniqueness at the level closest to the people. At least half of the states today have as many people as did the entire country when the Constitution was enacted. We naturally homogenize ourselves from state to state a great deal, simply by sharing a common currency, language, and mass media. There's no reason we should endanger our trust in the Union by expecting it to make us more alike than we have to be. The more we trust ourselves (at the state level) to be as capable as our peers, the more we can relieve our continental government of expectations that are too high and risks that are too precarious.

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December 8, 2021

Business and Finance Just be average

"Beating the market" is the kind of act that makes an investment professional "legendary". To out-perform the stock-market averages (and to do so with consistency) is an uphill climb, but Peter Lynch can credibly claim to have done it during his time as a mutual-fund manager at Fidelity. Lynch's success at managing funds even turned him into an author -- of books that unabashedly crow about "Beating the Street" and putting the investor "One Up on Wall Street". ■ Given his credentials, it should come as no surprise that Lynch remains a proponent of active investing -- that is, of paying money managers to make decisions about specific investments and the specific timing of those investments, as opposed to "passive" investing, which consists of buying and holding stocks and other investments, often through tools like index funds. ■ In an interview, Lynch argued that three managers at Fidelity "have beat the market for 10, 20, 30 years, and I think they'll keep on doing it." Lynch further used the word "mistake" to typify passive investing strategies. ■ It is absolutely possible for an active money manager to beat the market. The laws of large numbers and averages ensure that -- some people will be above average. But if the ordinary retail investor is smart enough to pick the right managers, then he or she is also smart enough to simply do the investing themselves, directly. That's the paradox: Being sufficiently knowledgeable to thoughtfully select an active investor is the same level and type of skill as being able to perform the investment for oneself. People may still choose not to do it for a variety of reasons -- lack of time and lack of interest, chiefly -- but evaluating a mutual fund's performance requires precisely the same skill set as evaluating an individual company's stock. ■ The wisdom of passive investing (generally through stock index funds) isn't that it will produce special returns, but that it will produce average returns while keeping the overhead costs to a bare minimum. Unless your active money manager is one of the Little Sisters of the Poor, they're charging significant overhead fees. ■ To pay for an annual money management fee of 1%, 2%, or more, and still achieve a total return for the investor that is equal to the market average, the manager needs to consistently produce returns that exceed the market average by the amount of the overhead. And they can be very good at giving investors lots of glossy pictures that keep them from seeing whether that outperformance occurs. ■ The most efficient way to tell whether a money manager is serious about producing consistent, super-sized returns is to look at the fee structure. If you, the investor, only pay a commission or fee for returns which are in excess of the market average, then they're serious. That was how Warren Buffett structured his early investment partnerships -- and Buffett today is a steadfast proponent of passive, index-fund investing. ■ But practically nobody has a Buffett-style, pay-only-for-above-average-performance fee structure, because money management all too often counts on investor naivete -- or innumeracy. After all, "1% of assets" sounds like a small charge -- until a year of 5% real returns, in which case that 1% is actually a 20% commission on total performance. (And activity itself is costly -- someone's making money every time a stock changes hands.) Moreover, the only thing worth paying for is performance that's better than what could have been achieved on investing autopilot -- simply going along with the market average. ■ Nobody likes to be "average". Human nature wants to be better than average. But "average" is generally really, really good in America: That upward-charging line of the S&P 500 graph is "average", and it costs virtually nothing to be a free-rider on that average. Vanguard charges 0.04% to passively follow along with that hard-charging S&P 500 index. Even if you compounded that 0.04% cost annually, it would take 23 years to reach the same 1% as an ordinary active-management fee for one year. ■ If you're not equipped to examine actual SEC 10-K filings or strategically read the part of a prospectus that's printed on lightweight paper in black and white in the back (and not the colorful parts on heavy glossy stock in the front), then you don't really have the right tools to pick an active money manager. And if you do have the ability and interest to read a 10-K or to evaluate a balance sheet, then you probably are sophisticated enough to pick a bundle of 10 to 20 stocks and be your own active money manager (minus the annual fees). ■ Peter Lynch has a legendary track record on Wall Street. But that doesn't make him an oracle of fiduciary wisdom for the household investor. It's not that some managers won't be well above average -- even Warren Buffett is happy to name a few. But predicting with confidence who they will be takes the same type of skill (and much the same degree) that it takes to do the same task. Buffett remains right on this matter: For most people, most of the time, being average (and paying very little overhead for the privilege of being average) is actually very rewarding indeed.

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December 9, 2021

Broadcasting Popularity contests

Never in history has it been easier to find out what's popular. Want to know what music is at the top? No more suspenseful wait for Casey Kasem to bring you the American Top 40: Spotify Charts has city-level listening to share. Netflix reports how many hours of its shows have been viewed. The New York Times serves up the most popular news stories, while Amazon is happy to refresh its best-seller charts by the hour. Twitter happily packages the most popular discussions of the hour, and YouTube is delighted to rank and amplify videos into the millions of views. ■ Even political opinion tracking has moved into a mad rush: FiveThirtyEight, YouGov, and Morning Consult are among those who can't wait to convert the intense hunger for popularity contests into clicks. ■ But superabundance isn't the same thing as necessity. Popularity is relatively easy to measure: Amazon can count sales, Netflix can count gigabytes of data, and pollsters can survey sample populations who are eager to be heard. Much harder to do is to evaluate and judge for quality. But it is quality that really matters. Pet rocks, slap bracelets, and "Mambo No. 5" have all been popular at one time or another, but their popularity is hardly a reflection of quality. And in the limited time people have in this life, measures of popularity alone are mostly a problem of misdirection. ■ Most people instinctively don't want to be left out of popular trends, even when they turn into manias. But if too many things become driven first by popularity rather than by considered evaluation of what is of the optimal quality, the result can be a morass of mediocrity. ■ A great public service would be done, for example, if the people -- from streaming-service executives to film editors -- who knew how to attract millions of viewers to "Tiger King" were to direct the same energies to telling stories that a smart, engaged public should know. Ken Burns can't be the only filmmaker with the skills and the backing to produce shows that turn worthy subjects like the Civil War or jazz music into popular entertainment. ■ Of course there will always be a demand for light and even low-brow entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's a strange kind of madness that keeps us from channeling the skills that we know can turn things popular into subjects that deserve to be popular because they are important. If creators can make a blockbuster out of "Stranger Things", then they could also make the Federalist Papers or the Reconstruction Era or the complexities of modern gray war into subjects people could not only understand, but would want to talk about with friends and family. ■ Measuring popularity is easy, but measuring quality is not. Yet we often know it when we see it -- and we certainly have a fair understanding of the skills required to produce quality outputs (not just in media, but especially there). If indeed we want to avoid entertaining ourselves to death, then the people who hold the levers that corral mass popularity owe it to the rest of us to point some of those skills in the right direction.

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December 10, 2021

The United States of America Govern yourself accordingly

When Theodore Roosevelt said, "School is an invaluable adjunct to the home, but it is a wretched substitute for it", he certainly didn't know in what place America would be nearly 125 years later. He couldn't have foreseen World War II, the Cold War, or the Internet, nor the complexities of China's authoritarian-market hybrid, the profundity of mRNA vaccines, or school via Zoom call. ■ But Roosevelt was living at a time of rapid technological and cultural change, and he knew a few things about the American character. And among those things he recognized was the enduring influence of how people make up their minds. For as much as reformers for generations have looked to the tools of education as a means of turning out a different kind of adult, it remains as true as ever that people decide what they think about the most important issues within the quiet of their own minds. ■ Some are more conscious about it than others, really engaging in deep introspection and an examination of conscience. Others give it less thought. But everyone lives with a voice in their own head. That voice might echo or even repeat what it hears from others, but it's always fundamentally a matter of individual choice which of those words we allow to prevail. ■ That's the fundamental assumption of a system rooted in individual dignity and human liberty -- that certain matters are self-evident to the person who thinks about them. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is more than just lofty prose: It is a statement that some matters are certain, no matter what any government or other power might wish to say about them. And those things are not made more or less true by indoctrination; at most, they are only made easier or harder to see. ■ Of course, schools and other institutions can help students learn to see things more clearly and can obviously help habituate them to how some of the nuts and bolts are practiced. Student government may be easy to lampoon, but low-stakes elections and small budgets can be good practice for full-strength self-government later on. ■ But the democracy we ultimately get is largely the product of the people who practice it, and the character of people is formed in a multitude of ways, but it certainly starts well before schooling begins. Roosevelt's words are emphatic on this account: "No leader in church or state, in science or art or industry, however great his achievement, does work which compares in importance with that of the father and mother". But long before Roosevelt, Maimonides wrote that "Man's governance of himself consists in making his soul acquire the virtuous moral habits and cease to have the vicious moral habits, if any have been formed." And, similarly, the belief that people cannot be denied their own liberty forever is buttressed by this very same belief -- that no matter what the authorities say, people have to decide their lives in the quiet of their own minds.

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December 14, 2021

Weather and Disasters "Their own priorities, not ours"

The pace of scientific and technological progress does a great deal to define every age, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution to the contemporary Internet. We even defined an entire block of centuries as the "Dark Ages" for their apparent lack of progress (even if that name is seen as insensitive today). No era of progress can compare with the accelerated pace of the one in which we live -- though it seems abundantly likely that future eras will be defined by even quicker acceleration. More people will have access to more tools, from a more advanced (and wealthier) base than any time before. ■ The dividends of this progress will often be unevenly distributed: Some people will have Teslas before others have reliable household electricity. But other forms of will affect almost everyone at once. The previously unimaginable speed with which mRNA vaccines were developed to combat the Covid-19 epidemic confers a not just on a few (even if they have been distributed first and most widely in the most fortunate countries). In terms of efficacy and speed to deployment, the mRNA vaccines applied against the Covid-19 pandemic are probably the vanguard not only of bringing this pandemic to a halt, but to slamming the brakes on the next viral calamity, whatever it might be. ■ The story of those vaccines also tells of the extraordinary importance of understanding human behavior, especially in relation to technological change. The spread of misinformation, disinformation, and malevolent propaganda regarding both the disease and its prevention have made what would objectively seem to be a battle of pure science into something vastly more social. ■ Meteorology deserves a lot of respect for diving head-first into an unapologetic integration of its "hard" science with social psychology. The National Weather Service, example, has aggressively revised its warning systems to shrink the frequency of warning the public against events that never occur. Not only have they improved own ability to forecast serious events, they have revised their warning system so that as few people can be alerted as possible. The more reliable and closely-targeted their warnings, the less the "boy who cried wolf" effect. Fewer false alarms result in higher confidence in future alarms as they are issued. Yet the job is far from finished. ■ The disastrous tornado outbreak that crossed multiple states and killed dozens of people is a reminder that even though the scientists see a disaster coming, what matters most is whether the people in its path knew what to do and when to take action. It is clear that the loss of life in Illinois and Kentucky brings many meteorologists to grief. As Ohio-based meteorologist Justin Gehrts noted, "When your vocation is weather, of course you know about everything way beforehand. When your vocation isn't weather, why *would* you know about everything beforehand? People aren't ignorant or stupid. They are living their own lives with their own priorities, not ours." ■ That sort of modesty about the limits of hard science ought to be taken to heart more broadly -- it's not just the field of meteorology that needs to meet the public wherever the public happens to be. So do public health and microbiology, climatology and astronomy, chemistry and cryptology. Scientific and technological progress are invariably human enterprises, and the science of helping humans to understand and relate to those changes both thoughtfully and proactively has never been more important.

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December 16, 2021

Health Sometimes, you're just in a hole

The old adage says that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. But sometimes, when you find yourself in a hole, you're just in a hole. One of the most thoughtful people in American medicine is Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer whose books (like "The Checklist Manifesto") reveal a mind at work on medicine that could easily have been put to vital use in many other fields. ■ Dr. Gawande was recruited to head up a nonprofit organization with a mission to find a better way to manage the cost of health care. He was recruited to the effort in 2018 by Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, and JP Morgan Chase -- big firms with big incentives to find solutions. But the joint venture (called "Haven") never made it very far and shut down in early 2021. ■ America is notorious for the cost of our health care: We spend more than $11,000 per person on the industry each year. That is, for the record, the same as global GDP per person. Put another way: America consumes as much in health care per person as the average Earthling produces in total each year. ■ But money isn't everything. Time, too, is money. For comparison, Canada spends less of its money on health care than does the United States (roughly 11% of GDP versus 17%) -- but Canadians also expend a lot of time in waiting for care. The Fraser Institute tracks wait times for care in Canada and finds that, on average, it takes 11 weeks to be referred from a general practitioner to a specialist and another 14 weeks from referral to actual treatment. The numbers vary by location and by specialty, but that average represents a median total wait of half a year between the first doctor saying "You need some follow-up" and the specialist actually getting treatment underway. ■ The Fraser Institute has a pro-market orientation, but criticisms of Canadian health-care waiting times aren't exclusive to people of a center-right political orientation. Nor is waiting just a Canadian problem: Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, long waiting times dogged Britain's legendary NHS, too. ■ Health care is a wicked problem in part because it requires some inputs that cannot be reduced: There is only so much that can be done to speed up an annual physical exam or to recover faster from surgery. And because health means virtually everything to the patient, everyone wants the best treatment from the smartest and most skilled people they can find: Nobody wants a "C" student performing their brain surgery. ■ The case of Haven reminds us of something else, too: A highly gifted person like Dr. Gawande is in demand elsewhere, too -- both within health care and outside it. And to both attract and retain talented people to the sector requires delivering both pay and conditions that are good enough to compete with the other things those individuals could be doing instead. Anyone good enough to be a valuable contributor to health care is probably good enough to be an attractive worker elsewhere, too. ■ The people burning out and leaving health care have other options, and unless breakthroughs are found that either substantially reduce the demand for care or radically increase the productivity of the people delivering it, there really isn't a systemic solution to be found. Just to keep enough care providers around, either costs will rise or there won't be enough people to provide the care in the volume (and at the speed) people want it. Perhaps sometimes both. ■ Maybe we'll get those breakthroughs with microrobots in our bloodstreams, android nurses, precision robotic surgery, and pills that prevent hospitalization. But certain limitations are hard to overcome (open-heart surgery will always take time), and the problems aren't getting smaller (Covid-19 won't be the last novel pandemic). ■ An ounce of prevention may indeed be worth much more than just a pound of cure, so we ought to act like it. But once people are in need of care, finding solutions may be more vexing than those who try to sell "silver bullet" solutions would want us to think. That doesn't make the situation hopeless, but it does mean we need to be clear-eyed about where to find the answers: Sometimes, you can stop digging -- but sometimes, you're just in a hole.

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December 17, 2021

News Peace to the people

To celebrate his 85th birthday, Pope Francis hosted a group of migrants at the Vatican. The Pope is using his authority and resources to provide support to the migrants while they enter a program to be integrated into Italian society. ■ In his encyclical "Fratelli Tutti", Francis wrote that "Migrants are not seen as entitled like others to participate in the life of society, and it is forgotten that they possess the same intrinsic dignity as any person. Hence they ought to be 'agents in their own redemption.'" ■ A fair number of the world's problems stem from mistaking the many tiny but illustrious differences among individuals for big differences that ought to separate people, both as individuals and as cultures. We're different from one another in countless ways -- even happy spouses and identical twins have differences of opinion with one another, whether over small things like cuisine or large ones like religious faith. But in the end, there is nothing more essential to our survival as a giant world full of billions of people than seeing every human as a person possessing the same dignity as ourselves. ■ The abolitionist Sojourner Truth recorded this very sentiment about the dignity of people who had been enslaved in America: "[T]hough ignorant, helpless, crushed in spirit, and weighed down with hardship and cruel bereavement, they were still human, and their human hearts beat within them with as true an affection as ever caused a human heart to beat." Chattel slavery could not survive as an institution without explicitly denying the humanity of its victims. The same category of thinking was behind the atrocities committed under German law as the Nazis defined Jewish people and others out of legal protection. ■ It seems like an obvious thing to believe that all lives are intrinsically of equal value, but there's a difference between believing it in the abstract and committing it to real practice. It doesn't help when propagandists resort to explicitly discounting the lives of "others". But it also doesn't help when we fall for the representations that others make of their ability to speak for "their" people. The powerful individuals who take control of mass movements like to represent "the people" as monoliths -- the Communist Party in China refers to the National People's Congress for its legitimacy; Cuba has the National Assembly of People's Power; North Korea calls itself a "People's Republic" and calls its parliament the Supreme People's Assembly. ■ Humans are social animals, so we often have to work in groups. But it's perilous to make big decisions based upon thinking only of masses, rather than of the many individuals that make up any such mass. The National People's Congress may be belligerent, but China itself must be regarded as a place of 1.4 billion individuals, each of whom has equal claim to intrinsic dignity -- just as do the 24 million individuals of Taiwan (just for example). ■ No mass has a right to subjugate any or all of those individual dignities. And as we consider the very serious hazards to peace that mass powers introduce to satisfy the selfish interests of the powerful, the response of free countries must be guided by the principle that achieving protection for individual dignity is inextricable from what will ultimately secure a durable peace for people.

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December 18, 2021

Business and Finance Slow down, even if you're on top

In a throwaway remark during his "Person of the Year" interview with Time Magazine, Elon Musk remarked "I'm not Warren Buffett's biggest fan, frankly, but -- he sits there, and he reads all these annual reports, which are super-boring -- does anybody want that job? It think most people do not. I don't want that job." While the words directly taken are dismissive, Musk defends Buffett's work: "Sure, he's got a high net worth, but he's doing a useful job for the economy and he's very skilled at it, and should probably keep doing it." ■ Musk's point was actually about Buffett's aggregation of a tremendous net worth, and how a large net worth on paper isn't the same as being a conspicuous consumer. And it's a fair point, even if Musk himself (with an estimated net worth of a quarter-trillion dollars) has a vested interest in making it. ■ But it is the "super-boring" part that deserves a second look. Buffett has offered variations on the same advice for decades: "I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think." In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett noted that "Those people who can sit quietly for decades when they own a farm or apartment house too often become frenetic when they are exposed to a stream of stock quotations and accompanying commentators delivering an implied message of 'Don't just sit there, do something.'" ■ "Frenetic" may be a loaded word, but Musk makes it clear he doesn't like to sit still. He's come around to seeing the value of getting six hours of sleep a night, but he's at least sometimes claimed to work 120 hours a week in the midst of a titanic project. That much work seems indicative of a management system with too little delegation: Musk doesn't seem like he's adopted the Eisenhower Matrix, adapted from Dwight Eisenhower's adage, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." ■ Americans notoriously work a lot more hours than many of our peers in other wealthy countries. We're also inconsistent about reading: 23% of American adults said in a 2021 Pew survey that they hadn't "read a book in whole or in part in the past year". It's a suboptimal combination. ■ If we were taking Buffett's advice to heart, average daily reading time would be high especially for people of ordinary working age, instead of taking a dramatic upward spike after retirement (as it does now). We'd see it not just as recreation, but as a vital part of work productivity, too. ■ The real thrust of Buffett's case isn't that sitting idly is itself especially productive, but rather that a person who sits and thinks can avoid big mistakes. In that sense, he channels Benjamin Franklin's advice that "Well done, is twice done." Twitter feeds, listicles, and the choppy syntax of "smart brevity" give the impression of making us smarter, but an endless torrent of information unaccompanied by at least some periodic deep thinking is like a decision-making placebo. ■ Elon Musk can afford to make pretty big mistakes because he's starting from a net worth that is second to one (and, depending on the day, not even that). He's obviously smart, but he also has some obvious problems with impulsiveness whose resulting errors are easier to fix with a giant net worth. For everyone else, perhaps it's better to envy Warren Buffett's job and working style after all.


December 19, 2021

Business and Finance From takeover bid to lawsuit

Alden is suing Lee Enterprises over Lee's rejection of a takeover proposal. Lee also adopted a poison pill.

Agriculture Iowa farmland values hit new nominal high

$9,751 per acre, on average. It's not a record-high in real terms (due to inflation), but it's getting close.

Threats and Hazards A political rally inside a church

"[W]hen religion is joined to [political] authority, piety disappears" - Maimonides

Broadcasting What if the King's speech were Cockneyed?

King George V was the first British monarch to go on the radio, but what if his influence had made a Cockney accent the go-to way of speaking instead of Received Pronunciation?

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December 20, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Those aren't elections

In an apparent lapse of judgment, the BBC tweeted a headline: "Pro-China candidates sweep Hong Kong election". The BBC's practice of putting quotation marks around single words in headlines can venture into downright ridiculous territory, but if ever there were a word calling for that treatment, "election" here would be it. The website headline is a little longer and a little more accurate ("Hong Kong: Pro-Beijing candidates sweep controversial LegCo election"), but it still misses a substantial point: It's not just that the "winners" are pro-Beijing, it's that they were pre-approved by the Communist Party. ■ And it's not merely that they "won", but that their would-be competitors were disqualified and in many cases imprisoned. Such a situation isn't an election in any sense of a free and fair contest among rivals who must win the approval of the public. ■ Calling a thing that merely goes through the motions of an election by the name does a disservice to democracy. It's not neutral to call them "controversial", either -- it's pulling a punch in a way that is fundamentally illiberal. The values of classical liberalism (like freedom, democratic self-government, and personal liberty) contend that these things are not just good, but that they are universal human rights. Denying them is, in fact, a violation of human rights. And calling their denial merely "controversial" is an act of surrender to the side that does the violating. ■ An institution doesn't have to intentionally participate in any kind of oppression to still contribute to lamentable processes like democratic backsliding: Merely surrendering ground on language can be enough to offer authoritarians the kind of cover they desire to grasp at a thread of legitimacy. ■ Naturally, democracy isn't a binary thing -- it is a continuum, marked by extremes. But just as there is a continuum from the tip of one's nose to the bronchia of one's lungs that moves from the obvious exterior of the body to the obvious interior, so there is a continuum on which some systems are obviously democratic and others are obviously undemocratic. It is clear that the central government in Beijing doesn't even intend for Hong Kong to be democratic -- it just doesn't want anyone to believe democracy ever existed there. ■ Respecting the language and calling things by their rightful names is essential to holding up freedom. It simply is. One of the hottest fundamental debates in America is over how to interpret the words of our laws, whether by original intent, strict textualism, purposivism, or another approach altogether. That we debate these things is a sign of health: We know that the words themselves matter, but we have to contend with how exactly to keep them in continuity as the language itself (as part of society) naturally evolves around them. ■ Anti-democratic powers have no such compunctions. Words mean what the powerful want or need them to mean at any given moment. China's government calls itself a "people's republic", but out of 1.4 billion people, only one out of the 25 members of the Politburo is a woman. And, of course, there's only one party from which to "choose". ■ And when cavalier hijacking of words alone isn't enough, they'll change the numbers, too -- from inflating GDP figures right down to manipulating the number of stars on Amazon book ratings. ■ Honest reporting doesn't have to accommodate blatantly dishonest practices in order to be fair. Neutrality of factual reporting still requires fidelity to the facts themselves, no matter how the actors involved represent the facts. And an "election" that is neither free nor fair deserves skeptical quotation marks, at best. In reality, even that gesture likely offers the event too much legitimacy, and legitimacy is what the power-hungry crave.

Threats and Hazards Sterling name, garbage behavior

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was born into a family that could have given him a head start on doing great things for his fellow human beings. Instead, he's chosen to profiteer off vaccine disinformation. It's disgraceful behavior.

Business and Finance Sears to sell off suburban Chicago headquarters

An everything-must-go sale for the ages. Having once downsized from the Sears Tower to a suburban office complex, now they're getting rid of the place in the 'burbs, too.

Iowa Quit taking our people, Minnesota

LinkedIn data suggests that Des Moines is the #3 contributing metro area to in-migration in the Twin Cities. Iowa City/Cedar Rapids and Waterloo/Cedar Falls are contributors, too -- which isn't surprising, given that they're college towns.

Health State of the art

It wasn't that many decades ago that the Casio calculator watch was the height of nerdwear. Today, for $29.99, a single device can not only tell the time, but also monitor the wearer's pulse, step count, sleep cycles, and blood oxygen levels.

Humor and Good News McDonald's employee climbs through window to save choking drive-thru customer

"Going above and beyond" may need to be amended here to include "through"

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December 21, 2021

News It's wrong to compound victims' suffering for clicks

In a creepy and irresponsible attempt to get clicks on its website, Fox News posted an article link on social media with the headline "Missing Utah college student [name redacted], 19, found naked and alive in man's basement, reports say". Except, they didn't redact the victim's name. ■ Times are notoriously tough in the news business right now. Giants like Gannett use words like "transformation" to address the situation as they fight multi-million-dollar losses. The desire to "pivot to digital" is all around. ■ Digital advertising depends upon clickthrough. And salacious headlines have virtually always played a part in drumming up attention -- the "yellow journalism" of the 1800s wasn't even the first era of sensationalism. For-profit enterprises in the business of selling news (and adjacent things that look like news) have never been universally high-minded. Even the Founders weren't above hot-button debates. ■ But that doesn't mean decency and civic responsibility should go out the window. It is precisely because of digital media that even greater care should be taken to attend to the full consequences of coverage: Anything published today goes farther, faster, than just about any news in history. ■ Putting a victim's name, the age "19", and the word "naked" all in the headline guarantees that the victim's name will be tied to unflattering search results, probably forever. And all over something she didn't do: She was the victim, after all. ■ It's not only shameful but also reckless to compound a victim's suffering like that merely to get clicks. It is wrong to celebrate and celebritize perpetrators -- and it's also wrong to make a victim's worst experience the one that defines them digitally.

News Nothing beats capacity

Debates in American public life often center on the delivery of things -- $1.2 trillion in "infrastructure" or $2 billion in student-loan relief. We often seem to neglect discussions about capacity -- things that can be done to enable people to take care of matters for themselves. For some reason, we seem hamstrung by discussions of capacity -- and that does things like tying up review processes that could have made cheap, at-home testing for Covid-19 widely available.

Threats and Hazards We must hang together

...or surely we will hang separately, in the words of Benjamin Franklin. China's escalation of diplomatic and economic hostilities with Lithuania (over the offense of Lithuania's choice to engage with Taiwan) is the kind of matter on which the world's authentically democratic states need to stand strong, argues Hal Brands: "China's strategy for dividing its rivals involves singling out the more vulnerable states and using its vast market power -- or simply its diplomatic ruthlessness -- to coerce them." And that self-defense needs to include an economic component, too.

News "The enemy also gets a vote"

Sage advice

Humor and Good News These little piggies didn't get to market

Truck overturns while carrying hogs. Police on the scene capture a great photo.

Humor and Good News "That EAS alert wasn't us"

The Omaha office of the National Weather Service is quick to let everyone know they weren't the ones who tripped an emergency alert on every phone in the area at 11 o'clock at night

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December 22, 2021

Threats and Hazards Why should we care?

Reporters from Reuters say they observed first-hand as security guards and workers dismantled a statue at the University of Hong Kong. But not just any statue: A piece of art called the "Pillar of Shame", erected to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It's not a matter of changing aesthetic tastes; it's an exercise of power by the increasingly controlling authority of the Communist Party 1,200 miles away in Beijing. ■ Russia has around 100,000 troops menacing Ukraine -- including some in places that Russia took from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainians are practicing for guerrilla warfare to protect their homeland and turning to the US for help as they anticipate being attacked with the tools of cyberwarfare. ■ The 2.7 million people of Lithuania are weathering diplomatic and economic aggressions from the government of China, which is retaliating for Lithuania's decision to treat Taiwan as more than a subsidiary state. ■ One might wonder why Americans should care about any of these developments, as none of them affect any large number of Americans directly. We have our own political fights, our own domestic worries, and our own health to worry about. ■ We ought to care, at the most high-minded level, because the ills that befall our fellow human beings are a part of the state of humanity. For every American, there are another 23 people on Earth. Stuck in a lifeboat with room for 24, one ought to have concern for the welfare of all the rest -- and Earth is a pretty tiny lifeboat in the vast sea of space. ■ But we also ought to care because we have leverage. Like a county sheriff or the captain of a football team, we're capable of rallying others toward worthy goals -- and others expect us, as a country, to be more aware than most. Vast diplomatic and intelligence networks are supposed to be useful that way, and it is no small thing that America possesses the overwhelming first class in tools like aircraft carriers. ■ If all that mattered were what happened within the walls of a tiny city-state, that might be one thing. But we value the freedoms to think and speak, to come and go, to trade and invest, all of which combine to have made America a vast intellectual and economic powerhouse. But like a potluck dinner, things get better when more people show up and bring more to the table. ■ Deep down, most Americans know we're extraordinarily fortunate -- it's an incredible prize to have won the Rawlsian lottery and have made it to America, whether by birth or by choice. But a small cost of that good fortune is that we have a higher duty than that of the average Earthling to be aware of the injustices of the world and the trampling of freedoms. And while we shouldn't always step in with guns blazing, we can't risk our silence becoming thunderous. Our choice to engage with the world doesn't always require our weapons -- but it does demand that we see the plight of others, and for them to know we are watching.

Weather and Disasters Extra tornadoes found from December 15th

The National Weather Service counted a total of 42 tornadoes in Iowa on December 15th, which didn't just set the record for a single day in December, but the record for any single day in Iowa history. The storms themselves were moving fast, so it didn't take much rotational velocity to push the winds past EF-2 criteria in many cases as the squall line zipped through. Thanks to improving technology and training, forecasters could see the situation coming.

Computers and the Internet Test your own products, computer programmers

Tools like two-factor authentication are a wonderful improvement upon the plague of passwords. "2FA" makes it harder for malicious actors to break into the accounts upon which most people rely. But the people who program those experiences into devices, applications, and websites really have to make sure that the tighter security experience integrates seamlessly and doesn't wreck the user experience. For instance, it takes six clicks to get to the 2FA code generator inside the Twitter app. And the same kind of security speed bumps interfere with the basic desktop operation of the chat function that Google has tried to integrate directly into Gmail. Anything that expands the perimeter of greater user security ought to be appealing to the user to actually put into ordinary use. That means those tools need to be easy to use and non-disruptive.

News Widen the gate and open the doors

The United States has missed out on a whole lot of immigration over the last half-decade, and there's no good reason to let that persist

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December 23, 2021

Health Testing freely

The Federal government is going to "purchase a half-billion at-home, rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans who want them", according to the White House. It looks like those tests won't be available until January, which is late but better than never. ■ Testing capacity seems to have been a problem for the entirety of the pandemic. The failure to get massive testing capacity rolled out hampered the initial response in spring 2020, regulatory obstacles to testing were still obvious a full year later, and supply constraints (as well as costs) are still seen as a strangely American problem. ■ Of war, James Mattis once noted that "Speed equals success". In a war against an evolving virus, speed is equally important as on the battlefield. The earlier in the process the chain of viral transmission can be broken, the better for minimizing its spread: That means, in order, avoiding exposure, mitigating the exposure that does occur, preventing the advancement from exposure to infection, limiting the exposure of others if infection occurs, and limiting the demand on resources required to promote a quick and maximum recovery. ■ There's only so much that can be done (and for so long) to prevent the first step in that chain -- humans are social animals and we could not have remained locked down indefinitely. Two years after the virus emerged in Wuhan, China's government is still ordering people into lockdowns, millions at a time. To freer souls, that approach seems unbearable. ■ Vaccines are clearly the best tool for mitigating the consequences of exposure; the difference in case rates for the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated is stark -- the unvaccinated are at much greater risk (by maybe six or seven times) of catching the virus and vastly greater risk (by probably ten times) of hospitalization. ■ The news of not just one but two effective antiviral drugs in pill form is terrific, too. The more we can keep the virus from sending people to the hospital, the better. That much seems far beyond dispute. ■ But it still doesn't make sense not to have vastly expanded the country's testing capacity -- and certainly not if the hangup is an antiquated regulatory framework that prioritized box-checking perfection over deployment speed. ■ Even a testing system that produced some errors -- either false negatives or false positives -- would be useful if it were deployed so widely and cheaply that people could economically justify frequent testing. We don't count on seat belts to save every motorist in a crash, but their marginal effectiveness is so great that they save lots and lots of lives at scale. The same kind of math would apply to cheap, virtually unlimited rapid testing; individuals might still get faulty results, but the protection afforded at scale would be useful to public health. ■ Speed often beats perfection, especially in the environment of an evolving enemy like a virus. A virus doesn't "learn" like a battle planner, but it does mutate and adapt to continue the fight. As Dwight Eisenhower said of World War II, "[S]peed must be redoubled -- relentless and speedy pursuit is the most profitable action in war." ■ In a war against a biological outbreak, a Federal regulatory morass shouldn't keep us from trying to fight back. And we should fix whatever has been holding us back, lest some mutant strain of this (or a future virus) find us continuing to fiddle unproductively at the margins.


December 24, 2021

Humor and Good News Ode to the humble Christmas light

A quest taken too far can become an obsession, and there are certainly those who take their Christmas light displays a few steps beyond healthy boundaries. Like Clark Griswold, they find no limit unworthy of exceedance. Yet for most, a few modest strings of lights are enough to demonstrate holiday cheer. And of the many outward ways a household can express itself, the humble Christmas light may be one of the finest. ■ How anyone decorates the interior of their home -- whether to change themed hand towels by the month or to leave everything museum-like 365 days a year -- is almost entirely a matter for the household itself. It doesn't show, except to visitors. But putting up Christmas lights is a particularly social activity: For the most part, the lights are experienced by others, rather than by the occupants themselves. ■ The history of illumination in American cities goes all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary Era. Benjamin Franklin makes reference to it in his autobiography, pointing to a development in the mid-1750s: "It was by a private person, the late Mr. John Clifton, his giving a sample of the utility of lamps, by placing one at his door, that the people were first impress'd with the idea of enlighting all the city. The honour of this public benefit has also been ascrib'd to me, but it belongs truly to that gentleman." ■ Some light displays draw on an explicitly religious theme, but most are merely bright and colorful at what is literally the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, where the Winter Solstice happens on December 21st or 22nd). Thus, while some people really are out to bring attention to themselves or win contests, displaying lights at Christmastime is mainly an act of goodwill toward others. ■ Few people actually blind their neighbors and strain the local power grid. Most are satisfied with putting out a few watts and calling it a day. But it is that modest display -- the one that says "Light for all, even if we don't know each other" -- that ought to be celebrated, for it means we're still able, selflessly, to wish others well.

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December 25, 2021

Humor and Good News A 1901 complaint about kids and their then-contemporary technologies

Literally every complaint you've ever heard about "kids these days" has an analogue from the past. Every one of them.

Broadcasting How BBC journalists report from the field

Their tools for television and radio alike consist mostly of smartphones and a small kit of accessories, like stands, lights, and wind-screened microphones. Literally none of this would have seemed plausible when broadcasters were still recording to tape.

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December 27, 2021

News A defeat to celebrate

Boxing Day doesn't have any traction in the United States, but it does seem like a missed opportunity that we don't celebrate December 26th. December 26th of 1991 was the first day in 69 years without the Soviet Union. ■ It is well-nigh impossible to explain to someone who didn't live through it just what a relief the dissolution of the USSR really was. Had there been social media at the time, the Internet would have been flooded with astonished-face emojis: The end of the Soviet Union meant the evaporation of literally decades of existential dread -- in the relative blink of an eye. ■ The end of the Cold War was a major contributing factor to why the 1990s felt so good. Talk of a "peace dividend" to the economy from the decline in military spending was certainly a factor, but so was the apparent elimination of the threat of devastating nuclear warfare. ■ Rather like a cancer patient ringing a bell at the end of a long course of treatment, American pop culture celebrated the effective defeat of our dreaded global rival. Concerts took over Red Square. Terrorists displaced Communists as the villains in action films. Mikhail Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial. ■ There aren't many wars successfully terminated with one party simply voluntarily deciding to no longer exist. Yet that's what happened in 1991. An opponent that only seven years earlier could have been portrayed as a prospective invader simply vanished as a formal entity. ■ Boxing Day might linger as a holiday in the British Commonwealth, but the rest of the world might want to co-opt the holiday in celebration of the termination of Soviet-style Communism. There is altogether too much nostalgia for the USSR, both in Russia and abroad, and far too much sympathy worldwide for authoritarian systems of power. Celebrating the defeat of one of the mightiest such regimes would be a healthy reminder that the work of holding back authoritarianism is never really over.


December 28, 2021

News No tolerance for under-reporting

Practically every news organization maintains some version of an "evergreen file" -- a collection of stories that have been prepared in advance for distribution or publication on a slow news day. The evergreen file is especially useful during summer holidays (like Independence Day) and at the end of the year, when there are still column-inches or minutes of airtime to fill, but not a great deal of newsworthy activity happening in the world. ■ One standard entry in the evergreen file is a roundtable discussion of "the most under-reported stories of this year". It's a perfect way to fill time, since it permits the participants to expound on subjects that interest them most -- and to editorialize freely under the cover of offering analytical media criticism. These discussions certainly can be enlightening, and in many cases those who choose to name a story as the "most under-reported" are being authentically thoughtful about the shortcomings of coverage. ■ But the practice also highlights the fact that coverage is an editorial decision. To devote minutes or column-inches to coverage to a subject is to decide it is worth the attention of the reader, listener, or viewer. To deprive a story of that coverage is a choice, as well. ■ It's hard to say this in a time of atrocious news-media economics, but editors and news directors need to apply the Eisenhower Matrix to their coverage: Not just covering what's urgent, but also what's important. Urgency is the easiest way to rank-order newsworthiness (that's how we get "If it bleeds, it leads"), but that doesn't mean it's a good way to produce quality journalism. ■ If a subject is important but not obviously urgent, it needs the help of compelling writing. The quality of writing -- both for print and for the ear -- makes an enormous difference to the audience's level of interest in a story. Paul Harvey has been gone for more than a decade, but some broadcasters still place enough value on his storytelling ability to air segments recorded decades ago. (It helps that many, if not most, of his "Rest of the Story" episodes were themselves "evergreens".) ■ Writing compelling stories around important-but-not-urgent topics is both a skill and a talent. As with any other storytelling style, some people have abundant natural talent that can't be duplicated. Yet some of the skill can be taught, and much of it can be practiced. Upton Sinclair and Nelly Bly made their names by dragging important stories into the public view -- and journalists like Scott Pelley and editors like Anne McElvoy are masters of the craft today. But many, many more of them are needed. ■ Even if it weren't the catalyst for a convenient evergreen piece, there would still be cause for discussion of the most under-reported stories. Important stories often lack the convenient touchpoints that make them easy to fit into a news budget that depends upon timeliness. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo, and much of what passes for "news" is really just reporting on events (things that happen without materially changing our understanding of anything) or information (which is often material worth knowing, but which tends to lack either urgency or importance). ■ The significance of news is that it often doesn't appear to us fully-formed nor served up on a platter in a press release. Aside from the obvious banner-headline stories, news is a matter of judgment about what's important. That's why editorial judgment means so much -- news usually must be dug up, and that digging has to be directed from somewhere. But once the digging yields results, the presentation matters, too. A few bones found in a bluff might not mean much to the ordinary person, but a dinosaur named Sue tells a story worth reading. ■ Such is the dynamic of telling the world's news: The really important subjects may be neither obvious nor seemingly urgent, which is precisely why the skill of editorial judgment and the craft of high-engagement storytelling matter so much. If important stories are going under-reported, then energy and resources need to go into increasing the skills required to keep them from being overlooked.

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December 29, 2021

News The toxicity of tribal insincerity

It seems impossible to dive too far into the news or social media without finding someone who turns to some form of humor in order to get a rise out of someone else. Keith Olbermann makes fun of Sen. Mitt Romney's growing family. A self-proclaimed "politically incorrect cartoonist" mocks a former President for encouraging people to get Covid-19 booster shots. A highly-rated left-leaning podcast responds to a Democratic senator with vomiting emojis and demands to move to a new "simulation". ■ Satire has a grand and storied history in America. Puck was satirizing politics in the 1870s. John Adams wrote satirical letters. Benjamin Franklin was publishing editorial cartoons before the Revolutionary War. ■ But what's too often missing, particularly from the instant-gratification society cultivated by the Internet, is the elevation. Satire isn't the same as mockery. And what is too often present and accounted-for is nothing better than mere mockery. ■ On the surface, satire appears to hold seriousness in contempt. It pokes fun, and we are trained by history and social programming to think that "serious" is always higher than "fun". But satire is really a powerful tool of norm reinforcement. To satirize is to call out a behavior as deviant from what is best for the society at large, and to label it as worthy of derision. ■ Satire holds some things to be sacred, and lampoons those who commit sacrilege against those ideals. Whether it's an editorial cartoon lambasting corruption in politics or a stand-up comedian criticizing government regulation of speech, satire works when it holds something to be truthfully self-evident -- like the need for honest government or the centrality of freedom of speech -- and assails the use of power to undermine that good. ■ Those who don't get that essential quality all too often confuse satire for idle mockery. Mockery is a display of insincerity -- holding the target in preemptive contempt, assuming that they cannot bring good faith to a debate. But that often ends up being an act of projection: The person doing the mocking hasn't entered the arena with good faith. They've merely identified a target and taken a swing. ■ This practice is at its worst when it becomes tribalized -- when the targets are obvious (and the jokes are too), and laughter is a sign of groupthink and tribal membership. Predictable shows with predictable jokes targeting predictable foils fill the cable television schedules from (purported) left to (purported) right, and the same dynamic can be found on the airwaves and online. ■ The insincerity of it all -- the rejection of good-faith debates, which indeed can be conducted satirically -- is a shame, considering how much we have to gain from robust debates. And it's especially toxic when it becomes a matter of identity.

Health What if all preventative care were free?

The whole Covid-19 affair -- including testing and vaccinations -- provokes an interesting question: What if basically all preventative care and testing (for everything) were free to Americans? Nothing else in health care -- just those two things. Would behavior change? How many people would use it? Would it save on net health-related spending? It's already obvious that some people reject treatment a priori, with no regard for the evidence or the price anyway. The question is whether others would behave differently if the rules were different. The answers are not at all obvious.

Threats and Hazards Obscenity in Hong Kong

There is no other word for it: Police there have raided a media company and arrested six senior staff members

Broadcasting The spinoff the world needs

Now that "Veep" is over, the world needs a spinoff, featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Sally Phillips reprising their roles as Selina Meyer and Minna Hakkinen, doing a sort of buddy-cop routine as UN special representatives. Joshua Malina could be their beleaguered bureaucrat back in New York.

Business and Finance Be our guest

Hilton is opening its 400th hotel in China. On one hand, applause is due for the reach of soft diplomacy. On the other hand, what uncomfortable compromises have they made to get to that number?

Recent radio podcasts

December 30, 2021

The United States of America "Strengthened the institutions"

In some circles, the phrase "my NGO" (a non-governmental organization) is used without hesitation or irony -- it is an in-group signal that the user belongs (or aspires to belong) to a high-minded global elite. Founding an NGO also happens to be one of the ways in which young people try to gain admission to elite colleges. ■ The instinct to jump in and solve problems is laudable. Society benefits from having sharp people who want to get their hands dirty and resolve the problems they see in the world. To channel Theodore Roosevelt, "It is not the critic who counts [...] The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood [...] who spends himself in a worthy cause". ■ But if we do too much to praise and reward only the "founders", we run the risk of under-investing in our institutions. The world needs people who sustain and maintain the institutions that already exist, whether we call them trustees or stewards, custodians or caretakers. Trustees are essential -- just as much as founders. And they are essential both high and low -- at the heights of power as well as at the most pedestrian of community levels. ■ In a reflection on one of the prominent lives lost in 2021, Dr. Kori Schake eulogized Secretary Colin Powell with the praise that he "strengthened the institutions he led". Those words ought to be read as extraordinarily high praise. ■ Institutions need to be revitalized and given purpose if they are to remain healthy. The place of cancer in medicine is far distant from where it was when the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913. America has fought a World War and a Cold War (not to mention other wars, both declared and undeclared) since the American Legion was formed in 1919. And among the many evolutionary changes that have reached the Boy Scouts of America since 1910, a thousand girls have earned the Eagle Scout Award. Merely cruising with inertia is a sure way for an institution to decline and die. ■ With all due respect to the newborn NGOs that solve new and novel problems, it should not be more praiseworthy to start up an NGO than to direct the forces of an existing organization into solving the same problems. The world is surely better-off because the Rotary Club (established in 1905) took on the challenge to eradicate polio in 1979, or because Kiwanis (founded in 1915) pivoted to a mission to fighting tetanus in 2010. The heritage service organizations across America's landscape are trying to reboot themselves, and they have a lot of good work left to do. ■ Achieving a giant mission requires organization and structure. And, invariably, starting institutions and getting their momentum underway requires founders to pour energy and time into the goal. That investment might not always be best spent on startup activities, especially if the organization isn't going to stick around for long. There are lots of institutions already crying out for new blood and innovative missions. ■ It isn't wrong for people to want to put the words "Founder and CEO" on their resumes -- but a smart society would seek to lavish at least as much reward on the effective "vice president of community service" or the devoted project chairperson who kept the fire burning for their time within a local chapter of a bigger organization. ■ Correcting that mindset is a mission not only for college admissions counselors, but for parents and teachers, employers and counselors, grandparents and neighbors. Sometimes new is necessary -- but the fact viewers have rewarded literally dozens of home-renovation shows in the television market shows that we already know that sometimes good things already exist and merely need some new hands to invigorate and strengthen them.

Weather and Disasters Awful fire sweeps into Boulder metro area

According to the Boulder Camera: "A large wind-driven fire moving through eastern Boulder County has damaged or destroyed almost 600 homes and burned about 1,600 acres". The smoke is showing up on radar, and it looks like a bad situation is growing worse.

Broadcasting Bring back wood-paneled electronics!

Back when a TV looked like furniture

Broadcasting Send Tom Skilling to community college

The dean of television weather forecasting is a legend -- but boy could he ever use a course in graphic design

Weather and Disasters Nothing's finer than a good rime

"Graupel" may be the best weather word (just for pure pleasure of saying it), but rime is the coolest phenomenon


December 31, 2021

News A farewell to Betty White

It's unclear who are the 4% of Americans who disliked Betty White, but every society contains some ne'er-do-wells. For the rest of us, she was fittingly rated the most popular celebrity in America -- edging out even Denzel Washington and Sandra Bullock. And now we are left to mourn her passing on the final day of 2021, not even three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. ■ She was both exceptionally popular and highly respected, even if her persona was disarming and cheerful. She was a volunteer servicemember in WWII, an ally to the civil rights movement in 1954 (who may have paid a career price for her choices), and a spokesperson for anti-bullying campaigns into her 90s. ■ Benjamin Franklin wrote, "'Tis a shame that your family is an honor to you! You ought to be an honor to your family." Not everyone will have the kind of fame or the consequent platforms of a performer like Betty White. She was gifted with enormous talent (even if acting was runner-up to her dream job of being a forest ranger), and she worked hard for her success over a long and full lifetime. So while she was an only child and had no children of her own, she was undoubtedly an honor to her family. ■ Was she exceptional? Certainly. Trailblazing, even, both on-camera and as a producer. And along the way, she managed to win over the public in a way literally no other American did. Everyone chooses some kind of path through life, and all of us are free to choose our role models. We could do a lot worse than for lots of Americans to cast Betty White in the part.

Humor and Good News Queen Elizabeth's annual New Year's greeting to Eisenhower

Affectionate, really. He earned it.

Humor and Good News Why do people keep going to Renaissance fairs?

Living in the past always looks more appealing if you can still retreat to someplace with indoor plumbing.

News Who doesn't talk with their hands?

The new German Chancellor, apparently. But how does he do it? The cognitive load required to keep those arms from moving must be huge.

@briangongol on Twitter