Gongol.com Archives: 2021 First-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

January 3, 2021

Threats and Hazards President calls Georgia state officials to berate them for saying he lost the election

An abuse of the office such as this ought to be universally decried. The states are not to be bullied by a greedy, selfish, and manipulative executive in the Oval Office. As it was put in Federalist 46: "[T]he existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of." President Trump's behavior is utterly outrageous.

The United States of America The military has to cooperate with the political transition

All 10 of the living former Secretaries of Defense co-signed an opinion piece in the Washington Post saying not only that the military needs to stay right out of any disputes over the Presidential election, but also that "Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates [...] are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly." The letter was Dick Cheney's idea. And, in a sense, it seems karmically appropriate that Donald Rumsfeld, author of countless "snowflakes", has signed on to a letter sure to trigger Trumpian snowflakes.

Humor and Good News Science in service to humanity

Maura Quint: "Have we checked all food to see if exploding them makes them into something better or did we just stop with corn?"

January 4, 2021

Business and Finance Do we have too many doctorate degrees?

There is some merit to Noah Smith's take on this matter (that America produces more Ph.D. degrees in some fields than would be optimal for society), but we also need to consider a perspective shift: Instead of front-loading education and creating 30-year-old Ph.D.s, we should try more "education smoothing". As people grow in practical and even commercial experience, there should be affordable and accessible pathways for them to continue formally learning without leaving the areas where they are productively employed. A person with 20 years of focused experience on the job probably knows more about where applied research would pay off than someone in the nonstop BS-to-PhD pipeline. That we don't have many obvious pathways for this (besides executive MBAs and EdD programs for school administrators) is a failure to match smart educational investment to economic development. We should be more strategic than we are.

Health Perverse incentives hurt people

New York is going to fine hospitals that don't use up their allotted Covid-19 vaccine doses -- and then will cut off the supply. We want doses administered promptly and without waste. But government has to be conscious of the dangers of perverse incentives. This approach seems almost perfectly calibrated to ensure that hospitals will order fewer doses than optimal and/or engage in misreporting. Order many, then get them delivered as soon as possible. And if there's overage, give a shot to the pizza delivery driver. Just get the vaccine into circulation in massive numbers without delay! That's the only way to make herd immunity work for us.

Health 4 million Americans have received first doses of Covid-19 vaccines

The next few weeks are going to be interesting for news reporters to cover, since many journalists quite likely have higher-than-average exposure to health-care workers among their social circles. That's going to make it look to the people who report the news as if more people have been vaccinated than is representative of the population overall.

Business and Finance Good intentions have to be enacted through good policies

Fascinating economic research says that the children who lived in large public-housing projects did much better when those projects were demolished: "Public housing projects, particularly large projects, often provide housing to large numbers of people in geographically concen­trated areas. This results in many job-seekers competing for nearby work." Few areas of study are going to have more to do with the health and prosperity of our future (as the United States, and as the world) than the subject of urban economics -- particularly as it deals with universal needs, like housing.

Threats and Hazards If only George Will were wrong about this, but alas...he isn't

As the President plays up a completely false and paranoid narrative of electoral dishonesty, "Hawley and Cruz, both of whom clerked for chief justices of the Supreme Court, hope to be wafted into the White House by gusts of such paranoia." Regrettably, objectively book-smart people like Sen. Cruz and Sen. Hawley are making repugnant choices out of fear. And it's spread to others, like Rep. Elise Stefanik -- a smart and once-promising member of Congress who says she's going to engage in the nonsense, too. Rep. Stefanik would be doing her duty to the Constitution if, as she said, there were "serious questions" about electoral integrity. The problem is that the "questions" are profoundly unserious, and she's smart enough to know better. It's worse than being a simple dupe.

January 19, 2021

News Day One priorities for the Biden Administration

A whole lot of executive orders are anticipated. Regardless of the merits of any of the particular orders, there ought to be broad consensus that Congress ought to be deciding many of the issues that get punted to the Executive Branch today. We shouldn't be so used to making major shifts based on the vicissitudes of executive orders. It's an unstable way to conduct government, and it really doesn't live up to the purpose of having three branches of government.

January 20, 2021

The United States of America President Biden sworn in

In the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The chances of having wise and faithful public service are increased by a change in the Presidential office after a moderate length of time." From a historical standpoint, we have a unique situation: A Catholic trifecta at the head of the Federal government, with the President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice all members of the Roman Catholic church. The President's Catholicism is a theme it would be hard to miss: He began his Inauguration Day with Mass celebrated by a Jesuit, and the service included "On Eagle's Wings" -- the one you have to hire a cantor to perform at funerals because nobody who knows the deceased can ever get through it without choking up. ■ As Sen. Mitt Romney said, "Despite the differences Americans may have on matters of policy, we share the common goal of ensuring that America continues to be a beacon of hope and freedom for all." It's the right sentiment at all times, but especially so after the last four years. The country -- and the world -- have been drained by the stresses of our last half-decade. ■ One could hardly have known in April of 2016 that not only would President Trump commit offenses worthy of impeachment soon in his term, but that he'd go on to be impeached twice. It was easier to forecast that his Presidency would proceed from early chaos into rank incompetence, then into retribution and score-settling, before ending with looting and exile. ■ America is overdue to be reminded that Presidents don't have to be the end-all, be-all of leadership. Nor should we turn to them as national father figures. To quote again from Coolidge: "It is a great advantage to a President & a major source of safety to the country for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions." Indeed, it would be nice if we could generally turn to our Presidents with a benign indifference.

January 21, 2021

Health Chinese government pushes anti-vaccination conspiracy theories

Why would they try to undermine trust in the safety of American-made vaccines? The big picture isn't hard to figure out: President Xi and his cabal appear committed to a dependency posture with the world. The grand scheme is to turn many other countries into client states that depend upon a mighty and industrialized China for economic, military, and even scientific needs. ■ The Belt and Road Initiative is one manifestation of this posture: China is trying to solve some of its own domestic problems by building infrastructure abroad -- but the Chinese government also isn't trying to help build endogenous capacity in the countries where the Belt-and-Road projects are being built. They're strictly looking to build what suits their perceived Chinese self-interests. If it were about actually helping, then the phrase "debt trap" wouldn't come into the picture. But the phrase does come into the picture, because the initiative is, ultimately, about creating dependency (not capacity) between the client states and China. ■ The same logic is at play with making it appear that China has the only reliable Covid-19 vaccine supply. If China's leadership were being responsible -- or even just far-sighted -- they would look to the big scale and see that the world needs an unprecedented supply of effective vaccines, and any rivalry between vaccine-makers pales in comparison with the net good to be done by eradicating the pandemic swiftly and definitively. That's a thing that can only be accomplished by an all-hands-on-deck approach. Spreading misinformation about "rival" vaccines is a strategy that is bound to backfire, and at great cost. It says something grave about the short-sightedness of China's leadership that they would choose such a low-payoff, short-term strategy rather than participating in a global eradication effort as responsible partners. ■ That's a warning sign we shouldn't ignore: The person who's drowning may panic and flail enough to drown their own rescuer and thus scuttle their own hopes of survival. If China's leadership is panicking and flailing this much, perhaps they think there is a domestic threat to their own survival lurking much closer in the water than outsiders realize.

February 8, 2021

Business and Finance To go public or private with a business?

Abram Pritzker counseled his family: "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." This advice comes to mind a lot these days -- especially with the news full of day traders battling short sellers and celebrities embracing cryptocurrency schemes.

Business and Finance What's a "Federal budget"?

It's a hilarious book published annually by a niche printing house called the GPO. It's more sad-funny than ha-ha-funny, but it sure gets a lot of critical attention.

Weather and Disasters Freezing their pants off in Duluth

Temperatures dropping to -25°F make for instant-freezing weather, or if you prefer, an "Onward" sequel missing some of the charm of the original.

February 10, 2021

Threats and Hazards New video of the January 6th US Capitol attack

(Video) Revealed at the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump: Security footage showing just how close Vice President Mike Pence came to imminent harm. It's really quite extraordinary to see a trial being conducted at what is literally a scene of the crime. Also noteworthy: Officer Eugene Goodman didn't just lead a mob away from the Senate doors, he also quite directly rescued Sen. Mitt Romney from possible harm.

Computers and the Internet The Seinfeld-Turing Test

Sometimes, you should tweet about nothing.

February 11, 2021

Humor and Good News The birth of the Tactical Turtleneck Caucus?

Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Peter Meijer put Twitter to good use

Humor and Good News Tag Team makes a GEICO comeback

(Video) The Mom/Dad dancing in this commercial should run on a high-digit cable channel, 24 hours a day.

February 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards Utterly damning video of a terrorist attack

(Video) What happened at the Capitol on January 6th was nothing short of a terrorist attack

News Schedule some dedicated thinking time

Sound advice based on the practice of the just-departed George Shultz: Get a quiet "Shultz Hour" in your schedule.

Weather and Disasters It's been an active winter

Central Iowa has spent roughly as much time under some kind of winter weather advisory as not since late January

Science and Technology Three cheers for automotive engineers

A dash-cam recording from the interior of an Iowa State Patrol vehicle that gets slammed not once, but three times, serves as a healthy reminder of just how impressive modern vehicles are as feats of safety engineering. A tanker-trailer literally rolls on top of the vehicle and it still appears survivable from the interior.

February 13, 2021

Threats and Hazards Vice President Pence's national security advisor was at the White House on January 6th

Gen. Keith Kellogg "confirmed to CNN that he was in the Oval Office with Trump and the President's children as the riot was raging, during which Pence was forced to flee the Senate chamber." This is much too important to debate just in the press. Call witnesses, place them under oath, and get them to confirm or deny under penalty of imprisonment for lying to Congress.

Humor and Good News On the mitzvah

The world would be a better place if the concept of the mitzvah were so widely known that it required no auxiliary explanation.

Humor and Good News A Valentine for every organization

Anthony Perillo: "Roses are red, This bears repeating: Not all your issues Require a meeting."

Threats and Hazards Trouble in small-town Iowa

"The investigation uncovered wrongdoing committed by the defendants, including but not limited to misappropriation of city funds, the presentation of fraudulent public records, deploying a Taser against a civilian in exchange for cash..."

Broadcasting "Next on TCM"

Someone has programmed a bot to automatically tweet the summary of every movie to come on TCM, one hour in advance. The fact this is a fan page and not an official TCM house account is completely baffling. Every television and radio signal worth its salt ought to have a dedicated feed like this.

February 14, 2021

Business and Finance Know your (economy's) worth

Warren Buffett once said, "There is next to nothing in business textbooks about valuing businesses. But making it look hard makes the high priests of finance get rich." That's what makes times like these a bit precarious -- the stock market is on fire, but it's very difficult to see whether it's been properly valued. The difference between value and price is what makes all the difference.

Humor and Good News Should houses come with "conversation pits"?

But where are the USB outlets so everyone can plug in their phones and ignore one another?

Weather and Disasters America takes a snow day

A new record for land area under winter storm warnings

Humor and Good News Everyone can use a good redemption story

How a woman turned herself around after being a teenage criminal who robbed her own family

February 15, 2021

Health Chicago churches take up the wellness of their communities

Some really important lessons here in how churches can play a role in saving lives, not just addressing the disposition of souls

News Lessons are everywhere

That's the point of a truly liberal education: To see how everything fits together, often unexpectedly.

News Cousins of Rep. Adam Kinzinger declare him a "disappointment" and part of the "devil's army"

All because he criticized the former President they idolize. If your partisan allegiances cause you to disown your family members like this, then there's a good chance you've become a cultist.

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February 16, 2021

News A neighbor straight out of nightmares

A man took up squatting in a condominium with shared walls -- and then proceeded to do things like breaking through those walls with hammers. Stories like this one make it far more interesting to look at issues like zoning -- especially for novel approaches to higher-density single-family construction than what is presently allowed in most of the US. Zoning rules often make it hard to affordably own standalone urban property without shared walls, and that's a major failure.

Science and Technology The content isn't too smart; the communicator just isn't very good

"Many learned people seem to feel that the quality of readableness in a book is one which warrants suspicion. Indeed, not a few learned people seem to feel that the fact that a book is interesting is proof that it is shallow." - Theodore Roosevelt

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway buys a big stake in Verizon

Berkshire effectively purchased an $8 billion utility company and is trusting someone else to manage it.

Weather and Disasters Temperatures drop below zero all the way south into Texas

Basically the entire middle of the country is 30 to 40 degrees below freezing

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February 17, 2021

Weather and Disasters Temperature plunge breaks Houston's water system

The city can't keep up adequate pressure (apparently because the system uses no elevated storage tanks), so everyone's under a boil order. This is a giant water-infrastructure catastrophe in one of America's largest cities. ■ Water service is one of those things people routinely take for granted, but you miss it terribly when it's gone. It can be extremely reliable virtually all of the time for a price -- but there's an additional cost that must be paid if you want to be sure that it is completely reliable all of the time. And the costs involved may come from unexpected places: It's also well worth noting that the essentiality of a particular worker often has nothing to do with their pay grade. The critical path to getting things done often travels through someone who doesn't have much status but holds a particular technical skill. Communities have to invest in both people and equipment if they want total, unreserved, no-exceptions reliability.

News In 2021, a Cheney is far more popular with Democrats than Republicans

Our politics have gone full-tilt monster raving loony

News Popeye's enters the fish-sandwich game

Competition will improve the fast-food fish sandwich. Consumers benefit from variety. But why, pray tell, do we Americans fail to execute on basic fish takeout, mastered long ago by the Irish and English?

Humor and Good News When siblings harmonize

(Video) The moment when talented siblings harmonize is the absolute peak moment for frisson -- the sensation of chills going down your spine. You cannot duplicate the same effect with unrelated singers -- there's just something beyond duplication produced by vocal cords that come from tightly-knit bloodlines. You can hear it when the Wilson sisters nail the harmony in "Alone", or when Klara and Johanna Soderberg do the same in "My Silver Lining".

February 18, 2021

Threats and Hazards "We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren"

Dwight Eisenhower's words echo today. He was speaking of overspending, of course, but there's something similar (and complementary) to be said about paying for the necessary maintenance of our material assets. Sporadic flurries of spending on roads and bridges do not make for real infrastructure "investment".

Computers and the Internet Why are news sites so user-unfriendly?

They still haven't figured out a way to let people pay for a reciprocal pass, so that if you're a subscriber to one or two local newspapers, you don't hit a paywall at every other one. Practically every local zoo and aquarium has figured this out. It's really not that hard.

Weather and Disasters Most people are trying to do the right thing

Alert snowplow driver rescues little boy wandering away from home in dangerous cold

News Want to see the word "meanwhile" used like a sword?

In a tweet about Sen. Ted Cruz's mid-disaster trip to Mexico, the Houston-area Fox affiliate said "Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Cancun with his family amid a crisis in Texas, FOX News confirmed. Meanwhile, half a million Texans remain without power and at least 20 people have died."

Weather and Disasters Icebreaking on the Chicago River

This looks like way more fun than almost any other job in public works.

February 19, 2021

Computers and the Internet The biggest American university you may not have heard of

Western Governors University awarded 47,000 degrees in 2020. WGU is absolutely the model for higher education for life-cycle learning: Classes are delivered asynchronously online, so the only thing that really matters is the motivation of the learner. The entire university is built around a model of student success -- from top to bottom, everything is conducted with a focus on getting students through bachelor's and master's degrees with the least friction (and lowest out-of-pocket cost) possible.

Threats and Hazards A warning on weaponry

Ryan Evans: "[L]ong ago guns took on the status of religious iconography on parts of the right. The logical outcome of this is still unfolding." A gun, properly used, is a tool. So it's useful to ask how she would look displaying other tools in the same way as one member of Congress just did in a videoconferenced hearing -- carelessly and conspicuously. What would we think of someone displaying knives like this? Or animal traps? Or hammers? It wouldn't look good.

Humor and Good News The strength of kindness

Mercy is a privilege of the strong -- it shows real strength to be merciful. Those who can't find it in themselves to show mercy are, more often than not, overcompensating for weakness. Kindness reveals self-control. It also reveals the ability to empathize with others. These two things, together, show that a person's character is three-dimensional -- it reaches both inward and outward.

February 20, 2021

Weather and Disasters Magnificent winter weather photography

Crisp blues and whites and lots of sharp edges in these pictures from Lake Superior

February 21, 2021

Science and Technology Does the trolley problem really apply to self-driving cars?

MIT Technology Review promoted a story with the clickbaity comment "Who should a self-driving car kill?". It's certainly fair to have a broad debate about how to empower computers to address complex decisions, and it's important to realize that there are cultural assumptions about those decisions that may lead to different answers depending upon who's doing the programming. But it's also important to avoid getting too wrapped up in the most granular of decisions when it comes to matters like the safety of autonomous vehicles. There are usually better answers available than strict binary choices -- like jumping a curb sometimes.

News "Obsessive views and brittle temperaments"

"Obsessive views and brittle temperaments", as Kieran Healy describes it, is an elegant filter. It captures a lot of people who quite often have interesting things to say, but to whom the conscientious reader does not owe undivided attention nor unswerving loyalty. The obsessiveness and brittleness aren't exclusive provinces of the left nor of the right -- we see plenty of them from people of all stripes.

February 22, 2021

Business and Finance The reckless vicissitudes of Bitcoin prices

Market-watchers chalk it up to bad press from one negative Elon Musk tweet. The following question is a simple one. In fact, it's the essential one behind all investing: What is the intrinsic value of Bitcoin? Unless you can confidently answer that question, its market price has no real meaning at all. You must have a sense for what something is actually worth before you can decide what price you're willing to pay for it.

February 23, 2021

Science and Technology The technological evolution of work

One stable fact about change: The jobs themselves will change, but the problem sets we uncover are extremely good at filling the voids and putting people to work doing new things.

News Daft Punk disbands

(Video) The Los Angeles Times does a pretty good job of covering the essential Daft Punk tracks you ought to know, but it skips their underappreciated seminal track: "Digital Love", which triggers the mental picture of an 80s sitcom.

Broadcasting A worthy debate: Who's the central cast on TV?

Noah Smith argues that "media in the 80s and 90s tended to focus a whole lot on working-class people", while RJ Lehmann counters with a long list of shows about rich people. Many of the best-remembered sitcoms of the 1980s were explicitly about what we'd now call creative-class households -- "The Cosby Show", "Too Close for Comfort", "Growing Pains", "Family Ties", and even "Benson". That's what made "Roseanne" and "Married With Children" so unusual: They explicitly rejected the kinds of bourgeoise norms so often seen elsewhere, even when a show wasn't notionally about the professional class. The 1970s may have been more fertile ground for that "working-class" aesthetic. One can even find evidence of a sort of transitional phase in the very late 1970s, when shows like "CHiPs" and "Emergency!" centered on high-status working-class occupations.

February 24, 2021

Health Another Covid-19 vaccine is coming

And the best news is that the new Johson & Johnson vaccine can be delivered in just one dose. In terms of deployment, adding one new single-dose vaccine is like getting two new dual-dose vaccines. This is great news.

Threats and Hazards China's governing regime is a threat

Aspiring global superpower uses state-controlled media to make big, whiny deal out of trivial editorial mistake. World reminded that same regime often imprisons and threatens journalists, commentators, and dissidents. Not even for being wrong, just for nonconformity.

News Kids, in a nutshell

Parenting often consists of cultivating a sense of contrarianism that you want your kid to apply to everyone -- except you, the parent.

February 25, 2021

Threats and Hazards Terrorism on January 6th; continued terrorist threats today

The acting chief of the US Capitol Police testifies that "members of the militia groups that were present on January 6th have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible". Prosecute everyone who espouses this desire. They are terrorists.

Computers and the Internet Twitter tentatively plans "Super Followers" option

The deal would permit users to charge for premium access to tweets. Putting aside that "Super Followers" should be "Super Readers" instead, this is an idea that probably isn't going much of anywhere. However, it could be a great way to uncover the spot prices for really hot takes.

February 27, 2021

The United States of America Warren Buffett retains faith in the state of the country

From the newly-released letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: "[W]e retain our constitutional aspiration of becoming 'a more perfect union.' Progress on that front has been slow, uneven and often discouraging. We have, however, moved forward and will continue to do so."

Humor and Good News The world gets better when caregiving isn't a gender-specific duty

Melinda Gates: "When men develop their nurturing side, it doubles the number of capable caregivers. It helps men build strong bonds with their children that bring joy and last a lifetime. And it helps both men and women develop a wider range of their abilities."

Humor and Good News Should pizza be adorned with Froot Loops?

Fong's Pizza of Des Moines has stepped right into the line of fire by putting Froot Loops on a novelty pizza. Get mad about it if you want to, but just know this: There is but one style of pizza, and its name is deep-dish. Nothing else violates the law of "pizza" because everything else is just toppings on a cracker. In the name of Lou Malnati, amen.

February 28, 2021

The United States of America Should immigrants be pointed towards shrinking counties?

An intriguing proposal: Considering that we have a great number of counties across the United States that are experiencing population decline (especially among the working-age populations), should the national immigration strategy include an aspect of targeted population growth? That is, should we open up a pathway for people to get special visas, so long as they move to the counties where population decline is becoming a problem? There's a whole lot about the idea that makes sense, especially if it's voluntary for both visa-holders and the communities who would benefit.

March 1, 2021

Business and Finance Buying back

"Berkshire [Hathaway] has spent about $4.4 billion buying back its stock in the first six weeks of this year". Another way to look at it: Berkshire issued a large, tax-free dividend to the shareholders who remained. There are good repurchases, and then there are bad ones. Bad ones happen, for instance, when a company issues shares as rewards to insiders (like executives and board members), then repurchases them as an accounting stunt. Berkshire Hathaway's current repurchases are happening because management thinks the market is under-pricing the company. That's good repurchasing.

News What reasonable person pays $100,000 in tuition for a journalism degree?

Someone's offering that as a menu price, which causes Matthew Martin to ask: "Is a masters in journalism a conspicuous consumption good[?]". It might truly be, and that's neither good for the journalists nor for the public.

News How do you raise the profiles of governors?

Jonathan Martin: "Solution: Compulsory TV coverage of summer and winter NGAs". We could start by making the winter meeting a Festivus Special. Tune in for the airing of grievances! Don't miss the feats of strength! Superficially, it's a gag, of course. But the fact remains that most national reporting on politics comes from people working and living mainly in two places: DC and New York. That skews perceptions of what is, in fact, a great big country. Or, perhaps more closely, a great big collection of mini-Americas, each with its own special take on how government is done.

March 2, 2021

Science and Technology Maintenance tip: Give your equipment humane names

Serial numbers are tremendously important, of course, but it's much better to name important pieces of equipment like they're pets or people. The Minnesota Department of Transportation held a contest to name their snowplows, and you really have to admit that "Darth Blader", "Plowy McPlowFace", and "Ope, Just Gonna Plow Right Past Ya" are just vastly better names for those machines than something like "A47T14". It sounds frivolous until you realize that humane names help us shift our thinking about objects in a way that makes us more conscientious. There's just no comparison between tail numbers registered with the FAA and the classic Pan Am "Clipper" names.

Health Vaccinating 9 to 5

Vaccine-research patron Dolly Parton gets a vaccination against Covid-19. No one should get involved in a cult of personality. But if you're inclined to join one, it would sure be nice if you'd choose a personality like Dolly Parton instead of...well, let's just say some of the lesser ones people have been joining lately.

Business and Finance Banker's hours have gotten out of hand

One of the 25 largest banks in the United States offers no way to reach a branch office outside the local hours of 9:30 am and 4:00 pm.

March 3, 2021

News Time for some nuance

New rule: Take no opinion seriously unless it acknowledges some kind of nuance, exception, or subtlety. ■ Obviously, nobody gets to single-handedly impose a norm on everyone else, but our culture needs to start ranking "comfort with gray areas" above "emphatic about my own righteousness". That's a thing we need to develop, and that's probably going to require as snappy a name as "cancel culture".

News The old "if anyone was offended" excuse

(Video) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo trots out the threadbare "if anyone was offended" excuse for his own behavior, having been called out for attempting to kiss women who obviously wanted not to be kissed. His excuse? That it's his "customary way" of greeting people -- including men and children. Which sounds like no kind of excuse at all. Anyone with even a modicum of literacy in body language would recognize the pained look on Anna Ruch's face as he grasps her face in a photograph. That's no time for "if anyone was offended". It's time for "I realize I was doing something manifestly out of bounds, I am deeply sorry, and I'm not going to do that anymore".

March 4, 2021

Computers and the Internet Introspection through ad targeting

Jennifer Doleac: "Ad targeting has gotten so good that I now consider new ads an opportunity for self-reflection. (What have I done that makes me the target audience for this product/service?) It's big data as therapy." You can try to avoid it by clearing your browser cookies daily, but then things might get weird.

Broadcasting Setting unrealistically high expectations

The Apple TV show "For All Mankind" is being teased with a preview backed by the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams". If you're going to bring Annie Lennox into something, that's setting the bar pretty high.

Business and Finance A sane analysis of Warren Buffett's latest letter to shareholders

In a more rational world, the stock analysts would lose their seat at the Berkshire question-and-answer session, and they would be replaced by Lawrence Cunningham, who actually studies the company instead of trying to divine arcane conclusions about it like they're reading the entrails of sacrificial animals.

Threats and Hazards Setting the grift level to "11"

A recent former President seeks to make himself the one and only route to deciding what belongs in the Republican Party. His argument carries the depth of thought and thematic consistency of the label on a jar of expired mayonnaise.

March 5, 2021

News Which religious thinkers reach outside their particular sects?

A quarter of American adults say they are "spiritual but not religious". This is a rapidly-growing identity, and yet it isn't really an identity at all, since it's really just a statement of a negative. This raises an important question: Who among the religious thinkers is trying to reach out to them? Who among the religious thinkers is doing anything at all to reach out to anyone who isn't already a co-religionist? ■ This isn't a question about evangelism, really, but rather a question about the place for thoughtful religious introspection in a time when religion really isn't popular. The majority of American adults only attend religious services a few times a year. Monthly (or more frequent) attendance fell by almost ten percentage points between 2007 and 2019. ■ Yet the "eternal questions" of religion haven't gone anywhere. So, again, who is saying or writing things to reach the people who aren't already in their flocks? For instance, the Catholic Church once commissioned the Jesuits as "soldiers of God". The times of sending missionaries to convert "uncivilized" peoples are over -- but where are the missions to speak to the "spiritual but not religious" who are greater in number than any single church?

Humor and Good News Oh, not now, please

There's an ad for a Type 2 diabetes medication that uses an off-brand version of a song by the Sugarhill Gang and it's not clear that we shouldn't just declare civilization DOA.

Threats and Hazards "The 42nd reported expressway shooting just this year"

Exactly the kind of stomach-churning statistic that sets the nerves of the visitor on edge when in Chicago. A great city with a vast history and an always-promising future, but all too often riddled with bullets.

Humor and Good News In praise of the PB&J

Lent conveniently reminds one of the simple pleasure of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich

Socialism Doesn't Work China's relentless mission to destroy Hong Kong

Writes Matthew Brooker: "Xia Baolong, Beijing's top official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, declared that only 'patriots' can hold positions in all three branches of government: executive, legislature and judiciary. Xia and others have effectively equated patriotism with loyalty to the Communist Party". ■ It says something extraordinary that China's ruling class would torch everything that Hong Kong has to offer -- just to show they have zero tolerance for dissent. It's an incredible (and, long-term, wildly irrational) preference to reveal. Imagine being so terrified of the very idea of individual liberty that you would set fire to the crown jewel of your economy.

News It's OK to be wrong sometimes

The time will come (someday, one hopes) when we collectively realize it's possible to enjoy and even learn from some of a person's work without having to defend their entire canon like it's Gospel. And that it's possible to walk away from the bad stuff without making a scene about it. This is the cure we need for overheated culture wars and "cancellation".

March 7, 2021

News Citizen of the Year

Looking at the way that the Royal Family's troubles have brought unfavorable attention to the UK, and how the United States recently spent four years under a President who wanted to do the ceremonial stuff without having to do the hard work of governing, it really seems like we ought to consider having an elected, ceremonial head of government. Elect someone to serve for a single year (with a strict single-term limit) and have them run around playing the part of the national id in a way that can't really hurt anybody. After we let Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Betty White have a shot, we can move along to other people who represent how the country is feeling at any given moment. (Maybe, just to be safe, we should let Betty go first.)

Weather and Disasters Grass fire on fast-forward

A Nebraska State Trooper caught a grass fire on a dashcam video -- and it moves much, much faster than you'd likely imagine

March 8, 2021

The United States of America "The price we pay for democracy, which is worth it"

George Will's summary of the minimum wage is a satisfying way to describe quite a number of things that might also be called our "social-cohesion taxes". Sometimes we accept policies which we don't think work very well, because we have been unsuccessful at persuading others and we know that the underpinnings of democracy are more important than individual policy victories.

Humor and Good News "Know your self worth and then add tax"

Great advice from Anna Gifty

Business and Finance The latest bubble: SPACs

Special-Purpose Acquisition Companies: Shell companies formed for the purpose of buying other companies. There's nothing immoral about them, but once you hear that something's a "hot trend" in investing, there's an excellent chance it's already way too overheated to be a value-investing opportunity. But given the simultaneous booms in SPACs, nostalgia programming, and streaming media, it's only a matter of time before Netflixx rolls out "Return of Laverne and Shirley". Follow their zany antics as the girls revive Hasenpfeffer Incorporated as a SPAC while chasing love in the Covid Era and trying to stay one step ahead of the SEC.

News One-paragraph book review: "The Moment of Lift" by Melinda Gates

Verdict: A vital topic explored with humility

Business and Finance Great questions in demographics and geography

"What's the country with the biggest drop-off in population between its first city and its second city?" It would be interesting to see this graphed for a large number of countries. There's a power law to the size of cities in many or most places, to be sure. But it would be worthwhile to investigate whether the countries with flatter relationships between their 1st- and 2nd-tier cities perform better, economically, than places where all the action is found in one place. ■ From a development standpoint, this is a really important question: Can more be gained by putting all of a country's eggs in one basket and leaving some places behind? Or is that such a morally unacceptable choice that no country should choose to do it, even if that comes with a net deadweight loss to society as a whole. And the same questions that make sense for a country make sense for a state, too -- should a state like Iowa just put everything into making Des Moines and Cedar Rapids grow as much as possible? Or would the returns be higher to invest in growth in Jefferson and Oskaloosa and Clinton, too?

News Small-r republican fairy tales are much harder to script

It would be nice, though, if from time to time kids could learn stories that don't involve kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Enough already with all of that monarchist garbage.

Humor and Good News The high-credential version of screaming, "I'm an influencer!"

A lawyer is proud that he was once described by opposing counsel as an uncontrollable publicity hound

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March 9, 2021

The United States of America Should America lead the world in high-speed rail?

(Video) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says "I want the US to be leading the world when it comes to access to high-speed rail...especially with the bipartisan appetite for real investments". There's no escaping the fact that America has a historically romantic view of rail travel -- it's a huge part of our identity as a continental nation, and it feels like something that was once great and is now lost. But the very idea of our being a giant, sprawling country is one of the reasons rail has such an uphill climb in America. Italy's high-speed rail network, for example, really came together in the first decade of the 2000s, and it's quite magnificent to ride. But the entirety of Italy would fit roughly between Chicago and Raleigh, NC, and is only about the width of Indiana. In that space live 62 million people. That's in a country just 116,000 square miles in area -- about the size of Arizona, which only has about 7 million people. The population density of places with well-known high-speed rail systems like Italy and Germany and Japan is often almost a factor of ten higher than the density in the United States. That doesn't make high-speed rail impossible, but it does radically affect the economics involved. ■ To remove our romantic blinders and get serious about the question, what we need to ask is "What makes high-speed rail attractive?" Three factors stand out: What we really want is transportation that is high-efficency (and, consequently, low-cost), non-weather-dependent, and reliably scheduled.

Business and Finance Four dozen HuffPost employees laid off via email

What a profoundly unethical way to treat other human beings.

Threats and Hazards FBI releases video showing DC pipe bomber

Find and prosecute this terrorist and anyone who collaborated with them

Health What an anniversary

Somehow, in light of the Covid-19 shutdown anniversary this week, ads for paper towels and toilet paper sound...odd

Computers and the Internet Leaving prison uncorrected

A lawyer shares a story about a client who spent 30 years in prison before being released this year. How is he supposed to know how to navigate a digitally-dependent world? There are times when one is reminded that, although we call it "corrections", we don't always make the choices necessary to produce "corrected" fellow citizens who are capable of reintegration with society.

News The only thing you need to read about the Royal Family

Patrick Freyne: "They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire." This writing sizzles. ■ However, events like the "Meghan and Harry" interview offer a reminder that some commentators have nothing productive to add to the public conversation. It's possible to let the event pass without any comment at all -- and yet some commentators cannot help but make fools of themselves by revealing how little they actually think about what they say. Those people (who do not deserve to be named here) can be safely ignored. We really, really need to stop making celebrities out of people who are profoundly emotionally stunted. It's not good for them, and it's terrible for the rest of us.

Weather and Disasters Incoming winter storm probably won't drop 111" of snow

Computer-based weather models are great, but sometimes they come up with implausible results. There's a reason human beings are still involved.

March 10, 2021

The United States of America Visas to help repopulate shrinking communities in the Midwest

Accepting the proposed precondition that it be voluntary on the part of both the community and the visa-holder, this idea really makes a lot of good plain sense.

Broadcasting The danger of wearing headphones while opining

Certain talk-show hosts -- mainly men -- fall victim to an effect that may not have a name, but which is very real. When he talks into a microphone, he hears himself (through his earpiece or headphones) on a nearly-imperceptible delay. That delay causes him to think he's hearing himself as the voice of God. It's a technologically-induced form of auditory schizophrenia, and if a person isn't careful to mitigate the effects (for instance, by wearing only one headphone of a pair), it really does turn some people into monsters. When Rush Limbaugh said he was using "talent on loan from God", he was revealing a hidden truth about what was happening inside his own head.

Computers and the Internet Could we please pause NFTs for a while?

Could we please just wait until the financial (and carbon) cost of energy drops to near-zero before finding new ways to waste it? Basically everything "crypto" is just a way to light the environment on fire, and it's just not a great idea to keep engaging in it until we can make and use energy with fewer consequences.

Weather and Disasters Stay away from the triple point

"Triple point" remains one of the best meteorological terms out there. Not that you want to actually be where a triple point is happening, but it's a great name.

March 11, 2021

Broadcasting An observation on Clubhouse vs. podcasting

There's always been a niche place for drop-in conversation (just look at ham radio). It's never been enormous, but it has been durable. People like to be surprised, and if an application like Clubhouse can replicate that ham radio, "drop-in" conversational feeling, then there will be a place for it. ■ There will always be a big place for live-to-tape conversations, on radio or podcasts. So long as there are interesting people, there will be others who want to hear them speak. And a good interviewer (like Anne McElvoy) is capable of asking conversational questions of an interesting person that exceed the quality of the content that person may be able to generate on their own. ■ What podcasting has brought to America is scripted, heavily-produced audio programming. It's not something we've done very much -- certainly not by contrast with the work of public broadcasters like CBC Radio One and BBC Radio 4. In those markets, speech-based radio programming (that isn't "talk radio" in the American political sense) is very popular. That makes similar programming a growth market in America, and it ought to long persist in growing as producers become more sophisticated.

Humor and Good News A trip back in time

What would your Y2K-era self have said if you came back to report that in 2021, everyone is required to wear masks inside of banks, we don't know yet where Donald Trump is going to put his Presidential library, and Apple is selling a Dick Tracy watch with a built-in electrocardiogram?

News The real "mockery"

Women in our armed forces are no "mockery" of defense, no matter how much a reactionary pundit tries to argue it. Women are half of our country's talent, hold half of America's skills, and possess half of our national brain power. Tucker Carlson and Fox News should be ashamed for advocating that we only half-defend ourselves.

Computers and the Internet What qualifies as obscene?

If you thought these definitions were difficult before, they're an order of magnitude harder with the arrival of deepfakes. It's not just that the train has left the station -- it split into twelve trains, each leaving in a different direction, and two entered new dimensions.

News Who abstained?

Someone voted "present" as the Chinese government voted to break Hong Kong's democracy. Everyone else voted "yes".

Science and Technology Snapshot from the big-tool economy

We'll always need industrial work to be done, but it's often taking place farther and farther away from our view

The United States of America Should the President hold a press conference?

Americans should expect their Presidents to be accountable, and direct accountability to the press is a component of that. But the reaction to whether President Biden has held a press conference yet is a bit over-wrought. Even the staunchest defender of the press has to temper that criticism through the lens of the recent performance of the White House press corps, and it would be easy to care a great deal more if the last four years had been characterized by tenacious and detailed on-the-record questioning rather than by "access journalism" and an infinite loop of anonymous quotes. Some did right. Many did not.

March 12, 2021

News Rating fish sandwiches for Lent

Wendy's came to Lent this year with their "A" game. Their sandwich tastes like fish without tasting fishy, and that's well beyond expectations for fast food.

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March 13, 2021

Computers and the Internet Should you sketch on slides during a live presentation?

Low-fi sketching done live while you're talking can deliver some messages with lower cognitive loading than any of the alternatives.

Computers and the Internet Strange rabbit holes on Wikipedia

Thanks to someone's detailed research, one can be sure that if they remember watching "CHiPs" during the daytime, it was on NBC between April and September of 1982. Did anyone really need to know that? No. Is it a fascinating way to triangulate hazy memories? Yes.

March 14, 2021

News "Ignoring [stupidity] won't make it go away"

Jim Golby offers sound advice to military leadership: "Leaders must be judicious on when to engage, but total silence isn't a good option, either -- even if it is tempting. After something like the Carlson segment, their soldiers will be talking about it and their formations may be divided. Ignoring that won't make it go away." Of course, there are options for talking about things without saying certain things (like a television host's name) out loud. When in doubt, the carefully-crafted subtweet can be even more effective than taking on a target directly. It takes more thought than addressing someone head-on, but the results can be devastating. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "[I]f you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction and prevent a candid Attention". Franklin knew that sometimes the best thing to do is to address a principle directly at a time when everyone knows exactly what hot topic you're talking about -- but without hovering around the topic itself. Sometimes, the bully must be punched right in the nose. But at other times, it can be enough -- especially for people who don't want to be dragged into the mud to wrestle with the pigs -- to say something that can't be mistaken for neutrality, without dignifying the name of the pig. And there are plenty of pigs begging to grapple: Sen. Ted Cruz wants military leaders to show up to take a beating for some tweets that were issued by those under their command. Cruz, lest we not forget, was the man who just a month ago threw his kids under the bus for his choice to go on a trip to Mexico. What kind of honor is found in that?

Computers and the Internet Beware apps masquerading as "American"

There remain certain "tells" in the English language that non-English speakers think we use but which we simply do not. One of those is to start a sentence with "Nice day," (inclusive of the comma), which just isn't how Americans use that phrase. Ever. And when it shows up in social-media ads promoting applications of dubious provenance, there's no reason to do anything but walk away.

News Your semi-annual reminder...

...that changing the clocks twice a year is an exercise in futility imposed on the population at large by people who selfishly think that imposing a time change by government fiat is more important than just changing their own schedules voluntarily and leaving the rest of us alone.

March 15, 2021

Business and Finance The "Technoking"?

Tesla has filed a Form 8-K with the SEC granting the CEO the additional title of "Technoking". And it's titled its CFO as the "Master of Coin". But...why? ■ No one has ever needed a sidekick quite like Elon Musk needs one right now. Like most good top-tier leaders, he needs a right-hand person who can be implicitly trusted to veto the #1 person's worst impulses. Musk is imaginative, smart, aggressively innovative -- and also quite clearly impulsive. Perhaps he's a genius, but intellect alone isn't enough to achieve the greatest results. Temperament is essential, too. ■ Most great business geniuses have done better by working with partners. Bill Gates had Paul Allen. Soichiro Honda had Takeo Fujisawa. Warren Buffett has Charlie Munger. Part of the value of a great partner is in balancing one's ideas or offering a broader perspective on tough questions. Another part, though, is in offering a temperamental counterweight. And it's hard to imagine that a "Technoking" doesn't need to add a little bit of yin to his yang.

Socialism Doesn't Work The people of Hong Kong have a right to their opinions...

...but only if they're already the opinions that Beijing wants them to have. That's the basic message coming from the Chinese government, as it pretends to be "all ears" about changes to the legal and government system while imposing radical changes without the people's consent. ■ Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Democracy is imperfect at the beginning and will remain so. But men and women still crave it: It alone affords human beings the dignity that comes when those who would govern them have to ask for their consent. There is simply no alternative." There's scarcely a better way to put it. And there is no possible way to interpret the behavior of China's Communist Party as "asking for consent". Thus, they afford the people of Hong Kong exactly no dignity. Sooner or later, any system that fails to respect human dignity is bound to collapse. ■ Whoever runs the social media tools for Radio-Television Hong Kong deserves an award for cramming devastating commentary into a brief story summary: "HKMAO deputy Zhang Xiaoming says the central government is 'all ears' when it comes to views on the planned overhaul to #HongKong's electoral system, as long as people's opinions are based on the decision that Beijing has already made."

Humor and Good News Who's missing a Birkenstock?

Of all the strange things to see at a gas station...

Humor and Good News Like the sands through the hourglass

How should we start measuring time? The period between required password resets? Or by notifications that your credit card has been compromised?

Threats and Hazards Government troops kill 20 pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar

20 people were murdered because they expected their government to obtain their consent first. 20 lives stolen.

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March 16, 2021

Threats and Hazards Utterly outrageous behavior by China's government

Foreign Policy reports on truly obscene policies in China -- like "...the 'Pair Up and Become Family' program, which has seen more than 1 million Han officials move in with minority families. A common scenario is a Uyghur family's father figure is detained while a Han man lives with the Uyghur woman and children."

Weather and Disasters A distant second to Chocolate Rain

Dust storms in the South carried particles into the atmosphere over the Midwest and resulted in "muddy rain" over Kansas and Nebraska

Humor and Good News A Taco Dome near every home

Until we can get "a taco truck on every corner", how about a Taco Dome near every home?

Socialism Doesn't Work When the opposition has been run out of town

Hong Kong no longer has opposition members in its governing legislature. Everyone who's left has passed a pro-Beijing litmus test. The world should be paying attention, but there's so much else going on that this really awful development may well escape the attention it deserves.

Humor and Good News Don't undercook your corned beef

If you're going to enjoy it on St. Patrick's Day, then start cooking it on St. Patrick's Day Eve.

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March 17, 2021

Threats and Hazards We must not dehumanize victims after death

The victims of the Atlanta murder spree had lives that were entitled to dignity, just as much as anyone else's. A murderer stole those lives. Nobody in good conscience should speak of those deaths without putting the victims before the perpetrator.

Broadcasting Running secret hospitals in Syria

If you think speech-based radio can be better than just some malcontent with a mic, you're right: This CBC Radio interview with a Syrian doctor is at once riveting, heartbreaking, and uplifting.

Humor and Good News When Irish-American eyes are smiling

May you find one thing in life that makes you as joyful as an Irish-American politician on St. Patrick's Day.

Humor and Good News Why kids like dinosaur knowledge

It's especially fun because most parents learned about dinosaurs in early school years, too, but the facts continue to change. Just ask bronto...oops, make that apatosaurus.

Weather and Disasters An awful forecast

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center sees an extremely bad day ahead for the South

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March 18, 2021

The United States of America Thinking about the next big war

James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman: "What we need most is an active imagination; we should enlist insights not only from security professionals, but also historians, writers, foreign policy experts and representatives from the arts. If any hesitation existed before, the pandemic should demonstrate to our leaders the importance of unconventional thinking when it comes to anticipating future threats to our country and taking steps to avert a crisis before it arrives on our doorstep." ■ They're absolutely right. But also: Ordinary citizens need to invest at least as much interest and energy in our changing national defense as we put into, say, arguing about Dr. Seuss books. You don't have to read Clausewitz, but maybe glance at the Texas National Security Review or Defense One occasionally. ■ The extremely lazy thinking that has contaminated most of the American discussion about military power has reduced us to the empty polarities of "Support the troops" and "No more foreign wars". That just isn't enough. The battlefield is no longer guaranteed to be "over there", nor is it guaranteed to be any place we put on a map. China hacked Equifax. Russia treats cyberwarfare as a primary tool. North Korea attacked Sony. It's nonsense to think that we can just withdraw to our own little corner of the world and ignore everything else. That doesn't mean we have to be overzealous expeditionaries. It does mean we (as citizens) have to become critical thinkers about battlefields and threats that don't fit neatly into a context that suits our historical memory. But if civilians are going to have political control of the military (as we should), then civilians need to engage in the training required to be responsible operators. ■ The rush to create a Space Force bypassed the bigger step we should have taken, which is to spin up a Cyber Force with its own dedicated rules of engagement, understanding of threats, command structure, and even a standalone service academy. And we need to examine how other asymmetric and unconventional threats are going to come at us, so that we can figure out the best ways to deploy force (whether kinetic or otherwise), commit resources (of people, money, time, and whatever else we have), and cooperate with allies while engaging with adversaries. And we should be doing it while considering a whole-picture context, particularly in light of the risk that this pandemic will persist and the next could be right around the corner. Not everything that threatens us will happen at gunpoint.

The United States of America The stupidest argument is that we're running out of space

To think there is no vacancy left in America (an unreality one pundit is trying to insert into the nation's dialogue) is to be utterly without knowledge about our geography. Many states are less dense than the country as a whole, which is near the bottom of the list for population density worldwide. Even our cities aren't especially dense, but there's a serious problem of depopulation taking place across much of the Midwest and elsewhere. As communities shrink, it becomes harder to sustain a private-sector economy and harder to pay for basic infrastructure and essential services. There's well more than enough room for many, many, many more people in America -- and don't worry about growing food: Aside from some marginal effects in places immediately adjacent to growing metropolitan areas, population growth really has nothing to do with the price of rural land.

Threats and Hazards An affront to human dignity

Foreign Policy reports: "Last year, researcher Adrian Zenz found the region poured $37 million into programs -- featuring forced sterilizations and IUD implantations -- meant to slash birth rates, which dropped 24% in 2019 in Xinjiang compared with 4.2% nationwide."

News "How to be a better parent during the pandemic"

"The Economist Asks" is one of the ten best podcasts in circulation generally, and this episode is particularly good.

March 19, 2021

Health Why the US should redirect its excess vaccines to other countries

Writing about WWII, Eisenhower noted with awe, "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." This has been America's not-at-all-secret weapon for almost a century: The unrivaled capacity of our economic system to move faster than any other, and to scale up in a way no other economy can. It's not just that our economy is really big, it's that we select for decisive action, risk-taking, and a disposition in favor of innovation. Command economies can't match it. ■ There are cases where the government can act as a catalyst -- and should. The choice to facilitate the simultaneous development of multiple Covid-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed is a fine example of this, and it's a lesson that ought to be remembered. The many-eggs-in-many-baskets approach may result in a surplus of outputs (like vaccine doses) that may be inefficient by strictly economic terms, but there are circumstances so exigent that it's better to overshoot than to undershoot. As Bill Gates once put it, "Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ A lesson worth taking away from Operation Warp Speed is that government can get more of highly desirable outcomes when it does enough to bulk up the rewards for achieving them. Subsidizing a guaranteed market for vaccine purchases gave the pharmaceutical companies the requisite incentives to pursue the goal at flank speed. This makes a compelling case for our government to fund results-based inducement prizes to achieve other worthwhile goals where the public interest could be served by speedy innovation. If the private sector receives a clear signal that a successful solution to a major public problem will be rewarded mightily, then the market will do more to find that solution than it otherwise might. This is a lesson we ought to apply to issues like energy and transportation innovations that can have huge effects on public-interest goals in areas like defense and environmental quality. ■ While we're at it, it's evidently time to do a lot more thinking about issues of ventilation and climate control inside our buildings. A New York Times headline puts it: "How Windows are Crucial to Reopening Schools". Even if we had unfailing certainty that we could stop Covid-19 with vaccines, we need to be thinking ahead to the next pandemic while we're fighting this one. Respiratory viruses aren't going away, and if there's anything we should be learning (and reflecting upon) about pre-pandemic life, it's that we've been really complacent about making each other sick -- in workplaces, schools, and other settings. The CDC says that influenza rates this season have been one-quarter of the rates seen in a previously low-severity flu season. We're not going to be eager to put up with social distancing forever, but we shouldn't lose sight of how careful management of air quality has done to keep us from getting sick in this extraordinary year. This, again, would be an area ripe for inducement prizes to incentivize big new innovations for making our indoor air quality healthier, even after the pandemic is gone. ■ "American exceptionalism" shouldn't be a lazy catchphrase -- we really should be more conscious of how we benefit from an extraordinary system that can do really big things faster and more competently than any rival system. And we don't even need to be selfish about it: Sharing our successes and rallying other countries to ally themselves with our vision of the world will only help us grow stronger over the long term. We don't need vassal states; we need friendly collaborators and eager trading partners.

Weather and Disasters Peculiarities of geography

Because our two biggest population centers are only two hours apart, it only makes sense for Iowa and Nebraska to do things like practicing Severe Weather Awareness Week together. This kind of coordination especially makes sense, considering that the vast majority of Nebraskans are covered by the Omaha National Weather Service office, which also has responsibility for eight of Iowa's 99 counties. But for perspective: It would take you no less than 12 hours to drive from Chadron, Nebraska, to Keokuk, Iowa. It's about 675 miles (as the crow flies) from the northwest corner of the combined two-state area to the southeast. In Europe, that would be roughly the distance from Brussels to Budapest.

News Cruise industry looks to resume sailing in June

Royal Caribbean is going to let vaccinated passengers aboard in the summer, with stops in a handful of places around the Caribbean. One expected stop will be in Sint Maarten, where four in five workers does something tied to tourism.

Humor and Good News Chicago dyed the river green after all

Name a holiday that can beat St. Patrick's Day for pure frivolity of celebration.

Iowa Contested Iowa Congressional seat should have been decided for good -- in Iowa

Josh Douglas: "[W]e should reinforce a democratic norm that elections are final when certified or that losing candidates must use the more neutral procedures in state law to challenge the result". The fact the losing candidate is appealing the result to Congress itself is a real problem. She lost a close race; she didn't die.

News Ripped jeans in India

Sometimes one encounters a story that serves as a reminder of just how much cultural and social convergence is taking place around the world. It's not happening because anyone is forcing it, but because most people just want to be happy and left alone to make their own choices. Such is the case in India, where a social-media-driven response to a politician's lament about women wearing ripped jeans illustrates just how little people really differ.

Broadcasting Performative-outrage artists whine about tough times

Some people have little to offer beyond being a malcontent with a mic, and those people ought to leave the media so that the airwaves can be used for conversations that further the public interest.

News Humanize the victims

A grieving son shares a profile of his mother, who was murdered in Atlanta

Science and Technology The Milky Way, 100,000 pixels across

Truly mesmerizing work

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March 20, 2021

Business and Finance What's the Netflix model for news?

For a rising-but-still-reasonable price, Netflix offers a vast spread of both original and previously-created content for on-demand consumption anywhere, anytime. At a time when news outlets are facing a lot of budgetary pain, it's a model worth some additional study, especially for those who believe in the vitality of the free press. ■ First and foremost is the problem of high subscription fees: News outlets keep vacillating wildly back and forth between giving everything away for free and trying to charge prices for digital access that match what they used to charge for dead-tree editions of newspapers. ■ Given a reasonable subscription option, many consumers would gladly pay for news from more outlets, but in most cases, there's no such thing as the $5 or $10 annual "supporting reader" deal. That's a shame, because it means that many people subscribe to one or two high-priced services and then pay nothing to the rest, even when many of us really do value local news reporting from communities other than our own hometowns. ■ It's criminal that there's no subscription reciprocity for people who really do believe in paying for local news -- but not at full price in every single market. Zoos, aquariums, and museums have this figured out. Toll roads in more than a dozen states have figured out how to harmonize electronic toll systems. So why is this so elusive for news outlets? ■ Basic economic thinking would suggest that a product with a high fixed production cost (reporters' and editors' salaries) and almost zero marginal distribution cost (like news when it is delivered digitally) ought to focus on collecting small payments from the largest number of customers possible. The option for micropayments and other forms of goodwill support would be welcomed by people who think news is valuable. ■ Failing to get our heads wrapped around this issue is going to lead, sooner or later, to a news landscape that either depends almost entirely upon charitable support and benefactor (or vanity) ownership -- or we'll risk that the only "news" that is available for many will be whatever serves someone's interests. ■ Environmental news coverage, just for example, is already heavily influenced by opposing forces like the Heartland Institute on one side and the Environmental Working Group on the other. Both can claim to be "non-profit", but that doesn't mean "neutral" nor "disinterested" nor "objective". It just means that nobody literally owns the organization that is the source of the material being served up. ■ This could have a much more nefarious tinge, as well: A lot of Americans respect the BBC, but not every state-run broadcaster shares the values of a free society. When you see China Daily being distributed in the United States, or CCTV on hotel televisions, you're seeing what the Communist Party of China wants you to see. If we don't find reasonable economic ways of sustaining lots of private-sector news coverage in the United States, we're at risk of seeing the free (whatever its source may be) crowd out the good.

Threats and Hazards Shameful agitprop from an "institute" head

The president of the Claremont Institute uses his platform to spread the kind of propaganda that brings cheer to the enemies of freedom. It's shameful that he chooses to do this, because Americans live in a perpetual project to be, and do, better. It's un-American to give up on that perpetual project by saying we "deserve" to lose wars or to succumb to "regime collapse" -- all because the Defense Department issued a memo.

News Positive rules beat negative ones -- for kids

In the short run, it's easier to give your kid negative rules ("Don't do X"). In the long run, it's so much easier to parent if you give them affirmative ones ("Please do Z"). If only this knowledge could be transmitted telepathically to every parent shouting at their little ones. One good affirmative rule (applied consistently) takes the place of dozens of negative ones. For instance, "Clean up after yourself" takes the place of "Don't leave your toys on the floor", "Don't make a mess there", "Don't spill your juice", "Don't track mud in here", and many others. Not only is it easier for kids to follow affirmative rules (because they're looking for guidance), it also helps them work on ways they can comply happily since they can devote their energies to meeting expectations instead of complaining about yet another boundary.

Business and Finance What's it going to take to land post-pandemic convention business?

Chicago has a huge convention center that tries to draw a lot of business to the city, but...it has some drawbacks. It helped a lot to get the CTA Green Line to stop nearby, but six blocks is still quite a hike if it's warm outside and you're dressed professionally. There's also the matter of the Byzantine union regulations that apply to the place.

Humor and Good News No (digital) love lost?

The Onion: "Unmasked Members Of Daft Punk Obliviously Stand Near Each Other At Bus Stop"

Humor and Good News Ferrari and McGowan are just other ways to say "Smith"

It turns out that "(iron)smith" has a lot of range

Agriculture Pricing parity approaches for meat substitutes

Ordinary beef and chicken still have the price advantages, but their plant-based and bio-cultured rivals are rapidly closing in on competitive costs. It's happening much faster than people might imagine, given how much the meat alternatives cost just a couple of years ago. The more choices we have for feeding the world, the better.

March 21, 2021

Business and Finance Hot housing market? List at a higher price.

If you praise your agent for "selling your house quickly" instead of cursing them for "recommending a listing price below equilibrium", then you really should have taken economics in school. ■ The problem here is a pure misalignment of incentives. The difference in commission between an easy sale at $250,000 and a hard one at $275,000 isn't much (to the listing agent). It's $875 if they're taking only the seller's half of a 7% fee, or $1,750 if they're working both sides of the deal. How much work would you do for an incremental $875? A day's worth? Two days? A week? Yet that $25,000 bump in the transaction price means $23,250 in difference to the homeowner selling the house. ■ The bulk of the commission is in the baseline market price, not in the marginal difference they obtain for the seller. And while that's standard practice, it doesn't authentically align their incentives with those of the homeowner -- any more than a 1% annual fee for money managers aligns their interests with those of the client. In both cases, the way to get results is to tie the reward to the marginal difference that the professional makes to their client. ■ In 1961, Warren Buffett wrote about his fee structure for managing money (this was before he took over Berkshire Hathaway). Most of the people entrusting him with their money took a deal where Buffett was paid nothing for the first 4% of returns each year, and where he took 25% of the returns over that amount (or nothing for the first 6% and 33% of anything over that). While 25% or 33% sounds like a lot, it's actually a much better alignment of incentives than 1% of total assets. With a 1% annual fee, the money manager has no incentive but to hold the total pot steady and just look busy. The more the apparent alchemy, the better for the manager. But if the manager makes nothing -- zip -- until they've earned a 6% return, then their incentives turn strictly to outperforming the market. And that, of course, is what Buffett did for his partners: He outperformed. ■ In the real-estate universe, this would be the equivalent of paying the agent nothing (or a flat fee of, say, $1,000) for selling the house at its assessed value, but giving them 33% of any price over the assessment. That, you see, would align the incentives of the homeowner and the agent. The speed to sell a listing isn't itself a signal that the agent has done what's most important to the homeowner -- there's a price at which any house would sell instantly, and that price is $1. Somewhere between $1 and $160 million is a selling price for every home. The price that sells the home overnight is almost certainly not the optimal price for the benefit of the seller (unless, of course, they actually need to sell the home instantly). ■ If you want to know how a system really works, look to how the incentives are aligned. Lots of people get paid to look busy. It doesn't mean they're doing anything evil -- it just means that the system in which they operate is not designed for the outcome that would be demanded by a suitably well-informed client.

Threats and Hazards China sails destroyers near Japan

"The Chinese law that recently took effect enables its coast guard ships to fire on vessels around the Japanese-controlled, Beijing-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea." Serious provocation? Minor distraction? Meaningful escalation? The problem is that it's often hard to know what's a serious move until it's much too late.

Weather and Disasters First daffodils of spring?

Forget looking for flowers. Just look ahead to the first night the solar-powered lights collect enough juice to remain on.

Weather and Disasters Drone footage of the Icelandic volcano eruption

Truly some of the most spectacular nature footage ever seen

March 22, 2021

Health A free Krispy Kreme doughnut every day if you get a Covid-19 vaccine

This has some people worked up over comorbidity issues, but it's silly to get overheated about it. If a doughnut is the incentive necessary to get more people to vaccinate, then so be it. ■ The beauty of liberal democratic capitalism is that we don't need for everyone's motivations to be as pure as the driven snow...just, on balance, more good than not. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. ■ We are extremely close to having a surplus of vaccines available and not enough willing patients to vaccinate. That crossover moment could be just a few weeks away. Whatever it takes to get the reluctant over their hesitancy and into the clinics to get the shot is a victory for herd immunity. ■ Almost nobody is going to take such frequent advantage of the Krispy Kreme offer that it will change their BMI, and even if they did, then the slow expansion of a few waistlines is better than sending thousands of additional patients to the hospital with a deadly respiratory virus. The person who will go to get a free Krispy Kreme doughnut every morning wasn't going to have a bowl of Wheaties and go for a 5-mile run instead. ■ As Greg Mankiw puts it in his authoritative textbook on economics, "People respond to incentives". If a free-doughnut offer is enough incentive to push even a few hundred people over the line, then Krispy Kreme is doing a giant public service while also earning a lot of publicity. Pure? No. But definitely good enough.

News March Madness never seems to teach us Math Mania

Every March, millions of Americans pick their NCAA brackets and watch them get blown up almost instantly...then go right back to complaining that meteorologists, economists, and pollsters can't predict the future with perfect certainty.

Threats and Hazards Taiwan situation draws US and Japan closer on defense

Given the general thrust of US-China relations, it seems surprising that we don't hear a more robust debate about a statehood option for Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas. China's government makes no apologies for rattling its sabers all over the Pacific right now, and it really is surprising that we aren't talking about binding our far-flung territories a little closer.

Threats and Hazards Lawyer who took center stage in Trump election claims now says she was making it all up

In a court filing, Sidney Powell claims "no reasonable person could conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact". This sort of spectacular bravado would be worthy of applause if it were merely a matter of showmanship. But it wasn't -- it was a set of claims that went directly to the central matter of a Presidential election, and the lies ultimately served the undermining thereof. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "To err is human, to repent divine, to persist devilish." It seems pretty clear that this behavior -- malignant disingenuousness -- would fall under "to persist".

News The trouble with "your truth"

With no disrespect intended to those who are helping people to express themselves and to bear with their feelings, there is some hazard involved with telling people that they can have a "truth" that is independent of objective facts. So writes Elisabeth Braw: "[E]stablishing the real facts isn't easy, and in a liberal democracy, citizens have the right to challenge experts. But the real problem is when enough people decide they're not even interested in seeking the truth, preferring their own ideas about how the world works instead."

News DC statehood push warms up

Idle thought: It's hard to come up with any real-estate deal that has paid off quite like the one that Virginia got in exchange for DC. The state gave up a few square miles, took them back 57 years later, and today has three of the highest-income counties in the country.

Broadcasting Some people are patient by nature

For the rest of us, there's the ability to speed up podcast playback to 2.4x speed. Superficial as it may seem, that kind of hyper-customization of the listener experience is a huge advantage in favor of on-demand streaming services and reinforces how important it is for radio broadcasts to focus on their core competency: Being live and talking about what's immediate.

March 23, 2021

Health Why doesn't the American Psychological Association accredit online doctoral programs?

Seriously, why is there no industry-accredited path into the profession of psychology via online programs? Everyone knows the last year has taken a massive toll on mental health, and yet this obvious reform to expand service capacity hasn't been enacted to help. ■ For example: Iowa's current law requires licensed psychologists to possess a doctoral degree from a program that is accredited by the APA, the Canadian equivalent, or "designated by the ASPPB" -- but the ASPPB stopped its designation program in 2018. So that really leaves the APA, which explicitly says "there are no APA-accredited programs available that ONLY use online methods of instruction". ■ The distinction between programs based upon the mode of course delivery certainly seems like an artifact of a bygone era now. Almost every college became an online school when the first Covid-19 shutdowns began a year ago. Even Harvard Medical School went online for its entire first-year cohort. Any lingering prejudice against online learning ought to have gone right out the window with the events of last twelve months. ■ This matters in particular for psychology because the need has never been as broad (nor, likely, as deep) for accessible and affordable mental health care. Virtually everything about the pandemic has exacted a mental-health toll. It's gigantic: The CDC has been surveying Americans and concludes that 40% of American adults have symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression right now. That's an astonishingly high figure. ■ The brain is an organ, just like the heart or the lungs or even the spleen. We ought to treat it not as something that awaits some kind of acute crisis for treatment, but as something deserving of ongoing clinical care. Getting mental-wellness checkups ought to be as routine (and as free of stigma) as going to the dentist for a semiannual cleaning. But it's clear that we have far too few practitioners available. The shortage was obvious well before the pandemic, and demand is (or at least ought to be) much higher now. We can't have rates of depression and anxiety effectively quadruple and not recognize that an urgent problem is upon us. ■ Social distancing requirements and other measures to protect people's physical health launched online sessions with mental-health care providers straight into the mainstream. It is past time for organizations that have the legal authority to act as gatekeepers to the professions to act in the public interest and acknowledge that if telemedicine is good enough for patients and if online classes are good enough for Harvard Med, then it's certainly time to drop the pretense that there is a mode of education for psychological professionals that is arbitrarily deemed beneath their dignity. We aren't going to get over the mental-health toll of Covid-19 without some help. So, as a matter of public health and in the public interest, why aren't we training more of that help?

Threats and Hazards China's government turns to genocidal whataboutism

This isn't like economic development, where a lower-income country may get some global leniency for producing extra pollution as it industrializes and pulls its population out of poverty. China's government isn't entitled to a free pass for what it's doing in Xinjiang. Nor for what it's doing in Hong Kong, which may be less explicitly genocidal but remains a vast insult to human rights. Of course, nations ought to try to do the right thing and be above reproach -- but it's the refuge of the truly awful government to claim that criticism is invalid unless the critic is without historical stain.

Humor and Good News Yakov Smirnoff is actually Ukrainian

This might not mean much to Millennials and Zoomers, but for a Gen Xer, this is a geographical realignment on par with finding out that Eminem is really from Windsor, Ontario. Also: He has a Ph.D. now. What a country, indeed.

March 24, 2021

Threats and Hazards Fake nudes are cheaper than you think

And that means it's only a matter of time before a whole lot of people find themselves targeted -- but it's likely to be an especially big problem for women in the public spotlight. Note this warning: "[T]he FBI is warning about threats that have yet to materialize in a big way, with nary a word for those that already exist [...] Telegram channels with over 100,000 members have used a bot to generate nonconsensual nude images of at least 680,000 women for $1.25 each."

Weather and Disasters Fisher sinks truck on Canadian lake

Just because they're made from aluminum now doesn't mean they float. If you're going to drive on a frozen lake, better to do it when there's still plenty of ice beneath you.

Computers and the Internet Needed: A way to come clean about past mistakes

What's worse than making good-faith mistakes? Never giving anyone the room to grow from the mistakes they've made. The entire point of a world built on classical liberalism is that individuals can and should grow and change. If you sacrifice the process, you prohibit the results. We are not all dead at the same time. Lives overlap, experiences reach different individuals at different stages, and self-awareness does not always come cheap. Particularly now that the Internet archives and publishes the mistakes of all, forever, we need to think about what it means to correct ourselves and forgive others' past errors.

Humor and Good News "Libertarian PBS"

(Video) Equal parts "Isn't that the truth?" and "Die-hard libertarians are bonkers". But, in whole, a laugh-out-loud funny video from Reason Magazine.

Threats and Hazards Our adversaries are watching our vulnerabilities

True, and alarming: "The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn't very hard) that large numbers of Americans [...] are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it."

Threats and Hazards Texas man arrested for carrying a rifle outside the VP's official residence

It's not just that he was arrested with a gun. He had 113 rounds of ammunition, too. (Of note: The Vice President is living at Blair House while renovations take place at the official residence at the Naval Observatory.) We shouldn't casually shrug off the idea that a person was out to threaten the Vice President like this.

Weather and Disasters A rough weather system comes to the South

Three of the biggest metro areas in Texas under a tornado watch until 4:00 in the morning? That alone would be rough, but then morning will come and the Sun will start pouring energy right back into the system.

March 25, 2021

Business and Finance Ford tells 30,000 employees that work-from-home options will remain after the pandemic subsides

Cities are always going to have at least some magnetism due to agglomeration effects. But the pivot to broad acceptance of working from home (WFH) and hybrid working models might detour a lot of future commercial office construction. Just because some workers may always need to be within reach of the home office (as opposed to the offices in their homes) doesn't necessarily mean that we will forevermore need to stack them floor after floor above one another. ■ In other words: If your skyline doesn't have skyscrapers now, maybe it never really will. Or, if it does, they won't be purely commercial, but will be multi-use right from the start. The "vertical city" may yet have its day. ■ It's not like the multi-use building is a new concept. Living "above the shop" has been an accepted mode of habitation for centuries. Quite obviously, farmers have long lived where they worked -- but the connection between dwelling place and workplace remained strong even after the Industrial Revolution got well underway. We still use the phrase "cottage industry", often without realizing that the term quite literally refers to work that can be produced from home. Even in modern times, buildings like the John Hancock Center have been intentionally designed for mixed use, as places where people might live, work, and shop. ■ The question is: How might the financing for tall buildings change? Life insurance companies (like John Hancock) once had significant incentives to build giant, long-term buildings. Among other reasons, insurance companies with lots of incoming float from premiums might look at that float as a cheap way to fund major construction if the interest rates available to other builders were very high. If you have ready money and your rivals have to pay 10% interest rates (or higher), then getting into the business of owning tall buildings can be very attractive. But the interest rates that prevail today are literally a fraction of the rates that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that comparative advantage has evaporated for insurance companies. And if demand for office space might truly be on a long-term downward trajectory (thus putting downward pressure on the rent payments they could hope to collect), that doesn't bode well for new construction. Will those conventional backers of big buildings be as interested in new mixed-use projects as they were in the skyscrapers of the past? Moreover, now that it's easy to invest in bundles of real-estate properties through tools like REITs, insurance companies and other investors have less incentive to invest a great deal in significant properties of their own rather than to spread out their investments into chunks that can be bought and sold with greater ease. ■ It seems less and less likely that companies will build many office towers (like the Chrysler Building or Sears Tower) in their own names, and there's usually at least someone's ego to stroke when building bold new towers. If it's not the executives in the C-suite, who will it be? The answer to that question may well shape the future of many American skylines -- or decide whether they will be remarkable at all.

The United States of America "Are you a manager here?"

On the surface, it's barely even a nuisance worth noting if you're frequently stopped in stores by other customers who mistake you for a manager. But when you're dressed entirely wrong for the job and people still make assumptions, then it's worth examining why that's happening. And it's hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of Americans still assume that the stereotypical manager is a tall white male. We need to get beyond that stereotype, because it favors some people and that means it implicitly disadvantages others.

Computers and the Internet Please put two-factor authentication on your email and social-media accounts

There's a rash of fraud going on right now. This is a small, free, and highly effective step that can make a big difference.

Weather and Disasters Storm-spotting drones capture close-up tornado angles

Drones are still under-utilized as a live storm-spotting tool. It's going to take a while before they can be coordinated safely and effectively, but there's a great deal of potential there to improve upon what spotters can see from the ground. And don't take the value of storm spotting for granted: The lack of a coordinated, widespread effort to use trained spotters contributed to one of the deadliest tornado events in Illinois history, only a little more than 50 years ago. Getting better at forecasting and spotting severe weather is no trivial matter: 55 million people are under a non-trivial threat of severe weather today. The day looks especially ominous for Mississippi and Alabama.

Broadcasting Rest in peace, Jessica Walter

Two facts are utterly indisputable: (1.) Even among a terrifically talented cast, Jessica Walter was THE star of "Arrested Development". (2.) If you thought she was funny on the show, you won't believe how hard she will make you laugh on the DVD commentary.

News How will the Suez Canal get reopened?

Just don't get Elon Musk started on this. He probably has a secret blimp the size of New Jersey just waiting somewhere for this very moment.

Threats and Hazards Accept no crackpottery

Tom Nichols: "'I've done my own research" is always the air horn that announces the arrival of a crackpot". Oddly, that research is never, ever accompanied by footnotes. But peer review isn't much of a standard when all the peers are cranks.

March 26, 2021

Science and Technology How can we get big improvements without big disasters?

The awful conditions of the last year have at least a few silver linings: They've catalyzed some technological improvements that are here to stay. We've had to do so much to accommodate not being together with other people that we've had to make extraordinary progress on things like telemedicine and remote work just to muddle through. The really interesting question is: Is it possible to get some of those really big, really fast changes without having to go through something terrible like a pandemic or a war to get there? Why are so many things stalled by the status quo?

Threats and Hazards There's no such thing as a "nobody"

Kawaski Trawick was having a mental-health incident when two police officers showed up in response to a 911 call. Within two minutes, one of the officers had killed him. When a supervisor showed up to ask whether anyone was injured, someone responded "Nobody. Just a perp." That's a profoundly terrible thing for anyone to say, much less someone entrusted with the tools of lethal force. There's no such thing as a "nobody", and the dehumanization of others -- even "perps", which this victim really wasn't -- is an intolerable practice. ■ It is this very same kind of dehumanization of others that deprives us of the open acknowledgment of the fact that the murders in Atlanta were rooted in racism, whether that was the murderer's avowed belief or not. That racism is a form of dehumanization.

Weather and Disasters Lots of vulnerable housing in the path of Alabama tornadoes

A disaster geographer did some quick analysis and found a lot of mobile homes right in the damaged areas. It always takes a combination of natural conditions and social conditions to turn a storm into a disaster.

News California's new rules could mean a lot of new housing

Rules that effectively liberalize government policy on ADUs (auxiliary dwelling units -- things like granny cottages in the back yard) could well mean that a state widely recognized as suffering a housing shortage could make up for some lost time. Suppliers are moving extremely fast to enter the market, and according to Bloomberg CityLab, "Backyard flats may wind up accounting for a sizable share of the new housing built in California during the 2020-21 pandemic years." It's amazing what can happen in the public interest when people have the option to pursue their own self-interest.

Humor and Good News Why doesn't Swatch make a smartwatch?

You can't deny there would be a massive nostalgia opportunity in making a Swatch smartwatch. Combine it with a slap bracelet, and no 40-something would be able to resist.

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March 27, 2021

Business and Finance Just-in-time gets stuck in the Suez Canal

New York Times journalist Peter Goodman wrote an analysis of the global trade crunch being caused by the Ever Given -- the cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal. Goodman describes the analysis as "the latest warning about excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing". Peculiarly, though, someone at the Times made the headline "In Suez Canal, Stuck Ship Is a Warning About Excessive Globalization". ■ The simplest explanation is that some editor carelessly thought "globalization" was a more economical way to say "just in time manufacturing". Occam's Razor and Hanlon's Razor would both tell us to accept that explanation, so we probably should. ■ Yet it's still a bit odd that someone at such a venerable publication as the Times would have taken that kind of shortcut. "Excessive reliance on just in time manufacturing" is a much narrower critique than "excessive globalization". The narrow critique is defensible. The broad one just...isn't. Someone should ask why the editor involved felt the need to put a Juche spin on it. Was it just for clickbait? ■ We're living through an extraordinary event: A pandemic that raced across the world like a wildfire, and one that has massively disrupted life and commerce for billions. Yet the path out of the pandemic is indisputably through a globalized path. It's one thing to say, for instance, that America found itself at the mercy of fragile supply chains for tools like PPE that failed the stress test of the onset of the pandemic. That's a valid critique of just-in-time manufacturing. Critical thought and attention should go into redeeming those failures. ■ But we're also seeing a truly revolutionary effort that is producing amazingly effective vaccines in totally unprecedented time. The development process has absolutely been facilitated by "globalization", international teamwork is the only way to produce and distribute enough of the vaccine to stop the disease, and long-term international cooperation and coordination are going to be indispensable. ■ A ship got stuck in the Suez Canal. That probably was the result of some combination of human error and mechanical failure. It's been disruptive. It highlights several issues that ought to be fixed. But there's a big difference between casting a critical eye on just-in-time networks and disclaiming globalization generally. Nobody needs to be rooting for the pirates.

News "And then what happens next?"

Behold, the most under-appreciated test in all of politics. There are plenty of ways to dislike what is -- but it's crazy not to imagine how something else might be worse.

Business and Finance What's up with "Austrian economics"?

Everyone should start by reading Hayek and Mises. They just shouldn't stop there.

Humor and Good News How do nerdy obsessions start?

Markets beget division of labor. Division of labor begets comparative advantage. Comparative advantage begets specialization. Specialization begets efficiency. Efficiency begets leisure time. Leisure time begets nerdy obsessions. Nerdy obsessions beget new markets. That's how.

Iowa Derecho-related mulch pile catches fire

Anyone who's ever seen the heat that can come off a compost pile can understand how this could have led to spontaneous combustion, which is what appears to have happened in Hiawatha, Iowa. Linn County lost an astonishing half of its tree cover in the August derecho, so there's just a stupefying amount of vegetation that is still being processed and disposed of. Weird incidents like this are going to be inevitable for a while.

March 28, 2021

News A 5-year-old in handcuffs

Maryland police officers dealing with an unruly child last January were caught shouting at, berating, and handcuffing the 5-year-old boy. It happened on video. He might have been a downright terrible brat, but a kindergartener is not a hardened criminal, and his treatment truly was outrageous. ■ Naturally, any discipline for the cops' behavior needs to follow due course. But there are some things one doesn't expect to see or hear along the way. A blanket statement from the police union? Maybe. But the police union's statement on the incident includes this flabbergasting line: "Montgomery County police officers do not receive training on how to effectively communicate with a young child in distress." ■ The word "shocking" gets over-used. But that's a truly shocking claim: We tell children to go to police officers and firefighters without hesitation when they are in danger. That's part of why impersonating a police officer is treated as a serious crime; the sight of a police officer must be, without exception, a moment of relief for young people (and, really, for anyone). But it cannot be a relief unless there is adequate trust that the officer is truly there to protect and serve. ■ At the barest of minimums, if the statement really is correct, it is imperative that the police department involved immediately implement a training system for "communicat[ing] with a child in distress". And so should every agency invested with the public's faith and entrusted with guns.

Threats and Hazards China menaces Taiwan with airspace incursion by 20 military aircraft

A rule of thumb: Things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we can imagine. That rule seems unnervingly appropriate here.

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway proposes an $8 billion fix for Texas energy problems

The company -- a massive utility operator already -- has proposed an $8.3 billion generation network to ensure the reliability of the grid so that February's weather-induced blackouts don't happen again. While the prediction was made before the blackouts, at one commentator called a utility expansion "a thoroughly satisfactory way of staying the course without holding still" for Berkshire in 2021.

News Ship blocking the Suez Canal has been freed

But that doesn't necessarily mean the route will be immediately re-opened to traffic. Apparently we're about to hear a lot about the meaning of "necessary but not sufficient".

Humor and Good News Fancy garage doors and their shortcomings

Conor Fridersdorf has an amusing obsession with expensive garage doors. One thing many of them have in common is their use of windows -- which seems like an oddly contra-indicated choice from a home-security standpoint.

News The real story behind children's books

The book is "Bread and Jam for Frances", but the real plot is "Holy Cow, Frances's Mom Does a Ton of Unpaid Work". Her kid eats like she's got an executive chef. The book concludes with Frances chowing down on tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, cherries, and vanilla pudding. ■ This is no knock on the book itself, per se -- the intended underlying message is that kids ought to be open to trying new things, and that's a pretty defensible position among parents. But even though the book is only from 1964 (making it the same age as Vice President Kamala Harris and only a year older than the first members of Generation X), aspects of it seem both wildly antiquated and unfortunately current. ■ Keeping up a household (cleaning, cooking, performing maintenance, groundskeeping, paying bills, and in many cases, caring for children) is a major consumer of resources. The allure of devices like dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers is self-evident to any functioning adult who has had to perform those tasks manually. And the amount we are willing to pay to get devices that make other tasks even easier -- like Roombas and robotic lawn mowers -- reveals that at least some people in the modern world know how to place a value on their non-working hours. ■ Just as we place a price tag on the work we do outside the home, we really ought to place a value on the work done inside the home, as well. This non-market housework is valuable. Even if most parents aren't making their children Frances-quality meals for lunch, it all adds up: While it isn't counted in our GDP, the estimated value is in the trillions of dollars each year. It does appear that some of the time spent on this labor has decreased overall in the last two decades, but a yawning gender gap between women and men has remained. The average employed woman does more than the average non-employed man, and the average employed woman spends about 50% more weekly hours on that household work than the average employed man. ■ Measurement is hard, but that shouldn't stop us from acknowledging that household work is an important component of how people spend their time. And even more than that, it is valuable -- to the tune of something around one-fifth of measured GDP. That's a whole lot of tomato soup and lobster-salad sandwiches.

Humor and Good News The quirks of Google search

Noted academic Albert Einstein doesn't have a verified email address on his Google Scholar page. He should get on that -- relatively quickly.

March 29, 2021

Business and Finance Cross-ownership deal links Toyota and Isuzu in big project to develop better trucks

From the Japan Times: "Toyota, Isuzu, and Hino [a Toyota subsidiary] will set up a joint venture named Commercial Japan Partnership Technologies Corp. in April to co-develop small electric and fuel-cell trucks as well as autonomous driving technologies for such vehicles." Toyota will own the majority of the joint venture. They're also buying equal-sized stakes in one another, which is the kind of activity that would set up an circular-reference error in a spreadsheet. ■ At the press conference announcing the plan, Toyota president Akio Toyoda said, "[I]t is becoming more important not to only compete but to also cooperate." And while there are some American companies and business leaders who have said good things about selectively cooperating with competitors, it's a pretty big practice for Toyota: The company has other such deals with Mazda, Subaru, and Suzuki. ■ Why is it that Japanese companies are so comfortable with joint ventures and American companies are not? Obviously, there are differences in industrial policy (Japan has one and the United States really does not), but it can't all be attributable to the influence of MITI (the Japanese government ministry that coordinated industrial policy from the immediate post-war era until the turn of the century), can it? MITI's power waned from the 1970s onward, and there are notable Japanese industrial success stories that resulted despite the government's influence (Honda being the most recognizable one). The ministry may still be around (now as METI), but it doesn't seem like it's in the driver's seat like it once was. The Toyota/Isuzu deal is being reported as an organic development rather than a government-instigated one. ■ So, how come it's so rare to hear of American companies -- industrial or otherwise -- entering joint ventures with one another? Outright acquisitions and takeovers (hostile or otherwise) are an everyday occurrence, but not long-term agreemeents to do things hand-in-hand. The few American companies that prominently joined hands with others are themselves notable success stories: Corning, for instance, had a number of JVs, including Dow Corning and dozens of others. But Corning stands out as the exception that proves the rule. It's worth pondering: Should American business be more open to the idea of formal cooperation without resorting to the takeover? Toyota is no fly-by-night company: It's the world's largest automaker. If a practice clearly works for them, why shouldn't America take note?

Health The heartbreaking risks of unsecured guns in the home

Dr. Denise Dowd: "There's this mythical idea that you can teach kids not to want to handle a gun...You can't train or educate curiosity out of a little kid, and teenagers are impulsive, and they act without any thought to the future"

News A house with a unique motif

The first few photos of this Baltimore house listing are a bit odd and strangely monochromatic, but it's not until the viewer gets a few rooms in before it becomes clear this is one weird abode. At first, one might think, "Wouldn't it be a shock to live next door and have no idea what was going on inside until you saw this listing?" But by the time you click through to the pictures of the giant "Cemetery" and "Crypt" signs in the backyard, it's pretty clear: The neighbors already know.

Health Cardinals falling short of MLB vaccination target

They brag a lot about having the "Best Fans in Baseball", but what St. Louis apparently needs are the Best Epidemiologists in Baseball.

Weather and Disasters March 25th Alabama tornado outbreak packed a strong punch

80 miles is an eye-popping track length for a single tornado

March 30, 2021

News Conspiracy theorists are growing exhausted

After a Presidential term dominated by the false promises of "Q", some are still hoping to see their darker imaginations realized. Some were hoping that the ship stuck in the Suez Canal was actually going to be a conduit for human trafficking, and that the ship getting stuck was merely cover for the "good guys" to sweep in. The conspiracy theorists are, of course, only bound for further disappointment. ■ That really raises questions about the psychology of belonging: On one hand, membership in organized religion and fraternal clubs is in decline. Gallup says fewer than half of American adults belonged to an organized religious group in 2020. It's never been lower in the poll's history. Regular religious attendance is even lower. Non-religious groups like fraternal organizations are in no better shape. ■ On the other had, the people clamoring for conspiracy theories are desperate to belong to something. So are the people who rush to social media to try to gain measurable approval from their peers. There is a psychological need for humans to have some kind of social membership, whether it's formally structured or not. So why are people turning to the informal channels (often found online) while abandoning the formal ones (like clubs and churches) that mainly exist in the "real world"? ■ Is it simply a matter of low barriers to entry? That it's easy to join the QAnon cult and harder to volunteer as a church usher? Is it that the formal institutions of old have failed to keep up with demands for convenience? Or have people gotten all their signals crossed, and the dopamine hit that comes from seeing clicks and likes is displacing the more durable (but less intense) sense of belonging that comes from real-world interactions? It's not just a speculative matter: People need feedback that they matter to the world, and there's no way to get that from conspiracy rabbit holes.

News We should see our fellow Americans

The New Yorker's cover art is a subtle but compelling illustration of a woman and her daughter, waiting anxiously for a subway train. Its artist says, "I wanted a gesture that was somewhere between vigilant and fearful." It isn't right that our fellow Americans should be made to feel this way. Racism deserves no place here.

Humor and Good News The ship is free, and so are the jokes

With the Ever Given set free from the Suez Canal, people are out with their jokes. ■ Political science professor Ken Schultz notes, "Bucking global trends, container ship upgraded from 'Not Free' to 'Partly Free' and then to 'Free.'" (That, naturally, raises the question whether the answer to backsliding is backhoeing.) ■ Think-tanker Shoshana Weissmann teases that "What was lost in economic output bc of the canal jam, was gained 10 fold in joy and memes". (Using a multiplier effect previously only seen used to justify public financing for sports stadiums.)

March 31, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Do they really think this sloppy nonsense works?

China's state-run Xinhua "news" agency shares an editorial cartoon that appears to try to deflect attention from China's slave-labor abuses in Xinjiang by making a reference to the practice of slavery on cotton plantations in the United States. There are really two different things that are amazing about this episode. ■ First, this isn't just the work of someone freelancing. In places like the United States, where freedom of speech prevails, an individual can have his or her idea published in an outlet that doesn't endorse that idea. In fact, the very practice of publishing opposing viewpoints is pretty central to the idea of the op/ed page or the letter to the editor. That's just not how it goes with a state-run outlet in an authoritarian regime, and everybody knows it. Nobody just "puts an idea out there" through Xinhua. Anything they publish had to have been approved by a whole chain of people. Not just edited -- approved. ■ Second, it becomes self-evident that nobody in the entire chain of approval understands how shame works. Aside from a trivial number of extremists, nobody in America defends slavery. Far too many people still fail to get the message that we need to end racism, but you couldn't gather 100 Americans chosen at random and find even one of them to defend slavery. We're rightly ashamed of that part of our history as a nation. It's our original sin; an inexcusable crime against humanity. Even James Madison knew it was wrong to permit slavery to continue, defending his proposed Constitution in Federalist Paper 38 with the line, "Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever." In other words, "It's bad, and we shouldn't let it go on, but at least we know well enough to end it." ■ Anyone who understands how shame works would recognize that no serious person in America today rises to the defense of slavery, and any attempt to remind Americans of the practice only reminds us how abhorrent and unforgivable it was -- and is, as it is being practiced by China's ruling powers today. Loftier minds even use the reminder of our forebearers' failure to ponder the need to continue improving. Condoleezza Rice said it well: "These are the tensions and contradictions that the admirable effort to overcome our nation's birth defect of slavery and prejudice has produced. That we are still struggling with these issues today, after more than two centuries as a nation, is yet another reminder that nothing is smooth on democracy's path." We have to take pride in the effort to struggle with our failures and overcome our sins. That only makes it easier to cast an unforgiving eye on those who practice those sins today, with the full knowledge of how wrong they are.

Threats and Hazards "Patriotism checks"

China's government will require "patriotism checks" before anyone is allowed to run for office in Hong Kong. What a repugnant way for a government to behave. From the outside looking in, it sure seems like the Communist Party is willing to torch everything that made Hong Kong a gem, merely to prop up the illusion that the party is, was, and always shall be the sole rightful power in China. Heartbreaking.

Health Where are the Covid vaccination lapel pins?

It's been a few years since our last lapel-ribbon craze. How long before we're pinning different colors of ribbons on our shirts to indicate vaccination status? Green ribbons for the fully vaccinated, yellow ribbons for those waiting eagerly, and red ribbons for the vaccine refuseniks.

Broadcasting Spotify enters the live-chat game

Live audio is a pretty tough thing to get right without heavy curation. A lunatic once took over a CB channel in central Iowa, just repeating over and over: "Raisins and pancakes...pancakes and raisins."

Humor and Good News Better nursing rooms and changing stations at ballparks

A welcome sign of the times. We need to continue normalizing the idea of parenting in public.

Socialism Doesn't Work Chinese government chases BBC reporter out of the country

There is no surer sign that a regime is destined for failure than when it puts its energy into silencing bad or critical news rather than fixing it. That's exactly what China's government is doing by persecuting reporters and whistleblowers -- and it is a colossally self-defeating practice. ■ Good news can take its sweet time to bubble up, but able managers always want to get alerted to bad news as soon as possible. The sooner you know what's going wrong, the sooner you can fix it. And something is always going wrong somewhere inside a big organization, whether it's a government, a firm, or a non-governmental organization. The most important thing leadership can do about it is get the bad news fast. ■ We may complain a lot as Americans about the fact that our politicians never seem to "work together" to "solve problems", but that's driven in no small part because every vote has some marginal value, and politicians (and parties) have to compete to win those votes. Consequently, some contentiousness is baked into the cake. (That doesn't excuse incivility, of course, but voters are free to punish that, too.) ■ But the consequence of freedom within a democratic framework is that there is a built-in institutional incentive on the part of multiple groups to root out shortcomings, failures, wrongdoing, corruption, and other bad things. The Fourth Estate has that incentive. So does a loyal opposition. Civil-society groups that depend upon their reputations for fundraising purposes have those incentives, and so do institutions with interests in public policies (including religious groups). ■ Of course there's room for bipartisanship and problem solvers. America could do with less cynicism and more mutual trust and common facts. But we should never mistake our fundamentally messy, combative, and sometimes lumbering processes for getting things done for a bad thing. The complications, fighting, and naysaying are features, not bugs. Voters remain capable of rewarding the things they want at any time, and if we collectively really wanted more pragmatic, less ideological politics, then we would get them. But part of that requires sacrificing a little ideological commitment -- which, if the Chinese experience is any guide, wouldn't be a bad idea at all.

Humor and Good News Library book returns -- 50 years overdue

Who would have imagined that the person who checked out "Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook" wasn't a committed rule-follower?

Weather and Disasters 60°F temperature swings

That's pretty normal for springtime in Iowa