Gongol.com Archives: 2021 Second-Quarter Archives
April 1, 2021
Putting a new stretch on "career"
KWWL television news anchor Ron Steele reaches his 47th anniversary at the station
April 2, 2021
Unlovable main characters can still tell important stories
When there's a compulsion to share everything that we're reading, watching, and hearing, there's also a risk that people will jump to the wrong conclusions about what others are consuming. Sometimes it's important to read books with unlovable main characters because they are essential to telling necessary stories. Kudos to the teachers who know and practice that, even in a time when it's all too easy for parents to make a fuss over imperfect books (and certain school boards to do the same with imperfect historical figures). ■ It's too much to expect that an author writing in the early 20th Century would have been adequately sensitive to the mainstream of what we consider right today. And yet, Sinclair Lewis has much to say to people living today, with books like "It Can't Happen Here" (profoundly relevant in the shadow of Donald Trump), "Babbitt" (which speaks directly to our modern crisis of meaning), and "Arrowsmith" (which addressed the wrenching ethics of epidemiology). ■ We shouldn't look past the shortcomings of the stories our forebears wrote, and we shouldn't be satisfied with any modern curriculum or syllabus that overlooks the historically under-represented stories of people who weren't white men. Yet we also shouldn't purge imperfect works and imperfect authors and imperfect protagonists. It's important to recognize at what stages we truly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. The society we occupy today is evolving all the time, and whether that evolution is a positive one -- marked by growth and liberality -- depends heavily upon whether we recognize society-building as a conscious choice. Uncivilized barbarians walk among us all the time: They're called children. We have to choose to teach them (and ourselves) along the way. ■ A common mistake is imagining that we are headed for some kind of perfect end times, that some kind of perfect past can be restored (as from an idealized edition of the 1950s), or that there is some kind of utopian state that can be achieved if only the right conditions are established. The fact is that society is imperfect (and permanently imperfectible) because it's made up of people, and we ourselves are imperfect. Far better to accept the inevitability of that imperfection and in the process face up to the perpetual hard work of making both people and society better than to succumb to the false notion that if we only purge hard enough, we'll make the perfect come true.
Some brand-new emoji are more trans-national than others.
A real creep in the halls of Congress
"When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man." - Calvin Coolidge
US Marshals bring 7 missing Iowa kids home
They persevered in this important work to protect vulnerable kids, even as the Justice Department was getting kicked in the teeth almost daily for the political gain of a few.
Three cheers for innovation in the analog world!
April 3, 2021
"Unbundled" radio sounds a lot like full-service radio
Ezra Eeman, who works for the European Broadcasting Union (promoting public broadcasters on the continent), shared a vision of what he called "unbundled" radio -- a radio-like experience of audio programming that comes to the listener across a range of applications streamed directly to the smartphone. The most insightful part of this interesting article is the final graphic, illustrating how a person might easily consume audio from seven or more divergent sources across the day, from a news podcast to a live-streamed interview to customized music apps. ■ What's striking is how much Eeman's mockup of a personalized listening experience looks like the programming clock for what we once fondly knew as "full-service radio" here in the United States. While full-service radio is still around in a handful of places (usually in micro-sized markets where the "general store" approach still works on the air because there may only be one radio station in town), it's surprising that bigger markets haven't tried streaming it. Not broadcasting it over the airwaves -- just streaming it. ■ A never-ending stream of music alone isn't very satisfying (certainly no more than sitting by a jukebox in a bar, especially when someone else is picking all the songs). But on the other hand, the popular malcontent-with-a-mic approach to talk programming isn't very good for companionship. For as much as people repeat the trope that Rush Limbaugh "saved" AM radio, all he can be credited with doing for certain is ensuring that Americans think of speech-based radio as a genre dominated by men with an axe to grind. ■ As Eeman's article suggests, we may well be watching "the great unbundling" of radio right before our eyes, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones (and, boy, was it ever a screwup to fail to get FM receivers activated in all of those phones). But the hangup with the unbundled listener day is that curating one's own highly satisfying day-long listening experience takes...well, programming skill. Not computer programming, but audio programming. And most of us don't want to be part-time radio program directors on top of being listeners. It's quite enough to ask the individual listener to put their podcasting playlist in order, much less to schedule out listening for the entirety of a day. ■ There's still time for radio to offer more complex, richer listening experiences than "perpetual jukebox" and "shouty man". And with an infinite number of streams possible, it's really quite insane for programmers not to try. The rush to try every new live streaming service, from Twitter Live to Clubhouse to Spotify/Locker Room and inevitably more, shows that listeners are eager for an experience they aren't getting today -- one with a richness of content not adequately supplied by the incumbent sources of audio programming. It's likely to take a while for the optimal listening experience to emerge -- but it's probably not going to consist solely of pre-selected tunes, nor of mindlessly-provocative talkers. It's as good a time as any for alert radio programmers to think beyond.
April 4, 2021
Why is policy and political reform so slow?
With all kinds of innovation taking place in the digital environment, we shouldn't neglect the ways in which our physical, real-world interactions ought to be improved, too. That very much ought to include our political systems. ■ If you find that kind of innovation lacking, you're not the only one. Notably, as the rest of our lives become more information-dense (thanks to that digital innovation), it's extremely rare to find any forms of public meetings, hearings, or other engagement that have increased any of their information density since the Cold War. Sure, we can watch Congressional hearings on C-SPAN and watch committee meetings on-demand, and that's great. Sometimes state legislatures and city councils stream their meetings, too. That's good for transparency, at least. ■ But thanks to bad PowerPoint habits and the ability to electronically dump 50- and 100-page PDFs on council and board members, we may actually have less information density in our public decision-making than in the past. A solid one-page narrative report is hard. A bad PowerPoint deck is easy. ■ Information density is under-appreciated. Anyone who really wants to increase the information-to-ink ratio in their reports ought to study "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by the fascinating Yale emeritus professor Edward Tufte. Tufte's deconstructions of how NASA missed the bright-red warning signs that should have prevented the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia missions are vastly important. What matters is not just how much data can be documented, but how well it is reported. ■ This is no small matter. Board and council members are exhausted by bad communication from the people who work to deliver government services. Reform can't really happen if everyone is too exhausted by the status quo. And it won't happen, either, if expert staff members aren't available to help decision-makers understand what's important and what's not. ■ Lots of people seem to pin their hopes on radical changes in politics and government. Often, much too radical. Where we really should put our attention, instead, is in going beyond the livestream and finding ways to increase the density of valuable information provided to the public and public representatives alike. Only then will we really have a framework that matches our experiences in the rest of life. It's as though we've unwittingly accepted Baumol's cost disease, but for decision-maker data. We shouldn't settle for that -- innovation shouldn't be exclusive to the digital world when there's so much real life yet to improve.
April 5, 2021
Publishers ought to offer special editions of nonfiction books, wherein the author takes all of the content they wrote down just because they wanted them in a permanent record somewhere...and moves them to the footnotes. Nobody can deny that there is a natural "padding" effect that dominates a lot of nonfiction: If an author has gone to the trouble of researching something, they're incentivized to document what they've found, and thus into the book it goes -- even when what's been uncovered isn't all that important. ■ Reader-optimized versions of these nonfiction books would really be a grand invention. Not Reader's Digest or Blinkist versions of these books (in which an outside editor does the stripping), but rather versions where the author him/herself is charged with identifying which parts of the book really matter versus which parts are really just documentation for its own sake. ■ Documentation for its own sake isn't a bad thing, per se: The problem arises when the documentation turns what ought to be a brief work into a tome so laborious that it fails to reach the audience it deserves. Few people were better-positioned to write the history of World War II than Winston Churchill, but it's especially hard for anyone who lived an experience to leave out the details -- and that's why Churchill's series on the war takes up 5,142 pages across six volumes. Footnotes are at once the best and most under-used features of nonfiction books. They let the author come up with a "director's cut" that lets the reader see exactly what's in or out. The stuff the author labored to produce doesn't have to get kicked to the curb -- but it's only fair to the reader for the author to make the distinction. ■ Most nonfiction books could really be wrapped up in 100 to 150 pages of the real meat and potatoes. Any number of people have been attributed with variations on the quote that "I wrote a long piece because I didn't have time to write a short one", and the durability of the statement is a credit to its truth. It takes longer for an author to shave things down than to dump everything on the page the first time around. But considering how complex our world already is, and how inevitable it is that the world will become more complex, we need more readers to spend more time learning broadly about all kinds of things that matter -- and books simply cannot be beaten for their efficiency in transmitting knowledge. Footnotes would still let authors pad their books until they can meet some mystical 250-page quota or 80,000-page word count, but without exhausting readers by drowning them in minutiae. Brief, thoughtful books can say a great deal that needs to be said.
China steams an aircraft carrier past Okinawa
Nikkei Asia notes, "The movements come as the U.S. Navy intensifies cooperation with the Quad partners of Japan, India and Australia in the Indo-Pacific." But let's not mistake correlation for causality here. China's regime has certain ambitions. Cooperation among the Quad didn't create those, and it's ill-serving to try to reach a false equivalence.
Just five years after WWII was over, Japan was already a major supplier of trucks to the US Army as America pivoted to the Korean conflict. The United States still occupied Japan at the time. Considering how long we have been engaged in conflicts abroad just this century, we should be asking ourselves whether we can do better at winning the peace. Our trade with Iraq, for instance, isn't much to be impressed by.
Iowa opens vaccines to all adults
Time to run up the scoreboard
Iowans betting hard with online sports gambling
One of the ubiquitous video ads for these sports-betting sites comes right out and says that you'll become a more intense sports fan if you have some "skin in the game". Considering America's unimpressive record with sports-related rioting, do fans really need reasons to be more intense?
Pfizer data indicates 100% efficacy against severe Covid-19
These numbers are just jaw-droppingly good. It's hard to contextualize how impressive the Covid-19 vaccines are turning out to be, not just for public health but on an individual basis.
April 6, 2021
Cubs to get special-edition Nike jerseys
A city with a signature attachment to Art Deco fonts, an unmistakable skyline, and the best municipal flag in America should probably get away with a most distinctive "city" jersey. (Nike already did a pretty superb job with the special Bulls jersey.)
Being a Midwesterner means getting a general sense for when those clouds in the sky aren't going to stay light and fluffy. It's when you get a puffy, unstable-looking layer below a higher cloud deck that you really have to take notice.
April 7, 2021
When the lazy solution isn't the easiest solution
A scientific study of bears found that they often choose to move even slower than would be the most calorie-efficient speed, "choosing" (if they can be said to be considering the question) to be superficially lazy but unintentionally making themselves work harder. It's an intriguing insight, since warm-blooded animals ideally wouldn't want to waste valuable energy. We already burn a lot of fuel just staying warm, so anything that puts even more draw on our resources seems ultimately disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective. If calories are precious, then why wouldn't nature select for behaviors that reduce any additional waste? That part of the insight is much more interesting than just calling them lazy, which is unfortunately the easy (some might say...lazy?) headline.
April 8, 2021
The United States is now vaccinating against Covid-19 at a pace that covers literally 1% of the entire population each day. That is a mind-boggling mobilization at scale.
The Titanic wouldn't seem so titanic today
RMS Titanic -- so named because of her enormous size -- was 1/5th the tonnage of the biggest class of ships built for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in the modern day. The Oasis class is rated at upwards of 225,000 gross tons. Everything is relative to something.
Large riots in Northern Ireland
Disturbing news: "[P]olice are investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement, given the level of pre-planning and orchestration. Police came under sustained attack after more than 600 people gathered at an interface between loyalist and republican areas."
April 9, 2021
Side effects of long-term quarantining probably don't include personality change
After a year of spending far less time around other people than would ordinarily be the case for most Americans, it's natural to wonder whether all that time in quasi-quarantine is going to have an effect on our personalities. There's some reason to believe that it's going to take a little while for people to readjust to a vaccinated, somewhat-back-to-normal world, but it's unlikely that confirmed extroverts are going to become introverts or vice-versa. ■ To a great extent, we are who we are from birth. Most people are somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, anyway. Some of our traits are more mutable than others, but it's a pretty big stretch to expect one of the big five personality characteristics to be so plastic that a year of enforced isolation is going to change it. ■ There's a much better chance that people will find themselves hesitantly adapting to a complex environment for a while, but don't expect radical changes out of anyone. In the meantime, though, we're going to have strange new conversations with strangers as "How about the weather?" turns into "Which vaccine did you get?" And what's interesting about that is -- God willing -- this will be the biggest positive cultural event Americans will have shared in common since the final episode of M*A*S*H (which was seen by 77% of television-watching households and 60% of the entire country at the time). ■ Television doesn't satisfy that mass-experience feeling anymore, nor do other positive events. We barely have any synchronized cultural experiences anymore -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, since it reflects the fact that people are able to choose cultural content much more satisfying to them than books, movies, music, and television programmed for a lowest-common-denominator audience. But it does deprive us of generic things we can all talk about at the same time. "Hamilton" has been touring for half a decade, but there are still plenty of people who haven't seen it. ■ Most adults of a certain age can easily answer where they were on 9/11, but that's not the kind of subject that comes up in casual conversation. Which vaccine did you get? Now there's a question we're free to chit-chat about. And it feels especially weird to be chit-chatting again after a year of social distancing -- but it's going to be good for us.
Remember those lost to the Holocaust
Each one was an individual, entitled to life and to dignity. The legacy of those millions of murders still has a literally measurable impact today.
Contra what the extremists say, Texas can't just secede
"[S]editions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body [...] An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government." - Federalist Paper 28
Johnny Carson learns the Heimlich maneuver
It's all to easy to forget that the Heimlich maneuver is a modern invention -- it only came out in the 1970s. When Carson brought informative guests onto his show, he wielded more power than ten thousand professors.
We're reaching the 50% vaccination mark
Typical of many places, about half of the eligible adults have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Lincoln, Nebraska
April 10, 2021
Boston Globe reports shocking allegations about its city's police union
"A Globe investigation has found that the Boston Police Department in 1995 filed a criminal complaint against [the former president of the police union] for sexual assault on a 12-year-old, and, even after the complaint was dropped, proceeded with an internal investigation that concluded that he likely committed a crime. Despite that finding, Rose kept his badge, remained on patrol for another 21 years, and rose to power in the union that represents patrol officers. Today Boston police are fighting to keep secret how the department handled the allegations against Rose, and what, if any, penalty he faced." ■ If true, this ought to be grounds for immediate dissolution of the union. And a massive reckoning would be overdue within the police force as well.
Satellite view of the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent
Fair to say that GOES-16 is worth every penny. The imagery includes high-resolution views of the ash from La Soufriere and the sulfur dioxide discharges.
April showers bring...April flowers
To repurpose the great philosopher Ferris Bueller: Spring moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
April 12, 2021
Some things matter more than attention
Jonathan V. Last concludes that we're in a precipitous state as a result of the rise of attention-seeking behavior as one of the key motivators in politics, and he's right to be worried. Yet there's still something to the idea that self-government is subject to laws that are much like gravity. As the economist Herb Stein famously said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop". ■ Antics cannot go on forever in politics -- at least, not if voters eventually want their government to be responsive. Think of one of America's worst political stunt artists: Sen. Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by his colleagues and left politically neutered until his death. ■ McCarthy's reign of terror could have gone on much longer under another system -- especially one in which the government itself behaves like an extensive criminal syndicate. China's Communist Party embraces supposed "anti-corruption" campaigns as a way to neutralize rival sources of power. They're not about fighting corruption -- they're about strangling any opposition. Under such a system, antics can go on almost indefinitely -- or at least until there's seemingly nobody left to purge. (Even in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev ultimately denounced Stalin's terroristic ways.) ■ This is not to say that stunts and bad behavior cannot go on for quite some time and do a great deal of damage in the process. The stunts can go on for years and through both direct injury and neglect can inflict serious harm -- often of a lasting variety. But within a system where voters retain control, performance art cannot substitute for results forever. In the end, a government that does not deliver finds itself involuntarily unemployed. (Sometimes, even success is rewarded with electoral defeat; see: Churchill, W.) ■ The forecast for clowns, buffoons, and stunt artists with little to offer but cable television hits cannot be any better than the forecast for those who actually do their jobs and still sometimes lose. How long the empty spectacle goes on depends upon the patience of the people paying the bills. If we're smart, we'll change the channel.
Middle-of-the-night EF-3 tornado hits Louisiana
It's hard to imagine a worse scenario than a large tornado striking a town at 2:16 in the morning.
Never trust an economist who doesn't own a hard hat
It may seem silly that the Federal Reserve chair has a hard hat and a high-visibility vest in his office. But in reality, it's a very good thing if the people who think about the economy have tangible ties to it. Jay Powell's accessories may be mainly ceremonial, but it's good for the people who think about the economy in the abstract to have first-hand experience with how it works in practice.
Progress towards mass vaccination accelerates
Per Axios: "At the current U.S. vaccination rate, all of those vaccine-enthusiastic adults could be inoculated by the end of April." It's obviously great news on one hand -- if everyone who wants one can get a vaccine dose within a matter of weeks, then we've reached an amazing milestone. But on the other hand, if the number who want the vaccine is markedly less than 100% of the entire population, then it's a symptom that we need to stimulate demand.
April 13, 2021
Might as well be blocking out the Sun
If you're willing to take the threat of rising global temperatures seriously, then you'll want to understand the full spectrum of solutions available. As Bill Gates put it in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone: "[W]e have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb -- and both worked!" ■ It's broadly agreed that the root cause of the problem is atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which have risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. As long as we keep on burning carbon-based fuels, the combustion is going to produce carbon dioxide. ■ De-carbonization is the ultimate goal -- if we perform less combustion, there ought to be commensurately less carbon dioxide produced. Animals are still going to breathe, but hypothetically, we can basically zero out artificial carbon dioxide production by converting from combustion engines to electric motors and powering those motors with energy that comes from non-carbon sources. Some emissions will still come from agriculture, but more than three-quarters of US greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, electrical generation, and industrial use. ■ Here's the problem: The United States is already decreasing per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, and if we start combining renewable electricity with better batteries and expanded nuclear power generation, we can get to a fairly near-zero state. Expanding nuclear power generation remains a big "if" -- capacity hasn't increased in 35 years -- but serious people must take the solution seriously. But even if the USA went to zero-carbon tomorrow, China's use exploded over the last two decades, and India's use is growing. With many more people, their per-capita effects are magnified relative to the cuts the United States can make. ■ There is also the question of equity: If it's more expensive to de-carbonize (or to grow into a low-carbon advanced economy from the start), then can the willpower be found to join in an international effort that might (at least at the outset) appear to put poorer economies on a slower growth rate? Equity is even a contested matter within countries, too. ■ A "many-solutions" approach to global warming requires us to consider harm-mitigation measures on top of efforts to avoid the problem. We may be able to slam the metaphorical brakes, but the collision could occur anyway and we'll want our seat belts fastened. Bjorn Lomborg has famously argued that climate-change consequences are bad but manageable, and that we're better off investing in mitigating the effects rather than preventing it altogether. Other smart people say we have to do both, and urgently. ■ Among the ideas floated to manage the situation is the radical proposal to try geoengineering the planet to create more clouds to block the incoming sunlight. All choices tend to come with unintended consequences, but that one in particular seems fraught. Among other problems, it's quite possible that miscalculating or carrying out the geoengineering in the wrong way could actually make the problem worse. ■ After all, the idea of trapping solar heat with the help of human-made clouds is the backbone of proposals to terraform Mars to move it from "cold and uninhabitable" to "marginally Earth-like". (The technology, alas, is not in our hands yet.) But that's what clouds do -- they reflect off their tops (albedo), but they also trap existing heat. And, of course, if an experiment goes wrong high in the atmosphere, the effects could easily become global. (Again, if the consequences weren't far-reaching, they wouldn't be worth trying against a problem the size of global warming.) ■ Considering the global risk we already face from unpredictable volcanic eruptions devastating agriculture across most of the planet, it's probably best to keep geoengineering behind a glass to break only in case of the most dire emergency. Other approaches may be difficult, costly, and hard to mobilize on a planetary scale -- but they also tend not to come with a non-zero level of existential risk.
April 14, 2021
It takes a short period of time for caffeine to make its way from your drink into your bloodstream, so taking a short power nap right after taking a caffeine hit may be just the thing to maximize post-wakeup alertness. 12 minutes works for some. Napping for too long just makes most people sluggish.
April 15, 2021
Public polling takes wicked turn on vaccine safety perceptions
The CDC's reaction to possible side effects from the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine appears to have dealt a non-trivial blow to public confidence in that vaccine. A poll by YouGov found that 52% of US adults considered the vaccine "safe" before the CDC recommended a pause in its use, but only 37% said it was "safe" after. ■ Putting aside for a moment how preposterously low the original 52% figure was, we really need to come to terms with a big problem of framing. There are inherent limitations to polling, to be sure. But asking a binary question like "Is this vaccine safe or unsafe?" is a disservice, because it trains people to examine important questons as though they are simple binaries. For all the good binary math does us in making digital calculations possible, we mostly make analog decisions. ■ Think of it like this: Lying in a bed full of puppies isn't completely "safe" -- maybe one of them will bite you. Dogs commonly carry germs in their saliva that could kill some humans. Yet still, on a scale rating safety with a value from 1 to 10, playing with puppies is probably a 9.95. Does the missing 0.05 make the activity unsafe? Of course not -- unless you're strictly adhering to a mindset that something is either "completely safe" or not. ■ We deal competently with gray areas, odds, and uncertainty all the time. There may be a chance of rain when you're planning to grill a steak medium-well while thinking about your fantasy baseball roster. Many of us profess to know little about math yet turn out to be very good at understanding complex conditional probabiliies when it's time to set up NCAA basketball tournament brackets. ■ We ought to use that comfort to learn not to be quite so innumerate. Public discourse needs to make room for more gray areas, and one step in the right direction would be to reject the framing that something like a vaccine ought to be labeled so simply as "safe" or "unsafe". ■ The side effect of concern with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be a potential issue with blood clots that has occurred a reported 6 times after nearly 7 million doses. To call that "extremely rare" is extreme understatement. If something bad happens once per million people per year, that's roughly on par with the odds of being struck by lightning. Prudent behavior accounts for those kinds of risks, but doesn't overreact to them: We don't live every moment inside Faraday cages; we just observe the maxim "When thunder roars, go indoors". ■ The same should apply to how we discuss matters like vaccine safety. Asking the public whether they think the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "safe" is a lot like asking whether a blue sky with sporadic clouds is "sunny". Strictly sunny? No. But meaningfully so? Of course. If we can't acknowledge gray spaces as an ordinary fact of life, then it becomes basically impossible to distinguish when a tiny change really doesn't alter the truth. And in the case of the vaccine, supposing that a 6-in-7-million side effect were to be found consistently, that would represent a baseline change in "safety" of 0.0000882%. Put another way, you could give the vaccine to the entire population of the United States (330,000,000 people) and fewer people would suffer the side effect (around 300) than the 356 people who are currently in the ICU with Covid-19 -- just in Ohio. ■ We need to be able to see that "safe" is not only a vague term, it is wholly unhelpful in most human contexts. And though it may seem paradoxical, the best way to deal with human risks is to use more math in our language and fewer absolutes.
Canadian politician shows up naked to a (Zoom) meeting of Parliament
Remember, you can get a webcam cover for, like, 50 cents. Even in Canada.
Satellite-photography nerds to the rescue
Satellite photo enthusiast deduces location of missing hiker. Hiker found by rescuers. Awesome.
April 16, 2021
France considers plan to ban short-haul domestic airline travel
The parliament approved a rule to abolish short flights that could also be made by rail in less than 2.5 hours, as part of a broader bill about climate change. ■ Assuming that the "distance" tool on Google Maps is telling the truth, all points within mainland France are within 700 miles of one another...as the crow flies. But the road trip from Brest (in the northwest) to Nice (in the southeast) is almost 900 miles long, suggesting that there's some meaningful inefficiency in getting around the country via overland methods. ■ France does possess a high-speed rail option: the famed TGV. As a representative trip, the TGV will get you from Brest to Paris much faster than driving (perhaps 6 hours by road and 4.5 by rail), but it'll still take much longer than 2.5 hours. That's for a distance of a little over 300 miles as the crow flies -- but more like 370 by road. ■ Thus it's hard to see how the proposal banning shorter flights would be massively restrictive. Marginally, yes, it would prohibit flights that presumably might be plausible for commercial flights. But it's likely not the kind of restriction that has much practical effect: By the Brest-to-Paris metric, the climate-related rule would only do away with trips shorter than about 175 miles. Thus, a flight from Des Moines to Omaha would be prohibited by law, but not from Des Moines to Minneapolis. At that stage, the real constraint is whether it's worth one's time to bother driving to the airport, parking, checking in, passing through security, and being there sufficiently in advance of the flight to board...and then wait. ■ France's high-speed rail network is pretty enticing -- but it appears to serve most effectively as a way to get to and from Paris. It's a hub-and-spoke model on steroids. The rest of the country is well-connected, but by slower service. Extending rail networks (especially for high-speed service) is expensive and slow work. ■ What could be interesting, though, is if the French idea ends up fueling demand in the market for electric-based air travel. Oh, yes, that day is coming. And if it facilitates the arrival of flying taxis, then so much the better. It's not as far-fetched as you might think: If we can de-carbonize air travel with battery-powered electric flight, things could change quickly for the better. Long-haul electric flight may be far outside the capacity of current technology, but short-haul electric flights have already been conducted. ■ If generated from clean sources, electricity can be quite green (we already know how to get to zero-carbon using nuclear and renewables) -- and electric motors are much simpler than combustion engines, which means less complexity and less demand for complicated maintenance. This is why serious companies like Airbus are working on small electric aircraft already. And if air taxis can fly in and out of small, under-utilized airports that already exist (like the 98 general-aviation airports in Iowa alone) and bypass the massive deadweight of security theater associated with airline travel today, their time advantages over road and rail could add up in a hurry. ■ Keep an eye on France: It might be just the right market to prove whether air taxis will be the ride of the future.
Could you confidently name the world's ten largest megacities? The UN says they are (in descending order) Tokyo, Delhi, Shanhai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Dhaka, and Osaka. Sorry, New York.
First-grader lobbies for pockets in girls' pants
And she wins coverage in the Washington Post for doing it: As 7-year-old Kamryn Gardner argued in her letter to Old Navy, "I want front pockets because I want to put my hands in them. I also would like to put things in them." ■ As trivial as the status of kids' pants might seem, it's a question that demands an answer. What is the message to girls if their pants are decorated with fake pockets? There isn't a single defensible reason that doesn't ultimately lead back to imposing weird standards of beauty on girls, and doing so at an imprudently young age. (Come to think of it, is there even a good age at which those standards shouldn't be set by the wearers themselves?) ■ To make decorative pockets is strictly an aesthetic choice, and it's one that nobody is applying to boys' pants. So that means it's a gender-specific aesthetic choice. And more than that, it's a choice that signals one thing as "normal" (pockets are normal) and another thing as a matter of deprivation (boys get pockets they can use; girls don't). The wearer, of course, is ultimately free to put nothing in their pockets at all. ■ Pockets are useful, by definition. The more utilitarian the clothing, the more likely it contains an abundance of pockets: Scrubs come with bunches of them. The same goes for carpenter pants. And whether we like it or not, we start forming impressions from very early ages about usefulness. It's unwise to let one gender's clothing become equated -- even subliminally -- with lesser usefulness. ■ It was all the way back in 1859 that John Stuart Mill wrote, "That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." Perhaps bland conformity is a recurring problem in human nature. But it's a delight to see that kids can recognize even the mild injustices around them, and that some of them feel good about insisting on their right to something better. ■ The kid who can call out faulty design judgments in pants today is well-equipped to recognize injustices later, and it's up to adults to cultivate and applaud that kind of spirit whenever we see it.
50% of Minnesota adults have gotten vaccinated
At least with a first dose. One county is at 74%.
Putting a puppy in a home listing is a stroke of genius
Dogs in Zillow listings are the new cookie-scented air freshener for real estate agents. But they still don't make paying $918/square foot make sense. That's just plain crazy.
April 17, 2021
Bring back lapel ribbons (just this once)
For the moment, people who are vaccinated wear masks to show solidarity. Some may call it performative, but until it's easily evident whether someone has been vaccinated, there's going to be some remaining unease on the part of those who haven't been fully vaccinated yet -- or those who cannot, like the immuno-compromised and children who are not yet eligible. Until the pandemic is actually stopped (and, since it's a completely global event, that's going to be a while), some behaviors are going to serve signaling functions well past the time they serve their primary epidemiological functions. Some kind of button, pin, or ribbon would be a fine way to indicate one's vaccination status if and when mask requirements ease. Vaccine supply is already outpacing demand in some American communities. It's going to take sustained social signaling to nudge the numbers higher.
Terrorists should be prosecuted
That includes anyone who set foot inside the US Capitol building on January 6th, or who engaged in violence outside it.
Snow in the south, none in the north
One of those situations where the normal rules are reversed -- better chances of snow in the south, lower chances in the north. Either way: April snow is a bear.
April 18, 2021
Rep. Peter Meijer's sardonic take on the abuse of the word "infrastructure" is that "Respecting the meaning of words is infrastructure." And he's not wrong about that -- words have meaning, and they matter. ■ It's too easy to dismiss "words matter" as a cliche. Yet our entire legal system depends upon the written word -- not oral history, not personal impressions, not interpretive dance. The conflict over how to interpret the words of the past in light of the present is perhaps the central dispute in American jurisprudence: Do the words of the law mean what they meant when they were first written down? As the language changes over time, do the standards set by the words evolve, too? Do intentions matter most, or do dictionaries? ■ Those are big debates, and they are not amenable to unanimous assent. If they were, we could long ago have resolved whether an Equal Rights Amendment would shore up rights that are not clearly guaranteed for women -- or if they were already guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Or, further still, whether "all men" meant "all humans" when the words were used to declare independence. ■ It should be self-evident that we need to seek common linguistic ground if we are to have any kind of productive political speech and debate. And common ground requires everyone to hold themselves to a kind of linguistic precision that isn't always practiced in places where words are constrained (e.g., by a 280-character limit or by a 2-minute video news package). ■ Americans ought to start crusading for common definitions when it comes to spending debates, where matters ought to be at their clearest. For instance, it's easy to find people who use the phrase "Health care is a human right". That's an imprecise and ultimately counterproductive use of language. As it was well-stated by neurosurgeon Philip Barlow in the British Medical Journal in 1999, "A human right is a moral right of paramount importance applicable to every human being." Health care, by contrast, is a universal need. ■ The language of the debate matters: A human right is a thing which cannot be denied and to which every person has an inalienable claim. A universal need is a thing which must be produced from limited resources, and the allocation of which can place people in conflict. We can't resolve the imbalance between the number of Covid-19 vaccines produced and the number demanded by calling the vaccine a "human right". We can only make up the shortfall by figuring out how to produce and distribute more doses, and that is a question of tangible, measurable inputs and outputs. ■ The same kind of definitional discipline should apply to words like "infrastructure", too. Other things, like child care, may be worthy of consideration, funding, and debate -- but if it doesn't involve aspects like engineering or construction, it really doesn't fit a universally acceptable definition of infrastructure. We know what infrastructure is from its root words: The underlying stuff that supports everything else. Other worthy things shouldn't be shoehorned into a definition that doesn't fit. They either need to stand on their own definitions, or they need new names that describe more precisely what they do. ■ If we're truly interested in bipartisan consensus, perhaps we ought to issue a copy of Strunk & White to every household in America. That, at least, might start the process of talking about things with common definitions.
April 19, 2021
Do people still not understand the Brown M&M's Test?
Van Halen's concert contract famously included a line strictly forbidding brown M&M's from the snack area. It wasn't because they taste different. It was a test to see who was reading the contract and following the terms faithfully. In fact, it was a pretty elegant test, since a bowl of candy is easy to inspect at no more than a glance and without raising any eyebrows. ■ Given notice that a venue had failed to check everything carefully, the band then knew to raise its own level of pre-show scrutiny. Given the technical sophistication of a big rock concert, those brown candies were like big red warning lights. ■ Carelessness is nothing new, nor is the resulting harm. In his booklet "The Way to Wealth", Benjamin Franklin warned that "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." ■ The world looks profoundly different to people who live on opposite sides of the Brown M&M's Test divide. There are those who look at details and see careful scrutiny as the right thing to do. These people have proverbs aplenty on their side -- which isn't itself a guarantee that they're right, though it's a fairly strong indication. On the other side of the divide are the people who either haven't been educated by hard knocks or who refuse to learn the lessons. ■ The extreme on one side is the bureaucrat who won't take any action that isn't strictly authorized by a form somewhere, even when circumstances call for it. The extreme on the other is the daredevil who goes urban free-climbing against the advice of all common sense. Both extremes are to be avoided, but taking care itself is not. ■ In a more modest sense, it can be smart to apply little Brown M&M's Tests where one side of an exchange has a lot to gain and the other side carries the preponderance of the risk. For instance, some cold-callers selling their business-to-business services will churn through as many prospects as possible, seeking to make up for a low rate of success with high volume. (And make no mistake: Anyone in business who answers front-line phone calls hears from cold callers virtually every day.) ■ There are a million "experts" out there training and advising the cold-callers. They offer tips and psychological hacks to increase the caller's control over the conversation. To be on the receiving end of one of those calls is to be on guard from the opening gambit. ■ Since time is precious (and can't be replaced once lost), the simplest and most elegant test for someone on the receiving end of one of those calls is to say, "Send me your information in the mail." Not by email. Via the US Postal Service. ■ What makes this a good test? First, it tells you what the caller's expected value from the conversation really is. A glossy brochure and a stamp might together cost $2.00. The time required to stuff the brochure in an envelope and mark the address might be 2 minutes -- perhaps 4 minutes, if the caller has to look up the recipient's address. In total, the investment might represent $5.00 total in direct and indirect costs. ■ Of course, most callers won't follow through. They'll try to make the sale over the phone or send the information via email (at zero direct cost to them, and perhaps a few seconds' time). Shifting the burden to the caller effectively asks, "Do you think the expected value of your call is greater than $5.00?" If it isn't, then the call itself probably isn't much worth the caller's time -- and it almost certainly isn't worth the receiver's. (Or they can just send you a bag of M&M's with the brown ones removed.)
Wind turbines have "become Iowa's chief source of net electricity generation"
Chicago may be the Windy City, but Iowa is the Wind-Powered State.
Vaccinations are open to every adult in America now. If you've ever used the phrase "for the children" unironically, then you really must get vaccinated against Covid-19. Until kids are eligible to be vaccinated, the children are counting on adults to step up and halt the spread.
Getting a bit late in the season for this nonsense.
American English needs to import the word "chuffed"
It's one of the best words in British English, and we're dumb not to incorporate it here.
April 20, 2021
EU decides Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe enough
From the available evidence, this is the right decision on a cost/benefit basis. We're in a race against time with this virus. For that matter, though, any new regulatory decisions need to move at warp speed (to borrow a phrase). Among of the biggest questions facing the world right now: How much of the world's population needs to be vaccinated to bring this to a halt, how fast can we get there, and what are the odds of success? There are so many variables -- and yet, we know we're nowhere near having enough of the planet vaccinated, and we know that the virus presents a terrible and known risk. That means we would have to see pretty terrible and highly likely side effects to justify any delays in getting shots into arms. ■ We do face a danger from those who seek to profit from stoking overreaction to anything bad that comes with vaccination. A single story about a bad reaction can occupy a much bigger space in an audience member's head than all of the overwhelming statistics about success. You don't read about the millions of safe flights that take place; you read about the tiny number of crashes. ■ In a media environment where the economic pressures are perhaps at their worst ever, what we get isn't "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- it's "afflict everybody, 'cause fear porn gets clicks". The problem is that with many people glued to the constant low-quality stimulus of social media, we're often too indiscriminate about what stupid ideas we let in the door. This is already having tangible consequences in our fight against Covid-19; we're already running out of people willing to be vaccinated, and while things like this are always multivariate, there isn't a shred of doubt that vaccine hesitancy is being fueled by claims that just don't reflect reality or scientific evidence. ■ If someone on Twitter is a perpetual source of agitation and propaganda, mute them. Wait for others to highlight their nonsense in a quote-tweet and force yourself to read it only after a conscious choice to enter the right frame of mind. The same principle applies to Facebook: You can remain "friends" without subjecting yourself to someone's worst impulses: Just hit the "snooze" button, and in a month, see if they've proven themselves worthy of your time again. Time is fleeting, and not every connection is of equal value. Social media tools do a great job of connecting us, but it's up to everyone to be mindful of whether the right connections are being made. Not every connection is good.
Most of us would probably benefit from an occasional crawl across our screens (all of them -- TVs, tablets, phones) that just loops the words "Memento mori". There's absolutely no question that some things we watch can make us better and wiser. Some programs provide valuable entertainment and relief. And then there's a giant industry devoted to burning up the precious few hours people spend on this Earth, vaporizing them like the breath of ants. ■ If this country spent half as many person-hours reading books (non-fiction books, and not those idiotic ghostwritten fluff tomes "written" by talking heads) as watching cable news channels, it feels like we would have cured cancer already and have a colony on Mars. ■ Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe things people would buy in order to show off their ability to spend. The world is a vastly more economically-productive one than what Veblen inhabited a century ago. Even modest consumption today would look extraordinary by comparison with the 1950s, and unfathomable compared with the 1800s. But for each of us, the supply of time is finite. ■ Some recreation will always have its place, but we need more "conscientious consumption" of time -- and especially when it comes to media. People ask, for instance, whether it makes sense to keep a reading list -- and whether some people use those to be conspicuous among their peers. The answer to the latter is "Of course some do". But done properly, a reading list is really just a basic manifestation of metacognition. Keeping a reading list is how you think about the reading without being immersed in the reading. It's a good practice, and it would be a good practice for those movies or television shows we watch as well. ■ Being aware of the consumption process doesn't have to be burdensome or overly time-consuming, but you are merely dollars and cents to media companies. They want your time and attention. It is a naked drive to capture a share of the 42 hours of television, 30 hours of apps, and almost 8 hours of web surfing that the average American adult spends each week -- and to convert those hours into dollars. Unfortunately for each of us, our hours eventually run out. Without a little conscious attention to how they are spent, we risk unconsciously exhausting our own supply in service of someone else's profit.
A thoroughly different approach to the strip mall
They get a bad rap, but maybe some aesthetic improvements will turn out to be just what strip malls need
April 21, 2021
1,127 people were killed by police in America last year
Every one of these cases, no matter how justified it may seem, should be investigated by an independent, Federal-level fact-finding body, modeled on the NTSB. Not to punish, but to find and address root causes. 1,127 is just too many. ■ Some of those killings, obviously, were themselves entirely unjust and criminal. It is right and proper that those involved be prosecuted under the law. In other cases, police had entirely reasonable needs to defend themselves or others using lethal force. ■ The point of investigating every single incident -- independently, at the arm's length provided by a Federal agency rather than local authorities -- is to dispassionately ascertain which incidents could have been avoided and why they were not. Just as the NTSB investigates serious transportation accidents for the purpose of honestly and transparently finding the root causes and recommending remedies, so should a similar agency do the very same things with incidents in which people die due to the actions of police. ■ Every occupation has a share of miscreants and bad actors. One of the marks of a profession is that it establishes and enforces internal codes to root out the bad and expel them. Professions of all sorts are distinct from other occupations in that their practitioners forfeit some of the benefits they might be able to obtain from their work in exchange for some degree of legal protection and social esteem. ■ In the case of law enforcement, internal safeguards are not enough. The public gives the state a monopoly on violence, which is uniquely powerful and thus ultimately requires unique safeguards. Among those safeguards is the right to a clear and unambiguous depiction of exactly what happened when force is used. ■ What made Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo's testimony against Derek Chauvin so historic is that, in effect, it pierced the "blue wall of silence". He deserves credit for his testimony: Confidence in police (and, consequently, their legitimacy) is enhanced by those who turn their backs on bad actors within their own ranks. ■ However, the fact alone that such a wall is known to exist is exactly why civilian oversight is essential: The monopoly on force is only legitimate if it is supervised and controlled by those to whom it belongs -- the public. It is fundamentally a matter of consent -- enshrined by the Declaration of Independence as something granted only by the governed. ■ In Federalist 51, Publius (either Hamilton or Madison) wrote, "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." The law should and really must be the tool by which the use of lethal force is properly controlled. But honest accounting is necessary, too. ■ After-action reviews aid the armed forces, medicine, and many other fields, and they are essential where force is involved. The NTSB proves how much value comes from separating the act of punishment from the act of objectively determining the facts. It is high time to make the tiny investment necessary to bring an objective, NTSB-style agency to policing as well. 1,127 is too many.
"You hope having the uniform on will help, to say 'You don't have to be afraid of me'". These are really haunting words. It's not right that some of our fellow Americans have to prove themselves against others' reflexive fears.
Antitrust types shouldn't have a monopoly on fun
Serious note: Apple makes a ton of money from apps they didn't build. Controlling the network is a big deal.
April 22, 2021
Catastrophic situation in India as pandemic rages
This should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wonders why universal vaccination must remain a top priority here in the US. We're part of a global community, and this virus has to be stomped out, conclusively, everywhere. "Distressing but necessary", indeed.
Andy Grove of Intel once wrote that "only the paranoid survive", but that was probably more salient advice for business than for civic leaders. From time to time, we are reminded of the North Korean regime's level of paranoia, of which the BBC reports: "When Kim Jong-il was alive, there was a ratio of one bodyguard to two of the senior officials accompanying him."
April 23, 2021
A big bag of water-softener salt weighs 40 lbs. It's a heavy thing to lift, and the act of merely picking it up gives the individual a moment to consider just how much material is inside. Some lunatic doubled that amount in explosive material to set up a gender reveal. Foreseeable results occurred: When the Tannerite bomb exploded, it literally shook the ground for miles around. ■ There have to start being consequences for this recklessness. In order to live in anything resembling a civilization, we have to be able to assume that the people around us are going to behave in a prudent manner. Blowing up 80 lbs. of explosive material to show off whether a baby is going to be a girl or a boy is anything but prudent. ■ The gender-reveal madness is well past its prime and ought to be retired immediately. Explosive stunts have caused enormous wildfires and killed parents-to-be. One would have to have been living under a rock to not know this by now. And yet, people are still dying for sake of totally unnecessary stunts. ■ Too many people define their sense of the world in the most absolute terms possible -- from the nonsense of believing that words are violence to the nonsense of believing that the 2nd Amendment is unlimited in its scope. Boundaries must always be drawn; no one has a right to bear a hydrogen bomb in their backyard. ■ Warren Buffett has famously preached the economic advantages of knowing the boundaries of one's personal competence. But knowing the boundaries of rights, privileges, ideologies, and philosophies is similarly powerful. That is, ultimately, the value of a truly liberal education in itself: The more heterogenous the sources of knowledge one learns to study (and criticize), the better they're able to understand the limits of useful ideas. ■ This isn't to draw a straight line from "decline of liberal education" to "people breaking things and killing bystanders with gender-reveal parties". But it is to say that we under-value prudence and self-restraint at our societal peril. Nobody puts on a stunt like an explosive gender reveal in a vacuum -- they do it because they seek (and expect to receive) social approval for doing it. The boundaries around acceptable behavior matter, and they have to be imposed socially. We need to be able to say "We're thrilled for your baby" without saying "Bring out pyrotechnics to amuse us". ■ It's possible and necessary to say "That's too much" without saying "You can do nothing at all". Ending the lazy practice of turning everything into an irrational argument about slippery slopes is a social imperative right now, particularly in our politics, where partisanship has too widely replaced prudence. Far more things exist in a Goldilocks Zone than on a slippery slope, and we need to start acting like it.
CDC panel recommends dosing with Johnson & Johnson vaccine again
One need only look at India or Brazil for a reminder that the virus is the much larger risk.
What you probably didn't know about the Trans-Canada Highway
Despite its lofty name, the Trans-Canada Highway is not a controlled-access freeway (like one of the US Interstate Highways). In many places, it's just a wide highway with at-grade crossings. That's...surprising.
April 24, 2021
What kind of house you can get for $2.4 million in California
The New York Times profiles some California real estate that has positively eye-watering prices. Two of these $2.4 million homes sit on lots that are equivalent to 50' x 50'. One costs $1,200 per square foot of house. ■ For comparison's sake, $2.4 million would buy you a 57-room Super 8 hotel currently for sale in Sioux City, Iowa...with $300,000 to spare. With the remaining $300,000, you could buy two really big motorhomes (plus diesel for years). ■ The market will adjust to whatever supply and demand will produce. But it's really hard to look at housing that costs $1,200 per square foot and not conclude that something is really out of alignment in order to produce that valuation. No other tangible good has costs that swing by that much from one part of the country to another. One of the most expensive homes currently for sale in the Des Moines area is a 5,000-square-foot, 5-bedroom custom home listed for $1.4 million -- with a full acre lot. At $280 per square foot, it's much more expensive than most homes in the area -- and yet it's only a quarter of the square-foot price of the homes featured in California. Make that make sense without resorting to an explanation that says landlords are participating in some extraordinary excess capture in the Golden State.
Surprisingly good. Both the movie and the store it depicts are like self-aware time capsules. It could have been a little shorter without losing much, but that's a small complaint.
25 of the best quotes from Jeff Bezos's letters to shareholders
Amazon's founder seems to have absorbed some lessons from Warren Buffett
How $8 will save your leftovers
A box of grease pencils costs about $8. They pay for themselves in the first week if you use them to label and date your leftovers (instead of playing "Press Your Luck" every time you reach into the fridge).
April 25, 2021
Giant thunderstorms over the Sandhills
Fact: Watching one of those particular storms in that particular part of the country will permanently reset your perspective on your own size relative to the scale of nature. The Great Plains are quite something to begin with, but it's really hard to get a sense of scale in the flattest parts. The Sandhills provide just enough elevation (and just enough variety) to provide some perspective when one looks out toward the horizon. And the horizon can be very, very far away. When you can look so far into the distance that the road narrows to a dot and there are no cars, no houses, and virtually no other signs of life, it can really do a number on your mind. When you combine that static backdrop with a supercell thunderstorm -- a fluid complex that can be 50,000 feet tall (or even taller), the effect can be even more breathtaking than a mountain. Imagine a cloud multiple times taller than Pikes Peak, moving and discharging lightning over such a landscape. The experience will stay with you.
Spring is beautiful, except for the allergies
If you're allergic to tree pollen, Des Moines is a rotten place to be right now
April 26, 2021
Ars Technica reports: "A video circulating on Tuesday showed a researcher demonstrating a tool named Facebook Email Search v1.0, which he said could link Facebook accounts to as many as 5 million email addresses per day." ■ Back in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced his "personal challenge" for the year: "Facebook has a lot of work to do -- whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent. My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues." ■ But what ever came from that "personal challenge"? Anything tangible? Any marked improvement? What he promised was a grand ambition. Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on him for a reach that exceeds his grasp. ■ Yet at the same time, Zuckerberg maintains a degree of dictatorship over his company that would make most other leaders blush. Read Facebook's own annual filing with the SEC: Under risk factors, it notes "limitations on the ability of holders of our Class A Common Stock to influence corporate matters due to the dual class structure of our common stock and the control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock by our founder, Chairman, and CEO." Likely not since William S. Paley owned CBS has one individual held so much control over such a powerful media institution. ■ This degree of control means that Zuckerberg's principles are embedded within Facebook. What he believes is what the company does. Consequently, when the company fails to take a matter seriously, it reflects an institutional assumption that he, as controlling shareholder, doesn't take it seriously either. That applies to how the company responds to security threats as well as how it responds to its role in the society that it purports to serve. Within the company, at least some have acknowledged that Facebook failed to understand it was a vector for what became the January 6th insurrection, or to realize "that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement." ■ Facebook still seems to be run with the main priority to avoid the worst of trouble. But considering how the company specifically seeks to take advantage of human psychology in order to get users to do things like spend more time with the service, "avoiding the worst" really isn't enough; particularly not, because that's a reactive framework. ■ No, what Facebook really needs is an affirmative and normative philosophy -- a positive thing it seeks to be. Being anti-bad isn't enough. For all the money it makes and the influence it wields, Facebook (and its controlling shareholder) really ought to be striving to be something specifically good.
Vaccines turned the tide on Covid-19 in the United States
Dramatically -- in fact, almost shockingly. The graph depicting the change in case rates, with its rapid growth in November and December mirrored by an even sharper decline in January and February (as vaccines became available), is the kind of artifact that will show up in history textbooks, under a subchapter heading titled "The first mRNA vaccines". Just as early January marked a turning point in the spread of the disease in the United States, so will these new vaccines almost certainly mark a turning point in the fight against viral infections.
The field of meteorology has made considerable strides since realizing that half of the job consists of social science rather than just atmospheric science. People need to know what you're trying to tell them. And one of the things that has caused the most grief for the longest time is the public's misunderstanding of the difference between a weather watch and a weather warning. Well, now there's a graphic to explain the difference, conclusively and authoritatively.
English is a perfectly ridiculous language
The best way to get out of a rut is to find a new groove. Try explaining that to a beginning English-language learner.
David Boaz suggests, "There ought to be a game, 'science says,' like 'Simon says'". ■ He's right. Science says: Cover your cough! Science says: Wear a seat belt! Check your horoscope! ...Ha! Science didn't say to do that!
Epictetus: "When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shrink from being seen to do it, even though the world should misunderstand it; for if you are not acting rightly, shun the action itself; if you are, why fear those who wrongly censure you?"
April 27, 2021
Man conquers local parking lot, one space at a time
Humans have more intelligence than is absolutely necessary for individual survival. As a consequence of that surplus brainpower, sometimes we do silly, pointless, hilarious things...like trying to park in every space at the local grocery store. And making a spreadsheet about it. ■ Yes, such an exercise is profoundly silly. No, it has no direct meaningful social benefits whatsoever. And yet: We really ought to stand up and applaud when someone puts their mind to work on a nerdy side project and commits to performing it as though it really matters. ■ If you read Dwight Eisenhower's memoir of World War II, "Crusade in Europe", you'll find a number of themes that emerge across its hundreds of pages. The most important one, though, may well be that the United States came into the war completely unprepared -- Eisenhower is devastating in his critiques of prewar military preparedness -- but the country won victory because of a massive reservoir of potential that just needed to be stirred to action. ■ Ike put it like this: "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." Just think: American shipyards, once brought up to capacity, produced 2,710 Liberty Ships over the course of the war. They were cheap and ugly, but they could be built in days and delivered the essential cargo needed to win a war. ■ It might not be obvious, but the connection between idle productive capacity and pointless, nerdy pursuits is quite real. The Wright Brothers are often portrayed in our superficial understanding of history as a couple of tinkerers who stumbled upon powered flight. The reality is they were dedicated, methodical, and driven almost to obsession (remember: Orville nearly died in an early crash that killed a passenger). ■ Most of the problems we face today are much too complex for a couple of brothers to solve working out of a bicycle shop. But they can be solved by teams working together -- and not always by the ones you might expect. Some large firms work hard to bring innovations to market quickly, but the era of the "skunk works" has in many ways been pushed aside by the popular but flawed practice of innovation through acquisition. ■ But look around and you'll see people channeling their interests and energies in useful ways through open-source program development and citizen science and self-organizing teams. ■ To solve big problems, we need a culture that values a nerdy willingness to do frivolous things well, because those are the sandboxes where we practice the skills that can be called upon when we need a nerdy willingness to do really important things well. So, three cheers for the goofball who walks every street in their town or studies satellite imagery for fun or figures out ship speeds from wake patterns. It's never particularly clear in advance when we'll need the people with these obsessions. But within open, free societies, the nerds are often our secret weapons.
The worst job in the world might well be trying to honestly, lawfully, and transparently list the risk factors for taking a Chinese state-owned or state-controlled enterprise into the stock market, through filings that bear the risk of legal consequences if filed untruthfully: "Risk factors, huh? I need to list risk factors? Hmm. Can I get some kind of amnesty first? Like, a guarantee that I won't be sent to a prison camp? No? Can we see if someone else wants to write this part?"
"I think you're hot" is not a sufficient reason to knock on someone's car window
Short of "I think you left your phone on top of your vehicle", "I think the trunk of your car is on fire", or "I think you left your 2-year-old in the shopping cart", there are really no good reasons to ever stop someone in a parking lot by walking up to their car. If you're overwhelmed by someone's beauty, just allow the moment to pass in the same way you can admire a beautiful sunset without shouting out loud to the Sun itself.
April 28, 2021
A nightmare scenario to haunt your dreams
Considering the behavior of the People's Republic of China -- menacing Taiwan, abrogating its obligations to Hong Kong, and showing off its naval might near Japan -- reasonable observers may well find themselves gaming out the possibilities of an escalatory environment. It's not a rosy picture. ■ In particular, this threat ticks all the boxes for "plausible and sufficiently nefarious": Weapons systems mounted within shipping containers, using the containers as camouflage. ■ Global trade depends upon the humble shipping container, an innovation we don't usually give its due; its ubiquity has made it possible for the entire global economy to move predictably and efficiently (except when a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal). But at the same time, familiarity has a way of dulling vigilance. ■ Shipping containers have been widely used to facilitate smuggling, including for human trafficking. And without a firm (and expensive) commitment to thorough inspections of shipments from end-to-end of a shipping journey, both our land and sea borders are potentially much more porous than we might think. ■ If you thought it looked bad to get through the lines for customs and immigration in March 2020, imagine the backlogs that might ensue from trying to visually inspect every one of the ten thousand shipping containers on a single large vessel, both at the port of departure and the destination (and, of course, tracking the container to ensure it wasn't opened at an undeclared stop along the way). ■ But what is the risk if we don't increase our attention to what's making its way here aboard those nondescript boxes? The prospect that someone might be smuggling missiles into Long Beach is frightening enough, but this is the 21st Century: The biggest threats aren't always kinetic. It really isn't that hard to imagine a scenario in which containers could be weaponized not with missiles, but with weapons capable of delivering an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could disable electrical grids or cripple computer networks. ■ Balances must be struck in our world. Low-friction connectedness generally pays tremendous dividends in terms of world progress and improving standards of living. The freest possible movement of goods, money, ideas, and people generally enhances the prospects for all of us. But there is good reason to look at the need for inspection, tracking, and verification as a necessary limitation on that freedom. The weather is natural and mostly unchangeable -- but that doesn't stop us from using radar to be vigilant about what it's doing and to deliver advance warning of what might go wrong. ■ The Trojan Horse is a durable metaphor for very good reason. Unless and until the Communist Party that rules China demonstrates far better faith than they've been wont to show for the last decade, the American public ought to demand transparency and heightened scrutiny about what's aboard.
The shameful turn of Rudy Giuliani
A search warrant has been executed at his apartment. He had the choice to remain forever fixed in our minds as "America's Mayor".
Woman pleads guilty to hate-driven attempted murders
Two counts of attempted murder in a deeply upsetting crime spree
Why conservatives should get their shots
The notion of making a health decision based on partisan affiliations is baffling. But if that's what it takes, Kyle Smith offers some delightfully tongue-in-cheek arguments in favor of the Covid-19 vaccine, including "Since when do we turn down a shooting opportunity?". ■ On a related note, more than 1 million Iowans have now been fully vaccinated.
April 29, 2021
Guided all too often by the European conception of a nation-state as so often learned in high school, it's easy for Americans to slip into a use of the word "nation" that equates to "country". We shouldn't do that. ■ The Merriam-Webster definition of a nationality says, "a people having a common origin, tradition, and language". Not every nation is fortunate enough to have a state. In fact, the list of stateless nations is long and includes hundreds of millions of people. ■ Within Europe alone, one finds dozens of stateless nations: Some have gone basically extinct, absorbed into other cultures -- like the Slovincians. Some, like the Kashubs, have some official recognition without strict self-determination. Some, like the Scottish, are actively pressing for independent states of their own. The strained and often bloody history of separatism in Spain ought to be quite enough to convince the thoughtful onlooker that "national" attachments may have little to do with the country named on one's passport. ■ "Nationhood" and "statehood" are two different things. There can be many nations bound together within a common government. And people can be members of more than one nation, depending on heritage, upbringing, and self-identification. This is precisely why tribal registration can be such an important issue among the First Nations of North America. The Navajo code-talkers gave honorable and patriotic service to the United States in WWII, but they still possess a nation. ■ The United States of America is a country (a political state). And it is much bigger than a nation. In his first address to Congress, President Biden remarked that he told China's President Xi "America is an idea -- the most unique idea in history: We are created, all of us, equal. It's who we are, and we cannot walk away from that principle and, in fact, say we're dealing with the American idea." ■ In response, National Review editor Rich Lowry impulsively tweeted, "America is a nation, not an idea." Lowry is talking his own book -- literally. But his statement is utter nonsense. ■ Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. It is from that work that everything else we know today as the United States of America emerges. And the Declaration begins by saying, in essence, "We need to explain ourselves." And its first act of explanation is a bold assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Truths are ideas, and the Declaration says that the security of those truths is the very essence of why "Governments are instituted among Men". ■ Had the Declaration of Independence been premised upon a statement of religious faith, a territorial claim, an origin story, or a creation myth, then it might have been a statement of nationhood. But it did not. The very first among our organic laws is a statement of principles. America is ideas-based. ■ It denigrates America to say we are anything less than a great, important, and challenging idea. Great in the way that this is by far the most desired destination of the world's immigrants. Important as it seeks to remain, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of Earth". Challenging enough that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could summon the Declaration of Independence as the "promissory note" of freedom. America is an idea, and we are lucky to make a country of it.
"Energy attack" near the White House last November
Our openness as a society is a big deal and it can certainly make us vulnerable to attacks in ways that don't similarly threaten places that wall off their powerful. But openness is one of our most vital sources of competitive advantage, too. It must be a priority to preserve the benefits while defending against the hazards.
A fire truck that can turn corners like an SUV
High tech could make cities much better -- if an electric-driven fire truck is any indication
Baseball is supposed to be fun
Anthony Rizzo maintains a lifetime 0.00 ERA with a strikeout dominated mostly by pitcher and batter giggling at each other
April 30, 2021
Are we doing carbon storage right?
ProPublica reports that a program in California that was supposed to offset carbon dioxide emissions with matching carbon capture (through forest plantings) hasn't really resulted in net carbon storage and is instead facilitating higher emissions (permitted by the offsets). ■ Everyone knows that plants consume carbon dioxide, "exhale" the oxygen, and use the carbon to grow. So far, so good. And big plants will tend to contain more carbon than small ones (at least, per square foot of ground covered). ■ We look at trees in particular because forests are aesthetically pleasing, they can grow in places that are otherwise not ideal for agriculture or habitation, and they can sequester quite a lot of net carbon. ■ As long as the trees are allowed to mature, they can store a lot of carbon. That, clearly, sequesters the carbon away from the atmosphere. But even though that storage has been increasing for the last three decades, it's not the kind of increase we can accelerate very quickly. Most of the carbon in a tree is stored in the trunks and branches, and trunks don't grow very quickly. ■ Presumably, the way to passively remove carbon from the atmosphere at the highest speed is to find the fastest-growing plants that can then be harvested and stabilized (since it doesn't do any good to capture the carbon only to have it decompose quickly and return to the atmosphere). Fast growth is the champion. Decomposition is the enemy. ■ Bamboo is the fastest-growing woody perennial plant, and it is useful for long-duration carbon sequestration in textiles and building materials. For any plant (tree, bamboo, or otherwise), the optimal solution from a carbon-sequestration perspective is if it can be harvested and used in some durable way that doesn't involve combustion or consumption and digestion by an animal. Then, the harvested plant can be replaced with a new plant cultivated in its place, increasing the net impact. ■ Thus, this question: Is there a reason why we aren't genetically modifying bamboo so it grows more productively and easily in cold-weather climates? Wouldn't bamboo capture and store more carbon than trees in less time? Bamboo certainly shouldn't be used to replace trees, but if carefully managed, it might well serve as a fast-acting enhancement to carbon sequestration.
Short-lived corporate siblinghood ends for KWWL and KCRG
The two longstanding television rivals in Eastern Iowa were briefly under the same ownership this year
No place in England is more than 85 miles from the sea
Certain factoids would have been useful in history class, like the fact that no place in Britain is more than 85 miles away from the sea. That's the kind of scale that it helps to understand before you go on with the Vikings and the Normans and World War II. It's no wonder the country developed differently than many others, and it certainly helps to explain why the country became a seafaring nation. But the value comes from explaining that key fact at the beginning of the process.
Talent draws from a common well
Jon Batiste: "God gave us 12 notes; it's the same 12 notes that Duke Ellington had, that Bach had, Nina Simone..." ■ Art is in the constraints. Those twelve notes are a constraint, and yet they make infinite combinations possible.
Most neologisms are wisely held at arm's length, but the word "slaps" is a worthy exception. It has an almost onomatopoeic quality, requires no explanation at all, and makes sense almost immediately. When a song "slaps", it just makes sense. But many other newly-coined words are train wrecks.
A group in Davenport, Iowa, is using them to help provide stable housing for people who might otherwise slip into homelessness. From the Quad-City Times: "Boruff said it's his hope the tiny homes would help program graduates from back-sliding into old ways of homelessness, addiction, incarceration or domestic abuse. He said the 14-month program boasted a 90% success rate." Too often, the obstacles to good polices are other policies of our own making -- like building ordinances that don't account for the full spectrum of housing needs that exist.
Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting won't be held in Omaha in 2021, but that's OK: They're doing it so shareholders can get a dose of Charlie Munger, and that's reason enough.
May 1, 2021
The most wonderful day of the capitalist year
Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting may not be "Woodstock for Capitalists" in 2021 due to the pandemic, but at least Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett are on stage together. ■ Every such meeting is a worthwhile experience; it's not that Buffett and Munger are perfect, but they are wise. They've accumulated wisdom through observation and practice alike, and -- importantly -- openly confess their mistakes. At the 2014 meeting, Munger professed, "If we hadn't been so good at removing our ignorance step by step, we would be a fraction of ourselves today [...] We're very good at ignorance-removal, and fortunately for us, we have a lot more ignorance to remove." It's that kind of humility that undergirds the wisdom -- constantly seeking to understand the boundaries of their knowledge and to push that frontier outward. ■ And then there is the benefit of having that wisdom applied to value judgments. Hearing Charlie Munger decry speculation in moral terms is always refreshing. When he says that Bitcoin is "contrary to the interests of civilization", he's not saying so because he's jealous; the man is wealthy far beyond his own needs. Nor is he afraid of "missing out" on the rise of the investment; he's 97 years old. If he's criticizing something for being harmful to civilization, that's strictly what he means. ■ The world could use a great deal more of Munger's market moralism -- not just from him, but from many corners. Aside from the practice of teaching "business ethics" in college, we rarely see public figures apply moral thought to the marketplace. The problem with isolating "business ethics" as a discrete field is that it effectively dis-integrates the person. To put the qualifier "business" out front is to say "There are ethics for your life, and then there are different rules that apply if you do something in the workplace." ■ This is not to say that there aren't unique ethical questions that arise in the world of business; there certainly are, and they deserve careful examination. But, by and large, an untrained person from outside the world of business should generally be able to ascertain what is right and wrong, because business is merely an arena in which humans interact with other humans. The Greek agora wasn't reserved exclusively for buying and selling. Divorcing our modern notion of a holistically ethical life from what we do when money becomes involved is a categorical error. ■ Now, it may be necessary to teach business ethics because there are people who enter the world of business with no personal ethics to speak of. But for the vast majority of people and cases, "business ethics" should just be "ethics". Integrity comes from being whole. You can't really carve up who you are or the standards you observe based upon whether you're in the boardroom, on the tennis court, in the grocery store, or playing a card game with friends. A person who is a liar, cheat, or slouch in one area probably shouldn't be intrinsically trusted in others. ■ Yet, aside from exceptional individuals like Charlie Munger, we don't have a lot of people who make deep value judgments out loud in the world of commerce. Sure, there is money to be made from speculation on things like Bitcoin. But is it a good profit? Does it enhance human life? Is it expanding human dignity by getting more useful goods and services to places where there are needed? Or is it profit derived from consuming a vast amount of electricity in order to duplicate the work of fiat currencies? Bubbles are not generally productive, and some wisdom consists of recognizing when speculation has a grip on a market. ■ We are (and should be) free to do a lot of things unfettered by the intervention of the state; just because something can or might do harm doesn't mean it has to be prohibited. But just because something is a legal transaction doesn't mean it is a good one, either. We need role models and exemplars who are willing to say just that.
"Vamos! Let's Go Eat!" is the children's book for classical liberals
A bilingual, pro-market children's book about taco trucks. It's cheerful, delightfully illustrated, and entirely good-natured. Author Raul the 3rd is up to something good.
May 2, 2021
Markets encourage specialization
Someone apparently orders a drink at a coffee shop that requires something on the order of 25 unique ingredients or steps. It looks utterly disgusting, and some people note that it's a real mess for the serving staff to prepare. And most certainly, on one hand, everything about the drink order looks disgusting. But! On the other hand, many of us have very happily used Coca-Cola Freestyle machines...and robots don't judge our drink orders, no matter how unfathomably nasty. So we need to consider: If people can get their hyper-personalized orders from machines with no judgment (or sense of guilt), then where might we expect consumers to gravitate?
May 3, 2021
"China will get old before it gets rich"
A problem that will undoubtedly be magnified if the country enters a malevolent feedback loop in which heavy-handed political repression discourages creativity of thought, contributing to slower growth, making the Party even more desperate, leading to more repression...
George Washington as photorealistic modern-day politician
Once you imagine him with real hair instead of a wig, you'll definitely see it. (Though, in fairness to GW, he was only 57 when he was inaugurated. The guy portrayed in the viral picture is much older.)
The 3D printing itself is a "wow" technology, but where it could get really interesting is if we can find printing materials with less of a carbon footprint than conventional concrete. (Cement is estimated to produce 7% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, and you can't make concrete without cement.) There is tremendous potential to do good globally if we can combine better processes with better inputs.
Drone footage from right next to a tornado
There is so much untapped potential waiting for us if we can really start to harness the power of drones for storm-spotting. They have great potential to help save lives, especially for storms happening where radar coverage is distant. Especially useful on days when much of the country is under threat.
May 4, 2021
If you had Covid-19 before, you should still get vaccinated
That's the public-health consensus
May 4th brings out the "Star Wars" nerds
And, regardless of ideology or partisan stripe, we could use a few more self-identified nerds in Congress
May 5, 2021
Everyone sleeps, and dreams are an essential part of that sleep. But what happens when your brain lies to you during a dream?
Canadian data shows Covid vaccines spectacularly effective
Toronto Star: "Public Health Ontario reported 2,223 Ontarians developed COVID-19 symptoms after receiving one or two doses of a COVID vaccine [...] just 0.06 per cent of the 3.5 million people in the province who had received at least one vaccine dose by April 17."
May 6, 2021
One-paragraph book review: "To Heal a Fractured World", by Jonathan Sacks
A deeply worthwhile book that will expand the reader's moral imagination
One-paragraph book review: "The Enchiridion", by Epictetus
Rewards those who know that human nature is fundamentally unchanging
Berkshire Hathaway Class A stock price breaks the Nasdaq
It's all because they only saved room for 32-bit integers and they calculate stock prices down to hundredths of a cent. BRK-A prices have just topped that value. Oops.
Classic photos of the UNI student union
A classic of concrete modernism (and a fine tornado shelter, too)
In praise of classic corporate names
There aren't enough companies named Amalgamated _____ anymore
May 7, 2021
"Decadent" is the worst inverse shibboleth
When "Anonymous", a "senior Trump Administration official", published the book "A Warning" in late 2019, there was a rush to try to unmask the author. It was an understandable rush -- the nameless official had previously submitted an opinion to the New York Times saying that the President was "erratic", "chaotic", unstable, and amoral. Just how high did the self-identified member of "a quiet resistance within the administration" rank? ■ While Anonymous was later revealed to be Miles Taylor, there were those who thought it might have been a Cabinet official, or perhaps even the Vice President. Certain tell-tale words were used to try to pinpoint the author's identity, with some people arguing that the frequent use of the uncommon word "lodestar" pointed to Mike Pence. ■ To be sure, stylometry is a fascinating way to try to read between the lines to find out who might have authored a document. Computers make the statistical analysis easier: People give themselves away through their choice of words. Just ask a teacher reading an essay that has been plagiarized, in whole or in part, by a student who doesn't take care to cover their tracks. The writer's "voice" is distinctive. ■ While shibboleths are typically used to signal in-group membership (and, sometimes, to sort out double agents), they can also inadvertently reveal an author's adherence to a way of thinking that needs to be held at arm's length. ■ One of those negative shibboleths is the word "decadence". If someone is using the word "decadence" -- especially when talking about their own country -- there's a very good chance they're on a completely wrong track. ■ The word "decadence", unless the author is talking about a particularly rich piece of chocolate cake, is a dead giveaway that the author thinks other people are enjoying themselves too much, in large numbers. While it is entirely possible for people to engage in behavior that takes fun too far, one of the basic premises of American civilization, at least, is that we have the "unalienable" right to pursue happiness. That's one of the basic purposes for having formed this country in the first place. ■ Thus when someone like an editor at the New York Post declares that "America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower", he's not passing a sound judgment on his fellow Americans -- he's declaring that he cares not for the American experiment in self-government itself. Sohrab Ahmari is, of course, entirely free to hold an opinion like that, as untethered to reality as it might be. But the rest of us are not obligated to pay such an opinion any serious respect. ■ In fact, when someone pulls out "decadence" as their linguistic weapon of choice, they're joining in a habit engaged by murderous, evil political regimes. The accusation of "decadence" is a value judgment with no objective standard. Thus it can mean "anything I do not like". In an authoritarian regime, that means the state can use the subjectivity as a tool of oppression. In a freer society, it screams of illiberalism. ■ If one holds an objective belief that a society has gotten soft around the edges and needs toughening up, then one ought to make a specific, fact-based case about what behaviors, rules, or practices need reform. That's how a democratic republic finds its way to the right path. ■ As it has been said, America isn't very good at being right, but we're pretty good at getting it right. We get it right by engaging in a process of course correction over time. We swing too far in one direction, then we overcorrect in the other, and ultimately the pendulum finds its equilibrium. Merely disclaiming the zeitgeist as "decadent" is a sneer in the direction of thoughtful debate, and without robust debate, how can we ever expect to correct our way? ■ We get a lot of things wrong in America, and we surely always will. But one of the main engines of our success as a vibrant, rich, and free nation is a perpetual commitment to openness. Our adversaries and rivals have never embraced that commitment, and it's hard to imagine that they will. The saddest turn of events would be for us to surrender that commitment on our own -- just because some people were having a good time.
China's careless rocket debris could land almost anywhere on Earth this weekend
23 tons worth of space waste will come crashing down "anywhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude". (Des Moines is at 41.58°N.) China's behavior here is an exceptionally irresponsible case of ignoring the basic principle that you should clean up after yourself.
Who's going back to the office?
The CEO of a company in Washington, DC, has taken the peculiar step of sharing an opinion piece with the Washington Post, saying "I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion." ■ Even taking her "concern" at face value, Cathy Merrill chose a strange forum in which to express her thoughts. In the pages of her own magazine, she waxes nostaltic about the way her company embraces long-term employees. But one doesn't just publish an op/ed in the Washington Post hoping that it reaches merely a niche readership. The Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are America's three newspapers where people go if they want to be read by the elites. ■ Some work environments have agglomeration effects. Some don't. Most are probably on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremes. But it is downright kooky to suggest a one-size-fits-all rule of "If we don't see you, you don't count." ■ Office culture undoubtedly means something. Human beings often like to work in proximity to other human beings, even when they're not working together -- hence the etiquette of working from a coffee shop and the emergence of co-working sites and business incubators. ■ But unless you believe that the entire white-collar economy of the United States has been artificially inflated since March 11, 2020, there's no denying that working from home has worked out satisfactorily for a lot of people. ■ We were forced to make extremely rapid adaptations in the spring of 2020, with technological innovations filling voids created by the disrupted workplace. But now that everyone's been forced to learn how to behave during a Zoom meeting, there's no reason to pretend like that isn't a default component of the standard worker's skill set. A workplace skill, once broadly acquired, easily becomes an expectation. ■ Some environments will always need a physical presence -- nobody's going to start building heavy machinery from home. But the productivity numbers suggest that now that we're over the initial learning curve, it's perfectly fine for many office workers to remain home-office workers, without any excessive pain for their employers or the economy as a whole. But as for the "things that drive office culture"? If they're important, competitive forces will find ways to bring them back. If they're not, then like bell bottoms and slap bracelets, they'll find their proper place in a dusty old nostalgia bin. ■ Instead of hand-wringing over "office culture", more of our energy ought to be devoted to considering the broader need for mental well-being. The last year has put a spotlight on the need to train a lot more people to provide support for mental health. As in, possibly by at least an order of magnitude more than we already have. The people who are actively seeking professional therapeutic help are almost certainly outnumbered by the people who would probably benefit from some form of mental-wellness support. ■ Victor Frankl observed that "Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days." And that was in 1946, before religious identification and participation had met their modern decline. The quests for self-understanding, meaning, and belonging are rightly to be satisfied beyond the purview of the HR department. Addressing those needs holistically would a much better use of our time and efforts than worrying about who gets the last slice of office birthday cake.
Sharing spare vaccines across the border
Good neighbors: "The Blackfeet Nation in northern Montana provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines last month to its First Nations relatives and others from across the border"
Open-source Audacity program sold to private company
It's a very good audio editing program; whether things remain the same under new management is a whole new question altogether. Open-source programs are usually passion projects, which means they do risk becoming orphans without some form of incentive to keep them going.
May 8, 2021
China's errant rocket could crash anytime
China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat of reentry by the Long March 5B rocket. It is truly one of the stupidest games of roulette ever played.
"Vaccine side effect, or have you just been alive for 40 years?"
Medical news you can use
May 9, 2021
Using classic MTV to show today's college students what the Cold War was like
It's really hard to communicate to people who didn't live through the Cold War how the culture was permeated by the existential threat of nuclear war. That threat really did frame everything, even when it wasn't top-of-mind.
People respond to incentives: Immunization edition
County official in New York, at a vaccination event pairing Covid-19 shots with free beer: "We're going to do more people today at our first-dose clinics than most of our first-dose clinics in the last week combined". Americans in particular are motivated by the quest for free stuff, and if free beer is what it takes to get to herd immunity, then that's what public health agencies ought to be giving out.
May 10, 2021
Rahm Emanuel to become ambassador to Japan
A heartwarming tale of a small-town boy moving to the big city. (Tokyo's metropolitan area has 37 million people. Chicago's has just short of 9 million.)
Gen X eclipsed by successor generations in the US electorate
Will Gen X ever produce a President? (Vice President Kamala Harris, born in 1964, just barely squeezes into the Baby Boom rather than the Slacker Generation.)
May 11, 2021
The rocket didn't hit anything, but the criticism should
The world got lucky when China's wayward Long March 5B rocket reentered the atmosphere and seems mostly to have splashed into the Indian Ocean. The odds favored an uncontrolled water arrival (let's not call it a "landing"), since 71% of the Earth's surface is water. ■ But neither the rest of the world nor the Chinese public should be satisfied that the authorities in China were willing to be so reckless about it landing somewhere on the remaining 29%. Nature already drops things from space onto our heads from time to time, like the 440-kiloton fireball that crashed into Russia in 2013. There's no reason to add to that risk with man-made debris, certainly not when better alternatives are available. ■ Four simple rules offer a pretty good set of guidelines for living according to classical liberal principles: Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business. Ever since China steered into "socialism with Chinese characteristics" under Deng Xiaoping, the country's ruling powers have been willing to look favorably upon the "making money" part. (A growing economy, after all, is one of the main tools they have for pacifying the public.) ■ But those other guiding virtues don't have much of a place under an authoritarian regime. And while those of us outside the country can have strong opinions about the regime's conduct as it relates to the others, it is "cleaning up after yourself" where we have a first-degree right to demand better (as opposed to, say, speaking out on behalf of people within China whose universal human rights are being denied). ■ Letting rocket debris rain down uncontrollably over the planet is inexcusable when controlled re-entry is something humankind has been able to do for decades. China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat. Just because we all got lucky and avoided the worst possible outcome of their stupid game of rocket-reentry roulette doesn't mean we should just forgive and forget. ■ Along the way to getting rich and making material progress, every culture is likely to pass through a phase of abnormally intense pollution and waste. But there's no reason to accept rampant carelessness as an unavoidable cost of doing business. This applies whether we're talking about carbon dioxide emissions, high-risk scientific experimentation, or launching space stations into orbit. Clean up after yourself: It's not too much for the rest of us to expect.
May 12, 2021
"Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline."
For decades, the standard anecdote about ridiculous consumer-safety warnings has been the story of the woman who sued after she spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap. While the story has often been ridiculed in the abstract, we've probably been unfair to the plaintiff: The coffee was, indeed, being served at dangerously high temperatures. Today, however, we have a whole new standard for consumer recklessness which ought forever to displace "McDonald's hot coffee": Garbage bags of gasoline. ■ Due to the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline from Texas to the East Coast, wildly unsafe behavior has been documented as people seek to stockpile gasoline for themselves. A particularly egregious photo showing gasoline in clear plastic bags stuffed into the trunk of a car isn't from the current incident -- it's actually from a theft in Mexico in 2019. ■ But the point has been taken with sufficient seriousness that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a tweet warning, "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline." Regrettably, that's probably a necessary announcement, since bad ideas can go viral. ■ The "bags of gasoline" photo may be getting lampooned as it goes around, but there's no stopping it from putting panic into the minds of some people and inadvertently suggesting they try the same thing. It's not unlike the problem of videos that show people taking shelter from a tornado beneath a bridge: That's actually one of the most dangerous places to be, but the visual message overwhelms the real lesson. Loud, consistent, frequent messaging to the contrary becomes necessary to counteract the bad images that go viral on their own. ■ There's no disputing that our world is becoming more complex every day. Nobody had to worry about cyberattacks in the 1950s. Many of the things that add up to making life far more advanced, more convenient, and generally safer today than in the past also add up to making it much more complicated to navigate, at least in the finer details. When the "Check Engine" light illuminates, the first thing your mechanic is likely to do is break out the diagnostic scanner, rather than opening the hood. ■ In exchange for that complexity, we get cars that are much safer, more comfortable, and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. Anyone in their right minds would take a 2021 Kia Rio (MSRP: $16,050) over a 1972 Ford Pinto (MSRP: $2,078 in 1972 prices, or $13,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars today). ■ The problem we face, though, is that increasing complexity scares some people. It opens the door to lots of faulty and counterproductive responses. And it paves the way for people to make disingenuous claims and other bad-faith arguments under the guise that heavy-handed intervention alone can stop "big tech" or whichever boogeyman is in fashion at any given moment. ■ The tools we most need in a complex world -- especially from those who make big decisions -- are curiosity, competence, and humility. We need them from our lawmakers and other leaders, most especially. But we need them at the grass roots, too. Curiosity in particular gets stifled when people become addicted to the instant-gratification model. Paradoxically, marketers have become sophisticated at utilizing the "curiosity gap" to trick people into clicking on links that end up deadening real curiosity about the world. ■ And that's what we should be interested in fixing: The gap between the gawking type of curiosity we satisfy by clicking through to the latest outrage and the deeper and more virtuous sense of curiosity about how things really work in a complex world. We can say we want to see more common sense in the world, but the thing most of us really want is for people to slow down long enough to think about their problems, have the humility to ask questions, put their curiosity to good use, and ultimately achieve some kind of competence in the end. ■ It may seem ridiculous that a government agency has to say, "Use only containers approved for fuel", but if we don't routinely treat thoughtful curiosity as a virtue (and train its habits into our children), then people will continue to engage in the stupid, the circus-like, and the ridiculous -- sometimes to the peril of us all.
Tina Turner wins second induction into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
She got there once before (with Ike). Now she's being inducted on her own. The integrity of this most solemn institution remains intact.
Ohio offers a $1 million vaccination lottery
Get vaccinated, get entered in a $1 million weekly prize drawing. There is huge social surplus involved with getting the maximum number of people vaccinated, so if it takes turning a little of that social benefit and channeling it into private gain in order to stretch out the effect, then so be it.
May 13, 2021
Go ahead and tear up that memo
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking some heat for how her "staff is turning over at an alarming rate", according to a Chicago Tribune reporter. As evidence of her demanding style as a manager is submitted an email in which she shared a photo of a torn-up memo with her staff. Lightfoot's declaration: "Here's my new practice for memos that come in at the last minute." She goes on to offer a reminder that memos are due "48 hours before the decision is needed". Tough? Maybe. But she's also managing America's 3rd-largest city. ■ If the staff isn't following an established process for delivering her memos, how is she supposed to respond? A process exists around a principal for a reason -- to ensure discipline and avoid wasting bandwidth. Was the torn-up memo the first one submitted late? Then, yeah, it looks like a tantrum. Was it the 48th one submitted late? Different story altogether. ■ People can go all too far in catering to the whims of a tyrannical leader, of course -- we see plenty of examples of brilliant jerks who get tolerated for far too long in all sectors of the working environment, and a long-overdue public accounting of downright abusive behavior in Hollywood has finally eroded some of the myth that has permitted people to get away with abuse as the cost of admission to their creative work. ■ But policies and rules are different from the perverted whims of a director's couch. If our institutions are doing anything right to try to elevate people of good judgment into positions of authority, then the only point of giving someone the duties of mayor (or governor, or President) is because they bring some valuable skills for discernment to the table. If a big-city mayor says "I need 48 hours to think about important decisions", then those are the conditions under which she thinks her decision-making skills ought to be exercised. That's not unlike Barack Obama wanting to use his BlackBerry in the Oval Office or Winston Churchill demanding short memos and brief meetings. ■ Discipline cuts both ways, too: Mitt Romney credits a rule firmly prohibiting work meetings on Sundays for keeping him focused as a venture capitalist. Just as the principal has a reasonable expectation for performance, their subordinates benefit from clear performance expectations and reasonable boundaries. Consistent procedures and structures, like the Toyota A3 problem-solving worksheet, keep hard work from going to waste. ■ In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Pardoning the bad, is injuring the good." If a boss is tough merely because they have a difficult personality, then that's "the bad", and it ought to be called out. A leader's "emotional intelligence" really does matter. ■ But if a staff can't find a way to accommodate the needs of the principal, then it's the good staff members who are punished most by a failure to enforce the rules that optimize the key figure's work. Good subordinates want to make the boss look good, and voters have a fair expectation of getting the most value from the work of their elected officials. If a 48-hour review period is what it takes to get the most from your team, then Mayor Lightfoot, go ahead and tear up those late-arriving memos.
West Des Moines Valley High School names 6th US Presidential Scholar
Dorothy Junginger becomes the district's first Presidential Scholar since 2006
Grandmother, grandson graduate together from Indiana University
Grandson graduates with his bachelor's degree as his grandma graduates with her master's. On its own, the story of Rosecedar Byrd and Keith Taylor is a feel-good human-interest story. But their story really shows how much more we need to do to normalize life-long learning. ■ Virtually every American adult should be on some kind of path to learning more. The full spectrum of economic, cultural, scientific, and technological changes arriving year after year isn't going to slow down. Like the Mandelbrot set (or any other fractal), complexity is unbounded -- and the deeper you look, the more complexity there remains to be discovered. ■ "Grandma goes back to college" deserves to be a ho-hum event. We should have many more on-ramps and pathways for adults to pursue further education in structured ways. Lots of people have tried to name our post-industrial economic era, but the name it really deserves is the teach-yourself economy. The natural human desire to satisfy curiosity can be seen everywhere, from the dominance of "how to" as a search term on YouTube to the way many people satisfied their Covid-19 lockdown anxieties by learning to make bread. ■ Of course, people should always remain free to teach themselves whatever satisfies their curiosity (within the bounds of not harming others, of course). But it would be sound public policy to recognize that there is an overlap between what is good for individuals and what is good for society overall. There is an undeniable inverse relationship between unemployment and educational attainment. And it is clear that the needs for retraining and upskilling are growing -- probably at an accelerating pace. Even useful skills become obsolete -- one study says skills go bad at an average rate of 2.6% a year. ■ We shouldn't just leave people to try to figure out how to backfill that skills obsolescence all on their own. One proposal floated among the Nordic countries would make adult education compulsory, and there's at least a little bit of sense to that, especially if the public sector has to provide support when people are unemployed or need to lean on the social safety net. ■ Ultimately, you can tell what a people value by where the commit their resources -- especially of time and money. Similarly, you can tell where vested interests are protecting themselves by how hard they work to keep others out. Together, those observations suggest that we need to broaden access to formal systems for higher education and reform occupational licensing so that individuals have the greatest possible freedom to adapt to circumstances as times change, jobs evolve, and old skills fade away. ■ We remain in the early stages of seeing affordable and accessible college programs emerge so that adults with work and family responsibilities can obtain further education without having to drop everything. One would think that, after the Covid-19 shutdowns sent all colleges into virtual mode at once, perhaps we would come to rethink the processes of higher education with some urgency. Alas, the academy is slow to reform itself -- professional associations resist accrediting online programs and most colleges insist on teaching mainly with bricks and mortar. There will always be a place for four-year residential degrees as a personally-formative life experience -- but we need a whole lot more ongoing options to provide economically-transformative ones. ■ Ongoing education should be coincidental with other life obligations -- existing alongside the other things ordinary people do, not displacing them. So for now, three cheers for Keith and Rosecedar. But we ought to work hard to make today's very special story into tomorrow's very unremarkable one. The sooner we get there, the better.
Why Taiwan has reason to be nervous
On US military engagement with Taiwan: "They don't stay there for very long. They don't learn the language. They don't develop a deep relationship with their counterparts."
People really are filling up buckets with gasoline
New rule: If you can't explain the concept of vapor pressure in plain language without assistance, you don't get to put gasoline in a Homer Bucket. The explosions caused by dispersion of combustibles aren't pretty.
Futures of Des Moines and Omaha just got bound closer together
The heir-apparent to the throne at Berkshire Hathaway (headquartered in Omaha) is Greg Abel of Des Moines. Nobody who follows the company is surprised by this announcement; Abel has been the obvious choice for a decade.
May 14, 2021
Scarcity increases relative value, right?
Erica Dhawan's use of the phrase "geriatric Millennials" to describe people born between 1980 and 1985 certainly garnered some attention among those who take "geriatric" as a slight and those who are happy to have escaped the label. But it is worth noting just what a nosedive births took in the United States during the age cohort we now know as Generation X. Births peaked in 1957 at 4.3 million, dropped to 3.7 million at the start of Generation X in 1965, bottomed out at 3.1 million between 1973 and 1976, and only got back to a steady 3.6 million pace by 1980. In other words, the babies of the 1970s are a precious rare vintage.
A trucker seems to have spilled a bunch of pig guts all over Interstate 80 in Omaha. Yuck.
May 15, 2021
Past service is no free pass for present bad behavior
A group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves "Flag Officers 4 America" signed an open letter clearly seeking to leverage the gravitas of their service as former flag officers of the United States military to add weight to their status as political commentators. ■ Their letter is full of conspiratorial thinking, sloppy writing, and squishy logic. It deserves to be read as the cranky wingnuttery that it is, and little more. In no way should it be granted special immunity from criticism because its writers once wore high-ranking uniforms. Paula Thornhill -- herself a retired Air Force brigadier general -- did a good job of breaking down why the open letter is more embarrassing than alarming. In her words, "We can appreciate what retired flag officers did on active duty, but until we know what they've done since their retirement, we should not privilege their perspectives." ■ The public owes no indefinite deference to the judgment of people who once wore stars on their uniforms, nor for that matter to those who once wore any uniform at all. Stratocracy is a choice, but it's not one that America has made (nor should we make). The military obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted by the people through the states, the Congress, and the Constitution. It does not work the other way around. ■ The perspectives of veterans matter, just as do the perspectives of countless other groups who share some form of common experience or mutual identity. Their interests are even addressed directly by an entire Cabinet department. But their perspectives do not matter in a way that excuses faulty logic or corner-cutting arguments. ■ Should we defer to retired computer programmers about technology policy? To retired surgeons on health-care policy? To retired teachers on educational immigration policy? No -- not outside their field of knowledge, and not unless they can demonstrate that their thinking has kept pace with developments related to their expertise. Officers who retired from military service decades ago should similarly be viewed with deep skepticism when they attempt to weigh in by arguing to the authority of their former ranks. ■ Claims like "We must counter this on all fronts beginning with removing Section 230 protection from big tech" don't extend in any way from special insight they might have gained while in uniform, and the retired officer's uniform itself shouldn't be used as a cloak for what is a claim without substance. In fact, the use of retired titles as a political bludgeon is exactly the kind of behavior that undermines public trust in the active duty military. ■ More than anything, the open letter suggests that we are too slow to find ways in which to keep people like our retired flag officers productively engaged in constructing a productive future. Cincinnatus may have been satisfied to return to his plow, but with most people likely to live for at least one decade (but often a few) after retirement, it would be wise for us as a society to find productive outlets for the energies of our most senior retired officers -- lest they grow restless and turn their minds over to the consumption of conspiratorial media. Only the 5-star generals never retire. ■ You can like or respect what a person did in the past and choose to disrespect their conduct later -- or vice-versa. Expect people to grow. Hold them accountable when they don't. Don't cut slack for people cruising on past glories. People can hold terrible ideas with the best of intentions, and people who do great things can go on to make terrible choices later (see, for instance, the atrocious choices of latter-day Charles Lindbergh). ■ Once one comes to realize that human nature itself changes very little over the centuries, one is liberated to see that each individual is a perpetual work in progress. Deep down, we today are very much like the people about whom we read in Shakespeare, the Bible, or even ancient Sumerian literature. We tend to seek pleasant things in life, fear death, and long for a sense of meaning and belonging. Our mistakes call for atonement and redemption. And no good deed any one of us performed in the past is a free pass forever.
May 17, 2021
They're really not thinking 100 years ahead
Most people have probably heard the trope that China's leaders have an inherent advantage over their Western rivals because they supposedly plan 100 years in advance. Former American diplomat Michael Pillsbury claims in a book called "The Hundred-Year Marathon" that China's government has been guided by such a plan since 1949. ■ If such a plan exists beyond rumors, we don't seem to know for certain. It isn't implausible, since there's nothing that necessarily stops any organization (from a government to a business to a church) from writing ultra-long-term plans. In fact, writing an ultra-long-term business plan may well be a very good way to obtain very good results in the medium term, especially if competitors are only thinking about quarterly results. Warren Buffett has long touted that his "favorite holding period is forever", and that's served his corporate fortunes extraordinarily well. ■ Using the long term for strategic advantage was also the express philosophy espoused by Abram Pritzker. He may not be a household name, but he established one of the most spectacular family fortunes of the 20th Century with the mindset that "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." He kept his family interests almost entirely private, and they grew astronomically -- to a fortune worth some $15 billion after just a few decades. But what he wasn't able to stop was a massive family feud that ultimately divided that fortune. ■ So, there is most certainly an advantage to be gained from thinking about the long term, and it's likely that any good plan of that type would also be enhanced by keeping it quiet. Thus it's entirely possible China's government has such a plan. ■ But if they do, it's either being ignored or it isn't being revised in light of new facts. Nothing undermines the trope that "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" like the way they're dismantling Hong Kong. It's short-sighted and insane. Pro-democracy media outlets are being frozen. Candidates for office are being subjected to "patriotism" background checks. Trade unions are being silenced. The regime in Beijing is nakedly grabbing power and, as the world has seen, squelching protest. ■ It's easy to understand why the Communist Party doesn't want to tolerate the freedoms cherished in Hong Kong. It's much harder to understand why they have calculated that they're better off with a neutered Hong Kong than with a vibrant one. ■ If you could simply wave a wand and clone Hong Kong in its entirety, there isn't a sane government on the planet that wouldn't say "We'll take one of those, please". It's a place with nearly $50,000 in annual GDP per capita -- the world's 45th-largest economy (just ahead of Ireland, Peru, and Israel), sitting on just 427 square miles of land and water -- smaller than the city of San Antonio, Texas. It is a (rightly) self-proclaimed international financial center and the world's 7th busiest port city. That's a lot of success for a place with only 7.5 million people. ■ And yet: What China's government is doing to Hong Kong right now is completely and inexcusably nuts -- and obviously wrong. But even if we can't count on their sense of justice, it's downright daffy that they aren't acting in their own self-interest. The UK is trying to welcome hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong, and why wouldn't they? Beyond their historical and legal ties to the city, the British at least recognize that the people leaving are a proven resource, not a deadweight. ■ Maybe China has a 100-year plan sitting somewhere gathering dust on a shelf in Zhongnanhai. But plans are only worth the paper on which they are printed, unless they can be turned into action. And any plan that would lead you to knowingly destroy a gem like Hong Kong isn't even worth the paper itself. It's not a 100-year plan: It's a plan for self-destruction.
Amateur oncologists should keep their speculation to themselves
Dr. Mark Lewis, a Utah-based oncologist, laments: "Please stop telling my patients they wouldn't have gotten cancer if they'd eaten more vegetables." ■ While most amateur oncologists don't actually mean ill, they reveal a hopeless ignorance of the fact that a normal cancer patient has already been through a psychological ultramarathon of existential angst, self-doubt, and second-guessing about how it happened to them -- long before sharing the news outside of their closest friends and family. ■ That traumatizing psychological aspect of the cancer experience is surely as significant to many people as the physical one: Very few things can compare with cancer for giving a person a one-way ticket straight to deep and sobering questions about the meaning of life and death. ■ Even if the cancer itself comes with favorable statistics -- low mortality, highly successful treatment standards, low rates of recurrence -- that doesn't mean anyone should call it a "good" cancer to get (yes, that happens). Cancer happens to individuals, not to statistics. Real support means caring for the one. And that one may look at a cancer with a 95% five-year survival rate and still be plagued by fears that they'll be the 1 in 20 who will die. ■ Here's a rare bright spot from the Covid-19 pandemic: It may be possible to take the same mRNA technology that delivered incredibly effective vaccines in astonishing time and use it to personalize vaccines to stop tumors from spreading in the blood. This immuno-oncology could be life-saving, and anything that gives people with cancer a better shot at survival ought to be a target for whatever support we can reasonably give it. ■ That support matters because, in the end, people end up with cancer from all kinds of sources -- lifestyle behaviors, environmental exposure, and genetics each can be causes on their own or in combination. If it were as simple as "you should have eaten more vegetables", oncogenesis wouldn't be much of a field. ■ As Dr. Lewis has previously noted, "Virtue doesn't necessarily guarantee health". (A message that surely resonates at St. Jude.) Taking that seriously means putting aside our amateur speculations, caring for the individuals who have cancer, and putting our support behind efforts to prevent, treat, and cure all cancers -- no matter where they came from.
Seems like "50 Cent Shows Up at an Omaha Hy-Vee Store to Sell Cognac" should have been much bigger news.
May 18, 2021
You should probably plan on some inflation
American manufacturers tend to take lots of inputs and turn them into high-value goods, and they're going to have rough waters to navigate for a while to come. Supply chains are backed up and demand is accelerating for a lot of stuff.
Iowa's fields are getting planted well ahead of time
USDA: "Eighty-three percent of the [Iowa] soybean crop has been planted, 18 days ahead of the five-year average"
48 people -- 48! -- were shot in Chicago over the weekend. One victim is just 2 years old.
Peter Hamby: "Albert Pujols is either 25 or 78 years old". However old he really is, people have doubts.
Morons take mortar to Nimrod Bar
The bomb squad had to be called after some treasure hunters discovered a mortar and brought it to the local bar in Nimrod, Minnesota. Instead of, you know, calling the police when they first uncovered it.
May 19, 2021
We're at the pick-your-brand phase of vaccinations
A year ago right now, the world was effectively at a standstill because of a dreadful disease -- one which now you can prevent with extraordinary efficacy by showing up at a walk-in clinic in a hotel lobby in an Iowa college town, where you will be offered your choice of vaccine brands. That's just a gobsmacking turn of events.
Twin tornadoes south of the Twin Cities
In Owatonna, to be precise
Anyone have a discount code for Scythes 'R' Us?
Iowa has been getting almost non-stop rainfall for several days, with more to come. It certainly hasn't remained dry enough for anyone to get around to mowing (at least, not safely).
May 20, 2021
Farewell (or good riddance) to MSIE
Microsoft has made it official: As of June 2022, Internet Explorer is history. While there's very little reason to weep for the soon-to-be-departed browser itself, its sunset does bring to mind what things were like at its dawn. ■ When Microsoft first introduced Internet Explorer (MSIE) in 1995, we were a long way from the contemporary Internet as we know it. 54% of American adults used computers at the time. Not the Internet, not certain devices, not a particular social-media platform: Used computers at all. By comparison, in 2021, 69% of American adults use Facebook, and 81% use YouTube. The percentage who used any online platform in 1995 barely cracked double digits. And, in the words of a 1995 Pew survey, "Only one in five of all online users (3% of Americans) have ever signed onto the Web." It's hard to communicate just how much of a difference just one quarter-century has made. ■ At the time, it was widely heralded as the Information Age. It was more like a little bit of information age. But the prospect, at least, seemed grand. ■ Not long after MSIE came along, it became the subject of a bitter antitrust battle. Indeed, it almost seems quaint now that so much effort went into a battle over browser usage, but it was a massive fight at the time. ■ The battles today are not fought over browser usage, but over issues like user time, attention, and personal data. It's no longer Bill Gates in the hot seat, it's Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. But in the quarter-century of MSIE's existence, something else has happened: We've landed in a confused economic state. Nobody really knows what to call it -- a problem explored at some depth in Ben Sasse's book, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal". His lament is that our inability to name the thing has the same effect as Frankenstein's monster, frightening in its haziness -- in Sasse's words, "A powerful entity with no name is unnerving." ■ What we should call it is the "Teach-Yourself Economy". It's not the arrival of abundant information, per se, that dramatically changes the economy. This may be an "information age", but information alone isn't doing the work. Instead, what makes this era particularly disruptive is that there is a lot to learn, a deficit in our systems and frameworks for teaching it, and a significant amount of turnover in who's doing the work. As a result, there's far more autodidactism in far more places than there ever was before. ■ Periodically, American policymakers have made big moves to help people teach themselves. The most prominent example was the rise of the land-grant university and its offshoot, ag extension. But that model far predates the Internet. Furthermore, it's hard to communicate just how much workplace knowledge and experience is going out the door as the Baby Boom generation retires en masse. The oldest members of Generation X are now in their mid-fifties, which means they are filling senior management and leadership positions -- but the numbers are inescapable: There aren't nearly as many Gen-Xers as Boomers, so even if institutional knowledge was being formally handed down, there are far more prospective teachers than pupils. ■ Thus, of all the skills that might be valuable in the modern world, one that may have the highest payoff is the ability to teach yourself. It might be easy to learn how to do basic activities from a YouTube or TikTok video (and, indeed, satisfying the emerging curiosity gaps is a business model for some) -- but anything teachable in a "I was today years old" tweet or an "adulting" video isn't something the market is eager to compensate highly. The really valuable things that need to be learned are complex and often intersect multiple fields at once. ■ And, paradoxically, the way in which the Internet has developed means that very little of what happened (or even what was written or recorded) prior to about the year 2000 is simply not to be found online -- even if it contains hugely valuable knowledge. Despite the best efforts of the good people of the Internet Archive, there are massive troves of proven, detailed, and authoritative information that are orphaned because they appeared in print instead of pixels. ■ We're fortunate that standards overcame the early browser wars and delivered us from a world in which websites were only functional on Mozilla or MSIE (you can thank the W3C for that). But as we prepare to send Internet Explorer off into that good night, it's worth grappling with the reality that the Teach-Yourself Economy is here to stay. The future belongs not to the country with the cleverest app developers (for their skills come and go), but to the society that learns and adapts quickest without forgetting what its people once knew. We've had enough time being enamored with the technology itself; it's well past time to return it to its proper place as a tool.
Given the option, it's best to get a double-major in college, preferably from two very different fields. The really interesting stuff happens in the overlaps -- like where lawyers have to figure out statistics or meteorologists have to understand sociology.
We need a Madisonian Federalist party
It's a rare political breed, but that shouldn't stop us
Most of CONUS under threat of thunderstorms
It's unusual to see that much of the country under one contiguous hazard area
Alas, em/en dashes don't copy and paste well into HTML, so those who write for digital publication of any sort are often hamstrung by the incompatibility if they're also trying to remain W3C-standards-compliant.
Number of US Covid-19 cases drops to lowest in nearly a year
An extraordinary testament to the vaccines.
Shaky Chinese skyscraper creates understandable panic
AFP: "Building collapses are not rare in China, where lax construction standards and breakneck urbanisation over recent decades has led to buildings being thrown up in haste." ■ Related: Mario Salvadori's "Why Buildings Stand Up" is a delightful book.
May 21, 2021
Thanks to the explosive growth in streaming platforms and related options, we went with lightning speed from a world dominated by double-digit choices in cable channels straight to the a video multiverse. We started at "57 channels and nothing's on", blew right past the promised step of 500 channels, and landed in more options than can be accurately counted. ■ Many of these options are worthless or even harmful. One does have the choice to watch an idiot TikTok creator try to remove her own mole, but that isn't going to edify anyone. And the shock-jock appeal of bite-sized content on Snapchat isn't any more enriching. ■ Despite all the unscripted and semi-scripted visual sludge, a sincere and reasonable case can be made that we live in the golden age of television writing. Today's "average" show is often more densely written and more intensely engaging than all but the very best programs of yesteryear. The pace of a "Seinfeld" rerun -- groundbreaking in its own time -- is positively lackadaisical compared with many contemporary programs. ■ Thanks for this is due to the writers. We fawn over the acting, but it's the writing that makes or breaks a piece of work. Screenwriters should have the same kind of celebrity as Hollywood stars. Yet they don't, and it's a mild mystery why. ■ Perhaps the second-screen phenomenon will help, as people are not only free but encouraged to do more than just watch passively. And the emergence of the writers' room Twitter feed opens whole new doors. All due respect still goes to the actors who can breathe life into the characters they are given, but when a show lets us down, we (deservedly) blame the writers. The good ones ought to be celebritized a bit, too.
Dermatologists are the ones to call for issues with your skin, not TikTok. Regrettably, someone missed that advice and tried a DIY treatment using a nail drill. Some people are about half a case of Busch Light away from pulling all their own teeth and replacing them with tiger fangs drilled from cubic zirconium and backlit with LEDs.
Keep looking for root causes, even when it hurts
Reporter Natalie Moore of Chicago public radio station WBEZ reveals in a detailed report that differences in the racial composition of Chicago neighborhoods appears to account for a shocking degree of difference in the value of otherwise comparable homes in Chicagoland. ■ The WBEZ reporting builds on academic research on the disparity, but also identifies individual case studies illustrating gaps that just don't make sense: Appraisals that appear to miss the rightful objective value by tens of thousands of dollars, and a gap of hundreds of thousands of dollars between comparable homes found in communities with different racial demographics. ■ Policies that nudge Americans toward thinking of (and treating) their homes as a household's biggest financial asset have a whole lot of pernicious side effects. One of those is to disproportionately depress the wealth of some people based on the color of their skin. It's not right. ■ There are obviously multiple root causes of this problem -- racism clearly being one of them. But we also can't deal honestly with the problem without acknowledging that we've built and preserved a whole lot of public policies that enshrine homeownership as a financial investment and that protect entrenched interests. ■ We treat new housing starts as a key financial metric (in no small part because construction represents more than 4% of the economy). With lots of cheerleaders (and policies like mortgage-interest deductibility), it's no surprise that Americans build bigger homes than most of the rest of the world. ■ Those incentives, though, do some real practical harm to other interests. The mortgage-interest deduction favors families with high incomes and expensive homes. Treating homes as investments to be preserved rather than "machines for living in" (in the words of Le Corbusier) leads to NIMBYism and contributes to obstacles to the supply of middle-density housing (also known as the "missing middle" problem). ■ And there is the undeniable aspect that anyone who owns an asset benefits from the scarcity of that asset (merely as a function of supply and demand), so the roughly 65% of households have an inherent and perverse incentive to oppose the construction of new housing (even if that housing is smaller or cheaper than their own) -- which makes it difficult to forthrightly address homelessness with solutions like the construction of tiny homes. ■ Which loops us back to the problem of neighborhood disparities: Those who benefit from real-estate booms tend to be those who already have wealth. The rich simply do get richer. That widens the financial gap between the housing-wealthy and those who are not, and perversely sets those with meager household wealth and real-estate equity at even greater odds with what might otherwise be desirable policies for expanding housing overall, if those policies enlarge the supply of housing that would compete in the market with the housing other people already own -- and consider their biggest assets. (Households in the bottom half of the US income distribution have a median net housing equity of $89,000 -- versus $346,000 for the top 10%.) ■ Easy solutions are elusive, since these are complex problems with lots of contributing factors. But with median home prices breaking new records, there is no time like the present to examine the root causes of housing inequities and to consider what useful policies might contribute to disentangling the universal need to get people into housing from the good that comes from helping people to increase their household wealth.
Simone Biles does the seemingly impossible
Her gymnastics displays are as impressive as any touchdown pass you'll ever see. Truly an incredible athlete.
President Biden's yellow eyes?
Anti-Biden propaganda emanating from China shows the President with glowing yellow eyes. Now you know why he wears those aviator sunglasses all the time.
The very best kind of criticism is specific, clear, and supported, without any name-calling or cheap shots at the authors.
May 24, 2021
In a sign that the news may be slowly returning to normal, another UFO craze seems to have landed in the media -- particularly in light of hints that a Pentagon report to Congress is about to reveal evidence not previously revealed in public. After the last year, "UFOs could be real" seems almost refreshing as a headline. ■ It seems virtually certain that there is alien life out there in the universe. We know of at least 4,000 exoplanets and the number grows all the time. Surely we're barely in the infancy of being able to count. If there truly are 1024 stars in the Universe, then even if only one in a million had a planet, then there would be 1018 planets. That's an unfathomably large number all on its own, and it's surely a wild underestimate. The odds alone make it virtually certain that life has emerged at least one other time somewhere out there. ■ But -- even if the likelihood is great that other planets exist and that at least some of them contain life, it seems far less likely that any such life would expend the tremendous resources necessary just to come here and check us out. Traveling from even some of the nearest stars would require considerable resources in terms of energy and time. ■ We measure space distances in light years, and so far, we are profoundly behind the curve in figuring out how to make solid objects go nearly as fast as the speed of light. If any life from elsewhere has made it here, it either tapped into rules we're profoundly incapable of understanding -- or it buckled in for a long, long trip. In human terms, we're looking at measuring those distances in generations. ■ Sure, we're confined by our own thinking about how quickly time passes or how long a life might be, but the distances required to hop to any known planets outside our solar system would still seem long to life forms that had life expectancies ten times ours. And certain non-biological limitations -- like our inability to find anything that travels faster than the speed of light -- suggests that it would take an extraordinary confluence of circumstances to warrant sending any living beings here. ■ Even if an alien experienced an Earth year the same way we experienced an Earth minute (like speeding up our sense of time by a factor of 525,600), then sending a message on a round trip to even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, would still feel like an 8-minute lag between call and response. Not to project human values on hypothetical alien beings, but that would seem prohibitively isolating -- again, unless we're missing something quite extreme in either the laws of physics or the relative experience of time. ■ We shouldn't dismiss the possibility that intelligent alien life could send unpiloted vehicles across time and space to conduct investigations and report back. We fired off Voyager to go as far as possible and send back reports, too. But do consider that as Voyager 1 and 2 have gone interstellar, a bunch of their instruments have been shut down just to save power. Things could be entirely different in an alien technological world, but they would need to have cracked some pretty incredible limits to have the technology to go long distances, remain in contact with home, move around freely while checking out Earth, and then presumably move along to visit somewhere else or return home. ■ It's neat to imagine that we might be important enough to merit a visit from outer space. And it's statistically logical to conclude that there's probably something out there. But whatever unknown phenomena we encounter in our skies, we should likely hold back from assuming it's alien life coming for a visit.
An Irish-owned plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus over a fake bomb threat, just so that a private citizen could be arrested. Is this not terrorism? ■ This much should be clear: Starting a fight aboard an airplane with the express intent of forcing an emergency landing would be grounds for arrest and prosecution virtually anywhere. Using fighter jets to force that landing has the clear hallmarks of an act of state aggression. And the target of the incident was an individual whose capture was motivated by politics. ■ Terrorism, by definition, is the use of violent or dangerous acts to achieve political ends. If this event in Belarus doesn't fit the definition, it's hard to understand why. And in this case, it doesn't take much imagination to say it was committed against not only a Belarussian citizen, but that two NATO member states (Greece and Lithuania) and one neutral but NATO-affiliated state (Ireland). So in State Department terms, the United States ought to be interested, alarmed, and prepared to respond. ■ But getting the American public to care may be an uphill climb. Clear violations of international law aren't always easy topics to pitch, and we're pretty good at giving up interest when the cognitive load of a story seems too large. This case is a matter that appears to require some understanding of civil aviation law, international airspace classifications, and the intricacies of domestic politics in a country where the language is written in Cyrillic and a dictator has been in power since 1994. Not fertile ground for sparking interest or close attention. ■ And yet, it is a flashpoint like this that can easily set the direction of the international order for a decade or more to come. Are we to become a more open world or a more closed one? If a person isn't safe going from country "A" to country "B" without being hijacked and kidnapped by the government of country "C", it's most assuredly trending more closed -- unless we do something about it. ■ Maybe, as an American, you should care because you want to take the forbidden step of criticizing China's government in a tweet saying that you stand with Hong Kong or the Uighurs. Think they're not tracking outsiders' behavior? Don't forget that China has hacked the personal data of virtually every American adult. Don't think they're not trying to use databases of personal information to influence or pressure outsiders -- it is 100% clear they already are. Governments around the world take their cues from what others get away with doing. ■ Maybe, as an American, you want to be able to travel freely without fearing your own kidnapping. You may not be a dissident and you may not even be thinking of traveling abroad anytime soon. But the rules enforced now -- or left unenforced -- have long-lasting consequences. We still remember the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which resulted in the murder of an American tourist. Whose passports have protective value -- if any do at all in a world where governments become the hijackers? ■ Or maybe, as an American, you find reason to care because you remember that we are just 4% of the global population. A tiny fraction. A powerful one, for sure, but not vast in number among the total of our co-Earthlings. And if we're going to share it peacefully, we have to do it with the help of rules. In the words of John McCain and his writing partner Mark Salter, "We need friends in the world, and they need us. The bell tolls for us, my friends. Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that." ■ Perhaps if this were spun as a television drama, it would raise the right amount of alarm: 170 people held hostage on a plane and forced to go to a place where almost none even spoke the language. But we need to care about these issues even when they're only in the abstract. The bully only sees his success and imagines the next step he can take...until the schoolyard defies him.
(Video) A portable radar system captures a tornado from just four miles away. Compelling research, indeed.
Young Iowa artists get a virtual exhibit
Nice to get to see the work of some talented students from the comfort of home.
May 25, 2021
One of the big trends in American transportation engineering for the last several years has been the push to replace four-way stops and signalized intersections with roundabouts. With a roundabout, the driver accepts a certain predictable slowdown in speed in exchange for knowing they won't have to wait for seemingly interminable lengths at a stop. Everyone gets a turn, often without having to stop at all. ■ The United States is a peculiar place for transportation -- compared with many of the European countries we consider our peers, we're positively empty. Germany has 6.6 times as many people per square mile as the US. The UK has 7.6 times as many. And that's not an effect attributable solely to Alaska. Giant swathes of the United States have fewer than 20 people per square mile. Our major cities are few and far between. ■ We have a spectacular Interstate highway system to connect us, but road trips still take a long time. Since we don't have high-speed passenger rail outside of the Acela Corridor, Americans trying to cover long distances quickly turn to air travel. ■ But one of the big headaches afflicting both of our predominant methods of travel is weather. Winter storms shut down our Interstate thoroughfares at least a few times most years. And weather is the cause of generally around 40% of all delay-minutes in air travel each year. Yet passenger planes still fly at hundreds of miles an hour, when they're in the air. Would high-speed rail be immune to those problems? Could slowing down (versus air travel) lead, on average, to speeding up? ■ One widely-cited 2019 study conducted by Ohio State University researchers using data from transportation routes in China concluded that "In general, HSR [high-speed rail] is less vulnerable than aviation to most severe weather events." In Japan, noted for its exceptional high-speed service, "Weather impacts are essentially 'engineered out' of many railway networks". ■ The British rail service Network Rail points to wind-blown debris as their most significant weather impact, but notes that it generally takes "extreme" weather to really have a major impact on service. And in Sweden, quite a lot of effort has gone into maintaining high-speed rail service in long, harsh winters. Overall, European authorities appear to be counting on trains to be more resistant to both severe weather and climate changes than aviation. ■ Domestically, the Acela is sometimes slowed or scaled back due to winter weather. Ice storms in particular may be problematic for rail service, but in general, weather is not a main problem Amtrak faces. Heat, wind, and flooding appear to be the biggest weather factors causing trouble for existing US railroads. But, given the reliability of rail networks elsewhere, that may reflect a consequence of American behavior rather than inherent risk, suggesting that engineering and investment may make weather a much more "solvable" issue should we someday choose to go the bullet-train route. ■ If nothing else, high-speed rail elsewhere appears to put competitive pressure on airlines to improve their on-time performance -- at least for travel across short- and mid-range distances. And at speeds of 120 mph or greater, those trains would have a substantial inherent advantage over individual vehicles traveling at freeway speeds -- and if they can be more reliable during severe and winter weather conditions, they should have even more of a leg up. ■ The economics of rail and the wide distribution of American population centers pose substantial obstacles to the most optimistic visions of developing a national high-speed rail network. But if the proponents really want to make their case stick, they may well want to steer clear of romantic visions of rail travel and dial down the talk about its environmental benefits (even if passenger rail really is more efficient than other modes) and instead focus on service reliability. That's a message that might really stick the next time a blizzard in Chicago, a storm in Houston, or a computer glitch affecting Atlanta and Miami sends ripples through the country's air network or even brings it to a standstill. Going slower than an airplane -- but without the slowdowns -- could be a way of speeding up.
Belarussian hijacking victim has probably been tortured
And that may have coerced a forced "confession" out of him. Remember John McCain's words: "The moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history of our efforts to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation."
"No former U.S. president has ever been charged with a crime."
But there's a grand jury looking at what the Trump Organization has been up to
"Hip implants literally look like something Fisher Price dreamed up"
Ashley Holub's clever observation brings up a good point: A lot of Fisher Price toys make it through multiple generations of childhood play, so perhaps the resemblance is a good thing
Five AM radio stations give up their licenses
Easy money propped up radio station valuations for a long time, but take a look at this development. It's not necessarily a trend...yet.
Insurance company reveals how it will use super-snooping to set rates
China's "social credit" system could not be reached for comment.
May 26, 2021
Soldier featured in recruitment video gets more public applause
Sen. Ted Cruz invoked the word "emasculated" to compare an American soldier (a woman) with Russian soldiers (men). It's incredibly childish, particularly since the American soldier is actively serving her country. The roid-rage, faux-masculine routine is an idiotic ruse to fall for. A 21st Century defense policy has to look for intelligence, grit, and originality without making lazy assumptions about the physical package that will contain them. ■ James Mattis once said, "How can we coach anything if we don't know a lot more than just the tactics, techniques, and procedures?" When people like Sen. Cruz talk about the military as if it is reducible to how much weight a person can lift rather than how well they can learn to execute complex tasks, they denigrate the professionalized armed forces upon which we depend. ■ Trench warfare went out with WWI. The need for sophisticated fighting forces was obvious certainly no later than WWII, of which Dwight Eisenhower wrote, "Thorough technical, psychological, and physical training is one protection and one weapon that every nation can give to its soldiers before committing them to battle, but since war always comes to a democracy as an unexpected emergency, this training must be largely accomplished in peace." Note the order of Eisenhower's words: Technical and psychological training were listed first, and it's unlikely that was a mere accident. ■ It's odd to cling so tightly to this false equivalence among masculinity, physical strength, and perceived military dominance (especially so for a United States Senator amplifying Russian propaganda). There certainly are people who are made uncomfortable by celebrities like Demi Lovato and Elliot Page, who have publicly defied conventional gender orientations this year. Some of those people may even be elected officials. Their discomfort may even be authentic. But that discomfort -- however personal or sincere -- doesn't have a place in public policy. ■ And that is where the performative, faux-masculine displays get into trouble. There's a whole lot of play-acting going on among people who owe it to their fellow Americans to behave better. Patriotic men and women alike owe everyone else their best judgment, their temperance, and their willingness to engage complexity with humility. Jack Bauer slapping a terrorist is fiction: The real-life CIA needs female leaders and male ones not for their physiques but for their brains. Osama bin Laden was hunted down by a female-dominated team of analysts. ■ Our adversaries can have all the nonsense displays of muscle-bound aggression fan service they want. If it gives them a false sense of security, then so much the better. Last year's hand-to-hand combat in the Himalayas was extraordinary expressly because it was so out of place. The martial advantage of today and tomorrow comes from putting brains to work using tools. Little or nothing about that combination depends upon gender: We should be thinking of how we could double our supply of great leaders by looking not just for the next George Washington, George C. Marshall, or George S. Patton -- but for Georgia Washington, Georgia C. Marshall, and Georgia S. Patton, too. ■ Let us praise people for the qualities they bring to their work and the character they demonstrate on and off the job. Let us demand that our policymakers steer clear of pointlessly adhering to notions of security that were already outdated 80 years ago. And particularly as we observe Memorial Day, let us have sufficient regard for our armed forces that we not only expect them to demonstrate professionalism but that we treat them with professional regard in return -- seeing that it's not the hairstyles that matter to our national safety but the minds underneath.
Can democracy be saved in Hong Kong?
A depressing take -- more so because it's hard to think of a counterargument: "I think that at this point, the political system in Hong Kong is beyond, really, any sense of representativeness, beyond any sense of redemption. Democrats participating in this system would indeed be, essentially, window dressing"
The cottonwood trees are getting a little frisky
Ugly tornado outbreak in western Nebraska
Six unique but interlocked tornado warning polygons in the southwest corner of the state
May 27, 2021
What hath artificial intelligence wrought?
Decide for yourself whether this is a mere idle thought: There exists a really fascinating platform called Aiva that generates original music using artificial intelligence. It is targeted at those who need to compose large quantities of soundtrack music -- especially for video productions. Some of what it produces now is surprisingly appealing to the ear. With some human nudges, the user can make some of its compositions very good indeed. Because it's based on AI, it gets better with time. ■ We are likely not that far from a time when the Aiva AI won't need many human nudges to come up with some compositions that are really outstanding. Other programmers working in other labs are undoubtedly coming up with similar technologies, too. ■ This is more than merely putting a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters for a thousand years and expecting them to compose Shakespeare. Artificial intelligence, by definition, is supposed to learn how to work better and better. ■ Here's where it gets weird: Given enough time and training input, it's not impossible to imagine that someday an AI could produce the Singular Best Piece of Music Ever Composed. Seems like a stretch now, but it's no longer an impossibility. ■ Obviously, calling a piece of music the "singular best" is a subjective label -- but by the same token, it wouldn't be hard to find fairly broad agreement among experts that some music is objectively better than other music -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is objectively better than the Kars 4 Kids jingle, and anyone who says otherwise is a dolt. So for the sake of argument, let's suspend our disbelief just a little and suppose that a specific individual piece could in fact be named the best. If it helps, pretend that it's merely the best in a particular genre. ■ Suppose, then, that an individual user of Aiva (or a comparable AI tool) clicks "compose" and the AI creates the song, but then the user never actually listens to it, never downloads it, and simply clicks "delete". This means it is possible that someone could entirely unintentionally and unwittingly destroy the Best Song Ever Composed. ■ Certainly, great works are created and lost all the time. There are tremendous stories of professional musicians going to great lengths to try to capture a fleeting moment in song -- Prince built an extensive recording studio to capture those moments of inspiration. "Gimme Shelter" was recorded in the middle of the night. Paul McCartney heard "Yesterday" in a dream. ■ Now, if you were to imagine the Best Song Ever in a dream, then you may not be able to record it anywhere or share it with anyone. But at least you would have dreamt it and experienced it, if only subconsciously. But if an AI composes the song but a human deletes it without ever listening, then it was never heard at all -- an existence even more ethereal than a dream, since it in fact existed in the known, conscious world, but was never experienced. ■ It is hard not to find it peculiar that, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is now technologically possible to create and then accidentally destroy a phenomenal piece of art without ever knowing that it existed. This isn't just a question of "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it" -- it's a matter of something potentially perfect being created and then never being replicated (because, ultimately, each and every AI-generated song ought to be in some way unique). ■ This bizarre ability to potentially destroy something amazing without ever knowing it existed (beyond, perhaps, reading a file name) seems almost worse than the problem of works created and recorded in the analog world that may not ever make the leap into the digital domain. At least there are conscientious people working at projects like the Internet Archive who are trying to rescue analog materials and digitize them so that they aren't accidentally lost. ■ Historians look to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria as one of humanity's great unforced errors -- a colossal waste that almost certainly did some measurable damage to the progress of human knowledge. How strange it is, indeed, that anyone with access to our increasingly powerful tools of artificial intelligence may entirely without intention and without malice destroy great works with no more thought than a keystroke.
Where the cloud meets bricks and mortar
On the east side of the Des Moines metro, Facebook is going to build its 9th and 10th buildings at a vast data center. Your files have to be stored somewhere, you know.
The ethics of dropping out of a vaccine trial
An interesting perspective on being a trial participant for an unproven vaccine after proven vaccines become available: "What if you stay in the placebo group and you get infected and you infect somebody else and that person dies?" Let us be perfectly clear: These kinds of conflicts are exactly why people with a strong orientation towards the practical and scientific schools of thought need to be trained in the "soft" sciences of the humanities, and why people who study the humanities need to be science-literate. We have to be able to communicate across conventional boundaries if we are to have any hope of addressing complex issues.
May 28, 2021
You don't have to live in an apartment to favor building more multifamily housing
A person's individual preferences may well evolve with time and market conditions. Sometimes apartments and other medium-density options are either uncompetitively priced or in such a shortage as to be unavailable to the potential tenant or buyer. There's nothing wrong with someone recognizing that fact -- even if they're homeowners in a single-family dwelling -- and advocating for more of those options to exist.
When the only seasoning you need is salmonella
It's obvious that some videos -- like one depicting the making of a dish involving frozen macaroni, ground beef, and biscuit dough -- are posted mainly for the shock effect, but at some point, you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask: Are gullible people going to get food poisoning because of my clickbait?
Delay the belay for today, okay?
President Biden visits a climbing center
Man's video-recorded attacks on 2-year-old child merit unforgiving punishment
In principle, the death penalty is too extreme a punishment for any crime. But if a man hangs a child, causing the child to lose consciousness, and records the act on video, it's hard to summon a reason why that perpetrator should be permitted to live.
A power company wants to replace a retired nuclear plant with a solar farm, and many of the neighbors are...stridently against it, apparently.
Member of Congress treats 2nd Amendment as remedy for the 1st
"If a man does not have an ideal and try to live up to it, then he becomes a mean, base, and sordid creature, no matter how successful." - Theodore Roosevelt
May 29, 2021
Should locals resent it when kids graduate and leave?
Graduation season is surfacing a certain traditionalist viewpoint that seems to resent the idea of paying to educate children who will depart for greener pastures. Besides the peculiar supposition that there's a viable alternative (should people be tied to their family land forever?), the very idea that taxpayers should resent the cost of educating the community's children is itself contrary to the long tradition of expecting to see one's offspring live healthier and wealthier than their predecessors. ■ John Stuart Mill wrote that "[T]o bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society", and he was right. Having children may obviously be a response to our basic instincts as animals -- but it is also a deeply moral act. ■ Socially, we've chosen (wisely) to make the education of children compulsory. A child is born into a family, but that child is also part of a community -- one that has a duty to preserve good things for the future. Part of cleaning up after ourselves (one of the basic duties of American citizenship) is to prepare the best possible intellectual foundation for our successors, whether they're from our own blood or not. That means paying for things like schools. ■ It also means expecting those schools to perform well. We shouldn't mistake "public funding" for a good or service with the insistence that it also means "government delivery". We should have very high expectations of schools, and we shouldn't be afraid of either reform or competition, where appropriately regulated. But we should have those high expectations in the sole interest of the children, not of the local economy. ■ Who knows whether a graduate will stay behind, move away, or perhaps both (in either order)? The community doesn't pay for compulsory education for its own benefit; it pays for the benefit of the children. Enlightened local leadership often figures out that good schools can substantially enhance the community's economic standing -- either as a magnet for parents seeking good places to live, or as an endogenous driver of growth. ■ But basic primary and secondary education isn't first and foremost about the benefit of the present and near-future community. It's about the well-being of the children themselves. We clean up pollution not because we're going to breathe the polluted air or drink the contaminated water (at least not generally), but because we have a moral duty not to send those contaminants downwind and downstream to our neighbors. ■ Similarly, we don't educate children because we expect it to boost the local economy over the coming decade, but because having brought children into the world, we have a duty to "clean up after ourselves" by ensuring that those children become adults who can support themselves, experience the joys and mysteries of life, and behave like thoughtful citizens and voters, wherever they choose to reside. Like air and water, our offspring may end up in lots of places far from where we deposited them. ■ Americans move measurably less than we used to, but we still move around a lot -- to the tune of about 10% of us a year. We are intermixed quite a lot, and on that count alone we owe it to our fellow Americans not to "pollute" the population with mis-, mal-, or under-educated offspring. But even more than that, we have the duty to send people out into the world who are prepared to live full and meaningful lives -- even if they should move abroad. The appropriate financial return on investment for a community to expect from educating its children is zero. Paradoxically, though, the community that educates them well should not be surprised if that success itself pays off in accounting terms down the road. It just shouldn't be the basis for the investment.
Remains of more than 200 children found at Canadian school
Flat-out shocking. The site was a "residential school", where indigenous children were sent (from 1890 until 1969) to be separated from their families and detached from their culture.
Stunning Covid-19 vaccine performance in one chart
Iowa's number of daily positive tests is now averaging well below 200 per day, and the cumulative number of positive tests on a 14-day rolling basis has fallen below 2000. For a state with a population of 3.2 million people, the virus is being stopped cold in its tracks. There is no denying it: The vaccines are amazingly effective.
The rose is authentically a "knockout"
The color intensity of the Knock Out rose variety is quite stunning
May 31, 2021
Honoring Memorial Day by becoming smarter voters
Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day isn't one we "celebrate". Instead, it is proper that we honor it. And one of the ways it is most deserving of honor is for ordinary Americans to demonstrate that they don't just know how to say "Thank you for your service" or remove their caps for the national anthem, but to behave as responsible trustees of the world's most awesome military force. ■ One of the things the Defense Department does admirably is to place a focus (even if imperfect) on Professional Military Education (PME). Certainly some people pay it only lip service, but there are true believers out there who feel a deep responsiblity for the quality of the education their people receive. As James Mattis put it, "The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience) -- that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences -- generally a better way to do business -- especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men." ■ Fundamentally, a responsibility to learn about the armed forces rests with voters, too. Not in the same way or to the same depth as it belongs to, say, career officers. But there is a responsibility. The military answers ultimately to Congress, and Congress to the people. The people need to have a sense of how to commit military forces responsibly and thoughtfully so that we avoid those gravest "consequences of incompetence" that Mattis warns about. ■ There will be times when a small commitment of force today may stave off a great escalation of violence tomorrow. There will be other times when a cause is so hopeless that the potential casualties may be unlimited. Still other cases will be dominated not by the actual use of force but the mere credible threat of it. The choice to commit military force to a situation is ultimately a political one under our system of government, and it rests on the shoulders of responsible voters to know something -- anything -- about their armed forces beyond one-line political slogans about ending "endless wars" and jingoistic pop-country songs about kicking butts while waving the flag. ■ Fortunately, we have access to more high-quality Voter Military Education than ever before. We have access to the professional reading lists recommended by leadership in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps (the Space Force may still need some time to incubate its own list). ■ We have free access to websites publishing thoughtful and challenging materials on conflict, like The Strategy Bridge, Texas National Security Review, Defense One, Task and Purpose, and War on the Rocks. ■ There are think tanks and research centers devoted to national security, many of which share their work on a daily basis, including the Modern War Institute the American Enterprise Institute the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security -- to name only a few. ■ And there are podcasts galore (like "Thank You For Your Service" and "Rational Security") and an abundance of qualified national-security commentators on Twitter -- many of whom hold thoughtful conversations with one another, engaging in a necessarily robust debate. The daily ins and outs of military-related news are covered by the Military Times, Stars and Stripes, Defense News, and the Defense Department's own media organization. ■ The conscientious voter doesn't have to follow every source of defense and national-security-related news. But at least some of that news ought to be a component of a balanced media and information diet. The latest Defense Department budget proposal is $753 billion -- no mere drop in the bucket for a country with an annual GDP of $21 trillion. Knowing how and why those resources will be spent is a basic act of civic responsibility. ■ But even more significnatly -- and particularly so on Memorial Day -- good citizenship requires informed engagement because it is ultimately the duty of voters to send the signals that tell political representatives how and when to commit living, breathing servicemembers to a task. Doing that wisely is a solemn responsibility. To borrow again from James Mattis: "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." Just as commanding generals should take that duty seriously, so should anyone who casts a ballot. Voter Military Education should be an expectation of us all, not just those wearing stars on their shoulders.
Let's talk about those 1970s-era safety standards
As countries grow richer, the people can afford (and begin to demand) better environmental, health, and safety standards. The United States of the Carter Era was a poorer place than the United States today, which is why classic photos of now-obviously unsafe behavior is so jarring. Lawyers and insurance companies change these things quietly but forcefully. It's mainly the development of civil institutions that leads to standards taking hold. Institutional knowledge and memory are massively important to living in a safer world. Safety is defined by what the formal and informal rules tolerate. Decisions that were tolerated just a couple of generations ago look totally unreal today.
...probably will never know the joy of reading a computer program in print (or even written by hand) and then making it work by turning it into digital code
Is there a cooler job than astronaut?
And: Do you suppose there are diminishing marginal returns to additional turns in orbit?
June 1, 2021
When propaganda turns against its own country
Fox News host Tucker Carlson says "our military at times does not seem interested in protecting the country", declaring that "a big change" and a "real story". It's evident that Carlson's toxic schtick isn't about informing or edifying his viewers, but about attaching himself to a nationalist-populist movement for personal gain. For now, it's monetary -- but it may well turn political, since some of the things he says are inexplicable except as dog whistles. Carlson has attached himself to the former President's cult of personality in a noticeable way. The only good thing about unprincipled cults of personality is that they inevitably collapse in waves of purity tests and loyalty purges. Surely if gasbags within the cult are taking aim at the military itself, they can't be far from purging and counter-purging one another.
Everyone says they want an edit button for Twitter. A footnote button would be much more useful.
China flagrantly breaches Malaysian airspace with 16 military aircraft
Lee Kuan Yew was prescient when he said, "[China] will make a fateful decision -- whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence...or to continue as a good international citizen..." It just would have been nice if China's rulers would have picked "good international citizen" instead.
Some idiot bought an "invisible sculpture" for $18,300
"Hello, Jake from State Farm? Yes, I'd like to talk about my $500,000 homeowners policy. You're never going to believe what happened to my $499,995 collection of invisible sculptures..."
June 2, 2021
Changing course after hitting the iceberg
China's Communist Party -- which cannot be practically distinguished from its civil government -- has changed course on the country's notorious and odious One Child Per Family past and will now "allow" families to have as many as three children. The country had a one-child limit starting more than 40 years ago, then relaxed the rules to permit two children in 2016. ■ This abrupt course change is yet another data point that runs contrary (and massively so) to the "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" trope. Any demographic trend evident now surely was obvious five years ago. And any trend that was obvious five years ago undoubtedly could have been noticed fifteen years prior to that. From a perspective of mere government competence, the failure to project how badly this would play out should be profoundly embarrassing to the authorities. Assuming families immediately went out and conceived second children upon the change in 2016, it's going to be the middle of the next decade before those "extra" children start to have families of their own. ■ So, the demographic problem was easily foreseeable. But the idea that a government has any say whatsoever in the number of children people are "allowed" to have is so hard to fathom that it's difficult to sustain the kind of gobsmacked outrage that it truly deserves. The original appalling policy was in place for so long that it largely became background noise. ■ Yet, we should try to remain outraged. We're not talking about something beneficial (like a government insisting on compulsory education for children). We're not talking about something benign (like a government prohibiting parents from giving their children obscene names). We're talking about a policy backed by law, and enforced with government-mandated abortions and deprivation of second children's legal right to exist. ■ This isn't even to mention the obvious first-order consequence of China's government-imposed family limits: A wildly out-of-balance gender imbalance. The country's sex ratio has resulted in 34 million more men than women. Even in a country with a population of more than a billion, that's more than just rounding error: It's a population of "excess" males that outnumbers all the people in Texas. ■ But the fundamental problem here isn't even the awful consequences of the policy. It's the assumption that such a policy has any legitimacy in the first place. Having a child is a profoundly hopeful act. It is also one that belongs, in the most intimate way, to the individuals involved. Deeply embedded within the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is the right to create life itself. Nothing could demonstrate a more obvious disregard for the sanctity of the individual human life than a policy mercilessly enforcing limits on the number of individuals who are recognized with a "right" to exist. ■ It wasn't what Gerald Ford was talking about, but his words apply: "[A] government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." Ford was talking about material wants. In this case, the rulers of China have a government big enough to take away everything their people might want. On their behalf, and on behalf of the inherent rights of human beings everywhere, we should look with certain disgust upon the very assumption that government has any such power in the first place to tell people how many children they are allowed to have -- whether three, two, one, or any at all.
Any review is ultimately based upon tastes, and no two people have the same ones. A critic whose opinions the reader always finds wrong could be just as helpful as one whose opinions the reader always shares. As long as the critic is transparent about the "why" of the review, even bad critiques can be good.
The world needs more googly eyes
A little levity wouldn't hurt us
America's two most significant economic inputs
WiFi and caffeine
SEC says Tesla doesn't monitor Elon Musk's tweets adequately
New dream job: Get paid $200,000 a year to shadow Elon Musk and slap the phone right out of his hand every time he starts to compose a tweet. Nobody in modern business history has needed a trusted sidekick more than Elon Musk. He really does need someone who could literally and figuratively slap the phone right out of his hands -- a Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett.
June 3, 2021
Photos of Tiananmen Square from 1989
Photos #16 and #17 in this series are particularly haunting.
A much-less-active-than-normal spring severe weather season
One of those rare times when being in the red on a weather map is a really good thing.
Retired Army Lt. Col. gets mic cut as he describes history of Memorial Day
Barnard Kemter's microphone may have been cut in the moment at an Ohio Memorial Day ceremony, but his words are being amplified by the news coverage -- and that's a good thing. We can make our future better by choosing to study the full spectrum of our past.
Manuela Saragosa leaves BBC to do podcasts
Sign of the times: Highly-regarded BBC radio journalist leaving that august institution to become a podcast boss. She's not leaving for some fly-by-night operation -- it is the Financial Times, after all -- but talent like Saragosa doesn't move into a job with lower status. This reveals quite a lot about just how much the status of on-demand listening has risen: It now represents at least a lateral move (if not an upgrade) from working at the BBC World Service.
June 4, 2021
Traveling the length of Ashworth Road in West Des Moines, you'll pass a lot of churches. A whole lot. Open Bible, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Latter-Day Saints, Lutheran (Missouri Synod), United Methodist, Community of Christ, Baptist, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, and Lutheran (ELCA). All up and down a single street, about five and a half miles long. Not far away are a wide variety of other Christian and non-Christian places of worship, as well. ■ Despite all of the (sometimes significant) sectarian differences among them, the churches and the worshippers who belong to them relate quite peacefully with one another. The Catholic and ELCA churches have to work a bit to harmonize their service times on Christmas and Easter so as not to cause gridlock at their shared traffic light. The Episcopalian and Presbyterian congregations have a community garden they tend in common. Yet despite the well-worn history of religious disputes as the root of countless violent conflicts, nothing of the sort is on display along Ashworth Road. ■ That peaceful detente -- on matters involving people's most sacred beliefs -- is a real contrast with the way some people choose to engage with other Americans who disagree with them on things like politics. Imagine -- there are people who are willing to make death threats over mask mandates, brandish a rifle at a protest march, and participate in a violent riot in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol building, all while their fellow Iowans are content to peacefully live in mutual tolerance of different opinions on matters like the salvation of the soul. ■ Given the long history of religious violence in the world, it seems strange to look to people's faith lives as a model for how we ought to be de-escalating the intensity of our political feelings. Yet that's certainly one place we ought to look, particularly as many people are bundling their media consumption habits with their religious and political beliefs. ■ The central problem is that people are wrapping their identities around messages like "But he fights!" and "There should be no billionaires", instead of grounding their identities in the communities around us. Pugilistic slogans are no substitute for civic belonging. ■ Political tolerance ought to be easier to achieve than religious tolerance, and it should be easier to identify peacefully with one's neighbors than with artificial and nationalized voter archetypes. If we find that kind of neighborly peaceful tolerance hard to achieve, that's a real problem for our souls.
Worth re-watching every June 4th. A very well-produced documentary, even 15 years after its first airing. It's extremely hard to fathom what it takes for a single person to stand in front of a tank, daring its driver to take his life. ■ Also worth noting: What has become of the anniversary vigil in Hong Kong.
How the "Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup" happened
The SNL sketch that launched a cult following that even includes a Twitter account is one of the finest things to have come from the Fleetwood Mac oeuvre, and that's no knock on the performers behind "Little Lies".
Are America's European allies too weak?
In theory, at least, it should be good for the U.S. to have like-minded allies who are strong, while our more authoritarian rivals look for client and vassal states who are weak. Have to put that theory into practice, though.
Why did the progenitors of the WWW go with the language of Dungeons and Dragons instead of obscure Commonwealth military titles? Being a "site commodore" would have been much cooler than a "webmaster". Or, if in the nascent days of the web we were still too close to the Commodore 64 to have recycled that title, what about "Digital Fieldmarshal" instead?
June 5, 2021
The pandemic that should stir a revolution in ventilation
The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is in sight -- at least for some countries. But even if vaccines are getting the virus under control, we ought to be paying more attention to ventilation -- to help ward off the next pandemic, and to make us generally healthier. For instance: That drowsy feeling you often get from sitting in a lecture? It might be the unavoidable byproduct of carbon dioxide building up due to inadequate ventilation. ■ Related: We're letting a huge opportunity go to waste if the pandemic doesn't lead to better understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses.
Ancient wisdom, applicable to modern social media
Maimonides: "Man is created in such a way that his character traits and actions are influenced by his neighbors and friends, and he follows the custom of the people in his country. Therefore a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." In other words: Mute the bad people on Twitter and Facebook and follow all of the good ones you can find.
June 6, 2021
A man offers a digital eulogy for his mother, a 92-year-old cloistered nun who joine the Carmelite order at age 61. What a story. And yes, cloistered, contemplative orders really still are a thing.
June 7, 2021
Can we start talking about housing affordability yet?
It's hard to escape the news that housing prices have jumped by quite a lot, across many markets, in a very short period of time. Low interest rates, changing work patterns (especially the growing option to work from home), and other factors all play into what's going on. And it certainly doesn't help that lumber prices have risen 300% since last April. If new construction becomes more expensive, that adds fuel to the prices of existing homes. ■ Amid the momentary boom cycle, we ought to make ourselves think seriously about what housing is for. As Le Corbusier said, "A house is a machine for living in". While that was a statement of architectural principle, it has merit as a statement on finances and policymaking, too. ■ Housing is a universal need. Some would call it a human right, but that language isn't helpful -- human rights are the things you possess by virtue of birth, like your right to free expression, and they can only be taken away by the deliberate actions of others. Universal needs, by contrast, are things we have to pay for, using the world's finite resources. This may seem like a trivial difference in language, but it's rather significant. Unless scarcity is a part of our context for thinking about how we supply universal needs, we can't come to reasonable conclusions about how to deliver them. ■ The way we've responded to that scarcity in the United States reflects the demands of some strongly vested interests. The real-estate industry, for instance, benefits from lots of churn and rising prices. The construction sector broadly benefits from lots of site-built, single-family projects that keep lots of people at work. The financial sector benefits from people borrowing the largest amounts they can possibly afford and from taking out further loans for renovations and expansions over time. These vested interests tend to encourage a perspective that rewards American households for sinking as much money into housing as possible, which is broadly encouraged by our habit of referring to housing as a family's "biggest financial asset". ■ It isn't hard to find critics of more-permissive zoning regulations who equate enthusiasm for expanding the supply of housing with pimping for private developers. But just because it's easy to create a meme doesn't mean the logic behind it is sound. There's no inherent hypocrisy in choosing to live in a single-family home while cheering on the development of new housing at higher densities. ■ The root cause of the problem is that, in treating housing as a financial instrument, we create a whole lot of private incentives for people to oppose the creation of new, attractive supplies of housing stock at affordable prices. Manufactured and modular housing, for example, can be delivered at much lower costs per square foot than comparable site-built single-family housing. Backyard housing (in the form of auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) can be produced in 30 days -- where the laws will allow. Innovations from other countries (like Japan's mass-customized housing industry) could have much to teach us. ■ With prices rising and supplies unusually tight, there is no better time than now to look at the root causes and to ask whether our incentive structures and rules are set up in ways that have too many people committing too much of their hard-earned money to shelter (in the name of "investment") when there could be far better returns available from putting their money to work elsewhere -- whether in financial investments, educational opportunities, or even goods like vacations. Housing is a universal need -- and that means our minds should turn to how best to supply the maximum amount of it so that people can satisfy their needs while having resources left over to put elsewhere.
One part of government that should be expanded: Cyber Force
One of the reasons the United States needs a Cyber Force (and needed one before we needed a Space Force) is because we need a recognizable service academy for that part of defense. It's no different, really, from branching the Air Force away from the Army -- new technology has opened a new domain of warfare. With that new domain come new challenges, new areas needing devoted study, new legal requirements, and a new need to be taken seriously. ■ One way to lend credibility to a sector is to devote research and academic discipline to it. Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation establishing West Point in 1802; the Naval Academy didn't come to fruition until the mid-1800s. In between, James Madison asked Congress in 1810 for "the establishment of an additional [military] academy at the seat of Government or elsewhere", justifying his request thus: "Even among nations whose large standing armies and frequent wars afford every other opportunity of instruction[,] these establishments are found to be indispensable for the due attainment of the branches of military science which require a regular course of study and experiment." ■ The four legacy armed services each have a specific domain of fighting: Land (Army), sea (Navy), air (Air Force), and amphibious zones (Marines). A project to re-focus the Marine Corps on that amphibious mission has stirred some controversy, but they're ditching the tanks and spending more time in the water. The new Space Force narrows the focus of the Air Force to the airspace closer to the ground. Taken altogether, the defense posture of the Pentagon is taking an increasingly precise look at where each fighting force conducts its operations. ■ None of these places -- space, air, land, sea, or beaches -- fits neatly with the digital world. And yet cyberspace is exactly where an increasing amount of conflict is taking place. Some of the bad things that are happening are criminal (like the ransomware attack on the meatpacker JBS). Some of them are military-driven (like Russia's attack on Ukraine's power grid). Some affect highly sensitive areas that have clear-cut national security implications (like the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack). Still others are self-evidently motivated by the strategic interests of state-level adversaries (like China's repeated assaults on databases containing data on Federal employees). ■ It is exactly because the cyber domain is complicated -- not only from a technological standpoint, but from legal and strategic viewpoints as well -- that the United States really ought to have a distinct defense branch commissioned explicitly to protect the country's security interests in that realm. To borrow from Madison's words, we need to regularize both "study and experiment". If foreign governments were facilitating, say, bands of airborne pirates parachuting into the country to rob American companies at gunpoint, one might reasonably expect us to treat it like a national-security risk. What's happening is, functionally, little different. ■ It has long been noted that one of the issues that hamstrings our cyber defense is that it's really hard for the Pentagon to compete with the private sector for computing talent. A different kind of workforce approach is needed -- so different from the incumbent service branches that it has to stand on its own. ■ A stand-alone Cyber Force would encourage the cultivation of a more comprehensive way of looking at cyber defense -- complete with theories of conflict, rules of engagement, approaches to recruitment, skill development, and even a distinct "look and feel". And perhaps even more than in the other branches, the need for a respected, research-focused, state-of-the-art training academy would be a distinctive tool for a Cyber Force to advance the national defense. ■ Any sound analysis of the future would have to conclude that the high-technology domains are going to play a more significant role in the conflicts to come than they have in the past. And just as code-breaking was a profoundly powerful weapon in WWII, so will the technological advantages we can accrue in cyber warfare. We shouldn't be afraid to put a name and a mission statement on what we know is inevitably going to be needed next.
June 8, 2021
What journalist leaves a gig at the BBC?
Two recognizable names in the BBC's much-lauded journalistic universe have announced plans to move this summer to other media operations. People leave jobs from time to time, of course, but the BBC is one of those institutions so highly regarded that it's often considered a career destination. Just for example, business journalist Peter Day retired after 28 years presenting the same program. A sportscaster there put in 50 years behind the microphone. ■ What makes this summer's departures so interesting is not just that they are happening, but where the journalists' new destinations will be. Katty Kay is going to Ozy Media, a digital-first media company. And Manuela Saragosa is leaving the BBC World Service after 22 years to become a podcasting boss at the Financial Times. ■ Talented people like Kay and Saragosa don't just leave high-status positions for lower-status ones. And that reveals quite a lot about the apparent pecking order of media institutions these days: Quality digital-based media outlets are now at least a lateral move from the august and revered BBC. That's really saying something. ■ Nielsen says that a majority of American adults consume radio, television, and Internet-based content every week, with an average of more than 30 hours per week on live or recorded TV. But smartphone applications are good for another 20 hours per week, more than any other mode of content delivery. But wait: If further research is to be believed, people are listening to 16 hours of online audio each week, and there's no reason to think the numbers are going to decline. ■ Historically, most journalists were institutionalists at heart -- people who went to work for institutions with which they could be associated for the long term. At The Economist, that approach runs so deep that the stories don't come with individual bylines. But the economics of mass media have gotten so bad that it seems nobody is safe from the threat of ruthless layoffs -- hundreds of people fired at a time, with reporters desperate to recruit deep-pocketed saviors before their institutions get sold off to slash-and-burn owners. ■ That economic turn may well signal the death knell for institutionalism, at least as a career path. Some individuals may still hang on to long careers, though few will hang on for more than 40 years like Bob Schieffer did at CBS. But most will be forced -- whether they like it or not -- to focus not on building reverence for their institutions, but on name recognition for themselves. That does have consequences, whether we like it or not. Legendary columnists like Mike Royko were once the only ones encouraged to personalize their stories. That's almost impossible to expect now, when virtually everyone who appears on television is also supposed to have a social-media presence (to draw "engagement" -- and viewers) and newspaper reporters are expected to report even the tiniest "scooplet" to encourage clicking and sharing. ■ Indeed, this new dynamic could go well -- if that means individual journalists and commentators invest heavily in better writing, clearer reporting, and more insightful questioning, doing their best to become trustworthy institutions in and of themselves. Every journalist is effectively now a freelancer. But it could also go badly, if the public decides it's just too hard to know who to trust anymore and abandon their own judgment as news consumers for being persuaded to digest whatever is the most enticing red meat that comes their way. People love sharing stories about other people, but not every story reduces to an impassioned anecdote from a reporter's personal life history. ■ We can be hopeful that the departure of credible, well-seasoned journalists from brand-name institutions means that our media marketplace has room for even more high-quality reporting. But we should also realize that media literacy is perhaps now more important than ever.
Human lives in extremely large numbers
The Census Bureau says there are approximately 7,768,000,000 people alive in the world today. That's a lot of people -- far more than the human brain can easily conceptualize. (Apparently, our brains make an inconvenient jump from simple primate math to object-based math, making us think of "billions" much the same way we might think of "bananas". Alas.) ■ If you were to take a single day on Earth and add up the 7.7 billion individual days experienced by every one of us, you'd accumulate quite the diary. There was a rather ambitious film project that tried to do something like that, capturing a glimpse of the same day in every country on the planet. But even that film was compressed into just 104 minutes. ■ But supposing instead that you could take those 7.7 billion days and play them out in sequence, one at a time, one after another non-stop, how long would it take? The math seems obvious: 7.7 billion person-days, divided by 365.25 days per year, yields 21,081,451 years' worth of human experience taking place for every 24 hours on this pale blue dot. ■ How long is 21 million years? The dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but they're pretty hard to conceptualize outside of myth anyway. Looking closer to our own family tree, the closest science has documented is an early primate that might have walked upright 7 million years ago. ■ So what this means is that every 24 hours on Earth, human beings experience a cumulative passage of time that is three times longer than every day that has passed since the earliest possible hominids emerged. (Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestry until 13 million years ago. ■ The point to this conceptual math is deceptively simple: Anything we can do to improve material standards of living or the dignity of the common person on a mass scale, we should seek to do with a sense of urgency about the impact. A non-trivial number of the people who have ever lived are alive right now, so we shouldn't be shy about doing our best to make those lives better. ■ We should approach our decisions with appropriate modesty, of course -- we can be embarrassingly wrong if we're not careful. But there is much work to do in the world, and every little increment of progress -- if it reaches enough lives -- can have an impact that far outstrips (in human-days of life experience) the number of days humans have even walked the face of Earth. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, "The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others -- politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners -- making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf." Every day is worth 21 million years.
NIMBYs just can't help themselves
The City of West Des Moines has approved a plan to build a three-story mixed-use development in Valley Junction (the "old town" neighborhood and shopping district). Rather than welcoming the built-in customer base who will live on the top two floors of the building, a local merchant complains that "This is the worst thing the city has ever done to Valley Junction. We are a shopping and dining experience, and apartment buildings don't fit in with that at all." ■ Really, now? Someone wants to enhance the neighborhood by adding places for people to live (which can only serve to add a little vibrance to the area), and it's "the worst thing the city has ever done"? Nonsense. Valley Junction was devastated by the floods of 1993, and the government has spent huge sums of money to protect it in the future. Adding some valuable new real estate and a few residents to the area is perhaps the best thing the city could do.
Blunting the spread of Covid-19
The State of Washington approves a "joints for jabs" offer
(Video) Sometimes you get what you deserve
What should Iowa's health priorities be?
The Iowa Department of Public Health has a survey available for people to rank their priorities for the state's health efforts
The only acceptable camouflage on the high seas
Dazzle paint on ships is great. Blue camouflage on sailors...not so great.
June 9, 2021
One where your cell phone is built by Western Electric, runs on an IBM platform, and connects to a network operated by Northwestern Bell. AT&T made big promises, but lots of other firms delivered. ■ America's free-market economy accepts a challenging trade-off: We give up a whole lot of marketplace stability in exchange for a high degree of dynamism -- most of it productive. ■ The lack of stability renders itself all over the place: Products beloved by hard-core fans disappear (farewell forever, Tab Cola), one era's entertainment giant becomes the next era's pawn (as 27-year-old Amazon buys 97-year-old MGM), and the rise of a new industry decimates the prospects of another (whither the newspaper classified ad). ■ The consequences can be pretty harsh for customers, suppliers, shareholders, and most especially employees, if firms are unwilling or unable to adapt, change, or pivot as the market deems necessary. And sometimes the conditions they face are insurmountable: Some production innovations, new competitors, or substitute goods are too much for any industry to overcome. ■ But for all the comforts that stability can bring, it also tends to stifle innovation. If everyone is reasonably satisfied with their position, then the opponent is change itself. And that's why we can look back on the era of the telephone monopoly and wonder at just how much has changed since 1984 by comparison with what had changed between 1947 and the breakup of the Bell System (for the record: not nearly as much). ■ A lot of praise and attention gets lavished on people who call themselves "disruptors", but one of the things we really ought to encourage more in places like our business schools is the art of institutional evolution. Companies like Textron, which started as a small textile producer and is now a major aviation manufacturer, are the kinds of firms that deserve considerable attention from the people who run our institutions -- not just our for-profit businesses, but also our government agencies, non-profit organizations, co-ops, and family businesses, as well. ■ Dynamism doesn't have to hurt -- at least, not very much. But it's up to sound, forward-thinking leadership to make sure that the comfortable status quo doesn't take the place of continuous growth and development. A dynamic economy is the harder path, but it's clearly one with desirable payoffs, too.
June 14, 2021
The end of graduation season brings the beginning of "new job advice" season. Not everyone will be pulled aside at a graduation party to hear someone else whisper just one word in their ear (like "plastics"). A lot of that advice will instead circulate on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, where quality control leaves something to be desired. ■ One exhibit in the Bad Job Advice Hall of Fame was entered by a venture capitalist by the name of Jordan Kong: "Unpopular opinion: the best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends." ■ She's right: That advice is and deserves to be unpopular. Not because it challenges people to do something they don't want to do but should. It deserves to be unpopular because it's bad advice, and not just because it's a recipe for an unbalanced life and psychological burnout (though surely it is that). ■ "Work on weekends" suggests that quantity of time spent on the clock is more important than the quality of that time. That alone makes it unsound advice. Some people certainly might benefit from putting in many extra hours, if those are going to be quality hours of high-value, high-productivity work. But that isn't usually the case for someone just entering the workforce. ■ Despite the confidence with which many a recent graduate may enter the working world, the newly-minted graduate is rarely more than a malleable piece of clay, needing to be formed. The new worker is rarely like a new machine that can and should be operated at full speed fresh out of the crate. (And, even at that, most machinery needs a breaking-in period.) Instead, the new worker is a vessel that needs to be handled and filled thoughtfully in order to be of real use. As an alternative to "work on weekends", consider these four recommendations instead. ■ First: Attach yourself to a mentor who wants to pay it forward. This cannot be overstated. A good mentor -- someone who can act as a guide with the benefit of some advanced experience -- is the very best thing a young worker can find. There are many, many people who are willing to share their advice, their war stories, their habits, and most importantly their warnings with someone just starting out. The key is to find someone intent on doing so selflessly -- because they authentically and deeply believe that it's important to selflessly do something good for others. ■ There are false mentors out there -- people who just want to build an entourage, or who might share a nugget or two of advice without any real sustained interest in their proteges. But, though it may seem paradoxical, the relationships that begin with a mentor who gives most selflessly are the most likely to become mutualistic later on. Regrettably, there is no ideal field guide to finding a good mentor. One must look consciously, open-mindedly, and in good faith. (Fortunately, a lot of employers and industry organizations are learning to help facilitate these relationships. That's good for everyone.) ■ Second: Make your boss look good. There is a very good chance your boss will not be a suitable mentor. Your boss is, instead, the person whose success will tend to have the most immediate short-term effect on your own success. Look for ways to help the boss succeed in ways that make them look good to their own bosses and customers. Everyone has a boss of some sort -- even the self-employed, for whom the effective "boss" may be a key customer, a vital principal account, a community of voters, or a regulator. Making one's own boss look good (strictly within the bounds of ethical behavior) is one of the highest-return investments to make early in a career. ■ Third: Make yourself indispensable by being willing to learn everything. The new worker is lucky if he or she knows 10% of what they really need to know on the job. There's a reason doctors perform a residency -- schoolwork alone just isn't enough. Learn everything you can, especially by being willing to do the little jobs that crop up. A diploma is far less a certification about what you know than it is a signal that you know how to learn. Once you're on the job, you have to prove that piece of paper was more than just a signal. You do that by learning. ■ Fourth: Do honest work for honest pay. If you're being paid fairly, do the work you're expected to do. You are not an indentured servant, and unreasonable expectations (like, for instance, working excessive hours on nights and weekends) are a sign you're not dealing with an honest party at the other end of your employment contract. If you detect dishonesty, bad faith, or illegality in your work, the time to get out of it is right away. A company that tells its employees one thing and tells its investors, customers, or regulators another is a company that will take down your career if you stick around. Honesty goes far beyond avoiding just the lies that will get you in trouble. ■ If you're being paid to do work that is such a joy that you would do it without pay, that's a fine reason to punch the clock for more than just your contracted hours per week. But if you're in those shoes, you probably already know it. For everyone else, boundaries matter. And so does the measure of humility that comes with knowing that as a new worker, you have much to learn. The best thing a young person can do early in their career isn't to ruin their weekends: It's to make every effort to learn.
DFW marks 40 years as an American Airlines hub
Everything else about DFW notwithstanding, it has excellent wayfinding signage.
June 15, 2021
Less wallpaper patriotism, please
Every June 14th, Americans recognize Flag Day. The holiday is itself a perfectly innocuous event; it's a nice excuse to unfurl a fresh new Stars and Stripes in front of homes, workplaces, and public buildings. It also serves as a worthy day for the appropriate disposal of worn flags. ■ But it's all too easy for people to mistake the symbolism of the flag for patriotic substance. We would be much better off if people paid as much reverence to the Constitution as many do to the flag. ■ For example: When Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we offer that allegiance "to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands". That seems like a fairly large mistake. We really ought to say "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic therein guaranteed." ■ Perhaps that doesn't sound quite as poetic. But the flag is a symbol, while the Constitution is the glue that actually binds us together as a Union. It's not a thing which "stands" for another; the Constitution is actually the thing -- the object of our allegiance. ■ The Constitution is the object of the Presidential oath of office. It is the same for the Congressional oath of office, and for military officers as well. They do not pledge allegiance to a symbol, they pledge to defend the Constitution -- the law itself. ■ We would do well to focus our civic statements of loyalty, such as they are, on the Constitution rather than on a symbol. It is a fine symbol, with a long-revered history. But other countries have flags, too. Not all of them have written constitutions. Even fewer have constitutions that expressly derive their authority from the consent of the governed. ■ Symbols too often give rise to willful misrepresentation and unhealthy posturing. Some people even wrapped themselves in the flag while terrorizing the US Capitol and threatening the seat of the nation's law itself. Others modify symbols like the flag with the intention to divide. That is the central problem of symbolism -- symbols are easily co-opted and their meanings changed without the consent of people already using them. ■ We should have no patience for "wallpaper patriotism" among us -- those paper-thin displays that exist only for decoration, having nothing to do with the structure underneath. Displaying, celebrating, and honoring the flag are fine things to do. But we should focus our energies on doing the utmost to celebrate and respect the structure itself by pledging our allegiance to the Constitution.
Only the unvaccinated are ending up hospitalized from Covid-19
Has any measure ever moved so swiftly from the category of "public health" to "individual health"? These vaccines appear to be working so well that it's next to impossible to understand how even the crankiest misanthrope wouldn't be motivated to get one by self-interest alone. It's an exceptional testament to science that the vaccines are working so well, and a curious social problem that people are still hesitant to get them. Suppose the most extreme possible case against the vaccines -- that, somehow, they set off some kind of deadly chain reaction (purely imaginary, but suppose the case giving the greatest possible credence to vaccine opposition). Even in such an event, so many people have already been treated with the vaccines that the mobilization to find a remedy would be equal to or greater than the mobilization to create the vaccines in the first place. It makes not a shred of sense for adults to shy away from the vaccines now, given the known grave risks attendant to getting Covid-19 itself.
Our biggest problems aren't becoming any less complex
We've made tremendous advancements as a civilization, particularly when it comes to technology. But we're still human beings, and human nature doesn't do much to change -- at least not in any fundamental ways. Reading up on philosophy, ethics, and religion still makes lots of sense, even for the technological enthusiast. In Ben Sasse's words, "Moral dilemmas can't be resolved by a computer. More quantitative power doesn't inexorably solve fundamentally qualitative problems."
Water shortage plans go into effect
Central Iowa is in a pretty nasty drought and it's time to take conservation measures with our water
June 16, 2021
The mighty American automotive industry isn't making much headway right now as a shortage of computer chips has put the pinch on vehicle production. Some riveting images of trucks packing the parking lot at the Kentucky Speedway bring the abstraction of a "chip shortage" to highly tangible reality. There are hundreds of F-150 trucks backing up all over the Detroit area, as well. These images are easier to grasp than the equally significant lack of inventory being found at dealerships. ■ It's strange to think that the problem with producing cars and trucks right now isn't the machinery but the tiniest of electronics. Yet that's the impact of the global chip shortage being made worse by an apparent increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, the world's unrivaled semiconductor powerhouse. ■ The situation, for all its resulting headaches, is a reminder that progress rarely occurs in a straight line. We make lots of incremental progress in lots of areas, and over time the world ends up looking a lot different than it once did. If you were a passenger in a new car built in the 1970s or early 1980s, you almost certainly had no air bags, no rear shoulder restraints, often no FM radio, and no automatic windows. Padded dashboards and seat belts weren't required until 1968, and front-seat airbags weren't mandatory until 1998. Cassette tape decks were still a new thing in the Carter era, and CD players didn't appear until the mid-1980s. ■ It's the accumulation of lots of relatively small improvements that make today's vehicles much better (and safer) than yesterday's. A chip shortage may well seem like a strange reason to have a shortage of cars, but a world with backup cameras is surely safer than one without. So, nuisance though it is, we ought to be thankful that today's cars are so sophisticated. After all, it took 25 years to get rid of leaded gasoline. We can put up with a shortage of inventory for a few months longer if all we're waiting on is a little silicon.
The FBI did not commit the January 6th attack
No alternate-history sleight-of-hand, no mental gymnastics, and no fatuous conspiracy theory can change a plain, undeniable fact: Attacking the Capitol was a choice. Anyone making that choice engaged in terrorism. And choices have consequences. Lots of people need to go to prison for what they did.
Queen Elizabeth cuts her birthday cake with a sword
(Video) Possibly the most likeable thing any monarch has ever done.
June 17, 2021
Below every social-media profile -- or even prominently attached to it -- should be a list of the books a person is reading at the moment. The great curse of social media is that everyone gets a sense for what short-form things others are reading right now -- articles, memes, and other bursts of thought -- but rarely do we find out what others are consuming more deeply (and, hopefully, more thoughtfully). ■ Sure, there are tools for sharing one's ongoing reading progress (like Goodreads), and there is plenty of room to share "favorite" books on a Facebook profile, but those are deliberate acts. Some might even call them performative -- it's easy to say you've read "War and Peace", but was that really something you did 20 years ago? ■ It's easy to take solace in self-identifying with the help of a contemporary label. That's what makes it so appealing to take a personality test and identify with an easy shorthand biography ("I'm an ENTJ!"), and it's why people struggle to find very specific names for their political affiliations (like Red Dog Democrats and Country-First Conservatives). ■ But not only are we individuals more complex than easy archetypes would suggest, we're also works in progress. Human nature may generally be deeply unchanging, but individuals can, do, and should evolve over time. And one of the ways people change is through reading. Look all you want, but you'll almost never find a more efficient tool of knowledge transfer than a well-written book. Books force discipline and clarity of thought upon the writer, and when a book is written well, it can be useful for readers for generations to come. ■ Nor are non-fiction books the only useful ones. Even the "Great Books" curriculum leans heavily upon literature. There are plenty of books that would never pass for "high art" that can still be good for the reader. Sometimes, it's because the underlying message is significant (see, for instance, the works of Douglas Adams, which would never pass for highbrow, but yet are guaranteed to be read centuries from now). Other times, it's good for the reader in that moment. Even the trashiest novels have their proponents. ■ Instead of trying hard to find satisfying ways to identify ourselves based upon who we think we are (or what we'd like others to think of us), it would actually be a great exercise to tell one another what thoughts we're allowing to rattle around inside our brains through the act of reading. The act of reading a book isn't necessarily about agreeing with the author -- properly done, it's about grappling with the ideas inside. That's why librarians make such a cause out of defending banned books. ■ What we're reading (or if we're reading nothing at all) can have a profound effect on who we're in the process of becoming. Sharing that would be a much more satisfying way to self-identify than any stale old labels we borrow from others.
Columnist Frank Bruni exits the pages with an apology
Noteworthy words: "There aren't as many clicks in cooling tempers and complicating people's understanding of situations as there are in stoking their rage...It's a profitable brand. But it's also a trap."
What's new on the neighborhood watch
The near-universality of large flat-screen televisions means your neighbors often can see quite clearly (and unavoidably) what you're watching just by driving or walking down the block. And someone is watching "Ted" tonight.
Once Hamburger University came on the scene, this kind of accreditation mission creep was probably unavoidable. (N.B.: The highest form of barbecue is dry rub.)
June 18, 2021
It isn't often one lives to witness the birth of a new Federal holiday, yet that's what has just happened as Juneteenth has been proclaimed a permanent part of the government calendar. There will be some education required ahead: A majority of American adults have little or no knowledge of the holiday. ■ The holiday presents us with an opportunity to fill that gap of knowledge, and to look for others as well. Considering that it represents the date in 1865 when people enslaved in Texas learned of their rightful freedom two and a half years after their freedom had already been declared in the Emancipation Proclamation (and even half a year after Congress passed the 13th Amendment), the holiday ought to be an annual reminder for us as a country to examine the disparities that linger and to shine light on the knowledge of our past that may have been hidden in the shadows. ■ Part of the insidious design behind slavery was to deprive enslaved people people of literacy. That forced a profound disadvantage on them, and on their offspring, too. Imagine what an extraordinary toll it imposed that most slave states actually forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write. Not only was that an immense burden to impose on those people in their own time, it served to erase (or at least hide) their presence from popular attention and historical memory. Even when freed, most of those previously-enslaved people couldn't write their own history. ■ Belatedly, America has stepped in the direction of correcting those cruel misdeeds. We're acknowledging that those stories need to be told. But that reveals the cruel paradox of annotating history to make up for the omissions of the past: It looks like history is being re-written, when in truth we are only filling in the blanks. To those with a disposition toward resentment, it looks like they're losing their own place in history, rather than gaining a fuller understanding of where others had been either intentionally or systematically left out. The sooner we act to recover those parts of the American story that were omitted, the wiser a people we become. ■ We're still not very far in time from when literacy tests were used to keep the descendants of slaves from exercising their right to vote, so it's important to see the act of correcting the record as the most American thing we can do. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." Knowledge (or, perhaps more exactly, the withholding of it) must not be used as a weapon by a virtuous people. ■ The United States has never been perfect -- even in our founding documents, we are merely promised a "more" perfect union as something to be pursued. Even that document followed the failure of the Articles of Confederation. But as we show ourselves willing to learn, we demonstrate the ability to become better. As we commence recognizing Juneteenth as a Federal holiday, we ought to use it as an annual reminder to be willing to learn, to rectify inequities and oppression, and to ensure that we tell the truth (and the whole truth) about our history.
There is a class of person devoted to screeching the worst possible interpretation of their fellow humans' actions every hour of the day, like air-raid sirens of bad faith. Don't be in that class. Don't listen to that class. Don't let that class live rent-free in your head.
"All forms of tyranny are odious"
Wisdom from Winston Churchill: "All forms of tyranny are odious. It makes very little difference to the citizen[...] whether tyranny comes from a royal or imperial despot, or from a Pope or Inquisitor, or from a military caste[...] or worst of all, from a terrified and infuriated mob."
If it's infrastructure, it's about to cost more
There are those who think that the inflationary signals out there are merely passing. Others take a more structural view. Here's a word to the wise: Lots of mid-year price increases are going into effect on July 1st. Don't expect them to be rolled back.
June 20, 2021
A storm is to blame, but it's fun to blame the new lights in the Quaker Oats sign instead
When mental wellness is relegated to the back seat
A compelling obituary tells the story of an Iowan who had a lot going for him -- and who did a lot of good in life -- but whose addiction to methamphetamine killed him. And the root cause of his troubles, it seems, is that he needed more and better care for his mental wellness than the system around him was able to provide.
China uses "law" to shut down Hong Kong's freedom of the Internet
The Great Firewall is being expanded to isolate even more territory
That's the equivalent printed length of the complete works of Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune. (And the Tribune was his third newspaper in Chicago.) Compiling his years of daily columns into a single work gives an exceptional illustration of just how many words one person can write. Not all of the columns are great, but many are still readable decades after his death, and it wasn't for nothing that he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the early phase of his career as a columnist. The sheer expansiveness of Royko's work is something to behold.
June 21, 2021
One-paragraph book review: "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read"
Everyone is or has been at least one of these things: Parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew. Most of us inhabit more than one of those roles, and they can define us, shape us, and not uncommonly, dominate our self-understanding in ways both good and bad. There is no shortage of specific advice to parents on subjects from children's sleeping habits to discipline, and it comes in a vast range of qualities, from excellent to dreadful. ■ A theme common to many of these parental-advice books is to frame matters in training terms: Sleep training, potty training, discipline training, and so on. While the training mindset may be useful for specific subjects a child needs to learn, it's inadequate to the big picture of parenting. That's what makes Philippa Perry's "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read" a refreshing and highly worthwhile alternative to read. ■ Perry, who practices as a psychotherapist and admits to her own parenting faults refreshingly and openly in her book, makes the excellent case that, fundamentally, "we should not see our babies, children, and teenagers as chores to feed and clean or otherwise fix but as people from the start, people we are going to have lifelong relationships with". In an engaging and warm tone, Perry offers thoughtful and accessible advice useful not only for parents, but for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even adult children as well. Over and over, she directs many of the common complaints and conflicts of adult-and-child interactions to the root cause of considering the underlying relationship. ■ It's hard to look at a newborn and imagine that in very little time at all, that diapered bundle of cries will turn into an adult. But the more deliberately the adults around that child consider their relationships with the child (especially in times of conflict, but also when laying the groundwork to avoid conflict), the better the outlook for how both individuals and the relationship between them will mature. ■ This is a book with insights containing value for anyone -- even a childless orphan of advanced years, unless perhaps that individual is cloistered away from all human contact. But everyone else can gain at least some useful insight into relationships between generations, whether for current relationships or for understanding past ones. Perry reminds the reader that, even though we are all imperfect, parents (and other adults) don't have to strive to perfect the children in their orbits, because "[Y]ou are creating a person to love, not a work of art". The book's title may be over-the-top, but its advice is exceedingly well-grounded.
Something awful happened in Chicagoland
A strong tornado went through a densely-populated area. That's a recipe for real trouble. And if it seems like modern storms are different from those of the past, look at how much we have changed the target environment. It's called the "Expanding Bull's-Eye Effect", and it's a reminder that physical science and social science don't stay neatly in their own lanes.
June 22, 2021
A tragic story joins a list that has grown far too long since early 2020: Two co-workers in a Florida government office have died of Covid-19, and three others in the same office have been hospitalized with serious cases of the same disease. Local news reporting on the story includes these crucial facts: "One staffer in the department who worked closely with the other five and didn't contract the coronavirus was vaccinated. All five who contracted the virus were known not to be vaccinated". ■ This raises a most important question: What were they thinking? It's important that this question be asked without judging the victims; basic decency requires at least some respect for the dead and goodwill towards the others who are seriously ill. ■ But the question is objectively important. Vaccines are abundantly available (Florida's map of vaccination sites shows them seemingly everywhere), and the United States as a whole has millions of surplus doses available. By now, the side effects of vaccination are well-known and trivial by comparison with the known risks of contracting the deadly disease the vaccines prevent. ■ This is far from the first case in which the vaccines have been demonstrably protective. In particular, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been statistically outstanding. The protection afforded by the vaccines is virtually complete. And yet Florida's statewide vaccination rate (for the eligible 12+ population) remains below 60%. ■ It's not a matter of scarcity or cost, so it's either a matter of choice or of motivation. But with the entire country only 46% vaccinated (for the total population), and some individual states in the 20s, we really need to figure out the psychological and sociological reasons why people are still holding back. ■ Without heartless judgment, and indeed with sympathetic due concern for the welfare of our fellow human beings, it's imperative that we figure out the root causes of the hesitancy of so many people to step out of the line of fire. Covid-19 isn't the only bad thing for which easy preventatives are available, and it won't be the last pandemic, either. Medical science has done some astonishing heavy lifting so far. It's time for social science to flex its muscles, too.
It's a parrot (and not even an ex-parrot)
There are, apparently, feral parrot colonies in California, and it sounds a lot like the gulls of Wrigley Field.
April Glaser, on the summer solstice: "The longest day of the year also marks a gradual descent into darkness for the rest of the year fwiw". But we all just lived through 2020. The whole thing. Nothing you can say about a "descent into darkness" should be capable of scaring us. Doesn't matter how literal that descent or that darkness may be.
The entire week after Father's Day should be reserved for writers to get the worst puns out of their systems. Today's New York Times "eel amore" gag is Exhibit #1.
It's a fanciful joke for now, but we shouldn't be unmindful of the possibilities that could be unleashed if and when synthetic biology permits us to put some really wild flora and fauna into places like national parks. For the time being, though, maybe some of the parks ought to try offering augmented-reality tours to boost attendance?
June 23, 2021
"Good luck, and goodbye." Those are the parting words of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper serving Hong Kong that has been forced to close because it was too much a voice of dissent for the Communist Party of China to handle. ■ But why should we care? Hong Kong is more than 6,000 miles away from the mainland United States, and its transfer from British to Chinese authority was sealed in 1997. In a sense, it's not as though the world couldn't see this day coming. Besides, Britney Spears finally spoke for herself in court and cheerleaders are swearing on Snapchat. ■ The problems of Hong Kong -- and, indeed, all of China -- may seem very remote indeed, but we're fools if we don't take them seriously. From our very beginning, the United States has been required to look outward. In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security." Since that time, powers have emerged and strengthened outside of Europe (that is, we have more rivals about which to be concerned), and the world's distances have been made much shorter (that is, those rivals are effectively much closer). ■ People with bad intentions never have small aims. And it's undeniable that a system so intent on crushing dissent that it would smash basic liberties (like that of a free press) is a system for evil. And it's not just about rough interactions between the press and the government: It's about erasing the institutions of freedom altogether. ■ It is in the nature of evil systems to be perpetually driven to expand. They have to expand because they have to be feared. It starts with domestic fear -- those who are directly under the thumb of the bad regime. Then it stretches to those abroad who have something to lose at home. Then it creeps into threatening foreigners inside the system. Then it begins to target economic interests abroad. And then it's on to threatening anyone who might fight back, even far from the regime. Odds are, all of us are potential targets. ■ That's because, on balance, people given the choice will pick individual freedom and liberty. But those things don't perpetuate themselves automatically. An individual's incentive to get incensed about encroachments against lofty human rights like freedom of speech or dissent isn't all that great. Certainly not when the nibbles of the shark seem small and far away. But the drive to keep reaching farther and farther is an inherent feature of an oppressive system. Their motivations -- to remain in power and to expand that power -- are driving and insatiable. Are we equally motivated to care? If not, what will it take?
Getting used to local news from the studio again
After so many local newscasts ended up broadcasting (literally) from home because of pandemic-related lockdowns, viewers might see changes in set design. Next thing you know, Magid is going to tell everyone to put a "Live, Laugh, Love" sign on every set. Some of the Tegna stations have already gone way outside of the box with their sets: See how KARE in Minneapolis delivers "Breaking the News" or WKYC in Cleveland serves up an afternoon newscast called "What's New" on a color-saturated set.
Bad-faith behavior begets bad blood
China went after Australian economic interests as a means of putting pressure on the country over politics. The result? Australian attitudes on China have turned sour, fast.
June 24, 2021
Any democracy is bound to be a place where conflicting opinions occasionally lead to tensions. In general, the gift of a system of self-government is that everyone broadly agrees to disagree within the bounds of a predictable system for winning and losing, permitting us to blow off the steam of having a fair chance at expressing our wants and trying to persuade others to come around to our side before agreeing to abide by the will of the majority (within bounds that protect the rights of all). ■ Unfortunately, there is profit -- unusually quick profit -- to be made by catering to the heat rather than to the resolution. On one of the more disreputable programming streams now found on some cable and satellite television systems, someone appears to have come right out and expressed hope that people would be executed over the last general election. Right out loud. ■ In his book, "Them", Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote that "A republic can't survive if it's filled with fanatics." And he's right. (It's doubtful any system can survive indefinitely if filled with fanatics, but self-government is particularly susceptible to the character of the governed.) Anyone concerned about matters like polarization ought to take note of the many ways polarization has heated up, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. ■ The distasteful consequences of polarization undoubtedly turn off lots of people, who seek refuge by claiming not to take any part in politics. Others are staying quiet for fear that they'll suffer consequences for expressing "wrong" opinions. ■ But in withdrawal and silence, we uncover a problem: The most polarized among us aren't going to shut up. In fact, they're bound to turn up the volume. On cable TV or social media, polarization tends to pay -- and some people subscribe to an expressed policy of "flooding the zone" with misinformation intended to confuse and agitate everyone around. ■ When you're served a bowl of hot soup, you can wait for it to cool itself. As long as it isn't sitting on a burner, it will probably cool off...eventually. But most people know that it cools off faster if you blow on it. What's the equivalent to "blowing on the soup" in our larger world? For many of us, it's a matter of sharing more -- but deliberately sharing news, opinions, insights, and observations that don't have anything to do with what riles everyone up. ■ Left to battle it out with one another, the extremists and agitators will continue to "flood the zone" with content that makes everything seem worse. It's the job of people of goodwill to flood the zone with worthwhile items worth knowing. The misguided and mal-intentioned are going to continue trying to tickle our amygdalas with fear, anger, hostility, and hate. It's up to the rest of us to blow on the soup -- diluting the junk, the rot, and the agitprop with counter-programming of our own. ■ That means talking about things that look to the broader world beyond hyper-partisan conflict. The soup isn't cooling itself. It's time to take a deep breath -- and blow on it.
The most reliable confirmation is the Party's official denial
Headline from the Straits Times: "HK leader Carrie Lam says action against Apple Daily does not target press freedom". Double-speak must be so exhausting for apparatchiks like Lam. Apple Daily wasn't shut down for demonstrating slobbering fealty to the Communist regime.
"Unvaccinated individuals are really gambling with their lives in terms of facing this"
The warning from a doctor in Missouri, where one county has a total-population vaccination rate of just 13.7%
China's provocative language threatening Taiwan
"Any attempt to 'rely on the United States for independence' is doomed to failure."
The video is shocking and offers real perspective on what a significant building collapse happened
June 25, 2021
Like it or not, analog literacy is incomplete
Sharing a snapshot of his child's summer reading packet instructing the student to "compose four tweets to tell about a book you read", economist Joshua Goodman asks, "Anyone else worried that their kids are being exposed to social media at too young an age?" ■ The question is certainly fair game, and the particular exercise in question is certainly too cute by half. Considering that Twitter itself is only 15 years old, most adult parents would be within reason to find the very assignment unrelatable. ■ The notion of normalizing social-media interaction as part of a reading assignment is prone to feeling forced -- and perhaps even a bit unhealthy. Young people can be impulsive and easily harmed by the hazards of social media, especially if they aren't practicing good technology hygiene or learning healthy boundaries between their digital and real-world lives. ■ But on the other hand, Benjamin Franklin continues to reach us nearly three centuries later via the pithy quotes in his Poor Richard's Almanack. Franklin's aphorisms were, effectively, 18th Century tweets. And we are better off for having them. ■ The form of a work may vary, and the form it takes can influence the content. Illuminated manuscripts are by definition different from 280-character bursts of thought and speed selfies. ■ Discovering a subject-matter expert with a lot of interesting things to say -- but no social-media presence -- is a lot like finding a book you can't read on a Kindle or a movie you can't stream. Convenience matters more than it rightly should. Yet the other side to that same coin is that there are people devoting far more writing to social media than they do to long-form published works, when they really could do a world of good by piecing together thousands of scattered thoughts into coherent works. ■ So the reality is that educators (and parents) probably should teach a balanced approach: Yes, young people should read books. But they should learn how to be digitally literate, too. They should learn how to write critical essays. But they should probably know how to compose a clever tweet, too. Literacy is bigger in both its reach and its consequences than it used to be -- and if you doubt that, consider going through the Cuban Missile Crisis with a Twitter-addicted President at the helm. As uncomfortable as it often makes generations older than the digital natives, there's no going back.
The US Treasury is still borrowing at near-zero interest
Even with a small uptick in 10-year rates, the country is still borrowing at about 1.5% (nominal). It was only a generation ago that kids could get 5% interest on their miniature savings accounts and buy savings bonds that doubled in value after ten years.
John McAfee found dead in a Spanish prison
Drew Cline offers wise counsel: "A new lesson in our family is: Live your life so that no part of your obituary reads 'found dead in a Spanish prison.'" Other words to avoid: "exiled", "disgraced", and "crypto".
Almost as good a weather graphic as "Taco Watch/Taco Warning". Speaking of gross, Seattle faces coin-flip odds of breaking its all-time high temperature record in the next few days.
Happy mid-summer from the King of Sweden
Try, just try, to come up with a cushier-sounding job than "Strictly ceremonial hereditary monarch with zero executive authority over a rich country with a population about the same as North Carolina's".
Human-adjacent history just got more interesting
"The team said that Homo longi, and not the Neanderthals, was the extinct human species mostly closely related to our own."
June 27, 2021
"COVID-19 infected everyone who attended a Sydney birthday party except for the six people who were vaccinated"
June 28, 2021
We live in a world awash in the word "smart". We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart homes, and even smart refrigerators. The word is everywhere. And yet, when it comes to human beings, we don't seem to know how to call people anything other than "smart". ■ That's more than a mild linguistic curiosity. Language shapes how we think about subjects. Consider the scores of words Icelanders can use to describe "snow". The breadth of word choices available makes it possible to describe the subject with precision and detail. ■ So, what is "smart", at least in a person? Educators and psychologists talk about Gardner's multiple intelligence types (linguistic, mathematic, spatial, musical, and so on), and that concept certainly has a useful broadening effect beyond a flat understanding of general intelligence (sometimes called "g"). Yet it's still not enough. ■ Even within the "multiple intelligences", different people can be smart in different ways. Some can process information quickly. Some can retain lots of knowledge. Some synthesize with ease. Some learn quickly. Some test well. ■ Failing to broaden our vocabulary for "smart" unnecessarily constrains us in thinking about what makes individual human beings "smart". That also keeps us from appreciating the differences in why we consider individuals smart (or less so), and more importantly, it constrains our vision of how we can leverage each individual's intellectual strengths and accommodate their weaknesses. ■ That's a real unforced error to make at a time when educational attainment levels are rising and outcomes like lifetime earnings track, on average, very closely with education. If we, as a society, want to pave the way for people to freely make the most of their own potential, then we need to take account of all the ways people can make the most of their inborn potential. That also means taking obstacles out of the way when they are artificially imposed by a narrow view of what makes people "smart enough" to pursue more education. ■ How much we value something should be reflected in the richness of our vocabulary for describing it. It's not intimidating to consider chip speeds, the number of cores in a CPU, the speed of a graphics processor, the transfer speeds of an Internet connection, or the number of terabytes in a hard drive. All of these computer specifications have parallels in human intelligence, yet we have a more vivid lexicon for describing the performance capabilities of a laptop than for a person. In a world where "smart" is used as often to describe a device as a person, we ought to put a little more care into making our language smarter.
A visit to Stalin's birthplace
The inimitable Mike Murphy: "The most dangerous place to stand in the Soviet Union was next to Stalin and in front of a photographer. Every ﬂashbulb begat a death sentence."
WNBA reports that "99% of the league's players are now fully vaccinated"
This deserves applause as a demonstration of real leadership in sports.
People are on the other side of most problems
A truly staggering number of our problems, both past and present, can be attributed directly to the failure to see other people as human beings rather than objects.
A better institutional response is needed on privacy
Calli Schroeder: "When you're angry about surveillance, what do you do? Where do you go? We have to have institutions that allow people to be heard and that push back on surveillance." ■ These are questions well worth considering. The shortcut answers (like a generalized rage against "Big Tech") are unproductive or even counterproductive. It really does call for an institutionalized response that can be both alert and nuanced. Considering how important privacy, technology, and surveillance have all become to modern life, it's distressing that we haven't seen a better or more coherent institutional response to the risks and problems that we face. Too many people seem interested in fighting old debates like trench warfare.
June 29, 2021
As was proven when the world locked down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's possible to do a lot of things online that didn't seem like urgent possibilities even 18 months ago. Concerts went moved from auditoriums to living rooms, while even Harvard Medical School went online for the 2020 fall semester. ■ With many places, like much of Australia, still enduring lockdowns, the share of life that now happens in a digital environment rather than a physical one seems set to remain permanently and substantially larger than seemed possible even in 2019. Many of our experiences may actually be enhanced by going virtual. But the migration is -- and will remain -- uneven, and there are some things that can't be properly replicated. ■ One of the great sensory experiences to be had is to meander aimlessly through a well-stocked library -- especially if it's an academic library with a big collection of old theses or stacks of old periodicals. There's lots of embedded knowledge to be found in those stacks -- even in things like the condition of the spine on a bound volume of old magazines. It may be well-worn, telling the passerby that other people have spent lots of time with a collection. Or it may appear completely pristine, hinting at long-forgotten treasures within. And with that embedded knowledge comes serendipity, as the searcher discovers things unexpectedly. ■ There are some tremendous digitization projects underway. Most notable is probably the Internet Archive, which does yeoman's work at trying to provide a free "digital library" of vast reaches of content. But other projects are merely incomplete efforts. ■ Take, for instance, the Google News Archive, which appears promising at first glance, with hundreds of sources. But many of those sources have only few dozen issues to offer digitally. 68 issues of the New York Age from 1890 to 1892 won't get the researcher very far. And the Google book-digitization project, which once drew much fanfare, doesn't seem to be going anywhere due to legal issues and flagging institutional enthusiasm. ■ All of this could be deeply unfortunate if it means that we end up with a patchy and incomplete digital record of the world prior to the Internet era. One can be fairly sure that some kind of digital record will linger somewhere for most books published after Y2K, but there are plenty of publications from prior to 2000 that don't really have advocates to help them make the transition. ■ Just for instance: The recently-deceased Walter Mondale, a one-time Vice President of the United States and the 1984 Democratic candidate for President, wrote a book called "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". One can find hard-cover copies available on the second-hand market, but nobody's publishing it anew, nor is it available to purchase for download. One can search inside the book using Google, but not obtain the whole thing that way. Maybe someday that book will make the leap into the digital sphere, but for now it remains mostly stranded in the analog world of the built environment and physical libraries. And Mondale was a highly prominent public figure, even into the Internet era, and his book is on a subject that would seem to be of particular contemporary interest. Yet without anyone advocating for his work to make the digital leap, it may never effectively cross over. ■ It's important to be aware of the biases that affect how we think, and what consequences those have. Omission can be one of those important sources of bias: If we only go looking for information where it's easy to search, we may well miss valuable knowledge whose only sin is having been generated before the digital age.
June 30, 2021
We sometimes say that a place is "stuck in the past" if it doesn't make any effort to accommodate the progress of the present. But something else is going on outside of Stuart, Iowa, where a billboard along Interstate 80 is still advertising Tulsi Gabbard's campaign for President in 2020. ■ The election is entirely over. There is no recount, no overturning coming. Yet the ad is still in place. Either somebody got the most incredible rental deal of all time for that billboard -- or the salesperson has incomparable skills of persuasion. Maybe they're trying to get ahead on the 2024 cycle. ■ Living in Iowa is like being in a land outside of time when it comes to politics. The campaigns of the past follow us like ghosts everywhere we go, and the campaigns of the future show begin the day the last votes are counted. Tom Cotton is already here doing push-ups with Chuck Grassley. Nikki Haley just gambled on a trip to Nevada...Iowa. Mike Pence is coming next month. The campaign season literally never ends in Iowa. ■ Some people may be seen jealous of that until they realize what it's really like to live through it. But if New Yorkers thought their mayoral race was a long haul, they wouldn't want to trade. It ain't pretty. So, while other states may want to leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire in the Presidential primary cycle, they should be careful what they wish for. Living outside of political time means living in a Mobius strip of campaign seasons. There's no getting out.