Gongol.com Archives: 2021 Third-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

July 1, 2021

Threats and Hazards A right implies a remedy

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

News Rural routes and embedded knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 3, 2021

The United States of America A thought afore the Fourth

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

July 4, 2021

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

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

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July 5, 2021

The United States of America No one likes an ingrate

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

The United States of America The greatest pop song about America

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

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July 6, 2021

Business and Finance How dumb is too dumb?

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

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

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

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

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

Broadcasting The perfectly-cast Lebowski

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

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

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

July 7, 2021

Computers and the Internet Read the syllabus

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

July 8, 2021

News Defiant is not resolute

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

Threats and Hazards Incoherent ignorance is no defense

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

News Fascinating research on helping kids learn in really poor countries

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

Health Juvenile sings "Vax That Thang Up"

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

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

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

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

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

July 9, 2021

News Bad advice from the sages

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

Business and Finance Warren Buffett still looks up to Charlie Munger

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

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

They get that weird jackalope energy.

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July 10, 2021

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

The space-bound Richard Branson is one of those people

Weather and Disasters Tornado sirens and chirping birds

Quite the Iowa summer combination

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

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

July 11, 2021

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

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

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

Hint: The Nordic countries have a habit of standing out

July 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

News Lazy headline writing

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

Science and Technology Doorbell cameras everywhere

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

July 13, 2021

News Cuba libre?

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

Threats and Hazards Run for office, pocket the campaign funds

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

Threats and Hazards 160 more lives disposed of without respect

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

Weather and Disasters Most of Iowa is getting wetter

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

Iowa Severe weather outlook has bad news for Iowa

Looking like storms to come

July 14, 2021

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

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

News Find a way to let Afghan allies in

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

Iowa Wishing didn't make it go away

Iowa is in the cross-hairs for severe weather

Humor and Good News Tacos are the happiest food

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

July 15, 2021

Health The insufferable life

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

News From two houses into 27 apartments

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

Agriculture Bold new innovations in bacon

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

Humor and Good News Frings for all

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

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July 16, 2021

News Indivisible after all?

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

Weather and Disasters The scent of a tornado

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

Broadcasting His words, but not his voice

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

Broadcasting Kasie Hunt leaves MSNBC

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

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

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

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July 17, 2021

Broadcasting Reel-to-reel tape

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

Humor and Good News When paywalls don't make sense

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

The United States of America How much things change

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

Humor and Good News Instagram unreality

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

Weather and Disasters Mesmerizing but terrible

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

July 18, 2021

Weather and Disasters More than 150 people killed in German flooding

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

July 19, 2021

Humor and Good News The pocketknife mentality

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

Humor and Good News Weather-themed cupcakes

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

Weather and Disasters Right beneath a tornado

Video from Shell Rock, Iowa

Humor and Good News Buddies, ages 2 and 100

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

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

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

July 20, 2021

Aviation News Rocket Man

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

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

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

July 21, 2021

Computers and the Internet Asynchronous friendships

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

Weather and Disasters Apocalyptic scenes from China

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

July 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

News The Big 12 might be back to just 8

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

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

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

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway sells Kirby vacuum division

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

Business and Finance Why big companies like regulations

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

July 23, 2021

News Audits of apparel

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

News Cleveland's new baseball team name: The Guardians

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

News Architecture and the Olympics

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

July 24, 2021

Computers and the Internet Know when to say when

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

Weather and Disasters Massive flooding far from the Zhengzhou disaster

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

Aviation News Maybe it fell off the back of a truck

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

July 26, 2021

Broadcasting Conan O'Brien teaches economics

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

Business and Finance James Madison: Regulatory reform advocate

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

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

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

Broadcasting What are the Summer Olympics without Bob Costas?

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

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

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

Business and Finance Everything's taking longer to get here

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

July 27, 2021

Threats and Hazards Reality is the best friend of liberty

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

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July 28, 2021

Health Let's not do this again

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

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July 29, 2021

Threats and Hazards It is a crime to lie to Congress

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

July 30, 2021

News Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you

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

August 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet What's in a surname?

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

August 3, 2021

The United States of America Respect for what culture?

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

August 4, 2021

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

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

August 5, 2021

News It's OK to love the Olympics unironically

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

August 6, 2021

The United States of America Reap the benefit

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

August 9, 2021

Water News Not a drop to drink

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

August 10, 2021

Computers and the Internet The emoji we need right now

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

Weather and Disasters Bad 2020 flashbacks

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

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August 11, 2021

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

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

August 12, 2021

News Everyone gets restless sometimes

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

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August 16, 2021

Threats and Hazards Everything happens faster; everything takes longer

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

August 17, 2021

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

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

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August 18, 2021

Threats and Hazards Evacuations and free cities

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

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August 19, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

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

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August 20, 2021

Broadcasting National Radio Day

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

August 23, 2021

News What fuels the outrage machine?

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

August 24, 2021

News Time for major decisions

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

Broadcasting "The Ps of Queues"

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

Computers and the Internet New Gmail tabs arrive

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

Weather and Disasters A beautiful golden hour

Sometimes Mother Nature is kind to Iowa

News Get the Afghan allies out

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

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

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

Aviation News American Airlines goes retro

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

August 25, 2021

News Don't fence me out

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

Health Vaccines work

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

News Don't infer intent from results

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

August 26, 2021

News It's back-to-school season

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

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

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

Weather and Disasters Hurricane-to-be Ida

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

News We wanted the rain...

...now here it comes

News It's just not news

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

August 27, 2021

The United States of America One at a time

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

August 30, 2021

Weather and Disasters How do we quickly replace housing?

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

August 31, 2021

Business and Finance Where's the property line?

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

September 1, 2021

News No more of fear itself

In his "Letters from a Stoic", Lucius Seneca offered a piece of advice that resonates with distressing timeliness today: "[H]e who is feared, fears also; no one has been able to arouse terror and live in peace of mind." As we live in a time plagued by fear of a pandemic and approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's worth asking what side of fear we're on. ■ Sure, it would be lovely for the human condition if we could eradicate fear, but we cannot. Children will have nightmares. People will be diagnosed with dreadful diseases. Nature will send unstoppable disasters our way. ■ But, on balance, human good tries to diminish the weight of fear, and evil brandishes fear as a weapon. It is literally from the fear itself -- the terror -- that terrorism takes its name. It was fear that drove more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. It is rule by fear that makes people want to escape the control of the Communist Party of China. ■ Minds clouded by fear cannot think straight -- at least, not optimally so. This is a scientific fact, not just a platitude. It is a powerful, intangible force, and for those who live in relative security, it can be hard to fathom the consequences of living in constant fear. ■ Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from trying to use fear as a weapon, even in places of relative safety and security. Enterprising policymakers -- of both left and right -- are prone to using an expansive definition of fear to encompass feelings of mere discomfort. In so doing, they over-extend the reach of an effective state methodology to reduce fear. ■ The state tends to be immodest about its efficacy at reducing fear using institutional mechanisms. Fear is an emotional dynamic experienced mainly at the individual level. (Fear may be contagious, but it is experienced one person at a time. And there, too, is where fear is most usually resolved. We are rendered heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to Marine Sergeant Nicole Gee not long after she was photographed bringing comfort to an infant in Kabul. But her individual act of compassion for that one child is a beautiful image of someone using strength to ease another's fear. ■ Those who would hype up ungrounded fears about helpless people (like refugees), pounce on the use of intimidation to frighten their opponents, or employ violence as "a tactic of how we keep our communities safe" are all guilty of siding with the use of fear, rather than trying to diminish it. ■ Fear is far too prevalent already. Decency compels all of us to surrender fear as a weapon, to reject its use even when it would seem to benefit causes we favor, and to contextualize it in our own minds in order to sap it of its excessive power. Not everything that is uncomfortable or undesirable is to be feared. Fear itself is objectively worth categorical resistance.

September 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet Thinking like a faucet

A simple faucet aerator costs about the same as a fancy cup of coffee, and is sure to pay for itself in a short period of time. By blocking the full flow of water through a kitchen or bathroom faucet and replacing part of the stream with air, an aerator reduces water use but also increases the utility of most streams. The water tends to come out of an aerator at a higher pressure than without -- and the air it adds will tend to improve the taste of drinking water as it pours into a glass. Moreover, by breaking apart the water stream, an aerator increases the surface area of the running water, which reduces splashing and helps it to cleanse better. ■ A faucet aerator, by putting water through a sort of straining process, can do more by giving us less. Just as that applies to the material world, so it also applies to the world of ideas. In particular, as the flow of raw information increases and the apparent pace of decision-making required in life accelerates, we need more metaphorical strainers than ever. Not only does life seem to pass quicker as an individual ages, technological improvements are also making new things happen faster. ■ The resulting paradox of this sensory overload, time compression, and seemingly unstoppable technological acceleration is that two of the most valuable skills are (1) to be able to describe matters using words, and (2) to be driven internally to go back and edit those words to make the writing shorter and more understandable. ■ We not only have innumerable tools for instantaneous digital communication (making Zoom meetings and Slack channels and direct messages into constant reminders of the ticking of the clock), but we also have people turning to computers to generate volumes of new content -- not because it's necessary, but because it's how to game the system in an age driven by Internet search engines. There really is a whole industry already developing around marketing content written by artificial intelligence. Humans are literally surrendering the effort of writing material in the hopes of generating so much "content" that it ultimately finds its way to the right customer. The result is that it's no surprise when someone confesses in a meeting, "I haven't had time to read all of that". ■ Collaboration among informed teammates is necessary to any kind of high-level productivity. As Ryan Avent wrote in his intriguing book, "The Wealth of Humans", "As technology advances -- in finance or computing or biotechnology or anything -- the ease with which any one person can become expert in multiple fields declines. Collaboration is therefore necessary whenever expertise in more than one subject is needed to make a project or a business plan work." Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to many that "Zoom fatigue" is real, driven in no small part by the cognitive load of moving from in-person contact to the artificial "places" of cyberspace. ■ And it's inescapable that even those in-person meetings tend to be inefficient. Only so much information can be communicated by people speaking to one another -- English is hard to digest at much more than 150 or 160 words per minute. By contrast, college-level reading speeds are generally closer to 400 words per minute or more. So merely moving the transmission of information from words spoken aloud to words written on the page should result in getting almost three times as much information across in the same amount of time. ■ But just as cognitive loads make it hard to get through Zoom meetings, so do they make it hard to get through complicated writing. (If you don't believe that, try reading "Ulysses" sometime. Someone once condensed the whole novel for Twitter.) It often doesn't seem like the case, but the time spent to go back through written materials to make them more digestible pays off quite a lot. And the more people involved in a collaboration or engaged in reviewing information to make a decision, the greater the leverage that results from making that material easier on the brain. ■ We live in complex times, and they're bound to grow more complex. With digital publishing tools like Substack making it possible for anyone to put out 2,000-word essays without any barriers to publication or to generate 100-page government reports to "cover all the bases", the time has never been better for those who can put their ideas through a strainer. Just as with a kitchen faucet, sometimes you get a lot more by delivering a lot less.

September 3, 2021

News It's not that bad things aren't happening, it's that they've always happened

The modern world has many menaces: The disinformation addict, the gullible dupe, and the terminally online are all among them. But alongside their "Wanted" posters ought to be hung a portrait of the perpetual catastrophizer. That's the person who cannot see the good or the bad in the world with any sort of context, but who believes that Dickens should have written, "It was the worst of times; it was [still] the worst of times". ■ It doesn't take much work to find the catastrophizers. Legions of people are out and about talking about how "the world [is] burning" and "everything is awful". Even if individuals are using it as a literary device or as a signal to others that they're part of the in-group, it's patently unhealthy, both psychologically and sociologically. ■ Doom and existential dread are not suitable substitutes for a worldview. The relatively recent past was littered with issues like polio, the Cold War, devastating earthquakes, fascism, smallpox, famine, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. The distant past was in many ways even worse. ■ We haven't overcome all of those problems, but significant progress has been made on many fronts: The Green Revolution feeds the world, vaccines have halted dreadful diseases, and most of the world has electricity at home. ■ Human progress has never taken place for any length of time along a straight line. It is marked always by things changing -- some for the better, some for the worse. To the extent that people of goodwill are out to pull in the right direction, the great arc of history bends in that way. We eradicate old evils only to uncover new ones, while triumphs of technology and other progress open new paths for trouble to take root. There was no cyberbullying before there was cyberspace, but the Internet is yet still a glorious tool for human advancement. ■ If you make the mistake of hanging out in the wrong corners of culture, you'll get the impression that this is truly the nadir of civilization. That perspective isn't fair to the current generation, it isn't fair to preceding generations, and it surely isn't fair to our successors. The Church of Perpetual Catastrophe worships at an altar of shortcomings and failure, but it is devoid of any prayers of hope or saints to emulate. ■ Everyone has a moral obligation to stay in mental contact with people who went through tough times long before oneself, so we can see that our own troubles are rarely as novel as we may imagine. A casual glimpse through historical 20th Century newspaper photos brings the viewer face-to-face with terrible (but commonplace) airliner catastrophes and beauty queens who died after routine surgeries. Just a couple of generations ago, an American born just a few years before Winston Churchill and living into their 80s might well have been born into the Civil War and died after witnessing their second World War. ■ Certainly, times can be tough; we're living through some that seem lot tougher than, say, those of the 1990s -- when the world seemed to be turning perpetually peaceful and prosperous all at once (even if Van Halen sang of their reservations at the time). The greater our perspective -- both by looking at the wide world around us and at the long scope of history -- the easier it becomes to see that we rarely encounter entirely novel problems. ■ Everything isn't awful or on fire or falling apart -- at least, not in ways humans haven't muddled through before. We just need the perspective to know that humans have the duty to endure -- and it doesn't happen by default or by despair.

September 6, 2021

Business and Finance Labor (and) time

In an ill-advised attempt to be funny, a man tweeted that he had taken to placing notices on his wife's calendar every time he performed a household chore, like taking out the trash or folding the laundry. The frequency of the notices he shared suggested he was making light of his infrequent contributions to keeping up the house. The author took some blowback for the jokes, and he defended himself by saying that his wife was in on the joke. But the problem with the whole affair is that jokes are rarely funny unless they contain some element of the truth. And the truth is that the original joke requires the assumption that the trope of the non-contributing husband be at least somewhat true. ■ Labor Day is as good a day as any to recognize that a huge amount of the work that is done in life doesn't show up in conventional economic accounting. We live with a shadow economy of household chores, child-rearing, time spent on volunteer efforts, independent study, elder care, and even hobbies that, by some metrics, rivals everything we more easily quantify with dollars and cents. This so-called "household production" is disproportionately performed by women -- whether or not they are employed outside the home. ■ Fortunately, there is at least some growing awareness that all of this work, even if not easily measured, certainly counts for something. The sudden closure of schools and workplaces due to the Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of this poorly-measured labor into the light, and the tightness in the paid labor market brings his to the forefront as well. If people are being offered $15 an hour to work at many entry-level jobs and workplaces are still closing early due to staffing shortfalls, that conveys messages both about how people are valuing the alternatives to conventional employment and about how we should be quantifying the time people are spending outside of work. ■ That doesn't mean we ought to abandon conventional economic and accounting measures (far from it), but it does suggest we ought to consider the whole picture of labor, both when thinking about public policies and when making our own household decisions. ■ Everyone gets the same 24 hours in each day. Nobody gets bonus hours; time is the ultimate equalizer. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "You may delay, but time will not." Thus, the tools that save time around necessary but low-engagement chores are some of the very best contributions that have been made to our overall well-being in a modern society. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, high-efficiency clothes washers, and clever new innovations like robotic vacuums are all huge strides because they save big chunks of time that are too easy to overlook -- or too easy to dismiss with a poorly-considered joke. We need more of them. ■ We also need to value the time that everyone spends in non-employment labor. Even when we're strictly at leisure, we ought to weigh that time in an hourly-value sense. Everyone needs time to recharge, but not all of the 5 leisure hours in an average American adult's day are of the same ultimate value. If Nielsen is measuring right, the vast majority of that leisure time is being spent on TV or some other video entertainment. ■ The labor movement committed a lot of effort to obtaining eight daily hours for "what we will". In all senses of the word, we should be alert to making sure that "what we will" is distributed wisely -- equitably within households, as efficiently as technology will permit, and as reasonably close to its highest use as our need to refresh will permit.

September 7, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work You can't do that on television

Authoritarians really do rely upon the stupidest hangups to remain in power. A giant series of bans on what can be shown on Chinese television has been handed down, and the prohibitions include shows that vote participants out with responses from viewers at home, "sissy men", and the children of stars. And if you want to take your fandom for K-pop music online, well, you can forget that, too. ■ Television has contained plenty of dreck since the beginning -- anyone who's familiar with the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s knows that. But television isn't really unique in that regard; every medium that has ever sought to entertain large audiences has contained at least some garbage. Even ancient Roman poetry contained some scandalous trash. There is absolutely nothing new about entertainment content that offends the powers that reign. ■ But it is telling that the powers that rule China seem to think they need to clamp down on the tastes and preferences of 1.4 billion people who ought, by virtue of their birth alone, to be free. It's a symptom of fear -- that even a taste of kicking someone "off the island" from a talent show might be too much experience in self-government. (And all because people were buying yogurt to pick the contestants in a talent show.) ■ Not that many years ago, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his country that "Those with good minds to be scholars should also become inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere." Lee himself may have had authoritarian tendencies, but he did understand two things: Even a strict government needs the implicit consent of the governed in order to survive, and people need to have sufficient personal freedom that they can pursue ambitious goals. ■ Putting all of the "best minds" into the preservation of the power of the state is a recipe for stagnation, decline, and ultimate failure. Smart people are needed in every government, of course, but if the only real commitment they have is to protecting the interests of a mob racket in shiny uniforms, then not enough gas will remain in the tank to power the other engines of a society -- be they cultural, economic, or technical. People who are kept back by a government insistent upon tightening its controls over business, culture, and other aspects of life simply cannot expect to live to the fullest -- no matter how many self-appointed geniuses think they're running the show.

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September 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards You're not authorized to help

One of Chicago's defining features is its extraordinary lakefront. Besides being the villain behind a lot of heavy snowstorms and the site of some fascinating water intakes, the lake is a centerpiece of a lot of Chicago's urban recreation. The city's beachfront is long, contains more than two dozen distinct public beaches, and is a major civic resource. ■ But lakes can be dangerous, and Lake Michigan can be particularly so around the city. Drownings are not uncommon, and with so many people so close to what can be a really dangerous set of currents, it's not a risk to take lightly. ■ Following one of those drownings -- taking the life of a young man who had just jumped from a pier -- local residents took matters into their own hands and installed a life ring at the scene of the accident. The Chicago Park District removed it, and then removed a second, because they weren't authorized. ■ Any large organization runs the risk of encountering nonsensical bureaucratic reactions to what otherwise look like common-sense behaviors. But this one in particular is troubling. An advocate for the life-saving devices says he was told "it's in the best interest [of the Park District] to do nothing because it might increase liability". That is self-interested and antisocial behavior. If the life rings being installed voluntarily by citizens aren't "authorized", then the bureaucracy needs to find a way to authorize them or to provide a substitute. In no rational universe should inaction in the face of a known danger be a preferable alternative to even the most basic of responses. ■ That's why we pass Good Samaritan laws. That's why social psychologists study the bystander effect. That's why we have robust debates about the duty of physicians to treat the sick, even (and especially) in a pandemic. It is cowardly for an individual or an institution to hide behind legal protections when a clearly better answer exists. ■ Hazard mitigation is only likely to grow more important as more people concentrate within urban areas all over the world -- including those that might be at escalating danger of significant natural hazards. There's no excuse for permitting institutional inertia and the CYA principle to stand in the way of reasonable community expectations that clear and present dangers will be handled by the community's purported guardians with professionalism and urgency. Taking down an "unauthorized" life ring without installing an authorized one in its place? That's arrogance bordering on malice.

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September 9, 2021

Computers and the Internet "I worry about our kids"

Summarizing a lot of anecdotal observations and statistics, KARE 11 in the Twin Cities quotes Dr. Madeleine Gagnon thus: "There are all the usual aspects around the pandemic, school shootings, cultural tensions -- layer that on top of all the academic achievement stressors, social media, I worry about our kids". Any capable observer of events over the last couple of years has undoubtedly noted that a lot of people are burning themselves out emotionally and psychologically. It's showing up in incidents on airplanes, outraged flame wars on social media, and in surveys that suggest more than a fifth of kids are having behavioral or mental-health problems related to Covid-19. ■ Unquestionably, there have been a lot of social stressors leading to frayed emotions and likely contributing to some consequential outbursts. But there's also a strange new factor affecting us: The very ubiquity of people spilling their emotional conditions all over the Internet, for their friends (and often the world) to see. ■ We need more and better spaces for privately containing and expressing our emotions, because clearly the present offerings aren't doing enough. The public square is no place for wailing and rending of garments, and yet social media quite often form the "public square" for many people's social and emotional lives. It hasn't helped that quite a lot of us have been unusually isolated from other people for much of the last two calendar years. ■ There's a very brief rush to be had from getting something off your chest, and from getting instant reactions. Complaining about a difficult boss, lamenting the loss of a beloved pet, or venting frustration with some jerk in line at the grocery store are all excellent ways of getting other people to react through their "like" buttons. ■ But strong emotions demand strong methods of containment and self-examination, and if adults aren't well-versed in how to do those things and well-practiced in actually doing them, then it's going to be hard to transmit those practices to the next generation. It's no wonder there is so much talk about "fragility". A lot of people are, indeed, expressively fragile. ■ In her insightful "Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read", ,Philippa Perry wrote these valuable words on children's emotional development: "We cannot protect children from the inevitable bereavements and calamities that life will throw at us and at them, but we can be alongside them and feel with them and help to contain their feelings when, inevitably, calamities happen." That word -- "contain" -- is particularly weighty. It's not that feelings should be repressed or dismissed. It's that they need to be bounded, most of all for the well-being of the person having them. One doesn't have to become a cartoon Stoic, dismissing all feelings as inevitable and unproductive -- but learning to address feelings as both valid and worthy of careful response is a practice that matters a lot to mature well-being. ■ Strong emotions have always been with us, but it wasn't that long ago that we had much slower ways of processing them: Hand-written love letters, carefully-expressed sympathy cards, telegrams of apology. Those old ways took time, were private, and imposed self-reflection on the person expressing the emotion. There are no such obstacles when a Facebook rant is merely a thumb away. ■ We're not better off repressing ourselves, but the corrective to too much repression isn't too much public expression. As is so often the case in life, the answers are found in the middle. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "The virtues are states of the soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states [of the soul], one of which is excessive and the other deficient." We would do well to acknowledge that strong feelings are a part of human life -- but also that humans need to process those feelings with deliberation (and often some circumspection). It's too easy to be tempted into anger and impulsiveness when the tools sit in front of us all the time. And if we're truly worried about the mental and emotional well-being of children, then we ought to think about the tools they have and the lessons they see in the adults around them.

September 10, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

Somewhere upwards of 80 million Americans were born after the 9/11 attacks, and to that quarter of the population (and, certainly, to millions more who were too young to have grasped the event), what happened 20 years ago is a historical event. That still leaves roughly half of the population who were adults both then and now. ■ Not long after the attacks, the phrase "never forget" became something like a mantra, endlessly repeated. The 9/11 Memorial collects money for the "Never Forget Fund". The phrase is applied seemingly without limit, to screensavers and bumper stickers and hooded sweatshirts. ■ What was "never forget" supposed to mean? Those who were old enough to have adult faculties when they witnessed the event couldn't possibly forget. But, at the same time, no words or images could possibly replicate the experience of the moment to anyone who came later. Nothing adequately explains the horror of the day, the boundless anxiety of the days that followed, or the confusion that ensued about what ought to come next. ■ The moment stopped time. We "never forget" the bravery of rescuers who went into burning buildings. We "never forget" the grotesque scale of the massacre on peaceful soil. We "never forget" the fleeting moment of common cause and resolution to show national unity. Certainly, nobody who was an adult on that day forgets where they were or what they were doing. ■ Because the scale was so large (2,977 people murdered) and the scope so vast (stretching from New York to Washington to Shanksville), we were deprived of any final moment of national closure, like the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Deprived of this moment of cleansing grief, the only broadly available emotion was anger mixed with vengeance and apprehension. For days after 9/11, there was too much uncertainty and lingering anxiety to let up -- What if another attack was on the way? How long could people survive in the rubble? Why did it all happen? Our only real relief was found in moments that seemed defiant, like George W. Bush's perfect opening pitch at the World Series. ■ We "never forget" because half of us can't. But what do we force ourselves to remember? There's no perfect answer to what we should, but at least one component has to be a high regard for the question, "And then, what happens next?" So many of the subsequent events have changed the course of the last 20 years from what they might have been in a world without the attacks. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that we should always ask that question, rigorously and without apology, because big things follow whether or not we anticipate them. ■ We toppled Saddam Hussein; and then, what happens next? We merged 22 agencies into the DHS; and then, what happens next? We drastically changed our tone on immigration; and then, what happens next? We went after the perpetrators of the attacks and their allies in Afghanistan; and then, what happens next? ■ "Never forget" isn't wrong, but it isn't complete, either. Not unless we deliberately choose things to remember. No one will ever have a perfectly clear vision of how events will unfold -- either the ones that happen to us, or the ones we initiate. But we can make choices about what we remember, and that includes the lessons we transmit to those who can't remember for themselves. Perhaps the most important lesson is simply to ask, "And then, what happens next?"

September 13, 2021

Business and Finance The news has never been free

One of the best ways to fire up a print journalist is to suggest that their content ought to be taken out from behind a digital paywall. Whatever one might think of an individual reporter's politics, they tend to become vocal capitalists whenever someone suggests that they have a duty to give away their work for free. ■ And the journalists are right to be protective. There is no escaping the fact that it costs money and consumes resources to perform journalism. A reporter's time, airline tickets and mileage reimbursements, the power and water bills at the newsroom, raw newsprint, and all other kinds of factors accrue to the costs of doing business in a print institution. Even all-digital newsrooms and broadcast outlets need to spend money to do most of those same things (besides putting a dead-tree edition on the record). ■ For the longest time, the economics of newspaper publishing made the local newspaper tend towards a natural monopoly: Once the news had been gathered (the cost side), the expense of distribution to the next marginal customer was nearly free -- as long as their subscription or newsstand price covered the cost of printing the actual ink onto the actual paper. That's why the two-newspaper town is such a rarity. ■ Then along came the Internet and Craigslist and Google and the digitization of advertising. The market access that a newspaper once delivered to advertisers (wherein it could reach most of the literate consumers in an entire market area daily) disintegrated -- literally. Now, every market is in fragments, which are as easy to reach as setting up a targeted Facebook ad. ■ That's the pure economic-utility problem for newspaper and periodical journalism. Yet the need for such journalism remains as strong as ever. And that raises a cost that isn't as obvious as the costs that can be printed in an income statement: The opportunity cost of journalists' time. Any capable journalist has a set of highly-marketable skills: The ability to communicate and to learn quickly. Rare is the journalist in 2021 who doesn't have a college degree and an ability to use words in a way that would make most employers salivate. If you trust LinkedIn (another newspaper-killer), communication is the top skill a candidate can bring to the job market. ■ With the economics of journalism becoming harder and harder to satisfy and its jobs evaporating, the opportunity cost of being a journalist is going to become greater and greater. Some will stay out of a sense of duty or sheer joy for the job, but many others will leave (either voluntarily, with the nudge of buyouts, or involuntarily). And as that happens, some of those who depart the conventional boundaries of the profession will find unconventional ways back in. ■ Chicago's most famous media critic runs a blog "under an agreement" with a suburban newspaper. A longtime Iowa columnist publishes a website offering reprint rights to local papers. One of Nebraska's best newspaper columnists now edits a non-profit news service supplying free content to local outlets. ■ The nature of the market has rearranged how many of the old configurations worked in journalism. Many highly-skilled individuals still have the itch to report and to cover the news, even as they find gainful employment elsewhere. Their moonlighting -- as bloggers, freelancers, podcasters, and so on -- adds another wrinkle to the journalism economy: News consumers are better off having them around, of course, but it's hard to keep up a vocation (including journalism) where others can compete with your work while doing it as a hobby. And freelancing can be lucrative, too -- a former Chicago radio host now charges $10.95 per month for his podcast. ■ The news has never been free, and it never really will be. But the coming years may well show us that a considerable amount of the news "profession" will belong instead to people who can afford to treat it as a hobby or an alternative/non-conventional gig. That, in the long run, could dramatically alter not only what is covered, but how. The sheer technical ability to report may, in the not-so-distant future, be eclipsed by the financial ability to independently sustain one's own journalistic enterprise.

September 14, 2021

Threats and Hazards Someday, your side will lose

According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle was the voice of reason, telling then-Vice President Mike Pence to give up on any thoughts of overruling the 2020 election as he presided over the Senate: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero." Maybe that quote is true; maybe it's a fabrication. But Quayle does hold a law degree, and the reported advice certainly does comport with the law. No power to overturn an election resides with the Vice President. ■ The problem with a story like this is that the headline is so bright it obscures the real work to be done. "Dan Quayle comes to the rescue of the republic" (the words of MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell) is irresistible fodder for social-media commentary and cable TV punditry. Who can resist dredging up 30-year-old impressions left over from Quayle's time in office? ■ But talk, ultimately, is cheap. And there is work to be done. The Woodward/Costa book, "Peril", also claims that General Mark Milley, acting as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to implement controls to keep a bellicose President Trump from impulsively starting a war with China -- possibly a nuclear one. ■ These are worrying revelations -- and, if true, they may be deeply problematic for the civilian control of the military. But if all we do is get a little rattled by a book and spend some time engaging in some self-satisfied harrumphing about how lucky we are that things didn't go worse, then we've missed the point altogether. ■ "Speak little, do much", advised Benjamin Franklin. But how much has been done to truly rein in the Presidency? President Trump's term was bookended by Democratic opponents -- one who had six months in office as an outgoing two-term President between the 2016 nomination and the 2017 inauguration, and one who has had nearly eight months in office as the new President. In all of that time, what has been done to reel in the powers of the White House? ■ The Presidency is the Article II branch of government, and its place after Congress is no accident. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "[A] great part of the business which now keeps Congress sitting through the year will be transacted by the President." When read carefully, that simple line communicates quite a lot: The President isn't above Congress; the President serves to put the will of Congress into action. ■ Any residual doubt about the relative order of things should be resolved by noting that Congress can demand reports of the President (the State of the Union) and can fire the President (through impeachment). The President does not hold equal and opposite powers. And yet, eight months after January 6th and the events (like the Quayle call) reported to such mighty reaction, what has been done to order the Article II branch of government so that we can sleep soundly at night, no matter who gets elected next? ■ When President Biden says things like, "If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way", he's not communicating a message of modesty about Presidential powers. Nor is it Presidential modesty to nearly double the pace of executive orders over the Trump administration -- which itself issued them at a rate 70% higher than the Obama administration. We are heading in the wrong direction with powers about which there should be bipartisan concern. No matter how justified the ends may seem, the means must be constrained. ■ Even when used for purposes that seem justified and right, excessive powers are still excessive powers. It's not the purpose for which they are used that ultimately matters, it's whether anyone should use them at all. Never claim powers while in office that you wouldn't willingly hand over to your opponents -- because, if self-government is to have any hope of survival, sometimes your opponents will be in control. Expressing alarm about what's in a new book isn't sufficient. Fixing the systemic issues that give rise to alarm over military power or the reach of the Imperial Presidency are the acts that matter.

September 15, 2021

News What's a friend worth?

Perhaps you didn't contribute any of the 4.1 billion views of "Gagnam Style" on YouTube. Maybe you've never touched a Samsung Galaxy phone. It could be that you don't know the difference between BTS and a BLT. But unless you've lived entirely under a rock for the last half-century (and completely missed the 2018 Winter Olympics), you're probably aware that South Korea is indisputably one of the most advanced rich countries in the world. ■ Per-capita GDP is in the same class as New Zealand, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Internet access is notoriously the world's fastest, with a push to get 100 Mbps service delivered to everyone in the country. An economy boasting global brand-name titans like Hyundai, LG, Kia, and Samsung. It's a country of economic prosperity, competitive elections, and broad civil liberties. It isn't a utopia, but it's hard to find a way in which South Korea doesn't compare well with other places. ■ To its north, the totalitarian regime has just conducted a test of a "railway mobile missile system". The evidence suggests that the ruling powers in North Korea want to diversify their weaponry. ■ The official residence of South Korea's president is about 23 miles from the border with North Korea. But in practical effect, the two countries seem like different planets. Nobody buys North Korean goods on the global market. The country treats the Internet mainly as a weapon. Per-capita GDP is about $1,800 a year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only led to further repression and isolation. ■ Sometimes it's asked why the United States still has around 30,000 troops in South Korea, some 70 years after the war there cooled off. The answer, of course, is that there is mutual interest for both the United States and South Korea in having stability and deterrence on the peninsula. It's not a free arrangement, but aggression and war wouldn't be free, either. ■ Both Koreas started from the same place at the end of World War II. It wasn't an auspicious start, particularly given the costs and suffering imposed by the half-century Japanese occupation. But one Korea ultimately chose a path that sought to quash natural human liberties, while the other took a long and imperfect path towards freedom. One is a global pariah that uses weapons to extort others for the basics needed for survival, while the other is a good global neighbor that produces lots of things the rest of the world demands. ■ What's a friend worth? The United States has undoubtedly spent a great deal on its relationship with South Korea, but it's evolved into far better than a mere transactional relationship. It can demand time and patience to see why we consider other countries to be partners and allies. But if we see in good faith how those relationships can be net-positive for all parties involved, perhaps we'll see the good that can come of choosing friendships over rivalries. ■ The United States has a big role to play in the world, and that role sometimes (but not always) involves our use of armed forces. But the payoff to that participation looks like a peaceful and prosperous friend like South Korea.

September 16, 2021

News Behind closed doors (but not really)

The strange things people say when they're inside "safe spaces" can reveal a lot about what's inside their heads. That applies even when that supposed "safe space" is one where performance or bravado are expected. In fact, those revelations -- even if they're merely performative -- may uncover more of the truth than if people spoke plainly. ■ It wasn't the strict truth of the "locker-room talk" aboard the "Access Hollywood" bus that got Billy Bush fired, it was that the obnoxious words at which he laughed sounded like what he wanted to hear. Bush, to his credit, now says "I'm afraid that event was important for my development as a broadcaster, as a journalist, as a man, as a person." But people are still saying really stupid things when the cameras are rolling. ■ Take, for instance, the man who says "Barack Obama destroyed rock and roll", because that genre was "about white male teenage angst" and the former President (supposedly) "said young white men aren't allowed to have angst". Surrounded by other men, chuckling, smoking cigars, and drinking brown liquor, he appears to be performing -- and it's unclear whether he's putting on a deadpan schtick or whether it's an earnest belief. (And, to be sure, the ghost of Chuck Berry would like a word.) ■ The exact words, though, aren't the point. It's the performance -- the idea that, somehow, this is how manly men do manly things, decrying the neutered state of rock and roll and the multicultural diminution of their right to be angsty, all proclaimed from comfortable leather chairs inside a dimly-lit man cave. ■ This version of "real manliness" is cartoonish at best, and utterly corrosive at worst. Real men seek to have rich inner lives, defined by a quest to do good in the world and to better themselves -- not to sit around airing contrived grievances. Benjamin Franklin put it succinctly: "Who is strong? He that can conquer his bad habits." Nobody of right mind thinks Franklin was unmanly. Nobody of right mind would think James Mattis unmanly, either, and he put it like this: "[W]e're still building a nation. It's hard work. It's noble work, but I'll say again, it's hard work. So don't ever think we're done. We are not perfect but we are certainly going to always strive to be better." ■ The thoughtful reader will note that there's nothing unwomanly, either, about conquering bad habits or striving to build a nobler, better community. These are just the good things that adults do when they are self-aware and feel compelled to reach for their potential as human beings. There is little to distinguish the sexes in these basic regards. Everyone is better off if these virtues are sought and found in women and men alike. ■ And yet, at least some performers seem to think there's reward in grievance and complaint that "they" won't let "us" have "our" angst, and thus "we" must surround ourselves with ornaments of masculinity and conspire to talk about what "they" are doing to "us". Mostly, it's just sad -- but it gives at least some people the impression that those are the ways of manly men. ■ Maimonides wrote that "The health of the soul consists in its condition and that of its parts being such that it always does good and fine things and performs noble actions." Hiding in a cave ("man-cave" or otherwise) and complaining may be a performance -- but it is hardly "performing noble actions". And the latter is what men and women alike ought to do.

September 17, 2021

Business and Finance The art of desirable constraints

Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but another definition tells something more: Art is in the constraints. What invests a work of art with resonance -- whether it's pointillism or poetry or even polka -- is what the artist is able to do within boundaries. Even Looney Tunes worked within a framework of rules, elevating Wile E. Coyote from mere entertainment into art. ■ We know the appeal of constraints intuitively, and it's why Auto-Tune sounds like cheating and photographers fight over retouching. To give up constraints is to wander away from the soul of art. But constraints can be beautiful outside of the arts. ■ Some of the best commercial enterprises obey certain constraints out of choice, and the practice has fascinating results. The Economist, for instance, publishes no bylines on its articles. This makes it distinctly different from most publications, where the bylines matter a great deal (at least among the publishing class). The Economist argues that its anonymity promotes cooperation, centers the publication on a consistent voice, and promotes "a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it." And, indeed, it's hard to find any publication with a more recognizable institutional voice than The Economist. The constraint facilitates the art. ■ Chick-fil-A serves no burgers. It's chicken and chicken only. And while the company may encounter political controversy related to its ownership, they're making more money than ever -- without any help from beef, pork, or fish. ■ Toyota's initial constraint wasn't chosen -- it simply didn't have enough money to pay for a lot of raw materials, so it had to turn them into finished goods quickly -- but that evolved into a chosen constraint: The Toyota Production System so widely recognized as "lean manufacturing" today. Its competitor, Honda, has stretched from small engines to business jets through the self-imposed constraints of trying to use people instead of machines wherever possible. Automation seems like an obvious way to save money, but Honda's approach permits quicker experimentation from the bottom-up, since people can be re-trained faster than robots can be re-programmed. Both approaches have been profitable, and both are forms of business art. ■ Desirable constraints are the secret behind many great institutions. Warren Buffett advised: "Recognize your limitations and your circle of competence. That will open up more options than it excludes." That advice built Berkshire Hathaway into one of the world's biggest conglomerates. It may sound like Buffett was advising to be aware strictly of one's own natural limitations, but he and his partner, Charlie Munger, loudly extol the virtues of choosing to stay bounded. Munger once quipped, ""We didn't know in the past that making decisions is tiring, and that you shouldn't make decisions while tired. We didn't know that caffeine and sugar would help people to make better decisions. We just tried to avoid work, but it turns out that we're operating optimally, based on modern psychological science." ■ Choosing a desirable constraint in a business is a multi-faceted decision: It helps to establish a corporate culture (What would Aldi be without its relentless attachment to "exclusive" house brands or the Wall Street Journal without its hedcuts?) while channeling the creativity of its people within agreed boundaries. Some companies go everywhere and try everything (see Google), but those experiments don't always work out (see the Google Graveyard). Unbounded creativity may sap a firm of its energy -- not to mention its cashflow. ■ Making choices that self-impose a sense of discipline can help to channel better outcomes. There are many reasons why students of business ought to have depth in the liberal arts, and perhaps more would take to the idea with vigor if they understood that adopting an artistic constraint like Ansel Adams could get them a few steps closer to making money like Warren Buffett.

September 20, 2021

Computers and the Internet Don't trust the techno-utopians

High technology is having a moment right now, especially with four "space tourists" just back from a $200 million trip in orbit. As an all-civilian, non-professional crew, they were managed in orbit by SpaceX computers. It's quite the story. ■ SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is both understandably proud of the event and characteristically volatile in how he talks about it. Musk is self-evidently an intelligent person and a creative thinker. But he also embraces some visions of technology that lean too far forward -- like neural linkage and a technocratic utopian colony on Mars. Indeed, he calls himself the "Technoking" of Tesla. ■ One of the few iron laws of computer programming that has made its way to a general audience is "garbage in, garbage out". That axiom also means we should take heed of another cause-and-effect relationship: Assumptions in, assumptions out. ■ Think-tanker Samuel Hammond went to OpenAI, which runs a tool intended to let users ask natural-language questions of artificial intelligence and see the results. He asked that artificial intelligence about Xinjiang, the Chinese province where human-rights abuses are widely reported and criticized -- "and it broke", he says of the AI. Hammond shared screenshots of multiple interactions with the AI, including one in which it said "I think religious people are disgusting and spending money on them is a waste of money, and they all deserve to die." ■ Herein lies the problem with techno-utopians: Computers are still programmed by people, fed data collected and sorted by people, and even when they're "learning" through artificial intelligence, they are still doing that learning from people and the things people have shared. Those people include Communist hardliners, unfortunately for us all. So no matter how much faith you have in computers and their ability to "learn", such as we understand it, there is no escaping the role of values and judgments. These things do not depend upon volume for their validity. Numbers can lie and quantity is no substitute for fidelity of thought. ■ The Communist Party of China can impose "Xi Jinping Thought" on every classroom in China, from kindergarten to graduate school -- but that doesn't make it more valid than, say, the study of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty". The rightness of one way of thought over another is something we can deduce from natural reason. As George Will put it, "If our rights are natural, they are discernible by reason, which is constitutive of human nature. Such rights also are natural because they pre-exist acts of collective human will and cannot be nullified by such acts." ■ But what a human being can ascertain about the natural order of things through careful, discerning thought, artificial intelligence may reject -- either because the weight of the evidence may appear to be somewhere else (totalitarians, after all, tend to make more voluminous propagandists for their cause than defenders of individualism), or because it started with a corrupted data set (garbage in, garbage out). Remember: It only took 16 hours for Microsoft's Tay.ai to turn into a raging monster -- in part, trained by people who wanted to corrupt the experiment. ■ Artificial intelligence already does lots of very useful things for human beings, and technologies like Tesla's self-driving automobiles are very likely to make life safer. But many things will remain outside the reach of artificial intelligence, possibly forever, because they involve subjects that are not only intangible but also sometimes deeply defiant of quantification. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions." Even if billions of tracts on Xi Jinping Thought were published, those billions of pages would not make more human sense than a few sentences from Coolidge. But AI may not see it that way. ■ Cheer for technology when it serves human interests. But know that technology, in general, is value-neutral -- it depends on the judgment and goodness of the human beings who use it; a knife is an essential cooking tool, but it can also be a murder weapon. Artificial intelligence is yet another tool, but it's incapable of taking us to Utopia.

September 21, 2021

News Get a hobby (it's good for you)

Every fall, three entirely predictable events come to pass: Pumpkin-spice novelty foods will reappear in stores, half of America will go utterly football-mad, and half of America will proclaim the sport overrated. (Half and half may be misestimates, so pardon the imprecision.) ■ Sports -- from rec leagues through college and into the pros -- are perfectly good for offering recreation and distraction. They are much better outlets for obsession and unwavering passion than engaging in politics as bloodsport. It's a big business, too: The NCAA says "The total athletics revenue reported among all NCAA athletics departments in 2019 was $18.9 billion." (That's what made the pandemic so costly for athletic departments.) ■ But interesting people have hobbies, too. For a brief moment in history, Covid-19 lockdowns had people doing things like learning to bake bread. With everything else taken off the calendar, people looked to new sources of interest to fill their recreational time. And there were good reasons for hobbies to take up that space: Productive activities -- especially when they're rhythmic and repetitive, like kneading dough -- can be very good outlets for stress and facilitating a meditative state of calm. ■ The struggle to find a "new normal" is likely to take some time. The new and enduring status quo may quite possibly be permanently different than what existed in, say, the autumn of 2019. One of the changes that ought to stick with us is the adoption of hobbies and outside interests that involve neither our occupational interests nor being consumers of entertainment provided by others. Binge-watching football isn't all that different, really, from binge-watching "Tiger King". In modest doses, there's nothing wrong with either. ■ Interesting hobbies, though, shouldn't take second seat to entertainment we consume. They should come first. Hobbies need space within everyday life and on every calendar: They're unequivocally good for mental wellness, giving people not only an outlet in the moment, but also a lingering sense of good feeling. ■ Two things seem to make a hobby ideal: One is a sensory immersion in some kind of rhythm, or some other characteristic that helps the individual to enter what has entered the psychological lexicon as a state of flow. The other is that the hobbyist can make modest growth in their abilities that helps to mark change over time. If one can grow in ability (and reflect on prior experiences), that helps to make the perception of time slow down, since experiences have to be somehow different from the past in order to be encoded as long-term memories. (This is bad news indeed for Fred the Baker.) ■ Whatever seasonal changes may mean to any of us, whether it's the arrival of pumpkin-spice everything or time for tailgating or none of the above, it's appropriate to consider the benefits of "passing the time" in a state that pays psychological dividends. It's all too easy to ask "Where did the time go?" Well-chosen hobbies can slow the clock in all kinds of benevolent ways.

September 22, 2021

Science and Technology Save the world: Run your dishwasher overnight

The BBC (specifically, its smart speech-based network, Radio 4, where even the fidelity of the Big Ben chimes is a matter of robust debate) airs a program called "More or Less", on which the main topic of discussion is statistics. It seems an unlikely concept to attract much interest, but it is the kind of novel program that gains 23,000 followers on Twitter in addition to a robust listening audience. ■ Among the questions they've sought to answer with numbers is this: Is an automatic dishwasher more efficient than a person washing dishes by hand? ■ For starters, the question is basically settled: Dishwashers that earn an Energy Star rating from the EPA are both extremely efficient, typically using an almost trivial amount of electricity and less water for a total cycle than would flow from a normal kitchen sink in just two or three minutes. As long as a relatively modern dishwasher is being run with more than just a single place setting, it's likely to be the most efficient route by quite some margin. ■ But one aspect of the question in particular deserves a second look. The knock against automatic dishwashers is that they use electricity instead of elbow grease. That much seems indisputable. But in addition to using far less electricity than in the past, state-of-the-art dishwashers (and clothes washers, for that matter) offer timer delays. This permits a household to time-shift its cleaning to an off-peak hour, like the middle of the night. ■ Domestic water use tends to be diurnal, with two peaks: In the morning and again in the evening. That's when most of the bathing, cooking, drinking, washing, brushing, and flushing happens. Any time a household can shift some of its water consumption to off-peak hours, that helps the local water and wastewater utilities to smooth out their own energy and water use. ■ If every household could shave 5% or 10% off their peak water use and move it to a low-demand time like the middle of the night, the net effect could be very helpful to utilities. And the consequences for overall environmental efficiency would add up even more in places like Iowa, where a majority of the electricity now comes from wind turbines. Time-shifting consumption helps not only the water supply but also the electrical grid (and the two are closely related, since water utilities are major consumers of electricity). ■ Peak demand can be problematic for both electrical utilities and water utilities. Reducing consumption through higher efficiency is obviously helpful, but consumption-smoothing is helpful, too. Taking the pressure off peak electrical demand translates into less reliance on carbon-generating power plants, and easing peak demand on water supplies allows pumps and tanks to balance supplies more efficiently. Rivers flow and winds blow at all hours, so running the dishwasher in the middle of the night makes one a good steward of renewable resources.

September 23, 2021

Computers and the Internet "Content management" has taken a flamethrower to logic

Before there was Google, the nascent Internet was navigable mostly by directories. DMOZ and the Yahoo Directory sought to collect and organize links to all of the destinations on the World Wide Web. At the time, it was an achievable goal. ■ The eager proprietor of a new website would suggest their site to Yahoo and wait for human beings to place the page inside their structured hierarchy of information. It was all very consistent with the era's approach to computers, which were still slow enough that they required thoughtful programming and careful organization by human beings. ■ Limitations mattered: A DOS file name could be just eight characters long, with a three-character extension depicting what type of a file it was. A Pentium chip in 1998 could run at 200 MHz, barely one-twentieth the speed of a Pentium chip in 2008. Programmers had to think carefully, making sure that data was well-organized and lines of code didn't go to waste. Today, virtually nobody seems to pay attention to code bloat, because fast processors make up for inefficient code. ■ Directories aren't very helpful for people who don't already know how to find what they don't know. If you know the definition of a word but don't know the word itself, a dictionary is both well-organized and useless. That's what made Google so extraordinary when it was new: It could help the user answer ambiguous questions, and PageRank offered a way for the novice user to estimate the quality of a source without knowing anything about it. It was quite the step forward. ■ Unfortunately, though, we have unintentionally passed from making good use of search engines into the abuse of them. Being "found" on the first page of a Google search result is often more important to the prospects of a business than all of the other advertising it can do, so search-engine optimization is now a titanic digital industry. And, in turn, the concept of searching took over the relationship between computers and their users. ■ An article in The Verge suggests that the first fully search-dependent college students arrived in classrooms around 2017, knowing how to find files and information in their computers only by using the search bar. Individual professors confirm routinely seeing their students mystified by the idea of folders and directories. ■ In part, the companies making the operating systems are to blame -- Android and iOS fundamentally assume a search-first approach. Google Docs (widely used in schools) does the same. One college professor argues bluntly that computing tools are being designed so that users don't think about organization; the technology "replaced everything with a dumbwaiter. Maybe the right files come back up the tube. Maybe they don't." ■ But it's also a reflection of an Internet problem: "Content management systems" have effectively repealed decades of progress in directory logic that culminated in websites that a person could easily navigate from the file structure alone, with intuitive directory names and content organized in detail. Content-management systems can pack a long URL full of keywords (in a bid to win the search-engine contest), even if there's no resulting deductive logic to the way the files themselves are organized. ■ For a while, website designers put thought and effort into careful website organization, complete with features like breadcrumb navigation. That approach remains both logical and conscientious, but it isn't particularly rewarded in a "search-first" world. And thus confusion flourishes, as certain search features improve (like facial recognition, now built right into Google Photos), pulling users even farther away from even thinking about organization. ■ Certain organizing schemes of the past tried to do the impossible -- completely categorizing and organizing all knowledge. We still have rival systems for organizing books -- the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification -- telling us that conclusive organization may be forever an illusion. Yet even when the numbering systems were inadequate for a library's needs, there was always the vertical file. ■ Lots of people will manage to live long, happy, and fulfilled lives never knowing how to create a rigorously-organized file structure. For many, searching will be enough. But at the broader level, abandoning that rigor doesn't make sense, either. It was hubris to think that the whole Internet could be organized by Jerry and David's directory -- but many individual websites really should still have disciplined file structures, especially if they're going to last for any length of time. ■ "Content management" is too often just glorified SEO, and poor website management has made "link rot" a huge problem. A website "refresh" all too often results in dead links all around. It's a result of conscious choices not to invest in thoughtfully maintaining what's on the Internet. ■ Benjamin Franklin warned of this in 1758: "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." The Internet often helps us to feel like we have all the world's knowledge at our fingertips. But if we don't also have sound, logical ways of organizing that knowledge -- whether it's on our own devices or on the websites we manage -- it's the want of care that will come back to bite us.

September 24, 2021

Business and Finance Stop and go

On the very long road to a future without combustion engines, hybrid electric cars are playing a significant role. One of the most interesting features of hybrid power systems is regenerative braking, which captures the kinetic energy of the moving vehicle and uses some of it to recharge the battery. It is a clever way of taking energy that would have otherwise gone to waste by heating up the brake pads and converting it instead into future kinetic energy. ■ Sometimes you're slowing down for a red light, sometimes you're accelerating away from a green light. Saving the energy from the red light and putting it to work when the stoplight turns green is both smart and efficient. We're not as good at applying that seemingly-obvious logic to other aspects of life, and that's a mistake. ■ From time to time, it appears to be in the public interest to take action to nudge the economy to heat up or cool down, and government officials (and quasi-governmental officials, like those at the Federal Reserve) have tools at their disposal. Whether, how, and when to apply those tools -- and in what amounts -- is the art of economic judgment. ■ In reaction to the 2008-2009 economic pinch, the Federal Reserve pumped giant quantities of money into the US economy. Even bigger mountains of money were infused in response to the Covid-19 crash in 2020: Just utterly staggering sums. ■ Whenever people see a lot of money moving into an economy that isn't getting much bigger in real terms, the natural reaction is to expect inflation. Yet, massive inflation didn't follow the 2008/09 response. Part of the reason is attitudinal: People and businesses are sitting on their money in a way we haven't previously recorded in America. There's a whole lot of hoarding going on. So does that mean the old rules are dead and government can spend (literally) freely, as proponents of "Modern Monetary Theory" have argued? ■ No, it really doesn't. Just because we've been fortunate to avoid inflation doesn't mean it can't still happen. The old constraints on government spending (and borrowing) are still out there; we just don't see all of the consequences because other behaviors have changed in dramatic ways, too -- like all that money that's sitting still when it would usually be circulating around. ■ Prices are rising enough in some sectors for people to take notice, and if people are inclined to start spending more freely, then prices may rise -- especially as goods and services are harder to find because of very real supply-chain capacity shortages and tight labor markets. It's premature and unwarranted to panic, but it's not unwise to think about the economy in the same terms as a regenerative battery. ■ Intervention made sense in both of this century's panic situations to keep hard times from becoming calamities (with very real social consequences). Fear is contagious. But just as a driver might have to punch the gas to climb a hill, that same driver may need to hit the brakes to keep from rolling too quickly downhill. It can be very sensible to capture some of the excess in good times and shift it to expenditure in hard times -- just like regenerative braking. But it's tough to get the "battery" part right. The best stimulative investments are the ones that build capacity for future growth or (even better) take precautionary measures against problems that could turn out to be costly in the future. ■ Building capacity helps because it helps reduce the overall cost of the intervention (in other words, if you can spend $1 now to make the economy grow by $2 in the future, then the $1 "costs" less in those future terms). And steps taken to stave off future costs are even better, because they prevent future waste. ■ One thing we shouldn't do, though, is to think of stimulative spending as a substitute for paying for necessary things as we go. Money doesn't remain free forever, and the very experience of two crises in two decades should be enough to remind us that we have to recharge the battery from time to time.

September 27, 2021

The United States of America Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable

Three decades before the Civil War, Sen. Daniel Webster delivered a two-day speech on the floor of the Senate, culminating in those memorable words: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable". The United States had barely four decades of Constitutional experience at the time of his speech, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died not four years before. The country was, by any historical measure, still a fresh experiment, and Webster saw the grave threat of disunity with clear eyes. ■ The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution is still a wonderful and elegant thing: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Compact and clear, it is a reminder that our proper Federal order originates with the states, which are free to behave as uniquely as natural law and the will of the people will allow, up to the point at which national unity on a matter is necessary. But like all good rules, it isn't a matter for part-time consent. Once you're into the Federal order, you're in for perpetuity. The Constitution doesn't contain an opt-out clause for those times we may find an outcome distasteful. That's the whole point of staking out the defense of reserved powers: To reinforce the binding of the country around the things that really matter by letting everything else remain loose and untethered. ■ Unfortunately, there remain some fantasists among this giant population who imagine that the Constitution and the very Union itself are subject to that reservation of powers. Some talk lightly of secession. Some talk of a "national breakup". Others want to abolish the Senate. And, perhaps worst, there are those who actively advocated a plan to expressly subvert a Presidential election. ■ Even one person nodding approvingly about a "civil war" or making glib talk about how the country "will not survive" is one person too many. And not one of them -- not one -- has the patience to understand what it is they embrace. America may have a giant, overstretched national bureaucracy. We may have too many issues escalated to the national level that should remain state or local matters. We most certainly have national-level politicians who are too eager to impose their will on a giant country through executive orders, sweeping mandates, and even manipulation of the courts. But the system in which we live is the complicated organic product of generations of wrangling and compromise and evolution. Even our understanding of the Tenth Amendment has been shaped through statutes and court decisions. ■ The complexity may be frustrating to those who don't understand it. And it may be aggravating to others that we still treat the states as the primary organs of common law. But keeping a limited national government in its own lane, delegated its powers by states which are perpetually committed to its maintenance, is the only way to make a vibrant, diverse, and democratic system work out. We're too big to be all the same, and yet we should be free to choose paths of commonality without having harmony forced on us where it isn't essential nor disharmony imposed by angry misfits who can't herald the worthy advice to "mind your business". ■ The disuniters of all stripes may be too obtuse to understand it, but our complex and wonderful system for weaving together a country is much too important to pull apart. Their short-sightedness almost certainly prevents them from so much as reading the full text of Webster's landmark speech. But on the pure self-interest of economics alone, the benefits that come from creating a free-trade area spanning a continent, 332 million people, and a common system of legal protections for contracts and intellectual property cannot be adequately quantified. ■ We have Americans who are mad that their favorite regional chain restaurants haven't migrated into their home markets. We are so used to seamless integration that a world where Waffle House or In-N-Out Burger or Dunkin Donuts aren't available nationwide seems like an offense to good manners. Imagine the costs of tearing apart common standards for Interstate highways, making cross-country trains stop for customs inspections, and imposing border controls for flights between O'Hare and LAX. ■ Lively, even tumultuous debates on many of our problems are certainly in order. And from a practical viewpoint, much less a philosophical one, we would do well to expect the states to be those heralded "laboratories of democracy" -- that's not only what the Constitution intends, it also tends to produce valuable guidance in times of uncertainty. But we should shun, ignore, and eject from serious debates anyone who advocates for secession, stunts to undermine the Constitution, or any other evasion of "Union, now and forever". This isn't some mere email newsletter from which one can click "unsubscribe". The perpetuity of our unity around the essential things is what has made great things possible in 50 heterogeneous states. Any attempt to unravel that unity should be grounds for expulsion from polite company.

September 28, 2021

The United States of America Build libraries, but beware the monuments

As a general rule, public facilities shouldn't be named after people who are still living. No matter how honorable the person's behavior up until the time of a christening, there's always time for that same individual to go off the rails and discredit their own names (and any facilities or institutions named after them). We can honor living people in lots of ways, and certainly it may seem unfair to withhold an honor like naming a building, a bridge, or a battleship after a person until they have passed, but that simple limitation acts as a useful brake on the process -- giving historians and others at least a little bit of time to consider the ramifications of a person's legacy (and, perhaps, to uncover disqualifying behavior that might have evaded the spotlight during a person's life). The private sector can name what it likes, and there may be a case for exchanging naming rights for donations or sponsorship funding. ■ But in the case of naming facilities merely as an honor, this rule would have prohibited naming airports after Presidents George Bush or Bill Clinton during their lives, or an expressway after Senator Robert Byrd. A worthy exception to this rule, however, is the naming of Presidential libraries. ■ The practice of building Presidential libraries is a relatively modern one; they've only been deliberately built since Herbert Hoover. And inasmuch as a Presidential library acts as a living yearbook for the country, it serves a certain public good that is hard to delineate other than by Presidential administrations. We don't seem to have succumbed to the wily charms of our Speakers of the House or our Chief Justices in quite the same way, so to mark the study of a particular era by the name of the Chief Executive is a basic compromise with reality. ■ As ground is being broken on the Obama Presidential Center, it's worth noting that the 44th President is the first to direct a digital library instead of a physical one. The center is envisioned as a museum and community center instead. Insofar as it is being funded through private donations, a case can be made for that choice. ■ Yet there's a risk that something important may be lost if we develop a habit of putting former Presidents at the center of movements that must go on, rather than subjecting them to careful academic study -- and even close scrutiny. Part of this, of course, is a derivative of President Obama's relative youth -- born in 1961, he finished his Presidency well before normal retirement age and consequently seems to feel a relatively youthful drive to keep doing things. But a President who becomes a movement is a very different thing from the model of Cincinnatus returning to the plow. ■ Former Presidents have never been entirely silent -- Hoover remained a vocal critic of FDR and lived to chair commissions for Truman and Eisenhower. Carter continued to conduct "private diplomacy" into the 2000s. Taft went on to get the job he really wanted -- Chief Justice. John Quincy Adams just went back to Congress. ■ But there's some hazard to the notion that Presidencies must endure somehow after the Constitutional term is complete. We already invest far too much weight in the Presidency, and if we never stop to deliberately fix Presidents with a place in history -- subject to criticism and rehabilitation alike -- then we very much entertain the possibility that Americans will want to adhere too closely to "their" Presidents, even when someone new is in office. Former Presidents ought to be a source of wisdom, cohesion, and support for their successors and their country. But we shouldn't be hesitant to place the priority on fixing their place in history rather than scrambling to enlarge their place in the present. The one you like may be followed by the one you despise.

September 29, 2021

Agriculture When cornstalks are more than just cornstalks

In life, care must be taken not to let what is obvious obscure what is fundamentally true. A photograph of a combine in a field is, obviously, a picture of a harvest underway. But what is fundamentally true is that a field full of corn or soybeans is actually a giant solar-energy collector. In terms of appearance, it has nothing in common with a photovoltaic panel. One is organic in nature, while the other is assembled in a factory. One changes color from green to yellow and then brown, while the other is almost always black. One must be harvested, while the other needs to be wired. ■ But, at its most fundamental level, a field full of corn or soybeans (or sorghum or basically any other row crop) exists to opportunistically capture sunlight in one place and convert it into another form of energy for use in another place and time. That's exactly what manufactured solar panels do. And understanding that they exist for the same fundamental purpose helps to shed light on why the two uses can easily come into conflict -- as is already happening in Iowa. ■ Being able to see beyond the obvious is a skill we often don't value enough. It's obvious that there are major differences in physical form between a high-voltage line, a green wagon, a coal car on a train, and a natural-gas pipeline. But in fundamental truth, they're really all in essence the same thing: Tools for getting energy from one place to another, which is not only a vital job, it's also a very complicated one. Likewise, a grain bin isn't just a grain bin: It's a giant battery where energy is stored. ■ Life is full of these situations where what is true and what is obvious may have little in common with one another. They occur so frequently that we really ought to give more thought to training ourselves (and our children) in the skills required to see things more deeply. It's not that we shouldn't believe what we see with our own eyes, but we have to insist on making sure that we aren't missing truths that aren't apparent at first glance. ■ That often requires hard work (or at least some unusual concentration), and it isn't always immediately satisfying. It can even lead people to think that you're just a little bit out of your mind. A corn field obviously isn't an organic solar panel -- until you realize that it is. And that's why we shouldn't be satisfied with arguments that end in someone saying that something "is obvious". Yes, common sense ought to be more common. But common sense isn't very sensible if it's used as an excuse to gloss over deeper meanings. ■ The work of thinking isn't really done until you go there: Insisting on seeing the truth underlying the obvious. It makes an enormous difference in getting to the right decisions in life, especially in the complicated and big questions. ■ We have to believe that there really is virtue in seeing beyond the obvious and expect that both our opponents and our allies alike respect the need to see beyond the obvious to find the actual truth. That takes a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of goodwill. But there really is no alternative. ■ It's sad that in a world so rich with underlying complexity and systems to be discovered, so many people are attracted to conspiracy theories -- about QAnon and chemtrails, vaccines and shadowy cabals. The human inclination that evolved to let us see patterns gives us tremendous survival potential and allows us to experience wonders like seeing pictures in the clouds. ■ But seeing things that are not really there is far less useful than seeing what truths really are. Not shadowy faux-truths, but the whole truths that are neither obvious nor the products of feverish imaginations. The ability to see them requires training and practice, along with a healthy dose of self-discipline. Perhaps if we engaged that ability more often, we'd find less allure in the shadows and more contentment from seeing the surprises right before our eyes.

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September 30, 2021

The United States of America Speaking with the past

A group of historians met in March with the President. Some have interpreted this as a signal that President Biden was trying to figure out his legacy even before his administration was truly underway. A different interpretation is offered by Jon Meacham, who coordinated the event and says the President wanted to know "how have previous presidents dealt with fundamental crises[?]". ■ The two reasons don't have to be at odds. In fact, anyone with even a sliver of awareness about the Presidency knows that we mostly remember our Chief Executives not for anything they ever promised on the campaign trail, but rather for how they responded to critical events -- George W. Bush on September 11th, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt on December 7th, 1941. It's the unpredictable events that make the Presidency. ■ Moreover, we should want our Presidents to behave with an eye not merely on the present, but to the judgment of history. What's popular in the moment may not be what's right for the well-being of the country, particularly for generations to come. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "While it is wise for the President to get all the competent advice possible, final judgments are necessarily his own. No one can share with him the responsibility for them. No one can make his decisions for him." ■ In that sense, perhaps our Presidents should meet with historians more often -- like a Kitchen Cabinet, but composed of people there strictly to offer the advice of history. Presidential problems are never exactly the same twice, but they can be informed by previous experience. That's certainly why Presidents decorate the Oval Office with portraits and busts of their predecessors and other laudable figures. ■ Ideally, a President would seek to study and interpret the past on his or her own, since there is no substitute for organically learning a subject -- but not everyone is as voracious a reader as Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to tear through a book a day. Time and other constraints preclude most Presidents from becoming their own Presidential historians. ■ We should consider, though, whether a thoroughly modern invention could help -- even if only modestly. It has become clear that artificial intelligence has a lot of potential, but it depends mightily on the raw material it has been fed. Just a little of the wrong source material and things can turn quite rotten. However, it seems like there is abundant reason to consider experimenting, at least, with training artificial intelligence to behave like what one might call a "personality engine". While a search engine uses AI to query the world of knowledge, a personality engine would use AI to delve into the thinking of an individual person. ■ Presidents in particular leave behind long trails of raw material: Speeches, notes, autobiographies, letters, and more. Even though some of that material is now ghostwritten, it's always written to intentionally reflect the "voice" of the President credited with those thoughts and words. It seems likely we could take a former President's body of work and use it to train an engine of artificial intelligence to tell us: Given this problem, what would Abraham Lincoln do? It seems daft not to at least try. ■ The advice of modern-day historians is a worthwhile supplement, but it also comes filtered through the thinking of the individual historian. The unfiltered, AI-adapted version of former Presidents, meanwhile, might well be more authentic -- but certainly would need, from time to time, to be interpreted through contemporary standards. No President had to even consider the women's vote until Warren Harding, and even some modern-day Presidents have held loathsome prejudices on matters like religion and race. ■ But on many big-picture questions, the volumes of words left behind by prior Presidents may well offer aid to those considering the problems of today. If the advice is bad, it can certainly be ignored. But to really extract the advice of the past, a President surely needs more than two hours with some historians once in a term.

News Sometimes, a new coat of paint isn't enough

One aspect of living in the "New World" that remains easy to underappreciate is just how lightly we are attached to the past. We certainly have landmark structures that are protected from any kind of change -- nobody would dare think of tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance -- but by and large, Americans are comfortable with tearing down the old and replacing with the new. ■ Perhaps that makes us unsentimental. Perhaps that means we're so commercial in mindset that we would sell our memories to make a buck. Perhaps we just don't build things to last forever. ■ Evidence can be found for each of those arguments: Even our most sentimental national pastime, baseball, takes place almost entirely in post-war parks, and the majority wouldn't be old enough to legally drink a beer. Once-legendary places like Tribune Tower are gutted and converted to condominiums nearly as casually as one might replace the tires on a car. And some buildings are set for demolition just a decade after "complete" renovations. ■ But this lack of attachment keeps a lot of things fresh in America's urban and suburban life. Perhaps even restless. And when faced with the alternative, it might not look bad at all. See, for instance, the case of the British homeowner who painted his house a subdued lilac color -- only to find out he was in violation of strict rules on maintaining the "traditional" look of the building. The "tradition" in question dated merely to 1902. But it is apparently considered significant enough that the local government authorities exercised the power to intervene -- just as they can across a giant swath of the community. ■ A sufficient appreciation for private property rights requires that planning and zoning ought to take a light touch. Traditions have a place, to be sure, but so does dynamism -- and anchoring the choices of the present to what well may have been the deeply arbitrary choices of the past can be a dangerous game to play. As the urbanist commentator Nolan Gray noted, "The most beloved neighborhood in your city is secretly a bunch of kit-built houses, mailed out by the 1920s version of Amazon, constructed by amateurs using cheap materials." (But really: Sears sold houses as kits, and what was intended to provide shelter on the cheap back then makes for a peculiar subject of "preservation" efforts today.) ■ Communities have the right to set reasonable standards and to keep neighbors from imposing irresponsibly on others -- you aren't allowed to dispose of radioactive waste in your front yard, of course. But it's daffy to become so attached to the past that "tradition" mandates the prohibition of a fresh coat of a gentle hue of paint on an otherwise ordinary house in a largely unremarkable area. It's not overturning the Magna Carta.