Gongol.com Archives: January 2022

Brian Gongol

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January 1, 2022

Weather and Disasters Colorado fires from the sky

Awful and heartbreaking

Weather and Disasters How to know if you live where it's really cold

If your buildings are connected via tunnels and skywalks, you're in a cold place. Everyone else just needs to bundle up.

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January 2, 2022

Science and Technology Astronomer says you can have Pluto back

But you'll have to accept another 150 or so other minor planets to go along with it. "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nice Pizzas" isn't going to cut it any longer.

The United States of America The Founders favored consumption taxes

Federalist Paper No. 21: "It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue."

Broadcasting NBC minus the peacock

The network had a bi-trapezoidal "N" as its logo in the mid-1970s. It would have been a fine modern logo if NBC didn't already have the peacock. All the peacock really needed (as was irrefutably demonstrated later) was a modernization. Of course, it didn't hurt that the modernizers were Chermayeff and Geismar.

@briangongol on Twitter

January 3, 2022

News To be reasonable

It's arbitrary to think that the world changes just because the year on the calendar has rolled over. We treat years, decades, and even centuries as discrete units in social history -- even though it's mostly an accident of history that most people will call this 2022 rather than 5782 or 4355 or 52. Yet we still do it, with nods to the 18th Century, the 60s, or Y2K as coherent historical units, and the urge to do it remains strong with every new year. ■ At least one important idea is bound to anchor a theme for the year, and the early indications are that the theme for 2022 will be "reasonable accommodations". The phrase has its origin as a matter of workplace treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it deserves mainstream use as we seek ways to figure out more broadly how to behave when any kind of "normal" becomes "different". ■ The obvious flagship issue will be the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether the omicron wave is what tips the disease from pandemic to endemic or not, we are still far from a consensus on what ordinary, routine behavior is to be expected, and what conditions will call for "reasonable accommodations". ■ The US Capitol physician, for instance, wants N95 masks on every face, and for most Capitol workers to stay home. And large employers with nationwide footprints are having major disruptions to their plans to get employees back into their offices after nearly two years away. We have reached a stage where things have been abnormal for so long that all kinds of environments are going to have to reckon with what will constitute "normal" and what will stand out as a "reasonable accommodation" in the future. ■ But it's not only the mutation of a virus that is forcing hard questions about what counts as normal and how far those definitions can reach. Can countries take exception to egregious fundamental human-rights abuses in an Olympics host country without undermining the principle of neutrality in sports? Can transgender athletes smash records in their sports without causing undue second-order consequences for their teammates and competitors? Can insurance and government emergency-response programs encourage people to take precautions to protect their property and maintain adequate coverage when unprecedented fires of mysterious origins can wipe out hundreds of homes in hours? ■ Deciding what constitutes an agreeable consensus definition of "normal" for a community and which accommodations for things that fall outside those norms are "reasonable" (and which are unreasonable) is likely to end up being tough work. The many incremental steps usually required to reach a consensus are really hard to take when deviating from a smaller, more tribal hard-line orthodoxy is a fast track to being ostracized or even threatened with violence. Figuring out that we need both agreeable "normals" and reasonable accommodations alike is likely to be a defining theme of the year to come.

Threats and Hazards Tesla opens a showroom in Xinjiang

That's the same region of China with giant prison camps and forced labor. Why it needs a Tesla dealership is hard to fathom.

News Breaking barriers

Man who crossed the DMZ from North Korea into South Korea in 2020 appears to have crossed it again -- in the other direction

Threats and Hazards Gunfire persists in Chicago

One of the most disquieting and conscience-shocking quotations you'll ever read: "'I hear gunshots every day,' she said. 'I just listen to hear where they’re coming from, then move to the front or the back of the house.'"

News Giant houses could be templates for more density

This house is gorgeous. But it's also 12,000 square feet. If we knew what was good for us, we'd have this kind of architectural craft routinely going into the design of quadruplexes (of 3,000 sf each) and 6-unit apartments.

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January 4, 2022

Computers and the Internet User control

An advertisement for a smartphone app promises that it can make to-do lists "obsolete" and permit its users to "get 25% more done" in a day, all by permitting artificial intelligence to take over where calendars and checklists previously reigned. It's quite the promise -- after all, if a person could extract an extra 25% from an 8-hour working day, that would be like getting a 26-hour clock. ■ It's possible, of course, that certain applications of artificial intelligence really will do quite a lot to increase the productivity of human beings. For example, serious medical journals note that artificial intelligence holds great promise in the field of diagnostic medical imaging, and could very well become a valuable tool in clinical medicine as it can aid doctors with complex patterns. ■ And it turns out that artificial intelligence can be used to serve up chatbots that end up filling in for missing human contacts that people need -- like offering mental-health check-ins. In such a sense, artificial intelligence can certainly help to increase the amount of work done without adding new people, but only up to a point. We can trust computers to do a lot to help us with some routine decision-making, but the marginal and complex situations are where human judgment needs to intervene -- like those where drivers need to know to follow road signs instead of their GPS applications. ■ It's possible that some people may be able to use artificial intelligence tools to plan their days and extract more productivity from them. But those people probably don't deal with complex circumstances -- or a lot of other human beings, for that matter. To know better than the user how to plan the user's day, an app would need not only to know how to rank-order priorities like the user, but also how often to re-order them according to new needs and issues. The app would need to know better than the user how the user's own psychological circadian rhythms normally flow and how and when they might change on the fly. We aren't robots: Biology matters to the quality of our thinking. ■ These are things that it's virtually impossible for an app to "learn" on its own -- especially because to do so accurately requires that the user be sufficiently self-aware to give the app the necessary feedback to say things like "I really regret writing that email yesterday while I was late for lunch, and I should have put it off because now I'm in a fight with my project manager, and it's all because I should have just spent 5 minutes zoning out instead of worrying about my TPS report." A human being can figure that out, if they so choose. It's much harder to convey that to Watson. ■ It's hazardous to expect people to hand over the executive functions of life to machines -- especially if it's done based on promises that "productivity" will be its own reward. Metacognition -- thinking about one's own thinking -- can scarcely be put on autopilot. It is a skill that must be honed through human practice; there's no techological substitute for it. So while it's entirely possible that there are "better mousetraps" to be sold in the world of planners and to-do lists, if an individual isn't already metacognitive enough to adjust their own priorities throughout the day, no app is going to surrogate for that judgment.

Science and Technology Why swimmers are faster underwater

Blame waves: They're energy-consuming, so the fewer of them we create, the faster we can go. That's why we "aquatic apes" do better when we try to swim like Flipper, whose cousins the whales used to walk on land.

Threats and Hazards January 6th Select Committee wants Sean Hannity's cooperation

The commentator owes it to his country to do the right thing and show up. The committee's letter includes a weighty line: "We would like to question you regarding any conversations you had with Mr. Meadows or others about any effort to remove the President under the 25th Amendment."

Business and Finance Toyota sold more cars than GM in the US last year

But GM says it's all because of supply-chain issues.

Computers and the Internet Brexit costs 48,000 British domain names their ".eu"

The domain registry manager says if you're not an EU resident, you don't get a ".eu" extension, and the UK isn't in the EU anymore.

Humor and Good News They'll wait for me

Phil Collins draws out the maximum possible tension walking to the drums for the epic break in "In the Air Tonight". Really just a perfect walk-up.

Health America's drug overdose deaths increased shockingly in the pandemic

New York Times: "The figure marks the first time the number of overdose deaths in the United States has exceeded 100,000 a year, more than the toll of car crashes and gun fatalities combined."


January 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet A bundle of ideas

No one of sound mind or serious disposition ought to be venturing any high-confidence forecasts about the media economics of the years to come. There are just too many things changing in culture, technology, politics, consumer behavior, and finance that influence how the media will work for any short-range forecasts to bear out. ■ However, there are certain climatological-scale forces at play that do make it clear that conditions are primed for certain things to occur if the right participants were to step forward and take action. One of those is for some of the more talented and recognizable writers of the day to band together in producing what would be, in effect, contemporary versions of the old weekly news magazines. (Yes, Time still publishes a print edition and versions of Newsweek and US News and World Report are still around, but their collective influence is a mere shadow of what it once was.) ■ The number of writers who have departed their old homes with familiar legacy publications in order to strike out on their own is far from trivial: Andrew Sullivan left "New York" magazine to launch a $5-a-month subscription newsletter. Eric Zorn took a buyout from the Chicago Tribune to do the same $5-a-month newsletter gig. Bari Weiss's post-New York Times job is indeed another $5-a-month personal column. The list is very long, it is growing, and indeed there are a great many high-quality newsletters going out. ■ At some point, it seems likely that some of these individual producers will decide that it makes more sense to rotate among themselves and to share the burden of keeping up with the outputs demanded by the audience by bundling their products together. Every writer seeks an audience, and banding together could allow writers to increase their reach (and make more money). Much the same as webrings and blog carnivals each had their turns in the sun, so it seems inevitable that a world of individual newsletters will also seek mutual promotion and a touch of solidarity. ■ From the consumer's standpoint, there are so many individual subscription offerings now available for people to support newsletters and Substacks and Patreon ventures that it's tempting to fling cash in all directions. $5 a month doesn't sound like much -- until one realizes that it only takes about three of them to equal cost of a standard subscription to The Economist (which itself boils over with high-quality writing each week). Readers like to support good writers, but economies of scale still matter. Just as the cost of many "unbundled" digital subscriptions can erase the gains from "cord-cutting", so can the unbundling of lots of writing from shared outlets. ■ But even more than that, the times seem to cry out for institutional voices. Aside from The Economist and The Atlantic, it's hard to find many periodical publications that strive to maintain a meaningful editorial voice. With so many people expressing opinions on convenient topics like politics and pop culture, we run the risk of being over-subscribed to those two and under-informed about a much larger number. ■ The real vacuum is for outlets that recognize commonality of interest without commonality of ideology. It's easy to find outlets that wear their allegiances on their sleeves. It's virtually impossible to find those that look to cater to the whole range of interests (across the full spectrum of life) held by people who share certain common curiosities without presuming their conclusions. The idea of a true mass-market general-interest magazine may be hard to sustain anymore, but it's not impossible to imagine an unsatisfied demand for periodicals that match a weekly cadence with an attempt to offer an answer to the question "What, really, should I know about the world?", with some recognizable worldview behind it -- but one that looks beyond a merely partisan lens. There are, after all, only so many individual subscriptions an inbox can take.

Threats and Hazards Scathing, but important

Stephen Marche's take on the perverse incentives being exercised by certain products of elite educational institutions ought to grab the reader's attention: "What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories."

Health Want to become a country doctor?

"[O]ver a dozen counties in Nebraska [are] without a primary care physician", so the state's university system is trying to put an $85 million rural-health teaching campus in the middle of the state

Humor and Good News "Ride Like the Wind" is better than you think

(Video) Music producer Rick Beato reveals that Christopher Cross inserted a wicked guitar solo inside "Ride Like the Wind", but nobody ever heard it because the recording levels were all wrong.

@briangongol on Twitter

January 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Don't let it happen again

On January 6th of 2021, a group of people used violence at the United States Capitol in an attempt to obtain political results. That is the textbook definition of terrorism. Any clear-headed Commander-in-Chief would have responded to a terrorist attack against the seat of government without hesitation, according to the duties prescribed by the Constitution. The incumbent did not, and that revealed a grave problem for the country to face. ■ Aside from the War of 1812 and a handful of isolated incidents, the Capitol had never been compromised, even through world wars, a long Cold War, and a persistent threat from foreign terrorism. What took place in 2021 was a watershed incident, and it must be taken seriously -- not as something ready for commemoration, because it is not an incident belonging to the past. It is a live situation, and nobody should be satisfied that any of it is over yet. ■ The law has to have its way, but it doesn't move fast. It will take time for everyone responsible to face justice, and conscientious Americans must square their expectations with the process. It must be fair and it must be done right. Violations of the law can happen quickly, but we cannot jettison our expectations of the rule of fair and impartial justice, even if it moves much more slowly than the violations. ■ But as a practical matter of self-defense, you're only allowed to be taken by surprise the first time. It is not permissible to wait for the legal process to run its course entirely before the accountable parties take steps to prevent the next attack -- from whatever quarter it may come. The events of 2021 revealed a physical security system far too vulnerable to being overrun and compromised. It also revealed that the legal process underway inside the Capitol was altogether too easily endangered by fast-moving events -- nobody should have had to risk life and limb just to protect the paper ballots of the Electoral College. The flaws, both physical and legal, should be remedied post-haste. ■ A broader message should have been taken from that day, as well: Never assume powers you aren't willing to hand over to your political rivals. There is no excuse for delaying a long-overdue effort to clarify, appropriately limit, and bring back into Constitutional balance the powers of the Executive Branch. ■ Reform is urgently needed, so as to defuse the incentive to try to use extralegal means to seize election results in pursuit of power as a prize. Anyone who enters, aspires to, or is charged with checking and balancing the powers of the Article II branch of the Constitution should be unequivocal about how far those powers ought to reach. If any powers remain in the hands of a single person that are too great to be entrusted to the political candidate you most revile, then the problem is systemic in nature and the powers themselves need to be reformed -- regardless of how satisfying it may seem to see your own side use them. ■ It takes a lot of education and ongoing effort to maintain a peaceful, prosperous, and open society in which liberties are prized, rights are maintained, and the law protects all people. Along the way, everyone has to learn that the cost of getting many of the things we want is that we have to accept losing, too -- losing from time to time in the lawmaking process, in court cases, and in elections. But there can be no dithering about the common interest in repairing the evident shortcomings in our self-defense.

Iowa A very sensible precaution

The Iowa DOT allows drivers to have a special indication on their licenses to indicate that they are deaf or hard-of-hearing. This may not seem obvious to those who have full use of their hearing, but it can make a big difference during interactions with police, who often rely on verbal commands.

Threats and Hazards The distressing invocation of religious imagery one year ago

Messianic fervor applied to politics is toxic

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January 7, 2022

Business and Finance The price of waiting

Here's an idea that sounds great on the surface: "Every line - traffic, the fair, carpool, whatever - should be monetized. Let those who value time (as one should) pay accordingly!" Its author, Scott Lincicome, holds strong libertarian bona fides as a Cato Institute senior fellow, and there's a good chance he shared the idea after running out of patience in the carpool lane at his kids' school. ■ But sometimes good principles come into conflict with one another. Of course, it is a central tenet of market economics that prices are a medium of information, and the signals they convey are generally best allowed to flow freely so that they transmit that information where it will find purpose. If people see that prices are rising for a good or service (be it gasoline or haircuts or anything else), those rising prices tell potential suppliers to consider entering the market or finding substitutes to offer. Price signals do a tremendous service that human beings (like economic planners in controlled economies) have a terrible track record of duplicating. Price controls rarely work, and free-floating prices help fix shortages. ■ However, some goods and services are not particularly sensitive to price signals -- especially where a monopoly provider (like a government) is involved. One parent's willingness to pay more to get through the carpool lane swiftly doesn't necessarily translate to the school allocating its own resources more effectively to allow that to happen. ■ In those cases, it's worth considering that there are other signals to which people may be sensitive, and those can include political pressures. One of the ways to make sure that public services are responsive is to egalitarianize the experience -- to ensure that there isn't a convenient way to escape the lines at the DMV or to get a permit from City Hall. If everyone has to suffer through the same wait, then the people with the highest value on their time have the largest incentives to bark about the delays. Pressure for reform from elite circles can have very useful effects inside government, especially if elected officials think well-resourced citizens are going to hold them accountable for failing to improve. ■ These signals are imperfect, too. And there can be room for price signals as well as political signals -- the TSA PreCheck is probably good not only for the people who use it to expedite their screening at the airport, but also for the safety travel more generally. (And, in complete fairness, Lincicome knows that and was probably just having some fun.) ■ It's important, though, to make sure that people really do keep up the pressure, through whatever means are available, to insist that government always seek better ways of delivering goods and services, especially when the public doesn't have anywhere else to turn. One of the problems of modern living is that it can be expensive to be poor -- and though there are a lot of things that market signals can do to make things better (especially for the poor), it's important from a social standpoint to be sure that some citizens can't simply use their means to bypass avoidable indignities that others are left behind to suffer. ■ Money does a lot of work -- but sometimes we're better off ensuring that everyone has to sacrifice their time equally, so that there's enough push coming from the right voices to ensure that those sacrifices are kept to a minimum.

Weather and Disasters Not the kind of "winter weather" we expect in Iowa

National Weather Service observation regarding the December 15th tornado outbreak in Iowa: "Prior to this event, a total of 5 tornadoes had occurred in Iowa in December since 1950 with all of them in southeastern Iowa. To have over 10 times that many tornadoes in a single day is unprecedented in any month, let alone the month of December!"

Threats and Hazards Why elite credentials don't inoculate against really antisocial ideas

Quite a line from Stephen Marche in The Atlantic: "What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories."

News Fine dining on The Rock

A copy of a 1946 menu from Alcatraz doesn't appear all that awful. Not white-tablecloth stuff, but probably enough to keep the prisoners reasonably mollified.

@briangongol on Twitter

January 8, 2022

News The President's presence at funerals

A Washington Post report makes a great deal out of President Joe Biden's insistence upon attending funerals, and both the care he puts into his eulogies and the political ramifications of his efforts to show up. But what goes unremarked in the article is this very simple point: He's an Irish Catholic. Neither "Irish" nor "Catholic" appears in the article. That's a giant omission, because it's really the whole story. The rituals and the significance of acknowledging death with one's presence remain enormously important in Ireland, and the Irish diaspora carried those things across the Atlantic and kept them alive in the United States. Everything else is just exposition.

Humor and Good News Possibly the best business plan in history

A food truck serving nothing but $1 grilled cheese sandwiches. No upgrades. No change.

Broadcasting Location shots that just don't make sense

Clark Griswold may be an American icon, but there are no mountain foothills in the northwest suburbs of Chicago

Computers and the Internet How to strip erroneous line breaks from PDF-based text

One step to remove them all (after pasting into a fresh text editor). Apparently, those line breaks get saved as "^p" (at least in some editors), so a simple search-and-replace is enough to make them go away. A very helpful tip, indeed.

News Where's in a name?

We often use the phrase "What's in a name?", but the question for some is actually "Where?", as in "Where shall I use this name?" and "Where does the name come from?"

Business and Finance Flexible work is valued at 10% of salary

It may be harder to schedule people's work when more employees choose flexible hours and locations, but it's hard to see any way to reverse course after two years of embedding work-from-home patterns into the economy

News Vigilante murderers convicted

The legal resolution won't bring back Ahmaud Arbery's life, but it ought to serve as a deterrent to similarly mindless and cruel behavior

News The old news/opinion divide makes news again

Washington Post: "Fox News calls [Sean] Hannity 'an opinion host' and doesn't refer to him as a journalist."

@briangongolbot on Twitter

January 10, 2022

News Forcing their hand

Finland's foreign policy standing doesn't loom especially large on the American consciousness, but it certainly does appear to have the persistent attention of the powers in Moscow. Modestly more than a century after declaring its independence from Russia, Finland is once again finding its voice as its president unreservedly reasserted the right to join NATO, whenever and for whatever reason it might like. ■ Nobody with a shred of sanity is interested in wasting resources on pointless armed conflicts. As Dwight Eisenhower once remarked, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." Yet, as long as there are national boundaries to define and sovereign interests to preserve, there will always be a risk that countries will come into armed conflict with one another. ■ In the present moment, even those European countries that have long adhered to neutrality as a tool of self-preservation are finding that the recklessness of the Russian government -- amassing some 100,000 troops near Ukraine -- is creating an urgency to reconsider. ■ The prospective change of heart, not only in Finland, but also possibly in Sweden and maybe in Ireland, too, isn't really being driven by a significant change in where interests have been aligned. The NATO Partnership for Peace isn't a new invention, and economically those countries are integrated more closely with European countries already. Even Finland, despite its long Russian border, still trades more with Germany than with any other country. ■ But what does seem urgent now is that the situation in which Ukraine has been lodged has served to remind other countries that people, often more than anything else, simply want to believe that things are possible of their own choosing. The very deep attraction to self-determination is natural and very real -- from the individual to the family to the community, right on up through the level of the sovereign state. People don't always expect to choose the right path or to get the best outcome -- but any sense of respect for human beings as sentient, decision-making animals carries with it the burden (and reward) of having options. ■ If it so appears that an aggressor is inclined to interfere with that intrinsic ability to make choices and to grasp at possibilities, then there should be no surprise whatsoever if the aggression prompts a diametrically opposed reaction. This belief in the possible -- in having options among which we can choose, whether by accident, by consensus, or at the relentless urging of bold leaders -- is so vital that it can end up compelling decisions even when avoiding a choice itself was long seen as a strategic necessity.

Humor and Good News There are very few truly bad words

But "restaurateur" is definitely among them. "Publican", by contrast, is plainly delightful.

@briangongol on Twitter

January 11, 2022

Business and Finance An unserious proposal

An academic economist proposes the use of price controls to stave off the effects of inflation. It's possible, as with all matters of near-consensus opinion, that this contrarian take has the right idea. (It's unlikely, given how price controls are reviled throughout the mainstream -- even Paul Krugman rejects them! -- but sometimes "common sense" is wrong.) ■ But whether the idea itself has merit or not, the essay proposing price controls is unserious because it repeatedly uses the word "strategic" without once describing which of those prices ought to be controlled, by what mechanism, for how long, or to what particular end. ■ If one advocates a policy that runs 180° contrary to an consensus opinion in a reputable field like economics, then the burden of proof shifts to the contrarian to show up with receipts and explain why the contrarian policy is going to work. The word "strategic" doesn't function as a magic wand to wave off dissent. ■ That the idea itself is contrarian does not give its critics license to mock it, either. The historical treatment of thinkers who have overturned prior consensus -- people like Copernicus and Galileo, for two prominent examples -- should be sufficient warning to the world that it's not always obvious to the majority when a better idea has come along. A little bit of modesty is usually in order, even towards those ideas that seem worthy of scorn. ■ Yet by the same token, a due regard for the process of constructing knowledge through trial and error ought to be adequate to remind the person with a surprising or adversarial opinion that it isn't enough to wave off objections and conjure up some form of magic as an explanation. ■ Humans can't progress unless we remain open to new ideas, but we also can't get very far if we have to convince ourselves entirely of everything and do it all from scratch: Just as no one needs to be able to fabricate a pencil from start to finish, nobody needs to assemble all human knowledge from scratch, either. We have to be able to trust received wisdom while remaining open to convincing new ideas. ■ It's a hard lesson, and one that can be especially hard to practice in times of swift change and large uncertainty. But knowledge requires a tension -- a sort of tug-of-war -- between what seems to be obvious and what challenges it. ■ Whether we're considering the effects of price controls on a market equilibrium or how we absorb the changing guidelines for dealing with a novel public-health challenge, it's up to those who learned the consensus to consider contrarian ideas patiently when they are thoughtfully presented -- and up to the contrarians to make their cases thoroughly and transparently. To do any less is unserious by definition. The world contains too many unknown unknowns to permit any less.

Computers and the Internet What is it that makes you interesting, again?

The missing feature that social media sites still haven't figured out to offer is a way for users to leave memoranda (for themselves only) about why they know other users or why they choose to follow them -- or to block or mute them. It's too much work trying to remember who's proven themselves prescient, who's a Facebook acquaintance picked up through your cousin's ex-boyfriend, and who's been tweeting drunk.

Humor and Good News Better baseball through higher outfield walls

More small ball and more base-stealing

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January 12, 2022

Aviation News Grounded B-52 goes on a road trip

A decommissioned B-52 is going from Arizona to Oklahoma over land, which seems like a lot of work. And it certainly is: The effort to get the old aircraft over a couple of state lines is going to cost millions of dollars, block highways, and generally creep along at a snail's pace along the route. ■ Once the old plane gets to Oklahoma City, the Air Force will use it as a test bed, since the B-52 airframe is expected to remain in service for a long time to come. Getting the airplane there via highway instead of by flying seems counter-intuitive, of course, until the significant challenge (and cost) of getting it airworthy for a single flight is fully apprehended. ■ Yet it is in a case like this when one wonders why we don't have more heavy-lifting airships available for this kind of purpose. Speed obviously isn't the main objective here -- the road trip alone is measurable in weeks, not hours. It would seem that the constraints of traveling by land would be easily surmounted if the payload could be carried by air. And indeed, the idea has been considered: The Canadian armed forces have looked at the idea and found it potentially practical. ■ A heavy-lifting airship called the CargoLifter was designed to be some 850' long (much longer than the 159' length of the B-52) and to carry around 350,000 lbs. of cargo (about twice the weight of an empty B-52). Other rival heavy-lifting airships have also been considered for development, though they still seem to be stuck in the big ideas phase, rather than gritty execution. ■ Considering the prospective benefits to such a type of transportation -- not least of which include the potential for very high energy efficiency and the obvious benefits to vertical takeoffs and landings directly from the cargo's origin point to its destination -- the idea certainly seems to be within range of becoming a reality over the mid-range horizon. Too late, perhaps, to get a B-52 to Oklahoma City, but perhaps likelier to turn into reality 15 or 20 years from now than one might think. If Amazon can spin up a major air-transportation network in a matter of just a few years, a future with heavy-lifting airships can't be written off.

Socialism Doesn't Work Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes on a bizarre antitrust target

Her statement: "What happens when only a handful of giant grocery store chains like Kroger dominate an industry? They can force high food prices onto Americans while raking in record profits. We need to strengthen our antitrust laws to break up giant corporations and lower prices." Meanwhile, Aldi has achieved a degree of vertical integration that keeps the ghost of Andrew Carnegie awake at night and manifests itself in $1.39 boxes of breakfast cereal. But, sure, what's needed is ham-handed antitrust intervention from Washington.

News A thoughtful reflection on last January 6th

Yosef Goldman: "Our representative democracy depends on its ability to give voice to all Americans, regardless of their views, or their standing in society. It is only as strong as the safeguards that protect the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized." A principled, grounded sense of pluralism matters so much.

Water News Hitting the gym in 1877

You can chuckle at the archaic equipment or laugh out loud at the idea of working out in a suit or a dress -- but just imagine how awful it would have been to work out before there was widely available, clean running water for showers and laundry. That's a modern invention we ought to appreciate even more than a good bench-press machine.

Agriculture The reboot of "Green Acres" is going to be wild

John Deere is introducing self-driving tractors...slowly

News A moose trapped in a household basement

That professor character from the Farmers Insurance commercials has some new material.


January 13, 2022

Broadcasting The runway isn't infinite

Broadcasting consultant Fred Jacobs poses the provocative question, "Did radio shoot itself in the foot by allowing satellite broadcaster SiriusXM to become a top-10 advertiser?" The question seems reasonably easy to answer if taken directly: It usually isn't a great business model to not only accept advertising from one of your fiercest competitors, but to allow that competitor to become a significant source of revenue. ■ There are mitigating factors to consider, too, not least of which is the painful state of radio advertising revenues in general. When you're in a market that has suffered double-digit percentage declines over the last two decades, it's not a particularly opportune time to go about picking and choosing your customers. ■ But the more interesting question isn't "Did radio shoot itself in the foot?", but rather "How would a thriving medium relate to its rivals?" ■ It's not a question exclusive to radio, either. The entire media economy in the United States is under strain; a newspaper reporter just posted a picture of her $396.12 weekly take-home pay, which would suggest a net income of $9.90 per hour -- for an occupation almost exclusively reserved for those with college degrees. Many newspapers are spiraling, taking extraordinary steps like eliminating print editions (as the Des Moines Register is doing on Saturdays), and while local television revenues appear to be holding to a more modest decline, they're not bathing in champagne, either. ■ So, how would thriving media relate with one another? Surely one step would be for each to specialize in its own strengths. Local radio broadcasting has an inherent advantage over other media in its immediacy and locality -- since it can be produced with nothing more than a voice and a microphone, it will forever have the upper hand when it comes to being right here, right now -- wherever that may be. Local television has the advantage when it comes to appealing to the human urge to look at beautiful things, especially when those things are familiar. It's no accident that Frank Magid found the sweet spot in serving up punchy, fast-paced news programs delivered by teams of good-looking anchors. Local newspapers have the inherent advantage that they serve (often literally) as the records of a community. People still save front pages, clip out profiles and sightings of "names in the paper", and expect that they can catch up on a week's worth of news by scanning a week's worth of headlines. The very periodicity of the printed edition of a newspaper remains one of its chief advantages. ■ But all of these media are in competition with national and even international outlets, many of them able to use economies of scale to their advantage. SiriusXM, the satellite broadcaster, bought the Pandora streaming service, and the New York Times is shelling out half a billion dollars to buy the online sports outlet The Athletic. These kinds of combinations tend to accrue talent, and that makes it increasingly difficult for smaller outlets to compete on a head-to-head basis. If a person wants to know about major-league sports news in general, it's hard for a local sports editor or anchor to deliver something better than competitors with the resources of ESPN or the New York Times. ■ For those smaller outlets to thrive requires that they abandon hopes of competing head-to-head with the homogenized national outlets -- the 300 million smartphones in service in the United States don't leave a lot of people without access -- and instead plunge their resources into doing what national-scale outlets cannot. With tools like local advertising insertions into streaming media already long-established, it's not long before some of those outlets will learn how to insert locally focused content, too. ■ But that's where the incumbent local outlets still have a head start: They have residual brand recognition from decades of established presence in their communities, and a limited window in which to ensure that those brands are durable into the future. It takes the investment not just of money but also of energy -- that hard-to-define characteristic of driving hard into a job, for the good of doing it well. ■ For a brief remaining window (perhaps a few years, perhaps a decade or a little longer, but probably not two decades), those incumbents still have the capacity to define what it means to be from a place. That takes more than just ranking the "Top Ten Local Stories of 2021" or soliciting readers' feedback about the "40 Under 40". It requires taking a chance on defining habits, norms, behaviors, tastes, and other idiosyncrasies -- and accepting the risk that local audiences won't unthinkingly go along with those choices. ■ Those are things that satellite radio can't do from Manhattan and Gannett can't do from DC. And if they're done well, creatively, and boldly, they should leave those local outlets with enough reach -- and perhaps enough courage -- to willingly exist alongside big rivals. Maybe even enough to let the rivals with deep pockets come along and drop some revenues in local coffers. Local media outlets have some time left on the clock, but the longer they wait to try original, place-defining things, the harder the ultimate climb. The real way for them to shoot themselves in the foot is to fail to strive.

Iowa No doublespeak, please

"Des Moines Register to make Saturday home delivery change in March" is a really evasive way of saying "We're no longer going to print on Saturdays". That doesn't mean it's the wrong decision, but a newspaper should just be straight about it.

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January 14, 2022

News Learning better

Debates over the content of classroom instruction, from the earliest grades through post-secondary training, are well-worn and often thoroughly exhausting. What's often more interesting is an examination of the omissions: What are the things that either out of neglect or deliberate design are left out of the curriculum? Three subjects in particular seem to stand out as topics worthy of incorporation into a broad education in the modern day. ■ The first is the hardest to name but the easiest to recognize: Some form of general education in the range of life skills required to act as a well-functioning member of society. It seems to have been generally assumed over time that parents and other close adult relatives would transmit these lessons to their offspring, but the rise of "adulting" as a shorthand way of describing these behaviors -- and the notion that people enter adulthood not knowing "how to adult" -- makes it evident that aspects of this education aren't being transmitted through the traditional channels. ■ In that sense, a "most general education" would have to include a wide range of small but valuable notices: Carry a multi-tool in your car in case of emergency. Don't heat water in the microwave without breaking the surface tension. Pour fats, oils, and grease into containers instead of down the drain. Lightning can strike more than 50 miles away from the center of a storm. Don't store batteries with their ends touching. So many of these small nuggets seem like common sense to those who know them, but they aren't necessarily obvious unless they have been taught. ■ The second worthy topic is how to maximize one's own reading capacity. Speed reading isn't a universal fix, nor is it a skill that can be developed by everyone. Yet everybody needs to be able to read in order to make the most use of their place in an advanced society, and there's a good chance one needs to be even more literate than ever in order to have the best prospects for success. ■ Literacy comes in many forms, of course, and in addition to being able to read words to the best of one's capacities, people also need to develop numeracy and digital literacy. But there may be no single skill more useful at helping the median person to advance their place in life than figuring out how to make the most of their reading, and how to read in the way that is most productive for them individually. Some people have to be active readers, making margin notes and highlighting their words. Others will get the most utility from words read aloud. Others will discover they need printed pages or electronic ink instead of bright computer or smartphone screens. Individualization of the skill of reading could make a significant difference to most people's lives, considering printed words remain the most universal way for people to access new information. ■ The last oft-omitted topic is even a bit more esoteric than the individualization of reading skills, but it is perhaps the most important of all: The need for each person to learn how to optimize their own executive function. No two people are identical in how they self-regulate -- from whether and how they form to-do lists to how they coordinate their moods and mental stimulation levels to the time of day. ■ A vast industry has grown up around planners and "productivity methodologies", not to mention motivation and performance psychology. It's a very big business, and self-appointed gurus make significant hay from the endeavor. But the reality is that no single system works for everyone -- even Benjamin Franklin found it complicated and had to let his process evolve with time and experience. But a lot of good could be served by helping people to become aware of their own processes for self-regulation earlier in life rather than later. ■ Perhaps these topics aren't regularly captured by the educational system because they tend to require so much intensive customization. But realizing how cumulatively valuable they would be, not just to the people who often receive direct educational interventions but to the median person as well, could be a way to open the door to considerable social utility -- doing a lot of good for a lot of people. And the world could likely use much more of that.

Humor and Good News Your spouse doeesn't want to know your Wordle score

Spouses should be each other's biggest boosters outside the home, and totally unimpressed by each other's shenanigans behind closed doors. Think "Flavor Flav" when others are watching, and "McKayla Maroney" when they're not.

Humor and Good News Art is in the constraints

Skyscrapers with setbacks (or, to some, "stepbacks") are aesthetically wonderful. Whether they have to be mandatory by law is another question, but as long as they don't go too far, they are profoundly pleasing to the eye.

Threats and Hazards Propagandists really are trying to break American democracy

Tim Miller: "If it weren’t for the domestic terrorism and the threat to democracy, the whole thing would be an over-the-top laugh riot."

@briangongolbot on Twitter

January 15, 2022

Weather and Disasters Volcano in Tonga sets off tsunami and atmospheric shock waves

Those measurable shock waves traversed the planet. The planet is always just a little smaller than we think. The resulting cloud cover and ash plume were enormous.

Weather and Disasters A foot of snow

For a snowstorm that began as just little fits of flurries most of the day, things really turned up in the evening and night hours. Complain though some might about cold weather, you never hear of anyone moving south to get closer to fire ants, scorpions, and venomous snakes. (Cold weather has at least some redeeming characteristics.)

@briangongolbot on Twitter

January 17, 2022

News One quote isn't enough

While he was alive, the FBI subjected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to repeated violations of his rights and fundamentally violated his personal liberty. The bureau tapped his phones, surveilled him, and treated him like an enemy. Agents even tried using subterfuge to try to persuade him to kill himself. The treatment was degrading and fundamentally un-American. ■ Thus it comes as no surprise that the FBI's social-media treatment of the holiday in his name and honor has been roundly criticized for ignoring that shameful past. Nobody working on the FBI's social-media team in 2022 was party to the abuses of six decades ago, of course. Yet the impulse to find a quote attributable to King and to share it approvingly on social media is a peculiar one, especially for an institution with such an ignominious role in the subject's life, and it is illustrative of a bad habit exacerbated by a deeply embedded flaw in the way Americans learn history. ■ The bad habit comes from the instinct to find a quote that seems agreeable and to wave it around as a signal of solidarity with something larger. The FBI borrowed "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve" to latch on to the King holiday. The fundamental problem with this approach is that a person pulling a line from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Bartleby, Wikiquote, or (as often as not in the modern era) Pinterest is in danger of cherry-picking a few words out of context and looking foolish as a result. ■ Many quotes do stand on their own. But it's hazardous to rely on a few words alone -- just because a thought fits within the 280-character limit of Twitter or the preview window of a Facebook post doesn't mean it can safely be severed from its ties to when, how, why, and by whom that thought was spoken or put to paper. ■ This habit of turning to quotations out of convenience reflects the larger habit of depending on textbooks rather than primary source materials. Textbooks are of course a necessity, even if they are often a bargain with the devil. There is so much history to survey, and only so much time in which to give young people a general understanding of history. Yet even a person with good intentions can end up steeped in facts without any real understanding of their meaning. Context is crucial, and while textbook authors invariably intend to imbue their summaries with context, the nature of the relationship between student and textbook is one of atomization: Which facts will be on the test? Which dates will I need to remember? What lists will I need to memorize for my AP exam? ■ From a societal level (and often an individual one), we would be better off if we spent more time learning from primary sources in history. Primary sources can't do all of the work on their own, of course, but with the appropriate contextual framework and some light assistance from supplemental materials, footnotes, and thoughtful editorial framing, they can do a much better job of offering the student a more complete understanding of historical events in a way that textbooks are simply incapable of delivering. ■ People who obtain a textbook-based understanding of history might be forgiven for thinking that King's "I Have a Dream" speech is the whole story. If trained to believe that all that matters is the historian's highlight reel, then people are apt to believe that they've seen the most important bits if they've made it to the end of the textbook. ■ Thus, knowing about the speech is better than not. Having read the full speech is better than just the pull quotes. Having read the Letter from Birmingham Jail to put the speech in context is better than reading the speech alone. Reading the full book ("Why We Can't Wait") is better than reading only the letter. Each step takes more time and effort than the one before, but along the way one escapes the fragmentary facts of a history test and enters the start of a more comprehensive understanding. ■ Moreover, in the context of civil rights -- as in most other struggles for freedom and justice -- it is better to be persuaded by the original words of the original figures who themselves moved history by persuading others than by obtaining a patchwork assembly of facts, even when stitched by a well-meaning and highly-skilled historian. The authors of change, fortunately, are usually quite good at persuading others with the help of words that end up being recorded. ■ In the future, it would be wise for the FBI's public-facing teams to take note of this year's misjudgment and avoid making a repeat. But they're not the only ones susceptible to the error, nor is it isolated to this one Federal holiday: To the greatest extent possible, if we really want people to avoid pulling quotations out of context or appropriating a superficial understanding of history, then we really ought to press for primary sources to play a much more primary role in school. Sometimes those primary sources will be agitating, contentious, or controversial. So be it. History is more complex than what fits inside a tweet.

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January 18, 2022

Computers and the Internet Just playing tag

QR codes have been with us for a long time -- since 1994, in fact -- but it took until the very recent past for them to achieve the sort of mass-market adoption that makes them a utility rather than a novelty. It helped when Google built a QR code reader into the camera application a few years ago, but the real ignition came aboard the conversion from physical menus to digital ones. ■ That particular artifact of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to remain a permanent feature of the world ahead: The term menu costs is a long-recognized influence on economics. It literally costs time and money to update menus (and, of course, other business costs, not just for restaurants proper), so the widespread adoption of a technological alternative that can be easily updated (especially at near-zero expense) is attractive -- especially in a period of higher-than-normal inflation. ■ Yet even as restaurants and other consumer-facing businesses have come to appreciate QR codes, at least one obvious use case seems to have gone under-appreciated. Why hasn't every clothing retailer figured out to put a QR code on the inside label, so people can easily point and click to re-order? There is really no excuse for any of them not to be doing it already. ■ The obstacles to doing so are practically nil. QR codes can be generated easily and in bulk, and all they have to do is point to some kind of durable page somewhere on the manufacturer's website. Printing them on a label inside the garment, shoe, or accessory is no more complicated than printing the washing instructions in more than one language. ■ The time and frustration alone it might save would make the feature a brilliant one, especially for items like children's clothes or adults' shoes: Items that have to be replaced on a relatively frequent basis, but for which people have little patience to go on long searches. Kids grow up fast, and replacing their clothes with the next size in the same style a family has grown to like is often all too much work. ■ Running shoes may come in new styles each year, but most sub-professional athletes really just want to get the same fit with the same cushioning and arch support that they got the time before. Reasonable people don't have time to start the search from scratch every time, trying to understand the difference between last year's Gel-Nimbus 22 RCX-A and this year's Gel-Nimbus 24 (2E). A simple QR code pointing to a stable page for a certain style (or to its "new" successor) would be invaluable. ■ And it's not just shoes. Most people have old favorites -- underwear, socks, pants, whatever -- that fit just right. There's no desire to shop around to find them all over again, and why should anyone spen the time? ■ Bill Gates once said (of raw product innovation), "We have to make sure we are the ones replacing our products instead of someone else." But for products where that raw innovation is more a matter of marketing than of actual provable performance improvement -- like clothing and footwear -- it makes all the sense in the world to put the innovation into the purchasing experience. Besides, wouldn't adding a QR code to the tag be cheaper in the long run than paying for all those free returns?

Threats and Hazards Professional networking sites as a vector for national-security threats

FBI warning: "China and other foreign governments are using professional networking social media sites to target people with U.S. government security clearances." This much really ought to have been obvious for a long time -- LinkedIn and other professional (and non-professional) networking sites are thick with connection "invitations" that have no obvious origins in existing networks or through organic connections with other people. The targeting is real.

Threats and Hazards Government uses "safety" canard to shut down another Hong Kong news outlet

A free press really only threatens one kind of safety, and that's the safety of official powers to do whatever they want. The legal rationalizations and thinly-veiled threats against other journalistic outlets are nauseating.

News How long things last in the trash

Surprising: Leather lasts 50 times longer in the landfill than plywood. And waxed milk cartons break down a lot faster than unwaxed egg cartons.

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January 19, 2022

Broadcasting When the news goes public

The National Public Radio affiliate in Chicago, WBEZ, has sealed a deal first rumored in September 2021: It's buying the Chicago Sun-Times. It's not exactly a full-circle development, but it is a close cousin. ■ As the third-largest media market in the country, Chicago has more active print and broadcast outlets than most places. For decades, one of them was extra-special: The Chicago Tribune company owned the city's largest newspaper, a legendary 50,000-watt radio station, and a television station with a nationwide reach thanks to cable retransmission. This kind of cross-ownership was an exception to the rules enforced by the FCC. The company's reach went even further, since they also bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981. ■ The Tribune and its broadcast outlets (named WGN, for "World's Greatest Newspaper") had been grandfathered in when the FCC implemented the cross-ownership restrictions in the 1970s, and that cross-ownership was thought to be pretty valuable -- enough so that the company fought to keep its exemption in place when it changed ownership in 2007. Yet ultimately the newspaper company sold off the Cubs (in 2009) and the radio and television outlets (in 2019). ■ Subsequent to the breakup, both halves of the original Tribune Co. went through significant shakeups and downsizings -- the radio station cut loose long-time hosts (including one who had been there for 35 years), and the newspaper let loose dozens of its most recognizable names in a 2021 mass exodus (including a columnist who had been there for 32 years). ■ Thus the incarnation of a whole new cross-ownership entity in the city is fascinating. Legally, it runs into none of the old obstacles -- the FCC eliminated its newspaper/broadcasting restrictions in 2017 (in recognition that times have changed dramatically for both industries due to competitive pressures from digital outlets). But it's also significant to see that an outlet like WBEZ -- which, though non-profit, still has a duty to remain solvent -- sees enough value in a merger to proceed with creating something that one of its main rivals saw fit to simply give away only a couple of years ago. It would be like seeing Honda spin off a division for its hybrid and electric vehicles, only for Tesla to acquire General Motors two or three years later. ■ But it's also especially interesting because WBEZ is a non-profit public media outlet. After the combination, the Sun-Times will have to give up on endorsing political candidates (non-profits can't do that). Alone, that's interesting even if not groundbreaking. But public broadcasters have been expanding their reach in other markets, too: WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC, bought the DCist "neighborhood news" website in 2018, at the same time as its partners in New York and Los Angeles bought their respective "-ist" sites. ■ Perhaps there is something unique to the circumstances of these public broadcasters that makes them eager to reach beyond the footprint of terrestrial broadcasting alone. But it's surprising that commercial broadcasters haven't shown the same kind of taste for invigorating cross-ownership, either by acquiring outlets that already have a notable presence in another medium or by spinning them up on their own. ■ It seems like an utter dereliction of duty for radio and television stations that already spend the money to staff newsrooms not to publish electronic periodicals containing the news they're already gathering. Sure, most of them try to mark their territory on social media, and many put out email newsletters, but those efforts are almost always promotional in nature -- too often, little more than digital junk mail. ■ In Chicago, a radio station is acquiring a whole newspaper -- along with the institutional cachet that goes with it. WBEZ and the Sun-Times say they will "continue as independent operations", but the whole point of such a tie-up is that their leadership expects them to be stronger as a team than as lone operations. ■ The merger isn't a sign that every local radio station ought to be out looking for a newspaper to buy (the economics of both sectors have been under severe stress for more than a decade) -- but any incumbent brand of either type of outlet needs to look at how it could and should stretch itself into the adjacent markets. If the barriers between them have fallen enough that the FCC no longer considers that kind of duality a threat, then it ought to be a bright warning sign that thinking beyond the old channels may be the only sustainable path to survival.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

January 20, 2022

News Just asking a few questions

Americans (rightly) love our First Amendment, and most people are pretty good at naming freedom of speech as one of the rights it preserves. About half can name the freedom of religion, and a third can call out freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. But only 14% of those surveyed in 2021 could name "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" as one of those enumerated rights. ■ Better knowledge of the Constitution in general would have its own merits. But that right in particular could stand some reaffirmation. It's not so much that the government doesn't respond to citizens' complaints -- Change.org counts on the idea that petitions still matter. But we could stand to see the whole picture a little better than the survey suggests we do. ■ The Constitution is a highly structured and deliberate document. It is no accident that Article I establishes Congress, with a duality of purpose: The House of Representatives to speak for the people, and the Senate to speak for the states as entities in their own right. Too often lost in today's overheated debates over the nature of the Senate is that the states are more organic in their legal nature than the Union itself -- the country was formed as a union of states that pre-existed the Constitution, and Article V and the Tenth Amendment are both quite explicit that the states are the basic unit of government. ■ So when this highly structured document lays out all of the things that Congress is expected to do, including mechanisms for firing anyone in the Executive Branch (through impeachment) and for demanding reports from the executive (through the State of the Union), it ought to be evident that Congress has a sort of primacy among the branches, even if they check and balance one another. ■ With this primacy comes what ought to be an obvious point: If Congress sets the law and supervises its execution, then Congress has the right to ask any questions it deems necessary to make sure that the laws are good and their execution is faithful. ■ Perhaps we would care more about this mechanism if more than 14% of us were fully literate in the right to petition the government. Being able to ask isn't much of a right if the people empowered to do something about it can't conduct their due diligence. That portion of the First Amendment is hollow if Congress is hampered in its efforts to uncover the truth and supervise the people executing the laws that go into place. ■ All of which is to note how important it is that the Supreme Court ordered that former Presidents can't hide from the scrutiny of Congress by claiming privilege. They can't hide from the public (via the investigative powers of the House), nor from the states (via the investigative powers of the Senate). ■ The news is reported with headlines like "In Rebuke to Trump, Supreme Court Allows Release of Jan. 6 Files" in the New York Times, but that framing is wedded far too much to the circumstances of just one incident, as if it's a political horse race. The much more important principle involved is that Congress is (and ought to be) basically unfettered in its ability to ask questions -- because if it is not, then there is very little to the First Amendment right to demand "a redress of grievances". As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 43, "[A] right implies a remedy; and where else could the remedy be deposited, than where it is deposited by the Constitution?" ■ It's too easy to look at a decision of this magnitude and report it as an institution "rebuking" an individual. It is far more important to see it as the institution of the Supreme Court defending the prerogative (and, indeed, the duty) of Congress to ask questions on behalf of the American public and the states that comprise the Union.


January 21, 2022

Computers and the Internet The basic logic of AI

We might be ready for AI to take on a bigger role in our lives when ordinary spreadsheet software lets users insert a true footnote instead of resorting to crude manual workarounds.

Iowa Why don't we celebrate?

Forty years after Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat while on stage in Des Moines, a question: Why we haven't made a local custom of baking bat-shaped cookies on January 20th and biting their heads off? Cookies have better mouthfeel than real bats, anyway.

Health The shot that does so much heavy lifting

From the Omaha World-Herald: "[T]hose who had been vaccinated and boosted were 46 times less likely to be hospitalized than those who hadn’t gotten any shots."


January 22, 2022

Weather and Disasters It's the turning point

Somewhere between freezing and 40° below zero is the temperature at which cold becomes becomes truly excruciating. The Fahrenheit system may not be particularly logical in its endpoints and gradations, but it wouldn't be entirely unreasonable to say that this temperature is 0° or thereabouts. After all, 72° is the perfect temperature, but if you add 32° to it, then 104° is indisputably hot. ■ For most of the United States east of the Rockies, middle to late January is the coldest time of year. And just as we look forward to the winter solstice as the moment when brighter days are quite literally ahead, so too should we mark late January as a turning point between the worst of the cold and things finally becoming warmer. ■ It's a shame, given the significant influence of Nordic immigration on the northern United States, that we don't have many large-scale annual community celebrations surrounding the depths of Winter. Chicago was once the second-largest "Swedish" city in the world. More than one in every nine Norwegians moved to the US in the 1880s alone. Iceland lost a fifth of its people to America. ■ There may be a few ice festivals here and there -- St. Paul, Minnesota, and some smaller communities put them on in Colorado and Michigan, but it really doesn't seem like we make use of the full potential of the turning of the coldest part of the year as a way to mark that the worst is generally over. ■ Any northern city worth its road salt ought to have some way of celebrating the middle of winter -- a sort of polar bear plunge for the soul. And for the sake of authenticity, it should largely take place outdoors. It's important to embrace the pain of the cold rather than running from it. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concluded that humans need to embrace the experience of suffering as a normal part of life in order to have a well-rounded experience on planet Earth. ■ Frankl wrote that "[M]eaning is possible even in spite of suffering -- provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic." Global warming notwithstanding, winter is going to remain cold whether we like it or not. There's no reason that embracing an invigorating cold season shouldn't be part of celebrating that, for most of us, warmer seasons will come. ■ Just as the Swedes combine cold outdoor bathing with their hot saunas, and the Icelanders enjoy their geothermal hot springs, so too should Americans be willing to engage both the cold and the warmth. We don't have any trouble finding excuses to go inside, but we need more practice in embracing what nature does to expose us.

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January 24, 2022

Weather and Disasters Views from space of the ash from Tonga's volcano

In the 1800s, a volcanic eruption (at Mount Tambora) produced so much ash that it became "the year without a summer" -- with dire consequences for food harvests. We really don't take that particular existential risk seriously enough, and the incredible views from space of the ash from Tonga's volcanic eruption ought to stir us from our slumber. ■ The matter of who is indeed responsible for species-level existential risk may be the ultimate collective-action problem. When it comes to the question of what may prevent the destruction of the entire range of human life -- something like an extinction-scale asteroid collision or a climate-altering volcanic eruption -- literally everyone has a vested interest, yet no one has either the responsibility or the capacity to resolve it entirely on their own, and in many cases there are conflicting interests about absorbing the costs. ■ Institutions, not just individuals, are hamstrung by this issue of collective responsibility. To whom are we supposed to turn? Governments have often been the cause of existential risks to humanity as much as the willing combatants thereof. ■ Non-governmental organizations are often either too busy trying to combat the issues for which they were initially founded, too anxiously preserving themselves institutionally in the face of uncertainty and change, or are too bound by bureaucratic constraints to make any real difference at all -- not to mention rarely equipped with sufficient resources to make an adequate difference. ■ Should we turn to the academy? Would any of us trust a university president or the chair of a college faculty guild to protect the rest of us in the face of even small-scale risks? It isn't obvious that most of us would do so, despite the concentration of expertise among the ivory towers. ■ What about churches and religious institutions? In a sense, these are institutions designed around questions of the meaning of life on Earth -- but whether we could trust them to be responsible for looking after the very practical risks to the essence of life on Earth is another question altogether. ■ No problem like this is ever truly hopeless, but it does behoove us to question who is responsible, and perhaps more to the point, to figure out what share of responsibility every institution and every individual has for these broader questions. Terrible terrible things will happen, but the more sophisticated, the wealthier, and the more technologically advanced we become as a human civilization, the more that can be done to divvy up the risks, as well as the investment in the solutions. ■ For as much as people bemoan partisan divisions, the question of setting ourselves up to survive the worst that the natural world could potentially throw at us may truly be the final frontier of non-ideological, non-partisan grand-coalition building. To prepare ourselves for the worst does not require us to think the best of one another. ■ It does, however, require us to make investments as insurance policies against what could potentially befall us. Some low-probability, high-impact event is statistically likely to come sooner or later. That is where the historians have something to say, as they are obligated to remind the rest of us both periodically and emphatically of the terrible things have happened to humankind in the past -- and to make us aware that most awful events are not truly unprecedented. ■ The odds of terrible events are the province of the physical scientists who have an obligation to give us the straight facts. But the human consequences are the province of the social scientists who are duty-bound to remind the rest of us that humanity can fail itself through a lack of preparation or a lack of will -- and also that we are capable as a species of acting not only when the time calls for it, but also well in advance.

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January 25, 2022

Business and Finance The market isn't a person

When stock market prices begin to "wobble", "gyrate", or "whipsaw", there is nothing so sure as the compulsion of the financial press (and the news media at large) to make endless attempts to tell the story through countless anecdotes and market commentaries. They are relentless in their quest to patch together a narrative explanation -- one that often drifts into outright anthropomorphization of the markets. ■ It's a widely-used convention, since turning the abstract stock market into "Mr. Market" is a natural way to tell a story. But it's also an insidious way to mislead audiences. Drama may be good for page views, but it's fairly awful for anyone with the good sense to think of investing as a long-term process. ■ In 2012, Warren Buffett told the audience at the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting that "If we had our way, we'd sell stock one time per year at our calculation of intrinsic value." Tracking the daily gyrations of the market is a lot like following the box scores of every Major League Baseball team: It's an effective way to occupy one's time and the space inside one's head, but it's too small a slice of the whole picture to really offer any use. (Assuming, of course, that there will be a 2022 baseball season at all.) ■ Buffett's advice is valuable precisely because it is so difficult for people to follow. His admonition for decades has been that in the short run the stock market is like a voting machine, but in the long run it is like a weighing machine. ■ Changes from hour to hour or day to day can make headlines and over time can quite obviously accumulate to the point where they can have a meaningful impact. But stock prices are meaningless in the absence of stock values. And what a company is worth -- which, divided by the number of shares available, makes up the intrinsic value of the stock -- almost never rises and falls by very much from hour to hour, from day to day, or even from month to month. ■ It's an unsatisfying proposition to tell many (if not most) people that what happens in a day on the stock market is generally as inconsequential as the daily weather forecast on the other side of the globe. Yet that unsatisfactory truth remains correct: If a person enters thoughtfully into an investment and is confident that he or she is getting more value than the price paid, then what happens to the price later on is mostly trivial -- unless and until it converges with the intrinsic value and goes on to exceed it, at which point a sale may be in order. ■ Headlines, market bulletins, and quasi-informative commentary all generate interest (and eyeballs) for the people producing them, but a lot of time and agony could be spared if we really did only open the stock market for trading once a year. It will never happen, of course, but were we to adopt that pace instead of taking second-by-second quotations (and tolerating the scourge of high-frequency trading), we could perhaps divert more of our attention not to the moment-by-moment, but rather to workings of the weighing machine.

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January 27, 2022

The United States of America Chambered up and ready to go

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has announced his intention to retire when the court takes its 2022 summer recess. His colleagues have wished him well in the same kind of way that most Americans probably wish that the officials of the elected branches of government would treat one another. But it's hard to imagine that the process of replacing him on the Court will be nearly so amicable. ■ Despite despite having served on the Court since 1994, Breyer is curiously the least-known of the jurists presently serving. It's neither a mark of success nor failure for a justice to be a household name, but their work -- whether in a majority or in dissent -- has a long-term impact on the country, and not just in the way the laws are set. ■ That influence has of course been exceptionally good when it has served to preserve liberties and keep the government from overreaching. But some of its effects have been lamentable. Because its opinions are typically read in full only by a few, but widely circulated through news reporting, we often take away only a small nugget of what was said. And sometimes those nuggets are spoiled. ■ Few Americans have likely read Justice Louis Brandeis's full dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann. But many are familiar with the idea referring to states as "laboratories of democracy". Brandeis speifically wrote, "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." ■ Clever writing it is, and in a sense, not incorrect -- states are indeed free to experiment largely without threatening one another. But the corrupting effect of the idea has been to put the idea into the minds of Americans that the states are lesser entities. ■ The states are not laboratories of democracy; they are the fundamental units of democracy itself. They aren't sandboxes in which we can play without doing damage to the whole; they are where the overwhelming amount of democratic work must necessarily be done. The federal system is like a layer cake -- the states are the real substance, while the Constitutional government headquartered in Washington is supposed to be much more like the frosting. The states are both the origins of municipal law (the Constitution says nothing about city or county governments, but you'd have a hard time incorporating one without a state government), as well as the authorities that create the federal or national government. The states abandoned one faulty government under the Articles of Confederation and adopted the Constitution -- but they remained states throughout. ■ It's hard to avoid wondering whether America would seem more stable and self-confident a place today if we were to resist the urge to nationalize so much about our politics. Interests are different in different places, as they ought to be. What matters in Oregon often doesn't need to bother anyone in Kentucky, or vice-versa. On those matters where unanimity is critical, like defense and statecraft and preserving smooth relations among the states, the government in Washington ought to take things off the plates of the individual states. But much of the rest of the time, it's asking too much of us to try to enforce conformity among 332 million people living across a continental-scale country. ■ It doesn't make the states "laboratories" that they can choose policies differently from one another -- it makes them workable, in scale and in ambition. Let's not forget that the entire United States had only about 4 million people when George Washington took office, and even then there were vast differences among the states. The Federal system is designed to work by escalating only what is necessary to the national level, while reserving all else to the state level (or to wherever the states delegate). ■ For as much as we need to cool off the mood of the country, it would serve us well to put our energies into what's really in our immediate back yards. Replacing a Supreme Court justice will inevitably focus the attention of the entire country. But it would be good for us to remember that the disputes that rise to the level of nationwide attention ought to be few. As Dwight Eisenhower once noted, "A family squabble is always exaggerated beyond its true importance." Perhaps one of the best ways to stick together is to refrain as much as possible from sticking our noses into one another's business.

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January 28, 2022

The United States of America The SATs go digital

The College Board has announced that the SAT is going digital throughout the US in 2024. The exam "will still be scored on a 1600 scale" but it will change in content as well as format, turning into a shorter test: "about two hours instead of three for the current SAT, with more time per question". Whatever the changes, the exam will likely still remain one of the most influential tools for sorting talent among students of high school age. ■ That sorting process isn't always about college admissions per se, but that of course has been the main point historically. The United States has a funny relationship with college, of course: Harvard traces its history to 1636 (three cheers for the inaugural graduating Class of 1642!), but over time, the country has used land-grant colleges to democratize the knowledge of agriculture, the GI Bill to reintegrate the veterans of World War II into a changed economy, and the National Defense Education Act to try to help win the Cold War. ■ Yet one thing we've never really undertaken is a mission promoted by some of the Founders. In 1796, George Washington told Congress, "I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress, the expediency of establishing a National University; and also a Military Academy. The desirableness of both these Institutions, has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject". James Madison, serving in Congress at the time, was a leading proponent of the idea. ■ Madison was still pressing for the idea 20 years later as President himself: "The importance which I have attached to the establishment of a university within this District on a scale and for objects worthy of the American nation induces me to renew my recommendation of it to the favorable consideration of Congress." In the end, we ended up with a law school that later merged into George Washington University. ■ Other than the service academies (which served a separate purpose, even in Washington's original conception of the idea), we've never really had such a national university. Lots of other countries have them, but the United States has remained unmoved by the idea. ■ Considering the other ways in which our system of higher education has evolved, perhaps America took a better course. States tend to take pride in their own flagship universities (and not just on the football field or the basketball court), and the emergence of collegiate conferences has had at least some positive effect in stimulating competition to be seen as cadres of elite academic institutions. ■ Yet it's hard not to look at the emphasis that an intellectual heavyweight like Madison placed on the idea -- one researcher estimated Madison's IQ at a white-hot 160 -- and wonder how things might have looked if we had taken such a path. Would it have turned us more like Britain or France, where the "Oxbridge" duopoly and the National School of Administration have had vastly oversized effects on their respective governments -- for better or worse? Or might it have been a tool by which high-priority national policies or missions could have been enacted by concentrating resources (and cachet) on particular goals? ■ Or would perhaps the most democratic of all outcomes have emerged from instituting a national university not for the most elite performers, but for the maximum affordability and accessibility of any American with the interest? We rightly place Abraham Lincoln on a pedestal, and yet his background forced him to be mostly self-educated. Suppose Lincoln had lacked even a little of the internal motivation that drove him to overcome the limitations of his meager resources and humble beginnings -- would the Union itself have survived? ■ The evolution of the SATs might well be one of those instances that cause us to put some overdue thought into what might serve the national interest better than what we have today. And it may well be that, in a time of accelerating technological and economic change, our best bet is to ask what Washington and Madison might have done if they'd known the raw skills of a Lincoln were to come and that the then-unimaginable resources of the 21st Century would someday become real.

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January 30, 2022

Computers and the Internet $100 million worth of embarrassment?

Musical artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are using the presence of their music to try to punish the streaming service Spotify for placing a spotlight on the podcast of Joe Rogan. Young ignited the dispute with a letter taking issue with Rogan's use of his program to promote viewpoints on Covid-19 that don't square with medical standards of care. ■ Platform sites like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are in a position that remains ambiguous, and it seems they like it that way. On one side, they resort to language that suggests they exist to facilitate a sense of community: Facebook users are "friends" and the site's policies are "community standards". On the other side, the platforms are comfortable disclaiming any responsibility for the content they carry. ■ To the extent that any platform is behaving according to the spirit of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they should be generally free to remain at arm's length from the content they host -- while reserving the right to remove content that is harmful. Those protections in Section 230 have largely shown themselves to be good for individual freedoms as they are expressed online. ■ But when the platforms step from facilitating the liberal distribution of content to specifically mixing and arranging the content in order to maximize their profits from the content, something else is afoot. In Spotify's case, paying a huge sum (some say it's $100 million) for exclusive access to Rogan's program. In Facebook's case, it's the knowing use of content-recommendation algorithms intended to increase users' attachment to the site -- in ways that appear to have directed people down foreseeable paths to radicalization. ■ These situations offer clear illustrations that it can be dangerous to pigeonhole certain questions as matters for "business ethics", as opposed to the ethics of individual responsibility. Within an organization, it can be tempting to pass the buck or to treat the institution as a sentient being with its own sense of responsibility. ■ But the reality is that every firm, every government agency, every church, every club, and every other institution is comprised of people. And people have to decide sometimes that a decision with obvious rewards (like profits) isn't worth an ethical compromise. ■ Mitt Romney took a beating for telling an audience at the 2011 Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people". But anyone who listened to Romney critically should have understood that he was really saying that "corporations are [made up of] people" -- that people are the employees, managers, customers, and shareholders of corporations. ■ That understanding isn't just useful for those times we think about matters like corporate tax rates. It's important, too, for understanding that there are standards aside from corporate law or government regulations that ought to apply to making right and ethical decisions. ■ Content hosting platforms ought to have reasonable legal protections, mainly in the interest of preserving the benefits of individual liberties like the freedom of speech. But the people who run those platforms shouldn't mistake the boundaries of the law for the boundaries of what is right.

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January 31, 2022

Threats and Hazards And then, what happens next?

Wars are costly, nasty things that tend to deprive the world of productive resources and bring suffering to innocent people. That doesn't mean they aren't sometimes necessary -- but prudent people appreciate that they aren't merely a matter of guts and glory for the warfighters, but of real human suffering that ought to be avoided. The problem so often is that prudence is often asymmetrical: The first-mover advantage tends to favor those who start wars while their counterparties look for peace. ■ In the tense situation between Ukraine and Russia, all eyes are on Vladimir Putin -- and on Joe Biden. Russia has invaded Ukraine already under Putin's direction, so the emergent question is what and who might stand in the way of further aggression. ■ By the numbers, Ukraine appears outmatched, which means it would need some other dynamic to change the balance. The weaponry arriving from NATO countries appears to be one such weight on the scale. But there is no particular appetite for war among those NATO members, nor any binding commitment to fight if Ukraine really does suffer an invasion. Though it's hazardous to regress back to a Cold War mindset (rather than to see this as a novel dispute), there is clearly a moral dimension to the question of what constitutes the right thing for the United States to do. ■ The true measure of a country's greatness is its capacity and willingness to do good in the world. Power is relatively easy to wield: Kingdoms have fought each other for at least 3500 years. Using power for good and decent purposes is more complicated. It requires asking: Are we ready, willing, and able to leave the world better than we have found it? ■ Look at World War II: The United States wasn't ready to fight when the fight began. Dwight Eisenhower lamented the abysmal disposition of the armed forces going into the war: "On July 1, 1939, the Army's enlisted strength in the United States -- air, ground, and service -- was less than 130,000", and he referred to the state of military preparedness as "a situation of appalling danger". ■ Even if the United States had been ready to fight in 1939 or 1940, public opinion was not yet willing. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in mid-1940, 93% of Americans in a Gallup poll opposed declaring war on Germany. ■ Thus, the United States in that moment of emerging war wasn't ready, nor was it willing. But it was able, and once the great "arsenal of democracy" was fired up and public opinion was mobilized, America's place as the great superpower was secured. ■ What is the answer to the complex situation right now? It not only depends upon what we're able to do, but what we're ready and willing to do in the interest of good in the world. Those are measures applicable to our engagements everywhere -- and they aren't strictly reducible to counting Howitzers and Special Forces operators. Conflicts take place far more in gray zones today than at any time in living memory. Americans have a duty to grapple with the consequences of our involvement in the world -- and with the consequences of being unready, unwilling, or unable to act.

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