Gongol.com Archives: February 2022

Brian Gongol

February 2022
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February 1, 2022

Threats and Hazards Can't you do any better than this?

It seems odd that telephone companies are, on one hand, rolling out 5G network service and promising a whole new world of speedy data, while remaining utterly incapable of handling the epidemic of spoofed numbers on the other. The expansion of 5G service represents a triumph of technology -- one that resulted in a protracted dispute with the airline industry, because of the possibility that those electronic signals could interfere with the radio altimeters that tell airplanes how high they are above the ground. ■ Taking additional safety precautions over 5G may not have been strictly necessary: European telecommunications companies seem to have avoided aviation hazards through some collaboration with the aviation regulators there, and some of the European precautions may have been sufficient to protect aviation in the United States, too. But nobody wants to be the bureaucrat or the corporate executive who let an airliner crash. Thus, we have lots of inter-agency and partisan finger-pointing, but the end result is that safety concerns have prevailed. ■ Yet for all the safety-related concern that has gone into 5G regulation, why hasn't the problem of spoofing been treated as a similar safety issue? ■ It may seem that the main problems of spoofed numbers come from general nuisance or from the risk that calls originating from false numbers are a source of fraud. Indeed, spoofed numbers cause both, and the Federal Trade Commission has much to say about the problem and extent of phone scams. ■ But faked numbers are a very real security and safety problem, too. "Swatting", or placing an emergency call to police from a fraudulent or spoofed source, puts innocent people in real danger of finding themselves on the receiving end of an abrupt and potentially intense or even dangerous visit from police. ■ Spoofing is also a tool useful to some of those who would circulate rumors of school or workplace violence, including bomb threats. At least 14 HBCUs were targeted with bomb threats on the first day of February. It's too early for the public to have learned whether any particular threat involved spoofing or not, but it's virtually certain that the perpetrators tried to cover their tracks with spoofed numbers. ■ The criminals may have been domestic terrorists (and even a false bomb threat is likely to qualify as an act of terrorism). They may have been foreign, too -- and it should be plainly evident that bad actors abroad can see the weakness in our system and perceive how they might gain from stoking fear and division among Americans. It is known that malevolent forces in Russia have tried to instigate racial hostilities within the United States in very recent memory, and creating problems for HBCUs on the first day of Black History Month would be an unsurprising move on their part. ■ Fundamentally, the scope of the incident -- again, more than a dozen institutions were targeted -- is enough to demonstrate that real harm and disruption to security and safety can be facilitated through telephone calls. It's likely the HBCU threats were coordinated, and virtually certain that they were communicated using tools to evade detection. ■ Telecommunications companies have a civic (if not a legal) duty to take those security problems as seriously as the potential risks that 5G signals pose to aircraft. It's insufficient for phone companies to offer advice like "Don't answer calls from unknown numbers" and "Don't bother tracing spoofers". A perfect system may be beyond reach, but the status quo is entirely inadequate. Spoofing isn't just an inconvenience, it's a danger.

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February 2, 2022

Business and Finance The Times sees the signs

It may be going too far to label the New York Times a "lifestyle brand", but the Old Gray Lady is engaged in what is clearly a process of self-definition that has grown beyond "All the news that's fit to print". In the latest move, the Times has reached a deal to acquire the game Wordle, which has become the social sensation of the moment. ■ Games are obviously nothing new to the Times; the Internet in particular seems only to have instigated institutional interest in being seen as a center for word games. But the Times has been publishing crossword puzzles since World War II, and one Times columnist reports that the old internal saying was that "the crossword puzzle pays for the Baghdad bureau". That kind of cross-subsidy is neither new to publishing nor shocking. ■ But what's interesting -- at least for the moment -- is that the Times seems to be alone in its quest to be seen as a reliable source of original, exclusive, and differentiated way-of-life media content. The Wall Street Journal has stuck its toe into leisure reporting and the Washington Post has some games on its website, but neither has pressed in the same way on brand-defining content outside of straight news coverage (especially of financial and political topics, respectively) as the Times has done. ■ What's odd, too, is that American media outlets in other conventional lanes -- television networks, radio groups, magazines, cable channels, and even websites -- have ceded the same turf to the Times without really even trying. It doesn't really mean much of anything for a person to identify as a "CBS News viewer" or a "Yahoo subscriber", and aside from the obvious political connotations that tend to bear with calling oneself an MSNBC or Fox News viewer, there's little that seems to exist to attach people to those larger brand umbrellas. Sure, one can pay for the Disney Bundle, but streaming services don't really have reputations beyond the specific shows or movies they deliver. ■ This all seems odd because even if the Times has an advantage in this area, it's still a work in progress and remains quite new. One writer notes that news subscriptions are much more important to the Times than they were two decades ago, but that revenues not directly related to news are now driving the company's subscription growth. In other words, the Times is reacting to changing circumstances -- but it's neither alone in the economic conditions it faces, nor is there any reason to think it has a right to a monopoly in its lane. ■ Historically, the pattern always seems to have favored at least three major competitors in a mass market -- think of the Big Three automakers in Detroit; the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks; or the longtime triumvirate of American, United, and Delta in the skies. The stability of a three-sided competitive market isn't permanent; all three of those examples have succumbed to intense pressure from at least one tough rival (Toyota, Fox, and Southwest, respectively). ■ But it would come as no surprise if there were to emerge at least two other Times-like original/exclusive content sources that attempted to establish themselves as competitors in the same broader-than-just-news category -- not because the Times will fall short, but because of the success itself. There's no form of flattery quite like imitation, and it would be a massive mistake to ignore the success of forays like NYT Cooking. ■ Success will likely depend upon having at least some established name to use as a base, especially since that cachet is important to attracting both subscribers and content generators. But that name will have to be at least relatively free of baggage -- even people who don't like the editorial stance of the Times generally recognize it as being mostly mainstream. ■ It would be fair to guess that The Atlantic might take a stab at following the Times model, but it tends to occupy a very similar lane (in terms of where its perspective leans) with the Times. It would be fascinating to see a similarly mainstream institution -- but perhaps with a gently different outlook -- try to become the same kind of content giant. Historically, one might have imagined the Chicago Tribune to be prepared to take up such a spot, but its new owners have chosen to downsize radically rather than think bigger. So, assuming the Times isn't barking up the wrong tree altogether, who will it be?

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February 3, 2022

Humor and Good News Who belongs on the gallery wall?

The lovely idea of decorating an office wall with a gallery composed of what one might call "patron saints" has a lot going for it. One doesn't have to agree or disagree with anyone else's choice of characters to display or admire, because the exercise itself is worthwhile. ■ Nobody has the liberty to choose their own birth parents, but everyone can (and should) pick their own intellectual forebears. It's a good idea to consciously pick some attitudinal role models (real and/or fictitious), too. A character doesn't have to be real to offer something worthwhile to emulate -- and indeed many real figures are so good at building their own origin myths that hagiography is often just as good at creating fiction as a deliberate work of creative writing itself. ■ It's nice, of course, when those figures are both real and honestly represented. That's supposed to be the point of tributes, monuments, and memorials -- putting one on display represents a community decision about which people to emulate. We often literally put some of them on a pedestal. There's no reason not to do the same in a workplace, where suitable. ■ Presidents try to communicate things about their values by the busts and portraits they display in the Oval Office. It's a useful practice not because the people on display are perfect, but because they remind us tangibly of abstract values and principles. Could it ever be bad for President to be reminded to ask themselves, "What would George Washington do?" or "Would Abraham Lincoln approve?" ■ But even those of us with far fewer weighty decisions to make still benefit from thinking about our influences. And for as much attention as goes into office decor (now that we're in the era of the perpetual Zoom meeting), it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the best room ratings ought to go not to the biggest walls of well-arranged books (even though those are often pleasing to the eye), but to the best arrangements of "patron saints" -- even if the "saints" are entirely secular. ■ In many dioceses of the Catholic church, candidates for Confirmation choose a patron saint as a confirmation name, usually with a requirement to explain why. Generally, these candidates are teenagers, and, sure, some kids merely pick a name because they like the sound of it. But others really think about it. As well they should! ■ Do you really know who you want to be when you're 16? Not really. Are some religious saints probably terrible role models for life? Yes. But it's really the process that has value more than the choice itself. ■ One of the best reasons to really think about those role models -- intellectual, attitudinal, or otherwise -- is because the process reminds us of the universality of the human experience. We're not really that different from one another, no matter where or in what era we live. ■ That human nature is mostly consistent everywhere and mainly unchanging throughout history is reassuring. Rarely are our problems completely new and novel. And that means we're free to look at the sum of human experience and pick guides who can help make our own paths easier. Whether one chooses real people or merely the characters created by them doesn't really change matters -- the point is in the exercise of realizing how much "nature" resides in "human nature". ■ By no means does that render us helpless, adrift on a sea ruled by fate. To the contrary, it means that we have free will and choices to make with it. And we'd best decide to rule ourselves as though we are aware of the others who have experienced life before. And if putting a few of their pictures on a wall helps to do that, so much the better.


February 4, 2022

News Don't know, don't care (more than a person should)

The power of spoken and written language is vast, and it's certainly one of the keenest advantages we have over the rest of the animal kingdom. The incredible power that resides in being able to transmit knowledge across centuries of time using nothing but written words really can't be overstated. The remainder of the animal kingdom has ways of communicating, but not in the recorded ways we do. ■ But in the moment, for the transmission of what's important right now, we almost never depend upon words alone. Where other living, breathing individuals are involved, we almost always use both verbal and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal language is even the way we communicate with animals like dolphins. It isn't really 90% of our total communication, as the urban legend would have it, but it means a lot -- especially where words leave ambiguity. ■ And if there were ever a nonverbal signal upon which we should put more emphasis, it is the humble act of the shoulder shrug. Not necessarily the shrug emoji (though it definitely has value), but the real-life lifting of the shoulders, either to indicate indifference or uncertainty. ■ To admit that we don't know something takes self-confidence. The Tao Te Ching counsels that "To know that you do not know is highest; to not know but think you know is flawed". Benjamin Franklin put it that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." ■ Confessing that one doesn't know is a very close cousin to admitting that one doesn't have an opinion. That's why the same shoulder shrug can communicate either: Uncertainty or indifference. Of course, it can go too far -- some people choose indifference to all things as a mark of ironic detachment from the world. But there is a different kind of detachment -- an earnest one -- that traces its roots at least back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said "[U]nderstand that every event is indifferent and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be; for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder." ■ Spend any amount of time following the chatter of media (mass, social, opinion, or otherwise), and you will find a world of people who substitute certainty over passing things -- especially the ephemera of things like party politics -- for the conditioned uncertainty of things we don't know, and maybe even cannot. The world is open to absolutely limitless wonder in ways that overshadow everything we actually know. But it is a crying shame that the quest to latch on to certainty makes so many human beings ready and eager to spend huge stores of time and energy on proclaiming their absolute certainty about things that really don't stick around. ■ To our shame, in the modern era there are opinion-mongers who host programs with obsessively certain names like "I'm Right" and self-described journalists who are devoted to posting outrages hour-by-hour for the consuption of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in an audience who apparently revel in being carried along for the ride. They are rewarded by a market for overstimulation and oversaturation of opinion. ■ Instead of going along with that troublesome course, why not more of the humble shoulder shrug? It is both decent to admit uncertainty and honorable to admit an earnest indifference. Most of us could stand to practice it more often.


February 5, 2022

Broadcasting The Ocho is back

The fact that ESPN fully commits to the gag really is hilarious

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February 6, 2022

News Which ROC?

The Olympic Games feature a team under the name of "Russian Olympic Committee", or ROC, as a penalty for Russia's flagrant violations of the rules of competition. But "ROC" is supposed to stand for Taiwan, the Republic of China. Instead, they're forced to compete as "Chinese Taipei", and the athletes are not allowed to use their national symbols in competition.

Humor and Good News A delightful lesson in Internet security

Even the Queen of England needs to watch what papers she inadvertently shares in her Instagram photos

Humor and Good News "Put that T-Rex on skis"

Cross-promotion between the Winter Olympics and the new Jurassic Park movie has gotten really weird.

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February 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Decent disagreement

In Federalist Paper No. 51, "Publius" (either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison) wrote that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." It is a seminal argument about the nature of power: Checks and balances among competing power centers, deriving powers that are rivalrous to one another, serve as a more reliable insurance policy against overreach than hopes, prayers, and goodwill. The logic of those checks and balances embedded in the Constitution is a testament to Madison's efforts to finely tune the machine. ■ But nobody said anything about how to counter trolling. And that's a problem with which we moderns must deal. ■ The odious practice of using physical intimidation and online harassment to trouble the personal lives of elected officials has gotten well out of hand. Protesters have turned the front lawns of police chiefs and mayors into rally sites. Security details have had to raise their defenses at governors' residences over the hazards created by crowds. Houseboats and bathroom stalls and airport terminals have all turned into potentially unsafe spaces. ■ The intimidation isn't limited to physical presence. An online tabloid declares "We Have Kyrsten Sinema's Social Security Number" and hints at how it could be found by others and abused. Mayors are targeted with online threats. Nor should it be forgotten that a major Presidential candidate gave out a rival's phone number and suggested that people "try it" in 2015. ■ Things have been worse at times in the past. Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated. Terrorist campaigns plagued the Reconstruction era. ■ Our distinctly modern problem is that as the country's population grows ever larger and our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the guardrails that keep the distance between differences of opinion and matters of personal jeopardy become ever more fragile. And if we expect our elected officials to give up ever more -- of their personal safety, their privacy, their online security, or merely their own access to quiet -- then it becomes distinctly possible that good people will simply walk away, or never look at public service in the first place. ■ Gresham's Law in economics states that bad money chases out good. If we aren't sufficiently consistent and clear about rejecting bad behavior in the political sphere, no matter how much we dislike a politician's behavior or how justified we believe our own causes to be, then we risk imposing a Gresham's Law over politics -- in which bad people will drive out the good. Ambition will forever be present, but ambition can be decent and honorable -- or it can be indecent and dishonorable. ■ We've already come much too close to the edge of crippling political violence in recent memory. Disagreement on merits is utterly wholesome. But tactics intended to substitute personal discomfort as a means of pressure against others ought to be designated clearly out of bounds.

Business and Finance The loudest voices aren't necessarily the most authoritative

But the problem for more than one academic field (prominently including economics) is that influence in the real world often depends on being part of the conversation. The question of whether academics should insert themselves into public debates is reminiscent of the long-standing differences in the Catholic Church between the orders that cloister themselves (like the Trappists) and the missionaries (like the Jesuits).

Aviation News Airline merger: Frontier to buy Spirit

That's the proposal, but we'll have to wait and see whether it obtains regulatory approval. If it goes through, they'll need to decide what to call the resulting fleet. "Frontier Spirit" Airlines sounds bold, aggressive, and Western -- calling for a commercial voiceover by Sam Elliott. "Spirit Frontier" Airlines, on the other hand, sounds like it uses meditation music during the safety briefing and diffuses essential oils into the air vents, with commercial voiceover by Gwyneth Paltrow. Decisions, decisions.

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February 8, 2022

News Poetry isn't a substitute for logic

Venturing boldly (if unnecessarily) into the geopolitical arena, the ice cream brand Ben and Jerry's offers the following analysis: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. We call on President Biden to de-escalate tensions and work for peace rather than prepare for war. Sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia's threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war." ■ The phrase "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war" sounds lovely, and it has a respectable pedigree: Albert Einstein penned it. But the logic of the argument is faulty. ■ Consider swapping out the word "war" for other unwanted events: A declaration like "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for fire" would count as heresy to any fire department (or forestry agency). Likewise, a police department would reject the notion that "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for crime". A hospital undoubtedly tries to both prevent and prepare for disease, and a security company surely tries to prevent and prepare for burglary. ■ It is one thing to say that preparing for an undesirable outcome (and war surely is an undesirable event) is a regrettable act. It is quite another to say that preparation itself is contrary to the nature of peace. ■ Plenty of people involved in war have believed in the values of preparation and deterrence: Dwight Eisenhower declared in his first inaugural address that "[W]e Americans know and we observe the difference between world leadership and imperialism; between firmness and truculence; between a thoughtfully calculated goal and spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies." And James Mattis said as Secretary of Defense that "Our will to win is not more important than our will to prepare to win." Neither man wanted more bloodshed; both sought less precisely because they knew intimately the human cost of war. ■ Just because a phrase is artfully put doesn't make it sensible, and Einstein's quote is a case study in the difference between the two. It is imperative to plan for the worst -- whether that means the worst of natural disasters or the worst of what humans can do to one another. To make preparations may well be the saem act as to implement preventative measures. ■ Moral philosophers -- often including vocal pacifists -- have often argued "If you want peace, work for justice". If an act by a powerful force would be unjust -- like, for instance, a large military making war by invading a smaller neighbor out of self-interest -- then the truly peaceful act may well be for other powerful forces to intercede. The principle that the strong should come to the aid and defense of those who are weaker is nothing new.

Health The sleep of the past wasn't necessarily any better than yours

Derek Thompson: "The romanticization of preindustrial sleep fascinated me. It also snapped into a popular template of contemporary internet analysis: If you experience a moment's unpleasantness, first blame modern capitalism." ■ Worth noting: It's hard to take seriously any sleep-related recommendations from a time before interior climate controls, pillow-top mattresses, contoured pillows, white-noise machines, deadbolts on front doors, smoke detectors, or countless of the other modern niceties that offer us the privilege of choosing how and when to sleep. Our biggest problem is likely that people simply don't know how (or choose not) to implement good habits of sleep.

News Couple arrested and charged with money-laundering billions

These numbers are so unreal they make the entire allegation (featuring cryptocurrency) seem like a work of fantasy fiction.

News Russia takes shot at French president just after meeting with him

Generally speaking, if you follow up a meeting by publicly undercutting the authority of your counterpart, then you're going to sound weak and petty -- not unlike demanding to speak with a manager.

News How education changed a family that had been enslaved

A brief but illustrative family history. It's fascinating and perspective-enhancing to note the impact of education on families as larger units, especially when generations were explicitly denied access to it.


February 9, 2022

Humor and Good News Stopping birds' motion in flight

A positively delightful series of photos capturing the flight patterns of birds, bats, and dragonflies. Thoroughly wonderful to behold.

Broadcasting Good news, everyone!

Hulu is bringing back "Futurama". Now, if only someone would reboot "The Critic".


February 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting up a caution flag

Social media gives us high-visibility reminders that there is no reliable correlation between the ease of finding content and the truth of that content. For every faithful account of events, there could be infinite misrepresentations of the same. That's the whole point of propaganda tactics like hashtag flooding, recently used by the Chinese government to swamp the social-media hashtag "#GenocideGames" (meant to protest the 2022 Beijing Olympics) and drown it in a sea of spam, effectively neutering the original message. ■ Even when bad faith isn't strictly involved, lots of people share their thoughts online with insufficient regard for their duty to the truth. And because so much of the contemporary understanding of the world is influenced either by what people read online (84% of American adults "often" or "sometimes" get their news through digital devices), and by how journalistic outlets reach their news judgments (one research paper called it the "routinization of Twitter into news production"), the flow of content is too important to overlook. ■ For example, it would be a useful feature if social media tools allowed users add a marker like a caution triangle to the accounts they follow, visible only to themselves, to mark those accounts they follow out of curiosity or necessity, but which need to be read with added caution or skepticism. Sources vary not only in the frequency of what they share, but also the weight that should be attached to them. ■ One of the privileges of a well-rounded education is in gaining an understanding that lots of things asserted in writing or in other records are subjective, distorted by the author's perspective, purely opinion-based, or flat-out wrong. And they're often mixed with truths. Conscious consumption of all sorts of media requires that the audience be able to detach itself from the moment and consider it critically. ■ A good, well-rounded education also helps a person to understand that sometimes the best information is found in a footnote. Or in marginalia. Or in the informal institutional memory of an organization. Or in the disorganized stacks in the basement of a library. ■ Humans need practice to develop the skill of learning how to sort, rate, and weigh information. If a person's understanding is (crudely) "It's in a textbook, so it must be true", then they need more practice. Things asserted as "Facts" sometimes really belong in gray spaces. ■ Likewise, we read and understand things through filters that include principles, and sometimes those principles come into conflict. "Tell the truth" is a vital principle -- unless, for instance, telling a lie would save a life. Then, "Save a life" should prevail and the truth should go out the window. The whole reason to have a Supreme Court is to reach judgments in those places where rules and principles come into friction with one another. Court opinions, "stare decisis", and common law are all parts of a communal attempt to reach decisions through a cloud of imperfect information. ■ In light of all this, it is worrisome that we have such a tenuous grasp on what it means to learn. We really know shockingly little about how the human learning process works -- and now humans are programming computers to "learn", such as it is. And often, badly, which is why self-driving cars have been programmed to roll through stop signs and otherwise convincing artificially-generated faces sometimes contain telltale errors, like bungled teeth. ■ The real friction is that increasing dependency on artificial intelligence exposes us to big shortcomings in our understanding of the nature of learning itself. How do you tell artificial intelligence not to believe everything it "reads"? Or that some principles are inviolable...until they aren't? Or that a footnote can mean anything from "This explains everything above" to "The author was bored and wanted to crack a joke"? ■ The prospects are vast for machine learning to do lots of useful things -- in consultation with human oversight and judgment. But we can't let crypto-bros and techno-utopians do all the thinking about what's upstream of AI, or else we're headed for serious trouble. We need caution flags not only for ourselves, but for the tools we're training to think like us, too.


February 11, 2022

News What is the northern recipe?

The Nordic countries -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland -- are widely viewed as some of the best-governed countries in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit issues a "Democracy Index" every year, and those five countries not only make a clean sweep of Europe's top 5, they are also five of the top six in the world (New Zealand manages to squeeze in at #2). ■ What seems strange about their performance isn't that they are unlikely candidates, but that there isn't an obvious compelling reason for them to be so uniquely good at what they do. Finland was occupied by Russia until a mere century ago. Sweden and Norway were ruled by a common kingdom from 1814 until 1905. Denmark was occupied by the Nazi regime of Germany from 1940 until 1945. ■ All of this is to say that there are other countries with longer-standing fully-independent democratic institutions. And other countries have much more recognizable pedigrees of influential political theory: The United Kingdom, for instance, gave the world John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, to name only a few. When we consider vast intellectual movements like the Enlightenment, lots of other European countries left behind much more prominent footprints. ■ Nor is there a widely-known canon of literature explaining the Nordic philosophy of liberal democracy -- at least not in the same way that Americans know where to look for Paine's "Common Sense", the Federalist Papers, and de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to explain the American idea. ■ Yet clearly something is being done well in the Nordic countries, and consistently so -- despite the differences among them. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are members of NATO; Sweden and Finland are not (at least, not for now). Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are members of the European Union; Norway and Iceland are not. These are not trivial differences. ■ Nor are their economies the same; Iceland depends on tourism, aluminum smelting, and fishing, while Norway is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and Finland relies heavily on timber exports. ■ It may be that the countries' shared cultural identity and commitment to intergovernmental cooperation through structures like the Nordic Council cause them to behave alike without having a particularly unique historic pedigree establishing an globally-recognized way. And maybe that itself is the reason it works -- their policies emerge more as organic manifestations of habits that have been shaped by trial and error rather than as ideals that must be adhered-to in order to keep the faith with the past. ■ Whatever the causes, the effects show them to be indisputably worth a closer look -- especially as the world grows wealthier and more technologically sophisticated. It's going to grow harder and harder for tyrants and authoritarians to keep their people from at least becoming aware that there are better ways than oppression and submission. The easier we can make the process of emulating the most successful and durable democracies, the better.

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February 12, 2022

News Possibly the most grating sentence ever published

"EV Hotel, which is billed as 'the first crypto and tech hotel,' has partnered with Chicago Digital Exchange (CDX), a cryptocurrency and NFT exchange, on a CDX Crypto trading floor"

Business and Finance Housing prices falling in Hong Kong

Bloomberg on the housing situation in Hong Kong: "The number and value of new home transactions already fell by 29 per cent and 18 per cent respectively in January from the month before, Ricacorp data show." The only real surprise is that the dreadful National Security Law hadn't tanked housing prices in Hong Kong already.

Humor and Good News On the matter of discipline

Scissors are just knives with applied discipline

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February 13, 2022

Business and Finance You're a conglomerateur, too

Go back in time to the 1970s and early 1980s, and you'll find big, widely-diversified conglomerates all across the American business landscape: Companies like ITT (which owned everything from Sheraton Hotels to insurance and timber companies. At one time, the movie studio Paramount Pictures was owned by Gulf + Western, which also owned Consolidated Cigar and New Jersey Zinc. ■ Though there are still a few deeply-diversified companies still around today, they are a rare breed: Berkshire Hathaway, Loews, and a handful of other companies still operate on the principle that wide diversification benefits the shareholder. On a company level, it's more common to hear praise for spinoffs and "pure plays" than for portfolio broadening. ■ The conglomerates of that period were a result of a number of factors, not least of which included the taxation of both corporate profits and individual dividends, as well as the cost to borrow money. When it's expensive to borrow and taxes on dividends are high, it can serve investors well to have their profits reinvested at the corporate level. Profits under those conditions can be used as a substitute for high-interest borrowing and increase a company's total profits. ■ One of the great missed opportunities of the modern educational era is that we don't really educate our secondary or post-secondary students in the basic history of American business. That history is important not only to telling much of the story about how America has become the country it is today, but also to helping young people learn foundational principles useful for their own investing. ■ It may not have seemed important to understand business valuations back when the promise of a secure, defined-benefit pension was commonplace. It isn't anymore; most people are on the hook for their own retirement investing. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: Many companies made pension promises they couldn't actually fulfill, and the shortfalls have resulted in a lot of pain for retirees who ended up getting less than they had been promised. It's probably better to educate individuals so they can have greater control for themselves. ■ But that means every individual investor needs to acquire at least some of the same skills that once benefited the conglomerateurs. Knowing how much a company is worth is one of those essential skills for individual investors -- unless they intend to hand over the duties to the market overall (via index funds) or by paying someone else to do the work. Everyone in the era of individual investing needs the skills that once made for great stories. Teaching them is a much more important and valuable responsibility than we've given them credit.

Humor and Good News Where is Martha Stewart?

The halftime show at Super Bowl LVI was fantastic, but it could have used just a little more Martha Stewart alongside her pal Snoop Dogg

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February 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Your app can't love you (but does it have a duty to help?)

Valentine's Day may be the peak of the "Hallmark holidays", but that doesn't stop institutions of all sorts from trying to weigh in on the theme of love. Snapchat, for instance, pushed a bland, programmatic message to its users for the holiday: "Happy Valentine's Day! Snap some love to those around you and save some for yourself of course". ■ Considering how much social-media applications depend upon user engagement to remain viable, it's no surprise that any viable opportunity to tug on emotional cues to suggest that people use an app is likely to turn into such a "push" message. But generic messages of this sort always seem hopelessly hollow, and that's odd, considering the centuries-long history of beautiful writing about love (and by those in love) throughout the canon of literature. ■ It's probably too much, of course, to expect anyone working in corporate branding at a place Snapchat to come up with a few lines that would achieve with an economy of words (and heart emojis) the kinds of sentiments it took Shakespeare 25,545 words to express in "Romeo and Juliet". But maybe it isn't too much to ask. ■ The half-hearted attempt to suggest that the user engage in "self-care" by "sav[ing] some for yourself of course" hints at the the inkling of a sense of duty: That we ought to know that Valentine's Day isn't a purely joyful day for all -- either because of love lost, or of love never found. Romance may be a nearly-universal aspect of human experience, but so are heartbreak and longing. Knowing that, is it really enough to commit the digital equivalent of a drive-by shooting with Cupid's arrow? ■ We have a long way to go before we truly grasp what our ever-present devices, our dopamine-triggering applications, and our complex senses of digital community are doing to us. For the exceptional good they are capable of doing, they are also risky: To at least the same extent that computers can help monitor our social and emotional well-being, they are also capable of creating insidious hazards to vulnerable brains. ■ The science of it all is still so young that it is undoubtedly premature to think that the duty to prevent harm can be effectively imposed by regulation or other forms of legal control. But that duty exists nonetheless, and the people who work on these things we so casually call "platforms" must be reminded constantly of their human responsibility to ensure that they do the right thing. ■ There may be nothing wrong with sending a push message on an emotionally charged holiday like Valentine's Day, but it cannot escape the attention of reasonable people that there is a big difference between offering an aisle full of candy and cards for sale in a grocery store, and sending a message virtually unfiltered straight into a user's brain on a day when they might be in a vulnerable state. ■ It's not just the quality of the language that matters (though surely someone ought to look at examples like the love letters of John and Abigail Adams to see that they can do better than "Snap some love"); it's the psychology at work in both what is said and unsaid that has consequences, too. The choice to "do no harm" is available to everyone, including those of us outside the medical professions. And sometimes, rather than saying things poorly or risking saying something unintentionally harmful, it may be best to refrain from saying anything at all.

The United States of America A simple test

New rule: No one is allowed to advocate for any national legislation until they can label every state on a blank map without assistance. Before you try to tell other people how to live their lives, you'd better know how to tell your Ohio from your Idaho (and both from your Iowa).

Computers and the Internet WYSIWYG is what did WordPerfect in

A brief walk down memory lane: WordPerfect had much better shortcut keys than Microsoft's word processors for use in the pre-Windows days, but they made a train wreck of their transition to WYSIWYG and it was all downhill from there. Microsoft Works was garbage.


February 16, 2022

News Why are we building so little multifamily housing?

In 1972, the United States had an estimated population of 208 million people. Today, we have 332 million. Yet despite the increase in population -- 124 million additional people -- there are about 45% fewer new multi-family housing units being started. While it's certainly not the only reason people are complaining about high housing prices, it's also impossible to look away from the basic relationship between supply and demand. Demand is forever on the rise (as the population grows) and supply not only has to keep pace with that growth but with the loss of old dwellings as old housing stock wears out. ■ Single-family homes remain the 800 lb. gorilla in the American imagination, but multifamily housing has several roles to play: It's not only the place where many people start as they stake out on their own in adulthood, it's also where lots of people choose to live in retirement. And for many people, it can be a sensible choice for lots of the time in-between. But we're very good at chasing multi-family housing out of the market, particularly through zoning laws. ■ Resistance to multi-family housing can be very strong and can create a major impediment to new construction. Sometimes that resistance is active (manifesting as objections to particular projects), but it's often systemically baked into zoning laws and land-use regulations. ■ Since so much of the resistance and opposition is based upon perceptions and assumptions, some of the questions that deserve to be asked are qualitative rather than quantitative. ■ Perhaps the most important question is: How different would the picture for multi-family housing be if it were seen as a net creator of value for nearby single-family housing, rather than perceived as a detractor? More specifically, but perhaps more to the point: How much of the categorical resistance to multifamily housing is a result of a broad-based lack of creative, attractive architecture? ■ Apartments, townhomes, condominiums, and even mixed-use buildings tend to be either stultifyingly bland or achingly predictable. The closest thing to real creativity tends to be the repurposing of old industrial buildings into lofts, and even that aesthetic has become a cliche (exposed brick, ghost signs, and ductwork -- we've seen it already). ■ Especially when it comes to delivering on the "missing middle" in the housing market, perhaps what is most needed (aside from the obvious regulatory and zoning reforms) is an attitude change -- one that sees multi-family housing as a value-adding feature in a neighborhood, rather than a value-depressant. People often need to see the proof of a concept before they can get on board with a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) attitude. ■ The imagination on display in some places should inspire people to see that density doesn't have any excuse to be ugly, and in turn that attractively-designed dwellings (whether detached or multi-family) can not only fit within but ultimately enhance the neighborhoods where they are built. Aesthetic appeal isn't the only thing that matters, but it certainly has a role to play in reconciling attitudes with the real needs of the market.

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February 17, 2022

Health Surge capacity

Suppose you could see into the future and be highly confident that we were likely to see an annual or near-annual cycle of Covid-19 outbreaks for a significant time to come, perhaps for a decade or more. If you had that knowledge, what would you do at the policy level to prepare for those high-stress periods that we aren't obviously doing today? ■ This question is important, because we don't know whether we will ever return to the status quo ante. What if short but very intense stress waves on the medical system become chronic? We have long rather unconsciously accepted that influenza will put stress on our society and our health-care systems every winter. What if we should also anticipate periodic Omicron-like spikes in hospitalizations -- maybe every 9 to 12 months -- despite having outstanding vaccines? ■ For now, the systemic pressure comes mainly from the unvaccinated, but we're still so new to this challenge that we don't know whether it will subside or remain with us effectively in perpetuity -- a problem unlikely to be permanently eradicated. Maybe it will, but we can't really count yet on that hope. ■ One possibility is that we might want to set up policies to permit (and train) something like a medical reserve corps. We have reserves in the military, as well as police auxiliaries and volunteer fire departments. Their presence doesn't diminish the full-time professionals in those fields, but it does give them options in times of acute need. What if we trained people to supply reserve capacity for medical care, too? ■ People respond to incentives -- as well as to disincentives. The United States has unusually high barriers to entry into the medical profession, including educational training that takes two years longer than most of our peer-group countries. It's likely those barriers disincentivize people from becoming doctors. In the typical six years required to become a PA (physician assistant) in the US, one could have completed a typical full medical degree in Sweden, the UK, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, or many other wealthy countries. ■ For the number of times we have been told in the last two years about medical systems "near collapse", it seems prudent to look for answers that might give us surge capacity in times of crisis. It seems even more prudent to do so in light of the widespread concern about burnout and emotional exhaustion among health-care professionals. ■ The Army trains combat medic specialists in 16 weeks. They are not supposed to be substitutes for doctors or nurses, but rather to be the best-available assistance between the point of crisis and a more thorough standard of care. If pandemic (or endemic) surges are going to return often and for the foreseeable future, maybe we need to make room both legally and logistically for people in the civilian world who can be called up from time to time to backstop doctors and nurses. At the very least, we ought to give the system a close examination.

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February 18, 2022

News Great minds think together

The old phrase says that "Great minds think alike", which is often a convenient consolation. After all, great minds quite often think differently, not only from one another, but from most other minds around them. But there is an undeniable sense of pleasure that comes from finding oneself in agreement with someone else, especially where there is mutual trust and respect. ■ A phrase that deserves to come into currency alongside the well-known one is "Great minds think together". One of the well-recognized aspects of couplehood (and of family life in general) is that sharing life experience with other people permits us to "remember" in a social context, rather than just our own. Spouses know each other's stories, and can not only bring them up, but embellish or enhance them upon repetition. The same often goes for siblings, for parents and their children, and even for cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. ■ But we don't just remember things with the help of collective memory. We think socially, too. Nothing could have ever made this quite so evident on so large a scale as the isolation so abruptly imposed on practically everyone with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Informal social thinking -- scuttlebutt, water-cooler talk, "bouncing ideas off you", and the like -- has suffered tremendously over the last two years. It's been noticeable both in personal and occupational contexts; lots of employers still haven't resumed regular in-office work, church attendance remains dramatically down, and there are parts of the world where private gatherings are still strictly limited. ■ Thinking together serves many purposes at the same time, both regulatory and generative. Sharing an idea with friends is often a way to test whether it's worth further pursuit or ought to be left alone -- we help to regulate one another by pointing towards or away from ideas, based on our own knowledge, values, and experience. But we also generate new ideas through collaboration, even when it's informal; you pick up on a new recipe from a friend, they suggest a new author you should read, and soon enough, you're teaching one another whole new cooking techniques and reviewing movies together. ■ Psychologists will have to find ways of studying this massive natural experiment in which we have all been involuntarily enrolled for two years. There is only so much a chat feature in a Zoom meeting or an always-open Slack channel can do to facilitate the natural and organic exchanges that lead us to think together. ■ In some workplaces, productivity has risen as people have worked from home. But alert students of institutional memory know that much of workplace education still takes place informally, and it's undoubtedly the same for a lot of the leisure thinking we can only do when actively engaged with others -- social thinking. It's not always clear that great minds think alike, but nearly all minds must frequently spend time thinking together.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

February 20, 2022

News Cryptocurrency markets turn to Super Bowl ads

People watching the Super Bowl might have been surprised to witness advertising for cryptocurrency markets. After all, we don't usually encounter a lot of advertising for forex markets in mass media, and if we did, the viewer might reasonably wonder whether the ordinary retail investor were sophisticated enough to understand the nature and risks of betting on the relative values of currencies. ■ Such betting is exactly what parts of the cryptocurrency community are trying to promote with mass-market outreach like the Super Bowl advertising blitz. Super Bowl advertising is rarely about education; it's about emotion -- smashing Big Brother, lusting after Cindy Crawford, kneeling before the site of the Twin Towers. And in 2022, the emotion being pushed was the fear of missing out, with the words: "Don't be like Larry. Don't miss out on the next big thing". ■ It is a shame that cryptocurrencies, at least for the time being, are a market driven almost purely by speculation. It's sad because there is a viable argument for the utility of digital currencies not subject to government control -- for instance, as a store of value for those looking to escape life under oppressive regimes. If someone were living in a country like China and looking to leave with more than just the clothes on their back, cryptocurrencies might be a liberating tool. ■ But liberation from oppression isn't what the ad featuring a computer-manipulated young LeBron James. In selling was selling as it dripped with FOMO -- the Fear Of Missing Out. "Is the hype too much?" asks "young" James. "If you want to make history, you got to call your own shots", responds his modern-day counterpart -- projecting from a vantage of wisdom and experience. "Fortune favors the brave" screams the title across the closing shot. ■ At various times in history, "fortune" has favored "brave" speculators in tulip bulbs, Manhattan real estate, and .com startups. That doesn't mean any of those bubbles were necessary, virtuous, or prudent. "Fortune" also punished lots of "brave" speculators in those same manias. ■ Charlie Munger has argued that because of the curse of speculation and the perverse incentives sometimes in effect within our regulatory framework, "[I]t's very hard to get the government to make good, wise decisions about something like Bitcoin." While Munger may be too pessimistic about the potential utility of cryptocurrencies (and too magnanimous in his assessment of China's government for having cracked down on them altogether), his fundamental assessment is correct: The enthusiasm on display by promoters tends to obscure the real harm being done by encouraging regular people to enter the cryptocurrency casino. ■ For that is all it is right now: A casino in which turbulent pricing prevails, promises of riches cloud judgment, billions are laundered, and scammers have a heyday. ■ Emotions affect all sorts of ways in which people allocate their money -- whether shopping, investing, or speculating. That's nothing new. Nor is the allure of quick riches -- gambling will always be with us. But gambling cloaked as being on the "smart" side of investing ought to be discouraged. Anything can be sold as currency if people are willing to believe it is scarce and represents a store of value: Gold, seashells, or publicly-tracked computer bits. But we really don't need more speculation in our lives: The fear of missing out ought to be eclipsed by the skepticism of being taken for a ride.

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February 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards What we fear

The very idea of war should be abhorrent to any reasonable person. Any differences we have with other people on this planet should be well within the bounds of what can be resolved among reasonable people dealing rationally with one another. But reasonable people are not always in control. ■ There is nothing objectively reasonable about what Vladimir Putin has decided to do to Ukraine. The Russian military has been used to menace the people of Ukraine for nearly a decade. Fear has been the weapon of choice. ■ Real fear is essentially a universal evil. Not "fear" as we use it to describe the surprise that comes from going through a haunted house or the heightened emotional state that comes from watching a horror film, but real fear -- the intentional infliction of dreadful anxiety as a weapon. ■ Too many people want to make every struggle against things they dislike into the moral equivalent of war. The problem with this mode of thinking is that fear and discomfort are two different things. It is much more than a mere semantic distinction: The intentional infliction of fear is virtually always an act on the wrong side of the moral ledger, while discomfort can happen for all kinds of reasons. ■ People can endure a lot of discomfort. Many even emerge better for the experience. And reconciling ourselves with the impossibility of erasing all discomfort from human life would go a long way towards helping us to clarify the conversations and debates we have about the world and how to pursue "right" ends. Struggle is often the price of things worth having, and we shouldn't try to eliminate all discomfort, nor should we consider anyone evil if they choose not to share our vision of which discomforts ought to be mitigated. ■ But it shouldn't be hard to achieve consensus around the need to combat real, existential fear. The weapon of fear is evil whether it is the fear used by a police state, a regime pursuing ethnic repression, or a theocratic fascist terror group. And so also is it evil when it's used to try to disrupt a neighbor's march toward democracy.

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February 22, 2022

Computers and the Internet Bringing more beauty into the world

An oddity of the always-on digital world is that we are enabled to remain in communication with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of other people on a sustained basis, yet nothing about human experience up to this point has given us practice in that kind of experience. Humans have always communicated with one another; indeed, the complexity of our interpersonal communication is one of the distinctive features of our humanity within the animal kingdom. But the fact that we can communicate with effectively unlimited audiences in real time -- right down to live streaming our moment-by-moment experience of the world -- is historically novel. ■ This connectivity raises the existence of an interesting new responsibility. We are each accountable for how much joy and beauty we create in the world. That has always been the case: Families and close-knit groups have always told us how we're doing with the help of visceral feedback. Did you make a child laugh? Did your co-workers greet you in the morning? Did your spouse blow you a kiss? ■ Now, though, if we choose to engage in the digital networks that are basically enmeshed with contemporary existence, we have to treat our extended networks with special attention to the balance of what we create. Some people still opt out of them, but for most people, the networks are almost impossible to avoid and often hard to resist. ■ Some people succumb to the temptation to treat all of those interactions as a sales opportunity -- think of the "influencer" culture that rewards people for living in TikTok mansions. And others fall for the lure of turning to their social networks instead of sharing their problems with trained professionals, like counselors and therapists. Neither approach seems prudent. ■ Instead, for most people, our best hope is to treat forays into our social diaries a lot like visits around a campfire, with pleasant company and light entertainment. While our social nature may compel us to share both life's ups and downs, beauty and joy should be the categories we consciously seek most often to fill -- whether with earnest humor or with those moments we are able to capture in still pictures, videos, conversations, or even paintings. ■ Just as it's wise to give other drivers grace on the highways (after all, we never know who, for example, is returning home from seeing an ailing family member in the hospital), so too is it wise to assume that someone encountering our moments online may be there in the midst of the worst. We aren't practiced at it yet anthropologically, but as a matter of general principle, we ought to spend most of our time not sharing over-glossy depictions of life, but of the ordinary encounters with good we have in the world. Beauty has never been so easy to capture; it is a shame if we don't share what of it we find.

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February 23, 2022

Business and Finance Help us find what's "Made in Kyiv"

Americans have generally thought well of Canada -- if not a little avariciously. After all, the Articles of Confederation contained a provision to allow Canada free and unimpeded entry into the United States if our northerly neighbors so chose. That obviously didn't happen...though there are even Canadians and Americans alike who today find thoughts of a merger (partial or complete) to be attractive. ■ But at least as much as our common historical ties and strong cultural relationships would suggest, it is exchange and trade that really keep the two countries so closely bound together. Aside from the relatively trivial differences introduced by the metric/English divide and the floating exchange rate between the greenback and the loonie, there is very little to impede trade back-and-forth between the two countries (as long as protesters aren't standing in the way). And that trade is a much larger part of our economic life than any other day-to-day part of life, at least in America. ■ Our very strong trading relationship with Canada serves to enhance the sense of community between the two countries and solidifies the understanding that we have shared interests. Thus, their example makes it surprising that the United States has not done a better job of approaching international economic relationships as a more significant tool of global public diplomacy. ■ As the world's largest economy, Americans buy a lot of stuff and pay for a lot of services, not all of them created domestically. Even a small share of the giant American domestic market would be a giant boon to most international economies. Why is it, then, that we as American consumers don't have a convenient guide to the best places to spend our money so as to support known American interests in the world? ■ Suppose, for example, that an ordinary American wanted to support the freedom and independence of Ukraine. Very few of us are able to sit at the table where these things are negotiated. But one thing we can do is to spend our money -- but where? Where is it that we could spend our money to offer tacit monetary support for the well-being of a threatened state like Ukraine? ■ It's likely that in a handful of American communities (Pittsburgh, for one), one could find stores prominently featuring Ukranian imports. And perhaps it's possible to do some clever searching within Amazon to find products that are made in Kyiv or Donetsk. But by-and-large, ordinary Americans have no obvious place to go if they wish to do something to support America's geostrategic interests with our own consumer spending. ■ It wouldn't take the efforts of a very large staff to offer some of this information as a public service, but nobody in our Federal government seems to have done it. That seems like a failure of imagination: Americans are willing to spend lots of money in order to show support for causes we consider worthy. We are notoriously generous charitable givers, and we spend liberally on GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns. Why not turn to public diplomacy and American consumer spending as a way to find a surrogate method of "kickstarting" campaigns for countries in which we have a vested interest? ■ A trade promotion office, perhaps inside the State or Commerce Departments, might be able to smooth the path to help American buyers know to where we could put our money where our national mouth is. America has historically used trade and economic interaction to support the interests of peace around the world: Our rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan and our heavy investment in Japan during its postwar occupation tend to suggest that we could promote the same interests in peace through prosperity, even when the problems are not overwhelming or urgent. ■ Gently facilitating a pathway to buying things labeled "Made in _____" -- whether Ukraine or Iraq or a refugee camp in Lebanon or Uganda -- could be a meaningful way to help American consumers advance peaceful interests worldwide by boosting fragile economies. Prosperity matters to peace. ■ A benign broker who could offer suggestions and smooth the way could help. Some American consumers might choose to spend their money in these ways as a matter of short term virtue-signaling. No harm done if that's the case. Others, though, might find products or services that they wish to enjoy on an ongoing basis. And that sort of trade could serve to further American interests -- at virtually zero taxpayer expense.

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February 24, 2022

Threats and Hazards Escalatory madness

When we encounter madness in the world, it can be hard to admit that complexity and irrationality leave us struggling and unable to understand. Even the ambassadors meeting at the United Nations were surprised in the middle of a Security Council meeting by the announcement that Russian armed forces had invaded Ukraine. ■ The warning signs had certainly abounded, but just days before the invasion, the mood of many -- including powerful people in Ukraine -- was skeptical of imminent conflict. One of the chief reasons it seemed unlikely was that Russia would have so much to lose and so little to fundamentally gain. ■ Yet some commentators seem compelled to attach themselves to the most simplistic answers possible. Prominent among them is Clay Travis, who occupies the radio network time slot that once belonged to Rush Limbaugh. His analysis: "Autocratic leaders believe in hyper masculinity, raw physical power. They believe that might makes right. America has spent decades fetishizing soft, cuddly, emotional power. Putin and Xi don't respect it. At all. This is the result." ■ It is an embarrassment to the American conscience that someone with so shallow an understanding of the world barks such nonsense to a national broadcast audience for three hours a day, five days a week. ■ Empty-headed appeals to the triumph of "masculinity" are in vogue in some quarters -- but as geopolitical analysis, they are garbage. Modern statecraft, diplomacy, and warfare depend on factors like intelligence, adaptability, ingenuity, and reasoning. It would be daft to think that a country's armed forces would be stronger than another's if only it chose to forswear using half of its available brainpower. "Hyper masculinity" and "raw physical power" may appeal to some -- but their appeal is mainly to those who fail to see the bigger picture. ■ It makes far more sense to recognize that Vladimir Putin is a man who depends upon the state equivalent of an organized crime syndicate, of which he is the mafia don. He is not a decent man who has won such esteem of his people that he is indispensable to his country: Remember that in a free election, the voters of the United Kingdom tossed out even the estimable Winston Churchill once WWII was over. ■ Free and fair elections invariably result in restlessness. Putin has manipulated the law and used pretexts to hold on to power for 22 years. And a transparent political system free of gross corruption wouldn't turn out a dictator-for-life with a $200 billion fortune. ■ Many of the Russian people know better and want better, which serves to explain why many are turning out to protest, despite the costs many of them will face under Putin's police state. ■ The invasion of Ukraine is, at its heart, an act of cowardice compelled by the personal interests of an irredeemably evil man, who knows full well that innocent people are dying of his choice. We don't have to intuit the precise reasons why he sees the move as serving his self-interests to know that he acts only to preserve himself and the gang that surrounds him. That's why international moves to deprive him and his inner circle of their assets is considered such a high-priority tool. ■ The situation appears like an act of crude desperation to prop up his regime -- perhaps under the theory that a military victory would bolster enough public support to keep him from being toppled. Putin knows that a quiet retirement in some warm-weather dacha is out of the question. Once he is out of power, he will undoubtedly find himself targeted -- and likely disposed of. So he acts to bind his inner circle closer to him in an act of escalatory commitment. It's a dangerous gamble, it will most likely be severely destabilizing, and it will have grave consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and possibly others. Escalation is almost always necessary within a criminal syndicate, and it usually ends badly for the boss. ■ The invasion of Ukraine isn't about simplistic impressions of diminished Western "masculinity". It's not about women flying combat missions for the US Air Force or Finland having a female prime minister. Appeals to "raw power" are just window dressing and always have been. Look instead to the vile self-interest of a small cabal of people who know that once they start to lose their grip, they'll lose it all.


February 25, 2022

Science and Technology Where to put our energies

One of the factors that diminished the deterrent effects of European warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine was continental Europe's dependency on Russian-supplied natural gas. About a quarter of European energy comes from natural gas, with half of that used for heating, and about a quarter used for each of industrial purposes and electrical generation. Europe counts on Russia for 41% of its natural gas. ■ Part of this dependency comes from the depletion of Europe's own North Sea gas supplies; it's not often easy to make a transition from one energy source to others, so finding other supplies was easier for many purposes than going with alternatives. Another part of this dependency is the result of European efforts to phase-out the use of coal in order to reduce carbon pollution (a meritorious goal). But renewable energy is still in a growth phase -- and Germany is prematurely shutting down its nuclear-energy supply. ■ For all of human history, we've been constrained mainly by resources. We've managed to stay ahead of Malthusian collapse thanks to innovation, and that innovation has been driven in no small part by markets. As resources become scarce, the incentives grow to find alternatives or to use the existing resources more efficiently. (It also helps that increasing prosperity tends to act as a serious depressant on birth rates.) ■ But things could get interesting -- in a good way! -- as we emerge on the other side of our current energy-related growing pains. Renewable energy is on a tear, already accounting for more than half of Iowa's electricity (with other states to follow). As the cost of generating solar power continues in a freefall and the cost of energy storage drops, we can start to imagine a situation in which energy may not be completely free -- but it could enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever-cheaper. ■ Should that become the case, we can imagine outcomes that would result from a world in which energy becomes nearly cost-free. Most importantly, the resource limitations that have defined human history could begin to lift: Unlimited energy would let us clean our air and our water virtually without constraint. It would let us produce food anywhere (with the help of artificial illumination inside greenhouses and vertical farms) and without susceptibility to weather or climate problems. It would even permit us to recycle now-wasted resources of all types, reducing still further the Malthusian limitations on our world. ■ The faster we can push the cost of energy as close to zero as possible, the sooner our most important constraint will shift from the scarcity of resources to the innovative capacity of the human mind. We have geniuses like Norman Borlaug to thank for having rescued millions of lives from starvation. ■ If almost-free energy can help the world reach a stage wherein resources are so abundant that they are no longer serious constraining factors, many of the consequences of absolute poverty could be erased, lifting people into greater economic security. And it is under conditions of resource security that people can pursue the most challenging and rewarding of research, advancement, and new ideas. ■ For now, we still have to live with significant constraints. And energy may remain the most painful among them for a while to come. But sometimes the shock of disaster serves as a wake-up call to those who had been complacent. Figuring out how to throw off the yoke of energy dependency as soon as possible ought now to be a self-evident priority of the very first order. And if we succeed at it, the feedback loop it would create could be enormously rewarding for all of us on this pale blue dot in space.

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February 28, 2022

News Periodical news

Even though he didn't actually ride through the streets waking the townsfolk with the cry that "The Redcoats are coming!", schoolchildren are still taught some version of the legend of Paul Revere. The story communicates something that seems utterly foreign today: That there was a time when news moved slowly. The newspapers of the Colonial era were generally published weekly, and that was about as much news as could be expected, considering the length of time it took to gather news from Europe -- reachable only via ocean sailings that took weeks to months. ■ Beyond its connection to the noteworthy historical figures involved, Revere's ride stands out as a rare story of immediacy in a time when news rarely traveled fast. The telegraph sped up the process by moving news faster than people (or pigeons) could carry it, but the news remained periodical until radio (and later television) could deliver live reporting. ■ Today, even war correspondents tweet in real time as the President of besieged Ukraine offers his own readouts of calls with prime ministers and proof-of-life videos. It is possible to immerse oneself in instantaneous coverage of the world without ever taking rest. ■ News production has mainly ceased to be periodical. The only way to give rationality a fighting chance is to make sure news consumption becomes periodical instead. It is indeed a bit ridiculous that NPR is offering "self-care" tips to help people far from the action to "cope with a stressful news cycle". A cornerstone of adulthood is the development of self-control. If it takes a news outlet saying, "Remember that it's okay to not be plugged into the news 24/7", then we really do need to consider what kind of adults we're letting loose into the world. ■ The world is surely better-off with services providing global news coverage 24 hours a day than it would be without; the BBC World Service remains one of the great contributions to an enlightened planet. And yet even the World Service sticks to bulletins on the hour and half-hour. ■ Faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, everyone knows they must stop consuming at some point, and we don't consider it "self-care" to resist going back. It's just self-control. News needs to be digested over time, just as food does. If we're merely consuming all the time, we may be tickling the amygdala, but we're not satisfying actual needs. A complex world calls for careful thinking. If we succumb to the addiction to noise, then we'll never reap the rewards of careful consideration.