Gongol.com Archives: May 2022

Brian Gongol

May 2022
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May 2, 2022

Threats and Hazards Indiscriminate bombing

The decision by the Russian military to launch missiles at Kyiv during a visit by the UN Secretary-General is the kind of plainly outrageous behavior that should escape no condemnation. Attacking Ukraine's capital city is an inexcusable act in the first place, and even worse, targeting a residential apartment building (as Russian forces did) is almost certainly a war crime. ■ But beyond those two offenses against the civilized world, Russia's military attacked a city where the UN's top diplomat had gone on a publicly announced visit. It wasn't a secret mission. Antonio Guterres had gone to Kyiv following a meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin. And the entire UN trip was conducted to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, a town already literally half-obliterated by Russian assault. ■ Anyone still making apologies for the invasion of Ukraine or playing cowardly games of "whataboutism" with the conduct of Ukraine's defense needs to acknowledge how dreadfully wrong they have been. If the leader of the United Nations cannot enter a capital city to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from a war-torn area without itself coming under bombardment, then the country dropping the bombs should be suspended indefinitely from any benefits of the community of nations. ■ There are too many layers of self-evident evil embedded in the Kremlin's behavior to afford any room for excuse: Depriving children of basic necessities. Holding noncombatants under siege for weeks. And now, aiming weapons "shockingly" close to the representatives of the world's organized body for resolving disputes -- who had shown up for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of those innocents. ■ Giving the bully a veto is a certain way to dismantle a peaceful world order, and the civilized nations of the world are justified in remaining resolute against that bully -- by isolating it, depriving it of the resources it converts into warfare, and providing abundant support to the defenders.

Broadcasting What is the proper theme song for Generation X?

It must be either the Pinball Count from Sesame Street or the theme to The Price is Right. Either way, it has something to do with television first and foremost.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 3, 2022

Health A "stealth" lockdown for 22 million people

An observer writes from China that "Beijing is going into a 'stealth' lockdown. We're not confined to our homes (yet) but so many restrictions are being rolled into place that going anywhere or doing anything is becoming extremely difficult." For any number of reasons, this seems indefensibly crazy. ■ First, with a population of about 22 million people, Beijing is just a smidge more populous than Florida. By that measure alone, the scale of a Beijing lockdown, whether "stealth" or openly declared, would be gargantuan. The logistical nightmare that resulted in Shanghai as people became desperate for basic necessities like food. ■ There is also the matter of basic efficacy: The "Zero Covid" policy is enormously disruptive, and there is plainly no rationale by which locking tens of millions of people at home (or, according to some reports, at work for some 20,000 people) for weeks at a time beats having an effective vaccination program. Bloomberg's reporting says that "only half of the population aged 80 and older are fully vaccinated" in mainland China -- and none of them have gotten the extremely effective mRNA vaccines known to work so well in the United States and elsewhere. ■ And then, there is naked self-interest. China's ruling party doesn't like competition nor does it tolerate criticism. The problem with an institutional attitude like that is that it prevents essential signals from making their way to decision-makers. The long-time Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, said, "If your staff thinks you can't take the bad news, for fear you will behead the messenger, something is wrong with you. You are paying them to provide you with information. They shouldn't fear you. I wanted the bad news because then I could do something about it, and fast." ■ It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something wrong with the czars of China's Communist Party. They've hidden themselves from the facts (and from critical analysis), and have censored even the economists from acknowledging that "Zero Covid" is far from zero-cost. ■ People can be kept ignorant of facts far from them for a long time. Misinformation, disinformation, and censorship alike are used for exactly that reason. But people can't be denied the witness of their own lived experiences -- particularly those of imprisonment and hunger. And when a regime tries to keep an iron-clad lid on everything experienced by its people, tens of millions at a time, it inescapably lights a fuse -- maybe long, maybe short -- on its own demise.

@briangongol on Twitter

May 4, 2022

Science and Technology Stopping before you cross the line

In built-up urban areas, lanes of opposing traffic on expressways are usually separated by concrete median barriers. Ugly but effective, they keep mishaps from escalating -- which represents a victory for safety. A single-vehicle collision at 60 mph can be terrible, but the consequences are certain to be worse if it cascades into a head-on collision at a closing speed of 120 mph. ■ But concrete barriers are material-intensive, and the vast majority of American highway miles pass through rural areas, where traffic densities are lower than on urban expressways and sloping medians between opposing lanes of traffic offer little suitable space to set down heavy concrete blocks. The increasing adoption of cable barriers for separating traffic on rural highways addresses the problem both more cost-effectively and more suitably to conditions. ■ Median barriers installed on rural highways are credited with slashing head-on crashes by 97%. Considering that 8% of deaths on those types of highways happen in head-on crashes, median barriers installed everywhere would have a multiple-percentage-point effect on those deaths. ■ Rural cable-style median barriers stand up well as a metaphor for a certain ideal of government intervention: Generally speaking, they are high-return investments that impose no active restraint on motorists except when things have already started to go wrong, at which time they serve almost exclusively to keep a bad situation from escalating into a catastrophe. ■ While they cost a mighty sum to install (upwards of $80,000 per mile), their payback value is estimated to be a 16:1 return on investment. That return assumes a value of $4,500,000 on a human life -- an actuarial assumption that actually sounds extremely low if you're putting a price on the life of someone you love. ■ As a standard for gentle government interventions in other areas of life, it would be hard to beat the example of a non-intrusive, nearly fail-safe, 16-to-1 investment. If we could find more of those, even the most ardent libertarian ought to be persuadable.


May 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet The war from the living room

The spontaneous formation of volunteer cyber-armies eager to aid Ukraine in its resistance against Russian aggression seems like a pleasing development on the surface -- people with useful computing skills want to offer assistance to the defensive side in an utterly unjust war. But to our great misfortune (and possible risk), policy and doctrine haven't caught up with the practical development of cyberwarfare, and that gap could create troublesome costs. ■ The history of "irregulars", foreign volunteers, and mercenaries in warfare goes back a long way. What would the lore about the American Revolutionary War be without Lafayette (for the Americans) and the Hessians (who fought for the British)? But in cyberwarfare, people can enter digital combat from their living rooms, and that complicates things. ■ Some degree of confusion is inevitable, considering the blurry contours of cyberwarfare and the strained relationship that the Russian government maintains with the truth. But matters are complicated far more than they should be by the absence of a clear outlet, at least under the US Department of Defense, for engagement in online conflict. ■ Yes, we have a Cyber Command, but we do not have a clear Cyber Force, and that's a problem to be rectified. If we have the resources to create a dedicated Space Force, we absolutely possess the wherewithal to spin up a dedicated, standalone organization for conflict in cyberspace. ■ This isn't to say that cyberwarfare exists entirely apart from the other spheres of conflict. But it behaves differently, it has different consequences, and it is far more permeable by people from the outside. No household owns a littoral combat ship or a heavy-lifting helicopter. But 93% of American adults are online. ■ It's long overdue for the United States to develop a clear, deliberately considered doctrine on the use of cyberwarfare -- who commands it, which "battlefields" are permissible, who qualifies as a combatant, and above all, what rules ought to govern such conflict. ■ And far more than any of the other armed forces, a dedicated Cyber Force would need to have an unusual degree of permeability with the private sector. This goes even beyond letters of marque and reprisal, though that Constitutional mechanism surely has a part to play, too. The people and skill sets we need to develop for this new kind of conflict just aren't the same as who and what we need for an amphibious assault. Different needs call for appropriate structures. ■ But America certainly needs an organized, deliberate approach to not only an active-duty Cyber Force, but also to reserve resources that could be called upon as needed. We need hardened defenses, public-private cooperation (and delineation of roles), and thoughtful doctrines on matters like escalation, deterrence, and rules of engagement. ■ The effort, resources, and focus required should not be left to afterthought status. It's hard to see the requisite focus happening without raising the status of our responses to full branch status. Whether we formalize the structure or not, people are going to "volunteer" for the fight -- so there's no time to waste in seeking to get it well-organized and managed in a way that promotes national interests. ■ Cyber conflict has become a key domain of Russia's war against Ukraine, as well as a valuable tool for the Ukrainian defense. There is absolutely zero reason to believe that cyberspace will ever become less important to warfare, now that the threshold has been crossed. The question is not whether but when the United States will acknowledge the the new era and escalate our posture accordingly.

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May 8, 2022

Broadcasting See the whites of their eyes

Whatever the quality of a person's eyesight may be, one of the things they can be sure of seeing from the greatest distance is another person's gaze. The "whites of our eyes" make it possible to see where others are looking from 30 feet away -- even when there would be no way most of us could read a letter of the same size at the same distance. ■ It's not just a thing we share with other people; being able to communicate with our eyes alone helps humans and dogs to coexist. The significance of gaze says a great deal about our evolution as social creatures. We not only depend upon the explicit things that others say to us; we rely on the most basic signals about what has others' attention to interpret what should be important to us, too. ■ Where we point our eyes matters, and so does where we fix our metaphorical gaze. Communication tools that have done a great deal to inform us -- especially those based in video -- offer an unstoppable and overwhelming supply of hints about the things that other people want us to think are important. ■ The talking heads of television always give us their eye contact -- and with it, a false sense of security that we are sharing our attention with what's important. But so do the people who appear on YouTube videos and Snapchat channels. Over and over, anyone can choose to be bombarded by messages that are packed with anthropological persuasion. ■ Knowing and understanding the ways our animal instincts are deliberately triggered by others is vital stuff. We haven't had the tools long enough to develop any useful evolutionary defenses against them. And in a time when lots of events are capable of provoking any of us to action, the least we can do is become aware that our brains are often primed to accept signals we don't even realize are being sent.

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May 9, 2022

Science and Technology What to do when there's too much power

Energy storage comes in many forms, some of which can be unexpected. The obvious form, of course, is the battery -- a technology that has made substantial improvements in recent years, but which still has a vast amount of progress left to make. It's becoming possible to store a lot of power when there's lots of space available (Puerto Rico, for instance, is aiming to build a gigawatt of energy storage), but while electric cars and trucks are gaining range on the ground, we still haven't quite gotten many battery-powered planes in the air (though there's reason to believe mass production of electric airplanes could yet happen within the decade). ■ Energy can obviously be stored in the biological equivalent of batteries, as food. And it can be stored as potential energy, which is part of the reason why water utilities typically fill elevated storage tanks overnight, when competing demand for both water and electricity is lower. Setting aside energy as potential chemical energy (in a form like non-perishable foods) or stored mechanical energy (as with water in an elevated tank or behind a dam) is fairly obvious and routine, once one begins to look for it. ■ But the explosive growth in renewable energy presents society with a whole new and intriguing question: How else can we time-shift the consumption of energy so that it can be used not on-demand, but rather, on-supply? The catch to renewable energy is typically that it's supplied when and where Mother Nature wishes to deliver it. We can station photovoltaic cells and wind turbines where the supplies are, on average, the most plentiful. But we can't exactly tell the winds when to blow or the sun when to shine. ■ California, notably, just had a brief incident during which renewable power generation exceeded statewide demand. And Texas is experiencing weird disparities in its power grid that, due to significant wind generation, are pushing wholesale electricity prices into negative territory. ■ Expanding the amount of electricity the country (and, indeed, the world) can generate is very much in our long-term interests as a civilization. The less we have to depend upon carbon-intensive energy in all its forms, the better. But in order to make the best use of electrical generation that occurs outside of prime consumption hours (and when storage may be either uneconomical or physically impossible), we're going to have to find new sources of demand for energy that can be switched on and off when the power is available. One of those outlets for demand could be found in on-demand recycling of materials like steel that require lots of power. ■ Such a recycling scheme is only one of many uses we'll need to identify, if what we want to do is optimize our usage when the supply is plentiful. But the better we do at finding economically productive outlets for off-peak energy supply, the better the rationale will be for expanding the supply of renewable energy. And the better we achieve a market-friendly supply, the better we'll be able to align the interests of markets with the interests of maintaining a healthy environment for human beings in the future.

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May 10, 2022

The United States of America Who speaks for us?

There isn't much dispute among historians about the two greatest American Presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have those two spots safely locked up. And most Americans would agree -- even if there are plenty of shortcomings one could identify about each of them -- most indisputably, Washington should have freed the people he held in slavery prior to his own death. ■ It is most interesting that these two Presidents, towering figures that they are in our national lore, left no descendants to the modern day. Washington had no children of his own, and Lincoln's family tree appears to have died off with his great-grandson in 1985. ■ While it's not the only reason to be glad the United States doesn't have a hereditary monarchy, it certainly serves as a fascinating pair of case studies that no genetic heirs to our two most revered Presidents would have been available to the present, even if we had wanted them. This stands in marked contrast to the United Kingdom, where Prince Charles has delivered the "Queen's Speech" in place of his mother, who continues to reign but suffers from health troubles in her advanced age. ■ Serious news outlets in the UK have noted that the presence of the Prince in place of his mother makes the act "constitutionally sound". It sounds quaint, but it really is logically odd to require the physical presence of a body with a blood relationship in order to make a government's actions "constitutional". ■ Periodically, it is worth remembering that when the President of the United States is required to report on the State of the Union, it is the act of a person answering to his sovereign authority -- the American people and the states, who are represented in person by the two houses of Congress. The people and the states delegate their powers to the Congress, which delegates the execution of those powers to the President. No blood relationships are required. ■ And it is a good thing, but one we remember too infrequently. The perpetual expansion of the imperial Presidency too often gives us the impression that the President is some sort of "boss of everybody". It's an impression often formed quite early, since children aren't necessarily equipped to understand popular sovereignty, but are pretty well programmed to recognize an authority figure. ■ But it takes correction and practice to realize that the powers that originate with the people -- not with a sovereign individual -- and that those powers are impossible to carry out well and faithfully without responsibility. If things go wrong here, it is our own fault. Even if we wanted them, there are no fortunate offspring of our greatest Presidents available to save us. It is only up to us, all by ourselves.

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May 11, 2022

News Liberalism on the march

Mass political movements that center on an individual are almost always noxious. While a politician usually has to demonstrate some kind of personal charisma in order to win votes, it is for very good reason that the phrase "cult of personality" is an epithet (and a pretty catchy song by Living Colour). Any thoughtful examination of a real personality cult reveals enormous potential (if not propensity) for abuse and a fundamental impermanence. All charismatic leaders must eventually pass. ■ But the basic safeguard against any such personality-driven movement is a functional system of representative government in which ideas and policies take center stage, rather than especially dynamic individuals. One of the main difficulties lies in branding what that is. Historically, that idea has been called "classical liberalism", or simply "liberalism". ■ The misapplication of the word to mean "left of center" in the United States has gone on so long that the word is badly tarnished; people who are most accurately described as "right-liberals" (like Churchill, Hayek, and Friedman) would have to explain what exactly their "liberalism" means to a modern American audience. And in the words attributed to Ronald Reagan, "If you're explaining, you're losing." ■ The word "liberal" has been morphed into an epithet from the left, as well. Groups like the Adam Smith Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute have adopted the word "neoliberal" as, basically, a freshened adaptation of classical liberalism. And in return, they have been pilloried by leftists as "disenfranchisers, failures, and elitists. ■ To defend the tenets of liberalism (whether neo- or classical) is to accept a certain dissatisfaction: If matters are fairly decided among lots of people with competing interests, nobody ever really gets everything that they want. ■ And, contrary to more utopian visions of how the world works, from communists to radical traditionalists, the liberal perspective makes no assumption that there is some perfect end in mind. Old problems will sometimes come to unsatisfactory conclusions, others will linger while experimentation seeks an answer that works, and new problems will emerge as both society and technology change. ■ That's a pretty difficult vision to sell on the basis of outcomes, but the classical sense of liberalism is tethered to the principle that the process matters as much as the outcomes, if not more so. ■ That's why someone of a liberal temperament is sure to be offended at how China has stripped Hong Kong of its self-government, turning over the election of the Chief Executive (in a place with 7.5 million people) to the votes of a specially-selected class of Communist-approved "patriots" who could fit inside the suites at a game of the Minnesota Twins. The resulting Chief Executive could be as gifted a politician as Abraham Lincoln himself, and the contamination of the process would still outweigh any good resulting from the outcome. ■ It may well be that liberalism simply has to be rebranded periodically, while holding tight to the tenets that make it functional. That appears to be the lesson of France's En Marche, a young movement/party that has successfully rebuffed an anti-liberal far-right when conventional parties could not. Perhaps liberal movements can only be sustained by periodic turnover and replacement, or by focusing on targeted outcomes and systemic reforms that can appeal to voters who get the itch to replace the status quo. ■ If processes matter fundamentally even more than outcomes, then it might just be that the only way to consistently keep a classically liberal system on the march is to be willing to engage in periodic metamorphosis just to stay sufficiently fresh. The fundamental principles remain recognizable, no matter what label we put on them.

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May 13, 2022

Business and Finance Who is the greater fool?

Considerable attention has been paid to the meltdown in cryptocurrency markets, which have succumbed to a combination of contagious panic and empty fundamentals. ■ As a general principle, when people discuss money or investments using the language of mysticism, cloaking their discussions in priestly words, that's a very good sign that they're up to no good. When they then turn to recruiting a mass audience -- as cryptocurrencies did with Super Bowl advertising -- the dispassionate observer can be virtually certain that the situation is about to turn ugly. ■ Extremely intelligent money-minded people like Milton and Rose Friedman, Jack Bogle, and Warren Buffett have used clear, plain language to try to explain economics, finance, and investing in terms that make sense at about an 8th grade level. Buffett's famous annual letters are written with smart but non-specialist readers in mind. The people who seek to explain these important matters clearly tend to be on the side of good. ■ On the other side are the people who suggest mystical nonsense -- like the idea that you can tell when to buy stocks by reading charts as if divining the entrails of a chicken, or who write patent gibberish about cryptocoins, like this: "The price stabilization mechanism is absorbing UST supply (over 10% of total supply), but the cost of absorbing so much stablecoins at the same time has stretched out the on-chain swap spread to 40%, and Luna price has diminished dramatically absorbing the arbs." ■ Money can be complicated, to be certain. But exchange is also one of the most basic forms of human behavior. Nobody who seeks to make investing seem more complicated or awash in mystery is really on your side. There are certainly cases in which cryptocurrencies have their merits, and perhaps we will see an evolution that will clear the brush of con artists and thieves. But at least for the future we can currently see, the market is contaminated by opportunists, speculators, and those who have much to gain by finding greater fools to enter the game.


May 15, 2022

Computers and the Internet Big Ben's Twitter bongs

A Twitter account exists for the sole purpose of tweeting, on the hour, the word "BONG" the number of times for the representative hour of the day or night, every hour. In one sense, it is a profoundly silly automated account -- almost more a performance of Dada art than anything else. After all, anyone with access to Twitter is already looking at a device that tells at a glance what time it is, and anyone who really needs a precise hourly time check can tune to the BBC World Service for the pips. ■ Whether art or nonsense, the @Big_Ben_Clock account serves up an interesting reminder that it's much too easy to lose touch with periodicity in this day and age. ■ Newspapers are abandoning print editions all over the place. The nightly network news competes with full-time cable news channels and online streaming networks. Radio is in a death match with podcasts and on-demand music-streaming services like Spotify. ■ Media in particular are far less periodic than they once were, but so are many other facets of life. And the pandemic didn't help things one bit. Working from home, having kids attend virtual school, and having no place to go basically mashed the concepts of "office hours" and "time off". ■ Nature still enforces plenty of periods on us, but it's still important to impose them on ourselves. It's a parallel to the rule that "If everything's important, then nothing is": If everything is happening right now, then nothing is. Nobody has the bandwidth for it. ■ So, as silly as it may seem, people should probably follow accounts like @Big_Ben_Clock, if only to be reminded that we should all try to assert a little more human-made periodicity in our worlds -- even if it's purely whimsical. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes 3:1, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." But that doesn't have to mean it's always happening, all at once.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 16, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a disappearing Moon!

Conventionally, when a person argues against their own self-interest, the audience can take it as a sign that they're getting a useful, unvarnished truth from someone doing the honorable thing. If a salesperson at a car dealership were to say, "Really, don't bother paying for our extended warranty -- if something's going to go wrong, it's either going to happen early in the standard warranty period or it won't happen until long after all the coverage has expired anyway", then the buyer would be well within reason to take the advice without challenging it. After all, anyone operating under the general rule of "caveat emptor" should assume that any upselling (including for an extended warranty) is in the financial interest of the person doing the selling. ■ But sometimes people argue against their own self-interest and the reason is nothing but a head-scratcher. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become one of the most widely-recognized public-facing authorities on space via his engagement with popular culture and social media, responded to the late-weekend lunar eclipse with a couple of comments about the science of the event. ■ Then he turned on himself with, "Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you'd probably not notice at all. Just sayin'." and "Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare." ■ What he wrote was, of course, strictly true: Lunar eclipses aren't effectively all that different from the new moon, and total lunar eclipses do happen every couple of years. But those are odd arguments to make against one's own interest. ■ If the imagery of the Pale Blue Dot means anything to us as humans, it ought to be as a reminder that all of our problems on this seemingly big world are merely background noise amid an inconceivably vast universe. And as a matter of connecting their complex math and mysterious cosmological queries with the pedestrian world, astrophysicists and their friends ought to talk up every reasonable opportunity to get people to pause and stare for a few minutes at the heavens. ■ "Every two or three years" is significant enough a period -- it's longer than the stretch between Olympic Games or elections for the House of Representatives. And lots of things might go unnoticed "if nobody told you what was happening" -- such is the majesty of human knowledge that we can and should tell each other when interesting things are happening, especially if they are easy to miss. ■ Spend enough time sharing your thoughts on social media, and you're bound to drop a real clunker on your audience. That's fairly inevitable. But for an obviously magnificently intelligent person, it certainly seems like a weirdly unforced error for a space promoter to knock down an event that gets people to look up at the skies for a predictable, easy reward that can be observed with the naked eye and photographed with ease. Let a win be a win! Just sayin'.


May 17, 2022

Business and Finance A matter of corporate principle

The passion some people bring to questions of how businesses are operated borders on the religious in fervor. When we see how much people seem to care about the conduct of businesses, it's quite a wonder that there aren't more organizations dedicated to operating businesses of their own under more outspoken mission statements. ■ Not mission statements of the bland style generated during exercises like corporate retreats, but actual statements of purpose -- like a recitation of priorities whose achievement is considered more important than a marginal dollar of profits. There is nothing that stands in the way of people forming cooperatives or other mutualized forms of business that would permit them to operate according to lofty principles. ■ Passionate opinions surface about all kinds of companies and for all sorts of reasons. Right now, it's easy to stumble across loud debates about whether Elon Musk should be allowed to buy Twitter, whether the production of baby formula should be concentrated among a small number of producers, or whether video-game makers should have corporate policies regarding abortion. ■ Many, if not most, of these subjects regard matters of prudential opinion. They are almost never as self-evident as the memes would have the public believe. And yet, lots of people very loudly proclaim their certainty in one direction or another, and many of them insist that government intervention of one form or another is necessary, in order to reconcile private-sector business behavior with particular public-policy desires. ■ If these subjects (and many others) matter enough to justify using the force of law to intervene in private business beyond the scope of ordinary regulations like anti-trust, then surely they matter enough that we should expect people to put their money where their mouths are. ■ The simplest method is by ordinary shareholder activism, a tool used sparingly (and often no more than merely for show) but often underrated as a means of using democracy within the economic system. When institutional investors like CalPERS and union trust funds introduce shareholder motions, they count on leveraging only a sliver of ownership in a company into much larger effects on how the business operates. ■ But there are other methods, too. Anyone who is a member of REI or who holds an insurance policy from State Farm is involved in a form of cooperative or mutualistic ownership, and there is no reason whatsoever that other companies couldn't be operated under the same ownership principles. Third-way forms of ownership (those that are neither strictly private-for-shareholder-profit, nor strictly public), organized with certain democratic principles embedded in their charters, could be used to enter into all kinds of industries if people were willing to match their own fervor about how companies ought to be run with some startup capital. ■ And then there is the lingering proof that a single person can revolutionize how investments are made: Jack Bogle, whose feelings about how money ought to be managed were so strong that he created the truly low-cost "mutual" fund industry with the founding of Vanguard. From time to time, certain "ethical investing" funds gain a share of the public's attention, but if more people were really serious about the way things ought to be, principle-driven investing would be far more common and would reflect more of the passions so often visible online (and on picket lines). ■ There is no shortage of imagination to the way that people seem capable of expressing how they want to see businesses behave. It remains a mystery why equal imagination isn't invested into organizing businesses around shared sets of principles. The LDS Church has done it with Deseret Management Corporation -- "a global operating company, managing for-profit entities affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [...] under a unified mission". Nothing practical should stand in the way of people with other "unified missions" from using business much the same.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

May 18, 2022

Business and Finance Don't touch that dial

While India's per-capita GDP of $6,100 doesn't make it a wealthy country, it does place the country squarely in what the World Bank defines as the global middle class. And it's on a strong upward trend. ■ One of the characteristics of a middle-class country is that the broader public possesses the resources to set money aside for investment. And that is reflected in the news that tens of millions of individual trading accounts were opened there in 2021. Such broadening of access to the economy is generally a good thing: Capitalism can do a lot of good when it's democratized. ■ But it's also a familiar tale that any mass movement runs the risk of attracting people who exploit the knowledge gap between their own expertise and that of a flood of novices. Enthusiasm can overtake education and that can have terrible consequences for those who get swept up. America's own experiences with the 1990s tech bubble and the current cryptocurrency boom are just two good examples. ■ Thus it may be worthy to applaud the approach adopted by Zerodha, one of the country's online brokerage firms. Instead of enticing customers to engage in frenetic trading, they're actually trying to use design features to make users slow down and take a more patient approach to investing. ■ Zerodha observes that it is in their own best interest to cool investors' passions so that they don't find themselves turned off by big, traumatic mistakes early in an investing experience. And good for them. ■ What's in a company's best interests in the short term is often not the same as what will serve it best in the long term. The same goes for individuals, and the same goes for countries, too. Patience is too often in short supply, so we shouldn't hesitate to cheer for the long term. The lure of a market with more than a billion potential customers must be great. The patience to try to avoid creating a billion sad stories is something commendable.

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May 20, 2022

News That's not a threat, it's a promise

The abrupt and nearly universal adoption of video calls, for everything from visits with Grandma to annual shareholder meetings, was one of many unexpected changes imposed on the world by the quarantine behaviors of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever inertia once obstructed those calls is now merely a distant memory. ■ The erasure of novelty means that it no longer seems logistically strange for the wartime president of a nation of 44 million people to make a live video appearance at the Cannes film festival. ■ Logistically, the appearance may not be surprising, but it was yet another clever deployment of public diplomacy by Ukraine's government. The last thing they can afford is for their supporters to let their sympathies succumb to war fatigue. And so Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes his bid to remain relevant: "Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?" ■ Just prior to his address to the audience at Cannes, Zelenskyy offered a warning to the people of Russia -- one that may sound like propaganda, but which actually comes from a deeply humanistic place, worthy of the ovation he received at the film festival. He warned: "[A]ll this brutality of the occupiers, which Ukraine is experiencing every day, will only lead to the fact that Russian surviving soldiers will bring this evil back to Russia. They will bring it back because they will retreat." ■ A familiar phrase goes, "That's not a threat. It's a promise." In this case, it's not a forecast, it's a guarantee. The grotesque sociopathies on display by Russian forces in Ukraine -- including hideous war crimes against innocent children -- didn't emerge out of nowhere. And they absolutely will not disappear just because those fighters have been pushed out of the country they invaded. They will return home, and some of them will take their savagery with them. ■ For all of the diplomatic, legal, and humanitarian reasons that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was already unsound and indefensible, this one of which Zelenskyy warns is an indisputable reason that it is squarely contrary to Russia's long-term self interest. Just as a peaceful civil society should always be concerned about harboring large numbers of young people with nothing useful to do, a nation that has demonstrated itself demonstrated incapable of civil behavior on the global scale ought to be doubly concerned about large numbers of barbarians coming home -- with a taste for evil, and nothing productive to do.

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May 22, 2022

Agriculture Pop-up farming

With reputable news outlets like The Economist warning of threats to the world's food supply ("Ukraine's exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia's are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories.") and a domestic production shortage in the United States precipitating the need for an airlift of 35 tons of baby formula from Europe, we ought to be reminded that the world depends upon a food supply that is perpetually susceptible not only to human mistakes and bad choices, but to natural catastrophes well beyond mortal control. It is too far back to remain in popular memory today, but the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815 led to crop failures in Europe the following year -- making 1816 the year without a summer". ■ It would seem likely that one of the most pro-social investments that could be made on a global scale would come from developing a ready-made system for producing lots of food calories in a short period of time. We don't have the Star Trek food synthesizer at our disposal (at least, not yet), but it wouldn't exceed our technical capacities to develop solutions like pre-built vertical farms, made ready for rapid deployment. ■ Basic, compact, fast-growing foodstuffs with widespread dietary acceptance around the globe -- like soybeans and potatoes -- can and probably ought to be readied for speedy production in containerized systems to which we could literally "just add water" in order to get them growing. Soybeans can be harvested in 45 to 65 days from planting, and potatoes can be harvested in 50 to 55 days. That's quick enough that emergency food supplies can be used to bridge the gap in a place encountering a food crisis. ■ Most hunger emergencies can actually be traced to human intervention -- like the people starving in Ethiopia because food is being used as a weapon of war. Those problems need direct attention, too -- but it is attention of a different sort. A world that is serious about stopping war crimes must be extremely serious about keeping starvation from being used as a weapon. ■ But our continued susceptibility to calamities of nature and of the evil choices of madmen should compel us to use our ever-advancing technological tools to come up with answers. ■ In essence, we should be able to effectively flip a switch and soon after have a basic food supply with protein and essential nutrients available during any season of the year. Storage alone isn't enough -- not with a country like Russia targeting grain elevators in a truly vile and wicked campaign. The world needs to take seriously the need for rapid production, too; thus, the need for approaches like compact vertical farms that can operate under tight conditions with the aid of artificial light. ■ So far, that kind of technology has largely been niche-focused, serving the demand for things like organic salad greens in cities. ■ But the same technology can be -- and needs to be -- highly scalable, so that lots of food can be produced quite nearly on-demand. And it can be used to improve the nutritional value of what is raised. These are technologies with great promise. ■ We wouldn't want to do anything to displace or impoverish existing agricultural economies, of course. But we also need a "Break glass in case of emergency" kind of answer. The devastating case of Ukraine's food supply amid the Kremlin's reprehensible war of choice is just such an emergency that demonstrates why.

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May 23, 2022

Iowa Americans know when to knock down the old and put up the new

For many years, a quaint local hardware store stood in an old brick building at the corner of East 30th and Walnut in Des Moines -- just to the west of the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The fittingly-named Fairground Hardware closed in 2018 and the building has stood vacant ever since. ■ Despite last-ditch efforts by some to try to salvage the vacant building by getting it named as a landmark, the building is now merely a fresh pile of rubble. ■ To cheer its demolition isn't an act of malice -- it's merely the American thing to do. Americans know, far better than those in many other cultures, when to tear down the old and put up the new. This distinguishes us from, for example, the British affinity for old stones, prominently advocated by Prince Charles and his fetish for "traditional" buildings. ■ There will always be landmarks worth treasuring, to be sure. But a dynamic economy -- and a dynamic society -- need to be unafraid to demolish the old when there is more value to be had in starting anew. There is no shame in that. In fact, it deserves to be a point of honor. ■ Certain things are worth keeping in good condition, and others are well worth the investment to rehabilitate. But those things only hold true if it is possible to achieve a higher level of value without spending more than value that would be preserved. Lots of buildings grow old, but only a few are authentically worth preserving at high cost. And even then, a place must justify itself to the present to be worth preserving from the past. ■ The Fairgrounds are busy much of the year, and it's likely that something new in the spot now occupied by a demolished pile of bricks will add new value to the area. There is only one hotel adjacent to the Fairgrounds, and only a couple of spots for dining and retail. ■ When something new goes in, it will have to pass the owner's test of profitability, and that means a likely infusion of vitality into the area. That's good for the neighborhood, good for the property tax base of the city, and almost certainly good for the symbiosis of the Fairgrounds. Maybe it will even contain a few token bricks from the old building. But even if it does not, we shouldn't mourn the disposal of a dilapidated old building. The future doesn't have to live in the habitats of the past.

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May 24, 2022

News The roots of bigotry

Most people become the heroes of the tales they tell about themselves. This is a natural phenomenon, since almost nobody engages in life deliberately trying to become a villain. But the risk is great that any one of us could become an unwitting monster unless we are careful to check ourselves. ■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him." We rely heavily on emulation as human beings. In part, we emulate because we are social creatures who need the influence of others. We also do it because experience can be costly. There is no more efficient substitute for learning painful first-hand lessons than learning them from the experiences of others. ■ But the difference between worthy imitation and despicable counterfeit probably lies in being able to step outside the experience and examine it from another perspective -- triangulating a perspective on one's own behavior. Finding that basis for triangulation requires the ability not just to think about one's self, nor about the standard one may be trying to emulate, but also about the perspective of someone we might not want to be at all. ■ This can be hard to do. It is especially hard for those people who are hardened into thinking that their identities as individuals are derived from their membership in a group. Groupthink can be a powerful force, and the coalition instinct (often better-known as tribalism) is, for many, an easy substitute for critical reflection. ■ Finding that third perspective, though, is essential. And so is having sufficient respect for the ideas that there are, in fact, truths about the world, and that nobody (and no group) has a monopoly on those truths. We all make mistakes, and we all need guidance and advice. ■ The root of all hatreds and all xenophobia is the failure to authentically believe that there are truths to be discovered from those third perspectives. In Federalist Paper No. 40, James Madison offered this wisdom: "The prudent inquiry, in all cases, ought surely to be, not so much from whom the advice comes, as whether the advice be good." ■ Madison had it exactly right. Hatred and bigotry can't really be legislated out of existence. They are diminished only when people voluntarily engage in that "prudent inquiry" -- by assuming that it is more important to find the best available advice about all things in life, wherever that advice originates, than to maintain some imaginary purity of belief that goes unchallenged from the outside. We all have much to gain by imitating good people.

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May 25, 2022

News The slow path to victory

More often than we impatient human beings would like, it takes longer to fix what is broken than it takes to do the breaking. Three months ago, Russia started a war by invading Ukraine. The Ukrainians have resisted far longer than many of the early projections, but that doesn't mean the three months that have passed have been anything short of grueling, devastating, and heartbreaking. While the fighting continues, even the Ukrainian government knows that only negotiations will bring the fighting to a conclusion. ■ Even then, there will be a great deal left to repair. A country will need to be rebuilt. War crimes will need to be prosecuted. And, as the Secretary General of NATO has remarked, "The war in Ukraine demonstrates how economic relations with authoritarian regimes can create vulnerabilities." Those vulnerabilities -- not just with Russia -- will need to be repaired. There will have to be both a will to conduct those repairs and a sustained campaign to remind millions of voters across the many NATO member countries why the costs will be worth bearing. ■ If human beings weren't so predisposed to forgetting pain, then solving long-term issues would be far easier. But we have to be able to let time heal all wounds, or else life itself might become unbearable. It's a good thing we can forget or at least diminish the memory of pain, at least individually -- otherwise, the physical pain of childbirth might become a bigger barrier to reproducing the species. ■ But when it comes to big-picture issues -- the things that matter to entire cultures or entire countries -- our instinct to forget pain can keep us from achieving the slow, long-term work to do the necessary fixing of the broken parts of our world. There may be no good easy answers. But we can't escape the responsibility to build up a reservoir of patience to undertake (and stick with) the fixing. Malicious actors count on us to forget.

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May 27, 2022

Business and Finance Baby formula and friendship

In an effort to help alleviate the serious baby-formula shortage affecting the United States, Danone is substantially increasing production at its plant in France to provide more for export to the US. Nestle has been shipping product from the Netherlands and Switzerland. Work is being done to obtain more from Mexico, too. ■ The philosopher Epictetus wrote, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" His question was posed to the individual, but it's a sensible question to pose for a country, as well. ■ China's government has been using its Belt-and-Road Initiative to expand its national capacity to place other countries in a client-state relationship. It's basically a form of mercantilism: Using access to outlying territories to benefit the economy of the more powerful state. ■ And it is not altogether far from the relationship at least a few people have tried to envision for the United States, too: One in which all trade agreements are stacked to benefit us, with little or no regard for the other parties in the relationship. ■ But relationships -- whether interpersonal or international -- are better based upon friendship, mutuality, and finding more total good for all parties involved. ■ In this case, it's entirely possible that producers in countries like the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Mexico would have produced more baby formula for export to any other country, too, purely for humanitarian reasons. (And the companies involved will undoubtedly make profits from the sale.) But it certainly cannot hurt the incentive for other nations to offer help that the United States has held historically good relationships with them -- thus France can come to America's rescue today as part of a centuries-old tradition of mutual aid. ■ We should remember these events, particularly the next time trade agreements and international cooperation are put to the test in our domestic politics. In the short run, a powerful country can leverage its power to extract money and resources from others. ■ It might even feel good (to some) to throw around that weight for a while. But in the long run -- including over a matter of many generations -- it is far better to build up trust and stand behind partnerships. Even the mighty can find themselves needing a hand from time to time. To borrow a line from Aesop, kindness is never wasted. Partners are better to have than vassals.

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May 29, 2022

Broadcasting You've been digitized

Reasonable minds can disagree over whether it is prudent for any country to have an expansive broadcasting outlet funded at taxpayer expense. Most wealthy countries do, but few are as globally recognizable as the BBC. But even a high profile doesn't make a project immune to financial realities. ■ Facing a reported £1.4 billion budget shortfall, the BBC is trying to figure out how to make things work on a tighter budget. And the organization's chief says the central element in the BBC's evolution is to become "digital-first". ■ It's a phrase with a lot of wear on the tires already, but many conventional media outlets have struggled with the transition. Tim Davie, though, says "from today we are going to move decisively to a digital-first BBC". They're going to spend money to make the transition happen -- and the change will affect the nature of the product itself. ■ As Davie put it, "Every part of our news output will now be judged not just on linear performance but streamed delivery." Some conventional broadcast services will be moved strictly online. That will include both television and radio services. ■ For the BBC to make such a move establishes a pretty strong permission structure for much of the rest of the world's media to do the same, if they haven't already. The transition will continue to be bumpy in a lot of places, and the impact on media generally (and news coverage in particular) will have a lot of unforeseen consequences, to be certain. But the world's audiences should consider the floodgates to digital now wide-open.

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May 30, 2022

The United States of America Knowledge and Memorial Day

The continued professionalization of the armed forces of the United States has the dual effects of making combat more survivable for most American servicemembers, and of reducing the number of those servicemembers required to conduct warfare. It is almost impossible to imagine repeating the scale of D-Day, involving 160,000 Allied troops and leading to at least 2,500 American fatalities. This is surely a good thing for America and its people. ■ It will always be fitting to honor Memorial Day through symbolic acts like lowering the flag, participating in memorial services, and placing flags in cemeteries. But we owe it to the honored war dead, and to those living servicemembers whose safe return is perpetually on the minds of their families, to match the professionalism of the armed forces with an increased professionalism of the voting public. ■ Just as increasing sophistication requires more outreach and education for any other profession or vocation to explain itself to the world, the same is true for the armed forces. We maintain -- wisely -- civilian control over the military, but as has been well-documented by thoughtful analysts, a democratic society that commits lives to warfare needs to be consistently interested in why it does so, how the decisions are made, and who it entrusts with great power. ■ Memorial Day must be more than just the first holiday of summer. But it should also be more than just a symbolic event that hallows past glories. It should be a day for civilians to consider their own military education. There are countless great memoirs of war, recommended reading lists, intelligent podcasts, and thoughtful commentators to follow -- including outspoken, intelligent flag officers who value outreach to the public. ■ We best honor the valiant sacrifices of the past by making sure that we, as citizen-voters and thus those ultimately responsible for the current and future exercise of force, aren't satisfied with having just a token appreciation for what is ultimately entrusted to our choices. As James Mattis said of himself as a commander, "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." That same duty to read and learn so as to use force prudently rests on the shoulders of all of us.

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May 31, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a train!

It is easy to forget or simply overlook the fact that the United States has only a fraction of the population density of many of the countries we consider our peers and near-peers in the advanced industrialized world. Canada and Australia are both big and sparsely-populated, but Germany has more than six times as many people per square mile as the United States, the UK has more than seven, and Japan has more than nine. ■ The difference in density makes a big difference to many of our policy choices. Approaches to environmental protection, crime prevention, and housing are all influenced by density. But even more visible is the effect on how we choose to establish our transportation infrastructure. The beloved American open road would be a lot less open and would hold a lot less allure if there were 5 or 10 times more drivers per mile of roadway. ■ The accelerating adoption of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles promises to let us concentrate more vehicles on the roadway at a higher density and with much greater safety than has been possible up until the present. And there is good reason to believe that we could be approaching the advent of autonomous aircraft -- in effect, flying buses, if not quite flying cars -- that could also transport people without requiring live pilots to do the work. ■ Coupling these technologies with improved electrification could well mean that many of the traditional incentives to build other forms of high-density mass transportation may go by the wayside. But there remain people who are very enthusiastic about the idea of getting America to match its peer countries with the development of high-speed rail access, and they include the Secretary of Transportation. ■ If the United States were ever to have a high-speed rail network that were national and continental in scale (rather than localized or regionalized, like the Acela in the Northeast or a hypothetical Pacific Northwest network), then there is really only one way to see it coming about: That would be for a brand-new high-speed rail network to be overlaid directly on top of the existing Interstate highway system. ■ To achieve this would require considerable ingenuity. In most places, it would be wildly impractical to try to place rail lines either in the median between lanes of opposing traffic or along the shoulders -- at least, impossible at grade level. Which means that the only plausible scenario is for such a train system to be elevated above the roadways, perhaps by quite a lot. ■ This scenario could open the door to a potential strategic advantage that such a rail network might have over both road and air transport. It is possible to imagine a suspended monorail system with an enclosed rail configuration. The enclosure would provide intrinsic weather protection, making the trains useful for all-weather, high-speed transportation; a system that, if designed robustly, may not be subject to the same constraints as either aircraft or road vehicles. ■ The heights required to provide smooth service over the many bridges that cross the Interstate highway system might at first seem like a major obstacle. But in many places, motorists have already become familiar with flyover or stack interchanges, which have replaced the traditional cloverleaf design for many high-speed intersections. ■ As we have seen roadways get stacked two and three levels tall, we start to engage the possibility of imagining an elevated rail network reaching just as high -- but with far less concrete and without the risk of spinouts in icy conditions. Support pedestals could be installed in the medians of interstate highways, which conveniently have already been engineered not only for the necessities of matters like drainage, but also for accommodating relatively high-speed traffic. ■ The idea certainly would take some getting used to, and a massive amount of financial investment. Those those two factors alone make it relatively unlikely to ever come to fruition. But proponents of high-speed rail are a tenacious lot, and it's possible to see the right combination of advocacy mixed with political enthusiasm for infrastructure investment converging to make it happen. And if, for example, such an elevated rail system were able to, for instance, double the speeds achieved by vehicles on interstate highways, while performing safely during weather conditions that would ground aircraft or impede road traffic, then all-weather reliability may in fact be the killer application for high-speed rail.

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