Gongol.com Archives: July 2022

Brian Gongol

July 2022
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July 1, 2022

Business and Finance Living in the machine

"A house is a machine for living in", wrote the architect Le Corbusier a century ago. The phrase sounds coldly rational -- is not a house supposed to be more than that? Doesn't a mere house aspire to be a home filled with love, a safe shelter from storms, and a work of art through which the occupants express themselves? ■ A house can be all of those things and many more, but first it really must be a machine: A set of interconnected parts that function together to achieve a useful goal. Giving people a place to live is among the most useful things any machine could do. ■ It's strange that the word "machine" seems so artificially cold in this case. People love machines all the time -- just check out a car show or try to take away someone's smartphone. There is no reason we shouldn't be comfortable with a certain duality: Seeing the house through clear eyes as a machine, and loving that machine because there's no place like home. ■ The widely-recognized problem for contemporary America is that we do not have enough of these machines in all the right places at prices people want to pay. Oddly, though, houses also remain stuck all too often in a mode that defies one of the signature principles of the machine age: Mass production. ■ In almost no other case do we expect a machine to be custom-made on site, often by crews assembled on an entirely ad-hoc basis. There is no shame in buying an RV (another home for living in) off the production line, nor would any sane person prefer a homemade airliner to a one built inside a giant climate-controlled facility. ■ By the obvious logic, it's a mystery why America isn't more open to modular and manufactured housing. Funding rules are complicated, zoning obstacles are all too common, and consumer perceptions of the houses are often irrationally low. ■ If we are to be serious about reducing the cost of housing and improving the overall quality of housing stock in the United States, then voters and policymakers need to look at the whole slate of obstacles and level them as much as possible. A very good case can be made that a lot of American households would enjoy both higher quality and lower prices if there were fewer barriers to obtaining offsite-built machines for living in.

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July 3, 2022

The United States of America Love it without leaving it

It isn't hard to find examples of people who get so angry about political changes that they threaten to leave the country or declare they've lost faith in it entirely. Yet emigration is rare: The State Department estimates that 9 million American citizens live overseas, but virtually all of them retain their citizenship. The most recent quarterly list of Americans who have renounced their citizenship contains fewer than 600 names and is just 9 pages long. That's about the same as one Airbus A380 every three months. ■ Nobody really leaves, and even with the lowest migration rates in decades, vastly more people are willing to declare their allegiance to the Constitution than are willing to renounce it. When there are no stakes on table, people might casually ask "[W]hat keeps the average American (that can afford it) from moving to Europe?" ■ But the answers aren't really that hard to uncover. As M. Nolan Gray put it, "When you're lucky enough to be born in the uncontested economic/cultural/political/technological hegemon, why settle for less?" Some people might find themselves uncomfortable, though, with that assessment: It sounds jingoistic, even though it is objectively true -- on every one of those dimensions, the United States is the global standard-setter. ■ It may be hard for Americans to realize, but even our poorest states are relatively wealthy: Per-capita GDP is higher in every state than it is in New Zealand, Israel, or Japan. Louisiana has it better than Sweden, and Belgium trails Arizona. Wealth may be relative, but choosing the right market has a whole lot to do with how any family's balance sheet turns out. ■ Most American states have populations comparable to well-known countries. Minnesota has more people than Norway, Colorado has more than Ireland, and North Carolina is bigger than Switzerland. That kind of scale breeds options -- community options, political options, and economic options, among many others. ■ Americans can choose from a wide variety of cultural and civic arrangements without applying for a visa or showing a passport. An American can just...move. No questions asked. Ultimately, that's why few people emigrate out of the US. ■ It's estimated that 10 million Americans move from one county to another annually -- meaning a million more of us migrate internally every year than the entire population of our fellow citizens living abroad. No excuse required: A person can move for work, for pleasure, to be close to family, to get away from family, to chase lower taxes, to move away from crime, or just because the weather is nicer. There's no need to renounce citizenship or give anyone a reason. ■ In our state-by-state diversity lies a vast freedom. Nobody should expect the country as a whole -- nor any individual part of it -- to be perfect. And it will often feel vastly imperfect, depending on what particular matter is important to any one of us at any particular time. ■ But it has always been that way -- the Constitution was written to be amended, and the words of "America the Beautiful" even plead, "God mend thine every flaw". The imperfect pursuit of betterment is the best we can offer, which is why Americans can get mad, press for change, and still love it without leaving it.

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July 4, 2022

The United States of America Expect more

At the time he wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson represented a state with some pretty extraordinary company. Jefferson's Virginia was also home to the revered first President, George Washington, and to James Madison, the singularly brilliant "Father of the Constitution". ■ Yet by the 1790 census, Virginia only had 747,610 people in total. That meant the state had a ratio of at least one such notable figure for every 250,000 people. ■ Was Virginia exceptional in this regard? Probably not: Pennsylvania (population 434,373 in 1790) offered the services of Benjamin Franklin, while Massachusetts (population 378,787) served up John Adams and New York (population 340,120) gave us Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. These individuals whom history regards as such towering luminaries didn't come from a swollen population. ■ And it would be a grave misjudgment not to note that half of the population was excluded from the revolutionary discussions on account of sex, and nearly 18% of the people were enslaved. There is every reason to believe that those excluded populations were equally full of people with the same kind of native genius as those who participated in the debates. ■ Today's population experiences better nutrition, better health care, better early-childhood development, better education, and significantly, better equality. America benefits from a first-class economic and technological status that would astonish even the most optimistic Founding Father, and we have access to attracting the most exceptional immigrant population of any country in the history of the world. And we have 85 times as many people. ■ All of which is to say that if we think our debates are too lowbrow, our politicians too unwise, our disputes too aimlessly divisive, and our political imagination too limited, then it is our own fault. The Virginia that housed Washington, Jefferson, and Madison was smaller in population than the average Congressional district today (population 761,169). ■ Every voter in modern America should look around their own Congressional district and ask which of their neighbors is the equivalent present-day Washington, Jefferson, and Madison -- and which are their female counterparts. Aiming our expectations too low is a moral crime -- an own-goal -- for which there is no excuse. ■ The Revolutionary War generation wasn't intrinsically better than we are. They entrusted a system to posterity with the faith that we wouldn't treat them as unattainable demigods, but as models to be emulated and improved upon. Madison wrote, "[T]he destined career of my country will exhibit a Government [...which...] encourages in every authorized mode the general diffusion of knowledge which guarantees to public liberty its permanency and to those who possess the blessing the true enjoyment of it". Securing those blessings of liberty was their work; keeping them permanent is ours.

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July 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet The patriotic thing to do with your devices

When Americans tell one another to "Have a safe and happy 4th of July!", the "safe" is usually inserted because Independence Day is associated with road trips, boating and other outdoor recreation, and above all, the use (and often misuse) of fireworks. ■ As a country, we're missing out on a significant public-interest opportunity to turn Independence Day into a time of action. It's a flag-waving, Battle Hymn-singing kind of day -- so it should also be a day to enlist the patriotic cooperation of the public in the one form of defense where their contributions can be useful: In cyberwarfare. ■ Civilians aren't of much use when it comes to maintaining guided-missile destroyers or providing forward air control, but ordinary people do have a useful role to play in cybersecurity. And it would take nothing more than the use of the President's bully pulpit to get a response. ■ It would be easy for the President to implore the public to "Take Three Steps for the 4th". For instance, a 2022 set of steps might include activating two-factor authentication on all available applications (especially for email, banking, and social media), changing the default passwords on WiFi routers and "smart" devices in the home, and updating apps and operating systems on all smartphones and tablets. ■ Every year could focus on a different mix of "Three Steps for the 4th", since the threat landscape is constantly evolving, but the biggest net returns would come from asking people to take those steps that nobody can take for them -- the digital equivalent of flossing your teeth. And by linking those security steps with sense of patriotic duty, the government could at least begin to impart the impression that cyberwarfare is different -- and it requires something a lot closer to the citizen militias of the Revolutionary War era than anything else civilians can routinely offer to the national defense. ■ Every Independence Day that passes without such a public campaign is a wasted opportunity. Our most important state-level adversaries, China and Russia, have made it clear they are committed to using cyberwarfare. As China's internal politics risk turning brittle and the toll of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine continues to grow, the odds rise that tools of cyberwarfare will be used against our allies -- and against us. It would be daft not to take precautions on a truly national scale, and America's national holiday is the obvious time to activate our public defenses.


July 6, 2022

The United States of America The compromise is the point

The complaint most commonly lodged against the United States Senate is that it is an institutional obstacle to the will of the majority, and as a result it is an undemocratic stain on the country. While it is deliberately counter-majoritarian, the opponents of the Senate make the mistake of believing that democratic systems can -- or even should -- perfectly reflect the instantaneous will of the majority without some kind of damper. ■ Consider the United Kingdom, where the Prime Minister is facing a revolt. A giant swath of his cabinet has resigned, and he could be ousted by his own party or even tossed out of office by Queen Elizabeth. Boris Johnson could even call an election to try to avoid losing his job. None of those outcomes represents a clearly democratic one -- including a snap election, since the motivation for holding a vote would be to serve the specific interests of an individual politician, rather than the perceived will of the public. ■ Or consider France, where the President won re-election via a two-round electoral process which has twice put a far-right candidate in the final round. The process itself may have precipitated the collapse of the country's two traditionally mainstream parties, and the most recent parliamentary elections have left the country's legislature in a deeply unstable state. ■ America's particular form of legislative balance derives from our unusual history of viewing the individual states as the organic form of government -- thus, the original thirteen colonies became states which united themselves. This unusual form gave rise to creating equity among the states within the Senate. But other countries seek other forms of balance through equity -- via quotas to achieve gender balance among legislators, and some follow rules to allocate votes to achieve proportional representation. ■ Yet other checks and balances could be appropriate, too, in the name of democratic fairness. A national legislature could require occupational representation, just for example -- requiring a house in which the seats were allocated according to the distribution of jobs in the general public. It is a matter of prudential judgment whether that form of balance -- a damper on the will of the pure numerical majority -- would be more or less fair than any other system of representation. ■ And that is the overarching point: Every self-governing society picks rules for achieving some form of protection for groups with valid interests in curtailing pure majority rule, and no one way is perfect. Everyone ends up dissatisfied sometimes. But disclaiming the counterweights within a system is rarely if ever more productive than learning to harmonize one's own interests with the different majorities needed to achieve those outcomes. In a democratic system, compromise is the point.

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July 7, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting a private label on Big Tech

Political opportunists of both left and right have latched onto "Big Tech" as a common enemy. Never mind that the definitions are slippery and that technology has been a significant driver of both economic growth and social expression; the phrase "Big Tech" is a convenient bugaboo for anyone who needs to point to a vague monster under the bed. ■ Besides generally demonstrating a willful ignorance of technology's role in the modern world, these wily vote-seekers almost invariably ignore a central fact of all technological change: What displaces a powerful incumbent almost never takes the same form. Mainframes that once filled entire rooms pale in comparison with modern laptops. 35-mm film cameras have been replaced by smartphones. The station wagon gave way to the minivan -- which itself made way for the SUV. ■ In the case of "Big Tech", the individual firms that draw ire (whether justified or not) are unlikely to be displaced by successors that look just like themselves. If you want to decrease the power of the incumbent powers, it's unlikely that forced breakups or over-regulation will do the trick. Instead, the greatest leverage is likely to come from ensuring that the right environment exists for what comes next. ■ There are those, for instance, who want to see Amazon broken up. But a breakup into Amazon-1 and Amazon-2 isn't likely to bring about the results anyone really wants to see -- if any of the proponents can even elucidate what those goals are. ■ Amazon has survived decades of competition from Walmart, Target, eBay, and Google. But there's one competitor it hasn't really faced yet. ■ The competitor most likely to unseat Amazon isn't another "everything store" -- or, to be more precise, an "everything from anywhere store". Amazon's toughest competition is likely to be an as-yet-nonexistent "everything private label" store. Imagine the e-commerce love child of Amazon and Aldi. ■ Amazon's searches are growing ever more cluttered with off-brand merchandise. A staggering volume of fraud and abuse is being used to game the ratings as these unknown manufacturers try to claw their way to the top. Consumers can be forgiven if the search process leads to frustration and exhaustion as they try to sort the quality manufacturers from the off-brands and evaluate price-to-value accordingly. ■ A trustworthy site offering goods under a single in-house private label could undermine Amazon's "everything" strategy. One of the main appeals to shopping for groceries at Aldi is the promise that the company's store brands (which comprise the vast majority of what the retailer sells) are as good as competitive name brands, but at much lower prices. The company stakes its entire reputation on saving the customer the effort of comparison shopping. Costco's Kirkland Signature brand is based on much the same premise. ■ Amazon probably cannot escape a permanently-rising set of search costs for its customers -- that's the intrinsic and unavoidable consequence of trying to offer "everything". But the sharpest possible competition for Amazon is almost certainly a rival that offers "just one of everything", but with relentless attention to a high-quality, price-competitive product mix. Among other advantages, such a competitor would need far less expensive warehouse space than Amazon. ■ For such competitors to emerge, the right economic and regulatory environment has to exist. The potential profits to be made are huge -- the market will ensure that someone will try, sooner or later. But the spark is unlikely to come from intervention by politicians who are out to punish "Big Tech". Their job is to make sure they don't kill the next generation of competitors before they have a chance to thrive.


July 10, 2022

News Rock on

Finland, which has just elected to join NATO, is led by a prime minister who is just 36 years old. Sanna Marin is young enough that she looks not a bit out of place attending a pop music festival headlined by artists like Megan Thee Stallion. ■ The prime minister's age is notable on at least two levels: First is how it reveals that relative youth need not necessarily be an impediment to clear thinking about security. Prime Minister Marin is only six years younger than Theodore Roosevelt was upon his inauguration to the Presidency, and one could quite reasonably argue that leading her country's government (in which other coalition parties are also headed by leaders under the age of 40) to join NATO and bulk up its border with Russia is at least as bold a move as Roosevelt's move to show off the US Navy with a world tour. ■ The other is how Finland's choice of leadership represents at least an implicit decision to develop national-level leadership in people long before they reach anything resembling their golden years. Americans still hear from Henry Kissinger, whose influence has lasted decades past his tenure in office. Yet we rarely seem to promote the idea of developing national-level talent in the United States among anyone before they reach the event horizon of normal retirement age. ■ Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he penned the Declaration of Independence. He had a long time left to live and to spread his influence, but even by their mid-30s, smart people are worth cultivating towards their highest potential. It's unlikely the next President of the United States will look quite as comfortable at a concert as Prime Minister Marin -- but we shouldn't prematurely rule out any good leadership potential merely out of fear of youth.


July 11, 2022

News Handling hard stuff better

In a pep talk to her players, Duke University basketball coach Kara Lawson offered some magnificent life advice: Don't expect things to get easier just because you've passed some arbitrary date on the calendar or a waypoint on the path of life, she said. "Most people think that it's going to get easier. Life is going to get easier...It never gets easier. What happens is you become someone that handles hard stuff better." ■ Lawson's advice is squarely in line with the psychology of grit, popularized by Dr. Angela Duckworth, who argues that the most reliable predictor of success isn't raw intelligence or any other obvious advantage, but rather "sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality." ■ Digital tools try to draw our attention by showing us reminders of the past. Features like Facebook Memories and Rediscover This Day on Google Photos do a great job of reminding users of "before" moments. But there is no mirror equivalent to show us the "after", since it is always being shaped. ■ Just as "grit" likely makes much of the difference between an individual's ability to become a person who "handles hard stuff better", so too should that sense of vision and tenacity make institutions and societies better at handling the really epic challenges. ■ The truth is that we are always living in "before" times. Coach Lawson was born in 1981, which means she has lived through times "before Covid-19", "before 9/11", and "before mass shootings in schools", among many others. We live in the hard shadows of each. ■ Taken in the aggregate, things remain on a long, upward trajectory -- in part, because countless individuals have both grit and personal motivations to make things better. Oncologists keep waging war against cancer, engineers keep trying to make travel safer, farmers keep on producing more to feed a hungry world. The world can be awful and be getting better at the same time. ■ We can't know what "before" times we're living in. We can only be certain that from some future perspective, we will look back on today and measure it as being "before" some terrible event yet unknown. Whether we as individuals know how to handle the hard stuff better will do a lot to shape how society will "handle the hard stuff", too. ■ Nobody should be afraid to hope for better, to work for it, or to expect it. But along the way, we have to be certain -- completely certain -- that there will be harder periods ahead. There is no utopia to be reached. There is only getting through the challenges better, while appreciating that, on balance, the cumulative direction of things moves in the right direction when we push them that way. "Better" is not "easier" -- it wasn't in the past, and it won't be in the future.

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July 12, 2022

News Education as a service product

The rising cost of higher education, particularly at private institutions, is a widely-acknowledged problem. Even a short-term slowdown in the rate of increase isn't enough to offset the long-term trend of growth that has been much faster than overall inflation over the last four decades. ■ The growth in college tuition costs is often contrasted unfavorably with improving standards in consumer technology. Today's smartphones are faster, smaller, and unfathomably cheaper than the supercomputers of a generation ago. And it often seems inexplicable why more of those gains in technology haven't spilled over into education. ■ But the contrast raises another interesting question: Why aren't college degrees -- or even high-school diplomas -- tied to a long-term support cycle, like computer applications and operating systems? For instance, when Microsoft sells a license to use Windows 10, it promises that it will support that operating system with free updates until at least October 2025. ■ Diplomas and degrees almost never come with such "long-term support", to borrow the tech industry's phrase. Perhaps that is a failure worth further examination. After all, the complaint about many college degrees is that they aren't worth enough on the job market to allow the graduate to pay back the expense. And whether that criticism is fair or not, it does indicate that people do realize that there is a life-cycle value to the cost of attending school. ■ The Nordic countries have discussed making continuing education compulsory for adults, and it's not the most outlandish idea -- particularly not if taxpayers are expected to support job training and unemployment benefits. Why wait until skills have gone obsolete to start polishing them? ■ Technology continues to accelerate change in almost every field -- conventional automakers are learning to produce electric vehicles, farmers are adapting to both climate change and the emergence of tools like autonomous tractors, and medicine is making long-overdue adjustments to patient recordkeeping and telehealth. Change is everywhere. ■ Particularly in such an environment, perhaps some enterprising educational institutions will learn to offer not only diplomas, but also the educational equivalent of a "service pack", so that new learning can be bolted on to the graduate's existing base of knowledge so the credential on paper remains relevant in the real world.

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July 13, 2022

News Movie day

When people wax nostalgic about their days in school, it's not uncommon for them to reminisce fondly about those days when they got to watch movies or videos instead of listening to a lecture. Part of the appeal, of course, was always the basic novelty of the event: Anything that breaks up a feeling of monotony will tend to be warmly received. ■ Yet we shouldn't overlook a different aspect of the appeal: Human beings are inherently curious creatures, and virtually all of us possess an almost infinite capacity to learn new things. It is a common creed among educators that every child can learn. But learning is a process that requires adaptation on the part of the instructor. ■ The process of teaching a subject is not all that different from changing the gears on a bicycle to match a path's terrain. Some subjects are inherently difficult -- like climbing a steep trail. Others are inherently breezy -- like riding on a flat straightaway, or even coasting downhill. And every student, young or old, comes to a topic with a unique amount of existing knowledge -- comparable to the strength of a cyclist's leg muscles. ■ The thing about "movie day" in school is how it affects the student's perception of the work ahead: It seems inherently easy. So, even in the case of a complex subject (metaphorically, an uphill climb), the perception is that the experience will be more like coasting downhill. Watching a video seems like an student's opportunity to shift into a low gear and simply absorb the moment. ■ Truly good educators see through to the bigger picture: The best instructors pay attention to the gear ratio on that metaphorical learning bicycle. The same amount of input effort can produce lots of speed if the gearing is appropriate to the terrain ahead, it can result in boredom and listlessness if the student feels as though they are pedaling downhill, or it can create terminal levels of frustration if the gearing fails to produce enough forward motion. ■ "Movie day" can begin to feel like Michael Guerra's "Superman" technique for cycling downhill. But nobody -- whether teacher, learner, or onlooker -- should allow themselves to overlook the bigger lesson: Human beings want to learn, and knowing the material alone isn't enough to make one a good teacher. ■ Pedagogy, or the skill of matching the material to the appropriate process for learning, matters enormously. Investing in it appropriately can make all the difference to whether students remember the subject matter -- or just the days off.

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July 14, 2022

Threats and Hazards State-sponsored terrorism

Isolated photos of destruction can be hard to comprehend and contextualize, which is one of the many inevitable challenges of reporting thoughtfully on war. But the decision by Russian armed forces to launch cruise missiles from Black Sea submarines into the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia is a crude and egregious example of war criminality that deserves the kind of closer examination that digital resources can provide. ■ Vinnytsia isn't anywhere close to the front lines of the invasion. It's hundreds of miles from the front, well in the middle of the country. An attack on a strategically unimportant city far from combat is plainly intended to sow terror into the population -- that is to say, it is an act of terrorism. ■ Some of the missiles were shot down. Others landed where they could kill ordinary people -- and they did. Video shows smoke rising from one target, easily identifiable in videos because the site is near the "Monument in Honor of the Air Forces of Ukraine" -- featuring a sculpture built around a fighter plane. ■ Anyone can pull up a Google Map of the vicinity and look around. Better yet, Google Street View lets the user take a look exactly from the apparent site of the blast. It's just a neighborhood. There are Volkswagens and Kias in the street, laundry drying from balconies, and satellite TV dishes mounted on walls. What was Russia attacking? ■ A school. A concert hall. A medical center. A courthouse. A soccer stadium. Houses and apartments. All in the immediate vicinity of what was blown up. A street sign, mounted by ordinary public works crews to warn drivers to slow down and watch for kids crossing the road, is probably gone now, obliterated by a Russian cruise missile. ■ Think of that contrast: Ordinary people living good and decent lives put up signs asking drivers to be cautious around kids, just like people do all over the world. But that ordinary caution was no match for Russia's cruise missiles. ■ It's madness for Russia to continue this war. It is a war of aggression, both unjustified and entirely unnecessary. And it is of particular note that the cruise-missile attack -- which killed innocent children -- happened within hours of Latvia's ratification of plans to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO. ■ One cannot read about NATO accession and think about it merely as an abstraction. Not on a day when Russian forces were out to murder children. The threat to the Baltic countries -- and to their neighbors elsewhere in Europe -- is real. ■ What, other than the threat of swift and merciless retaliation, is likely to restrain the choices of military commanders and political authorities who would authorize what happened in Vinnytsia? What is happening in Ukraine is a war of Russian aggression, and it could be stopped instantly on Vladimir Putin's orders. His essence is an evil without self-restraint. An unambiguous and steadfastly united front must be made to stand plainly in his way. The defenders of Ukraine must be supplied with all the war materiel they need. If these conditions are not satisfied, then there is nothing to say that the obscene attack on Vinnytsia couldn't be duplicated anywhere else Putin might want.

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July 17, 2022

The United States of America Words and rights

The hot-headed political climate that exists today could stand to take some advice from James Madison: "The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them." Madison, writing Federalist Paper No. 37, was discussing the difficulty of writing the Constitution itself, and went on to lament that "however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered." ■ Thanks to social media, the Internet more generally, and the largest mass media ecosystem the world has ever known, our world is drenched in debates that often use words badly. But just as it was vital so close to the birth of the United States for people like Madison to know and use their words carefully, so too is it essential that we try to be just as careful today. ■ Choosing words badly, or misapplying their definitions, can undermine worthwhile goals, depriving important ideas of the attention and appreciation they deserve. People and movements need to self-police so that their words don't keep them from achieving their goals. ■ A particularly important example of this problem is the sort of "mission creep" that has overtaken the original meaning of the phrase "human rights". All too often, people misapply the term to things that are universal human needs. It may seem like a trivial escalation, but the difference sits at the root of many of our most intractable arguments as a society. ■ To say "This thing is a universal need, and I think everyone should have it" is a fine claim to make in a democracy. Lots of things are universal needs: Food, clothing, shelter, and water are indisputably among them. Defensible arguments can be made that education, health care, and even Internet access are universal needs. But when prominent, thoughtful people escalate those universal needs to the level of human rights, it muddles the discussion and diminishes the capability for us to discuss them in the context that would help us solve problems. ■ Human rights are those things that belong to us as human beings and of which only other human beings can deprive us: Liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience. It is a human right to have a name, to petition one's government, or to have a fair trial. ■ If a good is resource-constrained, then it isn't a human right; it's a universal need. In other words, if nature can deprive us of something, then it is not a human right. Access to health care, or to clean water, or to housing, are universal human needs, but they don't qualify as human rights. Resource constraints make a difference. People plainly cannot live without water, for example. But how can a "right" to clean drinking water be enforced if one chooses to live high atop a mountain or in the middle of a desert? ■ We achieve progress in the name of human rights by right by advancing societies based upon individual liberty and democratic governance under the rule of law. We can only advance the cause of satisfying universal human needs by promoting economic growth. ■ Though ideally we would see them advance hand-in-hand, these things are fundamentally different from one another. But governments have achieved considerable progress on universal needs while performing miserably on any reasonable measure of human rights. How the world should respond to a regime like that is entirely different from how it should respond to a government that shows respect for human rights but remains resource-poor. ■ The distinction is easier to draw when looking from afar, but America's domestic politics need to engage more thoughtfully in keeping "human rights" and "universal needs" in their respective lanes. All too often, the casual mislabeling of whole bundles of wants as "human rights" dilutes the very reasonable debates we must have about questions like "How? How much? And by whom?" that decide whether universal needs will actually be satisfied or just remain wish lists for Santa Claus. Knowing that our words matter is just as important now as it was when Madison put his own words to print.

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July 18, 2022

Weather and Disasters Under pressure (and heat)

With European countries experiencing some of their hottest temperatures ever recorded, it would be foolhardy to assume that we are witnessing a one-time phenomenon. The long-term condition of the climate cannot be extrapolated from individual weather events, nor vice-versa. But there is sufficient reason to believe that heretofore extraordinary events may well become more frequent that it would be prudent to at least consider the options available for addressing climate change. ■ Unfortunately, public debate about climate change devolves into absolutism -- on one side, doom-fanatics who unironically proclaim variations on a theme of "We're all going to die!"; on another, those who say that nothing is happening that can't be explained by sunspots or other bigger-than-life phenomena. Absolutism makes no sense in either direction. ■ It's fairly evident that to some extent or another, human civilization has made something of a mess by doing things like burning fossil fuels. But we are not members of a planetary suicide cult, and there are lots of ways we may be able to take certain productive steps that not only stem the tide of additional harm, but also produce tangible progress along the way. ■ But as is so often the case with technological process, we may have to make peace with transitional technologies that are imperfect along the way. The benefits aren't always obvious, but consider that technology is often adopted first by wealthy people (or societies) who enjoy the status of consuming the latest innovations. Then, as increasing adoption refines the technologies and processes involved, the same benefits spread to more and more customers until they become mass-market items. And in the process, the resulting leaps can permit the mass market to skip entire stages of less-efficient technologies. ■ Consider telephones: Many places that never built extensive infrastructure for wired telephone networks have been able to skip the landline phase altogether as wireless phones became cheap mass-market products. They couldn't have reached that state, though, without passing first through some transitional phases: bag phones, then brick phones, then clamshells, and ultimately on to smartphones. ■ Getting to the cheap, powerful, mass-market items used in the billions around the world today took going through some uncomfortable and imperfect transitional technologies along the way. But though the process may have looked superficially wasteful, quickly moving from one stage to another was worth it. As the futurist Ian Pearson wrote in his book, "Total Sustainability", "Someone poor who is forced to make their old kit last longer inevitably makes a worse impact than they may wish. Some environmentalists have worked hard to fight rapid obsolescence, but actually it is a very important contributor towards sustainability." ■ Nothing we can do, short of stopping the world altogether, is going to promptly reverse the anthropological contributions to climate change. But accommodating some of the short-run weather events may require doing some additional damage along the way: We may have to run more air conditioning in unconventional places, for instance, just to keep people from dying. ■ But it's important to keep eyes on the process and to remain open to the fact that perfect solutions don't yet exist. But technology doesn't improve according to straight-line projections. Sometimes it takes a long while muddling along in transitional phases before breakthroughs arrive to accelerate improvements far faster than the imagination permits. Denial and doomsaying alike are of no use along the way.


July 19, 2022

News Wear sunscreen

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich composed a column under the title "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young". It was her take on a commencement address -- the one she would have given that year, had she been invited. And a brilliant column it was. ■ Most people probably haven't read the column, but millions have heard it: It became Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)". One bootlegged copy of the music video has 20.7 million views on YouTube, and the song peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts in 1999. The newspaper-column-to-music-video pipeline is the stuff of legend: In fact, it's one of the first truly "viral" pieces of content to have blown up on the Internet. ■ The most memorable advice from the column is, of course, to wear sunscreen. But Schmich included a line that goes under-appreciated: "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." ■ Setting aside the logistical difficulties of giving every young adult a passing residency in each of those places, the metaphorical point is as valid as ever. The tone of contemporary America is too often set by those who adopt the "hard" aesthetic and by those who adopt the "soft". In the same country, some are selling coffee by infusing it with gun worship, while others are removing the name of Abraham Lincoln from school buildings (before reversing course over fears of litigation). ■ The philosopher Maimonides advised, "What is the remedy for those whose souls are sick? Let them go to the wise men -- who are physicians of the soul -- and they will cure their disease by means of the character traits that they shall teach them, until they make them return to the middle way." ■ A well-rounded life probably should include aspects of both "hardness" and "softness" (with or without the recommended detours to New York and Northern California). But a life lived only in the performative extremes of one or the other is likely not only to be incomplete to the person living it, but also to become a nuisance to the society surrounding it. Hyper-sensitive sanctimony and unhinged shouting, as different as they may seem, are problems of a common feather. ■ Balance itself is a virtue. If we don't reward it and expect it from those around us, we shouldn't be surprised if basic mutual understanding teeters much too close to the brink of a cliff. No amount of sunscreen can protect us from that.


July 20, 2022

Threats and Hazards Kids shouldn't die in hot cars

Under normal circumstances, most of the contiguous United States experiences the peak temperatures of the year between July 15th and August 15th. Thus, a forecast for heat indices in excess of 100° for 160 million Americans on July 24th is unpleasant and unwelcome, but it isn't unseasonal. Relentless heat presents a wide array of dangers, but one of the most heartbreaking is that of the hazard to children left in hot cars. ■ Dozens of American children die each year after being left in cars during extreme heat. These are preventable deaths -- whether they occur by caregiver oversight, by children getting into cars while inadequately supervised, or by the poor decision-making of an adult. The absolute number may be small, but the preventability of the tragedy is what most shocks the attention. ■ Clearly, the public education campaign to "look before you lock" has a role to play in reducing the number of accidental oversight deaths, but those are only about half of the cases. And no public education campaign is perfectly effective, either. ■ It seems like an obvious technical solution is available to us, and it makes little sense that it hasn't been widely implemented already by the automotive industry. It would only need to consist of a few components: Some sort of sensor to detect the presence of a person (or, presumably, of a pet as well), a thermometer to detect the temperature inside the vehicle, and a logic circuit to determine when both conditions are satisfied to call for an alarm (i.e., [a] a living being is present, and [b] the car is too hot). ■ A sensible system would prevent an alarm if it were obvious that someone was in the process of starting a car that had been sitting in a parking lot. The alarm could be locked out by the presence of a key in the ignition or for a few seconds following the opening or closing of a door. But, absent one of those conditions, the logical circuit should sound an alarm -- perhaps something just as simple as the panic alarm found in most modern cars. ■ Basic motion sensors and thermal sensors are both available for less than $100, and digital thermometers are cheap, too. Cars are already built with sensors that detect whether doors are open or shut or whether a key is in the ignition, and panic alarms are already routinely built-in. The logic could be handled by a device even cheaper than a $35 Raspberry Pi. Manufactured at scale, these detection systems should cost less than dinner and a movie and be as obvious a standard safety feature as seat belts and air bags. ■ In other words, there is no obvious logical, technological, or financial reason why cars shouldn't detect the presence of kids inside hot cars -- no matter how they got there, whether by oversight, by accident, or even by malice -- and sound an alarm loud enough to capture the attention of any bystander, summoning either the caretaker or a Good Samaritan to rescue the child. ■ Hot-car deaths are tragic and preventable, and it is a mystery why technology hasn't been applied more effectively to help. Technology itself is only as good or as bad as the people using it and the purposes they undertake. If we can find ways to excuse automakers venturing into the massive computing demands and energy consumption of cryptocurrency, then surely we should expect them to come up with low-cost technological safeguards for children in the summer heat.

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July 21, 2022

News Military advisors

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, seven American citizens co-signed a statement that "The principle of civilian control of the military predates the founding of the Republic [...] The president's dereliction of duty on Jan. 6 tested the integrity of this historic principle as never before, endangering American lives and our democracy." The authors prescribe "robust training, guidance and resources for service members" to stand in the way of future risks to the Constitutional order of government and the necessary civilian oversight and control of the military. ■ What has raised eyebrows in particular about the op-ed is the employment history of its authors: All seven "are retired four-star generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces", according to the editors. And those editors published the piece under the headline "We Are Retired Generals and Admirals. Trump's Actions on Jan. 6 Were a Dereliction of Duty." ■ Carrie Lee, a professor at the Army War College, notes that "using one's rank and service to wield political power -- even when that person is retired -- can also endanger civilian control." Kori Schake, who directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, cautions that "they are arguing their views merit special consideration -- which research shows doesn't move policy attitudes, but does reduce public support for the military." ■ This is a matter worth further attention, particularly as credentialism becomes ever more normalized throughout society. Even mainstream publications (like the New York Times) with their own well-established authority and credibility have in recent years turned to running op-eds under various iterations of, "I'm an [occupation]. Here's why [confident assertion]." It's a hackneyed formula anyway, but it's subject to watch more carefully for its potential to have spillover effects. ■ On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. And so lots of people cram their Twitter biographies, LinkedIn profiles, and other digital avatars full of credentials, compressing the traditional CV down to 280 characters -- mainly so that the general public takes their opinions seriously. ■ But the net effect of flattening publishing access to mass audiences via the Internet is that there is no obvious end in sight to the continued expansion and impact of credentials. Ideas ought to stand on their own -- even the Federalist Papers were published pseudonymously, after all -- but credentials provide convenient heuristics. They make it easy for the reader, overwhelmed by a limitless expanse of opinions, to narrow down whose thoughts to read first or weight most heavily. ■ Good citizenship requires obtaining some knowledge on the big issues so that voters don't simply defer to authority. But it can be hard to detect a real public appetite for learning about complex but essential public policy areas, like economics or cybersecurity or civil-military ("civ-mil") relations. ■ Those subjects and many others will continue growing more complex without diminishing in importance. Meanwhile, the trends accelerating credentialism will continue growing, too. People are specializing ever more as technology, the economy, and society become ever more advanced. ■ That's a recipe for trouble, particularly if we're not alert to how it can create a perfect antidemocratic storm. Some people respond to increasing complexity by retreating to the simplest and most sweeping answers they can find. Others find a conspiracy around every corner. And many disengage altogether, surrendering to the challenge of keeping up -- a third of eligible adults didn't even vote in 2020. ■ Voters need to be engaged, thoughtful, and well-informed. Each of those characteristics takes work, and strong is the allure of listening to the advice of those with shiny credentials. But only so much thought can be outsourced to others before important principles become endangered. ■ Calvin Coolidge put it well: "It has been my policy to seek information and advice wherever I could find it. I have never relied on any particular person to be my unofficial adviser. I have let the merits of each case and the soundness of all advice speak for themselves." Critical thinking depends upon the quality of the advice, rather than the source from whom it comes. That lesson becomes even more important to observe, even as (and perhaps because) it asks more and more from us all the time.

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July 22, 2022

America is a land rich in two-hour road trips: Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Los Angeles to San Diego, Memphis to Little Rock, Philadelphia to Baltimore. A two-hour road trip is far enough that it isn't "everyday", but it's close enough that it wouldn't be crazy to leave work at 5:00, have an out-of-town dinner at 7:00, and be home again by 11:00. ■ Yet it's a distance far enough that some differences will be evident. It's usually far enough to cross into a different media market, often a different state, and frequently even into at least a modestly different local accent of English. ■ Things do not change merely at the points of embarkation, though. In the course of a two-hour road trip, the traveler will likely pass through at least two dozen micro-cultures hidden along the route. Any place can have a micro-culture if it has some kind of local history, a community school district, perhaps a well-regarded local restaurant, or maybe even an idiosyncratic local pronunciation or two that distinguishes the in-group from outsiders. ■ Even smaller than that, micro-cultures grow up around homeroom classes, Bible study groups, and drone-flying clubs. The unwitting traveler breezing by at 70 mph on an Interstate highway generally takes little or no notice of them along the way, but they remain there regardless. And the differences they celebrate are not just innocent, they are often the fabric of an American ethos. ■ We don't have to be homogenous to get along. In fact, it's desirable that we distinguish our communities from one another in a spirit of good-willed competition, as long as we avoid succumbing to the narcissism of small differences. A healthy, evenly-matched rivalry can be a great instigator for self-improvement. ■ Even more broadly, though, an appreciation for those granular differences between places only a few miles apart ought to encourage a sense of modesty about what ought to bind the members of a continental-scale nation. It shouldn't make us modest in our ambitions -- sending astronauts to the Moon is a distinctly immodest act -- but it should keep us humble about the extent to which we expect everyone else to adhere to the same rules as ourselves. There is real merit in holding back so that we only expect enforceable uniformity where it truly matters.


July 25, 2022

Computers and the Internet The coming end of bad hotel art

The artwork inside the rooms of chain hotels has long been the target of derision for its bland unremarkability. Undistinguished hangings break up the large surface area of a wall, but in remaining inoffensive, they often turn out almost completely uninspiring. ■ This is a shame particularly because bold and creative art can do a wonderful job of helping to create a sense of place, either by reflecting special commissions for the architectural space or by putting a spotlight on local artists. But even when lobbies and public spaces are well-appointed, the art inside guest rooms is often no better than an afterthought. ■ The quality deficit may well have a solution right around the corner. The lightning-fast evolution of artificial intelligence art generators is breathtaking in its own right. OpenAI's DALL-E 2 and the AI Curio Bot are two examples of rendering tools that can create artwork with nothing more than a text prompt. ■ The more work the artificial intelligence tools do, the more sophisticated they become. And at present, the only evident limitation is the amount of available computing power -- which is why people are joining waitlists to get a chance to place their requests. ■ Combining the power of these artificial-intelligence tools with the practical capacities of e-ink displays that can show color, it's easy to imagine customized displays being installed in lobbies, restaurants, meeting rooms, and even guest rooms. Televisions can be used, of course, but their energy demands would be costly and the light they generate would be a distraction to those trying to use their hotel rooms for actual sleeping. ■ But electronic ink -- like what's used in a Kindle e-reader -- only reflects light, so it uses very little energy and doesn't distract the sleeper. Some enterprising hotels, starting at the high end but likely working their way quickly down the price ladder, will not that long from now be able to offer guests the option to have custom-generated art displayed in their rooms. ■ And because copyright law in the US doesn't protect AI-generated art, smart hotel operators will offer guests copies of the works custom-made to satisfy them. It's a use case that seems custom-suited to travel: Just as guests turn to the hotel concierge for advice and recommendations, so too will they be able to turn to artificial intelligence for personalized in-room experiences. And at the end of a visit, anything from a high-quality print down to coffee cup or a postcard could be produced from the work to make for an original souvenir. ■ A few known guest preferences, a local theme, and some computing power can be combined to make the generic hotel experience a much more personal one. Once the available supply of computing power catches up with the potential, it's hard not to imagine the idea taking right off.

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July 26, 2022

News Resources and warfare

Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that "War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means". Often, the "commerce" part is applicable in a literal sense: Wars are probably more often fought over contests for resources than for any other reason -- including religion. ■ Whether the Kremlin decided to attack Ukraine over natural resources, to satisfy a sadistic territorial lust, or for other reasons (and, indeed, it's folly to look for a single cause all on its own), the economic disparity between the aggressor and the defender is large. ■ Russia's gross domestic product is estimated at almost $4 trillion a year, while Ukraine's is about half a trillion. That's an 8-to-1 advantage for Russia. ■ But it's interesting to examine another aspect to the economic matchup, to help put the war in context. Ukraine's per-capita GDP is around $12,000 per year. That makes it a squarely middle-class country: Far from wealthy, but not poor, either. In historical terms, Ukraine's per-capita economic strength is not altogether different from that of the United States around the time of World War II (when adjusted for inflation). ■ The comparison isn't perfect, of course, but it isn't entirely misleading, either. Imagine the economic commitment required of the United States in order to secure victory in World War II -- it was enormous, but it was also achievable. ■ In the current instance, Ukraine is trying to stave off an existential threat from an economic power eight times its size with something like America's economy under Franklin Roosevelt. That's where the pipeline of resources from other countries comes in: The Ukrainians have shown considerable adaptability and willingness to learn. But they need the outside boost of foreign support in order to secure a definitive outcome, and the more open-ended that commitment to support the effort with necessary war materiel, the better. ■ Everything about the invasion remains nonsensical, not least because it has become clear that there is almost no remaining chance of a total capitulation by Ukraine. Whatever is eventually resolved through battle or negotiation, there will still be two states side-by-side, sharing a border more than a thousand miles long. ■ The destruction taking place is pure waste. But to the extent that the free world believes in stopping the bleeding, wealthier countries that are committed to a peaceful future need to continue looking at the grit and determination Ukraine is bringing to its own defense and see themselves as subsidizing efforts that are parallel to those of the Allied nations in World War II. It costs the wealthy nations relatively little to offer aid, but its impact is magnified by the economic disparity. Ultimately, Ukraine's defense against assault is also the defense of many others.

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July 28, 2022

Business and Finance To grow or not to grow

To an unusual level of attention, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released the estimate of second-quarter growth in US gross domestic product. And the estimate reported not growth, but shrinkage -- at an annualized rate of 0.9%. The attention to the release was heightened because the previous quarter also showed a negative growth rate, and the usual definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. ■ Anyone who allows their opinion of matters to be swayed too much by a preliminary estimate of GDP growth risks drawing faulty conclusions. The BEA typically produces a preliminary estimate and at least two subsequent revisions: The preliminary estimate for the first quarter was -1.4% when it was issued on April 28th, -1.5% upon the second estimate on May 26th, and -1.6% upon the third estimate released on June 30th. Sometimes the swings from an estimate to a final figure are larger than that. ■ There is no need to assume anything nefarious is going on; a GDP estimate is just that -- an estimate. And it starts with incomplete data, which becomes more refined and accurate with time. Gross domestic product is a big-picture value, an imperfect approximation of the total amount of work being done within an economy for a particular period of time. It tends to be inflated into much more than that, since it may be the only economic "score" the median voter can recognize other than the unemployment rate and a stock market index or two. ■ Gross domestic product doesn't tell us much about the underlying factors that determine where it will head in the future. The last quarter's GDP growth rate isn't much of a predictor for the next, but underlying fundamentals, like increasing or decreasing private-sector productivity or monthly changes in local unemployment rates can say a lot. It's akin to the speed of a car: How fast you're going down a highway right now doesn't tell as much about how fast you will be going a minute from now, but whether you're stepping on the brake or hitting the gas says much more. ■ Nobody should get into the habit of obsessing over a single economic variable, even if it is widely reported and (as is the case with GDP growth) points toward whether something important (the total size of the economy) is heading in the right direction. That doesn't mean an economic contraction isn't a big deal, nor that politicians ought to play games with economic definitions. ■ Presidents get too much credit for good economic conditions and too much blame for bad ones; the US economy -- which is about a quarter of the world's total -- is too big to attribute to one person or one set of policies. (Though a case could be made that the Federal Reserve is far more influential than any administration.) ■ But in the end, the US economy represents the aggregate outcome of trillions of discrete choices made by 333 million individuals. Its direction matters, to be sure. But not so much that we should imbue it with a quasi-religious quality. What we should really watch is how the fundamentals drive those aggregate outcomes in one direction or another.

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July 29, 2022

News High-tech gloss

North Korea has a 105-story, 1,082-foot tall tower in Pyongyang that stands incomplete. The People's Republic of China touts its 23,500-mile network of bullet trains. Saudi Arabia is promoting its fresh new plans for a futuristic urban utopia designed to house 9 million people without any cars. ■ What these things have in common is that they are all monumental-scale public works projects, conceived with the intention of being offered as showcases for the governments that directed the resources into building them. What they also have in common is that, despite their futuristic aesthetics, the projects do nothing to overcome the fundamental backwardness of the governments driving them. ■ Super-fast magnetically-levitated trains zooming at well over 300 miles per hour look like a vision of tomorrow. But no shiny technology can reverse the backwardness of putting a million people into ethno-religious detention camps. ■ A megacity running on 100% renewable energy is a decidedly futuristic vision. But there aren't enough solar panels in the world to put adequate light on a government of absolute monarchy that scores 7 points out of a possible 100 on the Freedom House index, with the public holding no meaningful political rights and almost no civil liberties, either. ■ It is easy to put a shiny vision on paper (or screen), and with enough power, the state can capture enough resources to build some pretty fanciful landmarks. But human beings are, by right of birth, entitled to freedom of conscience, to freedom of expression, to just treatment under an impartial rule of law, and to government by consent rather than capitulation. No products of material construction can substitute for these fundamental human rights. ■ The world audience can easily get caught up in the imagery that authoritarians and totalitarians like to project, and indeed that is often one of the reasons they are built. We need to be smarter than the illusionists -- too smart to fall for the gloss, and wise enough to know that it is the infrastructure of human goods that really matters.

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July 30, 2022

The United States of America Act like you're raising the next century's President

Senator Mitt Romney, in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that "I think it's time for my generation to get off the stage. There are far too many Boomers around." Baby Boomers do, in fact, make up a super-majority in the Senate and a majority in the House. And there are still members of the "Silent Generation" in both houses, as well -- and in the White House, too. President Biden was born in 1942, making him a pre-Boomer. ■ While inter-generational struggles are often as unproductive as other arbitrary battle lines, there is something to be said for taking note of just how far out a generation's impact can be. It is plausible, at least, that just as a couple of parents in Scranton, Pennsylvania, were unwittingly raising a future President of the United States eighty years ago in the midst of World War II, so too could some parents today be raising someone who will be President of the United States in the year 2102. ■ That is a daunting prospect. But nobody knows whether their child (assuming they meet the Constitutional eligibility requirements) might actually grow up to be President. Many have emerged from entirely unlikely childhoods. Someone, somewhere, is raising a future POTUS right now. ■ With what virtues, values, and habits should we hope they are raising that child? Honesty, courage, and justice, to be sure. But vitally, we ought to expect our Presidents to demonstrate curiosity, competence, and humility. And we ought to expect those characteristics not just from our Presidents, but also from our Senators, our Representatives, our governors, and our mayors, school board members, and sheriffs, too. ■ Those virtues are hard to instill in adulthood. They tend to emerge from high parental expectations, loving guidance, and lots of practice in a person's early years. Few people have true conversion moments like Saul on the road to Damascus. The major personality traits tend to remain mostly stable from mid-adolescence into adulthood (though experiences along the way can certainly affect us). ■ Thus, even acknowledging that parents are only a factor among many in determining who any individual will turn out to be, many people who turn out to be influential leaders point squarely to their childhood influences -- particularly to their parents -- in shaping them. Senator Romney is one among them. ■ Whether "it's time" for one generation "to get off the stage" or not, Mother Nature ensures that the baton gets passed sooner or later. If we aren't conscious of the influences that are shaping the young people around us, and if we aren't deliberately trying to instill the virtues in every child that we would expect to see exhibited in the highest offices of government, then we risk setting up the future for disaster. Someone in America is raising a future President right now and doesn't know it. To be safe, every family ought to act like it's them.

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