Gongol.com Archives: August 2022

Brian Gongol

August 2022
1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31

August 2, 2022

Aviation News Clean up after your space program

"Clean up after yourself" is a premise so simple that even toddlers can understand it. Toddlers, unlike the Chinese Communist Party, do not launch giant rockets into space, permitting oversized debris to fall back to Earth, and not only fail to acknowledge their own carelessness, but also withhold vital information about the debris from the rest of the world. ■ When an analyst from the Aerospace Corp. (a nonprofit company funded by the US government) declares that the behavior "could be considered irresponsible", he's biting his tongue. While it is literally awesome that SpaceX is well on its way to a hundred successful vertical rocket landings, nobody expects all of the world's space agencies and private companies to have the same technological skill. But it's just plain reckless to leave the rest of the world guessing where giant blocks of space metal will come crashing down. ■ Sometimes it is necessary to accept imperfect steps along the way to development. For instance, broadly speaking, it is better for people to move from cooking with indoor fires to cooking with electricity. That is the case, even if the electricity is, for now, generated in part by fossil fuels. It is better to take at least some steps in a better direction towards improved health and safety than to persist in the high-hazard behaviors of the status quo. ■ But disregarding the safety of the entire global population to serve the careless ambitions of a government space program that has been chronically contaminating the Earth below for years is unnecessary and regressive. It isn't a mark of progress to rain wreckage out of the sky. ■ The irresponsibility of it all has been called out before, so withholding even the information that would help other countries to plan for the falling debris is both arrogant and abusive. ■ Communism has always been at odds with the value of the individual human life. It always will be, too. That contributes to the CCP's obvious disregard for the consequences of falling space debris, even when the odds of it causing a human casualty could run as high as 1 in 230. Something is deeply wrong with a mindset that permits that kind of behavior to go on, and even a child could see it -- after they're done picking up their toys.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 3, 2022

Weather and Disasters It's the heat and the humidity

While they wax and wane in popularity, there are lots of ways to keep solar energy from entering a building. Shutters can be closed, blinds and curtains may be drawn shut, reflective films can be applied to windows. Shade trees can be planted, seasonal porches can be built on sunny faces, and solar shading can be added to building facades. ■ Likewise, there are lots of low-cost, low-energy options for circulating air within a structure. The government openly endorses ceiling fans as an energy-saving measure, certain historic home designs that can be mimicked today consciously exploit natural air flows for cooling, and it's even possible to assemble circulation systems that make use of solar energy to counteract the effects of solar heating. ■ But the long-cited wisdom is true: It's not the heat, it's the humidity that often makes the indoors uncomfortable during the summertime. And it's worth recognizing that summer heat deaths may be increasing in places that historically haven't been especially susceptible to them. This sets up an unpleasant paradox: Climate-related weather extremes may raise the stakes for finding new ways to help keep people cool, even as governments may try limiting how often the air conditioning runs. ■ The real prize, it seems, is in finding some way of reducing the amount of humidity in the air either passively or with minimal energy use. It really is the humidity that kills -- especially if heat waves hit more people more often. ■ Humidity is what particularly stops sweat from working to cool the body, and it's widely recognized that people can tolerate higher dry temperatures than humid ones: Just ask the Finns about the merits of the extra-hot dry sauna. It would be a great breakthrough for human welfare if technologists could find new and better ways to achieve that low- or zero-energy dehumidification. ■ Emerging technologies like that of carbon nanotubes show unusual relationships with water that could hold promise if science can exploit those new-found interactions. If heat is going to continue to threaten human health, then we as a species need to invest in aggressively seeking out new solutions to the root of the problem. Solar heating and air flow are generally solvable problems; it's getting the water out that sticks with us.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

August 5, 2022

Business and Finance Quit with all this

Every so often, someone gets famous for putting a fresh coat of paint on a well-known idea. They apply a new name to a concept, then tout the rebranding with a product -- usually a book, necessitating a book tour. On the book tour, media organizations happily comply because there's no more reliable "yes" in all the interview world than an author on a book tour. (There are entire newsletters devoted to placing authors on radio and television programs.) ■ Now, the process doesn't even require the effort of writing a book. Thanks to the obsessively short attention spans promoted by social media tools like TikTok, one of these recycled ideas can be sparked with nothing more than a viral video blip. And such is the case with "quiet quitting". LinkedIn is on the story. So is Yahoo Finance. And HuffPost, the New York Post, and Fox Business. ■ Someone is going to get smart and dash off a fluffy book on the topic for rush publication. It will be a money-maker. ■ The problem with an idea like "quiet quitting" is that it isn't new. It's just another way of saying "work-life balance" (at best). Or just plain old slacking off (at worst). ■ It's the kind of idea that has a chance to ring true with a lot of people when the US unemployment rate is a mere 3.5%. In some states, it's below 2%. Workers can call their own shots to a very large extent, just like they could when "Office Space" came out -- the unemployment rate in 1999 was 4.1%, which at the time was a 30-year low. ■ Economic seasons change just like the natural seasons of the year, and at some point in the future, the ascendant message won't be about "quiet quitting" -- it will be some new iteration of the fear that employers are expecting more from their workers without paying for it. And, sometime after that, it will be time for another resetting of "work-life balance". ■ Benjamin Franklin counseled, "Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure" -- but he also wrote, "Sloth (like rust) consumes faster than labor wears. The used key is always bright." The tension between work and leisure will always exist. Franklin's advice is just another way of saying "Work hard, play hard", and it's just as sensible in the 21st Century as it was in the 18th. ■ Arthur Brooks has thoughtfully documented the centrality of being needed as a driver of happiness and well-being. Feeling useless can actually kill. Nobody wants to do meaningless busy work, nor does anyone want to be driven to labor like a pack animal. Being needed generally entails doing something worthwhile. It does not require doing that work without fair compensation or adequate relief. Do we really need new buzzwords to convey that?

Recent radio podcasts

August 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Telling you what to do for two years

One of the daffy ideas that periodically gets revived as a plausible public policy is the notion of compulsory "national service", in the form of something like Rep. Charlie Rangel's 2013 bill for a "Universal National Service Act". That bill proposed "a 2-year period of national service, unless exempted, either through military service or through civilian service in a federal, state, or local government program or with a community-based agency" for every American resident between the ages of 18 and 25. ■ There are plenty of reasonable Constitutional and moral obstacles to enacting a sweeping claim to two years of every young person's life. Despite these obstacles, people float the idea every once in a while; this time around, it is the suggestion of New York Times opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang. ■ As a matter of scale, a universal national service program would be expensive (assuming that the "service" would consist of paid work) and enormously difficult to administer. Such problems could be so substantial that it would make sense to conduct a pilot test first, perhaps by implementing a two-year mandatory service period in a state or two. Good national policies often originate with state-level programs. ■ But the very thought of an individual state imposing a mandatory service program seems ludicrous. What state would do it, and where would the idea be tolerated? Does a state like California (which offers one of the nation's most ambitious programs for college education) have the stomach to impose such a stiff requirement of its residents? Does a state like Vermont (which votes more to the left than almost any other state) have the internal fortitude to make young people sacrifice two years for the "common good"? Does a state like Texas (which has such an independent streak that it even resists interconnection with out-of-state power grids) have the legal authority to mandate what millions of its own people would have to do with two precious years of life? ■ All of these cases seem extremely unlikely -- what state would even try to impose its own service requirement, and what are the odds the people of any state would stand for it? If a reasonable observer looks at a policy and can't see a way it could be done at the state level, then the burden of proof is extraordinary for anyone seeking to justify the same proposal at the national level. Scale isn't its own justification. ■ Setting aside the unlikelihood of any idea working at the national scale that seems unfathomable at the state level, we should remain alert to the false promise of "shared experience". Proponents of ideas like compulsory national service often argue that we can capture in the modern day some of the esprit de corps that went along with the mandatory conscriptions into the armed forces during World War II. ■ Winning a war against a totalitarian enemy to save the future of democracy is the kind of enormous, ambitious, life-or-death goal that tends to bind a society together. (There is, for instance, a fairly good chance that Ukraine will emerge more unified in the long run after repelling the Russian invasion than it would have under the status quo ante.) ■ But the same cannot be said of putting millions of Americans through a common statutory requirement without a shared investment in a common, tangible outcome. Millions of students attend college at the same time all across the country, but aside from decorating their caps and gowns in similar themes, not much can be found in common among the graduates of Boston College, the University of Alabama, the Air Force Academy, and Brigham Young University. They did the same thing at the same time, but they didn't do it together for a common purpose. ■ There may indeed be merit in the case for a larger menu of service programs at the national level. AmeriCorps alumni may be more vocal about their loyalties than fans of the Green Bay Packers. But we shouldn't see the good feelings of a limited, self-selecting population that volunteered for an activity and extrapolate the conclusion that a similar experience is necessary or prudent for making all of our young people into good citizens.


August 7, 2022

Business and Finance Doing the hard work

A healthy society places a premium on building capacities -- for individuals, for institutions, and for society as a whole. Building capacity means expanding the internal means of being able to do what is necessary and productive. ■ Americans fund and otherwise encourage the education of young people in no small part because it is an exercise in capacity-building: Helping youth to become self-sufficient members of society later on, both economically and civically. When we fail to do this, society pays the price in a variety of ways: Through under-employment and unemployment, through counterproductive voting, and through other forms of avoidable decline. ■ In the process of developing young people, we risk making the mistake of communicating to them that all time spent in community service is equally valuable. When people are young, they lack most forms of specialized skill. Thus, the best ways to put their energies to use take the form of low-value labor: Volunteering at a soup kitchen, lifting drywall at a Habitat for Humanity build, or soliciting donations to walk-a-thons and dance marathons. ■ These are all fine and noble activities, and it is usually good to mass lots of labor around them, especially when the people contributing their time have more of that than they have cash to donate. But there comes a time not shortly after one enters adulthood when their time becomes modestly more valuable (because their capacities have been built up). The college graduate who embarks on a career that earns $55,000 a year needs to value their efforts at $27.50 an hour. In those circumstances, it may make more sense for them to give $100 to a good cause than to spend four hours volunteering -- if, with that $100, the charity can obtain more value than it would have obtained from four hours of median-value volunteering. ■ But after a period of time, experience (and, hopefully, more capacity-building) makes the individual even more valuable, sometimes in particular areas where their skills are of special worth. The classic case is that of the attorney, accountant, or other professional who works on a pro-bono basis for a good cause (often as a way of fulfilling certain expectations on the way to a partnership). ■ Many other forms of work can be particularly valuable, too, beyond the conventional professions. And it would be highly pro-social to communicate to those idealistic young people (whose volunteer time is appreciated merely because it comes cheap) that they can do a real service to society by building their own capacities so that they can not only earn a living, but also commit some of their specialty skills and knowledge to solving important problems on behalf of worthy community goals later on. ■ Our tax code doesn't recognize this, and that's a failing. Someone can donate the cash required to hire, for instance, a computer network administrator, and obtain a deduction for the full value of the check they write. But the network administrator cannot simply donate their time and then take a deduction for the market value of what they've donated. It's a silly distinction, particularly because it then makes cash alone appear to be more valuable -- which contributes to the unfortunate pattern of over-professionalizing our entire non-profit sector. ■ More operations would work better if there were a clear way for people who care about a cause to devote their best efforts directly to it, and then receive the same kind of tax treatment they would receive if they had paid for someone else to do it. But it would also signal to high-minded individuals that their capacities are as valuable as their time alone, and with greater capacities come greater opportunities to give.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

August 9, 2022

News A penny for your thoughts

Pull an ordinary American off the street, and there's an excellent chance that individual could easily name a dozen or more slogans for consumer products and services. Some endure long past their last official use, like the long-retired "Better living through chemistry" or "You deserve a break today". Some are specific ("15 minutes could save you 15% or more"), and others deliver pure atmospherics ("We bring good things to life"). ■ What is intriguing about slogans -- other than the "reverse priming" that takes place when they invite consumers to spend more -- is that we have recognized their commercial use for generations, but haven't meaningfully adopted them in personal and family life. ■ With the help of genealogy websites and heraldry groups, families can often enough dig up a coat of arms. And a coat of arms often includes a phrase declaring a family motto. But how often do families in the contemporary world really consider those mottoes to be guiding principles? ■ Perhaps, though, the family motto is a practice worth reviving. Consciously or not, parents and grandparents indoctrinate their offspring with aphorisms and one-liners, but it takes more than a one-liner to really give a person durable guidance by which to live. Somewhere between the obscure Latin on a coat of arms ("Moderata durant", if you're a cousin to the Presidents Bush) and the 12 points of the Scout Law probably lies a sweet spot for offering the kind of instruction that might not only give a family guidance, but also distinguish its members in a way that really creates a form of identity. ■ Specific circumstances change with the passage of time and the evolution of technology, but human nature is more or less what it always was and always will be. The same things tend to motivate us that motivated people millennia ago, and the same things that frightened them tend to frighten us now. The Book of Ecclesiastes is probably 2,500 years old, but even it notes that "Nothing is new under the sun!" ■ The (mostly) unchanging condition of human nature means that families can smooth the way for their successors when they concentrate wisdom accumulated through lived experience and pass along those lessons in memorable form. Corporate marketing departments invest vast resources in communicating their slogans. It seems like a missed opportunity if families don't do the same.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

August 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet The App Store isn't a one-newspaper town

In the past, when mass media consumption patterns changed, it was mainly a matter of slow ebbs and flows. Large cities before the era of electronic media often had many rival publications. Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century had newspapers called the American, the Chronicle, the Daily News, the Evening Post, the Herald, the Journal, the Record, the Times-Herald, the Tribune, and the Inter Ocean. A century later, the city was down to just the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Daily Herald. ■ Newspapers didn't fold and start overnight; people grew to prefer the writing or the pictures or the cartoons or the sports coverage of one or another, and both subscriptions and staff would float in one direction or another. The ebb and flow of success rarely took dramatic twists. ■ In the era of electronic mass media, networks emerged and faded away, again over long swells of history. DuMont and Mutual lasted for decades but are no longer. CBS went through a "rural purge". Brandon Tartikoff drove NBC through a multi-year swoon as "Must-See TV". ■ Social media tools are not nearly as stable. The Pew Research Center studies the use of social media by teenagers (ages 13 to 17), and found that Facebook use among that demographic plunged from 71% in 2014 to 32% today. TikTok, which wasn't even launched until 2016, is now the second-most-used tool, with a 67% usage rate among those surveyed teens. ■ The network effect has a great deal more influence over social media tools than over their mass-media predecessors. It took a certain amount of demand to get a cable television company to pick up a particular channel, perhaps, but otherwise what one person's enjoyment of a media product rarely had much influence over anyone else's. An individual read a column or watched a show or listened to a song out of personal interest or pleasure, not for the benefit of anyone else. One might share a clipping or recommend a show to otheres, but that's as far as it could routinely go. ■ But for social media to be true to the "social" part of the name, users have to enjoy the tool together. It's not much fun to be on Snapchat all alone. This, in turn, is bound to make the shifts in demand and the success of any individual tool seem highly volatile by comparison with legacy media. And that introduces an aspect of novel risk. ■ TikTok remains a China-based company, and American users may not adequately realize how much information is being collected by the service -- and being made available to parties that may well include China's spy agencies. It hasn't emerged slowly and under persistent scrutiny, like, for instance, the newspaper "China Daily". ■ So, whereas "China Daily" has had time to come under scrutiny for acting as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, TikTok's race from startup to supermajority penetration (at least among the US teen market) has happened in a rapid cascade, and it's unlikely that most users have really stopped to examine the data harvesting to which they are subjecting themselves. ■ The wild volatility of the social-media universe and the tremendous influence of the network effect go hand-in-hand. And together, they call for a different level of scrutiny and inherent skepticism about those tools than anything for which we have a cultural model. For as much as we may or may not be paying attention to the hazards of TikTok, another explosively popular tool could be right around the corner, with all the same security red flags and more. The incentives are lining up to maximize data collection and use, with little or no time for users to reflect on what they might be giving away.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 12, 2022

Iowa A beautiful game

By the strictest definition, America is not a nation in the same way that many countries are. We don't share a common ethnic heritage, our foundation is inexorably tied to religious dissent, and our language patterns have really only begun to converge after many generations of widely varying regional dialects -- to say nothing of the waves upon waves of immigrants who have stuck with their mother tongues for a generation or two before coming around to adopting English first. ■ Many other nations -- bound by commonality of ethnic origins, religious practices, and linguistic identity -- may be counted as stateless, but their unity is visible nonetheless. America is bound instead by creed, by a voluntary belief system stated plainly in the preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. ■ As a creedal nation, America simply has to try harder than other nations to stay together. While we believe those limited certain things in common, it also remains expressly within our national identity to disagree. Compromise born out of disagreement is foundational: Checks and balances, vetoes, and Constitutional amendments wouldn't be necessary were it not for disagreement. ■ Thus, on those things on which we can agree, it's important to double down. We require some audacious common projects and some stirring events to bind us together. The Field of Dreams baseball game has the potential to be the kind of potent quasi-religious ritual that helps satisfy that need. ■ Other cultural rituals in America too often become crass outlets for politics. Presidential inaugurals and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade seem to remain safe for now, but we don't have a giant number of culturally significant mass rituals that aren't bent into platforms for performative displays of difference. When was the last celebrity awards show that didn't have undertones of a White House Correspondents' Dinner? ■ Baseball, though, remains one of our most distinctive institutions as a country. It's a game that really doesn't make much sense to outsiders, and so few other countries have bothered to make sense of it that it struggles for recognition as an Olympic sport. ■ As a sport, baseball is unifying in its difference. And while the World Series (and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game) can draw in committed fans of the game, there's a place for an event centered less on the play of the game than on how it makes a nation feel. Perhaps it's even a little bit preposterous that a game borrowing the motif (and site) of a fantasy film from 1989 should have such an effect. ■ But the commercial success of the film is a result of how people feel about baseball, not the cause of it. The movie simply captured a deeply held sense of attachment to the sport, and the TV ratings for the themed games (which clobbered the rest of the season, both in 2021 and in 2022) reveal how much many Americans long to feel unified by that emotional pull. ■ Americans need the glue of at least a few rituals to hold us close enough to one another to remind us that not everyone actively recommits every year to the tenets of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism, no matter how much they are baked into the mechanisms passed down from the Founders. It does us some good to engage in feeling a sense of commonality, not just thinking about it. We need more of those events, not fewer. Making a game at the Field of Dreams an annual event would be a very fine start.


August 13, 2022

Computers and the Internet Decorating digital publications

In an article reflecting on the trial of Alex Jones, The Atlantic put artificial intelligence to work in producing an illustration, crediting "AI art by Midjourney". It isn't great and it isn't terrible; it's just middling, serving a discrete purpose: To give social media previews of the article an accompanying image. ■ Artists are upset anyway. Some have assumed that the emergence of AI-generated artwork spells the death of their craft. Others assume the development translates directly to job losses for artists. ■ While it is understandable that people will fear for their incomes whenever automation gains the capacity to do new work. Electric lights were bad for lamplighters, too. But was it unfair to illustrators when The Atlantic first introduced photographs? Was it bad for the engravers when they adopted color printing? Did it squeeze out hand illustration when the first digital illustrators got their work? ■ All of the discussion about the impact of computer-generated illustrations is moot if either one of two possible conditions is true. First, if it's the difference between a publication surviving or folding, then adaptation may well be necessary in order for any jobs to survive at all. Note, after all, that what was once The Atlantic Monthly (exclusively a printed publication) is now known more ethereally as The Atlantic (largely a digital outlet that continues to print a monthly edition). ■ Likewise, if the digital publication is generating new content that it would not have generated before -- like an electronic newsletter, as in the case of the article in question -- then turning to a computer to add a feature to the content isn't putting people out of work. Articles posted online now require preview images in order to get viewers to click through from their social-media feeds. And if the image used is an original produced by artificial intelligence rather than a stock photo or an old file photo (which is very often the case!), then no displacement has taken place. ■ Artists experienced a disruption with the mass-production of beautiful objects during the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne eras, too. We risk losing touch with the point of art altogether if we divorce it from the quest to maximize human encounters with it in ordinary life. Not everyone is capable of producing great art; they are made better-off when they can encounter the work that others have done. ■ If someone purchases a print to hang on their wall, the alternative was not necessarily that they would have commissioned an original piece to hang there instead. It might simply have remained an empty wall. ■ Besides, we shouldn't separate works of art themselves from the embrace of the process itself as the outlet for human creativity. People pay good money to get together to drink with friends and make homemade art. The resulting works aren't putting vocational artists out of business. Humans create art because we are compelled to do it by our creative instincts. ■ A world with a surplus of art -- created by humans, by computers, or by the collaboration of the two -- will not be worse off. The presence of works of art enhances human life generally, and the process of creating it will always be intrinsically rewarding for some. And just as there will always be room for both mass-produced and custom-made artworks inside of homes, offices, and public buildings, so too will there always be room for both computer-created and human-created art in the media.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 14, 2022

News Standing by your reporting

Amid the all-out war for attention in the digital publishing economy, many conventional news outlets have inadvertently moved their incentive structures away from rewarding engagement that is good for the institution and towards engagement that depends upon the "personal brands" of their individual journalists. It happens at institutions both large and small. ■ When the Washington Post heralds the hiring of Taylor Lorenz as a technology columnist, it is in no small part seeking to gain institutional access to her 330,000 Twitter followers. Corporate edicts require the public-facing hosts, reporters, and personalities at some outlets to use their own social-media profiles to promote company events. Most every journalist and commentator can be found using the phrase "my latest" to direct attention to their work -- in the enduring quest to get the next marginal click-through. ■ In spending so much time depending upon these "personal brands", media outlets in the United States have broadly sacrificed their own institutional outlooks on affairs. It has become very easy to find first-person journalism at the same time as it has become very hard to find regular editorials. ■ It would likely be a public service if news outlets would begin addressing the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between "objective" reporting, first-person journalism, analysis, advocacy journalism, reported opinion, and straight commentary in two ways. First, by applying those labels (and doing so consistently) where they can clearly identify what the reader, listener, or viewer can expect. ■ Second, outlets could begin to identify which editors (or those in adjacent roles) will personally vouch for the content. That doesn't necessarily require an endorsement of what is said. As a starting point, we already have the model of judicial opinions, in which one can read a majority opinion, a concurring opinion, or a dissenting opinion. Journalism could easily adopt an editorial model whereby an editor could say, for instance, "I endorse the following", "I take no opinion on the following, but believe it to be accurate", "I find this informative", or "I disagree with the following, but believe it to be worth considering". ■ Those descriptions are ungainly, to be sure, but refinements can surely be found. Good editorial guidance is more valuable than ever, and just as people learn to value the opinions of movie critics, so too would critical consumers of media learn to evaluate the opinions of individual editors. ■ Sometimes a movie critic is worth following because their opinions are helpful in the prima facie sense. Sometimes, the careful reader learns that a particular film reviewer is useful because their opinion is almost always the opposite of the reader's own. The same would be true if editors were accountable for expressing a judgment about the content of the articles published under their supervision. ■ We tell young people to become "critical consumers" of media, but that shouldn't take place in a vacuum where every new piece is understood as a blank slate. Editors should help audiences to understand what kind of professional judgment has been passed on a piece of content before it has been served up. ■ Few journalistic institutions have such a strong editorial voice that they would adopt the practice of The Economist and omit bylines altogether. It has the potential to do a great deal of good if editors everywhere would help to guide their audiences to understand why they agreed to the publication or broadcast of a particular piece of material. ■ Some would reveal themselves to be worthy guides. Some would reveal themselves to be idiots. But the time has come for them to openly show at least some of their work, either way.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Sea power

Much has been made of the steps taken to ship more grain from Ukraine to help relieve the world's troubled food markets. The mayhem imposed on Black Sea shipping by Russian malfeasance is inexcusable from a basic humanitarian standpoint. ■ It is noteworthy that the word "shipping" in this case really does refer quite literally to the use of ships. Grain moves in large quantities aboard boats, not just from Ukraine; the shipping industry claims that 350 million tons of grain are moved by sea each year. ■ The war Russia is waging upon Ukraine and the heated situation in the waters between China and Taiwan offer two reasons to revive attention to the condition of conventional naval power. The planet is very, very big, and 71% of it is covered by the oceans. The maintenance of a stable world in which peaceful nations can freely carry out their trade and other interactions with one another may well hinge upon the ability of rule-abiding nations to stand up for themselves and their allies. ■ Does the United States need a substantially larger Navy, as some sensible thinkers have argued? It seems more likely than not that the challenges to peace upon the seas are going to continue rising, and that the consequences of letting countries ruled by malicious powers will grow accordingly unless a convincing deterrent is not only in place, but provided-for well into the future.

Feedback link

August 17, 2022

Computers and the Internet No excuses for lax security

In 2015, China hacked the Office of Personnel Management to capture a massive archive of personnel data on employees of the Federal government. Also in 2015, well before the mass-scale ground invasion, Russia used cyberwarfare against the Ukrainian power grid, a tactic Russia repeated in April. And for at least a year, North Korea has been using ransomware to extort money from operations in the health-care sector. ■ Espionage is nothing new. Nor is unconventional warfare. But the scale at which it can be conducted, the depth of the damage that can be done to ordinary life, and the asymmetric leverage that can be obtained by using cyberwarfare for malicious aims are all much greater than anything for which we have good historical analogies. ■ The time has long since come and gone for a sea change in American public attitudes towards information security. The need to straighten up and bring a responsible custodial mindset to how we treat and secure information can scarcely be overstated. ■ When a Secretary of State dismissed questions about "wiping" her home-based email server by asking, "What? Like with a cloth or something?", her response was not only cavalier, it was reckless. Defensively laughing off the question may have seemed like a cagey political response, but by 2015, it was already evident that cyberwarfare was a real threat that no high-level government official could dismiss or remain ignorant about. ■ Likewise, when a former President took classified documents to his private property -- including items labeled "Top Secret", regardless of any prerogative he may or may not have used to de-classify any of the contents at any time during his time in office -- he undertook known and easily-avoidable risks with the contents. Trespassers already presented a known security threat to the property, and there's no doubt foreign intelligence services already had an interest in the site. ■ Disregard for information security has to become a permanent, non-partisan disqualifier from public office. Regardless as to where the information is being held -- on paper, on an email server, on a flash drive, or just in a person's head -- the need to insist upon good security hygiene is both apolitical and more important than ever. ■ It sets back the national interest when anyone in 2022 falls back on "But her emails" either in earnest or in jest. The FBI's assessment at the time was that it found people being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information". In failing to take that assessment seriously and reducing it to a meme instead of escalating it to a call to action, the country chose a path of ill preparation for new incidents of security sloppiness. ■ No matter what stripe one's politics, there is no longer any room for dismissing, disregarding, or downplaying the contemporary rules of security. Everyone has a role to play now, far more than at any time in the past, and the tone in every Cabinet department, Congressional office, and independent agency is going to be set by the attitudes coming from the top. Ignorance of information security is a luxury we cannot afford. Anyone who cannot commit wholeheartedly and unreservedly to learning the new rules and living up to the standards required of them has no business coming near the data that adversaries might want.

Recent radio podcasts

August 18, 2022

News The integral partygoer

Political opponents are criticizing Finland's prime minister, Sanna Marin, for appearing in videos leaked from a recent party. Marin has defended herself, saying I danced, sang, and partied - perfectly legal things." ■ At 36 years old, Marin is relatively young for a national head of government. But she's not all that different from John F. Kennedy, who was 43 years old at his inauguration. And one can only imagine, based upon stories we've learned since, how JFK might have looked if his behavior had been captured in an age of smartphones. Dancing and singing might look positively tame by comparison. ■ A well-integrated life should involve some useful work, some meaningful contributions to the world, and some recreation with friends and family. Balance isn't just for common folk. Winston Churchill blew off steam by painting. Theodore Roosevelt liked hunting. To have a non-work life is vital, even for those with prestigious jobs. ■ Nobody should mistake a role in public service for a move to the monastery. When we use the word "integrity", we should use it in an honest, comprehensive sense: That a person should seek to be whole and well-rounded, and that their parts should be complementary with one another. A leader who can maintain ties with friends -- especially the old ones who can keep them grounded -- stands a better chance at bringing their integrated judgment to the table on big questions. ■ They ought to have some reasonable privacy, too, since the intimacy of friendship can't be well-maintained under the glare of a public spotlight. But it isn't an occasional private night of singing and drinking we should fear; it is the powerful person who isolates themselves from the good influence of others who presents the real threat. ■ If trusted friends aren't around to help the real person behind a public face -- telling the truth when needed, hearing the cries for help, and sharing the good times that every life requires -- then if anything goes right, it is merely by luck.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 19, 2022

News Having the arms to fight back

The deeply unfortunate and uncomfortable reality is that violent conflict is an inescapable flaw of human nature. We retain just enough of our lesser animal instincts that there always has been -- and always will be -- an aspect of human nature that will willingly resort to violence to get what it wants. ■ This is true both individually and at the societal level. There will always be bullies, aggressors, and might-makes-right types who will use threats, intimidation, and outright violence to try to get what they want. That perpetual threat has to be countered by the rule of law. ■ But the law is not always swift enough to appear when summoned, which is why there will forever be the need for honorable and decent people to uphold the peace by learning the arts of self-defense. In the words of Joseph Philip, a Grand Master in the practice of traditional Tae Kwon-Do, "We seek to eliminate violence by deterring the strong from oppressing the weak through developing a power that must be based on humanity, justice, morality, wisdom and faith, thus helping to build a better and more peaceful world." ■ As with individuals, so as well with societies. Woodrow Wilson dreamt in 1917 that "it is taken for granted that that peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again". Wilson's utopian vision may have been well-intentioned, but it assumed the possibility of an end to war through "an organized common peace". ■ But peace must always be enforced by people of goodwill. There is no option to stand down entirely; there is only the responsibility to stand firmly and persuasively in the gap between what maleficent actors want and what they can do. Only an honorable strength is sufficient to deter the strong from oppressing the weak. ■ That honorable strength depends upon both skills and resources. A soldier must have a weapon, and a weapon must have a trained soldier. Logistics and the supply of materials have always mattered in warfare; Dwight Eisenhower recalled in his memoir of World War II, "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." Democracy needs its arsenals. ■ Having reliable allies who are capable of producing materiel is a strategic imperative. For that reason, American and allied interests ought to celebrate the maturity of a meaningful defense-sector industry in South Korea. Though it may seem counterintuitive, defense industries with lots of capacity are tools of peace. ■ The Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates plainly that nations are willing to spend billions of dollars on the vanity of aggression. And the only productive way to counter them -- with even a shred of hope of deterring the same behavior in the future -- is for those honorable peacemakers to be ready to spend billions of their own to arm the defenders. ■ Diversity of supply may well turn out in that war to be even more important than ever thought before, since other nations in Europe have to arm up as well to make themselves more resistant to the risk of invasion: Finland, for instance, needs to be a well-armed porcupine. If defending Ukraine is going to consume lots of armaments for some time to come, there will need to be adequate productive capacity throughout the free world to make sure that nobody is left under-armed. ■ Wilson imagined a peace that could be perpetually maintained by talking. Unfortunately, until the violent instincts can be removed from the reptilian parts of our brains, talking won't be enough. Justice can only be preserved if the oppressors have reasonable cause for concern about the consequences if they are caught trying to oppress the weak. When it comes to having the supplies needed to discourage aggression, there is no such thing as "just in time".

Feedback link

August 20, 2022

News The generation gap

The New York Times may be the closest thing the United States has to a true newspaper of record, but that doesn't stop it from occasionally veering so far from the mainstream as to appear irredeemably out of touch. In an effort to solicit audience responses to a survey, the Times asked, "Millennials, do you think of yourself as middle-aged? Have you experienced a midlife crisis? NYT Opinion is working on a project that looks at how adults born between 1977 and 1984 view midlife." ■ Perhaps the tweet was the work of a rushed $85,000-a-year social media manager, or merely an inarticulate consolidation of too many thoughts into 280 characters. But the year 1977 didn't birth any Millennials, no matter how liberal one's definition of that generation. ■ The Pew Research Center adheres to a fairly canonical definition of generations, and it defines the Millennial generation as those born between 1981 and 1996. Those four years between 1977 and 1981 may not seem like much, but someone born in 1977 was likely to have been in the workforce by the arrival of Y2K and would have been in their 27th year when Facebook was invented. Nothing about that age is consistent with the cultural markers significant to being a Millennial. ■ As long as young people and new technologies exist, it will appeal to the old to explain their disorientation about those unfamiliar things by imagining that something is new about the nature of youths. Nothing is really ever wholly new about them. They merely respond to the novel stimuli of their age. ■ We think today of the "Founding Fathers" as something of a cultural monolith, but Benjamin Franklin was 70 years old when he and a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Their 37-year age gap is wide enough that it could span today between a Baby Boomer born in 1963 and a member of Generation Z born in 2000 -- crossing entirely over Generation X and the Millennials. ■ What really matters isn't the silly stuff that creates distinctions between generations, but the work individuals undertake with others. It's superfluous enough to get hung up on the distinctions between generations, but it's doubly silly to identify the differences and then infer meaning when the definitions are all wrong. Newspapers of course have pages (dead-tree or digital) to fill, but if they're going to engage in the thorny practice of typecasting by age, then they ought at least try to get the boundaries right.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 23, 2022

Business and Finance Manufacturing evolution

Trade often takes the blame for job losses in American industry, but technological advancements are often the true root cause of disruptions in the labor market. To wit: Ford has announced layoffs of about 3,000 employees, including a substantial number of white-collar employees. ■ The company is, like most automakers, trying to pivot quickly to producing electric vehicles. Ford's all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup is a real success story in this area -- it is completely sold out for the current model year. For the company, that popularity is good news. ■ But the thing about electric vehicles is that they are less mechanically complex than autos with combustion engines. The engine requires an enormous number of moving parts; the electric motor strips all of that down to a rotor and a stator. ■ Eliminating lots of parts in the vehicle, though, has the downstream consequence of eliminating a lot of jobs. If you don't need oil and pistons and belts, then you don't need as many purchasing agents and compliance officers and engineers, either. ■ No sensible person should argue against the general thrust towards electrification of the US auto industry. Consumers will benefit from lower operating costs and higher reliability, and even the car-free will appreciate the resulting benefits from reduced pollution. That won't make job cuts more popular, though, and sensible public policy ought to have a bias in favor of helping the laid-off to help themselves to transition elsewhere. ■ Technological progress almost always comes with diffuse benefits and concentrated costs. Most people benefit somewhat, while a few people pay a high price. But it shouldn't shake us from embracing advancements. ■ in 2010, Mitt Romney wrote, "The math here is quite straightforward: replacing jobs in low-productivity industries with jobs in high-productivity businesses raises the nation's average productivity and per capita wealth." And Romney was right. Combustion-engine automobiles are, by comparison with their electric counterparts, a low-productivity business. ■ That the resulting job losses aren't necessarily in the obvious places -- like the assembly line -- should only underscore the importance of having an economic system that affords people the maximum freedom (and perhaps some gentle encouragement) to develop new, high-productivity skills not just when they're fresh out of school, but for the duration of adult life. ■ We should take instances like the Ford layoffs as encouragement to soberly consider what the framework for that kind of objective ought to be. It's not the first time that technology that is good for society overall has had harsh consequences for a few, and it absolutely won't be the last.

Recent radio podcasts

August 24, 2022

Science and Technology Reach out and touch someone

The modern smartphone replaces such a wide array of old devices in such a compact format that it is sometimes hard to really fathom. In a single palm-sized device, we get a high-definition television, a broadcast-quality video camera, a computer (which would not that long ago have passed as a supercomputer), a calculator, an alarm clock, a GPS tracker -- and a telephone. The economic term "dematerialization" may not roll off the tongue, but it compactly describes what is happening: Less stuff is required to engage in a lot of ordinary life. ■ With dematerialization, though, comes an aesthetic toll. Familiar objects that used to move and make noises have been replaced by smooth, silent, motionless screens. Noisy split-flap boards are mostly gone from airports and train stations. Keyboards yield to swipe typing. The word "rewind" is merely a linguistic artifact since video and audio tapes are no more. ■ By and large, dematerialization means lower costs, higher technology, and more efficient use of raw materials. But people can be forgiven for feeling a sense of dissociation, especially if they remember a past where lots more things clicked, clunked, and had to be moved. Things broke a lot back then -- the V-hold on the TV didn't always work, the phone cord got frayed, and the cassette tape often snapped. But there were real sensations that aren't replicated by today's experiences, even with haptic feedback enabled for an app. ■ Taking so many actions that used to require things and transferring them to screens also introduces a high frequency of reorientation. The average smartphone has dozens of applications installed, and developers often get restless and think they need to refresh the look. When an app icon changes, the gateway to what it does changes. That stands in stark contrast to the ways of the materialized world, in which people pay good money to access classic user experiences with the dials, knobs, and switches of the past. ■ Not all of the classic materialized experiences were good, and their susceptibility to malfunction and wear detracts a lot from their purely aesthetic appeal. But once in a while, one encounters a pre-digital artifact like an elegant sauna gauge designed to offer three readings within a single panel, and it raises the question whether our infinite scrolling and hamburger menus end up discouraging designers from thinking about how they can serve up experiences worth re-living. ■ It's not obvious that every smartphone should have to come with a big, noisy, spring-loaded button -- but nor is it obvious that we should embrace the cartoonish virtualization of real-life experience. Sometimes it's prudent to press "pause".


August 26, 2022

News Monumental change

The Covid-19 pandemic gave unexpected birth to the "Zoom Room". Guests no longer had to travel to fancy downtown studios to appear on television; they could simply activate the camera on a laptop or even a smartphone and go live, right from their own homes. ■ The staging of these rooms to meet the discriminating tastes of television viewers launched rivalries, competitions, and critical outlets like the infamous "Room Rater" account on Twitter. As the practice of doing a live hit from home has become both a mainstream activity and the fountainhead of cultural criticism, the photographs, totems, and sundry knick-knacks making up a person's backdrop have come to mean something to audiences. ■ The arrangement and selection of books, portraits, and busts is read to mean something about the speaker. Nothing says that those appearances have to remain static: Everyone is free to update or change about their "Zoom Room" look any time they like, either to communicate something more clearly or to remove references that may be unintentional or easy to misread. ■ And it's not just a concern for television appearances, either. Anyone who engages in video meetings must by now be aware of the hazards of leaving a backdrop to chance. What items you choose to surround you will inevitably be taken as commentary about your character. ■ The case of public monuments is, of course, even more complicated and far more prone to inertia than that of a personal video backdrop, but it's really not that far a distinction. What we choose to keep around us -- and particularly what we keep on display -- says things about who we are and who we aspire to be. ■ If a monument, memorial, or statue has outlived its usefulness, then it is perfectly reasonable to consider having it removed. The process may be harder than replacing a photograph in a Zoom room, but it's not materially different in nature. ■ The Soviet Union's occupation of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) was brutal and unjustified. They have been shaking off the chains of that past since reasserting independence in 1991, and the incentive to do so in unapologetically public ways has certainly been amplified by Russia's transgressions against Ukraine. ■ Thus it is worthy of applause that Latvia has demolished a large monument built in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet Red Army. Nominally, it was a monument to World War II, but it was also a giant monument to involuntary occupation by the Soviets. ■ Oppressive regimes are very good at building very big monuments. The mission, more often than not, is to dwarf the scale of the individual and subsume them within the power of the state. It is entirely fitting when rejecting that sort of authoritarianism to reject the monumental artifacts as well. ■ Three cheers, then, for Latvia; having long ago rejected Soviet rule, it now repudiates one of the remaining artifacts of the experience. And in so doing, it becomes a model. When a monument fails to reflect what a community is or aspires to be, then, like an ill-chosen book in a Zoom room, it ought to go. ■ The past shouldn't be evicted for light and transient causes, but every generation has an obligation to consciously choose its guideposts -- which to spotlight, and which to scuttle.

Feedback link

August 27, 2022

Computers and the Internet Don't set down your shield

Immediately following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the Department of Homeland Security (which bills itself as "the nation's cyber defense agency") launched a public-facing campaign under the slogan "Shields Up. The intent of the campaign was to raise domestic awareness of the cybersecurity threat posed by Russian interests (and by other malicious actors) and to encourage private initiative to undertake preventive measures to secure against attack. ■ It has been remarked with some surprise that Russia hasn't had the level of success that observers feared in the cyber domain. That could reflect a practical failure to execute a bigger plan, a choice to focus elsewhere, a campaign that hasn't been fully activated yet, or something else altogether. ■ But it is a shame that the campaign has stagnated. CISA last tweeted the phrase "Shields Up" in May, which was also the time of the most recent bulletin under the campaign umbrella. Even if the threat seems more docile at the moment, the plain fact is that America is still largely asleep about the need for a sustained, consistent cybersecurity defense posture. ■ Maybe the metaphor itself is what needs reconsideration. "Shields Up" was an intentional reference to "Star Trek", but the spacefaring ships of that show didn't travel with their shields up all the time. Perhaps something different is needed to communicate the defensive behavior that needs to become the full-time expectation of the American public today. ■ What's needed is less a temporary countermeasure like raising the shields around the Enterprise, and more a permanent, sustained investment of time, resources, and expertise in fighting back against the encroachment of relentless threatening forces that approach from every angle. The metaphor that suits best may be the windmills of the Netherlands that work without rest to keep the lowlands dry. ■ Someone with Madison Avenue skills can come up with the catchy slogan, and should -- because whatever the disposition of the fight to defend Ukraine, bad actors are still going to come after America. There will not be a time to put the shields down, though there will undoubtedly be future needs to reintensify our defenses. ■ And just as it was awkward to eventually retire the color-coded national threat system instated after 9/11 (because the level was really never going back down), so too will it be problematic if anyone is seen backing down from warnings to take cybersecurity seriously. Like seat belts, air bags, and defensive driving, cybersecurity hygiene is an always-on condition.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 28, 2022

Business and Finance Phone home

Talk is cheap, but supply chains are to be taken seriously. A thousand opinions have been written about "decoupling" the economies of the United States and our allies from that of China -- particularly citing perceptions that it has become unlikely that the Chinese government will choose a path towards liberalization anytime soon. ■ But talk should be taken a great deal less seriously than action. Thus, it is worthy of note that Apple is shifting production of iPhones and iPads to countries like India, rather than continuing to depend almost single-mindedly on China. ■ Really, it's unfortunate for the world that conditions have come to this. In general, it would be ideal if nations could be counted upon to trade freely and squarely with one another, taking advantage of their own particular comparative advantages in order to become more sophisticated and more efficient at those industries in which they have reasons to be the best. ■ The more efficiently industries use the world's resources -- both natural ones and human ones -- the better we can achieve the kind of prosperity that rescues people from extreme poverty and moves them into the middle class or better. We should scorn waste, both in terms of tangible inputs like power and raw materials, and in terms of human potential. Great progress has been made in that regard, and humankind should celebrate the achievement. ■ But it is an unfortunate concession to the deadweight of bad politics that Apple and other companies are making choices about broadening their manufacturing operations not solely because of intrinsic advantages elsewhere, but because the Chinese government continues to behave in a reactionary and frequently hostile way. It does this while ruling over more than one out of every six lives on Earth. So many things would be better in the long run if China at large were to become more like Hong Kong has historically been, rather than choosing the opposite path. ■ It has been a widespread hope that economic growth would underwrite a political liberalization, such that the Communist Party would sense a degree of security in being able to point to what it had delivered for its people as a reason it should freely be granted the consent of the governed, rather than imposing its will by enforcing the rule of a one-party state. ■ But having chosen anything but a glasnost with Chinese characteristics, the only thing that may really get the Politburo's attention could be the quick erosion of its manufacturing advantages and a resulting loss of economic status.

Recent radio podcasts

August 29, 2022

Computers and the Internet Point and stare

The psychotherapist Philippa Perry has a gift for explaining human nature in a way that often reveals important large-scale truths in ways that are plainspoken and easily digested by the beyond reasonable objection. And though she often directs her attention to the relationships between children and parents, her advice often applies to other personal relationships. ■ In a valuable book on parenting, Perry advised thus about dealing with children going through meltdowns: "No one was ever healed by being made to feel ashamed or silly." Yet, even if the advice is meant to apply to parenting, doesn't it equally apply to any case in which people are trying to persuade or instruct others? ■ Social media tools have convinced altogether too many people that conversations which people used to have inside the quiet of their own heads ought instead to be spilled out for all the world to see. In part, it's hard to resist -- writing is often an act of thinking, and sometimes people can achieve real growth by writing out their thoughts as an act of trying to achieve clarity. ■ But there is a difference between writing out a thought and publishing it. It is the publication step that social media introduces in a way that has never been so easy before. Unfortunately for many aspects of life -- not least of all, our civic health -- many thoughts that ought to be tempered before entering public view are instead birthed straight from the screen onto the worldwide Internet. ■ That includes countless thoughts that make others feel ashamed or silly. Sometimes, that is by intent. Often, it is merely by the nature of emotional reaction. ■ We encounter ideas that we think are ridiculous and it is perfectly natural to have the instinct to ridicule them. But the ridicule that sounds entirely justified in the space between one's own ears can easily morph into a personal affront when a friend, colleague, classmate, or relative reads it on a Facebook page or drawn across a Snapchat clip. ■ Personal relationships are what often convert humans. We tend to behave like herd animals that way -- the influence of those around us gives us signals about threats and opportunities alike. If one person in a crowd points and stares, it often won't be long before the rest of the crowd starts looking, too. ■ Now that it is so easy for anyone to point and stare -- digitally -- it is important to digest the advice of Benjamin Franklin, an early master of American debate. Franklin wrote, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason." He wasn't dismissing the importance of reason, of course; he was instead recognizing that people will respond based upon instincts and intuition, especially about what seems best for themselves and their families. ■ It will take time for us to adjust as a species to this phenomenon of being always connected (or at least, as often as we want) to as many members of our various tribes as we might choose. It would be very sound practice indeed to digest the wisdom of people like Philippa Perry and Benjamin Franklin, realizing that when we point and stare at something in the world that we want others to see, we would be well-advised to refrain from trying to make others "feel ashamed or silly", if what we really want is for them to see those things the same way that we do.

Recent radio podcasts

August 30, 2022

News Goodbye, Gorby

There's a natural instinct to want pure heroes and villains in the world but that instinct is incompatible with human nature. Humans are not angels, and most aren't demons, either. The best we can expect is for an individual to push, on balance, in the right direction in the biggest ways they can undertake. ■ Even in Hollywood pictures, where purity of good and evil is easier to compose than in real life, complicated characters are more interesting than their over-simplified counterparts. The James Bond who struggles with internal complexity in "Skyfall" is a more compelling artistic device than some of his polished-too-thin predecessors. ■ In Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at age 91, we have a very real example of an impure hero. He was, after all, a politician who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to reach the heights of power in the Soviet Union. And while there, he initially downplayed the Chernobyl disaster, resisted the restoration of independence for the Baltic states, and took far too long to withdraw from Afghanistan. And in later life, he needlessly lent his support to Russia's invasion of Crimea. ■ These flaws count against him, as well they should. But Gorbachev also moved boldly to reduce the threat of nuclear war, didn't intervene when protests swept across Eastern Europe, and introduced openness ("glasnost") within an authoritarian superpower. ■ Gorbachev's flaws merit criticism -- perhaps even scorn. But he did, on balance, push the part of the world he could influence in the general direction of right. And for that, he paid a price in esteem at home. His dream of restructuring the Soviet Union was never fulfilled, perhaps because it was doomed from the start. But the world is better off without the USSR in it, and to no small extent, we have Gorbachev to thank for that. He literally closed the book on the country's legal existence. ■ If we demand flawless heroes, we'll only overpopulate the world with villains. The judgment of history ought not to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of fallible human beings; goodness and decency depend upon people being conscious that they will be judged after they're gone. But the rightful test of a person's legacy isn't whether they're deserving of sainthood -- it's whether the preponderance of the evidence shows that they did meaningfully more good than harm. By that standard, it is fitting to regard Mikhail Gorbachev's life as a success.


August 31, 2022

News Shaping the next 80 years

The name George C. Marshall most likely rings with vague familiarity to anyone who paid attention during high school history class and recalls the Marshall Plan. If science were to devise a method of time travel, someone should take a trip back to visit Marshall in person to give him a well-deserved update on 2022. ■ Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff during World War II, and was described by President Harry Truman as the "architect of victory" in that war. Marshall was an extraordinary manager in that war, juggling the skills, interests, and egos of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Hap Arnold, and George Patton. ■ After the war, he became the front person for the campaign to rebuild Europe in the interest of peace. The Marshall Plan rewarded peace and reconstruction in Western Europe, which has remained domestically peaceful -- and allied with the United States -- ever since. The Marshall Plan did not extend to Eastern Europe, nor to the Soviet Union. And it's a fascinating counter-factual to wonder what might have happened if it had. ■ Today, several of the countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain are now candidates for membership in the European Union -- prominently including Ukraine, which got on the list this summer in part as a reaction to its fight to stave off the Russian invasion. ■ Marshall might scarcely believe it if a time-traveler reported not only that Ukraine had to fight with all its national will and might to repel a revanchist Russian aggression -- but that it was doing so in part with donated arms, like drones. And they're using social-media interaction to reach out to Western countries to cultivate further support. ■ They praise European and American support, show off their use of foreign weapons, and thank other former victims of Russian imperialism for sending aid. Ukraine's minister of defense has even adopted the likeness of a dog meme being used by private individuals raising money to help arm the country. ■ It's all an amazing turn of events. History isn't fixed. Events are not inevitable, though they are shaped by decisions. As Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher's closest allies, once put it: "It is up to us. History is not made by abstract forces, or classes. It is made by people. If we have the moral courage to say what we believe to be true, right and good, the people will be with us." ■ In his time, George Marshall was one of those people who spoke up to shape history. The peace he tried to shape from the ashes of World War II continues to extend its own perimeter yet today, unevenly and imperfectly, but driven by people who today understand that they, like Marshall, may be shaping the next 70 or 80 years to come.