Gongol.com Archives: October 2022

Brian Gongol

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October 2, 2022

Business and Finance Know your worth

In America's private-sector economy, almost two-thirds of the trade that takes place is counted as service work, with the remaining third consisting of goods. This ratio can be counter-intuitive: We think about "big-ticket" purchases and do a lot of conspicuous consumption via the products we buy. But services dominate, and that condition is the culmination of many decades trending in the same direction. ■ The economy rewards efficiency, and it's easy to track and measure the inputs that go into creating a good so as to strip out the waste and obtain better performance from less raw material. Today's smartphone performs vastly better than a brick phone from 25 years ago, using far less material, and it's only one of countless examples, both inside and outside the world of technology. ■ It's hard to get the same kind of measurable efficiency gains from service labor: Three people cannot play music written for a string quartet, an attentive server can only take on so many tables at a restaurant, and a conscientious doctor can only see so many patients in a day. ■ But service quality can differ by an enormous amount, and it seems odd that we haven't seen more resources committed to independently evaluating it. Consumers clearly care about service quality; look no farther than the popularity of Yelp reviews and Facebook recommendations. But those are amateur evaluations, and they are too easily and too often gamed by those who hope to manipulate the outcomes. ■ Headhunters offer something of a measuring stick for service quality -- impress the right people, and you might get called. But they tend to be inconsistent, since they too rely heavily on referrals and the opinions of those with ulterior motives and vested interests. ■ A market concentrating ever more heavily on service work cries out for a class of independent service evaluators: People who know a service well enough to offer an informed judgment about the quality of the work performed, who can engage with an individual service provider, evaluate the work, and report back on the relative quality (along with particular strengths and weaknesses). ■ When an employer hires "secret shoppers", it does so for its own self-interest. What we haven't really seen is the emergence of a comparable type of evaluator who is beholden instead to the person actually performing the work. ■ Everyone has had terrible experiences with service providers, and a perfectly ordinary response is simply to never return. It's possible to meet the minimum standards set by an employer and still do an unworthy job. ■ But every consumer has also had experiences with service providers who were so good that the natural question that comes to mind is, "Why are you here when you could be doing so much better?" Whereas quality can often be measured with some objectivity when it comes to producing goods, it's harder to evaluate it quite as well for services. ■ But those who deliver really good service work ought to know it, especially if they are under-pricing their work or otherwise holding themselves back from being appreciated and rewarded like they deserve. No Yelp reviewer or corporate secret shopper is likely to tell you "You're much too good to work here for this low a price"; it runs contrary to their own self-interest. ■ The individual who really ought to be moving up and out deserves to know that sooner rather than later, and shouldn't have to wait for a recruiter to catch wind of their reputation. Given how important high-quality service work already is -- and how its value to the economy is certain to grow rather than shrink -- it is a mystery why the economy isn't already crawling with independent evaluators who can offer the objective assessments those service providers need.

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October 3, 2022

News Don't legitimize bad behavior

Elon Musk has thoughts on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and he has shared those thoughts with the world on Twitter, the social media platform he is trying not to buy. It is entirely within Musk's rights as an American citizen to exercise his First Amendment protections by voicing an opinion. But it's an opinion in dire need of reconsideration. ■ Musk proposed that step one towards a peace between Ukraine and Russia would be: "Redo elections of annexed regions under UN supervision. Russia leaves if that is will of the people." He spun the proposal as an exercise in realism, writing "This is highly likely to be the outcome in the end -- just a question of how many die before then". But what he overlooks is a central problem in the entire affair: To "redo" the illegitimate referenda in the four Ukrainian regions which Russia is trying to occupy is to suggest that those votes had some basis of legitimacy in the first place. ■ Chapter 1, Article 2 of the UN charter states: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state". It does not say "We'll supervise a do-over". ■ Making this all more intriguing is that Ukraine's president has responded directly to Musk's tweet with a Twitter poll of his own, asking "Which Elon Musk do you like more? One who supports Ukraine [or] one who supports Russia"? Public diplomacy in 2022 is absolutely nothing like any reasonable person would have guessed 20 years ago. ■ But the heart of the matter remains: Are people entitled to self-determination? Absolutely. And in trying to cover for his initial mistake, Musk has subsequently tried to frame his question as merely offering the people of those occupied regions that basic choice of self-determination. ■ Yet it's not unlike sending in the police after a hostage has been taken and asking the hostage, "Would you rather go home or go with your captors? We'll let you vote in a secret ballot." The very act of submitting it as a choice presumes that there was legitimacy to the hostage-taking in the first place. ■ Elon Musk has a first-rate mind, but his self-control is often second-class at best. Proffering a "peace" plan that assumes that the world should submit an invasion to a vote -- under the supervision of the United Nations, whose Secretary-General has already expressly denounced the fraudulent referenda -- is the sort of choice from which Musk ought to have restrained himself.

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October 4, 2022

News The thoroughly modern vice of predictability

A few generations ago, it was entirely plausible that an American might have their political beliefs entirely shaped by their membership in an ethnic community. The Irish, most visibly, took their large concentrated numbers in places like Boston and Chicago and blended the tendency for an immigrant population to "stick together" with the inherent advantage of arriving with a command of the English language, producing powerful results in machine politics. ■ Under such circumstances, one's opinion on any particular public issue could easily have been "whatever is good for my voting bloc", especially as defined by the people with the power of patronage. Predictability of opinion could easily follow from the low level of investment in policies but the high level of investment in the cohesion of the voting unit. ■ Today, there really is no such excuse. Yet we suffer all too often from a thoroughly modern vice of predictability. The level of unoriginality in much of what passes for both analysis and opinion is stifling. ■ Oft-cited research suggests that party membership has become more ideologically uniform in the United States by quite a lot over the last quarter-century. And it is easy to cite heterodoxy in some of the prominent politicians of the near-past, like Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alan Simpson. ■ The problem is less that there is so much self-reinforcing adherence to the "party line" on predictable issues, and more that the issues along which so many campaigners and pundits choose to align themselves are so unfailingly predictable. The problems that require urgent attention, particularly at the national level, are pretty confounding to the existing matrices of "left" and "right". ■ What is a "progressive left" approach to cybersecurity? What is a "nationalist conservative" response to the escalating costs of catastrophic natural disasters due to the expanding bull's-eye effect? Is there an inherently more or less "moderate" approach to protecting intellectual property interests against hostile foreign state actors? ■ There may ultimately be sound reasons for responses to these issues to take on an ideological tenor, but the problem for now is that these issues scarcely turn any heads at all. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, just for example, issued a blue-ribbon report with dozens of urgent recommendations for national cybersecurity protection. Two years later, some progress has been made -- but fundamentally none of the discussion or debate has moved any closer to mainstream discussion. It should be a centerpiece matter of national debate, but instead we get stale leftovers. ■ If nobody really wonders what any given TV talking head is going to say or what a brand-name columnist is about to write, and if nobody ever feels surprised by novel subjects that arrest a Senator's attention or heterodox opinions that have nothing to do with the latest horse race, then we're selling ourselves far short. If "the discourse" is all just clicks and eyeballs based on the laziest possible assumptions about what will activate the average person's partisan lizard brain, then we're plainly just kneecapping ourselves. ■ It may be comfortable to keep politics safely within predictable lanes, but really big issues are at hand. And ignoring them because they take time and effort to understand -- or because they don't fit neatly into simple one-dimensional scales of "left versus right" -- isn't good for anyone. The problems that really derail the world aren't the ones with predictable ideological alignments, they're the surprises that appear to come out of left field only because we haven't been paying attention to the real ball game.

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October 5, 2022

News A petition to pass organic chem

The story of a professor at New York University who was released subsequent to student complaints that his organic chemistry course was too hard is one that, due to an acute set of troublesome predispositions, is too irresistible for media outlets to overlook. It's too juicy not to report as a tale of generational conflict -- or Covid learning loss, or the consumerization of higher education. It's ripe for the picking. But those frames are misleading, in no small part because they are so predictable. ■ Above all, when it comes to matters of education, we have to shake the idea that someone who's brilliant about a particular subject matter is the best person to actually teach that subject matter. Content knowledge and pedagogy have to be developed independently to create a good teacher. ■ The distinction is just like knowing that someone who is an expert at any other type of work may not be the ideal candidate to manage other people who do that work. Teaching and managing are skill sets that aren't necessarily tethered to a particular form of knowledge or set of on-the-job abilities. It is a fundamental mistake to conflate them. ■ Moreover, the NYU story is hard to tell without introducing a whole load of other complications. For instance, the New York Times reports this sentence: "Students said the high-stakes course -- notorious for ending many a dream of medical school -- was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores." ■ Two important notes arise from a careful reading of that sentence: First, weed-out courses are generally silly, in no small part because they tend to arbitrarily reward or punish people in ways that don't actually bear out in performance of the ultimate job. ■ The second note is even more important: Education should not be adversarial. That's not to say that education should consist of students and teachers hanging out in an egalitarian free-for-all. But any education that consists of teachers and students squaring off with one another as competitors is an education that falls short of its potential. Students shouldn't take pride in pulling one over on their instructors (as by submitting papers they didn't really write), nor should teachers seek reputations for arbitrary toughness (as by celebrating the harshness of a grading curve). ■ Tests should measure learning, but they don't always do that. If there's a fundamental breakdown in the learning process, that could be a problem on one of multiple levels: Some students are blockheads who are too lazy to learn. Some professors are sadists who just want to see other people fail. Most of the time, neither case is true. ■ Sweeping guesses made by journalists, like "this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body" are weak at best and damaging at worst. ■ Older people have whined since the beginning of recorded history about "kids these days". It is nothing better than a lazy deflection. We should look more thoughtfully at what is really going on. ■ Most of what people really learn -- the things they actually put to work in their vocations and in life -- ends up happening in low-stakes environments without tests or even formal teaching hierarchies: On-the-job training, conference talks, journal articles, scuttlebutt with colleagues, and -- far more often than we likely realize -- via search engines and the Internet. ■ We neglect the importance of low-stakes learning (that is, what you learn when you're not facing a test at the end) at our peril, and that neglect is a systemic shortcoming. We too often design education around high-stakes testing and doing what must be done to "get by" -- like passing a weed-out course in organic chemistry. ■ There is no perfect answer to the NYU story because it is too wrapped up in other complex issues, but it should focus our attention not on false dichotomies over "cranky old professors versus whiny entitled students", but on more comprehensive consideration about "What signifies a successful education?" That's a serious question worth asking, and not just about our medical schools.

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October 6, 2022

Humor and Good News Come together for a laugh

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry argues that those who search for a partner have a simple set of options: "I think the answer is BE FRIENDLY or FUNNY or both." Her advice is sound, inasmuch as people follow it by making the most of what comes naturally to them. Partners who plan to be with one another for the long term should, of course, be compatible without being contrived. ■ Perry's advice may be modern and contemporary, but it sticks because it is consistent with the advice given by many other wise individuals across the course of human history. And the consistency of that advice should be reassuring, particularly because it reassures us that human beings everywhere are more alike than we are different. Good advice is consistent across time and space in large part because human nature is, too. ■ The modern philosopher Jonathan Sacks unintentionally explained why Perry's advice resonates when he wrote, "A joke testifies to our ability to see things differently, and because we can do so, we are free. Humour is constitutive of humanity." Every reasonable person who seeks a partner wants someone with an authentic humane depth; otherwise, why waste the time? ■ Some decades before Sacks, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl advised that humor fit the broad purpose of supporting the mettle people often need in order to survive: "It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds." ■ Two centuries before Frankl, Benjamin Franklin endorsed being funny because it makes a person a better friend: "Friendship cannot live with ceremony, nor without civility." To disarm another person with a sincere laugh is perhaps the ultimate act of civility -- and it deserves to go without saying that laughter dismantles overwrought ceremony. ■ Going back almost a millennium, Maimonides praised the virtues of friendliness as the characteristics of an enlightened person: "He greets every man first, so that they will be pleasantly disposed toward him. He judges every man in a favorable light. He speaks in praise of his fellow man, never disparagingly. He loves peace and seeks peace." ■ Another millennium before that, Epictetus is credited with the advice to "Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men." And Lucius Seneca said essentially the same thing: "There is a pleasure in being in one's own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying." ■ "Be friendly, be funny, or be both" is great advice with a very long history -- because human nature really doesn't change. It has always been like it is now. We can (and should) train ourselves in good habits, including those that don't come to us instinctively. But in romantic life and in Platonic interactions alike, effectively the same advice has always applied (and ultimately always will): A person doesn't have to fake it, but each of us should try to cultivate what makes us funny or friendly.

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October 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Serious times call for serious words

The median age of a person on Earth is 30 years -- meaning that half of people on the planet were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas 1991. ■ Americans are older than the world as a whole; the median American is 39 years old, meaning that half of us were born before 1983 and half of us after. Assuming that most people aren't especially aware of geopolitics at least until they've graduated from kindergarten, then it's safe to assume that only about half of us remember anything meaningful about the Cold War. ■ Demographics alone rarely tell the whole story of anything, but they certainly have some effect on the way that people perceive of big events and big ideas. Thus, when the 79-year-old President of the United States says of his Russian counterpart, "I don't think there's any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon", he not only risks making the wrong point diplomatically, he also risks being badly misunderstood by people who don't share his historical memory. ■ It is possible to have the right idea (of course it would be mad to use nuclear weapons), but sometimes quiet resolve and purposeful reticence are more valuable than shaking an audience by the lapels. ■ Someone who grew up with the threat of nuclear winter ever-present in the cultural background noise (as roughly half of Americans did) may not hear anything extraordinary in the word "Armageddon": It's unfortunately familiar. So familiar (and unremarkable) that there were episodes of "Night Court" and "The Golden Girls" devoted to the omnipresent risk of World War III. Warning of nuclear dangers to an audience that remembers "The world could end tomorrow" as part of its sitcom routine might seem to the speaker like no big deal at all. ■ But half of the world has been blissfully insulated from the prospect, at least for the most part. The risk of conflict involving nuclear weapons ought to be taken seriously, but it's essential to realize that frames of reference are not the same for everyone. What might have been a routine way to describe something in the past can have an entirely different set of connotations now, and having a prudential attitude towards preventing a worst-case scenario in no small part involves thoughtful restraint in both word and deed. ■ Scrambling up the escalatory ladder could surely turn worst-case in a hurry. Racing up the rhetorical ladder as a means of deterrence may itself be an unforced error. We're not always even capable of speaking the same language among ourselves as a country, but the whole world is the audience now.

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October 10, 2022

News Don't go on

Plenty of Benjamin Franklin's advice is uncannily relevant to the present day. Consider: "It is ill-manners to silence a fool, and cruelty to let him go on." ■ A fool doesn't have to be unintelligent. Some people are naturally short of wits, but many others are endowed with substantial intelligence which they choose to apply unevenly (to put it diplomatically). And when that happens, everyone needs at least one friend who can reel in the worst of that foolish behavior. ■ It's a mistake for anyone -- even the certifiable genius -- to go without just such a trustworthy friend. The temptation is surely there; lauded often for their genius, lots of creative, innovative, groundbreaking individuals are capable of coming to believe that they are without peers. ■ But enormous raw intelligence (and even a highly refined genius for something particular) cannot find itself beyond the reach of a well-considered second opinion. In aviation, the entire philosophy of crew resource management is built around the principle that someone (the captain) may be the most experienced expert "in the room", but that even that authority is only safely used if others are willing and able to challenge it if they believe something vital has been overlooked. ■ So, too, should certain outspoken or even "disruptive" public figures be willing to have their genius checked by a second opinion. The really smart ones learn it: Warren Buffett (investing's "Oracle of Omaha") has for decades depended upon Charlie Munger to validate or dismiss his ideas. Bill Gates first had Paul Allen, then Steve Ballmer, to keep him in check as he put his enormous drive to work behind his strategic programming genius. Soichiro Honda had engineering genius, but needed Takeo Fujisawa to make it a business. ■ Without a second opinion, it's too easy for untethered genius to give way to madness. Elon Musk has loud and emphatic ideas about nuclear warfare, and he's picking fights on Twitter with anyone who disagrees (it is, for instance, a preposterous choice to accuse Garry Kasparov for not doing enough to speak out against Russia's regime). Meanwhile, Kanye West is going about amplifying messages associated with racists and posting excruciating antisemitism on his social media accounts. ■ Musk and West are each certifiable geniuses in certain ways -- Musk can shepherd wild ideas into reality like almost nobody in our time, and West is a profoundly gifted musician. That much shouldn't be denied. But they're both in desperate need of a second opinion. Someone trustworthy needs to be able to say to each of them, "Hold on. You've gone too far." And that message needs to get through. ■ It's easy to dig in for the sake of pride and to double down on the conviction that the crowd just doesn't "get it". The louder and broader the reaction, quite often the stiffer the resistance. But when a friend tells you, "Look, this is a bad idea, and it's hurting what I know you value", that is the sort of message everyone should know how to take in and give fair consideration. Nobody should allow themselves to get beyond the reach of that kind of check, purely as a matter of self-interest. ■ No one has perfect knowledge of self; it is a process to come to a deep understanding, and no one really arrives at it like some kind of destination on a map. Friends help us, though, because they can see us from the outside. Just as you'll never see your own forehead without the assistance of a mirror or a camera, you'll never see the entirety of your own self without the help of others, in no small part because we are relational beings, formed in part by the social interactions around us. No one, no matter how objectively smart, is complete without the help of a friend who can help to silence us when we act like fools.

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October 13, 2022

News Is it criticism, or just preaching to the converted?

Praise broadly and criticize specifically: It's good advice for management and equally good advice within personal relationships. To be easy with praise -- so long as it is authentic -- is a good way to ensure that people feel appreciated and recognized for their personal dignity. To constrain criticisms to the most specific level possible helps reduce differences to the narrowest possible lanes. ■ Both habits are means to reinforce mutual trust and respect, and to encourage the most dignified possible interactions among people. And they are habits sorely missing from the mainstream of contentious public opinion. ■ The nature of space-constrained headline snippets and the relentless pressure to get people to take measurable action (by "liking", sharing, or reading content) is having a toxic effect on the way people take in their opinions. If a writer can't get an audience to "tune in" on the basis of what fits into a social-media clip, then all the leftover effort in the world can go into crafting the perfect inverted pyramid and it won't make any difference. The headline either makes the sale or it does not. ■ Unwavering fealty to the demand for spicy headlines doesn't do much for the dignity of interactions. It just encourages broad criticisms in pursuit of getting the largest number of like-minded critics to like, share, and click. It's an incentive structure that rewards tribal signaling, not witty critique. ■ Thus, when an opinion columnist for the New York Times wants to criticize a member of the United States Senate, goodwill and specificity go out the window. Instead, Carlos Lozada declares "Among the hundreds of books I read in my years as a critic, only three felt so paralyzing[ly] pointless that, upon reaching the end, I found I had nothing to say." That is how the reader is supposed to be drawn into reading nearly 1,500 words on Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is likely to be leaving the Senate before the end of his term in order to become the president of the University of Florida. ■ The suitability of a candidate for a university presidency is a nuanced matter. It's especially interesting when the final candidate is an incumbent politician from another state. But the column doesn't attempt to do that; it instead offers a laundry list of vague complaints about "vapid sentence[s]" and a "trifecta of triteness". ■ That kind of opinion writing reflects an addiction to engagement -- finding the biggest possible Hallelujah chorus to amplify broad complaints about an individual who is seen as a convenient foil, rather than taking the most challenging route to identifying general good and separating it from particular complaints. ■ Lozada's complaints about style could be countered by an argument that a politician trying to reach a mass audience in book form has to state things plainly, if not simply. What he dismisses as discussions of civics in "the most Founders 101 way possible" might instead be praised with equal enthusiasm as "adhering to the long-standing practices that have historically paid generous dividends to America as a country. ■ No single opinion essay tells the whole story of any subject, but the patterns that make one column into unpleasant reading (for an audience not predisposed to agree with the author's conclusions) can also be the patterns that make it hard to have interesting, good-faith discussions about matters that really are in the public interest. ■ There is no doubt that the state of higher education is a significant matter of such interest, and the contributions a high-profile public policy-maker could make instead at the helm of a major university are decidedly worth discussion. But if the country's de facto newspaper of record isn't willing to rise above a mainly superficial critique of a person instead of taking on a fair-minded grappling with that person's ideas, then we're bound for trouble. ■ We have to be able to assume earnest good faith in others more often than not -- even when we are inclined to disagree with them. Social media snippets don't reward that kind of behavior, and that is a problem worth lots of thoughtful review. But when the social-media pile-on style becomes an end unto itself, then we really must take a step back. Critics will criticize, of course, but if there's nothing redeeming about doing so, then we need to ask what good all of this "engagement" is for.

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October 14, 2022

Science and Technology Make boring change

Like too much of climate-related activism, the desecration of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" by soup-throwing protesters is nothing better than a cry for validation. And a strange cry it is: Mother Nature has rarely shown much favor towards keeping humans alive in the first place. Nature sends us polio, cholera, and mosquitoes (which carry everything from West Nile virus to malaria). Humans had to invent vaccines, water purification, and DEET for ourselves.. ■ Aside from the way it demonstrates a narrow-minded fixation on false dichotomies, activism that relies upon shock and destruction is a deeply pointless (and often even counter-productive) way to make a point. There is literally no end to the list of things that people could go and damage, break, or disfigure, and every time someone does so, it only leaves the world poorer. And poverty leaves us without resources, which are what the world needs in order to solve our problems. ■ The real work of grappling with climate change isn't done by the extremists who pit goods like carbon efficiency and economic growth against one another. It is done by patient and often very dull work in low-key spaces, many of them unexpected. ■ Reducing the relative carbon density of concrete will make a huge difference (it's responsible for about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions). And progress is being made. Turning wastewater treatment systems into net energy producers will make a big difference by reducing the world's energy consumption by as much as 3%. Progress is being made there, too. Putting electric passenger cars on the roads to replace cars with combustion engines will help, but don't overlook the impact already achieved by double-stacking freight trains. ■ People who are serious about solving problems don't go about making new ones just to put attention on themselves. It's selfish and juvenile. Real change doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen because of desecration. ■ It happens when people of goodwill are persuaded by reasonable arguments that change needs to occur, and when they are shown productive steps that can be taken in the right direction. Mother Nature isn't going to love you back, but your fellow humans can appreciate an effort undertaken with sincerity.

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October 15, 2022

News The self-evident banner

The message is so mild to the ears of anyone living under the protection of the First Amendment that it sounds almost quaint: "No Covid test, we want to eat. No restrictions, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No leaders, we want votes. By not being slaves, we can be citizens." ■ But communication theorists say that we have to consider the sender, the receiver, the message, the medium, and the context. In its real context, the message goes from quaint to revolutionary. This demand for freedom and dignity was printed on a banner hung from a bridge in Beijing. What would have been a modest petition for a redress of grievances in the United States is a far bolder thing to assert under authoritarianism. ■ No one should ever underestimate the ability of people to understand when they are being mistreated. Values we label today as "classical liberalism" -- government by the consent of the governed, equality before the law, freedom of speech, the right to complain to the authorities -- aren't exclusive to the people who had the privilege of reading about them or learning about them from civics class. ■ They belong to everyone. They are natural rights. They are principles so natural that even people who have been kept in the dark about where they have been written down still have a rightful claim to them. Not only a claim, but also a reasonable expectation that they will organically uncover them even without any help. ■ Those of us with the privilege of living under principled, rules-based, democratic self-government should cheer for our fellow human beings when they assert themselves and their natural rights. Every one of us should cheer for them like we would cheer for the varsity squad at our alma mater, and for the same reason, too: Because they are like us, they are on our team, and they are engaged in a fight more hazardous than what anyone encounters watching from afar. ■ Seeing others as our equals -- specifically, as moral equals who are thoroughly capable of arriving at conclusions about human dignity that are compatible with our own, even if their libraries are deprived of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke -- helps to reinforce the understanding that those of us who have our freedoms guaranteed by law need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who don't. ■ Our thoughts should center on how we can best help them to reach their rightful state. We need to trust that those things the Declaration of Independence declares "self-evident" really are. Believing in the self-evidence of those human truths is an essential step towards recognizing the fundamental equality of people who just haven't been as fortunate as we have been thus far.

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October 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Take an insult like an adult

Humanity has shown itself again and again to be better-off when people are free to communicate, trade, and cooperate with one another across borders. Fundamentally, people are far more alike than we are different, and the more we can compound our ingenuity by working freely with one another, the better we can hope to achieve those measures of progress that make us all healthier, wealthier, and safer. ■ But there remain those who put their faith in coercion rather than freedom. Most powerful among them are probably the cabal that self-perpetuates its rule over China. It is a power structure so sensitive to criticism that its reaction to protesters hanging a poster criticizing its leader in front of a consulate in Manchester, England, was to beat a protester in full view of both cameras and the British police. ■ Just imagine: A gross violation of both the protester's own rights while on British soil, and of the most basic diplomatic protocols, merely because (in the consulate's own words) the protesters had "hung an insulting portrait of the Chinese president at the main entrance". For that, they responded with masked thugs in body armor literally committing a kidnapping in plain sight. ■ It is fundamentally wrong when these things happen within the borders controlled by such a government. An assault on protesters would be deplorable in Beijing. It becomes an act of flagrant hostility to the peaceful and respectable world order when it takes place in front of a consulate in England's third city. ■ Economic decoupling is expensive and political rifts that keep nations from working together on the problems that confront us as an entire humanity are bound to cause missteps, costly missed opportunities, and needless roadblocks to progress. Humanity as a whole loses for every day spent emphasizing petty, narcissistic squabbles when we're all on the same lonely pale blue dot. ■ Nobody should celebrate growing divisions among the various nations of the world. But neither should anyone be the least bit confused about who is provoking the discord. Sometimes "an insulting portrait" is the same as a look in the mirror.


October 17, 2022

News The good fight

The minority of American voices still hostile to open support for Ukraine in its fight to repel Russia's invasion tend to fall into two camps. One is aligned, either openly or sympathetically with the myth of an imperial Russia. The other claims it is merely against war and in favor of de-escalating the conflict by whatever means are available. ■ Both camps should acquaint themselves with the advice of the ancient philosopher Lucius Seneca: "There is but one thing that brings the soul to perfection -- the unalterable knowledge of good and evil." ■ It really isn't hard to distinguish which side has enthusiastically embraced evil in this war; Russian forces have made unspeakable and persistent violence against civilians a strategic centerpiece of their conduct of the war. Civilian targets in Kyiv, far from the front lines, are being attacked purely to create terror. Mass graves are being uncovered as Ukrainian towns are being liberated. Even the word "children" isn't enough to command mercy. ■ So, for those who are sympathetic to the aggressors, the "knowledge of good and evil" should be plain. But for those who claim merely to be against conflict (or perhaps against Western engagement in the conflict), it really shouldn't be much harder to tell the difference. ■ Finland's prime minister -- a person who herself must contemplate the real risk of Russian aggression -- put it plainly: "The way out of the conflict? The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine. That's the way out of this conflict." ■ Even great principles have boundaries. "Thou shall not kill" may be a rule nearly asymptotic to being right all of the time, but one imagines that even the Pope would kill a homicidal maniac with his bare hands if that were the only way to spare the lives of a room full of innocent children. Likewise, avoiding war may be the right thing to do most of the time -- but not "at all costs", if those costs include vast human suffering and the snuffing out of many thousands of lives. ■ Knowing good and evil isn't a matter of mechanically observing perfect rules. It is a consequence of learning the boundaries of good and bad, and realizing that those boundaries are not always static. To be anti-violence all of the time, without exceptions, is to intrinsically invite more violence by those willing to commit it. Some tools, like deterrence, are best used by those who are reluctant, but not unwilling, to put them to use.

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October 18, 2022

News To maintain is divine

The essence of fall isn't the arrival of sweater weather or the pumpkin-spicing of food items both tolerable and wildly inappropriate. No, the essence of the season is the reminder that nature obeys a rigorous discipline of routine maintenance. Without leaves falling and annual plants dying off, there would be no room for the dormancy of winter, the flourishing of spring, or the products of summer. ■ Some plants nature pushes out of the way, only to be replaced the next year by whatever makes the cut in cutthroat ecological competition. Others nature brings back -- often bigger and better than before. Trees grow their new rings, while rose bushes thicken and grape vines bear more-sought-after fruit. ■ As humans living in a world accustomed to practices like fast fashion and planned obsolescence, the merits of maintenance often deserve more credit than they get. Not all maintenance is worth doing, of course: Some things are better off being replaced than fixed. Nobody should try to fix a 20-year-old tube TV. ■ But like nature, we ought to know which things to let go and which to keep around. And for those things we want to keep around, whether they be infrastructure or institutions, we shouldn't hesitate to put a premium on good maintenance. Both the physical goods we can keep in good working order and the human systems that occasionally need some fresh leadership and a renewed sense of purpose are often worth maintaining. ■ It's considered exciting -- sexy, even -- to start new things. Lots of people accumulate social approval and plenty of wealth from becoming "founders". Serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and first-round angel investors get lots of status and cash alike. But a well-functioning society needs people who are proud to keep things working once they've been started, and who are respected for doing it. ■ Making consistent, incremental improvements to how a firm, a non-profit, or a government agency works will probably never get the same kind of attention as being a publicity-hounding "disruptor". But we count on the people with a custodial mindset -- those who breathe life into titles like "trustee" and notions like "fiduciary duty" -- to ensure that we don't just waste our time building up monuments that end up crumbling all too soon after they are raised.

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October 21, 2022

News Love, hate, and the daily

Institutions can withstand a lot of hate: no amount of contempt from the rest of the baseball-loving world has yet brought down the New York Yankees. But institutions really cannot survive if the predominant feeling about them is mere indifference. ■ People have to care about institutions for them to survive, and one of the worrisome developments that should have Americans alarmed about the condition of our civic health is the long drift towards deep indifference about institutions like news publications. ■ For a long time, the daily metropolitan newspaper occupied a special place in American communities. Protected by economic conditions that tended to drive them towards natural monopolies and by a Constitution that puts freedom of the press first among the amendments, newspapers had it very good. ■ But good economics tend to attract consolidators, and that certainly happened within newspapering. Where family ownership once was a dominant model, shareholder-driven corporate ownership became ascendant in the late part of the 20th Century and into the 21st. ■ Corporate ownership isn't an intrinsically bad thing, but shareholder ownership isn't often conducive to the same sense of mission and purpose that can be instilled by a visible, identifiable owner (or family of owners). One reason the New York Times distinguishes itself yet today is that we can still see the imprint of Sulzberger-Ochs family ownership on the institution's decisions. ■ For most of the rest of the metropolitan newspaper universe, the shift to shareholder ownership coincided with an unfortunate deterioration in economics. The natural monopoly of times past derived from the newspaper's special status as the best way to reach the largest spread of a community at once. The Internet has demolished that advantage in most places. ■ Weakening economics combined with a depletion of institutional vigor have brought about a wicked case of indifference. When newspapers had large institutional personalities, people could love them or hate them -- but they often had strong opinions about them. It is hard to read the catastrophic decline in circulation as a symptom of anything other than massive indifference. ■ Thus, when Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, lays off hundreds of staff members from coast to coast and mandatory unpaid leave for everyone who's left, what in the past might have stirred angry protests is today met with little more than a passive shrug from most of the public. ■ That's unfortunate. We should be able to love and hate institutions (like newspapers) within some normal bounds -- like loving or hating a baseball team. But when people become addicted to highly polarized "news" coverage on the Internet and elsewhere because it gives them good tribal sensations, things risk turning sour. ■ And when the public grows indifferent to the goings-on at what were once mainstream arbiters of local information, taste, and opinion (read often even by those who "hated" them, again within normal bounds), then we face some real troubles if nothing else moves in to fill that old role. Americans still need to yell at one another (in good faith) across the public square. The more the forums wither and die where that good kind of shouting once took place, the less of the healthy conflict we have, and the more indifference risks corroding into contempt.

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October 22, 2022

News Move it

Americans have a funny relationship with motion. A person walking down the street is perfectly ordinary and attracts no attention. But if that same person stands in the same place on the sidewalk for ten minutes, they're sure to attract attention. ■ A car moving down the road? As normal as can be. But park that same car in the wrong place for too long (a parking lot, or in front of a prominent building), and a tow truck is probably soon to be on the way. ■ It's not a bad thing that we see fit to leave people alone when they're in motion. A bustling nation is usually a prosperous one. But we do need to consider whether we have enough spaces (in the right locations) for people to stay still. ■ Public spaces for people to remain still can be hard to maintain. Unlike a rotisserie oven, you cannot just "set it and forget it". Keeping spaces clean, sheltered, and heated costs money. Staffs must be hired and trained, and conscientious upkeep is a necessity. ■ There's a reason coffee shops are reconsidering their tolerance for "campers" and shifting to drive-through configurations. And it's much the same reason parks and libraries have trouble maintaining clean and orderly conditions when their budgets get clipped. Likewise for the widespread demise of the indoor shopping mall. ■ We just don't do well with people staying in place unless they're actively paying some kind of rent (either explicitly or implicitly). It's a cultural feature of American life that deserves closer attention. ■ Yet for all our reluctance to make provisions for people to sit still, we spend extraordinary amounts on the right to keep moving: Road and highway spending dwarfs spending on public spaces. We'll spend millions of public dollars to build airports where people will mostly just sit and wait, but we're not all that interested in providing the same accommodations for people who aren't going anywhere. ■ Protected freedom of motion is a mostly unalloyed good, and we should keep it as unfettered as possible. But the need to protect the freedom to remain still (without bothering others) deserves a second look.


October 23, 2022

News Arguing against interest, for the public interest

Classic advice from high-school writing teachers insists that a good persuasive writer should be able to make their opponent's case as well as their own. It is solid advice, since it requires the would-be rhetorician to be capable of understanding an argument in both the affirmative and the negative. ■ The advice does contain limitations, though. To say it helps a person to "see both sides" presupposes that there are merely two sides to an issue, and that they are diametrically opposed. This isn't always the case; in fact, the people who aggravate our political sensibilities most aren't the ones who are seen as taking opposite views from ours, but rather the ones whose views might be considered a "near miss" from our own. ■ For that reason -- and for many others -- it would be refreshing to see a revival of heterodoxy in the public square. People with good persuasive skills should be challenged to make the best possible case for reaching their own conclusions, but using the assumptions and predispositions of someone who disagrees with them. Or, similarly, to make use their own preferences and logical pathways to make the case for their opponent's conclusion. ■ Too many issues are nationalized anyway in American politics. This country of more than 330 million people contains just too many variables to rely on one-size-fits-all arguments for all public policies. It would serve us well to hear good-faith arguments that are not strictly in the speaker's (or writer's) self-interest. ■ We lack a well-known forum not for contrarianism (those can be found all over), but for unconventional arguments arriving at surprising conclusions. What is, for instance, the best rock-ribbed capitalist case for single-payer health care? Or, what is the socialist case for right-to-work laws? What is the most persuasive libertarian case for a larger, more muscular navy? What is soundest progressive argument for deregulating financial markets? ■ It's entirely fair if the people making these arguments offer clear disclaimers right up front: The persistence of arguments found online means that basically anything a person says or writes is likely to be used against them for generations to come. ■ We still haven't reconciled ourselves to this problem, and a problem it surely is. Nothing indiscreet someone writes for a college newspaper out of youthful ignorance remains buried forever, as it once would have been. No ill-advised endorsement or impulsive tweet is lost to the ether; they all come back to haunt. ■ And as a result, the incentives -- at least for now -- are for people to dig in their heels, double down, and seek refuge within their own tribes. But that doesn't help anyone to make the case for change within their own communities, nor does it bring anyone over from other sides (however many there may be). ■ We do need to get to a more forgiving place, culturally; one where people are forgiven for embracing bad ideas in the past and rewarded for changing their minds as new facts (and new arguments) come to the forefront. One step in that direction would be to challenge persuasive individuals to make those unconventional cases -- either the best version of an opponent's case to persuade one's own side, or the best version of one's own conclusion but structured around an opponent's assumptions and values. ■ None of it is a silver bullet, and any forum worthy of hosting these kinds of arguments would need to be financially viable, and that creates a chicken-and-egg problem. But it ought to be there. The same old arguments being made to the same old interests aren't really interesting, and they aren't really productive, either. If even Netflix has developed a feature that basically begs "Surprise me", then we ought to have a similar relief valve in our public sphere.

@briangongol on Twitter

October 24, 2022

News Imagining the worst

American audiences who have been lulled into entertainment unconsciousness by the unimaginative state of network television dramas may not realize that other countries have proven themselves adept at scripting thoughtful programs that don't rely upon stacks of corpses or outbursts in the interrogation room as their chief plot devices. How many iterations of "Law and Order" does one civilization really need? ■ Norwegian broadcaster TV2, for instance, produced a three-season television series called "Occupied", which traced a fictitious "velvet glove" invasion of their country by a hostile Russian government. While mostly bloodless, the imagined invasion was nonetheless sinister, challenging the boundaries of the eternal question "What would you do?" ■ Fiction, done skillfully, can offer useful insights about human activity. "Occupied" is far more than skilled: It looked directly into the darkest impulses of the Kremlin and came out the other side with a vision of what might happen if an energy crisis were to grip Europe and an isolationist United States were to stand idly by. The fiction hasn't turned into reality quite like the script, but the drama should have gotten people to thinking. ■ In fact, Europe is facing an energy crisis. And Russia may have invaded Ukraine instead of Norway, but that doesn't mean it's behaving peacefully towards Scandinavia. Russian agents have been caught flying drones over Norwegian territory, menacing airports and oil platforms. ■ The world has moved into a period when conflict doesn't always look like war. Of course it still can; the behavior of Russian troops in Ukraine has in some cases been as barbaric as any combat of the past. But conflict is no longer limited to the old ways of battle lines and color-coded uniforms. Some of the cruelest, most inhumane acts of Russia's war against Ukraine has been traced to missile engineers in Moscow and St. Petersburg who make targets of civilian homes and institutions. ■ And even if there is no immediate incursion against Norwegian territory afoot, the shamelessness of trying to intimidate the country within its own boundaries is something worse than peace, even if it does not fully rise to the definition of war. The future depends on our speedy adjustment to new and unconventional conflict, and the steeliness of our resolve not to let aggressors set the rules of the game. ■ "Occupied" told a story that, even when it first aired, drew fits of protest from the Kremlin which obviously ring deafeningly hollow today. Russia's government in 2016 said that "the series’s creators decided to scare Norwegian viewers with a non-existing threat from the East in the worst Cold War traditions." The worst "traditions" of the Cold War may be back, but it's clear who is at fault. Halting the march of evil is going to take plenty of imagination from the free world.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

October 27, 2022

Science and Technology Infinity times infinity

On a clear night in the open country, removed from the light pollution of the city, a person can engage in one of the most time-honored of human experiences: Staring up at the sky and counting the night stars. ■ So universal and eternal is the tradition that the Book of Genesis contains the Almighty's promise to Abraham to give him descendants "as countless as the stars of the sky". Even thousands of years ago, equipped with nothing but the naked eye, the stars set the standard for what we humans could conceive as infinite. ■ What is different about the experience today than in the past is the astonishing power of spacefaring telescopes to help us see even farther and even more clearly into the night sky than is physically possible from here on Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope, and now the Webb Space Telescope, have forever changed hour understanding of just how vast and infinite the night sky really is. ■ One of the amusing exercises in mathematics is to ponder whether there could be varying degrees of infinity. If a formula produced an infinite number, would multiplying that formula by two create an even bigger value for infinity? In a sense, surely it would have to. Yet in another sense, it would be impossible to make the infinite larger. ■ What the space telescopes have done is effectively multiplied the infinity of the past (the stars we could see with the naked eye, which themselves seemed limitless) by some number much larger. The complexity of what we can see is utterly stupefying. ■ Astronomy isn't the only field where technological and scientific improvements have vastly expanded our ability to comprehend things that are very real about our universe. The granularity of satellite images obtained from the GOES satellites is almost infinitely more detailed than the views human beings had a generation prior. Yet even that imagery was quite literally infinitely better than what we could see of Earth from space prior to 1959, since there were no satellite images to send. ■ Radar images now penetrate the ground. The human genome can be completely sequenced. Computers can simulate and predict the structures of proteins. These developments aren't just progress; they violate the boundaries of what any human could have reasonably imagined a century ago. ■ We should be living in a period of the most expansive, universally-held sense of wonder ever conceived in human history. We should scarcely be able to get through the day without standing around slack-jawed in complete awe. Yet, lamentably, with all of this quite literally infinite wonder available to us, there are people who are more bound and determined than ever to choose to wallow in pseudoscience, hoaxes, shams, and quackery. ■ A mere glimpse at a single picture of a cluster of galaxies taken by the Webb telescope would have been more astonishing to Galileo than the sum total of everything he saw in his entire life with his own telescope. What he saw was far more than anyone had seen before, but what we can see now really is infinitely more mind-boggling. ■ Just try to imagine showing a picture of the "Pillars of Creation" to the Greek astronomers of 2,500 years ago who first resolved that the Earth was round. What we might breeze past, scrolling mindlessly through social media, would have been enough to melt the consciousness of our forebears. ■ We are so awash in wonder -- a wonder that is infinitely greater than the infinite that existed before -- that we are like the proverbial fish that doesn't know it is wet. ■ No one can be forced to reckon with this wonder. Each of us has to come to it on our own terms. But what a literally wondrous time to be alive. What we can see and understand and experience of the world is so vastly greater than anything any previous generation could have imagined that the degree of change alone bends the capacity of the human mind. ■ If the trajectory of things thus far is any indication, the change and expansion yet to come is even greater. We will be somebody's backwards and ignorant "ancient civilization" someday. It's on our shoulders to be humble enough -- and open enough -- that we can be worthy of the wonder in which we are immersed.

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October 28, 2022

Threats and Hazards Not even the slightest hint

That a criminal broke into the California home of the Speaker of the House and assaulted her husband in front of police is a dreadful, repugnant event. It should, of course, be completely surprising, but it is not. ■ America has experienced political violence in the past, just like most other countries. But it shouldn't be hard for anyone to say this: A free society should unconditionally reject the scourge of politically motivated violence, by anyone, against anyone. ■ A Supreme Court justice was threatened earlier this year, and members of Congress were fired upon at a recreational baseball game in 2017. And what took place at the United States Capitol in 2021 was unfathomable. ■ The actual acts of violence aren't the only events we should vigorously reject if we want to keep a healthy society. There have been far too many events in which people have tried menacing public officials, even if they did not turn violent in fact. It happens to officials at all levels, and it's been treated with a shrug by far too many people, mainly when they find that the intimidation is being used as a tool to promote an agenda with which they happen to agree. ■ Menacing and intimidation were wrong when protesters raised serious security concerns when they targeted governors with protests in the summer of 2020. And they were wrong when they were used against election officials that winter. ■ It should tax no one's conscience to say that there is no room for politically motivated violence by anyone, against anyone. Nor should it take any particular courage to say that even the hint of intimidation is wrong. The path to violence isn't one on which anyone should start, because taking even the first step implies a willingness to continue on to taking the last.

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October 29, 2022

News Reaching a peaceful end

When some members of Congress issued, then retracted, a letter calling for "a negotiated settlement and ceasefire" to end Russia's war against Ukraine, it was a terrible unforced error. Nothing about Russia's aggression against Ukraine calls out for "settlement". ■ Freezing the outcome where the battle lines stand today would reward Russia with a non-trivial claim to territory. And the very notion of negotiation was vaporized when the war started, because initiating the invasion violated a negotiated agreement to which Russia had been a signatory for more than a quarter of a century. ■ Ultimately, the path to long-term peace can't be rushed on any timeline set by outsiders. It's important for Ukraine to win -- not to reach a draw, but to achieve victory -- and they need sustained support to do it. They're up against an invader with a much larger military and a lot more resources. This is no time for Ukraine's allies to go wobbly. ■ There's a difference between picking a side and picking an outcome. A powerful country should be able to pick a side. A great hegemonic power like the United States should not just be able to pick a side, but also to behave in such a way that it predictably picks its sides. ■ Picking an outcome is different. America can have a vision for what outcome would be in our preferred interests, but ultimately the conflict must be resolved in the way the people of Ukraine conclude suits their interests. Respect for self-determination is a principle that matters more for a great power than for a lesser one. ■ America should aspire to have a stabilizing power in the world -- one that, in any conflict we touch, tips the scales in favor of human liberty, of self-determination, of established rules, and of respect for human life. ■ Bossing the world around isn't the goal to which we should aspire. But upholding a world order vested in rules and human well-being is quite possibly the best gift we can give. ■ It's not for us to tell others when to fight, nor when to give up. But it is for us to reduce the uncertainty, insofar as we can, about whose side we will take in case of conflict -- and what principles will decide which side that will be, and how far they can expect that support to follow them.


October 30, 2022

The United States of America Wait not for your country to do for you

Every two years, Americans are given the option to fire every member of the House of Representatives. It's an option we seem to exercise on a rolling basis: Not tossing them out en masse, but generally replacing them at least every decade or so, on average. The threat of replacement should keep Congress responsive to the interests of the public, but what if the public is insufficiently motivated to care about the things that actually matter in the long run -- as in, over a period longer than the median tenure of a member of Congress? ■ Benjamin Franklin, reflecting on his time as a lawmaker before the Revolutionary War, observed cannily that "Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion." ■ This unwillingness to execute on new projects rears its ugly head often today, just as it did a quarter of a millennium ago (yet more evidence that human nature is mostly unchanging). But what are the the occasions that might force some necessary innovation to protect our interests in the long term? ■ America generates unfathomable riches (basically 1/4th of the world's total each year), while sitting on unrivaled military power and the most productive system of innovation anywhere. We have a unique duty to point these huge advantages in the right direction over the long term. ■ Sometimes resources are pointed in the right direction -- as when NASA successfully proved the concept of deflecting an asteroid. At other times, we remain passive or inert well beyond the point of excuse: Failing to keep a well-organized effort for pandemic preparedness probably cost many lives in 2020. And there are times when a problem may itself elude a straightforward answer (as with the massive violations of human rights conducted by China in Xinjiang), but where one problem is embedded within and intermeshed with others. ■ The choice remains ours to demand that each Congress look ahead farther than its own term, or even farther than an individual's likely maximum tenure. But that requires taking the job of voting seriously, not like some idle team sport. We should know by now that waiting for measures to be "forced by the occasion" often ends up being both costly and unsatisfying. We have no shortage of meaningful problems to address. Who will act like it?

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