Gongol.com Archives: December 2022

Brian Gongol


December 2022
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December 2, 2022

Computers and the Internet Have a quick chat

The release of a powerful artificial intelligence chat bot has a lot of technological enthusiasts and observers at high attention, as well it should. The quality of the processing and its ability to generate highly serviceable plain-English responses to human requests is enough to have garnered more than a little attention from some of those who earn a living by writing. ■ In some quarters, it has been noted that continued development in this area will make it impossible for instructors to give their students take-home essays or assignments and expect to gain a fair assessment of student progress. If an AI can answer an essay question and do it passably well, then what's to stop students from letting the computers do all the work? ■ While it would be unwise to trivialize the academic impact, thoughtful observers ought to be fifty times more concerned about what this means for phishing attacks -- most especially for spearphishing. While people have generally adapted to ignoring spam, phishing attacks (scams that depend upon impersonation and misidentification) still generate at least some success for their crooked creators simply through volume. Someone, somewhere, eventually falls for a scam. ■ Spearphishing takes ordinary phishing attacks and makes them more sophisticated by targeting specific users with specific information. This is far more time-intensive than a general-purpose phishing attack, but it raises the odds of success for the attacker. The problem introduced by these much-improved artificial intelligence tools is that they can merge some of the high volumes of classic phishing with the targeting of spearphishing -- which, in combination, makes them much more likely to extract money from unwitting victims. ■ Society is dangerously naive about what's on our cybersecurity doorstep. For a long time, we have been able to depend largely upon hardware and software to offer some protection -- antivirus programs, attachment scanning, and spam filters all do a lot of work to cast a protective bubble over us. But these tools aren't going to be able to keep up with natural-language artificial intelligence in the hands of clever crooks with the incentive to keep hacking human beings. We are rapidly moving from an era of computer vulnerability to one of pure human vulnerability. ■ It's not the only public policy priority out there today, but if we don't amplify consideration and discussion of cybersecurity as a matter for universal responsibility and engagement, we're going to be in deep trouble.

Health Knowing the boundaries of bad behavior and choice

We're a long, long way from fully understanding how the brain works, and that means we all ought to bring humility and empathy to the table when dealing with self-evident episodes of mental distress or disturbance. But along with humility and empathy, we also need to bring appropriate boundaries.

Humor and Good News The 1990s in a nutshell

(Video) It's hard if not impossible to communicate to anyone who didn't live through the era, but the 1990s were kind of like someone put C+C Music Factory on infinite repeat and everyone basically thought, "Yeah, that feels about right."

Computers and the Internet Thoughts worth pondering

There are ways to introduce technologies (like powerful AI writing tools) that bring them into being as humane helpers, and there are ways that are sure to bring out the worst in the people threatened vocationally by them. Better to choose the former.

Threats and Hazards Afghanistan loses access to independent reporting

The Taliban has ordered local broadcasters to stop retransmitting VOA and RFE/RL content


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December 3, 2022

Humor and Good News Enjoy the process

The winter holiday season brings out strange behaviors in some people. For many, it's a time to do some light decorating both inside and outside the home. For others, though, it's either time for radical escalation or for displays of passive aggression. ■ Everyone is entitled to the right to decide freely whether to celebrate or decorate or abstain entirely. But it's wise to keep in mind that life really is too short to waste on activities that aren't cultivated to bring about some kind of pleasure, either now or in the future. Other purposes really aren't worth the energy nor the scarce time any one of us has in life. ■ The rule isn't just applicable to holiday decorating -- it applies equally to lots of other endeavors, from taking part in sports to using social media to going to work. Parents who come unhinged at youth sporting events, people who feel obligated by work or by other compulsion to stay glued to Facebook or Instagram, and those who are eager to leave their vocations all need to heed the advice. ■ Society does need to encourage individuals to take an enlightened view of what brings pleasure, of course. It's not always a matter of what feels good, like a sugar rush. Pleasure shouldn't always be just a momentary visceral excitement. ■ Humans are endowed with incredibly powerful brains, and we need to be trained to use those brains to appreciate a worthy sense of joy. Sometimes that comes from entering a state of "flow", as first described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Sometimes it derives from building towards a satisfying goal. Sometimes it comes from cultivating a mindful sense of gratitude. Sometimes it's the result of appreciating one's own triumph over adversity -- or that of someone else. ■ Altogether, though, it's much too easy to default to chasing material satisfaction -- emphasizing "stuff" too much or, sometimes, too little. Just as there are those who are never satisfied except by buying things to impress others, there are those who reject even basic creature comforts out of inexplicable obsessions with asceticism, whether for religious reasons or to prove their unnecessary physical self-discipline. ■ Putting too much emphasis on material stuff (too much or too little) keeps people from cultivating that necessary and enlightened sense of pleasure in experience. It takes practice to really refine that sense, and nobody should ever expect to achieve a perfect end state of it. But figuring out how better to fill the all-too-brief span of life with an enlightened sense of joy seems like a far better use of time than putting up holiday decorations out of spite or arguing with others over ephemera.

News Ukraine rebuilds even as it fights

Don't let anyone tell you that war is ever a net positive for a society. But: A tip of the cap to Ukrainians for showing how they can endure a terrible war and emerge smarter, stronger, and more confident.

News The A4 Revolution

When a blank sheet of paper is enough to threaten a regime, it is time for that regime to yield power and make way for the people to write their own future.

News US bounced from World Cup

If you could get the SEC really, really fired up about their soccer rivalries, America would become invincible at the World Cup. We just haven't succeeded yet at making school pride in both forms of "football" into a priority.


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December 4, 2022

News Don't bring me down

The 2022 "World Buidling of the Year" is 46-story office tower in Sydney that underwent a massive reconstruction after standing for more than 40 years. The transformation has been hailed as a leading example of "upcycling" a building -- turning something old into something new and better than the original. ■ "Upcycling" architecture is a concept that probably has some sticking power. Demolitions are often dangerous, wasteful, and pollution-heavy. Yet there are lots of under-utilized, outdated, and even abandoned office buildings in the cities of the world. There's also just a lot of hideous postmodernism out there that looks exceptionally outdated. ■ Too often, disproportionate attention is paid to how a building will look from the outside, rather than how it will perform on the inside. This short-sightedness is chronic and practically universal; any list reviewing the "top projects" of the year (no matter the year) will feature striking exterior photography meant to impress the passerby, but the main reason a building falls into disuse or under-use isn't because of the facade -- it's because the interior fails to meet user needs, often in all-too-predictable fashion. ■ The upcycled Quay Quarter Tower has yet to prove itself in that regard. All we really know thus far is that it "has an excellent carbon story". Designing not to the expectations of awards juries but first and foremost to the needs of the actual human beings who will occupy a space doesn't always come naturally to the field of architecture. ■ But when it's done right, the results can be durable: Frank Lloyd Wright's administration building for the SC Johnson Co. remains relevant today, even though it's nearly a century old. And a building that remains useful in its original form for a century is by definition a more efficient investment than one that has to be "upcycled" after less than half a century -- much less abandoned or demolished after just a few decades.

Humor and Good News Invasion of the Hundred-Acre Wood

The Economist's defense editor uses the GPTChat tool to generate a story about Russia taking on Winnie the Pooh, and it turns out like "Red Dawn". How thoughtless of AA Milne to have left wolverines out of the original canon.


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December 5, 2022

Threats and Hazards Stand by for cyberwar escalation

Microsoft warns that the world ought to be alert to the likelihood of increasing cyberwarfare as Russia continues to prosecute its indefensible and extremely expensive war against Ukraine. The technology company warns that "Moscow has intensified its multi-pronged hybrid technology approach to pressure the sources of Kyiv's military and political support, domestic and foreign." ■ The hazard of increasing escalation seems likely to persist, particularly as the conventional arsenals of autocracy are running low. Russia has been buying artillery shells from North Korea and attack drones from Iran, not because they are the world's preeminent industrial suppliers, but because Russia is using up munitions at a pace it cannot sustain by its own supply. ■ Any decent appreciation for the facts causes the reasonable observer to side with Ukraine on the merits alone. Russia started the war without provocation or justification; Ukraine is defending itself. That much is plain. ■ The just and decent solution would be for Russia to withdraw and leave its neighbor in peace. But, as Christopher Blattman observed in Foreign Affairs, it's unlikely for a country to back down "when leaders think defeat threatens their very survival, when leaders do not have a clear sense of their strength and that of their enemy, and when leaders fear that their adversary will grow stronger in the future." All three conditions can be presumed to affect the Kremlin right now. ■ As things continue to go badly for Russia in conventional terms (supplies are running low and casualties are extremely high), it is entirely rational to be alarmed that it may turn to unconventional and hybrid weapons and tactics. Those tactics are quite likely to affect people far from the battlefields. A missile has a predictable and finite range from its launching point; a computer virus often does not. ■ And the immateriality of cyberwarfare -- the ability to cause damage or inflict pain upon an opponent without having to tap the resources of a physical arsenal -- is enough to make the approach much more attractive to the belligerent parties. Scruples aren't holding the Kremlin back: In Microsoft's research, 55% of the Ukrainian organizations targeted by Russia since the war began "were critical infrastructure organizations, including in the energy, transportation, water, law enforcement and emergency services, and health care sectors." ■ It's distressing that circumstances have come to this, but whether anyone likes it or not, the conditions are such that cyber-escalation seems highly probable and de-escalation seems vanishingly unlikely. The leading challenge is to get the global public (outside of Ukraine) to take self-protective action and invest time and resources in preventative measures for which success would be measured by what doesn't happen. That's a tough sell -- but an increasingly necessary one.

News "Ukraine's most brazen attack on Russia"

The New York Times makes a loaded choice of words in calling it "brazen". Ukraine hasn't been attacking civilian populations; the drones were used to attack Russian military bases. That may be "bold", but it's hardly "brazen".

Computers and the Internet On "ugly" websites

There are all kinds of visually compelling websites, but the problem is that they are overwhelmingly dependent upon WordPress, and that's bad from a security perspective. Much of the consumer-facing Internet is full of unpatched security holes, bloated code, and 404 errors galore, because graphic appeal came first and content got sent to the basement.

Health Safe, centralized water supplies are critical to reducing child mortality

Electricity can be generated without a grid. Communications can be delivered wirelessly. Many goods can even be delivered without roads. But it is extremely hard to deliver safe potable water and sanitation at scale without some hard, centralized infrastructure.

Humor and Good News Corduroy pants are hazardous in winter

Think of the static electricity!


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December 6, 2022

Broadcasting Bob from "Sesame Street", rest in peace

Bob McGrath, known by most simply as Bob from Sesame Street, has passed away at 90 years of age. Like so many of the cast members of the beloved children's show, he served humanity well by faithfully doing his job. And what a work history: Starting with the launch of the show in 1969 and remaining with it all the way until 2016. ■ "Sesame Street" may be a secular show, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to characterize its work as sacred. From it, children learn cognitive skills, like how to count to 12. But they also learn character traits like empathy and gratitude. A well-balanced life is, of course, a combination of both. ■ The open secret of Sesame Street's success is that, even from its beginnings, it has never tried to swim against the tide of children's attention. Instead, it has delivered good and valuable content using some of the same techniques that keep audiences interested in commercials. Even commercials for beer. ■ By focusing on a child-based mission, "Sesame Street" has been funded and supported for more than five decades and has achieved meaningful commercial success in its own right. But kids aren't the only ones who could stand to learn, growing both cognitively and emotionally. ■ It's an oversight worth correcting that we don't seem to have adult programs in the same mold as "Sesame Street". American adults, on average, watch an unfathomable 4 hours and 49 minutes of video per day. And much of what is viewed is either pointless or expressly detached from reality. ■ It is good, just, and right that we commit resources to creating good programs for children. To put on a show genuinely worth children's time takes good production work, talented performances, and above all, strong writing. But we ought to value adults' viewing time in the same way. ■ Learning ought to be life-long, and so should the quest to become more gracious, honorable, and decent towards one's fellow human beings. That's a process that doesn't end at preschool. We ought to have full faith that it's possible (and necessary) to put on the same quality and tenor of programming for adults that we expect out of the Sesame Workshop and its productions for children. ■ Just as "Sesame Street" makes it effortless for kids to learn and grow, so should at least some programming do for grown-ups. As Bob McGrath observed, "The kids we were meant to reach, I think we've reached. They've grown up." But they're still watching television, and they still have room to grow. It would be a fitting way to honor to his memory if some of the spirit he embodied in his performances for little people found its way to influencing big people, too.

Humor and Good News More creative construction, please

And more taco trucks, while we're at it, too.

News FBI data misses most fatal shootings by police

What gets measured is what gets managed, and poor statistical data is a problem for addressing the matter. An NTSB-style agency to investigate all such incidents -- without prosecutorial authority -- would help to establish why they happen and whether the number could be reduced.

Business and Finance Intro to economics

People who get excited about economics usually have a "gateway" economist -- someone who drew them in. Milton Friedman, Gregory Mankiw, Gary Becker, and Robert Barro are all good examples.


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December 7, 2022

News 81 years of remembrance

81 years after the event, Americans still mark the memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The anniversary is still observed with solemnity, despite the fact that only a handful of survivors are still alive and the United States long ago entered a fruitful and peaceful alliance with Japan. ■ It is possible that the date still looms large in part because of Franklin Roosevelt's famous declaration that it would "live in infamy". But it it also illustrates an important pair of characteristics about America's sense of self-identity. ■ First, even the memory of the attack still offends our sense of fairness. When Roosevelt advised that "America was suddenly and deliberately attacked" in "a surprise offensive" amounting to an "unprovoked and dastardly attack", he called to mind the sense that such a blow was contrary to our notion of decent conduct. He was saying, implicitly, that it was beneath America to engage in an unprovoked first strike against another country. ■ But the second characteristic it illustrates is the fanatical determination to deliver a crushing retaliation. Roosevelt didn't ask for a proportionate response; he promised "righteous might", "absolute victory", and certainty "that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us." ■ People sometimes blanch at the notion that the United States outspends the rest of the world's top ten military budgets combined. If a dollar, euro, yen, riyal, or ruble is spent on military purposes anywhere in the world, odds are 1 in 3 that it was spent by the USA. ■ Yet even though the United States maintains an awesome offensive arsenal, the real value of that incredible spending lies within its reinforcement of those two principles illustrated in 1941: That we find it offensive to initiate a fight, and impermissible to walk away from a provocation without crushing the aggressor. ■ More than eight decades after a sneak attack against a generation of Americans who came before us, we should continue to mark that event (and its terrible death toll) with solemnity. But we should also insist that it speak to our national character today, and a consistent unwillingness to be unjust with force paired closely to a determination not to back away from a righteous fight to bend the world back towards peace.


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December 8, 2022

Weather and Disasters How low can the Mississippi go?

The Mighty Mississippi at Memphis has dropped lower this year than at any time since 1988.

The United States of America Communication across cultures

Where the Finns say "I hate it", Americans say "I don't love it". It's kind of charming that in many ways, we're a nation of golden retrievers, joyfully expecting everything to be wonderful and acting cautiously surprised whenever it isn't.

Threats and Hazards Electric utility site in South Carolina attacked by shooters

We need to be on the lookout for terrorism targeting public infrastructure, even in low-tech ways

News Change your keys

(Video) Rick Beato offers an intelligent critique of something missing from pop music: Key changes. They're completely absent, and that's a huge quality-killer. The resulting songs (the ones without key changes) are too often trite and boring.

Computers and the Internet Spam entitles no one to a "quick chat"

Someone, somewhere, started "send incessant spammy requests for a 'quick chat'" as a business model, and whoever did it ought to be ashamed. It's whiny, presumptuous, anmd offputting. The worst part is that ChatGPT and other natural-language AI tools are going to make it easier to send them out in volume in the almost immediate future.


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December 9, 2022

News Hero of the Year

Time Magazine has performed its annual act of grand self-promotion by naming a Person of the Year. The choice this year was obvious: Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He not only qualifies as one of the year's most substantial newsmakers, he is also easy to defend as a righteous character. ■ Of course, the "Person of the Year" designation perpetually stirs up the debate over whether the title is an honorific or not. Time implicitly denies that the title is meant as as an honor: It lists four individuals (chosen a total of five times) who rank as "controversial choices": Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Khomeini. Presidents of the United States are vastly over-represented in proportion to their absolute virtue, and both groups and inanimate objects have been over-selected as well. ■ What Time could do to serve a genuine purpose -- and to make a real editorial statement, as a self-respecting publication ought to do -- is to name specific Persons of the Year, according to what characteristics they represent. Zelenskyy? Easily a "Hero of the Year". ■ But what about a "Movement of the Year"? That could well be awarded to the protesters in Iran who are courageously demanding their liberties, often at great personal hazard. It's a movement worthy of global support, and the editors of a publication benefitting from the protections of the First Amendment should be willing to say so without ambiguity. ■ The NASA team behind the Artemis program could justifiably be named the "Trailblazers of the Year". After half a century, not only is the free world going back to the Moon, it is doing so with a team that looks like America and a leadership structure that values women as much as men. The same could not have been said of the Apollo program, nor could it be said of rival space programs. ■ Time could well charge itself with naming someone as a "Coward of the Year", and certainly a "Contemptible of the Year", too. It is worthwhile to name champions, but it can also be righteous to name villains. Had they come right out and named their past "controversial choices" as "contemptibles" or "cowards", perhaps the choices would not need to be couched today in weasel words like "controversial". ■ Every publication has its own prerogatives, and Time could just as easily stop its practice as reform it. But the editors and publishers won't, because the publicity makes the publication seem relevant. Given the inevitable assumption that the choice involves some weighing of right and wrong, surely it's worth offering a firmer definition of what qualifies the Person of the Year for the title (or for any subordinate title). Every editorial decision is a matter of judgment and choice. There's no reason to avoid making it clear.

News Ukraine's fight isn't just its own

George Robertson, who was once secretary-general of NATO, argues, "We should be brutally candid with our own people that their sacrifice -- through the cost of living in particular -- is in the defence of our own country. Political leaders need to assert why the sacrifices are necessary."

News Someone left 146 tires on a rural Minnesota road

You could build two complete Michelin Men out of the resulting mess.

Iowa Learn to speak Iowan

"Ope", "I'd better let you go", and "Yeah, no" are all fundamentals of the local language. "Whelp" deserves a spot on a top-five list, as does "Lemme slip by you".

Humor and Good News Celebrating the funny cousins of the em-dash

The commash, colash, and semi-colash all cry out for a revival


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December 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet What the machine said

It is possible that the fears of some are correct and some of the classic tools of student assessment are soon to be rendered obsolete by artificial-intelligence writing tools that are rocketing ahead in their technological sophistication. What teacher will be able to assign take-home quizzes or unsupervised written essays, if finding the right answer or getting a passable submission takes no more effort than entering a natural-language question into a website and submitting the results? ■ The quality of outputs produced by ChatGPT is fairly good and likely to improve as the tools become more sophisticated. More training, more inputs, and more feedback will all nudge towards higher-quality output. As it is, "C"-worthy work (or perhaps even "B-") is already available for free. ■ But no matter how sophisticated the technology, though, there is a firm ceiling on the performance that is possible from technology alone. Submit a request for "a brief statement on the moral case for self-defense, in the style of Winston Churchill", and ChatGPT produces a serviceable response. In part, it declares, "It is a natural and inherent right, embedded in our very humanity, that enables us to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm [...] We must never surrender this right, nor permit it to be infringed upon by any force or authority." ■ It's not half-bad. But it's also not what Churchill actually said: "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..." ■ As good as artificial intelligence may ever become at generating text, it will likely never have the capacity to take bold risks with language. It cannot afford to generate chance-taking results because those get rejected -- the whole point of turning to a computer for an answer is to come up with a "sure thing". By definition, any digital computing system will tend to conform to rules, rather than breaking them. ■ Selectively breaking rules, though, is what makes writers great. Churchill's run-on sentence would never pass muster by ordinary standards. But it was precisely the crescendo of defiance that his people needed to hear. Computers may be on the way to replace the middling work of the world, but they have no plausible aspirations to greatness.

Humor and Good News Scotland's funniest snowplow names

"For Your Ice Only" is a special kind of funny. "Creedence Clear Road Survival" and "Robert Brrrns" are also hilarious.


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December 11, 2022

News Crossing the Great Firewall

The Economist: "China's bureaucracy is so centralised that when unfamiliar threats arise, sensitive information can spread widely while censors await official orders. 'With this level of protest every bureaucrat is afraid to make a decision for himself,' he says."

Computers and the Internet A 4,000-character limit on Twitter?

So goees the rumor, but that's not what anyone needs. What we need is 280 characters, but with footnotes.

Humor and Good News A magnificent street sign from 1941

The lingering influence of Art Deco in this Bulova Watch clock sign is just exquisite

Science and Technology Did we really just get a fusion reaction?

Scientists appear to have achieved (on a very small scale) the holy grail of energy production. It's the best kind of fusion, even ahead of fusion cuisine and fusion voting.


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December 12, 2022

Humor and Good News That's not what any of this means

When someone mistakes "resistance" for "residents", suddenly their sign about who can use the laundry room takes on a whole new meaning. Just because washing machines are in a basement doesn't mean they're "deep underground".


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December 13, 2022

Weather and Disasters Get a closer look at deadly weather

A series of evening and nighttime tornadoes has crossed Louisiana Mississippi, leaving behind property damage and at least one tragic death. ■ Nature, unfortunately, cannot be tamed. It can only be observed, reported upon, and defended against. The United States benefits enormously from a sophisticated meteorological profession, which blends the efforts of the public sector, the private sector, and the academic sector into a truly remarkable learning community. ■ But in the instant, when severe weather is actively taking place, there is little that can substitute for quality data collection and analysis. Thus it remains frustrating that so many events -- including the latest -- take place where radar coverage is badly limited by geography. ■ There are all kinds of places -- many in the Midwest and in other tornado-prone areas -- where tens of thousands of people live far from the nearest life-saving radar coverage. We can't do anything about the curvature of the Earth, which limits what radar can detect close to the ground the farther away the beam is being sent. ■ The map is actually a bit unsettling if you frequently spend time in the less-covered areas. Lots of places have no quality coverage below 6,000 feet (or even 10,000). That's a problem, because a tornado by definition takes place at ground level. The rotating column can often be detected higher up, but distance corrodes data quality. ■ Major population centers are often close to good coverage, but there are non-trivial numbers of people (often living in places euphemistically called "greater", as in "Greater Minnesota" or "Greater Nebraska") whose homes and schools and churches are not-infrequently in the path of damaging or deadly storms. ■ Moreover, the lower population density that generally contributes towards these places going with lesser radar coverage also contributes directly to there being fewer available trained spotters and other essential emergency resources. The less precise the incoming data -- whether from radar or from human sources -- the greater the likelihood of warning error. Smaller warning areas are intended to help increase public confidence in warnings -- the idea being that fewer false alarms will leave people more likely to take action when they are specifically warned. ■ The equipment (and staffing) required to increase the density of high-quality radar coverage for these areas would cost money, but America is a rich country. And while people in large metropolitan areas may be satisfied with their radar coverage at home, people ought to be reminded that most of us at least sometimes travel away from home, either for work or for pleasure. ■ New sites wouldn't have to be as sophisticated or as comprehensive as the existing ones to be helpful. Moblie radar trucks have even proven themselves as valuable scientific tools. As a means of protecting people equitably and potentially saving lives, adding more coverage to the national radar infrastructure seems like an overwhelming case for greater public investment, and one that only grows more justified with every new tornado disaster in "greater" parts of the country.

Weather and Disasters A nasty forecast

European computer models project temperatures dropping 30° below normal across much of the United States just before Christmas.

Humor and Good News Good advice for getting along with others

Smart people who spend a lot of time trying to think logically might gain from putting a bit of practice into some humane habits -- like assuming ignorance before malice and looking for the most generous line of reasoning that could lead another person to a conclusion that seems wrong

Humor and Good News Great names in history

Thorsten Veblen's parents engaged in conspicuous appelation, you might say.

Computers and the Internet Please stop saying "backslash" when giving Web addresses

If it's on the Internet, then it might contain a "slash". It definitely does not contain a "backslash". The backslash is only found on the directory tree of your hard drive. Some babies who were born after Y2K are now old enough to drink legally, so why are we still running into this mistake?


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December 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Think digitally

Unlike countries with a parliamentary structure, the United States doesn't have "ministries". Departments, bureaus, and agencies aplenty, but no ministries. This leaves us with secretaries, administrators, and directors (plus a few "generals"), at both the Federal and state levels. ■ While we don't need to borrow the etymology used elsewhere, we ought to give thought to copying some of the better ministerial portfolios in place around the world. One of those -- mainly found in a handful of European countries -- is a digital-policy portfolio. Notably, Ukraine has a "Ministry of Digital Transformation" and Estonia bills its whole-of-government digital effort as e-Estonia. ■ Some of these efforts are borne out of necessity. Both Estonia and Ukraine use their digitalization efforts as defensive tools. Taiwan's Ministry of Digital Affairs does the same. The United States has certain agencies and departments within existing agencies that are devoted to particular aspects of digital culture (like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security), but nobody stands out at the national level as the peer to a "Minister of Digital Transformation". ■ That ought to change at the Federal level -- and probably at the state level, too. While every division of government ought to have qualified professionals covering vital roles like Chief Information Officer and Chief Privacy Officer, someone ought to be tasked with having a specific focus on bringing an overarching view of technological change (with its good and bad points) to executive-level discussions on everything from economics to security to education to the environment. ■ It ought to be clear that high technology has consequences covering virtually all aspects of life, and it requires consistent attention and imagination to foresee how government -- which spends $2 out of every $5 in the economy -- ought to anticipate digital change and structure its behavior accordingly. Being the world's technological powerhouse has certain advantages -- not least of which is the flexibility to experiment with lots of options in lots of venues under lots of jurisdictions. We shouldn't squander the opportunity to see how to do things better with the help of the high technology that makes so much news every day.

Computers and the Internet On balance

Calli Schroeder: "Going to be a real challenge hitting the balance between 'raising a privacy-aware and surveillance-skeptical kid' and 'oh no, I made them too paranoid.'"

Weather and Disasters Drone video of a Louisiana tornado

(Video) One of these days, we're going to figure out how to deploy large numbers of drones and control them autonomously to give real-time surveillance on tornadoes. (Or so one can hope.) One tornado struck a location that was also hit just nine months ago.

Aviation News What's different about today's air passengers?

Among other things, their predecessors in the 1970s were considerably more likely to die before landing. Fantasize all you want about the "glamour days" of air travel, but it's inestimably safer and more affordable today.

Computers and the Internet Turn your passwords into passphrases

Instead of creating rules for passwords ("must contain one uppercase letter, lowercase letter, number, and symbol"), most sites should increase the minimum and maximum password lengths and permit people to use spaces. Length is more valuable than quirky complexity, especially if it encourages people to remember a long passphrase instead of using easily-hackable cheats like "Pa55w0rd". But better security (like the use of passphrases) is a matter of policy to be made at the outset, not bandaged-on later.


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December 15, 2022

Science and Technology Fusion ignited

Not many announcements have initiated the same kind of speculation as the US Department of Energy's announcement that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had successfully achieved "fusion ignition" -- "the first controlled fusion experiment in history [that] produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it". One physicist thinks fusion power could be as close as 10 years away, while others say fusion power plants are decades off. ■ There are no straight-line projections when it comes to meaningful change. Whether the subject is human society or technological progress, things tend to change along timelines that have compounding effects. Public approval for same-sex marriage grew very slowly from 1996 until about 2009, then rapidly blasted right through majority approval and charged along to super-majority approval. The last Space Shuttle flew in 2011, fundamentally no different from the first flight in 1981 -- and then, in 2015, rockets started landing vertically. ■ Progress is often both accretive and compounding: Small changes start to add up very slowly, but after a while they start to look like dramatic inevitabilities. And there is never a shortage of self-promoters who will show up and claim that their "disruptive" or "innovative" views of the world are what caused the changes to happen. Certainly, some individuals really are spectacular dynamos -- sometimes, a real Thomas Edison really does come along and change everything. ■ But much more often, the advancements we see in the world look spectacular because the incremental improvements along the way escaped serious notice. For good reason, people are often too optimistic about changes on a five-year horizon, but too pessimistic on a fifteen-year basis. ■ We live in a world often obsessed with celebrity and showmanship, which tends to reward those who aggressively try to steal the spotlight. But even breakthroughs like controlled nuclear fusion stand on the shoulders of decades of accumulated individual contributions. ■ Humans need to be more comfortable with that incrementalism as we are with celebrating apparent breakthrough achievements. And we should also be far-sighted enough to realize that even if the apparent breakthrough doesn't translate into instantaneous improvement, we need to think ahead with policies and social expectations that account for the possibility that we're being too optimistic in the near term, but far too pessimistic in the long run. ■ From Kitty Hawk (1903) to Apollo 11 (1969) was only the span of two human generations, and well within many individuals' lifetimes. Just as things often aren't as bad as they seem but can get worse much faster than we can imagine, it's also generally true that worldly matters are never perfect but are often improving in ways we simply don't accurately detect.

Computers and the Internet When your 404 page tells an inconvenient truth

Revue, the newsletter service being closed by Twitter, is crashing. The custom 404 page says "Something went wrong", which is true -- in more than just a technical sense. It's hard to understand why Twitter would shut down the service; email newsletters will be around long after the rest of the Internet has been reduced to smoldering ruins.

Threats and Hazards Why you should beware of TikTok

TikTok's apparent innocuousness is what makes its data collection so insidious

News Nebraska highway chase lasts for 157 miles

At that stage, they're traveling farther from a single point than many human beings (especially prior to the modern age) ever went in their entire lifetimes

Weather and Disasters Use surge suppressors

(Video) Lightning strikes a house -- caught on camera

Business and Finance Americans like single-family homes

Which is why pro-building voices need to remind people that we benefit quite broadly from having a diverse array of housing options (even and especially among single-family ones), and that the restrictions standing in the way of creative solutions (like minimum lot sizes or overly burdensome zoning requirements) ought to be reduced or removed. The supply needs to grow.

News Hunting wild boar

A Chinese province will reward anyone who kills a wild boar, as long as they don't use guns or poisons. Perhaps you can just kill them in a contest of wits: You have to convince them to dispatch themselves for the greater good, using nothing but "Xi Jinping Thought".


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December 16, 2022

News Time-limiting moral adolescence

Much has been said on the subject of maturity, though often without ever using the word itself. "Adulting" entered the vocabulary of popular culture in the middle of the last decade. University president and United States Senator Ben Sasse wrote a book entitled "The Vanishing American Adult" in 2017. Americans in their 20s and 30s are almost three times as likely to live in a multigenerational household (often "back at home" with their parents) than the same age group 40 years ago. And a recent President insisted on calling his then-39-year-old son "a good kid". ■ Surely it can be a mistake to ask someone to mature before their time -- a theme which should be resonant around the time of year when much of the world celebrates history's most famous teenage birth. But surely there is a parallel (though inequivalent) cruelty between expecting children to grow up too fast and tolerating perpetual adolescence. At what point, then, should we reasonably expect people to have grown past impulsiveness on the way to adopting some kind of dependable internal code? ■ In Theodore Roosevelt's estimation, "If a man does not have an ideal and try to live up to it, then he becomes a mean, base, and sordid creature, no matter how successful." Age neither guarantees nor prevents the formation of such a code; there are crooked and immoral old folks and there are children with advanced moral imaginations. Wealth has no bearing upon it, either; there is no shortage of examples of the rich and famous acting impetuously without fixed principles. ■ The complexity of human existence and the boundless variety of circumstances forming each life precludes any simple universal answer to the simple-sounding question, "When do you expect to become wise?" Yet that is a question everyone should ask, not only of themselves (first and foremost), but of their offspring and their friends. ■ These things can't be rushed -- just ask anyone who's been forced to suffer through the unjustified certainty of a young person who has just discovered either Ayn Rand or Karl Marx. One has to start somewhere, then test one set of ideas against others, becoming not only tolerant but welcoming of the inevitable friction that occurs along the way. ■ Nor should there be any artificial assumption that anyone can ever achieve perfect, universal, inerrant wisdom. The mountaintop guru is a cartoon character, not a real life goal. ■ But just as it makes sense to expect people to perform occupational professions after a certain amount of training and practice, so too should we have a decent cultural understanding that people need to be oriented towards trying to achieve some form of real wisdom before they are "old". If we aren't at least a bit demanding in this regard, we consign ourselves to the consequences of letting clowns and fools make judgments that affect us all. Perhaps the world's most courageous moral voice right now belongs to a man who hasn't yet turned 45 years old. It is not asking too much to expect that everyone seeks to grow wise well before they grow old.

Humor and Good News Off the flight deck

In 1978, the Navy launched a '63 Plymouth from the deck of the USS Enterprise. It didn't fly far.


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December 18, 2022

News Opening up

China's government has taken a turn away from the draconian "Covid zero" policies without having taken the time to implement a sensible alternative policy. The government's resistance to the use of Western mRNA vaccines and underwhelming efforts to vaccinate (and boost) the elderly have set up the country to encounter real hardships in trying to move away from quarantines and lockdowns as the primary mitigation mechanism. ■ It also harms the country's chances that it has much lower ICU capacity than many other countries. Japan has twice as many ICU beds per capita, South Korea has three times as many, and Taiwan has nearly eight times as many. No single metric tells the whole story of a country's health system, but it's a distinctly unflattering comparison. ■ It can be hard to process the hypothetical conditions of an alternate reality where 1.4 billion people live not under the Communist Party of China, but under the increasingly competitive democratic system of Taiwan. In nearly three-quarters of a century, tiny little Taiwan -- diplomatically constrained, resource-limited, and under persistent threat of invasion -- has effectively tripled mainland China's GDP per capita and become comparable with Japan and South Korea. ■ Openness matters. Liberty matters. The consent of the governed matters. Taiwan proves the case for what mainland China could have been: Wealthier, freer, and more progressive. A country where proven vaccines from abroad are eagerly embraced and where a transition from one phase of a pandemic to the next is made smoother by a well-prepared health system. ■ The consequences of decisions often last much longer than anyone realizes at the time -- in this case, multiple generations and billions of lives have been affected by the outcome of China's civil war at the time of World War II. ■ But it is also true that the right time to change directions is just as soon as you discover you've gotten off course. It cannot go unnoticed that things don't have to go on this way for the "People's Republic" forever.


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December 20, 2022

News On the way to Washington

Only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill was on the way to Washington, DC, for a summit meeting with Franklin Roosevelt. The United Kingdom was already deeply engaged in battle with Germany, but it was obvious to Churchill that coordinating with the United States was the essential way to ensure victory. It didn't hurt his cause nor his political stature to be seen, confident and determined, with American power at his side. ■ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is reported to be en route to Washington for his own momentous summit meeting with an American President. His country has been fighting back an unprovoked Russian invasion, shockingly barbaric in its execution. Russian troops have murdered children, tortured civilians, and booby-trapped the grounds from which they have retreated. ■ Churchill was 67 years old when he came to Washington. Zelenskyy is only 44. But, unlike Churchill, he has been leading a ground war in Europe on his country's own territory. The struggle has visibly aged him, yet he has persisted in demonstrating great personal courage in the face of risk, like visiting troops right up by the front. ■ Zelenskyy is heading to Washington at a time when Congress is considering $44.9 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine. That's about $135 per American. Considering what it represents -- a subsidy to support a global order based upon rules, self-determination, and non-aggression -- $135 per person seems like comparatively little. Ukraine's demonstrated capability to learn and adapt makes it a model case for demonstrating what a determined self-defense can look like. ■ It is likely that Ukraine's president will ask for even more. (Churchill certainly did in his time.) And even though the United States has already vastly out-contributed any other country, we shouldn't be stingy if asked again. ■ The more conclusively Ukraine can achieve victory as defined on its own terms, and the more painful and costly it can make an unprovoked invasion, the better for future deterrence. Americans will spend $50 billion just on pet food this year -- an amount even greater than the aid package under debate. It's not merely that the lives of Ukrainians are worth more than that (which they are). ■ It's that the more they can purchase their own freedom and long-term security with the help of global aid, using munitions rather than blood, the more firmly their efforts will discourage aggressions in the future. President Zelenskyy shouldn't have to ask too hard for assistance when it is plainly in America's interest to see his country secure the peace.


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December 21, 2022

Weather and Disasters Closing the ramps

One of the factors Warren Buffett has credited for his extraordinary investing success is that he lives far away from Wall Street. The conventional wisdom would hold that living close to the center of the world's financial action would be the way to enhance success, but Buffett took the opposite tack, as documented in books like Steve Jordon's "The Oracle and Omaha: How Warren Buffett and His Hometown Shaped Each Other". ■ The aspect of this choice that is cited most often by Buffett and others is that being geographically remote from the stimulation of the capital city of finance helps to cool the tempers, making it easier for an investor like Buffett to resist a herd mentality and to hold off from making investment decisions until the rational case is the overwhelming influence, not the heat of the moment. But there is good reason to believe that having "space to think" is only part of the story. The powerful winter storm sweeping through the Midwest tells another part of the story. ■ Lots of places have their own variations on severe weather, but much of the Midwest is notable for having barriers that can block access to highways during hazardous winter weather. Every summer, they stand beside on-ramps, sadistically reminding the locals of the passage of time and the inevitability of next winter, like red-and-white-striped Swords of Damocles. ■ The barriers -- often automated so they can be closed remotely -- are too expensive to be installed merely for decoration. They are working tools, and in many places they are used several times per winter. ■ Winter weather that grinds activity to a complete halt is, in a place like Omaha, both haphazard (possible anytime from October through April) and nearly certain (consult any school calendar with "snow days" built-in). Even a kindergartener in the Midwest gains an atmospheric understanding that sometimes things will go sideways, and it's not up to us to decide when. ■ Warren Buffett has famously structured his company so that he never puts the entire thing at risk. Even in buying the BNSF railroad for $34 billion in 2010, he only put about a quarter of Berkshire Hathaway's $131 billion in shareholders' equity at risk. ■ A person might be able to learn that kind of caution from a textbook, but it seems more than trivially possible that it can be imprinted on the attentive young mind -- one that notices that powerful things can happen well outside our intentions, and that being sporadic doesn't make them less inevitable. Not everyone is primed to learn those lessons, and they can be learned in places where monuments to uncertainty don't stand beside every highway on-ramp. But it probably doesn't hurt to have those reminders close by.


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December 23, 2022

Broadcasting "Headline News" no more

When Walter Cronkite signed off the CBS Evening News with the declaration, "And that's the way it is", he wasn't telling the whole truth. Cronkite's phrase, depending on your point of view, was somewhere between highly aspirational and cripplingly hubristic. When, seated in the same anchor's chair, Dan Rather signed off instead with "And that's part of our world tonight", he was being far more modest and precise with his words. ■ Nothing about an evening news broadcast could reasonably capture the entirety of "the way it is" for a world teeming with 8 billion souls. Even the best-managed news organization could only ever hope to document a trivial fraction of the whole, much less decide how much weight to give to each of the constituent stories. ■ And yet it is a good thing that the nightly television news still tries to achieve something close to "the way it is", even if nobody really says it out loud. The world is vast and complicated, but good citizenship entails trying to have an informed opinion about the important questions. With so many outlets dedicated more to framing "the way we think it ought to be" than "the way it is", a good-faith attempt to tell the latter story remains a public service. ■ For decades, CNN Headline News tried to be just such a courier of events. Much like legendary all-news radio stations like WINS in New York or WBBM in Chicago, CNN Headline News offered the premise "Give us 30 minutes and we'll give you the world". It's an impossible bargain to fulfill, no matter the medium, but the aspiration counts for something. So does the periodicity: Every new half-hour or hour of coverage was an opportunity to correct an oversight or improve upon an editorial judgment from the prior one. ■ But there is no home-grown news on Headline News anymore, and scarcely any news at all. It's now branded just "HLN", and it's mostly devoted to "true crime" shows. The only news content is retransmitted from CNN proper. ■ Like so many other changes in news, the demise of Headline News as a format can be explained away rationally, but that doesn't make it any less of a social loss. There are lots of alternative sources for non-stop television coverage of real news, of course -- the major networks have each nudged their way into all-news streaming with "ABC News Live", "CBS News Streaming Network", and "NBC News Now" -- but part of the allure of the original Headline News was that it refreshed frequently without actually changing materially from one hour to the next. ■ Thus, the viewer could hypothetically leave Headline News playing in the background all day without devoting full attention to it -- but a viewer could also feel perfectly free to shut it off and walk away. Part of "Give us 30 minutes" is an implicit "only": You aren't being asked to make your television news coverage a lifestyle statement. It's merely an outlet to sample before turning away to live a balanced life. Given the truly astonishing blocks of time that some Americans devote to non-stop media consumption, the demise of outlets that created a permission structure to just walk away is a bigger loss than one might think.


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December 24, 2022

Breathe freely

Despite the fact that public water supplies in the United States are heavily regulated, and that water quality is subject to Federal scrutiny, it isn't hard to find people who insist either on drinking bottled water or on filtering all of their home drinking water. The filtration market is measured in the billions of dollars a year. And the bottled-water market claims even bigger sales than filtration. ■ Considering the safety and ready availability of tap water, the bottled and filtered water markets are mainly redundant, a triumph more of marketing than of necessity. By comparison, we are decades overdue for indoor air filtration to get the same kind of boost. ■ If anything is true about the generally-accepted prospects for climate change, then the future is going to require lots of people to spend a lot more time in either indoor or semi-indoor spaces. Higher temperatures will require air conditioning. Meaner storms will send more people indoors for shelter. Patterns generally will send more people into urban areas where time will be spent in spaces together. ■ The coming decades are going to involve a long-term contest between spending on indoor climate controls and the quest to achieve improved indoor air quality, particularly regarding viruses and other biological hazards. Finding ways to keep temperatures livable indoors will call for spending on both energy and equipment. But the quality of the air itself will need more attention. ■ Water quality is assured already, and spending on additional filtration is in most cases little more than a cosmetic exercise. But there are real things that can be done to make indoor air quality better, and few of them have been widely done. The sooner that turns around, the better.


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December 25, 2022

News What it takes to sleep in Earthly peace

In his Christmas message, Pope Francis offered a prayer for "our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who are experiencing this Christmas in the dark and cold, far from their homes due to the devastation caused by ten months of war. May the Lord inspire us to offer concrete gestures of solidarity to assist all those who are suffering, and may he enlighten the minds of those who have the power to silence the thunder of weapons and put an immediate end to this senseless war!" ■ Would the world be better if religious leaders were even more direct with their words? "Those who have the power" is an ambiguity; even though it isn't hard to read between the lines, it doesn't directly call out the obvious individual who has sufficient power to bring about such an end instantly. That might be a failure -- a missed opportunity to teach a moral lesson to a global flock. ■ But it might also be a way to force the people of the world to consider their own proximity to "the power" to stop bad things from happening. Holders of high religious office tend not to openly sanction violence, but they can (and perhaps should) cause their faithful to reflect on certain reluctant necessities. ■ Being strong enough to deter violence against the innocent may be such a reluctant necessity: The preacher may be obligated to embrace the aspiration that "One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again", but people may need to wrestle with the moral challenge of asking whether they possess a second-order "power to silence the thunder of weapons". ■ Again, on the first order, all fault for the suffering in Ukraine lies directly with the powerful inside the Kremlin. But it is a valid moral question to ask whether second-order ways of exercising power to "put an immediate end to this senseless war" might include training defensive forces, supplying defensive tools, and enduring some discomfort in order to starve an aggressor of revenues. ■ It's hard to imagine a peaceful world where devils aren't afraid of angels. As much of the world celebrates a holiday associated with peace -- both metaphorically and sometimes literally -- it is a worthy challenge to consider which exercises of power can be morally sound tools of achieving peace. It may be necessary to forsake aggression, but it probably isn't sufficient unless joined to efforts to deter aggression by others.


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December 26, 2022

News Never back in the USSR

Thirty years after the end of World War II, the United States had such a significant economy in trade with Japan that concerns about a Japanese trade deficit were matters of Congressional attention and West Germany was central to our defense program. The United States still commemorated Pearl Harbor Day, D-Day, V-E Day, and V-J Day, but both once-bitter enemies were vital international partners just three decades later. ■ Thirty years (plus one) after the end of the Cold War, Dmitry Medvedev, the only living ex-president of Russia, is spouting obscene nonsense. He "predicts" a civil war in America and a preposterous collapse of Europe, while he (the sitting deputy chair of Russia's national security council) embraces maniacal theories about nuclear weapons as his country continues to engage in an unprovoked war of aggression against its neighbor. ■ Perhaps the military occupations of Germany and Japan served to tame the baser instincts of their leaders. Perhaps the reconstruction efforts initiated by the United States helped point the countries towards internal self-improvement and external peaceful engagement. Perhaps decisive military defeat was psychologically conclusive in a way that permeated two very different cultures. ■ But the Cold War was never "won" in quite the same way. It just became a moot point when the Soviet Union simply ceased to exist at the end of the day on December 25, 1991. But, in acknowledgment of the good that came from freeing countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and so many others from the yoke of Soviet control, maybe we ought to celebrate USSR Dissolution Day -- and observe it on December 26th, when our friends in the Commonwealth region are celebrating Boxing Day, anyhow. ■ Those who lived under direct Soviet oppression weren't the only ones who benefitted when the USSR ceased to exist. That change was good for the entire world, both in material respects and in more esoteric ones: It has to be a net good for the world when one of the most powerful forces working against the freedom and liberty of the human condition no longer exists. That turning point in 1991 mattered to everyone. Yet there remain obvious revanchists who want to bring the Soviet Union back. ■ Former enemies can become friendly allies, and evil political systems can be replaced with ones much more respectful of human dignity -- and both Germany and Japan demonstrated that those outcomes could be achieved in less than three decades. It shouldn't take this long for things to get better. ■ Maybe part of the process requires commemorating the end of the bad prior phase, so as to offer contemporaries a clean break with the past. If that's the case, then maybe an annual commemoration of "USSR Dissolution Day" is a holiday whose time is long overdue.


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December 27, 2022

News How do you say "Happy holidays"?

Perhaps because Hanukkah coincided with Christmas on December 25th this year, we seem to have been spared the tiresome mock outrage that often accompanies the greetings of the holiday season. No reasonable person could deny the overwhelming and widespread appropriateness of the phrase "Happy Holidays", leaving the tired old demands that people say "Merry Christmas" confined to some of the crankier outposts of the Internet. ■ Those cranks will turn up the volume again at some time in the future, artificially hyping warnings that "Happy Holidays" is a means of whitewashing Christmas from the calendar, even though there is scant evidence that Christmas has lost any of its popularity. Regular church attendance may be on the decline in the United States, but Christmas services remain the peak annual attendance events in much of Christianity. ■ It is less important what words are used for a greeting (holiday-related or otherwise) than whether they are offered in goodwill. That's the crux of the matter: If goodwill is in healthy supply, then people can see past what are ultimately trivial differences in the words they use. To be greeted itself is the point, by a greeter who needs not share anything else with the greeted one than their common humanity -- and a broad, humane hope that things will turn out generally well for them. ■ When goodwill is in short supply, people too easily latch on to the message itself, rather than the meaning. If no words were used at all -- if, for instance, a greeting were delivered entirely in pantomime -- the meaning itself would still be detectable. (We issue those messages all the time, to other drivers on the road or to people shopping in the same aisle at the store.) ■ It would do all of us some good if we could come to see that getting hung up on the words themselves is a distraction from the point of a holiday greeting. Wish others whatever greeting you like. Just wish it with goodwill toward all.

Computers and the Internet Researchers worry we're running out of "natural language" samples to train artificial intelligence

Solution: Train all AIs on the scripts from pre-Hays-Code Hollywood films.


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December 28, 2022

Broadcasting The killer audio app of the future

Conventional over-the-air listenership for radio stations is in a precipitous state, falling by almost a quarter in just the last five years. The industry generally blames competition from streaming audio services, which is probably more or less correct: It's hard to compete with services customized to the tastes of every individual. But streaming services, as conceived up until now, generally lack the sense of immediacy and common experience that radio has always excelled at offering. ■ The killer app of the future of audio would merge user-driven music selection with auto-inserted drop-in clips delivered by a live personality. The dirty little secret is that a lot of radio is already voice-tracked, and if the host were live (heard by the listener within, say, five minutes), this would be an improvement. Everyone wants to hear their own music, but we also are attracted to the sense of being connected to what's going on right now. ■ Radio in many cases has slacked off quite badly in its reputation for being immediate. It really wouldn't be a big stretch, technologically, to insert drop-in bits into a stream in almost real-time. Ads on streaming services are often already geo-tagged, so doing the same for someone "broadcasting" to a streamed audience in a given geographic area wouldn't be difficult. ■ And let's be realistic: The chatter that people find interesting doesn't actually vary that much from format to format. Being interesting, extremely-close-to-live, and (ideally) local is way more engaging than whether a DJ has anything specific to say about the next song. Listeners already know what's playing now -- the screen on the dashboard radio or on their phone already tells that part of the story. ■ Music commentary isn't all that interesting, and artist-related news is often pointless or perfunctory. If you're really a Harry Styles fan, you already follow him on social media and know what he's up to; you don't need a DJ to add anything to it in the 10 seconds ramping up to the next song. (Nobody appreciates it anymore when radio people hit the post anyway.) ■ But as for what's happening in your own community? That's where real value could be added, and it's not format-dependent. The local updates that make sense on Top 40 stations -- event reminders, traffic reports, comments on the weather, and so on -- make just as much sense on country, classic rock, and even classical formats. ■ The art of providing human companionship is the kind of skill that radio hosts in some markets are already well-practiced at delivering across different formats: At some station clusters, you already might hear the same individual voicing airshifts on three or four different stations under different names. There's no reason a rather basic app couldn't do the same thing on streaming audio, freed from the constricts of format. ■ It should come as no surprise that spoken-audio programming is booming thanks to podcasts. People want to "talk" with other people, even if the conversation is one-sided. That's where the hybrid of local hosting (in the tradition of radio) and customized music (in the well-established preferences of the present) is destined to offer a viable new service for the future.

Computers and the Internet What's with the Greco-Roman cosplayers on social media?

Among the people who cosplay as ancient Greco-Roman philosophers on Twitter, one has yet to see even an iota of real self-awareness. The ancients didn't have the world all figured out -- there were slaves everywhere, for crying out loud! That doesn't diminish the many valuable contributions many of them still have to offer, but it's weird for anyone in 2022 to aspire to be that retrograde.


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December 29, 2022

Weather and Disasters Counterintuitive but important

It goes without saying that severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes can be terrifying. In a single outbreak, dozens of lives can be stolen by the violence of nature. The intensity is exactly why storm chasing has become a recreational pursuit for some and a source of television entertainment for others. ■ Yet it is noteworthy that the latest winter storm crossing the United States killed at least twice as many people in one extended event than all of the tornadoes in the entire year (25, by NOAA's count). Heat-related deaths are on the rise, but it's actually cold weather that kills more people. ■ As we pay due attention to the issue of climate change, at least as much attention needs to be paid to matters of infrastructure and civil resilience as will be paid to questions of long-term mitigation. Despair won't do us any good, but it's well worth noting that no matter what is done, even on a planet-wide basis, to halt the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some degree of climate change is likely well outside our control. ■ But what remains very much in our control -- and what can be acted upon locally, rather than just on a massive scale where no individual's contributions will ever measurably matter -- is what we can do to ensure that extreme weather events don't paralyze our ability to conduct the basic aspects of life. Food, water, and energy need to be able to move safely and predictably, no matter how rough the weather. And that's not happening in some places, even right now. Buffalo, New York, is in a terrible crisis after getting trapped under 52" of snow. ■ "Think globally, act locally" is a catchy phrase, but it's also important guidance. No matter how much we can (and should) do to behave as good stewards of the Earth generally, nothing is more important than planning, acting, and spending as necessary to ensure that extraordinary events are met with resilient infrastructure and remain well within our ability to stay standing. It's not always the terrifying events that cause the most harm.


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December 30, 2022

News Throwing the book at them

Two of the participants in the terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan's governor in 2020 have been sentenced to long terms in prison -- one for 16 years, and the other for 19. Usually, the goal of the criminal justice system ought to be the rehabilitation of individuals so that those who enter as convicted felons emerge "corrected" and fit for society on the other end of their sentence. ■ But in the case of terrorism like this, it is hard to believe that rehabilitation is a possibility. A person would have to be radicalized in the extreme to even contemplate the kind of bloodthirsty plot in which the Michigan group engaged. But even if rehabilitation were possible, society also needs to use the justice system from time to time as a means of self-preservation. And that is achieved by making incarceration a deterrent. ■ Anyone so committed to the obscenely anti-social belief that they could achieve their intended ends by kidnapping and murdering the governor of a state is a person so far removed from their senses and their duties as a decent citizen that the only real hope for society is to keep them far away from the rest of the public for an extraordinary period of time. ■ The matter isn't that any particular officeholder is especially beyond the reach of violence. Keeping them safe is, of course, an essential part of the bigger picture for public safety. But above and beyond the well-being of any individual is the security of a common and shared subscription to a system for conflict resolution. That's what politics is: The only suitable way for conflicting interests to be peacefully resolved. Americans choose representative democracy. Others choose different mechanisms. ■ But the mechanism doesn't work if it contains a heckler's veto (or a terrorist's). Elected office cannot be yoked to the threat of personal peril, and the final say on policy matters cannot belong to the person or group most willing to employ violence. Long, punitive prison sentences send a necessary message that we resolve our differences by winning arguments, not gunfights.


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