Gongol.com Archives: 2022 First-Quarter Archives
January 1, 2022
Awful and heartbreaking
How to know if you live where it's really cold
If your buildings are connected via tunnels and skywalks, you're in a cold place. Everyone else just needs to bundle up.
January 2, 2022
Astronomer says you can have Pluto back
But you'll have to accept another 150 or so other minor planets to go along with it. "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nice Pizzas" isn't going to cut it any longer.
The Founders favored consumption taxes
Federalist Paper No. 21: "It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue."
The network had a bi-trapezoidal "N" as its logo in the mid-1970s. It would have been a fine modern logo if NBC didn't already have the peacock. All the peacock really needed (as was irrefutably demonstrated later) was a modernization. Of course, it didn't hurt that the modernizers were Chermayeff and Geismar.
January 3, 2022
It's arbitrary to think that the world changes just because the year on the calendar has rolled over. We treat years, decades, and even centuries as discrete units in social history -- even though it's mostly an accident of history that most people will call this 2022 rather than 5782 or 4355 or 52. Yet we still do it, with nods to the 18th Century, the 60s, or Y2K as coherent historical units, and the urge to do it remains strong with every new year. ■ At least one important idea is bound to anchor a theme for the year, and the early indications are that the theme for 2022 will be "reasonable accommodations". The phrase has its origin as a matter of workplace treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it deserves mainstream use as we seek ways to figure out more broadly how to behave when any kind of "normal" becomes "different". ■ The obvious flagship issue will be the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether the omicron wave is what tips the disease from pandemic to endemic or not, we are still far from a consensus on what ordinary, routine behavior is to be expected, and what conditions will call for "reasonable accommodations". ■ The US Capitol physician, for instance, wants N95 masks on every face, and for most Capitol workers to stay home. And large employers with nationwide footprints are having major disruptions to their plans to get employees back into their offices after nearly two years away. We have reached a stage where things have been abnormal for so long that all kinds of environments are going to have to reckon with what will constitute "normal" and what will stand out as a "reasonable accommodation" in the future. ■ But it's not only the mutation of a virus that is forcing hard questions about what counts as normal and how far those definitions can reach. Can countries take exception to egregious fundamental human-rights abuses in an Olympics host country without undermining the principle of neutrality in sports? Can transgender athletes smash records in their sports without causing undue second-order consequences for their teammates and competitors? Can insurance and government emergency-response programs encourage people to take precautions to protect their property and maintain adequate coverage when unprecedented fires of mysterious origins can wipe out hundreds of homes in hours? ■ Deciding what constitutes an agreeable consensus definition of "normal" for a community and which accommodations for things that fall outside those norms are "reasonable" (and which are unreasonable) is likely to end up being tough work. The many incremental steps usually required to reach a consensus are really hard to take when deviating from a smaller, more tribal hard-line orthodoxy is a fast track to being ostracized or even threatened with violence. Figuring out that we need both agreeable "normals" and reasonable accommodations alike is likely to be a defining theme of the year to come.
Tesla opens a showroom in Xinjiang
That's the same region of China with giant prison camps and forced labor. Why it needs a Tesla dealership is hard to fathom.
Man who crossed the DMZ from North Korea into South Korea in 2020 appears to have crossed it again -- in the other direction
One of the most disquieting and conscience-shocking quotations you'll ever read: "'I hear gunshots every day,' she said. 'I just listen to hear where they’re coming from, then move to the front or the back of the house.'"
Giant houses could be templates for more density
This house is gorgeous. But it's also 12,000 square feet. If we knew what was good for us, we'd have this kind of architectural craft routinely going into the design of quadruplexes (of 3,000 sf each) and 6-unit apartments.
January 4, 2022
An advertisement for a smartphone app promises that it can make to-do lists "obsolete" and permit its users to "get 25% more done" in a day, all by permitting artificial intelligence to take over where calendars and checklists previously reigned. It's quite the promise -- after all, if a person could extract an extra 25% from an 8-hour working day, that would be like getting a 26-hour clock. ■ It's possible, of course, that certain applications of artificial intelligence really will do quite a lot to increase the productivity of human beings. For example, serious medical journals note that artificial intelligence holds great promise in the field of diagnostic medical imaging, and could very well become a valuable tool in clinical medicine as it can aid doctors with complex patterns. ■ And it turns out that artificial intelligence can be used to serve up chatbots that end up filling in for missing human contacts that people need -- like offering mental-health check-ins. In such a sense, artificial intelligence can certainly help to increase the amount of work done without adding new people, but only up to a point. We can trust computers to do a lot to help us with some routine decision-making, but the marginal and complex situations are where human judgment needs to intervene -- like those where drivers need to know to follow road signs instead of their GPS applications. ■ It's possible that some people may be able to use artificial intelligence tools to plan their days and extract more productivity from them. But those people probably don't deal with complex circumstances -- or a lot of other human beings, for that matter. To know better than the user how to plan the user's day, an app would need not only to know how to rank-order priorities like the user, but also how often to re-order them according to new needs and issues. The app would need to know better than the user how the user's own psychological circadian rhythms normally flow and how and when they might change on the fly. We aren't robots: Biology matters to the quality of our thinking. ■ These are things that it's virtually impossible for an app to "learn" on its own -- especially because to do so accurately requires that the user be sufficiently self-aware to give the app the necessary feedback to say things like "I really regret writing that email yesterday while I was late for lunch, and I should have put it off because now I'm in a fight with my project manager, and it's all because I should have just spent 5 minutes zoning out instead of worrying about my TPS report." A human being can figure that out, if they so choose. It's much harder to convey that to Watson. ■ It's hazardous to expect people to hand over the executive functions of life to machines -- especially if it's done based on promises that "productivity" will be its own reward. Metacognition -- thinking about one's own thinking -- can scarcely be put on autopilot. It is a skill that must be honed through human practice; there's no techological substitute for it. So while it's entirely possible that there are "better mousetraps" to be sold in the world of planners and to-do lists, if an individual isn't already metacognitive enough to adjust their own priorities throughout the day, no app is going to surrogate for that judgment.
Why swimmers are faster underwater
Blame waves: They're energy-consuming, so the fewer of them we create, the faster we can go. That's why we "aquatic apes" do better when we try to swim like Flipper, whose cousins the whales used to walk on land.
January 6th Select Committee wants Sean Hannity's cooperation
The commentator owes it to his country to do the right thing and show up. The committee's letter includes a weighty line: "We would like to question you regarding any conversations you had with Mr. Meadows or others about any effort to remove the President under the 25th Amendment."
Toyota sold more cars than GM in the US last year
But GM says it's all because of supply-chain issues.
Brexit costs 48,000 British domain names their ".eu"
The domain registry manager says if you're not an EU resident, you don't get a ".eu" extension, and the UK isn't in the EU anymore.
Phil Collins draws out the maximum possible tension walking to the drums for the epic break in "In the Air Tonight". Really just a perfect walk-up.
America's drug overdose deaths increased shockingly in the pandemic
New York Times: "The figure marks the first time the number of overdose deaths in the United States has exceeded 100,000 a year, more than the toll of car crashes and gun fatalities combined."
January 5, 2022
No one of sound mind or serious disposition ought to be venturing any high-confidence forecasts about the media economics of the years to come. There are just too many things changing in culture, technology, politics, consumer behavior, and finance that influence how the media will work for any short-range forecasts to bear out. ■ However, there are certain climatological-scale forces at play that do make it clear that conditions are primed for certain things to occur if the right participants were to step forward and take action. One of those is for some of the more talented and recognizable writers of the day to band together in producing what would be, in effect, contemporary versions of the old weekly news magazines. (Yes, Time still publishes a print edition and versions of Newsweek and US News and World Report are still around, but their collective influence is a mere shadow of what it once was.) ■ The number of writers who have departed their old homes with familiar legacy publications in order to strike out on their own is far from trivial: Andrew Sullivan left "New York" magazine to launch a $5-a-month subscription newsletter. Eric Zorn took a buyout from the Chicago Tribune to do the same $5-a-month newsletter gig. Bari Weiss's post-New York Times job is indeed another $5-a-month personal column. The list is very long, it is growing, and indeed there are a great many high-quality newsletters going out. ■ At some point, it seems likely that some of these individual producers will decide that it makes more sense to rotate among themselves and to share the burden of keeping up with the outputs demanded by the audience by bundling their products together. Every writer seeks an audience, and banding together could allow writers to increase their reach (and make more money). Much the same as webrings and blog carnivals each had their turns in the sun, so it seems inevitable that a world of individual newsletters will also seek mutual promotion and a touch of solidarity. ■ From the consumer's standpoint, there are so many individual subscription offerings now available for people to support newsletters and Substacks and Patreon ventures that it's tempting to fling cash in all directions. $5 a month doesn't sound like much -- until one realizes that it only takes about three of them to equal cost of a standard subscription to The Economist (which itself boils over with high-quality writing each week). Readers like to support good writers, but economies of scale still matter. Just as the cost of many "unbundled" digital subscriptions can erase the gains from "cord-cutting", so can the unbundling of lots of writing from shared outlets. ■ But even more than that, the times seem to cry out for institutional voices. Aside from The Economist and The Atlantic, it's hard to find many periodical publications that strive to maintain a meaningful editorial voice. With so many people expressing opinions on convenient topics like politics and pop culture, we run the risk of being over-subscribed to those two and under-informed about a much larger number. ■ The real vacuum is for outlets that recognize commonality of interest without commonality of ideology. It's easy to find outlets that wear their allegiances on their sleeves. It's virtually impossible to find those that look to cater to the whole range of interests (across the full spectrum of life) held by people who share certain common curiosities without presuming their conclusions. The idea of a true mass-market general-interest magazine may be hard to sustain anymore, but it's not impossible to imagine an unsatisfied demand for periodicals that match a weekly cadence with an attempt to offer an answer to the question "What, really, should I know about the world?", with some recognizable worldview behind it -- but one that looks beyond a merely partisan lens. There are, after all, only so many individual subscriptions an inbox can take.
Stephen Marche's take on the perverse incentives being exercised by certain products of elite educational institutions ought to grab the reader's attention: "What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories."
Want to become a country doctor?
"[O]ver a dozen counties in Nebraska [are] without a primary care physician", so the state's university system is trying to put an $85 million rural-health teaching campus in the middle of the state
"Ride Like the Wind" is better than you think
(Video) Music producer Rick Beato reveals that Christopher Cross inserted a wicked guitar solo inside "Ride Like the Wind", but nobody ever heard it because the recording levels were all wrong.
January 6, 2022
On January 6th of 2021, a group of people used violence at the United States Capitol in an attempt to obtain political results. That is the textbook definition of terrorism. Any clear-headed Commander-in-Chief would have responded to a terrorist attack against the seat of government without hesitation, according to the duties prescribed by the Constitution. The incumbent did not, and that revealed a grave problem for the country to face. ■ Aside from the War of 1812 and a handful of isolated incidents, the Capitol had never been compromised, even through world wars, a long Cold War, and a persistent threat from foreign terrorism. What took place in 2021 was a watershed incident, and it must be taken seriously -- not as something ready for commemoration, because it is not an incident belonging to the past. It is a live situation, and nobody should be satisfied that any of it is over yet. ■ The law has to have its way, but it doesn't move fast. It will take time for everyone responsible to face justice, and conscientious Americans must square their expectations with the process. It must be fair and it must be done right. Violations of the law can happen quickly, but we cannot jettison our expectations of the rule of fair and impartial justice, even if it moves much more slowly than the violations. ■ But as a practical matter of self-defense, you're only allowed to be taken by surprise the first time. It is not permissible to wait for the legal process to run its course entirely before the accountable parties take steps to prevent the next attack -- from whatever quarter it may come. The events of 2021 revealed a physical security system far too vulnerable to being overrun and compromised. It also revealed that the legal process underway inside the Capitol was altogether too easily endangered by fast-moving events -- nobody should have had to risk life and limb just to protect the paper ballots of the Electoral College. The flaws, both physical and legal, should be remedied post-haste. ■ A broader message should have been taken from that day, as well: Never assume powers you aren't willing to hand over to your political rivals. There is no excuse for delaying a long-overdue effort to clarify, appropriately limit, and bring back into Constitutional balance the powers of the Executive Branch. ■ Reform is urgently needed, so as to defuse the incentive to try to use extralegal means to seize election results in pursuit of power as a prize. Anyone who enters, aspires to, or is charged with checking and balancing the powers of the Article II branch of the Constitution should be unequivocal about how far those powers ought to reach. If any powers remain in the hands of a single person that are too great to be entrusted to the political candidate you most revile, then the problem is systemic in nature and the powers themselves need to be reformed -- regardless of how satisfying it may seem to see your own side use them. ■ It takes a lot of education and ongoing effort to maintain a peaceful, prosperous, and open society in which liberties are prized, rights are maintained, and the law protects all people. Along the way, everyone has to learn that the cost of getting many of the things we want is that we have to accept losing, too -- losing from time to time in the lawmaking process, in court cases, and in elections. But there can be no dithering about the common interest in repairing the evident shortcomings in our self-defense.
The Iowa DOT allows drivers to have a special indication on their licenses to indicate that they are deaf or hard-of-hearing. This may not seem obvious to those who have full use of their hearing, but it can make a big difference during interactions with police, who often rely on verbal commands.
The distressing invocation of religious imagery one year ago
Messianic fervor applied to politics is toxic
January 7, 2022
Here's an idea that sounds great on the surface: "Every line - traffic, the fair, carpool, whatever - should be monetized. Let those who value time (as one should) pay accordingly!" Its author, Scott Lincicome, holds strong libertarian bona fides as a Cato Institute senior fellow, and there's a good chance he shared the idea after running out of patience in the carpool lane at his kids' school. ■ But sometimes good principles come into conflict with one another. Of course, it is a central tenet of market economics that prices are a medium of information, and the signals they convey are generally best allowed to flow freely so that they transmit that information where it will find purpose. If people see that prices are rising for a good or service (be it gasoline or haircuts or anything else), those rising prices tell potential suppliers to consider entering the market or finding substitutes to offer. Price signals do a tremendous service that human beings (like economic planners in controlled economies) have a terrible track record of duplicating. Price controls rarely work, and free-floating prices help fix shortages. ■ However, some goods and services are not particularly sensitive to price signals -- especially where a monopoly provider (like a government) is involved. One parent's willingness to pay more to get through the carpool lane swiftly doesn't necessarily translate to the school allocating its own resources more effectively to allow that to happen. ■ In those cases, it's worth considering that there are other signals to which people may be sensitive, and those can include political pressures. One of the ways to make sure that public services are responsive is to egalitarianize the experience -- to ensure that there isn't a convenient way to escape the lines at the DMV or to get a permit from City Hall. If everyone has to suffer through the same wait, then the people with the highest value on their time have the largest incentives to bark about the delays. Pressure for reform from elite circles can have very useful effects inside government, especially if elected officials think well-resourced citizens are going to hold them accountable for failing to improve. ■ These signals are imperfect, too. And there can be room for price signals as well as political signals -- the TSA PreCheck is probably good not only for the people who use it to expedite their screening at the airport, but also for the safety travel more generally. (And, in complete fairness, Lincicome knows that and was probably just having some fun.) ■ It's important, though, to make sure that people really do keep up the pressure, through whatever means are available, to insist that government always seek better ways of delivering goods and services, especially when the public doesn't have anywhere else to turn. One of the problems of modern living is that it can be expensive to be poor -- and though there are a lot of things that market signals can do to make things better (especially for the poor), it's important from a social standpoint to be sure that some citizens can't simply use their means to bypass avoidable indignities that others are left behind to suffer. ■ Money does a lot of work -- but sometimes we're better off ensuring that everyone has to sacrifice their time equally, so that there's enough push coming from the right voices to ensure that those sacrifices are kept to a minimum.
Not the kind of "winter weather" we expect in Iowa
National Weather Service observation regarding the December 15th tornado outbreak in Iowa: "Prior to this event, a total of 5 tornadoes had occurred in Iowa in December since 1950 with all of them in southeastern Iowa. To have over 10 times that many tornadoes in a single day is unprecedented in any month, let alone the month of December!"
Why elite credentials don't inoculate against really antisocial ideas
Quite a line from Stephen Marche in The Atlantic: "What the Ivy League produces, in spades, on both the left and the right, is unwarranted confidence. Its institutions are hubris factories."
A copy of a 1946 menu from Alcatraz doesn't appear all that awful. Not white-tablecloth stuff, but probably enough to keep the prisoners reasonably mollified.
January 8, 2022
The President's presence at funerals
A Washington Post report makes a great deal out of President Joe Biden's insistence upon attending funerals, and both the care he puts into his eulogies and the political ramifications of his efforts to show up. But what goes unremarked in the article is this very simple point: He's an Irish Catholic. Neither "Irish" nor "Catholic" appears in the article. That's a giant omission, because it's really the whole story. The rituals and the significance of acknowledging death with one's presence remain enormously important in Ireland, and the Irish diaspora carried those things across the Atlantic and kept them alive in the United States. Everything else is just exposition.
Possibly the best business plan in history
A food truck serving nothing but $1 grilled cheese sandwiches. No upgrades. No change.
Location shots that just don't make sense
Clark Griswold may be an American icon, but there are no mountain foothills in the northwest suburbs of Chicago
How to strip erroneous line breaks from PDF-based text
One step to remove them all (after pasting into a fresh text editor). Apparently, those line breaks get saved as "^p" (at least in some editors), so a simple search-and-replace is enough to make them go away. A very helpful tip, indeed.
We often use the phrase "What's in a name?", but the question for some is actually "Where?", as in "Where shall I use this name?" and "Where does the name come from?"
Flexible work is valued at 10% of salary
It may be harder to schedule people's work when more employees choose flexible hours and locations, but it's hard to see any way to reverse course after two years of embedding work-from-home patterns into the economy
The legal resolution won't bring back Ahmaud Arbery's life, but it ought to serve as a deterrent to similarly mindless and cruel behavior
The old news/opinion divide makes news again
Washington Post: "Fox News calls [Sean] Hannity 'an opinion host' and doesn't refer to him as a journalist."
January 10, 2022
Finland's foreign policy standing doesn't loom especially large on the American consciousness, but it certainly does appear to have the persistent attention of the powers in Moscow. Modestly more than a century after declaring its independence from Russia, Finland is once again finding its voice as its president unreservedly reasserted the right to join NATO, whenever and for whatever reason it might like. ■ Nobody with a shred of sanity is interested in wasting resources on pointless armed conflicts. As Dwight Eisenhower once remarked, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." Yet, as long as there are national boundaries to define and sovereign interests to preserve, there will always be a risk that countries will come into armed conflict with one another. ■ In the present moment, even those European countries that have long adhered to neutrality as a tool of self-preservation are finding that the recklessness of the Russian government -- amassing some 100,000 troops near Ukraine -- is creating an urgency to reconsider. ■ The prospective change of heart, not only in Finland, but also possibly in Sweden and maybe in Ireland, too, isn't really being driven by a significant change in where interests have been aligned. The NATO Partnership for Peace isn't a new invention, and economically those countries are integrated more closely with European countries already. Even Finland, despite its long Russian border, still trades more with Germany than with any other country. ■ But what does seem urgent now is that the situation in which Ukraine has been lodged has served to remind other countries that people, often more than anything else, simply want to believe that things are possible of their own choosing. The very deep attraction to self-determination is natural and very real -- from the individual to the family to the community, right on up through the level of the sovereign state. People don't always expect to choose the right path or to get the best outcome -- but any sense of respect for human beings as sentient, decision-making animals carries with it the burden (and reward) of having options. ■ If it so appears that an aggressor is inclined to interfere with that intrinsic ability to make choices and to grasp at possibilities, then there should be no surprise whatsoever if the aggression prompts a diametrically opposed reaction. This belief in the possible -- in having options among which we can choose, whether by accident, by consensus, or at the relentless urging of bold leaders -- is so vital that it can end up compelling decisions even when avoiding a choice itself was long seen as a strategic necessity.
There are very few truly bad words
But "restaurateur" is definitely among them. "Publican", by contrast, is plainly delightful.
January 11, 2022
An academic economist proposes the use of price controls to stave off the effects of inflation. It's possible, as with all matters of near-consensus opinion, that this contrarian take has the right idea. (It's unlikely, given how price controls are reviled throughout the mainstream -- even Paul Krugman rejects them! -- but sometimes "common sense" is wrong.) ■ But whether the idea itself has merit or not, the essay proposing price controls is unserious because it repeatedly uses the word "strategic" without once describing which of those prices ought to be controlled, by what mechanism, for how long, or to what particular end. ■ If one advocates a policy that runs 180° contrary to an consensus opinion in a reputable field like economics, then the burden of proof shifts to the contrarian to show up with receipts and explain why the contrarian policy is going to work. The word "strategic" doesn't function as a magic wand to wave off dissent. ■ That the idea itself is contrarian does not give its critics license to mock it, either. The historical treatment of thinkers who have overturned prior consensus -- people like Copernicus and Galileo, for two prominent examples -- should be sufficient warning to the world that it's not always obvious to the majority when a better idea has come along. A little bit of modesty is usually in order, even towards those ideas that seem worthy of scorn. ■ Yet by the same token, a due regard for the process of constructing knowledge through trial and error ought to be adequate to remind the person with a surprising or adversarial opinion that it isn't enough to wave off objections and conjure up some form of magic as an explanation. ■ Humans can't progress unless we remain open to new ideas, but we also can't get very far if we have to convince ourselves entirely of everything and do it all from scratch: Just as no one needs to be able to fabricate a pencil from start to finish, nobody needs to assemble all human knowledge from scratch, either. We have to be able to trust received wisdom while remaining open to convincing new ideas. ■ It's a hard lesson, and one that can be especially hard to practice in times of swift change and large uncertainty. But knowledge requires a tension -- a sort of tug-of-war -- between what seems to be obvious and what challenges it. ■ Whether we're considering the effects of price controls on a market equilibrium or how we absorb the changing guidelines for dealing with a novel public-health challenge, it's up to those who learned the consensus to consider contrarian ideas patiently when they are thoughtfully presented -- and up to the contrarians to make their cases thoroughly and transparently. To do any less is unserious by definition. The world contains too many unknown unknowns to permit any less.
What is it that makes you interesting, again?
The missing feature that social media sites still haven't figured out to offer is a way for users to leave memoranda (for themselves only) about why they know other users or why they choose to follow them -- or to block or mute them. It's too much work trying to remember who's proven themselves prescient, who's a Facebook acquaintance picked up through your cousin's ex-boyfriend, and who's been tweeting drunk.
Better baseball through higher outfield walls
More small ball and more base-stealing
January 12, 2022
Grounded B-52 goes on a road trip
A decommissioned B-52 is going from Arizona to Oklahoma over land, which seems like a lot of work. And it certainly is: The effort to get the old aircraft over a couple of state lines is going to cost millions of dollars, block highways, and generally creep along at a snail's pace along the route. ■ Once the old plane gets to Oklahoma City, the Air Force will use it as a test bed, since the B-52 airframe is expected to remain in service for a long time to come. Getting the airplane there via highway instead of by flying seems counter-intuitive, of course, until the significant challenge (and cost) of getting it airworthy for a single flight is fully apprehended. ■ Yet it is in a case like this when one wonders why we don't have more heavy-lifting airships available for this kind of purpose. Speed obviously isn't the main objective here -- the road trip alone is measurable in weeks, not hours. It would seem that the constraints of traveling by land would be easily surmounted if the payload could be carried by air. And indeed, the idea has been considered: The Canadian armed forces have looked at the idea and found it potentially practical. ■ A heavy-lifting airship called the CargoLifter was designed to be some 850' long (much longer than the 159' length of the B-52) and to carry around 350,000 lbs. of cargo (about twice the weight of an empty B-52). Other rival heavy-lifting airships have also been considered for development, though they still seem to be stuck in the big ideas phase, rather than gritty execution. ■ Considering the prospective benefits to such a type of transportation -- not least of which include the potential for very high energy efficiency and the obvious benefits to vertical takeoffs and landings directly from the cargo's origin point to its destination -- the idea certainly seems to be within range of becoming a reality over the mid-range horizon. Too late, perhaps, to get a B-52 to Oklahoma City, but perhaps likelier to turn into reality 15 or 20 years from now than one might think. If Amazon can spin up a major air-transportation network in a matter of just a few years, a future with heavy-lifting airships can't be written off.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes on a bizarre antitrust target
Her statement: "What happens when only a handful of giant grocery store chains like Kroger dominate an industry? They can force high food prices onto Americans while raking in record profits. We need to strengthen our antitrust laws to break up giant corporations and lower prices." Meanwhile, Aldi has achieved a degree of vertical integration that keeps the ghost of Andrew Carnegie awake at night and manifests itself in $1.39 boxes of breakfast cereal. But, sure, what's needed is ham-handed antitrust intervention from Washington.
A thoughtful reflection on last January 6th
Yosef Goldman: "Our representative democracy depends on its ability to give voice to all Americans, regardless of their views, or their standing in society. It is only as strong as the safeguards that protect the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized." A principled, grounded sense of pluralism matters so much.
You can chuckle at the archaic equipment or laugh out loud at the idea of working out in a suit or a dress -- but just imagine how awful it would have been to work out before there was widely available, clean running water for showers and laundry. That's a modern invention we ought to appreciate even more than a good bench-press machine.
The reboot of "Green Acres" is going to be wild
John Deere is introducing self-driving tractors...slowly
A moose trapped in a household basement
That professor character from the Farmers Insurance commercials has some new material.
January 13, 2022
Broadcasting consultant Fred Jacobs poses the provocative question, "Did radio shoot itself in the foot by allowing satellite broadcaster SiriusXM to become a top-10 advertiser?" The question seems reasonably easy to answer if taken directly: It usually isn't a great business model to not only accept advertising from one of your fiercest competitors, but to allow that competitor to become a significant source of revenue. ■ There are mitigating factors to consider, too, not least of which is the painful state of radio advertising revenues in general. When you're in a market that has suffered double-digit percentage declines over the last two decades, it's not a particularly opportune time to go about picking and choosing your customers. ■ But the more interesting question isn't "Did radio shoot itself in the foot?", but rather "How would a thriving medium relate to its rivals?" ■ It's not a question exclusive to radio, either. The entire media economy in the United States is under strain; a newspaper reporter just posted a picture of her $396.12 weekly take-home pay, which would suggest a net income of $9.90 per hour -- for an occupation almost exclusively reserved for those with college degrees. Many newspapers are spiraling, taking extraordinary steps like eliminating print editions (as the Des Moines Register is doing on Saturdays), and while local television revenues appear to be holding to a more modest decline, they're not bathing in champagne, either. ■ So, how would thriving media relate with one another? Surely one step would be for each to specialize in its own strengths. Local radio broadcasting has an inherent advantage over other media in its immediacy and locality -- since it can be produced with nothing more than a voice and a microphone, it will forever have the upper hand when it comes to being right here, right now -- wherever that may be. Local television has the advantage when it comes to appealing to the human urge to look at beautiful things, especially when those things are familiar. It's no accident that Frank Magid found the sweet spot in serving up punchy, fast-paced news programs delivered by teams of good-looking anchors. Local newspapers have the inherent advantage that they serve (often literally) as the records of a community. People still save front pages, clip out profiles and sightings of "names in the paper", and expect that they can catch up on a week's worth of news by scanning a week's worth of headlines. The very periodicity of the printed edition of a newspaper remains one of its chief advantages. ■ But all of these media are in competition with national and even international outlets, many of them able to use economies of scale to their advantage. SiriusXM, the satellite broadcaster, bought the Pandora streaming service, and the New York Times is shelling out half a billion dollars to buy the online sports outlet The Athletic. These kinds of combinations tend to accrue talent, and that makes it increasingly difficult for smaller outlets to compete on a head-to-head basis. If a person wants to know about major-league sports news in general, it's hard for a local sports editor or anchor to deliver something better than competitors with the resources of ESPN or the New York Times. ■ For those smaller outlets to thrive requires that they abandon hopes of competing head-to-head with the homogenized national outlets -- the 300 million smartphones in service in the United States don't leave a lot of people without access -- and instead plunge their resources into doing what national-scale outlets cannot. With tools like local advertising insertions into streaming media already long-established, it's not long before some of those outlets will learn how to insert locally focused content, too. ■ But that's where the incumbent local outlets still have a head start: They have residual brand recognition from decades of established presence in their communities, and a limited window in which to ensure that those brands are durable into the future. It takes the investment not just of money but also of energy -- that hard-to-define characteristic of driving hard into a job, for the good of doing it well. ■ For a brief remaining window (perhaps a few years, perhaps a decade or a little longer, but probably not two decades), those incumbents still have the capacity to define what it means to be from a place. That takes more than just ranking the "Top Ten Local Stories of 2021" or soliciting readers' feedback about the "40 Under 40". It requires taking a chance on defining habits, norms, behaviors, tastes, and other idiosyncrasies -- and accepting the risk that local audiences won't unthinkingly go along with those choices. ■ Those are things that satellite radio can't do from Manhattan and Gannett can't do from DC. And if they're done well, creatively, and boldly, they should leave those local outlets with enough reach -- and perhaps enough courage -- to willingly exist alongside big rivals. Maybe even enough to let the rivals with deep pockets come along and drop some revenues in local coffers. Local media outlets have some time left on the clock, but the longer they wait to try original, place-defining things, the harder the ultimate climb. The real way for them to shoot themselves in the foot is to fail to strive.
"Des Moines Register to make Saturday home delivery change in March" is a really evasive way of saying "We're no longer going to print on Saturdays". That doesn't mean it's the wrong decision, but a newspaper should just be straight about it.
January 14, 2022
Debates over the content of classroom instruction, from the earliest grades through post-secondary training, are well-worn and often thoroughly exhausting. What's often more interesting is an examination of the omissions: What are the things that either out of neglect or deliberate design are left out of the curriculum? Three subjects in particular seem to stand out as topics worthy of incorporation into a broad education in the modern day. ■ The first is the hardest to name but the easiest to recognize: Some form of general education in the range of life skills required to act as a well-functioning member of society. It seems to have been generally assumed over time that parents and other close adult relatives would transmit these lessons to their offspring, but the rise of "adulting" as a shorthand way of describing these behaviors -- and the notion that people enter adulthood not knowing "how to adult" -- makes it evident that aspects of this education aren't being transmitted through the traditional channels. ■ In that sense, a "most general education" would have to include a wide range of small but valuable notices: Carry a multi-tool in your car in case of emergency. Don't heat water in the microwave without breaking the surface tension. Pour fats, oils, and grease into containers instead of down the drain. Lightning can strike more than 50 miles away from the center of a storm. Don't store batteries with their ends touching. So many of these small nuggets seem like common sense to those who know them, but they aren't necessarily obvious unless they have been taught. ■ The second worthy topic is how to maximize one's own reading capacity. Speed reading isn't a universal fix, nor is it a skill that can be developed by everyone. Yet everybody needs to be able to read in order to make the most use of their place in an advanced society, and there's a good chance one needs to be even more literate than ever in order to have the best prospects for success. ■ Literacy comes in many forms, of course, and in addition to being able to read words to the best of one's capacities, people also need to develop numeracy and digital literacy. But there may be no single skill more useful at helping the median person to advance their place in life than figuring out how to make the most of their reading, and how to read in the way that is most productive for them individually. Some people have to be active readers, making margin notes and highlighting their words. Others will get the most utility from words read aloud. Others will discover they need printed pages or electronic ink instead of bright computer or smartphone screens. Individualization of the skill of reading could make a significant difference to most people's lives, considering printed words remain the most universal way for people to access new information. ■ The last oft-omitted topic is even a bit more esoteric than the individualization of reading skills, but it is perhaps the most important of all: The need for each person to learn how to optimize their own executive function. No two people are identical in how they self-regulate -- from whether and how they form to-do lists to how they coordinate their moods and mental stimulation levels to the time of day. ■ A vast industry has grown up around planners and "productivity methodologies", not to mention motivation and performance psychology. It's a very big business, and self-appointed gurus make significant hay from the endeavor. But the reality is that no single system works for everyone -- even Benjamin Franklin found it complicated and had to let his process evolve with time and experience. But a lot of good could be served by helping people to become aware of their own processes for self-regulation earlier in life rather than later. ■ Perhaps these topics aren't regularly captured by the educational system because they tend to require so much intensive customization. But realizing how cumulatively valuable they would be, not just to the people who often receive direct educational interventions but to the median person as well, could be a way to open the door to considerable social utility -- doing a lot of good for a lot of people. And the world could likely use much more of that.
Your spouse doeesn't want to know your Wordle score
Spouses should be each other's biggest boosters outside the home, and totally unimpressed by each other's shenanigans behind closed doors. Think "Flavor Flav" when others are watching, and "McKayla Maroney" when they're not.
Skyscrapers with setbacks (or, to some, "stepbacks") are aesthetically wonderful. Whether they have to be mandatory by law is another question, but as long as they don't go too far, they are profoundly pleasing to the eye.
Propagandists really are trying to break American democracy
Tim Miller: "If it weren’t for the domestic terrorism and the threat to democracy, the whole thing would be an over-the-top laugh riot."
January 15, 2022
Volcano in Tonga sets off tsunami and atmospheric shock waves
Those measurable shock waves traversed the planet. The planet is always just a little smaller than we think. The resulting cloud cover and ash plume were enormous.
For a snowstorm that began as just little fits of flurries most of the day, things really turned up in the evening and night hours. Complain though some might about cold weather, you never hear of anyone moving south to get closer to fire ants, scorpions, and venomous snakes. (Cold weather has at least some redeeming characteristics.)
January 17, 2022
While he was alive, the FBI subjected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to repeated violations of his rights and fundamentally violated his personal liberty. The bureau tapped his phones, surveilled him, and treated him like an enemy. Agents even tried using subterfuge to try to persuade him to kill himself. The treatment was degrading and fundamentally un-American. ■ Thus it comes as no surprise that the FBI's social-media treatment of the holiday in his name and honor has been roundly criticized for ignoring that shameful past. Nobody working on the FBI's social-media team in 2022 was party to the abuses of six decades ago, of course. Yet the impulse to find a quote attributable to King and to share it approvingly on social media is a peculiar one, especially for an institution with such an ignominious role in the subject's life, and it is illustrative of a bad habit exacerbated by a deeply embedded flaw in the way Americans learn history. ■ The bad habit comes from the instinct to find a quote that seems agreeable and to wave it around as a signal of solidarity with something larger. The FBI borrowed "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve" to latch on to the King holiday. The fundamental problem with this approach is that a person pulling a line from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Bartleby, Wikiquote, or (as often as not in the modern era) Pinterest is in danger of cherry-picking a few words out of context and looking foolish as a result. ■ Many quotes do stand on their own. But it's hazardous to rely on a few words alone -- just because a thought fits within the 280-character limit of Twitter or the preview window of a Facebook post doesn't mean it can safely be severed from its ties to when, how, why, and by whom that thought was spoken or put to paper. ■ This habit of turning to quotations out of convenience reflects the larger habit of depending on textbooks rather than primary source materials. Textbooks are of course a necessity, even if they are often a bargain with the devil. There is so much history to survey, and only so much time in which to give young people a general understanding of history. Yet even a person with good intentions can end up steeped in facts without any real understanding of their meaning. Context is crucial, and while textbook authors invariably intend to imbue their summaries with context, the nature of the relationship between student and textbook is one of atomization: Which facts will be on the test? Which dates will I need to remember? What lists will I need to memorize for my AP exam? ■ From a societal level (and often an individual one), we would be better off if we spent more time learning from primary sources in history. Primary sources can't do all of the work on their own, of course, but with the appropriate contextual framework and some light assistance from supplemental materials, footnotes, and thoughtful editorial framing, they can do a much better job of offering the student a more complete understanding of historical events in a way that textbooks are simply incapable of delivering. ■ People who obtain a textbook-based understanding of history might be forgiven for thinking that King's "I Have a Dream" speech is the whole story. If trained to believe that all that matters is the historian's highlight reel, then people are apt to believe that they've seen the most important bits if they've made it to the end of the textbook. ■ Thus, knowing about the speech is better than not. Having read the full speech is better than just the pull quotes. Having read the Letter from Birmingham Jail to put the speech in context is better than reading the speech alone. Reading the full book ("Why We Can't Wait") is better than reading only the letter. Each step takes more time and effort than the one before, but along the way one escapes the fragmentary facts of a history test and enters the start of a more comprehensive understanding. ■ Moreover, in the context of civil rights -- as in most other struggles for freedom and justice -- it is better to be persuaded by the original words of the original figures who themselves moved history by persuading others than by obtaining a patchwork assembly of facts, even when stitched by a well-meaning and highly-skilled historian. The authors of change, fortunately, are usually quite good at persuading others with the help of words that end up being recorded. ■ In the future, it would be wise for the FBI's public-facing teams to take note of this year's misjudgment and avoid making a repeat. But they're not the only ones susceptible to the error, nor is it isolated to this one Federal holiday: To the greatest extent possible, if we really want people to avoid pulling quotations out of context or appropriating a superficial understanding of history, then we really ought to press for primary sources to play a much more primary role in school. Sometimes those primary sources will be agitating, contentious, or controversial. So be it. History is more complex than what fits inside a tweet.
January 18, 2022
QR codes have been with us for a long time -- since 1994, in fact -- but it took until the very recent past for them to achieve the sort of mass-market adoption that makes them a utility rather than a novelty. It helped when Google built a QR code reader into the camera application a few years ago, but the real ignition came aboard the conversion from physical menus to digital ones. ■ That particular artifact of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to remain a permanent feature of the world ahead: The term menu costs is a long-recognized influence on economics. It literally costs time and money to update menus (and, of course, other business costs, not just for restaurants proper), so the widespread adoption of a technological alternative that can be easily updated (especially at near-zero expense) is attractive -- especially in a period of higher-than-normal inflation. ■ Yet even as restaurants and other consumer-facing businesses have come to appreciate QR codes, at least one obvious use case seems to have gone under-appreciated. Why hasn't every clothing retailer figured out to put a QR code on the inside label, so people can easily point and click to re-order? There is really no excuse for any of them not to be doing it already. ■ The obstacles to doing so are practically nil. QR codes can be generated easily and in bulk, and all they have to do is point to some kind of durable page somewhere on the manufacturer's website. Printing them on a label inside the garment, shoe, or accessory is no more complicated than printing the washing instructions in more than one language. ■ The time and frustration alone it might save would make the feature a brilliant one, especially for items like children's clothes or adults' shoes: Items that have to be replaced on a relatively frequent basis, but for which people have little patience to go on long searches. Kids grow up fast, and replacing their clothes with the next size in the same style a family has grown to like is often all too much work. ■ Running shoes may come in new styles each year, but most sub-professional athletes really just want to get the same fit with the same cushioning and arch support that they got the time before. Reasonable people don't have time to start the search from scratch every time, trying to understand the difference between last year's Gel-Nimbus 22 RCX-A and this year's Gel-Nimbus 24 (2E). A simple QR code pointing to a stable page for a certain style (or to its "new" successor) would be invaluable. ■ And it's not just shoes. Most people have old favorites -- underwear, socks, pants, whatever -- that fit just right. There's no desire to shop around to find them all over again, and why should anyone spen the time? ■ Bill Gates once said (of raw product innovation), "We have to make sure we are the ones replacing our products instead of someone else." But for products where that raw innovation is more a matter of marketing than of actual provable performance improvement -- like clothing and footwear -- it makes all the sense in the world to put the innovation into the purchasing experience. Besides, wouldn't adding a QR code to the tag be cheaper in the long run than paying for all those free returns?
Professional networking sites as a vector for national-security threats
FBI warning: "China and other foreign governments are using professional networking social media sites to target people with U.S. government security clearances." This much really ought to have been obvious for a long time -- LinkedIn and other professional (and non-professional) networking sites are thick with connection "invitations" that have no obvious origins in existing networks or through organic connections with other people. The targeting is real.
Government uses "safety" canard to shut down another Hong Kong news outlet
A free press really only threatens one kind of safety, and that's the safety of official powers to do whatever they want. The legal rationalizations and thinly-veiled threats against other journalistic outlets are nauseating.
How long things last in the trash
Surprising: Leather lasts 50 times longer in the landfill than plywood. And waxed milk cartons break down a lot faster than unwaxed egg cartons.
January 19, 2022
The National Public Radio affiliate in Chicago, WBEZ, has sealed a deal first rumored in September 2021: It's buying the Chicago Sun-Times. It's not exactly a full-circle development, but it is a close cousin. ■ As the third-largest media market in the country, Chicago has more active print and broadcast outlets than most places. For decades, one of them was extra-special: The Chicago Tribune company owned the city's largest newspaper, a legendary 50,000-watt radio station, and a television station with a nationwide reach thanks to cable retransmission. This kind of cross-ownership was an exception to the rules enforced by the FCC. The company's reach went even further, since they also bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981. ■ The Tribune and its broadcast outlets (named WGN, for "World's Greatest Newspaper") had been grandfathered in when the FCC implemented the cross-ownership restrictions in the 1970s, and that cross-ownership was thought to be pretty valuable -- enough so that the company fought to keep its exemption in place when it changed ownership in 2007. Yet ultimately the newspaper company sold off the Cubs (in 2009) and the radio and television outlets (in 2019). ■ Subsequent to the breakup, both halves of the original Tribune Co. went through significant shakeups and downsizings -- the radio station cut loose long-time hosts (including one who had been there for 35 years), and the newspaper let loose dozens of its most recognizable names in a 2021 mass exodus (including a columnist who had been there for 32 years). ■ Thus the incarnation of a whole new cross-ownership entity in the city is fascinating. Legally, it runs into none of the old obstacles -- the FCC eliminated its newspaper/broadcasting restrictions in 2017 (in recognition that times have changed dramatically for both industries due to competitive pressures from digital outlets). But it's also significant to see that an outlet like WBEZ -- which, though non-profit, still has a duty to remain solvent -- sees enough value in a merger to proceed with creating something that one of its main rivals saw fit to simply give away only a couple of years ago. It would be like seeing Honda spin off a division for its hybrid and electric vehicles, only for Tesla to acquire General Motors two or three years later. ■ But it's also especially interesting because WBEZ is a non-profit public media outlet. After the combination, the Sun-Times will have to give up on endorsing political candidates (non-profits can't do that). Alone, that's interesting even if not groundbreaking. But public broadcasters have been expanding their reach in other markets, too: WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC, bought the DCist "neighborhood news" website in 2018, at the same time as its partners in New York and Los Angeles bought their respective "-ist" sites. ■ Perhaps there is something unique to the circumstances of these public broadcasters that makes them eager to reach beyond the footprint of terrestrial broadcasting alone. But it's surprising that commercial broadcasters haven't shown the same kind of taste for invigorating cross-ownership, either by acquiring outlets that already have a notable presence in another medium or by spinning them up on their own. ■ It seems like an utter dereliction of duty for radio and television stations that already spend the money to staff newsrooms not to publish electronic periodicals containing the news they're already gathering. Sure, most of them try to mark their territory on social media, and many put out email newsletters, but those efforts are almost always promotional in nature -- too often, little more than digital junk mail. ■ In Chicago, a radio station is acquiring a whole newspaper -- along with the institutional cachet that goes with it. WBEZ and the Sun-Times say they will "continue as independent operations", but the whole point of such a tie-up is that their leadership expects them to be stronger as a team than as lone operations. ■ The merger isn't a sign that every local radio station ought to be out looking for a newspaper to buy (the economics of both sectors have been under severe stress for more than a decade) -- but any incumbent brand of either type of outlet needs to look at how it could and should stretch itself into the adjacent markets. If the barriers between them have fallen enough that the FCC no longer considers that kind of duality a threat, then it ought to be a bright warning sign that thinking beyond the old channels may be the only sustainable path to survival.
January 20, 2022
Americans (rightly) love our First Amendment, and most people are pretty good at naming freedom of speech as one of the rights it preserves. About half can name the freedom of religion, and a third can call out freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. But only 14% of those surveyed in 2021 could name "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" as one of those enumerated rights. ■ Better knowledge of the Constitution in general would have its own merits. But that right in particular could stand some reaffirmation. It's not so much that the government doesn't respond to citizens' complaints -- Change.org counts on the idea that petitions still matter. But we could stand to see the whole picture a little better than the survey suggests we do. ■ The Constitution is a highly structured and deliberate document. It is no accident that Article I establishes Congress, with a duality of purpose: The House of Representatives to speak for the people, and the Senate to speak for the states as entities in their own right. Too often lost in today's overheated debates over the nature of the Senate is that the states are more organic in their legal nature than the Union itself -- the country was formed as a union of states that pre-existed the Constitution, and Article V and the Tenth Amendment are both quite explicit that the states are the basic unit of government. ■ So when this highly structured document lays out all of the things that Congress is expected to do, including mechanisms for firing anyone in the Executive Branch (through impeachment) and for demanding reports from the executive (through the State of the Union), it ought to be evident that Congress has a sort of primacy among the branches, even if they check and balance one another. ■ With this primacy comes what ought to be an obvious point: If Congress sets the law and supervises its execution, then Congress has the right to ask any questions it deems necessary to make sure that the laws are good and their execution is faithful. ■ Perhaps we would care more about this mechanism if more than 14% of us were fully literate in the right to petition the government. Being able to ask isn't much of a right if the people empowered to do something about it can't conduct their due diligence. That portion of the First Amendment is hollow if Congress is hampered in its efforts to uncover the truth and supervise the people executing the laws that go into place. ■ All of which is to note how important it is that the Supreme Court ordered that former Presidents can't hide from the scrutiny of Congress by claiming privilege. They can't hide from the public (via the investigative powers of the House), nor from the states (via the investigative powers of the Senate). ■ The news is reported with headlines like "In Rebuke to Trump, Supreme Court Allows Release of Jan. 6 Files" in the New York Times, but that framing is wedded far too much to the circumstances of just one incident, as if it's a political horse race. The much more important principle involved is that Congress is (and ought to be) basically unfettered in its ability to ask questions -- because if it is not, then there is very little to the First Amendment right to demand "a redress of grievances". As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 43, "[A] right implies a remedy; and where else could the remedy be deposited, than where it is deposited by the Constitution?" ■ It's too easy to look at a decision of this magnitude and report it as an institution "rebuking" an individual. It is far more important to see it as the institution of the Supreme Court defending the prerogative (and, indeed, the duty) of Congress to ask questions on behalf of the American public and the states that comprise the Union.
January 21, 2022
We might be ready for AI to take on a bigger role in our lives when ordinary spreadsheet software lets users insert a true footnote instead of resorting to crude manual workarounds.
Forty years after Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat while on stage in Des Moines, a question: Why we haven't made a local custom of baking bat-shaped cookies on January 20th and biting their heads off? Cookies have better mouthfeel than real bats, anyway.
The shot that does so much heavy lifting
From the Omaha World-Herald: "[T]hose who had been vaccinated and boosted were 46 times less likely to be hospitalized than those who hadn’t gotten any shots."
January 22, 2022
Somewhere between freezing and 40° below zero is the temperature at which cold becomes becomes truly excruciating. The Fahrenheit system may not be particularly logical in its endpoints and gradations, but it wouldn't be entirely unreasonable to say that this temperature is 0° or thereabouts. After all, 72° is the perfect temperature, but if you add 32° to it, then 104° is indisputably hot. ■ For most of the United States east of the Rockies, middle to late January is the coldest time of year. And just as we look forward to the winter solstice as the moment when brighter days are quite literally ahead, so too should we mark late January as a turning point between the worst of the cold and things finally becoming warmer. ■ It's a shame, given the significant influence of Nordic immigration on the northern United States, that we don't have many large-scale annual community celebrations surrounding the depths of Winter. Chicago was once the second-largest "Swedish" city in the world. More than one in every nine Norwegians moved to the US in the 1880s alone. Iceland lost a fifth of its people to America. ■ There may be a few ice festivals here and there -- St. Paul, Minnesota, and some smaller communities put them on in Colorado and Michigan, but it really doesn't seem like we make use of the full potential of the turning of the coldest part of the year as a way to mark that the worst is generally over. ■ Any northern city worth its road salt ought to have some way of celebrating the middle of winter -- a sort of polar bear plunge for the soul. And for the sake of authenticity, it should largely take place outdoors. It's important to embrace the pain of the cold rather than running from it. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concluded that humans need to embrace the experience of suffering as a normal part of life in order to have a well-rounded experience on planet Earth. ■ Frankl wrote that "[M]eaning is possible even in spite of suffering -- provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic." Global warming notwithstanding, winter is going to remain cold whether we like it or not. There's no reason that embracing an invigorating cold season shouldn't be part of celebrating that, for most of us, warmer seasons will come. ■ Just as the Swedes combine cold outdoor bathing with their hot saunas, and the Icelanders enjoy their geothermal hot springs, so too should Americans be willing to engage both the cold and the warmth. We don't have any trouble finding excuses to go inside, but we need more practice in embracing what nature does to expose us.
January 24, 2022
Views from space of the ash from Tonga's volcano
In the 1800s, a volcanic eruption (at Mount Tambora) produced so much ash that it became "the year without a summer" -- with dire consequences for food harvests. We really don't take that particular existential risk seriously enough, and the incredible views from space of the ash from Tonga's volcanic eruption ought to stir us from our slumber. ■ The matter of who is indeed responsible for species-level existential risk may be the ultimate collective-action problem. When it comes to the question of what may prevent the destruction of the entire range of human life -- something like an extinction-scale asteroid collision or a climate-altering volcanic eruption -- literally everyone has a vested interest, yet no one has either the responsibility or the capacity to resolve it entirely on their own, and in many cases there are conflicting interests about absorbing the costs. ■ Institutions, not just individuals, are hamstrung by this issue of collective responsibility. To whom are we supposed to turn? Governments have often been the cause of existential risks to humanity as much as the willing combatants thereof. ■ Non-governmental organizations are often either too busy trying to combat the issues for which they were initially founded, too anxiously preserving themselves institutionally in the face of uncertainty and change, or are too bound by bureaucratic constraints to make any real difference at all -- not to mention rarely equipped with sufficient resources to make an adequate difference. ■ Should we turn to the academy? Would any of us trust a university president or the chair of a college faculty guild to protect the rest of us in the face of even small-scale risks? It isn't obvious that most of us would do so, despite the concentration of expertise among the ivory towers. ■ What about churches and religious institutions? In a sense, these are institutions designed around questions of the meaning of life on Earth -- but whether we could trust them to be responsible for looking after the very practical risks to the essence of life on Earth is another question altogether. ■ No problem like this is ever truly hopeless, but it does behoove us to question who is responsible, and perhaps more to the point, to figure out what share of responsibility every institution and every individual has for these broader questions. Terrible terrible things will happen, but the more sophisticated, the wealthier, and the more technologically advanced we become as a human civilization, the more that can be done to divvy up the risks, as well as the investment in the solutions. ■ For as much as people bemoan partisan divisions, the question of setting ourselves up to survive the worst that the natural world could potentially throw at us may truly be the final frontier of non-ideological, non-partisan grand-coalition building. To prepare ourselves for the worst does not require us to think the best of one another. ■ It does, however, require us to make investments as insurance policies against what could potentially befall us. Some low-probability, high-impact event is statistically likely to come sooner or later. That is where the historians have something to say, as they are obligated to remind the rest of us both periodically and emphatically of the terrible things have happened to humankind in the past -- and to make us aware that most awful events are not truly unprecedented. ■ The odds of terrible events are the province of the physical scientists who have an obligation to give us the straight facts. But the human consequences are the province of the social scientists who are duty-bound to remind the rest of us that humanity can fail itself through a lack of preparation or a lack of will -- and also that we are capable as a species of acting not only when the time calls for it, but also well in advance.
January 25, 2022
When stock market prices begin to "wobble", "gyrate", or "whipsaw", there is nothing so sure as the compulsion of the financial press (and the news media at large) to make endless attempts to tell the story through countless anecdotes and market commentaries. They are relentless in their quest to patch together a narrative explanation -- one that often drifts into outright anthropomorphization of the markets. ■ It's a widely-used convention, since turning the abstract stock market into "Mr. Market" is a natural way to tell a story. But it's also an insidious way to mislead audiences. Drama may be good for page views, but it's fairly awful for anyone with the good sense to think of investing as a long-term process. ■ In 2012, Warren Buffett told the audience at the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting that "If we had our way, we'd sell stock one time per year at our calculation of intrinsic value." Tracking the daily gyrations of the market is a lot like following the box scores of every Major League Baseball team: It's an effective way to occupy one's time and the space inside one's head, but it's too small a slice of the whole picture to really offer any use. (Assuming, of course, that there will be a 2022 baseball season at all.) ■ Buffett's advice is valuable precisely because it is so difficult for people to follow. His admonition for decades has been that in the short run the stock market is like a voting machine, but in the long run it is like a weighing machine. ■ Changes from hour to hour or day to day can make headlines and over time can quite obviously accumulate to the point where they can have a meaningful impact. But stock prices are meaningless in the absence of stock values. And what a company is worth -- which, divided by the number of shares available, makes up the intrinsic value of the stock -- almost never rises and falls by very much from hour to hour, from day to day, or even from month to month. ■ It's an unsatisfying proposition to tell many (if not most) people that what happens in a day on the stock market is generally as inconsequential as the daily weather forecast on the other side of the globe. Yet that unsatisfactory truth remains correct: If a person enters thoughtfully into an investment and is confident that he or she is getting more value than the price paid, then what happens to the price later on is mostly trivial -- unless and until it converges with the intrinsic value and goes on to exceed it, at which point a sale may be in order. ■ Headlines, market bulletins, and quasi-informative commentary all generate interest (and eyeballs) for the people producing them, but a lot of time and agony could be spared if we really did only open the stock market for trading once a year. It will never happen, of course, but were we to adopt that pace instead of taking second-by-second quotations (and tolerating the scourge of high-frequency trading), we could perhaps divert more of our attention not to the moment-by-moment, but rather to workings of the weighing machine.
January 27, 2022
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has announced his intention to retire when the court takes its 2022 summer recess. His colleagues have wished him well in the same kind of way that most Americans probably wish that the officials of the elected branches of government would treat one another. But it's hard to imagine that the process of replacing him on the Court will be nearly so amicable. ■ Despite despite having served on the Court since 1994, Breyer is curiously the least-known of the jurists presently serving. It's neither a mark of success nor failure for a justice to be a household name, but their work -- whether in a majority or in dissent -- has a long-term impact on the country, and not just in the way the laws are set. ■ That influence has of course been exceptionally good when it has served to preserve liberties and keep the government from overreaching. But some of its effects have been lamentable. Because its opinions are typically read in full only by a few, but widely circulated through news reporting, we often take away only a small nugget of what was said. And sometimes those nuggets are spoiled. ■ Few Americans have likely read Justice Louis Brandeis's full dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann. But many are familiar with the idea referring to states as "laboratories of democracy". Brandeis speifically wrote, "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." ■ Clever writing it is, and in a sense, not incorrect -- states are indeed free to experiment largely without threatening one another. But the corrupting effect of the idea has been to put the idea into the minds of Americans that the states are lesser entities. ■ The states are not laboratories of democracy; they are the fundamental units of democracy itself. They aren't sandboxes in which we can play without doing damage to the whole; they are where the overwhelming amount of democratic work must necessarily be done. The federal system is like a layer cake -- the states are the real substance, while the Constitutional government headquartered in Washington is supposed to be much more like the frosting. The states are both the origins of municipal law (the Constitution says nothing about city or county governments, but you'd have a hard time incorporating one without a state government), as well as the authorities that create the federal or national government. The states abandoned one faulty government under the Articles of Confederation and adopted the Constitution -- but they remained states throughout. ■ It's hard to avoid wondering whether America would seem more stable and self-confident a place today if we were to resist the urge to nationalize so much about our politics. Interests are different in different places, as they ought to be. What matters in Oregon often doesn't need to bother anyone in Kentucky, or vice-versa. On those matters where unanimity is critical, like defense and statecraft and preserving smooth relations among the states, the government in Washington ought to take things off the plates of the individual states. But much of the rest of the time, it's asking too much of us to try to enforce conformity among 332 million people living across a continental-scale country. ■ It doesn't make the states "laboratories" that they can choose policies differently from one another -- it makes them workable, in scale and in ambition. Let's not forget that the entire United States had only about 4 million people when George Washington took office, and even then there were vast differences among the states. The Federal system is designed to work by escalating only what is necessary to the national level, while reserving all else to the state level (or to wherever the states delegate). ■ For as much as we need to cool off the mood of the country, it would serve us well to put our energies into what's really in our immediate back yards. Replacing a Supreme Court justice will inevitably focus the attention of the entire country. But it would be good for us to remember that the disputes that rise to the level of nationwide attention ought to be few. As Dwight Eisenhower once noted, "A family squabble is always exaggerated beyond its true importance." Perhaps one of the best ways to stick together is to refrain as much as possible from sticking our noses into one another's business.
January 28, 2022
The College Board has announced that the SAT is going digital throughout the US in 2024. The exam "will still be scored on a 1600 scale" but it will change in content as well as format, turning into a shorter test: "about two hours instead of three for the current SAT, with more time per question". Whatever the changes, the exam will likely still remain one of the most influential tools for sorting talent among students of high school age. ■ That sorting process isn't always about college admissions per se, but that of course has been the main point historically. The United States has a funny relationship with college, of course: Harvard traces its history to 1636 (three cheers for the inaugural graduating Class of 1642!), but over time, the country has used land-grant colleges to democratize the knowledge of agriculture, the GI Bill to reintegrate the veterans of World War II into a changed economy, and the National Defense Education Act to try to help win the Cold War. ■ Yet one thing we've never really undertaken is a mission promoted by some of the Founders. In 1796, George Washington told Congress, "I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress, the expediency of establishing a National University; and also a Military Academy. The desirableness of both these Institutions, has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject". James Madison, serving in Congress at the time, was a leading proponent of the idea. ■ Madison was still pressing for the idea 20 years later as President himself: "The importance which I have attached to the establishment of a university within this District on a scale and for objects worthy of the American nation induces me to renew my recommendation of it to the favorable consideration of Congress." In the end, we ended up with a law school that later merged into George Washington University. ■ Other than the service academies (which served a separate purpose, even in Washington's original conception of the idea), we've never really had such a national university. Lots of other countries have them, but the United States has remained unmoved by the idea. ■ Considering the other ways in which our system of higher education has evolved, perhaps America took a better course. States tend to take pride in their own flagship universities (and not just on the football field or the basketball court), and the emergence of collegiate conferences has had at least some positive effect in stimulating competition to be seen as cadres of elite academic institutions. ■ Yet it's hard not to look at the emphasis that an intellectual heavyweight like Madison placed on the idea -- one researcher estimated Madison's IQ at a white-hot 160 -- and wonder how things might have looked if we had taken such a path. Would it have turned us more like Britain or France, where the "Oxbridge" duopoly and the National School of Administration have had vastly oversized effects on their respective governments -- for better or worse? Or might it have been a tool by which high-priority national policies or missions could have been enacted by concentrating resources (and cachet) on particular goals? ■ Or would perhaps the most democratic of all outcomes have emerged from instituting a national university not for the most elite performers, but for the maximum affordability and accessibility of any American with the interest? We rightly place Abraham Lincoln on a pedestal, and yet his background forced him to be mostly self-educated. Suppose Lincoln had lacked even a little of the internal motivation that drove him to overcome the limitations of his meager resources and humble beginnings -- would the Union itself have survived? ■ The evolution of the SATs might well be one of those instances that cause us to put some overdue thought into what might serve the national interest better than what we have today. And it may well be that, in a time of accelerating technological and economic change, our best bet is to ask what Washington and Madison might have done if they'd known the raw skills of a Lincoln were to come and that the then-unimaginable resources of the 21st Century would someday become real.
January 30, 2022
$100 million worth of embarrassment?
Musical artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are using the presence of their music to try to punish the streaming service Spotify for placing a spotlight on the podcast of Joe Rogan. Young ignited the dispute with a letter taking issue with Rogan's use of his program to promote viewpoints on Covid-19 that don't square with medical standards of care. ■ Platform sites like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are in a position that remains ambiguous, and it seems they like it that way. On one side, they resort to language that suggests they exist to facilitate a sense of community: Facebook users are "friends" and the site's policies are "community standards". On the other side, the platforms are comfortable disclaiming any responsibility for the content they carry. ■ To the extent that any platform is behaving according to the spirit of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they should be generally free to remain at arm's length from the content they host -- while reserving the right to remove content that is harmful. Those protections in Section 230 have largely shown themselves to be good for individual freedoms as they are expressed online. ■ But when the platforms step from facilitating the liberal distribution of content to specifically mixing and arranging the content in order to maximize their profits from the content, something else is afoot. In Spotify's case, paying a huge sum (some say it's $100 million) for exclusive access to Rogan's program. In Facebook's case, it's the knowing use of content-recommendation algorithms intended to increase users' attachment to the site -- in ways that appear to have directed people down foreseeable paths to radicalization. ■ These situations offer clear illustrations that it can be dangerous to pigeonhole certain questions as matters for "business ethics", as opposed to the ethics of individual responsibility. Within an organization, it can be tempting to pass the buck or to treat the institution as a sentient being with its own sense of responsibility. ■ But the reality is that every firm, every government agency, every church, every club, and every other institution is comprised of people. And people have to decide sometimes that a decision with obvious rewards (like profits) isn't worth an ethical compromise. ■ Mitt Romney took a beating for telling an audience at the 2011 Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people". But anyone who listened to Romney critically should have understood that he was really saying that "corporations are [made up of] people" -- that people are the employees, managers, customers, and shareholders of corporations. ■ That understanding isn't just useful for those times we think about matters like corporate tax rates. It's important, too, for understanding that there are standards aside from corporate law or government regulations that ought to apply to making right and ethical decisions. ■ Content hosting platforms ought to have reasonable legal protections, mainly in the interest of preserving the benefits of individual liberties like the freedom of speech. But the people who run those platforms shouldn't mistake the boundaries of the law for the boundaries of what is right.
January 31, 2022
Wars are costly, nasty things that tend to deprive the world of productive resources and bring suffering to innocent people. That doesn't mean they aren't sometimes necessary -- but prudent people appreciate that they aren't merely a matter of guts and glory for the warfighters, but of real human suffering that ought to be avoided. The problem so often is that prudence is often asymmetrical: The first-mover advantage tends to favor those who start wars while their counterparties look for peace. ■ In the tense situation between Ukraine and Russia, all eyes are on Vladimir Putin -- and on Joe Biden. Russia has invaded Ukraine already under Putin's direction, so the emergent question is what and who might stand in the way of further aggression. ■ By the numbers, Ukraine appears outmatched, which means it would need some other dynamic to change the balance. The weaponry arriving from NATO countries appears to be one such weight on the scale. But there is no particular appetite for war among those NATO members, nor any binding commitment to fight if Ukraine really does suffer an invasion. Though it's hazardous to regress back to a Cold War mindset (rather than to see this as a novel dispute), there is clearly a moral dimension to the question of what constitutes the right thing for the United States to do. ■ The true measure of a country's greatness is its capacity and willingness to do good in the world. Power is relatively easy to wield: Kingdoms have fought each other for at least 3500 years. Using power for good and decent purposes is more complicated. It requires asking: Are we ready, willing, and able to leave the world better than we have found it? ■ Look at World War II: The United States wasn't ready to fight when the fight began. Dwight Eisenhower lamented the abysmal disposition of the armed forces going into the war: "On July 1, 1939, the Army's enlisted strength in the United States -- air, ground, and service -- was less than 130,000", and he referred to the state of military preparedness as "a situation of appalling danger". ■ Even if the United States had been ready to fight in 1939 or 1940, public opinion was not yet willing. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in mid-1940, 93% of Americans in a Gallup poll opposed declaring war on Germany. ■ Thus, the United States in that moment of emerging war wasn't ready, nor was it willing. But it was able, and once the great "arsenal of democracy" was fired up and public opinion was mobilized, America's place as the great superpower was secured. ■ What is the answer to the complex situation right now? It not only depends upon what we're able to do, but what we're ready and willing to do in the interest of good in the world. Those are measures applicable to our engagements everywhere -- and they aren't strictly reducible to counting Howitzers and Special Forces operators. Conflicts take place far more in gray zones today than at any time in living memory. Americans have a duty to grapple with the consequences of our involvement in the world -- and with the consequences of being unready, unwilling, or unable to act.
February 1, 2022
Can't you do any better than this?
It seems odd that telephone companies are, on one hand, rolling out 5G network service and promising a whole new world of speedy data, while remaining utterly incapable of handling the epidemic of spoofed numbers on the other. The expansion of 5G service represents a triumph of technology -- one that resulted in a protracted dispute with the airline industry, because of the possibility that those electronic signals could interfere with the radio altimeters that tell airplanes how high they are above the ground. ■ Taking additional safety precautions over 5G may not have been strictly necessary: European telecommunications companies seem to have avoided aviation hazards through some collaboration with the aviation regulators there, and some of the European precautions may have been sufficient to protect aviation in the United States, too. But nobody wants to be the bureaucrat or the corporate executive who let an airliner crash. Thus, we have lots of inter-agency and partisan finger-pointing, but the end result is that safety concerns have prevailed. ■ Yet for all the safety-related concern that has gone into 5G regulation, why hasn't the problem of spoofing been treated as a similar safety issue? ■ It may seem that the main problems of spoofed numbers come from general nuisance or from the risk that calls originating from false numbers are a source of fraud. Indeed, spoofed numbers cause both, and the Federal Trade Commission has much to say about the problem and extent of phone scams. ■ But faked numbers are a very real security and safety problem, too. "Swatting", or placing an emergency call to police from a fraudulent or spoofed source, puts innocent people in real danger of finding themselves on the receiving end of an abrupt and potentially intense or even dangerous visit from police. ■ Spoofing is also a tool useful to some of those who would circulate rumors of school or workplace violence, including bomb threats. At least 14 HBCUs were targeted with bomb threats on the first day of February. It's too early for the public to have learned whether any particular threat involved spoofing or not, but it's virtually certain that the perpetrators tried to cover their tracks with spoofed numbers. ■ The criminals may have been domestic terrorists (and even a false bomb threat is likely to qualify as an act of terrorism). They may have been foreign, too -- and it should be plainly evident that bad actors abroad can see the weakness in our system and perceive how they might gain from stoking fear and division among Americans. It is known that malevolent forces in Russia have tried to instigate racial hostilities within the United States in very recent memory, and creating problems for HBCUs on the first day of Black History Month would be an unsurprising move on their part. ■ Fundamentally, the scope of the incident -- again, more than a dozen institutions were targeted -- is enough to demonstrate that real harm and disruption to security and safety can be facilitated through telephone calls. It's likely the HBCU threats were coordinated, and virtually certain that they were communicated using tools to evade detection. ■ Telecommunications companies have a civic (if not a legal) duty to take those security problems as seriously as the potential risks that 5G signals pose to aircraft. It's insufficient for phone companies to offer advice like "Don't answer calls from unknown numbers" and "Don't bother tracing spoofers". A perfect system may be beyond reach, but the status quo is entirely inadequate. Spoofing isn't just an inconvenience, it's a danger.
February 2, 2022
It may be going too far to label the New York Times a "lifestyle brand", but the Old Gray Lady is engaged in what is clearly a process of self-definition that has grown beyond "All the news that's fit to print". In the latest move, the Times has reached a deal to acquire the game Wordle, which has become the social sensation of the moment. ■ Games are obviously nothing new to the Times; the Internet in particular seems only to have instigated institutional interest in being seen as a center for word games. But the Times has been publishing crossword puzzles since World War II, and one Times columnist reports that the old internal saying was that "the crossword puzzle pays for the Baghdad bureau". That kind of cross-subsidy is neither new to publishing nor shocking. ■ But what's interesting -- at least for the moment -- is that the Times seems to be alone in its quest to be seen as a reliable source of original, exclusive, and differentiated way-of-life media content. The Wall Street Journal has stuck its toe into leisure reporting and the Washington Post has some games on its website, but neither has pressed in the same way on brand-defining content outside of straight news coverage (especially of financial and political topics, respectively) as the Times has done. ■ What's odd, too, is that American media outlets in other conventional lanes -- television networks, radio groups, magazines, cable channels, and even websites -- have ceded the same turf to the Times without really even trying. It doesn't really mean much of anything for a person to identify as a "CBS News viewer" or a "Yahoo subscriber", and aside from the obvious political connotations that tend to bear with calling oneself an MSNBC or Fox News viewer, there's little that seems to exist to attach people to those larger brand umbrellas. Sure, one can pay for the Disney Bundle, but streaming services don't really have reputations beyond the specific shows or movies they deliver. ■ This all seems odd because even if the Times has an advantage in this area, it's still a work in progress and remains quite new. One writer notes that news subscriptions are much more important to the Times than they were two decades ago, but that revenues not directly related to news are now driving the company's subscription growth. In other words, the Times is reacting to changing circumstances -- but it's neither alone in the economic conditions it faces, nor is there any reason to think it has a right to a monopoly in its lane. ■ Historically, the pattern always seems to have favored at least three major competitors in a mass market -- think of the Big Three automakers in Detroit; the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks; or the longtime triumvirate of American, United, and Delta in the skies. The stability of a three-sided competitive market isn't permanent; all three of those examples have succumbed to intense pressure from at least one tough rival (Toyota, Fox, and Southwest, respectively). ■ But it would come as no surprise if there were to emerge at least two other Times-like original/exclusive content sources that attempted to establish themselves as competitors in the same broader-than-just-news category -- not because the Times will fall short, but because of the success itself. There's no form of flattery quite like imitation, and it would be a massive mistake to ignore the success of forays like NYT Cooking. ■ Success will likely depend upon having at least some established name to use as a base, especially since that cachet is important to attracting both subscribers and content generators. But that name will have to be at least relatively free of baggage -- even people who don't like the editorial stance of the Times generally recognize it as being mostly mainstream. ■ It would be fair to guess that The Atlantic might take a stab at following the Times model, but it tends to occupy a very similar lane (in terms of where its perspective leans) with the Times. It would be fascinating to see a similarly mainstream institution -- but perhaps with a gently different outlook -- try to become the same kind of content giant. Historically, one might have imagined the Chicago Tribune to be prepared to take up such a spot, but its new owners have chosen to downsize radically rather than think bigger. So, assuming the Times isn't barking up the wrong tree altogether, who will it be?
February 3, 2022
Who belongs on the gallery wall?
The lovely idea of decorating an office wall with a gallery composed of what one might call "patron saints" has a lot going for it. One doesn't have to agree or disagree with anyone else's choice of characters to display or admire, because the exercise itself is worthwhile. ■ Nobody has the liberty to choose their own birth parents, but everyone can (and should) pick their own intellectual forebears. It's a good idea to consciously pick some attitudinal role models (real and/or fictitious), too. A character doesn't have to be real to offer something worthwhile to emulate -- and indeed many real figures are so good at building their own origin myths that hagiography is often just as good at creating fiction as a deliberate work of creative writing itself. ■ It's nice, of course, when those figures are both real and honestly represented. That's supposed to be the point of tributes, monuments, and memorials -- putting one on display represents a community decision about which people to emulate. We often literally put some of them on a pedestal. There's no reason not to do the same in a workplace, where suitable. ■ Presidents try to communicate things about their values by the busts and portraits they display in the Oval Office. It's a useful practice not because the people on display are perfect, but because they remind us tangibly of abstract values and principles. Could it ever be bad for President to be reminded to ask themselves, "What would George Washington do?" or "Would Abraham Lincoln approve?" ■ But even those of us with far fewer weighty decisions to make still benefit from thinking about our influences. And for as much attention as goes into office decor (now that we're in the era of the perpetual Zoom meeting), it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the best room ratings ought to go not to the biggest walls of well-arranged books (even though those are often pleasing to the eye), but to the best arrangements of "patron saints" -- even if the "saints" are entirely secular. ■ In many dioceses of the Catholic church, candidates for Confirmation choose a patron saint as a confirmation name, usually with a requirement to explain why. Generally, these candidates are teenagers, and, sure, some kids merely pick a name because they like the sound of it. But others really think about it. As well they should! ■ Do you really know who you want to be when you're 16? Not really. Are some religious saints probably terrible role models for life? Yes. But it's really the process that has value more than the choice itself. ■ One of the best reasons to really think about those role models -- intellectual, attitudinal, or otherwise -- is because the process reminds us of the universality of the human experience. We're not really that different from one another, no matter where or in what era we live. ■ That human nature is mostly consistent everywhere and mainly unchanging throughout history is reassuring. Rarely are our problems completely new and novel. And that means we're free to look at the sum of human experience and pick guides who can help make our own paths easier. Whether one chooses real people or merely the characters created by them doesn't really change matters -- the point is in the exercise of realizing how much "nature" resides in "human nature". ■ By no means does that render us helpless, adrift on a sea ruled by fate. To the contrary, it means that we have free will and choices to make with it. And we'd best decide to rule ourselves as though we are aware of the others who have experienced life before. And if putting a few of their pictures on a wall helps to do that, so much the better.
February 4, 2022
Don't know, don't care (more than a person should)
The power of spoken and written language is vast, and it's certainly one of the keenest advantages we have over the rest of the animal kingdom. The incredible power that resides in being able to transmit knowledge across centuries of time using nothing but written words really can't be overstated. The remainder of the animal kingdom has ways of communicating, but not in the recorded ways we do. ■ But in the moment, for the transmission of what's important right now, we almost never depend upon words alone. Where other living, breathing individuals are involved, we almost always use both verbal and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal language is even the way we communicate with animals like dolphins. It isn't really 90% of our total communication, as the urban legend would have it, but it means a lot -- especially where words leave ambiguity. ■ And if there were ever a nonverbal signal upon which we should put more emphasis, it is the humble act of the shoulder shrug. Not necessarily the shrug emoji (though it definitely has value), but the real-life lifting of the shoulders, either to indicate indifference or uncertainty. ■ To admit that we don't know something takes self-confidence. The Tao Te Ching counsels that "To know that you do not know is highest; to not know but think you know is flawed". Benjamin Franklin put it that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." ■ Confessing that one doesn't know is a very close cousin to admitting that one doesn't have an opinion. That's why the same shoulder shrug can communicate either: Uncertainty or indifference. Of course, it can go too far -- some people choose indifference to all things as a mark of ironic detachment from the world. But there is a different kind of detachment -- an earnest one -- that traces its roots at least back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said "[U]nderstand that every event is indifferent and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be; for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder." ■ Spend any amount of time following the chatter of media (mass, social, opinion, or otherwise), and you will find a world of people who substitute certainty over passing things -- especially the ephemera of things like party politics -- for the conditioned uncertainty of things we don't know, and maybe even cannot. The world is open to absolutely limitless wonder in ways that overshadow everything we actually know. But it is a crying shame that the quest to latch on to certainty makes so many human beings ready and eager to spend huge stores of time and energy on proclaiming their absolute certainty about things that really don't stick around. ■ To our shame, in the modern era there are opinion-mongers who host programs with obsessively certain names like "I'm Right" and self-described journalists who are devoted to posting outrages hour-by-hour for the consuption of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in an audience who apparently revel in being carried along for the ride. They are rewarded by a market for overstimulation and oversaturation of opinion. ■ Instead of going along with that troublesome course, why not more of the humble shoulder shrug? It is both decent to admit uncertainty and honorable to admit an earnest indifference. Most of us could stand to practice it more often.
February 5, 2022
The fact that ESPN fully commits to the gag really is hilarious
February 6, 2022
The Olympic Games feature a team under the name of "Russian Olympic Committee", or ROC, as a penalty for Russia's flagrant violations of the rules of competition. But "ROC" is supposed to stand for Taiwan, the Republic of China. Instead, they're forced to compete as "Chinese Taipei", and the athletes are not allowed to use their national symbols in competition.
A delightful lesson in Internet security
Even the Queen of England needs to watch what papers she inadvertently shares in her Instagram photos
Cross-promotion between the Winter Olympics and the new Jurassic Park movie has gotten really weird.
February 7, 2022
In Federalist Paper No. 51, "Publius" (either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison) wrote that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." It is a seminal argument about the nature of power: Checks and balances among competing power centers, deriving powers that are rivalrous to one another, serve as a more reliable insurance policy against overreach than hopes, prayers, and goodwill. The logic of those checks and balances embedded in the Constitution is a testament to Madison's efforts to finely tune the machine. ■ But nobody said anything about how to counter trolling. And that's a problem with which we moderns must deal. ■ The odious practice of using physical intimidation and online harassment to trouble the personal lives of elected officials has gotten well out of hand. Protesters have turned the front lawns of police chiefs and mayors into rally sites. Security details have had to raise their defenses at governors' residences over the hazards created by crowds. Houseboats and bathroom stalls and airport terminals have all turned into potentially unsafe spaces. ■ The intimidation isn't limited to physical presence. An online tabloid declares "We Have Kyrsten Sinema's Social Security Number" and hints at how it could be found by others and abused. Mayors are targeted with online threats. Nor should it be forgotten that a major Presidential candidate gave out a rival's phone number and suggested that people "try it" in 2015. ■ Things have been worse at times in the past. Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated. Terrorist campaigns plagued the Reconstruction era. ■ Our distinctly modern problem is that as the country's population grows ever larger and our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the guardrails that keep the distance between differences of opinion and matters of personal jeopardy become ever more fragile. And if we expect our elected officials to give up ever more -- of their personal safety, their privacy, their online security, or merely their own access to quiet -- then it becomes distinctly possible that good people will simply walk away, or never look at public service in the first place. ■ Gresham's Law in economics states that bad money chases out good. If we aren't sufficiently consistent and clear about rejecting bad behavior in the political sphere, no matter how much we dislike a politician's behavior or how justified we believe our own causes to be, then we risk imposing a Gresham's Law over politics -- in which bad people will drive out the good. Ambition will forever be present, but ambition can be decent and honorable -- or it can be indecent and dishonorable. ■ We've already come much too close to the edge of crippling political violence in recent memory. Disagreement on merits is utterly wholesome. But tactics intended to substitute personal discomfort as a means of pressure against others ought to be designated clearly out of bounds.
The loudest voices aren't necessarily the most authoritative
But the problem for more than one academic field (prominently including economics) is that influence in the real world often depends on being part of the conversation. The question of whether academics should insert themselves into public debates is reminiscent of the long-standing differences in the Catholic Church between the orders that cloister themselves (like the Trappists) and the missionaries (like the Jesuits).
Airline merger: Frontier to buy Spirit
That's the proposal, but we'll have to wait and see whether it obtains regulatory approval. If it goes through, they'll need to decide what to call the resulting fleet. "Frontier Spirit" Airlines sounds bold, aggressive, and Western -- calling for a commercial voiceover by Sam Elliott. "Spirit Frontier" Airlines, on the other hand, sounds like it uses meditation music during the safety briefing and diffuses essential oils into the air vents, with commercial voiceover by Gwyneth Paltrow. Decisions, decisions.
February 8, 2022
Poetry isn't a substitute for logic
Venturing boldly (if unnecessarily) into the geopolitical arena, the ice cream brand Ben and Jerry's offers the following analysis: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. We call on President Biden to de-escalate tensions and work for peace rather than prepare for war. Sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia's threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war." ■ The phrase "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war" sounds lovely, and it has a respectable pedigree: Albert Einstein penned it. But the logic of the argument is faulty. ■ Consider swapping out the word "war" for other unwanted events: A declaration like "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for fire" would count as heresy to any fire department (or forestry agency). Likewise, a police department would reject the notion that "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for crime". A hospital undoubtedly tries to both prevent and prepare for disease, and a security company surely tries to prevent and prepare for burglary. ■ It is one thing to say that preparing for an undesirable outcome (and war surely is an undesirable event) is a regrettable act. It is quite another to say that preparation itself is contrary to the nature of peace. ■ Plenty of people involved in war have believed in the values of preparation and deterrence: Dwight Eisenhower declared in his first inaugural address that "[W]e Americans know and we observe the difference between world leadership and imperialism; between firmness and truculence; between a thoughtfully calculated goal and spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies." And James Mattis said as Secretary of Defense that "Our will to win is not more important than our will to prepare to win." Neither man wanted more bloodshed; both sought less precisely because they knew intimately the human cost of war. ■ Just because a phrase is artfully put doesn't make it sensible, and Einstein's quote is a case study in the difference between the two. It is imperative to plan for the worst -- whether that means the worst of natural disasters or the worst of what humans can do to one another. To make preparations may well be the saem act as to implement preventative measures. ■ Moral philosophers -- often including vocal pacifists -- have often argued "If you want peace, work for justice". If an act by a powerful force would be unjust -- like, for instance, a large military making war by invading a smaller neighbor out of self-interest -- then the truly peaceful act may well be for other powerful forces to intercede. The principle that the strong should come to the aid and defense of those who are weaker is nothing new.
The sleep of the past wasn't necessarily any better than yours
Derek Thompson: "The romanticization of preindustrial sleep fascinated me. It also snapped into a popular template of contemporary internet analysis: If you experience a moment's unpleasantness, first blame modern capitalism." ■ Worth noting: It's hard to take seriously any sleep-related recommendations from a time before interior climate controls, pillow-top mattresses, contoured pillows, white-noise machines, deadbolts on front doors, smoke detectors, or countless of the other modern niceties that offer us the privilege of choosing how and when to sleep. Our biggest problem is likely that people simply don't know how (or choose not) to implement good habits of sleep.
Couple arrested and charged with money-laundering billions
These numbers are so unreal they make the entire allegation (featuring cryptocurrency) seem like a work of fantasy fiction.
Russia takes shot at French president just after meeting with him
Generally speaking, if you follow up a meeting by publicly undercutting the authority of your counterpart, then you're going to sound weak and petty -- not unlike demanding to speak with a manager.
How education changed a family that had been enslaved
A brief but illustrative family history. It's fascinating and perspective-enhancing to note the impact of education on families as larger units, especially when generations were explicitly denied access to it.
February 9, 2022
Stopping birds' motion in flight
A positively delightful series of photos capturing the flight patterns of birds, bats, and dragonflies. Thoroughly wonderful to behold.
Hulu is bringing back "Futurama". Now, if only someone would reboot "The Critic".
February 10, 2022
Social media gives us high-visibility reminders that there is no reliable correlation between the ease of finding content and the truth of that content. For every faithful account of events, there could be infinite misrepresentations of the same. That's the whole point of propaganda tactics like hashtag flooding, recently used by the Chinese government to swamp the social-media hashtag "#GenocideGames" (meant to protest the 2022 Beijing Olympics) and drown it in a sea of spam, effectively neutering the original message. ■ Even when bad faith isn't strictly involved, lots of people share their thoughts online with insufficient regard for their duty to the truth. And because so much of the contemporary understanding of the world is influenced either by what people read online (84% of American adults "often" or "sometimes" get their news through digital devices), and by how journalistic outlets reach their news judgments (one research paper called it the "routinization of Twitter into news production"), the flow of content is too important to overlook. ■ For example, it would be a useful feature if social media tools allowed users add a marker like a caution triangle to the accounts they follow, visible only to themselves, to mark those accounts they follow out of curiosity or necessity, but which need to be read with added caution or skepticism. Sources vary not only in the frequency of what they share, but also the weight that should be attached to them. ■ One of the privileges of a well-rounded education is in gaining an understanding that lots of things asserted in writing or in other records are subjective, distorted by the author's perspective, purely opinion-based, or flat-out wrong. And they're often mixed with truths. Conscious consumption of all sorts of media requires that the audience be able to detach itself from the moment and consider it critically. ■ A good, well-rounded education also helps a person to understand that sometimes the best information is found in a footnote. Or in marginalia. Or in the informal institutional memory of an organization. Or in the disorganized stacks in the basement of a library. ■ Humans need practice to develop the skill of learning how to sort, rate, and weigh information. If a person's understanding is (crudely) "It's in a textbook, so it must be true", then they need more practice. Things asserted as "Facts" sometimes really belong in gray spaces. ■ Likewise, we read and understand things through filters that include principles, and sometimes those principles come into conflict. "Tell the truth" is a vital principle -- unless, for instance, telling a lie would save a life. Then, "Save a life" should prevail and the truth should go out the window. The whole reason to have a Supreme Court is to reach judgments in those places where rules and principles come into friction with one another. Court opinions, "stare decisis", and common law are all parts of a communal attempt to reach decisions through a cloud of imperfect information. ■ In light of all this, it is worrisome that we have such a tenuous grasp on what it means to learn. We really know shockingly little about how the human learning process works -- and now humans are programming computers to "learn", such as it is. And often, badly, which is why self-driving cars have been programmed to roll through stop signs and otherwise convincing artificially-generated faces sometimes contain telltale errors, like bungled teeth. ■ The real friction is that increasing dependency on artificial intelligence exposes us to big shortcomings in our understanding of the nature of learning itself. How do you tell artificial intelligence not to believe everything it "reads"? Or that some principles are inviolable...until they aren't? Or that a footnote can mean anything from "This explains everything above" to "The author was bored and wanted to crack a joke"? ■ The prospects are vast for machine learning to do lots of useful things -- in consultation with human oversight and judgment. But we can't let crypto-bros and techno-utopians do all the thinking about what's upstream of AI, or else we're headed for serious trouble. We need caution flags not only for ourselves, but for the tools we're training to think like us, too.
February 11, 2022
The Nordic countries -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland -- are widely viewed as some of the best-governed countries in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit issues a "Democracy Index" every year, and those five countries not only make a clean sweep of Europe's top 5, they are also five of the top six in the world (New Zealand manages to squeeze in at #2). ■ What seems strange about their performance isn't that they are unlikely candidates, but that there isn't an obvious compelling reason for them to be so uniquely good at what they do. Finland was occupied by Russia until a mere century ago. Sweden and Norway were ruled by a common kingdom from 1814 until 1905. Denmark was occupied by the Nazi regime of Germany from 1940 until 1945. ■ All of this is to say that there are other countries with longer-standing fully-independent democratic institutions. And other countries have much more recognizable pedigrees of influential political theory: The United Kingdom, for instance, gave the world John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, to name only a few. When we consider vast intellectual movements like the Enlightenment, lots of other European countries left behind much more prominent footprints. ■ Nor is there a widely-known canon of literature explaining the Nordic philosophy of liberal democracy -- at least not in the same way that Americans know where to look for Paine's "Common Sense", the Federalist Papers, and de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to explain the American idea. ■ Yet clearly something is being done well in the Nordic countries, and consistently so -- despite the differences among them. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are members of NATO; Sweden and Finland are not (at least, not for now). Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are members of the European Union; Norway and Iceland are not. These are not trivial differences. ■ Nor are their economies the same; Iceland depends on tourism, aluminum smelting, and fishing, while Norway is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and Finland relies heavily on timber exports. ■ It may be that the countries' shared cultural identity and commitment to intergovernmental cooperation through structures like the Nordic Council cause them to behave alike without having a particularly unique historic pedigree establishing an globally-recognized way. And maybe that itself is the reason it works -- their policies emerge more as organic manifestations of habits that have been shaped by trial and error rather than as ideals that must be adhered-to in order to keep the faith with the past. ■ Whatever the causes, the effects show them to be indisputably worth a closer look -- especially as the world grows wealthier and more technologically sophisticated. It's going to grow harder and harder for tyrants and authoritarians to keep their people from at least becoming aware that there are better ways than oppression and submission. The easier we can make the process of emulating the most successful and durable democracies, the better.
February 12, 2022
Possibly the most grating sentence ever published
"EV Hotel, which is billed as 'the first crypto and tech hotel,' has partnered with Chicago Digital Exchange (CDX), a cryptocurrency and NFT exchange, on a CDX Crypto trading floor"
Housing prices falling in Hong Kong
Bloomberg on the housing situation in Hong Kong: "The number and value of new home transactions already fell by 29 per cent and 18 per cent respectively in January from the month before, Ricacorp data show." The only real surprise is that the dreadful National Security Law hadn't tanked housing prices in Hong Kong already.
Scissors are just knives with applied discipline
February 13, 2022
Go back in time to the 1970s and early 1980s, and you'll find big, widely-diversified conglomerates all across the American business landscape: Companies like ITT (which owned everything from Sheraton Hotels to insurance and timber companies. At one time, the movie studio Paramount Pictures was owned by Gulf + Western, which also owned Consolidated Cigar and New Jersey Zinc. ■ Though there are still a few deeply-diversified companies still around today, they are a rare breed: Berkshire Hathaway, Loews, and a handful of other companies still operate on the principle that wide diversification benefits the shareholder. On a company level, it's more common to hear praise for spinoffs and "pure plays" than for portfolio broadening. ■ The conglomerates of that period were a result of a number of factors, not least of which included the taxation of both corporate profits and individual dividends, as well as the cost to borrow money. When it's expensive to borrow and taxes on dividends are high, it can serve investors well to have their profits reinvested at the corporate level. Profits under those conditions can be used as a substitute for high-interest borrowing and increase a company's total profits. ■ One of the great missed opportunities of the modern educational era is that we don't really educate our secondary or post-secondary students in the basic history of American business. That history is important not only to telling much of the story about how America has become the country it is today, but also to helping young people learn foundational principles useful for their own investing. ■ It may not have seemed important to understand business valuations back when the promise of a secure, defined-benefit pension was commonplace. It isn't anymore; most people are on the hook for their own retirement investing. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: Many companies made pension promises they couldn't actually fulfill, and the shortfalls have resulted in a lot of pain for retirees who ended up getting less than they had been promised. It's probably better to educate individuals so they can have greater control for themselves. ■ But that means every individual investor needs to acquire at least some of the same skills that once benefited the conglomerateurs. Knowing how much a company is worth is one of those essential skills for individual investors -- unless they intend to hand over the duties to the market overall (via index funds) or by paying someone else to do the work. Everyone in the era of individual investing needs the skills that once made for great stories. Teaching them is a much more important and valuable responsibility than we've given them credit.
The halftime show at Super Bowl LVI was fantastic, but it could have used just a little more Martha Stewart alongside her pal Snoop Dogg
February 14, 2022
Your app can't love you (but does it have a duty to help?)
Valentine's Day may be the peak of the "Hallmark holidays", but that doesn't stop institutions of all sorts from trying to weigh in on the theme of love. Snapchat, for instance, pushed a bland, programmatic message to its users for the holiday: "Happy Valentine's Day! Snap some love to those around you and save some for yourself of course". ■ Considering how much social-media applications depend upon user engagement to remain viable, it's no surprise that any viable opportunity to tug on emotional cues to suggest that people use an app is likely to turn into such a "push" message. But generic messages of this sort always seem hopelessly hollow, and that's odd, considering the centuries-long history of beautiful writing about love (and by those in love) throughout the canon of literature. ■ It's probably too much, of course, to expect anyone working in corporate branding at a place Snapchat to come up with a few lines that would achieve with an economy of words (and heart emojis) the kinds of sentiments it took Shakespeare 25,545 words to express in "Romeo and Juliet". But maybe it isn't too much to ask. ■ The half-hearted attempt to suggest that the user engage in "self-care" by "sav[ing] some for yourself of course" hints at the the inkling of a sense of duty: That we ought to know that Valentine's Day isn't a purely joyful day for all -- either because of love lost, or of love never found. Romance may be a nearly-universal aspect of human experience, but so are heartbreak and longing. Knowing that, is it really enough to commit the digital equivalent of a drive-by shooting with Cupid's arrow? ■ We have a long way to go before we truly grasp what our ever-present devices, our dopamine-triggering applications, and our complex senses of digital community are doing to us. For the exceptional good they are capable of doing, they are also risky: To at least the same extent that computers can help monitor our social and emotional well-being, they are also capable of creating insidious hazards to vulnerable brains. ■ The science of it all is still so young that it is undoubtedly premature to think that the duty to prevent harm can be effectively imposed by regulation or other forms of legal control. But that duty exists nonetheless, and the people who work on these things we so casually call "platforms" must be reminded constantly of their human responsibility to ensure that they do the right thing. ■ There may be nothing wrong with sending a push message on an emotionally charged holiday like Valentine's Day, but it cannot escape the attention of reasonable people that there is a big difference between offering an aisle full of candy and cards for sale in a grocery store, and sending a message virtually unfiltered straight into a user's brain on a day when they might be in a vulnerable state. ■ It's not just the quality of the language that matters (though surely someone ought to look at examples like the love letters of John and Abigail Adams to see that they can do better than "Snap some love"); it's the psychology at work in both what is said and unsaid that has consequences, too. The choice to "do no harm" is available to everyone, including those of us outside the medical professions. And sometimes, rather than saying things poorly or risking saying something unintentionally harmful, it may be best to refrain from saying anything at all.
New rule: No one is allowed to advocate for any national legislation until they can label every state on a blank map without assistance. Before you try to tell other people how to live their lives, you'd better know how to tell your Ohio from your Idaho (and both from your Iowa).
WYSIWYG is what did WordPerfect in
A brief walk down memory lane: WordPerfect had much better shortcut keys than Microsoft's word processors for use in the pre-Windows days, but they made a train wreck of their transition to WYSIWYG and it was all downhill from there. Microsoft Works was garbage.
February 16, 2022
Why are we building so little multifamily housing?
In 1972, the United States had an estimated population of 208 million people. Today, we have 332 million. Yet despite the increase in population -- 124 million additional people -- there are about 45% fewer new multi-family housing units being started. While it's certainly not the only reason people are complaining about high housing prices, it's also impossible to look away from the basic relationship between supply and demand. Demand is forever on the rise (as the population grows) and supply not only has to keep pace with that growth but with the loss of old dwellings as old housing stock wears out. ■ Single-family homes remain the 800 lb. gorilla in the American imagination, but multifamily housing has several roles to play: It's not only the place where many people start as they stake out on their own in adulthood, it's also where lots of people choose to live in retirement. And for many people, it can be a sensible choice for lots of the time in-between. But we're very good at chasing multi-family housing out of the market, particularly through zoning laws. ■ Resistance to multi-family housing can be very strong and can create a major impediment to new construction. Sometimes that resistance is active (manifesting as objections to particular projects), but it's often systemically baked into zoning laws and land-use regulations. ■ Since so much of the resistance and opposition is based upon perceptions and assumptions, some of the questions that deserve to be asked are qualitative rather than quantitative. ■ Perhaps the most important question is: How different would the picture for multi-family housing be if it were seen as a net creator of value for nearby single-family housing, rather than perceived as a detractor? More specifically, but perhaps more to the point: How much of the categorical resistance to multifamily housing is a result of a broad-based lack of creative, attractive architecture? ■ Apartments, townhomes, condominiums, and even mixed-use buildings tend to be either stultifyingly bland or achingly predictable. The closest thing to real creativity tends to be the repurposing of old industrial buildings into lofts, and even that aesthetic has become a cliche (exposed brick, ghost signs, and ductwork -- we've seen it already). ■ Especially when it comes to delivering on the "missing middle" in the housing market, perhaps what is most needed (aside from the obvious regulatory and zoning reforms) is an attitude change -- one that sees multi-family housing as a value-adding feature in a neighborhood, rather than a value-depressant. People often need to see the proof of a concept before they can get on board with a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) attitude. ■ The imagination on display in some places should inspire people to see that density doesn't have any excuse to be ugly, and in turn that attractively-designed dwellings (whether detached or multi-family) can not only fit within but ultimately enhance the neighborhoods where they are built. Aesthetic appeal isn't the only thing that matters, but it certainly has a role to play in reconciling attitudes with the real needs of the market.
February 17, 2022
Suppose you could see into the future and be highly confident that we were likely to see an annual or near-annual cycle of Covid-19 outbreaks for a significant time to come, perhaps for a decade or more. If you had that knowledge, what would you do at the policy level to prepare for those high-stress periods that we aren't obviously doing today? ■ This question is important, because we don't know whether we will ever return to the status quo ante. What if short but very intense stress waves on the medical system become chronic? We have long rather unconsciously accepted that influenza will put stress on our society and our health-care systems every winter. What if we should also anticipate periodic Omicron-like spikes in hospitalizations -- maybe every 9 to 12 months -- despite having outstanding vaccines? ■ For now, the systemic pressure comes mainly from the unvaccinated, but we're still so new to this challenge that we don't know whether it will subside or remain with us effectively in perpetuity -- a problem unlikely to be permanently eradicated. Maybe it will, but we can't really count yet on that hope. ■ One possibility is that we might want to set up policies to permit (and train) something like a medical reserve corps. We have reserves in the military, as well as police auxiliaries and volunteer fire departments. Their presence doesn't diminish the full-time professionals in those fields, but it does give them options in times of acute need. What if we trained people to supply reserve capacity for medical care, too? ■ People respond to incentives -- as well as to disincentives. The United States has unusually high barriers to entry into the medical profession, including educational training that takes two years longer than most of our peer-group countries. It's likely those barriers disincentivize people from becoming doctors. In the typical six years required to become a PA (physician assistant) in the US, one could have completed a typical full medical degree in Sweden, the UK, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, or many other wealthy countries. ■ For the number of times we have been told in the last two years about medical systems "near collapse", it seems prudent to look for answers that might give us surge capacity in times of crisis. It seems even more prudent to do so in light of the widespread concern about burnout and emotional exhaustion among health-care professionals. ■ The Army trains combat medic specialists in 16 weeks. They are not supposed to be substitutes for doctors or nurses, but rather to be the best-available assistance between the point of crisis and a more thorough standard of care. If pandemic (or endemic) surges are going to return often and for the foreseeable future, maybe we need to make room both legally and logistically for people in the civilian world who can be called up from time to time to backstop doctors and nurses. At the very least, we ought to give the system a close examination.
February 18, 2022
The old phrase says that "Great minds think alike", which is often a convenient consolation. After all, great minds quite often think differently, not only from one another, but from most other minds around them. But there is an undeniable sense of pleasure that comes from finding oneself in agreement with someone else, especially where there is mutual trust and respect. ■ A phrase that deserves to come into currency alongside the well-known one is "Great minds think together". One of the well-recognized aspects of couplehood (and of family life in general) is that sharing life experience with other people permits us to "remember" in a social context, rather than just our own. Spouses know each other's stories, and can not only bring them up, but embellish or enhance them upon repetition. The same often goes for siblings, for parents and their children, and even for cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. ■ But we don't just remember things with the help of collective memory. We think socially, too. Nothing could have ever made this quite so evident on so large a scale as the isolation so abruptly imposed on practically everyone with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Informal social thinking -- scuttlebutt, water-cooler talk, "bouncing ideas off you", and the like -- has suffered tremendously over the last two years. It's been noticeable both in personal and occupational contexts; lots of employers still haven't resumed regular in-office work, church attendance remains dramatically down, and there are parts of the world where private gatherings are still strictly limited. ■ Thinking together serves many purposes at the same time, both regulatory and generative. Sharing an idea with friends is often a way to test whether it's worth further pursuit or ought to be left alone -- we help to regulate one another by pointing towards or away from ideas, based on our own knowledge, values, and experience. But we also generate new ideas through collaboration, even when it's informal; you pick up on a new recipe from a friend, they suggest a new author you should read, and soon enough, you're teaching one another whole new cooking techniques and reviewing movies together. ■ Psychologists will have to find ways of studying this massive natural experiment in which we have all been involuntarily enrolled for two years. There is only so much a chat feature in a Zoom meeting or an always-open Slack channel can do to facilitate the natural and organic exchanges that lead us to think together. ■ In some workplaces, productivity has risen as people have worked from home. But alert students of institutional memory know that much of workplace education still takes place informally, and it's undoubtedly the same for a lot of the leisure thinking we can only do when actively engaged with others -- social thinking. It's not always clear that great minds think alike, but nearly all minds must frequently spend time thinking together.
February 20, 2022
Cryptocurrency markets turn to Super Bowl ads
People watching the Super Bowl might have been surprised to witness advertising for cryptocurrency markets. After all, we don't usually encounter a lot of advertising for forex markets in mass media, and if we did, the viewer might reasonably wonder whether the ordinary retail investor were sophisticated enough to understand the nature and risks of betting on the relative values of currencies. ■ Such betting is exactly what parts of the cryptocurrency community are trying to promote with mass-market outreach like the Super Bowl advertising blitz. Super Bowl advertising is rarely about education; it's about emotion -- smashing Big Brother, lusting after Cindy Crawford, kneeling before the site of the Twin Towers. And in 2022, the emotion being pushed was the fear of missing out, with the words: "Don't be like Larry. Don't miss out on the next big thing". ■ It is a shame that cryptocurrencies, at least for the time being, are a market driven almost purely by speculation. It's sad because there is a viable argument for the utility of digital currencies not subject to government control -- for instance, as a store of value for those looking to escape life under oppressive regimes. If someone were living in a country like China and looking to leave with more than just the clothes on their back, cryptocurrencies might be a liberating tool. ■ But liberation from oppression isn't what the ad featuring a computer-manipulated young LeBron James. In selling was selling as it dripped with FOMO -- the Fear Of Missing Out. "Is the hype too much?" asks "young" James. "If you want to make history, you got to call your own shots", responds his modern-day counterpart -- projecting from a vantage of wisdom and experience. "Fortune favors the brave" screams the title across the closing shot. ■ At various times in history, "fortune" has favored "brave" speculators in tulip bulbs, Manhattan real estate, and .com startups. That doesn't mean any of those bubbles were necessary, virtuous, or prudent. "Fortune" also punished lots of "brave" speculators in those same manias. ■ Charlie Munger has argued that because of the curse of speculation and the perverse incentives sometimes in effect within our regulatory framework, "[I]t's very hard to get the government to make good, wise decisions about something like Bitcoin." While Munger may be too pessimistic about the potential utility of cryptocurrencies (and too magnanimous in his assessment of China's government for having cracked down on them altogether), his fundamental assessment is correct: The enthusiasm on display by promoters tends to obscure the real harm being done by encouraging regular people to enter the cryptocurrency casino. ■ For that is all it is right now: A casino in which turbulent pricing prevails, promises of riches cloud judgment, billions are laundered, and scammers have a heyday. ■ Emotions affect all sorts of ways in which people allocate their money -- whether shopping, investing, or speculating. That's nothing new. Nor is the allure of quick riches -- gambling will always be with us. But gambling cloaked as being on the "smart" side of investing ought to be discouraged. Anything can be sold as currency if people are willing to believe it is scarce and represents a store of value: Gold, seashells, or publicly-tracked computer bits. But we really don't need more speculation in our lives: The fear of missing out ought to be eclipsed by the skepticism of being taken for a ride.
February 21, 2022
The very idea of war should be abhorrent to any reasonable person. Any differences we have with other people on this planet should be well within the bounds of what can be resolved among reasonable people dealing rationally with one another. But reasonable people are not always in control. ■ There is nothing objectively reasonable about what Vladimir Putin has decided to do to Ukraine. The Russian military has been used to menace the people of Ukraine for nearly a decade. Fear has been the weapon of choice. ■ Real fear is essentially a universal evil. Not "fear" as we use it to describe the surprise that comes from going through a haunted house or the heightened emotional state that comes from watching a horror film, but real fear -- the intentional infliction of dreadful anxiety as a weapon. ■ Too many people want to make every struggle against things they dislike into the moral equivalent of war. The problem with this mode of thinking is that fear and discomfort are two different things. It is much more than a mere semantic distinction: The intentional infliction of fear is virtually always an act on the wrong side of the moral ledger, while discomfort can happen for all kinds of reasons. ■ People can endure a lot of discomfort. Many even emerge better for the experience. And reconciling ourselves with the impossibility of erasing all discomfort from human life would go a long way towards helping us to clarify the conversations and debates we have about the world and how to pursue "right" ends. Struggle is often the price of things worth having, and we shouldn't try to eliminate all discomfort, nor should we consider anyone evil if they choose not to share our vision of which discomforts ought to be mitigated. ■ But it shouldn't be hard to achieve consensus around the need to combat real, existential fear. The weapon of fear is evil whether it is the fear used by a police state, a regime pursuing ethnic repression, or a theocratic fascist terror group. And so also is it evil when it's used to try to disrupt a neighbor's march toward democracy.
February 22, 2022
Bringing more beauty into the world
An oddity of the always-on digital world is that we are enabled to remain in communication with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of other people on a sustained basis, yet nothing about human experience up to this point has given us practice in that kind of experience. Humans have always communicated with one another; indeed, the complexity of our interpersonal communication is one of the distinctive features of our humanity within the animal kingdom. But the fact that we can communicate with effectively unlimited audiences in real time -- right down to live streaming our moment-by-moment experience of the world -- is historically novel. ■ This connectivity raises the existence of an interesting new responsibility. We are each accountable for how much joy and beauty we create in the world. That has always been the case: Families and close-knit groups have always told us how we're doing with the help of visceral feedback. Did you make a child laugh? Did your co-workers greet you in the morning? Did your spouse blow you a kiss? ■ Now, though, if we choose to engage in the digital networks that are basically enmeshed with contemporary existence, we have to treat our extended networks with special attention to the balance of what we create. Some people still opt out of them, but for most people, the networks are almost impossible to avoid and often hard to resist. ■ Some people succumb to the temptation to treat all of those interactions as a sales opportunity -- think of the "influencer" culture that rewards people for living in TikTok mansions. And others fall for the lure of turning to their social networks instead of sharing their problems with trained professionals, like counselors and therapists. Neither approach seems prudent. ■ Instead, for most people, our best hope is to treat forays into our social diaries a lot like visits around a campfire, with pleasant company and light entertainment. While our social nature may compel us to share both life's ups and downs, beauty and joy should be the categories we consciously seek most often to fill -- whether with earnest humor or with those moments we are able to capture in still pictures, videos, conversations, or even paintings. ■ Just as it's wise to give other drivers grace on the highways (after all, we never know who, for example, is returning home from seeing an ailing family member in the hospital), so too is it wise to assume that someone encountering our moments online may be there in the midst of the worst. We aren't practiced at it yet anthropologically, but as a matter of general principle, we ought to spend most of our time not sharing over-glossy depictions of life, but of the ordinary encounters with good we have in the world. Beauty has never been so easy to capture; it is a shame if we don't share what of it we find.
February 23, 2022
Help us find what's "Made in Kyiv"
Americans have generally thought well of Canada -- if not a little avariciously. After all, the Articles of Confederation contained a provision to allow Canada free and unimpeded entry into the United States if our northerly neighbors so chose. That obviously didn't happen...though there are even Canadians and Americans alike who today find thoughts of a merger (partial or complete) to be attractive. ■ But at least as much as our common historical ties and strong cultural relationships would suggest, it is exchange and trade that really keep the two countries so closely bound together. Aside from the relatively trivial differences introduced by the metric/English divide and the floating exchange rate between the greenback and the loonie, there is very little to impede trade back-and-forth between the two countries (as long as protesters aren't standing in the way). And that trade is a much larger part of our economic life than any other day-to-day part of life, at least in America. ■ Our very strong trading relationship with Canada serves to enhance the sense of community between the two countries and solidifies the understanding that we have shared interests. Thus, their example makes it surprising that the United States has not done a better job of approaching international economic relationships as a more significant tool of global public diplomacy. ■ As the world's largest economy, Americans buy a lot of stuff and pay for a lot of services, not all of them created domestically. Even a small share of the giant American domestic market would be a giant boon to most international economies. Why is it, then, that we as American consumers don't have a convenient guide to the best places to spend our money so as to support known American interests in the world? ■ Suppose, for example, that an ordinary American wanted to support the freedom and independence of Ukraine. Very few of us are able to sit at the table where these things are negotiated. But one thing we can do is to spend our money -- but where? Where is it that we could spend our money to offer tacit monetary support for the well-being of a threatened state like Ukraine? ■ It's likely that in a handful of American communities (Pittsburgh, for one), one could find stores prominently featuring Ukranian imports. And perhaps it's possible to do some clever searching within Amazon to find products that are made in Kyiv or Donetsk. But by-and-large, ordinary Americans have no obvious place to go if they wish to do something to support America's geostrategic interests with our own consumer spending. ■ It wouldn't take the efforts of a very large staff to offer some of this information as a public service, but nobody in our Federal government seems to have done it. That seems like a failure of imagination: Americans are willing to spend lots of money in order to show support for causes we consider worthy. We are notoriously generous charitable givers, and we spend liberally on GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns. Why not turn to public diplomacy and American consumer spending as a way to find a surrogate method of "kickstarting" campaigns for countries in which we have a vested interest? ■ A trade promotion office, perhaps inside the State or Commerce Departments, might be able to smooth the path to help American buyers know to where we could put our money where our national mouth is. America has historically used trade and economic interaction to support the interests of peace around the world: Our rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan and our heavy investment in Japan during its postwar occupation tend to suggest that we could promote the same interests in peace through prosperity, even when the problems are not overwhelming or urgent. ■ Gently facilitating a pathway to buying things labeled "Made in _____" -- whether Ukraine or Iraq or a refugee camp in Lebanon or Uganda -- could be a meaningful way to help American consumers advance peaceful interests worldwide by boosting fragile economies. Prosperity matters to peace. ■ A benign broker who could offer suggestions and smooth the way could help. Some American consumers might choose to spend their money in these ways as a matter of short term virtue-signaling. No harm done if that's the case. Others, though, might find products or services that they wish to enjoy on an ongoing basis. And that sort of trade could serve to further American interests -- at virtually zero taxpayer expense.
February 24, 2022
When we encounter madness in the world, it can be hard to admit that complexity and irrationality leave us struggling and unable to understand. Even the ambassadors meeting at the United Nations were surprised in the middle of a Security Council meeting by the announcement that Russian armed forces had invaded Ukraine. ■ The warning signs had certainly abounded, but just days before the invasion, the mood of many -- including powerful people in Ukraine -- was skeptical of imminent conflict. One of the chief reasons it seemed unlikely was that Russia would have so much to lose and so little to fundamentally gain. ■ Yet some commentators seem compelled to attach themselves to the most simplistic answers possible. Prominent among them is Clay Travis, who occupies the radio network time slot that once belonged to Rush Limbaugh. His analysis: "Autocratic leaders believe in hyper masculinity, raw physical power. They believe that might makes right. America has spent decades fetishizing soft, cuddly, emotional power. Putin and Xi don't respect it. At all. This is the result." ■ It is an embarrassment to the American conscience that someone with so shallow an understanding of the world barks such nonsense to a national broadcast audience for three hours a day, five days a week. ■ Empty-headed appeals to the triumph of "masculinity" are in vogue in some quarters -- but as geopolitical analysis, they are garbage. Modern statecraft, diplomacy, and warfare depend on factors like intelligence, adaptability, ingenuity, and reasoning. It would be daft to think that a country's armed forces would be stronger than another's if only it chose to forswear using half of its available brainpower. "Hyper masculinity" and "raw physical power" may appeal to some -- but their appeal is mainly to those who fail to see the bigger picture. ■ It makes far more sense to recognize that Vladimir Putin is a man who depends upon the state equivalent of an organized crime syndicate, of which he is the mafia don. He is not a decent man who has won such esteem of his people that he is indispensable to his country: Remember that in a free election, the voters of the United Kingdom tossed out even the estimable Winston Churchill once WWII was over. ■ Free and fair elections invariably result in restlessness. Putin has manipulated the law and used pretexts to hold on to power for 22 years. And a transparent political system free of gross corruption wouldn't turn out a dictator-for-life with a $200 billion fortune. ■ Many of the Russian people know better and want better, which serves to explain why many are turning out to protest, despite the costs many of them will face under Putin's police state. ■ The invasion of Ukraine is, at its heart, an act of cowardice compelled by the personal interests of an irredeemably evil man, who knows full well that innocent people are dying of his choice. We don't have to intuit the precise reasons why he sees the move as serving his self-interests to know that he acts only to preserve himself and the gang that surrounds him. That's why international moves to deprive him and his inner circle of their assets is considered such a high-priority tool. ■ The situation appears like an act of crude desperation to prop up his regime -- perhaps under the theory that a military victory would bolster enough public support to keep him from being toppled. Putin knows that a quiet retirement in some warm-weather dacha is out of the question. Once he is out of power, he will undoubtedly find himself targeted -- and likely disposed of. So he acts to bind his inner circle closer to him in an act of escalatory commitment. It's a dangerous gamble, it will most likely be severely destabilizing, and it will have grave consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and possibly others. Escalation is almost always necessary within a criminal syndicate, and it usually ends badly for the boss. ■ The invasion of Ukraine isn't about simplistic impressions of diminished Western "masculinity". It's not about women flying combat missions for the US Air Force or Finland having a female prime minister. Appeals to "raw power" are just window dressing and always have been. Look instead to the vile self-interest of a small cabal of people who know that once they start to lose their grip, they'll lose it all.
February 25, 2022
One of the factors that diminished the deterrent effects of European warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine was continental Europe's dependency on Russian-supplied natural gas. About a quarter of European energy comes from natural gas, with half of that used for heating, and about a quarter used for each of industrial purposes and electrical generation. Europe counts on Russia for 41% of its natural gas. ■ Part of this dependency comes from the depletion of Europe's own North Sea gas supplies; it's not often easy to make a transition from one energy source to others, so finding other supplies was easier for many purposes than going with alternatives. Another part of this dependency is the result of European efforts to phase-out the use of coal in order to reduce carbon pollution (a meritorious goal). But renewable energy is still in a growth phase -- and Germany is prematurely shutting down its nuclear-energy supply. ■ For all of human history, we've been constrained mainly by resources. We've managed to stay ahead of Malthusian collapse thanks to innovation, and that innovation has been driven in no small part by markets. As resources become scarce, the incentives grow to find alternatives or to use the existing resources more efficiently. (It also helps that increasing prosperity tends to act as a serious depressant on birth rates.) ■ But things could get interesting -- in a good way! -- as we emerge on the other side of our current energy-related growing pains. Renewable energy is on a tear, already accounting for more than half of Iowa's electricity (with other states to follow). As the cost of generating solar power continues in a freefall and the cost of energy storage drops, we can start to imagine a situation in which energy may not be completely free -- but it could enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever-cheaper. ■ Should that become the case, we can imagine outcomes that would result from a world in which energy becomes nearly cost-free. Most importantly, the resource limitations that have defined human history could begin to lift: Unlimited energy would let us clean our air and our water virtually without constraint. It would let us produce food anywhere (with the help of artificial illumination inside greenhouses and vertical farms) and without susceptibility to weather or climate problems. It would even permit us to recycle now-wasted resources of all types, reducing still further the Malthusian limitations on our world. ■ The faster we can push the cost of energy as close to zero as possible, the sooner our most important constraint will shift from the scarcity of resources to the innovative capacity of the human mind. We have geniuses like Norman Borlaug to thank for having rescued millions of lives from starvation. ■ If almost-free energy can help the world reach a stage wherein resources are so abundant that they are no longer serious constraining factors, many of the consequences of absolute poverty could be erased, lifting people into greater economic security. And it is under conditions of resource security that people can pursue the most challenging and rewarding of research, advancement, and new ideas. ■ For now, we still have to live with significant constraints. And energy may remain the most painful among them for a while to come. But sometimes the shock of disaster serves as a wake-up call to those who had been complacent. Figuring out how to throw off the yoke of energy dependency as soon as possible ought now to be a self-evident priority of the very first order. And if we succeed at it, the feedback loop it would create could be enormously rewarding for all of us on this pale blue dot in space.
February 28, 2022
Even though he didn't actually ride through the streets waking the townsfolk with the cry that "The Redcoats are coming!", schoolchildren are still taught some version of the legend of Paul Revere. The story communicates something that seems utterly foreign today: That there was a time when news moved slowly. The newspapers of the Colonial era were generally published weekly, and that was about as much news as could be expected, considering the length of time it took to gather news from Europe -- reachable only via ocean sailings that took weeks to months. ■ Beyond its connection to the noteworthy historical figures involved, Revere's ride stands out as a rare story of immediacy in a time when news rarely traveled fast. The telegraph sped up the process by moving news faster than people (or pigeons) could carry it, but the news remained periodical until radio (and later television) could deliver live reporting. ■ Today, even war correspondents tweet in real time as the President of besieged Ukraine offers his own readouts of calls with prime ministers and proof-of-life videos. It is possible to immerse oneself in instantaneous coverage of the world without ever taking rest. ■ News production has mainly ceased to be periodical. The only way to give rationality a fighting chance is to make sure news consumption becomes periodical instead. It is indeed a bit ridiculous that NPR is offering "self-care" tips to help people far from the action to "cope with a stressful news cycle". A cornerstone of adulthood is the development of self-control. If it takes a news outlet saying, "Remember that it's okay to not be plugged into the news 24/7", then we really do need to consider what kind of adults we're letting loose into the world. ■ The world is surely better-off with services providing global news coverage 24 hours a day than it would be without; the BBC World Service remains one of the great contributions to an enlightened planet. And yet even the World Service sticks to bulletins on the hour and half-hour. ■ Faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, everyone knows they must stop consuming at some point, and we don't consider it "self-care" to resist going back. It's just self-control. News needs to be digested over time, just as food does. If we're merely consuming all the time, we may be tickling the amygdala, but we're not satisfying actual needs. A complex world calls for careful thinking. If we succumb to the addiction to noise, then we'll never reap the rewards of careful consideration.
March 1, 2022
The finest line in Warren Buffett's annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, released on February 26th, belongs not to Buffett but to his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger. Buffett writes, "Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly." ■ The "orangutan effect" could stand to get a lot more use in the wider world. Nothing about life in 2022 is less complex than it was in 2012, and certainly not than it was in 1922. It will be more complex in 2032, and much more so in 2122. Within virtually every field of inquiry and endeavor, people will continue to specialize and advance the state of the art. (The rare exception that proves the rule: We probably won't see new innovations in harpsichord performance.) ■ Increasing specialization has wide-ranging and often robust effects: Extremely skilled specialists are what gives a place like the Mayo Clinic a sterling reputation. But general knowledge remains important, too: Being able to synthesize information across conventional subject-matter boundaries matters enormously, particularly as complex new problems emerge with irregular borders. ■ Is Covid-19 a problem for epidemiologists? Public-health experts? Macroeconomists? Child psychologists? Human-resources departments? Politicians? Network security consultants? Yes. Yes, to all of the above, and to many more. And being able to absorb information from all of those fields and convert it into actionable thought requires the ability to understand what's coming in. ■ That's why the orangutan effect matters so much. It's not just enough that each of us in our own fields be capable of explaining the basic outlines of our own most important contributions (though that is surely more important than ever). It's also essential that we obtain the clearest possible thinking about what we know, what we don't, and what will change those boundaries. ■ One of the reasons people have been so attracted to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is his ability to speak (even through translation) as though to the unwitting orangutan. War is brutal and complex, but "I need ammunition, not a ride" is unambiguous. "We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it's a fair one." cuts cleanly through the fog of war. ■ It's easy to come up with empty-headed or pandering nonsense that sounds good; the history of advertising is enough to prove that. (Why, yes, I sure think I do deserve a break today!) But clear words, delivered authentically about meaningful matters, can only emerge from clear thinking, and clear thinking takes practice. And if civilization is to follow a course that leads in a happy direction, we'll need that clear thinking from every direction. Round up the orangutans: There's work to do.
March 2, 2022
May we have your attention, please?
If you've ever doubted the capacity of human beings to ignore a festering problem, you must stop whatever you're doing and go check out your nearest office breakroom microwave. Once we convince ourselves that a problem isn't imminent, we tend to stop seeing the sensory evidence in front of us and instead reduce the thing we're seeing into an abstraction. ■ This process of switching between the evidence and our abstractions of the evidence can be helpful; when we drive or walk down a familiar path, most of us shift into a mental mode that is a lot more like following a simplified map on a screen than checking for every new block of pavement that comes our way. The unfamiliar situations -- those times when you have to turn down the radio so you can see a street sign better -- are when we need the additional cognitive processing capacity to handle the hard work. ■ The problem emerges when we rely too heavily on the abstractions and fail to recognize that a problem really is new, changing, or growing. Our brains may literally have evolved to recognize threats detected by peripheral vision, but we just aren't very good at stepping back from the world in which we live to see the holistic nature of the real problems we have assigned as abstractions. ■ No matter how smart we are, we still have a finite amount of attention to deploy. There is only so much cognitive load any one of us can bear. ■ But the consequences of compartmentalizing so many problems as "not a threat for now" are certainly coming to bear. Should the world have pressed harder for nuclear disarmament sooner -- before thinly-veiled threats from the dictator holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal? Should we have expanded rather than contracted our pandemic-planning infrastructure -- before Covid-19 hit? Should our energy industry have done more to prepare their infrastructure for cold weather -- before natural gas wells froze and power systems entered cascading failure loops during cold snaps? ■ There is something of an art to raising issues and focusing attention on necessary solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to pull the fire alarm on their issue, its co-chair saying, "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future". But...any further delay? And how brief is the window? And is the alternative a truly unliveable future? The problem of anthropomorphic climate change is indeed real, but it can't be the only problem suitable for high-stakes attention or "concerted global action". ■ In business, people sometimes conduct SWOT analyses: Assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It's a practice best conducted periodically: Often enough that a threat or weakness doesn't boil over, but not so often that it swallows up all the attention that needs to be paid to the day-to-day. ■ At the civilizational level, we need better practices and institutions for conducting SWOT analysis on behalf of us all. Some might have imagined the United Nations to be just such an institution in the past, but the fact that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution about its invasion of Ukraine (while holding the presidency of the council) is ample evidence that the UN either cannot or will not do the job. (For further evidence, see China's membership on the UN Human Rights Council, as it sends Uighurs to internment camps.) ■ Just as membership in many international organizations is held for cyclical terms and the chair's gavel is passed from one country to another, so ought we to look for organized, thoughtful ways to keep an eye on the world's problems, both imminent and long-run. It's not healthy to light our collective hair on fire every time a new panicked report is issued, nor to wait until a problem has sparked a global meltdown to take it seriously. ■ A bit like a radar scope, we need institutions that can scan the horizon and report back with each "sweep". And if we don't have those institutions now (or if the ones we have are failing us), no amount of waiting will make our problems better.
March 3, 2022
A little extra goes a long way
It has never been cheaper nor easier to add a dollop of ornamentation to just about anything. Tired of vinyl siding? Replace it with a faux stone veneer. Want to upgrade the look of a bus or a trailer? Put a vinyl wrap on it. Need a corporate logo? Someone will prepare a design for as little as $5 or $10. ■ Often, we add little more than just crude ornamentation. There's nothing expressly wrong with that; human beings appear to have been painting in caves for 164,000 years. People were putting graffiti on the walls of Pompeii right up until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. ■ But we're also capable of doing much more than just adding some touches of paint here and there. As societies, we're at our best when we integrate forethought with our designs, so that we build things that will not only stand the test of time, but also prove themselves useful beyond mere ornament. ■ A bridge, for example, is one of the most utilitarian of instruments. And in general, we find it wise to illuminate our bridges so that travelers can see their way safely across. But bridges are often utterly plain (even when they're not in disrepair), and nothing looks good when cast in the sickly yellow of a sodium light. ■ It would have been sufficient to illuminate the bridges of Des Moines with those basic HPS lamps -- or even with plain white light coming from energy-efficient LED bulbs. But instead, someone had the foresight to install three of them with programmable technology, permitting the city to light up three high-profile bridges in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. ■ Undoubtedly, those lighting systems cost more than basic illumination. But probably not by much. Just as today's giant flat-screen television costs less in real terms than yesterday's smaller (and picture-inferior) standard definition TV, so too have many other improvements in materials and methods come with affordability advantages, too. ■ When it becomes cheaper to get something of the same quality, the temptation is often there to pursue the cheapest alternative available. But we shouldn't be too quick to always grasp for cost savings first -- even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to public improvements. Sometimes it's better to anchor our expectations not with what superficially appears to be the lowest cost, but rather with capturing some of the savings that often come from the kinds of quality and price improvements that market forces bring us and committing them to building things just a little bit better. ■ How we treat our public spaces does a lot to shape our perceptions of community, and there is no place where this can pay off better than where local communities, at the neighborhood or municipal level, decide not to default just to the cheapest options but rather to perceive of the entire life-cycle value of what they're getting. Sometimes just lighting up a bridge can be the right thing to do.
March 4, 2022
Few words have gotten an unexpected revival in American popular discourse quite like the word "nationalism". It's been debated, heralded, excoriated, and even made into the centerpiece of a series of (paradoxically) international conferences featuring United States Senators as keynote speakers. ■ But ambiguous words and sloppy definitions lead to faulty understandings of the world, and it's hard to get a good consensus around a word as charged as "nationalism". First of all, nationalism needs to be distinguished from a basic sense of patriotism. ■ Basic patriotism is simply the call for the individual to do his or her duty to the country to which they belong. That's good and healthy, as long as it centers on the duty rather than the symbols. Duty is a matter of a person's relationship to others, and every good philosophy of the world, starting with the Golden Rule, puts emphasis on just such a thing. Patriotism fits best in a moderate zone -- not too much, and not too little. As Maimonides put it, "[M]oderation is one of the good actions, and the state of the soul that produces moderation is a moral virtue." ■ The problem with nationalism is that we hardly know how to define what a nation is. Its root emerges from the Latin "natio", or "birth" -- which suggests a relationship based more on blood than on choice. That alone makes it tricky to look at the United States, especially, in a "national" way. America really is an idea, and being an American is an aspirational choice made by millions. ■ Plenty of people pound the table to say that nations are defined by things like languages, borders, and culture -- but we all too often forget that there are a great number of nations who are without a state. An American whose ancestors came here in the 1800s may identify as "German" in ethnic origin, but does that mean that they are Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, or perhaps even Pomeranian? Each of those formed a distinct nation unto itself (as did many others), even though none of them forms a distinct nation-state today. ■ In fact, a published catalog of "stateless nations" includes more than 300 entries -- all describing cultural groups with reasonable claims to nationhood, but which don't have what we recognize as a national government. Dozens of groups are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, reflecting just this condition. ■ What Americans (and others) have to realize is that everyone is a member of multiple "nations". We have intersecting, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting identities. And not just at the purely artificial level of sports fandom -- though it's telling that people have no problem identifying as voluntary members of groups like "Packers Nation" and realizing that it's not inherently in conflict with lots of other identities. Fans of a professional sports team really do tend to adopt a particular culture, a unique in-group language, and lots of other senses of identity that make them look like a "nation", even if membership is not a matter of birth. And nobody should ever be willing to bear arms on behalf of one. ■ Recognizing not only the ambiguity of "nationhood", but also the inevitability of membership in many defined "nations" -- of sports, religion, birthplace, ethnic origin, legal citizenship, and countless other layers of identity -- ought to give every reasonable person some humility about what those things mean, and some reticence about clinging too tightly to nationalism as a source of personal identity. ■ Tension among the sources of one's identity isn't necessarily bad, particularly given how likely any one of us is to encounter it once we realize how layered life inevitably must be. And well-examined tension in life can be a source of much good, especially if it helps us to realize that we're really bound -- by duty -- to so many other people who may in countless ways be unlike ourselves.
March 6, 2022
Scams beg for Bitcoin for Ukraine
There is little punishment that would be too harsh for the people behind a fake-Red-Cross scam begging for Bitcoin for Ukraine.
Don't count on hearing tornado sirens
A timely seasonal reminder, made sadder by yesterday's terrible loss of life due to severe weather in Iowa.
The documentary "Winter on Fire" (streaming on Netflix) really drives home a lot of thoughts about how motivated the Ukrainian people are to secure their just freedoms. The self-organization on display when they protested against their own government in 2013 and 2014 was exceptional. Those skills were not simply forgotten.
Winston Churchill: "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports."
March 7, 2022
A place to rest one's weary head
With its notoriously high population density (more than 12,000 people per square mile) and extremely high standard of living (its economy is bigger than Canada's), Tokyo is bound to be the source of imaginative solutions to problems that deserve a second look elsewhere in the world. ■ Among those clever solutions is the capsule hotel: A space big enough for a bed and little else, apparently often stacked in double-decker style. It may not be much (nor even feature individual bathroom facilities), but as a method of achieving a high density of accommodation at comparatively low cost with at least a modicum of privacy, it's a smart idea. ■ For the most part, space really isn't at a premium in the United States. Vast reaches of the country are virtually uninhabited, and for the most part, our hospitality industry is more than happy to find ways to build more hotel space (and travelers seem willing to shell out for preposterous nightly charges). ■ But the idea at the core of the capsule hotel needs a second look for other reasons. The essence of it is that an individual space can be safely and cleanly demarcated, turned private (with walls on all sides), and densified by stacking. The individual sleeping capsules should be easy to standardize and mass-produce, especially if all any of them really require is a main electrical connection (since toilet and bath facilities can be supplied in congregate fashion). ■ From time to time, we need to be able to accommodate substantial demand for housing on short notice. The most dramatic domestic case, of course, is that of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina -- which initiated a diaspora that numbered at least 400,000, if not more. Large-scale destruction of urban habitat happens periodically: Think of the fire in Boulder, Colorado that destroyed 1,000 homes in 2021, or the Camp Fire in California that displaced 50,000 people and destroyed 11,000 houses in the town of Paradise. ■ But from time to time, social situations create nearly-instantaneous demand shocks for housing. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine right now is estimated at 1.5 million people, and it's far from the only refugee situation underway in the world right now; millions are still displaced from Syria. ■ It would be a worthy pursuit to find a way to emulate the Japanese capsule hotel at a high-volume, mass-production, economy-producing scale, so that when the occasion calls for it, a substantial amount of safe, serviceable, and private shelter could be installed on extremely short notice -- especially if a modular design would permit such facilities to be built close to where the people affected by a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire had been chased away. Losing a home is certainly bad enough; having to deal with the repercussions from far away, isolated from social networks of home and community, only make it worse. ■ Americans are a generous people, and we tend to have great sympathy for those who need help through no fault of their own. States offering to take in refugees would benefit from having access to resources and standardized mechanisms for creating short-term living space. We regard food, clothing, and shelter as the most basic human needs. It would be prudent to look at how we could mimic practices already well-established elsewhere (like Tokyo) to help make it more efficient to deliver one of those needed resources quickly and practically.
Techno-utopians are dreaming of a world in which self-driving cars no longer need stoplights to control intersections. But anyone who occasionaly doubles as a pedestrian probably ought to be skeptical of this imagined game of Dystopian Frogger.
March 8, 2022
Every spring, people in northern states watch as the snow melts from fields, streets, lawns, and parking lots. It's often a process that cascades on itself, as ground and pavement become exposed to solar energy and thaw out, accelerating the warming trend for the snow that remains unmelted. From time to time a blast of fresh snow is dropped in the midst of the spring melting season (think of the extraordinary 2019 "bomb cyclone"), but most of the time it all rather quickly ends up flowing downstream. ■ This annual process represents a massive missed opportunity for the water sector. Americans generally take public drinking water supplies almost entirely for granted -- where it isn't entirely unmetered (and thus "free" in the eyes of the consumer), it's almost always incredibly cheap: Virtually nobody is charged even one cent per gallon for fresh potable water. ■ The missed opportunity is in failing to illustrate and remind the public that water is, in fact, cyclical. What melts now and percolates into the ground or (as is more often the case when the ground remains frozen) flows downstream ultimately becomes source water for somebody. Since gravity takes water to lower elevations until it either enters an aquifer or runs to the sea, most people see their water depart to lower elevations -- yet another one of the many ways having the "high ground" tends to be advantageous. ■ But whatever enters the water at those upper elevations tends to stay there. Every spring, water-industry authorities ought to thump the table over and over: Look at what's moving downstream as the snow melts! Look at the salt marks! Look at the trash and the litter that are carried along in the storm sewers! ■ Sometimes it's inevitable that we'll do incidental damage to the waters we share in pursuit of other worthwhile goals -- like putting salt on the roads so that it's safer to drive in the winter. Good for drivers; bad for streams and rivers, and most importantly, bad for the people who will ultimately drink from them. ■ We have to recognize that there are consequences to what we do, even when it's done out of necessity, and we have to clean up after ourselves. Ben Franklin once put it that "He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now." ■ It's better to refrain from contaminating communal resources in the first place wherever we can, but it's a close second to take accountability for "mending now" what traces we leave behind. And there is no time like spring -- the season of "spring cleaning" -- to remind the public at large that virtually everyone is living and drinking downstream of someone else.
Economic terms deserve popular names that make sense. "Autarky" should be "antisocial economy disorder". "Monopsony" should be the "Solo Buyer's Club".
March 9, 2022
It would be no crude exaggeration to say that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, has a Churchillian streak. In one of his most recent videos, he starts with a view of Kyiv at night, then points his phone's camera at himself to narrate a walk down a hallway. Within less than a minute, without breaking stride, he takes a seat at his desk and commences a formal speech to his country. The video cuts to a customary camera view in mid-sentence, so the viewer watches a seamless transition from selfie to state address. ■ If Winston Churchill had lived in the era of the iPhone, he would certainly have tipped his cap in admiration. Churchill knew the power of broadcasting a message to the country. In the BBC's words, "It is hard to quantify the significance of Churchill's wartime speeches in bolstering national morale during the long years of the war. But more than half the adult population tuned in to them". ■ It is self-evident that Zelenskyy knows the power of communication. With credits as a writer, director, and producer, as well as an actor, he's aware that there is more to reaching people than just looking good on camera. His use of a clever quick-cut in mid-sentence from the authenticity of a selfie to the authority of the presidential desk isn't just good television work: It's a powerful proof of life, and it's a dramatic way to say, "These are my own words; I am nobody's puppet". ■ But his use of words matters, too. He praises the armed forces, but he shows respect to others, too: "The servicemen are in positions. Our heroes! Doctors, rescuers, transporters, diplomats, journalists." And, further, "Everywhere people defended themselves, although they do not have weapons there. But these are our people, and that's why they have weapons. They have courage. Dignity. And hence the ability to go out and say: I'm here, it's mine, and I won't give it away." Even if the translation to English is choppy, the meaning runs deep. ■ Try to imagine Vladimir Putin praising journalists or lauding the "dignity" of unarmed protest. One cannot. Nor can one imagine the same from other authoritarians around the world -- not Assad, nor Xi, nor Lukashenko. Zelenskyy doesn't have to be perfect to have clearly aligned himself with the interests of human freedom and against repressive power. ■ There is clearly a long road ahead, and much could go wrong along the way. And what Zelenskyy wants, he may not get: He wants membership in the EU and a no-fly zone overhead. Those may not be deliverable. Churchill spent a long time pleading for American arms and even opened himself to the prospect of an Anglo-Franco civil union as a way to stop Nazi Germany. He eventually got the weapons, but the Lend-Lease Act took a lot longer than hoped. ■ But, for now, Zelenskyy keeps marshalling his words (and his Twitter account) to the cause of a peace won through victory. He is using media better amid a crisis than any political leader in at least a generation, and probably better than any head of government since Churchill himself. ■ Whether he's familiar with the words or not, he has tapped into a sense once expressed by Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism. From the evidence, it would appear that the Communist leaders also believe this; else why do they attack and attempt to destroy the practice of these concepts?" Eisenhower was right then; Zelenskyy is in the right today.
Someone in a Russian tank convoy fired on a civilian car evacuating Kyiv, killing three innocent people. For a tank gunner to fire upon a civilian vehicle in the manner described is so depraved as to defy any explanation. Someone either gave a command or defied one. Someone pulled a trigger. A person made this despicable choice.
A 1967 ad for WMAQ-TV in Chicago carries the enthusiastic tagline, "All in color, too!". In 1987, it might have said "Now in stereo!". In 2007, "See it in HD!". In 2027 (or indeed, even today), it might well say, "This episode was filmed entirely on an iPhone".
March 10, 2022
The virtual battlefield has become a more challenging place lately, with cyberattacks increasing by 25% in the course of just two weeks. That's a painfully large increase -- and it's hard to imagine that cyber-defense spending has also increased by 25% in the same time, though it undoubtedly will need to do so. ■ It has been noted in some places that full-scale cyberwarfare seems not to have broken out (perhaps only "not yet") between Russia and Ukraine, despite the open warfare taking place on the ground. But there's nothing necessarily paradoxical about a war of kinetic arms heating up at a different pace than that of a cyberwar. Nor is it necessarily inconsistent that the global pace of cyberattacks would rise during a time of real-world fighting on the ground in one particular country. ■ What both observations taken together ought to teach us is a twofold lesson: First, we need to take engagements in the digital arena quite seriously, and moreso than we have been forced to do in the past. ■ Second, we need to face seriously the need to marshal at least some of our cyber defenses under a distinct branch of our Department of Defense. Cyber-defense clearly behaves differently than a land war between a pair of belligerent powers. Non-combatant countries, their citizens, and their public and private sectors alike can all become targets or collateral damage, even if no war is declared and they scrupulously avoid being drawn into a legal definition of participation in battle. ■ The separation of the US Air Force from the Army was essential not just to its identity but to its ability to develop a distinctive doctrine, culture, and array of resources. The ghost of Billy Mitchell ought to whisper in our ears about cybersecurity, too. It is a distinctive form of hostilities, involving a different scope of consequences, a different field of battle, and sometimes vastly different combatants than conventional warfare. ■ The evidence of the decoupling of cyber warfare from kinetic warfare is overwhelming. The logical step to take is to acknowledge that break: If we have room to create a Space Force, we ought to be well past the time for a Cyber Force.
If you aren't skeptical of power, you aren't paying enough attention
The law of unintended consequences is exactly what ought to make most thoughtful people into chronic skeptics of concentrated power in general and of government interventions in particular. It's easy to find wants. It's much harder to carefully use the levers of authority to get them without causing collateral damage.
March 11, 2022
The disproportion is the point
From time to time, someone points to a pie chart of discretionary spending by the Federal government and imagines they're making a brilliant argument with a pithy statement like "The United States government is an army with a country attached." It's not an original thought; many have restated it many times before (including when it was said about Prussia nearly 250 years ago). ■ But it's not only unoriginal; it is deeply misleading, and it is misleading on two levels. The first is the obvious omission of the two biggest accounts at the Federal level: Entitlement spending under Social Security and Medicare. We budget more for Medicare than for defense, and with a faster growth rate. Social Security is much larger still. ■ Even setting aside that perspective, there is another glaring error in placing a single-minded focus on Federal discretionary spending: States and local governments in the United States are supposed to do a great deal of the work of government for themselves. That is the Constitutional order of business: Washington, DC, does what it must, and the states are to do the rest. ■ Unanimity of opinion is impossible to achieve among 332 million people, and the Constitution was brilliantly structured so as not to need uniformity. In fact, we are better off without it. Denmark, for example, has about 5.8 million people. That places it between Colorado and Wisconsin in size. 5.8 million people is clearly large enough to have a distinctive culture, a unique political climate, and a self-sustaining economy. What we would expect in those terms from a country like Denmark we should equally expect from mid-sized states like Colorado and Wisconsin. ■ That isn't a flaw of the Constitutional system; it is the genius of it. Any one of the states of the Union is free to do for itself most of the things that we would expect many countries to do -- so long as the state maintains a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4) and offers the equal protection of the law to all people (Amendment XIV). ■ Should a state decide to offer free post-secondary education to its citizens, or to experiment with single-payer health care, or to build a high-speed rail network, it is free to do so -- by itself or in cooperation with others. And it is especially free to do so because the Federal government is there to take care of big-picture, unanimity-requiring issues, like defense and international diplomacy. ■ To the extent those matters basically don't have to be addressed at the state level, the states are in fact more free than most countries to experiment and innovate -- and they should act on that freedom. Go ahead: Cater to corporations, subsidize TV production, or open a sovereign-wealth fund. ■ So, no, the United States isn't just an "army with a country attached". It's a rich union of diverse states with different interests but a common agreement to share a vast economy, a common set of fundamental rules, and an approach to the defense of all that has generally ensured domestic safety in a manner uncommon in the world. That's what it is supposed to do. But by concentrating one form of spending at one level of government and much of the rest of the spending on another, the resulting peculiarities of a pie chart really make no fundamental point at all. The disproportion in spending is, in fact, the point.
A Reuters correspondent credits a "senior US defense official" with the news that "Russia has launched about 810 missiles at Ukrainian targets since the invasion started". Imagine the perversity of launching 810 missiles, some (or even many) of which have hit homes and hospitals, and claiming to do it for the purpose of fostering greater unity with ethnic kin living in the crosshairs. The lie that the invasion has anything to do with ties of historical affection is just gobsmackingly transparent. This is a cruel attack of Russia's choosing against peaceful neighbors.
March 12, 2022
Compounding Russia's struggles
Russia can point to a higher per-capita GDP than Ukraine, but it would be foolhardy to underestimate the value of real self-determination. It doesn't show up in the national accounts, but it's far from trivial that the Ukrainian people have a sense for what it means to taste freedom and to govern themselves. Freedom House rates Ukraine "partly free" with an index of 61 out of 100, versus Russia's "unfree" at just 19 out of 100.
The United States is just four years away from our 250th birthday. Who's in charge of the planning? This isn't just a class reunion, you know.
Just because you're in public view doesn't negate your privacy
The right to go unbothered by people hunting through rabbit holes for information on someone doesn't just apply to those who go looking for that private information. It also applies to passive consumers of it. If something would seem intrusive if it were published about your own life, it's not suddenly OK to read just because it's about a "celebrity".
March 14, 2022
The STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- form a tidy little bundle that tend to advance the same general set of technical interests, require similar forms of investment, and face common problems with recruitment from historically under-represented populations. That they can be agglomerated under a convenient acronym is convenient, but not necessary. ■ What is not only unnecessary but downright counterproductive is the effort to shoehorn an "A" in there, converting STEM to STEAM by adding "arts" to the cluster. It may sound clever, but the effect is dilutive. ■ This isn't to say that STEM subjects should be divorced from the arts. To the contrary: An element of the humanities is absolutely, positively essential to the successful promotion of the STEM fields. Without integrating humanistic thinking into the process, technically skilled individuals run the grave risk of doing things that are negligent, harmful, or even hazardous to their fellow human beings. But recognizing that STEM topics are different from the arts is critical to bridging the gap. ■ Take, for instance, the case of the "chatbot companion" promoted in online advertising. One such bot is being promoted with a headline that literally says "The AI companion who cares". But a chatbot is not a "who" and has literally zero capacity to "care". Advertising otherwise is an act distressingly disconnected from the human impact of technology. ■ It's entirely understandable that some people have a hard time making friends and cultivating relationships. But the humane thing to do isn't to offer a completely false promise of a synthetic "companion who cares". A humane thing to do would be to program an app to guide lonely people through the process of making real friends -- with human beings. ■ But just as people who are attracted to the STEM fields need to be trained in the humanities in order to become well-rounded practitioners, so must people who are attracted to the humanities be trained in technology and the sciences. Recognizing that these fields are fundamentally different from one another highlights the contrasts, which should serve to place emphasis on what's missing. Once we recognize that something is not necessarily an obvious fit, we can make conscious choices to try to make up for the void. ■ Cramming "arts" into a conjoined appellation with STEM makes it appear as if they are the same, and that is misleading. They are different, and historically have been; the rarity of a case like Leonardo da Vinci, both an extraordinary scientist and an extraordinary artist, is the exception that proves the rule. A polymath like Leonardo stands out because the fullness of the STEAM subjects integrated themselves seamlessly in his very special mind. ■ For the rest of us, the different fields do not fit quite so intuitively together, and there is a need for conscious effort to make sure that the scientists don't overlook the humanities, and that the artists don't fail to learn math. This conscious integration takes work. It doesn't happen because of a cute acronym, and it certainly won't happen unless we realize there are differences to integrate.
March 16, 2022
The feedback loop of barbarity
A woman who was injured in the Russian bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital has died while undergoing a Caesarean section in which her baby died as well. Their deaths are added to those of at least three others at the same hospital. Behind the cruelty and heartbreak of her individual tragedy, there is a much larger cause for alarm. ■ In 1983, a Soviet air-defense officer may have single-handedly prevented a nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel, was warned of an incoming missile attack from the United States. He concluded it was a false alarm using a combination of quick judgment and gut instinct, and in so doing likely prevented a catastrophe. The warning was a false alarm, and his decision to act as a circuit-breaker may well have saved millions of lives. ■ Petrov's story didn't make it out until the late 1990s. But it's rightly regarded as a case where good human judgment prevented a faulty system from creating an artificial disaster. Imagine if the world had fallen into nuclear winter just because some Soviet satellites were glitchy. ■ The Petrov story was a reminder that no matter how evil the Evil Empire might have been, there were still people involved who would make decisions to avoid the worst. These people were needed not just at the top, but elsewhere in the system. Mikhail Gorbachev was an anomaly in power: He was relatively young (so young that "Gorby" is still alive), and was notably less hawkish than leaders who had been in power before him -- a peaceful orientation he still promotes today. Level heads were needed up and down the line. ■ When we see a Russian military today that has been bombing hospitals and launching airstrikes against apartment buildings in Ukraine, it's sensible to worry that we may lack some of the guardrails that tempered behavior even back in the Cold War. The prospect is terrifying, and the world knows it's happening. ■ Russian forces used indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria, too. International law, of course, says that targeting civilians is a war crime, and expressly declares that "medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work can not be attacked". But even without the rules of war to prevent that behavior, basic human decency ought to deter it first. ■ In just one of too many examples, it is an act of utter indecency to bomb a theater clearly labeled with the word "Children" in letters large enough to be seen from the air. Yet that's what Russian forces have done. A choice was made to drop those explosive devices on an obviously civilian target. It was a choice that didn't require sophisticated intelligence to avert, either: Google Maps or OpenStreetMap could have offered the same information. ■ In effect, some of the people involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been practicing making choices directly contrary to the most basic of moral principles. And that should be profoundly alarming. ■ When Norwegian television produced the series "Occupied", the Kremlin protested the representation because it depicted "a non-existing threat from the East". Yet the show told the story of a "velvet glove" invasion of Norway by Russia, in which bloodshed was rare. ■ Far from the sophisticated invasion of fiction, the very real invasion of Ukraine is marked by brutality and barbarity. It's not an inevitable consequence of conflict. Most people are good at heart, but a small number have a lot of evil in them. Others can learn to behave in evil ways, especially when trained by a system that encourages or rewards evil behavior. ■ It's hard not to be alarmed by what we're seeing from the system cultivated by and around Vladimir Putin. Whatever the prospects of peace talks might be, evidence of despicable cruelty is mounting. Just as good behavior is generally the result of good habits, viciousness and cruelty -- especially on a systemic scale -- also takes practice. There is too much practice underway by the invading forces in Ukraine, and the poisoned fruits of that practice aren't going to disappear easily.
March 17, 2022
It has always been a misnomer to call it "Daylight Saving Time". Indeed, nothing is "saved" in either a real sense, nor in a metaphorical one. When money is saved in a bank, the saver is usually entitled to expect some form of interest on the deposit -- but no such interest payment has ever been forthcoming from DST. Nor could it be. It has always been a classic case of cost-shifting rather than actual savings; what we place on deposit when we "spring forward", we merely retrieve later in the year when we "fall back". ■ This shifting, though, is neither interest-bearing nor cost-free. Changing clocks twice a year is more than a mere nuisance; it sets off nearly everyone's routines twice a year. Dogs and babies especially have no regard for the abritrary time that adults place on a clock. This makes the time shifting annoying and troublesome for more than a few American households. ■ But there are better and worse ways to resolve the problem. The "Sunshine Protection Act of 2021", approved by the United States Senate on March 15th and referred to the House, is the worse way. Standardizing time year-round so that we stop with the charade of "springing forward" and "falling back" is helpful. Choosing the advanced hour of Daylight Saving Time as our new permanent time is silly. ■ In northern states, the effect will be to make sunlight arrive much too late in the winter. In Des Moines, the sun rises at 7:22 am on December 1st...on standard time. That would be 8:22 am under the new law. (It's even a little later if you head 120 miles west to Omaha, or a few additional miles north to Minneapolis.) ■ And it's not just a problem in December. Even most of February would have a post-8:00 sunrise. It's not that 8:00 is particularly special, but if we take the idea of a "9-to-5" work schedule even halfway seriously, we ought to expect that people will generally be up at least an hour before the job. ■ And it's simply not good for our well-being to expect people to rise before the sun. Early birds might choose to do it, but we already get kids up too early for school, and making it so that they wake up in the dark for months on end surely can't be in their best interests, no matter how much adults might want more time to golf in the summertime. ■ Later winter sunrises aren’t merely an aesthetic or even a psychological complaint. They mean more eastbound commuters driving with the Sun in their eyes, more children crossing streets and school parking lots in the dark, and more cold experienced virtually every morning. ■ Everything good done by Daylight Saving Time could also be done by shifting work to "summer hours", as many workplaces already do. The damage DST does in northern places can't be as easily remedied. ■ Eliminating the time shift is the right way to go. Doing it in a way that makes waking up in the wintertime even darker and drearier than it already is -- for months and months at a time, even for people who aren't early risers? That idea should remain in the dark.
March 18, 2022
History has given the world lots of angry polemicists, but the nature of memory does us a favor by forgetting most of them. People may know who Father Charles Coughlin was, just for example, but virtually nobody is turning to transcripts of his rantings for guidance today. ■ Instead, history tends to give us a helpful sorting mechanism: Those stories and biographies worth retelling tend to be shared and retold, and the purely transitory ones generally fade away for lack of relevance. Historians, both academic and amateur, have a responsibility to try to sort facts from fiction and to try to elevate the really worthwhile stories while promoting corrections that counter misleading narratives. But they have little incentive to do anything to boost the work of people who were merely ranting in their own times. ■ Regrettably for us, it's harder to tamp down the lesser narratives in our own time. The right to free speech applies equally to people with good ideas and with lousy ones. As John Stuart Mill put it, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." ■ But amplification is a different story. The emergent economy of social-media influence has produced a class of self-righteous fire-breathers who depend upon contrarian narratives to gather their power. These people seek to make hay out of displaying oppositional-defiant disorder in restaurants, giving cover to tyrants, and misappropriating the language to try to shake the money tree for campaign donations. ■ The problem with this behavior is in its willful cultivation of followership among people who haven't chosen other role models. If more people had a decent sense of self-respect, the audience for boneheads would dry up. Not altogether, of course, but it would certainly be smaller than it presently appears to be. ■ Many worthwhile role models are alive today (though they're rarely as inclined to insert themselves into the culture as aggressively as the fire-breathing dopes), and many can be found in the biography section of any decent library. We might do ourselves a favor as Americans if we were to more deliberately prod our young people to explore those historical biographies and autobiographies, so that they could see how many useful role models have already stood the test of time. ■ Rare is the social-media "influencer" today who could hold a candle to the introspection and wit of Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is a journey through what was not only a legendary life, but also through a great deal of self-awareness about how he related to others. Many others are available, too: One can learn a great deal from Epictetus, Booker T. Washington, or Calvin Coolidge, just to name a few. ■ And while lots of people have gone under-represented in our libraries, historians are working on improving that, too -- and much to our benefit. We probably ought to read Abigail Adams equally with John. ■ But it's not inevitable that people will find these better role models in their lives without a nudge to do so. With people cultivating followings on tools like TikTok and YouTube with nary an impediment beyond convincing others to "Click 'like' and subscribe", the thoughtful adults in the room (metaphorically) need to try to promote the good through conscious effort. The bozos have found their platforms, and they have a monetary interest in promoting them. Someone has to help young people find alternatives to the clowns.
March 20, 2022
Did Ireland stand a chance against the famine?
In the years of the great potato famine, it is estimated that Ireland lost one million lives to starvation and lost another one million in population to emigration. At least another five million left in the remainder of the 19th Century, meaning that the country had more total expatriates by the end of that century than its total population when the century had begun. ■ That so many of them ended up in the United States has of course borne enormous influence on what we perceive as "Irish" today. The concentration of migration then is no small contributing feature to why Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day and small towns in Iowa put Gaelic greetings on their websites. ■ But the circumstances that exacerbated the famine are worth a second look. The reason the potato famine took such a toll was that so many Irish farmers were living at subsistence levels; half the country was effectively living on what meager products they could grow. When nature took aim at the potato and blight ravaged the crops in 1845 and 1846 with incredible speed, the result was mass hunger in practically no time at all. ■ The mismanagement of Ireland by the imperial British government did the Irish considerable harm in the immediate sense, as the response to hunger was slow and in some cases completely contrary to sound reasoning. But on a long-term basis, it appears that the British domination of the island (and the favoritism shown to British manufacturing) actually de-industrialized Ireland in the period leading up to the famine. ■ Had the country been free to pursue the kind of industrial development that was occurring across the Irish Sea in England and across the Atlantic Ocean in America, perhaps Ireland wouldn't have had such a large share of its population at risk of starvation. As in so many cases even in the modern day, famine is often far more a problem of social aspects of economics than of basic problems of nature. The economic experience of Irish emigrants once they reached the United States suggests that the poverty that led to the famine wasn't written in the stars -- it was bad policy-making.
March 21, 2022
Depriving the bully of his veto
No rational person considering the big picture of life on this Earth wants to see an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine. The escalation has been distinctly one-sided: The thinly-veiled threats of nuclear warfare, the forced deportation of civilians into Russia, and the repeated commissioning of war crimes have all come from the Russian side of the conflict. ■ While the Ukrainian government has pleaded directly for additional resources from the UK, the European Union, Canada, and the United States, the NATO countries have been reluctant to engage in ways that could be interpreted as crossing a line of direct conflict with Russia. Indirect efforts, like supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine, have been the extent of our commitment. ■ The free nations of the world need to bring our fullest imagination to the scope of the situation. Many of the possible outcomes of this conflict are unpleasant and distressing -- whether or not we ourselves engage directly in the conflict. We need, though, to imagine ways in which to protect and preserve a world ordered by rules without artificially offering an exemption to that order just because a country with access to extreme arms (like nuclear weapons) decides to walk away from those rules. Our self-discipline needs to be our strength, not our Achilles' heel. ■ In permitting the aggressor to set the terms of engagement, we effectively submit to what deserves to be called the bully's veto. The cousin to the bully's veto, the heckler's veto, is widely understood as one of the dangers to freedom of speech. It is not enough to say that we believe in freedoms only to the extent that a malicious actor agrees to let them go on: A heckler does not have the inherent right to shut down free speech by threatening to react badly to it. ■ Since the birth of the United Nations following World War II, the world has submitted to a quasi-legal system in which a handful of nations (the permanent members of the Security Council) have quite literally possessed a veto over the rest of the world's reaction to their behavior. It seems almost daft to acknowledge this, but the Putin regime appears to have contaminated the Security Council with a dose of bad faith even greater than the worst of his Communist predecessors. ■ Does that mean the rules of international law should go out the window? Absolutely not. More than anything, the reckless disregard for the world order that has been put on display should be a reminder that a rules-based order for international engagement is essential and needs to be revivified. ■ It does mean, though, that we need to urgently rethink whether the UN order is enough -- and whether a parallel organization for nations committed to acting in good faith needs to come into being. There needs to be a step between the mutual-defense pact of the NATO alliance and the free-for-all membership of the United Nations. It does not need to involve commitments of arms, but it does require a commitment to rules. And it needs to be both global and aspirational -- countries should want the esteem of membership. ■ The disregard Russia's government has displayed for international rules also means we need to expedite every possible reinterpretation and reimagination of what constraints can be imposed in the face of barbarism. The world has largely been reacting to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and though that reaction has taken the form of a surprisingly united front, it is evident that circumstances may well turn much worse if more is not done to actively shape the course ahead. ■ It is too foreboding that we must actively contemplate the obliteration of peaceful cities (a war crime already underway), the deployment of chemical weapons (a risk now openly feared), or even the prospect of a retreat that sows devastation by "tactical" nuclear weapons in its wake. If we have to even face these issues, then the constraints are already falling short -- all because the regime at fault for starting the war has exempted itself from rules. ■ We are in a dangerous place. Ukraine cannot be asked to turn itself into the state equivalent of a poison pill, making its takeover fatal to both itself and its aggressor. Other aggressors are watching. It is likely to lead to a more dangerous future -- chronically more dangerous -- if we don't see a prompt reassessment of how to put a stop to the bully's veto.
March 23, 2022
It's OK to have a moderate opinion
The ongoing decline of the newspaper editorial page may not be any great human tragedy, but it is a sad symptom of civic decay. The Des Moines Register, a newspaper with a storied editorial history (including past Pulitzer Prizes for both editorial writing and editorial cartooning, has announced that it is reducing its opinion pages to just two issues per week, on Thursdays and Sundays. ■ The Register is far from the only publication in this boat, but its particular reasoning stands out in an odd way that is irreconcilable with the facts of the world today. The newspaper excused its retrenchment by arguing that syndicated columnists are widely available elsewhere, and that it saw a little value in opinion pieces submitted by the community -- saying, "[W]e'll accept far fewer unsolicited columns and instead invite writers with specific subject expertise or personal experience to submit essays". ■ They are certainly right on one level: It is easy to find opinions everywhere online, everyday, in volumes that are impossible to read. Medium counts on that as a business model. But the ease of discovery does not mean that those opinions are organized in any way to recognize quality. ■ The lamentable fact is that an entire industry has grown up around the promotion and supply of opinions that are mindlessly provocative. People are rewarded for these opinions with growing audience figures, oftentimes including people who join the audience for the express purpose of providing criticism. But in lining up to point and stare at the car crash in the opposite lane, we may well miss the curves in the road ahead of ourselves. ■ The fragmentation of media means that it is more important than ever for a publication to be clear about its editorial philosophy. Nobody should pretend like there is a true neutrality of viewpoints from any publication or outlet. Even being pro-democracy or pro-freedom-of-speech is a viewpoint. ■ Any choice to devote resources, whether in the form of people, pages, time, or money, is an editorial decision. A decision to cover or not to cover is an editorial choice by its nature. In a world of scarce resources for news coverage, editorial judgments ought to be made clear. ■ That doesn't mean the opinions need to be stronger, nor that they need to be more polemical. But the people allocating news resources do need to explain themselves. Other professionals, like triage doctors, make choices amid scarce resources, and serious thought is put into how they make decisions because the process is important. Self-government is less bloody, but the process of reflecting on it is important, too. ■ Thoughtful editorial statements ought to reflect the considered judgment of the people who ought to have the best available public access to the information on matters of public interest. If an editorial board thoughtfully concludes that it is neutral about a public issue, that is worth noting -- just as in science, a finding of no effect is still an important result, often worth publishing. But if an editorial board reaches a position of neutrality simply by not examining an issue, then it may be failing its community. ■ On most issues, people will form opinions. And they will form those opinions whether informed by facts or not. If a vacuum is left behind on matters of public interest, then that vacuum will tend to be filled by interest groups armed with the tactics of persuasion (and motivated to use them). Those interest groups indisputably have a right to have their say, but a vibrant civic community doesn't stand alone on the opinions of the extreme. ■ Moderation more often stems not from having an initial opinion and holding it tight, but from having the broad-mindedness to consider all of the available opinions, and giving them due examination. As John Stuart Mill put it, "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it." ■ The allocation of resources is a reflection of an institution's values. And you really won't see local newspapers cutting back faster on their local sports pages than on their local opinion pages. That is a statement of values that calls for recalibration. The trivial may be good for entertainment, but there is no community in America that doesn't have the room for at least one decent, well-considered opinion on the matters of public interest every day. ■ If a local newspaper cannot or will not fulfill the role of the community's conscience and its institutional memory, something else must. Civic life depends upon people being bound together by mutual tolerance and common interest. Those values are hard to generate in a vacuum. ■ Too many recent events have illustrated the consequences of individuals failing to do the right thing and of institutions falling into decay. Far from being a time for retreat, this ought to be the prime time for thoughtful, community-based consideration of the world. And far more often than just twice a week.
March 24, 2022
When we see pictures of border guards preparing to welcome Ukrainian children with stuffed animals as they flee the war imposed on their homeland, or encounter stories of people volunteering to offer shelter to refugees, the natural reaction is to feel a sort of heartwarming reassurance about the good found in other people. That is a good sensation to have. But we should have at least one more. ■ Most human beings share certain unchanging characteristics found throughout history: We care for our families (especially our own offspring), we hope to be loved, we are averse to pain and death, and we want to have choices -- the freedom to choose our own destiny. ■ Periodically, some individuals have a different characteristic: A lust for power over others. It's the root cause of a vast amount of the human suffering throughout history: The desire of a few to exercise control over many. Fortunately, the fact that this lust goes against the human nature of most people is self-evident. ■ It was bold of the Founders to have written that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were "self-evident". It should go without saying that the flaws in how some of the authors of the text, including its main author, failed (through enslavement) to live up to the fullness of the self-evident truth of liberty for all. ■ But part of believing that those rights really are self-evident is to believe that even people living under the power of tyrants can know those rights for themselves, even when cut off from the rest of the world. ■ It also means that we can, without hesitation, criticize and seek to hold people accountable when they actively choose to bring harm to those freedoms -- whether by deliberately bombing civilian shelters, stalking critics, or wasting scarce resources on offensive weapons while starving civilians at home. ■ The mirror to our natural heartwarming response to the vast amounts of good in the world needs to be an unapologetic and righteous condemnation of those who seek to abuse that natural good for their own power and bloodlust. ■ It may be expensive sometimes to stare down that evil, and free people of goodwill ought to be reluctant to put resources to use investing in swords when we know there are peaceful plowshares yet to be built. But it's ultimately costly to do nothing when rogues still walk the Earth, as they regrettably always will. We need to take heart from the near-universality of human good and believe in the self-evidence of the rights to life, liberty, and happiness.
March 25, 2022
Putting aside the sheer inhumanity of mass-scale violence against civilians, the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of a state that Russia claims it intends to occupy seems extraordinarily perverse even from an abstract strategic perspective. Someone will have to rebuild Ukraine, and the Kremlin's violent strategy maximizes the cost of that reconstruction. ■ But indeed we cannot put aside the sheer inhumanity of it. As the retired Australian general Mick Ryan puts it, "This is code for expending large amounts of cheap artillery & rockets to terrorise Ukrainian civilians & force a political accommodation." ■ It is the rightful conviction that most people are good at heart that makes it impossible to stomach the cruelty we sometimes see committed. If we were mere wild animals, brutality would be just ordinary. But we know humans are capable of better, because we see it. That's what makes brutality so excruciating to witness in Ukraine, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in South Sudan, and in too many other places. ■ Destruction is easy enough; even a losing aggressor can destroy. Building (and rebuilding) takes time, patience, and lots of money. None of the humanitarian relief required for victims of war would be necessary if belligerents didn't start those wars in the first place. ■ Writing of his experience as hostilities were underway early in World War II, Winston Churchill noted that, "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports." But he certainly would have preferred never to have been drawn into war in the first place, and his experience has parallels today. As Gennady Rudkevich of Georgia College has remarked, "Now do people see why Central Europeans were so desperate to join NATO?" ■ Observing the defiance exhibited by free people in the face of attack, whether in Ukraine today or the United Kingdom some 80 years ago, we have to remember that hope alone isn't enough. We have to be willing to invest not only in the expense of reconstruction after the violence we cannot deny, but also in the preemption of violence. ■ It is awe-inspiring to hear of a high-ranking police officer willing to surrender himself in exchange for the freedom of children. But we have to convert that awe into the slower, less dramatic, and often unrewarding tasks of conducting defense at the enemy's (metaphorical) ports, by staring down illiberalism wherever it emerges and patiently investing both in the infrastructures of peace and in the necessaries of deterrence. ■ As Edward Luce notes regarding the successful UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine: "141 of 193 member states condemned Vladimir Putin's blatant violation of international law. But the 35 that abstained account for almost half the world's population." A world of mutualistic peace and freedom is not assured, even if we responsibly invest in it. But it definitely will not happen without.
March 26, 2022
For the individual seeking to live an emotionally balanced life, one of the most salutary habits is to enlarge the stimulus-response gap. In general, finding ways to increase the time between an event taking place and offering a reaction to it leads to better outcomes, especially when events are disappointing, angering, or sad. ■ As it has been said before, you can always wait to tell someone to go to hell tomorrow. A variety of great thinkers, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, practiced extending their stimulus-response gaps by writing angry letters but leaving them unsent. ■ The practice seems foreign when we're immersed in a world of instant gratification. Reply wars and comment threads are basically the opposite of putting an angry letter in a drawer. We can't always avoid a negative stimulus, but we can do something to manage the response. ■ The legal system is effectively civilization's stimulus-response gap. By observing a system of equal justice before the law, we increase the distance between the harm occurring and the punishment following. And on important matters, we expect thoughtful written rulings from the bench, not a snap decision from Judge Judy. A speedy trial need not be a hasty one. ■ The need to pause for deliberation is why we ought to be reluctant to place cameras in any courtroom, though most especially that of the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps the best argument against cameras in the Supreme Court is the presence of cameras in the hearing rooms where where nominees to the court are quizzed by members of Congress. ■ The empty-headed performative appeals so frequently on display in the Senate diminish the faith we might have that Supreme Court arguments wouldn't devolve in similar fashion. Virtually nothing is served by the presence of those live cameras in the hearing rooms that wouldn't be equally or better served by the release of thorough written transcripts after the fact. It's much harder to grandstand for a stenographer than for a C-SPAN camera. ■ Maintaining that arm's length between the Supreme Court and the public by keeping the cameras out is one of the rare ways in which we can hope to preserve at least a little bit of dignity not just for the jurists but for ourselves. And maybe, while we're at it, we should rethink whether cameras really need to be broadcasting live from the halls of Congress, where chart mania is driven not by the need to persuade other elected officials, but to score points with viewers at home. ■ Transparency can be achieved in many ways, and it's foolish to think that the only method is to film everything. To the extent that clever individuals learn to manipulate their presence in front of the cameras to achieve performative aims rather than to sincerely deliberate weighty questions, that form of transparency may well obscure more than it reveals. Public access and thoughtful news coverage are essential to the workings of all three branches of government, but so is maintaining a stimulus-response gap such that some things can actually be conducted with due consideration rather than strictly as performance. A trial shouldn't merely be for show.
March 28, 2022
Global circumstances -- including China's unwillingness to break with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine -- have reinvigorated interest in some of the broader strategic themes of geopolitics. There is ample reason to believe that China watches the conflict with an eye towards Taiwan, and of course there is the omnipresent concern that the size of China's economy is catching up to that of the United States. ■ These anxieties are good for stoking lots of analysis, and sometimes that takes the form of worry -- like columnist Noah Smith's observation that "Without China, the contest between Putin-style autocracy and industrialized democracy would be incredibly lopsided -- atavistic macho bullies who didn't know how to build things vs. the keepers of technology. The bullies wouldn't stand a chance. China has made the competition far more equal, because they figured out how to combine bully-style rule with competent functioning business and bureaucratic institutions capable of accumulating knowledge and executing complex tasks on a grand scale." ■ On one hand, yes: There is considerable reason to be wary of what the Communist Party has assembled in China. But on the other hand: The thing about dragons is that they aren't real. ■ It's easy to highlight certain prominent feats of the Chinese state-controlled economy. The country has built skyscrapers and aircraft carriers, complex tasks that shouldn't be taken for granted. But flagship projects don't always reveal the true state of affairs. ■ For example: China has eye-catching bullet trains, but a 200-mph train serves (at enormous expense) a specific kind of passenger: People living in dense urban areas with the affluence to pay for the ride. ■ When the United States first got a transcontinental rail network, much of the benefit accrued to farmers living in far-flung homesteads, since it gave them access to the nation's biggest markets. It certainly benefitted urban dwellers, but the rail system did much more to level out economic and cultural connections across the continental nation. China's high-speed rail network is unlikely to have any such leveling effect, since it is bound to bypass the countryside. ■ There were, of course, dire consequences for Native Americans when the railroads were built, and the United States is still reconciling with the damage done. But China's government is still actively detaining minorities in camps (on the scale of a million prisoners) and dismantling democratic institutions in Hong Kong rather than face political competition. ■ China isn't really a "genuinely alternative model of human organization" so much as it is a chimera. Economic growth begetting economic liberty ultimately results in people realizing that wealth is an illusion if you don't own your thoughts. The basic liberal virtue of freedom of thought is ultimately incompatible with a system that fears popular sovereignty. ■ Just as was the case for Marxist-Leninist Communism in Russia, a lot can be materially achieved in the leap from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. And have no doubt that China's economy is developing an astonishing number of technicians, including almost twice as many STEM Ph.D. graduates as the United States. But the system itself is fundamentally unsound. ■ It would be impossible to keep 330 million people under a command-and-control model, much less 1.4 billion. Even people intentionally kept in the dark through surveillance and censorship know enough about themselves to realize when they're being lied to and held down. (It's impossible to keep a lid on putting millions of people under lockdown.) ■ Imagine Thomas Edison trying to build Menlo Park while constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't offended the political authorities with a misplaced remark. There is only so much mental bandwidth a person can devote to great ideas and achievements when secret police will might chase you anywhere on the globe and even billionaires can just go missing without warning. ■ People who are free to see, speak, hear, and seek out the truth have inherent advantages over those who don't -- among others, they get to learn from their own mistakes and from those committed elsewhere. No unitary state can eclipse that advantage. ■ There may be further growth ahead for the Chinese economy -- and, in the interest of total human happiness, we ought to cheer for those who are lifted out of poverty -- but there is also a ceiling on just how much can be achieved, both economically and socially, when people are deprived of their natural right to personal liberty. No shiny baubles should make us think otherwise. There is no property more valuable than the expanse of one's own mind.
March 29, 2022
The unpardonable slander against George Herbert Walker Bush was the claim that he was a wimp. Objectively, this claim was patently untrue: Not only did he serve honorably as the President of the United States, he also had served as the director of the CIA and as a World War II fighter pilot (with 58 combat missions and a Distinguished Flying Cross to his name). None of those count as jobs for wimps. ■ But sometimes the slander stuck, thanks in no small part to its appearance the cover of Newsweek. And it undoubtedly lingered in part because Bush didn't spend his Presidency thundering about his enemies, but instead called for a kinder, gentler nation. ■ In his inaugural address, Bush made an earnest plea: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do." He coupled that kindness to strength: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people." ■ The cultural decoupling of the virtues of strength and kindness is one of the gravest errors a society can make. There is nothing inherently unkind about strength, nor is there anything inherently weak about kindness. In fact, it can well be argued that many virtues require temperance and moderation. For example: Mercy is the privilege of the strong. Nobody pleads for mercy from a position of dominance, and nobody can grant it from a place of submission. ■ It is hard for self-confident people to understand the magnetism of the unkind "strong man" act put on by authoritarians and their admirers. It just doesn't make sense: Why would any member of the public with a decent sense of self-respect be attracted to displays of faux strength put on by clearly indecent people? ■ President Bush wasn't wrong in his desires for kindness and gentility. But our models for those virtues may occasionally show up in unexpected ways. Televised awards programs are generally unremarkable affairs, but at the 2022 Oscar awards, marred otherwise by a literal slap in the face, Lady Gaga put on a display of confident kindness that was truly a master class for anyone watching. ■ Escorting a diminished but still exuberant Liza Minnelli onto the stage, the contemporary artist with a flair for the dramatic demonstrated a laudable capacity to show authentic human kindness, gracefully helping her stage partner to overcome a moment of becoming flustered -- while retaining the confidence that nothing was being taken away from herself by the act. ■ More than just being a satisfying emotional display (which indeed it was), it also showed how a person with self-confidence and grace could bring out the best in someone else through the leverage of their own kindness. Lady Gaga could have carried the scene entirely on her own, but she gave the audience more by centering on Liza Minnelli instead. (She's done much the same alongside Tony Bennett.) ■ It may seem unexpected to see George H.W. Bush and Lady Gaga as fellow-travelers, but in this sense, at least, they offer parallel models: Strength isn't diminished by kindness. One is enhanced by the other. And we ought to admire -- and emulate -- when we see them operating hand-in-hand.
March 30, 2022
"Nonprofit" doesn't mean someone shouldn't be paid
The cooperative institutional structure is one of the best inventions to emerge from the 1800s. As an alternative to purely public ownership of an institution, cooperatives are a more market-oriented solution to supplying goods and services that are in demand, especially when the private sector shows insufficient interest in those markets. That can often be the case when the potential market is limited in size or exists under constraints that inhibit the potential for future growth. ■ That's why they have played an outsized role in serving rural areas: Member-ownership helps people to organize their demands and address them at an economic scale that can make them worth satisfying -- even if a profit-making entity would pass on the opportunity. As more industries achieve maturity and reach the limits of their potential growth, it may well make sense for cooperatives and other mutual forms of business to do more. ■ But it's going to be hard for that to work if we don't heed the words of one of the original cooperative founders. Benjamin Franklin, who organized the Philadelphia Contributionship as a mutual insurance company, was so fond of a phrase that he put it to use on one of the country's earliest coins: "Mind Your Business". ■ Franklin wasn't shy about his attitude that good citizens would tend to their affairs: "Neglect mending a small fault, and 'twill soon be a great one", he declared; and also, "Have you somewhat to do tomorrow; do it to-day." ■ In a story shining a well-deserved spotlight on the two smallest electrical co-ops in Iowa, the Des Moines Register notes that the people operating those systems "have to find people to replace them in jobs that are more community service than paying gigs". One of them is an 87-year-old volunteer. ■ The people who do that kind of work really are the salt of the earth. They're not alone; lots of communities depend heavily on volunteers or wildly underpaid employees to keep the lights on -- literally, in the cases of electrical co-ops. But hoping that someone will do valuable or even essential work for free when it requires skill and time is an exploitative mindset. ■ If people aren't competitively compensated to do difficult, skillful, sometimes unpleasant work, then the model providing that work is fundamentally broken -- even if it's in the form of a cooperative institution. It is a magnificent thing if someone chooses to donate their time and energy to their neighbors. But depending upon someone to do it without market-clearing pay -- at the age of 27, much less 87 -- borders upon insanity. ■ A lot of people adhere to wild forms of magical thinking: Some think (contrary to evidence) that everything gets cheaper if only it is run by the government. Others think (again contrary to evidence) that the for-profit sector can provide everything, right down to police departments and roads. ■ A healthy economy in a democratically-governed society is going to include elements of public ownership, vast amounts of private ownership, and lots of forms that take a third way, like mutual or cooperative ownership structures that don't seek to generate a profit. But if that third way is to be taken seriously, it cannot depend upon the goodwill of volunteers to do the essential. Even if some exemplary individuals are willing to give their labor away for the benefit of the public, the public interest isn't really served in the long term if it declines to pay them fairly.
March 31, 2022
A poll conducted for The Economist produced some results bound to create some consternation: Among American respondents ages 18 to 29, only 56% said they sympathized with Ukraine over Russia in the midst of the latter's unprovoked invasion of the former. Large numbers responded "neither" and "not sure", with a non-trivial set responding that they sympathized more with Russia than with its victim. ■ The same polling found similarly distressing results among the same age cohort in both Britain and France; perhaps not quite as offputting as those in the US, but far from where they ought to be. These results indeed ought to be troubling, since the Kremlin is not only the undisputed aggressor, but also the perpetrator of self-evident war crimes, like bombing maternity hospitals and shelters full of children. ■ There is a good chance that people who are not well-informed about current events assume that there must be a "both sides" nature to the conflict -- hence, the large numbers of "neither" and "unsure" respondents. ■ But it is also nothing new for the Kremlin to be the force behind real atrocities: See what Russian forces did in Chechnya, in Syria, and in Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. It doesn't require full-time attention to the news to recognize that one of the sides in the conflict has a history of malevolent behavior. ■ Worth noting, of course, is that anyone under the age of 31 was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That event was one to celebrate. But in the subsequent years, it is possible that the absence of a clearly defined moral opponent (like the "Evil Empire") made the proponents of human liberty and freedom a little too lax for our own good. ■ In the days before the Cold War had vanished from memory and the Internet had made all things seem like they were forever happening right now, lots of cultural touchstones served to subtly remind the people of what we called the "free world" that things were plainly better under our systems of self-government, democracy, and the rule of law. ■ It wasn't just something we noticed when the first McDonald's opened in Moscow. An uninhibited, unapologetic, and unironic enthusiasm for free markets and free people was embedded in a lot more of what we experienced. Practically everyone was a booster for capitalism, because the alternative was obviously dreary, soul-crushing, and repressive. ■ Without the giant Communist counterweight (and with China, the USSR's likeliest successor as Communism's redoubt, deciding that getting rich was glorious), criticism in countries like the United States tended to turn inward, against the institutions of democracy and markets -- hence the growth of the Democratic Socialists. ■ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is 44 years old, and graduated from college in the year 2000. His age cohort is just about the last to have meaningful memories of the Cold War, whether they lived behind the Iron Curtain or outside it. That age group is now well above the global median age. Perhaps that is why, despite his youth compared with many other world leaders, Zelenskyy seems to have an unusually capable grasp of both the tools of contemporary communication and the historic language of unambiguous moral clarity. ■ If we are to revive the default assumption that totalitarian government is one of the primary evils to be avoided in all of human society, the clock may be ticking for those who remember the Cold War to speak up without reservation -- not to condemn Russia as a state, but to condemn authoritarianism in all its forms for the indisputably repugnant corruption that it is.