Gongol.com Archives: 2022 Third-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

July 1, 2022

Business and Finance Living in the machine

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

July 3, 2022

The United States of America Love it without leaving it

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

July 4, 2022

The United States of America Expect more

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

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July 5, 2022

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

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

July 6, 2022

The United States of America The compromise is the point

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

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July 7, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting a private label on Big Tech

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

July 10, 2022

News Rock on

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

July 11, 2022

News Handling hard stuff better

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

July 12, 2022

News Education as a service product

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

July 13, 2022

News Movie day

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

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July 14, 2022

Threats and Hazards State-sponsored terrorism

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

July 17, 2022

The United States of America Words and rights

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

July 18, 2022

Weather and Disasters Under pressure (and heat)

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

July 19, 2022

News Wear sunscreen

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

July 20, 2022

Threats and Hazards Kids shouldn't die in hot cars

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

July 21, 2022

News Military advisors

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

July 22, 2022

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

July 25, 2022

Computers and the Internet The coming end of bad hotel art

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

July 26, 2022

News Resources and warfare

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

July 28, 2022

Business and Finance To grow or not to grow

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

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July 29, 2022

News High-tech gloss

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

July 30, 2022

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

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

August 2, 2022

Aviation News Clean up after your space program

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

August 3, 2022

Weather and Disasters It's the heat and the humidity

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

August 5, 2022

Business and Finance Quit with all this

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

August 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Telling you what to do for two years

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

August 7, 2022

Business and Finance Doing the hard work

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

August 9, 2022

News A penny for your thoughts

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

August 10, 2022

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

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

August 12, 2022

Iowa A beautiful game

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

August 13, 2022

Computers and the Internet Decorating digital publications

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

August 14, 2022

News Standing by your reporting

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

August 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Sea power

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

August 17, 2022

Computers and the Internet No excuses for lax security

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

August 18, 2022

News The integral partygoer

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

August 19, 2022

News Having the arms to fight back

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

August 20, 2022

News The generation gap

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

August 23, 2022

Business and Finance Manufacturing evolution

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

August 24, 2022

Science and Technology Reach out and touch someone

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

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August 26, 2022

News Monumental change

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

August 27, 2022

Computers and the Internet Don't set down your shield

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

August 28, 2022

Business and Finance Phone home

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

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August 29, 2022

Computers and the Internet Point and stare

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

August 30, 2022

News Goodbye, Gorby

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

August 31, 2022

News Shaping the next 80 years

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

September 1, 2022

The United States of America Strategic patience

A general impatience is a long-running feature of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville made note of it in Volume II of "Democracy in America": "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare; and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it." ■ Restlessness with the state of affairs that are unjust or inadequate is a virtue, of course. If a real injustice is uncovered, it is for the best that the people of a democracy recognize it quickly and seek to purge it swiftly. Attitudes on same-sex marriage are a prominent contemporary example; according to Gallup, support grew from a small minority (27%) in 1996 to a majority (53%) in 2011, and now stands at a super-majority (71%). ■ In retrospect, that pace of change is remarkable by historical standards. But it most likely felt altogether too slow to those who campaigned for it. From 1996 to the present is just about one generation. Change often seems unsatisfying when it involves lots of individual decisions, as most matters of public opinion do. ■ It's worth recalling that humans have always been this way -- we are not unique today in requiring time to come around to new ideas, nor in being dissatisfied with conditions that don't quickly come around to our point of view. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus declared, "All great things are slow of growth; nay, this is true even of a grape or of a fig. If then you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flower, then cast its blossom, then ripen." ■ Epictetus died around 135 AD. People are still discovering and re-discovering his ideas more than 60 generations later, but they have to be learned in order to be valuable. The same goes for any other philosophy or perspective on the world. It's easy to slap a motivational quote on a poster, but nobody has ever "Successoried" their way into a fulfilling worldview. ■ The same goes for a great country -- one that is, at its center, an idea about the rights of individuals. There are those who demand radical social and political changes of one flavor or another, often lashed to long wish-lists of individual policies, often quite radical in ambition. ■ Americans need to recognize our own tendency towards that impatience identified in our predecessors by de Tocqueville. We also need to acknowledge the inescapable fact that if we want to conserve what is fundamentally right with our country, then we have to commit to learning it for ourselves and patiently teaching it to our own children. ■ Epictetus was right; all great things are slow of growth. Great things are never achieved overnight. But bad ideas, like fast-growing weeds, can work their way in and choke out the slow-growing good things if we're not diligent about cultivating those good things over the long term. The risk is especially great in times when impatience is widespread. Getting and keeping good things requires thinking far down the road.

September 3, 2022

Business and Finance Building more places to live

People in very serious roles sometimes propose most unserious responses to problems. San Francisco, for example, has a notorious housing shortage. Rents are among the highest in the world, with single-family homes selling in some neighborhoods for well over $1,000 per square foot -- five times the median rate in an affluent community like West Des Moines, Iowa or Naperville, Illinois. ■ Yet one of San Francisco's city/county supervisors wears his advocacy for rent controls as a badge of honor and declares (without evident self-awareness) that "The unregulated [housing] market is the problem, not the solution." ■ Reasonable observers would note that San Francisco's problem is largely one of supply. It's one of America's largest metropolitan areas, blessed with beautiful views, a fantastically mild climate, and an enviable economy, so people naturally gravitate there. But the city simply doesn't permit housing construction at nearly the rate it should, with a population-adjusted rate of new housing permits half that in Washington, DC, and barely a quarter that in Austin, Texas. ■ Language is no small part of the problem. It may feel satisfyingly self-righteous for a local politician to declare that "Housing is a human right", but it's neither helpful nor true. Housing is a universal human need, and knowing the difference between a universal need and a human right is no small matter. ■ A human right (like freedom of speech) is not subject to material constraints. It belongs to a person by right of birth, takes on no material form, and can only be taken away, usually by the interference of oppressive powers. ■ When China's government denies the right to freedom of conscience, it violates a human right by taking it away from the individual. When, for far too much of our past, the United States tolerated chattel slavery, it violated a human right to freedom and personal autonomy. Abraham Lincoln implicitly acknowledged this in the words of the Emancipation Proclamation: "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." ■ By contrast, someone has to answer a vital question about every universal need: "How can we encourage an abundant supply?". In the case of housing, there is no magic wand to wave that will conjure housing out of thin (perhaps foggy) air. Someone has to build it. And in the mayor's own words, "For years, San Francisco has made it too hard to approve and build new homes. That must change." The government there has, if anything, obstructed the function of a market-based housing industry. ■ People seeking to make money within a market will rarely leave any good opportunities on the table, and in the case of housing, it should be plainly evident that with developers are perpetually eager to seek their fortunes -- ones they can only make by building things. If enough developers aren't building, the most likely reasons for housing shortages just about anywhere come down to insurmountable constraints: Either there isn't enough available land or there are too many regulatory prohibitions. ■ Where land is in short supply, the choice can often be made to effectively create more by building vertically. But where regulatory constraints are the ones limiting supply, it's not "the market" that is the problem. ■ We should take care to call things by their appropriate names, and a thing that takes on a material form needed by everyone isn't a "human right", no matter how good it may feel to say. The material form makes it a human need. Knowing that distinction -- and taking it seriously -- is the only way to engage in the right mindset for solving the problem when there isn't enough of a good thing to go around.

September 5, 2022

Business and Finance Making a happier Labor Day

Labor Day remarks tend to be platitudinous. People and organizations that feel obligated to mark the day can usually go the safe route with some version of "Workers are the backbone of the American economy". Left-leaning politicians usually insert something celebrating organized labor unions. Right-leaning ones frequently offer some kind of praise for small business owners and other proprietors. ■ It would be more productive to take Labor Day as an annual trigger to have real debates about what would be broadly useful to the American workforce. The mere statistics of union membership don't tell much of a useful story. For instance: Are workers better off in occupations where they feel union membership is worth the dues, or is low membership a sign that employers are voluntarily satisfying worker expectations? Particularly in a time of 3.7% unemployment (low by most historical standards), a private-sector union membership rate of 6.1% might just be a symptom that many workers are getting what they want. ■ A more interesting debate would ask questions like "What policies or practices would ensure that more people in the labor force were able to convert their work into capital ownership?" Or "How can employers in the public and private sectors alike be rewarded for investing resources in long-term skill development?" These and others might be much more productive questions to discuss than merely lining up along tired old divisions. ■ Those divisions are tired because, now more than ever, workers can't be centered on a single employer or a single occupation for an entire career. The marketplace is dynamic, and there is no sheltering the American worker from technological and international competition. If research analysts, sales managers, and computer programmers are among the occupations most at risk of displacement by artificial intelligence, and management jobs are being eliminated by the auto industry's shift to electric vehicles, then we need a much more holistic approach to the question of "What's good for labor?" than a boring old dichotomy of "labor versus capital". ■ And that's even more the case because having a prudent retirement plan requires almost everyone to become a share-holding capitalist in the financial markets. Only a slim minority of workers are even engaged in defined-benefit pension plans, and even they should probably have some kind of backup plan that involves personal investments in the financial markets. It's not "labor versus capital", it's "labor and capital". ■ Not many people have the right incentives to fire up discussions about a subject like Labor Day that won't fall within predictable boundaries. But it shouldn't be that way. Labor Day shouldn't just be the last hurrah of summer, nor just a day full of platitudes (and some pandering). It ought to be a healthy annual reminder that economies are dynamic and people are often adaptable, and success on a civilizational scale comes in part from making sure that adaptability both enhances and takes advantage of that dynamism.

September 7, 2022

News Interesting people

Few genres are as congested with a surplus of content as the subject of parenting. In addition to the thousands of books that can be found in bookstores and libraries on the topic, there are mom blogs, parenting Facebook groups, and podcasts aplenty. That's not to mention the well-established industry of parenting-related periodicals. ■ Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on matters like raising kids to be successful in life (like a "Tiger Mom", for instance), or imposing the kind of discipline that won't scar the child emotionally, or instilling "grit" into young minds. But it's rare to find anyone who talks about raising raising children to become interesting adults. ■ Not materially successful. Not religiously devout. Not academically credentialed -- or simply capable of performing basic tasks without ironically calling it "adulting". Just...interesting. ■ The omission is odd, because if one has children at an average age (somewhere in the late 20s through the 30s), and lives to a median age (into the 80s for those who survive through the typical child-rearing years), then one will spend far more time with their offspring as adults than with them as children. As in, decades more. ■ People talk a lot about doing things "for the children" or "for future generations", but quite selfishly, we ought to want to turn out adults who are fundamentally interesting people. There's probably some correlation between being interesting and having other virtues. But it doesn't have to be anything other than its own justification. It is quite enough to simply want interesting people around when one reaches later life. And some of the people most likely to remain around are one's own offspring. ■ "Interesting" comes in all sorts of flavors, of course, but it generally starts with having interests -- a sense of curiosity and of openness to ideas and experiences. It also calls for having at least some motivation to do things, rather than existing passively. ■ It's not very interesting to be defined by what products or media one consumes. Helping children to find those motivations and interests is not only a way to produce more interesting adults (whom parents can enjoy as they grow into peers), it is also a way to help insulate children against some of the hazards of this age -- especially the still-new and still-evolving pressures that come from living in a world saturated by social media. ■ It's not an obvious responsibility to help a person become interesting -- but it can be a gift. And though there are not yet any search results for "How to raise interesting children", there ought to be. In more ways than we realize, the future depends upon it.

September 8, 2022

News Free to choose how to feel

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years over not just her home country, but as the nominal head of state for 14 "realms" within the Commonwealth. Her passing marks a good time to bear in mind the duality of human nature. ■ An institution (like the monarchy) can be built on a foundation containing many wrongs, yet still be venerated even by some of those wronged by it. The very idea of someone in England inheriting the right to be "sovereign" over the people of Jamaica, for instance, violates a whole host of notions of logic and justice. But that doesn't deprive the people of the Commonwealth from feeling a sense of attachment to the royal family, if they so choose. ■ Likewise, a person can be a reluctant figurehead -- then-Princess Elizabeth wasn't born in the right order to become monarch. But they can also rise to occasions of need, overcoming personal preferences in the course of offering a most public face emerging from a sense of duty. ■ While kings and queens make for easy fairy-tale fodder, it's no surprise that so many people appear to struggle psychologically when born into royalty. Despite the obvious material riches and social deference, it's fairly clear -- even from the case of Elizabeth's own grandson -- that a monarchy gives the blue-blooded all of the known perils of celebrity but without even the sense of choice whether to pursue it. At least the politicians in a republic must choose to run. ■ The basic duality of human nature was defined well by Alexander Hamilton: "The truth is, in human affairs there is no good, pure and unmixed; every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good, and guarding as much as possible against the bad." ■ A person who is mostly good can find themselves embedded in a system that is mostly rotten; they must make the best of it they can. An institution with a terrible legacy of discrimination can still be meaningful to some of those it historically discriminated against. People can be sad at a basically humane level for the passing of another human being, yet still wonder whether it is time to turn the page on the structures that elevated that person to public attention in the first place. ■ People are often attracted to simple narratives built around "battle lines" and confrontations between pure good versus pure evil. But the hazier reality is that aspects of good and evil are within all of us, and it is only through choice -- inasmuch as any individual has the freedom to choose -- that we can lend power to one or the other. ■ In the words of Margaret Thatcher, the eighth of Elizabeth's 15 prime ministers: "Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose." That truth makes for a lot of gray within human lives, whether "royal" or common.

September 9, 2022

Science and Technology Bridging the wars

Amid its continued effort to expel the invasion from Russia, Ukraine undertaken efforts that would look crazy in peacetime, but which make complete sense in wartime. One example is the bombing of bridges. Nobody would ever voluntarily destroy critical infrastructure in a time of peace, but photos and videos are circulating on social media showing the obliteration of bridges to cities being targeted for liberation. In destroying the bridges, the Ukrainian forces are seeking to isolate and trap their Russian enemies. ■ A truly fascinating broad-based history of warfare could be told through the story of bridges. From the distant past through the present, bridges have often been as important as arms. ■ We marvel in the modern day at the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, but their bridges depended upon much of the same technology -- and those bridges were in some cases central to the projection of power far from the seat of government itself. ■ In the 20th Century, the capacity to destroy and selectively replace bridges was often a decisive factor in the battles of the land war in Europe during World War II. The US Army Corps of Engineers proved to be a substantial force multiplier through its ability to speedily install bridges in France, Italy, and Germany. ■ Even in domestic American history, the attentive student of history would note that George Washington crossed the Delaware River in a boat, and that his forces were badly hampered by trying to cross an icy river using boats. Bridges would have made the attack far easier. ■ Bridges present us with a fascinating case of embedded knowledge. If one knows where the bridges are, one knows where the obstacles are. But bridges also tell us where to find things of value. We ordinarily take them for granted, but bridges represent a huge share of what humans "know" about our places without really thinking. ■ Pittsburgh may have an almost unreasonable number of bridges, but it's no small matter that the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Chicago Skyway have meaningful places in their respective local lores. Americans are fortunate that we have remained at domestic peace for so long that the destruction of any of those bridges would be unthinkable, but it's no mere coincidence that the US Army has trained its Corps of Engineers on bridge-building since the nation was new. ■ Many things evade our attention during periods of normalcy, and the indispensable role of bridges in warfare is one of them. But that role is being put in the spotlight in Ukraine right now, and it is a historical story worth telling.

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September 11, 2022

News Never, never, never, never give in

A cartoon has circulated since well before the time when memes were shared on the Internet, dating back to the days when clever jokes were shared via fax machines and office photocopiers. It depicts a seabird -- a pelican or a heron -- swallowing a frog. But the frog is defiantly choking the bird on its way down, creating a stalemate not unlike Aesop's fable about the greedy boy with his hand stuck in a jar because he knew too little to let go of what wasn't his. ■ It's hard not to think of that frog, never giving up, every time news of further progress issues forth from Ukraine. The most recent bold strikes to recover territory may well be remembered as a turning point in the war. ■ In October 1941, well after World War II had come to England but before it had drawn in the full force of the United States, Winston Churchill admonished an audience to "[N]ever give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy..." ■ Morale has real-world value. A sense of the moral right really does matter. Willingness to stand and fight and spit in the face of darkness can be a force multiplier. ■ The war isn't over for Ukraine; it needs a sustained supply of heavy arms and munitions from other countries that realize the urgency of putting up a fight. But the people of Ukraine also deserve credit for learning and adapting quickly -- not just being defiant. ■ The cartoon frog choking the seabird is, metaphorically, a lot like the porcupine strategy for small countries facing the threat of attack from much bigger foes. The larger adversary might have more resources to commit to an invasion, but the defenders can make themselves too painful to digest. ■ What is worthy of admiration in the present case is that the metaphorical frog isn't just choking the bird into a stalemate, it's trying to bring the bird to its knees so that it flies away and never returns. No matter how this war ends, Ukraine and Russia will still be neighbors sharing a border hundreds of miles long. ■ It will easily be at least a generation before anything resembling mutual trust can be established across that border, though probably more. The "never" in "never give in" will have to last a very long time. ■ It's going to require permanent vigilance on the part of the defenders who appear to be on a hot streak. But it will also require a permanent commitment on the part of others (most especially Americans)to remain well-informed about and interested in the big picture of world affairs. ■ A peaceful world order doesn't happen spontaneously. It depends upon the assurance that the forces which would perpetrate evil will encounter righteous defenders who will "never, never, never, never" give in -- and allies committed to the idea that they should never have to.

September 13, 2022

The United States of America Can you believe this?

Straight-line projections of things like social change are often woefully inaccurate ways to anticipate the future. In many cases, things change very slowly for a long time, then quite suddenly. It's no particular surprise; we are social creatures and we make many of our decisions socially. ■ Religion is no exception. Religions are often defined by things like movements, revivals, schisms, and reformations. This quality makes it very difficult to take too seriously any trend-line projections about the future of faith. ■ Notwithstanding that skepticism about forecasting, it's illuminating to look at the evolving nature of religious identification in America, because it has indeed changed considerably in just the last few decades. The Pew Research Center has examined those trends and come up with a forecast saying that -- if present trends continue -- half of Americans might be religiously unaffiliated by 2070. ■ That number is already 30%. This isn't a new development; it was observed more than a decade ago that "former Catholics" would make up the second-largest denomination in the country, if identified together. Other denominations have been in long-term decline, as well. That didn't happen overnight. ■ But whether or not organized religions maintain a hold on people and their identities, people will forever be engaged in a search for meaning, a quest for belonging, and a ritualized way of experiencing significant life events. Organized religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, has long offered a structured route to satisfying some of those basic human longings. Zoroastrianism is probably 3,500 years old. ■ "Spiritual but not religious" is now one of the most popular ways for American adults to self-identify. It seems exceptionally unlikely that it means "I have independently satisfied all of the longings which religion so often addresses". It seems much more likely that people who have become dissatisfied with organized religion are turning to other outlets -- from politics to video games, from exercise programs to role-playing -- to try to make meaning out of each life's inevitable complexities. ■ What may be especially interesting to watch is whether and how the mainline branches of Christianity respond to the growing -- demand? need? opportunity? -- for missionaries to the agnostic and the disaffiliated. Catholicism, for instance, has a long history of syncretism -- absorbing and co-opting local practices in order to entrench itself with new converts. Will orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans establish modern-day missions for the "spiritual but not religious" in American cities and suburbs? ■ Will Episcopalians offer unconventional, environmentally-themed services for those who are reluctant to use the Book of Common Prayer, but who bring a quasi-religious fervor to their regard of climate change as an overwhelming existential threat? ■ Will Presbyterians take their social justice advocacy to unconventional online platforms to mediate a pathway to reach people for whom political protests and demonstrations take the place of gathering with a community in religious worship? ■ The changing state of outward religious practice may or may not be cause for alarm -- either as it regards individuals' souls, or as it affects society at large. Religion itself may have laudable effects on a population, or it can be used as a tool of oppression. But religious instincts are almost certainly not in the same kind of decline as religious identification. ■ British rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks wrote that "[R]itual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy. That requires daily discipline, a ritual -- and religion is the matrix of ritual." What is yet to be seen is whether the sects already well-established in American culture will engage in bold adaptations at missionary outreach that match the accelerating pace of their relative decline.

September 14, 2022

Business and Finance It's the economy, but not stupid

There is no form of misplaced confidence quite like that of the person who thinks they can forecast the state of the economy on a global basis. And make no mistake: The United States is just about a quarter of the whole world's economy, so any forecasts of the US economy are estimates of the global one, and vice-versa. (A wall isn't a house all by itself, but a four-sided house wouldn't be a house if one of those walls went missing.) ■ We may give it a holistic, all-encompassing name complete with definite article ("the" economy), but this amorphous thing we talk about doesn't exist in a mechanical space. It's the aggregation of the uncountable trillions and quadrillions of individual choices made by billions of human beings. "The" economy may be subject to specific trends and forces, but it is also deeply tied to human emotions. ■ That emotionality ensures that waves of irrational behavior will prevail from time to time, and it also ensures that fundamentally unpredictable events will have consequences that no rational forecaster can see coming. If anyone had confidently known in February 2019 that a pandemic was coming, they certainly failed to tell the rest of us -- and yet, can anyone name a single more significant influence on the world economy in the last five years than Covid-19? ■ Lots of people are being paid to try to guess what will happen over the next couple of years, and if any of them were fully honest, they would merely say "If present trends continue, this is my best guess at what would happen in the absence of any surprise events. But there will be surprise events that could easily ruin this entire forecast, so don't read very much at all into this." ■ The very best anyone can or should attempt to do is to draw modest conclusions about the likely trends in specific areas based upon fundamental conditions, and to indicate what kinds of events could influence those trends. ■ For example, the rate of inflation, which is unusually high, should not be expected to ease for a while. The Federal Reserve is using interest rates to try to corral it, but the Fed is working against a huge increase in the money supply -- one that has been ongoing since the economic panic of 2008/2009. Lots of money has been pumped into the economy in effort to keep it from crashing. But much of that money has moved extremely slowly by historical standards, and only a slight uptick in its velocity (like the one encountered recently) can easily be enough to keep prices on the rise. ■ There are other titanic factors at play, too. Take the mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce, who are being succeeded by a much smaller generation of managers and experienced workers. ■ Or take the expense of rearranging supply chains to build resilience against further lockdowns in China or trouble in freight transportation. Or consider the consequences of having to re-make a substantial portion of Europe's energy balance because of the recklessness of the Kremlin and its assault on Ukraine. Or the influence of huge sums of "relief" spending that haven't even been allocated yet. ■ All of those are fundamental reasons pushing in the direction of further inflation for some time to come. Maybe lower than it has been over the last couple of quarters -- but maybe not. The only certainty anyone should have is that it's foolish to make forecasts with any certainty, even in stable times. And these times are hardly stable.

September 16, 2022

News The past just isn't what it used to be

Almost without exception, life is simpler for children than it is for adults. Children don't have to worry about mortgage payments, occupational licensing, or paying their taxes. The very few exceptions tend to prove the rule that they are free from anything approaching life-and-death concerns -- and when they are, it is often because they have been swept up in the currents of problems which adults have created. ■ When this generally low level of angst is combined with the natural tendency to forget pain and remember good times, there are very few routes straight to adults' hearts than nostalgia. Fairy tales, period pieces, and oldies radio all tend to exploit the longing for what in retrospect almost invariably seem like simpler and better times in the past. ■ But it would be a gross over-simplification to imagine that human civilization was objectively better-off in those purportedly "simpler" times. There's no doubt that the modern world is vastly more complex than any time can reflect upon in history. But anyone who has lived through the first decades of the 21st Century has witnessed what is most likely the most gobsmacking period of progress in human history. ■ Smashing progress has been made against evils like child mortality, unbelievable numbers of people have been moved out of abject poverty and into the global middle class, and communications have put people in touch with one another in ways that were completely unimaginable even half a century ago. ■ But those facts don't stop some people from offering a revisionist view of what they view as "traditional" history. Some of them sneak into conversations by waxing poetic about seemingly innocuous aspects of the past, like sharing pictures of past artistic triumphs and and giving them brighter colors. There is a grain of truth to is: We shouldn't imagine that the world of the past consisted entirely of black, white, and gray. ■ Beneath the surface, though, when people show off the distant past in a flattering light, they are too often only a short step from advocating for a revival of "traditional" ways that are incompatible with the world our species has made. Astonishingly, there are those who, today, in the 21st Century, try to argue that the Enlightenment was a mistake. Sometimes they say so directly and literally. Sometimes they merely lead others to believe it as a "natural" conclusion. ■ The major peril lurking beneath the social-media posts shared by accounts with officious names like "Cultural Tutor" and "Historical Images" isn't that they are often staged or misrepresented, though that is often the case, but that they are all too often deliberately intended to sow discontent with modernity. ■ What starts with an innocuous observation -- for instance, that people used brightly colored paints in the distant past on objects and architecture that are mostly faded today -- can swiftly turn into ludicrous complaints like one that "the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and Modernism have made the Middle Ages almost incomprehensible to us". ■ This is portrayed as though there were some mysterious lost Middle Ages wisdom we could and ought to recapture, if only we were to reject "the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism". Life wasn't fundamentally better in the Middle Ages; people died of plagues, smallpox, and ordinary infections. They drank contaminated water (a problem humanity barely understood at all until the 1850s. They submitted to the will of unelected elites. They enjoyed neither household refrigeration nor air travel. ■ It isn't wrong to look at pictures of colorful, ornate architecture from the past. Indeed, even emphatically forward-thinking people can enjoy them. But critical thinkers need to ask, "What is the message someone is trying to send?" and "What part of the story does the picture omit?" ■ No sensible person would reject the civil-rights advancements of the last 50 years, much less those of the last 500. But those advancements don't show up in gauzy social-media posts about "beautiful" old buildings. Many of the victories of the Enlightenment (and the modern thinking descended from it) have more to do with how people live than what we build. And they are far more important. ■ Simplistic posts that uncritically valorize the distant past and cast aspersions on modernity are much worse than brief indulgences in classic television sitcoms or the popular music of one's youth. A depiction of classic art restored to its colorful origins doesn't tell the story of the staggering costs of building things like Gothic cathedrals. ■ Because human culture evolves, we have to trust that there may be some embedded wisdom in the decisions about what our forebears passed down -- and what they did not. The process isn't perfect, but it tends to organically capture the wisdom of a great deal of trial and error along the way. ■ We should certainly look to the past from time to time to see if good ideas got left on the cutting-room floor. But we shouldn't let anyone fool us into the false belief that some utopian past can and should be recovered, especially not by rejecting the stepping stones that brought about the world of today. As we find good things along the way, we ought to conserve them for our children and grandchildren. And as others are found no longer useful, we serve our descendants well by casting them off.

News Nobody is old at 44

At 44 years old, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is just one year older than George Washington when he was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. May Zelenskyy, like Washington, have plenty of time to make more good history.

Humor and Good News Trippy interior design

There are entire cities buried under the soils of Italy that don't feature as many tiles as one extraordinarily gaudy residential bathroom in New Jersey.

September 17, 2022

News You don't know what you're missing

If a piece of wisdom is supposed to be transcendent or beyond dispute, it's often framed as maternal advice: "Like your mother told you", or "Just like Grandma used to say". As a literary device, it works. Strictly from a biological perspective, nobody is more certain of their investment in a child than a mother. Paternity may fall into dispute, but maternity can't. ■ This almost iron-clad faith in the goodwill of the advice of mothers is nothing new. The first chapter of the Book of Proverbs contains the 2,500 year-old passage, "Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching; A graceful diadem will they be for your head; a pendant for your neck." ■ How plainly astonishing, then, that so little of the wisdom of those mothers and grandmothers makes its way into the canon of philosophical literature. Under-valuing the wisdom and intelligence of women is a mistake human civilizations have made over and over, through the course of millennia, and it's a travesty that we have no obvious recourse to get it back. ■ We can't retroactively enroll more women in Plato's Academy or read what the Founding Mothers might have written, at least not much outside of the context of the letters of Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to their husbands. ■ That there were so few women heard from isn't because they didn't have things to say. Nor is it excused by the woeful inattention to the education of women provided in past eras (a condition lamented by Benjamin Franklin, among others): We still study the works of Leonardo da Vinci today, even though he had no meaningful formal education. Surely there have been at least as many women as naturally gifted as the men we study today, but we just don't have records of most of them. ■ What's missing is vast, either because it was never written in the first place, or wasn't preserved because it wasn't valued. But the prospects of artificial intelligence and massive digitization might make it possible to either reconstruct or to synthesize small portions of what's missing. ■ Reconstruction, or reverse-engineering what may have been said by looking at the artifacts of what was recorded by others, would be the most authentic. We can begin to reconstruct some of what Elizabeth Hamilton wrote in her lost letters by looking at the content of what Alexander Hamilton wrote in reply. But reconstruction assumes the existence of a record. ■ Synthesis may be useful for those many cases where finding a record is impossible, because it never existed in the first place. We may be able to turn to tools like the OpenAI GPT-3 to write what was never written in the first place, allowing us to ask questions like, "What would Aristotle's older sister have written after studying and debating with him?". ■ The value in these exercises (and in others like them) would be to offer a sort of placeholder in the literature of big ideas, to acknowledge that women were left out of much of the process of creating what we accept now as the Western intellectual canon, but that we should be cognizant of that absence. It is too easy to passively overlook what's missing unless some kind of marker reminds us. ■ Civilization is going to need those reminders for a while -- it's only been for a single century that women were even allowed to study at many elite schools or even to vote. Parity in the intellectual canon is going to take a long while, but like reserving a seat for the deceased or putting on a missing-man formation, sometimes we need to see symbolically what's missing. We live in an exciting moment when it may begin to be possible to put some worthy symbols in place.

News The normal distribution of weightlifting

The wear patterns on a weight machine tell a highly "normal" story about how much people like to lift. But it's also curious to note how many users evidently feel compelled to round up and lift 100 lbs. instead of 95. Apparently, people don't like to lie to themselves in matters of strength.

September 18, 2022

Broadcasting A little decency

A bloviator with a broadcast audience has been caught on record ranting against a sign in a child's classroom which said "The world is better because you are in it." His cantankerous rejection of the merit of that sign was merely that "What has any fifth-grader done to make the world better because he or she is in it?" ■ It is a misfortune that broadcasting outlets still prop up the reach of people who are so eager to dismiss the humanity in others. The remark itself was offhand and self-evidently not particularly well-developed, and it's not the first time a broadcaster has said something remarkably stupid because those were simply the first words to pop into their head while trying to stretch out the clock. ■ But it doesn't take much heavy-handed scrutiny to ask a basic question: If someone took a seat next to you in a public space -- a hotel bar, an airplane seat, or in a pew at church -- and offhandedly chuckled to himself, "What good is a ten-year-old girl?", would you not be alarmed by both their judgment and their fundamental decency? What kind of civic decay are the advertisers and program directors of the world encouraging when they deem a commentator of that sort to be worth propping up and placing before an audience five days a week, for three hours a day? ■ Putting aside the obvious objective rebuttals to the question of what good a fifth-grader has ever done for the world (Mozart had already performed solo concerts by that age and was about to write his first opera), there is a much simpler moral refutation. It is that every life has value, intrinsically, and without any regard to what they might have "done to make the world better". ■ Most people are inclined by nature to try to be good and to try to do well, at least for themselves and their families, but often for broader social circles and even for complete strangers. Fifth-graders have done great good: Saving everyone on a school bus from likely disaster, saving a choking classmate, and donating the profits from a home-based business to children's hospitals. But doing that sort of good isn't a prerequisite to their humanity. ■ An enlightened view of personal responsibility, of course, compels everyone to do his or her duty to try to create more good in the world than they extract. But creating some sort of measurable net good in the world neither confers humanity, nor does failing to do so detract from it. Wantedness isn't a precondition for intrinsic human value. And that human value does, indeed, make the world better. ■ A person who dismisses the fundamental worth of others' lives, whether in the midst of a carefully-scripted rant or in passing remarks meant only to fill the time, is not a person worth elevating for larger audiences to heed. When we grant blowhards a platform, we implicitly co-sign with their worst impulses. The First Amendment assures the right of Americans to hold and announce really bad ideas. It does not, however, require that those bad ideas be shamelessly elevated.

Threats and Hazards Freedom for Iran

Protests have broken out after a 22-year-old woman was killed by Iran's "morality" police over the mandatory use of a hijab

Weather and Disasters Typhoons to our left, hurricanes to our right

Alaska is dealing with a dying typhoon, while Puerto Rico is getting hammered by Hurricane Fiona

Science and Technology Electric unicycles

Self-propelled, self-balancing "micro mobility", say the proponents. Or just a really great way to cause more concussions.

Weather and Disasters An anxious evening

The Storm Prediction Center puts most of southern Iowa (including a substantial share of the state's population via the Des Moines and Iowa City metro areas) under advisement to watch out for supercell thunderstorms

The United States of America Historical context

George Washington was born in the same year (1732) that Benjamin Franklin began publishing "Poor Richard's Almanack"

Weather and Disasters Earthquake damage in Taiwan

Arresting images of a bridge that was toppled by the quake

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September 19, 2022

The United States of America Growing slowly

In 1753 -- nearly a quarter of a century before he took part in writing the Declaration of Independence, and a full 34 years before he signed the Constitution of the United States -- Benjamin Franklin offered some poignant advice in his Poor Richard's Almanack: "Sudden Power is apt to be insolent, Sudden Liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually." ■ Considering how impatient so many people are in the present age, Franklin's advice could use a modern-day signal boost. It's not to say that people shouldn't be impatient when their rights are on the line: Too much patience in the face of tyranny only gives the tyrannical more time to entrench themselves. ■ But Franklin's advice does say something meaningful about how we, as a self-governing people, have to think about transitions like the handing over of power to subsequent generations. People are not born as responsible participants in a democratic society; they have to be trained, preferably first by loving families, and then by social institutions like their schools, churches, and scout troops. ■ Even then, many a freshly-minted voter still embraces radical views thanks to the passions of youth. What's dangerous, though, is when people remain prone to those "insolent" and "saucy" habits because they refuse to take part in "growing gradually". ■ Much has been written about political polarization, and much more will be written yet. It's hard to tell sometimes whether the phrase "What radicalized you?" is really tongue-in-cheek or a statement of reality. ■ Growing so that we "behave best", as Franklin put it, requires a commitment to remaining open to new and improved ideas along the way, while resisting the radical urges that arise out of passions. Nobody is fully equipped with wisdom at the age of 18, but nobody has all of the right answers at 78, either. ■ In a functional democratic society, no one gets to be satisfied with outcomes 100 percent of the time. Wisdom consists in learning to take satisfaction in a good process and outcomes that come closer to giving everyone 60% of what they want, rather than giving 60% of the people everything that they want. Adults have a deep and abiding obligation to learn that lesson and pass it along. Ben Franklin's advice has had more than a quarter of a millennium to ring in America's ears. We shouldn't be found careless in ignoring it.

Computers and the Internet Uber's computer systems hacked

"The person who claimed responsibility for the hack told The New York Times that he had sent a text message to an Uber worker claiming to be a corporate information technology person. The worker was persuaded to hand over a password..."

September 20, 2022

Business and Finance A roof overhead

One of the heavier social issues of the moment is housing affordability. The gravity of the problem varies a lot by market, but there are fairly dependable indications that the situation is broadly felt. One is the National Association of Realtors' housing affordability index, which tells a story of rapidly-rising costs that outstrip prospective owners' ability to pay. Another is the surging share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent. ■ There have always been -- and always will be -- people eager to make money by building and selling or renting places for others to live. So if the market is characterized by painfully high prices, then the most likely culprit is some kind of constraint on supply. After all, anyone who was willing to build housing at pre-surge pricing is likely to want to build even more as market prices rise. ■ Some of the big constraints on housing supply come from zoning regulations, imposing restrictions like minimum lot sizes in single-family neighborhoods. And there are lots of widely-found restrictions on any construction of medium density or greater. ■ Those restrictive practices basically guarantee difficulty in pacing housing supply along with demand, especially as urbanization (broadly speaking) remains a dominant trend. Individual cities may shrink, but on balance the United States continues to urbanize (just as it has been doing at least since the Baby Boom). ■ Certain attitudes about housing trail public needs. A number of architecture critics flipped out over an offer made by Charlie Munger to subsidize a huge new dormitory for the University of California Santa Barbara -- using high-density single rooms, many of them interior and without windows. An "abomination", some called it, even though it was a novel solution to a very real need to house more young people in a compact way at a growing university. ■ Yet one can find advertised options to voluntarily rent a windowless interior cabin on a cruise ship for $2,500 a week. Obviously, context matters: On a cruise, passengers are paying for destinations, food, and entertainment. ■ But it seems exceptionally unimaginative of us to see the plain evidence of the need for innovative housing solutions in America's cities on one hand, and the chronic insistence that we chain ourselves to often inflexible criteria on the other. Windowless rooms may be suboptimal, but homelessness certainly isn't better -- nor is being priced out of access to opportunity, which is what happens when there aren't enough dorm rooms on college campuses or affordable places to live near growing business districts. ■ If a windowless cabin on a cruise ship can be so creatively and thoughtfully designed that it is desirable at a market-clearing price of $2,500 a week, then that experience must offer at least some transferable lessons we could apply as a society to getting more people safely and affordably housed on land.

September 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards To say "no more"

It wasn't Joseph Stalin but rather the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky who wrote, "The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!". Whatever its provenance, the phrase lingers because it contains a real truth. We overlook lots of terrible things because they happen in large numbers, but can be driven to concentrate on other terrible things when they happen to just one person. ■ In Iran, just such a case is unfolding. 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by the state's "morality" police for breaking their rules on what women are permitted to wear outside the home. Iran is a very large country; with 86 million people, it is more populous than Germany, France, or the UK. And the "morality" police have troubled many of them -- probably millions. ■ But this single case -- transparent in its cruelty -- has ignited vigorous protests not just in one or two places, but all over the country. Many people have had enough. Their contempt for their oppressors is boiling. ■ Americans like to talk about how exceptional we are. And the American system has indeed proven to be -- quite literally -- exceptional. 4% of the world's population produces 24% of its annual economic output, holds profound cultural and technological hegemony, and buys 40% of the world's armaments. ■ But we, as people, shouldn't mistake that aggregated exceptionality for being all that different as people. We're phenomenally fortunate. The incredible good luck of either birth or successful immigration that makes a person American shouldn't be discounted. But the things that animate us don't really differentiate us from others; they ought to bind us closer. ■ People everywhere have these things in common: Most of us want to be good people, to do well by our families, and to go about our own lives making decisions untrammeled by the overreach of authority. And those aren't just true of people in the present; they've been true of human beings for as long as we've been building something that looks like civilization. ■ History is full of stories of slave revolts and freedom narratives. It isn't exceptional to want freedom; it is perfectly normal. From east to west, it is entirely normal to demand agency in the course of one's own life. ■ What is happening in Iran could well turn dangerous, and indeed it already has. The rest of the world owes the people there goodwill and support. We also owe them solidarity: They do not choose their oppression, and like us (all across humankind), they have every right and instinct to want liberty from arbitrary and unjust oppression. They are only human, and so are we. And the more we see ourselves the same, the better we see why they're right.

September 22, 2022

Weather and Disasters A tax, but one to give right back

The appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet isn't necessarily the abundance of available choices, but rather the suspension of any need to consider trade-offs. Life is full of trade-offs which force us to make small decisions every day, and being liberated from the need to make them can be like a vacation unto itself -- hence, the appeal of the all-inclusive resort. ■ Trade-offs remain both natural and unavoidable in the real world, though, and the failure to properly account for them in their totality is one of the main reasons that economics needs the concept of externalities. All things come with a balance of good and bad, which requires us to think about both. The indirect or unintentional consequences of our choices usually deserve accounting. ■ Pollution is perhaps the most notorious of the negative externalities. While progress has been made towards addressing the conventional pollution of the air, water, and soil, one of the most vexing problems is how to deal with the deposition of excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. ■ The consumption of carbon -- in particular, via the burning of fossil fuels -- has been treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet since the dawn of the industrial age. That liberation from choices has meant that people simply haven't been forced to reckon with the negative externalities. And thus we get climate change. ■ It is one matter to decide whether or not this excess carbon is really a problem. It is another to decide whether to do something about it. And it is still another to decide how best to go about doing it. ■ The evidence suggests that it is a real problem (and even if not, the costs of guessing wrong appear devastatingly high). Thus, many of the advanced industrial countries have decided in the affirmative on the second question -- to do something about it. ■ Even those who may not agree that it is a problem, or that action is worth taking, still ought to engage in deliberation about the best way to "do something": Even if you're trapped in a vehicle going to a destination not of your choosing, you would still want to have input on what plays on the stereo, how the temperature should be set, and whether the driver stays between the lines. ■ If we really want to reduce the deposition of excess carbon into the atmosphere, then instead of introducing vexing new regulations or imposing massively expensive and command-style plans from above, the most prudent strategy is probably to impose a tax on the release of carbon into the atmosphere. ■ New taxes, of course, are unpopular by default. The way to introduce the least amount of pain in association with such a tax is to rebate back the preponderance of it directly back to the public. If the funds raised through a carbon tax where overwhelmingly returned back to the public on a per-capita basis, the tax would be progressive (in the sense of raising more from the wealthy than from the poor) by default. Consumption taxes tied to a rebate system tend to do well at making those who consume the most shoulder the biggest part of the burden. Those earning the least income would benefit relatively the most from a rebate. ■ A truly wise tax design, if functioning like a "sin" tax, would impose some kind of deterrent effect. One would not want to rebate all of the revenues from a carbon tax back to the people being taxed -- perhaps most, but not all. With a portion of the tax revenues raised, the government could subsidize research and development, using inducement or innovation prizes. ■ A tax imposed on carbon consumption could mostly non-coercively nudge people away from the behaviors that cause carbon-related pollution, while minimizing the amount of decision-making required along the way. Instead of complex regulatory impositions, a carbon tax would put the most useful information in the easiest-to-understand terms: Prices. Choices resulting in more carbon pollution would come with higher price tags, all else being equal. ■ And if a small portion of funds raised through such a tax were devoted to inducement prizes -- prizes that only be pay out upon demonstrated performance -- the government would only have to pay when the job is done, making for a highly accountable form of public spending. Structured correctly, those prizes could reward high-priority technological innovations (like, for instance, better battery technology or improved small-engine efficiency), and the terms of accepting the very large reward could include turning over the innovation to the public domain for immediate royalty-free use by the private sector. ■ Climate change proposals (and no small amount of grandstanding) will remain on display for the full week of general debate at the United Nations. The scale of the problems may be global, but the answers will come from national decisions suitable to the people living under them. For the United States, at least, moving away from the buffet table and towards a simple pricing-based mechanism likely makes the most sense of all.

September 23, 2022

Computers and the Internet A life in four minutes

The Economist publishes an obituary in each weekly edition, and it has recently featured two exceptionally prominent departures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II. Gorbachev was commemorated with 1,044 words, and the monarch with 1,039. These obituaries, like most of The Economist's writing, assume an educated and curious readership seeking to be informed by writers mindful of their time and rival interests. ■ In a sense, a thousand words is an arbitrary limitation. It's roughly what fits into one of The Economist's pages, with its spartan layout across two compact columns. The length isn't an Economist exclusive, either; consider Stephen Marche's "A Thousand Words About Our Culture" in Esquire, or the industry-standard 750-word op-ed column published in (and still solicited by) many newspapers. ■ Within that range of 750 to 1,000 words, a good writer can lasso the reader's attention, construct a defensible case on a matter, and exit without exhausting the audience's attention. Calvin Coolidge, as a post-Presidency newspaper columnist, got by in even fewer. Certainly, physical limitations -- like the number of words that fit on a magazine page or within a literal column of a broadsheet newspaper -- have helped to shape the nature and expectations of the written form. But there's something more to it. ■ Considering how long the format has endured, it's not unreasonable to conclude that it has an organic appeal. Assuming a well-educated reader can generally trawl through 250 to 500 words per minute of non-technical material, a thousand-word column begs only about two to four minutes of time. ■ But stripped of the limitations imposed by the printed page, many of the writers on digital platforms like Substack have abandoned those word counts for much greater heights. It isn't hard to find "columns" in the digital world that exceed not just 1,000 or 1,500 words, but that tilt the scales at 2,000 words or more. While it can seem luxurious to the writer to have no upper bound on what they are capable of publishing, there's only so much that readers should be asked to endure. ■ The answer isn't necessarily reducing down to the "smart brevity" model touted by an outlet like Axios. Bullet points and bold fonts aren't a substitute for writing clearly and distinctly. ■ But there is most certainly something to be said for asking writers to exhibit a little bit of self-imposed discipline. "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" used to be the old axiom. Writers today may not have to buy pixels by the barrel, but they ought to act like it. Reading from a screen can be fatigue-inducing in its own right, but it's even more exhausting when writers fail to hold back, concentrate on a discrete point, and move along to writing something new for the next deadline. ■ If an entire life can be summed up in about a thousand words (or its achievements rebutted in about 750), then most arguments can be made with more economy of language than is often the case in digital publishing. Just because we can drone on indefinitely doesn't mean we should.

September 26, 2022

News Personality is built, not bought

Judging by Google search traffic, "self-care" has never been more popular than it is in 2022. Taking care of oneself is, of course, an entirely prudent thing to do. ■ But it's hard not to detect at least some undertones in the ascendant cult of "self-care" (and some of its allied movements) that are meant to hobble its adherents, handcuffing them to routines that emphasize escape over accommodation. Life can be hard, and there is no amount of goop you can buy from a celebrity's website to make the hardness go away. ■ There is something of a mirror to the cult of self-care in the cult of faux masculinity. It doesn't take much searching to find examples of men dressing up in military-surplus costumes or turning ordinary consumer products into inexplicable confirmations of manhood. The aesthetic is all too often tied to an overcompensatory rejection of feelings as weakness. ■ Of these two, the first is almost always associated with a welcoming, open-minded mindset. The second is seen as closed and hostile. The first looks like it could shatter at any moment, while the second would have you believe it is prepared for the worst. ■ The problem in both of these cases is that popular culture has these ideas all jumbled up. Open-mindedness -- towards ideas, people, and approaches to problems -- is a vital tool in the kit of any well-functioning adult. It's a powerful weapon to be open to persuasion and difference; Dwight Eisenhower counseled in favor of this kind of liberality when he said, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." ■ But no amount of openness can be of much use unless it's tied to a sense of resilience. Sure, everyone needs to take a break once in a while. But celebrating fragility over resilience -- internalizing every setback, hurdle, or frustration as an injury in need of repair rather than accepting the inevitability of setbacks as a fact of life -- is a sure way to teach people a sense of helplessness. ■ People can (and should) be both kind and strong, both compassionate and gritty. Under circumstances far more trying than Americans encounter today, Booker T. Washington wrote, "I am learning more and more each year that all worry simply consumes, and to no purpose, just so much physical and mental strength that might otherwise be given to effective work." ■ Perhaps the underlying problem is the drive to commoditize personality, to convert "Who you are" into a thing that can be sold from a rack. Such things cannot be done, any more than a child becomes a real ghost by putting on a Halloween costume. Personality is built, not bought. ■ Though it may seem quaint to call an experience a "character-building exercise", fundamentally it is true: No small part of the construction of any person's true self will take place under challenging conditions. We share a common interest in encouraging people to show open-mindedness to others and to the world. But we also have a vested interest in seeing those open-minded people develop an interior robustness. No life will go without obstacles, and it's no use becoming convinced that the answer is a helpless attachment to frequent surrender.

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September 28, 2022

Science and Technology What's with all the quiet?

Joni Mitchell famously admonished that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, but it's also entirely true that once something is gone, it's hard for those who never knew it to imagine what life was like when it was still around. That's often fortunate, too: Nobody living with paved roads and modern sanitary sewers knows what it's like to walk through streets dodging horse manure and suffering with the chronic stench of waste. ■ Pressure continues building to drive the free advanced countries away from internal combustion. Much of that pressure has come from climate concerns, though increasingly, it also comes from political concerns about dependence on unreliable and even hostile counterparts for the necessary fossil fuel supplies. ■ The electrification of almost everything is well underway. From electric vehicles (now with a 5% market share in the US and 17% in Europe) to robotic battery-powered lawn mowers to even the emergence of electric air taxis, it's becoming evident that engines may be on their way out. ■ This presents an interesting little slice-of-life change that may well go unnoticed by today's children as they grow up. Combustion engines are noisy things, and they're all around us. We are so used to their noises that some electric vehicles have artificial noise added. Pause to consider how many overlapping engine noises are heard in a residential area: Airplanes flying overhead, motorcycles and cars rolling down the street, the two-cycle engines on leaf blowers and string trimmers being ramped up and down by homeowners. ■ It's not unrealistic to imagine that those noises are largely on the way out. Things will still make noise in an electrified future, of course -- but quite possibly, they'll make a lot less of it. And nobody will really remember much about them, because they aren't going to stop with a grand flourish. They're being turned off slowly and quietly, like a pop song that fades out. ■ And like ""Hey Jude", that fade-out may last almost as long as the main theme. But it is already underway, and it might be hard to explain what's missing someday to those who never knew when it started.

September 29, 2022

The United States of America We just don't agree...yet

The way some people talk about their political rivals, one might get the impression that the United States was being overrun by evildoers bent on a level of plunder and destruction not seen since Genghis Khan. It isn't hard to find outlets sensationalizing that narrative on television, radio, websites, and social media. But it hardly comports with the lived reality of anyone who really pays attention. ■ People can be wrong about a lot of things. Good people. Even ourselves. But the leap from "Good person with whom I disagree" to "Evil person out to destroy everything I hold dear" is too easily and too often taken by the people clamoring to get famous, rich, or powerful by fanning the flames of existential angst. ■ There is no other individual with whom any thinking person agrees on every subject. Not a spouse. Not a parent. Not a best friend. Nobody should even agree completely with themselves, at least not over the course of time. Benjamin Franklin's advice to "Let every new year find you a better man" should be a reminder to shed old ideas when new evidence, better arguments, or the accumulation of wisdom compel us. ■ But just as a conscientious person ought to be tough on his or her old self, so too ought they to be forgiving of others who haven't come to the same conclusions. Sometimes, it's only a matter of "not yet" -- who doesn't hold a few cockamamie ideas as a young person? (And it's even more important now to be forgiving of past indiscretions, now that 13-year-olds can share their dumbest opinions on Facebook or become "influencers" before they can write cursive.) ■ Sometimes those differences will soften or even disappear with time. Sometimes they will persist. But aside from the extreme cases of the truly psychopathic and anti-social, most people are neither as different from one another as they might seem, nor as inclined to cause harm as the agitation propagandists would have us believe. ■ When the propagandists make claims like "They hate you" or "They're trying to destroy the country", it's imperative to ask: Who are "they", and where precisely are all of these supposedly terrible people hiding? In the workplace? At church? Around the neighborhood? In the bowling league? ■ If even one out of every hundred people at your place of worship seemed like a real evildoer, wouldn't their presence stand out? If every ten people with whom you did business included at least one real crook, wouldn't that raise serious alarm? If every residential block or floor of an apartment building were home to someone you could legitimately fear were out to destroy the Constitution itself, could that escape your attention? ■ A self-governing society can contain a whole lot of differences, even very large ones, as long as the people inside it are capable of distinguishing between a bad idea and a bad person. The mindset of "You just don't agree with me...yet" works a lot of magic to bring differences into their proper perspective. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to reconcile after a bitter rivalry. Stephen A. Douglas rallied support for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. Harry Truman enlisted Herbert Hoover to help reorganize the Executive Branch. ■ There's nothing wrong with spirited arguments -- those are a feature of the system, rather than a bug. Robust debate is a basic ingredient to successful decision-making among self-governing people. But there is something awfully wrong about assuming levels of bad faith (or worse) that have no basis in evidence. If anyone were surrounded by the same ratio of actual evil in real life that the agitators would have us believe, then perpetual crisis really would be at hand. Sensible people keep their wits about them by realizing there is no such tidal wave of malfeasance.

September 30, 2022

News Bets off

An institution undergoing severe decline may undertake what is called a gamble for resurrection: A bold or even foolhardy effort to do something extraordinary when the odds seem stacked against them, in what can be a desperate effort to try to salvage the outcome. It's been observed in banking, in militaries, and in business. ■ From the beginning, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has displayed characteristics of a gamble for resurrection. The Putin regime sits atop a country with a stagnant economy, demographic decline, and a woeful state of civil affairs. ■ It didn't have to turn out this way. Russia has vast natural resources, a significant place in world affairs, and a long-standing reputation for academic and scientific achievement. But even a good leader couldn't oversee the government of a country so large for so long without becoming sclerotic. And Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for more than 20 years, isn't a good person. ■ He knows that others are aware of his vulnerabilities, which may explain not only why so many critics are killed, but also why he might have undertaken a massive and unprovoked invasion. A successful invasion would have looked -- superficially -- like a demonstration of strength. ■ As the invasion of Ukraine is repelled, it's entirely possible that Putin will go even farther in this gamble for resurrection. If it becomes likely that he himself will be forced out of power, then it seems likely that he faces an existential threat to his own person. (Things rarely end well for deposed dictators.) And that, in turn, raises the stakes that he might act in ways that may raise existential threats for everyone else. ■ It is very good news that there has been global condemnation of the sham annexation referenda in some of the Ukrainian territories Russia has occupied. But it is very bad news that four countries abstained from a UN Security Council vote to denounce the referenda. ■ Safety lies in large part with people making rational decisions even within the irrational system imposed on the Russian state. The larger the number of individuals who realize the fruitlessness of further escalation and who gather how essential it is that they put the brakes on an autocrat's worst impulses, the better. ■ One man may be gambling for resurrection -- and willing to go all-in with many others along with his own life -- but safety rests with ensuring the broadest possible understanding among those below him that a resurrection is possible without the gamble. They have to see the possibility of a future their strongman cannot himself conceive.