Gongol.com Archives: 2022 Fourth-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

October 2, 2022

Business and Finance Know your worth

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

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October 3, 2022

News Don't legitimize bad behavior

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

October 4, 2022

News The thoroughly modern vice of predictability

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

October 5, 2022

News A petition to pass organic chem

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

October 6, 2022

Humor and Good News Come together for a laugh

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

October 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Serious times call for serious words

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

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October 10, 2022

News Don't go on

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

October 13, 2022

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

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

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October 14, 2022

Science and Technology Make boring change

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

October 15, 2022

News The self-evident banner

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

October 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Take an insult like an adult

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

October 17, 2022

News The good fight

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

October 18, 2022

News To maintain is divine

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

October 21, 2022

News Love, hate, and the daily

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

October 22, 2022

News Move it

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

October 23, 2022

News Arguing against interest, for the public interest

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

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October 24, 2022

News Imagining the worst

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

October 27, 2022

Science and Technology Infinity times infinity

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

October 28, 2022

Threats and Hazards Not even the slightest hint

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

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October 29, 2022

News Reaching a peaceful end

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

October 30, 2022

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

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

November 1, 2022

Business and Finance Help yourself

From the McDonald's on Chicago Avenue to the CVS Pharmacy at the end of Bourbon Street, self-service kiosks have been replacing live cashiers for quite a while now. The mass-scale adoption of the tools, now seen everywhere from Target to Home Depot to even Flying J Truck Stops, has been meet with more than a few protests from people who dislike the experience. Some compare it to being made into an unpaid employee of the retailer. ■ But it is a structural change, with no chance of going back. The costs of installing the scanners and other hardware have fallen by so much that self-service checkout has moved from novelty to mainstream in very short time. With low unemployment rates persisting and competitive pressures from online retailers sustaining, there will be no meaningful pressure for brick-and-mortar outlets to turn back. ■ Just as people today occasionally fawn over the perceived glamour of airline travel in the days before deregulation, people will someday pine nostalgically for the days before self-service displaced most human cashiers. But it's worth noting that some of the accoutrements that made classic airline travel look high-class were there because they offered means for airlines to distinguish themselves when they couldn't do the same with price. ■ Airline travelers are objectively better-off today than before deregulation; the experience may not appear as high-class, but flying is vastly safer and more affordable now than it was then. Likewise, we'll come to see that self-service will tend to make consumers better-off by keeping physical retail outlets in business and able to offer merchandise at competitive prices when they might not have been under the old status quo. ■ The self-service experience will seem inconvenient to some, but just as a premium air travel experience remains available on most airlines (for passengers willing to pay for First Class tickets), we'll see a "premium" checkout experience remain in some physical retail stores -- possibly at a higher price, with a "convenience fee" added for those who choose human checkout clerks. For the rest of us, the adjustment to a new baseline of self-service may remain jarring when it shows up in places we haven't seen it before, but it's here for good (and to some degree, for our own good).

November 2, 2022

Computers and the Internet Abandoned shopping carts and complaint forms

Some trivial-seeming behaviors don't just reveal people's inner sense of responsibility, they can go on to shape it. A good example is whether people return their shopping carts to a corral rather than leaving them loose in a parking lot. It turns out that the more people observe that taking responsibility and cleaning up after themselves is the social norm, the more likely they are to observe the norm. ■ Good behavior, then, has the capacity to be self-reinforcing. But someone has to be the first to follow the norm, otherwise it won't catch on. ■ It's obvious to any reasonable observer that these forces are on full display in the online dimension of life. Good behavior is often reinforced within digital communities that have the power to expel offenders, and bad behavior often cascades into exhibitions like flame wars and troll swarms. ■ There is an important but non-obvious role for public-facing institutions to play to help channel behavior towards the good, and it occurs in an unlikely interface between the physical world and the digital one. That role is, simply, to offer easy ways to report malfunctions, breakdowns, and other deviations from the expected standards through as many channels as possible, and to prominently solicit public help in submitting those reports. ■ It may not be obvious, for instance, that purple-tinted street lights are evidence of defective fixtures that need replacement. But that is what they are, and it isn't necessarily obvious (even to the individual who recognizes it as a problem) where to report the malfunction. ■ This places the burden on public agencies to make it quick and easy to submit a report through as many potential channels as can be made relevant to the problem. The public-minded citizen shouldn't have to do a lot of work to figure out what agency has jurisdiction over a matter or how properly to report it. ■ Submitting the report should be the easiest step, and the more complicated work of sorting and forwarding the report through the appropriate channels should fall on whatever agency first received it. People don't dial "411" anymore; they go online. But they're not equipped with infinite patience to figure out who is the right point of contact. ■ Making it as painless and intuitive as possible for a citizen to do the right thing -- to reinforce norms of pro-social behavior -- is an imperative task for any public-facing institution, especially when they're run for the benefit of the taxpayers.

November 4, 2022

Computers and the Internet People are easier to hack than hardware

The first phase of Internet security gave users the impression that the digital world was one dominated by random attacks by bandits hiding in the shadows. In that paradigm, the best defense was to come "armed" with a gunslinging sidekick in the form of a good anti-virus program that would protect you from the random, unpredictable outlaws out in the wild. ■ The good part of this paradigm was that it encouraged antivirus makers to compete with one another on quality. Rivalries, benchmarks, and side-by-side comparisons made it possible to evaluate the best. The bad part was that it did nothing to prepare the public for the next phase of Internet security. ■ That new phase is one in which it isn't so often the hardware that gets hacked, but instead it's the people. Once a vulnerability is discovered in a piece of hardware or software, patches can be coded, distributed, and installed. But people are not so easily patched. ■ What's needed next is an adjustment in which people realize that for all the Internet does to speed up many activities, the most important reaction for many people is to know when to slow down -- when to implement two-factor authentication (which slows things down), when to wait for secondary verification of information (which slows things down), and when to pick up the phone for a call or a text message to validate that a friend or colleague really sent a convincing-looking message with an unexpected link or an attachment (which, again, slows things down). ■ We aren't good at slowing down for our own safety. But there's only so much security that can be obtained by hiring protection. A fairly substantial revision of expectations is in order. The gunslingers still have their part to play, but the vastly more wicked and complex threats of today -- attacks like spearphishing and ransomware -- put far more of the balance of responsibility on the individual connected user. And until we start to upgrade our own personal defense mechanisms as quickly as software developers can patch their programming vulnerabilities, it's going to be people who are targeted most often -- and most effectively.

November 5, 2022

News Factory breakouts and regime destabilization

If you assume people are like cattle and cannot be trusted, then information is your enemy. But control only holds up for so long: Even real cattle can break out into stampedes. ■ But people are not cattle, and that's the ultimate Achilles heel for authoritarian regimes. Even if you try to keep people in an information black hole, they still know what they can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. That's what makes the "mass breakout" at a Foxconn manufacturing plant in China rather unsurprising. The Communist government has adhered to a nonsense policy on Covid that has kept people in the dark and bred panic. ■ Putting aside the dystopian qualities that lead objective news reporters to describe it as a "breakout" (who in the free world has ever contemplated, even remotely, the idea of being locked down involuntarily at a place of work?), the event illustrates the impossibility of keeping the Communist Party's charade forever. A long time? Maybe. Long enough to cause grave and pointless human suffering? Definitely. But not forever. ■ Evolution has conveniently given humans the power of imagination, which can piece together partial evidence to conjure up hypotheses. Just like we can "see" shapes in the clouds of the sky, we can see lots of other explanations in the world. Those explanations may or may not be correct, but we inevitably try to fill in the gaps. Doing so is expressly in our nature. ■ If you're running an authoritarian regime, you can tell yourself that you can hold people in the dark long enough to maintain control. And it can go that way for a while. But ultimately, the system is doomed to crack. Something goes so wrong that no amount of lying, denial, or obfuscation can keep people from recognizing it for themselves. ■ In free societies, governments sometimes try to hide the truth or even lie outright. It never ends well, but at least the consequences are generally contained. Someone usually suffers the fallout and ends up either getting booted from office or going to jail. The truth has come out on everything from the FBI's abusive tactics against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to what the Federal government knows about UFOs. ■ But when an entire government (like a Communist one) rests on a fundamental assumption of lies generated and truths hidden, it's inevitable that a day of reckoning will someday arrive -- with catastrophic consequences. The catastrophe can be expected first for the people, then for the regime. ■ Reality is the best friend of liberty, because people ultimately demand an honest reconciliation with the facts they can independently observe and verify to be true. That's when systems built on lies ultimately crumble. Sadly, the process is rarely painless.

November 6, 2022

Computers and the Internet Is it the process or the product?

When it comes time to offer gifts for the holidays, one of the most powerful words is "hand-made". A blanket? Nice. A hand-made blanket? Somehow seems more thoughtful. The same goes for a sweater, a pair of mittens, or a piece of art. ■ What is it about "hand-made" that gives something additional value? It seems strange to assume that a hand-made gift somehow contains more love, especially since it is so easy to purchase those gifts on websites like Etsy. If the gift wasn't hand-made by the giver, then what difference should it really make whether it was crafted by a disinterested third party or by a machine? ■ Perhaps the implied extra value comes from the fact that something hand-made almost invariably contains slight imperfections or other irregular aspects that give the product character. After all, the main point of mass production is to lower prices through standardization and efficiency. Mass-produced goods are all alike -- by design. It is their consistency that makes them reliable purchases. ■ Suppose, though, that we could introduce randomized instances of "character" into mass-produced goods. After all, the computing power exists to account for adding certain irregularities into mass production, in such a way that each item to roll off the assembly line could contain something unique in its design or manufacture -- just by enough, perhaps, to make it look hand-made. ■ And therein lies the central question: If a consumer were to see two goods, side-by-side, one literally made by hand, and the other mass-produced by a process that introduced irregularities that made it unique in the same way as its hand-made equivalent, then would one still sell for more than the other? ■ Would the gift recipient, if they knew nothing about the actual provenance of the good other than that it appeared to be hand-made and was demonstrably unique in some way, draw any distinction between the hand-made gift and the like-hand-made lookalike? Does it actually make a gift more sentimentally valuable because anyone's hands were involved in the process, whether or not those hands were those of the giver? ■ People appear willing to pay for faux authenticity, in the form of ripped jeans and pre-distressed hats, so it might just be that the answer is right before our eyes already. But it is only now that we are reaching the stage when technology could plausibly offer ways to turn items like blankets that come off the assembly line a little too flawlessly and convert them into like-handmade alternatives, and do so without really introducing meaningful new costs to the process. ■ So, which is it: Do people favor the idea of the actual artisanal process, or are they invested more in the uniqueness of the goods they own? Perhaps in a holiday season or two, we'll discover someone has performed an experiment to gather the evidence. Surely it won't be longer than that before they will try.

November 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Don't believe the hype

The timeless advice in the world of communications is to put the person with the dirtiest mind in line to be the final editor before any item is released to the public. Where an institutional reputation needs to be protected, the person with the best chance of catching double entendres and unintentional malapropisms is the person most likely to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. ■ Someone may need to establish a corollary rule for propagandists: One which says that the final editors should be the ones least committed to the cause. Some of the people who are the most inclined to believe the nonsense of totalitarian machines appear to be the people in charge of propagandizing on their behalf. ■ Take the case of Chinese Communist propagandist Hu Xijin, who thinks that it's somehow a hilarious takedown of Western institutions to point out that Liz Truss lasted only 45 days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom before being replaced by her own party, and has subsequently been roasted in effigy to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. ■ If people like Hu weren't so deeply gullible about their own worldview, they would understand that there's nothing at all insulting in saying that the people of Western liberal democracies feel free to jettison leaders who no longer suit their needs or who show themselves to be incapable of the task at hand. That's not a flaw; it's a central feature of the design. ■ Any institution worth its salt needs to be equipped to replace low performers with high performers. It is a characteristic shortcoming of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that they don't have an equivalent process for removing leaders who fail to respond to public expectations. It takes a certain kind of dope to believe that democratic processes are anything less than a good thing for serving the public. ■ As the columnist Matthew Brooker notes, "Try getting rid of Xi Jinping. Or burning an effigy of him." He can't be mocked or lampooned, much less removed by democratic initiative. He has stacked the deck to make himself impervious to criticism. ■ Along the way, Xi will be propped up by obtuse half-wits who don't know enough to recognize that a little turnover in high office is usually a good thing. While no one of goodwill ought to be trying to help those particular dopes, it is perhaps amusing to realize that what they need most are editors who don't really believe their own hype. ■ Ultimately, authoritarian systems collapse under their own weight. Unaccountability creates bad feedback loops, and an institutional resistance to contrarian thoughts only guarantees that high-quality information never reaches the right decision-makers in time. The sad part is that there is always so much human suffering in the meantime, while inertia keeps bad regimes afloat. ■ There is incalculable sclerosis of thought within Communist circles. They are interested only in raw power, and that deeply crass view of the world ought to be rewarded with nothing but firings all around. Unfortunately, that won't be forthcoming in the near term under China's Communist power structure. And when it ultimately does, lots of innocent people will suffer even more than they have already.

November 8, 2022

The claws always come out at election time, and there never seems to be a shortage of doomsaying among those who follow politics as a substitute for other meaningful concerns. But both election denialism and democracy-could-die fatalism, there seems to be mounting evidence that lots of people believe that we lurch not from election cycle to election cycle, but from existential crisis to existential crisis. ■ How much would our rancor be reduced if politics were taught in history books and classes not as the momentous achievement of big, discrete goals (like the Great Society, the New Deal, or the institution and repeal of Prohibition), but rather as the dynamic interplay of people trying to exhibit and demonstrate some level of decency and sagacity? ■ People talk about campaigns "peaking too soon", when in reality, we merely fixate on early November as the time to take the voting public's temperature. Those ebbs and flows of popularity are non-stop; public opinion is always in motion. Thus, it's not so much a matter of "peaking too soon" as it is "taking the vote at an inopportune time". ■ There really are decent, well-motivated people in office and campaigning for a seat at the table. There always have been. And while they may quite well engage in some of the discrete movements, it's more the case that they make decisions within an ever-evolving environment, and we should look more to their overall quality of judgment than to the specific policies they talk about. ■ The more we approach questions of politics as if they were either-or events, like a soccer match or a baseball game, the less inclined we are to appreciate the process itself, and how important keeping that process clean really is. It's far better for 100% of the people to get 60% of what they want than for 60% of the people to get 100% of what they want. ■ It isn't natural to get excited over the premise that one should embrace disappointment in 40% of the outcomes. But, to an extent, that's the point: Normal people ought to have many other sources of excitement in life than politics, and we should be comfortable with a lot of results that don't leave us cheering. Being moderately ambivalent isn't an altogether bad thing if it means that compromises are being brokered and many varied interests are being served.

November 9, 2022

Computers and the Internet What if Bloomberg had beaten Musk?

In a more rational universe, Elon Musk wouldn't have been the billionaire to purchase Twitter. It would have been Michael Bloomberg. ■ Not as a personal vanity exercise, which is thus far what the Musk purchase appears to be. Bloomberg could have bought it as a perfectly sound business venture (within the existing business he already controls). ■ Bloomberg's services in news and financial reporting are well-established as best-in-class market leaders. They have worldwide reach, operate 24 hours a day, and benefit from a massive ability to aggregate and organize data, serving it up as valuable information. Twitter, meanwhile, has become itself a thriving center for informational immediacy. ■ For all of its shortcomings, Twitter inhabits a unique position as the consensus online gathering spot for news and politics. That position was absolutely cemented by the environment of second half of the last decade. ■ Were a capable institution to have non-stop, direct access to the full flow of posts on Twitter, and use computing tools to mine real intelligence from all of that raw data, it would have a real gold mine of salable information at its disposal. And as an institution with a reputation to uphold, Bloomberg LP would have had the incentive to impose sensible rules for user behavior that would have preserved and perhaps even enhanced its value (instead of sparking a small user exodus, which is what's happening now). ■ The indications were there that Bloomberg had considered the possibility -- it entered into a special arrangement with Twitter to license data back in 2015. And perhaps Bloomberg gets all of the value it needs from that existing agreement, but nothing beats true vertical integration when you can get it. ■ Michael Bloomberg himself has in the past been reluctant to grow his business through acquisition, which is perhaps the reason none of this ever came to fruition. He wrote in his memoir, "I'd make a terrible venture capitalist; every company I look at seems overpriced. I always think we can create it more cheaply ourselves." ■ But building a Twitter equivalent would be nearly impossible due to its existing network effects, and things are changing so quickly that Bloomberg leadership has already pulled back on employee use of the site. There's always a chance that the current owner will diminish the market value of the property enough that an enticing price will come along: One that even the reluctant venture capitalist wouldn't be able to resist.

November 10, 2022

Threats and Hazards Safe(r work) spaces

The story of a Caterpillar employee who died in a foundry accident is altogether too gruesome to contemplate. It was only his ninth day on the job, and he perished for lack of fall protection. Hundreds of Americans die from on-the-job falls, especially in construction, but not limited to it. The rate is more than three deaths a day every regular workday of the year. ■ All kinds of attention is being paid to the impact of tech-sector layoffs as an indicator of the health of the economy. But for most of the people in that sector, there is no meaningful existential risk involved with showing up on the job. ■ And yet, inside that very same economy, we still implicitly tolerate an unfathomable number of risky choices every day. Sure, there's OSHA and any number of state-level safety regulators. But there's a difference between what anyone can hope to regulate and the essence of a design culture that starts with safety at the center. ■ In any kind of sane world, a death from falling into a vat of molten iron would have been engineered right out of the realm of possibility. Safety must be designed into every workplace from the start. ■ If it were, we wouldn't record thousands of workplace fatalities -- even setting aside transportation-related deaths. We reduce them to mere statistics out of necessity, but every one of those lives belonged to a person just as unique and human as any of the rest of us. ■ We're rich enough, technologically advanced enough, and civilized enough that intrinsically, deliberately safe working environments shouldn't be a matter dependent upon regulatory oversight. That should just be another case of "just the way things are".

November 12, 2022

Aviation News Welcome the air taxi

Delta Airlines has entered into an arrangement to purchase a small fleet of electric air taxis. The move is being represented as a tool for the airline to provide door-to-door service for passengers who live in crowded urban areas, saving them time stuck in traffic and ultimately making air travel a more time-efficient option. ■ While that may be an outcome, observers shouldn't overlook the possibility that electrified air travel (especially if it can be made autonomous) could actually have its most substantial impact in serving mid-sized metropolitan areas -- the kind that are often the leading economic engines for laborsheds 50 miles in diameter. ■ The aircraft Delta is poised to put into service have a range of 150 miles, which is much more than urban-dwellers need to reach major airports. Certainly there are people who consider themselves New Yorkers who might still benefit from that kind of range, but for the most part, even with the expanding bullseye effect, it's not all that far as the crow flies, even from the edge of any given American metropolitan area to the main airport. ■ Go far enough out, and another airport will take advantage: Westchester County Airport is 35 highway miles from JFK. Milwaukee's Mitchell International and Rockford (already branded as "Chicago/Rockford") aren't all that far from O'Hare. And JFK already has LaGuardia in its immediate vicinity, just as O'Hare has Midway. ■ But consider, for example, the distances involved between the medium-sized metropolitan areas ringing Iowa: Des Moines to Omaha: 120 miles. Omaha to Sioux City: 90. Sioux City to Sioux Falls: 75. Sioux Falls to Mankato: 150. Mankato to Rochester: 75. Rochester to Waterloo: 100. Waterloo to Dubuque: 85. Dubuque to Davenport: 70. Davenport to Cedar Rapids: 65. And from Cedar Rapids back to Des Moines: 110 miles. ■ Converting these trips from hours in a car to minutes by air, and making them as predictably routine as bus stops, would tie the region conveniently together in a way that is impossible to imagine for now. They are impractical for commercial air service as we know it today, but the highway vehicle counts make it clear that those connections already have lots of travelers on them. ■ Time saved and connections enhanced would be robustly good for the communities and their economies alike. The idea of enhancing travel between and among them suffers because the constituency is diffuse, and, to some extent, remains under-developed. But it is real nonetheless and has great potential to do real good.

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November 13, 2022

News Better off without the invaders

People in liberated Kherson celebrate the departure of occupying Russian forces. But as Reuters notes, "'The enemy mined all critical infrastructure objects,' [governor] Yanushevych told Ukrainian TV." Know that this is the behavior of war criminals.

November 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Good behavior starts with the tone at the top

Some tools get outsized attention because of who uses them. We know a lot about the DC Metro in part because so many prominent people ride aboard it. We recognize clapperboards and green screens because they're used by the people we see on television and movie screens. And the world cannot help but be aware of Twitter because it features so prominently as a tool used by journalists -- both as a source of information and as a distribution mechanism. ■ That one social-media tool ends up in such a spotlight has made the manic behavior of Twitter's new owner the subject of a disproportionate amount of attention. But the mass layoffs, while eye-popping, aren't by themselves an existential risk. Lots of companies have had painful and dramatic layoffs and survived. ■ What the company might not survive is the de-institutionalization of good behavior. The company's chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief compliance officer all resigned at once. Contractors responsible for content moderation have been fired en masse. At least one means of two-factor authentication has fallen into extreme disrepair. ■ Any institution -- a company, a government agency, a church, a social-media service -- needs to institutionalize good behavior. It needs internal rules and culture that keep it on the straight and narrow. And it needs roles -- like chief information security officer -- that give insiders the authority structure to ensure that good behavior is enforceable. If those roles aren't valued, it's impossible for good behavior to become ingrained in the system. ■ The key, always, is to keep the good behavior from turning sclerotic or delivering unintended consequences. Nobody needs to waste their time obsessing over cover sheets for TPS reports. They need to respect institutional constraints on behavior, share a culture that emphasizes doing the right thing, and devote their best thinking to making sound decisions about hard questions. ■ Wrecking the institutional structures that help (even if incompletely) to guide an organization towards good behavior isn't just a matter of bad sense. It's a matter of opening up enormous potential liabilities -- of the very real financial variety. But it shouldn't take that kind of motivation to keep things well inside the lines for good behavior.

Humor and Good News Some Regular American for Speaker of the House

We could do a lot worse.

November 15, 2022

News Ukraine sends greetings to NATO

The country's foreign minister writes, "Ukraine is willing to further contribute to collective Euro-Atlantic security and protect the eastern flank of NATO -- even though we are not yet members of the Alliance." If you've paid even a modicum of attention to this war, the takeaway is that any defensive alliance with even a shred of self-interest or brainpower would want Ukraine on its side. The people have proven themselves very, very good at learning and adapting to become a formidable fighting force.

November 16, 2022

News Looking ahead

A country as advanced as the United States should never be taken truly by surprise. There may be certain incidental events that come unexpectedly from a tactical perspective, but at the strategic level, there really shouldn't be any developments that come out of the blue. ■ Individual agencies sometimes show real foresight, but it seems peculiar that we don't have a dedicated national strategic planning agency. We get advice periodically from commissions (like Cyber Solarium), think-tank reports, and forward-thinking departments. But we seem congenitally short on holistic attempts to figure out where trouble could turn up and how we could go about preempting it. ■ No one has a guaranteed forecast of the future. But it ought to be someone's dedicated responsibility to consider large-scale, systemic risks on behalf of the American public. Someone to warn that cryptocurrencies could melt down in spectacular fashion. Someone to beat the drum about having enough naval tonnage at our disposal. Someone to advocate for the "strategic" part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. ■ More often than not, a task left unassigned is a task that will never be done. Considering the sheer magnitude of the government that is being operated on behalf of the American public, it makes no sense that no one is routinely assigned the task of developing real strategic plans to recognize, give warning about, and learn to account for big public risks.

Business and Finance Sometimes it's best to slow things down

Elon Musk says he's spending practically all of his time working on Twitter. Heed Bill Gates's advice: "It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you've filled every minute in your schedule."

Aviation News NASA's Artemis I launch is a big deal

After sending in a "red crew" to fix things after the rocket had already been fueled, NASA successfully launched a most spectacular rocket into space. We have a Moon program once again.

November 17, 2022

Aviation News The sky is no limit

In principle, the state of California is big enough to have its own space program. With a $3 trillion economy, it is in a class with Japan, whose $5 trillion economy sustains a full-fledged space program. ■ Likewise for Ohio, which with 12 million people is bigger than Israel, which has had an official space agency since 1983. And the same for Texas, whose $2 trillion economy is within striking distance of the $3.6 trillion economy (in 2017 dollars) of the entire United States in 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced the plan to go to the Moon. ■ Despite having the people and the wealth to drive their own ambitious space programs, these (and the other states) still pool their efforts behind NASA. Sharing a common agency and rallying behind it is an identity-building exercise for Americans, almost as much as the collaboration serves as a force multiplier. ■ After all, NASA routinely touts the productivity of its work in partnership with other countries' space agencies. The same thing could, hypothetically, be done with a California-ASA, a Texas-ASA, and even a Delaware-ASA and a Wyoming-ASA -- their independent work could be federated under a common umbrella for maximum impact. ■ But having a single agency, a common identity, and a merged pool of resources allows NASA to serve a nation-binding role, by driving toward audacious goals. It has been a while since we've had a really bold headline goal of that sort, but the successful launch of the Artemis-I rocket on a test flight to the Moon is the first highly tangible step in reviving that big-mission ideal. ■ Not every big mission worth doing has any real binding effect; nobody is going to get amped up over a national cybersecurity agenda, no matter how important it is to undertake. And not every big project will be necessary -- sometimes undertakings are done just because the obstacle is there. ■ But we're better off for having an agency like NASA, especially when it can commit to doing big things, in part and in essence, "just because we can". Those serve a mission of national identity in a way that no loose federation of state space agencies really could.

News What do you do for a living?

Your career is not your character, and your character is not your career. We could stand to say those things out loud more often. The world needs people who refine their working skills, of course, but even more than that, it needs people who prioritize enhancing their own character.

Computers and the Internet How Google could boost Mastodon

Raymond Johnson sagely observes that Google already has a giant user footprint. It could open a Mastodon "instance" and let all Gmail users into the social network with little to no friction. That, in turn, would put pressure on Twitter to moderate its own behavior in this turbulent moment.

November 18, 2022

News Making happy children even in colorless rooms

It's hazardous to take any news report on trends with any degree of seriousness. After all, what is a trend other than an arbitrary choice that happens to have been noticed by the right people? But sometimes trend stories really do identify patterns that are starting to emerge. ■ The Wall Street Journal has identified the rise of "sad beige" in baby (or toddler and child) departments in stores everywhere. They trace it back to social-media "influencers" and marketing departments who have advanced a mainly color-free approach to interior decorating -- and who, in turn, apply the same philosophy to child-rearing. ■ Some people are simply lazy and find it easy to mix and match things like clothing and linens when everything comes from the same bland palette. It's not high-minded reasoning, but it sticks in some quarters. Others are motivated by the theory that subdued colors will bring calm to the household environment and keep from "over-stimulating" the young brain. ■ If, as that theory would have it, children are formed mainly by the stuff all around them, then someone would need to explain how anyone made it out of the Middle Ages without emerging as a broken spirit. Or how any normality survived exposure to, say, the 1850s. ■ Child development isn't a function of environmental colors. (It might make a marginal difference for a child to be exposed to a wide range of stimuli, but it's not the core determinant.) In reality, it has always been about the love and care and attention paid to kids by families. ■ And it has always been that way. Abraham Lincoln's childhood wasn't shaped by the color of his dirt floors, but by the love he felt from his mother and stepmother. What matters most is whether children can develop secure attachments. ■ It is pure nonsense to let Instagram-driven theories prevail. The job of parenting isn't done by pulling the "right" hues out of a catalog. It's done, one-on-one, by attending to the child's needs and showing them affection.

Computers and the Internet All hands on deck, why?

Elon Musk is reportedly demanding that programmers show up for urgent, in-person meetings at the company headquarters on short notice. People respond to incentives, but much less so to orders. That's especially so when those people (like programmers) have high-demand skills.

November 19, 2022

Business and Finance Pension funds lose on cryptocurrencies

Modern Portfolio Theory gives financial people the cover to do some really stupid things, like investing pension fund assets into cryptocurrency markets, then watching millions of dollars go to zero. ■ Just because something appears in a textbook or is taught in finance classes doesn't mean it's actually sensible. People have believed (and documented) all kinds of idiotic things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The Flat Earth Society proves that. ■ Investing should be done on the basis of arriving at informed judgments using sound reasoning. The belief that this can be done by substituting a bunch of elaborate formulas for that judgment is like thinking you can create an orange by dehydrating a gallon of Tang. ■ Sound reasoning would have scared any sensible investor away from cryptocurrency. But adherence to the textbook formulas told others that there was an ideal, non-zero amount they should have invested in the new "asset class" to achieve "balance". ■ To invest is to conclude that $1 doing some form of work is exceedingly likely to be redeemable for more than $1, with a rate of increase that satisfies a tolerable time horizon. If it's not that, it's just speculation. And speculation can be fun (just like a trip to a casino), but it's not investing. ■ That may sound terribly moralistic, but if there isn't at least some moral judgment involved, then the investing process is incomplete. Investing is a human endeavor, and the necessary judgments that go into whether an investment is suitable or not simply cannot be automated. ■ Some investments may be profitable but socially harmful (cigarette manufacturing, for instance). Others might look high-risk at first blush, but have such prospects to do good down the road (like high-efficiency small nuclear plants) that their financial prospects are tied in part to their future social utility. And, as the people who placed money with Bernie Madoff learned, numbers don't necessarily tell the truth if the person reporting them is a crook. ■ Institutional investors who think they have to invest according to risk-weighted portfolio formulas really ought to think twice. Just because the risk may involve only a small share of a portfolio, that doesn't mean it's a risk worth taking.

November 21, 2022

Humor and Good News Get going

Perhaps every parent should try urging their kids on to the school day with the aid of the William Tell Overture

November 22, 2022

News 86 million people

Some of the best management advice ever offered was delivered to the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement by Margaret Thatcher: ""How do you see the process from where you are now to where you want to be? Because whatever you want to do, it's not only what you want to do, but how -- the practical way you see it coming about [...] Write down the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ It is at our own peril that we fail to think through a similar list as the people of the free world look on at the incipient Iranian revolution sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in the hands of the country's "morality" police. ■ People don't have to subscribe to all of the tenets of classical liberalism to have a genuine desire for freedom. And when a regime is so utterly corrupt as to deliberately kill children as a means of punishing and trying to quash dissent, anyone possessing a normal set of human sensibilities knows that regime has lost any reasonable claim to credibility. ■ It is not for the United States or any other outside country to force the next steps. But if we are not neutral about the outcome -- and we ought not to be -- then we ought to have a coherent, thought-out strategy for "the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ What are we doing to deliver news and information where those may be scarce? Are we expressing support for the right side at the right volumes and through the right channels? Is there intelligence or other support that could be of use to the people organizing to demand their own freedom? Do the right people within the regime know what would happen if they switched sides? ■ Plans must always be tempered by humility. Nobody knows the future, and uncertainties will always introduce new contingencies. But it is incomplete to merely hope that good things will happen. ■ Iran is one of the top 20 countries in the world by population, with more than 86 million people. What happens there is inherently consequential, and while its destiny ought to be in the hands of its own people, that destiny shouldn't be left to idle hope if there are supportive, humane, and empathetic ways the free world can lend its support. ■ Those 86 million people deserve better than a government so evil it would use the bodies of the dead as hostages. If we want to help those people, it's on our shoulders to think carefully -- but urgently -- about "the practical way you see it coming about".

News "Points of invincibility"

A fascinating Ukrainian response to continuing Russian assaults on basic civilian infrastructure. Per Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Telegram channel: "If massive Russian strikes take place again and if there is an understanding that the electricity supply cannot be restored within hours, the work of Points of Invincibility will be activated -- all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." Ukraine is really re-writing the rules of defensive war.

Threats and Hazards Russian politician threatens to chase Zelenskyy forever

The sheer hollowness of this menace's soul is chilling. He dresses like a businessman but has the craven impulses of a barbarian. Ukraine didn't start the war, and everyone on Earth can see that.

Aviation News Last week, tonight

The launch of Artemis I was a monumental event for NASA, the American people, and ultimately for the world

Threats and Hazards The petty police state

China has turned the Hong Kong police into a pathetic institution chasing down insults against the national anthem. Matthew Brooker puts it well: "One consequence of creating a vast, overweening and lavishly funded security state is that its personnel will be on a constant hunt for something to do, no matter how ludicrous or trivial". That those "things to do" are petty does nothing to diminish how revolting they are.

November 23, 2022

News 8 billion of us

The United Nations says we have just crossed the threshold of a global population of eight billion people. The US Census Bureau thinks we're still at 7,934,000,000, but what's a discrepancy of a mere 66,000,000 people between friends? There have always been plenty of voices urging that there are too many people, but consider a few of the realities in perspective. ■ Albert Einstein was born in 1879, at which time Earth's population was probably 1.42 billion. Even if you assume that Einstein was a singularly brilliant figure for his time -- the solitary most brilliant person on the planet, even -- then the odds should have it that we have at least five or six people roaming the planet today who are equals to Einstein. ■ The numbers are even more striking the farther back we look. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 to a world of no more than 500 million. Odds are, the planet is populated by 16 equivalent "da Vincis" today -- enough to fill the roster of an NBA team. ■ Socrates (born in 469 BCE) was probably only one in 200 million, meaning there could be 40 Socratic equals among us today -- enough to fill a small regional passenger jet. ■ Before anyone scoffs at the comparisons or dismisses the figures as too remote, consider what has gotten better since the births of any of those great minds. Our food supply is vastly greater. Infant and child mortality has plunged. We have gained antibiotics and worked to purge lead from paint. ■ Books are cheaper and many are freely available in digital format. Great museums offer virtual tours and the Internet Archive is working to digitize practically everything. The Internet itself is an ever-pulsing source of expert opinions and instantaneous news. ■ But more importantly, while there remain many substantial challenges to be overcome, there is more human freedom and more fundamental equality than in any era of the past. For most of human history, only men were broadly free to pursue their maximum self-actualization -- and even then, that freedom was only open to some men. ■ There remains much work to be done, but the odds have never been higher that a truly gifted person could do the most possible with their endowments. And, assuming that talent has been fairly equally distributed throughout history, the odds are extremely high that we have more great geniuses living among us than at any time in history. ■ Eight billion is a lot of people. And big crowds can beget big problems. But the numbers -- and the conditions -- should give us hope that the very best days for the world remain ahead.

Threats and Hazards Dispatch from a Russian prison

From a prison some 500 miles away from the battle front, Alexey Navalny writes, "So, one commercial went like this: 'We give last farewells to military personnel and civilians. Discounts for combatants and military personnel. In your hour of loss call...' Can you imagine the death toll in the war with Ukraine, the amount of coffins that arrive from it, if even in the 134,000-large Kovrov there's such fierce competition in the booming funeral services market that funeral parlors have started to buy radio ads?" Russia could stop the Kremlin's senseless war of aggression at any time.

Humor and Good News Cranberry relish for Thanksgiving

If you aren't making it, you're missing out

November 24, 2022

Humor and Good News "All I want for Christmas is you..."

...or a modicum of musical talent. Think of the royalties a person could earn by producing a bunch of holiday novelty songs, to be played every year, like clockwork. Think of the money Mariah Carey brings home every year because of just one earworm.

Humor and Good News Japanese soccer team leaves locker room cleaner than they found it

It's like the "Midwest Stack", but on steroids

Computers and the Internet Weird, yet oddly satisfying

What happens when you ask artificial intelligence to conjure up images of analog computer dreams

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November 25, 2022

There are those who argue that Thanksgiving is an invalid or contaminated holiday because it can be seen as the fruit of moral shortcomings in American history. There are some who hold this view loosely and admit to thoughtfully struggling with the question, and there are others who hold it quite radically. ■ It's true that we would not have a Thanksgiving tradition without the literal practice of colonialism. The Pilgrims weren't invited to modern-day Massachusetts by the Wampanoag; they invited themselves and went on to cause the indigenous people tremendous grief. It is worth reckoning with the harm done over centuries. ■ But we moderns need to find ways to maintain the abstract practice of thankfulness even as we reconcile with very real harms. The Thanksgiving holiday is about an inheritance -- a cultural one, but an inheritance nonetheless. It is a morally sound practice to celebrate the inheritance of the imperfect-but-evolving American tradition and to give thanks for the human liberty and material abundance that emerge from it. In a world absent the America we know, it's not hard to imagine that totalitarians and fascists would have subjugated far more people for far longer. America is imperfect, but it has also been a bulwark against forces much worse. ■ Perhaps we would be a better country if, in addition to Thanksgiving, we separately observed a national day of atonement. There are shortcomings both in our past and in our present. It would be congruent with a healthy moral imagination to celebrate a day on which Americans would recognize failures, make amends, and commit to doing better in the coming year. ■ But just as in the Jewish tradition, wherein the day to mark the new year is closely related to, but separated from, a day to atone for one's failings, we need a day of Thanksgiving to stand on its own so that we focus upon the gratitude itself. ■ Gratitude is essential to having a balanced understanding of the world. So is a commitment to self-improvement. And though self-improvement is a fundamental aspect of the American character (see, for instance, the inclusion of an amendment process within the Constitution), perhaps we would be better off recognizing that need for reconciliation and growth with an explicit day. ■ But the need for that day should not displace celebrating a day of gratitude to something bigger than ourselves. Thanksgiving should make us better by reminding us that there are bigger things in the world than our own idle egos. If we need to make ourselves more righteous by tying it to a national day for peacemaking and reconciliation, then we ought to be open to that, too.

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November 26, 2022

News What do you do?

The holidays are often a time of introductions. At company holiday parties, family get-togethers, and neighborhood open houses, people find themselves turning to small talk as they encounter other people for the first (or second) time. ■ The go-to question among Americans is almost always "What do you do for a living?" The problem isn't the question, but the danger of making assumptions based on the answers. Career and character are two entirely different things, but they're often hard for us to segregate adequately. ■ Dan Brooks -- whose occupation the reader doesn't need to know -- puts it well: "[P]lease stop forming concepts of folks based on what they do. Some of us have fixed identities that both determine our behavior and exist independently from it, and it's exhausting to have to keep explaining that." ■ It's sound modern advice. We are a hard-working country, as well we should be. But we often don't introduce non-occupational value into circulation like we should. It's awkward to shoehorn it into conversation ("Are you more of a stoic or a utilitarian?"), and the more cynical we permit our culture to be, the less likely it is to find its way in naturally. ■ More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character." ■ Careers change. Entire industries come and go. Nobody is a lamplighter anymore, and we're told that artificial intelligence will destroy lots of jobs in the future. ■ But we continue to revere people -- both public figures and family legends -- for acts of character and honor. It wouldn't hurt any of us to find more ways to naturally integrate measures of fixed identity into conversation, at the holidays or any other time of year. It might not make for intuitive introductory conversation, but it should probably place somewhere before occupational chatter.

News Censorship can't make your own eyes lie to you

Governments can try to censor the news, but people can often sense when they're being lied to. Per AFP: "Hundreds of students from Beijing's elite Tsinghua University took part in a protest against Covid lockdowns on Sunday [...] The protest at Tsinghua follows an overnight demonstration at neighbouring Peking University". People are gathering to demonstrate what the Communist Party doesn't want to acknowledge is happening.

Computers and the Internet Don't share evil content, even to ridicule it

We have to apply human self-discipline in order to defeat the shortcomings of algorithms. For now, at least, most social media tools consider any form of sharing or amplification to be the equivalent of an endorsement, so don't do it.

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November 27, 2022

News Tiny towering over us

For a variety of reasons, from the ecological to the economic, many experts on human development patterns like to see increasing population density. When people can live closely together, they tend to create less pollution (per capita). At the same time, denser populations are also associated with greater economic productivity. ■ But rules often stand in the way of density. In particular, regulations setting minimum lot sizes for single-family houses are widely used and have fairly self-evident consequences for limiting population density. In some locations, though, local conditions force people to look at housing demand differently. ■ A tiny existing lot in Philadelphia was used by an architecture firm to demonstrate a "tiny tower" design -- a home built on a 29' x 12' lot, but with six levels, containing two bedrooms, three bathrooms, an office, a deck, living space, and a kitchen. It's extremely clever. Rethinking minimum lot sizes could offer many cities the ability to use similar designs to fill in empty and under-utilized spaces with attractive, quality housing. ■ Density is really only achievable with the use of height. And while lot sizes form one major obstacle to density, the other obstacle is mobility. There is only a certain window of life during which people don't seem to mind climbing stairs. It starts sometime in later childhood and often ends at middle age. Climbing stairs might be good exercise, but it makes for a terrible livability obstacle to anyone with limited mobility (or even just aging joints). ■ Someone could strike a considerable blow on behalf of density if they could come up with a reliable, safe, and affordable single-family compact elevator system. ■ It's not just that single-family elevators would be good for stoking creative housing solutions meant to fill in under-utilized spaces with new construction. They would also help more people to age gracefully (and comfortably) in the homes they already know and love. ■ For countless reasons, we ought to be reluctant to exile our senior citizens to single-story residential life or to vast retirement complexes isolated from the rest of our communities. But making new or existing housing functional for them takes effort to remove obstacles. If we can make more places more suitable to people across the entire arc of life, then we can also extend the benefits of things like increased density to more people. ■ It's not always easy to see things that are right in front of our eyes, including the need to correct both legal and practical hindrances to better housing practices. But both exist, and it would be prudent to think about getting them out of the way. Attractive, creative solutions to the demand for density already exist and could be put to work doing a lot of good for us all.

November 28, 2022

Threats and Hazards Chinese police are forcing private citizens to delete photos from their phones

You don't have to be knee-deep in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill to know how anyone, anywhere, is likely to feel after being pushed around by police who snatch their phones and delete their pictures. People understand intuitively when they're being repressed.

Business and Finance Research on important matters is often boring

Rachael Meager: "One thing academics have to be disciplined about is focusing on the problems we are in the middle of solving rather than distracting ourselves with problems that seem more fun and interesting purely because we haven’t got stuck into them yet [...] Every really serious intellectual exercise is dumb, boring, stupid, frustrating, and disappointing. Learn to recognize the signs of success and rejoice!" Even academic research has to steer clear of just gravitating to whatever is shiny and new so it can actually answer the big questions -- which are inevitably hard and frustrating.

Humor and Good News Talking like a local

Sometimes talking like a local requires more than just pronouncing place names correctly. WCCO's use of a snow forecast map "translated into Minnesotan" is both hilarious and spot-on. Just remember: Even a "No, yeah, no" can turn into an "Aw, jeez" if there's an unexpected change in winds aloft, so stay tuned just in case there's an "Oopsie daisy".

Broadcasting Daily podcast listenership is at 28%

Among American adults ages 18 to 49. If anything, the numbers are probably far under-stated: It's time-consuming to report on that listenership.

Threats and Hazards "Think Occam's Razor, not evil genius"

Advice on watching Chinese policy-making, and it's believable. There's a widely-circulated myth that there's some magical 100-year plan behind what the Chinese Communist Party is doing. It looks and smells a lot more like a system based upon millions of apparatchiks desperately trying to avoid being imprisoned for wrongthink.

November 29, 2022

News Make yourself invincible

One of the more interesting developments to emerge from the defensive side in the war in Ukraine is the rollout of 4,000 "Points of Invincibility" across the country. As announced, "all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." ■ The development is interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it reveals just how rotten Russia's war against Ukraine has turned out to be. Russia keeps attacking Ukraine's energy grid, in a transparently terroristic bid to degrade the basic quality of life for the people living there. ■ It's barbaric and repugnant behavior on Russia's part. This isn't even a morally ambiguous case, like bombing the industrial centers of an aggressor nation in World War II. It's just a naked bid to impose the maximum civilian pain on a country that's only trying to defend itself. ■ But the second point of interest is how the "Points of Invincibility" are symptomatic behavior of a country getting its act together and leapfrogging its own development. The decisive factor in the Allied victory in World War II was probably the unfathomable retooling of the American economy into an invincible machine for producing virtually unlimited war materiel. American industry was building convoy ships by the thousands, and Boeing alone built just shy of 100,000 airplanes. ■ The United States moved forward, technologically and economically, at a breakneck pace because of (and following) World War II. That advancement wasn't worth the toll of war, of course, but it did provide a sort of compensation for it. ■ Ukraine, likewise, is set to emerge from the brutal and senseless war forced upon it as a much more capable nation than it was before. The whole country is being forced to learn and adapt at a screaming pace just to ensure its own survival. ■ But as long as it receives the material support it needs from sympathetic nations, it is gaining momentum towards military victory that deserves to be followed by a tremendous boom in peacetime. Small seeds of ideas like "Points of Invincibility" grow into the kinds of durable advantages later that make a country truly invincible in the long run. Heaven knows they deserve it.

Threats and Hazards A small peek inside China's surveillance state

There's virtually no such thing as privacy if the government doesn't want someone to have it. And that only makes the current protests all that much more courageous.

Threats and Hazards Consider the barbarity of Russia's choices

A children's author becomes one of many completely unjustifiable casualties of war. The Kremlin could stop the madness at any time.

Humor and Good News Survey of 300 new municipal flags

You'll never believe how easily you will come to hate some of them!

Humor and Good News You're not paying for an expensive book...

You're "paying a terrible price for knowledge"

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November 30, 2022

Science and Technology The artistic doctor

The University of Iowa Children's Hospital is already widely-known thanks to the five-year-old neo-tradition of the "Hawkeye Wave", during which fans at Kinnick Stadium pause after the first quarter of a Hawkeye football game to wave at the wall of windows looking into the stadium from the hospital next door. It's a lovely and sentimental practice, and perhaps it does just a little to ground the passions of sports fanatics in things that are more important -- like the well-being of sick children. ■ It's also lovely and worth taking note that Dr. Sarah Scott, a resident physician at the hospital, decorates some of her patients' doors with hand-drawn pictures of Bluey and the Paw Patrol. It's certainly nice as a first-order matter -- she's to be applauded for doing nice things for children in tough situations. ■ But it's a particular delight -- and a thing well worth celebrating -- whenever people who are advanced practitioners of the STEM fields also show that they have well-developed artistic sides. ■ On one hand, people probably take it too far when they try to shoehorn "arts" into the middle of STEM to re-brand it as "STEAM". The whole reason we cluster science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together is because they are widely acknowledged to be hard topics, and ones in which society has historically under-credited and failed to nurture the latent talents of big parts of the population. When we dilute the focus, we risk failing to take long-overdue action to make sure that women and girls aren't driven away from the STEM fields, and that racial and ethnic minorities aren't left out. ■ But on the other hand, the humanities are good for everyone. A CPA who appreciates the nuances of Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" and its critique of life in the middle class ought to be a better accountant for that well-roundedness. An engineer who develops an artistic appreciation for period designs stands a chance of better integrating a thoughtful approach to the human factors of how their products are used in the real world. And it would take eons to document just how important it is for technology leaders to understand how people are affected by their work. ■ It may be going too far to say there's nothing new under the Sun, but people have been pondering and documenting human nature for a whole lot longer than anyone has known about magnetic resonance imaging or splitting the atom. ■ It's important to keep pushing the frontiers of what we know all across the STEM fields, because progress there often has huge consequences for how we live materially. No group should be left behind, and nobody should receive a diploma from high school or beyond without gaining thoughtful STEM-related education along the way, no matter their emphasis or major academic discipline. ■ Likewise, nobody should emerge from a STEM-intensive education without also gaining a well-considered education in the liberal arts and humanities. Whatever we do, in personal or professional life, is ultimately for the good of people. ■ Well-roundedness isn't just good in the abstract; it is essential to ensuring that we have access to the full range of tools we need to make sure that our work, no matter how sophisticated, remains humane at heart. The humanities are to the STEM fields much like a seat belt is to an automobile: Using them doesn't slow down the rate of travel, it merely helps to keep us safer should we find ourselves starting to steer wrong.

Health Peak performance is not average sustainable performance

Most of us are pretty good at quarter- to half-hour bursts of concentration, and it's really hard to sustain it for longer than that -- unless you switch back and forth between tasks so that they keep feeling new. Our extremely powerful, extremely curious brains are a blessing, but there are some natural limits imposed by that curiosity itself.

Computers and the Internet EU to Elon Musk: Do we have your attention now?

Impulsively blowing up the content-moderation process on Twitter wasn't the billionaire's brightest move. Now he risks getting banned by regulators.

December 2, 2022

Computers and the Internet Have a quick chat

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

Health Knowing the boundaries of bad behavior and choice

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

Humor and Good News The 1990s in a nutshell

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

Computers and the Internet Thoughts worth pondering

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

Threats and Hazards Afghanistan loses access to independent reporting

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

December 3, 2022

Humor and Good News Enjoy the process

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

News Ukraine rebuilds even as it fights

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

News The A4 Revolution

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

News US bounced from World Cup

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

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December 4, 2022

News Don't bring me down

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

Humor and Good News Invasion of the Hundred-Acre Wood

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

December 5, 2022

Threats and Hazards Stand by for cyberwar escalation

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

News "Ukraine's most brazen attack on Russia"

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

Computers and the Internet On "ugly" websites

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

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

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

Humor and Good News Corduroy pants are hazardous in winter

Think of the static electricity!

December 6, 2022

Broadcasting Bob from "Sesame Street", rest in peace

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

Humor and Good News More creative construction, please

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

News FBI data misses most fatal shootings by police

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

Business and Finance Intro to economics

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

December 7, 2022

News 81 years of remembrance

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

December 8, 2022

Weather and Disasters How low can the Mississippi go?

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

The United States of America Communication across cultures

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

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

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

News Change your keys

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

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

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

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December 9, 2022

News Hero of the Year

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

News Ukraine's fight isn't just its own

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

News Someone left 146 tires on a rural Minnesota road

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

Iowa Learn to speak Iowan

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

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

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

December 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet What the machine said

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

Humor and Good News Scotland's funniest snowplow names

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

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December 11, 2022

News Crossing the Great Firewall

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

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

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

Humor and Good News A magnificent street sign from 1941

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

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

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

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December 12, 2022

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

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

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December 13, 2022

Weather and Disasters Get a closer look at deadly weather

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

Weather and Disasters A nasty forecast

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

Humor and Good News Good advice for getting along with others

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

Humor and Good News Great names in history

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

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

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

December 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Think digitally

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

Computers and the Internet On balance

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

Weather and Disasters Drone video of a Louisiana tornado

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

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

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

Computers and the Internet Turn your passwords into passphrases

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

December 15, 2022

Science and Technology Fusion ignited

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

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

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

Threats and Hazards Why you should beware of TikTok

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

News Nebraska highway chase lasts for 157 miles

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

Weather and Disasters Use surge suppressors

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

Business and Finance Americans like single-family homes

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

News Hunting wild boar

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

December 16, 2022

News Time-limiting moral adolescence

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

Humor and Good News Off the flight deck

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

December 18, 2022

News Opening up

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

December 20, 2022

News On the way to Washington

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

December 21, 2022

Weather and Disasters Closing the ramps

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

December 23, 2022

Broadcasting "Headline News" no more

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

December 24, 2022

Breathe freely

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

December 25, 2022

News What it takes to sleep in Earthly peace

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

December 26, 2022

News Never back in the USSR

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

December 27, 2022

News How do you say "Happy holidays"?

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

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

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

December 28, 2022

Broadcasting The killer audio app of the future

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

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

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

December 29, 2022

Weather and Disasters Counterintuitive but important

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

December 30, 2022

News Throwing the book at them

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

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