Gongol.com Archives: February 2023

Brian Gongol


February 2023
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February 1, 2023

News

If you wish to have less of an undesirable thing, then the prudent course of action is to study its causes and then work methodically to mitigate or eliminate them. Hospitals conduct morbidity and mortality conferences when things go wrong for their patients. Coaches review the game films from their losses. Toyota popularized the "Five Whys" technique at performing root-cause analysis on manufacturing defects. ■ The methods may vary, but the shared point is the commitment to uncovering the causes of undesired outcomes so that they can be addressed. And when done thoroughly and professionally, the process can have significant effects. It should be a matter of considerable pride, for instance, that commercial air travel has become radically safe by comparison with other means of transportation. Improvements in air safety are at least partly attributable to the investigatory work of the NTSB. ■ The National Transportation Safety Board exists to seek out the root causes of transportation incidents so that they, too, can be eliminated. It is crucial to note that the NTSB "has no authority to regulate, fund, or be directly involved in the operation of any mode of transportation". Its mission is strictly to investigate and make recommendations, entirely independent of any other agency of government. ■ The Fifth Amendment says that "No person shall [...] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Yet hundreds of people are killed by police in the United States each year. In some cases, there is little doubt that the actions of law enforcement were necessary and prudent: A man firing a rifle inside a Target store is a clear and present danger to others, and swift action is plainly justified. ■ But other cases -- like the killings of Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean -- are different entirely. In general, it should be uncontroversial to believe that as few people as possible should die in the process of law enforcement, on either side of a badge. ■ If anyone at the Federal level of government were truly serious about reducing the number of civilians killed by police, then they would work to stand up an NTSB-style agency to investigate deaths involving law enforcement. Such an agency would need to be invested strictly with investigatory powers, not prosecutorial ones. It would need to be independent and professional, working solely for the purpose of investigating the incidents and uncovering the causes so that preventable deaths could be eliminated. ■ If politicians at the national level aren't trying to advance the policies that could do something about fixing root causes, then they probably aren't serious about the problem. The basic premise of the Fifth Amendment is clear: The right to one's own life is precious and sacred. Even when a perpetrator is killed under thoroughly justifiable conditions, it remains prudent to investigate how events unfolded as they did and whether anything could have gone differently. The NTSB model has proven itself to the traveling public. It's a model worth duplicating in the line of duty.


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February 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Look! Up in the sky!

It probably has something to do with vestigial fears left behind by our evolution up from tiny pre-primate mammals, but the thought of something unknown and potentially hazardous in the sky above our heads seems to terrorize our human minds much more than other threats. These concerns, while not entirely irrational, seem to activate something different and more lively in the human imagination than other threats. ■ Thus, we witness the widespread and loud alarm over the Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the continental United States. Is the balloon a matter for unusual concern? Definitely. It's an unwelcome and illegal provocation. ■ We can be certain that even if the US Air Force doesn't dispatch the balloon, someone on the ground is still going to shoot at it. It won't be smart, and it definitely won't work, but it's practically certain to happen, even if the government deemed shooting it down to be too risky. It's an unfamiliar incursion, and that has snapped Americans to attention. ■ Yet, novelty isn't the only thing that matters. It may be perfectly sensible to be alarmed by the spy balloon, but let some of that alarm also be transferred to other known hazards, like spyware, massive data harvesting, and the intimidation of dissidents abroad (including within the US). ■ There are many other threats that are much more immediately threatening than the spy balloon, as deeply concerning as it is, but it seems to be the "unknown threat overhead" aspect that alarms many of us. And, even if it collects no useful surveillance for China whatsoever, it likely will end up as a net adversarial win. That's because they don't have to produce a weapon, be it kinetic or electromagnetic. ■ China's government merely needs a proof of concept that makes it appear sufficiently plausible that it can penetrate American airspace (and that it is willing to do so) to force the United States to spend a lot of resources on hardening our own infrastructure. The Defense Department has even confirmed taking "additional mitigation steps" against surveillance by the balloon, even while claiming that "it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." ■ Unfortunately, whatever measures are taken, they consume time, effort, and resources. If a car thief is known to prowl your neighborhood, it is relatively cost-free for you to lock your car. But if that isn't deterrent enough, then installing a car alarm, buying a LoJack, mounting surveillance cameras, or building a garage all consume resources that might have gone to better productive uses. Triggering your adversary to spend liberally on new defenses can be an effective military strategy. ■ But Americans shouldn't let ourselves fixate on the specific form of this threat just because it activates that portion of the brain we got from smaller mammals millions of years ago. We should, however, use it as the catalyst for much wider strategic debates about how better to protect our interests domestically, whether in physical space or in the electronic domains. There are plenty of things to be concerned about, and we haven't necessarily given any of them sufficient consideration. Perhaps the response to the spy balloon can nudge us to do better.


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February 4, 2023

Computers and the Internet People are easier to hack than hardware

While it's understandable that people who haven't grown up as "digital natives" aren't well-prepared to think with a security-driven mindset, it also isn't a novel concept to expect people in positions of authority, influence, or power to realize that sometimes they need to take steps that others don't. The revelation that the Supreme Court has been operating under lax security standards for internal documents isn't necessarily surprising, but it does demand reform. ■ If bad actors want your data, it's easier to hack your people than it is to hack your hardware. This is a truth with which we need to grapple, and quickly. The evidence is overwhelming -- from the very highest echelons of government -- that people are willing to go around security policies if they believe they are beyond the reach of consequences. Unfortunately, anyone at such a level -- like a President, a Supreme Court Justice, or a high-ranking general -- is exactly the kind of person whose access makes them a desirable target. ■ This is ultimately a whole-of-society problem. If information security isn't treated as a prominent, visible priority at the top of government, then it is unlikely to be taken as a priority by the public at large. And there are consequences: Carelessness may reveal secrets better kept under wraps, and chronic under-investment in the kind of ongoing training that's needed in all kinds of environments is likely if the problem isn't recognized. ■ That, in the end, is what has to happen. There is only so much protection that can be delivered by antivirus software and clever network administration. The low-hanging fruit of information security -- the stuff that can be handled by routers and switches and the like -- has either already been plucked, or could be, given the right incentives imposed by laws and insurance policies. ■ It's the human side that remains woefully under-guarded and vulnerable as a result. It was an exceptionally stupid policy for a former Secretary of State to try to conduct government business through a personal email server out of a preference for "convenience". It was exceptionally stupid for a former President to keep Top Secret documents in a Florida resort property. It likewise is exceptionally stupid for Supreme Court Justices to use unsecured personal emails for sensitive work and leave confidential papers in poorly-controlled spaces. ■ All are part of the same problem: The failure to recognize that in the 21st Century, information really is power. And while it can't be contained perfectly, it can be contained within an acceptable level of risk -- but only if the people involved choose not to make themselves the weakest links in the security chain. So much better can be done, and so much more ought to be expected.


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February 6, 2023

Business and Finance Housing super-abundance

America's housing policy goal, such as it may be inferred, has long been expressed as something along the lines of "get as many households into homeownership as possible". The sentiment is ultimately Jeffersonian in nature: "[I]t is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state", he wrote to James Madison in 1785. ■ And so we get the home mortgage interest deduction from income taxes, the homestead exemption from property taxes, and the support of quasi-agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All are major policies driven towards the objective of a house for (almost) every household. ■ But America's chronic problem when it comes to housing is that we treat housing as a financial investment. This is suboptimal behavior for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it probably chokes out investments in much more productive assets. But, fundamentally, we need to acknowledge that if an asset is both disproportionately important to household wealth and extremely hard to subdivide or sell in pieces until a desired future date, then the people owning such an asset will be heavily incentivized to favor scarcity. ■ It doesn't have to emerge from a malicious place to have pernicious consequences. NIMBYism is everywhere, in no small part because people are easily terrified by the thought that the value of their most significant investment could be threatened by the arrival of an abundant competitive supply. Thus homeowners almost chronically oppose any moves that would expand the housing supply: Rural areas decry "urban sprawl", suburbanites oppose increased densities, and urban-dwellers fight developments that would "tax the infrastructure". ■ As no more than a thought experiment, consider this question: How different might things look if the implicit policy preference were not "as many households into homeownership as possible", but rather "at least two domiciles for every household"? In other words, what if the policy were one of an explicit preference for housing super-abundance, rather than one placing maximum value on a single home as a family's largest asset? ■ On the surface, even the concept of "two domiciles per household" sounds a little crazy. But then consider the variety of ways in which this is already, to some extent, a choice some families already make. Some have vacation homes. Some take up time-shares. Some are "snowbirds" who move south for the winter, then back north in the summer. There are families with downtown "crash pads" and full-sized homes in the suburbs. There are "granny flats" and kids living in refurbished basements and college students who are still dependents but live on or near campus for nine months out of the year. And there are so very many campers, trailers, and RVs. ■ A policy expressly intended to prioritize housing super-abundance would have implications for taxation, regulation, and innovation alike. And what a second domicile would look like could vary for every family -- plenty of households have "feet" in two places at once, whether it's because an adult is working on a job remotely, someone in the family is in school far from "home", or simply because there's a lot of time spent visiting Grandma or chasing a traveling athletic team. ■ If we were to prioritize super-abundant housing, then we might see much more incentive for innovation, particularly in the "missing middle" of housing. That, in turn, might attract substantial new producers to the equation. Few Americans realize this, but in Japan, Toyota builds houses. The greater the innovation brought to the supply side of the equation, the better off we would be. More housing overall means more people, overall, in housing.


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February 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards When people who should know better choose not to

Robert Reich, a professor at a brand-name university and a former United States Secretary of Labor, tweets: "Egg prices are up 60%. That's absurd. People are paying up upwards of $6 and $7 for a dozen eggs. Why? Corporate greed. Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the US, is raking record profits -- $198 million in its latest quarter. That's a 65% increase from a year ago." ■ It's entirely within bounds to simply say "I think corporations are greedy". Such an opinion would be simplistic and petty, but it's an opinion and everyone's entitled. But it's toxic for someone with notoriety and status (like a former Cabinet secretary) to bark out this nonsense when it's patently untrue. ■ There were big outbreaks of avian influenza in 2022. That's a fact with very clear consequences for the number of laying hens. That population dropped precipitously, from about 393 million in December 2021 to about 366 million in June 2022. Lose 7% of your egg-producing population and you're going to lose a lot of egg production, and that can have big consequences for marginal costs at the store. ■ The public shouldn't stand quietly for the corrosion of public debate by people who absolutely, positively should know better. It's not an overstatement to call it a blow against civilization. Upon taking office in the Cabinet -- and thus in the line of Presidential succession -- Reich had to swear to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution of the United States, and through it, to the people. His strict obligation to that oath may have expired on January 10, 1997, but he still profits from his recognition as a public figure. ■ He, and everyone in a like position, ought to recognize the public's reasonable expectation that their continued presence in the spotlight as a public figure comes with a continued expectation of "true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution and to the public. It's entirely well and good for people to take interests in subjects beyond their own expertise, and nobody expects a former Secretary of Labor to also be an expert on animal health. ■ But at the very least, one might expect a person whose curriculum vitae includes 58 instances of the word "economy" (in one form or another) to hold himself to a standard of behavior that might befit a person who once held a significant office of public trust, eleventh in the line of succession to the Presidency. And he ought to hold himself to a critical standard of intellectual curiosity such that he would look for an obvious root cause (like widespread animal disease outbreaks) before offering reductionist rallying cries on the Internet. ■ The public deserves serious thoughts from those who position themselves as thought leaders. If that's too much to ask, then those "leaders" ought to keep their idle musings to themselves. Otherwise, it should be their civic duty to be thought-provoking, not mindlessly provocative.


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February 9, 2023

Iowa A pillar of the West Des Moines community

A memorial will be held on February 12th to honor Sam Kranovich, who contributed more to Valley High School and to West Des Moines than any reasonable person could quite fathom. When you describe someone as "salt of the earth", you're describing someone like Sam Kranovich. Truly a heart of gold and a selfless pillar of the community he loved. It will take ten highly dedicated people to even begin to cover all the roles he leaves behind.

Computers and the Internet Smartphone adoption in a nutshell

From 20.2% of users in 2010 to 53.6% in 2014 (a majority), then on to 72.2% in 2020 (a supermajority). There haven't been many comparable cases where the timeline on a technology from "early adopters" to "used by a majority" got this compressed.


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February 10, 2023

Threats and Hazards What if it weren't China?

A good, if uncomfortable, thought experiment proposed by Christopher Balding, regarding recent events: "Imagine it was a Russian balloon[;] the Galaxy Brain would be having an aneurysm." To the extent that the response to China's balloon incursions would be different if they had been Russian or Iranian or Syrian, it's well worth asking why. ■ Does China get special treatment because of its enormous economic scale? If so, what is the price of national security? Is there a dollar value that could be assigned to the amount of aggression the United States would be willing to absorb before considering the costs too much? ■ Does China get treated differently because it is somehow assumed to be less capable than other countries? If so, then its efforts to demonstrate rapid industrial development and scaling ought to be taken more seriously. China's navy has launched its third aircraft carrier as part of an accelerated development program. (And it should not escape notice that the army and navy of China answer to the Communist Party, not to the citizens.) ■ Does China get some kind of benefit of the doubt because it isn't seen as a nuclear power? Russia may control more warheads, but China has 400 and is trying to more than triple that number within a dozen years. And the country's political powers have shown flagrant disregard for human rights (consider the abuses in Xinjiang), so it's not as though there are principled decision-makers at the helm. ■ Balding's question deserves a robust examination, because if it appears that we're operating from faulty assumptions about the character of adversarial powers, that's a problem we alone can fix. It is solvable, to be sure. But it isn't solvable from the outside. Seeing the world as it is (and not merely as we wish it to be) is a matter of discipline. Just as nobody else can floss your teeth for you, nobody from the outside can force a society to deal with substantive problems in a clear-eyed manner.


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February 11, 2023

The United States of America Who's watching SOTU?

In a country of more than 330 million people, fewer than a tenth stopped what they were doing on Tuesday night to watch the State of the Union address, "the second smallest audience for the annual event in at least 30 years", in the words of the Associated Press. ■ It's available for viewing on YouTube anytime, and the full text is online, too. And it's not hard to find commentary on the speech from every corner. C-SPAN has highlight clips. Anyone who wants to be informed about the address can be. ■ But when people comment on the audience size, it's hard to avoid value judgments. A New York Times reporter phrased it, "Just 27.3 million people watched Biden's State of the Union address on television". Putting aside that 27.3 million people is still more than the population of any individual state other than Texas or California, or that it is more than three times the audience for any scripted primetime television program, it's worth considering whether viewing the address is of any importance at all. ■ Calvin Coolidge, who had his own experience with reporting the State of the Union, said to a press conference in 1925, "I would like it if the country could think as little as possible about the Government and give their time and attention more undividedly about the conduct of the private business of our country." ■ Coolidge himself only delivered one State of the Union address in person; he submitted written messages for the rest. And that would be a perfectly fine mode to adopt once again. The Constitution only requires that "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union". It does not say the message has to be delivered in a speech, nor that it has to be disseminated to the public at large. ■ The State of the Union is, fundamentally, like a workplace report to a supervisor -- after all, Congress is supposed to tell the President what to do, and it reserves the right to impeach and remove any President who doesn't execute. The spectacle that we have come to recognize over the last century is a reflection of a chronic mass confusion about those relative roles. If more than 91% of Americans choose to "think as little as possible about the Government", then that's probably just fine.


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February 12, 2023

News What rules us

It seems hard to fathom, but the world will never be as simple in the future as it is today. The same is true for every passing day: Population growth, technological progress, economic advancement, and the relentless expansion of human knowledge conspire to make it inevitable that complexity will be an ever-expanding feature of the human experience. ■ Complexity by itself isn't a bad thing. Most sensible people wouldn't exchange the consequences of our current complexity for the problems of pre-modern life. Dying young, living without antibiotics or food refrigeration, and losing 2 out of every 5 children before the age of five are far worse than dealing with some tougher choices. But increasing complexity does require a conscious approach to decision-making. ■ A complex world calls for better heuristics. Four of them seem like good baselines for both public and private decision-making. ■ Make money. Most people want to earn a good quality of life for themselves and their families. This requires productive activity, and the best way to maximize productive activity is to reward it. Markets aren't perfect, but in general, market-based economies do a better job of that maximization than any other system. As voters, we should select for market-oriented policies, and as individuals, people should seek to do the most of what shows the biggest difference between what other people value and what we have to give up to produce it. ■ Have fun. The Declaration of Independence underlines "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as "unalienable rights". Life and liberty seem obvious enough, but it's worth taking seriously the promise that the pursuit of happiness is a human right. Some people can't help themselves but to be miserable. But they shouldn't bring the rest of the world down -- it is everyone's right to enjoy life. ■ Clean up after yourself. In the process of making money and having fun, it's easy to make a mess. When there are byproducts of human activities -- pollution, costs, impositions on neighbors and outsiders -- whoever creates those byproducts has a duty to clean up. ■ Mind your business. The phrase was applied to the first cent minted in America, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. It's a delightful turn of phrase, reminding people both to "mind your own business" (leaving others, for instance, free to pursue their own happiness), and to tend to what matters, lest time get away leaving important work unfinished. ■ Progress is a long, unfinished marathon. Getting to a better future requires making good decisions along the way. The better the heuristics that guide us, the better the chances of steering towards a desirable future.


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February 13, 2023

News It's not an alien threat

The odds are slim to none that what the US Air Force shot down over Lake Huron was anything extraterrestrial. The series of unwelcome objects over North American airspace has caught a lot of attention, but it's unlikely to be the opening salvo in a real-life version of the now-classic film "Independence Day". For what should be obvious reasons, that's welcome news. ■ On more than one occasion, Ronald Reagan wondered aloud what would happen if Earth were faced with an alien invasion. He raised it in a 1987 speech to the United Nations: "I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." And he brought it up directly in conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. ■ What Reagan's question -- and our current quandary -- ought to do is concentrate our thoughts on just how unproductive it is to squabble for the sake of scoring petty points when there really are serious threats to peaceful coexistence in the world. ■ A small but noisy band of dopes are very good at promoting division for its own sake among people who generally agree with one another on the biggest issues and differ predominantly at the margins alone. If you're an American living in 2023, you probably agree more with almost any given neighbor of yours about what is basically important than you would even have agreed with any given American of 150 years ago -- long before the 19th Amendment or two essential victories in world wars or the Civil Rights era. Those were character-shaping turning points for the country, and now almost all of us agree without serious question about what they wrought. ■ Yet it isn't hard to find people who want to label people across the aisle as evil. When people spend too much time routinely vilifying those who are merely their political opponents, they diminish the impact of words like "evil". True evil is rare, but it exists. We see it, for instance, in the evidence of first-person responsibility at the highest levels of the Russian government for decades of terrorism against innocent people. That kind of evil should be cursed unflinchingly. ■ For mere "family squabbles" in our domestic politics, we ought to have more grace. Not because our differences don't matter, but because they pale in comparison with the evils that are self-evident around the globe. It shouldn't take the threat of an alien invasion to get us to think charitably of one another.


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February 14, 2023

News No time to go wobbly

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaching the one-year mark, it's inevitable that some reflection and reassessment of the cause of Ukraine's defense will come forth. People cannot help themselves but mark anniversaries. In a Washington Post story, unnamed "senior administration officials" leaked their opinions that "We will continue to try to impress upon them [Ukrainian leaders] that we can't do anything and everything forever" and that they have "warn[ed] that the political path will get tougher once Ukraine has exhausted the current congressional package". ■ Given that the administration has been generally supportive of the Ukrainian cause thus far, the leaks are problematic. Earlier in the war, leaks were known to "displease" the President. Thus it's hard to imagine anyone talking quite so far out of school with an outlet like the Washington Post. ■ It undercuts Ukraine's leaders to give the impression that the United States is unprepared to continue vigorously supporting the country's defense with war materiel. What Ukraine has been doing with the assistance of Western arms and training is truly remarkable. But confidence is a resource, too. ■ On matters this important, it's vital for the President to come right out in front and win the argument. The whole free, democratic world needs to be reminded not to go wobbly -- not just Congress. It's the right argument, and it is well worth winning. But clear advocacy is essential. ■ There are plenty of people who are quick to cast the dispute in terms of domestic partisanship. But opposition to involvement in "other people's wars" is nothing new: For proof, read Winston Churchill's book "Their Finest Hour". Churchill candidly depicts his pleading with Franklin Roosevelt throughout 1940 for arms ranging from rifles to destroyers -- items Churchill believed meant life or death for his country as a free state. In Churchill's telling, Roosevelt was willing, but Congress was not. Congress, at that time, was run by a Democratic majority of 262. ■ It is entirely possible for recalcitrant legislators to make partisan arguments about issues like foreign aid. But it is up to the Commander-in-Chief to steer arguments like this one clear of the rocky shoals of party labels. If Ukraine's ability to expel a brutal Russian invasion is ultimately a matter of national security to the United States (and there is abundant evidence that it is), then those are the terms that a President must take to audiences both at home and abroad. And every member of the team must sing from the same songbook. ■ Winning the argument is essential, particularly when allied teamwork is required. Some countries, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, already get that Ukraine's fight is of existential importance beyond its own borders. Others still need to be brought along. History is clear that this is nothing new. If this is no time to go wobbly, then that should be the unequivocal message from the top.

Aviation News Maybe only one UFO was for foreign surveillance

Now the government thinks that three of the four items shot down may have been for commercial purposes. So, shouldn't they have had transponders? If they didn't, why not?

Weather and Disasters A dust storm sweeping across Texas and Oklahoma

A stunning event, and an amazing example of the quality of what we can visualize with satellites in 2023.


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February 15, 2023

The United States of America This is what democracy looks like

"This is what democracy looks like!": It's a chant often used by people who gather in the streets to protest, and it's untrue. Democracy looks like a 111-year-old woman who never misses a vote. Democracy is knowing that you won't get everything that you want, but neither will anyone else. It's showing up for the routine act of voting, peacefully and consistently, contributing more and more legitimacy to the system as the individual votes pile up. ■ Sometimes we're too quick to mistake mass activities for democracy. Sometimes, protest gatherings are useful: See the examples of the Selma to Montgomery march or the Maidan protests in Ukraine nearly a decade ago. If democratic channels are unavailable, people may well need to gather to make their voices heard. ■ But when universal suffrage prevails, polling places are secure, and the ballot box is counted fairly, then democracy looks like the individual voter informing themselves and voting their conscience -- many individuals over. The "I Voted" sticker is fun as a cultural artifact, but it's also the mark of a functional system, where people are free to indicate what they want in privacy and without fear of reprisals. ■ We honor the people who sacrificed on behalf of democratic rule when we participate in elections. We should of course honor those who risk or sacrifice their personal safety in order to protect democratic institutions. ■ But self-government isn't guaranteed by the armed forces alone. It's also guaranteed by the legitimacy conferred by mass participation. Susie Lewis, the voter who has showed up for nine decades of elections? She's a hero of democracy.

Threats and Hazards Overhead dangers

Is the Chinese spy balloon situation a cybersecurity threat? Yes, in the sense that it can be seen as a proof of concept. It's a potential platform from which novel forms of attack could be conducted: Airships that evade detection could be used, for instance, to sniff for stray signals and relay that data back to the home country for collection and analysis. Maybe that's not what was being done this time around, but it's a threat we shouldn't dismiss. Moreover, it may mean that domestic facilities in the United States need to upgrade their defenses. For example: Data centers have security fences, but do/should they have hardened roofs, too?


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February 16, 2023

Computers and the Internet "I know Kung-Fu"

After the much-heralded public launch of ChatGPT, it hasn't taken long for people to tune in to other developments in artificial intelligence -- prominently including the soft launch of Microsoft's ChatGPT-based "New Bing", which it bills as a "search experience", rather than a mere search engine. Early adopters are already putting it through stress tests, including an unnerving New York Times review, existentialist crises, and a crash course in writing like Kurt Vonnegut. ■ One of the plot points that earned derision for "The Matrix" was the moment when Keanu Reeves, as Neo, "downloaded" a martial art to his mind and declared, "I know Kung-Fu." The necessary conceit was that, inside the Matrix, the rules of data applied, rather than the rules of physical existence. ■ But it's not such a laughing matter in this real-world launch of artificial intelligence, where a computer can be "taught" to "know" subjects through exposure to what's been published on the Internet. False certainty is the kind of folly that human beings learn not to demonstrate after humiliating themselves in front of others -- think of anyone who becomes a know-it-all after taking a 101-level course in a subject. ■ Feelings like humiliation and the course corrections that come with those feelings are impossible to download. They're human experiences, and deeply organic ones. How could you explain to a digital "being" what it's like to blush? Human beings are mostly our own minds, of course, but no small part of what we learn comes through the corporeal existence. And there's no way to give that to an AI. ■ No matter how clever we get with large language models, part of "learning", as we humans will always understand it, comes through a process. And the process isn't always constructive -- sometimes you have to un-learn something you knew differently before, either through necessity or because the facts themselves changed. That sort of consciousness just isn't going to be replicable within artificial intelligence. ■ That's also why rules are a complicated matter: Everyone knows that some rules are more important than others, and we also know that different rules prevail under different circumstances. There may be Ten Commandments, but there are hierarchies among them, and there are cases when even those commandments come into conflict with one another. Resolving the conflicts is an essential aspect of human experience and intelligence. ■ The people launching artificial intelligence into the world -- even with the best of intentions -- need to be intrinsically aware of the limitations of rules, their ability to institute and document those rules, and to deal with the unavoidable conflicts among them. There's a lot of power at hand, but a whole lot of errors waiting to be made, too.


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February 18, 2023

News Modesty of words

One of the best ways to lose an argument is to overstate the case. Certain classes of activists (especially including, though not limited to, many vocal environmentalists) are especially prone to overstatement. Not everything is an "emergency", a "crisis", a "catastrophe", or a "disaster". ■ It's understandable that people can look at a problem and think that it's uniquely threatening -- or that the threat imposes a unique burden directly on them. (Think of the youthful activist berating the world at a climate summit: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.") ■ But in trying to rally other people to share a sense of urgency about this issue or that, escalating to the language of "catastrophe" risks causing a escalatory spiral, in which nothing gets taken seriously unless accompanied by extreme language. ■ Take, for instance, the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. It's a disaster, but exaggerations aren't helping the case. It's quite enough to say that it is a disturbing and damaging event of a scale large enough that it calls for the aid of the Federal government. But it does not help for environmental activists to label it "one of the deadliest environmental emergencies in decades" when that claim is patently untrue. ■ As the economist Todd Yarbrough thoughtfully puts it, "people will interpret hyperbole as dishonesty". That's a truth people of all stripes ought to take to heart: Exaggerations undermine reasonable arguments. They give people who might be sympathetic but skeptical the intellectual wiggle room to retreat to their prior assumptions. ■ A willingness to change one's mind is vital, especially in a self-governing society. But minds aren't changed by overheated arguments screamed from a bullhorn. Often, they're made by appealing to the self-interests of the audience first: In Ben Franklin's words, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason." ■ People may be fooled in lots of ways, but they quite often know both what's "for their own good" and what represents a real threat to that good. And if the person making an argument appears only to believe in it if couched in the language of exaggeration and overstatement, then it's quite often plainly unconvincing to the audience. ■ It's especially unconvincing if the persuasion is intended to compel the audience through shame. "I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him," wrote Booker T. Washington, "and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done." ■ It's a lesson not just for environmental activists, nor just for those making causes from the left. A world filled with many varied and complex problems calls for solution-making through healthy, reasoned persuasion. Modesty of words is a good starting point.

News You're really not "built different"

Human nature is astonishingly consistent over time. Almost anything that gets better about civilization comes from developing better rules and teaching better habits.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft reels back AI-enhanced Bing

Perhaps journalism about AI platforms should include a disclaimer: "This is a pattern-recognition tool and not a sentient organism. Please do not willingly suspend your disbelief." For the good of the reporters as much as the audience. ■ Generally-trained artificial intelligence tools have already gotten defensibly good at writing complaint letters. But in a sense, they're limited by their generality: Too much input exposes the artificial intelligence to bland conclusions and uninspired word choices. But if you could train an AI strictly on the banter from pre-Hays Code movie scripts and then synthesize its voices for radio, it would probably be a ratings powerhouse in morning drive.


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February 19, 2023

Threats and Hazards Unfathomable damage in Turkey

The enormous earthquake appears to have leveled an incredible number of buildings, stealing an unspeakable number of human lives. Many of the destroyed buildings appear to have been constructed from masonry and concrete; it's worth asking how structures based on mass timber might have performed in this awful disaster. So many pictures of multistory masonry buildings that collapsed. Was rigidity a factor in the terrible death toll? So much rebuilding that will need to be done; can it be safer? The use of mass timber is still developing, and research on its suitability in seismic events is still limited, but it appears to be worth diligent consideration. Mass timber permits multi-story construction using wood. Turkey is going to need replacement housing, and likely will need a good amount of it to be as tall as what it replaces. Wood and steel appear to be two of the most plausible solutions.

Broadcasting Streaming eats the television world

TV Technology reports: "In total, Americans streamed more than 19.4 million years of content last year, up 27% about 15 million years in 2021." ■ Few things should buttress one's faith in humanity quite like the knowledge that "Bluey" is the #8 most-streamed show in America.


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February 20, 2023

Iowa Not every old building is worth saving

A dilapidated house in Des Moines, built in 1890, is up for sale with a sticker price of $47,000. It's listed with this promise: "With the available tax credits, tax abatement, and grants, this property can be affordable." ■ The current assessment on the property is $56,600, of which $25,200 is in the land alone. The building itself is assessed at no more than the value of a new Kia Sorento. And that's just the gross assessment: There's plainly a money pit inside the four walls. ■ Communities really should ask themselves: Are we better off giving people lots of incentives to rehabilitate a house like this, instead of incentivizing someone to demolish it and build a creative, brand-new narrow-lot residence in its place? The existing house is just 16' wide, on a 25' x 125' lot. But small can be beautiful, if approached with creativity. ■ Look, for instance, at the Pfanner House in Chicago, built on an even smaller lot (24.5' x 79'). While it's not conventionally beautiful from the exterior, it's also not offensive. To be sure, it's not bringing down the neighborhood. On the inside, though, it's probably twenty times better than rehabilitating a shabby old house for a similar amount of money. ■ Some old construction certainly is worth reviving and reclaiming from the clutches of decay and entropy. But Americans have to remain proud that we know when to knock over the old and build the new. Old houses have hazards like lead pipes and asbestos. New ones don't. Sometimes "historic preservation" is a worthwhile investment. Other times, it's best to make like a Disney princess and let it go.

Computers and the Internet Don't make a spreadsheet do the work of a word processor

If you're entering more than a sentence of text into any single cell in Excel, you don't need a spreadsheet. That's writing, not calculating. You need a Word document with embedded tables.

Humor and Good News Parenting: You don't know what you're in for

A huge amount of parenthood is dispositional. What seems to matter most are character traits that are good to start cultivating when you're young -- virtues like patience and humility. Curiosity and a little grit don't hurt, either.


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February 22, 2023

The United States of America Hard-working oceans

An observation from Winston Churchill, prior to the United States entering World War II (but long after his own country had become a target of brutal and unprovoked assault): "I am very glad that the army, air, and naval frontiers of the United States have been advanced along a wide arc into the Atlantic Ocean, and that this will enable them to take danger by the throat while it is still hundreds of miles away from their homeland." ■ Clearly, that distance still tenders advantages to the United States today, though not nearly as many as it used to (and not in the same magnitude). Jet travel, satellites in space, and ICBMs do a lot to shrink the oceans. ■ These considerations matter in the world, even at a time decades removed from Churchill's observation. Consider the thought-provoking observation from Dr. John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies: "Putin may be hypersensitive to perceived provocation, but he has demonstrated hyper-responsiveness to perceived license. As the West has pedantically debated what it would not do, his room for destructive manoeuvre has grown." ■ It can be true that we want to avoid instigating conflict by our actions, but also find ourselves opening the door to the escalation of conflict by adversaries. Dithering and equivocation can have consequences, too. ■ Consider the necessarily hard-nosed view of Estonia's prime minister: "Ukraine must win". Estonia is only one among several countries -- particularly those bordering Russia -- with a compelling, existential need to see not just that hostilities cease, but that they cease because Ukraine has won the upper hand with the support of other countries. Estonia has fewer than 1.4 million people, making it smaller than New Hampshire in population. And their border with Russia is 183 miles long, or the distance from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio. ■ Estonia and its neighbors don't have the luxury of looking the other way. And while America does have at least some luxury in that regard, we should beware indulging it, no matter what some craven and cowardly members of Congress might want. ■ The oceans aren't as big as they were in World War II -- at least, not in practical effect. But the ambitions of tyrants remain as expansive as ever. That they can evidently be stopped at a cost only of material support and training for Ukraine's armed forces should be seen as the powerful leveraged advantage that it is. Let the oceans work, but remain steadfast in the knowledge that we still sometimes must "take danger by the throat".


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February 23, 2023

Health Death at a casino

According to local news reports from KLAS-TV and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a casino patron was left slumped over a blackjack table last April for more than 15 minutes without attention. When someone finally checked on him and discovered he was in cardiac arrest, "Wynn employees then attempted to render him aid with a defibrillator, the lawsuit alleges, but the employees were not trained to use the machine". ■ Unsurprisingly, the incident has made news because the family of the deceased has filed a lawsuit against the casino. If someone experiences a medical emergency and others around them render aid unsuccessfully, that's one thing. It might be a tragedy, but it isn't a cause of action. We have Good Samaritan laws to protect the aid-givers for just such reasons: Sometimes, the aid just isn't enough. That's life (or death, such as the case may be). ■ But it is another problem altogether if people haven't been prepared with even the most obvious of training protocols. This is a problem both at a population level and at the very specific site level. ■ Ideally, any group of five people anywhere should contain at least one person trained in CPR and the use of an AED. If you don't have the two hours or so required to take the full course, you can watch the American Heart Association's video crash courses in less than three minutes. ■ That there wasn't a single competent person anywhere in the gaming area of a Vegas casino screams of gross neglect. Many actually talk the user through the process from start to finish, so the amount of actual training required is practically nil. A reasonably competent 12-year-old could operate an AED -- which is the entire point. Lack of training in a high-traffic place of public accommodation is inexcusable. ■ Perhaps it will be found that the aid rendered was competent. Perhaps a court case will uncover that the employees had, in fact, been adequately trained. The public does need to realize that people often freeze in an emergency, so even people who have been trained in providing assistance may find themselves paralyzed by the moment. That's exactly why the ideal circumstances call for having the highest possible level of training among the population at large: If half the people are going to freeze in the moment, then twice as many people need to be trained. ■ It might be even worse than that: One paper concluded that only 10% to 15% of people react with calm and quick thinking in an emergency. The good news, though, is that those numbers can be enough, as long as enough of them are ready, willing, and able to do what's required. ■ Most every decent person should be willing to help in an emergency, and even under the worst of assumptions, at least one in ten ought to prove mentally "ready". So the problem to be faced -- for all of us -- is how to ensure that the maximum possible number are able. And if you're operating a place where the public visits in large numbers, society has a very reasonable expectation that you'll do your part to invest in maximizing those abilities.


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February 24, 2023

Water News Bad water killed three Presidents

The EPA is touting the availability of $2.4 billion for infrastructure projects under what is known as the "Clean Water State Revolving Fund". The fund primarily goes towards loans and loan guarantees for work on pollution control programs and the construction of wastewater treatment plants. Nothing about that sounds particularly catchy or attention-grabbing, and that reflects a pretty serious shortcoming in the way we approach those sectors. ■ The agency performing the distribution is the Environmental Protection Agency. But it's a real failure -- of branding as well as of persuasion -- to categorize water treatment as an environmental issue. The plain fact is that we don't treat wastewater for the good of trees and fish. We should spend our resources on that work because it is a lifesaving health measure. ■ Consider this Presidents' Day fact: William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor all likely died from drinking contaminated water -- in the White House! Legend has long had it that Harrison's demise was the result of pneumonia, contracted when he gave a long-winded Inaugural Address without a coat in the cold and rain. ■ The speech was exhaustingly long, to be certain. But the truth is probably worse than the legend: Harrison was probably killed by his drinking water. And because the same problems persisted at the White House, bad water probably killed Polk and Taylor, too. ■ As a society, we don't treat water -- either before or after people use it -- for the good of "the environment". We do it to protect and preserve public health. Period. End of story. Contaminated water probably kills half a million people annually worldwide. And it sickens millions more who don't die, but who still suffer. When you hear about natural disasters like earthquakes, the initial trauma is often deadly -- but so is the subsequent exposure to unsafe water. It's a grave but underappreciated risk in quake-stricken Turkey right now. ■ Misdirected branding like "environmental protection" doesn't help the situation. Nor, really, does a mislabel like "wastewater". It's not wasted -- it's been used by human beings, and what we should do is call it "unwell water". Something that has become unwell needs to be healed, and that's exactly the case with water that has been used by human beings. Once it has been made "well" again, then it is safe for people to encounter. "Waste" suggests that a thing goes away, but water doesn't do that -- whether in the White House in the 1800s or in Turkey or Syria today, unwell water finds its way back to people's mouths. ■ All water is recycled, and forever will be. Once we acknowledge that fact, it becomes imperative to think of it not as something that goes to waste or that retreats back to nature, but as something to be healed for our own human health. And once you start to think in those terms, then $2.4 billion in spending (or about $7 per American) seems like very little indeed. We may not agree on how to value "the environment", but surely our health is worth more.


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February 26, 2023

The United States of America Kids these days

In 1991, 42% of high school students had been in a physical fight in the preceding 12 months. That number decreased a bit, but was still above 35% by the end of the 1990s. By 2019, the figure had fallen dramatically -- all the way down to 21.9%. ■ Any reasonable person should be perfectly happy to see that number fade to zero. The decline in fighting is a cultural improvement and a clearly self-evident good. There are better ways to solve the petty disputes of adolescence than by engaging in fistfights. ■ But no small number of people have been on the receiving end of bullying or schoolyard aggression and have consequently been motivated to study one of the many available arts of self-defense. ■ In adulthood, everyone with self-defense training and a sense of decency is (almost certainly) a net asset to the society around them. The ability to apply just and necessary force to protect one's self or others from harm is an important one to cultivate. ■ Ideally, people would be motivated to undertake those studies without the world forcing the issue. But self-defense is a lot like donating blood: Many people get into it because they've been exposed to a crisis of some sort. They learn first-hand that they can do something to keep from feeling helpless. ■ So how do we motivate people to do the work required to learn how to defend themselves and others if the risk doesn't seem real? In general, it's great if there isn't as much casual fighting going on in high schools as there was a generation ago -- but the adult world is still often dangerous. Violent crime in general is, like teenage fighting, down by something like half since the early 1990s, but it's still not at zero. There is still considerable value in knowing how to fight back. ■ More consequentially, we need to ask: How do we ingrain in young people a sense that force, strength, and power have to be coupled to duty and responsibility? And how do we ensure that they learn that sometimes duty calls for using force in a just and responsible manner? ■ If these things aren't taught together, we risk ending up with a world where people overreact to perceived threats and panic because they haven't been indoctrinated in the principles of proportional response and don't feel equipped to protect themselves. ■ It's indisputably good to see routine schoolyard fighting becoming much less routine. But when part of the culture changes for the better while other problems remain, it calls for a conscious approach to ensuring that important lessons don't get lost along the way.

Threats and Hazards Ukraine's ministry of defense says 147,470 Russian soldiers have been killed

If there really have been 147,000 deaths among Russian soldiers, that's more than one fatality for every 1,000 people. No matter how tightly a government controls the flow of news, it gets hard to hide losses that significant.

Broadcasting The spoken word is alive and well

US listeners increased their podcast downloading by 20% in 2022, per a report from a digital-marketing firm. Those who listen give podcasts almost four hours of their time every week, which may not seem like a lot at first -- but it's listening that goes directly into the ear (usually through an earbud) and is almost always intentional. There's a lot of value in that kind of encounter with an audience.

Weather and Disasters Watch the birth of a tornado

(Video) Harrowing to watch, but it contains great examples of both horizontal rainfall and a nighttime tornado from a very, very short distance away. The scientists knew things could turn bad in Oklahoma City -- probabilities for damaging winds were even higher than for the December 2021 derecho that hit Iowa.

Humor and Good News Peter Max on everything

A small selection of inexplicably-branded products from the 1970s serves to reinforce a good rule in life: If you find yourself at the crest of a pop-culture wave, SELL OUT. Peter Max, the artist, is still alive -- but his work isn't being used to sell antiperspirant, bras, or sneakers anymore.


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February 27, 2023

Weather and Disasters Storm surveyors need to show discretion

The proliferation of high-quality drones and the insatiable demand for new video content have converged in a way that may sometimes encourage people to intrude on lives disrupted by severe storms in ways that weren't possible in the past and aren't really decent now. Drone operators ought to consider the possibility that, if someone's house was damaged by a storm and valuables were subsequently taken from the premises, they might well have a case against anyone who published video of the exposed property (if at an identifiable level) as an aider and abettor to theft. ■ Particularly since it's so easy to reward content creation via "tip jars" and other methods offering ways of covering tracks, the distinct possibility exists that some bad actors are out there already recording the consequences of storm damage in ways that could reveal the existence of valuable property in exchange for payment. Whether it's happening already or not, it isn't hard to imagine. ■ Even conventional, legitimate news coverage of storm damage is offered in uncomfortably high definition, and when conducted from the sky (rather than on the ground, with the express permission of the property owner), it can tread dangerously into the territory that looks like scoping the neighborhood. ■ Something of our better judgment and discretion ought to pull us back from the full scope of the possibilities offered by technology, to say that just because we can show the impact of a disaster in granular detail doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do. ■ It is important to discuss the full range of consequences following a natural disaster, in terms of both life and property. But just as some worthy thought has been put into researching how best to communicate the risk of storms before they arrive (taking into account how the public responds to official messaging), so too should social science be brought to bear on how we communicate the consequences of natural disasters. ■ It's worthwhile to elicit empathy for those affected, and to enlighten the public so that they can appreciate the consequences as conscientious taxpayers and thoughtful voters. But disaster voyeurism purely for its own sake as an instrument of shock isn't good for anyone.

Business and Finance Better Business Bureau doesn't like funny beer ads

A self-appointed advocacy group within the BBB says Miller Lite shouldn't compare its rivals to water. The ad is funny and it's pretty uptight to claim otherwise.

Humor and Good News A pregnancy announcement for the ages

(Video) The very funny Julie Nolke reveals a real-life pregnancy in a sketch where she visits with her reflection in the mirror. It's quite charming, really.

Humor and Good News The spork

The spork is the El Camino of utensils. It doesn't know which of two completely different things it wants to be, so it just gives up and does a bad job of both, while generally scaring small children in the process.


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