Gongol.com Archives: March 2023
March 2, 2023
After he recorded and published an appalling rant filled with racist sentiments, a well-known cartoonist has found himself dropped from newspaper pages nationwide and cancelled by his syndicate. While these are appropriate consequences for his actions, they raise another problem to the surface. ■ As newspapers have contracted (both physically and in staff counts), daily editorials have begun to vanish. Gannett has made that a policy. Lee Enterprises has consolidated some days of the week. Even the New York Times has begun editorializing only once every few days. ■ There was a time when even local television and radio stations broadcast their own institutional editorials. That hardly happens at all anymore. And it's a shame, because institutions -- especially the ones that describe the world for their audiences -- ought to be consistent and transparent about where their values stand. ■ An institution always has values, whether they are made explicit or not. They're unavoidably embedded in the decision-making process. Better to be clear about them than not. And far better to be clear long in advance of a crisis created by someone associated with the institution -- like a cartoonist on a pathetic rant. ■ Values evolve over time. That's OK, but part of the continuity of any institution is bound up in explaining what changed: The facts? The interpretations? The whims of ownership? The social habits of the editor-in-chief? Was the old reasoning faulty, or was it simply limited by the prevailing conditions of the time? ■ Newspaper readers (and indeed all media audiences) deserve to be advised of changing values and opinions, especially since they invariably influence coverage. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise: Limited resources put constraints on coverage, and navigating those constraints is an act driven by judgment and values. ■ Frequent editorials also help to make clear whether news coverage is active or reactive. Are the editors trying to see around corners, or are they just waiting to respond to whatever events they cannot avoid? Better the former than the latter. Had some been looking more carefully, they might have realized sooner that one of their syndicated cartoonists had long been playing with fire. ■ It's good to see institutional responses that expel racism. That's good riddance. But this incident reveals why it's important to hear from the editors all of the time, not just in the event that their hands are forced by the need to cut ties with a prominent bad actor. Consequences like those should be obvious because the values driving the decisions should be obvious as well. ■ The landscape for jobs in conventional media remains awful, and that means some people -- perhaps many -- will be let go without any regard for their performance, whether in print, on the air, or online. The choices that drive who stays and who goes are also inevitably driven by values, and those ought to be made explicit, too. Sometimes, those will involve what might be called "bad riddance" -- choices made against expected values. The fewer of the choices to cut ties come as surprises -- whether for good cause or not -- the better.
March 3, 2023
The words are spicy, but the observation is accurate: "We used to think Russia was the second-best military in the world, and now it's not even the best military in the former Soviet Union." Dr. Kori Schake, who directs the foreign policy branch of the American Enterprise Institute, not only has a way with words; she has a way of seeing the principled order of things. And that order in the eastern half of Europe is changing. ■ In the future, we'll likely regard the period of Russia's terrible war on Ukraine as the turning point when the other Slavic nations decisively divorced themselves, both politically and culturally, from the Russian branch of the broader Slavic identity. In the process, we will someday see this as the turning point when those nations asserted a real, long-denied equality as Europeans. ■ It's obvious how the war is changing Ukraine itself. But it's not merely a political assertion of its right to exist, it's a cultural one. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was raised at a time when the Soviet Union imposed the Russian language on Ukraine, now refuses to treat it as a primary language of his own. ■ Observers note this as Ukraine's "consolidation" as a "civic nation". And The Economist headlines it, "making Ukraine a Western country". ■ But it's not just Ukraine; it's what the rest of the Slavic world sees, and what the world beyond acknowledges. Throughout the Soviet era, the other nations of Eastern Europe were widely ignored, underappreciated, or disrespected. The USSR looked dreary, and it was too easy to assume faults in those countries that were not indigenous to them. They were involuntarily yoked with a bad system, not inherently backwards. ■ As Ukraine's identity is being reassessed, so too are others. Moldova is rejecting Soviet-era impositions on its language. The Czechs just elected a vocally pro-European Atlanticist as president. Poland has been leading Europe's response from the front. ■ Political independence for these countries may have happened on paper a generation ago, but now they are staking claims to cultural and historical identities long denied not just by Russian imposition, but by disinterest or neglect by the rest of the world. The changes are big and they are noteworthy. And the world more generally will be better off for them.
Japan doubles its official island count
14,125 is the new official total; it was 6,852 before.
What do Iowa and New Mexico have in common?
Possibly their largest non-profit health systems. UnityPoint Health and Presbyterian Healthcare Services say they may merge.
(Video) A police chase in Minneapolis ends up with a car going over a bridge railing
Soft socialism meets machine washability
ABBA wore wild costumes because that was the only way to deduct the clothing from their taxes
March 4, 2023
Some people argue with such unapologetic bad faith and on behalf of such outrageously bad ideas that it seems more satisfying to dismiss them out-of-hand than to rise to the argument. But, for as viscerally satisfying as it may be to point and laugh at those we think are making fools of themselves, every good thing worth keeping deserves to be defended on its merits. ■ In the case of the rancorous and disingenuous notion of dividing the United States, it seems almost ridiculous to try to meet the question on the merits. But we cannot avoid the fact that a sitting member of Congress is openly advocating a split, and even if her attitude is treasonous, the idea of union among the American States is important enough that it deserves to be won on its merits. ■ "Union Forever" isn't merely an echo from Lincoln's time. It is no small triumph that a nation of more than 330 million people has been perpetuated and grown to act as a gigantic free trade zone, with freedom of movement across an entire continental nation. ■ That's truly an extraordinary achievement in human history. And its growth has been overwhelmingly organic -- say what you will about the motivations behind the Louisiana Purchase, the purchase of Alaska, or the annexation of Texas, but most of what is recognized as the United States today wasn't brought in by force. ■ And what has been joined into union has become extraordinarily peaceful and productive. The time, the effort, and the negotiations required to achieve even bilateral free trade agreements between countries or even a minimal amount of freedom of movement is really quite extraordinary. It took the European Union enormous effort to develop the Schengen Area, despite peace and common interest. ■ For the United States to have achieved freedom of movement and freedom of trade among one out of every 25 people alive on the planet, merely by the organic maintenance of the Constitutional rule of law, is really extraordinary. ■ To undervalue those freedoms is to make a colossal misjudgment about the value of human organization. Freedom of exchange and freedom of movement are landmark achievements in the course of human history. They make the people who engage in them better off. ■ To be able and pick up and move because of job availability, or to move away from chronic natural disasters, or to to take advantage of attractive laws or incentives, or merely to "start over", is the kind of thing that people dream about in many other parts of the world even today. And in the course of human history, to take that kind of freedom for granted is an act of ignorance and ingratitude. ■ People have chosen the United States to escape famine, to escape oppression, and for countless other reasons. ■ But once here, they have been free to move about, to specialize in any of our considerable economic sectors, and to live generally in peace and mutual tolerance. Our many advantages as a country would fall apart, even if we split into parts that could work amicably with one another. Free-trade agreements are nice, but it's better for California and North Carolina to be able to trade without needing any treaties at all. ■ Part of a democratic system of government is that none of us gets everything we want, especially not at the national level. But anyone who fails to see the advantage in accepting a few political policy inconveniences in exchange for the much broader power of those freedoms is simply being unserious about the value of union. Union has been achieved peacefully so few times and in so few cases throughout history that it should be self-evident that the only sensible thing to do is to maintain and cultivate it. To be so fortunate and to take that good fortune for granted is a disposition that doesn't make any sense. Union forever, indeed.
March 5, 2023
It comes as no surprise that a politician known for his lowbrow instincts is workshopping denigrating nicknames for his opponents as the 2024 Presidential cycle approaches. But there is a lesson to be learned from the recent past: It is absolutely not necessary to repeat the denigrations in order to report on the subject. ■ This reminder should be taped to every journalist's laptop and locked on every one of their smartphone screens: Every time you repeat a nasty nickname or a disingenuous turn of phrase -- even if you think you're merely mocking the nastiness yourself -- you're granting it a tiny little sliver of legitimacy. You don't have to do that. You really don't. ■ It's not just a lesson for journalists and commentators, of course. If the "social" part of "social media" means anything, then it is by every small act of engagement that ordinary users confer their own legitimacy on what is being said. And we can withhold that legitimacy by choosing not to take part. ■ Politics in America has always been something of a full-contact sport. Partisans on Thomas Jefferson's side in the 1800 Presidential campaign blasted John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." It's always been rough-and-tumble. ■ But it takes a certain kind of laziness to merely transcribe insults and call it journalism. Quoting the insult legitimizes it. When a child calls another "Fatso" or "Dummy" on the playground, no competent teacher repeats the insult unless expressly necessary. ■ The central fact of an insult is what it says about the party expressing it. And if the only idea a person has available to express is a cartoonish insult, then they don't really have anything to say that is worth reporting.
March 7, 2023
The quality of severe-weather forecasting in the United States really doesn't get the widespread credit it deserves, at least not yet. Too many people, perhaps still recalling the days not that long ago when those forecasts were decidedly low-resolution, still complain about weather forecasting as though it remains little more than guesswork. ■ But the proof to the contrary can be found by tracking the evolution of forecasts around several recent severe outbreaks. Maps four days ahead of the March 2nd storms in Texas gave a very good picture of the risk with literally days' worth of time to prepare. Other outbreaks have been similarly well-predicted. The combination of accuracy with precision has literally life-saving power. ■ What's perhaps paradoxical about the improvement in weather forecasting is that it has not been matched by improvements in other kinds of mathematical forecasts. The best forecast we can get from the Federal Reserve about the economy right now is language like "likely to be bumpy". Economic forecasting comes with enormous consequences -- many times similar to those of weather forecasting -- but despite the excessive confidence often on display, the forecasts are often wildly wrong. ■ That's likely to remain the case for quite some time, too. Models of physical phenomena (like the weather) can be improved with time and computing power. Much less can be done to improve models about things like human behavior -- which, after all, is what any economy is all about. ■ So, while we should celebrate the growing usefulness of weather forecasts (and take them increasingly seriously as they improve), we also need to apply a great deal of humility to our forecasts about human behavior, whether economic or otherwise. Anyone confidently predicting anything macroeconomic, from "recession warnings" to near-term booms, ought to be kept at arm's length.
March 8, 2023
A society does itself no good when it accepts behavioral pathologies as the cost of doing business to get extraordinary performance. That much really should seem self-evident, but contrary examples just pile themselves higher and higher. Whether it's the performing artist with 50 years' worth of prison sentences to serve for crimes against children and other offenses, the billionaire who impulsively feuds with and mocks employees, or the losing politician who salves his wounded ego by selling "retribution" as his brand, we make a giant cultural mistake in elevating people who are guided by their worst impulses. ■ Becoming a decent adult requires effort, yet virtually everyone is capable of rising to the standard. Regrettably, though, some people leverage their shortcomings into perverse advantages; take, for instance, the political liberation that comes with adopting an attitude of shamelessness. People remark about the apparent superpower of shamelessness, but decent people seem ill-equipped to put that pathological behavior back in its place. ■ If someone isn't well-adjusted by the time they reach adulthood, the rest of us don't need to amplify anything they say or do. That's the only effective way to respond. Isolation, silence, starvation of attention -- those are the reactions that serve to put pathological behavior in its place. ■ It can be hard to do, of course. Social media in particular encourages the frequent exercise of the outrage impulse. But the notion of enlarging the gap between stimulus and response is a mighty one for cultivating better behavior. Most animals don't connect events that happen far apart; if you want to punish a dog for stealing a steak off the dinner table, you might swat him on the nose immediately. It would be cruel to delay the punishment and impose it when the animal has no hope of making the connection. ■ But people can choose to wait and to execute on their feelings later on. As Warren Buffett so sensibly puts it, "You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow". It's advice that too many people in high-profile situations still need to learn for themselves. But it's also advice that ought to guide how we -- as a society -- respond to those individuals who refuse to grow into being well-adjusted adults.
March 10, 2023
One of the true and unvarnished joys in life is to teach another person -- or a group of people -- and to have at least one of them acknowledge that you have managed to solve a problem for them. Classroom teachers get that experience when graduates visit them to say "Thanks". Workplace trainers and presenters get it when someone comes up after a session to say, "I was just dealing with that thing you described". Others get it from having their explanations liked or shared by others on social media. ■ Maybe we should be grateful more often that as human beings, we have an extraordinary capacity to help solve one another's problems. Collaboration itself towards a worthy goal is often quite intrinsically satisfying, and often the greatest satisfaction comes about when there is no remuneration involved. Normal, well-adjusted people often happily stop to give directions to strangers who look lost, or take time out to explain a smarter or safer way to complete a task someone obviously has underway, or write out an online product review without compensation. ■ It has been noted that some of the things that are easiest for computers are hardest for people, and vice-versa. People share memes without a second thought, yet a 2021 paper concluded that "comprehending memes is indeed a challenging task, and hence a major limitation of AI". ■ Perhaps these few ideas which computer science will probably never be able to solve are the very things that will act someday as the kinds of "kill switches" we could need someday to rein in an artificial intelligence tool that has gone rogue. Computers may be able to answer many questions, but it's not credible to believe they can be made to "feel" a sense of satisfaction from solving problems for people. ■ It is widely believed we are living through an unusually epic moment of technological change, but the evidence remains scant that we've truly covered all the bases when pondering the consequences when -- not "if", regrettably -- things go wrong. It may be satisfying to realize that there are some means of communicating and some motivations for working together that are likely to always elude even the "smartest" of artificial general intelligence. In the end, it may be those peculiarities of human existence that save us.
March 11, 2023
The arrival of a dreadful airborne pandemic forced countless abrupt changes on society. Some, like the vastly increased accommodation for those who want to work from home, have even ended up as positive outcomes. But for the most part, the changes we made were forced on us rather than deliberate. ■ We ought to take the chance, while people are taking a more conscious approach to their social commitments, to reboot the American dinner party as an institution. It seems evident that the classic events reflected some of the status aspirations of a rising middle class out to consume conspicuously. Mistakes were made along the way. ■ This time around, we ought to look to common dining as a way to enhance community-building. Maybe we need an annual holiday set aside for the practice. It's credible to assume that on a civic level, we're going to need the same kinds of systemic habits and behaviors that may not be able to completely curtail the worst things that can happen in a democracy, but that can make us a little more resilient in the face of challenges. ■ Making conscious efforts to strengthen our bonds with old friends while planting the seeds for new bonds with others seems to be one way to reverse the decline in social trust that has been lamented from so many sides for so long.
March 12, 2023
Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than you imagine. It's a prudent guideline to keep in mind, whether you're unexpectedly stuck in a pandemic or staring down the barrel of a bank collapse. ■ As a matter of prudence, it makes sense to maintain a cheerful outlook while simultaneously observing the Scout Motto: Be prepared. Unfortunately, though, material wealth and social esteem don't always flow in those directions, which is why a small universe of tech-bros, "founders", venture capitalists, and associated folks rack up high audience counts while boasting about themselves through social media. ■ One, for example, has taken to Twitter to announce that he was alerted to panic about Silicon Valley Bank "in one chat with 200+ tech founders". Putting aside how self-important and nauseating that supposed chat certainly must be, it's quite the extraordinary act to implicate one's self in initiating a bank run based upon a rumor mill of dodgy legal status. ■ No banking-related panic is good for society. But perhaps it's also worth observing that narrowly-focused priesthoods can easily get themselves into trouble when they overestimate their capacities. (And make no mistake: There are lots of priesthoods that have nothing to do with religion.) ■ Having one high-demand skill (like coding) or landing some hits in a high-risk market (like venture capital) isn't the same as having high general intelligence. Unfortunately, social reinforcement mechanisms tend to tell successful people otherwise, which is why it's easy to find "angel investors" type-screaming "You're uninformed!" at online passersby and "venture capitalists" trying to cram for "Banking 101". ■ When things go bad in banking, they can go bad in a hurry. That's self-evidently why the FDIC is taking extreme measures. But the consequences will go far beyond deposit insurance limits and also should certainly involve some moral reassessment of people who have made bad choices out of hubris. ■ It's a bad idea for any considerable number of people to choose heroes based upon their willingness to trumpet their own victories and take credit for skill when dealing in matters where luck can and often does prevail. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "As pride increases, fortune declines." ■ Luck isn't everything, but those who mistake their good luck for a superabundance of personal skill are unlikely to be prepared for those moments when luck turns south. And that can happen much faster than people can imagine.
March 13, 2023
Good investing, bad television
Most people don't know very much about investing in general, or about stock valuations in particular. It's widely perceived to be one of those subjects that is "too hard", even though it really isn't. The perception is largely a problem of conflicting incentives: Those who understand the material often have vested interests in making it look hard. ■ Fortunately, the material itself isn't as hard as many of its purveyors make it out to be. And more significantly, success is often far more a product of well-regulated emotions than of raw intelligence. Warren Buffett laid it out quite plainly when he wrote of the "Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville" nearly 40 years ago, and yet his lessons collected then are of scarcely any greater popularity today than they were when Ronald Reagan was President. ■ Unfortunately for many, the truly valuable lessons seem too boring, so instead they turn to where the action and excitement appear to be. And one of those places is on television, where people like Jim Cramer make loud noises surrogating for investing advice. Unfortunately, people take his advice -- like a recent recommendation to buy the stock of the banking company that was taken over by the FDIC over the weekend. ■ Taking advice on investing from the showmen on television is like watching "SportsCenter" to learn about health and fitness. It's just a bunch of action shots, with little or no relationship to the actual discipline required behind the scenes. ■ Conditions would be vastly better across the board if more people fundamentally understood that the basic enduring lessons of investing aren't especially complicated, that success is largely a matter of patience and risk endurance, and that the best formulas for investing success are almost excruciatingly boring. ■ Good financial advice generally makes for bad television. Louis Rukeyser knew how to deliver it right, but he was a rare talent, and even then, his style was cut loose by PBS two decades ago. But it would do us a lot of good to realize that excitement ought to be chased in places where the stakes are low -- like on the baseball diamond -- and not in the retirement plans of ordinary Americans.
March 16, 2023
The Sergeant Major of the Army has relayed a veteran's story of being rescued from mortal danger by a helicopter pilot who went above and beyond the call of duty -- by firing a personal weapon out the open door of the aircraft after exhausting the rest of her ammunition. ■ The pilot's pronoun, of course, is what makes some people angry. There remain lots of armchair generals who think that large ranges of people should be excluded from lots of military service, including combat roles. They are often from the same realms as those who fantasize about the purported masculine superiority of the Russian army or who complain about even the most modest steps to promote inclusion among the profession of arms. ■ There is little defense for the exclusionary position. Vignettes like the helicopter pilot with alternative weaponry should alone be enough to dismiss categorical arguments for keeping all but the "manly men" out of the military. But so should a basic resort to logic: Even if all that mattered were brute hand-to-hand combat, sheer muscle size and masculinity wouldn't be enough. ■ There are lots of diminuitive martial artists who could neutralize people much larger than themselves, merely by using smarter techniques. And modern warfare is really no different, in the sense that it's only quite rarely a matter of raw physical strength. It's far more about finding creative, smart, and imaginative people who can solve problems in clever ways, rather than in those that are most costly. And any force that would exclude half its potential brains by prohibiting women would be insane.
March 17, 2023
Once a year, Americans from all walks of life take a day to celebrate a day made famous by the Irish immigrants who made a particularly large impact on the culture of the country with their arrival in the second half of the 19th Century. For one day, Irish (and particularly Irish-American) culture is celebrated -- with enthusiasm, even if without much authenticity. ■ Perhaps a purist could get uptight about labeling the behavior a form of cultural appropriation, but much of the effect of the day is a consequence of the ways in which Irish immigrants assimilated (incompletely) into American society. ■ But behind the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons and somewhere beyond the green-tinted beer, the thoughtful observer could pinpoint at least a few legitimate cultural touchstones worth a nod: The celebration of gathering with friends for its own sake (craic), of great storytelling (a tradition from a homeland and a culture that punch far above their weight in the world of literature), and of bringing cheer through song and dance, parades and fundraisers for charitable causes. ■ The Irish tradition gets a second look in America in a way that other cultures don't. Columbus Day has been dealt an uncomfortable reckoning, Oktoberfest is celebrated only sporadically, and there really aren't any widely-acknowledged holidays imported from Russia, Japan, India, South Africa, England, or Egypt. Maybe that's a mistake. ■ No culture gets everything right, but it's also fair to assume that every culture gets at least one or two things right. (That's one of the basic conclusions one naturally reaches if one assumes that at least some traditions survive from generation to generation because they've proven themselves useful each time before being passed along.) ■ A reasonably open-minded person ought to reach the conclusion that there is payoff in studying lots of different cultures to see what good ideas can be gleaned from each. One doesn't have to live by other Danish principles to take a few good lessons from hygge, for instance. ■ Perhaps the lesson to be taken from St. Patrick's Day in America is that it is possible (and probably even prudent) to intellectually tour the cultures of many countries, after having spent at least a couple of years forming adult opinions about how to live -- but before too much of a lifetime has elapsed for one to be comfortable with making changes.
March 18, 2023
Leaving some of it on the field
From University of Zurich economics professor Dina Pomeranz comes this sage advice to academics: "Don't do anything in the process of trying to get tenure that you would regret if you don't get tenure." It's advice equally applicable to any other career field, and to non-career pursuits as well. Just replace "tenure" with whatever it happens to be that you are pursuing. ■ Incentives are often misaligned in the lessons society teaches youth. Quite frequently, we offer young people tournaments and competitions in which only one participant or team emerges as the winner. Phrases like "leave it all on the field" are used uncritically, and the word "champion" is invested with such wonder and awe that it could easily seem to the impressionable young mind that all of life consists of zero-sum games in which going to extremes in pursuit of victory is just what rational actors do. ■ In reality, most "games" in life are not zero-sum. They are often long-running, open-ended, or collaborative instead of competitive. Training people to see the flaws in the "no pain, no gain" attitude starts young, and it's vital to forming adults who value balance appropriately. ■ Should everyone accept some struggle in life? Absolutely: Struggle is often the price of things worth having. ■ Should anyone compromise their integral self in the hope of an uncertain payoff? The answer should far more readily be "no". ■ Gaining outcomes at a cost of health, conscience, or loving relationships ought to be avoided. It's no small matter to know that life is precious and too often short, so living well along the way is essential. Moreover, life has to be lived in totality; every part has a season, to be sure, and within those seasons, different priorities prevail. ■ But of the big aspects to a well-rounded life -- like family, productive work, learning, wellness, creativity, and recreation -- there are rarely times when it's appropriate to shut down any one of them altogether. The single-minded pursuit of any outcome can raise the dangerous temptation to let only one of those matter at the cost of the others. It's best to avoid that temptation.
March 19, 2023
Social media has turned out to be very good for periodic one-to-many communications. There's no better way to keep up on the occasional life updates, job changes, and vacation travelogues of past co-workers, old classmates, and other arm's-length acquaintances than to follow one another on social media. ■ Group chats, meanwhile, have been excellent for ongoing conversations among small bands of friends. Their value is revealed indirectly by the strong feelings iPhone users have about Android users trying to join their group texts. ■ Considering the social enhancements wrought by these technologies, it's too bad there hasn't been a development that enhances slow but ongoing one-to-one conversations. If you call or text a friend after a gap in time, the conversation too easily becomes a catch-up visit. The conversation sounds like a highlight reel, and promises are made that "We should visit/get together soon" or "Let's catch up sooner next time", but there's always a finality to the end of the conversation -- even if it's the classic Midwestern, "I'd better let you go". ■ The beauty of a group chat is in how it binds together a group of people with low individual effort, but with high returns to everyone. The participants are part of something together, but no individual has to carry the weight. And it is naturally open-ended; nobody closes the conversation, as it simply rolls over, unconscious of any terminal constraints. ■ But plenty of people have friendships that emerged organically between two people (or among three at most) -- too small for a true group chat, yet no less worth sustaining. Those unique one-to-one friendships came about for a reason, but the communication technologies of the modern world doesn't favor them. That's especially the case for tools like instant messenger chats that alert all parties when the others are online. ■ When a conversation reaches a natural break point, does someone need to acknowledge that with an "End of transmission" message? If no one acknowledges the break specifically, isn't it a bit like putting a telephone call on hold and never returning? ■ Maybe there is (or, rather, ought to be) a technological solution for that -- like a social media tool that only permits the user to send a short message to the other person once every two, three, or four days. Just enough to keep the parties engaged in ongoing conversation rather than sporadic information dumps on one other, but not so much as to make the maintenance of that friendship appear like a burden. ■ Lots of people do have those standalone friendships, and they're worth sustaining. In the past, those might have been sustained by occasional letters (which, by their nature, took time to transmit, thus naturally slowing the exchange to a manageable pace) or perhaps for a while by telegrams (in which brevity was enforced by economic imperative). ■ As Benjamin Franklin advised, "Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing." But no friendship endures without at least a little care and attention. Considering the amount of value imparted to the other friendship types by other technological tools, there ought to be room for a tool to facilitate "metered chat" between friends who see value in remaining in unforced -- and unimposing -- contact with one another.
March 20, 2023
Calvin Coolidge rose to national prominence with his emphatic law-and-order response to a Boston police strike when he was governor of Massachusetts. The event produced one of his most famous quotations: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." As vice president, Coolidge was second to a President who famously turned a blind eye to scandalous corruption in his own Cabinet -- but he was himself sheltered by a reputation for probity. ■ Coolidge was a partisan poitician, of course, but his brand was in no small part attitudinal. His icy view of corruption and wrongdoing by public officials -- bordering on preachy, even -- was part of his appeal. ■ In his autobiography, he wrote, "When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man [...] What we need in appointive positions is men of knowledge and experience who have sufficient character to resist temptations." ■ We are often sold on how to vote because of policies, but the deeper truth is that most of what we really get, especially in executive office, is character and orientation. Policy agendas matter, of course, but they are largely predictable. The most important things that happen, though, are often matters of surprise: Armed conflicts, natural disasters, financial panics, disease outbreaks. Things that cannot be predicted, but only answered on the fly, using limited information and the best available judgment. ■ There must be some kind of demand for a Coolidge-like attitude today: Not for slick charm or magnetic personality, nor for expansive promises, but for high standards of character and a fierce intolerance for wrongdoing. "Bad men" (and women) should be shown the door without hesitation.
March 22, 2023
Suppose you're driving at night on a rural Interstate highway where the posted speed limit is 70 mph and you encounter some patchy fog, modestly limiting your visibility. The prudent thing to do, typically, would be to ease off the gas and drive at perhaps 60 mph, or whatever your headlights will adequately illuminate. ■ But if another vehicle comes along and is traveling at a consistent speed of 70 mph, it might actually be safer to follow their tail lights (at a distance accounting generously for braking) at the higher speed than to go it alone at a lower one. As long as you're at no meaningful risk of rear-ending the lead car, then following them transfers to the other driver the risk of hitting something obscured by the fog and offers you a comparatively high degree of confidence that nothing new entered the lane in the few seconds between you. ■ Traveling faster may be objectively more dangerous for a vehicle traveling alone or in the lead, but it might be relatively safer for a vehicle following at a prudent distance if it offers the trailing motorist the assurance that the path ahead has been "cleared" by the vehicle ahead. Risk can be a vexing subject, in no small part because it can offer different answers whether judged objectively or relatively. But quite often, it is also dynamic -- changing as its contributing factors change. ■ Few skills are as important to learn as the ability to calibrate and re-calibrate risk. Risk mis-assessment is one of the reasons banks fail, among many other pertinent effects. ■ And yet it is not at all obvious where people are supposed to learn the skill of calibrating risks in school. Is it a branch of mathematics? Of science? Of social studies? There isn't a clear answer. ■ Nonetheless, it is obvious that too few people really grasp its importance. Every commercial flight begins with a three-minute safety briefing that frequent fliers could deliver by heart, even though modern commercial aviation is indisputably the safest form of mass travel ever invented. Yet 40,000 people will die in American road crashes this year, and because of the base rate fallacy, the public will scarcely take notice. Countless other examples could be raised. ■ Getting Americans comfortable with calibrating risk as a matter of routine behavior would be a massive net positive for society. And if one generation of parents is poorly-prepared to train their children, then somewhere, somehow, that training needs to be institutionalized. The great question is: How and by whom will the next generation be trained?
March 23, 2023
It has, for a while, been impossible for a reasonably engaged American to have missed news about China. Whether the issue has to do with trade, Covid-19, human-rights abuses, the prospect of future conflict, or even the stakes involved with TikTok, China is plastered right across the headlines. To a degree, the coverage is both warranted and useful. China is, after all, home to about one in every six people alive. ■ Conflict naturally sparks coverage. So does size. But it shouldn't take flaring tensions for a country to attract attention. ■ Allies and potential allies call for attention, too. One of the ways the world is shaped is through engagement, and engagement depends upon awareness -- just as "It's hard to be what you can't see", it's hard to assign value to things not readily discussed. That's what makes it almost scandalous how little coverage of India breaks through to American audiences. ■ Besides being on the cusp of overtaking China in population, India is the world's largest democracy, a fast-growing economy, and a major center for technology. It's also of substantial importance as a defense partner. ■ Even reputation-sensitive news organizations like the New York Times cover relatively little about the country, resulting in a bland diet of coverage about the country generally confined to broad-brushstroke analyses about high-level politics and predictable stories of environmental trouble. This, despite increasing US efforts to cultivate military cooperation and India's emerging status as an economy of indisputable consequence. ■ It has been two years since the United States had an appointed, confirmed ambassador to India. Symbolically, at least, that does not speak well of our national consideration about such an important relationship. Awareness shouldn't wax and wane opportunistically. Adversaries demand our attention, but courting better relationships with prospective allies is a long-term effort that calls for sustained dedication.
March 25, 2023
Doomsday believers forget that most people want to help
A person who assumes that other people are up to no good will never find themselves entirely without evidence. Either they will encounter someone who really is out to do wrong (as will all of us, unfortunately, from time to time) or they will find ways to interpret the innocuous behavior of others in the most nefarious light. Either way, the person who chooses the unflattering view of humanity will usually find reasons to stick with it. ■ But it's an unsound approach to the facts. There are antisocial individuals among us and there always have been, but humanity never would have lasted as long as it has without a strong collaborative streak. We're good at many tasks as individuals, but we really shine at team efforts. Michael Jordan was a sublime basketball talent, but he was better when surrounded by the Dream Team. ■ The most basic understanding of market-based economics is founded upon the understanding that we don't have to like one another to benefit nonetheless from getting along. Team-building wouldn't be a lucrative industry if the dynamics of cooperation didn't matter. ■ Despite all this, the default assumption of any kind of doomsday orientation is to assume that society will collapse and people will resort to violent anarchy. From "Mad Max" to the feverish forecasts of climate apocalypse, people often assume that civilization will break down and violence, scarcity, and conflict will be the result of any bad thing taken to its farthest ends. ■ All too often, doomsayers overlook the fact that humans have a very strong instinct to try to work together. It doesn't mean we always do the right thing, nor that we do it as soon as would be optimal. But faced with disasters, we usually band together instead of collapsing. ■ A passerby rescues a woman trapped in a flash flood. A pizza delivery driver runs into a burning house to save five children. Rescue workers go door-to-door to check on tornado survivors. ■ That's how almost all human beings are wired: To work together. In fact, we're probably inclined to work together even more when faced with calamities than we are in day-to-day life. Urgent situations bring out the best in human behavior, and those who don't rise to the call -- the ones who run away from an opportunity to help, or who take advantage of others when they are in distress -- are the deviants. ■ We shouldn't run from challenges, nor should we abandon hope when things look bleak. And above all, we should remember that, like the radio operator on the Titanic who stayed at his post until the ship went down, most of us would rather be known for working with and helping others than for anything else. The doomsday believers of all stripes ought to take note.
March 26, 2023
Safe shipping on the high seas
In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton revealed thoughts on America as a maritime nation: "If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons." ■ It may seem like a fait accompli by now that the United States should have the world's greatest navy, but that wasn't always the case. It really wasn't until World War II that the US took the mantle of naval supremacy. Nor is it adequate to assume that American dominance of the seas is a "forever" condition. ■ If we take Hamilton's ideas seriously, then the purpose of a great navy isn't confined to simple projection of power, though a navy is especially useful for that purpose -- especially one equipped with the world's preeminent collection of aircraft carrier groups. It's hard to find a place outside the reach of American carrier groups. ■ But Hamilton explicitly tied the navy to the protection of seafaring commerce. The literal bulk of international trade floats aboard ships, and in the last World War, the largest number of ships (other than small craft) built were the Liberty and Victory classes of cargo ships. Keeping supplies from being sunk by enemy warships was a critical naval mission. ■ A great deal of intellectual firepower is lining up behind arguments to modernize and scale up the American fleet. An ambitious scale-up would likely be appropriate in light of current events. But we also ought to consider adjuncts to the big ships that are expensive and hard to build. ■ In terms of sheer numerical projection, perhaps America ought to consider a program to build small, remotely-controlled submersible or semi-submersible vessels that could be used as lightly-armed escorts for cargo ships. If built at the right size -- say, just shy of the 40' length of a standard shipping container -- they could be constructed inland and shipped to the water. And if equipped with a battery-electric propulsion system, they could be operated with minimal requirements for maintenance, since electric motors are vastly simpler, mechanically, than combustion engines. ■ If built on a component-type platform, the same vessels could not only be used for cargo escorts, but also for surveillance, coastal patrolling, and even search and rescue. The main value, though, would come from developing a platform that could be scaled up quickly without overburdening the world's existing shipyards, and that could be deployed without stressing the workforce of the existing navy. ■ There are some 5,500 container ships in the world, and the need to preserve their free passage on the seas has been proven by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as by China's apparent policy of intimidation of other nations' ships on the South China Sea. ■ Thoughtful, pragmatic policies on the sizing and modernization of a full-fledged blue-water navy ought to be developed nonetheless. But as a useful adjunct to those forces, the same kind of technological imagination that has propelled an unmanned aerial progam in the skies ought to be committed to ensuring that the US Navy can project power in big ways while also protecting commerce -- just as Hamilton imagined -- at modest cost.
March 27, 2023
Who will keep the garbage out of the large language models?
Even well-informed people with lots of information resources at their disposal can get things wrong about technology. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, for instance, saw some of the outputs from large language models and declared, "ChatGPT taught itself to do advanced chemistry. It wasn't built into the model. Nobody programmed it to learn complicated chemistry. It decided to teach itself, then made its knowledge available to anyone who asked. Something is coming. We aren't ready." ■ Applause for thinking about the implications of artificial intelligence. But jeers for deeply misunderstanding the technology: It is really important that we approach AI thoughtfully, especially as it will to some extent or another require thoughtful, well-informed regulation -- by people like United States Senators. ■ But artificial intelligence systems (like ChatGPT) are not sentient. Get that part wrong, and there's very little hope of getting the rest right. They are predictive models based upon the information supplied to them as inputs. Much of that information is obtained from the Internet, where lots of useful scientific and technical information can be found. ■ Yet we haven't reconciled ourselves yet with what could end up being a tremendous hazard to these models. We really haven't yet seen the large-scale emergence of audio and video transcripts on the Internet. YouTube has made considerable strides in the direction of automatic captioning, for instance, but there is an enormous volume of audio and video content being produced every day that isn't really being transcribed and made readily available to search engines and language models...yet. ■ That will certainly change. And when it does, transcription content will ultimately be represented disproportionately to its intrinsic value. It's easy to speak at 150 words per minute or faster, but even skilled keyboard users are generally able to type at only about half that speed -- and real, thoughtful composition is even slower. ■ Once the transcription material from Snapchat videos and Facebook Reels and time-filling talk shows makes it into things like large language models, the consequences will be bad. Lots of input sources will be flooded with low-quality content. ■ But the models aren't sentient, so unless the humans who gatekeep their inputs are careful, those models will be contaminated by content that wouldn't pass a Wikipedia test for veracity. Who will see to it that a carefully sourced and edited graduate research thesis means more to the language models than a transcript of whatever nonsense a syndicated bloviator decided to spew on the radio for three hours a day? ■ That doesn't mean the solution requires government regulation. But it does point to just how essential it is that the people who will do the regulating seek to understand what is fundamentally going on. ChatGPT isn't going to "teach itself" anything. But something is indeed coming, and we very well do need to be ready.
March 30, 2023
Now that Turkey has given its consent, all 30 member countries of NATO have ratified Finland's accession to the mutual-defense alliance. Finland's president has thanked them all and promised that his country "will be a strong and capable ally, committed to the security of the alliance". ■ The conditions that precipitated Finland's accession -- to be followed soon by Sweden, it must be hoped -- are terrible ones. It's plainly the case that Russia's attack on Ukraine lit the fire. But the clarity afforded by the moment is useful. ■ Whatever Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apologists might try to say to the contrary, there's only one aggressor in the region. Russia started a war against Ukraine, and sensible parties nearby realized that neutrality was no longer an option. NATO remains a defensive force. ■ Aggressors aren't dissuaded by weakness, indifference, or disarray. They are, however, deterred by evidence that there will be consequences to their actions. We can try to make it more complicated than that, but there's no reason for it. Peace, unfortunately, requires costs and preparations. Dwight Eisenhower advised as much seven decades ago: "[A]s long as there persists a threat to freedom, [free nations] must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war." ■ The reasoning for the enlargement of a defensive alliance like NATO doesn't require a doctoral degree in international relations. Any reasonable adult can examine the evidence and see that voluntary cooperation to mutually deter and repel attack from a belligerent nearby is just that -- a deterrent. May Finland's membership in NATO be the stabilizing, peace-reinforcing move it deserves, and by rights ought, to be.
March 31, 2023
Iowa's second-oldest institution of higher learning will be closing after more than 180 years in operation, following a protracted period of shallow enrollments and deep budget problems. It's an unfortunate turn of events for those who view institutions as being intrinsically valuable; nobody likes to see a college closed down if it can be avoided. ■ But it's also worth noting that the problems of keeping higher-education institutions open isn't about to become easier. There are well-known demographic problems ahead that will challenge many colleges in the very near-term future, not just the small ones. There was a baby bust starting in 2008, and it's now almost 18 years later. ■ There's also a cultural shift that has changed the dynamics of how people value a four-year residential education. Irritation with high debt loads has grown. Certifications are as marketable in some fields as degrees. The trades are paying well. ■ Now would be a very appropriate time for those who haven't done so yet to take a good hard look at alternative and hybrid methods of making colleges and universities both better-priced and more valuable to both prospective students -- and alumni. ■ The life experiences and intangible socialization skills that come from a residential college experience are extremely hard to substitute. College is broadly considered a safe space for young adults to explore their identities and form deep and meaningful friendships. That experience isn't for everyone, though, and America has been long overdue for some social recognition of the value of trade programs and institutions like community colleges. ■ Bricks-and-mortar campuses need to be clear-eyed about what it is that they deliver to students beyond the educational product that they encounter in the classroom. If the "educational" component of a higher-ed experience isn't somehow unique, then perhaps the institution is mainly selling a social experience rather than an educational one. That may be entirely fine to do. ■ But when that is the case, it may be prudent, at least for some schools, to outsource the educational component itself to a firm or an institution that can specialize in the quality of educational delivery, leaving the bricks-and-mortar institution to focus on the student life experience instead. It might make sense for a small liberal arts college without any otherwise particularly distinguishing educational programs or features to outsource the classroom education component to an online learning institution. Some of them are very good, very affordable, and thoroughly accredited. ■ A college campus can't be readily converted to a lot of other things, but it might make sense to take an existing campus and focus on enhancing the features that would attract residential students while letting someone else handle the classroom content. Who is to say that a few hundred or even a few thousand students might not want to live together, share a library and a student union, meet for club activities, and even cheer on some sporting teams -- all while taking classes either on their own time, or in semi-structured arrangements? ■ It's possible that no such clever ideas would have saved a school like Iowa Wesleyan, or others in similar situations. But so much has been invested in many of these colleges over time -- and their value is so hard for the remaining community to recover when a campus closes down -- that ideas from well outside the conventional box ought to be solicited.