Gongol.com Archives: April 2023

Brian Gongol

April 2023
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April 1, 2023

News Equality for all

Words can sometimes be literally correct, yet so far removed from the meaning they represent that they fail to explain the concept. "Objectification", for instance, is a term most people have heard -- but it is often used so reflexively in conversations that it doesn't have the impact it deserves, particularly since it is so frequently applied to the specific case of sexual perceptions of women. That is certainly a major case, but the ills of objectification go much farther than that. ■ A truly exhausting number of human problems boil down to "Failure to see other people as human beings, equipped with equal self-awareness and value as myself". Literally, that's what "objectification" really is. Yet to compress the act down to a single word strips it of the real magnitude of what's being said. ■ Other people aren't objects...they're people. Always. Everywhere. Each one. If that were truly grasped and internalized as a universal concept, then in an instant, humanity would strip away many of our worst attributes. No one could commit chattel slavery if they really saw every other individual as a human being equipped with equal self-awareness, agency, and value as their own. Nor could anyone possessing even a modicum of conscience commit wartime atrocities, domestic abuse, or even non-violent acts of casual racism or sexism. ■ To be even modestly aware of one's own humanity and capable of projecting empathy for that sense of humanity onto other people renders a person incapable of most of the worst acts people commit against one another. This indictment applies equally to knuckle-dragging male chauvinists as it does to authoritarian dictators who disregard human rights. They may be different manifestations and on different scales, but they share the same root cause. ■ Everyone is endowed with a uniquely valuable human spirit. Another's value is not diminished because it isn't yours. And to actively see that equivalent humanity in every other person is a practice that depends upon childhood inculcation and self-aware practice by adults. Fortunately, it comes easily to kids. Little people tend to be very good at a frictionless understanding that every human life is of equal value. ■ The real work needs to come from adults, who must model the behavior for their young ones and actively guard their own thoughts against the encroachment of the ills of objectification. Somewhere along the path to growing up, it seems fairly commonplace -- perhaps even instinctive -- to become so absorbed in one's own consciousness that consideration for the humanity of others takes a back seat unless it's deliberately pulled to the forefront, at least from time to time. But everyone needs to make a conscious practice of really seeing the humanity in others. Without practice, it's too easy for the concept to lapse into words taken too lightly.

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April 2, 2023

News The experience gap

A phenomenon to which we are already frequently subjected and which is bound to cause increasing frustration for the indefinite future to come is the disappointment that results from experiences that haven't meaningfully improved while others have. ■ Lots of products and services have improved -- often measurably -- in the last generation. It would have been completely unfathomable to most well-informed people a couple of decades ago that severe weather outbreaks could be forecasted with precision multiple days in advance. Yet today, forecasters are rarely taken by surprise by big storm outbreaks; they merely spend the days prior trying to assess the precise nature of the outbreak and alterting the public with increasing specificity about the risks. Meteorology has come a very, very long way: A highly accurate forecast that models the actual events is no longer a matter of luck. It's an expectation. ■ Yet other experiences remain astonishingly unimproved. The Mayo Clinic's one-stop, same-day team approach to diagnosis is basically unique; most other medical experiences are far less tightly bound. Likewise for airline ticket counters, cable and Internet tech support, and rental-car pickup. Exceptions apply, and some people pay for premium treatment, but the routine service experience often hasn't changed materially in decades. ■ This gap creates frustration -- particularly for those who have been subjected to market forces that have caused them to improve their own products or services who then have to deal with unimproved experiences as consumers. And it's bound to remain on the increase: Lots of jobs are compelled to do more with less, or to improve or be rendered obsolete. ■ If you're an educator who hasn't improved your content knowledge or teaching methods in 20 years, then you probably deserve to be shown the door. Yet it's possible for others to hide their stagnation behind institutional inertia: A religious leader, just for example, may well go those same 20 years without becoming a better preacher, but it's easier to say "Well, church attendance is in decline everywhere" rather than be held to account for engaging the congregation better than before. ■ As long as some experiences continue to improve, often dramatically (see: the performance of elite athletes), while other experiences fall short (see: the performance of inconsistent referees in some of the same sports), the experience gap is bound to cause chronic frustration in the years ahead. No advice in this regard is perfect -- but it's best to avoid being the agent of disappointment.

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April 3, 2023

Business and Finance Moving forward by holding back

Business is often thought of as the manifestation of possibilities. People start businesses because they see unfulfilled demands, either existing or soon to come, so they do things to create goods or services where either none existed before, or where what was in place was insufficient. Either way, it is a creative act that depends upon looking beyond limitations and towards a blue-sky future. ■ But one of the characteristics that makes some companies successful -- or, at least, what appears to be the secret ingredient to their success relative to their competitors -- is the adoption of an artificial constraint. This seems paradoxical at first: How does adopting a limitation feed success when business seems to be about those blue-sky possibilities instead? ■ Consider Toyota, which adopted just-in-time as its production model out of necessity. Japanese industry in the post-WWII era didn't have lots of excess cash to pay for inputs in advance and needed to be flexible with its outputs, so just-in-time really started as a reaction to external constraints. But over time, the approach was refined into a production philosophy geared towards waste reduction and quality control. Just-in-time certainly doesn't work everywhere; it does seem to work for Toyota. ■ Voluntary, self-imposed constraints are found in other highly successful companies, too. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays and only serves chicken -- no menu extension into burgers. The forgone profits are easy to estimate, but the constraints are a part of the culture. Likewise, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is obsessed with investing only with a large margin of safety. And Honda resists using robots for automotive production, choosing instead to invest heavily in cross-functional training for human workers. ■ The existence of prominent case studies isn't dispositive; maybe self-imposed constraints are only holding these companies back. But that seems unlikely. Given how significantly the constraints appear to influence their respective company cultures, it seems more probable that self-imposed constraints might actually be a competitive advantage. ■ It seems less to be dependent upon the nature of the actual constraint -- cross-functional training doesn't seem to have much in common with being closed on Sundays -- but, much like the Hawthorne effect, more about the basic act of consciously choosing a decision-making path. Adopting and living by a code, if you will. It may not be a lesson often conveyed in business school, but it may do many a firm well to decide to pick a constraint -- just about any constraint -- and live by it.


April 4, 2023

News Make nuance sexy

If you reward a behavior, you should expect to get more of it. The advice is applicable as much on a civilizational scale as it is within a nuclear family. And yet, it is often ignored without much further examination. ■ When people decry the circus-like atmosphere of public behavior -- whether it's the exaggerations of media figures teasing their wares for clicks, the grandstanding of political figures hunting for more small-dollar donors, or the overstatements of snake-oil salesmen out to clear a fast buck -- they need to look at their own part in the exchange. ■ Oscar Wilde was being a scoundrel when he wrote, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Too many people in what ought to be serious pursuits take his words as aspirational advice. ■ If we as voters, as citizens, or merely as adults wish to have less of the circus, then no small share of the responsibility lies with us. If people are behaving like carnival barkers, we are under no obligation to respond. Nor to amplify. Nor even to acknowledge. ■ Calvin Coolidge wrote, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ Put another way, it is up to us as the intended audience members for any public-facing figure to deliver our time and awareness -- the coins of the realm in the "attention economy" -- to those who approach us with modesty, sanity, and reservation. Make nuance sexy. Make subtlety seductive. Make understatement glamorous. These things only come about if the marketplace of ideas detects a demand signal. It is within our power to send it.

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April 5, 2023

Agriculture Print yourself a salmon fillet

A new technology often gets a jump-start when it finds itself applied not to its intended use, but to a less obvious but non-trivial alternative. ■ Some attention has rightly been paid to the prospect of raising meats outside of their original animals. The "lab-cultivated" or "bio-printed" food technology has been hailed by many of its advocates as a way to satisfy consumer demand for meat products while exacting fewer environmental externalities than conventional animal husbandry. ■ Early test cases have already made their debuts. In 2021, scientists in Japan printed a piece of Wagyu beef that wasn't cut from a cow. A firm in Israel has touted its successful printing of a 3.67-oz. steak in the same year. And already, people have begun to ask ethical questions, like "Could lab-cultivated meat be kosher?" or "Would it be ethical to eat cultivated meat from endangered species?". ■ While well-intended, efforts to promote laboratory-grown meats on their environmental benefits aren't likely to catch fire. Those will be interesting benefits down the road, but as long as prices are still very high and the volume of production is very low, it will be quite some time before grocery shoppers will even be offered the option. Environmental advantages are a classic case of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, and those don't activate a whole lot of behavior. ■ The breakthrough application could be found in seafood. The tuna is an apex predator, which of course makes it environmentally significant. But that status also makes it prone to concentrating harmful substances otherwise found only in traces in the environment, like mercury. These concentrated contaminants are why the FDA has produced a detailed chart depicting just how much fish is safe for children to eat. ■ Under a laboratory-cultivation process, though, (synthetic) fish could be produced and harvested without the same hazards. And that could be the breakthrough for the technology at large, because it would shift the focus from diffuse environmental benefits to concentrated health benefits for the individual. Concentrated benefits open wallets. ■ Synthetic production really ought to appeal more to seafood restaurants -- and to sushi lovers, in particular -- than to any other sector. Nobody's actively clamoring to nibble on endangered-species burgers yet, and the scale of production already in place worldwide makes it hard for any new process to compete with raising chickens, hogs, and cattle on foot (even if the FDA just gave the nod to lab-produced chicken in November). ■ But countless inland restaurants advertise that their fish is flown in daily for freshness. Air freighting and all of its associated preparation processes add a lot to the cost of production and delivery. If synthetic alternatives could permit them to grow their own fresh "catch" in a facility next door, that could be a much more economically competitive arrangement. ■ Maybe all of this technology remains too speculative and far-fetched to catch on, either soon or even some time into the future. But the incentives are such that if and when "meat" (such as we might define it) from a laboratory-like setting really breaks through, it will be in the form of seafood rather than anything that originated with wings, legs, or a snout.

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April 6, 2023

News They're looking up to you

In no small number of schools, older students are paired up with younger ones in programs with names like "Kindergarten Buddies". The age-gapped students spend time together doing activities like reading or performing small projects. Sure, the interaction teaches kindergarteners by giving them older models to emulate. But the secret is that it's really there for the older kids. ■ Kindergarteners will happily learn from just about anyone -- they're wired with a magnificent and overwhelming sense of wonder and curiosity. But it doesn't always occur naturally for older kids to realize that they're being watched. Raising the stakes just a little, by telling them that their "buddies" are looking to them for guidance and instruction, helps them learn the intrinsic reward of having others look up to them. ■ To find themselves admired compels most self-aware people to think about behaving in admirable ways. It doesn't always work, of course, but it's often more powerful than the threat of punishment. "Be on your best behavior; the kindergarteners are looking up to you" is often a more stimulating piece of advice than "Don't cause trouble or you'll be sent to the principal's office." Or, as the philosopher Maimonides put it, "[I]f you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else." ■ It's hard not to notice the presence of altogether too many people in both public and private life who didn't get the message about being good "buddies" to their juniors. News and culture are all too often packed with examples of people modeling immature behavior long past an appropriate age. 40-year-olds should never be committing violent incidents of road rage. 60-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their hands off umpires and referees. 80-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their weapons away from the United States Capitol. ■ With advancing age should come increasing temperance. If you've lived long enough to "see a few things", then you've earned the responsibility to behave as though you know that the new things you encounter belong in proper perspective. And if we don't share a common expectation that humility and moderation are exactly the kinds of virtues that older people ought to model for younger ones -- if instead we tolerate people acting out well past a tolerable age, either because they never learned to manage and contain their own emotions or because they refuse to model the habits of wisdom -- then society is hobbling itself in ways we can't easily calculate. ■ It's a special job to be the senior partner in a relationship where modeling good behavior for the young to emulate is an intrinsic aspect of the role. Lots of kids understand that implicitly in elementary school. More adults ought to do the same, and the rest of us should cast shame on those who don't.

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April 7, 2023

Computers and the Internet Your computer won't ever love you back

Evolution can't be "smart", since it isn't a sentient being; it's only a process. But as a process, evolution does act as a powerful mechanism for sorting. And for hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has been sorting human behavior. ■ It takes a colossal amount of hubris for a person to think that they've outsmarted the results of evolution. We certainly try to beat it all the time: Every time a person undergoes surgery, we're trying to win a bout of hand-to-hand combat with natural selection. Every vaccine dose, bite of fortified food, or blood transfusion is an act using human knowledge to press back against the natural forces that would otherwise take us out. ■ But along comes one Alexandr Wang, an artificial-intelligence company executive who proclaims, "[I] have a pretty strong belief that a meaningful percentage of kids born today will end up being botsexual." What's that? "[B]eing primarily sexually attracted to AI", he writes. ■ Wang has been hailed in a mainstream media profile as a self-made billionaire whose company "helps businesses deal with the data preparation needed to train AI systems". Thus it's no surprise he has great faith in artificial intelligence. But imagine having such a high opinion of an invention that you believe that it will overcome the deepest primal forces of nature. ■ The human drive to understand and to be understood by others is overwhelming. It starts at the most basic of levels: We begin to bond with other humans from the instant of birth. A baby cries because it seeks attention for its needs, responds to tone of voice in the first months of life, and smiles as a social cue in its first hundred days of life. ■ The desire for human interaction, affection, and touch has no technological substitute. And it won't on any timeline that doesn't span hundreds of generations at least. Children develop playground crushes in preschool, long before they can even conceive of romantic love; that's how fundamental and instinctive the drive for interpersonal connection is. ■ To think that human beings will invent machines that can substitute for that drive -- so much that it would affect birth rates, as Wang claims -- is positively ludicrous. Artificial intelligence can and will do a lot. A handful of people will, in fact, find what they experience as "love" with AI, just as a handful of people express attraction to other inanimate objects. But the canon of the world's literature -- from its earliest beginnings -- tells of quest after quest to be understood and loved, not by machines, animals, or nature, but by other people. ■ AI can't leapfrog evolutionary selection among human beings, and its proponents need to grasp how preposterous they sound when they imagine they are equipped with god-like superpowers. Our tools just aren't that smart. To foretell of "botsexuals" is the kind of bold, wrong pronouncement a person makes when they are overconfident in their own technological mastery and ignorant of the humanities.


April 10, 2023

The United States of America Load balancing

Some people fantasize about moving off the grid and living in far-secluded areas, and a few even do it. But humans are social creatures by our nature, and the latest Census data on county-level population estimates only serves to underscore what our instincts already tell us. Counties with a lot of people are mostly growing and counties with few are mostly shrinking. Americans are continuing to cluster together. ■ Many factors contribute to any individual family's choice to live in a particular location, but one of the biggest and most irresistible forces behind many of those choices is the basic matter of finding economic opportunities. As an economy matures, it typically evolves from a dependence on agriculture to a stage in which manufacturing comes first, and ultimately settles into dominance by services as it reaches advanced development. So it was for the United States, and so it tends to go for almost all other countries. We're not unusual in this regard; we're like everybody else. ■ Whereas agriculture depends upon spreading out, manufacturing depends on getting workers into the same place (usually at the same time). But so does lots of service work. It's possible, of course, for some services to be rendered remotely. Technology often reduces the friction involved in making that happen. But there are some limits that are hard to overcome: You might get the Mayo Clinic to give you a remote consultation, but if you need surgery, you're probably headed to Rochester. ■ Many services can only be delivered in person. Many more benefit from work by tightly-integrated teams. And many of the institutions that deliver services succeed by developing distinctive cultures that are reinforced by getting participants to commit to experiences in common. Thus, at least from an economic perspective, no matter how service-based the US economy becomes (and we're much more service-based than most people intuitively realize), there will still be lots of factors driving us to cluster together in ever-larger urban areas. ■ What that spells for smaller areas -- like the counties with fewer than 10,000 people, 61% of which shrank last year -- is a compelling need to determine how to competently manage resources in the face of sustained population decline. It's not a pleasant condition to have to grapple with, but decline isn't the same as elimination. ■ Some will escape population decline, if they make conscious choices to do so. But that requires having something special to offer that fits the right need at the right time. Las Vegas has exploded over the last 50 years, but there's no demand for 100 copycat cities. On the other hand, there are lots of cities with municipal governments and infrastructure already in place that could withstand a great deal of growth without losing what makes them special to their incumbent residents. ■ There's a reason utopian cities are rarely built successfully from scratch -- even great visionaries are prone to overestimating their capacities to plan what real people will actually choose when it comes to where they live. Note that lots of people live in Orlando today, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow didn't actually take off. But finding the right places for big ideas and big growth to take off from places that are much smaller than their potential could turn out to be a very useful pursuit indeed.

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April 13, 2023

Water News Spring cleaning the streets

In places with paved streets and storm sewers, spring generally brings the ritual sweeping of the streets. It's an act that only appears cosmetic to many citizens, who probably wonder why their hard-earned tax dollars go to the tidying of concrete and asphalt that will only get dirty again. ■ But the real reason for street sweeping is to capture debris before it gets carried off into creeks and streams. And it is a very useful practice for helping to ensure the quality of drinking water for people living downstream. ■ All water is recycled, over and over again. Unlike rocks or sand or soil, new water isn't being generated. It's being transformed and cycle through nature, only to be perpetually used again. Keeping junk like sand and leaves and litter from contaminating it in its natural locations makes it easier to keep clean for those who will drink it next. ■ Good practices for protecting health aren't always obvious -- street sweeping certainly isn't. Municipal leaders should take care to explain their purposes creatively and often so that taxpayers understand the value they obtain from their bills.

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April 14, 2023

News One cheer for Harry Mountbatten-Windsor

In Thomas Jefferson's artful words, the Declaration of Independence prescribes that even close bonds ought to be severed when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. So it goes for a country, but perhaps so too must it be for a family business. Even if that family business is itself a country. ■ Much ado is being made about the upcoming coronation of England's King Charles. It's bound to be a rare spectacle, but it remains farcical at its root. The authority of the state deriving from the personhood of an individual "sovereign"? It's plainly silly. This one man, Charles, is of royal "highness" over "subjects" due to nothing more than the chance of his birth? It's doubtful that any but a few truly committed royalists really believe it deep in their hearts. But the show goes on, apparently by some measure of continued popular demand. ■ But beyond the matter of what monarchy says about a relationship between the state and its people, it's a terrible thing to impose on the members of the purportedly "royal" family. For someone born into it -- particularly an heir apparent to the throne -- it combines all the worst of several things which each would be approached with grave caution. ■ A little royal becomes a child star without having done anything of their own volition. They are dragooned into service as a mascot of the state, to be scrutinized by the public and have countless meanings projected upon their very being. And for an heir apparent, there is no personal agency in the sense of choosing their own destiny -- their real career path is set the moment they become an embryo. ■ Obviously, the experience comes with creature comforts. But even if the way he's gone about it might be questionable (who writes a tell-all book spilling all over their still-living relatives?), it's hard not to credit Prince Harry, at least a little bit, for breaking his children away from a chronically toxic family business. ■ Maybe there is no perfect way to do it without every part of the separation looking like a slight to the rest of his family. But a family dynamic like the one that runs a royal household really by definition cannot be a healthy one. Whatever else he does right or wrong, on the choice to keep his children both metaphorically and physically distant from the "family business" -- even including his father's coronation -- Harry is doing the right thing.

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April 15, 2023

The United States of America Pursuing happiness

Before the United States of America had any laws to itself, it asserted "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights. The first two are fairly obvious to anyone who gives them fair consideration. But the third, the right to pursue happiness, says something important about the nature of the country. ■ The Declaration doesn't ensure a right to happiness itself, but only a right to pursue happiness. Happiness takes different forms for different people, and framing the right as something chosen by the individual is an important distinction: Nobody is guaranteed to be happy, but everyone is assured of their liberty to make the choices necessary to go after whatever happiness means to them. ■ It is no surprise that Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the top ten destinations in the US for foreign tourists. It has become a city defined by the mass simultaneous pursuit of happiness in all of its forms, a libertarian setting for adults visiting "America's playground". It has really no distinguishing attractions other than its reputation for the freedom to pursue fun. ■ Strange, then, that the right to pursue happiness isn't duplicated in the same way anywhere else. There are other entertainment-fueled cities, but none quite so free to leave all those choices to the visitor. And the popularity of Las Vegas as a destination for people around the world ought to serve as a testament to just how natural a right that pursuit of happiness really is. America only enshrined something that is already natural to the human disposition.

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April 16, 2023

Computers and the Internet Artificial intelligence keeps hallucinating

In a couple of test runs, economists found ChatGPT prone to citing works that don't exist. This is both a foreseeable outcome of the system design (so far, artificial intelligence is mainly a sophisticated text-prediction tool, not a method for assembling actual wisdom) and an acute flaw in the technology if used for its most obvious purposes. ■ Human beings have a very reasonable interest in developing technologies that will efficiently supply answers to known questions (like a speedy research librarian). We also have a reasonable interest in developing technologies that will answer novel questions. Since the beginning of writing itself, the superpower of our species has been the ability to store knowledge outside of our own brains. The spoken word allowed our ancestors to start storing knowledge in other people's brains, and the written word let them put that knowledge in places we could protect, duplicate, and move about. There's a reason the loss of the Library of Alexandria remains one of history's great tragedies. ■ Computers have a striking ability to do what books cannot: They can be programmed to generate new knowledge altogether, like detecting objects in space. That generative capacity could truly be profound. But it remains something humans have to double-check. Not only is it imperative to check the work in its own right, it's also essential that humans make sure that the programming stays correct. Computers only work according to their programming, and there are countless ways in which new knowledge can have consequences for old code. ■ Dan Brooks offers the pithy observation that ChatGPT "nails the voice of someone trying to hit word count." He's right; the imperative behind the technology is to keep generating new words, no matter their need or their validity. And that's the problem that causes the "hallucinations": Whether or not real knowledge exists, AI is set to just keep making up something to fill the space. ■ That is no small problem if, as is extremely likely, artificial intelligence tools are on the verge of multiplying in number and output at rates we may have little capacity to comprehend or to double-check. That doesn't mean we should unplug them -- we should be ready and eager to put useful tools to work to make human life better. But we're going to need to think of ways to firewall the generated content that hasn't been checked or validated so that it doesn't form a feedback loop of garbage-in, garbage-out that could leave us all wondering what was ever true in the first place. A hard drive can be reformatted. The Internet cannot.

Agriculture Farmers get an early start on spring planting in Iowa

It's been a while since that's happened

News Courage, big and small

Chad Gibbs: "Whenever we remember the Holocaust, we should remember the small rebellions, the individual stands, and the little acts of caring"

Threats and Hazards The second-order problem with an intelligence leak

Matt Tait: "In other words, just because you can't see the significance of how something tiny in a photo can have massive repercussions doesn't mean that experts with extensive experience and that little bit of extra context can't."

Business and Finance The place of a little love in a market economy

Deirdre McCloskey: "There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends."

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April 17, 2023

News When Soviet leaders dropped dead

It's basically possible to convey to people who didn't live through it just how much the threat of nuclear war hung over the day-to-day "adult" world of the 1980s, at least as seen through the eyes of young people at the time. It was the one news story that never went away.

News "French discontent over its security relationship with the United States is nothing new."

University of Chicago professor Paul Poast notes that "French leaders have long hated being dependent on [the United States] for protection." Despite our longstanding friendship, France took the Confederacy's side in the Civil War, and didn't appreciate America's (poorly-considered) post-WWI plans. A history well worth bearing in mind as France makes questionable diplomatic moves with China today.

Weather and Disasters Opening locks to let floodwaters through the Twin Cities

This is a whole lot of water destined to flow past Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk in days and weeks to come.

Threats and Hazards Russia is drifting towards martial law

All of this -- death, destruction, oppression -- remains the active choice of the regime governing Russia. They could stop this at any time. The unspeakable harm they are doing to Ukraine is harming Russian people, too.

Science and Technology Look at the good nuclear power can do

France used to be well above the world average in its carbon-dioxide emissions. Now, it's down to the average, with a downward trend. It's no coincidence that France also has the highest share of nuclear power generation in the world.

Computers and the Internet An unsettling thought

If you're concerned that AI-generated materials are already getting good at passing for human-like construction, consider the warning of John Scott-Railton: "AI-based bots are as bad as they will ever be today. Right now. They can only get better." In lots of human-helping cases, that's going to be great news. But there are lots of human-harming cases for which the same will be true.


April 18, 2023

News The non-dovish case for pulling America's nuclear bombs out of Europe

Some food for thought regarding old-school nuclear bombs. Exactly the kind of subject about which responsible, non-expert citizen-voters need to brush up our knowledge. Political forces will drive what ultimately happens, so we can't afford to be ignorant.

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April 19, 2023

News Slower reactions, better society

It's easy to fall for the conceit that all of our modern problems are somehow different than those of our predecessors. But what if we're really just encountering the same problems, cloaked only in different garb? A whole raft of troubling incidents in the news boil down to the consequences of people acting impulsively. Sometimes the results are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are deadly. ■ But go back to 1755, and you'll find Benjamin Franklin making a very modern case for impulse control: "Who is powerful? He that governs his passions." And, as if to drive home the point, he laments: "Who is that? Nobody." ■ Human nature is much more powerful than we routinely give it credit for being. We are rarely as special in history as ego would like us to believe. But sometimes old human flaws do come with new consequences. The modern problem is to figure out how to make sure our contemporary tools don't exacerbate those longstanding shortcomings. ■ Social media makes it easy to make very bad, very public decisions. Computers make it possible to generate dangerous ideas faster than ever. Weapons make it all too easy to escalate a bad moment beyond repair. ■ If we surrender the idea that humans are born as blank slates and instead realize that we're pretty much cut from the same cloth as our ancestors, then we come into closer contact with the understanding that we're not better just because we came later. And it underscores just how important it is to find, maintain, and regenerate character-building institutions throughout society. As our tools speed up, we need to find ways to practically train people -- all of us -- in time-tested ways of slowing down. There's enormous power in governing our passions.

Weather and Disasters A stormy night

Thunderstorms are firing along the Missouri River and southward. One supercell in Oklahoma appears to be merging tornadic cells together, and the resulting radar sweeps are something both amazing and terrible to behold.

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April 20, 2023

News Russia banned from basketball track to Olympics

The International Basketball Federation has "decided to not allow the registration of the Russian men's national team in the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments 2023", which is how teams get into the Olympics. It's a response to the way that Russia has launched a bloody and wasteful war of aggression against Ukraine. ■ There are those who want to keep sports entirely separate from other affairs. That would be nice, if achievable. But it's an impossibility: Russia has used athletes as propagandists, and one doesn't have to dig deep to find historical cases where sports were used to legitimize the behavior of uncivilized regimes. ■ Sports depend upon people voluntarily observing rules of behavior; at the macro level, you can't defeat your competitors by kneecapping them or poisoning their food. At the micro level, we count upon the regulation of fair play, even when the fouls may be unintentional. ■ It isn't unreasonable to bar the participation of athletes from a country that openly defies the rules of a civilized world order. It's not like imposing a grain embargo (as Russia itself has committed against Ukraine): Sports aren't necessary for life. Sports are trappings of cultures that can observe higher levels of behavior. ■ Just as the United Nations undermines its own legitimacy by leaving Russia in charge of the UN Security Council for the month of April, so too do any international institutions that put the interests of playing nicely (literally) with Russian teams over insisting that bad actions have consequences. In this choice, at least, the world of basketball can hold its head high.

Humor and Good News Hats off to Dolly Parton

Her "Imagination Library" is one of the most remarkable large-scale good works any American has ever put into place. The American Library Association is recognizing her with an honorary lifetime membership in recognition of that work.

News Favorite historical empires

If every young man develops a strange affinity for a bygone empire, then perhaps it's best if the empires in question are relatively benign ones like the Hudson's Bay Company

Humor and Good News The vinyl anniversary

Everyone should exchange vinyl with their spouse at 33 years and 4 months.

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April 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet No, the machines aren't coming for your job

It's easy to watch the arrival of a significant new technology and wonder whether it's bound to have an impact of scale and consequence well beyond previous technologies. Already, breathless headlines promise to reveal "the tech jobs most threatened by ChatGPT and AI". Are the machines really coming for your job? No. ■ Well, they are -- but it's immaterial, and it won't take a very long run for that immateriality to bear out. Jim Pethokoukis, a free-market think-tank analyst, puts it like this: "I think GenAI and LLMs are the real deal, but my baseline remains bullish on the long-term demand for human labor." ■ Yet it's easy to share his optimism about the potential upside, assume that the technologies have the potential to develop even faster than anticipated, and still believe that it won't even take the long term for human labor to hold up. Whatever emerges, it's wise to assume that jobs will be disrupted -- probably lots of them -- but that there will be more jobs than ever in the short, medium, and long terms alike. ■ To believe that people will still have jobs for as long as anyone can look ahead, all one has to do is wager on two things. First, as old needs are satisfied more efficiently, human beings will discover new wants. Second, human beings are going to remain social animals with an irrepressible desire to spend time with other humans. ■ Safe bets, both. By the time we become familiar with a technology, we uncover its shortcomings and imagine its next steps. After the printing press came the radio, followed by the television. Then television jumped to satellites and cable systems and streaming services. We discover new wants all the time. ■ And nothing is more basic about the human experience than the desire to share it with others. With families and friends, of course. But also with classmates and co-workers. And with bartenders and physical therapists and hair stylists. And then with whatever comes next. Some jobs will disappear, and prudent societies will find ways to help soften the transitions. But if there's one safe bet, it's that there will always be something new to do.

News French group gets Belgian customs to destroy Miller High Life

It may call itself the "Champagne of Beers" in the US, but "champagne" isn't a trade name to use lightly within the European Union. And just like that, more than 2,000 cans of beer were destroyed.

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April 22, 2023

News Don't be a GRino

Almost anything related to the environment is subject to the tragedy of the commons. What is good for the individual often has consequences for the environmental resources shared by many others. Good environmental stewardship often consists in making lots of incremental choices (usually at personal expense) that don't have obvious benefits to the person who absorbs the costs. ■ There's no denying that there are plenty of significant environmental troubles that deserve the attention of humankind, not least of which is the evidence that there's a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there used to be. It's largely a problem of human choices. But if we want to change course, it doesn't make any sense to fight human nature. We have to work with it. ■ Lots of people identify themselves as "greens", willing to put the interests of the environment first. There's a certain moral satisfaction that comes from attaching your identity to something that appears to go above mere mortal humanity. But the problem with a message that centers on a hard-left economic message of "people over profits" and uncompromising anti-nuclear electricity sentiment is that it disengages from the actions that would really address environmental issues. ■ The epithet "RINO" (for "Republican in Name Only") has been entrenched in right-wing politics for a long time. Hardly anyone agrees on a definition. But there's a real hazard in people choosing to act as "Greens in Name Only" -- GRinos. To be serious about environmental issues is to accept that real solutions are attached to human self-interest. ■ Real "green" progress is made by finding ways to make it profitable for people and institutions to do the right thing. People need profits, and good policies ought to do things like shaping rewards, rather than denying that rewards are a basic function of human activity. To demand "action" without using the motivating tools of human behavior is to be unserious about achieving the intended results.

News China's ambassdor to France oversteps

The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying, "Former Soviet states don't have an effective status in international law". As Professor Seva Gunitsky points out, "[T]hat's rich coming from an ex-mongol colony with no legal standing in the Khanate".


April 23, 2023

News Don't just say "it gets better", show it

School's purpose is to prepare young people for life. People may differ on the focus of that preparation, and whether it should take a practical form, a vocational form, or a classical form. But the nature of things in a democracy is that no one form truly prevails. Some vested interests will promote "back to basics", others will promote "social-emotional learning", and in the end, a little of almost everything makes its way into the curriculum. ■ As part of a well-rounded education, every American high-schooler ought to read at least three important stories of self-discovery: The Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. Most of life is spent along paths others have walked before. Yet the young person usually doesn't know this, at least not in the innate sense. In youth, we think our troubles are new and our challenges are novel. ■ From Epictetus, the young person gets exposure to a tidy and practical version of Stoic philosophy that says life and happiness descend from perceptions: "[I]f the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation." Nobody expects a 16-year-old to have full control over their instincts for envy, but it's easier to start the quest for control knowing that others have sought it, too. ■ Franklin's autobiography is simultaneously a roaring tale of self-creation and a terrific exploration of American self-identity from someone who shaped that identity at least as much as anyone in the country's history. Franklin takes pains to walk the reader through his thoughts on everything from familial love to religious faith to business success. He confesses to the very kind of brash self-confidence that a teenager ought to recognize: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other." ■ From Washington, an autobiography no less significant than Franklin's, because it tells the story of his rise from literal chattel slavery -- and it is told exceedingly well. Washington's crisp prose and his relentless focus on rising and lifting are words that young people need to have imprinted on their minds, even if they are too inexperienced in life to truly appreciate everything Washington seeks to teach them in words like, "[T]he happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." For all the terrible things done to him and the vast odds against his work, Washington's character-obsessed optimism comes from a source no reasonable person can contest. ■ Many other works and authors are worth exploring, too. But Epictetus, Franklin, and Washington are special in what they can offer to people looking for direction and guideposts. It's no small matter to know that life is rarely a blank slate. It can be hard to find answers in the people immediately around us, and to find answers in stories written long ago helps to assure the reader that there is always cause for hope. Don't just say "It gets better"; show how others got there. There is scarcely a better lesson for an adolescent to learn.

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April 24, 2023

Science and Technology The Open Infrastructure Map

Fascinating -- lots of granular detail on parts of the background infrastructure that tends to pass without much notice, despite its ubiquity. Power generating stations, transmission lines, wind farms, solar farms, broadcasting towers, and much more.

Humor and Good News From one teammate to another

(Video) Audiences don't often get to hear authentic, heartfelt appreciation expressed from one broadcaster to another. This is a charming exception, in which Andy Fales thanks Dave Price for a career together.

Humor and Good News Lamentations as product names

It's one way to go about branding

Weather and Disasters Northern Lights visible over Iowa

(Video) It's a rarity. Iceland's tourism bureau ought to be carpeting the northern United States in digital ads right now saying, "Now that you've had a taste, come get the full Northern Lights experience!" The lights are absolutely gobsmacking from near the Arctic Circle.

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April 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards China's government is no honest broker for Ukraine

China's ambassador to France takes a ludicrous view of the independence of ex-Soviet republics, saying: "Even these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there's no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country"

Weather and Disasters And now you know what a "von Karman Vortex Street" is

Vortices in a fluid (like the atmosphere) created by a disruptive body, as in the case of clouds downwind of a mountain disruption to the flow of air. Very cool.

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April 26, 2023

News Legitimacy through scarcity

The printed daily newspaper had a pretty fantastic economic profile a few decades ago: Not only did it have the broad and righteous legal protection of the First Amendment, it also tended towards natural monopoly. The costs of content creation were essentially fixed, no matter how many copies were printed, and newsstand or subscription fees generally covered the marginal costs of printing and distributing each incremental copy. Thus, the rewards tended to concentrate around a single producer who could assemble the publication with the broadest possible appeal across the community. High circulation begat high advertising rates, which in turn charged a positive feedback loop of profitability upon which to further entrench and expand circulation. ■ And when broadcasting licenses were kept scarce by the FCC, and ownership of those licenses was tightly regulated (seven each of television, AM, and FM stations, per owner, until 1984), similar effects held for broadcasting outlets, as well. It was good to be on the inside, and once an operator was entrenched, it was hard to displace them. ■ Media outlets in those times obtained much of their legitimacy through scarcity. There could certainly have been debates about quality of coverage, bias, or accuracy, but the legitimacy of the institutions themselves was basically sealed: One newspaper, a handful of radio stations, and usually three network television stations indisputably "spoke" for a particular community. ■ Fast-forward to today: Broadcast licenses are barely limited any longer, anyone can operate a streaming video channel, and newspaper circulations and revenues have effectively evaporated. Scarcity no longer confers legitimacy, because there is no supply-side scarcity anymore. (And that's killing the legacy media industry.) ■ What takes its place now is legitimacy via audience consent. Who speaks for a community? Which are the authoritative, legitimate media outlets in a place? You have to consult with the audience living there to get the answer. It might be the skeleton crew left at a legacy newspaper brand, like the St. Cloud Times, with a claimed staff of one. Or maybe it's a digital-only publication. It might be a podcast, a television station, a daily e-newsletter, or a particularly lively Nextdoor board. ■ To a degree, legitimacy-by-audience-consent is more defensible than legitimacy-by-scarcity. After all, the consent of the governed is what confers legitimacy to a government. But legitimacy-by-scarcity had the effect of forcing media to cultivate mainstream sensibilities; their economic power derived from having the maximum possible reach and appeal to the community as it existed. ■ Not so with media outlets operating without the constraints of scarcity. As has been well-documented, the quest for advertising efficiency rewards audience fragmentation: A small but homogeneous audience may easily command better advertising rates than a large but diverse one. These changes are both significant in size and consequential for questions of how we inform ourselves. The evolving landscape may end up highly satisfying for consumers (as it becomes easier to find outlets that suit us individually), but with less community-responsive legitimacy in total.

News A little deviance is good for you

No one is politically interesting until they hold at least a handful of unconventional views. In a time when conformity is widely practiced, that's a lesson well worth remembering. It's unoriginal to depend strictly upon the cliche that "If everyone's thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking", but the central point is valid.

Humor and Good News South Korea's president belts out "American Pie"

(Video) Cancel the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What we need is Foreign Dignitary Karaoke Night.

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April 27, 2023

Humor and Good News Better than cigarettes

The Art-o-mat project takes old cigarette vending machines and converts them to distribute little works of art instead. They're all over the country, but there's a particularly busy set in Las Vegas. For $5, it's a better guaranteed return than any other machine in the city. ■ Aside from the excellent repurposing of machines that formerly dispensed slow death by the pack, the Art-o-mat idea does something exceptionally worthwhile: It makes art fun. Specifically, it makes the acquisition of art thoroughly democratic, public, and even a touch whimsical. What's going to come out of the machine? The user has a general idea, but it's uncertain until the piece actually lands with a "thud" in the dispenser tray. ■ Art should be a part of ordinary life. We celebrate trips to MoMA and the Louvre, but there's every reason to celebrate small installations, too. No city is required by law to have a museum, but those that do reveal a motivation to show themselves off. ■ The Art-o-mat, though, can be a miniature gallery in a place as unassuming as a brewery outside of Joliet or a library in Sheboygan. And it should be seen as complementary with the development of artificial-intelligence image generators like Dall-E: The more we come to expect art all around (of whatever origins), the more we normalize appreciation for aesthetics. The world need not be ugly.


April 28, 2023

Broadcasting Are we beyond the event horizon for attention spans?

Writer Dan Brooks laments, "I think within my lifetime most Americans will become illiterate, not because they can't read but because they can't concentrate long enough to get through a whole newspaper article or book." On the surface, there's some evidence for his concern: People really do spend so much time with digital media now that it's hard to imagine the rapid-fire experience granted by smartphones and big televisions isn't chipping away at long-term concentration. ■ But...after a while the market (of all the most unexpected things) might actually offer the corrective. For most subjects -- not all, but quite certainly most -- nothing is a more efficient and more effective teaching tool than a well-written, well-edited text. Not always a textbook, but at least a booklet. ■ The written word is almost always faster than any other mode of transmitting knowledge. Consider that a mid-range reading speed for a college-level adult is around 250 words per minute, with 500 words per minute easily within the reach of faster readers. Meanwhile, the median pace of speech on television news is around 150 words per minute. That's a 67% advantage for the middle-of-the-road reader, and quicker readers are getting more than triple the content per minute than they'd get from people speaking. It's no wonder that so many people listen to podcasts at increased playback speeds. ■ As people are driven to earn more in a competitive marketplace, they become sensitive to returns on learning investments. Individuals will find themselves tired of sloppy lectures, videos with low information density, and dubious AI-generated texts. Not everyone will notice, but enough will notice to matter. And they'll "return" to reading (likely never really having left), as long as there's good writing to be found on what they want to learn. That signal going back to the market will further encourage the production of higher-quality written materials. ■ So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the market really does have the capacity to repel the drive towards digital overstimulation. It may take some time for the feedback to work its way through -- and there will undoubtedly be counter-examples along the way. Not everyone will be responsive to workplace rewards, and not everyone will find that writing-based learning works best. ■ And it may not always be obvious where the investments most matter: Editors can be as important as writers, or even more important. An old academic joke goes something to the effect of, "I wrote 500 pages because I didn't have time to write 250 pages." Revision and editing can vastly improve the final quality of a work, while simultaneously decreasing its size. These are skills not easily executed by computers, which tend to optimize for volume of output, not quality. There is, it seems, hope for the human writer after all.

Science and Technology Supporting endangered languages with robots

Fascinating: "SkoBots is an interactive and wearable educational robot that sits on your shoulder to teach our youths their traditional languages."

News Vikings weren't always Nordic

Some had black hair and had been co-opted into Viking life as a vocation rather than a familial inheritance

Humor and Good News Let's take this o-u-t-s-i-d-e

A dog walks into a bar...

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April 29, 2023

Broadcasting Is terrestrial AM radio going to survive?

Consultant Fred Jacobs notes: "Even among [...] core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a 'very important' feature in their next vehicle." ■ The reason this is potentially catastrophic? More than 40% of radio listening happens in the car. If you lose access to 40% of your current market, that's a catastrophe. ■ The only real obstacle to a bigger presence for digital streaming to the car is that it's still clunky and obstacle-ridden. That's a user-interface problem, and it's one that the streamers have all kinds of incentive to fix. Listeners overwhelmingly want Bluetooth in the car already; they just want it to be easier to use. ■ Radio's problem is different: As Jacobs also notes, "[I]n too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content." That's a prospective death knell. If your particular content is only able to compete because it saves the listener a couple of button presses (perhaps two or three at most), then that advantage is on borrowed time at best. ■ Radio's core advantage has always been its dual promise of immediacy and locality: Its ability to be right here, right now. But a lot of stations no longer bother to try to be "live and local", or all too often, even to be just one of those things. Meanwhile, the electrification of everything (including cars) is infecting AM broadcasts with more static than ever. ■ Syndicated programming held some attraction for a while, when it was of higher quality than what could be produced locally, and when it served to create a sense of place across a continental nation. 85 years ago, AM radio networks were delivering live sports, scripted dramas, premiere news coverage, and educational programming. National quality was hard to match with local resources. ■ But those advantages have been mostly surrendered (voluntarily), while the leading disadvantages (heavy commercial spot loads) remain -- in an hour of clock time, a widely-listened-to host like Dave Ramsey is only producing 39 minutes of content. Podcasts don't waste that much time -- and they can be started and stopped at will, rewound, or sped up. It takes a lot of programming quality to compete with those listener conveniences. ■ We can get sentimental about what radio used to be ("WKRP" and "NewsRadio" were closer to documentaries than you might think), but the plain fact is that consumer expectations have risen. If the product quality doesn't rise to meet those expectations, then all the incumbent producers are really selling is inertia.


April 30, 2023

Computers and the Internet Digesting the news

Julian Sanchez comments that "[I]t's hard to see how journalism remains viable in an environment where every story can be instantly rewritten for free without infringing copyright." He's right to be concerned, and further still, the worry ought to apply even more once one realizes the customization possibilities. It's not just possible to demand news summaries, it's possible to ask for the news rewritten by artificial intelligence in the style of particular writers. ■ A person could reasonably request: "Give me a 500-word summary of today's news from Chicago, written in the style of Mike Royko". The converging possibilities are hard to fully fathom, and they are absolutely going to complicate matters which are already thoroughly challenging. ■ Consider the decision by Sinclair Broadcast Group to fire the entire news staff at KTVL-TV in Medford, Oregon, and to do likewise at WNWO-TV in Toledo, Ohio. Substitute syndicated news programming will be used instead to fill the local news hole. ■ Medford is market #136 and Toledo is #80 (as ranked by population). Not huge, but not insignificant, either. If local news operations are getting eliminated in markets of those sizes, they could well be under threat in other, larger markets as well. ■ Already, companies like Futuri Media promise that they can deliver "cloud-based audience engagement" services -- like tools to report what content is drawing engagement in real time. And virtual newscasters are already out in the wild. Put those two together, and it might not even be necessary to have an "Action News" team on the payroll, especially if the audience is willing to submit "user-generated content". ■ But news depends not upon a popularity contest, but on news judgment: The ability of a human being to discern what meets the threshold of news and what does not. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo -- most everything else that gets reported is either information or mere events. Those have their place, but they aren't news. ■ Machines simply tracking a digital popularity contest have no idea how to tell the difference. In the short run, though, we shouldn't be surprised if more outlets cut back like the Sinclair stations are doing, nor if other outlets experiment with virtualizing their coverage. The incentives to generate "news" products on the cheap are strong, even if they're fundamentally bad for society.

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