Gongol.com Archives: May 2023

Brian Gongol

May 2023
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May 2, 2023

Threats and Hazards What cowards would bomb a museum?

A local history museum in Ukraine was destroyed by a Russian missile in a dastardly attack that murdered at least two people inside the museum. It requires a perverted view of humanity to target a history museum using weapons of war. ■ What kind of society is so threatened by its neighbors that it would murder a museum worker? What kind of culture is so fearful that it cannot let its next-door neighbors celebrate their own identity in peace? What kind of cowards use their weapons to destroy artifacts and kill people merely celebrating their own history? ■ These questions are more than merely rhetorical. Erasing the unique identity of a people is a way to weaponize culture; in this case, the self-evident goal of the aggressor is to diminish Ukraine's claim to independence. That has been a signature aspect of the aggression since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine. ■ The dastardly strategy has backfired, with Ukrainian self-identity stronger than it has ever been recorded before. Yet the attacks persist, against libraries, museums, theaters, and cultural symbols. UNESCO counts 253 different sites that have been targeted. ■ A self-confident country wouldn't have to assault the cultural memory of its neighbor to justify its own reckless bloodlust. An army committed to the profession of arms in self-defense wouldn't need to lob its missiles at a 55-year-old woman for running a museum. A nation belonging to the 21st Century wouldn't blow up apartment buildings full of children while claiming the presidency of the UN Security Council.

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May 3, 2023

The United States of America Don't swear by it

Upon the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, the people of the United Kingdom will be invited to swear an oath of allegiance with these words: "I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God." It's being presented as a "new tradition", whatever that means. ■ Probably owing in no small part to the new king's mediocre public approval rating, the suggestion has gotten a lot of pushback. Princess Diana's former private secretary even scoffed at the idea on live television. ■ But aside from the personal popularity of the new monarch, a much bigger rule applies: In the words of an anti-monarchist group called Republic, "In a democracy it is the head of state who should be swearing allegiance to the people, not the other way around." They're quite right. ■ Every country has to decide for itself how to symbolize the state, and some choose monarchs. It's a strange choice to those who live in places like the United States, Ireland, or France, where sovereignty lies with the people, not the luckiest member of a lucky family, but traditions can be hard to break. But as Americans eye the notion of an oath of "allegiance to Your Majesty" with skepticism, we ought to consider a fluke of our own symbolism. ■ The Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't even exist until three decades after the Civil War, is a promise of loyalty "to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands". The flag is an important symbol, invested with great meaning by our rituals and worthy of considerable civic reverence. ■ But if Americans are to pledge allegiance to anything, it ought to be "to the Constitution of the United States, and to the republic which it ensures". The flag can certainly act as a stand-in symbol for the Constitution -- but not as a substitute. When sworn into office, the President swears to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", not the flag. Federal officeholders swear to "support and defend the Constitution". So do commissioned military officers and naturalized citizens. ■ The rest of us should do the same. A symbol can be manipulated or interpreted to mean lots of things -- insurrectionists even waved it on January 6th, 2021. But the Constitution means what it says. We may argue about its finer details, but the system is what preserves the American way. Whatever we might think of our friends and allies as they coronate a new king (with or without an oath of allegiance to his person), we ought to think about cleaning up our own symbolic promises of loyalty. The Constitution is the thing that matters most.


May 5, 2023

Business and Finance Play the old hits

While it's often said (and may well be true) that the strongest memories are hailed by the sense of smell, we as of now have no real way to preserve and transmit the scents we encounter in daily life. It's not like recording a person's voice or taking a photograph -- we don't have a Polaroid for odors. ■ Consequently, we're often left to rely upon images to conjure up conceptual memories of the past. Words are great for making us think, but pictures are often better at stirring up conceptual memories: Not what you were thinking at a time, but a general sensation of how you felt. ■ Living in an advanced commercial market economy, then, it's no surprise that old corporate logos can spark oddly affectionate feelings, especially if they're familiar from one's youth. Take the classic Warner Communications logo, used from 1972 unti 1984 by the Warner Brothers movie studio. For members of Generation X and some Millennials, it's an image that could easily be associated with any number of movies or TV shows from childhood -- making it a "feel-good" memory, even if there's no specific reason why. ■ Corporate identities have been valuable goods for most of the last century, considering their impact on the marketing of mass-market goods and services. But it is strange to note how many of the strongest, most durable identities came from a very limited set of creators. If it's a corporate logo originating from the 1960s through the 1980s and it's still in use, there's a very good chance it was created by Saul Bass (AT&T, Continental Airlines, Warner), Paul Rand (ABC, IBM, Westinghouse), or the team of Chermayeff and Geismar (NBC, Chase Bank, Mobil Oil). ■ Given how frequently companies change hands today -- with mergers, spinoffs, and startups peppering the financial news almost as often as existing companies launch "refreshed" brand images -- it's possible that there won't be quite as much brand-related nostalgia built into the impressionable young minds of right now. Wall Street favors "pure plays", not highly diversified companies. ■ There's also the matter that conglomerate-style corporations had a much stronger raison d'etre in that period of stronger corporate identity than they have today: The taxation and regulatory environment of the 1960s through the early 1980s, especially, favored companies that expanded into diversified industries (which is how heavy-industry conglomerate Gulf + Western got its name associated with Paramount Pictures, and why Coca-Cola briefly owned Columbia Pictures). ■ But let this be a lesson: An investor group has revived the old Westinghouse brand (a Paul Rand creation) and successfully applied it to a bunch of new products that have nothing to do with the old company. The old name and the thoughtfully-crafted classic identity still have value today. If you're sitting on the ownership of one of those dormant classic brands, you might own a treasure more valuable than you might think.

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May 6, 2023

Threats and Hazards One-way ticket out

It's often a mistake to play hardball for its own sake, but Canada's government appears to face a significant test of its mettle. A Chinese consular employee in Toronto is thought to have been targeting a member of the Canadian parliament for harassment and possibly worse. Nobody wants to see a diplomatic row over nothing, but the gravity of the situation shouldn't be understated. ■ One of the challenges for countries with free and open societies is that their very openness can be a tactical liability when faced with an adversary accustomed to the protections of darkness. It ordinarily takes a while to detect bad behavior in a free country, while unfree places can use tools like mass surveillance and snitching to keep an eye on others. ■ China's government appears to be engaged in a lot of boundary-testing right now. It's not just in the use of intimidation tactics to try to influence elected officials in Canada, it's in behavior like opening secret police stations in New York. ■ Canada might need a little bit of time to figure out the right response, but if the facts of the MP-target have been represented fairly, it shouldn't be a gentle one. Diplomacy is an exercise that depends on trust (even if incomplete) and fair dealing. Attempting to intimidate a foreign country's legislators into breaking to your will is pretty plainly a matter of cheating discussion. If rules aren't made to matter with consequences, then the entire enterprise breaks down.

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May 8, 2023

Business and Finance Real friends

When politicians refer to one another as "my friend", it's entirely possible they mean the exact opposite. It's a term also used to soften the blow of criticism, especially when it happens in writing on the Internet: "My friend, I think you need to revisit your priors on this..." ■ But we really shouldn't get comfortable with the disingenuous use of such an important title. Consider how Warren Buffett put it to use before an audience of tens of thousands of shareholders in 2023: "Ford Motor Company was on its way to the junk heap when the Whiz Kids came in, and Henry Ford II [...] brought in Tex Thornton and my friend Arjay Miller and a few people..." ■ Arjay Miller died in 2017, the last survivor among those "Whiz Kids". He achieved plenty on his own after his time at Ford, including a decade at the helm of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. But were he to be alive today and looking for a job, the only thing any rational manager would need to know prior to uttering the words "You're hired" would be that two-word endorsement from Warren Buffett: "My friend". ■ People often bend over backwards to stand out with the help of inflated LinkedIn titles, "personal brands", aspirational social-media handles, and other "influencer"-style tactics. But even in that world, no strategy is more powerful than being the kind of person whose endorsement carries instant weight. ■ If Warren Buffett calls you "my friend", you're in the door almost anywhere. It says a great deal about you -- but it reveals even more about the accrued credibility of your endorser. People will go to great lengths to make a short-term splash or to find ways to short-circuit the process of earning a reputation. But it remains certain that tactics and platforms will come and go, often in practically no time at all. Cultivating real friendships (especially those where the friends have nothing obvious to gain from one another), being generous with those friends, and earning a reputation as a trustworthy authority on questions where your own expertise is valuable will always be the path with the greatest long-term payoff.


May 9, 2023

Humor and Good News Know your golden ages

Life, as everyone knows, can only be lived in one direction: Moving forward. This, of course, deprives us of the ability to revisit past mistakes or to re-live glorious moments. That can make the former seem more painful but make the memories of the latter more treasured. ■ But the linearity of time doesn't deprive us entirely of something else. One of the great under-appreciated life skills is knowing how to recognize when you're in the midst of a golden age. It can be the golden age of a cultural wave, of a great institution, or of an economic cycle. It could be a personal golden age, a professional one, or a moment of sublime health. ■ The first step towards cultivating this life skill is to recognize that all human experiences are changing, and many, if not most, are fleeting. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." Once we accept that most experiences come with an expiration date, we can develop the habit of appreciating them while they last. ■ For a healthy person, the right act may be to pause and soak in the sensation of a body that is fully well: The "mindfulness" practice of body-scan meditation may be the way to achieve that. For the appreciator of the arts, it may be to dwell on the "history until now" of a musical genre or a class of film. For the member of a team -- at work or at play -- it may be to consciously consider just how frictionless the efforts a good squad feel in the moment. ■ We rarely know when a change is coming, or how it might break a seemingly perfect status quo. It has been noted that nostalgia for the 1990s is fierce right now, and those who experienced that period the first time around may recall a world in which the economy was booming, the Internet was still mostly magical, and peace seemed to prevail. That was before the dot-com bubble burst, before anyone heard of ransomware or the "dark web", and before the nightmare of 9/11. If anyone had known at the time just how good they had it, surely they would have wanted to preserve that feeling forever. ■ That we cannot freeze those moments eternally ought to make us appreciate the good times while we experience them all the more. And if we're clever enough, we may begin to notice that it's almost always the golden age of something, even if it's rarely a golden age of everything. We can even measure it sometimes, like the golden age of scripted television happening now. ■ Like all skills, a person must practice recognizing the gift of a moment. But in recognizing that almost all such things come and go, we might grant ourselves the reward of not only living through the times for which we might someday later be nostalgic, but also of actually sensing the greatness of a gift while it is underway.

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May 10, 2023

News Gresham's Law of politics

Gresham's Law holds that bad money chases out good, which is a compact way of saying that once convincing counterfeit currency enters circulation, people will hold on to their supplies of good money while circulating the fake money instead. Gresham's Law isn't just useful in economic thinking, it's also a useful heuristic for considering behavior in many other realms of human life. ■ If, for example, we permit bad people to enter public office and tolerate their presence, then we shouldn't be surprised if bad politicians end up chasing out the good. Teddy Roosevelt said that "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest." ■ The more we corrupt our own expectations of what officeholders ought to be, then the more we open the door to bad politicians chasing out the good. And indeed there are good politicians: To think otherwise is to exercise an unhealthy cynicism. Some are certainly wrong, and a few are sociopaths, but most are more or less cut from the same basic cloth as everyone else -- just with different motivations than those that send, say, a postal carrier or a dental hygienist off to work in the morning. But most people are good at heart, and that includes the people who enter politics. ■ But the corruption of voter expectations also happens when we persecute unnecessarily those who might be good at heart, but with whom we merely disagree. If life for the elected official is made so intolerable that no decent, self-respecting person would volunteer to run for an office, then we shouldn't be surprised if the ranks of our officeholders fill up with indecent people. ■ The over-personalization of partisan attacks is indecent. Protests held at people's homes are indecent. Speaking of our rivals and opponents as though they are sworn enemies in a blood feud is indecent. Naming staff members and revealing personal information with the obvious intent to stir up crowds to mob action is indecent (a violation prominently committed just today by an activist posing as a journalist). ■ There will always be bad people who will seek office, because bad people are often attracted to power. But from a systemic standpoint, voters need to have low tolerance for bad behavior by those they elect, and high expectations for how they themselves will respond when decent people are elected. ■ Not every policy disagreement is the result of someone's moral shortcoming. Compromise is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary to a functioning democratic system. We shouldn't only expect to be disappointed by policy outcomes from time to time, we must insist on it: Nobody gets 100% of what they want. But our tolerance for outcomes we don't like should be balanced with an intolerance for crooked behavior. Bad officials shouldn't be allowed to chase out the good.

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May 11, 2023

Business and Finance Who's your right hand?

Elon Musk has cryptically announced the hiring of a new CEO for Twitter. It's a job nobody should envy. Musk will remain actively involved, he says, as executive chair and chief technology officer -- which means the buck stops somewhere other than the CEO's desk. And when he announced his plan in December, he openly declared, "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!" ■ Musk, like many other entrepreneurs and venture-seeking investors, would benefit from engaging in real partnerships -- one-on-one, with someone he could respect as much (or at least nearly as much) as himself. But although it's easy to find colleges teaching courses on corporate finance, electives on venture capital, and workshops on mergers and acquisitions ($17,000 for a six-day session at Harvard Business School!), it's far less common to find anything like "Elements of Partnership". ■ Partnerships can be hard, but they're also in many ways leagues better than going solo or getting swallowed up inside giant investor-owned corporations. A good partnership between two ambitious, skilled individuals with complementary skills to one another is really the story of many of the great business successes of both past and present. We don't seem to explore those arrangements as much as we used to. We focus on big, exciting teams, or we focus on celebrity entrepreneurs. Not much is said about the middle. ■ A good partnership has a lot in common with a good marriage, in which two people help each other look out for blind spots and strive for better results within an atmosphere of equality. Partnerships are often the way, and Americans spend almost no time talking about them. In a world where increasing specialization seems to be rewarded ever the more, it seems sensible to ask whether the default approach to a great new venture shouldn't usually start with an "and" between two names.

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May 12, 2023

Computers and the Internet Google's very bad idea

Google has proudly announced the opening of eight new top-level domains (the part of a website address that comes last, like ".com" or ".gov"). Among them are ".zip" and ".mov", which are already well-established filename extensions (as in, ".doc" or ".txt"), for compressed files and for movies, respectively. ■ Making .zip and .mov into top-level domains is an extremely bad idea. And someone at Google should have known better and put a stop to it. Files that absolutely, positively should not be opened are going to get clicked as a result of this decision. Good cybersecurity practice says never to open a file ending in ".zip" without clear knowledge of its contents ahead of time. The same goes for most other files, including ".mov". ■ That advice is important to follow. People are often the easiest way to hack into networks. But how will cybersecurity practitioners be able to convincingly advise the people they're trying to protect not to click on things that say ".zip" if there are websites with exactly that extension in their names? That's really the only purpose of a domain name -- to be clicked! ■ Trust is vital, and so are the guardrails around trusted interactions. Top-level domains that share their letters with filename extensions only invite people with bad intentions to take advantage of their fellow human beings. And they will, certainly without delay. Blurring the lines between "things you should never click without extreme care" and "things you are being asked to click because that's exactly what they're for" is a terrible decision on the part of people who should know better. ■ If you want to hold on to an advanced civilization, you can't let unforced errors like this go through, whether you're Google or any other trustworthy institution in the world. There's no urgent need for new top-level domains -- we could have stuck with nothing but ".com" forever, and it would have been enough. People would have adapted around that arbitrary limitation. That we created many more -- including geography-based extensions like ".ly" for Libya that now find second lives as clever domain-name workarounds -- has only ever been a matter of increased convenience. ■ Everyone who likes living in a functioning society has a part to play in protecting themselves and others. Most of the time, that takes place by following the expert advice of others. But sometimes, it requires applying one's own expertise in order to put the brakes on bad ideas that could put others at undue risk. ■ Someone -- anyone -- at Google should have known enough to call this out as a bad idea. Nobody is going to die if they don't get to name their domain "mylovelywebsite.zip". But eroding good cybersecurity hygiene practices in a time when almost everything is connected? That really could get someone hurt. Don't be evil.


May 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Crash for clicks

The path to YouTube stardom has been taken by some people through some ridiculous journeys. One used corpses as props. Another leaned on antisemitism and sexism in his rise to the top of the charts. ■ And now, one dope has been convicted of obstructing a Federal investigation by destroying the evidence that he intentionally crashed an airplane for clicks. He didn't just crash the plane, he filmed himself parachuting out -- and then covered up the evidence of the hoax. ■ The Internet almost certainly hasn't increased the total number of bad people among us. But it has increased the number of opportunities and incentives for bad people to do things that probably ought to get them launched straight into the Sun. ■ Internet stardom has made some people very rich: One top revenue-generator brought in $54 million in 2021. Others have brought in tens of millions of dollars annually, too. For a line of work someone can enter with nothing more than a smartphone, those numbers are alluring. ■ But there's also generally no "coming up the ranks" -- it's not like the typical path to success in other lines of work, where one pays their dues in the early phase of a career, learns harder skills from their seniors along the way, and rises to the top after years of grinding. No, this is a field in which lots of people are shamelessly willing to offer YouTuber camps for kids at rates of $1,000 a week or more. A breakout success can mean almost instant riches, but breaking out often requires doing things well outside the mainstream. ■ And it's the counter-mainstream quality that can unintentionally reward the bad people far more often than it should. By raising the incentives to engage in extreme or shocking behavior, YouTube (and lots of other platforms similar to it) decidedly increases the exposure for those who are willing to "go there" in ways others wouldn't. There's no intuitive solution to the problem, but it's one we shouldn't ignore.

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May 15, 2023

Threats and Hazards US DOT data heisted

Some events are newsworthy, even when they are reasonably predictable. Nobody's going to be surprised if and when at least one hurricane makes landfall somewhere on the East Coast or along the Gulf of Mexico sometime this year; 2015 was the last year without a landfall. It will be newsworthy the next time the event occurs: The actual locations affected, the magnitude of the storm, and the cost of the damage are all utterly unknowable right now, even if the event itself is a near-certainty. (If not this season, there will definitely be another landfall in a subsequent season.) ■ Unfortunately, news that the US Department of Transportation was targeted in a cyberattack that exposed the personal information of 237,000 current and former employees is no surprise. The particular magnitude and timing of the attack may not have been known, but the fact that a tranche of personnel data at a Federal government agency was targeted comes as no shock at all. ■ Who was behind the attack? What methods did they use? Were adequate defensive measures in place? How sensitive was the compromised data? All are valid questions. But the big picture to bear in mind is this: Attacking a really big data set generally requires sophistication, which in turn requires tools, training, and funding. Plenty of criminal groups have the means to get returns on their cyber-theft activities without making a big stir. ■ But when someone is going after government employees -- particularly when it's a quarter-million at a time -- the first place to look for suspects is among rival state actors. 237,000 people seems like a lot to most people inside the United States; after all, that's the population of Boise, Idaho, a top-100 American city. But the authorities governing China collect data on everyone in the country. That's 1.4 billion people, or more than four times the entire population of the United States. ■ In other words, the scale of a quarter-million-employee breach sounds huge to us, but it's not even rounding error within the scale of what is likely being done to watch the people of China by a government that is known to track the locations of millions of people in real time. Stealing data related to American government employees, even a little of which might turn out to be useful for data-mining, pressure campaigns, or even kompromat, is well within reach for systems already built to that scale. ■ Americans need to realize just how much more we could easily become targets for ongoing data breaches and cyber attacks. Every day that passes means new programs being coded, new cyber-agents being trained, and more chips being fabricated. 237,000 is a big number. But it's nowhere close to what's ahead.

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May 16, 2023

News Showing up and doing the work

Everyone follows one of exactly two courses in life: One either grows older or one dies. There are no options to go in the other direction. In a youth-worshipping culture like America's, it's all too easy to conjoin perceptions of aging with expectations of decline. ■ That isn't universally the case; Norman Borlaug worked into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 81 at the Constitutional Convention. Frederick Douglass remained a tireless social crusader until he was nearly 80. It's possible for people to do many great things as they advance. ■ It is vital that we separate our assumptions about age from our expectations of capacity, so that we don't make prejudicial decisions about either the old or the young. But it is also essential that we don't use age -- either the freshness of youth or the weathering of seniority -- as an excuse, either. There should be no free passes based on chronology alone. ■ A political journalist for the Los Angeles Times -- a mainstream journalistic institution -- reports that California Senator Diane Feinstein, interviewed briefly just days after her return to the Capitol after a months-long absence, responded to questions about that return by saying, "I haven't been gone. You should...I haven't been gone. I've been working [...] I've been here." ■ Without being cruel or uncompassionate, we can acknowledge that this kind of exchange, especially when documented as part of a pattern, casts meaningful doubt on the Senator's ability to discharge the duties of office. It is cruel for anyone to say, "She is too old and thus she must go". But it is another kind of cruelty to put her in a position of high expectations if she doesn't possess the stamina or the capacity to do so. ■ In a representative democracy, the public depends upon the judgment and diligence of the people sent to make decisions on the voters' behalf. In the words of Edmund Burke, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment". In no other institution do we have higher expectations for judgment than in the United States Senate; it ought to be the place where each state sends the two wisest, most capable decision-makers they can find among them. ■ Some Senators plainly are up to the task and are tireless in giving the republic their best. Others fail to take that charge seriously and would quite obviously rather be doing other things. And some simply don't have the capacities to carry out duties in full. It's lazy to reduce any of those evaluations to merely a measurement of age. But it's also ill-advised to make either seniority or youth an excuse for holding decision-makers in office without holding them to an adequate standard of performance.

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May 17, 2023

News Don't let a computer speechwriter outshine you

A graduating high-school student in Nebraska says he used ChatGPT to write a decoy commencement address that got him selected to give a speech at graduation, from which he deviated into a much more critical address once on stage. The speech actually delivered painted an unflattering picture of fights and disengagement and a school experience the graduate "hated". ■ The selection process for the speech involved blind review and scoring by faculty, with final approval by the school's principal. This, by itself, ought to be alarming: If you're a school administrator and you rank a ChatGPT-generated speech higher than what any students submitted, that should rattle you. Either there's something wrong with the review process (suggesting it implicitly favors dull speeches that don't say anything substantial) or there's something wrong with the quality of what the students are writing. Perhaps both. ■ In a sensible world, a graduating class should pick its own commencement speakers. People graduating from high school are generally either 18 years old or on the cusp of turning that age, making them adults in the eyes of the law. Adults who are considered eligible to vote in meaningful elections at the local, state, and national levels. They ought to be considered old enough to choose who speaks for them -- literally -- at their own graduation proceedings. ■ But in a sensible world, speakers would heed this simple advice: Don't blow a commencement address on complaints. It's easy to think that the best place to be heard is when you literally have everyone's attention, like when you're on stage at a commencement. But the most effective place to levy real complaints about a culture that disappoints you is in published writing. Think: Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, or the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Those can, of course, be amplified with speeches and dramatic actions, but grievances deserve paper and ink. ■ Speeches, for all we hail them in the history books, are almost never remembered for their laundry lists. They're remembered for their tone and, usually, for a single signature line. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." "I have a dream today." "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" ■ The hook, to borrow a line from the song, is what brings the audience back to the rest of the speech. People will revisit the rest of the words in a speech if -- and often only if -- it contained a resonant theme with a line that compels them to return to it. And when it's a big speech for a turning point in life (like a commencement), the best course is to have something to say not about how bad things are, but about a vision of how they deserve to be.


May 18, 2023

Business and Finance Be patient and win later

The close of another school year brings along with it plenty of predictable news stories, like those of students accepted to lots of colleges and parents concerned about summer learning loss. Another perennial favorite story archetype is the one about students winning a class stock-picking challenge. ■ On one hand, financial education in schools is a concept that ought to be celebrated and promoted. In the Civil War era, it was often enough to teach a young man (or often, just a boy) how to farm -- and that was the extent of financial education, and why the land-grand colleges of the period remain closely affiliated with agriculture even today. Now, though, skill in farming, a trade, or even a white-collar profession isn't enough. The financial world, even for the individual, is vastly more complicated than it once was. ■ But on the other hand, unless a teacher (or a department) is committed to sticking with a cohort of students through a multi-year program, then stock-picking contests may well be counter-productive. It's useful to learn what stocks are, how much they cost, and how to buy and sell them, of course. But students are prone to getting all of the wrong ideas if their incentives are structured around winning a short-term contest. ■ Warren Buffett had these words about value-driven investing at the 2023 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting: "What gives the value investor opportunities is other people doing dumb things, and now it's easier to get money to do dumb things...So many people are short-term-focused. Much opportunity still exists for people who can think long-term." ■ But by "long-term", Buffett is talking on a scale of years and decades, not a semester, or even a school year. If a student team had bought shares of Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, at the start of the 2020 spring semester, the price of those shares would have cratered over the course of that semester. Berkshire shares dropped from $226 a share in January to $200 a share by the end of May. That would have looked like a catastrophe in a classroom stock-picking contest. Yet those shares today, just seven semesters later, are up to nearly $330 a share. ■ The prudent move for a long-term investor in the spring of 2020 would have been to keep on buying as prices continued to drop -- the return on the shares bought at the end of that spring 2000 semester would have been even better than on the ones bought when the price was higher at the start of the semester. In other words, the smart long-term lesson is exactly the opposite of the lesson a normal student would have gathered from the experience of losing a one-semester classroom contest. ■ The way to win that contest would have been to buy shares in Zoom at $67 a share in January 2020, for a great semester-long return on a price of $207 a share at the end of May 2020. Today, though, Zoom is back down to about $69 a share -- yielding virtually no long-term return at all. ■ In the end, everyone is measured as a long-term investor, whether it's the result of a long series of short-term choices or (usually) a much smaller number of long-term choices. Merely buying and holding a broad index like the S&P 500 at the start of 2020 would have been a losing choice for a semester-length contest -- but it would have crushed the returns on short-term winner Zoom if held until today. ■ And that's the lesson it's most important to convey to students: Make a few careful decisions, then have the constancy to stomach ups and downs for much longer than a semester. That's how to win in the way that really counts for your finances in life.

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May 21, 2023

News Room service: No number, please

With so much security theater taking place in the modern world around us, it can be altogether too easy for individuals to come to believe that security is a product delivered by other people (the TSA, antivirus software makers, armed guards, credit-card companies, and countless others), when it is actually a process constantly underway that requires the active participation of all decent people of goodwill. ■ Consider the routine act of a hotel check-in. Attorney Michelle Strowhiro praises the night auditor of a Texas hotel for a simple but highly security-conscious act: "Ray wrote my hotel room number on the key envelope, pointed to it, & said: 'This is your room number. I'm not going to say it out loud.'" ■ The practice of keeping quiet about a traveler's room number is increasingly widespread, but it's not universal yet. That much is worth changing institutionally; every chain ought to make it standard operating procedure to discreetly write the number so that it cannot be eavesdropped or snooped by a passerby or by someone else in line. But it is quite nearly just as important for check-in staff to advise guests of the value of that discretion. ■ It's not uncommon for guests to check in when they are tired, distracted, or under some form of stress. And people under stressful conditions do not make decisions in the same way as people acting without stress. Gentle reminders to take part in one's own guest security (for instance, by not blabbing aloud about room numbers) are prudent ways for hoteliers to enhance the security process. "I'm not going to say it out loud" is an unobtrusive way of hinting "And you shouldn't, either". ■ Security is never really permanent, since those out to do wrong will perpetually have incentives to find ways around whatever new obstacles we put up: Despite the Maginot Line, France still fell quickly in World War II. Everyone has a significant part to play in their own security, and the more often and thoughtfully we are nudged to take that role seriously, the better -- even when checking in at a hotel.

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May 22, 2023

News More than a job

Sometimes it must be assumed that people share absurd opinions on social media for the express purpose of generating engagement via click-rage. Little else could explain just shockingly bad advice like one person's advice: "Don't fall in love from 22-29, there's to[o] much to lose. Your career will thank you." ■ Far better advice would be, "Don't become monomaniacal from 22-29; there's too much to lose." A single-minded obsession with one's career at that age is terrible advice on a human level, generally: Nobody ever knows when they might be struck down by injury or illness far before their prime, and to have squandered one's twenties on career alone could turn out to be a grave error. ■ But even as career advice, "Focus exclusively on your job" is a terrible recommendation. A person may certainly take pains to control when or whether they choose to escalate from "falling in love" to "raising a family"; that's perfectly fine. But love is an entirely healthy and reasonable part of a well-rounded life. So are friendships. And so are the non-occupational pursuits that put us into positions that expose us to opportunities to find friends or fall in love. ■ A person who doesn't afford themselves the opportunity to do those other things -- by joining a recreational bowling league, or volunteering at a hospital, or worshipping with a faith community, or having meals with others -- is guilty of cutting themselves off from the prospect of a well-integrated life. Hobbies and club memberships and travel all serve to make a person's life experience not only more extensive, but more whole. ■ That wholeness is important, first and foremost, as a part of one's biography. In the words of Ben Sasse, "Many of us might be unintentionally displacing lifelong 'eulogy virtues' in favor of mere 'resume virtues.'" But that integration of one's life inside and outside of work is also important in the strictly occupational sense, too: Experiences in lower-stakes environments give people practice in how they will respond to challenges in higher-stakes environments. ■ The person who shirks their duties at the Rotary Club or who cheats on a golf game may well be the type most others would want to avoid in business, too. But the person who can lift a little more than their share of the load or who can welcome a newcomer in environments where there's no supervisor watching is the kind of person who gets practice in the essential soft skills that matter so much elsewhere -- especially in an economy where services outweigh goods two-to-one. How we engage with other people matters a great deal. To think "your career will thank you" for behaving otherwise is delusional.

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May 23, 2023

Health Take the sick day

No small number of sitcoms not that long ago depended on the premise of a main character showing up to work sick, usually to be goaded by co-workers into "sucking it up" and muddling through without taking the day off. The office flu used to be a gag that even "Cheers" leaned upon. ■ Funny how a pandemic drove a stake right through the heart of that premise. Nobody wants to be Patient Zero anymore, and that's a good thing: Americans and our work-driven cultural mentality need to know that it's not only prudent to take a break once in a while, it's the only responsible choice to stay home when potentially contagious. ■ It's possible that in the long run, we will either forget the lessons of the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic -- or, perhaps more likely, those who remember the lessons will leave the workplace, and their successor generations won't have the same "muscle memory" for the value of staying home. But it would be much better if we were to strike a healthy balance between the virtues of attendance and the public-health responsibility to stay away from time to time. ■ Fixing that cultural hangup starts as early as elementary school, where achieving perfect attendance ought to be treated a little like winning a lottery ("Congratulations! You didn't happen to be sick on a school day all year!"). It's tricky to find the right rewards and commendations for avoiding voluntary absences while not skewing the incentives in such a way that well-intentioned kids show up when they should be home in bed. But that policy balance is important to seek. ■ Likewise for the workplace. Educational truancy and workplace absenteeism are both to be discouraged, but not at the expense of spreading contagion to everyone else. Among the many good ideas still worth implementing in most workplaces, achieving the right environment so that people feel valued enough that they want to show up (and value their colleagues enough not to show up when they oughtn't) probably ranks right up there alongside the considerably under-explored field of improving indoor air quality. Regardless, it will probably be some time before the sick day plays a central role in anything written for laughs.

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May 24, 2023

News What death has to do with life

Upon his untimely death at the age of 57, the artist (usually) known as Prince is reported to have left behind a vault containing a nearly unfathomable 8,000 unreleased songs at various stages of completion. Other artists have left behind unreleased and incomplete music, but none of them come close to that kind of an archive yet to be widely discovered. ■ Tina Turner, who has now passed away at age 83, might have stored away some surprises for future discovery, but it's likely that we already know most of her oeuvre -- a big one. The world will undoubtedly replay her ten studio albums and 72 singles for at least a few generations to come. (And rightly so.) ■ Yet for most people, it won't be an ongoing catalog of performances that keep our names on others' lips after we die. That is often the work of rituals (like visiting a cemetery for Memorial Day), family genealogy enthusiasts, and occasional chance forays into dusty old yearbooks or photo albums. ■ Counterintuitively, though, recalling the names of the dead is a meaningful way of channeling the behavior of the living. By necessity, nations often hail "glory to the heroes" of battle. But it's good to praise the names of those who led more pedestrian lives with decency and honor -- and to curse the ones who did wrong when they should have known better. ■ Everyone lives in a race against mortality, even though we don't often want to acknowledge it. Passing judgment on the choices of our forebears and actively seeking to make the awareness of that judgment a guardrail on the behavior of the living shouldn't be underestimated as tools for getting people to behave well even when the good behavior doesn't appear to have immediate rewards. ■ Some people will be remembered mainly for the artistic or tangible works they leave behind, but most won't. Those lives matter intrinsically (which is why they are marked with gravestones and other commemorations), but they can continue to teach if we let them. Recounting an old name is not unlike remixing a classic hit to make it fresh once again.


May 25, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone, but not always

One of humanity's key evolutionary advantages is the ability to store, process, and retrieve our knowledge externally. We write our to-do lists on paper, document our best procedures in textbooks, execute complex processes through teamwork, and store information in databases. Even the simple act of storytelling reflects the ways in which oral traditions permitted our ancestors to store knowledge in common: The Epic of Gilgamesh might not be a stunningly factual account, but it doesn't seem likely that any other animal species are telling inter-generational tales like we can. ■ Even swapping tales with old friends is a practice in retrieving and recalling old information that may even be autobiographical, but of which we don't have to carry the whole, each by ourselves. Get married, some say, so that you only have to remember half of what you "know". This externalization of memory is a powerful advantage for human beings, and it's probably shaped human history to an extent none of us can fathom. ■ But what we know is different from how we feel, and it seems likely that there is some measure of peril in storing our feelings externally. Surely everyone knows someone who can't help but spill every minute emotional encounter all over everyone around. Some are emotional vampires. Some compulsively over-share their intimate thoughts with their social-media networks. Others are just full-time drama queens. ■ The mechanisms that enhance our ability to store and recall knowledge can have pernicious effects on how we process and moderate our emotions. That starts with the imperfection of detailing our feelings in the same ways we document knowledge; it's often only a rough translation, at best. Putting feelings into words is a challenge as old as language itself. ■ But the hazard goes much further than that. One of the key developmental steps in healthy emotional management is learning how to acknowledge feelings and work with them in healthy ways. As the therapist Philippa Perry writes, "This is what a child needs: for a parent to be a container for their emotions. This means you are alongside them and know and accept what they feel but you are not being overwhelmed by their feelings." And it's what makes the ring theory so helpful in psychology: The person at the center of emotional trouble can find relief by leaning on others who are less directly affected, with the suffering being allowed to dissipate as more degrees of separation from the immediate problem are enlisted to share the burden. ■ The tools -- especially the electronic ones -- that allow us to store, retrieve, and transmit useful information more easily than ever before are phenomenal for the things we know. But they can imprison people into reliving the same emotional injuries over and over, deprive others of the kind of moderation that follows from quietly processing their own feelings before sharing, and expose lots of bystanders to the kinds of strong feelings that might be better dissipated by distance and time. On the Internet, the death of your mail carrier's uncle's golden retriever can abruptly become a tragedy from which you cannot escape. ■ This isn't a problem we can outsource to artificial intelligence or manage through Solomonic regulations. It's a human incongruity between the great good some of our tools can do to make us smarter and the expansive harm they can do if allowed to stunt us emotionally. Yet discussing the problem openly and grappling with it is a vital human undertaking -- especially knowing how much of the fundamental nature of it is the same as it was hundreds and even thousands of years ago. ■ "[W]henever a man thinks about something that distresses him, and worry, grief, or sadness crop up in him, it can be due only to one of two things: either he is thinking about a matter that has already taken place [...] or else he is thinking about matters he expects and whose advent he dreads", in the words of Maimonides. Only now, it is possible to indulge in those feelings non-stop. People haven't changed, but people's tools have.

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May 28, 2023

News Balance the load

In markets where Amazon has a large enough presence, it's possible to have some deliveries made in the overnight hours. Most consumers would probably view the offer as a matter of convenience (why not get an item at 7am instead of 5pm?), and possibly as an option to reduce the risk of porch piracy (with the package spending less time on the front doorstep than a delivery made in the middle of a work day). ■ But it's surprising that overnight delivery isn't promoted more heavily in Amazon's own self-interest. Using the streets when fewer other drivers are about would have to be of no small advantage, in terms of time lost in traffic and accident risk. And while many delivery drivers would rather keep to conventional working hours, surely some would prefer to be out and about when the roads contain fewer drivers, the sidewalks contain fewer children, and yards contain fewer unleashed pets. ■ If the workplace disruptions of 2020 and onwards have taught us anything, the most important lesson ought to be the virtue of load-balancing. Lots of work takes place during what we might call "surge" hours, simply because that's what we've always done in the past. But when office workers were sent home en masse, no small number of them chose to get things done late at night or early in the morning. ■ Plenty of fortunes are yet to be earned by finding new breakthroughs in technology and innovations in processes. But there's a lot yet to be gained by balancing out the use of many existing resources, from surface streets to electricity to potable water to labor supply, all of which are consumed in their own ways at lumpy intervals. Smoothing those out will continue to be a useful frontier.

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May 30, 2023

Science and Technology Looking out the window

Plenty of people alive today are no more than one or two generations removed from ancestors who lived before the Wright Brothers launched the age of powered flight in 1903. It would do many of us some good to ponder this kind of thing once in a while. Only a couple of generations ago, literally nobody had ever gotten to see above the clouds without climbing a mountain. Now, a passenger just has to look out the cabin window of a jet airplane. ■ It's easy to underestimate and underappreciate the dramatic changes that have improved life in our own times and in the times that preceded us. Technologies often streak from magic to mundane in about as much time as it takes for a child born at the technology's outset to reach legal adulthood. We only incentivize this pipeline from adoption to presumption by rewarding people for being "digital natives" -- or whatever broad generational definition for technophiles is yet to come. ■ To appear to take advancements for granted is often the price of entry into the world of "cool". After William Shatner took a brief ride into space, he wrote, "when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold...all I saw was death." Not cool. It would have been much cooler to say that the trip felt like no big deal. ■ But we should take that moment to look out the cabin window -- and to really consider just how much change can take place in an astonishingly short time. Not because the time itself is the material subject at hand, but because of the fragility it represents. All of the human progress that has been made in virtually every area that matters has been iterative, not breakthrough. We often consider the Wright Brothers' success as a breakthrough, but it was really the result of persistent, methodical effort built on a foundation of research and support. And nearly everything that has happened since that time to permit the ordinary air traveler to see above the clouds has also taken place one small piece at a time. ■ Our entire modern world is built on complex relationships, narrow specialties, and, above all, basic mutual trust. None of it works if we can't trust one another -- to do our best at our specialties individually, to follow through on our promises, and to stay out of the way when others peacefully engage in whatever they choose to do either for fun or for profit. ■ Those who make their way by promising aggressive disruption or by threatening to boldly dismantle systems and institutions out of spite are dangerously prone to wrecking things far beyond their own intent. Having a firm appreciation for just how elaborate the structures of the world have evolved to be is the first step towards understanding how delicate our modern comforts often are.

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