Gongol.com Archives: June 2023

Brian Gongol


June 2023
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June 1, 2023

News Don't forget

As school lets out for the summer across the United States, well-meaning teachers will inevitably grow anxious about summer learning loss -- the slippage widely believed to occur as kids are away from the classroom. Whether the evidence is quite as bad as the perception of the issue may be another story, but given the pointed decline in test scores after Covid-related school shutdowns, it's hard to argue that kids are capable of learning and retaining quite as well when they're spending their summers "free range" as when they're bound to the classrooms in the colder months of the year. ■ Notwithstanding the finer details of helping children find motivation to keep sharp on what they've learned during the school year, it's hard to think of any fundamental parenting project more useful than nudging kids to find something -- anything -- in which to take a recreational interest. ■ It is the largely unstructured nature of childhood summers that often makes them so appealing. Play is spectacularly important to human development, and adults should carve out lots of latitude for kids to engage in play, no matter how hard structure tries to intrude upon summer vacation. ■ But curiosity often does need just a little bit of outside help: A spark turns into a roaring campfire usually when someone blows gently on it. It's no use to overwhelm the dry tinder, but it's also usually not enough to hope it catches all on its own. Adults often do the most good by giving childhood curiosity just a little bit of help: A few extra trips to the library, a couple of explorational tools, or a nudge to explore for an answer to a question without resorting to a YouTube tutorial. ■ Many kids will take the summer off and return to classrooms in the fall without any apparent slippage at all. Others will surrender some of the prior year's gains. But the more we can invite young people to at least stay curious (and to grow more so independently), the better off everyone will emerge in the long run.


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June 2, 2023

The United States of America Bring in the governors

Every four years, ego, delusion, or a sense of destiny compels more than a few people to decide that the time is now for them to step forward and offer up their incomparable talents for the good of leading the nation. One of them becomes President. ■ In the most sensible scenario, American voters would insist on a prequalification beyond the basic Constitutional requirements. For two reasons, one obvious and the other considerably less so, we generally ought to draw those candidates from the ranks of current and former governors. ■ The obvious reason is that there is no simulator program for the Oval Office. You can learn to make an emergency landing in an airliner that way, but the 3 a.m. phone call is harder to practice. But despite the obvious differences, the role of the governor -- not a CEO, not a Senator, not a celebrity -- is the closest thing we have to that of the President. The Presidency is bigger, of course, but the difference is more of scale than of form. As with airline pilots, practice matters. ■ The less-obvious reason is the value of a screening mechanism. Candidates naturally tout their successes, but it's more important to screen out people who fail under stress. Governors have been toppled just in the last two decades by unpopular decision-making, sexual harassment, and naked corruption. Screening out those governors before they could become candidates for the Presidency quite likely served a very useful public purpose. ■ Some of our best Presidents, of course, were never governors; Washington and Lincoln both came to office without being state-level chief executives first. But it's likely that anyone who went on to be a successful President would have cleared a term in office as a governor if voters had expected them to do that first. Eisenhower and Bush (41) undoubtedly had what it would have taken to be good governors en route to the Presidency. But four years (or more) in a governor's chair might have exposed the shortcomings in others, like Harding or Nixon, who ultimately failed the public in higher office. ■ Successes are important, and it's worthwhile to expect a successful candidate to have some victories to show off. But discerning voters ought to demand that candidates expose themselves to big opportunities to fail, and that requires time facing challenges and temptations that are hard to mimic at a scale close enough to the Presidency to matter. But expecting ambitious people to take a chance to fail before running for the nation's highest office seems like a smart test for our own common good.


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June 3, 2023

News Informing the future with the past

It's hard to say how much worse-off the world is just because the cadre in power in a single country refuses to accept the possibility of real criticism from the public. But 1.4 billion people remain deprived of political conditions so basic that Americans routinely forget that they are credited directly in the First Amendment: The right to protest peaceably, and the right to petition the government with grievances. ■ Since 1989, China's government has played a game of cat-and-mous with the facts of Tiananmen Square. The protests were huge and sustained, the protesters voiced clear demands, and people died for the cause. Yet China's government persists in trying to erase the past from any current review. ■ Many things are wrong with America's government, and those should be addressed. But however short it fails on other accounts, America knows that it gets things wrong, and that correcting a bad way is better than covering it up. June 4, 1989 happened.


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June 4, 2023

News Don't cut it so close

When pressed last month to describe the systemic strengths of the United States, Charlie Munger pivoted to a broader question and advised, "I think the road ahead to human happiness is to expect less." He wasn't speaking explicitly of the behavior of Congress, but it's a appropriate advice nonetheless. Particularly in light of the too-close call to suspend the Federal debt ceiling and avoid default, "Expect less" is even better advice than it first appears. ■ In terms of performance, we should expect no less than we do now. Failing to reach a sensible agreement until the absolute last moment is a mark of dysfunction and incapacity, neither of which should pass muster with American voters. If your member of Congress was a holdout, they are part of the problem and you should hold them accountable. ■ But in terms of ambition, we really should expect less. It should be self-evident that we (as a voting public) are expecting more of Congress than they are willing, institutionally, to deliver. Regular order is nowhere to be seen, and there is room enough for a bipartisan caucus full of people who would plainly rather be putting on performances for media consumption than getting legislation passed. ■ The vast majority of states are population or economic peers with recognizable countries. One of the great gifts of the Constitutional order is that those states don't have to invest substantial time or resources conducting foreign affairs or coordinating national defense; Washington does all that. All else being equal, the result should be greater innovation and policy quality coming out of individual states than from their international peers. Yet does it feel that way? ■ Lowering our expectations for what Congress and the Federal government should try to do would permit us to raise our expectations for what they actually execute upon. Keep the task list short, but demand reliable performance. Meanwhile, recalibrating our rubric for the elected officials in Washington ought to leave us with more scrutiny to apply on the state level, where problems are already closer to home than they look from the District of Columbia. The pinch with the debt ceiling should give us the impetus to pull answers from closer rather than farther awaay.


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June 5, 2023

Computers and the Internet Where can we find the emergency brake?

New technologies almost invariably bring about both good and bad uses; going all the way back to the first tools invented by our prehistoric ancestors, we find that the same knife that can be used to hunt game to feed a family can also be used to commit murder. With very few exceptions, technology is value-neutral; its good or bad use is in the hands of the people using it. ■ The human element, which not only involves operational supervision but also judgment about its use, is what makes the explosive arrival of large-scale artificial intelligence tools such an imminent cause for concern. On one hand, we have this widely-signed statement of the Center for AI Safety: "Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war." Heady stuff. On the other hand, we have AI-topians sharing "hacks" like "Here's how to get a professional therapist for free [by training ChatGPT]". ■ As researcher Neil Renic notes of that latter group, "These people are rightly ridiculed for their exaggerated faith in AI. But worse is their miserable lack of faith in humans and meaningful connection between humans." It's telling, isn't it? Instead of discussing how the technology could be used to train more and better human therapists (which is not only a conceivable goal, but a highly worthwhile one!), certain of the AI-topians want to fervently believe that a conscience-less technology can take a human's place within a deeply intimate relationship. ■ There are right and wrong answers when it comes to new technology. We don't know all of them yet, but it's imperative to get to work on defining some workable heuristics as swiftly as possible. A good starting heuristic might go like this: Are we using AI to replace human judgment? Danger! Use extreme caution. Are we using AI to enhance human judgment? Proceed carefully, putting safeguards in place to slow down the unintended consequences and installing kill-switch options wherever possible. ■ Warren Buffett cautioned an audience about AI last month: "When I'm told something can do all things, I get worried because you can't uninvent it. We invented the atom bomb out of necessity during World War II, but was it really a good thing for the next 200 years? AI can change a lot, but it can't change how people think." What makes artificial intelligence unique in this regard is that its overwhelming use advantage is to act faster than human judgment can supervise. ■ Becoming too enamored with that power puts us at risk of omitting vital checks along the way: The tracks of a railroad certainly automate away a huge number of individual decisions that would otherwise need to be made by a conductor steering a load down a road, but we still give train engineers emergency brakes to help avoid or mitigate disasters. Sooner or later, we'll uncover the need for similar "emergency brakes" on AI technologies, to ensure that human judgment still plays a dispositive role. Let's hope it's sooner.


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June 7, 2023

News Advancing without exploiting

Every worthwhile school of thought needs new advocates with every new generation. Whether it's a philosophical school, a religious faith, or a political perspective, the need for patrons (in the sense of "a special guardian, protector, or supporter") can't be avoided. Without them, the school of thought gathers dust or fades into obscurity. ■ Occasionally, they're rescued from the deepest archives -- but not often. Religions can die out (the Shakers are down to two). So can political movements (the Whigs are no more). Philosophies can disappear, too (good luck finding the works of Diogenes). In general, survival depends upon active engagement and promotion by new advocates in each generation. ■ To be useful, patrons need to be thoughtful enough to add to the canon without trying to overshadow it, and authentically passionate enough to be heard without being hucksters or profiteers. It can be hard to uncover people who are capable enough to add to a canon without thinking they're even bigger than the people who came along before them. It can also be hard to find people who can insert an established school of thought into the contemporary world without putting the spotlight mainly on themselves. A modest, humble, but determined "special guardian" can be invaluable. ■ For how important that role is, what isn't obvious is how people learn to carry it out. It's not hard to find people who trip well across the line of profiteering: Christianity, for instance, has had no trivial number of empire-building self-promoters whose commitment to self-enrichment exceeded their commitment to the message. And Christianity is far from being the only school of thought caught up in such waves of exploitation. ■ Just as the modern world has made occupational and academic disciplines out of management, marketing, and human resources, so too ought we to find the green shoots of a discipline in patronizing a school of thought -- not passively, as a consumer, but actively and constructively. To be an active patron takes a range of skills that aren't immediately obvious, nor consistently bundled together in any existing disciplines: It takes a combination of historical knowledge, promotional finesse, persuasive power, and innovative thinking. ■ If it is possible to make nascent fields out of leadership studies and marketing analytics, then surely there ought to be room in both our imaginations and in our schools for the study of how to preserve and advance philosophical schools without corrupting or profiteering from them.

Weather and Disasters Bad wildfires, great sunsets

The Canadian wildfires are a terrible development, but the hues at sunset are pretty spectacular

Computers and the Internet Abuse of the word "satisfying" is deeply dissatisfying

At least 50% of the watchbait posts on Facebook that use the word "satisfying" really ought to say "repulsive" instead. Truth in advertising and whatnot.


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June 8, 2023

News If you prosecute a Speaker

In mathematics and logic, one of the possible conditional statements is written "iff" -- the regular word "if", but with a second "f" tacked on the end. "Iff" is a shorthand method of writing "if and only if". An iff statement is meant to foreclose on any possible alternatives within the realm of imagination: There is one way in to an iff statement, and one way out. ■ As a matter of prudential judgment, a former chief of any branch of the Federal government -- a Chief Justice, a Speaker of the House, or a President -- ought to be prosecuted by the criminal justice system iff the prosecutor is convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that their guilt is indisputable in light of the available evidence. For the good of the country, now and in the future, the first Federal indictment of a former President had better meet such a standard. ■ America has withstood bad, incompetent, and even evil people in high offices before. James Buchanan, for instance, ought to face the perpetual condemnation of history for dithering instead of quashing the brewing Civil War. But criminal prosecution wouldn't have been justified. ■ But on the other hand, Dennis Hastert, once Speaker of the House, went to Federal prison for financial crimes related to sexual abuse against minors that occurred long before he led the Article I branch of government. The crimes were provable, and Hastert confessed. ■ Criminal prosecution plainly cannot be used as a tool to settle scores or exact retribution against political foes. That would be an abuse of power. But leaving plainly evident crimes unpunished is also a road straight to disaster, since it would be the excuse of abuse of power. ■ It is a symptom of corrupted perceptions for anyone to view it differently for an ex-President to be prosecuted than for an ex-Speaker or an ex-Chief Justice. We don't seem to have had much malfeasance among the justices, but there is nothing Constitutionally sound about treating anyone more gently for having led the executive branch than for having led the legislature instead. They are components of the same whole. ■ Prosecutions of such a magnitude must not be executed for light and transient causes. But if the evidence really is incontrovertible, then the consequences for withholding a justified prosecution could be disastrous.


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June 9, 2023

Computers and the Internet A bygone age, not that long ago

After computers went mainstream, but before we had anything quite like the modern Internet, we had CD-ROM encyclopedias. These digital publications -- Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta, and a handful of others -- offered the informational breadth of a shelf full of heavy books, but with the relative convenience of machine accessibility (not to mention dot-matrix printing capability). ■ The brief phenomenon of the CD-ROM encyclopedia does a rather tidy job of capturing the zeitgeist of the 1990s: Americans, broadly speaking, still had the sort of boundless self-confidence that undergirded a belief that all of the world's knowledge could be authoritatively recorded in one place. But alongside that confidence was the youthful enthusiasm of a rapidly unfolding high-tech age: Suddenly, we could store all of that knowledge in a miniscule fraction of the space of the classic bookshelf encyclopedia set. ■ America had just won the Cold War, the economy was booming, and the soundtrack to everything was spectacular. It was, overall, a magnificently optimistic time to be alive. And comparatively innocent, too: Terrorism existed, but 9/11 hadn't happened yet. Violence was problematic, too, but crime was declining and school shootings hadn't yet become a deplorable social contagion. ■ The unusual confluence of massive historical waves created a sense of the moment that really can't be recreated, no matter what kind of alchemy we might try. Even the words "right now" worked their way into multiple popular songs, hinting that even in the midst of it all, people were aware (if only incompletely) that the era was extraordinary. ■ Nevertheless, lots of important things are much better now than they were in the era of the CD-ROM encyclopedia. Our smartphones are faster than the supercomputers of then. Science is starting to outsmart cancer with vaccines. Per-capita economic activity has grown by well over 50%. Significant civil rights have been expanded and incorporated into law. ■ People are quick to point out the inconsistencies, shortcomings, and hypocrisies of our own age, and we are right to try to drum them out. But we also owe ourselves (and especially our children) the grace to recognize that there are lots of reasons to feel even better about our condition than many of us did in the last widespread era of really good feelings. ■ Right here and right now, we have more power, more knowledge, and more resources than ever to fix what's wrong. And we can look all the way back to more than a century ago to hear Teddy Roosevelt coaching us on to do so: "We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, and the courage and the virtue to do them."


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June 11, 2023

News Making advocates through honors

Some people know and care a great deal about the Tony Awards. Others are only familiar with Broadway in a more passing sense. But there's one particular lesson that anyone can take away from The American Theatre Wing (and its counterparts in Hollywood, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). ■ The lesson is that every organization that wants to survive in the long term needs to create and celebrate a semi-exclusive annual award, make a big show out of presenting it, and give it to the people most likely to make a big deal about the award themselves. ■ Awards cement loyalty. The one vital thing a good awardee will do is try everything in their power to build up the institution that gave them the award. This is a basic matter of alignment of interests: What's good for the awarding organization thus becomes personally good for the awardee. ■ Most organizations aren't going to have a telecast on CBS to grant their annual honors. That's fine. But the institution benefits when it does everything within its reach to hype the prestige of the award, to the largest audience it can obtain. As with the Doomsday Machine in "Dr. Strangelove", the whole point is lost if you keep it a secret. You have to tell the world. ■ None of this needs to be a crass or cynical exercise, either. The people most deserving of an award are already the people most likely (in most groups) to be vocal and enthusiastic advocates for the organization, anyway. But it certainly doesn't hurt institutional survival to make those advocates materially invested in the perpetuation of the organization: If you're named to the Order of St. Gregory the Great, you're probably not about to turn around and advocate for the deposition of the Pope. ■ But too many groups invest too little energy in granting (and subsequently celebrating) awards. If you want your institution to survive, then conveying an annual personal award should be a part of the plan from Day One of your charter. That goes for your trade group, your church, your alumni foundation, and your Little League alike. If you're making honorees, you're making advocates.


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June 14, 2023

Broadcasting Futuristic currents

A company by the quirkily ambitious yet intentionally retro-inspired name of "Super Hi-Fi" is trying to do something entirely anti-historical. In place of living human beings delivering news, weather, and traffic, Super Hi-Fi offers "an AI-powered weather service" delivered "with natural-sounding AI voices". ■ Much of modern life is already touched by synthetic voices. Siri, Alexa, and "Hey Google" all talk to us from a fabricated digital domain. Before them, GPS devices told people where to drive, the Emergency Alert System delivered warnings through "Paul", and the Speak and Spell challenged kids to get their letters in the right order. ■ From that perspective, maybe fully-synthetic artificial-intelligence weather forecasts are nothing more than the obvious natural progression of technology. Large radio station owners certainly have been trying to bring their human headcounts as close as possible to zero, and automating weather forecasts gives them the option to deliver the "currents" without having anybody in the studio. ■ But we can be absolutely sure that AI-produced weather forecasts are going to lead to some spectacular bloopers. Automated weather tools, while highly reliable, occasionally encounter data drops, unreliable observations, and midstream technical issues. ■ A human being can anticipate errors and hack a plausible workaround. But it can be guaranteed that a computer trying to do the same will, at least once in a while, come up with something fantastically inappropriate. When you take humans entirely out of the decision-making chain, those will be the inevitable consequences.


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June 15, 2023

News "High workload, stress, and task saturation"

One of the most hair-raising videos a reasonable person could ever watch is completely free of special effects. In fact, it's almost completely devoid of motion altogether. And yet, the four-and-a-half-minute NTSB animation of the flight path of US Airways Flight 1549 (the "Miracle on the Hudson") is bound to snap the smart viewer to attention. ■ From bird strike to splashdown is a matter of just 212 seconds. Harrowing seconds, for certain. But from the communication with Air Traffic Control and within the cockpit, the observer would never guess. A life-or-death situation was handled with the most exceptional level-headedness, focus, and calm that a human could bring to such a task. ■ Two aspects of the NTSB's conclusions are specifically noteworthy: First, "Although the Engine Dual Failure checklist did not fully apply to the accident event, it was the most applicable checklist contained in the quick reference handbook to address the event". Second, "The professionalism of the flight crewmembers and their excellent crew resource management during the accident sequence contributed to their ability to maintain control of the airplane". ■ The NTSB's first comment documents that there was literally no playbook for what to do -- the crew had to solve an extraordinary and life-threatening challenge with their own wits. The second comment expressly acknowledges that the crew's capacity to remain calm was at the very top of the list of reasons why everyone on board survived -- despite "high workload, stress, and task saturation" (extreme understatement, indeed). ■ Most people will never pilot an airplane, much less face a near-disaster like Flight 1549. But everyone faces challenges, including some extraordinary ones for which there may be no playbook. We can't anticipate every possible crisis that might unfold, but we can practice how to respond to "high workload, stress, and task saturation". ■ The problem all too often in evidence today is that it's easy to find examples of people flying off the handle at minor provocations, crumbling upon the encounter of the slightest stress, catastrophizing everything, or generally dealing with events with the self-control of a drug-addled gorilla. And these examples are all too often celebrated and amplified by audiences who think it's a virtue to react with extreme passions. ■ Feelings are natural and real -- and often quite domineering. That's exactly why we humans have to practice managing how and when to let them out, and how and when to contain them. Many of the forces shaping our reality right now tend to amplify the most animalistic and emotional responses (that's how to get clicks, after all). But the real virtue is found in learning how to deal with life's inevitable "task saturation" incidents using the kind of self-control that sees things through to a salutary end. You're not going to land an airliner in the Hudson, but every one of us can certainly strive to emulate the calm of the people who did.


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June 16, 2023

Broadcasting The good in consumer television

Not that many years ago, the seat pocket in front of most air travelers contained three items: A safety card, an airsickness bag, and a copy of SkyMall. Though the last of the airlines stopped carrying SkyMall in 2015, the notion was sound. Bored travelers looking to amuse themselves in an era before free in-flight streaming could leaf through the pages of an objectively silly catalog of items. Most would buy nothing, but a few, perhaps under the influence of diminished oxygen levels, would find a novelty item irresistible and place an order. ■ The appeal of SkyMall wasn't far removed from that of "The Price is Right", America's favorite show to watch while you're a kid home sick from school. The unapologetic commercialism is the fun. It's not deep, it's not preachy, and it's free from any political agenda. It's just a celebration of the unvarnished sensation of consumer pleasure: Getting a thing you want for no other reason than that it's within your grasp and you (perhaps only fleetingly) want it. ■ Despite the proliferation of streaming services and channels tailor-made for every interest, there somehow remains room on the television dial for lots of channels devoted to nothing more than the amusement of stay-at-home shopping. In the Des Moines market alone, one can count several such stations, including "ShopLC", "Jewelry Television", and Home Shopping Network (both HSN-1 and HSN-2). There's a QVC affiliate, too. ■ At first, the observer might be bewildered that the stations can even afford to remain on the air (after all, how many people in a market of about a million viewers are even aware those channels exist, much less watching and buying things from them?). But perhaps we should set aside those bean-counting concerns and simply applaud the fact those channels are around. ■ A truly unfathomable number of hours are spent watching screens in American households. And the older people get, the more television they watch: Seniors are glued to the tube, on average, for about four hours a day. While we might like to imagine that the alternative to television viewing is time spent reading the classics or taking up woodcarving, it's a lot more likely that passive media consumption is the preferred mode of behavior for many. ■ And if that's the case, it may well be in the general public interest for many of those passive consumers to be plugged in to shows touting non-stick cookware and portable cordless fans rather than getting overheated and underinformed about more contentious matters, like politics. Just like SkyMall was a mainly harmless way to pass the time for people strapped into an aluminum tube zipping through the skies, perhaps the continued survival of at-home shopping channels is a mainly harmless way to keep at least some people blissful and mild.


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June 17, 2023

Threats and Hazards If only they had a Third Amendment

We Americans often scoff at our own 3rd Amendment; who can even conceive the notion of being forced to quarter soldiers in their own home? Yet a government unconstrained by the rule of law will engage in whatever suits the immediate interests of the ruling power, just like this.

Computers and the Internet The real switching costs of social media

Given the number of high-stakes (and often really stupid) choices being made by social-media sites, lots of people wonder whether any service will emerge as a central "public square" after all the dust has settled. The basic argument assumes that the network effects are so prevalent that the natural advantage belongs to whichever service can attract and retain the largest number of active users. The more, the merrier. ■ But there is a strong countervailing force that makes the network effect an incomplete guide to outcomes. Certainly, to some extent, a service needs a baseline number of active contributing users in order to survive. Such as it is with a service like Mastodon today, so it was with BBS communities 30 or 40 years ago. If there aren't enough people "hanging around", it's hard to get anyone to use a service consistently. But the people who lead the sites have lots of incentives to make the switching costs as low as possible: Tools with names like Fedifinder seek to make it easy to reconnect with one's chosen online tribe. ■ The countervailing force, though, is much harder to act upon. The value in a social-media experience isn't just in whom you follow, but in whom you specifically take a disinterest. In terms of fundamental user experience, who you block and who you mute are often even more significant than who you follow. And those features are really hard to replicate. The whole point is to have as little interaction with those accounts as possible -- perhaps because they're spammy, or because they're belligerent. Or maybe they're just consistently stupid. ■ Gresham's Law says that bad money drives out good. Likewise, bad social interactions drive out good. Ben Franklin wasn't wrong when he warned, "He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas." ■ There is no obvious solution, particularly since the incentives remain astronomical for the "dogs" to mask their identities whenever they find somewhere new to deposit their fleas. And to the service only interested in user growth, it's hard to say "no". In the end, though, that's where success lies: In making it seamless to store and transfer the value of what you've learned about others, not just for good, but also for bad.

Humor and Good News Supply and demand for gullibility

The Onion really nails it with the spoof headline: "Crypto leaders call for infusion of 20 million dopes to stabilize market"


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June 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Tragedy on the seas

Economists (and like-minded thinkers) are often accused of being cold-blooded rationalists. And while it is true that the economic discipline has been guilty of important errors, omissions, and oversights -- it turns out that not all decision-making is rational and utility-maximizing, as some economic models have assumed -- it is entirely unfair to dismiss the economical-minded application of logic and analytical rationality to humankind's affairs as being somehow inhumane. Quite to the contrary. ■ Consider this tragedy: Some 500 souls are thought to have perished aboard a boat that capsized en route from Libya to Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. Aboard the fishing trawler were some 750 people from a variety of countries, though a very large number were thought to be from Pakistan. ■ While no solitary cause explains every passenger's reason for taking extraordinary risks with life and limb, it is widely recognized that Pakistan is in the midst of an economic crisis which is driving a substantial refugee surge. Pakistan's population is very large -- with nearly 250 million people, only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia are bigger. And it is very, very poor: The per-capita annual GDP is only about $1,500, or about the per-capita GDP generated by the United States every week. ■ Almost every refugee crisis (including Pakistan's) comes down to a root cause in the realm of what used to be called "political economy": The interaction between government policymaking and economics. The phrase may have fallen out of fashion, but it deserves a revival. That's because there is no more vital set of decisions to be made than how to ensure people can live free from crisis and material deprivation. ■ These are extraordinarily human problems, even if economic analysis must unavoidably deliver its recommendations in the cold language of dollars and cents (or the local currency). But if we blow the big decisions in these regards, people die. They die trying to seek refuge, as in the latest tragedy. But they also die of starvation and public health crises and other entirely avoidable economic causes. ■ A cool, rational approach to questions of resource allocation (which is, after all, what economics generally is) can still be a deeply humane undertaking if it helps to heal those wounds inside political-economic systems that keep people poor. Other countries that are now very rich have been just as poor as Pakistan, even within recent historical memory. Choices made every day have consequences down the road, defining whether things get worse or better. Those lives lost on the sea should serve as a compelling reminder that our problem isn't too much rational thinking; our problem is that there is often too little.


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June 21, 2023

Business and Finance Don't let them fight

History contains no record of J. Pierpont Morgan offering to fight Andrew Carnegie in a boxing match. But in our own age, we have Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk taunting one another into a cage fight. Talk is cheap, and social media tools (of which the two are the current 800-lb. gorillas) offer countless ways to indicate sarcasm and face-saving retractions. The entire thing could quite easily resolve to nothing at all. ■ Yet there is nothing at all to guarantee that it won't come to pass. Facebook/Meta's board of directors, captive though they might be to Zuckerberg's controlling stake in the voting shares of the company, probably wouldn't be performing their fiduciary duties if they let Zuck step into the ring. (Though it's plausible that self-proclaimed "cyberpunk activist" Marc Andreessen, who sits on Meta's board, might well jockey for a ringside seat.) ■ Likewise, Elon Musk answers to a considerable number of stakeholders in his various enterprises, none of whom want to see him literally bloodied in the ring. The latest annual report of Tesla, for instance, contains the actual words "We are highly dependent on the services of Elon Musk, Technoking of Tesla and our Chief Executive Officer." Admittedly, "Technoking" is an unserious title. But insurance companies are very serious indeed about insuring key employees -- even if, in Tesla's own words, "As a general matter, we do not maintain as much insurance coverage as many other companies do, and in some cases, we do not maintain any at all." ■ There's something unseemly about two of the world's ten richest people strutting around like steroid-addled peacocks, even if it's entirely in jest. It is, of course, a mistake to over-interpret wealth or business success as a signal of other merit or of skill beyond the "lane" that made one rich. ■ But both Zuckerberg and Musk have considerable influence in addition to wealth. Moreover, both are demonstrably intelligent individuals, even if they might not be as smart as they estimate themselves. And it's not unreasonable to expect them both to know better: Benjamin Franklin published the advice in 1742 that "Money and good manners make the gentleman." Is a little gentility in their outward behavior really that much to ask?


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June 22, 2023

Broadcasting A hot price on a place to get a cold one

Among the most foolhardy things an American can do is to go about criticizing the spending habits of others. Not only is it bad social form, it's often concern wildly misplaced. One person's frivolous extravagance is another person's means of income redistribution from the wealthy to those who are willing to supply luxuries. Let no one forget that the people most directly injured by the imposition of an excise tax on boats and private planes in the 1990s weren't the wealthy, but the people working in the industries making those goods. ■ So a measure of reserve is probably in order when considering the news that someone spent $675,000 (before taxes) to buy the bar from the set of "Cheers". Assuming the buyer is neither a bank robber nor a drug cartel kingpin, it's their cash with which to part, no matter how hard it is to rationalize writing a check for that amount. ■ Yet it does speak to something a little odd about perceptions of value to imagine spending that much money on a television prop when, for $239,000, one could purchase an entire operating bar. For the difference in price ($436,000), the buyer could turn the real tavern into a private club and keep a full-time bartender on staff. ■ "Cheers" still resonates with viewers because it offers a sort of psychological comfort food: It feels good to imagine that places exist where anyone can go without pretense or status merely to be peaceably in the company of others. And those places do exist, even if the set design is less impressive than at the Bull and Finch. (The piece looks nifty, after all, but surely a sturdier replica could be built for far less.) ■ The bar wouldn't be worth much more than its scrap value if it didn't say so much about our human sense of place -- a bit ironically, considering that people mainly congregated only among family in their own living rooms to watch the show. Yet if gathering can mean so much to us, even when only vicariously through actors on the television screen, that someone would spend several multiples of what it would cost to buy an actual operating bar just to enjoy the nostalgia of a mirage, then perhaps that ought to serve as a lesson to investors, entrepreneurs, urban planners, and others that places matter quite a lot.


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June 23, 2023

Science and Technology At some point, you stop pouring motor oil on the ground

Compared with the vast sweep of history, it was practically only yesterday when motorists thought they were doing the right thing when following advice to bury used motor oil inside a backyard hole full of rocks. That wasn't the right thing to do, of course, but holding such a view was a mistake of the age rather than a personal shortcoming. ■ We're making similar mistakes today, even though we obviously aren't aware of our transgressions. There's always something new about which we are being naive. The remedy, though, is to constantly try to think farther ahead about the things we do and use. ■ It's not hard to find people who are aghast or even apoplectic about decisions being widely made today, especially related to the consequences of carbon emissions and (likely) anthropogenic climate change. But it's important to realize that indignation doesn't change the past, nor is it possible to change customs, habits, or technologies overnight. ■ A certain amount of trouble is already inevitable, it seems, and our energies are best deployed in some part by trying to find adaptations and remedies for damage already done. But we also need to account for the likelihood that some of the most useful answers for the long term are still undiscovered or insufficiently mature -- think pilot tests for atmospheric carbon removal -- and we will probably be able to accomplish far more by accelerating some of the technological research and development than by turning to hairshirts and extreme self-denial. ■ That isn't a call to inaction, of course, but rather for recognition that between the time of awareness of a problem and the arrival of a solution often lies a period of uncomfortable awareness, when the solutions available to us are often inadequate and relatively unproductive -- and we know it and simply have to endure it. The good news, if we can keep our heads on straight, is that progress often accelerates upon itself once we get it underway. ■ A child saving their weekly allowance for retirement won't get very far and will look utterly naive (and probably unhappy) in the process. Forgoing substantial savings in childhood in favor of studying hard in school so as to substantially improve one's earnings capacity makes a much bigger difference in the long term. We are in such a place as a species now; we can scrimp and save as relative "children" for now, but we're probably going to make vastly more headway by accelerating our scientific and technological research to make much faster and more substantial moves in the medium term than by subjecting ourselves to extreme changes now.


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June 24, 2023

News Vulgarians at the gate

If the most popular pursuit on social media is engaging in wild speculation, then the second is criticizing wild speculation. For nearly every opinion, there is a countering response seeking grounds to declare the opinion invalid. Both pursuits went into overdrive as organized mercenaries threatened to take Moscow. and the world watched in immeasurable suspense to see what course would result. ■ It is, of course, of no use for anyone to engage in wild but confident speculation about events well outside their own expertise. There are only so many authorities to go around on any subject. Yet at the same time, it's not surprising that people would feel the itch to weigh in on the outcome of uncertain events, especially when the events are far outside the boundaries of past experience. It's been a while since anyone tried to invade Moscow. ■ Only a couple of generations ago, an eighth-grade education was considered enough not just to get by in the world as a citizen, but to function with some level of expertise in a career field as well. High school graduation was an anomaly just a century ago, and it wasn't until almost 1940 that the United States had more than a million high-school graduates a year. That level of education was indeed quite secondary. ■ And while they didn't have social media tools on which to post their speculations, those earlier generations were still expected to develop thoughtful opinions about current affairs. Public opinion about the Russian Revolution in our history books was formed and held mainly by people without even high-school diplomas. ■ There is some room for gatekeeping about contemporary affairs; there is a good chance that any one of us will miss relevant fine details about issues like the copyright implications of large-language models in artificial intelligence or the certification options appropriate for deep-sea submersibles carrying paying passengers. But even the would-be gatekeepers need to hold fast to some modesty about just what it is they are expected to be the experts. Experts are shown to be wrong not infrequently, and few subjects worth debating confine themselves neatly to just one area of knowledge. ■ We should seek an (admittedly) elusive standard of agreement about how much knowledge is enough to begin forming opinions. Some gatekeepers are so over-eager to protect their own turf that even a bachelor's degree-holder is considered a novice (economists, for instance, are notoriously status-obsessed, prone to withholding the title from anyone short of a Ph.D.). That surely is going too far. ■ But what is the appropriate minimum requirement for a person to weigh in on a subject? Is it a bachelor's degree? An associate's degree? A high-school diploma? In a democracy, everyone gets to weigh in at the ballot box and there's no knowledge test holding them back -- not even a test of 8th-grade knowledge. Perhaps we should bear that in mind before engaging in too ready and harsh a critique about people airing their thoughts without holding the right credentials. We're all ignoramuses about something, but even ignoramuses get a vote.


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June 25, 2023

News There are no heroes here

Whatever agreement he reached to settle his differences with the Kremlin, it is unlikely that Yevgeny Prigozhin will ever truly have a sound night's sleep again in his life. But it shouldn't be the ever-present threat of being defenestrated or poisoned by Russian spies that should keep him awake at night. It should be his conscience that keeps him unsettled forevermore. ■ Humankind probably won't ever fully excise our unfortunate instinct for violence. We are highly evolved, but we are still animals after all, and the animal kingdom remains universally subject to the ultimate rule of the jungle. Our elevated intelligence and self-awareness are gifts that compel us to teach our young that cooperation and reason are better than bloody conflict, but not everyone gets the message. And so it becomes necessary that, even in a peace-loving society, some of us must learn how to use violence in order to keep the strong from oppressing the weak. ■ Mercenaries are not necessarily wrong by definition. But just as there exists a legal distinction between enlisted troops and officers, so too is there a moral gradient among those who fight only because they are being paid. Nothing justifies the types of specific war crimes on all-too-frequent display in Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. But the culpability for engaging in the war at all falls differently on the mercenary whose other choice was to languish in prison than for an individual like Prigozhin, who could have walked away at any time. He didn't, and he should never sleep again without distress. ■ History will not treat him well, but if he were sympathetic to history, he never would have joined the Kremlin's cause in the first place. It's no more than idle speculation to guess what might have happened if his mutiny had actually made it all the way to Moscow. But to the extent that his abandonment of the battlefield will undermine the Kremlin's cause, then the tumultuous events of this one very strange weekend will have at least accrued some gains for the side that deserves to win.


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June 26, 2023

Broadcasting What's on tonight?

The public often forgets that the United States is a giant country -- the world's third-largest by population, and literally continent-spanning in physical size. As a consequence, we often kid ourselves into believing that there is such a thing as a coherent "national conversation" happening from day to day. ■ But there are meaningful themes to what some like to call "the discourse", often centered around a handful of media institutions that have agenda-setting power, at least within ideological silos and socioeconomic clusters. Other countries have literal newspapers of record and generously funded national broadcasters; America has a predominantly commercial news industry that occasionally seems to spend as much time changing lineups as it does actually covering the news. ■ It is possible to believe, simultaneously, that the United States would probably be better off with a more prominent sector dedicated to public-interest journalism, and that it would be utterly impossible to competently administer anything like a national public-service media outlet. A self-governing people deserves to have a shared set of facts about current events and a modestly reasonable set of shared cultural values and norms. ■ Yet that's impossible here. Aside from the many and highly visible conflicts that emerge in the administration of public-service outlets in other countries (see, for instance, the perpetual heated debates over the future of the BBC or the scandal over secret payments made to a star of Ireland's RTE), the simple fact is that any outlet with enough sway to be considered a true national institutional voice would become the most contentious of "commanding heights". ■ PBS claims two million nightly viewers for the "NewsHour". Even the third-place commercial network nightly news captures more than twice that many. If PBS were drawing seven million viewers a night like ABC's "World News Tonight", someone would be making machinations to gain editorial control over it. And that's why it's basically impossible to imagine an American public broadcaster with the scale of the BBC. ■ It remains true that we are deserving of a high-quality national news agenda and news outlets dedicated first and foremost to public service. But we are too big and generally too contentious for that. And, ultimately, that probably saves us from what would probably be much uglier fights than we already get over who pays for "Sesame Street".


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June 28, 2023

News Custodians needed

Few things are as painful to watch as a community reconciling itself with the consequences of long-accrued neglect. It's usually an involuntary event, and it's almost never undertaken by anyone directly responsible for the chain of events leading up to the reckoning. And yet it is an experience not only widespread now, but also likely to be much more frequently encountered in the future. ■ Virtually everything, both in the material world and in the world of human relationships, requires some kind of ongoing periodic maintenance and upkeep. Even pieces of art on display in a museum must generally undergo periodic cleaning and restoration. Virtually anything that isn't encased in amber needs some kind of intervention from time to time to retain its value. ■ Unfortunately, we too rarely treat maintenance and custodianship as real, distinct, and teachable skills. We make lots of room to applaud people for all kinds of things that are new: Sales performance, entrepreneurship, creative design, and even fundraising. These skills garner either respect, compensation, or both. Everyone seems to want to be a founder. ■ But altogether too little applause, funding, and recognition are supplied to those who supply the effort that is necessary to keep things in good working order, whether in the physical world or the institutional one. And it shows, every time a piece of infrastructure fails catastrophically or an institution closes for lack of support. ■ Part of the problem is that there aren't very good milestones to recognize along the way. Who knows how often to celebrate a bridge that continues standing, or whom to credit? It's fun to break out a giant pair of ceremonial scissors to cut a red ribbon. But it's hardly as fun to celebrate the act of dutifully plugging along. ■ But part of the problem is a chronic lack of respect for the discipline of custodianship. In American English, "custodian" is often a euphemistic alternative for "janitor". And yet custodians of all types -- including building janitors, to be sure -- deserve to be acknowledged for the value they bring to their work, which is fundamentally about extracting the maximum life-cycle value from what has been entrusted to their care. That's the case whether we're talking about infrastructure built with public funds, the charter of a club, the goodwill of a church community, or the money in a pension fund. ■ One of the great things about American culture is that we are often far readier than our friends elsewhere to dispose of the old and replace it with the new. Some things exhaust their utility, and getting rid of abandoned buildings or converting old railroads into bicycle trails can be highly meritorious. But we shouldn't permit ourselves to be so enamored with what is new that we forget to invest prudently in keeping up what still has value.


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June 29, 2023

Computers and the Internet Why can't we find anything around here?

Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the early days of the commercial Internet may recall how personal the entire experience could feel. In the brief window of time between the emergence of the Mosaic browser experience and the arrival of Google, the Internet might have been global in its ambitions, but it also took a whole lot of human curation just to function. ■ Yahoo today may be everything from an email service provider to an original news outlet, but for a brief while, it was just Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web: An attempt to categorize the individual pages on the Internet and document their general contents. It was something like a hybrid between a telephone book and the card catalog in a library, attempting to list what addresses the individual user needed to look up in order to find things (a much bigger issue before the dot-com boom, when domain names cost a relative fortune), as well as what one was likely to discover upon arriving there. ■ It looks quaint today, when webpages are dynamically generated, apps serve up much of the Internet's consumer material, and artificial intelligence is being enlisted to flood the zone with a never-ending pipeline of new content. But sincere efforts to survey and map the world of the all-new World Wide Web were useful. And their imprimatur was vital if you, the content creator (though nobody called you that yet), wanted to be found. ■ What made Google such a spectacular success was its ability to supplant the slow process of looking through curated directories by returning the thing the user was most likely to want based upon no more effort than typing out a question. Search engines ate the world, of course. But careful observers are beginning to note that the search-engine structure is showing signs of frailty. NBC News tech reporter Kat Tenbarge laments, "All the search functions around the internet seem to be in a prolonged state of collapse. It feels impossible to find specific things anymore". ■ Content-management tools have a big part to play in making this problem worse. What makes it easy for people to add new content to the Internet also generally makes it easy for them to mess up or destroy what is already there. Even worse, URLs generally are an unholy mess. Nobody builds rules-based file trees anymore, because they're too busy packing URLs full of search-friendly words. ■ And thus there are few sites left that commit to a logical (and self-perpetuating) file structure that fits inside the address bar. Instead, most fresh pages are identified by either too many words (e.g., "https://www.kosu.org/energy-environment/2023-06-26/some-cities-in-central-u-s-are-asking-residents-to-conserve-water") or by none at all (e.g., "https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-66037455"). ■ It's not clear whether there is a real solution available that anyone will adopt voluntarily -- but if search engines really do begin to break down in their real user efficacy, then it's possible we might see a revival of sorts in Internet directories. Humans wouldn't have to curate them entirely by hand -- artificial intelligence may well be ideal for much of the task -- but some sort of thoughtful editorial review may be useful. Rarely does anyone see what's coming next with any accuracy, but if search quality really does fall into a broad sort of decline, people aren't simply going to stop looking to the Internet for answers.


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June 30, 2023

Aviation News Smooth landing

Actual emergency evacuations of aircraft are about as rare as events can be. But the emergency landing of a passenger jet without landing gear at Charlotte is a reminder that "rare" isn't the same as "impossible". Generally speaking, things have gone smoothly enough in most of the airliner evacuations in recent American memory. ■ But they often could have gone better. In its report on the event we call the "Miracle on the Hudson", the NTSB noted that the evacuation was hampered by the general safety complacency of the passengers, the overwhelming majority of whom paid no attention at all to the safety briefing. ■ The preflight safety briefing is a social contract without much hold: Flight attendants are obligated to deliver training to a generally disinterested and unwilling audience. They cannot possibly like being ignored, yet experienced passengers can't really be blamed for not devoting their complete attention to a presentation that is always the same, and not particularly informative at that. ■ The curse of the content is that it is almost insultingly obvious in the first place, entirely by design. It shouldn't be hard to fasten a seat belt, or to figure out how to open a door in an emergency; these things should be obvious even to people in the lowest strata of IQ. But there are people who need to receive the briefing as it is, and more significantly, it would be good for passenger safety more generally if the briefings included something other than boilerplate content. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed boredom. ■ Educational psychology tells us rather plainly that effective safety briefings would contain three elements they almost never contain today: An attention-grabbing opening, a reward, and a connection to prior learning. While the need to capture attention is reasonably obvious, the other two are important tools in all sorts of low-stakes learning situations. ■ Humans are very good at paying attention and learning when the instructor tickles our sense of "What's in it for me?" Anytime we sense that learning something will make us smarter, better, faster, or stronger, it activates an entirely different level of awareness than what takes place when we're just members of a captive audience. A good safety briefing would include some promise of reward, like: "People who memorize the number of rows between themselves and the two closest emergency exits have been shown to evacuate X percent faster than passengers who do not" or "Memorizing how to open an exit door saved an average of X seconds in safety trials". (And if facts like these aren't known, someone should study them.) ■ The other missing aspect is the connection to prior learning. For almost nobody is the cabin safety briefing a first-time experience, and for real efficacy, it ought to be treated as a single episode in an ongoing seminar. People learn best when old knowledge can be connected to new material. It revives the old and facilitates the uptake of the new. If safety briefings don't seek to teach us anything new, then we should expect the exercise to be merely perfunctory. But if it's only perfunctory, then it doesn't really have value and is just a waste of time for everyone involved. It wouldn't be hard to develop a syllabus of "things air travelers ought to know", to be delivered on a rotating basis so that there's always something new and intriguing for passengers to take in. ■ We can and should do better than that. Commercial air travel is fantastically safe, but the Charlotte incident is a fresh reminder that we shouldn't take safety for granted. Instead of relying on a tired old regulation that requires a rote and uninspired recitation of things most people already know, safety briefings ought to be intellectually rewarding -- even stimulating.


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