Gongol.com Archives: July 2023

Brian Gongol

July 2023
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July 2, 2023

News Now read this

Civilization has progressed through the aid of philosophers, innovators, teachers, scientists, and leaders both big and small. The credit isn't equally spread around, nor is it equally well-deserved. But some corners plainly deserve a lot more credit than they're getting. ■ One of those is the mild-mannered Dover Thrift Edition, that familiar mainstay of humanities courses in colleges and some finer high schools. With a library of more than 700 titles -- consisting predominantly of works out of the reach of copyright -- the unassuming collection is a reliable gold mine of common knowledge. And putting the "common" into any knowledge is yeoman's work these days. ■ The praise that should be lavished on the Dover Thrift Edition should take nothing away from its philosophical cousin, the amazing Project Gutenberg, which has converted some 70,000 printed works into e-book format, with a "focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired". But where Project Gutenberg is extremely broad, all-digital, and non-profit in nature, the Dover Thrift collection is more concentrated, both digital and printed, and motivated by profit. ■ We should acknowledge that it is useful to have an institution motivated by profit to see to it that readers get affordable access to canonical works in a variety of concentrations within the humanities. It is good for someone to have a profit motive to say, "Here are 18 books on religion that a well-rounded person ought to read. None of them cost more than $7.00 in print, and they'll cost just 99 cents if you want to download them digitally. We have packaged them nicely and put our reputation on the line to back their accuracy and completeness." ■ For all the many new problems that emerge and changes in the way we live that come into acceptance, it's important to remember that hardly anything about human nature is ever really new. The packaging may change, but the motivations, fears, and thought processes that guide us today are scarcely different from those of any prior era. Getting familiar with the old is a way of efficiently addressing the new -- or what at least seems like it's new. ■ Our nature may be fundamentally the same across many generations, but humans are uniquely capable of passing along guidance and solutions to our descendants, thanks to the fantastic durability of the written word. And for as modest as it may sound, harnessing the profit motive to distribute those words far and wide is a great civilization-building act.

July 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Cranky television

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has embarked on a troublesome campaign for President, challenging the sitting President of his own party, not on the merits (of which he offers none), nor on his own qualifications (of which he possesses none, having never been elected so much as town dog catcher), but on a platform constructed mainly of conspiracy theories and crankery. Yet, endowed with an enviable brand name for entering politics, he gets attention from the media -- including his very own televised "town hall" on the NewsNation network. ■ The concept of a town hall meeting is, of course, perfectly laudable in theory. America treasures our mythical New England town hall session, where everyone in a community has a chance to be heard. But an election to the Presidency is no such escapade. Some voices are toxic, and there's nothing wrong with giving them less air time than others. ■ Some of the old gatekeepers abused their power in the past, depriving the public of ideas that might have elevated the debate and placed important issues closer to the center of the conversation. But that doesn't make gatekeeping itself invalid. We discourage pollution in the air, water, and soil; toxic ideas can pollute the public consciousness, too. ■ There ought to be some perspectives and attitudes that are simply beneath the standards of self-respecting institutions invested in earning and maintaining the trust of the public. The government doesn't have to impose regulation to address the problem (nor should it). But it ought to be a matter of self-regulation: It should be beneath the dignity of a serious newspaper, news network, magazine, or online outlet to amplify fascists, anarchists, inveterate liars, unserious cranks, and others whose presence undermines the Constitutional order or the common good of a liberty-based society. ■ And the "town hall" format -- contrived as it is -- is a terrible insulator against bad actors and bad ideas breaking through. It is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of the outlet providing the platform: Everyone, including both candidates and audience members, knows how to game the system for maximum self-interest, which is often directly contrary to the public interest. The only participants who get hurt end up being the reasonable candidates: As the saying goes: Never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it. ■ Sometimes, the right answer is "No", and in the case of the televised town hall, that ought to be the default answer whenever one is proposed. News outlets should certainly seek to interact with -- and thoughtfully attempt to screen -- candidates for the highest office in the land. Their questions shouldn't be cloying, lazy, or even sympathetic: The Presidency is a job for which there is no perfect training and in which failure is often devastatingly costly. Tough screening by well-prepared interviewers is among the only ways the public will learn who is up to the job.

Humor and Good News Clean sheets

Has anyone ever really considered how much faith we're putting in the lowest bidder to supply hotel laundry detergent?

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July 4, 2023

The United States of America Facts submitted to a candid world

Since America's last celebration of independence, we have been witnesses to a year of nonstop struggle for the independence of Ukraine, a nation most Americans have come to recognize as an ally. Ukrainian people have shed blood and lost thousands of lives. Cities have been obliterated and farmlands have been flooded. Worries are revived every day that a catastrophic nuclear incident could occur, by accident or by design. ■ The United States wasn't the first nation to declare independence, but our declaration was special in a landmark way: It took the time to treat the rest of the world not as passive observers, but as reasonable people capable of rationally evaluating our cause. A "decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation," wrote Thomas Jefferson. ■ Ukraine doesn't have to declare its independence; it has been legally independent for more than three decades. But its public diplomacy to the rest of the world has gone to some lengths to explain why that independence is valid and why it is worth preserving. ■ The sublime blessing of America's independence is that it hasn't been seriously challenged in more than two centuries. We haven't needed to explain to anyone but ourselves why we should keep the republic. But we should heed the case for Ukraine as we remember that independence isn't merely an abstraction, and it isn't perpetually guaranteed, even by our own fortuitous circumstances. ■ Threats may come from without or from within. That we don't face a rapacious neighbor shouldn't keep us from realizing just how much others all over the world are willing to sacrifice today in search of the preservation of something we Americans get to treat as a job finished long ago. As Jefferson wrote, "let Facts be submitted to a candid world" -- and let us not forget our duty to listen, just as our predecessors sought to be heard.

The United States of America "Stars and Stripes Forever", arranged for a single marimba

(Video) A charming patriotic performance by a talented family. The Sousa march is a classic, and one of our best national songs. ■ On the motif of patriotic tunes, let's adopt a new rule: "The Star-Spangled Banner" for sacred events, Neil Diamond's "America" for everything else. Among its other merits, Diamond's homage deserves credit for centering on the immigrant experience.

The United States of America An immigrant's love list about America

Natalia Antonova submits, among her favorite things, "People waving from porches". In extension to that: Even though we are a vast multiethnic/multiracial country, one often can still pick out the Americans in a crowd from the way we smile. Broadly, frequently, unreservedly. We're here to have a good time, just as the Declaration of Independence recorded is the right of people everywhere.

Humor and Good News A cheeky Fourth

The BBC sponsors an ad for the "Royal Watch" newsletter on America's Independence Day. Probably just a coincidence. Maybe not.

Computers and the Internet Twitter puts the brakes on its users

Rate-limiting certainly does raise the implicit value of muting stupid people on Twitter. (Of whom there are many.)

News Camp in an oversized Toyota

A Toyota vehicle powered by a diesel engine...what must be the life expectancy? 1.5 million miles? 2 million?

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July 5, 2023

Threats and Hazards Choose your future, world

China's government is openly threatening pro-democracy activists, saying it will use the excuse of "national security" to "pursue them for the rest of our lives even if they run to the ends of the earth". This would be a very prudent time for people all over the world to consider carefully whether they want to live in a world where those sentiments predominate or in one where America leads a greater alliance. ■ That includes Americans. Everyone needs to grapple with the question, because the threat alone forces the question. China's government isn't saying it will pursue murderers or child abusers "for the rest of our lives even if they run to the ends of the earth". It's saying it values the capture of pro-democracy activists much more than the capture of those felons. ■ Quite a lot of people both at home and abroad like to make a sport out of criticizing the United States and its history. Thoughtful criticism is not only good, but necessary. Yet some engage in it so relentlessly that one might reasonably wonder whether they've ever considered the possibility that power always and everywhere risks abuse, and that the perfect ought not to become the enemy of the good. ■ America and the allied world we lead aren't perfect; far from it. But our imperfections pale by comparison with crimes against humanity including forced sterilization of disfavored ethnic groups, unrelenting mass surveillance, denial of basic human rights including even the freedom of worship and the right to express peaceful dissent, and the brutal maintenance of single-party rule. ■ The choices made on levels big and small by people all over the world contribute to nudging the world more in the direction of a China-dominated world or a US-dominated one. At present, there is no other viable contestant. So, of the two power structures overwhelmingly likely to prevail in the years ahead, which one is it going to be? Think carefully of the individuals being "pursued to the ends of the earth" before choosing.

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July 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet Is time almost up for Twitter?

Given the arrival of Meta's new "Threads" service and yet another round of user-hostile policy changes at Twitter, it's no surprise that some are openly pondering whether Twitter is a sinking ship. Lots of outcomes are possible. Yet the very best-case scenario for the service is probably if it were to be snapped up by Bloomberg, which has the institutional discipline to run it well and a motive to encourage high-quality content production (which they could analyze and aggregate for profit). ■ Moreover, Bloomberg already has a very substantial footprint on Twitter. The word "synergy" is profoundly overrated and almost never merits using -- but the synergistic case for a Bloomberg/Twitter marriage is about as strong as anyone has ever really made. ■ When users are active and chatty, Twitter has the capacity to concentrate the "wisdom of crowds" in a highly marketable fashion. Parsed by the right tools for data analytics -- like the ones for which Bloomberg is renowned -- that raw data from the crowds could be well worth mining. In Bloomberg's own words, "Our problem-solving data team produces the algorithms, research notes and analysis that fuel all of our products." ■ Alas, in Michael Bloomberg's own words: "My operating principle has always been build, don't buy", so it seems unlikely that his eponymous company would buy an outfit like Twitter for what solutions it provides. But perhaps Twitter isn't best viewed as an operating company, but as an unfinished resource, like iron ore. In such a case, an acquisition by Bloomberg could be viewed as buying raw materials from which to build something else. ■ Then again, if management (like that of Twitter) steers a company with sufficient implicit value hard enough into a price crash, then even a company (like Bloomberg) dedicated to a principle of "build, don't buy" might still have to take a hard look at salvaging the wreckage. That is, if the price drops low enough. ■ One estimate has Twitter down by two-thirds from just about half a year ago. The remaining third may remain too high, of course, but if bankruptcy is a real possibility, then one would have to take a look.

Science and Technology The $11,000, two-person micro electric car is coming soon

"Luvly vehicles will be shipped flatpack for assembly in micro-factories close to end-users"

News Elton John's last set on British ground?

It's supposed to be his farewell tour, and the press coverage is richly deserved. But for just a moment, can we acknowledge that his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, may have figured out the best gig of all time?

Computers and the Internet Windows closing

Microsoft has made its final pronouncement that the 22H2 edition of Windows 10 "will be the final version of Windows 10". The entire Windows 10 generation will only be supported until October 2025, at which point users will be at their own risk. If your computer can't make the jump to Windows 11, then this is as good as it's going to get. And by 2025, you'll probably want to have jumped to Linux

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July 8, 2023

News Adequate names for good traits

Lots of important life experiences happen at intersections of feelings. A goodbye can be bittersweet. A problem can be faced with grim determination. Entire songs have been written about when something "hurts so good". ■ But we're inconsistent with how we allocate the words to the feelings. Some important hybrid feelings are missing from the dictionary. One of the most useful? A sense of pride in work you don't really want to do. ■ At the extreme, it's the experience of a veterinarian who has to put a beloved animal to sleep but who does it with compassion and grace. Yet it's experienced at lots of gentler levels, too. People do work all the time that isn't fun, isn't exciting, and isn't pleasurable. Sometimes you do it out of a sense of obligation. Sometimes it's your responsibility. Sometimes you're the only person around who knows how to complete the task. ■ The cult of "Do what you love and the rewards will follow" has a long reach. Yet finishing some kinds of work can be fulfilling or otherwise intrinsically rewarding, even when the process is the kind of thing we'd like to avoid. And not just the language would be richer with a good word for that; so would society. Pride can be mixed with reluctance, as indeed it probably is more often than comes naturally to our attention. ■ The word for it is out there somewhere -- in the neighborhood of other important words, like duty and grit and perseverance. We need to find that word, because we need to respect what it stands for.

@briangongol on Twitter

July 10, 2023

News Sweden is to join NATO

The history of military alliances is long -- the Peloponnesian League, for instance, one might hazily recollect from a high-school class on ancient history as having formed some 2,600 years ago. So the future probably won't give much detailed notice to the imminent accession of Sweden into NATO. It is significant news today, but it probably won't merit a great deal of attention a few hundred years from now. ■ The chain of events surrounding Sweden's admission, though, could very well hold its own for quite some time to come. An independent analysis has estimated that Russia's government has sacrificed the lives of about 50,000 of its own soldiers in pursuit of a mad war of aggression against Ukraine. 50,000 lives in a country of 144 million that is already in a demographic doom loop -- wasted for insane cause. ■ Russia is fairly close to Sweden -- just 200 miles away by the Baltic Sea, or about 165 miles away across Finland. To see the Kremlin go to such incomprehensible lengths to attempt a takeover of Ukraine, a country that has shown no signs of backing down even after 500 days of war, has pushed Sweden to join the defensive NATO alliance, an act it didn't even formally undertake during the Cold War. ■ Wishful thinkers may dream of a day when defensive alliances are only a thing of the past, but that isn't human nature. We need the help of rules, treaties, and agreements to bind ourselves to good behavior, particularly from generation to generation. They are the tools by which we moderate the impulses that come to us out of humanity's animalistic side. Monsters remain forever among us. ■ NATO isn't perfect, nor should we expect it to be. But in the broadest of terms, it is a mutual agreement among decent nations to try to avoid wasteful violent conflict through self-discipline and deterrence. That it is proving itself attractive long after the obvious turning point of the fall of the Soviet Union speaks to just how vital military alliances will perpetually be -- for the purpose of peace.

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July 11, 2023

Business and Finance The $17.5 billion project

Over the last four years, California has spent $17.5 billion on programs and projects to reduce the incidence of homelessness. That sum is hard to conceptualize, so consider this: The budget for the entire government of the state of Iowa is about $8 billion a year. So, in other words, California's public efforts to resolve homelessness are on roughly the same order of a magnitude as running an entire medium-sized state. ■ California bears a burden on that scale in part because it has 30% of the nation's population of unhoused people, and the problem is growing. But, significantly, that problem is homegrown: Contrary to popular myth, of the people experiencing homelessness in California, 90% lost their housing while already living in the state. ■ When we talk about the basic human needs, the traditional "big three" are food, clothing, and shelter. Some people think they can be supplied merely by calling them "human rights"; unfortunately, they cannot. Those universal needs represent material goods that must be produced somehow by a world of limited resources. ■ There are a hundred ways to try to make the situation more complicated than it is, but the inescapable fundamental fact is this: If the market produces a shortage of a good you want at the price level you deem reasonable, then the only thing that will help you is a boost in production. American states in general, and California in particular, have a lot of regulatory and other reversible obstacles to housing production. ■ Meanwhile, we observe a perverse set of policies that treat housing as a major vehicle for saving, storing, and building wealth. For many, especially in lower wealth brackets, home equity is the primary household investment. The obstacles should go away, and we need to find sound and rational substitutes for those policies that turn housing into most households' primary financial investment. ■ All else being equal, building a lot of new housing would tend to drive down the average price of housing -- and thus undermine the household "savings" of a lot of families up-front. Any permanent solution to housing shortages must take that effect into account and find ways to soften the blow. Tax and regulatory policies have treated homeownership as a primary investment for so long that unwinding the consequences has to be taken as part of the overall solution. Otherwise, NIMBYism will always have a guaranteed constituency among those who view any opening-up of the housing market as a threat to their biggest source of wealth. ■ That's even though the long-term effect of meaningful reductions in housing costs would tend to make families wealthier by freeing up cash flow to go to real investments (in retirement plans, educational spending, or a hundred other places) rather than to payments for rent or a mortgage. California and other states can go on spending fortunes trying to ameliorate the problem, but in the end, more than anything else, it's a problem of under-supply and the widely-held interests deeply invested in keeping prices moving upward.

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July 13, 2023

Weather and Disasters Chicagoland got lucky

It sends a chill down the spine to wonder what could have happened if the tornadoes had followed the same tracks, but with greater intensity. Some were seen over suburbs and others rolled past Midway and brought O'Hare to a standstill. This is the thing about the "Expanding Bullseye Effect": As people continue to cluster in larger numbers around metropolitan areas, any given storm outbreak has the potential to have much greater consequences. It's basically unavoidable, but no less distressing for its inevitability. And when there are multiple tornadoes at a time, the situation becomes all the more frightening.

Computers and the Internet The filmstrip is dead; long live the filmstrip

Sure, young folks are using ChatGPT to write school papers and Khan Academy videos to figure out linear algebra, but today's generation will never know the joy of watching the teacher roll in the cart with the reel-to-reel film projector (or the heartbreak of seeing that it's time for a film strip instead).

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July 14, 2023

News The agonists and the terrified

Even putting aside all questions of content, opinion, or ideology, there are two classes of people who make themselves both obnoxious and impossible to ignore, whether in daily life or in media (social or otherwise). One is the class of professional agonists, who are happy only in their own unhappiness and discontent. The other is the class of the congenitally fearful, who regard everything new or unfamiliar as an existential threat. ■ Both classes have always been among us. Human nature is steady like that. But human conditions do change, and both groups are able to act more quickly and more relentlessly than any of their forebears ever could. Activating themselves via memes, group chats, cable television, podcasts, Facebook groups, Snapchat subscriptions, and email chains, they can spread thought contagions faster than wildfire. ■ There is nothing wrong with rejecting them prejudicially. Any one of us has only so long to walk the Earth, and it's not a good idea to spend much of that time swatting down bad influences that haven't been thought-out anyway. The agonists and the terrified aren't spreading well-examined ideas; they're just spreading bad feelings. ■ It's good for the human soul to take pleasure in the happiness of others. We ought to be cheered when others succeed, and to feel good when others flourish. A person can't do that when all they see is decay or threats. And they do even worse when all they contribute is rain to others' parades. ■ Life will always contain messes, errors, and wrongs. One doesn't have to be a Pollyanna about it; what goes badly is usually quite evident in short order. But it really does confound the long uphill climb of our species to fixate on the bad.


July 15, 2023

News Modern war is everywhere

An exhausting amount of braying has been coming from circles sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, suggesting that support extended to Ukraine by the United States and other allies is bringing the planet closer to an imagined World War III. Some of these critics may be sincere; many are probably not. ■ But even if one were to take their claims at face value and to assume the maximum amount of authenticity about them, the arguments are still a jumbled mess. Worse, they distract from a real global conflict that is already underway. ■ News has emerged that China has been targeting Americans for hacking, targeting the House of Representatives, the State Department, and even the Secretary of Commerce. While the campaign is being reported as a discrete event, we really have to stop thinking about global conflict strictly in terms of heavy artillery and maps of battlefields. The interconnection of the world -- not exclusively by the Internet, but in large part because of it -- has introduced an entirely different style and tempo to conflict. And it is clear that many Americans, at least, have failed to take full notice. ■ In the "great wars" of history, there were occupiers, occupied, and others far from the conflict. Dwight Eisenhower could take leave from his command of Allied forces in Europe, and not only create physical distance from the conflict, but also obtain time away from it. He might have needed to worry about Axis spies reading his messages to Washington, but he didn't have to worry about them surreptitiously draining his bank account at home. ■ There is no such thing as that kind of space from conflict anymore, and not just for people in uniform. The threats are persistent, they extend everywhere, and they touch everyone. That isn't to say that conventional shooting wars aren't a problem, too; it is wholly obvious from the situation in Ukraine that they remain terrible things. ■ But if anyone awaits the outbreak of some formally declared opening battle of "World War III", they've already missed the point. Chronic, persistent, costly, inescapable conflicts are happening now. And we've already been drawn into them.

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July 16, 2023

Weather and Disasters Children of a changing climate

With incidents like a significant heat wave threatening to break extreme weather records in the Southwestern United States, we are in for another predictable round of stories pondering whether it's right to have children despite the apparent evidence of climate change. ■ Let a stake be put through the heart of that argument. It isn't "complicated", whatever the alarmist opinion and analysis might say. People should have children to the extent that they are willing to bring love and sufficient wherewithal to the task. To bring a child into the world intending to deprive them of affection or basic needs like food would be cruelty. But to make a choice not to have children based solely upon a dire forecast of the future -- or even of an evolving present -- would be madness. ■ The world has faced countless dire circumstances in the past, and will undoubtedly face new ones again. Two things have seen us through those hard times: The ingenuity of human beings, and the sustained hope that things would become brighter in the future. We cannot solve new problems without the help of new people. And we have no reason to solve them unless we can authentically believe that someone will be around to enjoy the results. ■ The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it well when he wrote: "What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic." We need the hope of that vast and incomprehensible meaning being revived around all of us, and it is often heard in a baby's cries. Parenting isn't for everyone, nor does it need to be. But nobody should be running away from procreation just because they fear leaving a carbon footprint.

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July 17, 2023

The United States of America The case for seaplanes

Very well worth reading, and at least moderately persuasive. Even if we have no expertise, it is the responsibility of decent, intelligent, curious citizens to read up on thoughtful military arguments like this one. We need to know enough to vote accordingly.

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July 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Grain drain

Self-interest doesn't have to be the same thing as selfishness. An act can reward the person or party performing it, and reward the rest of the world at the same time. This is the structural reason why market economies have strong and self-sustaining advantages over their more command-based counterparts; as noted by Adam Smith (and countless others since), "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." ■ Few countries can compare with Ukraine for its efficiency at feeding the world. Prior to coming under Russia's attack, it was the 7th largest wheat exporter in the world. Those exports are in Ukraine's interests, to be sure -- a self-interest expressly acknowledged by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. ■ But those exports are also badly needed in a world that continues to battle widespread hunger. Most of the savagery committed under the Russian flag has been at the expense of Ukrainian people. And there has been a lot of it. But now, Russia has withdrawn from an agreement to let Ukraine export its food through the Black Sea. ■ At the margins, this is certain to cause real human suffering. It will almost certainly bring death, as well. And these consequences will be experienced away from the combat zone: In places like Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan, which are not combatants in the war. ■ If anyone remains uncertain about the justness of the Ukrainian cause of self-defense, that's a matter for their own heart. But no one can remain in good conscience about the unjustness of the war waged by Russia. Intentionally starving non-combatants is an act rooted in terror.

Weather and Disasters Lightning from above

(Video) An exceptionally active display of lightning inside a supercell thunderstorm from an airplane somewhere probably over Indiana

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July 19, 2023

The United States of America To be a warning to others

It would be a thoroughly American act to open a national Hall of Shame for former Presidents. Perhaps we could combine it with a tribute to graffiti. ■ Should we have some reverence for those who have served their country with dignity, courage, and good faith? Sure. But we've also had some pretty awful occupants of the Oval Office, and they ought to be shamed for it. Eternally. ■ That's how to police future behavior: By heckling the bad behavior of the past. There's room for more faces on Mount Rushmore, at least metaphorically, and people like Madison and Eisenhower deserve a place there. ■ But naming and shaming the bad Presidents is good for shaping the expectations for future leadership. Few people are immune to at least some consideration about how they will be remembered. Those who are so immune aren't likely to be constrained by social graces anyway. ■ It takes a while, of course, to figure out who's a real failure and who was under-appreciated in their own time, and we're always subject to a bias in favor of proximity: Things that are closer in time or space tend to seem bigger than they really are. But keeping up a lively assessment of the past helps to put the present in better perspective.

Socialism Doesn't Work An act of madness

It is telling that the case of an American soldier who dashed across the border into North Korea sounds -- at least superficially -- like a case of temporary insanity. Why would anyone of sound mind try to enter a country governed like that?

Threats and Hazards Russia threatens to attack cargo ships in the Black Sea

Let's be entirely clear about which side continues to provoke ever-greater danger at the expense of the world's civilians: It's the Kremlin.

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July 20, 2023

News Disturbing the public tranquility

In Federalist Paper Number 49, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison (probably Madison) wrote, "The danger of disturbing the public tranquillity by interesting too strongly the public passions, is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society." ■ It is an argument with some merit: Even people of ordinarily sound judgement can make bad decisions when in a moment of high intensity or strong emotions. And because we humans are social animals, our feelings have a tendency to spill over onto others. And we have the unusual experience of living in a country of 335 million people, who despite our many differences, share an unusually strong common culture. It's a much larger country than it was in Madison's day, but there's a good case to be made that we're more culturally homogenous. Someone living in the farthest reaches of rural Oregon gets the same news at the same time as someone living in Manhattan. ■ That evolution makes the warning even more prescient. If Madison could see that the people around him in his own time were prone to "public passions", then we shouldn't be willfully ignorant or indifferent to the same problem now, when the feedback loop he anticipated is even tighter. There's no need to wait for a midnight horseback rider to deliver news. ■ Maturity consists, in part, in recognizing how often our own problems have been contemplated before. And for as much as people like to point at what they think are the unique evils of social media or cable news programs, the only distinction about them today is their speed -- not the content itself. We are who we've always been. ■ Jonathan Sacks once sagely noted: "Virtue is a matter of judgement and balance, weighing considerations and deciding between them. Aristotle called this 'the golden mean'. Maimonides, in the same spirit, called it 'the middle way'." There is no way, via either law or technology, to keep people from infecting one another with social contagions of panic (or, in Madison's phrasing, "passions"). We have to turn to inoculation instead: By committing our social institutions -- schools, clubs, churches, and even our group chats -- to finding Sacks's "virtue...of judgement and balance".

Weather and Disasters Feeling exceptional in Iowa

The state is effectively carved out of a much broader swath of severe-weather risk affecting virtually all of its neighbors. Odd indeed, but not unwelcome.

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July 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet A lost icon

Someone at the Chicago Tribune was, for a long time, the voice of "@ColonelTribune", a Twitter account that channeled the editorial voice of the paper as though it were a person -- lightly based on legendary publisher "Colonel" Robert McCormick. That account has been silent for more than half a year, suggesting its silence may be terminal. ■ And that is really too bad. The economics of mass media these days are generally a catastrophe: Weekday newspaper circulation is down by 40% -- since 1940. Disney loses money on consumer streaming. America's largest radio station owner has a $2.5 billion hole where its net equity should be. ■ Escaping that catastrophe isn't going to be easy on any front, but it definitely isn't going to be easier for those serving up mostly milquetoast unoriginality. Positioning an outlet with a personality and an editorial voice with something to say seems like the most viable path forward. The Tribune, for instance, has long seen itself as plucky and a little divergent from the broader editorial consensus among its peers. But it's also hard to maintain a voice worth reading on a drastically shrinking newsroom. ■ Sometimes, little things are just little things. But sometimes, they're symptomatic of big things. And it seems like an institution that would abandon the presence of an editorial voice with 615,000 followers-- even one synthesized to caricature a publisher from 50 years ago -- is the kind of institution that doesn't have the bandwidth to keep itself especially noteworthy and well-regarded for the long term.

Computers and the Internet A very reasonable hypothesis

James Palmer: "I would bet that it's going to turn out organized crime lost a bunch of money in crypto - because most of them are degenerate gamblers themselves - and there's going to be a whole spate of violence hitting the low-to-mid end grifters."

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July 22, 2023

News A fair and speedy trial

Come next May, perhaps, a former President of the United States will be put on trial for putting national security at risk. There are 37 felonies to be tried, so it is no small assemblage of accusations. ■ Initially, the case was to be tried this August, but the defense has requested delays, which the new timeline accommodates in part. Maneuvers will undoubtedly follow to attempt to delay the trial even more, but it is worth heeding words most prominently expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." ■ King was expressing the virtue of an affirmative kind of justice -- one to rectify wrongs against people by their government. But swiftness matters in cases of criminal accusations, too. It isn't a mistake that the Sixth Amendment includes these vital words: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial". ■ If a person is wrongly accused, then delaying a trial serves as an injustice to them. If a person is guilty, then delaying their prosecution is an injustice to the society that ought to be protected from offenders. What does it say of our justice system if it cannot act quickly to determine guilt or innocence in a case where everyone can see the pictures of classified documents stacked up in a public-facing ballroom? ■ The delivery of a speedy trial is a test of basic governmental competence: Just as it is an offense against justice when people are held for months or even years without trial at Rikers Island, so also is it a travesty for stunts to be used to obstruct a legitimate prosecution. A person wrongly convicted can appeal. But a society that drags its feet on holding criminals to account only invites more wrongdoing in the meantime.

Weather and Disasters More than hot enough

Virtually the entire continental United States will be under higher-than-usual temperatures for the next week or so. It is not necessary to ask, "Hot enough for ya?" under these conditinos.

Aviation News A conclave of whirlybirds

Four helicopters over the skies of the Des Moines metro area at once, with none heading in the same direction? That's unusual.


July 23, 2023

Computers and the Internet Twitter just wants to be the non-China WeChat

The incumbent business model for China's WeChat (social media plus payments) is what X-nee-Twitter says it wants to be

News UPS and Teamsters Union on brink of strike

Notwithstanding the many other worthy headlines in the news, this might be the story with the most disruptive potential in the near term

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July 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Trust, but verify

There seems to be some dispute over whether the incoming football coach at Northwestern University holds a master's degree. Why don't colleges and universities host searchable public databases of degrees they have conferred? It seems like an obvious public service to offer, as well as a tool for buttressing the schools' own legitimacy. ■ If "verification" in the digital world via signals like blue checkmarks is going to collapse in a gigantic mess, as it appears, then we need to start constructing an online ecosystem in which mutual verification is the norm. This is, in part, like the "federation" model being put to work on social-media tools like Mastodon. (And the fact that Meta/Facebook's new "Threads" service subscribes to the underlying principle makes it appear modestly more likely to thrive in the future.) ■ Schools of higher education ought to take some kind of leadership role in helping to validate whether people are who they say they are -- and that they've done what they claim to have done. While it was scandalous that Rep. George Santos lied openly about having gone to two different colleges, it shouldn't have taken an investigation by USA Today to have vetted him. ■ And the incentive obviously exists to exaggerate educational credentials -- otherwise, there wouldn't be pages devoted to questions like, "If I went to Harvard Extension, did I 'go to Harvard?'" and "How do employers verify college degrees?". ■ Making it easy for the public (including everyone from voters to employers, and even to casual dating partners) to validate whether a person indeed earned the credentials they claim would be an obvious and low-cost way to contribute to greater mutual trust. Commencement programs are often published online already, but their consistency and searchability are both widely lacking. College and university registrars ought to take note.

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July 25, 2023

News Legacy admissions

The news that the US Department of Education is opening an investigation into the practice of legacy admissions at Harvard is only one among an ongoing series of events that have focused attention on the practices of college admissions, particularly at brand-name universities. People have gone to prison over some of the unsavory behaviors the process has engendered. ■ For as much discussion as gets devoted to the admissions process, the news really should be an invitation to examine what actually makes a great education. For as much as the presence of widely-known professors contributes to the notoriety of a college or university, what makes for a well-known academic isn't necessarily the same as what makes for a great educator. ■ In fact, those things are often at odds. It is often the result of little more than a happy coincidence when a great researcher is also a great instructor. Content knowledge is merely one part of what matters in a classroom setting, and it's often not the most important aspect. Outside of those circumstances where a class is actually devoted to the cutting edge of research in a field, students would probably benefit more from the teaching of those with great pedagogical skill than those who know more about a subject than anyone else. ■ All other things being equal, the student in a well-established academic discipline would gain more utility from the instruction of someone with great teaching skill than anything else. If the tuition dollars are buying access to Accounting 101, Chemistry 201, or "Practices in Contemporary Modern English", then the student benefits most from how well they acquire and retain the fundamentals, rather than how close they can approach the outer limits of competency. ■ Access to elite institutions will always have some pull; whether it's the Ivy League or Oxbridge or the grandes ecoles of France, history suggests that people will always place a value on having an attractive pedigree. Yet history also lays plain that the vast majority of people benefit a great deal from the effective transmission of knowledge. Whether the investigation will uncover symptoms of a true scandal is yet to be seen, but it would certainly be a shame if we let talk of education's brand names overshadow a necessary examination of what higher education's rising costs actually buy.

News Things have gotten strange in China

The foreign minister has gone missing. Crackdowns are everywhere. The economy isn't growing like it used to. Party and personality alone are not enough to sustain a modern state.

Humor and Good News A fight to the death

Who, exactly, put the restaurants "La Vie" and "Mi Vida" next door to one another at the Wharf in Washington, DC?

Humor and Good News A human torpedo

Take just a step back to respect that 15'26" would be a brisk walking pace to cover 1500 meters, where a person's only resistance is air. Katie Ledecky just did that pace, but swimming in the water, crushing her nearest competitors by 17 seconds and sealing her status as a five-time world titleist in two different events. She's like a human torpedo.

Weather and Disasters 10 million people at risk

A big "enhanced risk" bubble has been drawn around large parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio for severe weather hazards

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July 26, 2023

News Mentions of China's foreign minister disappear from the Internet

George Orwell famously wrote in "1984" that "Who controls the past controls the future". He was right, at least in spirit: How history is framed by its authors bears heavily upon what we understand about the present. That is, of course, why it matters so much for historians to uncover as many first-hand accounts of the past from those who were omitted from the victors' drafts. ■ Orwell was right about the past, indeed, but we could add a modern adjunct: Who controls the website controls the present. Mentions and photographs of China's foreign minister are being erased in real time as he appears to fall out of favor with the country's ruling powers. It's not an orderly transition; it's an abrupt change first revealed not by an announcement but by the rearrangement of bytes and pixels. ■ In the 20th Century, one of the first steps an invading or rebelling force would try was to capture the radio and television stations. Control of broadcasting outlets played meaningful roles in events like the Warsaw Uprising and the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia. ■ Today, though, while broadcasting outlets are still generally important, it would seem far more vital for occupiers (or rebels) to gain control of the URLs for official channels of information. Even in a peaceful and orderly transition, a new Presidential administration promptly replaces the previous White House website with its own. What appears to be happening in Beijing seems less than orderly -- and the websites may be the first indication of any part of it ceases to be peaceful.

News An interview with Sinead O'Connor

(Video) Irish television host Tommy Tiernan interviews the artist, who has just passed away. It really is a striking and deep conversation. What the viewer can't help but notice is just how piercing their gazes are, both host and guest. Half of their conversation takes place in the most subtle of twitches at the corner of an eye or a millimeter's shift of a brow. That style may be particularly, even maybe uniquely, Irish. May she rest in peace.

Science and Technology A breakthrough, perhaps

A pre-publication paper appears to claim development of a room-temperature, ambient-pressure semiconductor. If true, it would be a phenomenal breakthrough. But we ought to be cautious before popping the champagne corks -- extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence.

News It's not enough

A lot of simultanous oddities are taking place in China's government right now. It may be symptomatic of weakness inside the power structure. Party and personality alone are not enough to sustain a modern state.

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July 27, 2023

Weather and Disasters It's not the heat, it's the humidity. No, really.

The dewpoint in Des Moines -- 79°F -- is so bad that it calls for an entirely new class of swear words

Aviation News Not all business is worth earning

Northrop Grumman says it doesn't think it's worth the risk to try to bid on building the next fighter jet for the Air Force

Humor and Good News All dogs go to Heaven

You can say you're "blessed", but there's no way you can achieve "Dog leading a procession for a Pope named Francis" status while occupying human form. It's just not possible.

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July 28, 2023

News Don't go it alone

Three people -- two sisters and the 14-year-old son of one -- died in a national forest in Colorado after attempting to live "off the grid". Their attempt, apparently motivated by fears about the world and events far beyond their control, wasn't well-practiced or carefully resourced, despite offers of help from their own family members. ■ Human beings only survive via teamwork and cooperation. We're soft, our claws are brittle, and our fur is thin. But we have quick brains and can communicate better than any other apex predators, so our survival as a species and as individuals uniquely depends upon distributed thinking and collective memory. No one has to know everything; we store most of what we "know" outside our own heads, in books, videos, checklists, and the memories of others. ■ Laugh all you want about "YouTube knowledge", but the thing that makes us totally and completely different from every other species on Earth is that we can talk one another through virtually anything: A 911 dispatcher can guide the delivery of a baby, an air-traffic controller can radio a passenger to an emergency landing, and Julia Child can walk you straight through cooking boeuf bourguignon. Nobody doubts that dolphins and bonobos are very smart, indeed, but what they know isn't very scalable and it isn't very transmissible. ■ We are extremely hazardous for other species to be around, but that depends on our ability to work together and talk with one another. We survive through shared knowledge. That goes double for times of strain -- so abandon those hopes of surviving a "collapse of civilization" scenario. We're extremely fragile on our own, but we're immeasurably resilient when working together. Fortunately, our instincts generally bind us together; nothing brings us closer than trying to overcome an obstacle. ■ We can cooperate in all kinds of ways. For the most part, the best cooperation is free, voluntary, and uncoerced. And that is what takes the Colorado family's story from being tragic in the particular (three human lives were lost, after all, including a young person not old enough to decide his life for himself) to being tragic in the abstract. ■ If you're worried about something big like civilizational collapse, then the best response -- the only available response -- is to work to fix the civilization, not to run away from it. We cannot escape our connection to others. It is literally almost impossible to survive alone; your life belongs to you, but the knowledge required to keep that life is communal property. Our lives depend expressly upon our ability to work together.

News Ukraine moves Christmas

Moving away from the Russian Orthodox date and in line with the more commonly-celebrated December 25th

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July 29, 2023

Business and Finance Making more out of less

An aspect of economic progress that rarely gets the attention it deserves is the process of dematerialization. It is, in short, the tendency for goods to be produced using less material over time. While neither consistently felt nor universally applicable, it is true enough across sufficiently many cases to be worth appreciating. ■ Your smartphone is far more capable than yesterday's brick phones, yet it is far smaller and lighter. The 2023 Ford F150 starts at a base weight of 4,021 lbs., about 2,000 lbs. lighter than its 1975 predecessor. Iowa's farms produced 38 bushels of corn per acre in the early 1930s; today, that yield is steadily around 200 bushels per acre -- meaning the same output now requires only one-fifth as much land. ■ Dematerialization tends to reduce the relative effects of the cost of goods on well-being. 80% of American jobs are in services, not goods production, and the trend continues to compound away from the basic making of stuff. What we ought to appreciate about this seemingly inexorable shift is just how vital it is to transmit good ideas about how to get things done. ■ It's a pretty special time in world history; our global struggles are less and less like "How do we get everyone clothed?", and more and more like "How do we keep affordable fast fashion from clogging the landfills?". So many gains are yet to be made, whether from learning to eat more healthily and sustainably, or from adopting household and business practices that reduce pollution, or from making better use of evolving technologies to reduce wasted time. ■ Yet those advances are dependent upon someone figuring out how to get the necessary lessons across to a global population that is mainly beyond school age. It's a challenge for which there have never been so many tools, but on which so little attention is being concentrated. It isn't immediately obvious how a modern "curricululm for keeping adults current" could be developed or disseminated. Yet it's an issue worth examining carefully: Companies like GE used to do the heavy lifting by "bringing good things to life". Now, more of the gains are to be found in how to use them.

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July 30, 2023

News Stop the little rogues

Few writers of the Revolutionary War era seem quite as consistently fresh and relevant as Benjamin Franklin. This probably owes to his interest in observing human nature and recording his observations in pithy turns of phrase. Instead of grasping for too detailed an assessment of whatever aroused his attention, he managed to break many of his conclusions down to words that make a great deal of sense untethered to any place or time. ■ Take, for example, his observation from 1754: "Little rogues easily become great ones." It isn't hard to think of more than a few "great rogues" in our world today. And it also isn't hard to think of ways in which they demonstrated who they really were long before becoming great menaces to others. ■ The same lesson is exactly at the root of Maya Angelou's "When people show you who they are, believe them." Imagine how often it causes distress, whether in private life or in public, for the people around a "little rogue" to aid and abet them by tolerating their bad behavior. ■ Of course, people can change. They can make choices to reform and redeem themselves, and people of goodwill ought to tolerate real changes of heart. But a healthy civilization has to learn how to enforce that kind of correction by making real outcasts of the chronic rogues who burn every partner in sight or use lies and deceit to climb to power. ■ If some social antibodies aren't brought forth to repel the infection, it is all too likely to metastasize. No matter how charming they are, or how much it appears we can gain by going along with them, ultimately the pain will be suffered by those who tolerated the rogue's behavior instead of boxing it out and bringing it to a halt.

Science and Technology Troubling, if true

The New York Times reports that Elon Musk personally intervened to prevent Ukrainian armed forces from using Starlink (a division of SpaceX) in close proximity to Russian invaders.

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July 31, 2023

Threats and Hazards Racial profiling via surveillance cameras

It's a dismal dystopian reality in China

Health Rural health care needs more people

From Nebraska: "There are 17 counties in the state without a primary care physician or a pharmacist." The state is working to fix that by training more prospective health-care providers in Kearney, in the central part of the state (which is overwhelmingly rural).

Business and Finance How bad is vertical integration, really?

It's pretty easy to forget how many past experiences with vertical integration have resulted in tears -- for the integrators. Sears used to sell everything right down to house kits, and look where they are now.

Threats and Hazards Even modest dissent is no longer safe in Hong Kong

"They define something as seditious when they feel you are urging people to directly or indirectly act against the government", says one ordinary person arrested for sedition.

News How much help is enough?

It is doubtful there are many problems in the social sciences that are bigger than figuring out how best to help a country become a truly liberal democracy. We clearly haven't figured out a secret recipe yet, but the world needs one. ■ It's hard to tell whether it's better for democratic practices to take hold first, or for a classically liberal set of values to become enshrined. The unsatisfying answer seems to be that they have to gradually build on each other. But the advice that Michael Bloomberg applied to business also applies to political reform: "Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle." ■ Democracy confers legitimacy on a political system, but a political system which doesn't guarantee civil liberties is ultimately hollow. Thus, it's a bit like a zipper: Leaders and citizens have to achieve small steps in both tracks, building upon one another in a virtuous feedback loop. It cannot take place so fast that people end up feeling disoriented and powerless, but it cannot be so slow that frustration boils over. ■ And just like a zipper, any backsliding on one side ends up tending to backslide the other. If people start to question the security of their rights, they become cynical about their votes. If people doubt that their votes matter, they tend to doubt their rights are secure. ■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Sudden power is apt to be insolent, sudden liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually." Yet the world is so tightly interconnected, the weapons of oppression are so fearsome, and the scale of state power is often so great, that it's really hard to imagine how "gradually" we can wait for the growth required. ■ Clearly, Russia didn't achieve the necessary escape velocity from totalitarianism in the 1990s to overcome the risk presented by an authoritarian power grab. And look at all the suffering that has wrought. Not only does that nation still need reform, but so do many others -- and no one should doubt that China will ultimately have to undergo such changes, too. How and how fast? Mechanisms and pacing both matter.

Weather and Disasters Tornadoes can cross rivers

No matter what the urban legend says to the contrary. One just did so at Clinton, Iowa. It's always been a mystery what people who believed this myth imagined the mechanism to be. Why, exactly, would an atmospheric event care about the phase of the matter below it?

News Design for the occupants of a building, not its onlookers

The design of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Columbus, Indiana, looks like a good example of a building designed primarily for the people inside it. This may sound obvious, but far too often the focus lands on the people looking at a building, rather than those using it. Curiously, though, focusing on the welfare of those inside often yields a great deal of respect from those outside -- like the SC Johnson Administration Building.

Broadcasting "Benson" was lieutenant governor of Montana

Or, at least, that's the only state that fits the details. In one episode, they expressly state that they "flew 1900 miles" to get to Washington, DC. That narrows it down to Montana, Utah, or Arizona. Arizona is out because another episode features it as a distant destination. Utah is out because a different episode, set in Nevada, includes a line saying (approximately) that "winters are different here than at home" -- which would be odd to say about a neighboring state. So Montana it is.

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