Gongol.com Archives: August 2023

Brian Gongol

August 2023
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August 1, 2023

Broadcasting Movies, books, podcasts, newsletters -- they're all too long these days

London Times columnist James Marriott pleads with content creators to find editors to trim their work. And he's right: People are too often driven by a faulty instinct that says "Now that I have your attention, I want to get all of this off my chest". ■ A decent respect for the audience (and for cognitive processing) would find us in a world with the same information and entertainment being peddled, but in serialized, discrete chunks rather than exhaustive epics. Very little needs to be said in one block of 300 pages that couldn't be said in three discrete century-length chunks (or less). The podcast that goes on for 60 minutes probably wouldn't lose much at the hand of a producer who could cut it down to 30 or 45. A blockbuster 3-hour film doesn't have to be that long, and if it does, perhaps it just needs a sequel. ■ Some of the greatest and most memorable works of all time are notable for their brevity. The Gettysburg Address sticks with us even today in no small part because it is short. Economy of words doesn't have to be a mark of laziness; it's more often a sign of respect for the audience. ■ Digital distribution has certainly facilitated the process of producing longer works. It's no longer a matter of how much celluloid you can spool around a reel, but how many bits you can push down a fiber-optic line. ■ But technology hasn't always been a tool for undisciplined creativity: Mark Twain was the first to type a manuscript for publication, but he was also a great artist of the short story. ■ As Ben Sasse once noted, "I think lots of 300-page books could (and should) have been 30-page articles, but neither magazines nor book publishers have much of a market for 30 pages." And in that, he was echoing a sentiment from Theodore Roosevelt: "Many learned people seem to feel that the quality of readableness in a book is one which warrants suspicion. Indeed, not a few learned people seem to feel that the fact that a book is interesting is proof that it is shallow." Roosevelt plainly disagreed. ■ Once a person responsible for delivering a message begins to consider the needs of their own audience, they shouldn't be able to resist the urge to economize on their words. It is far better to leave an audience hungry for the next edition -- another book, column, album, feature, sermon, or episode -- than to leave them exhausted by the end. If a story is worth telling or a point is worth making, it's worth making without deadweight.

Aviation News Linguistic precision matters

The AP has shared a video of an incident in which an airplane ran into trouble along a New Hampshire beach. The AP's tweet on the story says "A small plane towing an advertising banner landed in the ocean", but anyone looking at the video can see that it's not a "landing". An "arrival", for sure. A "ditching", probably. The pilot deserves credit for surviving and not injuring any beachgoers in the process, but the airplane goes nose-over in the water. That's really not "landing".

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August 2, 2023

The United States of America The Atlantic, but for the center-right

The American media landscape is crowded in many ways, but one glaring vacuum is a thoughtful, gently center-right counterpart to The Atlantic. Same long-form periodical style, just with a classical-liberal/right-neoliberal disposition. A big-picture, big-ideas home base with a proudly American slant. ■ Imagine an outlet to serve as a natural home for market-oriented greens, Republican internationalists, and Madisonian Federalists. An editorial voice consistently skeptical of concentrated power in all its forms, but not focused on day-to-day politics. ■ There are really giant questions out there that need to be asked -- and answered with a healthy dose of humility about what can be done via mandate. Not reflexively anti-government, but thoroughly aware that nothing is sustainable without broad public buy-in. ■ To an extent, this isn't far from the editorial position of The Economist. But whereas The Economist is a decidedly global publication, there really isn't a widely-known voice of this nature with an unapologetically American focus, mission, and perspective. ■ And the best way for America to responsibly bear its special place in the world is to make sure we neither mistake our self-interest for the global interest (they aren't always the same), nor to ignore the global interest out of selfishness. We must be engaged with the world without succumbing to the conceit that we're the only place in the world. ■ The United States is both a vast continental nation and a place of enormous differences in local priorities and approaches, and our intellectual atmosphere should reflect that. What we share in common (like national defense priorities), we ought to do with a long-term perspective. What we can do differently at the state, county, and community levels, we ought to share among ourselves as peers and friends. ■ It isn't hard to find outlets with something to say about politics, but it can be very hard to find those with something to say about ideas. And ideas are what move the world. As Calvin Coolidge once remarked, "Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance." Those ideas ought to have an obvious landing place.


August 3, 2023

Weather and Disasters Tiny satellites will help track tropical storm events

It's hard to think of a lot of disciplines where "more and better data" does a better job of creating a virtuous feedback loop than in weather forecasting.

Computers and the Internet Japanese finance ministry: That Twitter account isn't ours!

Verification is far more about the good of the platform than the good of the person verified

News When systems fail

A depressing but important examination of the process failures that led to a deadly hotel disaster in 1981

Computers and the Internet Classic computers

Let your eyes linger for just a moment on the third item in the price list for a 1977 Tandy Computer. That cassette tape recorder wasn't there to blast the Bee Gees. It's there for storage. If the stretch from this to a modern MicroSD card doesn't blow your mind just a little bit, you might just not be capable of wonder.

News Sheltered from what?

There's no perfect way to raise children, but trying to shelter them from any disagreeable views doesn't seem particularly productive

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August 4, 2023

Science and Technology First close-up look at a dying star

It is profoundly weird and amazing and mind-bending that we're using telescopes to see things for the absolute very first time...in the entire history of humankind.

News Small vessels can cause big damage

A Ukrainian drone ship appears to have done some real violence to a Russian warship. This is exactly the argument for vastly expanding the US Navy, with the help of low-cost, semi-autonomous vessels.

Computers and the Internet "X (formerly Twitter)"

The company is signing its work as "X (formerly Twitter)". Not to play the jaded Gen X card here, but we've seen this movie before, and eventually we just go back to calling you Prince or Puff Daddy.

News Oregon and Washington to join the Big Ten

Isn't there a lever Jerome Powell can pull to stop this inflation?

Broadcasting The tragedy of "Benson"

Not to burden a 40-year-old artifact of the past with the perspective of the present, but "Benson" can be accurately seen as the tragic story of a man who carries the entire weight of the emotional labor in his workplace, with sarcasm as his only release.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

August 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet When symbiosis breaks down

Conventional media outlets and social-media outlets have been locked in an unstable symbiotic relationship for a while. As consumer attention (and advertising dollars) have shifted towards the social-media outlets, the conventional sources have been driven to use those newer channels as tools to attract what audience attention remains. Social-media outlets, meanwhile, have been dependent on others to create the sort of content that people want to share and talk about. ■ The evidence has grown fairly hard to dispute that new channels of communication, in all their forms, have hurt the basic bottom line for mass media. Whether it's Craigslist (and other forces) decimating the market for newspaper classified ads or Facebook touting the powerful targeting capacities of their advertising platform, there's less money available for anything that depends on words like "broad" or "mass". ■ But what isn't clear is how to reconcile these divergent interests inside the symbiotic relationship. The Canadian government has attempted to patch it by telling social-media outlets to pay for news content they serve up. Facebook has responded by removing that news content altogether so they won't have to pay. ■ Canadian news outlets have responded with predictable hostility. It might not mean so much if not for the fact that a third of Americans (and, presumably, a comparable share of Canadians) regularly get their news exposure from Facebook. It might not be their only platform for interaction, but it's a significant one. ■ This particular fight, though ugly, could be very useful for revealing just who benefits the most from the relationship. On one hand, it does appear as if Facebook has an especially large share of market power; if it weren't a significant toll collector on the way to reaching many consumers, how could it make so much money (more than $7 billion last quarter)? ■ On the other hand, how long can an outlet like Facebook remain relevant as a destination for people to discuss what's happening if it expressly rejects any credible, mainstream sources of news in the first place? The outcome of the dispute may actually tell us quite a lot -- which side breaks down first and how hard each side works to meet in the middle will reveal much that isn't readily apparent from surveys about consumer behavior. It's a nasty experiment, but it could end up being a very telling one.

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August 8, 2023

The United States of America Arbitrary tests

One of the eight candidates to qualify for the first Republican Party 2024 Presidential debate has proposed that the Constitution be amended to prevent anyone under age 25 from voting until they've passed a civics test. ■ It's cagey, of course, to appeal to older voters by going after those who are already the least likely to participate. The implication, of course is that they are less qualified to cast ballots due to their youth and inexperience. At first glance, it even sounds like a modest standard to test: The same type of exam that immigrants must past in order to become naturalized. ■ But that isn't a valid test to impose on a right obtained by birth. A democracy is no less legitimate if its voters are less skilled. We don't celebrate the democratization of countries where autocracy previously prevailed because the voters somehow all took a class together. We celebrate democratization because it is a mark of legitimacy. People have a right to choose their own government, even if it's a faulty or ineffective one. ■ That's what democracy is really about. Elections are an exercise in periodically obtaining or renewing the consent of the governed. That's it. A perfectly competent government can lack legitimacy if it came to power through unjust or undemocratic means. And a totally incompetent government can yet still be legitimate, as long as it governs through consent. ■ Democracy is a process. The outcomes of elections matter, of course, and a chronic failure to perform up to people's expectations can have terribly corrosive effects on the perceived legitimacy of a government. Democratic backsliding is an enormous threat, and it all too often starts when people lose their faith in the performance legitimacy of their government. People, quite reasonably, want a government that "works". ■ Should all voters, ideally, have a good deal of civic literacy? Yes, certainly. But voter quality matters mainly as an input to obtaining good outcomes from a democratic process. The quality of the outcome does not determine whether the process itself is legitimate, in democracies old and new alike. As Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Voting is the single most important and symbolic act of a liberated people, and they are reluctant to wait. The circumstances of the first elections are not likely to favor liberal forces." ■ Democracies pick lousy governments all the time. And then, they are welcome to send those bad governments to the unemployment lines. It may not happen as swiftly as people might want, but election cycles have to be long enough to confer a little stability on the process. ■ In the long run, the civic quality of voters matters a great deal, and a healthy republic works hard to renew itself so that everyone pulls their own weight in that regard. But it's not a matter for arbitrarily testing the civic virtue of some and not others. Historically, many Americans were illiterate, and we are the heirs to their democracy. What made it legitimate then, and legitimate now, is that it was constructed on a foundation of consent.


August 10, 2023

Computers and the Internet Signet rings of the 21st Century

To anyone paying even modest attention, it has become painfully obvious that passwords are almost completely inadequate to the task of Internet security. The requirements are inconsistent across sites, apps, and services (some prohibit all but a few special characters, others won't work without them), and all too few permit the use of spaces or extended-length pass phrases (even though a good 48-character passphrase without special characters would be exponentially more secure than a 12-character password using them). Passwords thus get recycled, pressed into use across scores of logins, and written down or stored where they can be revealed or stolen with ease. ■ Some services and devices have tried to substitute biometric identification instead -- think Apple's Face ID or Samsung's fingerprint sensors -- but the data has to be stored somewhere, and the risks of storage are non-trivial. We only have so many unique biometric identifiers; if they become compromised or if the records are corrupted, then there isn't much room for substitution. ■ Thus it presents a mystery why we haven't seen a more widely-accepted alternative emerge to permit secure, non-repudiable, fraud-resistant identification and authentication for our countless daily interactions with the Internet. ■ A solution that doesn't even seem to meet the patent-law requirement of non-obviousness is to have some form of unique user identification integrated within a ring. Rings are an obvious choice for wearable identification, since they are (generally) non-obtrusive, durable, easy to reach, and difficult to steal. ■ Human beings have been wearing rings for thousands of years, and they have shown themselves to be useful beyond decoration: Secret decoder rings may be mostly a joke, but signet rings have been used as authentication tools for centuries. Their digital-era counterparts wouldn't even need to leave an impression on wax: NFC tags are tiny and cheap already. ■ We'll see society come around to adopting rings as digital identification tools sooner or later, particularly as it becomes ever more painfully clear that we really must grow beyond the limitations of passwords and impose real security on the many tools upon which the modern world depends. It's too obvious a solution not to happen.

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August 11, 2023

News News that matters, not nonsense

A brand-name media outlet is publishing "news" about people chanting insults at a Presidential candidate in Iowa today. That's not news. It's amplifying people who don't deserve the additional attention. ■ This kind of carelessness, recklessness, or general dereliction of duty starts with a misunderstanding which is all too often found in the news media. It's the misunderstanding that news is what piques the interest of the audience. That's false. ■ News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Most everything else masquerading as "news" really falls under the categories of "events" or "information". ■ Events and information can be valuable. If it's going to rain tomorrow or if preparations are underway to celebrate the nation's semiquincentennial, then those can be good things to know. ■ But the threshold for treating any subject as "news" ought to be higher than "People said nasty things about someone, and here's what they said". Transcribing insults and then repeating them for publication or broadcast doesn't really advance the First Amendment. It's allowed, to be sure...but it's a counterproductive waste. ■ Social and digital media in particular flatten the media hierarchy -- every story appears in the same streams with the same degree of emphasis as every other, with no real distinction between an above-the-fold page A1 headline and filler buried in the Lifestyle section. That flattening makes it doubly toxic for serious outlets to engage in the mindless amplification of the kinds of events that anyone of sound mind and character recognizes as dumb. It's easy content to generate, but it just sludges up the whole system. ■ Nobody should get a free pass to enjoy "earned media" just because they're effective at heckling. It's no surprise that reporters often take dictation for those spitting insults, but in amplifying those insults, they're working at cross-purposes with themselves. ■ The words of a heckler are what the educational field would call a "seductive detail": Something not crucial to the main point, but interesting enough to draw in the audience. Seductive details can be very good at capturing attention, but they are lousy for actually transmitting information precisely because they seduce the audience into caring about the thing that matters less than the main subject. ■ Textbook authors are often suckers for seductive details: They know something interesting but not crucial about a topic, so they insert that material as a sidebar, thinking that the interruption will help spice up the text and keep the audience interested. ■ But once the audience has taken a detour from the main point (especially if they're implicitly told that the detour is more interesting), it's all the harder to bring them back around to what matters. It's like the old trick: If someone says "Don't think about a pink elephant", you're likely to be on the verge of pondering pink pachyderms. ■ And so it is when reporters get hooked on the wrong details. What a heckler said is a seductive detail, but it's too much of a pink elephant for the rest of the story to get through. We shouldn't expect news outlets to be up to speed on the latest in academic research on learning quality. ■ Yet we should expect them to know from rudimentary self-awareness that amplifying lowbrow stunts and juvenile taunts crowds out the precious attention of the audience and gets them hooked on things that are not news. Self-interest, a sense of shame, or common decency should stop them from playing transcriptionist.

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August 12, 2023

Iowa A fair amount of interaction

On the surface, the main attraction at an event like the Iowa State Fair is what's served up for consumption: Food, prizes, and performances, to pick the most obvious categories. But just beneath that surface is something a little more abstract and a lot more interesting. ■ Most of the really interesting things that happen in life aren't pure expressions of any one subject or talent or discipline. The really interesting things happen at the margins, where different fields intersect with one another -- often unexpectedly. ■ And a great fair is no different. In Iowa's legendary case, it's a thoroughly and unapologetically agricultural event, but it is held in the state's largest city, within blocks of heavy industry and within the line of sight of the state capitol building. ■ Around 100,000 people attend the fair each day, with agendas ranging from the "old-fashioned hymn sing" at the small church on the grounds to free concert tributes to 80s metal bands to strolling a building packed with 19 pages' worth of commercial and political vendors. ■ We are drawn to lifestyle choices that increasingly homogenize life experience -- from entertainment outlets to religious affiliations to neighborhood sorting along political lines. In a sense, that's good, inasmuch as it represents greater ranges of free choice and people getting more of what they individually want. ■ But the intersections, especially when unexpected, are what make the fair so interesting and often memorable. People who might otherwise have nothing to do with one another in daily life are smushed together in great crowds for eleven days, where they see one another, stand in line together, and take interest in the same things (often for wholly different reasons). The intersections are the root of the greatness.

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August 13, 2023

Business and Finance Selling (out) to a customer

Part of the appeal of America's small-business ecosystem is that it is very easy for anyone to hang a shingle and start offering goods and services. This vibrancy is one of the country's most powerful economic tools: Americans like to discover a need, then make a buck by satisfying it. ■ But that vibrancy also leaves us perhaps unusually under-skilled at disposing of businesses at natural turning points. When the law makes it easy to start a new firm (as it should) and the culture celebrates the founding entrepreneur (as it does), that can have the effect of limiting the attention paid to how a firm might change hands. In Michael Bloomberg's words, "My operating principle has always been build, don't buy." ■ Lots of people find reasons to wind down their companies (or at least their ownership thereof), whether for retirement or to satisfy non-compete agreements or merely because something more interesting came along. Too few of them follow a simple piece of advice: If you're looking to wind down a business, make sure your exit strategy includes calling a couple of your customers to offer them a chance to buy you out. ■ Those customers would have to be trustworthy, of course -- the last thing an owner might want to do while looking to sell out is to start a panic among existing customers, depleting the valuable book of incoming orders at just the time when that book might be of greatest use in helping to justify a high sales price. ■ But a trusted customer might well be willing to acquire the means of producing something valuable to them at a good or even premium price, especially if it permits them to avoid the disruption that comes with watching an important supplier go through a painful process of being consolidated, merged, or otherwise placed under new management. ■ Monopolistic behaviors get a bad name generally, but even if the Federal Trade Commission is sometimes hostile to vertical integration, lots of real-world good can come from helping a customer to "bring certain capabilities in-house", as such a purchase might euphemistically be described. ■ And it could well be the case that the employees of the firm being sold would find themselves better off as the new co-workers of their established clients than to become the latest "portfolio company" of an unrelated and disinterested investor group (or, perhaps worse, to be acquired and eventually closed by a rival). In selling to a good customer, the exiting company may have at least some confidence that the new owners will value stability and continuity more than most buyers. ■ There's no one right way to get out of a business any more than there is one right way to get in. But the worst outcome may very well be for a company to simply cease operations without giving any clients the chance to salvage the operation, leaving customers without a supplier, employees without continued employment, and the exiting owners without anything to show for their efforts.

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August 16, 2023

News The words should suit the crime

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt wrote words that are depressingly resonant today: "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest." ■ Roosevelt wasn't addressing the legal system alone. He directed his ire at the false accusations often circulated in ordinary life and amplified by the coverage of the press. Even in Roosevelt's day -- when the only electronic medium was the telegraph -- the trouble of inconsistency in public expectations of honesty was an obvious one. ■ A former President of the United States stands accused of a substantial number of crimes related to his failed bid at re-election. The accusations -- including conspiracy charges and attempts to defraud the country -- are weighty. They are all the more so because in significant and numerous ways, they took place in plain sight. ■ The habit of vilifying one's political rivals -- calling George W. Bush a "war criminal" or asserting that Barack Obama was a Manchurian candidate -- is all too widespread. It is practiced by people who ought to know better, whose behavior rubs off on others who ought to know more than they do. And it is ultimately a corrosive habit, in no small part because of precisely what Teddy Roosevelt foresaw. ■ Politicians make mistakes. They sometimes act on dubious information or for reasons that are not completely in the public interest. Many exaggerate, some fib, and a few just flat-out lie. The public, and especially the most prominent of commentators and well-esteemed leaders among us, ought to be harsh on those who are dishonest, particularly when their dishonesty is out of malicious intent. A few politicians deserve to spend time in prison. ■ For the rest, the vitriol should be proportional to the actual offense. It's not an act of dishonesty to believe differently than others; in a democracy, we need good and honest rivals. A "loyal opposition" is an indication of good civic health. We can lampoon, satirize, and ridicule others for their choices, as the First Amendment ensures we may. ■ But when the words devolve into assumptions not only of bad faith but of criminal or corrupt character, we open the door to that "habit of mind" Roosevelt warned against: To assume that "everyone" in public life is worse than wrong, they're evil. And if everyone is accused in the same extreme terms, then it's hard to tell when someone really is knowingly and intentionally trying to subvert the Constitution.

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August 17, 2023

News Late graduates

An Ohio man has been awarded a special degree, an Associate of Technical Studies, by the University of Akron. What makes it a remarkable event is that new graduate Robert Greathouse is 93 years old, and that he attended the university sporadically over the course of 35 years. ■ It's tailor-made to be a human-interest story, of course. Local television newscasts eat this kind of tale right up. But they should also cause us to pause and reflect on the whole reason we have an educational system in the first place. ■ Greathouse's attendance was sporadic because he used the University of Akron mainly as a career resource, picking up courses in subjects like computer programming because he needed them for his job. His attendance tapered off about the time he reached retirement age. And there is nothing wrong whatsoever with having used education as a tool to increase earnings potential. ■ But we should never be quick to underestimate how much potential remains in the human mind, even after a working career has come and gone. Winston Churchill was already 65 when he became prime minister of the United Kingdom at their time of greatest distress. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he joined the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, and older still when he was elected President of Pennsylvania. Galileo Galilei was 76 or 77 when he invented a pendulum clock. ■ It may not be obvious why there would be a public interest in pouring finite resources into the education of people who no longer need credentials for the resume. Maybe, though, we are too quick to categorically under-estimate the value of the ideas locked inside minds capped by gray hair. ■ If we don't balk at the idea of workers undergoing frequent career changes when they are of conventional working age (even if nobody really knows what exactly constitutes a "career change"), then perhaps we ought to be quicker to embrace the idea of graying grads and emeritus learners. ■ The "wisdom of elders" has been a trope for nearly as long as elders have walked among us. But maybe we ought to heed Seneca's advice that "[O]ne should watch over one's old age with still greater care if one knows that such action is pleasing, useful, or desirable in the eyes of a person whom one holds dear." Furthering an education isn't the only way to be useful, of course -- but maybe it would turn out well for all of us if there were less novelty in senior citizens going back to re-live senior year.

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August 18, 2023

Weather and Disasters A good first attempt

Though it isn't quite an iron law, a good heuristic for life is to assume that the first time is usually the hardest. New experiences are, by their nature, the ones that typically cause the most struggle as we try to grasp new concepts, contextualize new information, and prioritize new challenges and opportunities. ■ That's at least part of why the first time down a path typically feels longer than the same trip the second time around. This "return-trip effect" reflects some of the weight of familiarity. And it's related to how we have to limit distractions when engaging in a real attempt to process meaning, like when motorists turn down the radio while searching for an address. ■ Southern California is about to go through a "first time" -- Hurricane Hilary is virtually certain to be the first tropical storm system to make landfall over Los Angeles or San Diego since 1939, or longer than the living memory of the preponderance of people. To have been an adult last time it happened would require being more than a century old today. ■ This "first time" is bound to be troublesome, even if nature itself backs off and the storm packs less of a punch than feared. A simple family picnic is likely to involve an unexpected challenge or two. ■ And Southern California is a region of more than 20 million people, so even the best-laid plans will be tested, particularly since the storm will be a novelty in modern times. The next few days are going to be challenging, in no small part because nobody remembers being in this spot before.

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August 19, 2023

News Long nights, short years

It is the season for proud (and often emotional) parents to share "Move-in day at college" pictures of their offspring. And though some of the messages are overwrought and most repeat familiar themes about the fleeting nature of time, they do offer what can be a useful moment of perspective. ■ Consider that, by the time a child turns 9 years old, their parents have already covered half the ground they are allotted by law and society to turn that growing child into an adult. That's a weighty thing to consider. A 9-year-old is nowhere near being ready for adulthood, and yet it's halftime for the process. ■ Most parents stand a fairly good chance of living to know their children as adults for at least as long as they knew them as children, though nothing is ever guaranteed. That alone ought to be enough to incentivize conscientious, intentional parenting. It isn't always enough in practice, but it should be. ■ But parents have to concentrate on developing young people with the kinds of virtues that keep civilization from collapsing, too. And it's a challenge that has always been with us: Maimonides wrote nearly a thousand years ago "Man's governance of himself consists in making his soul acquire the virtuous moral habits and cease to have the vicious moral habits, if any have been formed." Where would those habits be formed, if not in the context of one's upbringing? ■ Parenting advice columns and other resources often are found spilling over with ways to enhance children's competitive standing among their peers or their fleeting happiness in the moment. But aside from some heavy-handed words on moral instruction that can be found in certain pockets, parents aren't often given the action-worthy steps they need to plan those bigger lessons, and that's a shame. The process is over much quicker than we think.

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August 20, 2023

Humor and Good News How free choice makes us more alike

There's no assimilating force quite as powerful as being free to peacefully choose what you like. Lots of political and economic systems depend upon coercion in one form or degree or another in order to achieve some kind of unity of purpose or outcomes among people. ■ There are countless different ways to try to make people the same, but when the matter is forced, people tend to be very good at making the uniformity itself a matter of dissent. Consider the mildest, most benign form of forced homogeneity: A school with an enforced uniform requirement. The mind of many an adolescent turns immediately to finding ways to break away from the standard to express some kind of individuality. ■ But when people are permitted to pursue their own happiness without being forced, the first thing that can be expected to happen is that people who started out unalike will find themselves bonding over the things on which they agree. Who isn't pleased to discover a "tribe" of sorts? ■ When that experience is repeated over and over, the ultimate outcome is for ordinary people to find themselves in broad consensus with others. Perhaps not on highly contentious matters -- religious diversity only tends to grow when differences are allowed to flourish -- but on the underlying infrastructure itself, certainly. What rational person, enjoying a liberty for himself or herself, doesn't appreciate the goodness of securing that liberty for everyone? (Irrational people are another case.) ■ Nor should we discount the power of voluntary choices to lead to assimilation via the little things, either. Is it not notable that even in a country of more than 330 million people, the United States still generates so many cultural manias? No one is forced to attend Taylor Swift concerts or purchase air fryers or see "Barbie" in theaters, and yet people do those things freely in phenomenal numbers because they are entirely at liberty to do so. And then, when they have a good experience, they can (and do) tell their friends and family, often with evangelical fervor. ■ Which rewards the creation of goods and services with massive appeal, even when it seems like those masses are too large to satisfy in big ways. And yet it happens. People find things that they like, and join freely in the enjoyment -- just as 100,000 people from all walks of life will show up for a day at the Iowa State Fair and with very few exceptions just peacefully enjoy themselves. ■ And in enjoying whatever particular things please us without becoming uptight about the choices of others, we become more alike with one another even as we choose differently. Good ideas bubble up faster and gain more traction, and people become inherently more interested in preserving the abstract understanding of freedom of choice rather than putting their energies into resisting enforced conformity. It's a delightful paradox.

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August 21, 2023

News School years to come

Something to ponder as a new school year gets underway: While we do subscribe to some national standards, school curricula remain largely within the purview of state and local officials. Some like to innovate, but many like to adopt what others have developed. ■ Generally speaking, this variety is a feature rather than a bug. It leaves important questions with social and moral weight within the purview of the people most directly influenced by them, which in turn helps to preventatively de-escalate heated debates about standards on the national level. (Of those, there are quite enough already.) ■ But a lack of national oversight commanding states and communities to adopt particular curricula doesn't stop those relevant authorities from seeking guidance or from searching for model standards to adopt. Nor does it prevent nationally-organized groups from seeking influence. Lots of groups have short-term objectives in mind when trying to influence curriculum choices. ■ What if a group were to consciously dedicate itself to developing a model curriculum for the maximum long-term benefit of the republic? Put another way: Suppose you have been challenged to come up with a model curriculum to set the United States as far as possible ahead of any authoritarian or totalitarian rivals for the next 50 years. What would you include in that curriculum for maximum advantage? ■ Chew on that question long enough, and the serious observer is likely to dwell less on the content (the "what") and more on two other questions: How? And why? ■ The countries most likely to challenge the United States in the future -- economically, politically, or militarily -- are probably going to have something in common with our most serious rivals of the past century: A high level of command authority from the top down. Whatever ideological "ism" drives the state, it's likely to involve rigidity of thought and unity of purpose. ■ That's because the total mobilization of a state can be a real force multiplier. As Dwight Eisenhower noted in his memoir of World War II, "One French businessman said to me, 'We defeated ourselves from within; we tried to oppose a four-day work week against the German's six- or seven-day week.'" The way to check the ambitions of such a state is to leverage our own advantages. ■ In particular, America's future security and prosperity will depend upon flexibility of thought, creativity, and continued openness on one hand. On the other, those goods will depend upon a sustained commitment to common rules (even when we disagree over outcomes), an acute sensitivity to the relevance of the past, and a sense of civic pride -- a patriotism that says we believe in our strengths, consciously want to repair our weaknesses, and take pride in our perpetual evolution towards "a more perfect union". ■ Both of these hands, one broadly associated with each of the left and the right, have a vital role to play. No one can anticipate in 2023 how the next 50 years will go, and more than someone in 1897 could have anticipated a future winding all the way from Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in the Spanish-American War all the way through the emergence of jet fighters and atomic bombs. But we are obligated to spend time and effort thinking about what our real advantages are and how they will sustain us in challenging times to come.

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August 22, 2023

Business and Finance The wisdom of having nothing to add

Devotees of the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders at which Warren Buffett so famously presides know that some of the greatest lines come not from Buffett, but from his partner, Charlie Munger. Munger, who is renowned for his fanatical devotion to lifelong learning, frequently uses his turn during the question-and-answer session to say nothing more than "I have nothing to add". ■ A great many of us have a lot to learn from Munger's wisdom. A great deal of what passes for news and commentary is nothing more than a fleeting acknowledgment of immaterial events or a rephrasing of threadbare conventional wisdom. ■ There are countless circumstances and events that just don't matter, and on which none of us should really have anything to add. Similarly, there are a great number of things on which only something very basic needs to be said to join in the consensus opinion of all right-thinking people. ■ The manner in which the Supreme Court issues opinions ought to be taken as more of a guide than it is. Justices can concur with an opinion in full, they can concur in part, or they can dissent, either individually or as a group. Sometimes, even the dissents are divided. Yet when an opinion is unanimous, there is no need for each justice to say something individually, and the message would be diluted if there were less than full concurrence in the opinion. ■ There's a magic in "I have nothing to add". It preserves the authority of the speaker or writer by attaching them to answers they believe to have been correctly delivered, but with an underlying modesty that says, "Listen to me instead when I have something uniquely insightful to say later". We ought to normalize sharing with endorsement and agreeing without embellishing. ■ But this also requires surrendering the false outrage that so many people like to wield against their rivals, for not having said enough about the right subjects with the appropriate level of outrage. Lots of people refuse to put down that weapon, no matter how disingenuous it is. We need to enforce that socially, though: Letting it stand that individuals don't always have to pile on their own unoriginal concurrences or dissents with every issue that arises. Sometimes "I have nothing to add" is exactly the right contribution.

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August 23, 2023

Business and Finance Cutting the check and paying the price

Some arguments are never really settled, no matter how dispositive the facts and reasoning behind them may be. Economic arguments tend to land among these perpetual debates, in large part because everyone has an opinion about money. As with other matters (like education and health care), it's easy to mistake familiarity for expertise. ■ An especially recalcitrant wing of economic opinion holds fast to the belief that if only we taxed imports hard enough, the domestic manufacturing economy would experience an unprecedented boom. There is nothing in evidence to support this fantasy, and mountains of evidence against it. ■ First, it has to be recognized that tariffs aren't a magical way to tax foreigners at no cost to the domestic consumer. The real cost of any tax is split between buyer and seller; cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. The incidence of any particular tax depends, essentially, on who wants or needs the exchange more. ■ Without resorting to explanations involving the relative slopes of the supply and demand curves, this can be explained intuitively: Whoever is more eager for a deal to go through ultimately has less bargaining power in an exchange, and the government collecting the tax takes implicit advantage of that eagerness to trade. ■ But the problem with tariffs goes farther than that. Whether observers recognize it or not, the US manufacturing sector continues to grow in value. It just isn't growing as quickly as the service sector. But in any case, the biggest profits in manufacturing are made by assembling complex equipment and systems, rather than by trying to make basic stuff with blast furnaces. It's better to build Boeing jets than to mass-produce paperclips. ■ Assembling complex systems is a lot easier to do when you can have access to the best deals on the component parts. Making it more expensive to import basic goods from abroad only hobbles the efforts of the domestic manufacturers best equipped to turn the biggest profits for domestic industry. ■ And none of the discussion would be complete without recognizing that automation is often at least as disruptive to manufacturing jobs as foreign trade. But that shouldn't stop us from putting automation into service, particularly if machines can do dirty, dull, or dangerous work. As long as we recognize the need for robust transitional support for people displaced from their jobs by automation or by trade, we shouldn't be afraid of bringing in affordable products from the global marketplace. ■ But that won't stop shameless political opportunists -- and dunces -- from pretending that higher import taxes are a silver bullet. That kind of con artistry has a long history, but a despicable track record. A sincere and authentic belief in American manufacturing wouldn't be so eager to embrace stunts in service of growing the sector. High tariffs are a tool adored most by people of low economic sophistication.


August 25, 2023

News Nickname games are unwarranted

Kara Swisher has earned a considerable following as a brand-name commentator on technology. And because her journalistic beat intersects with many other areas of culture, politics, and society in general, she frequently uses her wide-reaching platform to editorialize on other matters. This is entirely within her rights under the First Amendment, and it is consistent with a long tradition of opinion journalism in the United States. ■ But she has also been the target of unwarranted and line-crossing attacks, particularly on social media. And she has vigorously criticized social-media outlets like Facebook for "amplifying and weaponizing hate". ■ Thus it is disappointing to see her employ her own platform to solicit critical nicknames for people like Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, reveling in appellations like "Ramasmarmy" and "Rama-lama-ding-dong". They are neither clever nor insightful. ■ Ramaswamy deserves criticism for espousing bad policies, like arbitrary tests to block young adults from voting, or withdrawing support for Ukraine as it fights for its very existence. Celebrating and amplifying juvenile nicknames is no more than a way of playing footsie with exactly the kind of toxic civic environment that not long ago propelled an utterly unfit man to the Presidency -- a man Swisher undoubtedly sees herself as better than. ■ Political satire is one thing. Playground mockery is something much less. It is not only cheap and unbecoming behavior, it creates a permission structure for people to defend bad actors -- by establishing that ideas don't matter, only team spirit. And the resulting spats can drown out the very arguments that should be used to knock their bad ideas out of contention. ■ If a candidate is a bad actor, their opponents should come right out and say so -- and why. Individuals will come and go from any given race, but the habits they bring to the public square can last much longer. If those habits are bad and the rest of us slip into them, the damage they do can turn into a chronic and debilitating condition. Maturity -- not to mention the survival of self-government -- demands that we hold everyone to higher standards, including ourselves.


August 27, 2023

News No more baby-talk

Within the broad category of children's and juvenile entertainment, there are countless approaches taken to the narrative voice. But it's hard not to detect in some television and film formats -- and a non-trivial number of written works, too -- a gravitation towards baby talk. ■ It's one thing to have a bridge character (like Sesame Street's Elmo) whose youthful mistakes set up a contrast with other characters in order to tell young audiences "This is meant for you, too". It's quite another when the entire cast of characters babbles amongst themselves as though they've never encountered correct grammar before. ■ There just has to be a healthy middle ground somewhere in between Rudyard Kipling and whatever motivates these screenwriters and authors. It's fine to put a gentle lilt into your voice when talking to children, but the science lines up behind using the same words and constructions that adults know to use among ourselves. Intentionally childish syntax and cutesy malapropisms really aren't helpful. ■ Which is actually more relatable to youth: Trying to fake kids' vernacular, or writing for them in plain (correct) English with an eye towards accessible vocabulary? The former seems insulting and cloying. The latter seems to respect that they're aspiring to grow. We cheat them -- and the future -- when we disregard their interest in being challenged in loving ways. ■ And what of the stories themselves? Some writing for children stands out in its respect for complexity and wholeness (three cheers for "Bluey"!). But some TV shows drag on for 30 minutes and never even attempt to make a meaningful point. Maybe it's tough to write in competition with unboxing videos on YouTube, but should that competition be won via surrender? ■ Not everything has to be an Aesop's fable, of course. But there's a whole lot of raw material there (and in the rest of the canon of children's lit) making points well-deserved to be taught today, using today's characters and special effects. Engaged parents who know better will steer their children away from the tripe, but what of the kids who don't have someone to nudge them towards something better? ■ The only way to make sure that "time-honored lessons" remain honored by time is to keep uncovering fresh and relevant ways to teach them. Smothering young minds under lazy writing and tortured mechanics isn't doing right by anyone.


August 28, 2023

Weather and Disasters The storm heading for Florida

It is a strange phenomenon indeed for Franklin, a Category Four hurricane demonstrating record-setting characteristics (like a barometric low unprecedented for its latitude) to be the less important of two tropical events taking place at the same time. And yet, that is the present case as a tropical storm glances Cuba en route to even warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico. ■ The warmer-than-usual waters of the Gulf are setting up the storm named Idalia to intensify swiftly and mightily as it heads for Florida's Gulf Coast. The storm is likely to demonstrate in remarkable terms just how much the atmosphere acts as a mechanism for redistributing energy -- and there is a great deal of potential energy floating in the Gulf. ■ For well over a generation, America has been concentrating more and more of our population in southern latitudes and along our coastlines. These are the somewhat predictable consequences of modern air conditioning and an aging population that doesn't have much taste for the continental climate. ■ But just as tropical storms act to reallocate energy from the sea to the atmosphere, policymakers at all levels need to reallocate their attention to risk and risk mitigation. The status quo is proving costly in terms of lives and disruption, and it's evident that those in the path of storms subject to rapid intensification will need to do even more to harden their defenses and build up home-grown resiliency in new and innovative ways. If an event can jump from "tropical storm" to "major hurricane" in less than a day, then evacuation may be a dwindling option. ■ At the same time, those living beyond the reach of those storms -- in places where the danger comes from winter cold, not summer heat -- need to invest thought and civic energy into making their places more livable and even attractive for the whole of the calendar year, and for the full life cycle of ordinary people. ■ The United States is a great big country, with plenty of room to move around and experiment. It would do us all some good to see creative thinking applied to matters of resilience where dangers are growing, and of livability where cold-weather discomfort presently chases too many people away.

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August 29, 2023

Computers and the Internet Spamouflage takedown

It comes as hardly any surprise at all that arms of the Chinese government were engaged in a large and sustained effort to clog Facebook and related social networks with literally thousands of fake accounts apparently intended to influence American audiences. The company revealed its efforts to take down the coordinated effort -- called "Spamouflage" -- in a new security filing that was served up as a matter of routine, rather than fanfare. ■ Social media outlets remain vastly more attractive to malign influence campaigns than their conventional media counterparts, though both have to remain perpetually vigilant. But whereas it takes time and funding to spin up "Confucius Institutes" and gain enough credible traction that they might be cited in conventional media, it takes no time at all to spin up a malignant social-media operation. ■ In fact, that is exactly the vulnerability that the Chinese government appears to have exploited, converting existing spam networks into influence operations. Perhaps amusingly, much of their efforts via these fake accounts were spent in reaching out to other fake accounts -- a sort of infinite loop of pointless recursion. ■ At some point or another, though, Facebook and its fellow-travelers in social media will have to reconcile with the reality that letting spammers (and adversarial foreign governments) jam up their networks with junk has much the same effect as if they were to allow graffiti to appear all over the walls of their headquarters. ■ People start to notice defacement with the first instance, but often find reasons to look past it. But given enough encounters, they ultimately vote with their choices and move along to better neighborhoods. Facebook's parent company, Meta, even acknowledges the problem of fraudulent accounts in its filings with the SEC, noting "In the fourth quarter of 2022, we estimated that approximately 3% of our worldwide MAP [monthly active people] consisted solely of violating accounts." That may not seem like much at first, but if one out of every 33 homes in your neighborhood was a drug den, you'd probably think seriously about moving out. ■ Eradicating bad actors is impossible -- they have too much incentive to find new and innovative ways to get around the rules. But Facebook and other social media outlets need to work harder to keep their virtual streets clean. It isn't hard to uncover the bad actors out there, if only they want to try.

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August 30, 2023

Business and Finance Your ennui is not your own

Given the memes and mixing that arise from communication via social networks, perhaps the very notion of "the voice of a generation" has met its end. With a comment that strikes the right chord, anyone can become the voice of their generation for a fleeting moment; but when anyone can be a thing, then nobody is special for being that thing. ■ The value of generational labels is easy to overstate, but that doesn't stop people from trying to stake out their claims. And with every new day bringing new people into adulthood, it's no surprise that young adults are angst-ridden over the mundane functions of work. ■ Yet today's complaint on social media doesn't really reveal anything that wasn't already covered by Mike Judge's 1999 movie "Office Space". And that scarcely explored any concepts that hadn't been uncovered in 1956 by "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit". ■ One of the greatest modern pieces on the struggle for meaning and existence within a culture obsessed with business and commerce was "Babbitt", written in '22. (Just don't tell the kids it was 1922.) ■ It takes some wisdom -- and more than a little bit of humility -- to realize that most of our feelings aren't new. The particular triggers and circumstances may vary, but when you're wondering about the purpose of showing up at a cubicle for 40 hours a week, you're going through something scarcely different from when a philosopher like Lucius Seneca weighed the meaning of work 2,000 years ago: "The much occupied man has no time for wantonness, and it is an obvious commonplace that the evils of leisure can be shaken off by hard work." ■ The more time we spend immersed in digital interactions, the greater the risk that we'll miss the deep continuity of human life. The generations who came before us aren't the ones hurt if we ignore their experiences and the notes they left behind. It only hurts us (and maybe our younger brothers and sisters).

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August 31, 2023

News War-scarred but stronger

There are a million uncertainties about how Russia's awful war against Ukraine will end, but a level-headed view of the situation points toward one increasingly likely outcome: That of the two, Ukraine will emerge, battle-scarred, as the demonstrably better state and society. ■ Everything that drives Ukraine's effort toward victory also drives it to behave aspirationally. It is the smaller of the two belligerents, so it must be more nimble. It lacks a titanic endowment of natural-resource wealth comparable to Russia's oil, so it must act with greater economic efficiency. It wants to bind closer to the protections of the European Union and NATO, so it must behave in ways that please the decision-makers of liberal democracies. ■ These factors sustain the hope that Ukraine will win the war. But they also share a great deal in common with what has shaped the success of other post-war states: If post-war Ukraine ends up looking in half a century a lot like post-war South Korea looked 50 years after its hot war came down to a simmer, then it will be a lovely place indeed. (And if they can steer clear of some of South Korea's post-war economic and political errors, then so much the better.) Already, their institutions are off to a better start. ■ Yet something else about the Korean experience may foreshadow an unpleasant post-war factor. Russia and Ukraine share a land border some 1,200 miles long. That is an enormous distance; as the crow flies, 1,200 miles would take you from O'Hare Airport in Chicago to Salt Lake City. Korea's DMZ is 160 miles long; will Ukraine and Russia end up with one more than seven times as long? ■ Or, returning to its past habits, will Russia erect a new Iron Curtain on its side, nominally to repel invasion but really to keep people in? It seems absurdly anachronistic to think so, but a million people are thought to have left Russia just since 2022, and its conscription regime has grown even more brutal. Depending on just how much pain the Russian state ultimately endures in recompense for its crimes, it may decide the loss of talent and wealth is too great, and that walls both legal and physical must be erected. ■ Whenever hostilities cease, Ukraine will have an epic task ahead of it to secure that vast border for the good of its own security. Nobody can envy the authorities tasked with that undertaking. But none of us should be surprised if Russia reprises the playbook from its Soviet past and once again builds a wall.

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