Gongol.com Archives: October 2023

Brian Gongol

October 2023
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October 1, 2023

Humor and Good News Name your glue sticks

A teacher shares clever advice: "Giving my classroom gluesticks human names has been revolutionary. Does a student care if a glue stick goes missing? No! Do they care if DEREK the glue stick has not been returned? ABSOLUTELY. It's like a manhunt until Derek has been returned to his rightful spot." ■ The advice works on adults, too. Giving things humane names activates the brain into thinking about them in a much more sophisticated way. Always name equipment like it's a ship being christened to go to sea: Nobody cares about Hull 9838345, but they do take an interest in the "Wonder of the Seas". ■ What works for ships makes sense in industrial and commercial applications, too: Everything from computer routers to heavy industrial co-bots needs to be given some kind of serial or identification number. But smart management and maintenance calls for giving those things memorable names, too, so that they can enlist our attention and imagination. Both are important to good operations and maintenance. ■ The same logic calls for giving every creek, pond, and stream an identifiable name -- and putting labels on them. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, for instance, has been installing signs to identify streams in an effort to motivate the public to care more about source-water protection for drinking supplies. ■ It may be hard to prove how well naming works, given that the problem of source-water pollution is predominantly about non-point sources (that is, pollution caused by runoff from lots of places, rather than a single obvious source); the best hope with non-point-source pollution is that heightened public awareness will lead to increased individual efforts to curtail the pollution. ■ But there is so much work to be done, and the effort required is so trivial, that it seems absurd we haven't named more of our waters already. In Pennsylvania alone, it is said that 56,000 of the state's 64,000 streams are unnamed. Minnesota's mythical "10,000 lakes" (the official count is actually 11,842) includes hundreds without any official names on record. ■ Names matter. And just as turning a run-of-the-mill glue stick into "Derek" gives children a reason to look for the ones that go missing, so too does giving things humane names turn them into things adults can care about, too.

Computers and the Internet West Des Moines, Iowa: Supercomputing hub

Microsoft has been doing much of its AI development at a campus in Central Iowa. The capital investment is huge and the work being done is titanic in scale, but the company only claims 377 data center employees in the entire state.

News On dictatorial wannabes

In his valedictory address, the outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn't do much to conceal a swipe at the former President who has recently gone after him in appalling ways. ■ General Mark Milley used his platform to declare, "We don't take an oath to a king, or a queen, or to a tyrant or a dictator, and we don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don't take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we're willing to die to protect it." ■ All of this is true, and all of it ought to be painfully unremarkable. Yet it makes news because those values have been assaulted and cannot be taken for granted. Unfortunately, though, there is an asymmetry involved: The ex-President whose words and behavior have threatened Gen. Milley and others is treated as such a deviant from the mainstream that people have argued for years whether he is to be taken "seriously or literally". ■ In rising to one's own defense and asserting principles, though, it is almost impossible for anyone else to avoid sounding overtly political -- which is a hazard that we should generally want both active and recently-retired military officers to avoid, out of respect for healthy civil/military relations. It's a terrible, no-win situation.

News Russia raises conscription age

The country's war of aggression against Ukraine is costly in countless ways, including the ongoing waste of many thousands of lives

Weather and Disasters Parts of New York City get 6" of rain

In a single storm event, on an urbanized geography? It's a recipe for disaster.

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October 4, 2023

The United States of America Higher bars and lower temperatures

The main complaint against super-majority decisions is that they permit a small minority to hold the rest of the body hostage. And yet, that's what has happened to Kevin McCarthy, ousted from his chair as Speaker of the House of Representatives. ■ In treating the Speakership as a partisan office, we get partisan results: Party majorities pick Speakers, not coalitions. When one party holds a narrow majority and that majority contains a cantankerous wing that celebrates chaos, either the leadership holds its place via skillful (and perhaps ruthless) management, or it responds disproportionately to the caucus that has the most power to topple it. In this regard, Nancy Pelosi seems to have been more successful at keeping "The Squad" in check than Kevin McCarthy was at holding off the "Freedom Caucus". ■ We are told by the text of the Constitution only that "The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.". But it is worth pondering what Congress would look like today, had the Framers required a super-majority vote for the election of the Speaker. A two-thirds vote by the House would almost invariably require a trans-partisan coalition -- only a very small handful of times has the House ever been controlled so thoroughly by one party or another. ■ There is something to be said for separating institutional duties (like running the Article I branch of government) from political ones (like advancing a legislative agenda through that branch). When we ask too much of our officials, we set them up to fail, to crack, or to neglect important things worth doing. ■ Keeping the House of Representatives functioning as a rules-driven system with regular order and predictable budgets and dignified debate may be too much to ask of people who build majorities within fractious parties. Perhaps by making it harder in one sense to choose a Speaker, a two-thirds majority requirement would make it easier to find someone to focus on the proper process of government more than the outcomes.

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October 6, 2023

Business and Finance Real job creation

Among the main demands made by the UAW of the Big Three US automakers in the course of the strike they have self-titled the "Stand-Up Strike" is the right to strike over plant closures. This highlights an inconsistency in the way that "labor" is usually described, and the void that inconsistency leaves in the economy. ■ The project America really needs is a private-sector initiative to establish cooperative firms with the express goal of creating the maximum possible number of jobs. We don't have any meaningful representative examples of such a project. By their nature, capitalists (meaning business owners, shareholders, and others who supply capital to the economic system) focus on maximization of firm profit. Employment is an input in the process, but not an objective. ■ On the other hand, unions are the most visible manifestation of what people generally conceive as "labor". But unions do not exist to promote the creation of new jobs, either, but rather to preserve the jobs that their members already hold. That's not a moral shortcoming, but it is an incomplete depiction of labor. That's especially the case when unions resist the creation of rival jobs that might reduce the market price for their own work. ■ People expecting institutions in either of these categories to pursue employment maximization as an express goal are bound to be disappointed. There is no fundamental reason, though, why novel institutions couldn't be formed to fill that need. We clearly recognize the demand for job creation -- practically every politician includes "job creation" as some aspect of their campaign platform. Yet, even with a lot of job-market growth, the vast preponderance of jobs aren't "created" by government, nor should they be within a market economy. ■ But they could be created by institutions formed and managed not to return a maximum value of capital to shareholders, but a maximum number (or quality) of jobs to employees. Cooperative institutions are well-established as ways of organizing firms that don't have profit maximization as a goal, but they typically exist for the purpose of delivering goods or services to customers at minimum cost, often where for-profit firms find market conditions undesirable. ■ A real "pro-labor" movement would undertake to pave the way for a class of job-maximizing firms, to show how they could be formed, find suitable markets, and achieve their desired results efficiently and sustainably. We don't need flash-in-the-pan stories, but rather self-perpetuating institutions to fill the void. ■ Creative managerial thinking can do the trick, but only if the incentives are aligned in the right way. Expecting unions, governments, or capitalists to create the largest number of jobs is asking the wrong outcomes of systems not set up for the task.

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October 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards A chilling attack

To what end did Hamas initiate a terrorist invasion of Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing at least 250 people in the process? What was the point of abducting Israeli civilians and taking them hostage, on a Jewish holiday, no less? What kind of sociopathy rationalizes an assault that would unquestionably lead to a massive and deadly retaliation? ■ People often resign themselves to a certain intractability to violence in the Middle East. That resignation is unproductive. There are paths that can instigate more violence, and there are paths that can de-escalate conflict. ■ We know both paths are available because Israel and Saudi Arabia have been talking about normalizing diplomatic relations, after a similar agreement between Israel and the UAE. Diplomatic recognition of Israel is possible, even for neighbors that differ with the state: Egypt got there in 1980. Jordan did it in 1994. ■ The history of conflict there is very long, and the distances are very small: Tel Aviv, which was targeted by rockets fired from Gaza, is only about 40 miles away. Those distances aren't going to change, and Israel isn't going away. ■ Memories of this attack will be long, the consequences will be grave, and forgiveness will not come easily. The choice to initiate violence like this disregarded any rational sense about what comes next. It achieves nothing but the creation of needless human suffering.

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October 8, 2023

The United States of America Save the Electoral College by expanding the House

A survey by the Pew Research Center delivered the unsurprising result that 65% of adults want a popular vote to determine Presidential elections, rather than votes filtered through the Electoral College. Disparities between the two results are a source of tension, for sure. ■ But it is worth noting that for all the partisan dyspepsia caused by the Electoral College, it may well be a bit like complaining about the side effects of a flu shot: You are aware of the pain you experience, not of the discomfort you may have avoided. ■ Consider just how contentious things became over the count of Florida's vote in the 2000 Presidential election: The state used a silly method of balloting, but it was to the country's benefit that only an individual state's count was in question. Imagine a popular vote in which the popular vote turned out in a photo finish. In such cases, were a popular vote to be the deciding mechanism, then the counts in all 50 states could be hauled in for further review. And since vote tabulations almost always contain some error -- and disputed ballots -- any popular vote within, say, a 2% margin could find itself contested on a national level. Under those circumstances, the Supreme Court could find itself adjudicating 50 different disputed counts every time. ■ Whatever its other shortcomings, the Electoral College effectively acts to contain the damage done by a local conflict -- whether it's over butterfly ballots or criminal behavior by a losing candidate. The Electoral College has a clarifying effect. ■ It also, of course, is a reminder that our system is federal in nature, rather than national. And that, too, is worth preserving. That doesn't mean the complaints about the Electoral College are without merit, though, and a reasonable compromise to make Electoral College votes more representative of the popular vote would be to undertake the long-overdue process of expanding the House of Representatives. ■ A doubling of the House wouldn't be inappropriate, considering that the chamber has been stuck at 435 members since the 63rd Congress, which convened in 1913. Our population then was 101 million; it is now 335 million. ■ Doubling the House's seat count would not only have some salutary effects on the legislature, it would also help to bring the Electoral College closer to representing the popular vote. And, unlike shenanigans like the National Popular Vote Compact or proposals to move to an authentic national popular vote, expanding the House would be perfectly consistent with the law, historical precedent, and the Constitution as written. Why we haven't given the case a fair hearing yet is beyond explanation.

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October 11, 2023

Broadcasting Dead plot devices

"Coming to work sick" was a well-worn plot device for basically the entirety of television history up until about three years ago, often manifested in a rapidly-depleted box of on-screen tissues. Chances are fairly good, though, that the experience of a highly contagious pandemic has rendered that trope off-limits for a generation to come: It's too likely to ring hollow with the mainstream audience, which has been conditioned to expect that people have an obligation to stay home when they're under the weather. ■ Some pervasive changes are more subtle than that: Ashtrays, once utterly ubiquitous on-screen, are no longer standard set pieces in workplace sitcoms, because almost nobody's allowed to smoke in the office anymore. (For good reason.) ■ Small artifacts can sometimes stand in for much larger habits and practices, though we're now living through an unusual period of de-materialization, when more and more things are done by fewer and fewer discrete objects. That could make it hard to recognize (at least on-screen) if some of our undesirable habits manifest themselves in obvious props. ■ It's prudent nonetheless to ponder which of our bad habits, just like smoking or coming to work while contagious, are going to look anachronistic in the not-so-distant future. We humans are social learners, and we take many of our cues from what we see represented in the world around us. Intentionally or not, we become the stories we tell ourselves. It shouldn't always take dramatic events to shake us out of showing ourselves the bad habits so we can acclimate to better habits ahead.

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October 12, 2023

News Mind your business always

Benjamin Franklin is credited with placing the phrase "Mind your business" on the first American penny. It's good to take the advice in a metaphorical-social sense (as in, "Keep your nose out of other people's affairs"), but Franklin undoubtedly meant for it to be taken in a plainly literal sense as well. ■ To say "Mind your business" is a deceptively optimistic encouragement, for it assumes that the world is improvable and that it improves because of deliberate human action. Franklin didn't say "Pray for better things" or "Alas, all is for naught". He said, in effect, "Get to work doing your part to make things better". ■ "Mind your business" carries an implied urgency. Even when matters are generally headed in the right direction, setbacks are inevitable. One never knows when things could go wrong, or how bad they could get, so the time to tend to affairs is right now. ■ While Russia continues assaulting Ukraine, Israel is exacting revenge on Hamas for committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians. But one United States Senator has put a blockade on senior military promotions, another has halted the process of confirming ambassadors, and the House of Representatives doesn't even have a nominee for Speaker. These domestic problems -- all of which should have been cured long ago -- only hamper our ability to respond soundly to exigent circumstances. ■ Optimists ought to be united and emphatic on this point: We can't count on luck to make things better, and the time to fix problems is when they emerge (rather than when a crisis forces the point). Franklin's advice should echo with us to "mind our business" all the time, so that we can correct our problems before urgency deprives us of options.

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October 14, 2023

Computers and the Internet Real problems from fake people

Facebook is pleased to recommend "28 AIs with unique interests and personalities for you to interact with" -- including "well-known public figures" who lend their likenesses to the artificial chatbots. And as pilloried by at least one commentator, their central function isn't to help the human user, but to increase the amount of time spent with the platform. ■ Artificial-intelligence tools have enormous potential to do good. But they are technological tools, and like all other tools, they're value-neutral on their own. The good or evil they do extends from the intentions and choices of their users. ■ That said, there are "users" on multiple fronts engaged with these nascent tools, including the individuals engaging in the chats and the people who do the programming and setting the parameters of use. Individual users need to formulate intentional habits for using tools like artificial intelligence, both to safeguard their own humanity and to protect themselves against programmers with malintent. ■ For instance: It is prudent to believe (mildly) in being polite when interacting with AI models -- using words like "please" -- because it keeps us in the habit of being polite with real people. People often do the same with their pets, even though Fido doesn't read Emily Post. It's easier to practice humane habits when they're unnecessary than to reconstruct them out of disuse. ■ But artificial-intelligence tools shouldn't be trusted any more than, say, a random toll-booth operator. Probably much less. As with the toll-booth operator -- or any other occupation that can be filled by a human being wherein perfunctory politeness is just a matter of good manners, but in which it would be ill-advised to reveal details like one's phone number or date of birth -- human beings need to draw a bright line between being agreeable and exposing too much. ■ Facebook doesn't need to know about your love life, your hopes and dreams, or what keeps you up at night. Just because it cloaks itself in the likeness of a beloved (and dead) author like Jane Austen doesn't mean the tool is being used for the cause of good. We have to beware any temptation to think otherwise -- and the temptation not to think about it at all.

News Three alternate futures in Gaza

A fictitious -- but entirely plausible -- set of three "Courses of Action" for the Israeli armed forces acting in the Gaza Strip

Threats and Hazards 14-year-old arrested for school threats

The Cedar Rapids Community School District closed down for a day because of the threat of violence. It's well-known that 14-year-olds have brain development left to do before they become adults, but some behaviors are so far outside the bounds that they really can't be allowed to slide.

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October 15, 2023

Humor and Good News A smash hit

More than 55,000 people showed up to watch an exhibit basketball game played between the University of Iowa and DePaul -- noteworthy for two reasons: It was played in Kinnick Stadium (the University of Iowa's outdoor football stadium, with a capacity of 69,250), and because it set by far and away the attendance record for a college women's basketball game. ■ Events like the "Crossover at Kinnick" are great for elevating the social cachet of women's sports. But they're also reminders of just how much induced demand plays a role in life. ■ If someone had looked only at the historical record, they might have had the impression that there was no demand at all for an outdoor women's basketball game in Iowa City. But in the same spirit as the Field of Dreams game and the 26-lane-wide freeway in Houston, "If you build it, they will come." ■ These things don't necessarily happen without other factors, of course. Marketing and promotion play a role. Community buy-in and adjusting preferences are involved, too. They do, however, point to the importance of avoiding the lure of inertia. ■ It's easy to believe that the future will look like a straight-line projection from the past through the present. It's also a mistake. Things change and big ideas come to fruition because individuals commit to them and invest in creating visions that attract others. ■ Those visions don't have to be manipulative or self-serving. They also shouldn't be isolated to entertainment spectacles. The world needs bold and seductive projects to serve public interests, too, -- though not necessarily delivered by the public sector -- on matters ranging from housing affordability to innovations in education to entitlement spending to biotechnology and well beyond. ■ The belief that great motivating events are possible (and important) ought to take some cues from the progress made in the world of sports. The public often doesn't know how much it wants something until someone shows the initiative to paint a picture of a new reality.

Computers and the Internet When are verified words unverifiable?

Facebook is encouraging users to "chat" with an artificial intelligence model in the character of Jane Austen. It's part of a fairly transparent effort by the site to get users to spend as much time as possible engaging with the platform, which is important to a company that derives about $50 in revenue per North American user per quarter. ■ The first obvious question is: Why Austen in particular? But close behind it is: Why does this AI model have a verification symbol that is the same as what Facebook applies to real, living celebrities? It could easily be designated differently, but it is not. ■ What is the purpose of a verification mark for an AI model representing a real historical figure, if not to create at least some synthetic appearance of (unearned) authority? That's a bold and dangerous move for Facebook. Today, perhaps it's merely Jane Austen. But what's to stop them from doing the same thing tomorrow with the synthesized words and likeness of George Washington? Or Aristotle? Or Jesus? ■ AI models based upon real people have been a fairly evident "next step" for at least a decade now. The entire history of biography -- and family lore -- is about reaching into the past to seek answers for the present. It's one of the most obvious use cases for artificial intelligence. Like search engines, these models retrieve and reconstruct material from databases, so they really ought to be called "personality engines". And they most likely will prove too irresistible to have around in one form or another, indefinitely. ■ What people don't fully appreciate yet is just how little source content it will really take to form a personality engine for just about anyone. With enough willingness to let computers fill in the blanks and make forecasts based upon incomplete information, one could probably synthesize enough material to look like a defensible worldview from about 200 to 300 pages of written text. ■ That just isn't very much source text to ask! But it's treacherous territory, particularly if the model-builders aren't extremely careful about what they use for input material, how they label it, and what they do to make sure that newly-synthesized material generated in the "voice" of a particular individual doesn't become the source material for another personality engine that doesn't know the difference between the original material and what's post-canonical. ■ And it truly begs us to consider the ramifications of co-opting someone's "voice" without their consent. Jane Austen never said Facebook could use her as a chatbot -- she died in 1817. Modern audiences may be greedy to get her advice today, but whatever we get shouldn't be considered "official" in the sense that most audiences would consider material published by a "verified" account. ■ For now, it may seem harmless to use Jane Austen like this. And it will probably seem mostly harmless to take Grandma's private diaries after she passes away and submit them as source material for a Grandma-AI (this is absolutely certain to be someone's business model sooner rather than later). But who controls whether Grandma-AI is released for public distribution, and who rakes in the earnings from her words and likeness? Families already go to legal battle with one another over real property, nest eggs, and secret recipes. Who controls Grandma's synthesized words and likeness when they could be worth money in the commercial market? ■ We've entered extraordinary territory -- completely uncharted -- and it's not clear that significant participants have even begun to duly consider the consequences. A great deal of good could come from plumbing the sources of the past for answers in the present, but we need to put as much energy into the boundaries as we invest in charging for the frontiers.

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October 17, 2023

News Bring forth names

Triple-A baseball now calls balls and strikes using automated strike zones, and while there's still some evolving debate over how exactly to program the dimensions of the strike zone, it's well within the realm of possibility that robot umpires will be called up to the majors before the decade is through. Although calling out the worst human umpires is likely to remain a popular pastime, people even more like to believe that they're getting a fair deal. ■ As the contest to pick a Speaker of the House looks ever more scrambled, some Democrats have begun offering "consensus" names -- Republicans they say they might be able to support as candidates with bipartisan support. ■ It is entirely possible that those Democrats are offering Republican names as a cynical ploy to look "bipartisan" (something voters have historically applauded) without having to actually pay any price. But forming a coalition to elect a Speaker without majority support from the majority party is, at the very least, an idea that should force some self-examination. ■ In 1790, when Virginia was home to four of the first five Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), the state had only 747,000 people -- a smaller number than today's Congressional districts (home to an average of 761,169 residents apiece). ■ If we can't easily conjure four or five names of prominent, capable, fair-minded people from every Congressional district in America, that should tell us something. Not that we have a dearth of talent -- today's median citizen is vastly better-educated, healthier, more financially secure, more worldly, less biased, and better-informed than their counterpart in the Founders' era. And that's not to mention that we've taken down the legal barriers that used to keep people out of public life on the basis of race or sex. ■ What it should tell us is that we're choosing systems that select for the wrong characteristics, not just in Congressional races, but in civic life at large. It shouldn't be a struggle to name candidates for a job like Speaker of the House who should be palatable across party lines; we should face an embarrassment of riches. ■ The idea of finding a caretaker Speaker, if only for the next year, should solicit so many hundreds of obvious-seeming names, high in earned esteem, that it should look ridiculous not to choose any one of them, even at random. If that's not what our systems are producing -- especially if we're convinced that those people exist, but consciously choose to do other things rather than contribute to the commonwealth -- then we are overdue for some serious self-examination. Robot umpires aren't coming to save public life.

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October 19, 2023

News Freedom of navigation isn't free

The Defense Department has released a set of photos and videos documenting the behavior of military aircraft belonging to the People's Liberation Army of China. The Pentagon calls the fifteen recorded incidents "coercive and risky" and says "the goal of the PLA's behavior is to pressure the United States and other nations to reduce or cease lawful operations". ■ There isn't a reasonable person alive who wants an escalation of hostilities between the United States and China. By its nature, armed conflict is destructive and wasteful. But the United States is in the unique (and perhaps unenviable) position of having the resources necessary and the motivation required to assert the rights associated with international law. ■ Chinese military hardware has been used to intimidate Filipino vessels and test Japanese airspace in recent months, in addition to its persistent harassment of Taiwan. ■ It has all been quite enough to motivate a growing roster of countries to join in precautionary military exercises with the United States. But there is no other power quite as capable as the United States when it comes to projecting the power necessary to actively assert the freedom of navigation written into international law. ■ There are those who reflexively oppose military spending on philosophical grounds. But the question must always be asked, "Compared to what?" Put differently, economists would say that the real price of a thing is what you give up in order to get it. Peace alone is not free; human nature has certain tendencies, like tribalism, greed, and instincts to display dominance, that when taken together are a potent recipe for armed conflict -- even when that isn't in any party's actual self-interest. ■ Predictable, enforceable rules help to put boundaries around that kind of conflict. So do parties willing to lay open claim to the rights guaranteed by those rules. That is what the United States has been doing and appears willing to continue to do, in the name of a set of international rules that benefit not just us, but also our allies. If those exercises seem expensive, the question is: Compared to what?

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October 20, 2023

News Thinking about dominance

Everyone knows whether they are left-handed, right-handed, or ambidexterous; the question of which hand is dominant plays a role in acts as simple as picking up a utensil. Fewer people know which eye is dominant, even though nearly everyone has a dominant eye, even though it may not be the one that sees best. Ears are subject to dominance, too. ■ The role of eye or ear dominance rarely affects behavior in quite the same ways as right- or left-handedness. Yet it's useful information to have, and takes no more than 20 seconds to determine. People generally don't know about it until they are presented with a skill -- such as a shooting sport -- in which that dominance has a self-evident significance. ■ But its less-evident significance can be valuable. Knowing whether you are looking at a person with your dominant or non-dominant eye can be a psychological signal whether you intrinsically like or dislike the person (or the interaction). And we know that eye contact matters a lot. This little bit of self-knowledge can be quite valuable when used in a broader life context. ■ In much the same way, people often recognize their supposed "dominant" learning strategy from among "visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic", but few know about the other dimensions of their learning. Knowing where you fall on each spectrum of learning -- perceptive or conceptual, constructive or exploratory, dialectical or structured, and many others -- can help to raise the reasonable likelihood of success in a learning experience. ■ Schools have generally improved in their approaches to students who can be diagnosed with conditions like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. But we could do much better in lots of ways if we began to recognize how to account for the many other characteristics that affect learning at the individual level, particularly now that technology permits virtually countless new ways to individualize learning. ■ If one lesson should be abundantly clear with the rise of technologies like artificial intelligence, it ought to be how important that constant, life-long learning is going to be from now on. Knowing how you learn, how to motivate yourself to learn, and what makes your learning stick is no longer the kind of trivia useful mainly for conversation at a cocktail party. Like knowing your dominant hand, these dominant modes of learning need to become first-order knowledge that can be put to work almost automatically.

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October 21, 2023

Iowa Fall leaves are good for the soul

Few sights compare with an Iowa river valley full of trees in the peak of fall color. In contrast with the brown of winter and the endless green of spring and summer, the brief blast of colors is a feast for the eyes. ■ Lots of other places enjoy the brilliance of autumnal colors, too -- New Englanders take pride in their leaf peeping -- but Iowa has an advantage in its generally flat terrain and gently rolling hills, which mean that virtually anywhere a person stands in the entire state, they're within walking distance of a hill from which they can see about ten miles in any direction, and be guaranteed a colorful view of trees along a river or creek in practically every direction. No special trips to the mountains required: The ubiquity of the experience is hard to beat. ■ For anyone who has the pleasure of seeing a grand autumn landscape finished in bright colors, the temptation is almost irresistible to take photographs contrasting the leaves against a clear blue sky. But it's also worthwhile to indulge in the experience purely with the naked eye, and to appreciate fully how fleeting the experience really is. ■ We are sometimes told that process is more important than product when it comes to art, and there's a reason "paint and sip" events have proliferated like bunnies. So it is for nature's gift of fall colors: There are a million stunning photographs of fall foliage to be found, but none of them have the effect of actually seeing the colors in person on a crisp day. ■ The knowledge that the moment is fleeting by definition, and that the atmosphere must be enjoyed before it is gone, is good for the psyche. The moment, and the experience, are greater reward than any photograph.

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October 22, 2023

Science and Technology Pondering existence and consequences

With the Webb Space Telescope continuing to deliver utterly breathtaking and incomprehensible pictures of the Universe around us, scientists are gathering data that add up to information we've never had before. Examination of light reflected by planets orbiting faraway stars, for instance, has yielded evidence of chemical compounds never previously detected on planets outside our Solar System. ■ But one of the assumptions that underlies the research is that the laws of physics must be the same throughout the Universe. It seems like a fair and proper assumption, given what we know about the building blocks of the natural world. But if it is true (and we seem to lack any evidence that it is not), then a supremely important question ensues: By what mechanism is the information of those laws transmitted, and what enforces them in all places at all times? ■ Whatever else you may think of cosmology, the existence of that question strongly suggests that there is a dimension to existence as we know it that isn't subject to material limitations. Nobody has to tell two atoms in a remote corner of a distant galaxy that they must exert gravitational force on one another; they just do. ■ Yet those atoms aren't aware of the force (lacking sentience) and make no choice to obey the law of gravity (lacking free will). We cannot just hand-wave away the fact that so many trillions of particles "know" the same thing at the same time. Information itself plainly exists, and doesn't appear to be subject to the same laws that affect things in the material planes of existence. ■ To take that a step further: If every particle in the Universe is attracting every other particle in the Universe at the same time, then every human life is incorporated into what one might call the "source code" of the Universe from that life forward. No matter how immeasurably small the effect, that life sets off consequences that become part of the information architecture of everything that exists later, again transmitted instantaneously and everywhere. ■ The thought is heavy, but it can also be reassuring: Scientifically, we don't understand what initiates consciousness (and, thanks to the emergence of artificial intelligence, that's becoming a matter where our ignorance is of growing consequence), any more than we know what happens to that consciousness after physical death. ■ Around Halloween in particular, we talk about remembering the dead, but in an undeniable sense -- if the laws of physics are indeed true always and everywhere -- then the Universe "remembers" us all by transmitting the consequences of our actions. Notwithstanding any spiritual beliefs on the subject, that really highlights how much we have yet to figure out about whatever dimensions of the Universe are transmitting information and enforcing rules all around us.

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October 24, 2023

News We're all just figuring it out as we go

Jeffery Tyler Syck, who teaches on politics, offers this relatable observation: "At some point in life we all realize that the whole world is run by people who do not really know what they are doing and are just figuring it out as they go." It's a familiar lament, and one that ought to remind sensible people that while patience with those "figuring it out" can be hard to summon, it is a real grace. ■ Nor does the observation have to be strictly true to be materially true. There comes a time for many conscientious individuals -- even if they're not subject to imposter syndrome -- when they realize the outer perimeter of their competence. And there is no small number for whom that outer boundary is also the outer boundary of what is known by anyone at all. Every field has its authorities, and every field has its unresolved questions. ■ This realization ought to bring with it a sense of modesty: If there is only so much that anyone knows yet about a topic, it's perfectly honorable to admit that we're often just "figuring it out" as we go. Even the experts. ■ But it should also underscore why institutions matter so much. Institutions -- colleges, clubs, journals, firms, conventions, and many others -- ought not to exist merely for their own self-perpetuation. They are needed to give structure and predictability to the transmission of vital knowledge, practices, and values. ■ The illusion of the Internet "hive mind" and sophisticated artificial intelligence tools is that everything that needs to be known can be reliably searched-for. This is emphatically not the case. Perhaps the most important reason is that knowledge isn't flat: Different answers may apply at different stages of a process, or when viewed from different levels. ■ An explanation that is correct and appropriate for an experienced professional might be entirely wrong for a second-grader, and vice-versa. But a constructive approach may very well need to start with a simple but "wrong" answer to lay the foundation for a human being to learn a more complex "right" answer later. Likewise, a meaningful answer to "What time is it?" could range from "11:15" to "Here's to build a cesium clock". ■ A parent can't rightfully get mad at their own child for using a knife dangerously if the parent never taught the child how to use it safely. Institutions like Scouting exist in large part to give structure to the process of transmitting this kind of knowledge to the young. On the other hand, a child can't rightfully get mad at their parents for exposing them to drinking water that passed through lead pipes if the parent didn't know that a health hazard existed. Institutions like regulatory agencies and professional trade organizations exist to give structure to aggregating and disseminating knowledge about difficult problems and their best solutions. ■ Institutions are needed because human nature, which hasn't changed very much across history, contains aspects that need to be guided and corralled so that people can become smarter and better than their ancestors. We need them to help transmit both information and behaviors. It is only upon good institutions that we can both figure out how to teach our novices and deliberately build new knowledge all the time. Even as a species, we really are just "figuring it out", but we stand a much better chance of getting more of our answers right if we build institutional knowledge (and vitality) along the way.

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October 26, 2023

Threats and Hazards Bad regimes deserve no friends

According to the CIA, the median person living in the Gaza Strip is 18 years old, by far one of the lowest ages of any place in the world. Coincidentally, the last time the people living in the Gaza Strip were given a chance to vote on their government was 17 years ago, in 2006. ■ Even if the population had a much higher average age, a wait of 17 years since the last elections would be a galling figure. But half its population wasn't even alive at the last election. For a regime to have gone so long without even attempting to prove itself in a popular vote should render it functionally illegitimate in the eyes of any honest observer. ■ Governments are not religions, nor are they cultures. They are not identities for people to adopt or to change at will. They are systems for consolidating and executing power. And before they can be judged "mainly good", "mainly bad", or something in between, they have to show themselves to be legitimate. ■ A distressing share of the world's people are the subjects of regimes with little or no regard for earning legitimacy from the expressed will of their people. Nobody voted for Xi Jinping, who has done away with term limits. Nobody believes that an opponent would even be allowed to challenge Vladimir Putin. And roughly a supermajority in the Gaza Strip had little or no faith in Hamas. ■ It should come as no surprise that these regimes, feeling unconstrained by the public will, often behave like barbarians. Even if they didn't commit terroristic atrocities, they would still lack legitimacy. ■ People of goodwill should know better than to sympathize with those regimes even in times of quiet, but certainly in times of reckless violence, and the world should view those rogue regimes as being, fundamentally, enemies of the very people they govern.

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October 27, 2023

News Bring down bad monuments

The monument to Robert E. Lee that precipitated deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, has been permanently destroyed in a foundry. Though it took place in some secrecy, the event was documented by NPR and the Washington Post in an almost ritualistic manner. ■ The statue wasn't a historical artifact of the Civil War era itself; it was only erected in the mid-1920s. That's an important distinction to recall; Lee himself had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant nearly 60 years before the monument was installed. It would be an act of comparable historic distance to commission a monument to Nikita Khrushchev today. ■ Despite the nonsensical protestations of some, it is both reasonable and prudent to remove monuments that grossly violate the moral standards of the community. Monuments are about choices, reflecting the standards to which people know they should aspire, and it matters who we lionize. ■ No one gets to choose their own family of birth; that much is always an accident of Rawls's veil of ignorance. But everyone -- including those who are born to notorious bloodlines -- gets to adopt their own moral and intellectual forebears. ■ You can be born a Kennedy or a Roosevelt (or even a Khrushchev) and remain free to choose anyone as your intellectual or philosophical "parents" and "grandparents". And, indeed, everyone should. That ought to be a conscious choice, and the only real shame is to be found among those who refuse to redeem tarnished family names and cut ties with legacies that don't suit the present.

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October 28, 2023

Business and Finance Putting the "home" in "office"

Long-term trends like the expansion of flexible and remote working have done a number on commercial real estate in many American cities. As major employers have looked to get real estate off their balance sheets, increased attention has been paid to the challenges of housing economics. Markets in some places are so crazed that a modest-sized, mold-contaminated house with collapsed ceilings can list for more than half a million dollars in a place like Boston. ■ Into this confluence of events steps the White House, which has announced plans to encourage the conversion of commercial buildings to residential use. Some people are vocally opposed to the concept, at least in part because some of the proposed conversions might result in floor plans that challenge conventions. ■ People shouldn't compare affordable-housing proposals to the Four Seasons, but rather to the alternatives. The important question is whether public policies are expanding the supply of housing that is affordable, healthy, and safe. Those are the things we need most, and we need them in very large quantities. ■ Experimentation and innovation are needed in big ways. Housing costs pinch many American household budgets: Half of American households living in rentals are spending more than 30% of their income on rent, and ten million households are spending more than half their income on rent. Nor should we pretend like that housing is uniformly good. ■ There's little prospect of fixing these problems without motivating a much-expanded supply. And on the metrics that really matter (living spaces that are affordable, healthy, and safe), new construction and renovations must be weighed against the status quo -- which too often suffers from health and safety hazards, even if rich in features like old oversized windows. What we need is to build and renovate with enthusiasm.

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October 29, 2023

News Entangling alliances with some

George Washington's valedictory advice, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world", was famously echoed and amplified by Thomas Jefferson in the words, "[P]eace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none" in his own first inaugural. These are often the first words summoned by modern opponents of international engagement. ■ It comes as some misfortune that those early Presidents were so gifted in their words, because their sense of poetry obscures an essential bit of framing. The international agreements reached in their time were worth avoiding because they were so foundationally unstable: When most every treaty is effectively an interpersonal deal among monarchs, then feelings prevail rather than rules. ■ When Jefferson became President, the European world was under the control of men like Napoleon, Tsar Paul I (who was just days from assassination), George III, and Francis II (the last Holy Roman Emperor). Avoiding "entangling alliances" was probably the prudent move at the time. ■ But the Founders were plainly enthused about rules, systems, and balance: The entire Constitution is an act in establishing predictable mechanisms to channel and convert self-interest into peaceful coexistence. Thus, it's no stretch to imagine them embracing what we now call the "rules-based international order" and subscribing to it with enthusiasm wherever they could. ■ That isn't evident from their writings, but nor would have been their response to digital computing or nuclear weapons. Directionally, though, they were headed towards what we would now consider an "internationalist" viewpoint: One to promote trade, peace, and the universality of rights, with a skeptical view of anything that would reward a might-makes-right approach to resolving conflict. ■ We shouldn't be too ready to assume that the words used when the United States was a small, unimposing outpost in the world would be the same advice we would get today. Jets, ICBMs, and the Internet have shrunk the oceans to almost nothing in effective terms -- and, just as significantly, what we know as the free world is governed almost entirely by the sorts of democratic republican systems that the Founders were trying to secure when they demanded independence. No one should imagine that their advice wouldn't have evolved with along with the prevailing facts.

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October 31, 2023

Business and Finance Occupational surnames

In certain circles, it remains fashionable for people to make fun of capitalistic systems, as though the systems are somehow the source of all inequality, all substandard working conditions, and all momentary occupational ennui. Yet it shouldn't go without some appreciation that jobs are inevitable -- even hunter-gatherer tribes still require some division of labor. And those jobs don't actually have to destroy the individual's quality of life. ■ People used to have jobs that were so static that they became surnames. Many people still carry those surnames today: If your last name is Archer, Cooper, Miller, Smith, or Baker, then you are carrying a surname that is based entirely upon somebody's old occupation. ■ If your name is tied to your occupation, then there really isn't much of a sense of being free to change. That's a valuable sort of freedom that shouldn't go without some kind of acknowledgment. Nobody in the future is going to be named with a surname of cybersecurity technician or actuary. ■ Yet those are jobs people today are free to enter and leave at any time -- without changing surnames or being anchored to a particular places. That freedom to move about or to find new, more satisfying work without undue encumberance is a real reward of modern living, enabled by the economic system we enjoy. The results of that freedom should be celebrated, not hated.

If the Communist Party of China decides that it wants to initiate a 50-year plan to undermine the Taiwanese government and take over the Republic of China, then there's very little that any democratic nation can do to match such a plan with an equally long-term strategy. Voters in democratic systems inevitably grow restless, even of those leaders who perform well, rendering it difficult to make plans that stick for more than about a decade. Authoritarian regimes have an institutional advantage in being able to initiate and stick with long-term plans -- at least as long as the particular authority in power lives to see it through. ■ But what democratic systems are capable of doing is learning from feedback obtained closest to the source and cultivating the processes, rules, and systems for responding to large long-term problems. We should acknowledge the fact that it's almost impossible for democratic systems to stick with specific strategies over the long haul (unless a credible institutional structure is built to make it happen). And we should realize that to do otherwise, is just not in the nature of the beast. ■ But in so acknowledging, we also should be willing and ready to grasp what we know that those systems are capable of doing well: learning and adapting. Specifically, being good at recognizing failures and opportunities faster than systems in which delivering bad news to the Big Boss is the best way to be sent to the gulag. ■ We shouldn't despair over the large number of big problems that take long-term solutions, as some people are so wont to do. We should learn to exert our efforts where they're most likely to achieve useful results without trying to change the fundamental characteristics of the societies we inhabit. Some people succumb to the naive fantasy that big solutions can only be achieved by far-reaching powers wielded by a central authority. From climate change to artificial intelligence to poverty, it's easy to find examples of people living in free and democratic conditions who are frustrated by the limited capacities of their governments to "solve" the big problems. ■ Yet really big plans are always hobbled by the reality that humans are not omniscient, information is imperfect, and circumstances change. But the ability to adapt to new circumstances, new information, or new reasoning is the inherent advantage of free and open democratic systems. We should avoid despairing over problems that appear too great and instead use the leverage of our natural advantages. ■ As a substitute for planning, though, we have to actively participate in the vital work of building up institutions and sticking to principled processes for getting things done. That means we need to reject people who would take advantage of circumstances or act in bad faith. The quality of our institutions and process is vastly more important than any short-term gains to be felt out of achieving a particular results.

Threats and Hazards

The football program at the University of Michigan is simultaneously under an FBI investigation into "inappropriately accessed" computer accounts and an NCAA investigation into an alleged complex program to steal the sideline signals used by opposing teams. The two cases are said to be separate from one another, which, if true, would be symptomatic of a wildly out-of-proportion sense of what matters to that community. ■ It is a sad contemporary problem that too many people are unable or unwilling to sort the serious from the trivial. College football may be a wonderful source of diversion and entertainment for tens or even hundreds of millions of people, but it remains only a sport -- and no more than that. No globally or historically significant outcomes are to be obtained from two teams meeting on the gridiron. And yet there are those who would risk actual prison time in order to win. Something is gravely wrong when that is the case. ■ That anything-it-takes approach to winning games is indicative of a failure to know that sports are ultimately trivial: They exist to provide entertainment, not to solve real problems. ■ And it's not simply a matter of people who take trivial things far too seriously, but also a problem of people taking fundamentally serious matters and trivializing them for their own benefit, like the member of Congress who treats his own expulsion vote as a laughing matter. He is in a similar role as his colleague, who trivializes the word "genocide" as a campaign prop. ■ These are two sides of the same coin: Taking the fundamentally unserious (like college sports) far too seriously, and treating the fundamentally serious (like the conduct of members of Congress) as nothing more than a circus sideshow. Responsible adults have to be able to draw distinctions between what really matters and what really doesn't. Furthermore, real adults have to possess the self-respect to correct their friends and allies when they cross over the line. ■ It is far worse to commit the actual infraction, of course, but to tolerate among us those who cannot or will not tell the difference only invites trouble. We shouldn't be afraid to call them out, even if we like the results they're trying to achieve.

Threats and Hazards Take care of your words

Youthful indiscretion is so commonplace that it already has a name. But there are times when the overreaches of the young and intemperate must be met with corrective consequences. ■ The student leadership of the College Democrats at the University of Iowa published a statement on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and concluded with a phrase widely recognized to call for the destruction of the state of Israel. This was met with condemnation, including from the chair of the state party. ■ In the course of commenting on the conflict, it ultimately cannot be missed by anyone that it began with a brutal terrorist attack by Hamas in which more than 1,400 people in Israel were murdered. In the words of Deutsche Welle, "The images go far beyond what journalists who have years of experience dealing with conflict, war, death and violence are used to seeing." ■ It is possible to say many things -- including to convey sympathy for the humanity of civilians on both sides of the border -- and to do so temperately, cautiously, and prudently. But words matter so much that one should always take care to check the origins and connotations of what seem like clever turns of phrase from others before adopting them. Youth can be an excuse for only so much, and aligning with terrorists (even if only in words) is a measure too far.

Aviation News Getting a charge from electrified aircraft

For a long time, critics have dismissed the possibility that electric-powered aircraft could be feasible, given the capacity of batteries and the limiting factor of their weight. But sometimes technology advances faster than the critiques can evolve, and breakthroughs are actually demonstrated to be possible. ■ Such is the case with electric-powered flight. One company has conducted non-stop flights of more than 300 miles with its small aircraft and has already begun installing a charging network at airports. Another company, bearing a household name, has begun flight-testing a hybrid propulsion system, with plans to put it into regional jets holding up to 180 passengers by the other side of this decade. ■ Aviation gets a lot of attention in the context of climate change -- almost unavoidably, perhaps, because of the paradoxical nature of people traveling to climate-change summits aboard private jets. No matter how rational the choice may be, it looks bad. ■ But while it is believed that aviation only accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, it's a high-profile 2%. But more significantly, it's in an area where speedy deployment of technological advancements will help to spur progress elsewhere. Businesses dedicated to technological products often benefit a great deal from having a high-performance division, from which improvements in products and processes can flow to the rest of the company. That's why racing has always been crucial to Honda. ■ Electric and hybrid-electric powertrains will be like that for aviation: The faster they can drive elite engineering work, the sooner we will get to see advancements in electrification elsewhere. Powering aircraft with electricity is a really hard problem, but the solutions will spill over into other sectors. For that reason alone, the much-quieter sound of motorized airplanes should make us all stand and cheer.