Gongol.com Archives: 2023 First-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol




January 2, 2023

The United States of America Let every new year find you better

Benjamin Franklin, a person of legendary self-regard, offered sterling advice in his 1755 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack: "Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man." Franklin's advice isn't why people form New Year's Resolutions today (it's a practice that predated Franklin by thousands of years), but his words have undoubtedly contributed to cementing the practice in the general American vernacular. ■ The problem with New Year's resolutions isn't the quest for self-improvement, but rather their widely-cited rate of failure. "Happy Planet Fitness Day for all those who celebrate", teased one Anthony DeRosa on Twitter as his clock struck midnight to welcome the new year. Gym memberships spike in January, but decay has usually wiped out the gains by April. ■ Gym membership isn't the only marker, of course; about 40% of Americans make New Year's resolutions, and they're not all about pumping iron. Quitting bad habits, managing money better, and eating more wisely are all popular choices. ■ The problem with turning a single event each year into the moment to turn over a new leaf is that the high rate of failure only discourages people from undertaking self-improvement in ways that will work. There's clearly some survivorship bias at play in the figures that say two-thirds of people will keep their resolutions all year; the people who don't keep this year's resolutions will be less likely than the successful ones to make new resolutions next year. ■ Franklin himself built a whole system for keeping his own resolutions under the lofty title of a "plan for attaining moral perfection". It was his tacit acknowledgment that resolving to do something once is incomplete without deliberate follow-up. If we really value self-improvement (which we should), then resolutions ought to burrow their way deeper into the culture. ■ The idea of the New Year's resolution gets perpetuated because it's easy to remember when to make it, and it gives us something common to talk about. But more effective than one ambitious list of resolutions to uphold starting January 1st would be six discrete resolutions, taken up one at a time, every two months. In other words, a single New Year's resolution, then another on March 1st, on May Day, on July 1st, on September 1st, and on November 1st. ■ Resolutions are often about habits, and no magic rule exists for how long it takes to form a habit. But some research suggests that the median length of time to make a behavior into a habit is 66 days, or just a smidge longer than two months. Thus it would probably make us better if the people who talk about New Year's resolutions around January 1st (news reporters, radio and podcast hosts, self-help advisors, and others) were to revive the question two months later and ask, "What's your March 1st resolution?", then again every two months after that. ■ Higher-frequency, lower-stakes resolutions would be great cultural achievements, if we could make them as routine as the nature of changing sports seasons. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "[H]e should attend to the defective moral habit in himself and continually seek to cure it, for a man inevitably has defects." The wisdom is in the word "continually". But it is often easier to undertake something new if others are trying, too. The lesson to take away from Franklin and Maimonides alike is that people need more on-ramps for that trying.




January 3, 2023

News Speak to us

The House of Representatives is formed by the Constitution in Article I, Section 2 -- prior to the Supreme Court (Article III), the Senate (Article I, Section 3), or the Presidency (Article II) -- and should accordingly be expected to act as the primary locomotive of the entire Federal government. And it is having trouble selecting a leader. On three separate ballots of its first day in session, the House delivered no candidate a majority of the votes for Speaker. That hasn't happened in a century. ■ The Speaker of the House is named by the Constitution before the Chief Justice or the President; so foundational is the job supposed to be. It has always been a political job, of course. But while the Chief Justice must be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and the President must be chosen through the Electoral College, the House is free to choose whomever it wants to serve as Speaker. ■ This raises an interesting thought exercise: How might things run differently if the House, which is so narrowly divided on party grounds that the swing votes could fit in a Kia Sportage, chose a fair-minded outsider as Speaker? ■ Justin Amash, who not long ago left the House, has offered himself as an outside candidate for the job. His would be an unlikely candidacy, for sure -- he already bears deep partisan scars from his time in office. But he does make the valid point that Congress needs some process reforms to function better: Unencumbered bills, committee order, and an open amendment process. ■ America would probably benefit from having a charismatic technocrat as Speaker of the House: Someone likable, a bit nerdy, earnestly committed to fairness, and above all, obsessed with the long-term good of the House as an institution. We have people like that in America; many of them are former governors, including several Republicans. ■ It's extremely unlikely to happen, of course, bordering on the impossible. But given the small group of holdouts keeping the Republican majority from electing their presumptive candidate, it wouldn't take that many Democratic votes to put a mild-mannered technocrat into the role, if mainstream Republicans could find a consensus outsider to put forward. Could the House of Representatives function like a world-class deliberative body with someone like Mitch Daniels or Rick Snyder holding the gavel? Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, they're about to find out.




January 4, 2023

News The Bugs Bunny Doctrine

Unless changes are made this year to the nation's intellectual-property laws, Disney is set to lose the copyright protection on "Steamboat Willie", the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoon, next year. It doesn't mean you'll be able to slap mouse ears on your corporate logo in 2024, but the enormous sway Disney has held over copyright law is in no small part due to the enormous significance placed on Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon. ■ Yet, for as sentimental as people get about Mickey Mouse, the most American of all cartoon characters will forever be Bugs Bunny. A canonical rule in Bugs Bunny cartoons is that he never starts a fight. Someone else is always the antagonist: Elmer Fudd on a hunting adventure, Daffy Duck seeking to cheat his way to security, or Marvin the Martian out to destroy Earth. Bugs Bunny's job is to outwit his adversaries -- sometimes humiliating them in order to put them in check -- but never to start a fight. ■ America hasn't always held to that same canonical rule, but we generally aspire to it. And there is no time like the present to revisit the Bugs Bunny doctrine. ■ The United States has become by far the largest material supporter of Ukraine (in absolute terms), not because we desired to engage in any kind of fight, but because Russia initiated an unprovoked war of aggression against what a majority of Americans recognize was a victim state. Drawn into supporting a fight not immediately related to our self-interest, Americans overwhelmingly still see that there is a right side and a wrong side to the war, and that supporting the right side remains our duty. ■ Likewise, we have no interest in starting a fight in the South China Sea or anywhere else in the Pacific. But if China is going to engage in wildly unsafe behaviors like attempting to intimidate American pilots by flying too close in international airspace, then by no means should the United States back down from asserting its right to maintain a global footprint. ■ It may seem quaint or even silly to enlist a cartoon character as a metaphor for a nation's security posture, but it's entirely apt. America has little or nothing to gain from initiating fights with Russia, China, or any other country. Our long-term prosperity and welfare have benefitted from a well-ordered world peace and vibrant international trade. ■ This is no time to be picking fights among great powers (or even among lesser ones). But if other powers are going to start fights, we have to bring our cleverest ideas for direct and indirect deterrence to the fore: Backing down only invites further provocation. It is costly to remain strong: $1.6 trillion was the bill in fiscal year 2022. ■ We should gladly prefer to spend that money on almost anything else. But that's not the choice we are presented, nor is it in our self-interest to look the other way as others undermine a more peaceful order. We should remain congenitally opposed to engaging in a fight unless provoked, but no one anywhere should doubt American commitment to supporting partners and putting antagonists in their place. That doesn't always call for punching them directly in the nose -- but it does require that the outcome of any spat never be in doubt.




January 5, 2023

Broadcasting The news might set you free

For as much as people wisecrack about living in a "post-truth" era, human beings haven't really surrendered our basic impulse to try to grasp a sense of what's really happening in the present moment. We are social creatures, and being social requires knowing what other people are doing, thinking, and feeling. If someone in a crowd suddenly turns and points at something overhead, it's a sure thing that almost everyone else will turn and look, too. ■ That is the essential attraction of news: News is whatever materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Lots of other things try to masquerade as news, but many "also-rans" in the world of news coverage are merely items of information or documentation of events. ■ In the free world, we often voluntarily subject ourselves to non-news because it has entertainment value. There are not actually four hours of news contained in one "Today" show. There's a little bit of news, and then a lot of other stuff. But people like to watch, so on it goes into its 71st year. ■ Americans generally have the luxury of taking news less than seriously. But people elsewhere aren't so fortunate. The United States invested in international broadcasting throughout the Cold War as a means of achieving public diplomacy -- reaching people living under Communism, so that they could learn what their governments wanted to suppress. ■ Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are good at filling "news" time with non-news; witness the fawning domestic coverage of North Korean autocrats, the propagandistic efforts of China's CCTV, or the utterly distressing content being broadcast by Russian state television. But people living under those regimes still need and deserve to be told the truth. ■ Taxpayers in the United States should be proud to fund outlets like the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other arms of the US Agency for Global Media. In seeking to tell the truth and report on what legitimately matters as news, especially in places where that coverage is inconsistent or even prohibited by local authorities, these outlets serve a vital purpose for building a better world. ■ Reality is the best friend of liberty; people who know the truth don't voluntarily choose to be oppressed. People can generally sense when they're being told lies, but that isn't the same as being told the truth. America has taken our international broadcasting agencies for granted for too long. In a complicated world with altogether too many bad actors eager to deny people their natural freedoms, the cost of making sure people can get real news everywhere is a small price to pay.


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January 6, 2023

The United States of America Expand the House

A certain level of mayhem is probably inherent to the lower houses of most democratically-elected legislatures. Anyone who thinks legislative hijinks are an exclusively American phenomenon needs to spend some time watching the Prime Minister's Questions from the British Parliament (or just a super-cut of former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow screaming "Order!" at his colleagues). ■ That doesn't make the marathon to elect a Speaker of the House any less embarrassing, but it does raise a point worth considering. The United States House of Representatives hasn't grown since 1929, even though our current population (at 334 million) is approaching three times the roughly 122 million it was then. The House wouldn't really have to triple in size to be more appropriate, but it really must be made larger than it is. ■ The Founders imagined much more representation than we put to use now. In Federalist Paper No. 56, either Hamilton or Madison wrote that "[I]t seems to give the fullest assurance, that a representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants will render the latter both a safe and competent guardian of the interests which will be confided to it." We're at a representative for about every three-quarters of a million people today. Enlarging the membership of the House to come into line with a principle like the Cube Root Law might have merit for a number of reasons. ■ First, in shrinking the population of the average Congressional district, we would make it easier for individual voters to have access to their representatives. Smaller districts would also, quite likely, be easier to win with relatively smaller campaign budgets (thus diminishing the much-hated influence of money in politics). Smaller districts might also discourage the sort of gerrymandering which Americans have learned to hate. ■ But a bigger House could also do two favorable things regarding the qualities of its members. First, a broader population could well have the effect of drawing in people from a wider range of occupational and other backgrounds -- we don't have many engineers or computer programmers in Congress, and maybe we should have a few in a technologically sophisticated world. ■ Second, a bigger House of Representatives should tend to dilute the power of individual cranks. Any given sample of a hundred or more people is likely to contain a few bad actors. But if we generally trust the public to select away from nuts, then their relative impact should be lessened if the individual bad apples who get through the process are diluted among many other more-normal individuals. ■ Notably, expanding the House of Representatives would be an almost frictionless way to make the Electoral College more proportional, since a larger number of electoral votes assigned via House seats would reduce the relative weight of electoral votes arising from Senate seats. No Constitutional amendments or National Popular Votes required -- just a statutory change. ■ And the cost of adding House members would be trivial; each member's office costs about $2 million a year, between salaries and the operating expenses of their offices. Adding members would barely move the needle from a budgetary perspective, since the same number of constituents could be served by more or less the same number of offices and staffers who serve them now. ■ Expanding the House wouldn't solve every problem, but it does have the potential to mitigate some of the chamber's most unflattering aspects. In the past century, the country's population has nearly tripled, and our national problems have grown in complexity by a factor of much more than three. Holding steady at the same number of Representatives who served when Calvin Coolidge was President is only a way to invite tiny factions to hold everyone else hostage.


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January 10, 2023

Broadcasting Who owns the access to your ears?

In general, society is advanced by the maximum practical free movement of goods, money, people, and ideas. But exceptions sometimes prove the rule, and there are good reasons to hold reservations about a request by Alpha Media, a broadcasting company that operates more than 200 radio stations, placed with the FCC. ■ Alpha Media has asked the FCC to permit the company to exceed a 25% limit on foreign ownership -- seeking "authorization for up to 100% aggregate foreign voting and equity investment". ■ It's important to note from the outset that radio stations don't "own" the airwaves; they borrow them from the public. They are issued licenses by the Federal government which dictate the terms of use, and those licenses are procured through an auction process. ■ A lot can be debated about what those airwaves are worth, how their use should be regulated, and what people and firms should get to do with them. Those values change over time -- see, for instance, the reclamation of analog TV spectrum, which was done to repurpose those frequencies for uses like mobile phones. ■ But, in a qualitatively different sense than who owns a Burger King franchise or who owns a shop that performs oil changes, the character of a broadcaster matters. On one level, it matters in the same way an apartment landlord cares whether a renter is going to pay the rent on time, keep the noise down, and clean up when the lease runs out. The FCC has a vested interest in keeping good tenants on behalf of the spectrum space it owns on behalf of the people. ■ A broadcast licensee who can't stay on frequency, who fails to keep the right records, and who can't keep the lights on can affect all of the other "renters" on the spectrum, too. Nobody wants a bad neighbor. ■ But a broadcast licensee's character also matters in the sense that over-the-air radio and television stations still have a direct and immediate relationship with the public, in a country where the government doesn't (and shouldn't) have prior restraint on content. Licensees are trusted to do the right thing without instantaneous and constant supervision. ■ Sound judgment, civic responsibility, and accountability all matter when issuing broadcast licenses -- and there is sufficient reason to criticize lots of domestic broadcasters just on these measures. Plenty of broadcasters already fall short of serving the "public interest, convenience, and necessity", as the law requires them to do. Opening up to overseas ownership of licensees would only strain that already over-stretched accountability even more.




January 11, 2023

Threats and Hazards More lives for naught

When faced with a complex problem and limited access to the truth, a sound course of action is to look at the flow of resources. It's easy to increase the supply of rhetoric -- talk is cheap, after all. But the truth is usually found in the actual commitments that people make with resources that are scarcer than mere words. ■ It is credibly believed that Russia has drafted 300,000 men into the military since late October, and in some corners, it is believed that another 500,000 may be called up soon. ■ Pressing 800,000 conscripts into service to fight a war would be an enormous commitment under any circumstances. For comparison, the Allies in World War II committed 160,000 troops to invade Normandy on D-Day. That operation was enormous in its own right, and it ultimately resulted in victory on the European continent. What the Allies sought to do on D-Day was just and righteous, and Eisenhower rightly grieved the lives lost. ■ But sending five times that number to fight a mad war of aggression against Ukraine is a dreadful confirmation of something Dwight Eisenhower wrote after WWII. Eisenhower noted, "Americans assess the cost of war in terms of human lives, the Russians in the over-all drain on the nation." Many of those whom Russia will send into action will be killed or injured. Many others will be be damaged or broken by the experience, likely to return home with new demons or worse. Russia would be making an extremely large and hazardous gamble with its own domestic future by taking such a risk, to say nothing of its appalling crimes against the people of Ukraine. ■ Someday, we will know the resolution of the Kremlin's awful war. Perhaps it will mark a historical low point and the last moment before a peaceful liberalization, with Russia's present autocrat deposed and the country on a path towards economic and political harmonization with the free world. It happened in (West) Germany, after all. ■ But for now, we can only try to recognize what patterns are being repeated, and Russia's leadership is making choices that show no moral growth over the ones its dictators made eight decades ago. It's troubling enough that the people of a peaceful neighbor are being forced to suffer from an unjust invasion. It compounds the tragedy to imagine that Russia's soul may emerge even sicker at the end than it started.

Aviation News FAA clears air traffic to resume again

Things got stopped by a serious computer system outage. It's like we keep having all of the technological breakdowns that we were warned were going to happen on Y2K.





January 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Say cheese

Never read too much into anyone's assessment of culture that assumes consistent behavior across large numbers of people. But don't be surprised, either, when common patterns emerge in the data describing people in large groups. Take, for instance, the amusing case of a poll asking people of Generation X and older whether they take and share "selfies" on social media. ■ The answer -- after nearly 2,000 votes and 20,000 views -- was that for every person who said "I take a lot and share a lot", there were 88 who said "Rarely or never". Nobody ought to read too much statistical rigor into a self-selected set of responses to a poll on Twitter, but that's an extreme imbalance that would seem to be hard to fake. ■ And it's an extreme imbalance that wouldn't seem likely among younger generations. The presence of self-image (and images of the self) presented online are of such importance to some youth that the Seattle Public Schools have sued social media companies -- Facebook parent company Meta, Snapchat, TikTok, and Google-owned YouTube, among others. ■ The school district paints the social-media tools as a public nuisance with contributory responsibility for a crisis in mental health in their state. Whether the suit has merit will be up to the legal system to decide, hopefully with fairness and sobriety. ■ But the very act of initiating such a case shows that the schools realize there is a lot to teach those young people, and there isn't a lot of foundational work to build from. Whether it's called "digital citizenship" or "digital literacy" or something else, there's no hiding from the need to communicate skills and behaviors to the students in the classroom. That's especially the case if the people of, say, their parents' generation are 88 times more likely to avoid taking selfies than sharing them. Adults need to put in lots of extra effort to make sure that their reactions are prudent, not just impulsive.

Weather and Disasters News you can use

Of the various named weather phobias, iridophobia seems the least necessary. Who fears the rainbow?

Broadcasting RFE/RL opens new office in Latvia

Whatever further cements the broadcaster's presence in the region is probably for the good




January 14, 2023

News An efficient maxim

Seva Gunitsky, a professor of political science, shares the pithy and cutting observation that "Every generation, upon reaching middle age, begins to see the world around them in decline as a way to habituate themselves to their own decay." It's hard to find fault with Gunitky's hypothesis; history is cluttered with variations on a theme of "Kids these days are terrible", yet most of the meaningful measures of human welfare have trended toward the good for centuries -- and the pace of improvement on many measures is accelerating. ■ Something has to explain the gap between perception and reality, and the dread of one's own decline may well be it. Notable are the exceptions to the pattern, who have recorded their faith that perhaps the kids will indeed be all right. Benjamin Franklin was one of those; he offered the reassurance that "[D]iscretion did not always accompany years, nor was youth always without it." ■ The pessimist, for instance, looks at censorial behavior on college campuses and concludes that the young are bound to turn themselves stupid and servile. These critics may be right to recognize that a learning environment, by design, cannot be made free of uncomfortable exchanges, and that a robust dialogue about meaningful questions (of the kind we easily associate with the idea of "going to school") will invariably push some people out of "safe spaces". ■ The optimist, though, looks at the environment and concludes that the behavior that gets people labeled as "snowflakes" could be attributed much more charitably. Youthful eagerness to behave more inclusively and with greater sensitivity to the identities of others probably deserves to be regarded as a sign that society at large is becoming wiser and more open. But the perpetual hazard of eagerness is that of overreach. ■ In so many cases, the youth-driven movements that are prone to taking things too far are crying out for the guiding hand of those who have seen pendulum swings in the past. That takes a balance between openness to the new and a leavening sense of caution about how to put the new into practice. ■ The human world is only rarely in decay, but it can be disorienting when new ideas are adopted with inexperienced "drivers" at the wheel. It may not always be obvious (even to them), but young people with big ideas are often , if not usually, in search of guidance about how to enact the changes they desire. To the extent that their ideas contain even the germ of a good thing, it's important to avoid reacting as though all change is suspect, and to instead ask "How much of this would really be a good thing, and how can we help shape how (and how much of) it comes into being?"




January 15, 2023

News Power struggles

Chances are good that when her identity as a political figure has passed, Condoleezza Rice will be regarded as one of the most valuable thinkers to emerge from the contemporary age. It's hard for people to dissociate her from her roles as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who is not a neutrally-regarded figure even now. But it's worth trying. ■ Rice has taught and written since leaving government service, and her 2017 book, "Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom", has particular resonance in the present. Inside, Rice warned that "In today's interconnected world, the creeping and subtle authoritarianism of illiberal elected leaders is a greater threat to democracy than if they were to crush it with tanks in the city square." ■ Given what just happened in Brazil, with a failed apparent coup attempt, and what could of course happen elsewhere, it's timely to remember that adherence to rules and norms is essential to keeping elections within the boundaries of intellectual disagreement. The contest of ideas must be kept from coming to literal blows, and the provocateur shouldn't have a veto against any democracy, no matter how young. ■ The former Secretary of State also noted, "America's Founding Fathers understood that liberty was the necessary condition for citizens to find fulfillment. It is not, however, sufficient." No form of government would be worth its salt without a commitment to liberties, but liberties have to coexist with democratic processes and with civic responsibilities if they are to endure.

Threats and Hazards Civilian housing isn't a legitimate war target

Ukraine says at least 25 people were killed by a Russian missile attack against an apartment building in Dnipro. If it happened in a country at peace, this would be labeled instantly as an act of terrorism. Russia's deployment of the corrosive, relentless terror of war will be a stain on its history a century from now.




January 16, 2023

Broadcasting Which TV stations have the longest affiliate relationships?

At least for a good share of the Upper Midwest, WHBF in the Quad Cities is the record-holder as the television station with the longest stretch holding the same channel number, call sign, and network affiliation. It's been the same (Channel 4, carrying CBS programming) since 1950. That would be a long relationship in any business -- maybe some implement dealers and insurance agencies have gone on with their principal producers longer, but not many. ■ That longevity raises a question worth pondering: How much will affiliation ties matter to media outlets in the years to come? Radio stations once proudly trumpeted their network relationships, but that has faded into almost complete obscurity as once-renowned names like Westwood One and NBC Radio Network have become identities in name only with no connection to their past incarnations, and networks like the storied Mutual Broadcasting System have gone defunct entirely. ■ Television networks still have brand identities (driven in no small part by their newsgathering arms), but it's becoming increasingly important which streaming service carries a program than which network. Finding NBC programs on Peacock versus Hulu may be more relevant to many viewers than identifying the network with a local channel number. ■ This transition, from placing lots of weight on institutional and team identities to placing relatively little, is evident throughout media. Newspaper and magazine columnists have far less incentive to remain loyal to their institutions when there's always the option to strike out on their own, possibly for much greater compensation. In the light of extraordinary downsizing at publications both big (like the Chicago Tribune) and small (like the St. Cloud Times), being a career institutionalist may no longer remain an option. ■ Local radio and television personalities, pushed by management to "build audience engagement" via social media and other outreach, may find that their affiliation with a local station is best used mostly as a springboard to other high-profile occupations (a choice for which they can hardly be blamed, given the dismal state of the broadcasting job market). ■ Longevity is still to be admired, to be certain. When someone can last 40 years at one outlet, it's worth recognition and applause. But something is decidedly different in the media from what it was just a decade or two ago, and the macro-scale forces seem aligned to keep it that way for a while to come, at least unless and until consumers grow so weary of trying to follow their favorite content producers in so many places (and under so many subscriptions) that they reconstitute themselves into bundles much like the old ones -- albeit perhaps more digital this time around.

Iowa Tornado warning for Johnson County -- in January

Late-morning thunderstorms. Tornadoes by afternoon. It's an extreme outlier for Iowa weather in January.




January 17, 2023

News Ukraine's train chief says they're running 96% on time

How can you not cheer for a people so determined to make things work like ordinary, despite a brutal war being waged against them?

News China's government doesn't get demographics

Something to remember next time anyone tries to tell you the Communist Party has grand plans to do X, Y, or Z. Despite holding the unchecked coercive power of the state, they couldn't work out the basic arithmetic of human procreation until this was already inevitable.

News Too many people obsess over replicating past architecture

Imagine the horror when they discover that modern office buildings have things like ergonomic chairs inside, rather than a Louis XIV chair within every cubicle.




January 18, 2023

Aviation News The past just isn't what it used to be

Gauzy reminiscences about the past are easy to find. There's never been a shortage of people willing to wax poetic about whatever they consider the "good old days". But it's worth training ourselves to dismantle the flawed arguments (and they are almost always flawed) by realizing that although human progress is anything but linear, it has many incentives to keep improving in the aggregate, even if certain creature comforts are lost along the way. ■ Take, for example, the fawning over the supposedly glamorous days of regulation-era air travel. When airlines were told that they couldn't compete on price, it's no surprise that they turned to competing on accoutrements, like the quality of in-flight dining. Between some hazy recollections by grandparents and the yellowing pages of carefully-staged magazine ads from the time, it's easy to get the impression that something has been lost in today's era of bags of tiny pretzels and Biscoff cookies. ■ But even setting aside the really important differences -- like the vast improvements that have come about in both affordability and safety since deregulation in 1978 -- the in-flight experience today is markedly better, even if you're one of the few who wishes smoking were still allowed onboard. ■ To be fair, the basic coach seat is smaller than its predecessor. (Anyway, for those to whom seat size is a priority, there's always the upgrade to business class, by whatever name it is found. Everyone else just implicitly chooses to pay less and endure the smaller seat.) But once stationed in the seat, the modern traveler has, for one thing, infinitely more choices than in the past. ■ It wasn't that long ago that in-flight entertainment was limited to perhaps ten channels of audio, a mediocre in-flight magazine, a well-worn copy of the Skymall catalogue, and (for the lucky passengers) a pre-selected in-flight movie. Now, even the passenger sitting in the very last row next to the lavatory more often than not has the option to watch or listen to an unlimited range of content. Airlines generally offer free WiFi for a broad array of streaming services (and the savvy traveler already knows to download some preferred content before departure). Seatbacks now often include not just power outlets, but also device holders to make the viewing experience more convenient. ■ We have migrated away from the one-size-fits-all model that used to predominate (with a single in-flight movie shown on unreliable projection screens that were too close for those sitting right behind a bulkhead and too far away for almost everyone else) and towards virtually infinite customization. Giving everyone almost exactly what they want is vastly better than giving everyone the same milquetoast offering. ■ Entertainment is only one aspect of the total experience, of course, and not every aspect has gotten better. But over time, the system has optimized around those things people actually care about the most, not what they merely say they want. You can still get carved roast beef when you're traveling, but it will generally involve ordering from a sit-down restaurant inside an airport terminal between connections. ■ Anytime we are presented with an over-simplified assessment of reality that assumes the best about the past while dismissing the state of the present, it's worth remembering that the reality we inhabit today is the result of an evolutionary process shaped by the past. Not all things that are worth keeping survive, and not all things that survive are truly worth keeping. But in general, the burden of proof ought to be on the upon those who argue that something different than the present state is what's worth keeping, equally whether they think there is progress yet to be made or that the progress achieved thus far ought to be rolled back.

Business and Finance Microsoft is cutting 5% of its workforce

A non-trivial aspect of this news: "Microsoft’s workforce expanded by about 36% in the two fiscal years following the emergence of the pandemic, growing from 163,000 workers at the end of June 2020, to 221,000 in June 2022." That doesn't make the cuts hurt less for anyone among the laid-off, but it does go some way towards indicating whether this is really evidence of an existential risk to the company.


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January 19, 2023

Humor and Good News Ukraine wants tanks

And in an effort to get them, the country's defense department has produced a video with all the throwback flavor of a 1992 Chevrolet truck ad. Is this public diplomacy? Yes. Is this defense policy? Yes. Is this postmodern comedy? Oh yes. Is this absolutely brilliant? Beyond question, yes.

Health Sometimes a difference is just a difference

Someone, somewhere, has apparently labeled it "energy privilege" if a person doesn't need quite as much sleep as other people. The appellation is probably just one person's weird way of trying to make a point, but it's not the first time someone has slapped the "privilege" label on something where it plainly does not apply. Sometimes differences among people are just differences. Framing every difference in terms of power structures only dilutes the meaning for those cases where "privilege" actually does apply. Words matter.

Weather and Disasters Shovel using the herringbone pattern

If you're in a place where you must shovel snow (and don't have a snowblower or face a snow type that isn't appropriate for one), then you must learn the herringbone approach: Shovel straight down the middle of the driveway to clear a walking path. Then, shovel diagonally outwards from that centerline, pushing downhill. It minimizes the amount of wasted energy and general shoveling ennui.

Humor and Good News Lovely Art Deco illustrations from a 1930 high school yearbook

The artist was quite talented; the style should make a comeback




January 20, 2023

Business and Finance Major layoffs at Google and Microsoft

Large technology companies have been laying off a lot of workers over the last three or four months, with Microsoft and Google together releasing 22,000 workers in the last week. Those are large numbers for two of the most dependable blue-chip firms in the technology business, and the announcements certainly give people reason for concern. ■ "Layoff" is a word we should always treat with caution. It's a euphemism, and not a very good one at that. Yet we don't have a good alternative word to convey an essential connotation to the act: A layoff is the employer's fault, not the employee's. It's not a release for cause nor for underperformance. And it's an involuntary departure on the part of the worker. Layoffs happen because something has gone wrong at the strategic level of the company. ■ Jobs in high technology often seem like they ought to be beyond the reach of those kinds of ebbs and flows. A business degree or a tech-friendly computer or scientific degree are often seen as virtual guarantees of employability. But they, too, are obviously not immune from economic forces beyond the employee's control. ■ For all the debate that has raged around college debt and which majors are or are not "worthwhile", the best solution is probably for every student capable of the challenge to go after a double major. One major from a practical field, and one from the liberal arts. The former should make the graduate productive, the latter should make them adaptable. ■ That adaptability is going to be all the more important over time. If even the big growth industries (like high technology) are going to be susceptible to big shifts, while others (like journalism) can find themselves in employment freefall, it's only responsible to try to send graduates into the world with both the tools they will need in the short run as well as the ones that will keep them from becoming hidebound in the long term. ■ Changes are coming for most workers, and often the worst of those changes will come through no fault of their own. You could have done all the right things in becoming an automotive engineer starting in 1993 and not have foreseen that electric vehicles would someday decimate the need for your kind of high-skill work. Preparing people to earn an honorable living, both now and in the future, is a challenge for every educational institution to show they're capable of meeting.

Iowa UNI and DMACC to offer AA-to-BA accounting program in Des Moines

Three cheers for this development, which is great news for "place-bound" learners -- people who can't just pick up and move somewhere else to start or finish a degree. UNI has a very highly-regarded accounting program, and Des Moines is a city where lots of them can be put to good use. Getting people who might have limited choices otherwise on a path towards a high-demand career through a reputable in-state university is a great development in serving the public.

News The classification problem

Bryan McGrath on the ongoing saga of classified documents found where they do not belong: "Over-classification is a problem, but it is not THE problem. THE problem is people who think the rules do not apply to them."

Computers and the Internet Tell your kids the truth

It's hard to believe just how long some of the misdirections and fibs that parents tell their kids go on to linger in the child's mind. Always tell kids the truth. Someday you'll be old and mystified by a cultural development or some advanced form of technology, and you'll want your offspring to give it to you straight. They'll remember if you messed with them for your own amusement when they were kids and they'll be within rights to serve up their revenge cold.




January 21, 2023

News Changing fashions are good for us

A small band of dyspeptic commentators runs about on the English-languag Internet, decrying various aspects of modernity as having lost touch with the supposed beauty of the past. Under anonymous handles, they point to small samples of art and architecture from the present, selectively lining them up agsinst small samples of historic works, or just point vaguely at great past achievements and weigh them against a vague assumption that people today are too lazy or unambitious to match up. ■ It would all be amusing in an anachronistic way -- like someone who refuses to watch any movie filmed in color -- if it weren't so very likely that the accounts putting on their holy war against modernity weren't serving a truly backwards ideology. ■ The problem is that it is so easy to tap into a human instinct to mistake ornamentation for beauty. If something looks elaborate, it often looks like it required a lot of work, and that seems to appeal to a basic human instinct. ■ But ornamentation isn't equivalent to quality. The Las Vegas Strip is chock-full of ornamentation, but nothing there is permanent, nor is it classically beautiful. It is merely decorated. Lavishly decorated, but that is all. ■ Human tastes change, both individually and at scale. That's a blessing, not a curse. The architecture of skyscrapers alone has gone through at least four major schools since World War II. ■ Some looks have endured. Others have not. But ornamentation hasn't really made any lasting difference, any more than wallpaper can salvage a poorly laid-out room. Fully valid schools of thought have idealized the simplification of design, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of architecture to the Streamline Moderne design movement to Internationalism in tall buildings. ■ What makes the Internet commentators so troubling is the ease with which they seek to recruit people to a broad and unsubstantiated dissatisfaction with the modern world. It's a very old playbook -- representing the modern as corrupt or bereft of "true" beauty, needing replacement by a revival of "traditional" beauty -- which, suspiciously, is always defined by what its advocates oppose. ■ It's gross and backwards, but more significantly, it invites alliances with those seeking conscripts to a war against this straw-man of "modernity". The most important tradition is the continuous evolution of human tastes and standards to match the new things we've learned. Human civilization must conserve what works, while adapting to change and adopting what works better than what came before.

Humor and Good News A higher than average volume?

Kit Yates: "I'm sorry, but you can't *always* be experiencing a higher volume of calls than average. That's not how averages work." ■ Come to think of it, has anyone ever been told, "We will be connecting your call without delay, because we are experiencing a lower volume of calls than average"?




January 22, 2023

News Getting on the road

No rite of passage should escape periodic re-examination. And it would seem that, at least in some quarters, the rite of obtaining one's first driver's license is undergoing a revival of scrutiny. ■ There is an obvious case to be made that obtaining a driver's license is a relic of America's engine-obsessed past. Some would even argue that we are doing the next generation a favor by focusing their time on practices that will better serve them in a world full of mass transit and walkable spaces. Time not spent in driver's education class, the thinking goes, is time that can be spent on an extracurricular activity with better returns in the college admissions process. ■ But unlike certain specific driving-related practices (like learning how to drive a stick shift or fix a carburetor), the general need to know how to drive a vehicle has not been obviated entirely by technology. Driving is a skill that is not only widely useful in personal life, it is still often applicable in professional life, too, as well as in a wide number of trades. Whether one ends up as a long-haul trucker, a corporate attorney rushing to meet filing deadlines, or a shipping department supervisor running a forklift, the essences of a steering wheel and an accelerator pedal must be known. ■ Sure, you may choose to live in a place like New York, with lots of mass transit. But that doesn't mean you won't travel to other places -- for work or for leisure -- that won't require you to rent a car or take a long-distance road trip. For now at least, it remains inescapable that driving is a part of basic personal functioning for the vast majority of Americans. Sure, you might be able to virtualize many of your interactions, but there's no enduring substitute for being in the same time and space with your friends. ■ Even with self-driving vehicles, we may remain a car-dependent nation for some time to come. And there is no reason for anyone within a car-dependent nation who is physically and mentally capable of driving to be completely dependent upon others to do the driving. ■ Adolescence is a time for trying new things, learning how to fail safely, and figuring out how to be both resilient and self-sufficient. Parents have to encourage their children along that road: As a parent, your unconditional love and support should be both obvious and unquestionable. But everyone needs to go through a process to earn self-respect, and it's for the best if that starts by trying new things (and sometimes failing) when the stakes are low. That time is in childhood and adolescence. ■ It's a fallacy for parents to try to pack adolescent resumes in order to impress others, instead of training and guiding those adolescents to become self-sufficient and capable adults. Like it or not, your kid becomes an adult in the eyes of the law on their 18th birthday. That's some heavy, heavy reality. And at least for now (and for some time to come), American adults will need to know how to drive.

News You'd be tired of the job, too

New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, just stepped down after a surprise announcement that she had reached a state of personal burnout. Given that she has been the target of relentless online harassment, perhaps the bombshell announcement shouldn't have been that much of a bombshell. It's too easy to paint political leaders as caricatures, rather than as real people. Sure, maybe there's something more to her story...but there doesn't have to be. It's been an exhausting time to be a political leader, and anyone who doesn't freely admit that is posing as something they're not. We would do well as a society to de-normalize this caricaturization of political figures, and to treat them as the human beings they are. If done properly, that would cut both ways: We'd stop tolerating the dehumanization among our own aimed at our perceived opponents, but we'd also stop expecting them to go on doing their jobs forever.

Humor and Good News Teach your kids the classics

If necessary, we could probably reconstruct most of the pertinent canon of Western Civilization from the films of John Hughes and John Landis. Couldn't we?

News Be careful, kids!

Parents should tell their children to be careful, but always coupled with affirmative rules, like: "Be careful! Make sure your fingers are in a safe place before using a knife." Human brains want to follow constructive guidance, because it exercises the puzzle-solving part of consciousness. We don't have room for all the "don'ts".

Threats and Hazards "Extraordinary measures" deployed to pay the Federal bills

Ugh. C'mon, Congress. The debt ceiling isn't a weapon you want to turn on yourself.




January 23, 2023

Broadcasting It's not just your imagination: TV is going online

Streaming has overtaken broadcast television viewing, and not by a small margin: "Overall streaming gained 10.4 share points, climbing from 27.7% in Dec. of 2021 to 38.1% of total TV usage in Dec. of 2022. In contrast, broadcast usage was down 3.7% from November, and the category lost a share point to finish at 24.7% of total television, Nielsen said." The two modes of viewing have flipped positions.

Broadcasting Is anyone really serious about AM radio anymore?

Noted by radio consultant David Bialik, with a hint of indignation: "AM owners are grabbing available low-power FM signals to get the signal out -- and then they promote their FM, not the AM. We're even seeing major groups with 50,000-watt signals start broadcasting their programming on FM. Are they wholesaling their AMs?




January 24, 2023

News Minnesota's smaller state schools are shrinking

The mid-sized state university seems to face an especially difficult existential crisis these days. St. Cloud State, for instance, has shrunk from 19,912 students a decade ago to 13,149 now. A decline of some 7,000 students would be an impairment even for a big school like the University of Minnesota (55,000 enrolled at the main campus). For a smaller school, it's a profound contraction. Those schools have a lot to offer, but these times are tough.

Humor and Good News Lyndon Johnson wasn't much of an interior decorator

A look at some of his private spaces as President are prime examples of the Imperial Presidency showing roughly the same level of taste as any imperial monarchy.




January 25, 2023

Computers and the Internet Going to the computer lab

According to the Census Bureau, the median American was born around 1982. This means that anyone older than a "Geriatric Millennial" is now in the upper half of the age distribution. (Sympathies to Generation X.) With that realization occasionally comes the knowledge that one's lived experience is now history. ■ Among the most obvious of social changes from one generation to the next is the extent of consumer technology. Those who attended high school or college in the late 1980s, the 1990s, or the early 2000s didn't realize it at the time, but they occupied a brief and unique window of history when "media" wasn't social, but technology itself was. ■ Thanks to the overwhelming utility of Internet and database connections and to the obvious advantages of word processors and spreadsheets over typewriters and paper notepads, people of that early-computer generation had tremendous incentives to become early adopters of personal computers. But even the slow, under-powered desktops of those days were expensive. After tuition, room and board, and book fees, there wasn't always enough left over in the student budget for a modern computer. ■ And thus the campus computer lab emerged. Colleges (and some well-funded high schools) invested in hardware, installed the machines in centralized locations, and provided (usually) supervised sites for work. At the time, going to the computer lab was often a social occasion just as much as an academic one. It was, in its way, an early edition of the "co-work space". Everyone might have been working on something different from everyone else, but gathering around the technology was defined nearly as much by the gathering as by the devices. ■ The experience was, to a degree, an extension of (and an overlap with) the era of scheduling the use of a school's mainframe. That experience, though, tended to belong more to people in the STEM fields (before they were called that). The computer lab experience of the nascent Internet era was much more democratic: Everyone on campus had papers to write. ■ Computer labs may still exist, but the social aspect of making a pilgrimage to go to the technology is fading fast. The Northern Iowan, the student newspaper of the University of Northern Iowa, reports that on-campus computer labs are languishing because so many students now depend upon laptops and wireless network connections to get things done. The labs still exist, but increasingly their remit is to provide equity of access to students who don't have their own devices, or whose devices lack the expensive software needed to accomplish particular tasks. ■ Is something lost along the way? Yes and no. Generations of people attended higher education before computers became widespread, and they undoubtedly left feeling fulfilled. The computer lab experience was a consequence of scarcity, and that scarcity belongs more and more to historical memory as Moore's Law continues its march. But those who lived through it should know that what they experienced, much like trans-Atlantic crossings via fast ocean liners, airships, or the Concorde, was a rare moment in history. ■ It's rarely obvious at the time, but those moments belong to a different class than most histories. They often seem too unremarkable to record at the time, and often the only things left behind are tangential artifacts. They aren't worth resurrecting for their own sakes, but they are often worth documenting for the historical record and observing for what they might have to say about adaptation to change. Something, sometime, will become the new "going to the computer lab".

Computers and the Internet Beck will be our Turing test

Artificial intelligence will most likely be able soon to replicate many if not most pop musicians. But it would be shocking if AI is ever able to sound quite like the wonderful and weird Beck. He's going to be our musical Turing test.

Business and Finance 3M to lay off 2,500 workers

The high-tech layoff figures keep on rising

Computers and the Internet You'll have to pass more robot tests soon

OpenAI has implemented a robot test for access to Dall-E -- even before a password is required. It makes sense for them to limit login attempts, considering the incentives for people to try to over-use their system. It's probably a sign of things to come more generally online.


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January 26, 2023

News The French connection

A ham-fisted execution of a good intention can be frustrating to people who sympathize with a concern but who cannot defend an overreach or an inelegant declaration. The Associated Press has demonstrated just such an overstep via an update to its widely-used Stylebook. ■ Within reason, it's a good practice to center descriptions of people with their personhood first. Calling people "slaves" makes the unjust condition of slavery the noun, rather than the people. A subtle change -- to "people who have been enslaved" or "enslaved people" -- adds words, but reminds the reader that the subjects are people, not animals or inanimate objects. Dehumanization is essential to the evil of slavery, so anyone who rejects that evil (which should include any right-thinking person) should recognize that using "people" as the noun and "enslaved" as the modifier is a reasonable linguistic accommodation. ■ Centering on particular nouns can go too far. The AP has pronounced, "We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses. And use these descriptions only when clearly relevant." In the case of "people with mental illness", it's probably a reasonable accommodation -- recognition of their very personhood has mattered a great deal to their treatment, both in the past and in the present. ■ But "the French"? Under what possible set of conditions could it be considered "dehumanizing" to call the people of a nation by the name they have chosen for themselves? It's not like calling Germans "Huns" in the First World War. "The French" is a demonym; nothing more, nothing less. There's no dehumanizing connotation to it. ■ Should writers be careful how broadly they paint with any brush that describes large groups of people? Certainly. But it is a huge jump from categories of people whose treatment has all too often been defined by how others have deliberately or even unintentionally dehumanized them (like "the disabled") to people who made choices to join a group ("the college-educated") or who are members of a human nation. Care should always be taken with the language: Words matter. ■ But over-extending a good intention so much that it contorts the language into absurdity risks causing people to miss the point entirely. The difference between a medicine and a poison is often in the dose. Writers, too, need to know when to stop themselves before going too far.

News Entitlement questioning

Those who haven't worked in public-facing occupations may not realize just how unbelievably entitled some people feel. But even those with a lot of practice may find this one surprising: Someone actually asking the National Weather Service for a forecast specific to a particular stretch of road, 18 hours in advance.

Business and Finance Dotdash Meredith to lay off lots of staff

Between Meredith and Cowles, Des Moines was once a major publishing powerhouse. Times have changed dramatically.


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January 27, 2023

News "Jobs were not created by capitalism"

There's a certain type of blockhead who seems to imagine that "capitalism" is to blame for nearly every challenge in life, or even every shortcoming from a utopian imagination of the world. While it is difficult to launch an intellectually honest refutation of the advantages of market economics, it's possible for a person to hold an authentic opinion that some other type of system is better. What is impossible for a person to do with any intellectual honesty is to make out all the various troubles of life as the exclusive fault of capitalism. ■ Consider the following argument, apparently made in earnest: "[C]an you imagine being a human during the paleolithic age just eating salmon and berries and storytelling around campfires and star gazing ... no jobs no traffic no ads no poverty no capitalism-caused traumas just pure vibes" [punctuation, capitalization, and all other errors from the original]. It's difficult to pack that much fantastical intellectual dishonesty into so few words. ■ There have always been jobs to do, whether the prevailing economic system was capitalism, socialism, feudalism, or hunting-gathering. It has always been that way, because the world has always been a place where scarcity of resources has forced human beings to compete -- with each other, with other living things, and with the forces of nature. "No jobs"? "No poverty"? "Just pure vibes"? Nonsense. ■ Blaming anyone's current lack of comfort on "capitalism" is impossibly dumb, if capitalism is defined (correctly) as the idea that people should freely exchange things of value and be free to quantify those things as "capital". Nothing in history has ever worked so effectively to improve the material condition of human lives as capital-based market economics. Compare South Korea to North Korea. Compare Hong Kong or Taiwan to Communist-controlled China. Compare the historical West Germany to East Germany. ■ Markets don't create the scarcity that people blame for their problems. More than anything, they help to peacefully resolve scarcity. It's nonsensical to rely on the boogeyman of "capitalism" as the reason people don't enjoy "eating salmon and berries and telling stories around campfires". Those are choices, and they are enhanced by the production of more salmon, more berries, and more leisure time. Markets do just that. ■ It's ludicrous, too, to romanticize the past: It was often sickly, painful, and extraordinarily violent. That doesn't mean the present isn't too often full of troubles and violence, but it is vastly easier to make the case for peaceable coexistence when one starts from the premise that each individual owns themselves and the fruits of their own labor, whether produced by the hand or by the mind. If you, your life, and your work are valuable, then you have a right to protect them, and the state has a duty to help you do that. ■ Benjamin Franklin phrased it artfully a quarter of a millennium ago: "Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury therefore produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy & indolent?" ■ Franklin wasn't defending Goldman Sachs when he wrote that; he was identifying a common thread in human nature: That everyone has a hunger to consume, and that it must be satisfied by production. Most alternatives to markets depend upon coercion to get that production done, whether it's the feudal lord compelling work, a Communist government starving 20 million people through forced industrialization, or the chief of a small tribe deciding where and when to hunt. Nothing real in this world comes from consuming "vibes".

Broadcasting What is it you do here?

After a merger of television and radio operations, what would in a sane universe have been named "Vermont Public Media" has dropped the "media" and is going to be called just "Vermont Public". The compulsion to say "we do more than just media" is strong, but at some stage or another, the "we do everything" approach makes it impossible for a name to make sense anymore. The mind knows something is missing from the name, so then it becomes a game: Vermont Public...Opinion? Engagement? Tacos? What is it, and what does it do? Where is the noun?




January 28, 2023

Computers and the Internet Paging Dr. Google

Americans are often quite reasonably frustrated by the endless growth in health-care expenses. It's a problem we sometimes would like to believe is all our own, due to the unusual way that health insurance is handled in this country. But in no small part, what frustrates Americans also frustrates people in other countries -- it just manifests itself differently elsewhere. ■ The root cause is that everyone has an incentive to pursue the maximum available coverage for their own health, and the resources to deliver health care are limited by a variety of real constraints. Take, for instance, the NHS in the United Kingdom: It's widely admired and, generally, free to the user. But demand has exceeded supply quite a lot, to the extent that ambulance response times have stretched to shocking levels, well in excess of the NHS's targets (not to mention patient expectations). ■ And nurses and ambulance staff are going on strike, saying they aren't paid enough. Fundamentally, it is the same problem as anywhere else: Health care is an area of almost uniquely limitless demand, and somewhere along the line, that demand runs up against some kind of limitation in supply. ■ High technology often doesn't help the supply side as much as intuition suggests it should, but we may be on the cusp of something new -- if and only if the regulatory and professional environments are prepared to accommodate the possibility. ■ Consider this possibility: For as much as medical professionals criticize patient reliance on "Dr. Google", it seems inevitable that self-service diagnostic tools built on AI platforms and delivered by credible providers will be offered as alternatives to urgent care and walk-in clinics, perhaps at kiosks in drugstores and grocery stores. Lots of tests require facilities (like the ability to draw blood) that most people don't have at home, but which could be provided in fairly frictionless ways at establishments already connected to health care. ■ A human professional would probably still need to review and sign off on the diagnosis, but most of the heavy lifting would be automated. Just as AI is already showing up in radiology, so too could it have a lot to contribute elsewhere in medicine. But a human's guidance still makes enormous sense, just as it remains logical to keep human pilots in the cockpit even though autopilot can fly a plane by wire. Humans working in concert with computers are better than either working alone. ■ The trends involved are so powerful that the helping hand of automation seems impossible to ignore. Between known workforce shortages in the medical field, the quest for cost containment, and the rising health demands of an aging population, all of the pressures causing troubles now are set to make things worse unless there is some kind of fundamental change to the systems of provision. More burnout is unfortunately likely to beget even more burnout. ■ We're already growing familiar with telemedicine. Like a lot of other things, it was forced on a lot of people due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but now it seems far less unusual or far-fetched than it once did. Medical care driven mainly by machines -- call it automedicine -- is almost certainly coming fast behind. It's up to lawmakers to start thinking right now about what "automedicine" will need to look like. If the people in state legislatures and the halls of Congress don't appear to be up to the task, then perhaps patients need to consider the consequences.




January 29, 2023

News Use your words

Despite its occasional lapses into the ridiculous, the AP Stylebook serves a useful purpose. As a guide for journalists in newsrooms all over North America and beyond, it creates a set of rules that resolve the inevitable conflicts posed by a complex language like English. In standardizing and, to an extent, codifying the use of language, the AP Stylebook makes it possible for people with different backgrounds to find common agreement about what they're discussing. ■ Even when we disagree with others, it's important to have a common base of language from which to differ. That's a value that has become harder to recognize as more and more written conversation takes place not in centralized locations, like Associated Press news articles, but across the vast reaches of the unregulated Internet. ■ On one hand, it's a wonderful thing that so many individuals have basically unfettered access to their own "printing presses". But the absence of a common set of standards for how words are to be used makes it difficult for people to come to reasonable conclusions about the debates that inevitably emerge. ■ Conducting heated debates without open agreement about the rules of the language is like debating the speeds of race cars without resolving the units of measurement first. If one person is using miles per hour, another is using kilometers per hour, and a third chooses meters per second, there's no way they can reach an understanding on the merits. ■ No single source needs to have a monopoly on setting the standards for language, but it would be useful if people could identify themselves based upon the stylebooks to which they adhere. The New York Times has a stylebook. US News, too. There's a Washington Post version, and a [University of] Chicago Manual of Style. Or one could consult the BBC News Style Guide or The Economist Style Guide, for an overseas flair. ■ The point is that it's too easy to talk past one another when we don't even agree on what words are supposed to mean. Dictionaries can only go so far, saying little or nothing on important matters regarding connotations, weighted language, and the boundaries on appropriate use. Those just aren't the kinds of conflicts that Merriam-Webster can resolve. ■ But it would be useful if people could come to common agreement about what they mean by things like "capitalism" or "socialism", "public health" and "balanced budgets", "democracy" and "authoritarianism". What we need is not one style book for the Internet age, but a few of them, all of which could compete with one another for legitimacy. ■ And the more that people adopted them openly, the more legitimacy they would obtain. Lots of people try to signal some of what they mean with their words by identifying with a party or a creed in their social-media profiles, but it might do more good if they'd only tell the rest of us which stylebook they're using.


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January 30, 2023

Science and Technology Greener spaces

National Houseplant Day (January 10th each year) doesn't have the same cachet as most holidays. It's not even a close second to Arbor Day, which is big enough to have its own foundation. But it might be time to consider not just appreciating houseplants for their aesthetics, but expecting a little more work from them, too. ■ While it appears true that plants are capable of extracting volatile organic compounds from the air, their capacity is limited. Most of the successful experiments with using plants to improve indoor air quality have been just that: Experiments. And while the evidence has pointed in the right direction, the problem is one of scale. The houseplants we have now just don't work through enough air to act as indoor air purifiers. ■ Yet a few other things are clear: Trees are big enough to do the job of phytoremediation, removing hazardous chemicals from the soil and water. Lots of people already are predisposed to believe that houseplants can purify indoor air. And it appears possible to genetically engineer plants to do more detoxification than they might without human help. ■ Perhaps what we really need is some innovation to bring together some of that genetic engineering along with interior design and architecture. Green walls aren't particularly commonplace, but there's no reason they couldn't be, if given the right aesthetic and maintenance characteristics. And what about ceilings? What if, in place of popcorn ceilings, builders installed green ceilings composed of plants that would require minimal maintenance? ■ Ceiling space is mostly wasted today, and usually have to be treated so that they perform some acoustic deadening. Tiny houseplants -- or maybe even their rootless cousins, the mosses -- could, hypothetically, be optimized through hybridization or genetic modification to perform always-on, energy-free air purification. ■ Maybe it seems unlikely now -- but it also would have seemed unlikely just a short decade or two ago that we would be building our indoor habitats to feature giant, feather-light televisions and gigabit-speed wireless Internet connections. Some of the same energy and creativity that has gone into making consumer technology better might be put to good use making consumer biotechnology better, too. If walls and ceilings could be making life healthier, shouldn't someone be thinking about trying?




January 31, 2023

Business and Finance Taxed enough? Not yet, apparently.

Americans like our acronyms a little too much. We like them so much that people often contort themselves to instill a word with meanings by creating retroactive acronyms ("backronyms", in the words of some). ■ When it was new, the "Tea Party" movement adopted its name in honor of the Boston Tea Party. Later, people retroactively instilled the word "Tea" with a backronym: "Taxed Enough Already". ■ While the movement itself went through a predictable life cycle and has mainly been subsumed into other identities, the "taxed enough already" attitude has persisted. Unfortunately, this is entirely untrue. If anything, the American public is plainly not taxed enough already -- certainly not enough to cover the costs of the things we demand that our elected officials deliver at the Federal level. ■ States and local governments are different: Without the power of the printing press, they're forced to observe a lot more fiscal discipline than Congress is. Virtually all of the states have balanced-budget requirements. Not so at the Federal level, where the budget deficit is a trillion dollars. ■ Accumulated deficits result in debt, which is now at more than $31 trillion. And because the government has a statutory debt ceiling, we're in a dangerous political spot: Congress has already run up the spending, and now it has to account for the fact that deficits create debt, and the world expects us to pay for what we borrow. ■ Reasonable people can disagree about particular spending choices, but it's plain that the far right wing is daffy when it claims we can fix the deficit by cutting discretionary spending (we cannot; the biggest spending categories are basically untouchable entitlements), and the far left is nuts when it claims that we just need to tax "millionaires and billionaires" more (most tax revenues come from ordinary people paying income and payroll taxes, and there aren't enough of "the rich" to soak enough to make up the gaps). ■ There's nothing wrong with persistent budget deficits of a small amount that remains less than the rate of economic growth. We could easily get by with a Federal deficit of 1% or 2% of GDP, especially if some of that spending goes towards productive activities that could enhance economic growth, like building infrastructure. It's the chronic habit of overspending by 5% of GDP that gets us into trouble. ■ And we need to keep some borrowing capacity in reserve for occasional surprise events that require emergency spending -- like wars and pandemics. An emergency is no time to get stingy, especially if the consequences could be existential. And we have been faced with more than a couple of those emergencies, even in recent memory. ■ Nobody wants to admit it, but the truth is that we either have to radically reel back what we expect from our government, or we need to show the maturity to realize that there isn't a magical pot of gold at the end of any rainbow, just waiting for us to raid it. Persistent (and preferably accelerating) economic growth is the best possible way to put our debt to rest, but that growth will be badly threatened if we don't demand an adult resolution to the problem. ■ The debt exists because the deficit already created it. We need to pay what we owe, then set about correcting course and talking about our budget like adults. And unfortunately, we have shown by our voting choices that we are not quite taxed enough, regrettably.




February 1, 2023

News

If you wish to have less of an undesirable thing, then the prudent course of action is to study its causes and then work methodically to mitigate or eliminate them. Hospitals conduct morbidity and mortality conferences when things go wrong for their patients. Coaches review the game films from their losses. Toyota popularized the "Five Whys" technique at performing root-cause analysis on manufacturing defects. ■ The methods may vary, but the shared point is the commitment to uncovering the causes of undesired outcomes so that they can be addressed. And when done thoroughly and professionally, the process can have significant effects. It should be a matter of considerable pride, for instance, that commercial air travel has become radically safe by comparison with other means of transportation. Improvements in air safety are at least partly attributable to the investigatory work of the NTSB. ■ The National Transportation Safety Board exists to seek out the root causes of transportation incidents so that they, too, can be eliminated. It is crucial to note that the NTSB "has no authority to regulate, fund, or be directly involved in the operation of any mode of transportation". Its mission is strictly to investigate and make recommendations, entirely independent of any other agency of government. ■ The Fifth Amendment says that "No person shall [...] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Yet hundreds of people are killed by police in the United States each year. In some cases, there is little doubt that the actions of law enforcement were necessary and prudent: A man firing a rifle inside a Target store is a clear and present danger to others, and swift action is plainly justified. ■ But other cases -- like the killings of Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean -- are different entirely. In general, it should be uncontroversial to believe that as few people as possible should die in the process of law enforcement, on either side of a badge. ■ If anyone at the Federal level of government were truly serious about reducing the number of civilians killed by police, then they would work to stand up an NTSB-style agency to investigate deaths involving law enforcement. Such an agency would need to be invested strictly with investigatory powers, not prosecutorial ones. It would need to be independent and professional, working solely for the purpose of investigating the incidents and uncovering the causes so that preventable deaths could be eliminated. ■ If politicians at the national level aren't trying to advance the policies that could do something about fixing root causes, then they probably aren't serious about the problem. The basic premise of the Fifth Amendment is clear: The right to one's own life is precious and sacred. Even when a perpetrator is killed under thoroughly justifiable conditions, it remains prudent to investigate how events unfolded as they did and whether anything could have gone differently. The NTSB model has proven itself to the traveling public. It's a model worth duplicating in the line of duty.





February 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Look! Up in the sky!

It probably has something to do with vestigial fears left behind by our evolution up from tiny pre-primate mammals, but the thought of something unknown and potentially hazardous in the sky above our heads seems to terrorize our human minds much more than other threats. These concerns, while not entirely irrational, seem to activate something different and more lively in the human imagination than other threats. ■ Thus, we witness the widespread and loud alarm over the Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the continental United States. Is the balloon a matter for unusual concern? Definitely. It's an unwelcome and illegal provocation. ■ We can be certain that even if the US Air Force doesn't dispatch the balloon, someone on the ground is still going to shoot at it. It won't be smart, and it definitely won't work, but it's practically certain to happen, even if the government deemed shooting it down to be too risky. It's an unfamiliar incursion, and that has snapped Americans to attention. ■ Yet, novelty isn't the only thing that matters. It may be perfectly sensible to be alarmed by the spy balloon, but let some of that alarm also be transferred to other known hazards, like spyware, massive data harvesting, and the intimidation of dissidents abroad (including within the US). ■ There are many other threats that are much more immediately threatening than the spy balloon, as deeply concerning as it is, but it seems to be the "unknown threat overhead" aspect that alarms many of us. And, even if it collects no useful surveillance for China whatsoever, it likely will end up as a net adversarial win. That's because they don't have to produce a weapon, be it kinetic or electromagnetic. ■ China's government merely needs a proof of concept that makes it appear sufficiently plausible that it can penetrate American airspace (and that it is willing to do so) to force the United States to spend a lot of resources on hardening our own infrastructure. The Defense Department has even confirmed taking "additional mitigation steps" against surveillance by the balloon, even while claiming that "it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." ■ Unfortunately, whatever measures are taken, they consume time, effort, and resources. If a car thief is known to prowl your neighborhood, it is relatively cost-free for you to lock your car. But if that isn't deterrent enough, then installing a car alarm, buying a LoJack, mounting surveillance cameras, or building a garage all consume resources that might have gone to better productive uses. Triggering your adversary to spend liberally on new defenses can be an effective military strategy. ■ But Americans shouldn't let ourselves fixate on the specific form of this threat just because it activates that portion of the brain we got from smaller mammals millions of years ago. We should, however, use it as the catalyst for much wider strategic debates about how better to protect our interests domestically, whether in physical space or in the electronic domains. There are plenty of things to be concerned about, and we haven't necessarily given any of them sufficient consideration. Perhaps the response to the spy balloon can nudge us to do better.




February 4, 2023

Computers and the Internet People are easier to hack than hardware

While it's understandable that people who haven't grown up as "digital natives" aren't well-prepared to think with a security-driven mindset, it also isn't a novel concept to expect people in positions of authority, influence, or power to realize that sometimes they need to take steps that others don't. The revelation that the Supreme Court has been operating under lax security standards for internal documents isn't necessarily surprising, but it does demand reform. ■ If bad actors want your data, it's easier to hack your people than it is to hack your hardware. This is a truth with which we need to grapple, and quickly. The evidence is overwhelming -- from the very highest echelons of government -- that people are willing to go around security policies if they believe they are beyond the reach of consequences. Unfortunately, anyone at such a level -- like a President, a Supreme Court Justice, or a high-ranking general -- is exactly the kind of person whose access makes them a desirable target. ■ This is ultimately a whole-of-society problem. If information security isn't treated as a prominent, visible priority at the top of government, then it is unlikely to be taken as a priority by the public at large. And there are consequences: Carelessness may reveal secrets better kept under wraps, and chronic under-investment in the kind of ongoing training that's needed in all kinds of environments is likely if the problem isn't recognized. ■ That, in the end, is what has to happen. There is only so much protection that can be delivered by antivirus software and clever network administration. The low-hanging fruit of information security -- the stuff that can be handled by routers and switches and the like -- has either already been plucked, or could be, given the right incentives imposed by laws and insurance policies. ■ It's the human side that remains woefully under-guarded and vulnerable as a result. It was an exceptionally stupid policy for a former Secretary of State to try to conduct government business through a personal email server out of a preference for "convenience". It was exceptionally stupid for a former President to keep Top Secret documents in a Florida resort property. It likewise is exceptionally stupid for Supreme Court Justices to use unsecured personal emails for sensitive work and leave confidential papers in poorly-controlled spaces. ■ All are part of the same problem: The failure to recognize that in the 21st Century, information really is power. And while it can't be contained perfectly, it can be contained within an acceptable level of risk -- but only if the people involved choose not to make themselves the weakest links in the security chain. So much better can be done, and so much more ought to be expected.





February 6, 2023

Business and Finance Housing super-abundance

America's housing policy goal, such as it may be inferred, has long been expressed as something along the lines of "get as many households into homeownership as possible". The sentiment is ultimately Jeffersonian in nature: "[I]t is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state", he wrote to James Madison in 1785. ■ And so we get the home mortgage interest deduction from income taxes, the homestead exemption from property taxes, and the support of quasi-agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All are major policies driven towards the objective of a house for (almost) every household. ■ But America's chronic problem when it comes to housing is that we treat housing as a financial investment. This is suboptimal behavior for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it probably chokes out investments in much more productive assets. But, fundamentally, we need to acknowledge that if an asset is both disproportionately important to household wealth and extremely hard to subdivide or sell in pieces until a desired future date, then the people owning such an asset will be heavily incentivized to favor scarcity. ■ It doesn't have to emerge from a malicious place to have pernicious consequences. NIMBYism is everywhere, in no small part because people are easily terrified by the thought that the value of their most significant investment could be threatened by the arrival of an abundant competitive supply. Thus homeowners almost chronically oppose any moves that would expand the housing supply: Rural areas decry "urban sprawl", suburbanites oppose increased densities, and urban-dwellers fight developments that would "tax the infrastructure". ■ As no more than a thought experiment, consider this question: How different might things look if the implicit policy preference were not "as many households into homeownership as possible", but rather "at least two domiciles for every household"? In other words, what if the policy were one of an explicit preference for housing super-abundance, rather than one placing maximum value on a single home as a family's largest asset? ■ On the surface, even the concept of "two domiciles per household" sounds a little crazy. But then consider the variety of ways in which this is already, to some extent, a choice some families already make. Some have vacation homes. Some take up time-shares. Some are "snowbirds" who move south for the winter, then back north in the summer. There are families with downtown "crash pads" and full-sized homes in the suburbs. There are "granny flats" and kids living in refurbished basements and college students who are still dependents but live on or near campus for nine months out of the year. And there are so very many campers, trailers, and RVs. ■ A policy expressly intended to prioritize housing super-abundance would have implications for taxation, regulation, and innovation alike. And what a second domicile would look like could vary for every family -- plenty of households have "feet" in two places at once, whether it's because an adult is working on a job remotely, someone in the family is in school far from "home", or simply because there's a lot of time spent visiting Grandma or chasing a traveling athletic team. ■ If we were to prioritize super-abundant housing, then we might see much more incentive for innovation, particularly in the "missing middle" of housing. That, in turn, might attract substantial new producers to the equation. Few Americans realize this, but in Japan, Toyota builds houses. The greater the innovation brought to the supply side of the equation, the better off we would be. More housing overall means more people, overall, in housing.





February 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards When people who should know better choose not to

Robert Reich, a professor at a brand-name university and a former United States Secretary of Labor, tweets: "Egg prices are up 60%. That's absurd. People are paying up upwards of $6 and $7 for a dozen eggs. Why? Corporate greed. Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the US, is raking record profits -- $198 million in its latest quarter. That's a 65% increase from a year ago." ■ It's entirely within bounds to simply say "I think corporations are greedy". Such an opinion would be simplistic and petty, but it's an opinion and everyone's entitled. But it's toxic for someone with notoriety and status (like a former Cabinet secretary) to bark out this nonsense when it's patently untrue. ■ There were big outbreaks of avian influenza in 2022. That's a fact with very clear consequences for the number of laying hens. That population dropped precipitously, from about 393 million in December 2021 to about 366 million in June 2022. Lose 7% of your egg-producing population and you're going to lose a lot of egg production, and that can have big consequences for marginal costs at the store. ■ The public shouldn't stand quietly for the corrosion of public debate by people who absolutely, positively should know better. It's not an overstatement to call it a blow against civilization. Upon taking office in the Cabinet -- and thus in the line of Presidential succession -- Reich had to swear to "bear true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution of the United States, and through it, to the people. His strict obligation to that oath may have expired on January 10, 1997, but he still profits from his recognition as a public figure. ■ He, and everyone in a like position, ought to recognize the public's reasonable expectation that their continued presence in the spotlight as a public figure comes with a continued expectation of "true faith and allegiance" to the Constitution and to the public. It's entirely well and good for people to take interests in subjects beyond their own expertise, and nobody expects a former Secretary of Labor to also be an expert on animal health. ■ But at the very least, one might expect a person whose curriculum vitae includes 58 instances of the word "economy" (in one form or another) to hold himself to a standard of behavior that might befit a person who once held a significant office of public trust, eleventh in the line of succession to the Presidency. And he ought to hold himself to a critical standard of intellectual curiosity such that he would look for an obvious root cause (like widespread animal disease outbreaks) before offering reductionist rallying cries on the Internet. ■ The public deserves serious thoughts from those who position themselves as thought leaders. If that's too much to ask, then those "leaders" ought to keep their idle musings to themselves. Otherwise, it should be their civic duty to be thought-provoking, not mindlessly provocative.




February 9, 2023

Iowa A pillar of the West Des Moines community

A memorial will be held on February 12th to honor Sam Kranovich, who contributed more to Valley High School and to West Des Moines than any reasonable person could quite fathom. When you describe someone as "salt of the earth", you're describing someone like Sam Kranovich. Truly a heart of gold and a selfless pillar of the community he loved. It will take ten highly dedicated people to even begin to cover all the roles he leaves behind.

Computers and the Internet Smartphone adoption in a nutshell

From 20.2% of users in 2010 to 53.6% in 2014 (a majority), then on to 72.2% in 2020 (a supermajority). There haven't been many comparable cases where the timeline on a technology from "early adopters" to "used by a majority" got this compressed.




February 10, 2023

Threats and Hazards What if it weren't China?

A good, if uncomfortable, thought experiment proposed by Christopher Balding, regarding recent events: "Imagine it was a Russian balloon[;] the Galaxy Brain would be having an aneurysm." To the extent that the response to China's balloon incursions would be different if they had been Russian or Iranian or Syrian, it's well worth asking why. ■ Does China get special treatment because of its enormous economic scale? If so, what is the price of national security? Is there a dollar value that could be assigned to the amount of aggression the United States would be willing to absorb before considering the costs too much? ■ Does China get treated differently because it is somehow assumed to be less capable than other countries? If so, then its efforts to demonstrate rapid industrial development and scaling ought to be taken more seriously. China's navy has launched its third aircraft carrier as part of an accelerated development program. (And it should not escape notice that the army and navy of China answer to the Communist Party, not to the citizens.) ■ Does China get some kind of benefit of the doubt because it isn't seen as a nuclear power? Russia may control more warheads, but China has 400 and is trying to more than triple that number within a dozen years. And the country's political powers have shown flagrant disregard for human rights (consider the abuses in Xinjiang), so it's not as though there are principled decision-makers at the helm. ■ Balding's question deserves a robust examination, because if it appears that we're operating from faulty assumptions about the character of adversarial powers, that's a problem we alone can fix. It is solvable, to be sure. But it isn't solvable from the outside. Seeing the world as it is (and not merely as we wish it to be) is a matter of discipline. Just as nobody else can floss your teeth for you, nobody from the outside can force a society to deal with substantive problems in a clear-eyed manner.




February 11, 2023

The United States of America Who's watching SOTU?

In a country of more than 330 million people, fewer than a tenth stopped what they were doing on Tuesday night to watch the State of the Union address, "the second smallest audience for the annual event in at least 30 years", in the words of the Associated Press. ■ It's available for viewing on YouTube anytime, and the full text is online, too. And it's not hard to find commentary on the speech from every corner. C-SPAN has highlight clips. Anyone who wants to be informed about the address can be. ■ But when people comment on the audience size, it's hard to avoid value judgments. A New York Times reporter phrased it, "Just 27.3 million people watched Biden's State of the Union address on television". Putting aside that 27.3 million people is still more than the population of any individual state other than Texas or California, or that it is more than three times the audience for any scripted primetime television program, it's worth considering whether viewing the address is of any importance at all. ■ Calvin Coolidge, who had his own experience with reporting the State of the Union, said to a press conference in 1925, "I would like it if the country could think as little as possible about the Government and give their time and attention more undividedly about the conduct of the private business of our country." ■ Coolidge himself only delivered one State of the Union address in person; he submitted written messages for the rest. And that would be a perfectly fine mode to adopt once again. The Constitution only requires that "He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union". It does not say the message has to be delivered in a speech, nor that it has to be disseminated to the public at large. ■ The State of the Union is, fundamentally, like a workplace report to a supervisor -- after all, Congress is supposed to tell the President what to do, and it reserves the right to impeach and remove any President who doesn't execute. The spectacle that we have come to recognize over the last century is a reflection of a chronic mass confusion about those relative roles. If more than 91% of Americans choose to "think as little as possible about the Government", then that's probably just fine.




February 12, 2023

News What rules us

It seems hard to fathom, but the world will never be as simple in the future as it is today. The same is true for every passing day: Population growth, technological progress, economic advancement, and the relentless expansion of human knowledge conspire to make it inevitable that complexity will be an ever-expanding feature of the human experience. ■ Complexity by itself isn't a bad thing. Most sensible people wouldn't exchange the consequences of our current complexity for the problems of pre-modern life. Dying young, living without antibiotics or food refrigeration, and losing 2 out of every 5 children before the age of five are far worse than dealing with some tougher choices. But increasing complexity does require a conscious approach to decision-making. ■ A complex world calls for better heuristics. Four of them seem like good baselines for both public and private decision-making. ■ Make money. Most people want to earn a good quality of life for themselves and their families. This requires productive activity, and the best way to maximize productive activity is to reward it. Markets aren't perfect, but in general, market-based economies do a better job of that maximization than any other system. As voters, we should select for market-oriented policies, and as individuals, people should seek to do the most of what shows the biggest difference between what other people value and what we have to give up to produce it. ■ Have fun. The Declaration of Independence underlines "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as "unalienable rights". Life and liberty seem obvious enough, but it's worth taking seriously the promise that the pursuit of happiness is a human right. Some people can't help themselves but to be miserable. But they shouldn't bring the rest of the world down -- it is everyone's right to enjoy life. ■ Clean up after yourself. In the process of making money and having fun, it's easy to make a mess. When there are byproducts of human activities -- pollution, costs, impositions on neighbors and outsiders -- whoever creates those byproducts has a duty to clean up. ■ Mind your business. The phrase was applied to the first cent minted in America, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. It's a delightful turn of phrase, reminding people both to "mind your own business" (leaving others, for instance, free to pursue their own happiness), and to tend to what matters, lest time get away leaving important work unfinished. ■ Progress is a long, unfinished marathon. Getting to a better future requires making good decisions along the way. The better the heuristics that guide us, the better the chances of steering towards a desirable future.




February 13, 2023

News It's not an alien threat

The odds are slim to none that what the US Air Force shot down over Lake Huron was anything extraterrestrial. The series of unwelcome objects over North American airspace has caught a lot of attention, but it's unlikely to be the opening salvo in a real-life version of the now-classic film "Independence Day". For what should be obvious reasons, that's welcome news. ■ On more than one occasion, Ronald Reagan wondered aloud what would happen if Earth were faced with an alien invasion. He raised it in a 1987 speech to the United Nations: "I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." And he brought it up directly in conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. ■ What Reagan's question -- and our current quandary -- ought to do is concentrate our thoughts on just how unproductive it is to squabble for the sake of scoring petty points when there really are serious threats to peaceful coexistence in the world. ■ A small but noisy band of dopes are very good at promoting division for its own sake among people who generally agree with one another on the biggest issues and differ predominantly at the margins alone. If you're an American living in 2023, you probably agree more with almost any given neighbor of yours about what is basically important than you would even have agreed with any given American of 150 years ago -- long before the 19th Amendment or two essential victories in world wars or the Civil Rights era. Those were character-shaping turning points for the country, and now almost all of us agree without serious question about what they wrought. ■ Yet it isn't hard to find people who want to label people across the aisle as evil. When people spend too much time routinely vilifying those who are merely their political opponents, they diminish the impact of words like "evil". True evil is rare, but it exists. We see it, for instance, in the evidence of first-person responsibility at the highest levels of the Russian government for decades of terrorism against innocent people. That kind of evil should be cursed unflinchingly. ■ For mere "family squabbles" in our domestic politics, we ought to have more grace. Not because our differences don't matter, but because they pale in comparison with the evils that are self-evident around the globe. It shouldn't take the threat of an alien invasion to get us to think charitably of one another.




February 14, 2023

News No time to go wobbly

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaching the one-year mark, it's inevitable that some reflection and reassessment of the cause of Ukraine's defense will come forth. People cannot help themselves but mark anniversaries. In a Washington Post story, unnamed "senior administration officials" leaked their opinions that "We will continue to try to impress upon them [Ukrainian leaders] that we can't do anything and everything forever" and that they have "warn[ed] that the political path will get tougher once Ukraine has exhausted the current congressional package". ■ Given that the administration has been generally supportive of the Ukrainian cause thus far, the leaks are problematic. Earlier in the war, leaks were known to "displease" the President. Thus it's hard to imagine anyone talking quite so far out of school with an outlet like the Washington Post. ■ It undercuts Ukraine's leaders to give the impression that the United States is unprepared to continue vigorously supporting the country's defense with war materiel. What Ukraine has been doing with the assistance of Western arms and training is truly remarkable. But confidence is a resource, too. ■ On matters this important, it's vital for the President to come right out in front and win the argument. The whole free, democratic world needs to be reminded not to go wobbly -- not just Congress. It's the right argument, and it is well worth winning. But clear advocacy is essential. ■ There are plenty of people who are quick to cast the dispute in terms of domestic partisanship. But opposition to involvement in "other people's wars" is nothing new: For proof, read Winston Churchill's book "Their Finest Hour". Churchill candidly depicts his pleading with Franklin Roosevelt throughout 1940 for arms ranging from rifles to destroyers -- items Churchill believed meant life or death for his country as a free state. In Churchill's telling, Roosevelt was willing, but Congress was not. Congress, at that time, was run by a Democratic majority of 262. ■ It is entirely possible for recalcitrant legislators to make partisan arguments about issues like foreign aid. But it is up to the Commander-in-Chief to steer arguments like this one clear of the rocky shoals of party labels. If Ukraine's ability to expel a brutal Russian invasion is ultimately a matter of national security to the United States (and there is abundant evidence that it is), then those are the terms that a President must take to audiences both at home and abroad. And every member of the team must sing from the same songbook. ■ Winning the argument is essential, particularly when allied teamwork is required. Some countries, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, already get that Ukraine's fight is of existential importance beyond its own borders. Others still need to be brought along. History is clear that this is nothing new. If this is no time to go wobbly, then that should be the unequivocal message from the top.

Aviation News Maybe only one UFO was for foreign surveillance

Now the government thinks that three of the four items shot down may have been for commercial purposes. So, shouldn't they have had transponders? If they didn't, why not?

Weather and Disasters A dust storm sweeping across Texas and Oklahoma

A stunning event, and an amazing example of the quality of what we can visualize with satellites in 2023.




February 15, 2023

The United States of America This is what democracy looks like

"This is what democracy looks like!": It's a chant often used by people who gather in the streets to protest, and it's untrue. Democracy looks like a 111-year-old woman who never misses a vote. Democracy is knowing that you won't get everything that you want, but neither will anyone else. It's showing up for the routine act of voting, peacefully and consistently, contributing more and more legitimacy to the system as the individual votes pile up. ■ Sometimes we're too quick to mistake mass activities for democracy. Sometimes, protest gatherings are useful: See the examples of the Selma to Montgomery march or the Maidan protests in Ukraine nearly a decade ago. If democratic channels are unavailable, people may well need to gather to make their voices heard. ■ But when universal suffrage prevails, polling places are secure, and the ballot box is counted fairly, then democracy looks like the individual voter informing themselves and voting their conscience -- many individuals over. The "I Voted" sticker is fun as a cultural artifact, but it's also the mark of a functional system, where people are free to indicate what they want in privacy and without fear of reprisals. ■ We honor the people who sacrificed on behalf of democratic rule when we participate in elections. We should of course honor those who risk or sacrifice their personal safety in order to protect democratic institutions. ■ But self-government isn't guaranteed by the armed forces alone. It's also guaranteed by the legitimacy conferred by mass participation. Susie Lewis, the voter who has showed up for nine decades of elections? She's a hero of democracy.

Threats and Hazards Overhead dangers

Is the Chinese spy balloon situation a cybersecurity threat? Yes, in the sense that it can be seen as a proof of concept. It's a potential platform from which novel forms of attack could be conducted: Airships that evade detection could be used, for instance, to sniff for stray signals and relay that data back to the home country for collection and analysis. Maybe that's not what was being done this time around, but it's a threat we shouldn't dismiss. Moreover, it may mean that domestic facilities in the United States need to upgrade their defenses. For example: Data centers have security fences, but do/should they have hardened roofs, too?


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February 16, 2023

Computers and the Internet "I know Kung-Fu"

After the much-heralded public launch of ChatGPT, it hasn't taken long for people to tune in to other developments in artificial intelligence -- prominently including the soft launch of Microsoft's ChatGPT-based "New Bing", which it bills as a "search experience", rather than a mere search engine. Early adopters are already putting it through stress tests, including an unnerving New York Times review, existentialist crises, and a crash course in writing like Kurt Vonnegut. ■ One of the plot points that earned derision for "The Matrix" was the moment when Keanu Reeves, as Neo, "downloaded" a martial art to his mind and declared, "I know Kung-Fu." The necessary conceit was that, inside the Matrix, the rules of data applied, rather than the rules of physical existence. ■ But it's not such a laughing matter in this real-world launch of artificial intelligence, where a computer can be "taught" to "know" subjects through exposure to what's been published on the Internet. False certainty is the kind of folly that human beings learn not to demonstrate after humiliating themselves in front of others -- think of anyone who becomes a know-it-all after taking a 101-level course in a subject. ■ Feelings like humiliation and the course corrections that come with those feelings are impossible to download. They're human experiences, and deeply organic ones. How could you explain to a digital "being" what it's like to blush? Human beings are mostly our own minds, of course, but no small part of what we learn comes through the corporeal existence. And there's no way to give that to an AI. ■ No matter how clever we get with large language models, part of "learning", as we humans will always understand it, comes through a process. And the process isn't always constructive -- sometimes you have to un-learn something you knew differently before, either through necessity or because the facts themselves changed. That sort of consciousness just isn't going to be replicable within artificial intelligence. ■ That's also why rules are a complicated matter: Everyone knows that some rules are more important than others, and we also know that different rules prevail under different circumstances. There may be Ten Commandments, but there are hierarchies among them, and there are cases when even those commandments come into conflict with one another. Resolving the conflicts is an essential aspect of human experience and intelligence. ■ The people launching artificial intelligence into the world -- even with the best of intentions -- need to be intrinsically aware of the limitations of rules, their ability to institute and document those rules, and to deal with the unavoidable conflicts among them. There's a lot of power at hand, but a whole lot of errors waiting to be made, too.





February 18, 2023

News Modesty of words

One of the best ways to lose an argument is to overstate the case. Certain classes of activists (especially including, though not limited to, many vocal environmentalists) are especially prone to overstatement. Not everything is an "emergency", a "crisis", a "catastrophe", or a "disaster". ■ It's understandable that people can look at a problem and think that it's uniquely threatening -- or that the threat imposes a unique burden directly on them. (Think of the youthful activist berating the world at a climate summit: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.") ■ But in trying to rally other people to share a sense of urgency about this issue or that, escalating to the language of "catastrophe" risks causing a escalatory spiral, in which nothing gets taken seriously unless accompanied by extreme language. ■ Take, for instance, the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. It's a disaster, but exaggerations aren't helping the case. It's quite enough to say that it is a disturbing and damaging event of a scale large enough that it calls for the aid of the Federal government. But it does not help for environmental activists to label it "one of the deadliest environmental emergencies in decades" when that claim is patently untrue. ■ As the economist Todd Yarbrough thoughtfully puts it, "people will interpret hyperbole as dishonesty". That's a truth people of all stripes ought to take to heart: Exaggerations undermine reasonable arguments. They give people who might be sympathetic but skeptical the intellectual wiggle room to retreat to their prior assumptions. ■ A willingness to change one's mind is vital, especially in a self-governing society. But minds aren't changed by overheated arguments screamed from a bullhorn. Often, they're made by appealing to the self-interests of the audience first: In Ben Franklin's words, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason." ■ People may be fooled in lots of ways, but they quite often know both what's "for their own good" and what represents a real threat to that good. And if the person making an argument appears only to believe in it if couched in the language of exaggeration and overstatement, then it's quite often plainly unconvincing to the audience. ■ It's especially unconvincing if the persuasion is intended to compel the audience through shame. "I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him," wrote Booker T. Washington, "and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done." ■ It's a lesson not just for environmental activists, nor just for those making causes from the left. A world filled with many varied and complex problems calls for solution-making through healthy, reasoned persuasion. Modesty of words is a good starting point.

News You're really not "built different"

Human nature is astonishingly consistent over time. Almost anything that gets better about civilization comes from developing better rules and teaching better habits.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft reels back AI-enhanced Bing

Perhaps journalism about AI platforms should include a disclaimer: "This is a pattern-recognition tool and not a sentient organism. Please do not willingly suspend your disbelief." For the good of the reporters as much as the audience. ■ Generally-trained artificial intelligence tools have already gotten defensibly good at writing complaint letters. But in a sense, they're limited by their generality: Too much input exposes the artificial intelligence to bland conclusions and uninspired word choices. But if you could train an AI strictly on the banter from pre-Hays Code movie scripts and then synthesize its voices for radio, it would probably be a ratings powerhouse in morning drive.




February 19, 2023

Threats and Hazards Unfathomable damage in Turkey

The enormous earthquake appears to have leveled an incredible number of buildings, stealing an unspeakable number of human lives. Many of the destroyed buildings appear to have been constructed from masonry and concrete; it's worth asking how structures based on mass timber might have performed in this awful disaster. So many pictures of multistory masonry buildings that collapsed. Was rigidity a factor in the terrible death toll? So much rebuilding that will need to be done; can it be safer? The use of mass timber is still developing, and research on its suitability in seismic events is still limited, but it appears to be worth diligent consideration. Mass timber permits multi-story construction using wood. Turkey is going to need replacement housing, and likely will need a good amount of it to be as tall as what it replaces. Wood and steel appear to be two of the most plausible solutions.

Broadcasting Streaming eats the television world

TV Technology reports: "In total, Americans streamed more than 19.4 million years of content last year, up 27% about 15 million years in 2021." ■ Few things should buttress one's faith in humanity quite like the knowledge that "Bluey" is the #8 most-streamed show in America.




February 20, 2023

Iowa Not every old building is worth saving

A dilapidated house in Des Moines, built in 1890, is up for sale with a sticker price of $47,000. It's listed with this promise: "With the available tax credits, tax abatement, and grants, this property can be affordable." ■ The current assessment on the property is $56,600, of which $25,200 is in the land alone. The building itself is assessed at no more than the value of a new Kia Sorento. And that's just the gross assessment: There's plainly a money pit inside the four walls. ■ Communities really should ask themselves: Are we better off giving people lots of incentives to rehabilitate a house like this, instead of incentivizing someone to demolish it and build a creative, brand-new narrow-lot residence in its place? The existing house is just 16' wide, on a 25' x 125' lot. But small can be beautiful, if approached with creativity. ■ Look, for instance, at the Pfanner House in Chicago, built on an even smaller lot (24.5' x 79'). While it's not conventionally beautiful from the exterior, it's also not offensive. To be sure, it's not bringing down the neighborhood. On the inside, though, it's probably twenty times better than rehabilitating a shabby old house for a similar amount of money. ■ Some old construction certainly is worth reviving and reclaiming from the clutches of decay and entropy. But Americans have to remain proud that we know when to knock over the old and build the new. Old houses have hazards like lead pipes and asbestos. New ones don't. Sometimes "historic preservation" is a worthwhile investment. Other times, it's best to make like a Disney princess and let it go.

Computers and the Internet Don't make a spreadsheet do the work of a word processor

If you're entering more than a sentence of text into any single cell in Excel, you don't need a spreadsheet. That's writing, not calculating. You need a Word document with embedded tables.

Humor and Good News Parenting: You don't know what you're in for

A huge amount of parenthood is dispositional. What seems to matter most are character traits that are good to start cultivating when you're young -- virtues like patience and humility. Curiosity and a little grit don't hurt, either.


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February 22, 2023

The United States of America Hard-working oceans

An observation from Winston Churchill, prior to the United States entering World War II (but long after his own country had become a target of brutal and unprovoked assault): "I am very glad that the army, air, and naval frontiers of the United States have been advanced along a wide arc into the Atlantic Ocean, and that this will enable them to take danger by the throat while it is still hundreds of miles away from their homeland." ■ Clearly, that distance still tenders advantages to the United States today, though not nearly as many as it used to (and not in the same magnitude). Jet travel, satellites in space, and ICBMs do a lot to shrink the oceans. ■ These considerations matter in the world, even at a time decades removed from Churchill's observation. Consider the thought-provoking observation from Dr. John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies: "Putin may be hypersensitive to perceived provocation, but he has demonstrated hyper-responsiveness to perceived license. As the West has pedantically debated what it would not do, his room for destructive manoeuvre has grown." ■ It can be true that we want to avoid instigating conflict by our actions, but also find ourselves opening the door to the escalation of conflict by adversaries. Dithering and equivocation can have consequences, too. ■ Consider the necessarily hard-nosed view of Estonia's prime minister: "Ukraine must win". Estonia is only one among several countries -- particularly those bordering Russia -- with a compelling, existential need to see not just that hostilities cease, but that they cease because Ukraine has won the upper hand with the support of other countries. Estonia has fewer than 1.4 million people, making it smaller than New Hampshire in population. And their border with Russia is 183 miles long, or the distance from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Columbus, Ohio. ■ Estonia and its neighbors don't have the luxury of looking the other way. And while America does have at least some luxury in that regard, we should beware indulging it, no matter what some craven and cowardly members of Congress might want. ■ The oceans aren't as big as they were in World War II -- at least, not in practical effect. But the ambitions of tyrants remain as expansive as ever. That they can evidently be stopped at a cost only of material support and training for Ukraine's armed forces should be seen as the powerful leveraged advantage that it is. Let the oceans work, but remain steadfast in the knowledge that we still sometimes must "take danger by the throat".




February 23, 2023

Health Death at a casino

According to local news reports from KLAS-TV and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a casino patron was left slumped over a blackjack table last April for more than 15 minutes without attention. When someone finally checked on him and discovered he was in cardiac arrest, "Wynn employees then attempted to render him aid with a defibrillator, the lawsuit alleges, but the employees were not trained to use the machine". ■ Unsurprisingly, the incident has made news because the family of the deceased has filed a lawsuit against the casino. If someone experiences a medical emergency and others around them render aid unsuccessfully, that's one thing. It might be a tragedy, but it isn't a cause of action. We have Good Samaritan laws to protect the aid-givers for just such reasons: Sometimes, the aid just isn't enough. That's life (or death, such as the case may be). ■ But it is another problem altogether if people haven't been prepared with even the most obvious of training protocols. This is a problem both at a population level and at the very specific site level. ■ Ideally, any group of five people anywhere should contain at least one person trained in CPR and the use of an AED. If you don't have the two hours or so required to take the full course, you can watch the American Heart Association's video crash courses in less than three minutes. ■ That there wasn't a single competent person anywhere in the gaming area of a Vegas casino screams of gross neglect. Many actually talk the user through the process from start to finish, so the amount of actual training required is practically nil. A reasonably competent 12-year-old could operate an AED -- which is the entire point. Lack of training in a high-traffic place of public accommodation is inexcusable. ■ Perhaps it will be found that the aid rendered was competent. Perhaps a court case will uncover that the employees had, in fact, been adequately trained. The public does need to realize that people often freeze in an emergency, so even people who have been trained in providing assistance may find themselves paralyzed by the moment. That's exactly why the ideal circumstances call for having the highest possible level of training among the population at large: If half the people are going to freeze in the moment, then twice as many people need to be trained. ■ It might be even worse than that: One paper concluded that only 10% to 15% of people react with calm and quick thinking in an emergency. The good news, though, is that those numbers can be enough, as long as enough of them are ready, willing, and able to do what's required. ■ Most every decent person should be willing to help in an emergency, and even under the worst of assumptions, at least one in ten ought to prove mentally "ready". So the problem to be faced -- for all of us -- is how to ensure that the maximum possible number are able. And if you're operating a place where the public visits in large numbers, society has a very reasonable expectation that you'll do your part to invest in maximizing those abilities.




February 24, 2023

Water News Bad water killed three Presidents

The EPA is touting the availability of $2.4 billion for infrastructure projects under what is known as the "Clean Water State Revolving Fund". The fund primarily goes towards loans and loan guarantees for work on pollution control programs and the construction of wastewater treatment plants. Nothing about that sounds particularly catchy or attention-grabbing, and that reflects a pretty serious shortcoming in the way we approach those sectors. ■ The agency performing the distribution is the Environmental Protection Agency. But it's a real failure -- of branding as well as of persuasion -- to categorize water treatment as an environmental issue. The plain fact is that we don't treat wastewater for the good of trees and fish. We should spend our resources on that work because it is a lifesaving health measure. ■ Consider this Presidents' Day fact: William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor all likely died from drinking contaminated water -- in the White House! Legend has long had it that Harrison's demise was the result of pneumonia, contracted when he gave a long-winded Inaugural Address without a coat in the cold and rain. ■ The speech was exhaustingly long, to be certain. But the truth is probably worse than the legend: Harrison was probably killed by his drinking water. And because the same problems persisted at the White House, bad water probably killed Polk and Taylor, too. ■ As a society, we don't treat water -- either before or after people use it -- for the good of "the environment". We do it to protect and preserve public health. Period. End of story. Contaminated water probably kills half a million people annually worldwide. And it sickens millions more who don't die, but who still suffer. When you hear about natural disasters like earthquakes, the initial trauma is often deadly -- but so is the subsequent exposure to unsafe water. It's a grave but underappreciated risk in quake-stricken Turkey right now. ■ Misdirected branding like "environmental protection" doesn't help the situation. Nor, really, does a mislabel like "wastewater". It's not wasted -- it's been used by human beings, and what we should do is call it "unwell water". Something that has become unwell needs to be healed, and that's exactly the case with water that has been used by human beings. Once it has been made "well" again, then it is safe for people to encounter. "Waste" suggests that a thing goes away, but water doesn't do that -- whether in the White House in the 1800s or in Turkey or Syria today, unwell water finds its way back to people's mouths. ■ All water is recycled, and forever will be. Once we acknowledge that fact, it becomes imperative to think of it not as something that goes to waste or that retreats back to nature, but as something to be healed for our own human health. And once you start to think in those terms, then $2.4 billion in spending (or about $7 per American) seems like very little indeed. We may not agree on how to value "the environment", but surely our health is worth more.





February 26, 2023

The United States of America Kids these days

In 1991, 42% of high school students had been in a physical fight in the preceding 12 months. That number decreased a bit, but was still above 35% by the end of the 1990s. By 2019, the figure had fallen dramatically -- all the way down to 21.9%. ■ Any reasonable person should be perfectly happy to see that number fade to zero. The decline in fighting is a cultural improvement and a clearly self-evident good. There are better ways to solve the petty disputes of adolescence than by engaging in fistfights. ■ But no small number of people have been on the receiving end of bullying or schoolyard aggression and have consequently been motivated to study one of the many available arts of self-defense. ■ In adulthood, everyone with self-defense training and a sense of decency is (almost certainly) a net asset to the society around them. The ability to apply just and necessary force to protect one's self or others from harm is an important one to cultivate. ■ Ideally, people would be motivated to undertake those studies without the world forcing the issue. But self-defense is a lot like donating blood: Many people get into it because they've been exposed to a crisis of some sort. They learn first-hand that they can do something to keep from feeling helpless. ■ So how do we motivate people to do the work required to learn how to defend themselves and others if the risk doesn't seem real? In general, it's great if there isn't as much casual fighting going on in high schools as there was a generation ago -- but the adult world is still often dangerous. Violent crime in general is, like teenage fighting, down by something like half since the early 1990s, but it's still not at zero. There is still considerable value in knowing how to fight back. ■ More consequentially, we need to ask: How do we ingrain in young people a sense that force, strength, and power have to be coupled to duty and responsibility? And how do we ensure that they learn that sometimes duty calls for using force in a just and responsible manner? ■ If these things aren't taught together, we risk ending up with a world where people overreact to perceived threats and panic because they haven't been indoctrinated in the principles of proportional response and don't feel equipped to protect themselves. ■ It's indisputably good to see routine schoolyard fighting becoming much less routine. But when part of the culture changes for the better while other problems remain, it calls for a conscious approach to ensuring that important lessons don't get lost along the way.

Threats and Hazards Ukraine's ministry of defense says 147,470 Russian soldiers have been killed

If there really have been 147,000 deaths among Russian soldiers, that's more than one fatality for every 1,000 people. No matter how tightly a government controls the flow of news, it gets hard to hide losses that significant.

Broadcasting The spoken word is alive and well

US listeners increased their podcast downloading by 20% in 2022, per a report from a digital-marketing firm. Those who listen give podcasts almost four hours of their time every week, which may not seem like a lot at first -- but it's listening that goes directly into the ear (usually through an earbud) and is almost always intentional. There's a lot of value in that kind of encounter with an audience.

Weather and Disasters Watch the birth of a tornado

(Video) Harrowing to watch, but it contains great examples of both horizontal rainfall and a nighttime tornado from a very, very short distance away. The scientists knew things could turn bad in Oklahoma City -- probabilities for damaging winds were even higher than for the December 2021 derecho that hit Iowa.

Humor and Good News Peter Max on everything

A small selection of inexplicably-branded products from the 1970s serves to reinforce a good rule in life: If you find yourself at the crest of a pop-culture wave, SELL OUT. Peter Max, the artist, is still alive -- but his work isn't being used to sell antiperspirant, bras, or sneakers anymore.




February 27, 2023

Weather and Disasters Storm surveyors need to show discretion

The proliferation of high-quality drones and the insatiable demand for new video content have converged in a way that may sometimes encourage people to intrude on lives disrupted by severe storms in ways that weren't possible in the past and aren't really decent now. Drone operators ought to consider the possibility that, if someone's house was damaged by a storm and valuables were subsequently taken from the premises, they might well have a case against anyone who published video of the exposed property (if at an identifiable level) as an aider and abettor to theft. ■ Particularly since it's so easy to reward content creation via "tip jars" and other methods offering ways of covering tracks, the distinct possibility exists that some bad actors are out there already recording the consequences of storm damage in ways that could reveal the existence of valuable property in exchange for payment. Whether it's happening already or not, it isn't hard to imagine. ■ Even conventional, legitimate news coverage of storm damage is offered in uncomfortably high definition, and when conducted from the sky (rather than on the ground, with the express permission of the property owner), it can tread dangerously into the territory that looks like scoping the neighborhood. ■ Something of our better judgment and discretion ought to pull us back from the full scope of the possibilities offered by technology, to say that just because we can show the impact of a disaster in granular detail doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do. ■ It is important to discuss the full range of consequences following a natural disaster, in terms of both life and property. But just as some worthy thought has been put into researching how best to communicate the risk of storms before they arrive (taking into account how the public responds to official messaging), so too should social science be brought to bear on how we communicate the consequences of natural disasters. ■ It's worthwhile to elicit empathy for those affected, and to enlighten the public so that they can appreciate the consequences as conscientious taxpayers and thoughtful voters. But disaster voyeurism purely for its own sake as an instrument of shock isn't good for anyone.

Business and Finance Better Business Bureau doesn't like funny beer ads

A self-appointed advocacy group within the BBB says Miller Lite shouldn't compare its rivals to water. The ad is funny and it's pretty uptight to claim otherwise.

Humor and Good News A pregnancy announcement for the ages

(Video) The very funny Julie Nolke reveals a real-life pregnancy in a sketch where she visits with her reflection in the mirror. It's quite charming, really.

Humor and Good News The spork

The spork is the El Camino of utensils. It doesn't know which of two completely different things it wants to be, so it just gives up and does a bad job of both, while generally scaring small children in the process.


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March 2, 2023

News Good riddance

After he recorded and published an appalling rant filled with racist sentiments, a well-known cartoonist has found himself dropped from newspaper pages nationwide and cancelled by his syndicate. While these are appropriate consequences for his actions, they raise another problem to the surface. ■ As newspapers have contracted (both physically and in staff counts), daily editorials have begun to vanish. Gannett has made that a policy. Lee Enterprises has consolidated some days of the week. Even the New York Times has begun editorializing only once every few days. ■ There was a time when even local television and radio stations broadcast their own institutional editorials. That hardly happens at all anymore. And it's a shame, because institutions -- especially the ones that describe the world for their audiences -- ought to be consistent and transparent about where their values stand. ■ An institution always has values, whether they are made explicit or not. They're unavoidably embedded in the decision-making process. Better to be clear about them than not. And far better to be clear long in advance of a crisis created by someone associated with the institution -- like a cartoonist on a pathetic rant. ■ Values evolve over time. That's OK, but part of the continuity of any institution is bound up in explaining what changed: The facts? The interpretations? The whims of ownership? The social habits of the editor-in-chief? Was the old reasoning faulty, or was it simply limited by the prevailing conditions of the time? ■ Newspaper readers (and indeed all media audiences) deserve to be advised of changing values and opinions, especially since they invariably influence coverage. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise: Limited resources put constraints on coverage, and navigating those constraints is an act driven by judgment and values. ■ Frequent editorials also help to make clear whether news coverage is active or reactive. Are the editors trying to see around corners, or are they just waiting to respond to whatever events they cannot avoid? Better the former than the latter. Had some been looking more carefully, they might have realized sooner that one of their syndicated cartoonists had long been playing with fire. ■ It's good to see institutional responses that expel racism. That's good riddance. But this incident reveals why it's important to hear from the editors all of the time, not just in the event that their hands are forced by the need to cut ties with a prominent bad actor. Consequences like those should be obvious because the values driving the decisions should be obvious as well. ■ The landscape for jobs in conventional media remains awful, and that means some people -- perhaps many -- will be let go without any regard for their performance, whether in print, on the air, or online. The choices that drive who stays and who goes are also inevitably driven by values, and those ought to be made explicit, too. Sometimes, those will involve what might be called "bad riddance" -- choices made against expected values. The fewer of the choices to cut ties come as surprises -- whether for good cause or not -- the better.


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March 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Turning points

The words are spicy, but the observation is accurate: "We used to think Russia was the second-best military in the world, and now it's not even the best military in the former Soviet Union." Dr. Kori Schake, who directs the foreign policy branch of the American Enterprise Institute, not only has a way with words; she has a way of seeing the principled order of things. And that order in the eastern half of Europe is changing. ■ In the future, we'll likely regard the period of Russia's terrible war on Ukraine as the turning point when the other Slavic nations decisively divorced themselves, both politically and culturally, from the Russian branch of the broader Slavic identity. In the process, we will someday see this as the turning point when those nations asserted a real, long-denied equality as Europeans. ■ It's obvious how the war is changing Ukraine itself. But it's not merely a political assertion of its right to exist, it's a cultural one. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was raised at a time when the Soviet Union imposed the Russian language on Ukraine, now refuses to treat it as a primary language of his own. ■ Observers note this as Ukraine's "consolidation" as a "civic nation". And The Economist headlines it, "making Ukraine a Western country". ■ But it's not just Ukraine; it's what the rest of the Slavic world sees, and what the world beyond acknowledges. Throughout the Soviet era, the other nations of Eastern Europe were widely ignored, underappreciated, or disrespected. The USSR looked dreary, and it was too easy to assume faults in those countries that were not indigenous to them. They were involuntarily yoked with a bad system, not inherently backwards. ■ As Ukraine's identity is being reassessed, so too are others. Moldova is rejecting Soviet-era impositions on its language. The Czechs just elected a vocally pro-European Atlanticist as president. Poland has been leading Europe's response from the front. ■ Political independence for these countries may have happened on paper a generation ago, but now they are staking claims to cultural and historical identities long denied not just by Russian imposition, but by disinterest or neglect by the rest of the world. The changes are big and they are noteworthy. And the world more generally will be better off for them.

News Japan doubles its official island count

14,125 is the new official total; it was 6,852 before.

Health What do Iowa and New Mexico have in common?

Possibly their largest non-profit health systems. UnityPoint Health and Presbyterian Healthcare Services say they may merge.

News Over the bridge

(Video) A police chase in Minneapolis ends up with a car going over a bridge railing

Business and Finance Soft socialism meets machine washability

ABBA wore wild costumes because that was the only way to deduct the clothing from their taxes




March 4, 2023

The United States of America Union forever

Some people argue with such unapologetic bad faith and on behalf of such outrageously bad ideas that it seems more satisfying to dismiss them out-of-hand than to rise to the argument. But, for as viscerally satisfying as it may be to point and laugh at those we think are making fools of themselves, every good thing worth keeping deserves to be defended on its merits. ■ In the case of the rancorous and disingenuous notion of dividing the United States, it seems almost ridiculous to try to meet the question on the merits. But we cannot avoid the fact that a sitting member of Congress is openly advocating a split, and even if her attitude is treasonous, the idea of union among the American States is important enough that it deserves to be won on its merits. ■ "Union Forever" isn't merely an echo from Lincoln's time. It is no small triumph that a nation of more than 330 million people has been perpetuated and grown to act as a gigantic free trade zone, with freedom of movement across an entire continental nation. ■ That's truly an extraordinary achievement in human history. And its growth has been overwhelmingly organic -- say what you will about the motivations behind the Louisiana Purchase, the purchase of Alaska, or the annexation of Texas, but most of what is recognized as the United States today wasn't brought in by force. ■ And what has been joined into union has become extraordinarily peaceful and productive. The time, the effort, and the negotiations required to achieve even bilateral free trade agreements between countries or even a minimal amount of freedom of movement is really quite extraordinary. It took the European Union enormous effort to develop the Schengen Area, despite peace and common interest. ■ For the United States to have achieved freedom of movement and freedom of trade among one out of every 25 people alive on the planet, merely by the organic maintenance of the Constitutional rule of law, is really extraordinary. ■ To undervalue those freedoms is to make a colossal misjudgment about the value of human organization. Freedom of exchange and freedom of movement are landmark achievements in the course of human history. They make the people who engage in them better off. ■ To be able and pick up and move because of job availability, or to move away from chronic natural disasters, or to to take advantage of attractive laws or incentives, or merely to "start over", is the kind of thing that people dream about in many other parts of the world even today. And in the course of human history, to take that kind of freedom for granted is an act of ignorance and ingratitude. ■ People have chosen the United States to escape famine, to escape oppression, and for countless other reasons. ■ But once here, they have been free to move about, to specialize in any of our considerable economic sectors, and to live generally in peace and mutual tolerance. Our many advantages as a country would fall apart, even if we split into parts that could work amicably with one another. Free-trade agreements are nice, but it's better for California and North Carolina to be able to trade without needing any treaties at all. ■ Part of a democratic system of government is that none of us gets everything we want, especially not at the national level. But anyone who fails to see the advantage in accepting a few political policy inconveniences in exchange for the much broader power of those freedoms is simply being unserious about the value of union. Union has been achieved peacefully so few times and in so few cases throughout history that it should be self-evident that the only sensible thing to do is to maintain and cultivate it. To be so fortunate and to take that good fortune for granted is a disposition that doesn't make any sense. Union forever, indeed.




March 5, 2023

News Cheap tricks

It comes as no surprise that a politician known for his lowbrow instincts is workshopping denigrating nicknames for his opponents as the 2024 Presidential cycle approaches. But there is a lesson to be learned from the recent past: It is absolutely not necessary to repeat the denigrations in order to report on the subject. ■ This reminder should be taped to every journalist's laptop and locked on every one of their smartphone screens: Every time you repeat a nasty nickname or a disingenuous turn of phrase -- even if you think you're merely mocking the nastiness yourself -- you're granting it a tiny little sliver of legitimacy. You don't have to do that. You really don't. ■ It's not just a lesson for journalists and commentators, of course. If the "social" part of "social media" means anything, then it is by every small act of engagement that ordinary users confer their own legitimacy on what is being said. And we can withhold that legitimacy by choosing not to take part. ■ Politics in America has always been something of a full-contact sport. Partisans on Thomas Jefferson's side in the 1800 Presidential campaign blasted John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." It's always been rough-and-tumble. ■ But it takes a certain kind of laziness to merely transcribe insults and call it journalism. Quoting the insult legitimizes it. When a child calls another "Fatso" or "Dummy" on the playground, no competent teacher repeats the insult unless expressly necessary. ■ The central fact of an insult is what it says about the party expressing it. And if the only idea a person has available to express is a cartoonish insult, then they don't really have anything to say that is worth reporting.





March 7, 2023

Weather and Disasters Seeing the future

The quality of severe-weather forecasting in the United States really doesn't get the widespread credit it deserves, at least not yet. Too many people, perhaps still recalling the days not that long ago when those forecasts were decidedly low-resolution, still complain about weather forecasting as though it remains little more than guesswork. ■ But the proof to the contrary can be found by tracking the evolution of forecasts around several recent severe outbreaks. Maps four days ahead of the March 2nd storms in Texas gave a very good picture of the risk with literally days' worth of time to prepare. Other outbreaks have been similarly well-predicted. The combination of accuracy with precision has literally life-saving power. ■ What's perhaps paradoxical about the improvement in weather forecasting is that it has not been matched by improvements in other kinds of mathematical forecasts. The best forecast we can get from the Federal Reserve about the economy right now is language like "likely to be bumpy". Economic forecasting comes with enormous consequences -- many times similar to those of weather forecasting -- but despite the excessive confidence often on display, the forecasts are often wildly wrong. ■ That's likely to remain the case for quite some time, too. Models of physical phenomena (like the weather) can be improved with time and computing power. Much less can be done to improve models about things like human behavior -- which, after all, is what any economy is all about. ■ So, while we should celebrate the growing usefulness of weather forecasts (and take them increasingly seriously as they improve), we also need to apply a great deal of humility to our forecasts about human behavior, whether economic or otherwise. Anyone confidently predicting anything macroeconomic, from "recession warnings" to near-term booms, ought to be kept at arm's length.




March 8, 2023

News Well-adjusted adults wanted

A society does itself no good when it accepts behavioral pathologies as the cost of doing business to get extraordinary performance. That much really should seem self-evident, but contrary examples just pile themselves higher and higher. Whether it's the performing artist with 50 years' worth of prison sentences to serve for crimes against children and other offenses, the billionaire who impulsively feuds with and mocks employees, or the losing politician who salves his wounded ego by selling "retribution" as his brand, we make a giant cultural mistake in elevating people who are guided by their worst impulses. ■ Becoming a decent adult requires effort, yet virtually everyone is capable of rising to the standard. Regrettably, though, some people leverage their shortcomings into perverse advantages; take, for instance, the political liberation that comes with adopting an attitude of shamelessness. People remark about the apparent superpower of shamelessness, but decent people seem ill-equipped to put that pathological behavior back in its place. ■ If someone isn't well-adjusted by the time they reach adulthood, the rest of us don't need to amplify anything they say or do. That's the only effective way to respond. Isolation, silence, starvation of attention -- those are the reactions that serve to put pathological behavior in its place. ■ It can be hard to do, of course. Social media in particular encourages the frequent exercise of the outrage impulse. But the notion of enlarging the gap between stimulus and response is a mighty one for cultivating better behavior. Most animals don't connect events that happen far apart; if you want to punish a dog for stealing a steak off the dinner table, you might swat him on the nose immediately. It would be cruel to delay the punishment and impose it when the animal has no hope of making the connection. ■ But people can choose to wait and to execute on their feelings later on. As Warren Buffett so sensibly puts it, "You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow". It's advice that too many people in high-profile situations still need to learn for themselves. But it's also advice that ought to guide how we -- as a society -- respond to those individuals who refuse to grow into being well-adjusted adults.





March 10, 2023

Computers and the Internet Good helping

One of the true and unvarnished joys in life is to teach another person -- or a group of people -- and to have at least one of them acknowledge that you have managed to solve a problem for them. Classroom teachers get that experience when graduates visit them to say "Thanks". Workplace trainers and presenters get it when someone comes up after a session to say, "I was just dealing with that thing you described". Others get it from having their explanations liked or shared by others on social media. ■ Maybe we should be grateful more often that as human beings, we have an extraordinary capacity to help solve one another's problems. Collaboration itself towards a worthy goal is often quite intrinsically satisfying, and often the greatest satisfaction comes about when there is no remuneration involved. Normal, well-adjusted people often happily stop to give directions to strangers who look lost, or take time out to explain a smarter or safer way to complete a task someone obviously has underway, or write out an online product review without compensation. ■ It has been noted that some of the things that are easiest for computers are hardest for people, and vice-versa. People share memes without a second thought, yet a 2021 paper concluded that "comprehending memes is indeed a challenging task, and hence a major limitation of AI". ■ Perhaps these few ideas which computer science will probably never be able to solve are the very things that will act someday as the kinds of "kill switches" we could need someday to rein in an artificial intelligence tool that has gone rogue. Computers may be able to answer many questions, but it's not credible to believe they can be made to "feel" a sense of satisfaction from solving problems for people. ■ It is widely believed we are living through an unusually epic moment of technological change, but the evidence remains scant that we've truly covered all the bases when pondering the consequences when -- not "if", regrettably -- things go wrong. It may be satisfying to realize that there are some means of communicating and some motivations for working together that are likely to always elude even the "smartest" of artificial general intelligence. In the end, it may be those peculiarities of human existence that save us.




March 11, 2023

Humor and Good News Breaking bread

The arrival of a dreadful airborne pandemic forced countless abrupt changes on society. Some, like the vastly increased accommodation for those who want to work from home, have even ended up as positive outcomes. But for the most part, the changes we made were forced on us rather than deliberate. ■ We ought to take the chance, while people are taking a more conscious approach to their social commitments, to reboot the American dinner party as an institution. It seems evident that the classic events reflected some of the status aspirations of a rising middle class out to consume conspicuously. Mistakes were made along the way. ■ This time around, we ought to look to common dining as a way to enhance community-building. Maybe we need an annual holiday set aside for the practice. It's credible to assume that on a civic level, we're going to need the same kinds of systemic habits and behaviors that may not be able to completely curtail the worst things that can happen in a democracy, but that can make us a little more resilient in the face of challenges. ■ Making conscious efforts to strengthen our bonds with old friends while planting the seeds for new bonds with others seems to be one way to reverse the decline in social trust that has been lamented from so many sides for so long.




March 12, 2023

Business and Finance Good luck, depositors

Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than you imagine. It's a prudent guideline to keep in mind, whether you're unexpectedly stuck in a pandemic or staring down the barrel of a bank collapse. ■ As a matter of prudence, it makes sense to maintain a cheerful outlook while simultaneously observing the Scout Motto: Be prepared. Unfortunately, though, material wealth and social esteem don't always flow in those directions, which is why a small universe of tech-bros, "founders", venture capitalists, and associated folks rack up high audience counts while boasting about themselves through social media. ■ One, for example, has taken to Twitter to announce that he was alerted to panic about Silicon Valley Bank "in one chat with 200+ tech founders". Putting aside how self-important and nauseating that supposed chat certainly must be, it's quite the extraordinary act to implicate one's self in initiating a bank run based upon a rumor mill of dodgy legal status. ■ No banking-related panic is good for society. But perhaps it's also worth observing that narrowly-focused priesthoods can easily get themselves into trouble when they overestimate their capacities. (And make no mistake: There are lots of priesthoods that have nothing to do with religion.) ■ Having one high-demand skill (like coding) or landing some hits in a high-risk market (like venture capital) isn't the same as having high general intelligence. Unfortunately, social reinforcement mechanisms tend to tell successful people otherwise, which is why it's easy to find "angel investors" type-screaming "You're uninformed!" at online passersby and "venture capitalists" trying to cram for "Banking 101". ■ When things go bad in banking, they can go bad in a hurry. That's self-evidently why the FDIC is taking extreme measures. But the consequences will go far beyond deposit insurance limits and also should certainly involve some moral reassessment of people who have made bad choices out of hubris. ■ It's a bad idea for any considerable number of people to choose heroes based upon their willingness to trumpet their own victories and take credit for skill when dealing in matters where luck can and often does prevail. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "As pride increases, fortune declines." ■ Luck isn't everything, but those who mistake their good luck for a superabundance of personal skill are unlikely to be prepared for those moments when luck turns south. And that can happen much faster than people can imagine.




March 13, 2023

Business and Finance Good investing, bad television

Most people don't know very much about investing in general, or about stock valuations in particular. It's widely perceived to be one of those subjects that is "too hard", even though it really isn't. The perception is largely a problem of conflicting incentives: Those who understand the material often have vested interests in making it look hard. ■ Fortunately, the material itself isn't as hard as many of its purveyors make it out to be. And more significantly, success is often far more a product of well-regulated emotions than of raw intelligence. Warren Buffett laid it out quite plainly when he wrote of the "Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville" nearly 40 years ago, and yet his lessons collected then are of scarcely any greater popularity today than they were when Ronald Reagan was President. ■ Unfortunately for many, the truly valuable lessons seem too boring, so instead they turn to where the action and excitement appear to be. And one of those places is on television, where people like Jim Cramer make loud noises surrogating for investing advice. Unfortunately, people take his advice -- like a recent recommendation to buy the stock of the banking company that was taken over by the FDIC over the weekend. ■ Taking advice on investing from the showmen on television is like watching "SportsCenter" to learn about health and fitness. It's just a bunch of action shots, with little or no relationship to the actual discipline required behind the scenes. ■ Conditions would be vastly better across the board if more people fundamentally understood that the basic enduring lessons of investing aren't especially complicated, that success is largely a matter of patience and risk endurance, and that the best formulas for investing success are almost excruciatingly boring. ■ Good financial advice generally makes for bad television. Louis Rukeyser knew how to deliver it right, but he was a rare talent, and even then, his style was cut loose by PBS two decades ago. But it would do us a lot of good to realize that excitement ought to be chased in places where the stakes are low -- like on the baseball diamond -- and not in the retirement plans of ordinary Americans.






March 16, 2023

News Be all you can be

The Sergeant Major of the Army has relayed a veteran's story of being rescued from mortal danger by a helicopter pilot who went above and beyond the call of duty -- by firing a personal weapon out the open door of the aircraft after exhausting the rest of her ammunition. ■ The pilot's pronoun, of course, is what makes some people angry. There remain lots of armchair generals who think that large ranges of people should be excluded from lots of military service, including combat roles. They are often from the same realms as those who fantasize about the purported masculine superiority of the Russian army or who complain about even the most modest steps to promote inclusion among the profession of arms. ■ There is little defense for the exclusionary position. Vignettes like the helicopter pilot with alternative weaponry should alone be enough to dismiss categorical arguments for keeping all but the "manly men" out of the military. But so should a basic resort to logic: Even if all that mattered were brute hand-to-hand combat, sheer muscle size and masculinity wouldn't be enough. ■ There are lots of diminuitive martial artists who could neutralize people much larger than themselves, merely by using smarter techniques. And modern warfare is really no different, in the sense that it's only quite rarely a matter of raw physical strength. It's far more about finding creative, smart, and imaginative people who can solve problems in clever ways, rather than in those that are most costly. And any force that would exclude half its potential brains by prohibiting women would be insane.




March 17, 2023

Humor and Good News Craic the case

Once a year, Americans from all walks of life take a day to celebrate a day made famous by the Irish immigrants who made a particularly large impact on the culture of the country with their arrival in the second half of the 19th Century. For one day, Irish (and particularly Irish-American) culture is celebrated -- with enthusiasm, even if without much authenticity. ■ Perhaps a purist could get uptight about labeling the behavior a form of cultural appropriation, but much of the effect of the day is a consequence of the ways in which Irish immigrants assimilated (incompletely) into American society. ■ But behind the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons and somewhere beyond the green-tinted beer, the thoughtful observer could pinpoint at least a few legitimate cultural touchstones worth a nod: The celebration of gathering with friends for its own sake (craic), of great storytelling (a tradition from a homeland and a culture that punch far above their weight in the world of literature), and of bringing cheer through song and dance, parades and fundraisers for charitable causes. ■ The Irish tradition gets a second look in America in a way that other cultures don't. Columbus Day has been dealt an uncomfortable reckoning, Oktoberfest is celebrated only sporadically, and there really aren't any widely-acknowledged holidays imported from Russia, Japan, India, South Africa, England, or Egypt. Maybe that's a mistake. ■ No culture gets everything right, but it's also fair to assume that every culture gets at least one or two things right. (That's one of the basic conclusions one naturally reaches if one assumes that at least some traditions survive from generation to generation because they've proven themselves useful each time before being passed along.) ■ A reasonably open-minded person ought to reach the conclusion that there is payoff in studying lots of different cultures to see what good ideas can be gleaned from each. One doesn't have to live by other Danish principles to take a few good lessons from hygge, for instance. ■ Perhaps the lesson to be taken from St. Patrick's Day in America is that it is possible (and probably even prudent) to intellectually tour the cultures of many countries, after having spent at least a couple of years forming adult opinions about how to live -- but before too much of a lifetime has elapsed for one to be comfortable with making changes.




March 18, 2023

News Leaving some of it on the field

From University of Zurich economics professor Dina Pomeranz comes this sage advice to academics: "Don't do anything in the process of trying to get tenure that you would regret if you don't get tenure." It's advice equally applicable to any other career field, and to non-career pursuits as well. Just replace "tenure" with whatever it happens to be that you are pursuing. ■ Incentives are often misaligned in the lessons society teaches youth. Quite frequently, we offer young people tournaments and competitions in which only one participant or team emerges as the winner. Phrases like "leave it all on the field" are used uncritically, and the word "champion" is invested with such wonder and awe that it could easily seem to the impressionable young mind that all of life consists of zero-sum games in which going to extremes in pursuit of victory is just what rational actors do. ■ In reality, most "games" in life are not zero-sum. They are often long-running, open-ended, or collaborative instead of competitive. Training people to see the flaws in the "no pain, no gain" attitude starts young, and it's vital to forming adults who value balance appropriately. ■ Should everyone accept some struggle in life? Absolutely: Struggle is often the price of things worth having. ■ Should anyone compromise their integral self in the hope of an uncertain payoff? The answer should far more readily be "no". ■ Gaining outcomes at a cost of health, conscience, or loving relationships ought to be avoided. It's no small matter to know that life is precious and too often short, so living well along the way is essential. Moreover, life has to be lived in totality; every part has a season, to be sure, and within those seasons, different priorities prevail. ■ But of the big aspects to a well-rounded life -- like family, productive work, learning, wellness, creativity, and recreation -- there are rarely times when it's appropriate to shut down any one of them altogether. The single-minded pursuit of any outcome can raise the dangerous temptation to let only one of those matter at the cost of the others. It's best to avoid that temptation.




March 19, 2023

Computers and the Internet Slow talks, one-on-one

Social media has turned out to be very good for periodic one-to-many communications. There's no better way to keep up on the occasional life updates, job changes, and vacation travelogues of past co-workers, old classmates, and other arm's-length acquaintances than to follow one another on social media. ■ Group chats, meanwhile, have been excellent for ongoing conversations among small bands of friends. Their value is revealed indirectly by the strong feelings iPhone users have about Android users trying to join their group texts. ■ Considering the social enhancements wrought by these technologies, it's too bad there hasn't been a development that enhances slow but ongoing one-to-one conversations. If you call or text a friend after a gap in time, the conversation too easily becomes a catch-up visit. The conversation sounds like a highlight reel, and promises are made that "We should visit/get together soon" or "Let's catch up sooner next time", but there's always a finality to the end of the conversation -- even if it's the classic Midwestern, "I'd better let you go". ■ The beauty of a group chat is in how it binds together a group of people with low individual effort, but with high returns to everyone. The participants are part of something together, but no individual has to carry the weight. And it is naturally open-ended; nobody closes the conversation, as it simply rolls over, unconscious of any terminal constraints. ■ But plenty of people have friendships that emerged organically between two people (or among three at most) -- too small for a true group chat, yet no less worth sustaining. Those unique one-to-one friendships came about for a reason, but the communication technologies of the modern world doesn't favor them. That's especially the case for tools like instant messenger chats that alert all parties when the others are online. ■ When a conversation reaches a natural break point, does someone need to acknowledge that with an "End of transmission" message? If no one acknowledges the break specifically, isn't it a bit like putting a telephone call on hold and never returning? ■ Maybe there is (or, rather, ought to be) a technological solution for that -- like a social media tool that only permits the user to send a short message to the other person once every two, three, or four days. Just enough to keep the parties engaged in ongoing conversation rather than sporadic information dumps on one other, but not so much as to make the maintenance of that friendship appear like a burden. ■ Lots of people do have those standalone friendships, and they're worth sustaining. In the past, those might have been sustained by occasional letters (which, by their nature, took time to transmit, thus naturally slowing the exchange to a manageable pace) or perhaps for a while by telegrams (in which brevity was enforced by economic imperative). ■ As Benjamin Franklin advised, "Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing." But no friendship endures without at least a little care and attention. Considering the amount of value imparted to the other friendship types by other technological tools, there ought to be room for a tool to facilitate "metered chat" between friends who see value in remaining in unforced -- and unimposing -- contact with one another.




March 20, 2023

News Only the good need apply

Calvin Coolidge rose to national prominence with his emphatic law-and-order response to a Boston police strike when he was governor of Massachusetts. The event produced one of his most famous quotations: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." As vice president, Coolidge was second to a President who famously turned a blind eye to scandalous corruption in his own Cabinet -- but he was himself sheltered by a reputation for probity. ■ Coolidge was a partisan poitician, of course, but his brand was in no small part attitudinal. His icy view of corruption and wrongdoing by public officials -- bordering on preachy, even -- was part of his appeal. ■ In his autobiography, he wrote, "When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man [...] What we need in appointive positions is men of knowledge and experience who have sufficient character to resist temptations." ■ We are often sold on how to vote because of policies, but the deeper truth is that most of what we really get, especially in executive office, is character and orientation. Policy agendas matter, of course, but they are largely predictable. The most important things that happen, though, are often matters of surprise: Armed conflicts, natural disasters, financial panics, disease outbreaks. Things that cannot be predicted, but only answered on the fly, using limited information and the best available judgment. ■ There must be some kind of demand for a Coolidge-like attitude today: Not for slick charm or magnetic personality, nor for expansive promises, but for high standards of character and a fierce intolerance for wrongdoing. "Bad men" (and women) should be shown the door without hesitation.





March 22, 2023

News Go ahead safely

Suppose you're driving at night on a rural Interstate highway where the posted speed limit is 70 mph and you encounter some patchy fog, modestly limiting your visibility. The prudent thing to do, typically, would be to ease off the gas and drive at perhaps 60 mph, or whatever your headlights will adequately illuminate. ■ But if another vehicle comes along and is traveling at a consistent speed of 70 mph, it might actually be safer to follow their tail lights (at a distance accounting generously for braking) at the higher speed than to go it alone at a lower one. As long as you're at no meaningful risk of rear-ending the lead car, then following them transfers to the other driver the risk of hitting something obscured by the fog and offers you a comparatively high degree of confidence that nothing new entered the lane in the few seconds between you. ■ Traveling faster may be objectively more dangerous for a vehicle traveling alone or in the lead, but it might be relatively safer for a vehicle following at a prudent distance if it offers the trailing motorist the assurance that the path ahead has been "cleared" by the vehicle ahead. Risk can be a vexing subject, in no small part because it can offer different answers whether judged objectively or relatively. But quite often, it is also dynamic -- changing as its contributing factors change. ■ Few skills are as important to learn as the ability to calibrate and re-calibrate risk. Risk mis-assessment is one of the reasons banks fail, among many other pertinent effects. ■ And yet it is not at all obvious where people are supposed to learn the skill of calibrating risks in school. Is it a branch of mathematics? Of science? Of social studies? There isn't a clear answer. ■ Nonetheless, it is obvious that too few people really grasp its importance. Every commercial flight begins with a three-minute safety briefing that frequent fliers could deliver by heart, even though modern commercial aviation is indisputably the safest form of mass travel ever invented. Yet 40,000 people will die in American road crashes this year, and because of the base rate fallacy, the public will scarcely take notice. Countless other examples could be raised. ■ Getting Americans comfortable with calibrating risk as a matter of routine behavior would be a massive net positive for society. And if one generation of parents is poorly-prepared to train their children, then somewhere, somehow, that training needs to be institutionalized. The great question is: How and by whom will the next generation be trained?




March 23, 2023

News Off to India

It has, for a while, been impossible for a reasonably engaged American to have missed news about China. Whether the issue has to do with trade, Covid-19, human-rights abuses, the prospect of future conflict, or even the stakes involved with TikTok, China is plastered right across the headlines. To a degree, the coverage is both warranted and useful. China is, after all, home to about one in every six people alive. ■ Conflict naturally sparks coverage. So does size. But it shouldn't take flaring tensions for a country to attract attention. ■ Allies and potential allies call for attention, too. One of the ways the world is shaped is through engagement, and engagement depends upon awareness -- just as "It's hard to be what you can't see", it's hard to assign value to things not readily discussed. That's what makes it almost scandalous how little coverage of India breaks through to American audiences. ■ Besides being on the cusp of overtaking China in population, India is the world's largest democracy, a fast-growing economy, and a major center for technology. It's also of substantial importance as a defense partner. ■ Even reputation-sensitive news organizations like the New York Times cover relatively little about the country, resulting in a bland diet of coverage about the country generally confined to broad-brushstroke analyses about high-level politics and predictable stories of environmental trouble. This, despite increasing US efforts to cultivate military cooperation and India's emerging status as an economy of indisputable consequence. ■ It has been two years since the United States had an appointed, confirmed ambassador to India. Symbolically, at least, that does not speak well of our national consideration about such an important relationship. Awareness shouldn't wax and wane opportunistically. Adversaries demand our attention, but courting better relationships with prospective allies is a long-term effort that calls for sustained dedication.





March 25, 2023

News Doomsday believers forget that most people want to help

A person who assumes that other people are up to no good will never find themselves entirely without evidence. Either they will encounter someone who really is out to do wrong (as will all of us, unfortunately, from time to time) or they will find ways to interpret the innocuous behavior of others in the most nefarious light. Either way, the person who chooses the unflattering view of humanity will usually find reasons to stick with it. ■ But it's an unsound approach to the facts. There are antisocial individuals among us and there always have been, but humanity never would have lasted as long as it has without a strong collaborative streak. We're good at many tasks as individuals, but we really shine at team efforts. Michael Jordan was a sublime basketball talent, but he was better when surrounded by the Dream Team. ■ The most basic understanding of market-based economics is founded upon the understanding that we don't have to like one another to benefit nonetheless from getting along. Team-building wouldn't be a lucrative industry if the dynamics of cooperation didn't matter. ■ Despite all this, the default assumption of any kind of doomsday orientation is to assume that society will collapse and people will resort to violent anarchy. From "Mad Max" to the feverish forecasts of climate apocalypse, people often assume that civilization will break down and violence, scarcity, and conflict will be the result of any bad thing taken to its farthest ends. ■ All too often, doomsayers overlook the fact that humans have a very strong instinct to try to work together. It doesn't mean we always do the right thing, nor that we do it as soon as would be optimal. But faced with disasters, we usually band together instead of collapsing. ■ A passerby rescues a woman trapped in a flash flood. A pizza delivery driver runs into a burning house to save five children. Rescue workers go door-to-door to check on tornado survivors. ■ That's how almost all human beings are wired: To work together. In fact, we're probably inclined to work together even more when faced with calamities than we are in day-to-day life. Urgent situations bring out the best in human behavior, and those who don't rise to the call -- the ones who run away from an opportunity to help, or who take advantage of others when they are in distress -- are the deviants. ■ We shouldn't run from challenges, nor should we abandon hope when things look bleak. And above all, we should remember that, like the radio operator on the Titanic who stayed at his post until the ship went down, most of us would rather be known for working with and helping others than for anything else. The doomsday believers of all stripes ought to take note.




March 26, 2023

News Safe shipping on the high seas

In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton revealed thoughts on America as a maritime nation: "If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons." ■ It may seem like a fait accompli by now that the United States should have the world's greatest navy, but that wasn't always the case. It really wasn't until World War II that the US took the mantle of naval supremacy. Nor is it adequate to assume that American dominance of the seas is a "forever" condition. ■ If we take Hamilton's ideas seriously, then the purpose of a great navy isn't confined to simple projection of power, though a navy is especially useful for that purpose -- especially one equipped with the world's preeminent collection of aircraft carrier groups. It's hard to find a place outside the reach of American carrier groups. ■ But Hamilton explicitly tied the navy to the protection of seafaring commerce. The literal bulk of international trade floats aboard ships, and in the last World War, the largest number of ships (other than small craft) built were the Liberty and Victory classes of cargo ships. Keeping supplies from being sunk by enemy warships was a critical naval mission. ■ A great deal of intellectual firepower is lining up behind arguments to modernize and scale up the American fleet. An ambitious scale-up would likely be appropriate in light of current events. But we also ought to consider adjuncts to the big ships that are expensive and hard to build. ■ In terms of sheer numerical projection, perhaps America ought to consider a program to build small, remotely-controlled submersible or semi-submersible vessels that could be used as lightly-armed escorts for cargo ships. If built at the right size -- say, just shy of the 40' length of a standard shipping container -- they could be constructed inland and shipped to the water. And if equipped with a battery-electric propulsion system, they could be operated with minimal requirements for maintenance, since electric motors are vastly simpler, mechanically, than combustion engines. ■ If built on a component-type platform, the same vessels could not only be used for cargo escorts, but also for surveillance, coastal patrolling, and even search and rescue. The main value, though, would come from developing a platform that could be scaled up quickly without overburdening the world's existing shipyards, and that could be deployed without stressing the workforce of the existing navy. ■ There are some 5,500 container ships in the world, and the need to preserve their free passage on the seas has been proven by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as by China's apparent policy of intimidation of other nations' ships on the South China Sea. ■ Thoughtful, pragmatic policies on the sizing and modernization of a full-fledged blue-water navy ought to be developed nonetheless. But as a useful adjunct to those forces, the same kind of technological imagination that has propelled an unmanned aerial progam in the skies ought to be committed to ensuring that the US Navy can project power in big ways while also protecting commerce -- just as Hamilton imagined -- at modest cost.




March 27, 2023

Computers and the Internet Who will keep the garbage out of the large language models?

Even well-informed people with lots of information resources at their disposal can get things wrong about technology. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, for instance, saw some of the outputs from large language models and declared, "ChatGPT taught itself to do advanced chemistry. It wasn't built into the model. Nobody programmed it to learn complicated chemistry. It decided to teach itself, then made its knowledge available to anyone who asked. Something is coming. We aren't ready." ■ Applause for thinking about the implications of artificial intelligence. But jeers for deeply misunderstanding the technology: It is really important that we approach AI thoughtfully, especially as it will to some extent or another require thoughtful, well-informed regulation -- by people like United States Senators. ■ But artificial intelligence systems (like ChatGPT) are not sentient. Get that part wrong, and there's very little hope of getting the rest right. They are predictive models based upon the information supplied to them as inputs. Much of that information is obtained from the Internet, where lots of useful scientific and technical information can be found. ■ Yet we haven't reconciled ourselves yet with what could end up being a tremendous hazard to these models. We really haven't yet seen the large-scale emergence of audio and video transcripts on the Internet. YouTube has made considerable strides in the direction of automatic captioning, for instance, but there is an enormous volume of audio and video content being produced every day that isn't really being transcribed and made readily available to search engines and language models...yet. ■ That will certainly change. And when it does, transcription content will ultimately be represented disproportionately to its intrinsic value. It's easy to speak at 150 words per minute or faster, but even skilled keyboard users are generally able to type at only about half that speed -- and real, thoughtful composition is even slower. ■ Once the transcription material from Snapchat videos and Facebook Reels and time-filling talk shows makes it into things like large language models, the consequences will be bad. Lots of input sources will be flooded with low-quality content. ■ But the models aren't sentient, so unless the humans who gatekeep their inputs are careful, those models will be contaminated by content that wouldn't pass a Wikipedia test for veracity. Who will see to it that a carefully sourced and edited graduate research thesis means more to the language models than a transcript of whatever nonsense a syndicated bloviator decided to spew on the radio for three hours a day? ■ That doesn't mean the solution requires government regulation. But it does point to just how essential it is that the people who will do the regulating seek to understand what is fundamentally going on. ChatGPT isn't going to "teach itself" anything. But something is indeed coming, and we very well do need to be ready.






March 30, 2023

News Partners for peace

Now that Turkey has given its consent, all 30 member countries of NATO have ratified Finland's accession to the mutual-defense alliance. Finland's president has thanked them all and promised that his country "will be a strong and capable ally, committed to the security of the alliance". ■ The conditions that precipitated Finland's accession -- to be followed soon by Sweden, it must be hoped -- are terrible ones. It's plainly the case that Russia's attack on Ukraine lit the fire. But the clarity afforded by the moment is useful. ■ Whatever Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apologists might try to say to the contrary, there's only one aggressor in the region. Russia started a war against Ukraine, and sensible parties nearby realized that neutrality was no longer an option. NATO remains a defensive force. ■ Aggressors aren't dissuaded by weakness, indifference, or disarray. They are, however, deterred by evidence that there will be consequences to their actions. We can try to make it more complicated than that, but there's no reason for it. Peace, unfortunately, requires costs and preparations. Dwight Eisenhower advised as much seven decades ago: "[A]s long as there persists a threat to freedom, [free nations] must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war." ■ The reasoning for the enlargement of a defensive alliance like NATO doesn't require a doctoral degree in international relations. Any reasonable adult can examine the evidence and see that voluntary cooperation to mutually deter and repel attack from a belligerent nearby is just that -- a deterrent. May Finland's membership in NATO be the stabilizing, peace-reinforcing move it deserves, and by rights ought, to be.




March 31, 2023

Iowa School's out forever

Iowa's second-oldest institution of higher learning will be closing after more than 180 years in operation, following a protracted period of shallow enrollments and deep budget problems. It's an unfortunate turn of events for those who view institutions as being intrinsically valuable; nobody likes to see a college closed down if it can be avoided. ■ But it's also worth noting that the problems of keeping higher-education institutions open isn't about to become easier. There are well-known demographic problems ahead that will challenge many colleges in the very near-term future, not just the small ones. There was a baby bust starting in 2008, and it's now almost 18 years later. ■ There's also a cultural shift that has changed the dynamics of how people value a four-year residential education. Irritation with high debt loads has grown. Certifications are as marketable in some fields as degrees. The trades are paying well. ■ Now would be a very appropriate time for those who haven't done so yet to take a good hard look at alternative and hybrid methods of making colleges and universities both better-priced and more valuable to both prospective students -- and alumni. ■ The life experiences and intangible socialization skills that come from a residential college experience are extremely hard to substitute. College is broadly considered a safe space for young adults to explore their identities and form deep and meaningful friendships. That experience isn't for everyone, though, and America has been long overdue for some social recognition of the value of trade programs and institutions like community colleges. ■ Bricks-and-mortar campuses need to be clear-eyed about what it is that they deliver to students beyond the educational product that they encounter in the classroom. If the "educational" component of a higher-ed experience isn't somehow unique, then perhaps the institution is mainly selling a social experience rather than an educational one. That may be entirely fine to do. ■ But when that is the case, it may be prudent, at least for some schools, to outsource the educational component itself to a firm or an institution that can specialize in the quality of educational delivery, leaving the bricks-and-mortar institution to focus on the student life experience instead. It might make sense for a small liberal arts college without any otherwise particularly distinguishing educational programs or features to outsource the classroom education component to an online learning institution. Some of them are very good, very affordable, and thoroughly accredited. ■ A college campus can't be readily converted to a lot of other things, but it might make sense to take an existing campus and focus on enhancing the features that would attract residential students while letting someone else handle the classroom content. Who is to say that a few hundred or even a few thousand students might not want to live together, share a library and a student union, meet for club activities, and even cheer on some sporting teams -- all while taking classes either on their own time, or in semi-structured arrangements? ■ It's possible that no such clever ideas would have saved a school like Iowa Wesleyan, or others in similar situations. But so much has been invested in many of these colleges over time -- and their value is so hard for the remaining community to recover when a campus closes down -- that ideas from well outside the conventional box ought to be solicited.


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