Gongol.com Archives: 2023 Second-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol



April 1, 2023

News Equality for all

Words can sometimes be literally correct, yet so far removed from the meaning they represent that they fail to explain the concept. "Objectification", for instance, is a term most people have heard -- but it is often used so reflexively in conversations that it doesn't have the impact it deserves, particularly since it is so frequently applied to the specific case of sexual perceptions of women. That is certainly a major case, but the ills of objectification go much farther than that. ■ A truly exhausting number of human problems boil down to "Failure to see other people as human beings, equipped with equal self-awareness and value as myself". Literally, that's what "objectification" really is. Yet to compress the act down to a single word strips it of the real magnitude of what's being said. ■ Other people aren't objects...they're people. Always. Everywhere. Each one. If that were truly grasped and internalized as a universal concept, then in an instant, humanity would strip away many of our worst attributes. No one could commit chattel slavery if they really saw every other individual as a human being equipped with equal self-awareness, agency, and value as their own. Nor could anyone possessing even a modicum of conscience commit wartime atrocities, domestic abuse, or even non-violent acts of casual racism or sexism. ■ To be even modestly aware of one's own humanity and capable of projecting empathy for that sense of humanity onto other people renders a person incapable of most of the worst acts people commit against one another. This indictment applies equally to knuckle-dragging male chauvinists as it does to authoritarian dictators who disregard human rights. They may be different manifestations and on different scales, but they share the same root cause. ■ Everyone is endowed with a uniquely valuable human spirit. Another's value is not diminished because it isn't yours. And to actively see that equivalent humanity in every other person is a practice that depends upon childhood inculcation and self-aware practice by adults. Fortunately, it comes easily to kids. Little people tend to be very good at a frictionless understanding that every human life is of equal value. ■ The real work needs to come from adults, who must model the behavior for their young ones and actively guard their own thoughts against the encroachment of the ills of objectification. Somewhere along the path to growing up, it seems fairly commonplace -- perhaps even instinctive -- to become so absorbed in one's own consciousness that consideration for the humanity of others takes a back seat unless it's deliberately pulled to the forefront, at least from time to time. But everyone needs to make a conscious practice of really seeing the humanity in others. Without practice, it's too easy for the concept to lapse into words taken too lightly.


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April 2, 2023

News The experience gap

A phenomenon to which we are already frequently subjected and which is bound to cause increasing frustration for the indefinite future to come is the disappointment that results from experiences that haven't meaningfully improved while others have. ■ Lots of products and services have improved -- often measurably -- in the last generation. It would have been completely unfathomable to most well-informed people a couple of decades ago that severe weather outbreaks could be forecasted with precision multiple days in advance. Yet today, forecasters are rarely taken by surprise by big storm outbreaks; they merely spend the days prior trying to assess the precise nature of the outbreak and alterting the public with increasing specificity about the risks. Meteorology has come a very, very long way: A highly accurate forecast that models the actual events is no longer a matter of luck. It's an expectation. ■ Yet other experiences remain astonishingly unimproved. The Mayo Clinic's one-stop, same-day team approach to diagnosis is basically unique; most other medical experiences are far less tightly bound. Likewise for airline ticket counters, cable and Internet tech support, and rental-car pickup. Exceptions apply, and some people pay for premium treatment, but the routine service experience often hasn't changed materially in decades. ■ This gap creates frustration -- particularly for those who have been subjected to market forces that have caused them to improve their own products or services who then have to deal with unimproved experiences as consumers. And it's bound to remain on the increase: Lots of jobs are compelled to do more with less, or to improve or be rendered obsolete. ■ If you're an educator who hasn't improved your content knowledge or teaching methods in 20 years, then you probably deserve to be shown the door. Yet it's possible for others to hide their stagnation behind institutional inertia: A religious leader, just for example, may well go those same 20 years without becoming a better preacher, but it's easier to say "Well, church attendance is in decline everywhere" rather than be held to account for engaging the congregation better than before. ■ As long as some experiences continue to improve, often dramatically (see: the performance of elite athletes), while other experiences fall short (see: the performance of inconsistent referees in some of the same sports), the experience gap is bound to cause chronic frustration in the years ahead. No advice in this regard is perfect -- but it's best to avoid being the agent of disappointment.




April 3, 2023

Business and Finance Moving forward by holding back

Business is often thought of as the manifestation of possibilities. People start businesses because they see unfulfilled demands, either existing or soon to come, so they do things to create goods or services where either none existed before, or where what was in place was insufficient. Either way, it is a creative act that depends upon looking beyond limitations and towards a blue-sky future. ■ But one of the characteristics that makes some companies successful -- or, at least, what appears to be the secret ingredient to their success relative to their competitors -- is the adoption of an artificial constraint. This seems paradoxical at first: How does adopting a limitation feed success when business seems to be about those blue-sky possibilities instead? ■ Consider Toyota, which adopted just-in-time as its production model out of necessity. Japanese industry in the post-WWII era didn't have lots of excess cash to pay for inputs in advance and needed to be flexible with its outputs, so just-in-time really started as a reaction to external constraints. But over time, the approach was refined into a production philosophy geared towards waste reduction and quality control. Just-in-time certainly doesn't work everywhere; it does seem to work for Toyota. ■ Voluntary, self-imposed constraints are found in other highly successful companies, too. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays and only serves chicken -- no menu extension into burgers. The forgone profits are easy to estimate, but the constraints are a part of the culture. Likewise, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is obsessed with investing only with a large margin of safety. And Honda resists using robots for automotive production, choosing instead to invest heavily in cross-functional training for human workers. ■ The existence of prominent case studies isn't dispositive; maybe self-imposed constraints are only holding these companies back. But that seems unlikely. Given how significantly the constraints appear to influence their respective company cultures, it seems more probable that self-imposed constraints might actually be a competitive advantage. ■ It seems less to be dependent upon the nature of the actual constraint -- cross-functional training doesn't seem to have much in common with being closed on Sundays -- but, much like the Hawthorne effect, more about the basic act of consciously choosing a decision-making path. Adopting and living by a code, if you will. It may not be a lesson often conveyed in business school, but it may do many a firm well to decide to pick a constraint -- just about any constraint -- and live by it.


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April 4, 2023

News Make nuance sexy

If you reward a behavior, you should expect to get more of it. The advice is applicable as much on a civilizational scale as it is within a nuclear family. And yet, it is often ignored without much further examination. ■ When people decry the circus-like atmosphere of public behavior -- whether it's the exaggerations of media figures teasing their wares for clicks, the grandstanding of political figures hunting for more small-dollar donors, or the overstatements of snake-oil salesmen out to clear a fast buck -- they need to look at their own part in the exchange. ■ Oscar Wilde was being a scoundrel when he wrote, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Too many people in what ought to be serious pursuits take his words as aspirational advice. ■ If we as voters, as citizens, or merely as adults wish to have less of the circus, then no small share of the responsibility lies with us. If people are behaving like carnival barkers, we are under no obligation to respond. Nor to amplify. Nor even to acknowledge. ■ Calvin Coolidge wrote, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ Put another way, it is up to us as the intended audience members for any public-facing figure to deliver our time and awareness -- the coins of the realm in the "attention economy" -- to those who approach us with modesty, sanity, and reservation. Make nuance sexy. Make subtlety seductive. Make understatement glamorous. These things only come about if the marketplace of ideas detects a demand signal. It is within our power to send it.




April 5, 2023

Agriculture Print yourself a salmon fillet

A new technology often gets a jump-start when it finds itself applied not to its intended use, but to a less obvious but non-trivial alternative. ■ Some attention has rightly been paid to the prospect of raising meats outside of their original animals. The "lab-cultivated" or "bio-printed" food technology has been hailed by many of its advocates as a way to satisfy consumer demand for meat products while exacting fewer environmental externalities than conventional animal husbandry. ■ Early test cases have already made their debuts. In 2021, scientists in Japan printed a piece of Wagyu beef that wasn't cut from a cow. A firm in Israel has touted its successful printing of a 3.67-oz. steak in the same year. And already, people have begun to ask ethical questions, like "Could lab-cultivated meat be kosher?" or "Would it be ethical to eat cultivated meat from endangered species?". ■ While well-intended, efforts to promote laboratory-grown meats on their environmental benefits aren't likely to catch fire. Those will be interesting benefits down the road, but as long as prices are still very high and the volume of production is very low, it will be quite some time before grocery shoppers will even be offered the option. Environmental advantages are a classic case of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, and those don't activate a whole lot of behavior. ■ The breakthrough application could be found in seafood. The tuna is an apex predator, which of course makes it environmentally significant. But that status also makes it prone to concentrating harmful substances otherwise found only in traces in the environment, like mercury. These concentrated contaminants are why the FDA has produced a detailed chart depicting just how much fish is safe for children to eat. ■ Under a laboratory-cultivation process, though, (synthetic) fish could be produced and harvested without the same hazards. And that could be the breakthrough for the technology at large, because it would shift the focus from diffuse environmental benefits to concentrated health benefits for the individual. Concentrated benefits open wallets. ■ Synthetic production really ought to appeal more to seafood restaurants -- and to sushi lovers, in particular -- than to any other sector. Nobody's actively clamoring to nibble on endangered-species burgers yet, and the scale of production already in place worldwide makes it hard for any new process to compete with raising chickens, hogs, and cattle on foot (even if the FDA just gave the nod to lab-produced chicken in November). ■ But countless inland restaurants advertise that their fish is flown in daily for freshness. Air freighting and all of its associated preparation processes add a lot to the cost of production and delivery. If synthetic alternatives could permit them to grow their own fresh "catch" in a facility next door, that could be a much more economically competitive arrangement. ■ Maybe all of this technology remains too speculative and far-fetched to catch on, either soon or even some time into the future. But the incentives are such that if and when "meat" (such as we might define it) from a laboratory-like setting really breaks through, it will be in the form of seafood rather than anything that originated with wings, legs, or a snout.




April 6, 2023

News They're looking up to you

In no small number of schools, older students are paired up with younger ones in programs with names like "Kindergarten Buddies". The age-gapped students spend time together doing activities like reading or performing small projects. Sure, the interaction teaches kindergarteners by giving them older models to emulate. But the secret is that it's really there for the older kids. ■ Kindergarteners will happily learn from just about anyone -- they're wired with a magnificent and overwhelming sense of wonder and curiosity. But it doesn't always occur naturally for older kids to realize that they're being watched. Raising the stakes just a little, by telling them that their "buddies" are looking to them for guidance and instruction, helps them learn the intrinsic reward of having others look up to them. ■ To find themselves admired compels most self-aware people to think about behaving in admirable ways. It doesn't always work, of course, but it's often more powerful than the threat of punishment. "Be on your best behavior; the kindergarteners are looking up to you" is often a more stimulating piece of advice than "Don't cause trouble or you'll be sent to the principal's office." Or, as the philosopher Maimonides put it, "[I]f you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else." ■ It's hard not to notice the presence of altogether too many people in both public and private life who didn't get the message about being good "buddies" to their juniors. News and culture are all too often packed with examples of people modeling immature behavior long past an appropriate age. 40-year-olds should never be committing violent incidents of road rage. 60-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their hands off umpires and referees. 80-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their weapons away from the United States Capitol. ■ With advancing age should come increasing temperance. If you've lived long enough to "see a few things", then you've earned the responsibility to behave as though you know that the new things you encounter belong in proper perspective. And if we don't share a common expectation that humility and moderation are exactly the kinds of virtues that older people ought to model for younger ones -- if instead we tolerate people acting out well past a tolerable age, either because they never learned to manage and contain their own emotions or because they refuse to model the habits of wisdom -- then society is hobbling itself in ways we can't easily calculate. ■ It's a special job to be the senior partner in a relationship where modeling good behavior for the young to emulate is an intrinsic aspect of the role. Lots of kids understand that implicitly in elementary school. More adults ought to do the same, and the rest of us should cast shame on those who don't.




April 7, 2023

Computers and the Internet Your computer won't ever love you back

Evolution can't be "smart", since it isn't a sentient being; it's only a process. But as a process, evolution does act as a powerful mechanism for sorting. And for hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has been sorting human behavior. ■ It takes a colossal amount of hubris for a person to think that they've outsmarted the results of evolution. We certainly try to beat it all the time: Every time a person undergoes surgery, we're trying to win a bout of hand-to-hand combat with natural selection. Every vaccine dose, bite of fortified food, or blood transfusion is an act using human knowledge to press back against the natural forces that would otherwise take us out. ■ But along comes one Alexandr Wang, an artificial-intelligence company executive who proclaims, "[I] have a pretty strong belief that a meaningful percentage of kids born today will end up being botsexual." What's that? "[B]eing primarily sexually attracted to AI", he writes. ■ Wang has been hailed in a mainstream media profile as a self-made billionaire whose company "helps businesses deal with the data preparation needed to train AI systems". Thus it's no surprise he has great faith in artificial intelligence. But imagine having such a high opinion of an invention that you believe that it will overcome the deepest primal forces of nature. ■ The human drive to understand and to be understood by others is overwhelming. It starts at the most basic of levels: We begin to bond with other humans from the instant of birth. A baby cries because it seeks attention for its needs, responds to tone of voice in the first months of life, and smiles as a social cue in its first hundred days of life. ■ The desire for human interaction, affection, and touch has no technological substitute. And it won't on any timeline that doesn't span hundreds of generations at least. Children develop playground crushes in preschool, long before they can even conceive of romantic love; that's how fundamental and instinctive the drive for interpersonal connection is. ■ To think that human beings will invent machines that can substitute for that drive -- so much that it would affect birth rates, as Wang claims -- is positively ludicrous. Artificial intelligence can and will do a lot. A handful of people will, in fact, find what they experience as "love" with AI, just as a handful of people express attraction to other inanimate objects. But the canon of the world's literature -- from its earliest beginnings -- tells of quest after quest to be understood and loved, not by machines, animals, or nature, but by other people. ■ AI can't leapfrog evolutionary selection among human beings, and its proponents need to grasp how preposterous they sound when they imagine they are equipped with god-like superpowers. Our tools just aren't that smart. To foretell of "botsexuals" is the kind of bold, wrong pronouncement a person makes when they are overconfident in their own technological mastery and ignorant of the humanities.






April 10, 2023

The United States of America Load balancing

Some people fantasize about moving off the grid and living in far-secluded areas, and a few even do it. But humans are social creatures by our nature, and the latest Census data on county-level population estimates only serves to underscore what our instincts already tell us. Counties with a lot of people are mostly growing and counties with few are mostly shrinking. Americans are continuing to cluster together. ■ Many factors contribute to any individual family's choice to live in a particular location, but one of the biggest and most irresistible forces behind many of those choices is the basic matter of finding economic opportunities. As an economy matures, it typically evolves from a dependence on agriculture to a stage in which manufacturing comes first, and ultimately settles into dominance by services as it reaches advanced development. So it was for the United States, and so it tends to go for almost all other countries. We're not unusual in this regard; we're like everybody else. ■ Whereas agriculture depends upon spreading out, manufacturing depends on getting workers into the same place (usually at the same time). But so does lots of service work. It's possible, of course, for some services to be rendered remotely. Technology often reduces the friction involved in making that happen. But there are some limits that are hard to overcome: You might get the Mayo Clinic to give you a remote consultation, but if you need surgery, you're probably headed to Rochester. ■ Many services can only be delivered in person. Many more benefit from work by tightly-integrated teams. And many of the institutions that deliver services succeed by developing distinctive cultures that are reinforced by getting participants to commit to experiences in common. Thus, at least from an economic perspective, no matter how service-based the US economy becomes (and we're much more service-based than most people intuitively realize), there will still be lots of factors driving us to cluster together in ever-larger urban areas. ■ What that spells for smaller areas -- like the counties with fewer than 10,000 people, 61% of which shrank last year -- is a compelling need to determine how to competently manage resources in the face of sustained population decline. It's not a pleasant condition to have to grapple with, but decline isn't the same as elimination. ■ Some will escape population decline, if they make conscious choices to do so. But that requires having something special to offer that fits the right need at the right time. Las Vegas has exploded over the last 50 years, but there's no demand for 100 copycat cities. On the other hand, there are lots of cities with municipal governments and infrastructure already in place that could withstand a great deal of growth without losing what makes them special to their incumbent residents. ■ There's a reason utopian cities are rarely built successfully from scratch -- even great visionaries are prone to overestimating their capacities to plan what real people will actually choose when it comes to where they live. Note that lots of people live in Orlando today, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow didn't actually take off. But finding the right places for big ideas and big growth to take off from places that are much smaller than their potential could turn out to be a very useful pursuit indeed.






April 13, 2023

Water News Spring cleaning the streets

In places with paved streets and storm sewers, spring generally brings the ritual sweeping of the streets. It's an act that only appears cosmetic to many citizens, who probably wonder why their hard-earned tax dollars go to the tidying of concrete and asphalt that will only get dirty again. ■ But the real reason for street sweeping is to capture debris before it gets carried off into creeks and streams. And it is a very useful practice for helping to ensure the quality of drinking water for people living downstream. ■ All water is recycled, over and over again. Unlike rocks or sand or soil, new water isn't being generated. It's being transformed and cycle through nature, only to be perpetually used again. Keeping junk like sand and leaves and litter from contaminating it in its natural locations makes it easier to keep clean for those who will drink it next. ■ Good practices for protecting health aren't always obvious -- street sweeping certainly isn't. Municipal leaders should take care to explain their purposes creatively and often so that taxpayers understand the value they obtain from their bills.




April 14, 2023

News One cheer for Harry Mountbatten-Windsor

In Thomas Jefferson's artful words, the Declaration of Independence prescribes that even close bonds ought to be severed when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. So it goes for a country, but perhaps so too must it be for a family business. Even if that family business is itself a country. ■ Much ado is being made about the upcoming coronation of England's King Charles. It's bound to be a rare spectacle, but it remains farcical at its root. The authority of the state deriving from the personhood of an individual "sovereign"? It's plainly silly. This one man, Charles, is of royal "highness" over "subjects" due to nothing more than the chance of his birth? It's doubtful that any but a few truly committed royalists really believe it deep in their hearts. But the show goes on, apparently by some measure of continued popular demand. ■ But beyond the matter of what monarchy says about a relationship between the state and its people, it's a terrible thing to impose on the members of the purportedly "royal" family. For someone born into it -- particularly an heir apparent to the throne -- it combines all the worst of several things which each would be approached with grave caution. ■ A little royal becomes a child star without having done anything of their own volition. They are dragooned into service as a mascot of the state, to be scrutinized by the public and have countless meanings projected upon their very being. And for an heir apparent, there is no personal agency in the sense of choosing their own destiny -- their real career path is set the moment they become an embryo. ■ Obviously, the experience comes with creature comforts. But even if the way he's gone about it might be questionable (who writes a tell-all book spilling all over their still-living relatives?), it's hard not to credit Prince Harry, at least a little bit, for breaking his children away from a chronically toxic family business. ■ Maybe there is no perfect way to do it without every part of the separation looking like a slight to the rest of his family. But a family dynamic like the one that runs a royal household really by definition cannot be a healthy one. Whatever else he does right or wrong, on the choice to keep his children both metaphorically and physically distant from the "family business" -- even including his father's coronation -- Harry is doing the right thing.




April 15, 2023

The United States of America Pursuing happiness

Before the United States of America had any laws to itself, it asserted "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights. The first two are fairly obvious to anyone who gives them fair consideration. But the third, the right to pursue happiness, says something important about the nature of the country. ■ The Declaration doesn't ensure a right to happiness itself, but only a right to pursue happiness. Happiness takes different forms for different people, and framing the right as something chosen by the individual is an important distinction: Nobody is guaranteed to be happy, but everyone is assured of their liberty to make the choices necessary to go after whatever happiness means to them. ■ It is no surprise that Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the top ten destinations in the US for foreign tourists. It has become a city defined by the mass simultaneous pursuit of happiness in all of its forms, a libertarian setting for adults visiting "America's playground". It has really no distinguishing attractions other than its reputation for the freedom to pursue fun. ■ Strange, then, that the right to pursue happiness isn't duplicated in the same way anywhere else. There are other entertainment-fueled cities, but none quite so free to leave all those choices to the visitor. And the popularity of Las Vegas as a destination for people around the world ought to serve as a testament to just how natural a right that pursuit of happiness really is. America only enshrined something that is already natural to the human disposition.




April 16, 2023

Computers and the Internet Artificial intelligence keeps hallucinating

In a couple of test runs, economists found ChatGPT prone to citing works that don't exist. This is both a foreseeable outcome of the system design (so far, artificial intelligence is mainly a sophisticated text-prediction tool, not a method for assembling actual wisdom) and an acute flaw in the technology if used for its most obvious purposes. ■ Human beings have a very reasonable interest in developing technologies that will efficiently supply answers to known questions (like a speedy research librarian). We also have a reasonable interest in developing technologies that will answer novel questions. Since the beginning of writing itself, the superpower of our species has been the ability to store knowledge outside of our own brains. The spoken word allowed our ancestors to start storing knowledge in other people's brains, and the written word let them put that knowledge in places we could protect, duplicate, and move about. There's a reason the loss of the Library of Alexandria remains one of history's great tragedies. ■ Computers have a striking ability to do what books cannot: They can be programmed to generate new knowledge altogether, like detecting objects in space. That generative capacity could truly be profound. But it remains something humans have to double-check. Not only is it imperative to check the work in its own right, it's also essential that humans make sure that the programming stays correct. Computers only work according to their programming, and there are countless ways in which new knowledge can have consequences for old code. ■ Dan Brooks offers the pithy observation that ChatGPT "nails the voice of someone trying to hit word count." He's right; the imperative behind the technology is to keep generating new words, no matter their need or their validity. And that's the problem that causes the "hallucinations": Whether or not real knowledge exists, AI is set to just keep making up something to fill the space. ■ That is no small problem if, as is extremely likely, artificial intelligence tools are on the verge of multiplying in number and output at rates we may have little capacity to comprehend or to double-check. That doesn't mean we should unplug them -- we should be ready and eager to put useful tools to work to make human life better. But we're going to need to think of ways to firewall the generated content that hasn't been checked or validated so that it doesn't form a feedback loop of garbage-in, garbage-out that could leave us all wondering what was ever true in the first place. A hard drive can be reformatted. The Internet cannot.

Agriculture Farmers get an early start on spring planting in Iowa

It's been a while since that's happened

News Courage, big and small

Chad Gibbs: "Whenever we remember the Holocaust, we should remember the small rebellions, the individual stands, and the little acts of caring"

Threats and Hazards The second-order problem with an intelligence leak

Matt Tait: "In other words, just because you can't see the significance of how something tiny in a photo can have massive repercussions doesn't mean that experts with extensive experience and that little bit of extra context can't."

Business and Finance The place of a little love in a market economy

Deirdre McCloskey: "There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends."




April 17, 2023

News When Soviet leaders dropped dead

It's basically possible to convey to people who didn't live through it just how much the threat of nuclear war hung over the day-to-day "adult" world of the 1980s, at least as seen through the eyes of young people at the time. It was the one news story that never went away.

News "French discontent over its security relationship with the United States is nothing new."

University of Chicago professor Paul Poast notes that "French leaders have long hated being dependent on [the United States] for protection." Despite our longstanding friendship, France took the Confederacy's side in the Civil War, and didn't appreciate America's (poorly-considered) post-WWI plans. A history well worth bearing in mind as France makes questionable diplomatic moves with China today.

Weather and Disasters Opening locks to let floodwaters through the Twin Cities

This is a whole lot of water destined to flow past Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk in days and weeks to come.

Threats and Hazards Russia is drifting towards martial law

All of this -- death, destruction, oppression -- remains the active choice of the regime governing Russia. They could stop this at any time. The unspeakable harm they are doing to Ukraine is harming Russian people, too.

Science and Technology Look at the good nuclear power can do

France used to be well above the world average in its carbon-dioxide emissions. Now, it's down to the average, with a downward trend. It's no coincidence that France also has the highest share of nuclear power generation in the world.

Computers and the Internet An unsettling thought

If you're concerned that AI-generated materials are already getting good at passing for human-like construction, consider the warning of John Scott-Railton: "AI-based bots are as bad as they will ever be today. Right now. They can only get better." In lots of human-helping cases, that's going to be great news. But there are lots of human-harming cases for which the same will be true.




April 18, 2023

News The non-dovish case for pulling America's nuclear bombs out of Europe

Some food for thought regarding old-school nuclear bombs. Exactly the kind of subject about which responsible, non-expert citizen-voters need to brush up our knowledge. Political forces will drive what ultimately happens, so we can't afford to be ignorant.




April 19, 2023

News Slower reactions, better society

It's easy to fall for the conceit that all of our modern problems are somehow different than those of our predecessors. But what if we're really just encountering the same problems, cloaked only in different garb? A whole raft of troubling incidents in the news boil down to the consequences of people acting impulsively. Sometimes the results are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are deadly. ■ But go back to 1755, and you'll find Benjamin Franklin making a very modern case for impulse control: "Who is powerful? He that governs his passions." And, as if to drive home the point, he laments: "Who is that? Nobody." ■ Human nature is much more powerful than we routinely give it credit for being. We are rarely as special in history as ego would like us to believe. But sometimes old human flaws do come with new consequences. The modern problem is to figure out how to make sure our contemporary tools don't exacerbate those longstanding shortcomings. ■ Social media makes it easy to make very bad, very public decisions. Computers make it possible to generate dangerous ideas faster than ever. Weapons make it all too easy to escalate a bad moment beyond repair. ■ If we surrender the idea that humans are born as blank slates and instead realize that we're pretty much cut from the same cloth as our ancestors, then we come into closer contact with the understanding that we're not better just because we came later. And it underscores just how important it is to find, maintain, and regenerate character-building institutions throughout society. As our tools speed up, we need to find ways to practically train people -- all of us -- in time-tested ways of slowing down. There's enormous power in governing our passions.

Weather and Disasters A stormy night

Thunderstorms are firing along the Missouri River and southward. One supercell in Oklahoma appears to be merging tornadic cells together, and the resulting radar sweeps are something both amazing and terrible to behold.




April 20, 2023

News Russia banned from basketball track to Olympics

The International Basketball Federation has "decided to not allow the registration of the Russian men's national team in the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments 2023", which is how teams get into the Olympics. It's a response to the way that Russia has launched a bloody and wasteful war of aggression against Ukraine. ■ There are those who want to keep sports entirely separate from other affairs. That would be nice, if achievable. But it's an impossibility: Russia has used athletes as propagandists, and one doesn't have to dig deep to find historical cases where sports were used to legitimize the behavior of uncivilized regimes. ■ Sports depend upon people voluntarily observing rules of behavior; at the macro level, you can't defeat your competitors by kneecapping them or poisoning their food. At the micro level, we count upon the regulation of fair play, even when the fouls may be unintentional. ■ It isn't unreasonable to bar the participation of athletes from a country that openly defies the rules of a civilized world order. It's not like imposing a grain embargo (as Russia itself has committed against Ukraine): Sports aren't necessary for life. Sports are trappings of cultures that can observe higher levels of behavior. ■ Just as the United Nations undermines its own legitimacy by leaving Russia in charge of the UN Security Council for the month of April, so too do any international institutions that put the interests of playing nicely (literally) with Russian teams over insisting that bad actions have consequences. In this choice, at least, the world of basketball can hold its head high.

Humor and Good News Hats off to Dolly Parton

Her "Imagination Library" is one of the most remarkable large-scale good works any American has ever put into place. The American Library Association is recognizing her with an honorary lifetime membership in recognition of that work.

News Favorite historical empires

If every young man develops a strange affinity for a bygone empire, then perhaps it's best if the empires in question are relatively benign ones like the Hudson's Bay Company

Humor and Good News The vinyl anniversary

Everyone should exchange vinyl with their spouse at 33 years and 4 months.




April 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet No, the machines aren't coming for your job

It's easy to watch the arrival of a significant new technology and wonder whether it's bound to have an impact of scale and consequence well beyond previous technologies. Already, breathless headlines promise to reveal "the tech jobs most threatened by ChatGPT and AI". Are the machines really coming for your job? No. ■ Well, they are -- but it's immaterial, and it won't take a very long run for that immateriality to bear out. Jim Pethokoukis, a free-market think-tank analyst, puts it like this: "I think GenAI and LLMs are the real deal, but my baseline remains bullish on the long-term demand for human labor." ■ Yet it's easy to share his optimism about the potential upside, assume that the technologies have the potential to develop even faster than anticipated, and still believe that it won't even take the long term for human labor to hold up. Whatever emerges, it's wise to assume that jobs will be disrupted -- probably lots of them -- but that there will be more jobs than ever in the short, medium, and long terms alike. ■ To believe that people will still have jobs for as long as anyone can look ahead, all one has to do is wager on two things. First, as old needs are satisfied more efficiently, human beings will discover new wants. Second, human beings are going to remain social animals with an irrepressible desire to spend time with other humans. ■ Safe bets, both. By the time we become familiar with a technology, we uncover its shortcomings and imagine its next steps. After the printing press came the radio, followed by the television. Then television jumped to satellites and cable systems and streaming services. We discover new wants all the time. ■ And nothing is more basic about the human experience than the desire to share it with others. With families and friends, of course. But also with classmates and co-workers. And with bartenders and physical therapists and hair stylists. And then with whatever comes next. Some jobs will disappear, and prudent societies will find ways to help soften the transitions. But if there's one safe bet, it's that there will always be something new to do.

News French group gets Belgian customs to destroy Miller High Life

It may call itself the "Champagne of Beers" in the US, but "champagne" isn't a trade name to use lightly within the European Union. And just like that, more than 2,000 cans of beer were destroyed.




April 22, 2023

News Don't be a GRino

Almost anything related to the environment is subject to the tragedy of the commons. What is good for the individual often has consequences for the environmental resources shared by many others. Good environmental stewardship often consists in making lots of incremental choices (usually at personal expense) that don't have obvious benefits to the person who absorbs the costs. ■ There's no denying that there are plenty of significant environmental troubles that deserve the attention of humankind, not least of which is the evidence that there's a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there used to be. It's largely a problem of human choices. But if we want to change course, it doesn't make any sense to fight human nature. We have to work with it. ■ Lots of people identify themselves as "greens", willing to put the interests of the environment first. There's a certain moral satisfaction that comes from attaching your identity to something that appears to go above mere mortal humanity. But the problem with a message that centers on a hard-left economic message of "people over profits" and uncompromising anti-nuclear electricity sentiment is that it disengages from the actions that would really address environmental issues. ■ The epithet "RINO" (for "Republican in Name Only") has been entrenched in right-wing politics for a long time. Hardly anyone agrees on a definition. But there's a real hazard in people choosing to act as "Greens in Name Only" -- GRinos. To be serious about environmental issues is to accept that real solutions are attached to human self-interest. ■ Real "green" progress is made by finding ways to make it profitable for people and institutions to do the right thing. People need profits, and good policies ought to do things like shaping rewards, rather than denying that rewards are a basic function of human activity. To demand "action" without using the motivating tools of human behavior is to be unserious about achieving the intended results.

News China's ambassdor to France oversteps

The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying, "Former Soviet states don't have an effective status in international law". As Professor Seva Gunitsky points out, "[T]hat's rich coming from an ex-mongol colony with no legal standing in the Khanate".




April 23, 2023

News Don't just say "it gets better", show it

School's purpose is to prepare young people for life. People may differ on the focus of that preparation, and whether it should take a practical form, a vocational form, or a classical form. But the nature of things in a democracy is that no one form truly prevails. Some vested interests will promote "back to basics", others will promote "social-emotional learning", and in the end, a little of almost everything makes its way into the curriculum. ■ As part of a well-rounded education, every American high-schooler ought to read at least three important stories of self-discovery: The Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. Most of life is spent along paths others have walked before. Yet the young person usually doesn't know this, at least not in the innate sense. In youth, we think our troubles are new and our challenges are novel. ■ From Epictetus, the young person gets exposure to a tidy and practical version of Stoic philosophy that says life and happiness descend from perceptions: "[I]f the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation." Nobody expects a 16-year-old to have full control over their instincts for envy, but it's easier to start the quest for control knowing that others have sought it, too. ■ Franklin's autobiography is simultaneously a roaring tale of self-creation and a terrific exploration of American self-identity from someone who shaped that identity at least as much as anyone in the country's history. Franklin takes pains to walk the reader through his thoughts on everything from familial love to religious faith to business success. He confesses to the very kind of brash self-confidence that a teenager ought to recognize: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other." ■ From Washington, an autobiography no less significant than Franklin's, because it tells the story of his rise from literal chattel slavery -- and it is told exceedingly well. Washington's crisp prose and his relentless focus on rising and lifting are words that young people need to have imprinted on their minds, even if they are too inexperienced in life to truly appreciate everything Washington seeks to teach them in words like, "[T]he happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." For all the terrible things done to him and the vast odds against his work, Washington's character-obsessed optimism comes from a source no reasonable person can contest. ■ Many other works and authors are worth exploring, too. But Epictetus, Franklin, and Washington are special in what they can offer to people looking for direction and guideposts. It's no small matter to know that life is rarely a blank slate. It can be hard to find answers in the people immediately around us, and to find answers in stories written long ago helps to assure the reader that there is always cause for hope. Don't just say "It gets better"; show how others got there. There is scarcely a better lesson for an adolescent to learn.




April 24, 2023

Science and Technology The Open Infrastructure Map

Fascinating -- lots of granular detail on parts of the background infrastructure that tends to pass without much notice, despite its ubiquity. Power generating stations, transmission lines, wind farms, solar farms, broadcasting towers, and much more.

Humor and Good News From one teammate to another

(Video) Audiences don't often get to hear authentic, heartfelt appreciation expressed from one broadcaster to another. This is a charming exception, in which Andy Fales thanks Dave Price for a career together.

Humor and Good News Lamentations as product names

It's one way to go about branding

Weather and Disasters Northern Lights visible over Iowa

(Video) It's a rarity. Iceland's tourism bureau ought to be carpeting the northern United States in digital ads right now saying, "Now that you've had a taste, come get the full Northern Lights experience!" The lights are absolutely gobsmacking from near the Arctic Circle.


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April 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards China's government is no honest broker for Ukraine

China's ambassador to France takes a ludicrous view of the independence of ex-Soviet republics, saying: "Even these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there's no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country"

Weather and Disasters And now you know what a "von Karman Vortex Street" is

Vortices in a fluid (like the atmosphere) created by a disruptive body, as in the case of clouds downwind of a mountain disruption to the flow of air. Very cool.




April 26, 2023

News Legitimacy through scarcity

The printed daily newspaper had a pretty fantastic economic profile a few decades ago: Not only did it have the broad and righteous legal protection of the First Amendment, it also tended towards natural monopoly. The costs of content creation were essentially fixed, no matter how many copies were printed, and newsstand or subscription fees generally covered the marginal costs of printing and distributing each incremental copy. Thus, the rewards tended to concentrate around a single producer who could assemble the publication with the broadest possible appeal across the community. High circulation begat high advertising rates, which in turn charged a positive feedback loop of profitability upon which to further entrench and expand circulation. ■ And when broadcasting licenses were kept scarce by the FCC, and ownership of those licenses was tightly regulated (seven each of television, AM, and FM stations, per owner, until 1984), similar effects held for broadcasting outlets, as well. It was good to be on the inside, and once an operator was entrenched, it was hard to displace them. ■ Media outlets in those times obtained much of their legitimacy through scarcity. There could certainly have been debates about quality of coverage, bias, or accuracy, but the legitimacy of the institutions themselves was basically sealed: One newspaper, a handful of radio stations, and usually three network television stations indisputably "spoke" for a particular community. ■ Fast-forward to today: Broadcast licenses are barely limited any longer, anyone can operate a streaming video channel, and newspaper circulations and revenues have effectively evaporated. Scarcity no longer confers legitimacy, because there is no supply-side scarcity anymore. (And that's killing the legacy media industry.) ■ What takes its place now is legitimacy via audience consent. Who speaks for a community? Which are the authoritative, legitimate media outlets in a place? You have to consult with the audience living there to get the answer. It might be the skeleton crew left at a legacy newspaper brand, like the St. Cloud Times, with a claimed staff of one. Or maybe it's a digital-only publication. It might be a podcast, a television station, a daily e-newsletter, or a particularly lively Nextdoor board. ■ To a degree, legitimacy-by-audience-consent is more defensible than legitimacy-by-scarcity. After all, the consent of the governed is what confers legitimacy to a government. But legitimacy-by-scarcity had the effect of forcing media to cultivate mainstream sensibilities; their economic power derived from having the maximum possible reach and appeal to the community as it existed. ■ Not so with media outlets operating without the constraints of scarcity. As has been well-documented, the quest for advertising efficiency rewards audience fragmentation: A small but homogeneous audience may easily command better advertising rates than a large but diverse one. These changes are both significant in size and consequential for questions of how we inform ourselves. The evolving landscape may end up highly satisfying for consumers (as it becomes easier to find outlets that suit us individually), but with less community-responsive legitimacy in total.

News A little deviance is good for you

No one is politically interesting until they hold at least a handful of unconventional views. In a time when conformity is widely practiced, that's a lesson well worth remembering. It's unoriginal to depend strictly upon the cliche that "If everyone's thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking", but the central point is valid.

Humor and Good News South Korea's president belts out "American Pie"

(Video) Cancel the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What we need is Foreign Dignitary Karaoke Night.




April 27, 2023

Humor and Good News Better than cigarettes

The Art-o-mat project takes old cigarette vending machines and converts them to distribute little works of art instead. They're all over the country, but there's a particularly busy set in Las Vegas. For $5, it's a better guaranteed return than any other machine in the city. ■ Aside from the excellent repurposing of machines that formerly dispensed slow death by the pack, the Art-o-mat idea does something exceptionally worthwhile: It makes art fun. Specifically, it makes the acquisition of art thoroughly democratic, public, and even a touch whimsical. What's going to come out of the machine? The user has a general idea, but it's uncertain until the piece actually lands with a "thud" in the dispenser tray. ■ Art should be a part of ordinary life. We celebrate trips to MoMA and the Louvre, but there's every reason to celebrate small installations, too. No city is required by law to have a museum, but those that do reveal a motivation to show themselves off. ■ The Art-o-mat, though, can be a miniature gallery in a place as unassuming as a brewery outside of Joliet or a library in Sheboygan. And it should be seen as complementary with the development of artificial-intelligence image generators like Dall-E: The more we come to expect art all around (of whatever origins), the more we normalize appreciation for aesthetics. The world need not be ugly.




April 28, 2023

Broadcasting Are we beyond the event horizon for attention spans?

Writer Dan Brooks laments, "I think within my lifetime most Americans will become illiterate, not because they can't read but because they can't concentrate long enough to get through a whole newspaper article or book." On the surface, there's some evidence for his concern: People really do spend so much time with digital media now that it's hard to imagine the rapid-fire experience granted by smartphones and big televisions isn't chipping away at long-term concentration. ■ But...after a while the market (of all the most unexpected things) might actually offer the corrective. For most subjects -- not all, but quite certainly most -- nothing is a more efficient and more effective teaching tool than a well-written, well-edited text. Not always a textbook, but at least a booklet. ■ The written word is almost always faster than any other mode of transmitting knowledge. Consider that a mid-range reading speed for a college-level adult is around 250 words per minute, with 500 words per minute easily within the reach of faster readers. Meanwhile, the median pace of speech on television news is around 150 words per minute. That's a 67% advantage for the middle-of-the-road reader, and quicker readers are getting more than triple the content per minute than they'd get from people speaking. It's no wonder that so many people listen to podcasts at increased playback speeds. ■ As people are driven to earn more in a competitive marketplace, they become sensitive to returns on learning investments. Individuals will find themselves tired of sloppy lectures, videos with low information density, and dubious AI-generated texts. Not everyone will notice, but enough will notice to matter. And they'll "return" to reading (likely never really having left), as long as there's good writing to be found on what they want to learn. That signal going back to the market will further encourage the production of higher-quality written materials. ■ So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the market really does have the capacity to repel the drive towards digital overstimulation. It may take some time for the feedback to work its way through -- and there will undoubtedly be counter-examples along the way. Not everyone will be responsive to workplace rewards, and not everyone will find that writing-based learning works best. ■ And it may not always be obvious where the investments most matter: Editors can be as important as writers, or even more important. An old academic joke goes something to the effect of, "I wrote 500 pages because I didn't have time to write 250 pages." Revision and editing can vastly improve the final quality of a work, while simultaneously decreasing its size. These are skills not easily executed by computers, which tend to optimize for volume of output, not quality. There is, it seems, hope for the human writer after all.

Science and Technology Supporting endangered languages with robots

Fascinating: "SkoBots is an interactive and wearable educational robot that sits on your shoulder to teach our youths their traditional languages."

News Vikings weren't always Nordic

Some had black hair and had been co-opted into Viking life as a vocation rather than a familial inheritance

Humor and Good News Let's take this o-u-t-s-i-d-e

A dog walks into a bar...




April 29, 2023

Broadcasting Is terrestrial AM radio going to survive?

Consultant Fred Jacobs notes: "Even among [...] core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a 'very important' feature in their next vehicle." ■ The reason this is potentially catastrophic? More than 40% of radio listening happens in the car. If you lose access to 40% of your current market, that's a catastrophe. ■ The only real obstacle to a bigger presence for digital streaming to the car is that it's still clunky and obstacle-ridden. That's a user-interface problem, and it's one that the streamers have all kinds of incentive to fix. Listeners overwhelmingly want Bluetooth in the car already; they just want it to be easier to use. ■ Radio's problem is different: As Jacobs also notes, "[I]n too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content." That's a prospective death knell. If your particular content is only able to compete because it saves the listener a couple of button presses (perhaps two or three at most), then that advantage is on borrowed time at best. ■ Radio's core advantage has always been its dual promise of immediacy and locality: Its ability to be right here, right now. But a lot of stations no longer bother to try to be "live and local", or all too often, even to be just one of those things. Meanwhile, the electrification of everything (including cars) is infecting AM broadcasts with more static than ever. ■ Syndicated programming held some attraction for a while, when it was of higher quality than what could be produced locally, and when it served to create a sense of place across a continental nation. 85 years ago, AM radio networks were delivering live sports, scripted dramas, premiere news coverage, and educational programming. National quality was hard to match with local resources. ■ But those advantages have been mostly surrendered (voluntarily), while the leading disadvantages (heavy commercial spot loads) remain -- in an hour of clock time, a widely-listened-to host like Dave Ramsey is only producing 39 minutes of content. Podcasts don't waste that much time -- and they can be started and stopped at will, rewound, or sped up. It takes a lot of programming quality to compete with those listener conveniences. ■ We can get sentimental about what radio used to be ("WKRP" and "NewsRadio" were closer to documentaries than you might think), but the plain fact is that consumer expectations have risen. If the product quality doesn't rise to meet those expectations, then all the incumbent producers are really selling is inertia.


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April 30, 2023

Computers and the Internet Digesting the news

Julian Sanchez comments that "[I]t's hard to see how journalism remains viable in an environment where every story can be instantly rewritten for free without infringing copyright." He's right to be concerned, and further still, the worry ought to apply even more once one realizes the customization possibilities. It's not just possible to demand news summaries, it's possible to ask for the news rewritten by artificial intelligence in the style of particular writers. ■ A person could reasonably request: "Give me a 500-word summary of today's news from Chicago, written in the style of Mike Royko". The converging possibilities are hard to fully fathom, and they are absolutely going to complicate matters which are already thoroughly challenging. ■ Consider the decision by Sinclair Broadcast Group to fire the entire news staff at KTVL-TV in Medford, Oregon, and to do likewise at WNWO-TV in Toledo, Ohio. Substitute syndicated news programming will be used instead to fill the local news hole. ■ Medford is market #136 and Toledo is #80 (as ranked by population). Not huge, but not insignificant, either. If local news operations are getting eliminated in markets of those sizes, they could well be under threat in other, larger markets as well. ■ Already, companies like Futuri Media promise that they can deliver "cloud-based audience engagement" services -- like tools to report what content is drawing engagement in real time. And virtual newscasters are already out in the wild. Put those two together, and it might not even be necessary to have an "Action News" team on the payroll, especially if the audience is willing to submit "user-generated content". ■ But news depends not upon a popularity contest, but on news judgment: The ability of a human being to discern what meets the threshold of news and what does not. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo -- most everything else that gets reported is either information or mere events. Those have their place, but they aren't news. ■ Machines simply tracking a digital popularity contest have no idea how to tell the difference. In the short run, though, we shouldn't be surprised if more outlets cut back like the Sinclair stations are doing, nor if other outlets experiment with virtualizing their coverage. The incentives to generate "news" products on the cheap are strong, even if they're fundamentally bad for society.





May 2, 2023

Threats and Hazards What cowards would bomb a museum?

A local history museum in Ukraine was destroyed by a Russian missile in a dastardly attack that murdered at least two people inside the museum. It requires a perverted view of humanity to target a history museum using weapons of war. ■ What kind of society is so threatened by its neighbors that it would murder a museum worker? What kind of culture is so fearful that it cannot let its next-door neighbors celebrate their own identity in peace? What kind of cowards use their weapons to destroy artifacts and kill people merely celebrating their own history? ■ These questions are more than merely rhetorical. Erasing the unique identity of a people is a way to weaponize culture; in this case, the self-evident goal of the aggressor is to diminish Ukraine's claim to independence. That has been a signature aspect of the aggression since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine. ■ The dastardly strategy has backfired, with Ukrainian self-identity stronger than it has ever been recorded before. Yet the attacks persist, against libraries, museums, theaters, and cultural symbols. UNESCO counts 253 different sites that have been targeted. ■ A self-confident country wouldn't have to assault the cultural memory of its neighbor to justify its own reckless bloodlust. An army committed to the profession of arms in self-defense wouldn't need to lob its missiles at a 55-year-old woman for running a museum. A nation belonging to the 21st Century wouldn't blow up apartment buildings full of children while claiming the presidency of the UN Security Council.


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May 3, 2023

The United States of America Don't swear by it

Upon the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, the people of the United Kingdom will be invited to swear an oath of allegiance with these words: "I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God." It's being presented as a "new tradition", whatever that means. ■ Probably owing in no small part to the new king's mediocre public approval rating, the suggestion has gotten a lot of pushback. Princess Diana's former private secretary even scoffed at the idea on live television. ■ But aside from the personal popularity of the new monarch, a much bigger rule applies: In the words of an anti-monarchist group called Republic, "In a democracy it is the head of state who should be swearing allegiance to the people, not the other way around." They're quite right. ■ Every country has to decide for itself how to symbolize the state, and some choose monarchs. It's a strange choice to those who live in places like the United States, Ireland, or France, where sovereignty lies with the people, not the luckiest member of a lucky family, but traditions can be hard to break. But as Americans eye the notion of an oath of "allegiance to Your Majesty" with skepticism, we ought to consider a fluke of our own symbolism. ■ The Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't even exist until three decades after the Civil War, is a promise of loyalty "to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands". The flag is an important symbol, invested with great meaning by our rituals and worthy of considerable civic reverence. ■ But if Americans are to pledge allegiance to anything, it ought to be "to the Constitution of the United States, and to the republic which it ensures". The flag can certainly act as a stand-in symbol for the Constitution -- but not as a substitute. When sworn into office, the President swears to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", not the flag. Federal officeholders swear to "support and defend the Constitution". So do commissioned military officers and naturalized citizens. ■ The rest of us should do the same. A symbol can be manipulated or interpreted to mean lots of things -- insurrectionists even waved it on January 6th, 2021. But the Constitution means what it says. We may argue about its finer details, but the system is what preserves the American way. Whatever we might think of our friends and allies as they coronate a new king (with or without an oath of allegiance to his person), we ought to think about cleaning up our own symbolic promises of loyalty. The Constitution is the thing that matters most.





May 5, 2023

Business and Finance Play the old hits

While it's often said (and may well be true) that the strongest memories are hailed by the sense of smell, we as of now have no real way to preserve and transmit the scents we encounter in daily life. It's not like recording a person's voice or taking a photograph -- we don't have a Polaroid for odors. ■ Consequently, we're often left to rely upon images to conjure up conceptual memories of the past. Words are great for making us think, but pictures are often better at stirring up conceptual memories: Not what you were thinking at a time, but a general sensation of how you felt. ■ Living in an advanced commercial market economy, then, it's no surprise that old corporate logos can spark oddly affectionate feelings, especially if they're familiar from one's youth. Take the classic Warner Communications logo, used from 1972 unti 1984 by the Warner Brothers movie studio. For members of Generation X and some Millennials, it's an image that could easily be associated with any number of movies or TV shows from childhood -- making it a "feel-good" memory, even if there's no specific reason why. ■ Corporate identities have been valuable goods for most of the last century, considering their impact on the marketing of mass-market goods and services. But it is strange to note how many of the strongest, most durable identities came from a very limited set of creators. If it's a corporate logo originating from the 1960s through the 1980s and it's still in use, there's a very good chance it was created by Saul Bass (AT&T, Continental Airlines, Warner), Paul Rand (ABC, IBM, Westinghouse), or the team of Chermayeff and Geismar (NBC, Chase Bank, Mobil Oil). ■ Given how frequently companies change hands today -- with mergers, spinoffs, and startups peppering the financial news almost as often as existing companies launch "refreshed" brand images -- it's possible that there won't be quite as much brand-related nostalgia built into the impressionable young minds of right now. Wall Street favors "pure plays", not highly diversified companies. ■ There's also the matter that conglomerate-style corporations had a much stronger raison d'etre in that period of stronger corporate identity than they have today: The taxation and regulatory environment of the 1960s through the early 1980s, especially, favored companies that expanded into diversified industries (which is how heavy-industry conglomerate Gulf + Western got its name associated with Paramount Pictures, and why Coca-Cola briefly owned Columbia Pictures). ■ But let this be a lesson: An investor group has revived the old Westinghouse brand (a Paul Rand creation) and successfully applied it to a bunch of new products that have nothing to do with the old company. The old name and the thoughtfully-crafted classic identity still have value today. If you're sitting on the ownership of one of those dormant classic brands, you might own a treasure more valuable than you might think.




May 6, 2023

Threats and Hazards One-way ticket out

It's often a mistake to play hardball for its own sake, but Canada's government appears to face a significant test of its mettle. A Chinese consular employee in Toronto is thought to have been targeting a member of the Canadian parliament for harassment and possibly worse. Nobody wants to see a diplomatic row over nothing, but the gravity of the situation shouldn't be understated. ■ One of the challenges for countries with free and open societies is that their very openness can be a tactical liability when faced with an adversary accustomed to the protections of darkness. It ordinarily takes a while to detect bad behavior in a free country, while unfree places can use tools like mass surveillance and snitching to keep an eye on others. ■ China's government appears to be engaged in a lot of boundary-testing right now. It's not just in the use of intimidation tactics to try to influence elected officials in Canada, it's in behavior like opening secret police stations in New York. ■ Canada might need a little bit of time to figure out the right response, but if the facts of the MP-target have been represented fairly, it shouldn't be a gentle one. Diplomacy is an exercise that depends on trust (even if incomplete) and fair dealing. Attempting to intimidate a foreign country's legislators into breaking to your will is pretty plainly a matter of cheating discussion. If rules aren't made to matter with consequences, then the entire enterprise breaks down.




May 8, 2023

Business and Finance Real friends

When politicians refer to one another as "my friend", it's entirely possible they mean the exact opposite. It's a term also used to soften the blow of criticism, especially when it happens in writing on the Internet: "My friend, I think you need to revisit your priors on this..." ■ But we really shouldn't get comfortable with the disingenuous use of such an important title. Consider how Warren Buffett put it to use before an audience of tens of thousands of shareholders in 2023: "Ford Motor Company was on its way to the junk heap when the Whiz Kids came in, and Henry Ford II [...] brought in Tex Thornton and my friend Arjay Miller and a few people..." ■ Arjay Miller died in 2017, the last survivor among those "Whiz Kids". He achieved plenty on his own after his time at Ford, including a decade at the helm of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. But were he to be alive today and looking for a job, the only thing any rational manager would need to know prior to uttering the words "You're hired" would be that two-word endorsement from Warren Buffett: "My friend". ■ People often bend over backwards to stand out with the help of inflated LinkedIn titles, "personal brands", aspirational social-media handles, and other "influencer"-style tactics. But even in that world, no strategy is more powerful than being the kind of person whose endorsement carries instant weight. ■ If Warren Buffett calls you "my friend", you're in the door almost anywhere. It says a great deal about you -- but it reveals even more about the accrued credibility of your endorser. People will go to great lengths to make a short-term splash or to find ways to short-circuit the process of earning a reputation. But it remains certain that tactics and platforms will come and go, often in practically no time at all. Cultivating real friendships (especially those where the friends have nothing obvious to gain from one another), being generous with those friends, and earning a reputation as a trustworthy authority on questions where your own expertise is valuable will always be the path with the greatest long-term payoff.





May 9, 2023

Humor and Good News Know your golden ages

Life, as everyone knows, can only be lived in one direction: Moving forward. This, of course, deprives us of the ability to revisit past mistakes or to re-live glorious moments. That can make the former seem more painful but make the memories of the latter more treasured. ■ But the linearity of time doesn't deprive us entirely of something else. One of the great under-appreciated life skills is knowing how to recognize when you're in the midst of a golden age. It can be the golden age of a cultural wave, of a great institution, or of an economic cycle. It could be a personal golden age, a professional one, or a moment of sublime health. ■ The first step towards cultivating this life skill is to recognize that all human experiences are changing, and many, if not most, are fleeting. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." Once we accept that most experiences come with an expiration date, we can develop the habit of appreciating them while they last. ■ For a healthy person, the right act may be to pause and soak in the sensation of a body that is fully well: The "mindfulness" practice of body-scan meditation may be the way to achieve that. For the appreciator of the arts, it may be to dwell on the "history until now" of a musical genre or a class of film. For the member of a team -- at work or at play -- it may be to consciously consider just how frictionless the efforts a good squad feel in the moment. ■ We rarely know when a change is coming, or how it might break a seemingly perfect status quo. It has been noted that nostalgia for the 1990s is fierce right now, and those who experienced that period the first time around may recall a world in which the economy was booming, the Internet was still mostly magical, and peace seemed to prevail. That was before the dot-com bubble burst, before anyone heard of ransomware or the "dark web", and before the nightmare of 9/11. If anyone had known at the time just how good they had it, surely they would have wanted to preserve that feeling forever. ■ That we cannot freeze those moments eternally ought to make us appreciate the good times while we experience them all the more. And if we're clever enough, we may begin to notice that it's almost always the golden age of something, even if it's rarely a golden age of everything. We can even measure it sometimes, like the golden age of scripted television happening now. ■ Like all skills, a person must practice recognizing the gift of a moment. But in recognizing that almost all such things come and go, we might grant ourselves the reward of not only living through the times for which we might someday later be nostalgic, but also of actually sensing the greatness of a gift while it is underway.




May 10, 2023

News Gresham's Law of politics

Gresham's Law holds that bad money chases out good, which is a compact way of saying that once convincing counterfeit currency enters circulation, people will hold on to their supplies of good money while circulating the fake money instead. Gresham's Law isn't just useful in economic thinking, it's also a useful heuristic for considering behavior in many other realms of human life. ■ If, for example, we permit bad people to enter public office and tolerate their presence, then we shouldn't be surprised if bad politicians end up chasing out the good. Teddy Roosevelt said that "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest." ■ The more we corrupt our own expectations of what officeholders ought to be, then the more we open the door to bad politicians chasing out the good. And indeed there are good politicians: To think otherwise is to exercise an unhealthy cynicism. Some are certainly wrong, and a few are sociopaths, but most are more or less cut from the same basic cloth as everyone else -- just with different motivations than those that send, say, a postal carrier or a dental hygienist off to work in the morning. But most people are good at heart, and that includes the people who enter politics. ■ But the corruption of voter expectations also happens when we persecute unnecessarily those who might be good at heart, but with whom we merely disagree. If life for the elected official is made so intolerable that no decent, self-respecting person would volunteer to run for an office, then we shouldn't be surprised if the ranks of our officeholders fill up with indecent people. ■ The over-personalization of partisan attacks is indecent. Protests held at people's homes are indecent. Speaking of our rivals and opponents as though they are sworn enemies in a blood feud is indecent. Naming staff members and revealing personal information with the obvious intent to stir up crowds to mob action is indecent (a violation prominently committed just today by an activist posing as a journalist). ■ There will always be bad people who will seek office, because bad people are often attracted to power. But from a systemic standpoint, voters need to have low tolerance for bad behavior by those they elect, and high expectations for how they themselves will respond when decent people are elected. ■ Not every policy disagreement is the result of someone's moral shortcoming. Compromise is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary to a functioning democratic system. We shouldn't only expect to be disappointed by policy outcomes from time to time, we must insist on it: Nobody gets 100% of what they want. But our tolerance for outcomes we don't like should be balanced with an intolerance for crooked behavior. Bad officials shouldn't be allowed to chase out the good.




May 11, 2023

Business and Finance Who's your right hand?

Elon Musk has cryptically announced the hiring of a new CEO for Twitter. It's a job nobody should envy. Musk will remain actively involved, he says, as executive chair and chief technology officer -- which means the buck stops somewhere other than the CEO's desk. And when he announced his plan in December, he openly declared, "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!" ■ Musk, like many other entrepreneurs and venture-seeking investors, would benefit from engaging in real partnerships -- one-on-one, with someone he could respect as much (or at least nearly as much) as himself. But although it's easy to find colleges teaching courses on corporate finance, electives on venture capital, and workshops on mergers and acquisitions ($17,000 for a six-day session at Harvard Business School!), it's far less common to find anything like "Elements of Partnership". ■ Partnerships can be hard, but they're also in many ways leagues better than going solo or getting swallowed up inside giant investor-owned corporations. A good partnership between two ambitious, skilled individuals with complementary skills to one another is really the story of many of the great business successes of both past and present. We don't seem to explore those arrangements as much as we used to. We focus on big, exciting teams, or we focus on celebrity entrepreneurs. Not much is said about the middle. ■ A good partnership has a lot in common with a good marriage, in which two people help each other look out for blind spots and strive for better results within an atmosphere of equality. Partnerships are often the way, and Americans spend almost no time talking about them. In a world where increasing specialization seems to be rewarded ever the more, it seems sensible to ask whether the default approach to a great new venture shouldn't usually start with an "and" between two names.




May 12, 2023

Computers and the Internet Google's very bad idea

Google has proudly announced the opening of eight new top-level domains (the part of a website address that comes last, like ".com" or ".gov"). Among them are ".zip" and ".mov", which are already well-established filename extensions (as in, ".doc" or ".txt"), for compressed files and for movies, respectively. ■ Making .zip and .mov into top-level domains is an extremely bad idea. And someone at Google should have known better and put a stop to it. Files that absolutely, positively should not be opened are going to get clicked as a result of this decision. Good cybersecurity practice says never to open a file ending in ".zip" without clear knowledge of its contents ahead of time. The same goes for most other files, including ".mov". ■ That advice is important to follow. People are often the easiest way to hack into networks. But how will cybersecurity practitioners be able to convincingly advise the people they're trying to protect not to click on things that say ".zip" if there are websites with exactly that extension in their names? That's really the only purpose of a domain name -- to be clicked! ■ Trust is vital, and so are the guardrails around trusted interactions. Top-level domains that share their letters with filename extensions only invite people with bad intentions to take advantage of their fellow human beings. And they will, certainly without delay. Blurring the lines between "things you should never click without extreme care" and "things you are being asked to click because that's exactly what they're for" is a terrible decision on the part of people who should know better. ■ If you want to hold on to an advanced civilization, you can't let unforced errors like this go through, whether you're Google or any other trustworthy institution in the world. There's no urgent need for new top-level domains -- we could have stuck with nothing but ".com" forever, and it would have been enough. People would have adapted around that arbitrary limitation. That we created many more -- including geography-based extensions like ".ly" for Libya that now find second lives as clever domain-name workarounds -- has only ever been a matter of increased convenience. ■ Everyone who likes living in a functioning society has a part to play in protecting themselves and others. Most of the time, that takes place by following the expert advice of others. But sometimes, it requires applying one's own expertise in order to put the brakes on bad ideas that could put others at undue risk. ■ Someone -- anyone -- at Google should have known enough to call this out as a bad idea. Nobody is going to die if they don't get to name their domain "mylovelywebsite.zip". But eroding good cybersecurity hygiene practices in a time when almost everything is connected? That really could get someone hurt. Don't be evil.




May 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Crash for clicks

The path to YouTube stardom has been taken by some people through some ridiculous journeys. One used corpses as props. Another leaned on antisemitism and sexism in his rise to the top of the charts. ■ And now, one dope has been convicted of obstructing a Federal investigation by destroying the evidence that he intentionally crashed an airplane for clicks. He didn't just crash the plane, he filmed himself parachuting out -- and then covered up the evidence of the hoax. ■ The Internet almost certainly hasn't increased the total number of bad people among us. But it has increased the number of opportunities and incentives for bad people to do things that probably ought to get them launched straight into the Sun. ■ Internet stardom has made some people very rich: One top revenue-generator brought in $54 million in 2021. Others have brought in tens of millions of dollars annually, too. For a line of work someone can enter with nothing more than a smartphone, those numbers are alluring. ■ But there's also generally no "coming up the ranks" -- it's not like the typical path to success in other lines of work, where one pays their dues in the early phase of a career, learns harder skills from their seniors along the way, and rises to the top after years of grinding. No, this is a field in which lots of people are shamelessly willing to offer YouTuber camps for kids at rates of $1,000 a week or more. A breakout success can mean almost instant riches, but breaking out often requires doing things well outside the mainstream. ■ And it's the counter-mainstream quality that can unintentionally reward the bad people far more often than it should. By raising the incentives to engage in extreme or shocking behavior, YouTube (and lots of other platforms similar to it) decidedly increases the exposure for those who are willing to "go there" in ways others wouldn't. There's no intuitive solution to the problem, but it's one we shouldn't ignore.





May 15, 2023

Threats and Hazards US DOT data heisted

Some events are newsworthy, even when they are reasonably predictable. Nobody's going to be surprised if and when at least one hurricane makes landfall somewhere on the East Coast or along the Gulf of Mexico sometime this year; 2015 was the last year without a landfall. It will be newsworthy the next time the event occurs: The actual locations affected, the magnitude of the storm, and the cost of the damage are all utterly unknowable right now, even if the event itself is a near-certainty. (If not this season, there will definitely be another landfall in a subsequent season.) ■ Unfortunately, news that the US Department of Transportation was targeted in a cyberattack that exposed the personal information of 237,000 current and former employees is no surprise. The particular magnitude and timing of the attack may not have been known, but the fact that a tranche of personnel data at a Federal government agency was targeted comes as no shock at all. ■ Who was behind the attack? What methods did they use? Were adequate defensive measures in place? How sensitive was the compromised data? All are valid questions. But the big picture to bear in mind is this: Attacking a really big data set generally requires sophistication, which in turn requires tools, training, and funding. Plenty of criminal groups have the means to get returns on their cyber-theft activities without making a big stir. ■ But when someone is going after government employees -- particularly when it's a quarter-million at a time -- the first place to look for suspects is among rival state actors. 237,000 people seems like a lot to most people inside the United States; after all, that's the population of Boise, Idaho, a top-100 American city. But the authorities governing China collect data on everyone in the country. That's 1.4 billion people, or more than four times the entire population of the United States. ■ In other words, the scale of a quarter-million-employee breach sounds huge to us, but it's not even rounding error within the scale of what is likely being done to watch the people of China by a government that is known to track the locations of millions of people in real time. Stealing data related to American government employees, even a little of which might turn out to be useful for data-mining, pressure campaigns, or even kompromat, is well within reach for systems already built to that scale. ■ Americans need to realize just how much more we could easily become targets for ongoing data breaches and cyber attacks. Every day that passes means new programs being coded, new cyber-agents being trained, and more chips being fabricated. 237,000 is a big number. But it's nowhere close to what's ahead.




May 16, 2023

News Showing up and doing the work

Everyone follows one of exactly two courses in life: One either grows older or one dies. There are no options to go in the other direction. In a youth-worshipping culture like America's, it's all too easy to conjoin perceptions of aging with expectations of decline. ■ That isn't universally the case; Norman Borlaug worked into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 81 at the Constitutional Convention. Frederick Douglass remained a tireless social crusader until he was nearly 80. It's possible for people to do many great things as they advance. ■ It is vital that we separate our assumptions about age from our expectations of capacity, so that we don't make prejudicial decisions about either the old or the young. But it is also essential that we don't use age -- either the freshness of youth or the weathering of seniority -- as an excuse, either. There should be no free passes based on chronology alone. ■ A political journalist for the Los Angeles Times -- a mainstream journalistic institution -- reports that California Senator Diane Feinstein, interviewed briefly just days after her return to the Capitol after a months-long absence, responded to questions about that return by saying, "I haven't been gone. You should...I haven't been gone. I've been working [...] I've been here." ■ Without being cruel or uncompassionate, we can acknowledge that this kind of exchange, especially when documented as part of a pattern, casts meaningful doubt on the Senator's ability to discharge the duties of office. It is cruel for anyone to say, "She is too old and thus she must go". But it is another kind of cruelty to put her in a position of high expectations if she doesn't possess the stamina or the capacity to do so. ■ In a representative democracy, the public depends upon the judgment and diligence of the people sent to make decisions on the voters' behalf. In the words of Edmund Burke, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment". In no other institution do we have higher expectations for judgment than in the United States Senate; it ought to be the place where each state sends the two wisest, most capable decision-makers they can find among them. ■ Some Senators plainly are up to the task and are tireless in giving the republic their best. Others fail to take that charge seriously and would quite obviously rather be doing other things. And some simply don't have the capacities to carry out duties in full. It's lazy to reduce any of those evaluations to merely a measurement of age. But it's also ill-advised to make either seniority or youth an excuse for holding decision-makers in office without holding them to an adequate standard of performance.




May 17, 2023

News Don't let a computer speechwriter outshine you

A graduating high-school student in Nebraska says he used ChatGPT to write a decoy commencement address that got him selected to give a speech at graduation, from which he deviated into a much more critical address once on stage. The speech actually delivered painted an unflattering picture of fights and disengagement and a school experience the graduate "hated". ■ The selection process for the speech involved blind review and scoring by faculty, with final approval by the school's principal. This, by itself, ought to be alarming: If you're a school administrator and you rank a ChatGPT-generated speech higher than what any students submitted, that should rattle you. Either there's something wrong with the review process (suggesting it implicitly favors dull speeches that don't say anything substantial) or there's something wrong with the quality of what the students are writing. Perhaps both. ■ In a sensible world, a graduating class should pick its own commencement speakers. People graduating from high school are generally either 18 years old or on the cusp of turning that age, making them adults in the eyes of the law. Adults who are considered eligible to vote in meaningful elections at the local, state, and national levels. They ought to be considered old enough to choose who speaks for them -- literally -- at their own graduation proceedings. ■ But in a sensible world, speakers would heed this simple advice: Don't blow a commencement address on complaints. It's easy to think that the best place to be heard is when you literally have everyone's attention, like when you're on stage at a commencement. But the most effective place to levy real complaints about a culture that disappoints you is in published writing. Think: Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, or the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Those can, of course, be amplified with speeches and dramatic actions, but grievances deserve paper and ink. ■ Speeches, for all we hail them in the history books, are almost never remembered for their laundry lists. They're remembered for their tone and, usually, for a single signature line. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." "I have a dream today." "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" ■ The hook, to borrow a line from the song, is what brings the audience back to the rest of the speech. People will revisit the rest of the words in a speech if -- and often only if -- it contained a resonant theme with a line that compels them to return to it. And when it's a big speech for a turning point in life (like a commencement), the best course is to have something to say not about how bad things are, but about a vision of how they deserve to be.




May 18, 2023

Business and Finance Be patient and win later

The close of another school year brings along with it plenty of predictable news stories, like those of students accepted to lots of colleges and parents concerned about summer learning loss. Another perennial favorite story archetype is the one about students winning a class stock-picking challenge. ■ On one hand, financial education in schools is a concept that ought to be celebrated and promoted. In the Civil War era, it was often enough to teach a young man (or often, just a boy) how to farm -- and that was the extent of financial education, and why the land-grand colleges of the period remain closely affiliated with agriculture even today. Now, though, skill in farming, a trade, or even a white-collar profession isn't enough. The financial world, even for the individual, is vastly more complicated than it once was. ■ But on the other hand, unless a teacher (or a department) is committed to sticking with a cohort of students through a multi-year program, then stock-picking contests may well be counter-productive. It's useful to learn what stocks are, how much they cost, and how to buy and sell them, of course. But students are prone to getting all of the wrong ideas if their incentives are structured around winning a short-term contest. ■ Warren Buffett had these words about value-driven investing at the 2023 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting: "What gives the value investor opportunities is other people doing dumb things, and now it's easier to get money to do dumb things...So many people are short-term-focused. Much opportunity still exists for people who can think long-term." ■ But by "long-term", Buffett is talking on a scale of years and decades, not a semester, or even a school year. If a student team had bought shares of Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, at the start of the 2020 spring semester, the price of those shares would have cratered over the course of that semester. Berkshire shares dropped from $226 a share in January to $200 a share by the end of May. That would have looked like a catastrophe in a classroom stock-picking contest. Yet those shares today, just seven semesters later, are up to nearly $330 a share. ■ The prudent move for a long-term investor in the spring of 2020 would have been to keep on buying as prices continued to drop -- the return on the shares bought at the end of that spring 2000 semester would have been even better than on the ones bought when the price was higher at the start of the semester. In other words, the smart long-term lesson is exactly the opposite of the lesson a normal student would have gathered from the experience of losing a one-semester classroom contest. ■ The way to win that contest would have been to buy shares in Zoom at $67 a share in January 2020, for a great semester-long return on a price of $207 a share at the end of May 2020. Today, though, Zoom is back down to about $69 a share -- yielding virtually no long-term return at all. ■ In the end, everyone is measured as a long-term investor, whether it's the result of a long series of short-term choices or (usually) a much smaller number of long-term choices. Merely buying and holding a broad index like the S&P 500 at the start of 2020 would have been a losing choice for a semester-length contest -- but it would have crushed the returns on short-term winner Zoom if held until today. ■ And that's the lesson it's most important to convey to students: Make a few careful decisions, then have the constancy to stomach ups and downs for much longer than a semester. That's how to win in the way that really counts for your finances in life.






May 21, 2023

News Room service: No number, please

With so much security theater taking place in the modern world around us, it can be altogether too easy for individuals to come to believe that security is a product delivered by other people (the TSA, antivirus software makers, armed guards, credit-card companies, and countless others), when it is actually a process constantly underway that requires the active participation of all decent people of goodwill. ■ Consider the routine act of a hotel check-in. Attorney Michelle Strowhiro praises the night auditor of a Texas hotel for a simple but highly security-conscious act: "Ray wrote my hotel room number on the key envelope, pointed to it, & said: 'This is your room number. I'm not going to say it out loud.'" ■ The practice of keeping quiet about a traveler's room number is increasingly widespread, but it's not universal yet. That much is worth changing institutionally; every chain ought to make it standard operating procedure to discreetly write the number so that it cannot be eavesdropped or snooped by a passerby or by someone else in line. But it is quite nearly just as important for check-in staff to advise guests of the value of that discretion. ■ It's not uncommon for guests to check in when they are tired, distracted, or under some form of stress. And people under stressful conditions do not make decisions in the same way as people acting without stress. Gentle reminders to take part in one's own guest security (for instance, by not blabbing aloud about room numbers) are prudent ways for hoteliers to enhance the security process. "I'm not going to say it out loud" is an unobtrusive way of hinting "And you shouldn't, either". ■ Security is never really permanent, since those out to do wrong will perpetually have incentives to find ways around whatever new obstacles we put up: Despite the Maginot Line, France still fell quickly in World War II. Everyone has a significant part to play in their own security, and the more often and thoughtfully we are nudged to take that role seriously, the better -- even when checking in at a hotel.


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May 22, 2023

News More than a job

Sometimes it must be assumed that people share absurd opinions on social media for the express purpose of generating engagement via click-rage. Little else could explain just shockingly bad advice like one person's advice: "Don't fall in love from 22-29, there's to[o] much to lose. Your career will thank you." ■ Far better advice would be, "Don't become monomaniacal from 22-29; there's too much to lose." A single-minded obsession with one's career at that age is terrible advice on a human level, generally: Nobody ever knows when they might be struck down by injury or illness far before their prime, and to have squandered one's twenties on career alone could turn out to be a grave error. ■ But even as career advice, "Focus exclusively on your job" is a terrible recommendation. A person may certainly take pains to control when or whether they choose to escalate from "falling in love" to "raising a family"; that's perfectly fine. But love is an entirely healthy and reasonable part of a well-rounded life. So are friendships. And so are the non-occupational pursuits that put us into positions that expose us to opportunities to find friends or fall in love. ■ A person who doesn't afford themselves the opportunity to do those other things -- by joining a recreational bowling league, or volunteering at a hospital, or worshipping with a faith community, or having meals with others -- is guilty of cutting themselves off from the prospect of a well-integrated life. Hobbies and club memberships and travel all serve to make a person's life experience not only more extensive, but more whole. ■ That wholeness is important, first and foremost, as a part of one's biography. In the words of Ben Sasse, "Many of us might be unintentionally displacing lifelong 'eulogy virtues' in favor of mere 'resume virtues.'" But that integration of one's life inside and outside of work is also important in the strictly occupational sense, too: Experiences in lower-stakes environments give people practice in how they will respond to challenges in higher-stakes environments. ■ The person who shirks their duties at the Rotary Club or who cheats on a golf game may well be the type most others would want to avoid in business, too. But the person who can lift a little more than their share of the load or who can welcome a newcomer in environments where there's no supervisor watching is the kind of person who gets practice in the essential soft skills that matter so much elsewhere -- especially in an economy where services outweigh goods two-to-one. How we engage with other people matters a great deal. To think "your career will thank you" for behaving otherwise is delusional.




May 23, 2023

Health Take the sick day

No small number of sitcoms not that long ago depended on the premise of a main character showing up to work sick, usually to be goaded by co-workers into "sucking it up" and muddling through without taking the day off. The office flu used to be a gag that even "Cheers" leaned upon. ■ Funny how a pandemic drove a stake right through the heart of that premise. Nobody wants to be Patient Zero anymore, and that's a good thing: Americans and our work-driven cultural mentality need to know that it's not only prudent to take a break once in a while, it's the only responsible choice to stay home when potentially contagious. ■ It's possible that in the long run, we will either forget the lessons of the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic -- or, perhaps more likely, those who remember the lessons will leave the workplace, and their successor generations won't have the same "muscle memory" for the value of staying home. But it would be much better if we were to strike a healthy balance between the virtues of attendance and the public-health responsibility to stay away from time to time. ■ Fixing that cultural hangup starts as early as elementary school, where achieving perfect attendance ought to be treated a little like winning a lottery ("Congratulations! You didn't happen to be sick on a school day all year!"). It's tricky to find the right rewards and commendations for avoiding voluntary absences while not skewing the incentives in such a way that well-intentioned kids show up when they should be home in bed. But that policy balance is important to seek. ■ Likewise for the workplace. Educational truancy and workplace absenteeism are both to be discouraged, but not at the expense of spreading contagion to everyone else. Among the many good ideas still worth implementing in most workplaces, achieving the right environment so that people feel valued enough that they want to show up (and value their colleagues enough not to show up when they oughtn't) probably ranks right up there alongside the considerably under-explored field of improving indoor air quality. Regardless, it will probably be some time before the sick day plays a central role in anything written for laughs.




May 24, 2023

News What death has to do with life

Upon his untimely death at the age of 57, the artist (usually) known as Prince is reported to have left behind a vault containing a nearly unfathomable 8,000 unreleased songs at various stages of completion. Other artists have left behind unreleased and incomplete music, but none of them come close to that kind of an archive yet to be widely discovered. ■ Tina Turner, who has now passed away at age 83, might have stored away some surprises for future discovery, but it's likely that we already know most of her oeuvre -- a big one. The world will undoubtedly replay her ten studio albums and 72 singles for at least a few generations to come. (And rightly so.) ■ Yet for most people, it won't be an ongoing catalog of performances that keep our names on others' lips after we die. That is often the work of rituals (like visiting a cemetery for Memorial Day), family genealogy enthusiasts, and occasional chance forays into dusty old yearbooks or photo albums. ■ Counterintuitively, though, recalling the names of the dead is a meaningful way of channeling the behavior of the living. By necessity, nations often hail "glory to the heroes" of battle. But it's good to praise the names of those who led more pedestrian lives with decency and honor -- and to curse the ones who did wrong when they should have known better. ■ Everyone lives in a race against mortality, even though we don't often want to acknowledge it. Passing judgment on the choices of our forebears and actively seeking to make the awareness of that judgment a guardrail on the behavior of the living shouldn't be underestimated as tools for getting people to behave well even when the good behavior doesn't appear to have immediate rewards. ■ Some people will be remembered mainly for the artistic or tangible works they leave behind, but most won't. Those lives matter intrinsically (which is why they are marked with gravestones and other commemorations), but they can continue to teach if we let them. Recounting an old name is not unlike remixing a classic hit to make it fresh once again.




May 25, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone, but not always

One of humanity's key evolutionary advantages is the ability to store, process, and retrieve our knowledge externally. We write our to-do lists on paper, document our best procedures in textbooks, execute complex processes through teamwork, and store information in databases. Even the simple act of storytelling reflects the ways in which oral traditions permitted our ancestors to store knowledge in common: The Epic of Gilgamesh might not be a stunningly factual account, but it doesn't seem likely that any other animal species are telling inter-generational tales like we can. ■ Even swapping tales with old friends is a practice in retrieving and recalling old information that may even be autobiographical, but of which we don't have to carry the whole, each by ourselves. Get married, some say, so that you only have to remember half of what you "know". This externalization of memory is a powerful advantage for human beings, and it's probably shaped human history to an extent none of us can fathom. ■ But what we know is different from how we feel, and it seems likely that there is some measure of peril in storing our feelings externally. Surely everyone knows someone who can't help but spill every minute emotional encounter all over everyone around. Some are emotional vampires. Some compulsively over-share their intimate thoughts with their social-media networks. Others are just full-time drama queens. ■ The mechanisms that enhance our ability to store and recall knowledge can have pernicious effects on how we process and moderate our emotions. That starts with the imperfection of detailing our feelings in the same ways we document knowledge; it's often only a rough translation, at best. Putting feelings into words is a challenge as old as language itself. ■ But the hazard goes much further than that. One of the key developmental steps in healthy emotional management is learning how to acknowledge feelings and work with them in healthy ways. As the therapist Philippa Perry writes, "This is what a child needs: for a parent to be a container for their emotions. This means you are alongside them and know and accept what they feel but you are not being overwhelmed by their feelings." And it's what makes the ring theory so helpful in psychology: The person at the center of emotional trouble can find relief by leaning on others who are less directly affected, with the suffering being allowed to dissipate as more degrees of separation from the immediate problem are enlisted to share the burden. ■ The tools -- especially the electronic ones -- that allow us to store, retrieve, and transmit useful information more easily than ever before are phenomenal for the things we know. But they can imprison people into reliving the same emotional injuries over and over, deprive others of the kind of moderation that follows from quietly processing their own feelings before sharing, and expose lots of bystanders to the kinds of strong feelings that might be better dissipated by distance and time. On the Internet, the death of your mail carrier's uncle's golden retriever can abruptly become a tragedy from which you cannot escape. ■ This isn't a problem we can outsource to artificial intelligence or manage through Solomonic regulations. It's a human incongruity between the great good some of our tools can do to make us smarter and the expansive harm they can do if allowed to stunt us emotionally. Yet discussing the problem openly and grappling with it is a vital human undertaking -- especially knowing how much of the fundamental nature of it is the same as it was hundreds and even thousands of years ago. ■ "[W]henever a man thinks about something that distresses him, and worry, grief, or sadness crop up in him, it can be due only to one of two things: either he is thinking about a matter that has already taken place [...] or else he is thinking about matters he expects and whose advent he dreads", in the words of Maimonides. Only now, it is possible to indulge in those feelings non-stop. People haven't changed, but people's tools have.






May 28, 2023

News Balance the load

In markets where Amazon has a large enough presence, it's possible to have some deliveries made in the overnight hours. Most consumers would probably view the offer as a matter of convenience (why not get an item at 7am instead of 5pm?), and possibly as an option to reduce the risk of porch piracy (with the package spending less time on the front doorstep than a delivery made in the middle of a work day). ■ But it's surprising that overnight delivery isn't promoted more heavily in Amazon's own self-interest. Using the streets when fewer other drivers are about would have to be of no small advantage, in terms of time lost in traffic and accident risk. And while many delivery drivers would rather keep to conventional working hours, surely some would prefer to be out and about when the roads contain fewer drivers, the sidewalks contain fewer children, and yards contain fewer unleashed pets. ■ If the workplace disruptions of 2020 and onwards have taught us anything, the most important lesson ought to be the virtue of load-balancing. Lots of work takes place during what we might call "surge" hours, simply because that's what we've always done in the past. But when office workers were sent home en masse, no small number of them chose to get things done late at night or early in the morning. ■ Plenty of fortunes are yet to be earned by finding new breakthroughs in technology and innovations in processes. But there's a lot yet to be gained by balancing out the use of many existing resources, from surface streets to electricity to potable water to labor supply, all of which are consumed in their own ways at lumpy intervals. Smoothing those out will continue to be a useful frontier.





May 30, 2023

Science and Technology Looking out the window

Plenty of people alive today are no more than one or two generations removed from ancestors who lived before the Wright Brothers launched the age of powered flight in 1903. It would do many of us some good to ponder this kind of thing once in a while. Only a couple of generations ago, literally nobody had ever gotten to see above the clouds without climbing a mountain. Now, a passenger just has to look out the cabin window of a jet airplane. ■ It's easy to underestimate and underappreciate the dramatic changes that have improved life in our own times and in the times that preceded us. Technologies often streak from magic to mundane in about as much time as it takes for a child born at the technology's outset to reach legal adulthood. We only incentivize this pipeline from adoption to presumption by rewarding people for being "digital natives" -- or whatever broad generational definition for technophiles is yet to come. ■ To appear to take advancements for granted is often the price of entry into the world of "cool". After William Shatner took a brief ride into space, he wrote, "when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold...all I saw was death." Not cool. It would have been much cooler to say that the trip felt like no big deal. ■ But we should take that moment to look out the cabin window -- and to really consider just how much change can take place in an astonishingly short time. Not because the time itself is the material subject at hand, but because of the fragility it represents. All of the human progress that has been made in virtually every area that matters has been iterative, not breakthrough. We often consider the Wright Brothers' success as a breakthrough, but it was really the result of persistent, methodical effort built on a foundation of research and support. And nearly everything that has happened since that time to permit the ordinary air traveler to see above the clouds has also taken place one small piece at a time. ■ Our entire modern world is built on complex relationships, narrow specialties, and, above all, basic mutual trust. None of it works if we can't trust one another -- to do our best at our specialties individually, to follow through on our promises, and to stay out of the way when others peacefully engage in whatever they choose to do either for fun or for profit. ■ Those who make their way by promising aggressive disruption or by threatening to boldly dismantle systems and institutions out of spite are dangerously prone to wrecking things far beyond their own intent. Having a firm appreciation for just how elaborate the structures of the world have evolved to be is the first step towards understanding how delicate our modern comforts often are.





June 1, 2023

News Don't forget

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




June 2, 2023

The United States of America Bring in the governors

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




June 3, 2023

News Informing the future with the past

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




June 4, 2023

News Don't cut it so close

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




June 5, 2023

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

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





June 7, 2023

News Advancing without exploiting

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

Weather and Disasters Bad wildfires, great sunsets

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

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

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




June 8, 2023

News If you prosecute a Speaker

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




June 9, 2023

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

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





June 11, 2023

News Making advocates through honors

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






June 14, 2023

Broadcasting Futuristic currents

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




June 15, 2023

News "High workload, stress, and task saturation"

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


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June 16, 2023

Broadcasting The good in consumer television

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




June 17, 2023

Threats and Hazards If only they had a Third Amendment

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

Computers and the Internet The real switching costs of social media

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

Humor and Good News Supply and demand for gullibility

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




June 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Tragedy on the seas

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






June 21, 2023

Business and Finance Don't let them fight

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




June 22, 2023

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

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




June 23, 2023

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

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




June 24, 2023

News Vulgarians at the gate

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




June 25, 2023

News There are no heroes here

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




June 26, 2023

Broadcasting What's on tonight?

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





June 28, 2023

News Custodians needed

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




June 29, 2023

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

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




June 30, 2023

Aviation News Smooth landing

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