Gongol.com Archives: 2023 Third-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

July 2, 2023

News Now read this

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

July 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Cranky television

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

Humor and Good News Clean sheets

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

July 4, 2023

The United States of America Facts submitted to a candid world

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

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

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

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

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

Humor and Good News A cheeky Fourth

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

Computers and the Internet Twitter puts the brakes on its users

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

News Camp in an oversized Toyota

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

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July 5, 2023

Threats and Hazards Choose your future, world

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

July 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet Is time almost up for Twitter?

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

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

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

News Elton John's last set on British ground?

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

Computers and the Internet Windows closing

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

July 8, 2023

News Adequate names for good traits

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

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July 10, 2023

News Sweden is to join NATO

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

July 11, 2023

Business and Finance The $17.5 billion project

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

July 13, 2023

Weather and Disasters Chicagoland got lucky

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

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

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

July 14, 2023

News The agonists and the terrified

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

July 15, 2023

News Modern war is everywhere

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

July 16, 2023

Weather and Disasters Children of a changing climate

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

July 17, 2023

The United States of America The case for seaplanes

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

July 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Grain drain

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

Weather and Disasters Lightning from above

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

July 19, 2023

The United States of America To be a warning to others

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

Socialism Doesn't Work An act of madness

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

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

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

July 20, 2023

News Disturbing the public tranquility

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

Weather and Disasters Feeling exceptional in Iowa

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

July 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet A lost icon

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

Computers and the Internet A very reasonable hypothesis

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

July 22, 2023

News A fair and speedy trial

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

Weather and Disasters More than hot enough

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

Aviation News A conclave of whirlybirds

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

July 23, 2023

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

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

News UPS and Teamsters Union on brink of strike

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

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July 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Trust, but verify

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

July 25, 2023

News Legacy admissions

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

News Things have gotten strange in China

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

Humor and Good News A fight to the death

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

Humor and Good News A human torpedo

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

Weather and Disasters 10 million people at risk

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

July 26, 2023

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

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

News An interview with Sinead O'Connor

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

Science and Technology A breakthrough, perhaps

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

News It's not enough

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

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July 27, 2023

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

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

Aviation News Not all business is worth earning

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

Humor and Good News All dogs go to Heaven

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

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July 28, 2023

News Don't go it alone

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

News Ukraine moves Christmas

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

July 29, 2023

Business and Finance Making more out of less

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

July 30, 2023

News Stop the little rogues

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

Science and Technology Troubling, if true

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

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July 31, 2023

Threats and Hazards Racial profiling via surveillance cameras

It's a dismal dystopian reality in China

Health Rural health care needs more people

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

Business and Finance How bad is vertical integration, really?

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

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

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

News How much help is enough?

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

Weather and Disasters Tornadoes can cross rivers

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

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

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

Broadcasting "Benson" was lieutenant governor of Montana

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

August 1, 2023

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

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

Aviation News Linguistic precision matters

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

August 2, 2023

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

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

August 3, 2023

Weather and Disasters Tiny satellites will help track tropical storm events

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

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

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

News When systems fail

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

Computers and the Internet Classic computers

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

News Sheltered from what?

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

August 4, 2023

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

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

News Small vessels can cause big damage

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

Computers and the Internet "X (formerly Twitter)"

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

News Oregon and Washington to join the Big Ten

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

Broadcasting The tragedy of "Benson"

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

August 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet When symbiosis breaks down

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

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August 8, 2023

The United States of America Arbitrary tests

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

August 10, 2023

Computers and the Internet Signet rings of the 21st Century

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

August 11, 2023

News News that matters, not nonsense

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

August 12, 2023

Iowa A fair amount of interaction

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

August 13, 2023

Business and Finance Selling (out) to a customer

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

August 16, 2023

News The words should suit the crime

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

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August 17, 2023

News Late graduates

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

August 18, 2023

Weather and Disasters A good first attempt

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

August 19, 2023

News Long nights, short years

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

August 20, 2023

Humor and Good News How free choice makes us more alike

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

August 21, 2023

News School years to come

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

August 22, 2023

Business and Finance The wisdom of having nothing to add

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

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August 23, 2023

Business and Finance Cutting the check and paying the price

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

August 25, 2023

News Nickname games are unwarranted

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

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August 27, 2023

News No more baby-talk

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

August 28, 2023

Weather and Disasters The storm heading for Florida

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

August 29, 2023

Computers and the Internet Spamouflage takedown

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

August 30, 2023

Business and Finance Your ennui is not your own

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

August 31, 2023

News War-scarred but stronger

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

September 1, 2023

News A class by herself

The physical extremes of a Simone Biles floor routine are enough to summon words like "superhuman" to the mind. Her performances are truly extraordinary -- and perhaps even more so because she has earned the record for oldest woman to earn a US national title in the sport. She is an athlete in a class of her own. ■ Most elite athletes are endowed with some kind of natural gift or another, but what turns out a truly epic talent like what Biles is able to display is something more: Sustained, persistent effort. Six hours a day in 2016. Then seven hours a day in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. And then whatever it took to shake the "twisties" since then. ■ Could just anyone spend the same amount of time in training and turn out the same? No; that's where natural gifts come in. But even with a gift that would put someone standard deviations outside the mean, it's not enough just to show up in a lucky place and time. ■ That's the root of the common (if not almost-universal) revulsion people feel about the con artists who fake their way into good fortune. When a person has a natural gift but does the hard work to refine it, most of us feel admiration. But unearned success is aggravating to outsiders; fortunately, it seems like it's often aggravating to the undeservedly successful, too. We've even coined the name imposter syndrome to explain the nagging feeling that even an earned success doesn't always feel quite earned enough. ■ Nothing beats sustained, persistent effort. Other things may pull ahead of it from time to time, but nobody stays on top for long (or even close to the top) without it. Really respecting outstanding performers requires seeing them not as superhuman, but as humans who apply super persistence.

September 4, 2023

Health Executing on the basics before the burn

The grand paradox of the 2023 Burning Man festival is likely to be how an event so libertine in nature is likely to offer an enduring case for good government. The event was derailed by unmanaged desert rainfall, of a scale that rendered most transportation impossible. That alone would be bad, but for an event dependent upon the manual emptying of portable toilets as a primary mode of sanitation, the lack of transportation also means a fundamental breakdown in some of the most basic aspects of civilization. ■ Nobody actually needs to attend Burning Man. But almost everyone needs to live within some kind of structured civilized environment. Cities and towns are the most obvious example, but even family-sized human settlments, at least in the United States, are almost always subject to regulations requiring roads for emergency access (even if they're only covered in gravel) and safe disposal of used water (even if only via a septic leach field). ■ Two imperative points should be taken from the 2023 Burning Man experience, even for those who stayed home. The first is that well-operated municipal services are, in general, vastly underappreciated by the American public. Put simply: Most of the time, we take public works for granted, noticing only when they break down catastrophically. That's a crying shame, and we ought to change our attitudes. Very little of that work is glamorous, but it is indispensable to maintaining anything close to an advanced society. ■ The second lesson is that municipal water and sanitation infrastructures aren't about saving the environment, they're about public health. This may not seem like an immediately obvious matter of importance. But most of the regulation that pertains to the delivery, use, rehabilitation, and reuse of water comes under the supervision of agencies operating under some version of the word "environment". This is no surprise, considering that the leading Federal agency for those purposes is itself the Environmental Protection Agency. ■ But the lesson from Burning Man is that the crux of the matter isn't what humans do to the environment, but how flaws in sanitation have almost immediate effects on the health of human beings. If you don't have clean potable water and a safe means of disposing water that has been used (for any number of purposes, including but by no means limited to, the use of toilets), then you don't have a healthy civilization -- in the most literal sense. Bad water makes people sick. ■ Nature (that is, "the environment") has many ways to heal water that humans have used and made unwell. They may not be swift, but the same processes that handle the waste functions of all the other animals would deal with ours as well. It is for human health and safety -- particularly when we gather in settlements of any size, even if only for a week-long festival -- that water disposal and rehabilitation matter so much. Human society starts to fail quickly if we're deprived of reliable means of sanitation. People can muddle through for a few days at a time, but if it goes on much longer than that, it's not the environment that suffers -- it's us.

September 5, 2023

News Labels aren't always necessary

Most people are generally more heterodox in their opinions than one might expect. Fully-formed, rational, and consistent philosophies of government are few and far between, and the people who have the time and incentive to form them -- think-tank fellows, advocacy journalists, and syndicated columnists, for example -- are the exceptions. The rule, even for career politicians, tends to be a lot messier. ■ It's much more common to find that people have opinions on a small subset of things and then subscribe to what appear to be the prevailing opinions on adjacent things among those who go along with them. This is a fairly natural impulse; most of us care strongly about a handful of things, but in order to get what we want democratically, we need to find coalitions. Thus, some horse-trading invariably takes place, whether in the open or by default. ■ For this reason, we should beware the seductive impulse to label every opinion as belonging to a broad political character. This is especially the case today, when long-established definitions no longer apply even to such commonly-used adjectives as "liberal" and "conservative". ■ When observers take their labels too far, they risk unintentionally creating a negative feedback loop among people who identify more with a tribe than with a philosophy. If someone with a big audience says something remarkably dumb, then it should be enough to treat that dumb idea to a rational, factual response. That's the case even if the person attempts to align themselves with a perceived "side" in politics. ■ Trade protectionism, for instance, is a bad idea, whether it's conducted by people who call themselves "democratic socialists" or by people who call themselves "common-good conservatives". Critiquing individual opinions and policies away from hazy labels (like "conservative" or "progressive") helps to break the feedback loops that can cause people to rise to the defense of bad ideas they really don't believe, but which they think are admission requirements to remain in good standing with their tribes. ■ Using caution with broad labels can help to nudge people away from that instinct to surrender their critical thought to the identity of a team. And that's a good thing, because the world is too complex to be easily satisfied with one-size-fits-all ideologies. ■ When people consider issues on their own, shifts of historic proportions can happen in relatively short order. Using restraint rather than blandly applying broad labels to individuals and specific opinions can help to implicitly encourage people to embrace nuance and complexity in their own views of things.

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September 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards It's not a binary question

If there is one lesson to take away from the social sciences, it is that human behavior can often be predicted in the probabilistic sense, but events are almost never subject to simplistic determinations. In other words: Some patterns are much more likely than others, but rarely does just one set of rules or causes apply. ■ Every honest person knows this from personal experience. The odds are reasonably high that any individual will share a considerable number of important opinions on matters like politics or religion with their parents or with a spouse. But nobody agrees completely with anyone else about everything -- not even with a husband or a wife. Not even dear old Mom. ■ Thus, when the world's richest person, who controls a number of ventures, including the Starlink satellite Internet service, comes under particular scrutiny for using his corporate control of the service to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian warships with the crucial aid of its technology, then it should be no surprise that he might seek to defend his personal honor. ■ But the defense he offers ought to be held to some standard of logical rigor. It is one thing to say "I was afraid of being labeled as an accomplice in an act of which I did not approve". It is another to say, as Elon Musk has done, "Both sides should agree to a truce. Every day that passes, more Ukrainian and Russian youth die to gain and lose small pieces of land, with borders barely changing. This is not worth their lives." ■ As a matter of decency, the bloodshed in Ukraine ought to end. But it won't be ended by a fantasy. Musk subscribes to an excruciatingly over-simplified understanding of matters when he posits that the solution is "a truce". Russia initiated the war (breaking the "truce" that preceded it), it violated Ukraine's territory to commit the violence, and it is responsible for committing war crimes against the people whose homeland it has invaded. ■ All that is required for hostilities to cease is for Russia to withdraw from where it invaded. Until then, calling for a "truce" is like saying that a homeowner should make peace with a violent squatter, as though the acts of theft and self-defense are moral equals. They aren't. Reducing the question to a binary matter of "fighting" or "not fighting" is foolishness. And ignoring the many reasons why fighting in self-defense today may be necessary to achieve a real state of peace tomorrow requires a willful blindness to the real nature of human affairs.

September 9, 2023

News The strengths that prevent wars

Thanks to one particularly cantankerous member of the United States Senate, the concept of "poetry on aircraft carriers" has gained some currency as a shorthand way of decrying a perceived condition of softness within the American military. Once an abstraction of this nature takes off, it becomes hard to harness back to reality. Yet it shouldn't be allowed to slip the reins. ■ The story probably originates with a spat in April, when the Chief of Naval Operations defended a junior officer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing against Sen. Tommy Tuberville's complaints. That junior officer was celebrated by the Navy's own public-affairs outlets for serving in the military under a non-binary gender identity, including a carrier deployment during which the officer had the opportunity to share a poem aboard the ship's PA system. ■ The Senator relies upon a shorthand description of the military as a "killing and fighting machine", holding that purpose as being incompatible with being an institution open to people of varying gender and sexual backgrounds or friendly to cultural events like spoken-word nights. In reality, the American military's openness to service from all kinds of people is a source of strategic strength. Yes, at some level, a military is a "killing and fighting machine", and under those circumstances, it is hard to see any evidence that gender identity has any effect on lethality. ■ But far more importantly, the armed forces of the United States act as a deterrent power, and deterrence comes from both practiced strength and adaptable thinking. It's far easier to deter an adversary when in possession not just of arms, but of ample brainpower. And anything that prevents a country from employing all of its best minds -- regardless of gender -- is a handicap against using all of its best thinking. ■ There should be no doubt that the United States today would be an even stronger country if the Founding Fathers had included an equal number of Founding Mothers in their proceedings; surely there was a woman of equal genius for every man in the room. But at least we know better today, and we should have the wisdom to assume likewise that for every great general like George Washington, there surely might have been an equal prospective leader who would have identified as Georgia Washington -- and, though fewer in number, at least a handful that would have eschewed a gender identity altogether. ■ The more we put to work the people best able to do their jobs, regardless of any other identity, the better we'll be able to fight and win the wars of the present and future. But even more significantly, the better we recognize the wisdom embedded in Dwight Eisenhower's advice from World War II: "[T]he American soldier, in spite of wisecracking, sometimes cynical speech, is an intelligent human being who demands and deserves basic understanding of the reasons why his country took up arms and of the conflicting consequences of victory or defeat." Purpose, intelligence, and creativity help us not just to win but to prevent wars. Those aren't soft spots, they're strengths, and it doesn't matter one bit in what bodies those strengths are contained.

September 10, 2023

Business and Finance You can't plan this

The sentiment that everyone is entitled to have an opinion, but not to make up a unique set of facts, is one to which most sensible people subscribe. But what about those opinions so relentlessly contravened by the facts that they simply cannot survive any kind of real scrutiny? ■ A state senator from New York has taken to a public platform to loudly declare, "Having a plan is better than not having one. Socialism = planned economy[,] Capitalism = unplanned ("free" market)". An opinion, yes. But what of his facts? ■ The only way to reach his conclusion is to willfully reject every relevant lesson of history and adopt a fertile imagination about the omniscience of planners. The originating assumption of the entire claim is that plans themselves are good. But anyone with even the mildest experience in planning recognizes the grain of truth in the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." ■ Thus, "Having a plan" is no panacea, particularly if it is finalized, rigid, and codified. And that is exactly what people mean when they call for a "planned" economy. A market economy is "planned", too, but not in the ledgers of government. A market is "planned" through the actions and choices of all its many participants. Their plans, though, are not fixed: Sensible people learn to adapt and change as circumstances change. ■ As people make their own choices, their plans get converted into actions, which then send signals to other people (via prices) that spill over and affect their plans, too. Planning still takes place, but it takes place on individual and firm-level scales, and it takes place flexibly. There is an unimaginable hubris to the notion that any merry band of omniscient geniuses could effectively plan the course of an economy, when not one of us has sufficient information to predict perfectly the circumstances of our own individual lives a year from now. ■ No planner could have predicted negative oil prices a year in advance of April 2020, and that is merely one among literally billions of unpredictable economic events. The faith some people have in government planners may be an opinion to which they are entitled, but it is a faith so profoundly contradicted by the facts that no one should take its adherents seriously.

September 11, 2023

Weather and Disasters Powering tropical weather

With a forward speed of just 7 miles per hour, the eyewall of Hurricane Lee could be outrun by a pretty average jogger (assuming the jogger could stay on land). But the hurricane itself is powerful. The familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes storms by wind speeds, rates Lee (with 115-mph winds) as a Category 3 storm. ■ The real measure of hurricanes ought to be the depth of its central low pressure -- a better measure of strength and of damage potential than wind speeds alone. The public takes its cues on science from the measurements it can understand. Wind speeds are familiar, of course, but they leave out vital information. ■ It has been estimated that the oceans are absorbing most of the excess heat energy that human activities have released into the world around us. And what we need to center in the public awareness is that excess energy is reallocated by weather systems from the water to the atmosphere. ■ The amount of energy involved is staggering -- a single hurricane release energy on a scale comparable to all the electricity generated by human behavior. ■ But even that apparently isn't enough to deplete the excess energy in the oceans right now; not if Hurricane Lee can move so slowly and keep on drawing in new fuel. And that's why tropical cylones ought to be described more by their pressures than by their wind speeds. It all comes down to energy, and there's a great deal of it going around right now.

September 12, 2023

Threats and Hazards Let the conspiracy theories die

Another September 11th anniversary has passed, and a small but noisy crowd of conspiracy theorists remains committed to promoting narratives about the events of that day that have no foundation in evidence. Even a declared Presidential candidate remains among them. ■ Conspiracy theories usually exist to satisfy a longing to have insider knowledge. People see patterns where none exist and are gratified by a sense of belonging among a special elite of those who are "in the know". ■ But the bigger question that applies to many conspiracy theories -- but in particular to those about the 9/11 attacks -- is this: Why are some people so committed to inventing new evils in which to believe, rather than the self-evident evil which already demonstrably exists? ■ Al-Qaeda openly claimed responsibility for the attacks. It isn't necessary to go searching elsewhere for more convoluted explanations, particularly for explanations that would indict the decency of ordinary Americans. ■ What happened was complex enough, and there is real and continuing reason to examine how the government missed the fragments of information that could have thwarted the attacks. When people contaminate the public mind with feverish nonsense, they detract from the hard and important work of learning how better to apply defense-in-depth against future attacks, from whatever sources they may come.

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September 13, 2023

Broadcasting The all-consuming tube

The most recent American Time Use Survey, using data collected in 2022, reveals that Americans have a particular addiction that intensifies with age: Watching television. The average adult aged 25 to 34 years old watches just a little bit less than two hours of television per day -- but the average person aged 75 or older is in front of the tube for nearly five hours a day (and rising above five hours on weekends). ■ We devote a great deal of attention to the prospects for new technologies like artificial intelligence to affect both individuals and the culture at large. That's likely a prudent concern. There are a great number of ways in which emerging tools have been either under-examined or whose effects defy easy forecasting. ■ But it's not always the new that poses the most substantial hazards, nor should we overlook old risks just because we've become numb to their effects. Television (and other video products, regardless of how they are delivered) remains a profoundly powerful medium -- one that has been used for great edifying purposes (see "Sesame Street") as well as for purposes that are so plainly stupid that their hosts and producers deserve to be sent into exile. ■ One of our biggest failures as a society is that spammers, phonies, crooks, cranks, and extremists have invested so much effort in learning the secrets of getting people hooked on their content, with almost nobody applying the same lessons on the side of good. It's the ne'er-do-wells who have figured out how to exploit psychological tools like "curiosity gap" marketing to get viewers to click on crude web ads and annoying pre-roll videos. And the murky bottoms they occupy are adjacent to the ones where we find snake-oil "influencers", political and psychological cults, and full-fledged malicious psyops. ■ There isn't enough counterbalancing motive for people with good motivations to learn and apply the same techniques. Quick riches can await the clever influencer running elaborate stunts on YouTube, but nobody's getting wealthy by convincing people to read the Federalist Papers. ■ That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though; in fact, the gap is really much as it has always been: Certain virtues, like duty, persistence, self-improvement, and integrity, have always been slow to pay off, and often not in remunerative ways at all. But even if the techniques are being pioneered most aggressively by people taking advantage of the passivity of others, those same techniques can (and ought to be) studied and reappropriated by people of goodwill.

September 15, 2023

News Ambition rises through every system

An Australian real-estate developer has attempted to apologize and walk back comments he made to an investing summit, during which he said that "we need to see pain in the economy" and "employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around...we've got to kill that attitude". ■ The backlash is understandable: The words were condescending and inhumane. But there are all too many people responding to those words by blaming capitalism and "neoliberals" for one person's bad attitude. They are the usual suspects, of course, who profess perpetual faith in socialism -- including its harshest variants. ■ The mystery in the overreaction is why socialists assume that under their system, a person like this developer would turn out to be a harmless potato farmer instead of a party apparatchik with the very same attitude problem. Ambition is a human trait, and it fits into whatever socioeconomic system surrounds it. ■ The people who tend to dehumanize others to serve their own interests under capitalism would do the same in a Marxist-Leninist state, too. The question is what power we grant them to do it. Within a market economy, public outcry and backlash carry weight. People can choose to snub the developer and his company -- as employees, customers, or suppliers. ■ It is noteworthy that he released an apology and took down his LinkedIn account over the backlash. People who are free to take their business elsewhere are a material factor in a market economy. ■ The same cannot be done in the command economies of the world. An ambitious person raised in a market economy would likely be an ambitious person in a Marxist-Leninist economy, too. Instead of accumulating wealth, the ambitious tend to accumulate privileges and proximity to power. ■ The property developer with a bad attitude under capitalism might become a factory manager instead -- with greater power to abuse and berate his underlings (who, in a command economy, have fewer alternatives and less freedom to fight back), and a much more severe set of consequences to face if his performance failed to impress those above him in the power structure. And the politically powerful can make those who fall out of favor simply "disappear". ■ Ambition can be exercised with goodwill, or it can be carried out by rotten souls. And some bad apples will find their way into powerful positions, no matter what socioeconomic system they occupy. What we should care about most is how much power they have to compel others to go along when they go wrong.

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September 16, 2023

News To cook a better dinner

It isn't hard to understand the impulse that some people have to make fun of a situation like the one depicting Sen. Mitt Romney putting ketchup on a salmon fillet in order to make it palatable. To those who like it prepared well, the thought of drowning a piece of fine Alaskan salmon in ketchup is a crime. ■ But there is something deeper to the tale: Romney isn't ordering his salmon at a fine restaurant; he's cooking it for himself. While it's entirely possible he simply doesn't like the taste of the fish and wouldn't under any circumstances (not everyone has a taste for seafood), suppose that he might enjoy it if prepared differently. ■ Learning how to prepare foods well makes as much difference as the raw materials themselves. It would be easy to make a bad meal out of a great salmon fillet, if the person cooking it didn't know how to do it well. Mistakes can be made in the thawing, the seasoning, the temperature, the finish, and even in how the meat is flaked away from the skin. ■ Food has a funny place in American popular culture. We don't have a real national cuisine like lots of other countries; perhaps the closest we come is a national consensus on how to put hamburgers on a grill. Lacking a common traditional method of preparation, we have evolved toward a consensus that thrives on meals like chicken nuggets and French fries: The cooking centers on frying oil and the seasoning centers on salt. ■ The ire directed at Romney's approach to salmon is a lot like the condescension often directed towards the eating habits associated with poverty. Sometimes the problem is one of bad choices. Sometimes it's limited access. But sometimes people eat poorly because they haven't acquired the capacity to make pleasing, quick meals from affordable basic ingredients. It's a capacity issue, or perhaps more precisely, a problem of people needing to build capacity and not knowing how to do it. ■ Lots of healthy foods need to be transformed by good preparation in order to become really appetizing. It isn't obvious how that capacity should be built, either. Should everyone have to master a few Julia Child recipes before being conferred a high school diploma? Should everyone receive a voucher for a refresher course in cooking once a decade? Should the government subsidize certain time-saving devices like air fryers for households that qualify for nutrition assistance? ■ Sometimes solving a bigger issue means drilling around for answers to root causes. But it's important to look carefully, because it's not just a problem of poverty. Plenty of Americans with lots of financial means could use some guidance, too.

September 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards The membership we deserve

It is a question worth asking, as it already has been and will undoubtedly be asked again during the 78th General Assembly of the United Nations: Why does Russia retain a prominent seat at the table while it shamelessly pursues an unprovoked war against its neighbor? ■ The answer lies, in part, within an identity crisis for the UN. It is neither a purely neutral forum for the adjudication of international disputes, nor a truly values-driven institution. If it were a neutral forum with the sole purpose of stabilizing world affairs, then it would be small, disciplined, and entirely mission-focused. But the secretariat claims to employ "tens of thousands of UN staff members", reflecting the sort of mission creep that is extremely difficult to avoid within any organization prone to recruiting ambitious people. ■ If the UN were a truly values-driven institution, though, then Saudi Arabia would have to work harder to earn a seat at the Commission on the Status of Women and Russia would be suspended from the Security Council for invading a neighbor and gravely threatening the security of an entire continent (to choose just two significant examples). ■ A forum with a mission of offering a vital forum for discussions pointing towards peace and stability would focus single-mindedly on that objective. A club with principles wouldn't hesitate to eject members for violating the rules. In its incumbent form, the United Nations really ought to consider retrenching to that single-minded focus on acting as the world's irreplaceable forum. That would allow it to spin off its many values-driven subsidiary missions to their own standalone institutions, not because they are unimportant, but because they are too important to be diluted by their association with an organization that feels compelled to accept all comers. ■ A principle stripped of consequences is just a set of empty words. For the UN to tout a slogan of "Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet" on its masthead at the same time as one of its most powerful members mines its neighbor, kidnaps 200,000 children (or more), and extorts the people whose land it occupies, is to undermine the actual gravity of those values.

September 19, 2023

News Known for all the wrong reasons

Plenty of United States Senators are famous: Lots of people know which one has been in physical fights with his neighbors, which one routinely dresses like he's taking out the garbage, and which one is obsessed with podcast popularity. Ask ordinary voters to name three who are long overdue to retire or three more who will say anything to get a TV hit, and you probably won't have trouble collecting names. ■ But in Federalist Paper No. 62, James Madison made a case for the Senate that had nothing to do with popularity or notoriety. In fact, quite the opposite: He envisioned the Senate as a center of knowledge. ■ "A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained", wrote Madison. "Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last." ■ Who is the Senate's expert on education reform? Or cybersecurity? Or blue-water naval strategy? Or renewable energy? Who is there to do the work to apply real knowledge to the big, long-term, national-scale issues that will trouble us 6 or 9 months from now, not to mention 15 or 20 years from today? ■ That it's much easier to name Senators for all the wrong reasons than to identify which ones are really beacons of wisdom ought to be a shame on American voters. We're the ones who choose them, after all. ■ And it's a further shame that we gobble up so much horse-race coverage about elections to the Senate without demanding more journalism that highlights independent judgment and creativity of thought among those actually in office. The good news, of course, is that voters have the option to completely clean house every six years, should we so choose. But it requires initiative to do so.

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September 22, 2023

News When to keep a tradition

College football season is a time when the word "tradition" gets a lot of exercise. The astute observer could pick from hundreds, from ringing a bell to banging a drum to waving to hospitalized kids. ■ But it is healthy to recognize a difference between traditions that are worth keeping and traditions that ought to be jettisoned. The stakes are low when it comes to college football, but traditions affect all kinds of other life experiences, including some of the most important choices about how people live their lives. ■ A tradition that hasn't been tested is really nothing more than a good rumor. If people like to tell one another a story because it makes them feel good, that may be harmless -- who cares whether you rub Knute Rockne's nose for good luck? But a "traditional" way of doing things can also mean taking chances with people's health or obstructing an entire gender from participating in government. ■ When they are used to remind us of good practices, traditions are among the most useful tools that human civilizations have. Not everything can be written down as a rule, and even written rules can be broken. Elections are usually conducted according to rules, but the peaceful transfer of power is enforceable more by tradition than by anything enshrined on paper. ■ For the good of society, individuals need to feel an intrinsic and inescapable pull to defend tested traditions rather than to go with their momentary passions that might suggest otherwise. People of goodwill ought to appreciate the testing of traditions because they bear out whether one is worth keeping. ■ A tradition shouldn't be tested arbitrarily or unnecessarily, but it ought to demonstrate some merit of its own. If a tradition fails a test -- if it turns out to be useless, antiquated, or counterproductive -- then we shouldn't hestitate to jettison it. But nothing is more obnoxious to the present than to worship artifacts of the past that don't build constructively towards the future.

September 23, 2023

The Federal Trade Commission is going after a Texas chain of anesthesia providers and a private-equity investment firm that has a big ownership stake in it. The government alleges that the company "engaged in a three-part strategy to consolidate and monopolize the anesthesiology market in Texas". The case ought to be prosecuted in court, but the allegations sound like far less than what society ought to expect from its physicians. ■ We really have to reconcile ourselves with the definition of "professional". To really be a profession, a line of work needs to recognize that it holds a special kind of power (usually vital knowledge or expertise) over its clients, and that the asymmetry of the relationship requires a binding code of conduct to keep bad actors out. ■ In some (though not all) professions, there's an additional legal step -- certification or licensure that specifically excludes others from representing themselves as being comparable professionals. Of course, those licenses themselves require a lot of self-policing, which is why a state board of medicine is usually filled by doctors. (Likewise for engineers, attorneys, and accountants.) ■ Regulatory licensure inevitably excludes people who wish to perform the work, which constrains supply. This, in turn, raises the amount that the professionals can charge. This market force has to be counteracted by a certain moral expectation: If you're in a line of work that we reserve by law only for some people, then you must not use that power to exploit others for your own enrichment. ■ If your work contains some kind of code of conduct, that's a pretty good step towards being a profession. The code implies that you're going to make choices that may not benefit you personally, because they're right thing to do for the client. The idea of making "professional" choices on behalf of a client is an acknowledgment that there's a principal-agent problem in place: Only one of you has sufficient knowledge about what's best, and it's not the person paying for the services. ■ The designation of "professional" comes with a certain amount of social standing: We, the public, owe you, the professional, some gratitude. You're sacrificing some potential income that you could squeeze out of us, in exchange for the authority to make important decisions for others. Respect goes with that. ■ That definition of professionalism seems patently incompatible with arm's-length ownership. If you're not the professional delivering the service (or immediately adjacent to them), then you probably shouldn't be pulling home the profits from the work. A professional needs to be able to resist some temptation to make a marginal dollar of income from an unwitting client. ■ Professionalism is an extremely important concept to preserve within a market economy. A small but meaningful step towards that preservation might be to stop slapping the word "professional" on work that isn't a code-bound profession. If you play sports for money, you're not really a "professional" -- you're an elite athlete. If you make beautiful art, you may be an eminent artist -- but it's not a profession. And there are many ways to be a good and honorable person in sales, but "sales professional" is a paradoxical title. ■ If your job doesn't require you to profess a code of honorable and self-sacrificial behavior, then you're not really a "professional". You can still be good and decent, and you should be! But for the sake of society, if you're out to optimize your own profits, then you shouldn't demand to be respected as a professional. And if you insist on being respected as a professional, then you shouldn't demand to optimize your own profits. ■ Good people can do either thing, but the act of maximizing returns (which is the kind of thing private equity investors do, almost by definition) isn't consistent with what medical professionals are expected (and generally bound by law) to do. The FTC may or may not be right about the facts and the law in this case; that's why it should go through a judicial process. But the spirit of the case highlights why words matter, and why "professional" shouldn't be the kind of title we just give away.

September 24, 2023

News Slow down

Perhaps a week remains until the Federal government risks entering a shutdown. It is uncomfortably familiar territory. ■ There are those who consider these shutdowns a unique failure of America's governmental system. It is true that separating powers over spending, as Article I and Article II of the Constitution force, makes the process of collecting tax revenues and spending them complicated. It's more complicated than in a process executed by a parliament. ■ But the slowdowns in the process, if not a feature themselves, are symptomatic of a feature rather than a bug in the system. We have some troublesome participants with extreme views involved in the process. But the problems they create are not reasons to take friction out of the system. ■ Every system has problematic or bad actors. Sometimes they even get elected to the Presidency. Fixing the problem of ensuring the election of quality candidates is a big one, but it's not one that is solved by greasing the skids so that legislation (and budgets) move faster.

September 27, 2023

The United States of America The unforgivable call for violence

General Mark Milley, the outgoing Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been forced to seek personal security protection after a former President implied that Milley should be executed. Only one former President would say such a thing; his long-standing enthusiastic embrace of the language of violence being so far outside the norm that it is a personal signature. ■ Everyone makes mistakes, and politicians are no exception. Their mistakes are often made for much bigger audiences than most. But so are their choices, whether to do right or wrong. Many questions they face fall within the boundaries of judgment -- a policy decision may turn out well or badly, but an honest advocate could at least make a defensible case for or against. ■ That isn't the case when someone resorts to the language of violence. There is no defense or excuse for it, and the indisputable proof is this: Were Gen. Milley to have said the very same thing about the ex-President that the ex-President wrote about him, then the consequences wouldn't stop at swift and immediate censure, but would likely extend to criminal investigation and possible prosecution. ■ Forgiveness is a vital personal virtue. Life itself would be difficult to endure without interpersonal forgiveness. But forgiveness exists within a broader concept of reconciliation: People reclaiming a hostile space that develops between them by reaching out to make things better again. ■ There is no obligation, though, for a society at large to forgive its worst trespassers, most especially when they make no effort to reconcile. The system depends upon civilized practices like the peaceful transfer of power and the non-incendiary use of rhetoric to settle our differences. Without them, there is no policy choice that is safe for debate.

September 28, 2023

News Who needs a wise old king, anyhow?

If someone with a modest fortune at their disposal really wanted to change the world on a generational basis, they could do worse than to subsidize the reimagining of classic children's stories and fairy tales to strip away the kingdoms and castles, the princesses and princes, and replace them with small-"r" republican back-stories. This may, at first, seem like a strange hangup, but the open-minded observer should see that it isn't an anachronistic plea. ■ Certainly, many of the canonical fairy tales that occupy the childhood imagination come from times when monarchs were the rule, rather than the exception: The first collection of the Grimms' Fairy Tales was published in 1812, when even notoriously democratic Switzerland was struggling to reassert rule by the people. ■ But the reliance upon monarchy as a central theme in so many familiar stories -- with wise kings dispensing justice and valiant princes sweeping young damsels off their feet -- undoubtedly conditions children to think of vast concentrated power as a good thing, so long as it is held by someone (almost always a man) with good intentions. Maybe the effect is small, and maybe open minds ultimately come around to seeing things in a more classically-liberal sense. ■ Yet it is hard not to note that, even in the world's oldest uninterrupted democracy, the "American royalty" brand name of the Kennedy clan can still launch a wildly unqualified conspiracy theorist into Presidential contention and millions of voters can remain enthralled by a man whose overriding theory of government amounted to no more than l'etat, c'est moi. ■ Would those proclivities stick with us quite so much if more of the stories that fill childhood involved messy democratic votes and contentious elections with peaceful transfers of power? Maybe not. ■ It's really never too early to begin inculcating children with the idea that all of us are equals, and that cooperation, tolerance, and consent are far better than merely accepting that someone wields divine right over the rest of us. Children can start to understand these concepts early in life, and maybe adults are obligated to do a better job of making sure they hear tales that reinforce them. Someone ought to get writing.

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September 29, 2023

News When should you stop applying sunscreen?

"Wear sunscreen" is advice so enduring and useful that Baz Luhrmann was able to convert it from a Chicago Tribune opinion column into a hit song. "Trust me on the sunscreen", wrote Mary Schmich, and she was right: It's a low-cost way to reduce the odds of cancers like melanoma. ■ Sunscreen isn't free, though, and it takes effort (even if not all that much) to apply it. And it isn't always apparent to the one applying it why it matters. The consequences are usually in the future, sometimes even decades away, but the costs are immediate. Even at the beach on a bright summer day, it can seem tedious and tiresome to keep applying more protection. ■ Skin performs a unique function for the body: It provides the barrier between the outside world and everything inside. T-cells in the bloodstream may go on the offensive, but skin is defensive in nature. When punctured, scorched, or gouged, it can heal itself -- given enough relief from new damage. ■ Those who ask seemingly open-ended questions like "When does US aid to Ukraine end?" deserve an honest answer in the form of a different question: "When do you stop applying sunscreen?" ■ Ukraine is performing a geopolitical role for American allies across Europe that is analogous to skin: It is holding back external damage, and doing a remarkable job. It isn't overstatement to worry about the Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, and others that are close to the source of the aggression. ■ But as long as the source of the damage remains intense, it would be premature to declare an arbitrary end to the protection. One doesn't plan to stop applying sunscreen at precisely 1:15 in the afternoon; as long as the UV rays keep coming, the protection must keep going on. Nor does one say "I shall use sunscreen until I am 27, and no more after that." ■ The danger sets the agenda. The enemy gets a vote, as military leaders are often fond of saying. And bad things may still happen, even with the most generous protective barriers in place. The costs of that protection can be immediate and real, and the benefits may be far away and difficult to envision. But prudent protections are often like that.

September 30, 2023

Business and Finance Will the FTC get to Amazon before the market?

It isn't hard to stipulate a few things about Amazon: Its rise from online bookstore to "everything store" has been epic, its economic impact has been transformative, and its competitive position in what the Federal Trade Commission calls the "online superstore market" is truly titanic. ■ Whether the company engages in illegal monopolistic practices, as the FTC and 17 state attorneys general allege, is not so easy to stipulate. It's entirely possible, and the facts of the case should be weighed by the scales of Lady Justice. ■ But just as we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the merits of the case, we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the appropriate remedies for those conditions, either. Naturally, people's minds drift towards breakup and heavy regulation as possible "solutions" to monopolistic behavior. Those are the tools with which the general public tends to be most familiar. ■ What Amazon does is complex, though. Phenomenally so. And in a time when physical retailers are closing down for many reasons, the very presence of a reliable "online superstore" may ultimately do more social good than any cost it imposes. Having the full inventory of an Amazon warehouse accessible from any smartphone -- even in a retail desert -- is a powerful force for economic equality. ■ There's no obvious regulatory scheme for what Amazon does that would be guaranteed to do more good than harm. And breakups often work out in massively unanticipated ways (just look at what happened to AT&T). The government could split Amazon in half, and there's no small risk that the resulting companies might not evolve into new monopolists, each in a different market. ■ Someone will ultimately come along to challenge the Amazon model in a sustainably powerful way. The best route would almost certainly be to focus not on offering everything from every seller, but to offer a guaranteed high-quality, modestly-priced private-label product for a large spectrum of goods. ■ Search costs can be very real, and consumers may well lack the patience to conduct two separate searches (say, one on Amazon-I, and one on Amazon-II) for every purchase. But they might well be ready to comparison shop with a rival online superstore that offers a good private label for everything -- think Costco's Kirkland brand, or the entire business model of the Aldi grocery chain. ■ If history is any guide, the market will probably usurp Amazon long before the FTC will. Just ask Nokia or the development team for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Or, from the superstore world, the teams at Sears and Montgomery Ward. It's hard to stay on top of any mountain forever.

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