Gongol.com Archives: 2023 Fourth-Quarter Archives

Brian Gongol

October 1, 2023

Humor and Good News Name your glue sticks

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

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

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

News On dictatorial wannabes

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

News Russia raises conscription age

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

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

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

October 4, 2023

The United States of America Higher bars and lower temperatures

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

October 6, 2023

Business and Finance Real job creation

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

October 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards A chilling attack

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

October 8, 2023

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

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

October 11, 2023

Broadcasting Dead plot devices

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

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October 12, 2023

News Mind your business always

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

October 14, 2023

Computers and the Internet Real problems from fake people

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

News Three alternate futures in Gaza

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

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

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

October 15, 2023

Humor and Good News A smash hit

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

Computers and the Internet When are verified words unverifiable?

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

October 17, 2023

News Bring forth names

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

October 19, 2023

News Freedom of navigation isn't free

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

October 20, 2023

News Thinking about dominance

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

October 21, 2023

Iowa Fall leaves are good for the soul

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

October 22, 2023

Science and Technology Pondering existence and consequences

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

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October 24, 2023

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

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

October 26, 2023

Threats and Hazards Bad regimes deserve no friends

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

October 27, 2023

News Bring down bad monuments

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

October 28, 2023

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

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

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October 29, 2023

News Entangling alliances with some

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

October 31, 2023

Business and Finance Occupational surnames

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

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

Threats and Hazards

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

Threats and Hazards Take care of your words

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

Aviation News Getting a charge from electrified aircraft

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

November 8, 2023

Business and Finance Running (a business) scared

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, ever keen to discourage indulgence in strong feelings, warned his readers to "check" and "curb" the sense of pleasure "as those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal." His warning was a reference to the Roman practice of reminding triumphant generals that all victory is temporary, and that they too would someday die. ■ It's hard to travel far across the United States today without seeing an Amazon delivery van, a Prime-branded semi-trailer, or one of a few hundred Amazon fulfillment centers near a major highway. The company is enormous, with a top-ten market capitalization and 1.54 million employees -- more than the entire population of Hawaii. ■ As a business, Amazon is a titanic success. It's such a success that it gets singled out for regulatory scrutiny and is a frequent favorite target of antitrust regulators at home and abroad. ■ All across America are the relics of Sears stores, once even more ubiquitous than Amazon fulfillment centers. The remaining number of operating Sears stores today is perhaps a dozen. The faded ghost signs of their predecessors are like the characters described by Epictetus -- whispering "memento mori" throughout the executive suites at Amazon. Their enterprise, too, is mortal. ■ It's unlikely that regulators will ever have the power to bring down Amazon (and they probably shouldn't). But the same market that once built an enterprise big enough to finance the then-tallest building in the world is also the market that can crush that same enterprise if it doesn't deliver what the common consumer demands.

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November 9, 2023

News Such nonsense

As a printer by trade, Benjamin Franklin had a vested interest in convincing other people to publish their thoughts. But he also had an acute awareness of how history would view him -- perhaps even more than any other member of America's founding generation. Thus his dictum: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." We quote him still today, 285 years after he put those words in print. ■ The universality of publishing tools via the Internet means that literally nothing material stands in the way of anyone sharing their writing with the world, whether it consists of great profundities or merely toilet thoughts. And, as is so often the case with technologies, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use those publishing tools with great fluency. ■ The paradox, though, is in how that fluency conflicts with the self-discipline and wisdom required to really consider which will truly be "things worth reading", and which will be regrettable. An entire educational field has even taken root around the concept of media literacy to try to address this void. ■ As easy as it might be to dismiss it as a problem isolated to "kids these days", the problem is much more widespread than that. A 38-year-old Presidential candidate spouts incredible nonsense about building a border wall with Canada. A 52-year-old billionaire imagines feverishly that due to artificial intelligence, "There will come a point where no job is needed". A 47-year-old member of Congress unapologetically amplifies the language of genocide. ■ These words, while most often captured in digital form, are going to be around -- searchable, re-discoverable, and attributable -- for decades to come, while their speakers (presumably) remain fully alive. Why say them, knowing they will be like the ghosts of intemperances past? Why not think of the future? Why not commit just a little more restraint in the present to make sure that those ideas will be worth reading later on? ■ Reputations matter while people are alive, but the expectation of being remembered well after death should loom over us, too. A mild grasp of either consequence should perhaps serve as more of a warning than it evidently does.

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November 10, 2023

Broadcasting De-localizing the news

Deep in the history of radio station (and later television) call letters, the attentive person can uncover a backstory that often goes unrecognized today. Chicago's WLS, for instance, was named by Sears: WLS was meant to signify "World's Largest Store". Minneapolis has WCCO, for Washburn Crosby Company (a forerunner to General Mills). Nashville's WSM was National Life and Accident Insurance Company's way of plugging the slogan "We Shield Millions". ■ Those vintage call letters often hearken back to the early days of broadcasting, when commercial broadcast advertising as we know it today was in its infancy. Large companies often took a swing at starting their own stations as a way of having captive messaging channels for themselves. Having survived a century-long ride that made lots of people fantastically wealthy, though, the profits from commercial broadcasting are contracting dramatically. ■ In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the #62 market in the United States, KTUL-TV is decamping its news operation to Oklahoma City. The station's licensee, Sinclair Broadcast Group, is consolidating the Tulsa station with its other operations in the larger metro. ■ If local TV news isn't economically sustainable at that level of market #62, bigger than Honolulu, Omaha, or Des Moines, then that's a symptom of rapid economic deterioration. Radio advertising revenues have been cut in half since 2005, and television ad revenues may be surpassed by in-store advertising within five years. ■ Assuming that the local ownership and/or operation of media outlets has some intrinsic value -- and that, to at least some extent, has long been an animating assumption for parties ranging from Thomas Jefferson to FCC regulators -- then the collapse of marketplace conditions sustaining that local character ought to be taken seriously by sensible onlookers. We probably aren't headed for a revival in captive local ownership as in the 1920s, but something very different from the status quo may be inevitable.

November 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Mindless quotation is like distracted driving

After the widespread arrival of cell phones, it took a while for people to realize the dangers inherent to their use while driving. Mobile phones are tremendously useful tools, but it takes a considerable effort to do the education necessary for people to realize that the seduction of alerts and text messages needs to be tuned out while conducting a vehicle down the road. ■ Laws aren't always the solution. Some things that are bad for us call for awareness more than legislation, either because they demand self-discipline that can't easily be enforced, or because the harms they create are not fully intuitive and highlighting them helps people to see the need for voluntary compliance with good behavior. ■ Just as we collectively have internalized the dangers of texting while driving, we need to internalize the dangers of amplifying provocateurs. There are many running about, and they are responding to a feedback loop of incentives that encourages them to say things of escalating absurdity in their pursuit of attention. Say enough outlandish things to a devoted audience, and it might just land you a show on a disreputable cable channel. ■ Those provocateurs have to be tuned out, not just by people avoiding them in their own news and social-media feeds, but also by those who erroneously believe they are performing a public service by quoting the provocations in order to express revulsion. When, for example, a Presidential candidate espouses an utterly preposterous proposal to lay off half the country's civil service, he is not trying to be taken seriously. He is attempting to be so outlandish as to draw an outlandish response from others. ■ The temptation to point and shout in the direction of outlandishness is strong, but it has to be balanced by the self-discipline to realize that amplifying craziness, even to criticize, still serves to amplify craziness. If an absurdity must be pointed out, it can be done without using the provocateur's words or likeness. When they act in bad faith, the rest of us don't need to go along.

Science and Technology A great storyteller returns

After a hiatus of more than a quarter-century, the remarkable television presenter James Burke has revived -- or, perhaps, appended -- his "Connections" series. The programs did a remarkable job of telling the very non-linear story of science and technology: How seemingly different and widely-separated events and innovations eventually converged to produce unexpected outcomes. ■ Burke's ability to tell a riveting story is brilliant on paper. It is even more fantastic when delivered with a flair for the dramatic on-screen, like his perfectly-timed build-up to a rocket launch. That is a skill set worth celebrating in Burke and cultivating in others. ■ It comes as news to no one that we struggle to keep pace in the social sciences with progress in the technical sciences. A lot of developments come to fruition far before a legal framework is ready to accept them. That imbalance turns some people into Luddites and others into anarchists. ■ But Burke espouses a different view: "You're either optimistic, or you jump off the bridge, and I don't intend to jump off the bridge. The best thing is to stick around and do something." And his storytelling style -- particularly in its embrace of the unexpected, seemingly-random connections that cause changes in nothing like a linear fashion -- is a great model to embrace. ■ Nobody can know it all, and that's just fine. But we can (and should) be eager to learn some of it along the way, and to form useful heuristics for approaching new developments not with fear, but with sensibility.

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November 14, 2023

News Out in the cold

The city of Chicago, like a number of other major cities, is struggling to deal with the most pressing basic needs of an influx of migrant families. Some 3,000 are living, for now, in Chicago's police stations and airports. The effort to provide even temporary housing has created friction with some existing residents, who see the new arrivals as competitors for scarce social-service resources. ■ The city reports that 21,000 asylum-seekers have been taken in since August 2022, and that more than 12,000 are currently in shelters. Many others have been resettled or "reunited with sponsors". But even with those relief mechanisms, it's still the equivalent of absorbing the population of a small city. ■ The plight is acute, because winter is imminent, and at least 1,500 of those migrants are living in tents with virtually no insulation from the cold. The city is trying to assemble "winterized base camps" in a handful of sites, including a vacant grocery store, using tents large enough to shelter hundreds of people at a time. ■ Chicago had a significant population of homeless people before the arrival of the asylum-seekers. And projects like converting a foreclosed hotel into a temporary shelter for that incumbent population are helpful, but only in limited fashion. ■ The obstacles to speedily delivering safe, low-cost, permanent shelter for 21,000 new arrivals only serve to highlight that the very same obstacles stand in the way of aiding the incumbent residents who needed shelter before them. It should not tax our civic imaginations to such an extreme to figure out how to quickly get (permanent) roofs over heads. ■ Housing will always be a basic human need -- one of the most basic of all. And there will always be events that cause sudden surges in demand for it, from wars to famines to natural disasters. We ought to be clever enough to find replicable solutions that can be set up at low cost, at scale, in a hurry. If those answers can be found -- especially if the price can be brought low -- then other resources can be spent on the much wider range of social services that people in crisis also need.

Computers and the Internet Some Internet journalists need to stay off the Internet

A columnist for a reputable national newspaper has taken to social media to engage in what appears to be an escalatory spiral of conspiracy embrace and hazardous equivalency over health issues and international affairs. The columnist's beat is "technology and Internet culture", so it's perhaps no surprise her exposure to strong-to-extreme views is greater than for most people. ■ That raises potent questions about the prudence of assigning "Internet culture" journalists largely on the basis of youth and perceived closeness to the subject. There is something paradoxically naive to the assumption that the best people to cover Internet culture, such as it is, are the digital natives, rather than those who may otherwise view it with some arm's-length detachment. ■ To be sure, it's possible to over-correct: It would be ridiculous to have someone try to approach Internet culture like some pith-helmeted explorer reporting for the March 1922 issue of National Geographic (right beside Alexander Graham Bell's recollection of the "Prehistoric Telephone Days"). Complete bemused detachment (as rendered by someone like a modern-day Andy Rooney) would seem inauthentic, considering how much time and energy most people devote to their connected activities. ■ But maybe there was some latent value in the training people received as teenagers some thirty years ago, when MTV News and ABC News appeared on different channels, requiring a conscious choice to switch between them. Perhaps that created a reflexive understanding that Kurt Loder wasn't trafficking in the same material as Peter Jennings, and that it was entirely appropriate to shift gears when digesting what one heard from each. That's much harder to do when information is consumed as a non-stop stream (as it is via social media). ■ It's easy to romanticize the past, and it's a tradition nearly as old as civilization to complain about the indiscretions of youth. But particularly for institutions that go to significant lengths to buttress their credibility, it might be wise to bring level heads, clear eyes, and quite possibly an approach consciously designed to avoid the cultivation of celebrity to covering an online "culture" that is scarcely distinguishable from the one experienced by most people every day.

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November 15, 2023

News Even unelected politicians crave legitimacy

The regime governing China is so far removed from democratic legitimacy that in a country with 691 million women -- more than twice as many females as the United States has people -- it refuses to place even one woman in any of the two dozen seats of its Politburo. A government can be representative without being fully democratic, but China's government is neither. ■ Yet even though the Communist Party directly controls the army -- it is a "party army", rather than one independently loyal to the state -- it still has to show some concern for public perceptions of its legitimacy. A mostly unarmed population might have to struggle to overthrow an armed political party, but there are lots of non-lethal ways people can bring down a government that loses their faith altogether. ■ With a rare summit happening in California between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, CNN's Jim Sciutto observes, "The CCP's and Xi's legitimacy rests on the now crumbling promise they will deliver prosperity in exchange for unbridled power and popular submission to their authority. Xi's 'Chinese Dream' is looking emptier and emptier." ■ Xi has driven China away from the political reforms that might start to confer electoral legitimacy, so that road is closed for the foreseeable future. And 4% to 5% annual GDP growth would feel like a boom if it could be sustained in America, but it's much slower than China's regime has been counting upon for decades. ■ For the 6.7 billion residents of Planet Earth who are not made subject to the rule of the Communist Party of China, it's good to be alert to the turmoil likely to come soon. There's no obvious way to reverse some of the structural problems ahead: The disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic made friend-shoring a (nearly) household word, and the many other hazards of economic entanglement with a country ruled by authoritarianism have made at least some economic decoupling permanent. (No meeting is worth risking an arbitrary detainment or a sudden disappearance.) ■ And if that decoupling means China's economy is up against some hard limits to further growth, there's not a lot else the Communist Party is prepared to offer as an incentive to keep the public from growing restless. If the potential rewards run low, then the risk of the party using force (both brute force and intimidation) grows high. And that simply cannot be sustained indefinitely.

November 18, 2023

News Take a deep breath

Jacob Levy, who teaches political theory at McGill University, muses, "I would really like inspirational posters and self-help books and so on that instead of advising boldness and seizing the day and going getting it and so on, advised taking a breath, thinking about other people, lowering your voice a little, waiting your turn." ■ A jest, perhaps, but also not a bad idea. We are sometimes lulled into a fairy tale that we can simply expect people to behave better today than in the past through some sort of automated process, as though manners and grace were dominant traits found on a chromosome. In reality, we have to be honest with ourselves: Humans are at the top of the animal kingdom, but we're still animals nonetheless. ■ That means our instincts aren't to put on pants and write well-reasoned letters to the editor. Our instincts are to fight, to reflexively defend our turf, and to pursue those things that look they'll bring us glory (and thus the esteem of the other members of the pack). That's what nature puts into us. It takes a conscious program of nurture to try to tame those animal instincts and turn us into better beings. ■ So, as quaint as it seems, we really do need to amplify those civilized virtues -- patience, consideration, tolerance, accommodation, and many others. We shouldn't expect them to get transmitted by DNA (they won't) nor for them to be passed along without our help (they can't). ■ Inspirational posters and self-help books really might be a part of the mechanism of transmission, but even more important are the other vectors where they compete with the animal instincts: Cultural artifacts like music and movies, classroom lessons and religious lectures, and all the places in life where coaches, teachers, mentors, guides, and (most especially) parents have options about which behaviors are worth summoning, and for what purposes. ■ If we're not deliberate about which of the civilized virtues we cultivate, we shouldn't be surprised if and when some people revert to animal instincts that are better suited to strife and zero-sum games than cooperation and progress. ■ It's easy for the aspirational virtues to sound cloying, sentimental, or over-earnest, especially if they're framed as a return to some kind of mythical past. There is real work to be done in showing how they are suited to very modern behavior in the face of very modern problem -- which they are, even if many of the authors of culture are out of practice in making it seem that way.

November 19, 2023

Threats and Hazards Protesters close the Bay Bridge

In the very early 2000s, the widespread adoption of cell phones and Internet access gave rise to the first flash mobs. While some people saw them as nuisances and others saw them as amusing cultural phenomena, it was obvious to at least some people that flash mobs defied conventional security processes: Their very purpose was to evade anticipation. ■ Flash mobs have now been around for 20 years, and yet it often seems as though the people charged with ensuring public security still haven't given them the slightest thought. This came radically into focus with a protest that shut down the Bay Bridge when some 80 protesters stopped their cars -- 29 vehicles in total -- and tossed their keys into the bay before starting their protest. ■ It took hours of work and 250 California Highway Patrol officers to get the bridge back into operation, this at a time when the APEC summit was underway in San Francisco. Some very sober examination will need to take place into why and how such a vital artery could be shut down by such an uncomplicated operation for so long at such a high-security time. ■ But there also needs to be a turning of public opinion, loudly and harshly, against these kinds of consciously disruptive protests. It's not just that they create massive inconvenience for other people (though they do). They create real and severe unintended consequences for innocents, too: The protesters who shut down the bridge put at least three different organ donations at risk. ■ Bridges have been identified with protests at least since the Selma to Montgomery March, with the notorious brutality imposed on peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that protest wasn't about shutting down a bridge; it was about getting to someplace else. ■ It was the violence done by police officers against the protesters in Selma -- and the peaceful persistence of those protesters in defiance of that violence -- that made the bridge significant. Today's protesters -- whether their causes are climate, vaccines, or geopolitics -- need to absorb a message: Shutting down a bridge doesn't confer moral supremacy on a cause.

November 22, 2023

News A new North Star banner

Minnesota is late in the process of selecting a new state flag, having whittled a giant contest down to six finalists. The process is to be completed by a "State Emblems Redesign Commission", authorized by the state legislature, by the end of the year. ■ Opinions, naturally, will vary about the half-dozen finalists under consideration. But every single one of them is a hands-down winner in a head-to-head contest with the current state flag, which is a well-intentioned but unholy mess of a banner. It expressly violates three of the five principles of vexillology (and doesn't do very well on the remaining two). ■ And while two finalists (a double-layered star pattern and a negative-space North Star) are most deserving of selection, the state will in any case end up with a symbol more worthy of its stature. ■ Minnesota is a state of 5.7 million people; if it were an independent country, it would be in the same population weight class with Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Norway, or Slovakia -- all of which have proper, distinctive, and pleasing national flags. ■ We all too often discount the fact that most American states are big enough to have meaningful symbols and recognizable cultures. We're better, of course, bound together in a vast continental union, but even our smallest state still has more residents than Malta, Iceland, or the Bahamas -- each of which has an identity all its own. ■ A flag is merely a symbol, of course, so we shouldn't read too much into any one banner. But to the extent that a state (or even a city) takes itself seriously enough to use symbols that matter and have a meaning worth sharing, that is an indication of valuable self-confidence. ■ In a time when complex problems are all around and civic actions will have at least some bearing on the outcomes, perhaps starting with achievable goals -- like finding a flag worth rallying around -- is what we need most to do.

November 23, 2023

For the last several years, it has been fashionable for news outlets to publish articles about avoiding politics over Thanksgiving dinner. The advice is generally unoriginal and often downright risible. ■ The problem, though, is that boundaries about what not to discuss don't really leave us with much upon which to build. In the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ It can be hard to show gratitude -- even to an abstraction, like the meaning of a country. It can be even harder to show thanks to another individual, especially without it sounding forced or contrived. But we ought to try, and Thanksgiving is the most logical time to start. ■ The rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks once noted, "How tragic it is that we so often keep our gratitude to ourselves, speaking it aloud only when the person to whom we feel indebted is no longer here, and we are comforting his or her mournedrs." And maybe that is the article journalists should be writing instead of "How to avoid politics over turkey": How to thank others constructively.

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November 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone

Evidence from a study -- and a replication -- suggests that people would like to hear from old acquaintances who haven't been in touch for some time. This seems consistent with other things we know about people: That we are generally social creatures who thrive on contact with others, that we enjoy reviving interests in things we previously found enjoyable, and that we like to be esteemed enough that others think of us from time to time. ■ Lots of us have friends with whom our only routine one-to-one contact is an annual birthday greeting on Facebook. That once-a-year dopamine hit, while nice and certainly better than nothing, isn't really frequent enough to give an interpersonal relationship the kind of care and feeding it needs. ■ The problem of our time seems to be that the immediacy of digital messages, whether emails or Snapchats or chats, places a sort of deadline pressure on conversations that the old analog ways of communicating did not. It's easier to keep track of a much larger roster of friends and acquaintances online when you don't have to maintain an address book full of street names and ZIP codes, but there's an inevitable awkwardness to the time pressures involved. ■ If an old college buddy pops up with an instant message and they can see that you're online when they send it, then you're under an implicit obligation to respond right away, whether it's to engage fully or to promise to catch up soon. And once two people are engaged in a chat session, there's the eternal question of how to politely call for a time-out. (The medium itself doesn't really matter; it's the same feeling whether the conversation is taking place over text messaging, Facebook Messenger, Twitter direct messages, or anything else -- just like it once was hard to walk away from an AOL Instant Messenger chat.) ■ It's never been more evident that social disconnection has bad consequences. The Surgeon General has even produced a 68-page advisory on the "loneliness epidemic". ■ What seems to be missing is a way to regulate the frequency of contact with others so that it's manageably periodic -- like sending a letter to cross the ocean via steamship once was. Not so prohibitively infrequent that the correspondents forever feel like they're delivering dusty old highlight reels, but not so often that it feels like taking on a whole new appointment task just to engage in a conversation. ■ There are technological solutions available to address the problem, and it would be a real social good to see them implemented in a practical and appealing way. Most of us probably need to keep better track of our friends, and our friends on us. The options to do so ought to be much greater now than they've ever been.

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November 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards The pain of liberty denied

There aren't many characters less sympathetic than those who use the vestiges of authority to exact brutality on other people. Thus it is difficult to summon any moral defense for the former police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd "willfully and in callous and wanton disregard of the consequences". ■ But it is a dangerous thing for anyone to celebrate the news of his reported stabbing while in a Federal prison. The point of a rules-driven criminal justice system is that society decides the penalties for bad behavior dispassionately and through an orderly process. No matter how strong our personal feelings about a convict, we shouldn't count on extrajudicial penalties to restore justice. ■ Some people seemingly salivate at the prospect of convicts suffering some kind of additional penalty while behind bars. That may seem satisfying on an emotional level, but it's contrary to the point. ■ Any society can dole out pain and suffering as retribution for breaking the rules. That's no more than a response to basic human motivations -- most of us seek to avoid pain. Every authoritarian regime uses cruelty to make incarceration into a weapon. ■ The fear of being sent to the Gulag wasn't something the Soviet Union employed out of abstract principle. And when China's government uses "threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse, and torture" against political and religious prisoners, it's resorting to the same base motivations. The pain is the point. ■ But free societies have something abstract but enormously valuable to take away from those found guilty of violating the law: They can withdraw personal freedom. To be deprived of freedom in a free society ought to be much more painful (at least psychologically and emotionally) than to be similarly deprived in an unfree state. After all, no one is really free under an authoritarian regime. ■ To lose one's freedom ought to hurt much more than to sleep on an uncomfortable bed or to take a cold shower. If it doesn't, then we should examine why we take liberty so cheaply. And all of that is to say nothing of the knowledge that some non-trivial number of innocent people will be wrongly convicted. ■ How much we value personal liberty -- that is, how much we think it ought to hurt when it's taken away -- is an indication of our civic heath. Prisons don't need to be luxury hotels, but they shouldn't have to rely on cruelty, pain, or the threat of violence to be a deterrent. That's even the case when the convicts themselves are guilty of the most heinous crimes. We have to believe enough in both law and liberty to trust the process.

November 26, 2023

Science and Technology As the blades turn

There is an oft-recited axiom in business that Google's one-time CEO Eric Schmidt touted as, "Revenue solves all known problems". It's not exactly true; no scale of revenues was going to fix the catastrophic reputational implosion of Arthur Andersen after the Enron disaster, just for example. But under most circumstances, revenue is an elixir for most problems. It may not always be the singular solution, but it is rarely unimportant to the remedy. ■ In society at large, the closest analog is probably energy. It may not be the solution to every problem, but there aren't many problems that can be seriously addressed without it. ■ Want to remove pollution from the air, soil, or water? Bring energy. Want to run computers harder to solve big problems? Bring energy. Want to build resilience against climate shocks in the food supply? Bring energy. ■ And while it is possible to massively scale up the production of renewable electricity -- Iowa's largest electric utility produced as much renewable energy as its retail customers used in 2022 -- the process takes a long time, a fair bit of luck, and an array of incentives to nudge the decision-making process. Meanwhile, as almost everyone knows, every utility still needs an alternative source of base-load generation that isn't subject to the whims of Mother Nature. ■ Thus it is great news that Illinois is poised to lift a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Build them soon, and build them plenty. ■ If it's really vital that we curtail carbon generation, then whatever can safely expand our supply of energy without dumping new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a net gain for society. It doesn't seem like Illinois is often at the forefront of a positive legislative innovation, but in this case, its leadership should be applauded.

November 29, 2023

News Charlie Munger, underrated philosopher

It seems unlikely that self-regarding academics will give Charlie Munger so much as a footnote in the serious records of philosophy. That is a shame in a moral sense, and it may also come to be regarded someday as a consequential oversight. ■ Munger, who has passed away after 99 years, didn't write dense treatises on the nature of existence that people lie about having read, nor was he tortured by questions about existence and transcendence. He was unapologetically a person of business, commerce, and markets. And, aside from a handful of lectures and long-form interviews, he was known mostly for pithy observations that could fit on the back of a business card. ■ But what Munger did, better than anyone else of his or our time, was to make the case for putting rationality in service of virtuous behavior. The order of those words is important: Some people try to logically deduce behavioral rules from logical foundations -- think, for instance, of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. ■ The less-rigid philosophy of which Munger was so vocally a proponent says, instead: "If you've exposed yourself to enough of history, then you probably have a fair sense of intuition about what's right and what's wrong. Follow that, because a logical assessment of the consequences will support following that intuition." ■ His most memorable comments were generally shorter than that. They came in the form of maxims like, "Rationality is a moral duty" and "It's dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be. That's my ethos. You have to be generous, too." He advised that "A lot of places work better when they operate with a high degree of earned trust" and "The way to get a good spouse is to deserve one. The same thing goes with a partnership in business. If you behave yourself correctly, it's amazing how well it works." ■ The thing that stands out about these pronouncements is that Munger wasn't speaking in abstractions or burying his thoughts in complicated jargon ("You shouldn't assume that just because the language is highfalutin, it's better."). He was speaking as a billionaire who continued working into his 99th year of life. ■ And he used his platform, as an indisputable winner under (and proponent of) the capitalist system, to say that there was no excuse for a capitalist not to deliberately seek to be good and to consciously behave with honor. His innovation, in a sense, was to say that good behavior was virtually always logical behavior, and quite usually profitable behavior, too. That sort of message is pretty vital if we think that markets are going to continue (which they will) and that people need to hear messages from credible sources (which he was). ■ You don't get to pick your ancestors, but you can always choose the people who influence your thinking. And any of us could do a whole lot worse than to pick Charlie Munger as one of those influences.

December 1, 2023

News A possible model for local voting

In November, many American communities held local elections for city councils and school boards. And while some places have succumbed to the temptation to turn those campaigns into referenda on tired national themes, local offices are still often filled on the basis of real community-level issues and individual candidate merit. ■ A simple heuristic for choosing good candidates might look something like this, in descending order of importance: Eliminate radicals from consideration; don't let foxes guard henhouses; favor real stakeholders in outcomes before self-promoters; favor independents over squads; seek balance with some gentle tension; steer clear of single-issue candidates; and, look for those with reputational equity at risk. ■ It should be obvious why radicals of all stripes should be eliminated from contention. And it should also be fairly clear why single-issue candidates are toxic, too: Any office of any importance will face a range of issues over the course of a normal term of office, and if someone runs as the standard-bearer for just one issue, they're depriving voters of the information needed to make an informed judgment about trusting them with many other decisions. ■ The problem of letting foxes guard henhouses is especially acute where labor unions are involved; teachers' unions (and other public-sector unions) often have very strong feelings about which candidates they want seated in office, yet the conflict of interest that creates should be just as obvious as the one that would exist if, say, a landlord leased a district all of its school buildings and wanted a seat on the school board. ■ For similar reasons, those who run independently -- as long as it's done in good faith, rather than "against everybody" -- ought to win a few marks over those who run in squads. As it's often been said: If everyone is thinking alike, then not everyone is thinking. ■ Some people run for local offices as an obvious springboard to higher offices, and while some of them bring high energy and expansive talent, it's better to find real stakeholders who plan to stick around long enough to experience the consequences of their own choices over the long run. Likewise, the person who has earned reputational equity outside of running for office ought to generally be a better bet than the fresh face without a known track record; the person who has already built a name as a pillar of the community has more to lose by going wrong than the person who could just as easily move down the road without losing anything. ■ And, in most group settings, better decisions are reached if there is some gentle tension in place among competing interests or those with different perspectives. Good decision-making often depends more on avoiding knowable errors than on achieving routine consensus. It's more likely that those errors will be rooted out if some natural healthy disagreement is represented at the table as a matter of course.

The United States of America A seat on the bench

The 19th Amendment, securing the right of American women to vote, had not yet been ratified law for a full ten years by the time Sandra Day O'Connor was born in March 1930. The amendment was long overdue, of course; John Adams received a letter from Abigail in 1776, pleading with him that "in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors". ■ When John dismissed her entreaty, Abigail Adams retaliated: "[W]hilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken". Adams has been retroactively assessed as one of our highest-IQ Presidents and he respected the intellect of his own wife, yet even he was shackled to the knuckle-dragging chauvinism prevalent in his day. ■ It should not have taken 131 years to correct the omission of women's suffrage from the Constitution, nor should it have taken 192 years to seat the first woman on the Supreme Court. (About 100 men were seated before Justice O'Connor.) ■ But in the course of striving towards "a more perfect union", someone has to be the first to make a breakthrough -- though many others end up sharing the sense of disenchantment that comes from suffering under the lingering imperfection. On the occasion of Justice O'Connor's passing, it is worth noting how many rights were secured (by amendment, statute, or court ruling) in or near her lifetime. ■ It is even more important to note how public opinion has made colossal strides in a "more perfect" direction during the same window of time. Whether we like it or not, public opinion is the ultimate guarantor of rights in any society. Any gains made in rules written on paper can be torched in practically an instant; just ask any well-known country with a constitution written after O'Connor became a lawyer. It is often good to change the law, but there is no substitute for changing hearts and minds as well.

December 2, 2023

Broadcasting Jack Welch was wrong

As head of General Electric, Jack Welch famously embraced a policy of purging the giant company of the bottom 10% of employees each year. This policy, which required "forced ranking" of the employees, has some superficial appeal to those who like the language of ruthless competition in business. ■ But while Welch's "vitality curve" concept can trace some of its origins to the well-known and widely-applicable Pareto principle (otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule), turning it into an HR regime is an arbitrary choice. ■ Welch called it "candor", but for the process to be any good, the ranking mechanism has to be right, the assessments need to be accurate, and above all, the lowest-ranked employees would need to be under-performing through their own fault. ■ Anyone who has worked under a bad manager, gone through a sloppy training session, or been the customer-facing representative of a product or process going through a quality-control crisis on the back end, knows that under-performance can easily turn out to be a systemic failure rather than a personal one. ■ The 10% culling value is arbitrary, and it gets in the way of the much more important task: Consciously getting rid of people whose behavior is toxic. A good institution has expectations of behavior that are independent of performance metrics. ■ A person like George Santos should be expelled from Congress not for being a "bottom 10% performer", but for being an obviously malignant presence. He could have passed all the bipartisan laws under the Sun and conducted the world's most flawless constituent service, and still deserved expulsion for being crooked. ■ It takes a lot to get Congress to undertake an expulsion; it's happened only three times since the Civil War. But maybe it should happen more often; voters generally have a right to the representation they choose, but lack of fealty to the Constitution and shameless engagement in bribery ought to be compelling grounds for disqualification from office. ■ Taking action on toxic behavior isn't a matter of performance thresholds, be they 10%, 25%, or 2%. Lots of people can have their skills improved so that early underperformance can be transformed into later success. But too many people are good at getting jobs done but doing good work in a bad spirit. Good managers ought to be on the lookout for ways to purge contemptible behavior without delay.

December 3, 2023


There is a certain art to putting a name on an educational activity. Workshop sessions, non-fiction books, and YouTube how-to videos all get a boost when their creators come up with catchy titles that pique the curiosity of the prospective audience and promise to satisfy. ■ Curiosity becomes currency in those situations where people have the freedom to choose among different experiences. And when a subject is already in circulation as a popular topic, it's a time-honored practice to find a "news hook" and latch an old topic to whatever is new and current. ■ In that sense, college professors -- often in an implicit contest against their peers to get the marginal student to register for a course (or even a major) that demonstrates the lecturer's value to the community -- can't truly be blamed for turning shameless about their class proposals. ■ That notwithstanding, some courses are clearly the academic equivalent of fan service: Not really expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but good for putting some churn through the registrar's office. And Harvard has one of those coming up in the spring: "English 183ts. Taylor Swift and Her World". ■ Swift is a huge cultural influence in 2023. She makes bundles of money -- maybe $4 billion on her "Eras" tour alone. Her music is played endlessly. She is the biggest name in attendance at NFL games. ■ But it costs $54,269 to pay for one year of Harvard undergraduate tuition (implying a value of about $5,000 for a three-semester-hour course), and a Taylor Swift-themed deep dive could be accomplished in an ambitious full-day seminar on a Saturday. Maybe it's all just a ploy, and the heavy hype of the class title is really just a ruse to lure registrations from students who don't realize they're really in for a whole lot of poetry with merely a veneer of Swiftie fandom. But that, too, would be a problem if it were really all that much bait-and-switch. ■ College should be at least some fun, and a good undergraduate course of study ought to include a couple of hours devoted to niche subjects. That makes us well-rounded. But niche doesn't have to drift into full-blown frivolity. Balance matters everywhere, and sometimes a song is just a song. Sober-minded people ought to try to keep it that way.

December 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet The right to repair your laptop

One of the most impressive displays at the Iowa State Fair each year is the collection of old tractors painstakingly restored by members of the FFA. Even dyed-in-the-wool city kids can appreciate the remarkable transformations performed on rusty old machines that end up looking quite literally as good as new. ■ The idea of working on one's own machinery is so deeply embedded in farming culture that tractor owners went to legal war with John Deere over the "right to repair" their own equipment. No manufacturer has a bigger brand in farming than Deere, but even they couldn't stop owners from securing a legal right to turn their own wrenches. ■ Computers are a different story. In their countless forms, they are ubiquitous in modern life -- and even though there's a lot that can be done on a smartphone, almost every American household has some kind of laptop or desktop computer (92% had at least one in 2018). ■ But computing skills don't extend very far into "right to repair" territory. Most people know how to do their specific tasks, many know how to conduct routine updates, and a few have the skills to dive into sophisticated settings. But almost nobody outside of a Linux users group knows anything about how to build an operating system. ■ This means that computer users are largely at the mercy of their operating system suppliers: Microsoft (with probably two-thirds of the personal computers in use), Apple in a distant second, with Google and various Linux teams far behind. Thus, it ought to be thunderous news that Microsoft has set an end-of-support date for Windows 10 on October 14, 2025. ■ In its own words, just 22 months from now, "Microsoft will no longer provide bug fixes for issues, security fixes for vulnerabilities, time zone updates, or technical support for problems that might occur." While Microsoft is offering updates to Windows 11, a huge number of computers don't meet the minimum hardware requirements to make the leap, and Microsoft's advice that "now is the time to transition to new PCs running Windows 11" is easier said than done. ■ This is bound to result in cybersecurity problems on a massive scale. Devices running operating systems outside of their supported service lives are a major known vulnerability, and the obsolescence of Windows 10 is bound to hit especially hard. That's because the computers that cannot make the leap to Windows 11 because of hardware limitations will tend to be in the hands of users who are less able to afford new machines. ■ The dangers are bound to be plentiful, and there isn't an obvious solution unless Microsoft reneges on its plan and decides to treat ongoing basic security support for Windows 10 as a matter of national cybersecurity infrastructure. But that's not their business model, and unless the Federal government intervenes -- perhaps with a "right to repair" for operating systems -- we're likely headed for some dangerous sailing ahead.

December 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards There are settled questions

There are times when hair-splitting is appropriate, or even expected. If you're protesting a ticket in traffic court, haggling over the value of a used car, or contesting the property-tax valuation of your home, then a certain amount of cleverness about definitions and distinctions is basically the American Way. ■ But there are some settled questions in the world: Slavery is wrong. Freedom of conscience is good. Intimidation through violence is wrong. Government by the consent of the governed is good. ■ Among those settled matters, it should be easy to denounce genocide. That some prominent university presidents couldn't say so in testimony before Congress is disgraceful. It's not the kind of question that ought to require cleanup statements after the fact. ■ Congressional testimony can be fraught; it's a crime to lie to Congress, but it isn't a crime for members of Congress to grandstand. That sets up an imbalance of both power and incentives, but that imbalance shouldn't become an invitation to skirt the certitude of settled questions. ■ There aren't very many of those, and free-ranging inquiry is (and ought to remain) a hallmark of America's world-best system of higher education. But without at least a handful of boundaries that dare to declare some ideas off-limits, it becomes impossible to harvest the benefits of a liberal education. The mass murder of an entire group of people is quite easily one of those ideas that is indisputably out-of-bounds, and it shouldn't take an uncomfortable do-over to say so.

December 8, 2023

News Pearl Harbor Day still matters for peace

It is believed that only one survivor of the USS Arizona is still alive today, 82 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The passage of time means that only a few years remain until no first-hand memories of that day remain, and yet America continues to mark the dreadful attack and its 2,403 victims, as well we should. ■ Commemorating the events of that day doesn't whitewash the Allied conduct of the war that ensued, which included merciless bombing campaigns against places like Dresden and Tokyo. Nor does it subtract from the deeply productive friendly peace constructed after the war, which made Japan the world's fourth-largest economy and created an alliance regarded now as the "cornerstone of U.S. security interests in Asia". ■ The opposite is more likely to be true: Honest remembrance serves as a reminder why an international friendship built on common values is preferable to destructive hostility. It may also be the case that it helps to illustrate why wars must sometimes be brought to painful but decisive conclusions. ■ Perhaps, in the extreme case, an aggressor must be brought not to a stalemate but to a crushing defeat before rebuilding can begin. What would have happened had Japan (and Germany) been merely contained into a ceasefire, rather than compelled into unconditional surrender? Detente may have prevailed in the subsequent decades, but we cannot be certain that anything like friendship might have resulted. ■ Remembering the past -- including the shortcomings, foibles, and even the atrocities committed by all sides -- is how we remind ourselves that humans and our endeavors are never perfect, but that we have choices about the directions in which we choose to strive. We can drive toward what we know to be good, or we can run away from it. Only when we know that our choices will have consequences, and possess the certainty that those consequences will be remembered, do we begin to hear the necessary voice of conscience that compels us to move in the right direction, however imperfectly.

December 9, 2023

Business and Finance The flag-waving sales pitch

Americans who watched any amount of mainstream commercial television in the 1980s likely grew familiar with the name of Victor Kiam, who "liked the [Remington] shaver so much, I bought the company". He became a household name strictly by virtue of his salesmanship on behalf of an electric shaver -- not for gossip-page theatrics, nor for having a seat on a game show for entrepreneurship. Television commercials alone did the trick. ■ Kiam may have had a gift for the sales pitch, but there was an earnestness about his style that stands out. "A company must be honest and it must insist that its representatives be honest", he wrote. "Some hyperbole is expected in any pitch, but never promise anything that you can't deliver. If you do, you may get the order this time, but you'll never get another." ■ It's jarring to contrast that flavor of rule-conscious enthusiasm with the words of Elon Musk, 2023's most famous entrepreneur, who goes on vulgar tirades against advertisers and keeps moving the target date for his plans to colonize Mars, while amplifying antisemitic social-media posts from his own giant platform. ■ Victor Kiam's style was shaped by Cold War sensibilities, which above all included the perpetual existential threat of Communist aggression. The shadow of that threat may have created an environment in which Kiam could write, again in self-evident earnest, "If you're a sales clerk who thinks he's wasting away on a mundane job, find your self-esteem. You are a vital cog in the free-enterprise system. You are the public representative of thousands of entrepreneurs whose products are sold in your store." ■ Those words are, in fact, no less true today than they were in 1986. All of them. But today we see a "Target run" as an exercise in "retail therapy", not an act of freedom-loving defiance against the godless Communists in the Kremlin. ■ Only a bona fide lunatic would want to bring back the Cold War. But we ought not to lose sight of the fact that freedom still isn't universal, nor that some of the world's most heavily-armed militaries belong to some of the world's most awful regimes. Having the Soviet Union around back then to define a stark geopolitical contrast may have been convenient to how we organized a certain American worldview, but that only serves to underline why business and entrepreneurship and values need to be consciously stitched together in the public mind today.

December 10, 2023

News The post-mall America

Visitors to Iceland can scarcely avoid at least one stop in Reykjavik, and one of the most prominent features of the waterfront near the city center is a rather striking concert hall and convention center called Harpa. More ambitious than just an opera house or a concert venue, Harpa integrates conference venues, banquet halls, smaller meeting rooms, shops and restaurants, art displays, and public spaces, all wrapped around a main hall that seats 1,800. ■ It's a bold facility for a metropolis of a quarter-million people. Iceland doesn't have an unlimited resource base upon which to draw; the entire country has just 360,000 residents. Yet Harpa is a busy place, with a virtually non-stop schedule of events. ■ Across the United States, communities have been coming to terms with the widespread collapse of the market for indoor shopping malls. They aren't dead and gone everywhere, but "zombie malls" (and their fully-dead bretheren) are commonplace enough to merit their own fan sites. And while the nostalgia factor is significant, the costs to replace or renew those spaces is enormous: One indoor mall in Grand Island, Nebraska, is being demolished and reinvented for $250 million. ■ The appetite for physical "third places" -- neither home nor work, but someplace else -- is real. That is perhaps the case now more than ever, as terms like "epidemic of loneliness" find their way even into national-level policy-making. ■ Somewhere, somehow, a community looking to euthanize a "zombie mall" and recover something from the tax base sitting under all of that concrete ought to give a serious look at trying their own Harpa experiment. Reykjavik's lively community space is 300,000 square feet -- about half to one-third the common size of a once-prosperous American shopping mall. ■ The required physical conversion really might not be all that stark, considering that anchor stores were often intentionally built to put lots of open space under a single roof with few obstructions (just like a theater). It's really more a question of finding the legal and financial resources to take one of them out of "zombie" ownership, then installing imaginative, energetic management to make it a lively space not just some of the time, but all of the time. (And there's no reason such a space couldn't host plenty of money-making operations as vendors or as contractors.) ■ At least since the post-World War II boom, most of the innovation in public spaces has been left to private-sector ownership, and there will always be a place for money-making enterprises to attract new visitors. But the crash in the retail economy has left real physical scars on many communities, and only a Pollyanna would believe it's going to repair itself. Someplace ought to show itself the first to imaine what a great post-mall public space could become. If tiny, geographically isolated Iceland can do it, surely an American city with a similar population base and a good highway could do the same.

December 11, 2023

The United States of America It's nearly time to vote

The first votes of the 2024 Presidential election are about a month away, and as usual, the effect of the first event is to heighten the attention paid to the race. The early caucuses and primaries are also a good reminder about where voting fits within the structure of a healthy society. ■ Liberties are like the bricks or stones that make up a wall, and democracy is like the mortar. It's possible to stack bricks or stones without any mortar, but to do so takes extraordinary care, and the right push can cause them all to topple. Similarly, liberties are the big, important things that underpin human dignity. ■ Conversely, one can build a wall out of mortar alone, but it isn't very strong on its own -- it cannot go as high and it is easily cracked. Democracy is the same; it can gain traction quickly but end up backsliding if the necessary framework is missing. ■ The quest for civilization depends on building with both elements. Human liberties really are the big things to be secured: Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of association, and the like. It's plausible that these things could be guaranteed under something other than a democratic system of government, but they would be incredibly unstable. Democracy is what binds the guarantee of popular opinion to the security of the most valuable liberties. ■ That's why we should always take threats to democracy seriously, not lightly -- but also not hyperbolically. The language of "the most important election of your lifetime" is almost invariably a mistake, because democracy is a chain that is tested most where it is weakest, not where it seems to be "most important". ■ Democratic weakness usually comes not from being wrong, but from being indifferent, complacent, or cynical. If every error or difference is amplified out of proportion, then people can become exhausted with the process and lose sight that their small, mathematically insignificant contributions at the ballot box are the mortar holding together the bricks of their liberties.

December 14, 2023

News Only evil can think lives are so cheap

No sensible history of the last two years includes any reasonable allegation that Ukraine provoked a war with Russia. There is evidence only that conventional wisdom was too skeptical of the Kremlin's aggressive intentions at the dawn of 2022. ■ Now, 315,000 Russian casualties and fewer, but far too many, Ukraininan deaths and injuries later, the war continues with some signals indicating that it could persist for years to come. Russia's initial invasion had many hallmarks of a gamble for resurrection by a regime with no real legitimacy. Now, having torched so many lives and resources on the invasion, that same regime seems even more desperate. ■ Ukraine's tactical creativity, its strategic fortitude, and its evident avoidance of waste in conducting its own defense all ought to reflect well upon its requests for further assistance from the United States and other Western countries. War isn't cheap, but the cost of allowing Ukraine to go without necessary arms because of myopic stinginess in the United States is really very high. ■ Bad things don't go away just because we choose not to see them. The Kremlin could stop the bloodshed overnight by ceasing fire on its own and withdrawing to its own borders. That it has not done so, despite having wasted 90% of its pre-conflict military, tells us that it will continue to choose death and violence until it faces real defeat. For how comparatively little it has actually cost the United States to support Ukraine's defense thus far, it would be lunacy to cut back now.

December 15, 2023

News Don't defame election workers

If Rudy Giuliani had always been an obvious crook, a jury's decision to award $148 million in damages to two election workers as compensation for his defamatory words would still be a huge sum, but it wouldn't also be a tragedy. Giuliani, though, was a man who once obviously knew better. ■ For as clownish as the former New York mayor's behavior has become, it's easy to forget that he forged his place in the public eye as a crusading prosecutor who ruthlessly went after the mob and innovated the legal means of taking down organized crime. It was a record of which he could be proud, even before he took his place in the spotlight as a steady leader during the crisis of 9/11. ■ That he now behaves in such a way that his own defense attorneys plead that he "shouldn't be defined by what's happened in recent times" forces thoughtful people to reflect on a difficult question: Was he always the kind of person who would lie about decent ordinary people just to win a temporary political advantage? Or did something about him change? ■ If it was the former, why didn't the public see it before? If it was the latter, are the rest of us susceptible to the same kinds of changes? One calls into question the quality of long-standing public opinion. The other forces us to ask how much we control and determine the quality of our own character. Both are uncomfortable challenges. ■ The philosopher Maimonides counseled that "Man is created in such a way that his character traits and actions are influenced by his neighbors and friends, and he follows the custom of the people in his country. Therefore a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." ■ While it's possible that the world could have been very wrong about Giuliani for a very long time, he certainly put himself at considerable personal risk in going after the mafia (and corrupt cops, upon whom he set his sights as well). It's hard to imagine that he could have accepted that kind of risk without being driven, at least in part, by some moral sensibility; thus, we ought to take seriously the problem of a change in character. ■ It's no mystery in whose orbit Giuliani has been traveling in recent years. Anyone who considers joining the same circles ought to beware that their character is unlikely to hold up any better than his.

Computers and the Internet The cloud is a real place

The notion of "cloud" computing tends to anchor a perception that computing is ethereal -- that it doesn't exist in physical space. But while the metaphor is appropriate in the sense that computing by accessing data centers over the Internet permits users to get big work done on small devices that are "as light as a cloud", it breaks down when we are forced to acknowledge that cloud computing requires real physical resources. Energy is the most obvious of those resources, and it's needed not just for the computer processing, but also for the storage. And we may well be creating a feedback loop thanks to cloud computing: The easier it is to process cheaply and quickly, the more likely we are to create outputs we don't necessarily need. But then they get stored -- perhaps indefinitely. That, in turn, ends up demanding yet more energy. (Though it's worth noting that data centers also take up physical space, often in spaces on the periphery of urban areas.)

Agriculture Who harvests the most oats?

North Dakota narrowly edges out Iowa for the state with the largest number of acres of oats harvested in 2023: 105,000 to 95,000. The competition would have been fiercer back before the age of tractors. The two states together account for a quarter of all such harvested acres in the country.

News "Friendly fire" kills three Israelis being held hostage in Gaza

A cruel reminder that 137 people are still being held hostage by Hamas.

December 16, 2023

Health Nothing automatically makes early risers into saints

One of the silliest exercises in modern life is the attempt to incant one's personal circadian rhythms as a character judgment. Some are morning people, some are night owls, some are in-between, some change over time. We're all over the map, biologically, and the average natural "day" cycle for a human might actually be 25 hours, which doesn't fit any model usefully at all. ■ People ought to work with the patterns and practices that suit them best, not what someone arbitrarily suggests as a rule. If going to bed early makes a person feel good, then there's nothing wrong with that. But for others, late night is prime time to get things done. ■ It doesn't do any good for the productivity-obsessed to amplify capricious guidelines like "nothing good happens after 8 on a weeknight". That's utter nonsense; feel free to check in with the Pope at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and see how much trouble he's getting into. ■ What difference is 3:10 in the morning, when experienced as the waking hour of a Benedictine monk or when it's just after a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center has issued the regularly-scheduled Day 3 Convective Outlook? There's no moral dimension to the time on the clock, and it seems particularly arbitrary to get picky about who's up at what times when everyone's a little bit of a night owl on December 21st, purely out of necessity. ■ People ought to be awake when it feels natural and right, and be asleep when they're tired. Winston Churchill took naps while in pursuit of victory during World War II, then worked until midnight. It's neither good nor bad to be active at any particular hour -- as long as the pursuit is good, the time is immaterial.

The United States of America No quitters allowed

Congress has passed legislation inside the National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting any President from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from NATO. It was a joint effort, led by Senators Tim Kaine and Marco Rubio. ■ The Constitution gives the President broad latitude to negotiate international agreements, but only out of necessity: In Federalist Paper No. 64, it is explained like this: "Thus we see that the Constitution provides that our negotiations for treaties shall have every advantage which can be derived from talents, information, integrity, and deliberate investigations, on the one hand, and from secrecy and despatch on the other." ■ But that same Federalist Paper contemplated the possibility of things turning bad: "As to corruption, the case is not supposable. He must either have been very unfortunate in his intercourse with the world, or possess a heart very susceptible of such impressions, who can think it probable that the President and two thirds of the Senate will ever be capable of such unworthy conduct." Note that "Publius" (in this case, John Jay) implicitly acknowledges the possibility of a President being corrupted -- which is why the very high bar of Senate supermajority approval is required. ■ Lots of people find ways to hyperventilate about their opponents coming to power, but the seriousness of their concerns is revealed by the actual steps they take. In this case, there are real and non-trivial concerns about the potential for NATO opponents to engage in dirty tactics to undermine the alliance and its interests. Influence operations are everywhere. ■ This re-assertion of Senate authority -- legitimate since the adoption of the Constitution -- is a timely act of national self-interest. Rules that make our own behavior steadier and more predictable reinforce the conditions that make good alliances possible.

December 20, 2023

News A hot ballot

The decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to find that Donald Trump is ineligible to appear on the state's primary election ballot is an extraordinary one, in the most literal sense of the word, as the court itself acknowledged: "We are also cognizant that we travel in uncharted territory". ■ The novelty of the situation is, naturally, a consequence of the former President's uniquely malignant behavior. Even the notorious Presidential failure James Buchanan left office without stirring violence. And though we've been using Oliver Wendell Holmes's phrase "hard cases make bad law" since 1904, even hard cases must be decided when the circumstances present themselves. ■ The Colorado decision makes an emphatic case in favor of preserving an institution that comes under almost perpetual criticism: The Electoral College. The Electoral College made sense at the time of the Founding in part because the logistics of coordinating an election prior to electronic communications or high-speed travel favored a system that made votes easier to manage piecemeal. ■ We may have the benefits of instantaneous communications today, but the merits of a compartmentalized election -- one that takes place state-by-state, largely under state-specific rules, before being reassembled at a known time and place -- are at least as valuable today as they were in 1787, if not even more so. A national popular vote, in which Presidential elections would be decided strictly by the total number of votes cast nationwide, would inevitably cause unintended and unpopular consequences. ■ First, it would turn every case like Colorado's into a matter of bitter national contention: Under the Electoral College approach, whichever side loses the present Colorado case still lives to "fight another day" in 49 other states, plus DC. But if a national popular vote were to be the standard, then it's virtually impossible to see how any decision about eligibility wouldn't instantly become a case for the United States Supreme Court, with the decision binding on every ballot in every voter's hands, nationwide. ■ Second, and probably more consequentially, a national popular vote could only be administered by a very powerful national bureaucracy: Imagine the power of the Federal Election Commission, but on steroids. It would need to have not only the reach to conduct an electoral count in every state, but also the power to enforce compliance with its decisions everywhere. The only way to achieve a water-tight national count would be to conduct a vote beyond the reach of any state-level supreme court decision binding upon state-level elected officials. ■ Of course, such a bureaucracy would have to be staffed, and leadership would have to be appointed. The current FEC governance structure depends far upon goodwill and bipartisan cooperation to achieve its already difficult work. Any bureaucracy big enough to set and enforce the rules for a national election would become a prize too valuable not to become nearly as hotly contested as the election itself, since who controls the rules becomes who controls the outcomes. ■ Compartmentalizing our elections through the mechanism of the Electoral College may be an imperfect approach; there is certainly a case to be made for expanding the House of Representatives not just for its own sake, but to make the Electoral College a better approximation of the popular vote. But if the Colorado case is hot (which indeed it is), then abandoning the Electoral College would only make it fifty times more explosive.

December 21, 2023

It's hard to think of a human problem that isn't responsive, in at least some way, to the patient application of sustained effort. While revolutionary events do come and go, it's a fool's errand to count on being able to strike at just the right moment to ride the perfect wave to success. For most of us, most of the time, a rule identified by Michael Bloomberg tends to prevail: "Every significant advance I or my company has ever made has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary: small earned steps -- not big lucky hits." ■ The trouble for most of us is that there is such emphasis placed on the bold, sweeping gesture: It's why people commit to aggressive New Year's resolutions, signing up en masse to quit bad habits or pick up good ones, particularly by making big public commitments in front of an audience on social media. ■ Results are often (though not always) inversely proportional to the size of the steps taken. It's often better to make a very small but very sustainable change of habit than to try to chart a bold new course on January 1st. ■ Someone who commits to walking a mile every other day for their health and sticks to the plan will have stepped the equivalent of seven marathons by the end of a year. That's hardly as bold as promising to train for and run a single marathon as a resolution -- but the sustainability is the key. Most resoutions are simply too big. ■ Maybe it's the effect of an educational system that often depends upon big events like final exams that sets so many of us up for that kind of behavior. High-stakes tests that invite last-minute cramming routines might just train impressionable young minds to believe that an outcome doesn't count if it doesn't hinge on one big consequence. ■ We ought to look for ways to break that impression and give us a path to de-program ourselves, as individuals and as a culture, so that we can appreciate the leverage that comes from keeping on with small acts that don't seem as worthy of attention. Like the power of compounding interest, the results of modest but relentlessly sustained effort often don't look like much until they've reached a point where an enormous outcome looks practically inevitable in retrospect.

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December 23, 2023

News Fairness and balance

In an enormous essay that weighs in at more than 17,000 words, the sitting "Lexington" columnist at The Economist has offered a highly personal perspective on "When the New York Times lost its way". The author, James Bennet, was not that long ago the opinion editor at the Times, and he expresses considerable alarm over the deterioration of classical liberalism at the most influential newspaper in America. ■ Bennet has a personal grievance on the matter, having been pushed out of his position at the Times over a controversial op-ed piece published on his watch in 2020. But he sees his own experience as a reflection of a bigger cultural concern: "The Times's problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether." ■ Even more telling is his observation that, among the paper's contributors, "Even conservatives are liberals' idea of a conservative." We do ourselves no favors at having wrecked the definition of "liberal" early in the 20th Century. The word ought to label those individuals, groups, and ideas that adhere to the classical liberal principles that gave the world concepts like individual liberties and limited government. ■ The convolution of that word into a lazy substitute for "left-of-center" has made it almost impossible to articulate a vital point: A (classical) liberal society can only be sustained through the work of some actors who come from a little to the left, and some who come from a little to the right. ■ It's fairly easy to see how people who crusade for free-speech rights or maximizing practical access to the right to vote are seen as preserving the necessary order of the liberty-based society. But they need corresponding peers who make common cause on the very big picture by promoting a benign sense of patriotism or by building institutions to teach concepts like duty and honor to youth. These "conservative liberals" are essential to the mix. ■ To the alert reader, it's often clear when the Times (and other publications) are engaged in a sort of box-checking behavior -- putting a spotlight on those "liberals' idea of a conservative" in order to appear balanced. What is far less evident is a real commitment to seeing that the project to build and maintain a free and open society takes some dynamic tension between people who arrive at the classically liberal position from a "progressive" starting point and those who come from "conservative" origins. ■ Between those identities, disagreements on policies (which can be frequent) all too often mask a strong consensus about the fundamental rules of debate and behavior, not to mention a basic commitment to maximizing outcomes that are good for the individual most generally. The good-faith nature of their disagreements over policy choices makes the bigger consensus hard to recognize sometimes, but the Times and others need to be alert that it is real.

December 24, 2023

News Never forget Christmas 1991

Christmas is of course among the most important religious holidays in the world. But those who have no interest in its theological meanings and its most devout adherents alike ought to take just a moment every Christmas to celebrate the events of Christmas 1991. ■ It was on that holiday that Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who lived until just last year, was indisputably a complicated man: Nobody could rise to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party without having a dark side. ■ But Gorbachev is an excellent case study in the necessity of judging historical figures not only in uncompromising absolute terms, but in directional terms as well. A look at Russia today ought to yield a mountain of shame. The last 32 years have been a parade of truly evil acts of aggression and missed opportunities to become a better country. ■ Gorbachev wasn't trying to steer in that direction, though. He was, in his imperfect way, trying to leave malignant Soviet patterns in the dustbin of history. And, in fairness, he didn't have the time he needed to map out a worthy transition to something better. Events overtook his intentions. ■ He was trying to steer in the right direction, though. There's little good that can be said about the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev turned against it before external events foreclosed on his other options. And by his hand, a brutal, murderous, repressive experiment was ended. The people who try to push history in the right direction deserve to be remembered, not just out of gratitude, but as a practice in urging ourselves to be better, too.

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December 25, 2023

News A free conscience

The carol "We Three Kings" finds its way into circulation with ease every Christmas season, but it is based upon the truly dismaying account in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew's version of events says that King Herod ordered the murder of every boy in Bethlehem under two years of age. ■ Whether it was a credible historical event or just an allegorical device, the tale ought to be distressing. And every time the story of the magi is told, whether in religious celebration or just in the singing of Christmas carols, it ought to serve as a reminder that the world we occupy today remains one in which governments clash with freedom of conscience. Sometimes it's out of jealousy, sometimes it's out of other sinister motives. ■ The Pew Research Center conducts an ongoing assessment of religious restrictions in the world, and the chronic problem since the start of their reporting has been that the majority of the world's population lives under high levels of government restrictions on the exercise of religious faith. ■ China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan are all included in that bracket, making for four of the five largest countries in the world by population. That quite obviously tilts the balance, but it also illustrates the gravity of the problem. ■ Freedom of conscience is supposed to be a component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we're clearly a long way away from putting that declaration into universal practice. Coming around to a fundamental belief in the goodness of that freedom takes something of a conversion in its own right -- sometimes people like to see all religions restricted (see: the Communist Party of China), while others want all religions restricted except their own (see: any number of theocratic states today). ■ But for that freedom to be any good and for it to have any real meaning, it has to apply to all -- so long as their exercise of that freedom doesn't infringe on the well-being of others, whether they do or do not share the belief being exercised. Two millennia have passed since the events told by Matthew. It's a shame on humanity that state power, violence, and religion remain so awfully intertwined in so much of the world today.

December 27, 2023

News Investments we'd rather not need to make, but should anyway

75 cents won't even buy an order of hash browns at McDonald's. But it's the per-capita amount that Americans are spending on the final authorized drawdown of weapons aid going to Ukraine. $250 million, 335 million Americans, 75¢ per person. ■ At every turn, the choices made by the Kremlin in the war it plainly started have been wasteful and indefensible. 315,000 of its own soldiers have been killed or wounded, not to mention the military and civilian casualties it has inflicted on Ukraine. The human toll is appalling, and the budgetary consequences are huge, too. ■ In the Cold War, the United States was willing to spend, at times, nearly three times as much of our national income on the military as we do today -- all in the hope of choking out the Soviet Union in a giant cycle of mutually-reinforcing behavior. Ultimately, our adversary tapped out. ■ Today's Russia isn't yesterday's Soviet Union, but it has at least some designs on trying to get back there. Even if our contributions to Ukraine's defense weren't justified by the moral case for helping a young democracy secure its freedom from a revanchist neighbor, it would still make fiscal sense for the United States to invest in neutralizing an adversarial military force at such an incredibly low cost. Supposing that we have spent as much as $46 billion on military aid over the last two years, that's still less than $150 per person to set back a major threat by 18 years from when it began a war. ■ Nobody should doubt that in an ideal world, no such spending would be necessary at all. But we don't live in that world, and we're stuck with facing certain costs to make the world more secure for ourselves and our allies, either now or later. The more conclusively we demonstrate the conviction to see things through in backing the right side in the current conflict, the less likely we are to have to spend vastly more later on.

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December 29, 2023

Threats and Hazards Russia targets Ukrainian shopping malls and homes in bombing and missile campaign

At least 16 people were killed in what was probably the biggest air assault on Ukrainian cities since the full-scale invasion began. Ukraine isn't hiding its armed forces, yet Russia attacks civilian sites. There cannot be undue hesitation about supporting Ukraine's self-defense with all reasonable materials that can be supplied. ■ If this is how the Kremlin acts after nearly two years of trying to wear down Ukraine, can anyone in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Moldova sleep soundly at night? Each borders Russia or Ukraine. If Ukraine isn't supported energetically in its own defense, what's to stop the next border from falling?

Broadcasting Phonies and the phonies who copy their acts

(Video) Tucker Carlson in 2003 with a pretty incisive opinion on Bill O'Reilly's shtick, which sounds a great deal like Tucker Carlson's act in 2023.

Computers and the Internet The problem of digital rentership

For any number of goods delivered digitally -- television shows, computer programs, e-books, music -- sellers are increasingly insisting that they own the rights and you, the customer, are only renting access. That's a pendulum that has swung a very long way from where it began (when the customer owned the rights and the medium, like a cassette tape, was largely just a delivery mechanism), but one can be sure it will end up swinging somewhat back in the other direction. ■ It won't swing all the way back, of course. But the current scheme begs for abuse and workarounds, which are a sure sign that some alert seller will recognize the market being cultivated by bad service experiences. Customers will get cagey and find ways around control, they'll shift their purchases to sellers who aren't so fickle, or they'll demand to own rights free and clear on those things they really value, even if it costs a premium. ■ In theory, the concept of content as a service offers a lot of choices for both fresh production and ongoing support: Software-as-a-service (SaaS) and its relatives are big business, and for good reason in that they can take a lot of work off the hands of busy corporations. But other things move much more slowly: An enthusiastic reader might purchase a book with the intention of reading it "sooner or later", and the "later" might well be 20 years from now. ■ On the printed page, that's nothing. Plenty of libraries still check out books much older than that. But entire e-reader platforms can come and go in the same window of time. ■ Lots of platforms for media delivery have proven to be all too ethereal, from Yahoo Music to Google Reader to the Palm Desktop to Stitcher. The frustration of enduring a service "sunset" could drive the committed user mad. It's fairly clear that the environment is ripening for at least some moderation back in favor of letting consumers buy their content, rather than often unwittingly renting it.

Business and Finance Getting smarter for 99 years

(Audio) Charlie Munger's final CNBC interview -- recorded shortly before he would have turned 100 years old

December 30, 2023

Threats and Hazards Fast fashion at the expense of freedom

An enormous share of the economic history of the United States could be told through the story of textile manufacturing. It's a story that reaches the nation's experiences with international trade, unionization, the merchant marine, rural electrification, and of course the abhorrent practice of slavery (and the Civil War). Few, if any, rival industries can tell quite so thorough a tale. ■ The story continues today, even though textile manufacturing has generally disappeared from the domestic economy. The Special Yarns Corporation of Massachusetts which later evolved into Textron now builds advanced helicopters. Likewise for Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates: Nobody would call Berkshire Hathaway a domestic textile manufacturer any longer. ■ The industry remains relevant because Americans still buy lots of clothing, and its origins matter quite a lot. Producers from overseas -- particularly Chinese manufacturers Temu and Shein -- have pressed quite a lot into the American marketplace, with advertising that can be hard to avoid on streaming video platforms and a business model that takes advantage of a shipping-law loophole to sell directly to American buyers. ■ But the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party warns that these discount suppliers are most likely cheating basic protections for the human rights of their workers, saying, "American consumers should know that there is an extremely high risk that Temu's supply chains are contaminated with forced labor". ■ When goods come extraordinarily cheap, it's essential to know why. And if they're coming at the expense of people like the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang province of China -- where government detention camps and widespread government persecution are known to exist -- then Americans ought to know about it. It's a troubling chapter in one of the longest-running stories touching our national economy.

December 31, 2023

Business and Finance Paper money turns 1,000

It took several thousand years of organizing before human civilization came up with coined money around 1,000 BC. It's hard to do anything that looks like exchange without some medium for counting, and coins are a reliable solution. But coins, in order to be durable, have historically been made from the ranks of materials with some intrinsic value. Durability itself is a valuable characteristic -- which is at least part of the reason it costs 11 cents to mint a quarter and 2.7 cents to mint a penny. ■ But even after coinage came out, it still took another two millennia before paper currency came into being. Paper currency has advantages over coinage, to be sure, starting with production costs: It costs 2.8 cents to print a dollar, or almost exactly the same as it costs to mint a penny. ■ It is believed that China's Song Dynasty was the first government to introduce a paper currency and make it the only legal tender. Paper money invites two high-risk forms of abuse, from two different sources: Counterfeiting and inflation. The authorities have every reason to use the long arm of the law to discourage counterfeiting (which is how we originally got the U.S. Secret Service). ■ Inflation, on the other hand, is prevented by discipline, market forces, and improved knowledge. The United States abandoned (rightly) the use of an asset-backed currency a long time ago, so the discipline has to come from a combination of political independence and public-mindedness on the part of the Federal Reserve. Market forces weigh in on a minute-by-minute basis (just search the news for "Market reaction to the Fed"). ■ But on this millennial anniversary of paper currency, we ought to celebrate the considerable progress that has been made in the study of macroeconomics -- and the huge impact that improved knowledge has on overall human well-being. Make no mistake about it (and the Federal Reserve doesn't): Poor management of the money supply made the Great Depression far more painful than it should have been. ■ We've had multiple enormous challenges to the world economy in the last 25 years, and there has definitely been economic pain along the way. What hasn't been celebrated (quite as much as it should have) is just how much the improved knowledge of economics has reduced the pain that could have been. A lot more remains to be learned before the 2,000th anniversary of paper currency rolls around.

News Re-humanization one day at a time

The one New Year's resolution that would leverage more good than any other would be simple to describe, but require a great deal of conscious effort to implement. It asks (only, but also all) this: That every day for the entire year, each of us would choose to pause for just a moment -- ten or fifteen seconds -- to thoughtfully consider the complexity and richness of the inner life of just one other person. ■ We face significant challenges in the year ahead: Artificial intelligence is able to mimic human behavior like nothing we've ever seen before, raising thorny issues about how it should be treated and about how our habits of using AI might change how we treat other human beings. We see wars continuing with staggering death tolls. We see government oppression and food insecurity and unreliable and unsafe water supplies affecting millions, and it's hard to avoid reducing other people to numerals. ■ But if Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book on interfaith dialogue with Pope Francis (before he became Pope), is right, then the only really durable way to break down conflict is by humanizing the others around us. ■ If everyone stopped everything every day to ponder the inner life of everyone around them, the world would grind to a halt. The gas station cashier cannot stop everything to "dialogue" with every person stopping in for a Mountain Dew and a candy bar. ■ But if one person tried to ponder the richness of the existence of just one other person encountered in their own life every day, that would be more than the capacity of a 737 after a full year. And if everyone did the same thing, it would be a profoundly different world. ■ De-humanization is the root cause of almost every one of our most sinister troubles. No one commits a war crimewithout first reducing the victim below human status. Most atrocities are the same. Even crimes and lesser injuries often require objectifying the other person. That's a habit that can only be broken by replacing it with something better. The vastness of the universe is too much to behold at all times, but it's worth considering from time to time. The same goes for the richness of the human universe.