Gongol.com Archives: January 2024

Brian Gongol

January 2024
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January 1, 2024

Science and Technology The answer is all around us

Everyone who has passed middle-school math knows that the area of a circle is equal to πr2, and that the value of π is close to 3.14159. We also know that the same value holds true not just on Earth, but in the other places humankind has gone -- both the formula and the value of π remain true on the International Space Station and on the surface of the Moon. They still remain true on Mars, where the Perseverance Rover is rolling about on round wheels, and beyond the Solar System, where Voyager 1 is carrying a circular gold-plated copper disk into interstellar space. ■ Suppose for just a moment that you could reach much farther into space than even Voyager 1. No matter how far you were to travel from Earth, is there any place where (a) circles could not be drawn, (b) the area of a circle were anything other than πr2, or (c) the value of π were different from the familiar 3.14159? ■ The idea is fundamentally inconceivable. It's possible to imagine discovering an alien civilization that hadn't calculated the area of a circle yet. It's possible to imagine using a counting system with a base other than 10 (the Babylonians used base-60, for instance), which would convert the value of π to a different equivalent. It's even possible to imagine a planet somewhere without any naturally-occurring circles (though it's extremely hard to imagine). ■ But there's just no way for a circle (or π) to change, no matter how far away you get from home. And the extremely deep problem revealed by such a thought experiment is this: We don't know what enforces that as a law of nature. ■ Yet something does, and it does so both everywhere in the entire universe, and it does so simultaneously. There is no distracting whatever force is doing the enforcement, nor is there any arguing with it. There is no holiday when the area of a circle is 9r, nor a far corner of a distant galaxy where π equals 4.5678. ■ We've explored a great deal about knowledge and information -- witness the explosive growth in artificial intelligence and the legitimately mind-splitting possibilities of quantum computing. And what scientists working on these things are uncovering about subjects like quantum entanglement across large distances are making for very weird science. ■ Whatever governs the (literally) universal nature of knowledge and the laws of all physical existence, we may quite possibly soon begin to uncover the earliest hints of understanding. It's hard to know if we'll even recognize them when we see them. But for the first time in human history, despite all of the stupid things some members of our species are doing to hurt one another and break things, we could be within single-digit years of finding out what binds together everything that exists.

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January 3, 2024

Business and Finance Booms and busts

It's hard to feel down about the condition of a stock market that has risen by 23% in the last year. That's the kind of excitement that really stirs the blood -- especially for anyone looking at a burgeoning retirement account. But times of high performance are when it's most important to have a grasp on underlying conditions -- not just the "what" (a big run-up), but the "why" (exactly which conditions are behind the boom). ■ It seems reasonably likely that price inflation contributed a few points to the increase. It's also likely that conditions reflected a sense of relief after widespread fears of a big recession in 2023 didn't really materialize. ■ In 1937, Benjamin Graham wrote in "The Interpretation of Financial Statements" that "There is, however, a frequent tendency on the part of the stock market to exaggerate the significance of changes in earnings both in a favorable and unfavorable direction." And what is the stock market overall but the aggregate behavior of all of the individual stocks -- and each of their earnings? ■ While it's perfectly sane for investors to feel good about the ground that has been covered in the last 12 months, it's also perfectly sane to ask why the forecasts of the recent past were so confidently wrong. Forecasts are a necessary evil, but the timing and triggers behind big economic events (like recessions) are virtually impossible to anticipate with great accuracy. We can see when conditions are building up on the side of a move in one direction or another, but a huge dose of humility is in order when approaching any look at the future.

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January 5, 2024

Science and Technology A mechanical dependency

Straight-line projections from the past into the future are nearly always imprudent. Things change course, and even when they continue to move in the same direction, they often change speeds. But one projection can be made with almost iron-clad confidence: More people (both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the total population) will live in urban areas in the future than live there today. ■ This direction of change isn't a trend; it's a self-reinforcing cycle. Fundamentally, cities (large and small) offer closer matching of wants with access than other forms of living. People may ebb and flow out of individual cities, but both in the United States and in the world overall, the direction of change is clear. And if the dramatic shock to urban living caused by the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't proven permanent, it's basically impossible to imagine any cause big enough to force a reversal. ■ In a time when public attention is so heavily oriented towards issues that are either esoteric (like culture wars) or literally de-materialized (like artificial intelligence), it would serve us well to realize that the inexorable drift towards urbanization means that the future will be more mechanized than the past. ■ It's easy to think that moving parts and heat and raw materials and grease are all things of the past. But the absolute certainty of urban living is that when lots of people are clustered in a small geographic space, they are fundamentally more dependent upon things like motors, engines, pumps, boilers, fans, and axles than their counterparts elsewhere. ■ Machines power elevators, commuter trains, refrigerated trucks, sewage collection systems, garage doors, operating rooms, and flood gates, as well as countless other things that are needed with greater frequency among the "city mice" than among the "country mice". And while it's possible to automate a lot of the work that is done today by hand, larger populations who depend on smaller cohorts of skilled technical workers are proportionally more vulnerable to the consequences of failure -- whether it's catastrophic breakdown, the unpredictable revenge of deferred maintenance, or the slow and steady decay of institutional knowledge and expertise. ■ It's easy to misjudge trends and think that we have freed ourselves from the bonds of the physical world. We have not. And the sooner we come to appreciate just how much we depend upon the (literal) moving parts of the world and the people who keep them working, not just for how we live now but for how we will certainly live in the future, the better off we will be.


January 6, 2024

News We've been someplace like this before

Ignorance is a powerful accomplice to evil. Malice can do a lot on its own, but the ignorance of bystanders and good people makes it easier for evil to prevail. Ignorance manifests itself in lots of pernicious ways, but one of the worst is when it causes people to think their experiences are unique in human history. ■ Consider these words: "We must elect Presidents who respect the law and the other institutions which surround the Presidency. We must strengthen those institutions in ways which increase their effectiveness and their ability to check unaccountable Presidential power." They could easily have been spoken on the campaign trail in 2024 -- but they were put to paper 49 years ago by then-Senator Walter Mondale, in a book entitled "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". ■ It is rarely the case that our problems are entirely new. Even when factors like technology play a role by introducing novel details to the situation, most problems have precedents. And the good must take the time and commit the effort required to become aware of those precedents, because people doing good are almost always a step behind the people doing bad. That's the nature of being on defense, rather than offense. ■ Three years ago, evildoers attacked the United States Capitol in an effort to halt the peaceful transfer of political power. Today, some people try to defend the act, or even to profit from it -- politically or financially. ■ On this distressing three-year anniversary, these words are apt: "There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law", and "Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others." ■ Smart, timely words. But not contemporary in the least: They were spoken by a young Abraham Lincoln in 1838, more than two decades before he would become President. ■ The America of that time was often openly violent in ways that we would consider intolerable today, and Lincoln knew that the untamed violence of the mob and the embrace of "by any means necessary" thinking were poisonous to the American experiment. If we want to continue preserving that experiment, we have to be alert to the troubles that came before -- not as false consolation that everything will turn out right, but as a sourcebook of ideas for how to combat the evil within.

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January 7, 2024

News Sweet home Chicago

If a policymaker wanted to maximize the proportional share of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road, it would make more sense to look for ways to encourage the mass production of $23,000 Toyota Corollas than to discourage the sale of $174,000 Maybachs with luxury taxes. ■ Yet in Chicago, which faces a variety of pressures on its municipal government (including chronic problems with crime and a notoriously difficult school budget), some activists are proposing to "fix" a housing shortage by raising a real-estate transfer tax on property sales of more than $1 million. ■ Luxury taxes, like other excise taxes, are almost always imposed with the intent of affecting behavior. The consequence is almost always to discourage the production of the particular good being taxed. ■ Chicago's problem isn't that it has too much high-value housing. Expensive housing drives property-tax revenues, and it's usually occupied by people who spend lots of money and who pay lots of other taxes. Rich people may be unsympathetic characters in a public debate, but they also pay for a lot of public goods and services. ■ Like many other cities, Chicago's problem is a shortage in the supply of clean, safe, dignified housing at an affordable price. The cost of housing isn't just a problem for those who are explicitly homeless -- even the advocates who say that homelessness affects 68,000 people in Chicago acknowledge that many of those people are scraping by via couch-surfing and other informal arrangements. ■ So many people suffer from housing stress all over the country that the policy needs are far-reaching. But it's ludicrous to approach it as anything other than a supply shortfall, which is often exacerbated (if not expressly caused) by local zoning and other regulations. We need creative designs and thoughtful legal reforms to encourage innovative approaches that would help to flood the market with Toyota Corolla-type housing. Efficient, mass-produced, reliable, and affordable (but still profitable to the builder). That's the only place durable solutions can be found.

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January 10, 2024

News North Korean missiles raining on Ukraine

South Korea's representative on the UN Security Council has warned that North Korea's missiles, which are being purchased by Russia and launched into Ukraine, are not just weapons of an unjust war happening now, but also perilous tools being readied for a future war across the Korean Peninsula. And South Korea's warning, that "the introduction of North Korean missiles into the war in Ukraine has a significant implication on global nuclear non-proliferation", ought to rattle the entire world. ■ The sinister logic is hard to deny: North Korea gets both a much-needed infusion of cash and a chance to test some of its nuclear-capable missiles, while Russia gets a supply of weapons beyond what its own factories can produce. It's a dastardly arrangement, which makes it all the more likely to be true. ■ Add it to the exhaustingly long list of reasons why Russia's war against Ukraine needs to be brought to an end, preferably through a decisive Ukrainian victory buttressed by the uncompromising material support of the free nations of the world. The sooner the war is concluded, the less practice and testing the North Korean arms get. ■ That, of course, is vastly less important than swiftly easing the suffering of Ukraine's civilians, which is the most important good in its own right. But if halting the war in Ukraine can keep North Korea from advancing its weapons technologies, then that adds a non-trivial degree of self-interest for partners in South Korea's security (foremost being the United States). A conclusive victory for Ukraine would be the best deterrent in the long run.

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January 12, 2024

Computers and the Internet Artificial intelligence without genius

Instances of product names mass-generated by artificial intelligence have begun appearing on Amazon, and the odds are good that they're going to proliferate elsewhere online, too. The fact that some of the names have gone utterly without human attention -- like the end table with the model name "I'm sorry but I cannot fulfill this request" -- should be a cautionary tale to society generally. ■ The mass deployment of artificial intelligence to flood online markets with indistinguishable products, sham reviews, and junk articles is shameful enough. It's corrupt, greedy, wasteful, and distinctly unprofessional. Human expertise matters. ■ But whereas it's mainly a nuisance (albeit a large one) when sham work populates the Internet world of sales and marketing, people of goodwill ought to dread the encroachment of lazy artificial intelligence use in fields like engineering. ■ We know that AI is being used to write computer code: Google even promotes its own tools for doing it. And it's a seductive practice because code often gets re-used, can be tedious to produce, and usually requires the work of highly-skilled (and well-paid) human workers. ■ The day is undoubtedly coming soon when people like structural and civil engineering managers and individual designers are going to use it to cut corners and shave down costs (pressures that are very real when clients have limited budgets and professional staffers often bill at rates of $200 or more an hour). ■ Without conscientious human supervision, AI-generated work is certain to have some ultimately catastrophic consequences. For example: The I-35W bridge collapse in 2007 was a disaster caused by "unknown unknowns", compounded by oversights and failures to double-check work. Among other problems, some calculations were not performed because engineers thought they were "too much work". (That's exactly the kind of thinking that can drive the use of AI.) ■ Modifications had been made over time to the bridge itself making the road surface much heavier, and the structure collapsed while heavy equipment was there to perform reconstruction work. These were factors that wouldn't fit neatly into a computer model for an original design. ■ In an ideal world, we would use AI to double-check careful human design work and call attention to oversights and errors. But if it instead is used (quietly, and without fanfare) to substitute for that human design work instead, we will experience even more disasters as a result. When economic pressures are very strong (as when a technology appears to be capable of substituting for $250-an-hour professionals), it's time to pay a surplus of professional attention.

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January 13, 2024

Iowa Impaired driving

Extreme conditions have a way of pressing questions that otherwise go without much notice, even if they are worthwhile. The extreme Arctic blast that set the stage for a below-zero NFL game in Kansas City and rendered Interstate 80 impassable is a good example. ■ With winter conditions making driving either unsafe or impossible across much of Iowa and wind chills so low that frostbite could take only minutes, it raises the fair question: How do we expect people to travel when they don't have personal automobiles? ■ It's a cliche to bemoan America as an "auto-centric society". And it's naive to think that the automobile will be displaced as our country's primary mode of transportation. It's not just a matter of implicit and explicit preferences that have gone to road construction for generations -- we also just don't have the kind of population density that many of our peer rich countries do. ■ Germany has 84 million people in a land area slightly smaller than Montana. We have 335 million people (almost exactly four times Germany), spread across Montana and 49 other states. And Germany isn't exceptional -- other G7 countries are denser still. The densities involved -- and their consequences for other forms of transit -- are simply not comparable. ■ But cold weather travel shutdowns should cause ordinary people to wonder: If I had to rely on public transportation, how far would I have to walk and how long could I wait for a bus to arrive? If wind-driven snow can close the highways, are there blizzard-resilient modes of transportation we should think about building as backups? If snow removal from the streets is a matter for public works departments, why do we rely on private property owners to clear the sidewalks? Unusual conditions ought to spur some unusual thinking.

Weather and Disasters Curse the torpedoes, full steam ahead

If ever there were a behavior that screamed "Please suspect this vehicle of running drugs", it's driving a car with Florida plates at 94 mph across Iowa during a blizzard. And not just any blizzard, but one that rendered two-thirds of the state all but impassable. A portion of Interstate 80 just west of Iowa City was shut down by stranded trucks and other accidents, which speaks to exactly why we have automatic closing gates on Midwestern on-ramps. ■ For what it's worth, if traveling through snowy places, always go with a flattened cardboard box in your trunk. If you should find yourself spinning your tires on ice, wedge the cardboard under the tire, sticking out in the direction you intend to go. It's a simple hack that can create instant dry traction when badly needed. One Iowa driver set his car on fire by spinning his tires for too long. ■ We complain, of course, but the Midwest isn't the only place where winter storms bite. Over a long enough time horizon, every state but Hawaii is a cold-weather state. (On the other hand, frostquakes are an unusual phenomenon for which Iowans and our neighbors ought to be prepared.)

Humor and Good News What happened to key changes?

(Video) Bass lines, key changes, and ballads of intra-band divorces and breakups are all endangered species in contemporary music. We used to be a proper country.

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January 14, 2024

Broadcasting Radio giant Audacy to "restructure"

The company is "undertak[ing] a deleveraging transaction" that will turn $1.6 billion in debt into company "equity". It's a Chapter 11 bankruptcy move. And it's yet another example of big, debt-laden radio ownership groups turning the market into a toxic environment for investors. ■ The list of unforced errors and acts of outright ego-driven stupidity of some of the radio industry's most high-flying executives is book-length. They've told tall tales for so long that it's hard to tell whether any of them believe their own hype anymore. ■ And it's tragic, because instead of offering radio the time and breathing room for a much-needed transition to a vastly more challenging advertising environment, their rash moves have led to mass layoffs and an apocalyptic hollowing-out of service quality.

Humor and Good News Children deserve our attention

In the sensible words of Jesuit seminarian Christopher Smith: "Be kind to children y'all. Notice them. Listen to them. Welcome them. Take interest in them. Think back to your own childhood: have you ever forgotten an adult who did this for you (no matter how long or how short your time with them was)?" ■ Your knees will probably hate you for it, but it's worth trying whenever possible to crouch down to eye level when talking with little people. Who doesn't remember how vastly distant and unapproachable their height made adults seem from a child's perspective? ■ Bringing our adult eyes down to child's-eye level is a small gesture, but one worth making. And not because it diminishes adults or adult authority: In fact, quite the opposite. Small children don't have the option to get taller, but we can make ourselves shorter. ■ In so doing, we demonstrate respect for their humanity -- which is an essential step towards earning their reciprocal respect. It remains obvious to both adult and child that they aren't equals in every sense, but to transmit the message that "You are worth my time, my attention, and my physical effort to meet you eye-to-eye" is also to transmit an understanding that all lives are valuable. ■ For too many generations and in too many cultures, the relationship between adult and child was (and in many cases, still is) built on a foundation of fear. (The Book of Proverbs contains lots of good advice, but "Whoever spares the rod hates the child" has been taken far too literally for far too long.) ■ That fear-based relationship impresses upon too many young minds both an unhealthy sense of self and a wicked understanding of authority. Real authority is earned and sustained, not asserted by violence. That's true even in the home. ■ Of course an adult should intervene -- forcefully, if needed -- to protect children from doing imminent harm to themselves or others. But, on balance, we cultivate better people by treating them, even when very young, as whole people. Their humanity is complete even at the moment of birth, and isn't proportional to their size.

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January 17, 2024

Weather and Disasters Clear your hydrants, snow-dwellers

While a lot of the modern lifestyle is the result of specialization and outsourcing -- from online tutoring to meal-prep kits to mobile oil changes -- there remain some things that really can't be outsourced. Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you. ■ One of those must-do-it-yourself jobs is to clear out the snow and ice from around fire hydrants in the wintertime. The lowly fire hydrant is a phenomenal innovation in human history: Ben Franklin's Bucket Brigade was itself a big step forward, but it was indeed a bucket brigade. Fire hydrants are remarkable for delivering a virtually unlimited supply of firefighting water to within a matter of yards of where the water is needed. ■ A top-tier municipal fire department takes only minutes to get to the scene of a fire: For reference, a 2-minute turnout time and 6-minute travel time is good enough as a benchmark to earn an enviable Class 2 rating and an elite accreditation for the West Des Moines Fire Department. ■ And conscientious departments work to reduce that response time in ways that may not even be obvious, like having streets re-striped to reduce lane congestion so emergency vehicles can get through even faster. Still, no fire truck, no matter how fast, can get to the scene of a fire faster than a pressurized municipal water line feeding a hydrant. ■ What goes under-appreciated, though, is that any time spent digging out the nearest fire hydrant from under snow and ice had better be done before the trucks arrive, or else all of the professional preparation required for quick response times goes to waste. If it takes five or ten minutes in a pinch, that's nothing but wasted time. Someone has to do the digging sometime, and the least-preferable option is after the firefighters have arrived. While the firefighters are en route seems like a pretty awful time to have to start scooping, too. ■ A mid-sized city could have 10,000 fire hydrants, and no matter how one slices it, that's a daunting number to try to keep clear. Even with an organized effort, it would still take a lot of time. ■ Clearing snow from around a hydrant may be an unpleasant task for the homeowner (or a fastidious neighbor), but expecting someone else to do the job is like hoping someone else will floss your teeth: Chances are, it won't lead to imminent disaster. But for the trivial effort required, and for how directly you yourself are the one to benefit from the effort, is it really worth taking a risk by skipping the work?

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January 18, 2024

No small share of the story of human civilization has been created by people whose personal quest for meaning centered on achieving such fame that they would leave an indelible mark on history. Benjamin Franklin's words were, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." It's hard to get figures like Alexander the Great unless they are motivated -- at least somewhat -- by the quest for immortal fame. ■ Even among much more ordinary people, the desire to be remembered is strong. It motivates us to celebrate holidays like the Dia de los Muertos, to record life passages in keepsakes like family Bibles, and to give money for the naming rights to everything from park benches to college campuses. ■ Two factors make this well-established quest a little peculiar today. First is the tremendous uncertainty created by digitization: On one hand, it has never been easier or cheaper to record or store a memory. On the other hand, it has never been easier to simply lose those recordings -- possibly forever. ■ Tim Harford tells a haunting "cautionary tale" about just how few missteps it takes for documentary evidence to get lost forever, especially when it's captured in digital form. Scrappy efforts like the Internet Archive give the illusion that someone is formally responsible for making sure we don't lose the collective memory of the Internet, but most of that work is done by goodwill rather than accountable mandate. ■ The second peculiar factor is that, at least by some estimates, a substantial share of the people who have ever lived are alive right now -- 8 billion out of a total of 117 billion in all time. If accurate, that would mean 7% of everyone needing to be remebered is still present among us now. That somehow makes the task seem both more enormous and beyond reach and yet also more plausible than thought.

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January 19, 2024

Business and Finance The best hotel in Buffalo

One of the disappointing revelations brought to us by the connectedness of social media is that plenty of people still feel at liberty to take lowbrow pot-shots at their fellow Americans' hometowns in search of an easy laugh. A picture of a disappointedly surprised Hillary Clinton with the caption "Taylor Swift checking into the nicest hotel in Buffalo next week" has pulled in 7.2 million views on Twitter and 126,000 "likes", as though it had been a novel joke. ■ An astonishing number of people have anchored their expectations of other places sometime around 1987, taking a dilapidated Rust Belt, an unimproved Farm Belt, and a backwards South all for granted. This anchoring, though widely performed, is a real disservice, favoring a tiny handful of "advanced" places -- as though the entire country hadn't grown both a lot richer and a lot more homogeneous since then. ■ The plain fact is that America is culturally, economically, and technologically much more alike than it is different, and it has grown much more so over the last generation. Pittsburgh is now a major tech center! You can get upscale tapas in Greenville, South Carolina! There's a Crowne Plaza hotel in Kearney, Nebraska, with an indoor water park and EV charging stations! ■ Economic output per person has basically doubled in the last 40 years -- even after stripping out the impact of inflation. And while we're making more money, the baseline standards for many products and services have risen as well. ■ You don't have the option to watch standard-definition analog television anymore, airbags are mandatory even in the cheapest vehicles, and literally every restaurant has been reviewed on Yelp. There are still plenty of experiences yet to be improved, but it's patently unfair of anyone to assume that long-outdated stereotypes apply. It's a very good thing that our consumer standards have risen by so much. It's past time for our social standards to catch up.


January 20, 2024

Business and Finance Grocery-store appreciation

It shouldn't escape our occasional celebration that the modern American grocery store is the kind of place that would have blown the minds of almost all of our ancestors

News When the icons overstate the case

Office Depot is posting MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) along with some of the product listings in its online store. But the icon they've chosen to use is the radioactivity symbol, which might be a little too alarmist for the purpose.

News The not-very-South-Siders

A vibrant rumor is circulating that the Chicago White Sox might move to a site touted as being within light walking distance of the Loop. Some observers are cheered by the possibility that a baseball park could be built with the Chicago River running along the third-base line. Some lightheartedly dream of spectators jumping into the river to retrieve home-run balls and emerging with diseases. Of course, giardia isn't giardiniera.

News History is like jazz

Human history is like jazz: It'll never sound exactly the same way twice, but you're never really hearing it for the first time. There will always be particular details that are novel or original about an event, but the themes are really unfailingly familiar. That's because humans today are overwhelmingly the same as humans yesterday. On the whole, we're better-fed and face fewer challenges to our physical welfare than our predecessors -- and that contributes favorably to our collective decision-making. ■ But those are marginal differences, not changes to the fundamental stuff of human nature. To reach for an ancient recorded example, the contents of the Book of Proverbs are more than 2,000 years old, yet easy modern parallels can be found to its complaints about lazy children, protests against dishonest business practices, and warnings about liars. ■ This doesn't mean that all of the answers to our problems are hidden in old history books. But if the virtues and vices, motivations and limitations on us are all roughly the same as they've ever been, then it's mostly a matter of learning to recognize the fundamental patterns underlying the (metaphorical) tempo and key changes. In the words of Jeffery Tyler Syck: "The weirdest thing about studying history is that you realize that things never really change but they are also never really the same."

The United States of America Worthwhile thoughts on equality

You haven't heard of everyone who made a contribution

Socialism Doesn't Work

Perhaps the greatest check on the reach of the DSA is their utter contempt for (and resulting ignorance of) Federalism.


January 21, 2024

News The land theory of value

The headline is perfect in its compact hilarity: "Highgate Cemetery to charge £25,000 for burial spots close to grave of Karl Marx". It is too perfect even for the story, which isn't exactly about a case of rents going up specifically near Marx's grave; instead, it's simply a report that the cemetery where Marx is buried has received a windfall of funding for projects which will open up room for some additional gravesites. Marx happens to be one of several recognizable historical figures buried there. ■ The alternate version would have been much funnier, of course: Seeing market-driven land prices in a cemetery rise according to demand to be interred next to the philosopher who brought Communism to the world. Alas, it's funnier in the abstract than in the particular. ■ Still, though, the news does confirm that people do, in fact, pay to have their remains laid to rest in places where they will be remembered. Tourists must pay to visit Highgate Cemetery, and group tours must be arranged in advance. (Barbecues are prohibited.) ■ And the dual facts that people willingly pay to visit "destination" gravesites and that some will surrender a premium fee to be located in a "good neighborhood" after they have died should be quite enough to demonstrate just how empty Marx's philosophy really was. ■ Political ideas are invariably about the allocation of power. The liberal understanding of the world (in the classical sense of "liberal") holds that individuals are the moral source of power, and their choices should generally prevail. When those choices need to be constrained for the good of society, then the constraining ought to be done by a government which itself has limited powers. Government may be very large, if the people choose it, so long as that government is limited by laws, rules, norms, and conventions. ■ Marx's basic belief was that the moral source of power was with "the people" in the aggregate. Lots of people have willingly fallen for his arguments over time, but the arguments themselves are nonsense. They act only as an excuse to cloak the will of power-seeking individuals in the costume of "the people's will". Invariably, that has ended up in abuse -- which is what happens when power is not intentionally limited. ■ Marx was fortunate to have been buried in a nice place like England. Considering the direct lines that can be drawn from his despicable philosophy to the deaths of tens of millions of people, he probably deserved no better than to have been dumped in the sea. But then, nobody could have paid £10 for the privilege of making his grave a tourist attraction.

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January 22, 2024

News The counsel of elders

It is entirely reasonable to point out that, all else being equal, electing octogenarian Presidents is a sub-optimal practice for the good of the country. To manage the sprawling Executive Branch and to provide political leadership to the country requires more than just a lot of life experience -- it requires energy, focus, adaptability, and occasionally exhausting all-out efforts. ■ Wisdom is only part of the role. It's an important part, but it isn't exclusive. Wisdom is where knowledge and experience intersect, and though age generally begets a lot of experience, it doesn't always result in knowledge. Some people only think they know it all. ■ We aren't especially good about building institutions to direct people into consultative roles. "Consultant", in American English, all too often refers to a freshly-minted graduate from a name-brand university who lacks experience but has a marketable pedigree. ■ What "consultant" ought to mean, at least more often than it does, is something much closer to "elder" -- not in the sense of advanced age, but rather as one who has accumulated some wisdom and who is available to offer consultation to those who are doing the actual leading and managing. That just isn't a practice we're very good at following: Corporate boards of directors are often notable only for their fealty to the CEO, and non-profit boards are often filled on the basis of fundraising. ■ At every level, from the smallest community group up to the highest offices in the land, we ought to try much harder to recruit and make use of the counsel of elders -- true elders, in the sense of those who have really worked to obtain some useful wisdom, and not merely those who have seen a lot of candles on their birthday cakes. Some people would make worthy elders in their 30s, and others would have nothing to say well into their 90s. ■ And to make use of their counsel doesn't require formal institutions or explicit authority, either. It can work that way, of course, but we need to draw better distinctions between those who act (and are accountable for their actions) and those who can offer hard-won advice for the good of the community. ■ Everyone wants to feel needed. Perhaps if our culture were better about asking worthy people to offer consultation as "elders", we wouldn't have quite so many people refusing to vacate vital roles in government and elsewhere until it is really much too late.


January 24, 2024

News Down with abusive auteurs

If you wanted to grow an apple in the shape of a cube, you could spend years trying to perfect a bizarre hybrid that resulted in a cubical fruit. Genetic engineering could help accelerate the process, but it's likely to take many generations to even begin to approximate a special shape. ■ A simpler approach that would succeed in just a single generation would be to take a small emerging fruit and place a cube-shaped mold around it. The fruit, naturally attempting to grow to the space available to it, will simply take on the shape of the enclosure constraining it. ■ The resulting fruit would be an oddity, even perhaps a bit of a spectacle. but neither should the fruit have or take any credit for any brilliance of its own nor should the grower expect that the treats will be passed along genetically to the next generation. it is simply a matter of something trying to take its maximum shape and rubbing up against constraints from the outside. ■ Certain public figures end up being a lot like that cubical-shaped fruit. Because they are inclined to push relentlessly until they encounter some kind of limitation, they take the shape of whatever it is that surrounds them. They don't deserve any particular credit for choosing to be what they are: It's not a conscious choice so much as it's a consequence of what it is that surrounds and limits them externally. ■ They do often end up being unique, strange, and oftentimes entirely sui generis. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to accept their oddities as being virtues. ■ Movie directors with hair-trigger tempers. CEOs who engage in addictive risk-taking. Politicians who adopt extreme positions as tickets to fundraising and fame. Musicians who are too self-absorbed to make it in the real world. ■ Like abnormally-shaped apples, these people need to be seen as products of their conditioning. The abuses emerging from auteur worship have gained some recognition in cinema, but there's a long way to go both in Hollywood and in the many other places the same habits are found. We don't need to tolerate abusive behavior anywhere. People who go too far will almost always continue to go too far unless they are constrained from without.

@briangongol on Twitter

January 25, 2024

Given the continued sustained growth in podcast listening, as well as the popularity in episodic series of fixed seasonal duration (of which "Serial" is a leading example), it seems strange that American audiences haven't been offered a lot of scripted audio comedies, dramas, or thrillers. ■ The BBC has been running a radio soap opera called The Archers for more than 20,000 episodes. As a format, American radio drama largely died out many decades ago because of television, but times have changed in ways that ought to favor scripted audio fiction. ■ Technologically, podcast players allow listeners to start and stop at their convenience, picking up exactly where they left off. This is infinitely more audience-friendly than scheduled programming broadcast over the air, as the massive rise in on-demand video streaming confirms. And podcast listening takes place largely through headphones and earbuds, which serve up high-quality versions of cleanly-recorded digital programs: There's no radio static! ■ From a production viewpoint, it has never been easier to record scripted programming (quality microphones are found everywhere), and there are lots of skilled voice talents and production wizards ready for hire. Distribution costs are basically nil. ■ Thus the question may be one of writing. We are living in what has arguably been a golden age of television scriptwriting, and the great success of adult-targeted cartoons (like the 14 seasons of "Archer", or the 271-and-counting episodes of "Bob's Burgers") provides ample evidence that audiences are comfortable with stories that don't require live actors in front of eyeballs. ■ Something is holding back the audio-only scripted series, and it's not immediately obvious what that is. The skills and the tools are out there -- perhaps what's missing is just the induced demand.

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January 27, 2024

Everyone knows somebody who tries a little too hard to get ahead. Not someone who's trying to be the best at what they do. Not someone who's seeking to be the best person they can be. Merely somebody who's always out to achieve some situational advantage to get ahead. ■ These climbers can be very good at bringing attention to themselves -- to the point where they oftentimes seem obnoxious. The world has always contained some element of climbers, but their presence has probably never been more obvious than it is today. Tools like social media place their self-promotional bids for applause on Facebook and their insufferable efforts to grow their networks on LinkedIn. ■ An under-appreciated challenge of the modern era is to try to corral and channel the efforts of climbers into constructive purposes for other people and institutions, without losing sight of the fact that plenty of people who actually do laudable and useful work are terrible at self-promotion. ■ The people who do the heavy lifting in many institutions rarely want to spend their time "building a personal brand" or becoming "influencers". A person's influence on the world shouldn't be measured by their ability to get in front of other people, but rather by their actual capacity to get useful things done. As a matter of societal self-preservation, we need to be able to distinguish between the two things.

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January 28, 2024

When the Beatles were at the peak of their fame, the world's population was around three and a half billion. Today, as the fame of Taylor Swift is frequently benchmarked against the Beatles, we live in a world of about eight billion -- considerably more than twice the number of the 1960s. ■ Does this mean that if a performing artist achieves 96% name recognition today that they are an even match for the artists who had the same name recognition then? Or does population growth make the current-day artist more than twice as famous? ■ The question isn't really all that consequential. Fame is a perishable quality, and it isn't much use to the holder once they're dead. But there is a sense in which it does matter. ■ Humans are social creatures, so we look to others to help shape our decisions and behavior. While a lot of behavior is ultimately unimportant (like rating a movie or choosing a brand of toothpaste), some of it matters quite a lot. And just as we look to famous performing artists to set trends (like the effect Taylor Swift is having on football in general and on Kansas City football in particular), we look to prominent figures to set agendas around how we think about significant political, moral, and other issues. ■ In that sense, it matters quite a lot whether it now takes two or three times the number of voices who used to be spokespeople for good conscience as it did during Beatlemania, or whether the same number of role models can influence bigger audiences without flagging. ■ Big questions are being addressed every day, and whether it takes new legions of prominent leaders to direct people to think about them in constructive ways. Not every question lends itself to a Google search or an AI prompt. Human-to-human influence, even when it's at scale, still means a great deal.


January 30, 2024

Computers and the Internet Elmo touches a ticklish subject

Someone at the Sesame Workshop posted an innocuous comment on a social-media profile operated in the name and voice of the character Elmo: "Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?". In 36 hours, the post garnered 167 million views and 11,000 replies. Obviously, nobody of sound adult mind actually thinks they're talking to a furry red monster when they interact with a Twitter profile of a Sesame Street character. And yet, the huge number of replies to a simple message -- no small number of those replies evidently sincere -- says something interesting about mental wellness. ■ The sincerity and the sadness of some of those replies appears to have instigated the Sesame Workshop team to post a follow-up message with a link to a page of mental health resources for children and adults. Perhaps that is not wholly unexpected; there are always individuals within a large population who need help that they aren't getting. Others need just a friendly word of encouragement. ■ There are those who think that we can use artificial intelligence tools to surrogate for human practitioners as mental-wellness providers. It's certainly possible that there's some extent to which AI can be useful as a tracking device, and maybe even as a diagnostic tool. But it's folly to think that the deeper job can be done by a machine. ■ Clearly, there's something deeper going on behind the "Elmo" episode: People aren't really responding to the Sesame Street character, per se, but they are most certainly responding to the notion that there's a human being who posted the message and (presumably) reading the replies. ■ There just isn't any way that it's possible to make an AI program so good that any significant number of people would still prefer to engage with it for mental wellness support rather than with a human being -- even if that human is a stranger. Are there some people so uncomfortable with interpersonal contact that they might voluntarily turn to a machine? Sure, just as there are those who prefer the company of dolls to real people. But those are extreme cases. ■ Even if it could pass a Turing test, a large language model is still just a computer model. And any ethical system worth its salt certainly owes the patients and clients seeking mental wellness care the transparency to reveal whether their provider is a machine or a living, breathing person. The instinct for human interaction is just so far beyond substitution that it is going to be a defining hard limit on technology.

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January 31, 2024

News A bad month for media

In the course of just one month, 2024 has already taken a substantial number of casualties in the mass media. Commercial radio giant Audacy has filed for bankruptcy. Sports Illustrated appears to be in freefall. The Los Angeles Times is laying off 20% of its newsroom staff. And The Messenger, started with fanfare less than a year ago, is closing down abruptly. ■ The diagnosis isn't hard; advertising used to be a mass-market product, and now it is extremely targeted. People don't have to watch "Must-See TV" on the network's time -- they can watch today's must-see TV on-demand, and it even competes with yesterday's. "Frasier" now competes head-to-head with his past self. ■ It may not matter much if Sports Illustrated's place is taken by more opinion-driven outlets -- the scores will still be the same. But it does matter if current events of greater significance become captive to hardened partisanship. That isn't an inevitable outcome of current trends, but it's a real hazard. There will always be an incentive to reach mass audiences for political purposes, so there will always be some sort of funding available to sustain outlets that say the right things to satisfy the patrons. ■ Some models for truly community-supported journalism and public-interest media have started to emerge, but they aren't spreading fast enough and new ones aren't germinating quickly enough. The economics of mass media remain in real peril, and as some of the outlets are disrupted into oblivion, the reading, viewing, and listening habits of audiences will be forced to change. ■ They will find some outlets welcoming them with open arms -- often with ulterior motives. But habits, once changed, tend to harden all over again. And that could well mean that people will enter information silos and not come back out.

News Speaking up

The classic dichotomy between introverts and extroverts is familiar enough: Introverts need to recharge, mentally and emotionally, after time engaging with other people, while extroverts need that engagement in order to feel recharged. It explains a lot about people, but it's also often misidentified with other characteristics. ■ Perhaps the most common example is internal versus external processing. Some people manage all of their thoughts quite comfortably inside the space of their own heads. Others need to project their thinking into the physical environment around them, whether by talking to themselves, jotting notes on paper, piling books and magazines in particular places, or otherwise putting their thoughts into space. ■ The introvert who is a strongly expressed external processor could easily be mistaken for an extrovert, but some people simply need to talk in order to think. It's not a matter of whether anyone else is around to hear, but whether the thoughts travel outside the brain before being fully digested. Someone who talks your ear off but doesn't take the cues signaling your lack of interest? That's an introvert who needs to process externally; they might as well be talking to a cat or a tree. A true extrovert thrives on interaction and feedback. ■ Likewise, the extrovert who processes internally might look like a wallflower. But the libraries and coffee shops of the world are full of them, and they're reliable guests at every party. They may exhibit the old stereotype that "still waters run deep", but they can't abide loneliness -- they might not spill their every thought for others to pick up, but a nod, a smile, or a passing "hello" is like fuel for the tank. ■ Couple these characteristics with others, and it soon becomes evident how humans can be richly varied, even within a family. A meticulous extrovert who processes internally might have the most spotless desk in the open-floorplan office and leave work buzzing with energy. ■ But put an external processor in the same office, and the very act of having to hot-desk might drive them mad -- even if they're chronically extroverted. An external processor may need to organize their thoughts in the physical space around them, with things like papers, Post-It notes, sketches, or plan drawings. And if that space is first-come, first-served, they might never get a major long-term project done. ■ Meanwhile, they'll quite possibly drive that meticulous internal processor right up and down the wall. The conflict is nobody's fault, at least not intentionally, and yet the circumstances create an almost inevitable conclusion. ■ It's funny just how many decisions -- from how we're grouped in elementary school, to how workplaces are organized, to who has a social "pass" to judge others -- come down to personality characteristics over which we really have no control, and about which we often haven't really ever been formally educated. Accounting for those features would make lots of our human-built world run more smoothly.

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