Gongol.com Archives: February 2024

Brian Gongol

February 2024
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February 3, 2024

News You're only a 737 away from illiteracy

Common practice recognizes a generation in familial terms as being about 30 years long. Every individual family differs -- some people become teen moms and others are old dads. Every family with offspring has a firstborn, but there can be a lot of middle children before the baby of the family comes along. So while it varies, 30 years is a fairly reasonable rule of thumb from generation to generation. ■ History seems awfully remote until we can conceptualize it in personal terms. Consider, then what it might look like if you could assemble all of an individual's ancestors along a single line -- say, their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and so on indefinitely. ■ An assembly like that would only contain enough people to fit in a Class A motorhome before reaching someone who lived through the Great Enlightenment. John Locke first wrote of life, liberty, and property as natural rights in 1690. A long time ago, perhaps, but also only about 11 generations prior to a child born today. ■ Johannes Gutenberg's printing press entered service in 1454 -- or only about 19 generations in the past. Along any single ancestral line, most people today could only fill about a book club's worth of people before reaching an era before anything was published by anything but a single person's hand. ■ And of those few books that survive the pre-press era, the individuals whose words are still quoted today really aren't that far removed, either. We are only about 68 generations removed from the time of Jesus. Generations are hard to conceptualize, but if you were to follow just one ancestral line, you could fit 68 people into a Blue Bird school bus with more than a dozen seats to spare. To fill the bus, you'd need to follow the ancestral line all the way back to the time of Aristotle (about 78 generations before us). ■ In fact, writing itself is only about 180 generations old. If you gathered yourself, your father, your father's father, and so on through that single ancestral line all the way back to 3,400 BC, you'd likely only have enough people to fill a Boeing 737. ■ And to reach the very beginning of settled agriculture, you would reach back about 10,000 years, or perhaps 333 generations. A single ancestral line for any one of us living today wouldn't even be enough to fill the lecture hall at the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University. ■ Ancestry, history, and genealogy are often overwhelming in their apparent scale, especially because of the exponents involved. Genetically, everyone has eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, and 32 great-great-great grandparents. The horizontal look gets pretty big. But following just a single chain vertically up the family tree helps to put into perspective just how much human civilization advances when seen at personal scale.

Business and Finance 84% of US retail spending still happens in stores

It doesn't often feel like that much, though, especially to anyone who spends time near a dead or dying shopping mall. There will always be a place for purchases that require a touch-and-feel approach. But there will always be a place for fast, frictionless online purchases that save lots of time. The missing element right now remains the scaled competitor to Amazon -- probably one operating in the same general vein as Aldi: Focused on a single, dependable private-label brand option for every product category sold, and nothing else. That's still likely to be the thing that takes the fight to Amazon, especially as it allows itself to become cluttered with knockoff products.

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February 4, 2024

Health Be intentional about it

In some influential circles, the tenor of the moment is a dour one: The Surgeon General warns of an "epidemic of loneliness", while college counseling departments fret that "Gen P[andemic]" students are struggling in dramatic new ways. The term "deaths of despair" (those ultimately attributable to emotional pain over economic hardship) has gone mainstream. ■ Without downplaying some of the very real sociological factors undoubtedly involved in at least some cases, perhaps we need to acknowledge another effect that is more personal and almost entirely uncoupled to economic circumstances: The crisis of intentionality. ■ At times in the past, with identities like religion and ethnicity tending to play a larger role in the average person's life than today, it may have been easier for many people to adopt an external framework for some of the bigger questions of "Why?". One becomes a farmer because that was the occupation handed down by one's father. One becomes a church elder because that is what everyone in the family has done. One prepares a certain meal every New Year because that is what was done in the motherland. ■ Individuality has liberated lots of people from oppressive traditions, and prosperity has brought countless new choices into being. But some people naturally find choices overwhelming, and most people probably struggle from time to time with the overload of choices available at every turn. ■ Automation has crept in almost everywhere imaginable to help people tune out and make decisions as if on autopilot: Prepared or planned meals arrive on the doorstep. Netflix assumes you want to keep watching from one TV episode to the next. An app promises to guide you to sleep. Your watch may even tell you when to breathe. ■ Missing from all of this is intentionality: Making a conscious, deliberate choice about some manner of taking a next step or regulating one's own behavior. Some philosophers would even say it's the essence of human existence to critically examine nearly every significant thought. ■ It's hard to imagine how to introduce either the theory or the practice of intentionality in any kind of structured or institutionalized fashion. Could a middle-school teacher somehow compel a classroom of students to value making choices as a self-evident good in its own right? Hardly. But once one begins to recognize the many cases where people of all social and economic backgrounds surrender their choices to the many various (and increasingly numerous) incarnations of autopilot available in the modern world, it's hard to look the other way.

Water News California officials drain reservoirs in spectacular fashion

Trying to make room for runoff headed back into the lakes after a soaked January

News Nixon-era Cadillacs didn't need plush seats

Some of the most opulent and over-the-top vehicles of the 1970s featured interiors that paired velour with overstuffed seats. At the time, people undoubtedly thought of them as luxurious. But they were being driven at a time when gasoline contained lead and death rates on the roads were 80% higher than they are today. (The death rate has fallen by even more, when measured in passenger-miles traveled.) ■ Sometimes a veneer of extravagance is really just a way to cloak inadequacy in the fundamentals. What good is an overstuffed velour interior compared with heated seats with lumbar support and stain resistance? ■ Besides, any car from the 1970s was likely to smell of cigarette smoke: 37.4% of American adults smoked in 1970, compared with 13.7% today. A car with one driver and one passenger had basically coin-flip odds of containing at least one smoker. (And smoke sticks to velour.) ■ It's often remarked that any middle-class American lives with certain advantages completely unavailable even to J. Pierpont Morgan or Andrew Carnegie in their day: Both died before the discovery of penicillin, the arrival of jet aircraft, or the invention of the digital computer. ■ But the shortcomings of even the most expensive production Cadillac of the 1970s compared with the features of even a mid-range Kia today (Air bags! Dual-zone climate control! Touch-screen displays! Hybrid power! Self-parking!) ought to be a reminder that oft-maligned capitalism manages to make a lot of things better even within the span of a lifetime.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft buys land for 7th data center in West Des Moines area

Six Microsoft data centeres are currently in operation or under construction in West Des Moines proper, and land for a seventh has been purchased in Van Meter (adjacent to the city on the west). "The cloud" -- and particularly artificial intelligence -- are very much found in the real world in Iowa. ■ With Google introducing tools like image generation to its Bard suite of services, Microsoft is undoubtedly looking to concentrate on extending its early lead in AI tools, and it needs server farms to do that. ■ It was only a year ago that stories like "Why a conversation with Bing's chatbot left me deeply unsettled" were headline news. In many ways, the technology has improved. In others, it's been put to use in regressive ways: President Joe Biden's voice was faked in a robocall telling New Hampshirites not to vote. ■ But the race is on in a huge way, and not just domestically. You can be certain that Chinese developers are treating it like a sprint, and things will undoubtedly develop differently under a government which has no scruples about how individual rights are treated and a hypersensitivity about how and when it receives criticism. Otherwise unassuming data centers growing out of literal Iowa farmland may well prove to be far closer to the center of the future's battle for power than normal instincts may suggest.

News St. Brigid's Day after 1,500 years

Ireland's best-known female saint is said to have died 1,500 years ago on February 1st, providing a trigger for commemorative celebrations. ■ Certain historical figures like St. Brigid are especially interesting for what they tell about broader movements. Did Irish monasteries really save Western civilization in the Dark Ages? Maybe, or maybe not. ■ But the stories of St. Patrick converting the Irish to Catholicism and St. Brigid founding monastic communities across the island both speak to a certain value to be found in difference and isolation. ■ Brigid, for instance, is recognized as a saint, but there are those who think the saint was co-opted from Celtic mythology. Whatever happened in Ireland 1,500 years ago, it was in many ways different from continental Europe -- which is what makes the story about the people of the island "saving civilization" at least superficially plausible. ■ Outposts that have contact with a bigger community but remain isolated from it somehow are inherently interesting. Few have been as interesting in as many ways as Ireland, especially in its relationship with the Roman Catholic church: Won through the copious exercise of religious syncretism, hardened as a source of national identity during an 800-year colonial occupation by the British, and maintained as a key source of identity through a painful diaspora. Outside of the Apostles, Ireland's national saints are probably the best-known early names in the church. Being a little bit isolated and a little bit different can pay dividends.

Business and Finance Americans love small businesses

A Pew Research Center survey scores small businesses as the institutions most widely viewed as having a positive impact on the country. That places them ahead of the military, churches, labor unions, schools, colleges, financial institutions, and big businesses. Interestingly, there is no partisan split over small businesses, either. ■ A few likely reasons leap to the forefront: First, "small business" is routinely equated with family ownership or proprietor ownership -- where the person who actually knows the work best is in charge of the company. People are perhaps naturally disposed to look favorably at family operations: The family farm, which is a small business, is celebrated with almost mythical status. But proprietor-owners may also bask in a certain glow, especially when compared with the quasi-professionalized managerial class at large companies. It's the Wright Brothers, bicycle-makers and inventors versus Bill Lumbergh and his TPS reports. ■ There's also the understanding that small businesses are often bound to a local community much more tightly than their larger counterparts. An operation like Hot Doug's or Rosati's is a Chicago institution, and when it grows or opens up elsewhere, it's seen as a projection of local culture. But when Boeing hopscotches its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago to DC, it no longer seems to belong anywhere. ■ Accountability matters, too: A small business that burns its customers doesn't have anywhere to hide. That stands in stark contrast to bigger institutions, from business to government to churches, which can shuffle people around or play shell games with revenues to cover up dissatisfied locals in any particular jurisdiction. ■ The most important factor is probably the simplest of all. A business exists at the pleasure of its customers. If a restaurant, store, consultancy, factory, or other for-profit operation fails to satisfy the needs and wants of its clients, they hold a veto over its future. Thus the small business, more than any other type of institution, depends upon constantly making other people happy. Survivorship bias tends to clean up the reputation of small businesses generally by making the bad ones go away. ■ What we do with this knowledge is altogether something else; for all the goodwill that shines on small businesses, government filing, regulatory, and tax requirements tend to weigh disproportionately on small businesses, and those businesses face often exorbitant fees for ordinary activities that reflect their smaller purchasing power. Incentives and disincentives matter a great deal.

News Elton John and Bernie Taupin named Gershwin Prize winners

If anyone in history has landed a better gig than Bernie Taupin, it's hard to think of whom. Elton John does all the time on the road, endures all the inconveniences and troubles that come with life in the spotlight, and surrenders any shred of normalcy (what's he going to do, drop into the gas station to buy a scratch lottery ticket for himself?). ■ Bernie Taupin writes lyrics (poems, really) and collects royalties, free to enjoy the rock-star perks without being anchored to the rest of the lifestyle. At one time, they had the biggest music publishing deal in history. ■ It's not a coattail effect, either -- Elton John has been pretty clear that he only succeeded as an artist because of the partnership. In that is a lesson for many of us: Elton John would have been a great musician on his own, but it was a songwriter who turned him into a superstar. Splitting their royalties 50/50 still most likely leaves both partners vastly wealthier than they ever would have been apart. And due recognition of their chemistry over the course of a 56-year partnership has been delivered, most recently, in the form of a Gershwin Prize.

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February 6, 2024

Humor and Good News In connection with that

Discovered in an old book: The word "connection" spelled "connexion". Could we please resume that past practice? That "X" is way cooler.

Broadcasting Happy broadcast birthday, WBBM

The grand old dame of Chicago "newsradio" is turning 100

@briangongol on Twitter

February 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards The toxic Kennedy

If the disgraced ex-Congressman George Santos had been even modestly clever about his subterfuge, he could have simply changed his surname to "Kennedy" before running for office. Not only would it have been perfectly legal, it might have been a far easier and more efficient way to court votes than any of the ridiculous lies he told. ■ A cohort of voters exist who clearly have more affection for the Kennedy name than discretion about how to use their ballots. The fact that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is able to capture double-digit support in a Presidential poll while running on a platform of nothing but utter nonsense about science and health and gallingly illiberal anti-American sympathy for Vladimir Putin. He is independent in name, but beholden to ideas that are wretchedly bad for America. ■ An ad placed on his behalf during the Super Bowl ripped off one of his uncle's television spots from 1960, self-evidently depending upon the Kennedy family brand name rather than any merit of his own. And while he apologized to his extended family for the stunt, the real offense isn't that someone made a bad cover version of a more than 60-year-old campaign commercial. It's that he uses the name as a substitute for having any ideas or experience worthy of the office of President. ■ Voting for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., because he reminds you of his father is like flying American Airlines today because you miss TWA. Kennedy has had a lifetime of opportunity to earn his own identity with fresh thinking and successful public service. He has instead chosen to become a spokesperson for views that have nothing to do with an America that aspires to be better tomorrow than it is today, but everything to do with surrendering the future to extremists, cranks, and autocrats. ■ Even Congress was willing to shove George Santos out the door for the toxic cloud that surrounded him. Given how gullible (or intellectually lazy) some voters choose to be, it's a good thing he never filed to rename himself "George Kennedy".

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February 13, 2024

News Don't cut off the water while the fire is being fought

Having a smartphone in every pocket means we have reached a point of almost pure entertainment saturation. For every moment of leisure, there is a television episode, a podcast, an article, a game, a tweet, or a Snap ready to absorb -- and monetize -- every blink of attention, right down to increments of 3 seconds. To our ancestors who waited all week to read the "Saturday Evening Post" or who may never have learned to read at all, this saturation would be utterly bewildering. ■ But a toxic side effect of our current situation is that it compels at least some people to treat entertainment as the source of political understanding and influence, rather than treating entertainment as a diversion from weightier matters (like robust debate around meaningful issues). This leads some individuals to reason from what sounds the most satisfying with the least effort, rather than doing the hard reasoning first and then passing their judgment through the tools of rhetoric to make them appealing. ■ Senator Mike Lee of Utah, in a dramatic display of the former, declares, "Prolonging this war doesn't help the people of Ukraine." And he filibusters to try to stop any aid from going to Ukraine as it struggles in a defensive war against its much larger invader. ■ Sen. Lee's argument may be pithy, but it is empty. He implies that in supplying aid to Ukraine, the United States is prolonging a war which Ukraine fights only in its own defense. His argument is the same as saying, "Prolonging this effort to put out a house fire doesn't help the family who lives here. We should shut off the fire hydrant." ■ Utah's other Senator, Mitt Romney, has reasoned the issue out. But his plain, honest, and compelling argument in favor of funding takes him five minutes to deliver. If the only thing that matters is entertainment, Sen. Romney's morally upright case is no match for Sen. Lee's debased nonsense. ■ What prolongs the war in Ukraine is the Kremlin's choice to continue a violent occupation. Period. If we don't have the patience to consider the consequences of their victory or defeat, that's a shame on us. And we will rue the day we turned our backs on our friends in their distress, especially if it happens because we substituted entertainment for judgment. Good arguments aren't always catchy, and catchy arguments often aren't any good.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

February 15, 2024

News Respect your juniors

While it is both disappointing and unfortunate, it comes as no surprise that at least some of the women who made names for themselves in college basketball have been resistant to celebrate the successes of Caitlin Clark, who has just set the record for scoring by an NCAA Division I player. ■ In any field, whether in sports or beyond, it isn't uncommon for members of an old guard to dismiss the bright stars of a succeeding generation, often with subtle implications that the path was somehow easier for the newcomers, or that the latest talent is somehow either selfish or undeserving of accolades. It is an artifact of classic scarcity thinking, and it's usually just...sad, really. ■ Scarcity thinking fixates on how the "pie" is divided, rather than on the size of it. Old-guards fall for it all the time, and they can often be forgiven for the impulse. Someone who lived before Title IX was enacted could be forgiven for having vestigal memories of scrapping for even minimal resources. ■ But a major part of human maturity is found in learning to arrest one's counter-productive impulses. Imagine bringing your great-great-grandparents back to life, and finding that all they could do was make snide remarks about how easy your life is with running water, ready electricity, safe transportation, vaccines, and computers. ■ True, those things do make life easier. But when we freely celebrate the fruits of progress, we also implicitly praise the people who built that progress, often at great cost. ■ Everyone of adult age is part of at least one "old guard". Whatever old guard it is of which any one of us is part, it is incumbent upon us to see the successes of our successors as an endorsement of what we did to get them there. That's how we shift from obsessing about slicing the pie to putting energy into growing it. ■ Whether it's bringing attention to women's sports or any other pursuit, old guards need to know when it's time to shut up: Not just for the good of the cause, but to avoid undermining our own contributions to those who are reaching new heights.

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February 16, 2024

Threats and Hazards The saddest book

One of the saddest books of all time wasn't written to bring anyone down. When Mikhail Gorbachev published "Perestroika" in 1987, he may have paid lip service to the Soviet institutions he inherited (an early subchapter is titled "Turning to Lenin, an Ideological Source of Perestroika"), but it was evident that he was trying to steer a very big ship of state in a very different direction. ■ Gorbachev never got to see his plans through to fulfillment; by the end of 1991, he was out of power and it looked like Russia was on a fast track to liberalization. We know now that it wasn't. ■ The Baltic states -- Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia -- have shown that an escape vector from Soviet Communism was possible to achieve. Their economies have grown enviably, their freedoms are strong, and Estonia has even become a world leader in "digital citizenship". Lithuania's prime minister is a woman born in Generation X, and all three countries cleared the hurdles for EU membership years ago. ■ Russia, by contrast, is ruled by a cruel regime that invades its neighbors with blood lust and murders political prisoners like Alexei Navalny. ■ Russia could have taken a different path, and the consequences of its failure are incalculable. Communism wasted immeasurable potential human happiness, and the failure to escape the hangover from Communism wastes even more. ■ Even worse, the failure to achieve a sustainable transition from the USSR to a liberalized Russian state means that there is no road map left behind for other countries to follow for a similar transition. Most significantly, China will someday reject Communism (it is an inherently unstable and unsustainable regime), and Russia's failure to "pilot test" what a successful post-Communist transition could look like in a country of 140 million will leave matters even worse when China has to do the same with 10 times as many people. ■ Theodore Roosevelt once counseled, "[W]e must face the facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism." ■ Deep down, people know they are meant to be free. No amount of repression can stop them from reasoning it spontaneously, even if all influence from the outside world is cut off. That ought to be our optimism. ■ But despotic regimes are selfish and cruel and don't often hesitate to destroy their righteous opponents. That is our inescapable pessimism. Navalny saw his fate coming. Ultimately, it is and must be up to Russia to heal itself. But anyone who does the bidding of the irredeemable tyranny there is themselves a disgrace. The evil will fall someday -- but the human happiness sacrificed in the meantime is abominable.

News Holding on to more peripheral friends

Just as it's possible to get too many marketing emails from the same source (no, we don't need to receive your coupons daily), it's also possible to have too much intensive contact with peripheral friends. It leads to burnout, and unfortunately, that's the only gear that most of our social media tools are designed to encourage: Too much, too often. ■ What we need are manageably-periodic friendship encounters. They're relatively easy to cultivate if you do things in the real world (going to church, volunteering at a library, leading a Cub Scout group), but harder to do online. But since we spend so much time online (85% of us daily, and some "almost constantly"), we need tools to make that happen more easily.

Threats and Hazards Let's not sleepwalk into cyber disaster

CBS reports: "Hackers backed by the Chinese government are targeting U.S. water treatment plants and electrical grids, strategically positioning themselves within critical infrastructure systems to 'wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities'". This is a huge problem, about which we cannot be absent-minded or oblivious.

@briangongol on Twitter

February 17, 2024

News Should degrees be job requirements?

A bill in Nebraska would prohibit preferences for applicants to state jobs on the basis of whether they hold a college degree. The obvious case to be made for the proposal is that it opens up job opportunities for people who do not possess a degree, which may in turn expand the pool for potential applicants. For taxpayers looking to save money, an expanded pool of potential public-sector workers could generally be expected to mean a lower overall labor cost for state government. ■ Whether such a proposal is prudent or not depends upon a number of factors. The most important may be the extent to which higher education matters as a formational tool (that is, how much we can expect that a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts in Finance will know that she could put to work immediately as an Appraiser III working for the Department of Transportation), versus how much a degree is valuable as a signaling effect (that is, how much the degree tells us about the degree-holder's focus, determination, self-starting, and ability to see big projects through to the finish). ■ The labor market of late seems to have swung in the direction of credentialism: Depending on the role, a professional today may append a professional licensure, an academic credential, a fellowship, and a certification to their name -- making for a very long email signature block. ■ Thus a civil engineer may well advertise themselves as "Herbert Hoover, MS, PE, BCEE, LEED AP, PMP" (signifying a master of science degree, a professional engineering license, a board certification as an environmental engineer, a certification in green building, and a certification in project management). ■ The fork into certifications is in no small part a consequence of our dependence on computing. Computer experts could afford to be generalists 30 years ago, but today, the work of a Microsoft Certified Azure Network Engineer Associate is nothing like being a Certified Information Professional, and neither one really corresponds with being a Full-Stack Web Developer. ■ Possession of a very specific computer-related certification may tell potential job recruiters more than "Bachelor of Science in Networking and System Administration" -- even though the four-year degree may very well have included all of the relevant training. ■ So that's what spills over into the rest of the labor market: An exploding array of certifications, credentials, and now micro-credentials, all of which are intended to specify particular tools the holder knows how to use. Some are decidedly more authentic than others. Higher education tends to be very slow to revise curricula, yet technologies and performance requirements in many if not most sectors are changing quickly enough to make old courses rapidly obsolete. ■ Given the current backlash against the costs of college, a swing of the pendulum away from degree requirements (and towards certifications) is probably here to stay for a while. But then it will probably swing back and harmonize the two -- especially as colleges and universities realize that their futures depend upon delivering a package of knowledge and experience that is more valuable as a whole than just the sum of a set of stackable credentials. When that day comes, there's a good chance that many or most of the highly-desirable occupations will require both a college degree and a set of non-degree credentials. Email signature blocks are bound to grow even longer.

Computers and the Internet Facebook's current stats

3 billion users and a $1.2 trillion market valuation. And despite all the time people spend scrolling, "news makes up only 3% of what people see on it", according to The Economist. And at Facebook, only one voting shareholder decides everything: In the words of the company's own annual report, "Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, Board Chair, and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock".

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February 18, 2024

News Never, never, never give up

Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference: "Do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself: Why is Putin still able to continue it?"


February 19, 2024

News Stop ranking the Presidents

Presidents' Day is a popular holiday on which to engage in the particularly frivolous game of "Rank the Presidents", and 2024 is no exception. Another ranking of the Presidents has been published, and all of the predictable reaction is easy to find in all of the usual places. ■ This isn't to say that Presidents are all the same. America has been blessed with some exceptional leaders (almost everyone rates Washington and Lincoln as the two most deserving of praise), and we've had some terrible ones (James Buchanan, for instance, is an undisputed failure). But the notion that there is some kind of effective transitive property of Presidential quality is awfully misleading. ■ What matters most in leadership -- whether at the Presidential level or at the local PTA -- is the momentum of the leadership being applied. Is the leader moving things, insofar as they are capable, in a positive direction or a negative one? ■ The Executive Branch under James Madison wasn't the same as it was under Ulysses S. Grant, which wasn't the same as the one led by Herbert Hoover, which was utterly transformed by the time George H. W. Bush was Chief Executive. The roles are almost entirely beyond apples-to-apples comparison with one another, to say nothing of the environment in which the different Presidents acted. ■ Moreover, the subjectivity of comparative Presidential ratings is redoubled by the consequences no President can control. Should James Madison be rated based upon circumstances he alone could control, or by what he did in the face of what was thrust upon him (like the War of 1812)? Is it fair to rank him based upon his Presidency alone, or do we consider related contributions like Fathering the Constitution (in other words, is it like an award for Best Actor, or for Lifetime Achievement)? Do we vote based solely upon the consequences of what happened, or do we consider the opportunity costs of paths not taken (a measure by which all of the first fifteen Presidents would deserve some rebuke for failing to end slavery)? By how much should those opportunity costs be weighted? ■ And how far do they deserve credit or blame for the consequences of their choices? If no statute of limitations applies, then Woodrow Wilson's score faces ever-larger deductions with every passing day, for giving institutional power to his personal racism and injuring the appropriate balance of Constitutional powers. Both failures impose compounding costs even today. ■ Presidents come in all grades of quality, but pretending as though we can differentiate between the #21 and #22 Presidents is like speculating whether John Quincy Adams would have been a bigger motorhead than Joe Biden, or whether Millard Fillmore would have been a better audiobook narrator than Bill Clinton. These things are strictly unknowable in empirical terms, and trying to present them with a veneer of quasi-scientific legitimacy is a mistake bound only to sow divisions.

Humor and Good News "Fisk" is worth watching

Australia exports a lot of things, but TV comedy so dry the viewer practically needs to hydrate along the way is one of the best

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February 20, 2024

News The spirit of resistance

Yulia Navalnaya promises to carry on in the spirit of her husband, killed (whether directly or indirectly) by the Kremlin regime


February 21, 2024

Threats and Hazards Repression and civilizational consequences

Foreign Policy editor James Palmer muses, "[I]t's remarkable how little art and culture we get out of modern China proportional to its size and wealth, and it isn't for a lack of creativity or intelligence on the part of the people there"; "Never underestimate how all-pervasive, self-protective, and petty censorship becomes in authoritarian regimes." ■ Arts, letters, and culture on many historical occasions have emerged or endured, whether taken underground or carried out as acts of resistance against oppression imposed by others. The spiritual songs of enslaved people in the American South are a widely-known example. Jewish art under tsarist Russia and the Korean Language Society formed under Japanese occupation serve to illustrate the universality of the phenomenon. ■ A people living under occupation can turn to their arts as a means of finding unity: Bonding under stress is what drives prisoners of war to tap in code through prison walls to one another. But the quashing effect seems to be more pronounced when the repression comes from what seems like "within": When oppressor and oppressed start from the same cultural background, it's harder to distinguish one from the other. ■ And it is impossible as a result to know just how much potential cultural output is being lost because of self-censorship under the Chinese Communist Party, for one example. We know that artists are punished, even for the mildest of transgressions against a hyper-sensitive state: Exile seems to be the only source of freedom. The number of movies un-filmed, songs un-recorded, canvases un-painted, and books un-written under the CCP is flatly unquantifiable. ■ Domestic censorship and repression have civilizational consequences. The entire world is made poorer when the humanities are silenced within any culture. We learn from each other, influence other styles, and blend unexpectedly as we share. That colossal self-censorship is taking place among two out of every eleven people living now on planet Earth, all because of an inflexible and hyper-sensitive regime, ought to be a cause for alarm to us all.


February 22, 2024

Business and Finance Taxing math

There is no such thing as a sales tax that only affects the seller. No matter how it is collected, or who cuts the check to the government, any tax on the sale of a good or a service is paid by the buyer and the seller alike. ■ How much is paid by which party depends mainly on who wants the exchange to happen more. Economists will call this elasticity, and the resulting distribution of who pays how much goes by the name of tax incidence. ■ But because any sales-related tax raises the price at which an exchange takes place, we can draw a tidy little graph to illustrate that both buyer and seller contribute to the ultimate cost of the tax. Nobody pays it all; nobody gets away without paying some. ■ Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. This fact is essential for anyone to understand before they try to engage in anything remotely close to economic analysis. Yet there are those talk as if only someone else pays for tariffs. This is not just nonsense, but actively malicious misdirection. ■ Tariffs are, after all, sales taxes imposed on imported goods. They are just as subject to the laws of economics as any other taxes -- which means that tariffs, too, are paid in some proportion each by both buyers and sellers. So when someone loudly floats a proposal for a 60% tariff as though it would be paid entirely by people living across the ocean, that reveals them to be either irredeemably dishonest or inexcusably ignorant.


February 23, 2024

Humor and Good News Don't pet the engineers

The Portland District of the US Army Corps of Engineers shares this delightful take: "This week is National Engineers Week. Make sure to show your appreciation by spontaneously running up and hugging all your engineer friends. They'll love it." Those who have observed the long-standing advice "Don't pet the engineers" will be delighted with the correction.

News The classic stadium-hostage gambit

Jerry Reinsdorf has started threatening the City of Chicago that he'll posthumously yank the White Sox from town if he doesn't get public funding for a new baseball stadium. ■ It's all fun and games until some dupe decides to trot out a design based on the Metrodome to host the Bears and the Sox together. (All bad ideas make their comebacks.)

Threats and Hazards The saddest, truest fact

Tymofiy Mylovanov writes: "Russia has only one specific military advantage at this time - the complete disregard for human life [Russian and Ukrainian]. Constant human meat assaults prove this". If only he were wrong.

News That's why dematerialization sticks

A paperback only available for $97.64 on Amazon can be downloaded to a Kindle for 99 cents. For that kind of difference, one could buy a used Kindle and the digital download and still come out ahead.

Threats and Hazards Back to the wrong future

Less 1982, more 1992 -- please. The return of all too many artifacts of the late Cold War is depressing. At least Leonid Brezhnev had the decency to drop dead after 18 years running the Kremlin.


February 24, 2024

Business and Finance Five essential items of advice from Warren Buffett

The 2023 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders contains Warren Buffett's latest set of observations and advice to his fellow investors -- but they are freely available to anyone. He begins with a heartfelt tribute to Charlie Munger, who was Buffett's brilliant lieutenant for more than half a century. The letter continues with words that sound especially consistent with a thinker who wants to draw a heavy line underneath his most consistent and enduring opinions. ■ Buffett on the 2008 financial panic: "We did not predict the time of an economic paralysis but we were always prepared for one." ■ It seems funny to see a current-day reference to an event which is now a decade and a half in the rear-view mirror. But it is the unusual quality of the reference which makes it so important. Buffett knows that there have been panics in the past, and there will be panics again. And the farther we get from the last one, the greater the risk that its lessons will have been largely forgotten now. It isn't fashionable for a company to keep an unfathomable amount of ready money on its balance sheet: Buffett is acknowledging that Berkshire's more than $160 billion in cash (and cash-like Treasury bills) looks excessive by popular standards. But some businesses are more than just machines for generating short-term profit; in this case, Buffett views Berkshire as an intrinsically valuable national asset to America, and its capacity to weather even the worst conceivable economic storms is what keeps it safe. ■ Buffett on being wary of people with the wrong incentives: "Wall Street -- to use the term in its figurative sense -- would like its customers to make money, but what truly causes its denizens' juices to flow is feverish activity. At such times, whatever foolishness can be marketed will be vigorously marketed -- not by everyone but always by someone." ■ It isn't fair to call the financial industry "crooked": There are crooked participants, of course, but the industry itself is heavily regulated in order to discourage outright theft and fraud. But the behavior of the financial sector is all too often directed by wicked incentives. One of those wicked incentives is the fact that, almost always, people working in the financial sector benefit from increased activity (via commissions, spreads, and other forms of payment), while personal investors are the ones who pay the price. "Buy and hold" isn't the right decision 100% of the time, but it's the right decision the vast preponderance of the time. But "buy and hold" investors don't pay for skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. ■ Buffett on the nation's energy infrastructure: "When the dust settles, America's power needs and the consequent capital expenditure will be staggering. I did not anticipate or even consider the adverse developments in regulatory returns and, along with Berkshire's two partners at BHE [Berkshire Hathaway Energy], I made a costly mistake in not doing so." ■ Berkshire's investment in the utility sector is nothing new; it's a quarter of a century old. And it has a reputation for good behavior so strong that politicians expressly invite them to come to their markets. So when that kind of experienced, reputable company looks at the regulatory environment and warns that conditions are developing that will stand in the way of keeping up with the country's energy demand, which is rising mildly but shifting in constitution from coal-heavy to natural-gas-led with a growing blend of renewables, it calls for attention. A robust, low-cost supply of energy is one of the most useful things a society can have at its disposal. What stands in the way of that supply could end up limiting future economic and technological choices. ■ Buffett on share repurchases by publicly-traded companies: "All stock repurchases should be price-dependent. What is sensible at a discount to business-value becomes stupid if done at a premium." ■ Share repurchases (or stock buybacks) should be evaluated just like any other investment: If the market price is higher than the intrinsic value, it's a bad investment. If the intrinsic value is higher, then it may be a good investment (depending on what other choices are available). If a company buys back shares in itself at good investment prices, then it's doing right by its shareholders. But if it's buying the shares at bad prices -- perhaps with the intention of increasing the market price by stimulating demand -- then then the company's management is decreasing the company's intrinsic value, just as it would be if it were buying overpriced real estate or wasting money on a frivolous rebranding. ■ Buffett on stock markets and the people who make them: "Though the stock market is massively larger than it was in our early years, today's active participants are neither more emotionally stable nor better taught than when I was in school." ■ No single lesson is more applicable to every aspect of life than the one behind Buffett's loving critique of the stock markets. He is merely offering an investing-specific observation that human nature doesn't really change. Circumstances and conditions change, but people in this generation are motivated by the same emotions and instincts that drove our ancestors a thousand years ago. Speed and greed drive many a speculator. Those who can apply patience, detachment, and a sound evaluation of price versus value are the ones who do best in the long term.

Aviation News Fast flights

265-mph tailwinds translate to extremely fast ground speeds

News The teammates we want and need

In the future, books will be written about how the Ukrainian armed forces learned to do so much, so fast, on such a relative shoestring budget. In the words of analyst Molly McKew, "Ukrainians secured a shipping lane without any jets/long range anything & have basically dismantled the Black Sea Fleet without a navy[.] So maybe we should help them defeat Russia faster so their expertise/capacity can help solve other security challenges". ■ Something is terribly wrong with anyone who fails to see the tremendous value in finding and helping allies like Ukraine.

Weather and Disasters A 57° swing

Current models forecast a drop from a 72° high on Monday afternoon in Des Moines to a 15° low on Wednesday morning.

Computers and the Internet New rules

New rule: If you find yourself typing the letters "IYKYK" ("If You Know, You Know"), delete your draft and throw your phone into a pot of boiling soup or under the tires of the nearest cement truck. The only thing accomplished by any post containing "IYKYK" is to irritate the people who don't know what you're talking about. The people who do know don't need to be told that they know the secret code...they already know!

Iowa Where the wind blows softly across the plain

Some of the residents of Adams County think there are too many wind turbines in southwest Iowa already. But this is really at the heart of the issue: The chair of the county's board of supervisors "said that the population of Adams County has decreased by 42% since the 1970 census." Wind turbines create substantial value (including taxes!) for places that have been de-populating -- and where raising taxes on local farmers is unlikely to go over well. That's a major net social good.

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February 25, 2024

News The long road to becoming Churchill

By the time he became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill had seen it all. He was 65 years old, had served in Parliament intermittently for 40 years, and had served as an officer on the Western Front of the First World War, as head of the Royal Navy, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The circumstances of his selection as Prime Minister reflected the extraordinary peril of the war and the need to bring together a national unity government. ■ Sometimes a community needs an extraordinary leader, but it should never count on the right individual rising to the occasion. What every community needs -- all of the time -- is a set of dependable institutions that store the right lessons from the past and cultivate the individual leaders needed in the future. ■ Institutional inertia is always a hazard; sometimes an institution perpetuates itself merely for the benefit of the people inside it. That is all too often the case with bureaucratic creep: Rare is the bureaucracy like the Civil Aeronautics Board, which put itself right out of business. ■ But a functional civilization has to depend upon a broad-based range of institutions across the public, private, and public-interest sectors, all of which need to be forever interested in reforming themselves. The institution that fails to constantly reform itself -- and be seen to be reforming -- leaves itself open to challengers who demand disruption. ■ The problem with disruption (as a substitute for reform) is that it tends to reward the loudest promoters with the boldest claims -- not the people best prepared to lead. An outside perspective shouldn't be dismissed arbitrarily; lots of institutions can gain from the perspective of outsiders and ought to be open to fresh ideas. But those ideas need to prove themselves better than what came before. ■ Good institutions form the people inside them and make them better people. When people and their institutions learn together, the people gain useful experience and the institutions capture useful institutional memory. Churchill had shameful failures in his past, from which both he and his institutions learned. It was because both he and the institutions learned that he was prepared to become such a pivotal figure in achieving Allied success in the Second World War. ■ When we choose leaders, we choose institutions -- and when we form institutions, we form leaders. When we turn to disruptors, we risk losing the sorting and forming processes that deliver the greats.

@briangongol on Twitter

February 26, 2024

Science and Technology A live look at the nation's electrical grids

Amazing, really, that an up-to-the-hour look at demand is always within reach

Iowa Who wants to buy a frat house?

A fraternity house at the University of Northern Iowa is on the market for $1.3 million. There's a good chance the buyer will need to replace the carpets.

The United States of America Petitions against the Electoral College are laughably useless

Anyone who thinks they're really accomplishing anything to affect the outcome of the 2024 election by signing an online petition to "end the Electoral College" is painfully naive. Above and beyond any other consideration, the Electoral College is a feature of the Constitution, and changing it requires a Constitutional amendment -- which takes a great deal more actual organizational effort than publishing a digital petition. It's a slow, methodical process, and certainly not one that will have any outcomes before November. ■ Furthermore, online "petitions" are really nothing more than open letters with lots of co-signatories. Maybe that's the kind of performative behavior that satisfies some people -- there's nothing wrong with co-signing an open letter. But it's a far cry from doing anything with binding legal effect. Real petitions have to be signed, delivered, and validated to local authorities. ■ The Electoral College has deficiencies, to be sure. But even if there were an expedited process for jettisoning it, the process is hardly the core problem. It goes too often without notice that certain characteristics made the Electoral College work when the Constitution was new and the country suffered from a deficit of good communication. It took quite a while for news to make its way from one end to the other: The state of Georgia, for instance, was removed by about two or three weeks of travel from New York City in 1800. There were no telegraph cables, high-speed trains, seafaring steamships, or even Pony Express carriers available. ■ Sending elected delegates rather than couriers with vote totals may not have ultimately led to the sort of selection by the best and brightest that the Framers may have intended, but it did reduce the odds that someone could cause mayhem along the way. A set of elected delegates (each of whom would have faced prosecution if they had lied about their credentials) form a much harder device to counterfeit or corrupt than a lone carrier bearing a certificate with a vote count. ■ Today, we neither rely on the wisdom of those individual electors, nor do we need their physical presence to know who won from state to state. But the process of making the Presidential election a state-by-state event does still serve a useful purpose (beyond the original Federalist intent of protecting small states from being overwhelmed by big ones): It helps to compartmentalize shortcomings in local vote counts or disputes over electoral processes. ■ Dumping all votes together into a common national popular vote would raise the stakes for disputing vote totals to a level that could invite legal disputes that could prove terminal to the process. Votes with margins measured in the thousands would open the door to disputes and recounts in virtually unlimited numbers of jurisdictions. ■ The Electoral College, even with its shortcomings, still serves to compartmentalize results -- acting like watertight compartments aboard a ship, so that the damage done by a failure in one state is contained to only that state. That also sharpens the accountability of the officials responsible for the process. Florida made a mess of the 2000 election, and the state immediately undertook corrective reforms to avoid repeating the "hanging chad" nightmare. Georgia became an important battleground state in 2020, but despite extraordinary (and probably illegal) pressure, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger maintained his integrity, under the knowledge that "We've got to follow the law, follow the Constitution; we follow the numbers." ■ Any system that would pivot to a national popular vote would necessarily have to empower a bureaucracy at a national scale to oversee the count, and probably to harmonize details like ballot designs and counting procedures. Every state can issue its own drivers' licenses, but all Americans traveling overseas end up with the same style of passport. Imagine, then, if a national voting agency were to impose a badly designed ballot or to be managed by a political appointee more susceptible to pressure than Brad Raffensperger. The consequences of nationalizing the vote would mean much higher stakes than under the Electoral College. As has often been said, sometimes a cure is worse than the disease.

@briangongol on Twitter

February 27, 2024

Computers and the Internet Would you Bing that?

Microsoft apparently offered to sell the Bing search engine to Apple for use effectively as a private-label search tool, but Apple never took them up on the offer. The decision may have hurt at the time, after Microsoft had invested a fortune in Bing and never gotten really anywhere against Google. ■ But concerns are growing that Google's search results are deteriorating in quality because of the complex encroachment of artificial intelligence tools both within the search experience and as a major polluter of the content being searched. And it's difficult to see how Google will be able to successfully navigate those troubled waters without attracting lots of unwanted attention from regulators in the United States and abroad. ■ Being the dominant incumbent in a market is usually fun while it lasts, but no such quasi-monopoly lasts forever (just ask fallen legends like Netscape Navigator, which once had a 90% market share for web browsers, or Sears, Roebuck & Co., which was once so big it could move GDP figures). How a company manages the arrival of new competitors in a changed market determines how well (and whether) it survives. ■ The advent of mass-scale artificial intelligence may be that turning point in the search-engine market. Microsoft or some other competitor may be able to finally break off a piece of Google's massive 82% share of the pie. With the terms of the competition under such significant pressure to change, it may well turn out to be Microsoft's lucky break that it never managed to unload Bing when it wanted to.

Weather and Disasters Modern satellite imagery is a marvel

Satellite views of the continental United States are granular enough to catch the minute-by-minute eruption of grass fires

Weather and Disasters Don't fall for the "chemtrail" nonsense

An otherwise sensible observer in Central Iowa wants to know why he's seeing dark shadows below the vapor trails visible behind high-flying aircraft, musing aloud (to the Internet) that he thinks something is suspicious about what he's seeing. ■ The phenomenon is easy to explain without the aid of any conspiracy theories. Airplanes quite frequently travel at altitudes of 35,000 feet and even higher. There are always a few overhead. And when wispy cirrus clouds form at lower altitudes (like 25,000 feet, where clouds were overhead all morning in the region), then the contrails formed at 35,000 feet simply cast shadows on the clouds 10,000 feet below them. No need to believe in conspiracy theories over "chemtrails" or any other such nonsense: It's just the Sun and the clouds. ■ There is no shortage of people who are willing and eager to presume that the contrails formed behind high-altitude aircraft are evidence of something sinister. The problem with letting it go on is that self-government depends quite heavily on the judgment of ordinary people. We don't have to be experts, but we do need to know how to evaluate evidence and apply sound reasoning. An unattended gullibility that opens the door to wild conspiracy theories is a dangerous social weakness, because it invites bad actors to introduce malicious misdirection into the public mind.


February 28, 2024

News The Irish have been readers a lot longer than you'd think

Ireland has made a big deal out of its disproportionate impact on the world of literature in modern centuries, but there's also reason to believe it's been a literate culture for a lot longer than might be obvious -- as in, back to the days before Christianity came to its shores. Some are concerned that illiteracy in the modern day is holding the country back far more than is right.

Business and Finance More decent than a hedge fund

There's something truly wicked about institutions that charge premium fees for financial performance that's worse than what ordinary investors could have obtained with no real effort at all. Roger Lowenstein writes: "They regard investors not as partners but as pigeons. They practice their own form of socialism (socialism to benefit the privileged, mind you), extracting a tax on the owners of capital."

Threats and Hazards All lives have value

It would be wrong for a person to sacrifice another person's life as an act of political protest. It strains all reason to believe that it is any less wrong for a person to sacrifice their own life in the same way. Attempts to valorize a self-immolation are dangerous, but widespread.

@briangongolbot on Twitter