Gongol.com Archives: February 2024

Brian Gongol

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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