Gongol.com Archives: May 2024

Brian Gongol

May 2024
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May 3, 2024

History acknowledges George Washington Carver as one of the greatest innovators in the history of food and agriculture. We still benefit from many of his creations, not least from the humble jar of peanut butter, which remains one of the easiest, cheapest, and most easily stored sources of protein available in the world today. ■ When aid reaches people in the midst of famine, one of the key means of bringing relief is a special peanut-butter paste. And in millions of homes facing no such dire distress, the lunch of choice for many children (and more than a few adults) is a peanut butter sandwich accompanied by anything from jelly to pickles. Peanut butter is easy to master and it dependably resolves hunger pangs in a jiffy. ■ Perhaps most of the low-hanging fruit in food science has already been plucked, but it's hard to imagine that we've truly exhausted all of the good ideas for providing ample nutrition at low cost to the world. The current fight over synthetically-grown meat points to the fact that new technological progress is still being made. ■ Just as it isn't intuitively obvious that crushing a ground nut and mashing it into a paste is a great way to deliver high-density protein, there are undoubtedly unexplored ways to make valuable progress with other foodstuffs. A world of good could be done for public health in America if someone could do for selected vegetables what Carver did for peanuts -- so much of our cuisine depends on transforming them in unhealthy ways (converting potatoes into french fries, for instance) or treating them merely as vectors for dips and dressings. ■ Fruits have gotten at least some of this treatment, which is why we have strawberry preserves to spread on the other half of a sandwich and applesauce in single-serving packets. But aside from notable exceptions like tomato sauce and pickles, there just aren't many foods found in American diets that put vegetables to use as good things in their own right -- centerpiece foods that are just as easy to indulge as a scoop of peanut butter straight from the jar. Riches may not await their innovators, but the thanks of an over-fed but under-nutrified world might.

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May 4, 2024

When Charlie Munger made his final appearance at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in 2023, he and Warren Buffett took an audience question asking them to identify some of their own biggest mistakes. Without responding directly to the question, Munger offered a succinct formula for avoiding regret in life. ■ His advice: Spend less than you earn. Invest frugally. Avoid toxic people. Avoid toxic behaviors. Learn continuously. ■ That final point stands out. At the time he delivered it, Munger was 99 years old. Yet he remained a fanatical learner, notoriously devouring far more books than most people and learning from as many practical directions as he could. ■ At age 99, one could be forgiven for choosing to take the easy route at just about anything. A rational analyst might note that a 99-year-old man has two years of actuarial life expectancy remaining. Any time spent learning anything new is surely subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. ■ But there's another way to look at it, and Munger embodied this alternative viewpoint: Someone who has spent the better part of 99 years accumulating wisdom like a squirrel gathering nuts for a hard winter has put him- or herself in a position whereby any incremental unit of knowledge is unusually likely to yield a truly extraordinary result. ■ This is to say that after many years of accumulating raw information, the truly worldly scholar is positioned unusually well to synthesize new observations or conclusions that are likely to escape the less-experienced. ■ Society often shakes its collective head at the follies of senior citizens who are stuck in their ways or who find themselves unable to adapt to new and changing conditions. But that mockery would be better channeled into an active eppreciation for those who really do try to remain vibrant learners, considering how much some of them still have remaining to contribute. ■ Not every 99-year-old (or even 69-year-old) will have as many thoughts remaining to synthesize as a Charlie Munger. But what a world if we expected more of them to do so, and if many of them rose to the occasion.

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May 5, 2024

News What do you really believe?

One benefit of the Internet age is that philosophies and perspectives that might have escaped widespread attention before can get a fair chance at exposure. The person who wants to explore ancient philosophies more deeply than the page or two of treatment they might have received in a school textbook can find active (and often passionate) advocates for a variety of worldviews: Twitter streams for Epicureanism, podcasts about Stoicism, and YouTube channels dedicated to Platonism. ■ The existence of modern tools to breathe life into ancient philosophies (and not just the Greek ones) is a net good for society, and quite a large one. But just as is the case with living religions, there are hazards: Hucksters who use the quest for meaning as a vehicle for self-enrichment, and fundamentalists who come to believe that only one way will do. ■ Everyone has to come to their own conclusions about what is meaningful, important, and worth pursuing in life. Even if they make the choice to follow a path charted by others, there is still an element of choice involved in every adult's system of values. ■ A person's formative process -- through both schooling and guidance from their elders -- ought to include a heavy dose of encouragement not to adhere only to one way of thinking, whether it's old or new. We've recorded enough human history to know with high confidence that no one way has a monopoly on answers to how to live the best possible life. An eclectic approach really is the only way. ■ That's where the good fortune of the Internet age comes in. A person doesn't have to spend months exhausting the shelves of a public library to find answers. The choices now come as easily as subscription to a Substack newsletter. The only problem is that nobody really has an incentive to tell people to sample broadly. Hard-line philosophies sell desk calendars. Heterodoxy does not.

Computers and the Internet Retiring with Pac-Man

Video games are now about fifty years old, which means that people now nearing age 60 can plausibly claim to have "grown up with them". Surely anyone whose youth coincided with the 1977 introduction of the Atari 2600 and the 1980-81 launch of Pac-Man may be credibly considered a video-gaming native. ■ Those people are mostly still in the workforce -- but some of the elders of the generation are closing in on retirement. This makes it reasonable to forecast that we are no more than a few years away from the first arcade-themed retirement living communities. ■ Think about it: One of the main complaints lodged against retirement communities today is a shortage of engaging programming and a perception that they are places to slow down. Yet a census of just about any casino floor will reveal an almost limitless supply of retired adults playing video slot machines -- which are nothing more than low-skill video games. ■ Casinos actually furnish a model well worth studying for those who will someday soon try to recruit Generation X retirees: They've developed games, sound effects, lighting, and even fragrances to keep people voluntarily captive for as long as possible. It's a wonder that retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, which often coordinate casino outings, haven't really sprouted any facilities that model themselves on a casino theme. If they take away the winning and losing of actual money, what harm would really be done? ■ Arcade-themed retirement environments are basically an inevitability, even if that hasn't really dawned on anyone yet. Appeals to nostalgia basically ensure that will be the case. But more to the point, it's a great environment in which to put good practices into effect. ■ Arcade gaming is an individual activity, but it takes place in a community environment. It can be done in ways that encourage memory and test reflexes. And all it really has to do is follow a casino-resort model in all but the winning and losing of money. It's an idea whose time has not quite come yet -- but which will be here before you know it.

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May 7, 2024

Threats and Hazards Persuasion in the face of danger

In an interview with The Economist, French president Emmanuel Macron has warned that Europe faces security risks, economic risks, and social risks to its traditions of liberal democracy. "Things can fall apart very quickly," he warns. ■ Macron is right to be alarmed. As a general rule in life, things are rarely as bad as they seem but they can get much worse much faster than we realize. We tend to over-estimate present pain while discounting too heavily the possible rate of deterioration. It's a rule just as applicable to human affairs as it is to the maintenance of working equipment. ■ Reasonable people can hope that Macron is wrong about Europe's condition, but level-headedness requires taking him seriously. Macron can be provocative from time to time (after all, he once called NATO "brain-dead"), but he also sensed the mood of his own country well enough to revolutionize the entire party order when he was first elected. Macron may be labeled many things, but "smart" needs to be near the top. ■ That intelligence makes two other interview comments stand out. The first is his blunt assessment of Europe's challenge in confronting Russian lawlessness on its eastern borders. Macron doesn't hesitate to use language like "war crimes" and "war of aggression" -- blunt language that confronts the reality. ■ Nor does he mince words when he says "Deterrence is at the heart of sovereignty." It's why Finland embraces the "porcupine" strategy of national defense, and why it's so important for defense commitments to be credible. ■ Macron's other noteworthy comments are enduring in nature: "Politics isn't about reading polls, it's a fight, it's about ideas, it's about convictions". The populist moment has punched hard against ideas, seeking to replace them with personalities -- so it's reassuring that someone with power sees the matter otherwise.

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May 8, 2024

News Have a drink

A variety of organizations, most of which have enormous reach but very little share of the public mind, celebrate Drinking Water Week each year. Public proclamations from governors and mayors are often issued, and the broad-based value of public drinking water is cited in approving terms. ■ Lest the acknowledgment become too squishy and sanguine, we should do more to note that 90% of Americans are served by public drinking water systems regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which turns 50 this year. That's roughly 300 million people out of a population of some 335 million, all of whom can be satisfied with high confidence that whatever comes out of the tap is safe -- and that the people providing it are required to keep it safe under penalty of law. ■ You might quibble about differences in taste. You might find bottled water more convenient than tap water when you're on the road. You might even make the reasonable case that there's even more we as a society could do to continue advancing drinking water safety and quality (and of course there is -- just like there's more that medical science can do to keep us healthy, or that computer science can do to prevent malicious hacking). ■ But the fact is that a person can go literally almost anywhere in this gigantic country (third-largest in the world by land area) and know that what comes out of the tap won't make them sick. It's been tested and monitored, and someone is accountable for keeping it safe without you, the ordinary person, having to give it a second thought. ■ And it's not just what you drink -- it's the water washing the dishes where you go out to eat, what your surgeon uses to wash his or her hands, and what's ready to pour out of the sprinkler system over your head in a high-rise building. Almost everywhere you go, it's been tested, treated (where necessary), and delivered to a very high level of quality, typically at a cost so negligible that customers are billed in increments of hundreds or thousands of gallons per month. ■ If you've ever traveled to a country -- or even a campsite -- where the purity of your drinking water wasn't quite so assured, pause for a moment and consider just how much time you save simply by knowing that tap water is safe. Consider how much water reliability undergirds everything that happens in the economy. Consider how much better is your quality of life because you never give a second thought to waterborne diseases like cholera or typhoid fever. ■ Living without reliable sources of safe drinking water literally leaves people sick and tired. Drinking Water Week, as mundane as it may seem, celebrates the one thing that certifiably holds all the rest of civilization upright.

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May 9, 2024

News Deterrence and correction

With legal proceedings occupying so much of the news, it's a fair time to consider how well we distinguish between two very different tracks followed by the justice system. There is a significant difference between them, though the difference is far too often overlooked. ■ The first track is the instinctive one: The use of punishment to penalize those whose deviance causes trouble for society. Sometimes the punishment is aimed at deterring the offender at hand, as when a criminal defendant is held in contempt of court. Other times, the punishment of one criminal is intended as a deterrent to others, as when conspirators are threatened with decades of prison time. ■ The other track is taken when society would rather reform the individual's behavior and return a "corrected" whole person back to society. Some 640,000 people each year return to American society after a period of incarceration -- more than the entire population of Wyoming. The needs of society are only really met when these people are truly engaged in a process of reform. Getting probation, work release, and inmate rehabilitation right are important tasks, just on the sheer numbers alone. ■ Parents often need to consider the difference between the tracks even within household affairs: Not every punishment corrects, and not every correction should be punishment. In fact, the vast majority of the time, parents should seek to correct in ways that are expressly different from punishment: Kids do "wrong" things quite often because they simply haven't learned enough yet about what's right. ■ Drawing the distinction is important because those who are chronic, willful, or contemptuous offenders of social orders and abusers of public trust impose real costs on their fellow citizens. For that set, correction is unlikely and punishment as deterrence may be the only sound approach. ■ The costs don't always show up immediately, but Theodore Roosevelt framed the costs of cumulative public malfeasance well: "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."

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May 10, 2024

News A Scout first

As of February 2025, the Boy Scouts of America will be known as Scouting America. The name change has elicited no small number of reactionary responses from those who see the change as part of some broadly nefarious plot. ■ The reality is that the programs formerly reserved only to boys are now open at both the elementary school ages and middle/high school ranges to both boys and girls, and they have been for a few years. ■ The change reflected a response to some unpleasant institutional realities about membership trends. But opening up to girls' participation also reflected a long-overdue social change: The recognition that the same experiences and expectations that are good for young boys are almost always equally good for young girls. ■ Changing the name of the organization to remove the obsolete gendering doesn't diminish the organization; what matters is the "Scouting" part, not the "Boy" part. It's not an organization in which girls aspire to be like boys, but one in which boys and girls aspire to be the best versions of themselves. What about virtues like trustworthiness, helpfulness, courtesy, or bravery belong to one gender more than another?

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May 11, 2024

Science and Technology A grand light show

An extraordinary solar storm has pushed the reach of the Northern Lights far beyond normal borders -- giving people even in Alabama and Florida a potentially once-in-a-lifetime view of what's typically reserved for people living much closer to the poles. ■ It's nearly unheard-of for an event to be visible to so many people around the world at the same time merely by looking out their own windows: No matter how large a weather system might be, it's not simultaneously-visible-in-North-America-and-Europe-and-Oceania large. We can share common experiences through our technologies, of course, but almost never can so many people share the same experience just by looking skyward. And it's a phenomenal sight. ■ The people who watch "space weather" note that the geomagnetic storm responsbile for the aurora is the product of a "complex sunspot cluster that is 17 times the diameter of Earth." Our very planet is dwarfed by the conditions causing the special event. ■ The "Serenity Prayer" widely popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous (but celebrated far beyond it) pleads, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." ■ Nothing we know how to accomplish on a human scale lights even a candle by comparison with the scale of the natural show going on now. A coronal mass ejection can take up a quarter of the space between the Earth and the Sun. That's too big to comprehend on a human scale, much less to influence. ■ So an extraordinary aurora is a good trigger for some epistemic modesty: We can only know so much and we can act on even less. There are many things we can do, but sometimes nature imposes forces on us far beyond our capacities. That shouldn't be cause for despair, only for humility.


May 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards Old and immature

An octogenarian pair has made an embarrassment of themselves by attempting to smash a copy of the Magna Carta in a purported effort to put attention on climate-change issues. ■ The document is fine and the perpetrators will likely pay some kind of penalty for their crimes. But this style of activity isn't a meaningful act of protest; it's a tantrum, just as it is when people throw food at the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's "Sunflowers". ■ Throwing and breaking things to seek attention is immature tantrum behavior, no matter how old the subjects committing the vandalism. It neither makes a meaningful symbolic claim (the Magna Carta well predates anything resembling the Industrial Revolution, for instance), nor gives any sound-minded onlooker any reasonable cause to think differently about a controversy. ■ Moreover, it is an act of profound narcissism to think that your pet issue is more important than a work widely considered a civilizational treasure. The Magna Carta dates to 1215. To attempt to damage it for the sake of a political issue -- even assuming the issue was a valid one -- is to implicitly declare that you think your troubles exceed those of anyone who has lived for the past 800 years. ■ Whether it's a tangible object (like a painting, a sculpture, or a document) or an abstraction (like an institution or a norm), there is rarely a justification for setting out to destroy it wholesale. There are indeed times when blowing up a symbol is a prudent act. But causing damage to cultural artifacts in pursuit of "making a point" or "drawing attention" is generally no more than mere petulance.

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May 14, 2024

News Write more

Writer and surgeon Atul Gawande offers a thought-provoking perspective on the value of writing in his book, "Better": "An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it. So choose your audience. Write something." ■ Gawande is right on more than just the merits he noted. Committing a thought to writing (when that writing is intended for reading by others) also implicitly requires the author to spend time refining the thoughts and words -- almost nobody generates a perfectly grammatical stream of consciousness. Thus, the act of writing inherently demands that the honest writer attempt to save the audience's time by finding the right words to make the right point. ■ Our species has been around for some 300,000 years, but writing has only been around for some 5,200 of them. That means 98% of the entire history of human life up until the present went entirely without the written word. ■ And the best available data suggests that up until the 1960s, the majority of the world's population was illiterate. The written word existed, but was of little direct use to a majority of humanity until only about six decades ago. ■ It's nearly inconceivable that our species, with our giant, energy-hungry, problem-solving brains, had no real way to reliably store hard knowledge or complex thoughts outside of our fragile memories up until practically yesterday in evolutionary terms, or that a majority of people on Earth weren't able to read or write until about the time astronauts first landed on the Moon. ■ Gawande's admonition seems almost old-fashioned in a time of fast-paced social media, but it's incumbent on us to realize that the gift of shared written language is basically new in historical terms. We've likely uncovered only a scarce amount of the unrealized potential of not just near-universal human literacy but of near-universal ability to instantly transmit our own writing anywhere else on the planet (and even to effortlessly translate what has been written in languages other than our own). It shouldn't go without appreciation.

News Better narratives wanted

Too many children's stories still rely on antiquated stereotypes. If you're writing something that includes narrative filler about princesses changing costumes, perhaps it's time to reconsider priorities.

News Fathers, hug your sons

If you don't contribute to their healthy development early on, they may grow up to espouse complete nonsense about human values with boundless unjustified self-confidence. A truly flabbergasting number of "influencer" types are engaged in little more than thinly-veiled and desperate bids to gain male approval and affection.

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May 16, 2024

News Tastefully put

Words go in and out of fashion for a variety of social reasons. But one word that's overdue for a revival is "tasteful". ■ Taylor Swift's song "Down Bad", which peaked at #2 in the Billboard Hot 100, manages to make use of the oft-forbidden "F" word 17 times in just over four minutes of airplay. Pornography and brain worms are at the center of the political universe. The world's third-richest person is reveling in the joys of stirring up trouble. ■ Tasteful behavior may be hard to define precisely, but it generally consists of doing things that won't seem regrettable later on. How much later? How regrettable? That may vary. In general, though, tastefulness is really just voluntary restraint from the maximalist approach in all things. ■ But it's silly to reject the idea that we can think far enough ahead to demonstrate tasteful restraint. People make long-term decisions all the time. Suppose we were to apply seven years as a standard: Could people reasonably hold themselves to a standard of behavior that would reflect well on them after seven years of time passes? ■ Seven years seems like a lot until it is compared to other guideposts. A seven-year-old child is generally in first grade. The average passenger vehicle has been on the road for 12 years. The median stay in an owner-occupied home is 13 years. ■ Thus it really isn't that great a stretch to ask people to think ahead, particularly if they're in the practice of doing so. And that comes back to the question of whether there is a social expectation to behave in tasteful ways. If tastefulness is a standard matter of habit, then it becomes self-perpetuating. If it falls away, then perhaps its only ticket back is for people to grow tired of the regrets and push the expectation back into place.

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May 17, 2024

News The virtue of continuity

After a transformational season culminating in a record-setting championship game, the University of Iowa's head women's basketball coach, Lisa Bluder, has announced her retirement. Having helped to expand the profile of the sport behind a phenomenal player, Bluder exits into a smooth transition: Seeing her long-time assistant elevated to head coach. ■ Lots of organizations -- businesses, universities, non-profits, school districts, teams, and others -- are enamored with conducting big, splashy recruitment searches. Even police departments do it. Performing a baton pass to an obvious successor is often viewed as being too dull a step to make the kind of splash that stakeholders may want. ■ But grooming a logical successor is exactly the mark of a good leader -- one who is confident enough to say that the institution will survive their departure. It's what Warren Buffett has conspicuously done in business, and what Johnny Carson erroneously thought he was doing with the "Tonight Show". ■ To groom a successor is to acknowledge one's own limitations (including, but not limited to, mortality) and to implicitly promise that their work will focus not just on what brings credit and praise to the person in the spotlight, but on what perpetuates the good of the institution. That takes a convergence of humility and self-confidence, as well as a sincere belief in the process. ■ Outside of a monarchy, it often isn't splashy to cultivate and elevate an heir apparent. But if institutions matter (and they do), then continuity ought to be the goal far more often than not.

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May 18, 2024

Threats and Hazards You couldn't pay enough

There are plenty of honest jobs that already come under the umbrella of "You couldn't pay me enough to do that", even with the benefit of proper person protective equipment, safety regulations, and training systems. But some efforts to make a dollar don't respect the law and are even more dangerous as a result: Like the person who probably electrocuted themselves in Omaha while apparently trying to cut into live power lines to salvage the copper inside. Sometimes we under-appreciate just how dangerous normal life used to be -- but habits, norms, and practices all make a difference. Seeing what happens when people disregard all of the rules because they think no one is watching.

Aviation News Fly-through view of new Des Moines airport terminal

(Video) Everything always looks better in the computer renderings than in reality, but the planned design looks like it heavily emphasizes high ceilings and ample natural light

Weather and Disasters Wildfire smoke damages air quality in Iowa

Even though the wildfires involved are in Canada

Iowa Putting the forgotten to rest

A funeral home in the Des Moines area has coordinated an event to provide a dignified memorial and interment service for three dozen babies who were miscarried or stillborn -- in some cases, 70 or 80 years ago. Their cremains have been stored at a number of local facilities for all that time without having been claimed. ■ The origins of the story are sad, but the decision to do something honorable for the deceased reflects well on our humanity. Treating death with dignity is a way to honor life. Mourners deserve an opportunity to gather and grieve; where mourners cannot be found, the dead still deserve to be treated with respect for their humanity. ■ That is no less the case for the unclaimed baby than it is for the unclaimed veteran. One doesn't have to subscribe to the formally ritualized aspects of religious funeral practice to recognize the importance of dignity and consistency in these practices. Rectifying the shame-ridden practices of the past to afford dignity in the future is a sign that we (as a species) are becoming better than we were in the past.

News One-paragraph book review: "In Praise of Public Life"

An inoffensive but not especially memorable tribute to service in public office

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May 23, 2024

News A prudent skepticism

Many Americans are familiar with George H.W. Bush's infamous line, "Read my lips: No new taxes", but it's far from the most significant clause he uttered while in high office. Bush 41 often struggled to communicate with the effectiveness of his predecessor, but he was an exceptionally well-qualified public servant, and an individual well-equipped to see with some clarity the truly epic changes taking place around him. ■ In his 1988 nomination acceptance speech, the same address that gave us "Read my lips", Bush articulated a recognition of the facts that have an eerie resonance 35 years later. ■ Said the nominee: "The tremors in the Soviet world continue. The hard earth there has not yet settled. Perhaps what is happening will change our world forever. Perhaps not. A prudent skepticism is in order. And so is hope. Either way, we're in an unprecedented position to change the nature of our relationship. Not by preemptive concession -- but by keeping our strength. Not by yielding up defense systems with nothing won in return -- but by hard, cool engagement in the tug and pull of diplomacy." ■ Those "tremors" ultimately came to a crescendo when the Soviet Union fell forever at the end of 1991. The "war" part of the Cold War may have been won, but it is evident now that the peace wasn't, neither permanently nor completely. ■ If we had truly secured the peace, Russia's government today wouldn't invade some of its neighbors, menace others, or conduct unconventional warfare against the United States. In our eagerness to cash in the "peace dividend", America ignored Bush's call to "prudent skepticism" -- and not just in the afterglow of Cold War victory. Long after it should have been obvious that "keeping our strength" needed to mean more than just having weapons, a sitting President glibly mocked the very idea of recognizing that the peace was incomplete. ■ In his own way, Bush was telling the American voter that we couldn't anticipate having dessert without eating our vegetables, too. It's rarely a popular message to tell people that temperance, sacrifice, and skepticism will be required of them. Even great leaders have a hard time cultivating what isn't already in the makeup of their people (even if those character traits are dormant and need re-awakening). But if we don't habituate ourselves to those characteristics, history has a way of forcing us to reckon with their absence sooner or later.

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May 24, 2024

News The drone of war

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Finland, and Norway have agreed to cooperate on the creation of a "drone wall" to keep track of "unfriendly countries", in the words of Lithuania's interior minister. ■ Diplomatic circumspection aside, there's only one country with which all six of the cooperating countries share borders, and it's the one that's still conducting an invasion against Ukraine, Poland's neighbor to the southeast. It's the same country that's instigating trouble along Estonia's border waters and jamming GPS signals for airplanes in the region. ■ Technology, broadly speaking, has always been attractive in defense and warfare for its usefulness as a force multiplier. Unfortunately, it does not replace the considerable investment that must be made in uninspiring stuff like border fortification upgrades. ■ Dwight Eisenhower once lamented, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." ■ It is good that those countries are cooperating, because their cooperation compounds the deterrent effect of any one country's defenses. It is very bad, though, that they (quite rationally) recognize the need to commit their precious resources to such defensive activity. We shouldn't even for a minute forget that tensions have risen due to the actions of only a single government, and that all the costs the world bears are consequences of those actions.

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May 26, 2024

News Good fences

A warning from the Lithuanian interior minister: "The entire region is facing similar threats coordinated by Russia and Belarus -- instrumentalization of migration, cyberattacks, disinformation, sabotage of critical infrastructure and other hybrid threats." In many ways, the United States still enjoys the protection of two very large oceans. But we should be alert not to let complacency creep in. What the Lithuanian minister adds is really quite heart-stopping: "First of all, we have to think about the evacuation of the population on a regional scale". ■ That concept is hard to comprehend, but it could easily be true: Lithuania is only about 25,000 square miles in all, or about the size of West Virginia. That's not very large, and that fact certainly animates concerns about the need for a population-scale evacuation (for a country of 2.6 million people). ■ Russia has already occupied about that amount of territory in Ukraine, and has lately shown willingness to bomb civilians shopping at hardware stores. The alarm in the Baltics is entirely warranted. ■ Contingency planning for a possible invasion is a lamentable thing to have to make a budgetary and policy priority, though it's a good thing the threat is being taken seriously. Demonstrations that America's allies are taking the the threat to their own sovereignty seriously ought to have an impact on American leaders and voters alike. Our intrinsic geographic security shouldn't keep us from recognizing that others are far less removed from peril.

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May 27, 2024

The popularity of home work

In a considerable increase over the times a decade or more ago, 29% of American workers are working from home at least once a week. Some states have substantially higher rates even than the national average -- Maryland's workforce is 40% remote, Colorado's is 39%, and Masschusetts is at 38%. Minnesota has the high in the Midwest at 34%. ■ Nationwide, 14% of the workforce is fully remote. While that number is the real sea change in terms of perceptions, more net good almost certainly comes from the substantial share of workers who can operate from home part of the time. Some work has always required an on-site presence -- a plumber can't replace your kitchen faucet via Microsoft Teams. ■

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May 28, 2024

Weather and Disasters More than a number

The National Weather Service initially identified the tornado that struck Greenfield, Iowa, as "at least" an EF-3. Subsequent investigation found evidence sufficient to escalate that rating to EF-4. No small number of online commenters saw fit to second-guess the preliminary rating, and many more have vocally criticized and mindlessly second-guessed the upgraded rating, as well -- enough that they came right out and addressed the early critics. ■ The problem we face is that the intensity ratings are based upon evidence and are bounded by specific criteria. Those don't fit well within a public space that craves conflict and extremity. ■ Things are made even more complicated by the modern storm-chasing environment. We are blessed to live at a time when portable Doppler radar systems operated by scientists are capturing valuable data that will undoubtedly have scientific merit down the road. And we will likely find considerable benefit from the emerging field of drone-based tornado surveillance. Radar can pinpoint only so well; live video tracking may be available sooner than we think. ■ But there are also some live-streamers who are best characterized along a spectrum ranging from "adrenaline junkies" to "disaster pornographers". They profit from hype, by turning audiences into cheering sections. Cheering for what, though? Bigger disasters? ■ The human toll from a tornado isn't neatly contained within a number. Meteorologists need to classify what they see in a scientific way so they can make better models in the future; after all, the value of a model is measured by the quality of its predictions. ■ The rest of us don't have to observe scientific classifications to have natural, empathetic responses to events. While the EF Scale attempts to estimate peak wind speeds, it does so on the basis of observable damage. And that damage, even lower on the scale, can be hard to grasp even if it doesn't quite qualify as "incredible". Perhaps instead of clamoring for higher ratings, we should level-up our realization of how bad even lower-scale tornadoes can be for the individuals affected.


May 29, 2024

The United States of America Not because they are easy

The most important words spoken by John F. Kennedy as President had nothing to do with what you can do for your country or being a Berliner. What were probably his most important words came when, asking the country to embrace the Apollo missions and related tasks, he urged, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." ■ From a basic material standpoint, things generally have never been easier for the vast majority of Americans. Real per-capita GDP has never been higher. Inflation arrests much of the attention, but unemployment is low, basic quality-of-life goods have never been more prevalent, and new technological tools are being introduced at a breakneck pace. ■ Why, then, is so much of public opinion so sour (Gallup says that 74% of us think America's on the wrong track)? Why are so many people quick to express listlessness, dissatisfaction, or ennui? Grown adults insist on presenting themselves to all the world like angsty teenagers. ■ Perhaps we have stewed too long in a cultural broth that improbably blends the prosperity Gospel, a toxic "YOLO" fixation on perpetual self-care, and a generalized sort of impatience. And in committing so much energy to making things easier (or at least in making them feel that way) that we've gotten away from equipping people with the tools to grapple with what's hard. ■ We need more voices, respected ones, willing to challenge us to do hard things because the process of doing hard things is good for us, as individuals and as a country. It does us no good to be both soft and agitated, simultaneously restless and unfocused, looking always for the escape rather than the path through the difficulty. ■ It doesn't need to be the work of a President, necessarily, but someone needs to revive a sense of intrinsic appreciation for challenge. There's no shortage of tasks to be undertaken.

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May 30, 2024

Science and Technology More power to the people

In 2023, about one out of every five watts of electricity generated in the United States came from nuclear power generation. On the whole, that's a good thing: Nuclear fission power is, for now at least, the only tool we have for baseline electric generation that doesn't burn a fossil fuel. Natural gas makes up 43% of the generation mix, and coal continues its decline, down now to about 16%. ■ Renewables are on the ascent, of course, accelerated by developments like the rather stunning decline in the cost of photovoltaic power. But they, like nature, remain inconsistent and until we get the problem of truly massive storage figured out, some kind of weather-independent generation is necessary to achieve a blend that meets demand. Meeting 100% of net demand with renewable generation is possible (it's already been done in Iowa), but on-demand generation remains a necessity. ■ This is why plans to support nuclear-plant development are worthy of attention. New nuclear plants are a colossal rarity in America: New reactors recently brought online in Georgia took years of construction time and billions of dollars more than anticipated, and those were the first new ones in almost a decade. ■ We aren't about to turn into the Springfield of "Simpsons" myth, with its unflattering nuclear plant. But getting closer to a reliable, modular, budget-friendly, and perhaps even community-scale nuclear generators would be a big win for society as we continue to steer aggressively towards a de-carbonized future.

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May 31, 2024

News Math is good for you

If a recent survey is truly representative of the broader population, then more than half of America's high school math teachers are making up their own worksheets and other supporting materials, rather than using content furnished by their districts. This is an important problem to cite for a number of reasons. ■ First and foremost, it most likely reflects a chronic problem with math education in the United States: There seems to be very little consensus about how to approach it most effectively, particularly when students don't see how content really applies to then and many of their parents still suffer from lingering resentment over how they themselves were taught. It's no surprise that nobody is proud of American students' math performance on the world stage. ■ The heavy use of non-standard content supplements also represents a non-trivial waste of time and effort. Many, if not most, other subjects have at least some context dependency -- there are local topics to explore in government class, foreign languages may reflect the accents and dialects that the instructors themselves learned, and a deep dive into biology may explore things differently in Alaska than in Florida. But math, for the most part, is the same everywhere: Trigonometry doesn't have a dialect. ■ While efforts to nationalize virtually any school curricula are bound to run up against justifiable criticism, it seems clear that we are chronic offenders when it comes to math education. Not only ought there to be some considerable economies of scale to exploit (really, can't we all learn Cartesian planes and conditional probabilities from the same worksheets?), we should also be able to leverage more from the gap between those who are really gifted math teachers and those who are not. ■ It may seem dismissive to single out the high-performers, but it's really not a matter of dispute: A good teacher doesn't just have content knowledge, they also have to master pedagogy -- the process of conveying information to the students. It may be plainly more effective to identify the very best math lecturers in a school and have them focus on lesson planning to be delivered to all of the math students together, while the other teachers attend to one-on-one interventions with students as they need them.

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