Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - December 26, 2013
Brian Gongol

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The letter you should probably start writing tonight

A Dutch file-sharing company says that half of teenagers surveyed have never sent a personal letter. A Tweet to family and friends will only go so far. We don't have to spend every night writing to our friends and family, but there's nothing that suitably replaces a thought-out, thoughtful letter.

That story struck a chord with me because some old family records found their way out of storage over Christmas this year, including one of only two letters that I ever received from my great-grandfather. My grandmother's father was my only ancestor of that generation to have lived to my birth, so he's the only one who ever had an opportunity to write something deliberately addressed to me.

When you stop to think about it, biologically, we each start with two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents -- fourteen people, each responsible for a double-digit percentage of our genetic makeup, and probably a similar share of much of who we turn out to be. Adding in step-families or adoptions or any other possibilities to enlarge that roster, some people have even more.

Biologically and culturally, those people are close enough to us that they should leave a pretty big footprint on us. Yet I don't know about you, but I really wish I knew a lot more about them all. Not their biographies, necessarily -- I've read their obituaries and know a rough sketch of what each of them did in life. But precious little about them as people -- what they thought and what they valued -- makes its way through to today. And when you think about it, you're about 12.5% each of your great-grandparents, or 25% each of your grandparents.

A story in the New York Times the other day detailed how grandparents can give their grandchildren a gift not necessarily of money per se, but of lessons in how to earn and use money. The article argues that parents are often too close to the situation to offer objective advice to their kids, but that there's just enough distance at the grandparent level that it may come with a sense of respect (and authority), while still being exchanged with a sense of love and concern. And it's true: You don't have to ram an understanding of money into the heads of your kids or grandkids, but it's really not good for finances to remain a taboo topic.

Families should not only pass along their money, but also their values. It's really too bad there aren't more people creating ethical wills to share with their families. Even if you don't have a penny to your name, you still have values to pass along, experiences to recount, and expectations to lay out. Ethical wills aren't difficult to write -- they're just hard to start. So many things we live amidst are terribly ephemeral; we watch films on Netflix, click "Like" on Facebook, and lose all our old text messages every time we upgrade cell phones. The more of that temporary-ness we have, the more it really makes sense to sit down once in a while and really examine what serious messages we want to leave behind.

It's not as though we don't have or expend the energy already -- I just glanced at a list of my friends' Twitter feeds, and one has posted just shy of 15,000 times. Assuming (conservatively) that each one was just ten words long, he's basically written the equivalent of two romance novels. And all I'm really pining for is just to have a letter from each of those fourteen closest ancestors. A book would have been wonderful, of course, but I don't even have the letters.

I think writing these "ethical wills" is a brilliant exercise. And I think that they're probably far more valuable to write when we're young than when we're old (even though they'd be valuable at any time). Writing them when young gives the writer the chance to revise and reflect with new experiences -- and to use the process of writing to expand on the thoughts and guide the writer (not just the reader) through new experiences. Perhaps you write your first draft at age can only get better if you revise it every year, five years, or ten years after.

By the way, these are no modern invention -- you can easily find examples dating back to the 1100's in the Jewish tradition.


"What's the best way to encourage scholars to combine the best insights from multiple disciplines?"
The question comes from Bill Gates. The shortest answer may be to insist that college-bound students get two majors -- one in a "hard" science or a technical field (like science, business, or computers), and one in something from the liberal arts. On their own, liberal-arts degrees get a bad rap (and often deserve it). But the "hard" sciences need their actors to be well-rounded.

Threats to our well-being

The government spies on telephone prove that it needs to spy on telephone metadata
The problem we're experiencing with over-reaches in the "war on terrorism" is the same as the problem of public budgeting. Nobody gets credit for returning what they don't use...which in turn leads to overreach and waste. A Nobel Prize awaits the person who figures out that Gordian knot.

UN says thousands have been killed in South Sudan
It's not good for humanity that a situation like this can go on and still seem like a remote problem. If you've ever watched "Casablanca", you know that a war in Africa can seem deeply moving to an American. But this is happening now, and it's urgent.


China aims lower
The government is hoping for a 7.5% rate of economic growth in 2014. They were hoping for 8% in 2013. The new target would still be a rapid rate of expansion, but half of a percentage point is a lot to shave off expectations.

Standard and Poor's says Europe is no longer has AAA credit

Attitude starts at the top
Governors who make positive and optimistic "condition of the state" speeches may actually influence their local business communities to invest.

Perhaps people are overestimating the number of real "existential crises" out there

The economics of gift-giving
Sure, we overpay for the gifts we give to others, and many people would probably be happier with cash than with some of the things they receive. But that overlooks the sentimental nature of gift-giving -- as well as the benefits of feeling good about actually giving the gifts themselves.


Dell says a quarter-million computers are infected by Cryptolocker
A hugely important component of their report: "Backups to locally connected, network-attached, or cloud-based storage are not sufficient because CryptoLocker encrypts these files in the same manner as those found on the system drive."

Facebook might kill itself by trying to be everything, all the time, to everyone
Specialization may be the way to stay durable. And now that Facebook is toying with video ads, they're really going to test the patience of some users.


Cedar Falls police officer shoots man for trying to beat him unconscious


If you don't like Washington gridlock, you may need to change the system
But motion isn't the same as action -- and action isn't necessarily what we always should want from our political representatives. So if they aren't getting things done, isn't that often a good thing unto itself?

Brian Schweitzer may have his eye on the White House
The former governor of Montana is a different flavor of Democrat than the ones currently running the party -- which, naturally, he'd have to be to get elected in Montana. Whether that translates into national appeal may be a different question altogether, but he's showing up in Iowa, and outside politician does that just for fun. On a related note, there's a case to be made that we're really divisible into eleven different cultural "nations".

State-owned resort is barely breaking even

Putin says America is "non-traditional"
Ah, for the days when we all understood the original meaning and intent of the label "classical liberalism"


How different media outlets would report the end of the world

Listener tech questions we'll answer if we have time

We keep running out of time to answer all the questions we get for the WHO Radio Wise Guys. Here are two we missed from this past weekend, and two that were texted in during the show on Tuesday: