Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 24, 2018

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

Segment 1: (11 min)

BUT FIRST: Facebook and a flying chair

Last week, I was following a pickup truck pulling a trailer down the Interstate. I was maybe a half-mile behind him -- just far enough that I could see he had a trailer, which is usually the kind of thing that makes me wary.

Good thing I hung back. It was dark, so I could only make out what was in my headlights, plus a little bit of illumination from the moon. But he accidentally dropped a chair off the back of his truck.

Literally. A chair came off the truck and landed mostly in the left-hand lane.

A chair in the roadway is a clear and present danger to other motorists traveling at 75 mph (I forgot to mention -- I was in Nebraska).

In my concept of the world -- one that depends on personal responsibility but also on certain civic practices, that driver should be responsible for not leaving a mess that can damage or cause harm to others. There wasn't any intention to cause harm -- but there was a certain amount of neglect. There was a lot of stuff hanging out of the pickup bed and on the trailer that wasn't adequately strapped down.

Once I could do it safely, I reported the debris to the state patrol. And, by chance, I did so from a gas station where the culprit happened to have pulled off to refuel. Having noted where the debris had landed, I was able to tell him what mile marker to revisit in order to pick up his missing chair, as long as it hadn't been smashed to smithereens.

The problem when we move to the digital realm is that we don't know enough about what debris is being left behind, nor how it will be used

Cambridge Analytica is accused of collecting lots of data under false pretenses

This is a two-part problem:

1. Was it collected and used in violation of the rules?

2. Was it used to manipulate election outcomes?

Even if your answer to #2 is "no" (and it's premature to say that), that still leaves the problem of #1.

Moreover, even if there hadn't been a problem with #1, we still have the ultimate issue that we are leaking valuable information about ourselves at every turn online. And sometimes, it's being leaked for us -- one of the key accusations in the Cambridge Analytica case.

The problem is that even second-order information about you can be used to build a profile. Photographs of you can be used to deduce your sexual orientation, and your basic Facebook "likes" can deliver a highly accurate picture of your race, sex, age, and political preferences.

That's what can be done now.

Cambridge Analytica claimed it could do a lot more with a psychograph. Maybe it could, maybe it couldn't.

But someone probably will in the very near-term future.

Take a step back: If someone had taken a blood sample from you 20 years ago, they could've figured out some basic stuff, like your blood type and your cholesterol levels. But that same blood sample taken today could be used to run a full genome sequence on you -- at a cost of about $1000. That number has crashed in recent years. You can pay about $100 and get one of several different services to tell you what your genetic ancestry looks like.

That same blood sample that was pretty innocuous in 1998 is a super-powered tool in 2018.

The same will go for the technology to build a psychological profile of you. For now, it can pick your romantic preferences and whether you align with a political party. And, if you give it some more information (like you do to Amazon or Netflix all the time), it can pick books, movies, and TV shows that you'd like -- also with pretty high accuracy.

We're not that far from artificial intelligence being able to generate what I've called a "personality engine" based on you -- like a search engine, but for generating the answers to questions someone might ask you.

Most of us are more predictable than we think, and the more you know about the things that have influenced a person, the better the likelihood you can forecast what that person is going to think.

You might say "Who wants that?" Obviously, advertisers and marketers do. So do political teams (why do you think they build voter databases and run focus groups?). But there will be recreational, personal interest in this, too.

I never got to know my grandparents on my mom's side. They died before I was born. But if you gave me the chance to "meet" one of them through an artificial intelligence tool designed to mimic their personality (a "personality engine"), you'd pique my interest.

Don't pretend like any of us is immune to the attraction of this idea.

If you wore a "WWJD" bracelet, you were asking yourself to generate a set of responses to what Jesus would have done. If you could have an app on your phone that allowed you to literally describe your situation and get a Biblical response, would you do it?

If you've ever answered a college entrance application or had an interview or talked with someone on a first date, there's a good chance you've been asked to name a historical character you'd like to meet. My favorite version of this question was which three characters I'd want to have at a dinner party for a single night. (I had to answer it to get into the honors program at UNI. I think my answers were Teddy Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, and Robert LaFollette. Looking back on it, that group could have used some gender balance.)

The point is that we routinely ask ourselves what our predecessors might have said or thought or done in a given situation. It's a natural human question, and technology is right on the cusp of being able to answer that. It'll be easy for prolific writers like Hamilton and Roosevelt. It'll be harder for the more obscure masses of history. But the more we leave behind a trail of "likes" and "favorites" in the present day, the easier it will be to generate exactly those kinds of profiles for even the most ordinary of people living today.

Your grandkids might treasure it. So will people trying to influence what you do.

So even though it's quite possible that the promises of data-driven electioneering in 2016 and even 2012 could be wildly overblown, there's a good chance it won't be exaggerated by 2024 or 2028. Decisions and choices we make now about how to grapple with this will affect future election outcomes.

And, by the way, we need to clarify for all of us that there will be a difference between aggregate effects and marginal effects. I think a lot of us already have our minds made up about these things and we aren't going to be triggered to behave one way or another by something we see in social media. In aggregate, it probably won't sway many of us in two-party elections...not by much, at least.

But where it gets interesting is in whether it has a marginal effect -- the ability to swing certain people to vote or not to vote. To become radicalized or to stay close to the middle. To turn into loud, shouty activists or to stay on the couch eating potato chips and watching reruns. No matter how you slice it, the 2016 election was decided at the state level, in a few states, by a thin margin of votes. Marginal effects matter already, and that's not likely to change soon. Which means that if we get distracted by the thought that "No, I wouldn't change MY vote just because of something I saw on Facebook", we could miss the point that it might not be a mass effect that anyone has in mind -- just a marginal one. You simply may not be the target.

By going small, these effects could become very big. I've been banging this drum for a while, and I'm not going to stop: The technology itself may be value-neutral, but the people using it decide whether it gets used for good or for bad. Mark Zuckerberg has been on a public-relations mission this week, but to reiterate what I said at the start of the year: If he wants his brainchild to be used for good rather than evil, he has to start making decisions now about the rules they set in place. To borrow a line from Kori Schake, "The arc of history bends only when people grab onto it and wrench it [in] the direction they insist it go."

It's time for Facebook to start wrenching. And the same goes for all of us, too.

Segment 2: (8 min)

Live reads

Smart speakers

Contrary to popular opinion: Invert, invert! Always invert!

What if we had $64,000 in surplus instead of $64,000 in debt per person?

What if instead of hearing the life story and confession of the Austin bomber, his name were consigned forever to the black hole of history?

What if instead of imposing tariffs, we unilaterally dropped them altogether?

What if instead of a Russian attacked with a chemical weapon by Russia in Britain, it had been a Russian in America poisoned by Britain?

Segment 3: (14 min)

Programming notes

6:35pm: Barnstormers pregame
7:05pm-10pm: Barnstormers @ Cedar Rapids Titans

Mind your business: Tax-season giving update with Gordon Fischer

Segment 4: (5 min)

March for Our Lives

More than 700 marches planned across the US

Youth is no substitute for winning an argument on the merits of the case. But it is too easy for any of us to either defer our own judgment or dismiss the arguments of others on the basis of age alone. The whole point of being self-governing is that we make informed choices and accept the consequences.

There is an unmistakable generational investment in the outcomes of addressing violence. Young people have more "skin in the game" than their elders, certainly when it comes to violence in and around schools. But homicide and suicide are also vastly disproportionate causes of death for people under age 35.

Keep in mind: The generation that was in high school when the Columbine murders took place is now old enough for many of them to have children the age of the young people killed at Sandy Hook.

As with any controversy or attempt to start a "movement", it's worthwhile to apply a simple four-part test:

  1. Where is their written set of principles? (March for our Lives petition)
  2. Who's funding the action? (Everytown for Gun Safety)
  3. Does it serve anyone's ulterior motives?
  4. Does anybody involved have a real reputation at stake?

Washington (DC)
Washington Post, Washington Times

Segment 5: (11 min)

The week in technology: Why I'm still an advocate for self-driving cars

A sad moment has come to pass in Tempe, Arizona, where a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving car. As with any loss of life, it causes suffering and grief, and we would not be human enough if we didn't lament the loss.

But this event shouldn't used as a blunt instrument to forestall the development of autonomous vehicles altogether. Sad as it may be, it's not cause enough to stop the self-driving car.

Life is full of risks. Any reasonable accounting for risk must include careful attention to big risk factors. And there is simply no bigger risk factor related to automobiles than human error. Human error is the leading cause of car crashes by a margin so large that it isn't even close: Drivers and their mistakes and misjudgments cause 94% of the more than 2 million crashes in the United States each year.

That's not just a big factor, it's overwhelming. Nothing will have a bigger effect on making automotive travel safer than limiting the frequency and magnitude of human errors behind the wheel.

Ultimately, that means replacing us (human drivers) with something safer. Truly autonomous vehicles will eventually be a revolutionary lifesaving tool. The technology that will enable a near-zero frequency of accidents will be here in time -- probably much sooner than most people imagine. But we need to acknowledge three things along the way:

First, even if self-driving technologies could be completely perfected, accidents would still happen. They would be infrequent, but they would still happen, because sometimes the unexpected is also completely unavoidable. We must brace ourselves for the fact that there will never be a completely crash-free world. But one also reasonably imagines that crashes in self-piloted vehicles will, on average, be made less harmful than crashes involving human drivers, since self-piloted vehicles ought to have faster response times than human drivers -- and every moment of additional braking or avoidance time that isn't lost to human reaction times ought to create an additional margin of safety. (In fact, the evidence suggests that the incident in Tempe may have been completely unavoidable, for human drivers and computers alike.) What will matter most is whether we have fewer deadly accidents with autopilot at the wheel than we would have had with humans doing the driving.

Second, the road to truly self-driving vehicles is paved with the development and adoption of "guardian-angel technologies": Tools that contribute to accident avoidance and harm reduction, whether the vehicle is under the command of a human driver or an auto-pilot. Guardian-angel technologies range from automatic braking systems to weather-adaptive handling to lane-drift controls and much more.

Ideally, these systems will contribute independently to greater safety, but will also show themselves to be of even greater use when coordinated with one another. Truly robust systems for passenger safety will have independent, redundant safety systems in place, so that the failure of one (or even of the main auto-pilot system) won't turn catastrophic.

Unfortunately, we will discover some of our blind spots for these safety systems only when some of them fail. The future of self-driving vehicles as a mass-market reality will need to go through a transitional phase during which more and more of the guardian-angel technologies become standard equipment for keeping human drivers out of trouble -- ultimately reaching a stage at which the human driver just becomes superfluous. Human drivers shouldn't expect to be replaced all at once; it's going to be a slow-motion phase-out.

Third, we shouldn't fear a new risk just because it's unfamiliar while ignoring a much bigger risk just because we have become numb to it. About 35,000 Americans die in vehicle accidents every year. That's about 95 people a day. In other words, our experience with automobiles right now is very dangerous. Crashes are a leading cause of death for more than one age bracket. The frequency seems to numb us to the danger, and that familiarity breeds contempt for a real solution. Self-piloted cars are unfamiliar and thus are easy to perceive out of proportion to their true danger. We would have to be mad to show zero tolerance for failure with autonomous vehicles while showing endless tolerance for human error -- just because human error is more familiar. A new thing should not be judged against a standard of perfection when the thing it seeks to replace is held to such a low standard that it is a leading cause of death.

The sane approach to these vehicles is to recognize that we live in an imperfect world where accidents will inevitably occur. What matters is that we promote the adoption, development, and improvement of any tools we can find that can reduce the frequency and impact of those accidents. Tools that can make human drivers safer ought to be welcomed -- and tools that will ultimately replace us behind the wheel altogether should be welcomed, too -- and we should promote them heavily even if they are only marginally safer than human drivers.

The evidence suggests they will be much more than just marginal improvements, however. The logical destination remains one where all of the guardian-angel technologies, working in concert while also acting independently to provide a robust system of protection, ultimately take the weak link out of the chain of command -- even if that weak link is us.

Segment 6: (8 min)

Live reads

iHeartRadio app

Iowa news

Iowa Snowstorm forecast comes with tight gradients

Parts of Minnesota and Iowa are going to get about a foot of snow, and neighbors 90 minutes away won't get anything

Curiosity, competence, and humility

Humor and Good News The sisters rebuilding a university library in Mosul

With ISIS out, they have a chance to rebuild. We could digitize every book ever written and give every child a Kindle as their birthright, and yet we should still consider libraries to be sacred spaces worthy of support and protection. Only barbarians destroy libraries.

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Threats and Hazards Stop naming and celebritizing the killers

News outlets are naming the Austin package bomber -- a person who has been terrorizing his local community through murder. Would there be any real harm done if news outlets said "As a matter of civic responsibility, we are voluntarily withholding the name of the perpetrator"? A voluntary choice to consign people like this to the black hole of history might help discourage copycats.

Threats and Hazards Man shoots himself after falling asleep with new gun in his hands

This story ends with the public laughing at the expense of the individual who shot himself. But what if this carelessness had ended with him unintentionally shooting a family member who walked in and startled him awake?

Segment 7: (14 min)

Programming notes

6:35pm: Barnstormers pregame
7:05pm-10pm: Barnstormers @ Cedar Rapids Titans

Clean up after yourself: Terrible tariffs and a busted budget

Tariff notes:

Tin Foil Hat Award

Threats and Hazards China plans a 25% tariff on US pork

Soybeans could be next. This is exactly the kind of reciprocal trade retaliation that Americans should worry about.

By the numbers

Budget notes:

Threats and Hazards Nero fiddles while Rome burns

The President of the United States is engaged in a juvenile taunting match with a former Vice President, while Congress is about to pile another $1.3 trillion onto the Federal debt. If the Federal government were sitting on a surplus of $64,000 per person, voters would be losing their minds demanding rebate checks. Instead, we owe $64,000 per person in Federal debt...and rising.

Business and Finance Where do your tax dollars go?

The Federal budget represented as a $100 restaurant bill

Too much drama

News National Security Adviser fired

General HR McMaster is out, and John Bolton is incoming

Segment 8: (5 min)

Live reads

16K EVERY DAY! We had three LOCAL winners last week!

Have a little empathy

President issues transgender service ban

Look, if they were worthy of a "Thank you for your service" before you knew what was between their legs, they're worthy of it after, too.

What depth of pettiness justifies hurting people who want to serve their country?

In a parallel, the Navy Times just did a story on a sailor who's about to get deployed while his wife is about to get deported.

There's having good law and having unnecessary law. There's enforcing the law and there's plain vindictiveness.

There should always be supremacy of civilian oversight. But civilian policymakers shouldn't use the military as a prop.

Unsorted and leftovers:

This week

Threats and Hazards Denmark and Ireland might sanction Russia over attack on British soil

Can it be? Are the free countries of the world starting to get the picture that shows of unity are among our best tools to push back against adversarial efforts to sow discord here?

Health Nebraska doctors turn to state intervention to get 15-year-old into chemotherapy

Even that Original Libertarian, John Stuart Mill, would say that sometimes the state has to step in to protect kids: "Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury."

Make money

Have fun

Quote of the Week

Your role in cyberwar

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

21st Century conservatism

Inbox zero

Yay Capitalism Prize

Capitalist solution of the week

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day


Peach-flavored candy falls into the uncanny valley of flavor. It's close -- but it's not quite right. And that makes me hate it.

Humor and Good News The only thing missing is the exaggeration

Teenager puts a car through the front window on her driving test. The problem is that the story misses a kicker element -- something for the comedians to embellish in search of a life.

One year ago

Broadcasting Netflix to replace star ratings with thumbs-up/thumbs-down

Netflix seems to think the change will help offset the "grade inflation" that applies to programming like documentaries, which people tend to rate more aspirationally than reflectively. But what about those users who are disciplined about their ratings and want to be clear that while some programs are fine, others are wonderful -- and still others, quite terrible? More valuable than going to a binary system (which supposedly makes people more likely to leave ratings) would be a system that permits people to rate television programs by season or episode. Some start strong and then end with a whimper (The West Wing). Others stumble out of the gate but find a real voice later on (Parks and Recreation). Some granularity in ratings might be a good thing.

Five years ago

Retirement saving may be the biggest issue that America isn't really talking about. Results from a survey came out this week saying that half of American workers don't think they have enough saved for retirement. They're probably right -- in fact, probably many more are under-funded and don't even realize it. Retirement assets (or a lack thereof) are what are sinking the US Postal Service right now. And that's just one example of the many, many under-funded public-sector pension programs in the country. They're struggling to come up with an answer in Illinois, for instance. As people live longer and longer, this issue is only going to grow.

Ten years ago

When people as smart as Greg Mankiw and Paul Volcker think that the Bear Stearns bailout deal set up by the Federal Reserve is a bad idea, it's a lot easier to believe the deal isn't such a good idea. What we really need is a Federal Reserve that focuses on inflation, not on sustaining the stock market, which it seems like they're trying to do.

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