Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - December 15, 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.

Breaking news to watch

Segment 1: (11 min)

BUT FIRST: The opening essay

Took a vacation for my birthday. Friends came along as a big surprise.

Went abroad -- to the Caribbean. Not the safest country in the world, though it's far from the most dangerous.

Security in numbers: We instinctively count on the "tribe" around us to stay alert to dangers and to tell us if they sense trouble. If you're in the right size of group (say, between about four and a dozen), you can relax in a way you usually don't by nature.

About 20 years ago, the Internet plugged everyone together.

About 10 years ago, social media and smartphones started to plug us all together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The problem is that this level of connectedness upsets that balance of "safety in numbers":

1. It rewards crying wolf. The louder you scream, the bigger your audience.

2. It creates anxiety fatigue (look at the awful clickbait shared all the time about terrible things happening to small children)

3. Creates a false sense that we really do know what dangers are lurking about.

The Baz Luhrmann song "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen" contained a great line: "The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind -- the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday". The song is based on a column that came out just after I graduated from high school, and it's stuck with me for a long time.

But you know what? The advice is right. For example:

1. Nobody worried about the California wildfires this year until they exploded out of the blue. And they emitted as much carbon as it takes to produce the state's electricity for a year.

2. China is behind that giant hacking at Starwood Hotels that we talked about a couple of weeks ago. That's because they're building databases on us. You and me. Americans.

3. Last year's flu season was severe and unusually deadly. Probably 80,000 people died in the US alone.

Are we really equipped to see past the "crying wolf" problem and get in tune with the real problems?

Social media and the Internet don't always help. They can, but they often don't.

On that trip, I overheard a guy at the airport saying "Six pages on anything in Google and you'll know everything!"

But, no, you won't. The Internet doesn't have a guarantee of quality or accuracy, and social media tools only light the brushfires of panic when we need to get an eye on the bigger problems.

The moral of the story: We all need practice recognizing our own instincts and telling the difference between real surveillance and fake panic.

Segment 2: (8 min)

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

I don't have a wholesale objection to covers. I'll defend them when they're good -- even if that's an unpopular opinion. Just for example, I've taken heat from my friends and peers for defending the Alien Ant Farm cover of "Smooth Criminal". Artist take other artists' work and put their own spins on them, and that's OK. Even Frank Sinatra's standard "New York, New York" is a cover -- of a song Liza Minnelli did first. (Didn't know that? It's one of the funniest jokes buried deep inside an episode of "Arrested Development".)

But what Pitbull has done to "Africa" in a new track called "Ocean to Ocean" is the kind of thing that should result in a trial at The Hague.

A good cover adds something to the original: Alien Ant Farm had more fun with "Smooth Criminal" than Michael Jackson did. Anything else you might say about the song, they're clearly having fun with a song that MJ had delivered in earnest. I love them both, but just like my kids, I sometimes love them differently.

In whatever this abomination is, Pitbull is really just sampling (badly) a harmonized version of the original inimitable Toto chorus and layering over it an entirely uninspired synthesized melody. Oh, but with a bunch of unnecessary trilled whoops to mark each new verse.

There's nothing wrong in theory with taking a song of one style and turning it into another. As much as Puff Daddy (or whatever name he uses today) usually annoys me like a swarm of bees at a family picnic, I thought his reimagining of "Every Breath You Take" as a rap tribute to Biggie Smalls was inspired. I've heard classical themes modernized as rock ballads. And one of my favorite genres is house music, which is fundamentally based on taking the hook of a song and lighting a fuse beneath it to turn it into a high-energy, dance-worthy track.

So it's not the fact that Pitbull turned an 80s anthem into a rap that bothers me. It's that he's done it so inelegantly. The way to pay tribute to a classic is to either drop it a nod so subtle it almost takes a trained ear to hear it, or to do something so innovative with it that the first-time listener realizes they have an attachment to the original they hadn't realized before.

It was bad enough when Weezer decided to revive "Africa" as a concert track this year, performing it with the same level of creative inspiration you would hear in a karaoke bar on a Tuesday night in suburban El Paso. But this new Pitbull edition? It's for the dogs.

The moral of the story: If you're going to remake a classic, you'd better come correct.

Segment 3: (14 min)

The week in technology

Computers and the Internet Careful where you put that pyramid

A photographer with a high risk tolerance and an exhibitionist streak documented himself and a female partner in flagrante delicto on the Great Pyramid of Giza. It's not a particularly bright idea, but the response of Egyptian authorities has included the suggestion that the photos were fabricated. And that's where the bigger story lies: It's awfully unlikely that these particular photos were forged. But it's already quite possible to produce convincing photographic fakes, and the rise of "deep fakes" means that even videos can be falsified, convincingly. And that should have all of us at attention. Digital forgery is already real; we just haven't come to grips with it yet. This particular story highlights the notion that officials may be starting to recognize that fake visual "evidence" may exist; but it's not going to be long before those fakes are so easy (and cheap) to produce that any one of us might find ourselves the subject of a fabrication that we cannot disprove. It's already difficult enough for people to erase truthful things they don't like from the Internet -- that desire alone has led to big debates over the "right to be forgotten". But when (not if) it becomes technically feasible and sufficiently inexpensive for someone to produce a convincing forgery of any one of us in a compromising situation, we're going to be in a world of trouble because seeing will no longer be believing. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. All one has to do is to consider how far some people are willing to go to damage their political opponents, harm their romantic rivals, or undermine their competitors. Merge those depravities with the public's voracious appetite for the sensational (or the pornographic), and it's inevitable that in the very near-term future, there really will be fake videos of people doing X-rated things in monumental places.

Computers and the Internet Speeding up the euthanization of Google+

Google discovered another bug that might have exposed the personal details of 52.5 million customers to developers. Per a company announcement, "[W]e have also decided to accelerate the sunsetting of consumer Google+ from August 2019 to April 2019." Google puts a lot of projects out to pasture.

Computers and the Internet Online trouble doesn't end with Facebook and Twitter

YouTube -- a far more prevalent medium than either of the "social media" services that get the bulk of the scrutiny -- is a tool too often used to warp the world views of people who think they're learning something. The Washington Post reports that "Google overall now has more than 10,000 people working on maintaining its community standards." But is that enough? Is any number enough? The dance they try to perform is on the line that separates a totally neutral platform for content delivery (which YouTube simply can't be) from a real community (which YouTube has never established sufficient rules in order to be). Even though they call some of their policies "community guidelines", it's not a community unless there is some kind of shared vision of what the end ought to be. And YouTube in its present form doesn't have that. It is a product of the Enlightenment imagination, but it doesn't seem bound to the necessary values that protect Enlightenment-style thinking from drowning in a sea of hate and propaganda.

The moral of the story: Get ready for a whole new world in which the best indication something is a lie could be that you've seen it with your own eyes (on a screen).

Segment 4: (5 min)

The moral of the story:

Segment 5: (11 min)

21st Century conservatism

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska posed a provocative question on Twitter this weekend:

There's a deep divide among Americans (that we shld be able to debate without screaming at each other)...

**is Trump mostly a CAUSE of our lack of national unity?
**is he mostly a CONSEQUENCE of our lack of national unity?


Sasse, who holds a Ph.D. in American history from Yale, already knows the answer. The Founders, building the entirely new American nation on a population of less than 4 million (so small it would barely rival Oklahoma today), expected the people to care more about their states than about their national government:

"Many considerations, besides those suggested on a former occasion, seem to place it beyond doubt that the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States." - Federalist Paper No. 46

National unity, it would seem, has been in short supply since the very beginning.

We Americans rarely demonstrate national unity without some common purpose (like winning the Cold War or going to the Moon). And even those things that tend to unite us (like our reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001) often sew the seeds of their own destruction (like the division that resulted from the subsequent war in Iraq).

Being a characteristic that has been with America since birth, this lack of national unity can't really be called a defect. It's just the way we are.

But when lack of unity metastasizes into a state of disunity, then we find ourselves on the wrong track.

Put another way: It's one thing if Ohio goes one way on some issues while Alabama goes another as Oregon tries something else. We don't need to be unified in all things, and it's generally for the best if we exercise unity closer to home (at the state, district, or local levels) while experimenting vigorously as "laboratories of democracy".

But if we nationalize our political fights and just choose rival team identities -- like the "Red America/Blue America" divides that are so much a part of popular culture -- then we're at risk of some real self-harm. We don't have to be unified all the time, but we can't go on for very long being needlessly divided. "Divide and conquer" has endured as a strategic maxim for millennia, and for good reason.

As a country, we haven't had a common purpose in a while. The vacuum left behind primed many voters for the "MAGA" promise. But the promise is vague and ultimately empty: To "make America great again" is to say that our best days are in our past, and that we need to go backwards in order to be better.

America's best days always lie ahead. Always have, always will. We are a better, richer, more powerful, and more just country than we were at any time in the past -- so to be anything "again" would be to slip from our perch.

So the problem, it seems, will get worse -- at least, it will if we are content to long for a gauzy sense of past greatness. The 1953 Yankees aren't coming back, nor should we kid ourselves into thinking that we should trade much of anything else for 1953, either.

But not for want of common purposes we could rally around. If the past is any guide, America could find itself energetically united around any one (or more) of a number of tasks. We have historical precedents for ambitious projects in health (eradicating polio), exploration (the Apollo Program), infrastructure (Interstate highways), humanitarian relief (feeding Europe after WWI), technology (powered flight), education (land-grant colleges), development (rural electrification), diplomacy (the Marshall Plan and NATO), and vastly more.

What if we committed, as a country, to putting a single-minded effort into eradicating childhood cancers or sending humans to Mars? What if we undertook a big, measurable goal to would stretch our vision of the possible and give us something to cheer, together as a country, that would last longer than the next round of Olympic Games?

In the end, we have to acknowledge that for all the talk of "the American Dream", we've always depended more on "the American Action": Doing is far better than dreaming. The question before us now is what it will take to find and commit to a tangible goal worthy of national unity.

The moral of the story: If we want unity, then we need to have goals. But not too many of them.

Segment 6: (8 min)

By the numbers

Threats and Hazards The national debt is still a problem. A big one.

Your share: $66,400. Per person. In measurable, real debt alone. That doesn't even begin to count future liabilities. A family of four could buy a nice house for the amount of debt the Federal government already owes in their name.

Science and Technology It's called "safety factor"

Most civil engineering is done with the help of generous "safety factors" -- protective margins of error in our calculations, designed to make sure we're not running too close to danger. Most people don't realize how hard we're leaning on the safety factors that previous generations engineered into our infrastructure. Just take a look at the condition of old bridges everywhere.

The moral of the story: Decide what you want, limit your wants as much as possible, and pay for everything in full

Segment 7: (14 min)

The moral of the story:

Segment 8: (5 min)

The moral of the story:

Unsorted and leftovers:

The United States of America A tribute to Bush (41) and modesty

Wise words from Andy Smarick: "When we're uncertain and modest, we're likelier to be charitable and inquisitive and offer reforms that would incrementally build on yesterday's successes." We are best served by a combination of curiosity, competence, and humility in office.

Business and Finance Old GM plants could become new Tesla factories

In a "60 Minutes" interview, Elon Musk indicated that he could be interested in buying manufacturing facilities that GM is taking out of service and using them to build Tesla vehicles. That could be a stretch -- getting the factory floor right is such an imporant issue that Honda has built an entire production ethos out of it -- but Tesla is growing fast, and recycling an old facility might be a way to ramp up production in a hurry. Certainly it would represent a moment of creative destruction. (But, wow, does Elon Musk ever need a sidekick -- like a Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett or a Paul Allen to his Bill Gates.)

Broadcasting Another new owner for WGN-AM in Chicago?

WGN, currently owned by Tribune Media, is the only radio station in the organization. And Tribune Media is now on track to become part of Nexstar Media Group. So instead of dealing with the outlier (the rest of Tribune Media consists of 42 television stations and some networks), Nexstar may just spin off the legendary AM station. And rumor has it that Cumulus, which owns crosstown rival station WLS, may be interested in buying.

News What's the point of assigning gender colors to toys?

If you're boxing kids into artificially gender-specific toys, you're probably stifling their creative play.

Business and Finance What is a company without any assets?

Any time an investor hears a phrase like "asset-light, high-margin alternative partnerships and services", he or she should wonder...what's the limit to that asset-lightness? And if some assets are going to be required no matter what, then who's going to make the profits off them? People say a lot of silly things in business as a means of trying to obscure what they're really doing or attempting to cover for their own foibles. At some point or another, assets have to belong to somebody -- even if they're inconveniently low-margin.

News The criminal charges resulting from the Mueller special counsel investigation

This documentation of the facts is a legitimate public service, as is the investigation itself. The sentencing memos for Michael Cohen reveal that something awfully rotten has been swirling around the President and his team since long before the 2016 election, and it's well worth remembering the words of Calvin Coolidge: "It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation."

Business and Finance Do markets have morals?

The markets themselves? No. They're just functions of nature -- like the tides. But: The relationship between market freedoms and the broader Enlightenment vision of humanity should be on a lot of minds these days. You cannot secure real liberty without capitalism, but capitalism is utterly precarious without a sense of honor and virtue. They are co-dependent features of a (classically) liberal worldview.

Science and Technology Simulating surname extinction

How many generations does it take for a surname to die out? Given our patrilineal approach to surnames, it depends on how many male offspring each generation produces on average. If you're not averaging 1.05, your name is in trouble.

Threats and Hazards Only the moderate Congressional Republicans lost in November

Per the Pew Research Center: "Among the Republican House incumbents who lost their re-election campaigns, 23 of 30 were more moderate than the median Republican in the chamber". That isn't a commendation for extremism: It's a really bad sign for the functional health of one of the two major parties in America.

News "Who is going to pay?"

A thought-provoking take on municipal leadership from Alain Bertaud: "This focus on 'a vision' emphasizes top-down control, when the job of a mayor should really revolve around indicators that emerge from the bottom up."

Health Sudoku won't save your brain

There's lots of evidence that mental activity in one's early and young-adult years has a positive effect on the survival of one's faculties into old age. But crossword puzzles and Sudoku aren't the silver bullet.

Humor and Good News Police officer scales building like Spider-Man to save family from burning condo

The story (with body-cam video) will absolutely set your hair standing on end.

Computers and the Internet Technology depends on people who think about how it is used

Predictive algorithms everywhere are good at picking up the clues at things like who might be pregnant. But what about making those systems humane enough to realize when something has gone wrong?

Threats and Hazards It matters whether your allies are monsters

In an interview with Reuters, the President says he still stands beside Mohammed bin Salman, despite the evidence that he was directly responsible for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Values-free transactionalism is no way to run a foreign policy. We're not selling a used car on Craigslist. If our values don't matter for something, then we're just selling our alliance to the highest bidder.

This week

Make money

Have fun

Clean up after yourself

Mind your business

Quote of the Week

Your role in cyberwar

Iowa news

Contrary to popular opinion

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

Curiosity, competence, and humility

Have a little empathy

Inbox zero

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Tin Foil Hat Award

Yay Capitalism Prize

Capitalist solution of the week

40 observations

  1. Family+ is the most important thing in life.
  2. Family+ includes the family of your birth and upbringing, but also the family you choose through marriage and other close ties. Your true "family-plus" is anyone to whom you would donate a kidney without a second thought.
  3. As you get older, you need the friends who knew you when you were young.
  4. Kids deserve loving, engaged adults in their lives.
  5. Time is the most valuable thing. It is totally democratic, totally egalitarian, and it always expires.
  6. Beliefs and values matter, but heterodoxy beats orthodoxy. Don't be afraid of an idea just because you don't like its source. Sample ideas from everywhere, consider them with an open mind, and don't be afraid to adopt the good ones, even when they surprise you.
  7. Decisions usually last longer than you expect. We devote too little time to teaching people how to make good decisions. Decision-making is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.
  8. The time to start correcting a mistake is the moment you realize it exists.
  9. It's fun to be part of a team. Being part of any group can feel good -- but in the end, we're all just people. Never let your membership in any group diminish your respect for the intrinsic humanity of other people.
  10. Chicago-style deep dish is the best type of pizza.
  11. Most people are trying to do their best for themselves and their families. Incompetence is everywhere, including most places where it looks like malice. Give people the benefit of the doubt until you have no choice otherwise.
  12. Travel is better than most material things.
  13. There is no substitute for caring about your own health.
  14. Nobody knows enough. The smartest people are the ones who realize their own limitations exist.
  15. Learning should never stop. A diploma is not a destination.
  16. Choosing the right industry at the right time beats most other paths to material success.
  17. Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you.
  18. Stretch. Moisturize. Wear sunscreen.
  19. "Airplane!" is the funniest movie of all time.
  20. Learn self-defense. Mercy is a privilege of the strong, and it's far better to know your own strength and restrain it than to live in fear. The people who are least merciful are usually the biggest cowards.
  21. Everyone should read more books.
  22. Everyone is a prisoner of some widely-held ideas that will later prove to be backwards or wrong. Humility is always in order. The best way to clarify thinking is to put it in writing.
  23. The best characteristics of a leader are curiosity, competence, and humility.
  24. Technology is merely a set of tools. Whether the tools are used well or not depends on the character of the user. It's a failure to teach people how to use tools without also teaching them ethics.
  25. Clean up after yourself.
  26. The most important idea to emerge from Western philosophy is the dignity of the individual.
  27. It's impossible to be unhappy at a Mexican restaurant.
  28. Even weak ink will outlast a good memory.
  29. If you're going to do something more than once, and there are more than three steps involved, make a checklist.
  30. Young or old, everyone needs friends who differ from them in age, background, faith, and perspective.
  31. What's urgent shouldn't displace what's important.
  32. Warm weather is nice, but nothing beats seeing the seasons change.
  33. Tall trees are the best.
  34. Always save a backup.
  35. Like love, respect multiplies as it is given freely.
  36. Phil Collins is a musical genius.
  37. Everyone needs at least one good mentor to help them through early decisions in a career.
  38. "Do what you love and the money will follow" is really bad advice. Whatever you do, find something that you love about it.
  39. Enjoy the journey. You never know when it might end.
  40. Process matters exactly as much as results. Do right things, and do them the right way.


Is this a jerk question?


Health Know your expertise

Not everything is a matter worthy of a survey. That includes whether something is a good immunooncology biomarker.

One year ago

Five years ago

Ten years ago

Programming notes

Live read: iHeartRadio app

iHeartRadio app

Live read: Contests

Live read: Smart speakers (hour 1)

Smart speakers

Live read: Smart speakers (hour 2)

Smart speakers

Calendar events to highlight


Listen on-demand