Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - February 16, 2019

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.

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Segment 1: (11 min)

BUT FIRST: The opening essay

I don't make a lot of time for movies or television. I'm not morally opposed to them, but I have a hard time sitting still, and I get bored fairly easily. So a show usually has to do one of two things for me: Either bombard me with laughs or give me a really interesting moral narrative to follow.

Right now, my show for laughs is "Brooklyn Nine-Nine". It's a hundred times funnier than I expected from a buddy-cop show starring a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member best known for idiotic musical sketches like "I'm on a Boat". "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is well-written, it's well-acted, and it's only about 20 minutes an episode, so it's ideal for some entertaining distraction while I'm doing dishes or riding on the exercise bike.

Filling that other role right now -- the show that makes me think -- is "Westworld". You can't really fold laundry while watching "Westworld", you have to be all-in. And that's because it poses the extraordinarily difficult question "What happens if nobody remembers?" I'm not spoiling anything you won't find above the fold on the Wikipedia page for the show when I report that the premise of the show is that it takes place in a futuristic theme park modeled on the Wild West, filled with androids who don't remember anything bad that happens to them…until they do.

I'm only halfway into the first season of the two already produced, and they're gearing up to shoot season three next month, so there's plenty of time for the show to disappoint me. But that question -- "What happens if nobody remembers?" -- is payoff in itself. Is there a crime involved if the victim doesn't remember? Is a crime really "victimless" if it happens behind closed doors where nobody can witness it? Do we have to remember the past in order to enforce rules of good behavior in the present?

"Westworld" may get to treat these like academic questions, but we're getting lessons of them in the real world right now.

Two weeks ago, the smart money would have been on the governor of Virginia no longer being in office by today. But Ralph Northam is still there, even though an old yearbook photo of someone in blackface and someone else in a KKK costume appear on the same page as his name and biography. That yearbook page had gone down a memory hole for 35 years, and now it's back. But if it was only "remembered" for a few days, what happens?

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the day 17 people were murdered in a high school at Parkland, Florida. The anniversary brought out remembrance and tribute stories, including a commemoration of each of the victims by the student journalists of the school newspaper and published in the Miami Herald. And even more sobering is the documentation of nearly 1,200 American kids killed by gun violence in the last 12 months. But once the incidents start to blur together -- Parkland, Santa Fe, Sandy Hook, Columbine -- it's hard to tell whether we "remember" that there is a gun-violence problem in this country, it's a public-health emergency, and there are totally rational steps we could be taking about it. And now, just in the last 24 hours, a whole new mass shooting, not in a school but in a workplace in suburban Chicagoland. And not just any workplace, but a factory that makes a product that is well-known in my industry. I walked right past their booth at our industry convention last October. If it's so easy to forget these incidents, do we have any hope of becoming safer?

And it was just yesterday that the Special Counsel's office at the Department of Justice said it agreed with other parts of the DoJ that Paul Manafort should face an extra stint in prison for lying and breaking his plea deal. Now, they say, the man who was once the head of the President's election campaign should spend two decades in prison for criminal activity. Maybe he thought the crimes were victimless, or that they involved activity too far away from home for them to count. But he, and Roger Stone (under indictment), and Michael Flynn (who pleaded guilty), and Michael Cohen (who pleaded guilty), and others have all found themselves on the business end of the long arm of the law.

I believe in a thing you might call "consequential gravity" -- that what goes up, must come down. Eventually, bad choices and bad behavior come back to haunt. But sometimes it takes 35 years for old racist yearbook photos to resurface and bite a governor in his tail end. Sometimes dirty lobbyists and slimy politicians make millions of dollars before they're caught lying and conspiring to launder money. Sometimes a country remains inert as hundreds of children are killed by a cause that can be reduced if not prevented altogether.

But just like I have confidence that the law will, more often than not, catch up with the lawbreaker, I have to hold out hope that other consequences will catch up with other bad behavior. But, if I'm being consistent, that also means I have to assume that we as a society will eventually pay for the bad behavior we tolerate in our own time.

The idea that our words and our actions have consequences, and that other people do remember, should be a real motivator to do better in our own time. It should trigger each of us to think through the things we might do that are deliberately wrong -- but also the "sins of omission", where we should be doing the right thing but for whatever reason choose to do nothing.

Because, eventually, someone will probably remember. That's what we do. If "Westworld" is right, that may be a big part of what makes us human. And even if we don't control the speed of it, consequences are still subject to a certain law of gravity. They'll come back to Earth.

Segment 2: (8 min)

More snow is coming

Keep in mind before you vote on this that a good two-stage snowblower will easily set you back at least $700 or $800. The only thing you can get for $500 is a single-stage snow-thrower, which is basically useless anywhere north of Interstate 70.

The moral of the story: Robots are coming for our jobs -- and we should be happy to turn some of them over

Segment 3: (14 min)

Clean up after yourself

Guest: IDPH Medical Director and State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati (will call us)



The moral of the story: You have virtually unlimited freedoms as a human being, and we enshrine many of those freedoms in Constitutional law. But the Constitution itself starts with a preamble saying that the Constitution exists to "...provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare...". We live in a world where contagious diseases are not only a risk of the natural world, they can also be weaponized against us as a tool of war.

Segment 4: (5 min)

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

The moral of the story: Nobody with any brains ever said the free market should be free of moral judgment

Segment 5: (11 min)

By the numbers

Farewell, Opportunity rover!

Guest: Emilee Richardson, Science Center of Iowa Director of Marketing and PR (will call us)


Segment 6: (8 min)

Your role in cyberwar

The site produces utterly convincing fake photo-realistic images of human faces.

Go to this page. Get familiar with the idea that computers can and will completely fool you. They can already do it with still images. They'll do it next with video.

And just as fast as we went from flip phones to smartphones, we'll go from this technology requiring special access to being the kind of thing you can do as easily as a Snapchat lens.

The moral of the story: Don't just believe your eyes. Trust, but verify.

Segment 7: (14 min)

Mind your business

Amazon has announced it isn't going to build one of its "HQ2" facilities in New York City anymore. I'm not saying that I totally called it, but I am saying Amazon's decision to ditch NYC is consistent with my analysis from February 9th. Don't be surprised if this is used as leverage to squeeze something more out of Virginia.

If you really want to get nerdy about it, this is what happens when you have monopsony in economic-development incentives at high scale. Amazon is one of the only firms big enough to squeeze cities for the kinds of incentives it ended up being offered. When you're that big as a "buyer", it has many of the same effects as when you have a monopoly as a seller. We're told Amazon isn't looking for another location, but don't be surprised if this is used as leverage to squeeze something more out of Virginia, where they're locating the other "HQ2".

It's dangerous for the national economy (or any local economy) to be so beholden to big companies demanding incentives that we think big is always "best". We're in a strange spot right now: There's mounting evidence that unless your community has an agglomeration economy, where the types of people who cluster there end up creating competitive advantages for the community at large, then it may be dangerously likely to stagnate in the future. And it's hard to become an agglomeration economy without scaling up and having something like a research university as a hub of activity. (For more on this, go back to our interview last year with Ryan Avent about his book "The Wealth of Humans".)

That's a serious issue for Central Iowa to consider -- is ISU close enough to the Des Moines economy for the entire metro to get the juice it needs? Are we so dependent upon financial services that our fortunes are more in the hands of the unfeeling national economy than the destiny of our own choices?

The moral of the story: These are debates we ought to be having out loud if we want our hometown to remain a great place to live for decades to come.

Segment 8: (5 min)

Stop the deliberate ignorance

Every partisan thinks they're giving unlimited powers to their own George Washington or Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen in "The West Wing") or James Marshall (Harrison Ford in "Air Force One"). Nobody appreciates that it's the same thing as giving those powers to a drunk Richard Nixon or a JFK on pain pills or an FDR who's running off to see his mistress.

Madison would be astonished to see his Constitutional order undermined by timidity. We're supposed to hold the system together through tension among and between the branches of government -- not by meekness and fealty.

Opposing this feckless drift into an executive-driven order is no more and no less about opposing President Trump's specific border-wall issue than it is about opposing President Obama's affinity for executive orders. Or a future President Elizabeth Warren's nationalization of any business too big for her tastes. Or a President Cory Booker imposing mandatory veganism. Or a President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declaring a national emergency to redirect military funds to building solar panels because of climate change.

This is a political land-grab of dangerous proportions. Not to mention, quite literally a real-estate land-grab, too.

The moral of the story: Love the border wall or hate it, it doesn't matter. If the President gets to subvert the express will of Congress because it's politically expedient for him, then we lack the very "rule of law" that he so often (mis-)uses as a hammer with which to beat migrants. Our whole system of law depends on precedent, and if he gets away with this precedent, he's paving the way eventually for something you'll hate.

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Programming notes

SATURDAY: 4pm-7pm: Iowa MBB at Rutgers

SUNDAY: 11:45am-2:30pm: Iowa WBB vs. Maryland

MONDAY: 9am-9:30am: Jeff Angelo @ Capitol for “The Peoples Press Conference” with Gov. Reynolds

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