Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - May 4, 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.

Breaking news to watch

Segment 1: (11 min)

BUT FIRST: The opening essay

I spent a lot of this past week on the road, on jobsites and in hotels, at restaurants and outlet malls, in truck stops and in Post Offices.

In one encounter in particular, a guy lamented a trainee he once had following him around on the job. He said this trainee didn't just lack initiative, they had its precise opposite -- like an allergy to doing "heavy lifting" on the job, or anywhere else in life.

When you spend a lot of time with people from all walks of life, like I did this past week, you gain an appreciation for a number of things: Most people are trying to do their best, even if they're not always sure how to do it, or where ultimately it will end up. I think of the hotel front-desk clerk who told me about his transition from being a second-generation Marine to an entry-level worker in the hospitality sector. That's a massive course change, and yet, that's his story, no matter how unexpected it might seem. Or there's the field technician who spends his weeks jetting all over the country to break open his tool kit and fix things, but who had to get back home to run his annual town hall meeting.

These kinds of encounters reminded me how much I want to live ina world where peope who show up, follow some basic rules of civilized behavior, and do an honest day's work, can live a life that is clean, dignified, and free of trouble imposed by others.

Yet I also know that there is no such thing as meaningful progress without constant improvement by most huamn beings at the things we do. Machines can help us with all kinds of work, and the occasional genius will come along and revolutionize things without a whole lot of warning. And yet nothing moves us forward as a civilization quite like incremental improvements, compounding themselves year-over-year. The magic of compounding returns is nothing new; it's certainly the cornerstone of many great success stories -- like Warren Buffett's.

The question that bugs me is: "How can we do our best to set up that world where the person who agrees to show up and get to work can live that decent quality of life...while at the same time keeping us accountable and on the run just enough that we get mass buy-in to the need for continuous improvement?"

When you think of driving on the road, it's fair to note that incremental improvements -- like air bags and better vehicle designs -- have had a positive effect on saving us from a whole lot of road deaths. But the average driver isn't getting better, by my observation. In fact, many are substantially more distracted than they were a decade ago. Blame smartphones

When you combine better tools with better training, then you get much, much better results. Think of passenger aircraft. The airplanes keep improving technically (save for the occasional glitch, like with the 737 Max), and so do the pilots, who have to undergo ongoing training and simulator tests. Those factors combined mean air travel is almost incomprehsibly safe.

Doing both -- keeping the way clear for big advances, while insisting that everyone do their part to get a little bit better all the time -- is a mammoth challenge. Getting better means a lot of different things to different people -- it might be doing the same job, but faster. Or taking the same time, but doing it much better. Or doing it at the same quality, but with fewer resourcees. Or just simply doing a better job.

In the end, though, we don't just want to do those things. We have to.

The moral of the story:

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #1

Segment 2: (8 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #2

Totally Unnecessary Debate of the Day

Computers and the Internet Facebook tests a "secret crush" tool

There are ample reasons to wonder about the wisdom of this tool -- the prospects for bullying, the risk of inadvertent exposure, and so on -- but from a cultural standpoint, the biggest worry ought to be that people are too afraid of rejection. It's good to be comfortable with hearing the word "No". If everyone's so gun-shy about being rejected (romantically or otherwise), when will anyone but a handful of nuts ever embark on ventures that just might not work?

The moral of the story: A little rejection isn't fatal

Segment 3: (14 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #3

Make money

Business and Finance What could Berkshire Hathaway buy?

With well over $100 billion in ready cash, the company could buy just about any other business most people could imagine. But, please, not at the expense of becoming undisciplined.

Have fun

Clean up after yourself

Business and Finance "If something is worth having, it's worth paying for"

We are in grave danger of using every possible (unjustified) justification for over-spending and under-taxing, right past the point where the Federal debt is utterly unsustainable.

News Pay for your wants

There are millions of infrastructure projects quite legitimately worth doing. They are worth doing for their own sake, and worth spending prudently to have. But much of real infrastructure goes unseen and unheralded because it's not "roads and bridges". At the state and local level, bonding very reasonably amortizes costs over the long term -- but those bonds are specific. They aren't vague materializations of promises for "stimulus", which too often animate "infrastructure" talks at the national level.

Mind your business

Threats and Hazards "Trump followed with a tweet celebrating his current steel tariffs"

His simple-minded adherence to ham-fisted economic policies (like tariffs on basic materials) is insulting to the world and damaging to the economy. His abject refusal to listen to the counsel of the Senate on this issue is indicative of a mind so set in its ways that it has none of the flexibility required to handle serious challenges in real time.

The moral of the story:

Segment 4: (5 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #4

Iowa news

Weather and Disasters Floodwaters spill into Davenport

After a whole lot of flooding in western Iowa, now the Mississippi is attacking eastern Iowa

Quote of the Week

News "What will I do with my borrowed time?"

The rabbi who survived the terrorist attack near San Diego poses a thought-provoking sentiment. People should not have to fear terrorism in their peaceful houses of worship. Not here, and not anywhere.

The moral of the story: Bad things are going to happen in life. It makes sense to think of any time we get as a gift that comes with an expiration date.

Segment 5: (11 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #5

Technology Three | The week in technology

Science and Technology Are electric scooters worth the head injuries?

A study in Austin, Texas, found a rate of 20 individuals injured per 100,000 electric scooter trips taken, and that "Almost half of the injured riders in this study sustained an injury to the head." Almost nobody wears helmets on the scooters, which travel up to 15 mph. While "micro-mobility" might very well help to alleviate conventional road traffic, it's not cost-free if it results in a head injury for every 10,000 rides taken. Maybe that's an acceptable level of risk, but it's an unintended consequence that has to be considered. Always expect unintended consequences.

News New and unimproved signage

The message boards at Grand Central Station are changing away from the classic look (though not the mechanical frailty) of the Solari board (a/k/a "split-flap display"). The "old-time look" of the split-flap style proves that less is more; there's far more visual clutter to the new look, and it serves no self-evident purpose.

Computers and the Internet Long overdue, Facebook and Instagram demote a few dopes

A few propagandists and conspiracy theorists who exploit loopholes in the social-media structures are being throttled on Facebook and Instagram. Infowars is getting booted rather broadly from both platforms, while Alex Jones, Louis Farrakhan, and others are being personally banned from the platforms. Social-media sites simply cannot be neutral conduits for content; they have to make choices about what content is appropriate for delivery. Broad deference to individual freedom ought to be the norm, but the services cannot long survive pretending like they aren't making choices about what suits the communitities they're trying to create. If they don't, they can't really take advantage of network effects, and without network effects, social networks fail.

The moral of the story: Always consider the unintended consequences. Just having the humility to accept that you can't foresee everything is an unusual trait.

Segment 6: (8 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #6

By the numbers

Business and Finance What's "affordable" housing, anyway?

Data research finds that a person making $100,000 a year can't afford to live within an hour of San Francisco. And even an hour's drive doesn't afford many additional options. At this point, it's unclear why people aren't anchoring giant cruise ships off the coast, renting out the cabins, and offering shuttle service into the Bay Area.

The moral of the story: Perversely enough, the people with the most to gain from a tech bubble are the landlords in high-rent districts.

Segment 7: (14 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #7

Hyperbole is going to kill us all

Threats and Hazards "Civilizational warfare" is just nonsense

The idea that an epic clash between the United States and China is somehow culturally inevitable forgets some really important evidence. To wit: Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Read "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley, and come to appreciate that there is a long and misguided history of treating the western Pacific as too remote and exotic for peaceful coexistence with "the West". Unfortunately, the narrative is oversimplified and altogether too satisfying for those who depend on having an "other" in order to have a self-identity. And when those types are in power, that puts our well-being in danger.

Have a little empathy

Threats and Hazards Venezuelan forces turn violence on demonstrators

Margaret Thatcher once said, "Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose." Maduro makes a choice. So do his backers. Violence denies the people of that choice.

Stop the deliberate ignorance

News The problem with utopianism -- in all its forms

Always believe in the process of trying to make things better. Never believe that there is a perfect end state to be achieved.

Tin Foil Hat Award

News "An alleged Russian spy whale is refusing to leave a Norwegian port city"

As Dan Drezner put it, "Season Three of 'Occupied' is getting pretty weird." If you haven't watched "Occupied", do see it immediately.

The moral of the story:

Segment 8: (5 min)

Berkshire nugget of wisdom #8

21st Century conservatism

The United States of America Humankind's greatest treasure

Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe individual liberty, rooted in human dignity, is man's greatest treasure. We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism." Of note: This vision of America as a place and an idea worth keeping because of what we believe -- not how strong we fantasize ourselves to be -- is well worth reviving. Better for us to be a redoubt of goodness in the world than to bluster thunderously about our greatness while neglecting our national soul.

The moral of the story: You don't get to choose your parents. You do get to choose your heroes. Choose wisely, and don't be fooled by trappings that only look like power or success. Pick values first, then pick heroes who demonstrate those values in practice.

Unsorted and leftovers:

This week

News Know the real risks (of anything)

When majorities of people in rich and powerful countries don't even understand the basic difference between a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired plant, it's really hard to have legitimate debates about risks and consequences. Facts are stubborn things. But even though we're in the age of "Just Google It" (or maybe exactly because we are), the utterly wrong preconceived notions held by voters may in fact be even more stubborn.

News What buildings do you love?

The question -- posed on social media -- goes to show just how much architecture has a meaningful human effect. Buildings like the Sears Tower and Chrysler Building communicate impressions on young and old alike, but there are a million other, smaller, less-renowned buildings that still have an effect on the people who see them and use them.

Hot (social) topics

Your role in cyberwar

Contrary to popular opinion

Curiosity, competence, and humility

The United States of America Send in the governors!

Montana Governor Steve Bullock is planning to enter the 2020 Presidential race

The United States of America Ceteris paribus, we ought to make Presidents out of governors

With the word spreading that the governor of Montana will be one of the next to put his hat in the ring for President, an observation: The Oval Office doesn't come with a simulator, so from a temperamental and practical standpoint, almost any governor enters the job with better on-the-job training than anyone else. There's no better apprenticeship for the Presidency than to be a governor, since it is after all the same role but at a smaller scale. Close seconds would be those who have served as Vice President (assuming they participated actively in the actual administration of the other Presidency) or as mayor of a very large city (since some of our largest cities are administratively larger than some of our smaller states).

Inbox zero

Yay Capitalism Prize

Capitalist solution of the week


Humor and Good News What kind of nut turns a muscle car into a limousine?

Who on God's green Earth looks at a Dodge Challenger and thinks, "How can I make this thing slower and harder to maneuver?"

Aviation News The O'Hare Event Horizon

Every air traveler from Iowa is familiar with the O'Hare Event Horizon, even if they don't know it. It's the point at which any flight delays would have made it better to have just gotten a rental car and just driven home. O'Hare is notorious for cascading delays that end up wrecking travel and turning an 8:30 pm connection into a 1:30 am drag.

One year ago

Five years ago

Ten years ago

Programming notes

4pm-6pm: Bonnie remote @ Attivo Trail (Waukee)
6:35pm: Barnstormers Pregame
7:05pm-10pm: Iowa Barnstormers vs. Cedar Rapids River Kings

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Calendar events to highlight



Listen to the full episode from May 4, 2019 here

Getting better at what we do is a moral duty. You shouldn't expect to live a better life if you're not carrying your own weight to make things work faster, cleaner, more efficiently, or smarter.

Listen to segment 1

Rejection is good for you, at least once in a while.

Listen to segment 2

We need to do a lot more infrastructure spending in America. But the problem is that some politicians like to use "infrastructure spending" as a way to look like they're stimulating the economy, when we should be treating it like what it is: The necessary price we pay to keep up the things that make civilization possible.

Listen to segment 3

Floodwaters are still pouring into eastern Iowa. And they're not done with western Iowa, either.

Listen to segment 4

Technology Three: Firefox breaks, people are getting a shocking number of head injuries from e-scooters, and Facebook finally demotes a few dopes

Listen to segment 5

I still don't like the recent 10% hike in my property assessment, but it's nothing compared to what's happened in the San Francisco Bay Area, where you could earn $100,000 a year and not even afford rent, much less a mortgage. The weird thing this implies is that it's landlords who benefit most from the big salaries paid in Silicon Valley.

Listen to segment 6

Worrying about the wrong kind of conflict with China. The Secretary of State is warming up for a "clash of civilizations" with China. That's getting it all wrong: We have a ton of differences with their system -- but there's nothing about our way of life that is incompatible with that of the Chinese people. In fact, if we're being honest with ourselves, then we ought to stick to the commitment straight out of the Declaration of Independence that we believe many human rights are "self-evident" and "endowed by our creator"...not subject to change, depending on the continent of your birth.

Listen to segment 7

Will we be a socialist country in 2020? 2040? 2060? Warren Buffett says "No", and I agree. But we shouldn't take chances -- the rising generations need to know why markets and capitalism work for them.

Listen to segment 8