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December 9, 2023

Business and Finance The flag-waving sales pitch

Americans who watched any amount of mainstream commercial television in the 1980s likely grew familiar with the name of Victor Kiam, who "liked the [Remington] shaver so much, I bought the company". He became a household name strictly by virtue of his salesmanship on behalf of an electric shaver -- not for gossip-page theatrics, nor for having a seat on a game show for entrepreneurship. Television commercials alone did the trick. ■ Kiam may have had a gift for the sales pitch, but there was an earnestness about his style that stands out. "A company must be honest and it must insist that its representatives be honest", he wrote. "Some hyperbole is expected in any pitch, but never promise anything that you can't deliver. If you do, you may get the order this time, but you'll never get another." ■ It's jarring to contrast that flavor of rule-conscious enthusiasm with the words of Elon Musk, 2023's most famous entrepreneur, who goes on vulgar tirades against advertisers and keeps moving the target date for his plans to colonize Mars, while amplifying antisemitic social-media posts from his own giant platform. ■ Victor Kiam's style was shaped by Cold War sensibilities, which above all included the perpetual existential threat of Communist aggression. The shadow of that threat may have created an environment in which Kiam could write, again in self-evident earnest, "If you're a sales clerk who thinks he's wasting away on a mundane job, find your self-esteem. You are a vital cog in the free-enterprise system. You are the public representative of thousands of entrepreneurs whose products are sold in your store." ■ Those words are, in fact, no less true today than they were in 1986. All of them. But today we see a "Target run" as an exercise in "retail therapy", not an act of freedom-loving defiance against the godless Communists in the Kremlin. ■ Only a bona fide lunatic would want to bring back the Cold War. But we ought not to lose sight of the fact that freedom still isn't universal, nor that some of the world's most heavily-armed militaries belong to some of the world's most awful regimes. Having the Soviet Union around back then to define a stark geopolitical contrast may have been convenient to how we organized a certain American worldview, but that only serves to underline why business and entrepreneurship and values need to be consciously stitched together in the public mind today.

December 8, 2023

News Pearl Harbor Day still matters for peace

It is believed that only one survivor of the USS Arizona is still alive today, 82 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The passage of time means that only a few years remain until no first-hand memories of that day remain, and yet America continues to mark the dreadful attack and its 2,403 victims, as well we should. ■ Commemorating the events of that day doesn't whitewash the Allied conduct of the war that ensued, which included merciless bombing campaigns against places like Dresden and Tokyo. Nor does it subtract from the deeply productive friendly peace constructed after the war, which made Japan the world's fourth-largest economy and created an alliance regarded now as the "cornerstone of U.S. security interests in Asia". ■ The opposite is more likely to be true: Honest remembrance serves as a reminder why an international friendship built on common values is preferable to destructive hostility. It may also be the case that it helps to illustrate why wars must sometimes be brought to painful but decisive conclusions. ■ Perhaps, in the extreme case, an aggressor must be brought not to a stalemate but to a crushing defeat before rebuilding can begin. What would have happened had Japan (and Germany) been merely contained into a ceasefire, rather than compelled into unconditional surrender? Detente may have prevailed in the subsequent decades, but we cannot be certain that anything like friendship might have resulted. ■ Remembering the past -- including the shortcomings, foibles, and even the atrocities committed by all sides -- is how we remind ourselves that humans and our endeavors are never perfect, but that we have choices about the directions in which we choose to strive. We can drive toward what we know to be good, or we can run away from it. Only when we know that our choices will have consequences, and possess the certainty that those consequences will be remembered, do we begin to hear the necessary voice of conscience that compels us to move in the right direction, however imperfectly.

December 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards There are settled questions

There are times when hair-splitting is appropriate, or even expected. If you're protesting a ticket in traffic court, haggling over the value of a used car, or contesting the property-tax valuation of your home, then a certain amount of cleverness about definitions and distinctions is basically the American Way. ■ But there are some settled questions in the world: Slavery is wrong. Freedom of conscience is good. Intimidation through violence is wrong. Government by the consent of the governed is good. ■ Among those settled matters, it should be easy to denounce genocide. That some prominent university presidents couldn't say so in testimony before Congress is disgraceful. It's not the kind of question that ought to require cleanup statements after the fact. ■ Congressional testimony can be fraught; it's a crime to lie to Congress, but it isn't a crime for members of Congress to grandstand. That sets up an imbalance of both power and incentives, but that imbalance shouldn't become an invitation to skirt the certitude of settled questions. ■ There aren't very many of those, and free-ranging inquiry is (and ought to remain) a hallmark of America's world-best system of higher education. But without at least a handful of boundaries that dare to declare some ideas off-limits, it becomes impossible to harvest the benefits of a liberal education. The mass murder of an entire group of people is quite easily one of those ideas that is indisputably out-of-bounds, and it shouldn't take an uncomfortable do-over to say so.

December 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet The right to repair your laptop

One of the most impressive displays at the Iowa State Fair each year is the collection of old tractors painstakingly restored by members of the FFA. Even dyed-in-the-wool city kids can appreciate the remarkable transformations performed on rusty old machines that end up looking quite literally as good as new. ■ The idea of working on one's own machinery is so deeply embedded in farming culture that tractor owners went to legal war with John Deere over the "right to repair" their own equipment. No manufacturer has a bigger brand in farming than Deere, but even they couldn't stop owners from securing a legal right to turn their own wrenches. ■ Computers are a different story. In their countless forms, they are ubiquitous in modern life -- and even though there's a lot that can be done on a smartphone, almost every American household has some kind of laptop or desktop computer (92% had at least one in 2018). ■ But computing skills don't extend very far into "right to repair" territory. Most people know how to do their specific tasks, many know how to conduct routine updates, and a few have the skills to dive into sophisticated settings. But almost nobody outside of a Linux users group knows anything about how to build an operating system. ■ This means that computer users are largely at the mercy of their operating system suppliers: Microsoft (with probably two-thirds of the personal computers in use), Apple in a distant second, with Google and various Linux teams far behind. Thus, it ought to be thunderous news that Microsoft has set an end-of-support date for Windows 10 on October 14, 2025. ■ In its own words, just 22 months from now, "Microsoft will no longer provide bug fixes for issues, security fixes for vulnerabilities, time zone updates, or technical support for problems that might occur." While Microsoft is offering updates to Windows 11, a huge number of computers don't meet the minimum hardware requirements to make the leap, and Microsoft's advice that "now is the time to transition to new PCs running Windows 11" is easier said than done. ■ This is bound to result in cybersecurity problems on a massive scale. Devices running operating systems outside of their supported service lives are a major known vulnerability, and the obsolescence of Windows 10 is bound to hit especially hard. That's because the computers that cannot make the leap to Windows 11 because of hardware limitations will tend to be in the hands of users who are less able to afford new machines. ■ The dangers are bound to be plentiful, and there isn't an obvious solution unless Microsoft reneges on its plan and decides to treat ongoing basic security support for Windows 10 as a matter of national cybersecurity infrastructure. But that's not their business model, and unless the Federal government intervenes -- perhaps with a "right to repair" for operating systems -- we're likely headed for some dangerous sailing ahead.

December 3, 2023


There is a certain art to putting a name on an educational activity. Workshop sessions, non-fiction books, and YouTube how-to videos all get a boost when their creators come up with catchy titles that pique the curiosity of the prospective audience and promise to satisfy. ■ Curiosity becomes currency in those situations where people have the freedom to choose among different experiences. And when a subject is already in circulation as a popular topic, it's a time-honored practice to find a "news hook" and latch an old topic to whatever is new and current. ■ In that sense, college professors -- often in an implicit contest against their peers to get the marginal student to register for a course (or even a major) that demonstrates the lecturer's value to the community -- can't truly be blamed for turning shameless about their class proposals. ■ That notwithstanding, some courses are clearly the academic equivalent of fan service: Not really expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but good for putting some churn through the registrar's office. And Harvard has one of those coming up in the spring: "English 183ts. Taylor Swift and Her World". ■ Swift is a huge cultural influence in 2023. She makes bundles of money -- maybe $4 billion on her "Eras" tour alone. Her music is played endlessly. She is the biggest name in attendance at NFL games. ■ But it costs $54,269 to pay for one year of Harvard undergraduate tuition (implying a value of about $5,000 for a three-semester-hour course), and a Taylor Swift-themed deep dive could be accomplished in an ambitious full-day seminar on a Saturday. Maybe it's all just a ploy, and the heavy hype of the class title is really just a ruse to lure registrations from students who don't realize they're really in for a whole lot of poetry with merely a veneer of Swiftie fandom. But that, too, would be a problem if it were really all that much bait-and-switch. ■ College should be at least some fun, and a good undergraduate course of study ought to include a couple of hours devoted to niche subjects. That makes us well-rounded. But niche doesn't have to drift into full-blown frivolity. Balance matters everywhere, and sometimes a song is just a song. Sober-minded people ought to try to keep it that way.

December 2, 2023

Broadcasting Jack Welch was wrong

As head of General Electric, Jack Welch famously embraced a policy of purging the giant company of the bottom 10% of employees each year. This policy, which required "forced ranking" of the employees, has some superficial appeal to those who like the language of ruthless competition in business. ■ But while Welch's "vitality curve" concept can trace some of its origins to the well-known and widely-applicable Pareto principle (otherwise known as the 80/20 Rule), turning it into an HR regime is an arbitrary choice. ■ Welch called it "candor", but for the process to be any good, the ranking mechanism has to be right, the assessments need to be accurate, and above all, the lowest-ranked employees would need to be under-performing through their own fault. ■ Anyone who has worked under a bad manager, gone through a sloppy training session, or been the customer-facing representative of a product or process going through a quality-control crisis on the back end, knows that under-performance can easily turn out to be a systemic failure rather than a personal one. ■ The 10% culling value is arbitrary, and it gets in the way of the much more important task: Consciously getting rid of people whose behavior is toxic. A good institution has expectations of behavior that are independent of performance metrics. ■ A person like George Santos should be expelled from Congress not for being a "bottom 10% performer", but for being an obviously malignant presence. He could have passed all the bipartisan laws under the Sun and conducted the world's most flawless constituent service, and still deserved expulsion for being crooked. ■ It takes a lot to get Congress to undertake an expulsion; it's happened only three times since the Civil War. But maybe it should happen more often; voters generally have a right to the representation they choose, but lack of fealty to the Constitution and shameless engagement in bribery ought to be compelling grounds for disqualification from office. ■ Taking action on toxic behavior isn't a matter of performance thresholds, be they 10%, 25%, or 2%. Lots of people can have their skills improved so that early underperformance can be transformed into later success. But too many people are good at getting jobs done but doing good work in a bad spirit. Good managers ought to be on the lookout for ways to purge contemptible behavior without delay.

December 1, 2023

News A possible model for local voting

In November, many American communities held local elections for city councils and school boards. And while some places have succumbed to the temptation to turn those campaigns into referenda on tired national themes, local offices are still often filled on the basis of real community-level issues and individual candidate merit. ■ A simple heuristic for choosing good candidates might look something like this, in descending order of importance: Eliminate radicals from consideration; don't let foxes guard henhouses; favor real stakeholders in outcomes before self-promoters; favor independents over squads; seek balance with some gentle tension; steer clear of single-issue candidates; and, look for those with reputational equity at risk. ■ It should be obvious why radicals of all stripes should be eliminated from contention. And it should also be fairly clear why single-issue candidates are toxic, too: Any office of any importance will face a range of issues over the course of a normal term of office, and if someone runs as the standard-bearer for just one issue, they're depriving voters of the information needed to make an informed judgment about trusting them with many other decisions. ■ The problem of letting foxes guard henhouses is especially acute where labor unions are involved; teachers' unions (and other public-sector unions) often have very strong feelings about which candidates they want seated in office, yet the conflict of interest that creates should be just as obvious as the one that would exist if, say, a landlord leased a district all of its school buildings and wanted a seat on the school board. ■ For similar reasons, those who run independently -- as long as it's done in good faith, rather than "against everybody" -- ought to win a few marks over those who run in squads. As it's often been said: If everyone is thinking alike, then not everyone is thinking. ■ Some people run for local offices as an obvious springboard to higher offices, and while some of them bring high energy and expansive talent, it's better to find real stakeholders who plan to stick around long enough to experience the consequences of their own choices over the long run. Likewise, the person who has earned reputational equity outside of running for office ought to generally be a better bet than the fresh face without a known track record; the person who has already built a name as a pillar of the community has more to lose by going wrong than the person who could just as easily move down the road without losing anything. ■ And, in most group settings, better decisions are reached if there is some gentle tension in place among competing interests or those with different perspectives. Good decision-making often depends more on avoiding knowable errors than on achieving routine consensus. It's more likely that those errors will be rooted out if some natural healthy disagreement is represented at the table as a matter of course.

The United States of America A seat on the bench

The 19th Amendment, securing the right of American women to vote, had not yet been ratified law for a full ten years by the time Sandra Day O'Connor was born in March 1930. The amendment was long overdue, of course; John Adams received a letter from Abigail in 1776, pleading with him that "in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors". ■ When John dismissed her entreaty, Abigail Adams retaliated: "[W]hilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken". Adams has been retroactively assessed as one of our highest-IQ Presidents and he respected the intellect of his own wife, yet even he was shackled to the knuckle-dragging chauvinism prevalent in his day. ■ It should not have taken 131 years to correct the omission of women's suffrage from the Constitution, nor should it have taken 192 years to seat the first woman on the Supreme Court. (About 100 men were seated before Justice O'Connor.) ■ But in the course of striving towards "a more perfect union", someone has to be the first to make a breakthrough -- though many others end up sharing the sense of disenchantment that comes from suffering under the lingering imperfection. On the occasion of Justice O'Connor's passing, it is worth noting how many rights were secured (by amendment, statute, or court ruling) in or near her lifetime. ■ It is even more important to note how public opinion has made colossal strides in a "more perfect" direction during the same window of time. Whether we like it or not, public opinion is the ultimate guarantor of rights in any society. Any gains made in rules written on paper can be torched in practically an instant; just ask any well-known country with a constitution written after O'Connor became a lawyer. It is often good to change the law, but there is no substitute for changing hearts and minds as well.

November 29, 2023

News Charlie Munger, underrated philosopher

It seems unlikely that self-regarding academics will give Charlie Munger so much as a footnote in the serious records of philosophy. That is a shame in a moral sense, and it may also come to be regarded someday as a consequential oversight. ■ Munger, who has passed away after 99 years, didn't write dense treatises on the nature of existence that people lie about having read, nor was he tortured by questions about existence and transcendence. He was unapologetically a person of business, commerce, and markets. And, aside from a handful of lectures and long-form interviews, he was known mostly for pithy observations that could fit on the back of a business card. ■ But what Munger did, better than anyone else of his or our time, was to make the case for putting rationality in service of virtuous behavior. The order of those words is important: Some people try to logically deduce behavioral rules from logical foundations -- think, for instance, of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. ■ The less-rigid philosophy of which Munger was so vocally a proponent says, instead: "If you've exposed yourself to enough of history, then you probably have a fair sense of intuition about what's right and what's wrong. Follow that, because a logical assessment of the consequences will support following that intuition." ■ His most memorable comments were generally shorter than that. They came in the form of maxims like, "Rationality is a moral duty" and "It's dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be. That's my ethos. You have to be generous, too." He advised that "A lot of places work better when they operate with a high degree of earned trust" and "The way to get a good spouse is to deserve one. The same thing goes with a partnership in business. If you behave yourself correctly, it's amazing how well it works." ■ The thing that stands out about these pronouncements is that Munger wasn't speaking in abstractions or burying his thoughts in complicated jargon ("You shouldn't assume that just because the language is highfalutin, it's better."). He was speaking as a billionaire who continued working into his 99th year of life. ■ And he used his platform, as an indisputable winner under (and proponent of) the capitalist system, to say that there was no excuse for a capitalist not to deliberately seek to be good and to consciously behave with honor. His innovation, in a sense, was to say that good behavior was virtually always logical behavior, and quite usually profitable behavior, too. That sort of message is pretty vital if we think that markets are going to continue (which they will) and that people need to hear messages from credible sources (which he was). ■ You don't get to pick your ancestors, but you can always choose the people who influence your thinking. And any of us could do a whole lot worse than to pick Charlie Munger as one of those influences.

November 26, 2023

Science and Technology As the blades turn

There is an oft-recited axiom in business that Google's one-time CEO Eric Schmidt touted as, "Revenue solves all known problems". It's not exactly true; no scale of revenues was going to fix the catastrophic reputational implosion of Arthur Andersen after the Enron disaster, just for example. But under most circumstances, revenue is an elixir for most problems. It may not always be the singular solution, but it is rarely unimportant to the remedy. ■ In society at large, the closest analog is probably energy. It may not be the solution to every problem, but there aren't many problems that can be seriously addressed without it. ■ Want to remove pollution from the air, soil, or water? Bring energy. Want to run computers harder to solve big problems? Bring energy. Want to build resilience against climate shocks in the food supply? Bring energy. ■ And while it is possible to massively scale up the production of renewable electricity -- Iowa's largest electric utility produced as much renewable energy as its retail customers used in 2022 -- the process takes a long time, a fair bit of luck, and an array of incentives to nudge the decision-making process. Meanwhile, as almost everyone knows, every utility still needs an alternative source of base-load generation that isn't subject to the whims of Mother Nature. ■ Thus it is great news that Illinois is poised to lift a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Build them soon, and build them plenty. ■ If it's really vital that we curtail carbon generation, then whatever can safely expand our supply of energy without dumping new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a net gain for society. It doesn't seem like Illinois is often at the forefront of a positive legislative innovation, but in this case, its leadership should be applauded.

November 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards The pain of liberty denied

There aren't many characters less sympathetic than those who use the vestiges of authority to exact brutality on other people. Thus it is difficult to summon any moral defense for the former police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd "willfully and in callous and wanton disregard of the consequences". ■ But it is a dangerous thing for anyone to celebrate the news of his reported stabbing while in a Federal prison. The point of a rules-driven criminal justice system is that society decides the penalties for bad behavior dispassionately and through an orderly process. No matter how strong our personal feelings about a convict, we shouldn't count on extrajudicial penalties to restore justice. ■ Some people seemingly salivate at the prospect of convicts suffering some kind of additional penalty while behind bars. That may seem satisfying on an emotional level, but it's contrary to the point. ■ Any society can dole out pain and suffering as retribution for breaking the rules. That's no more than a response to basic human motivations -- most of us seek to avoid pain. Every authoritarian regime uses cruelty to make incarceration into a weapon. ■ The fear of being sent to the Gulag wasn't something the Soviet Union employed out of abstract principle. And when China's government uses "threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse, and torture" against political and religious prisoners, it's resorting to the same base motivations. The pain is the point. ■ But free societies have something abstract but enormously valuable to take away from those found guilty of violating the law: They can withdraw personal freedom. To be deprived of freedom in a free society ought to be much more painful (at least psychologically and emotionally) than to be similarly deprived in an unfree state. After all, no one is really free under an authoritarian regime. ■ To lose one's freedom ought to hurt much more than to sleep on an uncomfortable bed or to take a cold shower. If it doesn't, then we should examine why we take liberty so cheaply. And all of that is to say nothing of the knowledge that some non-trivial number of innocent people will be wrongly convicted. ■ How much we value personal liberty -- that is, how much we think it ought to hurt when it's taken away -- is an indication of our civic heath. Prisons don't need to be luxury hotels, but they shouldn't have to rely on cruelty, pain, or the threat of violence to be a deterrent. That's even the case when the convicts themselves are guilty of the most heinous crimes. We have to believe enough in both law and liberty to trust the process.

November 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone

Evidence from a study -- and a replication -- suggests that people would like to hear from old acquaintances who haven't been in touch for some time. This seems consistent with other things we know about people: That we are generally social creatures who thrive on contact with others, that we enjoy reviving interests in things we previously found enjoyable, and that we like to be esteemed enough that others think of us from time to time. ■ Lots of us have friends with whom our only routine one-to-one contact is an annual birthday greeting on Facebook. That once-a-year dopamine hit, while nice and certainly better than nothing, isn't really frequent enough to give an interpersonal relationship the kind of care and feeding it needs. ■ The problem of our time seems to be that the immediacy of digital messages, whether emails or Snapchats or chats, places a sort of deadline pressure on conversations that the old analog ways of communicating did not. It's easier to keep track of a much larger roster of friends and acquaintances online when you don't have to maintain an address book full of street names and ZIP codes, but there's an inevitable awkwardness to the time pressures involved. ■ If an old college buddy pops up with an instant message and they can see that you're online when they send it, then you're under an implicit obligation to respond right away, whether it's to engage fully or to promise to catch up soon. And once two people are engaged in a chat session, there's the eternal question of how to politely call for a time-out. (The medium itself doesn't really matter; it's the same feeling whether the conversation is taking place over text messaging, Facebook Messenger, Twitter direct messages, or anything else -- just like it once was hard to walk away from an AOL Instant Messenger chat.) ■ It's never been more evident that social disconnection has bad consequences. The Surgeon General has even produced a 68-page advisory on the "loneliness epidemic". ■ What seems to be missing is a way to regulate the frequency of contact with others so that it's manageably periodic -- like sending a letter to cross the ocean via steamship once was. Not so prohibitively infrequent that the correspondents forever feel like they're delivering dusty old highlight reels, but not so often that it feels like taking on a whole new appointment task just to engage in a conversation. ■ There are technological solutions available to address the problem, and it would be a real social good to see them implemented in a practical and appealing way. Most of us probably need to keep better track of our friends, and our friends on us. The options to do so ought to be much greater now than they've ever been.

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November 23, 2023

For the last several years, it has been fashionable for news outlets to publish articles about avoiding politics over Thanksgiving dinner. The advice is generally unoriginal and often downright risible. ■ The problem, though, is that boundaries about what not to discuss don't really leave us with much upon which to build. In the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ It can be hard to show gratitude -- even to an abstraction, like the meaning of a country. It can be even harder to show thanks to another individual, especially without it sounding forced or contrived. But we ought to try, and Thanksgiving is the most logical time to start. ■ The rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks once noted, "How tragic it is that we so often keep our gratitude to ourselves, speaking it aloud only when the person to whom we feel indebted is no longer here, and we are comforting his or her mournedrs." And maybe that is the article journalists should be writing instead of "How to avoid politics over turkey": How to thank others constructively.

November 22, 2023

News A new North Star banner

Minnesota is late in the process of selecting a new state flag, having whittled a giant contest down to six finalists. The process is to be completed by a "State Emblems Redesign Commission", authorized by the state legislature, by the end of the year. ■ Opinions, naturally, will vary about the half-dozen finalists under consideration. But every single one of them is a hands-down winner in a head-to-head contest with the current state flag, which is a well-intentioned but unholy mess of a banner. It expressly violates three of the five principles of vexillology (and doesn't do very well on the remaining two). ■ And while two finalists (a double-layered star pattern and a negative-space North Star) are most deserving of selection, the state will in any case end up with a symbol more worthy of its stature. ■ Minnesota is a state of 5.7 million people; if it were an independent country, it would be in the same population weight class with Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Norway, or Slovakia -- all of which have proper, distinctive, and pleasing national flags. ■ We all too often discount the fact that most American states are big enough to have meaningful symbols and recognizable cultures. We're better, of course, bound together in a vast continental union, but even our smallest state still has more residents than Malta, Iceland, or the Bahamas -- each of which has an identity all its own. ■ A flag is merely a symbol, of course, so we shouldn't read too much into any one banner. But to the extent that a state (or even a city) takes itself seriously enough to use symbols that matter and have a meaning worth sharing, that is an indication of valuable self-confidence. ■ In a time when complex problems are all around and civic actions will have at least some bearing on the outcomes, perhaps starting with achievable goals -- like finding a flag worth rallying around -- is what we need most to do.

November 19, 2023

Threats and Hazards Protesters close the Bay Bridge

In the very early 2000s, the widespread adoption of cell phones and Internet access gave rise to the first flash mobs. While some people saw them as nuisances and others saw them as amusing cultural phenomena, it was obvious to at least some people that flash mobs defied conventional security processes: Their very purpose was to evade anticipation. ■ Flash mobs have now been around for 20 years, and yet it often seems as though the people charged with ensuring public security still haven't given them the slightest thought. This came radically into focus with a protest that shut down the Bay Bridge when some 80 protesters stopped their cars -- 29 vehicles in total -- and tossed their keys into the bay before starting their protest. ■ It took hours of work and 250 California Highway Patrol officers to get the bridge back into operation, this at a time when the APEC summit was underway in San Francisco. Some very sober examination will need to take place into why and how such a vital artery could be shut down by such an uncomplicated operation for so long at such a high-security time. ■ But there also needs to be a turning of public opinion, loudly and harshly, against these kinds of consciously disruptive protests. It's not just that they create massive inconvenience for other people (though they do). They create real and severe unintended consequences for innocents, too: The protesters who shut down the bridge put at least three different organ donations at risk. ■ Bridges have been identified with protests at least since the Selma to Montgomery March, with the notorious brutality imposed on peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that protest wasn't about shutting down a bridge; it was about getting to someplace else. ■ It was the violence done by police officers against the protesters in Selma -- and the peaceful persistence of those protesters in defiance of that violence -- that made the bridge significant. Today's protesters -- whether their causes are climate, vaccines, or geopolitics -- need to absorb a message: Shutting down a bridge doesn't confer moral supremacy on a cause.

November 18, 2023

News Take a deep breath

Jacob Levy, who teaches political theory at McGill University, muses, "I would really like inspirational posters and self-help books and so on that instead of advising boldness and seizing the day and going getting it and so on, advised taking a breath, thinking about other people, lowering your voice a little, waiting your turn." ■ A jest, perhaps, but also not a bad idea. We are sometimes lulled into a fairy tale that we can simply expect people to behave better today than in the past through some sort of automated process, as though manners and grace were dominant traits found on a chromosome. In reality, we have to be honest with ourselves: Humans are at the top of the animal kingdom, but we're still animals nonetheless. ■ That means our instincts aren't to put on pants and write well-reasoned letters to the editor. Our instincts are to fight, to reflexively defend our turf, and to pursue those things that look they'll bring us glory (and thus the esteem of the other members of the pack). That's what nature puts into us. It takes a conscious program of nurture to try to tame those animal instincts and turn us into better beings. ■ So, as quaint as it seems, we really do need to amplify those civilized virtues -- patience, consideration, tolerance, accommodation, and many others. We shouldn't expect them to get transmitted by DNA (they won't) nor for them to be passed along without our help (they can't). ■ Inspirational posters and self-help books really might be a part of the mechanism of transmission, but even more important are the other vectors where they compete with the animal instincts: Cultural artifacts like music and movies, classroom lessons and religious lectures, and all the places in life where coaches, teachers, mentors, guides, and (most especially) parents have options about which behaviors are worth summoning, and for what purposes. ■ If we're not deliberate about which of the civilized virtues we cultivate, we shouldn't be surprised if and when some people revert to animal instincts that are better suited to strife and zero-sum games than cooperation and progress. ■ It's easy for the aspirational virtues to sound cloying, sentimental, or over-earnest, especially if they're framed as a return to some kind of mythical past. There is real work to be done in showing how they are suited to very modern behavior in the face of very modern problem -- which they are, even if many of the authors of culture are out of practice in making it seem that way.

November 15, 2023

News Even unelected politicians crave legitimacy

The regime governing China is so far removed from democratic legitimacy that in a country with 691 million women -- more than twice as many females as the United States has people -- it refuses to place even one woman in any of the two dozen seats of its Politburo. A government can be representative without being fully democratic, but China's government is neither. ■ Yet even though the Communist Party directly controls the army -- it is a "party army", rather than one independently loyal to the state -- it still has to show some concern for public perceptions of its legitimacy. A mostly unarmed population might have to struggle to overthrow an armed political party, but there are lots of non-lethal ways people can bring down a government that loses their faith altogether. ■ With a rare summit happening in California between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, CNN's Jim Sciutto observes, "The CCP's and Xi's legitimacy rests on the now crumbling promise they will deliver prosperity in exchange for unbridled power and popular submission to their authority. Xi's 'Chinese Dream' is looking emptier and emptier." ■ Xi has driven China away from the political reforms that might start to confer electoral legitimacy, so that road is closed for the foreseeable future. And 4% to 5% annual GDP growth would feel like a boom if it could be sustained in America, but it's much slower than China's regime has been counting upon for decades. ■ For the 6.7 billion residents of Planet Earth who are not made subject to the rule of the Communist Party of China, it's good to be alert to the turmoil likely to come soon. There's no obvious way to reverse some of the structural problems ahead: The disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic made friend-shoring a (nearly) household word, and the many other hazards of economic entanglement with a country ruled by authoritarianism have made at least some economic decoupling permanent. (No meeting is worth risking an arbitrary detainment or a sudden disappearance.) ■ And if that decoupling means China's economy is up against some hard limits to further growth, there's not a lot else the Communist Party is prepared to offer as an incentive to keep the public from growing restless. If the potential rewards run low, then the risk of the party using force (both brute force and intimidation) grows high. And that simply cannot be sustained indefinitely.

November 14, 2023

News Out in the cold

The city of Chicago, like a number of other major cities, is struggling to deal with the most pressing basic needs of an influx of migrant families. Some 3,000 are living, for now, in Chicago's police stations and airports. The effort to provide even temporary housing has created friction with some existing residents, who see the new arrivals as competitors for scarce social-service resources. ■ The city reports that 21,000 asylum-seekers have been taken in since August 2022, and that more than 12,000 are currently in shelters. Many others have been resettled or "reunited with sponsors". But even with those relief mechanisms, it's still the equivalent of absorbing the population of a small city. ■ The plight is acute, because winter is imminent, and at least 1,500 of those migrants are living in tents with virtually no insulation from the cold. The city is trying to assemble "winterized base camps" in a handful of sites, including a vacant grocery store, using tents large enough to shelter hundreds of people at a time. ■ Chicago had a significant population of homeless people before the arrival of the asylum-seekers. And projects like converting a foreclosed hotel into a temporary shelter for that incumbent population are helpful, but only in limited fashion. ■ The obstacles to speedily delivering safe, low-cost, permanent shelter for 21,000 new arrivals only serve to highlight that the very same obstacles stand in the way of aiding the incumbent residents who needed shelter before them. It should not tax our civic imaginations to such an extreme to figure out how to quickly get (permanent) roofs over heads. ■ Housing will always be a basic human need -- one of the most basic of all. And there will always be events that cause sudden surges in demand for it, from wars to famines to natural disasters. We ought to be clever enough to find replicable solutions that can be set up at low cost, at scale, in a hurry. If those answers can be found -- especially if the price can be brought low -- then other resources can be spent on the much wider range of social services that people in crisis also need.

Computers and the Internet Some Internet journalists need to stay off the Internet

A columnist for a reputable national newspaper has taken to social media to engage in what appears to be an escalatory spiral of conspiracy embrace and hazardous equivalency over health issues and international affairs. The columnist's beat is "technology and Internet culture", so it's perhaps no surprise her exposure to strong-to-extreme views is greater than for most people. ■ That raises potent questions about the prudence of assigning "Internet culture" journalists largely on the basis of youth and perceived closeness to the subject. There is something paradoxically naive to the assumption that the best people to cover Internet culture, such as it is, are the digital natives, rather than those who may otherwise view it with some arm's-length detachment. ■ To be sure, it's possible to over-correct: It would be ridiculous to have someone try to approach Internet culture like some pith-helmeted explorer reporting for the March 1922 issue of National Geographic (right beside Alexander Graham Bell's recollection of the "Prehistoric Telephone Days"). Complete bemused detachment (as rendered by someone like a modern-day Andy Rooney) would seem inauthentic, considering how much time and energy most people devote to their connected activities. ■ But maybe there was some latent value in the training people received as teenagers some thirty years ago, when MTV News and ABC News appeared on different channels, requiring a conscious choice to switch between them. Perhaps that created a reflexive understanding that Kurt Loder wasn't trafficking in the same material as Peter Jennings, and that it was entirely appropriate to shift gears when digesting what one heard from each. That's much harder to do when information is consumed as a non-stop stream (as it is via social media). ■ It's easy to romanticize the past, and it's a tradition nearly as old as civilization to complain about the indiscretions of youth. But particularly for institutions that go to significant lengths to buttress their credibility, it might be wise to bring level heads, clear eyes, and quite possibly an approach consciously designed to avoid the cultivation of celebrity to covering an online "culture" that is scarcely distinguishable from the one experienced by most people every day.

November 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Mindless quotation is like distracted driving

After the widespread arrival of cell phones, it took a while for people to realize the dangers inherent to their use while driving. Mobile phones are tremendously useful tools, but it takes a considerable effort to do the education necessary for people to realize that the seduction of alerts and text messages needs to be tuned out while conducting a vehicle down the road. ■ Laws aren't always the solution. Some things that are bad for us call for awareness more than legislation, either because they demand self-discipline that can't easily be enforced, or because the harms they create are not fully intuitive and highlighting them helps people to see the need for voluntary compliance with good behavior. ■ Just as we collectively have internalized the dangers of texting while driving, we need to internalize the dangers of amplifying provocateurs. There are many running about, and they are responding to a feedback loop of incentives that encourages them to say things of escalating absurdity in their pursuit of attention. Say enough outlandish things to a devoted audience, and it might just land you a show on a disreputable cable channel. ■ Those provocateurs have to be tuned out, not just by people avoiding them in their own news and social-media feeds, but also by those who erroneously believe they are performing a public service by quoting the provocations in order to express revulsion. When, for example, a Presidential candidate espouses an utterly preposterous proposal to lay off half the country's civil service, he is not trying to be taken seriously. He is attempting to be so outlandish as to draw an outlandish response from others. ■ The temptation to point and shout in the direction of outlandishness is strong, but it has to be balanced by the self-discipline to realize that amplifying craziness, even to criticize, still serves to amplify craziness. If an absurdity must be pointed out, it can be done without using the provocateur's words or likeness. When they act in bad faith, the rest of us don't need to go along.

Science and Technology A great storyteller returns

After a hiatus of more than a quarter-century, the remarkable television presenter James Burke has revived -- or, perhaps, appended -- his "Connections" series. The programs did a remarkable job of telling the very non-linear story of science and technology: How seemingly different and widely-separated events and innovations eventually converged to produce unexpected outcomes. ■ Burke's ability to tell a riveting story is brilliant on paper. It is even more fantastic when delivered with a flair for the dramatic on-screen, like his perfectly-timed build-up to a rocket launch. That is a skill set worth celebrating in Burke and cultivating in others. ■ It comes as news to no one that we struggle to keep pace in the social sciences with progress in the technical sciences. A lot of developments come to fruition far before a legal framework is ready to accept them. That imbalance turns some people into Luddites and others into anarchists. ■ But Burke espouses a different view: "You're either optimistic, or you jump off the bridge, and I don't intend to jump off the bridge. The best thing is to stick around and do something." And his storytelling style -- particularly in its embrace of the unexpected, seemingly-random connections that cause changes in nothing like a linear fashion -- is a great model to embrace. ■ Nobody can know it all, and that's just fine. But we can (and should) be eager to learn some of it along the way, and to form useful heuristics for approaching new developments not with fear, but with sensibility.

November 10, 2023

Broadcasting De-localizing the news

Deep in the history of radio station (and later television) call letters, the attentive person can uncover a backstory that often goes unrecognized today. Chicago's WLS, for instance, was named by Sears: WLS was meant to signify "World's Largest Store". Minneapolis has WCCO, for Washburn Crosby Company (a forerunner to General Mills). Nashville's WSM was National Life and Accident Insurance Company's way of plugging the slogan "We Shield Millions". ■ Those vintage call letters often hearken back to the early days of broadcasting, when commercial broadcast advertising as we know it today was in its infancy. Large companies often took a swing at starting their own stations as a way of having captive messaging channels for themselves. Having survived a century-long ride that made lots of people fantastically wealthy, though, the profits from commercial broadcasting are contracting dramatically. ■ In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the #62 market in the United States, KTUL-TV is decamping its news operation to Oklahoma City. The station's licensee, Sinclair Broadcast Group, is consolidating the Tulsa station with its other operations in the larger metro. ■ If local TV news isn't economically sustainable at that level of market #62, bigger than Honolulu, Omaha, or Des Moines, then that's a symptom of rapid economic deterioration. Radio advertising revenues have been cut in half since 2005, and television ad revenues may be surpassed by in-store advertising within five years. ■ Assuming that the local ownership and/or operation of media outlets has some intrinsic value -- and that, to at least some extent, has long been an animating assumption for parties ranging from Thomas Jefferson to FCC regulators -- then the collapse of marketplace conditions sustaining that local character ought to be taken seriously by sensible onlookers. We probably aren't headed for a revival in captive local ownership as in the 1920s, but something very different from the status quo may be inevitable.

November 9, 2023

News Such nonsense

As a printer by trade, Benjamin Franklin had a vested interest in convincing other people to publish their thoughts. But he also had an acute awareness of how history would view him -- perhaps even more than any other member of America's founding generation. Thus his dictum: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." We quote him still today, 285 years after he put those words in print. ■ The universality of publishing tools via the Internet means that literally nothing material stands in the way of anyone sharing their writing with the world, whether it consists of great profundities or merely toilet thoughts. And, as is so often the case with technologies, the younger the person, the more likely they are to use those publishing tools with great fluency. ■ The paradox, though, is in how that fluency conflicts with the self-discipline and wisdom required to really consider which will truly be "things worth reading", and which will be regrettable. An entire educational field has even taken root around the concept of media literacy to try to address this void. ■ As easy as it might be to dismiss it as a problem isolated to "kids these days", the problem is much more widespread than that. A 38-year-old Presidential candidate spouts incredible nonsense about building a border wall with Canada. A 52-year-old billionaire imagines feverishly that due to artificial intelligence, "There will come a point where no job is needed". A 47-year-old member of Congress unapologetically amplifies the language of genocide. ■ These words, while most often captured in digital form, are going to be around -- searchable, re-discoverable, and attributable -- for decades to come, while their speakers (presumably) remain fully alive. Why say them, knowing they will be like the ghosts of intemperances past? Why not think of the future? Why not commit just a little more restraint in the present to make sure that those ideas will be worth reading later on? ■ Reputations matter while people are alive, but the expectation of being remembered well after death should loom over us, too. A mild grasp of either consequence should perhaps serve as more of a warning than it evidently does.

November 8, 2023

Business and Finance Running (a business) scared

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, ever keen to discourage indulgence in strong feelings, warned his readers to "check" and "curb" the sense of pleasure "as those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal." His warning was a reference to the Roman practice of reminding triumphant generals that all victory is temporary, and that they too would someday die. ■ It's hard to travel far across the United States today without seeing an Amazon delivery van, a Prime-branded semi-trailer, or one of a few hundred Amazon fulfillment centers near a major highway. The company is enormous, with a top-ten market capitalization and 1.54 million employees -- more than the entire population of Hawaii. ■ As a business, Amazon is a titanic success. It's such a success that it gets singled out for regulatory scrutiny and is a frequent favorite target of antitrust regulators at home and abroad. ■ All across America are the relics of Sears stores, once even more ubiquitous than Amazon fulfillment centers. The remaining number of operating Sears stores today is perhaps a dozen. The faded ghost signs of their predecessors are like the characters described by Epictetus -- whispering "memento mori" throughout the executive suites at Amazon. Their enterprise, too, is mortal. ■ It's unlikely that regulators will ever have the power to bring down Amazon (and they probably shouldn't). But the same market that once built an enterprise big enough to finance the then-tallest building in the world is also the market that can crush that same enterprise if it doesn't deliver what the common consumer demands.

October 31, 2023

Business and Finance Occupational surnames

In certain circles, it remains fashionable for people to make fun of capitalistic systems, as though the systems are somehow the source of all inequality, all substandard working conditions, and all momentary occupational ennui. Yet it shouldn't go without some appreciation that jobs are inevitable -- even hunter-gatherer tribes still require some division of labor. And those jobs don't actually have to destroy the individual's quality of life. ■ People used to have jobs that were so static that they became surnames. Many people still carry those surnames today: If your last name is Archer, Cooper, Miller, Smith, or Baker, then you are carrying a surname that is based entirely upon somebody's old occupation. ■ If your name is tied to your occupation, then there really isn't much of a sense of being free to change. That's a valuable sort of freedom that shouldn't go without some kind of acknowledgment. Nobody in the future is going to be named with a surname of cybersecurity technician or actuary. ■ Yet those are jobs people today are free to enter and leave at any time -- without changing surnames or being anchored to a particular places. That freedom to move about or to find new, more satisfying work without undue encumberance is a real reward of modern living, enabled by the economic system we enjoy. The results of that freedom should be celebrated, not hated.

If the Communist Party of China decides that it wants to initiate a 50-year plan to undermine the Taiwanese government and take over the Republic of China, then there's very little that any democratic nation can do to match such a plan with an equally long-term strategy. Voters in democratic systems inevitably grow restless, even of those leaders who perform well, rendering it difficult to make plans that stick for more than about a decade. Authoritarian regimes have an institutional advantage in being able to initiate and stick with long-term plans -- at least as long as the particular authority in power lives to see it through. ■ But what democratic systems are capable of doing is learning from feedback obtained closest to the source and cultivating the processes, rules, and systems for responding to large long-term problems. We should acknowledge the fact that it's almost impossible for democratic systems to stick with specific strategies over the long haul (unless a credible institutional structure is built to make it happen). And we should realize that to do otherwise, is just not in the nature of the beast. ■ But in so acknowledging, we also should be willing and ready to grasp what we know that those systems are capable of doing well: learning and adapting. Specifically, being good at recognizing failures and opportunities faster than systems in which delivering bad news to the Big Boss is the best way to be sent to the gulag. ■ We shouldn't despair over the large number of big problems that take long-term solutions, as some people are so wont to do. We should learn to exert our efforts where they're most likely to achieve useful results without trying to change the fundamental characteristics of the societies we inhabit. Some people succumb to the naive fantasy that big solutions can only be achieved by far-reaching powers wielded by a central authority. From climate change to artificial intelligence to poverty, it's easy to find examples of people living in free and democratic conditions who are frustrated by the limited capacities of their governments to "solve" the big problems. ■ Yet really big plans are always hobbled by the reality that humans are not omniscient, information is imperfect, and circumstances change. But the ability to adapt to new circumstances, new information, or new reasoning is the inherent advantage of free and open democratic systems. We should avoid despairing over problems that appear too great and instead use the leverage of our natural advantages. ■ As a substitute for planning, though, we have to actively participate in the vital work of building up institutions and sticking to principled processes for getting things done. That means we need to reject people who would take advantage of circumstances or act in bad faith. The quality of our institutions and process is vastly more important than any short-term gains to be felt out of achieving a particular results.

Threats and Hazards

The football program at the University of Michigan is simultaneously under an FBI investigation into "inappropriately accessed" computer accounts and an NCAA investigation into an alleged complex program to steal the sideline signals used by opposing teams. The two cases are said to be separate from one another, which, if true, would be symptomatic of a wildly out-of-proportion sense of what matters to that community. ■ It is a sad contemporary problem that too many people are unable or unwilling to sort the serious from the trivial. College football may be a wonderful source of diversion and entertainment for tens or even hundreds of millions of people, but it remains only a sport -- and no more than that. No globally or historically significant outcomes are to be obtained from two teams meeting on the gridiron. And yet there are those who would risk actual prison time in order to win. Something is gravely wrong when that is the case. ■ That anything-it-takes approach to winning games is indicative of a failure to know that sports are ultimately trivial: They exist to provide entertainment, not to solve real problems. ■ And it's not simply a matter of people who take trivial things far too seriously, but also a problem of people taking fundamentally serious matters and trivializing them for their own benefit, like the member of Congress who treats his own expulsion vote as a laughing matter. He is in a similar role as his colleague, who trivializes the word "genocide" as a campaign prop. ■ These are two sides of the same coin: Taking the fundamentally unserious (like college sports) far too seriously, and treating the fundamentally serious (like the conduct of members of Congress) as nothing more than a circus sideshow. Responsible adults have to be able to draw distinctions between what really matters and what really doesn't. Furthermore, real adults have to possess the self-respect to correct their friends and allies when they cross over the line. ■ It is far worse to commit the actual infraction, of course, but to tolerate among us those who cannot or will not tell the difference only invites trouble. We shouldn't be afraid to call them out, even if we like the results they're trying to achieve.

Threats and Hazards Take care of your words

Youthful indiscretion is so commonplace that it already has a name. But there are times when the overreaches of the young and intemperate must be met with corrective consequences. ■ The student leadership of the College Democrats at the University of Iowa published a statement on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and concluded with a phrase widely recognized to call for the destruction of the state of Israel. This was met with condemnation, including from the chair of the state party. ■ In the course of commenting on the conflict, it ultimately cannot be missed by anyone that it began with a brutal terrorist attack by Hamas in which more than 1,400 people in Israel were murdered. In the words of Deutsche Welle, "The images go far beyond what journalists who have years of experience dealing with conflict, war, death and violence are used to seeing." ■ It is possible to say many things -- including to convey sympathy for the humanity of civilians on both sides of the border -- and to do so temperately, cautiously, and prudently. But words matter so much that one should always take care to check the origins and connotations of what seem like clever turns of phrase from others before adopting them. Youth can be an excuse for only so much, and aligning with terrorists (even if only in words) is a measure too far.

Aviation News Getting a charge from electrified aircraft

For a long time, critics have dismissed the possibility that electric-powered aircraft could be feasible, given the capacity of batteries and the limiting factor of their weight. But sometimes technology advances faster than the critiques can evolve, and breakthroughs are actually demonstrated to be possible. ■ Such is the case with electric-powered flight. One company has conducted non-stop flights of more than 300 miles with its small aircraft and has already begun installing a charging network at airports. Another company, bearing a household name, has begun flight-testing a hybrid propulsion system, with plans to put it into regional jets holding up to 180 passengers by the other side of this decade. ■ Aviation gets a lot of attention in the context of climate change -- almost unavoidably, perhaps, because of the paradoxical nature of people traveling to climate-change summits aboard private jets. No matter how rational the choice may be, it looks bad. ■ But while it is believed that aviation only accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions, it's a high-profile 2%. But more significantly, it's in an area where speedy deployment of technological advancements will help to spur progress elsewhere. Businesses dedicated to technological products often benefit a great deal from having a high-performance division, from which improvements in products and processes can flow to the rest of the company. That's why racing has always been crucial to Honda. ■ Electric and hybrid-electric powertrains will be like that for aviation: The faster they can drive elite engineering work, the sooner we will get to see advancements in electrification elsewhere. Powering aircraft with electricity is a really hard problem, but the solutions will spill over into other sectors. For that reason alone, the much-quieter sound of motorized airplanes should make us all stand and cheer.

October 29, 2023

News Entangling alliances with some

George Washington's valedictory advice, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world", was famously echoed and amplified by Thomas Jefferson in the words, "[P]eace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none" in his own first inaugural. These are often the first words summoned by modern opponents of international engagement. ■ It comes as some misfortune that those early Presidents were so gifted in their words, because their sense of poetry obscures an essential bit of framing. The international agreements reached in their time were worth avoiding because they were so foundationally unstable: When most every treaty is effectively an interpersonal deal among monarchs, then feelings prevail rather than rules. ■ When Jefferson became President, the European world was under the control of men like Napoleon, Tsar Paul I (who was just days from assassination), George III, and Francis II (the last Holy Roman Emperor). Avoiding "entangling alliances" was probably the prudent move at the time. ■ But the Founders were plainly enthused about rules, systems, and balance: The entire Constitution is an act in establishing predictable mechanisms to channel and convert self-interest into peaceful coexistence. Thus, it's no stretch to imagine them embracing what we now call the "rules-based international order" and subscribing to it with enthusiasm wherever they could. ■ That isn't evident from their writings, but nor would have been their response to digital computing or nuclear weapons. Directionally, though, they were headed towards what we would now consider an "internationalist" viewpoint: One to promote trade, peace, and the universality of rights, with a skeptical view of anything that would reward a might-makes-right approach to resolving conflict. ■ We shouldn't be too ready to assume that the words used when the United States was a small, unimposing outpost in the world would be the same advice we would get today. Jets, ICBMs, and the Internet have shrunk the oceans to almost nothing in effective terms -- and, just as significantly, what we know as the free world is governed almost entirely by the sorts of democratic republican systems that the Founders were trying to secure when they demanded independence. No one should imagine that their advice wouldn't have evolved with along with the prevailing facts.

October 28, 2023

Business and Finance Putting the "home" in "office"

Long-term trends like the expansion of flexible and remote working have done a number on commercial real estate in many American cities. As major employers have looked to get real estate off their balance sheets, increased attention has been paid to the challenges of housing economics. Markets in some places are so crazed that a modest-sized, mold-contaminated house with collapsed ceilings can list for more than half a million dollars in a place like Boston. ■ Into this confluence of events steps the White House, which has announced plans to encourage the conversion of commercial buildings to residential use. Some people are vocally opposed to the concept, at least in part because some of the proposed conversions might result in floor plans that challenge conventions. ■ People shouldn't compare affordable-housing proposals to the Four Seasons, but rather to the alternatives. The important question is whether public policies are expanding the supply of housing that is affordable, healthy, and safe. Those are the things we need most, and we need them in very large quantities. ■ Experimentation and innovation are needed in big ways. Housing costs pinch many American household budgets: Half of American households living in rentals are spending more than 30% of their income on rent, and ten million households are spending more than half their income on rent. Nor should we pretend like that housing is uniformly good. ■ There's little prospect of fixing these problems without motivating a much-expanded supply. And on the metrics that really matter (living spaces that are affordable, healthy, and safe), new construction and renovations must be weighed against the status quo -- which too often suffers from health and safety hazards, even if rich in features like old oversized windows. What we need is to build and renovate with enthusiasm.

October 27, 2023

News Bring down bad monuments

The monument to Robert E. Lee that precipitated deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, has been permanently destroyed in a foundry. Though it took place in some secrecy, the event was documented by NPR and the Washington Post in an almost ritualistic manner. ■ The statue wasn't a historical artifact of the Civil War era itself; it was only erected in the mid-1920s. That's an important distinction to recall; Lee himself had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant nearly 60 years before the monument was installed. It would be an act of comparable historic distance to commission a monument to Nikita Khrushchev today. ■ Despite the nonsensical protestations of some, it is both reasonable and prudent to remove monuments that grossly violate the moral standards of the community. Monuments are about choices, reflecting the standards to which people know they should aspire, and it matters who we lionize. ■ No one gets to choose their own family of birth; that much is always an accident of Rawls's veil of ignorance. But everyone -- including those who are born to notorious bloodlines -- gets to adopt their own moral and intellectual forebears. ■ You can be born a Kennedy or a Roosevelt (or even a Khrushchev) and remain free to choose anyone as your intellectual or philosophical "parents" and "grandparents". And, indeed, everyone should. That ought to be a conscious choice, and the only real shame is to be found among those who refuse to redeem tarnished family names and cut ties with legacies that don't suit the present.

October 26, 2023

Threats and Hazards Bad regimes deserve no friends

According to the CIA, the median person living in the Gaza Strip is 18 years old, by far one of the lowest ages of any place in the world. Coincidentally, the last time the people living in the Gaza Strip were given a chance to vote on their government was 17 years ago, in 2006. ■ Even if the population had a much higher average age, a wait of 17 years since the last elections would be a galling figure. But half its population wasn't even alive at the last election. For a regime to have gone so long without even attempting to prove itself in a popular vote should render it functionally illegitimate in the eyes of any honest observer. ■ Governments are not religions, nor are they cultures. They are not identities for people to adopt or to change at will. They are systems for consolidating and executing power. And before they can be judged "mainly good", "mainly bad", or something in between, they have to show themselves to be legitimate. ■ A distressing share of the world's people are the subjects of regimes with little or no regard for earning legitimacy from the expressed will of their people. Nobody voted for Xi Jinping, who has done away with term limits. Nobody believes that an opponent would even be allowed to challenge Vladimir Putin. And roughly a supermajority in the Gaza Strip had little or no faith in Hamas. ■ It should come as no surprise that these regimes, feeling unconstrained by the public will, often behave like barbarians. Even if they didn't commit terroristic atrocities, they would still lack legitimacy. ■ People of goodwill should know better than to sympathize with those regimes even in times of quiet, but certainly in times of reckless violence, and the world should view those rogue regimes as being, fundamentally, enemies of the very people they govern.

October 24, 2023

News We're all just figuring it out as we go

Jeffery Tyler Syck, who teaches on politics, offers this relatable observation: "At some point in life we all realize that the whole world is run by people who do not really know what they are doing and are just figuring it out as they go." It's a familiar lament, and one that ought to remind sensible people that while patience with those "figuring it out" can be hard to summon, it is a real grace. ■ Nor does the observation have to be strictly true to be materially true. There comes a time for many conscientious individuals -- even if they're not subject to imposter syndrome -- when they realize the outer perimeter of their competence. And there is no small number for whom that outer boundary is also the outer boundary of what is known by anyone at all. Every field has its authorities, and every field has its unresolved questions. ■ This realization ought to bring with it a sense of modesty: If there is only so much that anyone knows yet about a topic, it's perfectly honorable to admit that we're often just "figuring it out" as we go. Even the experts. ■ But it should also underscore why institutions matter so much. Institutions -- colleges, clubs, journals, firms, conventions, and many others -- ought not to exist merely for their own self-perpetuation. They are needed to give structure and predictability to the transmission of vital knowledge, practices, and values. ■ The illusion of the Internet "hive mind" and sophisticated artificial intelligence tools is that everything that needs to be known can be reliably searched-for. This is emphatically not the case. Perhaps the most important reason is that knowledge isn't flat: Different answers may apply at different stages of a process, or when viewed from different levels. ■ An explanation that is correct and appropriate for an experienced professional might be entirely wrong for a second-grader, and vice-versa. But a constructive approach may very well need to start with a simple but "wrong" answer to lay the foundation for a human being to learn a more complex "right" answer later. Likewise, a meaningful answer to "What time is it?" could range from "11:15" to "Here's to build a cesium clock". ■ A parent can't rightfully get mad at their own child for using a knife dangerously if the parent never taught the child how to use it safely. Institutions like Scouting exist in large part to give structure to the process of transmitting this kind of knowledge to the young. On the other hand, a child can't rightfully get mad at their parents for exposing them to drinking water that passed through lead pipes if the parent didn't know that a health hazard existed. Institutions like regulatory agencies and professional trade organizations exist to give structure to aggregating and disseminating knowledge about difficult problems and their best solutions. ■ Institutions are needed because human nature, which hasn't changed very much across history, contains aspects that need to be guided and corralled so that people can become smarter and better than their ancestors. We need them to help transmit both information and behaviors. It is only upon good institutions that we can both figure out how to teach our novices and deliberately build new knowledge all the time. Even as a species, we really are just "figuring it out", but we stand a much better chance of getting more of our answers right if we build institutional knowledge (and vitality) along the way.

October 22, 2023

Science and Technology Pondering existence and consequences

With the Webb Space Telescope continuing to deliver utterly breathtaking and incomprehensible pictures of the Universe around us, scientists are gathering data that add up to information we've never had before. Examination of light reflected by planets orbiting faraway stars, for instance, has yielded evidence of chemical compounds never previously detected on planets outside our Solar System. ■ But one of the assumptions that underlies the research is that the laws of physics must be the same throughout the Universe. It seems like a fair and proper assumption, given what we know about the building blocks of the natural world. But if it is true (and we seem to lack any evidence that it is not), then a supremely important question ensues: By what mechanism is the information of those laws transmitted, and what enforces them in all places at all times? ■ Whatever else you may think of cosmology, the existence of that question strongly suggests that there is a dimension to existence as we know it that isn't subject to material limitations. Nobody has to tell two atoms in a remote corner of a distant galaxy that they must exert gravitational force on one another; they just do. ■ Yet those atoms aren't aware of the force (lacking sentience) and make no choice to obey the law of gravity (lacking free will). We cannot just hand-wave away the fact that so many trillions of particles "know" the same thing at the same time. Information itself plainly exists, and doesn't appear to be subject to the same laws that affect things in the material planes of existence. ■ To take that a step further: If every particle in the Universe is attracting every other particle in the Universe at the same time, then every human life is incorporated into what one might call the "source code" of the Universe from that life forward. No matter how immeasurably small the effect, that life sets off consequences that become part of the information architecture of everything that exists later, again transmitted instantaneously and everywhere. ■ The thought is heavy, but it can also be reassuring: Scientifically, we don't understand what initiates consciousness (and, thanks to the emergence of artificial intelligence, that's becoming a matter where our ignorance is of growing consequence), any more than we know what happens to that consciousness after physical death. ■ Around Halloween in particular, we talk about remembering the dead, but in an undeniable sense -- if the laws of physics are indeed true always and everywhere -- then the Universe "remembers" us all by transmitting the consequences of our actions. Notwithstanding any spiritual beliefs on the subject, that really highlights how much we have yet to figure out about whatever dimensions of the Universe are transmitting information and enforcing rules all around us.

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October 21, 2023

Iowa Fall leaves are good for the soul

Few sights compare with an Iowa river valley full of trees in the peak of fall color. In contrast with the brown of winter and the endless green of spring and summer, the brief blast of colors is a feast for the eyes. ■ Lots of other places enjoy the brilliance of autumnal colors, too -- New Englanders take pride in their leaf peeping -- but Iowa has an advantage in its generally flat terrain and gently rolling hills, which mean that virtually anywhere a person stands in the entire state, they're within walking distance of a hill from which they can see about ten miles in any direction, and be guaranteed a colorful view of trees along a river or creek in practically every direction. No special trips to the mountains required: The ubiquity of the experience is hard to beat. ■ For anyone who has the pleasure of seeing a grand autumn landscape finished in bright colors, the temptation is almost irresistible to take photographs contrasting the leaves against a clear blue sky. But it's also worthwhile to indulge in the experience purely with the naked eye, and to appreciate fully how fleeting the experience really is. ■ We are sometimes told that process is more important than product when it comes to art, and there's a reason "paint and sip" events have proliferated like bunnies. So it is for nature's gift of fall colors: There are a million stunning photographs of fall foliage to be found, but none of them have the effect of actually seeing the colors in person on a crisp day. ■ The knowledge that the moment is fleeting by definition, and that the atmosphere must be enjoyed before it is gone, is good for the psyche. The moment, and the experience, are greater reward than any photograph.

October 20, 2023

News Thinking about dominance

Everyone knows whether they are left-handed, right-handed, or ambidexterous; the question of which hand is dominant plays a role in acts as simple as picking up a utensil. Fewer people know which eye is dominant, even though nearly everyone has a dominant eye, even though it may not be the one that sees best. Ears are subject to dominance, too. ■ The role of eye or ear dominance rarely affects behavior in quite the same ways as right- or left-handedness. Yet it's useful information to have, and takes no more than 20 seconds to determine. People generally don't know about it until they are presented with a skill -- such as a shooting sport -- in which that dominance has a self-evident significance. ■ But its less-evident significance can be valuable. Knowing whether you are looking at a person with your dominant or non-dominant eye can be a psychological signal whether you intrinsically like or dislike the person (or the interaction). And we know that eye contact matters a lot. This little bit of self-knowledge can be quite valuable when used in a broader life context. ■ In much the same way, people often recognize their supposed "dominant" learning strategy from among "visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic", but few know about the other dimensions of their learning. Knowing where you fall on each spectrum of learning -- perceptive or conceptual, constructive or exploratory, dialectical or structured, and many others -- can help to raise the reasonable likelihood of success in a learning experience. ■ Schools have generally improved in their approaches to students who can be diagnosed with conditions like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. But we could do much better in lots of ways if we began to recognize how to account for the many other characteristics that affect learning at the individual level, particularly now that technology permits virtually countless new ways to individualize learning. ■ If one lesson should be abundantly clear with the rise of technologies like artificial intelligence, it ought to be how important that constant, life-long learning is going to be from now on. Knowing how you learn, how to motivate yourself to learn, and what makes your learning stick is no longer the kind of trivia useful mainly for conversation at a cocktail party. Like knowing your dominant hand, these dominant modes of learning need to become first-order knowledge that can be put to work almost automatically.

October 19, 2023

News Freedom of navigation isn't free

The Defense Department has released a set of photos and videos documenting the behavior of military aircraft belonging to the People's Liberation Army of China. The Pentagon calls the fifteen recorded incidents "coercive and risky" and says "the goal of the PLA's behavior is to pressure the United States and other nations to reduce or cease lawful operations". ■ There isn't a reasonable person alive who wants an escalation of hostilities between the United States and China. By its nature, armed conflict is destructive and wasteful. But the United States is in the unique (and perhaps unenviable) position of having the resources necessary and the motivation required to assert the rights associated with international law. ■ Chinese military hardware has been used to intimidate Filipino vessels and test Japanese airspace in recent months, in addition to its persistent harassment of Taiwan. ■ It has all been quite enough to motivate a growing roster of countries to join in precautionary military exercises with the United States. But there is no other power quite as capable as the United States when it comes to projecting the power necessary to actively assert the freedom of navigation written into international law. ■ There are those who reflexively oppose military spending on philosophical grounds. But the question must always be asked, "Compared to what?" Put differently, economists would say that the real price of a thing is what you give up in order to get it. Peace alone is not free; human nature has certain tendencies, like tribalism, greed, and instincts to display dominance, that when taken together are a potent recipe for armed conflict -- even when that isn't in any party's actual self-interest. ■ Predictable, enforceable rules help to put boundaries around that kind of conflict. So do parties willing to lay open claim to the rights guaranteed by those rules. That is what the United States has been doing and appears willing to continue to do, in the name of a set of international rules that benefit not just us, but also our allies. If those exercises seem expensive, the question is: Compared to what?

October 17, 2023

News Bring forth names

Triple-A baseball now calls balls and strikes using automated strike zones, and while there's still some evolving debate over how exactly to program the dimensions of the strike zone, it's well within the realm of possibility that robot umpires will be called up to the majors before the decade is through. Although calling out the worst human umpires is likely to remain a popular pastime, people even more like to believe that they're getting a fair deal. ■ As the contest to pick a Speaker of the House looks ever more scrambled, some Democrats have begun offering "consensus" names -- Republicans they say they might be able to support as candidates with bipartisan support. ■ It is entirely possible that those Democrats are offering Republican names as a cynical ploy to look "bipartisan" (something voters have historically applauded) without having to actually pay any price. But forming a coalition to elect a Speaker without majority support from the majority party is, at the very least, an idea that should force some self-examination. ■ In 1790, when Virginia was home to four of the first five Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), the state had only 747,000 people -- a smaller number than today's Congressional districts (home to an average of 761,169 residents apiece). ■ If we can't easily conjure four or five names of prominent, capable, fair-minded people from every Congressional district in America, that should tell us something. Not that we have a dearth of talent -- today's median citizen is vastly better-educated, healthier, more financially secure, more worldly, less biased, and better-informed than their counterpart in the Founders' era. And that's not to mention that we've taken down the legal barriers that used to keep people out of public life on the basis of race or sex. ■ What it should tell us is that we're choosing systems that select for the wrong characteristics, not just in Congressional races, but in civic life at large. It shouldn't be a struggle to name candidates for a job like Speaker of the House who should be palatable across party lines; we should face an embarrassment of riches. ■ The idea of finding a caretaker Speaker, if only for the next year, should solicit so many hundreds of obvious-seeming names, high in earned esteem, that it should look ridiculous not to choose any one of them, even at random. If that's not what our systems are producing -- especially if we're convinced that those people exist, but consciously choose to do other things rather than contribute to the commonwealth -- then we are overdue for some serious self-examination. Robot umpires aren't coming to save public life.

October 15, 2023

Humor and Good News A smash hit

More than 55,000 people showed up to watch an exhibit basketball game played between the University of Iowa and DePaul -- noteworthy for two reasons: It was played in Kinnick Stadium (the University of Iowa's outdoor football stadium, with a capacity of 69,250), and because it set by far and away the attendance record for a college women's basketball game. ■ Events like the "Crossover at Kinnick" are great for elevating the social cachet of women's sports. But they're also reminders of just how much induced demand plays a role in life. ■ If someone had looked only at the historical record, they might have had the impression that there was no demand at all for an outdoor women's basketball game in Iowa City. But in the same spirit as the Field of Dreams game and the 26-lane-wide freeway in Houston, "If you build it, they will come." ■ These things don't necessarily happen without other factors, of course. Marketing and promotion play a role. Community buy-in and adjusting preferences are involved, too. They do, however, point to the importance of avoiding the lure of inertia. ■ It's easy to believe that the future will look like a straight-line projection from the past through the present. It's also a mistake. Things change and big ideas come to fruition because individuals commit to them and invest in creating visions that attract others. ■ Those visions don't have to be manipulative or self-serving. They also shouldn't be isolated to entertainment spectacles. The world needs bold and seductive projects to serve public interests, too, -- though not necessarily delivered by the public sector -- on matters ranging from housing affordability to innovations in education to entitlement spending to biotechnology and well beyond. ■ The belief that great motivating events are possible (and important) ought to take some cues from the progress made in the world of sports. The public often doesn't know how much it wants something until someone shows the initiative to paint a picture of a new reality.

Computers and the Internet When are verified words unverifiable?

Facebook is encouraging users to "chat" with an artificial intelligence model in the character of Jane Austen. It's part of a fairly transparent effort by the site to get users to spend as much time as possible engaging with the platform, which is important to a company that derives about $50 in revenue per North American user per quarter. ■ The first obvious question is: Why Austen in particular? But close behind it is: Why does this AI model have a verification symbol that is the same as what Facebook applies to real, living celebrities? It could easily be designated differently, but it is not. ■ What is the purpose of a verification mark for an AI model representing a real historical figure, if not to create at least some synthetic appearance of (unearned) authority? That's a bold and dangerous move for Facebook. Today, perhaps it's merely Jane Austen. But what's to stop them from doing the same thing tomorrow with the synthesized words and likeness of George Washington? Or Aristotle? Or Jesus? ■ AI models based upon real people have been a fairly evident "next step" for at least a decade now. The entire history of biography -- and family lore -- is about reaching into the past to seek answers for the present. It's one of the most obvious use cases for artificial intelligence. Like search engines, these models retrieve and reconstruct material from databases, so they really ought to be called "personality engines". And they most likely will prove too irresistible to have around in one form or another, indefinitely. ■ What people don't fully appreciate yet is just how little source content it will really take to form a personality engine for just about anyone. With enough willingness to let computers fill in the blanks and make forecasts based upon incomplete information, one could probably synthesize enough material to look like a defensible worldview from about 200 to 300 pages of written text. ■ That just isn't very much source text to ask! But it's treacherous territory, particularly if the model-builders aren't extremely careful about what they use for input material, how they label it, and what they do to make sure that newly-synthesized material generated in the "voice" of a particular individual doesn't become the source material for another personality engine that doesn't know the difference between the original material and what's post-canonical. ■ And it truly begs us to consider the ramifications of co-opting someone's "voice" without their consent. Jane Austen never said Facebook could use her as a chatbot -- she died in 1817. Modern audiences may be greedy to get her advice today, but whatever we get shouldn't be considered "official" in the sense that most audiences would consider material published by a "verified" account. ■ For now, it may seem harmless to use Jane Austen like this. And it will probably seem mostly harmless to take Grandma's private diaries after she passes away and submit them as source material for a Grandma-AI (this is absolutely certain to be someone's business model sooner rather than later). But who controls whether Grandma-AI is released for public distribution, and who rakes in the earnings from her words and likeness? Families already go to legal battle with one another over real property, nest eggs, and secret recipes. Who controls Grandma's synthesized words and likeness when they could be worth money in the commercial market? ■ We've entered extraordinary territory -- completely uncharted -- and it's not clear that significant participants have even begun to duly consider the consequences. A great deal of good could come from plumbing the sources of the past for answers in the present, but we need to put as much energy into the boundaries as we invest in charging for the frontiers.

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October 14, 2023

Computers and the Internet Real problems from fake people

Facebook is pleased to recommend "28 AIs with unique interests and personalities for you to interact with" -- including "well-known public figures" who lend their likenesses to the artificial chatbots. And as pilloried by at least one commentator, their central function isn't to help the human user, but to increase the amount of time spent with the platform. ■ Artificial-intelligence tools have enormous potential to do good. But they are technological tools, and like all other tools, they're value-neutral on their own. The good or evil they do extends from the intentions and choices of their users. ■ That said, there are "users" on multiple fronts engaged with these nascent tools, including the individuals engaging in the chats and the people who do the programming and setting the parameters of use. Individual users need to formulate intentional habits for using tools like artificial intelligence, both to safeguard their own humanity and to protect themselves against programmers with malintent. ■ For instance: It is prudent to believe (mildly) in being polite when interacting with AI models -- using words like "please" -- because it keeps us in the habit of being polite with real people. People often do the same with their pets, even though Fido doesn't read Emily Post. It's easier to practice humane habits when they're unnecessary than to reconstruct them out of disuse. ■ But artificial-intelligence tools shouldn't be trusted any more than, say, a random toll-booth operator. Probably much less. As with the toll-booth operator -- or any other occupation that can be filled by a human being wherein perfunctory politeness is just a matter of good manners, but in which it would be ill-advised to reveal details like one's phone number or date of birth -- human beings need to draw a bright line between being agreeable and exposing too much. ■ Facebook doesn't need to know about your love life, your hopes and dreams, or what keeps you up at night. Just because it cloaks itself in the likeness of a beloved (and dead) author like Jane Austen doesn't mean the tool is being used for the cause of good. We have to beware any temptation to think otherwise -- and the temptation not to think about it at all.

News Three alternate futures in Gaza

A fictitious -- but entirely plausible -- set of three "Courses of Action" for the Israeli armed forces acting in the Gaza Strip

Threats and Hazards 14-year-old arrested for school threats

The Cedar Rapids Community School District closed down for a day because of the threat of violence. It's well-known that 14-year-olds have brain development left to do before they become adults, but some behaviors are so far outside the bounds that they really can't be allowed to slide.

October 12, 2023

News Mind your business always

Benjamin Franklin is credited with placing the phrase "Mind your business" on the first American penny. It's good to take the advice in a metaphorical-social sense (as in, "Keep your nose out of other people's affairs"), but Franklin undoubtedly meant for it to be taken in a plainly literal sense as well. ■ To say "Mind your business" is a deceptively optimistic encouragement, for it assumes that the world is improvable and that it improves because of deliberate human action. Franklin didn't say "Pray for better things" or "Alas, all is for naught". He said, in effect, "Get to work doing your part to make things better". ■ "Mind your business" carries an implied urgency. Even when matters are generally headed in the right direction, setbacks are inevitable. One never knows when things could go wrong, or how bad they could get, so the time to tend to affairs is right now. ■ While Russia continues assaulting Ukraine, Israel is exacting revenge on Hamas for committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians. But one United States Senator has put a blockade on senior military promotions, another has halted the process of confirming ambassadors, and the House of Representatives doesn't even have a nominee for Speaker. These domestic problems -- all of which should have been cured long ago -- only hamper our ability to respond soundly to exigent circumstances. ■ Optimists ought to be united and emphatic on this point: We can't count on luck to make things better, and the time to fix problems is when they emerge (rather than when a crisis forces the point). Franklin's advice should echo with us to "mind our business" all the time, so that we can correct our problems before urgency deprives us of options.

October 11, 2023

Broadcasting Dead plot devices

"Coming to work sick" was a well-worn plot device for basically the entirety of television history up until about three years ago, often manifested in a rapidly-depleted box of on-screen tissues. Chances are fairly good, though, that the experience of a highly contagious pandemic has rendered that trope off-limits for a generation to come: It's too likely to ring hollow with the mainstream audience, which has been conditioned to expect that people have an obligation to stay home when they're under the weather. ■ Some pervasive changes are more subtle than that: Ashtrays, once utterly ubiquitous on-screen, are no longer standard set pieces in workplace sitcoms, because almost nobody's allowed to smoke in the office anymore. (For good reason.) ■ Small artifacts can sometimes stand in for much larger habits and practices, though we're now living through an unusual period of de-materialization, when more and more things are done by fewer and fewer discrete objects. That could make it hard to recognize (at least on-screen) if some of our undesirable habits manifest themselves in obvious props. ■ It's prudent nonetheless to ponder which of our bad habits, just like smoking or coming to work while contagious, are going to look anachronistic in the not-so-distant future. We humans are social learners, and we take many of our cues from what we see represented in the world around us. Intentionally or not, we become the stories we tell ourselves. It shouldn't always take dramatic events to shake us out of showing ourselves the bad habits so we can acclimate to better habits ahead.

October 8, 2023

The United States of America Save the Electoral College by expanding the House

A survey by the Pew Research Center delivered the unsurprising result that 65% of adults want a popular vote to determine Presidential elections, rather than votes filtered through the Electoral College. Disparities between the two results are a source of tension, for sure. ■ But it is worth noting that for all the partisan dyspepsia caused by the Electoral College, it may well be a bit like complaining about the side effects of a flu shot: You are aware of the pain you experience, not of the discomfort you may have avoided. ■ Consider just how contentious things became over the count of Florida's vote in the 2000 Presidential election: The state used a silly method of balloting, but it was to the country's benefit that only an individual state's count was in question. Imagine a popular vote in which the popular vote turned out in a photo finish. In such cases, were a popular vote to be the deciding mechanism, then the counts in all 50 states could be hauled in for further review. And since vote tabulations almost always contain some error -- and disputed ballots -- any popular vote within, say, a 2% margin could find itself contested on a national level. Under those circumstances, the Supreme Court could find itself adjudicating 50 different disputed counts every time. ■ Whatever its other shortcomings, the Electoral College effectively acts to contain the damage done by a local conflict -- whether it's over butterfly ballots or criminal behavior by a losing candidate. The Electoral College has a clarifying effect. ■ It also, of course, is a reminder that our system is federal in nature, rather than national. And that, too, is worth preserving. That doesn't mean the complaints about the Electoral College are without merit, though, and a reasonable compromise to make Electoral College votes more representative of the popular vote would be to undertake the long-overdue process of expanding the House of Representatives. ■ A doubling of the House wouldn't be inappropriate, considering that the chamber has been stuck at 435 members since the 63rd Congress, which convened in 1913. Our population then was 101 million; it is now 335 million. ■ Doubling the House's seat count would not only have some salutary effects on the legislature, it would also help to bring the Electoral College closer to representing the popular vote. And, unlike shenanigans like the National Popular Vote Compact or proposals to move to an authentic national popular vote, expanding the House would be perfectly consistent with the law, historical precedent, and the Constitution as written. Why we haven't given the case a fair hearing yet is beyond explanation.

October 7, 2023

Threats and Hazards A chilling attack

To what end did Hamas initiate a terrorist invasion of Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing at least 250 people in the process? What was the point of abducting Israeli civilians and taking them hostage, on a Jewish holiday, no less? What kind of sociopathy rationalizes an assault that would unquestionably lead to a massive and deadly retaliation? ■ People often resign themselves to a certain intractability to violence in the Middle East. That resignation is unproductive. There are paths that can instigate more violence, and there are paths that can de-escalate conflict. ■ We know both paths are available because Israel and Saudi Arabia have been talking about normalizing diplomatic relations, after a similar agreement between Israel and the UAE. Diplomatic recognition of Israel is possible, even for neighbors that differ with the state: Egypt got there in 1980. Jordan did it in 1994. ■ The history of conflict there is very long, and the distances are very small: Tel Aviv, which was targeted by rockets fired from Gaza, is only about 40 miles away. Those distances aren't going to change, and Israel isn't going away. ■ Memories of this attack will be long, the consequences will be grave, and forgiveness will not come easily. The choice to initiate violence like this disregarded any rational sense about what comes next. It achieves nothing but the creation of needless human suffering.

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October 6, 2023

Business and Finance Real job creation

Among the main demands made by the UAW of the Big Three US automakers in the course of the strike they have self-titled the "Stand-Up Strike" is the right to strike over plant closures. This highlights an inconsistency in the way that "labor" is usually described, and the void that inconsistency leaves in the economy. ■ The project America really needs is a private-sector initiative to establish cooperative firms with the express goal of creating the maximum possible number of jobs. We don't have any meaningful representative examples of such a project. By their nature, capitalists (meaning business owners, shareholders, and others who supply capital to the economic system) focus on maximization of firm profit. Employment is an input in the process, but not an objective. ■ On the other hand, unions are the most visible manifestation of what people generally conceive as "labor". But unions do not exist to promote the creation of new jobs, either, but rather to preserve the jobs that their members already hold. That's not a moral shortcoming, but it is an incomplete depiction of labor. That's especially the case when unions resist the creation of rival jobs that might reduce the market price for their own work. ■ People expecting institutions in either of these categories to pursue employment maximization as an express goal are bound to be disappointed. There is no fundamental reason, though, why novel institutions couldn't be formed to fill that need. We clearly recognize the demand for job creation -- practically every politician includes "job creation" as some aspect of their campaign platform. Yet, even with a lot of job-market growth, the vast preponderance of jobs aren't "created" by government, nor should they be within a market economy. ■ But they could be created by institutions formed and managed not to return a maximum value of capital to shareholders, but a maximum number (or quality) of jobs to employees. Cooperative institutions are well-established as ways of organizing firms that don't have profit maximization as a goal, but they typically exist for the purpose of delivering goods or services to customers at minimum cost, often where for-profit firms find market conditions undesirable. ■ A real "pro-labor" movement would undertake to pave the way for a class of job-maximizing firms, to show how they could be formed, find suitable markets, and achieve their desired results efficiently and sustainably. We don't need flash-in-the-pan stories, but rather self-perpetuating institutions to fill the void. ■ Creative managerial thinking can do the trick, but only if the incentives are aligned in the right way. Expecting unions, governments, or capitalists to create the largest number of jobs is asking the wrong outcomes of systems not set up for the task.

October 4, 2023

The United States of America Higher bars and lower temperatures

The main complaint against super-majority decisions is that they permit a small minority to hold the rest of the body hostage. And yet, that's what has happened to Kevin McCarthy, ousted from his chair as Speaker of the House of Representatives. ■ In treating the Speakership as a partisan office, we get partisan results: Party majorities pick Speakers, not coalitions. When one party holds a narrow majority and that majority contains a cantankerous wing that celebrates chaos, either the leadership holds its place via skillful (and perhaps ruthless) management, or it responds disproportionately to the caucus that has the most power to topple it. In this regard, Nancy Pelosi seems to have been more successful at keeping "The Squad" in check than Kevin McCarthy was at holding off the "Freedom Caucus". ■ We are told by the text of the Constitution only that "The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.". But it is worth pondering what Congress would look like today, had the Framers required a super-majority vote for the election of the Speaker. A two-thirds vote by the House would almost invariably require a trans-partisan coalition -- only a very small handful of times has the House ever been controlled so thoroughly by one party or another. ■ There is something to be said for separating institutional duties (like running the Article I branch of government) from political ones (like advancing a legislative agenda through that branch). When we ask too much of our officials, we set them up to fail, to crack, or to neglect important things worth doing. ■ Keeping the House of Representatives functioning as a rules-driven system with regular order and predictable budgets and dignified debate may be too much to ask of people who build majorities within fractious parties. Perhaps by making it harder in one sense to choose a Speaker, a two-thirds majority requirement would make it easier to find someone to focus on the proper process of government more than the outcomes.

October 1, 2023

Humor and Good News Name your glue sticks

A teacher shares clever advice: "Giving my classroom gluesticks human names has been revolutionary. Does a student care if a glue stick goes missing? No! Do they care if DEREK the glue stick has not been returned? ABSOLUTELY. It's like a manhunt until Derek has been returned to his rightful spot." ■ The advice works on adults, too. Giving things humane names activates the brain into thinking about them in a much more sophisticated way. Always name equipment like it's a ship being christened to go to sea: Nobody cares about Hull 9838345, but they do take an interest in the "Wonder of the Seas". ■ What works for ships makes sense in industrial and commercial applications, too: Everything from computer routers to heavy industrial co-bots needs to be given some kind of serial or identification number. But smart management and maintenance calls for giving those things memorable names, too, so that they can enlist our attention and imagination. Both are important to good operations and maintenance. ■ The same logic calls for giving every creek, pond, and stream an identifiable name -- and putting labels on them. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, for instance, has been installing signs to identify streams in an effort to motivate the public to care more about source-water protection for drinking supplies. ■ It may be hard to prove how well naming works, given that the problem of source-water pollution is predominantly about non-point sources (that is, pollution caused by runoff from lots of places, rather than a single obvious source); the best hope with non-point-source pollution is that heightened public awareness will lead to increased individual efforts to curtail the pollution. ■ But there is so much work to be done, and the effort required is so trivial, that it seems absurd we haven't named more of our waters already. In Pennsylvania alone, it is said that 56,000 of the state's 64,000 streams are unnamed. Minnesota's mythical "10,000 lakes" (the official count is actually 11,842) includes hundreds without any official names on record. ■ Names matter. And just as turning a run-of-the-mill glue stick into "Derek" gives children a reason to look for the ones that go missing, so too does giving things humane names turn them into things adults can care about, too.

Computers and the Internet West Des Moines, Iowa: Supercomputing hub

Microsoft has been doing much of its AI development at a campus in Central Iowa. The capital investment is huge and the work being done is titanic in scale, but the company only claims 377 data center employees in the entire state.

News On dictatorial wannabes

In his valedictory address, the outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn't do much to conceal a swipe at the former President who has recently gone after him in appalling ways. ■ General Mark Milley used his platform to declare, "We don't take an oath to a king, or a queen, or to a tyrant or a dictator, and we don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don't take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we're willing to die to protect it." ■ All of this is true, and all of it ought to be painfully unremarkable. Yet it makes news because those values have been assaulted and cannot be taken for granted. Unfortunately, though, there is an asymmetry involved: The ex-President whose words and behavior have threatened Gen. Milley and others is treated as such a deviant from the mainstream that people have argued for years whether he is to be taken "seriously or literally". ■ In rising to one's own defense and asserting principles, though, it is almost impossible for anyone else to avoid sounding overtly political -- which is a hazard that we should generally want both active and recently-retired military officers to avoid, out of respect for healthy civil/military relations. It's a terrible, no-win situation.

News Russia raises conscription age

The country's war of aggression against Ukraine is costly in countless ways, including the ongoing waste of many thousands of lives

Weather and Disasters Parts of New York City get 6" of rain

In a single storm event, on an urbanized geography? It's a recipe for disaster.

September 30, 2023

Business and Finance Will the FTC get to Amazon before the market?

It isn't hard to stipulate a few things about Amazon: Its rise from online bookstore to "everything store" has been epic, its economic impact has been transformative, and its competitive position in what the Federal Trade Commission calls the "online superstore market" is truly titanic. ■ Whether the company engages in illegal monopolistic practices, as the FTC and 17 state attorneys general allege, is not so easy to stipulate. It's entirely possible, and the facts of the case should be weighed by the scales of Lady Justice. ■ But just as we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the merits of the case, we shouldn't jump to conclusions about the appropriate remedies for those conditions, either. Naturally, people's minds drift towards breakup and heavy regulation as possible "solutions" to monopolistic behavior. Those are the tools with which the general public tends to be most familiar. ■ What Amazon does is complex, though. Phenomenally so. And in a time when physical retailers are closing down for many reasons, the very presence of a reliable "online superstore" may ultimately do more social good than any cost it imposes. Having the full inventory of an Amazon warehouse accessible from any smartphone -- even in a retail desert -- is a powerful force for economic equality. ■ There's no obvious regulatory scheme for what Amazon does that would be guaranteed to do more good than harm. And breakups often work out in massively unanticipated ways (just look at what happened to AT&T). The government could split Amazon in half, and there's no small risk that the resulting companies might not evolve into new monopolists, each in a different market. ■ Someone will ultimately come along to challenge the Amazon model in a sustainably powerful way. The best route would almost certainly be to focus not on offering everything from every seller, but to offer a guaranteed high-quality, modestly-priced private-label product for a large spectrum of goods. ■ Search costs can be very real, and consumers may well lack the patience to conduct two separate searches (say, one on Amazon-I, and one on Amazon-II) for every purchase. But they might well be ready to comparison shop with a rival online superstore that offers a good private label for everything -- think Costco's Kirkland brand, or the entire business model of the Aldi grocery chain. ■ If history is any guide, the market will probably usurp Amazon long before the FTC will. Just ask Nokia or the development team for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Or, from the superstore world, the teams at Sears and Montgomery Ward. It's hard to stay on top of any mountain forever.

September 29, 2023

News When should you stop applying sunscreen?

"Wear sunscreen" is advice so enduring and useful that Baz Luhrmann was able to convert it from a Chicago Tribune opinion column into a hit song. "Trust me on the sunscreen", wrote Mary Schmich, and she was right: It's a low-cost way to reduce the odds of cancers like melanoma. ■ Sunscreen isn't free, though, and it takes effort (even if not all that much) to apply it. And it isn't always apparent to the one applying it why it matters. The consequences are usually in the future, sometimes even decades away, but the costs are immediate. Even at the beach on a bright summer day, it can seem tedious and tiresome to keep applying more protection. ■ Skin performs a unique function for the body: It provides the barrier between the outside world and everything inside. T-cells in the bloodstream may go on the offensive, but skin is defensive in nature. When punctured, scorched, or gouged, it can heal itself -- given enough relief from new damage. ■ Those who ask seemingly open-ended questions like "When does US aid to Ukraine end?" deserve an honest answer in the form of a different question: "When do you stop applying sunscreen?" ■ Ukraine is performing a geopolitical role for American allies across Europe that is analogous to skin: It is holding back external damage, and doing a remarkable job. It isn't overstatement to worry about the Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, and others that are close to the source of the aggression. ■ But as long as the source of the damage remains intense, it would be premature to declare an arbitrary end to the protection. One doesn't plan to stop applying sunscreen at precisely 1:15 in the afternoon; as long as the UV rays keep coming, the protection must keep going on. Nor does one say "I shall use sunscreen until I am 27, and no more after that." ■ The danger sets the agenda. The enemy gets a vote, as military leaders are often fond of saying. And bad things may still happen, even with the most generous protective barriers in place. The costs of that protection can be immediate and real, and the benefits may be far away and difficult to envision. But prudent protections are often like that.

September 28, 2023

News Who needs a wise old king, anyhow?

If someone with a modest fortune at their disposal really wanted to change the world on a generational basis, they could do worse than to subsidize the reimagining of classic children's stories and fairy tales to strip away the kingdoms and castles, the princesses and princes, and replace them with small-"r" republican back-stories. This may, at first, seem like a strange hangup, but the open-minded observer should see that it isn't an anachronistic plea. ■ Certainly, many of the canonical fairy tales that occupy the childhood imagination come from times when monarchs were the rule, rather than the exception: The first collection of the Grimms' Fairy Tales was published in 1812, when even notoriously democratic Switzerland was struggling to reassert rule by the people. ■ But the reliance upon monarchy as a central theme in so many familiar stories -- with wise kings dispensing justice and valiant princes sweeping young damsels off their feet -- undoubtedly conditions children to think of vast concentrated power as a good thing, so long as it is held by someone (almost always a man) with good intentions. Maybe the effect is small, and maybe open minds ultimately come around to seeing things in a more classically-liberal sense. ■ Yet it is hard not to note that, even in the world's oldest uninterrupted democracy, the "American royalty" brand name of the Kennedy clan can still launch a wildly unqualified conspiracy theorist into Presidential contention and millions of voters can remain enthralled by a man whose overriding theory of government amounted to no more than l'etat, c'est moi. ■ Would those proclivities stick with us quite so much if more of the stories that fill childhood involved messy democratic votes and contentious elections with peaceful transfers of power? Maybe not. ■ It's really never too early to begin inculcating children with the idea that all of us are equals, and that cooperation, tolerance, and consent are far better than merely accepting that someone wields divine right over the rest of us. Children can start to understand these concepts early in life, and maybe adults are obligated to do a better job of making sure they hear tales that reinforce them. Someone ought to get writing.

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September 27, 2023

The United States of America The unforgivable call for violence

General Mark Milley, the outgoing Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been forced to seek personal security protection after a former President implied that Milley should be executed. Only one former President would say such a thing; his long-standing enthusiastic embrace of the language of violence being so far outside the norm that it is a personal signature. ■ Everyone makes mistakes, and politicians are no exception. Their mistakes are often made for much bigger audiences than most. But so are their choices, whether to do right or wrong. Many questions they face fall within the boundaries of judgment -- a policy decision may turn out well or badly, but an honest advocate could at least make a defensible case for or against. ■ That isn't the case when someone resorts to the language of violence. There is no defense or excuse for it, and the indisputable proof is this: Were Gen. Milley to have said the very same thing about the ex-President that the ex-President wrote about him, then the consequences wouldn't stop at swift and immediate censure, but would likely extend to criminal investigation and possible prosecution. ■ Forgiveness is a vital personal virtue. Life itself would be difficult to endure without interpersonal forgiveness. But forgiveness exists within a broader concept of reconciliation: People reclaiming a hostile space that develops between them by reaching out to make things better again. ■ There is no obligation, though, for a society at large to forgive its worst trespassers, most especially when they make no effort to reconcile. The system depends upon civilized practices like the peaceful transfer of power and the non-incendiary use of rhetoric to settle our differences. Without them, there is no policy choice that is safe for debate.

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September 24, 2023

News Slow down

Perhaps a week remains until the Federal government risks entering a shutdown. It is uncomfortably familiar territory. ■ There are those who consider these shutdowns a unique failure of America's governmental system. It is true that separating powers over spending, as Article I and Article II of the Constitution force, makes the process of collecting tax revenues and spending them complicated. It's more complicated than in a process executed by a parliament. ■ But the slowdowns in the process, if not a feature themselves, are symptomatic of a feature rather than a bug in the system. We have some troublesome participants with extreme views involved in the process. But the problems they create are not reasons to take friction out of the system. ■ Every system has problematic or bad actors. Sometimes they even get elected to the Presidency. Fixing the problem of ensuring the election of quality candidates is a big one, but it's not one that is solved by greasing the skids so that legislation (and budgets) move faster.

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September 23, 2023

The Federal Trade Commission is going after a Texas chain of anesthesia providers and a private-equity investment firm that has a big ownership stake in it. The government alleges that the company "engaged in a three-part strategy to consolidate and monopolize the anesthesiology market in Texas". The case ought to be prosecuted in court, but the allegations sound like far less than what society ought to expect from its physicians. ■ We really have to reconcile ourselves with the definition of "professional". To really be a profession, a line of work needs to recognize that it holds a special kind of power (usually vital knowledge or expertise) over its clients, and that the asymmetry of the relationship requires a binding code of conduct to keep bad actors out. ■ In some (though not all) professions, there's an additional legal step -- certification or licensure that specifically excludes others from representing themselves as being comparable professionals. Of course, those licenses themselves require a lot of self-policing, which is why a state board of medicine is usually filled by doctors. (Likewise for engineers, attorneys, and accountants.) ■ Regulatory licensure inevitably excludes people who wish to perform the work, which constrains supply. This, in turn, raises the amount that the professionals can charge. This market force has to be counteracted by a certain moral expectation: If you're in a line of work that we reserve by law only for some people, then you must not use that power to exploit others for your own enrichment. ■ If your work contains some kind of code of conduct, that's a pretty good step towards being a profession. The code implies that you're going to make choices that may not benefit you personally, because they're right thing to do for the client. The idea of making "professional" choices on behalf of a client is an acknowledgment that there's a principal-agent problem in place: Only one of you has sufficient knowledge about what's best, and it's not the person paying for the services. ■ The designation of "professional" comes with a certain amount of social standing: We, the public, owe you, the professional, some gratitude. You're sacrificing some potential income that you could squeeze out of us, in exchange for the authority to make important decisions for others. Respect goes with that. ■ That definition of professionalism seems patently incompatible with arm's-length ownership. If you're not the professional delivering the service (or immediately adjacent to them), then you probably shouldn't be pulling home the profits from the work. A professional needs to be able to resist some temptation to make a marginal dollar of income from an unwitting client. ■ Professionalism is an extremely important concept to preserve within a market economy. A small but meaningful step towards that preservation might be to stop slapping the word "professional" on work that isn't a code-bound profession. If you play sports for money, you're not really a "professional" -- you're an elite athlete. If you make beautiful art, you may be an eminent artist -- but it's not a profession. And there are many ways to be a good and honorable person in sales, but "sales professional" is a paradoxical title. ■ If your job doesn't require you to profess a code of honorable and self-sacrificial behavior, then you're not really a "professional". You can still be good and decent, and you should be! But for the sake of society, if you're out to optimize your own profits, then you shouldn't demand to be respected as a professional. And if you insist on being respected as a professional, then you shouldn't demand to optimize your own profits. ■ Good people can do either thing, but the act of maximizing returns (which is the kind of thing private equity investors do, almost by definition) isn't consistent with what medical professionals are expected (and generally bound by law) to do. The FTC may or may not be right about the facts and the law in this case; that's why it should go through a judicial process. But the spirit of the case highlights why words matter, and why "professional" shouldn't be the kind of title we just give away.

September 22, 2023

News When to keep a tradition

College football season is a time when the word "tradition" gets a lot of exercise. The astute observer could pick from hundreds, from ringing a bell to banging a drum to waving to hospitalized kids. ■ But it is healthy to recognize a difference between traditions that are worth keeping and traditions that ought to be jettisoned. The stakes are low when it comes to college football, but traditions affect all kinds of other life experiences, including some of the most important choices about how people live their lives. ■ A tradition that hasn't been tested is really nothing more than a good rumor. If people like to tell one another a story because it makes them feel good, that may be harmless -- who cares whether you rub Knute Rockne's nose for good luck? But a "traditional" way of doing things can also mean taking chances with people's health or obstructing an entire gender from participating in government. ■ When they are used to remind us of good practices, traditions are among the most useful tools that human civilizations have. Not everything can be written down as a rule, and even written rules can be broken. Elections are usually conducted according to rules, but the peaceful transfer of power is enforceable more by tradition than by anything enshrined on paper. ■ For the good of society, individuals need to feel an intrinsic and inescapable pull to defend tested traditions rather than to go with their momentary passions that might suggest otherwise. People of goodwill ought to appreciate the testing of traditions because they bear out whether one is worth keeping. ■ A tradition shouldn't be tested arbitrarily or unnecessarily, but it ought to demonstrate some merit of its own. If a tradition fails a test -- if it turns out to be useless, antiquated, or counterproductive -- then we shouldn't hestitate to jettison it. But nothing is more obnoxious to the present than to worship artifacts of the past that don't build constructively towards the future.

September 19, 2023

News Known for all the wrong reasons

Plenty of United States Senators are famous: Lots of people know which one has been in physical fights with his neighbors, which one routinely dresses like he's taking out the garbage, and which one is obsessed with podcast popularity. Ask ordinary voters to name three who are long overdue to retire or three more who will say anything to get a TV hit, and you probably won't have trouble collecting names. ■ But in Federalist Paper No. 62, James Madison made a case for the Senate that had nothing to do with popularity or notoriety. In fact, quite the opposite: He envisioned the Senate as a center of knowledge. ■ "A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained", wrote Madison. "Some governments are deficient in both these qualities; most governments are deficient in the first. I scruple not to assert, that in American governments too little attention has been paid to the last." ■ Who is the Senate's expert on education reform? Or cybersecurity? Or blue-water naval strategy? Or renewable energy? Who is there to do the work to apply real knowledge to the big, long-term, national-scale issues that will trouble us 6 or 9 months from now, not to mention 15 or 20 years from today? ■ That it's much easier to name Senators for all the wrong reasons than to identify which ones are really beacons of wisdom ought to be a shame on American voters. We're the ones who choose them, after all. ■ And it's a further shame that we gobble up so much horse-race coverage about elections to the Senate without demanding more journalism that highlights independent judgment and creativity of thought among those actually in office. The good news, of course, is that voters have the option to completely clean house every six years, should we so choose. But it requires initiative to do so.

September 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards The membership we deserve

It is a question worth asking, as it already has been and will undoubtedly be asked again during the 78th General Assembly of the United Nations: Why does Russia retain a prominent seat at the table while it shamelessly pursues an unprovoked war against its neighbor? ■ The answer lies, in part, within an identity crisis for the UN. It is neither a purely neutral forum for the adjudication of international disputes, nor a truly values-driven institution. If it were a neutral forum with the sole purpose of stabilizing world affairs, then it would be small, disciplined, and entirely mission-focused. But the secretariat claims to employ "tens of thousands of UN staff members", reflecting the sort of mission creep that is extremely difficult to avoid within any organization prone to recruiting ambitious people. ■ If the UN were a truly values-driven institution, though, then Saudi Arabia would have to work harder to earn a seat at the Commission on the Status of Women and Russia would be suspended from the Security Council for invading a neighbor and gravely threatening the security of an entire continent (to choose just two significant examples). ■ A forum with a mission of offering a vital forum for discussions pointing towards peace and stability would focus single-mindedly on that objective. A club with principles wouldn't hesitate to eject members for violating the rules. In its incumbent form, the United Nations really ought to consider retrenching to that single-minded focus on acting as the world's irreplaceable forum. That would allow it to spin off its many values-driven subsidiary missions to their own standalone institutions, not because they are unimportant, but because they are too important to be diluted by their association with an organization that feels compelled to accept all comers. ■ A principle stripped of consequences is just a set of empty words. For the UN to tout a slogan of "Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet" on its masthead at the same time as one of its most powerful members mines its neighbor, kidnaps 200,000 children (or more), and extorts the people whose land it occupies, is to undermine the actual gravity of those values.

September 16, 2023

News To cook a better dinner

It isn't hard to understand the impulse that some people have to make fun of a situation like the one depicting Sen. Mitt Romney putting ketchup on a salmon fillet in order to make it palatable. To those who like it prepared well, the thought of drowning a piece of fine Alaskan salmon in ketchup is a crime. ■ But there is something deeper to the tale: Romney isn't ordering his salmon at a fine restaurant; he's cooking it for himself. While it's entirely possible he simply doesn't like the taste of the fish and wouldn't under any circumstances (not everyone has a taste for seafood), suppose that he might enjoy it if prepared differently. ■ Learning how to prepare foods well makes as much difference as the raw materials themselves. It would be easy to make a bad meal out of a great salmon fillet, if the person cooking it didn't know how to do it well. Mistakes can be made in the thawing, the seasoning, the temperature, the finish, and even in how the meat is flaked away from the skin. ■ Food has a funny place in American popular culture. We don't have a real national cuisine like lots of other countries; perhaps the closest we come is a national consensus on how to put hamburgers on a grill. Lacking a common traditional method of preparation, we have evolved toward a consensus that thrives on meals like chicken nuggets and French fries: The cooking centers on frying oil and the seasoning centers on salt. ■ The ire directed at Romney's approach to salmon is a lot like the condescension often directed towards the eating habits associated with poverty. Sometimes the problem is one of bad choices. Sometimes it's limited access. But sometimes people eat poorly because they haven't acquired the capacity to make pleasing, quick meals from affordable basic ingredients. It's a capacity issue, or perhaps more precisely, a problem of people needing to build capacity and not knowing how to do it. ■ Lots of healthy foods need to be transformed by good preparation in order to become really appetizing. It isn't obvious how that capacity should be built, either. Should everyone have to master a few Julia Child recipes before being conferred a high school diploma? Should everyone receive a voucher for a refresher course in cooking once a decade? Should the government subsidize certain time-saving devices like air fryers for households that qualify for nutrition assistance? ■ Sometimes solving a bigger issue means drilling around for answers to root causes. But it's important to look carefully, because it's not just a problem of poverty. Plenty of Americans with lots of financial means could use some guidance, too.

September 15, 2023

News Ambition rises through every system

An Australian real-estate developer has attempted to apologize and walk back comments he made to an investing summit, during which he said that "we need to see pain in the economy" and "employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around...we've got to kill that attitude". ■ The backlash is understandable: The words were condescending and inhumane. But there are all too many people responding to those words by blaming capitalism and "neoliberals" for one person's bad attitude. They are the usual suspects, of course, who profess perpetual faith in socialism -- including its harshest variants. ■ The mystery in the overreaction is why socialists assume that under their system, a person like this developer would turn out to be a harmless potato farmer instead of a party apparatchik with the very same attitude problem. Ambition is a human trait, and it fits into whatever socioeconomic system surrounds it. ■ The people who tend to dehumanize others to serve their own interests under capitalism would do the same in a Marxist-Leninist state, too. The question is what power we grant them to do it. Within a market economy, public outcry and backlash carry weight. People can choose to snub the developer and his company -- as employees, customers, or suppliers. ■ It is noteworthy that he released an apology and took down his LinkedIn account over the backlash. People who are free to take their business elsewhere are a material factor in a market economy. ■ The same cannot be done in the command economies of the world. An ambitious person raised in a market economy would likely be an ambitious person in a Marxist-Leninist economy, too. Instead of accumulating wealth, the ambitious tend to accumulate privileges and proximity to power. ■ The property developer with a bad attitude under capitalism might become a factory manager instead -- with greater power to abuse and berate his underlings (who, in a command economy, have fewer alternatives and less freedom to fight back), and a much more severe set of consequences to face if his performance failed to impress those above him in the power structure. And the politically powerful can make those who fall out of favor simply "disappear". ■ Ambition can be exercised with goodwill, or it can be carried out by rotten souls. And some bad apples will find their way into powerful positions, no matter what socioeconomic system they occupy. What we should care about most is how much power they have to compel others to go along when they go wrong.

September 13, 2023

Broadcasting The all-consuming tube

The most recent American Time Use Survey, using data collected in 2022, reveals that Americans have a particular addiction that intensifies with age: Watching television. The average adult aged 25 to 34 years old watches just a little bit less than two hours of television per day -- but the average person aged 75 or older is in front of the tube for nearly five hours a day (and rising above five hours on weekends). ■ We devote a great deal of attention to the prospects for new technologies like artificial intelligence to affect both individuals and the culture at large. That's likely a prudent concern. There are a great number of ways in which emerging tools have been either under-examined or whose effects defy easy forecasting. ■ But it's not always the new that poses the most substantial hazards, nor should we overlook old risks just because we've become numb to their effects. Television (and other video products, regardless of how they are delivered) remains a profoundly powerful medium -- one that has been used for great edifying purposes (see "Sesame Street") as well as for purposes that are so plainly stupid that their hosts and producers deserve to be sent into exile. ■ One of our biggest failures as a society is that spammers, phonies, crooks, cranks, and extremists have invested so much effort in learning the secrets of getting people hooked on their content, with almost nobody applying the same lessons on the side of good. It's the ne'er-do-wells who have figured out how to exploit psychological tools like "curiosity gap" marketing to get viewers to click on crude web ads and annoying pre-roll videos. And the murky bottoms they occupy are adjacent to the ones where we find snake-oil "influencers", political and psychological cults, and full-fledged malicious psyops. ■ There isn't enough counterbalancing motive for people with good motivations to learn and apply the same techniques. Quick riches can await the clever influencer running elaborate stunts on YouTube, but nobody's getting wealthy by convincing people to read the Federalist Papers. ■ That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, though; in fact, the gap is really much as it has always been: Certain virtues, like duty, persistence, self-improvement, and integrity, have always been slow to pay off, and often not in remunerative ways at all. But even if the techniques are being pioneered most aggressively by people taking advantage of the passivity of others, those same techniques can (and ought to be) studied and reappropriated by people of goodwill.

September 12, 2023

Threats and Hazards Let the conspiracy theories die

Another September 11th anniversary has passed, and a small but noisy crowd of conspiracy theorists remains committed to promoting narratives about the events of that day that have no foundation in evidence. Even a declared Presidential candidate remains among them. ■ Conspiracy theories usually exist to satisfy a longing to have insider knowledge. People see patterns where none exist and are gratified by a sense of belonging among a special elite of those who are "in the know". ■ But the bigger question that applies to many conspiracy theories -- but in particular to those about the 9/11 attacks -- is this: Why are some people so committed to inventing new evils in which to believe, rather than the self-evident evil which already demonstrably exists? ■ Al-Qaeda openly claimed responsibility for the attacks. It isn't necessary to go searching elsewhere for more convoluted explanations, particularly for explanations that would indict the decency of ordinary Americans. ■ What happened was complex enough, and there is real and continuing reason to examine how the government missed the fragments of information that could have thwarted the attacks. When people contaminate the public mind with feverish nonsense, they detract from the hard and important work of learning how better to apply defense-in-depth against future attacks, from whatever sources they may come.

September 11, 2023

Weather and Disasters Powering tropical weather

With a forward speed of just 7 miles per hour, the eyewall of Hurricane Lee could be outrun by a pretty average jogger (assuming the jogger could stay on land). But the hurricane itself is powerful. The familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes storms by wind speeds, rates Lee (with 115-mph winds) as a Category 3 storm. ■ The real measure of hurricanes ought to be the depth of its central low pressure -- a better measure of strength and of damage potential than wind speeds alone. The public takes its cues on science from the measurements it can understand. Wind speeds are familiar, of course, but they leave out vital information. ■ It has been estimated that the oceans are absorbing most of the excess heat energy that human activities have released into the world around us. And what we need to center in the public awareness is that excess energy is reallocated by weather systems from the water to the atmosphere. ■ The amount of energy involved is staggering -- a single hurricane release energy on a scale comparable to all the electricity generated by human behavior. ■ But even that apparently isn't enough to deplete the excess energy in the oceans right now; not if Hurricane Lee can move so slowly and keep on drawing in new fuel. And that's why tropical cylones ought to be described more by their pressures than by their wind speeds. It all comes down to energy, and there's a great deal of it going around right now.

September 10, 2023

Business and Finance You can't plan this

The sentiment that everyone is entitled to have an opinion, but not to make up a unique set of facts, is one to which most sensible people subscribe. But what about those opinions so relentlessly contravened by the facts that they simply cannot survive any kind of real scrutiny? ■ A state senator from New York has taken to a public platform to loudly declare, "Having a plan is better than not having one. Socialism = planned economy[,] Capitalism = unplanned ("free" market)". An opinion, yes. But what of his facts? ■ The only way to reach his conclusion is to willfully reject every relevant lesson of history and adopt a fertile imagination about the omniscience of planners. The originating assumption of the entire claim is that plans themselves are good. But anyone with even the mildest experience in planning recognizes the grain of truth in the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." ■ Thus, "Having a plan" is no panacea, particularly if it is finalized, rigid, and codified. And that is exactly what people mean when they call for a "planned" economy. A market economy is "planned", too, but not in the ledgers of government. A market is "planned" through the actions and choices of all its many participants. Their plans, though, are not fixed: Sensible people learn to adapt and change as circumstances change. ■ As people make their own choices, their plans get converted into actions, which then send signals to other people (via prices) that spill over and affect their plans, too. Planning still takes place, but it takes place on individual and firm-level scales, and it takes place flexibly. There is an unimaginable hubris to the notion that any merry band of omniscient geniuses could effectively plan the course of an economy, when not one of us has sufficient information to predict perfectly the circumstances of our own individual lives a year from now. ■ No planner could have predicted negative oil prices a year in advance of April 2020, and that is merely one among literally billions of unpredictable economic events. The faith some people have in government planners may be an opinion to which they are entitled, but it is a faith so profoundly contradicted by the facts that no one should take its adherents seriously.

September 9, 2023

News The strengths that prevent wars

Thanks to one particularly cantankerous member of the United States Senate, the concept of "poetry on aircraft carriers" has gained some currency as a shorthand way of decrying a perceived condition of softness within the American military. Once an abstraction of this nature takes off, it becomes hard to harness back to reality. Yet it shouldn't be allowed to slip the reins. ■ The story probably originates with a spat in April, when the Chief of Naval Operations defended a junior officer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing against Sen. Tommy Tuberville's complaints. That junior officer was celebrated by the Navy's own public-affairs outlets for serving in the military under a non-binary gender identity, including a carrier deployment during which the officer had the opportunity to share a poem aboard the ship's PA system. ■ The Senator relies upon a shorthand description of the military as a "killing and fighting machine", holding that purpose as being incompatible with being an institution open to people of varying gender and sexual backgrounds or friendly to cultural events like spoken-word nights. In reality, the American military's openness to service from all kinds of people is a source of strategic strength. Yes, at some level, a military is a "killing and fighting machine", and under those circumstances, it is hard to see any evidence that gender identity has any effect on lethality. ■ But far more importantly, the armed forces of the United States act as a deterrent power, and deterrence comes from both practiced strength and adaptable thinking. It's far easier to deter an adversary when in possession not just of arms, but of ample brainpower. And anything that prevents a country from employing all of its best minds -- regardless of gender -- is a handicap against using all of its best thinking. ■ There should be no doubt that the United States today would be an even stronger country if the Founding Fathers had included an equal number of Founding Mothers in their proceedings; surely there was a woman of equal genius for every man in the room. But at least we know better today, and we should have the wisdom to assume likewise that for every great general like George Washington, there surely might have been an equal prospective leader who would have identified as Georgia Washington -- and, though fewer in number, at least a handful that would have eschewed a gender identity altogether. ■ The more we put to work the people best able to do their jobs, regardless of any other identity, the better we'll be able to fight and win the wars of the present and future. But even more significantly, the better we recognize the wisdom embedded in Dwight Eisenhower's advice from World War II: "[T]he American soldier, in spite of wisecracking, sometimes cynical speech, is an intelligent human being who demands and deserves basic understanding of the reasons why his country took up arms and of the conflicting consequences of victory or defeat." Purpose, intelligence, and creativity help us not just to win but to prevent wars. Those aren't soft spots, they're strengths, and it doesn't matter one bit in what bodies those strengths are contained.

September 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards It's not a binary question

If there is one lesson to take away from the social sciences, it is that human behavior can often be predicted in the probabilistic sense, but events are almost never subject to simplistic determinations. In other words: Some patterns are much more likely than others, but rarely does just one set of rules or causes apply. ■ Every honest person knows this from personal experience. The odds are reasonably high that any individual will share a considerable number of important opinions on matters like politics or religion with their parents or with a spouse. But nobody agrees completely with anyone else about everything -- not even with a husband or a wife. Not even dear old Mom. ■ Thus, when the world's richest person, who controls a number of ventures, including the Starlink satellite Internet service, comes under particular scrutiny for using his corporate control of the service to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian warships with the crucial aid of its technology, then it should be no surprise that he might seek to defend his personal honor. ■ But the defense he offers ought to be held to some standard of logical rigor. It is one thing to say "I was afraid of being labeled as an accomplice in an act of which I did not approve". It is another to say, as Elon Musk has done, "Both sides should agree to a truce. Every day that passes, more Ukrainian and Russian youth die to gain and lose small pieces of land, with borders barely changing. This is not worth their lives." ■ As a matter of decency, the bloodshed in Ukraine ought to end. But it won't be ended by a fantasy. Musk subscribes to an excruciatingly over-simplified understanding of matters when he posits that the solution is "a truce". Russia initiated the war (breaking the "truce" that preceded it), it violated Ukraine's territory to commit the violence, and it is responsible for committing war crimes against the people whose homeland it has invaded. ■ All that is required for hostilities to cease is for Russia to withdraw from where it invaded. Until then, calling for a "truce" is like saying that a homeowner should make peace with a violent squatter, as though the acts of theft and self-defense are moral equals. They aren't. Reducing the question to a binary matter of "fighting" or "not fighting" is foolishness. And ignoring the many reasons why fighting in self-defense today may be necessary to achieve a real state of peace tomorrow requires a willful blindness to the real nature of human affairs.

September 5, 2023

News Labels aren't always necessary

Most people are generally more heterodox in their opinions than one might expect. Fully-formed, rational, and consistent philosophies of government are few and far between, and the people who have the time and incentive to form them -- think-tank fellows, advocacy journalists, and syndicated columnists, for example -- are the exceptions. The rule, even for career politicians, tends to be a lot messier. ■ It's much more common to find that people have opinions on a small subset of things and then subscribe to what appear to be the prevailing opinions on adjacent things among those who go along with them. This is a fairly natural impulse; most of us care strongly about a handful of things, but in order to get what we want democratically, we need to find coalitions. Thus, some horse-trading invariably takes place, whether in the open or by default. ■ For this reason, we should beware the seductive impulse to label every opinion as belonging to a broad political character. This is especially the case today, when long-established definitions no longer apply even to such commonly-used adjectives as "liberal" and "conservative". ■ When observers take their labels too far, they risk unintentionally creating a negative feedback loop among people who identify more with a tribe than with a philosophy. If someone with a big audience says something remarkably dumb, then it should be enough to treat that dumb idea to a rational, factual response. That's the case even if the person attempts to align themselves with a perceived "side" in politics. ■ Trade protectionism, for instance, is a bad idea, whether it's conducted by people who call themselves "democratic socialists" or by people who call themselves "common-good conservatives". Critiquing individual opinions and policies away from hazy labels (like "conservative" or "progressive") helps to break the feedback loops that can cause people to rise to the defense of bad ideas they really don't believe, but which they think are admission requirements to remain in good standing with their tribes. ■ Using caution with broad labels can help to nudge people away from that instinct to surrender their critical thought to the identity of a team. And that's a good thing, because the world is too complex to be easily satisfied with one-size-fits-all ideologies. ■ When people consider issues on their own, shifts of historic proportions can happen in relatively short order. Using restraint rather than blandly applying broad labels to individuals and specific opinions can help to implicitly encourage people to embrace nuance and complexity in their own views of things.

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September 4, 2023

Health Executing on the basics before the burn

The grand paradox of the 2023 Burning Man festival is likely to be how an event so libertine in nature is likely to offer an enduring case for good government. The event was derailed by unmanaged desert rainfall, of a scale that rendered most transportation impossible. That alone would be bad, but for an event dependent upon the manual emptying of portable toilets as a primary mode of sanitation, the lack of transportation also means a fundamental breakdown in some of the most basic aspects of civilization. ■ Nobody actually needs to attend Burning Man. But almost everyone needs to live within some kind of structured civilized environment. Cities and towns are the most obvious example, but even family-sized human settlments, at least in the United States, are almost always subject to regulations requiring roads for emergency access (even if they're only covered in gravel) and safe disposal of used water (even if only via a septic leach field). ■ Two imperative points should be taken from the 2023 Burning Man experience, even for those who stayed home. The first is that well-operated municipal services are, in general, vastly underappreciated by the American public. Put simply: Most of the time, we take public works for granted, noticing only when they break down catastrophically. That's a crying shame, and we ought to change our attitudes. Very little of that work is glamorous, but it is indispensable to maintaining anything close to an advanced society. ■ The second lesson is that municipal water and sanitation infrastructures aren't about saving the environment, they're about public health. This may not seem like an immediately obvious matter of importance. But most of the regulation that pertains to the delivery, use, rehabilitation, and reuse of water comes under the supervision of agencies operating under some version of the word "environment". This is no surprise, considering that the leading Federal agency for those purposes is itself the Environmental Protection Agency. ■ But the lesson from Burning Man is that the crux of the matter isn't what humans do to the environment, but how flaws in sanitation have almost immediate effects on the health of human beings. If you don't have clean potable water and a safe means of disposing water that has been used (for any number of purposes, including but by no means limited to, the use of toilets), then you don't have a healthy civilization -- in the most literal sense. Bad water makes people sick. ■ Nature (that is, "the environment") has many ways to heal water that humans have used and made unwell. They may not be swift, but the same processes that handle the waste functions of all the other animals would deal with ours as well. It is for human health and safety -- particularly when we gather in settlements of any size, even if only for a week-long festival -- that water disposal and rehabilitation matter so much. Human society starts to fail quickly if we're deprived of reliable means of sanitation. People can muddle through for a few days at a time, but if it goes on much longer than that, it's not the environment that suffers -- it's us.

September 1, 2023

News A class by herself

The physical extremes of a Simone Biles floor routine are enough to summon words like "superhuman" to the mind. Her performances are truly extraordinary -- and perhaps even more so because she has earned the record for oldest woman to earn a US national title in the sport. She is an athlete in a class of her own. ■ Most elite athletes are endowed with some kind of natural gift or another, but what turns out a truly epic talent like what Biles is able to display is something more: Sustained, persistent effort. Six hours a day in 2016. Then seven hours a day in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. And then whatever it took to shake the "twisties" since then. ■ Could just anyone spend the same amount of time in training and turn out the same? No; that's where natural gifts come in. But even with a gift that would put someone standard deviations outside the mean, it's not enough just to show up in a lucky place and time. ■ That's the root of the common (if not almost-universal) revulsion people feel about the con artists who fake their way into good fortune. When a person has a natural gift but does the hard work to refine it, most of us feel admiration. But unearned success is aggravating to outsiders; fortunately, it seems like it's often aggravating to the undeservedly successful, too. We've even coined the name imposter syndrome to explain the nagging feeling that even an earned success doesn't always feel quite earned enough. ■ Nothing beats sustained, persistent effort. Other things may pull ahead of it from time to time, but nobody stays on top for long (or even close to the top) without it. Really respecting outstanding performers requires seeing them not as superhuman, but as humans who apply super persistence.

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