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July 12, 2024

Business and Finance We're still learning about inflation

Anyone who learned economics prior to the turn of the century may be forgiven for anchoring their expectations of certain variables in places that may no longer make sense. For instance, the prevailing wisdom of the time -- even among those authoring then-contemporary textbooks -- was that the natural rate of unemployment was probably around 6%, and that lower rates would trigger inflation. It seems like that figure may be closer to 4% today. ■ We're experiencing inflation, but more likely due to the shocking things done to expand the money supply in and following the pandemic of 2020 than the rate of unemployment. And there's evidence to believe that we're still processing some of the lingering side effects of massive interventions conducted in the 2008 financial panic. Lots of people and institutions pulled way back from old, more excitable habits: Things got weird around 2008 and then stayed that way. ■ Economist Greg Mankiw makes a pretty compelling case that there is still a relationship between unemployment and inflation, but that it's very hard to make much use of either side of the trade-off in time to make monetary policy respond usefully: "The problem is that because we don't know the natural rate of unemployment with much precision, it is hard to disentangle supply and demand. That is true even with the benefit of hindsight, but the task is even more formidable in real time when data are preliminary and incomplete." A lot of this may sound like inside baseball to people who don't follow economics in detail, but perceptions of inflation are casting a huge shadow over the 2024 Presidential election. ■ Prudent management of the money supply is the chief job of the Federal Reserve, which is supposed to be managed apolitically and in the best interests of the country as a whole (which generally seems to be the case). But when people exhibit strong feelings about forces they don't fully understand and mostly cannot control, it's a subject worth lots of study.

July 11, 2024

News That's what friends are for

The leaders of the NATO member countries gathered for a group photo at the White House to mark the opening of their summit meeting, and it has been remarked that even if some partners in the alliance still lag behind the expectation that they should spend 2% of GDP on defense (Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Slovenia, and Canada are the farthest behind), the fact remains that the persistence of a voluntary alliance among so many countries is itself a good thing. ■ Too many people try to judge the world by fixed points when what always matters is the direction of travel. There is no perfect destination, no Utopia, no end state of human affairs. And to fixate on the hope of arriving at one is a guaranteed way to end up frustrated and dissatisfied forever. ■ In particular, there is no end state for international security, no matter how attractive the mirage of a permanent peace might be. There is no such thing as security-as-destination. There is only the difference between growing more secure and becoming less secure. ■ An alliance isn't about an unchanging end state: The trends are what matter. The NATO alliance is a tool for growing more secure, and people who don't appreciate that direction of travel are likely to make grave mistakes about what to value and which strategies to embrace.

News Putting out the neighbor's fire

Unsurprisingly, the NATO summit has involved discussion about furnishing support to Ukraine in its time of need. Even if you could snap your fingers and end the war and occupation tonight, Russia and Ukraine would still share a land border more than a thousand miles long. That's greater than the distance from Chicago to Denver. Ukraine's survival even after the war will depend on strength.

July 10, 2024

News Learn from the past without living there

In a poem predating Confucius, an ancient Chinese author wrote, "In the old capital they wore / T'ae hats and black caps small; / And ladies, who famed surnames bore, / Their own thick hair let fall. / Such simple ways are seen no more, / And the changed manners I deplore." ■ Poetry is invariably hard to reproduce in a new language since something of the original is always -- quite literally -- lost in translation. But the recurring theme of "In Praise of By-Gone Simplicity" is a familiar one: The poet longs for the good old days, romanticizing how much simpler they were. ■ That sentiment seems pretty quaint, considering those "good old days" must have been more than 2,500 years ago. Literally everything about those times is certain to appear simpler than today. But that perspective also illustrates the intrinsic fallacy of mistaking simplicity for virtue. Life was less complex 100 years ago, much less 2,500 years ago, yet no sensible person would trade places with the occupants of the past just to escape complexity if they truly realized what else they were giving up. ■ Reflexive, unthinking nostalgia is a mistake. Yes, things get more complex with the passage of time, but they also tend to get much better, even if there are setbacks and obstacles along the way. We have to recognize plainly that it's nothing new to imagine that the past was better than it actually was. Nor is it new that some people will long for that past even in the face of reason and evidence. ■ Nostalgia is nothing new in human nature. As time marches on, it's always up to the present generation to appreciate the present, learn honestly from the past, and aspire with intentionality to a better future. Plenty of lessons can be extracted from the past without us having to take up residence there.

July 8, 2024

Computers and the Internet Puzzles and the AI future

Countless breathless commentators have opined about either the unlimited potential or the unspeakable dangers of artificial intelligence. So far, the evidence is entirely mixed: Some examples of AI, like using machine learning to assist in complex scientific problems like protein folding, weigh on the good side of the scale. Others, like some of the bizarre hallucinations served up as authentic search results, weigh heavily on the bad. ■ As with all technologies, the extent to which AI is good or bad depends upon the values of the people using it. And it's being used badly by many, to be sure -- the evidence points to widespread abuse by people submitting partially or completely AI-generated, nonsense-stuffed papers to academic journals, just for example. But there is a wide scope of possibility for it to be used well, particularly if it's put to use as an aid to human thinking (rather than as a substitute for it). ■ Human minds are wired to try to solve puzzles. It's why we see shapes in the clouds and form superstitions -- our brains are very good at making connections, even when they are not justified. Artificial intelligence tools could be put to extremely good use in breaking complex problems into human-friendly pieces. ■ Small puzzles are attractive -- millions of people play Sudoku or Wordle or Jumble or the New York Times Crossword. It's when problems seem too big or lack obvious constituent parts that people shy away. ■ That's where AI should be asked to step in. It's probably not ready yet, either in terms of sophistication or data and human safety. Lots of problems are complicated specifically because there is no existing path to a solution, and others bear heavily enough on personal choices that we need to be wary of turning over too much intimate detail to systems with insufficient safeguards. ■ But AI is likely not too far removed from the stage when it could analyze large problems and recommend bite-sized component pieces -- puzzles, really -- that could appeal to our natural instincts. These puzzles could make work seem more interesting and big personal questions seem less daunting. That would be a highly human-centered way to put high technology to use.

July 7, 2024

News A big year for better maps

2024 is a cartographically interesting year for two reasons: The Summer Olympics and the record-breaking number of people choosing elected leaders -- more than half of the world's population. For both reasons, this deserves to be the year of the cartogram. ■ Conventionally, we display maps according to physical shapes and political boundaries. When we do it with the entire globe, this tends to create substantial distortions that make places near the poles appear disproportionately large. (The Mercator projection is famously the most egregious violator, but even "good" projections still create distortions.) ■ But even when we find ways to mitigate the physical distortions, another huge distortion remains. When we illustrate political boundaries (around countries or individual states or provinces within countries), we end up prioritizing the margins. Margins, though, are just that -- edge cases. ■ The margin between Montana and Idaho is relatively recognizable, for example, but if we're representing people and what they do, it's not very important. What's important is to see where people are concentrated. Population clusters are important and density is important -- not the arbitrary boundaries drawn by things like rivers and longitudinal meridians. ■ Cartograms solve this by representing populations in equivalent units, then roughly placing them in proximity to one another. Thus, a cartogram of the United Kingdom represents London much larger than it appears on a geographical map -- because that's where all the people are. Similarly, a cartogram of the United States makes New England and the East Coast much bigger than Montana and Idaho, because that's where the population is weighted. ■ It's obvious how this makes election returns easier to process and understand, but it also makes global events like the Olympics more comprehensible. Land masses like Siberia don't win gold medals; the people who live in individual countries do. And what a lesson it would likely be for many people to realize that, contrary to most physical projections on the world map, countries like Nigeria and Indonesia and Pakistan are members of the top-ten club for population. ■ Even the finest, most balanced Winkel tripel projection showing their physical boundaries can't reveal how big they are in terms of human lives: The metric that should matter most. Given the scale and scope of events taking place this year, 2024 ought to be the year when cartograms make a splash onto television, computer, and smartphone screens everywhere.

July 5, 2024

News Voters may be right to get bored

After controlling the government there for 14 years, the UK's Conservative Party has been stomped by its rival, the Labour Party, in the election of a new Parliament. It's the kind of hard turn away from the status quo that the Conservatives will undoubtedly have to undergo some kind of process of reflection -- probably one involving a "post-mortem" report to "chart a new course forward", or something similar. ■ The people of every country are entitled to self-determination; it isn't for outsiders looking in to decide what government is right or wrong for them to freely elect. (Unfree states may be a different matter entirely.) But we can certainly look at them with interest, and perhaps take lessons from them. ■ A lesson worth taking from the British election is that voters are prone to bouts of restlessness. It doesn't seem likely that the fundamental philosophical expectations of the British people changed in a landslide -- public opinion can and often does change rapidly on particular issues, but people's basic temperamental expectations of their leaders do so far less often. ■ That restlessness is probably, on balance, a good check on power. If free people can be reliably counted upon to just want change for its own sake from time to time, that not only helps to discourage abuses of power but also to encourage periodic waves of reform, both within parties and across aisles. ■ It often requires some real sclerosis for a party to take the kind of beating that British voters just gave the Conservatives, but the basic mechanism of voter restlessness is useful in any democracy for placing a check on power, even when that power is exercised well.

July 4, 2024

The United States of America The luckiest child

It was in the context of an annual meeting of shareholders during which Warren Buffett was asked about his confidence in the American economy in light of the "CNBC" threats: Chemical, nuclear, biological, and cyber. The question was raised in 2015, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and a few years after Mitt Romney had been mocked for pointing at Russia's government as a leading source of threat. ■ Buffett's response, though it was offered as business analysis rather than a patriotic rallying cry, remains applicable today, almost a decade later: "The economic system is enormously powerful; there will be fits and starts, but imagine what a flyover tour of the country would have looked like in 1776. Everything that's been developed since that time is profit." ■ "People fret about a 2% economic growth rate," continued Buffett, "but with a 1% population growth rate that still results in major growth over time. But great growth can be negated by the work of madmen, and we need an extremely vigilant security operation in the US. The country will do extraordinarily well if we ward off those threats or at least minimize their impact." He's been proven right economically: Despite incredible setbacks like the Covid-19 pandemic, the US economy is 16% larger on a per-person basis than when Buffett was asked. ■ But economic growth isn't the only measure that counts. It's a massive contributor to human welfare, of course, but so are factors like personal liberty, cultural development, and the capacity for individuals to flourish to the greatest extent their own gifts and abilities will allow. ■ And on that measure, Buffett offered words that are about as patriotic as anything ever said on American soil: "The luckiest person in history on a probabilistic basis is the baby born in the US today." The challenge to all of us who are heirs to the American experiment is to ensure that the trend continues -- so that the baby born in 2024 is luckier than the baby born in 2015, and that the baby born in 2033 is luckier still. ■ None of it is assured; that speaks to a process of self-improvement, not an inflexible outcome. Every Independence Day should be a reminder to strive to overcome imperfections -- "God mend thine every flaw" -- and to apply our own self-control in the pursuit of becoming better.

July 3, 2024

Weather and Disasters Beryl lands on Jamaica

It can be difficult to imagine an event like a hurricane as much more than an abstraction on a map or a dramatic video clip of wind and waves. But Hurricane Beryl's collision with Jamaica will almost certainly shine a light on a more complicated scale. ■ A hard-hitting natural disaster, like a hurricane depositing rainfall amounts of 12" or more, places a heavy burden on the basic infrastructure upon which everything else is built: Roads, power supplies, drinking water, and sanitation. ■ Much of the western shore of Jamaica, for instance, is bound together by a two-lane highway, the A1. It is vital, but it is also vulnerable: Narrow, and often just a few feet away and feet above the sea. There are river crossings where a flash flood could undermine or wipe out a narrow bridge and disrupt access for months. ■ As with so many economic problems, it is a matter of the chicken and the egg: It's hard to pay for infrastructure without economic growth, and it's hard to get economic growth without good infrastructure. Jamaica's per-capita GDP after inflation hasn't really changed since the mid-1990s. And the strength of the country's tourism sector could become a liability if visitors simply cannot make it to vacation destinations. ■ We should always worry about the first-order effects of a natural disaster -- the immediate human impact, in terms of lives lost and lives affected. But we should also take note of the second-order effects: How much capacity is required to bounce back from a major hit, and how resilient the reconstructed infrastructure will be in anticipation of future disasters.

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July 2, 2024

Weather and Disasters Changing fortunes

As of late March, just a little more than three months ago, more than 80% of the state of Iowa was rated at some level of moderate drought or worse. In October, that value was greater than 95%. ■ A few places in the state are still "abnormally dry", but the drought has been erased statewide. Drought, though, has been replaced by catastrophic flooding; Spencer, Iowa, lost 1,000 homes to a flood that evolved basically out of nowhere. Not far away, places like Correctionville, Iowa, North Sioux City, South Dakota, and Mankato, Minnesota experienced comparable levels of devastation. The drought-to-flood reversal wasn't literally overnight, but it was fast enough to defy normal human expectations. (For an even faster deterioration of conditions, see the record-smashing intensification of Hurricane Beryl. ■ These are climatological manifestations of a maxim worth remembering in lots of other areas of life: Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we can imagine. As humans, we seem predisposed to over-estimating how bad things are in the moment right before our eyes, and to under-estimating how much preparatory work needs to be done from day to day to keep the worst from happening. ■ There are plenty of people who take those preparations too far, but usually only in isolation: Think of climate catastrophists, doomsday preppers, and death-of-democracy keyboard warriors. The problem with a singular fixation is that it tends to result in blindered thinking, like that of the climate activist who wants economic "de-growth" or an intentional decline in the population, but who won't entertain the possibility of advanced nuclear power generation. ■ The drama of a "solution" isn't a good measure of its sensibility. Figuring that out and intentionally finding ways to build constructively, iteratively, and persistently toward the more prudent long-term solutions that bear fruit with less fanfare.

June 30, 2024

Business and Finance Living in a material world

The last two hundred years or so have seen a radical improvement in the economic conditions of most of the human race. It was only around 1830 when the first steam locomotives began to displace horses as the power hauling trains on tracks. Everything else we would consider "modern" in the world has arrived since that time, from telecommunications to electricity to potable water to penicillin. It's all been part of a two-century explosion in economic growth, attributable to technology, trade, ingenuity, and human will. ■ Two hundred years really isn't that long in the scale of human history. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 and lived until 1848 (when he was still in government, serving in the House of Representatives). That meant his life overlapped with that of Grover Cleveland (born in 1837), whose own life lasted until 1908 -- the same year Lyndon Johnson was born. And every President alive today possesses memories of Johnson's Presidential era. ■ Whether we measure political "generations" or simply the genealogical ones, we only need single digits to reach back to a conclusively pre-modern time. Yet the truly radical improvement in humanity's ability to satisfy material needs almost unfathomably well (compared with those pre-modern times) hasn't been matched by a concomitant improvement in our ability to satisfy other vital dimensions of human life, and that creates an unmistakable but often-overlooked tension in life experience. ■ We and our relatively recent forebears have, for instance, effectively decimated the rate of child mortality -- a spectacular human achievement by any standard. Yet while there have been considerable improvements in child-rearing since that time, it would be hard to argue that we've made comparable progress in knowing how to raise children to be well-rounded, self-confident, and prepared to live fulfilling lives. Much progress has been made, of course, but lots of parents still hit their kids, the Surgeon General has campaigned against a "loneliness epidemic", and extremely alarming indicators of fragile mental wellness among adolescents and teenagers must not be overlooked. ■ While those are only a few examples, many other such gaps can be found between the spectacular improvement in material circumstances and less-impressive improvement in sociological and psychological measures of wellness. We should acknowledge that the gaps are often disorienting. ■ Yet we also have to recognize that improvements in both material and non-material conditions are mostly iterative; they build on what came before, and have to be maintained with intentionality and discipline if they are to be passed along. We shouldn't so much despair that our progress on matters other than material conditions has lagged as we should take confidence from the astonishing economic and technological progress of the last two centuries that enormous improvements in other human affairs are possible -- and aspire to achieve them.

June 28, 2024

The European Union is on the verge of selecting Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas as its new High Representative for Foreign Affairs, a role whose closest American counterpart is the Secretary of State. It's a major office even in ordinary times, and these times are not ordinary. ■ Lots of news coverage defaults to calling Prime Minister Kallas a "hard-liner", but that phrase ought to come under further scrutiny. First and foremost, compared to what? ■ She leads a small country with a transformative modern history, with a large and obviously belligerent neighbor literally across the fence. What alternative is there? Estonia has about 1.2 million people (fewer people than Maine), and a little less land area than West Virginia. Russia is bigger by orders of magnitude. ■ Instead of "hard-liner", it seems like "steadfast and serious" is a better description. She lived under Soviet occupation, so clarity about standing with strength against her troublesome neighbor is a virtue, not a vice. ■ Based on her record and rhetorical history, this looks like one of the best moves the EU has made in recent memory. It has begun looking at absorbing Ukraine into its membership, and only a firm stance in defense of every frontier will suffice. Perjoratives like "hard-liner" may be easy to grasp, but they run the risk of implying that a softer alternative is available or even preferable.

June 27, 2024

The United States of America Everyone's got an opinion

In the scheme of human development, the First Amendment is a triumph. It wasn't obvious to the world then that humans possessed an intrinsic right to air their thoughts in the forms of speech, print, or protest. Nor is it sufficiently obvious to the world now; some reputable indicators have shown the balance of freedom in retreat for two decades worldwide. ■ Yet even James Madison, contributing author of and advocate for the Constitution, recognized that good things could often be imperfect: "[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused." ■ One "alloy" of the First Amendment is that it artificially subsidizes a surplus of speech: Particularly, it encourages the over-production of speech about politics. Not about ideas, per se, but about contests and figures -- the "horse race", above all. ■ Other subjects are often even more important. Science and technology, economics, international relations, and many others can be far more important. But they are complex and require expertise. They rarely lend themselves to the kinds of "team" alignments without which it can be hard to get audiences interested. ■ Meanwhile, there are often small but intensely interested parties who have strong incentives to constrain the boundaries of discussion. Experts, gatekeepers, public relations representatives, activists, and others are ready to pounce in the name of accuracy, fairness, or simple self-interest. Some even get litigious. ■ With horse-race politics, though, we recognize and respect a nearly unassailable right to speculate, criticize, and even fabricate. Everyone can have an opinion, nearly any opinion is legally safe to declare, and no special knowledge is required to either start the discussion or to join it. Public figures make for easy caricatures and the aspect of team rivalry is easy to spur. ■ That second-order consequence of over-supplying mostly meaningless content is not an argument for diminishing the First Amendment, of course. But it's vital to notice the consequences. A tendency towards maximum freedom for political speech can leave the public square overstuffed with the discoursive equivalent of empty calories -- and a bit light on the "vegetables" of issues away from politics.

June 25, 2024

The United States of America No debate about it

No small number of students still apply for college admissions or for scholarships via written essays. As with any sorting test, the written essay has its imperfections and its drawbacks. Yet it also offers a reasonably fair set of conditions under which the applicant can demonstrate their clarity of thought. ■ Writing isn't the only skill that matters, but it is almost universally demanded of people in the professional class. In part, we expect writing because we expect to have our time respected: Most people read much faster than anyone can naturally speak (or listen). ■ Whereas even a gifted speaker can stumble, meander, or misquote when called upon for an extemporaneous reply to a question, writing offers the respondent an opportunity to think through a persuasive case and otherwise organize their thoughts before subjecting them to scrutiny. ■ While it will be a welcome development to have a Presidential debate without a noisy audience to tip the scales of public perception, it remains the case that the best alternative to televised Presidential debates would be to demand live-written responses to important questions (maybe even the same ones as get asked aloud during debates). ■ We typically conduct televised debates with the gravitas of a game show, when instead they ought to be treated as the most consequential job interviews on Earth. From time to time, maybe we need the comic relief of a "youth and inexperience" moment to serve as a cultural bond. ■ But if we really wanted to plumb the minds of our candidates, we'd do better to hand them some blue composition books and a set of sharpened No. 2 pencils. No aides, no ghostwriters, no pollsters. Just the candidates and their own ideas.

June 23, 2024

Health Stopping HIV transmission with a drug

When Magic Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis to the world in 1991, even he thought it was a death sentence. For many people, it already had been, and there was no certainty at all about the future treatment of the virus. It had been headline-grabbing news just two years prior for Princess Diana to have hugged a young AIDS patient. ■ Pharmaceuticals have done amazing things in the years since -- Magic Johnson is still alive and tweeting to this day. Television commercials even advertise to a market for people living with HIV, which suggests that it's a demographic with at least some degree of critical mass. ■ But even with all that progress in mind, it is stunning to encounter the news that a drug trial was prematurely cut short because the drug had proven so overwhelmingly effective that it became unethical to keep anyone in the placebo group. A randomized trial of more than 5,000 women and girls in South Africa and Uganda came back with zero cases of HIV infection among more than 2,100 women receiving the drug. ■ The doses only need to be taken semiannually, so it's basically in vaccine territory. It's not exactly a vaccine in the normal sense, but since it's a shot that prevents the transmission of the virus, it has effectively the same result. The old wisdom about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is as true today as ever, so this news is profoundly good.

June 22, 2024

The United States of America Unbending, unflinching purpose

Theodore Roosevelt only got to deliver one inaugural address as President. In that sole inaugural, Roosevelt urged on his fellow Americans: "There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright." ■ Political apocalypticism is cheap and easy. It's the common root of "Burn it all down" and "This is the most important election in our lifetime", not to mention any number of other unhinged and unrestrained views. But it's neither new nor novel, nor are the conditions that some people believe offer justification for their extreme views. ■ Uncertainty is nothing new. Roosevelt served two terms, but had only one inaugural -- because his predecessor was assassinated. In fact, though he was only 42 when he became President, Roosevelt had lived through the assassinations of three Presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. ■ Rapid technological change is nothing new. We think that smartphones, electric cars, and reusable rockets are examples of dramatic change (and they are), but young President Roosevelt lived through the invention of the telephone (patented in 1876), the automobile (built in 1885), and the airplane (proven in 1903). Whatever the breakneck pace of change we experience today, it doesn't actually exceed what was happening then. Roosevelt even witnessed the introduction of municipal electricity (in 1882). ■ Economic change is nothing new. We've seen global financial panics and stock-market bubbles, but Roosevelt lived through a five-year great depression starting in 1873, long before the one we treat as the singular Great Depression today. And he'd lived through three other economic depressions, in 1884, 1890, and 1893. And all of those were worsened by a weak social safety net and the complete absence of a Federal Reserve System (founded in 1913). ■ Nor is dramatic cultural change anything new, either. We may have Spotify and Netflix at our disposal, but Roosevelt had lived to see the first recording devices for music and speech (1877) and the very first movies (1894). And that is to say nothing of the enormous social consequences of the long-overdue end of slavery in the South. ■ And yet, within 40 years of his inaugural address, the America over which Roosevelt presided would go on to victory in two world wars, unfathomable economic growth, and head-spinning technological change. That's what happens when you refuse to fear the future and face problems seriously, with an "unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright". There was no room for despair then, and there's no room for it now: Only a serious sense of resolve will do.

June 21, 2024

Computers and the Internet Commerce Department says drop Kaspersky immediately

The Commerce Department is shutting down Kaspersky's antivirus and cybersecurity software and service sales in the US. The government says the company is too closely tied to the Russian military and Russian government to be trusted -- even the US-based wing of the company. It all goes into effect within a hundred days. ■ It's an extreme move. The Commerce Department even acknowledges that, noting that its investigation "found that the company's continued operations in the United States presented a national security risk -- due to the Russian Government's offensive cyber capabilities and capacity to influence or direct Kaspersky's operations". ■ The company, unsurprisingly, denies that it's a threat, but what else would they be expected to do? ■ It's a disappointment, strictly from a technical perspective: Kaspersky used to be the best antivirus maker around. For a long time, its software was the fastest and most effective on the market. ■ But by its nature, cybersecurity software has to be trustworthy above and beyond any technological merits. The more access software or a service has to the inner workings of a computer system, the more important trust becomes. A total ban may seem ham-fisted (and it may even be an overreach of legal authority; the whole act is groundbreaking), but the threat is very real and the consequences of leaving our soft underbelly exposed could be grave.

Threats and Hazards Half of US auto dealers affected by cyberattack

The attack went after a company that provides backend services to half of the country's auto dealerships

Threats and Hazards Red Sea remains in crisis

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has been ordered to leave the area, a cargo ship has been sunk by an explosive floating drone, and the crisis imposed by the Houthis is costing the whole world real money.

News An alternative to posting the Ten Commandments

"America" editor Rev. James Martin poses a challenge: If religious rules are going to be posted in public, why not the Beatitudes?

Weather and Disasters Flash flooding in northern Iowa

Forecast anticipates up to 7" of rainfall across big portions of northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, and reaches of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

June 20, 2024

June 19, 2024

News Keep running

It's nothing more than a meme, but the advice it delivers is solid: "Stop chasing your dreams! Humans are persistence predators. Follow your dreams at a sustainable pace until they get tired and lie down." There's humor inside the advice, but it's wrapped in a shell of truth. ■ Perhaps it's because so much of our country's founding story is tired up in the word "revolution", but America has a chronic under-appreciation for the value of persistence. Not the big, sparkling reveal, but the long-term maintenance of what was unveiled. Not the launch of a new app or a splashy IPO, but the quiet and often nearly invisible incremental growth that keeps things going. ■ We need to tell our kids -- and ourselves -- that it's important to find the right path, but also to endure long hikes on it. There need to be waypoints along the trail, but looking forward to something distant is a vital skill. It really is a biologically human thing to keep hunting after a reward for a long, long time. ■ The Summer Olympics will shine a spotlight on many tales of long pursuits. The ones most suitable to television coverage will include hardships and emotional trials. Viewers will be invited again and again to "Meet the Athletes". ■ But we need to see beyond sports and beyond tragic and heroic tales. We have to see beyond them in order to value the long climbs everywhere in life, with uncertain rewards and feats of endurance. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Think of three things, whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account." ■ Revolution and overnight success are both overrated. Be sure you're on the right course, then be relentless.

June 18, 2024

Threats and Hazards A dirty dozen

Fake working caught up with more than a dozen employees of Wells Fargo, who were fired for "simulating" activity on their computers in order to look like they were working when they were not. It's the kind of situation that isn't exactly new in its own right, but is much more widespread now that working from home -- at least in a hybrid format -- is now a post-pandemic normal in many companies, both large and small. ■ "Many foxes grow grey, but few grow good", wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1749. That was a long time before anyone worked from a laptop at home, but deception and laziness were nothing new even then. ■ It's possible to have substantial unease about an employer using panopticon-like tricks to watch their employees, while also having contempt for those who would take a paycheck in exchange for the mere illusion of activity. Two things can be bad at the same time. Bossware is creepy and cheating is wrong; both/and, not either/or. ■ There is a good chance, though, that the problem had even more to do with the particular tools being used to simulate activity -- Amazon is happy to sell the would-be un-worker a mouse jiggler for as little as $5.09. ■ But what else is that USB-enabled device capable of carrying? The very same kind of company that would openly sell a device for someone who would cheat for a paycheck is most certainly also the kind of company that might well be open to delivering a malicious payload onto the customer's (work) computer. ■ This is how black-hat hacking happens: Get people to insert dodgy USB devices in their computers without considering the consequences of the hidden payloads that might be on board. If a device is capable of standing in for your keyboard or your mouse, it's certainly also capable of being turned into a keystroke logger, in the perfect spot to record passwords, proprietary information, and other things that insiders shouldn't be giving away. ■ It's easy to make the story about lazy workers or Big Brother at the office. But it's an opening to much more than that: Everyone has a role to play in cybersecurity, and the Wells Fargo incident makes for a very good time to shine a light on that fact.

June 17, 2024

News Freedom of navigation

Having long ago made antagonistic and legally indefensible territorial claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, the ruling regime in China uses provocative claims against its neighbors to test those potential adversaries. This most lately includes a claim of a collision between a Philippine vessel and one of their own, a claim which the Philippines rejects as "deceptive and misleading". ■ Though it is not part of NATO, the Philippines is an ally of the United States under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. The United States has behaved imperfectly towards the Philippines in the past, but the treaty alliance looks stable -- particularly because both countries share strong self-interests. ■ Other countries, even distant ones like Sweden, recognize the situation too. China has newly declared intentions to detain foreigners who "trespass" into their claims. Given the size of the claims and the obvious interference with rivalrous legal claims by other countries -- including freedom of navigation, in which the United States is profoundly interested -- it's setting up a potentially explosive environment. ■ Nobody who possesses any sense wants to see an escalation of hostilities in the South China Sea, nor anywhere else in the broader Pacific. It's not the kind of situation that ends well for anyone. But how we best prevent that escalation depends on the reactions of our counterparts. ■ In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt told Congress in his State of the Union, "The strong arm of the Government in enforcing respect for its just rights in international matters is the Navy of the United States. I most earnestly recommend that there be no halt in the work of upbuilding the American Navy. There is no more patriotic duty before us a people than to keep the Navy adequate to the needs of this country's position." ■ No small number of experts on the matter are concerned that we are, 120 years later, falling short of Roosevelt's call to duty. It's the kind of matter to which attention should have been given in earnest 20 years ago. But the next-best time to "yesterday" is "right now".

June 16, 2024

Iowa Dissolving a small school district

The board of a small Iowa school district has voted to initiate a process to dissolve the district next year, subject to voter approval at a public referendum. The Orient-Macksburg school board acknowledged that it was a "difficult and emotional decision to make", but the vote was unanimous. ■ It's not uncommon for educational policy to be discussed in dull, over-broad terms. The public hears endlessly about "small class sizes" and the need to "pay teachers more", but the broad terms are rarely enough to address what's really optimal for students and their well-being. Sometimes, for instance, scale becomes a limiting factor. Rural Iowa school districts have been consolidating for decades because the smallest ones found themselves economically unsustainable -- no matter how much their local communities wanted to keep them around, whether for travel convenience, sentimental reasons, or local identity. ■ In 2020, America was abruptly forced to reassess what goes into schools and what we expect out of them. And to some extent, we've begun to reckon with certain important truths. Among them: Most kids very much need to be in social environments with their peers, most learning can be individuated to some degree (especially with the aid of thoughtfully-applied technology), and in some cases, class size doesn't matter one iota (see, for instance, the infinitely scalable coursework delivered by MIT OpenCourseware or the Khan Academy. Sometimes a great recorded lecture is vastly preferable to a poorly-prepared small-group lesson. ■ Consolidation isn't going away for rural places: America was on an urbanization trend even from the beginning, and it's still taking place today. The changes won't always be comfortable, but that doesn't make them any less important to address thoughtfully. Catchy slogans aren't often going to do much to help.

June 15, 2024

Computers and the Internet Hospital lockdowns

A number of "major London hospitals", as the BBC called them, were targeted in a significant cyberattack thought to be the work of a Russian criminal group. It went beyond a case of ransomware, where data was held hostage, and escalated instead to a case where the actual operation of the hospitals' computer systems themselves were held hostage. ■ Hundreds of appointments and even operations were cancelled. The attackers took aim at a pathology services group, which brings vital services like blood tests to a screeching halt. ■ Cyberattacks exist in a domain that is uncomfortable for the existing frameworks of law: The same attack can be a crime (they're after money), it can be terroristic (what else would you call it if armed gangs took over the blood labs at a hospital?), and under some circumstances it can be viewed as warfare. In this case, the attackers are thought to be in Russia -- where cyberattacks are not just performed for criminal gain, but also to advance malignant state interests. ■ The need for informed policy-making -- with increased awareness and comprehension among elected officials, civil servants, and voters, too -- is extremely high, and growing higher by the day. There is no use in standing by and hoping that the problem resolves itself or goes away.

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June 13, 2024

Business and Finance Payday for one

The shareholders of Tesla have ratified an unfathomably large compensation package for Elon Musk -- one, in the words of the company's proxy statement, "equivalent to 12% of the total number of shares of our common stock". In dollar terms, NBC News calls it a $56 billion reward. ■ Warren Buffett has thought about executive compensation probably more thoroughly than anyone alive today. And for at least two decades, he has argued (as did his partner, Charlie Munger) that stock options should be expensed when used as tools of executive compensation (as shareholders have consented to doing for Musk). And there is no escaping the knowledge that $56 billion is an inconceivably large sum for an individual. ■ Musk has been one of the most dynamic figures on the world business scene in at least a lifetime, if not in a century or longer. But if one adopts the Buffett view of compensation -- that it should all be counted as expense, no matter what form it takes -- then the plain question that must be asked by the rational owner is this: By comparison with compensating one person $56 billion, how much would the company have benefited from hiring 56,000 engineers at $1 million each over the same period of time? Or 5,600 elite professionals at $10 million each? 560 at a still-eye-watering $100 million apiece? ■ If options are properly viewed as a real expense (as they should be), then one of the very first rules of economics applies: The real cost of something is what you give up in order to get it. And a titanic compensation package granted to an individual must always be weighed against the value of using the same total sum to compensate a larger number of people with smaller increments. Not small, but simply smaller. ■ Shareholders are free to consent to whatever compensation packages they see as necessary to achieve their desired results as company owners. But as a matter of intellectual rigor, they shouldn't unwittingly assume that they've gotten a better deal by rewarding one rather than 5,600 or 56,000.

June 11, 2024

Business and Finance When is a frankfurter not a hot dog?

Joey Chestnut, the world's most renowned competitive eater of hot dogs, has been told he is not welcome to attend the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest this year unless he repents of his endorsement deal with Impossible Foods. ■ Chestnut, who is in a position as a perennial favorite and double-digit-year champion of the event to throw his weight around a bit, says his absence "will deprive the great fans of the holiday's usual joy and entertainment". It will still be Independence Day, after all, but the contest would certainly look different without him. ■ Not that it's anything but an entirely commercial endeavor, anyway. The holiday is rightly celebrated by re-reading at least a few lines of the Declaration of Independence; the hot dogs are just garnish on the day. But other than opening the door wide for Impossible Foods to get some free publicity for their plant-based frankfurters, the decision as reported may unintentionally elevate the meatless hot dogs. ■ If you're a sports-car company and a popular driver wants to endorse a motorcycle brand, you can openly say, "Motorcycles are totally different from sports cars, and there's lots of room for both!" But if you consider motorcycles peers or even rivals for a category like "The experience of driving fast", then you might actually be giving yourself a harder time in the long run by saying that there's a conflict between competing in one and being a spokesperson for the other. ■ The entire thing may be a self-serving fabricated controversy anyway -- that much remains to be seen. But it seems like the most prudent move for the incumbent makers of beef-based dogs is to "otherize" the vegan alternative as much as possible, rather than implying that they are competitors in the same class.

June 10, 2024

Computers and the Internet Your private data

Elon Musk is threatening to ban iPhones from his companies if Apple goes through with plans to integrate OpenAI's ChatGPT into the best-known Apple devices. It is one of many prominent artificial-intelligence-related headlines capturing a disproportionate share of public and news media attention right now. ■ Musk points at privacy concerns as the root of his reaction, and his ventures do indeed depend heavily upon proprietary information and processes. Apple says that almost everything new that it intends to enable in its devices will be computed on the device itself, essentially answering those privacy concerns from the very start. If little or nothing is submitted to or processed by cloud computing, then the device might arguably be seen as little more than a private extension of the user's own mind. ■ But what the controversy cannot really address is a more fundamental question: What is the ultimate calling for these technologies? We call the whole basket of them "artificial intelligence tools", but to a considerable degree, the large-language models aren't really generating new ideas. In many cases, they are being used to draw useful connections -- to some extent, even to synthesize the questions that human users ought to be asking. ■ Ultimately, though, as with human creators, the lasting merit will be found in generating thoroughly novel ideas. We will know something new and different is happening when artificial intelligence can come up with an eighth basic narrative plot that hasn't been previously explored. Until that time, it will mostly function to reassemble the information that humans have already cast into the world -- which will be of little comfort to those who, like Musk, believe their information is too valuable to let leak.

June 9, 2024

Threats and Hazards Intimidation by association

When the president of a nuclear power goes about smugly saying of Europe, "They are more or less defenseless" against such weapons (as Vladimir Putin has just done), then it is high time to be sure of two things. ■ The first is to be entirely clear in mind -- and in resolve -- to put to use every prudent tool of deterrence or detection available against such weapons. From the moment that a second country in the world had developed nuclear weapons, the deployment of those weapons has been a gamble. And in the context of any gamble, the actions of counterparties affects the overall calculation of risk. For the now-mostly allied nations of Europe, there is no real substitute for unapologetically finding ways to decrease the offensive value of a potential adversary's nuclear weapons. ■ The second is to be sure that it becomes uncomfortable to be voluntarily in the aggressor's orbit -- and welcoming in ours. Putin's thinly-veiled threats were made at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an event at which a BBC reporter "saw delegations from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America". ■ Russia is actively engaged in a plainly unprovoked war of aggression and invasion against Ukraine, and now its president is pleased to threaten the remainder of Europe. No country should find itself comfortable sending a delegation to an economic conference there. It should be clear that until it withdraws from Ukraine and ceases to menace its neighbors, it is a pariah state, and its poor standing should be considered contagious. ■ That requires, though, a carrot to balance out the stick: Just as the US and the USSR raced each other to align other countries with themselves during the Cold War, we should be eager to use trade, engagement, and diplomacy to make it much more comfortable to be in our orbit than to be showing up to make deals in St. Petersburg. Until they can throw a conference and have nobody show up, there's a lot of strategic work to be done.

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June 8, 2024

Aviation News Throw the book at 'em

An employee at an airport shop in Fort Lauderdale is charged with grand theft after a passenger tracked her luggage to his house after it went missing from the baggage carousel. This incident would be an excellent one out of which to make a very big example: Throw the book at the thief, and make sure that airport employees nationwide hear about it. ■ In particular, the victim's method of tracking down the luggage needs to be part of the story. She tracked an Apple Watch that was inside the suitcase. ■ Deterrence needs to be credible in order to be effective. Appropriate deterrence in this case requires that airport employees know and believe that there is both (a) a significant chance that anything they steal can and will be tracked, and (b) a high probability that they will face extremely unpleasant penalties if caught stealing. ■ The odds that the accused thief was working alone seem slim. Travelers are stripped of many of their normal defense mechanisms when they enter airports -- having to trust any number of unseen baggage handlers, security screeners, and other individuals along the way, all while themselves having to jump through many hoops to accommodate what oftentimes feels like little more than security theater. A single stolen suitcase may not seem like much, but if the authorities don't drop the hammer on all of the culprits involved, they risk undermining the essential trust that travelers must have in their handlers.

June 7, 2024

Iowa The right support

A woman is in a dispute with the city of Chariton, Iowa, over her intention to keep a goose as an "emotional-support animal". At other times, from other places, we've heard of emotional-support boa constrictors, emotional-support pigs, and emotional-support alligators. ■ The idea of emotional bonding with certain familiar species of animals -- dogs, cats, horses, perhaps the occasional parakeet -- is nothing new. Dogs have been our pets for tens of thousands of years. And it's entirely possible that some people achieve satisfying attachments to animals of far-flung breeds. ■ But the claims to "emotional support" from far-flung members of the animal kingdom, known neither for their intelligence nor their warmth, strains credulity. There is, for instance, an entire Facebook group devoted to the titular claim that Canada Geese Are Jerks. ■ Modern life is indeed more complex than lift at any time in the past. We have to navigate many questions and challenges daily just in order to survive, and that can tax people whose mental composition isn't optimal for that complexity. ■ Perhaps, though, that should indicate to us something about the need to equip ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, with the tools to adapt and endure the struggles and hard times that come our way, rather than retreating into the imagined "emotional support" of species for which indifference to humans would be an improvement over their natural instincts. ■ Everyone needs mental tools to persist through especially troubling times, and sometimes just to get through ordinary days. But those tools are ultimately internal in nature, not things we can project onto other creatures and then relay back to ourselves, certainly not upon pains of losing access to housing.

June 5, 2024

News History isn't just for the victors

The aphorism goes, "History is written by the victors". That's adjacent to the truth, but it's not quite right. History is, in fact, written by those who endure. ■ In the case of D-Day, history really has been written by the victors -- and for good cause. 80 years ago on June 6th, the Allies ignited the beginning of the end for the Axis powers. Once rightly vanquished, the Nazis had nothing to contribute to the writing of that history. But modern Germany takes a part in continuing to write and acknowledge the history of that day. ■ There are plenty of other historical victors, though, from whom we hear little or nothing. Genghis Khan exists mainly in hazy myth today, and his Mongol Empire left behind little of its own impression on the literary history of the world. ■ In times closer to our own, the Communist Party won the struggle for control of China. But what happened 35 years ago, at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, can't be expunged from history. The protests were real, the Tank Man was real, and the instinct to believe that individual human beings matter and that their liberties are inherent isn't erasable. ■ Even if the regime (the side of the apparent victors) seeks to purge its own history even from AI chatbots, the attempts to write history-minus-the-truth only end up highlighting the gaps. Human resistance to oppression will endure -- and those who endure will ultimately have the say in what history records.

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June 4, 2024

The United States of America This used to be a much more dangerous country

There exists a class of viral videos best described as "People in lesser-developed countries doing eye-wateringly dangerous work". Thanks to the social-media algorithms that reward intensity of reaction rather than intrinsic quality, videos like "Excavator operator on completely unstable slope tries to free giant boulder at enormous personal risk" are rewarded with millions of views and priority placement in the news feeds of ordinary users. ■ Above all, we should not reward the creators of these videos. Just because an activity is recorded doesn't mean it needs to be shared. And just because the subject of a video manages not to get killed or gravely injured while, for instance, building a path along a sheer mountain cliff, doesn't mean that it should get clicks, likes, or views. Those only encourage the production of more such videos. ■ Just about the only good that can come of circulating those videos among people in countries with more advanced economies (and better protections for worker health and safety) is, perhaps, an appreciation for just how dangerous life was even for the people of our own countries -- and families -- just a couple of generations ago. It is not OSHA, per se, that make American workplaces safer than they were in the past, but rather the conditions of measurement, reporting, public pressure, and viable workplace alternatives, among others. ■ In 1931 (less than a century ago), 17,000 American workers died on the job. In 2022, that number was 5,486 -- less than a third of the earlier figure, despite a near-tripling of the total population. Today's number is still too high, but prosperity, technological advancements, and public pressure on legislators and regulators have served to reduce the rate by a great deal. ■ Similar changes are essentially inevitable elsewhere, as economic standards rise, choices expand, and, critically, public demands are taken more seriously by government leaders. America used to be a vastly more dangerous place in ordinary life, but highly meritorious improvements have changed that. We should avoid danger voyeurism, no matter how often the algorithms try to serve it up.

June 3, 2024

Business and Finance Maximize housing production now

The concept of home has a powerful hold on the American mind. The objective of our national pastime is to arrive at home plate. A majority of the states have some version of the castle doctrine enshrined in state law. Americans spend upwards of $11 billion a year on motorhomes. ■ Perhaps this effect is especially pronounced in America because so many people are either actively or vestigially aware that they descend from refugees or other immigrants driven from their homes somewhere else. Half a dozen generations removed from the Great Famine, some Irish Americans can still be found invoke holy protection of their homes with St. Brigid's crosses. Many other cultures behave similarly. ■ With rising mortgage interest rates appearing to have real consequences for homeownership rates, we should reckon with the range of factors that tend to drive up the cost of homeownership. We don't do very well at laying out high-density transportation options near high-density living options. Our predominant zoning patterns discourage innovations in the "missing middle" of housing. Financing conventions have long penalized economical options like manufactured housing. ■ Many of the problems come down to local choices and regulations, which in turn are often driven by inertia, fear of policy innovation, and a general lack of imagination. But maximizing the supply of safe, dignified, and affordable housing isn't just consistent with a sort of atmospheric Americanism; it's also well-established that stable housing contributes meaningfully to a number of important health measures. ■ Stories like profiles of the homeless high school valedictorian should urge us to a greater awareness of the need to press hard for the policies that would maximize the supply of housing options that provide security, safety, and stability -- even if they start from a modest base. If the sod house can have a place in American myth, surely we can find ways to open up wider paths to suitable options for the modern world.

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June 1, 2024

News Beyond a reasonable doubt

An arrest is not a conviction. The recent case of golfer Scottie Scheffler is a fair reminder that an arrest is an action undertaken, in the moment, by a law-enforcement officer. And sometimes, arresting police officers make mistakes, get carried away, or simply lie about what they witness. ■ Prosecutorial standards can be inconsistent. The movement to pardon or commute sentences over non-violent drug-related offenses is a reflection of growing acknowledgment that some communities have faced harsher penalties than others for the same offenses. ■ People can go on to be law-abiding, constructive citizens after spending time in the correctional system. Martha Stewart did hard time after a felony conviction, but she seems not to have pickpocketed or otherwise bilked close friends like Snoop Dogg in the nearly two decades since. ■ We are equal under the law. Besides a deadly Civil War to resolve the question, America has enshrined that standard of equal protection in the 14th Amendment and in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equality means plainly that no citizen is without the protection of the law, nor is anyone above it. ■ The right to a trial by jury is a fundamental one. Americans can request the decision of a jury, screen the jurors for objectionable outlooks, and tailor arguments to try to appeal to their individual biases and predispositions. ■ Juries can be wrong. They can be unsophisticated. They can be imperfect in any of the ways that any collection of a dozen people might be. But juries selected at random from voter registration lists are structurally about as consistent with the principle of self-government as anything else we do in practical civic life. If the ordinary juror can understand the facts, the law, and the testimony presented, and emerge convinced of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then that conviction is just about the most honest assessment a community can possibly give to the behavior of the accused.

May 31, 2024

News Math is good for you

If a recent survey is truly representative of the broader population, then more than half of America's high school math teachers are making up their own worksheets and other supporting materials, rather than using content furnished by their districts. This is an important problem to cite for a number of reasons. ■ First and foremost, it most likely reflects a chronic problem with math education in the United States: There seems to be very little consensus about how to approach it most effectively, particularly when students don't see how content really applies to then and many of their parents still suffer from lingering resentment over how they themselves were taught. It's no surprise that nobody is proud of American students' math performance on the world stage. ■ The heavy use of non-standard content supplements also represents a non-trivial waste of time and effort. Many, if not most, other subjects have at least some context dependency -- there are local topics to explore in government class, foreign languages may reflect the accents and dialects that the instructors themselves learned, and a deep dive into biology may explore things differently in Alaska than in Florida. But math, for the most part, is the same everywhere: Trigonometry doesn't have a dialect. ■ While efforts to nationalize virtually any school curricula are bound to run up against justifiable criticism, it seems clear that we are chronic offenders when it comes to math education. Not only ought there to be some considerable economies of scale to exploit (really, can't we all learn Cartesian planes and conditional probabilities from the same worksheets?), we should also be able to leverage more from the gap between those who are really gifted math teachers and those who are not. ■ It may seem dismissive to single out the high-performers, but it's really not a matter of dispute: A good teacher doesn't just have content knowledge, they also have to master pedagogy -- the process of conveying information to the students. It may be plainly more effective to identify the very best math lecturers in a school and have them focus on lesson planning to be delivered to all of the math students together, while the other teachers attend to one-on-one interventions with students as they need them.

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May 30, 2024

Science and Technology More power to the people

In 2023, about one out of every five watts of electricity generated in the United States came from nuclear power generation. On the whole, that's a good thing: Nuclear fission power is, for now at least, the only tool we have for baseline electric generation that doesn't burn a fossil fuel. Natural gas makes up 43% of the generation mix, and coal continues its decline, down now to about 16%. ■ Renewables are on the ascent, of course, accelerated by developments like the rather stunning decline in the cost of photovoltaic power. But they, like nature, remain inconsistent and until we get the problem of truly massive storage figured out, some kind of weather-independent generation is necessary to achieve a blend that meets demand. Meeting 100% of net demand with renewable generation is possible (it's already been done in Iowa), but on-demand generation remains a necessity. ■ This is why plans to support nuclear-plant development are worthy of attention. New nuclear plants are a colossal rarity in America: New reactors recently brought online in Georgia took years of construction time and billions of dollars more than anticipated, and those were the first new ones in almost a decade. ■ We aren't about to turn into the Springfield of "Simpsons" myth, with its unflattering nuclear plant. But getting closer to a reliable, modular, budget-friendly, and perhaps even community-scale nuclear generators would be a big win for society as we continue to steer aggressively towards a de-carbonized future.

May 29, 2024

The United States of America Not because they are easy

The most important words spoken by John F. Kennedy as President had nothing to do with what you can do for your country or being a Berliner. What were probably his most important words came when, asking the country to embrace the Apollo missions and related tasks, he urged, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." ■ From a basic material standpoint, things generally have never been easier for the vast majority of Americans. Real per-capita GDP has never been higher. Inflation arrests much of the attention, but unemployment is low, basic quality-of-life goods have never been more prevalent, and new technological tools are being introduced at a breakneck pace. ■ Why, then, is so much of public opinion so sour (Gallup says that 74% of us think America's on the wrong track)? Why are so many people quick to express listlessness, dissatisfaction, or ennui? Grown adults insist on presenting themselves to all the world like angsty teenagers. ■ Perhaps we have stewed too long in a cultural broth that improbably blends the prosperity Gospel, a toxic "YOLO" fixation on perpetual self-care, and a generalized sort of impatience. And in committing so much energy to making things easier (or at least in making them feel that way) that we've gotten away from equipping people with the tools to grapple with what's hard. ■ We need more voices, respected ones, willing to challenge us to do hard things because the process of doing hard things is good for us, as individuals and as a country. It does us no good to be both soft and agitated, simultaneously restless and unfocused, looking always for the escape rather than the path through the difficulty. ■ It doesn't need to be the work of a President, necessarily, but someone needs to revive a sense of intrinsic appreciation for challenge. There's no shortage of tasks to be undertaken.

May 28, 2024

Weather and Disasters More than a number

The National Weather Service initially identified the tornado that struck Greenfield, Iowa, as "at least" an EF-3. Subsequent investigation found evidence sufficient to escalate that rating to EF-4. No small number of online commenters saw fit to second-guess the preliminary rating, and many more have vocally criticized and mindlessly second-guessed the upgraded rating, as well -- enough that they came right out and addressed the early critics. ■ The problem we face is that the intensity ratings are based upon evidence and are bounded by specific criteria. Those don't fit well within a public space that craves conflict and extremity. ■ Things are made even more complicated by the modern storm-chasing environment. We are blessed to live at a time when portable Doppler radar systems operated by scientists are capturing valuable data that will undoubtedly have scientific merit down the road. And we will likely find considerable benefit from the emerging field of drone-based tornado surveillance. Radar can pinpoint only so well; live video tracking may be available sooner than we think. ■ But there are also some live-streamers who are best characterized along a spectrum ranging from "adrenaline junkies" to "disaster pornographers". They profit from hype, by turning audiences into cheering sections. Cheering for what, though? Bigger disasters? ■ The human toll from a tornado isn't neatly contained within a number. Meteorologists need to classify what they see in a scientific way so they can make better models in the future; after all, the value of a model is measured by the quality of its predictions. ■ The rest of us don't have to observe scientific classifications to have natural, empathetic responses to events. While the EF Scale attempts to estimate peak wind speeds, it does so on the basis of observable damage. And that damage, even lower on the scale, can be hard to grasp even if it doesn't quite qualify as "incredible". Perhaps instead of clamoring for higher ratings, we should level-up our realization of how bad even lower-scale tornadoes can be for the individuals affected.

May 27, 2024

The popularity of home work

In a considerable increase over the times a decade or more ago, 29% of American workers are working from home at least once a week. Some states have substantially higher rates even than the national average -- Maryland's workforce is 40% remote, Colorado's is 39%, and Masschusetts is at 38%. Minnesota has the high in the Midwest at 34%. ■ Nationwide, 14% of the workforce is fully remote. While that number is the real sea change in terms of perceptions, more net good almost certainly comes from the substantial share of workers who can operate from home part of the time. Some work has always required an on-site presence -- a plumber can't replace your kitchen faucet via Microsoft Teams. ■

May 26, 2024

News Good fences

A warning from the Lithuanian interior minister: "The entire region is facing similar threats coordinated by Russia and Belarus -- instrumentalization of migration, cyberattacks, disinformation, sabotage of critical infrastructure and other hybrid threats." In many ways, the United States still enjoys the protection of two very large oceans. But we should be alert not to let complacency creep in. What the Lithuanian minister adds is really quite heart-stopping: "First of all, we have to think about the evacuation of the population on a regional scale". ■ That concept is hard to comprehend, but it could easily be true: Lithuania is only about 25,000 square miles in all, or about the size of West Virginia. That's not very large, and that fact certainly animates concerns about the need for a population-scale evacuation (for a country of 2.6 million people). ■ Russia has already occupied about that amount of territory in Ukraine, and has lately shown willingness to bomb civilians shopping at hardware stores. The alarm in the Baltics is entirely warranted. ■ Contingency planning for a possible invasion is a lamentable thing to have to make a budgetary and policy priority, though it's a good thing the threat is being taken seriously. Demonstrations that America's allies are taking the the threat to their own sovereignty seriously ought to have an impact on American leaders and voters alike. Our intrinsic geographic security shouldn't keep us from recognizing that others are far less removed from peril.

May 24, 2024

News The drone of war

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Finland, and Norway have agreed to cooperate on the creation of a "drone wall" to keep track of "unfriendly countries", in the words of Lithuania's interior minister. ■ Diplomatic circumspection aside, there's only one country with which all six of the cooperating countries share borders, and it's the one that's still conducting an invasion against Ukraine, Poland's neighbor to the southeast. It's the same country that's instigating trouble along Estonia's border waters and jamming GPS signals for airplanes in the region. ■ Technology, broadly speaking, has always been attractive in defense and warfare for its usefulness as a force multiplier. Unfortunately, it does not replace the considerable investment that must be made in uninspiring stuff like border fortification upgrades. ■ Dwight Eisenhower once lamented, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." ■ It is good that those countries are cooperating, because their cooperation compounds the deterrent effect of any one country's defenses. It is very bad, though, that they (quite rationally) recognize the need to commit their precious resources to such defensive activity. We shouldn't even for a minute forget that tensions have risen due to the actions of only a single government, and that all the costs the world bears are consequences of those actions.

May 23, 2024

News A prudent skepticism

Many Americans are familiar with George H.W. Bush's infamous line, "Read my lips: No new taxes", but it's far from the most significant clause he uttered while in high office. Bush 41 often struggled to communicate with the effectiveness of his predecessor, but he was an exceptionally well-qualified public servant, and an individual well-equipped to see with some clarity the truly epic changes taking place around him. ■ In his 1988 nomination acceptance speech, the same address that gave us "Read my lips", Bush articulated a recognition of the facts that have an eerie resonance 35 years later. ■ Said the nominee: "The tremors in the Soviet world continue. The hard earth there has not yet settled. Perhaps what is happening will change our world forever. Perhaps not. A prudent skepticism is in order. And so is hope. Either way, we're in an unprecedented position to change the nature of our relationship. Not by preemptive concession -- but by keeping our strength. Not by yielding up defense systems with nothing won in return -- but by hard, cool engagement in the tug and pull of diplomacy." ■ Those "tremors" ultimately came to a crescendo when the Soviet Union fell forever at the end of 1991. The "war" part of the Cold War may have been won, but it is evident now that the peace wasn't, neither permanently nor completely. ■ If we had truly secured the peace, Russia's government today wouldn't invade some of its neighbors, menace others, or conduct unconventional warfare against the United States. In our eagerness to cash in the "peace dividend", America ignored Bush's call to "prudent skepticism" -- and not just in the afterglow of Cold War victory. Long after it should have been obvious that "keeping our strength" needed to mean more than just having weapons, a sitting President glibly mocked the very idea of recognizing that the peace was incomplete. ■ In his own way, Bush was telling the American voter that we couldn't anticipate having dessert without eating our vegetables, too. It's rarely a popular message to tell people that temperance, sacrifice, and skepticism will be required of them. Even great leaders have a hard time cultivating what isn't already in the makeup of their people (even if those character traits are dormant and need re-awakening). But if we don't habituate ourselves to those characteristics, history has a way of forcing us to reckon with their absence sooner or later.

May 18, 2024

Threats and Hazards You couldn't pay enough

There are plenty of honest jobs that already come under the umbrella of "You couldn't pay me enough to do that", even with the benefit of proper person protective equipment, safety regulations, and training systems. But some efforts to make a dollar don't respect the law and are even more dangerous as a result: Like the person who probably electrocuted themselves in Omaha while apparently trying to cut into live power lines to salvage the copper inside. Sometimes we under-appreciate just how dangerous normal life used to be -- but habits, norms, and practices all make a difference. Seeing what happens when people disregard all of the rules because they think no one is watching.

Aviation News Fly-through view of new Des Moines airport terminal

(Video) Everything always looks better in the computer renderings than in reality, but the planned design looks like it heavily emphasizes high ceilings and ample natural light

Weather and Disasters Wildfire smoke damages air quality in Iowa

Even though the wildfires involved are in Canada

Iowa Putting the forgotten to rest

A funeral home in the Des Moines area has coordinated an event to provide a dignified memorial and interment service for three dozen babies who were miscarried or stillborn -- in some cases, 70 or 80 years ago. Their cremains have been stored at a number of local facilities for all that time without having been claimed. ■ The origins of the story are sad, but the decision to do something honorable for the deceased reflects well on our humanity. Treating death with dignity is a way to honor life. Mourners deserve an opportunity to gather and grieve; where mourners cannot be found, the dead still deserve to be treated with respect for their humanity. ■ That is no less the case for the unclaimed baby than it is for the unclaimed veteran. One doesn't have to subscribe to the formally ritualized aspects of religious funeral practice to recognize the importance of dignity and consistency in these practices. Rectifying the shame-ridden practices of the past to afford dignity in the future is a sign that we (as a species) are becoming better than we were in the past.

News One-paragraph book review: "In Praise of Public Life"

An inoffensive but not especially memorable tribute to service in public office

May 17, 2024

News The virtue of continuity

After a transformational season culminating in a record-setting championship game, the University of Iowa's head women's basketball coach, Lisa Bluder, has announced her retirement. Having helped to expand the profile of the sport behind a phenomenal player, Bluder exits into a smooth transition: Seeing her long-time assistant elevated to head coach. ■ Lots of organizations -- businesses, universities, non-profits, school districts, teams, and others -- are enamored with conducting big, splashy recruitment searches. Even police departments do it. Performing a baton pass to an obvious successor is often viewed as being too dull a step to make the kind of splash that stakeholders may want. ■ But grooming a logical successor is exactly the mark of a good leader -- one who is confident enough to say that the institution will survive their departure. It's what Warren Buffett has conspicuously done in business, and what Johnny Carson erroneously thought he was doing with the "Tonight Show". ■ To groom a successor is to acknowledge one's own limitations (including, but not limited to, mortality) and to implicitly promise that their work will focus not just on what brings credit and praise to the person in the spotlight, but on what perpetuates the good of the institution. That takes a convergence of humility and self-confidence, as well as a sincere belief in the process. ■ Outside of a monarchy, it often isn't splashy to cultivate and elevate an heir apparent. But if institutions matter (and they do), then continuity ought to be the goal far more often than not.

May 16, 2024

News Tastefully put

Words go in and out of fashion for a variety of social reasons. But one word that's overdue for a revival is "tasteful". ■ Taylor Swift's song "Down Bad", which peaked at #2 in the Billboard Hot 100, manages to make use of the oft-forbidden "F" word 17 times in just over four minutes of airplay. Pornography and brain worms are at the center of the political universe. The world's third-richest person is reveling in the joys of stirring up trouble. ■ Tasteful behavior may be hard to define precisely, but it generally consists of doing things that won't seem regrettable later on. How much later? How regrettable? That may vary. In general, though, tastefulness is really just voluntary restraint from the maximalist approach in all things. ■ But it's silly to reject the idea that we can think far enough ahead to demonstrate tasteful restraint. People make long-term decisions all the time. Suppose we were to apply seven years as a standard: Could people reasonably hold themselves to a standard of behavior that would reflect well on them after seven years of time passes? ■ Seven years seems like a lot until it is compared to other guideposts. A seven-year-old child is generally in first grade. The average passenger vehicle has been on the road for 12 years. The median stay in an owner-occupied home is 13 years. ■ Thus it really isn't that great a stretch to ask people to think ahead, particularly if they're in the practice of doing so. And that comes back to the question of whether there is a social expectation to behave in tasteful ways. If tastefulness is a standard matter of habit, then it becomes self-perpetuating. If it falls away, then perhaps its only ticket back is for people to grow tired of the regrets and push the expectation back into place.

May 14, 2024

News Write more

Writer and surgeon Atul Gawande offers a thought-provoking perspective on the value of writing in his book, "Better": "An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it. So choose your audience. Write something." ■ Gawande is right on more than just the merits he noted. Committing a thought to writing (when that writing is intended for reading by others) also implicitly requires the author to spend time refining the thoughts and words -- almost nobody generates a perfectly grammatical stream of consciousness. Thus, the act of writing inherently demands that the honest writer attempt to save the audience's time by finding the right words to make the right point. ■ Our species has been around for some 300,000 years, but writing has only been around for some 5,200 of them. That means 98% of the entire history of human life up until the present went entirely without the written word. ■ And the best available data suggests that up until the 1960s, the majority of the world's population was illiterate. The written word existed, but was of little direct use to a majority of humanity until only about six decades ago. ■ It's nearly inconceivable that our species, with our giant, energy-hungry, problem-solving brains, had no real way to reliably store hard knowledge or complex thoughts outside of our fragile memories up until practically yesterday in evolutionary terms, or that a majority of people on Earth weren't able to read or write until about the time astronauts first landed on the Moon. ■ Gawande's admonition seems almost old-fashioned in a time of fast-paced social media, but it's incumbent on us to realize that the gift of shared written language is basically new in historical terms. We've likely uncovered only a scarce amount of the unrealized potential of not just near-universal human literacy but of near-universal ability to instantly transmit our own writing anywhere else on the planet (and even to effortlessly translate what has been written in languages other than our own). It shouldn't go without appreciation.

News Better narratives wanted

Too many children's stories still rely on antiquated stereotypes. If you're writing something that includes narrative filler about princesses changing costumes, perhaps it's time to reconsider priorities.

News Fathers, hug your sons

If you don't contribute to their healthy development early on, they may grow up to espouse complete nonsense about human values with boundless unjustified self-confidence. A truly flabbergasting number of "influencer" types are engaged in little more than thinly-veiled and desperate bids to gain male approval and affection.

May 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards Old and immature

An octogenarian pair has made an embarrassment of themselves by attempting to smash a copy of the Magna Carta in a purported effort to put attention on climate-change issues. ■ The document is fine and the perpetrators will likely pay some kind of penalty for their crimes. But this style of activity isn't a meaningful act of protest; it's a tantrum, just as it is when people throw food at the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's "Sunflowers". ■ Throwing and breaking things to seek attention is immature tantrum behavior, no matter how old the subjects committing the vandalism. It neither makes a meaningful symbolic claim (the Magna Carta well predates anything resembling the Industrial Revolution, for instance), nor gives any sound-minded onlooker any reasonable cause to think differently about a controversy. ■ Moreover, it is an act of profound narcissism to think that your pet issue is more important than a work widely considered a civilizational treasure. The Magna Carta dates to 1215. To attempt to damage it for the sake of a political issue -- even assuming the issue was a valid one -- is to implicitly declare that you think your troubles exceed those of anyone who has lived for the past 800 years. ■ Whether it's a tangible object (like a painting, a sculpture, or a document) or an abstraction (like an institution or a norm), there is rarely a justification for setting out to destroy it wholesale. There are indeed times when blowing up a symbol is a prudent act. But causing damage to cultural artifacts in pursuit of "making a point" or "drawing attention" is generally no more than mere petulance.

May 11, 2024

Science and Technology A grand light show

An extraordinary solar storm has pushed the reach of the Northern Lights far beyond normal borders -- giving people even in Alabama and Florida a potentially once-in-a-lifetime view of what's typically reserved for people living much closer to the poles. ■ It's nearly unheard-of for an event to be visible to so many people around the world at the same time merely by looking out their own windows: No matter how large a weather system might be, it's not simultaneously-visible-in-North-America-and-Europe-and-Oceania large. We can share common experiences through our technologies, of course, but almost never can so many people share the same experience just by looking skyward. And it's a phenomenal sight. ■ The people who watch "space weather" note that the geomagnetic storm responsbile for the aurora is the product of a "complex sunspot cluster that is 17 times the diameter of Earth." Our very planet is dwarfed by the conditions causing the special event. ■ The "Serenity Prayer" widely popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous (but celebrated far beyond it) pleads, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." ■ Nothing we know how to accomplish on a human scale lights even a candle by comparison with the scale of the natural show going on now. A coronal mass ejection can take up a quarter of the space between the Earth and the Sun. That's too big to comprehend on a human scale, much less to influence. ■ So an extraordinary aurora is a good trigger for some epistemic modesty: We can only know so much and we can act on even less. There are many things we can do, but sometimes nature imposes forces on us far beyond our capacities. That shouldn't be cause for despair, only for humility.

May 10, 2024

News A Scout first

As of February 2025, the Boy Scouts of America will be known as Scouting America. The name change has elicited no small number of reactionary responses from those who see the change as part of some broadly nefarious plot. ■ The reality is that the programs formerly reserved only to boys are now open at both the elementary school ages and middle/high school ranges to both boys and girls, and they have been for a few years. ■ The change reflected a response to some unpleasant institutional realities about membership trends. But opening up to girls' participation also reflected a long-overdue social change: The recognition that the same experiences and expectations that are good for young boys are almost always equally good for young girls. ■ Changing the name of the organization to remove the obsolete gendering doesn't diminish the organization; what matters is the "Scouting" part, not the "Boy" part. It's not an organization in which girls aspire to be like boys, but one in which boys and girls aspire to be the best versions of themselves. What about virtues like trustworthiness, helpfulness, courtesy, or bravery belong to one gender more than another?

May 9, 2024

News Deterrence and correction

With legal proceedings occupying so much of the news, it's a fair time to consider how well we distinguish between two very different tracks followed by the justice system. There is a significant difference between them, though the difference is far too often overlooked. ■ The first track is the instinctive one: The use of punishment to penalize those whose deviance causes trouble for society. Sometimes the punishment is aimed at deterring the offender at hand, as when a criminal defendant is held in contempt of court. Other times, the punishment of one criminal is intended as a deterrent to others, as when conspirators are threatened with decades of prison time. ■ The other track is taken when society would rather reform the individual's behavior and return a "corrected" whole person back to society. Some 640,000 people each year return to American society after a period of incarceration -- more than the entire population of Wyoming. The needs of society are only really met when these people are truly engaged in a process of reform. Getting probation, work release, and inmate rehabilitation right are important tasks, just on the sheer numbers alone. ■ Parents often need to consider the difference between the tracks even within household affairs: Not every punishment corrects, and not every correction should be punishment. In fact, the vast majority of the time, parents should seek to correct in ways that are expressly different from punishment: Kids do "wrong" things quite often because they simply haven't learned enough yet about what's right. ■ Drawing the distinction is important because those who are chronic, willful, or contemptuous offenders of social orders and abusers of public trust impose real costs on their fellow citizens. For that set, correction is unlikely and punishment as deterrence may be the only sound approach. ■ The costs don't always show up immediately, but Theodore Roosevelt framed the costs of cumulative public malfeasance well: "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."

May 8, 2024

News Have a drink

A variety of organizations, most of which have enormous reach but very little share of the public mind, celebrate Drinking Water Week each year. Public proclamations from governors and mayors are often issued, and the broad-based value of public drinking water is cited in approving terms. ■ Lest the acknowledgment become too squishy and sanguine, we should do more to note that 90% of Americans are served by public drinking water systems regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which turns 50 this year. That's roughly 300 million people out of a population of some 335 million, all of whom can be satisfied with high confidence that whatever comes out of the tap is safe -- and that the people providing it are required to keep it safe under penalty of law. ■ You might quibble about differences in taste. You might find bottled water more convenient than tap water when you're on the road. You might even make the reasonable case that there's even more we as a society could do to continue advancing drinking water safety and quality (and of course there is -- just like there's more that medical science can do to keep us healthy, or that computer science can do to prevent malicious hacking). ■ But the fact is that a person can go literally almost anywhere in this gigantic country (third-largest in the world by land area) and know that what comes out of the tap won't make them sick. It's been tested and monitored, and someone is accountable for keeping it safe without you, the ordinary person, having to give it a second thought. ■ And it's not just what you drink -- it's the water washing the dishes where you go out to eat, what your surgeon uses to wash his or her hands, and what's ready to pour out of the sprinkler system over your head in a high-rise building. Almost everywhere you go, it's been tested, treated (where necessary), and delivered to a very high level of quality, typically at a cost so negligible that customers are billed in increments of hundreds or thousands of gallons per month. ■ If you've ever traveled to a country -- or even a campsite -- where the purity of your drinking water wasn't quite so assured, pause for a moment and consider just how much time you save simply by knowing that tap water is safe. Consider how much water reliability undergirds everything that happens in the economy. Consider how much better is your quality of life because you never give a second thought to waterborne diseases like cholera or typhoid fever. ■ Living without reliable sources of safe drinking water literally leaves people sick and tired. Drinking Water Week, as mundane as it may seem, celebrates the one thing that certifiably holds all the rest of civilization upright.

May 7, 2024

Threats and Hazards Persuasion in the face of danger

In an interview with The Economist, French president Emmanuel Macron has warned that Europe faces security risks, economic risks, and social risks to its traditions of liberal democracy. "Things can fall apart very quickly," he warns. ■ Macron is right to be alarmed. As a general rule in life, things are rarely as bad as they seem but they can get much worse much faster than we realize. We tend to over-estimate present pain while discounting too heavily the possible rate of deterioration. It's a rule just as applicable to human affairs as it is to the maintenance of working equipment. ■ Reasonable people can hope that Macron is wrong about Europe's condition, but level-headedness requires taking him seriously. Macron can be provocative from time to time (after all, he once called NATO "brain-dead"), but he also sensed the mood of his own country well enough to revolutionize the entire party order when he was first elected. Macron may be labeled many things, but "smart" needs to be near the top. ■ That intelligence makes two other interview comments stand out. The first is his blunt assessment of Europe's challenge in confronting Russian lawlessness on its eastern borders. Macron doesn't hesitate to use language like "war crimes" and "war of aggression" -- blunt language that confronts the reality. ■ Nor does he mince words when he says "Deterrence is at the heart of sovereignty." It's why Finland embraces the "porcupine" strategy of national defense, and why it's so important for defense commitments to be credible. ■ Macron's other noteworthy comments are enduring in nature: "Politics isn't about reading polls, it's a fight, it's about ideas, it's about convictions". The populist moment has punched hard against ideas, seeking to replace them with personalities -- so it's reassuring that someone with power sees the matter otherwise.

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May 5, 2024

News What do you really believe?

One benefit of the Internet age is that philosophies and perspectives that might have escaped widespread attention before can get a fair chance at exposure. The person who wants to explore ancient philosophies more deeply than the page or two of treatment they might have received in a school textbook can find active (and often passionate) advocates for a variety of worldviews: Twitter streams for Epicureanism, podcasts about Stoicism, and YouTube channels dedicated to Platonism. ■ The existence of modern tools to breathe life into ancient philosophies (and not just the Greek ones) is a net good for society, and quite a large one. But just as is the case with living religions, there are hazards: Hucksters who use the quest for meaning as a vehicle for self-enrichment, and fundamentalists who come to believe that only one way will do. ■ Everyone has to come to their own conclusions about what is meaningful, important, and worth pursuing in life. Even if they make the choice to follow a path charted by others, there is still an element of choice involved in every adult's system of values. ■ A person's formative process -- through both schooling and guidance from their elders -- ought to include a heavy dose of encouragement not to adhere only to one way of thinking, whether it's old or new. We've recorded enough human history to know with high confidence that no one way has a monopoly on answers to how to live the best possible life. An eclectic approach really is the only way. ■ That's where the good fortune of the Internet age comes in. A person doesn't have to spend months exhausting the shelves of a public library to find answers. The choices now come as easily as subscription to a Substack newsletter. The only problem is that nobody really has an incentive to tell people to sample broadly. Hard-line philosophies sell desk calendars. Heterodoxy does not.

Computers and the Internet Retiring with Pac-Man

Video games are now about fifty years old, which means that people now nearing age 60 can plausibly claim to have "grown up with them". Surely anyone whose youth coincided with the 1977 introduction of the Atari 2600 and the 1980-81 launch of Pac-Man may be credibly considered a video-gaming native. ■ Those people are mostly still in the workforce -- but some of the elders of the generation are closing in on retirement. This makes it reasonable to forecast that we are no more than a few years away from the first arcade-themed retirement living communities. ■ Think about it: One of the main complaints lodged against retirement communities today is a shortage of engaging programming and a perception that they are places to slow down. Yet a census of just about any casino floor will reveal an almost limitless supply of retired adults playing video slot machines -- which are nothing more than low-skill video games. ■ Casinos actually furnish a model well worth studying for those who will someday soon try to recruit Generation X retirees: They've developed games, sound effects, lighting, and even fragrances to keep people voluntarily captive for as long as possible. It's a wonder that retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, which often coordinate casino outings, haven't really sprouted any facilities that model themselves on a casino theme. If they take away the winning and losing of actual money, what harm would really be done? ■ Arcade-themed retirement environments are basically an inevitability, even if that hasn't really dawned on anyone yet. Appeals to nostalgia basically ensure that will be the case. But more to the point, it's a great environment in which to put good practices into effect. ■ Arcade gaming is an individual activity, but it takes place in a community environment. It can be done in ways that encourage memory and test reflexes. And all it really has to do is follow a casino-resort model in all but the winning and losing of money. It's an idea whose time has not quite come yet -- but which will be here before you know it.

May 4, 2024

When Charlie Munger made his final appearance at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in 2023, he and Warren Buffett took an audience question asking them to identify some of their own biggest mistakes. Without responding directly to the question, Munger offered a succinct formula for avoiding regret in life. ■ His advice: Spend less than you earn. Invest frugally. Avoid toxic people. Avoid toxic behaviors. Learn continuously. ■ That final point stands out. At the time he delivered it, Munger was 99 years old. Yet he remained a fanatical learner, notoriously devouring far more books than most people and learning from as many practical directions as he could. ■ At age 99, one could be forgiven for choosing to take the easy route at just about anything. A rational analyst might note that a 99-year-old man has two years of actuarial life expectancy remaining. Any time spent learning anything new is surely subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. ■ But there's another way to look at it, and Munger embodied this alternative viewpoint: Someone who has spent the better part of 99 years accumulating wisdom like a squirrel gathering nuts for a hard winter has put him- or herself in a position whereby any incremental unit of knowledge is unusually likely to yield a truly extraordinary result. ■ This is to say that after many years of accumulating raw information, the truly worldly scholar is positioned unusually well to synthesize new observations or conclusions that are likely to escape the less-experienced. ■ Society often shakes its collective head at the follies of senior citizens who are stuck in their ways or who find themselves unable to adapt to new and changing conditions. But that mockery would be better channeled into an active eppreciation for those who really do try to remain vibrant learners, considering how much some of them still have remaining to contribute. ■ Not every 99-year-old (or even 69-year-old) will have as many thoughts remaining to synthesize as a Charlie Munger. But what a world if we expected more of them to do so, and if many of them rose to the occasion.

May 3, 2024

History acknowledges George Washington Carver as one of the greatest innovators in the history of food and agriculture. We still benefit from many of his creations, not least from the humble jar of peanut butter, which remains one of the easiest, cheapest, and most easily stored sources of protein available in the world today. ■ When aid reaches people in the midst of famine, one of the key means of bringing relief is a special peanut-butter paste. And in millions of homes facing no such dire distress, the lunch of choice for many children (and more than a few adults) is a peanut butter sandwich accompanied by anything from jelly to pickles. Peanut butter is easy to master and it dependably resolves hunger pangs in a jiffy. ■ Perhaps most of the low-hanging fruit in food science has already been plucked, but it's hard to imagine that we've truly exhausted all of the good ideas for providing ample nutrition at low cost to the world. The current fight over synthetically-grown meat points to the fact that new technological progress is still being made. ■ Just as it isn't intuitively obvious that crushing a ground nut and mashing it into a paste is a great way to deliver high-density protein, there are undoubtedly unexplored ways to make valuable progress with other foodstuffs. A world of good could be done for public health in America if someone could do for selected vegetables what Carver did for peanuts -- so much of our cuisine depends on transforming them in unhealthy ways (converting potatoes into french fries, for instance) or treating them merely as vectors for dips and dressings. ■ Fruits have gotten at least some of this treatment, which is why we have strawberry preserves to spread on the other half of a sandwich and applesauce in single-serving packets. But aside from notable exceptions like tomato sauce and pickles, there just aren't many foods found in American diets that put vegetables to use as good things in their own right -- centerpiece foods that are just as easy to indulge as a scoop of peanut butter straight from the jar. Riches may not await their innovators, but the thanks of an over-fed but under-nutrified world might.

April 30, 2024

News Proportions beat categorical imperatives

If you return home one day to find that a bird has built a nest in the way of your front door, you face a choice. You could get rid of the nest or move it to a less inconvenient spot. Or you might decide to use a different door until the eggs in the nest hatch and the baby birds fly away. That choice isn't an obligation, but it might be considered the act of a mensch -- a person of honor worth emulating in the world. ■ To wait for the natural cycle of hatchlings from one nest might be good. But ten nests would be too many. And abandoning the front door forever just to permit an endless cycle of birds to nest there would likewise be going too far. Besides the inconvenience of surrendering your own door, you might come to create dependency for the birds and a nuisance for the neighbors. ■ Nearly every good thing is a matter of proportions. Patience and forbearance are good; becoming a doormat is not. Generosity is good; giving to the point of self-impoverishment is not. Vitamin supplements can be good for health; but even vitamins can become toxic in excessive doses. ■ Too many people subscribe to an assumption that all things are subject to categorical imperatives. This leads to a troubling habit of escalation, as people try to apply their absolute certainty over rights and wrongs, using whatever means they find necessary. ■ Fundamentalism or absolutism of almost any stripe is incompatible with an understanding that goodness is virtually always a matter of proportions. There are boundaries around both our understanding of the facts and our capacity to make unconditional rules. ■ Political fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, ethical or moral fundamentalism -- any approach that requires an abandonment of scale and the adoption of fixed, immutable rules -- collides with the reality that conditions matter, even if they make our human choices messier. "It depends" tends to be a much less implicitly satisfying answer than a categorical imperative, but in the overwhelming preponderance of circumstances, "It depends" is right.

April 29, 2024

News The case for more teamwork

The American Enterprise Institute has published a paper which estimates that China is spending much more on its military than the country publicly reports, and even more than the intelligence community serving the United States has openly estimated. The estimated amount is very similar to what the US itself devotes to military spending, and far more than Russia, which has the world's third-largest defense budget. ■ Spending alone doesn't amount to a guarantee of results; the Soviet Union spent prodigiously on its military and all it got in the end was bankruptcy and collapse. But seeing a country run by a regime with hostile habits and intentions raise the stakes like that should be enough to alert the United States that now is an essential time to build and keep good alliances. ■ In so many ways, the US is capable of unilateral action. That's what having a quarter of the entire planet's GDP will buy. But capability isn't the same as strategy. ■ Strategically, we need mutual commitments. Not deals that merely reward us for having the upper hand or that hold a sword of Damocles over our counterparties, like China's government has been so fond of implementing. Contrary to the empty-headed hostility to cooperative action expressed by some isolationists, our best hopes lie in engaging with friendly countries on win-win terms. ■ And where we can advance the rule of law, individual liberty, and a decent respect for human rights by making new or deeper diplomatic friendships, we should. The deeper the global reservoirs of goodwill and commitment to liberal values, the higher the costs to adversaries who would try to harm the order which those values sustain.

April 27, 2024

Threats and Hazards Long memories

China's efforts to demolish the structure of individual rights in Hong Kong is a naked display of power being used to stifle dissent. But it may not just be a reaction to contemporary conditions on the ground: It turns out that nearly a century ago, the Communist partisans trying to subvert the existing republic in China used Hong Kong as a key point for getting resources to their forces inside the mainland. ■ The strategic choice to try to muzzle Hong Kong entirely seems from the outside like a colossal waste. As a special territory whose embrace of a liberal regime of laws had made it exceptionally wealthy by comparison with the rest of the country (and the world), it seemed like Hong Kong was a jewel worthy of preservation. ■ But perhaps those intergenerational memories were enough to convince China's regime that they didn't want anyone trying to get away with the things their predecessors had already done as revolutionaries themselves. That wouldn't reveal strategic foresight so much as an age-old instinct to pull up the ladder behind yourself. Regrettably, 7 million people are forced to live with the consequences.

April 26, 2024

Computers and the Internet A priesthood of electronics

Few reactions are more reliable about flying right in the face of the evidence than the assumption that technological progress will lead to widespread and chronic unemployment for human beings. Technology will always bring about employment changes at the margins, but it also invariably scratches new itches and reveals brand-new preferences. ■ When tractors displaced horses, some losses were felt among oat farmers and farriers, but a great deal of work was created in factories, service and repair shops, implement dealerships, and countless other directly related industries, not to mention vast numbers of second-order industries. ■ Despite its many intriguing promises, artificial intelligence has no hope of permanently displacing as many jobs as it will ultimately create. Take, for instance, the case of "Justin", the "virtual Catholic apologist". ■ As an experiment in artificial intelligence, it's an interesting one: A chatbot programmed to answer questions about religious faith. After some initial missteps in how it was rolled out, the "Justin" persona has been changed from that of a priest to a lay theologian. ■ Aside from the many questions that might be asked about theology delivered by artificial intelligence, it should be noted that the technology itself probably reveals or even generates more questions than it could begin to answer. Can an artificial intelligence engine have a soul? Is it permissible to represent the thoughts of a real person using an artificial technology? If a novel claim is pronounced by an artificial intelligence, what would signal whether it was divinely inspired? Is there a literal deus ex machina? ■ The questions are certain to become vastly more numerous than they were before the technology existed: In effect, a make-work program for theologians. No matter how technology reconfigures human work, there will always be new puzzles to solve -- many of them generated by the new technologies being used, ostensibly, to save labor. From those puzzles alone, we can be assured that humans will never be made obsolete.

April 24, 2024

News "Forethought, shrewdness, self-restraint"

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a Presidential speech in his home state of New York, in which he pleaded with his fellow Americans to remain worthy of the republic they had so fortunately inherited. "Many qualities are needed by a people which would preserve the power of self-government in fact as well as in name," he encouraged. "Among these qualities are forethought, shrewdness, self-restraint, the courage which refuses to abandon one's own rights, and the disinterested and kindly good sense which enables one to do justice to the rights of others." ■ American history would be worth studying on its own merely for the fascinating story it tells. But it's enormously practical to study, as well. For as much as the country is the product of an idea -- an abstraction about people and self-government that takes shape around a couple of documents from the 1700s -- it's also the product of events that are as much a part of the experiment in self-government as the hypothesis that people can govern themselves. ■ One of the major concerns of Roosevelt's time was the threat of anarchist violence; an anarchist had assassinated William McKinley in 1901. And yet, that anarchist movement instigated Roosevelt to argue that "A healthy republican government must rest upon individuals, not upon classes or sections. As soon as it becomes government by a class or by a section, it departs from the old American ideal." ■ Those words hardly seem out of place today, particularly not at a moment when mass protests centered on group identities have made some universities tense and even threatening places to be. We're no less subject to those same pressures identified by Roosevelt some twelve decades ago than Americans were at his time. That the country endured through its trouble then is a good sign that we can weather difficulty today. But it doesn't happen without individuals choosing to be better than some of our lesser impulses would try to make us.

April 22, 2024

Science and Technology Good to hear from you again

NASA shares the good news that they have managed to re-establish a data link with Voyager 1. A computer chip on the probe went bad in November, and it's taken until now to implement a solution. ■ Voyager is a fascinating project, having been launched in 1977 and now officially in interstellar space. That the equipment is working at all after more than 40 years of motion and cosmic radiation is pretty amazing. ■ But it should really command some admiration that people on the Voyager team at NASA committed the effort to figure out a way around the hardware problem and re-program the chip from 15 billion miles away. It says something about the natural curiosity of our species that we want to know what's out there, so far away, and that we're willing to try some pretty challenging things to figure it out. Someday those signals will probably be lost for good, but for now, Voyager lives to transmit for another day (whatever that means once you're beyond the reach of your home star).

News Stop torturing poets

If we could speak to the animals, nobody would tell the whales to stop singing. Whale song is one of the fascinating aspects of biology that tells us that many of our human instincts are shared by other intelligent animals, which doesn't diminish them as aspects of humanity but rather elevates the other members of the animal kingdom. ■ But back to the whales: If it were possible to communicate with them, Dr. Dolittle-like, surely no human would tell the whales to shut up and wait for an individual to wander off and come back later with a new song to sing. Yet that is approximately how we treat human music. ■ Implicit in the very title of "The Tortured Poets Department" is the widely-accepted myth that creative people must suffer for their art (even if it becomes a smashing commercial success). But what if that is utter balderdash? ■ What if the forces that build anticipation around the debut of an album, a show, a novel, or a painting are in fact entrenching a deeply unhealthy relationship between humans and our artistic instincts? ■ There's no doubt that some creators are at their best when using art to work through difficult times -- it's hard to imagine Fiona Apple minus raw existentialism -- but maybe we unintentionally burden artists with the expectation that they should only release the work that tortured them, and simultaneously deny ordinary people an outlet so natural that whales experience it for free. ■ Perhaps they would tell us that we are ridiculous to expect art to go hand-in-hand with suffering or to confine the creation of art to sporadic releases from a few individuals, rather than engaging in it as a routine rhythm of living. That doesn't mean it can't play a role in struggle (or give rise to it), but maybe we should heed what musicians and writers and cartoonists are able to do when they surrender to speed rather than self-torture.

April 21, 2024

Computers and the Internet Can Congress really banish TikTok?

It's a question with two different thorny answers. One is legal: The prospect of banishing a particular company by name through legislation isn't exactly an obvious slam-dunk. It's obviously going to be an issue for the courts to decide after much tempest. ■ The other is technical: The whole point of the Internet is that it evades easy control. The lessons of the Napster era, the dark web, and the mass-marketing of virtual private networks (VPNs) demonstrate that evasion of authority is a defining characteristic rather than a niche concern of the digital world. ■ That doesn't mean the application or its owner are benign, nor that they should be trusted or even used. If the parent company isn't demonstrably and actively collecting user information for nefarious purposes, it still most certainly could be. ■ The main problem isn't the content, though there are very good reasons to be concerned about what decentralized mass-scale disinformation campaigns could achieve in adversarial hands. The central problem is the collection and ownership of user data. Chinese agencies have been after American data on the biggest scale possible. We don't have to know why they're collecting the data, how they're storing it, or how they might put it to use. The collection itself is cause enough for suspicion. ■ American authorities would be daffy to ignore the possibility of massive surveillance facilitated by tech companies based in China. That doesn't excuse xenophobic questioning or unconstitutional overreach. But it does demand exceptional scrutiny. ■ Ideally, Americans would heed the warnings voluntarily and cease using the app out of enlightened self-interest. But if that's not to be the case, then perhaps it's inevitable that the imperfect remedy of legislation will be tested. The legal and technical challenges, though, should make it evident that the work is far from over.

April 20, 2024

Computers and the Internet Apple's iPhone exclusivity isn't the place for the Senate

(Video) Sen. Elizabeth Warren has released a video whose tone might be earnest, but also possibly tongue-in-cheek, decrying Apple's handling of text messages from non-iPhone users to those using iMessage. It is true that Apple uses cues (like a jarring color) to single out those off-brand users. And it's true that some iPhone users are inclined to keep their Android-using friends out of certain chats. ■ But is it the kind of overreach that justifies a United States Senator vowing to "break up Apple's 'monopoly'" over a "stranglehold on the smartphone market", when Apple has a sub-60% market share? That's not a literal monopoly. Its practices may be anti-competitive, but are they really illegally so? ■ It's not as though iMessage has an exclusive hold over the messaging market more generally -- there's Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Bluesky, Mastodon, Snapchat, Telegram, Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Chat, just to name a few. Several of them have more than 25% penetration in the US market. ■ People are free to migrate wherever their preferences take them. And those providers are free to offer exclusive features to attract users. Similar complaints could have been lodged against AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ a couple of decades ago, and look where they are now. ■ For those who truly feel left out of iPhone chats, but who don't want to surrender Androids as their primary phones, a prepaid phone plan for $15 a month and an unlocked, refurbished iPhone can be had for $150 or less. That's not free, but it's also not very much to pay to avoid the fear of missing out. ■ The mystique of government intervention as the way to alleviate even low-grade social conflicts really ought to be avoided. Excessive interference with ordinary market evolution tends to be wasteful and inefficient, slows the work of natural market reactions to consumer demands, and turns society weak and flabby.

Threats and Hazards Stopping the fire before it spreads

Members of Congress have been dropping hints that they've been told unspeakably bad things about what the Kremlin wants to do in Europe. Considering the incomprehensible barbarity of what his army has already done, unprovoked, to Ukraine, it must have been at once both highly persuasive and deeply astonishing in its depravity. When the Speaker of the House says he'd rather be taken down by rebellious party members than see Putin "continue to march through Europe if he were allowed", that's saying something.

April 18, 2024

News Juror identities and secret ballots

While Americans are fairly well-versed in the importance of the secret ballot, it's worth reiterating why individuals have an interest in keeping their own ballots secret, even when they're proud to support a candidate or a party. Ballot secrecy is important, even for the proud, because we cannot distinguish the ballot photo shared out of pride from the ballot photo shared out of coercion. ■ An abusive spouse, a bad boss, or a crooked union steward might compel another person to wear a lapel pin, apply a bumper sticker, or show up at a rally. Those are bad circumstances, to be sure, but if the ballot is always kept completely secret, then the individual's conscience should always be secure to prevail where it ultimately matters the most. Laws can only go so far -- social norms have to play a part, too. ■ Likewise, the anonymity of the jury is a vital public interest, and one that can only be maintained through a combination of laws and habits. Just as it's understandable that individual voters might be excited to show off their ballots, it's understandable that intrepid reporters might be eager to report on the makeup of a "jury of one's peers". ■ But it's just as important for a jury to maintain secrecy as for a ballot to be kept under wraps, and for similar reasons. If a crooked prosecutor, an unhinged defendant, or a compromised witness wanted to influence the outcome of a trial, they could cause trouble in all sorts of ways. But anonymity provides at least some defensive moat against that kind of compulsion. ■ A handful of journalists have already said far too much about the jury pool in the New York trial of a former President. They have revealed information sufficient enough to narrow down individual juror identities to small numbers -- with descriptions that might only apply to a dozen individuals. Those reporters should stop -- not because the law compels them, but because norms should.

April 17, 2024

Threats and Hazards We don't have the luxury of insignificance

America periodically goes through fits of isolationistic fervor. The present one has made for a strange alignment of interests as the Speaker of the House tries to weather a challenge to his office while pressing for a package to supply military aid to friendly countries under fire. ■ Assuming the best (that is, assuming that opponents of the aid packages are genuine in their disagreement and not willing accomplices of hostile governments), this moment echoes previous instances during which the thought of providing material support to other countries was challenged on the grounds that their problems aren't ours. ■ Yet, time and time again, the United States has been forced to reconcile our innate preference to be left alone (and to stick to matters like our domestic economy) with the reality that we do, in fact, share a place on this planet with a much larger global population -- and that our influence is magnified by our wealth and power. Just 1 out of every 24 Earthlings is an American, but our economy accounts for 1/4th of the entire planet's economic activity. We are similarly over-represented in practically every other metric of influence, from the size of our military to the reach of our cultural outputs. ■ Almost 125 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt addressed the State of the Union to Congress for the first time. In that report, he remarked, "Owing to the rapid growth of our power and our interests on the Pacific, whatever happens in China must be of the keenest national concern to us." ■ At the time, America's "power" and "interests" were still merely a fraction of their size today. And yet Roosevelt, who was addressing China's Boxer Rebellion, still regarded American engagement with the world abroad as a matter worthy of the highest levels of public attention. It may have been self-serving, and it likely reflected undertones of lamentable racial prejudices. But it was also a realistic assessment that even a nascent global power couldn't just look away when matters took place overseas and far away. Our power and interests are vastly greater today. ■ Problems that start abroad often fail to stay there. We have the capacity to make matters better or to make them worse -- only judicious consideration and strategic thinking can decide where we end up. But nobody, especially not those in high public office, should get away with thinking that our inaction or disengagement counts as inert. America doesn't have the luxury of being unimportant, and that means every choice has consequences -- even the choice to take no action.

April 13, 2024

Weather and Disasters Faulty glasses wreck eclipse viewing

An Ohio village bought 1,500 sets of eclipse-viewing glasses for the community, but they were defective and nobody knew until the big moment arrived. And it's not like, for instance, a snafu at the Fourth of July parade when everyone involved can just say, "We'll make up for it next year". It's going to be a long wait for the next eclipse. ■ The intriguing question is whether the supplier of the faulty glasses had an honest mistake (albeit one which should have been caught during some kind of quality-control process), or whether it was a scam from the start (based on the assumption that the buyers would have no real recourse). ■ This is one of the reasons brand names and reputations are still important, even when it's possible to buy just about anything online from low-cost suppliers. Who are manufacturers like "NoCry" and "Melasa" and "Medical King"? The answer is: Who knows? But they're selling "eclipse glasses" online. ■ The other side of the brand-name coin is that trustworthy brands ought to be able to command a reasonable premium for their products -- but not expect an extortionary one. 20% to 30% seems like a fair premium that most people would be willing to pay, much of the time, for the assurance of a reliable brand name when two products appear to be equivalents. Search costs are real, after all. ■ Sometimes a brand is preserved not in the avoidance of failure, but in how they demonstrate a commitment to repairing the damage. Johnson & Johnson's decisive response to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in Chicagoland is the gold standard in this area. With infrequently-bought products (like eclipse glasses), it's much harder to search for quality in the absence of strong brand reputations. Regrettably for the people of Orange, Ohio, it's going to be a long time before they get to try again.

April 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards It's only protest if it's peaceful

After threatening members of the Bakersfield City Council with murder in their own homes, a woman was arrested and tossed into jail. She has entered a plea of "not guilty" in response to 18 felony charges. ■ In polite news coverage, she is being called a "protester". That is a disservice to the language. Protest has a long and honorable history; threats of personal violence do not. ■ There is a strain of behavior in public life that chooses to catastrophize issues at every turn. A little piece of it can be found in every use of warnings like, "This is the most important election of our lifetime." And it routinely escalates from there. ■ The problem with this pattern is twofold: First, the chronic catastrophization of all things political turns some people into antisocial lunatics who think all ends must justify any means. (If it's always the "most important", then compromise, persuasion, and incrementalism have no real hope.) ■ Second, it blurs the line between words and actions. We have to be able to exchange words freely with people so that we can contain even our strongest feelings within civilized boundaries. ■ People who threaten to bring physical harm to city councilmembers, governors, and even Vice Presidents, actively surrender their right to remain in society until they can cool down and find their behavior corrected. Threats of violence aren't protest, they are terrorism.

Computers and the Internet Aligned with our machines

In 1781, Alexander Hamilton gave us a beautiful line that seems to have perfectly anticipated our technology-saturated world: "Nothing is more common than for men to pass from the abuse of a good thing, to the disuse of it." We find it easy to believe the worst about new technologies because it is easy to imagine how we might abuse them in our own self-interest. But those cases are often oversold. ■ Nobody has much difficulty in imagining how generative artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to make it easier to cheat in high school and college classrooms. A technology made for the purpose of imitating human language has pretty obvious utility for doing things like writing essays. ■ The good news is that artificial intelligence doesn't appear to be increasing rates of cheating. (The bad news is that cheating was already widely self-reported long before AI came into the picture.) ■ But there are prospective dangers ahead that will undoubtedly lurk in the shadows of AI use, which is why the issue of AI alignment is so important. Requiring technology to serve human interests requires developing a lot of rules and definitions around hard questions like the classic, "What does it mean to be human?" ■ It would be a cruel irony if, while we are in the phase of "abuse of a good thing", we were to err on the side of ignorance in our approach to AI alignment, simply because too many people proved too impatient for their own good and failed to study enough of the humanities to become good technologists down the road.

April 11, 2024

Threats and Hazards Waiting won't help

The Battle of Britain lasted four months, from July to October of 1940. It was this air battle that gave history the memorable words of Winston Churchill: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". Britain's successful self-defense in the campaign was imperative to preventing Germany from carrying out an invasion, and it ensured that Britain could enlist the aid of the United States, first quietly, then with a roar after Pearl Harbor. ■ Ukraine has been under assault from Russia -- by both land and air -- for more than two years. The US Ambassador there reports that "Last night Russia launched more than 40 drones and 40 missiles into Ukraine. Kharkiv's critical infrastructure alone was struck by 10 missiles, and other cities including Lviv and Zaporizhzhia were impacted. The situation in Ukraine is dire; there is not a moment to lose." ■ It is a different conflict from the propeller-driven dogfights of World War II, yet it's much the same. Terrorism from the skies and unprovoked destruction of essential civilian infrastructure (like the missile attack that just destroyed Kyiv's largest power plant) are barbarous and uncivilized. ■ America's conscience was ultimately stirred by the suffering of the British people, but it still took too much pleading before our allies got the help they needed. Barbarians don't stop fighting out of goodwill; they keep going until it becomes evident that the costs are too high to go on. Ukraine has shown extraordinary willingness to stand for itself -- the missiles have been falling for six times as long as the Battle of Britain, and yet it still fights. ■ The United States could supply vital ammunition and air defense aid, but that requires Congressional action soon. Nothing will get easier or cheaper just by waiting, nor will the barbarians let up until they are repelled. The only way to be confident that the rest of Europe won't come under similar assault is for Ukraine to have a decisive and just defense.

April 10, 2024

News Deduct your cash but not your services

Certain problems are vexing because they create plain and evident negative consequences -- but there is no clear evidence that any possible solution for those consequences won't be equally bad. A good example rears its head every tax season. ■ Economists will note that a market-clearing price can be found for most any good or service. It may be high, it may be low. It may come with externalities. But the price exists. And thus our society is prone to financializing most things. We tend to believe that charitable donations are a good thing, so we incentivize them by offering tax deductions. ■ In general, charity and welfare tend to be distributed most efficiently in the form of cash or cash-like transfers. While this isn't universally true (school lunch subsidies are a relatively clear counter-example), most of the time, it's better for recipients to get something they can allocate on their own. That's what makes the Earned Income Tax Credit broadly popular on both the left and the right. ■ But the opposite can be true on the other end: While cash payments are often better than goods for the receiver, it is sometimes (and perhaps even often) better for a donor to give in the form of services rather than cash. People with high-value skills can often do a lot more good by donating those skills "pro bono publico" than they might by earning income and then donating some of it as cash. ■ The tax code, however, rewards cash donations but does not reward the value of in-kind donations of services. This sets up a perverse set of incentives: The higher then value of the in-kind services one might donate, the lower the relative incentive to donate them pro-bono. Thus, an attorney who bills out at $300 an hour and takes home $100 of that $300 would have to work for three hours just to bring home the income to buy her own services on behalf of a charity. If that seems wholly inefficient, it's the fault of the tax code. ■ The lack of deductibility, of course, doesn't preclude accountants, attorneys, architects, engineers, doctors, nurses, dentists, graphic designers, computer programmers, and countless others from donating their high-value services. But the inconsistency of making their cash donations tax-deductible while offering no such incentive for their pro-bono services is counterproductive -- especially in an economy substantially dominated by the production of services. ■ The obvious case against permitting the value of in-kind service donations to be deducted is that it could open the door to considerable abuse. This is particularly vexatious because elite service providers are often well worth the price, and disincentivizing them from donating pro-bono services sets the entire charitable sector behind. Sometimes the sector gets access to those elite services anyway, but oftentimes it does not.

April 8, 2024

Weather and Disasters Securing power from the wind

In response to an unbelievable wind forecast, Xcel Energy deliberately shut off the power to 55,000 customers in Colorado (especially in the Denver and Boulder areas). At least another 100,000 lost power due to wind damage. ■ The windstorm itself was exceptional: The peak recorded gust was 97 mph, with lots of other gusts recorded well in excess of 70 mph. Nature served up its worst, to be sure. ■ But the decision to actively shut down the power grid is a reflection of the reasonable concern over the fire threat posed by the winds. It was just a little over two years ago that a devastating fire ripped through the Boulder area. That fire was almost certainly caused by a broken power line. ■ The power grid as we know it relies upon a huge amount of above-ground transmission. Burial would self-evidently reduce the risk of damage from wind events, but it's a tremendously expensive undertaking and may be entirely infeasible for high-voltage transmission. Air is a resistor, while the ground is a conductor. The job can be done, but it can't be done on the cheap. ■ Society is going to have to figure out whether it's worth expecting utility companies to bear the much higher cost of prevention: They won't bear those costs alone, and the implicit social contract between regulated utilities and the public requires that the public's demands not come at the expense of bankrupting the energy companies. Wildfires caused by power lines are a cost, too, and simply shutting down the electricity when winds are strong seems like an inelegant long-term solution to the problem.

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April 7, 2024

News Big game energy

For the entire history of mass media up until now, the default order has always been to report men's sports first and women's sports second (if at all). With the exceptional popularity of the University of Iowa's women's basketball team, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of that order. ■ Iowa's tournament games have beaten the ratings for almost all professional sports in the past year -- including the World Series and the NBA Finals. That's an exceptional turn of events. ■ It speaks to the indisputably transformative talent on display, of course. Yet it also points to the fact that when we want to see changes in the world, it's not enough to assume that money is the only element that matters. ■ Funding will always matter, but people's willingness to apply and refine their own skills do, too. But there is also the wholly unquantifiable element of human energy: Call it drive, will, momentum, spark, or something else, there's a characteristic that breaks the inertia of inaction and pushes people to do better. ■ Women athletes have been demonstrating terrific skill for decades. But the requisite energy is showing up in unprecedented ways. The world's most dominant individual athlete is the incredible Simone Biles. Women's wrestling is the fastest-growing sport in high schools. And the most-recognized player in college basketball is Iowa's Caitlin Clark (and there are two other women among the top five). The energy is on the side of reshuffling the old order.

Health Smaller families and tougher care choices

Japan is finding itself in a demographic trouble spot, with a labor market that is almost entirely employed, but a shrinking population of working-age people. The country's overall population is shrinking at a -0.41% annual rate, and the country has roughly one retiree for every two people of working age. ■ The United States is more youthful in many ways (with a ratio of about half as many retirees to working-age people, for example), but we're at risk of some similar hazards. Our birth rate isn't very high, and without our comparatively high rate of incoming migration, we could be facing a pretty alarming set of figures, too. ■ What's worth noting is that while much of the attention to birth and immigration rates tends to focus on the labor market, the consequences are no less important for the basic aspects of old-age care. Large families have traditionally been a source of social security (in the generic sense), and considerably smaller families will have to deal with their elders in different ways than in the past. ■ This could, paradoxically, make extended-family relations more important than when families tended to be much larger. We cannot just assume that there will be enough workers to adequately staff retirement homes, or that the funding will be readily available to outsource that care. ■ One in five families with children are raising lone offspring. That's bound to have consequences down the line, when care decisions (and other choices) have to be made on behalf of elderly relatives. It's not unlikely that nieces and nephews will end up caring for aunts and uncles, or that cousins will need to step in as de-facto brothers and sisters for one another, far more often than was the case when US households used to average nearly 6 people. ■ These are the factors that don't get captured in reports on workforce alone, and they're masked as well when immigration matters so heavily to net population growth. Japan may be well ahead of the United States in the changing tide of big-country population figures, but it's important to note some of the vital ways in which we're already likely to experience parallel trends. There are only so many ways in which robots will be able to "care" for us in the future.

April 5, 2024

A new book has entered circulation with an aggressive take on an old assumption: That country folk are a grave threat to city folk. Some have already undertaken methodical rebuttals of the details, but the premise itself needs to be challenged. ■ Rural and urban interests have sometimes diverged by a great deal; look no further than the history of the Federal Reserve to see a tangible example still around today. The Secretary of Agriculture was one of three members on the committee who set up the districts, because farmers need access to lots of bank credit. The Secretary of Commerce was not on the committee, and there was no HUD Secretary to enlist. ■ But America's geography is considerably more homogenized, socially and economically, than it was a century ago. Every state and every community comes with its own unique features, but the differences in material experience are pretty flat. 75% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Target store, and 90% are within 10 miles of a Walmart. Amazon packages go everywhere, satellite broadband access penetrates where fiber and cable lines do not, and there is no urban/rural divide in Netflix access. ■ But whereas rural and urban places really aren't as presumptively different as they once were, there is a sharp divide among those parts of America that are ascending, those that are stagnant, and those in decline. In those areas that are stagnant or in decline, the resulting feelings of resentment are a real problem -- whether those places are urban, suburban, exurban, or rural. ■ The symptoms are easy to identify, but the root causes can be excruciating to fix. Are houses in decay because of external circumstances or because of household laziness? Are students performing badly in school because the teachers are subpar or because the students lack motivation? Are Main Street storefronts empty because the shopowners ran into a tough economy or because the owners didn't try to keep up with the times? The uncertainties can make it distinctly hard to find responsive policies. But making prejudicial assumptions doesn't get us any closer.

April 3, 2024

News Lost and found

A metal seal once used to mark a Papal decree has been discovered in Poland, more than 650 years after it was lost in transit. It is a fair assumption that the matter contained under the seal was thought to be important in its time; after all, it had been issued by the Pope, who was then (as now) a tremendously influential individual. ■ The decree itself is lost to history, and the artifact so recently discovered is partially missing. It's not even clear who was Pope when it was issued, sometime between 1303 and 1352. On the early end of that window, it could have been Benedict XI -- a full five Popes Benedict before the present day. ■ That should probably give us a lesson in the present, when people obsess over trending news and "going viral". Everyone gets only a limited time on Earth, and even the entire lives of some of the most notable people on the planet are often little more than a historical footnote. It's not nihilism to acknowledge that; it's merely historical literacy. Putting some perspective on the scurrying and attention-seeking of the present is just an application of reasonable humility. ■ And yet, even if much of what appears to be vitally important now is likely to be forgotten some centuries hence, perhaps that makes the thrust of our behavior even more important. What's written in a papal bull may be of no enduring consequence. But whether an individual chooses to treat a child with nurturing patience, a stranger with grace, a friend with timely concern, or a parent with honor really does push the world in the right direction. ■ Those encounters are often remembered -- usually only within one generation, but their consequences multiply as they become the lessons taught to the next generation and the virtues held up as models for emulation. Countless biographies (and eulogies) have pivoted on significant turning points in life brought about by a single person's good works. And many others have hinged on avoidable pain imposed by others as well. Those acts may rarely leave artifacts behind for people to uncover with metal detectors, but in the grand scheme of things, they probably matter a lot more than those that do.

March 30, 2024

News Religious detachment

Every year, legions of "Easter Catholics" attend Masses across America on Easter Sunday morning. Easter and Christmas are, like the High Holy Days of Judaism, the times when people who may have lower theological attachment to their religious faith still respond to their feelings of cultural attachment. ■ Religious attendance in the United States has been in long-term decline, and the share of adults with no religious affiliation is now more than 1 in 4. And no small number are former Catholics: 13% of American adults, or about 1 in 8, are ex-Catholics. ■ Outreach to former, lapsed, disaffected, or merely disengaged Catholics -- and to those who identify with that ambiguous identity of "spiritual but not religious" -- would seem to be the most fruitful kind of evangelism the Catholic Church could do. It would require a different approach than traditionalism or ritualism, and it would probably require reaching out via people other than conventional clerics. ■ Yet, at a time when the Pope has been diversifying the highest echelons of church leadership (and has even made some initial moves to elevate women into influential roles), it seems peculiar that the church hasn't responded more directly to the rise of "spiritual but not religious" as a social identity. ■ Even if specific religious affiliation is in retreat, the search for meaning shows no signs of abating. That quest for meaning is a fundamental part of human nature, and someone, somewhere, will fill the voids people feel. Some have observed the rise of political fervor as a substitute for religion, and others note the quasi-religious (or even cult-like) attachment some people feel to the wide range of self-help gurus found today. The problem is that many of these alternative expressions of religious energy end up having unholy consequences. ■ Catholicism is already a church of many spiritual styles; different religious orders emphasize considerably different practices, just for example, and the influence of syncretism has been applied for centuries to harmonize the Roman Catholic church with local customs. How might it look if the church were to treat those "cultural Catholics" (and their friends) as if they were an existing civilization all their own, previously untouched by missionaries and now being contacted for the first time?

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March 29, 2024

Threats and Hazards The missing narrative

To mark the first anniversary of Russia's detention of reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal published a special cover page, consisting mostly of blank space under the headline "His Story Should Be Here". It's a testament to the power of good design, and a statement about the awfulness of authoritarianism. ■ The use of arbitrary imprisonment is one of the sinister ways in which a bad government can impose its will on people: When the rules are ambiguous and the punishments severe, it's natural for rational people to begin to withhold from even approaching them. It's a method of keeping a domestic population subjugated, but it's also used to keep the truth from being reported abroad. ■ Gershkovich has the State Department working for his freedom, and the vocal support of his employer, one of the world's flagship newspapers. It's still an appalling situation, and another American has been held even longer. The attention the Wall Street Journal can devote is significant. ■ The Page One feature also stands out as a lesson in editorial judgment. Every decision to publish or not, to consult sources or not, or to place a story here or there in the running order of a publication or a broadcast, is an editorial decision. It's a choice. A journalistic outlet can always strive for fairness and for balance, but true impartiality is impossible: Whether reporters and editors find a subject worth covering, for how long, to what extent, and in what ways, all matter. ■ Unfortunately, the tools of digital publishing tend to flatten the coverage, leaving everything disordered, as coverage of all stories from vital local news to the latest rehashing of red-carpet highlights is flattened into an undifferentiated stream. ■ But some things still matter more than others, and indeed we hope they will receive different types of attention. "Let facts be submitted to a candid world", in the words of the Declaration of Independence. ■ The dreadful state of human rights in a country that could have been one of the world's great civilizations is high on that list. Russia could be contributing to the world's scientific knowledge, its technological progress, and its cultural growth. In its present form, it does little of that. And the mistreatment of a single American reporter, for now, stands as some of the most indisputable testimony to that failure.

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March 28, 2024

Weather and Disasters Emeralding season

Astronomically, spring doesn't begin until the spring equinox (generally March 19th or 20th), but that's a fairly unsatisfactory definition in meteorological terms. Signs of spring in the Northern Hemisphere usually pick up early enough in the month that meteorological spring begins March 1st. There are often still late-season winter storms, though, that can make the Great Plains look like the tundra, so "spring" has a nebulous definition at best. ■ The English language could use a definition for a very particular season within spring: The time when green becomes evident in the fields, forests, and yards. It's a very short time, but it can be a delightful one. It's when human instincts tell us that the season has changed for the better, no matter what might be falling from the sky. ■ A good name for it might be "Emeralding Season", for the bright green color it evokes, as well as for the subtle nod to Ireland, the Emerald Isle, whose most famous national holiday conveniently falls on March 17th. ■ Names help fix important concepts in our minds, and given the variability in both spring weather and the range over which Easter (the other "spring" holiday) migrates around the calendar, giving a name to the greening period would be a pleasant idea. Let autumn have pumpkin spice season and Oktoberfest. Spring's most visible sign of renewal deserves its due.

March 26, 2024

Threats and Hazards Cloaking evil intent in a costume of law

In poker, many a player has been betrayed by a "tell" -- some kind of involuntary reflex that reveals the truth despite the player's concerted effort to hide it. Tells aren't limited to gambling, though: One of the chronic tells within a morally rotten system of government is the attempt to put a costume of words that sound like law over motivations that are nothing but hollow exercises in power. ■ Consider the words of the man who holds Hong Kong's title of Secretary for Justice. Speaking about the government's new "security" law, which severely escalates the penalties for a range of offenses that are sufficiently ambiguous that they make for an all-purpose toolkit for striking down opposition groups. ■ In a television interview, the Secretary for Justice declared, "Let's say in extreme situations, if someone repeatedly reposted [overseas criticism] online and showed agreement -- and that they added comments simply to incite other people's hatred towards the Hong Kong and the central government -- then, of course, there would be risk". ■ Words like "extreme situations" and "simply to incite" do a lot of work here, accounting for both a great deal of goalpost-moving and imputation of intent. It sounds like law, but it's really Calvinball. ■ It would be easier to say, "If we are criticized in any way, the critic risks going to prison." But the tell here is that, deep down, even the authoritarians know that what they're doing is fundamentally repugnant. They know that their claim to power is immoral. They know that history will someday eviscerate their memory. ■ But in the short run, they cloak their evil in a costume of law because they're hoping to evade detection. Power that tries to quash criticism instead of adapting to it is ultimately doomed to failure. When it bluffs about its true intentions, nobody should give it a pass.

March 25, 2024

Threats and Hazards If you can worry when others do as well

Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If" begins with the words, "If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you", and ends with "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, / And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!". It's been parodied for almost a century, which is probably as much a testimony to its enduring value as anything else. ■ But there is a missing corollary to the virtue of keeping calm, which in Kipling's style might go something like "If you can heed a righteous alarm when all around you / Are content to look away in blissful ignorance", then that too will make you a good adult and citizen. ■ In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral John Aquilino, the US Navy's Indo-Pacific Commander, sounded just such an alarm. In bold and italic print, he submitted the advice that "[W]e MUST move faster to reduce the risk of conflict in the near and mid-term", because the environment under his command is "the most dangerous I've seen in 40 years in uniform". ■ It is a sobering but unsurprising assessment. The navy under the command of the Chinese Communist Party "has increasingly employed coercive tactics" and isn't just threatening Taiwan, but also countries like the Philippines and Japan, too. The Pacific is very, very big, and power projection takes a lot of effort and consumes a lot of resources. ■ Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner testified as well, with a concurring alert: "Today, the PRC [China] is pursuing its revisionist goals with increasingly coercive activities in the Taiwan Strait [and] the South and East China seas along the Line of Actual Control with India and beyond". ■ We are free to look away and discount the gravity of the situation only insofar as we are willing to accept the consequences. Inaction, disengagement, and disinterest in the problems of places that seem far away ultimately have costs. It's nothing new; Dwight Eisenhower warned that "[W]eakness will alarm our friends, earn the contempt of others, and virtually eliminate any influence of ours toward peaceful adjustment of world problems." And that was some 75 years ago. ■ When people whose careers have depended upon rationality and temperate judgment use valedictory moments in the spotlight to sound alarms, then it takes good citizens to heed the warning.

March 24, 2024

Computers and the Internet Was Tetris keeping America sane?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with defining the state of "flow", in which the individual is so engaged in a task -- challenging but not overwhelming -- that they effectively become lost in the moment. "Flow" is a state of elevated concentration where the act becomes the reward unto itself. ■ Coloring books for adults are only among the latest tools to have been pitched for achieving "mindfulness" and sedating anxiety, but they're really not all that novel: People have been using hobbies, particularly ones that involve repetitive physical motion, to achieve meditative states practically forever -- long before labels like "mindfulness" or "flow" ever came along. ■ Winston Churchill was a prolific painter. Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong violinist. Warren Buffett has played countless games of bridge. ■ It's often hard, though, for people to pick up new hobbies. There's usually an initial phase of embarrassing incompetence, and acquiring a skill often requires attending classes that can compete with precious family time that adults may be (rationally) unwilling to sacrifice. ■ Some computer games, though, offer low barriers to entry -- intuitive enough to learn, easy enough to pick up and put down anytime, and randomized enough that the experience always feels new. ■ Grand champions of the genre include Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Tetris. It's worth wondering: Games like those fell out of favor as desktop computers, and then smartphones, became capable of delivering much richer graphical experiences. Early cellular phones had simple-but-engrossing "Snake". And then it was eclipsed by games that offered better pictures, but a lot less "flow". ■ The decline of that class of games -- and their subsequent revival (as, notably, the New York Times is betting on the attraction of flow games to keep people spending time and money with them) causes one to wonder: If America really did lose its mind sometime around 2012 (as the pop theory goes), was it because easy access to flow had quickly disappeared from millions of computer screens? Was Tetris keeping America sane after all?

March 23, 2024

Health A diagnosis of hardship

A 42-year-old woman with three young children at home has been diagnosed with cancer and faces a period of recovery ahead. It is, objectively, an unpleasant and unwelcome development that still happens too often, despite many advances in oncology over recent decades. ■ But the 42-year-old woman in question is Catherine, Britain's Princess of Wales, and that means her condition has been the cause of tabloid speculation for weeks and will remain fodder for a considerable time to come. ■ Every person who gets a cancer diagnosis deserves to bring that news forward on their own terms. But being open about it early in the process, rather than late, should be the default strategy for anyone who hasn't intentionally embraced a different path for good reason. ■ In the case of a cancer diagnosis, the patient needs to know that a story will almost certainly be told about them, so it is usually best to grasp the lead in forming that narrative. It helps especially to have an oncologist who will treat you with respect for your intelligence and autonomy and who will engage you as part of your own medical team. ■ Sharing the news with friends enlists them in carrying some of the burden along the way. The problem for the woman set to become the next queen consort of England is that her condition is a matter of inordinate attention even in good times. ■ Oliver Carroll, a correspondent for The Economist, puts it wisely: "I have no right to know this information. I have never had any right to know any of this information. But like all normal people am hoping for her swift and full recovery." ■ Monarchies are problematic like that: They turn entire families into casts of characters in mass-market dramas, and that's really no way for anyone to live. It is a fundamentally dehumanizing social structure, in no small part because the cockamamie theory of the divine right of kings specifically placed monarchs (and their immediate families) in a place not all that different from demigods. (Alas, it is dehumanizing to call other human beings "subjects", too.) ■ By right as a human being, the news of Catherine's cancer diagnosis should be hers to share with whom she wants, when she wants. But that cannot be the case for someone whose life is invariably on center stage and in the spotlight. The physical diagnosis is sad, but the social pathology at play is harmful, too.

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March 22, 2024

Business and Finance Boeing CFO admits to an institutional process problem

In an admission related to some troubling and massively embarrassing incidents, Boeing's CFO told an investing conference, "For years, we prioritized the movement of the airplane through the factory over getting it done right. That's got to change." ■ What he says ought to get the attention of his own company, but it's an admission with some broader ripples, too. One of the most important geopolitical factors now and in the coming years is a nation's ability to have a full roster of highly competent firms that are each capable of building complex systems. ■ The systems themselves -- not the products they put out, but the processes of making them -- have to be both designed and maintained. They have to be profitable and they have to be innovative. The US really pioneered the field of complex systems design (see "Rescuing Prometheus", by the great historian Thomas P. Hughes), but maintenance has been a weakness. And what isn't maintained almost always falls into decay. ■ It takes more than just engineering expertise to build things like aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, and commercial airliners. It takes really strong management, too, by people who can see the whole chessboard at once. ■ When you see China's efforts to build their own carriers, their own nuclear plants, and their own large passenger jets, look past the products themselves. Look at the learning taking place and the refining of the skills required to build complex systems. ■ America, we need to get our act together. We're really good at the innovation part of complex system-building (our private-sector space race is a great illustration), but we chronically underperform our potential at maintaining those complex systems. Our economy has no real peers for dynamism. But we need to get better at holding on to our phenomenal gains for the long haul.

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March 20, 2024

News Buffeted about by change

Times of rapid technological and cultural developments have always been disorienting. Imagine being around for the first few decades of the 20th Century in America and witnessing the arrival of automobiles, powered flight, radio, and women's suffrage -- with a world war, to boot. We are naive if we think that our own experience with the whirlwind is entirely novel. ■ It is worth noting, though, that the last few decades have brought about a certain tempo of change that is unusual. The adoption curves for tools like smartphones and the dramatic realignment of public consensus on some once-contentious issues are much faster than their predecessors. The tempo of these changes is not self-evidently bad, but it is not inconsequential, either -- especially if it gives the appearance that more things are changing than truly is the case. ■ Perhaps we haven't reasoned yet with the consequences of our perpetual immersion in a culture awash in ephemeral things. Apps can appear or disappear from a phone without notice. Favorite television shows vanish from streaming services. Songs are pulled off of platforms when artists and licensees run into conflict. Amid planned obsolescence, value engineering, and tightening standards and regulations, even household appliances can end up changing almost as quickly as fashion apparel. ■ When circumstances seem so fleeting, it becomes harder for people to internalize the idea that choices have consequences. If it perpetually feels like even yesterday is a fleeting moment likely to be erased, then the long arc of history doesn't have much of a seat at the table. We see the evidence of how this mass amnesia creates bad incentives as voters and politicians decide to act on what feels good in the moment -- "vibes", some call it -- rather than acting on concepts like duty. ■ Abraham Lincoln implored Congress in 1862 to realize that "In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity." That's a weighty expectation -- but is it wrong, even now?

March 19, 2024

The United States of America Amendments are enough

For more than a century, pockets of America's political left wing have been restlessly agitated with the Constitution. Woodrow Wilson resented its constraints. Franklin Roosevelt famously bent the rules to get the New Deal he wanted. Today, no small number of people can be found making "progressive" arguments to jettison everything from the Electoral College to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court. ■ Critics from the left today often discount the Constitution on the basis of identity politics. There should be no doubt whatsoever that the Constitutional Convention (and politics of the time more broadly) ought to have included people other than men of exclusively European ancestry. ■ But civilization is always constructed from the "crooked timber" of humanity: Whether an organization, institution, philosophy, or other framework has been assembled by a wholly diverse committee or by a single person working alone, the merit of the outcome depends upon the quality of the underlying ideas on which it was built, not the immutable features of its authors. ■ When a self-described "Constitutional equality enthusiast" today denounces the relative youth of Founders like James Madison and uses that youth as the foundation for a critique like, "The [C]onstitution was basically a Reddit post", it's not rigorous enough to deserve respect. The Constitution could have been drafted by a room full of octogenerians or by the Revolutionary Era equivalent of a high school debate team. What would matter is the validity of the work, not the ages of the people involved. ■ In particular, though, this argument that youth ought to be a disqualification of the authors is patently non-credible. Sometimes age brings wisdom. Sometimes it just brings calcification. Sometimes youth brings vitality. Sometimes youth merely brings fanatical obliviousness. ■ The Constitution is imperfect, and it has always been imperfect. Where it may be most perfect is in its embrace of a process for amendment: The forthright acknowledgment by its authors that they got things wrong, and those things might only be revealed by time and unfortunate experience. ■ Implicitly, the Constitution says, "Please revise and resubmit as often as necessary". But it says that as a substitute for disorder, violence, and revolution. ■ Its flaws aren't veiled behind a purported divine right of kings or the all-consuming power of a Politburo. They are written down, out in the open, with a process for correction built clearly into the original. All it asks in return is a thoughtful, incremental process of reform and correction which depends upon persuading not just some of the country, but an overwhelming majority of it. ■ Neither left nor right should discount the contributions of youth nor of old age to political decisions. We have assessed that, under the law, a person is an adult upon reaching the age of 18 -- free to enjoy adult freedoms, and accountable to adult consequences. ■ Voting is one of those freedoms, and elections have consequences. Every election is itself a referendum on keeping the Constitution. Those whose patience with it runs thin ought to remind themselves that only four full Presidential cycles pass between a person's birth and their first eligibility to vote. Changes can come fast if persuasion is applied early and well to the task.

March 17, 2024

Health The third meaning of "Closing Time"

The song "Closing Time" has been a familiar anthem for more than 25 years, used countless times since it was released in 1998 to shut down bars and clubs with the familiar refrain, "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here". It's a cheery but firm reminder to move along. ■ The song even contains a second meaning; the songwriter intentionally incorporated a birth metaphor ("This room won't be open till your brothers or your sisters come" really was a reference to leaving the womb). Yet it's another line that deserves a second meaning, even if we haven't granted it over all these years. ■ "I know who I want to take me home" has the obvious overtures of finding romance on a night out. And taken with the writer's intended double meaning, it's about parents taking a newborn home. ■ But a third meaning altogether could easily belong to the simple idea that more youthful nights out than not end up going home in the company of friends. Friends are vital to any well-rounded life, and they're especially crucial to formative years of early adulthood. A survey of the cohort of students currently in college found that "nearly one in three students spends no time weekly on extracurriculars and campus events". Unsurprisingly, those disengaged students also had radically lower satisfaction with their school experiences than their peers. ■ The problem of social isolation -- even among the age group one might naturally expect to be socializing the most -- is such that the Surgeon General went on a college campus speaking tour, effectively begging students to make friends with one another. (There's even a deck of cards that tries to describe how to improve the practice of being with friends.) ■ Having friends is a self-evident good throughout all of life, and it's conclusively advantageous in an educational context. Everyone needs friends upon whom one can count to "take me home", in Semisonic's words, neither out of the obligations of family nor the desires of romance, but out of the entirely necessary condition of being a human being freely making connections with other human beings. It ought to hold our attention that so many people living in America today -- especially young ones -- seem to be struggling with the process. Friends are indispensable to health, wellness, and well-being.

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March 15, 2024

Science and Technology An e-ink smartphone

A team is trying to raise $500,000 in pledges by the end of March to underwrite a smartphone with an e-ink screen and a physical QWERTY keyboard. They're calling it "Minimal", and they've made it to the prototype stage, with a pitch centering mainly on the human advantages of the phone's inherent limitations -- it's not for streaming video or scrolling through TikTok. ■ It's supposed to be clean, quick, and non-addictive. It's not meant to be a dumb phone (like a flip phone); it's supposed to be smart but constrained. ■ Whether this particular product takes off will depend upon a lot of factors. But the tactile QWERTY keyboard is a feature that really needs to make a comeback, and the use of e-ink is promising: It's what makes looking at a Kindle e-reader much easier on the eyes than looking at a computer screen. ■ The pitch seems oriented towards people who are looking for a way to moderate their own smartphone usage, but the real market is likely to be with users who would carry it as a second phone, probably as a primary work phone to be carried beside a personal phone with the usual bells and whistles. The tactile keyboard and minimalist interface seem like they are under-appreciated sources of value for people who need mostly to communicate messages rather than to consume content. ■ Some product like this is destined to catch on sooner or later. Particularly as security consciousness is either developed organically or is thrust upon us (probably by some pretty bad events), people are going to be forced to assess the need for multiple devices. The mixing of personal and business devices with lots of capacity and countless ways to be compromised by malicious outsiders has put an unbelievable number of vital systems at risk. CISA has hinted at just how many ways millions of American enterprises are falling short. ■ If the Minimal Co. really can deliver a utilitarian smartphone for power users at a $350 price point, then that might be just the right device at just the right time. Security may well be a much more valuable selling point than self-control.

Threats and Hazards An unconscionable waste of life in a completely immoral war

The Economist: "The data suggest that more than 1% of all Russian men aged between 20 and 50 could have either been killed or severely wounded in Ukraine since the start of the full-scale war."

Threats and Hazards A local government legitimacy crisis with global implications

Until good governance comes to the West Bank and Gaza, it's hard to conceive of a peaceful future

Aviation News Learning from the skies over Ukraine

The United States has held on to a well-earned reputation for air power supremacy since World War II. Control of the skies has proven itself again and again to be a necessary (though not always sufficient) condition for victory in combat. In Dwight Eisenhower's words, "[W]hile air power alone might not win a victory, no great victory is possible without air superiority." ■ But what was good enough up until less than a decade ago may well be dangerously inadequate now, having been rendered obsolete by the extremely fast evolution of fighting conditions in Ukraine, where large volumes of relatively low-cost drones have redefined what "control of the skies" really means. ■ The space the drones occupy has been dubbed the "air littoral" -- derived from the name used for waters that transition into seashore. The air littoral is in the sky, but not very far -- mostly below the space where combat aircraft with human pilots aboard dominate the sky. ■ In the air littoral, high performance is less important than persistence and scale. What has always mattered in air warfare is the capacity to inflict damage upon the enemy and to guarantee the security of allies below. Again, in the words of Eisenhower, "For the delivery, in a single blow, of a vast tonnage of explosives upon a given area, the power of the air force is unique." ■ What has changed -- seemingly overnight -- is that drones have become sufficiently precise at very low relative cost to become effective weapons. It takes a long time to train a professional pilot. It takes far less to train someone to pilot a drone, especially with the help of autonomous flight tools. And when those drones fly both figuratively and literally under the radar, it becomes extremely difficult to stop them. ■ Whether the United States is ready, willing, and able to pivot quickly enough to match the changes being wrought by the war in Ukraine is an extremely important question. The lessons being learned there won't stay within tidy national boundaries -- they're coming at full speed for the very next armed conflict. Surrendering the air dominance characteristics of the past would be imprudent, but we can't take the risk of failing to adapt to the new rules, either.

Agriculture Iowa is the #11 state for honey production

North Dakota, of all places, comes in first -- and it's not even close, with 28% of the entire national output. Meanwhile, Utah, which has a beehive on its state flag, doesn't even produce enough to show up in the USDA reports.

March 14, 2024

Computers and the Internet Artistic impression

For Americans, the go-to question for making small talk is "What do you do?", as in, "What is your occupation?". It's generally inoffensive, and it's common enough that everyone has a ready answer (including, most of the time, some means of gently pivoting the question to another subject). ■ We might be a more interesting culture, though, if we asked a less obvious question, but one with much richer potential: "What is your art?" Humans are far from being the only animals who make art: There have been some famous examples of animals creating art in captivity, but there are even examples of birds and fish apparently creating aesthetic works intentionally and with no evidence of meaningful reward other than internal satisfaction. ■ Every well-rounded person is at least a consumer of some form of art, if not also a producer. Some collect paintings, others attend concerts, and still others become movie buffs. But, particularly with the recent -- and in some ways stunning -- emergence of computer-aided art, it's almost difficult to avoid creating some kind of art from time to time. ■ Commercial interests are encouraging people to explore in ways that go far beyond selling paint-by-numbers kits. Samsung is touting smartphone photos taken from the edge of space. Lego sells user-generated portraits as brick mosaics. Event spaces where people gather to drink and paint with friends are franchised nationwide. ■ And given the rapidly-improving capabilities of artificial intelligence tools to make original music and create lavish digital images from words, it's almost impossible to escape the impression that we are on the verge of being immersed in literally as much art as we can handle. Just buy a dual-use television set/picture frame and the family room becomes an art gallery. ■ None of this displaces old ways of creating art, either; anyone can still make analog art from needlepoint to elaborate baked goods. Perhaps, then, it is past time to begin assuming that the art we create (or simply appreciate) is a better starting point for conversation than what we are paid to do.

March 12, 2024

News Saving the wisdom of grandmothers

Grandmothers occupy an iconic place in many, if not most, of the world's cultures. It's a role often revered for its care and warmth. But we also ought to consider whether it's a role that has gone under-appreciated as a source of wisdom, too. ■ It's no secret that men's voices have occupied much more than half of the space in recorded history: There are just three books of the Bible named for women out of dozens, no matter which canon you use. Well-educated people can name dozens of Founding Fathers and ancient Greek philosophers, but almost none of those names will belong to women. ■ This presents a giant gap in civilization's knowledge of itself. Backfilling the parts from the ancient past is next to impossible -- aside from some rare exceptions like the letters of Abigail Adams (who served an outsized role as a grandmother), we don't have much primary source material to recover from the grandmothers of the past. ■ But that should compel us now to re-assess and value the wisdom of grandmothers living today. The "tend and befriend" theory suggests that women may live longer than men because they often take a different approach to stress than the "fight or flight" reactions so often associated with males. ■ Maternal grandmothers, especially, have an especially strong anthropological connection to their grandchildren: A very small (but non-zero) number of men unwittingly raise children who aren't genetically their own. But a biological mother knows for certain who mothered her children, and she knows without a doubt who mothered her daughter's children, as well. ■ This is almost certainly why maternal grandmothers tend to exhibit bias favoring their grandchildren, and why proximity to grandmothers has evolutionary effects. This actually confers a sort of unique biological imperative for grandmothers to see the best survival advice make its way to their descendants. Some of the advice will be bad, and some grandmothers are fools. But far too little of their judgment has been intentionally preserved over the centuries. ■ If the median age of an American mother at the birth of her first child is 27.3 years, then it's probably fair to assume that age 55 is a reasonably close guess at the median age of a first-time American grandmother. Based upon average remaining life expectancy for a woman of that age, average grandmother-hood should last around 28 years for the women who follow that path in life. ■ That's a lot of time over which to cultivate "grandmotherly wisdom". And it's also a lot of time over which to capture and record it. Grandmothers should be more than a source of cookbooks. We have more capacity than ever to record, document, and disseminate what grandmas know. Civilization would be stronger if we'd set about doing it.

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March 10, 2024

Broadcasting Awards night in America

The most predictable aspect about coverage of the Academy Awards is the commentary about which films and performers were snubbed for well-deserved Oscars. Sometimes the criticisms are nothing more than matters of taste. Sometimes they are justifiable critiques of double standards. ■ Almost every industry has institutions that confer awards. And those awards matter in proportion to the amount they are taken seriously by the industry at large, and by the amount they matter to the recipients. Sally Field's unconventional Oscar acceptance speech in 1985 remains one of the finest examples of the latter. ■ It ought to be a lesson to such a public-facing industry as Hollywood that it still so often appears to miss the mark on the former count -- or, perhaps more precisely, that its own internal sense of worthiness still so frequently falls short of standards that seem patently obvious to so many members of the public. ■ Regardless of the merit of the final award-winners, the pipeline to some of the highest-profile awards still seems altogether too narrow. That's an upstream problem for the film industry, probably in much greater measure than it is downstream (at awards season). ■ The public has a say in those industry awards, in the same sense that the people have a say under an absolute monarchy: Nobody counts their votes, but at some point or another, they can withdraw their consent and de-legitimize the institution. Nobody forces America to watch the red-carpet coverage. The People's Choice Awards, for instance, could be more prestigious than the Oscars, should it emerge that the newer awards mean more to the recipients -- and the industry -- than the older. ■ If the criticism of the latest awards lands anywhere, it ought to first land with scriptwriters who need to commit energy and creativity to imagining stories that look like America as it is today, rather than its past or an alternate reality. And, of course, the stories have to be put into motion by producers who can appreciate the vision. That's a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition for ensuring that the awards handed out today continue to mean something tomorrow.

March 9, 2024

News A change of mind could do you good

Abraham Lincoln, the most consequential Republican President of all time, was a Whig longer than he was a Republican. Winston Churchill, who led his country through World War II as leader of the Conservative Party, spent 20 years in the Liberal Party. Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the 20th Century GOP, was a long-time labor union president and made many self-deprecating jokes about his many years as a Democrat. ■ Wisdom sometimes consists of changing one's mind. New evidence, changed circumstances, and better reasoning can all lead us to better places than where we started. ■ But in the digital age, it's a lot easier to find people who want to put a spotlight on their unwavering consistency than those who are pleased to explain when and why their minds were changed. Social media in particular has driven the phrase "upon further reflection" almost completely out of use, and that's a bad thing -- if we really value intellectual honesty. ■ It isn't always necessary to be the first to make a claim, or the boldest, or the loudest. The temptation to weigh in on every "trending" issue -- or to demand that others do the same or else be accuse of complicity -- eviscerates the ground for people to give matters an oft-needed second thought. ■ It's only useful to admit to a change of mind, though, if the audience is itself intellectually honest enough to appraise the authenticity of a change of heart. Sometimes people really change their minds. Sometimes they're only faking it. Skepticism is fair game. Cynicism, though, is not. ■ Cynicism says that everyone who ever identified with the "other" party is forever in the wrong. Cynicism says that the indiscreet utterances of youth are a permanent stain on character. Cynicism says that 80% agreement is outweighed by 20% disagreement. ■ Minds should be changed from time to time, for reasons imposed by external forces and for inexplicable interior changes of heart. We ought to embrace them publicly and often, not because consistency doesn't also have its place (it surely does), but because a person so consistent that they could just as easily be chiseled in stone is a person whose mind really hasn't been engaged.

March 8, 2024

News NATO gets bigger and better

Sweden has joined the NATO alliance, which is a welcome step forward for global security. NATO doesn't start fights; its existence precludes them.

March 8, 2024

News NATO gets bigger and better

Sweden has joined the NATO alliance, which is a welcome step forward for global security. It's unfortunate that a defensive treaty alliance like NATO remains necessary, especially so long after the original circumstances that brought it into being had changed. The Cold War was over when the USSR threw in the towel in 1991. ■ But the world still contains heavily-armed countries led by unstable autocrats. And the truly regrettable fact is that, no matter how stable and well-ordered we think they will be in the future, the dangers posed by sinister leaders will always be fast-moving. Much too fast-moving for anyone to spin up a thoughtfully-crafted countervailing coalition. ■ NATO doesn't start fights; its existence precludes them. An agreement to come to mutual aid in a time of trouble is also a commitment not to come to blows within the club over matters that can be resolved in more genteel ways. And it quite obviously has the effect of raising the expected cost and difficulty for any external power that tries to do a member wrong. ■ The alliance has always benefitted the United States. That is has never done so exclusively is the dead giveaway that it serves a constraining role in the world, and one worth sustaining unless someone supplies a compelling counter-argument.

March 4, 2024

Health Must everything stem from a diagnosis?

A Twitter user whose profile touts their status as a "neurodivergent blogger/author" submits the observation that "ADHD-ers usually have an interest-based nervous system. Meaning that a task needs either novelty, urgency, competition or interest for them to be motivated or focused. Learning this and adapting boring, everyday tasks to fit into one of these categories can be life-changing." A fine enough observation, perhaps, but what on Earth makes that an observation specific to a clinical diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder? ■ Strip away the para-scientific prelude sentence, and it describes most anyone with consciousness and sentience. Nobody enjoys "boring, everyday tasks" -- by definition! That's the literal purpose of the word "boring". Finding tricks to make boring tasks seem more interesting is probably productive for people with ADHD. It's also probably productive for most people without ADHD, as well. ■ Little passages like this one wouldn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, if it weren't for the insidious way in which they encourage people to think of perfectly normal stimulus responses as being symptoms of "neurodivergence" -- or to think that whatever makes them different also makes them unknowable to others. ■ Worse, it may well give people a permission structure to self-diagnose (and, worryingly, to self-medicate), rather than to pursue a documented opinion from a qualified professional. People are self-medicating with powerful prescription drugs, and the lack of clinical supervision can be dangerous. Even more dangerous is the emergence of black-market drug exchanges accessible via mainstream social-media tools. ■ There's nothing wrong with people offering personal testimony online; authenticity is widely sought, after all. But there are just so many examples of people touting their amateur observations as pseudo-professional claims that they cannot be divorced from the many worrying examples of unqualified, unsupervised, and underaged people convincing themselves that they can self-diagnose rather than getting real help. ■ And with contaminated and counterfeit drugs flooding the market, it's not out of line to call out the hazards early in the chain of events. People of goodwill shouldn't be comfortable with the trivialization of mental wellness into the province of self-appointed influencers.

March 3, 2024

News You can't buy time

Long before Thorsten Veblen deposited the idea of "conspicuous consumption" into circulation, Benjamin Franklin had already identified the merit in keeping his head down: "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting", he wrote in his autobiography. ■ By any reasonable standard, the basic material standard of living for any middle-class American today would run laps around the standard of living in Franklin's day. Running water, household electricity, fluoridated toothpaste, frozen foods, and flu shots couldn't be purchased at any price in his time. But the value of time hasn't changed one bit. ■ What's strange, though, is how much time and energy are spent on talking about ways to pass time. Aspiring "influencers" covet the profits of the "attention economy" while streaming services try to perfect the science of getting viewers to spend incrementally more minutes with their screens. ■ With our fantastically improved standards of living, one might expect the value of time -- to be "seen at no places of idle diversion" -- to have permeated our culture far more than in the 1700s. And yet it seems time itself is rarely valued. Only the occasional word of advice from someone who's vastly richer than everyone else even breaks through, as when Warren Buffett advised, "I can buy anything I want, basically -- but I can't buy time." ■ Lots of what makes our lives materially better is manifested in time savings, of course (there are countless ways to prepare high-quality family dinners in 30 minutes or less), so perhaps we're also so much "time-wealthier" than our predecessors that there's a temptation to value each minute less than they did. But we should beware the temptation to trivialize time until there is too little of it left.

March 1, 2024

News Everyone's bearing something

To the dedicated observer, human nature barely changes over time. To observe and acknowledge that isn't a matter of fatalism, either: It's hopeful. A staggering amount of time and emotional energy are lost to the illusion that much of anything truly meaningful in life is really new and novel. ■ That matters because, if a person really likes their fellow human beings, they ought not want to see people extend or exacerbate their own unhappiness when there are so many good examples available of other people who have struggled with similar (or even identical) problems before. ■ One can barely look anywhere without seeing commentary about problems like social isolation or despair -- or seeing persuasive real evidence of them. But it seems too easy to convince ourselves that there are institutional answers to those problems. History doesn't bear that out. ■ An epidemic of unwillingness to consult history is in the air. And it's leading at least some people to believe the most extreme interpretation of events. If events seem extreme, then people sense justification in responding in extreme ways. Rarely does that end well. ■ But we should indeed consult history. The Talmud, for instance, offers this advice, many centuries old: "Blessed is he who meekly bears his trials, of which everyone has his share." The "meekly" part may be a religious judgment, but the "everyone has a share" part is merely human nature. ■ People often frame the advice, "You don't know what someone else is going through" as a call to kindness, which one might suppose it is. But even more than that, it's really a call to have humility and a sense of perspective. ■ Kindness mostly faces outward. Humility starts and mostly faces inward. We're all imperfect, and our actions imperfectly work to bring us closer to better things, if we're trying hard enough and with the right sense of goodwill toward the world. People who insist on perfection might put on displays of outward kindness, but if the kindness isn't matched by humility, they might just make themselves (and others) miserable along the way. ■ Everyone is "going through" something. Everyone has always been "going through" something. Embracing that fact gives us license to accept and accommodate human struggles instead of lamenting that the world isn't a utopia.

Health CDC to roll Covid-19 guidance together with flu and RSV

The respiratory diseases will all be lumped together for most intents and purposes

Weather and Disasters How warm was February 2024 in Iowa?

Enough so that the mean daily high was at the far tail end of the historical normal distribution for daily highs. In other words, the average day was a statistical outlier.

News Nuclear power sector anticipates growth, but can't find workers

One part of the problem? People fail to think of nuclear power as being a "green" industry.

Threats and Hazards Cybersecurity breach affects 90% of US pharmacies

Ransomware once again on the attack

February 28, 2024

News The Irish have been readers a lot longer than you'd think

Ireland has made a big deal out of its disproportionate impact on the world of literature in modern centuries, but there's also reason to believe it's been a literate culture for a lot longer than might be obvious -- as in, back to the days before Christianity came to its shores. Some are concerned that illiteracy in the modern day is holding the country back far more than is right.

Business and Finance More decent than a hedge fund

There's something truly wicked about institutions that charge premium fees for financial performance that's worse than what ordinary investors could have obtained with no real effort at all. Roger Lowenstein writes: "They regard investors not as partners but as pigeons. They practice their own form of socialism (socialism to benefit the privileged, mind you), extracting a tax on the owners of capital."

Threats and Hazards All lives have value

It would be wrong for a person to sacrifice another person's life as an act of political protest. It strains all reason to believe that it is any less wrong for a person to sacrifice their own life in the same way. Attempts to valorize a self-immolation are dangerous, but widespread.

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February 27, 2024

Computers and the Internet Would you Bing that?

Microsoft apparently offered to sell the Bing search engine to Apple for use effectively as a private-label search tool, but Apple never took them up on the offer. The decision may have hurt at the time, after Microsoft had invested a fortune in Bing and never gotten really anywhere against Google. ■ But concerns are growing that Google's search results are deteriorating in quality because of the complex encroachment of artificial intelligence tools both within the search experience and as a major polluter of the content being searched. And it's difficult to see how Google will be able to successfully navigate those troubled waters without attracting lots of unwanted attention from regulators in the United States and abroad. ■ Being the dominant incumbent in a market is usually fun while it lasts, but no such quasi-monopoly lasts forever (just ask fallen legends like Netscape Navigator, which once had a 90% market share for web browsers, or Sears, Roebuck & Co., which was once so big it could move GDP figures). How a company manages the arrival of new competitors in a changed market determines how well (and whether) it survives. ■ The advent of mass-scale artificial intelligence may be that turning point in the search-engine market. Microsoft or some other competitor may be able to finally break off a piece of Google's massive 82% share of the pie. With the terms of the competition under such significant pressure to change, it may well turn out to be Microsoft's lucky break that it never managed to unload Bing when it wanted to.

Weather and Disasters Modern satellite imagery is a marvel

Satellite views of the continental United States are granular enough to catch the minute-by-minute eruption of grass fires

Weather and Disasters Don't fall for the "chemtrail" nonsense

An otherwise sensible observer in Central Iowa wants to know why he's seeing dark shadows below the vapor trails visible behind high-flying aircraft, musing aloud (to the Internet) that he thinks something is suspicious about what he's seeing. ■ The phenomenon is easy to explain without the aid of any conspiracy theories. Airplanes quite frequently travel at altitudes of 35,000 feet and even higher. There are always a few overhead. And when wispy cirrus clouds form at lower altitudes (like 25,000 feet, where clouds were overhead all morning in the region), then the contrails formed at 35,000 feet simply cast shadows on the clouds 10,000 feet below them. No need to believe in conspiracy theories over "chemtrails" or any other such nonsense: It's just the Sun and the clouds. ■ There is no shortage of people who are willing and eager to presume that the contrails formed behind high-altitude aircraft are evidence of something sinister. The problem with letting it go on is that self-government depends quite heavily on the judgment of ordinary people. We don't have to be experts, but we do need to know how to evaluate evidence and apply sound reasoning. An unattended gullibility that opens the door to wild conspiracy theories is a dangerous social weakness, because it invites bad actors to introduce malicious misdirection into the public mind.

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February 26, 2024

Science and Technology A live look at the nation's electrical grids

Amazing, really, that an up-to-the-hour look at demand is always within reach

Iowa Who wants to buy a frat house?

A fraternity house at the University of Northern Iowa is on the market for $1.3 million. There's a good chance the buyer will need to replace the carpets.

The United States of America Petitions against the Electoral College are laughably useless

Anyone who thinks they're really accomplishing anything to affect the outcome of the 2024 election by signing an online petition to "end the Electoral College" is painfully naive. Above and beyond any other consideration, the Electoral College is a feature of the Constitution, and changing it requires a Constitutional amendment -- which takes a great deal more actual organizational effort than publishing a digital petition. It's a slow, methodical process, and certainly not one that will have any outcomes before November. ■ Furthermore, online "petitions" are really nothing more than open letters with lots of co-signatories. Maybe that's the kind of performative behavior that satisfies some people -- there's nothing wrong with co-signing an open letter. But it's a far cry from doing anything with binding legal effect. Real petitions have to be signed, delivered, and validated to local authorities. ■ The Electoral College has deficiencies, to be sure. But even if there were an expedited process for jettisoning it, the process is hardly the core problem. It goes too often without notice that certain characteristics made the Electoral College work when the Constitution was new and the country suffered from a deficit of good communication. It took quite a while for news to make its way from one end to the other: The state of Georgia, for instance, was removed by about two or three weeks of travel from New York City in 1800. There were no telegraph cables, high-speed trains, seafaring steamships, or even Pony Express carriers available. ■ Sending elected delegates rather than couriers with vote totals may not have ultimately led to the sort of selection by the best and brightest that the Framers may have intended, but it did reduce the odds that someone could cause mayhem along the way. A set of elected delegates (each of whom would have faced prosecution if they had lied about their credentials) form a much harder device to counterfeit or corrupt than a lone carrier bearing a certificate with a vote count. ■ Today, we neither rely on the wisdom of those individual electors, nor do we need their physical presence to know who won from state to state. But the process of making the Presidential election a state-by-state event does still serve a useful purpose (beyond the original Federalist intent of protecting small states from being overwhelmed by big ones): It helps to compartmentalize shortcomings in local vote counts or disputes over electoral processes. ■ Dumping all votes together into a common national popular vote would raise the stakes for disputing vote totals to a level that could invite legal disputes that could prove terminal to the process. Votes with margins measured in the thousands would open the door to disputes and recounts in virtually unlimited numbers of jurisdictions. ■ The Electoral College, even with its shortcomings, still serves to compartmentalize results -- acting like watertight compartments aboard a ship, so that the damage done by a failure in one state is contained to only that state. That also sharpens the accountability of the officials responsible for the process. Florida made a mess of the 2000 election, and the state immediately undertook corrective reforms to avoid repeating the "hanging chad" nightmare. Georgia became an important battleground state in 2020, but despite extraordinary (and probably illegal) pressure, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger maintained his integrity, under the knowledge that "We've got to follow the law, follow the Constitution; we follow the numbers." ■ Any system that would pivot to a national popular vote would necessarily have to empower a bureaucracy at a national scale to oversee the count, and probably to harmonize details like ballot designs and counting procedures. Every state can issue its own drivers' licenses, but all Americans traveling overseas end up with the same style of passport. Imagine, then, if a national voting agency were to impose a badly designed ballot or to be managed by a political appointee more susceptible to pressure than Brad Raffensperger. The consequences of nationalizing the vote would mean much higher stakes than under the Electoral College. As has often been said, sometimes a cure is worse than the disease.

February 25, 2024

News The long road to becoming Churchill

By the time he became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill had seen it all. He was 65 years old, had served in Parliament intermittently for 40 years, and had served as an officer on the Western Front of the First World War, as head of the Royal Navy, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The circumstances of his selection as Prime Minister reflected the extraordinary peril of the war and the need to bring together a national unity government. ■ Sometimes a community needs an extraordinary leader, but it should never count on the right individual rising to the occasion. What every community needs -- all of the time -- is a set of dependable institutions that store the right lessons from the past and cultivate the individual leaders needed in the future. ■ Institutional inertia is always a hazard; sometimes an institution perpetuates itself merely for the benefit of the people inside it. That is all too often the case with bureaucratic creep: Rare is the bureaucracy like the Civil Aeronautics Board, which put itself right out of business. ■ But a functional civilization has to depend upon a broad-based range of institutions across the public, private, and public-interest sectors, all of which need to be forever interested in reforming themselves. The institution that fails to constantly reform itself -- and be seen to be reforming -- leaves itself open to challengers who demand disruption. ■ The problem with disruption (as a substitute for reform) is that it tends to reward the loudest promoters with the boldest claims -- not the people best prepared to lead. An outside perspective shouldn't be dismissed arbitrarily; lots of institutions can gain from the perspective of outsiders and ought to be open to fresh ideas. But those ideas need to prove themselves better than what came before. ■ Good institutions form the people inside them and make them better people. When people and their institutions learn together, the people gain useful experience and the institutions capture useful institutional memory. Churchill had shameful failures in his past, from which both he and his institutions learned. It was because both he and the institutions learned that he was prepared to become such a pivotal figure in achieving Allied success in the Second World War. ■ When we choose leaders, we choose institutions -- and when we form institutions, we form leaders. When we turn to disruptors, we risk losing the sorting and forming processes that deliver the greats.

February 24, 2024

Business and Finance Five essential items of advice from Warren Buffett

The 2023 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders contains Warren Buffett's latest set of observations and advice to his fellow investors -- but they are freely available to anyone. He begins with a heartfelt tribute to Charlie Munger, who was Buffett's brilliant lieutenant for more than half a century. The letter continues with words that sound especially consistent with a thinker who wants to draw a heavy line underneath his most consistent and enduring opinions. ■ Buffett on the 2008 financial panic: "We did not predict the time of an economic paralysis but we were always prepared for one." ■ It seems funny to see a current-day reference to an event which is now a decade and a half in the rear-view mirror. But it is the unusual quality of the reference which makes it so important. Buffett knows that there have been panics in the past, and there will be panics again. And the farther we get from the last one, the greater the risk that its lessons will have been largely forgotten now. It isn't fashionable for a company to keep an unfathomable amount of ready money on its balance sheet: Buffett is acknowledging that Berkshire's more than $160 billion in cash (and cash-like Treasury bills) looks excessive by popular standards. But some businesses are more than just machines for generating short-term profit; in this case, Buffett views Berkshire as an intrinsically valuable national asset to America, and its capacity to weather even the worst conceivable economic storms is what keeps it safe. ■ Buffett on being wary of people with the wrong incentives: "Wall Street -- to use the term in its figurative sense -- would like its customers to make money, but what truly causes its denizens' juices to flow is feverish activity. At such times, whatever foolishness can be marketed will be vigorously marketed -- not by everyone but always by someone." ■ It isn't fair to call the financial industry "crooked": There are crooked participants, of course, but the industry itself is heavily regulated in order to discourage outright theft and fraud. But the behavior of the financial sector is all too often directed by wicked incentives. One of those wicked incentives is the fact that, almost always, people working in the financial sector benefit from increased activity (via commissions, spreads, and other forms of payment), while personal investors are the ones who pay the price. "Buy and hold" isn't the right decision 100% of the time, but it's the right decision the vast preponderance of the time. But "buy and hold" investors don't pay for skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. ■ Buffett on the nation's energy infrastructure: "When the dust settles, America's power needs and the consequent capital expenditure will be staggering. I did not anticipate or even consider the adverse developments in regulatory returns and, along with Berkshire's two partners at BHE [Berkshire Hathaway Energy], I made a costly mistake in not doing so." ■ Berkshire's investment in the utility sector is nothing new; it's a quarter of a century old. And it has a reputation for good behavior so strong that politicians expressly invite them to come to their markets. So when that kind of experienced, reputable company looks at the regulatory environment and warns that conditions are developing that will stand in the way of keeping up with the country's energy demand, which is rising mildly but shifting in constitution from coal-heavy to natural-gas-led with a growing blend of renewables, it calls for attention. A robust, low-cost supply of energy is one of the most useful things a society can have at its disposal. What stands in the way of that supply could end up limiting future economic and technological choices. ■ Buffett on share repurchases by publicly-traded companies: "All stock repurchases should be price-dependent. What is sensible at a discount to business-value becomes stupid if done at a premium." ■ Share repurchases (or stock buybacks) should be evaluated just like any other investment: If the market price is higher than the intrinsic value, it's a bad investment. If the intrinsic value is higher, then it may be a good investment (depending on what other choices are available). If a company buys back shares in itself at good investment prices, then it's doing right by its shareholders. But if it's buying the shares at bad prices -- perhaps with the intention of increasing the market price by stimulating demand -- then then the company's management is decreasing the company's intrinsic value, just as it would be if it were buying overpriced real estate or wasting money on a frivolous rebranding. ■ Buffett on stock markets and the people who make them: "Though the stock market is massively larger than it was in our early years, today's active participants are neither more emotionally stable nor better taught than when I was in school." ■ No single lesson is more applicable to every aspect of life than the one behind Buffett's loving critique of the stock markets. He is merely offering an investing-specific observation that human nature doesn't really change. Circumstances and conditions change, but people in this generation are motivated by the same emotions and instincts that drove our ancestors a thousand years ago. Speed and greed drive many a speculator. Those who can apply patience, detachment, and a sound evaluation of price versus value are the ones who do best in the long term.

Aviation News Fast flights

265-mph tailwinds translate to extremely fast ground speeds

News The teammates we want and need

In the future, books will be written about how the Ukrainian armed forces learned to do so much, so fast, on such a relative shoestring budget. In the words of analyst Molly McKew, "Ukrainians secured a shipping lane without any jets/long range anything & have basically dismantled the Black Sea Fleet without a navy[.] So maybe we should help them defeat Russia faster so their expertise/capacity can help solve other security challenges". ■ Something is terribly wrong with anyone who fails to see the tremendous value in finding and helping allies like Ukraine.

Weather and Disasters A 57° swing

Current models forecast a drop from a 72° high on Monday afternoon in Des Moines to a 15° low on Wednesday morning.

Computers and the Internet New rules

New rule: If you find yourself typing the letters "IYKYK" ("If You Know, You Know"), delete your draft and throw your phone into a pot of boiling soup or under the tires of the nearest cement truck. The only thing accomplished by any post containing "IYKYK" is to irritate the people who don't know what you're talking about. The people who do know don't need to be told that they know the secret code...they already know!

Iowa Where the wind blows softly across the plain

Some of the residents of Adams County think there are too many wind turbines in southwest Iowa already. But this is really at the heart of the issue: The chair of the county's board of supervisors "said that the population of Adams County has decreased by 42% since the 1970 census." Wind turbines create substantial value (including taxes!) for places that have been de-populating -- and where raising taxes on local farmers is unlikely to go over well. That's a major net social good.

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February 23, 2024

Humor and Good News Don't pet the engineers

The Portland District of the US Army Corps of Engineers shares this delightful take: "This week is National Engineers Week. Make sure to show your appreciation by spontaneously running up and hugging all your engineer friends. They'll love it." Those who have observed the long-standing advice "Don't pet the engineers" will be delighted with the correction.

News The classic stadium-hostage gambit

Jerry Reinsdorf has started threatening the City of Chicago that he'll posthumously yank the White Sox from town if he doesn't get public funding for a new baseball stadium. ■ It's all fun and games until some dupe decides to trot out a design based on the Metrodome to host the Bears and the Sox together. (All bad ideas make their comebacks.)

Threats and Hazards The saddest, truest fact

Tymofiy Mylovanov writes: "Russia has only one specific military advantage at this time - the complete disregard for human life [Russian and Ukrainian]. Constant human meat assaults prove this". If only he were wrong.

News That's why dematerialization sticks

A paperback only available for $97.64 on Amazon can be downloaded to a Kindle for 99 cents. For that kind of difference, one could buy a used Kindle and the digital download and still come out ahead.

Threats and Hazards Back to the wrong future

Less 1982, more 1992 -- please. The return of all too many artifacts of the late Cold War is depressing. At least Leonid Brezhnev had the decency to drop dead after 18 years running the Kremlin.

February 22, 2024

Business and Finance Taxing math

There is no such thing as a sales tax that only affects the seller. No matter how it is collected, or who cuts the check to the government, any tax on the sale of a good or a service is paid by the buyer and the seller alike. ■ How much is paid by which party depends mainly on who wants the exchange to happen more. Economists will call this elasticity, and the resulting distribution of who pays how much goes by the name of tax incidence. ■ But because any sales-related tax raises the price at which an exchange takes place, we can draw a tidy little graph to illustrate that both buyer and seller contribute to the ultimate cost of the tax. Nobody pays it all; nobody gets away without paying some. ■ Cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. This fact is essential for anyone to understand before they try to engage in anything remotely close to economic analysis. Yet there are those talk as if only someone else pays for tariffs. This is not just nonsense, but actively malicious misdirection. ■ Tariffs are, after all, sales taxes imposed on imported goods. They are just as subject to the laws of economics as any other taxes -- which means that tariffs, too, are paid in some proportion each by both buyers and sellers. So when someone loudly floats a proposal for a 60% tariff as though it would be paid entirely by people living across the ocean, that reveals them to be either irredeemably dishonest or inexcusably ignorant.

February 21, 2024

Threats and Hazards Repression and civilizational consequences

Foreign Policy editor James Palmer muses, "[I]t's remarkable how little art and culture we get out of modern China proportional to its size and wealth, and it isn't for a lack of creativity or intelligence on the part of the people there"; "Never underestimate how all-pervasive, self-protective, and petty censorship becomes in authoritarian regimes." ■ Arts, letters, and culture on many historical occasions have emerged or endured, whether taken underground or carried out as acts of resistance against oppression imposed by others. The spiritual songs of enslaved people in the American South are a widely-known example. Jewish art under tsarist Russia and the Korean Language Society formed under Japanese occupation serve to illustrate the universality of the phenomenon. ■ A people living under occupation can turn to their arts as a means of finding unity: Bonding under stress is what drives prisoners of war to tap in code through prison walls to one another. But the quashing effect seems to be more pronounced when the repression comes from what seems like "within": When oppressor and oppressed start from the same cultural background, it's harder to distinguish one from the other. ■ And it is impossible as a result to know just how much potential cultural output is being lost because of self-censorship under the Chinese Communist Party, for one example. We know that artists are punished, even for the mildest of transgressions against a hyper-sensitive state: Exile seems to be the only source of freedom. The number of movies un-filmed, songs un-recorded, canvases un-painted, and books un-written under the CCP is flatly unquantifiable. ■ Domestic censorship and repression have civilizational consequences. The entire world is made poorer when the humanities are silenced within any culture. We learn from each other, influence other styles, and blend unexpectedly as we share. That colossal self-censorship is taking place among two out of every eleven people living now on planet Earth, all because of an inflexible and hyper-sensitive regime, ought to be a cause for alarm to us all.

February 20, 2024

News The spirit of resistance

Yulia Navalnaya promises to carry on in the spirit of her husband, killed (whether directly or indirectly) by the Kremlin regime

February 19, 2024

News Stop ranking the Presidents

Presidents' Day is a popular holiday on which to engage in the particularly frivolous game of "Rank the Presidents", and 2024 is no exception. Another ranking of the Presidents has been published, and all of the predictable reaction is easy to find in all of the usual places. ■ This isn't to say that Presidents are all the same. America has been blessed with some exceptional leaders (almost everyone rates Washington and Lincoln as the two most deserving of praise), and we've had some terrible ones (James Buchanan, for instance, is an undisputed failure). But the notion that there is some kind of effective transitive property of Presidential quality is awfully misleading. ■ What matters most in leadership -- whether at the Presidential level or at the local PTA -- is the momentum of the leadership being applied. Is the leader moving things, insofar as they are capable, in a positive direction or a negative one? ■ The Executive Branch under James Madison wasn't the same as it was under Ulysses S. Grant, which wasn't the same as the one led by Herbert Hoover, which was utterly transformed by the time George H. W. Bush was Chief Executive. The roles are almost entirely beyond apples-to-apples comparison with one another, to say nothing of the environment in which the different Presidents acted. ■ Moreover, the subjectivity of comparative Presidential ratings is redoubled by the consequences no President can control. Should James Madison be rated based upon circumstances he alone could control, or by what he did in the face of what was thrust upon him (like the War of 1812)? Is it fair to rank him based upon his Presidency alone, or do we consider related contributions like Fathering the Constitution (in other words, is it like an award for Best Actor, or for Lifetime Achievement)? Do we vote based solely upon the consequences of what happened, or do we consider the opportunity costs of paths not taken (a measure by which all of the first fifteen Presidents would deserve some rebuke for failing to end slavery)? By how much should those opportunity costs be weighted? ■ And how far do they deserve credit or blame for the consequences of their choices? If no statute of limitations applies, then Woodrow Wilson's score faces ever-larger deductions with every passing day, for giving institutional power to his personal racism and injuring the appropriate balance of Constitutional powers. Both failures impose compounding costs even today. ■ Presidents come in all grades of quality, but pretending as though we can differentiate between the #21 and #22 Presidents is like speculating whether John Quincy Adams would have been a bigger motorhead than Joe Biden, or whether Millard Fillmore would have been a better audiobook narrator than Bill Clinton. These things are strictly unknowable in empirical terms, and trying to present them with a veneer of quasi-scientific legitimacy is a mistake bound only to sow divisions.

Humor and Good News "Fisk" is worth watching

Australia exports a lot of things, but TV comedy so dry the viewer practically needs to hydrate along the way is one of the best

February 18, 2024

News Never, never, never give up

Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference: "Do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself: Why is Putin still able to continue it?"

February 17, 2024

News Should degrees be job requirements?

A bill in Nebraska would prohibit preferences for applicants to state jobs on the basis of whether they hold a college degree. The obvious case to be made for the proposal is that it opens up job opportunities for people who do not possess a degree, which may in turn expand the pool for potential applicants. For taxpayers looking to save money, an expanded pool of potential public-sector workers could generally be expected to mean a lower overall labor cost for state government. ■ Whether such a proposal is prudent or not depends upon a number of factors. The most important may be the extent to which higher education matters as a formational tool (that is, how much we can expect that a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts in Finance will know that she could put to work immediately as an Appraiser III working for the Department of Transportation), versus how much a degree is valuable as a signaling effect (that is, how much the degree tells us about the degree-holder's focus, determination, self-starting, and ability to see big projects through to the finish). ■ The labor market of late seems to have swung in the direction of credentialism: Depending on the role, a professional today may append a professional licensure, an academic credential, a fellowship, and a certification to their name -- making for a very long email signature block. ■ Thus a civil engineer may well advertise themselves as "Herbert Hoover, MS, PE, BCEE, LEED AP, PMP" (signifying a master of science degree, a professional engineering license, a board certification as an environmental engineer, a certification in green building, and a certification in project management). ■ The fork into certifications is in no small part a consequence of our dependence on computing. Computer experts could afford to be generalists 30 years ago, but today, the work of a Microsoft Certified Azure Network Engineer Associate is nothing like being a Certified Information Professional, and neither one really corresponds with being a Full-Stack Web Developer. ■ Possession of a very specific computer-related certification may tell potential job recruiters more than "Bachelor of Science in Networking and System Administration" -- even though the four-year degree may very well have included all of the relevant training. ■ So that's what spills over into the rest of the labor market: An exploding array of certifications, credentials, and now micro-credentials, all of which are intended to specify particular tools the holder knows how to use. Some are decidedly more authentic than others. Higher education tends to be very slow to revise curricula, yet technologies and performance requirements in many if not most sectors are changing quickly enough to make old courses rapidly obsolete. ■ Given the current backlash against the costs of college, a swing of the pendulum away from degree requirements (and towards certifications) is probably here to stay for a while. But then it will probably swing back and harmonize the two -- especially as colleges and universities realize that their futures depend upon delivering a package of knowledge and experience that is more valuable as a whole than just the sum of a set of stackable credentials. When that day comes, there's a good chance that many or most of the highly-desirable occupations will require both a college degree and a set of non-degree credentials. Email signature blocks are bound to grow even longer.

Computers and the Internet Facebook's current stats

3 billion users and a $1.2 trillion market valuation. And despite all the time people spend scrolling, "news makes up only 3% of what people see on it", according to The Economist. And at Facebook, only one voting shareholder decides everything: In the words of the company's own annual report, "Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, Board Chair, and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock".

February 16, 2024

Threats and Hazards The saddest book

One of the saddest books of all time wasn't written to bring anyone down. When Mikhail Gorbachev published "Perestroika" in 1987, he may have paid lip service to the Soviet institutions he inherited (an early subchapter is titled "Turning to Lenin, an Ideological Source of Perestroika"), but it was evident that he was trying to steer a very big ship of state in a very different direction. ■ Gorbachev never got to see his plans through to fulfillment; by the end of 1991, he was out of power and it looked like Russia was on a fast track to liberalization. We know now that it wasn't. ■ The Baltic states -- Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia -- have shown that an escape vector from Soviet Communism was possible to achieve. Their economies have grown enviably, their freedoms are strong, and Estonia has even become a world leader in "digital citizenship". Lithuania's prime minister is a woman born in Generation X, and all three countries cleared the hurdles for EU membership years ago. ■ Russia, by contrast, is ruled by a cruel regime that invades its neighbors with blood lust and murders political prisoners like Alexei Navalny. ■ Russia could have taken a different path, and the consequences of its failure are incalculable. Communism wasted immeasurable potential human happiness, and the failure to escape the hangover from Communism wastes even more. ■ Even worse, the failure to achieve a sustainable transition from the USSR to a liberalized Russian state means that there is no road map left behind for other countries to follow for a similar transition. Most significantly, China will someday reject Communism (it is an inherently unstable and unsustainable regime), and Russia's failure to "pilot test" what a successful post-Communist transition could look like in a country of 140 million will leave matters even worse when China has to do the same with 10 times as many people. ■ Theodore Roosevelt once counseled, "[W]e must face the facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism." ■ Deep down, people know they are meant to be free. No amount of repression can stop them from reasoning it spontaneously, even if all influence from the outside world is cut off. That ought to be our optimism. ■ But despotic regimes are selfish and cruel and don't often hesitate to destroy their righteous opponents. That is our inescapable pessimism. Navalny saw his fate coming. Ultimately, it is and must be up to Russia to heal itself. But anyone who does the bidding of the irredeemable tyranny there is themselves a disgrace. The evil will fall someday -- but the human happiness sacrificed in the meantime is abominable.

News Holding on to more peripheral friends

Just as it's possible to get too many marketing emails from the same source (no, we don't need to receive your coupons daily), it's also possible to have too much intensive contact with peripheral friends. It leads to burnout, and unfortunately, that's the only gear that most of our social media tools are designed to encourage: Too much, too often. ■ What we need are manageably-periodic friendship encounters. They're relatively easy to cultivate if you do things in the real world (going to church, volunteering at a library, leading a Cub Scout group), but harder to do online. But since we spend so much time online (85% of us daily, and some "almost constantly"), we need tools to make that happen more easily.

Threats and Hazards Let's not sleepwalk into cyber disaster

CBS reports: "Hackers backed by the Chinese government are targeting U.S. water treatment plants and electrical grids, strategically positioning themselves within critical infrastructure systems to 'wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities'". This is a huge problem, about which we cannot be absent-minded or oblivious.

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February 15, 2024

News Respect your juniors

While it is both disappointing and unfortunate, it comes as no surprise that at least some of the women who made names for themselves in college basketball have been resistant to celebrate the successes of Caitlin Clark, who has just set the record for scoring by an NCAA Division I player. ■ In any field, whether in sports or beyond, it isn't uncommon for members of an old guard to dismiss the bright stars of a succeeding generation, often with subtle implications that the path was somehow easier for the newcomers, or that the latest talent is somehow either selfish or undeserving of accolades. It is an artifact of classic scarcity thinking, and it's usually just...sad, really. ■ Scarcity thinking fixates on how the "pie" is divided, rather than on the size of it. Old-guards fall for it all the time, and they can often be forgiven for the impulse. Someone who lived before Title IX was enacted could be forgiven for having vestigal memories of scrapping for even minimal resources. ■ But a major part of human maturity is found in learning to arrest one's counter-productive impulses. Imagine bringing your great-great-grandparents back to life, and finding that all they could do was make snide remarks about how easy your life is with running water, ready electricity, safe transportation, vaccines, and computers. ■ True, those things do make life easier. But when we freely celebrate the fruits of progress, we also implicitly praise the people who built that progress, often at great cost. ■ Everyone of adult age is part of at least one "old guard". Whatever old guard it is of which any one of us is part, it is incumbent upon us to see the successes of our successors as an endorsement of what we did to get them there. That's how we shift from obsessing about slicing the pie to putting energy into growing it. ■ Whether it's bringing attention to women's sports or any other pursuit, old guards need to know when it's time to shut up: Not just for the good of the cause, but to avoid undermining our own contributions to those who are reaching new heights.

February 13, 2024

News Don't cut off the water while the fire is being fought

Having a smartphone in every pocket means we have reached a point of almost pure entertainment saturation. For every moment of leisure, there is a television episode, a podcast, an article, a game, a tweet, or a Snap ready to absorb -- and monetize -- every blink of attention, right down to increments of 3 seconds. To our ancestors who waited all week to read the "Saturday Evening Post" or who may never have learned to read at all, this saturation would be utterly bewildering. ■ But a toxic side effect of our current situation is that it compels at least some people to treat entertainment as the source of political understanding and influence, rather than treating entertainment as a diversion from weightier matters (like robust debate around meaningful issues). This leads some individuals to reason from what sounds the most satisfying with the least effort, rather than doing the hard reasoning first and then passing their judgment through the tools of rhetoric to make them appealing. ■ Senator Mike Lee of Utah, in a dramatic display of the former, declares, "Prolonging this war doesn't help the people of Ukraine." And he filibusters to try to stop any aid from going to Ukraine as it struggles in a defensive war against its much larger invader. ■ Sen. Lee's argument may be pithy, but it is empty. He implies that in supplying aid to Ukraine, the United States is prolonging a war which Ukraine fights only in its own defense. His argument is the same as saying, "Prolonging this effort to put out a house fire doesn't help the family who lives here. We should shut off the fire hydrant." ■ Utah's other Senator, Mitt Romney, has reasoned the issue out. But his plain, honest, and compelling argument in favor of funding takes him five minutes to deliver. If the only thing that matters is entertainment, Sen. Romney's morally upright case is no match for Sen. Lee's debased nonsense. ■ What prolongs the war in Ukraine is the Kremlin's choice to continue a violent occupation. Period. If we don't have the patience to consider the consequences of their victory or defeat, that's a shame on us. And we will rue the day we turned our backs on our friends in their distress, especially if it happens because we substituted entertainment for judgment. Good arguments aren't always catchy, and catchy arguments often aren't any good.

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February 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards The toxic Kennedy

If the disgraced ex-Congressman George Santos had been even modestly clever about his subterfuge, he could have simply changed his surname to "Kennedy" before running for office. Not only would it have been perfectly legal, it might have been a far easier and more efficient way to court votes than any of the ridiculous lies he told. ■ A cohort of voters exist who clearly have more affection for the Kennedy name than discretion about how to use their ballots. The fact that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is able to capture double-digit support in a Presidential poll while running on a platform of nothing but utter nonsense about science and health and gallingly illiberal anti-American sympathy for Vladimir Putin. He is independent in name, but beholden to ideas that are wretchedly bad for America. ■ An ad placed on his behalf during the Super Bowl ripped off one of his uncle's television spots from 1960, self-evidently depending upon the Kennedy family brand name rather than any merit of his own. And while he apologized to his extended family for the stunt, the real offense isn't that someone made a bad cover version of a more than 60-year-old campaign commercial. It's that he uses the name as a substitute for having any ideas or experience worthy of the office of President. ■ Voting for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., because he reminds you of his father is like flying American Airlines today because you miss TWA. Kennedy has had a lifetime of opportunity to earn his own identity with fresh thinking and successful public service. He has instead chosen to become a spokesperson for views that have nothing to do with an America that aspires to be better tomorrow than it is today, but everything to do with surrendering the future to extremists, cranks, and autocrats. ■ Even Congress was willing to shove George Santos out the door for the toxic cloud that surrounded him. Given how gullible (or intellectually lazy) some voters choose to be, it's a good thing he never filed to rename himself "George Kennedy".

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February 6, 2024

Humor and Good News In connection with that

Discovered in an old book: The word "connection" spelled "connexion". Could we please resume that past practice? That "X" is way cooler.

Broadcasting Happy broadcast birthday, WBBM

The grand old dame of Chicago "newsradio" is turning 100

February 4, 2024

Health Be intentional about it

In some influential circles, the tenor of the moment is a dour one: The Surgeon General warns of an "epidemic of loneliness", while college counseling departments fret that "Gen P[andemic]" students are struggling in dramatic new ways. The term "deaths of despair" (those ultimately attributable to emotional pain over economic hardship) has gone mainstream. ■ Without downplaying some of the very real sociological factors undoubtedly involved in at least some cases, perhaps we need to acknowledge another effect that is more personal and almost entirely uncoupled to economic circumstances: The crisis of intentionality. ■ At times in the past, with identities like religion and ethnicity tending to play a larger role in the average person's life than today, it may have been easier for many people to adopt an external framework for some of the bigger questions of "Why?". One becomes a farmer because that was the occupation handed down by one's father. One becomes a church elder because that is what everyone in the family has done. One prepares a certain meal every New Year because that is what was done in the motherland. ■ Individuality has liberated lots of people from oppressive traditions, and prosperity has brought countless new choices into being. But some people naturally find choices overwhelming, and most people probably struggle from time to time with the overload of choices available at every turn. ■ Automation has crept in almost everywhere imaginable to help people tune out and make decisions as if on autopilot: Prepared or planned meals arrive on the doorstep. Netflix assumes you want to keep watching from one TV episode to the next. An app promises to guide you to sleep. Your watch may even tell you when to breathe. ■ Missing from all of this is intentionality: Making a conscious, deliberate choice about some manner of taking a next step or regulating one's own behavior. Some philosophers would even say it's the essence of human existence to critically examine nearly every significant thought. ■ It's hard to imagine how to introduce either the theory or the practice of intentionality in any kind of structured or institutionalized fashion. Could a middle-school teacher somehow compel a classroom of students to value making choices as a self-evident good in its own right? Hardly. But once one begins to recognize the many cases where people of all social and economic backgrounds surrender their choices to the many various (and increasingly numerous) incarnations of autopilot available in the modern world, it's hard to look the other way.

Water News California officials drain reservoirs in spectacular fashion

Trying to make room for runoff headed back into the lakes after a soaked January

News Nixon-era Cadillacs didn't need plush seats

Some of the most opulent and over-the-top vehicles of the 1970s featured interiors that paired velour with overstuffed seats. At the time, people undoubtedly thought of them as luxurious. But they were being driven at a time when gasoline contained lead and death rates on the roads were 80% higher than they are today. (The death rate has fallen by even more, when measured in passenger-miles traveled.) ■ Sometimes a veneer of extravagance is really just a way to cloak inadequacy in the fundamentals. What good is an overstuffed velour interior compared with heated seats with lumbar support and stain resistance? ■ Besides, any car from the 1970s was likely to smell of cigarette smoke: 37.4% of American adults smoked in 1970, compared with 13.7% today. A car with one driver and one passenger had basically coin-flip odds of containing at least one smoker. (And smoke sticks to velour.) ■ It's often remarked that any middle-class American lives with certain advantages completely unavailable even to J. Pierpont Morgan or Andrew Carnegie in their day: Both died before the discovery of penicillin, the arrival of jet aircraft, or the invention of the digital computer. ■ But the shortcomings of even the most expensive production Cadillac of the 1970s compared with the features of even a mid-range Kia today (Air bags! Dual-zone climate control! Touch-screen displays! Hybrid power! Self-parking!) ought to be a reminder that oft-maligned capitalism manages to make a lot of things better even within the span of a lifetime.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft buys land for 7th data center in West Des Moines area

Six Microsoft data centeres are currently in operation or under construction in West Des Moines proper, and land for a seventh has been purchased in Van Meter (adjacent to the city on the west). "The cloud" -- and particularly artificial intelligence -- are very much found in the real world in Iowa. ■ With Google introducing tools like image generation to its Bard suite of services, Microsoft is undoubtedly looking to concentrate on extending its early lead in AI tools, and it needs server farms to do that. ■ It was only a year ago that stories like "Why a conversation with Bing's chatbot left me deeply unsettled" were headline news. In many ways, the technology has improved. In others, it's been put to use in regressive ways: President Joe Biden's voice was faked in a robocall telling New Hampshirites not to vote. ■ But the race is on in a huge way, and not just domestically. You can be certain that Chinese developers are treating it like a sprint, and things will undoubtedly develop differently under a government which has no scruples about how individual rights are treated and a hypersensitivity about how and when it receives criticism. Otherwise unassuming data centers growing out of literal Iowa farmland may well prove to be far closer to the center of the future's battle for power than normal instincts may suggest.

News St. Brigid's Day after 1,500 years

Ireland's best-known female saint is said to have died 1,500 years ago on February 1st, providing a trigger for commemorative celebrations. ■ Certain historical figures like St. Brigid are especially interesting for what they tell about broader movements. Did Irish monasteries really save Western civilization in the Dark Ages? Maybe, or maybe not. ■ But the stories of St. Patrick converting the Irish to Catholicism and St. Brigid founding monastic communities across the island both speak to a certain value to be found in difference and isolation. ■ Brigid, for instance, is recognized as a saint, but there are those who think the saint was co-opted from Celtic mythology. Whatever happened in Ireland 1,500 years ago, it was in many ways different from continental Europe -- which is what makes the story about the people of the island "saving civilization" at least superficially plausible. ■ Outposts that have contact with a bigger community but remain isolated from it somehow are inherently interesting. Few have been as interesting in as many ways as Ireland, especially in its relationship with the Roman Catholic church: Won through the copious exercise of religious syncretism, hardened as a source of national identity during an 800-year colonial occupation by the British, and maintained as a key source of identity through a painful diaspora. Outside of the Apostles, Ireland's national saints are probably the best-known early names in the church. Being a little bit isolated and a little bit different can pay dividends.

Business and Finance Americans love small businesses

A Pew Research Center survey scores small businesses as the institutions most widely viewed as having a positive impact on the country. That places them ahead of the military, churches, labor unions, schools, colleges, financial institutions, and big businesses. Interestingly, there is no partisan split over small businesses, either. ■ A few likely reasons leap to the forefront: First, "small business" is routinely equated with family ownership or proprietor ownership -- where the person who actually knows the work best is in charge of the company. People are perhaps naturally disposed to look favorably at family operations: The family farm, which is a small business, is celebrated with almost mythical status. But proprietor-owners may also bask in a certain glow, especially when compared with the quasi-professionalized managerial class at large companies. It's the Wright Brothers, bicycle-makers and inventors versus Bill Lumbergh and his TPS reports. ■ There's also the understanding that small businesses are often bound to a local community much more tightly than their larger counterparts. An operation like Hot Doug's or Rosati's is a Chicago institution, and when it grows or opens up elsewhere, it's seen as a projection of local culture. But when Boeing hopscotches its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago to DC, it no longer seems to belong anywhere. ■ Accountability matters, too: A small business that burns its customers doesn't have anywhere to hide. That stands in stark contrast to bigger institutions, from business to government to churches, which can shuffle people around or play shell games with revenues to cover up dissatisfied locals in any particular jurisdiction. ■ The most important factor is probably the simplest of all. A business exists at the pleasure of its customers. If a restaurant, store, consultancy, factory, or other for-profit operation fails to satisfy the needs and wants of its clients, they hold a veto over its future. Thus the small business, more than any other type of institution, depends upon constantly making other people happy. Survivorship bias tends to clean up the reputation of small businesses generally by making the bad ones go away. ■ What we do with this knowledge is altogether something else; for all the goodwill that shines on small businesses, government filing, regulatory, and tax requirements tend to weigh disproportionately on small businesses, and those businesses face often exorbitant fees for ordinary activities that reflect their smaller purchasing power. Incentives and disincentives matter a great deal.

News Elton John and Bernie Taupin named Gershwin Prize winners

If anyone in history has landed a better gig than Bernie Taupin, it's hard to think of whom. Elton John does all the time on the road, endures all the inconveniences and troubles that come with life in the spotlight, and surrenders any shred of normalcy (what's he going to do, drop into the gas station to buy a scratch lottery ticket for himself?). ■ Bernie Taupin writes lyrics (poems, really) and collects royalties, free to enjoy the rock-star perks without being anchored to the rest of the lifestyle. At one time, they had the biggest music publishing deal in history. ■ It's not a coattail effect, either -- Elton John has been pretty clear that he only succeeded as an artist because of the partnership. In that is a lesson for many of us: Elton John would have been a great musician on his own, but it was a songwriter who turned him into a superstar. Splitting their royalties 50/50 still most likely leaves both partners vastly wealthier than they ever would have been apart. And due recognition of their chemistry over the course of a 56-year partnership has been delivered, most recently, in the form of a Gershwin Prize.

February 3, 2024

News You're only a 737 away from illiteracy

Common practice recognizes a generation in familial terms as being about 30 years long. Every individual family differs -- some people become teen moms and others are old dads. Every family with offspring has a firstborn, but there can be a lot of middle children before the baby of the family comes along. So while it varies, 30 years is a fairly reasonable rule of thumb from generation to generation. ■ History seems awfully remote until we can conceptualize it in personal terms. Consider, then what it might look like if you could assemble all of an individual's ancestors along a single line -- say, their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and so on indefinitely. ■ An assembly like that would only contain enough people to fit in a Class A motorhome before reaching someone who lived through the Great Enlightenment. John Locke first wrote of life, liberty, and property as natural rights in 1690. A long time ago, perhaps, but also only about 11 generations prior to a child born today. ■ Johannes Gutenberg's printing press entered service in 1454 -- or only about 19 generations in the past. Along any single ancestral line, most people today could only fill about a book club's worth of people before reaching an era before anything was published by anything but a single person's hand. ■ And of those few books that survive the pre-press era, the individuals whose words are still quoted today really aren't that far removed, either. We are only about 68 generations removed from the time of Jesus. Generations are hard to conceptualize, but if you were to follow just one ancestral line, you could fit 68 people into a Blue Bird school bus with more than a dozen seats to spare. To fill the bus, you'd need to follow the ancestral line all the way back to the time of Aristotle (about 78 generations before us). ■ In fact, writing itself is only about 180 generations old. If you gathered yourself, your father, your father's father, and so on through that single ancestral line all the way back to 3,400 BC, you'd likely only have enough people to fill a Boeing 737. ■ And to reach the very beginning of settled agriculture, you would reach back about 10,000 years, or perhaps 333 generations. A single ancestral line for any one of us living today wouldn't even be enough to fill the lecture hall at the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University. ■ Ancestry, history, and genealogy are often overwhelming in their apparent scale, especially because of the exponents involved. Genetically, everyone has eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, and 32 great-great-great grandparents. The horizontal look gets pretty big. But following just a single chain vertically up the family tree helps to put into perspective just how much human civilization advances when seen at personal scale.

Business and Finance 84% of US retail spending still happens in stores

It doesn't often feel like that much, though, especially to anyone who spends time near a dead or dying shopping mall. There will always be a place for purchases that require a touch-and-feel approach. But there will always be a place for fast, frictionless online purchases that save lots of time. The missing element right now remains the scaled competitor to Amazon -- probably one operating in the same general vein as Aldi: Focused on a single, dependable private-label brand option for every product category sold, and nothing else. That's still likely to be the thing that takes the fight to Amazon, especially as it allows itself to become cluttered with knockoff products.

January 31, 2024

News A bad month for media

In the course of just one month, 2024 has already taken a substantial number of casualties in the mass media. Commercial radio giant Audacy has filed for bankruptcy. Sports Illustrated appears to be in freefall. The Los Angeles Times is laying off 20% of its newsroom staff. And The Messenger, started with fanfare less than a year ago, is closing down abruptly. ■ The diagnosis isn't hard; advertising used to be a mass-market product, and now it is extremely targeted. People don't have to watch "Must-See TV" on the network's time -- they can watch today's must-see TV on-demand, and it even competes with yesterday's. "Frasier" now competes head-to-head with his past self. ■ It may not matter much if Sports Illustrated's place is taken by more opinion-driven outlets -- the scores will still be the same. But it does matter if current events of greater significance become captive to hardened partisanship. That isn't an inevitable outcome of current trends, but it's a real hazard. There will always be an incentive to reach mass audiences for political purposes, so there will always be some sort of funding available to sustain outlets that say the right things to satisfy the patrons. ■ Some models for truly community-supported journalism and public-interest media have started to emerge, but they aren't spreading fast enough and new ones aren't germinating quickly enough. The economics of mass media remain in real peril, and as some of the outlets are disrupted into oblivion, the reading, viewing, and listening habits of audiences will be forced to change. ■ They will find some outlets welcoming them with open arms -- often with ulterior motives. But habits, once changed, tend to harden all over again. And that could well mean that people will enter information silos and not come back out.

News Speaking up

The classic dichotomy between introverts and extroverts is familiar enough: Introverts need to recharge, mentally and emotionally, after time engaging with other people, while extroverts need that engagement in order to feel recharged. It explains a lot about people, but it's also often misidentified with other characteristics. ■ Perhaps the most common example is internal versus external processing. Some people manage all of their thoughts quite comfortably inside the space of their own heads. Others need to project their thinking into the physical environment around them, whether by talking to themselves, jotting notes on paper, piling books and magazines in particular places, or otherwise putting their thoughts into space. ■ The introvert who is a strongly expressed external processor could easily be mistaken for an extrovert, but some people simply need to talk in order to think. It's not a matter of whether anyone else is around to hear, but whether the thoughts travel outside the brain before being fully digested. Someone who talks your ear off but doesn't take the cues signaling your lack of interest? That's an introvert who needs to process externally; they might as well be talking to a cat or a tree. A true extrovert thrives on interaction and feedback. ■ Likewise, the extrovert who processes internally might look like a wallflower. But the libraries and coffee shops of the world are full of them, and they're reliable guests at every party. They may exhibit the old stereotype that "still waters run deep", but they can't abide loneliness -- they might not spill their every thought for others to pick up, but a nod, a smile, or a passing "hello" is like fuel for the tank. ■ Couple these characteristics with others, and it soon becomes evident how humans can be richly varied, even within a family. A meticulous extrovert who processes internally might have the most spotless desk in the open-floorplan office and leave work buzzing with energy. ■ But put an external processor in the same office, and the very act of having to hot-desk might drive them mad -- even if they're chronically extroverted. An external processor may need to organize their thoughts in the physical space around them, with things like papers, Post-It notes, sketches, or plan drawings. And if that space is first-come, first-served, they might never get a major long-term project done. ■ Meanwhile, they'll quite possibly drive that meticulous internal processor right up and down the wall. The conflict is nobody's fault, at least not intentionally, and yet the circumstances create an almost inevitable conclusion. ■ It's funny just how many decisions -- from how we're grouped in elementary school, to how workplaces are organized, to who has a social "pass" to judge others -- come down to personality characteristics over which we really have no control, and about which we often haven't really ever been formally educated. Accounting for those features would make lots of our human-built world run more smoothly.

January 30, 2024

Computers and the Internet Elmo touches a ticklish subject

Someone at the Sesame Workshop posted an innocuous comment on a social-media profile operated in the name and voice of the character Elmo: "Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?". In 36 hours, the post garnered 167 million views and 11,000 replies. Obviously, nobody of sound adult mind actually thinks they're talking to a furry red monster when they interact with a Twitter profile of a Sesame Street character. And yet, the huge number of replies to a simple message -- no small number of those replies evidently sincere -- says something interesting about mental wellness. ■ The sincerity and the sadness of some of those replies appears to have instigated the Sesame Workshop team to post a follow-up message with a link to a page of mental health resources for children and adults. Perhaps that is not wholly unexpected; there are always individuals within a large population who need help that they aren't getting. Others need just a friendly word of encouragement. ■ There are those who think that we can use artificial intelligence tools to surrogate for human practitioners as mental-wellness providers. It's certainly possible that there's some extent to which AI can be useful as a tracking device, and maybe even as a diagnostic tool. But it's folly to think that the deeper job can be done by a machine. ■ Clearly, there's something deeper going on behind the "Elmo" episode: People aren't really responding to the Sesame Street character, per se, but they are most certainly responding to the notion that there's a human being who posted the message and (presumably) reading the replies. ■ There just isn't any way that it's possible to make an AI program so good that any significant number of people would still prefer to engage with it for mental wellness support rather than with a human being -- even if that human is a stranger. Are there some people so uncomfortable with interpersonal contact that they might voluntarily turn to a machine? Sure, just as there are those who prefer the company of dolls to real people. But those are extreme cases. ■ Even if it could pass a Turing test, a large language model is still just a computer model. And any ethical system worth its salt certainly owes the patients and clients seeking mental wellness care the transparency to reveal whether their provider is a machine or a living, breathing person. The instinct for human interaction is just so far beyond substitution that it is going to be a defining hard limit on technology.

January 28, 2024

When the Beatles were at the peak of their fame, the world's population was around three and a half billion. Today, as the fame of Taylor Swift is frequently benchmarked against the Beatles, we live in a world of about eight billion -- considerably more than twice the number of the 1960s. ■ Does this mean that if a performing artist achieves 96% name recognition today that they are an even match for the artists who had the same name recognition then? Or does population growth make the current-day artist more than twice as famous? ■ The question isn't really all that consequential. Fame is a perishable quality, and it isn't much use to the holder once they're dead. But there is a sense in which it does matter. ■ Humans are social creatures, so we look to others to help shape our decisions and behavior. While a lot of behavior is ultimately unimportant (like rating a movie or choosing a brand of toothpaste), some of it matters quite a lot. And just as we look to famous performing artists to set trends (like the effect Taylor Swift is having on football in general and on Kansas City football in particular), we look to prominent figures to set agendas around how we think about significant political, moral, and other issues. ■ In that sense, it matters quite a lot whether it now takes two or three times the number of voices who used to be spokespeople for good conscience as it did during Beatlemania, or whether the same number of role models can influence bigger audiences without flagging. ■ Big questions are being addressed every day, and whether it takes new legions of prominent leaders to direct people to think about them in constructive ways. Not every question lends itself to a Google search or an AI prompt. Human-to-human influence, even when it's at scale, still means a great deal.

January 27, 2024

Everyone knows somebody who tries a little too hard to get ahead. Not someone who's trying to be the best at what they do. Not someone who's seeking to be the best person they can be. Merely somebody who's always out to achieve some situational advantage to get ahead. ■ These climbers can be very good at bringing attention to themselves -- to the point where they oftentimes seem obnoxious. The world has always contained some element of climbers, but their presence has probably never been more obvious than it is today. Tools like social media place their self-promotional bids for applause on Facebook and their insufferable efforts to grow their networks on LinkedIn. ■ An under-appreciated challenge of the modern era is to try to corral and channel the efforts of climbers into constructive purposes for other people and institutions, without losing sight of the fact that plenty of people who actually do laudable and useful work are terrible at self-promotion. ■ The people who do the heavy lifting in many institutions rarely want to spend their time "building a personal brand" or becoming "influencers". A person's influence on the world shouldn't be measured by their ability to get in front of other people, but rather by their actual capacity to get useful things done. As a matter of societal self-preservation, we need to be able to distinguish between the two things.

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January 25, 2024

Given the continued sustained growth in podcast listening, as well as the popularity in episodic series of fixed seasonal duration (of which "Serial" is a leading example), it seems strange that American audiences haven't been offered a lot of scripted audio comedies, dramas, or thrillers. ■ The BBC has been running a radio soap opera called The Archers for more than 20,000 episodes. As a format, American radio drama largely died out many decades ago because of television, but times have changed in ways that ought to favor scripted audio fiction. ■ Technologically, podcast players allow listeners to start and stop at their convenience, picking up exactly where they left off. This is infinitely more audience-friendly than scheduled programming broadcast over the air, as the massive rise in on-demand video streaming confirms. And podcast listening takes place largely through headphones and earbuds, which serve up high-quality versions of cleanly-recorded digital programs: There's no radio static! ■ From a production viewpoint, it has never been easier to record scripted programming (quality microphones are found everywhere), and there are lots of skilled voice talents and production wizards ready for hire. Distribution costs are basically nil. ■ Thus the question may be one of writing. We are living in what has arguably been a golden age of television scriptwriting, and the great success of adult-targeted cartoons (like the 14 seasons of "Archer", or the 271-and-counting episodes of "Bob's Burgers") provides ample evidence that audiences are comfortable with stories that don't require live actors in front of eyeballs. ■ Something is holding back the audio-only scripted series, and it's not immediately obvious what that is. The skills and the tools are out there -- perhaps what's missing is just the induced demand.

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January 24, 2024

News Down with abusive auteurs

If you wanted to grow an apple in the shape of a cube, you could spend years trying to perfect a bizarre hybrid that resulted in a cubical fruit. Genetic engineering could help accelerate the process, but it's likely to take many generations to even begin to approximate a special shape. ■ A simpler approach that would succeed in just a single generation would be to take a small emerging fruit and place a cube-shaped mold around it. The fruit, naturally attempting to grow to the space available to it, will simply take on the shape of the enclosure constraining it. ■ The resulting fruit would be an oddity, even perhaps a bit of a spectacle. but neither should the fruit have or take any credit for any brilliance of its own nor should the grower expect that the treats will be passed along genetically to the next generation. it is simply a matter of something trying to take its maximum shape and rubbing up against constraints from the outside. ■ Certain public figures end up being a lot like that cubical-shaped fruit. Because they are inclined to push relentlessly until they encounter some kind of limitation, they take the shape of whatever it is that surrounds them. They don't deserve any particular credit for choosing to be what they are: It's not a conscious choice so much as it's a consequence of what it is that surrounds and limits them externally. ■ They do often end up being unique, strange, and oftentimes entirely sui generis. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to accept their oddities as being virtues. ■ Movie directors with hair-trigger tempers. CEOs who engage in addictive risk-taking. Politicians who adopt extreme positions as tickets to fundraising and fame. Musicians who are too self-absorbed to make it in the real world. ■ Like abnormally-shaped apples, these people need to be seen as products of their conditioning. The abuses emerging from auteur worship have gained some recognition in cinema, but there's a long way to go both in Hollywood and in the many other places the same habits are found. We don't need to tolerate abusive behavior anywhere. People who go too far will almost always continue to go too far unless they are constrained from without.

January 22, 2024

News The counsel of elders

It is entirely reasonable to point out that, all else being equal, electing octogenarian Presidents is a sub-optimal practice for the good of the country. To manage the sprawling Executive Branch and to provide political leadership to the country requires more than just a lot of life experience -- it requires energy, focus, adaptability, and occasionally exhausting all-out efforts. ■ Wisdom is only part of the role. It's an important part, but it isn't exclusive. Wisdom is where knowledge and experience intersect, and though age generally begets a lot of experience, it doesn't always result in knowledge. Some people only think they know it all. ■ We aren't especially good about building institutions to direct people into consultative roles. "Consultant", in American English, all too often refers to a freshly-minted graduate from a name-brand university who lacks experience but has a marketable pedigree. ■ What "consultant" ought to mean, at least more often than it does, is something much closer to "elder" -- not in the sense of advanced age, but rather as one who has accumulated some wisdom and who is available to offer consultation to those who are doing the actual leading and managing. That just isn't a practice we're very good at following: Corporate boards of directors are often notable only for their fealty to the CEO, and non-profit boards are often filled on the basis of fundraising. ■ At every level, from the smallest community group up to the highest offices in the land, we ought to try much harder to recruit and make use of the counsel of elders -- true elders, in the sense of those who have really worked to obtain some useful wisdom, and not merely those who have seen a lot of candles on their birthday cakes. Some people would make worthy elders in their 30s, and others would have nothing to say well into their 90s. ■ And to make use of their counsel doesn't require formal institutions or explicit authority, either. It can work that way, of course, but we need to draw better distinctions between those who act (and are accountable for their actions) and those who can offer hard-won advice for the good of the community. ■ Everyone wants to feel needed. Perhaps if our culture were better about asking worthy people to offer consultation as "elders", we wouldn't have quite so many people refusing to vacate vital roles in government and elsewhere until it is really much too late.

January 21, 2024

News The land theory of value

The headline is perfect in its compact hilarity: "Highgate Cemetery to charge £25,000 for burial spots close to grave of Karl Marx". It is too perfect even for the story, which isn't exactly about a case of rents going up specifically near Marx's grave; instead, it's simply a report that the cemetery where Marx is buried has received a windfall of funding for projects which will open up room for some additional gravesites. Marx happens to be one of several recognizable historical figures buried there. ■ The alternate version would have been much funnier, of course: Seeing market-driven land prices in a cemetery rise according to demand to be interred next to the philosopher who brought Communism to the world. Alas, it's funnier in the abstract than in the particular. ■ Still, though, the news does confirm that people do, in fact, pay to have their remains laid to rest in places where they will be remembered. Tourists must pay to visit Highgate Cemetery, and group tours must be arranged in advance. (Barbecues are prohibited.) ■ And the dual facts that people willingly pay to visit "destination" gravesites and that some will surrender a premium fee to be located in a "good neighborhood" after they have died should be quite enough to demonstrate just how empty Marx's philosophy really was. ■ Political ideas are invariably about the allocation of power. The liberal understanding of the world (in the classical sense of "liberal") holds that individuals are the moral source of power, and their choices should generally prevail. When those choices need to be constrained for the good of society, then the constraining ought to be done by a government which itself has limited powers. Government may be very large, if the people choose it, so long as that government is limited by laws, rules, norms, and conventions. ■ Marx's basic belief was that the moral source of power was with "the people" in the aggregate. Lots of people have willingly fallen for his arguments over time, but the arguments themselves are nonsense. They act only as an excuse to cloak the will of power-seeking individuals in the costume of "the people's will". Invariably, that has ended up in abuse -- which is what happens when power is not intentionally limited. ■ Marx was fortunate to have been buried in a nice place like England. Considering the direct lines that can be drawn from his despicable philosophy to the deaths of tens of millions of people, he probably deserved no better than to have been dumped in the sea. But then, nobody could have paid £10 for the privilege of making his grave a tourist attraction.

January 20, 2024

Business and Finance Grocery-store appreciation

It shouldn't escape our occasional celebration that the modern American grocery store is the kind of place that would have blown the minds of almost all of our ancestors

News When the icons overstate the case

Office Depot is posting MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) along with some of the product listings in its online store. But the icon they've chosen to use is the radioactivity symbol, which might be a little too alarmist for the purpose.

News The not-very-South-Siders

A vibrant rumor is circulating that the Chicago White Sox might move to a site touted as being within light walking distance of the Loop. Some observers are cheered by the possibility that a baseball park could be built with the Chicago River running along the third-base line. Some lightheartedly dream of spectators jumping into the river to retrieve home-run balls and emerging with diseases. Of course, giardia isn't giardiniera.

News History is like jazz

Human history is like jazz: It'll never sound exactly the same way twice, but you're never really hearing it for the first time. There will always be particular details that are novel or original about an event, but the themes are really unfailingly familiar. That's because humans today are overwhelmingly the same as humans yesterday. On the whole, we're better-fed and face fewer challenges to our physical welfare than our predecessors -- and that contributes favorably to our collective decision-making. ■ But those are marginal differences, not changes to the fundamental stuff of human nature. To reach for an ancient recorded example, the contents of the Book of Proverbs are more than 2,000 years old, yet easy modern parallels can be found to its complaints about lazy children, protests against dishonest business practices, and warnings about liars. ■ This doesn't mean that all of the answers to our problems are hidden in old history books. But if the virtues and vices, motivations and limitations on us are all roughly the same as they've ever been, then it's mostly a matter of learning to recognize the fundamental patterns underlying the (metaphorical) tempo and key changes. In the words of Jeffery Tyler Syck: "The weirdest thing about studying history is that you realize that things never really change but they are also never really the same."

The United States of America Worthwhile thoughts on equality

You haven't heard of everyone who made a contribution

Socialism Doesn't Work

Perhaps the greatest check on the reach of the DSA is their utter contempt for (and resulting ignorance of) Federalism.

January 19, 2024

Business and Finance The best hotel in Buffalo

One of the disappointing revelations brought to us by the connectedness of social media is that plenty of people still feel at liberty to take lowbrow pot-shots at their fellow Americans' hometowns in search of an easy laugh. A picture of a disappointedly surprised Hillary Clinton with the caption "Taylor Swift checking into the nicest hotel in Buffalo next week" has pulled in 7.2 million views on Twitter and 126,000 "likes", as though it had been a novel joke. ■ An astonishing number of people have anchored their expectations of other places sometime around 1987, taking a dilapidated Rust Belt, an unimproved Farm Belt, and a backwards South all for granted. This anchoring, though widely performed, is a real disservice, favoring a tiny handful of "advanced" places -- as though the entire country hadn't grown both a lot richer and a lot more homogeneous since then. ■ The plain fact is that America is culturally, economically, and technologically much more alike than it is different, and it has grown much more so over the last generation. Pittsburgh is now a major tech center! You can get upscale tapas in Greenville, South Carolina! There's a Crowne Plaza hotel in Kearney, Nebraska, with an indoor water park and EV charging stations! ■ Economic output per person has basically doubled in the last 40 years -- even after stripping out the impact of inflation. And while we're making more money, the baseline standards for many products and services have risen as well. ■ You don't have the option to watch standard-definition analog television anymore, airbags are mandatory even in the cheapest vehicles, and literally every restaurant has been reviewed on Yelp. There are still plenty of experiences yet to be improved, but it's patently unfair of anyone to assume that long-outdated stereotypes apply. It's a very good thing that our consumer standards have risen by so much. It's past time for our social standards to catch up.

January 18, 2024

No small share of the story of human civilization has been created by people whose personal quest for meaning centered on achieving such fame that they would leave an indelible mark on history. Benjamin Franklin's words were, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." It's hard to get figures like Alexander the Great unless they are motivated -- at least somewhat -- by the quest for immortal fame. ■ Even among much more ordinary people, the desire to be remembered is strong. It motivates us to celebrate holidays like the Dia de los Muertos, to record life passages in keepsakes like family Bibles, and to give money for the naming rights to everything from park benches to college campuses. ■ Two factors make this well-established quest a little peculiar today. First is the tremendous uncertainty created by digitization: On one hand, it has never been easier or cheaper to record or store a memory. On the other hand, it has never been easier to simply lose those recordings -- possibly forever. ■ Tim Harford tells a haunting "cautionary tale" about just how few missteps it takes for documentary evidence to get lost forever, especially when it's captured in digital form. Scrappy efforts like the Internet Archive give the illusion that someone is formally responsible for making sure we don't lose the collective memory of the Internet, but most of that work is done by goodwill rather than accountable mandate. ■ The second peculiar factor is that, at least by some estimates, a substantial share of the people who have ever lived are alive right now -- 8 billion out of a total of 117 billion in all time. If accurate, that would mean 7% of everyone needing to be remebered is still present among us now. That somehow makes the task seem both more enormous and beyond reach and yet also more plausible than thought.

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January 17, 2024

Weather and Disasters Clear your hydrants, snow-dwellers

While a lot of the modern lifestyle is the result of specialization and outsourcing -- from online tutoring to meal-prep kits to mobile oil changes -- there remain some things that really can't be outsourced. Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you. ■ One of those must-do-it-yourself jobs is to clear out the snow and ice from around fire hydrants in the wintertime. The lowly fire hydrant is a phenomenal innovation in human history: Ben Franklin's Bucket Brigade was itself a big step forward, but it was indeed a bucket brigade. Fire hydrants are remarkable for delivering a virtually unlimited supply of firefighting water to within a matter of yards of where the water is needed. ■ A top-tier municipal fire department takes only minutes to get to the scene of a fire: For reference, a 2-minute turnout time and 6-minute travel time is good enough as a benchmark to earn an enviable Class 2 rating and an elite accreditation for the West Des Moines Fire Department. ■ And conscientious departments work to reduce that response time in ways that may not even be obvious, like having streets re-striped to reduce lane congestion so emergency vehicles can get through even faster. Still, no fire truck, no matter how fast, can get to the scene of a fire faster than a pressurized municipal water line feeding a hydrant. ■ What goes under-appreciated, though, is that any time spent digging out the nearest fire hydrant from under snow and ice had better be done before the trucks arrive, or else all of the professional preparation required for quick response times goes to waste. If it takes five or ten minutes in a pinch, that's nothing but wasted time. Someone has to do the digging sometime, and the least-preferable option is after the firefighters have arrived. While the firefighters are en route seems like a pretty awful time to have to start scooping, too. ■ A mid-sized city could have 10,000 fire hydrants, and no matter how one slices it, that's a daunting number to try to keep clear. Even with an organized effort, it would still take a lot of time. ■ Clearing snow from around a hydrant may be an unpleasant task for the homeowner (or a fastidious neighbor), but expecting someone else to do the job is like hoping someone else will floss your teeth: Chances are, it won't lead to imminent disaster. But for the trivial effort required, and for how directly you yourself are the one to benefit from the effort, is it really worth taking a risk by skipping the work?

January 14, 2024

Broadcasting Radio giant Audacy to "restructure"

The company is "undertak[ing] a deleveraging transaction" that will turn $1.6 billion in debt into company "equity". It's a Chapter 11 bankruptcy move. And it's yet another example of big, debt-laden radio ownership groups turning the market into a toxic environment for investors. ■ The list of unforced errors and acts of outright ego-driven stupidity of some of the radio industry's most high-flying executives is book-length. They've told tall tales for so long that it's hard to tell whether any of them believe their own hype anymore. ■ And it's tragic, because instead of offering radio the time and breathing room for a much-needed transition to a vastly more challenging advertising environment, their rash moves have led to mass layoffs and an apocalyptic hollowing-out of service quality.

Humor and Good News Children deserve our attention

In the sensible words of Jesuit seminarian Christopher Smith: "Be kind to children y'all. Notice them. Listen to them. Welcome them. Take interest in them. Think back to your own childhood: have you ever forgotten an adult who did this for you (no matter how long or how short your time with them was)?" ■ Your knees will probably hate you for it, but it's worth trying whenever possible to crouch down to eye level when talking with little people. Who doesn't remember how vastly distant and unapproachable their height made adults seem from a child's perspective? ■ Bringing our adult eyes down to child's-eye level is a small gesture, but one worth making. And not because it diminishes adults or adult authority: In fact, quite the opposite. Small children don't have the option to get taller, but we can make ourselves shorter. ■ In so doing, we demonstrate respect for their humanity -- which is an essential step towards earning their reciprocal respect. It remains obvious to both adult and child that they aren't equals in every sense, but to transmit the message that "You are worth my time, my attention, and my physical effort to meet you eye-to-eye" is also to transmit an understanding that all lives are valuable. ■ For too many generations and in too many cultures, the relationship between adult and child was (and in many cases, still is) built on a foundation of fear. (The Book of Proverbs contains lots of good advice, but "Whoever spares the rod hates the child" has been taken far too literally for far too long.) ■ That fear-based relationship impresses upon too many young minds both an unhealthy sense of self and a wicked understanding of authority. Real authority is earned and sustained, not asserted by violence. That's true even in the home. ■ Of course an adult should intervene -- forcefully, if needed -- to protect children from doing imminent harm to themselves or others. But, on balance, we cultivate better people by treating them, even when very young, as whole people. Their humanity is complete even at the moment of birth, and isn't proportional to their size.

January 13, 2024

Iowa Impaired driving

Extreme conditions have a way of pressing questions that otherwise go without much notice, even if they are worthwhile. The extreme Arctic blast that set the stage for a below-zero NFL game in Kansas City and rendered Interstate 80 impassable is a good example. ■ With winter conditions making driving either unsafe or impossible across much of Iowa and wind chills so low that frostbite could take only minutes, it raises the fair question: How do we expect people to travel when they don't have personal automobiles? ■ It's a cliche to bemoan America as an "auto-centric society". And it's naive to think that the automobile will be displaced as our country's primary mode of transportation. It's not just a matter of implicit and explicit preferences that have gone to road construction for generations -- we also just don't have the kind of population density that many of our peer rich countries do. ■ Germany has 84 million people in a land area slightly smaller than Montana. We have 335 million people (almost exactly four times Germany), spread across Montana and 49 other states. And Germany isn't exceptional -- other G7 countries are denser still. The densities involved -- and their consequences for other forms of transit -- are simply not comparable. ■ But cold weather travel shutdowns should cause ordinary people to wonder: If I had to rely on public transportation, how far would I have to walk and how long could I wait for a bus to arrive? If wind-driven snow can close the highways, are there blizzard-resilient modes of transportation we should think about building as backups? If snow removal from the streets is a matter for public works departments, why do we rely on private property owners to clear the sidewalks? Unusual conditions ought to spur some unusual thinking.

Weather and Disasters Curse the torpedoes, full steam ahead

If ever there were a behavior that screamed "Please suspect this vehicle of running drugs", it's driving a car with Florida plates at 94 mph across Iowa during a blizzard. And not just any blizzard, but one that rendered two-thirds of the state all but impassable. A portion of Interstate 80 just west of Iowa City was shut down by stranded trucks and other accidents, which speaks to exactly why we have automatic closing gates on Midwestern on-ramps. ■ For what it's worth, if traveling through snowy places, always go with a flattened cardboard box in your trunk. If you should find yourself spinning your tires on ice, wedge the cardboard under the tire, sticking out in the direction you intend to go. It's a simple hack that can create instant dry traction when badly needed. One Iowa driver set his car on fire by spinning his tires for too long. ■ We complain, of course, but the Midwest isn't the only place where winter storms bite. Over a long enough time horizon, every state but Hawaii is a cold-weather state. (On the other hand, frostquakes are an unusual phenomenon for which Iowans and our neighbors ought to be prepared.)

Humor and Good News What happened to key changes?

(Video) Bass lines, key changes, and ballads of intra-band divorces and breakups are all endangered species in contemporary music. We used to be a proper country.

January 12, 2024

Computers and the Internet Artificial intelligence without genius

Instances of product names mass-generated by artificial intelligence have begun appearing on Amazon, and the odds are good that they're going to proliferate elsewhere online, too. The fact that some of the names have gone utterly without human attention -- like the end table with the model name "I'm sorry but I cannot fulfill this request" -- should be a cautionary tale to society generally. ■ The mass deployment of artificial intelligence to flood online markets with indistinguishable products, sham reviews, and junk articles is shameful enough. It's corrupt, greedy, wasteful, and distinctly unprofessional. Human expertise matters. ■ But whereas it's mainly a nuisance (albeit a large one) when sham work populates the Internet world of sales and marketing, people of goodwill ought to dread the encroachment of lazy artificial intelligence use in fields like engineering. ■ We know that AI is being used to write computer code: Google even promotes its own tools for doing it. And it's a seductive practice because code often gets re-used, can be tedious to produce, and usually requires the work of highly-skilled (and well-paid) human workers. ■ The day is undoubtedly coming soon when people like structural and civil engineering managers and individual designers are going to use it to cut corners and shave down costs (pressures that are very real when clients have limited budgets and professional staffers often bill at rates of $200 or more an hour). ■ Without conscientious human supervision, AI-generated work is certain to have some ultimately catastrophic consequences. For example: The I-35W bridge collapse in 2007 was a disaster caused by "unknown unknowns", compounded by oversights and failures to double-check work. Among other problems, some calculations were not performed because engineers thought they were "too much work". (That's exactly the kind of thinking that can drive the use of AI.) ■ Modifications had been made over time to the bridge itself making the road surface much heavier, and the structure collapsed while heavy equipment was there to perform reconstruction work. These were factors that wouldn't fit neatly into a computer model for an original design. ■ In an ideal world, we would use AI to double-check careful human design work and call attention to oversights and errors. But if it instead is used (quietly, and without fanfare) to substitute for that human design work instead, we will experience even more disasters as a result. When economic pressures are very strong (as when a technology appears to be capable of substituting for $250-an-hour professionals), it's time to pay a surplus of professional attention.

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January 10, 2024

News North Korean missiles raining on Ukraine

South Korea's representative on the UN Security Council has warned that North Korea's missiles, which are being purchased by Russia and launched into Ukraine, are not just weapons of an unjust war happening now, but also perilous tools being readied for a future war across the Korean Peninsula. And South Korea's warning, that "the introduction of North Korean missiles into the war in Ukraine has a significant implication on global nuclear non-proliferation", ought to rattle the entire world. ■ The sinister logic is hard to deny: North Korea gets both a much-needed infusion of cash and a chance to test some of its nuclear-capable missiles, while Russia gets a supply of weapons beyond what its own factories can produce. It's a dastardly arrangement, which makes it all the more likely to be true. ■ Add it to the exhaustingly long list of reasons why Russia's war against Ukraine needs to be brought to an end, preferably through a decisive Ukrainian victory buttressed by the uncompromising material support of the free nations of the world. The sooner the war is concluded, the less practice and testing the North Korean arms get. ■ That, of course, is vastly less important than swiftly easing the suffering of Ukraine's civilians, which is the most important good in its own right. But if halting the war in Ukraine can keep North Korea from advancing its weapons technologies, then that adds a non-trivial degree of self-interest for partners in South Korea's security (foremost being the United States). A conclusive victory for Ukraine would be the best deterrent in the long run.

January 7, 2024

News Sweet home Chicago

If a policymaker wanted to maximize the proportional share of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road, it would make more sense to look for ways to encourage the mass production of $23,000 Toyota Corollas than to discourage the sale of $174,000 Maybachs with luxury taxes. ■ Yet in Chicago, which faces a variety of pressures on its municipal government (including chronic problems with crime and a notoriously difficult school budget), some activists are proposing to "fix" a housing shortage by raising a real-estate transfer tax on property sales of more than $1 million. ■ Luxury taxes, like other excise taxes, are almost always imposed with the intent of affecting behavior. The consequence is almost always to discourage the production of the particular good being taxed. ■ Chicago's problem isn't that it has too much high-value housing. Expensive housing drives property-tax revenues, and it's usually occupied by people who spend lots of money and who pay lots of other taxes. Rich people may be unsympathetic characters in a public debate, but they also pay for a lot of public goods and services. ■ Like many other cities, Chicago's problem is a shortage in the supply of clean, safe, dignified housing at an affordable price. The cost of housing isn't just a problem for those who are explicitly homeless -- even the advocates who say that homelessness affects 68,000 people in Chicago acknowledge that many of those people are scraping by via couch-surfing and other informal arrangements. ■ So many people suffer from housing stress all over the country that the policy needs are far-reaching. But it's ludicrous to approach it as anything other than a supply shortfall, which is often exacerbated (if not expressly caused) by local zoning and other regulations. We need creative designs and thoughtful legal reforms to encourage innovative approaches that would help to flood the market with Toyota Corolla-type housing. Efficient, mass-produced, reliable, and affordable (but still profitable to the builder). That's the only place durable solutions can be found.

January 6, 2024

News We've been someplace like this before

Ignorance is a powerful accomplice to evil. Malice can do a lot on its own, but the ignorance of bystanders and good people makes it easier for evil to prevail. Ignorance manifests itself in lots of pernicious ways, but one of the worst is when it causes people to think their experiences are unique in human history. ■ Consider these words: "We must elect Presidents who respect the law and the other institutions which surround the Presidency. We must strengthen those institutions in ways which increase their effectiveness and their ability to check unaccountable Presidential power." They could easily have been spoken on the campaign trail in 2024 -- but they were put to paper 49 years ago by then-Senator Walter Mondale, in a book entitled "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". ■ It is rarely the case that our problems are entirely new. Even when factors like technology play a role by introducing novel details to the situation, most problems have precedents. And the good must take the time and commit the effort required to become aware of those precedents, because people doing good are almost always a step behind the people doing bad. That's the nature of being on defense, rather than offense. ■ Three years ago, evildoers attacked the United States Capitol in an effort to halt the peaceful transfer of political power. Today, some people try to defend the act, or even to profit from it -- politically or financially. ■ On this distressing three-year anniversary, these words are apt: "There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law", and "Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others." ■ Smart, timely words. But not contemporary in the least: They were spoken by a young Abraham Lincoln in 1838, more than two decades before he would become President. ■ The America of that time was often openly violent in ways that we would consider intolerable today, and Lincoln knew that the untamed violence of the mob and the embrace of "by any means necessary" thinking were poisonous to the American experiment. If we want to continue preserving that experiment, we have to be alert to the troubles that came before -- not as false consolation that everything will turn out right, but as a sourcebook of ideas for how to combat the evil within.

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January 5, 2024

Science and Technology A mechanical dependency

Straight-line projections from the past into the future are nearly always imprudent. Things change course, and even when they continue to move in the same direction, they often change speeds. But one projection can be made with almost iron-clad confidence: More people (both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the total population) will live in urban areas in the future than live there today. ■ This direction of change isn't a trend; it's a self-reinforcing cycle. Fundamentally, cities (large and small) offer closer matching of wants with access than other forms of living. People may ebb and flow out of individual cities, but both in the United States and in the world overall, the direction of change is clear. And if the dramatic shock to urban living caused by the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't proven permanent, it's basically impossible to imagine any cause big enough to force a reversal. ■ In a time when public attention is so heavily oriented towards issues that are either esoteric (like culture wars) or literally de-materialized (like artificial intelligence), it would serve us well to realize that the inexorable drift towards urbanization means that the future will be more mechanized than the past. ■ It's easy to think that moving parts and heat and raw materials and grease are all things of the past. But the absolute certainty of urban living is that when lots of people are clustered in a small geographic space, they are fundamentally more dependent upon things like motors, engines, pumps, boilers, fans, and axles than their counterparts elsewhere. ■ Machines power elevators, commuter trains, refrigerated trucks, sewage collection systems, garage doors, operating rooms, and flood gates, as well as countless other things that are needed with greater frequency among the "city mice" than among the "country mice". And while it's possible to automate a lot of the work that is done today by hand, larger populations who depend on smaller cohorts of skilled technical workers are proportionally more vulnerable to the consequences of failure -- whether it's catastrophic breakdown, the unpredictable revenge of deferred maintenance, or the slow and steady decay of institutional knowledge and expertise. ■ It's easy to misjudge trends and think that we have freed ourselves from the bonds of the physical world. We have not. And the sooner we come to appreciate just how much we depend upon the (literal) moving parts of the world and the people who keep them working, not just for how we live now but for how we will certainly live in the future, the better off we will be.

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January 3, 2024

Business and Finance Booms and busts

It's hard to feel down about the condition of a stock market that has risen by 23% in the last year. That's the kind of excitement that really stirs the blood -- especially for anyone looking at a burgeoning retirement account. But times of high performance are when it's most important to have a grasp on underlying conditions -- not just the "what" (a big run-up), but the "why" (exactly which conditions are behind the boom). ■ It seems reasonably likely that price inflation contributed a few points to the increase. It's also likely that conditions reflected a sense of relief after widespread fears of a big recession in 2023 didn't really materialize. ■ In 1937, Benjamin Graham wrote in "The Interpretation of Financial Statements" that "There is, however, a frequent tendency on the part of the stock market to exaggerate the significance of changes in earnings both in a favorable and unfavorable direction." And what is the stock market overall but the aggregate behavior of all of the individual stocks -- and each of their earnings? ■ While it's perfectly sane for investors to feel good about the ground that has been covered in the last 12 months, it's also perfectly sane to ask why the forecasts of the recent past were so confidently wrong. Forecasts are a necessary evil, but the timing and triggers behind big economic events (like recessions) are virtually impossible to anticipate with great accuracy. We can see when conditions are building up on the side of a move in one direction or another, but a huge dose of humility is in order when approaching any look at the future.

January 1, 2024

Science and Technology The answer is all around us

Everyone who has passed middle-school math knows that the area of a circle is equal to πr2, and that the value of π is close to 3.14159. We also know that the same value holds true not just on Earth, but in the other places humankind has gone -- both the formula and the value of π remain true on the International Space Station and on the surface of the Moon. They still remain true on Mars, where the Perseverance Rover is rolling about on round wheels, and beyond the Solar System, where Voyager 1 is carrying a circular gold-plated copper disk into interstellar space. ■ Suppose for just a moment that you could reach much farther into space than even Voyager 1. No matter how far you were to travel from Earth, is there any place where (a) circles could not be drawn, (b) the area of a circle were anything other than πr2, or (c) the value of π were different from the familiar 3.14159? ■ The idea is fundamentally inconceivable. It's possible to imagine discovering an alien civilization that hadn't calculated the area of a circle yet. It's possible to imagine using a counting system with a base other than 10 (the Babylonians used base-60, for instance), which would convert the value of π to a different equivalent. It's even possible to imagine a planet somewhere without any naturally-occurring circles (though it's extremely hard to imagine). ■ But there's just no way for a circle (or π) to change, no matter how far away you get from home. And the extremely deep problem revealed by such a thought experiment is this: We don't know what enforces that as a law of nature. ■ Yet something does, and it does so both everywhere in the entire universe, and it does so simultaneously. There is no distracting whatever force is doing the enforcement, nor is there any arguing with it. There is no holiday when the area of a circle is 9r, nor a far corner of a distant galaxy where π equals 4.5678. ■ We've explored a great deal about knowledge and information -- witness the explosive growth in artificial intelligence and the legitimately mind-splitting possibilities of quantum computing. And what scientists working on these things are uncovering about subjects like quantum entanglement across large distances are making for very weird science. ■ Whatever governs the (literally) universal nature of knowledge and the laws of all physical existence, we may quite possibly soon begin to uncover the earliest hints of understanding. It's hard to know if we'll even recognize them when we see them. But for the first time in human history, despite all of the stupid things some members of our species are doing to hurt one another and break things, we could be within single-digit years of finding out what binds together everything that exists.

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