Twitter: @briangongol | Mastodon: | Threads: @briangongol | Telegram: @eveningpostandmail | Bluesky: @briangongol
• Company site: DJ Gongol & Associates
Newsletter signup

September 22, 2023

News When to keep a tradition

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

September 19, 2023

News Known for all the wrong reasons

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

September 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards The membership we deserve

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

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

September 16, 2023

News To cook a better dinner

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

September 15, 2023

News Ambition rises through every system

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

September 13, 2023

Broadcasting The all-consuming tube

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

September 12, 2023

Threats and Hazards Let the conspiracy theories die

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

September 11, 2023

Weather and Disasters Powering tropical weather

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

September 10, 2023

Business and Finance You can't plan this

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

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

September 9, 2023

News The strengths that prevent wars

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

September 8, 2023

Threats and Hazards It's not a binary question

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

September 5, 2023

News Labels aren't always necessary

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

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

September 4, 2023

Health Executing on the basics before the burn

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

September 1, 2023

News A class by herself

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

August 31, 2023

News War-scarred but stronger

There are a million uncertainties about how Russia's awful war against Ukraine will end, but a level-headed view of the situation points toward one increasingly likely outcome: That of the two, Ukraine will emerge, battle-scarred, as the demonstrably better state and society. ■ Everything that drives Ukraine's effort toward victory also drives it to behave aspirationally. It is the smaller of the two belligerents, so it must be more nimble. It lacks a titanic endowment of natural-resource wealth comparable to Russia's oil, so it must act with greater economic efficiency. It wants to bind closer to the protections of the European Union and NATO, so it must behave in ways that please the decision-makers of liberal democracies. ■ These factors sustain the hope that Ukraine will win the war. But they also share a great deal in common with what has shaped the success of other post-war states: If post-war Ukraine ends up looking in half a century a lot like post-war South Korea looked 50 years after its hot war came down to a simmer, then it will be a lovely place indeed. (And if they can steer clear of some of South Korea's post-war economic and political errors, then so much the better.) Already, their institutions are off to a better start. ■ Yet something else about the Korean experience may foreshadow an unpleasant post-war factor. Russia and Ukraine share a land border some 1,200 miles long. That is an enormous distance; as the crow flies, 1,200 miles would take you from O'Hare Airport in Chicago to Salt Lake City. Korea's DMZ is 160 miles long; will Ukraine and Russia end up with one more than seven times as long? ■ Or, returning to its past habits, will Russia erect a new Iron Curtain on its side, nominally to repel invasion but really to keep people in? It seems absurdly anachronistic to think so, but a million people are thought to have left Russia just since 2022, and its conscription regime has grown even more brutal. Depending on just how much pain the Russian state ultimately endures in recompense for its crimes, it may decide the loss of talent and wealth is too great, and that walls both legal and physical must be erected. ■ Whenever hostilities cease, Ukraine will have an epic task ahead of it to secure that vast border for the good of its own security. Nobody can envy the authorities tasked with that undertaking. But none of us should be surprised if Russia reprises the playbook from its Soviet past and once again builds a wall.

August 30, 2023

Business and Finance Your ennui is not your own

Given the memes and mixing that arise from communication via social networks, perhaps the very notion of "the voice of a generation" has met its end. With a comment that strikes the right chord, anyone can become the voice of their generation for a fleeting moment; but when anyone can be a thing, then nobody is special for being that thing. ■ The value of generational labels is easy to overstate, but that doesn't stop people from trying to stake out their claims. And with every new day bringing new people into adulthood, it's no surprise that young adults are angst-ridden over the mundane functions of work. ■ Yet today's complaint on social media doesn't really reveal anything that wasn't already covered by Mike Judge's 1999 movie "Office Space". And that scarcely explored any concepts that hadn't been uncovered in 1956 by "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit". ■ One of the greatest modern pieces on the struggle for meaning and existence within a culture obsessed with business and commerce was "Babbitt", written in '22. (Just don't tell the kids it was 1922.) ■ It takes some wisdom -- and more than a little bit of humility -- to realize that most of our feelings aren't new. The particular triggers and circumstances may vary, but when you're wondering about the purpose of showing up at a cubicle for 40 hours a week, you're going through something scarcely different from when a philosopher like Lucius Seneca weighed the meaning of work 2,000 years ago: "The much occupied man has no time for wantonness, and it is an obvious commonplace that the evils of leisure can be shaken off by hard work." ■ The more time we spend immersed in digital interactions, the greater the risk that we'll miss the deep continuity of human life. The generations who came before us aren't the ones hurt if we ignore their experiences and the notes they left behind. It only hurts us (and maybe our younger brothers and sisters).

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 29, 2023

Computers and the Internet Spamouflage takedown

It comes as hardly any surprise at all that arms of the Chinese government were engaged in a large and sustained effort to clog Facebook and related social networks with literally thousands of fake accounts apparently intended to influence American audiences. The company revealed its efforts to take down the coordinated effort -- called "Spamouflage" -- in a new security filing that was served up as a matter of routine, rather than fanfare. ■ Social media outlets remain vastly more attractive to malign influence campaigns than their conventional media counterparts, though both have to remain perpetually vigilant. But whereas it takes time and funding to spin up "Confucius Institutes" and gain enough credible traction that they might be cited in conventional media, it takes no time at all to spin up a malignant social-media operation. ■ In fact, that is exactly the vulnerability that the Chinese government appears to have exploited, converting existing spam networks into influence operations. Perhaps amusingly, much of their efforts via these fake accounts were spent in reaching out to other fake accounts -- a sort of infinite loop of pointless recursion. ■ At some point or another, though, Facebook and its fellow-travelers in social media will have to reconcile with the reality that letting spammers (and adversarial foreign governments) jam up their networks with junk has much the same effect as if they were to allow graffiti to appear all over the walls of their headquarters. ■ People start to notice defacement with the first instance, but often find reasons to look past it. But given enough encounters, they ultimately vote with their choices and move along to better neighborhoods. Facebook's parent company, Meta, even acknowledges the problem of fraudulent accounts in its filings with the SEC, noting "In the fourth quarter of 2022, we estimated that approximately 3% of our worldwide MAP [monthly active people] consisted solely of violating accounts." That may not seem like much at first, but if one out of every 33 homes in your neighborhood was a drug den, you'd probably think seriously about moving out. ■ Eradicating bad actors is impossible -- they have too much incentive to find new and innovative ways to get around the rules. But Facebook and other social media outlets need to work harder to keep their virtual streets clean. It isn't hard to uncover the bad actors out there, if only they want to try.

August 28, 2023

Weather and Disasters The storm heading for Florida

It is a strange phenomenon indeed for Franklin, a Category Four hurricane demonstrating record-setting characteristics (like a barometric low unprecedented for its latitude) to be the less important of two tropical events taking place at the same time. And yet, that is the present case as a tropical storm glances Cuba en route to even warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico. ■ The warmer-than-usual waters of the Gulf are setting up the storm named Idalia to intensify swiftly and mightily as it heads for Florida's Gulf Coast. The storm is likely to demonstrate in remarkable terms just how much the atmosphere acts as a mechanism for redistributing energy -- and there is a great deal of potential energy floating in the Gulf. ■ For well over a generation, America has been concentrating more and more of our population in southern latitudes and along our coastlines. These are the somewhat predictable consequences of modern air conditioning and an aging population that doesn't have much taste for the continental climate. ■ But just as tropical storms act to reallocate energy from the sea to the atmosphere, policymakers at all levels need to reallocate their attention to risk and risk mitigation. The status quo is proving costly in terms of lives and disruption, and it's evident that those in the path of storms subject to rapid intensification will need to do even more to harden their defenses and build up home-grown resiliency in new and innovative ways. If an event can jump from "tropical storm" to "major hurricane" in less than a day, then evacuation may be a dwindling option. ■ At the same time, those living beyond the reach of those storms -- in places where the danger comes from winter cold, not summer heat -- need to invest thought and civic energy into making their places more livable and even attractive for the whole of the calendar year, and for the full life cycle of ordinary people. ■ The United States is a great big country, with plenty of room to move around and experiment. It would do us all some good to see creative thinking applied to matters of resilience where dangers are growing, and of livability where cold-weather discomfort presently chases too many people away.

August 27, 2023

News No more baby-talk

Within the broad category of children's and juvenile entertainment, there are countless approaches taken to the narrative voice. But it's hard not to detect in some television and film formats -- and a non-trivial number of written works, too -- a gravitation towards baby talk. ■ It's one thing to have a bridge character (like Sesame Street's Elmo) whose youthful mistakes set up a contrast with other characters in order to tell young audiences "This is meant for you, too". It's quite another when the entire cast of characters babbles amongst themselves as though they've never encountered correct grammar before. ■ There just has to be a healthy middle ground somewhere in between Rudyard Kipling and whatever motivates these screenwriters and authors. It's fine to put a gentle lilt into your voice when talking to children, but the science lines up behind using the same words and constructions that adults know to use among ourselves. Intentionally childish syntax and cutesy malapropisms really aren't helpful. ■ Which is actually more relatable to youth: Trying to fake kids' vernacular, or writing for them in plain (correct) English with an eye towards accessible vocabulary? The former seems insulting and cloying. The latter seems to respect that they're aspiring to grow. We cheat them -- and the future -- when we disregard their interest in being challenged in loving ways. ■ And what of the stories themselves? Some writing for children stands out in its respect for complexity and wholeness (three cheers for "Bluey"!). But some TV shows drag on for 30 minutes and never even attempt to make a meaningful point. Maybe it's tough to write in competition with unboxing videos on YouTube, but should that competition be won via surrender? ■ Not everything has to be an Aesop's fable, of course. But there's a whole lot of raw material there (and in the rest of the canon of children's lit) making points well-deserved to be taught today, using today's characters and special effects. Engaged parents who know better will steer their children away from the tripe, but what of the kids who don't have someone to nudge them towards something better? ■ The only way to make sure that "time-honored lessons" remain honored by time is to keep uncovering fresh and relevant ways to teach them. Smothering young minds under lazy writing and tortured mechanics isn't doing right by anyone.

August 25, 2023

News Nickname games are unwarranted

Kara Swisher has earned a considerable following as a brand-name commentator on technology. And because her journalistic beat intersects with many other areas of culture, politics, and society in general, she frequently uses her wide-reaching platform to editorialize on other matters. This is entirely within her rights under the First Amendment, and it is consistent with a long tradition of opinion journalism in the United States. ■ But she has also been the target of unwarranted and line-crossing attacks, particularly on social media. And she has vigorously criticized social-media outlets like Facebook for "amplifying and weaponizing hate". ■ Thus it is disappointing to see her employ her own platform to solicit critical nicknames for people like Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, reveling in appellations like "Ramasmarmy" and "Rama-lama-ding-dong". They are neither clever nor insightful. ■ Ramaswamy deserves criticism for espousing bad policies, like arbitrary tests to block young adults from voting, or withdrawing support for Ukraine as it fights for its very existence. Celebrating and amplifying juvenile nicknames is no more than a way of playing footsie with exactly the kind of toxic civic environment that not long ago propelled an utterly unfit man to the Presidency -- a man Swisher undoubtedly sees herself as better than. ■ Political satire is one thing. Playground mockery is something much less. It is not only cheap and unbecoming behavior, it creates a permission structure for people to defend bad actors -- by establishing that ideas don't matter, only team spirit. And the resulting spats can drown out the very arguments that should be used to knock their bad ideas out of contention. ■ If a candidate is a bad actor, their opponents should come right out and say so -- and why. Individuals will come and go from any given race, but the habits they bring to the public square can last much longer. If those habits are bad and the rest of us slip into them, the damage they do can turn into a chronic and debilitating condition. Maturity -- not to mention the survival of self-government -- demands that we hold everyone to higher standards, including ourselves.

August 23, 2023

Business and Finance Cutting the check and paying the price

Some arguments are never really settled, no matter how dispositive the facts and reasoning behind them may be. Economic arguments tend to land among these perpetual debates, in large part because everyone has an opinion about money. As with other matters (like education and health care), it's easy to mistake familiarity for expertise. ■ An especially recalcitrant wing of economic opinion holds fast to the belief that if only we taxed imports hard enough, the domestic manufacturing economy would experience an unprecedented boom. There is nothing in evidence to support this fantasy, and mountains of evidence against it. ■ First, it has to be recognized that tariffs aren't a magical way to tax foreigners at no cost to the domestic consumer. The real cost of any tax is split between buyer and seller; cutting the check isn't the same as paying the price. The incidence of any particular tax depends, essentially, on who wants or needs the exchange more. ■ Without resorting to explanations involving the relative slopes of the supply and demand curves, this can be explained intuitively: Whoever is more eager for a deal to go through ultimately has less bargaining power in an exchange, and the government collecting the tax takes implicit advantage of that eagerness to trade. ■ But the problem with tariffs goes farther than that. Whether observers recognize it or not, the US manufacturing sector continues to grow in value. It just isn't growing as quickly as the service sector. But in any case, the biggest profits in manufacturing are made by assembling complex equipment and systems, rather than by trying to make basic stuff with blast furnaces. It's better to build Boeing jets than to mass-produce paperclips. ■ Assembling complex systems is a lot easier to do when you can have access to the best deals on the component parts. Making it more expensive to import basic goods from abroad only hobbles the efforts of the domestic manufacturers best equipped to turn the biggest profits for domestic industry. ■ And none of the discussion would be complete without recognizing that automation is often at least as disruptive to manufacturing jobs as foreign trade. But that shouldn't stop us from putting automation into service, particularly if machines can do dirty, dull, or dangerous work. As long as we recognize the need for robust transitional support for people displaced from their jobs by automation or by trade, we shouldn't be afraid of bringing in affordable products from the global marketplace. ■ But that won't stop shameless political opportunists -- and dunces -- from pretending that higher import taxes are a silver bullet. That kind of con artistry has a long history, but a despicable track record. A sincere and authentic belief in American manufacturing wouldn't be so eager to embrace stunts in service of growing the sector. High tariffs are a tool adored most by people of low economic sophistication.

August 22, 2023

Business and Finance The wisdom of having nothing to add

Devotees of the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders at which Warren Buffett so famously presides know that some of the greatest lines come not from Buffett, but from his partner, Charlie Munger. Munger, who is renowned for his fanatical devotion to lifelong learning, frequently uses his turn during the question-and-answer session to say nothing more than "I have nothing to add". ■ A great many of us have a lot to learn from Munger's wisdom. A great deal of what passes for news and commentary is nothing more than a fleeting acknowledgment of immaterial events or a rephrasing of threadbare conventional wisdom. ■ There are countless circumstances and events that just don't matter, and on which none of us should really have anything to add. Similarly, there are a great number of things on which only something very basic needs to be said to join in the consensus opinion of all right-thinking people. ■ The manner in which the Supreme Court issues opinions ought to be taken as more of a guide than it is. Justices can concur with an opinion in full, they can concur in part, or they can dissent, either individually or as a group. Sometimes, even the dissents are divided. Yet when an opinion is unanimous, there is no need for each justice to say something individually, and the message would be diluted if there were less than full concurrence in the opinion. ■ There's a magic in "I have nothing to add". It preserves the authority of the speaker or writer by attaching them to answers they believe to have been correctly delivered, but with an underlying modesty that says, "Listen to me instead when I have something uniquely insightful to say later". We ought to normalize sharing with endorsement and agreeing without embellishing. ■ But this also requires surrendering the false outrage that so many people like to wield against their rivals, for not having said enough about the right subjects with the appropriate level of outrage. Lots of people refuse to put down that weapon, no matter how disingenuous it is. We need to enforce that socially, though: Letting it stand that individuals don't always have to pile on their own unoriginal concurrences or dissents with every issue that arises. Sometimes "I have nothing to add" is exactly the right contribution.

August 21, 2023

News School years to come

Something to ponder as a new school year gets underway: While we do subscribe to some national standards, school curricula remain largely within the purview of state and local officials. Some like to innovate, but many like to adopt what others have developed. ■ Generally speaking, this variety is a feature rather than a bug. It leaves important questions with social and moral weight within the purview of the people most directly influenced by them, which in turn helps to preventatively de-escalate heated debates about standards on the national level. (Of those, there are quite enough already.) ■ But a lack of national oversight commanding states and communities to adopt particular curricula doesn't stop those relevant authorities from seeking guidance or from searching for model standards to adopt. Nor does it prevent nationally-organized groups from seeking influence. Lots of groups have short-term objectives in mind when trying to influence curriculum choices. ■ What if a group were to consciously dedicate itself to developing a model curriculum for the maximum long-term benefit of the republic? Put another way: Suppose you have been challenged to come up with a model curriculum to set the United States as far as possible ahead of any authoritarian or totalitarian rivals for the next 50 years. What would you include in that curriculum for maximum advantage? ■ Chew on that question long enough, and the serious observer is likely to dwell less on the content (the "what") and more on two other questions: How? And why? ■ The countries most likely to challenge the United States in the future -- economically, politically, or militarily -- are probably going to have something in common with our most serious rivals of the past century: A high level of command authority from the top down. Whatever ideological "ism" drives the state, it's likely to involve rigidity of thought and unity of purpose. ■ That's because the total mobilization of a state can be a real force multiplier. As Dwight Eisenhower noted in his memoir of World War II, "One French businessman said to me, 'We defeated ourselves from within; we tried to oppose a four-day work week against the German's six- or seven-day week.'" The way to check the ambitions of such a state is to leverage our own advantages. ■ In particular, America's future security and prosperity will depend upon flexibility of thought, creativity, and continued openness on one hand. On the other, those goods will depend upon a sustained commitment to common rules (even when we disagree over outcomes), an acute sensitivity to the relevance of the past, and a sense of civic pride -- a patriotism that says we believe in our strengths, consciously want to repair our weaknesses, and take pride in our perpetual evolution towards "a more perfect union". ■ Both of these hands, one broadly associated with each of the left and the right, have a vital role to play. No one can anticipate in 2023 how the next 50 years will go, and more than someone in 1897 could have anticipated a future winding all the way from Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in the Spanish-American War all the way through the emergence of jet fighters and atomic bombs. But we are obligated to spend time and effort thinking about what our real advantages are and how they will sustain us in challenging times to come.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 20, 2023

Humor and Good News How free choice makes us more alike

There's no assimilating force quite as powerful as being free to peacefully choose what you like. Lots of political and economic systems depend upon coercion in one form or degree or another in order to achieve some kind of unity of purpose or outcomes among people. ■ There are countless different ways to try to make people the same, but when the matter is forced, people tend to be very good at making the uniformity itself a matter of dissent. Consider the mildest, most benign form of forced homogeneity: A school with an enforced uniform requirement. The mind of many an adolescent turns immediately to finding ways to break away from the standard to express some kind of individuality. ■ But when people are permitted to pursue their own happiness without being forced, the first thing that can be expected to happen is that people who started out unalike will find themselves bonding over the things on which they agree. Who isn't pleased to discover a "tribe" of sorts? ■ When that experience is repeated over and over, the ultimate outcome is for ordinary people to find themselves in broad consensus with others. Perhaps not on highly contentious matters -- religious diversity only tends to grow when differences are allowed to flourish -- but on the underlying infrastructure itself, certainly. What rational person, enjoying a liberty for himself or herself, doesn't appreciate the goodness of securing that liberty for everyone? (Irrational people are another case.) ■ Nor should we discount the power of voluntary choices to lead to assimilation via the little things, either. Is it not notable that even in a country of more than 330 million people, the United States still generates so many cultural manias? No one is forced to attend Taylor Swift concerts or purchase air fryers or see "Barbie" in theaters, and yet people do those things freely in phenomenal numbers because they are entirely at liberty to do so. And then, when they have a good experience, they can (and do) tell their friends and family, often with evangelical fervor. ■ Which rewards the creation of goods and services with massive appeal, even when it seems like those masses are too large to satisfy in big ways. And yet it happens. People find things that they like, and join freely in the enjoyment -- just as 100,000 people from all walks of life will show up for a day at the Iowa State Fair and with very few exceptions just peacefully enjoy themselves. ■ And in enjoying whatever particular things please us without becoming uptight about the choices of others, we become more alike with one another even as we choose differently. Good ideas bubble up faster and gain more traction, and people become inherently more interested in preserving the abstract understanding of freedom of choice rather than putting their energies into resisting enforced conformity. It's a delightful paradox.

August 19, 2023

News Long nights, short years

It is the season for proud (and often emotional) parents to share "Move-in day at college" pictures of their offspring. And though some of the messages are overwrought and most repeat familiar themes about the fleeting nature of time, they do offer what can be a useful moment of perspective. ■ Consider that, by the time a child turns 9 years old, their parents have already covered half the ground they are allotted by law and society to turn that growing child into an adult. That's a weighty thing to consider. A 9-year-old is nowhere near being ready for adulthood, and yet it's halftime for the process. ■ Most parents stand a fairly good chance of living to know their children as adults for at least as long as they knew them as children, though nothing is ever guaranteed. That alone ought to be enough to incentivize conscientious, intentional parenting. It isn't always enough in practice, but it should be. ■ But parents have to concentrate on developing young people with the kinds of virtues that keep civilization from collapsing, too. And it's a challenge that has always been with us: Maimonides wrote nearly a thousand years ago "Man's governance of himself consists in making his soul acquire the virtuous moral habits and cease to have the vicious moral habits, if any have been formed." Where would those habits be formed, if not in the context of one's upbringing? ■ Parenting advice columns and other resources often are found spilling over with ways to enhance children's competitive standing among their peers or their fleeting happiness in the moment. But aside from some heavy-handed words on moral instruction that can be found in certain pockets, parents aren't often given the action-worthy steps they need to plan those bigger lessons, and that's a shame. The process is over much quicker than we think.

August 18, 2023

Weather and Disasters A good first attempt

Though it isn't quite an iron law, a good heuristic for life is to assume that the first time is usually the hardest. New experiences are, by their nature, the ones that typically cause the most struggle as we try to grasp new concepts, contextualize new information, and prioritize new challenges and opportunities. ■ That's at least part of why the first time down a path typically feels longer than the same trip the second time around. This "return-trip effect" reflects some of the weight of familiarity. And it's related to how we have to limit distractions when engaging in a real attempt to process meaning, like when motorists turn down the radio while searching for an address. ■ Southern California is about to go through a "first time" -- Hurricane Hilary is virtually certain to be the first tropical storm system to make landfall over Los Angeles or San Diego since 1939, or longer than the living memory of the preponderance of people. To have been an adult last time it happened would require being more than a century old today. ■ This "first time" is bound to be troublesome, even if nature itself backs off and the storm packs less of a punch than feared. A simple family picnic is likely to involve an unexpected challenge or two. ■ And Southern California is a region of more than 20 million people, so even the best-laid plans will be tested, particularly since the storm will be a novelty in modern times. The next few days are going to be challenging, in no small part because nobody remembers being in this spot before.

August 17, 2023

News Late graduates

An Ohio man has been awarded a special degree, an Associate of Technical Studies, by the University of Akron. What makes it a remarkable event is that new graduate Robert Greathouse is 93 years old, and that he attended the university sporadically over the course of 35 years. ■ It's tailor-made to be a human-interest story, of course. Local television newscasts eat this kind of tale right up. But they should also cause us to pause and reflect on the whole reason we have an educational system in the first place. ■ Greathouse's attendance was sporadic because he used the University of Akron mainly as a career resource, picking up courses in subjects like computer programming because he needed them for his job. His attendance tapered off about the time he reached retirement age. And there is nothing wrong whatsoever with having used education as a tool to increase earnings potential. ■ But we should never be quick to underestimate how much potential remains in the human mind, even after a working career has come and gone. Winston Churchill was already 65 when he became prime minister of the United Kingdom at their time of greatest distress. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he joined the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, and older still when he was elected President of Pennsylvania. Galileo Galilei was 76 or 77 when he invented a pendulum clock. ■ It may not be obvious why there would be a public interest in pouring finite resources into the education of people who no longer need credentials for the resume. Maybe, though, we are too quick to categorically under-estimate the value of the ideas locked inside minds capped by gray hair. ■ If we don't balk at the idea of workers undergoing frequent career changes when they are of conventional working age (even if nobody really knows what exactly constitutes a "career change"), then perhaps we ought to be quicker to embrace the idea of graying grads and emeritus learners. ■ The "wisdom of elders" has been a trope for nearly as long as elders have walked among us. But maybe we ought to heed Seneca's advice that "[O]ne should watch over one's old age with still greater care if one knows that such action is pleasing, useful, or desirable in the eyes of a person whom one holds dear." Furthering an education isn't the only way to be useful, of course -- but maybe it would turn out well for all of us if there were less novelty in senior citizens going back to re-live senior year.

August 16, 2023

News The words should suit the crime

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt wrote words that are depressingly resonant today: "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." ■ Roosevelt wasn't addressing the legal system alone. He directed his ire at the false accusations often circulated in ordinary life and amplified by the coverage of the press. Even in Roosevelt's day -- when the only electronic medium was the telegraph -- the trouble of inconsistency in public expectations of honesty was an obvious one. ■ A former President of the United States stands accused of a substantial number of crimes related to his failed bid at re-election. The accusations -- including conspiracy charges and attempts to defraud the country -- are weighty. They are all the more so because in significant and numerous ways, they took place in plain sight. ■ The habit of vilifying one's political rivals -- calling George W. Bush a "war criminal" or asserting that Barack Obama was a Manchurian candidate -- is all too widespread. It is practiced by people who ought to know better, whose behavior rubs off on others who ought to know more than they do. And it is ultimately a corrosive habit, in no small part because of precisely what Teddy Roosevelt foresaw. ■ Politicians make mistakes. They sometimes act on dubious information or for reasons that are not completely in the public interest. Many exaggerate, some fib, and a few just flat-out lie. The public, and especially the most prominent of commentators and well-esteemed leaders among us, ought to be harsh on those who are dishonest, particularly when their dishonesty is out of malicious intent. A few politicians deserve to spend time in prison. ■ For the rest, the vitriol should be proportional to the actual offense. It's not an act of dishonesty to believe differently than others; in a democracy, we need good and honest rivals. A "loyal opposition" is an indication of good civic health. We can lampoon, satirize, and ridicule others for their choices, as the First Amendment ensures we may. ■ But when the words devolve into assumptions not only of bad faith but of criminal or corrupt character, we open the door to that "habit of mind" Roosevelt warned against: To assume that "everyone" in public life is worse than wrong, they're evil. And if everyone is accused in the same extreme terms, then it's hard to tell when someone really is knowingly and intentionally trying to subvert the Constitution.

August 13, 2023

Business and Finance Selling (out) to a customer

Part of the appeal of America's small-business ecosystem is that it is very easy for anyone to hang a shingle and start offering goods and services. This vibrancy is one of the country's most powerful economic tools: Americans like to discover a need, then make a buck by satisfying it. ■ But that vibrancy also leaves us perhaps unusually under-skilled at disposing of businesses at natural turning points. When the law makes it easy to start a new firm (as it should) and the culture celebrates the founding entrepreneur (as it does), that can have the effect of limiting the attention paid to how a firm might change hands. In Michael Bloomberg's words, "My operating principle has always been build, don't buy." ■ Lots of people find reasons to wind down their companies (or at least their ownership thereof), whether for retirement or to satisfy non-compete agreements or merely because something more interesting came along. Too few of them follow a simple piece of advice: If you're looking to wind down a business, make sure your exit strategy includes calling a couple of your customers to offer them a chance to buy you out. ■ Those customers would have to be trustworthy, of course -- the last thing an owner might want to do while looking to sell out is to start a panic among existing customers, depleting the valuable book of incoming orders at just the time when that book might be of greatest use in helping to justify a high sales price. ■ But a trusted customer might well be willing to acquire the means of producing something valuable to them at a good or even premium price, especially if it permits them to avoid the disruption that comes with watching an important supplier go through a painful process of being consolidated, merged, or otherwise placed under new management. ■ Monopolistic behaviors get a bad name generally, but even if the Federal Trade Commission is sometimes hostile to vertical integration, lots of real-world good can come from helping a customer to "bring certain capabilities in-house", as such a purchase might euphemistically be described. ■ And it could well be the case that the employees of the firm being sold would find themselves better off as the new co-workers of their established clients than to become the latest "portfolio company" of an unrelated and disinterested investor group (or, perhaps worse, to be acquired and eventually closed by a rival). In selling to a good customer, the exiting company may have at least some confidence that the new owners will value stability and continuity more than most buyers. ■ There's no one right way to get out of a business any more than there is one right way to get in. But the worst outcome may very well be for a company to simply cease operations without giving any clients the chance to salvage the operation, leaving customers without a supplier, employees without continued employment, and the exiting owners without anything to show for their efforts.

August 12, 2023

Iowa A fair amount of interaction

On the surface, the main attraction at an event like the Iowa State Fair is what's served up for consumption: Food, prizes, and performances, to pick the most obvious categories. But just beneath that surface is something a little more abstract and a lot more interesting. ■ Most of the really interesting things that happen in life aren't pure expressions of any one subject or talent or discipline. The really interesting things happen at the margins, where different fields intersect with one another -- often unexpectedly. ■ And a great fair is no different. In Iowa's legendary case, it's a thoroughly and unapologetically agricultural event, but it is held in the state's largest city, within blocks of heavy industry and within the line of sight of the state capitol building. ■ Around 100,000 people attend the fair each day, with agendas ranging from the "old-fashioned hymn sing" at the small church on the grounds to free concert tributes to 80s metal bands to strolling a building packed with 19 pages' worth of commercial and political vendors. ■ We are drawn to lifestyle choices that increasingly homogenize life experience -- from entertainment outlets to religious affiliations to neighborhood sorting along political lines. In a sense, that's good, inasmuch as it represents greater ranges of free choice and people getting more of what they individually want. ■ But the intersections, especially when unexpected, are what make the fair so interesting and often memorable. People who might otherwise have nothing to do with one another in daily life are smushed together in great crowds for eleven days, where they see one another, stand in line together, and take interest in the same things (often for wholly different reasons). The intersections are the root of the greatness.

August 11, 2023

News News that matters, not nonsense

A brand-name media outlet is publishing "news" about people chanting insults at a Presidential candidate in Iowa today. That's not news. It's amplifying people who don't deserve the additional attention. ■ This kind of carelessness, recklessness, or general dereliction of duty starts with a misunderstanding which is all too often found in the news media. It's the misunderstanding that news is what piques the interest of the audience. That's false. ■ News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Most everything else masquerading as "news" really falls under the categories of "events" or "information". ■ Events and information can be valuable. If it's going to rain tomorrow or if preparations are underway to celebrate the nation's semiquincentennial, then those can be good things to know. ■ But the threshold for treating any subject as "news" ought to be higher than "People said nasty things about someone, and here's what they said". Transcribing insults and then repeating them for publication or broadcast doesn't really advance the First Amendment. It's allowed, to be sure...but it's a counterproductive waste. ■ Social and digital media in particular flatten the media hierarchy -- every story appears in the same streams with the same degree of emphasis as every other, with no real distinction between an above-the-fold page A1 headline and filler buried in the Lifestyle section. That flattening makes it doubly toxic for serious outlets to engage in the mindless amplification of the kinds of events that anyone of sound mind and character recognizes as dumb. It's easy content to generate, but it just sludges up the whole system. ■ Nobody should get a free pass to enjoy "earned media" just because they're effective at heckling. It's no surprise that reporters often take dictation for those spitting insults, but in amplifying those insults, they're working at cross-purposes with themselves. ■ The words of a heckler are what the educational field would call a "seductive detail": Something not crucial to the main point, but interesting enough to draw in the audience. Seductive details can be very good at capturing attention, but they are lousy for actually transmitting information precisely because they seduce the audience into caring about the thing that matters less than the main subject. ■ Textbook authors are often suckers for seductive details: They know something interesting but not crucial about a topic, so they insert that material as a sidebar, thinking that the interruption will help spice up the text and keep the audience interested. ■ But once the audience has taken a detour from the main point (especially if they're implicitly told that the detour is more interesting), it's all the harder to bring them back around to what matters. It's like the old trick: If someone says "Don't think about a pink elephant", you're likely to be on the verge of pondering pink pachyderms. ■ And so it is when reporters get hooked on the wrong details. What a heckler said is a seductive detail, but it's too much of a pink elephant for the rest of the story to get through. We shouldn't expect news outlets to be up to speed on the latest in academic research on learning quality. ■ Yet we should expect them to know from rudimentary self-awareness that amplifying lowbrow stunts and juvenile taunts crowds out the precious attention of the audience and gets them hooked on things that are not news. Self-interest, a sense of shame, or common decency should stop them from playing transcriptionist.

August 10, 2023

Computers and the Internet Signet rings of the 21st Century

To anyone paying even modest attention, it has become painfully obvious that passwords are almost completely inadequate to the task of Internet security. The requirements are inconsistent across sites, apps, and services (some prohibit all but a few special characters, others won't work without them), and all too few permit the use of spaces or extended-length pass phrases (even though a good 48-character passphrase without special characters would be exponentially more secure than a 12-character password using them). Passwords thus get recycled, pressed into use across scores of logins, and written down or stored where they can be revealed or stolen with ease. ■ Some services and devices have tried to substitute biometric identification instead -- think Apple's Face ID or Samsung's fingerprint sensors -- but the data has to be stored somewhere, and the risks of storage are non-trivial. We only have so many unique biometric identifiers; if they become compromised or if the records are corrupted, then there isn't much room for substitution. ■ Thus it presents a mystery why we haven't seen a more widely-accepted alternative emerge to permit secure, non-repudiable, fraud-resistant identification and authentication for our countless daily interactions with the Internet. ■ A solution that doesn't even seem to meet the patent-law requirement of non-obviousness is to have some form of unique user identification integrated within a ring. Rings are an obvious choice for wearable identification, since they are (generally) non-obtrusive, durable, easy to reach, and difficult to steal. ■ Human beings have been wearing rings for thousands of years, and they have shown themselves to be useful beyond decoration: Secret decoder rings may be mostly a joke, but signet rings have been used as authentication tools for centuries. Their digital-era counterparts wouldn't even need to leave an impression on wax: NFC tags are tiny and cheap already. ■ We'll see society come around to adopting rings as digital identification tools sooner or later, particularly as it becomes ever more painfully clear that we really must grow beyond the limitations of passwords and impose real security on the many tools upon which the modern world depends. It's too obvious a solution not to happen.

August 8, 2023

The United States of America Arbitrary tests

One of the eight candidates to qualify for the first Republican Party 2024 Presidential debate has proposed that the Constitution be amended to prevent anyone under age 25 from voting until they've passed a civics test. ■ It's cagey, of course, to appeal to older voters by going after those who are already the least likely to participate. The implication, of course is that they are less qualified to cast ballots due to their youth and inexperience. At first glance, it even sounds like a modest standard to test: The same type of exam that immigrants must past in order to become naturalized. ■ But that isn't a valid test to impose on a right obtained by birth. A democracy is no less legitimate if its voters are less skilled. We don't celebrate the democratization of countries where autocracy previously prevailed because the voters somehow all took a class together. We celebrate democratization because it is a mark of legitimacy. People have a right to choose their own government, even if it's a faulty or ineffective one. ■ That's what democracy is really about. Elections are an exercise in periodically obtaining or renewing the consent of the governed. That's it. A perfectly competent government can lack legitimacy if it came to power through unjust or undemocratic means. And a totally incompetent government can yet still be legitimate, as long as it governs through consent. ■ Democracy is a process. The outcomes of elections matter, of course, and a chronic failure to perform up to people's expectations can have terribly corrosive effects on the perceived legitimacy of a government. Democratic backsliding is an enormous threat, and it all too often starts when people lose their faith in the performance legitimacy of their government. People, quite reasonably, want a government that "works". ■ Should all voters, ideally, have a good deal of civic literacy? Yes, certainly. But voter quality matters mainly as an input to obtaining good outcomes from a democratic process. The quality of the outcome does not determine whether the process itself is legitimate, in democracies old and new alike. As Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Voting is the single most important and symbolic act of a liberated people, and they are reluctant to wait. The circumstances of the first elections are not likely to favor liberal forces." ■ Democracies pick lousy governments all the time. And then, they are welcome to send those bad governments to the unemployment lines. It may not happen as swiftly as people might want, but election cycles have to be long enough to confer a little stability on the process. ■ In the long run, the civic quality of voters matters a great deal, and a healthy republic works hard to renew itself so that everyone pulls their own weight in that regard. But it's not a matter for arbitrarily testing the civic virtue of some and not others. Historically, many Americans were illiterate, and we are the heirs to their democracy. What made it legitimate then, and legitimate now, is that it was constructed on a foundation of consent.

August 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet When symbiosis breaks down

Conventional media outlets and social-media outlets have been locked in an unstable symbiotic relationship for a while. As consumer attention (and advertising dollars) have shifted towards the social-media outlets, the conventional sources have been driven to use those newer channels as tools to attract what audience attention remains. Social-media outlets, meanwhile, have been dependent on others to create the sort of content that people want to share and talk about. ■ The evidence has grown fairly hard to dispute that new channels of communication, in all their forms, have hurt the basic bottom line for mass media. Whether it's Craigslist (and other forces) decimating the market for newspaper classified ads or Facebook touting the powerful targeting capacities of their advertising platform, there's less money available for anything that depends on words like "broad" or "mass". ■ But what isn't clear is how to reconcile these divergent interests inside the symbiotic relationship. The Canadian government has attempted to patch it by telling social-media outlets to pay for news content they serve up. Facebook has responded by removing that news content altogether so they won't have to pay. ■ Canadian news outlets have responded with predictable hostility. It might not mean so much if not for the fact that a third of Americans (and, presumably, a comparable share of Canadians) regularly get their news exposure from Facebook. It might not be their only platform for interaction, but it's a significant one. ■ This particular fight, though ugly, could be very useful for revealing just who benefits the most from the relationship. On one hand, it does appear as if Facebook has an especially large share of market power; if it weren't a significant toll collector on the way to reaching many consumers, how could it make so much money (more than $7 billion last quarter)? ■ On the other hand, how long can an outlet like Facebook remain relevant as a destination for people to discuss what's happening if it expressly rejects any credible, mainstream sources of news in the first place? The outcome of the dispute may actually tell us quite a lot -- which side breaks down first and how hard each side works to meet in the middle will reveal much that isn't readily apparent from surveys about consumer behavior. It's a nasty experiment, but it could end up being a very telling one.

August 4, 2023

Science and Technology First close-up look at a dying star

It is profoundly weird and amazing and mind-bending that we're using telescopes to see things for the absolute very first the entire history of humankind.

News Small vessels can cause big damage

A Ukrainian drone ship appears to have done some real violence to a Russian warship. This is exactly the argument for vastly expanding the US Navy, with the help of low-cost, semi-autonomous vessels.

Computers and the Internet "X (formerly Twitter)"

The company is signing its work as "X (formerly Twitter)". Not to play the jaded Gen X card here, but we've seen this movie before, and eventually we just go back to calling you Prince or Puff Daddy.

News Oregon and Washington to join the Big Ten

Isn't there a lever Jerome Powell can pull to stop this inflation?

Broadcasting The tragedy of "Benson"

Not to burden a 40-year-old artifact of the past with the perspective of the present, but "Benson" can be accurately seen as the tragic story of a man who carries the entire weight of the emotional labor in his workplace, with sarcasm as his only release.

August 3, 2023

Weather and Disasters Tiny satellites will help track tropical storm events

It's hard to think of a lot of disciplines where "more and better data" does a better job of creating a virtuous feedback loop than in weather forecasting.

Computers and the Internet Japanese finance ministry: That Twitter account isn't ours!

Verification is far more about the good of the platform than the good of the person verified

News When systems fail

A depressing but important examination of the process failures that led to a deadly hotel disaster in 1981

Computers and the Internet Classic computers

Let your eyes linger for just a moment on the third item in the price list for a 1977 Tandy Computer. That cassette tape recorder wasn't there to blast the Bee Gees. It's there for storage. If the stretch from this to a modern MicroSD card doesn't blow your mind just a little bit, you might just not be capable of wonder.

News Sheltered from what?

There's no perfect way to raise children, but trying to shelter them from any disagreeable views doesn't seem particularly productive

August 2, 2023

The United States of America The Atlantic, but for the center-right

The American media landscape is crowded in many ways, but one glaring vacuum is a thoughtful, gently center-right counterpart to The Atlantic. Same long-form periodical style, just with a classical-liberal/right-neoliberal disposition. A big-picture, big-ideas home base with a proudly American slant. ■ Imagine an outlet to serve as a natural home for market-oriented greens, Republican internationalists, and Madisonian Federalists. An editorial voice consistently skeptical of concentrated power in all its forms, but not focused on day-to-day politics. ■ There are really giant questions out there that need to be asked -- and answered with a healthy dose of humility about what can be done via mandate. Not reflexively anti-government, but thoroughly aware that nothing is sustainable without broad public buy-in. ■ To an extent, this isn't far from the editorial position of The Economist. But whereas The Economist is a decidedly global publication, there really isn't a widely-known voice of this nature with an unapologetically American focus, mission, and perspective. ■ And the best way for America to responsibly bear its special place in the world is to make sure we neither mistake our self-interest for the global interest (they aren't always the same), nor to ignore the global interest out of selfishness. We must be engaged with the world without succumbing to the conceit that we're the only place in the world. ■ The United States is both a vast continental nation and a place of enormous differences in local priorities and approaches, and our intellectual atmosphere should reflect that. What we share in common (like national defense priorities), we ought to do with a long-term perspective. What we can do differently at the state, county, and community levels, we ought to share among ourselves as peers and friends. ■ It isn't hard to find outlets with something to say about politics, but it can be very hard to find those with something to say about ideas. And ideas are what move the world. As Calvin Coolidge once remarked, "Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance." Those ideas ought to have an obvious landing place.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

August 1, 2023

Broadcasting Movies, books, podcasts, newsletters -- they're all too long these days

London Times columnist James Marriott pleads with content creators to find editors to trim their work. And he's right: People are too often driven by a faulty instinct that says "Now that I have your attention, I want to get all of this off my chest". ■ A decent respect for the audience (and for cognitive processing) would find us in a world with the same information and entertainment being peddled, but in serialized, discrete chunks rather than exhaustive epics. Very little needs to be said in one block of 300 pages that couldn't be said in three discrete century-length chunks (or less). The podcast that goes on for 60 minutes probably wouldn't lose much at the hand of a producer who could cut it down to 30 or 45. A blockbuster 3-hour film doesn't have to be that long, and if it does, perhaps it just needs a sequel. ■ Some of the greatest and most memorable works of all time are notable for their brevity. The Gettysburg Address sticks with us even today in no small part because it is short. Economy of words doesn't have to be a mark of laziness; it's more often a sign of respect for the audience. ■ Digital distribution has certainly facilitated the process of producing longer works. It's no longer a matter of how much celluloid you can spool around a reel, but how many bits you can push down a fiber-optic line. ■ But technology hasn't always been a tool for undisciplined creativity: Mark Twain was the first to type a manuscript for publication, but he was also a great artist of the short story. ■ As Ben Sasse once noted, "I think lots of 300-page books could (and should) have been 30-page articles, but neither magazines nor book publishers have much of a market for 30 pages." And in that, he was echoing a sentiment from Theodore Roosevelt: "Many learned people seem to feel that the quality of readableness in a book is one which warrants suspicion. Indeed, not a few learned people seem to feel that the fact that a book is interesting is proof that it is shallow." Roosevelt plainly disagreed. ■ Once a person responsible for delivering a message begins to consider the needs of their own audience, they shouldn't be able to resist the urge to economize on their words. It is far better to leave an audience hungry for the next edition -- another book, column, album, feature, sermon, or episode -- than to leave them exhausted by the end. If a story is worth telling or a point is worth making, it's worth making without deadweight.

Aviation News Linguistic precision matters

The AP has shared a video of an incident in which an airplane ran into trouble along a New Hampshire beach. The AP's tweet on the story says "A small plane towing an advertising banner landed in the ocean", but anyone looking at the video can see that it's not a "landing". An "arrival", for sure. A "ditching", probably. The pilot deserves credit for surviving and not injuring any beachgoers in the process, but the airplane goes nose-over in the water. That's really not "landing".

July 31, 2023

Threats and Hazards Racial profiling via surveillance cameras

It's a dismal dystopian reality in China

Health Rural health care needs more people

From Nebraska: "There are 17 counties in the state without a primary care physician or a pharmacist." The state is working to fix that by training more prospective health-care providers in Kearney, in the central part of the state (which is overwhelmingly rural).

Business and Finance How bad is vertical integration, really?

It's pretty easy to forget how many past experiences with vertical integration have resulted in tears -- for the integrators. Sears used to sell everything right down to house kits, and look where they are now.

Threats and Hazards Even modest dissent is no longer safe in Hong Kong

"They define something as seditious when they feel you are urging people to directly or indirectly act against the government", says one ordinary person arrested for sedition.

News How much help is enough?

It is doubtful there are many problems in the social sciences that are bigger than figuring out how best to help a country become a truly liberal democracy. We clearly haven't figured out a secret recipe yet, but the world needs one. ■ It's hard to tell whether it's better for democratic practices to take hold first, or for a classically liberal set of values to become enshrined. The unsatisfying answer seems to be that they have to gradually build on each other. But the advice that Michael Bloomberg applied to business also applies to political reform: "Humans need to see results in time frames they can handle." ■ Democracy confers legitimacy on a political system, but a political system which doesn't guarantee civil liberties is ultimately hollow. Thus, it's a bit like a zipper: Leaders and citizens have to achieve small steps in both tracks, building upon one another in a virtuous feedback loop. It cannot take place so fast that people end up feeling disoriented and powerless, but it cannot be so slow that frustration boils over. ■ And just like a zipper, any backsliding on one side ends up tending to backslide the other. If people start to question the security of their rights, they become cynical about their votes. If people doubt that their votes matter, they tend to doubt their rights are secure. ■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Sudden power is apt to be insolent, sudden liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually." Yet the world is so tightly interconnected, the weapons of oppression are so fearsome, and the scale of state power is often so great, that it's really hard to imagine how "gradually" we can wait for the growth required. ■ Clearly, Russia didn't achieve the necessary escape velocity from totalitarianism in the 1990s to overcome the risk presented by an authoritarian power grab. And look at all the suffering that has wrought. Not only does that nation still need reform, but so do many others -- and no one should doubt that China will ultimately have to undergo such changes, too. How and how fast? Mechanisms and pacing both matter.

Weather and Disasters Tornadoes can cross rivers

No matter what the urban legend says to the contrary. One just did so at Clinton, Iowa. It's always been a mystery what people who believed this myth imagined the mechanism to be. Why, exactly, would an atmospheric event care about the phase of the matter below it?

News Design for the occupants of a building, not its onlookers

The design of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Columbus, Indiana, looks like a good example of a building designed primarily for the people inside it. This may sound obvious, but far too often the focus lands on the people looking at a building, rather than those using it. Curiously, though, focusing on the welfare of those inside often yields a great deal of respect from those outside -- like the SC Johnson Administration Building.

Broadcasting "Benson" was lieutenant governor of Montana

Or, at least, that's the only state that fits the details. In one episode, they expressly state that they "flew 1900 miles" to get to Washington, DC. That narrows it down to Montana, Utah, or Arizona. Arizona is out because another episode features it as a distant destination. Utah is out because a different episode, set in Nevada, includes a line saying (approximately) that "winters are different here than at home" -- which would be odd to say about a neighboring state. So Montana it is.

July 30, 2023

News Stop the little rogues

Few writers of the Revolutionary War era seem quite as consistently fresh and relevant as Benjamin Franklin. This probably owes to his interest in observing human nature and recording his observations in pithy turns of phrase. Instead of grasping for too detailed an assessment of whatever aroused his attention, he managed to break many of his conclusions down to words that make a great deal of sense untethered to any place or time. ■ Take, for example, his observation from 1754: "Little rogues easily become great ones." It isn't hard to think of more than a few "great rogues" in our world today. And it also isn't hard to think of ways in which they demonstrated who they really were long before becoming great menaces to others. ■ The same lesson is exactly at the root of Maya Angelou's "When people show you who they are, believe them." Imagine how often it causes distress, whether in private life or in public, for the people around a "little rogue" to aid and abet them by tolerating their bad behavior. ■ Of course, people can change. They can make choices to reform and redeem themselves, and people of goodwill ought to tolerate real changes of heart. But a healthy civilization has to learn how to enforce that kind of correction by making real outcasts of the chronic rogues who burn every partner in sight or use lies and deceit to climb to power. ■ If some social antibodies aren't brought forth to repel the infection, it is all too likely to metastasize. No matter how charming they are, or how much it appears we can gain by going along with them, ultimately the pain will be suffered by those who tolerated the rogue's behavior instead of boxing it out and bringing it to a halt.

Science and Technology Troubling, if true

The New York Times reports that Elon Musk personally intervened to prevent Ukrainian armed forces from using Starlink (a division of SpaceX) in close proximity to Russian invaders.

July 29, 2023

Business and Finance Making more out of less

An aspect of economic progress that rarely gets the attention it deserves is the process of dematerialization. It is, in short, the tendency for goods to be produced using less material over time. While neither consistently felt nor universally applicable, it is true enough across sufficiently many cases to be worth appreciating. ■ Your smartphone is far more capable than yesterday's brick phones, yet it is far smaller and lighter. The 2023 Ford F150 starts at a base weight of 4,021 lbs., about 2,000 lbs. lighter than its 1975 predecessor. Iowa's farms produced 38 bushels of corn per acre in the early 1930s; today, that yield is steadily around 200 bushels per acre -- meaning the same output now requires only one-fifth as much land. ■ Dematerialization tends to reduce the relative effects of the cost of goods on well-being. 80% of American jobs are in services, not goods production, and the trend continues to compound away from the basic making of stuff. What we ought to appreciate about this seemingly inexorable shift is just how vital it is to transmit good ideas about how to get things done. ■ It's a pretty special time in world history; our global struggles are less and less like "How do we get everyone clothed?", and more and more like "How do we keep affordable fast fashion from clogging the landfills?". So many gains are yet to be made, whether from learning to eat more healthily and sustainably, or from adopting household and business practices that reduce pollution, or from making better use of evolving technologies to reduce wasted time. ■ Yet those advances are dependent upon someone figuring out how to get the necessary lessons across to a global population that is mainly beyond school age. It's a challenge for which there have never been so many tools, but on which so little attention is being concentrated. It isn't immediately obvious how a modern "curricululm for keeping adults current" could be developed or disseminated. Yet it's an issue worth examining carefully: Companies like GE used to do the heavy lifting by "bringing good things to life". Now, more of the gains are to be found in how to use them.

July 28, 2023

News Don't go it alone

Three people -- two sisters and the 14-year-old son of one -- died in a national forest in Colorado after attempting to live "off the grid". Their attempt, apparently motivated by fears about the world and events far beyond their control, wasn't well-practiced or carefully resourced, despite offers of help from their own family members. ■ Human beings only survive via teamwork and cooperation. We're soft, our claws are brittle, and our fur is thin. But we have quick brains and can communicate better than any other apex predators, so our survival as a species and as individuals uniquely depends upon distributed thinking and collective memory. No one has to know everything; we store most of what we "know" outside our own heads, in books, videos, checklists, and the memories of others. ■ Laugh all you want about "YouTube knowledge", but the thing that makes us totally and completely different from every other species on Earth is that we can talk one another through virtually anything: A 911 dispatcher can guide the delivery of a baby, an air-traffic controller can radio a passenger to an emergency landing, and Julia Child can walk you straight through cooking boeuf bourguignon. Nobody doubts that dolphins and bonobos are very smart, indeed, but what they know isn't very scalable and it isn't very transmissible. ■ We are extremely hazardous for other species to be around, but that depends on our ability to work together and talk with one another. We survive through shared knowledge. That goes double for times of strain -- so abandon those hopes of surviving a "collapse of civilization" scenario. We're extremely fragile on our own, but we're immeasurably resilient when working together. Fortunately, our instincts generally bind us together; nothing brings us closer than trying to overcome an obstacle. ■ We can cooperate in all kinds of ways. For the most part, the best cooperation is free, voluntary, and uncoerced. And that is what takes the Colorado family's story from being tragic in the particular (three human lives were lost, after all, including a young person not old enough to decide his life for himself) to being tragic in the abstract. ■ If you're worried about something big like civilizational collapse, then the best response -- the only available response -- is to work to fix the civilization, not to run away from it. We cannot escape our connection to others. It is literally almost impossible to survive alone; your life belongs to you, but the knowledge required to keep that life is communal property. Our lives depend expressly upon our ability to work together.

News Ukraine moves Christmas

Moving away from the Russian Orthodox date and in line with the more commonly-celebrated December 25th

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

July 27, 2023

Weather and Disasters It's not the heat, it's the humidity. No, really.

The dewpoint in Des Moines -- 79°F -- is so bad that it calls for an entirely new class of swear words

Aviation News Not all business is worth earning

Northrop Grumman says it doesn't think it's worth the risk to try to bid on building the next fighter jet for the Air Force

Humor and Good News All dogs go to Heaven

You can say you're "blessed", but there's no way you can achieve "Dog leading a procession for a Pope named Francis" status while occupying human form. It's just not possible.

July 26, 2023

News Mentions of China's foreign minister disappear from the Internet

George Orwell famously wrote in "1984" that "Who controls the past controls the future". He was right, at least in spirit: How history is framed by its authors bears heavily upon what we understand about the present. That is, of course, why it matters so much for historians to uncover as many first-hand accounts of the past from those who were omitted from the victors' drafts. ■ Orwell was right about the past, indeed, but we could add a modern adjunct: Who controls the website controls the present. Mentions and photographs of China's foreign minister are being erased in real time as he appears to fall out of favor with the country's ruling powers. It's not an orderly transition; it's an abrupt change first revealed not by an announcement but by the rearrangement of bytes and pixels. ■ In the 20th Century, one of the first steps an invading or rebelling force would try was to capture the radio and television stations. Control of broadcasting outlets played meaningful roles in events like the Warsaw Uprising and the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia. ■ Today, though, while broadcasting outlets are still generally important, it would seem far more vital for occupiers (or rebels) to gain control of the URLs for official channels of information. Even in a peaceful and orderly transition, a new Presidential administration promptly replaces the previous White House website with its own. What appears to be happening in Beijing seems less than orderly -- and the websites may be the first indication of any part of it ceases to be peaceful.

News An interview with Sinead O'Connor

(Video) Irish television host Tommy Tiernan interviews the artist, who has just passed away. It really is a striking and deep conversation. What the viewer can't help but notice is just how piercing their gazes are, both host and guest. Half of their conversation takes place in the most subtle of twitches at the corner of an eye or a millimeter's shift of a brow. That style may be particularly, even maybe uniquely, Irish. May she rest in peace.

Science and Technology A breakthrough, perhaps

A pre-publication paper appears to claim development of a room-temperature, ambient-pressure semiconductor. If true, it would be a phenomenal breakthrough. But we ought to be cautious before popping the champagne corks -- extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence.

News It's not enough

A lot of simultanous oddities are taking place in China's government right now. It may be symptomatic of weakness inside the power structure. Party and personality alone are not enough to sustain a modern state.

July 25, 2023

News Legacy admissions

The news that the US Department of Education is opening an investigation into the practice of legacy admissions at Harvard is only one among an ongoing series of events that have focused attention on the practices of college admissions, particularly at brand-name universities. People have gone to prison over some of the unsavory behaviors the process has engendered. ■ For as much discussion as gets devoted to the admissions process, the news really should be an invitation to examine what actually makes a great education. For as much as the presence of widely-known professors contributes to the notoriety of a college or university, what makes for a well-known academic isn't necessarily the same as what makes for a great educator. ■ In fact, those things are often at odds. It is often the result of little more than a happy coincidence when a great researcher is also a great instructor. Content knowledge is merely one part of what matters in a classroom setting, and it's often not the most important aspect. Outside of those circumstances where a class is actually devoted to the cutting edge of research in a field, students would probably benefit more from the teaching of those with great pedagogical skill than those who know more about a subject than anyone else. ■ All other things being equal, the student in a well-established academic discipline would gain more utility from the instruction of someone with great teaching skill than anything else. If the tuition dollars are buying access to Accounting 101, Chemistry 201, or "Practices in Contemporary Modern English", then the student benefits most from how well they acquire and retain the fundamentals, rather than how close they can approach the outer limits of competency. ■ Access to elite institutions will always have some pull; whether it's the Ivy League or Oxbridge or the grandes ecoles of France, history suggests that people will always place a value on having an attractive pedigree. Yet history also lays plain that the vast majority of people benefit a great deal from the effective transmission of knowledge. Whether the investigation will uncover symptoms of a true scandal is yet to be seen, but it would certainly be a shame if we let talk of education's brand names overshadow a necessary examination of what higher education's rising costs actually buy.

News Things have gotten strange in China

The foreign minister has gone missing. Crackdowns are everywhere. The economy isn't growing like it used to. Party and personality alone are not enough to sustain a modern state.

Humor and Good News A fight to the death

Who, exactly, put the restaurants "La Vie" and "Mi Vida" next door to one another at the Wharf in Washington, DC?

Humor and Good News A human torpedo

Take just a step back to respect that 15'26" would be a brisk walking pace to cover 1500 meters, where a person's only resistance is air. Katie Ledecky just did that pace, but swimming in the water, crushing her nearest competitors by 17 seconds and sealing her status as a five-time world titleist in two different events. She's like a human torpedo.

Weather and Disasters 10 million people at risk

A big "enhanced risk" bubble has been drawn around large parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio for severe weather hazards

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

July 24, 2023

Computers and the Internet Trust, but verify

There seems to be some dispute over whether the incoming football coach at Northwestern University holds a master's degree. Why don't colleges and universities host searchable public databases of degrees they have conferred? It seems like an obvious public service to offer, as well as a tool for buttressing the schools' own legitimacy. ■ If "verification" in the digital world via signals like blue checkmarks is going to collapse in a gigantic mess, as it appears, then we need to start constructing an online ecosystem in which mutual verification is the norm. This is, in part, like the "federation" model being put to work on social-media tools like Mastodon. (And the fact that Meta/Facebook's new "Threads" service subscribes to the underlying principle makes it appear modestly more likely to thrive in the future.) ■ Schools of higher education ought to take some kind of leadership role in helping to validate whether people are who they say they are -- and that they've done what they claim to have done. While it was scandalous that Rep. George Santos lied openly about having gone to two different colleges, it shouldn't have taken an investigation by USA Today to have vetted him. ■ And the incentive obviously exists to exaggerate educational credentials -- otherwise, there wouldn't be pages devoted to questions like, "If I went to Harvard Extension, did I 'go to Harvard?'" and "How do employers verify college degrees?". ■ Making it easy for the public (including everyone from voters to employers, and even to casual dating partners) to validate whether a person indeed earned the credentials they claim would be an obvious and low-cost way to contribute to greater mutual trust. Commencement programs are often published online already, but their consistency and searchability are both widely lacking. College and university registrars ought to take note.

July 23, 2023

Computers and the Internet Twitter just wants to be the non-China WeChat

The incumbent business model for China's WeChat (social media plus payments) is what X-nee-Twitter says it wants to be

News UPS and Teamsters Union on brink of strike

Notwithstanding the many other worthy headlines in the news, this might be the story with the most disruptive potential in the near term

July 22, 2023

News A fair and speedy trial

Come next May, perhaps, a former President of the United States will be put on trial for putting national security at risk. There are 37 felonies to be tried, so it is no small assemblage of accusations. ■ Initially, the case was to be tried this August, but the defense has requested delays, which the new timeline accommodates in part. Maneuvers will undoubtedly follow to attempt to delay the trial even more, but it is worth heeding words most prominently expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." ■ King was expressing the virtue of an affirmative kind of justice -- one to rectify wrongs against people by their government. But swiftness matters in cases of criminal accusations, too. It isn't a mistake that the Sixth Amendment includes these vital words: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial". ■ If a person is wrongly accused, then delaying a trial serves as an injustice to them. If a person is guilty, then delaying their prosecution is an injustice to the society that ought to be protected from offenders. What does it say of our justice system if it cannot act quickly to determine guilt or innocence in a case where everyone can see the pictures of classified documents stacked up in a public-facing ballroom? ■ The delivery of a speedy trial is a test of basic governmental competence: Just as it is an offense against justice when people are held for months or even years without trial at Rikers Island, so also is it a travesty for stunts to be used to obstruct a legitimate prosecution. A person wrongly convicted can appeal. But a society that drags its feet on holding criminals to account only invites more wrongdoing in the meantime.

Weather and Disasters More than hot enough

Virtually the entire continental United States will be under higher-than-usual temperatures for the next week or so. It is not necessary to ask, "Hot enough for ya?" under these conditinos.

Aviation News A conclave of whirlybirds

Four helicopters over the skies of the Des Moines metro area at once, with none heading in the same direction? That's unusual.

July 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet A lost icon

Someone at the Chicago Tribune was, for a long time, the voice of "@ColonelTribune", a Twitter account that channeled the editorial voice of the paper as though it were a person -- lightly based on legendary publisher "Colonel" Robert McCormick. That account has been silent for more than half a year, suggesting its silence may be terminal. ■ And that is really too bad. The economics of mass media these days are generally a catastrophe: Weekday newspaper circulation is down by 40% -- since 1940. Disney loses money on consumer streaming. America's largest radio station owner has a $2.5 billion hole where its net equity should be. ■ Escaping that catastrophe isn't going to be easy on any front, but it definitely isn't going to be easier for those serving up mostly milquetoast unoriginality. Positioning an outlet with a personality and an editorial voice with something to say seems like the most viable path forward. The Tribune, for instance, has long seen itself as plucky and a little divergent from the broader editorial consensus among its peers. But it's also hard to maintain a voice worth reading on a drastically shrinking newsroom. ■ Sometimes, little things are just little things. But sometimes, they're symptomatic of big things. And it seems like an institution that would abandon the presence of an editorial voice with 615,000 followers-- even one synthesized to caricature a publisher from 50 years ago -- is the kind of institution that doesn't have the bandwidth to keep itself especially noteworthy and well-regarded for the long term.

Computers and the Internet A very reasonable hypothesis

James Palmer: "I would bet that it's going to turn out organized crime lost a bunch of money in crypto - because most of them are degenerate gamblers themselves - and there's going to be a whole spate of violence hitting the low-to-mid end grifters."

July 20, 2023

News Disturbing the public tranquility

In Federalist Paper Number 49, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison (probably Madison) wrote, "The danger of disturbing the public tranquillity by interesting too strongly the public passions, is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society." ■ It is an argument with some merit: Even people of ordinarily sound judgement can make bad decisions when in a moment of high intensity or strong emotions. And because we humans are social animals, our feelings have a tendency to spill over onto others. And we have the unusual experience of living in a country of 335 million people, who despite our many differences, share an unusually strong common culture. It's a much larger country than it was in Madison's day, but there's a good case to be made that we're more culturally homogenous. Someone living in the farthest reaches of rural Oregon gets the same news at the same time as someone living in Manhattan. ■ That evolution makes the warning even more prescient. If Madison could see that the people around him in his own time were prone to "public passions", then we shouldn't be willfully ignorant or indifferent to the same problem now, when the feedback loop he anticipated is even tighter. There's no need to wait for a midnight horseback rider to deliver news. ■ Maturity consists, in part, in recognizing how often our own problems have been contemplated before. And for as much as people like to point at what they think are the unique evils of social media or cable news programs, the only distinction about them today is their speed -- not the content itself. We are who we've always been. ■ Jonathan Sacks once sagely noted: "Virtue is a matter of judgement and balance, weighing considerations and deciding between them. Aristotle called this 'the golden mean'. Maimonides, in the same spirit, called it 'the middle way'." There is no way, via either law or technology, to keep people from infecting one another with social contagions of panic (or, in Madison's phrasing, "passions"). We have to turn to inoculation instead: By committing our social institutions -- schools, clubs, churches, and even our group chats -- to finding Sacks's "virtue...of judgement and balance".

Weather and Disasters Feeling exceptional in Iowa

The state is effectively carved out of a much broader swath of severe-weather risk affecting virtually all of its neighbors. Odd indeed, but not unwelcome.

July 19, 2023

The United States of America To be a warning to others

It would be a thoroughly American act to open a national Hall of Shame for former Presidents. Perhaps we could combine it with a tribute to graffiti. ■ Should we have some reverence for those who have served their country with dignity, courage, and good faith? Sure. But we've also had some pretty awful occupants of the Oval Office, and they ought to be shamed for it. Eternally. ■ That's how to police future behavior: By heckling the bad behavior of the past. There's room for more faces on Mount Rushmore, at least metaphorically, and people like Madison and Eisenhower deserve a place there. ■ But naming and shaming the bad Presidents is good for shaping the expectations for future leadership. Few people are immune to at least some consideration about how they will be remembered. Those who are so immune aren't likely to be constrained by social graces anyway. ■ It takes a while, of course, to figure out who's a real failure and who was under-appreciated in their own time, and we're always subject to a bias in favor of proximity: Things that are closer in time or space tend to seem bigger than they really are. But keeping up a lively assessment of the past helps to put the present in better perspective.

Socialism Doesn't Work An act of madness

It is telling that the case of an American soldier who dashed across the border into North Korea sounds -- at least superficially -- like a case of temporary insanity. Why would anyone of sound mind try to enter a country governed like that?

Threats and Hazards Russia threatens to attack cargo ships in the Black Sea

Let's be entirely clear about which side continues to provoke ever-greater danger at the expense of the world's civilians: It's the Kremlin.

July 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Grain drain

Self-interest doesn't have to be the same thing as selfishness. An act can reward the person or party performing it, and reward the rest of the world at the same time. This is the structural reason why market economies have strong and self-sustaining advantages over their more command-based counterparts; as noted by Adam Smith (and countless others since), "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." ■ Few countries can compare with Ukraine for its efficiency at feeding the world. Prior to coming under Russia's attack, it was the 7th largest wheat exporter in the world. Those exports are in Ukraine's interests, to be sure -- a self-interest expressly acknowledged by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. ■ But those exports are also badly needed in a world that continues to battle widespread hunger. Most of the savagery committed under the Russian flag has been at the expense of Ukrainian people. And there has been a lot of it. But now, Russia has withdrawn from an agreement to let Ukraine export its food through the Black Sea. ■ At the margins, this is certain to cause real human suffering. It will almost certainly bring death, as well. And these consequences will be experienced away from the combat zone: In places like Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan, which are not combatants in the war. ■ If anyone remains uncertain about the justness of the Ukrainian cause of self-defense, that's a matter for their own heart. But no one can remain in good conscience about the unjustness of the war waged by Russia. Intentionally starving non-combatants is an act rooted in terror.

Weather and Disasters Lightning from above

(Video) An exceptionally active display of lightning inside a supercell thunderstorm from an airplane somewhere probably over Indiana

July 17, 2023

The United States of America The case for seaplanes

Very well worth reading, and at least moderately persuasive. Even if we have no expertise, it is the responsibility of decent, intelligent, curious citizens to read up on thoughtful military arguments like this one. We need to know enough to vote accordingly.

July 16, 2023

Weather and Disasters Children of a changing climate

With incidents like a significant heat wave threatening to break extreme weather records in the Southwestern United States, we are in for another predictable round of stories pondering whether it's right to have children despite the apparent evidence of climate change. ■ Let a stake be put through the heart of that argument. It isn't "complicated", whatever the alarmist opinion and analysis might say. People should have children to the extent that they are willing to bring love and sufficient wherewithal to the task. To bring a child into the world intending to deprive them of affection or basic needs like food would be cruelty. But to make a choice not to have children based solely upon a dire forecast of the future -- or even of an evolving present -- would be madness. ■ The world has faced countless dire circumstances in the past, and will undoubtedly face new ones again. Two things have seen us through those hard times: The ingenuity of human beings, and the sustained hope that things would become brighter in the future. We cannot solve new problems without the help of new people. And we have no reason to solve them unless we can authentically believe that someone will be around to enjoy the results. ■ The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it well when he wrote: "What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic." We need the hope of that vast and incomprehensible meaning being revived around all of us, and it is often heard in a baby's cries. Parenting isn't for everyone, nor does it need to be. But nobody should be running away from procreation just because they fear leaving a carbon footprint.

July 15, 2023

News Modern war is everywhere

An exhausting amount of braying has been coming from circles sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, suggesting that support extended to Ukraine by the United States and other allies is bringing the planet closer to an imagined World War III. Some of these critics may be sincere; many are probably not. ■ But even if one were to take their claims at face value and to assume the maximum amount of authenticity about them, the arguments are still a jumbled mess. Worse, they distract from a real global conflict that is already underway. ■ News has emerged that China has been targeting Americans for hacking, targeting the House of Representatives, the State Department, and even the Secretary of Commerce. While the campaign is being reported as a discrete event, we really have to stop thinking about global conflict strictly in terms of heavy artillery and maps of battlefields. The interconnection of the world -- not exclusively by the Internet, but in large part because of it -- has introduced an entirely different style and tempo to conflict. And it is clear that many Americans, at least, have failed to take full notice. ■ In the "great wars" of history, there were occupiers, occupied, and others far from the conflict. Dwight Eisenhower could take leave from his command of Allied forces in Europe, and not only create physical distance from the conflict, but also obtain time away from it. He might have needed to worry about Axis spies reading his messages to Washington, but he didn't have to worry about them surreptitiously draining his bank account at home. ■ There is no such thing as that kind of space from conflict anymore, and not just for people in uniform. The threats are persistent, they extend everywhere, and they touch everyone. That isn't to say that conventional shooting wars aren't a problem, too; it is wholly obvious from the situation in Ukraine that they remain terrible things. ■ But if anyone awaits the outbreak of some formally declared opening battle of "World War III", they've already missed the point. Chronic, persistent, costly, inescapable conflicts are happening now. And we've already been drawn into them.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

July 14, 2023

News The agonists and the terrified

Even putting aside all questions of content, opinion, or ideology, there are two classes of people who make themselves both obnoxious and impossible to ignore, whether in daily life or in media (social or otherwise). One is the class of professional agonists, who are happy only in their own unhappiness and discontent. The other is the class of the congenitally fearful, who regard everything new or unfamiliar as an existential threat. ■ Both classes have always been among us. Human nature is steady like that. But human conditions do change, and both groups are able to act more quickly and more relentlessly than any of their forebears ever could. Activating themselves via memes, group chats, cable television, podcasts, Facebook groups, Snapchat subscriptions, and email chains, they can spread thought contagions faster than wildfire. ■ There is nothing wrong with rejecting them prejudicially. Any one of us has only so long to walk the Earth, and it's not a good idea to spend much of that time swatting down bad influences that haven't been thought-out anyway. The agonists and the terrified aren't spreading well-examined ideas; they're just spreading bad feelings. ■ It's good for the human soul to take pleasure in the happiness of others. We ought to be cheered when others succeed, and to feel good when others flourish. A person can't do that when all they see is decay or threats. And they do even worse when all they contribute is rain to others' parades. ■ Life will always contain messes, errors, and wrongs. One doesn't have to be a Pollyanna about it; what goes badly is usually quite evident in short order. But it really does confound the long uphill climb of our species to fixate on the bad.

July 13, 2023

Weather and Disasters Chicagoland got lucky

It sends a chill down the spine to wonder what could have happened if the tornadoes had followed the same tracks, but with greater intensity. Some were seen over suburbs and others rolled past Midway and brought O'Hare to a standstill. This is the thing about the "Expanding Bullseye Effect": As people continue to cluster in larger numbers around metropolitan areas, any given storm outbreak has the potential to have much greater consequences. It's basically unavoidable, but no less distressing for its inevitability. And when there are multiple tornadoes at a time, the situation becomes all the more frightening.

Computers and the Internet The filmstrip is dead; long live the filmstrip

Sure, young folks are using ChatGPT to write school papers and Khan Academy videos to figure out linear algebra, but today's generation will never know the joy of watching the teacher roll in the cart with the reel-to-reel film projector (or the heartbreak of seeing that it's time for a film strip instead).

July 11, 2023

Business and Finance The $17.5 billion project

Over the last four years, California has spent $17.5 billion on programs and projects to reduce the incidence of homelessness. That sum is hard to conceptualize, so consider this: The budget for the entire government of the state of Iowa is about $8 billion a year. So, in other words, California's public efforts to resolve homelessness are on roughly the same order of a magnitude as running an entire medium-sized state. ■ California bears a burden on that scale in part because it has 30% of the nation's population of unhoused people, and the problem is growing. But, significantly, that problem is homegrown: Contrary to popular myth, of the people experiencing homelessness in California, 90% lost their housing while already living in the state. ■ When we talk about the basic human needs, the traditional "big three" are food, clothing, and shelter. Some people think they can be supplied merely by calling them "human rights"; unfortunately, they cannot. Those universal needs represent material goods that must be produced somehow by a world of limited resources. ■ There are a hundred ways to try to make the situation more complicated than it is, but the inescapable fundamental fact is this: If the market produces a shortage of a good you want at the price level you deem reasonable, then the only thing that will help you is a boost in production. American states in general, and California in particular, have a lot of regulatory and other reversible obstacles to housing production. ■ Meanwhile, we observe a perverse set of policies that treat housing as a major vehicle for saving, storing, and building wealth. For many, especially in lower wealth brackets, home equity is the primary household investment. The obstacles should go away, and we need to find sound and rational substitutes for those policies that turn housing into most households' primary financial investment. ■ All else being equal, building a lot of new housing would tend to drive down the average price of housing -- and thus undermine the household "savings" of a lot of families up-front. Any permanent solution to housing shortages must take that effect into account and find ways to soften the blow. Tax and regulatory policies have treated homeownership as a primary investment for so long that unwinding the consequences has to be taken as part of the overall solution. Otherwise, NIMBYism will always have a guaranteed constituency among those who view any opening-up of the housing market as a threat to their biggest source of wealth. ■ That's even though the long-term effect of meaningful reductions in housing costs would tend to make families wealthier by freeing up cash flow to go to real investments (in retirement plans, educational spending, or a hundred other places) rather than to payments for rent or a mortgage. California and other states can go on spending fortunes trying to ameliorate the problem, but in the end, more than anything else, it's a problem of under-supply and the widely-held interests deeply invested in keeping prices moving upward.

July 10, 2023

News Sweden is to join NATO

The history of military alliances is long -- the Peloponnesian League, for instance, one might hazily recollect from a high-school class on ancient history as having formed some 2,600 years ago. So the future probably won't give much detailed notice to the imminent accession of Sweden into NATO. It is significant news today, but it probably won't merit a great deal of attention a few hundred years from now. ■ The chain of events surrounding Sweden's admission, though, could very well hold its own for quite some time to come. An independent analysis has estimated that Russia's government has sacrificed the lives of about 50,000 of its own soldiers in pursuit of a mad war of aggression against Ukraine. 50,000 lives in a country of 144 million that is already in a demographic doom loop -- wasted for insane cause. ■ Russia is fairly close to Sweden -- just 200 miles away by the Baltic Sea, or about 165 miles away across Finland. To see the Kremlin go to such incomprehensible lengths to attempt a takeover of Ukraine, a country that has shown no signs of backing down even after 500 days of war, has pushed Sweden to join the defensive NATO alliance, an act it didn't even formally undertake during the Cold War. ■ Wishful thinkers may dream of a day when defensive alliances are only a thing of the past, but that isn't human nature. We need the help of rules, treaties, and agreements to bind ourselves to good behavior, particularly from generation to generation. They are the tools by which we moderate the impulses that come to us out of humanity's animalistic side. Monsters remain forever among us. ■ NATO isn't perfect, nor should we expect it to be. But in the broadest of terms, it is a mutual agreement among decent nations to try to avoid wasteful violent conflict through self-discipline and deterrence. That it is proving itself attractive long after the obvious turning point of the fall of the Soviet Union speaks to just how vital military alliances will perpetually be -- for the purpose of peace.

July 8, 2023

News Adequate names for good traits

Lots of important life experiences happen at intersections of feelings. A goodbye can be bittersweet. A problem can be faced with grim determination. Entire songs have been written about when something "hurts so good". ■ But we're inconsistent with how we allocate the words to the feelings. Some important hybrid feelings are missing from the dictionary. One of the most useful? A sense of pride in work you don't really want to do. ■ At the extreme, it's the experience of a veterinarian who has to put a beloved animal to sleep but who does it with compassion and grace. Yet it's experienced at lots of gentler levels, too. People do work all the time that isn't fun, isn't exciting, and isn't pleasurable. Sometimes you do it out of a sense of obligation. Sometimes it's your responsibility. Sometimes you're the only person around who knows how to complete the task. ■ The cult of "Do what you love and the rewards will follow" has a long reach. Yet finishing some kinds of work can be fulfilling or otherwise intrinsically rewarding, even when the process is the kind of thing we'd like to avoid. And not just the language would be richer with a good word for that; so would society. Pride can be mixed with reluctance, as indeed it probably is more often than comes naturally to our attention. ■ The word for it is out there somewhere -- in the neighborhood of other important words, like duty and grit and perseverance. We need to find that word, because we need to respect what it stands for.

July 6, 2023

Computers and the Internet Is time almost up for Twitter?

Given the arrival of Meta's new "Threads" service and yet another round of user-hostile policy changes at Twitter, it's no surprise that some are openly pondering whether Twitter is a sinking ship. Lots of outcomes are possible. Yet the very best-case scenario for the service is probably if it were to be snapped up by Bloomberg, which has the institutional discipline to run it well and a motive to encourage high-quality content production (which they could analyze and aggregate for profit). ■ Moreover, Bloomberg already has a very substantial footprint on Twitter. The word "synergy" is profoundly overrated and almost never merits using -- but the synergistic case for a Bloomberg/Twitter marriage is about as strong as anyone has ever really made. ■ When users are active and chatty, Twitter has the capacity to concentrate the "wisdom of crowds" in a highly marketable fashion. Parsed by the right tools for data analytics -- like the ones for which Bloomberg is renowned -- that raw data from the crowds could be well worth mining. In Bloomberg's own words, "Our problem-solving data team produces the algorithms, research notes and analysis that fuel all of our products." ■ Alas, in Michael Bloomberg's own words: "My operating principle has always been build, don't buy", so it seems unlikely that his eponymous company would buy an outfit like Twitter for what solutions it provides. But perhaps Twitter isn't best viewed as an operating company, but as an unfinished resource, like iron ore. In such a case, an acquisition by Bloomberg could be viewed as buying raw materials from which to build something else. ■ Then again, if management (like that of Twitter) steers a company with sufficient implicit value hard enough into a price crash, then even a company (like Bloomberg) dedicated to a principle of "build, don't buy" might still have to take a hard look at salvaging the wreckage. That is, if the price drops low enough. ■ One estimate has Twitter down by two-thirds from just about half a year ago. The remaining third may remain too high, of course, but if bankruptcy is a real possibility, then one would have to take a look.

Science and Technology The $11,000, two-person micro electric car is coming soon

"Luvly vehicles will be shipped flatpack for assembly in micro-factories close to end-users"

News Elton John's last set on British ground?

It's supposed to be his farewell tour, and the press coverage is richly deserved. But for just a moment, can we acknowledge that his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, may have figured out the best gig of all time?

Computers and the Internet Windows closing

Microsoft has made its final pronouncement that the 22H2 edition of Windows 10 "will be the final version of Windows 10". The entire Windows 10 generation will only be supported until October 2025, at which point users will be at their own risk. If your computer can't make the jump to Windows 11, then this is as good as it's going to get. And by 2025, you'll probably want to have jumped to Linux

July 5, 2023

Threats and Hazards Choose your future, world

China's government is openly threatening pro-democracy activists, saying it will use the excuse of "national security" to "pursue them for the rest of our lives even if they run to the ends of the earth". This would be a very prudent time for people all over the world to consider carefully whether they want to live in a world where those sentiments predominate or in one where America leads a greater alliance. ■ That includes Americans. Everyone needs to grapple with the question, because the threat alone forces the question. China's government isn't saying it will pursue murderers or child abusers "for the rest of our lives even if they run to the ends of the earth". It's saying it values the capture of pro-democracy activists much more than the capture of those felons. ■ Quite a lot of people both at home and abroad like to make a sport out of criticizing the United States and its history. Thoughtful criticism is not only good, but necessary. Yet some engage in it so relentlessly that one might reasonably wonder whether they've ever considered the possibility that power always and everywhere risks abuse, and that the perfect ought not to become the enemy of the good. ■ America and the allied world we lead aren't perfect; far from it. But our imperfections pale by comparison with crimes against humanity including forced sterilization of disfavored ethnic groups, unrelenting mass surveillance, denial of basic human rights including even the freedom of worship and the right to express peaceful dissent, and the brutal maintenance of single-party rule. ■ The choices made on levels big and small by people all over the world contribute to nudging the world more in the direction of a China-dominated world or a US-dominated one. At present, there is no other viable contestant. So, of the two power structures overwhelmingly likely to prevail in the years ahead, which one is it going to be? Think carefully of the individuals being "pursued to the ends of the earth" before choosing.

July 4, 2023

The United States of America Facts submitted to a candid world

Since America's last celebration of independence, we have been witnesses to a year of nonstop struggle for the independence of Ukraine, a nation most Americans have come to recognize as an ally. Ukrainian people have shed blood and lost thousands of lives. Cities have been obliterated and farmlands have been flooded. Worries are revived every day that a catastrophic nuclear incident could occur, by accident or by design. ■ The United States wasn't the first nation to declare independence, but our declaration was special in a landmark way: It took the time to treat the rest of the world not as passive observers, but as reasonable people capable of rationally evaluating our cause. A "decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation," wrote Thomas Jefferson. ■ Ukraine doesn't have to declare its independence; it has been legally independent for more than three decades. But its public diplomacy to the rest of the world has gone to some lengths to explain why that independence is valid and why it is worth preserving. ■ The sublime blessing of America's independence is that it hasn't been seriously challenged in more than two centuries. We haven't needed to explain to anyone but ourselves why we should keep the republic. But we should heed the case for Ukraine as we remember that independence isn't merely an abstraction, and it isn't perpetually guaranteed, even by our own fortuitous circumstances. ■ Threats may come from without or from within. That we don't face a rapacious neighbor shouldn't keep us from realizing just how much others all over the world are willing to sacrifice today in search of the preservation of something we Americans get to treat as a job finished long ago. As Jefferson wrote, "let Facts be submitted to a candid world" -- and let us not forget our duty to listen, just as our predecessors sought to be heard.

The United States of America "Stars and Stripes Forever", arranged for a single marimba

(Video) A charming patriotic performance by a talented family. The Sousa march is a classic, and one of our best national songs. ■ On the motif of patriotic tunes, let's adopt a new rule: "The Star-Spangled Banner" for sacred events, Neil Diamond's "America" for everything else. Among its other merits, Diamond's homage deserves credit for centering on the immigrant experience.

The United States of America An immigrant's love list about America

Natalia Antonova submits, among her favorite things, "People waving from porches". In extension to that: Even though we are a vast multiethnic/multiracial country, one often can still pick out the Americans in a crowd from the way we smile. Broadly, frequently, unreservedly. We're here to have a good time, just as the Declaration of Independence recorded is the right of people everywhere.

Humor and Good News A cheeky Fourth

The BBC sponsors an ad for the "Royal Watch" newsletter on America's Independence Day. Probably just a coincidence. Maybe not.

Computers and the Internet Twitter puts the brakes on its users

Rate-limiting certainly does raise the implicit value of muting stupid people on Twitter. (Of whom there are many.)

News Camp in an oversized Toyota

A Toyota vehicle powered by a diesel engine...what must be the life expectancy? 1.5 million miles? 2 million?

July 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Cranky television

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has embarked on a troublesome campaign for President, challenging the sitting President of his own party, not on the merits (of which he offers none), nor on his own qualifications (of which he possesses none, having never been elected so much as town dog catcher), but on a platform constructed mainly of conspiracy theories and crankery. Yet, endowed with an enviable brand name for entering politics, he gets attention from the media -- including his very own televised "town hall" on the NewsNation network. ■ The concept of a town hall meeting is, of course, perfectly laudable in theory. America treasures our mythical New England town hall session, where everyone in a community has a chance to be heard. But an election to the Presidency is no such escapade. Some voices are toxic, and there's nothing wrong with giving them less air time than others. ■ Some of the old gatekeepers abused their power in the past, depriving the public of ideas that might have elevated the debate and placed important issues closer to the center of the conversation. But that doesn't make gatekeeping itself invalid. We discourage pollution in the air, water, and soil; toxic ideas can pollute the public consciousness, too. ■ There ought to be some perspectives and attitudes that are simply beneath the standards of self-respecting institutions invested in earning and maintaining the trust of the public. The government doesn't have to impose regulation to address the problem (nor should it). But it ought to be a matter of self-regulation: It should be beneath the dignity of a serious newspaper, news network, magazine, or online outlet to amplify fascists, anarchists, inveterate liars, unserious cranks, and others whose presence undermines the Constitutional order or the common good of a liberty-based society. ■ And the "town hall" format -- contrived as it is -- is a terrible insulator against bad actors and bad ideas breaking through. It is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of the outlet providing the platform: Everyone, including both candidates and audience members, knows how to game the system for maximum self-interest, which is often directly contrary to the public interest. The only participants who get hurt end up being the reasonable candidates: As the saying goes: Never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it. ■ Sometimes, the right answer is "No", and in the case of the televised town hall, that ought to be the default answer whenever one is proposed. News outlets should certainly seek to interact with -- and thoughtfully attempt to screen -- candidates for the highest office in the land. Their questions shouldn't be cloying, lazy, or even sympathetic: The Presidency is a job for which there is no perfect training and in which failure is often devastatingly costly. Tough screening by well-prepared interviewers is among the only ways the public will learn who is up to the job.

Humor and Good News Clean sheets

Has anyone ever really considered how much faith we're putting in the lowest bidder to supply hotel laundry detergent?

July 2, 2023

News Now read this

Civilization has progressed through the aid of philosophers, innovators, teachers, scientists, and leaders both big and small. The credit isn't equally spread around, nor is it equally well-deserved. But some corners plainly deserve a lot more credit than they're getting. ■ One of those is the mild-mannered Dover Thrift Edition, that familiar mainstay of humanities courses in colleges and some finer high schools. With a library of more than 700 titles -- consisting predominantly of works out of the reach of copyright -- the unassuming collection is a reliable gold mine of common knowledge. And putting the "common" into any knowledge is yeoman's work these days. ■ The praise that should be lavished on the Dover Thrift Edition should take nothing away from its philosophical cousin, the amazing Project Gutenberg, which has converted some 70,000 printed works into e-book format, with a "focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired". But where Project Gutenberg is extremely broad, all-digital, and non-profit in nature, the Dover Thrift collection is more concentrated, both digital and printed, and motivated by profit. ■ We should acknowledge that it is useful to have an institution motivated by profit to see to it that readers get affordable access to canonical works in a variety of concentrations within the humanities. It is good for someone to have a profit motive to say, "Here are 18 books on religion that a well-rounded person ought to read. None of them cost more than $7.00 in print, and they'll cost just 99 cents if you want to download them digitally. We have packaged them nicely and put our reputation on the line to back their accuracy and completeness." ■ For all the many new problems that emerge and changes in the way we live that come into acceptance, it's important to remember that hardly anything about human nature is ever really new. The packaging may change, but the motivations, fears, and thought processes that guide us today are scarcely different from those of any prior era. Getting familiar with the old is a way of efficiently addressing the new -- or what at least seems like it's new. ■ Our nature may be fundamentally the same across many generations, but humans are uniquely capable of passing along guidance and solutions to our descendants, thanks to the fantastic durability of the written word. And for as modest as it may sound, harnessing the profit motive to distribute those words far and wide is a great civilization-building act.

June 30, 2023

Aviation News Smooth landing

Actual emergency evacuations of aircraft are about as rare as events can be. But the emergency landing of a passenger jet without landing gear at Charlotte is a reminder that "rare" isn't the same as "impossible". Generally speaking, things have gone smoothly enough in most of the airliner evacuations in recent American memory. ■ But they often could have gone better. In its report on the event we call the "Miracle on the Hudson", the NTSB noted that the evacuation was hampered by the general safety complacency of the passengers, the overwhelming majority of whom paid no attention at all to the safety briefing. ■ The preflight safety briefing is a social contract without much hold: Flight attendants are obligated to deliver training to a generally disinterested and unwilling audience. They cannot possibly like being ignored, yet experienced passengers can't really be blamed for not devoting their complete attention to a presentation that is always the same, and not particularly informative at that. ■ The curse of the content is that it is almost insultingly obvious in the first place, entirely by design. It shouldn't be hard to fasten a seat belt, or to figure out how to open a door in an emergency; these things should be obvious even to people in the lowest strata of IQ. But there are people who need to receive the briefing as it is, and more significantly, it would be good for passenger safety more generally if the briefings included something other than boilerplate content. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed boredom. ■ Educational psychology tells us rather plainly that effective safety briefings would contain three elements they almost never contain today: An attention-grabbing opening, a reward, and a connection to prior learning. While the need to capture attention is reasonably obvious, the other two are important tools in all sorts of low-stakes learning situations. ■ Humans are very good at paying attention and learning when the instructor tickles our sense of "What's in it for me?" Anytime we sense that learning something will make us smarter, better, faster, or stronger, it activates an entirely different level of awareness than what takes place when we're just members of a captive audience. A good safety briefing would include some promise of reward, like: "People who memorize the number of rows between themselves and the two closest emergency exits have been shown to evacuate X percent faster than passengers who do not" or "Memorizing how to open an exit door saved an average of X seconds in safety trials". (And if facts like these aren't known, someone should study them.) ■ The other missing aspect is the connection to prior learning. For almost nobody is the cabin safety briefing a first-time experience, and for real efficacy, it ought to be treated as a single episode in an ongoing seminar. People learn best when old knowledge can be connected to new material. It revives the old and facilitates the uptake of the new. If safety briefings don't seek to teach us anything new, then we should expect the exercise to be merely perfunctory. But if it's only perfunctory, then it doesn't really have value and is just a waste of time for everyone involved. It wouldn't be hard to develop a syllabus of "things air travelers ought to know", to be delivered on a rotating basis so that there's always something new and intriguing for passengers to take in. ■ We can and should do better than that. Commercial air travel is fantastically safe, but the Charlotte incident is a fresh reminder that we shouldn't take safety for granted. Instead of relying on a tired old regulation that requires a rote and uninspired recitation of things most people already know, safety briefings ought to be intellectually rewarding -- even stimulating.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

June 29, 2023

Computers and the Internet Why can't we find anything around here?

Anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the early days of the commercial Internet may recall how personal the entire experience could feel. In the brief window of time between the emergence of the Mosaic browser experience and the arrival of Google, the Internet might have been global in its ambitions, but it also took a whole lot of human curation just to function. ■ Yahoo today may be everything from an email service provider to an original news outlet, but for a brief while, it was just Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web: An attempt to categorize the individual pages on the Internet and document their general contents. It was something like a hybrid between a telephone book and the card catalog in a library, attempting to list what addresses the individual user needed to look up in order to find things (a much bigger issue before the dot-com boom, when domain names cost a relative fortune), as well as what one was likely to discover upon arriving there. ■ It looks quaint today, when webpages are dynamically generated, apps serve up much of the Internet's consumer material, and artificial intelligence is being enlisted to flood the zone with a never-ending pipeline of new content. But sincere efforts to survey and map the world of the all-new World Wide Web were useful. And their imprimatur was vital if you, the content creator (though nobody called you that yet), wanted to be found. ■ What made Google such a spectacular success was its ability to supplant the slow process of looking through curated directories by returning the thing the user was most likely to want based upon no more effort than typing out a question. Search engines ate the world, of course. But careful observers are beginning to note that the search-engine structure is showing signs of frailty. NBC News tech reporter Kat Tenbarge laments, "All the search functions around the internet seem to be in a prolonged state of collapse. It feels impossible to find specific things anymore". ■ Content-management tools have a big part to play in making this problem worse. What makes it easy for people to add new content to the Internet also generally makes it easy for them to mess up or destroy what is already there. Even worse, URLs generally are an unholy mess. Nobody builds rules-based file trees anymore, because they're too busy packing URLs full of search-friendly words. ■ And thus there are few sites left that commit to a logical (and self-perpetuating) file structure that fits inside the address bar. Instead, most fresh pages are identified by either too many words (e.g., "") or by none at all (e.g., ""). ■ It's not clear whether there is a real solution available that anyone will adopt voluntarily -- but if search engines really do begin to break down in their real user efficacy, then it's possible we might see a revival of sorts in Internet directories. Humans wouldn't have to curate them entirely by hand -- artificial intelligence may well be ideal for much of the task -- but some sort of thoughtful editorial review may be useful. Rarely does anyone see what's coming next with any accuracy, but if search quality really does fall into a broad sort of decline, people aren't simply going to stop looking to the Internet for answers.

June 28, 2023

News Custodians needed

Few things are as painful to watch as a community reconciling itself with the consequences of long-accrued neglect. It's usually an involuntary event, and it's almost never undertaken by anyone directly responsible for the chain of events leading up to the reckoning. And yet it is an experience not only widespread now, but also likely to be much more frequently encountered in the future. ■ Virtually everything, both in the material world and in the world of human relationships, requires some kind of ongoing periodic maintenance and upkeep. Even pieces of art on display in a museum must generally undergo periodic cleaning and restoration. Virtually anything that isn't encased in amber needs some kind of intervention from time to time to retain its value. ■ Unfortunately, we too rarely treat maintenance and custodianship as real, distinct, and teachable skills. We make lots of room to applaud people for all kinds of things that are new: Sales performance, entrepreneurship, creative design, and even fundraising. These skills garner either respect, compensation, or both. Everyone seems to want to be a founder. ■ But altogether too little applause, funding, and recognition are supplied to those who supply the effort that is necessary to keep things in good working order, whether in the physical world or the institutional one. And it shows, every time a piece of infrastructure fails catastrophically or an institution closes for lack of support. ■ Part of the problem is that there aren't very good milestones to recognize along the way. Who knows how often to celebrate a bridge that continues standing, or whom to credit? It's fun to break out a giant pair of ceremonial scissors to cut a red ribbon. But it's hardly as fun to celebrate the act of dutifully plugging along. ■ But part of the problem is a chronic lack of respect for the discipline of custodianship. In American English, "custodian" is often a euphemistic alternative for "janitor". And yet custodians of all types -- including building janitors, to be sure -- deserve to be acknowledged for the value they bring to their work, which is fundamentally about extracting the maximum life-cycle value from what has been entrusted to their care. That's the case whether we're talking about infrastructure built with public funds, the charter of a club, the goodwill of a church community, or the money in a pension fund. ■ One of the great things about American culture is that we are often far readier than our friends elsewhere to dispose of the old and replace it with the new. Some things exhaust their utility, and getting rid of abandoned buildings or converting old railroads into bicycle trails can be highly meritorious. But we shouldn't permit ourselves to be so enamored with what is new that we forget to invest prudently in keeping up what still has value.

June 26, 2023

Broadcasting What's on tonight?

The public often forgets that the United States is a giant country -- the world's third-largest by population, and literally continent-spanning in physical size. As a consequence, we often kid ourselves into believing that there is such a thing as a coherent "national conversation" happening from day to day. ■ But there are meaningful themes to what some like to call "the discourse", often centered around a handful of media institutions that have agenda-setting power, at least within ideological silos and socioeconomic clusters. Other countries have literal newspapers of record and generously funded national broadcasters; America has a predominantly commercial news industry that occasionally seems to spend as much time changing lineups as it does actually covering the news. ■ It is possible to believe, simultaneously, that the United States would probably be better off with a more prominent sector dedicated to public-interest journalism, and that it would be utterly impossible to competently administer anything like a national public-service media outlet. A self-governing people deserves to have a shared set of facts about current events and a modestly reasonable set of shared cultural values and norms. ■ Yet that's impossible here. Aside from the many and highly visible conflicts that emerge in the administration of public-service outlets in other countries (see, for instance, the perpetual heated debates over the future of the BBC or the scandal over secret payments made to a star of Ireland's RTE), the simple fact is that any outlet with enough sway to be considered a true national institutional voice would become the most contentious of "commanding heights". ■ PBS claims two million nightly viewers for the "NewsHour". Even the third-place commercial network nightly news captures more than twice that many. If PBS were drawing seven million viewers a night like ABC's "World News Tonight", someone would be making machinations to gain editorial control over it. And that's why it's basically impossible to imagine an American public broadcaster with the scale of the BBC. ■ It remains true that we are deserving of a high-quality national news agenda and news outlets dedicated first and foremost to public service. But we are too big and generally too contentious for that. And, ultimately, that probably saves us from what would probably be much uglier fights than we already get over who pays for "Sesame Street".

June 25, 2023

News There are no heroes here

Whatever agreement he reached to settle his differences with the Kremlin, it is unlikely that Yevgeny Prigozhin will ever truly have a sound night's sleep again in his life. But it shouldn't be the ever-present threat of being defenestrated or poisoned by Russian spies that should keep him awake at night. It should be his conscience that keeps him unsettled forevermore. ■ Humankind probably won't ever fully excise our unfortunate instinct for violence. We are highly evolved, but we are still animals after all, and the animal kingdom remains universally subject to the ultimate rule of the jungle. Our elevated intelligence and self-awareness are gifts that compel us to teach our young that cooperation and reason are better than bloody conflict, but not everyone gets the message. And so it becomes necessary that, even in a peace-loving society, some of us must learn how to use violence in order to keep the strong from oppressing the weak. ■ Mercenaries are not necessarily wrong by definition. But just as there exists a legal distinction between enlisted troops and officers, so too is there a moral gradient among those who fight only because they are being paid. Nothing justifies the types of specific war crimes on all-too-frequent display in Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. But the culpability for engaging in the war at all falls differently on the mercenary whose other choice was to languish in prison than for an individual like Prigozhin, who could have walked away at any time. He didn't, and he should never sleep again without distress. ■ History will not treat him well, but if he were sympathetic to history, he never would have joined the Kremlin's cause in the first place. It's no more than idle speculation to guess what might have happened if his mutiny had actually made it all the way to Moscow. But to the extent that his abandonment of the battlefield will undermine the Kremlin's cause, then the tumultuous events of this one very strange weekend will have at least accrued some gains for the side that deserves to win.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

June 24, 2023

News Vulgarians at the gate

If the most popular pursuit on social media is engaging in wild speculation, then the second is criticizing wild speculation. For nearly every opinion, there is a countering response seeking grounds to declare the opinion invalid. Both pursuits went into overdrive as organized mercenaries threatened to take Moscow. and the world watched in immeasurable suspense to see what course would result. ■ It is, of course, of no use for anyone to engage in wild but confident speculation about events well outside their own expertise. There are only so many authorities to go around on any subject. Yet at the same time, it's not surprising that people would feel the itch to weigh in on the outcome of uncertain events, especially when the events are far outside the boundaries of past experience. It's been a while since anyone tried to invade Moscow. ■ Only a couple of generations ago, an eighth-grade education was considered enough not just to get by in the world as a citizen, but to function with some level of expertise in a career field as well. High school graduation was an anomaly just a century ago, and it wasn't until almost 1940 that the United States had more than a million high-school graduates a year. That level of education was indeed quite secondary. ■ And while they didn't have social media tools on which to post their speculations, those earlier generations were still expected to develop thoughtful opinions about current affairs. Public opinion about the Russian Revolution in our history books was formed and held mainly by people without even high-school diplomas. ■ There is some room for gatekeeping about contemporary affairs; there is a good chance that any one of us will miss relevant fine details about issues like the copyright implications of large-language models in artificial intelligence or the certification options appropriate for deep-sea submersibles carrying paying passengers. But even the would-be gatekeepers need to hold fast to some modesty about just what it is they are expected to be the experts. Experts are shown to be wrong not infrequently, and few subjects worth debating confine themselves neatly to just one area of knowledge. ■ We should seek an (admittedly) elusive standard of agreement about how much knowledge is enough to begin forming opinions. Some gatekeepers are so over-eager to protect their own turf that even a bachelor's degree-holder is considered a novice (economists, for instance, are notoriously status-obsessed, prone to withholding the title from anyone short of a Ph.D.). That surely is going too far. ■ But what is the appropriate minimum requirement for a person to weigh in on a subject? Is it a bachelor's degree? An associate's degree? A high-school diploma? In a democracy, everyone gets to weigh in at the ballot box and there's no knowledge test holding them back -- not even a test of 8th-grade knowledge. Perhaps we should bear that in mind before engaging in too ready and harsh a critique about people airing their thoughts without holding the right credentials. We're all ignoramuses about something, but even ignoramuses get a vote.

June 23, 2023

Science and Technology At some point, you stop pouring motor oil on the ground

Compared with the vast sweep of history, it was practically only yesterday when motorists thought they were doing the right thing when following advice to bury used motor oil inside a backyard hole full of rocks. That wasn't the right thing to do, of course, but holding such a view was a mistake of the age rather than a personal shortcoming. ■ We're making similar mistakes today, even though we obviously aren't aware of our transgressions. There's always something new about which we are being naive. The remedy, though, is to constantly try to think farther ahead about the things we do and use. ■ It's not hard to find people who are aghast or even apoplectic about decisions being widely made today, especially related to the consequences of carbon emissions and (likely) anthropogenic climate change. But it's important to realize that indignation doesn't change the past, nor is it possible to change customs, habits, or technologies overnight. ■ A certain amount of trouble is already inevitable, it seems, and our energies are best deployed in some part by trying to find adaptations and remedies for damage already done. But we also need to account for the likelihood that some of the most useful answers for the long term are still undiscovered or insufficiently mature -- think pilot tests for atmospheric carbon removal -- and we will probably be able to accomplish far more by accelerating some of the technological research and development than by turning to hairshirts and extreme self-denial. ■ That isn't a call to inaction, of course, but rather for recognition that between the time of awareness of a problem and the arrival of a solution often lies a period of uncomfortable awareness, when the solutions available to us are often inadequate and relatively unproductive -- and we know it and simply have to endure it. The good news, if we can keep our heads on straight, is that progress often accelerates upon itself once we get it underway. ■ A child saving their weekly allowance for retirement won't get very far and will look utterly naive (and probably unhappy) in the process. Forgoing substantial savings in childhood in favor of studying hard in school so as to substantially improve one's earnings capacity makes a much bigger difference in the long term. We are in such a place as a species now; we can scrimp and save as relative "children" for now, but we're probably going to make vastly more headway by accelerating our scientific and technological research to make much faster and more substantial moves in the medium term than by subjecting ourselves to extreme changes now.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

June 22, 2023

Broadcasting A hot price on a place to get a cold one

Among the most foolhardy things an American can do is to go about criticizing the spending habits of others. Not only is it bad social form, it's often concern wildly misplaced. One person's frivolous extravagance is another person's means of income redistribution from the wealthy to those who are willing to supply luxuries. Let no one forget that the people most directly injured by the imposition of an excise tax on boats and private planes in the 1990s weren't the wealthy, but the people working in the industries making those goods. ■ So a measure of reserve is probably in order when considering the news that someone spent $675,000 (before taxes) to buy the bar from the set of "Cheers". Assuming the buyer is neither a bank robber nor a drug cartel kingpin, it's their cash with which to part, no matter how hard it is to rationalize writing a check for that amount. ■ Yet it does speak to something a little odd about perceptions of value to imagine spending that much money on a television prop when, for $239,000, one could purchase an entire operating bar. For the difference in price ($436,000), the buyer could turn the real tavern into a private club and keep a full-time bartender on staff. ■ "Cheers" still resonates with viewers because it offers a sort of psychological comfort food: It feels good to imagine that places exist where anyone can go without pretense or status merely to be peaceably in the company of others. And those places do exist, even if the set design is less impressive than at the Bull and Finch. (The piece looks nifty, after all, but surely a sturdier replica could be built for far less.) ■ The bar wouldn't be worth much more than its scrap value if it didn't say so much about our human sense of place -- a bit ironically, considering that people mainly congregated only among family in their own living rooms to watch the show. Yet if gathering can mean so much to us, even when only vicariously through actors on the television screen, that someone would spend several multiples of what it would cost to buy an actual operating bar just to enjoy the nostalgia of a mirage, then perhaps that ought to serve as a lesson to investors, entrepreneurs, urban planners, and others that places matter quite a lot.

June 21, 2023

Business and Finance Don't let them fight

History contains no record of J. Pierpont Morgan offering to fight Andrew Carnegie in a boxing match. But in our own age, we have Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk taunting one another into a cage fight. Talk is cheap, and social media tools (of which the two are the current 800-lb. gorillas) offer countless ways to indicate sarcasm and face-saving retractions. The entire thing could quite easily resolve to nothing at all. ■ Yet there is nothing at all to guarantee that it won't come to pass. Facebook/Meta's board of directors, captive though they might be to Zuckerberg's controlling stake in the voting shares of the company, probably wouldn't be performing their fiduciary duties if they let Zuck step into the ring. (Though it's plausible that self-proclaimed "cyberpunk activist" Marc Andreessen, who sits on Meta's board, might well jockey for a ringside seat.) ■ Likewise, Elon Musk answers to a considerable number of stakeholders in his various enterprises, none of whom want to see him literally bloodied in the ring. The latest annual report of Tesla, for instance, contains the actual words "We are highly dependent on the services of Elon Musk, Technoking of Tesla and our Chief Executive Officer." Admittedly, "Technoking" is an unserious title. But insurance companies are very serious indeed about insuring key employees -- even if, in Tesla's own words, "As a general matter, we do not maintain as much insurance coverage as many other companies do, and in some cases, we do not maintain any at all." ■ There's something unseemly about two of the world's ten richest people strutting around like steroid-addled peacocks, even if it's entirely in jest. It is, of course, a mistake to over-interpret wealth or business success as a signal of other merit or of skill beyond the "lane" that made one rich. ■ But both Zuckerberg and Musk have considerable influence in addition to wealth. Moreover, both are demonstrably intelligent individuals, even if they might not be as smart as they estimate themselves. And it's not unreasonable to expect them both to know better: Benjamin Franklin published the advice in 1742 that "Money and good manners make the gentleman." Is a little gentility in their outward behavior really that much to ask?

June 18, 2023

Threats and Hazards Tragedy on the seas

Economists (and like-minded thinkers) are often accused of being cold-blooded rationalists. And while it is true that the economic discipline has been guilty of important errors, omissions, and oversights -- it turns out that not all decision-making is rational and utility-maximizing, as some economic models have assumed -- it is entirely unfair to dismiss the economical-minded application of logic and analytical rationality to humankind's affairs as being somehow inhumane. Quite to the contrary. ■ Consider this tragedy: Some 500 souls are thought to have perished aboard a boat that capsized en route from Libya to Europe on the Mediterranean Sea. Aboard the fishing trawler were some 750 people from a variety of countries, though a very large number were thought to be from Pakistan. ■ While no solitary cause explains every passenger's reason for taking extraordinary risks with life and limb, it is widely recognized that Pakistan is in the midst of an economic crisis which is driving a substantial refugee surge. Pakistan's population is very large -- with nearly 250 million people, only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia are bigger. And it is very, very poor: The per-capita annual GDP is only about $1,500, or about the per-capita GDP generated by the United States every week. ■ Almost every refugee crisis (including Pakistan's) comes down to a root cause in the realm of what used to be called "political economy": The interaction between government policymaking and economics. The phrase may have fallen out of fashion, but it deserves a revival. That's because there is no more vital set of decisions to be made than how to ensure people can live free from crisis and material deprivation. ■ These are extraordinarily human problems, even if economic analysis must unavoidably deliver its recommendations in the cold language of dollars and cents (or the local currency). But if we blow the big decisions in these regards, people die. They die trying to seek refuge, as in the latest tragedy. But they also die of starvation and public health crises and other entirely avoidable economic causes. ■ A cool, rational approach to questions of resource allocation (which is, after all, what economics generally is) can still be a deeply humane undertaking if it helps to heal those wounds inside political-economic systems that keep people poor. Other countries that are now very rich have been just as poor as Pakistan, even within recent historical memory. Choices made every day have consequences down the road, defining whether things get worse or better. Those lives lost on the sea should serve as a compelling reminder that our problem isn't too much rational thinking; our problem is that there is often too little.

June 17, 2023

Threats and Hazards If only they had a Third Amendment

We Americans often scoff at our own 3rd Amendment; who can even conceive the notion of being forced to quarter soldiers in their own home? Yet a government unconstrained by the rule of law will engage in whatever suits the immediate interests of the ruling power, just like this.

Computers and the Internet The real switching costs of social media

Given the number of high-stakes (and often really stupid) choices being made by social-media sites, lots of people wonder whether any service will emerge as a central "public square" after all the dust has settled. The basic argument assumes that the network effects are so prevalent that the natural advantage belongs to whichever service can attract and retain the largest number of active users. The more, the merrier. ■ But there is a strong countervailing force that makes the network effect an incomplete guide to outcomes. Certainly, to some extent, a service needs a baseline number of active contributing users in order to survive. Such as it is with a service like Mastodon today, so it was with BBS communities 30 or 40 years ago. If there aren't enough people "hanging around", it's hard to get anyone to use a service consistently. But the people who lead the sites have lots of incentives to make the switching costs as low as possible: Tools with names like Fedifinder seek to make it easy to reconnect with one's chosen online tribe. ■ The countervailing force, though, is much harder to act upon. The value in a social-media experience isn't just in whom you follow, but in whom you specifically take a disinterest. In terms of fundamental user experience, who you block and who you mute are often even more significant than who you follow. And those features are really hard to replicate. The whole point is to have as little interaction with those accounts as possible -- perhaps because they're spammy, or because they're belligerent. Or maybe they're just consistently stupid. ■ Gresham's Law says that bad money drives out good. Likewise, bad social interactions drive out good. Ben Franklin wasn't wrong when he warned, "He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas." ■ There is no obvious solution, particularly since the incentives remain astronomical for the "dogs" to mask their identities whenever they find somewhere new to deposit their fleas. And to the service only interested in user growth, it's hard to say "no". In the end, though, that's where success lies: In making it seamless to store and transfer the value of what you've learned about others, not just for good, but also for bad.

Humor and Good News Supply and demand for gullibility

The Onion really nails it with the spoof headline: "Crypto leaders call for infusion of 20 million dopes to stabilize market"

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

June 16, 2023

Broadcasting The good in consumer television

Not that many years ago, the seat pocket in front of most air travelers contained three items: A safety card, an airsickness bag, and a copy of SkyMall. Though the last of the airlines stopped carrying SkyMall in 2015, the notion was sound. Bored travelers looking to amuse themselves in an era before free in-flight streaming could leaf through the pages of an objectively silly catalog of items. Most would buy nothing, but a few, perhaps under the influence of diminished oxygen levels, would find a novelty item irresistible and place an order. ■ The appeal of SkyMall wasn't far removed from that of "The Price is Right", America's favorite show to watch while you're a kid home sick from school. The unapologetic commercialism is the fun. It's not deep, it's not preachy, and it's free from any political agenda. It's just a celebration of the unvarnished sensation of consumer pleasure: Getting a thing you want for no other reason than that it's within your grasp and you (perhaps only fleetingly) want it. ■ Despite the proliferation of streaming services and channels tailor-made for every interest, there somehow remains room on the television dial for lots of channels devoted to nothing more than the amusement of stay-at-home shopping. In the Des Moines market alone, one can count several such stations, including "ShopLC", "Jewelry Television", and Home Shopping Network (both HSN-1 and HSN-2). There's a QVC affiliate, too. ■ At first, the observer might be bewildered that the stations can even afford to remain on the air (after all, how many people in a market of about a million viewers are even aware those channels exist, much less watching and buying things from them?). But perhaps we should set aside those bean-counting concerns and simply applaud the fact those channels are around. ■ A truly unfathomable number of hours are spent watching screens in American households. And the older people get, the more television they watch: Seniors are glued to the tube, on average, for about four hours a day. While we might like to imagine that the alternative to television viewing is time spent reading the classics or taking up woodcarving, it's a lot more likely that passive media consumption is the preferred mode of behavior for many. ■ And if that's the case, it may well be in the general public interest for many of those passive consumers to be plugged in to shows touting non-stick cookware and portable cordless fans rather than getting overheated and underinformed about more contentious matters, like politics. Just like SkyMall was a mainly harmless way to pass the time for people strapped into an aluminum tube zipping through the skies, perhaps the continued survival of at-home shopping channels is a mainly harmless way to keep at least some people blissful and mild.

June 15, 2023

News "High workload, stress, and task saturation"

One of the most hair-raising videos a reasonable person could ever watch is completely free of special effects. In fact, it's almost completely devoid of motion altogether. And yet, the four-and-a-half-minute NTSB animation of the flight path of US Airways Flight 1549 (the "Miracle on the Hudson") is bound to snap the smart viewer to attention. ■ From bird strike to splashdown is a matter of just 212 seconds. Harrowing seconds, for certain. But from the communication with Air Traffic Control and within the cockpit, the observer would never guess. A life-or-death situation was handled with the most exceptional level-headedness, focus, and calm that a human could bring to such a task. ■ Two aspects of the NTSB's conclusions are specifically noteworthy: First, "Although the Engine Dual Failure checklist did not fully apply to the accident event, it was the most applicable checklist contained in the quick reference handbook to address the event". Second, "The professionalism of the flight crewmembers and their excellent crew resource management during the accident sequence contributed to their ability to maintain control of the airplane". ■ The NTSB's first comment documents that there was literally no playbook for what to do -- the crew had to solve an extraordinary and life-threatening challenge with their own wits. The second comment expressly acknowledges that the crew's capacity to remain calm was at the very top of the list of reasons why everyone on board survived -- despite "high workload, stress, and task saturation" (extreme understatement, indeed). ■ Most people will never pilot an airplane, much less face a near-disaster like Flight 1549. But everyone faces challenges, including some extraordinary ones for which there may be no playbook. We can't anticipate every possible crisis that might unfold, but we can practice how to respond to "high workload, stress, and task saturation". ■ The problem all too often in evidence today is that it's easy to find examples of people flying off the handle at minor provocations, crumbling upon the encounter of the slightest stress, catastrophizing everything, or generally dealing with events with the self-control of a drug-addled gorilla. And these examples are all too often celebrated and amplified by audiences who think it's a virtue to react with extreme passions. ■ Feelings are natural and real -- and often quite domineering. That's exactly why we humans have to practice managing how and when to let them out, and how and when to contain them. Many of the forces shaping our reality right now tend to amplify the most animalistic and emotional responses (that's how to get clicks, after all). But the real virtue is found in learning how to deal with life's inevitable "task saturation" incidents using the kind of self-control that sees things through to a salutary end. You're not going to land an airliner in the Hudson, but every one of us can certainly strive to emulate the calm of the people who did.

June 14, 2023

Broadcasting Futuristic currents

A company by the quirkily ambitious yet intentionally retro-inspired name of "Super Hi-Fi" is trying to do something entirely anti-historical. In place of living human beings delivering news, weather, and traffic, Super Hi-Fi offers "an AI-powered weather service" delivered "with natural-sounding AI voices". ■ Much of modern life is already touched by synthetic voices. Siri, Alexa, and "Hey Google" all talk to us from a fabricated digital domain. Before them, GPS devices told people where to drive, the Emergency Alert System delivered warnings through "Paul", and the Speak and Spell challenged kids to get their letters in the right order. ■ From that perspective, maybe fully-synthetic artificial-intelligence weather forecasts are nothing more than the obvious natural progression of technology. Large radio station owners certainly have been trying to bring their human headcounts as close as possible to zero, and automating weather forecasts gives them the option to deliver the "currents" without having anybody in the studio. ■ But we can be absolutely sure that AI-produced weather forecasts are going to lead to some spectacular bloopers. Automated weather tools, while highly reliable, occasionally encounter data drops, unreliable observations, and midstream technical issues. ■ A human being can anticipate errors and hack a plausible workaround. But it can be guaranteed that a computer trying to do the same will, at least once in a while, come up with something fantastically inappropriate. When you take humans entirely out of the decision-making chain, those will be the inevitable consequences.

June 11, 2023

News Making advocates through honors

Some people know and care a great deal about the Tony Awards. Others are only familiar with Broadway in a more passing sense. But there's one particular lesson that anyone can take away from The American Theatre Wing (and its counterparts in Hollywood, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). ■ The lesson is that every organization that wants to survive in the long term needs to create and celebrate a semi-exclusive annual award, make a big show out of presenting it, and give it to the people most likely to make a big deal about the award themselves. ■ Awards cement loyalty. The one vital thing a good awardee will do is try everything in their power to build up the institution that gave them the award. This is a basic matter of alignment of interests: What's good for the awarding organization thus becomes personally good for the awardee. ■ Most organizations aren't going to have a telecast on CBS to grant their annual honors. That's fine. But the institution benefits when it does everything within its reach to hype the prestige of the award, to the largest audience it can obtain. As with the Doomsday Machine in "Dr. Strangelove", the whole point is lost if you keep it a secret. You have to tell the world. ■ None of this needs to be a crass or cynical exercise, either. The people most deserving of an award are already the people most likely (in most groups) to be vocal and enthusiastic advocates for the organization, anyway. But it certainly doesn't hurt institutional survival to make those advocates materially invested in the perpetuation of the organization: If you're named to the Order of St. Gregory the Great, you're probably not about to turn around and advocate for the deposition of the Pope. ■ But too many groups invest too little energy in granting (and subsequently celebrating) awards. If you want your institution to survive, then conveying an annual personal award should be a part of the plan from Day One of your charter. That goes for your trade group, your church, your alumni foundation, and your Little League alike. If you're making honorees, you're making advocates.

June 9, 2023

Computers and the Internet A bygone age, not that long ago

After computers went mainstream, but before we had anything quite like the modern Internet, we had CD-ROM encyclopedias. These digital publications -- Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta, and a handful of others -- offered the informational breadth of a shelf full of heavy books, but with the relative convenience of machine accessibility (not to mention dot-matrix printing capability). ■ The brief phenomenon of the CD-ROM encyclopedia does a rather tidy job of capturing the zeitgeist of the 1990s: Americans, broadly speaking, still had the sort of boundless self-confidence that undergirded a belief that all of the world's knowledge could be authoritatively recorded in one place. But alongside that confidence was the youthful enthusiasm of a rapidly unfolding high-tech age: Suddenly, we could store all of that knowledge in a miniscule fraction of the space of the classic bookshelf encyclopedia set. ■ America had just won the Cold War, the economy was booming, and the soundtrack to everything was spectacular. It was, overall, a magnificently optimistic time to be alive. And comparatively innocent, too: Terrorism existed, but 9/11 hadn't happened yet. Violence was problematic, too, but crime was declining and school shootings hadn't yet become a deplorable social contagion. ■ The unusual confluence of massive historical waves created a sense of the moment that really can't be recreated, no matter what kind of alchemy we might try. Even the words "right now" worked their way into multiple popular songs, hinting that even in the midst of it all, people were aware (if only incompletely) that the era was extraordinary. ■ Nevertheless, lots of important things are much better now than they were in the era of the CD-ROM encyclopedia. Our smartphones are faster than the supercomputers of then. Science is starting to outsmart cancer with vaccines. Per-capita economic activity has grown by well over 50%. Significant civil rights have been expanded and incorporated into law. ■ People are quick to point out the inconsistencies, shortcomings, and hypocrisies of our own age, and we are right to try to drum them out. But we also owe ourselves (and especially our children) the grace to recognize that there are lots of reasons to feel even better about our condition than many of us did in the last widespread era of really good feelings. ■ Right here and right now, we have more power, more knowledge, and more resources than ever to fix what's wrong. And we can look all the way back to more than a century ago to hear Teddy Roosevelt coaching us on to do so: "We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, and the courage and the virtue to do them."

June 8, 2023

News If you prosecute a Speaker

In mathematics and logic, one of the possible conditional statements is written "iff" -- the regular word "if", but with a second "f" tacked on the end. "Iff" is a shorthand method of writing "if and only if". An iff statement is meant to foreclose on any possible alternatives within the realm of imagination: There is one way in to an iff statement, and one way out. ■ As a matter of prudential judgment, a former chief of any branch of the Federal government -- a Chief Justice, a Speaker of the House, or a President -- ought to be prosecuted by the criminal justice system iff the prosecutor is convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that their guilt is indisputable in light of the available evidence. For the good of the country, now and in the future, the first Federal indictment of a former President had better meet such a standard. ■ America has withstood bad, incompetent, and even evil people in high offices before. James Buchanan, for instance, ought to face the perpetual condemnation of history for dithering instead of quashing the brewing Civil War. But criminal prosecution wouldn't have been justified. ■ But on the other hand, Dennis Hastert, once Speaker of the House, went to Federal prison for financial crimes related to sexual abuse against minors that occurred long before he led the Article I branch of government. The crimes were provable, and Hastert confessed. ■ Criminal prosecution plainly cannot be used as a tool to settle scores or exact retribution against political foes. That would be an abuse of power. But leaving plainly evident crimes unpunished is also a road straight to disaster, since it would be the excuse of abuse of power. ■ It is a symptom of corrupted perceptions for anyone to view it differently for an ex-President to be prosecuted than for an ex-Speaker or an ex-Chief Justice. We don't seem to have had much malfeasance among the justices, but there is nothing Constitutionally sound about treating anyone more gently for having led the executive branch than for having led the legislature instead. They are components of the same whole. ■ Prosecutions of such a magnitude must not be executed for light and transient causes. But if the evidence really is incontrovertible, then the consequences for withholding a justified prosecution could be disastrous.

June 7, 2023

News Advancing without exploiting

Every worthwhile school of thought needs new advocates with every new generation. Whether it's a philosophical school, a religious faith, or a political perspective, the need for patrons (in the sense of "a special guardian, protector, or supporter") can't be avoided. Without them, the school of thought gathers dust or fades into obscurity. ■ Occasionally, they're rescued from the deepest archives -- but not often. Religions can die out (the Shakers are down to two). So can political movements (the Whigs are no more). Philosophies can disappear, too (good luck finding the works of Diogenes). In general, survival depends upon active engagement and promotion by new advocates in each generation. ■ To be useful, patrons need to be thoughtful enough to add to the canon without trying to overshadow it, and authentically passionate enough to be heard without being hucksters or profiteers. It can be hard to uncover people who are capable enough to add to a canon without thinking they're even bigger than the people who came along before them. It can also be hard to find people who can insert an established school of thought into the contemporary world without putting the spotlight mainly on themselves. A modest, humble, but determined "special guardian" can be invaluable. ■ For how important that role is, what isn't obvious is how people learn to carry it out. It's not hard to find people who trip well across the line of profiteering: Christianity, for instance, has had no trivial number of empire-building self-promoters whose commitment to self-enrichment exceeded their commitment to the message. And Christianity is far from being the only school of thought caught up in such waves of exploitation. ■ Just as the modern world has made occupational and academic disciplines out of management, marketing, and human resources, so too ought we to find the green shoots of a discipline in patronizing a school of thought -- not passively, as a consumer, but actively and constructively. To be an active patron takes a range of skills that aren't immediately obvious, nor consistently bundled together in any existing disciplines: It takes a combination of historical knowledge, promotional finesse, persuasive power, and innovative thinking. ■ If it is possible to make nascent fields out of leadership studies and marketing analytics, then surely there ought to be room in both our imaginations and in our schools for the study of how to preserve and advance philosophical schools without corrupting or profiteering from them.

Weather and Disasters Bad wildfires, great sunsets

The Canadian wildfires are a terrible development, but the hues at sunset are pretty spectacular

Computers and the Internet Abuse of the word "satisfying" is deeply dissatisfying

At least 50% of the watchbait posts on Facebook that use the word "satisfying" really ought to say "repulsive" instead. Truth in advertising and whatnot.

June 5, 2023

Computers and the Internet Where can we find the emergency brake?

New technologies almost invariably bring about both good and bad uses; going all the way back to the first tools invented by our prehistoric ancestors, we find that the same knife that can be used to hunt game to feed a family can also be used to commit murder. With very few exceptions, technology is value-neutral; its good or bad use is in the hands of the people using it. ■ The human element, which not only involves operational supervision but also judgment about its use, is what makes the explosive arrival of large-scale artificial intelligence tools such an imminent cause for concern. On one hand, we have this widely-signed statement of the Center for AI Safety: "Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war." Heady stuff. On the other hand, we have AI-topians sharing "hacks" like "Here's how to get a professional therapist for free [by training ChatGPT]". ■ As researcher Neil Renic notes of that latter group, "These people are rightly ridiculed for their exaggerated faith in AI. But worse is their miserable lack of faith in humans and meaningful connection between humans." It's telling, isn't it? Instead of discussing how the technology could be used to train more and better human therapists (which is not only a conceivable goal, but a highly worthwhile one!), certain of the AI-topians want to fervently believe that a conscience-less technology can take a human's place within a deeply intimate relationship. ■ There are right and wrong answers when it comes to new technology. We don't know all of them yet, but it's imperative to get to work on defining some workable heuristics as swiftly as possible. A good starting heuristic might go like this: Are we using AI to replace human judgment? Danger! Use extreme caution. Are we using AI to enhance human judgment? Proceed carefully, putting safeguards in place to slow down the unintended consequences and installing kill-switch options wherever possible. ■ Warren Buffett cautioned an audience about AI last month: "When I'm told something can do all things, I get worried because you can't uninvent it. We invented the atom bomb out of necessity during World War II, but was it really a good thing for the next 200 years? AI can change a lot, but it can't change how people think." What makes artificial intelligence unique in this regard is that its overwhelming use advantage is to act faster than human judgment can supervise. ■ Becoming too enamored with that power puts us at risk of omitting vital checks along the way: The tracks of a railroad certainly automate away a huge number of individual decisions that would otherwise need to be made by a conductor steering a load down a road, but we still give train engineers emergency brakes to help avoid or mitigate disasters. Sooner or later, we'll uncover the need for similar "emergency brakes" on AI technologies, to ensure that human judgment still plays a dispositive role. Let's hope it's sooner.

June 4, 2023

News Don't cut it so close

When pressed last month to describe the systemic strengths of the United States, Charlie Munger pivoted to a broader question and advised, "I think the road ahead to human happiness is to expect less." He wasn't speaking explicitly of the behavior of Congress, but it's a appropriate advice nonetheless. Particularly in light of the too-close call to suspend the Federal debt ceiling and avoid default, "Expect less" is even better advice than it first appears. ■ In terms of performance, we should expect no less than we do now. Failing to reach a sensible agreement until the absolute last moment is a mark of dysfunction and incapacity, neither of which should pass muster with American voters. If your member of Congress was a holdout, they are part of the problem and you should hold them accountable. ■ But in terms of ambition, we really should expect less. It should be self-evident that we (as a voting public) are expecting more of Congress than they are willing, institutionally, to deliver. Regular order is nowhere to be seen, and there is room enough for a bipartisan caucus full of people who would plainly rather be putting on performances for media consumption than getting legislation passed. ■ The vast majority of states are population or economic peers with recognizable countries. One of the great gifts of the Constitutional order is that those states don't have to invest substantial time or resources conducting foreign affairs or coordinating national defense; Washington does all that. All else being equal, the result should be greater innovation and policy quality coming out of individual states than from their international peers. Yet does it feel that way? ■ Lowering our expectations for what Congress and the Federal government should try to do would permit us to raise our expectations for what they actually execute upon. Keep the task list short, but demand reliable performance. Meanwhile, recalibrating our rubric for the elected officials in Washington ought to leave us with more scrutiny to apply on the state level, where problems are already closer to home than they look from the District of Columbia. The pinch with the debt ceiling should give us the impetus to pull answers from closer rather than farther awaay.

June 3, 2023

News Informing the future with the past

It's hard to say how much worse-off the world is just because the cadre in power in a single country refuses to accept the possibility of real criticism from the public. But 1.4 billion people remain deprived of political conditions so basic that Americans routinely forget that they are credited directly in the First Amendment: The right to protest peaceably, and the right to petition the government with grievances. ■ Since 1989, China's government has played a game of cat-and-mous with the facts of Tiananmen Square. The protests were huge and sustained, the protesters voiced clear demands, and people died for the cause. Yet China's government persists in trying to erase the past from any current review. ■ Many things are wrong with America's government, and those should be addressed. But however short it fails on other accounts, America knows that it gets things wrong, and that correcting a bad way is better than covering it up. June 4, 1989 happened.

June 2, 2023

The United States of America Bring in the governors

Every four years, ego, delusion, or a sense of destiny compels more than a few people to decide that the time is now for them to step forward and offer up their incomparable talents for the good of leading the nation. One of them becomes President. ■ In the most sensible scenario, American voters would insist on a prequalification beyond the basic Constitutional requirements. For two reasons, one obvious and the other considerably less so, we generally ought to draw those candidates from the ranks of current and former governors. ■ The obvious reason is that there is no simulator program for the Oval Office. You can learn to make an emergency landing in an airliner that way, but the 3 a.m. phone call is harder to practice. But despite the obvious differences, the role of the governor -- not a CEO, not a Senator, not a celebrity -- is the closest thing we have to that of the President. The Presidency is bigger, of course, but the difference is more of scale than of form. As with airline pilots, practice matters. ■ The less-obvious reason is the value of a screening mechanism. Candidates naturally tout their successes, but it's more important to screen out people who fail under stress. Governors have been toppled just in the last two decades by unpopular decision-making, sexual harassment, and naked corruption. Screening out those governors before they could become candidates for the Presidency quite likely served a very useful public purpose. ■ Some of our best Presidents, of course, were never governors; Washington and Lincoln both came to office without being state-level chief executives first. But it's likely that anyone who went on to be a successful President would have cleared a term in office as a governor if voters had expected them to do that first. Eisenhower and Bush (41) undoubtedly had what it would have taken to be good governors en route to the Presidency. But four years (or more) in a governor's chair might have exposed the shortcomings in others, like Harding or Nixon, who ultimately failed the public in higher office. ■ Successes are important, and it's worthwhile to expect a successful candidate to have some victories to show off. But discerning voters ought to demand that candidates expose themselves to big opportunities to fail, and that requires time facing challenges and temptations that are hard to mimic at a scale close enough to the Presidency to matter. But expecting ambitious people to take a chance to fail before running for the nation's highest office seems like a smart test for our own common good.

June 1, 2023

News Don't forget

As school lets out for the summer across the United States, well-meaning teachers will inevitably grow anxious about summer learning loss -- the slippage widely believed to occur as kids are away from the classroom. Whether the evidence is quite as bad as the perception of the issue may be another story, but given the pointed decline in test scores after Covid-related school shutdowns, it's hard to argue that kids are capable of learning and retaining quite as well when they're spending their summers "free range" as when they're bound to the classrooms in the colder months of the year. ■ Notwithstanding the finer details of helping children find motivation to keep sharp on what they've learned during the school year, it's hard to think of any fundamental parenting project more useful than nudging kids to find something -- anything -- in which to take a recreational interest. ■ It is the largely unstructured nature of childhood summers that often makes them so appealing. Play is spectacularly important to human development, and adults should carve out lots of latitude for kids to engage in play, no matter how hard structure tries to intrude upon summer vacation. ■ But curiosity often does need just a little bit of outside help: A spark turns into a roaring campfire usually when someone blows gently on it. It's no use to overwhelm the dry tinder, but it's also usually not enough to hope it catches all on its own. Adults often do the most good by giving childhood curiosity just a little bit of help: A few extra trips to the library, a couple of explorational tools, or a nudge to explore for an answer to a question without resorting to a YouTube tutorial. ■ Many kids will take the summer off and return to classrooms in the fall without any apparent slippage at all. Others will surrender some of the prior year's gains. But the more we can invite young people to at least stay curious (and to grow more so independently), the better off everyone will emerge in the long run.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

May 30, 2023

Science and Technology Looking out the window

Plenty of people alive today are no more than one or two generations removed from ancestors who lived before the Wright Brothers launched the age of powered flight in 1903. It would do many of us some good to ponder this kind of thing once in a while. Only a couple of generations ago, literally nobody had ever gotten to see above the clouds without climbing a mountain. Now, a passenger just has to look out the cabin window of a jet airplane. ■ It's easy to underestimate and underappreciate the dramatic changes that have improved life in our own times and in the times that preceded us. Technologies often streak from magic to mundane in about as much time as it takes for a child born at the technology's outset to reach legal adulthood. We only incentivize this pipeline from adoption to presumption by rewarding people for being "digital natives" -- or whatever broad generational definition for technophiles is yet to come. ■ To appear to take advancements for granted is often the price of entry into the world of "cool". After William Shatner took a brief ride into space, he wrote, "when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold...all I saw was death." Not cool. It would have been much cooler to say that the trip felt like no big deal. ■ But we should take that moment to look out the cabin window -- and to really consider just how much change can take place in an astonishingly short time. Not because the time itself is the material subject at hand, but because of the fragility it represents. All of the human progress that has been made in virtually every area that matters has been iterative, not breakthrough. We often consider the Wright Brothers' success as a breakthrough, but it was really the result of persistent, methodical effort built on a foundation of research and support. And nearly everything that has happened since that time to permit the ordinary air traveler to see above the clouds has also taken place one small piece at a time. ■ Our entire modern world is built on complex relationships, narrow specialties, and, above all, basic mutual trust. None of it works if we can't trust one another -- to do our best at our specialties individually, to follow through on our promises, and to stay out of the way when others peacefully engage in whatever they choose to do either for fun or for profit. ■ Those who make their way by promising aggressive disruption or by threatening to boldly dismantle systems and institutions out of spite are dangerously prone to wrecking things far beyond their own intent. Having a firm appreciation for just how elaborate the structures of the world have evolved to be is the first step towards understanding how delicate our modern comforts often are.

May 28, 2023

News Balance the load

In markets where Amazon has a large enough presence, it's possible to have some deliveries made in the overnight hours. Most consumers would probably view the offer as a matter of convenience (why not get an item at 7am instead of 5pm?), and possibly as an option to reduce the risk of porch piracy (with the package spending less time on the front doorstep than a delivery made in the middle of a work day). ■ But it's surprising that overnight delivery isn't promoted more heavily in Amazon's own self-interest. Using the streets when fewer other drivers are about would have to be of no small advantage, in terms of time lost in traffic and accident risk. And while many delivery drivers would rather keep to conventional working hours, surely some would prefer to be out and about when the roads contain fewer drivers, the sidewalks contain fewer children, and yards contain fewer unleashed pets. ■ If the workplace disruptions of 2020 and onwards have taught us anything, the most important lesson ought to be the virtue of load-balancing. Lots of work takes place during what we might call "surge" hours, simply because that's what we've always done in the past. But when office workers were sent home en masse, no small number of them chose to get things done late at night or early in the morning. ■ Plenty of fortunes are yet to be earned by finding new breakthroughs in technology and innovations in processes. But there's a lot yet to be gained by balancing out the use of many existing resources, from surface streets to electricity to potable water to labor supply, all of which are consumed in their own ways at lumpy intervals. Smoothing those out will continue to be a useful frontier.

May 25, 2023

Computers and the Internet Reach out and touch someone, but not always

One of humanity's key evolutionary advantages is the ability to store, process, and retrieve our knowledge externally. We write our to-do lists on paper, document our best procedures in textbooks, execute complex processes through teamwork, and store information in databases. Even the simple act of storytelling reflects the ways in which oral traditions permitted our ancestors to store knowledge in common: The Epic of Gilgamesh might not be a stunningly factual account, but it doesn't seem likely that any other animal species are telling inter-generational tales like we can. ■ Even swapping tales with old friends is a practice in retrieving and recalling old information that may even be autobiographical, but of which we don't have to carry the whole, each by ourselves. Get married, some say, so that you only have to remember half of what you "know". This externalization of memory is a powerful advantage for human beings, and it's probably shaped human history to an extent none of us can fathom. ■ But what we know is different from how we feel, and it seems likely that there is some measure of peril in storing our feelings externally. Surely everyone knows someone who can't help but spill every minute emotional encounter all over everyone around. Some are emotional vampires. Some compulsively over-share their intimate thoughts with their social-media networks. Others are just full-time drama queens. ■ The mechanisms that enhance our ability to store and recall knowledge can have pernicious effects on how we process and moderate our emotions. That starts with the imperfection of detailing our feelings in the same ways we document knowledge; it's often only a rough translation, at best. Putting feelings into words is a challenge as old as language itself. ■ But the hazard goes much further than that. One of the key developmental steps in healthy emotional management is learning how to acknowledge feelings and work with them in healthy ways. As the therapist Philippa Perry writes, "This is what a child needs: for a parent to be a container for their emotions. This means you are alongside them and know and accept what they feel but you are not being overwhelmed by their feelings." And it's what makes the ring theory so helpful in psychology: The person at the center of emotional trouble can find relief by leaning on others who are less directly affected, with the suffering being allowed to dissipate as more degrees of separation from the immediate problem are enlisted to share the burden. ■ The tools -- especially the electronic ones -- that allow us to store, retrieve, and transmit useful information more easily than ever before are phenomenal for the things we know. But they can imprison people into reliving the same emotional injuries over and over, deprive others of the kind of moderation that follows from quietly processing their own feelings before sharing, and expose lots of bystanders to the kinds of strong feelings that might be better dissipated by distance and time. On the Internet, the death of your mail carrier's uncle's golden retriever can abruptly become a tragedy from which you cannot escape. ■ This isn't a problem we can outsource to artificial intelligence or manage through Solomonic regulations. It's a human incongruity between the great good some of our tools can do to make us smarter and the expansive harm they can do if allowed to stunt us emotionally. Yet discussing the problem openly and grappling with it is a vital human undertaking -- especially knowing how much of the fundamental nature of it is the same as it was hundreds and even thousands of years ago. ■ "[W]henever a man thinks about something that distresses him, and worry, grief, or sadness crop up in him, it can be due only to one of two things: either he is thinking about a matter that has already taken place [...] or else he is thinking about matters he expects and whose advent he dreads", in the words of Maimonides. Only now, it is possible to indulge in those feelings non-stop. People haven't changed, but people's tools have.

May 24, 2023

News What death has to do with life

Upon his untimely death at the age of 57, the artist (usually) known as Prince is reported to have left behind a vault containing a nearly unfathomable 8,000 unreleased songs at various stages of completion. Other artists have left behind unreleased and incomplete music, but none of them come close to that kind of an archive yet to be widely discovered. ■ Tina Turner, who has now passed away at age 83, might have stored away some surprises for future discovery, but it's likely that we already know most of her oeuvre -- a big one. The world will undoubtedly replay her ten studio albums and 72 singles for at least a few generations to come. (And rightly so.) ■ Yet for most people, it won't be an ongoing catalog of performances that keep our names on others' lips after we die. That is often the work of rituals (like visiting a cemetery for Memorial Day), family genealogy enthusiasts, and occasional chance forays into dusty old yearbooks or photo albums. ■ Counterintuitively, though, recalling the names of the dead is a meaningful way of channeling the behavior of the living. By necessity, nations often hail "glory to the heroes" of battle. But it's good to praise the names of those who led more pedestrian lives with decency and honor -- and to curse the ones who did wrong when they should have known better. ■ Everyone lives in a race against mortality, even though we don't often want to acknowledge it. Passing judgment on the choices of our forebears and actively seeking to make the awareness of that judgment a guardrail on the behavior of the living shouldn't be underestimated as tools for getting people to behave well even when the good behavior doesn't appear to have immediate rewards. ■ Some people will be remembered mainly for the artistic or tangible works they leave behind, but most won't. Those lives matter intrinsically (which is why they are marked with gravestones and other commemorations), but they can continue to teach if we let them. Recounting an old name is not unlike remixing a classic hit to make it fresh once again.

May 23, 2023

Health Take the sick day

No small number of sitcoms not that long ago depended on the premise of a main character showing up to work sick, usually to be goaded by co-workers into "sucking it up" and muddling through without taking the day off. The office flu used to be a gag that even "Cheers" leaned upon. ■ Funny how a pandemic drove a stake right through the heart of that premise. Nobody wants to be Patient Zero anymore, and that's a good thing: Americans and our work-driven cultural mentality need to know that it's not only prudent to take a break once in a while, it's the only responsible choice to stay home when potentially contagious. ■ It's possible that in the long run, we will either forget the lessons of the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic -- or, perhaps more likely, those who remember the lessons will leave the workplace, and their successor generations won't have the same "muscle memory" for the value of staying home. But it would be much better if we were to strike a healthy balance between the virtues of attendance and the public-health responsibility to stay away from time to time. ■ Fixing that cultural hangup starts as early as elementary school, where achieving perfect attendance ought to be treated a little like winning a lottery ("Congratulations! You didn't happen to be sick on a school day all year!"). It's tricky to find the right rewards and commendations for avoiding voluntary absences while not skewing the incentives in such a way that well-intentioned kids show up when they should be home in bed. But that policy balance is important to seek. ■ Likewise for the workplace. Educational truancy and workplace absenteeism are both to be discouraged, but not at the expense of spreading contagion to everyone else. Among the many good ideas still worth implementing in most workplaces, achieving the right environment so that people feel valued enough that they want to show up (and value their colleagues enough not to show up when they oughtn't) probably ranks right up there alongside the considerably under-explored field of improving indoor air quality. Regardless, it will probably be some time before the sick day plays a central role in anything written for laughs.

May 22, 2023

News More than a job

Sometimes it must be assumed that people share absurd opinions on social media for the express purpose of generating engagement via click-rage. Little else could explain just shockingly bad advice like one person's advice: "Don't fall in love from 22-29, there's to[o] much to lose. Your career will thank you." ■ Far better advice would be, "Don't become monomaniacal from 22-29; there's too much to lose." A single-minded obsession with one's career at that age is terrible advice on a human level, generally: Nobody ever knows when they might be struck down by injury or illness far before their prime, and to have squandered one's twenties on career alone could turn out to be a grave error. ■ But even as career advice, "Focus exclusively on your job" is a terrible recommendation. A person may certainly take pains to control when or whether they choose to escalate from "falling in love" to "raising a family"; that's perfectly fine. But love is an entirely healthy and reasonable part of a well-rounded life. So are friendships. And so are the non-occupational pursuits that put us into positions that expose us to opportunities to find friends or fall in love. ■ A person who doesn't afford themselves the opportunity to do those other things -- by joining a recreational bowling league, or volunteering at a hospital, or worshipping with a faith community, or having meals with others -- is guilty of cutting themselves off from the prospect of a well-integrated life. Hobbies and club memberships and travel all serve to make a person's life experience not only more extensive, but more whole. ■ That wholeness is important, first and foremost, as a part of one's biography. In the words of Ben Sasse, "Many of us might be unintentionally displacing lifelong 'eulogy virtues' in favor of mere 'resume virtues.'" But that integration of one's life inside and outside of work is also important in the strictly occupational sense, too: Experiences in lower-stakes environments give people practice in how they will respond to challenges in higher-stakes environments. ■ The person who shirks their duties at the Rotary Club or who cheats on a golf game may well be the type most others would want to avoid in business, too. But the person who can lift a little more than their share of the load or who can welcome a newcomer in environments where there's no supervisor watching is the kind of person who gets practice in the essential soft skills that matter so much elsewhere -- especially in an economy where services outweigh goods two-to-one. How we engage with other people matters a great deal. To think "your career will thank you" for behaving otherwise is delusional.

May 21, 2023

News Room service: No number, please

With so much security theater taking place in the modern world around us, it can be altogether too easy for individuals to come to believe that security is a product delivered by other people (the TSA, antivirus software makers, armed guards, credit-card companies, and countless others), when it is actually a process constantly underway that requires the active participation of all decent people of goodwill. ■ Consider the routine act of a hotel check-in. Attorney Michelle Strowhiro praises the night auditor of a Texas hotel for a simple but highly security-conscious act: "Ray wrote my hotel room number on the key envelope, pointed to it, & said: 'This is your room number. I'm not going to say it out loud.'" ■ The practice of keeping quiet about a traveler's room number is increasingly widespread, but it's not universal yet. That much is worth changing institutionally; every chain ought to make it standard operating procedure to discreetly write the number so that it cannot be eavesdropped or snooped by a passerby or by someone else in line. But it is quite nearly just as important for check-in staff to advise guests of the value of that discretion. ■ It's not uncommon for guests to check in when they are tired, distracted, or under some form of stress. And people under stressful conditions do not make decisions in the same way as people acting without stress. Gentle reminders to take part in one's own guest security (for instance, by not blabbing aloud about room numbers) are prudent ways for hoteliers to enhance the security process. "I'm not going to say it out loud" is an unobtrusive way of hinting "And you shouldn't, either". ■ Security is never really permanent, since those out to do wrong will perpetually have incentives to find ways around whatever new obstacles we put up: Despite the Maginot Line, France still fell quickly in World War II. Everyone has a significant part to play in their own security, and the more often and thoughtfully we are nudged to take that role seriously, the better -- even when checking in at a hotel.

May 18, 2023

Business and Finance Be patient and win later

The close of another school year brings along with it plenty of predictable news stories, like those of students accepted to lots of colleges and parents concerned about summer learning loss. Another perennial favorite story archetype is the one about students winning a class stock-picking challenge. ■ On one hand, financial education in schools is a concept that ought to be celebrated and promoted. In the Civil War era, it was often enough to teach a young man (or often, just a boy) how to farm -- and that was the extent of financial education, and why the land-grand colleges of the period remain closely affiliated with agriculture even today. Now, though, skill in farming, a trade, or even a white-collar profession isn't enough. The financial world, even for the individual, is vastly more complicated than it once was. ■ But on the other hand, unless a teacher (or a department) is committed to sticking with a cohort of students through a multi-year program, then stock-picking contests may well be counter-productive. It's useful to learn what stocks are, how much they cost, and how to buy and sell them, of course. But students are prone to getting all of the wrong ideas if their incentives are structured around winning a short-term contest. ■ Warren Buffett had these words about value-driven investing at the 2023 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting: "What gives the value investor opportunities is other people doing dumb things, and now it's easier to get money to do dumb things...So many people are short-term-focused. Much opportunity still exists for people who can think long-term." ■ But by "long-term", Buffett is talking on a scale of years and decades, not a semester, or even a school year. If a student team had bought shares of Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, at the start of the 2020 spring semester, the price of those shares would have cratered over the course of that semester. Berkshire shares dropped from $226 a share in January to $200 a share by the end of May. That would have looked like a catastrophe in a classroom stock-picking contest. Yet those shares today, just seven semesters later, are up to nearly $330 a share. ■ The prudent move for a long-term investor in the spring of 2020 would have been to keep on buying as prices continued to drop -- the return on the shares bought at the end of that spring 2000 semester would have been even better than on the ones bought when the price was higher at the start of the semester. In other words, the smart long-term lesson is exactly the opposite of the lesson a normal student would have gathered from the experience of losing a one-semester classroom contest. ■ The way to win that contest would have been to buy shares in Zoom at $67 a share in January 2020, for a great semester-long return on a price of $207 a share at the end of May 2020. Today, though, Zoom is back down to about $69 a share -- yielding virtually no long-term return at all. ■ In the end, everyone is measured as a long-term investor, whether it's the result of a long series of short-term choices or (usually) a much smaller number of long-term choices. Merely buying and holding a broad index like the S&P 500 at the start of 2020 would have been a losing choice for a semester-length contest -- but it would have crushed the returns on short-term winner Zoom if held until today. ■ And that's the lesson it's most important to convey to students: Make a few careful decisions, then have the constancy to stomach ups and downs for much longer than a semester. That's how to win in the way that really counts for your finances in life.

May 17, 2023

News Don't let a computer speechwriter outshine you

A graduating high-school student in Nebraska says he used ChatGPT to write a decoy commencement address that got him selected to give a speech at graduation, from which he deviated into a much more critical address once on stage. The speech actually delivered painted an unflattering picture of fights and disengagement and a school experience the graduate "hated". ■ The selection process for the speech involved blind review and scoring by faculty, with final approval by the school's principal. This, by itself, ought to be alarming: If you're a school administrator and you rank a ChatGPT-generated speech higher than what any students submitted, that should rattle you. Either there's something wrong with the review process (suggesting it implicitly favors dull speeches that don't say anything substantial) or there's something wrong with the quality of what the students are writing. Perhaps both. ■ In a sensible world, a graduating class should pick its own commencement speakers. People graduating from high school are generally either 18 years old or on the cusp of turning that age, making them adults in the eyes of the law. Adults who are considered eligible to vote in meaningful elections at the local, state, and national levels. They ought to be considered old enough to choose who speaks for them -- literally -- at their own graduation proceedings. ■ But in a sensible world, speakers would heed this simple advice: Don't blow a commencement address on complaints. It's easy to think that the best place to be heard is when you literally have everyone's attention, like when you're on stage at a commencement. But the most effective place to levy real complaints about a culture that disappoints you is in published writing. Think: Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Declaration of Independence, or the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Those can, of course, be amplified with speeches and dramatic actions, but grievances deserve paper and ink. ■ Speeches, for all we hail them in the history books, are almost never remembered for their laundry lists. They're remembered for their tone and, usually, for a single signature line. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." "I have a dream today." "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" ■ The hook, to borrow a line from the song, is what brings the audience back to the rest of the speech. People will revisit the rest of the words in a speech if -- and often only if -- it contained a resonant theme with a line that compels them to return to it. And when it's a big speech for a turning point in life (like a commencement), the best course is to have something to say not about how bad things are, but about a vision of how they deserve to be.

May 16, 2023

News Showing up and doing the work

Everyone follows one of exactly two courses in life: One either grows older or one dies. There are no options to go in the other direction. In a youth-worshipping culture like America's, it's all too easy to conjoin perceptions of aging with expectations of decline. ■ That isn't universally the case; Norman Borlaug worked into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 81 at the Constitutional Convention. Frederick Douglass remained a tireless social crusader until he was nearly 80. It's possible for people to do many great things as they advance. ■ It is vital that we separate our assumptions about age from our expectations of capacity, so that we don't make prejudicial decisions about either the old or the young. But it is also essential that we don't use age -- either the freshness of youth or the weathering of seniority -- as an excuse, either. There should be no free passes based on chronology alone. ■ A political journalist for the Los Angeles Times -- a mainstream journalistic institution -- reports that California Senator Diane Feinstein, interviewed briefly just days after her return to the Capitol after a months-long absence, responded to questions about that return by saying, "I haven't been gone. You should...I haven't been gone. I've been working [...] I've been here." ■ Without being cruel or uncompassionate, we can acknowledge that this kind of exchange, especially when documented as part of a pattern, casts meaningful doubt on the Senator's ability to discharge the duties of office. It is cruel for anyone to say, "She is too old and thus she must go". But it is another kind of cruelty to put her in a position of high expectations if she doesn't possess the stamina or the capacity to do so. ■ In a representative democracy, the public depends upon the judgment and diligence of the people sent to make decisions on the voters' behalf. In the words of Edmund Burke, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment". In no other institution do we have higher expectations for judgment than in the United States Senate; it ought to be the place where each state sends the two wisest, most capable decision-makers they can find among them. ■ Some Senators plainly are up to the task and are tireless in giving the republic their best. Others fail to take that charge seriously and would quite obviously rather be doing other things. And some simply don't have the capacities to carry out duties in full. It's lazy to reduce any of those evaluations to merely a measurement of age. But it's also ill-advised to make either seniority or youth an excuse for holding decision-makers in office without holding them to an adequate standard of performance.

May 15, 2023

Threats and Hazards US DOT data heisted

Some events are newsworthy, even when they are reasonably predictable. Nobody's going to be surprised if and when at least one hurricane makes landfall somewhere on the East Coast or along the Gulf of Mexico sometime this year; 2015 was the last year without a landfall. It will be newsworthy the next time the event occurs: The actual locations affected, the magnitude of the storm, and the cost of the damage are all utterly unknowable right now, even if the event itself is a near-certainty. (If not this season, there will definitely be another landfall in a subsequent season.) ■ Unfortunately, news that the US Department of Transportation was targeted in a cyberattack that exposed the personal information of 237,000 current and former employees is no surprise. The particular magnitude and timing of the attack may not have been known, but the fact that a tranche of personnel data at a Federal government agency was targeted comes as no shock at all. ■ Who was behind the attack? What methods did they use? Were adequate defensive measures in place? How sensitive was the compromised data? All are valid questions. But the big picture to bear in mind is this: Attacking a really big data set generally requires sophistication, which in turn requires tools, training, and funding. Plenty of criminal groups have the means to get returns on their cyber-theft activities without making a big stir. ■ But when someone is going after government employees -- particularly when it's a quarter-million at a time -- the first place to look for suspects is among rival state actors. 237,000 people seems like a lot to most people inside the United States; after all, that's the population of Boise, Idaho, a top-100 American city. But the authorities governing China collect data on everyone in the country. That's 1.4 billion people, or more than four times the entire population of the United States. ■ In other words, the scale of a quarter-million-employee breach sounds huge to us, but it's not even rounding error within the scale of what is likely being done to watch the people of China by a government that is known to track the locations of millions of people in real time. Stealing data related to American government employees, even a little of which might turn out to be useful for data-mining, pressure campaigns, or even kompromat, is well within reach for systems already built to that scale. ■ Americans need to realize just how much more we could easily become targets for ongoing data breaches and cyber attacks. Every day that passes means new programs being coded, new cyber-agents being trained, and more chips being fabricated. 237,000 is a big number. But it's nowhere close to what's ahead.

May 13, 2023

Computers and the Internet Crash for clicks

The path to YouTube stardom has been taken by some people through some ridiculous journeys. One used corpses as props. Another leaned on antisemitism and sexism in his rise to the top of the charts. ■ And now, one dope has been convicted of obstructing a Federal investigation by destroying the evidence that he intentionally crashed an airplane for clicks. He didn't just crash the plane, he filmed himself parachuting out -- and then covered up the evidence of the hoax. ■ The Internet almost certainly hasn't increased the total number of bad people among us. But it has increased the number of opportunities and incentives for bad people to do things that probably ought to get them launched straight into the Sun. ■ Internet stardom has made some people very rich: One top revenue-generator brought in $54 million in 2021. Others have brought in tens of millions of dollars annually, too. For a line of work someone can enter with nothing more than a smartphone, those numbers are alluring. ■ But there's also generally no "coming up the ranks" -- it's not like the typical path to success in other lines of work, where one pays their dues in the early phase of a career, learns harder skills from their seniors along the way, and rises to the top after years of grinding. No, this is a field in which lots of people are shamelessly willing to offer YouTuber camps for kids at rates of $1,000 a week or more. A breakout success can mean almost instant riches, but breaking out often requires doing things well outside the mainstream. ■ And it's the counter-mainstream quality that can unintentionally reward the bad people far more often than it should. By raising the incentives to engage in extreme or shocking behavior, YouTube (and lots of other platforms similar to it) decidedly increases the exposure for those who are willing to "go there" in ways others wouldn't. There's no intuitive solution to the problem, but it's one we shouldn't ignore.

May 12, 2023

Computers and the Internet Google's very bad idea

Google has proudly announced the opening of eight new top-level domains (the part of a website address that comes last, like ".com" or ".gov"). Among them are ".zip" and ".mov", which are already well-established filename extensions (as in, ".doc" or ".txt"), for compressed files and for movies, respectively. ■ Making .zip and .mov into top-level domains is an extremely bad idea. And someone at Google should have known better and put a stop to it. Files that absolutely, positively should not be opened are going to get clicked as a result of this decision. Good cybersecurity practice says never to open a file ending in ".zip" without clear knowledge of its contents ahead of time. The same goes for most other files, including ".mov". ■ That advice is important to follow. People are often the easiest way to hack into networks. But how will cybersecurity practitioners be able to convincingly advise the people they're trying to protect not to click on things that say ".zip" if there are websites with exactly that extension in their names? That's really the only purpose of a domain name -- to be clicked! ■ Trust is vital, and so are the guardrails around trusted interactions. Top-level domains that share their letters with filename extensions only invite people with bad intentions to take advantage of their fellow human beings. And they will, certainly without delay. Blurring the lines between "things you should never click without extreme care" and "things you are being asked to click because that's exactly what they're for" is a terrible decision on the part of people who should know better. ■ If you want to hold on to an advanced civilization, you can't let unforced errors like this go through, whether you're Google or any other trustworthy institution in the world. There's no urgent need for new top-level domains -- we could have stuck with nothing but ".com" forever, and it would have been enough. People would have adapted around that arbitrary limitation. That we created many more -- including geography-based extensions like ".ly" for Libya that now find second lives as clever domain-name workarounds -- has only ever been a matter of increased convenience. ■ Everyone who likes living in a functioning society has a part to play in protecting themselves and others. Most of the time, that takes place by following the expert advice of others. But sometimes, it requires applying one's own expertise in order to put the brakes on bad ideas that could put others at undue risk. ■ Someone -- anyone -- at Google should have known enough to call this out as a bad idea. Nobody is going to die if they don't get to name their domain "". But eroding good cybersecurity hygiene practices in a time when almost everything is connected? That really could get someone hurt. Don't be evil.

May 11, 2023

Business and Finance Who's your right hand?

Elon Musk has cryptically announced the hiring of a new CEO for Twitter. It's a job nobody should envy. Musk will remain actively involved, he says, as executive chair and chief technology officer -- which means the buck stops somewhere other than the CEO's desk. And when he announced his plan in December, he openly declared, "I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!" ■ Musk, like many other entrepreneurs and venture-seeking investors, would benefit from engaging in real partnerships -- one-on-one, with someone he could respect as much (or at least nearly as much) as himself. But although it's easy to find colleges teaching courses on corporate finance, electives on venture capital, and workshops on mergers and acquisitions ($17,000 for a six-day session at Harvard Business School!), it's far less common to find anything like "Elements of Partnership". ■ Partnerships can be hard, but they're also in many ways leagues better than going solo or getting swallowed up inside giant investor-owned corporations. A good partnership between two ambitious, skilled individuals with complementary skills to one another is really the story of many of the great business successes of both past and present. We don't seem to explore those arrangements as much as we used to. We focus on big, exciting teams, or we focus on celebrity entrepreneurs. Not much is said about the middle. ■ A good partnership has a lot in common with a good marriage, in which two people help each other look out for blind spots and strive for better results within an atmosphere of equality. Partnerships are often the way, and Americans spend almost no time talking about them. In a world where increasing specialization seems to be rewarded ever the more, it seems sensible to ask whether the default approach to a great new venture shouldn't usually start with an "and" between two names.

May 10, 2023

News Gresham's Law of politics

Gresham's Law holds that bad money chases out good, which is a compact way of saying that once convincing counterfeit currency enters circulation, people will hold on to their supplies of good money while circulating the fake money instead. Gresham's Law isn't just useful in economic thinking, it's also a useful heuristic for considering behavior in many other realms of human life. ■ If, for example, we permit bad people to enter public office and tolerate their presence, then we shouldn't be surprised if bad politicians end up chasing out the good. Teddy Roosevelt said that "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." ■ The more we corrupt our own expectations of what officeholders ought to be, then the more we open the door to bad politicians chasing out the good. And indeed there are good politicians: To think otherwise is to exercise an unhealthy cynicism. Some are certainly wrong, and a few are sociopaths, but most are more or less cut from the same basic cloth as everyone else -- just with different motivations than those that send, say, a postal carrier or a dental hygienist off to work in the morning. But most people are good at heart, and that includes the people who enter politics. ■ But the corruption of voter expectations also happens when we persecute unnecessarily those who might be good at heart, but with whom we merely disagree. If life for the elected official is made so intolerable that no decent, self-respecting person would volunteer to run for an office, then we shouldn't be surprised if the ranks of our officeholders fill up with indecent people. ■ The over-personalization of partisan attacks is indecent. Protests held at people's homes are indecent. Speaking of our rivals and opponents as though they are sworn enemies in a blood feud is indecent. Naming staff members and revealing personal information with the obvious intent to stir up crowds to mob action is indecent (a violation prominently committed just today by an activist posing as a journalist). ■ There will always be bad people who will seek office, because bad people are often attracted to power. But from a systemic standpoint, voters need to have low tolerance for bad behavior by those they elect, and high expectations for how they themselves will respond when decent people are elected. ■ Not every policy disagreement is the result of someone's moral shortcoming. Compromise is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary to a functioning democratic system. We shouldn't only expect to be disappointed by policy outcomes from time to time, we must insist on it: Nobody gets 100% of what they want. But our tolerance for outcomes we don't like should be balanced with an intolerance for crooked behavior. Bad officials shouldn't be allowed to chase out the good.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

May 9, 2023

Humor and Good News Know your golden ages

Life, as everyone knows, can only be lived in one direction: Moving forward. This, of course, deprives us of the ability to revisit past mistakes or to re-live glorious moments. That can make the former seem more painful but make the memories of the latter more treasured. ■ But the linearity of time doesn't deprive us entirely of something else. One of the great under-appreciated life skills is knowing how to recognize when you're in the midst of a golden age. It can be the golden age of a cultural wave, of a great institution, or of an economic cycle. It could be a personal golden age, a professional one, or a moment of sublime health. ■ The first step towards cultivating this life skill is to recognize that all human experiences are changing, and many, if not most, are fleeting. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." Once we accept that most experiences come with an expiration date, we can develop the habit of appreciating them while they last. ■ For a healthy person, the right act may be to pause and soak in the sensation of a body that is fully well: The "mindfulness" practice of body-scan meditation may be the way to achieve that. For the appreciator of the arts, it may be to dwell on the "history until now" of a musical genre or a class of film. For the member of a team -- at work or at play -- it may be to consciously consider just how frictionless the efforts a good squad feel in the moment. ■ We rarely know when a change is coming, or how it might break a seemingly perfect status quo. It has been noted that nostalgia for the 1990s is fierce right now, and those who experienced that period the first time around may recall a world in which the economy was booming, the Internet was still mostly magical, and peace seemed to prevail. That was before the dot-com bubble burst, before anyone heard of ransomware or the "dark web", and before the nightmare of 9/11. If anyone had known at the time just how good they had it, surely they would have wanted to preserve that feeling forever. ■ That we cannot freeze those moments eternally ought to make us appreciate the good times while we experience them all the more. And if we're clever enough, we may begin to notice that it's almost always the golden age of something, even if it's rarely a golden age of everything. We can even measure it sometimes, like the golden age of scripted television happening now. ■ Like all skills, a person must practice recognizing the gift of a moment. But in recognizing that almost all such things come and go, we might grant ourselves the reward of not only living through the times for which we might someday later be nostalgic, but also of actually sensing the greatness of a gift while it is underway.

May 8, 2023

Business and Finance Real friends

When politicians refer to one another as "my friend", it's entirely possible they mean the exact opposite. It's a term also used to soften the blow of criticism, especially when it happens in writing on the Internet: "My friend, I think you need to revisit your priors on this..." ■ But we really shouldn't get comfortable with the disingenuous use of such an important title. Consider how Warren Buffett put it to use before an audience of tens of thousands of shareholders in 2023: "Ford Motor Company was on its way to the junk heap when the Whiz Kids came in, and Henry Ford II [...] brought in Tex Thornton and my friend Arjay Miller and a few people..." ■ Arjay Miller died in 2017, the last survivor among those "Whiz Kids". He achieved plenty on his own after his time at Ford, including a decade at the helm of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. But were he to be alive today and looking for a job, the only thing any rational manager would need to know prior to uttering the words "You're hired" would be that two-word endorsement from Warren Buffett: "My friend". ■ People often bend over backwards to stand out with the help of inflated LinkedIn titles, "personal brands", aspirational social-media handles, and other "influencer"-style tactics. But even in that world, no strategy is more powerful than being the kind of person whose endorsement carries instant weight. ■ If Warren Buffett calls you "my friend", you're in the door almost anywhere. It says a great deal about you -- but it reveals even more about the accrued credibility of your endorser. People will go to great lengths to make a short-term splash or to find ways to short-circuit the process of earning a reputation. But it remains certain that tactics and platforms will come and go, often in practically no time at all. Cultivating real friendships (especially those where the friends have nothing obvious to gain from one another), being generous with those friends, and earning a reputation as a trustworthy authority on questions where your own expertise is valuable will always be the path with the greatest long-term payoff.

May 6, 2023

Threats and Hazards One-way ticket out

It's often a mistake to play hardball for its own sake, but Canada's government appears to face a significant test of its mettle. A Chinese consular employee in Toronto is thought to have been targeting a member of the Canadian parliament for harassment and possibly worse. Nobody wants to see a diplomatic row over nothing, but the gravity of the situation shouldn't be understated. ■ One of the challenges for countries with free and open societies is that their very openness can be a tactical liability when faced with an adversary accustomed to the protections of darkness. It ordinarily takes a while to detect bad behavior in a free country, while unfree places can use tools like mass surveillance and snitching to keep an eye on others. ■ China's government appears to be engaged in a lot of boundary-testing right now. It's not just in the use of intimidation tactics to try to influence elected officials in Canada, it's in behavior like opening secret police stations in New York. ■ Canada might need a little bit of time to figure out the right response, but if the facts of the MP-target have been represented fairly, it shouldn't be a gentle one. Diplomacy is an exercise that depends on trust (even if incomplete) and fair dealing. Attempting to intimidate a foreign country's legislators into breaking to your will is pretty plainly a matter of cheating discussion. If rules aren't made to matter with consequences, then the entire enterprise breaks down.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

May 5, 2023

Business and Finance Play the old hits

While it's often said (and may well be true) that the strongest memories are hailed by the sense of smell, we as of now have no real way to preserve and transmit the scents we encounter in daily life. It's not like recording a person's voice or taking a photograph -- we don't have a Polaroid for odors. ■ Consequently, we're often left to rely upon images to conjure up conceptual memories of the past. Words are great for making us think, but pictures are often better at stirring up conceptual memories: Not what you were thinking at a time, but a general sensation of how you felt. ■ Living in an advanced commercial market economy, then, it's no surprise that old corporate logos can spark oddly affectionate feelings, especially if they're familiar from one's youth. Take the classic Warner Communications logo, used from 1972 unti 1984 by the Warner Brothers movie studio. For members of Generation X and some Millennials, it's an image that could easily be associated with any number of movies or TV shows from childhood -- making it a "feel-good" memory, even if there's no specific reason why. ■ Corporate identities have been valuable goods for most of the last century, considering their impact on the marketing of mass-market goods and services. But it is strange to note how many of the strongest, most durable identities came from a very limited set of creators. If it's a corporate logo originating from the 1960s through the 1980s and it's still in use, there's a very good chance it was created by Saul Bass (AT&T, Continental Airlines, Warner), Paul Rand (ABC, IBM, Westinghouse), or the team of Chermayeff and Geismar (NBC, Chase Bank, Mobil Oil). ■ Given how frequently companies change hands today -- with mergers, spinoffs, and startups peppering the financial news almost as often as existing companies launch "refreshed" brand images -- it's possible that there won't be quite as much brand-related nostalgia built into the impressionable young minds of right now. Wall Street favors "pure plays", not highly diversified companies. ■ There's also the matter that conglomerate-style corporations had a much stronger raison d'etre in that period of stronger corporate identity than they have today: The taxation and regulatory environment of the 1960s through the early 1980s, especially, favored companies that expanded into diversified industries (which is how heavy-industry conglomerate Gulf + Western got its name associated with Paramount Pictures, and why Coca-Cola briefly owned Columbia Pictures). ■ But let this be a lesson: An investor group has revived the old Westinghouse brand (a Paul Rand creation) and successfully applied it to a bunch of new products that have nothing to do with the old company. The old name and the thoughtfully-crafted classic identity still have value today. If you're sitting on the ownership of one of those dormant classic brands, you might own a treasure more valuable than you might think.

May 3, 2023

The United States of America Don't swear by it

Upon the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, the people of the United Kingdom will be invited to swear an oath of allegiance with these words: "I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God." It's being presented as a "new tradition", whatever that means. ■ Probably owing in no small part to the new king's mediocre public approval rating, the suggestion has gotten a lot of pushback. Princess Diana's former private secretary even scoffed at the idea on live television. ■ But aside from the personal popularity of the new monarch, a much bigger rule applies: In the words of an anti-monarchist group called Republic, "In a democracy it is the head of state who should be swearing allegiance to the people, not the other way around." They're quite right. ■ Every country has to decide for itself how to symbolize the state, and some choose monarchs. It's a strange choice to those who live in places like the United States, Ireland, or France, where sovereignty lies with the people, not the luckiest member of a lucky family, but traditions can be hard to break. But as Americans eye the notion of an oath of "allegiance to Your Majesty" with skepticism, we ought to consider a fluke of our own symbolism. ■ The Pledge of Allegiance, which didn't even exist until three decades after the Civil War, is a promise of loyalty "to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands". The flag is an important symbol, invested with great meaning by our rituals and worthy of considerable civic reverence. ■ But if Americans are to pledge allegiance to anything, it ought to be "to the Constitution of the United States, and to the republic which it ensures". The flag can certainly act as a stand-in symbol for the Constitution -- but not as a substitute. When sworn into office, the President swears to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", not the flag. Federal officeholders swear to "support and defend the Constitution". So do commissioned military officers and naturalized citizens. ■ The rest of us should do the same. A symbol can be manipulated or interpreted to mean lots of things -- insurrectionists even waved it on January 6th, 2021. But the Constitution means what it says. We may argue about its finer details, but the system is what preserves the American way. Whatever we might think of our friends and allies as they coronate a new king (with or without an oath of allegiance to his person), we ought to think about cleaning up our own symbolic promises of loyalty. The Constitution is the thing that matters most.

May 2, 2023

Threats and Hazards What cowards would bomb a museum?

A local history museum in Ukraine was destroyed by a Russian missile in a dastardly attack that murdered at least two people inside the museum. It requires a perverted view of humanity to target a history museum using weapons of war. ■ What kind of society is so threatened by its neighbors that it would murder a museum worker? What kind of culture is so fearful that it cannot let its next-door neighbors celebrate their own identity in peace? What kind of cowards use their weapons to destroy artifacts and kill people merely celebrating their own history? ■ These questions are more than merely rhetorical. Erasing the unique identity of a people is a way to weaponize culture; in this case, the self-evident goal of the aggressor is to diminish Ukraine's claim to independence. That has been a signature aspect of the aggression since the beginning of Russia's war against Ukraine. ■ The dastardly strategy has backfired, with Ukrainian self-identity stronger than it has ever been recorded before. Yet the attacks persist, against libraries, museums, theaters, and cultural symbols. UNESCO counts 253 different sites that have been targeted. ■ A self-confident country wouldn't have to assault the cultural memory of its neighbor to justify its own reckless bloodlust. An army committed to the profession of arms in self-defense wouldn't need to lob its missiles at a 55-year-old woman for running a museum. A nation belonging to the 21st Century wouldn't blow up apartment buildings full of children while claiming the presidency of the UN Security Council.

April 30, 2023

Computers and the Internet Digesting the news

Julian Sanchez comments that "[I]t's hard to see how journalism remains viable in an environment where every story can be instantly rewritten for free without infringing copyright." He's right to be concerned, and further still, the worry ought to apply even more once one realizes the customization possibilities. It's not just possible to demand news summaries, it's possible to ask for the news rewritten by artificial intelligence in the style of particular writers. ■ A person could reasonably request: "Give me a 500-word summary of today's news from Chicago, written in the style of Mike Royko". The converging possibilities are hard to fully fathom, and they are absolutely going to complicate matters which are already thoroughly challenging. ■ Consider the decision by Sinclair Broadcast Group to fire the entire news staff at KTVL-TV in Medford, Oregon, and to do likewise at WNWO-TV in Toledo, Ohio. Substitute syndicated news programming will be used instead to fill the local news hole. ■ Medford is market #136 and Toledo is #80 (as ranked by population). Not huge, but not insignificant, either. If local news operations are getting eliminated in markets of those sizes, they could well be under threat in other, larger markets as well. ■ Already, companies like Futuri Media promise that they can deliver "cloud-based audience engagement" services -- like tools to report what content is drawing engagement in real time. And virtual newscasters are already out in the wild. Put those two together, and it might not even be necessary to have an "Action News" team on the payroll, especially if the audience is willing to submit "user-generated content". ■ But news depends not upon a popularity contest, but on news judgment: The ability of a human being to discern what meets the threshold of news and what does not. News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo -- most everything else that gets reported is either information or mere events. Those have their place, but they aren't news. ■ Machines simply tracking a digital popularity contest have no idea how to tell the difference. In the short run, though, we shouldn't be surprised if more outlets cut back like the Sinclair stations are doing, nor if other outlets experiment with virtualizing their coverage. The incentives to generate "news" products on the cheap are strong, even if they're fundamentally bad for society.

April 29, 2023

Broadcasting Is terrestrial AM radio going to survive?

Consultant Fred Jacobs notes: "Even among [...] core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a 'very important' feature in their next vehicle." ■ The reason this is potentially catastrophic? More than 40% of radio listening happens in the car. If you lose access to 40% of your current market, that's a catastrophe. ■ The only real obstacle to a bigger presence for digital streaming to the car is that it's still clunky and obstacle-ridden. That's a user-interface problem, and it's one that the streamers have all kinds of incentive to fix. Listeners overwhelmingly want Bluetooth in the car already; they just want it to be easier to use. ■ Radio's problem is different: As Jacobs also notes, "[I]n too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content." That's a prospective death knell. If your particular content is only able to compete because it saves the listener a couple of button presses (perhaps two or three at most), then that advantage is on borrowed time at best. ■ Radio's core advantage has always been its dual promise of immediacy and locality: Its ability to be right here, right now. But a lot of stations no longer bother to try to be "live and local", or all too often, even to be just one of those things. Meanwhile, the electrification of everything (including cars) is infecting AM broadcasts with more static than ever. ■ Syndicated programming held some attraction for a while, when it was of higher quality than what could be produced locally, and when it served to create a sense of place across a continental nation. 85 years ago, AM radio networks were delivering live sports, scripted dramas, premiere news coverage, and educational programming. National quality was hard to match with local resources. ■ But those advantages have been mostly surrendered (voluntarily), while the leading disadvantages (heavy commercial spot loads) remain -- in an hour of clock time, a widely-listened-to host like Dave Ramsey is only producing 39 minutes of content. Podcasts don't waste that much time -- and they can be started and stopped at will, rewound, or sped up. It takes a lot of programming quality to compete with those listener conveniences. ■ We can get sentimental about what radio used to be ("WKRP" and "NewsRadio" were closer to documentaries than you might think), but the plain fact is that consumer expectations have risen. If the product quality doesn't rise to meet those expectations, then all the incumbent producers are really selling is inertia.

April 28, 2023

Broadcasting Are we beyond the event horizon for attention spans?

Writer Dan Brooks laments, "I think within my lifetime most Americans will become illiterate, not because they can't read but because they can't concentrate long enough to get through a whole newspaper article or book." On the surface, there's some evidence for his concern: People really do spend so much time with digital media now that it's hard to imagine the rapid-fire experience granted by smartphones and big televisions isn't chipping away at long-term concentration. ■ But...after a while the market (of all the most unexpected things) might actually offer the corrective. For most subjects -- not all, but quite certainly most -- nothing is a more efficient and more effective teaching tool than a well-written, well-edited text. Not always a textbook, but at least a booklet. ■ The written word is almost always faster than any other mode of transmitting knowledge. Consider that a mid-range reading speed for a college-level adult is around 250 words per minute, with 500 words per minute easily within the reach of faster readers. Meanwhile, the median pace of speech on television news is around 150 words per minute. That's a 67% advantage for the middle-of-the-road reader, and quicker readers are getting more than triple the content per minute than they'd get from people speaking. It's no wonder that so many people listen to podcasts at increased playback speeds. ■ As people are driven to earn more in a competitive marketplace, they become sensitive to returns on learning investments. Individuals will find themselves tired of sloppy lectures, videos with low information density, and dubious AI-generated texts. Not everyone will notice, but enough will notice to matter. And they'll "return" to reading (likely never really having left), as long as there's good writing to be found on what they want to learn. That signal going back to the market will further encourage the production of higher-quality written materials. ■ So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the market really does have the capacity to repel the drive towards digital overstimulation. It may take some time for the feedback to work its way through -- and there will undoubtedly be counter-examples along the way. Not everyone will be responsive to workplace rewards, and not everyone will find that writing-based learning works best. ■ And it may not always be obvious where the investments most matter: Editors can be as important as writers, or even more important. An old academic joke goes something to the effect of, "I wrote 500 pages because I didn't have time to write 250 pages." Revision and editing can vastly improve the final quality of a work, while simultaneously decreasing its size. These are skills not easily executed by computers, which tend to optimize for volume of output, not quality. There is, it seems, hope for the human writer after all.

Science and Technology Supporting endangered languages with robots

Fascinating: "SkoBots is an interactive and wearable educational robot that sits on your shoulder to teach our youths their traditional languages."

News Vikings weren't always Nordic

Some had black hair and had been co-opted into Viking life as a vocation rather than a familial inheritance

Humor and Good News Let's take this o-u-t-s-i-d-e

A dog walks into a bar...

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 27, 2023

Humor and Good News Better than cigarettes

The Art-o-mat project takes old cigarette vending machines and converts them to distribute little works of art instead. They're all over the country, but there's a particularly busy set in Las Vegas. For $5, it's a better guaranteed return than any other machine in the city. ■ Aside from the excellent repurposing of machines that formerly dispensed slow death by the pack, the Art-o-mat idea does something exceptionally worthwhile: It makes art fun. Specifically, it makes the acquisition of art thoroughly democratic, public, and even a touch whimsical. What's going to come out of the machine? The user has a general idea, but it's uncertain until the piece actually lands with a "thud" in the dispenser tray. ■ Art should be a part of ordinary life. We celebrate trips to MoMA and the Louvre, but there's every reason to celebrate small installations, too. No city is required by law to have a museum, but those that do reveal a motivation to show themselves off. ■ The Art-o-mat, though, can be a miniature gallery in a place as unassuming as a brewery outside of Joliet or a library in Sheboygan. And it should be seen as complementary with the development of artificial-intelligence image generators like Dall-E: The more we come to expect art all around (of whatever origins), the more we normalize appreciation for aesthetics. The world need not be ugly.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 26, 2023

News Legitimacy through scarcity

The printed daily newspaper had a pretty fantastic economic profile a few decades ago: Not only did it have the broad and righteous legal protection of the First Amendment, it also tended towards natural monopoly. The costs of content creation were essentially fixed, no matter how many copies were printed, and newsstand or subscription fees generally covered the marginal costs of printing and distributing each incremental copy. Thus, the rewards tended to concentrate around a single producer who could assemble the publication with the broadest possible appeal across the community. High circulation begat high advertising rates, which in turn charged a positive feedback loop of profitability upon which to further entrench and expand circulation. ■ And when broadcasting licenses were kept scarce by the FCC, and ownership of those licenses was tightly regulated (seven each of television, AM, and FM stations, per owner, until 1984), similar effects held for broadcasting outlets, as well. It was good to be on the inside, and once an operator was entrenched, it was hard to displace them. ■ Media outlets in those times obtained much of their legitimacy through scarcity. There could certainly have been debates about quality of coverage, bias, or accuracy, but the legitimacy of the institutions themselves was basically sealed: One newspaper, a handful of radio stations, and usually three network television stations indisputably "spoke" for a particular community. ■ Fast-forward to today: Broadcast licenses are barely limited any longer, anyone can operate a streaming video channel, and newspaper circulations and revenues have effectively evaporated. Scarcity no longer confers legitimacy, because there is no supply-side scarcity anymore. (And that's killing the legacy media industry.) ■ What takes its place now is legitimacy via audience consent. Who speaks for a community? Which are the authoritative, legitimate media outlets in a place? You have to consult with the audience living there to get the answer. It might be the skeleton crew left at a legacy newspaper brand, like the St. Cloud Times, with a claimed staff of one. Or maybe it's a digital-only publication. It might be a podcast, a television station, a daily e-newsletter, or a particularly lively Nextdoor board. ■ To a degree, legitimacy-by-audience-consent is more defensible than legitimacy-by-scarcity. After all, the consent of the governed is what confers legitimacy to a government. But legitimacy-by-scarcity had the effect of forcing media to cultivate mainstream sensibilities; their economic power derived from having the maximum possible reach and appeal to the community as it existed. ■ Not so with media outlets operating without the constraints of scarcity. As has been well-documented, the quest for advertising efficiency rewards audience fragmentation: A small but homogeneous audience may easily command better advertising rates than a large but diverse one. These changes are both significant in size and consequential for questions of how we inform ourselves. The evolving landscape may end up highly satisfying for consumers (as it becomes easier to find outlets that suit us individually), but with less community-responsive legitimacy in total.

News A little deviance is good for you

No one is politically interesting until they hold at least a handful of unconventional views. In a time when conformity is widely practiced, that's a lesson well worth remembering. It's unoriginal to depend strictly upon the cliche that "If everyone's thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking", but the central point is valid.

Humor and Good News South Korea's president belts out "American Pie"

(Video) Cancel the White House Correspondents' Dinner. What we need is Foreign Dignitary Karaoke Night.

April 25, 2023

Threats and Hazards China's government is no honest broker for Ukraine

China's ambassador to France takes a ludicrous view of the independence of ex-Soviet republics, saying: "Even these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there's no international accord to concretise their status as a sovereign country"

Weather and Disasters And now you know what a "von Karman Vortex Street" is

Vortices in a fluid (like the atmosphere) created by a disruptive body, as in the case of clouds downwind of a mountain disruption to the flow of air. Very cool.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 24, 2023

Science and Technology The Open Infrastructure Map

Fascinating -- lots of granular detail on parts of the background infrastructure that tends to pass without much notice, despite its ubiquity. Power generating stations, transmission lines, wind farms, solar farms, broadcasting towers, and much more.

Humor and Good News From one teammate to another

(Video) Audiences don't often get to hear authentic, heartfelt appreciation expressed from one broadcaster to another. This is a charming exception, in which Andy Fales thanks Dave Price for a career together.

Humor and Good News Lamentations as product names

It's one way to go about branding

Weather and Disasters Northern Lights visible over Iowa

(Video) It's a rarity. Iceland's tourism bureau ought to be carpeting the northern United States in digital ads right now saying, "Now that you've had a taste, come get the full Northern Lights experience!" The lights are absolutely gobsmacking from near the Arctic Circle.

April 23, 2023

News Don't just say "it gets better", show it

School's purpose is to prepare young people for life. People may differ on the focus of that preparation, and whether it should take a practical form, a vocational form, or a classical form. But the nature of things in a democracy is that no one form truly prevails. Some vested interests will promote "back to basics", others will promote "social-emotional learning", and in the end, a little of almost everything makes its way into the curriculum. ■ As part of a well-rounded education, every American high-schooler ought to read at least three important stories of self-discovery: The Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. Most of life is spent along paths others have walked before. Yet the young person usually doesn't know this, at least not in the innate sense. In youth, we think our troubles are new and our challenges are novel. ■ From Epictetus, the young person gets exposure to a tidy and practical version of Stoic philosophy that says life and happiness descend from perceptions: "[I]f the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation." Nobody expects a 16-year-old to have full control over their instincts for envy, but it's easier to start the quest for control knowing that others have sought it, too. ■ Franklin's autobiography is simultaneously a roaring tale of self-creation and a terrific exploration of American self-identity from someone who shaped that identity at least as much as anyone in the country's history. Franklin takes pains to walk the reader through his thoughts on everything from familial love to religious faith to business success. He confesses to the very kind of brash self-confidence that a teenager ought to recognize: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other." ■ From Washington, an autobiography no less significant than Franklin's, because it tells the story of his rise from literal chattel slavery -- and it is told exceedingly well. Washington's crisp prose and his relentless focus on rising and lifting are words that young people need to have imprinted on their minds, even if they are too inexperienced in life to truly appreciate everything Washington seeks to teach them in words like, "[T]he happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." For all the terrible things done to him and the vast odds against his work, Washington's character-obsessed optimism comes from a source no reasonable person can contest. ■ Many other works and authors are worth exploring, too. But Epictetus, Franklin, and Washington are special in what they can offer to people looking for direction and guideposts. It's no small matter to know that life is rarely a blank slate. It can be hard to find answers in the people immediately around us, and to find answers in stories written long ago helps to assure the reader that there is always cause for hope. Don't just say "It gets better"; show how others got there. There is scarcely a better lesson for an adolescent to learn.

April 22, 2023

News Don't be a GRino

Almost anything related to the environment is subject to the tragedy of the commons. What is good for the individual often has consequences for the environmental resources shared by many others. Good environmental stewardship often consists in making lots of incremental choices (usually at personal expense) that don't have obvious benefits to the person who absorbs the costs. ■ There's no denying that there are plenty of significant environmental troubles that deserve the attention of humankind, not least of which is the evidence that there's a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there used to be. It's largely a problem of human choices. But if we want to change course, it doesn't make any sense to fight human nature. We have to work with it. ■ Lots of people identify themselves as "greens", willing to put the interests of the environment first. There's a certain moral satisfaction that comes from attaching your identity to something that appears to go above mere mortal humanity. But the problem with a message that centers on a hard-left economic message of "people over profits" and uncompromising anti-nuclear electricity sentiment is that it disengages from the actions that would really address environmental issues. ■ The epithet "RINO" (for "Republican in Name Only") has been entrenched in right-wing politics for a long time. Hardly anyone agrees on a definition. But there's a real hazard in people choosing to act as "Greens in Name Only" -- GRinos. To be serious about environmental issues is to accept that real solutions are attached to human self-interest. ■ Real "green" progress is made by finding ways to make it profitable for people and institutions to do the right thing. People need profits, and good policies ought to do things like shaping rewards, rather than denying that rewards are a basic function of human activity. To demand "action" without using the motivating tools of human behavior is to be unserious about achieving the intended results.

News China's ambassdor to France oversteps

The Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying, "Former Soviet states don't have an effective status in international law". As Professor Seva Gunitsky points out, "[T]hat's rich coming from an ex-mongol colony with no legal standing in the Khanate".

April 21, 2023

Computers and the Internet No, the machines aren't coming for your job

It's easy to watch the arrival of a significant new technology and wonder whether it's bound to have an impact of scale and consequence well beyond previous technologies. Already, breathless headlines promise to reveal "the tech jobs most threatened by ChatGPT and AI". Are the machines really coming for your job? No. ■ Well, they are -- but it's immaterial, and it won't take a very long run for that immateriality to bear out. Jim Pethokoukis, a free-market think-tank analyst, puts it like this: "I think GenAI and LLMs are the real deal, but my baseline remains bullish on the long-term demand for human labor." ■ Yet it's easy to share his optimism about the potential upside, assume that the technologies have the potential to develop even faster than anticipated, and still believe that it won't even take the long term for human labor to hold up. Whatever emerges, it's wise to assume that jobs will be disrupted -- probably lots of them -- but that there will be more jobs than ever in the short, medium, and long terms alike. ■ To believe that people will still have jobs for as long as anyone can look ahead, all one has to do is wager on two things. First, as old needs are satisfied more efficiently, human beings will discover new wants. Second, human beings are going to remain social animals with an irrepressible desire to spend time with other humans. ■ Safe bets, both. By the time we become familiar with a technology, we uncover its shortcomings and imagine its next steps. After the printing press came the radio, followed by the television. Then television jumped to satellites and cable systems and streaming services. We discover new wants all the time. ■ And nothing is more basic about the human experience than the desire to share it with others. With families and friends, of course. But also with classmates and co-workers. And with bartenders and physical therapists and hair stylists. And then with whatever comes next. Some jobs will disappear, and prudent societies will find ways to help soften the transitions. But if there's one safe bet, it's that there will always be something new to do.

News French group gets Belgian customs to destroy Miller High Life

It may call itself the "Champagne of Beers" in the US, but "champagne" isn't a trade name to use lightly within the European Union. And just like that, more than 2,000 cans of beer were destroyed.

April 20, 2023

News Russia banned from basketball track to Olympics

The International Basketball Federation has "decided to not allow the registration of the Russian men's national team in the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments 2023", which is how teams get into the Olympics. It's a response to the way that Russia has launched a bloody and wasteful war of aggression against Ukraine. ■ There are those who want to keep sports entirely separate from other affairs. That would be nice, if achievable. But it's an impossibility: Russia has used athletes as propagandists, and one doesn't have to dig deep to find historical cases where sports were used to legitimize the behavior of uncivilized regimes. ■ Sports depend upon people voluntarily observing rules of behavior; at the macro level, you can't defeat your competitors by kneecapping them or poisoning their food. At the micro level, we count upon the regulation of fair play, even when the fouls may be unintentional. ■ It isn't unreasonable to bar the participation of athletes from a country that openly defies the rules of a civilized world order. It's not like imposing a grain embargo (as Russia itself has committed against Ukraine): Sports aren't necessary for life. Sports are trappings of cultures that can observe higher levels of behavior. ■ Just as the United Nations undermines its own legitimacy by leaving Russia in charge of the UN Security Council for the month of April, so too do any international institutions that put the interests of playing nicely (literally) with Russian teams over insisting that bad actions have consequences. In this choice, at least, the world of basketball can hold its head high.

Humor and Good News Hats off to Dolly Parton

Her "Imagination Library" is one of the most remarkable large-scale good works any American has ever put into place. The American Library Association is recognizing her with an honorary lifetime membership in recognition of that work.

News Favorite historical empires

If every young man develops a strange affinity for a bygone empire, then perhaps it's best if the empires in question are relatively benign ones like the Hudson's Bay Company

Humor and Good News The vinyl anniversary

Everyone should exchange vinyl with their spouse at 33 years and 4 months.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 19, 2023

News Slower reactions, better society

It's easy to fall for the conceit that all of our modern problems are somehow different than those of our predecessors. But what if we're really just encountering the same problems, cloaked only in different garb? A whole raft of troubling incidents in the news boil down to the consequences of people acting impulsively. Sometimes the results are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are deadly. ■ But go back to 1755, and you'll find Benjamin Franklin making a very modern case for impulse control: "Who is powerful? He that governs his passions." And, as if to drive home the point, he laments: "Who is that? Nobody." ■ Human nature is much more powerful than we routinely give it credit for being. We are rarely as special in history as ego would like us to believe. But sometimes old human flaws do come with new consequences. The modern problem is to figure out how to make sure our contemporary tools don't exacerbate those longstanding shortcomings. ■ Social media makes it easy to make very bad, very public decisions. Computers make it possible to generate dangerous ideas faster than ever. Weapons make it all too easy to escalate a bad moment beyond repair. ■ If we surrender the idea that humans are born as blank slates and instead realize that we're pretty much cut from the same cloth as our ancestors, then we come into closer contact with the understanding that we're not better just because we came later. And it underscores just how important it is to find, maintain, and regenerate character-building institutions throughout society. As our tools speed up, we need to find ways to practically train people -- all of us -- in time-tested ways of slowing down. There's enormous power in governing our passions.

Weather and Disasters A stormy night

Thunderstorms are firing along the Missouri River and southward. One supercell in Oklahoma appears to be merging tornadic cells together, and the resulting radar sweeps are something both amazing and terrible to behold.

April 18, 2023

News The non-dovish case for pulling America's nuclear bombs out of Europe

Some food for thought regarding old-school nuclear bombs. Exactly the kind of subject about which responsible, non-expert citizen-voters need to brush up our knowledge. Political forces will drive what ultimately happens, so we can't afford to be ignorant.

April 17, 2023

News When Soviet leaders dropped dead

It's basically possible to convey to people who didn't live through it just how much the threat of nuclear war hung over the day-to-day "adult" world of the 1980s, at least as seen through the eyes of young people at the time. It was the one news story that never went away.

News "French discontent over its security relationship with the United States is nothing new."

University of Chicago professor Paul Poast notes that "French leaders have long hated being dependent on [the United States] for protection." Despite our longstanding friendship, France took the Confederacy's side in the Civil War, and didn't appreciate America's (poorly-considered) post-WWI plans. A history well worth bearing in mind as France makes questionable diplomatic moves with China today.

Weather and Disasters Opening locks to let floodwaters through the Twin Cities

This is a whole lot of water destined to flow past Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk in days and weeks to come.

Threats and Hazards Russia is drifting towards martial law

All of this -- death, destruction, oppression -- remains the active choice of the regime governing Russia. They could stop this at any time. The unspeakable harm they are doing to Ukraine is harming Russian people, too.

Science and Technology Look at the good nuclear power can do

France used to be well above the world average in its carbon-dioxide emissions. Now, it's down to the average, with a downward trend. It's no coincidence that France also has the highest share of nuclear power generation in the world.

Computers and the Internet An unsettling thought

If you're concerned that AI-generated materials are already getting good at passing for human-like construction, consider the warning of John Scott-Railton: "AI-based bots are as bad as they will ever be today. Right now. They can only get better." In lots of human-helping cases, that's going to be great news. But there are lots of human-harming cases for which the same will be true.

April 16, 2023

Computers and the Internet Artificial intelligence keeps hallucinating

In a couple of test runs, economists found ChatGPT prone to citing works that don't exist. This is both a foreseeable outcome of the system design (so far, artificial intelligence is mainly a sophisticated text-prediction tool, not a method for assembling actual wisdom) and an acute flaw in the technology if used for its most obvious purposes. ■ Human beings have a very reasonable interest in developing technologies that will efficiently supply answers to known questions (like a speedy research librarian). We also have a reasonable interest in developing technologies that will answer novel questions. Since the beginning of writing itself, the superpower of our species has been the ability to store knowledge outside of our own brains. The spoken word allowed our ancestors to start storing knowledge in other people's brains, and the written word let them put that knowledge in places we could protect, duplicate, and move about. There's a reason the loss of the Library of Alexandria remains one of history's great tragedies. ■ Computers have a striking ability to do what books cannot: They can be programmed to generate new knowledge altogether, like detecting objects in space. That generative capacity could truly be profound. But it remains something humans have to double-check. Not only is it imperative to check the work in its own right, it's also essential that humans make sure that the programming stays correct. Computers only work according to their programming, and there are countless ways in which new knowledge can have consequences for old code. ■ Dan Brooks offers the pithy observation that ChatGPT "nails the voice of someone trying to hit word count." He's right; the imperative behind the technology is to keep generating new words, no matter their need or their validity. And that's the problem that causes the "hallucinations": Whether or not real knowledge exists, AI is set to just keep making up something to fill the space. ■ That is no small problem if, as is extremely likely, artificial intelligence tools are on the verge of multiplying in number and output at rates we may have little capacity to comprehend or to double-check. That doesn't mean we should unplug them -- we should be ready and eager to put useful tools to work to make human life better. But we're going to need to think of ways to firewall the generated content that hasn't been checked or validated so that it doesn't form a feedback loop of garbage-in, garbage-out that could leave us all wondering what was ever true in the first place. A hard drive can be reformatted. The Internet cannot.

Agriculture Farmers get an early start on spring planting in Iowa

It's been a while since that's happened

News Courage, big and small

Chad Gibbs: "Whenever we remember the Holocaust, we should remember the small rebellions, the individual stands, and the little acts of caring"

Threats and Hazards The second-order problem with an intelligence leak

Matt Tait: "In other words, just because you can't see the significance of how something tiny in a photo can have massive repercussions doesn't mean that experts with extensive experience and that little bit of extra context can't."

Business and Finance The place of a little love in a market economy

Deirdre McCloskey: "There's a mild love that's exhibited in market relationships, even very hands-off relationships. You go to your grocery store that you habitually go to and you keep seeing the same butcher, the same clerk. What the French in the 18th century called sweet commerce makes you into little friends whereas central planning socialism does not make you into little friends."

April 15, 2023

The United States of America Pursuing happiness

Before the United States of America had any laws to itself, it asserted "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights. The first two are fairly obvious to anyone who gives them fair consideration. But the third, the right to pursue happiness, says something important about the nature of the country. ■ The Declaration doesn't ensure a right to happiness itself, but only a right to pursue happiness. Happiness takes different forms for different people, and framing the right as something chosen by the individual is an important distinction: Nobody is guaranteed to be happy, but everyone is assured of their liberty to make the choices necessary to go after whatever happiness means to them. ■ It is no surprise that Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the top ten destinations in the US for foreign tourists. It has become a city defined by the mass simultaneous pursuit of happiness in all of its forms, a libertarian setting for adults visiting "America's playground". It has really no distinguishing attractions other than its reputation for the freedom to pursue fun. ■ Strange, then, that the right to pursue happiness isn't duplicated in the same way anywhere else. There are other entertainment-fueled cities, but none quite so free to leave all those choices to the visitor. And the popularity of Las Vegas as a destination for people around the world ought to serve as a testament to just how natural a right that pursuit of happiness really is. America only enshrined something that is already natural to the human disposition.

April 14, 2023

News One cheer for Harry Mountbatten-Windsor

In Thomas Jefferson's artful words, the Declaration of Independence prescribes that even close bonds ought to be severed when they no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally intended. So it goes for a country, but perhaps so too must it be for a family business. Even if that family business is itself a country. ■ Much ado is being made about the upcoming coronation of England's King Charles. It's bound to be a rare spectacle, but it remains farcical at its root. The authority of the state deriving from the personhood of an individual "sovereign"? It's plainly silly. This one man, Charles, is of royal "highness" over "subjects" due to nothing more than the chance of his birth? It's doubtful that any but a few truly committed royalists really believe it deep in their hearts. But the show goes on, apparently by some measure of continued popular demand. ■ But beyond the matter of what monarchy says about a relationship between the state and its people, it's a terrible thing to impose on the members of the purportedly "royal" family. For someone born into it -- particularly an heir apparent to the throne -- it combines all the worst of several things which each would be approached with grave caution. ■ A little royal becomes a child star without having done anything of their own volition. They are dragooned into service as a mascot of the state, to be scrutinized by the public and have countless meanings projected upon their very being. And for an heir apparent, there is no personal agency in the sense of choosing their own destiny -- their real career path is set the moment they become an embryo. ■ Obviously, the experience comes with creature comforts. But even if the way he's gone about it might be questionable (who writes a tell-all book spilling all over their still-living relatives?), it's hard not to credit Prince Harry, at least a little bit, for breaking his children away from a chronically toxic family business. ■ Maybe there is no perfect way to do it without every part of the separation looking like a slight to the rest of his family. But a family dynamic like the one that runs a royal household really by definition cannot be a healthy one. Whatever else he does right or wrong, on the choice to keep his children both metaphorically and physically distant from the "family business" -- even including his father's coronation -- Harry is doing the right thing.

April 13, 2023

Water News Spring cleaning the streets

In places with paved streets and storm sewers, spring generally brings the ritual sweeping of the streets. It's an act that only appears cosmetic to many citizens, who probably wonder why their hard-earned tax dollars go to the tidying of concrete and asphalt that will only get dirty again. ■ But the real reason for street sweeping is to capture debris before it gets carried off into creeks and streams. And it is a very useful practice for helping to ensure the quality of drinking water for people living downstream. ■ All water is recycled, over and over again. Unlike rocks or sand or soil, new water isn't being generated. It's being transformed and cycle through nature, only to be perpetually used again. Keeping junk like sand and leaves and litter from contaminating it in its natural locations makes it easier to keep clean for those who will drink it next. ■ Good practices for protecting health aren't always obvious -- street sweeping certainly isn't. Municipal leaders should take care to explain their purposes creatively and often so that taxpayers understand the value they obtain from their bills.

April 10, 2023

The United States of America Load balancing

Some people fantasize about moving off the grid and living in far-secluded areas, and a few even do it. But humans are social creatures by our nature, and the latest Census data on county-level population estimates only serves to underscore what our instincts already tell us. Counties with a lot of people are mostly growing and counties with few are mostly shrinking. Americans are continuing to cluster together. ■ Many factors contribute to any individual family's choice to live in a particular location, but one of the biggest and most irresistible forces behind many of those choices is the basic matter of finding economic opportunities. As an economy matures, it typically evolves from a dependence on agriculture to a stage in which manufacturing comes first, and ultimately settles into dominance by services as it reaches advanced development. So it was for the United States, and so it tends to go for almost all other countries. We're not unusual in this regard; we're like everybody else. ■ Whereas agriculture depends upon spreading out, manufacturing depends on getting workers into the same place (usually at the same time). But so does lots of service work. It's possible, of course, for some services to be rendered remotely. Technology often reduces the friction involved in making that happen. But there are some limits that are hard to overcome: You might get the Mayo Clinic to give you a remote consultation, but if you need surgery, you're probably headed to Rochester. ■ Many services can only be delivered in person. Many more benefit from work by tightly-integrated teams. And many of the institutions that deliver services succeed by developing distinctive cultures that are reinforced by getting participants to commit to experiences in common. Thus, at least from an economic perspective, no matter how service-based the US economy becomes (and we're much more service-based than most people intuitively realize), there will still be lots of factors driving us to cluster together in ever-larger urban areas. ■ What that spells for smaller areas -- like the counties with fewer than 10,000 people, 61% of which shrank last year -- is a compelling need to determine how to competently manage resources in the face of sustained population decline. It's not a pleasant condition to have to grapple with, but decline isn't the same as elimination. ■ Some will escape population decline, if they make conscious choices to do so. But that requires having something special to offer that fits the right need at the right time. Las Vegas has exploded over the last 50 years, but there's no demand for 100 copycat cities. On the other hand, there are lots of cities with municipal governments and infrastructure already in place that could withstand a great deal of growth without losing what makes them special to their incumbent residents. ■ There's a reason utopian cities are rarely built successfully from scratch -- even great visionaries are prone to overestimating their capacities to plan what real people will actually choose when it comes to where they live. Note that lots of people live in Orlando today, but the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow didn't actually take off. But finding the right places for big ideas and big growth to take off from places that are much smaller than their potential could turn out to be a very useful pursuit indeed.

April 7, 2023

Computers and the Internet Your computer won't ever love you back

Evolution can't be "smart", since it isn't a sentient being; it's only a process. But as a process, evolution does act as a powerful mechanism for sorting. And for hundreds of thousands of years, evolution has been sorting human behavior. ■ It takes a colossal amount of hubris for a person to think that they've outsmarted the results of evolution. We certainly try to beat it all the time: Every time a person undergoes surgery, we're trying to win a bout of hand-to-hand combat with natural selection. Every vaccine dose, bite of fortified food, or blood transfusion is an act using human knowledge to press back against the natural forces that would otherwise take us out. ■ But along comes one Alexandr Wang, an artificial-intelligence company executive who proclaims, "[I] have a pretty strong belief that a meaningful percentage of kids born today will end up being botsexual." What's that? "[B]eing primarily sexually attracted to AI", he writes. ■ Wang has been hailed in a mainstream media profile as a self-made billionaire whose company "helps businesses deal with the data preparation needed to train AI systems". Thus it's no surprise he has great faith in artificial intelligence. But imagine having such a high opinion of an invention that you believe that it will overcome the deepest primal forces of nature. ■ The human drive to understand and to be understood by others is overwhelming. It starts at the most basic of levels: We begin to bond with other humans from the instant of birth. A baby cries because it seeks attention for its needs, responds to tone of voice in the first months of life, and smiles as a social cue in its first hundred days of life. ■ The desire for human interaction, affection, and touch has no technological substitute. And it won't on any timeline that doesn't span hundreds of generations at least. Children develop playground crushes in preschool, long before they can even conceive of romantic love; that's how fundamental and instinctive the drive for interpersonal connection is. ■ To think that human beings will invent machines that can substitute for that drive -- so much that it would affect birth rates, as Wang claims -- is positively ludicrous. Artificial intelligence can and will do a lot. A handful of people will, in fact, find what they experience as "love" with AI, just as a handful of people express attraction to other inanimate objects. But the canon of the world's literature -- from its earliest beginnings -- tells of quest after quest to be understood and loved, not by machines, animals, or nature, but by other people. ■ AI can't leapfrog evolutionary selection among human beings, and its proponents need to grasp how preposterous they sound when they imagine they are equipped with god-like superpowers. Our tools just aren't that smart. To foretell of "botsexuals" is the kind of bold, wrong pronouncement a person makes when they are overconfident in their own technological mastery and ignorant of the humanities.

April 6, 2023

News They're looking up to you

In no small number of schools, older students are paired up with younger ones in programs with names like "Kindergarten Buddies". The age-gapped students spend time together doing activities like reading or performing small projects. Sure, the interaction teaches kindergarteners by giving them older models to emulate. But the secret is that it's really there for the older kids. ■ Kindergarteners will happily learn from just about anyone -- they're wired with a magnificent and overwhelming sense of wonder and curiosity. But it doesn't always occur naturally for older kids to realize that they're being watched. Raising the stakes just a little, by telling them that their "buddies" are looking to them for guidance and instruction, helps them learn the intrinsic reward of having others look up to them. ■ To find themselves admired compels most self-aware people to think about behaving in admirable ways. It doesn't always work, of course, but it's often more powerful than the threat of punishment. "Be on your best behavior; the kindergarteners are looking up to you" is often a more stimulating piece of advice than "Don't cause trouble or you'll be sent to the principal's office." Or, as the philosopher Maimonides put it, "[I]f you suppose a human individual is alone, acting on no one, you will find that all his moral virtues are in vain and without employment and unneeded, and that they do not perfect the individual in anything; for he only needs them and they again become useful to him in regard to someone else." ■ It's hard not to notice the presence of altogether too many people in both public and private life who didn't get the message about being good "buddies" to their juniors. News and culture are all too often packed with examples of people modeling immature behavior long past an appropriate age. 40-year-olds should never be committing violent incidents of road rage. 60-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their hands off umpires and referees. 80-year-olds shouldn't have to be told to keep their weapons away from the United States Capitol. ■ With advancing age should come increasing temperance. If you've lived long enough to "see a few things", then you've earned the responsibility to behave as though you know that the new things you encounter belong in proper perspective. And if we don't share a common expectation that humility and moderation are exactly the kinds of virtues that older people ought to model for younger ones -- if instead we tolerate people acting out well past a tolerable age, either because they never learned to manage and contain their own emotions or because they refuse to model the habits of wisdom -- then society is hobbling itself in ways we can't easily calculate. ■ It's a special job to be the senior partner in a relationship where modeling good behavior for the young to emulate is an intrinsic aspect of the role. Lots of kids understand that implicitly in elementary school. More adults ought to do the same, and the rest of us should cast shame on those who don't.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 5, 2023

Agriculture Print yourself a salmon fillet

A new technology often gets a jump-start when it finds itself applied not to its intended use, but to a less obvious but non-trivial alternative. ■ Some attention has rightly been paid to the prospect of raising meats outside of their original animals. The "lab-cultivated" or "bio-printed" food technology has been hailed by many of its advocates as a way to satisfy consumer demand for meat products while exacting fewer environmental externalities than conventional animal husbandry. ■ Early test cases have already made their debuts. In 2021, scientists in Japan printed a piece of Wagyu beef that wasn't cut from a cow. A firm in Israel has touted its successful printing of a 3.67-oz. steak in the same year. And already, people have begun to ask ethical questions, like "Could lab-cultivated meat be kosher?" or "Would it be ethical to eat cultivated meat from endangered species?". ■ While well-intended, efforts to promote laboratory-grown meats on their environmental benefits aren't likely to catch fire. Those will be interesting benefits down the road, but as long as prices are still very high and the volume of production is very low, it will be quite some time before grocery shoppers will even be offered the option. Environmental advantages are a classic case of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, and those don't activate a whole lot of behavior. ■ The breakthrough application could be found in seafood. The tuna is an apex predator, which of course makes it environmentally significant. But that status also makes it prone to concentrating harmful substances otherwise found only in traces in the environment, like mercury. These concentrated contaminants are why the FDA has produced a detailed chart depicting just how much fish is safe for children to eat. ■ Under a laboratory-cultivation process, though, (synthetic) fish could be produced and harvested without the same hazards. And that could be the breakthrough for the technology at large, because it would shift the focus from diffuse environmental benefits to concentrated health benefits for the individual. Concentrated benefits open wallets. ■ Synthetic production really ought to appeal more to seafood restaurants -- and to sushi lovers, in particular -- than to any other sector. Nobody's actively clamoring to nibble on endangered-species burgers yet, and the scale of production already in place worldwide makes it hard for any new process to compete with raising chickens, hogs, and cattle on foot (even if the FDA just gave the nod to lab-produced chicken in November). ■ But countless inland restaurants advertise that their fish is flown in daily for freshness. Air freighting and all of its associated preparation processes add a lot to the cost of production and delivery. If synthetic alternatives could permit them to grow their own fresh "catch" in a facility next door, that could be a much more economically competitive arrangement. ■ Maybe all of this technology remains too speculative and far-fetched to catch on, either soon or even some time into the future. But the incentives are such that if and when "meat" (such as we might define it) from a laboratory-like setting really breaks through, it will be in the form of seafood rather than anything that originated with wings, legs, or a snout.

April 4, 2023

News Make nuance sexy

If you reward a behavior, you should expect to get more of it. The advice is applicable as much on a civilizational scale as it is within a nuclear family. And yet, it is often ignored without much further examination. ■ When people decry the circus-like atmosphere of public behavior -- whether it's the exaggerations of media figures teasing their wares for clicks, the grandstanding of political figures hunting for more small-dollar donors, or the overstatements of snake-oil salesmen out to clear a fast buck -- they need to look at their own part in the exchange. ■ Oscar Wilde was being a scoundrel when he wrote, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Too many people in what ought to be serious pursuits take his words as aspirational advice. ■ If we as voters, as citizens, or merely as adults wish to have less of the circus, then no small share of the responsibility lies with us. If people are behaving like carnival barkers, we are under no obligation to respond. Nor to amplify. Nor even to acknowledge. ■ Calvin Coolidge wrote, "The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good. The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults." ■ Put another way, it is up to us as the intended audience members for any public-facing figure to deliver our time and awareness -- the coins of the realm in the "attention economy" -- to those who approach us with modesty, sanity, and reservation. Make nuance sexy. Make subtlety seductive. Make understatement glamorous. These things only come about if the marketplace of ideas detects a demand signal. It is within our power to send it.

April 3, 2023

Business and Finance Moving forward by holding back

Business is often thought of as the manifestation of possibilities. People start businesses because they see unfulfilled demands, either existing or soon to come, so they do things to create goods or services where either none existed before, or where what was in place was insufficient. Either way, it is a creative act that depends upon looking beyond limitations and towards a blue-sky future. ■ But one of the characteristics that makes some companies successful -- or, at least, what appears to be the secret ingredient to their success relative to their competitors -- is the adoption of an artificial constraint. This seems paradoxical at first: How does adopting a limitation feed success when business seems to be about those blue-sky possibilities instead? ■ Consider Toyota, which adopted just-in-time as its production model out of necessity. Japanese industry in the post-WWII era didn't have lots of excess cash to pay for inputs in advance and needed to be flexible with its outputs, so just-in-time really started as a reaction to external constraints. But over time, the approach was refined into a production philosophy geared towards waste reduction and quality control. Just-in-time certainly doesn't work everywhere; it does seem to work for Toyota. ■ Voluntary, self-imposed constraints are found in other highly successful companies, too. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays and only serves chicken -- no menu extension into burgers. The forgone profits are easy to estimate, but the constraints are a part of the culture. Likewise, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is obsessed with investing only with a large margin of safety. And Honda resists using robots for automotive production, choosing instead to invest heavily in cross-functional training for human workers. ■ The existence of prominent case studies isn't dispositive; maybe self-imposed constraints are only holding these companies back. But that seems unlikely. Given how significantly the constraints appear to influence their respective company cultures, it seems more probable that self-imposed constraints might actually be a competitive advantage. ■ It seems less to be dependent upon the nature of the actual constraint -- cross-functional training doesn't seem to have much in common with being closed on Sundays -- but, much like the Hawthorne effect, more about the basic act of consciously choosing a decision-making path. Adopting and living by a code, if you will. It may not be a lesson often conveyed in business school, but it may do many a firm well to decide to pick a constraint -- just about any constraint -- and live by it.

April 2, 2023

News The experience gap

A phenomenon to which we are already frequently subjected and which is bound to cause increasing frustration for the indefinite future to come is the disappointment that results from experiences that haven't meaningfully improved while others have. ■ Lots of products and services have improved -- often measurably -- in the last generation. It would have been completely unfathomable to most well-informed people a couple of decades ago that severe weather outbreaks could be forecasted with precision multiple days in advance. Yet today, forecasters are rarely taken by surprise by big storm outbreaks; they merely spend the days prior trying to assess the precise nature of the outbreak and alterting the public with increasing specificity about the risks. Meteorology has come a very, very long way: A highly accurate forecast that models the actual events is no longer a matter of luck. It's an expectation. ■ Yet other experiences remain astonishingly unimproved. The Mayo Clinic's one-stop, same-day team approach to diagnosis is basically unique; most other medical experiences are far less tightly bound. Likewise for airline ticket counters, cable and Internet tech support, and rental-car pickup. Exceptions apply, and some people pay for premium treatment, but the routine service experience often hasn't changed materially in decades. ■ This gap creates frustration -- particularly for those who have been subjected to market forces that have caused them to improve their own products or services who then have to deal with unimproved experiences as consumers. And it's bound to remain on the increase: Lots of jobs are compelled to do more with less, or to improve or be rendered obsolete. ■ If you're an educator who hasn't improved your content knowledge or teaching methods in 20 years, then you probably deserve to be shown the door. Yet it's possible for others to hide their stagnation behind institutional inertia: A religious leader, just for example, may well go those same 20 years without becoming a better preacher, but it's easier to say "Well, church attendance is in decline everywhere" rather than be held to account for engaging the congregation better than before. ■ As long as some experiences continue to improve, often dramatically (see: the performance of elite athletes), while other experiences fall short (see: the performance of inconsistent referees in some of the same sports), the experience gap is bound to cause chronic frustration in the years ahead. No advice in this regard is perfect -- but it's best to avoid being the agent of disappointment.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

April 1, 2023

News Equality for all

Words can sometimes be literally correct, yet so far removed from the meaning they represent that they fail to explain the concept. "Objectification", for instance, is a term most people have heard -- but it is often used so reflexively in conversations that it doesn't have the impact it deserves, particularly since it is so frequently applied to the specific case of sexual perceptions of women. That is certainly a major case, but the ills of objectification go much farther than that. ■ A truly exhausting number of human problems boil down to "Failure to see other people as human beings, equipped with equal self-awareness and value as myself". Literally, that's what "objectification" really is. Yet to compress the act down to a single word strips it of the real magnitude of what's being said. ■ Other people aren't objects...they're people. Always. Everywhere. Each one. If that were truly grasped and internalized as a universal concept, then in an instant, humanity would strip away many of our worst attributes. No one could commit chattel slavery if they really saw every other individual as a human being equipped with equal self-awareness, agency, and value as their own. Nor could anyone possessing even a modicum of conscience commit wartime atrocities, domestic abuse, or even non-violent acts of casual racism or sexism. ■ To be even modestly aware of one's own humanity and capable of projecting empathy for that sense of humanity onto other people renders a person incapable of most of the worst acts people commit against one another. This indictment applies equally to knuckle-dragging male chauvinists as it does to authoritarian dictators who disregard human rights. They may be different manifestations and on different scales, but they share the same root cause. ■ Everyone is endowed with a uniquely valuable human spirit. Another's value is not diminished because it isn't yours. And to actively see that equivalent humanity in every other person is a practice that depends upon childhood inculcation and self-aware practice by adults. Fortunately, it comes easily to kids. Little people tend to be very good at a frictionless understanding that every human life is of equal value. ■ The real work needs to come from adults, who must model the behavior for their young ones and actively guard their own thoughts against the encroachment of the ills of objectification. Somewhere along the path to growing up, it seems fairly commonplace -- perhaps even instinctive -- to become so absorbed in one's own consciousness that consideration for the humanity of others takes a back seat unless it's deliberately pulled to the forefront, at least from time to time. But everyone needs to make a conscious practice of really seeing the humanity in others. Without practice, it's too easy for the concept to lapse into words taken too lightly.

March 31, 2023

Iowa School's out forever

Iowa's second-oldest institution of higher learning will be closing after more than 180 years in operation, following a protracted period of shallow enrollments and deep budget problems. It's an unfortunate turn of events for those who view institutions as being intrinsically valuable; nobody likes to see a college closed down if it can be avoided. ■ But it's also worth noting that the problems of keeping higher-education institutions open isn't about to become easier. There are well-known demographic problems ahead that will challenge many colleges in the very near-term future, not just the small ones. There was a baby bust starting in 2008, and it's now almost 18 years later. ■ There's also a cultural shift that has changed the dynamics of how people value a four-year residential education. Irritation with high debt loads has grown. Certifications are as marketable in some fields as degrees. The trades are paying well. ■ Now would be a very appropriate time for those who haven't done so yet to take a good hard look at alternative and hybrid methods of making colleges and universities both better-priced and more valuable to both prospective students -- and alumni. ■ The life experiences and intangible socialization skills that come from a residential college experience are extremely hard to substitute. College is broadly considered a safe space for young adults to explore their identities and form deep and meaningful friendships. That experience isn't for everyone, though, and America has been long overdue for some social recognition of the value of trade programs and institutions like community colleges. ■ Bricks-and-mortar campuses need to be clear-eyed about what it is that they deliver to students beyond the educational product that they encounter in the classroom. If the "educational" component of a higher-ed experience isn't somehow unique, then perhaps the institution is mainly selling a social experience rather than an educational one. That may be entirely fine to do. ■ But when that is the case, it may be prudent, at least for some schools, to outsource the educational component itself to a firm or an institution that can specialize in the quality of educational delivery, leaving the bricks-and-mortar institution to focus on the student life experience instead. It might make sense for a small liberal arts college without any otherwise particularly distinguishing educational programs or features to outsource the classroom education component to an online learning institution. Some of them are very good, very affordable, and thoroughly accredited. ■ A college campus can't be readily converted to a lot of other things, but it might make sense to take an existing campus and focus on enhancing the features that would attract residential students while letting someone else handle the classroom content. Who is to say that a few hundred or even a few thousand students might not want to live together, share a library and a student union, meet for club activities, and even cheer on some sporting teams -- all while taking classes either on their own time, or in semi-structured arrangements? ■ It's possible that no such clever ideas would have saved a school like Iowa Wesleyan, or others in similar situations. But so much has been invested in many of these colleges over time -- and their value is so hard for the remaining community to recover when a campus closes down -- that ideas from well outside the conventional box ought to be solicited.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

March 30, 2023

News Partners for peace

Now that Turkey has given its consent, all 30 member countries of NATO have ratified Finland's accession to the mutual-defense alliance. Finland's president has thanked them all and promised that his country "will be a strong and capable ally, committed to the security of the alliance". ■ The conditions that precipitated Finland's accession -- to be followed soon by Sweden, it must be hoped -- are terrible ones. It's plainly the case that Russia's attack on Ukraine lit the fire. But the clarity afforded by the moment is useful. ■ Whatever Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apologists might try to say to the contrary, there's only one aggressor in the region. Russia started a war against Ukraine, and sensible parties nearby realized that neutrality was no longer an option. NATO remains a defensive force. ■ Aggressors aren't dissuaded by weakness, indifference, or disarray. They are, however, deterred by evidence that there will be consequences to their actions. We can try to make it more complicated than that, but there's no reason for it. Peace, unfortunately, requires costs and preparations. Dwight Eisenhower advised as much seven decades ago: "[A]s long as there persists a threat to freedom, [free nations] must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war." ■ The reasoning for the enlargement of a defensive alliance like NATO doesn't require a doctoral degree in international relations. Any reasonable adult can examine the evidence and see that voluntary cooperation to mutually deter and repel attack from a belligerent nearby is just that -- a deterrent. May Finland's membership in NATO be the stabilizing, peace-reinforcing move it deserves, and by rights ought, to be.

March 27, 2023

Computers and the Internet Who will keep the garbage out of the large language models?

Even well-informed people with lots of information resources at their disposal can get things wrong about technology. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, for instance, saw some of the outputs from large language models and declared, "ChatGPT taught itself to do advanced chemistry. It wasn't built into the model. Nobody programmed it to learn complicated chemistry. It decided to teach itself, then made its knowledge available to anyone who asked. Something is coming. We aren't ready." ■ Applause for thinking about the implications of artificial intelligence. But jeers for deeply misunderstanding the technology: It is really important that we approach AI thoughtfully, especially as it will to some extent or another require thoughtful, well-informed regulation -- by people like United States Senators. ■ But artificial intelligence systems (like ChatGPT) are not sentient. Get that part wrong, and there's very little hope of getting the rest right. They are predictive models based upon the information supplied to them as inputs. Much of that information is obtained from the Internet, where lots of useful scientific and technical information can be found. ■ Yet we haven't reconciled ourselves yet with what could end up being a tremendous hazard to these models. We really haven't yet seen the large-scale emergence of audio and video transcripts on the Internet. YouTube has made considerable strides in the direction of automatic captioning, for instance, but there is an enormous volume of audio and video content being produced every day that isn't really being transcribed and made readily available to search engines and language models...yet. ■ That will certainly change. And when it does, transcription content will ultimately be represented disproportionately to its intrinsic value. It's easy to speak at 150 words per minute or faster, but even skilled keyboard users are generally able to type at only about half that speed -- and real, thoughtful composition is even slower. ■ Once the transcription material from Snapchat videos and Facebook Reels and time-filling talk shows makes it into things like large language models, the consequences will be bad. Lots of input sources will be flooded with low-quality content. ■ But the models aren't sentient, so unless the humans who gatekeep their inputs are careful, those models will be contaminated by content that wouldn't pass a Wikipedia test for veracity. Who will see to it that a carefully sourced and edited graduate research thesis means more to the language models than a transcript of whatever nonsense a syndicated bloviator decided to spew on the radio for three hours a day? ■ That doesn't mean the solution requires government regulation. But it does point to just how essential it is that the people who will do the regulating seek to understand what is fundamentally going on. ChatGPT isn't going to "teach itself" anything. But something is indeed coming, and we very well do need to be ready.

March 26, 2023

News Safe shipping on the high seas

In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton revealed thoughts on America as a maritime nation: "If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons." ■ It may seem like a fait accompli by now that the United States should have the world's greatest navy, but that wasn't always the case. It really wasn't until World War II that the US took the mantle of naval supremacy. Nor is it adequate to assume that American dominance of the seas is a "forever" condition. ■ If we take Hamilton's ideas seriously, then the purpose of a great navy isn't confined to simple projection of power, though a navy is especially useful for that purpose -- especially one equipped with the world's preeminent collection of aircraft carrier groups. It's hard to find a place outside the reach of American carrier groups. ■ But Hamilton explicitly tied the navy to the protection of seafaring commerce. The literal bulk of international trade floats aboard ships, and in the last World War, the largest number of ships (other than small craft) built were the Liberty and Victory classes of cargo ships. Keeping supplies from being sunk by enemy warships was a critical naval mission. ■ A great deal of intellectual firepower is lining up behind arguments to modernize and scale up the American fleet. An ambitious scale-up would likely be appropriate in light of current events. But we also ought to consider adjuncts to the big ships that are expensive and hard to build. ■ In terms of sheer numerical projection, perhaps America ought to consider a program to build small, remotely-controlled submersible or semi-submersible vessels that could be used as lightly-armed escorts for cargo ships. If built at the right size -- say, just shy of the 40' length of a standard shipping container -- they could be constructed inland and shipped to the water. And if equipped with a battery-electric propulsion system, they could be operated with minimal requirements for maintenance, since electric motors are vastly simpler, mechanically, than combustion engines. ■ If built on a component-type platform, the same vessels could not only be used for cargo escorts, but also for surveillance, coastal patrolling, and even search and rescue. The main value, though, would come from developing a platform that could be scaled up quickly without overburdening the world's existing shipyards, and that could be deployed without stressing the workforce of the existing navy. ■ There are some 5,500 container ships in the world, and the need to preserve their free passage on the seas has been proven by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, as well as by China's apparent policy of intimidation of other nations' ships on the South China Sea. ■ Thoughtful, pragmatic policies on the sizing and modernization of a full-fledged blue-water navy ought to be developed nonetheless. But as a useful adjunct to those forces, the same kind of technological imagination that has propelled an unmanned aerial progam in the skies ought to be committed to ensuring that the US Navy can project power in big ways while also protecting commerce -- just as Hamilton imagined -- at modest cost.

March 25, 2023

News Doomsday believers forget that most people want to help

A person who assumes that other people are up to no good will never find themselves entirely without evidence. Either they will encounter someone who really is out to do wrong (as will all of us, unfortunately, from time to time) or they will find ways to interpret the innocuous behavior of others in the most nefarious light. Either way, the person who chooses the unflattering view of humanity will usually find reasons to stick with it. ■ But it's an unsound approach to the facts. There are antisocial individuals among us and there always have been, but humanity never would have lasted as long as it has without a strong collaborative streak. We're good at many tasks as individuals, but we really shine at team efforts. Michael Jordan was a sublime basketball talent, but he was better when surrounded by the Dream Team. ■ The most basic understanding of market-based economics is founded upon the understanding that we don't have to like one another to benefit nonetheless from getting along. Team-building wouldn't be a lucrative industry if the dynamics of cooperation didn't matter. ■ Despite all this, the default assumption of any kind of doomsday orientation is to assume that society will collapse and people will resort to violent anarchy. From "Mad Max" to the feverish forecasts of climate apocalypse, people often assume that civilization will break down and violence, scarcity, and conflict will be the result of any bad thing taken to its farthest ends. ■ All too often, doomsayers overlook the fact that humans have a very strong instinct to try to work together. It doesn't mean we always do the right thing, nor that we do it as soon as would be optimal. But faced with disasters, we usually band together instead of collapsing. ■ A passerby rescues a woman trapped in a flash flood. A pizza delivery driver runs into a burning house to save five children. Rescue workers go door-to-door to check on tornado survivors. ■ That's how almost all human beings are wired: To work together. In fact, we're probably inclined to work together even more when faced with calamities than we are in day-to-day life. Urgent situations bring out the best in human behavior, and those who don't rise to the call -- the ones who run away from an opportunity to help, or who take advantage of others when they are in distress -- are the deviants. ■ We shouldn't run from challenges, nor should we abandon hope when things look bleak. And above all, we should remember that, like the radio operator on the Titanic who stayed at his post until the ship went down, most of us would rather be known for working with and helping others than for anything else. The doomsday believers of all stripes ought to take note.

March 23, 2023

News Off to India

It has, for a while, been impossible for a reasonably engaged American to have missed news about China. Whether the issue has to do with trade, Covid-19, human-rights abuses, the prospect of future conflict, or even the stakes involved with TikTok, China is plastered right across the headlines. To a degree, the coverage is both warranted and useful. China is, after all, home to about one in every six people alive. ■ Conflict naturally sparks coverage. So does size. But it shouldn't take flaring tensions for a country to attract attention. ■ Allies and potential allies call for attention, too. One of the ways the world is shaped is through engagement, and engagement depends upon awareness -- just as "It's hard to be what you can't see", it's hard to assign value to things not readily discussed. That's what makes it almost scandalous how little coverage of India breaks through to American audiences. ■ Besides being on the cusp of overtaking China in population, India is the world's largest democracy, a fast-growing economy, and a major center for technology. It's also of substantial importance as a defense partner. ■ Even reputation-sensitive news organizations like the New York Times cover relatively little about the country, resulting in a bland diet of coverage about the country generally confined to broad-brushstroke analyses about high-level politics and predictable stories of environmental trouble. This, despite increasing US efforts to cultivate military cooperation and India's emerging status as an economy of indisputable consequence. ■ It has been two years since the United States had an appointed, confirmed ambassador to India. Symbolically, at least, that does not speak well of our national consideration about such an important relationship. Awareness shouldn't wax and wane opportunistically. Adversaries demand our attention, but courting better relationships with prospective allies is a long-term effort that calls for sustained dedication.

March 22, 2023

News Go ahead safely

Suppose you're driving at night on a rural Interstate highway where the posted speed limit is 70 mph and you encounter some patchy fog, modestly limiting your visibility. The prudent thing to do, typically, would be to ease off the gas and drive at perhaps 60 mph, or whatever your headlights will adequately illuminate. ■ But if another vehicle comes along and is traveling at a consistent speed of 70 mph, it might actually be safer to follow their tail lights (at a distance accounting generously for braking) at the higher speed than to go it alone at a lower one. As long as you're at no meaningful risk of rear-ending the lead car, then following them transfers to the other driver the risk of hitting something obscured by the fog and offers you a comparatively high degree of confidence that nothing new entered the lane in the few seconds between you. ■ Traveling faster may be objectively more dangerous for a vehicle traveling alone or in the lead, but it might be relatively safer for a vehicle following at a prudent distance if it offers the trailing motorist the assurance that the path ahead has been "cleared" by the vehicle ahead. Risk can be a vexing subject, in no small part because it can offer different answers whether judged objectively or relatively. But quite often, it is also dynamic -- changing as its contributing factors change. ■ Few skills are as important to learn as the ability to calibrate and re-calibrate risk. Risk mis-assessment is one of the reasons banks fail, among many other pertinent effects. ■ And yet it is not at all obvious where people are supposed to learn the skill of calibrating risks in school. Is it a branch of mathematics? Of science? Of social studies? There isn't a clear answer. ■ Nonetheless, it is obvious that too few people really grasp its importance. Every commercial flight begins with a three-minute safety briefing that frequent fliers could deliver by heart, even though modern commercial aviation is indisputably the safest form of mass travel ever invented. Yet 40,000 people will die in American road crashes this year, and because of the base rate fallacy, the public will scarcely take notice. Countless other examples could be raised. ■ Getting Americans comfortable with calibrating risk as a matter of routine behavior would be a massive net positive for society. And if one generation of parents is poorly-prepared to train their children, then somewhere, somehow, that training needs to be institutionalized. The great question is: How and by whom will the next generation be trained?

March 20, 2023

News Only the good need apply

Calvin Coolidge rose to national prominence with his emphatic law-and-order response to a Boston police strike when he was governor of Massachusetts. The event produced one of his most famous quotations: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." As vice president, Coolidge was second to a President who famously turned a blind eye to scandalous corruption in his own Cabinet -- but he was himself sheltered by a reputation for probity. ■ Coolidge was a partisan poitician, of course, but his brand was in no small part attitudinal. His icy view of corruption and wrongdoing by public officials -- bordering on preachy, even -- was part of his appeal. ■ In his autobiography, he wrote, "When a man has invested his personal interest and reputation in the conduct of a public office, if he goes wrong it will not be because of former relations, but because he is a bad man [...] What we need in appointive positions is men of knowledge and experience who have sufficient character to resist temptations." ■ We are often sold on how to vote because of policies, but the deeper truth is that most of what we really get, especially in executive office, is character and orientation. Policy agendas matter, of course, but they are largely predictable. The most important things that happen, though, are often matters of surprise: Armed conflicts, natural disasters, financial panics, disease outbreaks. Things that cannot be predicted, but only answered on the fly, using limited information and the best available judgment. ■ There must be some kind of demand for a Coolidge-like attitude today: Not for slick charm or magnetic personality, nor for expansive promises, but for high standards of character and a fierce intolerance for wrongdoing. "Bad men" (and women) should be shown the door without hesitation.

March 19, 2023

Computers and the Internet Slow talks, one-on-one

Social media has turned out to be very good for periodic one-to-many communications. There's no better way to keep up on the occasional life updates, job changes, and vacation travelogues of past co-workers, old classmates, and other arm's-length acquaintances than to follow one another on social media. ■ Group chats, meanwhile, have been excellent for ongoing conversations among small bands of friends. Their value is revealed indirectly by the strong feelings iPhone users have about Android users trying to join their group texts. ■ Considering the social enhancements wrought by these technologies, it's too bad there hasn't been a development that enhances slow but ongoing one-to-one conversations. If you call or text a friend after a gap in time, the conversation too easily becomes a catch-up visit. The conversation sounds like a highlight reel, and promises are made that "We should visit/get together soon" or "Let's catch up sooner next time", but there's always a finality to the end of the conversation -- even if it's the classic Midwestern, "I'd better let you go". ■ The beauty of a group chat is in how it binds together a group of people with low individual effort, but with high returns to everyone. The participants are part of something together, but no individual has to carry the weight. And it is naturally open-ended; nobody closes the conversation, as it simply rolls over, unconscious of any terminal constraints. ■ But plenty of people have friendships that emerged organically between two people (or among three at most) -- too small for a true group chat, yet no less worth sustaining. Those unique one-to-one friendships came about for a reason, but the communication technologies of the modern world doesn't favor them. That's especially the case for tools like instant messenger chats that alert all parties when the others are online. ■ When a conversation reaches a natural break point, does someone need to acknowledge that with an "End of transmission" message? If no one acknowledges the break specifically, isn't it a bit like putting a telephone call on hold and never returning? ■ Maybe there is (or, rather, ought to be) a technological solution for that -- like a social media tool that only permits the user to send a short message to the other person once every two, three, or four days. Just enough to keep the parties engaged in ongoing conversation rather than sporadic information dumps on one other, but not so much as to make the maintenance of that friendship appear like a burden. ■ Lots of people do have those standalone friendships, and they're worth sustaining. In the past, those might have been sustained by occasional letters (which, by their nature, took time to transmit, thus naturally slowing the exchange to a manageable pace) or perhaps for a while by telegrams (in which brevity was enforced by economic imperative). ■ As Benjamin Franklin advised, "Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing." But no friendship endures without at least a little care and attention. Considering the amount of value imparted to the other friendship types by other technological tools, there ought to be room for a tool to facilitate "metered chat" between friends who see value in remaining in unforced -- and unimposing -- contact with one another.

March 18, 2023

News Leaving some of it on the field

From University of Zurich economics professor Dina Pomeranz comes this sage advice to academics: "Don't do anything in the process of trying to get tenure that you would regret if you don't get tenure." It's advice equally applicable to any other career field, and to non-career pursuits as well. Just replace "tenure" with whatever it happens to be that you are pursuing. ■ Incentives are often misaligned in the lessons society teaches youth. Quite frequently, we offer young people tournaments and competitions in which only one participant or team emerges as the winner. Phrases like "leave it all on the field" are used uncritically, and the word "champion" is invested with such wonder and awe that it could easily seem to the impressionable young mind that all of life consists of zero-sum games in which going to extremes in pursuit of victory is just what rational actors do. ■ In reality, most "games" in life are not zero-sum. They are often long-running, open-ended, or collaborative instead of competitive. Training people to see the flaws in the "no pain, no gain" attitude starts young, and it's vital to forming adults who value balance appropriately. ■ Should everyone accept some struggle in life? Absolutely: Struggle is often the price of things worth having. ■ Should anyone compromise their integral self in the hope of an uncertain payoff? The answer should far more readily be "no". ■ Gaining outcomes at a cost of health, conscience, or loving relationships ought to be avoided. It's no small matter to know that life is precious and too often short, so living well along the way is essential. Moreover, life has to be lived in totality; every part has a season, to be sure, and within those seasons, different priorities prevail. ■ But of the big aspects to a well-rounded life -- like family, productive work, learning, wellness, creativity, and recreation -- there are rarely times when it's appropriate to shut down any one of them altogether. The single-minded pursuit of any outcome can raise the dangerous temptation to let only one of those matter at the cost of the others. It's best to avoid that temptation.

March 17, 2023

Humor and Good News Craic the case

Once a year, Americans from all walks of life take a day to celebrate a day made famous by the Irish immigrants who made a particularly large impact on the culture of the country with their arrival in the second half of the 19th Century. For one day, Irish (and particularly Irish-American) culture is celebrated -- with enthusiasm, even if without much authenticity. ■ Perhaps a purist could get uptight about labeling the behavior a form of cultural appropriation, but much of the effect of the day is a consequence of the ways in which Irish immigrants assimilated (incompletely) into American society. ■ But behind the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons and somewhere beyond the green-tinted beer, the thoughtful observer could pinpoint at least a few legitimate cultural touchstones worth a nod: The celebration of gathering with friends for its own sake (craic), of great storytelling (a tradition from a homeland and a culture that punch far above their weight in the world of literature), and of bringing cheer through song and dance, parades and fundraisers for charitable causes. ■ The Irish tradition gets a second look in America in a way that other cultures don't. Columbus Day has been dealt an uncomfortable reckoning, Oktoberfest is celebrated only sporadically, and there really aren't any widely-acknowledged holidays imported from Russia, Japan, India, South Africa, England, or Egypt. Maybe that's a mistake. ■ No culture gets everything right, but it's also fair to assume that every culture gets at least one or two things right. (That's one of the basic conclusions one naturally reaches if one assumes that at least some traditions survive from generation to generation because they've proven themselves useful each time before being passed along.) ■ A reasonably open-minded person ought to reach the conclusion that there is payoff in studying lots of different cultures to see what good ideas can be gleaned from each. One doesn't have to live by other Danish principles to take a few good lessons from hygge, for instance. ■ Perhaps the lesson to be taken from St. Patrick's Day in America is that it is possible (and probably even prudent) to intellectually tour the cultures of many countries, after having spent at least a couple of years forming adult opinions about how to live -- but before too much of a lifetime has elapsed for one to be comfortable with making changes.

March 16, 2023

News Be all you can be

The Sergeant Major of the Army has relayed a veteran's story of being rescued from mortal danger by a helicopter pilot who went above and beyond the call of duty -- by firing a personal weapon out the open door of the aircraft after exhausting the rest of her ammunition. ■ The pilot's pronoun, of course, is what makes some people angry. There remain lots of armchair generals who think that large ranges of people should be excluded from lots of military service, including combat roles. They are often from the same realms as those who fantasize about the purported masculine superiority of the Russian army or who complain about even the most modest steps to promote inclusion among the profession of arms. ■ There is little defense for the exclusionary position. Vignettes like the helicopter pilot with alternative weaponry should alone be enough to dismiss categorical arguments for keeping all but the "manly men" out of the military. But so should a basic resort to logic: Even if all that mattered were brute hand-to-hand combat, sheer muscle size and masculinity wouldn't be enough. ■ There are lots of diminuitive martial artists who could neutralize people much larger than themselves, merely by using smarter techniques. And modern warfare is really no different, in the sense that it's only quite rarely a matter of raw physical strength. It's far more about finding creative, smart, and imaginative people who can solve problems in clever ways, rather than in those that are most costly. And any force that would exclude half its potential brains by prohibiting women would be insane.

March 13, 2023

Business and Finance Good investing, bad television

Most people don't know very much about investing in general, or about stock valuations in particular. It's widely perceived to be one of those subjects that is "too hard", even though it really isn't. The perception is largely a problem of conflicting incentives: Those who understand the material often have vested interests in making it look hard. ■ Fortunately, the material itself isn't as hard as many of its purveyors make it out to be. And more significantly, success is often far more a product of well-regulated emotions than of raw intelligence. Warren Buffett laid it out quite plainly when he wrote of the "Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville" nearly 40 years ago, and yet his lessons collected then are of scarcely any greater popularity today than they were when Ronald Reagan was President. ■ Unfortunately for many, the truly valuable lessons seem too boring, so instead they turn to where the action and excitement appear to be. And one of those places is on television, where people like Jim Cramer make loud noises surrogating for investing advice. Unfortunately, people take his advice -- like a recent recommendation to buy the stock of the banking company that was taken over by the FDIC over the weekend. ■ Taking advice on investing from the showmen on television is like watching "SportsCenter" to learn about health and fitness. It's just a bunch of action shots, with little or no relationship to the actual discipline required behind the scenes. ■ Conditions would be vastly better across the board if more people fundamentally understood that the basic enduring lessons of investing aren't especially complicated, that success is largely a matter of patience and risk endurance, and that the best formulas for investing success are almost excruciatingly boring. ■ Good financial advice generally makes for bad television. Louis Rukeyser knew how to deliver it right, but he was a rare talent, and even then, his style was cut loose by PBS two decades ago. But it would do us a lot of good to realize that excitement ought to be chased in places where the stakes are low -- like on the baseball diamond -- and not in the retirement plans of ordinary Americans.

March 12, 2023

Business and Finance Good luck, depositors

Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than you imagine. It's a prudent guideline to keep in mind, whether you're unexpectedly stuck in a pandemic or staring down the barrel of a bank collapse. ■ As a matter of prudence, it makes sense to maintain a cheerful outlook while simultaneously observing the Scout Motto: Be prepared. Unfortunately, though, material wealth and social esteem don't always flow in those directions, which is why a small universe of tech-bros, "founders", venture capitalists, and associated folks rack up high audience counts while boasting about themselves through social media. ■ One, for example, has taken to Twitter to announce that he was alerted to panic about Silicon Valley Bank "in one chat with 200+ tech founders". Putting aside how self-important and nauseating that supposed chat certainly must be, it's quite the extraordinary act to implicate one's self in initiating a bank run based upon a rumor mill of dodgy legal status. ■ No banking-related panic is good for society. But perhaps it's also worth observing that narrowly-focused priesthoods can easily get themselves into trouble when they overestimate their capacities. (And make no mistake: There are lots of priesthoods that have nothing to do with religion.) ■ Having one high-demand skill (like coding) or landing some hits in a high-risk market (like venture capital) isn't the same as having high general intelligence. Unfortunately, social reinforcement mechanisms tend to tell successful people otherwise, which is why it's easy to find "angel investors" type-screaming "You're uninformed!" at online passersby and "venture capitalists" trying to cram for "Banking 101". ■ When things go bad in banking, they can go bad in a hurry. That's self-evidently why the FDIC is taking extreme measures. But the consequences will go far beyond deposit insurance limits and also should certainly involve some moral reassessment of people who have made bad choices out of hubris. ■ It's a bad idea for any considerable number of people to choose heroes based upon their willingness to trumpet their own victories and take credit for skill when dealing in matters where luck can and often does prevail. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "As pride increases, fortune declines." ■ Luck isn't everything, but those who mistake their good luck for a superabundance of personal skill are unlikely to be prepared for those moments when luck turns south. And that can happen much faster than people can imagine.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

March 11, 2023

Humor and Good News Breaking bread

The arrival of a dreadful airborne pandemic forced countless abrupt changes on society. Some, like the vastly increased accommodation for those who want to work from home, have even ended up as positive outcomes. But for the most part, the changes we made were forced on us rather than deliberate. ■ We ought to take the chance, while people are taking a more conscious approach to their social commitments, to reboot the American dinner party as an institution. It seems evident that the classic events reflected some of the status aspirations of a rising middle class out to consume conspicuously. Mistakes were made along the way. ■ This time around, we ought to look to common dining as a way to enhance community-building. Maybe we need an annual holiday set aside for the practice. It's credible to assume that on a civic level, we're going to need the same kinds of systemic habits and behaviors that may not be able to completely curtail the worst things that can happen in a democracy, but that can make us a little more resilient in the face of challenges. ■ Making conscious efforts to strengthen our bonds with old friends while planting the seeds for new bonds with others seems to be one way to reverse the decline in social trust that has been lamented from so many sides for so long.

March 10, 2023

Computers and the Internet Good helping

One of the true and unvarnished joys in life is to teach another person -- or a group of people -- and to have at least one of them acknowledge that you have managed to solve a problem for them. Classroom teachers get that experience when graduates visit them to say "Thanks". Workplace trainers and presenters get it when someone comes up after a session to say, "I was just dealing with that thing you described". Others get it from having their explanations liked or shared by others on social media. ■ Maybe we should be grateful more often that as human beings, we have an extraordinary capacity to help solve one another's problems. Collaboration itself towards a worthy goal is often quite intrinsically satisfying, and often the greatest satisfaction comes about when there is no remuneration involved. Normal, well-adjusted people often happily stop to give directions to strangers who look lost, or take time out to explain a smarter or safer way to complete a task someone obviously has underway, or write out an online product review without compensation. ■ It has been noted that some of the things that are easiest for computers are hardest for people, and vice-versa. People share memes without a second thought, yet a 2021 paper concluded that "comprehending memes is indeed a challenging task, and hence a major limitation of AI". ■ Perhaps these few ideas which computer science will probably never be able to solve are the very things that will act someday as the kinds of "kill switches" we could need someday to rein in an artificial intelligence tool that has gone rogue. Computers may be able to answer many questions, but it's not credible to believe they can be made to "feel" a sense of satisfaction from solving problems for people. ■ It is widely believed we are living through an unusually epic moment of technological change, but the evidence remains scant that we've truly covered all the bases when pondering the consequences when -- not "if", regrettably -- things go wrong. It may be satisfying to realize that there are some means of communicating and some motivations for working together that are likely to always elude even the "smartest" of artificial general intelligence. In the end, it may be those peculiarities of human existence that save us.

March 8, 2023

News Well-adjusted adults wanted

A society does itself no good when it accepts behavioral pathologies as the cost of doing business to get extraordinary performance. That much really should seem self-evident, but contrary examples just pile themselves higher and higher. Whether it's the performing artist with 50 years' worth of prison sentences to serve for crimes against children and other offenses, the billionaire who impulsively feuds with and mocks employees, or the losing politician who salves his wounded ego by selling "retribution" as his brand, we make a giant cultural mistake in elevating people who are guided by their worst impulses. ■ Becoming a decent adult requires effort, yet virtually everyone is capable of rising to the standard. Regrettably, though, some people leverage their shortcomings into perverse advantages; take, for instance, the political liberation that comes with adopting an attitude of shamelessness. People remark about the apparent superpower of shamelessness, but decent people seem ill-equipped to put that pathological behavior back in its place. ■ If someone isn't well-adjusted by the time they reach adulthood, the rest of us don't need to amplify anything they say or do. That's the only effective way to respond. Isolation, silence, starvation of attention -- those are the reactions that serve to put pathological behavior in its place. ■ It can be hard to do, of course. Social media in particular encourages the frequent exercise of the outrage impulse. But the notion of enlarging the gap between stimulus and response is a mighty one for cultivating better behavior. Most animals don't connect events that happen far apart; if you want to punish a dog for stealing a steak off the dinner table, you might swat him on the nose immediately. It would be cruel to delay the punishment and impose it when the animal has no hope of making the connection. ■ But people can choose to wait and to execute on their feelings later on. As Warren Buffett so sensibly puts it, "You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow". It's advice that too many people in high-profile situations still need to learn for themselves. But it's also advice that ought to guide how we -- as a society -- respond to those individuals who refuse to grow into being well-adjusted adults.

March 7, 2023

Weather and Disasters Seeing the future

The quality of severe-weather forecasting in the United States really doesn't get the widespread credit it deserves, at least not yet. Too many people, perhaps still recalling the days not that long ago when those forecasts were decidedly low-resolution, still complain about weather forecasting as though it remains little more than guesswork. ■ But the proof to the contrary can be found by tracking the evolution of forecasts around several recent severe outbreaks. Maps four days ahead of the March 2nd storms in Texas gave a very good picture of the risk with literally days' worth of time to prepare. Other outbreaks have been similarly well-predicted. The combination of accuracy with precision has literally life-saving power. ■ What's perhaps paradoxical about the improvement in weather forecasting is that it has not been matched by improvements in other kinds of mathematical forecasts. The best forecast we can get from the Federal Reserve about the economy right now is language like "likely to be bumpy". Economic forecasting comes with enormous consequences -- many times similar to those of weather forecasting -- but despite the excessive confidence often on display, the forecasts are often wildly wrong. ■ That's likely to remain the case for quite some time, too. Models of physical phenomena (like the weather) can be improved with time and computing power. Much less can be done to improve models about things like human behavior -- which, after all, is what any economy is all about. ■ So, while we should celebrate the growing usefulness of weather forecasts (and take them increasingly seriously as they improve), we also need to apply a great deal of humility to our forecasts about human behavior, whether economic or otherwise. Anyone confidently predicting anything macroeconomic, from "recession warnings" to near-term booms, ought to be kept at arm's length.

March 5, 2023

News Cheap tricks

It comes as no surprise that a politician known for his lowbrow instincts is workshopping denigrating nicknames for his opponents as the 2024 Presidential cycle approaches. But there is a lesson to be learned from the recent past: It is absolutely not necessary to repeat the denigrations in order to report on the subject. ■ This reminder should be taped to every journalist's laptop and locked on every one of their smartphone screens: Every time you repeat a nasty nickname or a disingenuous turn of phrase -- even if you think you're merely mocking the nastiness yourself -- you're granting it a tiny little sliver of legitimacy. You don't have to do that. You really don't. ■ It's not just a lesson for journalists and commentators, of course. If the "social" part of "social media" means anything, then it is by every small act of engagement that ordinary users confer their own legitimacy on what is being said. And we can withhold that legitimacy by choosing not to take part. ■ Politics in America has always been something of a full-contact sport. Partisans on Thomas Jefferson's side in the 1800 Presidential campaign blasted John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." It's always been rough-and-tumble. ■ But it takes a certain kind of laziness to merely transcribe insults and call it journalism. Quoting the insult legitimizes it. When a child calls another "Fatso" or "Dummy" on the playground, no competent teacher repeats the insult unless expressly necessary. ■ The central fact of an insult is what it says about the party expressing it. And if the only idea a person has available to express is a cartoonish insult, then they don't really have anything to say that is worth reporting.

March 4, 2023

The United States of America Union forever

Some people argue with such unapologetic bad faith and on behalf of such outrageously bad ideas that it seems more satisfying to dismiss them out-of-hand than to rise to the argument. But, for as viscerally satisfying as it may be to point and laugh at those we think are making fools of themselves, every good thing worth keeping deserves to be defended on its merits. ■ In the case of the rancorous and disingenuous notion of dividing the United States, it seems almost ridiculous to try to meet the question on the merits. But we cannot avoid the fact that a sitting member of Congress is openly advocating a split, and even if her attitude is treasonous, the idea of union among the American States is important enough that it deserves to be won on its merits. ■ "Union Forever" isn't merely an echo from Lincoln's time. It is no small triumph that a nation of more than 330 million people has been perpetuated and grown to act as a gigantic free trade zone, with freedom of movement across an entire continental nation. ■ That's truly an extraordinary achievement in human history. And its growth has been overwhelmingly organic -- say what you will about the motivations behind the Louisiana Purchase, the purchase of Alaska, or the annexation of Texas, but most of what is recognized as the United States today wasn't brought in by force. ■ And what has been joined into union has become extraordinarily peaceful and productive. The time, the effort, and the negotiations required to achieve even bilateral free trade agreements between countries or even a minimal amount of freedom of movement is really quite extraordinary. It took the European Union enormous effort to develop the Schengen Area, despite peace and common interest. ■ For the United States to have achieved freedom of movement and freedom of trade among one out of every 25 people alive on the planet, merely by the organic maintenance of the Constitutional rule of law, is really extraordinary. ■ To undervalue those freedoms is to make a colossal misjudgment about the value of human organization. Freedom of exchange and freedom of movement are landmark achievements in the course of human history. They make the people who engage in them better off. ■ To be able and pick up and move because of job availability, or to move away from chronic natural disasters, or to to take advantage of attractive laws or incentives, or merely to "start over", is the kind of thing that people dream about in many other parts of the world even today. And in the course of human history, to take that kind of freedom for granted is an act of ignorance and ingratitude. ■ People have chosen the United States to escape famine, to escape oppression, and for countless other reasons. ■ But once here, they have been free to move about, to specialize in any of our considerable economic sectors, and to live generally in peace and mutual tolerance. Our many advantages as a country would fall apart, even if we split into parts that could work amicably with one another. Free-trade agreements are nice, but it's better for California and North Carolina to be able to trade without needing any treaties at all. ■ Part of a democratic system of government is that none of us gets everything we want, especially not at the national level. But anyone who fails to see the advantage in accepting a few political policy inconveniences in exchange for the much broader power of those freedoms is simply being unserious about the value of union. Union has been achieved peacefully so few times and in so few cases throughout history that it should be self-evident that the only sensible thing to do is to maintain and cultivate it. To be so fortunate and to take that good fortune for granted is a disposition that doesn't make any sense. Union forever, indeed.

Comments Subscribe Podcasts Twitter

March 3, 2023

Threats and Hazards Turning points

The words are spicy, but the observation is accurate: "We used to think Russia was the second-best military in the world, and now it's not even the best military in the former Soviet Union." Dr. Kori Schake, who directs the foreign policy branch of the American Enterprise Institute, not only has a way with words; she has a way of seeing the principled order of things. And that order in the eastern half of Europe is changing. ■ In the future, we'll likely regard the period of Russia's terrible war on Ukraine as the turning point when the other Slavic nations decisively divorced themselves, both politically and culturally, from the Russian branch of the broader Slavic identity. In the process, we will someday see this as the turning point when those nations asserted a real, long-denied equality as Europeans. ■ It's obvious how the war is changing Ukraine itself. But it's not merely a political assertion of its right to exist, it's a cultural one. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was raised at a time when the Soviet Union imposed the Russian language on Ukraine, now refuses to treat it as a primary language of his own. ■ Observers note this as Ukraine's "consolidation" as a "civic nation". And The Economist headlines it, "making Ukraine a Western country". ■ But it's not just Ukraine; it's what the rest of the Slavic world sees, and what the world beyond acknowledges. Throughout the Soviet era, the other nations of Eastern Europe were widely ignored, underappreciated, or disrespected. The USSR looked dreary, and it was too easy to assume faults in those countries that were not indigenous to them. They were involuntarily yoked with a bad system, not inherently backwards. ■ As Ukraine's identity is being reassessed, so too are others. Moldova is rejecting Soviet-era impositions on its language. The Czechs just elected a vocally pro-European Atlanticist as president. Poland has been leading Europe's response from the front. ■ Political independence for these countries may have happened on paper a generation ago, but now they are staking claims to cultural and historical identities long denied not just by Russian imposition, but by disinterest or neglect by the rest of the world. The changes are big and they are noteworthy. And the world more generally will be better off for them.

News Japan doubles its official island count

14,125 is the new official total; it was 6,852 before.

Health What do Iowa and New Mexico have in common?

Possibly their largest non-profit health systems. UnityPoint Health and Presbyterian Healthcare Services say they may merge.

News Over the bridge

(Video) A police chase in Minneapolis ends up with a car going over a bridge railing

Business and Finance Soft socialism meets machine washability

ABBA wore wild costumes because that was the only way to deduct the clothing from their taxes

March 2, 2023

News Good riddance

After he recorded and published an appalling rant filled with racist sentiments, a well-known cartoonist has found himself dropped from newspaper pages nationwide and cancelled by his syndicate. While these are appropriate consequences for his actions, they raise another problem to the surface. ■ As newspapers have contracted (both physically and in staff counts), daily editorials have begun to vanish. Gannett has made that a policy. Lee Enterprises has consolidated some days of the week. Even the New York Times has begun editorializing only once every few days. ■ There was a time when even local television and radio stations broadcast their own institutional editorials. That hardly happens at all anymore. And it's a shame, because institutions -- especially the ones that describe the world for their audiences -- ought to be consistent and transparent about where their values stand. ■ An institution always has values, whether they are made explicit or not. They're unavoidably embedded in the decision-making process. Better to be clear about them than not. And far better to be clear long in advance of a crisis created by someone associated with the institution -- like a cartoonist on a pathetic rant. ■ Values evolve over time. That's OK, but part of the continuity of any institution is bound up in explaining what changed: The facts? The interpretations? The whims of ownership? The social habits of the editor-in-chief? Was the old reasoning faulty, or was it simply limited by the prevailing conditions of the time? ■ Newspaper readers (and indeed all media audiences) deserve to be advised of changing values and opinions, especially since they invariably influence coverage. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise: Limited resources put constraints on coverage, and navigating those constraints is an act driven by judgment and values. ■ Frequent editorials also help to make clear whether news coverage is active or reactive. Are the editors trying to see around corners, or are they just waiting to respond to whatever events they cannot avoid? Better the former than the latter. Had some been looking more carefully, they might have realized sooner that one of their syndicated cartoonists had long been playing with fire. ■