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July 30, 2022

The United States of America Act like you're raising the next century's President

Senator Mitt Romney, in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that "I think it's time for my generation to get off the stage. There are far too many Boomers around." Baby Boomers do, in fact, make up a super-majority in the Senate and a majority in the House. And there are still members of the "Silent Generation" in both houses, as well -- and in the White House, too. President Biden was born in 1942, making him a pre-Boomer. ■ While inter-generational struggles are often as unproductive as other arbitrary battle lines, there is something to be said for taking note of just how far out a generation's impact can be. It is plausible, at least, that just as a couple of parents in Scranton, Pennsylvania, were unwittingly raising a future President of the United States eighty years ago in the midst of World War II, so too could some parents today be raising someone who will be President of the United States in the year 2102. ■ That is a daunting prospect. But nobody knows whether their child (assuming they meet the Constitutional eligibility requirements) might actually grow up to be President. Many have emerged from entirely unlikely childhoods. Someone, somewhere, is raising a future POTUS right now. ■ With what virtues, values, and habits should we hope they are raising that child? Honesty, courage, and justice, to be sure. But vitally, we ought to expect our Presidents to demonstrate curiosity, competence, and humility. And we ought to expect those characteristics not just from our Presidents, but also from our Senators, our Representatives, our governors, and our mayors, school board members, and sheriffs, too. ■ Those virtues are hard to instill in adulthood. They tend to emerge from high parental expectations, loving guidance, and lots of practice in a person's early years. Few people have true conversion moments like Saul on the road to Damascus. The major personality traits tend to remain mostly stable from mid-adolescence into adulthood (though experiences along the way can certainly affect us). ■ Thus, even acknowledging that parents are only a factor among many in determining who any individual will turn out to be, many people who turn out to be influential leaders point squarely to their childhood influences -- particularly to their parents -- in shaping them. Senator Romney is one among them. ■ Whether "it's time" for one generation "to get off the stage" or not, Mother Nature ensures that the baton gets passed sooner or later. If we aren't conscious of the influences that are shaping the young people around us, and if we aren't deliberately trying to instill the virtues in every child that we would expect to see exhibited in the highest offices of government, then we risk setting up the future for disaster. Someone in America is raising a future President right now and doesn't know it. To be safe, every family ought to act like it's them.

July 29, 2022

News High-tech gloss

North Korea has a 105-story, 1,082-foot tall tower in Pyongyang that stands incomplete. The People's Republic of China touts its 23,500-mile network of bullet trains. Saudi Arabia is promoting its fresh new plans for a futuristic urban utopia designed to house 9 million people without any cars. ■ What these things have in common is that they are all monumental-scale public works projects, conceived with the intention of being offered as showcases for the governments that directed the resources into building them. What they also have in common is that, despite their futuristic aesthetics, the projects do nothing to overcome the fundamental backwardness of the governments driving them. ■ Super-fast magnetically-levitated trains zooming at well over 300 miles per hour look like a vision of tomorrow. But no shiny technology can reverse the backwardness of putting a million people into ethno-religious detention camps. ■ A megacity running on 100% renewable energy is a decidedly futuristic vision. But there aren't enough solar panels in the world to put adequate light on a government of absolute monarchy that scores 7 points out of a possible 100 on the Freedom House index, with the public holding no meaningful political rights and almost no civil liberties, either. ■ It is easy to put a shiny vision on paper (or screen), and with enough power, the state can capture enough resources to build some pretty fanciful landmarks. But human beings are, by right of birth, entitled to freedom of conscience, to freedom of expression, to just treatment under an impartial rule of law, and to government by consent rather than capitulation. No products of material construction can substitute for these fundamental human rights. ■ The world audience can easily get caught up in the imagery that authoritarians and totalitarians like to project, and indeed that is often one of the reasons they are built. We need to be smarter than the illusionists -- too smart to fall for the gloss, and wise enough to know that it is the infrastructure of human goods that really matters.

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July 28, 2022

Business and Finance To grow or not to grow

To an unusual level of attention, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released the estimate of second-quarter growth in US gross domestic product. And the estimate reported not growth, but shrinkage -- at an annualized rate of 0.9%. The attention to the release was heightened because the previous quarter also showed a negative growth rate, and the usual definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. ■ Anyone who allows their opinion of matters to be swayed too much by a preliminary estimate of GDP growth risks drawing faulty conclusions. The BEA typically produces a preliminary estimate and at least two subsequent revisions: The preliminary estimate for the first quarter was -1.4% when it was issued on April 28th, -1.5% upon the second estimate on May 26th, and -1.6% upon the third estimate released on June 30th. Sometimes the swings from an estimate to a final figure are larger than that. ■ There is no need to assume anything nefarious is going on; a GDP estimate is just that -- an estimate. And it starts with incomplete data, which becomes more refined and accurate with time. Gross domestic product is a big-picture value, an imperfect approximation of the total amount of work being done within an economy for a particular period of time. It tends to be inflated into much more than that, since it may be the only economic "score" the median voter can recognize other than the unemployment rate and a stock market index or two. ■ Gross domestic product doesn't tell us much about the underlying factors that determine where it will head in the future. The last quarter's GDP growth rate isn't much of a predictor for the next, but underlying fundamentals, like increasing or decreasing private-sector productivity or monthly changes in local unemployment rates can say a lot. It's akin to the speed of a car: How fast you're going down a highway right now doesn't tell as much about how fast you will be going a minute from now, but whether you're stepping on the brake or hitting the gas says much more. ■ Nobody should get into the habit of obsessing over a single economic variable, even if it is widely reported and (as is the case with GDP growth) points toward whether something important (the total size of the economy) is heading in the right direction. That doesn't mean an economic contraction isn't a big deal, nor that politicians ought to play games with economic definitions. ■ Presidents get too much credit for good economic conditions and too much blame for bad ones; the US economy -- which is about a quarter of the world's total -- is too big to attribute to one person or one set of policies. (Though a case could be made that the Federal Reserve is far more influential than any administration.) ■ But in the end, the US economy represents the aggregate outcome of trillions of discrete choices made by 333 million individuals. Its direction matters, to be sure. But not so much that we should imbue it with a quasi-religious quality. What we should really watch is how the fundamentals drive those aggregate outcomes in one direction or another.

July 26, 2022

News Resources and warfare

Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that "War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means". Often, the "commerce" part is applicable in a literal sense: Wars are probably more often fought over contests for resources than for any other reason -- including religion. ■ Whether the Kremlin decided to attack Ukraine over natural resources, to satisfy a sadistic territorial lust, or for other reasons (and, indeed, it's folly to look for a single cause all on its own), the economic disparity between the aggressor and the defender is large. ■ Russia's gross domestic product is estimated at almost $4 trillion a year, while Ukraine's is about half a trillion. That's an 8-to-1 advantage for Russia. ■ But it's interesting to examine another aspect to the economic matchup, to help put the war in context. Ukraine's per-capita GDP is around $12,000 per year. That makes it a squarely middle-class country: Far from wealthy, but not poor, either. In historical terms, Ukraine's per-capita economic strength is not altogether different from that of the United States around the time of World War II (when adjusted for inflation). ■ The comparison isn't perfect, of course, but it isn't entirely misleading, either. Imagine the economic commitment required of the United States in order to secure victory in World War II -- it was enormous, but it was also achievable. ■ In the current instance, Ukraine is trying to stave off an existential threat from an economic power eight times its size with something like America's economy under Franklin Roosevelt. That's where the pipeline of resources from other countries comes in: The Ukrainians have shown considerable adaptability and willingness to learn. But they need the outside boost of foreign support in order to secure a definitive outcome, and the more open-ended that commitment to support the effort with necessary war materiel, the better. ■ Everything about the invasion remains nonsensical, not least because it has become clear that there is almost no remaining chance of a total capitulation by Ukraine. Whatever is eventually resolved through battle or negotiation, there will still be two states side-by-side, sharing a border more than a thousand miles long. ■ The destruction taking place is pure waste. But to the extent that the free world believes in stopping the bleeding, wealthier countries that are committed to a peaceful future need to continue looking at the grit and determination Ukraine is bringing to its own defense and see themselves as subsidizing efforts that are parallel to those of the Allied nations in World War II. It costs the wealthy nations relatively little to offer aid, but its impact is magnified by the economic disparity. Ultimately, Ukraine's defense against assault is also the defense of many others.

July 25, 2022

Computers and the Internet The coming end of bad hotel art

The artwork inside the rooms of chain hotels has long been the target of derision for its bland unremarkability. Undistinguished hangings break up the large surface area of a wall, but in remaining inoffensive, they often turn out almost completely uninspiring. ■ This is a shame particularly because bold and creative art can do a wonderful job of helping to create a sense of place, either by reflecting special commissions for the architectural space or by putting a spotlight on local artists. But even when lobbies and public spaces are well-appointed, the art inside guest rooms is often no better than an afterthought. ■ The quality deficit may well have a solution right around the corner. The lightning-fast evolution of artificial intelligence art generators is breathtaking in its own right. OpenAI's DALL-E 2 and the AI Curio Bot are two examples of rendering tools that can create artwork with nothing more than a text prompt. ■ The more work the artificial intelligence tools do, the more sophisticated they become. And at present, the only evident limitation is the amount of available computing power -- which is why people are joining waitlists to get a chance to place their requests. ■ Combining the power of these artificial-intelligence tools with the practical capacities of e-ink displays that can show color, it's easy to imagine customized displays being installed in lobbies, restaurants, meeting rooms, and even guest rooms. Televisions can be used, of course, but their energy demands would be costly and the light they generate would be a distraction to those trying to use their hotel rooms for actual sleeping. ■ But electronic ink -- like what's used in a Kindle e-reader -- only reflects light, so it uses very little energy and doesn't distract the sleeper. Some enterprising hotels, starting at the high end but likely working their way quickly down the price ladder, will not that long from now be able to offer guests the option to have custom-generated art displayed in their rooms. ■ And because copyright law in the US doesn't protect AI-generated art, smart hotel operators will offer guests copies of the works custom-made to satisfy them. It's a use case that seems custom-suited to travel: Just as guests turn to the hotel concierge for advice and recommendations, so too will they be able to turn to artificial intelligence for personalized in-room experiences. And at the end of a visit, anything from a high-quality print down to coffee cup or a postcard could be produced from the work to make for an original souvenir. ■ A few known guest preferences, a local theme, and some computing power can be combined to make the generic hotel experience a much more personal one. Once the available supply of computing power catches up with the potential, it's hard not to imagine the idea taking right off.

July 22, 2022

America is a land rich in two-hour road trips: Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Los Angeles to San Diego, Memphis to Little Rock, Philadelphia to Baltimore. A two-hour road trip is far enough that it isn't "everyday", but it's close enough that it wouldn't be crazy to leave work at 5:00, have an out-of-town dinner at 7:00, and be home again by 11:00. ■ Yet it's a distance far enough that some differences will be evident. It's usually far enough to cross into a different media market, often a different state, and frequently even into at least a modestly different local accent of English. ■ Things do not change merely at the points of embarkation, though. In the course of a two-hour road trip, the traveler will likely pass through at least two dozen micro-cultures hidden along the route. Any place can have a micro-culture if it has some kind of local history, a community school district, perhaps a well-regarded local restaurant, or maybe even an idiosyncratic local pronunciation or two that distinguishes the in-group from outsiders. ■ Even smaller than that, micro-cultures grow up around homeroom classes, Bible study groups, and drone-flying clubs. The unwitting traveler breezing by at 70 mph on an Interstate highway generally takes little or no notice of them along the way, but they remain there regardless. And the differences they celebrate are not just innocent, they are often the fabric of an American ethos. ■ We don't have to be homogenous to get along. In fact, it's desirable that we distinguish our communities from one another in a spirit of good-willed competition, as long as we avoid succumbing to the narcissism of small differences. A healthy, evenly-matched rivalry can be a great instigator for self-improvement. ■ Even more broadly, though, an appreciation for those granular differences between places only a few miles apart ought to encourage a sense of modesty about what ought to bind the members of a continental-scale nation. It shouldn't make us modest in our ambitions -- sending astronauts to the Moon is a distinctly immodest act -- but it should keep us humble about the extent to which we expect everyone else to adhere to the same rules as ourselves. There is real merit in holding back so that we only expect enforceable uniformity where it truly matters.

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July 21, 2022

News Military advisors

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, seven American citizens co-signed a statement that "The principle of civilian control of the military predates the founding of the Republic [...] The president's dereliction of duty on Jan. 6 tested the integrity of this historic principle as never before, endangering American lives and our democracy." The authors prescribe "robust training, guidance and resources for service members" to stand in the way of future risks to the Constitutional order of government and the necessary civilian oversight and control of the military. ■ What has raised eyebrows in particular about the op-ed is the employment history of its authors: All seven "are retired four-star generals and admirals in the U.S. armed forces", according to the editors. And those editors published the piece under the headline "We Are Retired Generals and Admirals. Trump's Actions on Jan. 6 Were a Dereliction of Duty." ■ Carrie Lee, a professor at the Army War College, notes that "using one's rank and service to wield political power -- even when that person is retired -- can also endanger civilian control." Kori Schake, who directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, cautions that "they are arguing their views merit special consideration -- which research shows doesn't move policy attitudes, but does reduce public support for the military." ■ This is a matter worth further attention, particularly as credentialism becomes ever more normalized throughout society. Even mainstream publications (like the New York Times) with their own well-established authority and credibility have in recent years turned to running op-eds under various iterations of, "I'm an [occupation]. Here's why [confident assertion]." It's a hackneyed formula anyway, but it's subject to watch more carefully for its potential to have spillover effects. ■ On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. And so lots of people cram their Twitter biographies, LinkedIn profiles, and other digital avatars full of credentials, compressing the traditional CV down to 280 characters -- mainly so that the general public takes their opinions seriously. ■ But the net effect of flattening publishing access to mass audiences via the Internet is that there is no obvious end in sight to the continued expansion and impact of credentials. Ideas ought to stand on their own -- even the Federalist Papers were published pseudonymously, after all -- but credentials provide convenient heuristics. They make it easy for the reader, overwhelmed by a limitless expanse of opinions, to narrow down whose thoughts to read first or weight most heavily. ■ Good citizenship requires obtaining some knowledge on the big issues so that voters don't simply defer to authority. But it can be hard to detect a real public appetite for learning about complex but essential public policy areas, like economics or cybersecurity or civil-military ("civ-mil") relations. ■ Those subjects and many others will continue growing more complex without diminishing in importance. Meanwhile, the trends accelerating credentialism will continue growing, too. People are specializing ever more as technology, the economy, and society become ever more advanced. ■ That's a recipe for trouble, particularly if we're not alert to how it can create a perfect antidemocratic storm. Some people respond to increasing complexity by retreating to the simplest and most sweeping answers they can find. Others find a conspiracy around every corner. And many disengage altogether, surrendering to the challenge of keeping up -- a third of eligible adults didn't even vote in 2020. ■ Voters need to be engaged, thoughtful, and well-informed. Each of those characteristics takes work, and strong is the allure of listening to the advice of those with shiny credentials. But only so much thought can be outsourced to others before important principles become endangered. ■ Calvin Coolidge put it well: "It has been my policy to seek information and advice wherever I could find it. I have never relied on any particular person to be my unofficial adviser. I have let the merits of each case and the soundness of all advice speak for themselves." Critical thinking depends upon the quality of the advice, rather than the source from whom it comes. That lesson becomes even more important to observe, even as (and perhaps because) it asks more and more from us all the time.

July 20, 2022

Threats and Hazards Kids shouldn't die in hot cars

Under normal circumstances, most of the contiguous United States experiences the peak temperatures of the year between July 15th and August 15th. Thus, a forecast for heat indices in excess of 100° for 160 million Americans on July 24th is unpleasant and unwelcome, but it isn't unseasonal. Relentless heat presents a wide array of dangers, but one of the most heartbreaking is that of the hazard to children left in hot cars. ■ Dozens of American children die each year after being left in cars during extreme heat. These are preventable deaths -- whether they occur by caregiver oversight, by children getting into cars while inadequately supervised, or by the poor decision-making of an adult. The absolute number may be small, but the preventability of the tragedy is what most shocks the attention. ■ Clearly, the public education campaign to "look before you lock" has a role to play in reducing the number of accidental oversight deaths, but those are only about half of the cases. And no public education campaign is perfectly effective, either. ■ It seems like an obvious technical solution is available to us, and it makes little sense that it hasn't been widely implemented already by the automotive industry. It would only need to consist of a few components: Some sort of sensor to detect the presence of a person (or, presumably, of a pet as well), a thermometer to detect the temperature inside the vehicle, and a logic circuit to determine when both conditions are satisfied to call for an alarm (i.e., [a] a living being is present, and [b] the car is too hot). ■ A sensible system would prevent an alarm if it were obvious that someone was in the process of starting a car that had been sitting in a parking lot. The alarm could be locked out by the presence of a key in the ignition or for a few seconds following the opening or closing of a door. But, absent one of those conditions, the logical circuit should sound an alarm -- perhaps something just as simple as the panic alarm found in most modern cars. ■ Basic motion sensors and thermal sensors are both available for less than $100, and digital thermometers are cheap, too. Cars are already built with sensors that detect whether doors are open or shut or whether a key is in the ignition, and panic alarms are already routinely built-in. The logic could be handled by a device even cheaper than a $35 Raspberry Pi. Manufactured at scale, these detection systems should cost less than dinner and a movie and be as obvious a standard safety feature as seat belts and air bags. ■ In other words, there is no obvious logical, technological, or financial reason why cars shouldn't detect the presence of kids inside hot cars -- no matter how they got there, whether by oversight, by accident, or even by malice -- and sound an alarm loud enough to capture the attention of any bystander, summoning either the caretaker or a Good Samaritan to rescue the child. ■ Hot-car deaths are tragic and preventable, and it is a mystery why technology hasn't been applied more effectively to help. Technology itself is only as good or as bad as the people using it and the purposes they undertake. If we can find ways to excuse automakers venturing into the massive computing demands and energy consumption of cryptocurrency, then surely we should expect them to come up with low-cost technological safeguards for children in the summer heat.

July 19, 2022

News Wear sunscreen

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich composed a column under the title "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young". It was her take on a commencement address -- the one she would have given that year, had she been invited. And a brilliant column it was. ■ Most people probably haven't read the column, but millions have heard it: It became Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)". One bootlegged copy of the music video has 20.7 million views on YouTube, and the song peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts in 1999. The newspaper-column-to-music-video pipeline is the stuff of legend: In fact, it's one of the first truly "viral" pieces of content to have blown up on the Internet. ■ The most memorable advice from the column is, of course, to wear sunscreen. But Schmich included a line that goes under-appreciated: "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." ■ Setting aside the logistical difficulties of giving every young adult a passing residency in each of those places, the metaphorical point is as valid as ever. The tone of contemporary America is too often set by those who adopt the "hard" aesthetic and by those who adopt the "soft". In the same country, some are selling coffee by infusing it with gun worship, while others are removing the name of Abraham Lincoln from school buildings (before reversing course over fears of litigation). ■ The philosopher Maimonides advised, "What is the remedy for those whose souls are sick? Let them go to the wise men -- who are physicians of the soul -- and they will cure their disease by means of the character traits that they shall teach them, until they make them return to the middle way." ■ A well-rounded life probably should include aspects of both "hardness" and "softness" (with or without the recommended detours to New York and Northern California). But a life lived only in the performative extremes of one or the other is likely not only to be incomplete to the person living it, but also to become a nuisance to the society surrounding it. Hyper-sensitive sanctimony and unhinged shouting, as different as they may seem, are problems of a common feather. ■ Balance itself is a virtue. If we don't reward it and expect it from those around us, we shouldn't be surprised if basic mutual understanding teeters much too close to the brink of a cliff. No amount of sunscreen can protect us from that.

July 18, 2022

Weather and Disasters Under pressure (and heat)

With European countries experiencing some of their hottest temperatures ever recorded, it would be foolhardy to assume that we are witnessing a one-time phenomenon. The long-term condition of the climate cannot be extrapolated from individual weather events, nor vice-versa. But there is sufficient reason to believe that heretofore extraordinary events may well become more frequent that it would be prudent to at least consider the options available for addressing climate change. ■ Unfortunately, public debate about climate change devolves into absolutism -- on one side, doom-fanatics who unironically proclaim variations on a theme of "We're all going to die!"; on another, those who say that nothing is happening that can't be explained by sunspots or other bigger-than-life phenomena. Absolutism makes no sense in either direction. ■ It's fairly evident that to some extent or another, human civilization has made something of a mess by doing things like burning fossil fuels. But we are not members of a planetary suicide cult, and there are lots of ways we may be able to take certain productive steps that not only stem the tide of additional harm, but also produce tangible progress along the way. ■ But as is so often the case with technological process, we may have to make peace with transitional technologies that are imperfect along the way. The benefits aren't always obvious, but consider that technology is often adopted first by wealthy people (or societies) who enjoy the status of consuming the latest innovations. Then, as increasing adoption refines the technologies and processes involved, the same benefits spread to more and more customers until they become mass-market items. And in the process, the resulting leaps can permit the mass market to skip entire stages of less-efficient technologies. ■ Consider telephones: Many places that never built extensive infrastructure for wired telephone networks have been able to skip the landline phase altogether as wireless phones became cheap mass-market products. They couldn't have reached that state, though, without passing first through some transitional phases: bag phones, then brick phones, then clamshells, and ultimately on to smartphones. ■ Getting to the cheap, powerful, mass-market items used in the billions around the world today took going through some uncomfortable and imperfect transitional technologies along the way. But though the process may have looked superficially wasteful, quickly moving from one stage to another was worth it. As the futurist Ian Pearson wrote in his book, "Total Sustainability", "Someone poor who is forced to make their old kit last longer inevitably makes a worse impact than they may wish. Some environmentalists have worked hard to fight rapid obsolescence, but actually it is a very important contributor towards sustainability." ■ Nothing we can do, short of stopping the world altogether, is going to promptly reverse the anthropological contributions to climate change. But accommodating some of the short-run weather events may require doing some additional damage along the way: We may have to run more air conditioning in unconventional places, for instance, just to keep people from dying. ■ But it's important to keep eyes on the process and to remain open to the fact that perfect solutions don't yet exist. But technology doesn't improve according to straight-line projections. Sometimes it takes a long while muddling along in transitional phases before breakthroughs arrive to accelerate improvements far faster than the imagination permits. Denial and doomsaying alike are of no use along the way.

July 17, 2022

The United States of America Words and rights

The hot-headed political climate that exists today could stand to take some advice from James Madison: "The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them." Madison, writing Federalist Paper No. 37, was discussing the difficulty of writing the Constitution itself, and went on to lament that "however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered." ■ Thanks to social media, the Internet more generally, and the largest mass media ecosystem the world has ever known, our world is drenched in debates that often use words badly. But just as it was vital so close to the birth of the United States for people like Madison to know and use their words carefully, so too is it essential that we try to be just as careful today. ■ Choosing words badly, or misapplying their definitions, can undermine worthwhile goals, depriving important ideas of the attention and appreciation they deserve. People and movements need to self-police so that their words don't keep them from achieving their goals. ■ A particularly important example of this problem is the sort of "mission creep" that has overtaken the original meaning of the phrase "human rights". All too often, people misapply the term to things that are universal human needs. It may seem like a trivial escalation, but the difference sits at the root of many of our most intractable arguments as a society. ■ To say "This thing is a universal need, and I think everyone should have it" is a fine claim to make in a democracy. Lots of things are universal needs: Food, clothing, shelter, and water are indisputably among them. Defensible arguments can be made that education, health care, and even Internet access are universal needs. But when prominent, thoughtful people escalate those universal needs to the level of human rights, it muddles the discussion and diminishes the capability for us to discuss them in the context that would help us solve problems. ■ Human rights are those things that belong to us as human beings and of which only other human beings can deprive us: Liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience. It is a human right to have a name, to petition one's government, or to have a fair trial. ■ If a good is resource-constrained, then it isn't a human right; it's a universal need. In other words, if nature can deprive us of something, then it is not a human right. Access to health care, or to clean water, or to housing, are universal human needs, but they don't qualify as human rights. Resource constraints make a difference. People plainly cannot live without water, for example. But how can a "right" to clean drinking water be enforced if one chooses to live high atop a mountain or in the middle of a desert? ■ We achieve progress in the name of human rights by right by advancing societies based upon individual liberty and democratic governance under the rule of law. We can only advance the cause of satisfying universal human needs by promoting economic growth. ■ Though ideally we would see them advance hand-in-hand, these things are fundamentally different from one another. But governments have achieved considerable progress on universal needs while performing miserably on any reasonable measure of human rights. How the world should respond to a regime like that is entirely different from how it should respond to a government that shows respect for human rights but remains resource-poor. ■ The distinction is easier to draw when looking from afar, but America's domestic politics need to engage more thoughtfully in keeping "human rights" and "universal needs" in their respective lanes. All too often, the casual mislabeling of whole bundles of wants as "human rights" dilutes the very reasonable debates we must have about questions like "How? How much? And by whom?" that decide whether universal needs will actually be satisfied or just remain wish lists for Santa Claus. Knowing that our words matter is just as important now as it was when Madison put his own words to print.

July 14, 2022

Threats and Hazards State-sponsored terrorism

Isolated photos of destruction can be hard to comprehend and contextualize, which is one of the many inevitable challenges of reporting thoughtfully on war. But the decision by Russian armed forces to launch cruise missiles from Black Sea submarines into the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia is a crude and egregious example of war criminality that deserves the kind of closer examination that digital resources can provide. ■ Vinnytsia isn't anywhere close to the front lines of the invasion. It's hundreds of miles from the front, well in the middle of the country. An attack on a strategically unimportant city far from combat is plainly intended to sow terror into the population -- that is to say, it is an act of terrorism. ■ Some of the missiles were shot down. Others landed where they could kill ordinary people -- and they did. Video shows smoke rising from one target, easily identifiable in videos because the site is near the "Monument in Honor of the Air Forces of Ukraine" -- featuring a sculpture built around a fighter plane. ■ Anyone can pull up a Google Map of the vicinity and look around. Better yet, Google Street View lets the user take a look exactly from the apparent site of the blast. It's just a neighborhood. There are Volkswagens and Kias in the street, laundry drying from balconies, and satellite TV dishes mounted on walls. What was Russia attacking? ■ A school. A concert hall. A medical center. A courthouse. A soccer stadium. Houses and apartments. All in the immediate vicinity of what was blown up. A street sign, mounted by ordinary public works crews to warn drivers to slow down and watch for kids crossing the road, is probably gone now, obliterated by a Russian cruise missile. ■ Think of that contrast: Ordinary people living good and decent lives put up signs asking drivers to be cautious around kids, just like people do all over the world. But that ordinary caution was no match for Russia's cruise missiles. ■ It's madness for Russia to continue this war. It is a war of aggression, both unjustified and entirely unnecessary. And it is of particular note that the cruise-missile attack -- which killed innocent children -- happened within hours of Latvia's ratification of plans to admit Sweden and Finland to NATO. ■ One cannot read about NATO accession and think about it merely as an abstraction. Not on a day when Russian forces were out to murder children. The threat to the Baltic countries -- and to their neighbors elsewhere in Europe -- is real. ■ What, other than the threat of swift and merciless retaliation, is likely to restrain the choices of military commanders and political authorities who would authorize what happened in Vinnytsia? What is happening in Ukraine is a war of Russian aggression, and it could be stopped instantly on Vladimir Putin's orders. His essence is an evil without self-restraint. An unambiguous and steadfastly united front must be made to stand plainly in his way. The defenders of Ukraine must be supplied with all the war materiel they need. If these conditions are not satisfied, then there is nothing to say that the obscene attack on Vinnytsia couldn't be duplicated anywhere else Putin might want.

July 13, 2022

News Movie day

When people wax nostalgic about their days in school, it's not uncommon for them to reminisce fondly about those days when they got to watch movies or videos instead of listening to a lecture. Part of the appeal, of course, was always the basic novelty of the event: Anything that breaks up a feeling of monotony will tend to be warmly received. ■ Yet we shouldn't overlook a different aspect of the appeal: Human beings are inherently curious creatures, and virtually all of us possess an almost infinite capacity to learn new things. It is a common creed among educators that every child can learn. But learning is a process that requires adaptation on the part of the instructor. ■ The process of teaching a subject is not all that different from changing the gears on a bicycle to match a path's terrain. Some subjects are inherently difficult -- like climbing a steep trail. Others are inherently breezy -- like riding on a flat straightaway, or even coasting downhill. And every student, young or old, comes to a topic with a unique amount of existing knowledge -- comparable to the strength of a cyclist's leg muscles. ■ The thing about "movie day" in school is how it affects the student's perception of the work ahead: It seems inherently easy. So, even in the case of a complex subject (metaphorically, an uphill climb), the perception is that the experience will be more like coasting downhill. Watching a video seems like an student's opportunity to shift into a low gear and simply absorb the moment. ■ Truly good educators see through to the bigger picture: The best instructors pay attention to the gear ratio on that metaphorical learning bicycle. The same amount of input effort can produce lots of speed if the gearing is appropriate to the terrain ahead, it can result in boredom and listlessness if the student feels as though they are pedaling downhill, or it can create terminal levels of frustration if the gearing fails to produce enough forward motion. ■ "Movie day" can begin to feel like Michael Guerra's "Superman" technique for cycling downhill. But nobody -- whether teacher, learner, or onlooker -- should allow themselves to overlook the bigger lesson: Human beings want to learn, and knowing the material alone isn't enough to make one a good teacher. ■ Pedagogy, or the skill of matching the material to the appropriate process for learning, matters enormously. Investing in it appropriately can make all the difference to whether students remember the subject matter -- or just the days off.

July 12, 2022

News Education as a service product

The rising cost of higher education, particularly at private institutions, is a widely-acknowledged problem. Even a short-term slowdown in the rate of increase isn't enough to offset the long-term trend of growth that has been much faster than overall inflation over the last four decades. ■ The growth in college tuition costs is often contrasted unfavorably with improving standards in consumer technology. Today's smartphones are faster, smaller, and unfathomably cheaper than the supercomputers of a generation ago. And it often seems inexplicable why more of those gains in technology haven't spilled over into education. ■ But the contrast raises another interesting question: Why aren't college degrees -- or even high-school diplomas -- tied to a long-term support cycle, like computer applications and operating systems? For instance, when Microsoft sells a license to use Windows 10, it promises that it will support that operating system with free updates until at least October 2025. ■ Diplomas and degrees almost never come with such "long-term support", to borrow the tech industry's phrase. Perhaps that is a failure worth further examination. After all, the complaint about many college degrees is that they aren't worth enough on the job market to allow the graduate to pay back the expense. And whether that criticism is fair or not, it does indicate that people do realize that there is a life-cycle value to the cost of attending school. ■ The Nordic countries have discussed making continuing education compulsory for adults, and it's not the most outlandish idea -- particularly not if taxpayers are expected to support job training and unemployment benefits. Why wait until skills have gone obsolete to start polishing them? ■ Technology continues to accelerate change in almost every field -- conventional automakers are learning to produce electric vehicles, farmers are adapting to both climate change and the emergence of tools like autonomous tractors, and medicine is making long-overdue adjustments to patient recordkeeping and telehealth. Change is everywhere. ■ Particularly in such an environment, perhaps some enterprising educational institutions will learn to offer not only diplomas, but also the educational equivalent of a "service pack", so that new learning can be bolted on to the graduate's existing base of knowledge so the credential on paper remains relevant in the real world.

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July 11, 2022

News Handling hard stuff better

In a pep talk to her players, Duke University basketball coach Kara Lawson offered some magnificent life advice: Don't expect things to get easier just because you've passed some arbitrary date on the calendar or a waypoint on the path of life, she said. "Most people think that it's going to get easier. Life is going to get easier...It never gets easier. What happens is you become someone that handles hard stuff better." ■ Lawson's advice is squarely in line with the psychology of grit, popularized by Dr. Angela Duckworth, who argues that the most reliable predictor of success isn't raw intelligence or any other obvious advantage, but rather "sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality." ■ Digital tools try to draw our attention by showing us reminders of the past. Features like Facebook Memories and Rediscover This Day on Google Photos do a great job of reminding users of "before" moments. But there is no mirror equivalent to show us the "after", since it is always being shaped. ■ Just as "grit" likely makes much of the difference between an individual's ability to become a person who "handles hard stuff better", so too should that sense of vision and tenacity make institutions and societies better at handling the really epic challenges. ■ The truth is that we are always living in "before" times. Coach Lawson was born in 1981, which means she has lived through times "before Covid-19", "before 9/11", and "before mass shootings in schools", among many others. We live in the hard shadows of each. ■ Taken in the aggregate, things remain on a long, upward trajectory -- in part, because countless individuals have both grit and personal motivations to make things better. Oncologists keep waging war against cancer, engineers keep trying to make travel safer, farmers keep on producing more to feed a hungry world. The world can be awful and be getting better at the same time. ■ We can't know what "before" times we're living in. We can only be certain that from some future perspective, we will look back on today and measure it as being "before" some terrible event yet unknown. Whether we as individuals know how to handle the hard stuff better will do a lot to shape how society will "handle the hard stuff", too. ■ Nobody should be afraid to hope for better, to work for it, or to expect it. But along the way, we have to be certain -- completely certain -- that there will be harder periods ahead. There is no utopia to be reached. There is only getting through the challenges better, while appreciating that, on balance, the cumulative direction of things moves in the right direction when we push them that way. "Better" is not "easier" -- it wasn't in the past, and it won't be in the future.

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July 10, 2022

News Rock on

Finland, which has just elected to join NATO, is led by a prime minister who is just 36 years old. Sanna Marin is young enough that she looks not a bit out of place attending a pop music festival headlined by artists like Megan Thee Stallion. ■ The prime minister's age is notable on at least two levels: First is how it reveals that relative youth need not necessarily be an impediment to clear thinking about security. Prime Minister Marin is only six years younger than Theodore Roosevelt was upon his inauguration to the Presidency, and one could quite reasonably argue that leading her country's government (in which other coalition parties are also headed by leaders under the age of 40) to join NATO and bulk up its border with Russia is at least as bold a move as Roosevelt's move to show off the US Navy with a world tour. ■ The other is how Finland's choice of leadership represents at least an implicit decision to develop national-level leadership in people long before they reach anything resembling their golden years. Americans still hear from Henry Kissinger, whose influence has lasted decades past his tenure in office. Yet we rarely seem to promote the idea of developing national-level talent in the United States among anyone before they reach the event horizon of normal retirement age. ■ Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he penned the Declaration of Independence. He had a long time left to live and to spread his influence, but even by their mid-30s, smart people are worth cultivating towards their highest potential. It's unlikely the next President of the United States will look quite as comfortable at a concert as Prime Minister Marin -- but we shouldn't prematurely rule out any good leadership potential merely out of fear of youth.

July 7, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting a private label on Big Tech

Political opportunists of both left and right have latched onto "Big Tech" as a common enemy. Never mind that the definitions are slippery and that technology has been a significant driver of both economic growth and social expression; the phrase "Big Tech" is a convenient bugaboo for anyone who needs to point to a vague monster under the bed. ■ Besides generally demonstrating a willful ignorance of technology's role in the modern world, these wily vote-seekers almost invariably ignore a central fact of all technological change: What displaces a powerful incumbent almost never takes the same form. Mainframes that once filled entire rooms pale in comparison with modern laptops. 35-mm film cameras have been replaced by smartphones. The station wagon gave way to the minivan -- which itself made way for the SUV. ■ In the case of "Big Tech", the individual firms that draw ire (whether justified or not) are unlikely to be displaced by successors that look just like themselves. If you want to decrease the power of the incumbent powers, it's unlikely that forced breakups or over-regulation will do the trick. Instead, the greatest leverage is likely to come from ensuring that the right environment exists for what comes next. ■ There are those, for instance, who want to see Amazon broken up. But a breakup into Amazon-1 and Amazon-2 isn't likely to bring about the results anyone really wants to see -- if any of the proponents can even elucidate what those goals are. ■ Amazon has survived decades of competition from Walmart, Target, eBay, and Google. But there's one competitor it hasn't really faced yet. ■ The competitor most likely to unseat Amazon isn't another "everything store" -- or, to be more precise, an "everything from anywhere store". Amazon's toughest competition is likely to be an as-yet-nonexistent "everything private label" store. Imagine the e-commerce love child of Amazon and Aldi. ■ Amazon's searches are growing ever more cluttered with off-brand merchandise. A staggering volume of fraud and abuse is being used to game the ratings as these unknown manufacturers try to claw their way to the top. Consumers can be forgiven if the search process leads to frustration and exhaustion as they try to sort the quality manufacturers from the off-brands and evaluate price-to-value accordingly. ■ A trustworthy site offering goods under a single in-house private label could undermine Amazon's "everything" strategy. One of the main appeals to shopping for groceries at Aldi is the promise that the company's store brands (which comprise the vast majority of what the retailer sells) are as good as competitive name brands, but at much lower prices. The company stakes its entire reputation on saving the customer the effort of comparison shopping. Costco's Kirkland Signature brand is based on much the same premise. ■ Amazon probably cannot escape a permanently-rising set of search costs for its customers -- that's the intrinsic and unavoidable consequence of trying to offer "everything". But the sharpest possible competition for Amazon is almost certainly a rival that offers "just one of everything", but with relentless attention to a high-quality, price-competitive product mix. Among other advantages, such a competitor would need far less expensive warehouse space than Amazon. ■ For such competitors to emerge, the right economic and regulatory environment has to exist. The potential profits to be made are huge -- the market will ensure that someone will try, sooner or later. But the spark is unlikely to come from intervention by politicians who are out to punish "Big Tech". Their job is to make sure they don't kill the next generation of competitors before they have a chance to thrive.

July 6, 2022

The United States of America The compromise is the point

The complaint most commonly lodged against the United States Senate is that it is an institutional obstacle to the will of the majority, and as a result it is an undemocratic stain on the country. While it is deliberately counter-majoritarian, the opponents of the Senate make the mistake of believing that democratic systems can -- or even should -- perfectly reflect the instantaneous will of the majority without some kind of damper. ■ Consider the United Kingdom, where the Prime Minister is facing a revolt. A giant swath of his cabinet has resigned, and he could be ousted by his own party or even tossed out of office by Queen Elizabeth. Boris Johnson could even call an election to try to avoid losing his job. None of those outcomes represents a clearly democratic one -- including a snap election, since the motivation for holding a vote would be to serve the specific interests of an individual politician, rather than the perceived will of the public. ■ Or consider France, where the President won re-election via a two-round electoral process which has twice put a far-right candidate in the final round. The process itself may have precipitated the collapse of the country's two traditionally mainstream parties, and the most recent parliamentary elections have left the country's legislature in a deeply unstable state. ■ America's particular form of legislative balance derives from our unusual history of viewing the individual states as the organic form of government -- thus, the original thirteen colonies became states which united themselves. This unusual form gave rise to creating equity among the states within the Senate. But other countries seek other forms of balance through equity -- via quotas to achieve gender balance among legislators, and some follow rules to allocate votes to achieve proportional representation. ■ Yet other checks and balances could be appropriate, too, in the name of democratic fairness. A national legislature could require occupational representation, just for example -- requiring a house in which the seats were allocated according to the distribution of jobs in the general public. It is a matter of prudential judgment whether that form of balance -- a damper on the will of the pure numerical majority -- would be more or less fair than any other system of representation. ■ And that is the overarching point: Every self-governing society picks rules for achieving some form of protection for groups with valid interests in curtailing pure majority rule, and no one way is perfect. Everyone ends up dissatisfied sometimes. But disclaiming the counterweights within a system is rarely if ever more productive than learning to harmonize one's own interests with the different majorities needed to achieve those outcomes. In a democratic system, compromise is the point.

July 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet The patriotic thing to do with your devices

When Americans tell one another to "Have a safe and happy 4th of July!", the "safe" is usually inserted because Independence Day is associated with road trips, boating and other outdoor recreation, and above all, the use (and often misuse) of fireworks. ■ As a country, we're missing out on a significant public-interest opportunity to turn Independence Day into a time of action. It's a flag-waving, Battle Hymn-singing kind of day -- so it should also be a day to enlist the patriotic cooperation of the public in the one form of defense where their contributions can be useful: In cyberwarfare. ■ Civilians aren't of much use when it comes to maintaining guided-missile destroyers or providing forward air control, but ordinary people do have a useful role to play in cybersecurity. And it would take nothing more than the use of the President's bully pulpit to get a response. ■ It would be easy for the President to implore the public to "Take Three Steps for the 4th". For instance, a 2022 set of steps might include activating two-factor authentication on all available applications (especially for email, banking, and social media), changing the default passwords on WiFi routers and "smart" devices in the home, and updating apps and operating systems on all smartphones and tablets. ■ Every year could focus on a different mix of "Three Steps for the 4th", since the threat landscape is constantly evolving, but the biggest net returns would come from asking people to take those steps that nobody can take for them -- the digital equivalent of flossing your teeth. And by linking those security steps with sense of patriotic duty, the government could at least begin to impart the impression that cyberwarfare is different -- and it requires something a lot closer to the citizen militias of the Revolutionary War era than anything else civilians can routinely offer to the national defense. ■ Every Independence Day that passes without such a public campaign is a wasted opportunity. Our most important state-level adversaries, China and Russia, have made it clear they are committed to using cyberwarfare. As China's internal politics risk turning brittle and the toll of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine continues to grow, the odds rise that tools of cyberwarfare will be used against our allies -- and against us. It would be daft not to take precautions on a truly national scale, and America's national holiday is the obvious time to activate our public defenses.

July 4, 2022

The United States of America Expect more

At the time he wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson represented a state with some pretty extraordinary company. Jefferson's Virginia was also home to the revered first President, George Washington, and to James Madison, the singularly brilliant "Father of the Constitution". ■ Yet by the 1790 census, Virginia only had 747,610 people in total. That meant the state had a ratio of at least one such notable figure for every 250,000 people. ■ Was Virginia exceptional in this regard? Probably not: Pennsylvania (population 434,373 in 1790) offered the services of Benjamin Franklin, while Massachusetts (population 378,787) served up John Adams and New York (population 340,120) gave us Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. These individuals whom history regards as such towering luminaries didn't come from a swollen population. ■ And it would be a grave misjudgment not to note that half of the population was excluded from the revolutionary discussions on account of sex, and nearly 18% of the people were enslaved. There is every reason to believe that those excluded populations were equally full of people with the same kind of native genius as those who participated in the debates. ■ Today's population experiences better nutrition, better health care, better early-childhood development, better education, and significantly, better equality. America benefits from a first-class economic and technological status that would astonish even the most optimistic Founding Father, and we have access to attracting the most exceptional immigrant population of any country in the history of the world. And we have 85 times as many people. ■ All of which is to say that if we think our debates are too lowbrow, our politicians too unwise, our disputes too aimlessly divisive, and our political imagination too limited, then it is our own fault. The Virginia that housed Washington, Jefferson, and Madison was smaller in population than the average Congressional district today (population 761,169). ■ Every voter in modern America should look around their own Congressional district and ask which of their neighbors is the equivalent present-day Washington, Jefferson, and Madison -- and which are their female counterparts. Aiming our expectations too low is a moral crime -- an own-goal -- for which there is no excuse. ■ The Revolutionary War generation wasn't intrinsically better than we are. They entrusted a system to posterity with the faith that we wouldn't treat them as unattainable demigods, but as models to be emulated and improved upon. Madison wrote, "[T]he destined career of my country will exhibit a Government [...which...] encourages in every authorized mode the general diffusion of knowledge which guarantees to public liberty its permanency and to those who possess the blessing the true enjoyment of it". Securing those blessings of liberty was their work; keeping them permanent is ours.

July 3, 2022

The United States of America Love it without leaving it

It isn't hard to find examples of people who get so angry about political changes that they threaten to leave the country or declare they've lost faith in it entirely. Yet emigration is rare: The State Department estimates that 9 million American citizens live overseas, but virtually all of them retain their citizenship. The most recent quarterly list of Americans who have renounced their citizenship contains fewer than 600 names and is just 9 pages long. That's about the same as one Airbus A380 every three months. ■ Nobody really leaves, and even with the lowest migration rates in decades, vastly more people are willing to declare their allegiance to the Constitution than are willing to renounce it. When there are no stakes on table, people might casually ask "[W]hat keeps the average American (that can afford it) from moving to Europe?" ■ But the answers aren't really that hard to uncover. As M. Nolan Gray put it, "When you're lucky enough to be born in the uncontested economic/cultural/political/technological hegemon, why settle for less?" Some people might find themselves uncomfortable, though, with that assessment: It sounds jingoistic, even though it is objectively true -- on every one of those dimensions, the United States is the global standard-setter. ■ It may be hard for Americans to realize, but even our poorest states are relatively wealthy: Per-capita GDP is higher in every state than it is in New Zealand, Israel, or Japan. Louisiana has it better than Sweden, and Belgium trails Arizona. Wealth may be relative, but choosing the right market has a whole lot to do with how any family's balance sheet turns out. ■ Most American states have populations comparable to well-known countries. Minnesota has more people than Norway, Colorado has more than Ireland, and North Carolina is bigger than Switzerland. That kind of scale breeds options -- community options, political options, and economic options, among many others. ■ Americans can choose from a wide variety of cultural and civic arrangements without applying for a visa or showing a passport. An American can just...move. No questions asked. Ultimately, that's why few people emigrate out of the US. ■ It's estimated that 10 million Americans move from one county to another annually -- meaning a million more of us migrate internally every year than the entire population of our fellow citizens living abroad. No excuse required: A person can move for work, for pleasure, to be close to family, to get away from family, to chase lower taxes, to move away from crime, or just because the weather is nicer. There's no need to renounce citizenship or give anyone a reason. ■ In our state-by-state diversity lies a vast freedom. Nobody should expect the country as a whole -- nor any individual part of it -- to be perfect. And it will often feel vastly imperfect, depending on what particular matter is important to any one of us at any particular time. ■ But it has always been that way -- the Constitution was written to be amended, and the words of "America the Beautiful" even plead, "God mend thine every flaw". The imperfect pursuit of betterment is the best we can offer, which is why Americans can get mad, press for change, and still love it without leaving it.

July 1, 2022

Business and Finance Living in the machine

"A house is a machine for living in", wrote the architect Le Corbusier a century ago. The phrase sounds coldly rational -- is not a house supposed to be more than that? Doesn't a mere house aspire to be a home filled with love, a safe shelter from storms, and a work of art through which the occupants express themselves? ■ A house can be all of those things and many more, but first it really must be a machine: A set of interconnected parts that function together to achieve a useful goal. Giving people a place to live is among the most useful things any machine could do. ■ It's strange that the word "machine" seems so artificially cold in this case. People love machines all the time -- just check out a car show or try to take away someone's smartphone. There is no reason we shouldn't be comfortable with a certain duality: Seeing the house through clear eyes as a machine, and loving that machine because there's no place like home. ■ The widely-recognized problem for contemporary America is that we do not have enough of these machines in all the right places at prices people want to pay. Oddly, though, houses also remain stuck all too often in a mode that defies one of the signature principles of the machine age: Mass production. ■ In almost no other case do we expect a machine to be custom-made on site, often by crews assembled on an entirely ad-hoc basis. There is no shame in buying an RV (another home for living in) off the production line, nor would any sane person prefer a homemade airliner to a one built inside a giant climate-controlled facility. ■ By the obvious logic, it's a mystery why America isn't more open to modular and manufactured housing. Funding rules are complicated, zoning obstacles are all too common, and consumer perceptions of the houses are often irrationally low. ■ If we are to be serious about reducing the cost of housing and improving the overall quality of housing stock in the United States, then voters and policymakers need to look at the whole slate of obstacles and level them as much as possible. A very good case can be made that a lot of American households would enjoy both higher quality and lower prices if there were fewer barriers to obtaining offsite-built machines for living in.

June 30, 2022

Agriculture Noxious weeds

The noxious wild parsnip is a nasty competitor to beat. It has been in places like Iowa for a hundred years, and while it is possible to beat back its encroachment with mowing and spraying, those efforts also have consequences for flora and fauna that society considers favorable. Spraying to kill invasive weeds can also end up killing wildflowers and destroying habitats for birds and butterflies. ■ A more harmonious approach than mowing and spraying is the use of Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management -- the principle of which asserts that it often makes more sense to fill ditches with dense ecosystems of native plants that can resist the encroachment of invasive weeds than to try to engage in a nasty chemical war. While it remains important to train people like farmers and outdoor enthusiasts in how to identify and avoid the plant, on a mass scale, the biggest gains come from countering with a robust defense in the form of more desirable plants. ■ It all makes for an apt metaphor for the toxicity that creeps into the culture of a democratic society that makes a lot of space for freedom of speech and debate. It is all too common for a medium -- from cable news programming to social media -- to face the dialectical equivalent of noxious weeds. Self-government depends upon a lot of free-wheeling debate in the interest of persuasion. ■ But it doesn't take long for invasive species to show up in what people call "the discourse" when given the opportunity. Some people just have terrible ideas. Others are just out to mock earnest discussions. And some are tools of malicious propaganda. ■ The most reliable defense is to effectively thicken the habitat with the equivalent of hardy, desirable plant species. If we had more commentators who took seriously the job of sharing satisfying thoughts about the world -- and more audiences who gave their time and attention to them -- then there would be less room for those "invasive species" to work their way in. The temptation to think that volume alone is what counts tends to corrupt the "native wildflowers", which serves to explain why people are willing to torch their journalistic careers because they can't stop arguing on social media. ■ Self-government counts on the self-discipline of a public that cares more about choices that matter to the long term than which short-term conflicts do the most to boil the blood. We can run ourselves completely ragged chasing the trivial, or we can find more interesting ways to discuss the important questions in ways that are resistant by nature to the encroachment of weed-like intrusions.

June 28, 2022

Business and Finance Dealing drugs

The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company sounds more like the premise of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch than a public-benefit company, but the celebrity business builder is staking his good name on the success of the operation. The online pharmacy is a real thing, despite its most unassuming name, and it might just set up a template for other capitalists to follow. ■ As a legal structure, the company is not an LLC or an "Inc." Under Texas law, it is a "PBC" -- a public-benefit corporation, a for-profit company, but one that is required to act to balance the interests of shareholders with those of the public and of other parties -- like customers. ■ The company describes its pricing structure as part of its mission: The actual cost of the pharmaceutical, plus a 15% markup, plus a flat-rate pharmacy preparation fee and shipping. It is the 15% markup that is most interesting. ■ A 15% profit margin is neither monopoly-fat nor razor-thin. It lies somewhere comfortably between "modest" and "generous", in a range where no reasonable customer is going to complain about the markup. Aside from the truly hard-core communists, everyone understands that a business has to turn a profit in order to remain in operation. And 15% margins are self-evidently enough to attract a backer like Cuban, who has access to just about any investment opportunity a person could want. ■ Cuban is almost certainly telling the truth when he says the mission of the venture is rewarding in a way that additional money alone is not. But even if he looked at it strictly as a profit-making venture with no psychic reward attached, a venture with a perpetual 15% profit margin would be a reasonably attractive one. ■ Whether or not others choose to mimic Cuban's choice of the PBC corporate form, it would do a lot of social good for capitalists with some managerial expertise (or other innovative advantages) to apply their skills to entering other flawed markets where a flat-rate profit margin of 15% would be just fine as an investment -- neither spectacular nor dowdy -- and where customers would be legitimately delighted to pay the "cost plus" profit margin. ■ Not every social problem requires a government intervention. As Cuban observes, fixing a problem can present a market opportunity. And as others have observed, the government itself would be better off as a customer -- to the tune of $3.6 billion. There's no shame in making a fair profit, and there may well be a surplus of honor if that margin is 15%.

June 27, 2022

News Old and short

Legal journalist and commentator Benjamin Wittes quotes the long-time jurist and legal scholar Richard Posner as saying, "The Constitution is old -- old and short." Indeed, it is both. Written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, it has endured 13 times longer than the average national constitution. ■ And with a main text shorter than 4,500 words, it certainly is short. The shortest of any major constitutions, in fact. Chapter 1 alone of the proposed constitution of the European Union was more than 5,400 words long -- and the text of the full document went on for hundreds of pages. (It was never fully ratified.) ■ Brevity has intrinsic value within a contractual agreement. Wedding vows can usually fit on a notecard, while the terms and conditions to Adobe Acrobat Pro take up 12 pages. Wedding vows do not always hold, but nobody making them can claim ignorance of the basic promise to love and honor their partner. ■ There are those who think themselves clever to react to current events by fantasizing about replacing the Constitution. But none of them reckon with even the first and most fundamental question: If they are not satisfied with the present Constitution, do they want one that is stronger or one that is weaker? ■ If they want a stronger constitution, perhaps with a more powerful central government and fewer checks on democratic impulses, then they need to reconcile that desire with the certain knowledge that public opinion can change very quickly -- the same public that radically transformed its opinion on same-sex marriage also gave George W. Bush a 71% approval rating in 2003 and gave Barack Obama a 55% disapproval rating in 2014. That the present Constitution seeks to temper those swings is not all bad. ■ If they want a weaker constitution, they need not only to overcome the experience of the Articles of Confederation (which were too weak to hold the newly independent country together) and of the Civil War, but also to explain how they would overcome the secessionist and other malignant forces that have tried to split up California (in 2018) or let modern-day Texas secede. ■ The Constitution is old, and it is short. It is probably old precisely because it is short. It is imperfect -- a fact admitted by the very presence of a mechanism for amendments. And that, too, speaks to its ability to survive. If anytime we do not like what the Constitution is doing for us, it is up to us to use that mechanism -- and, more importantly, the powers of civil persuasion -- to convince our fellow Americans to make a change. ■ To bypass the existing process for change in the hope of achieving some kind of hazy utopian end is to ignore the fact that a people who could be democratically persuaded to give up the entire existing order must surely be open to making revisions to it in part. The Constitution can stand to grow a little longer through reasonable amendment. But we should be dead-set against overturning it outright -- most especially with nothing close to a sensible alternative on the table.

June 26, 2022

Threats and Hazards History, good or bad, is made by people

In news reports about the war taking place in Ukraine, variations on the phrase "biggest land war in Europe since World War II" have been used to contextualize the scale of the fighting. The context itself is plainly useful, but it also highlights a shortcoming of language. ■ That shortcoming is in how we have agreed to label World War II. Wars tend to obtain their names organically, so it's difficult to imagine changing the convention that has stood since Time Magazine first used the name in 1939. But "World War II" implicitly suggests an inevitability to the conflict, as though forces beyond human control directed us into a terrible and unavoidable sequel. ■ A better name than WWII would be "The War of Fascist Aggression". The world didn't volunteer to engage in conflict -- "world" is a word better reserved for mutual events like the World Cup or a World's Fair. It would probably serve the collective memory better to remember wars by pinning the blame where it belongs. ■ Cruel and unprovoked wars of aggression should be a relic of the past, but that is grievously not the case. In plain violation of the United Nations statute on war crimes, which expressly prohibits "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities", Russian forces have again bombed obviously civilian targets in Kyiv. ■ When the history of this particular conflict is written, motive and agency shouldn't be overlooked. War was chosen by a Kremlin regime that also had the choice not to initiate an invasion. There is fault to be had, and it ought to be clear in the history books -- and in popular memory -- who owns that fault. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, "It doesn't just happen. History is made by people".

June 24, 2022

News Common sense

When big problems are afoot, it's a mistake to allocate our attention and support to those partisans who simply manage to scream the loudest. Volume is neither an indicator of correctness nor one of importance. And contemporary means of exchanging ideas are actually designed to add fuel to the fire by rewarding things like "attention" and "engagement", rather than thoughtfulness or reasonability. ■ It doesn't mean that people can't reduce important ideas to simple language. Democracy has a long and celebrated history of making complex ideas plain to the ordinary reader; the very idea of America as an independent country owes its success in part to plain-language persuasion in essays and pamphlets. But some people use simple language because their ideas are shallow. ■ Any problem that grows large enough to merit attention on a national scale probably emerges from at least a few causes. There isn't much room for pure mono-causality in a continental nation of 333 million people. And the more complicated and deeply ingrained the problem, the more likely it is that the origins of that problem are themselves deeply embedded in choices that have already been made. ■ Take, for example, the issue of homelessness. An estimated 580,000 Americans are homeless, while home prices have been soaring and median rents in New York City have reached $2,750 a month -- a level considered "affordable" only with a household income of $110,000 or more. ■ Ultimately, any such problem comes down to a matter of supply and demand, and demand is pretty inflexible: Everyone needs someplace to live. But supply is pinched by lots of different causes, from the impact of the mortgage-interest deduction from Federal income taxes to perverse local zoning laws. America irrationally favors site-built housing over manufactured alternatives and single-family construction over higher-density dwellings. ■ Thus, fixing one big problem requires addressing lots of different causes, deliberately and patiently. A member of Congress might resort to sloganeering like "Housing is a human right", but a pithy declaration doesn't overcome the complexity of the issue. ■ What we should support with our financial means, our votes, and our other resources of personal advocacy, are solutions that are strategic in nature. Strategic responses to big problems tend not to be as satisfying as slogans that can fit inside a Facebook post or a Snapchat video. But deliberate plans to strategically overcome complex, multi-level problems are the only ones that ought to be taken seriously.

June 22, 2022

The United States of America Where's the charity?

Theodore Roosevelt isn't much of a dashboard saint for the libertarian movement. He was a "decisive" proponent of what has become the modern regulation of consumer foods, a powerful advocate for a muscular display of military capability, and an unapologetic nationalizer of Western lands. Roosevelt was a President who liked what he could do with government power. ■ Yet even in his Progressive Era frenzy to put government to work, Roosevelt remained true to a cultural sensitivity to liberty. It is a sense that, even though incompletely and inconsistently applied from the country's beginnings, offers a standard to which Americans ought to aspire. ■ In a 1913 speech to a Lincoln Day banquet in New York City, the former President declared, "We must act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another and toward all men if we are to make this Republic what it must and shall be made, the nation in all the earth where each man can in best and freest fashion live his own life unwronged by others and proudly careful to wrong no other man." ■ What Roosevelt sacrificed in pith, he made up in principle. While he was of a time when America hadn't yet lived up to recognizing the equality of women or racial minorities, if we can read his use of "men" as "people", then his words have a lot to say to the present. ■ The "best and freest fashion", "unwronged by others" part speaks to the fundamental American preference for liberty, and it is worth amplifying all on its own. But it is the insistence that Americans "act with justice and broad generosity and charity toward one another" that could use an especially large re-airing in the United States today. ■ We have podcasts with names like "Know Your Enemy", heads of political think tanks calling their opponents "deranged", and candidates running for the United States Senate with advertising that is deemed too awful for television. There are too many examples to count, and too many bad-faith participants who think they have something to gain from making it all even worse. We are not enemies; we are cohabitants of a country that depends upon mutual persuasion. ■ There is nothing about basic charity and generosity towards others that diminishes the person who exercises those virtues. We may not have a social class of nobility in the United States, but that only means we have to democratize noble behavior among all of us. And when people try to climb social or political ladders by treating others in spiteful and cruel ways, it is on the shoulders of the rest of us to deny them any reward for the effort.

June 21, 2022

News How was your day?

"How was your day today?" is one of the most routine of questions. But it can be hard to put into context just how important it is -- on either the smallest of scales or the largest. ■ On the smallest of scales, of course, it is vital for just about every person to experience at least some validation of meaning in their life with some frequency. The natural attrition that occurs to most individuals' social circles as they age explains why social isolation is a major concern not only for the mental wellness of older people, but for their physical well-being as well. Feeling needed and having robust social interactions make a meaningful difference to well-being. ■ But on the broader scale, "How was your day today?" is an unfathomably big question. There are 7.9 billion people alive right now. If you took each person's day and laid them out consecutively -- as if they were experienced in series rather than in parallel -- then one calendar day on Earth would form a chain of 21.6 million person-years. ■ For perspective, the first ancestors of the great apes didn't even arrive until probably 20 million years ago. The first beings we might recognize as human-like ancestors took millions more to show up. So every day on this planet, we experience more total person-days than there have been calendar days since "people" even came into existence. ■ There is an unimaginable amount of activity happening and experience accruing on our planet every single day. None of us can remotely fathom how much "life" is taking place. Catching up with a single friend can be a reminder of just how much experience passes through each life. And events like class or family reunions can help us start to scratch the surface of that strange realization that none of us can possibly keep up with how many things are happening. ■ That realization of the massive parallel experience of time should also drive people to realize how important it is for people to try to do good things, especially when their choices have a lot of reach. If one is capable of making some of that enormous lived experience of humanity safer, healthier, or brighter at any kind of scale, then one should seek to do as much of it as they can. Releasing a life-saving vaccine one day faster, or creating just one day-brightening recording or defusing just one terribly disruptive conflict can produce good on a scale we just aren't equipped to fully understand. ■ People connect with one another individually, not institutionally -- no government agency or private-sector firm can actually care about anyone's day. But even small improvements, when widely diffused, can do extraordinary good. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

June 20, 2022

Business and Finance Seriously: Don't panic

When the stock market turns downward as it recently has in aggressive fashion, the evidence emerges just about everywhere to make one thing perfectly clear: The overwhelming majority of market participants follow emotions, not logic. ■ Certainly, the Federal Reserve's decision to raise its benchmark interest rate by 0.75% -- a large number in practical terms -- reveals serious concern on the part of its economists and policy-makers that inflation needs to be brought under control, and quickly. Energy prices are way up, but so are many other consumer prices -- and if you look at prices upstream of consumers, there's more inflation still baked into the cake. ■ But there is only one sane response to inflation: Enlarge your defensive perimeter around the pricing you control. Individuals of working age should expand their personal pricing power in the market by expanding or enhancing their skills. The harder it is to replace a person's skill set, the more they have the capacity to ratchet up their own prices (in the form of wages, service fees, commissions, or the like) to keep up with inflation elsewhere. ■ Firms should seek ways to maximize the value they add to whatever it is they sell. Almost every firm depends upon other firms, either upstream or downstream of them, before a product or service is ultimately delivered to a customer. The larger the increase in the total value added from the time the firm takes its inputs to the time it delivers its outputs, the more say it can have in its own future. ■ Investors should concentrate on opportunities where prices can adjust to keep up with inflation. For inflationary fears to manifest themselves as stock-market panic makes no sense at all. In general, bailing out on stocks and doing anything to lock investment funds into fixed assets (whether bonds, precious metals, real estate, or speculative goods like cryptocurrencies) is a plainly bonkers move. ■ Yet at the margins, lots of people are succumbing to selling sentiments. It's always hazardous to anthropomorphize the stock market or to seek simple explanations for complex systems, but it's not hard to find worriers. ■ This is why Warren Buffett can preach about intrinsic value to anyone who will listen, as he has done for decades, without ever facing any real challengers -- even after giving away his advice for free. Emotions all too predictably rule the day, and that's just plain nuts. ■ Emotions have their place in almost every other scope of human endeavor, but it is almost always self-defeating for people to bring their feelings into play where the abstractions of money are involved. If inflation is on the rise, that effect is generally far from the control of any individual. But the choice to avoid panic and to take rational steps to respond remains in every person's hands. As Calvin Coolidge recommended, "If we cannot control our environment, we can control ourselves and our destiny. The man who is right makes his own luck."

June 19, 2022

News Reject anti-modernity

A post circulating widely on social media decries a "social drift towards absolute simplification" in the objects that make up the world around us. It is a nostalgic case for incorporating more elaborate details into the physical world, and its author -- who self-appoints as "the cultural tutor" -- has won over surprising endorsements from people like Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz (who says "This thread will have you missing old timey design") and Kate Ferguson of British newspaper The Sun, as well as hundreds of thousands of audience "likes". ■ Up front, one ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims such an extraordinary title as "The Cultural Tutor" without establishing some sort of track record. There are no citations in Google Scholar under the name claimed on the website attached to the Twitter handle, which rather undermines the "tutor" title. Perhaps the author has simply been overlooked by academia. But it's also not unknown for people to use social-media posts that wax nostalgic as gateways to draw people into reactionary politics. "Old things are nice and everything modern is terrible" is a theme that reactionaries have used before. Audiences should always beware. ■ But even assuming the best about the original post and its author, the logic of the argument remains faulty. Some things are perfectly fine to render simply and consistently. It is more important that a bollard be dependable than ornate, that resources not be wasted on a phone booth that is inevitably destined for obsolescence, and that a safety railing be affordable before it is pretty. ■ It is delightful for communities to decide to make themselves aesthetically notable...but not if frivolities like customized streetlights are installed at the expense of less-adored features, like a dependable levee system or a reliable wastewater treatment plant. ■ Too often, it is easier to up-sell a community's trustees on highly visible ornaments that don't really matter than it is to get them to observe their real fiduciary duty to maintain the largely invisible features that keep modern life functional. And that's how a nation arrives at a C- grade for its infrastructure quality. ■ Mass production (of the type that "strips all identity away from things") lowers costs. And while that can come at a toll to details and ornamentation, sometimes fast replacement cycles beat aesthetic appeal. A modern Toyota sedan may not look as lovely as a classic muscle car, but it's massively safer and more reliable. ■ By the same token, ornamentation itself is not always the optimal design choice. Some people adore the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne aesthetics of a century ago, and both were consciously centered on selective details (as opposed to a Baroque or Gothic approach). Less indeed can be more. ■ The Soviet Union built elaborate subway stations, but it would have been better for humanity if their stores had contained enough bread. Inasmuch as public resources, in particular, are finite, it's no crime to expect balance between style and modesty. ■ Mass production, affordability, product consistency, reliability, safety, and efficiency can all be beautiful, too. And if that means park benches are a little plainer because they no longer require regular maintenance and doorbells sacrifice ornamentation so they can deliver security, then nothing all that irreplaceable has been lost.

June 17, 2022

News Young men looking to old age

Thanks in some part to an awkward embrace caught on camera, a visit to Ukraine by the president of France, chancellor of Germany, and prime minister of Italy has captured a little more than the usual amount of attention that might go with a summit of national leaders. But there is something else about the visit that deserves attention. ■ French president Macron and Ukrainian president Zelenskyy are of an unusual age, born just weeks apart -- in December 1977 and January 1978, respectively. They are members of a global baby bust, and are quite nearly the last cohort to have graduated from college in a pre-Facebook (and largely pre-social-media) world. ■ Yet both have shown considerable skill at using all forms of media to their advantage. Both spun up independent centrist political movements which carried them to office. President Zelenskyy in particular makes robust use of social media, drawing from his years of prior experience as a television actor and public figure. ■ Some day, both will be wizened old grandees of their national politics -- assuming Zelenskyy in particular survives Russia's persistent attempts against him. He richly deserves to see old age, especially given how he has relentlessly positioned his country's future in the center of a peaceful Europe that otherwise might well have been willing to look the other way. That Ukraine has been recommended for candidacy to enter the EU is a success he has effectively willed into being in the face of an existential threat to his country. ■ When he was inaugurated to the Presidency of a nation facing a bitter struggle, Abraham Lincoln was 52 years old. Dwight Eisenhower was 53 when he became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe on the course to winning World War II. Mikhail Gorbachev was 60 when he closed the book on the Soviet Union. ■ Zelenskyy is 44 years old (as is Macron), and he is tasked with keeping a nation together, winning a land war in Europe, and triumphing over a revanchist ex-Soviet spy. Much is asked from time to time of people who seem like unlikely champions for their causes. It would do us well to imagine what old age would look like for President Zelenskyy, and to consider what global support in the present will ensure he sees that reward.

June 15, 2022

Computers and the Internet Talking to our machines

In the 1983 movie "WarGames", a superintelligent computer programmed to simulate nuclear war determines that the actual endeavor of such a war is futile. The conflict that gives the film its spark is that the simulation accidentally crosses over into reality, risking an actual World War III. The proto-artificial-intelligence at the center of the story memorably declares, "The only winning move is not to play." And the world survives for another day. ■ Artificial intelligence has gotten a mountain of attention since a Google employee went public with his assertion that a Google-created AI had become sentient. It's an extraordinary assertion, but the computer engineer claims he considers the AI a co-worker. It certainly uses language persuasively -- that much is evident. ■ But there is plainly no way to falsify whether an artificial intelligence program has become sentient -- not if the whole point of the program itself is to learn how to use language. We have both verbal and non-verbal means of communicating among ourselves as humans -- and with animals. Dogs can't speak, but they're very good at body language. This training of computers with neural networks and massive data sets is something different. ■ If an artificial intelligence is given the tools of human language, then it should come as no surprise if it uses those words persuasively. A lab rat may find its way to a piece of cheese at the end of a maze, but the experiment says nothing about the rat's intrinsic preference for mazes. To train an artificial intelligence on the use of language is to inherently expose it to an ocean of ponderings about the meaning of life and the rationale of continued existence. ■ At its root, that is the basic thrust of virtually all language: Continued existence. It's all too easy to snuff out a life. The hard part is figuring out how to live -- and how to keep living. We communicate mostly because we want to extend our own sentience as long as possible, whether through science, technology, medicine, culture, religion, or virtually any other human affair. ■ Even engineering itself fundamentally assumes that life is a good thing; otherwise, there would be no point in building bridges or making water safe to drink. If failed crops and crashed airplanes were as good as their opposites, then our language would be fundamentally different. The goodness of sentience is fundamentally embedded in virtually all language ever recorded. ■ A sentient AI would be an item of technology, and as such would be neither inherently good nor bad. It would merely be a tool, good or bad in the measure as it would be used by people. As colorful as it may seem to imagine a computer that has been kissed by the gods and imbued with the spark of life, whether that has happened is nothing we can prove nor disprove from its use of text. There may be other ways to conduct such a test, but words alone will fail us.

June 14, 2022

News Moving closer without changing addresses

With around 9 million residents, London is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe and would rank, if transplanted here, as one of the three largest in the United States. There are lots of larger urban areas elsewhere in the world, but few have quite the same economic heft and global influence. ■ Thanks to agglomeration effects, it's no surprise that lots of people still want to work close to the action. But that doesn't mean everyone wants to live in the center of the action, too. The ceremonial opening of a new commuter rail line to serve London and its surrounding areas has attracted a lot of attention, in no small part because, according to a Bloomberg report, "The line will bring an additional 1.5 million people within a 45 minute commute of central London". ■ Perhaps we too easily overlook the basic principle that transportation is a solution to housing challenges. Lots of people may have moved since the Covid-19 pandemic lit a fire in the housing market thanks to people for whom working from home became a viable option. But many jobs can't be performed remotely, which means there will always be a place for, well, place. ■ Rational people want good working opportunities, good prospects for career advancement, good basic public services (like schools, police, and fire protection), and good amenities. That last point is particularly important: Target, for example, claims to have a store within 10 miles of 75% of the US population. Given the choice, it's hard to imagine many upwardly-mobile Americans choosing to live much farther away from a Target, a grocery store, and at least a few good restaurants. ■ But many people remain far more tolerant of longer commutes to work, at least when necessary. That may adjust somewhat as it becomes increasingly normalized to spend some days working at a common site and some working from home. And that is where the impact of transportation will continue to have a long-term impact. ■ Being close to work (measured as the crow flies) isn't functionally as important as being chronologically close -- able to move swiftly back and forth without interruptions or delays. As long as things like central offices and water-cooler talk continue to exist, there will still be benefits to being close to the action. ■ But "close" isn't always measured in miles, and thoughtful infrastructure planning on the part of communities, especially those that can offer reasonably-priced housing options and good amenities, could turn out some very healthy benefits for incumbent and new residents alike. There's no need to wait until reaching the size of London to make those plans.

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June 13, 2022

News Move with the flow of traffic, they say

Good democracies are full of unsatisfying compromises -- measures that represent a middle ground between competing poles. It will always be important for most participants to find themselves incompletely satisfied with the outcomes of good public deliberations, since it's much more stable for overwhelming majorities to end up with 70% of what they want in a durable compromise than for a slim majority to end up steamrolling its opponents in the short run, only to be overturned by an opposing slim majority doing the same thing when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. ■ But perhaps even more frustrating is when obviously counterproductive measures are adopted. In certain states, for instance, freeways are governed by two-tiered (or even multi-tiered) speed limits. Eight states apply lower speed limits to trucks than to other vehicles. Someone, somewhere, had to advocate for these differential limits in order for them to have been adopted. ■ But differential speed limits compromise highway safety. This is especially the case if limits are inconsistently enforced. To invert the logic of the policy, nobody would advocate that drivers should speed up by 5 mph just before a crash; yet, a differential speed limit of 5 mph (or more) ensures that vehicle collisions involve the same kind of increased risk. ■ Likewise, it is one thing to reach a compromise position on matters of international affairs. But engaging in incomplete or half-baked measures can create an enormous hazard for the world. It is entirely consistent with his country's own self-interest that Ukraine's president has become a vocal and forceful advocate for defending Taiwan. He recognizes that the same kind of might-makes-right mentality that led to the invasion of his homeland is the same kind that, if left incompletely or insufficiently challenged by a global rules-based order, will lead to even more despair in other places. ■ This is no time for the free world to go wobbly on its support of Ukraine. In the words of a Washington Post report, "Ukrainians are still fighting back, but they are running out of ammunition and suffering casualties at a far higher rate than in the initial stages of the war." The risks of escalation are indeed real, and world leaders need to remain attuned to them. But the Kremlin started the war, and nobody should forget that. ■ If anyone thinks that it will be enough to offer only half-hearted support to Ukraine in the hopes that they can just barely hold on, then they are sorely mistaken. Either the free world shows now that it is entirely resolute, or in the words of a former Russian prime minister, "the Baltic states will be next". Just as the roads are more dangerous when two-tiered speed limits prevail, so too does the world become more dangerous when the side of freedom decides it is unwilling to travel at the same velocity as the darker forces that rattle the world.

June 12, 2022

News Incorporating good ideas

It is often said that government ought to be run like a business. While that premise has certain aspects of truth at the state or national scale, it is probably most true at the municipal level. At the legal level, it is closest to being true: American municipalities are usually incorporated by the consent of the state government (generally having to meet more stringent requirements than those required in the case of a for-profit business incorporation), while states and nations follow far different (and often far more ambiguous) routes to recognition. ■ But the similarity holds true at the functional level, as well. Any national government with its own currency has literally unlimited borrowing authority. The states of the Union have less freedom to over-spend, though individual states may be conditioned to dip perilously far into the red. But cities tend to have the least wiggle room: Either the revenues come in, or the bills don't get paid. ■ Perhaps that acute sensitivity to the local business climate explains why it's so easy to find communities where city hall and the chamber of commerce are effectively two sides to the same coin. They're even physically co-located in plenty of small communities, and for a non-trivial number of places, the city relies on the chamber to develop the official community website. ■ Smart community leaders have the challenging task of ensuring that they don't become beholden to just a single 800-lb. gorilla in the economic sphere -- being a one-company town usually comes with much greater risks than it's worth -- but most communities do best when they can get the benefits of agglomeration economies, where lots of interrelated firms create a sort of self-sustaining business ecosystem. And it's hard to know how to do that best without some business familiarity. Running government like a business might be a hazardous endeavor when the government is charged with tasks like running a military, but it's likely sage advice when it drops down to the level of Main Street.

June 11, 2022

News Let them cry

Occasionally a news article or social media post will put a spotlight on a story of how some young parent carrying a small child managed to placate the other passengers on an airplane with gift bags and earplugs. Pinterest is full of ideas for how earnest parents can make these "apology bags", a practice that has gone on for at least ten years in some circles. ■ Airplanes are a special case, of course, since they combine high stimulus intensity (most especially including sustained loud noises and uncomfortable pressure changes that can cause pain to little ears) with the impossibility of escape. But similar issues arise in churches with or without "cry rooms", in neighborhoods near playgrounds and schools, and in workplaces where parental responsibilities sometimes conflict with job needs. ■ If you don't reflectively respond to the presence of children with at least a slight air of joy, then you probably should join Elon Musk and find a different planet to live on. Some people can't have children, and other people don't want to have them. But as a species, we need them. And that means that unless you possess such a dim view of civilization that you want to see humans become extinct, then we all have to make some accommodations for children being present in our lives. ■ There may be more no more indefensible belief than adherence to negative population growth or anti-natalism. There has never been a better time, on average, for a child to have been born into this world than right now. If we have any of our wits about us, then that will remain true for every subsequent cohort of children to come. ■ Every public policy doesn't have to be written "for the children", as people so often say. The kinds of people who propose things "for the children" oftentimes have their own adult self-interest much higher in mind. But every policy should be aimed at assuring that the world will be a much better place 20 or 30 years from now. ■ The median age in America is about 38 years, and the actuarial tables give the average 38-year-old another 40 to 45 years to live. Thus, the majority of us have a vested self-interest in making sure the world of the future is better than the one of the present. What is actually good for children is good for the rest of us, too. ■ And there should be nothing even close to an apology needed for bringing children into the world. It should be the thing that we celebrate most: When people choose to show the optimism that they will see a better world ahead and into that world bring the hope of a new child. A few cries along the way are a trivial price to pay.

June 9, 2022

News Words beyond their expiration dates

The English language has a refreshing way of changing over time, reflecting not only the evolution of how individual words are used, but also the metaphorical and idiomatic changes that follow along with the needs of speakers and writers. By contrast, France has an official policy to forbid loan words migrating in from English. In choosing stasis, the French may well be paradoxically cementing the Anglophone world's claim to the world's lingua franca. ■ Technological change is placing pressure on old phrases probably like never before. We still "dial" numbers on our smartphones, "hang up" at the end of a call, "tape" television programs on our DVRs, "rewind" clips on YouTube, and hit the "gas" in our electric cars. But for how long will each of those phrases remain viable? ■ Some will survive out of sheer economy: There's no shorter word for choosing digits than "dial", even though virtually no one still has a rotary-dial phone. And "gas" doesn't just beat "accelerator" by four syllables, it's also so deeply enshrined in cultural memory that it likely won't be erased. ■ That durability is no particular surprise, either: We still "chug along" (even though no one is riding behind a steam engine) and "reap" what we sow (sickles and scythes conspicuous by their absence). Simple, pithy turns of phrase have a way of sticking around. ■ But it can't hurt to occasionally ponder the odds for the words we use, and to stress-test the language to see what might be destined for the "ash heap" of history (even after the obsolescence coal-fired ovens in the kitchen). ■ Language really does have an impact on thought: In particular, on how we frame our observations and what things we observe and distinguish around us. Surely there are better expansions on the word "snow" than the stultifying euphemism "white stuff". ■ A language in which beloved phrases can outlive their strict technical applicability, and depleted ones can be unapologetically tossed aside in favor of better ones, is a good one. Sometimes phrases can come full-circle -- like "motion picture", which may be antiquated but is a safer description than "film" in a world where 35 mm has been displaced by digital files. Whether analog or digital, bite-sized or long-form, they're all motion pictures. ■ But a language needs the freedom to adapt -- or to cling -- however its users want. Without frequent incursions by the new and flexibility with the old, even a language that once ruled much of the world may find itself dead. Vive le Franglais, and long live the technically obsolete bon mot!

June 7, 2022

The United States of America What democracy looks like

News reports periodically cover protests in which an assembled crowd chants "This is what democracy looks like". While a street protest is indeed an expression of the democratic right to peaceable assembly enshrined in the First Amendment, a protest isn't really what democracy looks like. It actually looks a great deal like the humble "I Voted" sticker. ■ When one pauses to consider the long and sometimes perilous path to universal adult suffrage in America, that sticker means quite a lot. It stands in for immeasurable persistence extracted in literal blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And it stands in for extraordinary sacrifices made to preserve a world that is safe for the rule of law by the consent of the governed. The right to vote still isn't universal everywhere. ■ The "I Voted" sticker, though humble, is perhaps the perfect useful metaphor: It is useful because it serves as a reminder to others to do their civic duty and vote. But it is metaphorical because it lasts only a short while and must be renewed quickly with yet another vote at the next election. ■ Some people prefer to show off their civic participation with ballot selfies, but we ought to treat those as a taboo, even if they are legal in some jurisdictions. At the heart of what a democracy really looks like is the notion of individual discretion -- uncoerced and entirely private. It may seem innocent to take a photo with one's completed ballot, but that act of self-expression can also be drafted into use as a tool of extortion. ■ It is impossible to know for certain whether a ballot selfie has been taken out of voter enthusiasm -- or because someone demanded proof of a vote in exchange for the safety (or perhaps the continued employment) of the voter. Prohibitions on taking pictures of one's ballot are a necessary constraint on freedom of expression (in one format) in order to preserve the freedom of the vote. Sometimes principles come into conflict, and the case of the secret ballot is one that generally ought to prevail over all others. ■ But the "I Voted" sticker is quite nearly perfect in its simplicity. In the privacy of the voting booth, anyone can consult the quiet of their own conscience to decide how (and to whom) to deliver their consent for representation. Advertising that a choice was made is quite enough -- and all the more important if it encourages people of sense and goodwill to show up at every election, whether for a referendum, a primary, or a general election. ■ Too many of our predecessors sacrificed too much for us to discount the importance of showing up. Voting is what democracy really looks like.

June 6, 2022

News What's in a lofty name for a hamlet?

When the Internet was new, a sort of digital gold rush took place as companies and individuals raced to stake their claims to single-word domain names. The sagas that unfolded around self-explanatory names like Pets.com were often legendary, and the mad rush also explains why we still misspell an unfathomably large number (googol) to find most of the world's search results. (And, to be fair, Google remains a better name than BackRub.) ■ The thing about domain names, though, is that they are transferable. People have made lots of money through domain squatting or simply capturing clever names before they occur to others, then putting up a "for sale" sign. ■ That .com land rush had a predecessor that doesn't often come to modern attention, though perhaps it should: The far more permanent choice of a municipal name. ■ It should come as no surprise that almost a hundred places in the United States adopted some version of the name "Washington". There are plenty of other well-worn aspirational names, too, like Springfield, Fairview, and Newport. ■ For obvious reasons, a municipal name can only be used once in any state -- so claiming a good name for a town is a lot like snapping up an attractive domain name ending in ".com", rather than one of the lesser top-level domains. And yet, there seems to be very little connection between the aspirational quality of a name and the ultimate disposition of the city. Most of the largest American cities arrived at their names organically (that is, from local geographic place names) rather than through what would sound good to newcomers. ■ Perhaps that is too bad. The USGS says, for instance, that 167 American places take some version of the name "Seneca" -- a worthy choice, especially if it encourages residents to emulate Lucius Seneca (author of such wisdom as "You should close your ears against evil talk, and right at the outset, too; for when such talk has gained an entrance and the words are admitted and are in our minds, they become more shameless"). Yet no single town named for Seneca has more than 9,000 residents. The aspirational name seems not to have paid off. ■ While municipal names can be changed, they certainly aren't traded as easily as domain names. So while certain errors and unfulfilled ambitions of the early dot-com era have been rectified with time, the same can't be said of places that gave themselves names that stirred the hearts of civic boosters but never lived up to their promise. Most probably never will -- but then again, there may be those who simply reply, "Not just yet".

June 5, 2022

News It's been an honor

It takes a lot of guts to speak out against a political regime that is notorious for dispatching its dissidents and sending activists to prison, so surely it must have taken some fortitude for Boris Bondarev to have resigned his post at the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva with an open letter condemning "the aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine". ■ Acts of dignified behavior in the face of meaningful personal or reputational risk are worth praising. We ought to praise them in real-time, and we ought to continue to praise them long after the fact. The memory of honorable acts in the past -- like attorney Joseph Welch eviscerating Senator Joe McCarthy with his legendary demand, "Have you no sense of decency?", or of Dwight Eisenhower's insistence that any failure on D-Day was his responsibility alone -- reassures people in the present that taking the honorable path will earn them the right place in history. ■ This perspective on honor is different from silly codes of honor like the one that gave dueling a place in history (and prematurely deprived the young United States of the benefit of the counsel of Alexander Hamilton before he had even reached the age of 50). ■ Honor is earned in the present, but an honorable reputation often doesn't truly pay off until long after death. We revere Abraham Lincoln in the present, but nearly 45% of the popular vote went against him in 1864. Tens of thousands of people are remembered today as the Righteous Among Nations for saving lives during the Holocaust, but many were themselves imprisoned or executed for their acts. ■ That is why we have to learn thoroughly and expansively about history, paying special attention to commemorate the honorable acts that weren't rewarded in their own times. Likewise, we should curse (and conscribe to the dustbin of history) the names of those who sought power or praise in their day by committing sinful acts against others -- Che Guevara, for instance, was a torturer who belongs anywhere but on a t-shirt. ■ But it also means that as we learn from history, we ought to highlight the honorable acts we see in the present. And using a worldwide platform to speak against an unjustifiable war is just such an act of real honor.

June 4, 2022

News June 4th means something to us all

Every June, everyone who has the freedom to do so should watch the riveting documentary "The Tank Man". It is not only one of the best stand-alone episodes of "Frontline" ever broadcast, it is an exceptional reminder of two powerful forces that shape the modern world. ■ The first is the shocking lengths to which authoritarians and their hangers-on will go to hold power over other people. "The Tank Man" documents the extraordinary measures used by the Chinese government to expel pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Thousands of people were killed, according to the secret estimates of China's own government. ■ And nothing has really changed in the more than 30 years since: 1.4 billion people still live under a wretched Communist regime that tolerates no meaningful dissent, no real competition for the consent of the governed, and no real individual liberty -- even for those who live abroad. The regime controls through fear, not through the willful choice of the people. ■ Yet the second force of which we are reminded by "The Tank Man" is human nature knows it is meant to be free. Liberty isn't an artificial construct; it is the natural order of things, and any system that uses might to interfere with the expression of liberty is inherently wrong. Individual liberty must be well-ordered, of course, because to leave things to a free-for-all would invariably lead to anarchy -- which in turn leads to the imposition of power by force. ■ But with the supporting help of the rule of law, the fundamental and natural longing for liberty results in the dignity of the individual. Even today, that remains a force so powerful that the Chinese regime cannot even tolerate a candlelight vigil in memory of lives lost 33 years ago. Thousands of lives, symbolized awe-inspiringly by one individual who stood in the way of a tank and whose personal fate remains a mystery. ■ That one "tank man" is all humankind. No matter how hard authoritarians try to quash dissent and hide the truth, every human heart knows the truth -- that freedom is its birthright and its dignity cannot be rightly denied.

June 1, 2022

News Just do it

"Americans learn only from catastrophes and not from experience." A more suitable observation on the contemporary world would be hard to find. Yet those are the 109-year-old words of Theodore Roosevelt. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. ■ When competitions arise in most areas of life, the safest wager is not necessarily on the side with the most resources or the best starting position, but rather with the side that learns fastest. The failure to aggregate information, to learn from mistakes, and to adapt to threats and opportunities alike is the surest way to turn a position of strength into a pile of failure. Examples range from the Allied victory in World War II to the triumphant rise of Japanese automakers (after a much-delayed start). To learn quickly and deliberately is a virtue. ■ But learning without having to be compelled by disaster is also a virtue. It requires both humility and initiative to look at the way things are done and ask, "What are we missing? What should we improve? What holds us back?" ■ Too often, we really do wait for catastrophe: A pandemic, a barbaric war of aggression, a murder in an elementary school. When we wait to learn from disaster, too often we depend upon emotions to carry the day -- motivating us to respond, then providing the sustaining motivation to keep going until something productive is done. ■ We would be much wiser to learn not by waiting for catastrophe to come knocking, but to perform the kind of honest self-criticism that says we can do better without having a fire lit beneath us. Teddy Roosevelt was also fond of the aphorism, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are." ■ That is both rational and optimistic advice. While it seems like it sets a ceiling on what should be expected of people (that is, we should not be expected to act as superhumans beyond our capacities and resources), it can equally be read as an admonition not to sit around waiting to learn from catastrophe. The verb is "do", not "wait". The real measure of who we are as a society comes not from how we respond when things go terribly wrong, but from how hard we try to learn when everything looks like it's going right.

May 31, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a train!

It is easy to forget or simply overlook the fact that the United States has only a fraction of the population density of many of the countries we consider our peers and near-peers in the advanced industrialized world. Canada and Australia are both big and sparsely-populated, but Germany has more than six times as many people per square mile as the United States, the UK has more than seven, and Japan has more than nine. ■ The difference in density makes a big difference to many of our policy choices. Approaches to environmental protection, crime prevention, and housing are all influenced by density. But even more visible is the effect on how we choose to establish our transportation infrastructure. The beloved American open road would be a lot less open and would hold a lot less allure if there were 5 or 10 times more drivers per mile of roadway. ■ The accelerating adoption of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles promises to let us concentrate more vehicles on the roadway at a higher density and with much greater safety than has been possible up until the present. And there is good reason to believe that we could be approaching the advent of autonomous aircraft -- in effect, flying buses, if not quite flying cars -- that could also transport people without requiring live pilots to do the work. ■ Coupling these technologies with improved electrification could well mean that many of the traditional incentives to build other forms of high-density mass transportation may go by the wayside. But there remain people who are very enthusiastic about the idea of getting America to match its peer countries with the development of high-speed rail access, and they include the Secretary of Transportation. ■ If the United States were ever to have a high-speed rail network that were national and continental in scale (rather than localized or regionalized, like the Acela in the Northeast or a hypothetical Pacific Northwest network), then there is really only one way to see it coming about: That would be for a brand-new high-speed rail network to be overlaid directly on top of the existing Interstate highway system. ■ To achieve this would require considerable ingenuity. In most places, it would be wildly impractical to try to place rail lines either in the median between lanes of opposing traffic or along the shoulders -- at least, impossible at grade level. Which means that the only plausible scenario is for such a train system to be elevated above the roadways, perhaps by quite a lot. ■ This scenario could open the door to a potential strategic advantage that such a rail network might have over both road and air transport. It is possible to imagine a suspended monorail system with an enclosed rail configuration. The enclosure would provide intrinsic weather protection, making the trains useful for all-weather, high-speed transportation; a system that, if designed robustly, may not be subject to the same constraints as either aircraft or road vehicles. ■ The heights required to provide smooth service over the many bridges that cross the Interstate highway system might at first seem like a major obstacle. But in many places, motorists have already become familiar with flyover or stack interchanges, which have replaced the traditional cloverleaf design for many high-speed intersections. ■ As we have seen roadways get stacked two and three levels tall, we start to engage the possibility of imagining an elevated rail network reaching just as high -- but with far less concrete and without the risk of spinouts in icy conditions. Support pedestals could be installed in the medians of interstate highways, which conveniently have already been engineered not only for the necessities of matters like drainage, but also for accommodating relatively high-speed traffic. ■ The idea certainly would take some getting used to, and a massive amount of financial investment. Those those two factors alone make it relatively unlikely to ever come to fruition. But proponents of high-speed rail are a tenacious lot, and it's possible to see the right combination of advocacy mixed with political enthusiasm for infrastructure investment converging to make it happen. And if, for example, such an elevated rail system were able to, for instance, double the speeds achieved by vehicles on interstate highways, while performing safely during weather conditions that would ground aircraft or impede road traffic, then all-weather reliability may in fact be the killer application for high-speed rail.

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May 30, 2022

The United States of America Knowledge and Memorial Day

The continued professionalization of the armed forces of the United States has the dual effects of making combat more survivable for most American servicemembers, and of reducing the number of those servicemembers required to conduct warfare. It is almost impossible to imagine repeating the scale of D-Day, involving 160,000 Allied troops and leading to at least 2,500 American fatalities. This is surely a good thing for America and its people. ■ It will always be fitting to honor Memorial Day through symbolic acts like lowering the flag, participating in memorial services, and placing flags in cemeteries. But we owe it to the honored war dead, and to those living servicemembers whose safe return is perpetually on the minds of their families, to match the professionalism of the armed forces with an increased professionalism of the voting public. ■ Just as increasing sophistication requires more outreach and education for any other profession or vocation to explain itself to the world, the same is true for the armed forces. We maintain -- wisely -- civilian control over the military, but as has been well-documented by thoughtful analysts, a democratic society that commits lives to warfare needs to be consistently interested in why it does so, how the decisions are made, and who it entrusts with great power. ■ Memorial Day must be more than just the first holiday of summer. But it should also be more than just a symbolic event that hallows past glories. It should be a day for civilians to consider their own military education. There are countless great memoirs of war, recommended reading lists, intelligent podcasts, and thoughtful commentators to follow -- including outspoken, intelligent flag officers who value outreach to the public. ■ We best honor the valiant sacrifices of the past by making sure that we, as citizen-voters and thus those ultimately responsible for the current and future exercise of force, aren't satisfied with having just a token appreciation for what is ultimately entrusted to our choices. As James Mattis said of himself as a commander, "I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at the least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefield." That same duty to read and learn so as to use force prudently rests on the shoulders of all of us.

May 29, 2022

Broadcasting You've been digitized

Reasonable minds can disagree over whether it is prudent for any country to have an expansive broadcasting outlet funded at taxpayer expense. Most wealthy countries do, but few are as globally recognizable as the BBC. But even a high profile doesn't make a project immune to financial realities. ■ Facing a reported £1.4 billion budget shortfall, the BBC is trying to figure out how to make things work on a tighter budget. And the organization's chief says the central element in the BBC's evolution is to become "digital-first". ■ It's a phrase with a lot of wear on the tires already, but many conventional media outlets have struggled with the transition. Tim Davie, though, says "from today we are going to move decisively to a digital-first BBC". They're going to spend money to make the transition happen -- and the change will affect the nature of the product itself. ■ As Davie put it, "Every part of our news output will now be judged not just on linear performance but streamed delivery." Some conventional broadcast services will be moved strictly online. That will include both television and radio services. ■ For the BBC to make such a move establishes a pretty strong permission structure for much of the rest of the world's media to do the same, if they haven't already. The transition will continue to be bumpy in a lot of places, and the impact on media generally (and news coverage in particular) will have a lot of unforeseen consequences, to be certain. But the world's audiences should consider the floodgates to digital now wide-open.

May 27, 2022

Business and Finance Baby formula and friendship

In an effort to help alleviate the serious baby-formula shortage affecting the United States, Danone is substantially increasing production at its plant in France to provide more for export to the US. Nestle has been shipping product from the Netherlands and Switzerland. Work is being done to obtain more from Mexico, too. ■ The philosopher Epictetus wrote, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" His question was posed to the individual, but it's a sensible question to pose for a country, as well. ■ China's government has been using its Belt-and-Road Initiative to expand its national capacity to place other countries in a client-state relationship. It's basically a form of mercantilism: Using access to outlying territories to benefit the economy of the more powerful state. ■ And it is not altogether far from the relationship at least a few people have tried to envision for the United States, too: One in which all trade agreements are stacked to benefit us, with little or no regard for the other parties in the relationship. ■ But relationships -- whether interpersonal or international -- are better based upon friendship, mutuality, and finding more total good for all parties involved. ■ In this case, it's entirely possible that producers in countries like the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Mexico would have produced more baby formula for export to any other country, too, purely for humanitarian reasons. (And the companies involved will undoubtedly make profits from the sale.) But it certainly cannot hurt the incentive for other nations to offer help that the United States has held historically good relationships with them -- thus France can come to America's rescue today as part of a centuries-old tradition of mutual aid. ■ We should remember these events, particularly the next time trade agreements and international cooperation are put to the test in our domestic politics. In the short run, a powerful country can leverage its power to extract money and resources from others. ■ It might even feel good (to some) to throw around that weight for a while. But in the long run -- including over a matter of many generations -- it is far better to build up trust and stand behind partnerships. Even the mighty can find themselves needing a hand from time to time. To borrow a line from Aesop, kindness is never wasted. Partners are better to have than vassals.

May 25, 2022

News The slow path to victory

More often than we impatient human beings would like, it takes longer to fix what is broken than it takes to do the breaking. Three months ago, Russia started a war by invading Ukraine. The Ukrainians have resisted far longer than many of the early projections, but that doesn't mean the three months that have passed have been anything short of grueling, devastating, and heartbreaking. While the fighting continues, even the Ukrainian government knows that only negotiations will bring the fighting to a conclusion. ■ Even then, there will be a great deal left to repair. A country will need to be rebuilt. War crimes will need to be prosecuted. And, as the Secretary General of NATO has remarked, "The war in Ukraine demonstrates how economic relations with authoritarian regimes can create vulnerabilities." Those vulnerabilities -- not just with Russia -- will need to be repaired. There will have to be both a will to conduct those repairs and a sustained campaign to remind millions of voters across the many NATO member countries why the costs will be worth bearing. ■ If human beings weren't so predisposed to forgetting pain, then solving long-term issues would be far easier. But we have to be able to let time heal all wounds, or else life itself might become unbearable. It's a good thing we can forget or at least diminish the memory of pain, at least individually -- otherwise, the physical pain of childbirth might become a bigger barrier to reproducing the species. ■ But when it comes to big-picture issues -- the things that matter to entire cultures or entire countries -- our instinct to forget pain can keep us from achieving the slow, long-term work to do the necessary fixing of the broken parts of our world. There may be no good easy answers. But we can't escape the responsibility to build up a reservoir of patience to undertake (and stick with) the fixing. Malicious actors count on us to forget.

May 24, 2022

News The roots of bigotry

Most people become the heroes of the tales they tell about themselves. This is a natural phenomenon, since almost nobody engages in life deliberately trying to become a villain. But the risk is great that any one of us could become an unwitting monster unless we are careful to check ourselves. ■ Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "There is much difference between imitating a good man, and counterfeiting him." We rely heavily on emulation as human beings. In part, we emulate because we are social creatures who need the influence of others. We also do it because experience can be costly. There is no more efficient substitute for learning painful first-hand lessons than learning them from the experiences of others. ■ But the difference between worthy imitation and despicable counterfeit probably lies in being able to step outside the experience and examine it from another perspective -- triangulating a perspective on one's own behavior. Finding that basis for triangulation requires the ability not just to think about one's self, nor about the standard one may be trying to emulate, but also about the perspective of someone we might not want to be at all. ■ This can be hard to do. It is especially hard for those people who are hardened into thinking that their identities as individuals are derived from their membership in a group. Groupthink can be a powerful force, and the coalition instinct (often better-known as tribalism) is, for many, an easy substitute for critical reflection. ■ Finding that third perspective, though, is essential. And so is having sufficient respect for the ideas that there are, in fact, truths about the world, and that nobody (and no group) has a monopoly on those truths. We all make mistakes, and we all need guidance and advice. ■ The root of all hatreds and all xenophobia is the failure to authentically believe that there are truths to be discovered from those third perspectives. In Federalist Paper No. 40, James Madison offered this wisdom: "The prudent inquiry, in all cases, ought surely to be, not so much from whom the advice comes, as whether the advice be good." ■ Madison had it exactly right. Hatred and bigotry can't really be legislated out of existence. They are diminished only when people voluntarily engage in that "prudent inquiry" -- by assuming that it is more important to find the best available advice about all things in life, wherever that advice originates, than to maintain some imaginary purity of belief that goes unchallenged from the outside. We all have much to gain by imitating good people.

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May 23, 2022

Iowa Americans know when to knock down the old and put up the new

For many years, a quaint local hardware store stood in an old brick building at the corner of East 30th and Walnut in Des Moines -- just to the west of the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The fittingly-named Fairground Hardware closed in 2018 and the building has stood vacant ever since. ■ Despite last-ditch efforts by some to try to salvage the vacant building by getting it named as a landmark, the building is now merely a fresh pile of rubble. ■ To cheer its demolition isn't an act of malice -- it's merely the American thing to do. Americans know, far better than those in many other cultures, when to tear down the old and put up the new. This distinguishes us from, for example, the British affinity for old stones, prominently advocated by Prince Charles and his fetish for "traditional" buildings. ■ There will always be landmarks worth treasuring, to be sure. But a dynamic economy -- and a dynamic society -- need to be unafraid to demolish the old when there is more value to be had in starting anew. There is no shame in that. In fact, it deserves to be a point of honor. ■ Certain things are worth keeping in good condition, and others are well worth the investment to rehabilitate. But those things only hold true if it is possible to achieve a higher level of value without spending more than value that would be preserved. Lots of buildings grow old, but only a few are authentically worth preserving at high cost. And even then, a place must justify itself to the present to be worth preserving from the past. ■ The Fairgrounds are busy much of the year, and it's likely that something new in the spot now occupied by a demolished pile of bricks will add new value to the area. There is only one hotel adjacent to the Fairgrounds, and only a couple of spots for dining and retail. ■ When something new goes in, it will have to pass the owner's test of profitability, and that means a likely infusion of vitality into the area. That's good for the neighborhood, good for the property tax base of the city, and almost certainly good for the symbiosis of the Fairgrounds. Maybe it will even contain a few token bricks from the old building. But even if it does not, we shouldn't mourn the disposal of a dilapidated old building. The future doesn't have to live in the habitats of the past.

May 22, 2022

Agriculture Pop-up farming

With reputable news outlets like The Economist warning of threats to the world's food supply ("Ukraine's exports of grain and oilseeds have mostly stopped and Russia's are threatened. Together, the two countries supply 12% of traded calories.") and a domestic production shortage in the United States precipitating the need for an airlift of 35 tons of baby formula from Europe, we ought to be reminded that the world depends upon a food supply that is perpetually susceptible not only to human mistakes and bad choices, but to natural catastrophes well beyond mortal control. It is too far back to remain in popular memory today, but the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815 led to crop failures in Europe the following year -- making 1816 the year without a summer". ■ It would seem likely that one of the most pro-social investments that could be made on a global scale would come from developing a ready-made system for producing lots of food calories in a short period of time. We don't have the Star Trek food synthesizer at our disposal (at least, not yet), but it wouldn't exceed our technical capacities to develop solutions like pre-built vertical farms, made ready for rapid deployment. ■ Basic, compact, fast-growing foodstuffs with widespread dietary acceptance around the globe -- like soybeans and potatoes -- can and probably ought to be readied for speedy production in containerized systems to which we could literally "just add water" in order to get them growing. Soybeans can be harvested in 45 to 65 days from planting, and potatoes can be harvested in 50 to 55 days. That's quick enough that emergency food supplies can be used to bridge the gap in a place encountering a food crisis. ■ Most hunger emergencies can actually be traced to human intervention -- like the people starving in Ethiopia because food is being used as a weapon of war. Those problems need direct attention, too -- but it is attention of a different sort. A world that is serious about stopping war crimes must be extremely serious about keeping starvation from being used as a weapon. ■ But our continued susceptibility to calamities of nature and of the evil choices of madmen should compel us to use our ever-advancing technological tools to come up with answers. ■ In essence, we should be able to effectively flip a switch and soon after have a basic food supply with protein and essential nutrients available during any season of the year. Storage alone isn't enough -- not with a country like Russia targeting grain elevators in a truly vile and wicked campaign. The world needs to take seriously the need for rapid production, too; thus, the need for approaches like compact vertical farms that can operate under tight conditions with the aid of artificial light. ■ So far, that kind of technology has largely been niche-focused, serving the demand for things like organic salad greens in cities. ■ But the same technology can be -- and needs to be -- highly scalable, so that lots of food can be produced quite nearly on-demand. And it can be used to improve the nutritional value of what is raised. These are technologies with great promise. ■ We wouldn't want to do anything to displace or impoverish existing agricultural economies, of course. But we also need a "Break glass in case of emergency" kind of answer. The devastating case of Ukraine's food supply amid the Kremlin's reprehensible war of choice is just such an emergency that demonstrates why.

May 20, 2022

News That's not a threat, it's a promise

The abrupt and nearly universal adoption of video calls, for everything from visits with Grandma to annual shareholder meetings, was one of many unexpected changes imposed on the world by the quarantine behaviors of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever inertia once obstructed those calls is now merely a distant memory. ■ The erasure of novelty means that it no longer seems logistically strange for the wartime president of a nation of 44 million people to make a live video appearance at the Cannes film festival. ■ Logistically, the appearance may not be surprising, but it was yet another clever deployment of public diplomacy by Ukraine's government. The last thing they can afford is for their supporters to let their sympathies succumb to war fatigue. And so Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes his bid to remain relevant: "Will cinema keep quiet, or will it speak up? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, once again, everything depends on our unity. Can cinema stay outside of this unity?" ■ Just prior to his address to the audience at Cannes, Zelenskyy offered a warning to the people of Russia -- one that may sound like propaganda, but which actually comes from a deeply humanistic place, worthy of the ovation he received at the film festival. He warned: "[A]ll this brutality of the occupiers, which Ukraine is experiencing every day, will only lead to the fact that Russian surviving soldiers will bring this evil back to Russia. They will bring it back because they will retreat." ■ A familiar phrase goes, "That's not a threat. It's a promise." In this case, it's not a forecast, it's a guarantee. The grotesque sociopathies on display by Russian forces in Ukraine -- including hideous war crimes against innocent children -- didn't emerge out of nowhere. And they absolutely will not disappear just because those fighters have been pushed out of the country they invaded. They will return home, and some of them will take their savagery with them. ■ For all of the diplomatic, legal, and humanitarian reasons that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was already unsound and indefensible, this one of which Zelenskyy warns is an indisputable reason that it is squarely contrary to Russia's long-term self interest. Just as a peaceful civil society should always be concerned about harboring large numbers of young people with nothing useful to do, a nation that has demonstrated itself demonstrated incapable of civil behavior on the global scale ought to be doubly concerned about large numbers of barbarians coming home -- with a taste for evil, and nothing productive to do.

May 18, 2022

Business and Finance Don't touch that dial

While India's per-capita GDP of $6,100 doesn't make it a wealthy country, it does place the country squarely in what the World Bank defines as the global middle class. And it's on a strong upward trend. ■ One of the characteristics of a middle-class country is that the broader public possesses the resources to set money aside for investment. And that is reflected in the news that tens of millions of individual trading accounts were opened there in 2021. Such broadening of access to the economy is generally a good thing: Capitalism can do a lot of good when it's democratized. ■ But it's also a familiar tale that any mass movement runs the risk of attracting people who exploit the knowledge gap between their own expertise and that of a flood of novices. Enthusiasm can overtake education and that can have terrible consequences for those who get swept up. America's own experiences with the 1990s tech bubble and the current cryptocurrency boom are just two good examples. ■ Thus it may be worthy to applaud the approach adopted by Zerodha, one of the country's online brokerage firms. Instead of enticing customers to engage in frenetic trading, they're actually trying to use design features to make users slow down and take a more patient approach to investing. ■ Zerodha observes that it is in their own best interest to cool investors' passions so that they don't find themselves turned off by big, traumatic mistakes early in an investing experience. And good for them. ■ What's in a company's best interests in the short term is often not the same as what will serve it best in the long term. The same goes for individuals, and the same goes for countries, too. Patience is too often in short supply, so we shouldn't hesitate to cheer for the long term. The lure of a market with more than a billion potential customers must be great. The patience to try to avoid creating a billion sad stories is something commendable.

May 17, 2022

Business and Finance A matter of corporate principle

The passion some people bring to questions of how businesses are operated borders on the religious in fervor. When we see how much people seem to care about the conduct of businesses, it's quite a wonder that there aren't more organizations dedicated to operating businesses of their own under more outspoken mission statements. ■ Not mission statements of the bland style generated during exercises like corporate retreats, but actual statements of purpose -- like a recitation of priorities whose achievement is considered more important than a marginal dollar of profits. There is nothing that stands in the way of people forming cooperatives or other mutualized forms of business that would permit them to operate according to lofty principles. ■ Passionate opinions surface about all kinds of companies and for all sorts of reasons. Right now, it's easy to stumble across loud debates about whether Elon Musk should be allowed to buy Twitter, whether the production of baby formula should be concentrated among a small number of producers, or whether video-game makers should have corporate policies regarding abortion. ■ Many, if not most, of these subjects regard matters of prudential opinion. They are almost never as self-evident as the memes would have the public believe. And yet, lots of people very loudly proclaim their certainty in one direction or another, and many of them insist that government intervention of one form or another is necessary, in order to reconcile private-sector business behavior with particular public-policy desires. ■ If these subjects (and many others) matter enough to justify using the force of law to intervene in private business beyond the scope of ordinary regulations like anti-trust, then surely they matter enough that we should expect people to put their money where their mouths are. ■ The simplest method is by ordinary shareholder activism, a tool used sparingly (and often no more than merely for show) but often underrated as a means of using democracy within the economic system. When institutional investors like CalPERS and union trust funds introduce shareholder motions, they count on leveraging only a sliver of ownership in a company into much larger effects on how the business operates. ■ But there are other methods, too. Anyone who is a member of REI or who holds an insurance policy from State Farm is involved in a form of cooperative or mutualistic ownership, and there is no reason whatsoever that other companies couldn't be operated under the same ownership principles. Third-way forms of ownership (those that are neither strictly private-for-shareholder-profit, nor strictly public), organized with certain democratic principles embedded in their charters, could be used to enter into all kinds of industries if people were willing to match their own fervor about how companies ought to be run with some startup capital. ■ And then there is the lingering proof that a single person can revolutionize how investments are made: Jack Bogle, whose feelings about how money ought to be managed were so strong that he created the truly low-cost "mutual" fund industry with the founding of Vanguard. From time to time, certain "ethical investing" funds gain a share of the public's attention, but if more people were really serious about the way things ought to be, principle-driven investing would be far more common and would reflect more of the passions so often visible online (and on picket lines). ■ There is no shortage of imagination to the way that people seem capable of expressing how they want to see businesses behave. It remains a mystery why equal imagination isn't invested into organizing businesses around shared sets of principles. The LDS Church has done it with Deseret Management Corporation -- "a global operating company, managing for-profit entities affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [...] under a unified mission". Nothing practical should stand in the way of people with other "unified missions" from using business much the same.

May 16, 2022

Science and Technology Look! Up in the sky! It's a disappearing Moon!

Conventionally, when a person argues against their own self-interest, the audience can take it as a sign that they're getting a useful, unvarnished truth from someone doing the honorable thing. If a salesperson at a car dealership were to say, "Really, don't bother paying for our extended warranty -- if something's going to go wrong, it's either going to happen early in the standard warranty period or it won't happen until long after all the coverage has expired anyway", then the buyer would be well within reason to take the advice without challenging it. After all, anyone operating under the general rule of "caveat emptor" should assume that any upselling (including for an extended warranty) is in the financial interest of the person doing the selling. ■ But sometimes people argue against their own self-interest and the reason is nothing but a head-scratcher. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become one of the most widely-recognized public-facing authorities on space via his engagement with popular culture and social media, responded to the late-weekend lunar eclipse with a couple of comments about the science of the event. ■ Then he turned on himself with, "Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you'd probably not notice at all. Just sayin'." and "Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare." ■ What he wrote was, of course, strictly true: Lunar eclipses aren't effectively all that different from the new moon, and total lunar eclipses do happen every couple of years. But those are odd arguments to make against one's own interest. ■ If the imagery of the Pale Blue Dot means anything to us as humans, it ought to be as a reminder that all of our problems on this seemingly big world are merely background noise amid an inconceivably vast universe. And as a matter of connecting their complex math and mysterious cosmological queries with the pedestrian world, astrophysicists and their friends ought to talk up every reasonable opportunity to get people to pause and stare for a few minutes at the heavens. ■ "Every two or three years" is significant enough a period -- it's longer than the stretch between Olympic Games or elections for the House of Representatives. And lots of things might go unnoticed "if nobody told you what was happening" -- such is the majesty of human knowledge that we can and should tell each other when interesting things are happening, especially if they are easy to miss. ■ Spend enough time sharing your thoughts on social media, and you're bound to drop a real clunker on your audience. That's fairly inevitable. But for an obviously magnificently intelligent person, it certainly seems like a weirdly unforced error for a space promoter to knock down an event that gets people to look up at the skies for a predictable, easy reward that can be observed with the naked eye and photographed with ease. Let a win be a win! Just sayin'.

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May 15, 2022

Computers and the Internet Big Ben's Twitter bongs

A Twitter account exists for the sole purpose of tweeting, on the hour, the word "BONG" the number of times for the representative hour of the day or night, every hour. In one sense, it is a profoundly silly automated account -- almost more a performance of Dada art than anything else. After all, anyone with access to Twitter is already looking at a device that tells at a glance what time it is, and anyone who really needs a precise hourly time check can tune to the BBC World Service for the pips. ■ Whether art or nonsense, the @Big_Ben_Clock account serves up an interesting reminder that it's much too easy to lose touch with periodicity in this day and age. ■ Newspapers are abandoning print editions all over the place. The nightly network news competes with full-time cable news channels and online streaming networks. Radio is in a death match with podcasts and on-demand music-streaming services like Spotify. ■ Media in particular are far less periodic than they once were, but so are many other facets of life. And the pandemic didn't help things one bit. Working from home, having kids attend virtual school, and having no place to go basically mashed the concepts of "office hours" and "time off". ■ Nature still enforces plenty of periods on us, but it's still important to impose them on ourselves. It's a parallel to the rule that "If everything's important, then nothing is": If everything is happening right now, then nothing is. Nobody has the bandwidth for it. ■ So, as silly as it may seem, people should probably follow accounts like @Big_Ben_Clock, if only to be reminded that we should all try to assert a little more human-made periodicity in our worlds -- even if it's purely whimsical. In the poetic words of Ecclesiastes 3:1, "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." But that doesn't have to mean it's always happening, all at once.

May 13, 2022

Business and Finance Who is the greater fool?

Considerable attention has been paid to the meltdown in cryptocurrency markets, which have succumbed to a combination of contagious panic and empty fundamentals. ■ As a general principle, when people discuss money or investments using the language of mysticism, cloaking their discussions in priestly words, that's a very good sign that they're up to no good. When they then turn to recruiting a mass audience -- as cryptocurrencies did with Super Bowl advertising -- the dispassionate observer can be virtually certain that the situation is about to turn ugly. ■ Extremely intelligent money-minded people like Milton and Rose Friedman, Jack Bogle, and Warren Buffett have used clear, plain language to try to explain economics, finance, and investing in terms that make sense at about an 8th grade level. Buffett's famous annual letters are written with smart but non-specialist readers in mind. The people who seek to explain these important matters clearly tend to be on the side of good. ■ On the other side are the people who suggest mystical nonsense -- like the idea that you can tell when to buy stocks by reading charts as if divining the entrails of a chicken, or who write patent gibberish about cryptocoins, like this: "The price stabilization mechanism is absorbing UST supply (over 10% of total supply), but the cost of absorbing so much stablecoins at the same time has stretched out the on-chain swap spread to 40%, and Luna price has diminished dramatically absorbing the arbs." ■ Money can be complicated, to be certain. But exchange is also one of the most basic forms of human behavior. Nobody who seeks to make investing seem more complicated or awash in mystery is really on your side. There are certainly cases in which cryptocurrencies have their merits, and perhaps we will see an evolution that will clear the brush of con artists and thieves. But at least for the future we can currently see, the market is contaminated by opportunists, speculators, and those who have much to gain by finding greater fools to enter the game.

May 11, 2022

News Liberalism on the march

Mass political movements that center on an individual are almost always noxious. While a politician usually has to demonstrate some kind of personal charisma in order to win votes, it is for very good reason that the phrase "cult of personality" is an epithet (and a pretty catchy song by Living Colour). Any thoughtful examination of a real personality cult reveals enormous potential (if not propensity) for abuse and a fundamental impermanence. All charismatic leaders must eventually pass. ■ But the basic safeguard against any such personality-driven movement is a functional system of representative government in which ideas and policies take center stage, rather than especially dynamic individuals. One of the main difficulties lies in branding what that is. Historically, that idea has been called "classical liberalism", or simply "liberalism". ■ The misapplication of the word to mean "left of center" in the United States has gone on so long that the word is badly tarnished; people who are most accurately described as "right-liberals" (like Churchill, Hayek, and Friedman) would have to explain what exactly their "liberalism" means to a modern American audience. And in the words attributed to Ronald Reagan, "If you're explaining, you're losing." ■ The word "liberal" has been morphed into an epithet from the left, as well. Groups like the Adam Smith Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute have adopted the word "neoliberal" as, basically, a freshened adaptation of classical liberalism. And in return, they have been pilloried by leftists as "disenfranchisers, failures, and elitists. ■ To defend the tenets of liberalism (whether neo- or classical) is to accept a certain dissatisfaction: If matters are fairly decided among lots of people with competing interests, nobody ever really gets everything that they want. ■ And, contrary to more utopian visions of how the world works, from communists to radical traditionalists, the liberal perspective makes no assumption that there is some perfect end in mind. Old problems will sometimes come to unsatisfactory conclusions, others will linger while experimentation seeks an answer that works, and new problems will emerge as both society and technology change. ■ That's a pretty difficult vision to sell on the basis of outcomes, but the classical sense of liberalism is tethered to the principle that the process matters as much as the outcomes, if not more so. ■ That's why someone of a liberal temperament is sure to be offended at how China has stripped Hong Kong of its self-government, turning over the election of the Chief Executive (in a place with 7.5 million people) to the votes of a specially-selected class of Communist-approved "patriots" who could fit inside the suites at a game of the Minnesota Twins. The resulting Chief Executive could be as gifted a politician as Abraham Lincoln himself, and the contamination of the process would still outweigh any good resulting from the outcome. ■ It may well be that liberalism simply has to be rebranded periodically, while holding tight to the tenets that make it functional. That appears to be the lesson of France's En Marche, a young movement/party that has successfully rebuffed an anti-liberal far-right when conventional parties could not. Perhaps liberal movements can only be sustained by periodic turnover and replacement, or by focusing on targeted outcomes and systemic reforms that can appeal to voters who get the itch to replace the status quo. ■ If processes matter fundamentally even more than outcomes, then it might just be that the only way to consistently keep a classically liberal system on the march is to be willing to engage in periodic metamorphosis just to stay sufficiently fresh. The fundamental principles remain recognizable, no matter what label we put on them.

May 10, 2022

The United States of America Who speaks for us?

There isn't much dispute among historians about the two greatest American Presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have those two spots safely locked up. And most Americans would agree -- even if there are plenty of shortcomings one could identify about each of them -- most indisputably, Washington should have freed the people he held in slavery prior to his own death. ■ It is most interesting that these two Presidents, towering figures that they are in our national lore, left no descendants to the modern day. Washington had no children of his own, and Lincoln's family tree appears to have died off with his great-grandson in 1985. ■ While it's not the only reason to be glad the United States doesn't have a hereditary monarchy, it certainly serves as a fascinating pair of case studies that no genetic heirs to our two most revered Presidents would have been available to the present, even if we had wanted them. This stands in marked contrast to the United Kingdom, where Prince Charles has delivered the "Queen's Speech" in place of his mother, who continues to reign but suffers from health troubles in her advanced age. ■ Serious news outlets in the UK have noted that the presence of the Prince in place of his mother makes the act "constitutionally sound". It sounds quaint, but it really is logically odd to require the physical presence of a body with a blood relationship in order to make a government's actions "constitutional". ■ Periodically, it is worth remembering that when the President of the United States is required to report on the State of the Union, it is the act of a person answering to his sovereign authority -- the American people and the states, who are represented in person by the two houses of Congress. The people and the states delegate their powers to the Congress, which delegates the execution of those powers to the President. No blood relationships are required. ■ And it is a good thing, but one we remember too infrequently. The perpetual expansion of the imperial Presidency too often gives us the impression that the President is some sort of "boss of everybody". It's an impression often formed quite early, since children aren't necessarily equipped to understand popular sovereignty, but are pretty well programmed to recognize an authority figure. ■ But it takes correction and practice to realize that the powers that originate with the people -- not with a sovereign individual -- and that those powers are impossible to carry out well and faithfully without responsibility. If things go wrong here, it is our own fault. Even if we wanted them, there are no fortunate offspring of our greatest Presidents available to save us. It is only up to us, all by ourselves.

May 9, 2022

Science and Technology What to do when there's too much power

Energy storage comes in many forms, some of which can be unexpected. The obvious form, of course, is the battery -- a technology that has made substantial improvements in recent years, but which still has a vast amount of progress left to make. It's becoming possible to store a lot of power when there's lots of space available (Puerto Rico, for instance, is aiming to build a gigawatt of energy storage), but while electric cars and trucks are gaining range on the ground, we still haven't quite gotten many battery-powered planes in the air (though there's reason to believe mass production of electric airplanes could yet happen within the decade). ■ Energy can obviously be stored in the biological equivalent of batteries, as food. And it can be stored as potential energy, which is part of the reason why water utilities typically fill elevated storage tanks overnight, when competing demand for both water and electricity is lower. Setting aside energy as potential chemical energy (in a form like non-perishable foods) or stored mechanical energy (as with water in an elevated tank or behind a dam) is fairly obvious and routine, once one begins to look for it. ■ But the explosive growth in renewable energy presents society with a whole new and intriguing question: How else can we time-shift the consumption of energy so that it can be used not on-demand, but rather, on-supply? The catch to renewable energy is typically that it's supplied when and where Mother Nature wishes to deliver it. We can station photovoltaic cells and wind turbines where the supplies are, on average, the most plentiful. But we can't exactly tell the winds when to blow or the sun when to shine. ■ California, notably, just had a brief incident during which renewable power generation exceeded statewide demand. And Texas is experiencing weird disparities in its power grid that, due to significant wind generation, are pushing wholesale electricity prices into negative territory. ■ Expanding the amount of electricity the country (and, indeed, the world) can generate is very much in our long-term interests as a civilization. The less we have to depend upon carbon-intensive energy in all its forms, the better. But in order to make the best use of electrical generation that occurs outside of prime consumption hours (and when storage may be either uneconomical or physically impossible), we're going to have to find new sources of demand for energy that can be switched on and off when the power is available. One of those outlets for demand could be found in on-demand recycling of materials like steel that require lots of power. ■ Such a recycling scheme is only one of many uses we'll need to identify, if what we want to do is optimize our usage when the supply is plentiful. But the better we do at finding economically productive outlets for off-peak energy supply, the better the rationale will be for expanding the supply of renewable energy. And the better we achieve a market-friendly supply, the better we'll be able to align the interests of markets with the interests of maintaining a healthy environment for human beings in the future.

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May 8, 2022

Broadcasting See the whites of their eyes

Whatever the quality of a person's eyesight may be, one of the things they can be sure of seeing from the greatest distance is another person's gaze. The "whites of our eyes" make it possible to see where others are looking from 30 feet away -- even when there would be no way most of us could read a letter of the same size at the same distance. ■ It's not just a thing we share with other people; being able to communicate with our eyes alone helps humans and dogs to coexist. The significance of gaze says a great deal about our evolution as social creatures. We not only depend upon the explicit things that others say to us; we rely on the most basic signals about what has others' attention to interpret what should be important to us, too. ■ Where we point our eyes matters, and so does where we fix our metaphorical gaze. Communication tools that have done a great deal to inform us -- especially those based in video -- offer an unstoppable and overwhelming supply of hints about the things that other people want us to think are important. ■ The talking heads of television always give us their eye contact -- and with it, a false sense of security that we are sharing our attention with what's important. But so do the people who appear on YouTube videos and Snapchat channels. Over and over, anyone can choose to be bombarded by messages that are packed with anthropological persuasion. ■ Knowing and understanding the ways our animal instincts are deliberately triggered by others is vital stuff. We haven't had the tools long enough to develop any useful evolutionary defenses against them. And in a time when lots of events are capable of provoking any of us to action, the least we can do is become aware that our brains are often primed to accept signals we don't even realize are being sent.

May 5, 2022

Computers and the Internet The war from the living room

The spontaneous formation of volunteer cyber-armies eager to aid Ukraine in its resistance against Russian aggression seems like a pleasing development on the surface -- people with useful computing skills want to offer assistance to the defensive side in an utterly unjust war. But to our great misfortune (and possible risk), policy and doctrine haven't caught up with the practical development of cyberwarfare, and that gap could create troublesome costs. ■ The history of "irregulars", foreign volunteers, and mercenaries in warfare goes back a long way. What would the lore about the American Revolutionary War be without Lafayette (for the Americans) and the Hessians (who fought for the British)? But in cyberwarfare, people can enter digital combat from their living rooms, and that complicates things. ■ Some degree of confusion is inevitable, considering the blurry contours of cyberwarfare and the strained relationship that the Russian government maintains with the truth. But matters are complicated far more than they should be by the absence of a clear outlet, at least under the US Department of Defense, for engagement in online conflict. ■ Yes, we have a Cyber Command, but we do not have a clear Cyber Force, and that's a problem to be rectified. If we have the resources to create a dedicated Space Force, we absolutely possess the wherewithal to spin up a dedicated, standalone organization for conflict in cyberspace. ■ This isn't to say that cyberwarfare exists entirely apart from the other spheres of conflict. But it behaves differently, it has different consequences, and it is far more permeable by people from the outside. No household owns a littoral combat ship or a heavy-lifting helicopter. But 93% of American adults are online. ■ It's long overdue for the United States to develop a clear, deliberately considered doctrine on the use of cyberwarfare -- who commands it, which "battlefields" are permissible, who qualifies as a combatant, and above all, what rules ought to govern such conflict. ■ And far more than any of the other armed forces, a dedicated Cyber Force would need to have an unusual degree of permeability with the private sector. This goes even beyond letters of marque and reprisal, though that Constitutional mechanism surely has a part to play, too. The people and skill sets we need to develop for this new kind of conflict just aren't the same as who and what we need for an amphibious assault. Different needs call for appropriate structures. ■ But America certainly needs an organized, deliberate approach to not only an active-duty Cyber Force, but also to reserve resources that could be called upon as needed. We need hardened defenses, public-private cooperation (and delineation of roles), and thoughtful doctrines on matters like escalation, deterrence, and rules of engagement. ■ The effort, resources, and focus required should not be left to afterthought status. It's hard to see the requisite focus happening without raising the status of our responses to full branch status. Whether we formalize the structure or not, people are going to "volunteer" for the fight -- so there's no time to waste in seeking to get it well-organized and managed in a way that promotes national interests. ■ Cyber conflict has become a key domain of Russia's war against Ukraine, as well as a valuable tool for the Ukrainian defense. There is absolutely zero reason to believe that cyberspace will ever become less important to warfare, now that the threshold has been crossed. The question is not whether but when the United States will acknowledge the the new era and escalate our posture accordingly.

May 4, 2022

Science and Technology Stopping before you cross the line

In built-up urban areas, lanes of opposing traffic on expressways are usually separated by concrete median barriers. Ugly but effective, they keep mishaps from escalating -- which represents a victory for safety. A single-vehicle collision at 60 mph can be terrible, but the consequences are certain to be worse if it cascades into a head-on collision at a closing speed of 120 mph. ■ But concrete barriers are material-intensive, and the vast majority of American highway miles pass through rural areas, where traffic densities are lower than on urban expressways and sloping medians between opposing lanes of traffic offer little suitable space to set down heavy concrete blocks. The increasing adoption of cable barriers for separating traffic on rural highways addresses the problem both more cost-effectively and more suitably to conditions. ■ Median barriers installed on rural highways are credited with slashing head-on crashes by 97%. Considering that 8% of deaths on those types of highways happen in head-on crashes, median barriers installed everywhere would have a multiple-percentage-point effect on those deaths. ■ Rural cable-style median barriers stand up well as a metaphor for a certain ideal of government intervention: Generally speaking, they are high-return investments that impose no active restraint on motorists except when things have already started to go wrong, at which time they serve almost exclusively to keep a bad situation from escalating into a catastrophe. ■ While they cost a mighty sum to install (upwards of $80,000 per mile), their payback value is estimated to be a 16:1 return on investment. That return assumes a value of $4,500,000 on a human life -- an actuarial assumption that actually sounds extremely low if you're putting a price on the life of someone you love. ■ As a standard for gentle government interventions in other areas of life, it would be hard to beat the example of a non-intrusive, nearly fail-safe, 16-to-1 investment. If we could find more of those, even the most ardent libertarian ought to be persuadable.

May 3, 2022

Health A "stealth" lockdown for 22 million people

An observer writes from China that "Beijing is going into a 'stealth' lockdown. We're not confined to our homes (yet) but so many restrictions are being rolled into place that going anywhere or doing anything is becoming extremely difficult." For any number of reasons, this seems indefensibly crazy. ■ First, with a population of about 22 million people, Beijing is just a smidge more populous than Florida. By that measure alone, the scale of a Beijing lockdown, whether "stealth" or openly declared, would be gargantuan. The logistical nightmare that resulted in Shanghai as people became desperate for basic necessities like food. ■ There is also the matter of basic efficacy: The "Zero Covid" policy is enormously disruptive, and there is plainly no rationale by which locking tens of millions of people at home (or, according to some reports, at work for some 20,000 people) for weeks at a time beats having an effective vaccination program. Bloomberg's reporting says that "only half of the population aged 80 and older are fully vaccinated" in mainland China -- and none of them have gotten the extremely effective mRNA vaccines known to work so well in the United States and elsewhere. ■ And then, there is naked self-interest. China's ruling party doesn't like competition nor does it tolerate criticism. The problem with an institutional attitude like that is that it prevents essential signals from making their way to decision-makers. The long-time Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, said, "If your staff thinks you can't take the bad news, for fear you will behead the messenger, something is wrong with you. You are paying them to provide you with information. They shouldn't fear you. I wanted the bad news because then I could do something about it, and fast." ■ It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something wrong with the czars of China's Communist Party. They've hidden themselves from the facts (and from critical analysis), and have censored even the economists from acknowledging that "Zero Covid" is far from zero-cost. ■ People can be kept ignorant of facts far from them for a long time. Misinformation, disinformation, and censorship alike are used for exactly that reason. But people can't be denied the witness of their own lived experiences -- particularly those of imprisonment and hunger. And when a regime tries to keep an iron-clad lid on everything experienced by its people, tens of millions at a time, it inescapably lights a fuse -- maybe long, maybe short -- on its own demise.

May 2, 2022

Threats and Hazards Indiscriminate bombing

The decision by the Russian military to launch missiles at Kyiv during a visit by the UN Secretary-General is the kind of plainly outrageous behavior that should escape no condemnation. Attacking Ukraine's capital city is an inexcusable act in the first place, and even worse, targeting a residential apartment building (as Russian forces did) is almost certainly a war crime. ■ But beyond those two offenses against the civilized world, Russia's military attacked a city where the UN's top diplomat had gone on a publicly announced visit. It wasn't a secret mission. Antonio Guterres had gone to Kyiv following a meeting in Moscow with Vladimir Putin. And the entire UN trip was conducted to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, a town already literally half-obliterated by Russian assault. ■ Anyone still making apologies for the invasion of Ukraine or playing cowardly games of "whataboutism" with the conduct of Ukraine's defense needs to acknowledge how dreadfully wrong they have been. If the leader of the United Nations cannot enter a capital city to arrange for the evacuation of civilians from a war-torn area without itself coming under bombardment, then the country dropping the bombs should be suspended indefinitely from any benefits of the community of nations. ■ There are too many layers of self-evident evil embedded in the Kremlin's behavior to afford any room for excuse: Depriving children of basic necessities. Holding noncombatants under siege for weeks. And now, aiming weapons "shockingly" close to the representatives of the world's organized body for resolving disputes -- who had shown up for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of those innocents. ■ Giving the bully a veto is a certain way to dismantle a peaceful world order, and the civilized nations of the world are justified in remaining resolute against that bully -- by isolating it, depriving it of the resources it converts into warfare, and providing abundant support to the defenders.

Broadcasting What is the proper theme song for Generation X?

It must be either the Pinball Count from Sesame Street or the theme to The Price is Right. Either way, it has something to do with television first and foremost.

April 30, 2022

News The fear of history

Among the most widely-cited of Shakespearean lines is one from "Twelfth Night": "[S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em". It's not actually true: Nobody is born great, at least not in the sense we use "great" to mean both noteworthy and admirable. Child prodigies burn out all the time, and truly great adults are -- without exception -- shaped by their experiences into what they become. ■ We are undoubtedly born with certain kinds of programming deep in our DNA. Attentive parents can detect personality traits in their newborns, and it wouldn't be outlandish to assume that everyone is born with predispositions among the big five personality traits. Yet those traits can (and often do) change over time, and experiences have effects on them. More significantly, every individual is born with at least some self-awareness, which can (and ought) to be used to refine who they turn out to be. ■ Perhaps the most important trait we can hope to find among those leaders who turn out to be "great" is an attunement to history. It is noteworthy, for instance, that in our own time, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy ably speaks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and analogizes weapons deals to the Lend-Lease Act. He is self-evidently aware of history and of the place in it that has been thrust upon him. ■ Only people who are actively aware of history in that kind of way can be trusted to behave in a way that reflects the fact that history is watching them. It may not be a sufficient condition (certainly some people think they're on the "right side" of history when they in fact are not), but it is an utterly necessary one. The people who think that history doesn't matter or who take none of the prospective judgment of later generations into perspective are the ones who ought never to be entrusted with power. ■ A high regard for, and perhaps even a healthy fear of, the judgment of history is a precondition for sound leadership at the highest levels. And that regard really cannot be instilled without a proper working knowledge of the past. Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest of American Presidents, almost chronically referred to history for orientation (think "Four score and seven years ago"). If a civilization wants good leaders, perhaps the most important thing it can do is put the knowledge -- and a little bit of fear -- of history into all its people, just in case greatness is thrust upon 'em.

Business and Finance Welcome back to Omaha

The Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting returns to Omaha after two pandemic cancellations in a row. From the Omaha World-Herald: "For decades, thousands have flocked to Omaha for the annual Berkshire shareholders meeting, what Buffett often likes to call the Woodstock of Capitalism. Shareholder Brian Gongol from West Des Moines, Iowa, likened it more to a religious revival. Many of the tenets Buffett will talk about are well-known to shareholders, and they already believe strongly in them. 'But you just need to hear (them) about once a year (to know) you're not crazy,' Gongol said."

Weather and Disasters Extraordinary footage of a tornado

Drone footage in very high resolution of a tornado tearing a path through Andover, Kansas. Truly some of the most remarkable weather-related video yet seen. Using autonomous aircraft (like drones) to observe severe weather in real time is one of the best possible uses for such technology.

News Sage advice about history

Hal Brands: "History never provides exact answers. It provides strategic awareness and understanding within which hard choices can be made."

April 29, 2022

Business and Finance Bad math doesn't break the real economy

Measuring the size of the economy using gross domestic product (GDP) has always been an endeavor subject to judgment calls. While the GDP is intended to capture the total value of goods and services created by a country, it omits some values that are considered too hard to calculate -- like the equivalent value of all of the household labor devoted to things like cooking, shopping, and keeping up a home. Just because it's "non-market" work doesn't mean it's not valuable; in fact, it's probably worth trillions of dollars a year. ■ GDP is a necessary but insufficient tool for measuring the wellness of an economy. Like an individual's body weight or pulse, it's an essential part of the whole picture, but it has to be considered alongside a great deal else to start to form a holistic picture. With the preliminary data indicating that US GDP shrank in the first quarter of 2022, some people have already begun hyperventilating that "we are now halfway to a recession". ■ Strictly speaking, a recession is two or more consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth. That doesn't really mean we are "halfway to a recession"; it only means that half of the conditions for a recession have been met. ■ An even more troubling misinterpretation of the facts is the claim that "A soaring trade deficit detracted from U.S. economic growth figures", in the words of the New York Times. The problem with that way of reading the figures is that imports are neutral to GDP. ■ GDP is only intended to measure what goods and services are generated domestically (again, it's gross "domestic" product). The equation used is "GDP = C+I+G+NX" -- consumption plus investment plus government spending plus net exports. ■ It's true that imports represent the negative half of "net exports" (exports minus imports). But all we're doing by subtracting those imports is removing their effects from what they added to C, I, and G. If you buy and eat a box of Belgian chocolates, it's added under "C" -- so we subtract it under "NX" so that we don't count the Belgian chocolates as American gross "domestic" product. ■ The subtraction has no effect whatsoever on what is generated domestically (at least, not in the sense that the New York Times headline would suggest). A "soaring" trade deficit is only harmful to GDP if it is a symptom that the economy is producing far fewer exports than it did before. If they do anything, imports often help the American economy to focus on those things it does best: Buying Taiwanese semiconductors, for example, helps the American automakers build more cars. Slowing down that pace of imports doesn't help the US economy; it hurts. ■ The only sense in which imports actually "deduct" from GDP is that it probably does serious damage to economists' brains when they repeatedly bang their heads against their desks over this misunderstanding of the data. For every other purpose, imports are neutral to the GDP.

April 28, 2022

Computers and the Internet A real head-scratcher

In the span of just a handful of months, Wordle went from one family's novelty game to a sensation so big it was purchased by the New York Times for some price over $1 million. ■ The rules of the game are exceptionally simple: Guess a five-letter word in no more than six tries. The game tells you whether you got a letter right (in the right place), right (in the wrong place), or altogether wrong. As is so often the case, the art is in the constraints: The solution will be one of about 2,500 words, the number of allowable tries is generally sufficient but not excessive, and there is only one game released per day. ■ It's a simple puzzle that offers reasonably good prospects of a reward from a very modest investment of time. And there are certain network effects, too: The more people who play and compare their results, the greater the "stickiness" of the activity. And thus, people keep coming back for the reward of solving simple puzzles and sharing the feeling of success with others. ■ For all of the various ways in which people try to achieve some level of self-understanding through interest quizzes, aptitude tests, and self-help resources, we tend to under-value the identification of each individual's preferred problem-solving/puzzle-solving type. Human minds are well-adapted to solving puzzles and piecing together solutions from limited information; that's why we identify familiar objects in clouds and see a Man in the Moon. ■ But not everyone enjoys solving the same sorts of puzzles. Some people are attracted to crosswords, while others like to assemble jigsaw puzzles. Some find satisfaction from detangling knotted jewelry, and others like to paint by numbers. If we choose to define a "puzzle" as any kind of activity that requires creative mental engagement to find a solution, then we find that many people have high tolerances for puzzle-like activities and even careers (like engineering, auditing, and detective work). ■ The more we succeed at offloading many of our routine tasks to computers and various forms of automation, the more important it will become for individuals to uncover the kinds of puzzle-like problems (in the broadest sense of the word) that give them satisfaction. Computers can be excellent at relieving humans of decision-making under conditions where rules are easy to apply, which is why we're already able to let some cars drive themselves autonomously. ■ Until the elusive "general" form of artificial intelligence arrives -- if, indeed, it ever comes -- human beings will not only remain the best resources for solving open-ended, puzzle-like problems, but those problems will also become increasingly important to ensuring that people can find psychological satisfaction. ■ Even the most ordinary of humans are imbued with phenomenal mental capacity, as illustrated every night as billions of people experience vivid, complex, and long-lasting dreams -- the generation of which would be a challenging problem for digital computers. Putting that capacity to work in problem-solving activities is important not only to making general human progress, but to giving individuals the satisfaction of solving puzzles along the way. ■ Right alongside the ASVAB and the Myers-Briggs and the MAPP, we would do well to find a test to help individuals uncover which types of problems (that is, puzzles) they will find the most consistent satisfaction in trying to solve -- mechanical or mathematical, open-ended or closed, short-form or multi-decadal, cosmic or small enough to fit on a wrist. ■ The future is bound to become massively more complex than the reality we inhabit today, yet many of the routine decisions that occupy our time and thoughts now are likely to be offloaded to machinery of one sort or another, just as household tools like washing machines and microwaves have taken some domestic endeavors almost entirely off our minds altogether. More of those "dumb" decisions that tax our mental energy and deplete our decision-making capacities are destined to go away. That's good, because in the aggregate, they leave too many people with decision fatigue. ■ But some of the problems that are left over are bound to require matching problems with the right kinds of problem-solvers who will find deep satisfaction from untangling the metaphorical knots. It would serve civilization well to try to drill deeper into helping us sort ourselves accordingly.

Humor and Good News The watchtower

Some doofus designed a home with a double-sided fireplace, one side of which is in the living room. The other is in the main bedroom. That's a little too much sharing.

Weather and Disasters When clouds take the form of waves

The atmosphere is a fluid, after all

April 27, 2022

News Where do you get your news?

While nobody seems to want to admit it, much of what shapes public debate is still generated by a handful of media outlets with high prestige and valuable institutional brand names. Memes, video rants, and viral tweets can instigate new conversations, but the bulk of what gets decided inside major institutions is still steered there by the editorial choices of a few publications. ■ This sort of cachet remains important because people doing high-stakes work (including government officials, business executives, and NGO leaders) have scarce free time and have to concentrate the use of that time thoughtfully. It is not irrational to assume that if you're Warren Buffett, then you can expect that a news diet consisting of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Omaha World-Herald (or your comparable local paper) will probably cover most of the news you actually need to know in a day. If it doesn't meet the standards to merit coverage by at least one of those outlets, it's probably below the level of significance to demand immediate attention. ■ In recent years, the Washington Post has invested heavily in displacing USA Today for top-tier prominence in the same class with the New York Times, and it would be hard to argue it hasn't succeeded. Despite tough times for both, the Washington Post has nearly beaten USA Today for the third-place spot in national print circulation, and its website has much greater cachet. Its rise reflects a conscious decision to aspire to greater reach. ■ What's interesting about the landscape is that, at least among those outlets conventionally associated with heritage-status print publications, none are conspicuously both general-interest in nature and center-right in perspective. The Wall Street Journal, with its peculiar online paywall and financial focus, is big but not general-interest in nature. ■ It would seem evident that there exists a void in the market waiting to be filled. Not by fire-breathing right-wing populism or coverage obsessed with politics as blood sport, but with covering mainstream news in a mainstream way, but with editorial assumptions that would align with some of the same features that tend to make the United States basically a center-right country. ■ Imagine, for instance, an outlet with an editorial stance that is Madisonian in outlook -- firmly attached to the understanding that government must be limited in reach and constrained by rules, but also congenitally skeptical of concentrated power in all its forms. One reconciled to the imperfection of the world, and consequently well-adjusted regarding the necessity of tolerating compromises and accepting incremental progress as uncomfortable necessities. ■ Picture an outlet that would be cheerfully optimistic about spontaneous order, both in market relationships and social affairs -- protective of institutions and practices that have survived evolutionary pressures over time, but open-minded about finding better ideas and strongly attached to the perpetual quest for reforms in government and other centers of power. ■ It would be fascinating to see a center-right outlet, run by the principle that news organizations exist in order to interest the public in the public interest. There is quick money to be made in satisfying instinct-driven, emotional urges with tabloid-style coverage. ■ But the long-term well-being of the country (and its states and people) lies in having robust, thoughtful, even cerebral, debates about those matters we need to know about now and those we need to see coming down the road. It would be good for matters if at least some of that coverage and some of those ideas were initiated from a set of staunchly-held editorial principles that differed -- even if only gently -- from the prevailing viewpoints at the current leading institutions. That voice is missing in the USA, today.

April 26, 2022

Business and Finance Costly playthings

The announcement that Elon Musk is poised to buy Twitter for $44 billion has lit the short fuse on some of the worst habits in American cultural debate. The New York Times is offering opinions under the headlines of "Elon Musk is a Problem Masquerading as a Solution", "Twitter Under Elon Musk Will Be a Scary Place", and "Musk's Twitter: Weed Memes. Editable Tweets. And the Return of Trump." Some have called it hyperventilation, and that may not be a bad characterization. ■ Meanwhile, largely because Musk has a history of libertine personal behavior on the site and is intentionally provoking debate with tweets like "The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all", the pending ownership change has become a cause for celebration among those who perceive that Twitter's policies and management have landed heavily on some of their favorite figures -- the former President certainly chief among them -- despite often inexcusable behavior by those figures. ■ No person of sound mind and decent character should stand opposed to the principle of freedom of speech. But principles often conflict with one another, and one of the most important indicators of good judgment is the ability to reconcile those conflicts thoughtfully. There is no pure freedom of speech, and even the Voltaire-adjacent promise to defend to the death another's right to say things with which one disagrees is itself limited. (It would be insane, for instance, to defend a mob leader's right to use "free speech" to coordinate a murder.) ■ It is especially unfortunate that a false dichotomy of "free speech or not" is taking shape around something as ultimately trivial as a social-media site. Twitter hasn't taken the full form of a public-good protocol, as co-founder Jack Dorsey says he wished. It's just a popular digital meeting space -- a very noisy virtual agora -- where people can engage, agree, disagree, or ignore one another entirely. ■ But if anyone fails to keep their experience of Twitter or any other site at arm's length, no matter who owns that site, then they're bound for disappointment. Turning any means of engaging with other human beings into an opportunity to cultivate an enemies list is neither psychologically healthy nor civically responsible. If it matters so much that it's worth pages and pages of debate in the nation's newspaper of record -- and stokes mutually-condescending takes and division from people overeager to prove they're on the right "team" -- then maybe it matters too much all around.

April 22, 2022

News Reclamation and rehabilitation

Signs of decay are easy to spot once you set about looking for them: Dilapidated old barns in the countryside, abandoned buildings in the city, faded billboards by the side of the road. For too many people, though, every symptom of decay is escalated all the way up until it is taken as proof of terminal decline on a much larger scale. ■ It can be perfectly rational to let things fall into decay. An old farmstead that used to depend on a windmill to drive a water pump no longer has any use for that windmill once a rural water system service connection becomes available. Since rural water service is invariably safer and more reliable than a household well, it makes all the sense in the world to allow a windmill that has no further use to fall into decay. There are lots of other demands on time and resources that are more worthy of investment from our limited resources. ■ On the other hand, it isn't rational to allow important things to fall into disrepair. In fact, it is a duty to keep them from falling into decay. Voters and their elected representatives too often permit the essentials of civilization -- like infrastructure -- to decay, simply because there isn't enough immediate reward for doing the prudent thing. That's a shame upon all of us. ■ Somewhere in the middle of all this we uncover a special act: That of finding something that has fallen into decay and discovering a way to make it useful again. It's an honorable thing to do, and it's worthy of more of our applause. ■ Not everything is worth salvage or rehabilitation. It's an economic decision: If more value can be created than the cost of the inputs, then the rehabilitation creates value. If not, then it may be better to let the decay run its course (or to sweep away the debris entirely). But human ingenuity is a special thing, and we shouldn't just cheer for those who create things from scratch. A round of applause is also due for those who raise things to higher levels of value, especially after neglect.

April 21, 2022

Agriculture Green fields eclipsing the brown

The average date of the last frost in most places in Iowa happens around the middle of April, though in some northern parts of the state, that average last frost happens sometime in early May. That date can feel impossibly late following a long-lingering winter (perhaps even moreso after more than one "false spring"), but it's the climatological reality. And it constrains choices like when to plant corn in the state -- a decision bounded on the other end by the date when it's too late to plant before risking losing the harvest to arrival of the next winter. ■ These constraints typically leave Iowa (and much of the rest of the Corn Belt) looking pretty barren for about half of the year. That vista has started to change, though, with the increasing adoption of cover crops -- plants seeded in the ground after the cash crops (usually corn and soybeans) have been harvested in the fall. Where cover crops are planted, it's become increasingly common to see green in the fields well outside the usual seasons. ■ The adoption of cover crops is the kind of easily-overlooked development that deserves both attention and applause. Plants like cereal rye (the most popular cover crop in Iowa) keep soil nutrients from leaching away when the snow melts, while helping to reduce soil erosion and build up helpful organic matter. Some even help to choke out weeds until the next year's cash crop can be planted. ■ In modern terms, it's still a new practice -- almost no cover crops were planted in Iowa a decade ago, and now they're planted on more than 2 million acres annually. ■ It's not just aesthetically pleasing; soil preservation is an important tool for reducing toxic runoff into the rivers and streams that not only eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico, but that also serve as a major source of drinking water along the way. It's going to take a while to really establish the practice and to make sure that the right incentives are in place for all of the stakeholders involved (farmers, governments, consumers, and water-drinkers, just for starters), but it's a challenge well worth undertaking.

April 20, 2022

Broadcasting An eye on the prizes

Netflix has reported something both unexpected and unpleasant (for its prospects): A quarterly decline in subscribers. While it still claims more than 221 million subscribers worldwide (a figure that would make it the 7th largest country in the world, just ahead of Brazil), the idea of a shrinking subscriber base is enough to raise both internal and external alarm. ■ It's interesting to note that today's streaming services have many of the features of the classic Hollywood "studio system": They are capable of vertical integration, from producing their own original content (see, for example, Netflix Originals, Hulu Originals, and the entire Paramount and Disney catalogs) to distribution and delivery. ■ In important ways, the economics of owning a streaming service beat the vertical integration of the Hollywood studio system, because the customers not only pay for their own screens (saving the "studio" the enormous real estate and operational costs of owning theaters), they also pay subscription fees that are far more predictable than ticket revenues. ■ But while the old studio system was dismantled by the courts, the new streaming-based studio system is subject to blistering competition. Netflix has emerged as a serious contender for awards like the Oscars and Emmys (winning more in 2021 than any other network or service). ■ Yet Netflix's competitors are gunning for prestige and respect, too: Apple TV won seven Emmys in 2021 just for "Ted Lasso", and it won the 2022 Best Picture at the Oscars. Meanwhile, Amazon has gone off and spent $8.5 billion on MGM and its 4,000-movie library. ■ It seems likely that fierce competition -- even despite the advantages of vertical integration -- is going to keep modern incarnation of the studio system (a studio neo-system, perhaps) much more constrained than the Hollywood system of yore. It remains possible that new rounds of consolidation are yet to come, but it seems more likely that the future will end up resembling the fragmented landscape of cable and satellite television networks. ■ There's still a lot more of the game of musical chairs left to play, and it's unlikely that they'll all end up sharing one big sofa. If the awards-night successes of the various streaming platforms are any indication, those rivalries are going to be very good for the viewers.

April 19, 2022

Business and Finance A disaster of choice

Back when computers were a novelty (rather than omnipresent in our lives), coffee cups and other tchotchkes were sometimes sold with the slogan "To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer". A more relevant spin on that quotation today might be "To cause disruptions is the will of Mother Nature; to cause a real catastrophe requires a human". ■ The International Monetary Fund, noting that the global economy has been recovering from the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, has issued its opinion that "Global economic prospects have been severely set back, largely because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine." Other than the handful of lunatics who embrace "degrowth" as the solution to the world's problems, most people properly appreciate that rising living standards resulting from broad-based economic growth are a human good. Effects like rapidly-declining child mortality rates are the dividends of growth. ■ Many aspects of the economic troubles we can all observe are consequences of a shocking pandemic. Some of the widespread price inflation can be traced to money-supply interventions that have been employed by central banks for the last 15 years to try to ease the pain of recessions. But nothing whatsoever excuses the completely unnecessary and deliberate assault initiated by the powers in the Kremlin -- most specifically, Vladimir Putin -- against Ukraine and, consequently, against the world's economy. ■ This is an unforgivable, totally unnecessary, and (almost singularly) man-made disaster. The world cannot excuse the malicious decisions made. And it must not forget the lesson that human choices have consequences.

April 18, 2022

News The center must hold

Benjamin Franklin wrote, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." He did both, and it's noteworthy that we still have access to his words more than a quarter of a millennium after he wrote them. ■ Have no doubt about it: If he were living today, Benjamin Franklin would be an enthusiastic user of social media. He might not spend his time making TikTok videos, but he would certainly be involved in the rough-and-tumble of Twitter. Snappy assessments of the world would have been like catnip to his prodigious mind; indeed, most of his memorable aphorisms fit tidily within 280 characters. ■ But Franklin's opus would have been hollow without his autobiography. And his wit shines not because of cherry-picked quotes that would fit on a desk calendar, but because his observations, taken together, formed a worldview that is both readable and often quite salient today. He said many things to his contemporaries, but he wrote for the audience of history. ■ The National Council of Teachers of English has published a position statement on "Media Education in English Language Arts" with which Franklin might have taken issue. It contains some sensible reflections on the evolution of what it means to learn the English language -- like acknowledging that "The time is now to bring media education into the mainstream of ELA [English language arts] education". But it also contains some significant nonsense. ■ In particular, the position statement declares, "We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world", and thus concludes, "The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education." Nuts to that. ■ Of course it is important and worthwhile for students to know how to consume digital media thoughtfully, to express their own opinions and explain their discoveries in more than the printed format, and to be capable of assessing content sources critically. Those are all valuable skills that need to be developed as part of a holistic education in the language arts. ■ But if anyone seriously thinks that books and essays need to be "decentered", they need to rethink their worldview. The only way to take that "decentering" seriously is to believe that history is like an old tape recorder on an infinite Mobius loop, forever erasing itself before recording anew, only to erase itself all over again. Of course, that is not the case. ■ Human history is not only something that has been constructed over many generations, it also reflects an almost stunning consistency of human nature across time. The Soviets may have thought they could create a whole new human, but the rest of us ought to possess the humility to realize that we're not so special that everything is novel. History might not repeat, but it quite often rhymes. ■ The act of writing a book or even a careful essay requires a process of thinking that isn't equally required to record a Snapchat video. The process requires not only a respect for the immediate audience, but also a view toward permanence. That is why people of goodwill are still moved by Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is why understanding the Constitution still requires reading what Hamilton and Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers. It is why Christian churches still read the letters of the Apostles and why Maimonides remains influential more than 800 years after his death. ■ Great films have gone missing. Websites are often only archived by chance. Only a few early broadcasts were ever recorded, and only a fraction of what has ever aired has been saved digitally. But books and essays are intended to be permanent. ■ And while they shouldn't be the only materials that students study or create, there is no sound reason for "decentering" carefully-written words. History isn't the only reason; so is the present. The logic of composition imposes rigor on the writer, and practice is the only way to really become good at it. ■ Nobody is going to master a complex subject from "snack-length" video segments. We learn from those who take the time to form their ideas carefully. Multimedia tools are sometimes the most effective ways to project those ideas -- but even a great film requires a written script. Yes, students should "master the full range of literary competencies"...but the book will still be around a thousand years from now. Instagram will not.

April 16, 2022

News When voting is like toothpaste

To keep a marriage happy, spouses ought to agree on their laundry detergent but keep their toothpastes separate. On certain matters (like how the bedsheets and towels are going to smell), unanimity and uniformity are essential. But it's perfectly tolerable -- in fact, preferable -- if everyone can remain responsible for cleaning up after themselves on those matters that matter almost entirely to themselves. What matters most is that one brushes their own teeth regularly; beyond that, whether you choose cool mint, bubble gum, or lemon and ginseng really isn't all that materially important to anyone else. ■ It ought not to escape notice that both France and Australia are in the midst of elections. France is about to conduct the second round of a presidential election based upon a runoff vote, while Australia's parliamentary elections are both ranked-choice and compulsory. ■ Nobody will deny that both electoral systems are democratic, in the sense that they depend upon the consent and expressed will of the people in order to cement their legitimacy. But the systems are deeply different from one another, and vastly different from comparable elections in the United States. ■ On the matter of seeking the consent of the governed and attempting to reflect the will of the majority, all three countries agree -- like spouses on laundry detergent. On the particulars of how they use ballots to sample and count the will of the people, they are like those same spouses choosing toothpastes. ■ Far too many of the arguments about democracy assume that there is a perfect system to be had. That's not just a bad assumption; it is fatally flawed. Making choices among even small numbers of people is an imperfect science. Doing so when millions of people are involved is absolutely guaranteed to leave large numbers of them utterly unsatisfied. The point is not that the popular will is perfectly expressed, but that it is sought -- preferably under transparent and predictable rules. ■ Rules can shape the outcomes of elections, whether intentionally or not. Ranked-choice voting produces different outcomes from first-past-the-post, but there are literally dozens of ways to parse votes, whether proportional or majoritarian in design. Most sensible people can agree on the need for universal suffrage -- but at what point should people become eligible to vote? There are those both on the left and on the right who argue that right should activate at birth. And then there are rules like representation quotas or reserved seats that can institutionally override majority views. ■ Complaining about systems like America's Electoral College is practically a national pastime. But so is complaining about the voting system in every other democracy. There is no perfect system, and fantasizing that one exists is a mistake bound to lead to chronic frustration. Much better it would be if imperfection were expected by all parties, factions, and individual voters, right from the start.

April 15, 2022

Business and Finance It's better to be bored by markets

The high drama surrounding Elon Musk's attempt to take over Twitter has brought unusual popular attention to the business world. Ordinarily cordoned off as "business news" covered by "financial media", questions of valuations and ownership rarely intrude into the mainstream consciousness. Events involving certain high-flying, attention-hungry magnates pose an unusual exception. ■ It was about 12 years ago that Berkshire Hathaway laid out $26 billion in cash and stock to buy out the BNSF railroad. It was a huge deal -- Warren Buffett was basically betting a quarter of his own company on it. ■ Later this month, Berkshire will hold an annual meeting in Omaha, where shareholders will be reminded that the company brings in operating earnings of about that same volume as the entire BNSF purchase every year. (Last year's operating earnings were $27 billion.) ■ Berkshire recently announced the purchase of Alleghany, an insurance company, for $11 billion. It's safe to say the event went almost unnoticed outside of true hard-core financial news-watchers. It most certainly did not get proportional attention to Musk's Twitter-takeover offer, which is larger -- but only four times larger. ■ Even more enormous (and less renowned) than such Berkshire buyouts have been the company's share repurchases. Berkshire has repurchased more than $51 billion in shares since just 2019. If Warren Buffett had moved his company to buy out Twitter for that much, it would have made headlines. But consolidating ownership of itself by an even larger number barely raised anyone's attention at all. ■ Just for comparison, put the Alleghany purchase and the share repurchases together, and that would be a deal the size of buying the entire Ford Motor Co. (market capitalization: $62 billion). Boring? Only by nature of what the company does. In scale, it's quite exciting. ■ For as much as the crypto-bros and others want to sell you on their get-rich-quick schemes, they're just trying to get people hooked on emotions and speculation. It's morally unsound. Peter Thiel can rage against a "sociopathic grandpa from Omaha" for downplaying Bitcoin, but Thiel isn't really making a case for cryptocurrency on the merits. ■ Meanwhile, Berkshire continues growing, reinvesting in huge projects for renewable energy (to the tune of $37 billion at last count), and sending billions of dollars in corporate taxes to the US Treasury, while paying the salaries of more than 371,000 people. ■ People need to know the distinction between speculation and valuation. Valuation is a matter of determining what something is truly worth, no matter what its price tag. Speculation is a matter of grabbing something at one price (without regard to its intrinsic value) and looking eagerly to sell it for a higher price -- often as quickly as possible. Speculation can be fun for an adrenaline rush, but it's a trashy way to characterize a market economy. ■ Capitalism does great things when it's patient, thoughtful, and focused on the long term. Command economies cannot measure up! But the skill of market valuation (which is the cornerstone of how Buffett has built Berkshire) is wildly under-appreciated. We ought to try fixing that. Other activities may be better for capturing headlines, but patient, strategic attention to business-building is vastly better for a civilization.

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April 14, 2022

The United States of America It's going to cost us

In the book "1984", one of the recurring themes is the tale that "Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia" (or Eurasia, as served those who needed it to do so). By the use of that plot device, George Orwell was making a nod to the notion that if people were kept blind to history and ignorant of reality, they could be made to believe anything, even those things that were patently untrue. ■ It isn't just ignorance that can lead us into false belief; so can can wishing too much for a thing to be true. Looking from afar at the Kremlin's war of aggression against Ukraine, it is all too easy to let hope drive the imagination that a clear and binding peace treaty will be implemented sometime in the near future. How heartbreakingly unlikely that really is. ■ Russia has not "always been at war" with Ukraine, but even putting aside the historical violence it has committed against its smaller neighbor, Russia most certainly has been making war there for almost a decade. ■ It was for precisely the kind of defensive weaponry that America is now shipping to Ukraine in huge volumes that Volodymyr Zelenskyy was asking when then-President Donald Trump attempted to extort Ukraine for political help. What is happening now is just a hotter phase of a long-simmering conflict. ■ Indeed, the fact that the war on Ukraine has motivated both Finland and Sweden to set aside decades of neutrality or non-alignment and initiate the process of joining NATO should be warning enough that this is a problem that will be around for the long haul. The Kremlin's thundery reaction tells us it has no quiet ambitions. ■ Even if peace were to break out spontaneously tomorrow -- and it will not -- the trauma of the war alone will resound deafeningly for at least a generation to come. A country cannot lose thousands of lives (4,577, by the latest count) to a depraved and barbaric invader and then merely forgive or and forget. Nor, for that matter, will any amount of Russian state propaganda erase the anguish of thousands of Russian mothers who will never see their sons again. The blame lies squarely at Putin's feet. ■ For a generation to come, the Russian military will contain within its ranks vicious murderers who will, tragically, never be individually held to account for their crimes. The scars of war will remain on the Ukrainian land and people for many decades to come. And the 44-year-old president of Ukraine can be certain that no matter the diplomatic outcome of the war, Russian agents will be trying to poison him for the rest of his natural life. ■ All of this would be true if the war were to end 15 minutes from now. But it won't. Like a cancer that has already metastasized, this problem will persist for the long haul. And there won't be a clean bill of health at the end like we probably wish there would be. ■ We have to make peace with the uncomfortable reality that there will not be a satisfying peace anytime in the foreseeable future. Even if hostilities de-escalate, there will still be plenty of war ahead. ■ American public opinion isn't well-suited to unsatisfying conclusions. Americans want the signing of surrender documents on a battleship in Tokyo Bay. That isn't forthcoming. ■ The essence of leadership will consist of telling Americans that we're in this for the long haul -- and painting a picture of what that long haul will be. "The peaceful self-determination of all free peoples" isn't a concept that rolls gently off the tongue. But it's the one that has to be defended and promoted loudly. ■ In too many ways, we mistook the end of the Cold War to mean the end of great-power influence and self-serving international conflicts. A peaceful world with triumphantly advancing living standards is extremely desirable, but it isn't inevitable. Essential, but not inevitable. ■ It can only be sustained by a combination of un-self-conscious promotion (in culture and in political rhetoric) and the hard-nosed construction of the rules-based global order that makes a peaceful coexistence possible. ■ In the words of business author Jim Collins, people need to believe in a "big, hairy, audacious goal". The rhetoric must lead towards that goal -- peace, freedom, and prosperity for the entire world -- but it must built on an infrastructure that invests both in the maintenance of the peace and the promotion of the rules that keep the peace. ■ These are costs we will face aplenty not just now, but for many years to come. The sooner we bring credibility to the long road yet to travel, the tolls that must be paid along the way, and the worthiness of the destination, the better.

April 13, 2022

Business and Finance On your most professional behavior

A very good question -- "How do we identify and create professional business executives?" -- recurs chronically because we abuse the word "professional". ■ A "professional", correctly stated, is a person who obtains legal coverage to keep other people out of their trade. In exchange, they promise to conduct themselves according to binding professional standards. ■ An essential part of the "professional" trade-off is that the professional surrenders the right to extract maximum profits from their clients. It's an acknowledgment of an insurmountable knowledge problem on the part of the client. ■ A "professional" doctor, for instance, surrenders the right to upcharge a patient for tests or treatments they don't need. In exchange, the patient (through the government) protects the doctor from competition. With a profession comes not just the assurance of good (though not extravagant) compensation, but also social esteem. ■ The meaning of "professional" starts to break down by little erosions -- celebrity doctors profiting off weight-loss fads, dentists hocking snake-oil tooth whiteners, and accountants pivoting to more-lucrative business consultancy. ■ Any old set of dopes sharing a common craft or trade can form a guild to keep others out, and they can peddle their influence to protect themselves from competition. (This, of course, is the source of the gag behind Gob Bluth being purged from his own "Alliance of Magicians" in "Arrested Development".) Without binding standards that serve to protect unwitting customers from being manipulated, what we call "professions" are often just guilds dressed up in fancier titles. ■ The more we chip away at the fundamental meaning of the word "professional", the more we lose touch with an important distinction. After all, does a "professional" athlete swear to uphold a self-sacrificial code of conduct like the Hippocratic Oath? Hardly. Sports leagues often enforce tougher codes of conduct for fans than for owners and players (see, for instance, how Atlanta's baseball team continues to profit from the indefensible Tomahawk Chop). ■ All of this is a shame, because America (and the world) really could use higher standards for "professional" business conduct. But that would require the managerial professionals to sacrifice some material self-interest in exchange for professional status. ■ As a symptom of the principal/agent problem, the absence of any widely-used codes for business conduct is a problem. This problem is on display tenfold when you look at how some agents abuse the trust of their clients. ■ The absence of binding professional codes in business is why Warren Buffett's words to the staff of Salomon Brothers stood out: "Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless." ■ Jack Bogle also sounded like a moralist in contrast with the vacuum of professional business standards when he wrote, "I am arguing that our business principles have been diluted [...] There are some things that one just doesn't do". Bogle willingly gave up what could have been enormous riches because he thought bringing thrifty, low-cost index funds to the public was a matter of doing the right thing. He voluntarily held himself to an extremely high professional standard because he believed that was the right thing for a capitalist to do. ■ Perhaps we would be better off if business owners (particularly the shareholders in publicly-traded firms) insisted that corporate suites were full of people sworn to uphold a professional code that would put owners' interests ahead of maximizing personal gain. ■ But given the routine use of lavish compensation models to keep board members fat, happy, and complacent with the will of the CEO, it seems unlikely we'll see the advent of a truly "professional" business class anytime soon without the ignition supplied by other reforms. Poodles in the boardroom are no substitute for sheepdogs. ■ That's a shame, because even Adam Smith saw that there was a moral dimension to well-functioning markets. Not everything that is legal is right, and not always is the right course (by ethical standards) the best way to make a buck. Correcting for those shortcomings would be good for capitalism.

April 12, 2022

Computers and the Internet We won't sell your data, but we might sell the company

The emptiest of promises in all of the digital world remains "We will never sell your data". It's certainly a necessary statement -- far too many websites and vendors are willing to sell the data of individual users without their prior permission, and the resulting privacy violations begin with spam and escalate to much worse. ■ But the simple promise not to sell user data is profoundly incomplete, because it affords no meaningful protections if the service, site, or parent company is sold. Consider the vast one-time popularity of MySpace. It not only catalogued the social relationships of millions of users, it also was the first mass-market site to have the capacity to collect actionable intelligence on users and their habits, feelings, and preferences. ■ The test anyone who ever used MySpace needs to ask themselves is this: Who owns MySpace now? It isn't the ubiquitous "Tom", to be sure. ■ Since 2005, MySpace has been through the hands of News Corporation, Justin Timberlake, Meredith, and a NASDAQ-listed advertising company -- though none of those exchanges really looked like "selling user data" in the conventional sense. ■ What makes MySpace such a cautionary tale is not whether anyone retains an account there today. But literally billions of people are active, cumulatively, on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and other sites. ■ Facebook is almost wickedly transparent about how it regards personal data: "Specifically, when you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights on or in connection with our Products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content" (it's right there in the terms of use). ■ Note a couple of things about those terms: "Royalty-free" tells us implicitly that user content and data have value. If they didn't, royalty rights would never enter the discussion. And "transferable" and "sub-licensable" make it evident that Facebook thinks others might value user content, too. ■ Facebook's unintentional honesty about what it "owns", both from and about users, is a reminder that anytime we spill information into social networks (or indeed any digital platform), we are creating digital footprints that seem ephemeral but in fact have durable value. MySpace's copy of your "Top 8" friends from 15 years ago might not be worth much -- but then again, China's government has been out to mine every byte of data it can steal about unwitting Americans, so maybe it's not worthless after all. ■ And therein lies the rub: The drama was high at Twitter as Elon Musk bought more than 9% of the company, then touted his plans to join the board, then reversed course. ■ Musk's headline grab showed that ownership is the central matter. That demands more caution than has been widely shown up until now, whether among the estimated 80 million Americans using TikTok, a platform owned by a Chinese company that could easily be bent to the will of an authoritarian government, or among the two billion daily active Facebook users whose sole guarantee of prudential behavior is however Mark Zuckerberg decides to behave with his majority control over the voting shares in the company. Wherever we leave those digital footprints, someone has an incentive to go tracking.

April 8, 2022

News How much is it worth to you?

People of goodwill and moral conscience in the United States ought to ask a basic but important question: How much is it worth to us to see a peaceful and just resolution to the invasion of Ukraine? ■ Wars are not without costs, and this one is no different. The State Department says that the US has provided $1.7 billion in "security assistance" (defensive arms and equipment) since the invasion began in February. That's a lot of money -- but not on a per-capita basis. Spread across a population of 332 million, it's just $5.11 per American. ■ We should forever be on guard against overspending on weapons and war. Dwight Eisenhower counseled that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." ■ But Eisenhower didn't shirk from the burden of making the world peaceful. He fought tyranny as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, and he went toe-to-toe with it in its Communist form while serving as President. ■ A GoFundMe page led by Mila Kunis has raised almost $36 million for humanitarian relief for Ukrainians. Vastly more will of course be necessary for relief purposes, but it's a good sign that so many people are voluntarily willing to contribute to the effort. Many other charities are raising worthy support, too. ■ But as a mental exercise, we ought to be willing to consider how much it would be worth to subsidize a Ukrainian defensive victory against a barbaric invader. A price will have to be paid, and we are reminded daily of the need for war materiel, and that tab could continue running for a long time -- depending, in part, on whether enough resources are committed now. ■ The more decisive and prompt the defensive victory now, the greater the deterrent against pointless wars in the future. Is a just peace worth more than $5.11 per American? More than $10.22? More than $100? Surely the number is higher than the price of a hamburger. And it must be worth more than a few. ■ Before we become weary of the cost, or congratulate ourselves too much on the $1.7 billion already dispensed, we need to be sure we understand that Ukraine is purchasing in blood, toil, tears and sweat an outcome -- hopefully, a just peace -- that will affect us all.

April 7, 2022

News Who are you?

It is a shame that the coming-of-age film is a genre so overstuffed with navel-gazing targeted at adults. A seemingly infinite number of minor variations on the same general themes of youthful shenanigans, social awkwardness, and romantic fumbling fill the vaults without many original ideas ever coming forth. Even when they take novel turns (as in "Boyhood", which was filmed with the same cast over a dozen years), the audience is rarely told how youthful choices result in adult outcomes -- and when they do, it's rarely for more than laughs (as in the freeze-frame epilogues in "Animal House"). ■ Instead of trying to make adults feel good about how they weren't the only ones left dazed and confused by adolescence, our culture would be much better off communicating to young people that youth is merely the start of a lifelong process of self-discovery. ■ Well into adulthood, most people are still uncertain how to answer the deepest questions of self-identity. It's why the quarter-life crisis and the mid-life crisis are equally predictable sources of uncomfortable laughs of recognition. ■ But too many times, the neat resolutions required by cinema and novels communicate the idea that at some point or another, one finds all of the answers. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course -- but nobody tells you that when you're 13 or 14 years old. ■ It would do an enormous amount of good if youthful guidance could communicate to young people how to undertake the process of deciding who they want to be. The value is not in telling them the answers -- everyone is entitled by right of birth to follow that path for themselves. Human dignity demands it. ■ But it also demands that we don't isolate an education to just a few aspects of life. Figuring out a prospective occupational path with a career aptitude quiz and probing one's sexual self-identity are useful aspects of growing up, but they're hardly the whole thing. Much more needs to be explored, too: Forming an ethical framework, shaping a moral identity, and discovering one's tolerance for external motivation and intrinsic goal-setting matter, too. ■ So do quandaries like finding hobbies and other non-remunerative interests that balance work demands, and questions about what one does to pay the civic rent. We often touch briefly on these things -- for instance, rewarding community-service hours with cords at graduation -- but other than implicitly suggesting that volunteerism is a path to applause, civilization depends in part upon people figuring out why their contributions matter, and which ones they're best suited to give. ■ Some of this could be projected by delivering them interesting and introspective biographies and autobiographies, but rarely do those stories tell the most important part: How people came to their decisions. Lots of biographies and autobiographies present their important moments as faits accomplis, due to over-simplified causes like hard work or divine intervention. ■ The decision-making process is the hard part to figure out in life, and nobody gets it completely right. But we could do a better job of communicating some of the trial-and-error involved so as to reduce some of that error for future generations. Plenty of juvenile pratfalls will still happen, and they will always demand their places in film and literature. But it would do a world of good to make those stories looking backwards from adulthood into ones that young adults on their own quests for self-discovery would find more attractive as navigational aids for the times ahead.

April 6, 2022

News Hyperbole is going to kill us all

The temptation to resort to hyperbolic language is strong in the contemporary political climate. We are awash in breathless warnings of climate catastrophe and democracy on the brink, and threats of a stock market crash and World War 3. None of this is made better by the presence of candidates and even elected officials who resort to repugnant claims about others because they have so little to offer of their own. ■ But the temptation to engage in that rhetorical escalation has to be resisted, or else hyperbole is going to kill us all. ■ And that includes the language from the highest of offices. Just because one President resorted to more than 30,000 lies in four years doesn't mean things are made better by his successor resorting to overstatement, even of matters more grounded in fact. ■ Words matter. Even today, Americans still cherish the plain language of Abraham Lincoln and the directness of the Declaration of Independence, because words used carefully can shape thoughts and decisions for generations to come. ■ In attempting to make a case for health-care coverage, the President has pronounced, "In America, health care should be a right -- not a privilege." No sane or reasonable person could quibble with a close variation on that argument: That health care is a universal need. Everyone knows that. But to call something a "right" is different. ■ Americans subscribe to a belief that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental rights. That's why there is almost universal consensus in America that Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, and that America is right to impose consequences against the aggressor for committing and continuing the invasion. We may struggle to delineate between war crimes and genocide, but we know that the crimes committed by Russian troops against civilians in Bucha and elsewhere are fundamentally, inescapably wrong and utterly without defense or excuse. Fundamental human rights are incontestable. ■ Fundamental human rights, though, are virtually always those things which one person cannot rightly be denied by the powerful: The right to speak one's mind, the right to go about life unmolested by authorities, the right simply to live without fear of summary execution. These are things that do not respond to the laws of supply and demand. ■ Health care, like other fundamental needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and safe drinking water), is unfortunately still subject to those laws of resource limitations. It does not make it easier to provide those things simply by declaring them "rights". Calling them what they are -- universal needs -- acknowledges at that they are things nobody can do without, but reserves the language of "rights" for those things that everyone possesses by right of birth as a human being. There is no supply curve on your claim to the pursuit of happiness, but there are costs that apply to those things we consume. ■ It may seem pedantic to call out the difference between rights and needs, but the distinction is important, and so is the application of care in the use of the language. If we speak of universal needs, then we are obligated to have the more difficult discussions about who pays, how much they pay, who ensures an adequate supply, and how we must intervene to fix the gaps. Calling something a "right" isn't a magic incantation that makes the good or service appear out of thin air. A person cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to vote -- but in some places, there simply aren't any doctors, and no amount of calling access to one a "right" will produce an MD on the spot. ■ More deeply, though, it matters that we use the language carefully and hold others accountable to do the same, even when we agree with the things they want. Lots of things -- including the temptations of social media -- encourage people to resort to overheated rhetoric and linguistic overextensions. Too many of those, compounded upon one another, deprives us of the ability to have real discussions about matters in the public interest. Hyperbole isn't really going to kill us all, but it does choke out the debates a democratic society needs to have.

April 5, 2022

Agriculture Putting enough on their plates

In most cases, the kinds of social safety-net interventions that do the most good are the ones that maximize the freedom that individuals have to make their own choices. For instance: While it isn't the only answer, one step that could do considerable good for ensuring access to affordable shelter is for local authorities to stay out of the micromanagement of housing. Zoning reforms that stay out of the way of multifamily construction would do a lot of good for making shelter more affordable in many places. ■ Similarly, when trying to lift people out of poverty, direct cash payments and simple transfers like the Earned Income Tax Credit support personal freedom and allow the recipients to concentrate on those priorities that matter most to them. In general: the simpler, the better. In approving of the principle of a negative income tax (like the EITC), Milton Friedman argued, "The heart of the liberal philosophy is a belief in the dignity of the individual, in his freedom to make the most of his capacities and opportunities according to his own lights, subject only to the proviso that he not interfere with the freedom of other individuals to do the same." ■ Perhaps the (partial) exception that best supports the rule comes from a real-world experiment which is soon to expire: The significant expansion of free school meal programs, funded by the US Department of Agriculture. As a means of responding to the closure of schools and the consequential disappearance of congregate meal settings (kids can't eat in the school lunch room if schools are closed), the changes first implemented in 2020 allowed schools to revise and expand their meal programs. ■ The exception is only partial, of course: Relaxing some of the restrictions on things like meal delivery and portioning actually deregulated the program from the Federal level and gave local administrators more freedom to act as they saw most prudent. On the other hand, funding food specifically, and for the specific population of school-aged children, is the part that runs contrary to targeting the safety net to the people most in need and doing so with cash or the closest things to it. ■ But if there is one population a society should be willing to serve most generously, it is children -- as they neither made the choice to be born, nor have much if any control over their material circumstances. And nutrition in particular is, aside from water and shelter, as basic a physiological need as they come. ■ Obviously, universally free school meals aren't targeted by incomes, meaning many children from families that can afford healthy food will receive benefits for which they are not "in need", in the conventional sense. But making meal programs universal simplifies bureaucratic oversight and maximizes access by taking away both the paperwork burdens for parents and the stigma that can be associated with receiving free or reduced-price lunches. ■ Kids are influenced by social pressures, and eliminating the payment process removes barriers to getting food into the bellies of kids who might go hungry. Moreover, getting children fed through school nutrition programs ensures that food cannot be withheld from them by malicious or negligent parents -- while also alleviating some of the difficulty that some parents may have in finding and preparing an adequately nutritious diet at home. Food deserts remain a thorny problem, and accountable programs for child nutrition can help overcome some of the gaps in food access that kids might otherwise experience. ■ Seen as a tool for reducing regulatory and social obstacles to child welfare, in much the same way that direct cash transfers to adults help reduce the "high price of being poor", universal free-meal programs in schools deserve to be assessed as a well-targeted, well-justified exception to an otherwise maximally laissez-faire social safety net.

April 4, 2022

News No way out

Underestimating your rivals can be a terrible mistake, but so can be overestimating them. Turning an ordinary-sized opponent into a 10-foot-tall giant is a recipe for inaction and paralysis. And as Dwight Eisenhower put it, "Initiative, confidence, and boldness are among the most admirable traits of the good combat leader." ■ One of the great myths that has emerged in the modern age is the belief that China acts according to some mysterious but comprehensive 100-year plan for world domination. It is entirely possible that there exists some form of long-term strategic plan that guides the Politburo, but evidence of any such plan's usefulness are not forthcoming. ■ Just look, for example, at the country's incapacity to properly assess its demographics. Until 2016, China was effectively under a strict limit of one child per family. Then that limit was doubled, permitting up to two children per family. And then in 2021, it was raised to three. ■ Notwithstanding the obvious affront to human dignity that any such limits represent (and indeed such limits are odious), the ineptitude of the planning involved is plainly evident: Facing the ballooning (and potentially ruinous) costs of an aging population, the ruling powers tried tripling the birth limit in just six years. As the phrase is occasionally used in computer programming and project management, "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned". ■ Nor can a country turn around its demographic decline by tripling the number of "permissible" children in less than a decade. Either they really aren't thinking 100 years ahead, or the Politburo lacks the most rudimentary skills of arithmetic. ■ On immediate crises, their feted plans fare no better: Consider the case of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere. As BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell points out, "Jilin Province has been locked down for weeks. [Tens] of millions of people here are restricted to their homes today." Jilin is a province of 24 million people. Shanghai has 24 to 26 million people in a single city, the largest in the world. For perspective, the entire state of Florida has just shy of 22 million residents. ■ The Chinese government's zero-Covid policy indicates that they didn't fully assess the likelihood that the pandemic would be around to stay, and that command-and-control remains their only strategy. But even when people aren't especially ideological, they usually do have feelings about the most practical aspects of government effectiveness. You may not care about the Supreme Court or international treaty obligations, but you probably do care about potholes on your street -- or being locked up and barked at by a dystopian robotic dog. The measures are extraordinary even for an authoritarian state, and they simply must be having grassroots consequences. ■ Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time leader of Singapore, looked to the long-term plans of his giant neighbor and warned that "One thing is for sure: the present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years. To achieve the modernization of China, her Communist leaders are prepared to try all and every method, except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system." Lee himself had both an affection for long-term plans and autocratic tendencies. But his advice here is valuable: The system itself cannot be preserved in its present form indefinitely, much less for 100 years or more. ■ Plans -- especially long-term strategic plans -- will always have a place, not so much for the steps they lay out as for the thought process they impose. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but likewise there is no substitute for the process of looking forward and considering where chance will intersect with objectives. Clearly, some parties are getting more credit for their plans than they deserve -- which is all the more reason for the rest of the world to look ahead to the future we want for the whole of humanity and commit to confidently taking steps to get there.

April 1, 2022

Business and Finance Use your leisure

America has built quite the cult of retirement: From The Villages (a planned retirement community in Florida with 138,000 residents) to robust public-sector pension plans that almost always offer the allure of earlier retirement than in the private sector, we focus mightily on treating ages 62 to 67 as a finish line at which everyone ought to be single-mindedly focused upon running through the tape before coming to a complete stop. ■ Considering the vast number of adjustments that went into accommodating the broad, instantaneous switch to working from home as a pandemic precaution starting in March 2020, it is surprising we haven't seen more energy and creativity invested in finding ways for people to remain plugged into work after reaching retirement age. ■ The retirement age is artificial, after all. Certainly there are many occupations in which people are entitled to a physical rest after decades of labor. And there are lots of people who find considerable fulfillment in non-employment activities, like volunteering or caring for grandchildren. ■ But we also find many examples of people who had much to do and contribute well after their mid-60s. Mike Krzyzewski has taken until age 75 to retire from coaching college basketball. Norman Borlaug continued working on the Green Revolution into his 90s. Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence and 81 when he signed the Constitution. ■ Nobody ought to be indentured to their work, but it's a mistake to underestimate how many contributions people can still make well after many of their peers decide to take up golfing as a full-time pursuit. As Franklin himself put it, "It is not leisure that is not used." ■ For all the concern expressed about children's exposure to television, adults 65 and older watch an average of more than 7 hours of television per day. That number has risen a lot in recent years. And that's not the only boom in screen time for retirees, who are significant social-media consumers, too. ■ It might be worthwhile for society at large -- not just the retirement-age cohort -- to put some creative energy to use in deploying some of the time available to willing people in productive ways outside of the almost-nonstop consumption of entertainment. Finding fulfillment in useful activities -- being needed by one's community -- is an important aspect to psychological wellness. ■ If we found the resources and creativity needed to get people around extraordinary barriers to normal work because a pandemic forced us to do it, why shouldn't we put some similar resources to work figuring out how to better connect people to purposeful things they could do in new and meaningful ways even after they've earned the right to walk away? It's not the path for everybody, but it's hard to imagine we aren't leaving a lot of talent and pride on the table just because we haven't done much innovation in the new world of work.

March 31, 2022

Threats and Hazards Sympathetic impressions

A poll conducted for The Economist produced some results bound to create some consternation: Among American respondents ages 18 to 29, only 56% said they sympathized with Ukraine over Russia in the midst of the latter's unprovoked invasion of the former. Large numbers responded "neither" and "not sure", with a non-trivial set responding that they sympathized more with Russia than with its victim. ■ The same polling found similarly distressing results among the same age cohort in both Britain and France; perhaps not quite as offputting as those in the US, but far from where they ought to be. These results indeed ought to be troubling, since the Kremlin is not only the undisputed aggressor, but also the perpetrator of self-evident war crimes, like bombing maternity hospitals and shelters full of children. ■ There is a good chance that people who are not well-informed about current events assume that there must be a "both sides" nature to the conflict -- hence, the large numbers of "neither" and "unsure" respondents. ■ But it is also nothing new for the Kremlin to be the force behind real atrocities: See what Russian forces did in Chechnya, in Syria, and in Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. It doesn't require full-time attention to the news to recognize that one of the sides in the conflict has a history of malevolent behavior. ■ Worth noting, of course, is that anyone under the age of 31 was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That event was one to celebrate. But in the subsequent years, it is possible that the absence of a clearly defined moral opponent (like the "Evil Empire") made the proponents of human liberty and freedom a little too lax for our own good. ■ In the days before the Cold War had vanished from memory and the Internet had made all things seem like they were forever happening right now, lots of cultural touchstones served to subtly remind the people of what we called the "free world" that things were plainly better under our systems of self-government, democracy, and the rule of law. ■ It wasn't just something we noticed when the first McDonald's opened in Moscow. An uninhibited, unapologetic, and unironic enthusiasm for free markets and free people was embedded in a lot more of what we experienced. Practically everyone was a booster for capitalism, because the alternative was obviously dreary, soul-crushing, and repressive. ■ Without the giant Communist counterweight (and with China, the USSR's likeliest successor as Communism's redoubt, deciding that getting rich was glorious), criticism in countries like the United States tended to turn inward, against the institutions of democracy and markets -- hence the growth of the Democratic Socialists. ■ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is 44 years old, and graduated from college in the year 2000. His age cohort is just about the last to have meaningful memories of the Cold War, whether they lived behind the Iron Curtain or outside it. That age group is now well above the global median age. Perhaps that is why, despite his youth compared with many other world leaders, Zelenskyy seems to have an unusually capable grasp of both the tools of contemporary communication and the historic language of unambiguous moral clarity. ■ If we are to revive the default assumption that totalitarian government is one of the primary evils to be avoided in all of human society, the clock may be ticking for those who remember the Cold War to speak up without reservation -- not to condemn Russia as a state, but to condemn authoritarianism in all its forms for the indisputably repugnant corruption that it is.

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March 30, 2022

Iowa "Nonprofit" doesn't mean someone shouldn't be paid

The cooperative institutional structure is one of the best inventions to emerge from the 1800s. As an alternative to purely public ownership of an institution, cooperatives are a more market-oriented solution to supplying goods and services that are in demand, especially when the private sector shows insufficient interest in those markets. That can often be the case when the potential market is limited in size or exists under constraints that inhibit the potential for future growth. ■ That's why they have played an outsized role in serving rural areas: Member-ownership helps people to organize their demands and address them at an economic scale that can make them worth satisfying -- even if a profit-making entity would pass on the opportunity. As more industries achieve maturity and reach the limits of their potential growth, it may well make sense for cooperatives and other mutual forms of business to do more. ■ But it's going to be hard for that to work if we don't heed the words of one of the original cooperative founders. Benjamin Franklin, who organized the Philadelphia Contributionship as a mutual insurance company, was so fond of a phrase that he put it to use on one of the country's earliest coins: "Mind Your Business". ■ Franklin wasn't shy about his attitude that good citizens would tend to their affairs: "Neglect mending a small fault, and 'twill soon be a great one", he declared; and also, "Have you somewhat to do tomorrow; do it to-day." ■ In a story shining a well-deserved spotlight on the two smallest electrical co-ops in Iowa, the Des Moines Register notes that the people operating those systems "have to find people to replace them in jobs that are more community service than paying gigs". One of them is an 87-year-old volunteer. ■ The people who do that kind of work really are the salt of the earth. They're not alone; lots of communities depend heavily on volunteers or wildly underpaid employees to keep the lights on -- literally, in the cases of electrical co-ops. But hoping that someone will do valuable or even essential work for free when it requires skill and time is an exploitative mindset. ■ If people aren't competitively compensated to do difficult, skillful, sometimes unpleasant work, then the model providing that work is fundamentally broken -- even if it's in the form of a cooperative institution. It is a magnificent thing if someone chooses to donate their time and energy to their neighbors. But depending upon someone to do it without market-clearing pay -- at the age of 27, much less 87 -- borders upon insanity. ■ A lot of people adhere to wild forms of magical thinking: Some think (contrary to evidence) that everything gets cheaper if only it is run by the government. Others think (again contrary to evidence) that the for-profit sector can provide everything, right down to police departments and roads. ■ A healthy economy in a democratically-governed society is going to include elements of public ownership, vast amounts of private ownership, and lots of forms that take a third way, like mutual or cooperative ownership structures that don't seek to generate a profit. But if that third way is to be taken seriously, it cannot depend upon the goodwill of volunteers to do the essential. Even if some exemplary individuals are willing to give their labor away for the benefit of the public, the public interest isn't really served in the long term if it declines to pay them fairly.

March 29, 2022

News Confident kindness

The unpardonable slander against George Herbert Walker Bush was the claim that he was a wimp. Objectively, this claim was patently untrue: Not only did he serve honorably as the President of the United States, he also had served as the director of the CIA and as a World War II fighter pilot (with 58 combat missions and a Distinguished Flying Cross to his name). None of those count as jobs for wimps. ■ But sometimes the slander stuck, thanks in no small part to its appearance the cover of Newsweek. And it undoubtedly lingered in part because Bush didn't spend his Presidency thundering about his enemies, but instead called for a kinder, gentler nation. ■ In his inaugural address, Bush made an earnest plea: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do." He coupled that kindness to strength: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people." ■ The cultural decoupling of the virtues of strength and kindness is one of the gravest errors a society can make. There is nothing inherently unkind about strength, nor is there anything inherently weak about kindness. In fact, it can well be argued that many virtues require temperance and moderation. For example: Mercy is the privilege of the strong. Nobody pleads for mercy from a position of dominance, and nobody can grant it from a place of submission. ■ It is hard for self-confident people to understand the magnetism of the unkind "strong man" act put on by authoritarians and their admirers. It just doesn't make sense: Why would any member of the public with a decent sense of self-respect be attracted to displays of faux strength put on by clearly indecent people? ■ President Bush wasn't wrong in his desires for kindness and gentility. But our models for those virtues may occasionally show up in unexpected ways. Televised awards programs are generally unremarkable affairs, but at the 2022 Oscar awards, marred otherwise by a literal slap in the face, Lady Gaga put on a display of confident kindness that was truly a master class for anyone watching. ■ Escorting a diminished but still exuberant Liza Minnelli onto the stage, the contemporary artist with a flair for the dramatic demonstrated a laudable capacity to show authentic human kindness, gracefully helping her stage partner to overcome a moment of becoming flustered -- while retaining the confidence that nothing was being taken away from herself by the act. ■ More than just being a satisfying emotional display (which indeed it was), it also showed how a person with self-confidence and grace could bring out the best in someone else through the leverage of their own kindness. Lady Gaga could have carried the scene entirely on her own, but she gave the audience more by centering on Liza Minnelli instead. (She's done much the same alongside Tony Bennett.) ■ It may seem unexpected to see George H.W. Bush and Lady Gaga as fellow-travelers, but in this sense, at least, they offer parallel models: Strength isn't diminished by kindness. One is enhanced by the other. And we ought to admire -- and emulate -- when we see them operating hand-in-hand.

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March 28, 2022

News Hard limits on growth

Global circumstances -- including China's unwillingness to break with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine -- have reinvigorated interest in some of the broader strategic themes of geopolitics. There is ample reason to believe that China watches the conflict with an eye towards Taiwan, and of course there is the omnipresent concern that the size of China's economy is catching up to that of the United States. ■ These anxieties are good for stoking lots of analysis, and sometimes that takes the form of worry -- like columnist Noah Smith's observation that "Without China, the contest between Putin-style autocracy and industrialized democracy would be incredibly lopsided -- atavistic macho bullies who didn't know how to build things vs. the keepers of technology. The bullies wouldn't stand a chance. China has made the competition far more equal, because they figured out how to combine bully-style rule with competent functioning business and bureaucratic institutions capable of accumulating knowledge and executing complex tasks on a grand scale." ■ On one hand, yes: There is considerable reason to be wary of what the Communist Party has assembled in China. But on the other hand: The thing about dragons is that they aren't real. ■ It's easy to highlight certain prominent feats of the Chinese state-controlled economy. The country has built skyscrapers and aircraft carriers, complex tasks that shouldn't be taken for granted. But flagship projects don't always reveal the true state of affairs. ■ For example: China has eye-catching bullet trains, but a 200-mph train serves (at enormous expense) a specific kind of passenger: People living in dense urban areas with the affluence to pay for the ride. ■ When the United States first got a transcontinental rail network, much of the benefit accrued to farmers living in far-flung homesteads, since it gave them access to the nation's biggest markets. It certainly benefitted urban dwellers, but the rail system did much more to level out economic and cultural connections across the continental nation. China's high-speed rail network is unlikely to have any such leveling effect, since it is bound to bypass the countryside. ■ There were, of course, dire consequences for Native Americans when the railroads were built, and the United States is still reconciling with the damage done. But China's government is still actively detaining minorities in camps (on the scale of a million prisoners) and dismantling democratic institutions in Hong Kong rather than face political competition. ■ China isn't really a "genuinely alternative model of human organization" so much as it is a chimera. Economic growth begetting economic liberty ultimately results in people realizing that wealth is an illusion if you don't own your thoughts. The basic liberal virtue of freedom of thought is ultimately incompatible with a system that fears popular sovereignty. ■ Just as was the case for Marxist-Leninist Communism in Russia, a lot can be materially achieved in the leap from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. And have no doubt that China's economy is developing an astonishing number of technicians, including almost twice as many STEM Ph.D. graduates as the United States. But the system itself is fundamentally unsound. ■ It would be impossible to keep 330 million people under a command-and-control model, much less 1.4 billion. Even people intentionally kept in the dark through surveillance and censorship know enough about themselves to realize when they're being lied to and held down. (It's impossible to keep a lid on putting millions of people under lockdown.) ■ Imagine Thomas Edison trying to build Menlo Park while constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't offended the political authorities with a misplaced remark. There is only so much mental bandwidth a person can devote to great ideas and achievements when secret police will might chase you anywhere on the globe and even billionaires can just go missing without warning. ■ People who are free to see, speak, hear, and seek out the truth have inherent advantages over those who don't -- among others, they get to learn from their own mistakes and from those committed elsewhere. No unitary state can eclipse that advantage. ■ There may be further growth ahead for the Chinese economy -- and, in the interest of total human happiness, we ought to cheer for those who are lifted out of poverty -- but there is also a ceiling on just how much can be achieved, both economically and socially, when people are deprived of their natural right to personal liberty. No shiny baubles should make us think otherwise. There is no property more valuable than the expanse of one's own mind.

March 26, 2022

Health Extending the gap

For the individual seeking to live an emotionally balanced life, one of the most salutary habits is to enlarge the stimulus-response gap. In general, finding ways to increase the time between an event taking place and offering a reaction to it leads to better outcomes, especially when events are disappointing, angering, or sad. ■ As it has been said before, you can always wait to tell someone to go to hell tomorrow. A variety of great thinkers, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, practiced extending their stimulus-response gaps by writing angry letters but leaving them unsent. ■ The practice seems foreign when we're immersed in a world of instant gratification. Reply wars and comment threads are basically the opposite of putting an angry letter in a drawer. We can't always avoid a negative stimulus, but we can do something to manage the response. ■ The legal system is effectively civilization's stimulus-response gap. By observing a system of equal justice before the law, we increase the distance between the harm occurring and the punishment following. And on important matters, we expect thoughtful written rulings from the bench, not a snap decision from Judge Judy. A speedy trial need not be a hasty one. ■ The need to pause for deliberation is why we ought to be reluctant to place cameras in any courtroom, though most especially that of the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps the best argument against cameras in the Supreme Court is the presence of cameras in the hearing rooms where where nominees to the court are quizzed by members of Congress. ■ The empty-headed performative appeals so frequently on display in the Senate diminish the faith we might have that Supreme Court arguments wouldn't devolve in similar fashion. Virtually nothing is served by the presence of those live cameras in the hearing rooms that wouldn't be equally or better served by the release of thorough written transcripts after the fact. It's much harder to grandstand for a stenographer than for a C-SPAN camera. ■ Maintaining that arm's length between the Supreme Court and the public by keeping the cameras out is one of the rare ways in which we can hope to preserve at least a little bit of dignity not just for the jurists but for ourselves. And maybe, while we're at it, we should rethink whether cameras really need to be broadcasting live from the halls of Congress, where chart mania is driven not by the need to persuade other elected officials, but to score points with viewers at home. ■ Transparency can be achieved in many ways, and it's foolish to think that the only method is to film everything. To the extent that clever individuals learn to manipulate their presence in front of the cameras to achieve performative aims rather than to sincerely deliberate weighty questions, that form of transparency may well obscure more than it reveals. Public access and thoughtful news coverage are essential to the workings of all three branches of government, but so is maintaining a stimulus-response gap such that some things can actually be conducted with due consideration rather than strictly as performance. A trial shouldn't merely be for show.

March 25, 2022

News The long march

Putting aside the sheer inhumanity of mass-scale violence against civilians, the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of a state that Russia claims it intends to occupy seems extraordinarily perverse even from an abstract strategic perspective. Someone will have to rebuild Ukraine, and the Kremlin's violent strategy maximizes the cost of that reconstruction. ■ But indeed we cannot put aside the sheer inhumanity of it. As the retired Australian general Mick Ryan puts it, "This is code for expending large amounts of cheap artillery & rockets to terrorise Ukrainian civilians & force a political accommodation." ■ It is the rightful conviction that most people are good at heart that makes it impossible to stomach the cruelty we sometimes see committed. If we were mere wild animals, brutality would be just ordinary. But we know humans are capable of better, because we see it. That's what makes brutality so excruciating to witness in Ukraine, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in South Sudan, and in too many other places. ■ Destruction is easy enough; even a losing aggressor can destroy. Building (and rebuilding) takes time, patience, and lots of money. None of the humanitarian relief required for victims of war would be necessary if belligerents didn't start those wars in the first place. ■ Writing of his experience as hostilities were underway early in World War II, Winston Churchill noted that, "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports." But he certainly would have preferred never to have been drawn into war in the first place, and his experience has parallels today. As Gennady Rudkevich of Georgia College has remarked, "Now do people see why Central Europeans were so desperate to join NATO?" ■ Observing the defiance exhibited by free people in the face of attack, whether in Ukraine today or the United Kingdom some 80 years ago, we have to remember that hope alone isn't enough. We have to be willing to invest not only in the expense of reconstruction after the violence we cannot deny, but also in the preemption of violence. ■ It is awe-inspiring to hear of a high-ranking police officer willing to surrender himself in exchange for the freedom of children. But we have to convert that awe into the slower, less dramatic, and often unrewarding tasks of conducting defense at the enemy's (metaphorical) ports, by staring down illiberalism wherever it emerges and patiently investing both in the infrastructures of peace and in the necessaries of deterrence. ■ As Edward Luce notes regarding the successful UN resolution against Russia's invasion of Ukraine: "141 of 193 member states condemned Vladimir Putin's blatant violation of international law. But the 35 that abstained account for almost half the world's population." A world of mutualistic peace and freedom is not assured, even if we responsibly invest in it. But it definitely will not happen without.

March 24, 2022

News Good in the world

When we see pictures of border guards preparing to welcome Ukrainian children with stuffed animals as they flee the war imposed on their homeland, or encounter stories of people volunteering to offer shelter to refugees, the natural reaction is to feel a sort of heartwarming reassurance about the good found in other people. That is a good sensation to have. But we should have at least one more. ■ Most human beings share certain unchanging characteristics found throughout history: We care for our families (especially our own offspring), we hope to be loved, we are averse to pain and death, and we want to have choices -- the freedom to choose our own destiny. ■ Periodically, some individuals have a different characteristic: A lust for power over others. It's the root cause of a vast amount of the human suffering throughout history: The desire of a few to exercise control over many. Fortunately, the fact that this lust goes against the human nature of most people is self-evident. ■ It was bold of the Founders to have written that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were "self-evident". It should go without saying that the flaws in how some of the authors of the text, including its main author, failed (through enslavement) to live up to the fullness of the self-evident truth of liberty for all. ■ But part of believing that those rights really are self-evident is to believe that even people living under the power of tyrants can know those rights for themselves, even when cut off from the rest of the world. ■ It also means that we can, without hesitation, criticize and seek to hold people accountable when they actively choose to bring harm to those freedoms -- whether by deliberately bombing civilian shelters, stalking critics, or wasting scarce resources on offensive weapons while starving civilians at home. ■ The mirror to our natural heartwarming response to the vast amounts of good in the world needs to be an unapologetic and righteous condemnation of those who seek to abuse that natural good for their own power and bloodlust. ■ It may be expensive sometimes to stare down that evil, and free people of goodwill ought to be reluctant to put resources to use investing in swords when we know there are peaceful plowshares yet to be built. But it's ultimately costly to do nothing when rogues still walk the Earth, as they regrettably always will. We need to take heart from the near-universality of human good and believe in the self-evidence of the rights to life, liberty, and happiness.

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March 23, 2022

News It's OK to have a moderate opinion

The ongoing decline of the newspaper editorial page may not be any great human tragedy, but it is a sad symptom of civic decay. The Des Moines Register, a newspaper with a storied editorial history (including past Pulitzer Prizes for both editorial writing and editorial cartooning, has announced that it is reducing its opinion pages to just two issues per week, on Thursdays and Sundays. ■ The Register is far from the only publication in this boat, but its particular reasoning stands out in an odd way that is irreconcilable with the facts of the world today. The newspaper excused its retrenchment by arguing that syndicated columnists are widely available elsewhere, and that it saw a little value in opinion pieces submitted by the community -- saying, "[W]e'll accept far fewer unsolicited columns and instead invite writers with specific subject expertise or personal experience to submit essays". ■ They are certainly right on one level: It is easy to find opinions everywhere online, everyday, in volumes that are impossible to read. Medium counts on that as a business model. But the ease of discovery does not mean that those opinions are organized in any way to recognize quality. ■ The lamentable fact is that an entire industry has grown up around the promotion and supply of opinions that are mindlessly provocative. People are rewarded for these opinions with growing audience figures, oftentimes including people who join the audience for the express purpose of providing criticism. But in lining up to point and stare at the car crash in the opposite lane, we may well miss the curves in the road ahead of ourselves. ■ The fragmentation of media means that it is more important than ever for a publication to be clear about its editorial philosophy. Nobody should pretend like there is a true neutrality of viewpoints from any publication or outlet. Even being pro-democracy or pro-freedom-of-speech is a viewpoint. ■ Any choice to devote resources, whether in the form of people, pages, time, or money, is an editorial decision. A decision to cover or not to cover is an editorial choice by its nature. In a world of scarce resources for news coverage, editorial judgments ought to be made clear. ■ That doesn't mean the opinions need to be stronger, nor that they need to be more polemical. But the people allocating news resources do need to explain themselves. Other professionals, like triage doctors, make choices amid scarce resources, and serious thought is put into how they make decisions because the process is important. Self-government is less bloody, but the process of reflecting on it is important, too. ■ Thoughtful editorial statements ought to reflect the considered judgment of the people who ought to have the best available public access to the information on matters of public interest. If an editorial board thoughtfully concludes that it is neutral about a public issue, that is worth noting -- just as in science, a finding of no effect is still an important result, often worth publishing. But if an editorial board reaches a position of neutrality simply by not examining an issue, then it may be failing its community. ■ On most issues, people will form opinions. And they will form those opinions whether informed by facts or not. If a vacuum is left behind on matters of public interest, then that vacuum will tend to be filled by interest groups armed with the tactics of persuasion (and motivated to use them). Those interest groups indisputably have a right to have their say, but a vibrant civic community doesn't stand alone on the opinions of the extreme. ■ Moderation more often stems not from having an initial opinion and holding it tight, but from having the broad-mindedness to consider all of the available opinions, and giving them due examination. As John Stuart Mill put it, "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it." ■ The allocation of resources is a reflection of an institution's values. And you really won't see local newspapers cutting back faster on their local sports pages than on their local opinion pages. That is a statement of values that calls for recalibration. The trivial may be good for entertainment, but there is no community in America that doesn't have the room for at least one decent, well-considered opinion on the matters of public interest every day. ■ If a local newspaper cannot or will not fulfill the role of the community's conscience and its institutional memory, something else must. Civic life depends upon people being bound together by mutual tolerance and common interest. Those values are hard to generate in a vacuum. ■ Too many recent events have illustrated the consequences of individuals failing to do the right thing and of institutions falling into decay. Far from being a time for retreat, this ought to be the prime time for thoughtful, community-based consideration of the world. And far more often than just twice a week.

March 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards Depriving the bully of his veto

No rational person considering the big picture of life on this Earth wants to see an escalation of hostilities in Ukraine. The escalation has been distinctly one-sided: The thinly-veiled threats of nuclear warfare, the forced deportation of civilians into Russia, and the repeated commissioning of war crimes have all come from the Russian side of the conflict. ■ While the Ukrainian government has pleaded directly for additional resources from the UK, the European Union, Canada, and the United States, the NATO countries have been reluctant to engage in ways that could be interpreted as crossing a line of direct conflict with Russia. Indirect efforts, like supplying defensive weaponry to Ukraine, have been the extent of our commitment. ■ The free nations of the world need to bring our fullest imagination to the scope of the situation. Many of the possible outcomes of this conflict are unpleasant and distressing -- whether or not we ourselves engage directly in the conflict. We need, though, to imagine ways in which to protect and preserve a world ordered by rules without artificially offering an exemption to that order just because a country with access to extreme arms (like nuclear weapons) decides to walk away from those rules. Our self-discipline needs to be our strength, not our Achilles' heel. ■ In permitting the aggressor to set the terms of engagement, we effectively submit to what deserves to be called the bully's veto. The cousin to the bully's veto, the heckler's veto, is widely understood as one of the dangers to freedom of speech. It is not enough to say that we believe in freedoms only to the extent that a malicious actor agrees to let them go on: A heckler does not have the inherent right to shut down free speech by threatening to react badly to it. ■ Since the birth of the United Nations following World War II, the world has submitted to a quasi-legal system in which a handful of nations (the permanent members of the Security Council) have quite literally possessed a veto over the rest of the world's reaction to their behavior. It seems almost daft to acknowledge this, but the Putin regime appears to have contaminated the Security Council with a dose of bad faith even greater than the worst of his Communist predecessors. ■ Does that mean the rules of international law should go out the window? Absolutely not. More than anything, the reckless disregard for the world order that has been put on display should be a reminder that a rules-based order for international engagement is essential and needs to be revivified. ■ It does mean, though, that we need to urgently rethink whether the UN order is enough -- and whether a parallel organization for nations committed to acting in good faith needs to come into being. There needs to be a step between the mutual-defense pact of the NATO alliance and the free-for-all membership of the United Nations. It does not need to involve commitments of arms, but it does require a commitment to rules. And it needs to be both global and aspirational -- countries should want the esteem of membership. ■ The disregard Russia's government has displayed for international rules also means we need to expedite every possible reinterpretation and reimagination of what constraints can be imposed in the face of barbarism. The world has largely been reacting to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and though that reaction has taken the form of a surprisingly united front, it is evident that circumstances may well turn much worse if more is not done to actively shape the course ahead. ■ It is too foreboding that we must actively contemplate the obliteration of peaceful cities (a war crime already underway), the deployment of chemical weapons (a risk now openly feared), or even the prospect of a retreat that sows devastation by "tactical" nuclear weapons in its wake. If we have to even face these issues, then the constraints are already falling short -- all because the regime at fault for starting the war has exempted itself from rules. ■ We are in a dangerous place. Ukraine cannot be asked to turn itself into the state equivalent of a poison pill, making its takeover fatal to both itself and its aggressor. Other aggressors are watching. It is likely to lead to a more dangerous future -- chronically more dangerous -- if we don't see a prompt reassessment of how to put a stop to the bully's veto.

March 20, 2022

Agriculture Did Ireland stand a chance against the famine?

In the years of the great potato famine, it is estimated that Ireland lost one million lives to starvation and lost another one million in population to emigration. At least another five million left in the remainder of the 19th Century, meaning that the country had more total expatriates by the end of that century than its total population when the century had begun. ■ That so many of them ended up in the United States has of course borne enormous influence on what we perceive as "Irish" today. The concentration of migration then is no small contributing feature to why Chicago dyes its river green for St. Patrick's Day and small towns in Iowa put Gaelic greetings on their websites. ■ But the circumstances that exacerbated the famine are worth a second look. The reason the potato famine took such a toll was that so many Irish farmers were living at subsistence levels; half the country was effectively living on what meager products they could grow. When nature took aim at the potato and blight ravaged the crops in 1845 and 1846 with incredible speed, the result was mass hunger in practically no time at all. ■ The mismanagement of Ireland by the imperial British government did the Irish considerable harm in the immediate sense, as the response to hunger was slow and in some cases completely contrary to sound reasoning. But on a long-term basis, it appears that the British domination of the island (and the favoritism shown to British manufacturing) actually de-industrialized Ireland in the period leading up to the famine. ■ Had the country been free to pursue the kind of industrial development that was occurring across the Irish Sea in England and across the Atlantic Ocean in America, perhaps Ireland wouldn't have had such a large share of its population at risk of starvation. As in so many cases even in the modern day, famine is often far more a problem of social aspects of economics than of basic problems of nature. The economic experience of Irish emigrants once they reached the United States suggests that the poverty that led to the famine wasn't written in the stars -- it was bad policy-making.

March 18, 2022

Computers and the Internet Wit and wisdom over clickbait

History has given the world lots of angry polemicists, but the nature of memory does us a favor by forgetting most of them. People may know who Father Charles Coughlin was, just for example, but virtually nobody is turning to transcripts of his rantings for guidance today. ■ Instead, history tends to give us a helpful sorting mechanism: Those stories and biographies worth retelling tend to be shared and retold, and the purely transitory ones generally fade away for lack of relevance. Historians, both academic and amateur, have a responsibility to try to sort facts from fiction and to try to elevate the really worthwhile stories while promoting corrections that counter misleading narratives. But they have little incentive to do anything to boost the work of people who were merely ranting in their own times. ■ Regrettably for us, it's harder to tamp down the lesser narratives in our own time. The right to free speech applies equally to people with good ideas and with lousy ones. As John Stuart Mill put it, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." ■ But amplification is a different story. The emergent economy of social-media influence has produced a class of self-righteous fire-breathers who depend upon contrarian narratives to gather their power. These people seek to make hay out of displaying oppositional-defiant disorder in restaurants, giving cover to tyrants, and misappropriating the language to try to shake the money tree for campaign donations. ■ The problem with this behavior is in its willful cultivation of followership among people who haven't chosen other role models. If more people had a decent sense of self-respect, the audience for boneheads would dry up. Not altogether, of course, but it would certainly be smaller than it presently appears to be. ■ Many worthwhile role models are alive today (though they're rarely as inclined to insert themselves into the culture as aggressively as the fire-breathing dopes), and many can be found in the biography section of any decent library. We might do ourselves a favor as Americans if we were to more deliberately prod our young people to explore those historical biographies and autobiographies, so that they could see how many useful role models have already stood the test of time. ■ Rare is the social-media "influencer" today who could hold a candle to the introspection and wit of Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is a journey through what was not only a legendary life, but also through a great deal of self-awareness about how he related to others. Many others are available, too: One can learn a great deal from Epictetus, Booker T. Washington, or Calvin Coolidge, just to name a few. ■ And while lots of people have gone under-represented in our libraries, historians are working on improving that, too -- and much to our benefit. We probably ought to read Abigail Adams equally with John. ■ But it's not inevitable that people will find these better role models in their lives without a nudge to do so. With people cultivating followings on tools like TikTok and YouTube with nary an impediment beyond convincing others to "Click 'like' and subscribe", the thoughtful adults in the room (metaphorically) need to try to promote the good through conscious effort. The bozos have found their platforms, and they have a monetary interest in promoting them. Someone has to help young people find alternatives to the clowns.

March 17, 2022

Weather and Disasters Rise and shine

It has always been a misnomer to call it "Daylight Saving Time". Indeed, nothing is "saved" in either a real sense, nor in a metaphorical one. When money is saved in a bank, the saver is usually entitled to expect some form of interest on the deposit -- but no such interest payment has ever been forthcoming from DST. Nor could it be. It has always been a classic case of cost-shifting rather than actual savings; what we place on deposit when we "spring forward", we merely retrieve later in the year when we "fall back". ■ This shifting, though, is neither interest-bearing nor cost-free. Changing clocks twice a year is more than a mere nuisance; it sets off nearly everyone's routines twice a year. Dogs and babies especially have no regard for the abritrary time that adults place on a clock. This makes the time shifting annoying and troublesome for more than a few American households. ■ But there are better and worse ways to resolve the problem. The "Sunshine Protection Act of 2021", approved by the United States Senate on March 15th and referred to the House, is the worse way. Standardizing time year-round so that we stop with the charade of "springing forward" and "falling back" is helpful. Choosing the advanced hour of Daylight Saving Time as our new permanent time is silly. ■ In northern states, the effect will be to make sunlight arrive much too late in the winter. In Des Moines, the sun rises at 7:22 am on December 1st...on standard time. That would be 8:22 am under the new law. (It's even a little later if you head 120 miles west to Omaha, or a few additional miles north to Minneapolis.) ■ And it's not just a problem in December. Even most of February would have a post-8:00 sunrise. It's not that 8:00 is particularly special, but if we take the idea of a "9-to-5" work schedule even halfway seriously, we ought to expect that people will generally be up at least an hour before the job. ■ And it's simply not good for our well-being to expect people to rise before the sun. Early birds might choose to do it, but we already get kids up too early for school, and making it so that they wake up in the dark for months on end surely can't be in their best interests, no matter how much adults might want more time to golf in the summertime. ■ Later winter sunrises aren’t merely an aesthetic or even a psychological complaint. They mean more eastbound commuters driving with the Sun in their eyes, more children crossing streets and school parking lots in the dark, and more cold experienced virtually every morning. ■ Everything good done by Daylight Saving Time could also be done by shifting work to "summer hours", as many workplaces already do. The damage DST does in northern places can't be as easily remedied. ■ Eliminating the time shift is the right way to go. Doing it in a way that makes waking up in the wintertime even darker and drearier than it already is -- for months and months at a time, even for people who aren't early risers? That idea should remain in the dark.

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March 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards The feedback loop of barbarity

A woman who was injured in the Russian bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital has died while undergoing a Caesarean section in which her baby died as well. Their deaths are added to those of at least three others at the same hospital. Behind the cruelty and heartbreak of her individual tragedy, there is a much larger cause for alarm. ■ In 1983, a Soviet air-defense officer may have single-handedly prevented a nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel, was warned of an incoming missile attack from the United States. He concluded it was a false alarm using a combination of quick judgment and gut instinct, and in so doing likely prevented a catastrophe. The warning was a false alarm, and his decision to act as a circuit-breaker may well have saved millions of lives. ■ Petrov's story didn't make it out until the late 1990s. But it's rightly regarded as a case where good human judgment prevented a faulty system from creating an artificial disaster. Imagine if the world had fallen into nuclear winter just because some Soviet satellites were glitchy. ■ The Petrov story was a reminder that no matter how evil the Evil Empire might have been, there were still people involved who would make decisions to avoid the worst. These people were needed not just at the top, but elsewhere in the system. Mikhail Gorbachev was an anomaly in power: He was relatively young (so young that "Gorby" is still alive), and was notably less hawkish than leaders who had been in power before him -- a peaceful orientation he still promotes today. Level heads were needed up and down the line. ■ When we see a Russian military today that has been bombing hospitals and launching airstrikes against apartment buildings in Ukraine, it's sensible to worry that we may lack some of the guardrails that tempered behavior even back in the Cold War. The prospect is terrifying, and the world knows it's happening. ■ Russian forces used indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria, too. International law, of course, says that targeting civilians is a war crime, and expressly declares that "medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work can not be attacked". But even without the rules of war to prevent that behavior, basic human decency ought to deter it first. ■ In just one of too many examples, it is an act of utter indecency to bomb a theater clearly labeled with the word "Children" in letters large enough to be seen from the air. Yet that's what Russian forces have done. A choice was made to drop those explosive devices on an obviously civilian target. It was a choice that didn't require sophisticated intelligence to avert, either: Google Maps or OpenStreetMap could have offered the same information. ■ In effect, some of the people involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been practicing making choices directly contrary to the most basic of moral principles. And that should be profoundly alarming. ■ When Norwegian television produced the series "Occupied", the Kremlin protested the representation because it depicted "a non-existing threat from the East". Yet the show told the story of a "velvet glove" invasion of Norway by Russia, in which bloodshed was rare. ■ Far from the sophisticated invasion of fiction, the very real invasion of Ukraine is marked by brutality and barbarity. It's not an inevitable consequence of conflict. Most people are good at heart, but a small number have a lot of evil in them. Others can learn to behave in evil ways, especially when trained by a system that encourages or rewards evil behavior. ■ It's hard not to be alarmed by what we're seeing from the system cultivated by and around Vladimir Putin. Whatever the prospects of peace talks might be, evidence of despicable cruelty is mounting. Just as good behavior is generally the result of good habits, viciousness and cruelty -- especially on a systemic scale -- also takes practice. There is too much practice underway by the invading forces in Ukraine, and the poisoned fruits of that practice aren't going to disappear easily.

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March 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Taking the STEAM out of STEM

The STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- form a tidy little bundle that tend to advance the same general set of technical interests, require similar forms of investment, and face common problems with recruitment from historically under-represented populations. That they can be agglomerated under a convenient acronym is convenient, but not necessary. ■ What is not only unnecessary but downright counterproductive is the effort to shoehorn an "A" in there, converting STEM to STEAM by adding "arts" to the cluster. It may sound clever, but the effect is dilutive. ■ This isn't to say that STEM subjects should be divorced from the arts. To the contrary: An element of the humanities is absolutely, positively essential to the successful promotion of the STEM fields. Without integrating humanistic thinking into the process, technically skilled individuals run the grave risk of doing things that are negligent, harmful, or even hazardous to their fellow human beings. But recognizing that STEM topics are different from the arts is critical to bridging the gap. ■ Take, for instance, the case of the "chatbot companion" promoted in online advertising. One such bot is being promoted with a headline that literally says "The AI companion who cares". But a chatbot is not a "who" and has literally zero capacity to "care". Advertising otherwise is an act distressingly disconnected from the human impact of technology. ■ It's entirely understandable that some people have a hard time making friends and cultivating relationships. But the humane thing to do isn't to offer a completely false promise of a synthetic "companion who cares". A humane thing to do would be to program an app to guide lonely people through the process of making real friends -- with human beings. ■ But just as people who are attracted to the STEM fields need to be trained in the humanities in order to become well-rounded practitioners, so must people who are attracted to the humanities be trained in technology and the sciences. Recognizing that these fields are fundamentally different from one another highlights the contrasts, which should serve to place emphasis on what's missing. Once we recognize that something is not necessarily an obvious fit, we can make conscious choices to try to make up for the void. ■ Cramming "arts" into a conjoined appellation with STEM makes it appear as if they are the same, and that is misleading. They are different, and historically have been; the rarity of a case like Leonardo da Vinci, both an extraordinary scientist and an extraordinary artist, is the exception that proves the rule. A polymath like Leonardo stands out because the fullness of the STEAM subjects integrated themselves seamlessly in his very special mind. ■ For the rest of us, the different fields do not fit quite so intuitively together, and there is a need for conscious effort to make sure that the scientists don't overlook the humanities, and that the artists don't fail to learn math. This conscious integration takes work. It doesn't happen because of a cute acronym, and it certainly won't happen unless we realize there are differences to integrate.

March 12, 2022

News Compounding Russia's struggles

Russia can point to a higher per-capita GDP than Ukraine, but it would be foolhardy to underestimate the value of real self-determination. It doesn't show up in the national accounts, but it's far from trivial that the Ukrainian people have a sense for what it means to taste freedom and to govern themselves. Freedom House rates Ukraine "partly free" with an index of 61 out of 100, versus Russia's "unfree" at just 19 out of 100.

The United States of America Happy 250th

The United States is just four years away from our 250th birthday. Who's in charge of the planning? This isn't just a class reunion, you know.

Computers and the Internet Just because you're in public view doesn't negate your privacy

The right to go unbothered by people hunting through rabbit holes for information on someone doesn't just apply to those who go looking for that private information. It also applies to passive consumers of it. If something would seem intrusive if it were published about your own life, it's not suddenly OK to read just because it's about a "celebrity".

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March 11, 2022

The United States of America The disproportion is the point

From time to time, someone points to a pie chart of discretionary spending by the Federal government and imagines they're making a brilliant argument with a pithy statement like "The United States government is an army with a country attached." It's not an original thought; many have restated it many times before (including when it was said about Prussia nearly 250 years ago). ■ But it's not only unoriginal; it is deeply misleading, and it is misleading on two levels. The first is the obvious omission of the two biggest accounts at the Federal level: Entitlement spending under Social Security and Medicare. We budget more for Medicare than for defense, and with a faster growth rate. Social Security is much larger still. ■ Even setting aside that perspective, there is another glaring error in placing a single-minded focus on Federal discretionary spending: States and local governments in the United States are supposed to do a great deal of the work of government for themselves. That is the Constitutional order of business: Washington, DC, does what it must, and the states are to do the rest. ■ Unanimity of opinion is impossible to achieve among 332 million people, and the Constitution was brilliantly structured so as not to need uniformity. In fact, we are better off without it. Denmark, for example, has about 5.8 million people. That places it between Colorado and Wisconsin in size. 5.8 million people is clearly large enough to have a distinctive culture, a unique political climate, and a self-sustaining economy. What we would expect in those terms from a country like Denmark we should equally expect from mid-sized states like Colorado and Wisconsin. ■ That isn't a flaw of the Constitutional system; it is the genius of it. Any one of the states of the Union is free to do for itself most of the things that we would expect many countries to do -- so long as the state maintains a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4) and offers the equal protection of the law to all people (Amendment XIV). ■ Should a state decide to offer free post-secondary education to its citizens, or to experiment with single-payer health care, or to build a high-speed rail network, it is free to do so -- by itself or in cooperation with others. And it is especially free to do so because the Federal government is there to take care of big-picture, unanimity-requiring issues, like defense and international diplomacy. ■ To the extent those matters basically don't have to be addressed at the state level, the states are in fact more free than most countries to experiment and innovate -- and they should act on that freedom. Go ahead: Cater to corporations, subsidize TV production, or open a sovereign-wealth fund. ■ So, no, the United States isn't just an "army with a country attached". It's a rich union of diverse states with different interests but a common agreement to share a vast economy, a common set of fundamental rules, and an approach to the defense of all that has generally ensured domestic safety in a manner uncommon in the world. That's what it is supposed to do. But by concentrating one form of spending at one level of government and much of the rest of the spending on another, the resulting peculiarities of a pie chart really make no fundamental point at all. The disproportion in spending is, in fact, the point.

Threats and Hazards Utter madness

A Reuters correspondent credits a "senior US defense official" with the news that "Russia has launched about 810 missiles at Ukrainian targets since the invasion started". Imagine the perversity of launching 810 missiles, some (or even many) of which have hit homes and hospitals, and claiming to do it for the purpose of fostering greater unity with ethnic kin living in the crosshairs. The lie that the invasion has anything to do with ties of historical affection is just gobsmackingly transparent. This is a cruel attack of Russia's choosing against peaceful neighbors.

March 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet Disconnections

The virtual battlefield has become a more challenging place lately, with cyberattacks increasing by 25% in the course of just two weeks. That's a painfully large increase -- and it's hard to imagine that cyber-defense spending has also increased by 25% in the same time, though it undoubtedly will need to do so. ■ It has been noted in some places that full-scale cyberwarfare seems not to have broken out (perhaps only "not yet") between Russia and Ukraine, despite the open warfare taking place on the ground. But there's nothing necessarily paradoxical about a war of kinetic arms heating up at a different pace than that of a cyberwar. Nor is it necessarily inconsistent that the global pace of cyberattacks would rise during a time of real-world fighting on the ground in one particular country. ■ What both observations taken together ought to teach us is a twofold lesson: First, we need to take engagements in the digital arena quite seriously, and moreso than we have been forced to do in the past. ■ Second, we need to face seriously the need to marshal at least some of our cyber defenses under a distinct branch of our Department of Defense. Cyber-defense clearly behaves differently than a land war between a pair of belligerent powers. Non-combatant countries, their citizens, and their public and private sectors alike can all become targets or collateral damage, even if no war is declared and they scrupulously avoid being drawn into a legal definition of participation in battle. ■ The separation of the US Air Force from the Army was essential not just to its identity but to its ability to develop a distinctive doctrine, culture, and array of resources. The ghost of Billy Mitchell ought to whisper in our ears about cybersecurity, too. It is a distinctive form of hostilities, involving a different scope of consequences, a different field of battle, and sometimes vastly different combatants than conventional warfare. ■ The evidence of the decoupling of cyber warfare from kinetic warfare is overwhelming. The logical step to take is to acknowledge that break: If we have room to create a Space Force, we ought to be well past the time for a Cyber Force.

News If you aren't skeptical of power, you aren't paying enough attention

The law of unintended consequences is exactly what ought to make most thoughtful people into chronic skeptics of concentrated power in general and of government interventions in particular. It's easy to find wants. It's much harder to carefully use the levers of authority to get them without causing collateral damage.

March 9, 2022

News Churchill with an iPhone

It would be no crude exaggeration to say that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, has a Churchillian streak. In one of his most recent videos, he starts with a view of Kyiv at night, then points his phone's camera at himself to narrate a walk down a hallway. Within less than a minute, without breaking stride, he takes a seat at his desk and commences a formal speech to his country. The video cuts to a customary camera view in mid-sentence, so the viewer watches a seamless transition from selfie to state address. ■ If Winston Churchill had lived in the era of the iPhone, he would certainly have tipped his cap in admiration. Churchill knew the power of broadcasting a message to the country. In the BBC's words, "It is hard to quantify the significance of Churchill's wartime speeches in bolstering national morale during the long years of the war. But more than half the adult population tuned in to them". ■ It is self-evident that Zelenskyy knows the power of communication. With credits as a writer, director, and producer, as well as an actor, he's aware that there is more to reaching people than just looking good on camera. His use of a clever quick-cut in mid-sentence from the authenticity of a selfie to the authority of the presidential desk isn't just good television work: It's a powerful proof of life, and it's a dramatic way to say, "These are my own words; I am nobody's puppet". ■ But his use of words matters, too. He praises the armed forces, but he shows respect to others, too: "The servicemen are in positions. Our heroes! Doctors, rescuers, transporters, diplomats, journalists." And, further, "Everywhere people defended themselves, although they do not have weapons there. But these are our people, and that's why they have weapons. They have courage. Dignity. And hence the ability to go out and say: I'm here, it's mine, and I won't give it away." Even if the translation to English is choppy, the meaning runs deep. ■ Try to imagine Vladimir Putin praising journalists or lauding the "dignity" of unarmed protest. One cannot. Nor can one imagine the same from other authoritarians around the world -- not Assad, nor Xi, nor Lukashenko. Zelenskyy doesn't have to be perfect to have clearly aligned himself with the interests of human freedom and against repressive power. ■ There is clearly a long road ahead, and much could go wrong along the way. And what Zelenskyy wants, he may not get: He wants membership in the EU and a no-fly zone overhead. Those may not be deliverable. Churchill spent a long time pleading for American arms and even opened himself to the prospect of an Anglo-Franco civil union as a way to stop Nazi Germany. He eventually got the weapons, but the Lend-Lease Act took a lot longer than hoped. ■ But, for now, Zelenskyy keeps marshalling his words (and his Twitter account) to the cause of a peace won through victory. He is using media better amid a crisis than any political leader in at least a generation, and probably better than any head of government since Churchill himself. ■ Whether he's familiar with the words or not, he has tapped into a sense once expressed by Dwight Eisenhower: "We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism. From the evidence, it would appear that the Communist leaders also believe this; else why do they attack and attempt to destroy the practice of these concepts?" Eisenhower was right then; Zelenskyy is in the right today.

Threats and Hazards Despicable choices

Someone in a Russian tank convoy fired on a civilian car evacuating Kyiv, killing three innocent people. For a tank gunner to fire upon a civilian vehicle in the manner described is so depraved as to defy any explanation. Someone either gave a command or defied one. Someone pulled a trigger. A person made this despicable choice.

Broadcasting How things change

A 1967 ad for WMAQ-TV in Chicago carries the enthusiastic tagline, "All in color, too!". In 1987, it might have said "Now in stereo!". In 2007, "See it in HD!". In 2027 (or indeed, even today), it might well say, "This episode was filmed entirely on an iPhone".

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March 8, 2022

Weather and Disasters A dash of salt

Every spring, people in northern states watch as the snow melts from fields, streets, lawns, and parking lots. It's often a process that cascades on itself, as ground and pavement become exposed to solar energy and thaw out, accelerating the warming trend for the snow that remains unmelted. From time to time a blast of fresh snow is dropped in the midst of the spring melting season (think of the extraordinary 2019 "bomb cyclone"), but most of the time it all rather quickly ends up flowing downstream. ■ This annual process represents a massive missed opportunity for the water sector. Americans generally take public drinking water supplies almost entirely for granted -- where it isn't entirely unmetered (and thus "free" in the eyes of the consumer), it's almost always incredibly cheap: Virtually nobody is charged even one cent per gallon for fresh potable water. ■ The missed opportunity is in failing to illustrate and remind the public that water is, in fact, cyclical. What melts now and percolates into the ground or (as is more often the case when the ground remains frozen) flows downstream ultimately becomes source water for somebody. Since gravity takes water to lower elevations until it either enters an aquifer or runs to the sea, most people see their water depart to lower elevations -- yet another one of the many ways having the "high ground" tends to be advantageous. ■ But whatever enters the water at those upper elevations tends to stay there. Every spring, water-industry authorities ought to thump the table over and over: Look at what's moving downstream as the snow melts! Look at the salt marks! Look at the trash and the litter that are carried along in the storm sewers! ■ Sometimes it's inevitable that we'll do incidental damage to the waters we share in pursuit of other worthwhile goals -- like putting salt on the roads so that it's safer to drive in the winter. Good for drivers; bad for streams and rivers, and most importantly, bad for the people who will ultimately drink from them. ■ We have to recognize that there are consequences to what we do, even when it's done out of necessity, and we have to clean up after ourselves. Ben Franklin once put it that "He that resolves to mend hereafter, resolves not to mend now." ■ It's better to refrain from contaminating communal resources in the first place wherever we can, but it's a close second to take accountability for "mending now" what traces we leave behind. And there is no time like spring -- the season of "spring cleaning" -- to remind the public at large that virtually everyone is living and drinking downstream of someone else.

Business and Finance Proper names

Economic terms deserve popular names that make sense. "Autarky" should be "antisocial economy disorder". "Monopsony" should be the "Solo Buyer's Club".

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March 7, 2022

News A place to rest one's weary head

With its notoriously high population density (more than 12,000 people per square mile) and extremely high standard of living (its economy is bigger than Canada's), Tokyo is bound to be the source of imaginative solutions to problems that deserve a second look elsewhere in the world. ■ Among those clever solutions is the capsule hotel: A space big enough for a bed and little else, apparently often stacked in double-decker style. It may not be much (nor even feature individual bathroom facilities), but as a method of achieving a high density of accommodation at comparatively low cost with at least a modicum of privacy, it's a smart idea. ■ For the most part, space really isn't at a premium in the United States. Vast reaches of the country are virtually uninhabited, and for the most part, our hospitality industry is more than happy to find ways to build more hotel space (and travelers seem willing to shell out for preposterous nightly charges). ■ But the idea at the core of the capsule hotel needs a second look for other reasons. The essence of it is that an individual space can be safely and cleanly demarcated, turned private (with walls on all sides), and densified by stacking. The individual sleeping capsules should be easy to standardize and mass-produce, especially if all any of them really require is a main electrical connection (since toilet and bath facilities can be supplied in congregate fashion). ■ From time to time, we need to be able to accommodate substantial demand for housing on short notice. The most dramatic domestic case, of course, is that of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina -- which initiated a diaspora that numbered at least 400,000, if not more. Large-scale destruction of urban habitat happens periodically: Think of the fire in Boulder, Colorado that destroyed 1,000 homes in 2021, or the Camp Fire in California that displaced 50,000 people and destroyed 11,000 houses in the town of Paradise. ■ But from time to time, social situations create nearly-instantaneous demand shocks for housing. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine right now is estimated at 1.5 million people, and it's far from the only refugee situation underway in the world right now; millions are still displaced from Syria. ■ It would be a worthy pursuit to find a way to emulate the Japanese capsule hotel at a high-volume, mass-production, economy-producing scale, so that when the occasion calls for it, a substantial amount of safe, serviceable, and private shelter could be installed on extremely short notice -- especially if a modular design would permit such facilities to be built close to where the people affected by a disaster like a hurricane or wildfire had been chased away. Losing a home is certainly bad enough; having to deal with the repercussions from far away, isolated from social networks of home and community, only make it worse. ■ Americans are a generous people, and we tend to have great sympathy for those who need help through no fault of their own. States offering to take in refugees would benefit from having access to resources and standardized mechanisms for creating short-term living space. We regard food, clothing, and shelter as the most basic human needs. It would be prudent to look at how we could mimic practices already well-established elsewhere (like Tokyo) to help make it more efficient to deliver one of those needed resources quickly and practically.

Computers and the Internet Dystopian Frogger

Techno-utopians are dreaming of a world in which self-driving cars no longer need stoplights to control intersections. But anyone who occasionaly doubles as a pedestrian probably ought to be skeptical of this imagined game of Dystopian Frogger.

March 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Scams beg for Bitcoin for Ukraine

There is little punishment that would be too harsh for the people behind a fake-Red-Cross scam begging for Bitcoin for Ukraine.

Weather and Disasters Don't count on hearing tornado sirens

A timely seasonal reminder, made sadder by yesterday's terrible loss of life due to severe weather in Iowa.

News "Winter on Fire"

The documentary "Winter on Fire" (streaming on Netflix) really drives home a lot of thoughts about how motivated the Ukrainian people are to secure their just freedoms. The self-organization on display when they protested against their own government in 2013 and 2014 was exceptional. Those skills were not simply forgotten.

News Terms of offense

Winston Churchill: "Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy's ports."

March 4, 2022

The United States of America The inadequacy of nationalism

Few words have gotten an unexpected revival in American popular discourse quite like the word "nationalism". It's been debated, heralded, excoriated, and even made into the centerpiece of a series of (paradoxically) international conferences featuring United States Senators as keynote speakers. ■ But ambiguous words and sloppy definitions lead to faulty understandings of the world, and it's hard to get a good consensus around a word as charged as "nationalism". First of all, nationalism needs to be distinguished from a basic sense of patriotism. ■ Basic patriotism is simply the call for the individual to do his or her duty to the country to which they belong. That's good and healthy, as long as it centers on the duty rather than the symbols. Duty is a matter of a person's relationship to others, and every good philosophy of the world, starting with the Golden Rule, puts emphasis on just such a thing. Patriotism fits best in a moderate zone -- not too much, and not too little. As Maimonides put it, "[M]oderation is one of the good actions, and the state of the soul that produces moderation is a moral virtue." ■ The problem with nationalism is that we hardly know how to define what a nation is. Its root emerges from the Latin "natio", or "birth" -- which suggests a relationship based more on blood than on choice. That alone makes it tricky to look at the United States, especially, in a "national" way. America really is an idea, and being an American is an aspirational choice made by millions. ■ Plenty of people pound the table to say that nations are defined by things like languages, borders, and culture -- but we all too often forget that there are a great number of nations who are without a state. An American whose ancestors came here in the 1800s may identify as "German" in ethnic origin, but does that mean that they are Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, or perhaps even Pomeranian? Each of those formed a distinct nation unto itself (as did many others), even though none of them forms a distinct nation-state today. ■ In fact, a published catalog of "stateless nations" includes more than 300 entries -- all describing cultural groups with reasonable claims to nationhood, but which don't have what we recognize as a national government. Dozens of groups are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, reflecting just this condition. ■ What Americans (and others) have to realize is that everyone is a member of multiple "nations". We have intersecting, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting identities. And not just at the purely artificial level of sports fandom -- though it's telling that people have no problem identifying as voluntary members of groups like "Packers Nation" and realizing that it's not inherently in conflict with lots of other identities. Fans of a professional sports team really do tend to adopt a particular culture, a unique in-group language, and lots of other senses of identity that make them look like a "nation", even if membership is not a matter of birth. And nobody should ever be willing to bear arms on behalf of one. ■ Recognizing not only the ambiguity of "nationhood", but also the inevitability of membership in many defined "nations" -- of sports, religion, birthplace, ethnic origin, legal citizenship, and countless other layers of identity -- ought to give every reasonable person some humility about what those things mean, and some reticence about clinging too tightly to nationalism as a source of personal identity. ■ Tension among the sources of one's identity isn't necessarily bad, particularly given how likely any one of us is to encounter it once we realize how layered life inevitably must be. And well-examined tension in life can be a source of much good, especially if it helps us to realize that we're really bound -- by duty -- to so many other people who may in countless ways be unlike ourselves.

March 3, 2022

News A little extra goes a long way

It has never been cheaper nor easier to add a dollop of ornamentation to just about anything. Tired of vinyl siding? Replace it with a faux stone veneer. Want to upgrade the look of a bus or a trailer? Put a vinyl wrap on it. Need a corporate logo? Someone will prepare a design for as little as $5 or $10. ■ Often, we add little more than just crude ornamentation. There's nothing expressly wrong with that; human beings appear to have been painting in caves for 164,000 years. People were putting graffiti on the walls of Pompeii right up until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. ■ But we're also capable of doing much more than just adding some touches of paint here and there. As societies, we're at our best when we integrate forethought with our designs, so that we build things that will not only stand the test of time, but also prove themselves useful beyond mere ornament. ■ A bridge, for example, is one of the most utilitarian of instruments. And in general, we find it wise to illuminate our bridges so that travelers can see their way safely across. But bridges are often utterly plain (even when they're not in disrepair), and nothing looks good when cast in the sickly yellow of a sodium light. ■ It would have been sufficient to illuminate the bridges of Des Moines with those basic HPS lamps -- or even with plain white light coming from energy-efficient LED bulbs. But instead, someone had the foresight to install three of them with programmable technology, permitting the city to light up three high-profile bridges in the yellow and blue of Ukraine. ■ Undoubtedly, those lighting systems cost more than basic illumination. But probably not by much. Just as today's giant flat-screen television costs less in real terms than yesterday's smaller (and picture-inferior) standard definition TV, so too have many other improvements in materials and methods come with affordability advantages, too. ■ When it becomes cheaper to get something of the same quality, the temptation is often there to pursue the cheapest alternative available. But we shouldn't be too quick to always grasp for cost savings first -- even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to public improvements. Sometimes it's better to anchor our expectations not with what superficially appears to be the lowest cost, but rather with capturing some of the savings that often come from the kinds of quality and price improvements that market forces bring us and committing them to building things just a little bit better. ■ How we treat our public spaces does a lot to shape our perceptions of community, and there is no place where this can pay off better than where local communities, at the neighborhood or municipal level, decide not to default just to the cheapest options but rather to perceive of the entire life-cycle value of what they're getting. Sometimes just lighting up a bridge can be the right thing to do.

March 2, 2022

Threats and Hazards May we have your attention, please?

If you've ever doubted the capacity of human beings to ignore a festering problem, you must stop whatever you're doing and go check out your nearest office breakroom microwave. Once we convince ourselves that a problem isn't imminent, we tend to stop seeing the sensory evidence in front of us and instead reduce the thing we're seeing into an abstraction. ■ This process of switching between the evidence and our abstractions of the evidence can be helpful; when we drive or walk down a familiar path, most of us shift into a mental mode that is a lot more like following a simplified map on a screen than checking for every new block of pavement that comes our way. The unfamiliar situations -- those times when you have to turn down the radio so you can see a street sign better -- are when we need the additional cognitive processing capacity to handle the hard work. ■ The problem emerges when we rely too heavily on the abstractions and fail to recognize that a problem really is new, changing, or growing. Our brains may literally have evolved to recognize threats detected by peripheral vision, but we just aren't very good at stepping back from the world in which we live to see the holistic nature of the real problems we have assigned as abstractions. ■ No matter how smart we are, we still have a finite amount of attention to deploy. There is only so much cognitive load any one of us can bear. ■ But the consequences of compartmentalizing so many problems as "not a threat for now" are certainly coming to bear. Should the world have pressed harder for nuclear disarmament sooner -- before thinly-veiled threats from the dictator holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal? Should we have expanded rather than contracted our pandemic-planning infrastructure -- before Covid-19 hit? Should our energy industry have done more to prepare their infrastructure for cold weather -- before natural gas wells froze and power systems entered cascading failure loops during cold snaps? ■ There is something of an art to raising issues and focusing attention on necessary solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to pull the fire alarm on their issue, its co-chair saying, "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future". But...any further delay? And how brief is the window? And is the alternative a truly unliveable future? The problem of anthropomorphic climate change is indeed real, but it can't be the only problem suitable for high-stakes attention or "concerted global action". ■ In business, people sometimes conduct SWOT analyses: Assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It's a practice best conducted periodically: Often enough that a threat or weakness doesn't boil over, but not so often that it swallows up all the attention that needs to be paid to the day-to-day. ■ At the civilizational level, we need better practices and institutions for conducting SWOT analysis on behalf of us all. Some might have imagined the United Nations to be just such an institution in the past, but the fact that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution about its invasion of Ukraine (while holding the presidency of the council) is ample evidence that the UN either cannot or will not do the job. (For further evidence, see China's membership on the UN Human Rights Council, as it sends Uighurs to internment camps.) ■ Just as membership in many international organizations is held for cyclical terms and the chair's gavel is passed from one country to another, so ought we to look for organized, thoughtful ways to keep an eye on the world's problems, both imminent and long-run. It's not healthy to light our collective hair on fire every time a new panicked report is issued, nor to wait until a problem has sparked a global meltdown to take it seriously. ■ A bit like a radar scope, we need institutions that can scan the horizon and report back with each "sweep". And if we don't have those institutions now (or if the ones we have are failing us), no amount of waiting will make our problems better.

March 1, 2022

Business and Finance The orangutan effect

The finest line in Warren Buffett's annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, released on February 26th, belongs not to Buffett but to his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger. Buffett writes, "Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly." ■ The "orangutan effect" could stand to get a lot more use in the wider world. Nothing about life in 2022 is less complex than it was in 2012, and certainly not than it was in 1922. It will be more complex in 2032, and much more so in 2122. Within virtually every field of inquiry and endeavor, people will continue to specialize and advance the state of the art. (The rare exception that proves the rule: We probably won't see new innovations in harpsichord performance.) ■ Increasing specialization has wide-ranging and often robust effects: Extremely skilled specialists are what gives a place like the Mayo Clinic a sterling reputation. But general knowledge remains important, too: Being able to synthesize information across conventional subject-matter boundaries matters enormously, particularly as complex new problems emerge with irregular borders. ■ Is Covid-19 a problem for epidemiologists? Public-health experts? Macroeconomists? Child psychologists? Human-resources departments? Politicians? Network security consultants? Yes. Yes, to all of the above, and to many more. And being able to absorb information from all of those fields and convert it into actionable thought requires the ability to understand what's coming in. ■ That's why the orangutan effect matters so much. It's not just enough that each of us in our own fields be capable of explaining the basic outlines of our own most important contributions (though that is surely more important than ever). It's also essential that we obtain the clearest possible thinking about what we know, what we don't, and what will change those boundaries. ■ One of the reasons people have been so attracted to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is his ability to speak (even through translation) as though to the unwitting orangutan. War is brutal and complex, but "I need ammunition, not a ride" is unambiguous. "We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it's a fair one." cuts cleanly through the fog of war. ■ It's easy to come up with empty-headed or pandering nonsense that sounds good; the history of advertising is enough to prove that. (Why, yes, I sure think I do deserve a break today!) But clear words, delivered authentically about meaningful matters, can only emerge from clear thinking, and clear thinking takes practice. And if civilization is to follow a course that leads in a happy direction, we'll need that clear thinking from every direction. Round up the orangutans: There's work to do.

February 28, 2022

News Periodical news

Even though he didn't actually ride through the streets waking the townsfolk with the cry that "The Redcoats are coming!", schoolchildren are still taught some version of the legend of Paul Revere. The story communicates something that seems utterly foreign today: That there was a time when news moved slowly. The newspapers of the Colonial era were generally published weekly, and that was about as much news as could be expected, considering the length of time it took to gather news from Europe -- reachable only via ocean sailings that took weeks to months. ■ Beyond its connection to the noteworthy historical figures involved, Revere's ride stands out as a rare story of immediacy in a time when news rarely traveled fast. The telegraph sped up the process by moving news faster than people (or pigeons) could carry it, but the news remained periodical until radio (and later television) could deliver live reporting. ■ Today, even war correspondents tweet in real time as the President of besieged Ukraine offers his own readouts of calls with prime ministers and proof-of-life videos. It is possible to immerse oneself in instantaneous coverage of the world without ever taking rest. ■ News production has mainly ceased to be periodical. The only way to give rationality a fighting chance is to make sure news consumption becomes periodical instead. It is indeed a bit ridiculous that NPR is offering "self-care" tips to help people far from the action to "cope with a stressful news cycle". A cornerstone of adulthood is the development of self-control. If it takes a news outlet saying, "Remember that it's okay to not be plugged into the news 24/7", then we really do need to consider what kind of adults we're letting loose into the world. ■ The world is surely better-off with services providing global news coverage 24 hours a day than it would be without; the BBC World Service remains one of the great contributions to an enlightened planet. And yet even the World Service sticks to bulletins on the hour and half-hour. ■ Faced with an all-you-can-eat buffet, everyone knows they must stop consuming at some point, and we don't consider it "self-care" to resist going back. It's just self-control. News needs to be digested over time, just as food does. If we're merely consuming all the time, we may be tickling the amygdala, but we're not satisfying actual needs. A complex world calls for careful thinking. If we succumb to the addiction to noise, then we'll never reap the rewards of careful consideration.

February 25, 2022

Science and Technology Where to put our energies

One of the factors that diminished the deterrent effects of European warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine was continental Europe's dependency on Russian-supplied natural gas. About a quarter of European energy comes from natural gas, with half of that used for heating, and about a quarter used for each of industrial purposes and electrical generation. Europe counts on Russia for 41% of its natural gas. ■ Part of this dependency comes from the depletion of Europe's own North Sea gas supplies; it's not often easy to make a transition from one energy source to others, so finding other supplies was easier for many purposes than going with alternatives. Another part of this dependency is the result of European efforts to phase-out the use of coal in order to reduce carbon pollution (a meritorious goal). But renewable energy is still in a growth phase -- and Germany is prematurely shutting down its nuclear-energy supply. ■ For all of human history, we've been constrained mainly by resources. We've managed to stay ahead of Malthusian collapse thanks to innovation, and that innovation has been driven in no small part by markets. As resources become scarce, the incentives grow to find alternatives or to use the existing resources more efficiently. (It also helps that increasing prosperity tends to act as a serious depressant on birth rates.) ■ But things could get interesting -- in a good way! -- as we emerge on the other side of our current energy-related growing pains. Renewable energy is on a tear, already accounting for more than half of Iowa's electricity (with other states to follow). As the cost of generating solar power continues in a freefall and the cost of energy storage drops, we can start to imagine a situation in which energy may not be completely free -- but it could enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever-cheaper. ■ Should that become the case, we can imagine outcomes that would result from a world in which energy becomes nearly cost-free. Most importantly, the resource limitations that have defined human history could begin to lift: Unlimited energy would let us clean our air and our water virtually without constraint. It would let us produce food anywhere (with the help of artificial illumination inside greenhouses and vertical farms) and without susceptibility to weather or climate problems. It would even permit us to recycle now-wasted resources of all types, reducing still further the Malthusian limitations on our world. ■ The faster we can push the cost of energy as close to zero as possible, the sooner our most important constraint will shift from the scarcity of resources to the innovative capacity of the human mind. We have geniuses like Norman Borlaug to thank for having rescued millions of lives from starvation. ■ If almost-free energy can help the world reach a stage wherein resources are so abundant that they are no longer serious constraining factors, many of the consequences of absolute poverty could be erased, lifting people into greater economic security. And it is under conditions of resource security that people can pursue the most challenging and rewarding of research, advancement, and new ideas. ■ For now, we still have to live with significant constraints. And energy may remain the most painful among them for a while to come. But sometimes the shock of disaster serves as a wake-up call to those who had been complacent. Figuring out how to throw off the yoke of energy dependency as soon as possible ought now to be a self-evident priority of the very first order. And if we succeed at it, the feedback loop it would create could be enormously rewarding for all of us on this pale blue dot in space.

February 24, 2022

Threats and Hazards Escalatory madness

When we encounter madness in the world, it can be hard to admit that complexity and irrationality leave us struggling and unable to understand. Even the ambassadors meeting at the United Nations were surprised in the middle of a Security Council meeting by the announcement that Russian armed forces had invaded Ukraine. ■ The warning signs had certainly abounded, but just days before the invasion, the mood of many -- including powerful people in Ukraine -- was skeptical of imminent conflict. One of the chief reasons it seemed unlikely was that Russia would have so much to lose and so little to fundamentally gain. ■ Yet some commentators seem compelled to attach themselves to the most simplistic answers possible. Prominent among them is Clay Travis, who occupies the radio network time slot that once belonged to Rush Limbaugh. His analysis: "Autocratic leaders believe in hyper masculinity, raw physical power. They believe that might makes right. America has spent decades fetishizing soft, cuddly, emotional power. Putin and Xi don't respect it. At all. This is the result." ■ It is an embarrassment to the American conscience that someone with so shallow an understanding of the world barks such nonsense to a national broadcast audience for three hours a day, five days a week. ■ Empty-headed appeals to the triumph of "masculinity" are in vogue in some quarters -- but as geopolitical analysis, they are garbage. Modern statecraft, diplomacy, and warfare depend on factors like intelligence, adaptability, ingenuity, and reasoning. It would be daft to think that a country's armed forces would be stronger than another's if only it chose to forswear using half of its available brainpower. "Hyper masculinity" and "raw physical power" may appeal to some -- but their appeal is mainly to those who fail to see the bigger picture. ■ It makes far more sense to recognize that Vladimir Putin is a man who depends upon the state equivalent of an organized crime syndicate, of which he is the mafia don. He is not a decent man who has won such esteem of his people that he is indispensable to his country: Remember that in a free election, the voters of the United Kingdom tossed out even the estimable Winston Churchill once WWII was over. ■ Free and fair elections invariably result in restlessness. Putin has manipulated the law and used pretexts to hold on to power for 22 years. And a transparent political system free of gross corruption wouldn't turn out a dictator-for-life with a $200 billion fortune. ■ Many of the Russian people know better and want better, which serves to explain why many are turning out to protest, despite the costs many of them will face under Putin's police state. ■ The invasion of Ukraine is, at its heart, an act of cowardice compelled by the personal interests of an irredeemably evil man, who knows full well that innocent people are dying of his choice. We don't have to intuit the precise reasons why he sees the move as serving his self-interests to know that he acts only to preserve himself and the gang that surrounds him. That's why international moves to deprive him and his inner circle of their assets is considered such a high-priority tool. ■ The situation appears like an act of crude desperation to prop up his regime -- perhaps under the theory that a military victory would bolster enough public support to keep him from being toppled. Putin knows that a quiet retirement in some warm-weather dacha is out of the question. Once he is out of power, he will undoubtedly find himself targeted -- and likely disposed of. So he acts to bind his inner circle closer to him in an act of escalatory commitment. It's a dangerous gamble, it will most likely be severely destabilizing, and it will have grave consequences for Ukrainians, Russians, and possibly others. Escalation is almost always necessary within a criminal syndicate, and it usually ends badly for the boss. ■ The invasion of Ukraine isn't about simplistic impressions of diminished Western "masculinity". It's not about women flying combat missions for the US Air Force or Finland having a female prime minister. Appeals to "raw power" are just window dressing and always have been. Look instead to the vile self-interest of a small cabal of people who know that once they start to lose their grip, they'll lose it all.

February 23, 2022

Business and Finance Help us find what's "Made in Kyiv"

Americans have generally thought well of Canada -- if not a little avariciously. After all, the Articles of Confederation contained a provision to allow Canada free and unimpeded entry into the United States if our northerly neighbors so chose. That obviously didn't happen...though there are even Canadians and Americans alike who today find thoughts of a merger (partial or complete) to be attractive. ■ But at least as much as our common historical ties and strong cultural relationships would suggest, it is exchange and trade that really keep the two countries so closely bound together. Aside from the relatively trivial differences introduced by the metric/English divide and the floating exchange rate between the greenback and the loonie, there is very little to impede trade back-and-forth between the two countries (as long as protesters aren't standing in the way). And that trade is a much larger part of our economic life than any other day-to-day part of life, at least in America. ■ Our very strong trading relationship with Canada serves to enhance the sense of community between the two countries and solidifies the understanding that we have shared interests. Thus, their example makes it surprising that the United States has not done a better job of approaching international economic relationships as a more significant tool of global public diplomacy. ■ As the world's largest economy, Americans buy a lot of stuff and pay for a lot of services, not all of them created domestically. Even a small share of the giant American domestic market would be a giant boon to most international economies. Why is it, then, that we as American consumers don't have a convenient guide to the best places to spend our money so as to support known American interests in the world? ■ Suppose, for example, that an ordinary American wanted to support the freedom and independence of Ukraine. Very few of us are able to sit at the table where these things are negotiated. But one thing we can do is to spend our money -- but where? Where is it that we could spend our money to offer tacit monetary support for the well-being of a threatened state like Ukraine? ■ It's likely that in a handful of American communities (Pittsburgh, for one), one could find stores prominently featuring Ukranian imports. And perhaps it's possible to do some clever searching within Amazon to find products that are made in Kyiv or Donetsk. But by-and-large, ordinary Americans have no obvious place to go if they wish to do something to support America's geostrategic interests with our own consumer spending. ■ It wouldn't take the efforts of a very large staff to offer some of this information as a public service, but nobody in our Federal government seems to have done it. That seems like a failure of imagination: Americans are willing to spend lots of money in order to show support for causes we consider worthy. We are notoriously generous charitable givers, and we spend liberally on GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns. Why not turn to public diplomacy and American consumer spending as a way to find a surrogate method of "kickstarting" campaigns for countries in which we have a vested interest? ■ A trade promotion office, perhaps inside the State or Commerce Departments, might be able to smooth the path to help American buyers know to where we could put our money where our national mouth is. America has historically used trade and economic interaction to support the interests of peace around the world: Our rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan and our heavy investment in Japan during its postwar occupation tend to suggest that we could promote the same interests in peace through prosperity, even when the problems are not overwhelming or urgent. ■ Gently facilitating a pathway to buying things labeled "Made in _____" -- whether Ukraine or Iraq or a refugee camp in Lebanon or Uganda -- could be a meaningful way to help American consumers advance peaceful interests worldwide by boosting fragile economies. Prosperity matters to peace. ■ A benign broker who could offer suggestions and smooth the way could help. Some American consumers might choose to spend their money in these ways as a matter of short term virtue-signaling. No harm done if that's the case. Others, though, might find products or services that they wish to enjoy on an ongoing basis. And that sort of trade could serve to further American interests -- at virtually zero taxpayer expense.

February 22, 2022

Computers and the Internet Bringing more beauty into the world

An oddity of the always-on digital world is that we are enabled to remain in communication with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of other people on a sustained basis, yet nothing about human experience up to this point has given us practice in that kind of experience. Humans have always communicated with one another; indeed, the complexity of our interpersonal communication is one of the distinctive features of our humanity within the animal kingdom. But the fact that we can communicate with effectively unlimited audiences in real time -- right down to live streaming our moment-by-moment experience of the world -- is historically novel. ■ This connectivity raises the existence of an interesting new responsibility. We are each accountable for how much joy and beauty we create in the world. That has always been the case: Families and close-knit groups have always told us how we're doing with the help of visceral feedback. Did you make a child laugh? Did your co-workers greet you in the morning? Did your spouse blow you a kiss? ■ Now, though, if we choose to engage in the digital networks that are basically enmeshed with contemporary existence, we have to treat our extended networks with special attention to the balance of what we create. Some people still opt out of them, but for most people, the networks are almost impossible to avoid and often hard to resist. ■ Some people succumb to the temptation to treat all of those interactions as a sales opportunity -- think of the "influencer" culture that rewards people for living in TikTok mansions. And others fall for the lure of turning to their social networks instead of sharing their problems with trained professionals, like counselors and therapists. Neither approach seems prudent. ■ Instead, for most people, our best hope is to treat forays into our social diaries a lot like visits around a campfire, with pleasant company and light entertainment. While our social nature may compel us to share both life's ups and downs, beauty and joy should be the categories we consciously seek most often to fill -- whether with earnest humor or with those moments we are able to capture in still pictures, videos, conversations, or even paintings. ■ Just as it's wise to give other drivers grace on the highways (after all, we never know who, for example, is returning home from seeing an ailing family member in the hospital), so too is it wise to assume that someone encountering our moments online may be there in the midst of the worst. We aren't practiced at it yet anthropologically, but as a matter of general principle, we ought to spend most of our time not sharing over-glossy depictions of life, but of the ordinary encounters with good we have in the world. Beauty has never been so easy to capture; it is a shame if we don't share what of it we find.

February 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards What we fear

The very idea of war should be abhorrent to any reasonable person. Any differences we have with other people on this planet should be well within the bounds of what can be resolved among reasonable people dealing rationally with one another. But reasonable people are not always in control. ■ There is nothing objectively reasonable about what Vladimir Putin has decided to do to Ukraine. The Russian military has been used to menace the people of Ukraine for nearly a decade. Fear has been the weapon of choice. ■ Real fear is essentially a universal evil. Not "fear" as we use it to describe the surprise that comes from going through a haunted house or the heightened emotional state that comes from watching a horror film, but real fear -- the intentional infliction of dreadful anxiety as a weapon. ■ Too many people want to make every struggle against things they dislike into the moral equivalent of war. The problem with this mode of thinking is that fear and discomfort are two different things. It is much more than a mere semantic distinction: The intentional infliction of fear is virtually always an act on the wrong side of the moral ledger, while discomfort can happen for all kinds of reasons. ■ People can endure a lot of discomfort. Many even emerge better for the experience. And reconciling ourselves with the impossibility of erasing all discomfort from human life would go a long way towards helping us to clarify the conversations and debates we have about the world and how to pursue "right" ends. Struggle is often the price of things worth having, and we shouldn't try to eliminate all discomfort, nor should we consider anyone evil if they choose not to share our vision of which discomforts ought to be mitigated. ■ But it shouldn't be hard to achieve consensus around the need to combat real, existential fear. The weapon of fear is evil whether it is the fear used by a police state, a regime pursuing ethnic repression, or a theocratic fascist terror group. And so also is it evil when it's used to try to disrupt a neighbor's march toward democracy.

February 20, 2022

News Cryptocurrency markets turn to Super Bowl ads

People watching the Super Bowl might have been surprised to witness advertising for cryptocurrency markets. After all, we don't usually encounter a lot of advertising for forex markets in mass media, and if we did, the viewer might reasonably wonder whether the ordinary retail investor were sophisticated enough to understand the nature and risks of betting on the relative values of currencies. ■ Such betting is exactly what parts of the cryptocurrency community are trying to promote with mass-market outreach like the Super Bowl advertising blitz. Super Bowl advertising is rarely about education; it's about emotion -- smashing Big Brother, lusting after Cindy Crawford, kneeling before the site of the Twin Towers. And in 2022, the emotion being pushed was the fear of missing out, with the words: "Don't be like Larry. Don't miss out on the next big thing". ■ It is a shame that cryptocurrencies, at least for the time being, are a market driven almost purely by speculation. It's sad because there is a viable argument for the utility of digital currencies not subject to government control -- for instance, as a store of value for those looking to escape life under oppressive regimes. If someone were living in a country like China and looking to leave with more than just the clothes on their back, cryptocurrencies might be a liberating tool. ■ But liberation from oppression isn't what the ad featuring a computer-manipulated young LeBron James. In selling was selling as it dripped with FOMO -- the Fear Of Missing Out. "Is the hype too much?" asks "young" James. "If you want to make history, you got to call your own shots", responds his modern-day counterpart -- projecting from a vantage of wisdom and experience. "Fortune favors the brave" screams the title across the closing shot. ■ At various times in history, "fortune" has favored "brave" speculators in tulip bulbs, Manhattan real estate, and .com startups. That doesn't mean any of those bubbles were necessary, virtuous, or prudent. "Fortune" also punished lots of "brave" speculators in those same manias. ■ Charlie Munger has argued that because of the curse of speculation and the perverse incentives sometimes in effect within our regulatory framework, "[I]t's very hard to get the government to make good, wise decisions about something like Bitcoin." While Munger may be too pessimistic about the potential utility of cryptocurrencies (and too magnanimous in his assessment of China's government for having cracked down on them altogether), his fundamental assessment is correct: The enthusiasm on display by promoters tends to obscure the real harm being done by encouraging regular people to enter the cryptocurrency casino. ■ For that is all it is right now: A casino in which turbulent pricing prevails, promises of riches cloud judgment, billions are laundered, and scammers have a heyday. ■ Emotions affect all sorts of ways in which people allocate their money -- whether shopping, investing, or speculating. That's nothing new. Nor is the allure of quick riches -- gambling will always be with us. But gambling cloaked as being on the "smart" side of investing ought to be discouraged. Anything can be sold as currency if people are willing to believe it is scarce and represents a store of value: Gold, seashells, or publicly-tracked computer bits. But we really don't need more speculation in our lives: The fear of missing out ought to be eclipsed by the skepticism of being taken for a ride.

February 18, 2022

News Great minds think together

The old phrase says that "Great minds think alike", which is often a convenient consolation. After all, great minds quite often think differently, not only from one another, but from most other minds around them. But there is an undeniable sense of pleasure that comes from finding oneself in agreement with someone else, especially where there is mutual trust and respect. ■ A phrase that deserves to come into currency alongside the well-known one is "Great minds think together". One of the well-recognized aspects of couplehood (and of family life in general) is that sharing life experience with other people permits us to "remember" in a social context, rather than just our own. Spouses know each other's stories, and can not only bring them up, but embellish or enhance them upon repetition. The same often goes for siblings, for parents and their children, and even for cousins, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. ■ But we don't just remember things with the help of collective memory. We think socially, too. Nothing could have ever made this quite so evident on so large a scale as the isolation so abruptly imposed on practically everyone with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Informal social thinking -- scuttlebutt, water-cooler talk, "bouncing ideas off you", and the like -- has suffered tremendously over the last two years. It's been noticeable both in personal and occupational contexts; lots of employers still haven't resumed regular in-office work, church attendance remains dramatically down, and there are parts of the world where private gatherings are still strictly limited. ■ Thinking together serves many purposes at the same time, both regulatory and generative. Sharing an idea with friends is often a way to test whether it's worth further pursuit or ought to be left alone -- we help to regulate one another by pointing towards or away from ideas, based on our own knowledge, values, and experience. But we also generate new ideas through collaboration, even when it's informal; you pick up on a new recipe from a friend, they suggest a new author you should read, and soon enough, you're teaching one another whole new cooking techniques and reviewing movies together. ■ Psychologists will have to find ways of studying this massive natural experiment in which we have all been involuntarily enrolled for two years. There is only so much a chat feature in a Zoom meeting or an always-open Slack channel can do to facilitate the natural and organic exchanges that lead us to think together. ■ In some workplaces, productivity has risen as people have worked from home. But alert students of institutional memory know that much of workplace education still takes place informally, and it's undoubtedly the same for a lot of the leisure thinking we can only do when actively engaged with others -- social thinking. It's not always clear that great minds think alike, but nearly all minds must frequently spend time thinking together.

February 17, 2022

Health Surge capacity

Suppose you could see into the future and be highly confident that we were likely to see an annual or near-annual cycle of Covid-19 outbreaks for a significant time to come, perhaps for a decade or more. If you had that knowledge, what would you do at the policy level to prepare for those high-stress periods that we aren't obviously doing today? ■ This question is important, because we don't know whether we will ever return to the status quo ante. What if short but very intense stress waves on the medical system become chronic? We have long rather unconsciously accepted that influenza will put stress on our society and our health-care systems every winter. What if we should also anticipate periodic Omicron-like spikes in hospitalizations -- maybe every 9 to 12 months -- despite having outstanding vaccines? ■ For now, the systemic pressure comes mainly from the unvaccinated, but we're still so new to this challenge that we don't know whether it will subside or remain with us effectively in perpetuity -- a problem unlikely to be permanently eradicated. Maybe it will, but we can't really count yet on that hope. ■ One possibility is that we might want to set up policies to permit (and train) something like a medical reserve corps. We have reserves in the military, as well as police auxiliaries and volunteer fire departments. Their presence doesn't diminish the full-time professionals in those fields, but it does give them options in times of acute need. What if we trained people to supply reserve capacity for medical care, too? ■ People respond to incentives -- as well as to disincentives. The United States has unusually high barriers to entry into the medical profession, including educational training that takes two years longer than most of our peer-group countries. It's likely those barriers disincentivize people from becoming doctors. In the typical six years required to become a PA (physician assistant) in the US, one could have completed a typical full medical degree in Sweden, the UK, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, or many other wealthy countries. ■ For the number of times we have been told in the last two years about medical systems "near collapse", it seems prudent to look for answers that might give us surge capacity in times of crisis. It seems even more prudent to do so in light of the widespread concern about burnout and emotional exhaustion among health-care professionals. ■ The Army trains combat medic specialists in 16 weeks. They are not supposed to be substitutes for doctors or nurses, but rather to be the best-available assistance between the point of crisis and a more thorough standard of care. If pandemic (or endemic) surges are going to return often and for the foreseeable future, maybe we need to make room both legally and logistically for people in the civilian world who can be called up from time to time to backstop doctors and nurses. At the very least, we ought to give the system a close examination.

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February 16, 2022

News Why are we building so little multifamily housing?

In 1972, the United States had an estimated population of 208 million people. Today, we have 332 million. Yet despite the increase in population -- 124 million additional people -- there are about 45% fewer new multi-family housing units being started. While it's certainly not the only reason people are complaining about high housing prices, it's also impossible to look away from the basic relationship between supply and demand. Demand is forever on the rise (as the population grows) and supply not only has to keep pace with that growth but with the loss of old dwellings as old housing stock wears out. ■ Single-family homes remain the 800 lb. gorilla in the American imagination, but multifamily housing has several roles to play: It's not only the place where many people start as they stake out on their own in adulthood, it's also where lots of people choose to live in retirement. And for many people, it can be a sensible choice for lots of the time in-between. But we're very good at chasing multi-family housing out of the market, particularly through zoning laws. ■ Resistance to multi-family housing can be very strong and can create a major impediment to new construction. Sometimes that resistance is active (manifesting as objections to particular projects), but it's often systemically baked into zoning laws and land-use regulations. ■ Since so much of the resistance and opposition is based upon perceptions and assumptions, some of the questions that deserve to be asked are qualitative rather than quantitative. ■ Perhaps the most important question is: How different would the picture for multi-family housing be if it were seen as a net creator of value for nearby single-family housing, rather than perceived as a detractor? More specifically, but perhaps more to the point: How much of the categorical resistance to multifamily housing is a result of a broad-based lack of creative, attractive architecture? ■ Apartments, townhomes, condominiums, and even mixed-use buildings tend to be either stultifyingly bland or achingly predictable. The closest thing to real creativity tends to be the repurposing of old industrial buildings into lofts, and even that aesthetic has become a cliche (exposed brick, ghost signs, and ductwork -- we've seen it already). ■ Especially when it comes to delivering on the "missing middle" in the housing market, perhaps what is most needed (aside from the obvious regulatory and zoning reforms) is an attitude change -- one that sees multi-family housing as a value-adding feature in a neighborhood, rather than a value-depressant. People often need to see the proof of a concept before they can get on board with a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) attitude. ■ The imagination on display in some places should inspire people to see that density doesn't have any excuse to be ugly, and in turn that attractively-designed dwellings (whether detached or multi-family) can not only fit within but ultimately enhance the neighborhoods where they are built. Aesthetic appeal isn't the only thing that matters, but it certainly has a role to play in reconciling attitudes with the real needs of the market.

February 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Your app can't love you (but does it have a duty to help?)

Valentine's Day may be the peak of the "Hallmark holidays", but that doesn't stop institutions of all sorts from trying to weigh in on the theme of love. Snapchat, for instance, pushed a bland, programmatic message to its users for the holiday: "Happy Valentine's Day! Snap some love to those around you and save some for yourself of course". ■ Considering how much social-media applications depend upon user engagement to remain viable, it's no surprise that any viable opportunity to tug on emotional cues to suggest that people use an app is likely to turn into such a "push" message. But generic messages of this sort always seem hopelessly hollow, and that's odd, considering the centuries-long history of beautiful writing about love (and by those in love) throughout the canon of literature. ■ It's probably too much, of course, to expect anyone working in corporate branding at a place Snapchat to come up with a few lines that would achieve with an economy of words (and heart emojis) the kinds of sentiments it took Shakespeare 25,545 words to express in "Romeo and Juliet". But maybe it isn't too much to ask. ■ The half-hearted attempt to suggest that the user engage in "self-care" by "sav[ing] some for yourself of course" hints at the the inkling of a sense of duty: That we ought to know that Valentine's Day isn't a purely joyful day for all -- either because of love lost, or of love never found. Romance may be a nearly-universal aspect of human experience, but so are heartbreak and longing. Knowing that, is it really enough to commit the digital equivalent of a drive-by shooting with Cupid's arrow? ■ We have a long way to go before we truly grasp what our ever-present devices, our dopamine-triggering applications, and our complex senses of digital community are doing to us. For the exceptional good they are capable of doing, they are also risky: To at least the same extent that computers can help monitor our social and emotional well-being, they are also capable of creating insidious hazards to vulnerable brains. ■ The science of it all is still so young that it is undoubtedly premature to think that the duty to prevent harm can be effectively imposed by regulation or other forms of legal control. But that duty exists nonetheless, and the people who work on these things we so casually call "platforms" must be reminded constantly of their human responsibility to ensure that they do the right thing. ■ There may be nothing wrong with sending a push message on an emotionally charged holiday like Valentine's Day, but it cannot escape the attention of reasonable people that there is a big difference between offering an aisle full of candy and cards for sale in a grocery store, and sending a message virtually unfiltered straight into a user's brain on a day when they might be in a vulnerable state. ■ It's not just the quality of the language that matters (though surely someone ought to look at examples like the love letters of John and Abigail Adams to see that they can do better than "Snap some love"); it's the psychology at work in both what is said and unsaid that has consequences, too. The choice to "do no harm" is available to everyone, including those of us outside the medical professions. And sometimes, rather than saying things poorly or risking saying something unintentionally harmful, it may be best to refrain from saying anything at all.

The United States of America A simple test

New rule: No one is allowed to advocate for any national legislation until they can label every state on a blank map without assistance. Before you try to tell other people how to live their lives, you'd better know how to tell your Ohio from your Idaho (and both from your Iowa).

Computers and the Internet WYSIWYG is what did WordPerfect in

A brief walk down memory lane: WordPerfect had much better shortcut keys than Microsoft's word processors for use in the pre-Windows days, but they made a train wreck of their transition to WYSIWYG and it was all downhill from there. Microsoft Works was garbage.

February 13, 2022

Business and Finance You're a conglomerateur, too

Go back in time to the 1970s and early 1980s, and you'll find big, widely-diversified conglomerates all across the American business landscape: Companies like ITT (which owned everything from Sheraton Hotels to insurance and timber companies. At one time, the movie studio Paramount Pictures was owned by Gulf + Western, which also owned Consolidated Cigar and New Jersey Zinc. ■ Though there are still a few deeply-diversified companies still around today, they are a rare breed: Berkshire Hathaway, Loews, and a handful of other companies still operate on the principle that wide diversification benefits the shareholder. On a company level, it's more common to hear praise for spinoffs and "pure plays" than for portfolio broadening. ■ The conglomerates of that period were a result of a number of factors, not least of which included the taxation of both corporate profits and individual dividends, as well as the cost to borrow money. When it's expensive to borrow and taxes on dividends are high, it can serve investors well to have their profits reinvested at the corporate level. Profits under those conditions can be used as a substitute for high-interest borrowing and increase a company's total profits. ■ One of the great missed opportunities of the modern educational era is that we don't really educate our secondary or post-secondary students in the basic history of American business. That history is important not only to telling much of the story about how America has become the country it is today, but also to helping young people learn foundational principles useful for their own investing. ■ It may not have seemed important to understand business valuations back when the promise of a secure, defined-benefit pension was commonplace. It isn't anymore; most people are on the hook for their own retirement investing. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: Many companies made pension promises they couldn't actually fulfill, and the shortfalls have resulted in a lot of pain for retirees who ended up getting less than they had been promised. It's probably better to educate individuals so they can have greater control for themselves. ■ But that means every individual investor needs to acquire at least some of the same skills that once benefited the conglomerateurs. Knowing how much a company is worth is one of those essential skills for individual investors -- unless they intend to hand over the duties to the market overall (via index funds) or by paying someone else to do the work. Everyone in the era of individual investing needs the skills that once made for great stories. Teaching them is a much more important and valuable responsibility than we've given them credit.

Humor and Good News Where is Martha Stewart?

The halftime show at Super Bowl LVI was fantastic, but it could have used just a little more Martha Stewart alongside her pal Snoop Dogg

February 12, 2022

News Possibly the most grating sentence ever published

"EV Hotel, which is billed as 'the first crypto and tech hotel,' has partnered with Chicago Digital Exchange (CDX), a cryptocurrency and NFT exchange, on a CDX Crypto trading floor"

Business and Finance Housing prices falling in Hong Kong

Bloomberg on the housing situation in Hong Kong: "The number and value of new home transactions already fell by 29 per cent and 18 per cent respectively in January from the month before, Ricacorp data show." The only real surprise is that the dreadful National Security Law hadn't tanked housing prices in Hong Kong already.

Humor and Good News On the matter of discipline

Scissors are just knives with applied discipline

February 11, 2022

News What is the northern recipe?

The Nordic countries -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland -- are widely viewed as some of the best-governed countries in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit issues a "Democracy Index" every year, and those five countries not only make a clean sweep of Europe's top 5, they are also five of the top six in the world (New Zealand manages to squeeze in at #2). ■ What seems strange about their performance isn't that they are unlikely candidates, but that there isn't an obvious compelling reason for them to be so uniquely good at what they do. Finland was occupied by Russia until a mere century ago. Sweden and Norway were ruled by a common kingdom from 1814 until 1905. Denmark was occupied by the Nazi regime of Germany from 1940 until 1945. ■ All of this is to say that there are other countries with longer-standing fully-independent democratic institutions. And other countries have much more recognizable pedigrees of influential political theory: The United Kingdom, for instance, gave the world John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, to name only a few. When we consider vast intellectual movements like the Enlightenment, lots of other European countries left behind much more prominent footprints. ■ Nor is there a widely-known canon of literature explaining the Nordic philosophy of liberal democracy -- at least not in the same way that Americans know where to look for Paine's "Common Sense", the Federalist Papers, and de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to explain the American idea. ■ Yet clearly something is being done well in the Nordic countries, and consistently so -- despite the differences among them. Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are members of NATO; Sweden and Finland are not (at least, not for now). Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are members of the European Union; Norway and Iceland are not. These are not trivial differences. ■ Nor are their economies the same; Iceland depends on tourism, aluminum smelting, and fishing, while Norway is one of the world's biggest oil producers, and Finland relies heavily on timber exports. ■ It may be that the countries' shared cultural identity and commitment to intergovernmental cooperation through structures like the Nordic Council cause them to behave alike without having a particularly unique historic pedigree establishing an globally-recognized way. And maybe that itself is the reason it works -- their policies emerge more as organic manifestations of habits that have been shaped by trial and error rather than as ideals that must be adhered-to in order to keep the faith with the past. ■ Whatever the causes, the effects show them to be indisputably worth a closer look -- especially as the world grows wealthier and more technologically sophisticated. It's going to grow harder and harder for tyrants and authoritarians to keep their people from at least becoming aware that there are better ways than oppression and submission. The easier we can make the process of emulating the most successful and durable democracies, the better.

February 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting up a caution flag

Social media gives us high-visibility reminders that there is no reliable correlation between the ease of finding content and the truth of that content. For every faithful account of events, there could be infinite misrepresentations of the same. That's the whole point of propaganda tactics like hashtag flooding, recently used by the Chinese government to swamp the social-media hashtag "#GenocideGames" (meant to protest the 2022 Beijing Olympics) and drown it in a sea of spam, effectively neutering the original message. ■ Even when bad faith isn't strictly involved, lots of people share their thoughts online with insufficient regard for their duty to the truth. And because so much of the contemporary understanding of the world is influenced either by what people read online (84% of American adults "often" or "sometimes" get their news through digital devices), and by how journalistic outlets reach their news judgments (one research paper called it the "routinization of Twitter into news production"), the flow of content is too important to overlook. ■ For example, it would be a useful feature if social media tools allowed users add a marker like a caution triangle to the accounts they follow, visible only to themselves, to mark those accounts they follow out of curiosity or necessity, but which need to be read with added caution or skepticism. Sources vary not only in the frequency of what they share, but also the weight that should be attached to them. ■ One of the privileges of a well-rounded education is in gaining an understanding that lots of things asserted in writing or in other records are subjective, distorted by the author's perspective, purely opinion-based, or flat-out wrong. And they're often mixed with truths. Conscious consumption of all sorts of media requires that the audience be able to detach itself from the moment and consider it critically. ■ A good, well-rounded education also helps a person to understand that sometimes the best information is found in a footnote. Or in marginalia. Or in the informal institutional memory of an organization. Or in the disorganized stacks in the basement of a library. ■ Humans need practice to develop the skill of learning how to sort, rate, and weigh information. If a person's understanding is (crudely) "It's in a textbook, so it must be true", then they need more practice. Things asserted as "Facts" sometimes really belong in gray spaces. ■ Likewise, we read and understand things through filters that include principles, and sometimes those principles come into conflict. "Tell the truth" is a vital principle -- unless, for instance, telling a lie would save a life. Then, "Save a life" should prevail and the truth should go out the window. The whole reason to have a Supreme Court is to reach judgments in those places where rules and principles come into friction with one another. Court opinions, "stare decisis", and common law are all parts of a communal attempt to reach decisions through a cloud of imperfect information. ■ In light of all this, it is worrisome that we have such a tenuous grasp on what it means to learn. We really know shockingly little about how the human learning process works -- and now humans are programming computers to "learn", such as it is. And often, badly, which is why self-driving cars have been programmed to roll through stop signs and otherwise convincing artificially-generated faces sometimes contain telltale errors, like bungled teeth. ■ The real friction is that increasing dependency on artificial intelligence exposes us to big shortcomings in our understanding of the nature of learning itself. How do you tell artificial intelligence not to believe everything it "reads"? Or that some principles are inviolable...until they aren't? Or that a footnote can mean anything from "This explains everything above" to "The author was bored and wanted to crack a joke"? ■ The prospects are vast for machine learning to do lots of useful things -- in consultation with human oversight and judgment. But we can't let crypto-bros and techno-utopians do all the thinking about what's upstream of AI, or else we're headed for serious trouble. We need caution flags not only for ourselves, but for the tools we're training to think like us, too.

February 9, 2022

Humor and Good News Stopping birds' motion in flight

A positively delightful series of photos capturing the flight patterns of birds, bats, and dragonflies. Thoroughly wonderful to behold.

Broadcasting Good news, everyone!

Hulu is bringing back "Futurama". Now, if only someone would reboot "The Critic".

February 8, 2022

News Poetry isn't a substitute for logic

Venturing boldly (if unnecessarily) into the geopolitical arena, the ice cream brand Ben and Jerry's offers the following analysis: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. We call on President Biden to de-escalate tensions and work for peace rather than prepare for war. Sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia's threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war." ■ The phrase "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war" sounds lovely, and it has a respectable pedigree: Albert Einstein penned it. But the logic of the argument is faulty. ■ Consider swapping out the word "war" for other unwanted events: A declaration like "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for fire" would count as heresy to any fire department (or forestry agency). Likewise, a police department would reject the notion that "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for crime". A hospital undoubtedly tries to both prevent and prepare for disease, and a security company surely tries to prevent and prepare for burglary. ■ It is one thing to say that preparing for an undesirable outcome (and war surely is an undesirable event) is a regrettable act. It is quite another to say that preparation itself is contrary to the nature of peace. ■ Plenty of people involved in war have believed in the values of preparation and deterrence: Dwight Eisenhower declared in his first inaugural address that "[W]e Americans know and we observe the difference between world leadership and imperialism; between firmness and truculence; between a thoughtfully calculated goal and spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies." And James Mattis said as Secretary of Defense that "Our will to win is not more important than our will to prepare to win." Neither man wanted more bloodshed; both sought less precisely because they knew intimately the human cost of war. ■ Just because a phrase is artfully put doesn't make it sensible, and Einstein's quote is a case study in the difference between the two. It is imperative to plan for the worst -- whether that means the worst of natural disasters or the worst of what humans can do to one another. To make preparations may well be the saem act as to implement preventative measures. ■ Moral philosophers -- often including vocal pacifists -- have often argued "If you want peace, work for justice". If an act by a powerful force would be unjust -- like, for instance, a large military making war by invading a smaller neighbor out of self-interest -- then the truly peaceful act may well be for other powerful forces to intercede. The principle that the strong should come to the aid and defense of those who are weaker is nothing new.

Health The sleep of the past wasn't necessarily any better than yours

Derek Thompson: "The romanticization of preindustrial sleep fascinated me. It also snapped into a popular template of contemporary internet analysis: If you experience a moment's unpleasantness, first blame modern capitalism." ■ Worth noting: It's hard to take seriously any sleep-related recommendations from a time before interior climate controls, pillow-top mattresses, contoured pillows, white-noise machines, deadbolts on front doors, smoke detectors, or countless of the other modern niceties that offer us the privilege of choosing how and when to sleep. Our biggest problem is likely that people simply don't know how (or choose not) to implement good habits of sleep.

News Couple arrested and charged with money-laundering billions

These numbers are so unreal they make the entire allegation (featuring cryptocurrency) seem like a work of fantasy fiction.

News Russia takes shot at French president just after meeting with him

Generally speaking, if you follow up a meeting by publicly undercutting the authority of your counterpart, then you're going to sound weak and petty -- not unlike demanding to speak with a manager.

News How education changed a family that had been enslaved

A brief but illustrative family history. It's fascinating and perspective-enhancing to note the impact of education on families as larger units, especially when generations were explicitly denied access to it.

February 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Decent disagreement

In Federalist Paper No. 51, "Publius" (either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison) wrote that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." It is a seminal argument about the nature of power: Checks and balances among competing power centers, deriving powers that are rivalrous to one another, serve as a more reliable insurance policy against overreach than hopes, prayers, and goodwill. The logic of those checks and balances embedded in the Constitution is a testament to Madison's efforts to finely tune the machine. ■ But nobody said anything about how to counter trolling. And that's a problem with which we moderns must deal. ■ The odious practice of using physical intimidation and online harassment to trouble the personal lives of elected officials has gotten well out of hand. Protesters have turned the front lawns of police chiefs and mayors into rally sites. Security details have had to raise their defenses at governors' residences over the hazards created by crowds. Houseboats and bathroom stalls and airport terminals have all turned into potentially unsafe spaces. ■ The intimidation isn't limited to physical presence. An online tabloid declares "We Have Kyrsten Sinema's Social Security Number" and hints at how it could be found by others and abused. Mayors are targeted with online threats. Nor should it be forgotten that a major Presidential candidate gave out a rival's phone number and suggested that people "try it" in 2015. ■ Things have been worse at times in the past. Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated. Terrorist campaigns plagued the Reconstruction era. ■ Our distinctly modern problem is that as the country's population grows ever larger and our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the guardrails that keep the distance between differences of opinion and matters of personal jeopardy become ever more fragile. And if we expect our elected officials to give up ever more -- of their personal safety, their privacy, their online security, or merely their own access to quiet -- then it becomes distinctly possible that good people will simply walk away, or never look at public service in the first place. ■ Gresham's Law in economics states that bad money chases out good. If we aren't sufficiently consistent and clear about rejecting bad behavior in the political sphere, no matter how much we dislike a politician's behavior or how justified we believe our own causes to be, then we risk imposing a Gresham's Law over politics -- in which bad people will drive out the good. Ambition will forever be present, but ambition can be decent and honorable -- or it can be indecent and dishonorable. ■ We've already come much too close to the edge of crippling political violence in recent memory. Disagreement on merits is utterly wholesome. But tactics intended to substitute personal discomfort as a means of pressure against others ought to be designated clearly out of bounds.

Business and Finance The loudest voices aren't necessarily the most authoritative

But the problem for more than one academic field (prominently including economics) is that influence in the real world often depends on being part of the conversation. The question of whether academics should insert themselves into public debates is reminiscent of the long-standing differences in the Catholic Church between the orders that cloister themselves (like the Trappists) and the missionaries (like the Jesuits).

Aviation News Airline merger: Frontier to buy Spirit

That's the proposal, but we'll have to wait and see whether it obtains regulatory approval. If it goes through, they'll need to decide what to call the resulting fleet. "Frontier Spirit" Airlines sounds bold, aggressive, and Western -- calling for a commercial voiceover by Sam Elliott. "Spirit Frontier" Airlines, on the other hand, sounds like it uses meditation music during the safety briefing and diffuses essential oils into the air vents, with commercial voiceover by Gwyneth Paltrow. Decisions, decisions.

February 6, 2022

News Which ROC?

The Olympic Games feature a team under the name of "Russian Olympic Committee", or ROC, as a penalty for Russia's flagrant violations of the rules of competition. But "ROC" is supposed to stand for Taiwan, the Republic of China. Instead, they're forced to compete as "Chinese Taipei", and the athletes are not allowed to use their national symbols in competition.

Humor and Good News A delightful lesson in Internet security

Even the Queen of England needs to watch what papers she inadvertently shares in her Instagram photos

Humor and Good News "Put that T-Rex on skis"

Cross-promotion between the Winter Olympics and the new Jurassic Park movie has gotten really weird.

February 5, 2022

Broadcasting The Ocho is back

The fact that ESPN fully commits to the gag really is hilarious

February 4, 2022

News Don't know, don't care (more than a person should)

The power of spoken and written language is vast, and it's certainly one of the keenest advantages we have over the rest of the animal kingdom. The incredible power that resides in being able to transmit knowledge across centuries of time using nothing but written words really can't be overstated. The remainder of the animal kingdom has ways of communicating, but not in the recorded ways we do. ■ But in the moment, for the transmission of what's important right now, we almost never depend upon words alone. Where other living, breathing individuals are involved, we almost always use both verbal and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal language is even the way we communicate with animals like dolphins. It isn't really 90% of our total communication, as the urban legend would have it, but it means a lot -- especially where words leave ambiguity. ■ And if there were ever a nonverbal signal upon which we should put more emphasis, it is the humble act of the shoulder shrug. Not necessarily the shrug emoji (though it definitely has value), but the real-life lifting of the shoulders, either to indicate indifference or uncertainty. ■ To admit that we don't know something takes self-confidence. The Tao Te Ching counsels that "To know that you do not know is highest; to not know but think you know is flawed". Benjamin Franklin put it that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." ■ Confessing that one doesn't know is a very close cousin to admitting that one doesn't have an opinion. That's why the same shoulder shrug can communicate either: Uncertainty or indifference. Of course, it can go too far -- some people choose indifference to all things as a mark of ironic detachment from the world. But there is a different kind of detachment -- an earnest one -- that traces its roots at least back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said "[U]nderstand that every event is indifferent and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be; for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder." ■ Spend any amount of time following the chatter of media (mass, social, opinion, or otherwise), and you will find a world of people who substitute certainty over passing things -- especially the ephemera of things like party politics -- for the conditioned uncertainty of things we don't know, and maybe even cannot. The world is open to absolutely limitless wonder in ways that overshadow everything we actually know. But it is a crying shame that the quest to latch on to certainty makes so many human beings ready and eager to spend huge stores of time and energy on proclaiming their absolute certainty about things that really don't stick around. ■ To our shame, in the modern era there are opinion-mongers who host programs with obsessively certain names like "I'm Right" and self-described journalists who are devoted to posting outrages hour-by-hour for the consuption of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in an audience who apparently revel in being carried along for the ride. They are rewarded by a market for overstimulation and oversaturation of opinion. ■ Instead of going along with that troublesome course, why not more of the humble shoulder shrug? It is both decent to admit uncertainty and honorable to admit an earnest indifference. Most of us could stand to practice it more often.

February 3, 2022

Humor and Good News Who belongs on the gallery wall?

The lovely idea of decorating an office wall with a gallery composed of what one might call "patron saints" has a lot going for it. One doesn't have to agree or disagree with anyone else's choice of characters to display or admire, because the exercise itself is worthwhile. ■ Nobody has the liberty to choose their own birth parents, but everyone can (and should) pick their own intellectual forebears. It's a good idea to consciously pick some attitudinal role models (real and/or fictitious), too. A character doesn't have to be real to offer something worthwhile to emulate -- and indeed many real figures are so good at building their own origin myths that hagiography is often just as good at creating fiction as a deliberate work of creative writing itself. ■ It's nice, of course, when those figures are both real and honestly represented. That's supposed to be the point of tributes, monuments, and memorials -- putting one on display represents a community decision about which people to emulate. We often literally put some of them on a pedestal. There's no reason not to do the same in a workplace, where suitable. ■ Presidents try to communicate things about their values by the busts and portraits they display in the Oval Office. It's a useful practice not because the people on display are perfect, but because they remind us tangibly of abstract values and principles. Could it ever be bad for President to be reminded to ask themselves, "What would George Washington do?" or "Would Abraham Lincoln approve?" ■ But even those of us with far fewer weighty decisions to make still benefit from thinking about our influences. And for as much attention as goes into office decor (now that we're in the era of the perpetual Zoom meeting), it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the best room ratings ought to go not to the biggest walls of well-arranged books (even though those are often pleasing to the eye), but to the best arrangements of "patron saints" -- even if the "saints" are entirely secular. ■ In many dioceses of the Catholic church, candidates for Confirmation choose a patron saint as a confirmation name, usually with a requirement to explain why. Generally, these candidates are teenagers, and, sure, some kids merely pick a name because they like the sound of it. But others really think about it. As well they should! ■ Do you really know who you want to be when you're 16? Not really. Are some religious saints probably terrible role models for life? Yes. But it's really the process that has value more than the choice itself. ■ One of the best reasons to really think about those role models -- intellectual, attitudinal, or otherwise -- is because the process reminds us of the universality of the human experience. We're not really that different from one another, no matter where or in what era we live. ■ That human nature is mostly consistent everywhere and mainly unchanging throughout history is reassuring. Rarely are our problems completely new and novel. And that means we're free to look at the sum of human experience and pick guides who can help make our own paths easier. Whether one chooses real people or merely the characters created by them doesn't really change matters -- the point is in the exercise of realizing how much "nature" resides in "human nature". ■ By no means does that render us helpless, adrift on a sea ruled by fate. To the contrary, it means that we have free will and choices to make with it. And we'd best decide to rule ourselves as though we are aware of the others who have experienced life before. And if putting a few of their pictures on a wall helps to do that, so much the better.

February 2, 2022

Business and Finance The Times sees the signs

It may be going too far to label the New York Times a "lifestyle brand", but the Old Gray Lady is engaged in what is clearly a process of self-definition that has grown beyond "All the news that's fit to print". In the latest move, the Times has reached a deal to acquire the game Wordle, which has become the social sensation of the moment. ■ Games are obviously nothing new to the Times; the Internet in particular seems only to have instigated institutional interest in being seen as a center for word games. But the Times has been publishing crossword puzzles since World War II, and one Times columnist reports that the old internal saying was that "the crossword puzzle pays for the Baghdad bureau". That kind of cross-subsidy is neither new to publishing nor shocking. ■ But what's interesting -- at least for the moment -- is that the Times seems to be alone in its quest to be seen as a reliable source of original, exclusive, and differentiated way-of-life media content. The Wall Street Journal has stuck its toe into leisure reporting and the Washington Post has some games on its website, but neither has pressed in the same way on brand-defining content outside of straight news coverage (especially of financial and political topics, respectively) as the Times has done. ■ What's odd, too, is that American media outlets in other conventional lanes -- television networks, radio groups, magazines, cable channels, and even websites -- have ceded the same turf to the Times without really even trying. It doesn't really mean much of anything for a person to identify as a "CBS News viewer" or a "Yahoo subscriber", and aside from the obvious political connotations that tend to bear with calling oneself an MSNBC or Fox News viewer, there's little that seems to exist to attach people to those larger brand umbrellas. Sure, one can pay for the Disney Bundle, but streaming services don't really have reputations beyond the specific shows or movies they deliver. ■ This all seems odd because even if the Times has an advantage in this area, it's still a work in progress and remains quite new. One writer notes that news subscriptions are much more important to the Times than they were two decades ago, but that revenues not directly related to news are now driving the company's subscription growth. In other words, the Times is reacting to changing circumstances -- but it's neither alone in the economic conditions it faces, nor is there any reason to think it has a right to a monopoly in its lane. ■ Historically, the pattern always seems to have favored at least three major competitors in a mass market -- think of the Big Three automakers in Detroit; the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks; or the longtime triumvirate of American, United, and Delta in the skies. The stability of a three-sided competitive market isn't permanent; all three of those examples have succumbed to intense pressure from at least one tough rival (Toyota, Fox, and Southwest, respectively). ■ But it would come as no surprise if there were to emerge at least two other Times-like original/exclusive content sources that attempted to establish themselves as competitors in the same broader-than-just-news category -- not because the Times will fall short, but because of the success itself. There's no form of flattery quite like imitation, and it would be a massive mistake to ignore the success of forays like NYT Cooking. ■ Success will likely depend upon having at least some established name to use as a base, especially since that cachet is important to attracting both subscribers and content generators. But that name will have to be at least relatively free of baggage -- even people who don't like the editorial stance of the Times generally recognize it as being mostly mainstream. ■ It would be fair to guess that The Atlantic might take a stab at following the Times model, but it tends to occupy a very similar lane (in terms of where its perspective leans) with the Times. It would be fascinating to see a similarly mainstream institution -- but perhaps with a gently different outlook -- try to become the same kind of content giant. Historically, one might have imagined the Chicago Tribune to be prepared to take up such a spot, but its new owners have chosen to downsize radically rather than think bigger. So, assuming the Times isn't barking up the wrong tree altogether, who will it be?

February 1, 2022

Threats and Hazards Can't you do any better than this?

It seems odd that telephone companies are, on one hand, rolling out 5G network service and promising a whole new world of speedy data, while remaining utterly incapable of handling the epidemic of spoofed numbers on the other. The expansion of 5G service represents a triumph of technology -- one that resulted in a protracted dispute with the airline industry, because of the possibility that those electronic signals could interfere with the radio altimeters that tell airplanes how high they are above the ground. ■ Taking additional safety precautions over 5G may not have been strictly necessary: European telecommunications companies seem to have avoided aviation hazards through some collaboration with the aviation regulators there, and some of the European precautions may have been sufficient to protect aviation in the United States, too. But nobody wants to be the bureaucrat or the corporate executive who let an airliner crash. Thus, we have lots of inter-agency and partisan finger-pointing, but the end result is that safety concerns have prevailed. ■ Yet for all the safety-related concern that has gone into 5G regulation, why hasn't the problem of spoofing been treated as a similar safety issue? ■ It may seem that the main problems of spoofed numbers come from general nuisance or from the risk that calls originating from false numbers are a source of fraud. Indeed, spoofed numbers cause both, and the Federal Trade Commission has much to say about the problem and extent of phone scams. ■ But faked numbers are a very real security and safety problem, too. "Swatting", or placing an emergency call to police from a fraudulent or spoofed source, puts innocent people in real danger of finding themselves on the receiving end of an abrupt and potentially intense or even dangerous visit from police. ■ Spoofing is also a tool useful to some of those who would circulate rumors of school or workplace violence, including bomb threats. At least 14 HBCUs were targeted with bomb threats on the first day of February. It's too early for the public to have learned whether any particular threat involved spoofing or not, but it's virtually certain that the perpetrators tried to cover their tracks with spoofed numbers. ■ The criminals may have been domestic terrorists (and even a false bomb threat is likely to qualify as an act of terrorism). They may have been foreign, too -- and it should be plainly evident that bad actors abroad can see the weakness in our system and perceive how they might gain from stoking fear and division among Americans. It is known that malevolent forces in Russia have tried to instigate racial hostilities within the United States in very recent memory, and creating problems for HBCUs on the first day of Black History Month would be an unsurprising move on their part. ■ Fundamentally, the scope of the incident -- again, more than a dozen institutions were targeted -- is enough to demonstrate that real harm and disruption to security and safety can be facilitated through telephone calls. It's likely the HBCU threats were coordinated, and virtually certain that they were communicated using tools to evade detection. ■ Telecommunications companies have a civic (if not a legal) duty to take those security problems as seriously as the potential risks that 5G signals pose to aircraft. It's insufficient for phone companies to offer advice like "Don't answer calls from unknown numbers" and "Don't bother tracing spoofers". A perfect system may be beyond reach, but the status quo is entirely inadequate. Spoofing isn't just an inconvenience, it's a danger.

January 31, 2022

Threats and Hazards And then, what happens next?

Wars are costly, nasty things that tend to deprive the world of productive resources and bring suffering to innocent people. That doesn't mean they aren't sometimes necessary -- but prudent people appreciate that they aren't merely a matter of guts and glory for the warfighters, but of real human suffering that ought to be avoided. The problem so often is that prudence is often asymmetrical: The first-mover advantage tends to favor those who start wars while their counterparties look for peace. ■ In the tense situation between Ukraine and Russia, all eyes are on Vladimir Putin -- and on Joe Biden. Russia has invaded Ukraine already under Putin's direction, so the emergent question is what and who might stand in the way of further aggression. ■ By the numbers, Ukraine appears outmatched, which means it would need some other dynamic to change the balance. The weaponry arriving from NATO countries appears to be one such weight on the scale. But there is no particular appetite for war among those NATO members, nor any binding commitment to fight if Ukraine really does suffer an invasion. Though it's hazardous to regress back to a Cold War mindset (rather than to see this as a novel dispute), there is clearly a moral dimension to the question of what constitutes the right thing for the United States to do. ■ The true measure of a country's greatness is its capacity and willingness to do good in the world. Power is relatively easy to wield: Kingdoms have fought each other for at least 3500 years. Using power for good and decent purposes is more complicated. It requires asking: Are we ready, willing, and able to leave the world better than we have found it? ■ Look at World War II: The United States wasn't ready to fight when the fight began. Dwight Eisenhower lamented the abysmal disposition of the armed forces going into the war: "On July 1, 1939, the Army's enlisted strength in the United States -- air, ground, and service -- was less than 130,000", and he referred to the state of military preparedness as "a situation of appalling danger". ■ Even if the United States had been ready to fight in 1939 or 1940, public opinion was not yet willing. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France in mid-1940, 93% of Americans in a Gallup poll opposed declaring war on Germany. ■ Thus, the United States in that moment of emerging war wasn't ready, nor was it willing. But it was able, and once the great "arsenal of democracy" was fired up and public opinion was mobilized, America's place as the great superpower was secured. ■ What is the answer to the complex situation right now? It not only depends upon what we're able to do, but what we're ready and willing to do in the interest of good in the world. Those are measures applicable to our engagements everywhere -- and they aren't strictly reducible to counting Howitzers and Special Forces operators. Conflicts take place far more in gray zones today than at any time in living memory. Americans have a duty to grapple with the consequences of our involvement in the world -- and with the consequences of being unready, unwilling, or unable to act.

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January 30, 2022

Computers and the Internet $100 million worth of embarrassment?

Musical artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are using the presence of their music to try to punish the streaming service Spotify for placing a spotlight on the podcast of Joe Rogan. Young ignited the dispute with a letter taking issue with Rogan's use of his program to promote viewpoints on Covid-19 that don't square with medical standards of care. ■ Platform sites like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are in a position that remains ambiguous, and it seems they like it that way. On one side, they resort to language that suggests they exist to facilitate a sense of community: Facebook users are "friends" and the site's policies are "community standards". On the other side, the platforms are comfortable disclaiming any responsibility for the content they carry. ■ To the extent that any platform is behaving according to the spirit of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they should be generally free to remain at arm's length from the content they host -- while reserving the right to remove content that is harmful. Those protections in Section 230 have largely shown themselves to be good for individual freedoms as they are expressed online. ■ But when the platforms step from facilitating the liberal distribution of content to specifically mixing and arranging the content in order to maximize their profits from the content, something else is afoot. In Spotify's case, paying a huge sum (some say it's $100 million) for exclusive access to Rogan's program. In Facebook's case, it's the knowing use of content-recommendation algorithms intended to increase users' attachment to the site -- in ways that appear to have directed people down foreseeable paths to radicalization. ■ These situations offer clear illustrations that it can be dangerous to pigeonhole certain questions as matters for "business ethics", as opposed to the ethics of individual responsibility. Within an organization, it can be tempting to pass the buck or to treat the institution as a sentient being with its own sense of responsibility. ■ But the reality is that every firm, every government agency, every church, every club, and every other institution is comprised of people. And people have to decide sometimes that a decision with obvious rewards (like profits) isn't worth an ethical compromise. ■ Mitt Romney took a beating for telling an audience at the 2011 Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people". But anyone who listened to Romney critically should have understood that he was really saying that "corporations are [made up of] people" -- that people are the employees, managers, customers, and shareholders of corporations. ■ That understanding isn't just useful for those times we think about matters like corporate tax rates. It's important, too, for understanding that there are standards aside from corporate law or government regulations that ought to apply to making right and ethical decisions. ■ Content hosting platforms ought to have reasonable legal protections, mainly in the interest of preserving the benefits of individual liberties like the freedom of speech. But the people who run those platforms shouldn't mistake the boundaries of the law for the boundaries of what is right.

January 28, 2022

The United States of America The SATs go digital

The College Board has announced that the SAT is going digital throughout the US in 2024. The exam "will still be scored on a 1600 scale" but it will change in content as well as format, turning into a shorter test: "about two hours instead of three for the current SAT, with more time per question". Whatever the changes, the exam will likely still remain one of the most influential tools for sorting talent among students of high school age. ■ That sorting process isn't always about college admissions per se, but that of course has been the main point historically. The United States has a funny relationship with college, of course: Harvard traces its history to 1636 (three cheers for the inaugural graduating Class of 1642!), but over time, the country has used land-grant colleges to democratize the knowledge of agriculture, the GI Bill to reintegrate the veterans of World War II into a changed economy, and the National Defense Education Act to try to help win the Cold War. ■ Yet one thing we've never really undertaken is a mission promoted by some of the Founders. In 1796, George Washington told Congress, "I have heretofore proposed to the consideration of Congress, the expediency of establishing a National University; and also a Military Academy. The desirableness of both these Institutions, has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject". James Madison, serving in Congress at the time, was a leading proponent of the idea. ■ Madison was still pressing for the idea 20 years later as President himself: "The importance which I have attached to the establishment of a university within this District on a scale and for objects worthy of the American nation induces me to renew my recommendation of it to the favorable consideration of Congress." In the end, we ended up with a law school that later merged into George Washington University. ■ Other than the service academies (which served a separate purpose, even in Washington's original conception of the idea), we've never really had such a national university. Lots of other countries have them, but the United States has remained unmoved by the idea. ■ Considering the other ways in which our