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July 27, 2016

Business and Finance Federal Reserve sticks with rates

"[T]he Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent". The FOMC expects low inflation because of low energy prices, but also hopes for the job market to strengthen. This may be some wishful thinking -- and worse, it may overlook some of the political risks that ought to be considered. Ideally, we'd have a stable growth outlook and could start raising rates slowly but deliberately; this FOMC statement may actually betray the truth that they're more concerned about the situation than they're letting on.

Threats and Hazards WWVPD?

What would Vladimir Putin do? Slate has an argument that he would do whatever he could to put someone like Donald Trump into power in the United States. Maybe that's a bit paranoid, but then again, maybe it's not. Trump is so far outside the norms that he thinks snapping "Be quiet!" at reporters is Presidential behavior. (It's not.) What's important to do here is divine the intent of Russian leadership -- what's the motive, and what are they seeking to gain? With Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spinning the invasion of Crimea as Russia "cleaning up" after Ukrainian mismanagement, it's obvious they aren't above playing dirty. Is it simply a strategic win to have the United States run by a weak wannabe-autocrat? Or is the end game to weaken and diminish regional rivals for power in Asia?

Business and Finance Census Bureau reports two straight months of meaningful declines in durable-goods orders

It's bad news across the board, especially after you take out defense orders.

Computers and the Internet Iowa Department of Public Safety fires employee over social-media rants

You have the right to free speech. But you also have a right to the consequences of shooting off your mouth in a public forum.

Humor and Good News The letter of the law

A woman told to obey a dress code that doesn't accommodate her decided to fight back -- by following the letter of the law in the most outlandish ways possible. Brilliant subversion. It's just not that hard to try to empathize with other people -- and to see that a one-size-fits-all policy for something like a dress code may not apply in a reasonable way to all people.


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July 26, 2016

Business and Finance A lot of young men with nothing productive to do

Having a lot of young people (but especially young men) with nothing productive to do is a very hazardous condition. That's what makes the very low labor-force participation rate among young men (particularly those without a high school diploma, but also among some of their peers) a very hazardous situation. Some studies appear to show that many of them are happy to (literally) sit around playing video games all day, but that happiness isn't going to be durable as they age. Low satisfaction will couple with the opportunities that they will have sacrificed by dropping out of the economic and educational systems, and that's almost certain to be a combustible situation in the years to come.

Threats and Hazards Specific Democratic Party employees have been targeted in cyberattacks

It's no accident what's been happening with this cyber-espionage -- it's not impossible to imagine some party other than a state-backed actor being behind the attacks, but it's close. And while China and Russia are the two likeliest states (in terms of means, motive, and opportunity) to try hacking into American political parties, right now it appears that Russia has the biggest motives.

Threats and Hazards The cable-news TV-watcher-in-chief

That's apparently the job that Donald Trump wants, but it's far from the right thing for leadership in the country. He is reported to watch virtually non-stop (a characterization reinforced by videos that show him obsessively watching television on his airplane), and that is a vastly different thing from educating one's self. There is very little novelty and very little original thinking taking place on cable news, and people who are in positions to face new and original problems (like, say, a President) need to be exposed to a lot of information, ideas, and original interpretations of fact so that they will be prepared for serendipitous moments. If the questions that landed on the Oval Office desk were easy, they would have been answered already.

Computers and the Internet Sales are falling at Apple

But the company still claims a gross margin in the upper 30% range, so they have a lot of cushion from which to adapt to new opportunities. The iPhone remains their leading volume item.

Health The world's tallest countries are the Netherlands and Latvia

On average, of course.

News Book review: "Taking Heat", by Ari Fleischer

Verdict: Too many sour grapes.



July 25, 2016

Threats and Hazards Evidence strongly points to a Russian operation behind the DNC email leak

When nuclear powers turn to cyberwarfare like this to influence political outcomes, it's time to pay attention. The FBI has been enlisted to investigate.

Threats and Hazards Threats to abandon our allies are destabilizing and wrong

Donald Trump continues to say things like "We always have to be prepared to walk" on things like our defense agreements with Japan. That undermines national security and global security as well.

Computers and the Internet Verizon is buying the websites of Yahoo for $4.8 billion

They aren't getting the intellectual property or the company's stock in Yahoo Japan or Alibaba

Weather and Disasters Using architecture to solve stormwater problems

Some cities have combined stormwater and sanitary sewers (leftover from the days before that was determined to be a bad practice), and taking some pressure off the system during storms can make things a lot better.

News A county fair inside a (mostly) ghost mall

Omaha's Crossroads Mall is largely empty, and the Douglas County fair has taken up temporary residence.



July 22, 2016

News Washington Post editorial goes all in: Trump a "unique threat to democracy"

A couple of things ought to be borne in mind: First, we have institutions in place to prevent an individual President from over-reaching, and anything that should be done to stress-test those safety nets ought to be undertaken before January. Second, the threat posed by Trump's candidacy is not so much what he would do personally as what he normalizes; he has tolerated, signal-boosted, and winked at a lot of behavior that has been out of bounds in civil society for a long time, and that behavior is a lot more insidious than anything we might expect an Oval Office occupant to do. Third, while opposition to Trump is well-founded, it's going to be very important for his opponents to be specific in their criticisms. Secretary Hillary Clinton likes to lean on the word "dangerous" when describing him, but that's a vague generality. It is actually much more important to lay out clear individual criticisms and to back them up with both evidence and reasoning. For instance, it is evident that Donald Trump isn't a reader. He cannot speak with any fluency about any book that doesn't have his name on the cover (see, for instance, his fumbling with the Bible). Why does that matter? Because it reflects his rather unsettling inability to describe anything in abstract terms. Aside from an idiom here or there, he speaks exclusively in the language of concrete things (just for example, when he says "build a big, beautiful wall", he appears to mean literally that). If there is one thing we should be able to grasp from history, it is that Presidents are rarely called upon to make simple, concrete decisions -- by the time something gets to the President's desk, it is usually complex, abstract, and deeply nuanced. Whatever you may think of the liberal arts in general, they do provide a grounding in and a language for concepts and abstract reasoning. A person who has no interest in that kind of thought process is going to lack a fundamental skill set that is indispensable to the office of the Presidency. Great leaders have fluency in a lot of subjects, including history, that cannot be obtained without reading. Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill -- two great "conservative" leaders of the 20th Century -- were both published historians, just for example. Not every great prime minister or President need be a historian, but they absolutely need basic historical knowledge to do their jobs even moderately well.

The United States of America Sen. Tim Kaine picked as Democratic VP nominee

The Clinton campaign's rollout via Twitter and online seems centered on positioning him as a broadly palatable choice -- a decent guy with center-left leanings, but nothing particularly red-hot.

Threats and Hazards Hackers working for the Russian government broke into the DNC's systems

And now a mountain of internal documents are coming to public attention. Processes matter; the ends do not justify the means. Regardless of what is exposed by the breach, the fact is that agents of a foreign government are actively undertaking cyber-warfare against a major political institution with what is ultimately an underhanded political objective in mind -- an attempt to interfere with U.S. electoral politics.

News Republican defections to Libertarian ticket: DC edition

Four Republican national convention delegates from DC have pledged support for the Johnson-Weld ticket

Computers and the Internet Facebook's Internet-delivery drone takes first test flight

The "Aquila" is intended to hover at 60,000 feet above areas that don't have reliable Internet access and deliver that access via lasers and radio frequencies. The Aquila drones are unmanned and have wingspans wider than the Boeing 737, using solar power during the day and batteries at night to remain in the sky. It's an interesting concept -- Facebook wants tools like this to deliver Internet access to the estimated 4 billion people who don't have high-speed access today, and in developing tools like Aquila, they're trying to leapfrog conventional infrastructure costs and complications. This is private investment in what will surrogate for public infrastructure; Facebook obviously hopes to make money off the new Internet users, but there should be massive social benefits as well, far in excess of Facebook's private net gain.

Agriculture Corn bears some of the blame for insufferable humidity in the Midwest

Transpiration off the plants can add 5°F to 10°F to dewpoints



July 21, 2016

Threats and Hazards What good is an alliance if its partners aren't committed?

The New York Times asked Donald Trump, "If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don't think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?" He answered: "I don't want to tell you what I'd do because I don't want Putin to know what I'd do." Trump is so deeply ingrained in zero-sum thinking that he insists on applying it to world affairs, and that's a very serious problem. Arguing over the value of the Plaza Hotel is a zero-sum game, and unpredictability can confer an advantage to one of the players in such an exchange. But in a question over the defense of NATO allies, it's not zero-sum. There is a preferable and stable outcome to be achieved (peace), and making Putin guess at our response is profoundly destabilizing. It's a bit of logic so basic that it forms one of the key plot elements to the movie "Dr. Strangelove": "Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world?" We don't have to be friendly with Russia (or China, or North Korea, or Venezuela, or Iran...) for us to maintain a stable peace. They only have to know that we are serious and credible. Trump's wobbliness on this matter -- without question -- undermines national security. It's also worrisome that Trump claims not to recognize the historical significance of his slogan, "America First". Great leaders are familiar with history -- enough that they can recognize patterns and game out the consequences of decisions and actions. History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. Historical fluency undoubtedly helped leaders like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, who were both published historians. Not every great leader needs to match them, but at least some knowledge of history is essential.

News A very thoughtful piece about some very thoughtless comments

Omaha World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen assesses Rep. Steve King's recent question, "Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?" Kathie Obradovich at the Des Moines Register had a similarly strong response to King's narrow interpretation of history. Western Civilization has done a lot of good throughout history, and a great number of the achievements we recognize in things like technology and the rule of law spring from it. But western cultures have also done terrible things -- like devastating Native American populations; dominating much of Africa, Asia, and South America through imperial force and colonialism; and instigating both world wars. The good to come out of Western Civilization is mainly a result of its commitment to getting better -- to self-examination and improvement. To have turned his comments from stupid into optimistic, all Rep. King had to do was say something like, "I look forward to a future in which all cultures, all people, and all civilizations are free to achieve their full potential. We will see that when we have a world dominated not by force, but by peace, optimism, and liberty." The world is full of untapped potential, and to the extent that the lingering effects of Western institutions have kept that potential from being fulfilled, we should acknowledge it.

Health The good news: Motor vehicle death rates in the US are well below their levels in 2000

The bad news: We still have 30% more deaths per vehicle-mile traveled than the mean for 20 high-income OECD countries. We should be focusing far more public policy attention on this issue than we are -- even if we only improved to the safety level of the second-worst country on the list (Belgium), we'd save 12,000 lives a year, according to the CDC. That's a stunning and unnecessary death toll. More attention should be devoted to problems we can fix, like this one.

Business and Finance How Chicago's congested rail traffic hurts America

Infrastructure matters deeply to a nation's economic health

Computers and the Internet Yahoo reports loss of $482 million on purchase of Tumblr

The company's announcement of quarterly results is a jumble of figures, and that's rarely a sign that things are going well. But the bottom line is that the company has sold off real estate and is looking to sell a bunch of intellectual property -- two signals that they're struggling hard to stay afloat. The Tumblr investment appears to have been a bad one if they're writing it down by that much, and it's hard to recover when a company makes mistakes that big without enough margin for error.



July 20, 2016

The United States of America "This is a decisive moment in the history of party politics in America"

A whole lot of Americans self-identify as fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. That demographic has been abandoned by the two major parties, but most people don't want to go to the step of becoming members of an outlier third party to express themselves, so they register as independent instead. In 2016, though, the Libertarian Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates are the most mainstream in the party's history -- and they are probably more mainstream than the GOP ticket.

Threats and Hazards US and China meet over the South China Sea dispute

Naval leaders met to discuss things, but China is making no hint of stopping its island construction projects -- and that's a political problem with military repercussions.

Business and Finance Polish government lowers retirement ages

Going down to age 65 for men and age 60 for women. This is populist economics twice over -- goodies for the old (with a promise of earlier payouts) and jobs for the young (by pushing older workers out of the competition). But it won't be sound policy. It's going to cost the country a fortune.

Threats and Hazards Stupefying video of a police shooting in North Miami

An unarmed man with his hands in the air tries to help an autistic person having a crisis, and a police officer shoots him. It's incomprehensible.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft may be making the cloud move in the nick of time

Its subscription-based businesses are doing well at a time when sales of phones and computers are both weak



July 19, 2016

News Unpredictability: Not always a virtue, or even an advantage

Donald Trump's style -- based on unpredictability -- makes at least some sense when applied to exclusively zero-sum interactions, like property wheeling and dealing. Leaving one's counterparties forever on edge may appear to create an advantage in the short term (even if it may actually be counter-productive in the long run as a reputation emerges for that unsatisfactory behavior). But unpredictability is a terrible characteristic to introduce into any kind of cooperative circumstance or transaction. Game theory would tell you that it's great to be unpredictable when doing zero-sum things like negotiating with terrorists, but even then it needs to be a strategic kind of unpredictability. But when that behavior starts to interfere with what should be a giant cooperative endeavor (like running for President on a major-party ticket), then doing things like plagiarizing inexcusable lengths of text for major speeches is nothing if not destructive to one's purported partners. It may be impossible to salvge the Republican Party after this campaign.

Computers and the Internet Detroit is the "least-connected city in the US"

In terms of broadband and general Internet connectivity, at least. 53% of households had no paid Internet access at all as of 2013. The numbers turn to overwhelming majorities among households under $35,000 in annual income. It's hard to imagine how a community can develop economically when so many households are unplugged from what has become fundamentally an essential public utility.

Computers and the Internet Should social media be analyzed to predict lone-wolf attacks?

There's something vaguely reminiscent of the movie "Minority Report" to the idea, but it may also be the only sane investment that can be made in prevention.

Threats and Hazards Know your world: Turkey is a NATO member

So that coup and counter-coup that went down a few days ago are no small matter to Western allies

The United States of America An idiotic immigration system cuts off vital supplies of brain power

Why the United States persists in resisting the inflow of talented, highly skilled workers is a mystery



July 18, 2016

News Military servicemembers show strong support for a third option

A very substantial number are strongly opposed to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and a very substantial number intend to vote for Gary Johnson or to write in another name. The poll, by Military Times, finds just under 30% of respondents from the Navy are looking at a third option -- and the same proportion of officers across all four branches are doing the same.

News Why would any sane candidate pick Richard Nixon as an exemplar?

It boggles the mind, but that's exactly what Donald Trump is consciously doing going into the 2016 Republican National Convention. A deliberate choice has been made to use the Nixon template. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve King is using the moment to embrace and espouse a most shocking and disappointing philosophy.

Business and Finance Britain's exit from the EU will probably hurt Ireland most

Ireland's interdependence with the UK in economic matters is going to make the extraction process expensive and hard on the Republic, even though they weren't the ones who decided to quit the arrangement.

Threats and Hazards Terrorists or just people out of their minds?

Given the visibility and name recognition of terrorist groups like ISIS/ISIL, it's easy for people who commit insane violent acts to claim that they're acting on behalf of organized groups. But it doesn't serve civilization well to over-estimate the power and reach of the groups involved. That gives them power they want.

News Surgeon who treated Dallas police officers after shootings shares his inner conflict

The surgeon, Dr. Brian Williams, shares his inner disquiet at supporting and serving the police while bearing anxiety and fear of how he will be treated by officers because of the color of his skin. Difficult to watch, particularly given his obvious feelings of anguish over the loss of life, yet strongly recommended. In a reasonable world, he would have no reason for such pain. It's up to people of goodwill to empathize and ask what's holding us back from helping to resolve this kind of anguish.



July 17, 2016

The United States of America The Presidential contest isn't a two-way race and it shouldn't be polled as such

Third parties are conventionally only a trivial share of the total vote, so for logistical reasons it can often be argued that they aren't worth polling. But in 2016, the Republican Party's nominee-apparent is himself running as though he is in a third party, and there is overwhelming evidence that a meaningful number of likely voters are planning to vote for an alternative to the two major parties. Any poll that only asks about a Trump-versus-Clinton race without at least adding an option for Gary Johnson (the Libertarian candidate, and an unusually serious one) should not be considered a legitimate survey. November's ballots will not be binary, and the state of the race isn't either.

News Will there be a post-Trump Republican Party?

Jeb Bush, writing in the Washington Post: "[A] few in the Republican Party responded by trying to out-polarize the president, making us seem anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker and anti-common-sense."

News Thousands detained over coup attempt in Turkey

Hundreds of military officers included

Humor and Good News Where the Libyan dictator's furniture went

Garish displays at Trump Tower

Business and Finance An excellent job-interview question

"If I was to hire you, how would I know if you were doing a good job?"



July 16, 2016

Science and Technology High-school students like science but hate science class

One problem is certainly the way that science classes end up being constructed, and that can benefit from better training for teachers. People who may be highly gifted or skilled at a particular subject may not be simultaneously skilled at explaining that subject or making it engaging for a curious but untrained audience. But another problem is certainly the modern textbook: An overweight, poorly organized, often painfully patronizing monstrosity. The format alone is intimidating (why should it be so much larger than a paperback novel?), and a dismaying number of textbooks are so littered with sidebars, "Questions to Answer", and chartjunk that they are thematically unreadable. Science is really a story, and it deserves to be taught like one.

News Letters of last resort

How the UK instructs its nuclear-armed submarines to act in case of Armageddon

News One vision of a post-2016 Republican Party

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam make the case for a semi-Nixonian Republican Party -- one that doesn't care very much about entitlement reforms and that doesn't mind abandoning several important small-government/libertarian principles. It's not necessarily the right vision for 2017 and beyond, but it's probably a vision worth understanding.

Computers and the Internet 3G and 4G, make way for 5G

The FCC has voted to put some blocks of spectrum to work on behalf of 5G wireless, and there's enthusiastic guessing that it could become a commercial reality by 2020. Wireless data use continues to expand by such leaps and bounds that something has to be done to prevent crippling traffic overload.

Threats and Hazards Missing pages from Congressional 9/11 report released

While it doesn't seem to point the finger directly at the government of Saudi Arabia, it certainly doesn't exonerate the kingdom, either.

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 16, 2016

Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business



July 15, 2016

News Sen. Bernie Sanders rips page from Obama campaign playbook

He's starting three political organizations, including one called "Our Revolution". This reads quite like the "Obama For America"/"Organizing For Action" approach -- and it represents another chip at the foundation of the conventional party system. Sanders never really identified as a Democrat, and now it appears he will continue to operate in a way that will try to position itself as better than the party system, much like OFA.

Iowa Polk County Attorney claims first texting-while-driving conviction

A distracted driver caused a crash that injured a passenger in October 2015, and now she's been convicted and sentenced to 140 hours of community service.

The United States of America "I believe he's going to endeavor, to try"

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, speaking to NPR about Donald Trump and his willingness to change the things that make Ryan unhappy. Paul Ryan isn't sloppy with his words; he's clearly wishing for something much better than what he's seen. Regrettably, emails from Trump's inner circle from the past week suggest otherwise.

Computers and the Internet Technology is only as good as the people using it

And, broadly speaking, most people are inherently good. An example of that emerges as it is reported that a Good Samaritan rescued a baby from the attack in Nice, and used social media to reunite him with his family.

Broadcasting "The Americans" gets five well-deserved Emmy nominations

The FX Network show is really quite excellent. Its real genius is that both the writing and acting are executed with artful restraint. It would be too easy for the show to go over the top, and they manage to instead take the right path. It's excellent television and deserves the five Emmy nominations it received.

Health Are medical professionals suffering from Burn-Out Syndrome?

An article in The Lancet observes that "severe BOS was seen in up to 33% of critical care nurses and 45% of critical care physicians". That's worrisome.



July 14, 2016

News US Senator shares important personal reflections on police

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) addresses the Senate and points out that even as a high-status elected official, he encounters police at what he perceives as an unusually high rate -- for "driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial" -- because of the color of his skin. Many people can identify with being pulled over under weak pretenses -- rolling stops, tail lights out, failure to signal, or license tags that are out of date. But it is hard to argue that some people aren't getting additional scrutiny because of their race. That's a problem because it undermines the legitimacy of the policing profession generally, because that profession derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people.

Threats and Hazards On religious tests

Fox News quotes Newt Gingrich as suggesting a religious test leading to deportation for some. That betrays a fundamental belief that democracy and classical-liberal civilization are extremely fragile. While we do in fact need to pass along the values that keep civilization afloat, and while there are certain existential risks to that way of life, it seems that Gingrich is adopting a view that makes out civilization to be much more fragile than it is. Worse, he appears to embrace an intolerance that makes it inherently more fragile, rather than less. Civil law is undermined when it seeks to police the beliefs of individuals.

Broadcasting Twitter will live-stream the party conventions

The Internet and television continue to grow closer and closer

Business and Finance Competition among the states

A Nebraska think tank is looking at five states as chief economic competitors. This is exactly the kind of economic competition that should take place among the states. That competition shouldn't come in the form of special incentive packages.

Broadcasting NBC News returns to radio

It's back from the dead



July 13, 2016

Business and Finance LA Times says Viacom is about to sell 49% of Paramount Pictures to China's Wanda Group

The Great Asset Transfer continues. American ownership of assets will be exchanged for foreign ownership as a means of rebalancing long-standing trade deficits. Some will involve highly prominent, name-brand assets -- like half of Paramount Pictures. It's going to make some people angry, nostalgic, and/or nationalistic, but the asset transfer is inevitable given our long-standing behavior (and our revealed preferences -- people can pay all the lip service they want to "Buy American", but it's hard to find people willing to pay a true premium price to do it). And Rule #1 of private property may well be that ownership means control, so if you don't want to lose control, you can't give up ownership. Selling equity in a company may be a good way to come up with liquidity, but it's a lousy way to remain in the driver's seat.

News Decisions have lasting consequences

A New York Times map from 1956 shows traffic choke points that remain the choke points of today. This can be taken in two ways, both of which are valid: First, decisions have lasting consequences -- New Yorkers are fighting the same commuting battles today that they did 60 years ago, because of decisions that were made even before then. But, second, it's never too late to start working on correcting an error -- at any time in the last 60 years, someone could have changed the course of the traffic problems and the people of New York might be in a better situation than the one they've apparently suffered for more than half a century. Make decisions, seek to make them definitively and well -- and if they turn out to be bad, change course without delay. Inaction is a decision in its own right.

News No surprise: "Horse-race" coverage has dominated 2016

The horse race isn't the real news -- it's just a documentation of events. News is what happens when there is a material change in our understanding of the status quo. The horse race isn't information, either -- it's just a documentation of events. Those three things (information, events, and bona-fide news) are often packaged together as "the news", but the inability, failure, or dereliction of duty to deliver actual news and/or information tends to reward the pure hype of "events"...and that's how bad things happen at the ballot box. The Fourth Estate really does have a role to play in a democratic system.

Computers and the Internet China hacked the FDIC

Because that's how cyberwarfare works: Rivals and competitors want every possible angle on information that may give them insight into your decision-making. Knowing how the bank regulators are looking at the financial system probably gives the Chinese government some valuable insight into the function of the American economy as a whole. It would be very interesting indeed to find out whether China is selling some of the information it obtains through cyberespionage to private parties. One could imagine that there are firms and institutions that would be willing to pay for insider information, even if it was obtained through tactics that could be appropriately defined as war-like in nature.

News David Cameron's curtain call as Prime Minister

In comes Theresa May as the new PM



July 12, 2016

Business and Finance It's not that trade doesn't hurt some workers...

...it's just that a more efficient economy (resulting from trade) is capable of absorbing some of the impact and helping the affected workers to recover, while distributing the benefits of trade to the broader public in a significant way. To reduce trade to "us" versus "them" is not only reductionist, it gets things all wrong and harms people.

Computers and the Internet Is the Internet really helping kids from poor families?

Like any tool, it can be used well or poorly. And if it's not being used well, then its benefits may not be going to where they are needed most.

Health DEKA's prosthetic arm gets FDA approval

They plan to start selling late in the year

Business and Finance Did Ireland's economy really grow at a mid-20% range in 2015?

Seems unlikely -- but then again, it slipped by a huge margin when the financial markets cracked a few years ago

Computers and the Internet Beware the data collection of "Pokemon Go"

When something becomes super-popular in a very short time (like the overnight sensation that is Pokemon Go), there's a very good chance that the general public is missing something very serious behind the scenes. In this case, the app appears to gain a huge amount of access to individuals' Google accounts.


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July 11, 2016

Business and Finance Compulsory education -- for adults?

Be skeptical of "compulsory" anything -- compulsion should be a rare choice. But this actually may be a very good idea. Just like it reflects some peculiar social priorities that the government spends lots of money on seniors' health care versus very little on that of innocent youth, it similarly reflects a warped set of priorities that we only seem to contribute to the education of the young. "Lifelong learning" is easily manipulated into a buzz-phrase, but a society with its priorities straight would actually set its political agenda to reflect its socio-economic goals, and those goals should include upward mobility throughout an individual's working life and beyond. Job retraining and skill enhancement shouldn't be an exception; they should be the norm.

Socialism Doesn't Work Venezuela's desperate government seizes American-owned factory

The economy is falling apart in Venezuela because the government's economic policies are nonsense. It is nothing more than wildly imaginary thinking to believe that the government is doing anything productive by confiscating the Kimberly-Clark factory and declaring that production will continue.

Computers and the Internet Facebook faces lawsuit for aiding terrorism

The problem for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others is that they're either purely neutral conduits for the content of others (in which case, anything goes), or they're making editorial judgments about what can and cannot be posted. And if they make even a few judgments, that makes it very hard to argue that they are not responsible for a failure to make others if there are lives at risk. It's not an enviable legal position to be in.

Health Sushi, hummus, quinoa, tofu all better for you than people think

At least, according to the gap between what nutritionists believe and what the general public does

Humor and Good News Everything isn't awful

A neat story on an adoption with what appears to be a happy ending



July 9, 2016

Computers and the Internet Facebook scrambles to make rules for live videos

Announcing: "[I]f a person witnessed a shooting, and used Facebook Live to raise awareness or find the shooter, we would allow it. However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video."



July 8, 2016

The United States of America Insulted by the Trump/Clinton race? There is a legitimate alternative.

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachussetts governor William Weld are on the ballot in all 50 states, and they're considerably more mainstream than Trump and more trustworthy than Clinton. They won the Libertarian Party nomination and while the party itself may be all too often identified with some of its more strident policy positions, Johnson and Weld are actually experienced as elected executives and a meaningfully honorable alternative to the other two tickets. Their platform boils down to "fiscally conservative and socially tolerant". And in their appearance before the National Press Club, they laid out a case for serious consideration. Weld really nailed the situation with one particular line: "Instead of reading 'Art of the Deal' for the 400th time, Trump should read the Constitution for the first time." Some well-versed political experts are skeptical that the two major parties will learn anything from this race, but a clear protest vote may actually carry weight in 2016.

Socialism Doesn't Work It's not "free" college if it's just cost-shifting

Hillary Clinton's campaign is promising "by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities" -- and "free" college right from the start of the program for students with household incomes below $85,000. Here's the problem: Nobody has a legitimate argument that college costs are under control. They're not. But this is a promise only to cost-shift. Within the plan announcement itself, the Clinton campaign acknowledges that "States will have to step up and meet their obligation to invest in higher education by maintaining current levels of higher education funding and reinvesting over time". In the real world, that's called an unfunded mandate. The campaign is making promises for which others will have to pay. And as for the Federal government's part, the campaign promises that "This plan will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers." Exactly what is that supposed to mean, other than Robin Hood accounting? Fundamentally, the flaw in a proposal like this is that instead of amplifying the kind of pricing feedback upon which a market economy depends, it mutes it altogether. That means students may not have the incentives necessary to take education seriously (remember...nobody washes a rental car), major programs with poor economic returns won't have any distinctions from those with high returns, and (worst of all) universities won't have incentives to manage their cost structures. The math doesn't add up, and that doesn't even begin to explore the consequences for private colleges -- one can imagine nothing short of an apocalypse for many of them if they're competing with "free" college. The dirty secret about the sticker price of college isn't a secret at all: The system is full of inefficiency, with administrative positions growing at a rate much faster than teaching positions. If nothing is done to control the actual costs of delivery, then all we're doing with "free" college is cost-shifting to taxpayers, and likely cost-shifting at what would be an accelerating rate. We need lots more access to higher education, and for it to be much more affordable. But passing the buck doesn't fundamentally achieve that objective.

Business and Finance US Labor Secretary Tom Perez: "The more you strengthen collective bargaining, the more you strengthen the middle class"

While there's no need to deliberately take action against labor unions (they can certainly fill vital roles and have in the past), there's no substance to the claim. You strengthen the middle class by promoting productivity, technological progress, skill development, and economic growth. Unionization didn't save the auto workers at the Big Three in Detroit -- it only cost-shifted. If we had a more German-style approach to labor/management relations, the secretary may have a point -- but that's not his claim.

Threats and Hazards Shameful: Former Penn State football players want Joe Paterno statue reinstated

Paterno knowingly permitted the abuse of children for decades. What we enshrine, we honor. That deserves no place of honor, period.

News Jill Stein offers Green Party nomination to Bernie Sanders

Stein is the likely Green Party nominee, but their actual convention isn't until August 4-7. In an "open letter to Bernie Sanders supporters", Green Party leaders argue that "You can try to reform the Democratic Party as others have tried to do for decades through Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean's Democracy for America and Dennis Kucinich's Progressive Democrats of America or you can leave it." They seem to hope they can also get Sanders to "leave it" -- even though he's never really been a committed Democrat in the first place.

Computers and the Internet Full, affordable, credible electronic degree programs cannot arrive soon enough

Coursera's president thinks it's coming in five years

Computers and the Internet Malware attacks 10,000,000 Android devices

And initial reports suggest it's only going to get worse as the trouble spreads through vectors like drive-by downloads.

Weather and Disasters A simple but excellent illustration: Why Tornado Alley is where it is

The ingredients are just right for trouble from Texas to South Dakota (and, regrettably, into Iowa)


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July 7, 2016

The United States of America Chicago Tribune editorial promotes third-party Presidential voting

On the Libertarian and Green party tickets, they opine: "Can either win? Not this time. But that's no reason Americans disgusted with the major party choices have to settle on either." The probability of a third-party win is non-zero, but it's exceptionally low. But on the other hand, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is running as a third-party candidate himself. Donald Trump has no legitimate credentials as a Republican strategist, leader, or thinker; he even led the New York Times to believe that he's not even sure he'd take office if he won. That's not a mainstream or even slightly serious candidacy. So if one of the two major parties has been hijacked by a virus that has infected its host, is it really behaving like a major party anymore? The stable long-term outcome of any first-past-the-post electoral system like our own is a party duopoly -- each party composed of a batch of sub-groups that form an electoral coalition before election day (rather than after, as they do in parliamentary systems). But in the short run, that duopoly can become unstable, as it quite clearly has today. What is unusual about our circumstances right now is that both major-party coalitions are unstable. In historical context, we had the First Party System (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans), the Second Party System (Whigs vs. Democrats), the Third Party System (Republicans vs. Democrats), the Fourth Party System (Republicans in the North; Democrats in the South), the Fifth Party System (Republicans vs. New Deal Democrats), and possibly even a Sixth Party System (Republicans in the South and rural areas, Democrats in the North and urban areas) today. Major parties have fallen apart before over sectionalism and hot-button issues (like the Whigs in the 1850s), while at other times, they've just run out of steam. If we are in the midst of a realignment today (which we very well may be), then a meaningful third-party vote at the top of the ticket would be a substantial signaling device. We should also give serious thought to permitting fusion voting nationally; right now, it's almost impossible for two parties to name the same candidate in most places, and fusion voting would permit that to happen. It's used in New York most prominently. The use of fusion voting would permit the different subgroups we already know to coalesce in a more express way. And in an election cycle that is less popular than a dumpster fire, in the words of Senator Ben Sasse, we ought to be open to possibilities that may give us more pleasing outcomes. Strictly from a mechanical standpoint, it can hardly get worse than a system so badly fractured that the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is actively bullying and threatening the Senators of what is nominally his own party.

News Facebook Live streams a police-involved shooting

A passenger in a car in the Twin Cities metro broadcast a live stream of the instantaneous aftermath of her boyfriend's shooting death by a police officer. By all reasonable appearances, it looks bad -- really bad. And it follows on the police-shooting death of another civilian in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, only really a matter of hours prior, which similarly looks like an abuse of power.

Threats and Hazards ISIS attacks Baghdad

Hundreds of people were killed, and we shouldn't have any less regard for their deaths than we should if the attack had happened in the United States

Computers and the Internet Twitter live broadcast of Wimbledon

A probable preview of what things will look like when Twitter streams ten Thursday Night Football games live this fall. Video on the left-hand side of the page (on a large monitor) with related tweets on the right. Is it broadcasting? Is it social media? Is it both?

Computers and the Internet A 60-terabit-per-second Internet cable under the Pacific

It stretches from Oregon to Japan.



July 6, 2016

Threats and Hazards Chinese newspaper says its country should prepare for "military confrontation"

China is claiming huge parts of the South China Sea, and "heavy US intervention" makes for a very attractive boogeyman.

News Praise for Saddam Hussein? It's nothing new.

Through garbled syntax and bad grammar in a speech this week, Donald Trump endorsed Saddam Hussein's methods of dealing with terrorists. It's nothing new: He's done it before and on several previous occasions. But why double-down on a stupid argument at a time when the politically sharp move would have been to let the Clinton campaign roast a little longer over the FBI's e-mail report? The FBI director was not pleased with what they found, even if the agency did not recommend any criminal charges. Once in a while, it's best to just shut up and let the facts speak for themselves instead of making up stories (no, Hussein was not an efficient killer of terrorists) that give the appearance of endorsing brutal dictators?

News Syrian refugees in Canada spill over with gratitude

It's necessary to use words like "refugees" to describe groups of people -- but it's also unfortunate. They are individuals and they are families, and among them will inevitably be some bad actors, just as there are in every population. But the vast majority, just as in every other population, are people seeking to live decent lives and do the best they can for their families. We shouldn't permit ourselves to forget that where you are born is no choice of your own -- and for every person living in a war-torn or impoverished country, the only difference between any one of them and any one of us is a roll of the cosmic dice. Canadians should be proud of the mercy shown by their country.

Weather and Disasters Lightning can strike the ground 50 miles away from any precipitation

The National Weather Service office in Kansas City shares a radar loop with lightning strikes illustrated. It's pretty sobering stuff. (Remember: Thunder travels about a mile in five seconds, so any thunder you can hear means lightning is much closer than 50 miles away).

News Why the odds favor Newt Gingrich as the 2016 Republican VP nominee

His closeness with Donald Trump is confirmed by Trump's own statements that Gingrich would be "involved" in his administration. Expect it to be more than that -- Gingrich fits the template that suits Trump best: A nationally-known individual who has experience at the Federal level (as Speaker of the House) who relishes the opportunity to play attack dog against the Clintons (which he has since the 1990s). It would be surprising to see Trump pick anyone else.


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July 5, 2016

The United States of America How the financial markets responded to 1776

When the colonies that became the United States departed from British control, the bond and equity markets (such as they were) responded accordingly. Government bond yields rose (in other words, the British government had to pay more to borrow money) and the equity markets declined (reflecting concerns that the war would cramp the economy). An interesting question: On balance, is the world wealthier today than it would have been in a parallel universe where the United States remained under British control? Naturally, it's impossible to fully investigate a counter-factual like that, but it is possible to model some of the internal questions. Has there been more technological innovation because the United States won independence than if it hadn't? The answer there is probably yes: The United States seems to have been unusually fertile ground for innovation for many generations, probably due to a combination of legal, social, and economic motivations. One could also ask whether the presence of a giant free-trade bloc spanning the width of a continent has been fundamentally productive for world trade. Again, the answer is likely yes -- and it probably would not have formed had the United States remained under British control, because the Crown didn't have the same incentive to pursue territorial expansion (like the Louisiana Purchase) as did the independent Federal government in Washington. So, if one accepts the premise that economic growth and innovation for the United States has also been good for the global economy, then at least some of the big-picture questions suggest that July 4, 1776 was a good day for a lot of people outside the 13 colonies.

Threats and Hazards ISIS may have 3,000 girls and young women in slavery as sex objects

These are human beings who are suffering. They only differ from any of the rest of us by accident of birth. You don't get to pick where you are born -- and for most people, that's where you remain. Nothing but a sort of cosmic roll of the dice separates any one of us from having been in someone else's shoes.

Threats and Hazards More than 2,000 people have been shot in Chicago so far this year

That includes 66 over the Independence Day holiday weekend. That is completely out of control.

Threats and Hazards The anti-Semitism has to stop

It is alarming that a Presidential candidate who uses a social-media outlet like Twitter as his primary means of communicating with the public has repeatedly given virtual winks and nods to anti-Semitic participants in those same social-media forums. Free speech is everyone's right, but it's also appropriate to criticize. And it's doubly important to criticize those who thoughtlessly amplify inhumane messages by sharing them with a broader audience. Civilization depends on each generation's commitment to upholding the traditions of classical liberalism -- the ideals of the Enlightenment. It's a shame to see today's technologies being used to echo a mentality that would bring back the Dark Ages, and it's utterly alarming to see it being done by a major-party candidate for President.

Computers and the Internet BlackBerry is pulling the plug on "Classic" units

Goodbye to the tactile keyboard. That's really too bad -- on-screen keyboards just aren't as finger-friendly for a lot of people as the old tactile versions, and none of the smartphone makers seem to be filling that niche anymore, which is odd, considering the number of services like Facebook and Twitter that depend so heavily on people generating written content while on the move.

Computers and the Internet China is taking live-streaming to a whole new level

Tens of thousands of people live-stream what they're doing and even receive gifts from viewers as compensation


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July 4, 2016

The United States of America The Declaration of Independence

Still a model for telling the world in clear, plain language why extraordinary action was called for

Business and Finance "[F]inancial crises tend to radicalize electorates"

How financial conditions lead to candidates like Trump and Sanders

News French police on the beach -- swim trunks and pistols?

The need to patrol public beaches is evident. How the police should arm and dress themselves is not.

Computers and the Internet Beware the echo chamber

As Facebook changes its algorithms for the news feed once again, the risk grows that too many people will get too much of their news and opinions from inside the echo chamber of people who are already a lot like them. And it's going to really punch a lot of digital publishers in the gut, too. Many of them have come to depend upon reliable Facebook-driven traffic as a business model. Bad idea.

The United States of America The Presidency after dark

President Obama's late-night work habits sound like a reasonable way for a person like him to process the incredible volumes of information that go along with the role of the chief executive

News Empty promises

Donald Trump simply cannot do many of the things he promises to do. And that makes him a very troublesome candidate.



June 30, 2016

News Rational government sounds much better than it would actually be in practice

Ironically, perhaps, the best evidence against a purely "evidence-based" government is the terrible misuse and abuse of "rational" arguments for terrible government behavior. Principles and ideas still matter.

Humor and Good News Auctioneers with a beat

(Video) Close your eyes and try not to picture Busta Rhymes

Science and Technology Americans are all over the place when it comes to self-driving cars

An overwhelming majority say in one survey that they're OK with autonomous cars -- yet there's all kinds of blowback to the news of a fatal crash involving an auto-piloted Tesla. Some crashes are inevitable, but if guardian-angel technology can keep us from getting into quite so many bad situations, then we'll all be much better off.

Business and Finance The most American-made cars are from Toyota and Honda

Contrary to what the nameplates might suggest, Japanese cars are often very American

Computers and the Internet "Progress" towards a sale of Yahoo's assets

This long, drawn-out process can't be doing anything to help morale



June 29, 2016

The United States of America 30-year-olds in 1975 versus that same cohort today

Today's 30-year-olds are better-educated, much less likely to have been married, vastly less likely to be living with a child, substantially less likely to be homeowners, and somewhat less likely to have achieved a middle-class income. Very interesting stuff.

Computers and the Internet Facebook changes news feed to favor people

The site is going to do whatever it takes to make sure that users visit as often as possible, for as long as possible. And if that means scaling back the amount of "publisher" content in favor of what individuals like and share, then that's what they're going to do. Woe unto any publisher that has built a business model off of social sharing, though -- which, anymore, is most of them.

Business and Finance A quick history of the $20 bill

Who belongs on the currency? Plenty of admirable people. There's room for Harriet Tubman there, too.

Computers and the Internet The robots are coming to take your jobs: The lawyerly edition

An "AI lawyer" is fighting tens of thousands of parking tickets and winning

News Five Thirty-Eight forecasts overwhelming odds in favor of Hillary Clinton election

The former Secretary of State and Senator from New York may not be very popular, but she's running against someone whose celebrity is mainly based upon being a celebrity, and who cashed-in on his name by selling it to crooked licensees. As Benjamin Franklin sought to remind his contemporaries: Mind your business.



June 28, 2016

Threats and Hazards "Russia has been engaged in an increasingly aggressive gray war across Europe"

American diplomats report harassment ranging from nuisances to criminality, executed by Russian agents. It goes well beyond the level of fraternity pranks.

Agriculture Convenience stores, fresh food, and food stamps

The law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head

News Sen. Bernie Sanders: Condescending, ungrateful, and uncooperative

He lost the race for the Democratic nomination, and he's making every signal that he wants to burn down the ship

The United States of America A political typology of the United States in 2014

Probably not all that different from how it looks today -- and the fissures are showing. Our political parties are coalitions that form before the general election day...but they're not holding together very well in 2016.

News What the "Brexit" from the EU means to Northern Ireland

One person's Twitter rant about the effects on the one part of the UK that will still have a land border with the EU after the UK leaves. It's sad, angry, and in a couple of cases vulgar -- but well-worth reading.



June 27, 2016

Computers and the Internet An app to help deter human trafficking (that is: sex slavery)

Taking photos of unoccupied hotel rooms can help with the prosecution of those who take advantage of their fellow human beings for exploitation

The United States of America George Will resigns membership in the GOP

He says Donald Trump has infected the party and it is no longer behaving in a way that reflects his principles. And he declined to enter a catfight over the story because Trump "has an advantage on me because he can say everything he knows about any subject in 140 characters and I can't".

Science and Technology A remarkable look at the deflation in solar-power production costs

Costs have supposedly fallen by 80% since 2008

Business and Finance S&P drops UK's credit rating over EU departure

One thing is certain: The buying power of the pound versus the dollar has declined considerably in the wake of the "Brexit", so it's a fine time to be an American buyer in the hunt for British stocks.

Aviation News The FAA's new commercial drone rules

Playing catch-up at this stage



June 25, 2016

Aviation News FAA issues new rules on commercial drones

Computers and the Internet The Chicago Tribune has been Tronc'ed

No longer the Tribune Company, it's now "tronc", for "Tribune Online Content". A ridiculous brand name. In the long run, what will be interesting to see is how much they depend upon algorithms to generate news stories for coverage, in the same style as Netflix comes up with new programming based upon known user interests.



June 24, 2016

Computers and the Internet Pebble promotes its new "Core" as an Amazon Alexa device

The Core is set to retail for $99, but the company is using a Kickstarter campaign to pre-fund, and will sell the miniature device to early backers for $79

News Is the British vote to depart the EU a signal of a less-open world?

Quite possibly. There are many reasons that may have led to people voting either way on the referendum -- thoughtful Euroskeptics who voted to leave probably don't share a lot in common with nativists, and the people who voted to stay because the EU subsidizes their incomes probably don't have a lot in common with those who want to welcome more immigrants. But on balance, even though the EU is a bureaucratic juggernaut with structural flaws that probably doom it in the long run anyway, its diminishment does tend to push in the direction of a less-open world, and that does not portend well for the future.

Computers and the Internet Digital publisher says that Twitter engagement rates continue to decline

The co-founder of widely-read site The Next Web says they're seeing less and less click-through from links shared on Twitter, even when people are re-sharing their articles more than ever. The conclusion: People breeze past a headline, share it because they think it's supposed to be interesting, and then move on without actually reading it. That could certainly be trouble for Twitter, but it also suggests that social media is becoming a monster that eats itself. If the purpose is to show that you're sharing things (rather than experiencing or learning from them), then it's not a productive utility. And Twitter isn't the only site where this is happening. There is clearly sharing-for-show taking place on other platforms, like Facebook. That only tends to exacerbate tribalism (in the sociological sense) and identity politics, rather than making us better off.



June 23, 2016

Business and Finance Tesla to buy SolarCity

One Elon Musk venture acquires another. It probably makes abstract sense without making practical sense: They may very well fit together, but they both struggle to make a profit.

Threats and Hazards Social Security Trustees issue annual report

The Social Security program is officially going to begin running deficits by the end of the decade. And "the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund will be depleted in 2028, two years earlier than projected in last year's report". We're in a world of trouble.

Business and Finance Airbnb confronts problems of discrimination

As more freedom and laissez-faire finds its way into some markets (like lodging), it reveals that discrimination persists -- and reiterates how hard it is to legislate decency and respect into people. On a related note, the New York state legislature has gone on the attack against home-sharing.

News Britain's clear ballots

Nobody voting on the EU referendum will be able to argue that they misunderstood how they were voting. No hanging chads there.

Computers and the Internet Pew survey: 71% of US adults think it would be a career disadvantage not to have broadband at home

The Internet has more or less reached the status of public utility -- like water or electricity. Those without it are missing a fundamental, core piece of infrastructure of modern life.



June 22, 2016

News Three critical traits of a good elected official: Curiosity, competence, and humility

And if a candidate for office never leaves a bubble of self-reinforcing messages and ventures out to learn more (or even acknowledges that there is more to be learned), then that candidate is dangerously unqualified for just about any job in the public trust.

News Chicago passes new regulations on Airbnb

A local community has the right to a considerable amount of self-determination, but it should also be considered whether regulations are actually being used to preserve the health and safety of the public, or if they're just being used as a blunt instrument because some people don't like some things. The opponents of short-term home rentals in Chicago include some people who say that it's dragging down their neighborhoods by creating transient communities. Some supporters, though, come from among those who need to make income off their homes when not in use just in order to make the payments. In theory, home-sharing should be a social good -- if it's putting homes to use that otherwise would have been unoccupied for a day, a weekend, or even a month, then it's highly efficient to put those properties to use. That doesn't mean that abuses and other externalities couldn't become a factor; they could. But we have to be hesitant to use the blunt instruments of regulation.

Business and Finance More regulations and higher minimum wages appear to be reducing options for young workers

The less fluid the labor market becomes, the harder it is to enter. That may seem like a luxury to people who are already up the food chain, but when you keep young people out of the labor market at ages 16 through 25, you keep them from getting on a track to upward mobility. Soft skills matter!

News A single father -- in his 60s

His wife died suddenly just after giving birth to twins. A remarkable situation and story.

Science and Technology Drowsy driving summit

The Iowa Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau is holding a summit on drowsy driving on June 29. While often overlooked in the shadow of its nasty counterpart drunk driving, drowsy driving (and other forms of distracted or impaired driving) remains a major public-health problem. The sooner assistive technologies can be widely applied to vehicles, the better off we all will be.



June 21, 2016

Business and Finance How much does it cost to break even on drilling for oil in America?

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas finds that producers say anywhere from $9 a barrel to $60 a barrel, but averaging from $29 to $43, depending on location

Iowa Des Moines and Omaha trounce other cities at total livability

Affordability, family-friendliness, modest prosperity -- it's a full-package deal

Business and Finance Global Risk Institute worries that debt is reaching chokepoint levels

One executive says "There's debt being piled upon debt being piled upon debt." At some point, rates must rise.

Business and Finance One highly anxious economic analysis

There are too many uncertainties and lingering problems for it to be anything like a boom. The question is whether it's destined to become a bust -- and that's not clear.

News The Trump campaign isn't behaving like a campaign

Probably because it's just a perpetuation of what began as an exercise in shameless self-promotion and has never grown more serious than that. They're funneling 20% of their spending back into Trump interests and circling the wagons against any outside influence.



June 20, 2016

Business and Finance Book review: "The Ten Commandments for Business Failure", by Donald Keough

A book that ought to be used in business schools to offer a capstone perspective on leadership.

News Book review: "Between Worlds", by Bill Richardson

An interesting political time capsule left behind by a politician whose ideology has largely gone missing

The United States of America How would America look with a multi-party electoral system?

The Economist comes up with a model suggesting how we might look as a "parliamentary" democracy. It's only a hypothetical model, but it's a clever illustration.

Business and Finance St. Louis Federal Reserve rethinks macroeconomic forecasting

No more forecasts of some future long-run steady state. Just a guess at different periods that could emerge.

Computers and the Internet Toyota calls automotive artificial intelligence "guardian angel" technology

This is how the self-driving car becomes a permanent reality. It won't happen in one giant leap (like the Google model), but rather via incrementalism -- culminating in a broad public acceptance that the technology has eclipsed human capacities to drive safely. Autonomous-vehicle technology has to prove that it makes us safer in steps -- if it is measured by the lives it saves from human error, it will be seen as an advancement; if it is measured from an assumption that self-driving cars are perfectly safe, then it will be doomed in the court of public opinion because some accidents will be inevitable.



June 17, 2016

Computers and the Internet You may be a social-media news consumer, but that doesn't mean you've quit traditional sources

Television and print newspapers seem to be moderately depressed by social-media usage; radio is untouched; news websites actually appear to gain considerably.

Computers and the Internet US Court of Appeals upholds FCC's net neutrality policy

Its treatment as a public utility has consequences -- "net neutrality" isn't a perfect paradigm. There are solid reasons to give some data preferential treatment from a practical standpoint -- even if it's not particularly attractive as a philosophy.

Computers and the Internet Chicago City Council moves ahead with tougher rules for ride-sharing

The least-surprising words in the Chicago Tribune report: "The ordinance, promoted by the taxicab industry..." Fingerprints, background checks, drug tests, chauffeur licenses, minimum fleetwide wheelchair accessibility, pricing, and response time rules are all included. Protections on health and safety can have their place, but the accumulation of proposed regulations looks a lot more like an effort to stifle competition than to serve the public. Restrict new market entrants too much and they might just quit your market altogether.

Business and Finance The enemy of my enemy...

Walmart has announced it will stop accepting Visa cards in mid-July because the card company charges too much on transaction fees. Small retailers are understandably excited to have a big dog joining them in the fight. The fees charged by the credit-card companies in North America are much higher than in other countries and it's high time they experienced pushback.

Computers and the Internet Facebook Live appears to have captured a man's murder

Don't forget who warned a month ago that Facebook Live would become a troublesome place in little or no time at all


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June 16, 2016

Computers and the Internet San Francisco municipal rules are strongly discouraging Airbnb hosts

Municipalities have every right to set reasonable regulations regarding the interests of health and safety. But it's extremely easy for those regulations to become a tool for limiting competition and protecting entrenched interests. San Francisco should beware that hazard. The temptation is great to protect the interests of the well-entrenched, but that behavior (called "rent-seeking" by economists) only serves to harm consumers and the prospective competitors who are squeezed out by the regulations.

News A cartographic look at the influx of refugees into Europe

It's a migration of truly historic proportions, and it will be noted in the history books decades from now. History, though, is often hard to see when it's happening right before our eyes. Europe's challenges are huge: To welcome the newcomers with grace and human dignity, and to quickly get those newcomers to embrace liberal Western values. One of the major threats to those two things is the risk of xenophobia and populist nativism: If people who are refugees feel like they are being rejected and isolated, they may have a harder time embracing local values. Some historical context is in order: Remember that the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church (two of the defining institutions of Western Civilization) made vast use of syncretism in order to spread their influence. At the margins of cultures, the key is to embrace and co-opt -- not reject.

News A Donald Trump TV network?

Vanity Fair says it's under serious discussion, and there's no reason to be surprised by this. Trump's Presidential campaign has been a publicity stunt since the beginning, and now it's gone totally off the rails. A rational person in his position should have walked away from the "campaign" months ago, before it was too late, and leaving on his own terms. But instead, now he faces nothing but unpleasant outcomes: A revolt at the national party convention, an electoral loss to Hillary Clinton, or the prospect of somehow obtaining an office he is unfit to hold. The idea of using the campaign as a base from which to launch a cable TV network may be the only way to lock in something resembling a victory at this stage.

Threats and Hazards A worthwhile examination of "marked" speech

When racists and anti-Semitic bigots use things like parentheses to "mark" names for online harassment, civilized people need to understand the symbols being used so that they can repel the implicit hate speech involved

Computers and the Internet Twitter invests in SoundCloud

Twitter already owns Periscope, so maybe a SoundCloud investment isn't such a big leap. And on a related note, Twitter has just tightened its integration with Periscope, so live video streaming is now a one- or two-click operation from within the Twitter app.


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June 15, 2016

News The President should have a capacity for abstract thinking

Political analyst Nate Silver notes that Donald Trump "learns by rote rather than being an abstract thinker". He is quite likely right about that. When Trump speaks apart from unprepared remarks, his language is starkly concrete: That is, he almost never uses metaphors, similes, or other abstractions. When he says he wants a "big, beautiful wall", there is every reason to believe that he is speaking quite literally about a very large wall. Trump is, after all, known mostly for his real-estate ventures, and those are almost universally known for their emphasis on superficial ostentation: You don't move to Trump Tower because you appreciate subtleties, you move there because you want to show off every possible indication of glitz (no matter how gaudy or gauche). He participated in the construction of an otherwise attractive skyscraper in Chicago, then garishly slapped his name across it in giant letters, to the chagrin of the architect. He doesn't appeal to abstractions like a "shining city on a hill". This may not seem like a problem on first glance, but the fact is that the Presidency is not bounded by concrete problems -- most of the big issues require an exceptional capacity for complex, abstract thought. If it were all a matter of simple, concrete matters easily resolved in the physical world, the Presidency would be something much less than it is. But simplistic concretism is not what the Oval Office requires. The Presidency is usually defined not by what the elected individual thinks he or she is going to do, but rather by the unexpected events to which the administration must react: Events like 9/11 or the collapse of the Iron Curtain. To occupy the office requires an intuitive curiosity about the world and a high-level ability to see the abstractions of the world. Whether you like a candidate's policies or not, this ability is a functional requirement of the job, and a person who doesn't possess that ability is unsuited to the great responsibility.

News The Riviera in Las Vegas has been demolished

More than any comparable country, America knows when to blow up the old and replace with the new. Las Vegas does this better than anywhere else. Sentimentality has its place, but utility should win more often than not. Once something is no longer useful, it's time to replace it with something that is.

Computers and the Internet The disposition of everything Yahoo has bought under Marissa Mayer

An interesting mix of independent products, fold-ins, and acquisitions strictly used to obtain talent

Computers and the Internet Why IBM is now in the weather-forecasting business

Companies like IBM, Google, and Apple are well-advised to apply their technological advantages in markets where advanced computing can provide a competitive advantage. Weather forecasting is one of those areas -- pharmacological research and other subjects where sophisticated modeling would also be appropriate.

Computers and the Internet Facebook working on suicide-prevention tools

Technology is only good insofar as we use it to make people's lives better. So if social media is used as a tool for bullying, it must on balance also provide tools to offset the harm that may come about -- and to be "good", rather than neutral, then social-media sites need to help people who might have slipped through the cracks even in a world without social media.

News The AP has spoken: It's the Chicago L

It should be the "El", since the name comes from the original "elevated". But the AP has spoken.



June 14, 2016

The United States of America Consider the honorable alternative

A Bloomberg poll conducted by the highly reputable Ann Selzer firm shows Hillary Clinton well ahead of Donald Trump in national opinion polling. What matters in the end is not the national poll but the Electoral College split, but it's a big gap. And quite notably, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson shows up with 9% of the vote. Johnson appears to represent the most palatable third option that will appear on the ballot in November -- a two-term governor of New Mexico who held office as a Republican. Johnson right now appears to offer an honorable alternative for those voters who have spent 25 years digging in their heels against Hillary Clinton but who cannot stomach the specter of Donald Trump. Johnson is experienced and eligible in his own right, and while his party may act a little goofy, his principles and his track record both square well with the limited-government tradition that seems to be in exile from the Republican Party this year.

Threats and Hazards How the Russian government may meddle with the US election

It's not a purely abstract concern -- the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee's computer network and stole their research on the presumptive Republican nominee. They're not just casually disinterested in the outcome of this November.

Threats and Hazards "[A]ssaulting fundamental liberal democratic values"

The Washington Post editorial board responds to being banned from Donald Trump's campaign events. And they're right: It is fundamentally at odds with the values of openness and Western civilization for a candidate for President to banish a reputable, mainstream institution from covering his events because he doesn't like their coverage. It's petty and beneath the dignity of the office to which he aspires. One of the Post's staff humorists has responded with a tongue-in-cheek style guide to covering the candidate, which recommends against describing the candidate as "what results if you accidentally leave Guy Fieri in a microwave".

News Get the process right and the results will follow

A thoughtful critique of all those well-meaning but misguided commencement addresses that tell young people to follow their dreams

Computers and the Internet Apple is going to put Siri inside the Mac platform

Artificial intelligence and virtual assistants are both creeping their way more and more into the mainstream


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June 13, 2016

News The leopard doesn't change his spots

Anyone who continues to hope that Donald Trump will start behaving like a civilized candidate for the Presidency of the United States is going to end up disappointed. Better to shift away allegiances now, rather than to wait for the inevitable disappointment.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft is buying LinkedIn for $26 billion

Of all the social networks, LinkedIn has the greatest staying power because it has a specific, business-oriented raison d'etre -- Facebook may be almost universal and Twitter may be ingrained deeply with certain power users and Instagram may be the platform for rebellious youth, but none of them serve an essential business purpose. LinkedIn manages to do that. If you're betting on which of these will still be around in 15 or 20 years, bet on LinkedIn. That doesn't mean that Microsoft is (or is not) paying a reasonable price for it; only that it is buying the most durable asset of its class.

Business and Finance Should smaller investors have access to choices like their wealthier counterparts?

"Accredited" investors have access to a lot of things that smaller investors do not -- but while that's intended as a measure of protection for the "little guy", it also keeps people who want to take venture risks (even with eyes wide open) from doing so. In practice, that means preserving some highly attractive opportunities for those who are already relatively wealthy. Good intentions do not always mean positive results.

Business and Finance A new stock exchange?

One is under development now

Threats and Hazards "Developed" doesn't always equal "civilized"

Qatar has a tremendous amount of prosperity going for it -- but the government there convicted a Dutch woman of adultery in a case involving her own rape. It may be a culture, but that is not the behavior of a civilization.



June 11, 2016

Computers and the Internet British intelligence exec: The "Internet of Things" is too attractive for terrorists to resist

And they'll try to exploit its inevitable security shortcomings to try to do massive harm to society

Broadcasting Stephen Colbert puts third party Presidential ticket in the spotlight

Some pop-culture exposure could go a long way


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June 10, 2016

Computers and the Internet Promise and perils of using the Amazon Mechanical Turk for social science

It's hard to get the right subjects in the right quantities to do real social-science research. The Mechanical Turk might help -- or it might only look like it's helping.

Business and Finance A fantastic visualization of yield curves

You could spend four years in college going to economics classes to understand yield curves, or you can watch a 9-point slideshow from the New York Times that captures the concept brilliantly. Or both, if you really want to.

Business and Finance The United States isn't supposed to export political risk to the world economy

When American business leaders are forced to explain the prospects of a nightmare candidate making it to the Oval Office, it has real costs to the world economy.

Computers and the Internet Gawker Media files for bankruptcy

Rather than try to pay $140 million to Hulk Hogan after losing a lawsuit to him over invasion of privacy, the company just hopes to sell itself to Ziff Davis after getting bankruptcy protection. Gawker has made serious errors in judgment before, so perhaps it isn't surprising that a bad call has landed the company in today's trouble.

News Georgia, Ukraine want into NATO as soon as possible

And with unpredictability the rule in neighboring Russia, who could blame them? Of course, it's also possible that Russia would take the very act of NATO enlargement as a sign of aggression (and quite likely would), so this is a complex problem.



June 9, 2016

Computers and the Internet Can artificial intelligence make human art better?

Purists will probably reject the idea that computers can help human beings to create art. But if many sketch artists and cartoonists learn by tracing the work of others, and if young musicians practice their chops by playing covers of known favorites, then what's the loss in creativity if we use computers to generate starter ideas that human beings can build upon? Whether or not it leads to any "great" art, this kind of technology should lead to computers that do better at human-like tasks, which we need. But in the end, what harm could possibly come from introducing more good art in all its forms into the world? It shouldn't have to be rare to be valuable.

Threats and Hazards Good people, bad system

The North Korean people are trapped by a revolting, authoritarian state. The system is what's wrong. We should have deep sympathy for the people trapped under it.

The United States of America The consequences of a toxic ticket at the top of the ballot

People are highly disinclined to vote split tickets between the White House and their House and Senate races. So a bad Presidential ticket is potentially poisonous down-ticket. This election is so strange that it's possible we will see odd voting patterns -- like people who vote exclusively for the top of the ticket (and skipping downballot races as an act of protest because they reject "politicians" altogether) or the opposite, in which party regulars (especially Republicans) leave the top of the ticket blank because they can't force themselves to commit to either major-party choice.

Health What in the environment could trigger Type 1 diabetes

If you're genetically predisposed, everything from respiratory infections in infanthood to psychological trauma in adulthood could play a part in triggering diabetes

Science and Technology Tesla is going to sell a cheaper Model S

The Model S 60 will come with a base sticker price of $66,000 -- considerably less than the base price for the fancier version of the same, which runs to just shy of $90,000.



June 8, 2016

Weather and Disasters Paris floods of 2016 vs. Paris floods of 1910

Side-by-side photos tell the story brilliantly

Threats and Hazards Parentheses used as a symbol of hate

ADL highlights the use of the "echo" symbol as a tool of antisemitic thugs

Threats and Hazards ISIS murders women who refuse sex slavery

Unconscionable evil exists in this world. These are serious times.

News Self-awareness isn't for chumps

Metacognition isn't a strong suit for everyone. It's just unfortunate that some people who utterly lack self-awareness are this close to the seat of power.

News Former Secret Service agent publishes "tell-all"

And that should probably be strictly forbidden as a term of employment -- and future receipt of things like retirement benefits. How can a protectee trust their protectors if they have concerns about being "revealed" in a future publication?



June 7, 2016

News "I can change, I can chaaa-nge!"

Donald Trump's behavior as a Presidential candidate (and now presumptive Republican nominee) is a lot like the Saddam Hussein character in the South Park Movie: Lots of promises to change, and then no real change whatsoever. It's no wonder (though it is worthy of note) that one Iowa State Senator has quit the party in protest.

Computers and the Internet Marketing company claims research shows big drop in time spent on social-media sites

Whether that's correct analysis or suspicious data is worthy of further investigation. It doesn't particularly seem like people are spending less time with social media, but there's also the possibility that people are getting real about the huge amount of time that they're devoting to what is fundamentally non-productive activity. The advice remains: Less time with Facebook, more time with book-books.

Computers and the Internet Wall Street Journal says Verizon wants to buy Yahoo's operating business for $3 billion

Second-round bids were due on Monday

Computers and the Internet Facebook is making the Messenger app mandatory

Facebook knows best. Just ask them.

Humor and Good News Woman tracks down the person who saved her life a quarter-century ago

She was in a terrible car wreck as a minor. A nearby truck driver also happened to be a paramedic. He probably saved her life by acting until rescue services could arrive -- but he couldn't follow up because she was a minor. They got in touch briefly long ago, then lost touch, and have found each other again. There's still a great deal of good in most people.



June 6, 2016

The United States of America Senator Ben Sasse: No, I'm still not for Trump

He notes: "[T]he Libertarian Party is something I would certainly consider in the long term", while generally looking unfavorably at the future of the two major parties. Note, though, that the only things that would really run the two-party system off the rails would be proportional voting (not likely to happen inside our federalized system, in which states are independent of one another on Election Day), fusion voting (which is worthy of very serious consideration), or a fundamental breakdown in the value that the party structure brings to the electoral process (which it's too early to say has happened for certain, but isn't entirely outside the realm of plausibility). The stable outcome of a first-past-the-post electoral system like ours is going to be a two-party/two-coalition system. What we're experiencing right now is a deep disruption to both of the coalitions that form the two major parties.

The United States of America Book review: "Seven Principles of Good Government", by Gary Johnson

Johnson's book is actually even more mainstream in 2016 than it was in 2012 -- and well worth reading; the campaign is making a mistake by not printing and giving away millions of copies

Computers and the Internet Teaching survivors of human trafficking how to code

A laudable means of empowering those whose lives were disrupted by evil. The ability to support one's self -- particularly with a high-value skill -- is an important human condition.

Computers and the Internet The Federal Reserve is under almost-constant cyberattack

That doesn't make it any different from almost all big financial institutions, but it's a reminder that today's "wars" don't always take place on fields of physical battle

Science and Technology A robot to fold your laundry

Laugh about it if you want. Call it frivolous if you must. But recognize that labor-saving devices make our lives better all the time and they soon enough just become part of the background of daily life and we hardly ever acknowledge how much time and effort are being saved by everything from crock-pots to dishwashers.

The United States of America AP says Hillary Clinton has locked the Democratic nomination

And the November general-election matchup is now set, barring any bizarre circumstances (and it's been a bizarre campaign)



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