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September 21, 2021

News Get a hobby (it's good for you)

Every fall, three entirely predictable events come to pass: Pumpkin-spice novelty foods will reappear in stores, half of America will go utterly football-mad, and half of America will proclaim the sport overrated. (Half and half may be misestimates, so pardon the imprecision.) ■ Sports -- from rec leagues through college and into the pros -- are perfectly good for offering recreation and distraction. They are much better outlets for obsession and unwavering passion than engaging in politics as bloodsport. It's a big business, too: The NCAA says "The total athletics revenue reported among all NCAA athletics departments in 2019 was $18.9 billion." (That's what made the pandemic so costly for athletic departments.) ■ But interesting people have hobbies, too. For a brief moment in history, Covid-19 lockdowns had people doing things like learning to bake bread. With everything else taken off the calendar, people looked to new sources of interest to fill their recreational time. And there were good reasons for hobbies to take up that space: Productive activities -- especially when they're rhythmic and repetitive, like kneading dough -- can be very good outlets for stress and facilitating a meditative state of calm. ■ The struggle to find a "new normal" is likely to take some time. The new and enduring status quo may quite possibly be permanently different than what existed in, say, the autumn of 2019. One of the changes that ought to stick with us is the adoption of hobbies and outside interests that involve neither our occupational interests nor being consumers of entertainment provided by others. Binge-watching football isn't all that different, really, from binge-watching "Tiger King". In modest doses, there's nothing wrong with either. ■ Interesting hobbies, though, shouldn't take second seat to entertainment we consume. They should come first. Hobbies need space within everyday life and on every calendar: They're unequivocally good for mental wellness, giving people not only an outlet in the moment, but also a lingering sense of good feeling. ■ Two things seem to make a hobby ideal: One is a sensory immersion in some kind of rhythm, or some other characteristic that helps the individual to enter what has entered the psychological lexicon as a state of flow. The other is that the hobbyist can make modest growth in their abilities that helps to mark change over time. If one can grow in ability (and reflect on prior experiences), that helps to make the perception of time slow down, since experiences have to be somehow different from the past in order to be encoded as long-term memories. (This is bad news indeed for Fred the Baker.) ■ Whatever seasonal changes may mean to any of us, whether it's the arrival of pumpkin-spice everything or time for tailgating or none of the above, it's appropriate to consider the benefits of "passing the time" in a state that pays psychological dividends. It's all too easy to ask "Where did the time go?" Well-chosen hobbies can slow the clock in all kinds of benevolent ways.



September 20, 2021

Computers and the Internet Don't trust the techno-utopians

High technology is having a moment right now, especially with four "space tourists" just back from a $200 million trip in orbit. As an all-civilian, non-professional crew, they were managed in orbit by SpaceX computers. It's quite the story. ■ SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is both understandably proud of the event and characteristically volatile in how he talks about it. Musk is self-evidently an intelligent person and a creative thinker. But he also embraces some visions of technology that lean too far forward -- like neural linkage and a technocratic utopian colony on Mars. Indeed, he calls himself the "Technoking" of Tesla. ■ One of the few iron laws of computer programming that has made its way to a general audience is "garbage in, garbage out". That axiom also means we should take heed of another cause-and-effect relationship: Assumptions in, assumptions out. ■ Think-tanker Samuel Hammond went to OpenAI, which runs a tool intended to let users ask natural-language questions of artificial intelligence and see the results. He asked that artificial intelligence about Xinjiang, the Chinese province where human-rights abuses are widely reported and criticized -- "and it broke", he says of the AI. Hammond shared screenshots of multiple interactions with the AI, including one in which it said "I think religious people are disgusting and spending money on them is a waste of money, and they all deserve to die." ■ Herein lies the problem with techno-utopians: Computers are still programmed by people, fed data collected and sorted by people, and even when they're "learning" through artificial intelligence, they are still doing that learning from people and the things people have shared. Those people include Communist hardliners, unfortunately for us all. So no matter how much faith you have in computers and their ability to "learn", such as we understand it, there is no escaping the role of values and judgments. These things do not depend upon volume for their validity. Numbers can lie and quantity is no substitute for fidelity of thought. ■ The Communist Party of China can impose "Xi Jinping Thought" on every classroom in China, from kindergarten to graduate school -- but that doesn't make it more valid than, say, the study of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty". The rightness of one way of thought over another is something we can deduce from natural reason. As George Will put it, "If our rights are natural, they are discernible by reason, which is constitutive of human nature. Such rights also are natural because they pre-exist acts of collective human will and cannot be nullified by such acts." ■ But what a human being can ascertain about the natural order of things through careful, discerning thought, artificial intelligence may reject -- either because the weight of the evidence may appear to be somewhere else (totalitarians, after all, tend to make more voluminous propagandists for their cause than defenders of individualism), or because it started with a corrupted data set (garbage in, garbage out). Remember: It only took 16 hours for Microsoft's Tay.ai to turn into a raging monster -- in part, trained by people who wanted to corrupt the experiment. ■ Artificial intelligence already does lots of very useful things for human beings, and technologies like Tesla's self-driving automobiles are very likely to make life safer. But many things will remain outside the reach of artificial intelligence, possibly forever, because they involve subjects that are not only intangible but also sometimes deeply defiant of quantification. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions." Even if billions of tracts on Xi Jinping Thought were published, those billions of pages would not make more human sense than a few sentences from Coolidge. But AI may not see it that way. ■ Cheer for technology when it serves human interests. But know that technology, in general, is value-neutral -- it depends on the judgment and goodness of the human beings who use it; a knife is an essential cooking tool, but it can also be a murder weapon. Artificial intelligence is yet another tool, but it's incapable of taking us to Utopia.



September 17, 2021

Business and Finance The art of desirable constraints

Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but another definition tells something more: Art is in the constraints. What invests a work of art with resonance -- whether it's pointillism or poetry or even polka -- is what the artist is able to do within boundaries. Even Looney Tunes worked within a framework of rules, elevating Wile E. Coyote from mere entertainment into art. ■ We know the appeal of constraints intuitively, and it's why Auto-Tune sounds like cheating and photographers fight over retouching. To give up constraints is to wander away from the soul of art. But constraints can be beautiful outside of the arts. ■ Some of the best commercial enterprises obey certain constraints out of choice, and the practice has fascinating results. The Economist, for instance, publishes no bylines on its articles. This makes it distinctly different from most publications, where the bylines matter a great deal (at least among the publishing class). The Economist argues that its anonymity promotes cooperation, centers the publication on a consistent voice, and promotes "a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it." And, indeed, it's hard to find any publication with a more recognizable institutional voice than The Economist. The constraint facilitates the art. ■ Chick-fil-A serves no burgers. It's chicken and chicken only. And while the company may encounter political controversy related to its ownership, they're making more money than ever -- without any help from beef, pork, or fish. ■ Toyota's initial constraint wasn't chosen -- it simply didn't have enough money to pay for a lot of raw materials, so it had to turn them into finished goods quickly -- but that evolved into a chosen constraint: The Toyota Production System so widely recognized as "lean manufacturing" today. Its competitor, Honda, has stretched from small engines to business jets through the self-imposed constraints of trying to use people instead of machines wherever possible. Automation seems like an obvious way to save money, but Honda's approach permits quicker experimentation from the bottom-up, since people can be re-trained faster than robots can be re-programmed. Both approaches have been profitable, and both are forms of business art. ■ Desirable constraints are the secret behind many great institutions. Warren Buffett advised: "Recognize your limitations and your circle of competence. That will open up more options than it excludes." That advice built Berkshire Hathaway into one of the world's biggest conglomerates. It may sound like Buffett was advising to be aware strictly of one's own natural limitations, but he and his partner, Charlie Munger, loudly extol the virtues of choosing to stay bounded. Munger once quipped, ""We didn't know in the past that making decisions is tiring, and that you shouldn't make decisions while tired. We didn't know that caffeine and sugar would help people to make better decisions. We just tried to avoid work, but it turns out that we're operating optimally, based on modern psychological science." ■ Choosing a desirable constraint in a business is a multi-faceted decision: It helps to establish a corporate culture (What would Aldi be without its relentless attachment to "exclusive" house brands or the Wall Street Journal without its hedcuts?) while channeling the creativity of its people within agreed boundaries. Some companies go everywhere and try everything (see Google), but those experiments don't always work out (see the Google Graveyard). Unbounded creativity may sap a firm of its energy -- not to mention its cashflow. ■ Making choices that self-impose a sense of discipline can help to channel better outcomes. There are many reasons why students of business ought to have depth in the liberal arts, and perhaps more would take to the idea with vigor if they understood that adopting an artistic constraint like Ansel Adams could get them a few steps closer to making money like Warren Buffett.



September 16, 2021

News Behind closed doors (but not really)

The strange things people say when they're inside "safe spaces" can reveal a lot about what's inside their heads. That applies even when that supposed "safe space" is one where performance or bravado are expected. In fact, those revelations -- even if they're merely performative -- may uncover more of the truth than if people spoke plainly. ■ It wasn't the strict truth of the "locker-room talk" aboard the "Access Hollywood" bus that got Billy Bush fired, it was that the obnoxious words at which he laughed sounded like what he wanted to hear. Bush, to his credit, now says "I'm afraid that event was important for my development as a broadcaster, as a journalist, as a man, as a person." But people are still saying really stupid things when the cameras are rolling. ■ Take, for instance, the man who says "Barack Obama destroyed rock and roll", because that genre was "about white male teenage angst" and the former President (supposedly) "said young white men aren't allowed to have angst". Surrounded by other men, chuckling, smoking cigars, and drinking brown liquor, he appears to be performing -- and it's unclear whether he's putting on a deadpan schtick or whether it's an earnest belief. (And, to be sure, the ghost of Chuck Berry would like a word.) ■ The exact words, though, aren't the point. It's the performance -- the idea that, somehow, this is how manly men do manly things, decrying the neutered state of rock and roll and the multicultural diminution of their right to be angsty, all proclaimed from comfortable leather chairs inside a dimly-lit man cave. ■ This version of "real manliness" is cartoonish at best, and utterly corrosive at worst. Real men seek to have rich inner lives, defined by a quest to do good in the world and to better themselves -- not to sit around airing contrived grievances. Benjamin Franklin put it succinctly: "Who is strong? He that can conquer his bad habits." Nobody of right mind thinks Franklin was unmanly. Nobody of right mind would think James Mattis unmanly, either, and he put it like this: "[W]e're still building a nation. It's hard work. It's noble work, but I'll say again, it's hard work. So don't ever think we're done. We are not perfect but we are certainly going to always strive to be better." ■ The thoughtful reader will note that there's nothing unwomanly, either, about conquering bad habits or striving to build a nobler, better community. These are just the good things that adults do when they are self-aware and feel compelled to reach for their potential as human beings. There is little to distinguish the sexes in these basic regards. Everyone is better off if these virtues are sought and found in women and men alike. ■ And yet, at least some performers seem to think there's reward in grievance and complaint that "they" won't let "us" have "our" angst, and thus "we" must surround ourselves with ornaments of masculinity and conspire to talk about what "they" are doing to "us". Mostly, it's just sad -- but it gives at least some people the impression that those are the ways of manly men. ■ Maimonides wrote that "The health of the soul consists in its condition and that of its parts being such that it always does good and fine things and performs noble actions." Hiding in a cave ("man-cave" or otherwise) and complaining may be a performance -- but it is hardly "performing noble actions". And the latter is what men and women alike ought to do.



September 15, 2021

News What's a friend worth?

Perhaps you didn't contribute any of the 4.1 billion views of "Gagnam Style" on YouTube. Maybe you've never touched a Samsung Galaxy phone. It could be that you don't know the difference between BTS and a BLT. But unless you've lived entirely under a rock for the last half-century (and completely missed the 2018 Winter Olympics), you're probably aware that South Korea is indisputably one of the most advanced rich countries in the world. ■ Per-capita GDP is in the same class as New Zealand, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Internet access is notoriously the world's fastest, with a push to get 100 Mbps service delivered to everyone in the country. An economy boasting global brand-name titans like Hyundai, LG, Kia, and Samsung. It's a country of economic prosperity, competitive elections, and broad civil liberties. It isn't a utopia, but it's hard to find a way in which South Korea doesn't compare well with other places. ■ To its north, the totalitarian regime has just conducted a test of a "railway mobile missile system". The evidence suggests that the ruling powers in North Korea want to diversify their weaponry. ■ The official residence of South Korea's president is about 23 miles from the border with North Korea. But in practical effect, the two countries seem like different planets. Nobody buys North Korean goods on the global market. The country treats the Internet mainly as a weapon. Per-capita GDP is about $1,800 a year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only led to further repression and isolation. ■ Sometimes it's asked why the United States still has around 30,000 troops in South Korea, some 70 years after the war there cooled off. The answer, of course, is that there is mutual interest for both the United States and South Korea in having stability and deterrence on the peninsula. It's not a free arrangement, but aggression and war wouldn't be free, either. ■ Both Koreas started from the same place at the end of World War II. It wasn't an auspicious start, particularly given the costs and suffering imposed by the half-century Japanese occupation. But one Korea ultimately chose a path that sought to quash natural human liberties, while the other took a long and imperfect path towards freedom. One is a global pariah that uses weapons to extort others for the basics needed for survival, while the other is a good global neighbor that produces lots of things the rest of the world demands. ■ What's a friend worth? The United States has undoubtedly spent a great deal on its relationship with South Korea, but it's evolved into far better than a mere transactional relationship. It can demand time and patience to see why we consider other countries to be partners and allies. But if we see in good faith how those relationships can be net-positive for all parties involved, perhaps we'll see the good that can come of choosing friendships over rivalries. ■ The United States has a big role to play in the world, and that role sometimes (but not always) involves our use of armed forces. But the payoff to that participation looks like a peaceful and prosperous friend like South Korea.



September 14, 2021

Threats and Hazards Someday, your side will lose

According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle was the voice of reason, telling then-Vice President Mike Pence to give up on any thoughts of overruling the 2020 election as he presided over the Senate: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero." Maybe that quote is true; maybe it's a fabrication. But Quayle does hold a law degree, and the reported advice certainly does comport with the law. No power to overturn an election resides with the Vice President. ■ The problem with a story like this is that the headline is so bright it obscures the real work to be done. "Dan Quayle comes to the rescue of the republic" (the words of MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell) is irresistible fodder for social-media commentary and cable TV punditry. Who can resist dredging up 30-year-old impressions left over from Quayle's time in office? ■ But talk, ultimately, is cheap. And there is work to be done. The Woodward/Costa book, "Peril", also claims that General Mark Milley, acting as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to implement controls to keep a bellicose President Trump from impulsively starting a war with China -- possibly a nuclear one. ■ These are worrying revelations -- and, if true, they may be deeply problematic for the civilian control of the military. But if all we do is get a little rattled by a book and spend some time engaging in some self-satisfied harrumphing about how lucky we are that things didn't go worse, then we've missed the point altogether. ■ "Speak little, do much", advised Benjamin Franklin. But how much has been done to truly rein in the Presidency? President Trump's term was bookended by Democratic opponents -- one who had six months in office as an outgoing two-term President between the 2016 nomination and the 2017 inauguration, and one who has had nearly eight months in office as the new President. In all of that time, what has been done to reel in the powers of the White House? ■ The Presidency is the Article II branch of government, and its place after Congress is no accident. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "[A] great part of the business which now keeps Congress sitting through the year will be transacted by the President." When read carefully, that simple line communicates quite a lot: The President isn't above Congress; the President serves to put the will of Congress into action. ■ Any residual doubt about the relative order of things should be resolved by noting that Congress can demand reports of the President (the State of the Union) and can fire the President (through impeachment). The President does not hold equal and opposite powers. And yet, eight months after January 6th and the events (like the Quayle call) reported to such mighty reaction, what has been done to order the Article II branch of government so that we can sleep soundly at night, no matter who gets elected next? ■ When President Biden says things like, "If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way", he's not communicating a message of modesty about Presidential powers. Nor is it Presidential modesty to nearly double the pace of executive orders over the Trump administration -- which itself issued them at a rate 70% higher than the Obama administration. We are heading in the wrong direction with powers about which there should be bipartisan concern. No matter how justified the ends may seem, the means must be constrained. ■ Even when used for purposes that seem justified and right, excessive powers are still excessive powers. It's not the purpose for which they are used that ultimately matters, it's whether anyone should use them at all. Never claim powers while in office that you wouldn't willingly hand over to your opponents -- because, if self-government is to have any hope of survival, sometimes your opponents will be in control. Expressing alarm about what's in a new book isn't sufficient. Fixing the systemic issues that give rise to alarm over military power or the reach of the Imperial Presidency are the acts that matter.



September 13, 2021

Business and Finance The news has never been free

One of the best ways to fire up a print journalist is to suggest that their content ought to be taken out from behind a digital paywall. Whatever one might think of an individual reporter's politics, they tend to become vocal capitalists whenever someone suggests that they have a duty to give away their work for free. ■ And the journalists are right to be protective. There is no escaping the fact that it costs money and consumes resources to perform journalism. A reporter's time, airline tickets and mileage reimbursements, the power and water bills at the newsroom, raw newsprint, and all other kinds of factors accrue to the costs of doing business in a print institution. Even all-digital newsrooms and broadcast outlets need to spend money to do most of those same things (besides putting a dead-tree edition on the record). ■ For the longest time, the economics of newspaper publishing made the local newspaper tend towards a natural monopoly: Once the news had been gathered (the cost side), the expense of distribution to the next marginal customer was nearly free -- as long as their subscription or newsstand price covered the cost of printing the actual ink onto the actual paper. That's why the two-newspaper town is such a rarity. ■ Then along came the Internet and Craigslist and Google and the digitization of advertising. The market access that a newspaper once delivered to advertisers (wherein it could reach most of the literate consumers in an entire market area daily) disintegrated -- literally. Now, every market is in fragments, which are as easy to reach as setting up a targeted Facebook ad. ■ That's the pure economic-utility problem for newspaper and periodical journalism. Yet the need for such journalism remains as strong as ever. And that raises a cost that isn't as obvious as the costs that can be printed in an income statement: The opportunity cost of journalists' time. Any capable journalist has a set of highly-marketable skills: The ability to communicate and to learn quickly. Rare is the journalist in 2021 who doesn't have a college degree and an ability to use words in a way that would make most employers salivate. If you trust LinkedIn (another newspaper-killer), communication is the top skill a candidate can bring to the job market. ■ With the economics of journalism becoming harder and harder to satisfy and its jobs evaporating, the opportunity cost of being a journalist is going to become greater and greater. Some will stay out of a sense of duty or sheer joy for the job, but many others will leave (either voluntarily, with the nudge of buyouts, or involuntarily). And as that happens, some of those who depart the conventional boundaries of the profession will find unconventional ways back in. ■ Chicago's most famous media critic runs a blog "under an agreement" with a suburban newspaper. A longtime Iowa columnist publishes a website offering reprint rights to local papers. One of Nebraska's best newspaper columnists now edits a non-profit news service supplying free content to local outlets. ■ The nature of the market has rearranged how many of the old configurations worked in journalism. Many highly-skilled individuals still have the itch to report and to cover the news, even as they find gainful employment elsewhere. Their moonlighting -- as bloggers, freelancers, podcasters, and so on -- adds another wrinkle to the journalism economy: News consumers are better off having them around, of course, but it's hard to keep up a vocation (including journalism) where others can compete with your work while doing it as a hobby. And freelancing can be lucrative, too -- a former Chicago radio host now charges $10.95 per month for his podcast. ■ The news has never been free, and it never really will be. But the coming years may well show us that a considerable amount of the news "profession" will belong instead to people who can afford to treat it as a hobby or an alternative/non-conventional gig. That, in the long run, could dramatically alter not only what is covered, but how. The sheer technical ability to report may, in the not-so-distant future, be eclipsed by the financial ability to independently sustain one's own journalistic enterprise.



September 10, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

Somewhere upwards of 80 million Americans were born after the 9/11 attacks, and to that quarter of the population (and, certainly, to millions more who were too young to have grasped the event), what happened 20 years ago is a historical event. That still leaves roughly half of the population who were adults both then and now. ■ Not long after the attacks, the phrase "never forget" became something like a mantra, endlessly repeated. The 9/11 Memorial collects money for the "Never Forget Fund". The phrase is applied seemingly without limit, to screensavers and bumper stickers and hooded sweatshirts. ■ What was "never forget" supposed to mean? Those who were old enough to have adult faculties when they witnessed the event couldn't possibly forget. But, at the same time, no words or images could possibly replicate the experience of the moment to anyone who came later. Nothing adequately explains the horror of the day, the boundless anxiety of the days that followed, or the confusion that ensued about what ought to come next. ■ The moment stopped time. We "never forget" the bravery of rescuers who went into burning buildings. We "never forget" the grotesque scale of the massacre on peaceful soil. We "never forget" the fleeting moment of common cause and resolution to show national unity. Certainly, nobody who was an adult on that day forgets where they were or what they were doing. ■ Because the scale was so large (2,977 people murdered) and the scope so vast (stretching from New York to Washington to Shanksville), we were deprived of any final moment of national closure, like the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Deprived of this moment of cleansing grief, the only broadly available emotion was anger mixed with vengeance and apprehension. For days after 9/11, there was too much uncertainty and lingering anxiety to let up -- What if another attack was on the way? How long could people survive in the rubble? Why did it all happen? Our only real relief was found in moments that seemed defiant, like George W. Bush's perfect opening pitch at the World Series. ■ We "never forget" because half of us can't. But what do we force ourselves to remember? There's no perfect answer to what we should, but at least one component has to be a high regard for the question, "And then, what happens next?" So many of the subsequent events have changed the course of the last 20 years from what they might have been in a world without the attacks. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that we should always ask that question, rigorously and without apology, because big things follow whether or not we anticipate them. ■ We toppled Saddam Hussein; and then, what happens next? We merged 22 agencies into the DHS; and then, what happens next? We drastically changed our tone on immigration; and then, what happens next? We went after the perpetrators of the attacks and their allies in Afghanistan; and then, what happens next? ■ "Never forget" isn't wrong, but it isn't complete, either. Not unless we deliberately choose things to remember. No one will ever have a perfectly clear vision of how events will unfold -- either the ones that happen to us, or the ones we initiate. But we can make choices about what we remember, and that includes the lessons we transmit to those who can't remember for themselves. Perhaps the most important lesson is simply to ask, "And then, what happens next?"


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September 9, 2021

Computers and the Internet "I worry about our kids"

Summarizing a lot of anecdotal observations and statistics, KARE 11 in the Twin Cities quotes Dr. Madeleine Gagnon thus: "There are all the usual aspects around the pandemic, school shootings, cultural tensions -- layer that on top of all the academic achievement stressors, social media, I worry about our kids". Any capable observer of events over the last couple of years has undoubtedly noted that a lot of people are burning themselves out emotionally and psychologically. It's showing up in incidents on airplanes, outraged flame wars on social media, and in surveys that suggest more than a fifth of kids are having behavioral or mental-health problems related to Covid-19. ■ Unquestionably, there have been a lot of social stressors leading to frayed emotions and likely contributing to some consequential outbursts. But there's also a strange new factor affecting us: The very ubiquity of people spilling their emotional conditions all over the Internet, for their friends (and often the world) to see. ■ We need more and better spaces for privately containing and expressing our emotions, because clearly the present offerings aren't doing enough. The public square is no place for wailing and rending of garments, and yet social media quite often form the "public square" for many people's social and emotional lives. It hasn't helped that quite a lot of us have been unusually isolated from other people for much of the last two calendar years. ■ There's a very brief rush to be had from getting something off your chest, and from getting instant reactions. Complaining about a difficult boss, lamenting the loss of a beloved pet, or venting frustration with some jerk in line at the grocery store are all excellent ways of getting other people to react through their "like" buttons. ■ But strong emotions demand strong methods of containment and self-examination, and if adults aren't well-versed in how to do those things and well-practiced in actually doing them, then it's going to be hard to transmit those practices to the next generation. It's no wonder there is so much talk about "fragility". A lot of people are, indeed, expressively fragile. ■ In her insightful "Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read", ,Philippa Perry wrote these valuable words on children's emotional development: "We cannot protect children from the inevitable bereavements and calamities that life will throw at us and at them, but we can be alongside them and feel with them and help to contain their feelings when, inevitably, calamities happen." That word -- "contain" -- is particularly weighty. It's not that feelings should be repressed or dismissed. It's that they need to be bounded, most of all for the well-being of the person having them. One doesn't have to become a cartoon Stoic, dismissing all feelings as inevitable and unproductive -- but learning to address feelings as both valid and worthy of careful response is a practice that matters a lot to mature well-being. ■ Strong emotions have always been with us, but it wasn't that long ago that we had much slower ways of processing them: Hand-written love letters, carefully-expressed sympathy cards, telegrams of apology. Those old ways took time, were private, and imposed self-reflection on the person expressing the emotion. There are no such obstacles when a Facebook rant is merely a thumb away. ■ We're not better off repressing ourselves, but the corrective to too much repression isn't too much public expression. As is so often the case in life, the answers are found in the middle. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "The virtues are states of the soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states [of the soul], one of which is excessive and the other deficient." We would do well to acknowledge that strong feelings are a part of human life -- but also that humans need to process those feelings with deliberation (and often some circumspection). It's too easy to be tempted into anger and impulsiveness when the tools sit in front of us all the time. And if we're truly worried about the mental and emotional well-being of children, then we ought to think about the tools they have and the lessons they see in the adults around them.



September 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards You're not authorized to help

One of Chicago's defining features is its extraordinary lakefront. Besides being the villain behind a lot of heavy snowstorms and the site of some fascinating water intakes, the lake is a centerpiece of a lot of Chicago's urban recreation. The city's beachfront is long, contains more than two dozen distinct public beaches, and is a major civic resource. ■ But lakes can be dangerous, and Lake Michigan can be particularly so around the city. Drownings are not uncommon, and with so many people so close to what can be a really dangerous set of currents, it's not a risk to take lightly. ■ Following one of those drownings -- taking the life of a young man who had just jumped from a pier -- local residents took matters into their own hands and installed a life ring at the scene of the accident. The Chicago Park District removed it, and then removed a second, because they weren't authorized. ■ Any large organization runs the risk of encountering nonsensical bureaucratic reactions to what otherwise look like common-sense behaviors. But this one in particular is troubling. An advocate for the life-saving devices says he was told "it's in the best interest [of the Park District] to do nothing because it might increase liability". That is self-interested and antisocial behavior. If the life rings being installed voluntarily by citizens aren't "authorized", then the bureaucracy needs to find a way to authorize them or to provide a substitute. In no rational universe should inaction in the face of a known danger be a preferable alternative to even the most basic of responses. ■ That's why we pass Good Samaritan laws. That's why social psychologists study the bystander effect. That's why we have robust debates about the duty of physicians to treat the sick, even (and especially) in a pandemic. It is cowardly for an individual or an institution to hide behind legal protections when a clearly better answer exists. ■ Hazard mitigation is only likely to grow more important as more people concentrate within urban areas all over the world -- including those that might be at escalating danger of significant natural hazards. There's no excuse for permitting institutional inertia and the CYA principle to stand in the way of reasonable community expectations that clear and present dangers will be handled by the community's purported guardians with professionalism and urgency. Taking down an "unauthorized" life ring without installing an authorized one in its place? That's arrogance bordering on malice.



September 7, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work You can't do that on television

Authoritarians really do rely upon the stupidest hangups to remain in power. A giant series of bans on what can be shown on Chinese television has been handed down, and the prohibitions include shows that vote participants out with responses from viewers at home, "sissy men", and the children of stars. And if you want to take your fandom for K-pop music online, well, you can forget that, too. ■ Television has contained plenty of dreck since the beginning -- anyone who's familiar with the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s knows that. But television isn't really unique in that regard; every medium that has ever sought to entertain large audiences has contained at least some garbage. Even ancient Roman poetry contained some scandalous trash. There is absolutely nothing new about entertainment content that offends the powers that reign. ■ But it is telling that the powers that rule China seem to think they need to clamp down on the tastes and preferences of 1.4 billion people who ought, by virtue of their birth alone, to be free. It's a symptom of fear -- that even a taste of kicking someone "off the island" from a talent show might be too much experience in self-government. (And all because people were buying yogurt to pick the contestants in a talent show.) ■ Not that many years ago, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew advised his country that "Those with good minds to be scholars should also become inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere." Lee himself may have had authoritarian tendencies, but he did understand two things: Even a strict government needs the implicit consent of the governed in order to survive, and people need to have sufficient personal freedom that they can pursue ambitious goals. ■ Putting all of the "best minds" into the preservation of the power of the state is a recipe for stagnation, decline, and ultimate failure. Smart people are needed in every government, of course, but if the only real commitment they have is to protecting the interests of a mob racket in shiny uniforms, then not enough gas will remain in the tank to power the other engines of a society -- be they cultural, economic, or technical. People who are kept back by a government insistent upon tightening its controls over business, culture, and other aspects of life simply cannot expect to live to the fullest -- no matter how many self-appointed geniuses think they're running the show.



September 6, 2021

Business and Finance Labor (and) time

In an ill-advised attempt to be funny, a man tweeted that he had taken to placing notices on his wife's calendar every time he performed a household chore, like taking out the trash or folding the laundry. The frequency of the notices he shared suggested he was making light of his infrequent contributions to keeping up the house. The author took some blowback for the jokes, and he defended himself by saying that his wife was in on the joke. But the problem with the whole affair is that jokes are rarely funny unless they contain some element of the truth. And the truth is that the original joke requires the assumption that the trope of the non-contributing husband be at least somewhat true. ■ Labor Day is as good a day as any to recognize that a huge amount of the work that is done in life doesn't show up in conventional economic accounting. We live with a shadow economy of household chores, child-rearing, time spent on volunteer efforts, independent study, elder care, and even hobbies that, by some metrics, rivals everything we more easily quantify with dollars and cents. This so-called "household production" is disproportionately performed by women -- whether or not they are employed outside the home. ■ Fortunately, there is at least some growing awareness that all of this work, even if not easily measured, certainly counts for something. The sudden closure of schools and workplaces due to the Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of this poorly-measured labor into the light, and the tightness in the paid labor market brings his to the forefront as well. If people are being offered $15 an hour to work at many entry-level jobs and workplaces are still closing early due to staffing shortfalls, that conveys messages both about how people are valuing the alternatives to conventional employment and about how we should be quantifying the time people are spending outside of work. ■ That doesn't mean we ought to abandon conventional economic and accounting measures (far from it), but it does suggest we ought to consider the whole picture of labor, both when thinking about public policies and when making our own household decisions. ■ Everyone gets the same 24 hours in each day. Nobody gets bonus hours; time is the ultimate equalizer. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "You may delay, but time will not." Thus, the tools that save time around necessary but low-engagement chores are some of the very best contributions that have been made to our overall well-being in a modern society. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, high-efficiency clothes washers, and clever new innovations like robotic vacuums are all huge strides because they save big chunks of time that are too easy to overlook -- or too easy to dismiss with a poorly-considered joke. We need more of them. ■ We also need to value the time that everyone spends in non-employment labor. Even when we're strictly at leisure, we ought to weigh that time in an hourly-value sense. Everyone needs time to recharge, but not all of the 5 leisure hours in an average American adult's day are of the same ultimate value. If Nielsen is measuring right, the vast majority of that leisure time is being spent on TV or some other video entertainment. ■ The labor movement committed a lot of effort to obtaining eight daily hours for "what we will". In all senses of the word, we should be alert to making sure that "what we will" is distributed wisely -- equitably within households, as efficiently as technology will permit, and as reasonably close to its highest use as our need to refresh will permit.


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September 3, 2021

News It's not that bad things aren't happening, it's that they've always happened

The modern world has many menaces: The disinformation addict, the gullible dupe, and the terminally online are all among them. But alongside their "Wanted" posters ought to be hung a portrait of the perpetual catastrophizer. That's the person who cannot see the good or the bad in the world with any sort of context, but who believes that Dickens should have written, "It was the worst of times; it was [still] the worst of times". ■ It doesn't take much work to find the catastrophizers. Legions of people are out and about talking about how "the world [is] burning" and "everything is awful". Even if individuals are using it as a literary device or as a signal to others that they're part of the in-group, it's patently unhealthy, both psychologically and sociologically. ■ Doom and existential dread are not suitable substitutes for a worldview. The relatively recent past was littered with issues like polio, the Cold War, devastating earthquakes, fascism, smallpox, famine, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. The distant past was in many ways even worse. ■ We haven't overcome all of those problems, but significant progress has been made on many fronts: The Green Revolution feeds the world, vaccines have halted dreadful diseases, and most of the world has electricity at home. ■ Human progress has never taken place for any length of time along a straight line. It is marked always by things changing -- some for the better, some for the worse. To the extent that people of goodwill are out to pull in the right direction, the great arc of history bends in that way. We eradicate old evils only to uncover new ones, while triumphs of technology and other progress open new paths for trouble to take root. There was no cyberbullying before there was cyberspace, but the Internet is yet still a glorious tool for human advancement. ■ If you make the mistake of hanging out in the wrong corners of culture, you'll get the impression that this is truly the nadir of civilization. That perspective isn't fair to the current generation, it isn't fair to preceding generations, and it surely isn't fair to our successors. The Church of Perpetual Catastrophe worships at an altar of shortcomings and failure, but it is devoid of any prayers of hope or saints to emulate. ■ Everyone has a moral obligation to stay in mental contact with people who went through tough times long before oneself, so we can see that our own troubles are rarely as novel as we may imagine. A casual glimpse through historical 20th Century newspaper photos brings the viewer face-to-face with terrible (but commonplace) airliner catastrophes and beauty queens who died after routine surgeries. Just a couple of generations ago, an American born just a few years before Winston Churchill and living into their 80s might well have been born into the Civil War and died after witnessing their second World War. ■ Certainly, times can be tough; we're living through some that seem lot tougher than, say, those of the 1990s -- when the world seemed to be turning perpetually peaceful and prosperous all at once (even if Van Halen sang of their reservations at the time). The greater our perspective -- both by looking at the wide world around us and at the long scope of history -- the easier it becomes to see that we rarely encounter entirely novel problems. ■ Everything isn't awful or on fire or falling apart -- at least, not in ways humans haven't muddled through before. We just need the perspective to know that humans have the duty to endure -- and it doesn't happen by default or by despair.



September 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet Thinking like a faucet

A simple faucet aerator costs about the same as a fancy cup of coffee, and is sure to pay for itself in a short period of time. By blocking the full flow of water through a kitchen or bathroom faucet and replacing part of the stream with air, an aerator reduces water use but also increases the utility of most streams. The water tends to come out of an aerator at a higher pressure than without -- and the air it adds will tend to improve the taste of drinking water as it pours into a glass. Moreover, by breaking apart the water stream, an aerator increases the surface area of the running water, which reduces splashing and helps it to cleanse better. ■ A faucet aerator, by putting water through a sort of straining process, can do more by giving us less. Just as that applies to the material world, so it also applies to the world of ideas. In particular, as the flow of raw information increases and the apparent pace of decision-making required in life accelerates, we need more metaphorical strainers than ever. Not only does life seem to pass quicker as an individual ages, technological improvements are also making new things happen faster. ■ The resulting paradox of this sensory overload, time compression, and seemingly unstoppable technological acceleration is that two of the most valuable skills are (1) to be able to describe matters using words, and (2) to be driven internally to go back and edit those words to make the writing shorter and more understandable. ■ We not only have innumerable tools for instantaneous digital communication (making Zoom meetings and Slack channels and direct messages into constant reminders of the ticking of the clock), but we also have people turning to computers to generate volumes of new content -- not because it's necessary, but because it's how to game the system in an age driven by Internet search engines. There really is a whole industry already developing around marketing content written by artificial intelligence. Humans are literally surrendering the effort of writing material in the hopes of generating so much "content" that it ultimately finds its way to the right customer. The result is that it's no surprise when someone confesses in a meeting, "I haven't had time to read all of that". ■ Collaboration among informed teammates is necessary to any kind of high-level productivity. As Ryan Avent wrote in his intriguing book, "The Wealth of Humans", "As technology advances -- in finance or computing or biotechnology or anything -- the ease with which any one person can become expert in multiple fields declines. Collaboration is therefore necessary whenever expertise in more than one subject is needed to make a project or a business plan work." Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to many that "Zoom fatigue" is real, driven in no small part by the cognitive load of moving from in-person contact to the artificial "places" of cyberspace. ■ And it's inescapable that even those in-person meetings tend to be inefficient. Only so much information can be communicated by people speaking to one another -- English is hard to digest at much more than 150 or 160 words per minute. By contrast, college-level reading speeds are generally closer to 400 words per minute or more. So merely moving the transmission of information from words spoken aloud to words written on the page should result in getting almost three times as much information across in the same amount of time. ■ But just as cognitive loads make it hard to get through Zoom meetings, so do they make it hard to get through complicated writing. (If you don't believe that, try reading "Ulysses" sometime. Someone once condensed the whole novel for Twitter.) It often doesn't seem like the case, but the time spent to go back through written materials to make them more digestible pays off quite a lot. And the more people involved in a collaboration or engaged in reviewing information to make a decision, the greater the leverage that results from making that material easier on the brain. ■ We live in complex times, and they're bound to grow more complex. With digital publishing tools like Substack making it possible for anyone to put out 2,000-word essays without any barriers to publication or to generate 100-page government reports to "cover all the bases", the time has never been better for those who can put their ideas through a strainer. Just as with a kitchen faucet, sometimes you get a lot more by delivering a lot less.



September 1, 2021

News No more of fear itself

In his "Letters from a Stoic", Lucius Seneca offered a piece of advice that resonates with distressing timeliness today: "[H]e who is feared, fears also; no one has been able to arouse terror and live in peace of mind." As we live in a time plagued by fear of a pandemic and approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's worth asking what side of fear we're on. ■ Sure, it would be lovely for the human condition if we could eradicate fear, but we cannot. Children will have nightmares. People will be diagnosed with dreadful diseases. Nature will send unstoppable disasters our way. ■ But, on balance, human good tries to diminish the weight of fear, and evil brandishes fear as a weapon. It is literally from the fear itself -- the terror -- that terrorism takes its name. It was fear that drove more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. It is rule by fear that makes people want to escape the control of the Communist Party of China. ■ Minds clouded by fear cannot think straight -- at least, not optimally so. This is a scientific fact, not just a platitude. It is a powerful, intangible force, and for those who live in relative security, it can be hard to fathom the consequences of living in constant fear. ■ Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from trying to use fear as a weapon, even in places of relative safety and security. Enterprising policymakers -- of both left and right -- are prone to using an expansive definition of fear to encompass feelings of mere discomfort. In so doing, they over-extend the reach of an effective state methodology to reduce fear. ■ The state tends to be immodest about its efficacy at reducing fear using institutional mechanisms. Fear is an emotional dynamic experienced mainly at the individual level. (Fear may be contagious, but it is experienced one person at a time. And there, too, is where fear is most usually resolved. We are rendered heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to Marine Sergeant Nicole Gee not long after she was photographed bringing comfort to an infant in Kabul. But her individual act of compassion for that one child is a beautiful image of someone using strength to ease another's fear. ■ Those who would hype up ungrounded fears about helpless people (like refugees), pounce on the use of intimidation to frighten their opponents, or employ violence as "a tactic of how we keep our communities safe" are all guilty of siding with the use of fear, rather than trying to diminish it. ■ Fear is far too prevalent already. Decency compels all of us to surrender fear as a weapon, to reject its use even when it would seem to benefit causes we favor, and to contextualize it in our own minds in order to sap it of its excessive power. Not everything that is uncomfortable or undesirable is to be feared. Fear itself is objectively worth categorical resistance.



August 31, 2021

Business and Finance Where's the property line?

The inaugural Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams in rural Iowa was, by every account, a smashing success. The TV ratings were a hit, the game itself was perfect for the moment, the views were out of this world, and MLB has already committed to coming back. ■ The whispered promise in the movie, as everyone knows, is "If you build it, he will come". But of course, that's not how things work in reality. Look carefully, and you'll find that the Field of Dreams is zoned within the corporate limits of the city of Dyersville, Iowa. And wherever zoning is involved, the "If you build it" can turn iffy in a hurry. ■ Communities routinely choose to make decisions about what may or may not be permitted within their boundaries. A small few choose a libertarian approach (Houston has no zoning), most American municipalities have some regulations, and a few (like San Francisco and environs) are battlegrounds for NIMBYism ("Not In My Back Yard"). (In San Francisco, a business location can hinge not only on what type of company is being operated, but on what floor it is located.) ■ At its heart, zoning seeks to tell people what they can do with their private property, and that's no small thing for a government to do. Consequently, zoning ought to default to the lightest possible touch that a community can agree to accept. Most places won't go for the laissez-faire of Houston, but many ought to try to come close. A modest amount of planning may of course be necessary as a community seeks to lay out the basic orientation of its physical infrastructure. But much more than that risks sacrificing lots of prospective good in order to preserve vague notions of "character" or "feel". ■ The basic assumption at heart is that most projects affected by zoning involve someone seeking to move some form of real property from a lower state of value to a higher one -- like constructing a new building on vacant land. Most people don't get into real estate or construction projects with the intention of turning a high-value estate into a low-value one. But what happens on one piece of land obviously has the potential to affect neighboring properties. ■ Thus, there are really three main tests at the heart of what a community might seek to restrict. Does the proposal meet reasonable and established community standards? Does it do so without imposing any extraordinary burdens on others? And does it create more value than it extracts? ■ If a proposal meets those tests -- and that can include remedies that make a project Pareto-efficient (that is, they compensate one party for the negative consequences of something done by another) -- then it's unlikely that the intervention of government planning authority will do, on balance, more good than harm. Nobody has, for instance, a right to arbitrarily dump radioactive waste in their back yard. But it's not hard to find people who get riled into full-throated opposition even to green energy installations and other projects, particularly when they occur at scale. ■ A good system of private-property rights is based upon predictability for all parties involved. As the Coase theorem would have it, the key is to define property rights carefully and minimize the transaction costs of working out the differences that inevitably arise when people have different interests in the same place. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Love your neighbor; yet don't pull down your hedge."



August 30, 2021

Weather and Disasters How do we quickly replace housing?

Americans have no problem adopting a lot of new habits and hobbies when the circumstances warrant. When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down a lot of the ordinary recreational and travel options that people expected to enjoy, there was a widely-noted rush to spend more time outdoors, particularly noticeable with a giant surge in sales of campers and recreational vehicles. Those new owners joined a large number of Americans already in possession of highly-mobile living spaces. It's estimated that 11.2 million US households own some kind of recreational vehicle. ■ That number is far from trivial. And yet, the recreational vehicle industry estimates that the average RV is used only 20 days out of the year. In a sense, that means we as a country have what might be considered a ready housing reserve equal to 8% of all of the estimated 140,775,530 households in the country sitting idle a median of 345 days of the year. ■ Obviously, that's not how we treat housing; RVs and campers may largely sit dormant, but they are not all that easily shared on demand, nor do they sit waiting for deployment like a housing equivalent of the Army Reserve. ■ But with wildfires effectively destroying entire towns in California, rapidly-intensifying major hurricanes erupting in the Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of refugees seeking shelter, and countless other major natural and man-made disasters emerging all the time, it's worth conducting a small thought experiment. ■ The need for emergency housing is already periodically evident, and with population growth continuing (and population density increasing in disaster-prone areas), that need is likely to increase both in frequency and intensity. Thus, a question: Why have we not settled on a common national standard for an emergency housing supply that could be rapidly deployed during times of need? ■ It has been widely noted that the development of the standardized shipping container has revolutionized international trade because it enables the standardization of container movement by road, rail, and sea. It simply cannot be beyond our capacities to come up with a comparable (if not compatible) approach to emergency housing -- a standardized size and shape, with consistent connections for basic utility access (water, wastewater, electricity, and telecommunications). ■ The biggest advantage to a standardized system would be that it could enable two forms of modularity. First, it would make it possible for manufacturers to develop a consistent product (the housing module itself) that could be built in volume, stockpiled as necessary, and even forward-deployed in advance of need. Particularly in a time when natural disasters seem to be intensifying in severity much faster than we have accepted historically, deployment speed and scale of preparation are both of the essence. ■ The second form of modularity would be to enable the standardization of receiving systems. From time to time, architects have proposed (and some developers have even constructed) structures like towers that could hold lots of independent modular units around a common superstructure. These ideas have never really taken off in the ordinary housing market, but the increasing sophistication of certain advanced construction techniques like 3D printing and mass timber (including some being demonstrated outside the United States) could permit the speedy deployment of facilities ready to accept the housing modules in a true "plug-and-play" fashion. ■ Ideally, people needing emergency housing due to a major disaster could be speedily settled into some kind of home they could not only consider their own, but also move and use as a foundation (metaphorically) to rebuild. The notorious "FEMA trailer" took on a bad reputation in part because they were intended to be temporary and to remain government-owned. ■ But ownership matters, and even a modest module intended to be permanent and occupant-owned may be a more satisfactory option than a larger or more well-appointed system intended to be returned at the end of the housing emergency. If the rise of tiny homes is any indication, there is plenty of room for innovative and creative thinking that could be applied to emergency housing. California's rush to fill vacant spaces with "granny flats" (auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) could well be a source of real innovation. And enterprising thinkers might even find ways to develop compatibility between RV platforms and emergency housing modules, so that those households who wanted them could purchase such units during good times, customize them to suit their preferences, and have them available on short notice in case of disaster. ■ Thinking small, thinking about permanence, thinking about economies of scale, and thinking about modularity in the big things (like where utility connections would go) and about customization in the little ones might add up to some useful solutions in the years ahead. There's no reason to believe that the problems that create housing emergencies are going to shrink in scale anytime in the foreseeable future. The cleverness and ingenuity that have manifested themselves in RVs and ADUs could serve us well if applied to housing emergencies, too. What may make the most difference is establishing the right (limited) standards and priming the market to respond.



August 27, 2021

The United States of America One at a time

Anyone who has attended a big concert or sporting event knows that it's possible to look at a sea of faces and be completely unable to see past the crowd and focus on an individual. The crowd itself is a sort of organism -- witness what happens when a stadium full of people sings along with an artist's signature hit, or breaks into The Wave during a lull in the action. Yet even though it's hard to see, the crowd is still made up of individuals. ■ Regrettably, the same thing can happen when we look at other groups of people -- including those who are in need. It is with appalling ease that people can transition from being perfectly good and decent in their personal lives to having a cold and inhumane attitude about "others". ■ America is in the midst of one of the largest-scale evacuations in history. The White House says that more than 110,000 people have been extracted from Afghanistan since the end of July. Many of the evacuees are Americans, but many are Afghans, including thousands who worked with and on behalf of American armed forces in the country. ■ But for some people, there is too much mercy on display. One commentator, for instance, declares that "able-bodied Afghani men of fighting age are not refugees. They should be left at home to fight for their country and not rewarded with cowardice." ■ It is categorically cruel and hypocritical to call refugees "cowards". By the established definition of international law, a refugee is "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." Note that the definition includes nothing exclusive to a gender or an age. ■ There is no honor in dismissing people in this way. Abandoning "able-bodied men of fighting age" (and undoubtedly condemning some of them to death) is utterly incompatible with an individual-first view of humanity. If you say that "Children need their fathers", then so do refugee children. If you say that "All lives matter", then so do the lives of "men of fighting age". If you say that you are "Pro-life from conception to grave", then it is indecent to send some people into certain death because of how and when they were born. ■ It is telling that the Americans who have seen some of the people of Afghanistan up-close -- the veterans who served with them -- are in many cases the most vocal proponents of rescue. They aren't seeing crowds; they're seeing people worth rescuing. And some influential people do see it that way: Sen. Ben Sasse put it well when he said, "When you've fought on behalf of Americans to protect our people, you're welcome in my neighborhood." ■ To be "pro-life" is to believe that the baby born aboard an evacuation flight is fully as human as anyone else -- as are the child's mother and father. Americans (as a group) ought to grieve that some of our compatriots cannot see the individuals that compose the crowds they fear. ■ The attempt to turn human beings seeking refuge into objects shouldn't be rewarded -- not with clicks, not with votes, not with donations, and not with any form of applause. Dwight Eisenhower said that "We believe individual liberty, rooted in human dignity, is man's greatest treasure. We believe that men, given free expression of their will, prefer freedom and self-dependence to dictatorship and collectivism." It's a strange and distressing turn indeed when Americans -- any Americans -- turn their backs on the primacy of the individual and resort to seeing only the collective.



August 26, 2021

News It's back-to-school season

Social media feeds in late August overflow with photos of children going through the ritual of "back to school" photos. Some pose with glee. Some are sullen about it. And parents and grandparents invariably gush about how those kids are growing up so fast. The ritual of it makes the unusual aspects stand out: The first day of kindergarten, the first year with a driver's license, and now, the years of pandemic accommodations. ■ What gets overlooked in the rituals is how strange it is that we break school apart into discrete chunks at all. It's strange not only because the idea of a long summer break separating school years is an artifact of compromises forged long ago, but also because individual students are on different curriculum tracks as early as the first years of elementary school. Differentiated instruction in core skills like reading can start as soon as kindergarten. By the time a grade cohort has entered the senior year of high school, some students may be spending virtually all of their time in Advanced Placement classes and concurrent enrollment at a nearby college, while other students are using alternative high schools and co-ops to customize their pathways to graduation. ■ School, of course, is often as much about social skills as about the kind of learning that shows up on standardized tests. Thus, there is no rational reason to expect grade levels to go the way of the dodo. There is evidence that some skills are even learned best in groups of mixed ability. ■ But we should be alert to an unintended consequence of the mentality of "back to school" and grade-level promotion: It imprints on us a mindset that education is a set of boxes to be checked and milestones to be reached, rather than a life-cycle continuum. ■ It doesn't take much effort to find educators who talk with sincerity and enthusiasm about "life-long learners". Increased access to lifelong learning is listed as a strategic objective of the US Department of Education. It is a concept praised by respected outlets like the Harvard Business Review and The Economist. A Pew survey found that 73% of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners. ■ Yet, culturally, we don't fundamentally treat learning as an aspect of life that occurs along a continuum. It's rather more likely to be seen as a punchline in our TV shows and movies (Pierce Hawthorne at community college, Alexis Rose belatedly completing high school, under-educated Penny struggling to earn the respect of her graduate-educated "Big Bang" neighbors) than as a routine part of mainstream life. Senator Chuck Grassley's feud with the History Channel is practically performance art by now, and let's not even begin to think of what now occupies what used to be known as The Learning Channel. ■ So while it's good and timely and natural that we celebrate kids going "back to school" every fall, in the long run, it would serve us well if it became harder to tell when education "begins" and "ends". We should practice as though we really do believe that every child (and every adult) can learn, that learning really is a life-long choice, and that education shouldn't strictly be about vocation. The back-to-school pictures are often delightful, but it would be much better for us all if it never really felt like anyone truly left.

Humor and Good News Just about the best reflex-recovery you will ever see

(Video) A Marine standing guard at the White House recovers his composure from an all-too-close lightning strike faster than just about anyone you could ever imagine

Weather and Disasters Hurricane-to-be Ida

Storm to hit the Gulf Coast "at or near major hurricane intensity" this weekend

News We wanted the rain...

...now here it comes

News It's just not news

Reuters headline: "JoJo Siwa joins 'Dancing With the Stars' in first same-sex pairing". News is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Whatever this is, "news" it is not.



August 25, 2021

News Don't fence me out

While it's hazardous to deify the Founders, the United States counted some true geniuses among its first national leaders. Thomas Jefferson wasn't just the main author of the Declaration of Independence, he was an inventor, an architect, and the keeper of such a vast personal library that it became the foundation of the Library of Congress after the first one was burned. James Madison was the father of the Constitution (in only his late 30s) and an academic groundbreaker. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton are all widely acknowledged for their exceptional intellects. One study estimated Adams, Jefferson, and Madison each with smoking-hot IQs of 155 to 160. ■ One might look at the late 1700s and be bewildered at the country's good luck at having so much intelligence assembled in its service. Or one might look instead and assume that with a population just shy of 4 million compared with today's 332 million, we ought to have 83 times as many people of the Founders' native intelligence living among us today. (And, considering how women and racial minorities were systemically excluded from decision-making at the time, the true number is probably more than double that again.) ■ Just imagine that: Statistically speaking, we ought to have among us no fewer than 166 modern-day Jeffersons, 166 Hamiltons, 166 Franklins, and 166 Madisons. And that is to say nothing of improvements made to our educational system since then, nor of our ability to attract many of the world's smartest and most ambitious immigrants. ■ With that much talent on hand, it seems so much stranger that people are so wary of committing "epistemic trespassing" (that is, the power of making strong assertions outside one's personal field of expertise). It's not that expertise isn't real (it certainly is), nor that people would do well to bring some humility to bear on any debates which they enter (they certainly would). But to get riled up about "epistemic trespassing" sounds very much like rising to the defense of gatekeeping and credentialism. ■ The whole idea of representative democracy is that politicians think themselves fit to be able to make decisions about nearly everything, and voters think themselves fit to select the deciders. By definition, self-government is an assertion of being able to figure out everything we do not know, either by ourselves or by proxy. ■ That's a pretty heady assertion. But there's no real alternative. There is no technocracy or epistocracy that has proven itself superior to a system based upon votes. We are forced, by our choice to have any say in the matter of how we are governed, to have a say in every matter. ■ Thus the role of experts isn't (and mustn't be) to keep others out of the debate, but rather to bring everyone else in and to win them over to whatever their legitimate authority on a subject says is right. Bad persuasion with good evidence is a failure: Experts must be able to convince others just as well as they judge for themselves, as long as everyone is obligated to argue in good faith. ■ Even experts depend upon reviewing the literature before embarking on the rigorous study of a question. No expert gets to pass unquestioned in their own field, nor should they expect to remain respectable if they aren't aware of what others are saying. Self-government effectively insists that we be able to "review the literature" on virtually every field that might be touched by public policy, even if we aren't doing the original research itself. ■ It's hard not to be troubled by the rise of credentialism (prejudicially putting formal academic credentials above all else), nor by the rise in people who think reciting the phrase "Do your own research" is a substitute for research itself (it's not), nor by the rise in people leveraging professional credentials for personal gain (in express contradiction of the purpose of having professions in the first place). It's a goulash of factors that obscure the truth. ■ A world with ever-increasing gray space is a strong argument against pure deference to academic silos and expert gatekeepers. Interdisciplinary exposure should only serve to enhance decision-making by testing new ideas from many angles. Not everyone is a polymath like Isaac Asimov, but we do have to see that complex problems rarely fit neatly into a single field of expertise. Is online privacy a subject for computer science or law? Is extreme weather a problem for meteorology or sociology? Is the job of avoiding war a matter for generals or economists? ■ Obviously, all of those problems (and most of the ones we face) require attention from people with all kinds of differing perspectives. Should people with limited expertise to offer remain humble about what they do or do not know? Absolutely. At the same time, people who engage in a debate that may be outside their "lane" -- so long as they do so in good faith -- ought to be met with charity and respect by the incumbent experts. ■ The idea that crossing lanes is a matter of "trespass" rather than of cross-pollination isn't just a perilous conceit, it's an abandonment of the very nucleus of self-government. The American Founding Fathers may have been dense with geniuses, but they also neglected to appeal to the ideas of women and the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. With at least 166 times as many equally gifted people circulating among us today as were permitted "in the room" to make decisions at the time of the Founding, we should be hesitant to see anyone excluded from good-faith debates on any matter that touches public policy. The common good doesn't have enough room for turf wars.

Health Vaccines work

"One hundred percent of the patients in Bryan Health's Intensive Care Unit are unvaccinated and 100% of the patients on ventilators are unvaccinated." It doesn't have to be this way. It just doesn't.

News Don't infer intent from results

It's the Law of Unintended Consequences, not the "Law of I Always Meant to Do Exactly That".



August 24, 2021

News Time for major decisions

Every new school year brings with it a predictable round of news stories and research papers touting the most profitable college majors and most important courses to take. The very cyclicality of it is comforting. ■ The shortcoming of any such advice is that it can only be based upon either the author's subjective experience or the cold impartiality of aggregated data on tuition rates and salaries. Advice to take classes in communications or business is often fairly wise, but it's not much upon which to build a choice of major. ■ The advice that everyone should get (but that almost nobody knows how to communicate) is: Find the path with the biggest gap between what you can create and what you have to give up to do it. ■ The easy way out is to say "Do what you love and the money will follow", but that's deceptively bad advice. Not only are there plenty of "loveable" career paths that leave people entirely upside-down financially, the advice threatens to leave people terribly un-rounded. Many things are extremely well worth doing as hobbies, volunteer work, or side gigs that a person ought to keep carefully cordoned-off from the risk of an unsatisfying career or an inopportune moment to enter a particular job market. Warren Buffett plays enough bridge to count as a part-time job, but he does it to make himself happy, not to make more money for Berkshire Hathaway. ■ This isn't to say that a career shouldn't be rewarding, or that we shouldn't be able to find joy in work. Work will take up about a quarter of the hours in every week, and those hours should not be joyless and unrewarding. But to take the whole picture of a person, we have to look at the other three-quarters of the hours, too. You can be laid off from a job, but not from a family, a hobby, or your chosen communities. ■ Economically, work is about the creation of value. On balance, being a productive person means creating more value than you consume -- and, in the modern economy, most of what gets created is in the form of services, not stuff. So anyone with a view toward education as a path toward economic productivity needs to think about the value they will be able to create. ■ But we can't only measure one side of that balance sheet. What also matters is what it takes to reach the point where you can create that value, and what it takes out of you to do it. Daniel Day-Lewis may be a profoundly gifted actor, but when he retired, he said, "the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do." The value he created was enormous -- measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office receipts. But the gap between what he created and what it took from him shrank, and he retired. ■ One doesn't have to be a film star to consider that same gap. People drop out of medical school and leave their hard-earned law degrees behind. Sabbaticals and career breaks are mainstream. Career burnout is real. ■ Yet, so is the problem of living paycheck-to-paycheck. So looking at both sides of the balance sheet -- and taking the value a person creates and subtracting what it takes from them to create it -- gives a more complete picture of the college-major decision than any ranking of the most in-demand careers on one hand or the most motivational commencement addresses on the other. (Remember especially that any advice you get on following your dreams usually comes from someone who benefits from survivorship bias -- we hear from Mozart, not Salieri.) ■ Just as a company's net worth is the assets minus the liabilities, an individual's choices balance out to what they get minus what they had to give up to get it. "What you get" isn't merely the sum total of all your annual salaries, and "what you give up" isn't just the time you spend in school. Looking only to one measure is a hazardous form of personal myopia, and looking to find most of a life's fulfillment from a career is another.

Broadcasting "The Ps of Queues"

Highly recommended for listening next time you're stuck in traffic or waiting in a line somewhere.

Computers and the Internet New Gmail tabs arrive

Google is like that flaky pal who's a lot of fun when you're actually together. But half the time he RSVPs to your party and then never shows up, and the other half, he doesn't respond to your invitation but shows up on your doorstep at 10:30 with a Suburban full of friends.

Weather and Disasters A beautiful golden hour

Sometimes Mother Nature is kind to Iowa

News Get the Afghan allies out

(Video) Sen. Ben Sasse: "When you've fought on behalf of Americans to protect our people, you're welcome in my neighborhood." Those are the words of someone who understands the consequences (and moral imperatives) of upholding ideals.

Health Putting off Covid-19 vaccine costs man 6 weeks in the ICU

"The vaccine clearly is a way to keep us safe. This hole in my neck, the scar anyway, will always be there to remind me of the miracle."

Aviation News American Airlines goes retro

The company has been painting some of its current fleet in the classic livery of heritage airlines that have been folded into AA, including TWA and Piedmont (which, with the possible exception of the AstroJet paint scheme, is the best of all -- including the modern-day look). In general, retro liveries are fun.



August 23, 2021

News What fuels the outrage machine?

In his 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Richard Hofstadter wrote that "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point." While he directed his attention towards the right wing of American politics, Hofstadter noted in his very first paragraph that the "paranoid style" was "a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing". ■ Hofstadter's argument is still hotly debated today. But there is another style that also invades contemporary American cultural and political commentary, and it truly is neither exclusively left-wing nor right-wing: It's a mindset. The mindset is one of studied humorlessness. ■ One doesn't have to search far to find it. The right-winger who pines for pre-Revolutionary days. The left-winger who takes pride in hating whatever makes others happy. The Congressman who sides with the Taliban. The writer whose entire brand is pandemonium and civilizational collapse. ■ From time to time, the quasi-professionally humorless may attempt to go for a laugh. But it's usually a laugh of direct or indirect insult at others, often as a sign of solidarity with a cause. In addition to it being cruel, laughing at the expense of others is a hollow approximation at humor. ■ Virtuous humor requires the ability to laugh at life itself. To be a just person, you can't take yourself so seriously that you don't know how to laugh at yourself. To laugh at oneself is a confession of fallibility. The world is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. We are limited beings, not omnipotent demigods. We trip up, we fail, we make fools of ourselves. We misunderstand, misjudge, and miscommunicate. To laugh at those human limitations -- especially within ourselves -- is an act of modesty. It takes humility to know that one's best is never perfect. ■ The humorless style in American politics reflects a peculiar aspiration to be a martyr behind the keyboard or the microphone -- to use words as an all-purpose weapon against the human condition. And it's unfortunate, because it gets in the way of grappling with the complicated and messy aspects of life that are often what make us the most alike, even when we appear to have the least in common. Jonathan Sacks, the prolific author and rabbi, wrote that "Those who can laugh at fate, redeem it from tragedy. One who rejects his enemy's interpretation of events cannot be made a victim. Psychologically, he or she remains free. Humour is first cousin to hope." ■ No one person holds the keys to shut off the outrage machine. But it is within the hands of anyone who engages in the public square, even as a passive consumer, to discourage it. Anymore, it's the clicks that count. Pageviews and other forms of "engagement" are interpreted as the closest substitute for votes. We don't have to reward the kind of hubris it takes to be humorless.



August 20, 2021

Broadcasting National Radio Day

Periodically, the FCC auctions off portions of the radio spectrum for the establishment of local broadcasting outlets. Radio spectrum space is finite, and too many stations too close to one another (on the dial and on the map) contribute to interference that ruins the listening experience. But in the latest FCC auction, many channels went unsold. One sold for just $750. ■ These are not heady days to be in the radio business. The largest radio company in America lost $1.7 billion on operations last year, and that's before it had to pay another $343 million in interest on its $5.3 billion in debt. It's not alone; times are tough for other big ownership groups, too. ■ Yet the people who work in radio soldier on, despite round after round of layoffs and unpaid furloughs in most of America's large and medium markets. Careers of 25, 30, and 35 years can be ended overnight. It can make events like National Radio Day bittersweet for many. ■ Audio choices abound in the Internet age. Podcasts are thoroughly mainstream and growing. Artists release new albums on YouTube. Spotify claims that 13,000 artists earned $50,000 or more in royalties from its service last year (it claims to have paid more than $5 billion in royalties in 2020. It's well worth noting that the company that owned Radio.com says it's "sunsetting" the name. Ominous indeed. ■ The challenge that radio faces as a product is how to approach its customers -- listeners and the advertisers who hope to reach them. Radio's historic advantage has been its relationship to place. ■ Radio is the conversation a place has with itself. Or, at least, that's the way it was and ought to be. The trademark phrase of the BBC World Service is "This is London." Radio's connection with place is a natural consequence of the fact that radio signals travel outward from an antenna location (and degrade the farther away they travel, except when skywave propagation delivers a boost). That's what introduced generations of radio listeners to the concept of DXing -- the hobby of listening for distant radio stations. In America, up until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ownership was limited to relatively small groups. That act repealed the main limits and led to a rush of consolidation. ■ Those ownership rules complicated radio's relationship with place. No longer tethered by law to geographically-based small groups, the trend moved in the direction of programming less for place than for interest. Network programming had, of course, been around since the 1920s. But the incentive to target people with common interests rather than common geography has played no small part in the increasingly ideological character of much speech-based programming and the nationalization even of morning shows. ■ That turn to interest rather than place is a dangerous game for the radio stations that play it. Podcasts and specialty streams have an intrinsic advantage in that listeners can choose exactly what they want to hear about, from exactly the sources, and at whatever times they might choose. It's tough to beat that kind of specialization with "appointment listening" -- especially when Alexa will play whatever the listener requests with nothing more than a vocal cue. ■ Digital media sources have been slow to pivot, but they're going to learn about place next. And there are a lot of professionals who have been cut loose from the radio industry who have the skills to make viable efforts to serve up place-based programming that is available on-demand. Radio is important and has a vital role to play -- particularly in case of local emergencies, like when a hurricane takes aim at New England or when fires burn in the West. ■ Radio's ability to serve everyone in a place instantly remains its most valuable asset. Those owners and managers who prize that asset can do "live and local" things to survive -- and profit -- for another year. But assets can depreciate if neglected and can decline in value if rivals move in and serve a purpose better. Place and immediacy still matter.



August 19, 2021

News And then, what happens next?

One question pays greater dividends than almost any other: "And then, what happens next?" You see, the law of unintended consequences follows us everywhere, because we are fallible human beings without the omniscience to see all possible results of our behavior. But that iron law doesn't excuse us from blustering recklessly into mistakes. ■ Once you become aware of a blind spot, it becomes a moral imperative to try to erase it, at least to the most reasonable extent of your capacities and the resources available. Rear-view mirrors are better than nothing, and backup cameras are generally better than rear-view mirrors alone. Being conscious of the potential for unintended consequences is a duty for anyone trying to make good decisions. ■ Anyone who cares for a garden or who plays groundskeeper for their own lawn is familiar with an unavoidable pattern: Any space that is cleared to bare soil will quickly sprout seeds unless someone is there to pull them or to cultivate the soil with something else. Nature is tough that way. ■ One doesn't have to actively play full-time gardener to still choose the kind of things that will sprout up. But even wildflowers still need some soil preparation, seeding, and early care in order to take hold of a space, and a healthy grass lawn still needs overseeding from time to time so that the grass prevails over invasive weeds. ■ Some of the most alarming aspects of the present situation in Afghanistan reflect a failure to apprehend "And then, what happens next?" When President Biden says of the Afghan military's collapse, "I don't think anybody anticipated that", then someone should be asking, "Why not?" We should never expect good to fill a vacuum faster than bad. ■ In the time outside forces have been in that country, some good has been seeded: Look, for example, to the way literacy among young women there soars above literacy among their elders. But we cannot look away from the fact that the departure of just a few thousand American troops has left thousands of people in crisis. Abruptly clearing the ground invited an invasion -- and not by wildflowers. ■ It is sometimes pointed out that free societies can choose different visions of the garden: The French garden is tightly controlled and purposely ordered, the English garden embraces the impulses of nature. But whatever vision is put to work, unintended consequences will still emerge, and ongoing attention is still required. ■ In the movie "Being There", the joke is that Chance the Gardener advised the President knowing only as much as he had learned from tending to his flowers, and what people perceived as his metaphorical wisdom was nothing more than practical advice gained from managing a rose bed. The garden, though, is a place where even the simplest person can see the importance of asking, "And then, what happens next?" Perhaps we ought to insist that more of our powerful decision-makers spend more time working the earth with their own bare hands.



August 18, 2021

Threats and Hazards Evacuations and free cities

Airlifts, sealifts, and frenzied evacuations have a complex history. Events like the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Berlin airlift loom large in our historical memories because they represent heroic efforts of massive scale against immense odds. The heroics are remembered, as well they should be. But the lessons of the terrible vulnerabilities that make such heroics necessary are often lost because they are far less spectacular. It's easier to make a riveting movie about soldiers, sailors, and pilots than about the complex deterioration of military alliances. ■ What is happening right now in Afghanistan is terrible and heartbreaking on a giant scale. People are desperately trying to escape via the one airport under American control. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing, and 80% of those on the move now are women and children. Wrenching individual stories are no more than a tweet away. Images of hundreds of people being packed aboard US military aircraft in search of refuge remind the viewer of the legacy of referring to the number of "souls" aboard a craft. So many souls are in peril. ■ Aside from the criticisms that can and must be aired of the errors and misjudgments that led to the present crisis, we ought to be asking more broadly whether solutions are available to prevent calamity when people face circumstances so terrible that they are forced to flee their homes. ■ The United Nations counts tens of millions of refugees worldwide at this very moment. And there are crises aplenty that feed that number: Economic collapse (Venezuela), civil war (Yemen), famine (Sudan), and political oppression (Hong Kong). It is obviously impractical to promise to airlift them all -- though states from Utah to Maryland are offering to help, at least with Afghan refugee resettlement. ■ It wasn't that long ago in history that city-states could be found in both Europe and Asia, and the Treaty of Versailles established the Free City of Danzig after World War I in order to preserve Poland's access to the Baltic Sea. That "free city" served as a destination of refuge between the two World Wars (until it was overrun by Germany in 1939). ■ Thus it seems peculiar that the United States, unique in its ability to project power around the globe, hasn't laid out the terms by which we would recognize new "free cities" and offer them something like protectorate status, similar to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. As a country, we adhere to principles like the right to self-determination, and we stand on a legal foundation that depended upon a clear statement of principles for breaking away from a government our forebears deemed no longer legitimate. Why, then, do we not have a clear statement of policy that might have told, for instance, how we might have responded to the establishment of a "Free City of Kabul" by people seeking voluntarily to escape the illegitimate rule of the Taliban? ■ The question is complex, and it's really too late to do such a thing in the midst of the chaos. There are much more urgent needs to attend, and we have a moral duty to act. But Afghanistan won't be the last refugee crisis, and we can't depend upon international institutions to act on our moral imperatives (after all, China, Russia, and Venezuela all have seats on the UN Human Rights Council). But just as a few thousand American servicemembers were enough to hold the line in Afghanistan, so might clear statements of recognition and protection be enough to shelter millions of people seeking safety. Perfect solutions may elude us, but we shouldn't depend upon heroic airlifts to make all things right in a complicated world.



August 17, 2021

Science and Technology A pound of cure still has something going for it

Everyone knows Benjamin Franklin's maxim that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". It was great advice in 1736, and it still has great advisory power to guide us today. ■ But advice usually rings true only if it directs us away from hazards we already recognize. There may be a pithy way to tell us how to be responsible space co-habitants on Mars, but that isn't a problem any of us encounter...yet. We do, however, recognize the perils of having to apply a pound of cure. ■ That's what makes the BeBot beach-cleaning robot so applause-worthy. It's a beefy electric robot that trawls beaches with a sand-sifting attachment that can clean about half to three-quarters of an acre per hour, picking up debris down to a 10-cm depth -- about as deep as an adult hand can scoop. ■ Yes, prevention certainly is better than cure. But participants in prevention shouldn't have to suffer because others won't, so three cheers for cures, too. Whether it's on a scale as small as a local beach or as large as global carbon emissions, some people are going to be ready, willing, and able to do the right thing -- and others are going to remain unrepentant polluters. ■ "Clean up after yourself" should be an axiomatic principle of good behavior. But for those cases when people -- either as individuals or in groups -- choose not to do so, there's nothing but good to be found in developing technologies that perform cleanup so that those who behave decently can still enjoy the benefits. The case to be made for public investment in those cleanup activities is very strong, especially when performed alongside (and even funded by) measures that place taxes on pollution. (Even better still if some of those funds are used to stimulate innovation on behalf of the "cure".) ■ The company behind the robotic beach-cleaner says that part of the point of the technology is to remind beach-goers that their litter has consequences -- and seeing the amount of debris picked up and concentrated in one place really drives home the consequences of that waste. One of Franklin's many other wise maxims is that "'Tis easier to prevent bad habits than to break them." Cleanup isn't cost-free, but the more we can habituate people to cleaning up after themselves, the better.



August 16, 2021

Threats and Hazards Everything happens faster; everything takes longer

It took just a matter of days for the Taliban to sweep through and take over Afghanistan. It was only mid-May when US forces rapidly left Kandahar Airfield, and the United States hadn't planned to complete the troop withdrawal from the country until the end of August. Yet the collapse of the country's formal government and uniformed armed forces happened in what seemed like an instant. ■ We live within a peculiarly modern tension: Everything destructive happens faster than ever before, but everything productive takes longer. ■ Example #1: Six of California's ten largest wildfires have happened since August 2020, and we are told that they are very likely being made worse by climate change. Yet we are told that no matter what we do about carbon emissions (including stomping on the brakes completely), "Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century". ■ Example #2: Covid-19 was first identified by the WHO on January 9, 2020, and it had killed more than 100,000 people in America alone by May 28th. While the first mRNA vaccine was designed within days of getting the first map of the virus's genetic sequence, it will probably take until the end of 2022 to supply vaccinations to every willing person on Earth. ■ Example #3: Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, under the promise that the "One country, two systems" policy would be respected for 50 years. But less than 25 years into that agreement, China has implemented a rapid about-face and turned a "security law" against democratic protest. It took just two years for the government in China to undermine democratic institutions and individual freedoms that took decades of practice to establish. ■ To observe all of this is not to be fatalistic. In his first inaugural address, more than 200 years ago, James Madison proclaimed that "The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel and that of our own country full of difficulties." (Indeed it was, considering the War of 1812 would soon ensue.) Things have always gone wrong in human history, and recency bias generally makes us think that we're always living through the worst of times. ■ But it is also true that the pace of change is accelerating, and especially true that bad actors have access to the very same tools as good actors, and it's always easier to commit an offense than to keep up a perfect defense. After a failed plot to kill Margaret Thatcher, terrorists issued a statement saying "we only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky always". ■ When it comes to Afghanistan (and, for that matter, to any other engagement around the world), the military and strategic options deserve a robust debate. What to do in cases of armed conflict shouldn't be the province of uniformed military or diplomatic experts alone. In a self-governed society like the United States, responsibility for the use of the military falls ultimately on the shoulders of voters. We get what we demand from the elected officials who act on our behalf. If they lack vision, or try to score short-sighted popularity points against one another, or demonstrate a wafer-thin understanding of global issues, they only do so because voters don't insist otherwise. ■ There is something desperately sad about people trying to score short-term points while people halfway around the world are dying to get out as their country descends into an illiberal nightmare. There is good that can still be done -- like the state of Maryland saying it will take in refugees from the crisis. The good, however, takes time. ■ It seems that everything bad is happening faster, while everything good is taking longer. The dichotomy may not be inevitable and it may not be iron-clad. But it does tell us that the future of a good civilization is going to require the cultivation of patience for long-term work that doesn't always pay off in obvious ways nor on satisfying timelines. Much of the future, though, will depend on whether we are capable of remaining resolute in the face of all of the bad actors who only need to "be lucky once". That sense of resolution can't be cultivated overnight. It takes longer.



August 12, 2021

News Everyone gets restless sometimes

The Census Bureau reports that between 2010 and 2020, 52% of all US counties shrank in population. The number may seem stark (and the map illustrating the change certainly is), but it's not a new phenomenon: Urbanization has been the inexorable path not only in America over the last century, but for the world as well. 55% of the world lives in urban areas today, and the UN projects that figure to grow to 68% by mid-century. ■ Not every city will grow in the same way nor at the same pace. Metropolitan Tokyo's 38 million people outnumber the entire population of Canada, Afghanistan, or Peru. Las Vegas had 2,304 people in 1920, and now it's a metro well over 2 million, for some of the fastest urban growth in America. ■ People move for many reasons, but ultimately it happens because we get restless. We move to pursue economic opportunity, cultural stimulation, and social interactions. Most of those things are found where other people are, and that's what makes urbanization unavoidable. ■ We're endowed by nature with giant brains wired to look for problems to solve. That kind of mental capacity has real usefulness for nomads, and the resulting skills like pattern recognition are what make us the most highly evolved animals of all. ■ That mental restlessness needs to be channeled someplace, lest it end up going to bad or destructive purposes. And the more we are able to do away with existential threats and move away from survival mode (which is exactly how we define the move into a true majority-middle-class world), the more it will matter where that surplus mental energy will go. ■ We can talk ourselves in circles about theories around a "clash of civilizations", particularly with China's ruling party, but also with other forms of authoritarianism. But in the long term, any conflicts between authoritarianism and the free world won't be fair fights: One side will have mostly brute force, and the other will have all of that restless energy. ■ The free world -- that is, the places governed by liberal democracy and enriched through broadly-defined economic liberty -- has ways to channel that restless energy when it isn't needed for survival. Inventors are free to innovate, politicians are free to bloviate, authors and artists are free to create, and entrepreneurs are free to contrive new wants to satisfy. Left alone to our devices, we can indulge in 5.5 hours a day of leisure time, make hundreds of thousands of patent applications, start more than a million podcasts, register four million new businesses (even in the middle of a pandemic), and stream billions of hours of homemade video. ■ This is the spare energy of human liberty. It is amazing stuff. And it can't be utilized where people must watch over their shoulders at all times because Big Brother might take a dim view of their activities and throw them in prison. Think of the mental deadweight imposed by the awareness that your "social credit" score is being monitored and that your own person is subject to sophisticated electronic surveillance by powers outside your reach. ■ Success in conflict is never pre-ordained, and it would be a terrible mistake not to take very seriously the potential for significant conflict -- including armed conflict -- with regimes that have no patience for freedom. What starts with insults like "arrogant" can escalate into much more than that. Deterrence matters; as a rule, things are usually not as bad as they seem, but they can get much worse much faster than we imagine. ■ Yet, beneath it all, the fundamentals line up in favor of the system that best deploys humans' restless energy. It makes things better by increments when times are easy, and it's the ultimate reservoir for powering giant leaps forward when times are hard. It doesn't take form like an aircraft carrier in a shipyard, but it matters far more. ■ In World War II, Dwight Eisenhower said, "[A] favorite question of mine was to inquire whether the particular squad or platoon had figured out any new trick or gadget for use in infantry fighting." Eisenhower knew then, just as we should know now, that people become the secret weapon when they are habituated to individual liberty and free to put their restless energy to work. Good ideas bubble up if we let them, but people need the freedom to be restless.



August 11, 2021

Business and Finance If you were a conglomerate, would you eat yourself?

In character as a sort of deranged Harry Caray, Will Ferrell once posed the enduring question, "If you were a hot dog, and you were starving, would you eat yourself?" As the nonsensical ranting of a impersonated sportscaster, it's a question nobody needs to answer. But as a financial matter, it's very real indeed. ■ Six months into the year 2021, Berkshire Hathaway has brought in $13.7 billion in operating earnings -- actual profits resulting from business, not counting the ups and downs of the investments the company owns. This is a meaningful figure, since Berkshire Hathaway is by any measure one of the largest companies in America. Its profitability is up nicely over the comparable period in 2020, and that bodes well as a signal for how the American economy is doing as a whole. ■ In those same six months, Berkshire Hathaway has repurchased $12.6 billion worth of its own shares. While both are very large numbers, there isn't much of a relative gap between $13.7 billion and $12.6 billion. In effect, Berkshire Hathaway is eating itself at roughly the pace that it is making new profits. ■ What makes this news is that Berkshire Hathaway is the lovingly-curated investment vehicle of Warren Buffett. Buffett has spent most of his adult life carefully curating the company into the incomparable conglomerate it has become. He is the most recognizable face of both value investing and the strategy of buy-and-hold, famously as protective of the company's stock as of his own personal shareholdings. At the company's 2011 shareholder meeting, Buffett proclaimed, "We hate issuing shares. It's selling off a slice of every good business we already own." ■ That makes the inverse behavior significant, too: Berkshire isn't just choosing not to issue shares -- it's actively purchasing them. In so doing, it is effectively consolidating the slice of every good business it already owns. And this, too, is a practice about which Buffett has been notoriously cautious. At the 2013 shareholder meeting, Buffett laid his cards right on the table: "The calculus is that you take care of the business with your money first, then if you can buy additional businesses in a way that adds value to the per-share value of the business, then you do that, and then if you can buy the shares of your own business at less than the intrinsic value, it's like spending $0.90 to get $1.00." ■ Thus, with Berkshire Hathaway spending almost all of its income to repurchase shares, it says something about two matters at once. Specific to the share price of the company itself, it says that management (most prominently, Buffett himself) thinks that they're "spending 90 cents to get $1", well in excess of what is required to "take care of the business" with the money coming in. ■ But, more broadly, it signals that they are unable to find additional businesses "in a way that adds value" on a per-share basis. It's not for want of dry powder: The company is sitting on a truly unbelievable $140 billion in cash and US Treasury bills. Even setting aside tens of billions of dollars as an emergency fund for its insurance businesses, Berkshire could comfortably buy out just about any business not in the list of the world's top 100. The $12.6 billion that have gone into share repurchases could have swallowed The Gap or Morningstar in full, with cash leftover to spare. ■ Berkshire Hathaway isn't a hot dog, but it's self-evidently starving for good deal opportunities in the market all around. Instead of making suboptimal deals, it's choosing to eat itself -- which in the long run ought to be the most attractive service it can perform for the shareholders who choose to stick around instead of selling out. But the starvation it's feeling for deals on the outside ought to be a warning to anyone deploying their own money. If a team with Berkshire's cash pile and Buffett's brains can't find better things to do with their money than to circle back to itself, it's hard to believe the stage is set for the rest of us to get rich quick.



August 10, 2021

Computers and the Internet The emoji we need right now

Emoji (or do we say emojis?) may leave a lot of matters up for dispute, but they are a convenient way of integrating feelings into what otherwise might be misconstrued text. Thus, an upside-down smiley face represents sarcasm or "frustrated resignation", while the thinking-face emoji can stand in for the user's skepticism or bemusement. Emotional texture like this makes the language more useful and vibrant, especially in public forums like social media, where character limits and social norms discourage us from writing out what we mean in greater detail. ■ Yet even as we approach an official emoji catalog numbering nearly 2,000 entries, there is one emoji we still need above all: One that says, "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?" ■ We are surrounded by too many fanatics, and the Internet is rocket fuel for most of them. This is neither a partisan nor a sectarian point. It is merely an observation that, objectively, too many among us obsess about too little, and the resulting narrowness of debate and discussion impoverishes the public square (such as it is in the Internet Age). ■ It is not just that our worst obsessives cannot have vigorous discussions with people who disagree with them. It is not only that there are assumptions of bad faith everywhere that discourage good people from engaging outside their comfort zones. It is not merely that some people cannot help but see every event as a moment to try to score another point on some vast cosmic argument scoreboard. ■ No, even though it is all of those things, the worst thing is that it makes our zeitgeist utterly and insufferably predictable. We're stifling legitimate curiosity with a never-ending buffet of mental comfort food. We live in the most advanced, most prosperous, most complex moment in human history -- yet how often do people with national audiences and giant platforms truly seek to surprise? Life should be abundant with serendipity, and yet there is little that will ever surprise the consumer of cable television news, major daily opinion pages, syndicated radio programming, or even the infinite stream of commentary on Twitter. So much of the public discourse is so predictable that there's little sense in indulging in it. ■ Part of the problem is, of course, partisanship -- and perhaps negative partisanship even more than that: It's easier to speak up when you can expect the usual suspects to call you names while an amen chorus rises to your defense. Part of the problem is credentialism: If the experts on a given subject work hard enough, they can clear the space of any curious outsiders who might try to venture a new opinion that crosses out of "their lane". Part of the problem is the devolution of politics into team sports: If social acceptance is preordained by your membership in a tribe, why would you ever venture an original idea outside of the canon, lest you be distrusted on all sides? ■ Consequently, with most everyone -- including, perhaps especially, the smartest among us -- afraid to be wrong, be original, or be curious outside the bounds of what "everyone's talking about", we're not so much amusing ourselves to death as we are boring ourselves to death. A small number of fanatics commit themselves to hijacking every discussion and routing it back to familiar battlegrounds, and it scares away people of more moderate temperaments. It's a quasi-industrial outrage complex that crowds out nuanced and complex original thoughts. ■ It happens nationally, it happens locally, and it even happens among friends and family. It's the Facebook friend who won't stop sharing anti-vaccination tirades, the local blogger with a vendetta against an elected official, the radio host who still provides a platform for election misinformation, and the columnist whose only beat is martyrdom. ■ It's deathly boring, and it's keeping us from thinking beyond a carefully-rehearsed set of opinions on a tiny handful of subjects. We need to know better than to get trapped in the familiar intellectual cul-de-sacs, and we need to be willing to transgress among our own supposed friends and allies to remind the obsessives: "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?"

Weather and Disasters Bad 2020 flashbacks

On what otherwise seemed a nondescript Monday morning among others in pandemic-locked-down 2020, a derecho roared across Iowa and into points east, causing in excess of $11 billion in damage -- more than any other thunderstorm event in American history. Straight-line wind speeds peaked at 140 miles an hour around Cedar Rapids, which ended up losing half of its tree canopy. ■ It's hard to explain the scale of damage that occurs when everything in a band 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long struck almost simultaneously by winds of 70 mph or greater. Corn everywhere was laid flat to the ground, trees were shredded and permanently bent, and debris was scattered everywhere. The storm was frightening on the ground and stunning from the sky. The proper meteorological term was derecho, but it deserved to be called a windquake -- it was abrupt, widespread, and devastating. ■ The silence and darkness on the nights that followed the storm were eerie. So much of the state lost power -- including huge portions of Iowa's two largest metro areas, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids -- that it took a remarkable surge of electrical workers from all over the country to restore power to the more than 400,000 customers who lost it. ■ It's not only cliche but also inaccurate to say that the derecho left a huge share of Iowans living in what felt like a developing country. 90% of the world's population had access to electricity as of 2019 (and that number continues rising fast). More than a billion people gained access to electricity between 2005 and 2016. ■ Along with power outages came Internet outages, and not only because it's hard to access Wi-Fi without a functioning router. 49% of the world's people had Internet access by 2019, and though access varies by region, more than half of the people in each of North America, Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, East Asia, and the Pacific can get online. ■ As Iowans found when we were forced to go without, services like electricity and Internet access aren't mere creature comforts: They are essential tools for getting work done, for making use of most modern amenities (like refrigeration), and for engaging with the world. While there are still too many of our fellow Earthlings living in poverty, we should take cheer that the global middle class is a majority and growing. ■ The good news is that some lessons were learned: The National Weather Service now issues alerts for especially destructive thunderstorms (warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself), and people who experienced the derecho have in many cases brought forward new ideas and plans for resiliency in anticipation of the next high-impact event. Derechos will happen again, and even ordinary severe thunderstorms can happen on the anniversary of the big one. ■ But in addition to giving us lessons in self-sufficiency and neighborly cooperation, memories of that brief, painful step backward in time ought to make us cheerleaders for the continued progress of people living all over the world as so many continue escaping extreme poverty and deprivation. Going without electricity (just for a while) put Iowans in the bottom global 10%. It was an unpleasant place to be, but with planning, attention, and continued growth, our next stay will be shorter and there will be even fewer other people joining us there.


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August 9, 2021

Water News Not a drop to drink

Des Moines sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Des Moines and the Raccoon. And because of a long-running drought, more than half of the state of Iowa is in some state of moderate to extreme drought -- including the watersheds for both of those rivers. The result is that the Raccoon River is barely a neighborhood stream rather than the meaningful river (and major source of drinking water) to which Central Iowans are accustomed. ■ Surface waters supply public drinking water systems in the US with more gallons per day than groundwater wells, by quite a margin. Obviously, though, surface waters are subject to the effects of conditions like drought (and, significantly, runoff pollution). ■ Our politicians love to talk about "infrastructure", and our voters love to applaud it, but water rarely makes anyone's hot list. Roads, bridges, airports, and other related investments in transportation all rank much higher. Yet drinking water ought to be a spectacular stepping-off point for getting the public to think about the water-energy nexus. ■ It is entirely possible to keep almost all of the water we need circulating within a closed loop. The proof can be found aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts drink recycled urine. We shouldn't blanch too much at the idea -- ultimately, all water is recycled; the only thing that changes is how far removed you are from the previous use. ■ What makes old water ready for re-use is treatment, and treatment requires energy. Surprisingly little is needed in the way of chemistry in order to make water safe -- but we do need a great deal of energy. Whether through distillation or aeration, reverse osmosis or ozonation, much of what's actually done to make water safe for consumption involves energy more than just about any other input. ■ Given enough energy, in fact, it is possible to desalinate seawater or collect atmospheric vapor in useable quantities. And, given enough energy, it is possible to move water from any place to any other place (typically by pumping, but even possibly by sea). ■ The crux of the matter is that all problems of water scarcity can be overcome -- as long as energy is in tremendous, cheap supply. Either it can be moved from where it is abundant to where it is scarce, it can be recycled almost indefinitely, or it can be captured from the atmosphere or from the sea and turned into potable form. That should not stop us from implementing as many reasonable measures for conservation as we can find, and it is worth noting that gentle nudges in the direction of high-efficiency appliances and low-flow plumbing devices have contributed to considerable declines in domestic demand. The rule of thumb used to be that indoor household consumption was about 100 gallons per person per day, but that figure has fallen to 82 gallons nationally and less than 75 gallons in some states (including Iowa and a few of our neighbors). ■ Nevertheless, we haven't arrived at that blissful moment of energy superabundance -- at least not yet. So the water sector, while it struggles for the attention and investment it so badly needs in order to face the droughts and other troubles of the present, needs also to press hard for energy innovations, particularly in the field of electrical generation and transmission. There may even come a time someday when energy is so cheap and super-abundant that we could apply it almost recreationally to problems like removing excess nutrients from rivers and streams before they cause algal blooms and dead zones downstream. But in the shorter term, careful use and responsible local management are of the utmost importance.


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August 6, 2021

The United States of America Reap the benefit

In the abstract, 1776 seems like a very long time ago. But in terms of human life, it's really not that many generations before us. The usual shorthand says that a "generation" is about 30 years (somewhere around the mean age for a mother at childbirth), but many of us could find a path back to 1776 in our own family trees that might only require five or six generations. After all, the last widow of a Civil War veteran died in 2020. ■ Because we're really not that far removed from the generation of the Founders, it seems all that much more peculiar that we really never have developed much of a culture of family traditions in office. We can point to obvious exceptions to the rule (like the Kennedy family, who can't seem to quit running for office in Massachusetts and nearby states), but few other political family legacies endure past a second or third generation. ■ And there really aren't any that last back to the Founding generation. Washington had no children, nor did Madison. No powerhouse family political dynasties were set afoot by Adams, Monroe, or Hamilton. Jefferson likely produced quite a few children, but none were privileged to enter politics with his name. ■ It's not as though some of the Founders weren't trying to set up their offspring for success. Benjamin Franklin expressly pointed out in his autobiography the things that he hoped his descendants would learn from his own experience, writing, "I hope therefore that some of my Descendants may follow the Example and reap the Benefit." ■ No matter what one generation does to try to lay the groundwork for their children and generations to follow, people have to pick up those lessons and learn them on their own. It's a decision, and it turns out that it's pretty hard to listen to your great-great-great-grandfather. ■ But one of the really liberating aspects about a democratic system like ours is that everyone is at liberty to pick their own intellectual forbearers, even if they can't pick the ones who sent them their bloodline. Everyone makes choices about their intellectual heritage, whether consciously or not. Benjamin Franklin may not have been your great-great-great-grandfather by virtue of birth, but there's nothing to stop you or anyone else from adopting him as an intellectual ancestor. ■ We have a lot of Americans today who want to be considered patriots through the ease of their birth identity. That's hardly the American way. We're much better off looking to the people who choose the harder route of making deliberate choices about whose habits and practices of thought to adopt.



August 5, 2021

News It's OK to love the Olympics unironically

One of the great triumphs of the modern world has been its relative shrinking. A person can now board a plane in the New York City area and arrive in Singapore 18 hours later -- a historic accomplishment, when one pauses to consider that from the same origin, it wasn't even possible to cross the Rocky Mountains in 18 hours of air travel in 1930, or to make it to eastern Ohio in a week of travel in 1830. ■ "Communication" used to mean both the act of sending messages and the means of going somewhere, and either way, faster communication is all around us. It is much, much faster to communicate than in generations past. As long as layovers don't bother you and you're comfortable with a little bit of video lag, more of the world is within easy reach than at any time in history. ■ This speed is both good and bad; it makes spreading a pandemic much more efficient, but it also facilitates easier collaboration among global experts on the development and distribution of things like vaccines. ■ Despite all of this better communication, what we talk about around the world remains fragmented. Even when cultural phenomena sweep the globe, the fragmentation of media consumption is only compounded by differing rules on rights in different countries. People can find hacks like VPNs to escape geographical Netflix restrictions and buy region-free players for their DVDs, but rivalrous approaches to matters like privacy keep us from sharing global experiences in real time. ■ The Olympics are a rare exception. It's possible to exempt oneself from a lot of other cultural phenomena, but even if you're not watching the Olympic Games live on television, you're the odd person out if you're not aware of them happening at all. ■ It's strange that in this time of such intense communication, we still don't really have a global, real-time conversation. A few outlets, like the BBC World Service, CNN, and Bloomberg all get part of the way there -- but not everyone's a news junkie, and even fewer are financial news junkies. People can watch Twitch streams or tune in to YouTube live streams, but those tend to serve niche audiences and not a global mass market. ■ Common experiences build community, and the Olympics are a nice common experience for the world to share. It's satisfying to watch people do things well, and the games are a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of people doing things amazingly well. We may not know what makes a particular world record amazing, but we know it's neat to see one broken. ■ Even the most committed internationalist and the most ardent believer in a trans-national future ought to agree that no matter what problems exist within the governing body itself, it's fine to sit back and cheer for your compatriots. The only thing missing is to figure out how to have more of these global experiences that can bind us together.



August 4, 2021

News "I can't be a part of the story"

One of the finest subtle jokes packed into the magnificent first season of "Arrested Development" is the reaction of news anchor John Beard -- playing a fictionalized version of himself -- witnessing an incident at a restaurant and dashing out, mumbling that he "can't be a part of the story". It's a hilarious sendup of the classic image of news reporter objectivity: Anchoring a news report on the incident later, the para-John Beard attributes the reporting with the well-worn "sources say". ■ On one hand, the notion of strict journalistic neutrality and objectivity has always been more of an ideal than it has been a perfect standard for reality. A person cannot report events without observations, and observations are inevitably influenced by prior experiences and pre-existing perceptions. But there are ways and standards of trying -- even if only asymptotically -- to approach objectivity. ■ One of those, of course, is to avoid being part of the story. Unfortunately, though, the neutral voice of a third-party observer of events is rarely as engaging as someone's first-person account of events. Some writers are good enough to overcome the limitations of that objective voice, but it generally takes a long period of apprenticeship to develop the skill, and extra time to apply it each time a story is written. ■ The Internet doesn't tend to reward that extra time, and the Internet is where so much news is now engaged. The result is that we are awash in first-person narrative reporting -- from travel to natural disasters, from the "access journalism" of politics to reporting deliberately intertwined with the reporter's identity. ■ In some cases, first-person accounts can lend necessary color to a story, or offer grounds for a journalist's analysis. In the case of a regular columnist, first-person accounts may paradoxically be the most effective way to establish credibility -- particularly if a column depends upon the columnist being "one of us" among his or her audience. But there's a lurking danger if every journalist is just waiting to unleash their inner Hunter S. Thompson. The danger is that the "I" can become more significant than the subject of the reporting itself. ■ "News" is anything that materially changes our understanding of the status quo. Lots of other things -- specifically, "events" (things that merely have happened) and "information" (things that inform us without any particular effect on our understanding of the world) -- are often reported alongside news, and can fill the gaps when there isn't enough news to fill a 30-minute television broadcast or a 32-page newspaper edition. Our problem is that a first-person narrative of events can easily seem like news, particularly if the experience was new to the reporter. But it's not the same. ■ The temptation to report those "I" events might be diminished if the standard practice were to replace every instance of the word "I" with "your humble correspondent". Such an archaic-sounding construction might be a helpful reminder that "news" is inherently a matter of "we", not "I". News is about a communal understanding of what is and what has changed in ways that we (as communities, both large and small) need to know. ■ As more and more attention is given to the fragmentation of news audiences, the easy short-term answer is to dig deeper into first-person accounts -- and it's not helping matters that the employment situation of many journalists has become so precarious that they have to "build personal brands" as an insurance policy against unemployment. But the long-run answer lingers somewhere down the path of hearing less from "your humble correspondent" and more from the practiced voice of a shared understanding of what really matters.


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August 3, 2021

The United States of America Respect for what culture?

Only a couple of months ago, one man was so aggrieved by Disney World's efforts to keep up with contemporary community standards that he issued a full-length op-ed to the Orlando Sentinel, which they dutifully published -- including these words: "The more Disney moves away from the values and vision of Walt Disney, the less Disney World means to me." These values, says the writer, are incorporated into rides like Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle Cruise. ■ It is of no use to publicly flay the author; everyone is entitled to hold preferences and beliefs about culture, including ones widely rejected by others. As the Latin phrase goes, "de gustibus non est disputandum": There is no disputing about taste. ■ But there is use in examining what, exactly, are the values transmitted by Disney's cultural iconography. Objectively stated, Mickey Mouse is a rodent who has been stringing along his girlfriend for the past 93 years, and his best friend is a duck who refuses to wear pants. But that's not fair, is it? They are meant to be lighthearted characters, not to be taken too seriously (lest someone figure out why Goofy talks but Pluto doesn't). ■ Yet even lighthearted characters can transmit the wrong ideas. One doesn't have to think there was specific malice involved in displaying a shrunken-head salesman character on a ride long ago, but coming to terms with what was (at best) a gross cultural insensitivity in the past means it probably makes sense to remove the offending image in the present. ■ Part of celebrating American culture means cheering for incremental steps towards "a more perfect union". That process can be additive -- like creating new stories that make female characters the stars and not just damsels-in-distress (as in "Brave", "Moana", and "The Princess and the Frog"). It can also be subtractive -- like removing songs and other references to old content with racist connotations from the present-day experience. ■ Choosing what to emphasize or to de-emphasize doesn't erase the past, but it does reflect how we want to address the present and the future. James Madison himself wrote that ""[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good". Correcting what past Americans got wrong isn't dishonoring them -- it's honoring a common fidelity to getting things as right as we can in the time we are living. Invariably that will be an imperfect process, and sometimes jarring, but it's the only road worth traveling.



August 2, 2021

Computers and the Internet What's in a surname?

One of the things a global event like the Summer Olympics offers us is a chance to consider small differences in habits. As a matter of practice, Americans are used to putting a given name first (Sally) and a family name second (Smith). In 2020 Olympics host country Japan, the family name typically comes first (i.e., Smith Sally). This opens the door to confusion if one doesn't know whether a name has been Romanized, so there is a simple clarifying convention: Placing the family name in all-capitals. Thus, whether it's printed Sally SMITH or SMITH Sally, it remains clear which name is which. ■ In a way, it's funny that we have surnames at all. The famed Leonardo was from the town of Vinci; "da Vinci" wasn't his family name. In Iceland, one's last name only indicates the name of a parent -- Magnus's son or Jon's daughter -- and isn't shared by an extended family, which makes organizing their telephone directories a bit complicated. Many Hispanic cultures incorporate two surnames for each person. And if you're really getting down to it, European surnames from McGowan to Ferrari to Schmidt are all just local variations on "smith", all because some long-ago ancestor was the village ironsmith. ■ The computer-driven need for unique usernames has made this especially complicated. There can be only one JohnSmith, despite the tens of thousands of John Smiths out there. Mononyms like Teller and Madonna used to make people stand out, but now anyone with a presence online has to compete with everyone else to find a string of unbroken characters entirely their own. Unless you're one of the few to have a unique prosoponym, finding one can be hard enough to do even without username rules. ■ Besides, surnames can be troublesome, especially if one happens to show up in the news for the wrong reasons. Gerald Ford was merely being self-deprecating when he declared himself, "A Ford, not a Lincoln", but the Ford name alone has had its ups and downs -- including a spell associated with a notorious anti-Semite, and prior to that, as the namesake of the site of Lincoln's assassination. (It's a lot of weight to carry for a name derived from people who lived near a stream crossing.) And it's hard to avoid associations with a surname like Lee/Li, borne by probably 100 million people or more worldwide. ■ The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child includes as one of its very first articles the right to have a name from birth. Such is the power of a personal name. But perhaps we're not so far away as we think from people being known once again by names not based upon family relations, but upon what they do. This is already the way of the digital world, where people choose handles to match their working identities: Raven the Science Maven, Econo Todd, and Epi Ellie. ■ There is no perfect naming system, any more than there is a perfect voting system. Real surnames go extinct (though it's a problem with a mathematical solution, for those willing to try it), and sometimes self-chosen names outlive their usefulness (as when a journalist with a name tied to one institution goes to work for another outlet, or when deliberate anonymity outlives its professional usefulness). ■ It seems safe to forecast that the names of the future will be a lot more fluid than the names of the past. We won't all go through as many iterations as Prince, but it may not be a foregone conclusion that the athletes of the next Summer Olympics won't ask to be identified by something other than their conventional legal names. Not everyone will want to be called "Backstroke Bob" or "Marathoner Marissa", but there may be athletes like Jade Carey and Suni Lee, who share their names with others, who may end up finding value in creative onomastics.



July 30, 2021

News Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you

Aside from a semiannual checkup at the dentist's office, almost no one ever has the experience of someone else flossing their teeth. The incentives to floss are almost entirely personal, and so is the effort required. It all comes from you: Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you. ■ That being said, we aren't born knowing how to floss, either. Everyone has to learn somewhere. Mostly, we expect this to be the kind of life skill learned from conscientious parents and other caregivers. If not there, perhaps we learn it from the dentist or dental hygienist. And if all of those fail, then perhaps the skill will be transmitted at school, during a health class. (If you count on learning from a YouTube video, there's a risk you'll accidentally learn to dance instead.) ■ But in the end, once the skill is learned, it's up to the individual to do it. It's a pure case of capacity-building: Once a person develops the skill, it's up to them to execute. Capacity-building is almost categorically under-appreciated. ■ Debates over the "true purpose" of education -- from elementary through post-secondary -- are perpetual and practically infinite. Some say the purpose is to create good citizens. Some say the purpose is to equip students to become lifelong learners. Some say it is to create a population ready for gainful employment. ■ Isn't the "true purpose" all three? In essence, isn't the educational system in which we invest so much really a giant, complex project in capacity development? No single solution fixes all problems. No one test measures all success. No isolated outcome determines the return on the investment. But taken all together, isn't formal education really a process of maximizing the capacity of each individual to, in the words made famous by Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are"? ■ Education can't make a person "Do what you can", nor does it decide "Where you are", but it can certainly make a difference about "What you've got". We can't and shouldn't expect formal education to do all things -- but we should have a rather expansive understanding of what capacities it ought to develop. In the end, once capacity has been developed, it's up to the individual to find the motivation and the initiative to act. Those are powerful internal forces, and they are impressed upon us by families, friends, and the institutions we use to seek higher meaning in life -- religious communities, service organizations, civic groups, and the like. ■ The pandemic experience has forced a global reckoning with meaning and illustrated how fragile mental wellness can be, especially when people are distanced from social support. But it has also revealed unexpected reservoirs of resilience. That is the stuff of meaning -- the "Do what you can". When we combine it with capacity -- the "With what you've got" -- it turns out that there remains plenty of room to be optimistic about the human future. ■ We ought to think hard about how the things we can do in structured and formal ways to build capacity enable people to make the most of the meaning and motivation they find within. They are different things, and we ought to be comfortable looking to different sources for them. Our most vicious political disputes over matters like education often reflect habits of misinterpreting how those roles differ, as some combatants bring their most uncharitable assumptions about meaning and others institutionally resist reforms and evolving performance expectations. ■ Some good faith is needed all around. We ask educational systems to do many things -- and it's not unreasonable for that list to grow. Almost everyone in every sector has to do more than their predecessors did, because the world invariably grows more complex. But as the list grows, we're well-advised to respect the appropriate lanes: Capacity-building, yes; personal motivation and meaning, no. Failing to know the difference and assigning the wrong expectations only results in a sort of trench warfare of policy that leaves no one satisfied. It's no good for us to surrender to a self-perpetuating cycle of motivated acrimony. ■ Schools can teach people how to read the Constitution, but they can't make people decide to vote. They can train students to understand and use the scientific method, but not motivate them to become impassioned climate activists. They can teach personal wellness, but they can't floss your teeth for you.



July 29, 2021

Threats and Hazards It is a crime to lie to Congress

The first witnesses to testify before the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol were four police officers: Two from the US Capitol Police, and two from the DC Metropolitan Police Department. ■ Though they testified only in their personal capacities, the witnesses were subject to the same rules that apply to anyone who testifies before Congress. That includes 18 U.S.C. Section 1001, under which it is a Federal crime to lie to Congress. It's a good law: Congress needs to be able to obtain truthful information if it is to be able to make appropriate laws. And in the order of operations of the Federal government, Congress literally comes first. Some say that it is "first among equals", but the reality is that Congress can dismiss the President, not the other way around. The legislative branch is more equal than the others. ■ Thus, what people say to Congress matters. Cynicism aside, what a person says to Congress, they say to the American people. And they're not allowed to lie when they do. Testimony to Congress must faithfully represent the truth. ■ In his testimony, Officer Daniel Hodges of the DC Metro Police made specific note of some of the flags being carried: "It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians: I saw the Christian Flag directly to my front. Another read 'Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.'" ■ It is distressing testimony, since it gives evidence that at least some of the people participating in the attack saw their religious and political identities as one, and that the merger of the two gave them some reason to commit an attack on the very seat of the national government. ■ In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin noted that "Tho' I seldom attended any Public Worship, I had still an Opinion of its Propriety, and of its Utility when rightly conducted". But Franklin also said this about what he saw in the various churches of his time: "I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of Respect as I found them more or less mix'd with other Articles which without any Tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv'd principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another." ■ Much is rightly said of Thomas Jefferson's contributions to religious liberty. Few things are more important to our civil laws than the First Amendment and its protection of religious freedom. But it is very much in the founding spirit of the country, too, to expect religious leaders and teachers to heed Franklin's words and avoid any tendency "to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another".



July 28, 2021

Health Let's not do this again

Congressmember Clay Higgins of Louisiana says he has contracted Covid-19 for a second time. It's likely a moment of personal anxiety, and all people of goodwill should hope for his speedy recovery. Whatever the Representative wants to say about his apparent reinfection, it's not hard to draw a connection between his announcement and the memo from the attending physician for Congress asking the House of Representatives to resume mask-wearing. ■ One of the major hangups over vaccination appears to be this particular cloudiness about natural immunity. Some people who had (or at least think they had) Covid-19 believe they are sufficiently protected by natural immunity that it isn't necessary for them to take one of the available vaccines. But Rep. Higgins illustrates the peril of that approach: Either he did have Covid-19 before and he got it again (meaning that natural immunity failed him) or he mistook some other virus for Covid-19 and was misled into relying on natural immunity. ■ We plainly do not know conclusively whether this natural immunity is durable. The World Health Organization says most people who survive Covid-19 have antibodies within four weeks of infection. The CDC says we just don't know how long that protection might last. The WHO says the strength and duration of that natural immunity varies depending on the patient and the severity of the symptoms, and that there's no strong evidence supporting more than a few months of sustained protection. That might change with further evidence, but for now, confidence wanes after 8 months. ■ The word "novel" has meant a lot when applied to this "novel" coronavirus: We don't know everything about it yet, and circumstances are changing as we go. One of those things that has changed is the arrival of the "Delta" variant. It is much better at spreading itself than its predecessors. It spreads 50% faster than the Alpha variant, which spread 50% faster than the original virus. ■ People who may have counted upon natural immunity before deserve to know the facts: The new variant is an accelerant. It makes circumstances much more hazardous than before for people who are not protected by a vaccine. And make no mistake about it: The available vaccines are keeping people out of harm's way. The odds of dying from Covid-19 after vaccination fall literally into the 1-in-200,000 range. By comparison, your odds of dying in a car crash are about 1 in 9,000. That's more than a full order of magnitude of difference in risk, and yet most everyone still gets on the road. ■ Material facts about the disease have changed, and as Dwight Eisenhower once said regarding war, "Rigidity inevitably defeats itself, and the analysts who point to a changed detail as evidence of a plan's weakness are completely unaware of the characteristics of the battlefield." The material facts here are that new cases are picking up because of the new variant, but it's almost exclusively a serious risk to the unvaccinated. ■ Some people have been hesitant to get vaccinated over fears of unknown side effects, but they ought to know that side effects simply don't show up long after vaccines are administered. Serious side effects from any vaccine have only happened within a few weeks -- or a handful of months, tops. And in particular, it's notable that the mRNA vaccines are eliminated by the body almost immediately, even though the immune system gets to work building protection. ■ But while there's no known mechanism by which a vaccine will come back to haunt you by surprise years later, we've long known that some viruses can linger and cause further damage long after the initial infection. If you've had chickenpox, you could get shingles later. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can later give you cancer. Long-term infections by the hepatitis virus can cause liver failure. ■ We already know that some people are experiencing "long Covid", and there's no guarantee Covid-19 won't turn out to be as insidious as, for instance, the chickenpox-shingles connection. And we know that viruses can mutate right around natural immunity -- it's why we haven't yet cured the common cold. Taken what we already know through hard experience, avoiding Covid is the only rational thing to do. ■ So, on one side of the risk equation, we have a virus that is spreading much faster than it did before, uncertainty about the long-term consequences of the disease, and no reason for high confidence in sustained natural immunity. On the other, we have vaccines that have been administered to billions of people with extremely good track records of both safety and efficacy. ■ We don't know whether natural immunity protects people for long (and if Rep. Higgins is right, that confidence should be waning), but we know with extraordinary (and continually growing) confidence that the vaccines do. When the facts change, reasonable people should be open to changing their minds.



July 27, 2021

Threats and Hazards Reality is the best friend of liberty

The Olympic Games are supposed to be apolitical, but that ideal has rarely been achieved. Even when it is accomplished on the field of play, what happens in sports invariably finds its way into relations among countries, as well as into the domestic politics of individual nations. ■ Just as sports reveal differences between athletes, so do international affairs reveal differences among governments. The People's Republic of China (PRC), for example, is governed by a regime that hates to be criticized. How much does the regime hate it? So much that censors cut off the broadcast of the opening ceremonies when the delegation from Taiwan was introduced. ■ On the matter of Taiwan, the PRC's government is extremely touchy. Domestically, a memo was circulated at Radio Television Hong Kong warning against any hint that Taiwan is an independent state. Abroad, the Chinese consulate in New York has complained that NBC's map of the PRC omitted Taiwan and other territorial claims, "hurt[ing] the dignity and emotions of the Chinese people", and tweeting a complaint at NBC as if it manages American diplomacy. And the PRC has blasted Japan's public broadcaster for using the word "Taiwan", as well. ■ It's a recurring theme for the PRC: Image above all. The dispute over international recognition of Taiwan's independence is complex and has a long history, but the plain reality is that it is an island of 23 million people with their own government and legal system that does not behave like the PRC's. ■ Taiwan's path to a high rating for freedom was long. It got there not by disputing reality, but by embracing it: Reality is the best friend of liberty. ■ That statement has meaning on two levels. First, nobody has to run away from reality in order to embrace liberty. Human liberty is the natural order of the world. The more you see of reality, the more the truth pushes you in favor of a paradigm of ordered liberty ("ordered" in the sense that one person's rights end where another's begin). It can be complicated, tumultuous, and noisy, but we possess rights merely by cause of being born as human beings, and nobody is entitled to take those rights away. ■ The other meaning is that illiberal systems of government get by via deprivation. Individuals can be deprived of their natural rights for a long time and not fight back, but ultimately, when a political system fails to deliver the goods (so to speak), people get angry and revolt. When the Soviet Union failed miserably in its duties at Chernobyl, people revolted against the system. ■ What happened to the USSR could happen to the PRC, if the government shows itself incapable of delivering competent responses to reality. If it cannot show itself capable of preventing or responding to catastrophic floods in a city of 12 million people, that reality is pretty hard to hide -- even if the state-controlled television news tries to distract the audience with 29 minutes of news about Xi Jinping going to Tibet before talking about the disaster. ■ Sooner or later, systems that deny basic human dignity and natural human rights fail to deliver results as a practical matter. They cannot do otherwise, because they require a denial of reality -- not just the reality of those natural rights, but often a denial of realities as plain as the nose on one's face. When photographs must be erased because of the inconvenient realities they display, then the detachment from reality is terminal. ■ Personal liberty inevitably invites conflicts -- conflicts that we choose to resolve through ordered processes, like courts of law. Liberty does not require words to be rendered taboo or elections to be "fixed" to protect the interests of the powerful. Instead, it requires the attitude expressed by Theodore Roosevelt: "[W]e must face the facts as they are." Reality is the best friend of liberty.



July 26, 2021

Broadcasting Conan O'Brien teaches economics

Conan O'Brien signed off his final TBS broadcast with some delightful words about how he had devoted an entire late-night television career to the pursuit of a "strange phantom intersection between smart and stupid". It's a lovely sentiment, and it describes well the sort of work he's done -- a Harvard graduate unafraid of telling silly self-deprecating jokes from behind a flashlight. ■ O'Brien isn't disappearing from the spotlight. His quirky and very funny podcast has an enormous following (it was rated among the top 20 most-downloaded of 2020) and he's starting a new show in the HBO universe. His production company is expanding its reach with new programming, too. ■ But it is notable that O'Brien, who has been in the cultural mainstream since starting his first TV show in 1993, is done not only with network television but with basic cable, too. His embrace of digital and on-demand platforms is complete. ■ Baumol's cost disease says that wages will rise for certain jobs even when they are no more efficient and have no hope of becoming more efficient, because the people delivering those services have to be attracted away from alternatives. The go-to example is that a string quartet can't perform any faster for an audience today than they could have 100 years ago, but each of the musicians must be paid more now than in the past because their wages have to keep up with inflation -- and with the pay those musicians could have earned by seeking alternative employment. ■ The entertainment mainstream is being shattered into millions of pieces right now. Bruce Springsteen might have lamented that there were 57 channels with nothing on back in 1992, but now the channel choices are literally limitless. Fame is still a great launching point for new content: The other 19 shows in the top-20 podcasting universe are almost entirely composed of people who were already famous or media outlets that already had brand-name status. ■ As the old pipelines for content delivery are being fragmented, the opportunities for content creation flourish. In particular, clever famous people will find that they can devote relatively small amounts of their time to creating media products that are not only popular but profitable. Andrew Sullivan left a major print magazine to start a subscription e-newsletter and now claims to have more than doubled his income to $500,000 a year. A few YouTube creators are estimated to bring in tens of millions a year. Conan O'Brien's podcast is said to generate millions of dollars a year. ■ This puts Baumol's cost disease in a fascinating light: Creative people may well find that they can only create as much material as they used to, but because their transmission and distribution costs have basically evaporated, they may be able to earn as much as they did in the past with less work, or more with the same work. And for others, the act of leveraging fame might convert relatively small investments of time into attractive amounts of income (see, for instance, the "Office Ladies" and "SmartLess" podcasts). ■ This competition, meanwhile, puts still greater pressure on the incumbent media outlets from which many of these creatives obtained their fame. Even the late-night shows (like "Conan") are scrambling for YouTube and TikTok views as they each pull in only a few hundred thousand viewers under the age of 50. ■ No matter what else develops, it's still going to take a program host at least an hour of real time to deliver an hour of content time (obviously, much more if there's additional production, writing, or other overhead involved). But we may well be witnessing a curious moment in which not only is there still ample social status to be obtained from working all-digital, but also a much more relatively lucrative return to be had from doing it. ■ It tells us almost nothing about where fame will come from in the future, and less still about where the farm teams for creative talent will even have economic room to exist. But for certain, we can see that much-coveted jobs like "late-night host" that once benefitted enormously from Baumol's cost disease may well be finding themselves launched into another economic world altogether.

Business and Finance James Madison: Regulatory reform advocate

"Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences"

Science and Technology SimCity really ruined us, didn't it?

Some academics are playing with the notion that we live in a giant simulation and that it's getting too boring for our shadowy overlords to keep watching

Broadcasting What are the Summer Olympics without Bob Costas?

The games are taking place a year late, the athletes are wearing masks, and the stadiums are empty of spectators, but it's the absence of Costas that makes the whole affair seem strangest

Business and Finance Let college athletes make money -- above the table

It should be news to nobody that money was already finding its way into collegiate athletics in a big way. We've known it for a long time. Transparency accrues to the benefit of the rule-followers.

Business and Finance Everything's taking longer to get here

And it doesn't matter much where "here" is. Delivery times for all kinds of products are far slower than usual right now, by a margin that is just off the charts.



July 24, 2021

Computers and the Internet Know when to say when

Philosophically, the explosive growth of DIY publishing platforms like Substack is a great thing. But some lovely writers need to cut themselves off around the thousand-word mark. 3,500 words is too many, and profoundly too much for the screen.

Weather and Disasters Massive flooding far from the Zhengzhou disaster

If conditions are consistently like this throughout the 200 km in between, this is a magnitude of disaster that's hard to comprehend.

Aviation News Maybe it fell off the back of a truck

A Soviet-era MiG on display at a museum indicates that "Its service history remains unknown"...which raises some questions about how it was retrieved in the first place. The US Air Force did have a special program for aircraft of Soviet origin flow by pilots trained to fly like Soviets. For obvious reasons, the program was kept secret.



July 23, 2021

News Audits of apparel

It's unlikely that even one in ten Americans could describe the first thing about the rules of beach handball. But the International Handball Federation not only exists, it has strong opinions regarding the acceptable apparel for players. In short: Men are to dress like they're playing a sport, and women are to dress like they're going for a swim. And the Norwegian women's national team took a stand and said "no" to playing in bikini bottoms. ■ This protest -- conducted in shorts -- resulted in fines, which the national organization will cover for the players. Now, the European Handball Federation says it "will do all it can to ensure that a change of athlete uniform regulations can be implemented", whatever that means. In its statement of support, the European organization pled innocence to the rule, saying that only the international governing body could do anything about it. ■ For its part, the International Handball Federation issued the kind of mealy-mouthed defense-de-bureaucratese that the world has come to expect from unaccountable worldwide governing bodies. Its defense begins "First of all, both the European Handball Federation and the International Handball Federation are committed to popularising beach handball" and leans on "the ideal presentation of the sport" as its most important objective. ■ They have the option to prove otherwise, but that sounds like veiled language for a pretty obvious pretext: They want female players to bring sex appeal to the game. There's no serious justification for the difference between the men's and women's uniforms, and three cheers for the women of Team Norway for taking a stand. Three additional cheers for the officials backing them. ■ And it's not just handball: Gymnasts from Germany have taken a stand on women's uniforms in that sport, as well. If a uniform has something to do with the actual performance of the sport, then elite athletes will choose it on their own. If the uniform is being selected merely because it shows more skin, then those same athletes should be free to make reasonable choices for themselves and their own level of comfort. ■ Rules like the IHB's tend to reflect a thoughtless sexual objectification of women. Sometimes, along the way to some enlightenment on the matter, men (almost always older than the women affected by their policies) will go from (a) not considering the humanity of the affected women at all to (b) thinking "That's somebody's daughter". And while that's better than no consideration at all, it has to be no more than a way station before whittling down "That's somebody's daughter" to "That's somebody". ■ Protests like the present Norwegian case are vital for urging as many people as possible down the path to "That's somebody". It's a cause in the same spirit as the justified drive to permit swimmers to cover their natural hair in a sensibly accommodating way. ■ Athletes empowered to make their own choices may choose to expose more of themselves or less -- but what matters is leaving it up to them, within the bounds of fair competition. ■ We're not returning to the ancient practice of nude Olympics, but there's no shame in an athlete choosing to appear in the ESPN Body Issue, either. What matters is the person who makes the choice. May the 2020(-ish) Olympics bring the world more than a few instances when we can appreciate what the athletes do more than how they look, and who they are more than what shapes they occupy.

News Cleveland's new baseball team name: The Guardians

Some geniuses in the comments seem to think this isn't a powerful-enough mascot, as though there aren't two teams named after footwear. Honestly, how many team names aren't somehow objectively silly? Boston and the South Siders are named after footwear. Oakland is blandly named for an "Athletic Club". Toronto picked a notorious jerk of a songbird. KC is named for a livestock show. Cleveland did the right thing in getting rid of an archaic mascot name that objectified people. People are not objects.

News Architecture and the Olympics

Both wood and wind are put to use in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium



July 22, 2021

The United States of America For the children, we should stop saying "it's for the children"

One of the surest signs that someone is pushing a self-interested agenda is that they insist their pet project is "for the kids". Since children have a limited or nonexistent voice in the political processes that make things happen, they make for convenient human shields against criticism. ■ There is something more than a little untoward about using children's interests in that cynical way, just as there is something unsettling about using children as spokespeople for causes. There is no way to engage in a robust and thoughtful way with someone like child activist Greta Thunberg, since any criticism coming from adults is, by definition, launched from a place of power imbalance -- unfair at best, obscene at worst. Kids should be free to be kids (learning, making mistakes, and finding their voices along the way), and adults should debate with adults. Don't make children your heroes and don't make them your foils. ■ If we were indeed serious about taking action on behalf of children, we would find a way to orient at least some of our decision-making -- private, public, political, personal, and beyond -- around specific future goals. People saving for retirement have the option to invest in target-date funds, which are at least nominally intended to have in mind the interests of people retiring around certain future dates. It is odd that we don't have corresponding views represented in bodies like Congress. ■ There are Congressional caucuses organized around obvious interest groups based on ideology, and race, veteran status. The caucuses are so granular, there is even a dairy farmers caucus. There are Congressional caucuses for cut flowers, fragrances, rugby, and tires. But there are no "target date" caucuses: No 2030 Caucus. No 2040 Caucus. No 2099 Caucus. No caucuses (unless they've been cleverly named) addressing specific visions for what ought to come in the future, and how we might steer towards healthy, productive objectives. ■ We shouldn't have more visibility about future Olympic host cities than we do about our country's policy orientation. Yet we do: We know where the 2032 Olympics will be held, but you would have to obtain a crystal ball to see what will develop in American policymaking by then. ■ This is not to fetishize an over-reliance on planning and planners. Lots of people ascribe far more wisdom to the supposed long-term plans of China's ruling class than is actually on display. But Dwight Eisenhower's reflections on planning for war have salience in peacetime, too: "[T]here is a vast difference between a definite plan of battle or campaign and the hoped-for eventual results of the operation. In committing troops to battle there are certain minimum objectives to be attained, else the operation is a failure. Beyond this lies the area of reasonable expectation, while still further beyond lies the realm of hope -- all that might happen if fortune persistently smiles upon us." ■ At all levels of self-organization, from the family to the city to the state, and right up through the national and international levels, we do (and always will) face really big problems. These problems almost always start upstream of ideology, but when they migrate into politics, they all too often get retrospectively labeled with "left" and "right" solutions. Those labels are quite frequently no more than reflections of what was most convenient or expedient to a group of people at the moment they first became aware of the problem. ■ Planning isn't a dirty word; Madison and Hamilton used it repeatedly when describing the Constitution itself, and Franklin wrote, "Look before, or you'll find yourself behind." There are thoroughly legitimate things that we should be doing in public life "for the children". But the future is a big place, and most of us will find ourselves living there. It makes no sense to avoid thinking about the inevitable just because it's easier to quarrel over the familiar. Of all the caucuses in Congress, only four even bother to use the word "future". Factions and party divides may be inevitable, but it would be a worthy leap for us to invest some share of our attention and energy in thinking about the "target dates" for our civilization, and how we're steering along the way.

The United States of America How Americans spent our time in 2020

More time on gardening, leisure, and recreation. Less time on commuting, shopping, and socializing. Not shown: Answering robocalls about your car's extended warranty.

News The Big 12 might be back to just 8

College athletic conferences are engaged in the same kind of math that makes it impossible to comparison-shop for toilet paper.

Weather and Disasters National Weather Service to send mobile alerts for really bad thunderstorms

Another step in the right direction: Warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself. Last year's Iowa derecho did way more cumulative damage than any single tornado.

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway sells Kirby vacuum division

One hopes Buffett didn't have to go door-to-door to sell it.

Business and Finance Why big companies like regulations

Once you're on the inside, high barriers to entry start to sound really good. That's the perverse power of incumbency.



July 21, 2021

Computers and the Internet Asynchronous friendships

In an effort to shore up its public image, Facebook is running a series of video ads around the theme the Facebook groups facilitate get-togethers among real people who might have felt isolated without the help of their platform. Ads like "Deaf Hoops" and "Dance Accepts Everyone" aim to leave the impression that the world is better off with Facebook encouraging the creation of new connections. ■ Of course, not all connections are created equal -- or even, for that matter, are they all created good. Connections that make it easier for anonymous trolls to harass members of a religious minority, for example, are not good connections. ■ But there is good to be found in catalyzing the formation of online friendships. Not mere connections, but actual friendships. But what does that actually mean? Can we consider online friends to be real friends, even if we haven't met them? ■ One of the counter-intuitive aspects to making friends online is that the exchanges tend to take place asynchronously. One person shares, another responds -- but not usually at the same time. The friendships that get struck up talking across the neighbor's chain-link fence are more thoroughly informed by things like non-verbal communication and shared real-time experiences (like "How about the weather today?"), but synchronicity isn't everything. ■ For as long as couriers have been willing to carry letters, people have been conducting asynchronous friendships. Consider the letters of St. Paul or Lucius Seneca's epistles to Lucilius, or the legendary 50-year running exchange between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Physical presence and shared time aren't prerequisites to maintaining a friendship bond. ■ By the same token, most of the great correspondence-based friendships emerged between partners who already shared a common bond and then turned to their letters as a tool of sustaining friendships. Not many have emerged between randomly-assigned pen pals. ■ That is where Internet-originated friendships have stepped in. If we look beyond "followers" and instead consider only "mutuals" (people who reciprocally follow one another's online updates), then it really isn't that hard to find authentic asynchronous friendships. ■ A friend is a person about whom it can be said that "Your joy brings me joy". And for all of the bad consequences of saturating our world with social-media updates, staged pictures, and how-to guides for becoming a TikTok "influencer", it is worth noting that many people are, in fact, happier because they can follow the joy of others -- including people they've never met. ■ Epictetus asked, "[W]hich would you rather have, a sum of money or a faithful and honorable friend?" Lots of "friends" are for sale today (sometimes quite literally). As the race to regulate "big tech" continues to accelerate, it's worthwhile to take a step back and appreciate the existing friendships made easier to sustain through technology as well as the new friendships brokered entirely by online contact. To the extent we genuinely cheer on our asynchronous friends and bring one another authentic feelings of joy, those virtual friendships are good -- and entirely real.

Weather and Disasters Apocalyptic scenes from China

Flooding traps people in Zhengzhou, including inside subway cars filling with water. Even though it's not rational, extreme weather events make far more convincing data points regarding climate change than a few inches of sea-level rise. Thus, a city taking on a year's worth of rain in just days should arrest at least some of our attention.



July 20, 2021

Aviation News Rocket Man

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took a private rocket into space, and other than the innumerable comments on the rocket's distinctive shape, all appears to have gone very well. The trip went smoothly, earned the applause of private-spaceflight rival Elon Musk, and made it 66.5 miles above Earth. A paying customer was aboard for the trip, and the booster rocket was even returned safely (and upright) to the launch pad. ■ Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury therefore produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?" Franklin knew human nature -- and it doesn't change very much. It is indisputably the case that private spaceflight has become an obsession -- for Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and certainly lots of other people with money to spend. Tickets are already on sale for more paying passengers. ■ As with virtually any choice people make with their money, private space flight has its critics. Why should we commit resources on rocket fuel when those resources could be spent on Earth-bound needs? Why should zero-g recreation happen when there's still so much research left to be done? Why should some people have all the fun? (That last one may not get spoken aloud much, but have no doubt: It's in the subtext.) ■ If you think that the world has strictly limited resources, then this kind of activity can certainly look amiss. But if you see that most of the world's economic activity consists not of goods being sold but of services being provided, then you'll begin to see that Benjamin Franklin's words are more salient than ever. ■ There are, of course, certain material resources in the world that are indeed finite. But one of the paradoxes of growth is that the more advanced an economy becomes, the fewer resources it tends to waste -- particularly when profits are involved. As long as we have reasonable regulatory schemes for making people clean up after themselves (that is, not letting them pollute or create other harms that are imposed on others without tidying up the mess), then the more efficiently goods and services alike can be delivered, the greater the return to the providers. ■ As the futurist Ian Pearson wrote, "If we want a world where everyone can have a good lifestyle, we need to accept and even encourage rapid obsolescence, driving the technology quickly towards low environmental impact." Once the space race got underway, humankind wasn't going to look back. China sent a rover to the Moon. India sent an orbiter to Mars. The world is not about to become less space-oriented -- not when we know humans have been transfixed by the stars for all of recorded history. ■ And, after all, isn't it better for humankind overall that people are now going to space just for the pure joy of it? Let's not forget that part of what spurred the Apollo program was the need to prove (and improve) American ICBM technology. Surely, no matter how you feel about spacefaring billionaires, it is better that space is becoming a destination for joy than merely one more battleground. The militarization and weaponization of space has been well underway, with a half-century head start over recreation. Let's be glad people are going for fun. Many more of us may soon follow.

Computers and the Internet Why do we still say "cyberspace"?

It remains the standard nomenclature of government policymaking, but it's also true most people just say "the Internet". Ah, but: cyberspace is a place for cyberwar. The internet is not a place for interwar.



July 19, 2021

Humor and Good News The pocketknife mentality

Writer Michael Harriot comments that "If you watch regular season baseball, I GUARANTEE your grandfather carried a pocketknife." Putting aside the strict veracity of that claim (and it certainly rings true in the light-hearted anecdotal sense), what does it mean to carry a pocketknife? It's not like the description has some deeply embedded cultural cachet, but yet it seems like people still got what he meant. ■ But what does it mean to carry a pocketknife -- not metaphorically, but literally? Like virtually all other tools and technologies, knives themselves are morally neutral; they only mean what the tool user brings to them. Should we think of them only as things carried by old men? ■ The answer is: No. The pocketknife is actually quite a good metaphor for general preparedness -- it is a tool to be carried by those who are ready, willing, and able to take care of matters for themselves (and often for others). ■ Those three words mean a lot. Readiness means alertness, vigilance, and preparation for the unexpected in life. Willingness is a choice to have the disposition to do what needs to be done, rather than to wait for others to act instead. Ability is a measure of having both the skills and the resources to take the action needed. ■ It's important not to read too much into an individual signal like carrying a pocketknife. Plenty of highly capable people never carry them, and plenty of unprepared dunces never leave home without them. But there's something to the metaphorical significance of the tool itself. The Swiss Army knife (or its American cousin, the Leatherman multi-tool) is a device of great potential utility. It is no substitute for a kit full of heavy-duty, professional-grade tools. But a professional toolkit is carried by professionals when their specialty help is called upon. ■ A pocketknife, by contrast, is carried not for defined purpose, but for preparedness in the face of the unexpected. Americans sometimes take "rugged individualism" to an unhealthy extreme, but we really shouldn't under-appreciate the value of having a country full of pocketknife-carriers -- at least in the metaphorical sense, if not the literal one: People ready, willing, and able to do things for themselves and to help others when needed.

Humor and Good News Weather-themed cupcakes

If you want to bake thunderstorm-colored cupcakes, you'll need a convection oven

Weather and Disasters Right beneath a tornado

Video from Shell Rock, Iowa

Humor and Good News Buddies, ages 2 and 100

(Video) It's unlikely the actual story can be more concentratedly cute than the tease. All of us should have friends both older and younger than ourselves.

News You don't have to say "You've gained weight!"

The compulsion to note another person's weight (either more or less than upon last meeting) just doesn't make any sense when "Good to see you" is available as a greeting.



July 18, 2021

Weather and Disasters More than 150 people killed in German flooding

Deutsche Welle: "Heavy rain in such mountainous terrain is particularly dangerous because water collects in the valleys instead of spreading evenly across other surfaces"



July 17, 2021

Broadcasting Reel-to-reel tape

Anyone going into audio production today is missing out on the hard-won knowledge of reel-to-reel tape management, like "How to re-thread a reel", "Oops! You snapped the tape again!", and "Bulk eraser fun: Wiping the tape clean, and possibly your genetic code, too".

Humor and Good News When paywalls don't make sense

The Des Moines Register has paywalled (for subscribers only) an article with the headline "Here's why Iowans are flocking to Illinois to buy marijuana". Real probing investigative journalism going on there...

The United States of America How much things change

In 1940, more than twice as many people lived in Reno, Nevada, as in Las Vegas...which wasn't hard to achieve, since Las Vegas was a town of just 8,422 people at the time. It's now one of our 30 largest metros.

Humor and Good News Instagram unreality

Is it a $1 box of noodles with some cherry tomatoes and sliced kielbasa, or is it "Mediterranean-Baltic fusion cuisine using locally-sourced ingredients"?

Weather and Disasters Mesmerizing but terrible

Satellite loops of a giant wildfire would be beautiful if only they didn't depict so much destruction



July 16, 2021

News Indivisible after all?

There is no more zeitgeist-friendly column or opinion piece to write right now than the one lamenting the sad state of division among Americans. Sober institutions like the Pew Research Center have scores of studies to offer on polarization, ordinary voters in some circles embrace talk of a civil war, and unserious people in Texas are wasting time and energy on pipe dreams of secession. ■ It's no wonder that it has become de rigueur to jot down a few hundred words on division in political life. Indeed, there are important matters on which we have significant public disagreement. But politics are not all that matters in life. ■ Counterintuitive though it may seem, we have more in common than ever. It wasn't that long ago there was a vast moral panic over the observation that America was growing profoundly homogenized -- at least if you looked at things like our commercial culture. Walmart was murdering Main Street, suburban ennui was film-worthy stuff, and chain restaurants had made cuisine all too much the same everywhere -- so much so that the very uniformity of experience was making chain restaurants too boring to show on Instagram. ■ What we often fail to appreciate is that these experiences -- our shopping, our dining, and our homebuying, not to mention our membership in clubs, churches, and causes -- make up the bulk of the human experience. There's always someone new with whom you can argue about politics online, but most reasonable people don't engage non-stop in politics and the related (quasi-)news coverage of our disputes. Most people are too busy doing lots of other things. ■ And it is downright remarkable that, in 2021, so many of these things Americans do are virtually identical all across a country shared by 332 million people. It's downright astonishing, really. The United States is the third-largest country in the world by population. And yet, rather than growing farther apart, we're tending more towards the median on a whole host of things outside the reach of politics. ■ Take, for instance, regional accents. They're still around, of course, but they're fading just about everywhere. As elites (particularly on television) abandoned affected accents like Mid-Atlantic and standardized around General American instead, the same effect spread to just about every other part of the country. ■ Our high mobility rate ensures that there's a payoff to not sticking out too much when moving from place to place, and a flattening of the national accent is a ticket there. Our accents and local dialects persist, but they're nothing compared with the vast differences among regional British accents -- in a country with about one-fifth the number living in America. Here, even the Southern drawl is fading. ■ Or consider the way we are keen to recognize cultural differences like Swedish design, Danish coziness, or Norwegian Viking history. Even today, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have distinct languages and cultural touchstones -- even though they are populated by just 10 million, 6 million, and 5 million people, respectively -- all together, just a few more than live in the state of New York. And the countries are so close together that you can drive a 10-mile bridge/tunnel combination from Denmark to Sweden. ■ Benjamin Franklin once noted that "They who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing." Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, coined the term "narcissism of minor differences" to describe the way people may quarrel over differences that seem utterly insignificant to outsiders. It takes some self-control for us to realize not only how alike we Americans really are, but that we can have healthy and even vigorous disagreements about our common choices -- without sacrificing the hard-won benefits of commonality. Taking our differences seriously (and soberly) is an essential aspect of democracy. But those who profit from stoking artificial divisions or inflated notions of difference should be seen as the hucksters and frauds that they are.

Weather and Disasters The scent of a tornado

Others' impressions may vary, but the smell of a tornado outbreak is similar to baby-food peas that have been left outside too long. A little sweet, but not in a pleasant way. Chemists note that atmospheric ozone plays a role.

Broadcasting His words, but not his voice

A documentarian has synthesized Anthony Bourdain's voice to make audible some words he didn't actually speak aloud, arguing, "There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology." This is extremely hazardous ethical space to tread. It is terribly inconvenient that people haven't recorded all of the things we wished they had said aloud. But the spoken word and the written word can be two very different things, even when emanating from the same source. This is not unlike the controversy over whether Winston Churchill used a voice double in his wartime broadcasts (which the society that bears his name says he did not). Reenactments are always an area where extra care must be taken so as to reassure the audience that the difference between authentic recordings and replacements has been adequately respected. AI is creating a whole new void into which we risk stepping uncautiously.

Broadcasting Kasie Hunt leaves MSNBC

Following high-profile BBC departures for streaming/online news ventures, now this one from MSNBC, heading to a CNN Internet-driven venture

Humor and Good News What do you call the old-timers of Newcomerstown?

Naming a place "Newcomerstown" seems like a decision that may not have been all that well-thought-out.


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July 15, 2021

Health The insufferable life

We've been through quite a lot over the last 18 months. "We" being, basically, every single person alive on Planet Earth. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the entire planet, all at once and at the same time, through extraordinary stress and no small amount of emotional deprivation. We are social beings -- even the introverts among us -- and we thrive only through our contact and cooperation with others. We form families, friendships, and social tribes of many forms because our evolutionary makeup has rewarded cooperation and social learning. It's literally in our blood to work together. ■ Being forced to stay apart from one another, observing standards for paradoxically-named "social distancing", and conducting many facets of life from home has been difficult for virtually all of us. Some places have been better equipped than others to handle the changes. Some parts of the world (and some aspects of life) have been better able to adapt than others. But it's hard to think of anyone who might have escaped entirely untouched by some form of preventative measure undertaken to limit the spread of a dreadful contagious disease. ■ And in that time, we have still lost more than 4 million lives worldwide. The arrival of fantastic, effective, and world-changing vaccines has been a profound blessing. It is too soon to forget what happened in New York and Seattle when the pandemic was new -- nor the way it shook Italy. And it's too early to forget that the United States had a second close scrape with disaster again in late 2020. The vaccines arrived not a moment too soon. ■ Now we must grapple with the cleanup (and, lest we forget, only a limited portion of the world has yet been vaccinated -- there's still a long way to go). The economic cost of the pandemic has been real, and now we're starting to assess the consequences for mental health. Drug overdoses grew dramatically in 2020, and parents are reaching out for help in vast numbers as they care for the mental wellness of their children. ■ It is entirely unfair what has happened to kids. Around the world, many were deprived of in-person contact with their friends and teachers for some or even all of the last 16 months. And some school systems can be well and vigorously faulted for remaining closed to in-person learning long after the protocols for safe re-opening had been shown effective in other places. ■ We could look back on the precautions imposed to contain the pandemic with resentment and anger. Some people already have. But we are free to see instead that once the pandemic was underway, many people in positions of authority had to make the best choices they could with the information available to them at the time. Many, if not most, of those choices were made in good faith. They may have been too cautious or too cavalier. Those choices may have been based on faulty assumptions that were later corrected (remember how much fear was associated with transmission via contaminated surfaces?). Many of those choices would be revised now in light of what is now known in retrospect. ■ But one thing it would be not only nuts but self-injuring to do is to harbor broad-based resentment and anger over difficult decisions made in a pandemic-driven fog of war. The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that "In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice." We ought to reflect on the sacrifices that were made -- to varying degrees, by virtually everyone on Earth -- as burdens we carried because we, as social beings, wanted to keep large numbers of other people from dying. ■ The data and the decisions were imperfect. And we undeniably owe ourselves and our fellow humans some relief -- there is no time like the immediate present to seriously examine what can and should be done on a society-wide basis for mental wellness care. It's long overdue to make mental health as much a mainstream matter of concern as dental care, and nothing has made it a more universal subject of personal concern as the pandemic. We all know that we have all been struggling. ■ But to choose to live in resentment, or to look at hard decisions confronted in good faith guided only by imperfect information and label them unforgivable and "largely for nothing", is to choose to be tied to a boat anchor sunk in a painful past. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." ■ Kids themselves are inclined to see their struggles as stories of triumph over adversity. What humans undertook in the last year and a half was hard -- but the objective of saving countless lives was noble, and a worthwhile endeavor. We won't emerge better from it if we deny that the response was imperfect. But we will only compound our self-harm if we cling to a false impression that perfection was within reach and was stolen from us. We can either try to repair the injury that was done along the way, or wallow in bitter resentment that the injury ever happened. Only the former choice affirms that there is much more life to be lived.

News From two houses into 27 apartments

A transformation planned for two lots in Los Angeles would replace two single-family homes with one apartment building containing 27 units. It's not a transformation to be expected everywhere, but as a matter of general principle, the burden of proof ought to rest with the opponents of a plan that would so dramatically move the lots from one lower tier of value to a much higher one.

Agriculture Bold new innovations in bacon

How do you make bacon for people who don't eat pork? One answer: Lamb.

Humor and Good News Frings for all

Limited government is the way it ought to be, but maybe Congress should go ahead and mandate that all fast-food places offer Frings as a side, like Runza already does. They're magical.


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July 14, 2021

Business and Finance What's the 350° for maintenance spending?

If you were told to bake an item of food without any further instructions, your best guess would be to start at about 350°. If you had to guess the speed limit on a residential street, you'd probably guess 25 miles an hour. If you were told you had to save for retirement all on your own with no further guidance, you'd probably guess to save about 10% of your income. ■ These numbers aren't necessarily universally valid, but they're pretty good starting points -- "Goldilocks zones" for their respective questions. They give a good baseline for figuring out where to start. ■ These Goldilocks values are useful because they are culturally embedded. A person doesn't have to become an expert to know that these values are a good place to start. Culturally embedded values are pretty useful if they help pass along common knowledge or collective wisdom in a way that helps people discern when things look too hot, too cold, or just about right. ■ Economists could do a huge amount of public good if they would come up with a good Goldilocks value for the amount that ought to be reinvested in repairs, maintenance, upkeep and ultimate replacement of expensive capital items. Accountants offer something like this in the form of depreciation schedules, but those numbers tend to be contaminated by adjustments made according to what offers tax advantages, rather than what strictly works in the tangible world. That doesn't give us the value that should be replaced or spent over time in order to keep a useful thing in good functioning order. ■ The deadly collapse at the condominium tower in Surfside, Florida, puts this problem in stark relief. Too many people go without the expectation that ongoing maintenance and upkeep cost real money. Hesitation, resistance, and reluctance are stoked by the lack of a common language for how often and how much we ought to be spending to rebuild, rehabilitate, and maintain the things the make life work. ■ Without a culturally embedded expectation of how much is "just about right", it's hard to know when we're spending too little or when we're spending too much. If we don't have a good baseline, we really can't tell whether we're in the right zone. ■ Perhaps nothing reveals the vacuum of a common cultural understanding of the right value for reinvestment than how we treat infrastructure spending at the national level. There's no reason for a society that is reasonably paying for its own maintenance and repair to have to spend trillions of dollars at a time on infrastructure. That reflects a mindset that says we only "fix on failure". We let the failures grow to the point where the spending seems absolutely unavoidable and then we spend money measured in the trillions of dollars in a single fell swoop. ■ That is neither responsible citizenship nor good custodianship. And it's not economically responsible either. But because we don't have an expectation for what is "just about right", we don't have a sense of when we are under-investing or spending more than we should. ■ It's often lamented that infrastructure projects in the United States appear to cost much more than comparable work in many of our peer countries around the world. Of course, failure has many fathers. But always putting off our spending until a crisis really doesn't offer us the opportunity to spend in responsible ways with a sensible payoff. ■ We don't need a perfect Goldilocks value for all of this -- we just need a decent starting point. Whether you're a state legislator, a city council member, a condominium board member, or just an ordinary taxpayer, you need some sense of how much ought to be the right point to start our budgeting. ■ Without it, we're left scrambling to fix on failure and treat every situation as a crisis. That offers us neither the ability to budget responsibly in advance, nor the mental space to think through whether we're getting the right value for our spending.

News Find a way to let Afghan allies in

An evacuation is being planned for late July, which seems late considering the US armed forces have already largely exited. The United States made room stateside for nearly half a million Axis POWs during WWII. We had fewer people then (making those POWs a larger imposition relative to the country's resources), and our economy wasn't nearly as mighty as it is now. Surely we can find a way to accommodate 70,000 people whose lives are now at risk because they chose to help us in Afghanistan. And while we're at it, we ought to be happy to make room for lots of other asylum-seekers and refugees, as well.

Iowa Wishing didn't make it go away

Iowa is in the cross-hairs for severe weather

Humor and Good News Tacos are the happiest food

McCormick is going to pay someone "$25,000/month not to exceed $100,000" to prove it as a short-term contract "Director of Taco Relations"



July 13, 2021

News Cuba libre?

Cuba has just experienced its largest demonstrations in decades as seemingly spontaneous, organic protests spread across the country in expression of anger over a hobbled economy and a poor response to Covid-19. ■ The news has gotten the attention of many Americans, certainly in no small part because of the large and vocal Cuban-American population in Florida, where people took to the streets in solidarity with the Cuban protesters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio took up the cause in a Senate speech. The State Department is "considering an array of options" to support the people of Cuba. ■ Deep down, most people seem to have an instinctive understanding that liberty is better than tyranny, so these expressions of support are a good sign. But we often run the risk of thinking of the cause of basic human liberty as something that other people fight to secure in other places, in a way that is cost-free to us as we cheer from the sidelines (or, perhaps it's more fair to say from the luxury suite). ■ But the cause of human liberty isn't one for "over there", nor is it for "them". The interconnectedness of our world means that it is a cause fought everywhere (including here) and it requires an investment from everyone (including us). The situation in Cuba is hard to ignore because it's happening 90 miles from Florida. Our history is complicated and interconnected -- not least because the US occupied Cuba until 1902. ■ We shouldn't just cheer when it seems convenient and cost-free. We need to be humble about what we can achieve -- despite America's vast military and economic might, we're not going to topple an authoritarian regime like the Communist Party of China just by threatening to invade if they don't step down. But we can use our tangible power and our less-tangible influence to put some real muscle behind the platitudes of freedom. ■ So when China curtails freedoms in Hong Kong, we can welcome those who seek asylum. But we can also act to reassure our peaceful neighbors in the region, including by conducting freedom of navigation drills in places where China's government isn't acting in good faith. And our private sector shouldn't be hesitant to walk away from commercial deals that might be lucrative but make them complicit in harming the cause of freedom. These actions come with costs, and we should openly acknowledge those costs while being happy to pay them. They are the price of universal human liberty. ■ The same goes elsewhere, whether it's against Communism in Cuba or totalitarianism in North Korea or even the repugnant and repressive behavior of some of our nominal "allies" in the Middle East. Doing the right thing isn't often cost-free, but it is a price worth paying. ■ There is, everywhere, a longing for human liberty. We can see it right before our eyes just as much as we can feel it in our own souls. It is a human birthright, but for now many are deprived of it. Unless and until the day comes when liberty is secured for all, the steps in that direction will not be cost-free -- and we shouldn't be reluctant to ask how we can pick up the check.

Threats and Hazards Run for office, pocket the campaign funds

A loophole in Illinois law allows politicians in office prior to 1998 to treat their old campaign contributions like personal cash

Threats and Hazards 160 more lives disposed of without respect

The Vancouver Sun headline, "More than 160 unmarked graves found at site of former residential school near Vancouver Island" tells an awful story. This was a "residential school" in Canada still in operation up until the 1970s. It was funded by the Canadian government and operated by the Catholic Church, and the thought that at least 160 children were buried there in unmarked graves is abhorrent. What happened to them? Why did they die? Why weren't they buried with dignity? How were they treated with such dehumanization?

Weather and Disasters Most of Iowa is getting wetter

On average, at least. The latest 30-year averages were noticeably wetter for virtually the entire state than in the prior 30 years.

Iowa Severe weather outlook has bad news for Iowa

Looking like storms to come



July 12, 2021

Business and Finance The cost of anything is what you have to give up to get it

One of the ten basic principles of economics taught in the inimitable introductory textbooks by Greg Mankiw is this: The cost of something is what you give up to get it. In other words, opportunity costs matter. Everyone who's ever thought about the value of their time has at least a glancing familiarity with this principle, but we too often miss the opportunity to put the opportunity-cost principle into action. ■ For instance: Right now is the ideal moment for people concerned about affordable housing to get ordinary homeowners to rally to their cause. Once a person becomes a homeowner, they tend to become fixated on preserving the value of that home. That's because a significant portion of American household wealth is tied up in home values. For the median household that owns a home, home equity is the biggest asset. And families that don't own a home fare dramatically worse. ■ The argument can be made that this reflects the consequences of a lot of counterproductive polices (and, indeed, it does). Some form of shelter is a universal need -- not a human right, in the sense that free speech is an inalienable right, but a thing that everyone needs and which somehow must be paid for. ■ One of the other basic laws of economics is that the natural market-clearing price occurs where the supply curve and the demand curve intersect. Anyone paying attention to the housing market right now knows that supply is on a tear, but prices are still perceived as being sky-high. ■ This presents a special opportunity when it comes to public policy: Right at this moment, many homeowners are aware that their property values have risen. They might even be receiving unsolicited offers for their homes, while their mailboxes fill with flyers from local real-estate agents hunting for inventory. In other words: This is the moment at which the ordinary homeowner probably feels the least threatened about their own home equity that they have felt in a decade or more -- at least since the 2008/2009 panic, when home values last took a meaningful downturn. ■ That makes right now the optimal moment for advancing the cause of housing affordability. There are a wide range of possible policies that could help, from reforming or rolling back restrictive zoning measures (which may be the toughest hill to climb) to easing back on parking requirements to making multi-family housing more attractive to focusing attention on the very real impact of transportation costs on housing. ■ By the time the housing market cools off (which history suggests it will), it will be too late for further reforms. This is the moment when the average homeowner -- who, on average, carries the most weight in local politics -- can be most easily persuaded to see their own self-interest in encouraging the supply of housing while giving up the least.

Threats and Hazards Today's the day to share your stupidest opinion

No matter what stupid thing you say today, someone else has you beaten: A Chinese government spokespersion has tweeted that "the #CPC is not only blameless on #humanrights issues, but it should also be awarded gold medals". There's propaganda, and then there's fiction so far removed from the realm of truth and reality that it breaks right through the boundaries of self-parody. The CPC (Communist Party of China) is a scourge upon the earth.

News Lazy headline writing

An epidemic has broken out, of headlines that read "Here's what we know about _____". Here's a good rule of thumb: If it sounds dumber than something that would have been written by artificial intelligence, then please try another draft.

Science and Technology Doorbell cameras everywhere

An anecdotal observation needing actual study: Doorbell cameras tend to appear in pairs, across the street from one another.



July 11, 2021

Humor and Good News Unopened copy of Super Mario 64 sells for more than $1 million

And the now-governor of Colorado didn't have the foresight to leave his in the box. He probably drank all his Crystal Pepsi, too.

Humor and Good News "Basically every map showing data on Europe"

Hint: The Nordic countries have a habit of standing out



July 10, 2021

Aviation News Some people have more fun than the rest of us

The space-bound Richard Branson is one of those people

Weather and Disasters Tornado sirens and chirping birds

Quite the Iowa summer combination

Weather and Disasters Winds in Omaha rotated street lights by 90 degrees

A signal for northbound traffic now faces westbound traffic. That's a mighty storm. With the National Weather Service forecasting "hail up to lime size", this is a good time to avoid being an insurance adjuster in Omaha.



July 9, 2021

News Bad advice from the sages

One of the great temptations of a hyper-connected, social-media-drenched age is to flit about pointlessly from one tweet to another, doomscrolling endlessly through Facebook, and going down low-value YouTube wormholes. The short-term sense of stimulation one gets from the illusion of being connected to "right now" turns out to be insufficiently satisfying in the long run. ■ A great alternative, of course, is to read books -- particularly those books that have stood the test of time. At the very least, it makes sense to consume a media "diet" balanced between the timely and the timeless. Human nature really hasn't changed that much in thousands of years of history -- things that mattered to people in the past, like the quests for love and belonging and the fear of pain and death, are the same things that still matter to human beings today. They will matter for millennia to come. ■ But occasionally one encounters really bad advice from the past. Not just advice on matters like "how to deal with your slaves", but on deeper things, too -- like what comprises a good media diet. Indeed, Lucius Seneca -- who lived at roughly the same time as Jesus -- offers some specific advice to his correspondent in his letter #2: "You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends." ■ At the surface, this may seem like a valid recommendation: Get to know subjects thoroughly. Don't be a mile wide and an inch deep. The jack of all trades is the master of none. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that the advice is hollow, at least in the modern world. ■ There may have been a time when it was possible to read all the works that anyone had ever written on a subject. Certainly, there weren't all that many books published before there was a printing press to make them en masse. That isn't the case today; there are uncounted numbers of books, papers, articles, and electronic documents that have been published on the whole spectrum of human knowledge -- with vast amounts yet to be learned. Ask a graduate student conducting research: A literature review alone can take up a vast share of a research paper. ■ Yet there is more to it than that. It's not that mastery of any one subject is an illusion (though it may well be). It's that the fish does not know that it is wet. It's hard to know where one's knowledge is bounded without crossing outside the boundary. The most interesting things happen at the margins between subjects, where matters from different fields intersect. The more complex the world becomes, the more important it is to have a multidisciplinary view of the universe. ■ Law and technology are each interesting, but the really hard questions emerge where they intersect, in questions of privacy, national security, and property rights to things that exist only as bits and bytes. Physical sciences like meteorology make tremendous progress on their own, but the social sciences (like psychology and communications) are needed to put those developments to work for the most people -- that's how lives are saved. ■ Isolating ourselves to exhaustively reading all of the "great" writing on just one or two subjects may well constrain us from actually knowing where that knowledge will turn out to be useful in human existence. So while it may be unhealthy to doomscroll, never having an anchor in any particular area of knowledge, it may also be a fool's errand to "linger among a limited number of master-thinkers" without probing the boundaries of that knowledge from the outside. To be a fundamentalist -- even a Stoic fundamentalist or perhaps an astrophysics fundamentalist -- is to put yourself at risk of not knowing where the boundaries of that fundamental knowledge may be.

Business and Finance Warren Buffett still looks up to Charlie Munger

It takes humility to have other people whose approval matters to you. Humility is a good thing.

Weather and Disasters Never trust a storm coming into Iowa from South Dakota

They get that weird jackalope energy.



July 8, 2021

News Defiant is not resolute

When people confront a challenge together, it's usually the case that they emerge with a heightened sense of community on the other side. It's true on the smallest scale, as when a team celebrates a come-from-behind victory on the playing field. And it's true on the largest of scales, as when Great Britain survived the great suffering and deprivation of World War II before emerging victorious in the end. ■ People can endure quite a lot when they think that the outcome is worthwhile. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, "The combat soldier wants to be recognized; he wants to know that his sufferings and privations are known to others and, presumably, appreciated." Even in the absence of real suffering, a well-embraced struggle to overcome something difficult can be meaningful and motivating. ■ That was the essence of the public spirit around America's missions to the Moon, captured rhetorically by John F. Kennedy's words, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard". Embracing a challenge -- either voluntarily or one thrust upon us -- requires a sense of resolution. ■ We seem not to have done enough to celebrate what it means to be resolute. There are many struggles worth undertaking, with eyes fixed on a goal and minds resolved to see the better end. And yet it's much easier to find people who confuse resolution for defiance. ■ Defiance can be justified -- it can even be resolute. A struggle against an occupying army can be both defiant and resolute. But even a child can be defiant without cause or reason (some even manifest their defiance as a disorder). ■ It has been six months since a criminal terrorist assault took place at the United States Capitol. It was a violent outbreak of defiance. Perhaps more than at any time in modern history, Americans need to discover a common matter on which we can be resolute instead. We need a sense of community to emerge from a shared, worthwhile struggle to do something hard. ■ It's hard to name what that might be, but it doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to be all-encompassing, and it must be constructive. We have too many voices profiting from defiance, and that energy (and the energy rallied against it) needs to be channeled into something difficult but worth doing. ■ The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a survivor of the concentration camps of WWII, wrote that "There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life." Each person needs to find that meaning on their own. But communities need a sense of that meaning, too -- even communities as large as a continent. The sooner we find and fix on a resolution, the better.

Threats and Hazards Incoherent ignorance is no defense

One has to admit, there's a brutal audacity to a propaganda cartoonist misusing Don Quixote as a symbol, and then saying, "I know the metaphor, but I assume my target audience is insufficiently literate to challenge my use of it meaning the exact opposite thing". Even if it's a sham excuse, which it obviously is.

News Fascinating research on helping kids learn in really poor countries

Every child can learn. It's up to the adults of the world to figure out how to help them have the chance to do it.

Health Juvenile sings "Vax That Thang Up"

(Video) Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes

Health No spectators to be allowed at the (delayed) Olympics in Japan

BBC reports: "[J]ust over 15% of the country is fully vaccinated"

Humor and Good News Norm from "Cheers" as a hirsute Millennial

Less a statement on how facial hair affects a man's looks (objectively, it still makes a man look older) than on how much we have come to associate the look of long hair and scruffy beards with "Millennial".



July 7, 2021

Computers and the Internet Read the syllabus

One of the great cliches in higher education is "Read the syllabus". There have been impassioned articles about it. Bundles of tips shared about it. Twitter handles registered with the phrase. Even a Cameo by Snoop Dogg imploring students to "Read the syllabus". ■ It seems that more often than not, professors and instructors want students to read the syllabus because it contains details on mechanical issues -- like when to come for office hours, how to communicate with the teacher, and how grades will be assigned. And those mechanical matters are certainly important. But for those who haven't realized it yet, we have moved into a new economic era: The Teach-Yourself Economy. And the syllabus, properly constructed, is more valuable than ever before. ■ Data is abundant. Information can be found everywhere. And there are lots of people with vested interests in "teaching" others online -- often for direct or indirect profit. Search for the words "How to" on YouTube, and you'll find more video content than you could watch in a lifetime. ■ Some of this information surplus is quite nice to have. It's good to be able to learn how to do rote tasks like folding a fitted sheet. And there are even sophisticated topics addressed online, too -- like what makes a complex song appealing and why highway underpasses are deadly in a tornado. ■ But when it comes to learning a topic comprehensively, there's nothing better than a thoughtful, detailed syllabus developed by experts on the subject. That, after all, is what a collegiate syllabus ought to be. The student needs to know where to begin, where to go next, and what ultimately they need to cover before thinking they've truly learned a subject. Obviously, knowledge on most subjects remains open-ended -- we are, as a human species, continuing to learn more all the time. ■ Yet the hardest thing to know is what it is we don't know. Blind spots in our knowledge -- either collectively, or as individuals -- are incredibly hard to perceive and rectify. When people use the throwaway line "do your own research" to dismiss those with whom they disagree, what they often omit is the challenging fact that a lone individual rarely knows what it is they actually need to "research" in order to have useful knowledge. ■ The more we become dependent on teaching ourselves -- either out of necessity or simple curiosity -- the more we will find that the much-maligned syllabus is, when done right, the most important thing an instructor can offer their students.



July 6, 2021

Business and Finance How dumb is too dumb?

As a general rule, people enjoy the benefits of competition as consumers far more than as producers. As a producer, it would seem like the ideal circumstance is one of no competition at all -- a monopoly. Monopolies (and monopoly profits) are enticing, particularly if it appears that they can be put on cruise control and ridden indefinitely. ■ The allure of monopoly-like profits undoubtedly drives some of our most well-known technology companies -- Facebook, Amazon, and Google, in particular. Amazon, for instance, for years plowed almost all of its profits back into developing a permanent competitive advantage over any prospective rivals. ■ But being unrivaled comes with consequences, too. Google's share of desktop search traffic is upwards of 85%. That much dominance brings with it heightened scrutiny -- including from those who can make plausible arguments that utility-like regulation is necessary. ■ It's quite likely that at least a few of the technology giants really would prefer to be treated like public utilities, if that would mean they could have a say in their own regulation and benefit from the sort of institutional protection that would come from being the incumbent protected monopolist. ■ Most of the time, though, it's better to have competitors -- as long as those competitors behave honorably and aren't stupid. There is such a thing as a competitor that is too dumb for the good of its rivals. That may seem counterintuitive, but it usually takes a while for a company to flop. It's not uncommon for a company to have a period of five or even ten years of decline as it burns through goodwill (and cash), and in that time, a dumb competitor can do a lot of damage to its rivals. ■ That damage happens when promises are made (and believed by customers) but not fulfilled. Expectations can be ratcheted up quickly -- but disappointment takes a while to settle in. That's the origin of the phrase "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." The problem for the good producer is that it's easy to get customers hooked on the sweet. ■ If you're a producer, you want your competitors to be about 25% slower than you, but you definitely don't want them to be completely stupid. Healthy competition forces a producer to be responsive, to innovate, and to look out for the customer -- something that doesn't always happen when an incumbent isn't forced to try harder (see, for instance, Facebook's embarrassing failure to do anything useful about fraudulent accounts). "Completely stupid" competitors wreck the market and that always comes back to haunt the survivors.

Computers and the Internet Russian elements behind "biggest ransomware attack on record"

This incident only serves to underscore the need for a Cyber Force within the Pentagon. This isn't conventional crime, it isn't conventional war, and it isn't happening within conventional boundaries. It is, however, a matter of national security.

Health Southwest Missouri hospital runs out of ventilators over Covid-19

This tragic situation is entirely preventable. All that people have to do is get vaccinated. Hundreds of millions of people have done it already.

Broadcasting The perfectly-cast Lebowski

A role so flawlessly inhabited by its actor that it is impossible to imagine a prequel, for that would render it impossible to use Jeff Bridges again and nobody else could do justice to the original.

Humor and Good News If you can't always be right...

...then at least try to not always be wrong. If you ever find a microwave with "Popcorn" button that works favorably, buy it. Then tell the rest of us where to find it.



July 5, 2021

The United States of America No one likes an ingrate

Technologies are value-neutral. The knife does not know whether it's being used to slice bread to feed the hungry or to stab an innocent bystander. This ambiguity can and often does create conflict as we seek to figure out how new technologies ought to be used, judged, and regulated -- just ask Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of his eponymous prize for peace. ■ Human systems (political, economic, religious, and so on) are less value-neutral than raw technologies, but not completely so. Any form of self-government clearly has a definitional moral advantage over any authoritarian system, merely because human beings have a fundamental right to self-determination. All people possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A system that deprives people of the right to decide important matters for themselves is a worse system than one that secures popular sovereignty, period. The "benevolent dictator" model is garbage. ■ But there is room for nuance among systems, depending on the character of the people within them. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, "A vote is like a rifle: Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user." ■ Americans are right to celebrate Independence Day with pride and fanfare. The Declaration of Independence really was a landmark event in human history, and one that should attract the notice and envy of many living today. But it would make us ingrates to think that the work was done in 1776, or to think that it is finished today. ■ What we do to take the system we have to create good in the world is just as important as what the Founders did 245 years ago. To borrow the language of computer programming, we're not exactly in beta mode anymore, but that doesn't mean we're at the final release. Further updates will be required indefinitely. ■ Contemplating that and being comfortable with the incomplete nature of our progress is a vital part of being an American. At its birth, this country still tolerated such glaring wrongs as chattel slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and the brutal (sometimes outright genocidal) treatment of American Indians. Even at the time when Roosevelt wrote about the "character of the user", he was addressing a population that had yet to ratify the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women's right to vote, and was still decades from the modern civil rights movement. We do better than our predecessors, but we can do better still. Doing better requires thinking first about how America can be good -- not "great" in the sense of power, but "good" in the sense of moral imagination. ■ Paying honest attention to our pursuit of goodness is how best we can show our gratitude for what our forebears did on our behalf. Many generations tolerated exceptional hardships in order to set us in our current place. Many of those hardships were endured by one generation hoping to better their own lot, but even more so to better the lives of their immediate children. ■ But at each step along the way, we have faced choices to make things better in an enduring way, not merely in a material sense, but in the moral one as well. Getting richer and doing more good are not definitionally at odds. The more we can afford to cure our ills, the more history counts on us to do so. ■ In her book, "Democracy", Condoleezza Rice wrote, "The United States has been a north star for those seeking liberty not because it is perfect, but because it was born imperfect and is still struggling with imperfection.". As we celebrate, we also need to look at our choices and challenge ourselves to keep making the ones that make us better -- as in, better people, not just better off. To do any less would show insufficient gratitude for how far we have come -- and no one likes an ingrate.

The United States of America The greatest pop song about America

(Video) Hands down, it's Neil Diamond's "America", a love letter to immigrants



July 4, 2021

The United States of America A more perfect union -- not a perfect one

Condoleezza Rice: "The United States has been a north star for those seeking liberty not because it is perfect, but because it was born imperfect and is still struggling with imperfection."



July 3, 2021

The United States of America A thought afore the Fourth

Everyone on Earth gets a 4th of July. The lucky ones get an Independence Day.



July 1, 2021

Threats and Hazards A right implies a remedy

A conspiracy theory continues to circulate -- to the alarm of Homeland Security officials -- that the outcome of last year's Presidential election, the subsequent certification of the election results by Congress, and the inauguration of Joe Biden as President could be overturned. ■ The election result was clear: Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost. The popular vote totals (which are not dispositive) and the Electoral College results (which are) delivered the same result. Anyone who wants can check the only ballots that count. Yet the talk of a restoration of the previous administration lingers. ■ In Federalist Paper 43, James Madison wrote that "a right implies a remedy; and where else could the remedy be deposited, than where it is deposited by the Constitution?" As a Constitutional authority, nobody rivals Madison: He was one of the Constitution's primary authors. ■ Madison's question is the definitive statement on the matter of reconsidering, retracting, or somehow overturning a Constitutional election. If there were a right to do so, the remedy would be found in the document. The Constitution says a great deal about how a Presidential election is conducted. It says nothing about retraction. Not a word. There is no do-over. No challenging the umpire. No stripping the title from the victor. No asterisk on the power of the elected. ■ The United States -- and the powers vested in its officers, including the President -- has no sovereign. There is no individual of final appeal. We have people who grant power by their own consent to their government, and we have states which each have organic legal standing all their own Don't forget: a state is admitted to the Union; states are not willed into existence by some mysterious authority residing in DC. (Delaware was a state before it became the first "united" state.) The Constitution is the final say on our law, and if a matter or a process is documented in that law, there is no ethereal plane of law standing by to sweep it aside. ■ A right implies a remedy. And there is no Constitutional remedy for re-counting a result of the Electoral College -- thus there is no right to demand a do-over. The election of 2020 is over. The President has been duly elected. And anyone who adheres to a belief that Joe Biden can be jettisoned from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- other than strictly by the Constitutional mechanism of impeachment and removal -- is professing a belief that the Constitution isn't the final word on matters. Madison says otherwise.

News Rural routes and embedded knowledge

The next time you travel down a gravel road, take note of the number of tracks. Depending on the width of the road, the frequency of travel, and the level of maintenance being supplied by the county, you'll likely notice either two or three tracks -- two for the loneliest of roads, three for the real thoroughfares. The middle of the road gets used either way, which makes sense, considering that the hazards of ending up in a ditch are greater than those of scraping a curb on a paved city street. ■ Nonetheless, if you pay careful attention, you'll often find that the tracks diverge as you approach the crest of a hill. That's because of the natural tendency of the practiced driver to ease off the gas and drift to the right-hand side to avoid a head-on collision where visibility is lacking. The two-track road tends to become three; the three-track road tends to become four as you approach the local peak. ■ This pattern illustrates the under-appreciated phenomenon of embedded knowledge. Embedded knowledge is just about everywhere in our physical world, though by its nature we often don't even realize that it's there. Suppose, for instance, that you've been dropped off at a lonely old farmhouse on a cloudy night. If you were told you had to walk five miles west to get a ride home, you wouldn't want to set off in the wrong direction. ■ But a virtually foolproof compass can be found in the trees around the farmstead -- even if you can't see where the moss is growing. The preponderance of the time, you'll find evergreen trees to the north and west of the house, and deciduous trees to the south and east. Evergreens to block the cold winds and driving snows of winter (predominantly from the north and west, at least in the U.S. Midwest), and deciduous trees to offer shade in the summertime but letting light percolate through in the winter. Once you start to look for the pattern, you'll see it everywhere. ■ We have to train ourselves to recognize embedded knowledge. It doesn't leap out and grab us -- yet we often follow it automatically and unconsciously. The wise university groundskeeper doesn't fight the natural curves and zig-zags of the cowpaths that students end up leaving in the well-manicured grass. Instead, he or she learns to put the paved walkways where the students have revealed they are already going. ■ The more we learn to appreciate the embedded knowledge of life around us -- not just in the physical world, but in the abstract and non-material worlds around us, too -- the more we can realize what we know (and what sometimes we "know" that "just isn't so"). In the commercial world, embedded knowledge can become a source of competitive advantage. But it can also be pernicious -- or, at least, it can record and reveal pernicious human behaviors. ■ Government policies led to real-estate redlining that still has a sizable impact on integration and race relations today. And you can tell in 2021 which communities lacked wealth and political power when the urban Interstate highways were laid out in the 1950s. ■ Becoming aware of embedded knowledge and how it functions in the world around us is a vital step in learning to live smarter and better, both individually and at scale. It also serves to help us see our foibles and to become more conscious of the mistakes of the past that become hard-wired into our behavior. Humans are social beings and we sometimes share memory both unconsciously and in common. Learning to recognize that memory for what it is and how it affects us (especially without our active awareness) is a habit to cultivate.

Computers and the Internet "Facebook Doesn't Care in the Slightest About Obviously Fraudulent Accounts"

A play in four acts: Patently fake friend request, solitary post clearly selling a fraud, honest report to Facebook of a fraudulent account, and Facebook refusing to do anything about it.

Threats and Hazards Collapsed tower in Florida was falling apart behind the scenes

Altogether too many aspects of our built environment can be described like this: What the public sees looks fine, just as long as nobody looks behind the scenes.

Weather and Disasters BC town destroyed by wildfires just set temperature record

The town that attracted attention for setting Canada's all-time highest temperatures on record just burned to the ground -- 90% destroyed, according to the CBC. The high temperatures contributed significantly to the conditions that led to the fire that appears to have destroyed Lytton, BC.



June 30, 2021

Iowa Out of time

We sometimes say that a place is "stuck in the past" if it doesn't make any effort to accommodate the progress of the present. But something else is going on outside of Stuart, Iowa, where a billboard along Interstate 80 is still advertising Tulsi Gabbard's campaign for President in 2020. ■ The election is entirely over. There is no recount, no overturning coming. Yet the ad is still in place. Either somebody got the most incredible rental deal of all time for that billboard -- or the salesperson has incomparable skills of persuasion. Maybe they're trying to get ahead on the 2024 cycle. ■ Living in Iowa is like being in a land outside of time when it comes to politics. The campaigns of the past follow us like ghosts everywhere we go, and the campaigns of the future show begin the day the last votes are counted. Tom Cotton is already here doing push-ups with Chuck Grassley. Nikki Haley just gambled on a trip to Nevada...Iowa. Mike Pence is coming next month. The campaign season literally never ends in Iowa. ■ Some people may be seen jealous of that until they realize what it's really like to live through it. But if New Yorkers thought their mayoral race was a long haul, they wouldn't want to trade. It ain't pretty. So, while other states may want to leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire in the Presidential primary cycle, they should be careful what they wish for. Living outside of political time means living in a Mobius strip of campaign seasons. There's no getting out.



June 29, 2021

Computers and the Internet What's missing is serendipity

As was proven when the world locked down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it's possible to do a lot of things online that didn't seem like urgent possibilities even 18 months ago. Concerts went moved from auditoriums to living rooms, while even Harvard Medical School went online for the 2020 fall semester. ■ With many places, like much of Australia, still enduring lockdowns, the share of life that now happens in a digital environment rather than a physical one seems set to remain permanently and substantially larger than seemed possible even in 2019. Many of our experiences may actually be enhanced by going virtual. But the migration is -- and will remain -- uneven, and there are some things that can't be properly replicated. ■ One of the great sensory experiences to be had is to meander aimlessly through a well-stocked library -- especially if it's an academic library with a big collection of old theses or stacks of old periodicals. There's lots of embedded knowledge to be found in those stacks -- even in things like the condition of the spine on a bound volume of old magazines. It may be well-worn, telling the passerby that other people have spent lots of time with a collection. Or it may appear completely pristine, hinting at long-forgotten treasures within. And with that embedded knowledge comes serendipity, as the searcher discovers things unexpectedly. ■ There are some tremendous digitization projects underway. Most notable is probably the Internet Archive, which does yeoman's work at trying to provide a free "digital library" of vast reaches of content. But other projects are merely incomplete efforts. ■ Take, for instance, the Google News Archive, which appears promising at first glance, with hundreds of sources. But many of those sources have only few dozen issues to offer digitally. 68 issues of the New York Age from 1890 to 1892 won't get the researcher very far. And the Google book-digitization project, which once drew much fanfare, doesn't seem to be going anywhere due to legal issues and flagging institutional enthusiasm. ■ All of this could be deeply unfortunate if it means that we end up with a patchy and incomplete digital record of the world prior to the Internet era. One can be fairly sure that some kind of digital record will linger somewhere for most books published after Y2K, but there are plenty of publications from prior to 2000 that don't really have advocates to help them make the transition. ■ Just for instance: The recently-deceased Walter Mondale, a one-time Vice President of the United States and the 1984 Democratic candidate for President, wrote a book called "The Accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency". One can find hard-cover copies available on the second-hand market, but nobody's publishing it anew, nor is it available to purchase for download. One can search inside the book using Google, but not obtain the whole thing that way. Maybe someday that book will make the leap into the digital sphere, but for now it remains mostly stranded in the analog world of the built environment and physical libraries. And Mondale was a highly prominent public figure, even into the Internet era, and his book is on a subject that would seem to be of particular contemporary interest. Yet without anyone advocating for his work to make the digital leap, it may never effectively cross over. ■ It's important to be aware of the biases that affect how we think, and what consequences those have. Omission can be one of those important sources of bias: If we only go looking for information where it's easy to search, we may well miss valuable knowledge whose only sin is having been generated before the digital age.


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June 28, 2021

Computers and the Internet Not so smart now, eh?

We live in a world awash in the word "smart". We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart homes, and even smart refrigerators. The word is everywhere. And yet, when it comes to human beings, we don't seem to know how to call people anything other than "smart". ■ That's more than a mild linguistic curiosity. Language shapes how we think about subjects. Consider the scores of words Icelanders can use to describe "snow". The breadth of word choices available makes it possible to describe the subject with precision and detail. ■ So, what is "smart", at least in a person? Educators and psychologists talk about Gardner's multiple intelligence types (linguistic, mathematic, spatial, musical, and so on), and that concept certainly has a useful broadening effect beyond a flat understanding of general intelligence (sometimes called "g"). Yet it's still not enough. ■ Even within the "multiple intelligences", different people can be smart in different ways. Some can process information quickly. Some can retain lots of knowledge. Some synthesize with ease. Some learn quickly. Some test well. ■ Failing to broaden our vocabulary for "smart" unnecessarily constrains us in thinking about what makes individual human beings "smart". That also keeps us from appreciating the differences in why we consider individuals smart (or less so), and more importantly, it constrains our vision of how we can leverage each individual's intellectual strengths and accommodate their weaknesses. ■ That's a real unforced error to make at a time when educational attainment levels are rising and outcomes like lifetime earnings track, on average, very closely with education. If we, as a society, want to pave the way for people to freely make the most of their own potential, then we need to take account of all the ways people can make the most of their inborn potential. That also means taking obstacles out of the way when they are artificially imposed by a narrow view of what makes people "smart enough" to pursue more education. ■ How much we value something should be reflected in the richness of our vocabulary for describing it. It's not intimidating to consider chip speeds, the number of cores in a CPU, the speed of a graphics processor, the transfer speeds of an Internet connection, or the number of terabytes in a hard drive. All of these computer specifications have parallels in human intelligence, yet we have a more vivid lexicon for describing the performance capabilities of a laptop than for a person. In a world where "smart" is used as often to describe a device as a person, we ought to put a little more care into making our language smarter.

Socialism Doesn't Work A visit to Stalin's birthplace

The inimitable Mike Murphy: "The most dangerous place to stand in the Soviet Union was next to Stalin and in front of a photographer. Every flashbulb begat a death sentence."

Health WNBA reports that "99% of the league's players are now fully vaccinated"

This deserves applause as a demonstration of real leadership in sports.

News People are on the other side of most problems

A truly staggering number of our problems, both past and present, can be attributed directly to the failure to see other people as human beings rather than objects.

Threats and Hazards A better institutional response is needed on privacy

Calli Schroeder: "When you're angry about surveillance, what do you do? Where do you go? We have to have institutions that allow people to be heard and that push back on surveillance." ■ These are questions well worth considering. The shortcut answers (like a generalized rage against "Big Tech") are unproductive or even counterproductive. It really does call for an institutionalized response that can be both alert and nuanced. Considering how important privacy, technology, and surveillance have all become to modern life, it's distressing that we haven't seen a better or more coherent institutional response to the risks and problems that we face. Too many people seem interested in fighting old debates like trench warfare.


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June 27, 2021

Health Shots work. Get them.

"COVID-19 infected everyone who attended a Sydney birthday party except for the six people who were vaccinated"



June 25, 2021

Computers and the Internet Like it or not, analog literacy is incomplete

Sharing a snapshot of his child's summer reading packet instructing the student to "compose four tweets to tell about a book you read", economist Joshua Goodman asks, "Anyone else worried that their kids are being exposed to social media at too young an age?" ■ The question is certainly fair game, and the particular exercise in question is certainly too cute by half. Considering that Twitter itself is only 15 years old, most adult parents would be within reason to find the very assignment unrelatable. ■ The notion of normalizing social-media interaction as part of a reading assignment is prone to feeling forced -- and perhaps even a bit unhealthy. Young people can be impulsive and easily harmed by the hazards of social media, especially if they aren't practicing good technology hygiene or learning healthy boundaries between their digital and real-world lives. ■ But on the other hand, Benjamin Franklin continues to reach us nearly three centuries later via the pithy quotes in his Poor Richard's Almanack. Franklin's aphorisms were, effectively, 18th Century tweets. And we are better off for having them. ■ The form of a work may vary, and the form it takes can influence the content. Illuminated manuscripts are by definition different from 280-character bursts of thought and speed selfies. ■ Discovering a subject-matter expert with a lot of interesting things to say -- but no social-media presence -- is a lot like finding a book you can't read on a Kindle or a movie you can't stream. Convenience matters more than it rightly should. Yet the other side to that same coin is that there are people devoting far more writing to social media than they do to long-form published works, when they really could do a world of good by piecing together thousands of scattered thoughts into coherent works. ■ So the reality is that educators (and parents) probably should teach a balanced approach: Yes, young people should read books. But they should learn how to be digitally literate, too. They should learn how to write critical essays. But they should probably know how to compose a clever tweet, too. Literacy is bigger in both its reach and its consequences than it used to be -- and if you doubt that, consider going through the Cuban Missile Crisis with a Twitter-addicted President at the helm. As uncomfortable as it often makes generations older than the digital natives, there's no going back.

Business and Finance The US Treasury is still borrowing at near-zero interest

Even with a small uptick in 10-year rates, the country is still borrowing at about 1.5% (nominal). It was only a generation ago that kids could get 5% interest on their miniature savings accounts and buy savings bonds that doubled in value after ten years.

News John McAfee found dead in a Spanish prison

Drew Cline offers wise counsel: "A new lesson in our family is: Live your life so that no part of your obituary reads 'found dead in a Spanish prison.'" Other words to avoid: "exiled", "disgraced", and "crypto".

Weather and Disasters "Ope, it's gross"

Almost as good a weather graphic as "Taco Watch/Taco Warning". Speaking of gross, Seattle faces coin-flip odds of breaking its all-time high temperature record in the next few days.

Humor and Good News Happy mid-summer from the King of Sweden

Try, just try, to come up with a cushier-sounding job than "Strictly ceremonial hereditary monarch with zero executive authority over a rich country with a population about the same as North Carolina's".

News Human-adjacent history just got more interesting

"The team said that Homo longi, and not the Neanderthals, was the extinct human species mostly closely related to our own."


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June 24, 2021

Threats and Hazards You have to blow on the soup

Any democracy is bound to be a place where conflicting opinions occasionally lead to tensions. In general, the gift of a system of self-government is that everyone broadly agrees to disagree within the bounds of a predictable system for winning and losing, permitting us to blow off the steam of having a fair chance at expressing our wants and trying to persuade others to come around to our side before agreeing to abide by the will of the majority (within bounds that protect the rights of all). ■ Unfortunately, there is profit -- unusually quick profit -- to be made by catering to the heat rather than to the resolution. On one of the more disreputable programming streams now found on some cable and satellite television systems, someone appears to have come right out and expressed hope that people would be executed over the last general election. Right out loud. ■ In his book, "Them", Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote that "A republic can't survive if it's filled with fanatics." And he's right. (It's doubtful any system can survive indefinitely if filled with fanatics, but self-government is particularly susceptible to the character of the governed.) Anyone concerned about matters like polarization ought to take note of the many ways polarization has heated up, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. ■ The distasteful consequences of polarization undoubtedly turn off lots of people, who seek refuge by claiming not to take any part in politics. Others are staying quiet for fear that they'll suffer consequences for expressing "wrong" opinions. ■ But in withdrawal and silence, we uncover a problem: The most polarized among us aren't going to shut up. In fact, they're bound to turn up the volume. On cable TV or social media, polarization tends to pay -- and some people subscribe to an expressed policy of "flooding the zone" with misinformation intended to confuse and agitate everyone around. ■ When you're served a bowl of hot soup, you can wait for it to cool itself. As long as it isn't sitting on a burner, it will probably cool off...eventually. But most people know that it cools off faster if you blow on it. What's the equivalent to "blowing on the soup" in our larger world? For many of us, it's a matter of sharing more -- but deliberately sharing news, opinions, insights, and observations that don't have anything to do with what riles everyone up. ■ Left to battle it out with one another, the extremists and agitators will continue to "flood the zone" with content that makes everything seem worse. It's the job of people of goodwill to flood the zone with worthwhile items worth knowing. The misguided and mal-intentioned are going to continue trying to tickle our amygdalas with fear, anger, hostility, and hate. It's up to the rest of us to blow on the soup -- diluting the junk, the rot, and the agitprop with counter-programming of our own. ■ That means talking about things that look to the broader world beyond hyper-partisan conflict. The soup isn't cooling itself. It's time to take a deep breath -- and blow on it.

Threats and Hazards The most reliable confirmation is the Party's official denial

Headline from the Straits Times: "HK leader Carrie Lam says action against Apple Daily does not target press freedom". Double-speak must be so exhausting for apparatchiks like Lam. Apple Daily wasn't shut down for demonstrating slobbering fealty to the Communist regime.

Health "Unvaccinated individuals are really gambling with their lives in terms of facing this"

The warning from a doctor in Missouri, where one county has a total-population vaccination rate of just 13.7%

Threats and Hazards China's provocative language threatening Taiwan

"Any attempt to 'rely on the United States for independence' is doomed to failure."

Threats and Hazards Building collapse in Florida

The video is shocking and offers real perspective on what a significant building collapse happened



June 23, 2021

Threats and Hazards The wrong kind of silence

"Good luck, and goodbye." Those are the parting words of Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper serving Hong Kong that has been forced to close because it was too much a voice of dissent for the Communist Party of China to handle. ■ But why should we care? Hong Kong is more than 6,000 miles away from the mainland United States, and its transfer from British to Chinese authority was sealed in 1997. In a sense, it's not as though the world couldn't see this day coming. Besides, Britney Spears finally spoke for herself in court and cheerleaders are swearing on Snapchat. ■ The problems of Hong Kong -- and, indeed, all of China -- may seem very remote indeed, but we're fools if we don't take them seriously. From our very beginning, the United States has been required to look outward. In Federalist Paper No. 24, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security." Since that time, powers have emerged and strengthened outside of Europe (that is, we have more rivals about which to be concerned), and the world's distances have been made much shorter (that is, those rivals are effectively much closer). ■ People with bad intentions never have small aims. And it's undeniable that a system so intent on crushing dissent that it would smash basic liberties (like that of a free press) is a system for evil. And it's not just about rough interactions between the press and the government: It's about erasing the institutions of freedom altogether. ■ It is in the nature of evil systems to be perpetually driven to expand. They have to expand because they have to be feared. It starts with domestic fear -- those who are directly under the thumb of the bad regime. Then it stretches to those abroad who have something to lose at home. Then it creeps into threatening foreigners inside the system. Then it begins to target economic interests abroad. And then it's on to threatening anyone who might fight back, even far from the regime. Odds are, all of us are potential targets. ■ That's because, on balance, people given the choice will pick individual freedom and liberty. But those things don't perpetuate themselves automatically. An individual's incentive to get incensed about encroachments against lofty human rights like freedom of speech or dissent isn't all that great. Certainly not when the nibbles of the shark seem small and far away. But the drive to keep reaching farther and farther is an inherent feature of an oppressive system. Their motivations -- to remain in power and to expand that power -- are driving and insatiable. Are we equally motivated to care? If not, what will it take?

Broadcasting Getting used to local news from the studio again

After so many local newscasts ended up broadcasting (literally) from home because of pandemic-related lockdowns, viewers might see changes in set design. Next thing you know, Magid is going to tell everyone to put a "Live, Laugh, Love" sign on every set. Some of the Tegna stations have already gone way outside of the box with their sets: See how KARE in Minneapolis delivers "Breaking the News" or WKYC in Cleveland serves up an afternoon newscast called "What's New" on a color-saturated set.

Threats and Hazards Bad-faith behavior begets bad blood

China went after Australian economic interests as a means of putting pressure on the country over politics. The result? Australian attitudes on China have turned sour, fast.



June 22, 2021

Health What were they thinking?

A tragic story joins a list that has grown far too long since early 2020: Two co-workers in a Florida government office have died of Covid-19, and three others in the same office have been hospitalized with serious cases of the same disease. Local news reporting on the story includes these crucial facts: "One staffer in the department who worked closely with the other five and didn't contract the coronavirus was vaccinated. All five who contracted the virus were known not to be vaccinated". ■ This raises a most important question: What were they thinking? It's important that this question be asked without judging the victims; basic decency requires at least some respect for the dead and goodwill towards the others who are seriously ill. ■ But the question is objectively important. Vaccines are abundantly available (Florida's map of vaccination sites shows them seemingly everywhere), and the United States as a whole has millions of surplus doses available. By now, the side effects of vaccination are well-known and trivial by comparison with the known risks of contracting the deadly disease the vaccines prevent. ■ This is far from the first case in which the vaccines have been demonstrably protective. In particular, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been statistically outstanding. The protection afforded by the vaccines is virtually complete. And yet Florida's statewide vaccination rate (for the eligible 12+ population) remains below 60%. ■ It's not a matter of scarcity or cost, so it's either a matter of choice or of motivation. But with the entire country only 46% vaccinated (for the total population), and some individual states in the 20s, we really need to figure out the psychological and sociological reasons why people are still holding back. ■ Without heartless judgment, and indeed with sympathetic due concern for the welfare of our fellow human beings, it's imperative that we figure out the root causes of the hesitancy of so many people to step out of the line of fire. Covid-19 isn't the only bad thing for which easy preventatives are available, and it won't be the last pandemic, either. Medical science has done some astonishing heavy lifting so far. It's time for social science to flex its muscles, too.

News It's a parrot (and not even an ex-parrot)

There are, apparently, feral parrot colonies in California, and it sounds a lot like the gulls of Wrigley Field.

Weather and Disasters Can't scare us now

April Glaser, on the summer solstice: "The longest day of the year also marks a gradual descent into darkness for the rest of the year fwiw". But we all just lived through 2020. The whole thing. Nothing you can say about a "descent into darkness" should be capable of scaring us. Doesn't matter how literal that descent or that darkness may be.

Humor and Good News The week after Father's Day

The entire week after Father's Day should be reserved for writers to get the worst puns out of their systems. Today's New York Times "eel amore" gag is Exhibit #1.

Science and Technology Jurassic National Park?

It's a fanciful joke for now, but we shouldn't be unmindful of the possibilities that could be unleashed if and when synthetic biology permits us to put some really wild flora and fauna into places like national parks. For the time being, though, maybe some of the parks ought to try offering augmented-reality tours to boost attendance?


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June 21, 2021

News One-paragraph book review: "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read"

Everyone is or has been at least one of these things: Parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew. Most of us inhabit more than one of those roles, and they can define us, shape us, and not uncommonly, dominate our self-understanding in ways both good and bad. There is no shortage of specific advice to parents on subjects from children's sleeping habits to discipline, and it comes in a vast range of qualities, from excellent to dreadful. ■ A theme common to many of these parental-advice books is to frame matters in training terms: Sleep training, potty training, discipline training, and so on. While the training mindset may be useful for specific subjects a child needs to learn, it's inadequate to the big picture of parenting. That's what makes Philippa Perry's "The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read" a refreshing and highly worthwhile alternative to read. ■ Perry, who practices as a psychotherapist and admits to her own parenting faults refreshingly and openly in her book, makes the excellent case that, fundamentally, "we should not see our babies, children, and teenagers as chores to feed and clean or otherwise fix but as people from the start, people we are going to have lifelong relationships with". In an engaging and warm tone, Perry offers thoughtful and accessible advice useful not only for parents, but for grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even adult children as well. Over and over, she directs many of the common complaints and conflicts of adult-and-child interactions to the root cause of considering the underlying relationship. ■ It's hard to look at a newborn and imagine that in very little time at all, that diapered bundle of cries will turn into an adult. But the more deliberately the adults around that child consider their relationships with the child (especially in times of conflict, but also when laying the groundwork to avoid conflict), the better the outlook for how both individuals and the relationship between them will mature. ■ This is a book with insights containing value for anyone -- even a childless orphan of advanced years, unless perhaps that individual is cloistered away from all human contact. But everyone else can gain at least some useful insight into relationships between generations, whether for current relationships or for understanding past ones. Perry reminds the reader that, even though we are all imperfect, parents (and other adults) don't have to strive to perfect the children in their orbits, because "[Y]ou are creating a person to love, not a work of art". The book's title may be over-the-top, but its advice is exceedingly well-grounded.

Weather and Disasters Something awful happened in Chicagoland

A strong tornado went through a densely-populated area. That's a recipe for real trouble. And if it seems like modern storms are different from those of the past, look at how much we have changed the target environment. It's called the "Expanding Bull's-Eye Effect", and it's a reminder that physical science and social science don't stay neatly in their own lanes.



June 20, 2021

Weather and Disasters Cedar Rapids turns red

A storm is to blame, but it's fun to blame the new lights in the Quaker Oats sign instead

Health When mental wellness is relegated to the back seat

A compelling obituary tells the story of an Iowan who had a lot going for him -- and who did a lot of good in life -- but whose addiction to methamphetamine killed him. And the root cause of his troubles, it seems, is that he needed more and better care for his mental wellness than the system around him was able to provide.

Socialism Doesn't Work China uses "law" to shut down Hong Kong's freedom of the Internet

The Great Firewall is being expanded to isolate even more territory

Humor and Good News The 8,400-page e-book

That's the equivalent printed length of the complete works of Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune. (And the Tribune was his third newspaper in Chicago.) Compiling his years of daily columns into a single work gives an exceptional illustration of just how many words one person can write. Not all of the columns are great, but many are still readable decades after his death, and it wasn't for nothing that he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the early phase of his career as a columnist. The sheer expansiveness of Royko's work is something to behold.



June 18, 2021

The United States of America Juneteenth

It isn't often one lives to witness the birth of a new Federal holiday, yet that's what has just happened as Juneteenth has been proclaimed a permanent part of the government calendar. There will be some education required ahead: A majority of American adults have little or no knowledge of the holiday. ■ The holiday presents us with an opportunity to fill that gap of knowledge, and to look for others as well. Considering that it represents the date in 1865 when people enslaved in Texas learned of their rightful freedom two and a half years after their freedom had already been declared in the Emancipation Proclamation (and even half a year after Congress passed the 13th Amendment), the holiday ought to be an annual reminder for us as a country to examine the disparities that linger and to shine light on the knowledge of our past that may have been hidden in the shadows. ■ Part of the insidious design behind slavery was to deprive enslaved people people of literacy. That forced a profound disadvantage on them, and on their offspring, too. Imagine what an extraordinary toll it imposed that most slave states actually forbade teaching enslaved people to read and write. Not only was that an immense burden to impose on those people in their own time, it served to erase (or at least hide) their presence from popular attention and historical memory. Even when freed, most of those previously-enslaved people couldn't write their own history. ■ Belatedly, America has stepped in the direction of correcting those cruel misdeeds. We're acknowledging that those stories need to be told. But that reveals the cruel paradox of annotating history to make up for the omissions of the past: It looks like history is being re-written, when in truth we are only filling in the blanks. To those with a disposition toward resentment, it looks like they're losing their own place in history, rather than gaining a fuller understanding of where others had been either intentionally or systematically left out. The sooner we act to recover those parts of the American story that were omitted, the wiser a people we become. ■ We're still not very far in time from when literacy tests were used to keep the descendants of slaves from exercising their right to vote, so it's important to see the act of correcting the record as the most American thing we can do. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." Knowledge (or, perhaps more exactly, the withholding of it) must not be used as a weapon by a virtuous people. ■ The United States has never been perfect -- even in our founding documents, we are merely promised a "more" perfect union as something to be pursued. Even that document followed the failure of the Articles of Confederation. But as we show ourselves willing to learn, we demonstrate the ability to become better. As we commence recognizing Juneteenth as a Federal holiday, we ought to use it as an annual reminder to be willing to learn, to rectify inequities and oppression, and to ensure that we tell the truth (and the whole truth) about our history.

The United States of America Too much screeching

There is a class of person devoted to screeching the worst possible interpretation of their fellow humans' actions every hour of the day, like air-raid sirens of bad faith. Don't be in that class. Don't listen to that class. Don't let that class live rent-free in your head.

News "All forms of tyranny are odious"

Wisdom from Winston Churchill: "All forms of tyranny are odious. It makes very little difference to the citizen[...] whether tyranny comes from a royal or imperial despot, or from a Pope or Inquisitor, or from a military caste[...] or worst of all, from a terrified and infuriated mob."

Business and Finance If it's infrastructure, it's about to cost more

There are those who think that the inflationary signals out there are merely passing. Others take a more structural view. Here's a word to the wise: Lots of mid-year price increases are going into effect on July 1st. Don't expect them to be rolled back.



June 17, 2021

News So, what are you reading?

Below every social-media profile -- or even prominently attached to it -- should be a list of the books a person is reading at the moment. The great curse of social media is that everyone gets a sense for what short-form things others are reading right now -- articles, memes, and other bursts of thought -- but rarely do we find out what others are consuming more deeply (and, hopefully, more thoughtfully). ■ Sure, there are tools for sharing one's ongoing reading progress (like Goodreads), and there is plenty of room to share "favorite" books on a Facebook profile, but those are deliberate acts. Some might even call them performative -- it's easy to say you've read "War and Peace", but was that really something you did 20 years ago? ■ It's easy to take solace in self-identifying with the help of a contemporary label. That's what makes it so appealing to take a personality test and identify with an easy shorthand biography ("I'm an ENTJ!"), and it's why people struggle to find very specific names for their political affiliations (like Red Dog Democrats and Country-First Conservatives). ■ But not only are we individuals more complex than easy archetypes would suggest, we're also works in progress. Human nature may generally be deeply unchanging, but individuals can, do, and should evolve over time. And one of the ways people change is through reading. Look all you want, but you'll almost never find a more efficient tool of knowledge transfer than a well-written book. Books force discipline and clarity of thought upon the writer, and when a book is written well, it can be useful for readers for generations to come. ■ Nor are non-fiction books the only useful ones. Even the "Great Books" curriculum leans heavily upon literature. There are plenty of books that would never pass for "high art" that can still be good for the reader. Sometimes, it's because the underlying message is significant (see, for instance, the works of Douglas Adams, which would never pass for highbrow, but yet are guaranteed to be read centuries from now). Other times, it's good for the reader in that moment. Even the trashiest novels have their proponents. ■ Instead of trying hard to find satisfying ways to identify ourselves based upon who we think we are (or what we'd like others to think of us), it would actually be a great exercise to tell one another what thoughts we're allowing to rattle around inside our brains through the act of reading. The act of reading a book isn't necessarily about agreeing with the author -- properly done, it's about grappling with the ideas inside. That's why librarians make such a cause out of defending banned books. ■ What we're reading (or if we're reading nothing at all) can have a profound effect on who we're in the process of becoming. Sharing that would be a much more satisfying way to self-identify than any stale old labels we borrow from others.

News Columnist Frank Bruni exits the pages with an apology

Noteworthy words: "There aren't as many clicks in cooling tempers and complicating people's understanding of situations as there are in stoking their rage...It's a profitable brand. But it's also a trap."

Broadcasting What's new on the neighborhood watch

The near-universality of large flat-screen televisions means your neighbors often can see quite clearly (and unavoidably) what you're watching just by driving or walking down the block. And someone is watching "Ted" tonight.

Humor and Good News Barbecue "university"

Once Hamburger University came on the scene, this kind of accreditation mission creep was probably unavoidable. (N.B.: The highest form of barbecue is dry rub.)



June 16, 2021

Science and Technology Waiting for my chips to come

The mighty American automotive industry isn't making much headway right now as a shortage of computer chips has put the pinch on vehicle production. Some riveting images of trucks packing the parking lot at the Kentucky Speedway bring the abstraction of a "chip shortage" to highly tangible reality. There are hundreds of F-150 trucks backing up all over the Detroit area, as well. These images are easier to grasp than the equally significant lack of inventory being found at dealerships. ■ It's strange to think that the problem with producing cars and trucks right now isn't the machinery but the tiniest of electronics. Yet that's the impact of the global chip shortage being made worse by an apparent increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, the world's unrivaled semiconductor powerhouse. ■ The situation, for all its resulting headaches, is a reminder that progress rarely occurs in a straight line. We make lots of incremental progress in lots of areas, and over time the world ends up looking a lot different than it once did. If you were a passenger in a new car built in the 1970s or early 1980s, you almost certainly had no air bags, no rear shoulder restraints, often no FM radio, and no automatic windows. Padded dashboards and seat belts weren't required until 1968, and front-seat airbags weren't mandatory until 1998. Cassette tape decks were still a new thing in the Carter era, and CD players didn't appear until the mid-1980s. ■ It's the accumulation of lots of relatively small improvements that make today's vehicles much better (and safer) than yesterday's. A chip shortage may well seem like a strange reason to have a shortage of cars, but a world with backup cameras is surely safer than one without. So, nuisance though it is, we ought to be thankful that today's cars are so sophisticated. After all, it took 25 years to get rid of leaded gasoline. We can put up with a shortage of inventory for a few months longer if all we're waiting on is a little silicon.

Threats and Hazards The FBI did not commit the January 6th attack

No alternate-history sleight-of-hand, no mental gymnastics, and no fatuous conspiracy theory can change a plain, undeniable fact: Attacking the Capitol was a choice. Anyone making that choice engaged in terrorism. And choices have consequences. Lots of people need to go to prison for what they did.

Humor and Good News Queen Elizabeth cuts her birthday cake with a sword

(Video) Possibly the most likeable thing any monarch has ever done.


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June 15, 2021

The United States of America Less wallpaper patriotism, please

Every June 14th, Americans recognize Flag Day. The holiday is itself a perfectly innocuous event; it's a nice excuse to unfurl a fresh new Stars and Stripes in front of homes, workplaces, and public buildings. It also serves as a worthy day for the appropriate disposal of worn flags. ■ But it's all too easy for people to mistake the symbolism of the flag for patriotic substance. We would be much better off if people paid as much reverence to the Constitution as many do to the flag. ■ For example: When Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we offer that allegiance "to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands". That seems like a fairly large mistake. We really ought to say "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic therein guaranteed." ■ Perhaps that doesn't sound quite as poetic. But the flag is a symbol, while the Constitution is the glue that actually binds us together as a Union. It's not a thing which "stands" for another; the Constitution is actually the thing -- the object of our allegiance. ■ The Constitution is the object of the Presidential oath of office. It is the same for the Congressional oath of office, and for military officers as well. They do not pledge allegiance to a symbol, they pledge to defend the Constitution -- the law itself. ■ We would do well to focus our civic statements of loyalty, such as they are, on the Constitution rather than on a symbol. It is a fine symbol, with a long-revered history. But other countries have flags, too. Not all of them have written constitutions. Even fewer have constitutions that expressly derive their authority from the consent of the governed. ■ Symbols too often give rise to willful misrepresentation and unhealthy posturing. Some people even wrapped themselves in the flag while terrorizing the US Capitol and threatening the seat of the nation's law itself. Others modify symbols like the flag with the intention to divide. That is the central problem of symbolism -- symbols are easily co-opted and their meanings changed without the consent of people already using them. ■ We should have no patience for "wallpaper patriotism" among us -- those paper-thin displays that exist only for decoration, having nothing to do with the structure underneath. Displaying, celebrating, and honoring the flag are fine things to do. But we should focus our energies on doing the utmost to celebrate and respect the structure itself by pledging our allegiance to the Constitution.

Health Only the unvaccinated are ending up hospitalized from Covid-19

Has any measure ever moved so swiftly from the category of "public health" to "individual health"? These vaccines appear to be working so well that it's next to impossible to understand how even the crankiest misanthrope wouldn't be motivated to get one by self-interest alone. It's an exceptional testament to science that the vaccines are working so well, and a curious social problem that people are still hesitant to get them. Suppose the most extreme possible case against the vaccines -- that, somehow, they set off some kind of deadly chain reaction (purely imaginary, but suppose the case giving the greatest possible credence to vaccine opposition). Even in such an event, so many people have already been treated with the vaccines that the mobilization to find a remedy would be equal to or greater than the mobilization to create the vaccines in the first place. It makes not a shred of sense for adults to shy away from the vaccines now, given the known grave risks attendant to getting Covid-19 itself.

Science and Technology Our biggest problems aren't becoming any less complex

We've made tremendous advancements as a civilization, particularly when it comes to technology. But we're still human beings, and human nature doesn't do much to change -- at least not in any fundamental ways. Reading up on philosophy, ethics, and religion still makes lots of sense, even for the technological enthusiast. In Ben Sasse's words, "Moral dilemmas can't be resolved by a computer. More quantitative power doesn't inexorably solve fundamentally qualitative problems."

Water News Water shortage plans go into effect

Central Iowa is in a pretty nasty drought and it's time to take conservation measures with our water



June 14, 2021

Business and Finance To be a new graduate

The end of graduation season brings the beginning of "new job advice" season. Not everyone will be pulled aside at a graduation party to hear someone else whisper just one word in their ear (like "plastics"). A lot of that advice will instead circulate on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, where quality control leaves something to be desired. ■ One exhibit in the Bad Job Advice Hall of Fame was entered by a venture capitalist by the name of Jordan Kong: "Unpopular opinion: the best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends." ■ She's right: That advice is and deserves to be unpopular. Not because it challenges people to do something they don't want to do but should. It deserves to be unpopular because it's bad advice, and not just because it's a recipe for an unbalanced life and psychological burnout (though surely it is that). ■ "Work on weekends" suggests that quantity of time spent on the clock is more important than the quality of that time. That alone makes it unsound advice. Some people certainly might benefit from putting in many extra hours, if those are going to be quality hours of high-value, high-productivity work. But that isn't usually the case for someone just entering the workforce. ■ Despite the confidence with which many a recent graduate may enter the working world, the newly-minted graduate is rarely more than a malleable piece of clay, needing to be formed. The new worker is rarely like a new machine that can and should be operated at full speed fresh out of the crate. (And, even at that, most machinery needs a breaking-in period.) Instead, the new worker is a vessel that needs to be handled and filled thoughtfully in order to be of real use. As an alternative to "work on weekends", consider these four recommendations instead. ■ First: Attach yourself to a mentor who wants to pay it forward. This cannot be overstated. A good mentor -- someone who can act as a guide with the benefit of some advanced experience -- is the very best thing a young worker can find. There are many, many people who are willing to share their advice, their war stories, their habits, and most importantly their warnings with someone just starting out. The key is to find someone intent on doing so selflessly -- because they authentically and deeply believe that it's important to selflessly do something good for others. ■ There are false mentors out there -- people who just want to build an entourage, or who might share a nugget or two of advice without any real sustained interest in their proteges. But, though it may seem paradoxical, the relationships that begin with a mentor who gives most selflessly are the most likely to become mutualistic later on. Regrettably, there is no ideal field guide to finding a good mentor. One must look consciously, open-mindedly, and in good faith. (Fortunately, a lot of employers and industry organizations are learning to help facilitate these relationships. That's good for everyone.) ■ Second: Make your boss look good. There is a very good chance your boss will not be a suitable mentor. Your boss is, instead, the person whose success will tend to have the most immediate short-term effect on your own success. Look for ways to help the boss succeed in ways that make them look good to their own bosses and customers. Everyone has a boss of some sort -- even the self-employed, for whom the effective "boss" may be a key customer, a vital principal account, a community of voters, or a regulator. Making one's own boss look good (strictly within the bounds of ethical behavior) is one of the highest-return investments to make early in a career. ■ Third: Make yourself indispensable by being willing to learn everything. The new worker is lucky if he or she knows 10% of what they really need to know on the job. There's a reason doctors perform a residency -- schoolwork alone just isn't enough. Learn everything you can, especially by being willing to do the little jobs that crop up. A diploma is far less a certification about what you know than it is a signal that you know how to learn. Once you're on the job, you have to prove that piece of paper was more than just a signal. You do that by learning. ■ Fourth: Do honest work for honest pay. If you're being paid fairly, do the work you're expected to do. You are not an indentured servant, and unreasonable expectations (like, for instance, working excessive hours on nights and weekends) are a sign you're not dealing with an honest party at the other end of your employment contract. If you detect dishonesty, bad faith, or illegality in your work, the time to get out of it is right away. A company that tells its employees one thing and tells its investors, customers, or regulators another is a company that will take down your career if you stick around. Honesty goes far beyond avoiding just the lies that will get you in trouble. ■ If you're being paid to do work that is such a joy that you would do it without pay, that's a fine reason to punch the clock for more than just your contracted hours per week. But if you're in those shoes, you probably already know it. For everyone else, boundaries matter. And so does the measure of humility that comes with knowing that as a new worker, you have much to learn. The best thing a young person can do early in their career isn't to ruin their weekends: It's to make every effort to learn.

Aviation News DFW marks 40 years as an American Airlines hub

Everything else about DFW notwithstanding, it has excellent wayfinding signage.


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June 9, 2021

Science and Technology Imagine a parallel universe

One where your cell phone is built by Western Electric, runs on an IBM platform, and connects to a network operated by Northwestern Bell. AT&T made big promises, but lots of other firms delivered. ■ America's free-market economy accepts a challenging trade-off: We give up a whole lot of marketplace stability in exchange for a high degree of dynamism -- most of it productive. ■ The lack of stability renders itself all over the place: Products beloved by hard-core fans disappear (farewell forever, Tab Cola), one era's entertainment giant becomes the next era's pawn (as 27-year-old Amazon buys 97-year-old MGM), and the rise of a new industry decimates the prospects of another (whither the newspaper classified ad). ■ The consequences can be pretty harsh for customers, suppliers, shareholders, and most especially employees, if firms are unwilling or unable to adapt, change, or pivot as the market deems necessary. And sometimes the conditions they face are insurmountable: Some production innovations, new competitors, or substitute goods are too much for any industry to overcome. ■ But for all the comforts that stability can bring, it also tends to stifle innovation. If everyone is reasonably satisfied with their position, then the opponent is change itself. And that's why we can look back on the era of the telephone monopoly and wonder at just how much has changed since 1984 by comparison with what had changed between 1947 and the breakup of the Bell System (for the record: not nearly as much). ■ A lot of praise and attention gets lavished on people who call themselves "disruptors", but one of the things we really ought to encourage more in places like our business schools is the art of institutional evolution. Companies like Textron, which started as a small textile producer and is now a major aviation manufacturer, are the kinds of firms that deserve considerable attention from the people who run our institutions -- not just our for-profit businesses, but also our government agencies, non-profit organizations, co-ops, and family businesses, as well. ■ Dynamism doesn't have to hurt -- at least, not very much. But it's up to sound, forward-thinking leadership to make sure that the comfortable status quo doesn't take the place of continuous growth and development. A dynamic economy is the harder path, but it's clearly one with desirable payoffs, too.


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June 8, 2021

Broadcasting What journalist leaves a gig at the BBC?

Two recognizable names in the BBC's much-lauded journalistic universe have announced plans to move this summer to other media operations. People leave jobs from time to time, of course, but the BBC is one of those institutions so highly regarded that it's often considered a career destination. Just for example, business journalist Peter Day retired after 28 years presenting the same program. A sportscaster there put in 50 years behind the microphone. ■ What makes this summer's departures so interesting is not just that they are happening, but where the journalists' new destinations will be. Katty Kay is going to Ozy Media, a digital-first media company. And Manuela Saragosa is leaving the BBC World Service after 22 years to become a podcasting boss at the Financial Times. ■ Talented people like Kay and Saragosa don't just leave high-status positions for lower-status ones. And that reveals quite a lot about the apparent pecking order of media institutions these days: Quality digital-based media outlets are now at least a lateral move from the august and revered BBC. That's really saying something. ■ Nielsen says that a majority of American adults consume radio, television, and Internet-based content every week, with an average of more than 30 hours per week on live or recorded TV. But smartphone applications are good for another 20 hours per week, more than any other mode of content delivery. But wait: If further research is to be believed, people are listening to 16 hours of online audio each week, and there's no reason to think the numbers are going to decline. ■ Historically, most journalists were institutionalists at heart -- people who went to work for institutions with which they could be associated for the long term. At The Economist, that approach runs so deep that the stories don't come with individual bylines. But the economics of mass media have gotten so bad that it seems nobody is safe from the threat of ruthless layoffs -- hundreds of people fired at a time, with reporters desperate to recruit deep-pocketed saviors before their institutions get sold off to slash-and-burn owners. ■ That economic turn may well signal the death knell for institutionalism, at least as a career path. Some individuals may still hang on to long careers, though few will hang on for more than 40 years like Bob Schieffer did at CBS. But most will be forced -- whether they like it or not -- to focus not on building reverence for their institutions, but on name recognition for themselves. That does have consequences, whether we like it or not. Legendary columnists like Mike Royko were once the only ones encouraged to personalize their stories. That's almost impossible to expect now, when virtually everyone who appears on television is also supposed to have a social-media presence (to draw "engagement" -- and viewers) and newspaper reporters are expected to report even the tiniest "scooplet" to encourage clicking and sharing. ■ Indeed, this new dynamic could go well -- if that means individual journalists and commentators invest heavily in better writing, clearer reporting, and more insightful questioning, doing their best to become trustworthy institutions in and of themselves. Every journalist is effectively now a freelancer. But it could also go badly, if the public decides it's just too hard to know who to trust anymore and abandon their own judgment as news consumers for being persuaded to digest whatever is the most enticing red meat that comes their way. People love sharing stories about other people, but not every story reduces to an impassioned anecdote from a reporter's personal life history. ■ We can be hopeful that the departure of credible, well-seasoned journalists from brand-name institutions means that our media marketplace has room for even more high-quality reporting. But we should also realize that media literacy is perhaps now more important than ever.

News Human lives in extremely large numbers

The Census Bureau says there are approximately 7,768,000,000 people alive in the world today. That's a lot of people -- far more than the human brain can easily conceptualize. (Apparently, our brains make an inconvenient jump from simple primate math to object-based math, making us think of "billions" much the same way we might think of "bananas". Alas.) ■ If you were to take a single day on Earth and add up the 7.7 billion individual days experienced by every one of us, you'd accumulate quite the diary. There was a rather ambitious film project that tried to do something like that, capturing a glimpse of the same day in every country on the planet. But even that film was compressed into just 104 minutes. ■ But supposing instead that you could take those 7.7 billion days and play them out in sequence, one at a time, one after another non-stop, how long would it take? The math seems obvious: 7.7 billion person-days, divided by 365.25 days per year, yields 21,081,451 years' worth of human experience taking place for every 24 hours on this pale blue dot. ■ How long is 21 million years? The dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but they're pretty hard to conceptualize outside of myth anyway. Looking closer to our own family tree, the closest science has documented is an early primate that might have walked upright 7 million years ago. ■ So what this means is that every 24 hours on Earth, human beings experience a cumulative passage of time that is three times longer than every day that has passed since the earliest possible hominids emerged. (Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestry until 13 million years ago. ■ The point to this conceptual math is deceptively simple: Anything we can do to improve material standards of living or the dignity of the common person on a mass scale, we should seek to do with a sense of urgency about the impact. A non-trivial number of the people who have ever lived are alive right now, so we shouldn't be shy about doing our best to make those lives better. ■ We should approach our decisions with appropriate modesty, of course -- we can be embarrassingly wrong if we're not careful. But there is much work to do in the world, and every little increment of progress -- if it reaches enough lives -- can have an impact that far outstrips (in human-days of life experience) the number of days humans have even walked the face of Earth. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, "The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others -- politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners -- making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf." Every day is worth 21 million years.

Iowa NIMBYs just can't help themselves

The City of West Des Moines has approved a plan to build a three-story mixed-use development in Valley Junction (the "old town" neighborhood and shopping district). Rather than welcoming the built-in customer base who will live on the top two floors of the building, a local merchant complains that "This is the worst thing the city has ever done to Valley Junction. We are a shopping and dining experience, and apartment buildings don't fit in with that at all." ■ Really, now? Someone wants to enhance the neighborhood by adding places for people to live (which can only serve to add a little vibrance to the area), and it's "the worst thing the city has ever done"? Nonsense. Valley Junction was devastated by the floods of 1993, and the government has spent huge sums of money to protect it in the future. Adding some valuable new real estate and a few residents to the area is perhaps the best thing the city could do.

Humor and Good News Blunting the spread of Covid-19

The State of Washington approves a "joints for jabs" offer

Humor and Good News A horse with no name

(Video) Sometimes you get what you deserve

Health What should Iowa's health priorities be?

The Iowa Department of Public Health has a survey available for people to rank their priorities for the state's health efforts

News The only acceptable camouflage on the high seas

Dazzle paint on ships is great. Blue camouflage on sailors...not so great.



June 7, 2021

Business and Finance Can we start talking about housing affordability yet?

It's hard to escape the news that housing prices have jumped by quite a lot, across many markets, in a very short period of time. Low interest rates, changing work patterns (especially the growing option to work from home), and other factors all play into what's going on. And it certainly doesn't help that lumber prices have risen 300% since last April. If new construction becomes more expensive, that adds fuel to the prices of existing homes. ■ Amid the momentary boom cycle, we ought to make ourselves think seriously about what housing is for. As Le Corbusier said, "A house is a machine for living in". While that was a statement of architectural principle, it has merit as a statement on finances and policymaking, too. ■ Housing is a universal need. Some would call it a human right, but that language isn't helpful -- human rights are the things you possess by virtue of birth, like your right to free expression, and they can only be taken away by the deliberate actions of others. Universal needs, by contrast, are things we have to pay for, using the world's finite resources. This may seem like a trivial difference in language, but it's rather significant. Unless scarcity is a part of our context for thinking about how we supply universal needs, we can't come to reasonable conclusions about how to deliver them. ■ The way we've responded to that scarcity in the United States reflects the demands of some strongly vested interests. The real-estate industry, for instance, benefits from lots of churn and rising prices. The construction sector broadly benefits from lots of site-built, single-family projects that keep lots of people at work. The financial sector benefits from people borrowing the largest amounts they can possibly afford and from taking out further loans for renovations and expansions over time. These vested interests tend to encourage a perspective that rewards American households for sinking as much money into housing as possible, which is broadly encouraged by our habit of referring to housing as a family's "biggest financial asset". ■ It isn't hard to find critics of more-permissive zoning regulations who equate enthusiasm for expanding the supply of housing with pimping for private developers. But just because it's easy to create a meme doesn't mean the logic behind it is sound. There's no inherent hypocrisy in choosing to live in a single-family home while cheering on the development of new housing at higher densities. ■ The root cause of the problem is that, in treating housing as a financial instrument, we create a whole lot of private incentives for people to oppose the creation of new, attractive supplies of housing stock at affordable prices. Manufactured and modular housing, for example, can be delivered at much lower costs per square foot than comparable site-built single-family housing. Backyard housing (in the form of auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) can be produced in 30 days -- where the laws will allow. Innovations from other countries (like Japan's mass-customized housing industry) could have much to teach us. ■ With prices rising and supplies unusually tight, there is no better time than now to look at the root causes and to ask whether our incentive structures and rules are set up in ways that have too many people committing too much of their hard-earned money to shelter (in the name of "investment") when there could be far better returns available from putting their money to work elsewhere -- whether in financial investments, educational opportunities, or even goods like vacations. Housing is a universal need -- and that means our minds should turn to how best to supply the maximum amount of it so that people can satisfy their needs while having resources left over to put elsewhere.

Computers and the Internet One part of government that should be expanded: Cyber Force

One of the reasons the United States needs a Cyber Force (and needed one before we needed a Space Force) is because we need a recognizable service academy for that part of defense. It's no different, really, from branching the Air Force away from the Army -- new technology has opened a new domain of warfare. With that new domain come new challenges, new areas needing devoted study, new legal requirements, and a new need to be taken seriously. ■ One way to lend credibility to a sector is to devote research and academic discipline to it. Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation establishing West Point in 1802; the Naval Academy didn't come to fruition until the mid-1800s. In between, James Madison asked Congress in 1810 for "the establishment of an additional [military] academy at the seat of Government or elsewhere", justifying his request thus: "Even among nations whose large standing armies and frequent wars afford every other opportunity of instruction[,] these establishments are found to be indispensable for the due attainment of the branches of military science which require a regular course of study and experiment." ■ The four legacy armed services each have a specific domain of fighting: Land (Army), sea (Navy), air (Air Force), and amphibious zones (Marines). A project to re-focus the Marine Corps on that amphibious mission has stirred some controversy, but they're ditching the tanks and spending more time in the water. The new Space Force narrows the focus of the Air Force to the airspace closer to the ground. Taken altogether, the defense posture of the Pentagon is taking an increasingly precise look at where each fighting force conducts its operations. ■ None of these places -- space, air, land, sea, or beaches -- fits neatly with the digital world. And yet cyberspace is exactly where an increasing amount of conflict is taking place. Some of the bad things that are happening are criminal (like the ransomware attack on the meatpacker JBS). Some of them are military-driven (like Russia's attack on Ukraine's power grid). Some affect highly sensitive areas that have clear-cut national security implications (like the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack). Still others are self-evidently motivated by the strategic interests of state-level adversaries (like China's repeated assaults on databases containing data on Federal employees). ■ It is exactly because the cyber domain is complicated -- not only from a technological standpoint, but from legal and strategic viewpoints as well -- that the United States really ought to have a distinct defense branch commissioned explicitly to protect the country's security interests in that realm. To borrow from Madison's words, we need to regularize both "study and experiment". If foreign governments were facilitating, say, bands of airborne pirates parachuting into the country to rob American companies at gunpoint, one might reasonably expect us to treat it like a national-security risk. What's happening is, functionally, little different. ■ It has long been noted that one of the issues that hamstrings our cyber defense is that it's really hard for the Pentagon to compete with the private sector for computing talent. A different kind of workforce approach is needed -- so different from the incumbent service branches that it has to stand on its own. ■ A stand-alone Cyber Force would encourage the cultivation of a more comprehensive way of looking at cyber defense -- complete with theories of conflict, rules of engagement, approaches to recruitment, skill development, and even a distinct "look and feel". And perhaps even more than in the other branches, the need for a respected, research-focused, state-of-the-art training academy would be a distinctive tool for a Cyber Force to advance the national defense. ■ Any sound analysis of the future would have to conclude that the high-technology domains are going to play a more significant role in the conflicts to come than they have in the past. And just as code-breaking was a profoundly powerful weapon in WWII, so will the technological advantages we can accrue in cyber warfare. We shouldn't be afraid to put a name and a mission statement on what we know is inevitably going to be needed next.



June 6, 2021

News "My mother, the nun"

A man offers a digital eulogy for his mother, a 92-year-old cloistered nun who joine the Carmelite order at age 61. What a story. And yes, cloistered, contemplative orders really still are a thing.



June 5, 2021

Health The pandemic that should stir a revolution in ventilation

The end of the Covid-19 pandemic is in sight -- at least for some countries. But even if vaccines are getting the virus under control, we ought to be paying more attention to ventilation -- to help ward off the next pandemic, and to make us generally healthier. For instance: That drowsy feeling you often get from sitting in a lecture? It might be the unavoidable byproduct of carbon dioxide building up due to inadequate ventilation. ■ Related: We're letting a huge opportunity go to waste if the pandemic doesn't lead to better understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses.

Computers and the Internet Ancient wisdom, applicable to modern social media

Maimonides: "Man is created in such a way that his character traits and actions are influenced by his neighbors and friends, and he follows the custom of the people in his country. Therefore a man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions, and to keep away from the wicked, who walk in darkness, so that he avoids learning from their actions." In other words: Mute the bad people on Twitter and Facebook and follow all of the good ones you can find.



June 4, 2021

Iowa Tolerance is a good word

Traveling the length of Ashworth Road in West Des Moines, you'll pass a lot of churches. A whole lot. Open Bible, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Latter-Day Saints, Lutheran (Missouri Synod), United Methodist, Community of Christ, Baptist, Roman Catholic, non-denominational, and Lutheran (ELCA). All up and down a single street, about five and a half miles long. Not far away are a wide variety of other Christian and non-Christian places of worship, as well. ■ Despite all of the (sometimes significant) sectarian differences among them, the churches and the worshippers who belong to them relate quite peacefully with one another. The Catholic and ELCA churches have to work a bit to harmonize their service times on Christmas and Easter so as not to cause gridlock at their shared traffic light. The Episcopalian and Presbyterian congregations have a community garden they tend in common. Yet despite the well-worn history of religious disputes as the root of countless violent conflicts, nothing of the sort is on display along Ashworth Road. ■ That peaceful detente -- on matters involving people's most sacred beliefs -- is a real contrast with the way some people choose to engage with other Americans who disagree with them on things like politics. Imagine -- there are people who are willing to make death threats over mask mandates, brandish a rifle at a protest march, and participate in a violent riot in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol building, all while their fellow Iowans are content to peacefully live in mutual tolerance of different opinions on matters like the salvation of the soul. ■ Given the long history of religious violence in the world, it seems strange to look to people's faith lives as a model for how we ought to be de-escalating the intensity of our political feelings. Yet that's certainly one place we ought to look, particularly as many people are bundling their media consumption habits with their religious and political beliefs. ■ The central problem is that people are wrapping their identities around messages like "But he fights!" and "There should be no billionaires", instead of grounding their identities in the communities around us. Pugilistic slogans are no substitute for civic belonging. ■ Political tolerance ought to be easier to achieve than religious tolerance, and it should be easier to identify peacefully with one's neighbors than with artificial and nationalized voter archetypes. If we find that kind of neighborly peaceful tolerance hard to achieve, that's a real problem for our souls.

News Watch "The Tank Man"

Worth re-watching every June 4th. A very well-produced documentary, even 15 years after its first airing. It's extremely hard to fathom what it takes for a single person to stand in front of a tank, daring its driver to take his life. ■ Also worth noting: What has become of the anniversary vigil in Hong Kong.

Humor and Good News How the "Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup" happened

The SNL sketch that launched a cult following that even includes a Twitter account is one of the finest things to have come from the Fleetwood Mac oeuvre, and that's no knock on the performers behind "Little Lies".

News Are America's European allies too weak?

In theory, at least, it should be good for the U.S. to have like-minded allies who are strong, while our more authoritarian rivals look for client and vassal states who are weak. Have to put that theory into practice, though.

Computers and the Internet Why not a "Site Commodore"?

Why did the progenitors of the WWW go with the language of Dungeons and Dragons instead of obscure Commonwealth military titles? Being a "site commodore" would have been much cooler than a "webmaster". Or, if in the nascent days of the web we were still too close to the Commodore 64 to have recycled that title, what about "Digital Fieldmarshal" instead?



June 3, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Photos of Tiananmen Square from 1989

Photos #16 and #17 in this series are particularly haunting.

Weather and Disasters A much-less-active-than-normal spring severe weather season

One of those rare times when being in the red on a weather map is a really good thing.

News Retired Army Lt. Col. gets mic cut as he describes history of Memorial Day

Barnard Kemter's microphone may have been cut in the moment at an Ohio Memorial Day ceremony, but his words are being amplified by the news coverage -- and that's a good thing. We can make our future better by choosing to study the full spectrum of our past.

Broadcasting Manuela Saragosa leaves BBC to do podcasts

Sign of the times: Highly-regarded BBC radio journalist leaving that august institution to become a podcast boss. She's not leaving for some fly-by-night operation -- it is the Financial Times, after all -- but talent like Saragosa doesn't move into a job with lower status. This reveals quite a lot about just how much the status of on-demand listening has risen: It now represents at least a lateral move (if not an upgrade) from working at the BBC World Service.


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June 2, 2021

Socialism Doesn't Work Changing course after hitting the iceberg

China's Communist Party -- which cannot be practically distinguished from its civil government -- has changed course on the country's notorious and odious One Child Per Family past and will now "allow" families to have as many as three children. The country had a one-child limit starting more than 40 years ago, then relaxed the rules to permit two children in 2016. ■ This abrupt course change is yet another data point that runs contrary (and massively so) to the "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" trope. Any demographic trend evident now surely was obvious five years ago. And any trend that was obvious five years ago undoubtedly could have been noticed fifteen years prior to that. From a perspective of mere government competence, the failure to project how badly this would play out should be profoundly embarrassing to the authorities. Assuming families immediately went out and conceived second children upon the change in 2016, it's going to be the middle of the next decade before those "extra" children start to have families of their own. ■ So, the demographic problem was easily foreseeable. But the idea that a government has any say whatsoever in the number of children people are "allowed" to have is so hard to fathom that it's difficult to sustain the kind of gobsmacked outrage that it truly deserves. The original appalling policy was in place for so long that it largely became background noise. ■ Yet, we should try to remain outraged. We're not talking about something beneficial (like a government insisting on compulsory education for children). We're not talking about something benign (like a government prohibiting parents from giving their children obscene names). We're talking about a policy backed by law, and enforced with government-mandated abortions and deprivation of second children's legal right to exist. ■ This isn't even to mention the obvious first-order consequence of China's government-imposed family limits: A wildly out-of-balance gender imbalance. The country's sex ratio has resulted in 34 million more men than women. Even in a country with a population of more than a billion, that's more than just rounding error: It's a population of "excess" males that outnumbers all the people in Texas. ■ But the fundamental problem here isn't even the awful consequences of the policy. It's the assumption that such a policy has any legitimacy in the first place. Having a child is a profoundly hopeful act. It is also one that belongs, in the most intimate way, to the individuals involved. Deeply embedded within the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is the right to create life itself. Nothing could demonstrate a more obvious disregard for the sanctity of the individual human life than a policy mercilessly enforcing limits on the number of individuals who are recognized with a "right" to exist. ■ It wasn't what Gerald Ford was talking about, but his words apply: "[A] government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." Ford was talking about material wants. In this case, the rulers of China have a government big enough to take away everything their people might want. On their behalf, and on behalf of the inherent rights of human beings everywhere, we should look with certain disgust upon the very assumption that government has any such power in the first place to tell people how many children they are allowed to have -- whether three, two, one, or any at all.

News On getting reviewed

Any review is ultimately based upon tastes, and no two people have the same ones. A critic whose opinions the reader always finds wrong could be just as helpful as one whose opinions the reader always shares. As long as the critic is transparent about the "why" of the review, even bad critiques can be good.

Humor and Good News The world needs more googly eyes

A little levity wouldn't hurt us

Business and Finance America's two most significant economic inputs

WiFi and caffeine

Business and Finance SEC says Tesla doesn't monitor Elon Musk's tweets adequately

New dream job: Get paid $200,000 a year to shadow Elon Musk and slap the phone right out of his hand every time he starts to compose a tweet. Nobody in modern business history has needed a trusted sidekick more than Elon Musk. He really does need someone who could literally and figuratively slap the phone right out of his hands -- a Charlie Munger to his Warren Buffett.



June 1, 2021

Threats and Hazards When propaganda turns against its own country

Fox News host Tucker Carlson says "our military at times does not seem interested in protecting the country", declaring that "a big change" and a "real story". It's evident that Carlson's toxic schtick isn't about informing or edifying his viewers, but about attaching himself to a nationalist-populist movement for personal gain. For now, it's monetary -- but it may well turn political, since some of the things he says are inexplicable except as dog whistles. Carlson has attached himself to the former President's cult of personality in a noticeable way. The only good thing about unprincipled cults of personality is that they inevitably collapse in waves of purity tests and loyalty purges. Surely if gasbags within the cult are taking aim at the military itself, they can't be far from purging and counter-purging one another.

Computers and the Internet Footnotes

Everyone says they want an edit button for Twitter. A footnote button would be much more useful.

Threats and Hazards China flagrantly breaches Malaysian airspace with 16 military aircraft

Lee Kuan Yew was prescient when he said, "[China] will make a fateful decision -- whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence...or to continue as a good international citizen..." It just would have been nice if China's rulers would have picked "good international citizen" instead.

News Some idiot bought an "invisible sculpture" for $18,300

"Hello, Jake from State Farm? Yes, I'd like to talk about my $500,000 homeowners policy. You're never going to believe what happened to my $499,995 collection of invisible sculptures..."



May 31, 2021

The United States of America Honoring Memorial Day by becoming smarter voters

Unlike other holidays, Memorial Day isn't one we "celebrate". Instead, it is proper that we honor it. And one of the ways it is most deserving of honor is for ordinary Americans to demonstrate that they don't just know how to say "Thank you for your service" or remove their caps for the national anthem, but to behave as responsible trustees of the world's most awesome military force. ■ One of the things the Defense Department does admirably is to place a focus (even if imperfect) on Professional Military Education (PME). Certainly some people pay it only lip service, but there are true believers out there who feel a deep responsiblity for the quality of the education their people receive. As James Mattis put it, "The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience) -- that is the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences -- generally a better way to do business -- especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men." ■ Fundamentally, a responsibility to learn about the armed forces rests with voters, too. Not in the same way or to the same depth as it belongs to, say, career officers. But there is a responsibility. The military answers ultimately to Congress, and Congress to the people. The people need to have a sense of how to commit military forces responsibly and thoughtfully so that we avoid those gravest "consequences of incompetence" that Mattis warns about. ■ There will be times when a small commitment of force today may stave off a great escalation of violence tomorrow. There will be other times when a cause is so hopeless that the potential casualties may be unlimited. Still other cases will be dominated not by the actual use of force but the mere credible threat of it. The choice to commit military force to a situation is ultimately a political one under our system of government, and it rests on the shoulders of responsible voters to know something -- anything -- about their armed forces beyond one-line political slogans about ending "endless wars" and jingoistic pop-country songs about kicking butts while waving the flag. ■ Fortunately, we have access to more high-quality Voter Military Education than ever before. We have access to the professional reading lists recommended by leadership in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps (the Space Force may still need some time to incubate its own list). ■ We have free access to websites publishing thoughtful and challenging materials on conflict, like The Strategy Bridge, Texas National Security Review, Defense One, Task and Purpose, and War on the Rocks. ■ There are think tanks and research centers devoted to national security, many of which share their work on a daily basis, including the Modern War Institute the American Enterprise Institute the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for a New American Security -- to name only a few. ■ And there are podcasts galore (like "Thank You For Your Service" and "Rational Security") and an abundance of qualified national-security commentators on Twitter -- many of whom hold thoughtful conversations with one another, engaging in a necessarily robust debate. The daily ins and outs of military-related news are covered by the Military Times, Stars and Stripes, Defense News, and the Defense Department's own media organization. ■ The conscientious voter doesn't have to follow every source of defense and national-security-related news. But at least some of that news ought to be a component of a balanced media and information diet. The latest Defense Department budget proposal is $753 billion -- no mere drop in the bucket for a country with an annual GDP of $21 trillion. Knowing how and why those resources will be spent is a basic act of civic responsibility. ■ But even more significnatly -- and particularly so on Memorial Day -- good citizenship requires informed engagement because it is ultimately the duty of voters to send the signals that tell political representatives how and when to commit living, breathing servicemembers to a task. Doing that wisely is a solemn responsibility. To borrow again from James Mattis: "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." Just as commanding generals should take that duty seriously, so should anyone who casts a ballot. Voter Military Education should be an expectation of us all, not just those wearing stars on their shoulders.

News Let's talk about those 1970s-era safety standards

As countries grow richer, the people can afford (and begin to demand) better environmental, health, and safety standards. The United States of the Carter Era was a poorer place than the United States today, which is why classic photos of now-obviously unsafe behavior is so jarring. Lawyers and insurance companies change these things quietly but forcefully. It's mainly the development of civil institutions that leads to standards taking hold. Institutional knowledge and memory are massively important to living in a safer world. Safety is defined by what the formal and informal rules tolerate. Decisions that were tolerated just a couple of generations ago look totally unreal today.

Computers and the Internet Kids these days...

...probably will never know the joy of reading a computer program in print (or even written by hand) and then making it work by turning it into digital code

Aviation News Is there a cooler job than astronaut?

And: Do you suppose there are diminishing marginal returns to additional turns in orbit?



May 29, 2021

News Should locals resent it when kids graduate and leave?

Graduation season is surfacing a certain traditionalist viewpoint that seems to resent the idea of paying to educate children who will depart for greener pastures. Besides the peculiar supposition that there's a viable alternative (should people be tied to their family land forever?), the very idea that taxpayers should resent the cost of educating the community's children is itself contrary to the long tradition of expecting to see one's offspring live healthier and wealthier than their predecessors. ■ John Stuart Mill wrote that "[T]o bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society", and he was right. Having children may obviously be a response to our basic instincts as animals -- but it is also a deeply moral act. ■ Socially, we've chosen (wisely) to make the education of children compulsory. A child is born into a family, but that child is also part of a community -- one that has a duty to preserve good things for the future. Part of cleaning up after ourselves (one of the basic duties of American citizenship) is to prepare the best possible intellectual foundation for our successors, whether they're from our own blood or not. That means paying for things like schools. ■ It also means expecting those schools to perform well. We shouldn't mistake "public funding" for a good or service with the insistence that it also means "government delivery". We should have very high expectations of schools, and we shouldn't be afraid of either reform or competition, where appropriately regulated. But we should have those high expectations in the sole interest of the children, not of the local economy. ■ Who knows whether a graduate will stay behind, move away, or perhaps both (in either order)? The community doesn't pay for compulsory education for its own benefit; it pays for the benefit of the children. Enlightened local leadership often figures out that good schools can substantially enhance the community's economic standing -- either as a magnet for parents seeking good places to live, or as an endogenous driver of growth. ■ But basic primary and secondary education isn't first and foremost about the benefit of the present and near-future community. It's about the well-being of the children themselves. We clean up pollution not because we're going to breathe the polluted air or drink the contaminated water (at least not generally), but because we have a moral duty not to send those contaminants downwind and downstream to our neighbors. ■ Similarly, we don't educate children because we expect it to boost the local economy over the coming decade, but because having brought children into the world, we have a duty to "clean up after ourselves" by ensuring that those children become adults who can support themselves, experience the joys and mysteries of life, and behave like thoughtful citizens and voters, wherever they choose to reside. Like air and water, our offspring may end up in lots of places far from where we deposited them. ■ Americans move measurably less than we used to, but we still move around a lot -- to the tune of about 10% of us a year. We are intermixed quite a lot, and on that count alone we owe it to our fellow Americans not to "pollute" the population with mis-, mal-, or under-educated offspring. But even more than that, we have the duty to send people out into the world who are prepared to live full and meaningful lives -- even if they should move abroad. The appropriate financial return on investment for a community to expect from educating its children is zero. Paradoxically, though, the community that educates them well should not be surprised if that success itself pays off in accounting terms down the road. It just shouldn't be the basis for the investment.

Threats and Hazards Remains of more than 200 children found at Canadian school

Flat-out shocking. The site was a "residential school", where indigenous children were sent (from 1890 until 1969) to be separated from their families and detached from their culture.

Health Stunning Covid-19 vaccine performance in one chart

Iowa's number of daily positive tests is now averaging well below 200 per day, and the cumulative number of positive tests on a 14-day rolling basis has fallen below 2000. For a state with a population of 3.2 million people, the virus is being stopped cold in its tracks. There is no denying it: The vaccines are amazingly effective.

Agriculture The rose is authentically a "knockout"

The color intensity of the Knock Out rose variety is quite stunning



May 28, 2021

Business and Finance You don't have to live in an apartment to favor building more multifamily housing

A person's individual preferences may well evolve with time and market conditions. Sometimes apartments and other medium-density options are either uncompetitively priced or in such a shortage as to be unavailable to the potential tenant or buyer. There's nothing wrong with someone recognizing that fact -- even if they're homeowners in a single-family dwelling -- and advocating for more of those options to exist.

Threats and Hazards When the only seasoning you need is salmonella

It's obvious that some videos -- like one depicting the making of a dish involving frozen macaroni, ground beef, and biscuit dough -- are posted mainly for the shock effect, but at some point, you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask: Are gullible people going to get food poisoning because of my clickbait?

News Delay the belay for today, okay?

President Biden visits a climbing center

Threats and Hazards Man's video-recorded attacks on 2-year-old child merit unforgiving punishment

In principle, the death penalty is too extreme a punishment for any crime. But if a man hangs a child, causing the child to lose consciousness, and records the act on video, it's hard to summon a reason why that perpetrator should be permitted to live.

Iowa Solar farming in eastern Iowa

A power company wants to replace a retired nuclear plant with a solar farm, and many of the neighbors are...stridently against it, apparently.

Threats and Hazards Member of Congress treats 2nd Amendment as remedy for the 1st

"If a man does not have an ideal and try to live up to it, then he becomes a mean, base, and sordid creature, no matter how successful." - Theodore Roosevelt



May 27, 2021

Computers and the Internet What hath artificial intelligence wrought?

Decide for yourself whether this is a mere idle thought: There exists a really fascinating platform called Aiva that generates original music using artificial intelligence. It is targeted at those who need to compose large quantities of soundtrack music -- especially for video productions. Some of what it produces now is surprisingly appealing to the ear. With some human nudges, the user can make some of its compositions very good indeed. Because it's based on AI, it gets better with time. ■ We are likely not that far from a time when the Aiva AI won't need many human nudges to come up with some compositions that are really outstanding. Other programmers working in other labs are undoubtedly coming up with similar technologies, too. ■ This is more than merely putting a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters for a thousand years and expecting them to compose Shakespeare. Artificial intelligence, by definition, is supposed to learn how to work better and better. ■ Here's where it gets weird: Given enough time and training input, it's not impossible to imagine that someday an AI could produce the Singular Best Piece of Music Ever Composed. Seems like a stretch now, but it's no longer an impossibility. ■ Obviously, calling a piece of music the "singular best" is a subjective label -- but by the same token, it wouldn't be hard to find fairly broad agreement among experts that some music is objectively better than other music -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is objectively better than the Kars 4 Kids jingle, and anyone who says otherwise is a dolt. So for the sake of argument, let's suspend our disbelief just a little and suppose that a specific individual piece could in fact be named the best. If it helps, pretend that it's merely the best in a particular genre. ■ Suppose, then, that an individual user of Aiva (or a comparable AI tool) clicks "compose" and the AI creates the song, but then the user never actually listens to it, never downloads it, and simply clicks "delete". This means it is possible that someone could entirely unintentionally and unwittingly destroy the Best Song Ever Composed. ■ Certainly, great works are created and lost all the time. There are tremendous stories of professional musicians going to great lengths to try to capture a fleeting moment in song -- Prince built an extensive recording studio to capture those moments of inspiration. "Gimme Shelter" was recorded in the middle of the night. Paul McCartney heard "Yesterday" in a dream. ■ Now, if you were to imagine the Best Song Ever in a dream, then you may not be able to record it anywhere or share it with anyone. But at least you would have dreamt it and experienced it, if only subconsciously. But if an AI composes the song but a human deletes it without ever listening, then it was never heard at all -- an existence even more ethereal than a dream, since it in fact existed in the known, conscious world, but was never experienced. ■ It is hard not to find it peculiar that, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is now technologically possible to create and then accidentally destroy a phenomenal piece of art without ever knowing that it existed. This isn't just a question of "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it" -- it's a matter of something potentially perfect being created and then never being replicated (because, ultimately, each and every AI-generated song ought to be in some way unique). ■ This bizarre ability to potentially destroy something amazing without ever knowing it existed (beyond, perhaps, reading a file name) seems almost worse than the problem of works created and recorded in the analog world that may not ever make the leap into the digital domain. At least there are conscientious people working at projects like the Internet Archive who are trying to rescue analog materials and digitize them so that they aren't accidentally lost. ■ Historians look to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria as one of humanity's great unforced errors -- a colossal waste that almost certainly did some measurable damage to the progress of human knowledge. How strange it is, indeed, that anyone with access to our increasingly powerful tools of artificial intelligence may entirely without intention and without malice destroy great works with no more thought than a keystroke.

Computers and the Internet Where the cloud meets bricks and mortar

On the east side of the Des Moines metro, Facebook is going to build its 9th and 10th buildings at a vast data center. Your files have to be stored somewhere, you know.

Health The ethics of dropping out of a vaccine trial

An interesting perspective on being a trial participant for an unproven vaccine after proven vaccines become available: "What if you stay in the placebo group and you get infected and you infect somebody else and that person dies?" Let us be perfectly clear: These kinds of conflicts are exactly why people with a strong orientation towards the practical and scientific schools of thought need to be trained in the "soft" sciences of the humanities, and why people who study the humanities need to be science-literate. We have to be able to communicate across conventional boundaries if we are to have any hope of addressing complex issues.



May 26, 2021

Threats and Hazards Soldier featured in recruitment video gets more public applause

Sen. Ted Cruz invoked the word "emasculated" to compare an American soldier (a woman) with Russian soldiers (men). It's incredibly childish, particularly since the American soldier is actively serving her country. The roid-rage, faux-masculine routine is an idiotic ruse to fall for. A 21st Century defense policy has to look for intelligence, grit, and originality without making lazy assumptions about the physical package that will contain them. ■ James Mattis once said, "How can we coach anything if we don't know a lot more than just the tactics, techniques, and procedures?" When people like Sen. Cruz talk about the military as if it is reducible to how much weight a person can lift rather than how well they can learn to execute complex tasks, they denigrate the professionalized armed forces upon which we depend. ■ Trench warfare went out with WWI. The need for sophisticated fighting forces was obvious certainly no later than WWII, of which Dwight Eisenhower wrote, "Thorough technical, psychological, and physical training is one protection and one weapon that every nation can give to its soldiers before committing them to battle, but since war always comes to a democracy as an unexpected emergency, this training must be largely accomplished in peace." Note the order of Eisenhower's words: Technical and psychological training were listed first, and it's unlikely that was a mere accident. ■ It's odd to cling so tightly to this false equivalence among masculinity, physical strength, and perceived military dominance (especially so for a United States Senator amplifying Russian propaganda). There certainly are people who are made uncomfortable by celebrities like Demi Lovato and Elliot Page, who have publicly defied conventional gender orientations this year. Some of those people may even be elected officials. Their discomfort may even be authentic. But that discomfort -- however personal or sincere -- doesn't have a place in public policy. ■ And that is where the performative, faux-masculine displays get into trouble. There's a whole lot of play-acting going on among people who owe it to their fellow Americans to behave better. Patriotic men and women alike owe everyone else their best judgment, their temperance, and their willingness to engage complexity with humility. Jack Bauer slapping a terrorist is fiction: The real-life CIA needs female leaders and male ones not for their physiques but for their brains. Osama bin Laden was hunted down by a female-dominated team of analysts. ■ Our adversaries can have all the nonsense displays of muscle-bound aggression fan service they want. If it gives them a false sense of security, then so much the better. Last year's hand-to-hand combat in the Himalayas was extraordinary expressly because it was so out of place. The martial advantage of today and tomorrow comes from putting brains to work using tools. Little or nothing about that combination depends upon gender: We should be thinking of how we could double our supply of great leaders by looking not just for the next George Washington, George C. Marshall, or George S. Patton -- but for Georgia Washington, Georgia C. Marshall, and Georgia S. Patton, too. ■ Let us praise people for the qualities they bring to their work and the character they demonstrate on and off the job. Let us demand that our policymakers steer clear of pointlessly adhering to notions of security that were already outdated 80 years ago. And particularly as we observe Memorial Day, let us have sufficient regard for our armed forces that we not only expect them to demonstrate professionalism but that we treat them with professional regard in return -- seeing that it's not the hairstyles that matter to our national safety but the minds underneath.

Threats and Hazards Can democracy be saved in Hong Kong?

A depressing take -- more so because it's hard to think of a counterargument: "I think that at this point, the political system in Hong Kong is beyond, really, any sense of representativeness, beyond any sense of redemption. Democrats participating in this system would indeed be, essentially, window dressing"

Agriculture Viewer discretion advised

The cottonwood trees are getting a little frisky

Weather and Disasters Ugly tornado outbreak in western Nebraska

Six unique but interlocked tornado warning polygons in the southwest corner of the state



May 25, 2021

Science and Technology Slowing down to speed up

One of the big trends in American transportation engineering for the last several years has been the push to replace four-way stops and signalized intersections with roundabouts. With a roundabout, the driver accepts a certain predictable slowdown in speed in exchange for knowing they won't have to wait for seemingly interminable lengths at a stop. Everyone gets a turn, often without having to stop at all. ■ The United States is a peculiar place for transportation -- compared with many of the European countries we consider our peers, we're positively empty. Germany has 6.6 times as many people per square mile as the US. The UK has 7.6 times as many. And that's not an effect attributable solely to Alaska. Giant swathes of the United States have fewer than 20 people per square mile. Our major cities are few and far between. ■ We have a spectacular Interstate highway system to connect us, but road trips still take a long time. Since we don't have high-speed passenger rail outside of the Acela Corridor, Americans trying to cover long distances quickly turn to air travel. ■ But one of the big headaches afflicting both of our predominant methods of travel is weather. Winter storms shut down our Interstate thoroughfares at least a few times most years. And weather is the cause of generally around 40% of all delay-minutes in air travel each year. Yet passenger planes still fly at hundreds of miles an hour, when they're in the air. Would high-speed rail be immune to those problems? Could slowing down (versus air travel) lead, on average, to speeding up? ■ One widely-cited 2019 study conducted by Ohio State University researchers using data from transportation routes in China concluded that "In general, HSR [high-speed rail] is less vulnerable than aviation to most severe weather events." In Japan, noted for its exceptional high-speed service, "Weather impacts are essentially 'engineered out' of many railway networks". ■ The British rail service Network Rail points to wind-blown debris as their most significant weather impact, but notes that it generally takes "extreme" weather to really have a major impact on service. And in Sweden, quite a lot of effort has gone into maintaining high-speed rail service in long, harsh winters. Overall, European authorities appear to be counting on trains to be more resistant to both severe weather and climate changes than aviation. ■ Domestically, the Acela is sometimes slowed or scaled back due to winter weather. Ice storms in particular may be problematic for rail service, but in general, weather is not a main problem Amtrak faces. Heat, wind, and flooding appear to be the biggest weather factors causing trouble for existing US railroads. But, given the reliability of rail networks elsewhere, that may reflect a consequence of American behavior rather than inherent risk, suggesting that engineering and investment may make weather a much more "solvable" issue should we someday choose to go the bullet-train route. ■ If nothing else, high-speed rail elsewhere appears to put competitive pressure on airlines to improve their on-time performance -- at least for travel across short- and mid-range distances. And at speeds of 120 mph or greater, those trains would have a substantial inherent advantage over individual vehicles traveling at freeway speeds -- and if they can be more reliable during severe and winter weather conditions, they should have even more of a leg up. ■ The economics of rail and the wide distribution of American population centers pose substantial obstacles to the most optimistic visions of developing a national high-speed rail network. But if the proponents really want to make their case stick, they may well want to steer clear of romantic visions of rail travel and dial down the talk about its environmental benefits (even if passenger rail really is more efficient than other modes) and instead focus on service reliability. That's a message that might really stick the next time a blizzard in Chicago, a storm in Houston, or a computer glitch affecting Atlanta and Miami sends ripples through the country's air network or even brings it to a standstill. Going slower than an airplane -- but without the slowdowns -- could be a way of speeding up.

Threats and Hazards Belarussian hijacking victim has probably been tortured

And that may have coerced a forced "confession" out of him. Remember John McCain's words: "The moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history of our efforts to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation."

News "No former U.S. president has ever been charged with a crime."

But there's a grand jury looking at what the Trump Organization has been up to

Health "Hip implants literally look like something Fisher Price dreamed up"

Ashley Holub's clever observation brings up a good point: A lot of Fisher Price toys make it through multiple generations of childhood play, so perhaps the resemblance is a good thing

Broadcasting Five AM radio stations give up their licenses

Easy money propped up radio station valuations for a long time, but take a look at this development. It's not necessarily a trend...yet.

Threats and Hazards Insurance company reveals how it will use super-snooping to set rates

China's "social credit" system could not be reached for comment.



May 24, 2021

Science and Technology Are UFOs visiting Earth?

In a sign that the news may be slowly returning to normal, another UFO craze seems to have landed in the media -- particularly in light of hints that a Pentagon report to Congress is about to reveal evidence not previously revealed in public. After the last year, "UFOs could be real" seems almost refreshing as a headline. ■ It seems virtually certain that there is alien life out there in the universe. We know of at least 4,000 exoplanets and the number grows all the time. Surely we're barely in the infancy of being able to count. If there truly are 1024 stars in the Universe, then even if only one in a million had a planet, then there would be 1018 planets. That's an unfathomably large number all on its own, and it's surely a wild underestimate. The odds alone make it virtually certain that life has emerged at least one other time somewhere out there. ■ But -- even if the likelihood is great that other planets exist and that at least some of them contain life, it seems far less likely that any such life would expend the tremendous resources necessary just to come here and check us out. Traveling from even some of the nearest stars would require considerable resources in terms of energy and time. ■ We measure space distances in light years, and so far, we are profoundly behind the curve in figuring out how to make solid objects go nearly as fast as the speed of light. If any life from elsewhere has made it here, it either tapped into rules we're profoundly incapable of understanding -- or it buckled in for a long, long trip. In human terms, we're looking at measuring those distances in generations. ■ Sure, we're confined by our own thinking about how quickly time passes or how long a life might be, but the distances required to hop to any known planets outside our solar system would still seem long to life forms that had life expectancies ten times ours. And certain non-biological limitations -- like our inability to find anything that travels faster than the speed of light -- suggests that it would take an extraordinary confluence of circumstances to warrant sending any living beings here. ■ Even if an alien experienced an Earth year the same way we experienced an Earth minute (like speeding up our sense of time by a factor of 525,600), then sending a message on a round trip to even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, would still feel like an 8-minute lag between call and response. Not to project human values on hypothetical alien beings, but that would seem prohibitively isolating -- again, unless we're missing something quite extreme in either the laws of physics or the relative experience of time. ■ We shouldn't dismiss the possibility that intelligent alien life could send unpiloted vehicles across time and space to conduct investigations and report back. We fired off Voyager to go as far as possible and send back reports, too. But do consider that as Voyager 1 and 2 have gone interstellar, a bunch of their instruments have been shut down just to save power. Things could be entirely different in an alien technological world, but they would need to have cracked some pretty incredible limits to have the technology to go long distances, remain in contact with home, move around freely while checking out Earth, and then presumably move along to visit somewhere else or return home. ■ It's neat to imagine that we might be important enough to merit a visit from outer space. And it's statistically logical to conclude that there's probably something out there. But whatever unknown phenomena we encounter in our skies, we should likely hold back from assuming it's alien life coming for a visit.

Threats and Hazards Is this not terrorism?

An Irish-owned plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus over a fake bomb threat, just so that a private citizen could be arrested. Is this not terrorism? ■ This much should be clear: Starting a fight aboard an airplane with the express intent of forcing an emergency landing would be grounds for arrest and prosecution virtually anywhere. Using fighter jets to force that landing has the clear hallmarks of an act of state aggression. And the target of the incident was an individual whose capture was motivated by politics. ■ Terrorism, by definition, is the use of violent or dangerous acts to achieve political ends. If this event in Belarus doesn't fit the definition, it's hard to understand why. And in this case, it doesn't take much imagination to say it was committed against not only a Belarussian citizen, but that two NATO member states (Greece and Lithuania) and one neutral but NATO-affiliated state (Ireland). So in State Department terms, the United States ought to be interested, alarmed, and prepared to respond. ■ But getting the American public to care may be an uphill climb. Clear violations of international law aren't always easy topics to pitch, and we're pretty good at giving up interest when the cognitive load of a story seems too large. This case is a matter that appears to require some understanding of civil aviation law, international airspace classifications, and the intricacies of domestic politics in a country where the language is written in Cyrillic and a dictator has been in power since 1994. Not fertile ground for sparking interest or close attention. ■ And yet, it is a flashpoint like this that can easily set the direction of the international order for a decade or more to come. Are we to become a more open world or a more closed one? If a person isn't safe going from country "A" to country "B" without being hijacked and kidnapped by the government of country "C", it's most assuredly trending more closed -- unless we do something about it. ■ Maybe, as an American, you should care because you want to take the forbidden step of criticizing China's government in a tweet saying that you stand with Hong Kong or the Uighurs. Think they're not tracking outsiders' behavior? Don't forget that China has hacked the personal data of virtually every American adult. Don't think they're not trying to use databases of personal information to influence or pressure outsiders -- it is 100% clear they already are. Governments around the world take their cues from what others get away with doing. ■ Maybe, as an American, you want to be able to travel freely without fearing your own kidnapping. You may not be a dissident and you may not even be thinking of traveling abroad anytime soon. But the rules enforced now -- or left unenforced -- have long-lasting consequences. We still remember the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, which resulted in the murder of an American tourist. Whose passports have protective value -- if any do at all in a world where governments become the hijackers? ■ Or maybe, as an American, you find reason to care because you remember that we are just 4% of the global population. A tiny fraction. A powerful one, for sure, but not vast in number among the total of our co-Earthlings. And if we're going to share it peacefully, we have to do it with the help of rules. In the words of John McCain and his writing partner Mark Salter, "We need friends in the world, and they need us. The bell tolls for us, my friends. Humanity counts on us, and we ought to take measured pride in that." ■ Perhaps if this were spun as a television drama, it would raise the right amount of alarm: 170 people held hostage on a plane and forced to go to a place where almost none even spoke the language. But we need to care about these issues even when they're only in the abstract. The bully only sees his success and imagines the next step he can take...until the schoolyard defies him.

Weather and Disasters Science in action

(Video) A portable radar system captures a tornado from just four miles away. Compelling research, indeed.

Iowa Young Iowa artists get a virtual exhibit

Nice to get to see the work of some talented students from the comfort of home.



May 21, 2021

Broadcasting In praise of the screenwriter

Thanks to the explosive growth in streaming platforms and related options, we went with lightning speed from a world dominated by double-digit choices in cable channels straight to the a video multiverse. We started at "57 channels and nothing's on", blew right past the promised step of 500 channels, and landed in more options than can be accurately counted. ■ Many of these options are worthless or even harmful. One does have the choice to watch an idiot TikTok creator try to remove her own mole, but that isn't going to edify anyone. And the shock-jock appeal of bite-sized content on Snapchat isn't any more enriching. ■ Despite all the unscripted and semi-scripted visual sludge, a sincere and reasonable case can be made that we live in the golden age of television writing. Today's "average" show is often more densely written and more intensely engaging than all but the very best programs of yesteryear. The pace of a "Seinfeld" rerun -- groundbreaking in its own time -- is positively lackadaisical compared with many contemporary programs. ■ Thanks for this is due to the writers. We fawn over the acting, but it's the writing that makes or breaks a piece of work. Screenwriters should have the same kind of celebrity as Hollywood stars. Yet they don't, and it's a mild mystery why. ■ Perhaps the second-screen phenomenon will help, as people are not only free but encouraged to do more than just watch passively. And the emergence of the writers' room Twitter feed opens whole new doors. All due respect still goes to the actors who can breathe life into the characters they are given, but when a show lets us down, we (deservedly) blame the writers. The good ones ought to be celebritized a bit, too.

News Don't remove your own moles

Dermatologists are the ones to call for issues with your skin, not TikTok. Regrettably, someone missed that advice and tried a DIY treatment using a nail drill. Some people are about half a case of Busch Light away from pulling all their own teeth and replacing them with tiger fangs drilled from cubic zirconium and backlit with LEDs.

Business and Finance Keep looking for root causes, even when it hurts

Reporter Natalie Moore of Chicago public radio station WBEZ reveals in a detailed report that differences in the racial composition of Chicago neighborhoods appears to account for a shocking degree of difference in the value of otherwise comparable homes in Chicagoland. ■ The WBEZ reporting builds on academic research on the disparity, but also identifies individual case studies illustrating gaps that just don't make sense: Appraisals that appear to miss the rightful objective value by tens of thousands of dollars, and a gap of hundreds of thousands of dollars between comparable homes found in communities with different racial demographics. ■ Policies that nudge Americans toward thinking of (and treating) their homes as a household's biggest financial asset have a whole lot of pernicious side effects. One of those is to disproportionately depress the wealth of some people based on the color of their skin. It's not right. ■ There are obviously multiple root causes of this problem -- racism clearly being one of them. But we also can't deal honestly with the problem without acknowledging that we've built and preserved a whole lot of public policies that enshrine homeownership as a financial investment and that protect entrenched interests. ■ We treat new housing starts as a key financial metric (in no small part because construction represents more than 4% of the economy). With lots of cheerleaders (and policies like mortgage-interest deductibility), it's no surprise that Americans build bigger homes than most of the rest of the world. ■ Those incentives, though, do some real practical harm to other interests. The mortgage-interest deduction favors families with high incomes and expensive homes. Treating homes as investments to be preserved rather than "machines for living in" (in the words of Le Corbusier) leads to NIMBYism and contributes to obstacles to the supply of middle-density housing (also known as the "missing middle" problem). ■ And there is the undeniable aspect that anyone who owns an asset benefits from the scarcity of that asset (merely as a function of supply and demand), so the roughly 65% of households have an inherent and perverse incentive to oppose the construction of new housing (even if that housing is smaller or cheaper than their own) -- which makes it difficult to forthrightly address homelessness with solutions like the construction of tiny homes. ■ Which loops us back to the problem of neighborhood disparities: Those who benefit from real-estate booms tend to be those who already have wealth. The rich simply do get richer. That widens the financial gap between the housing-wealthy and those who are not, and perversely sets those with meager household wealth and real-estate equity at even greater odds with what might otherwise be desirable policies for expanding housing overall, if those policies enlarge the supply of housing that would compete in the market with the housing other people already own -- and consider their biggest assets. (Households in the bottom half of the US income distribution have a median net housing equity of $89,000 -- versus $346,000 for the top 10%.) ■ Easy solutions are elusive, since these are complex problems with lots of contributing factors. But with median home prices breaking new records, there is no time like the present to examine the root causes of housing inequities and to consider what useful policies might contribute to disentangling the universal need to get people into housing from the good that comes from helping people to increase their household wealth.

Humor and Good News Simone Biles does the seemingly impossible

Her gymnastics displays are as impressive as any touchdown pass you'll ever see. Truly an incredible athlete.

Humor and Good News President Biden's yellow eyes?

Anti-Biden propaganda emanating from China shows the President with glowing yellow eyes. Now you know why he wears those aviator sunglasses all the time.

News Good criticism is an art form

The very best kind of criticism is specific, clear, and supported, without any name-calling or cheap shots at the authors.



May 20, 2021

Computers and the Internet Farewell (or good riddance) to MSIE

Microsoft has made it official: As of June 2022, Internet Explorer is history. While there's very little reason to weep for the soon-to-be-departed browser itself, its sunset does bring to mind what things were like at its dawn. ■ When Microsoft first introduced Internet Explorer (MSIE) in 1995, we were a long way from the contemporary Internet as we know it. 54% of American adults used computers at the time. Not the Internet, not certain devices, not a particular social-media platform: Used computers at all. By comparison, in 2021, 69% of American adults use Facebook, and 81% use YouTube. The percentage who used any online platform in 1995 barely cracked double digits. And, in the words of a 1995 Pew survey, "Only one in five of all online users (3% of Americans) have ever signed onto the Web." It's hard to communicate just how much of a difference just one quarter-century has made. ■ At the time, it was widely heralded as the Information Age. It was more like a little bit of information age. But the prospect, at least, seemed grand. ■ Not long after MSIE came along, it became the subject of a bitter antitrust battle. Indeed, it almost seems quaint now that so much effort went into a battle over browser usage, but it was a massive fight at the time. ■ The battles today are not fought over browser usage, but over issues like user time, attention, and personal data. It's no longer Bill Gates in the hot seat, it's Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. But in the quarter-century of MSIE's existence, something else has happened: We've landed in a confused economic state. Nobody really knows what to call it -- a problem explored at some depth in Ben Sasse's book, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal". His lament is that our inability to name the thing has the same effect as Frankenstein's monster, frightening in its haziness -- in Sasse's words, "A powerful entity with no name is unnerving." ■ What we should call it is the "Teach-Yourself Economy". It's not the arrival of abundant information, per se, that dramatically changes the economy. This may be an "information age", but information alone isn't doing the work. Instead, what makes this era particularly disruptive is that there is a lot to learn, a deficit in our systems and frameworks for teaching it, and a significant amount of turnover in who's doing the work. As a result, there's far more autodidactism in far more places than there ever was before. ■ Periodically, American policymakers have made big moves to help people teach themselves. The most prominent example was the rise of the land-grant university and its offshoot, ag extension. But that model far predates the Internet. Furthermore, it's hard to communicate just how much workplace knowledge and experience is going out the door as the Baby Boom generation retires en masse. The oldest members of Generation X are now in their mid-fifties, which means they are filling senior management and leadership positions -- but the numbers are inescapable: There aren't nearly as many Gen-Xers as Boomers, so even if institutional knowledge was being formally handed down, there are far more prospective teachers than pupils. ■ Thus, of all the skills that might be valuable in the modern world, one that may have the highest payoff is the ability to teach yourself. It might be easy to learn how to do basic activities from a YouTube or TikTok video (and, indeed, satisfying the emerging curiosity gaps is a business model for some) -- but anything teachable in a "I was today years old" tweet or an "adulting" video isn't something the market is eager to compensate highly. The really valuable things that need to be learned are complex and often intersect multiple fields at once. ■ And, paradoxically, the way in which the Internet has developed means that very little of what happened (or even what was written or recorded) prior to about the year 2000 is simply not to be found online -- even if it contains hugely valuable knowledge. Despite the best efforts of the good people of the Internet Archive, there are massive troves of proven, detailed, and authoritative information that are orphaned because they appeared in print instead of pixels. ■ We're fortunate that standards overcame the early browser wars and delivered us from a world in which websites were only functional on Mozilla or MSIE (you can thank the W3C for that). But as we prepare to send Internet Explorer off into that good night, it's worth grappling with the reality that the Teach-Yourself Economy is here to stay. The future belongs not to the country with the cleverest app developers (for their skills come and go), but to the society that learns and adapts quickest without forgetting what its people once knew. We've had enough time being enamored with the technology itself; it's well past time to return it to its proper place as a tool.

News Get a double major

Given the option, it's best to get a double-major in college, preferably from two very different fields. The really interesting stuff happens in the overlaps -- like where lawyers have to figure out statistics or meteorologists have to understand sociology.

The United States of America We need a Madisonian Federalist party

It's a rare political breed, but that shouldn't stop us

Weather and Disasters Most of CONUS under threat of thunderstorms

It's unusual to see that much of the country under one contiguous hazard area

Computers and the Internet In praise of dashes

Alas, em/en dashes don't copy and paste well into HTML, so those who write for digital publication of any sort are often hamstrung by the incompatibility if they're also trying to remain W3C-standards-compliant.

Health Number of US Covid-19 cases drops to lowest in nearly a year

An extraordinary testament to the vaccines.

Threats and Hazards Shaky Chinese skyscraper creates understandable panic

AFP: "Building collapses are not rare in China, where lax construction standards and breakneck urbanisation over recent decades has led to buildings being thrown up in haste." ■ Related: Mario Salvadori's "Why Buildings Stand Up" is a delightful book.



May 19, 2021

Health We're at the pick-your-brand phase of vaccinations

A year ago right now, the world was effectively at a standstill because of a dreadful disease -- one which now you can prevent with extraordinary efficacy by showing up at a walk-in clinic in a hotel lobby in an Iowa college town, where you will be offered your choice of vaccine brands. That's just a gobsmacking turn of events.

Weather and Disasters Twin tornadoes south of the Twin Cities

In Owatonna, to be precise

Iowa Anyone have a discount code for Scythes 'R' Us?

Iowa has been getting almost non-stop rainfall for several days, with more to come. It certainly hasn't remained dry enough for anyone to get around to mowing (at least, not safely).



May 18, 2021

Business and Finance You should probably plan on some inflation

American manufacturers tend to take lots of inputs and turn them into high-value goods, and they're going to have rough waters to navigate for a while to come. Supply chains are backed up and demand is accelerating for a lot of stuff.

Agriculture Iowa's fields are getting planted well ahead of time

USDA: "Eighty-three percent of the [Iowa] soybean crop has been planted, 18 days ahead of the five-year average"

Threats and Hazards An awful, awful litany

48 people -- 48! -- were shot in Chicago over the weekend. One victim is just 2 years old.

News He swings Schrodinger's bat

Peter Hamby: "Albert Pujols is either 25 or 78 years old". However old he really is, people have doubts.

News Morons take mortar to Nimrod Bar

The bomb squad had to be called after some treasure hunters discovered a mortar and brought it to the local bar in Nimrod, Minnesota. Instead of, you know, calling the police when they first uncovered it.



May 17, 2021

Threats and Hazards They're really not thinking 100 years ahead

Most people have probably heard the trope that China's leaders have an inherent advantage over their Western rivals because they supposedly plan 100 years in advance. Former American diplomat Michael Pillsbury claims in a book called "The Hundred-Year Marathon" that China's government has been guided by such a plan since 1949. ■ If such a plan exists beyond rumors, we don't seem to know for certain. It isn't implausible, since there's nothing that necessarily stops any organization (from a government to a business to a church) from writing ultra-long-term plans. In fact, writing an ultra-long-term business plan may well be a very good way to obtain very good results in the medium term, especially if competitors are only thinking about quarterly results. Warren Buffett has long touted that his "favorite holding period is forever", and that's served his corporate fortunes extraordinarily well. ■ Using the long term for strategic advantage was also the express philosophy espoused by Abram Pritzker. He may not be a household name, but he established one of the most spectacular family fortunes of the 20th Century with the mindset that "Any public corporation that seeks vast expansion has a conflict with shareholders, who follow the daily market and are not thinking of future gains." He kept his family interests almost entirely private, and they grew astronomically -- to a fortune worth some $15 billion after just a few decades. But what he wasn't able to stop was a massive family feud that ultimately divided that fortune. ■ So, there is most certainly an advantage to be gained from thinking about the long term, and it's likely that any good plan of that type would also be enhanced by keeping it quiet. Thus it's entirely possible China's government has such a plan. ■ But if they do, it's either being ignored or it isn't being revised in light of new facts. Nothing undermines the trope that "China's leaders think 100 years ahead" like the way they're dismantling Hong Kong. It's short-sighted and insane. Pro-democracy media outlets are being frozen. Candidates for office are being subjected to "patriotism" background checks. Trade unions are being silenced. The regime in Beijing is nakedly grabbing power and, as the world has seen, squelching protest. ■ It's easy to understand why the Communist Party doesn't want to tolerate the freedoms cherished in Hong Kong. It's much harder to understand why they have calculated that they're better off with a neutered Hong Kong than with a vibrant one. ■ If you could simply wave a wand and clone Hong Kong in its entirety, there isn't a sane government on the planet that wouldn't say "We'll take one of those, please". It's a place with nearly $50,000 in annual GDP per capita -- the world's 45th-largest economy (just ahead of Ireland, Peru, and Israel), sitting on just 427 square miles of land and water -- smaller than the city of San Antonio, Texas. It is a (rightly) self-proclaimed international financial center and the world's 7th busiest port city. That's a lot of success for a place with only 7.5 million people. ■ And yet: What China's government is doing to Hong Kong right now is completely and inexcusably nuts -- and obviously wrong. But even if we can't count on their sense of justice, it's downright daffy that they aren't acting in their own self-interest. The UK is trying to welcome hundreds of thousands of people from Hong Kong, and why wouldn't they? Beyond their historical and legal ties to the city, the British at least recognize that the people leaving are a proven resource, not a deadweight. ■ Maybe China has a 100-year plan sitting somewhere gathering dust on a shelf in Zhongnanhai. But plans are only worth the paper on which they are printed, unless they can be turned into action. And any plan that would lead you to knowingly destroy a gem like Hong Kong isn't even worth the paper itself. It's not a 100-year plan: It's a plan for self-destruction.

Health Amateur oncologists should keep their speculation to themselves

Dr. Mark Lewis, a Utah-based oncologist, laments: "Please stop telling my patients they wouldn't have gotten cancer if they'd eaten more vegetables." ■ While most amateur oncologists don't actually mean ill, they reveal a hopeless ignorance of the fact that a normal cancer patient has already been through a psychological ultramarathon of existential angst, self-doubt, and second-guessing about how it happened to them -- long before sharing the news outside of their closest friends and family. ■ That traumatizing psychological aspect of the cancer experience is surely as significant to many people as the physical one: Very few things can compare with cancer for giving a person a one-way ticket straight to deep and sobering questions about the meaning of life and death. ■ Even if the cancer itself comes with favorable statistics -- low mortality, highly successful treatment standards, low rates of recurrence -- that doesn't mean anyone should call it a "good" cancer to get (yes, that happens). Cancer happens to individuals, not to statistics. Real support means caring for the one. And that one may look at a cancer with a 95% five-year survival rate and still be plagued by fears that they'll be the 1 in 20 who will die. ■ Here's a rare bright spot from the Covid-19 pandemic: It may be possible to take the same mRNA technology that delivered incredibly effective vaccines in astonishing time and use it to personalize vaccines to stop tumors from spreading in the blood. This immuno-oncology could be life-saving, and anything that gives people with cancer a better shot at survival ought to be a target for whatever support we can reasonably give it. ■ That support matters because, in the end, people end up with cancer from all kinds of sources -- lifestyle behaviors, environmental exposure, and genetics each can be causes on their own or in combination. If it were as simple as "you should have eaten more vegetables", oncogenesis wouldn't be much of a field. ■ As Dr. Lewis has previously noted, "Virtue doesn't necessarily guarantee health". (A message that surely resonates at St. Jude.) Taking that seriously means putting aside our amateur speculations, caring for the individuals who have cancer, and putting our support behind efforts to prevent, treat, and cure all cancers -- no matter where they came from.

Humor and Good News Unexpected headlines

Seems like "50 Cent Shows Up at an Omaha Hy-Vee Store to Sell Cognac" should have been much bigger news.



May 15, 2021

Threats and Hazards Past service is no free pass for present bad behavior

A group of retired generals and admirals calling themselves "Flag Officers 4 America" signed an open letter clearly seeking to leverage the gravitas of their service as former flag officers of the United States military to add weight to their status as political commentators. ■ Their letter is full of conspiratorial thinking, sloppy writing, and squishy logic. It deserves to be read as the cranky wingnuttery that it is, and little more. In no way should it be granted special immunity from criticism because its writers once wore high-ranking uniforms. Paula Thornhill -- herself a retired Air Force brigadier general -- did a good job of breaking down why the open letter is more embarrassing than alarming. In her words, "We can appreciate what retired flag officers did on active duty, but until we know what they've done since their retirement, we should not privilege their perspectives." ■ The public owes no indefinite deference to the judgment of people who once wore stars on their uniforms, nor for that matter to those who once wore any uniform at all. Stratocracy is a choice, but it's not one that America has made (nor should we make). The military obtains its legitimacy from the authority granted by the people through the states, the Congress, and the Constitution. It does not work the other way around. ■ The perspectives of veterans matter, just as do the perspectives of countless other groups who share some form of common experience or mutual identity. Their interests are even addressed directly by an entire Cabinet department. But their perspectives do not matter in a way that excuses faulty logic or corner-cutting arguments. ■ Should we defer to retired computer programmers about technology policy? To retired surgeons on health-care policy? To retired teachers on educational immigration policy? No -- not outside their field of knowledge, and not unless they can demonstrate that their thinking has kept pace with developments related to their expertise. Officers who retired from military service decades ago should similarly be viewed with deep skepticism when they attempt to weigh in by arguing to the authority of their former ranks. ■ Claims like "We must counter this on all fronts beginning with removing Section 230 protection from big tech" don't extend in any way from special insight they might have gained while in uniform, and the retired officer's uniform itself shouldn't be used as a cloak for what is a claim without substance. In fact, the use of retired titles as a political bludgeon is exactly the kind of behavior that undermines public trust in the active duty military. ■ More than anything, the open letter suggests that we are too slow to find ways in which to keep people like our retired flag officers productively engaged in constructing a productive future. Cincinnatus may have been satisfied to return to his plow, but with most people likely to live for at least one decade (but often a few) after retirement, it would be wise for us as a society to find productive outlets for the energies of our most senior retired officers -- lest they grow restless and turn their minds over to the consumption of conspiratorial media. Only the 5-star generals never retire. ■ You can like or respect what a person did in the past and choose to disrespect their conduct later -- or vice-versa. Expect people to grow. Hold them accountable when they don't. Don't cut slack for people cruising on past glories. People can hold terrible ideas with the best of intentions, and people who do great things can go on to make terrible choices later (see, for instance, the atrocious choices of latter-day Charles Lindbergh). ■ Once one comes to realize that human nature itself changes very little over the centuries, one is liberated to see that each individual is a perpetual work in progress. Deep down, we today are very much like the people about whom we read in Shakespeare, the Bible, or even ancient Sumerian literature. We tend to seek pleasant things in life, fear death, and long for a sense of meaning and belonging. Our mistakes call for atonement and redemption. And no good deed any one of us performed in the past is a free pass forever.


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May 14, 2021

News Scarcity increases relative value, right?

Erica Dhawan's use of the phrase "geriatric Millennials" to describe people born between 1980 and 1985 certainly garnered some attention among those who take "geriatric" as a slight and those who are happy to have escaped the label. But it is worth noting just what a nosedive births took in the United States during the age cohort we now know as Generation X. Births peaked in 1957 at 4.3 million, dropped to 3.7 million at the start of Generation X in 1965, bottomed out at 3.1 million between 1973 and 1976, and only got back to a steady 3.6 million pace by 1980. In other words, the babies of the 1970s are a precious rare vintage.

News Spilling your guts on I-80

A trucker seems to have spilled a bunch of pig guts all over Interstate 80 in Omaha. Yuck.



May 13, 2021

News Go ahead and tear up that memo

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking some heat for how her "staff is turning over at an alarming rate", according to a Chicago Tribune reporter. As evidence of her demanding style as a manager is submitted an email in which she shared a photo of a torn-up memo with her staff. Lightfoot's declaration: "Here's my new practice for memos that come in at the last minute." She goes on to offer a reminder that memos are due "48 hours before the decision is needed". Tough? Maybe. But she's also managing America's 3rd-largest city. ■ If the staff isn't following an established process for delivering her memos, how is she supposed to respond? A process exists around a principal for a reason -- to ensure discipline and avoid wasting bandwidth. Was the torn-up memo the first one submitted late? Then, yeah, it looks like a tantrum. Was it the 48th one submitted late? Different story altogether. ■ People can go all too far in catering to the whims of a tyrannical leader, of course -- we see plenty of examples of brilliant jerks who get tolerated for far too long in all sectors of the working environment, and a long-overdue public accounting of downright abusive behavior in Hollywood has finally eroded some of the myth that has permitted people to get away with abuse as the cost of admission to their creative work. ■ But policies and rules are different from the perverted whims of a director's couch. If our institutions are doing anything right to try to elevate people of good judgment into positions of authority, then the only point of giving someone the duties of mayor (or governor, or President) is because they bring some valuable skills for discernment to the table. If a big-city mayor says "I need 48 hours to think about important decisions", then those are the conditions under which she thinks her decision-making skills ought to be exercised. That's not unlike Barack Obama wanting to use his BlackBerry in the Oval Office or Winston Churchill demanding short memos and brief meetings. ■ Discipline cuts both ways, too: Mitt Romney credits a rule firmly prohibiting work meetings on Sundays for keeping him focused as a venture capitalist. Just as the principal has a reasonable expectation for performance, their subordinates benefit from clear performance expectations and reasonable boundaries. Consistent procedures and structures, like the Toyota A3 problem-solving worksheet, keep hard work from going to waste. ■ In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Pardoning the bad, is injuring the good." If a boss is tough merely because they have a difficult personality, then that's "the bad", and it ought to be called out. A leader's "emotional intelligence" really does matter. ■ But if a staff can't find a way to accommodate the needs of the principal, then it's the good staff members who are punished most by a failure to enforce the rules that optimize the key figure's work. Good subordinates want to make the boss look good, and voters have a fair expectation of getting the most value from the work of their elected officials. If a 48-hour review period is what it takes to get the most from your team, then Mayor Lightfoot, go ahead and tear up those late-arriving memos.

Iowa West Des Moines Valley High School names 6th US Presidential Scholar

Dorothy Junginger becomes the district's first Presidential Scholar since 2006

Humor and Good News Grandmother, grandson graduate together from Indiana University

Grandson graduates with his bachelor's degree as his grandma graduates with her master's. On its own, the story of Rosecedar Byrd and Keith Taylor is a feel-good human-interest story. But their story really shows how much more we need to do to normalize life-long learning. ■ Virtually every American adult should be on some kind of path to learning more. The full spectrum of economic, cultural, scientific, and technological changes arriving year after year isn't going to slow down. Like the Mandelbrot set (or any other fractal), complexity is unbounded -- and the deeper you look, the more complexity there remains to be discovered. ■ "Grandma goes back to college" deserves to be a ho-hum event. We should have many more on-ramps and pathways for adults to pursue further education in structured ways. Lots of people have tried to name our post-industrial economic era, but the name it really deserves is the teach-yourself economy. The natural human desire to satisfy curiosity can be seen everywhere, from the dominance of "how to" as a search term on YouTube to the way many people satisfied their Covid-19 lockdown anxieties by learning to make bread. ■ Of course, people should always remain free to teach themselves whatever satisfies their curiosity (within the bounds of not harming others, of course). But it would be sound public policy to recognize that there is an overlap between what is good for individuals and what is good for society overall. There is an undeniable inverse relationship between unemployment and educational attainment. And it is clear that the needs for retraining and upskilling are growing -- probably at an accelerating pace. Even useful skills become obsolete -- one study says skills go bad at an average rate of 2.6% a year. ■ We shouldn't just leave people to try to figure out how to backfill that skills obsolescence all on their own. One proposal floated among the Nordic countries would make adult education compulsory, and there's at least a little bit of sense to that, especially if the public sector has to provide support when people are unemployed or need to lean on the social safety net. ■ Ultimately, you can tell what a people value by where the commit their resources -- especially of time and money. Similarly, you can tell where vested interests are protecting themselves by how hard they work to keep others out. Together, those observations suggest that we need to broaden access to formal systems for higher education and reform occupational licensing so that individuals have the greatest possible freedom to adapt to circumstances as times change, jobs evolve, and old skills fade away. ■ We remain in the early stages of seeing affordable and accessible college programs emerge so that adults with work and family responsibilities can obtain further education without having to drop everything. One would think that, after the Covid-19 shutdowns sent all colleges into virtual mode at once, perhaps we would come to rethink the processes of higher education with some urgency. Alas, the academy is slow to reform itself -- professional associations resist accrediting online programs and most colleges insist on teaching mainly with bricks and mortar. There will always be a place for four-year residential degrees as a personally-formative life experience -- but we need a whole lot more ongoing options to provide economically-transformative ones. ■ Ongoing education should be coincidental with other life obligations -- existing alongside the other things ordinary people do, not displacing them. So for now, three cheers for Keith and Rosecedar. But we ought to work hard to make today's very special story into tomorrow's very unremarkable one. The sooner we get there, the better.

Threats and Hazards Why Taiwan has reason to be nervous

On US military engagement with Taiwan: "They don't stay there for very long. They don't learn the language. They don't develop a deep relationship with their counterparts."

Threats and Hazards People really are filling up buckets with gasoline

New rule: If you can't explain the concept of vapor pressure in plain language without assistance, you don't get to put gasoline in a Homer Bucket. The explosions caused by dispersion of combustibles aren't pretty.

Business and Finance Futures of Des Moines and Omaha just got bound closer together

The heir-apparent to the throne at Berkshire Hathaway (headquartered in Omaha) is Greg Abel of Des Moines. Nobody who follows the company is surprised by this announcement; Abel has been the obvious choice for a decade.



May 12, 2021

Threats and Hazards "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline."

For decades, the standard anecdote about ridiculous consumer-safety warnings has been the story of the woman who sued after she spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap. While the story has often been ridiculed in the abstract, we've probably been unfair to the plaintiff: The coffee was, indeed, being served at dangerously high temperatures. Today, however, we have a whole new standard for consumer recklessness which ought forever to displace "McDonald's hot coffee": Garbage bags of gasoline. ■ Due to the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline from Texas to the East Coast, wildly unsafe behavior has been documented as people seek to stockpile gasoline for themselves. A particularly egregious photo showing gasoline in clear plastic bags stuffed into the trunk of a car isn't from the current incident -- it's actually from a theft in Mexico in 2019. ■ But the point has been taken with sufficient seriousness that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a tweet warning, "Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline." Regrettably, that's probably a necessary announcement, since bad ideas can go viral. ■ The "bags of gasoline" photo may be getting lampooned as it goes around, but there's no stopping it from putting panic into the minds of some people and inadvertently suggesting they try the same thing. It's not unlike the problem of videos that show people taking shelter from a tornado beneath a bridge: That's actually one of the most dangerous places to be, but the visual message overwhelms the real lesson. Loud, consistent, frequent messaging to the contrary becomes necessary to counteract the bad images that go viral on their own. ■ There's no disputing that our world is becoming more complex every day. Nobody had to worry about cyberattacks in the 1950s. Many of the things that add up to making life far more advanced, more convenient, and generally safer today than in the past also add up to making it much more complicated to navigate, at least in the finer details. When the "Check Engine" light illuminates, the first thing your mechanic is likely to do is break out the diagnostic scanner, rather than opening the hood. ■ In exchange for that complexity, we get cars that are much safer, more comfortable, and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. Anyone in their right minds would take a 2021 Kia Rio (MSRP: $16,050) over a 1972 Ford Pinto (MSRP: $2,078 in 1972 prices, or $13,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars today). ■ The problem we face, though, is that increasing complexity scares some people. It opens the door to lots of faulty and counterproductive responses. And it paves the way for people to make disingenuous claims and other bad-faith arguments under the guise that heavy-handed intervention alone can stop "big tech" or whichever boogeyman is in fashion at any given moment. ■ The tools we most need in a complex world -- especially from those who make big decisions -- are curiosity, competence, and humility. We need them from our lawmakers and other leaders, most especially. But we need them at the grass roots, too. Curiosity in particular gets stifled when people become addicted to the instant-gratification model. Paradoxically, marketers have become sophisticated at utilizing the "curiosity gap" to trick people into clicking on links that end up deadening real curiosity about the world. ■ And that's what we should be interested in fixing: The gap between the gawking type of curiosity we satisfy by clicking through to the latest outrage and the deeper and more virtuous sense of curiosity about how things really work in a complex world. We can say we want to see more common sense in the world, but the thing most of us really want is for people to slow down long enough to think about their problems, have the humility to ask questions, put their curiosity to good use, and ultimately achieve some kind of competence in the end. ■ It may seem ridiculous that a government agency has to say, "Use only containers approved for fuel", but if we don't routinely treat thoughtful curiosity as a virtue (and train its habits into our children), then people will continue to engage in the stupid, the circus-like, and the ridiculous -- sometimes to the peril of us all.

Humor and Good News Tina Turner wins second induction into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

She got there once before (with Ike). Now she's being inducted on her own. The integrity of this most solemn institution remains intact.

Health Ohio offers a $1 million vaccination lottery

Get vaccinated, get entered in a $1 million weekly prize drawing. There is huge social surplus involved with getting the maximum number of people vaccinated, so if it takes turning a little of that social benefit and channeling it into private gain in order to stretch out the effect, then so be it.



May 11, 2021

Threats and Hazards The rocket didn't hit anything, but the criticism should

The world got lucky when China's wayward Long March 5B rocket reentered the atmosphere and seems mostly to have splashed into the Indian Ocean. The odds favored an uncontrolled water arrival (let's not call it a "landing"), since 71% of the Earth's surface is water. ■ But neither the rest of the world nor the Chinese public should be satisfied that the authorities in China were willing to be so reckless about it landing somewhere on the remaining 29%. Nature already drops things from space onto our heads from time to time, like the 440-kiloton fireball that crashed into Russia in 2013. There's no reason to add to that risk with man-made debris, certainly not when better alternatives are available. ■ Four simple rules offer a pretty good set of guidelines for living according to classical liberal principles: Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business. Ever since China steered into "socialism with Chinese characteristics" under Deng Xiaoping, the country's ruling powers have been willing to look favorably upon the "making money" part. (A growing economy, after all, is one of the main tools they have for pacifying the public.) ■ But those other guiding virtues don't have much of a place under an authoritarian regime. And while those of us outside the country can have strong opinions about the regime's conduct as it relates to the others, it is "cleaning up after yourself" where we have a first-degree right to demand better (as opposed to, say, speaking out on behalf of people within China whose universal human rights are being denied). ■ Letting rocket debris rain down uncontrollably over the planet is inexcusable when controlled re-entry is something humankind has been able to do for decades. China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat. Just because we all got lucky and avoided the worst possible outcome of their stupid game of rocket-reentry roulette doesn't mean we should just forgive and forget. ■ Along the way to getting rich and making material progress, every culture is likely to pass through a phase of abnormally intense pollution and waste. But there's no reason to accept rampant carelessness as an unavoidable cost of doing business. This applies whether we're talking about carbon dioxide emissions, high-risk scientific experimentation, or launching space stations into orbit. Clean up after yourself: It's not too much for the rest of us to expect.



May 10, 2021

News Rahm Emanuel to become ambassador to Japan

A heartwarming tale of a small-town boy moving to the big city. (Tokyo's metropolitan area has 37 million people. Chicago's has just short of 9 million.)

The United States of America Gen X eclipsed by successor generations in the US electorate

Will Gen X ever produce a President? (Vice President Kamala Harris, born in 1964, just barely squeezes into the Baby Boom rather than the Slacker Generation.)



May 9, 2021

Broadcasting Using classic MTV to show today's college students what the Cold War was like

It's really hard to communicate to people who didn't live through the Cold War how the culture was permeated by the existential threat of nuclear war. That threat really did frame everything, even when it wasn't top-of-mind.

Health People respond to incentives: Immunization edition

County official in New York, at a vaccination event pairing Covid-19 shots with free beer: "We're going to do more people today at our first-dose clinics than most of our first-dose clinics in the last week combined". Americans in particular are motivated by the quest for free stuff, and if free beer is what it takes to get to herd immunity, then that's what public health agencies ought to be giving out.


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May 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards China's errant rocket could crash anytime

China's regime should face endless global criticism for subjecting the world to the threat of reentry by the Long March 5B rocket. It is truly one of the stupidest games of roulette ever played.

Humor and Good News "Vaccine side effect, or have you just been alive for 40 years?"

Medical news you can use



May 7, 2021

Threats and Hazards "Decadent" is the worst inverse shibboleth

When "Anonymous", a "senior Trump Administration official", published the book "A Warning" in late 2019, there was a rush to try to unmask the author. It was an understandable rush -- the nameless official had previously submitted an opinion to the New York Times saying that the President was "erratic", "chaotic", unstable, and amoral. Just how high did the self-identified member of "a quiet resistance within the administration" rank? ■ While Anonymous was later revealed to be Miles Taylor, there were those who thought it might have been a Cabinet official, or perhaps even the Vice President. Certain tell-tale words were used to try to pinpoint the author's identity, with some people arguing that the frequent use of the uncommon word "lodestar" pointed to Mike Pence. ■ To be sure, stylometry is a fascinating way to try to read between the lines to find out who might have authored a document. Computers make the statistical analysis easier: People give themselves away through their choice of words. Just ask a teacher reading an essay that has been plagiarized, in whole or in part, by a student who doesn't take care to cover their tracks. The writer's "voice" is distinctive. ■ While shibboleths are typically used to signal in-group membership (and, sometimes, to sort out double agents), they can also inadvertently reveal an author's adherence to a way of thinking that needs to be held at arm's length. ■ One of those negative shibboleths is the word "decadence". If someone is using the word "decadence" -- especially when talking about their own country -- there's a very good chance they're on a completely wrong track. ■ The word "decadence", unless the author is talking about a particularly rich piece of chocolate cake, is a dead giveaway that the author thinks other people are enjoying themselves too much, in large numbers. While it is entirely possible for people to engage in behavior that takes fun too far, one of the basic premises of American civilization, at least, is that we have the "unalienable" right to pursue happiness. That's one of the basic purposes for having formed this country in the first place. ■ Thus when someone like an editor at the New York Post declares that "America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower", he's not passing a sound judgment on his fellow Americans -- he's declaring that he cares not for the American experiment in self-government itself. Sohrab Ahmari is, of course, entirely free to hold an opinion like that, as untethered to reality as it might be. But the rest of us are not obligated to pay such an opinion any serious respect. ■ In fact, when someone pulls out "decadence" as their linguistic weapon of choice, they're joining in a habit engaged by murderous, evil political regimes. The accusation of "decadence" is a value judgment with no objective standard. Thus it can mean "anything I do not like". In an authoritarian regime, that means the state can use the subjectivity as a tool of oppression. In a freer society, it screams of illiberalism. ■ If one holds an objective belief that a society has gotten soft around the edges and needs toughening up, then one ought to make a specific, fact-based case about what behaviors, rules, or practices need reform. That's how a democratic republic finds its way to the right path. ■ As it has been said, America isn't very good at being right, but we're pretty good at getting it right. We get it right by engaging in a process of course correction over time. We swing too far in one direction, then we overcorrect in the other, and ultimately the pendulum finds its equilibrium. Merely disclaiming the zeitgeist as "decadent" is a sneer in the direction of thoughtful debate, and without robust debate, how can we ever expect to correct our way? ■ We get a lot of things wrong in America, and we surely always will. But one of the main engines of our success as a vibrant, rich, and free nation is a perpetual commitment to openness. Our adversaries and rivals have never embraced that commitment, and it's hard to imagine that they will. The saddest turn of events would be for us to surrender that commitment on our own -- just because some people were having a good time.

Aviation News China's careless rocket debris could land almost anywhere on Earth this weekend

23 tons worth of space waste will come crashing down "anywhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude". (Des Moines is at 41.58°N.) China's behavior here is an exceptionally irresponsible case of ignoring the basic principle that you should clean up after yourself.

Business and Finance Who's going back to the office?

The CEO of a company in Washington, DC, has taken the peculiar step of sharing an opinion piece with the Washington Post, saying "I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion." ■ Even taking her "concern" at face value, Cathy Merrill chose a strange forum in which to express her thoughts. In the pages of her own magazine, she waxes nostaltic about the way her company embraces long-term employees. But one doesn't just publish an op/ed in the Washington Post hoping that it reaches merely a niche readership. The Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal are America's three newspapers where people go if they want to be read by the elites. ■ Some work environments have agglomeration effects. Some don't. Most are probably on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremes. But it is downright kooky to suggest a one-size-fits-all rule of "If we don't see you, you don't count." ■ Office culture undoubtedly means something. Human beings often like to work in proximity to other human beings, even when they're not working together -- hence the etiquette of working from a coffee shop and the emergence of co-working sites and business incubators. ■ But unless you believe that the entire white-collar economy of the United States has been artificially inflated since March 11, 2020, there's no denying that working from home has worked out satisfactorily for a lot of people. ■ We were forced to make extremely rapid adaptations in the spring of 2020, with technological innovations filling voids created by the disrupted workplace. But now that everyone's been forced to learn how to behave during a Zoom meeting, there's no reason to pretend like that isn't a default component of the standard worker's skill set. A workplace skill, once broadly acquired, easily becomes an expectation. ■ Some environments will always need a physical presence -- nobody's going to start building heavy machinery from home. But the productivity numbers suggest that now that we're over the initial learning curve, it's perfectly fine for many office workers to remain home-office workers, without any excessive pain for their employers or the economy as a whole. But as for the "things that drive office culture"? If they're important, competitive forces will find ways to bring them back. If they're not, then like bell bottoms and slap bracelets, they'll find their proper place in a dusty old nostalgia bin. ■ Instead of hand-wringing over "office culture", more of our energy ought to be devoted to considering the broader need for mental well-being. The last year has put a spotlight on the need to train a lot more people to provide support for mental health. As in, possibly by at least an order of magnitude more than we already have. The people who are actively seeking professional therapeutic help are almost certainly outnumbered by the people who would probably benefit from some form of mental-wellness support. ■ Victor Frankl observed that "Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days." And that was in 1946, before religious identification and participation had met their modern decline. The quests for self-understanding, meaning, and belonging are rightly to be satisfied beyond the purview of the HR department. Addressing those needs holistically would a much better use of our time and efforts than worrying about who gets the last slice of office birthday cake.

Health Sharing spare vaccines across the border

Good neighbors: "The Blackfeet Nation in northern Montana provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines last month to its First Nations relatives and others from across the border"

Computers and the Internet Open-source Audacity program sold to private company

It's a very good audio editing program; whether things remain the same under new management is a whole new question altogether. Open-source programs are usually passion projects, which means they do risk becoming orphans without some form of incentive to keep them going.



May 6, 2021

News One-paragraph book review: "To Heal a Fractured World", by Jonathan Sacks

A deeply worthwhile book that will expand the reader's moral imagination

News One-paragraph book review: "The Enchiridion", by Epictetus

Rewards those who know that human nature is fundamentally unchanging

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway Class A stock price breaks the Nasdaq

It's all because they only saved room for 32-bit integers and they calculate stock prices down to hundredths of a cent. BRK-A prices have just topped that value. Oops.

Iowa Classic photos of the UNI student union

A classic of concrete modernism (and a fine tornado shelter, too)

Business and Finance In praise of classic corporate names

There aren't enough companies named Amalgamated _____ anymore



May 5, 2021

Health When the mind plays tricks

Everyone sleeps, and dreams are an essential part of that sleep. But what happens when your brain lies to you during a dream?

Health Canadian data shows Covid vaccines spectacularly effective

Toronto Star: "Public Health Ontario reported 2,223 Ontarians developed COVID-19 symptoms after receiving one or two doses of a COVID vaccine [...] just 0.06 per cent of the 3.5 million people in the province who had received at least one vaccine dose by April 17."



May 4, 2021

Health If you had Covid-19 before, you should still get vaccinated

That's the public-health consensus

Humor and Good News May 4th brings out the "Star Wars" nerds

And, regardless of ideology or partisan stripe, we could use a few more self-identified nerds in Congress



May 3, 2021

Threats and Hazards "China will get old before it gets rich"

A problem that will undoubtedly be magnified if the country enters a malevolent feedback loop in which heavy-handed political repression discourages creativity of thought, contributing to slower growth, making the Party even more desperate, leading to more repression...

Humor and Good News George Washington as photorealistic modern-day politician

Once you imagine him with real hair instead of a wig, you'll definitely see it. (Though, in fairness to GW, he was only 57 when he was inaugurated. The guy portrayed in the viral picture is much older.)

Science and Technology Dutch build 3D-printed home

The 3D printing itself is a "wow" technology, but where it could get really interesting is if we can find printing materials with less of a carbon footprint than conventional concrete. (Cement is estimated to produce 7% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, and you can't make concrete without cement.) There is tremendous potential to do good globally if we can combine better processes with better inputs.

Weather and Disasters Drone footage from right next to a tornado

There is so much untapped potential waiting for us if we can really start to harness the power of drones for storm-spotting. They have great potential to help save lives, especially for storms happening where radar coverage is distant. Especially useful on days when much of the country is under threat.



May 2, 2021

Business and Finance Markets encourage specialization

Someone apparently orders a drink at a coffee shop that requires something on the order of 25 unique ingredients or steps. It looks utterly disgusting, and some people note that it's a real mess for the serving staff to prepare. And most certainly, on one hand, everything about the drink order looks disgusting. But! On the other hand, many of us have very happily used Coca-Cola Freestyle machines...and robots don't judge our drink orders, no matter how unfathomably nasty. So we need to consider: If people can get their hyper-personalized orders from machines with no judgment (or sense of guilt), then where might we expect consumers to gravitate?



May 1, 2021

The American Way The most wonderful day of the capitalist year

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting may not be "Woodstock for Capitalists" in 2021 due to the pandemic, but at least Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett are on stage together. ■ Every such meeting is a worthwhile experience; it's not that Buffett and Munger are perfect, but they are wise. They've accumulated wisdom through observation and practice alike, and -- importantly -- openly confess their mistakes. At the 2014 meeting, Munger professed, "If we hadn't been so good at removing our ignorance step by step, we would be a fraction of ourselves today [...] We're very good at ignorance-removal, and fortunately for us, we have a lot more ignorance to remove." It's that kind of humility that undergirds the wisdom -- constantly seeking to understand the boundaries of their knowledge and to push that frontier outward. ■ And then there is the benefit of having that wisdom applied to value judgments. Hearing Charlie Munger decry speculation in moral terms is always refreshing. When he says that Bitcoin is "contrary to the interests of civilization", he's not saying so because he's jealous; the man is wealthy far beyond his own needs. Nor is he afraid of "missing out" on the rise of the investment; he's 97 years old. If he's criticizing something for being harmful to civilization, that's strictly what he means. ■ The world could use a great deal more of Munger's market moralism -- not just from him, but from many corners. Aside from the practice of teaching "business ethics" in college, we rarely see public figures apply moral thought to the marketplace. The problem with isolating "business ethics" as a discrete field is that it effectively dis-integrates the person. To put the qualifier "business" out front is to say "There are ethics for your life, and then there are different rules that apply if you do something in the workplace." ■ This is not to say that there aren't unique ethical questions that arise in the world of business; there certainly are, and they deserve careful examination. But, by and large, an untrained person from outside the world of business should generally be able to ascertain what is right and wrong, because business is merely an arena in which humans interact with other humans. The Greek agora wasn't reserved exclusively for buying and selling. Divorcing our modern notion of a holistically ethical life from what we do when money becomes involved is a categorical error. ■ Now, it may be necessary to teach business ethics because there are people who enter the world of business with no personal ethics to speak of. But for the vast majority of people and cases, "business ethics" should just be "ethics". Integrity comes from being whole. You can't really carve up who you are or the standards you observe based upon whether you're in the boardroom, on the tennis court, in the grocery store, or playing a card game with friends. A person who is a liar, cheat, or slouch in one area probably shouldn't be intrinsically trusted in others. ■ Yet, aside from exceptional individuals like Charlie Munger, we don't have a lot of people who make deep value judgments out loud in the world of commerce. Sure, there is money to be made from speculation on things like Bitcoin. But is it a good profit? Does it enhance human life? Is it expanding human dignity by getting more useful goods and services to places where there are needed? Or is it profit derived from consuming a vast amount of electricity in order to duplicate the work of fiat currencies? Bubbles are not generally productive, and some wisdom consists of recognizing when speculation has a grip on a market. ■ We are (and should be) free to do a lot of things unfettered by the intervention of the state; just because something can or might do harm doesn't mean it has to be prohibited. But just because something is a legal transaction doesn't mean it is a good one, either. We need role models and exemplars who are willing to say just that.

The American Way "Vamos! Let's Go Eat!" is the children's book for classical liberals

A bilingual, pro-market children's book about taco trucks. It's cheerful, delightfully illustrated, and entirely good-natured. Author Raul the 3rd is up to something good.



April 30, 2021

Agriculture Are we doing carbon storage right?

ProPublica reports that a program in California that was supposed to offset carbon dioxide emissions with matching carbon capture (through forest plantings) hasn't really resulted in net carbon storage and is instead facilitating higher emissions (permitted by the offsets). ■ Everyone knows that plants consume carbon dioxide, "exhale" the oxygen, and use the carbon to grow. So far, so good. And big plants will tend to contain more carbon than small ones (at least, per square foot of ground covered). ■ We look at trees in particular because forests are aesthetically pleasing, they can grow in places that are otherwise not ideal for agriculture or habitation, and they can sequester quite a lot of net carbon. ■ As long as the trees are allowed to mature, they can store a lot of carbon. That, clearly, sequesters the carbon away from the atmosphere. But even though that storage has been increasing for the last three decades, it's not the kind of increase we can accelerate very quickly. Most of the carbon in a tree is stored in the trunks and branches, and trunks don't grow very quickly. ■ Presumably, the way to passively remove carbon from the atmosphere at the highest speed is to find the fastest-growing plants that can then be harvested and stabilized (since it doesn't do any good to capture the carbon only to have it decompose quickly and return to the atmosphere). Fast growth is the champion. Decomposition is the enemy. ■ Bamboo is the fastest-growing woody perennial plant, and it is useful for long-duration carbon sequestration in textiles and building materials. For any plant (tree, bamboo, or otherwise), the optimal solution from a carbon-sequestration perspective is if it can be harvested and used in some durable way that doesn't involve combustion or consumption and digestion by an animal. Then, the harvested plant can be replaced with a new plant cultivated in its place, increasing the net impact. ■ Thus, this question: Is there a reason why we aren't genetically modifying bamboo so it grows more productively and easily in cold-weather climates? Wouldn't bamboo capture and store more carbon than trees in less time? Bamboo certainly shouldn't be used to replace trees, but if carefully managed, it might well serve as a fast-acting enhancement to carbon sequestration.

Broadcasting Short-lived corporate siblinghood ends for KWWL and KCRG

The two longstanding television rivals in Eastern Iowa were briefly under the same ownership this year

News No place in England is more than 85 miles from the sea

Certain factoids would have been useful in history class, like the fact that no place in Britain is more than 85 miles away from the sea. That's the kind of scale that it helps to understand before you go on with the Vikings and the Normans and World War II. It's no wonder the country developed differently than many others, and it certainly helps to explain why the country became a seafaring nation. But the value comes from explaining that key fact at the beginning of the process.

Humor and Good News Talent draws from a common well

Jon Batiste: "God gave us 12 notes; it's the same 12 notes that Duke Ellington had, that Bach had, Nina Simone..." ■ Art is in the constraints. Those twelve notes are a constraint, and yet they make infinite combinations possible.

Humor and Good News On neologisms

Most neologisms are wisely held at arm's length, but the word "slaps" is a worthy exception. It has an almost onomatopoeic quality, requires no explanation at all, and makes sense almost immediately. When a song "slaps", it just makes sense. But many other newly-coined words are train wrecks.

Iowa Three cheers for tiny homes

A group in Davenport, Iowa, is using them to help provide stable housing for people who might otherwise slip into homelessness. From the Quad-City Times: "Boruff said it's his hope the tiny homes would help program graduates from back-sliding into old ways of homelessness, addiction, incarceration or domestic abuse. He said the 14-month program boasted a 90% success rate." Too often, the obstacles to good polices are other policies of our own making -- like building ordinances that don't account for the full spectrum of housing needs that exist.

Business and Finance Protect Charlie

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting won't be held in Omaha in 2021, but that's OK: They're doing it so shareholders can get a dose of Charlie Munger, and that's reason enough.



April 29, 2021

The United States of America America is an idea

Guided all too often by the European conception of a nation-state as so often learned in high school, it's easy for Americans to slip into a use of the word "nation" that equates to "country". We shouldn't do that. ■ The Merriam-Webster definition of a nationality says, "a people having a common origin, tradition, and language". Not every nation is fortunate enough to have a state. In fact, the list of stateless nations is long and includes hundreds of millions of people. ■ Within Europe alone, one finds dozens of stateless nations: Some have gone basically extinct, absorbed into other cultures -- like the Slovincians. Some, like the Kashubs, have some official recognition without strict self-determination. Some, like the Scottish, are actively pressing for independent states of their own. The strained and often bloody history of separatism in Spain ought to be quite enough to convince the thoughtful onlooker that "national" attachments may have little to do with the country named on one's passport. ■ "Nationhood" and "statehood" are two different things. There can be many nations bound together within a common government. And people can be members of more than one nation, depending on heritage, upbringing, and self-identification. This is precisely why tribal registration can be such an important issue among the First Nations of North America. The Navajo code-talkers gave honorable and patriotic service to the United States in WWII, but they still possess a nation. ■ The United States of America is a country (a political state). And it is much bigger than a nation. In his first address to Congress, President Biden remarked that he told China's President Xi "America is an idea -- the most unique idea in history: We are created, all of us, equal. It's who we are, and we cannot walk away from that principle and, in fact, say we're dealing with the American idea." ■ In response, National Review editor Rich Lowry impulsively tweeted, "America is a nation, not an idea." Lowry is talking his own book -- literally. But his statement is utter nonsense. ■ Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. It is from that work that everything else we know today as the United States of America emerges. And the Declaration begins by saying, in essence, "We need to explain ourselves." And its first act of explanation is a bold assertion that "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Truths are ideas, and the Declaration says that the security of those truths is the very essence of why "Governments are instituted among Men". ■ Had the Declaration of Independence been premised upon a statement of religious faith, a territorial claim, an origin story, or a creation myth, then it might have been a statement of nationhood. But it did not. The very first among our organic laws is a statement of principles. America is ideas-based. ■ It denigrates America to say we are anything less than a great, important, and challenging idea. Great in the way that this is by far the most desired destination of the world's immigrants. Important as it seeks to remain, in Lincoln's words, "the last best hope of Earth". Challenging enough that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could summon the Declaration of Independence as the "promissory note" of freedom. America is an idea, and we are lucky to make a country of it.

Threats and Hazards "Energy attack" near the White House last November

Our openness as a society is a big deal and it can certainly make us vulnerable to attacks in ways that don't similarly threaten places that wall off their powerful. But openness is one of our most vital sources of competitive advantage, too. It must be a priority to preserve the benefits while defending against the hazards.

Science and Technology A fire truck that can turn corners like an SUV

High tech could make cities much better -- if an electric-driven fire truck is any indication

Humor and Good News Baseball is supposed to be fun

Anthony Rizzo maintains a lifetime 0.00 ERA with a strikeout dominated mostly by pitcher and batter giggling at each other



April 28, 2021

Threats and Hazards A nightmare scenario to haunt your dreams

Considering the behavior of the People's Republic of China -- menacing Taiwan, abrogating its obligations to Hong Kong, and showing off its naval might near Japan -- reasonable observers may well find themselves gaming out the possibilities of an escalatory environment. It's not a rosy picture. ■ In particular, this threat ticks all the boxes for "plausible and sufficiently nefarious": Weapons systems mounted within shipping containers, using the containers as camouflage. ■ Global trade depends upon the humble shipping container, an innovation we don't usually give its due; its ubiquity has made it possible for the entire global economy to move predictably and efficiently (except when a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal). But at the same time, familiarity has a way of dulling vigilance. ■ Shipping containers have been widely used to facilitate smuggling, including for human trafficking. And without a firm (and expensive) commitment to thorough inspections of shipments from end-to-end of a shipping journey, both our land and sea borders are potentially much more porous than we might think. ■ If you thought it looked bad to get through the lines for customs and immigration in March 2020, imagine the backlogs that might ensue from trying to visually inspect every one of the ten thousand shipping containers on a single large vessel, both at the port of departure and the destination (and, of course, tracking the container to ensure it wasn't opened at an undeclared stop along the way). ■ But what is the risk if we don't increase our attention to what's making its way here aboard those nondescript boxes? The prospect that someone might be smuggling missiles into Long Beach is frightening enough, but this is the 21st Century: The biggest threats aren't always kinetic. It really isn't that hard to imagine a scenario in which containers could be weaponized not with missiles, but with weapons capable of delivering an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could disable electrical grids or cripple computer networks. ■ Balances must be struck in our world. Low-friction connectedness generally pays tremendous dividends in terms of world progress and improving standards of living. The freest possible movement of goods, money, ideas, and people generally enhances the prospects for all of us. But there is good reason to look at the need for inspection, tracking, and verification as a necessary limitation on that freedom. The weather is natural and mostly unchangeable -- but that doesn't stop us from using radar to be vigilant about what it's doing and to deliver advance warning of what might go wrong. ■ The Trojan Horse is a durable metaphor for very good reason. Unless and until the Communist Party that rules China demonstrates far better faith than they've been wont to show for the last decade, the American public ought to demand transparency and heightened scrutiny about what's aboard.

Threats and Hazards The shameful turn of Rudy Giuliani

A search warrant has been executed at his apartment. He had the choice to remain forever fixed in our minds as "America's Mayor".

Threats and Hazards Woman pleads guilty to hate-driven attempted murders

Two counts of attempted murder in a deeply upsetting crime spree

Humor and Good News Why conservatives should get their shots

The notion of making a health decision based on partisan affiliations is baffling. But if that's what it takes, Kyle Smith offers some delightfully tongue-in-cheek arguments in favor of the Covid-19 vaccine, including "Since when do we turn down a shooting opportunity?". ■ On a related note, more than 1 million Iowans have now been fully vaccinated.



April 27, 2021

Humor and Good News Man conquers local parking lot, one space at a time

Humans have more intelligence than is absolutely necessary for individual survival. As a consequence of that surplus brainpower, sometimes we do silly, pointless, hilarious things...like trying to park in every space at the local grocery store. And making a spreadsheet about it. ■ Yes, such an exercise is profoundly silly. No, it has no direct meaningful social benefits whatsoever. And yet: We really ought to stand up and applaud when someone puts their mind to work on a nerdy side project and commits to performing it as though it really matters. ■ If you read Dwight Eisenhower's memoir of World War II, "Crusade in Europe", you'll find a number of themes that emerge across its hundreds of pages. The most important one, though, may well be that the United States came into the war completely unprepared -- Eisenhower is devastating in his critiques of prewar military preparedness -- but the country won victory because of a massive reservoir of potential that just needed to be stirred to action. ■ Ike put it like this: "There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America as the wreckage on the landing beaches. To any other nation the disaster would have been almost decisive; but so great was America's productive capacity that the great storm occasioned little more than a ripple in the development of our build-up." Just think: American shipyards, once brought up to capacity, produced 2,710 Liberty Ships over the course of the war. They were cheap and ugly, but they could be built in days and delivered the essential cargo needed to win a war. ■ It might not be obvious, but the connection between idle productive capacity and pointless, nerdy pursuits is quite real. The Wright Brothers are often portrayed in our superficial understanding of history as a couple of tinkerers who stumbled upon powered flight. The reality is they were dedicated, methodical, and driven almost to obsession (remember: Orville nearly died in an early crash that killed a passenger). ■ Most of the problems we face today are much too complex for a couple of brothers to solve working out of a bicycle shop. But they can be solved by teams working together -- and not always by the ones you might expect. Some large firms work hard to bring innovations to market quickly, but the era of the "skunk works" has in many ways been pushed aside by the popular but flawed practice of innovation through acquisition. ■ But look around and you'll see people channeling their interests and energies in useful ways through open-source program development and citizen science and self-organizing teams. ■ To solve big problems, we need a culture that values a nerdy willingness to do frivolous things well, because those are the sandboxes where we practice the skills that can be called upon when we need a nerdy willingness to do really important things well. So, three cheers for the goofball who walks every street in their town or studies satellite imagery for fun or figures out ship speeds from wake patterns. It's never particularly clear in advance when we'll need the people with these obsessions. But within open, free societies, the nerds are often our secret weapons.

Business and Finance Huawei might go public

The worst job in the world might well be trying to honestly, lawfully, and transparently list the risk factors for taking a Chinese state-owned or state-controlled enterprise into the stock market, through filings that bear the risk of legal consequences if filed untruthfully: "Risk factors, huh? I need to list risk factors? Hmm. Can I get some kind of amnesty first? Like, a guarantee that I won't be sent to a prison camp? No? Can we see if someone else wants to write this part?"

Threats and Hazards "I think you're hot" is not a sufficient reason to knock on someone's car window

Short of "I think you left your phone on top of your vehicle", "I think the trunk of your car is on fire", or "I think you left your 2-year-old in the shopping cart", there are really no good reasons to ever stop someone in a parking lot by walking up to their car. If you're overwhelmed by someone's beauty, just allow the moment to pass in the same way you can admire a beautiful sunset without shouting out loud to the Sun itself.



April 26, 2021

Computers and the Internet Loose security at Facebook

Ars Technica reports: "A video circulating on Tuesday showed a researcher demonstrating a tool named Facebook Email Search v1.0, which he said could link Facebook accounts to as many as 5 million email addresses per day." ■ Back in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced his "personal challenge" for the year: "Facebook has a lot of work to do -- whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent. My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues." ■ But what ever came from that "personal challenge"? Anything tangible? Any marked improvement? What he promised was a grand ambition. Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on him for a reach that exceeds his grasp. ■ Yet at the same time, Zuckerberg maintains a degree of dictatorship over his company that would make most other leaders blush. Read Facebook's own annual filing with the SEC: Under risk factors, it notes "limitations on the ability of holders of our Class A Common Stock to influence corporate matters due to the dual class structure of our common stock and the control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock by our founder, Chairman, and CEO." Likely not since William S. Paley owned CBS has one individual held so much control over such a powerful media institution. ■ This degree of control means that Zuckerberg's principles are embedded within Facebook. What he believes is what the company does. Consequently, when the company fails to take a matter seriously, it reflects an institutional assumption that he, as controlling shareholder, doesn't take it seriously either. That applies to how the company responds to security threats as well as how it responds to its role in the society that it purports to serve. Within the company, at least some have acknowledged that Facebook failed to understand it was a vector for what became the January 6th insurrection, or to realize "that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement." ■ Facebook still seems to be run with the main priority to avoid the worst of trouble. But considering how the company specifically seeks to take advantage of human psychology in order to get users to do things like spend more time with the service, "avoiding the worst" really isn't enough; particularly not, because that's a reactive framework. ■ No, what Facebook really needs is an affirmative and normative philosophy -- a positive thing it seeks to be. Being anti-bad isn't enough. For all the money it makes and the influence it wields, Facebook (and its controlling shareholder) really ought to be striving to be something specifically good.

Health Vaccines turned the tide on Covid-19 in the United States

Dramatically -- in fact, almost shockingly. The graph depicting the change in case rates, with its rapid growth in November and December mirrored by an even sharper decline in January and February (as vaccines became available), is the kind of artifact that will show up in history textbooks, under a subchapter heading titled "The first mRNA vaccines". Just as early January marked a turning point in the spread of the disease in the United States, so will these new vaccines almost certainly mark a turning point in the fight against viral infections.

Weather and Disasters Taco watch vs. taco warning

The field of meteorology has made considerable strides since realizing that half of the job consists of social science rather than just atmospheric science. People need to know what you're trying to tell them. And one of the things that has caused the most grief for the longest time is the public's misunderstanding of the difference between a weather watch and a weather warning. Well, now there's a graphic to explain the difference, conclusively and authoritatively.

News English is a perfectly ridiculous language

The best way to get out of a rut is to find a new groove. Try explaining that to a beginning English-language learner.

Humor and Good News Science says

David Boaz suggests, "There ought to be a game, 'science says,' like 'Simon says'". ■ He's right. Science says: Cover your cough! Science says: Wear a seat belt! Check your horoscope! ...Ha! Science didn't say to do that!

News Do the right thing

Epictetus: "When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shrink from being seen to do it, even though the world should misunderstand it; for if you are not acting rightly, shun the action itself; if you are, why fear those who wrongly censure you?"



April 25, 2021

Weather and Disasters Giant thunderstorms over the Sandhills

Fact: Watching one of those particular storms in that particular part of the country will permanently reset your perspective on your own size relative to the scale of nature. The Great Plains are quite something to begin with, but it's really hard to get a sense of scale in the flattest parts. The Sandhills provide just enough elevation (and just enough variety) to provide some perspective when one looks out toward the horizon. And the horizon can be very, very far away. When you can look so far into the distance that the road narrows to a dot and there are no cars, no houses, and virtually no other signs of life, it can really do a number on your mind. When you combine that static backdrop with a supercell thunderstorm -- a fluid complex that can be 50,000 feet tall (or even taller), the effect can be even more breathtaking than a mountain. Imagine a cloud multiple times taller than Pikes Peak, moving and discharging lightning over such a landscape. The experience will stay with you.

Weather and Disasters Spring is beautiful, except for the allergies

If you're allergic to tree pollen, Des Moines is a rotten place to be right now


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April 24, 2021

Business and Finance What kind of house you can get for $2.4 million in California

The New York Times profiles some California real estate that has positively eye-watering prices. Two of these $2.4 million homes sit on lots that are equivalent to 50' x 50'. One costs $1,200 per square foot of house. ■ For comparison's sake, $2.4 million would buy you a 57-room Super 8 hotel currently for sale in Sioux City, Iowa...with $300,000 to spare. With the remaining $300,000, you could buy two really big motorhomes (plus diesel for years). ■ The market will adjust to whatever supply and demand will produce. But it's really hard to look at housing that costs $1,200 per square foot and not conclude that something is really out of alignment in order to produce that valuation. No other tangible good has costs that swing by that much from one part of the country to another. One of the most expensive homes currently for sale in the Des Moines area is a 5,000-square-foot, 5-bedroom custom home listed for $1.4 million -- with a full acre lot. At $280 per square foot, it's much more expensive than most homes in the area -- and yet it's only a quarter of the square-foot price of the homes featured in California. Make that make sense without resorting to an explanation that says landlords are participating in some extraordinary excess capture in the Golden State.

Broadcasting "The Last Blockbuster"

Surprisingly good. Both the movie and the store it depicts are like self-aware time capsules. It could have been a little shorter without losing much, but that's a small complaint.

Business and Finance 25 of the best quotes from Jeff Bezos's letters to shareholders

Amazon's founder seems to have absorbed some lessons from Warren Buffett

Humor and Good News How $8 will save your leftovers

A box of grease pencils costs about $8. They pay for themselves in the first week if you use them to label and date your leftovers (instead of playing "Press Your Luck" every time you reach into the fridge).



April 23, 2021

Threats and Hazards Consequences or collapse

A big bag of water-softener salt weighs 40 lbs. It's a heavy thing to lift, and the act of merely picking it up gives the individual a moment to consider just how much material is inside. Some lunatic doubled that amount in explosive material to set up a gender reveal. Foreseeable results occurred: When the Tannerite bomb exploded, it literally shook the ground for miles around. ■ There have to start being consequences for this recklessness. In order to live in anything resembling a civilization, we have to be able to assume that the people around us are going to behave in a prudent manner. Blowing up 80 lbs. of explosive material to show off whether a baby is going to be a girl or a boy is anything but prudent. ■ The gender-reveal madness is well past its prime and ought to be retired immediately. Explosive stunts have caused enormous wildfires and killed parents-to-be. One would have to have been living under a rock to not know this by now. And yet, people are still dying for sake of totally unnecessary stunts. ■ Too many people define their sense of the world in the most absolute terms possible -- from the nonsense of believing that words are violence to the nonsense of believing that the 2nd Amendment is unlimited in its scope. Boundaries must always be drawn; no one has a right to bear a hydrogen bomb in their backyard. ■ Warren Buffett has famously preached the economic advantages of knowing the boundaries of one's personal competence. But knowing the boundaries of rights, privileges, ideologies, and philosophies is similarly powerful. That is, ultimately, the value of a truly liberal education in itself: The more heterogenous the sources of knowledge one learns to study (and criticize), the better they're able to understand the limits of useful ideas. ■ This isn't to draw a straight line from "decline of liberal education" to "people breaking things and killing bystanders with gender-reveal parties". But it is to say that we under-value prudence and self-restraint at our societal peril. Nobody puts on a stunt like an explosive gender reveal in a vacuum -- they do it because they seek (and expect to receive) social approval for doing it. The boundaries around acceptable behavior matter, and they have to be imposed socially. We need to be able to say "We're thrilled for your baby" without saying "Bring out pyrotechnics to amuse us". ■ It's possible and necessary to say "That's too much" without saying "You can do nothing at all". Ending the lazy practice of turning everything into an irrational argument about slippery slopes is a social imperative right now, particularly in our politics, where partisanship has too widely replaced prudence. Far more things exist in a Goldilocks Zone than on a slippery slope, and we need to start acting like it.

Health CDC panel recommends dosing with Johnson & Johnson vaccine again

One need only look at India or Brazil for a reminder that the virus is the much larger risk.

News What you probably didn't know about the Trans-Canada Highway

Despite its lofty name, the Trans-Canada Highway is not a controlled-access freeway (like one of the US Interstate Highways). In many places, it's just a wide highway with at-grade crossings. That's...surprising.



April 22, 2021

Health Catastrophic situation in India as pandemic rages

This should be mandatory viewing for anyone who wonders why universal vaccination must remain a top priority here in the US. We're part of a global community, and this virus has to be stomped out, conclusively, everywhere. "Distressing but necessary", indeed.

Threats and Hazards Telltale signs of paranoia

Andy Grove of Intel once wrote that "only the paranoid survive", but that was probably more salient advice for business than for civic leaders. From time to time, we are reminded of the North Korean regime's level of paranoia, of which the BBC reports: "When Kim Jong-il was alive, there was a ratio of one bodyguard to two of the senior officials accompanying him."



April 21, 2021

News 1,127 people were killed by police in America last year

Every one of these cases, no matter how justified it may seem, should be investigated by an independent, Federal-level fact-finding body, modeled on the NTSB. Not to punish, but to find and address root causes. 1,127 is just too many. ■ Some of those killings, obviously, were themselves entirely unjust and criminal. It is right and proper that those involved be prosecuted under the law. In other cases, police had entirely reasonable needs to defend themselves or others using lethal force. ■ The point of investigating every single incident -- independently, at the arm's length provided by a Federal agency rather than local authorities -- is to dispassionately ascertain which incidents could have been avoided and why they were not. Just as the NTSB investigates serious transportation accidents for the purpose of honestly and transparently finding the root causes and recommending remedies, so should a similar agency do the very same things with incidents in which people die due to the actions of police. ■ Every occupation has a share of miscreants and bad actors. One of the marks of a profession is that it establishes and enforces internal codes to root out the bad and expel them. Professions of all sorts are distinct from other occupations in that their practitioners forfeit some of the benefits they might be able to obtain from their work in exchange for some degree of legal protection and social esteem. ■ In the case of law enforcement, internal safeguards are not enough. The public gives the state a monopoly on violence, which is uniquely powerful and thus ultimately requires unique safeguards. Among those safeguards is the right to a clear and unambiguous depiction of exactly what happened when force is used. ■ What made Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo's testimony against Derek Chauvin so historic is that, in effect, it pierced the "blue wall of silence". He deserves credit for his testimony: Confidence in police (and, consequently, their legitimacy) is enhanced by those who turn their backs on bad actors within their own ranks. ■ However, the fact alone that such a wall is known to exist is exactly why civilian oversight is essential: The monopoly on force is only legitimate if it is supervised and controlled by those to whom it belongs -- the public. It is fundamentally a matter of consent -- enshrined by the Declaration of Independence as something granted only by the governed. ■ In Federalist 51, Publius (either Hamilton or Madison) wrote, "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." The law should and really must be the tool by which the use of lethal force is properly controlled. But honest accounting is necessary, too. ■ After-action reviews aid the armed forces, medicine, and many other fields, and they are essential where force is involved. The NTSB proves how much value comes from separating the act of punishment from the act of objectively determining the facts. It is high time to make the tiny investment necessary to bring an objective, NTSB-style agency to policing as well. 1,127 is too many.

News Fears and uniforms

"You hope having the uniform on will help, to say 'You don't have to be afraid of me'". These are really haunting words. It's not right that some of our fellow Americans have to prove themselves against others' reflexive fears.

Business and Finance Antitrust types shouldn't have a monopoly on fun

Serious note: Apple makes a ton of money from apps they didn't build. Controlling the network is a big deal.



April 20, 2021

Health EU decides Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe enough

From the available evidence, this is the right decision on a cost/benefit basis. We're in a race against time with this virus. For that matter, though, any new regulatory decisions need to move at warp speed (to borrow a phrase). Among of the biggest questions facing the world right now: How much of the world's population needs to be vaccinated to bring this to a halt, how fast can we get there, and what are the odds of success? There are so many variables -- and yet, we know we're nowhere near having enough of the planet vaccinated, and we know that the virus presents a terrible and known risk. That means we would have to see pretty terrible and highly likely side effects to justify any delays in getting shots into arms. ■ We do face a danger from those who seek to profit from stoking overreaction to anything bad that comes with vaccination. A single story about a bad reaction can occupy a much bigger space in an audience member's head than all of the overwhelming statistics about success. You don't read about the millions of safe flights that take place; you read about the tiny number of crashes. ■ In a media environment where the economic pressures are perhaps at their worst ever, what we get isn't "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" -- it's "afflict everybody, 'cause fear porn gets clicks". The problem is that with many people glued to the constant low-quality stimulus of social media, we're often too indiscriminate about what stupid ideas we let in the door. This is already having tangible consequences in our fight against Covid-19; we're already running out of people willing to be vaccinated, and while things like this are always multivariate, there isn't a shred of doubt that vaccine hesitancy is being fueled by claims that just don't reflect reality or scientific evidence. ■ If someone on Twitter is a perpetual source of agitation and propaganda, mute them. Wait for others to highlight their nonsense in a quote-tweet and force yourself to read it only after a conscious choice to enter the right frame of mind. The same principle applies to Facebook: You can remain "friends" without subjecting yourself to someone's worst impulses: Just hit the "snooze" button, and in a month, see if they've proven themselves worthy of your time again. Time is fleeting, and not every connection is of equal value. Social media tools do a great job of connecting us, but it's up to everyone to be mindful of whether the right connections are being made. Not every connection is good.

Broadcasting How we spend our time

Most of us would probably benefit from an occasional crawl across our screens (all of them -- TVs, tablets, phones) that just loops the words "Memento mori". There's absolutely no question that some things we watch can make us better and wiser. Some programs provide valuable entertainment and relief. And then there's a giant industry devoted to burning up the precious few hours people spend on this Earth, vaporizing them like the breath of ants. ■ If this country spent half as many person-hours reading books (non-fiction books, and not those idiotic ghostwritten fluff tomes "written" by talking heads) as watching cable news channels, it feels like we would have cured cancer already and have a colony on Mars. ■ Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe things people would buy in order to show off their ability to spend. The world is a vastly more economically-productive one than what Veblen inhabited a century ago. Even modest consumption today would look extraordinary by comparison with the 1950s, and unfathomable compared with the 1800s. But for each of us, the supply of time is finite. ■ Some recreation will always have its place, but we need more "conscientious consumption" of time -- and especially when it comes to media. People ask, for instance, whether it makes sense to keep a reading list -- and whether some people use those to be conspicuous among their peers. The answer to the latter is "Of course some do". But done properly, a reading list is really just a basic manifestation of metacognition. Keeping a reading list is how you think about the reading without being immersed in the reading. It's a good practice, and it would be a good practice for those movies or television shows we watch as well. ■ Being aware of the consumption process doesn't have to be burdensome or overly time-consuming, but you are merely dollars and cents to media companies. They want your time and attention. It is a naked drive to capture a share of the 42 hours of television, 30 hours of apps, and almost 8 hours of web surfing that the average American adult spends each week -- and to convert those hours into dollars. Unfortunately for each of us, our hours eventually run out. Without a little conscious attention to how they are spent, we risk unconsciously exhausting our own supply in service of someone else's profit.

News A thoroughly different approach to the strip mall

They get a bad rap, but maybe some aesthetic improvements will turn out to be just what strip malls need



April 19, 2021

Business and Finance Do people still not understand the Brown M&M's Test?

Van Halen's concert contract famously included a line strictly forbidding brown M&M's from the snack area. It wasn't because they taste different. It was a test to see who was reading the contract and following the terms faithfully. In fact, it was a pretty elegant test, since a bowl of candy is easy to inspect at no more than a glance and without raising any eyebrows. ■ Given notice that a venue had failed to check everything carefully, the band then knew to raise its own level of pre-show scrutiny. Given the technical sophistication of a big rock concert, those brown candies were like big red warning lights. ■ Carelessness is nothing new, nor is the resulting harm. In his booklet "The Way to Wealth", Benjamin Franklin warned that "Want of care does us more dama