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December 3, 2022

Humor and Good News Enjoy the process

The winter holiday season brings out strange behaviors in some people. For many, it's a time to do some light decorating both inside and outside the home. For others, though, it's either time for radical escalation or for displays of passive aggression. ■ Everyone is entitled to the right to decide freely whether to celebrate or decorate or abstain entirely. But it's wise to keep in mind that life really is too short to waste on activities that aren't cultivated to bring about some kind of pleasure, either now or in the future. Other purposes really aren't worth the energy nor the scarce time any one of us has in life. ■ The rule isn't just applicable to holiday decorating -- it applies equally to lots of other endeavors, from taking part in sports to using social media to going to work. Parents who come unhinged at youth sporting events, people who feel obligated by work or by other compulsion to stay glued to Facebook or Instagram, and those who are eager to leave their vocations all need to heed the advice. ■ Society does need to encourage individuals to take an enlightened view of what brings pleasure, of course. It's not always a matter of what feels good, like a sugar rush. Pleasure shouldn't always be just a momentary visceral excitement. ■ Humans are endowed with incredibly powerful brains, and we need to be trained to use those brains to appreciate a worthy sense of joy. Sometimes that comes from entering a state of "flow", as first described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Sometimes it derives from building towards a satisfying goal. Sometimes it comes from cultivating a mindful sense of gratitude. Sometimes it's the result of appreciating one's own triumph over adversity -- or that of someone else. ■ Altogether, though, it's much too easy to default to chasing material satisfaction -- emphasizing "stuff" too much or, sometimes, too little. Just as there are those who are never satisfied except by buying things to impress others, there are those who reject even basic creature comforts out of inexplicable obsessions with asceticism, whether for religious reasons or to prove their unnecessary physical self-discipline. ■ Putting too much emphasis on material stuff (too much or too little) keeps people from cultivating that necessary and enlightened sense of pleasure in experience. It takes practice to really refine that sense, and nobody should ever expect to achieve a perfect end state of it. But figuring out how better to fill the all-too-brief span of life with an enlightened sense of joy seems like a far better use of time than putting up holiday decorations out of spite or arguing with others over ephemera.

December 2, 2022

Computers and the Internet Have a quick chat

The release of a powerful artificial intelligence chat bot has a lot of technological enthusiasts and observers at high attention, as well it should. The quality of the processing and its ability to generate highly serviceable plain-English responses to human requests is enough to have garnered more than a little attention from some of those who earn a living by writing. ■ In some quarters, it has been noted that continued development in this area will make it impossible for instructors to give their students take-home essays or assignments and expect to gain a fair assessment of student progress. If an AI can answer an essay question and do it passably well, then what's to stop students from letting the computers do all the work? ■ While it would be unwise to trivialize the academic impact, thoughtful observers ought to be fifty times more concerned about what this means for phishing attacks -- most especially for spearphishing. While people have generally adapted to ignoring spam, phishing attacks (scams that depend upon impersonation and misidentification) still generate at least some success for their crooked creators simply through volume. Someone, somewhere, eventually falls for a scam. ■ Spearphishing takes ordinary phishing attacks and makes them more sophisticated by targeting specific users with specific information. This is far more time-intensive than a general-purpose phishing attack, but it raises the odds of success for the attacker. The problem introduced by these much-improved artificial intelligence tools is that they can merge some of the high volumes of classic phishing with the targeting of spearphishing -- which, in combination, makes them much more likely to extract money from unwitting victims. ■ Society is dangerously naive about what's on our cybersecurity doorstep. For a long time, we have been able to depend largely upon hardware and software to offer some protection -- antivirus programs, attachment scanning, and spam filters all do a lot of work to cast a protective bubble over us. But these tools aren't going to be able to keep up with natural-language artificial intelligence in the hands of clever crooks with the incentive to keep hacking human beings. We are rapidly moving from an era of computer vulnerability to one of pure human vulnerability. ■ It's not the only public policy priority out there today, but if we don't amplify consideration and discussion of cybersecurity as a matter for universal responsibility and engagement, we're going to be in deep trouble.

November 30, 2022

Science and Technology The artistic doctor

The University of Iowa Children's Hospital is already widely-known thanks to the five-year-old neo-tradition of the "Hawkeye Wave", during which fans at Kinnick Stadium pause after the first quarter of a Hawkeye football game to wave at the wall of windows looking into the stadium from the hospital next door. It's a lovely and sentimental practice, and perhaps it does just a little to ground the passions of sports fanatics in things that are more important -- like the well-being of sick children. ■ It's also lovely and worth taking note that Dr. Sarah Scott, a resident physician at the hospital, decorates some of her patients' doors with hand-drawn pictures of Bluey and the Paw Patrol. It's certainly nice as a first-order matter -- she's to be applauded for doing nice things for children in tough situations. ■ But it's a particular delight -- and a thing well worth celebrating -- whenever people who are advanced practitioners of the STEM fields also show that they have well-developed artistic sides. ■ On one hand, people probably take it too far when they try to shoehorn "arts" into the middle of STEM to re-brand it as "STEAM". The whole reason we cluster science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together is because they are widely acknowledged to be hard topics, and ones in which society has historically under-credited and failed to nurture the latent talents of big parts of the population. When we dilute the focus, we risk failing to take long-overdue action to make sure that women and girls aren't driven away from the STEM fields, and that racial and ethnic minorities aren't left out. ■ But on the other hand, the humanities are good for everyone. A CPA who appreciates the nuances of Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" and its critique of life in the middle class ought to be a better accountant for that well-roundedness. An engineer who develops an artistic appreciation for period designs stands a chance of better integrating a thoughtful approach to the human factors of how their products are used in the real world. And it would take eons to document just how important it is for technology leaders to understand how people are affected by their work. ■ It may be going too far to say there's nothing new under the Sun, but people have been pondering and documenting human nature for a whole lot longer than anyone has known about magnetic resonance imaging or splitting the atom. ■ It's important to keep pushing the frontiers of what we know all across the STEM fields, because progress there often has huge consequences for how we live materially. No group should be left behind, and nobody should receive a diploma from high school or beyond without gaining thoughtful STEM-related education along the way, no matter their emphasis or major academic discipline. ■ Likewise, nobody should emerge from a STEM-intensive education without also gaining a well-considered education in the liberal arts and humanities. Whatever we do, in personal or professional life, is ultimately for the good of people. ■ Well-roundedness isn't just good in the abstract; it is essential to ensuring that we have access to the full range of tools we need to make sure that our work, no matter how sophisticated, remains humane at heart. The humanities are to the STEM fields much like a seat belt is to an automobile: Using them doesn't slow down the rate of travel, it merely helps to keep us safer should we find ourselves starting to steer wrong.

November 29, 2022

News Make yourself invincible

One of the more interesting developments to emerge from the defensive side in the war in Ukraine is the rollout of 4,000 "Points of Invincibility" across the country. As announced, "all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." ■ The development is interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it reveals just how rotten Russia's war against Ukraine has turned out to be. Russia keeps attacking Ukraine's energy grid, in a transparently terroristic bid to degrade the basic quality of life for the people living there. ■ It's barbaric and repugnant behavior on Russia's part. This isn't even a morally ambiguous case, like bombing the industrial centers of an aggressor nation in World War II. It's just a naked bid to impose the maximum civilian pain on a country that's only trying to defend itself. ■ But the second point of interest is how the "Points of Invincibility" are symptomatic behavior of a country getting its act together and leapfrogging its own development. The decisive factor in the Allied victory in World War II was probably the unfathomable retooling of the American economy into an invincible machine for producing virtually unlimited war materiel. American industry was building convoy ships by the thousands, and Boeing alone built just shy of 100,000 airplanes. ■ The United States moved forward, technologically and economically, at a breakneck pace because of (and following) World War II. That advancement wasn't worth the toll of war, of course, but it did provide a sort of compensation for it. ■ Ukraine, likewise, is set to emerge from the brutal and senseless war forced upon it as a much more capable nation than it was before. The whole country is being forced to learn and adapt at a screaming pace just to ensure its own survival. ■ But as long as it receives the material support it needs from sympathetic nations, it is gaining momentum towards military victory that deserves to be followed by a tremendous boom in peacetime. Small seeds of ideas like "Points of Invincibility" grow into the kinds of durable advantages later that make a country truly invincible in the long run. Heaven knows they deserve it.

November 27, 2022

News Tiny towering over us

For a variety of reasons, from the ecological to the economic, many experts on human development patterns like to see increasing population density. When people can live closely together, they tend to create less pollution (per capita). At the same time, denser populations are also associated with greater economic productivity. ■ But rules often stand in the way of density. In particular, regulations setting minimum lot sizes for single-family houses are widely used and have fairly self-evident consequences for limiting population density. In some locations, though, local conditions force people to look at housing demand differently. ■ A tiny existing lot in Philadelphia was used by an architecture firm to demonstrate a "tiny tower" design -- a home built on a 29' x 12' lot, but with six levels, containing two bedrooms, three bathrooms, an office, a deck, living space, and a kitchen. It's extremely clever. Rethinking minimum lot sizes could offer many cities the ability to use similar designs to fill in empty and under-utilized spaces with attractive, quality housing. ■ Density is really only achievable with the use of height. And while lot sizes form one major obstacle to density, the other obstacle is mobility. There is only a certain window of life during which people don't seem to mind climbing stairs. It starts sometime in later childhood and often ends at middle age. Climbing stairs might be good exercise, but it makes for a terrible livability obstacle to anyone with limited mobility (or even just aging joints). ■ Someone could strike a considerable blow on behalf of density if they could come up with a reliable, safe, and affordable single-family compact elevator system. ■ It's not just that single-family elevators would be good for stoking creative housing solutions meant to fill in under-utilized spaces with new construction. They would also help more people to age gracefully (and comfortably) in the homes they already know and love. ■ For countless reasons, we ought to be reluctant to exile our senior citizens to single-story residential life or to vast retirement complexes isolated from the rest of our communities. But making new or existing housing functional for them takes effort to remove obstacles. If we can make more places more suitable to people across the entire arc of life, then we can also extend the benefits of things like increased density to more people. ■ It's not always easy to see things that are right in front of our eyes, including the need to correct both legal and practical hindrances to better housing practices. But both exist, and it would be prudent to think about getting them out of the way. Attractive, creative solutions to the demand for density already exist and could be put to work doing a lot of good for us all.

November 26, 2022

News What do you do?

The holidays are often a time of introductions. At company holiday parties, family get-togethers, and neighborhood open houses, people find themselves turning to small talk as they encounter other people for the first (or second) time. ■ The go-to question among Americans is almost always "What do you do for a living?" The problem isn't the question, but the danger of making assumptions based on the answers. Career and character are two entirely different things, but they're often hard for us to segregate adequately. ■ Dan Brooks -- whose occupation the reader doesn't need to know -- puts it well: "[P]lease stop forming concepts of folks based on what they do. Some of us have fixed identities that both determine our behavior and exist independently from it, and it's exhausting to have to keep explaining that." ■ It's sound modern advice. We are a hard-working country, as well we should be. But we often don't introduce non-occupational value into circulation like we should. It's awkward to shoehorn it into conversation ("Are you more of a stoic or a utilitarian?"), and the more cynical we permit our culture to be, the less likely it is to find its way in naturally. ■ More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character." ■ Careers change. Entire industries come and go. Nobody is a lamplighter anymore, and we're told that artificial intelligence will destroy lots of jobs in the future. ■ But we continue to revere people -- both public figures and family legends -- for acts of character and honor. It wouldn't hurt any of us to find more ways to naturally integrate measures of fixed identity into conversation, at the holidays or any other time of year. It might not make for intuitive introductory conversation, but it should probably place somewhere before occupational chatter.

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November 25, 2022

There are those who argue that Thanksgiving is an invalid or contaminated holiday because it can be seen as the fruit of moral shortcomings in American history. There are some who hold this view loosely and admit to thoughtfully struggling with the question, and there are others who hold it quite radically. ■ It's true that we would not have a Thanksgiving tradition without the literal practice of colonialism. The Pilgrims weren't invited to modern-day Massachusetts by the Wampanoag; they invited themselves and went on to cause the indigenous people tremendous grief. It is worth reckoning with the harm done over centuries. ■ But we moderns need to find ways to maintain the abstract practice of thankfulness even as we reconcile with very real harms. The Thanksgiving holiday is about an inheritance -- a cultural one, but an inheritance nonetheless. It is a morally sound practice to celebrate the inheritance of the imperfect-but-evolving American tradition and to give thanks for the human liberty and material abundance that emerge from it. In a world absent the America we know, it's not hard to imagine that totalitarians and fascists would have subjugated far more people for far longer. America is imperfect, but it has also been a bulwark against forces much worse. ■ Perhaps we would be a better country if, in addition to Thanksgiving, we separately observed a national day of atonement. There are shortcomings both in our past and in our present. It would be congruent with a healthy moral imagination to celebrate a day on which Americans would recognize failures, make amends, and commit to doing better in the coming year. ■ But just as in the Jewish tradition, wherein the day to mark the new year is closely related to, but separated from, a day to atone for one's failings, we need a day of Thanksgiving to stand on its own so that we focus upon the gratitude itself. ■ Gratitude is essential to having a balanced understanding of the world. So is a commitment to self-improvement. And though self-improvement is a fundamental aspect of the American character (see, for instance, the inclusion of an amendment process within the Constitution), perhaps we would be better off recognizing that need for reconciliation and growth with an explicit day. ■ But the need for that day should not displace celebrating a day of gratitude to something bigger than ourselves. Thanksgiving should make us better by reminding us that there are bigger things in the world than our own idle egos. If we need to make ourselves more righteous by tying it to a national day for peacemaking and reconciliation, then we ought to be open to that, too.

November 23, 2022

News 8 billion of us

The United Nations says we have just crossed the threshold of a global population of eight billion people. The US Census Bureau thinks we're still at 7,934,000,000, but what's a discrepancy of a mere 66,000,000 people between friends? There have always been plenty of voices urging that there are too many people, but consider a few of the realities in perspective. ■ Albert Einstein was born in 1879, at which time Earth's population was probably 1.42 billion. Even if you assume that Einstein was a singularly brilliant figure for his time -- the solitary most brilliant person on the planet, even -- then the odds should have it that we have at least five or six people roaming the planet today who are equals to Einstein. ■ The numbers are even more striking the farther back we look. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 to a world of no more than 500 million. Odds are, the planet is populated by 16 equivalent "da Vincis" today -- enough to fill the roster of an NBA team. ■ Socrates (born in 469 BCE) was probably only one in 200 million, meaning there could be 40 Socratic equals among us today -- enough to fill a small regional passenger jet. ■ Before anyone scoffs at the comparisons or dismisses the figures as too remote, consider what has gotten better since the births of any of those great minds. Our food supply is vastly greater. Infant and child mortality has plunged. We have gained antibiotics and worked to purge lead from paint. ■ Books are cheaper and many are freely available in digital format. Great museums offer virtual tours and the Internet Archive is working to digitize practically everything. The Internet itself is an ever-pulsing source of expert opinions and instantaneous news. ■ But more importantly, while there remain many substantial challenges to be overcome, there is more human freedom and more fundamental equality than in any era of the past. For most of human history, only men were broadly free to pursue their maximum self-actualization -- and even then, that freedom was only open to some men. ■ There remains much work to be done, but the odds have never been higher that a truly gifted person could do the most possible with their endowments. And, assuming that talent has been fairly equally distributed throughout history, the odds are extremely high that we have more great geniuses living among us than at any time in history. ■ Eight billion is a lot of people. And big crowds can beget big problems. But the numbers -- and the conditions -- should give us hope that the very best days for the world remain ahead.

Threats and Hazards Dispatch from a Russian prison

From a prison some 500 miles away from the battle front, Alexey Navalny writes, "So, one commercial went like this: 'We give last farewells to military personnel and civilians. Discounts for combatants and military personnel. In your hour of loss call...' Can you imagine the death toll in the war with Ukraine, the amount of coffins that arrive from it, if even in the 134,000-large Kovrov there's such fierce competition in the booming funeral services market that funeral parlors have started to buy radio ads?" Russia could stop the Kremlin's senseless war of aggression at any time.

Humor and Good News Cranberry relish for Thanksgiving

If you aren't making it, you're missing out

November 22, 2022

News 86 million people

Some of the best management advice ever offered was delivered to the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement by Margaret Thatcher: ""How do you see the process from where you are now to where you want to be? Because whatever you want to do, it's not only what you want to do, but how -- the practical way you see it coming about [...] Write down the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ It is at our own peril that we fail to think through a similar list as the people of the free world look on at the incipient Iranian revolution sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in the hands of the country's "morality" police. ■ People don't have to subscribe to all of the tenets of classical liberalism to have a genuine desire for freedom. And when a regime is so utterly corrupt as to deliberately kill children as a means of punishing and trying to quash dissent, anyone possessing a normal set of human sensibilities knows that regime has lost any reasonable claim to credibility. ■ It is not for the United States or any other outside country to force the next steps. But if we are not neutral about the outcome -- and we ought not to be -- then we ought to have a coherent, thought-out strategy for "the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ What are we doing to deliver news and information where those may be scarce? Are we expressing support for the right side at the right volumes and through the right channels? Is there intelligence or other support that could be of use to the people organizing to demand their own freedom? Do the right people within the regime know what would happen if they switched sides? ■ Plans must always be tempered by humility. Nobody knows the future, and uncertainties will always introduce new contingencies. But it is incomplete to merely hope that good things will happen. ■ Iran is one of the top 20 countries in the world by population, with more than 86 million people. What happens there is inherently consequential, and while its destiny ought to be in the hands of its own people, that destiny shouldn't be left to idle hope if there are supportive, humane, and empathetic ways the free world can lend its support. ■ Those 86 million people deserve better than a government so evil it would use the bodies of the dead as hostages. If we want to help those people, it's on our shoulders to think carefully -- but urgently -- about "the practical way you see it coming about".

News "Points of invincibility"

A fascinating Ukrainian response to continuing Russian assaults on basic civilian infrastructure. Per Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Telegram channel: "If massive Russian strikes take place again and if there is an understanding that the electricity supply cannot be restored within hours, the work of Points of Invincibility will be activated -- all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." Ukraine is really re-writing the rules of defensive war.

Threats and Hazards Russian politician threatens to chase Zelenskyy forever

The sheer hollowness of this menace's soul is chilling. He dresses like a businessman but has the craven impulses of a barbarian. Ukraine didn't start the war, and everyone on Earth can see that.

Aviation News Last week, tonight

The launch of Artemis I was a monumental event for NASA, the American people, and ultimately for the world

Threats and Hazards The petty police state

China has turned the Hong Kong police into a pathetic institution chasing down insults against the national anthem. Matthew Brooker puts it well: "One consequence of creating a vast, overweening and lavishly funded security state is that its personnel will be on a constant hunt for something to do, no matter how ludicrous or trivial". That those "things to do" are petty does nothing to diminish how revolting they are.

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November 21, 2022

Humor and Good News Get going

Perhaps every parent should try urging their kids on to the school day with the aid of the William Tell Overture

November 19, 2022

Business and Finance Pension funds lose on cryptocurrencies

Modern Portfolio Theory gives financial people the cover to do some really stupid things, like investing pension fund assets into cryptocurrency markets, then watching millions of dollars go to zero. ■ Just because something appears in a textbook or is taught in finance classes doesn't mean it's actually sensible. People have believed (and documented) all kinds of idiotic things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The Flat Earth Society proves that. ■ Investing should be done on the basis of arriving at informed judgments using sound reasoning. The belief that this can be done by substituting a bunch of elaborate formulas for that judgment is like thinking you can create an orange by dehydrating a gallon of Tang. ■ Sound reasoning would have scared any sensible investor away from cryptocurrency. But adherence to the textbook formulas told others that there was an ideal, non-zero amount they should have invested in the new "asset class" to achieve "balance". ■ To invest is to conclude that $1 doing some form of work is exceedingly likely to be redeemable for more than $1, with a rate of increase that satisfies a tolerable time horizon. If it's not that, it's just speculation. And speculation can be fun (just like a trip to a casino), but it's not investing. ■ That may sound terribly moralistic, but if there isn't at least some moral judgment involved, then the investing process is incomplete. Investing is a human endeavor, and the necessary judgments that go into whether an investment is suitable or not simply cannot be automated. ■ Some investments may be profitable but socially harmful (cigarette manufacturing, for instance). Others might look high-risk at first blush, but have such prospects to do good down the road (like high-efficiency small nuclear plants) that their financial prospects are tied in part to their future social utility. And, as the people who placed money with Bernie Madoff learned, numbers don't necessarily tell the truth if the person reporting them is a crook. ■ Institutional investors who think they have to invest according to risk-weighted portfolio formulas really ought to think twice. Just because the risk may involve only a small share of a portfolio, that doesn't mean it's a risk worth taking.

November 18, 2022

News Making happy children even in colorless rooms

It's hazardous to take any news report on trends with any degree of seriousness. After all, what is a trend other than an arbitrary choice that happens to have been noticed by the right people? But sometimes trend stories really do identify patterns that are starting to emerge. ■ The Wall Street Journal has identified the rise of "sad beige" in baby (or toddler and child) departments in stores everywhere. They trace it back to social-media "influencers" and marketing departments who have advanced a mainly color-free approach to interior decorating -- and who, in turn, apply the same philosophy to child-rearing. ■ Some people are simply lazy and find it easy to mix and match things like clothing and linens when everything comes from the same bland palette. It's not high-minded reasoning, but it sticks in some quarters. Others are motivated by the theory that subdued colors will bring calm to the household environment and keep from "over-stimulating" the young brain. ■ If, as that theory would have it, children are formed mainly by the stuff all around them, then someone would need to explain how anyone made it out of the Middle Ages without emerging as a broken spirit. Or how any normality survived exposure to, say, the 1850s. ■ Child development isn't a function of environmental colors. (It might make a marginal difference for a child to be exposed to a wide range of stimuli, but it's not the core determinant.) In reality, it has always been about the love and care and attention paid to kids by families. ■ And it has always been that way. Abraham Lincoln's childhood wasn't shaped by the color of his dirt floors, but by the love he felt from his mother and stepmother. What matters most is whether children can develop secure attachments. ■ It is pure nonsense to let Instagram-driven theories prevail. The job of parenting isn't done by pulling the "right" hues out of a catalog. It's done, one-on-one, by attending to the child's needs and showing them affection.

Computers and the Internet All hands on deck, why?

Elon Musk is reportedly demanding that programmers show up for urgent, in-person meetings at the company headquarters on short notice. People respond to incentives, but much less so to orders. That's especially so when those people (like programmers) have high-demand skills.

November 17, 2022

Aviation News The sky is no limit

In principle, the state of California is big enough to have its own space program. With a $3 trillion economy, it is in a class with Japan, whose $5 trillion economy sustains a full-fledged space program. ■ Likewise for Ohio, which with 12 million people is bigger than Israel, which has had an official space agency since 1983. And the same for Texas, whose $2 trillion economy is within striking distance of the $3.6 trillion economy (in 2017 dollars) of the entire United States in 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced the plan to go to the Moon. ■ Despite having the people and the wealth to drive their own ambitious space programs, these (and the other states) still pool their efforts behind NASA. Sharing a common agency and rallying behind it is an identity-building exercise for Americans, almost as much as the collaboration serves as a force multiplier. ■ After all, NASA routinely touts the productivity of its work in partnership with other countries' space agencies. The same thing could, hypothetically, be done with a California-ASA, a Texas-ASA, and even a Delaware-ASA and a Wyoming-ASA -- their independent work could be federated under a common umbrella for maximum impact. ■ But having a single agency, a common identity, and a merged pool of resources allows NASA to serve a nation-binding role, by driving toward audacious goals. It has been a while since we've had a really bold headline goal of that sort, but the successful launch of the Artemis-I rocket on a test flight to the Moon is the first highly tangible step in reviving that big-mission ideal. ■ Not every big mission worth doing has any real binding effect; nobody is going to get amped up over a national cybersecurity agenda, no matter how important it is to undertake. And not every big project will be necessary -- sometimes undertakings are done just because the obstacle is there. ■ But we're better off for having an agency like NASA, especially when it can commit to doing big things, in part and in essence, "just because we can". Those serve a mission of national identity in a way that no loose federation of state space agencies really could.

News What do you do for a living?

Your career is not your character, and your character is not your career. We could stand to say those things out loud more often. The world needs people who refine their working skills, of course, but even more than that, it needs people who prioritize enhancing their own character.

Computers and the Internet How Google could boost Mastodon

Raymond Johnson sagely observes that Google already has a giant user footprint. It could open a Mastodon "instance" and let all Gmail users into the social network with little to no friction. That, in turn, would put pressure on Twitter to moderate its own behavior in this turbulent moment.

November 16, 2022

News Looking ahead

A country as advanced as the United States should never be taken truly by surprise. There may be certain incidental events that come unexpectedly from a tactical perspective, but at the strategic level, there really shouldn't be any developments that come out of the blue. ■ Individual agencies sometimes show real foresight, but it seems peculiar that we don't have a dedicated national strategic planning agency. We get advice periodically from commissions (like Cyber Solarium), think-tank reports, and forward-thinking departments. But we seem congenitally short on holistic attempts to figure out where trouble could turn up and how we could go about preempting it. ■ No one has a guaranteed forecast of the future. But it ought to be someone's dedicated responsibility to consider large-scale, systemic risks on behalf of the American public. Someone to warn that cryptocurrencies could melt down in spectacular fashion. Someone to beat the drum about having enough naval tonnage at our disposal. Someone to advocate for the "strategic" part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. ■ More often than not, a task left unassigned is a task that will never be done. Considering the sheer magnitude of the government that is being operated on behalf of the American public, it makes no sense that no one is routinely assigned the task of developing real strategic plans to recognize, give warning about, and learn to account for big public risks.

Business and Finance Sometimes it's best to slow things down

Elon Musk says he's spending practically all of his time working on Twitter. Heed Bill Gates's advice: "It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you've filled every minute in your schedule."

Aviation News NASA's Artemis I launch is a big deal

After sending in a "red crew" to fix things after the rocket had already been fueled, NASA successfully launched a most spectacular rocket into space. We have a Moon program once again.

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November 15, 2022

News Ukraine sends greetings to NATO

The country's foreign minister writes, "Ukraine is willing to further contribute to collective Euro-Atlantic security and protect the eastern flank of NATO -- even though we are not yet members of the Alliance." If you've paid even a modicum of attention to this war, the takeaway is that any defensive alliance with even a shred of self-interest or brainpower would want Ukraine on its side. The people have proven themselves very, very good at learning and adapting to become a formidable fighting force.

November 14, 2022

Computers and the Internet Good behavior starts with the tone at the top

Some tools get outsized attention because of who uses them. We know a lot about the DC Metro in part because so many prominent people ride aboard it. We recognize clapperboards and green screens because they're used by the people we see on television and movie screens. And the world cannot help but be aware of Twitter because it features so prominently as a tool used by journalists -- both as a source of information and as a distribution mechanism. ■ That one social-media tool ends up in such a spotlight has made the manic behavior of Twitter's new owner the subject of a disproportionate amount of attention. But the mass layoffs, while eye-popping, aren't by themselves an existential risk. Lots of companies have had painful and dramatic layoffs and survived. ■ What the company might not survive is the de-institutionalization of good behavior. The company's chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief compliance officer all resigned at once. Contractors responsible for content moderation have been fired en masse. At least one means of two-factor authentication has fallen into extreme disrepair. ■ Any institution -- a company, a government agency, a church, a social-media service -- needs to institutionalize good behavior. It needs internal rules and culture that keep it on the straight and narrow. And it needs roles -- like chief information security officer -- that give insiders the authority structure to ensure that good behavior is enforceable. If those roles aren't valued, it's impossible for good behavior to become ingrained in the system. ■ The key, always, is to keep the good behavior from turning sclerotic or delivering unintended consequences. Nobody needs to waste their time obsessing over cover sheets for TPS reports. They need to respect institutional constraints on behavior, share a culture that emphasizes doing the right thing, and devote their best thinking to making sound decisions about hard questions. ■ Wrecking the institutional structures that help (even if incompletely) to guide an organization towards good behavior isn't just a matter of bad sense. It's a matter of opening up enormous potential liabilities -- of the very real financial variety. But it shouldn't take that kind of motivation to keep things well inside the lines for good behavior.

Humor and Good News Some Regular American for Speaker of the House

We could do a lot worse.

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November 13, 2022

News Better off without the invaders

People in liberated Kherson celebrate the departure of occupying Russian forces. But as Reuters notes, "'The enemy mined all critical infrastructure objects,' [governor] Yanushevych told Ukrainian TV." Know that this is the behavior of war criminals.

November 12, 2022

Aviation News Welcome the air taxi

Delta Airlines has entered into an arrangement to purchase a small fleet of electric air taxis. The move is being represented as a tool for the airline to provide door-to-door service for passengers who live in crowded urban areas, saving them time stuck in traffic and ultimately making air travel a more time-efficient option. ■ While that may be an outcome, observers shouldn't overlook the possibility that electrified air travel (especially if it can be made autonomous) could actually have its most substantial impact in serving mid-sized metropolitan areas -- the kind that are often the leading economic engines for laborsheds 50 miles in diameter. ■ The aircraft Delta is poised to put into service have a range of 150 miles, which is much more than urban-dwellers need to reach major airports. Certainly there are people who consider themselves New Yorkers who might still benefit from that kind of range, but for the most part, even with the expanding bullseye effect, it's not all that far as the crow flies, even from the edge of any given American metropolitan area to the main airport. ■ Go far enough out, and another airport will take advantage: Westchester County Airport is 35 highway miles from JFK. Milwaukee's Mitchell International and Rockford (already branded as "Chicago/Rockford") aren't all that far from O'Hare. And JFK already has LaGuardia in its immediate vicinity, just as O'Hare has Midway. ■ But consider, for example, the distances involved between the medium-sized metropolitan areas ringing Iowa: Des Moines to Omaha: 120 miles. Omaha to Sioux City: 90. Sioux City to Sioux Falls: 75. Sioux Falls to Mankato: 150. Mankato to Rochester: 75. Rochester to Waterloo: 100. Waterloo to Dubuque: 85. Dubuque to Davenport: 70. Davenport to Cedar Rapids: 65. And from Cedar Rapids back to Des Moines: 110 miles. ■ Converting these trips from hours in a car to minutes by air, and making them as predictably routine as bus stops, would tie the region conveniently together in a way that is impossible to imagine for now. They are impractical for commercial air service as we know it today, but the highway vehicle counts make it clear that those connections already have lots of travelers on them. ■ Time saved and connections enhanced would be robustly good for the communities and their economies alike. The idea of enhancing travel between and among them suffers because the constituency is diffuse, and, to some extent, remains under-developed. But it is real nonetheless and has great potential to do real good.

November 10, 2022

Threats and Hazards Safe(r work) spaces

The story of a Caterpillar employee who died in a foundry accident is altogether too gruesome to contemplate. It was only his ninth day on the job, and he perished for lack of fall protection. Hundreds of Americans die from on-the-job falls, especially in construction, but not limited to it. The rate is more than three deaths a day every regular workday of the year. ■ All kinds of attention is being paid to the impact of tech-sector layoffs as an indicator of the health of the economy. But for most of the people in that sector, there is no meaningful existential risk involved with showing up on the job. ■ And yet, inside that very same economy, we still implicitly tolerate an unfathomable number of risky choices every day. Sure, there's OSHA and any number of state-level safety regulators. But there's a difference between what anyone can hope to regulate and the essence of a design culture that starts with safety at the center. ■ In any kind of sane world, a death from falling into a vat of molten iron would have been engineered right out of the realm of possibility. Safety must be designed into every workplace from the start. ■ If it were, we wouldn't record thousands of workplace fatalities -- even setting aside transportation-related deaths. We reduce them to mere statistics out of necessity, but every one of those lives belonged to a person just as unique and human as any of the rest of us. ■ We're rich enough, technologically advanced enough, and civilized enough that intrinsically, deliberately safe working environments shouldn't be a matter dependent upon regulatory oversight. That should just be another case of "just the way things are".

November 9, 2022

Computers and the Internet What if Bloomberg had beaten Musk?

In a more rational universe, Elon Musk wouldn't have been the billionaire to purchase Twitter. It would have been Michael Bloomberg. ■ Not as a personal vanity exercise, which is thus far what the Musk purchase appears to be. Bloomberg could have bought it as a perfectly sound business venture (within the existing business he already controls). ■ Bloomberg's services in news and financial reporting are well-established as best-in-class market leaders. They have worldwide reach, operate 24 hours a day, and benefit from a massive ability to aggregate and organize data, serving it up as valuable information. Twitter, meanwhile, has become itself a thriving center for informational immediacy. ■ For all of its shortcomings, Twitter inhabits a unique position as the consensus online gathering spot for news and politics. That position was absolutely cemented by the environment of second half of the last decade. ■ Were a capable institution to have non-stop, direct access to the full flow of posts on Twitter, and use computing tools to mine real intelligence from all of that raw data, it would have a real gold mine of salable information at its disposal. And as an institution with a reputation to uphold, Bloomberg LP would have had the incentive to impose sensible rules for user behavior that would have preserved and perhaps even enhanced its value (instead of sparking a small user exodus, which is what's happening now). ■ The indications were there that Bloomberg had considered the possibility -- it entered into a special arrangement with Twitter to license data back in 2015. And perhaps Bloomberg gets all of the value it needs from that existing agreement, but nothing beats true vertical integration when you can get it. ■ Michael Bloomberg himself has in the past been reluctant to grow his business through acquisition, which is perhaps the reason none of this ever came to fruition. He wrote in his memoir, "I'd make a terrible venture capitalist; every company I look at seems overpriced. I always think we can create it more cheaply ourselves." ■ But building a Twitter equivalent would be nearly impossible due to its existing network effects, and things are changing so quickly that Bloomberg leadership has already pulled back on employee use of the site. There's always a chance that the current owner will diminish the market value of the property enough that an enticing price will come along: One that even the reluctant venture capitalist wouldn't be able to resist.

November 8, 2022

The claws always come out at election time, and there never seems to be a shortage of doomsaying among those who follow politics as a substitute for other meaningful concerns. But both election denialism and democracy-could-die fatalism, there seems to be mounting evidence that lots of people believe that we lurch not from election cycle to election cycle, but from existential crisis to existential crisis. ■ How much would our rancor be reduced if politics were taught in history books and classes not as the momentous achievement of big, discrete goals (like the Great Society, the New Deal, or the institution and repeal of Prohibition), but rather as the dynamic interplay of people trying to exhibit and demonstrate some level of decency and sagacity? ■ People talk about campaigns "peaking too soon", when in reality, we merely fixate on early November as the time to take the voting public's temperature. Those ebbs and flows of popularity are non-stop; public opinion is always in motion. Thus, it's not so much a matter of "peaking too soon" as it is "taking the vote at an inopportune time". ■ There really are decent, well-motivated people in office and campaigning for a seat at the table. There always have been. And while they may quite well engage in some of the discrete movements, it's more the case that they make decisions within an ever-evolving environment, and we should look more to their overall quality of judgment than to the specific policies they talk about. ■ The more we approach questions of politics as if they were either-or events, like a soccer match or a baseball game, the less inclined we are to appreciate the process itself, and how important keeping that process clean really is. It's far better for 100% of the people to get 60% of what they want than for 60% of the people to get 100% of what they want. ■ It isn't natural to get excited over the premise that one should embrace disappointment in 40% of the outcomes. But, to an extent, that's the point: Normal people ought to have many other sources of excitement in life than politics, and we should be comfortable with a lot of results that don't leave us cheering. Being moderately ambivalent isn't an altogether bad thing if it means that compromises are being brokered and many varied interests are being served.

November 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Don't believe the hype

The timeless advice in the world of communications is to put the person with the dirtiest mind in line to be the final editor before any item is released to the public. Where an institutional reputation needs to be protected, the person with the best chance of catching double entendres and unintentional malapropisms is the person most likely to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. ■ Someone may need to establish a corollary rule for propagandists: One which says that the final editors should be the ones least committed to the cause. Some of the people who are the most inclined to believe the nonsense of totalitarian machines appear to be the people in charge of propagandizing on their behalf. ■ Take the case of Chinese Communist propagandist Hu Xijin, who thinks that it's somehow a hilarious takedown of Western institutions to point out that Liz Truss lasted only 45 days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom before being replaced by her own party, and has subsequently been roasted in effigy to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. ■ If people like Hu weren't so deeply gullible about their own worldview, they would understand that there's nothing at all insulting in saying that the people of Western liberal democracies feel free to jettison leaders who no longer suit their needs or who show themselves to be incapable of the task at hand. That's not a flaw; it's a central feature of the design. ■ Any institution worth its salt needs to be equipped to replace low performers with high performers. It is a characteristic shortcoming of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that they don't have an equivalent process for removing leaders who fail to respond to public expectations. It takes a certain kind of dope to believe that democratic processes are anything less than a good thing for serving the public. ■ As the columnist Matthew Brooker notes, "Try getting rid of Xi Jinping. Or burning an effigy of him." He can't be mocked or lampooned, much less removed by democratic initiative. He has stacked the deck to make himself impervious to criticism. ■ Along the way, Xi will be propped up by obtuse half-wits who don't know enough to recognize that a little turnover in high office is usually a good thing. While no one of goodwill ought to be trying to help those particular dopes, it is perhaps amusing to realize that what they need most are editors who don't really believe their own hype. ■ Ultimately, authoritarian systems collapse under their own weight. Unaccountability creates bad feedback loops, and an institutional resistance to contrarian thoughts only guarantees that high-quality information never reaches the right decision-makers in time. The sad part is that there is always so much human suffering in the meantime, while inertia keeps bad regimes afloat. ■ There is incalculable sclerosis of thought within Communist circles. They are interested only in raw power, and that deeply crass view of the world ought to be rewarded with nothing but firings all around. Unfortunately, that won't be forthcoming in the near term under China's Communist power structure. And when it ultimately does, lots of innocent people will suffer even more than they have already.

November 6, 2022

Computers and the Internet Is it the process or the product?

When it comes time to offer gifts for the holidays, one of the most powerful words is "hand-made". A blanket? Nice. A hand-made blanket? Somehow seems more thoughtful. The same goes for a sweater, a pair of mittens, or a piece of art. ■ What is it about "hand-made" that gives something additional value? It seems strange to assume that a hand-made gift somehow contains more love, especially since it is so easy to purchase those gifts on websites like Etsy. If the gift wasn't hand-made by the giver, then what difference should it really make whether it was crafted by a disinterested third party or by a machine? ■ Perhaps the implied extra value comes from the fact that something hand-made almost invariably contains slight imperfections or other irregular aspects that give the product character. After all, the main point of mass production is to lower prices through standardization and efficiency. Mass-produced goods are all alike -- by design. It is their consistency that makes them reliable purchases. ■ Suppose, though, that we could introduce randomized instances of "character" into mass-produced goods. After all, the computing power exists to account for adding certain irregularities into mass production, in such a way that each item to roll off the assembly line could contain something unique in its design or manufacture -- just by enough, perhaps, to make it look hand-made. ■ And therein lies the central question: If a consumer were to see two goods, side-by-side, one literally made by hand, and the other mass-produced by a process that introduced irregularities that made it unique in the same way as its hand-made equivalent, then would one still sell for more than the other? ■ Would the gift recipient, if they knew nothing about the actual provenance of the good other than that it appeared to be hand-made and was demonstrably unique in some way, draw any distinction between the hand-made gift and the like-hand-made lookalike? Does it actually make a gift more sentimentally valuable because anyone's hands were involved in the process, whether or not those hands were those of the giver? ■ People appear willing to pay for faux authenticity, in the form of ripped jeans and pre-distressed hats, so it might just be that the answer is right before our eyes already. But it is only now that we are reaching the stage when technology could plausibly offer ways to turn items like blankets that come off the assembly line a little too flawlessly and convert them into like-handmade alternatives, and do so without really introducing meaningful new costs to the process. ■ So, which is it: Do people favor the idea of the actual artisanal process, or are they invested more in the uniqueness of the goods they own? Perhaps in a holiday season or two, we'll discover someone has performed an experiment to gather the evidence. Surely it won't be longer than that before they will try.

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November 5, 2022

News Factory breakouts and regime destabilization

If you assume people are like cattle and cannot be trusted, then information is your enemy. But control only holds up for so long: Even real cattle can break out into stampedes. ■ But people are not cattle, and that's the ultimate Achilles heel for authoritarian regimes. Even if you try to keep people in an information black hole, they still know what they can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. That's what makes the "mass breakout" at a Foxconn manufacturing plant in China rather unsurprising. The Communist government has adhered to a nonsense policy on Covid that has kept people in the dark and bred panic. ■ Putting aside the dystopian qualities that lead objective news reporters to describe it as a "breakout" (who in the free world has ever contemplated, even remotely, the idea of being locked down involuntarily at a place of work?), the event illustrates the impossibility of keeping the Communist Party's charade forever. A long time? Maybe. Long enough to cause grave and pointless human suffering? Definitely. But not forever. ■ Evolution has conveniently given humans the power of imagination, which can piece together partial evidence to conjure up hypotheses. Just like we can "see" shapes in the clouds of the sky, we can see lots of other explanations in the world. Those explanations may or may not be correct, but we inevitably try to fill in the gaps. Doing so is expressly in our nature. ■ If you're running an authoritarian regime, you can tell yourself that you can hold people in the dark long enough to maintain control. And it can go that way for a while. But ultimately, the system is doomed to crack. Something goes so wrong that no amount of lying, denial, or obfuscation can keep people from recognizing it for themselves. ■ In free societies, governments sometimes try to hide the truth or even lie outright. It never ends well, but at least the consequences are generally contained. Someone usually suffers the fallout and ends up either getting booted from office or going to jail. The truth has come out on everything from the FBI's abusive tactics against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to what the Federal government knows about UFOs. ■ But when an entire government (like a Communist one) rests on a fundamental assumption of lies generated and truths hidden, it's inevitable that a day of reckoning will someday arrive -- with catastrophic consequences. The catastrophe can be expected first for the people, then for the regime. ■ Reality is the best friend of liberty, because people ultimately demand an honest reconciliation with the facts they can independently observe and verify to be true. That's when systems built on lies ultimately crumble. Sadly, the process is rarely painless.

November 4, 2022

Computers and the Internet People are easier to hack than hardware

The first phase of Internet security gave users the impression that the digital world was one dominated by random attacks by bandits hiding in the shadows. In that paradigm, the best defense was to come "armed" with a gunslinging sidekick in the form of a good anti-virus program that would protect you from the random, unpredictable outlaws out in the wild. ■ The good part of this paradigm was that it encouraged antivirus makers to compete with one another on quality. Rivalries, benchmarks, and side-by-side comparisons made it possible to evaluate the best. The bad part was that it did nothing to prepare the public for the next phase of Internet security. ■ That new phase is one in which it isn't so often the hardware that gets hacked, but instead it's the people. Once a vulnerability is discovered in a piece of hardware or software, patches can be coded, distributed, and installed. But people are not so easily patched. ■ What's needed next is an adjustment in which people realize that for all the Internet does to speed up many activities, the most important reaction for many people is to know when to slow down -- when to implement two-factor authentication (which slows things down), when to wait for secondary verification of information (which slows things down), and when to pick up the phone for a call or a text message to validate that a friend or colleague really sent a convincing-looking message with an unexpected link or an attachment (which, again, slows things down). ■ We aren't good at slowing down for our own safety. But there's only so much security that can be obtained by hiring protection. A fairly substantial revision of expectations is in order. The gunslingers still have their part to play, but the vastly more wicked and complex threats of today -- attacks like spearphishing and ransomware -- put far more of the balance of responsibility on the individual connected user. And until we start to upgrade our own personal defense mechanisms as quickly as software developers can patch their programming vulnerabilities, it's going to be people who are targeted most often -- and most effectively.

November 2, 2022

Computers and the Internet Abandoned shopping carts and complaint forms

Some trivial-seeming behaviors don't just reveal people's inner sense of responsibility, they can go on to shape it. A good example is whether people return their shopping carts to a corral rather than leaving them loose in a parking lot. It turns out that the more people observe that taking responsibility and cleaning up after themselves is the social norm, the more likely they are to observe the norm. ■ Good behavior, then, has the capacity to be self-reinforcing. But someone has to be the first to follow the norm, otherwise it won't catch on. ■ It's obvious to any reasonable observer that these forces are on full display in the online dimension of life. Good behavior is often reinforced within digital communities that have the power to expel offenders, and bad behavior often cascades into exhibitions like flame wars and troll swarms. ■ There is an important but non-obvious role for public-facing institutions to play to help channel behavior towards the good, and it occurs in an unlikely interface between the physical world and the digital one. That role is, simply, to offer easy ways to report malfunctions, breakdowns, and other deviations from the expected standards through as many channels as possible, and to prominently solicit public help in submitting those reports. ■ It may not be obvious, for instance, that purple-tinted street lights are evidence of defective fixtures that need replacement. But that is what they are, and it isn't necessarily obvious (even to the individual who recognizes it as a problem) where to report the malfunction. ■ This places the burden on public agencies to make it quick and easy to submit a report through as many potential channels as can be made relevant to the problem. The public-minded citizen shouldn't have to do a lot of work to figure out what agency has jurisdiction over a matter or how properly to report it. ■ Submitting the report should be the easiest step, and the more complicated work of sorting and forwarding the report through the appropriate channels should fall on whatever agency first received it. People don't dial "411" anymore; they go online. But they're not equipped with infinite patience to figure out who is the right point of contact. ■ Making it as painless and intuitive as possible for a citizen to do the right thing -- to reinforce norms of pro-social behavior -- is an imperative task for any public-facing institution, especially when they're run for the benefit of the taxpayers.

November 1, 2022

Business and Finance Help yourself

From the McDonald's on Chicago Avenue to the CVS Pharmacy at the end of Bourbon Street, self-service kiosks have been replacing live cashiers for quite a while now. The mass-scale adoption of the tools, now seen everywhere from Target to Home Depot to even Flying J Truck Stops, has been meet with more than a few protests from people who dislike the experience. Some compare it to being made into an unpaid employee of the retailer. ■ But it is a structural change, with no chance of going back. The costs of installing the scanners and other hardware have fallen by so much that self-service checkout has moved from novelty to mainstream in very short time. With low unemployment rates persisting and competitive pressures from online retailers sustaining, there will be no meaningful pressure for brick-and-mortar outlets to turn back. ■ Just as people today occasionally fawn over the perceived glamour of airline travel in the days before deregulation, people will someday pine nostalgically for the days before self-service displaced most human cashiers. But it's worth noting that some of the accoutrements that made classic airline travel look high-class were there because they offered means for airlines to distinguish themselves when they couldn't do the same with price. ■ Airline travelers are objectively better-off today than before deregulation; the experience may not appear as high-class, but flying is vastly safer and more affordable now than it was then. Likewise, we'll come to see that self-service will tend to make consumers better-off by keeping physical retail outlets in business and able to offer merchandise at competitive prices when they might not have been under the old status quo. ■ The self-service experience will seem inconvenient to some, but just as a premium air travel experience remains available on most airlines (for passengers willing to pay for First Class tickets), we'll see a "premium" checkout experience remain in some physical retail stores -- possibly at a higher price, with a "convenience fee" added for those who choose human checkout clerks. For the rest of us, the adjustment to a new baseline of self-service may remain jarring when it shows up in places we haven't seen it before, but it's here for good (and to some degree, for our own good).

October 30, 2022

The United States of America Wait not for your country to do for you

Every two years, Americans are given the option to fire every member of the House of Representatives. It's an option we seem to exercise on a rolling basis: Not tossing them out en masse, but generally replacing them at least every decade or so, on average. The threat of replacement should keep Congress responsive to the interests of the public, but what if the public is insufficiently motivated to care about the things that actually matter in the long run -- as in, over a period longer than the median tenure of a member of Congress? ■ Benjamin Franklin, reflecting on his time as a lawmaker before the Revolutionary War, observed cannily that "Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion." ■ This unwillingness to execute on new projects rears its ugly head often today, just as it did a quarter of a millennium ago (yet more evidence that human nature is mostly unchanging). But what are the the occasions that might force some necessary innovation to protect our interests in the long term? ■ America generates unfathomable riches (basically 1/4th of the world's total each year), while sitting on unrivaled military power and the most productive system of innovation anywhere. We have a unique duty to point these huge advantages in the right direction over the long term. ■ Sometimes resources are pointed in the right direction -- as when NASA successfully proved the concept of deflecting an asteroid. At other times, we remain passive or inert well beyond the point of excuse: Failing to keep a well-organized effort for pandemic preparedness probably cost many lives in 2020. And there are times when a problem may itself elude a straightforward answer (as with the massive violations of human rights conducted by China in Xinjiang), but where one problem is embedded within and intermeshed with others. ■ The choice remains ours to demand that each Congress look ahead farther than its own term, or even farther than an individual's likely maximum tenure. But that requires taking the job of voting seriously, not like some idle team sport. We should know by now that waiting for measures to be "forced by the occasion" often ends up being both costly and unsatisfying. We have no shortage of meaningful problems to address. Who will act like it?

October 29, 2022

News Reaching a peaceful end

When some members of Congress issued, then retracted, a letter calling for "a negotiated settlement and ceasefire" to end Russia's war against Ukraine, it was a terrible unforced error. Nothing about Russia's aggression against Ukraine calls out for "settlement". ■ Freezing the outcome where the battle lines stand today would reward Russia with a non-trivial claim to territory. And the very notion of negotiation was vaporized when the war started, because initiating the invasion violated a negotiated agreement to which Russia had been a signatory for more than a quarter of a century. ■ Ultimately, the path to long-term peace can't be rushed on any timeline set by outsiders. It's important for Ukraine to win -- not to reach a draw, but to achieve victory -- and they need sustained support to do it. They're up against an invader with a much larger military and a lot more resources. This is no time for Ukraine's allies to go wobbly. ■ There's a difference between picking a side and picking an outcome. A powerful country should be able to pick a side. A great hegemonic power like the United States should not just be able to pick a side, but also to behave in such a way that it predictably picks its sides. ■ Picking an outcome is different. America can have a vision for what outcome would be in our preferred interests, but ultimately the conflict must be resolved in the way the people of Ukraine conclude suits their interests. Respect for self-determination is a principle that matters more for a great power than for a lesser one. ■ America should aspire to have a stabilizing power in the world -- one that, in any conflict we touch, tips the scales in favor of human liberty, of self-determination, of established rules, and of respect for human life. ■ Bossing the world around isn't the goal to which we should aspire. But upholding a world order vested in rules and human well-being is quite possibly the best gift we can give. ■ It's not for us to tell others when to fight, nor when to give up. But it is for us to reduce the uncertainty, insofar as we can, about whose side we will take in case of conflict -- and what principles will decide which side that will be, and how far they can expect that support to follow them.

October 28, 2022

Threats and Hazards Not even the slightest hint

That a criminal broke into the California home of the Speaker of the House and assaulted her husband in front of police is a dreadful, repugnant event. It should, of course, be completely surprising, but it is not. ■ America has experienced political violence in the past, just like most other countries. But it shouldn't be hard for anyone to say this: A free society should unconditionally reject the scourge of politically motivated violence, by anyone, against anyone. ■ A Supreme Court justice was threatened earlier this year, and members of Congress were fired upon at a recreational baseball game in 2017. And what took place at the United States Capitol in 2021 was unfathomable. ■ The actual acts of violence aren't the only events we should vigorously reject if we want to keep a healthy society. There have been far too many events in which people have tried menacing public officials, even if they did not turn violent in fact. It happens to officials at all levels, and it's been treated with a shrug by far too many people, mainly when they find that the intimidation is being used as a tool to promote an agenda with which they happen to agree. ■ Menacing and intimidation were wrong when protesters raised serious security concerns when they targeted governors with protests in the summer of 2020. And they were wrong when they were used against election officials that winter. ■ It should tax no one's conscience to say that there is no room for politically motivated violence by anyone, against anyone. Nor should it take any particular courage to say that even the hint of intimidation is wrong. The path to violence isn't one on which anyone should start, because taking even the first step implies a willingness to continue on to taking the last.

October 27, 2022

Science and Technology Infinity times infinity

On a clear night in the open country, removed from the light pollution of the city, a person can engage in one of the most time-honored of human experiences: Staring up at the sky and counting the night stars. ■ So universal and eternal is the tradition that the Book of Genesis contains the Almighty's promise to Abraham to give him descendants "as countless as the stars of the sky". Even thousands of years ago, equipped with nothing but the naked eye, the stars set the standard for what we humans could conceive as infinite. ■ What is different about the experience today than in the past is the astonishing power of spacefaring telescopes to help us see even farther and even more clearly into the night sky than is physically possible from here on Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope, and now the Webb Space Telescope, have forever changed hour understanding of just how vast and infinite the night sky really is. ■ One of the amusing exercises in mathematics is to ponder whether there could be varying degrees of infinity. If a formula produced an infinite number, would multiplying that formula by two create an even bigger value for infinity? In a sense, surely it would have to. Yet in another sense, it would be impossible to make the infinite larger. ■ What the space telescopes have done is effectively multiplied the infinity of the past (the stars we could see with the naked eye, which themselves seemed limitless) by some number much larger. The complexity of what we can see is utterly stupefying. ■ Astronomy isn't the only field where technological and scientific improvements have vastly expanded our ability to comprehend things that are very real about our universe. The granularity of satellite images obtained from the GOES satellites is almost infinitely more detailed than the views human beings had a generation prior. Yet even that imagery was quite literally infinitely better than what we could see of Earth from space prior to 1959, since there were no satellite images to send. ■ Radar images now penetrate the ground. The human genome can be completely sequenced. Computers can simulate and predict the structures of proteins. These developments aren't just progress; they violate the boundaries of what any human could have reasonably imagined a century ago. ■ We should be living in a period of the most expansive, universally-held sense of wonder ever conceived in human history. We should scarcely be able to get through the day without standing around slack-jawed in complete awe. Yet, lamentably, with all of this quite literally infinite wonder available to us, there are people who are more bound and determined than ever to choose to wallow in pseudoscience, hoaxes, shams, and quackery. ■ A mere glimpse at a single picture of a cluster of galaxies taken by the Webb telescope would have been more astonishing to Galileo than the sum total of everything he saw in his entire life with his own telescope. What he saw was far more than anyone had seen before, but what we can see now really is infinitely more mind-boggling. ■ Just try to imagine showing a picture of the "Pillars of Creation" to the Greek astronomers of 2,500 years ago who first resolved that the Earth was round. What we might breeze past, scrolling mindlessly through social media, would have been enough to melt the consciousness of our forebears. ■ We are so awash in wonder -- a wonder that is infinitely greater than the infinite that existed before -- that we are like the proverbial fish that doesn't know it is wet. ■ No one can be forced to reckon with this wonder. Each of us has to come to it on our own terms. But what a literally wondrous time to be alive. What we can see and understand and experience of the world is so vastly greater than anything any previous generation could have imagined that the degree of change alone bends the capacity of the human mind. ■ If the trajectory of things thus far is any indication, the change and expansion yet to come is even greater. We will be somebody's backwards and ignorant "ancient civilization" someday. It's on our shoulders to be humble enough -- and open enough -- that we can be worthy of the wonder in which we are immersed.

October 24, 2022

News Imagining the worst

American audiences who have been lulled into entertainment unconsciousness by the unimaginative state of network television dramas may not realize that other countries have proven themselves adept at scripting thoughtful programs that don't rely upon stacks of corpses or outbursts in the interrogation room as their chief plot devices. How many iterations of "Law and Order" does one civilization really need? ■ Norwegian broadcaster TV2, for instance, produced a three-season television series called "Occupied", which traced a fictitious "velvet glove" invasion of their country by a hostile Russian government. While mostly bloodless, the imagined invasion was nonetheless sinister, challenging the boundaries of the eternal question "What would you do?" ■ Fiction, done skillfully, can offer useful insights about human activity. "Occupied" is far more than skilled: It looked directly into the darkest impulses of the Kremlin and came out the other side with a vision of what might happen if an energy crisis were to grip Europe and an isolationist United States were to stand idly by. The fiction hasn't turned into reality quite like the script, but the drama should have gotten people to thinking. ■ In fact, Europe is facing an energy crisis. And Russia may have invaded Ukraine instead of Norway, but that doesn't mean it's behaving peacefully towards Scandinavia. Russian agents have been caught flying drones over Norwegian territory, menacing airports and oil platforms. ■ The world has moved into a period when conflict doesn't always look like war. Of course it still can; the behavior of Russian troops in Ukraine has in some cases been as barbaric as any combat of the past. But conflict is no longer limited to the old ways of battle lines and color-coded uniforms. Some of the cruelest, most inhumane acts of Russia's war against Ukraine has been traced to missile engineers in Moscow and St. Petersburg who make targets of civilian homes and institutions. ■ And even if there is no immediate incursion against Norwegian territory afoot, the shamelessness of trying to intimidate the country within its own boundaries is something worse than peace, even if it does not fully rise to the definition of war. The future depends on our speedy adjustment to new and unconventional conflict, and the steeliness of our resolve not to let aggressors set the rules of the game. ■ "Occupied" told a story that, even when it first aired, drew fits of protest from the Kremlin which obviously ring deafeningly hollow today. Russia's government in 2016 said that "the series’s creators decided to scare Norwegian viewers with a non-existing threat from the East in the worst Cold War traditions." The worst "traditions" of the Cold War may be back, but it's clear who is at fault. Halting the march of evil is going to take plenty of imagination from the free world.

October 23, 2022

News Arguing against interest, for the public interest

Classic advice from high-school writing teachers insists that a good persuasive writer should be able to make their opponent's case as well as their own. It is solid advice, since it requires the would-be rhetorician to be capable of understanding an argument in both the affirmative and the negative. ■ The advice does contain limitations, though. To say it helps a person to "see both sides" presupposes that there are merely two sides to an issue, and that they are diametrically opposed. This isn't always the case; in fact, the people who aggravate our political sensibilities most aren't the ones who are seen as taking opposite views from ours, but rather the ones whose views might be considered a "near miss" from our own. ■ For that reason -- and for many others -- it would be refreshing to see a revival of heterodoxy in the public square. People with good persuasive skills should be challenged to make the best possible case for reaching their own conclusions, but using the assumptions and predispositions of someone who disagrees with them. Or, similarly, to make use their own preferences and logical pathways to make the case for their opponent's conclusion. ■ Too many issues are nationalized anyway in American politics. This country of more than 330 million people contains just too many variables to rely on one-size-fits-all arguments for all public policies. It would serve us well to hear good-faith arguments that are not strictly in the speaker's (or writer's) self-interest. ■ We lack a well-known forum not for contrarianism (those can be found all over), but for unconventional arguments arriving at surprising conclusions. What is, for instance, the best rock-ribbed capitalist case for single-payer health care? Or, what is the socialist case for right-to-work laws? What is the most persuasive libertarian case for a larger, more muscular navy? What is soundest progressive argument for deregulating financial markets? ■ It's entirely fair if the people making these arguments offer clear disclaimers right up front: The persistence of arguments found online means that basically anything a person says or writes is likely to be used against them for generations to come. ■ We still haven't reconciled ourselves to this problem, and a problem it surely is. Nothing indiscreet someone writes for a college newspaper out of youthful ignorance remains buried forever, as it once would have been. No ill-advised endorsement or impulsive tweet is lost to the ether; they all come back to haunt. ■ And as a result, the incentives -- at least for now -- are for people to dig in their heels, double down, and seek refuge within their own tribes. But that doesn't help anyone to make the case for change within their own communities, nor does it bring anyone over from other sides (however many there may be). ■ We do need to get to a more forgiving place, culturally; one where people are forgiven for embracing bad ideas in the past and rewarded for changing their minds as new facts (and new arguments) come to the forefront. One step in that direction would be to challenge persuasive individuals to make those unconventional cases -- either the best version of an opponent's case to persuade one's own side, or the best version of one's own conclusion but structured around an opponent's assumptions and values. ■ None of it is a silver bullet, and any forum worthy of hosting these kinds of arguments would need to be financially viable, and that creates a chicken-and-egg problem. But it ought to be there. The same old arguments being made to the same old interests aren't really interesting, and they aren't really productive, either. If even Netflix has developed a feature that basically begs "Surprise me", then we ought to have a similar relief valve in our public sphere.

October 22, 2022

News Move it

Americans have a funny relationship with motion. A person walking down the street is perfectly ordinary and attracts no attention. But if that same person stands in the same place on the sidewalk for ten minutes, they're sure to attract attention. ■ A car moving down the road? As normal as can be. But park that same car in the wrong place for too long (a parking lot, or in front of a prominent building), and a tow truck is probably soon to be on the way. ■ It's not a bad thing that we see fit to leave people alone when they're in motion. A bustling nation is usually a prosperous one. But we do need to consider whether we have enough spaces (in the right locations) for people to stay still. ■ Public spaces for people to remain still can be hard to maintain. Unlike a rotisserie oven, you cannot just "set it and forget it". Keeping spaces clean, sheltered, and heated costs money. Staffs must be hired and trained, and conscientious upkeep is a necessity. ■ There's a reason coffee shops are reconsidering their tolerance for "campers" and shifting to drive-through configurations. And it's much the same reason parks and libraries have trouble maintaining clean and orderly conditions when their budgets get clipped. Likewise for the widespread demise of the indoor shopping mall. ■ We just don't do well with people staying in place unless they're actively paying some kind of rent (either explicitly or implicitly). It's a cultural feature of American life that deserves closer attention. ■ Yet for all our reluctance to make provisions for people to sit still, we spend extraordinary amounts on the right to keep moving: Road and highway spending dwarfs spending on public spaces. We'll spend millions of public dollars to build airports where people will mostly just sit and wait, but we're not all that interested in providing the same accommodations for people who aren't going anywhere. ■ Protected freedom of motion is a mostly unalloyed good, and we should keep it as unfettered as possible. But the need to protect the freedom to remain still (without bothering others) deserves a second look.

October 21, 2022

News Love, hate, and the daily

Institutions can withstand a lot of hate: no amount of contempt from the rest of the baseball-loving world has yet brought down the New York Yankees. But institutions really cannot survive if the predominant feeling about them is mere indifference. ■ People have to care about institutions for them to survive, and one of the worrisome developments that should have Americans alarmed about the condition of our civic health is the long drift towards deep indifference about institutions like news publications. ■ For a long time, the daily metropolitan newspaper occupied a special place in American communities. Protected by economic conditions that tended to drive them towards natural monopolies and by a Constitution that puts freedom of the press first among the amendments, newspapers had it very good. ■ But good economics tend to attract consolidators, and that certainly happened within newspapering. Where family ownership once was a dominant model, shareholder-driven corporate ownership became ascendant in the late part of the 20th Century and into the 21st. ■ Corporate ownership isn't an intrinsically bad thing, but shareholder ownership isn't often conducive to the same sense of mission and purpose that can be instilled by a visible, identifiable owner (or family of owners). One reason the New York Times distinguishes itself yet today is that we can still see the imprint of Sulzberger-Ochs family ownership on the institution's decisions. ■ For most of the rest of the metropolitan newspaper universe, the shift to shareholder ownership coincided with an unfortunate deterioration in economics. The natural monopoly of times past derived from the newspaper's special status as the best way to reach the largest spread of a community at once. The Internet has demolished that advantage in most places. ■ Weakening economics combined with a depletion of institutional vigor have brought about a wicked case of indifference. When newspapers had large institutional personalities, people could love them or hate them -- but they often had strong opinions about them. It is hard to read the catastrophic decline in circulation as a symptom of anything other than massive indifference. ■ Thus, when Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, lays off hundreds of staff members from coast to coast and mandatory unpaid leave for everyone who's left, what in the past might have stirred angry protests is today met with little more than a passive shrug from most of the public. ■ That's unfortunate. We should be able to love and hate institutions (like newspapers) within some normal bounds -- like loving or hating a baseball team. But when people become addicted to highly polarized "news" coverage on the Internet and elsewhere because it gives them good tribal sensations, things risk turning sour. ■ And when the public grows indifferent to the goings-on at what were once mainstream arbiters of local information, taste, and opinion (read often even by those who "hated" them, again within normal bounds), then we face some real troubles if nothing else moves in to fill that old role. Americans still need to yell at one another (in good faith) across the public square. The more the forums wither and die where that good kind of shouting once took place, the less of the healthy conflict we have, and the more indifference risks corroding into contempt.

October 18, 2022

News To maintain is divine

The essence of fall isn't the arrival of sweater weather or the pumpkin-spicing of food items both tolerable and wildly inappropriate. No, the essence of the season is the reminder that nature obeys a rigorous discipline of routine maintenance. Without leaves falling and annual plants dying off, there would be no room for the dormancy of winter, the flourishing of spring, or the products of summer. ■ Some plants nature pushes out of the way, only to be replaced the next year by whatever makes the cut in cutthroat ecological competition. Others nature brings back -- often bigger and better than before. Trees grow their new rings, while rose bushes thicken and grape vines bear more-sought-after fruit. ■ As humans living in a world accustomed to practices like fast fashion and planned obsolescence, the merits of maintenance often deserve more credit than they get. Not all maintenance is worth doing, of course: Some things are better off being replaced than fixed. Nobody should try to fix a 20-year-old tube TV. ■ But like nature, we ought to know which things to let go and which to keep around. And for those things we want to keep around, whether they be infrastructure or institutions, we shouldn't hesitate to put a premium on good maintenance. Both the physical goods we can keep in good working order and the human systems that occasionally need some fresh leadership and a renewed sense of purpose are often worth maintaining. ■ It's considered exciting -- sexy, even -- to start new things. Lots of people accumulate social approval and plenty of wealth from becoming "founders". Serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and first-round angel investors get lots of status and cash alike. But a well-functioning society needs people who are proud to keep things working once they've been started, and who are respected for doing it. ■ Making consistent, incremental improvements to how a firm, a non-profit, or a government agency works will probably never get the same kind of attention as being a publicity-hounding "disruptor". But we count on the people with a custodial mindset -- those who breathe life into titles like "trustee" and notions like "fiduciary duty" -- to ensure that we don't just waste our time building up monuments that end up crumbling all too soon after they are raised.

October 17, 2022

News The good fight

The minority of American voices still hostile to open support for Ukraine in its fight to repel Russia's invasion tend to fall into two camps. One is aligned, either openly or sympathetically with the myth of an imperial Russia. The other claims it is merely against war and in favor of de-escalating the conflict by whatever means are available. ■ Both camps should acquaint themselves with the advice of the ancient philosopher Lucius Seneca: "There is but one thing that brings the soul to perfection -- the unalterable knowledge of good and evil." ■ It really isn't hard to distinguish which side has enthusiastically embraced evil in this war; Russian forces have made unspeakable and persistent violence against civilians a strategic centerpiece of their conduct of the war. Civilian targets in Kyiv, far from the front lines, are being attacked purely to create terror. Mass graves are being uncovered as Ukrainian towns are being liberated. Even the word "children" isn't enough to command mercy. ■ So, for those who are sympathetic to the aggressors, the "knowledge of good and evil" should be plain. But for those who claim merely to be against conflict (or perhaps against Western engagement in the conflict), it really shouldn't be much harder to tell the difference. ■ Finland's prime minister -- a person who herself must contemplate the real risk of Russian aggression -- put it plainly: "The way out of the conflict? The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine. That's the way out of this conflict." ■ Even great principles have boundaries. "Thou shall not kill" may be a rule nearly asymptotic to being right all of the time, but one imagines that even the Pope would kill a homicidal maniac with his bare hands if that were the only way to spare the lives of a room full of innocent children. Likewise, avoiding war may be the right thing to do most of the time -- but not "at all costs", if those costs include vast human suffering and the snuffing out of many thousands of lives. ■ Knowing good and evil isn't a matter of mechanically observing perfect rules. It is a consequence of learning the boundaries of good and bad, and realizing that those boundaries are not always static. To be anti-violence all of the time, without exceptions, is to intrinsically invite more violence by those willing to commit it. Some tools, like deterrence, are best used by those who are reluctant, but not unwilling, to put them to use.

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October 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Take an insult like an adult

Humanity has shown itself again and again to be better-off when people are free to communicate, trade, and cooperate with one another across borders. Fundamentally, people are far more alike than we are different, and the more we can compound our ingenuity by working freely with one another, the better we can hope to achieve those measures of progress that make us all healthier, wealthier, and safer. ■ But there remain those who put their faith in coercion rather than freedom. Most powerful among them are probably the cabal that self-perpetuates its rule over China. It is a power structure so sensitive to criticism that its reaction to protesters hanging a poster criticizing its leader in front of a consulate in Manchester, England, was to beat a protester in full view of both cameras and the British police. ■ Just imagine: A gross violation of both the protester's own rights while on British soil, and of the most basic diplomatic protocols, merely because (in the consulate's own words) the protesters had "hung an insulting portrait of the Chinese president at the main entrance". For that, they responded with masked thugs in body armor literally committing a kidnapping in plain sight. ■ It is fundamentally wrong when these things happen within the borders controlled by such a government. An assault on protesters would be deplorable in Beijing. It becomes an act of flagrant hostility to the peaceful and respectable world order when it takes place in front of a consulate in England's third city. ■ Economic decoupling is expensive and political rifts that keep nations from working together on the problems that confront us as an entire humanity are bound to cause missteps, costly missed opportunities, and needless roadblocks to progress. Humanity as a whole loses for every day spent emphasizing petty, narcissistic squabbles when we're all on the same lonely pale blue dot. ■ Nobody should celebrate growing divisions among the various nations of the world. But neither should anyone be the least bit confused about who is provoking the discord. Sometimes "an insulting portrait" is the same as a look in the mirror.

October 15, 2022

News The self-evident banner

The message is so mild to the ears of anyone living under the protection of the First Amendment that it sounds almost quaint: "No Covid test, we want to eat. No restrictions, we want freedom. No lies, we want dignity. No Cultural Revolution, we want reform. No leaders, we want votes. By not being slaves, we can be citizens." ■ But communication theorists say that we have to consider the sender, the receiver, the message, the medium, and the context. In its real context, the message goes from quaint to revolutionary. This demand for freedom and dignity was printed on a banner hung from a bridge in Beijing. What would have been a modest petition for a redress of grievances in the United States is a far bolder thing to assert under authoritarianism. ■ No one should ever underestimate the ability of people to understand when they are being mistreated. Values we label today as "classical liberalism" -- government by the consent of the governed, equality before the law, freedom of speech, the right to complain to the authorities -- aren't exclusive to the people who had the privilege of reading about them or learning about them from civics class. ■ They belong to everyone. They are natural rights. They are principles so natural that even people who have been kept in the dark about where they have been written down still have a rightful claim to them. Not only a claim, but also a reasonable expectation that they will organically uncover them even without any help. ■ Those of us with the privilege of living under principled, rules-based, democratic self-government should cheer for our fellow human beings when they assert themselves and their natural rights. Every one of us should cheer for them like we would cheer for the varsity squad at our alma mater, and for the same reason, too: Because they are like us, they are on our team, and they are engaged in a fight more hazardous than what anyone encounters watching from afar. ■ Seeing others as our equals -- specifically, as moral equals who are thoroughly capable of arriving at conclusions about human dignity that are compatible with our own, even if their libraries are deprived of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke -- helps to reinforce the understanding that those of us who have our freedoms guaranteed by law need to put ourselves in the shoes of those who don't. ■ Our thoughts should center on how we can best help them to reach their rightful state. We need to trust that those things the Declaration of Independence declares "self-evident" really are. Believing in the self-evidence of those human truths is an essential step towards recognizing the fundamental equality of people who just haven't been as fortunate as we have been thus far.

October 14, 2022

Science and Technology Make boring change

Like too much of climate-related activism, the desecration of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" by soup-throwing protesters is nothing better than a cry for validation. And a strange cry it is: Mother Nature has rarely shown much favor towards keeping humans alive in the first place. Nature sends us polio, cholera, and mosquitoes (which carry everything from West Nile virus to malaria). Humans had to invent vaccines, water purification, and DEET for ourselves.. ■ Aside from the way it demonstrates a narrow-minded fixation on false dichotomies, activism that relies upon shock and destruction is a deeply pointless (and often even counter-productive) way to make a point. There is literally no end to the list of things that people could go and damage, break, or disfigure, and every time someone does so, it only leaves the world poorer. And poverty leaves us without resources, which are what the world needs in order to solve our problems. ■ The real work of grappling with climate change isn't done by the extremists who pit goods like carbon efficiency and economic growth against one another. It is done by patient and often very dull work in low-key spaces, many of them unexpected. ■ Reducing the relative carbon density of concrete will make a huge difference (it's responsible for about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions). And progress is being made. Turning wastewater treatment systems into net energy producers will make a big difference by reducing the world's energy consumption by as much as 3%. Progress is being made there, too. Putting electric passenger cars on the roads to replace cars with combustion engines will help, but don't overlook the impact already achieved by double-stacking freight trains. ■ People who are serious about solving problems don't go about making new ones just to put attention on themselves. It's selfish and juvenile. Real change doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen because of desecration. ■ It happens when people of goodwill are persuaded by reasonable arguments that change needs to occur, and when they are shown productive steps that can be taken in the right direction. Mother Nature isn't going to love you back, but your fellow humans can appreciate an effort undertaken with sincerity.

October 13, 2022

News Is it criticism, or just preaching to the converted?

Praise broadly and criticize specifically: It's good advice for management and equally good advice within personal relationships. To be easy with praise -- so long as it is authentic -- is a good way to ensure that people feel appreciated and recognized for their personal dignity. To constrain criticisms to the most specific level possible helps reduce differences to the narrowest possible lanes. ■ Both habits are means to reinforce mutual trust and respect, and to encourage the most dignified possible interactions among people. And they are habits sorely missing from the mainstream of contentious public opinion. ■ The nature of space-constrained headline snippets and the relentless pressure to get people to take measurable action (by "liking", sharing, or reading content) is having a toxic effect on the way people take in their opinions. If a writer can't get an audience to "tune in" on the basis of what fits into a social-media clip, then all the leftover effort in the world can go into crafting the perfect inverted pyramid and it won't make any difference. The headline either makes the sale or it does not. ■ Unwavering fealty to the demand for spicy headlines doesn't do much for the dignity of interactions. It just encourages broad criticisms in pursuit of getting the largest number of like-minded critics to like, share, and click. It's an incentive structure that rewards tribal signaling, not witty critique. ■ Thus, when an opinion columnist for the New York Times wants to criticize a member of the United States Senate, goodwill and specificity go out the window. Instead, Carlos Lozada declares "Among the hundreds of books I read in my years as a critic, only three felt so paralyzing[ly] pointless that, upon reaching the end, I found I had nothing to say." That is how the reader is supposed to be drawn into reading nearly 1,500 words on Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is likely to be leaving the Senate before the end of his term in order to become the president of the University of Florida. ■ The suitability of a candidate for a university presidency is a nuanced matter. It's especially interesting when the final candidate is an incumbent politician from another state. But the column doesn't attempt to do that; it instead offers a laundry list of vague complaints about "vapid sentence[s]" and a "trifecta of triteness". ■ That kind of opinion writing reflects an addiction to engagement -- finding the biggest possible Hallelujah chorus to amplify broad complaints about an individual who is seen as a convenient foil, rather than taking the most challenging route to identifying general good and separating it from particular complaints. ■ Lozada's complaints about style could be countered by an argument that a politician trying to reach a mass audience in book form has to state things plainly, if not simply. What he dismisses as discussions of civics in "the most Founders 101 way possible" might instead be praised with equal enthusiasm as "adhering to the long-standing practices that have historically paid generous dividends to America as a country. ■ No single opinion essay tells the whole story of any subject, but the patterns that make one column into unpleasant reading (for an audience not predisposed to agree with the author's conclusions) can also be the patterns that make it hard to have interesting, good-faith discussions about matters that really are in the public interest. ■ There is no doubt that the state of higher education is a significant matter of such interest, and the contributions a high-profile public policy-maker could make instead at the helm of a major university are decidedly worth discussion. But if the country's de facto newspaper of record isn't willing to rise above a mainly superficial critique of a person instead of taking on a fair-minded grappling with that person's ideas, then we're bound for trouble. ■ We have to be able to assume earnest good faith in others more often than not -- even when we are inclined to disagree with them. Social media snippets don't reward that kind of behavior, and that is a problem worth lots of thoughtful review. But when the social-media pile-on style becomes an end unto itself, then we really must take a step back. Critics will criticize, of course, but if there's nothing redeeming about doing so, then we need to ask what good all of this "engagement" is for.

October 10, 2022

News Don't go on

Plenty of Benjamin Franklin's advice is uncannily relevant to the present day. Consider: "It is ill-manners to silence a fool, and cruelty to let him go on." ■ A fool doesn't have to be unintelligent. Some people are naturally short of wits, but many others are endowed with substantial intelligence which they choose to apply unevenly (to put it diplomatically). And when that happens, everyone needs at least one friend who can reel in the worst of that foolish behavior. ■ It's a mistake for anyone -- even the certifiable genius -- to go without just such a trustworthy friend. The temptation is surely there; lauded often for their genius, lots of creative, innovative, groundbreaking individuals are capable of coming to believe that they are without peers. ■ But enormous raw intelligence (and even a highly refined genius for something particular) cannot find itself beyond the reach of a well-considered second opinion. In aviation, the entire philosophy of crew resource management is built around the principle that someone (the captain) may be the most experienced expert "in the room", but that even that authority is only safely used if others are willing and able to challenge it if they believe something vital has been overlooked. ■ So, too, should certain outspoken or even "disruptive" public figures be willing to have their genius checked by a second opinion. The really smart ones learn it: Warren Buffett (investing's "Oracle of Omaha") has for decades depended upon Charlie Munger to validate or dismiss his ideas. Bill Gates first had Paul Allen, then Steve Ballmer, to keep him in check as he put his enormous drive to work behind his strategic programming genius. Soichiro Honda had engineering genius, but needed Takeo Fujisawa to make it a business. ■ Without a second opinion, it's too easy for untethered genius to give way to madness. Elon Musk has loud and emphatic ideas about nuclear warfare, and he's picking fights on Twitter with anyone who disagrees (it is, for instance, a preposterous choice to accuse Garry Kasparov for not doing enough to speak out against Russia's regime). Meanwhile, Kanye West is going about amplifying messages associated with racists and posting excruciating antisemitism on his social media accounts. ■ Musk and West are each certifiable geniuses in certain ways -- Musk can shepherd wild ideas into reality like almost nobody in our time, and West is a profoundly gifted musician. That much shouldn't be denied. But they're both in desperate need of a second opinion. Someone trustworthy needs to be able to say to each of them, "Hold on. You've gone too far." And that message needs to get through. ■ It's easy to dig in for the sake of pride and to double down on the conviction that the crowd just doesn't "get it". The louder and broader the reaction, quite often the stiffer the resistance. But when a friend tells you, "Look, this is a bad idea, and it's hurting what I know you value", that is the sort of message everyone should know how to take in and give fair consideration. Nobody should allow themselves to get beyond the reach of that kind of check, purely as a matter of self-interest. ■ No one has perfect knowledge of self; it is a process to come to a deep understanding, and no one really arrives at it like some kind of destination on a map. Friends help us, though, because they can see us from the outside. Just as you'll never see your own forehead without the assistance of a mirror or a camera, you'll never see the entirety of your own self without the help of others, in no small part because we are relational beings, formed in part by the social interactions around us. No one, no matter how objectively smart, is complete without the help of a friend who can help to silence us when we act like fools.

October 7, 2022

Threats and Hazards Serious times call for serious words

The median age of a person on Earth is 30 years -- meaning that half of people on the planet were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas 1991. ■ Americans are older than the world as a whole; the median American is 39 years old, meaning that half of us were born before 1983 and half of us after. Assuming that most people aren't especially aware of geopolitics at least until they've graduated from kindergarten, then it's safe to assume that only about half of us remember anything meaningful about the Cold War. ■ Demographics alone rarely tell the whole story of anything, but they certainly have some effect on the way that people perceive of big events and big ideas. Thus, when the 79-year-old President of the United States says of his Russian counterpart, "I don't think there's any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon", he not only risks making the wrong point diplomatically, he also risks being badly misunderstood by people who don't share his historical memory. ■ It is possible to have the right idea (of course it would be mad to use nuclear weapons), but sometimes quiet resolve and purposeful reticence are more valuable than shaking an audience by the lapels. ■ Someone who grew up with the threat of nuclear winter ever-present in the cultural background noise (as roughly half of Americans did) may not hear anything extraordinary in the word "Armageddon": It's unfortunately familiar. So familiar (and unremarkable) that there were episodes of "Night Court" and "The Golden Girls" devoted to the omnipresent risk of World War III. Warning of nuclear dangers to an audience that remembers "The world could end tomorrow" as part of its sitcom routine might seem to the speaker like no big deal at all. ■ But half of the world has been blissfully insulated from the prospect, at least for the most part. The risk of conflict involving nuclear weapons ought to be taken seriously, but it's essential to realize that frames of reference are not the same for everyone. What might have been a routine way to describe something in the past can have an entirely different set of connotations now, and having a prudential attitude towards preventing a worst-case scenario in no small part involves thoughtful restraint in both word and deed. ■ Scrambling up the escalatory ladder could surely turn worst-case in a hurry. Racing up the rhetorical ladder as a means of deterrence may itself be an unforced error. We're not always even capable of speaking the same language among ourselves as a country, but the whole world is the audience now.

October 6, 2022

Humor and Good News Come together for a laugh

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry argues that those who search for a partner have a simple set of options: "I think the answer is BE FRIENDLY or FUNNY or both." Her advice is sound, inasmuch as people follow it by making the most of what comes naturally to them. Partners who plan to be with one another for the long term should, of course, be compatible without being contrived. ■ Perry's advice may be modern and contemporary, but it sticks because it is consistent with the advice given by many other wise individuals across the course of human history. And the consistency of that advice should be reassuring, particularly because it reassures us that human beings everywhere are more alike than we are different. Good advice is consistent across time and space in large part because human nature is, too. ■ The modern philosopher Jonathan Sacks unintentionally explained why Perry's advice resonates when he wrote, "A joke testifies to our ability to see things differently, and because we can do so, we are free. Humour is constitutive of humanity." Every reasonable person who seeks a partner wants someone with an authentic humane depth; otherwise, why waste the time? ■ Some decades before Sacks, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl advised that humor fit the broad purpose of supporting the mettle people often need in order to survive: "It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds." ■ Two centuries before Frankl, Benjamin Franklin endorsed being funny because it makes a person a better friend: "Friendship cannot live with ceremony, nor without civility." To disarm another person with a sincere laugh is perhaps the ultimate act of civility -- and it deserves to go without saying that laughter dismantles overwrought ceremony. ■ Going back almost a millennium, Maimonides praised the virtues of friendliness as the characteristics of an enlightened person: "He greets every man first, so that they will be pleasantly disposed toward him. He judges every man in a favorable light. He speaks in praise of his fellow man, never disparagingly. He loves peace and seeks peace." ■ Another millennium before that, Epictetus is credited with the advice to "Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men." And Lucius Seneca said essentially the same thing: "There is a pleasure in being in one's own company as long as possible, when a man has made himself worth enjoying." ■ "Be friendly, be funny, or be both" is great advice with a very long history -- because human nature really doesn't change. It has always been like it is now. We can (and should) train ourselves in good habits, including those that don't come to us instinctively. But in romantic life and in Platonic interactions alike, effectively the same advice has always applied (and ultimately always will): A person doesn't have to fake it, but each of us should try to cultivate what makes us funny or friendly.

October 5, 2022

News A petition to pass organic chem

The story of a professor at New York University who was released subsequent to student complaints that his organic chemistry course was too hard is one that, due to an acute set of troublesome predispositions, is too irresistible for media outlets to overlook. It's too juicy not to report as a tale of generational conflict -- or Covid learning loss, or the consumerization of higher education. It's ripe for the picking. But those frames are misleading, in no small part because they are so predictable. ■ Above all, when it comes to matters of education, we have to shake the idea that someone who's brilliant about a particular subject matter is the best person to actually teach that subject matter. Content knowledge and pedagogy have to be developed independently to create a good teacher. ■ The distinction is just like knowing that someone who is an expert at any other type of work may not be the ideal candidate to manage other people who do that work. Teaching and managing are skill sets that aren't necessarily tethered to a particular form of knowledge or set of on-the-job abilities. It is a fundamental mistake to conflate them. ■ Moreover, the NYU story is hard to tell without introducing a whole load of other complications. For instance, the New York Times reports this sentence: "Students said the high-stakes course -- notorious for ending many a dream of medical school -- was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores." ■ Two important notes arise from a careful reading of that sentence: First, weed-out courses are generally silly, in no small part because they tend to arbitrarily reward or punish people in ways that don't actually bear out in performance of the ultimate job. ■ The second note is even more important: Education should not be adversarial. That's not to say that education should consist of students and teachers hanging out in an egalitarian free-for-all. But any education that consists of teachers and students squaring off with one another as competitors is an education that falls short of its potential. Students shouldn't take pride in pulling one over on their instructors (as by submitting papers they didn't really write), nor should teachers seek reputations for arbitrary toughness (as by celebrating the harshness of a grading curve). ■ Tests should measure learning, but they don't always do that. If there's a fundamental breakdown in the learning process, that could be a problem on one of multiple levels: Some students are blockheads who are too lazy to learn. Some professors are sadists who just want to see other people fail. Most of the time, neither case is true. ■ Sweeping guesses made by journalists, like "this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body" are weak at best and damaging at worst. ■ Older people have whined since the beginning of recorded history about "kids these days". It is nothing better than a lazy deflection. We should look more thoughtfully at what is really going on. ■ Most of what people really learn -- the things they actually put to work in their vocations and in life -- ends up happening in low-stakes environments without tests or even formal teaching hierarchies: On-the-job training, conference talks, journal articles, scuttlebutt with colleagues, and -- far more often than we likely realize -- via search engines and the Internet. ■ We neglect the importance of low-stakes learning (that is, what you learn when you're not facing a test at the end) at our peril, and that neglect is a systemic shortcoming. We too often design education around high-stakes testing and doing what must be done to "get by" -- like passing a weed-out course in organic chemistry. ■ There is no perfect answer to the NYU story because it is too wrapped up in other complex issues, but it should focus our attention not on false dichotomies over "cranky old professors versus whiny entitled students", but on more comprehensive consideration about "What signifies a successful education?" That's a serious question worth asking, and not just about our medical schools.

October 4, 2022

News The thoroughly modern vice of predictability

A few generations ago, it was entirely plausible that an American might have their political beliefs entirely shaped by their membership in an ethnic community. The Irish, most visibly, took their large concentrated numbers in places like Boston and Chicago and blended the tendency for an immigrant population to "stick together" with the inherent advantage of arriving with a command of the English language, producing powerful results in machine politics. ■ Under such circumstances, one's opinion on any particular public issue could easily have been "whatever is good for my voting bloc", especially as defined by the people with the power of patronage. Predictability of opinion could easily follow from the low level of investment in policies but the high level of investment in the cohesion of the voting unit. ■ Today, there really is no such excuse. Yet we suffer all too often from a thoroughly modern vice of predictability. The level of unoriginality in much of what passes for both analysis and opinion is stifling. ■ Oft-cited research suggests that party membership has become more ideologically uniform in the United States by quite a lot over the last quarter-century. And it is easy to cite heterodoxy in some of the prominent politicians of the near-past, like Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alan Simpson. ■ The problem is less that there is so much self-reinforcing adherence to the "party line" on predictable issues, and more that the issues along which so many campaigners and pundits choose to align themselves are so unfailingly predictable. The problems that require urgent attention, particularly at the national level, are pretty confounding to the existing matrices of "left" and "right". ■ What is a "progressive left" approach to cybersecurity? What is a "nationalist conservative" response to the escalating costs of catastrophic natural disasters due to the expanding bull's-eye effect? Is there an inherently more or less "moderate" approach to protecting intellectual property interests against hostile foreign state actors? ■ There may ultimately be sound reasons for responses to these issues to take on an ideological tenor, but the problem for now is that these issues scarcely turn any heads at all. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, just for example, issued a blue-ribbon report with dozens of urgent recommendations for national cybersecurity protection. Two years later, some progress has been made -- but fundamentally none of the discussion or debate has moved any closer to mainstream discussion. It should be a centerpiece matter of national debate, but instead we get stale leftovers. ■ If nobody really wonders what any given TV talking head is going to say or what a brand-name columnist is about to write, and if nobody ever feels surprised by novel subjects that arrest a Senator's attention or heterodox opinions that have nothing to do with the latest horse race, then we're selling ourselves far short. If "the discourse" is all just clicks and eyeballs based on the laziest possible assumptions about what will activate the average person's partisan lizard brain, then we're plainly just kneecapping ourselves. ■ It may be comfortable to keep politics safely within predictable lanes, but really big issues are at hand. And ignoring them because they take time and effort to understand -- or because they don't fit neatly into simple one-dimensional scales of "left versus right" -- isn't good for anyone. The problems that really derail the world aren't the ones with predictable ideological alignments, they're the surprises that appear to come out of left field only because we haven't been paying attention to the real ball game.

October 3, 2022

News Don't legitimize bad behavior

Elon Musk has thoughts on the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and he has shared those thoughts with the world on Twitter, the social media platform he is trying not to buy. It is entirely within Musk's rights as an American citizen to exercise his First Amendment protections by voicing an opinion. But it's an opinion in dire need of reconsideration. ■ Musk proposed that step one towards a peace between Ukraine and Russia would be: "Redo elections of annexed regions under UN supervision. Russia leaves if that is will of the people." He spun the proposal as an exercise in realism, writing "This is highly likely to be the outcome in the end -- just a question of how many die before then". But what he overlooks is a central problem in the entire affair: To "redo" the illegitimate referenda in the four Ukrainian regions which Russia is trying to occupy is to suggest that those votes had some basis of legitimacy in the first place. ■ Chapter 1, Article 2 of the UN charter states: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state". It does not say "We'll supervise a do-over". ■ Making this all more intriguing is that Ukraine's president has responded directly to Musk's tweet with a Twitter poll of his own, asking "Which Elon Musk do you like more? One who supports Ukraine [or] one who supports Russia"? Public diplomacy in 2022 is absolutely nothing like any reasonable person would have guessed 20 years ago. ■ But the heart of the matter remains: Are people entitled to self-determination? Absolutely. And in trying to cover for his initial mistake, Musk has subsequently tried to frame his question as merely offering the people of those occupied regions that basic choice of self-determination. ■ Yet it's not unlike sending in the police after a hostage has been taken and asking the hostage, "Would you rather go home or go with your captors? We'll let you vote in a secret ballot." The very act of submitting it as a choice presumes that there was legitimacy to the hostage-taking in the first place. ■ Elon Musk has a first-rate mind, but his self-control is often second-class at best. Proffering a "peace" plan that assumes that the world should submit an invasion to a vote -- under the supervision of the United Nations, whose Secretary-General has already expressly denounced the fraudulent referenda -- is the sort of choice from which Musk ought to have restrained himself.

October 2, 2022

Business and Finance Know your worth

In America's private-sector economy, almost two-thirds of the trade that takes place is counted as service work, with the remaining third consisting of goods. This ratio can be counter-intuitive: We think about "big-ticket" purchases and do a lot of conspicuous consumption via the products we buy. But services dominate, and that condition is the culmination of many decades trending in the same direction. ■ The economy rewards efficiency, and it's easy to track and measure the inputs that go into creating a good so as to strip out the waste and obtain better performance from less raw material. Today's smartphone performs vastly better than a brick phone from 25 years ago, using far less material, and it's only one of countless examples, both inside and outside the world of technology. ■ It's hard to get the same kind of measurable efficiency gains from service labor: Three people cannot play music written for a string quartet, an attentive server can only take on so many tables at a restaurant, and a conscientious doctor can only see so many patients in a day. ■ But service quality can differ by an enormous amount, and it seems odd that we haven't seen more resources committed to independently evaluating it. Consumers clearly care about service quality; look no farther than the popularity of Yelp reviews and Facebook recommendations. But those are amateur evaluations, and they are too easily and too often gamed by those who hope to manipulate the outcomes. ■ Headhunters offer something of a measuring stick for service quality -- impress the right people, and you might get called. But they tend to be inconsistent, since they too rely heavily on referrals and the opinions of those with ulterior motives and vested interests. ■ A market concentrating ever more heavily on service work cries out for a class of independent service evaluators: People who know a service well enough to offer an informed judgment about the quality of the work performed, who can engage with an individual service provider, evaluate the work, and report back on the relative quality (along with particular strengths and weaknesses). ■ When an employer hires "secret shoppers", it does so for its own self-interest. What we haven't really seen is the emergence of a comparable type of evaluator who is beholden instead to the person actually performing the work. ■ Everyone has had terrible experiences with service providers, and a perfectly ordinary response is simply to never return. It's possible to meet the minimum standards set by an employer and still do an unworthy job. ■ But every consumer has also had experiences with service providers who were so good that the natural question that comes to mind is, "Why are you here when you could be doing so much better?" Whereas quality can often be measured with some objectivity when it comes to producing goods, it's harder to evaluate it quite as well for services. ■ But those who deliver really good service work ought to know it, especially if they are under-pricing their work or otherwise holding themselves back from being appreciated and rewarded like they deserve. No Yelp reviewer or corporate secret shopper is likely to tell you "You're much too good to work here for this low a price"; it runs contrary to their own self-interest. ■ The individual who really ought to be moving up and out deserves to know that sooner rather than later, and shouldn't have to wait for a recruiter to catch wind of their reputation. Given how important high-quality service work already is -- and how its value to the economy is certain to grow rather than shrink -- it is a mystery why the economy isn't already crawling with independent evaluators who can offer the objective assessments those service providers need.

September 30, 2022

News Bets off

An institution undergoing severe decline may undertake what is called a gamble for resurrection: A bold or even foolhardy effort to do something extraordinary when the odds seem stacked against them, in what can be a desperate effort to try to salvage the outcome. It's been observed in banking, in militaries, and in business. ■ From the beginning, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has displayed characteristics of a gamble for resurrection. The Putin regime sits atop a country with a stagnant economy, demographic decline, and a woeful state of civil affairs. ■ It didn't have to turn out this way. Russia has vast natural resources, a significant place in world affairs, and a long-standing reputation for academic and scientific achievement. But even a good leader couldn't oversee the government of a country so large for so long without becoming sclerotic. And Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for more than 20 years, isn't a good person. ■ He knows that others are aware of his vulnerabilities, which may explain not only why so many critics are killed, but also why he might have undertaken a massive and unprovoked invasion. A successful invasion would have looked -- superficially -- like a demonstration of strength. ■ As the invasion of Ukraine is repelled, it's entirely possible that Putin will go even farther in this gamble for resurrection. If it becomes likely that he himself will be forced out of power, then it seems likely that he faces an existential threat to his own person. (Things rarely end well for deposed dictators.) And that, in turn, raises the stakes that he might act in ways that may raise existential threats for everyone else. ■ It is very good news that there has been global condemnation of the sham annexation referenda in some of the Ukrainian territories Russia has occupied. But it is very bad news that four countries abstained from a UN Security Council vote to denounce the referenda. ■ Safety lies in large part with people making rational decisions even within the irrational system imposed on the Russian state. The larger the number of individuals who realize the fruitlessness of further escalation and who gather how essential it is that they put the brakes on an autocrat's worst impulses, the better. ■ One man may be gambling for resurrection -- and willing to go all-in with many others along with his own life -- but safety rests with ensuring the broadest possible understanding among those below him that a resurrection is possible without the gamble. They have to see the possibility of a future their strongman cannot himself conceive.

September 29, 2022

The United States of America We just don't agree...yet

The way some people talk about their political rivals, one might get the impression that the United States was being overrun by evildoers bent on a level of plunder and destruction not seen since Genghis Khan. It isn't hard to find outlets sensationalizing that narrative on television, radio, websites, and social media. But it hardly comports with the lived reality of anyone who really pays attention. ■ People can be wrong about a lot of things. Good people. Even ourselves. But the leap from "Good person with whom I disagree" to "Evil person out to destroy everything I hold dear" is too easily and too often taken by the people clamoring to get famous, rich, or powerful by fanning the flames of existential angst. ■ There is no other individual with whom any thinking person agrees on every subject. Not a spouse. Not a parent. Not a best friend. Nobody should even agree completely with themselves, at least not over the course of time. Benjamin Franklin's advice to "Let every new year find you a better man" should be a reminder to shed old ideas when new evidence, better arguments, or the accumulation of wisdom compel us. ■ But just as a conscientious person ought to be tough on his or her old self, so too ought they to be forgiving of others who haven't come to the same conclusions. Sometimes, it's only a matter of "not yet" -- who doesn't hold a few cockamamie ideas as a young person? (And it's even more important now to be forgiving of past indiscretions, now that 13-year-olds can share their dumbest opinions on Facebook or become "influencers" before they can write cursive.) ■ Sometimes those differences will soften or even disappear with time. Sometimes they will persist. But aside from the extreme cases of the truly psychopathic and anti-social, most people are neither as different from one another as they might seem, nor as inclined to cause harm as the agitation propagandists would have us believe. ■ When the propagandists make claims like "They hate you" or "They're trying to destroy the country", it's imperative to ask: Who are "they", and where precisely are all of these supposedly terrible people hiding? In the workplace? At church? Around the neighborhood? In the bowling league? ■ If even one out of every hundred people at your place of worship seemed like a real evildoer, wouldn't their presence stand out? If every ten people with whom you did business included at least one real crook, wouldn't that raise serious alarm? If every residential block or floor of an apartment building were home to someone you could legitimately fear were out to destroy the Constitution itself, could that escape your attention? ■ A self-governing society can contain a whole lot of differences, even very large ones, as long as the people inside it are capable of distinguishing between a bad idea and a bad person. The mindset of "You just don't agree with me...yet" works a lot of magic to bring differences into their proper perspective. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to reconcile after a bitter rivalry. Stephen A. Douglas rallied support for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. Harry Truman enlisted Herbert Hoover to help reorganize the Executive Branch. ■ There's nothing wrong with spirited arguments -- those are a feature of the system, rather than a bug. Robust debate is a basic ingredient to successful decision-making among self-governing people. But there is something awfully wrong about assuming levels of bad faith (or worse) that have no basis in evidence. If anyone were surrounded by the same ratio of actual evil in real life that the agitators would have us believe, then perpetual crisis really would be at hand. Sensible people keep their wits about them by realizing there is no such tidal wave of malfeasance.

September 28, 2022

Science and Technology What's with all the quiet?

Joni Mitchell famously admonished that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, but it's also entirely true that once something is gone, it's hard for those who never knew it to imagine what life was like when it was still around. That's often fortunate, too: Nobody living with paved roads and modern sanitary sewers knows what it's like to walk through streets dodging horse manure and suffering with the chronic stench of waste. ■ Pressure continues building to drive the free advanced countries away from internal combustion. Much of that pressure has come from climate concerns, though increasingly, it also comes from political concerns about dependence on unreliable and even hostile counterparts for the necessary fossil fuel supplies. ■ The electrification of almost everything is well underway. From electric vehicles (now with a 5% market share in the US and 17% in Europe) to robotic battery-powered lawn mowers to even the emergence of electric air taxis, it's becoming evident that engines may be on their way out. ■ This presents an interesting little slice-of-life change that may well go unnoticed by today's children as they grow up. Combustion engines are noisy things, and they're all around us. We are so used to their noises that some electric vehicles have artificial noise added. Pause to consider how many overlapping engine noises are heard in a residential area: Airplanes flying overhead, motorcycles and cars rolling down the street, the two-cycle engines on leaf blowers and string trimmers being ramped up and down by homeowners. ■ It's not unrealistic to imagine that those noises are largely on the way out. Things will still make noise in an electrified future, of course -- but quite possibly, they'll make a lot less of it. And nobody will really remember much about them, because they aren't going to stop with a grand flourish. They're being turned off slowly and quietly, like a pop song that fades out. ■ And like ""Hey Jude", that fade-out may last almost as long as the main theme. But it is already underway, and it might be hard to explain what's missing someday to those who never knew when it started.

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September 26, 2022

News Personality is built, not bought

Judging by Google search traffic, "self-care" has never been more popular than it is in 2022. Taking care of oneself is, of course, an entirely prudent thing to do. ■ But it's hard not to detect at least some undertones in the ascendant cult of "self-care" (and some of its allied movements) that are meant to hobble its adherents, handcuffing them to routines that emphasize escape over accommodation. Life can be hard, and there is no amount of goop you can buy from a celebrity's website to make the hardness go away. ■ There is something of a mirror to the cult of self-care in the cult of faux masculinity. It doesn't take much searching to find examples of men dressing up in military-surplus costumes or turning ordinary consumer products into inexplicable confirmations of manhood. The aesthetic is all too often tied to an overcompensatory rejection of feelings as weakness. ■ Of these two, the first is almost always associated with a welcoming, open-minded mindset. The second is seen as closed and hostile. The first looks like it could shatter at any moment, while the second would have you believe it is prepared for the worst. ■ The problem in both of these cases is that popular culture has these ideas all jumbled up. Open-mindedness -- towards ideas, people, and approaches to problems -- is a vital tool in the kit of any well-functioning adult. It's a powerful weapon to be open to persuasion and difference; Dwight Eisenhower counseled in favor of this kind of liberality when he said, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." ■ But no amount of openness can be of much use unless it's tied to a sense of resilience. Sure, everyone needs to take a break once in a while. But celebrating fragility over resilience -- internalizing every setback, hurdle, or frustration as an injury in need of repair rather than accepting the inevitability of setbacks as a fact of life -- is a sure way to teach people a sense of helplessness. ■ People can (and should) be both kind and strong, both compassionate and gritty. Under circumstances far more trying than Americans encounter today, Booker T. Washington wrote, "I am learning more and more each year that all worry simply consumes, and to no purpose, just so much physical and mental strength that might otherwise be given to effective work." ■ Perhaps the underlying problem is the drive to commoditize personality, to convert "Who you are" into a thing that can be sold from a rack. Such things cannot be done, any more than a child becomes a real ghost by putting on a Halloween costume. Personality is built, not bought. ■ Though it may seem quaint to call an experience a "character-building exercise", fundamentally it is true: No small part of the construction of any person's true self will take place under challenging conditions. We share a common interest in encouraging people to show open-mindedness to others and to the world. But we also have a vested interest in seeing those open-minded people develop an interior robustness. No life will go without obstacles, and it's no use becoming convinced that the answer is a helpless attachment to frequent surrender.

September 23, 2022

Computers and the Internet A life in four minutes

The Economist publishes an obituary in each weekly edition, and it has recently featured two exceptionally prominent departures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II. Gorbachev was commemorated with 1,044 words, and the monarch with 1,039. These obituaries, like most of The Economist's writing, assume an educated and curious readership seeking to be informed by writers mindful of their time and rival interests. ■ In a sense, a thousand words is an arbitrary limitation. It's roughly what fits into one of The Economist's pages, with its spartan layout across two compact columns. The length isn't an Economist exclusive, either; consider Stephen Marche's "A Thousand Words About Our Culture" in Esquire, or the industry-standard 750-word op-ed column published in (and still solicited by) many newspapers. ■ Within that range of 750 to 1,000 words, a good writer can lasso the reader's attention, construct a defensible case on a matter, and exit without exhausting the audience's attention. Calvin Coolidge, as a post-Presidency newspaper columnist, got by in even fewer. Certainly, physical limitations -- like the number of words that fit on a magazine page or within a literal column of a broadsheet newspaper -- have helped to shape the nature and expectations of the written form. But there's something more to it. ■ Considering how long the format has endured, it's not unreasonable to conclude that it has an organic appeal. Assuming a well-educated reader can generally trawl through 250 to 500 words per minute of non-technical material, a thousand-word column begs only about two to four minutes of time. ■ But stripped of the limitations imposed by the printed page, many of the writers on digital platforms like Substack have abandoned those word counts for much greater heights. It isn't hard to find "columns" in the digital world that exceed not just 1,000 or 1,500 words, but that tilt the scales at 2,000 words or more. While it can seem luxurious to the writer to have no upper bound on what they are capable of publishing, there's only so much that readers should be asked to endure. ■ The answer isn't necessarily reducing down to the "smart brevity" model touted by an outlet like Axios. Bullet points and bold fonts aren't a substitute for writing clearly and distinctly. ■ But there is most certainly something to be said for asking writers to exhibit a little bit of self-imposed discipline. "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" used to be the old axiom. Writers today may not have to buy pixels by the barrel, but they ought to act like it. Reading from a screen can be fatigue-inducing in its own right, but it's even more exhausting when writers fail to hold back, concentrate on a discrete point, and move along to writing something new for the next deadline. ■ If an entire life can be summed up in about a thousand words (or its achievements rebutted in about 750), then most arguments can be made with more economy of language than is often the case in digital publishing. Just because we can drone on indefinitely doesn't mean we should.

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September 22, 2022

Weather and Disasters A tax, but one to give right back

The appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet isn't necessarily the abundance of available choices, but rather the suspension of any need to consider trade-offs. Life is full of trade-offs which force us to make small decisions every day, and being liberated from the need to make them can be like a vacation unto itself -- hence, the appeal of the all-inclusive resort. ■ Trade-offs remain both natural and unavoidable in the real world, though, and the failure to properly account for them in their totality is one of the main reasons that economics needs the concept of externalities. All things come with a balance of good and bad, which requires us to think about both. The indirect or unintentional consequences of our choices usually deserve accounting. ■ Pollution is perhaps the most notorious of the negative externalities. While progress has been made towards addressing the conventional pollution of the air, water, and soil, one of the most vexing problems is how to deal with the deposition of excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. ■ The consumption of carbon -- in particular, via the burning of fossil fuels -- has been treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet since the dawn of the industrial age. That liberation from choices has meant that people simply haven't been forced to reckon with the negative externalities. And thus we get climate change. ■ It is one matter to decide whether or not this excess carbon is really a problem. It is another to decide whether to do something about it. And it is still another to decide how best to go about doing it. ■ The evidence suggests that it is a real problem (and even if not, the costs of guessing wrong appear devastatingly high). Thus, many of the advanced industrial countries have decided in the affirmative on the second question -- to do something about it. ■ Even those who may not agree that it is a problem, or that action is worth taking, still ought to engage in deliberation about the best way to "do something": Even if you're trapped in a vehicle going to a destination not of your choosing, you would still want to have input on what plays on the stereo, how the temperature should be set, and whether the driver stays between the lines. ■ If we really want to reduce the deposition of excess carbon into the atmosphere, then instead of introducing vexing new regulations or imposing massively expensive and command-style plans from above, the most prudent strategy is probably to impose a tax on the release of carbon into the atmosphere. ■ New taxes, of course, are unpopular by default. The way to introduce the least amount of pain in association with such a tax is to rebate back the preponderance of it directly back to the public. If the funds raised through a carbon tax where overwhelmingly returned back to the public on a per-capita basis, the tax would be progressive (in the sense of raising more from the wealthy than from the poor) by default. Consumption taxes tied to a rebate system tend to do well at making those who consume the most shoulder the biggest part of the burden. Those earning the least income would benefit relatively the most from a rebate. ■ A truly wise tax design, if functioning like a "sin" tax, would impose some kind of deterrent effect. One would not want to rebate all of the revenues from a carbon tax back to the people being taxed -- perhaps most, but not all. With a portion of the tax revenues raised, the government could subsidize research and development, using inducement or innovation prizes. ■ A tax imposed on carbon consumption could mostly non-coercively nudge people away from the behaviors that cause carbon-related pollution, while minimizing the amount of decision-making required along the way. Instead of complex regulatory impositions, a carbon tax would put the most useful information in the easiest-to-understand terms: Prices. Choices resulting in more carbon pollution would come with higher price tags, all else being equal. ■ And if a small portion of funds raised through such a tax were devoted to inducement prizes -- prizes that only be pay out upon demonstrated performance -- the government would only have to pay when the job is done, making for a highly accountable form of public spending. Structured correctly, those prizes could reward high-priority technological innovations (like, for instance, better battery technology or improved small-engine efficiency), and the terms of accepting the very large reward could include turning over the innovation to the public domain for immediate royalty-free use by the private sector. ■ Climate change proposals (and no small amount of grandstanding) will remain on display for the full week of general debate at the United Nations. The scale of the problems may be global, but the answers will come from national decisions suitable to the people living under them. For the United States, at least, moving away from the buffet table and towards a simple pricing-based mechanism likely makes the most sense of all.

September 21, 2022

Threats and Hazards To say "no more"

It wasn't Joseph Stalin but rather the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky who wrote, "The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!". Whatever its provenance, the phrase lingers because it contains a real truth. We overlook lots of terrible things because they happen in large numbers, but can be driven to concentrate on other terrible things when they happen to just one person. ■ In Iran, just such a case is unfolding. 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being arrested by the state's "morality" police for breaking their rules on what women are permitted to wear outside the home. Iran is a very large country; with 86 million people, it is more populous than Germany, France, or the UK. And the "morality" police have troubled many of them -- probably millions. ■ But this single case -- transparent in its cruelty -- has ignited vigorous protests not just in one or two places, but all over the country. Many people have had enough. Their contempt for their oppressors is boiling. ■ Americans like to talk about how exceptional we are. And the American system has indeed proven to be -- quite literally -- exceptional. 4% of the world's population produces 24% of its annual economic output, holds profound cultural and technological hegemony, and buys 40% of the world's armaments. ■ But we, as people, shouldn't mistake that aggregated exceptionality for being all that different as people. We're phenomenally fortunate. The incredible good luck of either birth or successful immigration that makes a person American shouldn't be discounted. But the things that animate us don't really differentiate us from others; they ought to bind us closer. ■ People everywhere have these things in common: Most of us want to be good people, to do well by our families, and to go about our own lives making decisions untrammeled by the overreach of authority. And those aren't just true of people in the present; they've been true of human beings for as long as we've been building something that looks like civilization. ■ History is full of stories of slave revolts and freedom narratives. It isn't exceptional to want freedom; it is perfectly normal. From east to west, it is entirely normal to demand agency in the course of one's own life. ■ What is happening in Iran could well turn dangerous, and indeed it already has. The rest of the world owes the people there goodwill and support. We also owe them solidarity: They do not choose their oppression, and like us (all across humankind), they have every right and instinct to want liberty from arbitrary and unjust oppression. They are only human, and so are we. And the more we see ourselves the same, the better we see why they're right.

September 20, 2022

Business and Finance A roof overhead

One of the heavier social issues of the moment is housing affordability. The gravity of the problem varies a lot by market, but there are fairly dependable indications that the situation is broadly felt. One is the National Association of Realtors' housing affordability index, which tells a story of rapidly-rising costs that outstrip prospective owners' ability to pay. Another is the surging share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent. ■ There have always been -- and always will be -- people eager to make money by building and selling or renting places for others to live. So if the market is characterized by painfully high prices, then the most likely culprit is some kind of constraint on supply. After all, anyone who was willing to build housing at pre-surge pricing is likely to want to build even more as market prices rise. ■ Some of the big constraints on housing supply come from zoning regulations, imposing restrictions like minimum lot sizes in single-family neighborhoods. And there are lots of widely-found restrictions on any construction of medium density or greater. ■ Those restrictive practices basically guarantee difficulty in pacing housing supply along with demand, especially as urbanization (broadly speaking) remains a dominant trend. Individual cities may shrink, but on balance the United States continues to urbanize (just as it has been doing at least since the Baby Boom). ■ Certain attitudes about housing trail public needs. A number of architecture critics flipped out over an offer made by Charlie Munger to subsidize a huge new dormitory for the University of California Santa Barbara -- using high-density single rooms, many of them interior and without windows. An "abomination", some called it, even though it was a novel solution to a very real need to house more young people in a compact way at a growing university. ■ Yet one can find advertised options to voluntarily rent a windowless interior cabin on a cruise ship for $2,500 a week. Obviously, context matters: On a cruise, passengers are paying for destinations, food, and entertainment. ■ But it seems exceptionally unimaginative of us to see the plain evidence of the need for innovative housing solutions in America's cities on one hand, and the chronic insistence that we chain ourselves to often inflexible criteria on the other. Windowless rooms may be suboptimal, but homelessness certainly isn't better -- nor is being priced out of access to opportunity, which is what happens when there aren't enough dorm rooms on college campuses or affordable places to live near growing business districts. ■ If a windowless cabin on a cruise ship can be so creatively and thoughtfully designed that it is desirable at a market-clearing price of $2,500 a week, then that experience must offer at least some transferable lessons we could apply as a society to getting more people safely and affordably housed on land.

September 19, 2022

The United States of America Growing slowly

In 1753 -- nearly a quarter of a century before he took part in writing the Declaration of Independence, and a full 34 years before he signed the Constitution of the United States -- Benjamin Franklin offered some poignant advice in his Poor Richard's Almanack: "Sudden Power is apt to be insolent, Sudden Liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually." ■ Considering how impatient so many people are in the present age, Franklin's advice could use a modern-day signal boost. It's not to say that people shouldn't be impatient when their rights are on the line: Too much patience in the face of tyranny only gives the tyrannical more time to entrench themselves. ■ But Franklin's advice does say something meaningful about how we, as a self-governing people, have to think about transitions like the handing over of power to subsequent generations. People are not born as responsible participants in a democratic society; they have to be trained, preferably first by loving families, and then by social institutions like their schools, churches, and scout troops. ■ Even then, many a freshly-minted voter still embraces radical views thanks to the passions of youth. What's dangerous, though, is when people remain prone to those "insolent" and "saucy" habits because they refuse to take part in "growing gradually". ■ Much has been written about political polarization, and much more will be written yet. It's hard to tell sometimes whether the phrase "What radicalized you?" is really tongue-in-cheek or a statement of reality. ■ Growing so that we "behave best", as Franklin put it, requires a commitment to remaining open to new and improved ideas along the way, while resisting the radical urges that arise out of passions. Nobody is fully equipped with wisdom at the age of 18, but nobody has all of the right answers at 78, either. ■ In a functional democratic society, no one gets to be satisfied with outcomes 100 percent of the time. Wisdom consists in learning to take satisfaction in a good process and outcomes that come closer to giving everyone 60% of what they want, rather than giving 60% of the people everything that they want. Adults have a deep and abiding obligation to learn that lesson and pass it along. Ben Franklin's advice has had more than a quarter of a millennium to ring in America's ears. We shouldn't be found careless in ignoring it.

Computers and the Internet Uber's computer systems hacked

"The person who claimed responsibility for the hack told The New York Times that he had sent a text message to an Uber worker claiming to be a corporate information technology person. The worker was persuaded to hand over a password..."

September 18, 2022

Broadcasting A little decency

A bloviator with a broadcast audience has been caught on record ranting against a sign in a child's classroom which said "The world is better because you are in it." His cantankerous rejection of the merit of that sign was merely that "What has any fifth-grader done to make the world better because he or she is in it?" ■ It is a misfortune that broadcasting outlets still prop up the reach of people who are so eager to dismiss the humanity in others. The remark itself was offhand and self-evidently not particularly well-developed, and it's not the first time a broadcaster has said something remarkably stupid because those were simply the first words to pop into their head while trying to stretch out the clock. ■ But it doesn't take much heavy-handed scrutiny to ask a basic question: If someone took a seat next to you in a public space -- a hotel bar, an airplane seat, or in a pew at church -- and offhandedly chuckled to himself, "What good is a ten-year-old girl?", would you not be alarmed by both their judgment and their fundamental decency? What kind of civic decay are the advertisers and program directors of the world encouraging when they deem a commentator of that sort to be worth propping up and placing before an audience five days a week, for three hours a day? ■ Putting aside the obvious objective rebuttals to the question of what good a fifth-grader has ever done for the world (Mozart had already performed solo concerts by that age and was about to write his first opera), there is a much simpler moral refutation. It is that every life has value, intrinsically, and without any regard to what they might have "done to make the world better". ■ Most people are inclined by nature to try to be good and to try to do well, at least for themselves and their families, but often for broader social circles and even for complete strangers. Fifth-graders have done great good: Saving everyone on a school bus from likely disaster, saving a choking classmate, and donating the profits from a home-based business to children's hospitals. But doing that sort of good isn't a prerequisite to their humanity. ■ An enlightened view of personal responsibility, of course, compels everyone to do his or her duty to try to create more good in the world than they extract. But creating some sort of measurable net good in the world neither confers humanity, nor does failing to do so detract from it. Wantedness isn't a precondition for intrinsic human value. And that human value does, indeed, make the world better. ■ A person who dismisses the fundamental worth of others' lives, whether in the midst of a carefully-scripted rant or in passing remarks meant only to fill the time, is not a person worth elevating for larger audiences to heed. When we grant blowhards a platform, we implicitly co-sign with their worst impulses. The First Amendment assures the right of Americans to hold and announce really bad ideas. It does not, however, require that those bad ideas be shamelessly elevated.

Threats and Hazards Freedom for Iran

Protests have broken out after a 22-year-old woman was killed by Iran's "morality" police over the mandatory use of a hijab

Weather and Disasters Typhoons to our left, hurricanes to our right

Alaska is dealing with a dying typhoon, while Puerto Rico is getting hammered by Hurricane Fiona

Science and Technology Electric unicycles

Self-propelled, self-balancing "micro mobility", say the proponents. Or just a really great way to cause more concussions.

Weather and Disasters An anxious evening

The Storm Prediction Center puts most of southern Iowa (including a substantial share of the state's population via the Des Moines and Iowa City metro areas) under advisement to watch out for supercell thunderstorms

The United States of America Historical context

George Washington was born in the same year (1732) that Benjamin Franklin began publishing "Poor Richard's Almanack"

Weather and Disasters Earthquake damage in Taiwan

Arresting images of a bridge that was toppled by the quake

September 17, 2022

News You don't know what you're missing

If a piece of wisdom is supposed to be transcendent or beyond dispute, it's often framed as maternal advice: "Like your mother told you", or "Just like Grandma used to say". As a literary device, it works. Strictly from a biological perspective, nobody is more certain of their investment in a child than a mother. Paternity may fall into dispute, but maternity can't. ■ This almost iron-clad faith in the goodwill of the advice of mothers is nothing new. The first chapter of the Book of Proverbs contains the 2,500 year-old passage, "Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching; A graceful diadem will they be for your head; a pendant for your neck." ■ How plainly astonishing, then, that so little of the wisdom of those mothers and grandmothers makes its way into the canon of philosophical literature. Under-valuing the wisdom and intelligence of women is a mistake human civilizations have made over and over, through the course of millennia, and it's a travesty that we have no obvious recourse to get it back. ■ We can't retroactively enroll more women in Plato's Academy or read what the Founding Mothers might have written, at least not much outside of the context of the letters of Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to their husbands. ■ That there were so few women heard from isn't because they didn't have things to say. Nor is it excused by the woeful inattention to the education of women provided in past eras (a condition lamented by Benjamin Franklin, among others): We still study the works of Leonardo da Vinci today, even though he had no meaningful formal education. Surely there have been at least as many women as naturally gifted as the men we study today, but we just don't have records of most of them. ■ What's missing is vast, either because it was never written in the first place, or wasn't preserved because it wasn't valued. But the prospects of artificial intelligence and massive digitization might make it possible to either reconstruct or to synthesize small portions of what's missing. ■ Reconstruction, or reverse-engineering what may have been said by looking at the artifacts of what was recorded by others, would be the most authentic. We can begin to reconstruct some of what Elizabeth Hamilton wrote in her lost letters by looking at the content of what Alexander Hamilton wrote in reply. But reconstruction assumes the existence of a record. ■ Synthesis may be useful for those many cases where finding a record is impossible, because it never existed in the first place. We may be able to turn to tools like the OpenAI GPT-3 to write what was never written in the first place, allowing us to ask questions like, "What would Aristotle's older sister have written after studying and debating with him?". ■ The value in these exercises (and in others like them) would be to offer a sort of placeholder in the literature of big ideas, to acknowledge that women were left out of much of the process of creating what we accept now as the Western intellectual canon, but that we should be cognizant of that absence. It is too easy to passively overlook what's missing unless some kind of marker reminds us. ■ Civilization is going to need those reminders for a while -- it's only been for a single century that women were even allowed to study at many elite schools or even to vote. Parity in the intellectual canon is going to take a long while, but like reserving a seat for the deceased or putting on a missing-man formation, sometimes we need to see symbolically what's missing. We live in an exciting moment when it may begin to be possible to put some worthy symbols in place.

News The normal distribution of weightlifting

The wear patterns on a weight machine tell a highly "normal" story about how much people like to lift. But it's also curious to note how many users evidently feel compelled to round up and lift 100 lbs. instead of 95. Apparently, people don't like to lie to themselves in matters of strength.

September 16, 2022

News The past just isn't what it used to be

Almost without exception, life is simpler for children than it is for adults. Children don't have to worry about mortgage payments, occupational licensing, or paying their taxes. The very few exceptions tend to prove the rule that they are free from anything approaching life-and-death concerns -- and when they are, it is often because they have been swept up in the currents of problems which adults have created. ■ When this generally low level of angst is combined with the natural tendency to forget pain and remember good times, there are very few routes straight to adults' hearts than nostalgia. Fairy tales, period pieces, and oldies radio all tend to exploit the longing for what in retrospect almost invariably seem like simpler and better times in the past. ■ But it would be a gross over-simplification to imagine that human civilization was objectively better-off in those purportedly "simpler" times. There's no doubt that the modern world is vastly more complex than any time can reflect upon in history. But anyone who has lived through the first decades of the 21st Century has witnessed what is most likely the most gobsmacking period of progress in human history. ■ Smashing progress has been made against evils like child mortality, unbelievable numbers of people have been moved out of abject poverty and into the global middle class, and communications have put people in touch with one another in ways that were completely unimaginable even half a century ago. ■ But those facts don't stop some people from offering a revisionist view of what they view as "traditional" history. Some of them sneak into conversations by waxing poetic about seemingly innocuous aspects of the past, like sharing pictures of past artistic triumphs and and giving them brighter colors. There is a grain of truth to is: We shouldn't imagine that the world of the past consisted entirely of black, white, and gray. ■ Beneath the surface, though, when people show off the distant past in a flattering light, they are too often only a short step from advocating for a revival of "traditional" ways that are incompatible with the world our species has made. Astonishingly, there are those who, today, in the 21st Century, try to argue that the Enlightenment was a mistake. Sometimes they say so directly and literally. Sometimes they merely lead others to believe it as a "natural" conclusion. ■ The major peril lurking beneath the social-media posts shared by accounts with officious names like "Cultural Tutor" and "Historical Images" isn't that they are often staged or misrepresented, though that is often the case, but that they are all too often deliberately intended to sow discontent with modernity. ■ What starts with an innocuous observation -- for instance, that people used brightly colored paints in the distant past on objects and architecture that are mostly faded today -- can swiftly turn into ludicrous complaints like one that "the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and Modernism have made the Middle Ages almost incomprehensible to us". ■ This is portrayed as though there were some mysterious lost Middle Ages wisdom we could and ought to recapture, if only we were to reject "the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism". Life wasn't fundamentally better in the Middle Ages; people died of plagues, smallpox, and ordinary infections. They drank contaminated water (a problem humanity barely understood at all until the 1850s. They submitted to the will of unelected elites. They enjoyed neither household refrigeration nor air travel. ■ It isn't wrong to look at pictures of colorful, ornate architecture from the past. Indeed, even emphatically forward-thinking people can enjoy them. But critical thinkers need to ask, "What is the message someone is trying to send?" and "What part of the story does the picture omit?" ■ No sensible person would reject the civil-rights advancements of the last 50 years, much less those of the last 500. But those advancements don't show up in gauzy social-media posts about "beautiful" old buildings. Many of the victories of the Enlightenment (and the modern thinking descended from it) have more to do with how people live than what we build. And they are far more important. ■ Simplistic posts that uncritically valorize the distant past and cast aspersions on modernity are much worse than brief indulgences in classic television sitcoms or the popular music of one's youth. A depiction of classic art restored to its colorful origins doesn't tell the story of the staggering costs of building things like Gothic cathedrals. ■ Because human culture evolves, we have to trust that there may be some embedded wisdom in the decisions about what our forebears passed down -- and what they did not. The process isn't perfect, but it tends to organically capture the wisdom of a great deal of trial and error along the way. ■ We should certainly look to the past from time to time to see if good ideas got left on the cutting-room floor. But we shouldn't let anyone fool us into the false belief that some utopian past can and should be recovered, especially not by rejecting the stepping stones that brought about the world of today. As we find good things along the way, we ought to conserve them for our children and grandchildren. And as others are found no longer useful, we serve our descendants well by casting them off.

News Nobody is old at 44

At 44 years old, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is just one year older than George Washington when he was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. May Zelenskyy, like Washington, have plenty of time to make more good history.

Humor and Good News Trippy interior design

There are entire cities buried under the soils of Italy that don't feature as many tiles as one extraordinarily gaudy residential bathroom in New Jersey.

September 14, 2022

Business and Finance It's the economy, but not stupid

There is no form of misplaced confidence quite like that of the person who thinks they can forecast the state of the economy on a global basis. And make no mistake: The United States is just about a quarter of the whole world's economy, so any forecasts of the US economy are estimates of the global one, and vice-versa. (A wall isn't a house all by itself, but a four-sided house wouldn't be a house if one of those walls went missing.) ■ We may give it a holistic, all-encompassing name complete with definite article ("the" economy), but this amorphous thing we talk about doesn't exist in a mechanical space. It's the aggregation of the uncountable trillions and quadrillions of individual choices made by billions of human beings. "The" economy may be subject to specific trends and forces, but it is also deeply tied to human emotions. ■ That emotionality ensures that waves of irrational behavior will prevail from time to time, and it also ensures that fundamentally unpredictable events will have consequences that no rational forecaster can see coming. If anyone had confidently known in February 2019 that a pandemic was coming, they certainly failed to tell the rest of us -- and yet, can anyone name a single more significant influence on the world economy in the last five years than Covid-19? ■ Lots of people are being paid to try to guess what will happen over the next couple of years, and if any of them were fully honest, they would merely say "If present trends continue, this is my best guess at what would happen in the absence of any surprise events. But there will be surprise events that could easily ruin this entire forecast, so don't read very much at all into this." ■ The very best anyone can or should attempt to do is to draw modest conclusions about the likely trends in specific areas based upon fundamental conditions, and to indicate what kinds of events could influence those trends. ■ For example, the rate of inflation, which is unusually high, should not be expected to ease for a while. The Federal Reserve is using interest rates to try to corral it, but the Fed is working against a huge increase in the money supply -- one that has been ongoing since the economic panic of 2008/2009. Lots of money has been pumped into the economy in effort to keep it from crashing. But much of that money has moved extremely slowly by historical standards, and only a slight uptick in its velocity (like the one encountered recently) can easily be enough to keep prices on the rise. ■ There are other titanic factors at play, too. Take the mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce, who are being succeeded by a much smaller generation of managers and experienced workers. ■ Or take the expense of rearranging supply chains to build resilience against further lockdowns in China or trouble in freight transportation. Or consider the consequences of having to re-make a substantial portion of Europe's energy balance because of the recklessness of the Kremlin and its assault on Ukraine. Or the influence of huge sums of "relief" spending that haven't even been allocated yet. ■ All of those are fundamental reasons pushing in the direction of further inflation for some time to come. Maybe lower than it has been over the last couple of quarters -- but maybe not. The only certainty anyone should have is that it's foolish to make forecasts with any certainty, even in stable times. And these times are hardly stable.

September 13, 2022

The United States of America Can you believe this?

Straight-line projections of things like social change are often woefully inaccurate ways to anticipate the future. In many cases, things change very slowly for a long time, then quite suddenly. It's no particular surprise; we are social creatures and we make many of our decisions socially. ■ Religion is no exception. Religions are often defined by things like movements, revivals, schisms, and reformations. This quality makes it very difficult to take too seriously any trend-line projections about the future of faith. ■ Notwithstanding that skepticism about forecasting, it's illuminating to look at the evolving nature of religious identification in America, because it has indeed changed considerably in just the last few decades. The Pew Research Center has examined those trends and come up with a forecast saying that -- if present trends continue -- half of Americans might be religiously unaffiliated by 2070. ■ That number is already 30%. This isn't a new development; it was observed more than a decade ago that "former Catholics" would make up the second-largest denomination in the country, if identified together. Other denominations have been in long-term decline, as well. That didn't happen overnight. ■ But whether or not organized religions maintain a hold on people and their identities, people will forever be engaged in a search for meaning, a quest for belonging, and a ritualized way of experiencing significant life events. Organized religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, has long offered a structured route to satisfying some of those basic human longings. Zoroastrianism is probably 3,500 years old. ■ "Spiritual but not religious" is now one of the most popular ways for American adults to self-identify. It seems exceptionally unlikely that it means "I have independently satisfied all of the longings which religion so often addresses". It seems much more likely that people who have become dissatisfied with organized religion are turning to other outlets -- from politics to video games, from exercise programs to role-playing -- to try to make meaning out of each life's inevitable complexities. ■ What may be especially interesting to watch is whether and how the mainline branches of Christianity respond to the growing -- demand? need? opportunity? -- for missionaries to the agnostic and the disaffiliated. Catholicism, for instance, has a long history of syncretism -- absorbing and co-opting local practices in order to entrench itself with new converts. Will orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans establish modern-day missions for the "spiritual but not religious" in American cities and suburbs? ■ Will Episcopalians offer unconventional, environmentally-themed services for those who are reluctant to use the Book of Common Prayer, but who bring a quasi-religious fervor to their regard of climate change as an overwhelming existential threat? ■ Will Presbyterians take their social justice advocacy to unconventional online platforms to mediate a pathway to reach people for whom political protests and demonstrations take the place of gathering with a community in religious worship? ■ The changing state of outward religious practice may or may not be cause for alarm -- either as it regards individuals' souls, or as it affects society at large. Religion itself may have laudable effects on a population, or it can be used as a tool of oppression. But religious instincts are almost certainly not in the same kind of decline as religious identification. ■ British rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks wrote that "[R]itual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy. That requires daily discipline, a ritual -- and religion is the matrix of ritual." What is yet to be seen is whether the sects already well-established in American culture will engage in bold adaptations at missionary outreach that match the accelerating pace of their relative decline.

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September 11, 2022

News Never, never, never, never give in

A cartoon has circulated since well before the time when memes were shared on the Internet, dating back to the days when clever jokes were shared via fax machines and office photocopiers. It depicts a seabird -- a pelican or a heron -- swallowing a frog. But the frog is defiantly choking the bird on its way down, creating a stalemate not unlike Aesop's fable about the greedy boy with his hand stuck in a jar because he knew too little to let go of what wasn't his. ■ It's hard not to think of that frog, never giving up, every time news of further progress issues forth from Ukraine. The most recent bold strikes to recover territory may well be remembered as a turning point in the war. ■ In October 1941, well after World War II had come to England but before it had drawn in the full force of the United States, Winston Churchill admonished an audience to "[N]ever give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy..." ■ Morale has real-world value. A sense of the moral right really does matter. Willingness to stand and fight and spit in the face of darkness can be a force multiplier. ■ The war isn't over for Ukraine; it needs a sustained supply of heavy arms and munitions from other countries that realize the urgency of putting up a fight. But the people of Ukraine also deserve credit for learning and adapting quickly -- not just being defiant. ■ The cartoon frog choking the seabird is, metaphorically, a lot like the porcupine strategy for small countries facing the threat of attack from much bigger foes. The larger adversary might have more resources to commit to an invasion, but the defenders can make themselves too painful to digest. ■ What is worthy of admiration in the present case is that the metaphorical frog isn't just choking the bird into a stalemate, it's trying to bring the bird to its knees so that it flies away and never returns. No matter how this war ends, Ukraine and Russia will still be neighbors sharing a border hundreds of miles long. ■ It will easily be at least a generation before anything resembling mutual trust can be established across that border, though probably more. The "never" in "never give in" will have to last a very long time. ■ It's going to require permanent vigilance on the part of the defenders who appear to be on a hot streak. But it will also require a permanent commitment on the part of others (most especially Americans)to remain well-informed about and interested in the big picture of world affairs. ■ A peaceful world order doesn't happen spontaneously. It depends upon the assurance that the forces which would perpetrate evil will encounter righteous defenders who will "never, never, never, never" give in -- and allies committed to the idea that they should never have to.

September 9, 2022

Science and Technology Bridging the wars

Amid its continued effort to expel the invasion from Russia, Ukraine undertaken efforts that would look crazy in peacetime, but which make complete sense in wartime. One example is the bombing of bridges. Nobody would ever voluntarily destroy critical infrastructure in a time of peace, but photos and videos are circulating on social media showing the obliteration of bridges to cities being targeted for liberation. In destroying the bridges, the Ukrainian forces are seeking to isolate and trap their Russian enemies. ■ A truly fascinating broad-based history of warfare could be told through the story of bridges. From the distant past through the present, bridges have often been as important as arms. ■ We marvel in the modern day at the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, but their bridges depended upon much of the same technology -- and those bridges were in some cases central to the projection of power far from the seat of government itself. ■ In the 20th Century, the capacity to destroy and selectively replace bridges was often a decisive factor in the battles of the land war in Europe during World War II. The US Army Corps of Engineers proved to be a substantial force multiplier through its ability to speedily install bridges in France, Italy, and Germany. ■ Even in domestic American history, the attentive student of history would note that George Washington crossed the Delaware River in a boat, and that his forces were badly hampered by trying to cross an icy river using boats. Bridges would have made the attack far easier. ■ Bridges present us with a fascinating case of embedded knowledge. If one knows where the bridges are, one knows where the obstacles are. But bridges also tell us where to find things of value. We ordinarily take them for granted, but bridges represent a huge share of what humans "know" about our places without really thinking. ■ Pittsburgh may have an almost unreasonable number of bridges, but it's no small matter that the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Chicago Skyway have meaningful places in their respective local lores. Americans are fortunate that we have remained at domestic peace for so long that the destruction of any of those bridges would be unthinkable, but it's no mere coincidence that the US Army has trained its Corps of Engineers on bridge-building since the nation was new. ■ Many things evade our attention during periods of normalcy, and the indispensable role of bridges in warfare is one of them. But that role is being put in the spotlight in Ukraine right now, and it is a historical story worth telling.

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September 8, 2022

News Free to choose how to feel

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years over not just her home country, but as the nominal head of state for 14 "realms" within the Commonwealth. Her passing marks a good time to bear in mind the duality of human nature. ■ An institution (like the monarchy) can be built on a foundation containing many wrongs, yet still be venerated even by some of those wronged by it. The very idea of someone in England inheriting the right to be "sovereign" over the people of Jamaica, for instance, violates a whole host of notions of logic and justice. But that doesn't deprive the people of the Commonwealth from feeling a sense of attachment to the royal family, if they so choose. ■ Likewise, a person can be a reluctant figurehead -- then-Princess Elizabeth wasn't born in the right order to become monarch. But they can also rise to occasions of need, overcoming personal preferences in the course of offering a most public face emerging from a sense of duty. ■ While kings and queens make for easy fairy-tale fodder, it's no surprise that so many people appear to struggle psychologically when born into royalty. Despite the obvious material riches and social deference, it's fairly clear -- even from the case of Elizabeth's own grandson -- that a monarchy gives the blue-blooded all of the known perils of celebrity but without even the sense of choice whether to pursue it. At least the politicians in a republic must choose to run. ■ The basic duality of human nature was defined well by Alexander Hamilton: "The truth is, in human affairs there is no good, pure and unmixed; every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good, and guarding as much as possible against the bad." ■ A person who is mostly good can find themselves embedded in a system that is mostly rotten; they must make the best of it they can. An institution with a terrible legacy of discrimination can still be meaningful to some of those it historically discriminated against. People can be sad at a basically humane level for the passing of another human being, yet still wonder whether it is time to turn the page on the structures that elevated that person to public attention in the first place. ■ People are often attracted to simple narratives built around "battle lines" and confrontations between pure good versus pure evil. But the hazier reality is that aspects of good and evil are within all of us, and it is only through choice -- inasmuch as any individual has the freedom to choose -- that we can lend power to one or the other. ■ In the words of Margaret Thatcher, the eighth of Elizabeth's 15 prime ministers: "Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose." That truth makes for a lot of gray within human lives, whether "royal" or common.

September 7, 2022

News Interesting people

Few genres are as congested with a surplus of content as the subject of parenting. In addition to the thousands of books that can be found in bookstores and libraries on the topic, there are mom blogs, parenting Facebook groups, and podcasts aplenty. That's not to mention the well-established industry of parenting-related periodicals. ■ Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on matters like raising kids to be successful in life (like a "Tiger Mom", for instance), or imposing the kind of discipline that won't scar the child emotionally, or instilling "grit" into young minds. But it's rare to find anyone who talks about raising raising children to become interesting adults. ■ Not materially successful. Not religiously devout. Not academically credentialed -- or simply capable of performing basic tasks without ironically calling it "adulting". Just...interesting. ■ The omission is odd, because if one has children at an average age (somewhere in the late 20s through the 30s), and lives to a median age (into the 80s for those who survive through the typical child-rearing years), then one will spend far more time with their offspring as adults than with them as children. As in, decades more. ■ People talk a lot about doing things "for the children" or "for future generations", but quite selfishly, we ought to want to turn out adults who are fundamentally interesting people. There's probably some correlation between being interesting and having other virtues. But it doesn't have to be anything other than its own justification. It is quite enough to simply want interesting people around when one reaches later life. And some of the people most likely to remain around are one's own offspring. ■ "Interesting" comes in all sorts of flavors, of course, but it generally starts with having interests -- a sense of curiosity and of openness to ideas and experiences. It also calls for having at least some motivation to do things, rather than existing passively. ■ It's not very interesting to be defined by what products or media one consumes. Helping children to find those motivations and interests is not only a way to produce more interesting adults (whom parents can enjoy as they grow into peers), it is also a way to help insulate children against some of the hazards of this age -- especially the still-new and still-evolving pressures that come from living in a world saturated by social media. ■ It's not an obvious responsibility to help a person become interesting -- but it can be a gift. And though there are not yet any search results for "How to raise interesting children", there ought to be. In more ways than we realize, the future depends upon it.

September 5, 2022

Business and Finance Making a happier Labor Day

Labor Day remarks tend to be platitudinous. People and organizations that feel obligated to mark the day can usually go the safe route with some version of "Workers are the backbone of the American economy". Left-leaning politicians usually insert something celebrating organized labor unions. Right-leaning ones frequently offer some kind of praise for small business owners and other proprietors. ■ It would be more productive to take Labor Day as an annual trigger to have real debates about what would be broadly useful to the American workforce. The mere statistics of union membership don't tell much of a useful story. For instance: Are workers better off in occupations where they feel union membership is worth the dues, or is low membership a sign that employers are voluntarily satisfying worker expectations? Particularly in a time of 3.7% unemployment (low by most historical standards), a private-sector union membership rate of 6.1% might just be a symptom that many workers are getting what they want. ■ A more interesting debate would ask questions like "What policies or practices would ensure that more people in the labor force were able to convert their work into capital ownership?" Or "How can employers in the public and private sectors alike be rewarded for investing resources in long-term skill development?" These and others might be much more productive questions to discuss than merely lining up along tired old divisions. ■ Those divisions are tired because, now more than ever, workers can't be centered on a single employer or a single occupation for an entire career. The marketplace is dynamic, and there is no sheltering the American worker from technological and international competition. If research analysts, sales managers, and computer programmers are among the occupations most at risk of displacement by artificial intelligence, and management jobs are being eliminated by the auto industry's shift to electric vehicles, then we need a much more holistic approach to the question of "What's good for labor?" than a boring old dichotomy of "labor versus capital". ■ And that's even more the case because having a prudent retirement plan requires almost everyone to become a share-holding capitalist in the financial markets. Only a slim minority of workers are even engaged in defined-benefit pension plans, and even they should probably have some kind of backup plan that involves personal investments in the financial markets. It's not "labor versus capital", it's "labor and capital". ■ Not many people have the right incentives to fire up discussions about a subject like Labor Day that won't fall within predictable boundaries. But it shouldn't be that way. Labor Day shouldn't just be the last hurrah of summer, nor just a day full of platitudes (and some pandering). It ought to be a healthy annual reminder that economies are dynamic and people are often adaptable, and success on a civilizational scale comes in part from making sure that adaptability both enhances and takes advantage of that dynamism.

September 3, 2022

Business and Finance Building more places to live

People in very serious roles sometimes propose most unserious responses to problems. San Francisco, for example, has a notorious housing shortage. Rents are among the highest in the world, with single-family homes selling in some neighborhoods for well over $1,000 per square foot -- five times the median rate in an affluent community like West Des Moines, Iowa or Naperville, Illinois. ■ Yet one of San Francisco's city/county supervisors wears his advocacy for rent controls as a badge of honor and declares (without evident self-awareness) that "The unregulated [housing] market is the problem, not the solution." ■ Reasonable observers would note that San Francisco's problem is largely one of supply. It's one of America's largest metropolitan areas, blessed with beautiful views, a fantastically mild climate, and an enviable economy, so people naturally gravitate there. But the city simply doesn't permit housing construction at nearly the rate it should, with a population-adjusted rate of new housing permits half that in Washington, DC, and barely a quarter that in Austin, Texas. ■ Language is no small part of the problem. It may feel satisfyingly self-righteous for a local politician to declare that "Housing is a human right", but it's neither helpful nor true. Housing is a universal human need, and knowing the difference between a universal need and a human right is no small matter. ■ A human right (like freedom of speech) is not subject to material constraints. It belongs to a person by right of birth, takes on no material form, and can only be taken away, usually by the interference of oppressive powers. ■ When China's government denies the right to freedom of conscience, it violates a human right by taking it away from the individual. When, for far too much of our past, the United States tolerated chattel slavery, it violated a human right to freedom and personal autonomy. Abraham Lincoln implicitly acknowledged this in the words of the Emancipation Proclamation: "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." ■ By contrast, someone has to answer a vital question about every universal need: "How can we encourage an abundant supply?". In the case of housing, there is no magic wand to wave that will conjure housing out of thin (perhaps foggy) air. Someone has to build it. And in the mayor's own words, "For years, San Francisco has made it too hard to approve and build new homes. That must change." The government there has, if anything, obstructed the function of a market-based housing industry. ■ People seeking to make money within a market will rarely leave any good opportunities on the table, and in the case of housing, it should be plainly evident that with developers are perpetually eager to seek their fortunes -- ones they can only make by building things. If enough developers aren't building, the most likely reasons for housing shortages just about anywhere come down to insurmountable constraints: Either there isn't enough available land or there are too many regulatory prohibitions. ■ Where land is in short supply, the choice can often be made to effectively create more by building vertically. But where regulatory constraints are the ones limiting supply, it's not "the market" that is the problem. ■ We should take care to call things by their appropriate names, and a thing that takes on a material form needed by everyone isn't a "human right", no matter how good it may feel to say. The material form makes it a human need. Knowing that distinction -- and taking it seriously -- is the only way to engage in the right mindset for solving the problem when there isn't enough of a good thing to go around.

September 1, 2022

The United States of America Strategic patience

A general impatience is a long-running feature of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville made note of it in Volume II of "Democracy in America": "It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare; and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it." ■ Restlessness with the state of affairs that are unjust or inadequate is a virtue, of course. If a real injustice is uncovered, it is for the best that the people of a democracy recognize it quickly and seek to purge it swiftly. Attitudes on same-sex marriage are a prominent contemporary example; according to Gallup, support grew from a small minority (27%) in 1996 to a majority (53%) in 2011, and now stands at a super-majority (71%). ■ In retrospect, that pace of change is remarkable by historical standards. But it most likely felt altogether too slow to those who campaigned for it. From 1996 to the present is just about one generation. Change often seems unsatisfying when it involves lots of individual decisions, as most matters of public opinion do. ■ It's worth recalling that humans have always been this way -- we are not unique today in requiring time to come around to new ideas, nor in being dissatisfied with conditions that don't quickly come around to our point of view. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus declared, "All great things are slow of growth; nay, this is true even of a grape or of a fig. If then you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flower, then cast its blossom, then ripen." ■ Epictetus died around 135 AD. People are still discovering and re-discovering his ideas more than 60 generations later, but they have to be learned in order to be valuable. The same goes for any other philosophy or perspective on the world. It's easy to slap a motivational quote on a poster, but nobody has ever "Successoried" their way into a fulfilling worldview. ■ The same goes for a great country -- one that is, at its center, an idea about the rights of individuals. There are those who demand radical social and political changes of one flavor or another, often lashed to long wish-lists of individual policies, often quite radical in ambition. ■ Americans need to recognize our own tendency towards that impatience identified in our predecessors by de Tocqueville. We also need to acknowledge the inescapable fact that if we want to conserve what is fundamentally right with our country, then we have to commit to learning it for ourselves and patiently teaching it to our own children. ■ Epictetus was right; all great things are slow of growth. Great things are never achieved overnight. But bad ideas, like fast-growing weeds, can work their way in and choke out the slow-growing good things if we're not diligent about cultivating those good things over the long term. The risk is especially great in times when impatience is widespread. Getting and keeping good things requires thinking far down the road.

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August 31, 2022

News Shaping the next 80 years

The name George C. Marshall most likely rings with vague familiarity to anyone who paid attention during high school history class and recalls the Marshall Plan. If science were to devise a method of time travel, someone should take a trip back to visit Marshall in person to give him a well-deserved update on 2022. ■ Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff during World War II, and was described by President Harry Truman as the "architect of victory" in that war. Marshall was an extraordinary manager in that war, juggling the skills, interests, and egos of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Hap Arnold, and George Patton. ■ After the war, he became the front person for the campaign to rebuild Europe in the interest of peace. The Marshall Plan rewarded peace and reconstruction in Western Europe, which has remained domestically peaceful -- and allied with the United States -- ever since. The Marshall Plan did not extend to Eastern Europe, nor to the Soviet Union. And it's a fascinating counter-factual to wonder what might have happened if it had. ■ Today, several of the countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain are now candidates for membership in the European Union -- prominently including Ukraine, which got on the list this summer in part as a reaction to its fight to stave off the Russian invasion. ■ Marshall might scarcely believe it if a time-traveler reported not only that Ukraine had to fight with all its national will and might to repel a revanchist Russian aggression -- but that it was doing so in part with donated arms, like drones. And they're using social-media interaction to reach out to Western countries to cultivate further support. ■ They praise European and American support, show off their use of foreign weapons, and thank other former victims of Russian imperialism for sending aid. Ukraine's minister of defense has even adopted the likeness of a dog meme being used by private individuals raising money to help arm the country. ■ It's all an amazing turn of events. History isn't fixed. Events are not inevitable, though they are shaped by decisions. As Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher's closest allies, once put it: "It is up to us. History is not made by abstract forces, or classes. It is made by people. If we have the moral courage to say what we believe to be true, right and good, the people will be with us." ■ In his time, George Marshall was one of those people who spoke up to shape history. The peace he tried to shape from the ashes of World War II continues to extend its own perimeter yet today, unevenly and imperfectly, but driven by people who today understand that they, like Marshall, may be shaping the next 70 or 80 years to come.

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August 30, 2022

News Goodbye, Gorby

There's a natural instinct to want pure heroes and villains in the world but that instinct is incompatible with human nature. Humans are not angels, and most aren't demons, either. The best we can expect is for an individual to push, on balance, in the right direction in the biggest ways they can undertake. ■ Even in Hollywood pictures, where purity of good and evil is easier to compose than in real life, complicated characters are more interesting than their over-simplified counterparts. The James Bond who struggles with internal complexity in "Skyfall" is a more compelling artistic device than some of his polished-too-thin predecessors. ■ In Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died at age 91, we have a very real example of an impure hero. He was, after all, a politician who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to reach the heights of power in the Soviet Union. And while there, he initially downplayed the Chernobyl disaster, resisted the restoration of independence for the Baltic states, and took far too long to withdraw from Afghanistan. And in later life, he needlessly lent his support to Russia's invasion of Crimea. ■ These flaws count against him, as well they should. But Gorbachev also moved boldly to reduce the threat of nuclear war, didn't intervene when protests swept across Eastern Europe, and introduced openness ("glasnost") within an authoritarian superpower. ■ Gorbachev's flaws merit criticism -- perhaps even scorn. But he did, on balance, push the part of the world he could influence in the general direction of right. And for that, he paid a price in esteem at home. His dream of restructuring the Soviet Union was never fulfilled, perhaps because it was doomed from the start. But the world is better off without the USSR in it, and to no small extent, we have Gorbachev to thank for that. He literally closed the book on the country's legal existence. ■ If we demand flawless heroes, we'll only overpopulate the world with villains. The judgment of history ought not to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of fallible human beings; goodness and decency depend upon people being conscious that they will be judged after they're gone. But the rightful test of a person's legacy isn't whether they're deserving of sainthood -- it's whether the preponderance of the evidence shows that they did meaningfully more good than harm. By that standard, it is fitting to regard Mikhail Gorbachev's life as a success.

August 29, 2022

Computers and the Internet Point and stare

The psychotherapist Philippa Perry has a gift for explaining human nature in a way that often reveals important large-scale truths in ways that are plainspoken and easily digested by the beyond reasonable objection. And though she often directs her attention to the relationships between children and parents, her advice often applies to other personal relationships. ■ In a valuable book on parenting, Perry advised thus about dealing with children going through meltdowns: "No one was ever healed by being made to feel ashamed or silly." Yet, even if the advice is meant to apply to parenting, doesn't it equally apply to any case in which people are trying to persuade or instruct others? ■ Social media tools have convinced altogether too many people that conversations which people used to have inside the quiet of their own heads ought instead to be spilled out for all the world to see. In part, it's hard to resist -- writing is often an act of thinking, and sometimes people can achieve real growth by writing out their thoughts as an act of trying to achieve clarity. ■ But there is a difference between writing out a thought and publishing it. It is the publication step that social media introduces in a way that has never been so easy before. Unfortunately for many aspects of life -- not least of all, our civic health -- many thoughts that ought to be tempered before entering public view are instead birthed straight from the screen onto the worldwide Internet. ■ That includes countless thoughts that make others feel ashamed or silly. Sometimes, that is by intent. Often, it is merely by the nature of emotional reaction. ■ We encounter ideas that we think are ridiculous and it is perfectly natural to have the instinct to ridicule them. But the ridicule that sounds entirely justified in the space between one's own ears can easily morph into a personal affront when a friend, colleague, classmate, or relative reads it on a Facebook page or drawn across a Snapchat clip. ■ Personal relationships are what often convert humans. We tend to behave like herd animals that way -- the influence of those around us gives us signals about threats and opportunities alike. If one person in a crowd points and stares, it often won't be long before the rest of the crowd starts looking, too. ■ Now that it is so easy for anyone to point and stare -- digitally -- it is important to digest the advice of Benjamin Franklin, an early master of American debate. Franklin wrote, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason." He wasn't dismissing the importance of reason, of course; he was instead recognizing that people will respond based upon instincts and intuition, especially about what seems best for themselves and their families. ■ It will take time for us to adjust as a species to this phenomenon of being always connected (or at least, as often as we want) to as many members of our various tribes as we might choose. It would be very sound practice indeed to digest the wisdom of people like Philippa Perry and Benjamin Franklin, realizing that when we point and stare at something in the world that we want others to see, we would be well-advised to refrain from trying to make others "feel ashamed or silly", if what we really want is for them to see those things the same way that we do.

August 28, 2022

Business and Finance Phone home

Talk is cheap, but supply chains are to be taken seriously. A thousand opinions have been written about "decoupling" the economies of the United States and our allies from that of China -- particularly citing perceptions that it has become unlikely that the Chinese government will choose a path towards liberalization anytime soon. ■ But talk should be taken a great deal less seriously than action. Thus, it is worthy of note that Apple is shifting production of iPhones and iPads to countries like India, rather than continuing to depend almost single-mindedly on China. ■ Really, it's unfortunate for the world that conditions have come to this. In general, it would be ideal if nations could be counted upon to trade freely and squarely with one another, taking advantage of their own particular comparative advantages in order to become more sophisticated and more efficient at those industries in which they have reasons to be the best. ■ The more efficiently industries use the world's resources -- both natural ones and human ones -- the better we can achieve the kind of prosperity that rescues people from extreme poverty and moves them into the middle class or better. We should scorn waste, both in terms of tangible inputs like power and raw materials, and in terms of human potential. Great progress has been made in that regard, and humankind should celebrate the achievement. ■ But it is an unfortunate concession to the deadweight of bad politics that Apple and other companies are making choices about broadening their manufacturing operations not solely because of intrinsic advantages elsewhere, but because the Chinese government continues to behave in a reactionary and frequently hostile way. It does this while ruling over more than one out of every six lives on Earth. So many things would be better in the long run if China at large were to become more like Hong Kong has historically been, rather than choosing the opposite path. ■ It has been a widespread hope that economic growth would underwrite a political liberalization, such that the Communist Party would sense a degree of security in being able to point to what it had delivered for its people as a reason it should freely be granted the consent of the governed, rather than imposing its will by enforcing the rule of a one-party state. ■ But having chosen anything but a glasnost with Chinese characteristics, the only thing that may really get the Politburo's attention could be the quick erosion of its manufacturing advantages and a resulting loss of economic status.

August 27, 2022

Computers and the Internet Don't set down your shield

Immediately following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the Department of Homeland Security (which bills itself as "the nation's cyber defense agency") launched a public-facing campaign under the slogan "Shields Up. The intent of the campaign was to raise domestic awareness of the cybersecurity threat posed by Russian interests (and by other malicious actors) and to encourage private initiative to undertake preventive measures to secure against attack. ■ It has been remarked with some surprise that Russia hasn't had the level of success that observers feared in the cyber domain. That could reflect a practical failure to execute a bigger plan, a choice to focus elsewhere, a campaign that hasn't been fully activated yet, or something else altogether. ■ But it is a shame that the campaign has stagnated. CISA last tweeted the phrase "Shields Up" in May, which was also the time of the most recent bulletin under the campaign umbrella. Even if the threat seems more docile at the moment, the plain fact is that America is still largely asleep about the need for a sustained, consistent cybersecurity defense posture. ■ Maybe the metaphor itself is what needs reconsideration. "Shields Up" was an intentional reference to "Star Trek", but the spacefaring ships of that show didn't travel with their shields up all the time. Perhaps something different is needed to communicate the defensive behavior that needs to become the full-time expectation of the American public today. ■ What's needed is less a temporary countermeasure like raising the shields around the Enterprise, and more a permanent, sustained investment of time, resources, and expertise in fighting back against the encroachment of relentless threatening forces that approach from every angle. The metaphor that suits best may be the windmills of the Netherlands that work without rest to keep the lowlands dry. ■ Someone with Madison Avenue skills can come up with the catchy slogan, and should -- because whatever the disposition of the fight to defend Ukraine, bad actors are still going to come after America. There will not be a time to put the shields down, though there will undoubtedly be future needs to reintensify our defenses. ■ And just as it was awkward to eventually retire the color-coded national threat system instated after 9/11 (because the level was really never going back down), so too will it be problematic if anyone is seen backing down from warnings to take cybersecurity seriously. Like seat belts, air bags, and defensive driving, cybersecurity hygiene is an always-on condition.

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August 26, 2022

News Monumental change

The Covid-19 pandemic gave unexpected birth to the "Zoom Room". Guests no longer had to travel to fancy downtown studios to appear on television; they could simply activate the camera on a laptop or even a smartphone and go live, right from their own homes. ■ The staging of these rooms to meet the discriminating tastes of television viewers launched rivalries, competitions, and critical outlets like the infamous "Room Rater" account on Twitter. As the practice of doing a live hit from home has become both a mainstream activity and the fountainhead of cultural criticism, the photographs, totems, and sundry knick-knacks making up a person's backdrop have come to mean something to audiences. ■ The arrangement and selection of books, portraits, and busts is read to mean something about the speaker. Nothing says that those appearances have to remain static: Everyone is free to update or change about their "Zoom Room" look any time they like, either to communicate something more clearly or to remove references that may be unintentional or easy to misread. ■ And it's not just a concern for television appearances, either. Anyone who engages in video meetings must by now be aware of the hazards of leaving a backdrop to chance. What items you choose to surround you will inevitably be taken as commentary about your character. ■ The case of public monuments is, of course, even more complicated and far more prone to inertia than that of a personal video backdrop, but it's really not that far a distinction. What we choose to keep around us -- and particularly what we keep on display -- says things about who we are and who we aspire to be. ■ If a monument, memorial, or statue has outlived its usefulness, then it is perfectly reasonable to consider having it removed. The process may be harder than replacing a photograph in a Zoom room, but it's not materially different in nature. ■ The Soviet Union's occupation of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) was brutal and unjustified. They have been shaking off the chains of that past since reasserting independence in 1991, and the incentive to do so in unapologetically public ways has certainly been amplified by Russia's transgressions against Ukraine. ■ Thus it is worthy of applause that Latvia has demolished a large monument built in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet Red Army. Nominally, it was a monument to World War II, but it was also a giant monument to involuntary occupation by the Soviets. ■ Oppressive regimes are very good at building very big monuments. The mission, more often than not, is to dwarf the scale of the individual and subsume them within the power of the state. It is entirely fitting when rejecting that sort of authoritarianism to reject the monumental artifacts as well. ■ Three cheers, then, for Latvia; having long ago rejected Soviet rule, it now repudiates one of the remaining artifacts of the experience. And in so doing, it becomes a model. When a monument fails to reflect what a community is or aspires to be, then, like an ill-chosen book in a Zoom room, it ought to go. ■ The past shouldn't be evicted for light and transient causes, but every generation has an obligation to consciously choose its guideposts -- which to spotlight, and which to scuttle.

August 24, 2022

Science and Technology Reach out and touch someone

The modern smartphone replaces such a wide array of old devices in such a compact format that it is sometimes hard to really fathom. In a single palm-sized device, we get a high-definition television, a broadcast-quality video camera, a computer (which would not that long ago have passed as a supercomputer), a calculator, an alarm clock, a GPS tracker -- and a telephone. The economic term "dematerialization" may not roll off the tongue, but it compactly describes what is happening: Less stuff is required to engage in a lot of ordinary life. ■ With dematerialization, though, comes an aesthetic toll. Familiar objects that used to move and make noises have been replaced by smooth, silent, motionless screens. Noisy split-flap boards are mostly gone from airports and train stations. Keyboards yield to swipe typing. The word "rewind" is merely a linguistic artifact since video and audio tapes are no more. ■ By and large, dematerialization means lower costs, higher technology, and more efficient use of raw materials. But people can be forgiven for feeling a sense of dissociation, especially if they remember a past where lots more things clicked, clunked, and had to be moved. Things broke a lot back then -- the V-hold on the TV didn't always work, the phone cord got frayed, and the cassette tape often snapped. But there were real sensations that aren't replicated by today's experiences, even with haptic feedback enabled for an app. ■ Taking so many actions that used to require things and transferring them to screens also introduces a high frequency of reorientation. The average smartphone has dozens of applications installed, and developers often get restless and think they need to refresh the look. When an app icon changes, the gateway to what it does changes. That stands in stark contrast to the ways of the materialized world, in which people pay good money to access classic user experiences with the dials, knobs, and switches of the past. ■ Not all of the classic materialized experiences were good, and their susceptibility to malfunction and wear detracts a lot from their purely aesthetic appeal. But once in a while, one encounters a pre-digital artifact like an elegant sauna gauge designed to offer three readings within a single panel, and it raises the question whether our infinite scrolling and hamburger menus end up discouraging designers from thinking about how they can serve up experiences worth re-living. ■ It's not obvious that every smartphone should have to come with a big, noisy, spring-loaded button -- but nor is it obvious that we should embrace the cartoonish virtualization of real-life experience. Sometimes it's prudent to press "pause".

August 23, 2022

Business and Finance Manufacturing evolution

Trade often takes the blame for job losses in American industry, but technological advancements are often the true root cause of disruptions in the labor market. To wit: Ford has announced layoffs of about 3,000 employees, including a substantial number of white-collar employees. ■ The company is, like most automakers, trying to pivot quickly to producing electric vehicles. Ford's all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup is a real success story in this area -- it is completely sold out for the current model year. For the company, that popularity is good news. ■ But the thing about electric vehicles is that they are less mechanically complex than autos with combustion engines. The engine requires an enormous number of moving parts; the electric motor strips all of that down to a rotor and a stator. ■ Eliminating lots of parts in the vehicle, though, has the downstream consequence of eliminating a lot of jobs. If you don't need oil and pistons and belts, then you don't need as many purchasing agents and compliance officers and engineers, either. ■ No sensible person should argue against the general thrust towards electrification of the US auto industry. Consumers will benefit from lower operating costs and higher reliability, and even the car-free will appreciate the resulting benefits from reduced pollution. That won't make job cuts more popular, though, and sensible public policy ought to have a bias in favor of helping the laid-off to help themselves to transition elsewhere. ■ Technological progress almost always comes with diffuse benefits and concentrated costs. Most people benefit somewhat, while a few people pay a high price. But it shouldn't shake us from embracing advancements. ■ in 2010, Mitt Romney wrote, "The math here is quite straightforward: replacing jobs in low-productivity industries with jobs in high-productivity businesses raises the nation's average productivity and per capita wealth." And Romney was right. Combustion-engine automobiles are, by comparison with their electric counterparts, a low-productivity business. ■ That the resulting job losses aren't necessarily in the obvious places -- like the assembly line -- should only underscore the importance of having an economic system that affords people the maximum freedom (and perhaps some gentle encouragement) to develop new, high-productivity skills not just when they're fresh out of school, but for the duration of adult life. ■ We should take instances like the Ford layoffs as encouragement to soberly consider what the framework for that kind of objective ought to be. It's not the first time that technology that is good for society overall has had harsh consequences for a few, and it absolutely won't be the last.

August 20, 2022

News The generation gap

The New York Times may be the closest thing the United States has to a true newspaper of record, but that doesn't stop it from occasionally veering so far from the mainstream as to appear irredeemably out of touch. In an effort to solicit audience responses to a survey, the Times asked, "Millennials, do you think of yourself as middle-aged? Have you experienced a midlife crisis? NYT Opinion is working on a project that looks at how adults born between 1977 and 1984 view midlife." ■ Perhaps the tweet was the work of a rushed $85,000-a-year social media manager, or merely an inarticulate consolidation of too many thoughts into 280 characters. But the year 1977 didn't birth any Millennials, no matter how liberal one's definition of that generation. ■ The Pew Research Center adheres to a fairly canonical definition of generations, and it defines the Millennial generation as those born between 1981 and 1996. Those four years between 1977 and 1981 may not seem like much, but someone born in 1977 was likely to have been in the workforce by the arrival of Y2K and would have been in their 27th year when Facebook was invented. Nothing about that age is consistent with the cultural markers significant to being a Millennial. ■ As long as young people and new technologies exist, it will appeal to the old to explain their disorientation about those unfamiliar things by imagining that something is new about the nature of youths. Nothing is really ever wholly new about them. They merely respond to the novel stimuli of their age. ■ We think today of the "Founding Fathers" as something of a cultural monolith, but Benjamin Franklin was 70 years old when he and a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Their 37-year age gap is wide enough that it could span today between a Baby Boomer born in 1963 and a member of Generation Z born in 2000 -- crossing entirely over Generation X and the Millennials. ■ What really matters isn't the silly stuff that creates distinctions between generations, but the work individuals undertake with others. It's superfluous enough to get hung up on the distinctions between generations, but it's doubly silly to identify the differences and then infer meaning when the definitions are all wrong. Newspapers of course have pages (dead-tree or digital) to fill, but if they're going to engage in the thorny practice of typecasting by age, then they ought at least try to get the boundaries right.

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August 19, 2022

News Having the arms to fight back

The deeply unfortunate and uncomfortable reality is that violent conflict is an inescapable flaw of human nature. We retain just enough of our lesser animal instincts that there always has been -- and always will be -- an aspect of human nature that will willingly resort to violence to get what it wants. ■ This is true both individually and at the societal level. There will always be bullies, aggressors, and might-makes-right types who will use threats, intimidation, and outright violence to try to get what they want. That perpetual threat has to be countered by the rule of law. ■ But the law is not always swift enough to appear when summoned, which is why there will forever be the need for honorable and decent people to uphold the peace by learning the arts of self-defense. In the words of Joseph Philip, a Grand Master in the practice of traditional Tae Kwon-Do, "We seek to eliminate violence by deterring the strong from oppressing the weak through developing a power that must be based on humanity, justice, morality, wisdom and faith, thus helping to build a better and more peaceful world." ■ As with individuals, so as well with societies. Woodrow Wilson dreamt in 1917 that "it is taken for granted that that peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again". Wilson's utopian vision may have been well-intentioned, but it assumed the possibility of an end to war through "an organized common peace". ■ But peace must always be enforced by people of goodwill. There is no option to stand down entirely; there is only the responsibility to stand firmly and persuasively in the gap between what maleficent actors want and what they can do. Only an honorable strength is sufficient to deter the strong from oppressing the weak. ■ That honorable strength depends upon both skills and resources. A soldier must have a weapon, and a weapon must have a trained soldier. Logistics and the supply of materials have always mattered in warfare; Dwight Eisenhower recalled in his memoir of World War II, "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." Democracy needs its arsenals. ■ Having reliable allies who are capable of producing materiel is a strategic imperative. For that reason, American and allied interests ought to celebrate the maturity of a meaningful defense-sector industry in South Korea. Though it may seem counterintuitive, defense industries with lots of capacity are tools of peace. ■ The Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates plainly that nations are willing to spend billions of dollars on the vanity of aggression. And the only productive way to counter them -- with even a shred of hope of deterring the same behavior in the future -- is for those honorable peacemakers to be ready to spend billions of their own to arm the defenders. ■ Diversity of supply may well turn out in that war to be even more important than ever thought before, since other nations in Europe have to arm up as well to make themselves more resistant to the risk of invasion: Finland, for instance, needs to be a well-armed porcupine. If defending Ukraine is going to consume lots of armaments for some time to come, there will need to be adequate productive capacity throughout the free world to make sure that nobody is left under-armed. ■ Wilson imagined a peace that could be perpetually maintained by talking. Unfortunately, until the violent instincts can be removed from the reptilian parts of our brains, talking won't be enough. Justice can only be preserved if the oppressors have reasonable cause for concern about the consequences if they are caught trying to oppress the weak. When it comes to having the supplies needed to discourage aggression, there is no such thing as "just in time".

August 18, 2022

News The integral partygoer

Political opponents are criticizing Finland's prime minister, Sanna Marin, for appearing in videos leaked from a recent party. Marin has defended herself, saying I danced, sang, and partied - perfectly legal things." ■ At 36 years old, Marin is relatively young for a national head of government. But she's not all that different from John F. Kennedy, who was 43 years old at his inauguration. And one can only imagine, based upon stories we've learned since, how JFK might have looked if his behavior had been captured in an age of smartphones. Dancing and singing might look positively tame by comparison. ■ A well-integrated life should involve some useful work, some meaningful contributions to the world, and some recreation with friends and family. Balance isn't just for common folk. Winston Churchill blew off steam by painting. Theodore Roosevelt liked hunting. To have a non-work life is vital, even for those with prestigious jobs. ■ Nobody should mistake a role in public service for a move to the monastery. When we use the word "integrity", we should use it in an honest, comprehensive sense: That a person should seek to be whole and well-rounded, and that their parts should be complementary with one another. A leader who can maintain ties with friends -- especially the old ones who can keep them grounded -- stands a better chance at bringing their integrated judgment to the table on big questions. ■ They ought to have some reasonable privacy, too, since the intimacy of friendship can't be well-maintained under the glare of a public spotlight. But it isn't an occasional private night of singing and drinking we should fear; it is the powerful person who isolates themselves from the good influence of others who presents the real threat. ■ If trusted friends aren't around to help the real person behind a public face -- telling the truth when needed, hearing the cries for help, and sharing the good times that every life requires -- then if anything goes right, it is merely by luck.

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August 17, 2022

Computers and the Internet No excuses for lax security

In 2015, China hacked the Office of Personnel Management to capture a massive archive of personnel data on employees of the Federal government. Also in 2015, well before the mass-scale ground invasion, Russia used cyberwarfare against the Ukrainian power grid, a tactic Russia repeated in April. And for at least a year, North Korea has been using ransomware to extort money from operations in the health-care sector. ■ Espionage is nothing new. Nor is unconventional warfare. But the scale at which it can be conducted, the depth of the damage that can be done to ordinary life, and the asymmetric leverage that can be obtained by using cyberwarfare for malicious aims are all much greater than anything for which we have good historical analogies. ■ The time has long since come and gone for a sea change in American public attitudes towards information security. The need to straighten up and bring a responsible custodial mindset to how we treat and secure information can scarcely be overstated. ■ When a Secretary of State dismissed questions about "wiping" her home-based email server by asking, "What? Like with a cloth or something?", her response was not only cavalier, it was reckless. Defensively laughing off the question may have seemed like a cagey political response, but by 2015, it was already evident that cyberwarfare was a real threat that no high-level government official could dismiss or remain ignorant about. ■ Likewise, when a former President took classified documents to his private property -- including items labeled "Top Secret", regardless of any prerogative he may or may not have used to de-classify any of the contents at any time during his time in office -- he undertook known and easily-avoidable risks with the contents. Trespassers already presented a known security threat to the property, and there's no doubt foreign intelligence services already had an interest in the site. ■ Disregard for information security has to become a permanent, non-partisan disqualifier from public office. Regardless as to where the information is being held -- on paper, on an email server, on a flash drive, or just in a person's head -- the need to insist upon good security hygiene is both apolitical and more important than ever. ■ It sets back the national interest when anyone in 2022 falls back on "But her emails" either in earnest or in jest. The FBI's assessment at the time was that it found people being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information". In failing to take that assessment seriously and reducing it to a meme instead of escalating it to a call to action, the country chose a path of ill preparation for new incidents of security sloppiness. ■ No matter what stripe one's politics, there is no longer any room for dismissing, disregarding, or downplaying the contemporary rules of security. Everyone has a role to play now, far more than at any time in the past, and the tone in every Cabinet department, Congressional office, and independent agency is going to be set by the attitudes coming from the top. Ignorance of information security is a luxury we cannot afford. Anyone who cannot commit wholeheartedly and unreservedly to learning the new rules and living up to the standards required of them has no business coming near the data that adversaries might want.

August 16, 2022

Threats and Hazards Sea power

Much has been made of the steps taken to ship more grain from Ukraine to help relieve the world's troubled food markets. The mayhem imposed on Black Sea shipping by Russian malfeasance is inexcusable from a basic humanitarian standpoint. ■ It is noteworthy that the word "shipping" in this case really does refer quite literally to the use of ships. Grain moves in large quantities aboard boats, not just from Ukraine; the shipping industry claims that 350 million tons of grain are moved by sea each year. ■ The war Russia is waging upon Ukraine and the heated situation in the waters between China and Taiwan offer two reasons to revive attention to the condition of conventional naval power. The planet is very, very big, and 71% of it is covered by the oceans. The maintenance of a stable world in which peaceful nations can freely carry out their trade and other interactions with one another may well hinge upon the ability of rule-abiding nations to stand up for themselves and their allies. ■ Does the United States need a substantially larger Navy, as some sensible thinkers have argued? It seems more likely than not that the challenges to peace upon the seas are going to continue rising, and that the consequences of letting countries ruled by malicious powers will grow accordingly unless a convincing deterrent is not only in place, but provided-for well into the future.

August 14, 2022

News Standing by your reporting

Amid the all-out war for attention in the digital publishing economy, many conventional news outlets have inadvertently moved their incentive structures away from rewarding engagement that is good for the institution and towards engagement that depends upon the "personal brands" of their individual journalists. It happens at institutions both large and small. ■ When the Washington Post heralds the hiring of Taylor Lorenz as a technology columnist, it is in no small part seeking to gain institutional access to her 330,000 Twitter followers. Corporate edicts require the public-facing hosts, reporters, and personalities at some outlets to use their own social-media profiles to promote company events. Most every journalist and commentator can be found using the phrase "my latest" to direct attention to their work -- in the enduring quest to get the next marginal click-through. ■ In spending so much time depending upon these "personal brands", media outlets in the United States have broadly sacrificed their own institutional outlooks on affairs. It has become very easy to find first-person journalism at the same time as it has become very hard to find regular editorials. ■ It would likely be a public service if news outlets would begin addressing the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between "objective" reporting, first-person journalism, analysis, advocacy journalism, reported opinion, and straight commentary in two ways. First, by applying those labels (and doing so consistently) where they can clearly identify what the reader, listener, or viewer can expect. ■ Second, outlets could begin to identify which editors (or those in adjacent roles) will personally vouch for the content. That doesn't necessarily require an endorsement of what is said. As a starting point, we already have the model of judicial opinions, in which one can read a majority opinion, a concurring opinion, or a dissenting opinion. Journalism could easily adopt an editorial model whereby an editor could say, for instance, "I endorse the following", "I take no opinion on the following, but believe it to be accurate", "I find this informative", or "I disagree with the following, but believe it to be worth considering". ■ Those descriptions are ungainly, to be sure, but refinements can surely be found. Good editorial guidance is more valuable than ever, and just as people learn to value the opinions of movie critics, so too would critical consumers of media learn to evaluate the opinions of individual editors. ■ Sometimes a movie critic is worth following because their opinions are helpful in the prima facie sense. Sometimes, the careful reader learns that a particular film reviewer is useful because their opinion is almost always the opposite of the reader's own. The same would be true if editors were accountable for expressing a judgment about the content of the articles published under their supervision. ■ We tell young people to become "critical consumers" of media, but that shouldn't take place in a vacuum where every new piece is understood as a blank slate. Editors should help audiences to understand what kind of professional judgment has been passed on a piece of content before it has been served up. ■ Few journalistic institutions have such a strong editorial voice that they would adopt the practice of The Economist and omit bylines altogether. It has the potential to do a great deal of good if editors everywhere would help to guide their audiences to understand why they agreed to the publication or broadcast of a particular piece of material. ■ Some would reveal themselves to be worthy guides. Some would reveal themselves to be idiots. But the time has come for them to openly show at least some of their work, either way.

August 13, 2022

Computers and the Internet Decorating digital publications

In an article reflecting on the trial of Alex Jones, The Atlantic put artificial intelligence to work in producing an illustration, crediting "AI art by Midjourney". It isn't great and it isn't terrible; it's just middling, serving a discrete purpose: To give social media previews of the article an accompanying image. ■ Artists are upset anyway. Some have assumed that the emergence of AI-generated artwork spells the death of their craft. Others assume the development translates directly to job losses for artists. ■ While it is understandable that people will fear for their incomes whenever automation gains the capacity to do new work. Electric lights were bad for lamplighters, too. But was it unfair to illustrators when The Atlantic first introduced photographs? Was it bad for the engravers when they adopted color printing? Did it squeeze out hand illustration when the first digital illustrators got their work? ■ All of the discussion about the impact of computer-generated illustrations is moot if either one of two possible conditions is true. First, if it's the difference between a publication surviving or folding, then adaptation may well be necessary in order for any jobs to survive at all. Note, after all, that what was once The Atlantic Monthly (exclusively a printed publication) is now known more ethereally as The Atlantic (largely a digital outlet that continues to print a monthly edition). ■ Likewise, if the digital publication is generating new content that it would not have generated before -- like an electronic newsletter, as in the case of the article in question -- then turning to a computer to add a feature to the content isn't putting people out of work. Articles posted online now require preview images in order to get viewers to click through from their social-media feeds. And if the image used is an original produced by artificial intelligence rather than a stock photo or an old file photo (which is very often the case!), then no displacement has taken place. ■ Artists experienced a disruption with the mass-production of beautiful objects during the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne eras, too. We risk losing touch with the point of art altogether if we divorce it from the quest to maximize human encounters with it in ordinary life. Not everyone is capable of producing great art; they are made better-off when they can encounter the work that others have done. ■ If someone purchases a print to hang on their wall, the alternative was not necessarily that they would have commissioned an original piece to hang there instead. It might simply have remained an empty wall. ■ Besides, we shouldn't separate works of art themselves from the embrace of the process itself as the outlet for human creativity. People pay good money to get together to drink with friends and make homemade art. The resulting works aren't putting vocational artists out of business. Humans create art because we are compelled to do it by our creative instincts. ■ A world with a surplus of art -- created by humans, by computers, or by the collaboration of the two -- will not be worse off. The presence of works of art enhances human life generally, and the process of creating it will always be intrinsically rewarding for some. And just as there will always be room for both mass-produced and custom-made artworks inside of homes, offices, and public buildings, so too will there always be room for both computer-created and human-created art in the media.

August 12, 2022

Iowa A beautiful game

By the strictest definition, America is not a nation in the same way that many countries are. We don't share a common ethnic heritage, our foundation is inexorably tied to religious dissent, and our language patterns have really only begun to converge after many generations of widely varying regional dialects -- to say nothing of the waves upon waves of immigrants who have stuck with their mother tongues for a generation or two before coming around to adopting English first. ■ Many other nations -- bound by commonality of ethnic origins, religious practices, and linguistic identity -- may be counted as stateless, but their unity is visible nonetheless. America is bound instead by creed, by a voluntary belief system stated plainly in the preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. ■ As a creedal nation, America simply has to try harder than other nations to stay together. While we believe those limited certain things in common, it also remains expressly within our national identity to disagree. Compromise born out of disagreement is foundational: Checks and balances, vetoes, and Constitutional amendments wouldn't be necessary were it not for disagreement. ■ Thus, on those things on which we can agree, it's important to double down. We require some audacious common projects and some stirring events to bind us together. The Field of Dreams baseball game has the potential to be the kind of potent quasi-religious ritual that helps satisfy that need. ■ Other cultural rituals in America too often become crass outlets for politics. Presidential inaugurals and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade seem to remain safe for now, but we don't have a giant number of culturally significant mass rituals that aren't bent into platforms for performative displays of difference. When was the last celebrity awards show that didn't have undertones of a White House Correspondents' Dinner? ■ Baseball, though, remains one of our most distinctive institutions as a country. It's a game that really doesn't make much sense to outsiders, and so few other countries have bothered to make sense of it that it struggles for recognition as an Olympic sport. ■ As a sport, baseball is unifying in its difference. And while the World Series (and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game) can draw in committed fans of the game, there's a place for an event centered less on the play of the game than on how it makes a nation feel. Perhaps it's even a little bit preposterous that a game borrowing the motif (and site) of a fantasy film from 1989 should have such an effect. ■ But the commercial success of the film is a result of how people feel about baseball, not the cause of it. The movie simply captured a deeply held sense of attachment to the sport, and the TV ratings for the themed games (which clobbered the rest of the season, both in 2021 and in 2022) reveal how much many Americans long to feel unified by that emotional pull. ■ Americans need the glue of at least a few rituals to hold us close enough to one another to remind us that not everyone actively recommits every year to the tenets of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism, no matter how much they are baked into the mechanisms passed down from the Founders. It does us some good to engage in feeling a sense of commonality, not just thinking about it. We need more of those events, not fewer. Making a game at the Field of Dreams an annual event would be a very fine start.

August 10, 2022

Computers and the Internet The App Store isn't a one-newspaper town

In the past, when mass media consumption patterns changed, it was mainly a matter of slow ebbs and flows. Large cities before the era of electronic media often had many rival publications. Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century had newspapers called the American, the Chronicle, the Daily News, the Evening Post, the Herald, the Journal, the Record, the Times-Herald, the Tribune, and the Inter Ocean. A century later, the city was down to just the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Daily Herald. ■ Newspapers didn't fold and start overnight; people grew to prefer the writing or the pictures or the cartoons or the sports coverage of one or another, and both subscriptions and staff would float in one direction or another. The ebb and flow of success rarely took dramatic twists. ■ In the era of electronic mass media, networks emerged and faded away, again over long swells of history. DuMont and Mutual lasted for decades but are no longer. CBS went through a "rural purge". Brandon Tartikoff drove NBC through a multi-year swoon as "Must-See TV". ■ Social media tools are not nearly as stable. The Pew Research Center studies the use of social media by teenagers (ages 13 to 17), and found that Facebook use among that demographic plunged from 71% in 2014 to 32% today. TikTok, which wasn't even launched until 2016, is now the second-most-used tool, with a 67% usage rate among those surveyed teens. ■ The network effect has a great deal more influence over social media tools than over their mass-media predecessors. It took a certain amount of demand to get a cable television company to pick up a particular channel, perhaps, but otherwise what one person's enjoyment of a media product rarely had much influence over anyone else's. An individual read a column or watched a show or listened to a song out of personal interest or pleasure, not for the benefit of anyone else. One might share a clipping or recommend a show to otheres, but that's as far as it could routinely go. ■ But for social media to be true to the "social" part of the name, users have to enjoy the tool together. It's not much fun to be on Snapchat all alone. This, in turn, is bound to make the shifts in demand and the success of any individual tool seem highly volatile by comparison with legacy media. And that introduces an aspect of novel risk. ■ TikTok remains a China-based company, and American users may not adequately realize how much information is being collected by the service -- and being made available to parties that may well include China's spy agencies. It hasn't emerged slowly and under persistent scrutiny, like, for instance, the newspaper "China Daily". ■ So, whereas "China Daily" has had time to come under scrutiny for acting as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, TikTok's race from startup to supermajority penetration (at least among the US teen market) has happened in a rapid cascade, and it's unlikely that most users have really stopped to examine the data harvesting to which they are subjecting themselves. ■ The wild volatility of the social-media universe and the tremendous influence of the network effect go hand-in-hand. And together, they call for a different level of scrutiny and inherent skepticism about those tools than anything for which we have a cultural model. For as much as we may or may not be paying attention to the hazards of TikTok, another explosively popular tool could be right around the corner, with all the same security red flags and more. The incentives are lining up to maximize data collection and use, with little or no time for users to reflect on what they might be giving away.

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August 9, 2022

News A penny for your thoughts

Pull an ordinary American off the street, and there's an excellent chance that individual could easily name a dozen or more slogans for consumer products and services. Some endure long past their last official use, like the long-retired "Better living through chemistry" or "You deserve a break today". Some are specific ("15 minutes could save you 15% or more"), and others deliver pure atmospherics ("We bring good things to life"). ■ What is intriguing about slogans -- other than the "reverse priming" that takes place when they invite consumers to spend more -- is that we have recognized their commercial use for generations, but haven't meaningfully adopted them in personal and family life. ■ With the help of genealogy websites and heraldry groups, families can often enough dig up a coat of arms. And a coat of arms often includes a phrase declaring a family motto. But how often do families in the contemporary world really consider those mottoes to be guiding principles? ■ Perhaps, though, the family motto is a practice worth reviving. Consciously or not, parents and grandparents indoctrinate their offspring with aphorisms and one-liners, but it takes more than a one-liner to really give a person durable guidance by which to live. Somewhere between the obscure Latin on a coat of arms ("Moderata durant", if you're a cousin to the Presidents Bush) and the 12 points of the Scout Law probably lies a sweet spot for offering the kind of instruction that might not only give a family guidance, but also distinguish its members in a way that really creates a form of identity. ■ Specific circumstances change with the passage of time and the evolution of technology, but human nature is more or less what it always was and always will be. The same things tend to motivate us that motivated people millennia ago, and the same things that frightened them tend to frighten us now. The Book of Ecclesiastes is probably 2,500 years old, but even it notes that "Nothing is new under the sun!" ■ The (mostly) unchanging condition of human nature means that families can smooth the way for their successors when they concentrate wisdom accumulated through lived experience and pass along those lessons in memorable form. Corporate marketing departments invest vast resources in communicating their slogans. It seems like a missed opportunity if families don't do the same.

August 7, 2022

Business and Finance Doing the hard work

A healthy society places a premium on building capacities -- for individuals, for institutions, and for society as a whole. Building capacity means expanding the internal means of being able to do what is necessary and productive. ■ Americans fund and otherwise encourage the education of young people in no small part because it is an exercise in capacity-building: Helping youth to become self-sufficient members of society later on, both economically and civically. When we fail to do this, society pays the price in a variety of ways: Through under-employment and unemployment, through counterproductive voting, and through other forms of avoidable decline. ■ In the process of developing young people, we risk making the mistake of communicating to them that all time spent in community service is equally valuable. When people are young, they lack most forms of specialized skill. Thus, the best ways to put their energies to use take the form of low-value labor: Volunteering at a soup kitchen, lifting drywall at a Habitat for Humanity build, or soliciting donations to walk-a-thons and dance marathons. ■ These are all fine and noble activities, and it is usually good to mass lots of labor around them, especially when the people contributing their time have more of that than they have cash to donate. But there comes a time not shortly after one enters adulthood when their time becomes modestly more valuable (because their capacities have been built up). The college graduate who embarks on a career that earns $55,000 a year needs to value their efforts at $27.50 an hour. In those circumstances, it may make more sense for them to give $100 to a good cause than to spend four hours volunteering -- if, with that $100, the charity can obtain more value than it would have obtained from four hours of median-value volunteering. ■ But after a period of time, experience (and, hopefully, more capacity-building) makes the individual even more valuable, sometimes in particular areas where their skills are of special worth. The classic case is that of the attorney, accountant, or other professional who works on a pro-bono basis for a good cause (often as a way of fulfilling certain expectations on the way to a partnership). ■ Many other forms of work can be particularly valuable, too, beyond the conventional professions. And it would be highly pro-social to communicate to those idealistic young people (whose volunteer time is appreciated merely because it comes cheap) that they can do a real service to society by building their own capacities so that they can not only earn a living, but also commit some of their specialty skills and knowledge to solving important problems on behalf of worthy community goals later on. ■ Our tax code doesn't recognize this, and that's a failing. Someone can donate the cash required to hire, for instance, a computer network administrator, and obtain a deduction for the full value of the check they write. But the network administrator cannot simply donate their time and then take a deduction for the market value of what they've donated. It's a silly distinction, particularly because it then makes cash alone appear to be more valuable -- which contributes to the unfortunate pattern of over-professionalizing our entire non-profit sector. ■ More operations would work better if there were a clear way for people who care about a cause to devote their best efforts directly to it, and then receive the same kind of tax treatment they would receive if they had paid for someone else to do it. But it would also signal to high-minded individuals that their capacities are as valuable as their time alone, and with greater capacities come greater opportunities to give.

August 6, 2022

Threats and Hazards Telling you what to do for two years

One of the daffy ideas that periodically gets revived as a plausible public policy is the notion of compulsory "national service", in the form of something like Rep. Charlie Rangel's 2013 bill for a "Universal National Service Act". That bill proposed "a 2-year period of national service, unless exempted, either through military service or through civilian service in a federal, state, or local government program or with a community-based agency" for every American resident between the ages of 18 and 25. ■ There are plenty of reasonable Constitutional and moral obstacles to enacting a sweeping claim to two years of every young person's life. Despite these obstacles, people float the idea every once in a while; this time around, it is the suggestion of New York Times opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang. ■ As a matter of scale, a universal national service program would be expensive (assuming that the "service" would consist of paid work) and enormously difficult to administer. Such problems could be so substantial that it would make sense to conduct a pilot test first, perhaps by implementing a two-year mandatory service period in a state or two. Good national policies often originate with state-level programs. ■ But the very thought of an individual state imposing a mandatory service program seems ludicrous. What state would do it, and where would the idea be tolerated? Does a state like California (which offers one of the nation's most ambitious programs for college education) have the stomach to impose such a stiff requirement of its residents? Does a state like Vermont (which votes more to the left than almost any other state) have the internal fortitude to make young people sacrifice two years for the "common good"? Does a state like Texas (which has such an independent streak that it even resists interconnection with out-of-state power grids) have the legal authority to mandate what millions of its own people would have to do with two precious years of life? ■ All of these cases seem extremely unlikely -- what state would even try to impose its own service requirement, and what are the odds the people of any state would stand for it? If a reasonable observer looks at a policy and can't see a way it could be done at the state level, then the burden of proof is extraordinary for anyone seeking to justify the same proposal at the national level. Scale isn't its own justification. ■ Setting aside the unlikelihood of any idea working at the national scale that seems unfathomable at the state level, we should remain alert to the false promise of "shared experience". Proponents of ideas like compulsory national service often argue that we can capture in the modern day some of the esprit de corps that went along with the mandatory conscriptions into the armed forces during World War II. ■ Winning a war against a totalitarian enemy to save the future of democracy is the kind of enormous, ambitious, life-or-death goal that tends to bind a society together. (There is, for instance, a fairly good chance that Ukraine will emerge more unified in the long run after repelling the Russian invasion than it would have under the status quo ante.) ■ But the same cannot be said of putting millions of Americans through a common statutory requirement without a shared investment in a common, tangible outcome. Millions of students attend college at the same time all across the country, but aside from decorating their caps and gowns in similar themes, not much can be found in common among the graduates of Boston College, the University of Alabama, the Air Force Academy, and Brigham Young University. They did the same thing at the same time, but they didn't do it together for a common purpose. ■ There may indeed be merit in the case for a larger menu of service programs at the national level. AmeriCorps alumni may be more vocal about their loyalties than fans of the Green Bay Packers. But we shouldn't see the good feelings of a limited, self-selecting population that volunteered for an activity and extrapolate the conclusion that a similar experience is necessary or prudent for making all of our young people into good citizens.

August 5, 2022

Business and Finance Quit with all this

Every so often, someone gets famous for putting a fresh coat of paint on a well-known idea. They apply a new name to a concept, then tout the rebranding with a product -- usually a book, necessitating a book tour. On the book tour, media organizations happily comply because there's no more reliable "yes" in all the interview world than an author on a book tour. (There are entire newsletters devoted to placing authors on radio and television programs.) ■ Now, the process doesn't even require the effort of writing a book. Thanks to the obsessively short attention spans promoted by social media tools like TikTok, one of these recycled ideas can be sparked with nothing more than a viral video blip. And such is the case with "quiet quitting". LinkedIn is on the story. So is Yahoo Finance. And HuffPost, the New York Post, and Fox Business. ■ Someone is going to get smart and dash off a fluffy book on the topic for rush publication. It will be a money-maker. ■ The problem with an idea like "quiet quitting" is that it isn't new. It's just another way of saying "work-life balance" (at best). Or just plain old slacking off (at worst). ■ It's the kind of idea that has a chance to ring true with a lot of people when the US unemployment rate is a mere 3.5%. In some states, it's below 2%. Workers can call their own shots to a very large extent, just like they could when "Office Space" came out -- the unemployment rate in 1999 was 4.1%, which at the time was a 30-year low. ■ Economic seasons change just like the natural seasons of the year, and at some point in the future, the ascendant message won't be about "quiet quitting" -- it will be some new iteration of the fear that employers are expecting more from their workers without paying for it. And, sometime after that, it will be time for another resetting of "work-life balance". ■ Benjamin Franklin counseled, "Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure" -- but he also wrote, "Sloth (like rust) consumes faster than labor wears. The used key is always bright." The tension between work and leisure will always exist. Franklin's advice is just another way of saying "Work hard, play hard", and it's just as sensible in the 21st Century as it was in the 18th. ■ Arthur Brooks has thoughtfully documented the centrality of being needed as a driver of happiness and well-being. Feeling useless can actually kill. Nobody wants to do meaningless busy work, nor does anyone want to be driven to labor like a pack animal. Being needed generally entails doing something worthwhile. It does not require doing that work without fair compensation or adequate relief. Do we really need new buzzwords to convey that?

August 3, 2022

Weather and Disasters It's the heat and the humidity

While they wax and wane in popularity, there are lots of ways to keep solar energy from entering a building. Shutters can be closed, blinds and curtains may be drawn shut, reflective films can be applied to windows. Shade trees can be planted, seasonal porches can be built on sunny faces, and solar shading can be added to building facades. ■ Likewise, there are lots of low-cost, low-energy options for circulating air within a structure. The government openly endorses ceiling fans as an energy-saving measure, certain historic home designs that can be mimicked today consciously exploit natural air flows for cooling, and it's even possible to assemble circulation systems that make use of solar energy to counteract the effects of solar heating. ■ But the long-cited wisdom is true: It's not the heat, it's the humidity that often makes the indoors uncomfortable during the summertime. And it's worth recognizing that summer heat deaths may be increasing in places that historically haven't been especially susceptible to them. This sets up an unpleasant paradox: Climate-related weather extremes may raise the stakes for finding new ways to help keep people cool, even as governments may try limiting how often the air conditioning runs. ■ The real prize, it seems, is in finding some way of reducing the amount of humidity in the air either passively or with minimal energy use. It really is the humidity that kills -- especially if heat waves hit more people more often. ■ Humidity is what particularly stops sweat from working to cool the body, and it's widely recognized that people can tolerate higher dry temperatures than humid ones: Just ask the Finns about the merits of the extra-hot dry sauna. It would be a great breakthrough for human welfare if technologists could find new and better ways to achieve that low- or zero-energy dehumidification. ■ Emerging technologies like that of carbon nanotubes show unusual relationships with water that could hold promise if science can exploit those new-found interactions. If heat is going to continue to threaten human health, then we as a species need to invest in aggressively seeking out new solutions to the root of the problem. Solar heating and air flow are generally solvable problems; it's getting the water out that sticks with us.

August 2, 2022

Aviation News Clean up after your space program

"Clean up after yourself" is a premise so simple that even toddlers can understand it. Toddlers, unlike the Chinese Communist Party, do not launch giant rockets into space, permitting oversized debris to fall back to Earth, and not only fail to acknowledge their own carelessness, but also withhold vital information about the debris from the rest of the world. ■ When an analyst from the Aerospace Corp. (a nonprofit company funded by the US government) declares that the behavior "could be considered irresponsible", he's biting his tongue. While it is literally awesome that SpaceX is well on its way to a hundred successful vertical rocket landings, nobody expects all of the world's space agencies and private companies to have the same technological skill. But it's just plain reckless to leave the rest of the world guessing where giant blocks of space metal will come crashing down. ■ Sometimes it is necessary to accept imperfect steps along the way to development. For instance, broadly speaking, it is better for people to move from cooking with indoor fires to cooking with electricity. That is the case, even if the electricity is, for now, generated in part by fossil fuels. It is better to take at least some steps in a better direction towards improved health and safety than to persist in the high-hazard behaviors of the status quo. ■ But disregarding the safety of the entire global population to serve the careless ambitions of a government space program that has been chronically contaminating the Earth below for years is unnecessary and regressive. It isn't a mark of progress to rain wreckage out of the sky. ■ The irresponsibility of it all has been called out before, so withholding even the information that would help other countries to plan for the falling debris is both arrogant and abusive. ■ Communism has always been at odds with the value of the individual human life. It always will be, too. That contributes to the CCP's obvious disregard for the consequences of falling space debris, even when the odds of it causing a human casualty could run as high as 1 in 230. Something is deeply wrong with a mindset that permits that kind of behavior to go on, and even a child could see it -- after they're done picking up their toys.

July 30, 2022

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

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

July 29, 2022

News High-tech gloss

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

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July 28, 2022

Business and Finance To grow or not to grow

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

July 26, 2022

News Resources and warfare

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

July 25, 2022

Computers and the Internet The coming end of bad hotel art

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

July 22, 2022

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

July 21, 2022

News Military advisors

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

July 20, 2022

Threats and Hazards Kids shouldn't die in hot cars

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

July 19, 2022

News Wear sunscreen

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

July 18, 2022

Weather and Disasters Under pressure (and heat)

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

July 17, 2022

The United States of America Words and rights

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

July 14, 2022

Threats and Hazards State-sponsored terrorism

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

July 13, 2022

News Movie day

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

July 12, 2022

News Education as a service product

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

July 11, 2022

News Handling hard stuff better

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

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July 10, 2022

News Rock on

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

July 7, 2022

Computers and the Internet Putting a private label on Big Tech

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

July 6, 2022

The United States of America The compromise is the point

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

July 5, 2022

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

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

July 4, 2022

The United States of America Expect more

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

July 3, 2022

The United States of America Love it without leaving it

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

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July 1, 2022

Business and Finance Living in the machine

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

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