Column ideas 4/6/23

It occurs to me it may be helpful to post new column ideas here in case anyone has relevant expertise, suggestions for worthwhile lines of inquiry, or other comments. I’m also interested in any new column ideas - the backlog right now is thin.

Here are a couple topics I’ve been thinking about:

Is Canada poised for world domination due to climate change?

OK, a bit tongue in cheek, but there’s a serious thought here: for the past few years the idea has been kicking around that Canada and Russia will be net beneficiaries of climate change, not necessarily because they’ll gain in absolute terms but because on balance they’ll suffer less than the rest of the world. The obvious pluses, assuming global warming means the weather gets warmer and not just more chaotic, are a longer growing season, access to otherwise inaccessible arctic resources, vast undeveloped territory, ample fresh water availability (the Great Lakes, in the case of Canada), and so on.

An interesting aspect of this is that some Canadian business leaders apparently recognize where things are headed and are preparing to take advantage. Little Ed, who despite his addled demeanor occasionally has an original thought, has already written about this - see:

The Canadian advance continues apace; I see where the Bank of Montreal, through its Chicago-based subsidiary BMO Harris, has just acquired SF-based Bank of the West, greatly expanding its US footprint. There may be other instances of Canadian entities reaching their tentacles into their neighbors on the continent, Mexico included; let me know if you’re aware of any, or have other insights (or arguments).

What good is cryptocurrency?

Again, a tongue in cheek take on a serious subject: what’s the use case for cryptocurrency? I’ve casually disparaged crypto in previous columns, but the idea here is an objective review of what practical value it offers other than providing a way for speculators to make a quick buck (literally). This will necessitate a look at blockchain, the crypto ecosystem, and similar matters; anyone with knowledge of such things is invited to make themselves known.

Is housing so expensive because big cities have revived?

This idea isn’t fully formed but I think there’s potential. The high cost of housing is much lamented and clearly has many causes - excessive regulation, NIMBYism (in CA especially), labor shortages, rising materials cost, difficulty of automation, and so on. But an argument can be made that seriously high housing costs are driven in large part by the fact that a relatively small number of big cities (NY, SF, DC, etc.) have revived and prices have been driven up by steadily rising demand for an inherently limited supply. Not to get too geeky, but whereas the suburban housing model is centrifugal - things spread out thinly on the perimeter - the urban housing model is centripetal - things are pulled into an increasingly dense, expensive core. A good model for this is Chicago, location of Straight Dope World HQ, which is less trendy than coastal cities and so less prone to distortions arising from concentrations of the uber wealthy, but nonetheless has striking cost disparities between gentrified neighborhoods in the city center and older working class communities in outlying parts of town. I have abundant data about Chicago, but it’s just one town, so input about other places would be helpful. And of course it’s possible there are angles I’m just not seeing.

The coming struggle over electric power generation

Anybody who’s used an EV knows there needs to be massive investment in the charging network, power generation, inter- and intracity power distribution, and other infrastructure to make these things practical. This will require the investment of hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars. How will that happen and what will it look like? An idea I’ve been toying with is whether Elon Musk aspires to make himself the master of electric power generation in North America, which seems like an obvious leap from building out an EV charging station network. Right now that seems premature, but possibly there are developments of which I’m unaware.

I look forward to hearing any great thoughts you may have.

I, for one, welcome our new Canadian overlords.

Just a software engineer with no direct experience but I can follow most crypto discussion at a technical level and I’ve read a variety of the legal/regulatory commentary on the subject.

That said, I’ll note that traditionally, Cecil mostly commented on strange and quirky questions like whether you can pan-fry semen and whether nipple piercings are harmful. Meaningful commentary on the big issues of the day is generally going to fall further afoul of the goal of granting factual takes on subjects and drift largely into opinion pieces. Maybe there’s no big thrill in answering the little questions any more but, personally, I’d advise that those are a more reasonable territory for humor-tinged, master-level answers.

I was curious, for example, about the history of apple seeds. I recently learned that apples only have something like a 1 in 80,000 chance of producing offspring that taste good. That made me wonder about Johnny Appleseed and all of his trees that he’s supposed to have planted all over the place, from seed.

An article from the Smithsonian says that he did do this and that nearly all of those trees would have been blech to eat, but they were intended for making cider, not table apples for biting into.

I’ve had cider but I’ve always assumed that it’s been made with sweet apples (?). Which makes me wonder what a traditional cider tastes like and whether that’s better/worse in terms of flavor and nutrition? Are we missing out on some flavonol or something by eating only these genetically rogue apples?

As I have said elsewhere, this is your playground. Do what pleases you most.

Personally speaking, I lean toward toward @Sage_Rat’s views. Columns on topics that have been chewed over hundreds of times in every publication and, worse, have often been argued here, may not be the best use of your time and talents. The column’s strength was always the fact that it covered topics that seemed fresh and new and distinct. Those topics keep being harder to find, I will admit, but you have the advantage that you don’t need to keep to a fixed schedule. Dropping in whenever you have a great idea may better suit your needs.

I’d be delighted to expound on less-than-cosmic topics, but I’ve always relied on the Teeming Millions to come up with the questions, and right now they’re in short supply. I had a blast doing the column on inductive stoves. I like the heavier columns too and it’s relatively easy to come up with topics just by following the news, but they tend to be a lot of work and make my head hurt. So if you’ve got some softballs, heave them my way.

Now we’re getting somewhere. As so often happens - and I mean no disrespect - the Teeming Millions throw a lot of stuff out there and the first job is to figure out what the question is. The one that jumps out is how much impact Johnny Appleseed really had, given that few apple seeds actually germinate and they were being planted by a single guy with (one assumes) only the limited botanical knowledge of the day. It seems obvious the apples of a couple centuries ago were nowhere near as tasty as what we’re accustomed to now - cripes, the prized apple of my childhood was the red delicious, now thought to be the epitome of yuckiness. But yes, that’s a point worth inquiring into. Thanks.

The Michael Pollan book The Botany of Desire has a chapter on apples that busts the Disney version of J. Appleseed. Cider (and I mean the hard stuff) was welcome among the settlers he planted for, especially since sources of potable water could be scarce. (But also because it got you drunk, also welcome in places where there wasn’t much to do in your off hours.)

Columnists need deadlines to get them off their butts. Weekly with no support staff was a strain. Biweekly is a lot more doable. In the age of the Internet and Wikipedia, coming up with good questions that haven’t been thoroughly covered elsewhere isn’t easy, but it wasn’t easy back when everything came in by snail mail. So give me whatever you’ve got.

I feel you. I did a biweekly column for a couple of years and every one seemed to generate a last-minute frantic search for something new to write about.

Now that I’m “retired” I put out articles only when I feel that I’ve thoroughly researched the subject. Yes, that means they sometimes sit and molder as a low priority, but they’re stronger and deeper when they go online.

Whatever gets you going, though. That’s too intensely personal for an outsider to judge.

I, for one, welcome being your new overlord. Beep

I suppose this comes under ‘excessive regulation’, but some states have urban growth boundaries that limit suburban sprawl and contribute to the high cost of housing. I’m not sure how many states have this, but Oregon and Colorado definitely do.

Personally, I’m glad Oregon has them. Some of my favorite places to ride would now be just more suburban sprawl rather than nice rural areas if it weren’t for the Portland UGB.

Actually, a heavier question.

My understanding of “gain of function” research is that there’s sort of two definitions of the term. One is am umbrella term for using any technique invented by Ron Fouchier, Frances Arnold, Ralph Baric, etc. These are used widely and openly, for a variety of reasons (e.g. to ensure that a vaccine will stay effective against a descendant of the target virus). And, secondly, the use of these techniques to purposefully create or with the risk of creating diseases of sufficient danger to humanity. When Fauci says, “The NIH doesn’t fund that sort of thing.” I assume that he’s referring to the second definition, rather than the first.

Things that I’m not sure of:

  1. Is there a positive use of “gain of function” in the biochemistry world (like I gave above) or was the term developed by a group who was opposed to these technologies, and it’s this group who lumped them together? Who is that group? If they’re biochemists, how big of a percentage are they and how are they viewed by the rest?
  2. In a recent press release by Pfizer (below), they say that the US government has required them to use gain of function techniques. Is there a specific regulation that they’re referring to? Or was this part of the approval discussion with the FDA?

These all seem like good ideas. The idea of Canada being a dominant future player is not one I have seen elsewhere. I know little about future electric network needs or blockchain. Housing is obviously relevant, prices much dependent on supply and demand hence location and make little sense in comparison to historical costs or rent. This has been covered elsewhere, but so what? They haven’t been covered by Cecil who should do what interests him. No one knows everything about everything.

As for Canada, I enjoyed Ed’s article. I would have guessed Canada’s future prosperity would be related to its mineral resources and ample freshwater. Toronto, “the city of neighbourhoods” has indeed grown quickly with the traffic problems and high housing prices one might expect. But it is a profoundly multicultural place. I find Chicago more exciting though.

Canadian business sectors are often dominated by a small number of players. More often than not they don’t succeed when they try to expand to the US. Why? Maybe because of less competition or Canadian quirkiness or cultural differences? Canadian banks are more stable than US ones through better regulation and have generally expanded through mergers. Canadian companies which might make for interesting “deeper dives” include Circle K (Couche-Tard, gas station/convenience store chain expanding big time in Norway with the hopes of leading an extensive EV network there, then in the US after 2025) or Dollarama (a popular and profitable store selling quality goods for $1-5).

Canada is mediocre at attracting foreign business investment (with some volatility from unclear Competition laws, barriers to entry, protected markets, Aboriginal considerations and inconsistencies between multiple levels of government). Canada has been accused of not been sufficiently zealous at defending its sensitive mineral industries. But Canadian railways have attracted the attention of Warren Buffett and this might be a factor for much of what Ed’s article describes. I’m sure you know this but here is further information:

Personally I find it hard to see Canadians taking the US over at all, apart from its comedy, certain music genres and a puzzling imbalance on Shark Tank. We don’t tend to be that ambitious. Maybe that’s why the US won’t be ready…

I once read that the weather in the ancient city of Rome was gray and cloudy (obviously, it has changed since then). Likewise, the Enlightenment and nearly every mechanical invention came from gray and rainy Scotland. Seattle is currently one of the centers of the IT era and the home of computers.

If Canada moves from being snowy and into being gray and gloomy, it might well become the intellectual center of the world.

Whether that false history is a true history or not is, of course, something that could be researched. Are gray climates, on average, more intellectually productive than sunny or snowy?

But possible ideas…. Politics is so divisive in the US one might consider other things (most have been covered somewhere, I’m sure, so what?)…

  1. The future of freshwater, tech, climate, supply
  2. Future nutrition, GMO, longevity medicine
  3. Nostalgia, vintage, old tech, surprising comebacks (Polaroids?)
  4. The housing crisis, sensible urban development
  5. Banking and finance reform
  6. Silk Roads and soft foreign influence, effect
  7. Legal reform
  8. Parenting, education methods, happiness
  9. Well-being, perspectives, factors, folly, future
  10. Contrarian views: myths believed, bad dogma
  11. Secret societies, conspiracies, power
  12. Social media, violence, law, solutions
  13. Understanding new tech: farming, food, war
    14: Military strategy in 2023
  14. How to learn, what to study now for most future benefit, university reform
  15. How to teach compromise and civility

(Intentionally left vague, if you want specific questions instead this is easily done)

See Canada World Domination.

Crypto seems unwise.
Nobody knows the original source, and I strongly suspect that a lot of counterfeit crypto exists. Don’t tell me it “can’t be counterfeited”. Rubbish.
What a man can create, another man can undo, given time.
False crypto exists, by now.
A mighty big bubble will burst, & likely soon.

Cheezit, this is a great topic. Being the shameless sensationalist that any journalist instinctively is, I’d want to have a scary headline like "Are scientists using ‘gain of function’ techniques to create bioweapons?’ The answer of course would (likely) be, no, they’re doing it for perfectly reasonable R&D purposes, buuuuut …

Anyway, thank you.

Thanks for bringing the excellent piece about Warren Buffett to my attention.

And likewise thanks for this thought-provoking list. The topics obviously are vast and would need to be narrowed to make them suitable for a column, so if you’d care to be more specific, that would be much appreciated.

My two cents worth: articles, speculation, opinions, even research into current developments all leave me cold when the thrust is What will happen in the future. Aside from the fact that no one knows what tomorrow will bring, let alone next decade or century, it’s all a bunch of mental masturbation. I count on Cecil to answer questions that actually have answers, which followers of the SD have enjoyed for decades. Look, for example, at the books that the columns generated. Very little about the future, a lot about the present and the past. True facts, Cece - that’s what I’d like to see more of. xo,