Gongol.com Archives: February 2010
Brian Gongol

February 2010
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February 1, 2010

Business and Finance The "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" project is really just making its salespeople rich
The initial book by Robert Kiyosaki wasn't anything remarkably good nor bad -- though it was so poorly edited as to be distracting to read. If the fundamental message taken away is that one is better off acquiring useful assets instead of buying stuff that just depreciates, then it's been taken correctly. But the trademark has apparently been licensed to a seminar company in Canada that's using the name to upsell, upsell, and upsell some more -- with courses costing as much as $45,000. In reality, people can get an outstanding education in personal finance by reading just ten books. For those whose attention spans won't permit that much reading, "What I wish someone would have told me about investing when I was 22" would be a good start.

Broadcasting Keeping one's composure
An archival recording of a BBC newscast from 1940, during which the studio itself is hit by a bomb. The newscaster just kept on reading.

Humor and Good News Living up to one's potential
An updated list of ages at which major figures achieved the things that made them remarkable, now sortable by the age of the person and the year in which it happened. Useful for illustrating that one is never too young, nor too old, to have a great idea.

Health Why dirty old men are good for the species
If older men chase younger women, they may end up passing along genes selected for longevity

Health This is why health care costs go out of control
The fastest-growing type of cosmetic surgery in the UK is breast reductions for men. Because more exercise and fewer calories are apparently too much to ask.

Broadcasting Podcast: When Chinese propaganda hits American airwaves

Water News How water utilities are preparing for climate change

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February 2, 2010

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - January 30, 2010

Health Key components to longer life: Eating a low-meat diet and being active with friends
We have to learn how to do two things at once: Extend human lifespans and improve the quality of life throughout that lifespan -- well into old age. The objection a lot of people have to living an exceptionally long time is that they don't want to be old and infirm. Take away the infirmities we too often associate with old age, and what's the problem with aiming to live for a century or more? In fact, it would be a vast improvement in the human condition if we could live longer and be healthier throughout that lifespan -- children would have more loving caretakers (grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents) and society would benefit from the application of their accumulated wisdom. After all, if we spend about 20 years getting educated well enough to become productive members of society, then the longer we can be productive, the better the rate of return on educational investment. Not everyone, of course, will want to continue contributing to the economy after an arbitrary retirement date, but we really only need for a few geniuses to keep producing well into old age for the entire world to benefit. Norman Borlaug was still working to save lives from hunger into his 90s, and Galileo was still inventing in his 70s.

Science and Technology Innovation trumps regulation
Bill Gates has issued a clarion call for more innovation in the energy sector, noting that there's only so much that present technology will allow us to do either to reduce energy waste or to produce more without creating environmental harm. That's why we need inducement prizes to encourage significant new innovation. Higher taxes and more burdensome regulations might suppress some of the energy waste that we presently overlook, but they don't really concentrate the incentives sufficiently to compel people to come up with the great new ideas we urgently need. Gates has taken the interesting step of investing in geoengineering research as a sort of stopgap measure -- just in case it turns out that climate change is more severe than expected or happens faster than we anticipate. But the need for better energy production and storage would be important with or without the threat of global warming, so it's in our best interest to accelerate the development of new ideas in that field.

Computers and the Internet Home video of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster rediscovered
(Video) The video itself doesn't do much, other than to show us a different angle of a sad event we've all seen before. But what's especially interesting is that the content is now migrating to the Internet. Home videos that once sat in basements are now finding their way onto the Internet for immediate worldwide distribution. Surely there are many treasures hidden in vast untapped storehouses of information -- libraries full of unread books, for instance, and archives of all sorts that have been bound by the physical limitations of whatever medium upon which they're stored. The great challenge now, aside from finding ways to digitize all of that old content and put it online, is finding out how to make that content searchable. Google seems to be trying myriad ways to make a variety of content formats searchable -- their automatic voicemail transcription in Google Voice is undoubtedly an effort to build a voice-to-text engine that can translate old audio recordings to searchable text, just as Google Books is one of the largest-ever experiments in optical character recognition.

The United States of America Are Americans losing our "infuriating but reassuring" sense of self-confidence?

The United States of America President Obama is smart enough to reject populism
It can only be hoped that his temporary turn to the lazy old tactic of populism will be reversed before it can do much damage

Water News Flooding will be virtually inevitable in Iowa this year

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February 3, 2010

The United States of America We can't trump authoritarianism by being authoritarian ourselves
Senator Dick Durbin wants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, eBay, and other companies to report back to him with their plans to protect human rights in China. While it's not unreasonable for Americans to want American companies to behave in an enlightened way around the world, Senator Durbin really has no meaningful jurisdiction over this matter. He chairs a Judiciary subcommittee on human rights, but that doesn't really give him grounds to start throwing around the weight of the Senate to tell American companies how to behave overseas. The US government does far more to empower the authoritarian regime in China by running up a colossal Federal debt (which weakens our negotiating power on the world stage and puts American taxpayers at the mercy of Chinese bondholders) than anything American companies can do on their own. Those companies should be held to a high standard -- but by their shareholders and customers. The Senate needs to get its own act together before it starts imposing on others.

Health A new X-Prize: Connecting the brain to a computer
A new X-Prize is being cooked up to encourage the development of an interface between the human brain and a computer that could make the technological advances of the last 20 years look like child's play. If anyone denies that they'd ever consider connecting their brain directly to a computer, let them consider whether their attitude would change in the face of a terminal illness. Figuring out where and how the brain can safely reside in connection with computers -- and, ultimately, whether we have a mind that can survive outside the organic brains we have today -- could have a dramatic effect on the way the human species aggregates its knowledge. What if Stephen Hawking were no longer bound by a body debilitated by ALS? What if Warren Buffett didn't have to joke about guiding his company via seance from beyond the grave?

Broadcasting Podcast: Why Perkins is a beautiful example of capitalism

Broadcasting Podcast: How the Amazon Mechanical Turk makes life easier

Water News It's becoming really difficult to forecast the prices of most metals

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February 4, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work It might be impossible to overstate how much economic malfeasance is being done by North Korea's government
A nearly-overnight devaluation of the currency -- by a factor of 100. The closing of private markets for food. Draconian restrictions on the use of foreign currency and imported goods. It's probably the most gut-wrenching display of economic evil on display in the world today.

Health MRI scans allow some presumptive-vegetative patients to communicate
A hospital in London used a sort of backdoor method to give people the ability to answer "yes" or "no" to basic questions. They found that almost half of the people they thought were in a vegetative state were capable of communicating those "yes" and "no" answers, just like people with normally-functioning brains. A binary means of communication might not seem like much, but "yes" and "no" can mean quite a lot when one needs to tell doctors whether to do things like increasing pain medication or end life support. And, of course, it signals that we might be able to figure out a lot more about brain function that could overcome traumatic brain injury altogether.

The United States of America Federal debt ceiling will rise by $1.9 trillion
The debt ceiling isn't the problem; it's the debt itself. Raising the ceiling is a necessary consequence to prevent default, but the spending is what really has to be reined in. And even though it looks like pay-as-you-go budgeting may be reinstated along with the higher debt ceiling, the real Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads is that our unfunded future liabilities are going to escalate without any sense of control or proportion, thanks to the "promises" made by Social Security and Medicare. We keep putting off real reform, and the consequences keep getting more expensive. Sovereign-debt problems around the world are starting to earn some real (and deserved) attention. Something has to be done before it's too late. The only thing that's likely to work (considering how hostile the American public is going to be towards either benefit cuts or tax hikes) is a massive, prolonged rise in productivity. The latest figures (showing a 6.2% annualized rate of increase in the fourth quarter of 2009) might be enough -- though, unfortunately, it's quite unlikely that we'll be able to sustain that rate of increase for any serious length of time.

Science and Technology "Shoot first and ask questions later" fails scientific scrutiny
It turns out that humans respond more rapidly to the appearance of a threat than we are capable of creating the same threat -- that is, we're faster at being the "white hat" cowboy than at being the "black hat" who shoots first. It probably has to do with the wiring of the brain that likely evolved to favor rapid reactions more than the creation of trouble.

Computers and the Internet How teenagers are using the Internet as we start 2010
Lots of texting. Lots of Facebook. Not a lot of blogging.

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February 5, 2010

Science and Technology Celebrating the 130th anniversary of the first electric streetlights
It started in Wabash, Indiana, and it would likely be difficult to overstate just how significant a development electric streetlights really were. Today, we take streetlights utterly for granted. Yet they really were a revolution. We should acknowledge just how exciting are many of the developments we're witnessing today: Terrible diseases are being cured, human lifespans are growing significantly, we're producing more food with fewer inputs than ever, new tools for energy production are being developed at a rapid clip, and we're aggregating the world's knowledge via the Internet. This is the most exciting time in all of human history, and it contains the greatest amount of potential for good. Pessimists be damned; these are awesome times. Problems abound, but so do the tools to fix them.

Business and Finance Higher debt means lower growth
Some prominent economists are starting to speak up about the really awful degree to which the United States, in the public, private, and household sectors alike, has been racking up a debt burden that is difficult to sustain. Whether there's really a "tipping point" at a certain ratio of debt to national income may be in debate (some say we're approaching just such a tipping point, where the national government's debts are equal to 90% of gross domestic product), but there's no question that borrowing on the scale we've seen (again, across all three sectors) has to be slowed and at least partially reversed. Some people think that we're in the middle of a circular firing squad of debt bombs that are ready to start a cascading trigger effect. That's probably a little too pessimistic; after all, if the debtors go into a rage of self-destruction, the lenders go into crisis as well...and we're all sharing the same global economy. But practical individuals today ought to be looking to deleverage themselves from debt, and probably ought to be seeking investments that are similarly independent of debt. The highly-leveraged are going to be in a world of trouble sooner or later. Probably sooner.

Humor and Good News People respond to incentives
(Video) It's one of Greg Mankiw's ten principles of economics, and it's illustrated with hilarious results in a Bud Light viral commercial in which an office clothing drive incentivizes giving through the reward of beer

Aviation News The Strategic Air Command may be back from the dead
At least, in a sense. The Air Force folded SAC into the Air Combat Command at the end of the Cold War, which SAC has been credited with having ended. Now, the Air Force is creating the Global Strike Command to basically do what the Strategic Air Command used to do. It's certainly captured the attention of the people inside the Air Force.

News Help desk: How to get cell phone service overseas

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February 6, 2010

Computers and the Internet PDF my URL
A simple little tool for turning any page on the Internet into a PDF file

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 6, 2010

Computers and the Internet Help desk: What to do when bogus antivirus lands on your computer

Health "Women should 'pop the question when it will soon be biologically challenging for you to have children'"

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February 7, 2010

The American Way February 2010 update to the EconDirectory
It's a massive collection of data on the most-visited (and least-visited) websites about business and economics. The evidence suggests that a "long tail" effect persists among these sites just as it is thought to exist everywhere else on the Internet. See the average daily visits of the ranked sites, illustrated on a logarithmic scale:

Average daily visits

It's really quite pleasing to see real-world data that fits so smoothly with what the models predict.

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February 8, 2010

Computers and the Internet Google could be building a babelfish for phones
The babelfish is a fictional character from the riveting Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, capable of instantaneously translating any language into another. (That's why the Yahoo/Alta Vista Babelfish translation site is named that way.) Now it's being posited that Google is working on instantaneous translation using a combination of its voice-to-text software (developed for and through Google Voice) and its text-translation software (widely used around the world, even though most English speakers probably don't know it). This only seems to reinforce the argument that Google Voice is being used as a testing ground for voice-to-text algorithms which have myriad other applications as well. But it may also be one of those early symptoms of Google's eventual demise, since there's already some serious skepticism about whether the company will adequately protect individual privacy if people use such a service. The more skeptical people become of Google's motives, the more likely it becomes that the company will have trouble gaining the returns on investment that it requires in order to keep growing at a pace that keeps with its shareholders' demands. Americans seem to trust the small and upstart online services more than they trust the large and established, and Google is becoming the most established of all. That tilts the marketplace in favor of upstarts, even when Google has mountains of cash to devote to research and product development. Google's best bet right now, counterintuitive though it may be, is to focus on holding its ground in a handful of Internet services where it has a clear competitive advantage (search engines, video delivery, and e-mail would be obvious examples) -- but to diversify away from the Internet everywhere else. Become an energy company. Become a medical-research company. Become a homebuilder or a travel company, for all it matters. But recognize that the early symptoms of Google consumer skepticism likely portend greater skepticism in the future, and an even tougher job to be done to keep asking consumers to trust the company with more of their Internet-related lives.

Humor and Good News "How to Report the News"
(Video - with a handful of foul words) Truly a slam-dunk indictment of television news. Brilliant.

The United States of America Adult women shouldn't make crib sheets of their palms
Sarah Palin appears to have scribbled talking points into the palm of her hand in advance of the "tea party" convention this past weekend. Is it a big deal? Not really. But it's hard to take a person like Palin seriously when she clearly is neither the smartest person in the room, nor seems interested in becoming that person. People of average intelligence can have greater-than-average curiosity that more than compensates for their natural state. She doesn't seem to be one of those people.

Health Tremendous damage done to public health by the anti-vaccine movement

Business and Finance Show notes from the Brian Gongol Show on January 31, 2010
The better part of a full transcript of the Sunday night radio show about making money and having fun

Water News Plant closure will cut Sioux City sewer revenues by 7%

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February 9, 2010

News Lasting success is a matter of getting the little things right with mind-numbing consistency
An amazing number of people seem to think that they can succeed on a fast track -- a perfect example is the person who thinks he'll become wealthy if only he can get five minutes of face time with Warren Buffett or the one who thinks she'll become an overnight sensation if only Simon Cowell will listen to her demo tape. There is no such short-circuit to durable success.

Science and Technology A history of the world, documented via objects
If the objects all around us are really just aggregations of the accumulated knowledge of all human history, then the BBC's attractive display of those objects might be one of the best history lessons around

Science and Technology British company figures out how to make pressure-sensitive screens
And Samsung is among the companies that have licensed the technology.

Computers and the Internet Should Apple keep an exclusive agreement with AT&T to sell the iPhone?
Short answer: It's a bad business decision, but it's nothing for the government to step in and break up

Health Retinal implants could allow the blind to see well enough to navigate a room

Water News Iowa Legislature puts stamp of approval on new water-quality rules


February 10, 2010

Computers and the Internet Google launches a shot at Twitter and Facebook simultaneously
Calling it "Google Buzz", the company appears to be trying to ape the "status update" concept and integrate it with the tool people still use most online: e-mail. There will be stumbling blocks: Some serious privacy flaws have emerged right out of the gate (not the least of which is that Buzz advertises a user's most-contated friends by default, which isn't necessarily the kind of thing a person wants to advertise), and there are probably as many unanswered questions about the tool as there are posts already on it -- not the least of which is whether Google will show the wherewithal to stick with the project over the long term. But its launch is irrefutable evidence that it's remarkably tough to be in the online-services business. A service like Twitter has to be constantly on guard against new, powerful, and well-funded rivals like Google, and giants like Google have to work so hard to maintain their dominance that they have to be seen as operating in a perpetual state of innovation. Consumers win in the long term, but it's hard not to imagine that these kinds of companies, on balance, are destroying more investor wealth than they're actually creating. Expect vast turmoil for Twitter, Facebook, and Google over the next decade, as well as any of the companies trying to be like them.

The United States of America Don't expect a Tea Party political party to emerge
It's just a temporary movement built on voter frustration. But "Taxed Enough Already" is not enough of a platform upon which to build a durable political party. Are we taxed enough already? Self-evidently not: We have a $12.3 trillion debt, built not on loans for roads and bridges, but mainly on our failure to pay for things as we go along. Clearly we spend far more than we tax, so rather than saying we're "taxed enough already", perhaps we should talk about how we're "lavishing ourselves too much already". But "LOTMA party" doesn't quite have the same ring to it at "TEA party", now does it?

The United States of America How American regions can be defined by Facebook relationships
Using data from Facebook profiles, a researcher has come up with his suggested map of the regions of the United States, marking where people have the most connections with out-of-town friends. It should probably come as no surprise that the map ends up looking a lot like the map from Joel Garreau's "Nine Nations of North America", published in the 1980s.

Humor and Good News Craig Ferguson arrives on Twitter
He's doing exactly what any smart celebrity should be doing right now -- building a durable online brand that doesn't depend upon networks or production companies to promote the talent. Conan O'Brien would have been much better off had he done the same thing long before it became apparent that NBC was going to push him around for Jay Leno. O'Brien didn't, and now he's silenced by a non-compete agreement. Had he established himself online independently before the need became apparent, it would have been much harder for NBC to have pushed him out.

Aviation News The rise of the commuter airlines
PBS's often-excellent program "Frontline" did an interesting piece on the rise of commuter airlines, and they've developed an interesting interactive map illustrating where commuter airlines fly and just how prevalent they are at a wide range of airports

Water News Parts of South Dakota go without water service for two weeks

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February 11, 2010

Business and Finance Google's founders are liquidating part of their holdings
Page and Brin will continue to have almost 50% of the voting control of the company, but they're each selling about $2.75 billion worth of stock. From a personal-finance standpoint, it makes perfect sense: They're probably being advised to diversify, and undoubtedly they'd simply like a billion or two in cash just to play with. However, their behavior is a signal to the market that Google is insufficiently diverse. Sure, the company is getting into a lot of different online services, from e-mail to video to mapping, but it's still an online-services company. Until it is more broadly diversified, it's going to be held hostage to the whims of a very fickle online-using public. All that has to happen to really blow up Google's presently-dominant position in the marketplace is for a knockout smartphone to hit the market, built on a competitor's platform and available on lots of different networks (the iPhone could've done this kind of damage, but it didn't in part because of Apple's deal with AT&T) -- and for a competitor like Microsoft to really hit a home run with a novel approach to search (like what they're trying to do with Wolfram Alpha). Cut Google off from the biggest area of future growth (mobile browsing) and current revenues (search-related advertising), and they're going to be in a world of hurt. Google needs to start working on strategically investing in new lines of business where its computing power and corporate culture could give it a competitive advantage, like medical or agricultural research. Undoubtedly, Pfizer and DuPont would rather not face heat from Google's enormous computing resources. But that just doesn't seem to be the direction in which Google is headed, and that's why the co-founders are smart to cash out, at least to some degree, today. The founders of Facebook and Twitter will come to regret someday that they didn't sell out. They're in too unstable a marketplace to stay dominant for long. Of course, the same advice applies to rivals like Microsoft as it does to Google: Instead of trying to eat one another's lunch, get into other lines of business, especially while revenues are high and profits are leaving the corporate coffers stuffed with cash. Tech giants will fall; they always have. It should be noted that Google's Page and Brin are going to pay a hefty penalty in the form of taxes as they sell their stock; it's a penalty that Warren Buffett has avoided by never really selling out of Berkshire Hathaway. Retained and reinvested earnings get much kinder treatment from the IRS than cash payouts.

The United States of America The United States has a surprisingly low ratio of representatives to people
Other Western countries have far more representatives per voter in their national assemblies and parliaments. Counting the House and the Senate, we have one member of Congress for every 575,000 people (roughly speaking). In Germany, it's something like one for every 137,000. In the UK, it's one for every 93,000 or so. We would be much better off with a much larger Congress, and this is just a small sliver of the evidence in favor. Smaller districts make it easier to "throw the bums out" and renders term limits unnecessary. It's much easier to run an outsider campaign when one's entire district only contains 100,000 people than when it contains seven times as many.

Futurism A few predictions for 2020
For a time that's only ten years away, we as a culture seem to have put very little thought into where this train is headed. An exercise in making predictions like this is such an exception to the rule, people only seem to feel comfortable doing it as the decade rolls over. The reality is that every organization ought to have a 100-year plan (with lots of intermediate stops, of course, between now and a century in the future) and ought to update it annually.

Business and Finance Americans keep living longer lives
...and we're not even saving enough (on average) to last through yesterday's life expectancies. This savings gap is growing, and it's a massive problem.

Humor and Good News Bill Clinton in a time machine

Water News Omaha plans for higher sewer fees

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February 12, 2010

News Haitian earthquake death toll centers on 217,000
A month after the quake, the country is still really just in survival mode. In the near term, they're going to need to construct some form of infrastructure to handle just the essential utilities required to make public health and safety possible. But what really needs to happen is that some kind of economic development needs to take place there. The country receives a quarter of GDP from remittances sent by expatriates. If the world really wanted to do some long-term good in Haiti, it would find ways to make the nation attractive for foreign and domestic investment alike.

Business and Finance Are people looking far enough ahead with their investments?
Short answer: No. One of the best rules of thumb for investing (courtesy of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger) is this: Would you be comfortable buying this stock or bond today and not getting another quote on its price for another ten years? Day-traders and other short-term traders are only fooling themselves if they think they're "investing." Investment usually involves a minimum of trading.

Computers and the Internet Internet search history admitted as evidence establishing murder suspect's state of mind

Iowa It's a new record for snow so far this year

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February 14, 2010

Computers and the Internet Online services still aren't turning a profit for Microsoft
More evidence that the company should consider better ways to diversify its income. Its strengths are suited to lots of areas outside the Internet-services market. The market for online services is cutthroat and rapidly evolving -- great for consumers, but terrible for suppliers. But there are scores of fields where a little bit of research, aided perhaps by computer modeling and data analysis (the kinds of things Google and Microsoft alike are very good at doing) could deliver very profitable results. Why fight it out in a fiercely competitive market with uncertain returns rather than use a company's existing strengths to leap over small hurdles?

Business and Finance Recommended with reservations: "Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett's Omaha"

Computers and the Internet Symantec shuts down its in-house feedback service
They're moving their interactive discussion site to Facebook only. Bad move. It might save them some trouble and some overhead cost when it comes to administration, but they're only opening themselves up to a whole host of new problems. Facebook has security troubles of its own, not to mention the fact that Facebook cannot possibly retain its standing as the premiere social-networking site for another full decade to come. Services like Facebook and Twitter are good auxiliaries, but they should never be used as the primary "storefront" for any company or organization.

Computers and the Internet Photorealism and a thought or two to chew upon
The production of extremely realistic paintings using airbrushes and digital "paint" -- not to mention ever-improving computer modeling -- is going to start posing some strange questions. For instance, if someone takes another person's photo, does the subject own the rights to his or her likeness? If that photo is then copied in a photorealistic fashion, is it still the property of the subject? If that likeness is then modeled into a 3-dimensional computer simulation, at what point is the representation still a likeness of the individual who was photographed, and when is it generic enough to resist that kind of label? Is an imprecise representation treated differently from a sophisticated reproduction? What happens when it becomes easy to model anyone -- living or dead -- into a lifelike role in a television show or a movie? What if that movie happens to be pornographic? What if you were simply walking down a public street and were photographed (as is perfectly legal) and your likeness was then used in a 3D computer-generated pornographic film without your consent? What if it were so realistic, your boss, your lawyer, your lover, and your priest couldn't tell whether it was really you or not? Anyone who doubts these questions will become important -- and soon -- hasn't seen "Avatar" or Madden NFL. Voters need to start pondering these questions? If meat cloned in a bioreactor could provide guilt-free bacon to those who self-identify as vegetarians for ethical reasons, what will be the moral status of videos created strictly in a digital environment? Will that somehow create a sort of "guilt-free" pornography, in which nobody ever feels exploited? It only sounds far-fetched for the moment. Inside of ten years, this will be a matter of serious legal debate. Somewhere between a high-resolution portrait and a stick-figure drawing, we lose the right to claim that a picture uniquely identifies us. But where is the line, and what kinds of things can happen to us on either side of that line?

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February 15, 2010

Iowa Why business is done differently in the Midwest than in other parts of the US

Water News A winter of sagging power lines continues


February 16, 2010

Humor and Good News How AJ Jacobs outsourced his entire life

Computers and the Internet Google tries to fix early problems with Buzz
The company appears to have launched headlong into a little too much openness about its users' contacts, and now it's trying to retreat swiftly before any more damage is done

Humor and Good News The death of a dream
It so happens there's a symbol for that

News For the seafood lover in you
Gigantic Japanese spider crab moves to a captive home in Britain

Broadcasting How Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Oprah Winfrey landed on the same couch

Water News Would it hurt the environment more for Chicago to disinfect its wastewater than it would help?

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February 17, 2010

Water News The long-lasting impact of civil-engineering decisions

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February 18, 2010

Health Do yourself a favor: Take two minutes for a self-exam today
Take a minute or two and conduct some basic self-screenings for cancer. Early detection saves lives. There's lots of misinformation about cancer that finds its way around the Internet, largely because we've been trained to wait expectantly for some sort of magic-bullet solution to cancer. But cancer risks can be significantly reduced through a balanced diet, exercise, and early detection and treatment. Meanwhile, science is making great progress towards improving genetic detection, which holds great promise for some types of cancer. Instead of forwarding hoax-ridden e-mails about "cancer cures" and false threats, people should instead remind their friends and family to assess their health once a month.

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February 19, 2010

Threats and Hazards Pennsylvania school district sued for taking evidence from kids' take-home laptops
A set of parents alleges that the district took pictures using their son's webcam -- while he was at home

Computers and the Internet Reports of Gordon Lightfoot's death have been greatly exaggerated
...by Twitter and the rest of the media, too

Business and Finance Wikipedia's list of the oldest companies in the world
The failure of any business results in the destruction of capital, so it's in the best interests of society to avoid those failures whenever the company itself isn't a flagrant destroyer of value (as, for instance, many Internet startups were during that stock-market bubble). Government's role in avoiding these failures should be to enforce fair and reasonable laws competently, and to stay out of the way otherwise. The private sector can avoid needless business destruction by planning for the long term and shunning the crooks and charlatans who promote day-trading, accounting trickery, and flash above substance.

The United States of America How money changes American marriages

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February 20, 2010

Computers and the Internet Cisco futurist says robots will be doing most of our work in 25 years
That might be a bit optimistic, but he's probably over-estimating the length of time before we start seeing the use of brain/computer implants. Dave Evan thinks it'll take 20 years; it'll probably only take 15. It seems unlikely that we'll all be non-workers in 25 years or even 100; robots can do a lot of things, but they can't write law or cut hair as well as humans are likely to do for quite some time. But we can undoubtedly outsource a lot of human work to machines, and we should. As Ben Franklin said, all motion is not action. The more we can free humans from drudgery and concentrate our minds on innovation and problem-solving, the better off we all will be.

Iowa Bettendorf high-school students fight confiscation of their newspaper
The school district thinks the newspaper included content that violated confidentiality rules, and the students say the confiscation represents prior restraint. Some of the students built a website to protest -- and that's the lesson of the 21st Century: Anyone can set up a protest in an instant, at virtually zero cost. Schools have to teach students how to apply their judgment to know when it's right to act and when to hold back. Judgment matters more than knowledge.

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February 21, 2010

Business and Finance Why America's national debt is handcuffing us
The President has met with the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government has expressed its anger over the meeting. In an ideal world, the United States could tell China's government to take its protests and shove them. Unfortunately, we can't do that. China is dumping American government debt -- to the tune of $35 billion of it between November and December 2009. Debtors simply aren't free to tell their creditors to shove it. And, sadly, our options for managing the debt are constrained, making it even more unlikely that we can act like we still have the freedom to do what we think is best in the world without having to acknowledge the demands of the countries that have funded our behavior.

Health Johns Hopkins team thinks blood tests can track cancer
They're making such rapid progress with genetic screening and testing that they think they'll soon be able to do follow-up with cancer patients using genetic tests to determine whether their tumors have been halted or are recurring. While the ultimate goal certainly will be to tell people whether they're genetically predispositioned to have certain cancers in the future, this intermediate step -- enhancing treatment for people who already have cancer -- is a great move forward.

Iowa Chris Rants drops from the Iowa gubernatorial race
Iowa's in serious need of some decent new leadership. The state's budget is a catastrophe, and though that doesn't make Iowa unique among the states, it's still a colossal problem.

Science and Technology Is space the place to be for the entrepreneurs of today?
The CEO of the X-Prize Foundation thinks that some asteroids could be worth $20 trillion in raw materials

Computers and the Internet Does anyone have a "reasonable expectation of obscurity" anymore?

News UK prime minister's staff calls anti-bullying helpline

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February 22, 2010

Science and Technology Given a magic wand, Bill Gates would pick cheap energy
Clean, cheap energy would probably do the most good of any possible economic input to the enhancement of human well-being. We need vast amounts of energy to transport ourselves and our goods (transportation which carries ideas and technology and education, as well as more mundane stuff). We need vast amounts of energy to create fertilizer (through the Haber-Bosch process, for instance) and to effectively store food as an insurance policy against disaster. And, in an ideal world, we could use unlimited energy to get machines to do our mundane tasks for us at an affordable price -- freeing humans to do the thinking and creating and innovating that will make the human race better off. And, of course, those ideas could use the electricity to run the computers to run simulations and test new ideas before we apply them to the real world, too.

Computers and the Internet The Internet may hurt struggles for democracy as much as it helps
It's easy to see the ways in which it can help -- fostering communication and discussion and aiding the spread of ideas. But its negative effects, though perhaps counterintuitive, may be just as significant: Creating internal strife among reformers where none would have otherwise existed, fostering disinformation, and encouraging reactionaries to organize just as well as reformers. In the end, ideas are what matter most. The tools those ideas use to spread may be far less significant.

Aviation News Views of the great US Air Force boneyard
Where lots of old planes go to be mothballed.

News Argentina wants to pick another fight with the UK over the Falkland Islands

The United States of America The end of the "grasshopper generation"?
Having rested on the proverbial laurels of our past productivity, the United States has a growing problem of government promises that have been financed at the expense of our future prosperity. And those problems have been worsened by the practice of directing many capable minds into unproductive activity treating business like a casino. Fortunately, though, great ideas still matter and there's no practical reason why we can't apply a little bit of willpower to the act of getting things back on track.

Water News Tougher stormwater standards could arrive in two years

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February 23, 2010

Health Another reason to live longer
A long-term survey suggests that lifetime self-assessments of happiness peak around age 74. What's most significant about that observation is that life expectancy at birth in the United States didn't even reach 60 until the Great Depression, or 70 until the Vietnam War era. We have a lot to learn about continuing to extend human life expectancy, but there's every reason in the world to think that longer, healthier lives will prove to be more fulfilling with time. We ought to consider death something other than an inevitability, and with continuing enhancements to personal medicine, bionic organs, and electronic enhancements to the human brain, we may find that death is not necessarily inevitable for us all. Trees can live for thousands of years; why couldn't we? And as we seek to "cure" the problem of death, we ought also to address aging as a chronic condition to be delayed and managed. Pain and debilitation shouldn't be inevitable in one's elder years. Perhaps we'll discover someday that happiness really peaks at 148.

Computers and the Internet Twitter and Facebook are not the right places to end a relationship
An e-mail may be sterile and a text message remote, but breaking off a relationship in public via a social-networking website isn't just tacky -- it's deeply inconsiderate. Moreover, it makes a personal matter a subject of public record...and public records on the Internet never really die.

Iowa Iowa union boss calls member a "scab"
And accidentally sent an e-mail using that language to the subject of the epithet. Bullying isn't just for playgrounds. Labor unions can serve a useful purpose, but when they become tools for individuals' political gain and social status rather than the protection of their member workers against abuse, they wear thin their welcome.

Humor and Good News Hamlet would've been much better with a "Will and Grace" component

Water News A sad but unavoidable consequence of protecting the water


February 24, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work The White House may very well be patently delusional about General Motors
In response to accusations in a new book by Mitt Romney, a White House spokesperson says that as a result of government intervention at GM and Chrysler over the last year, "today these companies are emerging stronger than ever". That may very well be the most ludicrous statement on business ever. GM was a thousand times stronger in the 1950s than it is today. To claim otherwise betrays a complete lack of understanding of business and economics.

Science and Technology Would rooftop farms be more efficient than "green roofs"?
Good question. A bit of rooftop gardening doesn't sound like a bad idea for urban-dwellers, though one might suspect that there could be long-term risks associated with eating food grown in an environment dense in air pollution. Rooftop gardens might very well have similar benefits in terms of stormwater mitigation and solar absorption as "green roofs", and urban gardening has long been conducted in densely-populated areas like Tokyo and London, so it's not really a huge innovation. Overall, though, unless and until we get some kind of profound breakthrough in producing clean, cheap energy, urban areas simply won't have any useful economic advantage in raising food on a large scale. Small experiments, perhaps, but not likely anything grand. Unless, of course, the vertical farm project turns out to be something vastly more likely than it appears at the present.

Computers and the Internet Italian court convicts three Google executives
They were busted for privacy rules in a case that one consultant said looked like "prosecuting the post office for [delivering] hate mail"

Humor and Good News The naughtier edition of "Back to the Future"
(Video) Vulgar but funny

Water News Is a new arena a better use of tax dollars than protecting water quality?

Broadcasting Podcast: Thinking like the customer

Broadcasting Podcast: Digital footprints

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February 25, 2010

News India and Pakistan return to speaking terms
The two countries have to get along in order for the world to have a sustainable sense of security. India is the world's second-largest country (by population); Pakistan is 6th. (Yes, it's really larger than Russia, Japan, and Mexico.) Both countries have nuclear weapons. And they share a very long border. We ignore their relations at our own peril.

Health and Medicine Model suggests HIV/AIDS could be halted within 40 years
Better containment of the disease through testing and retroviral drugs could render the scourge virtually non-infectious, which could in turn turn it inert. A hugely expensive proposition, to be sure, but highly promising -- especially considering the cost of treating a still-spreading disease would undoubtedly be much larger.

Aviation News An intriguing proposal: "Allow anybody who wants to qualify to be a reserve air marshal"

Science and Technology First monogamous amphibians found

Computers and the Internet A cheap couple of steps to speed up a slow computer

Water News Are companies really doing enough to report on the operational risks posed by their water supplies?

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February 26, 2010

Humor and Good News Why the West had to win the Cold War
So that today, anyone around the world can use an American website (eBay) to buy a Chinese-made oil painting of a British prime minister (the great Margaret Thatcher)

News Killer whale lives up to name, takes third human life
If this were a dog, it would have been euthanized after the first. We have such a peculiar set of standards for right and wrong when it comes to wild animals kept in captivity. For the record, though, a bonsai tree has never killed anyone.

News A surprising number of people are hit and killed by New York subway trains every month
Eight people have been hit in the last two weeks -- about twice the usual rate, but even that rate is pretty stunning. Apparently, there's a person hit by one of those trains every three or four days on average. A significant number are suicide attempts, but many are accidents. For perspective, though, 256 people were killed in NYC vehicular traffic last year.

Humor and Good News Read this book: "F Minus: This Can't Be Legal"

Broadcasting Radio on demand: Debt to China puts us in diplomatic handcuffs

Broadcasting Radio on demand: Is the iPad anything to get really excited about?

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February 27, 2010

Weather and Disasters Huge earthquake strikes Chile


February 28, 2010

Weather and Disasters Damage from Chilean earthquake could be $30 billion

The United States of America Six essential books in conservative thought
One of the most frustrating things about self-identified conservatives like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck is that they behave like they don't really read. But conservative thought does possess a thoughtful intellectual tradition, and at least six books really are essential to understanding that lineage of thought.

Computers and the Internet Google plans to offer ultra-high-speed broadband access
They're initiating a plan under "Google Fiber" to offer 1 gigabit per second broadband Internet access throughout at least one community. They're looking for applicant communities of 50,000 to 500,000, though the service won't be free. Consumers will definitely benefit from an offering like this, but on first impression, this seems like another expensive project for Google that might not really be a good return on their investment. Related: An in-depth look at the reasons why most Americans don't have very-high-speed broadband access yet.

Humor and Good News Campaign 2010: Elect Ron

Aviation News Shutting down NASA's Moon mission is going to cost billions of dollars
Contractors working on the rockets and other components of the mission to return to the Moon may still make money even though the President wants to quit the plan

Computers and the Internet Microsoft wants regulators to look more carefully at Google
The EU is now looking at Google because of antitrust concerns

Humor and Good News Conan O'Brien arrives on Twitter
The comedian needed to establish his own footprint online -- so it's a good thing he's finally done so. It will serve him well to have an Internet presence where he can remain in people's minds even while he's off television.

Socialism Doesn't Work Chinese government censorship of the Internet -- viewed from within a government institution

Humor and Good News How LG appeals to the inner 80s child

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