Gongol.com Archives: March 2010
Brian Gongol

March 2010
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March 1, 2010

Business and Finance Midwest Airlines could be killed off
Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines were both purchased in the last year by Republic Airways. Now, they're talking about creating a "unified brand" for the two. It's a typical move -- companies do a lot of acquiring, then re-branding. And while it could certainly make sense to simplify the backend of operations by merging things like maintenance and reservations systems, killing off a brand name just doesn't ever seem to make sense. Republic's latest balance sheet shows $84 million in "goodwill" -- which, to a large extent, is the brand value of the company and its subsidiaries. Destroying those brands is an expensive proposition that rarely makes sense. Brands can evolve over time, but doing away with them wholesale rarely makes sense; after all, the acquiring company paid some kind of premium to obtain the brand name in the first place. Why pay for it just to destroy it? Related (in the vein of needless destruction): Beautiful train stations that were demolished and replaced by uglier and less useful things.

Broadcasting ABC News to dismantle most of its news bureaus outside Washington, DC
And with ever more of the news being produced from the Washington/New York City corridor, expect the quality of coverage to decline as it becomes one big echo chamber.

Business and Finance Knowledge decay hastens the rise of the judgment economy
People who want to stay employed (or in business) over the long term have to adapt to changing conditions within their business as well as to changes tangential to the business. In the words of Ian Pearson, "[Y]ou don't want to be the animal who is so fantastically well adapted to one tree that they will die if that tree is cut down." Technological change, hastened by competition from around the globe, means that what we know can be of rapidly-diminishing value. What use is memorizing a list of facts when the Internet is close at hand, everywhere? But the decline of knowledge itself as a competitive advantage is matched by the rise of judgment as a matter of supreme importance. Knowing how to look up an answer on the Internet isn't all that valuable; having the judgment to discern whether to trust Wikipedia or a different source is. Knowing the distance between San Diego, CA and South Padre, TX isn't all that valuable; having the judgment to recognize the difficulty in policing a 1500-mile border between a rich nation and a developing one has value. Knowing a stock price is of little value; having the judgment to figure out which ones are under-valued can turn a person into Warren Buffett (whose judgment is famously sought by investors worldwide. We aren't in the "knowledge economy" anymore; we're in the era of the judgment economy.

Computers and the Internet Twitter is still trying to find ways to make money
More evidence that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are all likely to be overtaken by rivals within the coming decade.

Science and Technology Dubai considers building a vertical farm
We'll have to see whether vertical farms turn out to be sufficiently profitable to be built. Most likely their value will remain economically inefficient until we can find a breakthrough source of clean, cheap energy. Like desalination, vertical farms may have a few limited applications for now, but in the long run they just don't make enough economic sense in a world of expensive energy.

Science and Technology Beautiful true-color photographs of Earth from space

Broadcasting Podcast: Thinking like the boss

Broadcasting Podcast: Browsing in your sleep
A question: What would it take to get you to install an always-on Internet connection in your head?

Water News Time to check your sump pumps

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March 2, 2010

Computers and the Internet Apple files patent-infringement lawsuit over the iPhone
It's going after HTC, which makes a smartphone similar to the iPhone, but built on the Google Android operating system. At least one observer thinks it's a warning shot across Google's own bow, since Google is now making its own iPhone-similar smartphone. Apple itself says the infringements are mainly related to the user interface, which is a sign they're mainly interested in swatting away any competitors that try to make a phone that "feels" like an iPhone to the user.

News Russia's grumblings about a US missile-defense system may have backfired
Though there was a lot of backpedaling last year over where the US would station anti-missile defense technology in Europe, it appears that the US and its allies may end up with a much more comprehensive defense system as a result. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton may have inadvertently torqued off the British by suggesting that Argentina might have a right to the Falkland Islands. The islands are a relic of a bygone era of British imperialism, to be sure, but the UK is one of America's closest allies, and the Falklands have some degree of self-determination which probably leaves them better off (with the protection of the British armed forces and self-government) than they would likely get as part of Argentina.

Iowa Hard to tell what flooding Iowa will experience this year
The ground is saturated and covered with more snow. But how that hydrology will play out remains in question.

Water News French seawall failure kills dozens

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March 3, 2010

Health Which health supplements have substantiated benefits?
A fascinating display of quantitative data evaluating which supplements are useful and which are snake oil. Easy to use -- downright intuitive. An excellent display of valuable information.

Computers and the Internet Since late January, Russia has vastly overtaken China as the biggest producer of spam

Humor and Good News A Rube Goldberg-themed music video from OK Go
(Video) Almost impossibly complex. Perhaps the most impressive part is the deft footwork required of the camera operator.

The United States of America In which religions are the highest incomes found?

News Is a happy cow going to slaughter better off than one that never existed at all?

Humor and Good News When everyone around you appears to be crazy, you might very well be the only sane one left
(Video) Improv group pulls off a spontaneous birthday party in a bar for an unsuspecting patron

Water News Iowa's proposed lake-nutrient rules to be paused and overhauled

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March 4, 2010

Science and Technology We should be able to generate original music using a seed function and fractals
Hearing the same old music gets dull, and there's really nothing about rhythm and harmony that can't be generated by a computer. It may lack "soul", but it's really not difficult to imagine computers generating lots of music customized to the listener thanks to the Music Genome Project.

News South African president bristles at Britain
It's another example of the importance of institutional memory. The decisions made now may have lingering effects a hundred years or more into the future. President Zuma vocally resents being told how many wives he should have, among other things, and expresses more than a little hostility for the former colonial power of Great Britain.

Water News EPA assesses civil penalty against UPS over hazardous waste

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March 5, 2010

Humor and Good News "Google responds to privacy concerns with unsettlingly specific apology"
A very funny Onion satire, with echoes of a very real concern: Google has a lot of access to a lot of details about a lot of people. That kind of access creates real concerns (as well as over-hyped worries), and it's one of the reasons why Google will not control more than 50% of the search-engine market in 2020.

Science and Technology Nobody talks more on their mobile phones than Americans
Puerto Ricans (American citizens, too) talk the most

The American Way Today's recommended reading: Why it's impossible to hate Albert Pujols, even if he's a Cardinal

Water News Northeast Iowa mobile-home park to be shut down because they can't afford a sewer-system upgrade

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March 6, 2010

Computers and the Internet There is no such thing as a reasonable expectation of obscurity anymore
If you have even the tiniest footprint on the Internet anymore, it's quite possible you could become a celebrity in an instant. Conan O'Brien, whose Twitter account has half a million followers, just declared that he's going to "follow" one random individual. Since the time of the announcement, that random individual has gone from having three followers to having just shy of 11,000. 24 hours ago, she was just another "obscure" person on the Internet. It once held that only politicians and celebrities had to behave as though everything they said and did could appear on the front page of the local newspaper. Today, everyone needs to hold themselves to the same standard. You can go from obscure to celebrity status in a matter of hours, without having done anything to merit the attention. Some people still earn their celebrity, too, but just as unpredictably: Nobody had really ever heard of Chesley Sullenberger before he landed a powerless plane in the Hudson River last January. Since then, he's written a book, had a drink named after him, and been discussed as a potential candidate for public office. What can happen to Sullenberger can happen to anyone -- even without having done anything meritorious.

Weather and Disasters Chilean government fires head of its oceanographic service for failing to predict tsunami
The service is a branch of the country's navy, and the firing is supposedly due to its failure to issue a clear degree of information about the tsunami that followed the massive earthquake a week ago. What's interesting about the firing is that we've lately discovered just how difficult it is to predict tsunamis. The Christmas tsunami of 2004 took the world almost completely by surprise, and ever since, it seems like every earthquake is immediately followed by tsunami warnings and breathless "breaking news" reports in anticipation of a recurrence of 2004. But one hasn't happened since. Effectively predicting tsunamis is going to require a lot more knowledge than we currently have about the oceans, and a lot more computing power than we've bothered to devote to the task until now.

News No child gets a zero
The Omaha Public Schools are testing a policy that says no student can get less than 50% on an assignment, even if they never turn it in. And they can't get less than 65% if they do turn it in, no matter how badly they complete the task. Is this a good idea? The proponents say it'll keep kids from giving up if they start to fall behind. But consider two inversions on the proposal: First, rather than automatically applying 50% to everyone, would it instead make sense to take 50 percentage points away from everyone who did turn in their assignment, then grading on a curve? How is the net result any different? Or, try this inversion: What if the old standards remained, and not turning in an assignment still resulted in a 0% grade, but the letter grades were reassigned, so that 40% was enough for an "A", 30% for a "B", and 20% for a "C". Again, how would the net result be any different?

Business and Finance One mutual-fund company lost $58.4 billion in the last decade
And yet, they still took a huge cut in management fees. The shareholders they were "serving" should be apoplectic with rage. Money managers, taken as a group, take far too much money from the customers they "serve".

Humor and Good News Canadian national anthem to remain just a little bit sexist
But the alternative version that had been floated would have been almost impossible to sing correctly. Then again, that's just commentary from down here in America, Canada's pants.


March 8, 2010

The American Way March 2010 edition of the EconDirectory

The American Way Three shares of stock turn into a $7 million endowment
A woman from Lake Forest, Illinois, bought three shares of stock in Abbott Laboratories in 1935 and proceeded to reinvest all of the dividends. That purchase apparently turned into a $7 million nest egg by the time of her recent death at age 100. She left the amount to Lake Forest College, which was obviously delighted to reap the proceeds. It's definitely a happy story, and one that ought to be appreciated for its celebration of frugality and generosity. It also highlights the trouble with a lot of investing today. One financial advisor, upon being interviewed for the story, offered a common response, saying "clients shouldn't place more than 10 percent of their money into a single source." Which is true...for some investors. The problem with that advice, though, is that it's not applicable to everyone. Risk depends on what you know.

Water News Oh, no: Flooding prospects look even worse for this spring

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March 9, 2010

News Does society's increasing complexity make us more or less susceptible to catastrophe?
The answer is probably "Yes." There are factors that make us more susceptible to disaster (witness what happens when one element in a just-in-time manufacturing process breaks down: the whole thing grinds to a halt). But others seem to make us more resilient (like the fact that millions of people now know more about computers than the brightest computer scientists of 1950, thus being better-armed to solve complex problems than ever before). It's worth taking a look at how prepared we are for catastrophic risks, but we shouldn't just throw in the towel because of fear.

Water News Vapor intrusion: When chemicals below your house make their way into the air inside the home


March 10, 2010

Health Bed nets are saving lives from malaria

Business and Finance Business leadership and the responsibility to admit mistakes
A Financial Times columnist criticizes bosses at Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns for doing everything they can to avoid copping to their errors, and it's a valid criticism.

Business and Finance Industry can be beautiful
A slideshow of industrial photographs from the mid-20th Century shows how work well-done can become art

Aviation News Scribner Air Base
Before there was Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska had other airfields, including the Scribner training base.

Iowa Flash floods hit central Iowa; blame ice jams

Water News Household-scale ultraviolet water disinfection

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March 11, 2010

Health The oldest American alive is in Ames, Iowa
She's approaching her 115th birthday. We need to do a far better job of extending human longevity and the quality of life in old age. There are plenty of people who retire as quickly as possible, ceasing to share their useful knowledge and skills with the rest of the economy well before they're "spent." But then there are people like architect Philip Johnson, who was still designing new buildings at age 95, and Norman Borlaug, who was still developing life-saving food hybrids at a similar age. We don't need everyone contributing productively to technology and the economy well into old age, but the truth of the matter is that we have a certain number of brilliant minds at work in the world, and those brilliant minds produce value far in excess of their fair share. The more value they can create, the better-off all of us are. Just for perspective: If we assume that genius is randomly distributed in the human population, and that it is equally likely to emerge or develop at one time as it is in another, then even if there had been just one Isaac Newton in 1642, at a time when there were only 545 million people on the entire planet, then today with 6.8 billion of us, there should be at least 12 modern-day Newtons. To find them, cultivate their talents, and encourage them to be productive and creative well into old age should be one of the highest priorities in every aspect of government and education. Great ideas move human welfare forward. One hazard we do face: There's lots of attraction to put great minds to work doing things like producing computer games and trying to "game" the stock market. Those are assuredly not the highest uses of those great minds -- even if they should be absolutely free to choose whatever pursuits they like. The difference between what they "create" running hedge funds, for instance, and what they could create in terms of useful innovations is a deadweight loss to society.

Aviation News Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
Photos and photorealistic illustrations of future Zeppelins and dirigibles, including a few that could serve as a floating hotel. One would carry 40 passengers in the belly of a floating whale. As airlines try harder and harder to achieve what economists call "perfect pricing discrimination" through the imposition of fees for practically everything airline passengers do, it will be interesting to see whether the air travel options of the future include slower but more-luxurious rides. Certainly if we find ways to live much longer, then slower travel would have some appeal -- particularly if it reduces one's risk of injury or death in an accident. Related: The engines on an airplane are 80% of the plane's total value.

Water News EPA fines butter factory owner years after he sold his plant

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March 12, 2010

Computers and the Internet Twitter co-founder calls his service "fundamental" to the future of government
While it can be helpful, there's nothing about his particular service -- or even style of service, as there are and will be competitors in his marketplace -- that's especially "fundamental." The main appeal of microblogging as a means of interaction between celebrities or public officials and the demos is that the back-and-forth exchanges are simultaneously public and very, very brief. With Twitter's 140-character limit, questions and answers alike have to be brief. There's no room for extended ranting and raving by a disgruntled taxpayer or a maniacal fan, and since a response only requires 30 or 60 seconds on the part of the celebrity or official, they can appear highly responsive (or "accessible" as some would put it) without much effort. But, again, there's really nothing novel about the technology or the communication. People have been writing fan letters, editorials, and critiques of their public officials for centuries, and even at 44 cents for a first-class postage stamp, there's not much barrier to participation.

The United States of America Freedom in the 1960s
(Video) A mashup of videos from some of the great speeches of the 1960s

Humor and Good News Other career paths Dr Seuss, Isaac Newton, and Chevy Chase might've taken

Computers and the Internet Report from the frontier of computing
Scientists trying to figure out how computers can process information faster than ever are working on using atoms to carry photons around at blazingly high speeds. So far, they've had trouble getting the two to play nicely together, but a discovery that suggests they just need to let chaos take over appears to be making it easier to bundle light to matter and shoot it around. Even the enlightened reader will probably need to read the article three times over to understand what's going on.

Broadcasting Podcast: Human rights

Water News The first floods of the season reach Des Moines

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March 13, 2010

Computers and the Internet USA loses "battle of the brains"
It's an international computer-programming competition for college students, and even the strongest American teams lost out to teams from China, Russia, Taiwan, Poland, and Sweden. Doesn't mean the Americans were stupid, but it does mean that programming talent is a global industry.

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March 14, 2010

Business and Finance Should we have bailed out the banks and the automakers?
Margaret Thatcher said this 30 years ago this month: "Too much money spent by Government has gone to support industries which have made and are continuing to make heavy losses. The future requires that industry adapt to produce goods that will sell in tomorrow's world. Older industries that can't change must be slimmed down and their skills transferred to new products if they are to serve the nation."

Business and Finance 27% of Americans haven't saved anything for retirement
And more than half have less than $25,000 saved up. Only a third have $50,000 or more in savings -- retirement or otherwise. Considering that a nest egg of almost a million dollars is what's really required to retire comfortably and with confidence that it won't run out, we have a nation in serious savings trouble.

Humor and Good News A trailer for every Academy Award-winning movie ever
(Video) Hilarious

Computers and the Internet Why kids shouldn't be allowed to use YouTube without supervision


March 15, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work New York assemblyman wants to ban salt in restaurant cooking
You'd be welcome to add your own salt to the dish later, but the chef wouldn't. And he wants to ban it across the entire state of New York, with a $1000 fine for every infraction. This kind of absurdity comes from good intentions (he says he wants to cut down on high blood pressure) mixed with gross incompetence and a dash, if you will, of too much government power. Then again, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz takes credit for introducing the nation's first ban on using cell phones while driving, so his paternalistic notion of government has been put into law before. He also wants to add a state cover charge of $10 for everyone going to a strip club. Not everything that can cause harm should be banned.

Business and Finance Excellent tools for calculating how much of a nest egg you'll need to retire
The "retirement shortfall calculator" from AXA is especially eye-opening.

Computers and the Internet Broadband Internet access as a campaign issue
The Conservative Party in Britain wants to eliminate a tax on telephone lines that's being used to subsidize the rollout of broadband Internet access to rural areas of the country. The philosophical principle behind the policy is that broadband access should be provided through private investment rather than public subsidy may actually hurt the party's -- though the realpolitik of the matter is that the party has a lot of voters in rural areas, so the proposal might actually run contrary to the interests of many of the party's voters. The big story here is that broadband Internet access is on the verge of being regarded as a true public utility -- like water service, sewers, and electricity. That's a very big change from just a short decade or two ago.

Health Roald Dahl lost a daughter to measles
The children's author subsequently pled with parents to realize just how important vaccinations are. Particularly interesting now that the supposed link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly smashed. Vaccinations are a modern miracle, and should be hailed for their saving power, not slandered by people relying on myths and fake "science".

Business and Finance Author says the market panic of the last few years was created by stupidity, not malice
And he's likely right. As has been said before (though it's not clear by whom): "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." It was wrong to panic in 2008, just as it remains wrong for traders and fiduciaries to take extraordinary pay for work that fails to produce extraordinary good for society.

Computers and the Internet Roger Ebert gets his voice back thanks to a computer
He lost his voice due to radical surgeries to stop the spread of cancer. Now, a company which combed the archives of his many television appearances for snippets of the many sounds and words which make up the English language has assembled a library of those recordings from which to generate a text-to-speech synthesizer in his native voice.

The United States of America Welcome to the Great Plains
For a little perspective on why overcrowding issues don't make a lot of sense to Midwesterners, consider this: The state of Rhode Island covers 1,045 square miles and has a population of over a million people. Cherry County, Nebraska, covers 5,961 square miles and has a population of 6,100. Cherry County, in fact, is also larger than Delaware (1,954 square miles), Connecticut (4,845 square miles), and Puerto Rico (3,425 square miles).

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March 16, 2010

Threats and Hazards The future of the Federal deficit
Every annual deficit lumps more on top of the already huge Federal debt. For a real scare, take a look at how the Medicare/Medicaid portion of the spending side of things grows steadily and painfully from now on. Getting our deficits under control and paying down the ($12.6 trillion) national debt are matters of national security.

Computers and the Internet What you and the rest of the world are really doing online
The BBC offers an interactive infographic illustrating where people from the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brazil, and Australia are spending the most time online, and it offers some interesting insights. Search and portal sites (e-mail services, mainly) serve up the biggest single block of traffic, by far. But there's also a surprisingly large volume of traffic to Microsoft outside of its search and e-mail services -- more than either YouTube or Facebook get in their own respective dominions. And in what should be a warning to Facebook, the old titan (MySpace) is nowhere to be found. Social networks are fickle things and giants there are likely to fall. Related: The South Korean government is training 4,000 counselors to treat "Internet addiction".

Health Could a redesigned hospital "crash cart" save lives?

Iowa New owners might close the Terra offices in Sioux City
Little-known to central and eastern Iowans, Terra Industries is #704 on the Fortune 1000 and one of the biggest companies in the state. It's announced a plan to merge with CF Industries, and that could very well lead to a closure of the Terra headquarters in Sioux City -- and if not a closure, most likely at least a reduction. It's the result of a less-than-friendly takeover, so some outcome with fewer people and less control from Sioux City is pretty likely. That would make the second major blow to the Sioux City economy of late, following the announcement that the John Morrell meatpacking plant is closing in April. In 1920, Sioux City was larger than Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas -- each much larger than Sioux City today -- and it was about the same size as Tulsa. Des Moines at the same time was bigger than Nashville, Fort Worth, or El Paso, and about the same size as Houston. The future of Sioux City in 2020 looks far less bright, which is deeply unfortunate, both for the community and for the state.

Science and Technology How little we know about what lives under the sea

Water News Why public utilities should consider raising their rates just a little bit every year

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March 17, 2010

Broadcasting What happens when television has to behave like radio
Craig Ferguson conducted an "experiment" with his show recently in which he dismissed the entire audience and did a show that was exclusively one-on-one with a single guest. It should be noted that television like that sounds -- literally, sounds -- different from most television.

Computers and the Internet The Amazon filler-item finder
How to find just the right item to round out an order on Amazon.com to carry that order up to the free-shipping minimum

Humor and Good News Happy St. Patrick's Day
(Video) "Danny Boy" delivered with a Muppet Show twist

News A new billboard at Wrigley?
The new owners of the team and the ballpark want to obscure a big rooftop ad across the street from the Friendly Confines with a new illuminated billboard. If they try to put in a Jumbotron, there will be bloodshed.

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - March 13, 2010

Water News Chlorine: The lifesaver

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March 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.

Humor and Good News Every time you make a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten
Tufte is an information designer who has a lot of valuable things to say about data and how we comprehend it, and he is renowned for his criticisms of PowerPoint abuse. Like all technologies, PowerPoint itself is neutral. But it's often used badly, and it's that use that causes harm.

Broadcasting Lady Gaga's epic music video: Just one big product-placement event
It's a really long music video -- about ten minutes, or getting close to the length of Michael Jackson's "Thriller". She's an intriguing artist -- seemingly well-aware of the absurdity of modern pop stardom, and willing to play the publicity like a well-tuned fiddle. It doesn't hurt that the hooks in her music (like the one in "Poker Face") are powerful earworms. Assuming she doesn't do anything colossally stupid and manages to keep generating new tunes, she'll probably be one of the artists we still recognize in 2030.

Computers and the Internet The singing man on ChatRoulette
(Video) ChatRoulette is a service that randomly connects a person's computer (including the webcam) to some other user at random. It's a novel idea, but it's also so easily abused or turned into something tawdry (it's not hard to imagine how many perverts and weirdos would like to use a service like that) that it should be considered the Internet equivalent of a seedy bar in the worst part of town. There may very well be good people hanging out, but you shouldn't send your daughter there.

Science and Technology Putting population density into perspective
At the population density of Brooklyn, the entire United States could fit inside the state of New Hampshire. On the other hand, at the much sparser population density of Nebraska (22.3 people per square mile, making it one of our less-densely populated states, though not the least-densely-populated by far), the population of the United States (308,898,000) would cover 13.8 million square miles. The entire planet has an estimated 148.94 million square kilometers, or about 57.5 million square miles. So, if we were to spread out at the rate we presently populate Nebraska, we'd take up about 24% of the available land area on the planet. One rate of population density isn't necessarily better than another -- it all depends upon how it's used.

News Truck driver appears unaware he's pushing a car sideways down the highway
Someone needs to find out what kind of tires were on the car being pushed. They appear to survive highway speeds while going sideways.

Water News Saylorville Dam might not be overtopped this coming week, but it remains a possibility.


March 22, 2010

Computers and the Internet Google moves its Chinese operations to Hong Kong
It's an interesting move -- apparently Google is serious about resisting the demands placed upon it by the Communist government, and they're going to provide daily updates on which services are available, partially blocked, and totally blocked within China.

Humor and Good News "My Super Sweet 16" given the most brilliant treatment ever
(Video - with foul language) Charlie Brooker is a television genius. The use of "cosseted flesh-waste", "Al Qaeda recruitment film," and "on your knees praying for a nuclear holocaust" are put to magnificent effect. Brooker's show "Newswipe" was similarly brilliant (another outstanding video makes that case).

Business and Finance How much is a year of work really worth?
Comparative one-year salaries (and total pay) for a range of different jobs

Science and Technology Estimated frequencies of personality types in the population
If the structure of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory is to be believed, then there might be very good reason why some people seem so unusual. They might be among some of the lesser-common personality types. Assuming that many people might only have a hundred or two hundred reasonably close friends and associates, there's a good chance they might only know one or two people with a particular personality type.

Broadcasting Podcast: Test your product before you unleash it on the public

Broadcasting Podcast: How to preserve the genius of good minds in aging bodies

Water News A trillion gallons of water lost every year to leaks

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March 23, 2010

News Detroit mayor wants to demolish 10,000 buildings by end of the year
It's a city with some serious problems -- like a 30% unemployment rate and thousands of abandoned houses

The United States of America A brief but cogent analysis of some of the worst hazards in the new health-care law
On a tangentially-related note: Someone needs to do a better job of editing the news alerts issued by CBS News:

Is it 2009 or 2010?

Business and Finance Looking for an exit strategy or a succession plan?

Humor and Good News Good night from YouTube

Humor and Good News "I'm Tom Freaking Skilling!"

Water News Winner of the Stockholm Water Prize helps to put the brakes on cholera

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March 25, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work Social Security will run a deficit this year
That means it will start dipping into the "trust fund" six years earlier than expected. This is bad news on its own -- signaling that we're not even capable of keeping up with obligations to the program now, before the Baby Boomers really start to retire -- but it's also going to be a double-whammy for the economy. Most of the "trust fund" is in Treasury securities -- the debt of the Federal government. And for the Social Security program to generate the cash to pay the checks for the recipients, it will have to sell those securities. Unfortunately, the world's investors have become less interested in those securities lately, since it becomes more and more apparent all the time that the government here has no real self-control. Thus, the Social Security program is going to have to sell proportionally more of those Treasury bonds to make up the same revenue (since they'll have to achieve certain dollar amounts, even if the unit price of what they're selling is falling). This will only make the market for those Treasury bonds more depressed than it already is. We need a phased-in system for private savings accounts under Social Security, and we need it right now.

Threats and Hazards Philadelphia is having trouble with violent flash mobs
Technology allows people to take the concept of freedom of assembly and apply it in new and socially-unstable ways. The Constitution guarantees the right to peaceable assembly, not assembly of just any type. Flash mobs have been around since at least 2003, and it's been evident since at least 2007 that they pose a serious challenge to conventional law-enforcement approaches to maintaining order. As much as anything else, we need a society composed of people with the judgment to know what to do before the police arrive. One never knows when one could be caught in the middle of something like a flash mob -- and though it could turn out to be just a funny dance routine recorded on video, it could also turn out to be something violent.

The United States of America It's hard to find anything substantial with which to disagree in the Modern Whig platform

Computers and the Internet Firefox 3.6.2 is released
Including important security updates; Firefox users should install the update pronto

News The world's cheapest car is a textbook-quality case study in tradeoffs
There have been quality problems -- and a few safety concerns -- about the Tata Nano, the world's cheapest production car. The consensus appears to be that the vehicle definitely isn't ready for export beyond India yet. But arguments over its safety are challenging to evaluate: Compared to a vehicle on the US roadways that has been thoroughly run through NHTSA tests and Consumer Reports evaluations and crash-testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Nano is probably considered deeply unsafe. But compared with motorbikes and trains packed like cattle cars, it's probably a quantum leap in safety.

News Kaiser Foundation says hospitals, insurance companies, and doctors should all get more money under the new health-care bill
From where, pray tell, is that money going to come?

Water News EPA admin says she wants tougher rules on carcinogens in drinking water

Graphics Graphic of the day: Tolhurst Machine Works

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March 26, 2010

Computers and the Internet Prepaid cards now available to buy credits for Facebook games
Perhaps the entrepreneurs creating the game should be applauded for finding a way to make money out of nothing. Perhaps they should be criticized for building time-sink applications that hoover brainpower and creativity away from more useful pursuits. Either way, no one's ever going to die wishing they'd spent more time on Farmville. We need games, to be sure -- leisure is one of the great gains of human progress. But there's something a little nefarious about games designed only to be addictive time-wasters that create residual revenues for the users. Games can do some remarkable things, though: Researchers found that playing Tetris within 6 hours of a traumatic event can dampen the impact of those disturbing memories. Apparently, the game uses the same portion of the brain that stores those visual and emotional memories and thus erects a barrier to their full impact. This raises some serious ethical questions about how far we should be willing to go to lessen the impact of the unpleasant: It's one thing to offset PTSD, but to what degree will we be interested in "erasing" memories (insofar as we will become able to do so) in the future? To what extent are good and bad memories alike responsible for forming our self-identities?

Business and Finance Ten pieces of good investing advice learned from Warren Buffett
What the article lists as rule #5 should really be the first rule: If you don't have lots of time to invest in learning (first, in developing mental models that form your approach to investing, then second to stalking and researching specific stocks), you should stick to index funds. Anyone who lacks the patience to review "What I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me About Investing When I Was 22" shouldn't be dipping a toe into the stock market.

News Times of London to start charging for content online
They're going to charge a British pound for a day's access -- about $1.50. Not likely that many people will be willing to pay that much, even for content from one of the world's best newspapers. Ironically, it's also the sale price for which a Russian businessman (and former KGB agent) just bought The Independent, another national paper in the UK. With so many newspapers in such great financial distress, it won't be surprising to find that many of them end up being snapped up at fire-sale prices by individuals with fat wallets and a personal interest in the social prestige that has always been associated with owning a newspaper. Whether those individuals try to apply their influence in good ways or bad will be a matter requiring close scrutiny in the future.

Graphics Graphic of the day: Furlong and Brennan


March 28, 2010

Humor and Good News Cancer is now the leading cause of death in Iowa
Death rates due to heart disease have been falling, pushing cancer into the top positions

Business and Finance Ford sells Volvo to the Chinese
What was a Swedish-owned carmaker in 1999 spent just over a decade in American hands before being absorbed by the Chinese. Besides representing what appears to have been a poorly-considered business move by Ford, it's really a microcosm of what's happening now: American companies are selling assets to Chinese and other firms after years of over-borrowing and under-selling.

News Students start their own anti-sagging-pants campaign in high school

Threats and Hazards Pure evil: American nurse appears to have been convincing people online to commit suicide

Iowa Photos of the great flood in Cedar Rapids -- in 1929


March 29, 2010

Iowa Fighting back against "No policy without a crisis"
Iowa state representative Rick Olson has introduced an amendment to a state budget bill to express his frustration with the proliferation of pointless laws. His amendment would make it a misdemeanor "if any accident involving the emergency landing of an airplane, hot air balloon, glider, helicopter, or flying De Lorean on a jogging trail, beach, or other recreational or public area causes the death of a pedestrian who was listening to a portable media player at the time of the accident". It's a tongue-in-cheek reference to an incident earlier this month in which a jogger was killed by a plane making an emergency landing. Olson should be applauded for highlighting the pointlessness of making lots of laws in pursuit of the illusion of making the public safer, when in fact many high-profile incidents are the result of freak accidents and circumstances which merit no legislation.

Threats and Hazards Militia members busted for plotting to kill police
It highlights the ongoing concern that domestic groups (including radicalized Christians) can be a greater threat to the American public than foreign terrorists

Health Identity theft through medical records is on the rise
And it will only get worse when the government manages to digitize everyone's health records. All of the ballyhoo about how much more efficient things will be once those records are digitized needs to be balanced with a consideration of the new risks we're introducing.

Computers and the Internet Should law enforcement be trolling Facebook?
A columnist for the Economist points out that there's a pretty serious shortage of policy in place to determine what law-enforcement authorities should be able to do to gather information from semi-public sources like Facebook. It seems obvious that people stupid enough to flaunt their illegalities online (like posting photos with stolen goods and discussing gang activities) ought to be considered fair game -- but at what point are the authorities to be stopped from conducting sting operations against teenagers' keg parties by creating false Facebook profiles -- or issuing tickets to people who use location tracking on Twitter and clearly travel from point "A" to point "B" faster than the posted speed limit might allow? The law needs to catch up with the technology, and soon.

Computers and the Internet Can't remember the name of a song?
Sing 10 seconds of it to Midomi and the website will try to guess what you're trying to vocalize. Humming apparently works, too. (In a quick test, it correctly identified an awful humming of "Don't Stop Believin'" on the first try.)

Water News Put down the bottled water and get ready to pay more at the tap

Broadcasting Podcast: Give away most of your content, then charge for the special stuff

Broadcasting Podcast: Helping a victim of a Facebook crime

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March 30, 2010

Threats and Hazards Russian authorities think more suicide bombers are on the way
39 people were killed in two bombings on the Moscow subway system -- a death toll just below those from the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005.

Health Magnetic stimulation can interfere with normal moral judgments
MIT researchers find a physical step in the process of the brain's determination of what is morally permissible and what is not

Water News High fire danger in the Upper Midwest today

Health Communicating with a person in a coma
The active use of MRI scanners, coupled with the selective activation of different parts of the brain appears to make it possible to communicate with some people who are comatose

Socialism Doesn't Work Does a government trillions in debt to other countries have any moral authority?
Members of the US Congress are trying to paint a moral contrast between Google and Microsoft based upon what those two countries are doing in China. But that kind of posturing is more than a little bit insulting, considering the Congress bears responsibility for the spending that has the country $889 billion in debt to China. Moral authority is compromised by reckless behavior.

Science and Technology Judge holds that isolated natural genes aren't patent-worthy

Humor and Good News Heat map of Saturnian moon looks like a giant Pac-Man

Computers and the Internet Don't believe everything you see
What looks like strong photographic evidence -- of giant human skeletal remains, for instance -- might just be the widely-circulated work of a Photoshop contest


March 31, 2010

Business and Finance Musings on the notion of a company town
There aren't many actual "company towns" still around today, since there are few benefits to be gained from trying to provide 24-hour care and service for a working population anymore. But Google's long list of on-the-job benefits and perks sound a lot like a modern echo of those company towns, and the rise of colossal retirement communities offers a counterpart in the post-working world. Some people think that our conventional notions of government roles and private-sector roles are bound to become blurred in an increasingly complex world. And there's some reason to believe that many people would be happy to turn over lots of little nuisances in life if they thought they could get an all-inclusive deal from someone else -- just like an ocean cruise or an all-inclusive resort, but one in which they might live 365 days a year. But just like defined-benefit pension programs, many of which have fallen apart, leaving beneficiaries with far less income than they were promised, the idea of an all-inclusive community (or a benevolent employer offering perks aplenty) ought to be held in deep suspicion.

Science and Technology Steampunk: A very curious movement
Participants try to create expressions of what they think the world might've looked like had the people of the Victorian era had access to some (but not all) of today's technologies. It's a bit like an alternate-universe version of science fiction. A little time spent playing around with such hypotheticals is fine, as long as people spend a reasonable amount of time looking to the future of today's technology and considering the ramifications of the changes all about.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft releases out-of-schedule security update
It fixes problems with Internet Explorer, versions 6, 7, and 8

Humor and Good News People don't always seem to be aware of their own irony
Like the Twitter update that reads, "I will finish Satanic Verses before I sleep, so help me God!"

Water News Epic flooding in Rhode Island

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