Gongol.com Archives: April 2010
Brian Gongol

April 2010
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April 1, 2010

Health Study of 80,000 women says it's still worthwhile to do breast-cancer screenings
There's been some discussion in the United States about whether mammograms cause more harm than good (the harm being undue worry and over-exposure to surgery). But a British study says five lives are saved for every two that are over-diagnosed. That's probably enough to shift the balance well back into the favor of conducting the screenings. And as screening quality improves (as it should, with improved technology and improved knowledge), the ratio should tilt farther in favor of screening. Improvements are to be expected, and just because a technology or a technique is imperfect doesn't mean it isn't worth trying; the instructions for CPR have evolved dramatically over the last 15 years, moving now into a recommendation for "Hands-Only CPR" which looks completely different from the old rules of two breaths for every five or ten chest compressions. The technique has evolved -- but that it was imperfect before was no reason not to do it.

News India is undertaking a census of 1.2 billion people
Of course, they might just find that there are more or fewer people around as a result of the census itself. But the scale is huge -- four times the size of America's census, which is a huge undertaking unto itself. India is apparently trying to photograph and fingerprint everyone in the census, in an effort to produce a national identity card for everyone over the age of 15.

Iowa Iowa imposes a special ban on texting while driving
And kids under the age of 18 aren't allowed to use the phone while driving at all. While it's probably a bad idea to text while driving, is it really the kind of threat that requires a specific law? 21 states now prohibit texting while driving, but there are probably people who are safer texting while driving (for instance, those who don't have to look at the screen or the keyboard to compose an SMS message) than lots of people who drive while eating, shaving, applying makeup, or shouting at kids in the back seat. Isn't it the consequence (motor vehicle crashes) that we wish to discourage, not a certain class of causes?

Business and Finance New health-insurance law will have a serious effect on balance sheets this year
Boeing, Caterpillar, Prudential, and Deere are all taking one-time accounting charges on the $100-million scale. Then again, many large firms have been willing to overlook the huge costs of overpaying their managers for a long time, and that's similarly deleterious to the business as well. A new book about the fall of Lehman Brothers suggests that a corrosive keeping-up-with-the-Joneses culture infected the upper echelons of that company before it blew up with $613 billion in debts. So perhaps as companies are making public their extraordinary costs associated with the new health-care law, they should be cleaning house of overpayment to their managers at the same time. Shareholders deserve it.

Broadcasting How a culture focused on meetings could be damaging a great institution like the BBC
Meetings are often a great tool for obstructing progress. Great ideas come from individuals, and those individuals should be rewarded for their innovations. Related: One of the best things to come out of the BBC has been Charlie Brooker's "Newswipe", a brilliant, hilarious, and often scathing review of the news media.

Broadcasting Podcast: The Whigs are back, but will they get anywhere?

Broadcasting Podcast: Should you live in fear of your wireless mouse?

Water News Iowa is under an unusual risk of fires today -- even with ongoing flooding

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April 2, 2010

Humor and Good News Ye Olde Gymnasium
What the health club of 1892 might've looked like.

Water News Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" takes a turn at working at a wastewater treatment plant

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April 4, 2010

The American Way EconDirectory update for April 4, 2010

News Israeli government plans $214 million project over five years for Arab towns
The project is intended to improve the infrastructure for Arab communities within Israel, and it's a step towards an essential objective. There will never be a permanent peace in or around Israel until prosperity arrives for all of Israel's neighbors. It is untenable to expect peace to endure when the Palestinian Authority governs a region where the per-capita GDP is $2,900 per year right next to Israel, where the equivalent figure is almost exactly ten times greater. The Palestinian Authority needs economic prosperity and the rule of law -- the two must go hand-in-hand.

News GPS data from New York cabs shows just how slow travel can be
Most cars in Manhattan are moving at around 10 miles an hour. The lack of comparable congestion in a place like Des Moines is a little-considered but highly valuable matter of quality of life.

News Newspaper advertising revenue is down almost 50% since 2005
And in other media-related news, Andy Richter is still angry at Jay Leno. He should be.

Computers and the Internet Firefox issues a security update

Feedback link

April 5, 2010

Business and Finance China's economy is probably overheating again
Here's an interesting consequence of that: If their economy is growing too quickly, and the government there acts to slow down the rate of domestic investment in things like construction, then they're going to have to look for new places to invest. Considering the fact that China is selling off US government debt (reducing its holdings by $50 billion from the $940 billion it held in July), it will be extremely interesting to see where that investment money goes. Purchases of foreign companies, perhaps?

Aviation News Fighting modern-day slavery by making flight attendants more alert
A group is trying to educate flight attendants how to recognize signs of human trafficking taking place on both international and domestic flights. It makes a lot of sense; particularly for international trafficking, air travel is likely to be one conduit through which many victims will pass, and training flight attendants to be aware of the signs makes a lot of sense. It should be almost painfully obvious by now that human intelligence is the most effective line of defense against many crimes -- human trafficking and terrorism included. People need to know how to recognize the signals in the world around them, particularly when those signals are putting off warnings that something might be wrong.

Iowa Winery says state universities don't own school colors
The Madison County Winery was threatened by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University for using school colors on its labels. The winery is firing back with a lawsuit saying they don't have exclusive rights to those colors. Aside from the more important question (why isn't UNI represented?), one might wonder why universities in general have become so uptight about their brands and trademarks -- particularly state schools, which are ostensibly owned by the taxpayers who are most likely to be the same ones wearing their school gear. It's not been that long since "Animal House" featured John Belushi in a generic "College" sweatshirt.

Computers and the Internet Social-media abandonment
How people are acting out on Facebook fatigue by dropping out of online social networks. Just a little more evidence in favor of the prediction that today's technology giants won't be all that giant 10 years from now. The value and role of the Internet itself, of course, is only increasing with time -- a fact that our adversaries and potential adversaries are clearly learning and plotting to use as a tool against the United States. We can build a lot on the Internet; we also, though, need to know how to defend it if it's going to remain a foundation of our economy.

Science and Technology What would happen if everyone grew a single pot of edible plants?

Water News Severe storms this afternoon could cause more flooding in Iowa

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April 6, 2010

Science and Technology How soon will humans colonize other planets?
Reading predictions for how human colonization of other parts of the Solar System makes for pretty fanciful-sounding stuff today. But the simple fact is that we have evolved over thousands of generations in ways that are intended to keep our genetic heritage intact. And it's significantly likely that sometime between now and the time billions of years from now when the Sun destroys the planet that we'll encounter some kind of planetary catastrophe, like a massive volcanic eruption or an asteroid strike that could kill off the entire human species. And, were that to happen, we'd look pretty stupid for having done nothing to keep our species going. (Who would be the onlookers judging us is another question altogether, but it's enough to presuppose a third-party perspective on the subject.) While there's still enormous work to be done to improve the quality of life on Earth for billions of people, it's worth considering what we should be endeavoring to do to get an insurance policy of sorts on our genes by exporting a few people off this pale blue dot.

Socialism Doesn't Work North Korea uses open-source programs to build its own OS
It's technically illegal to export programs to North Korea, but it's impossible to stop them from downloading open-source software, which they have apparently done in the process of building the "Red Star" operating system. Communists can be such amusement. Meanwhile, China appears to be aggressively continuing to use its technology resources to spy on its rivals and enemies. Food for thought: Decades after the college students and hackers of free countries built their own software (and some massive fortunes from doing so), Communists are still just copying and stealing free people's work.

Iowa Batten down the hatches! Tornado watch is coming
It could be an interesting afternoon and evening in central Iowa

Weather and Disasters Waves: They aren't just for oceans
A time-lapse video from a skycam in Iowa yesterday shows gravity waves moving overhead.

Water News Farmers might be off to a slow start this spring

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April 7, 2010

News Revolt in Kyrgyzstan

Computers and the Internet Social-networking site Bebo is on its last legs

News A rare look for outsiders inside a Mormon Temple

Humor and Good News Film guide for a parallel universe

Broadcasting Radio highlights: Why we can't go on selling our assets forever

Broadcasting Podcast: Popped collars? Not around here.

Water News 90 seconds of video every American should watch

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April 8, 2010

Weather and Disasters Has California done enough to prepare for a major earthquake?
Related: The BBC illustrates why the Haitian earthquake a few months ago was so deadly

Aviation News Flight scare caused by Qatari diplomat trying to smoke in the lavatory

News Back when newspapers ran television ads

News Multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme lands man in prison for 50 years
A free market only works if people can trust one another without excessive effort. That's why the rule of law is integral to the market.

Water News Mudslides in Brazil have probably killed hundreds

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April 9, 2010

Computers and the Internet Google starts factoring page-loading speeds into "PageRank"
PageRank is their complex algorithm for determining which sites rate highest in returns for search strings

News Taking a closer look at the "Collateral Murder" video
A video has been released on the Internet purporting to show the deliberate murder of neutral journalists by American forces in Iraq. A closer analysis of the situation seems to suggest the conditions in place at the time don't stand up to the charge of "murder."

Computers and the Internet When the pixels get loose
(Video) A very clever hybrid of live-action video and computer animation, turning the entire planet into a pixel. The nods to classic video games like "Rampage" are really entertaining -- though it's still a bit disturbing to see New York City buildings falling down, even if it's in a mock Tetris moment.

Iowa Ryne Sandberg arrives to manage the Iowa Cubs
Just be sure to spell the name on his jersey correctly

Water News The point of installing a lagoon cover

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April 11, 2010

Science and Technology Why we need self-driving cars...now.

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April 12, 2010

Business and Finance Casey's declines takeover offer from Canadian company
It's a classic case of nominal price versus intrinsic value: The company making the offer thinks the Iowa-based convenience-store chain is worth about $1.9 billion, or roughly the market cap of the company on the NASDAQ stock market. Casey's management thinks the company is worth considerably more. Reported shareholders' equity in the company is about $800 million, so that means the board must feel that there is a whole lot of latent value inside the company, just waiting to be unleashed. Couche-Tard, on the other hand, says it's ready to launch a hostile takeover if it doesn't get cooperation. In a much friendlier transaction, the International Banana Museum has been sold.

News Poland lost lots of significant leaders in the Russian plane crash
The passenger manifest included a former president-in-exile -- a position few people probably even knew existed. The Polish government-in-exile was the group of leaders who claimed legitimacy to speak for their country's affairs after the Soviet invasion following World War II. While they were formally recognized by very few countries after Poland had spent just a few years under "new management", they managed to keep some of the symbols of succession in their possession, which they returned to their home country after Lech Walesa was legitimately elected.

News Original copy of Haitian declaration of independence found in the UK
Notable because it was only the second declaration of independence of its type in history (after the United States issued the original), and because it's the only known surviving copy.

Science and Technology An excellent lecture in the history of Art Deco
It was a magnificent style that celebrated progress -- even at a time when the world seemed to be in considerable trouble. And it certainly proved that ordinary, useful objects could still be pleasant to the eye.

Humor and Good News Man breaks "Asteroids" video-game record that's stood since 1982

Computers and the Internet Moron students hack teacher's Facebook account
Whoopee cushions and other classic pranks would've been smarter. Tampering with someone's online accounts can lead to criminal charges, which might've even included wire fraud if money had been involved. Yet more evidence that we're in the era of the judgment economy, when it's not what you know (or what you know how to do), but whether you're wise enough to judge which things you should and shouldn't do.

Humor and Good News Peeps Show
Seriously...the art of sugar-covered marshmallows. The operative phrase here: OM-NOM-NOM-NOM-NOM-NOM!

Water News Why water shortages hurt the world's poor twice over

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April 13, 2010

Science and Technology The laws that govern your Internet privacy haven't really been updated since 1986
In an era when it's difficult to get Americans to agree on a wide range of social issues, there is considerable room for improvements to laws governing subjects upon which we all might agree, like technology. It should be to our shame that the main statute governing the privacy of electronic communications comes from an age before Prodigy (much less Google or Facebook), and that it fails to apply a consistent standard to the communications tools many of us use every day. The law has to keep pace with the technology, or else it will be abused and so will the people.

Agriculture Thousand-year-old mounds show that ancient farmers were quite clever
It appears that they figured out how to mound the soil in areas that flooded often, creating well-fertilized lands for raising crops where otherwise the conditions would have been prohibitive. One has to wonder sometimes whether we appreciate just how sophisticated the human brain has been for thousands of years -- well before we had the technology to communicate with one another -- and how much we have left to gain in terms of improved human welfare, just through the better distribution of what knowledge we collect. Sometimes we get so caught up in the latest announcements about what the technology might be (Microsoft's new Kin phone is just the latest example), without realizing that what really matters is that we use those tools for knowledge transfer between people and (especially) across generations. That we can use our phones to take videos and check stocks might be superficially satisfying, what we really need to do with that technology is make sure we're teaching and learning all the time. Are we using our knowledge to better understand saving and investing, or are we just pursuing stock tips? Are we learning how to raise a little food at home, or just trying to find out who's the Foursquare mayor of the corner coffee shop? (If there's a more pointless endeavor than telling the world where you are on Foursquare, it might just be better not to know.)

Science and Technology Twitter introduces its monetization method
Promoted posts from paid advertisers will get special treatment in search pages, much like the paid links found in Google. Gather ye rosebuds, Twitter: Your time as top dog in the microblogging universe is limited.

Broadcasting Have the bosses at WGN Radio gone completely mad?
They've hired a convicted felon to do their evening show, booted one of the most-listenable sports shows anywhere from the air, and made it pretty clear that they don't want the funny and talented Steve Cochran around anymore. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be completely insane for a radio host to try to do six straight hours of talk radio, but with things going that far off the rails in Chicago, perhaps the reasonably amusing John Williams is just setting up a backup plan by getting an afternoon show on WCCO in Minneapolis following his four-hour shift on WGN. It will be completely impossible for him to keep up that long a stretch of live radio with any degree of quality -- a good show requires twice as much prep time as live airtime -- but with management apparently determined to completely dismantle everything that made WGN a legendary station, Williams is probably just getting an insurance policy on his future by picking up the WCCO gig. It's really sad.

Water News Old warships battle the environment now

Recent radio podcasts

April 14, 2010

Health New skin successfully "printed" onto living mice
Humans, of course, will benefit from the development

Science and Technology Library of Congress will archive everything posted on Twitter...ever

Iowa Forbes ranks Des Moines #1 for business and careers in the US

Agriculture Eating well on food stamps
An example of the kind of knowledge transfer that our communications tools should be enhancing...but probably won't

Recent radio podcasts

April 15, 2010

Computers and the Internet Apple's iPhone app store declares that satire is a violation of the terms of service

News Life in the 1500s was pretty unpleasant by modern standards
...but the e-mail forward that purports to trace all kinds of modern idioms to the era isn't true. Unfortunately, among the best ways to lose one's credibility is to overstate one's case.

Science and Technology Children with a particular neuro-developmental disorder form no racial stereotypes

Computers and the Internet Life inside Google -- it could get a little overwhelming

Humor and Good News The real US citizenship exam
Everyone knows that there's an official citizenship test. But what about the unofficial one?

Water News Des Moines gets Energy Star recognition

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April 16, 2010
Thinking of intelligent things to say about Goldman Sachs vs the government. Also pondering the remarkable effects of the volcano in Iceland, and why it should remind us to take care of existential risks. Stay tuned for more.

April 18, 2010

Broadcasting Notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - April 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.

Recent radio podcasts

April 19, 2010

Business and Finance Shareholders should be livid with rage over executive compensation
CBS paid its CEO $43.2 million last year. That's completely insane in a country where median household income is about $51,000 a year. It is positively impossible to believe that Les Moonves is creating more value for CBS than could be obtained by hiring 432 other employees for $100,000 a year (twice the nation's median household income). CBS shareholders should be absolutely beside themselves with rage over that kind of overpayment. Hire 432 good minds at $100,000 a year, and you'll get vastly more value for the money than for overpaying one solitary executive. This kind of over-payment of executives constitutes one of the greatest rip-offs of capitalism ever, and shareholders should be voting complicit board members out of office and booting overpaid executives like there's no tomorrow.

Weather and Disasters UK to send its navy out to rescue stranded Brits
It's interesting what citizenship and a good passport can do for a person: Carrying an American passport, for instance, means that the 101st Airborne has your back anywhere on the planet.

Humor and Good News How to pronounce the name of the problematic volcano in Iceland
The comments, being YouTube comments, are mainly nonsense and stupidity. But whomever wrote "Stop laughing at people who can't pronounce its name, and repair your volcano" has a good sense of humor.

Humor and Good News Font-finding flowchart
For those times when you're not sure whether to go with Frutiger or Myriad. Follow the trail that leads to Comic Sans for a good laugh.

Water News Iowa wastewater systems in limbo as new rules await EPA approval

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April 20, 2010

Business and Finance How much we still need to learn about economics
Bill Gates is one of the world's three richest people, and he has the available leisure time to study anything he wants -- and to pay the smartest people in the world to teach him. So when he expresses how many unanswered questions he still recognizes in the economic events of the past few years, he sheds light on a serious problem: Our modern understanding of economics is probably equivalent in sophistication to our understanding of medicine around 1915 or so. We understand some of the major concepts, but we're largely ignorant of the most important factors that determine the real outcomes. It is self-evident, for instance, that financial markets are neither mature nor efficient. Otherwise, we wouldn't have millions of Americans at or near retirement age with no meaningful financial assets to their names, nor would disciplined investors like Warren Buffett still be able to obtain consistently superior results by honest means. There's a lot of learning yet to be done.

Weather and Disasters What Midwesterners need to know about living in an earthquake zone
Because, contrary to instinct, we're more likely to feel a serious earthquake when it happens than Californians would be likely to feel an equivalent quake.

Humor and Good News The world's perfect test of the transference property
If A is better than B, and B is better than C, then A is better than C. Or so "The Most Awesomest Thing Ever" is trying to prove with a head-to-head matchup of, well, everything, in a test of, well, awesomeness. As of now, the Internet is winning, beating life itself, oxygen, and sex.

Science and Technology Streaking through the sky, it's...a meteor

Water News Finding well-educated workers for an unglamorous sector requires real incentives

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April 21, 2010

Business and Finance Warning bells for US debt are growing louder
Data from the credit markets suggest that it's safer to lend to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway than to the Federal government. Buffett doesn't have the power to compel people to pay him like the Federal government does, nor does he have the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at his beck and call. That his company is considered a better credit risk than the US government suggests that the markets are telling the government to stop spending beyond its means. As our cost of borrowing rises, the size of our debt grows at an accelerating rate -- making us an even worse credit risk, leading to higher interest rates on our debt, compounding the size of the debt, and so on in a feedback loop that's going to cost us lots of real money in the future. Better to slow spending now and get the debt under control. Unfortunately, while one group of activists wants the government to do more and more (and thus spending more) all the time, another group is single-minded about paying less in taxes. The problem is that, having built up a big pile of debt for past expenses, we're going to have to get less from our government while paying more for it. That's the Catch-22 of debt: Getting responsible after the fact only compounds the pain. The pain is necessary, but nobody wants to administer the fix.

Computers and the Internet Why nobody, ever, should borrow, steal, or buy e-mail lists
They don't do the good they're advertised to do, and there are hidden perils -- like blacklisting -- that can result. Good content and valuable offers make a list worth joining freely.

Broadcasting Public radio coverage across the United States
An interesting map indicating national coverage of local radio signals. It's too bad that these kinds of maps aren't easier to generate dynamically for other radio broadcasts, like Cubs games, for instance.

Computers and the Internet Is ultra-high-speed broadband as significant as electricity?
Perhaps so, but more in the negative than in the positive: That is, not having high-speed Internet access may increasingly become just as painful as being without other basic services.

Humor and Good News America: Putting the party in Canada's pants since 1776

Threats and Hazards "South Park" puts Muhammad in a bear costume
When someone uses an American website to suggest that the creators of the show will be killed, is that a threat or is it "a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them"? It certainly sounds like the former. Ridiculous claims are made in the name of religion all the time: An Iranian cleric says that women's clothes are causing earthquakes, and Pat Robertson blames Haiti's disaster earlier this year on a "pact to the devil." People of goodwill and free thought should be unanimous in their rejection of these stupid claims and the fear they put in their fellow people.

Broadcasting Podcast: Economics as a lifesaving device

Broadcasting Radio highlight: What's nice about Firefox

Water News Protecting your valuables during hail season

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April 22, 2010

Computers and the Internet UK privacy official says Google needs to impose stricter rules for private data
The company has a lot of work ahead of it to convince people that it's going to do the right thing regarding privacy. They're trying with efforts like their report on government requests, but the fact is that as Google continues to try to expand its online reach (which it has to do to keep driving revenues from online sources), it's going to inevitably run into more and more conflicts with some of its users' expectations. Because Google still thinks of itself as an Internet company (rather than as a problem-solving company), it has yet to diversify its income away from Internet-based sources. That failure to diversify is going to cause the company lots of grief in the future. Conflicts over privacy are now structurally embedded within Google's growth plans.

Weather and Disasters If you're worried about global warming, you ought to be twice as concerned about volcanoes
For all of the harm that global warming could do (and the most dire of the predictions are quite unsettling), it's really nothing compared to what could happen in the event of a massive volcanic explosion with a big ash cloud. We've just seen the trouble that can result from a poorly-placed eruption like the one that just happened in Iceland. But in a dire scenario, we could face global hunger of an incredible scale. It's happened before, in the "year without a summer" following the Tambora eruption of 1815, and to a smaller extent in 1907. These events can be truly global in magnitude and there's little that can be done to predict them. And yet, despite their capacity to wipe out an entire year's worth of agricultural productivity, we don't store enough food as a hedge against cataclysmic disaster. It's time to change that.

Science and Technology Psychedelic false-color image of the Sun
Solar temperatures ranging over hundreds of thousands of degrees illustrated with colors

Water News Earth Day turns 40


April 23, 2010

The American Way Putting the right minds to work on the important subjects
Bill Gates says he wants to "get more of the world’s brightest people to focus on the world’s biggest challenges, like poverty, global health, education, energy and climate change." That would be a worthy goal. The incentive structures that have grown up around nonsense like technical analysis in stocks have drawn lots of good minds into what are basically meaningless, low-societal-value pursuits. In America, this has happened largely due to the lack of knowledge among investors (who are unwittingly complicit in the mis-assignment of value that happens when executives aren't paid according to the value they create but by their ability to extort, bribe, and steal from their shareholders through lap-dog boards of directors, and the stealthy death-by-a-thousand-mosquito-bites that happens when financial managers like mutual fund companies get paid handsomely to do anything but mind the store. Pay should reflect value, and it's not government action that will fix the problem: It's capitalists -- the stock and mutual-fund shareholders of America demanding real value for what they are charged -- that will set things straight. Gates, himself one of the most successful capitalists of all time, knows this, which is why he pushes for market-based solutions to problems like the brain drain away from socially-valuable work.

The United States of America A "Daily Show" editorial we can all agree upon
(Video) What anyone who threatens death in the name of religion can do to themselves. Hint: It's not pretty.

Computers and the Internet Facebook believes its own hype -- the first step towards disaster
The company is trying to capitalize on the fad of the "social Internet" by claiming that it can provide better resources for discovering what a user will and will not like through the aggregation of data from that user's friends. But there are several flaws in the logic: First, people like serendipity, and it's hardly serendipitous that you'll discover anything meaningful from your friends' Internet behavior that you don't get from just interacting with them anyway (for instance, if they start popularizing a new restaurant, then you'll probably hear about it anyway if it's worthwhile). Second, Facebook has over and over been a serious violator of privacy expectations -- not necessarily rules, but social expectations. They've eroded too much trust already to expect that people will be comfortable just giving them more data all the time. Third, their ambition is getting to be a little over-the-top: Teaming up with Microsoft to deliver document-sharing via docs.com may be a novelty, but it's hardly a breakthrough. We already have e-mail and Google Docs for these purposes -- and once again, there's only so much information that many people are going to be willing to hand over to services like Facebook. The sharing has to end somewhere.

Business and Finance A really good visual depiction of the world's debtor nations

Socialism Doesn't Work British drivers are being watched by GPS and speed cameras
And a system to determine who's speeding over long-distance trips is being tested. This is Big Brother behavior, and it should be rejected by free people wherever they have the choice. A free society depends upon the right to live one's life without the constant surveillance of the state. As the saying goes, if a cop follows you for 500 miles, you're going to get a ticket.

Humor and Good News Some people are good enough sports to laugh along with jokes about their names
Like the family that owns Butt Drugs. Watch their television commercial.

Humor and Good News Good life advice: Don't run over the cop car

Water News At least one war the 21st Century will be fought over water

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April 26, 2010

Science and Technology Stephen Hawking says, "Don't talk to strangers"
And by that, he means we shouldn't be bothering to make too friendly with any kinds of alien life that might try to make contact with us -- or visit. If they're sophisticated enough to get here, they're probably sophisticated enough to destroy us all, whether intentionally or not. It's a subject quite amusingly addressed in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", but also a matter of very serious consideration when we talk about visiting other planets ourselves. If, for instance, we were to contaminate Mars with Earthly bacteria, we might not only cause ourselves to think there's Martian life when there really isn't, but also to accidentally kill off Martian life if it really does exist after all. Some people argue that we should damn the torpedoes and just terraform Mars anyway to make it suitable for human habitation. There are a handful of approaches we could try, and quite a bit of the math has already been calculated. But the Martian example alone shows how we might ourselves be responsible for destroying life on another planet, strictly in the interest of our own survival. After all, the Sun is going to destroy Earth sooner or later (probably much, much later), and if we want the idea of Earthly life to continue, we're going to have to start colonizing something beyond the pale blue dot we call home.

Computers and the Internet Police raid home of journalist tied to "prototype iPhone" story
The "prototype iPhone" discovery promoted heavily by Gizmodo really didn't seem to be completely above-board -- in fact, it sounded a lot like an Apple publicity stunt -- but now the police are involved, confirming that there really was something fishy about the whole operation. If you find stolen or lost property, you don't turn it into an exclusive story on your website -- you turn the property over to police. That's how a proper society functions under the rule of law.

Health Kenya might be vaccinating against malaria by 2015
Malaria kills almost no Americans, but it does destroy a million lives annually around the world, mainly in Africa. Stopping the dreadful disease shouldn't be beyond our reach.

Humor and Good News Esquire thinks it has a few useful facts men should know about women

Broadcasting Where the "Growing Pains" cast ended up

Water News Money flows into Ottumwa

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April 27, 2010

Computers and the Internet How PowerPoint dependency leads to bad military policy
Too many meetings and too many decisions use PowerPoint templates to guide decision-making. More often than not, a meeting is a poor substitute for a short written report. Written reports insist upon accountability; meetings are a great way for people to defer decision-making.

Business and Finance But what are you really doing with your mind?
The Goldman Sachs hearings are turning into a classic display of grandstanding versus defensiveness. It's entirely possible that some people inside the banking industry did things that were contrary to the best interests of their customers. Australia, in reaction to that sort of problem, has probably gone a little too far with a new law which prohibits financial advisors from earning commissions on the financial products they sell. Yet it's also quite likely that many of the politicians grandstanding on the matter neither know enough about economics to serve any real purpose in "investigating" the subject, nor have a leg to stand on when it comes to the responsible fiduciary care of other people's money. After all, Congress has been actively responsible for creating a $13 trillion Federal debt, and has done everything possible to avoid dealing with the fiscal calamities in Medicare and Social Security -- both of which are turning into investment disasters of a magnitude much greater than just about anything anyone can do in the private sector. Perhaps the real tragedy in all this is that so many people with real intelligence and the capacity to produce great ideas of real practical use have been burning their precious days on this planet trying to figure out new ways to scheme a living out of the complexities of the financial markets -- rather than producing the good practical ideas we as a species need in order to thrive. We need fewer options traders and more engineers. Bill Gates, for instance, needs real help eradicating polio.

Humor and Good News Wife-in-a-box
An artist imagines what future android women might look like. Odd and weirdly amusing at the same time. But it doesn't take a lot of artistic license to see that robotics could be making life a lot easier in a lot of different ways, using existing technology.

Aviation News China's out to screw American Airlines
The airline was planning to launch direct service from Chicago to Beijing -- but Chinese authorities gave the airline some pretty ludicrous middle-of-the-night landing and departure times. It sounds sneaky and underhanded.

Computers and the Internet If it's anywhere on the Internet, someone will eventually find it
A programmer at Google found a way to get access to information on Facebook that people thought they were sharing only with their friends. It's no surprise, of course: These kinds of discoveries are almost routine by now. But what they tell us is that nobody should assume that anything they put on the Internet -- even behind passwords and privacy protections -- is entirely safe. That doesn't mean we shouldn't use tools like online banking -- those services have a self-policing responsibility to keep that private information as safe as possible. But as for everything else, like Facebook and Twitter and password-protected message boards, the lesson is that it only takes one mistake on the part of the website manager to turn what you thought was a private comment into something available to the entire Internet. Don't trust them; don't put anything up that you wouldn't want to see on a digital billboard somewhere in a large city. Once something is on the Internet anywhere, it should be assumed that it's on the Internet everywhere.

Humor and Good News Snake -- on an apartment-building scale
(Video) On a scale of 1 to awesome, it's at least an 8.

Water News Iowa DNR says the state of the water environment is poor but getting better


April 28, 2010

Threats and Hazards Everyone needs to know some self-defense
A man stabbed 28 children and three adults in a Chinese nursery school. We can't predict when these kinds of terrible things might occur -- and for most people, they never will. But imagine the feeling of powerlessness you might have if you'd been there but had no skills with which to stop the attack. Martial arts like Tae Kwon-Do aren't perfect insurance against any situation, but they're vastly better than having no techniques at all.

Health Colon cancer deaths could be cut by 40% or more by a single test

Humor and Good News Entertainment at the expense of scammers
A Chicago radio host named John Williams likes going back-and-forth with the scammers who try to steal money from unsuspecting e-mail recipients. Not recommended behavior, unless you're already a public figure like Williams. Besides, he's much funnier at it than most people could be.

News Feel above average without even trying
The world's median age is 27.75 years...so there's a very good chance that if you're living in a wealthy country, you're above-average. At least in age.

Humor and Good News Six supposedly-ancient traditions that aren't

Humor and Good News Losing a battle with your own flip-flop sandals
(Video) A case study in why it's a bad idea to get too intoxicated (by alcohol and/or drugs) in public now that we're in the YouTube era. The guy caught on video doesn't hurt anyone in the painful process of trying to get his sandals on, but the video would provide water-tight evidence against him for a public intoxication charge.

The United States of America $900,000 donation from Hugh Hefner saves "Hollywood" sign
A conservation needed the Playboy icon's help to buy the land around the sign. It's interesting what people will do with a huge pile of money.

Water News Iowa regulators think our water is in bad shape, but getting better

Broadcasting Podcast: What's so admirable about a Century Farm

Broadcasting Podcast: How to protect a new computer

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April 29, 2010

News When will politicians realize that sarcasm never translates well?
Britain's Conservative Party is running a campaign ad based entirely off the idea of being the opposite of a party full of bad ideas. But sarcasm never translates well, especially in politics. A witty aside (like Ronald Reagan's famous jibe about Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience") can be a work of art -- Mondale even cracked up when Reagan joked at his expense. But a long-form setup of "here's a bunch of awful stuff that could happen", followed by ten seconds of "don't let this happen to you; vote for us" is weak. It's too stupid to be satire but too complicated for people to get the joke without trying. It's undoubtedly going to backfire. On a related note, Britain is also host to the Freedom and Responsibility Party, an oddly-named group if ever there was one. Not that freedom and responsibility are separable; they are not. But voters rarely wish to be reminded that they're responsible for anything.

The United States of America The question of statehood for Puerto Rico returns
If Puerto Rico were to be admitted as a state (still only a distant possibility), some other state would likely have to be admitted at the same time, but of an opposite political character. For instance, if Puerto Rico appeared to be a likely Democratic-leaning state, it might be enough to push voters in California to split the left-leaning urban coastal cities from the right-leaning inland, creating a Republican-leaning second state of inland California.

Computers and the Internet How to make music without any knowledge or skill whatsoever
All music is mathematical in nature -- 4:4 time, syncopation, scales, and everything else that makes music pleasant to the ear comes from some kind of mathematical cause. Wolfram has used that to create a composition generator that creates music out of randomized numbers and formulas. The songs sound a little cheesy for now, because the MIDI platform on which they're based is tonally limited. But with time and refinement, there's really no reason the general principle couldn't be applied to making lots of random, personalized music to suit every person's taste. They lyrics may still have to be created by hand, but why shouldn't we enjoy a little bit of automated creativity? Stephen Wolfram, who put his name on the company behind the music generator, gave a TED talk in February in which he suggests that the relative unboundedness of computing potential means that we just have to keep developing chips and computing models that are slightly better than the ones that already exist, and as those iterations build upon themselves, sooner or later we'll be able to figure out a lot of the world's problems through computation.

Computers and the Internet Hugo Chavez starts up a Twitter account
If the arrival of the socialist bombast of Venezuela doesn't signal the beginning of the end for Twitter as a social phenomenon, it's hard to guess what will.

Computers and the Internet HP buys Palm
Palm has floundered a lot as a maker of handheld PDAs and phones, even though it was one of the originators of the field of what became smartphones. That Hewlett-Packard still sees enough life in the operation to make it part of the company suggests that HP has some pretty big plans in store. The presence of HP in a market already crowded by the likes of Apple and Google should make the smartphone market a very exciting place to be a consumer for the next few years.

Humor and Good News Now he sees it -- now he doesn't
Chicago Cub Marlon Byrd loses a fly ball in the sun, then catches it behind his back. It's really just a lot of fun to watch.

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