Gongol.com Archives: June 2010
Brian Gongol

June 2010
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June 1, 2010

Science and Technology Japan is sending robots to the Moon -- almost immediately
They're planning to send robots to the Moon in the next five years, with plans for a permanent robotic outpost there within ten. It's ambitious, but Japan has firmly entrenched itself as the world leader in robotics (and wisely; with its low birth rate, the country needs labor that its people cannot supply). Undoubtedly, the project is being driven at least in part by a desire to kick-start that robotics industry into some additional innovation, which would probably help Japan economically. Whether the cost/benefit ratio is satisfactory for a project like this is for them to decide, but for $2.2 billion, there are a lot of dumber ways to spend money.

Weather and Disasters Giant, freaky sinkhole drops three-story building 180' below ground
It happened in Guatemala City after a tropical storm passed through and overwhelmed the city's stormwater-management system

Science and Technology Two different roads ahead for the self-driving car of 2020
There seems to be a growing consensus that we'll be able to buy self-driving cars within about a decade, but there are two different ways these cars could come about. The first is for each car to adapt more and more of itself to the surrounding conditions -- like the cars that can already parallel-park themselves and the ones that have collision-avoidance tools built-in. The other route is for cars to become interactive with one another, sharing information about conditions in real time with one another, managed through a sort of central switching system. While the first method is going to require an enormous amount of processing capacity within each vehicle, the second will require striking a difficult balance between the benefits to be gained from real-time data-sharing and the lack of privacy such a system would require. Moreover, the centrally-switched system would have to prove itself remarkably robust against virus or hacker attack, and that's not really been a strong point for the governments which are likely to have to manage the systems to make them work.

Water News A quiet spring turns rapidly into a noisy summer

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June 2, 2010

Computers and the Internet Almost a dozen people have killed themselves this year at a Chinese factory making iPhone components
Interestingly, even the Chinese media are starting to make a story out of the situation, with one even saying, "[I]t is unsustainable to keep relying on this low-end means of production that is built on cheap labor." Steve Jobs, who's undoubtedly gloating on the inside that his company is now the largest technology company in the world, as measured by market capitalization, really sounds like he just isn't interested in discussing the working conditions under which his equipment is assembled, which is unfortunate. If it's really so bad that even the state media says something, then he probably needs to step up and show some leadership before the situation takes on the same kind of momentum as the Nike "sweatshop" accusations of 15 or 20 years ago.

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June 3, 2010

Business and Finance Oil spill problems cost BP on its bottom line
Its credit rating has been cut in the wake of the spill, and there's now speculation that the trouble could lead the company to merge with another oil company.

The United States of America A first-time voter in November's elections was born the same year the text message was invented
That's a scary thought

Science and Technology Turning cheap furniture into robots with personality

Iowa The wrong kind of endorsement
James Dobson has endorsed Bob Vander Plaats in the race for Republican nomination for governor of Iowa. Vander Plaats sounded like a reasonable person the first time he ran for governor. He sounded less reasonable the second time around. This, the third time, he's gone straight off the deep end. His rivals, Terry Branstad and Rod Roberts, are both considerably better-qualified.

Water News Imagine a food crisis affecting the entire population of Michigan

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June 4, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work Lest anyone forget: Medicare costs about half a trillion dollars a year
As the Federal debt crosses the $13 trillion mark, there's no escaping the fact that health care consumes a huge portion of the American economy, and the Federal budget as well. Thus, in a sense, the Federal budget is a matter of life and death. And if we keep kicking the can down the road and pretending as though the budget isn't in a crisis situation, then people may very well end up dead because of our irresponsibility today.

Computers and the Internet Don't tweet while angry
A man who was mad about getting stuck because of a snowbound airport in Britain made the mistake this January of threatening to "blow the airport sky-high" via Twitter. THe authorities took him seriously and say it's a police-worthy threat. In a similar vein, AT&T has learned a costly lesson after sending a cease-and-desist e-mail threat to a complaintive customer -- who turned around and made the dispute very, very public.

Humor and Good News The right eyeglasses make all the difference

News Pro-God bus ads get the most complaints of any advertising in the UK

Business and Finance Breathless analysis of Microsoft misses the point
The company has had a series of commercial failures, but its core business remains solidly profitable and the company has a fortress-like balance sheet, which allows it to take risks and fail without threatening its long-term existence.

Water News When the sewers overflow, what should the EPA do?

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June 5, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work 21 years after Tiananmen Square
China remains an authoritarian state. Watch "The Tank Man" in honor of the repressed.

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June 6, 2010

Business and Finance At least a dozen London economists think the Euro will be dead within 5 years
A fascinating forecast, to be sure. If the Euro flops, Britain will look smart for having stuck with the pound sterling.

News How to make a national newsmagazine more national
A New York Times columnist opines that Newsweek should find a "grid of smart contributors from Phoenix, Miami and Austin, Tex., etc." That's an absolutely dead-on suggestion; oddly enough, it's a suggestion that should apply to the "national" newspapers, like the New York Times, as well. But even the national newspapers have been slaughtering their news bureaus across the country -- where, for instance, are the Washington Post bureaus outside of metro DC? -- and it makes them seem hopelessly out of touch with what's happening across the country.

Business and Finance What's wrong with the American economy in one short list
Yahoo lists some of the highest-paid starting salaries for college graduates. The top of the list includes consultants (Question: What college graduate knows diddly squat that's worth a consulting fee? Answer: Not one) and Federal government employees (as though the Federal government needs to drop further into debt). Government jobs shouldn't be a path to quick riches, and college graduates aren't reasonably qualified to consult on anything more complicated than a lemonade stand.

Science and Technology A glimpse of the 1939 World's Fair
The General Motors exhibit, Futurama, in which GM sold a concept of automotive freedom, rather than a particular car. Aside from the occasional iPhone ad, most American companies seem disinterested in selling a vision today, which confirms a certain lack of long-term planning.

Broadcasting Show notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - June 6, 2010

Broadcasting Podcast: Should we copy Germany for a better economy?

Broadcasting Podcast: The first non-Latin web addresses go live

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June 7, 2010

Science and Technology Prosecutors consider pressing charges against Italian earthquake researchers
The scientists had apparently dismissed early signs of the pending earthquake as nothing to be alarmed about. Then a big quake occurred, and people died. Of course, the idea of prosecuting the researchers as though they had created the hazard themselves is bonkers. Weather forecasters, geologists, tsunami researchers, and others are obviously trying as hard as they can with the best tools they have available to give their fellow people the best possible warnings ahead of natural disasters. But they're working with limited information and even more limited knowledge. That's the point of science: We're in the process of learning all the time, and new information and new study begets better knowledge -- but we'll never be perfectly right. It would be absurd to press charges against your local television weather reporter because he couldn't forecast that a tornado would hit your home, and it would be absurd to sue a vulcanologist because she didn't foresee that a lava flow would ruin your Hawaiian vacation. Charging the Italian researchers with anything criminal is similarly ridiculous. They made an inaccurate forecast, but it was almost undoubtedly the best they were capable of making at the time, given their knowledge and the available data.

News Health-care reform bill included far too little money for early retirees
The Employee Benefit Research Institute says that a provision to help cover health-care costs for early retirees is so badly underfunded that it will go broke after two years -- even though it was supposed to last for four. If that's any kind of early-warning signal for how underfunded the rest of the reform package is, then we're in serious trouble.

Computers and the Internet The new iPhone really doesn't sound like anything to get excited about
As predicted here two years ago, the iPhone was a clever early entry into the consumer-level smartphone market, but strong competition didn't take long to emerge, and now Android-based and webOS-based alternatives do a lot of things the iPhone can't.

Agriculture Stunning statistics about world agriculture
For obvious reasons, John Deere needs to keep good metrics on world food production. Among the statistics they've measured is the quintupling of Brazilian soybean production since 1993, and roughly a quadrupling of their sugarcane production over the same time. They also note a pretty serious erosion in the global backup stock of corn over the same time.

News See the cleanup of a train derailment in time-lapse
It's really quite interesting to see how quickly the workers recover the train cars and the coal they spilled

Humor and Good News How to keep the "24" franchise alive
Charlie Brooker says they should hire a bunch of six-year-old boys to write the continuing storyline. He might just have an idea there. And in other bizarre entertainment news, someone thinks they've found a young Barack Obama in the video for "Whoomp, There it Is".

News Helen Thomas "retires" from the White House press corps
The 89-year-old made some pretty outlandish comments about kicking the Jews out of Israel, and they were caught on video and posted to the Internet. One would think that a journalist who's been covering the White House since Kennedy would (a) have seen enough of the world to be more enlightened than that, and (b) know better than to say something stupid right into a camera.

Broadcasting Podcast: Why the budget really is a matter of life and death

Broadcasting Podcast: A big Patch Tuesday is on the way

Water News Weekend storms dropped rain at a rate of 4" per hour on southern Iowa

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June 8, 2010

The United States of America "Share your ideas to stop the oil spill"
That's the title of an e-mail issued by the US Department of Energy, soliciting online suggestions from the small-business community for ways to manage the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's hard to tell whether the request is innovative, ridiculous, half-baked, or a combination of all three. Where's the incentive to respond? In other words, what does a respondent get if his or her idea works? "The thanks of a grateful nation" isn't going to be enough to motivate people who are working to build the businesses that will have to pay the future taxes that the very same government is running up with its pathological addiction to debt, so there needs to be some kind of concentrated benefit to coming up with the right answer.

News Analyst who leaked Iraq footage to Wikileaks gets arrested
Apparently, he just couldn't help himself and had to brag about leaking the video...to a former hacker, after reading the guy's story in Wired magazine. Stories like this make it really difficult to believe that anyone could keep up some of the more exotic and elaborate plots and cover-ups of which organizations (often governments) are frequently accused, like the supposed discovery of intelligent alien life at Area 51. The bottom line is that if one guy can't even keep his trap shut about his own work, how can a conspiracy of hundreds or thousands be expected to hold for any length of time? Someone's going to spill the beans sometime.

Business and Finance Hong Kong consultants say India has the world's worst bureaucracy
That the country continues to enjoy economic growth despite stifling red tape really illustrates just how much potential India could probably unleash if only it would get rid of the obstruction.

News Using burglar alarms to stop fires
New Zealand has a problem with arson in schools, but they can't afford to retrofit all of the school buildings with sprinklers. But they might be able to stop the crimes with burglar alarms, which are much cheaper.

Humor and Good News Cover-band drummer decides to add a little something extra to ZZ Top
He ends up looking like a cross between one of the audioanimatronic characters from the Rockafire Explosion at Showbiz Pizza and Animal

Broadcasting Podcast: Why incremental improvements matter

Broadcasting Podcast: Whatever happened to powerline broadband?

Water News Is 12% ethanol coming to a gas pump near you?

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June 9, 2010

The American Way June 2010 update to the EconDirectory
Hundreds of websites about economics and business, ranked by daily average traffic

The American Way Gates Foundation puts $10 million into kick-starting mobile banking for Haiti
Haiti can't really recover economically from the earthquake of this year until its people can save and invest. And while banking via mobile phone may sound like a luxury to Americans, in parts of the world where many people remain "unbanked", mobile-phone services can be a nearly-ubiquitous (and very clever) substitute for establishing lots of expensive bank branches with prohibitively high barriers to entry for the unbanked poor. Plus, money saved in mobile-linked accounts is much safer to carry than cash, which can be stolen. The Gates Foundation is making the reward an innovation prize, with the largest rewards reserved for the competitors who deploy mobile banking services fastest and to the largest number of people. It's a great idea -- especially because it's using the market to create a sustainable improvement in human development, not just one-time charity.

Health Wolfram Alpha adds health indicators
The complex and evolving "decision engine" is now populated with World Health Organization data on the world's health. Very interesting stuff. If you want to improve the things that matter, you have to find ways to quantify them.

The United States of America Exercising the right to vote is a significant historical anomaly
Suppose that something like 100,000,000,000 people have ever lived. In that time, only a handful of nations -- mostly in just the last century or so -- have ever had a true representative democracy with a secret ballot. Even if the entire planet today had that kind of secure right to self-governance (which it most assuredly does not, considering China alone has more than a billion citizens who have no such thing as a free and fair vote), one's chances of having had the right to vote freely without fear of violence or reprisal would still be well under one in ten. In honor of those who don't have the right to vote -- not to mention one's ancestors, who likely came from lands ruled by kings, princes, and invading armies, those of us who have the right to vote today should exercise that right in every election, every time. Even when it's just a primary election: If you don't vote in the primaries, you're volunteering to have just one more choice than someone living in a one-party state.

News Fascinating urban ruins
Truly intriguing photographs of once-densely-populated places that were abandoned

Broadcasting Radio on-demand: Who gets leisure time in America?

Broadcasting Radio on-demand: Why we're going to have to hitchhike into space

Water News Researchers "surprised" to find more bacteria in bottled water than tap water

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June 14, 2010

News We're not very good at addressing risk: Accept that fact, then try to accommodate
A rather perceptive article about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes the fine point that we tend to be really, really bad at comprehending catastrophic risk. We understand that bad things can happen, but we seem to be good at burying our concerns about the "worst that could happen" and living in blissful ignorance. Blissful, that is, until something goes horribly wrong, like it did in the Gulf, and causes a catastrophe. And those catastrophes can have massive repercussions that are hard to forecast as well: American politicians are clamoring for BP to set aside a $20 billion reserve account to pay for damages caused by the oil spill -- a curious challenge to the Constitutional notion that government can't just take what it wants without a due legal process. What could be truly extraordinary about the BP situation is that, if the US government pushes hard enough, it could shove BP right into insolvency. The whole idea of forcing the company to set aside money for victim compensation and punitive damages before there has been a due court process is unprecedented -- and dangerous to the notion of government staying within its prescribed limits. And if BP were to be pushed into insolvency, the people who would suffer the disproportionate burden of the consequences are not the executives working at the company, but rather the huge number of British pensioners who rely upon dividends from BP to help pay their power bills and buy groceries. Whether we imagine bumbling incompetence in the management of the spill, the reality of business today is that the people whom we'd like to hold personally accountable are rarely the ones who will suffer the consequences if the business itself is punished.

News Japan's prime minister worries the country will "collapse" under public debt
Relative to the size of its economy, Japan has about twice the amount of government debt that the US has. Due to its extraordinarily high private savings rate, they probably have a lower total debt burden (public and private combined) than the US does, but the fact is that a country cannot go on borrowing at an increasing rate forever. That which cannot go on forever must eventually stop. The hope must be that the "stop" can be achieved reasonably and in a measured way -- and not with civil unrest or violence. The eruption of civil war in Kyrgyzstan appears to be the result of the breaking of peace between opposed ethnic groups. It's scary stuff.

Humor and Good News The things people are willing to do with their free time
(Video) A stop-motion video of Mario Brothers, apparently made of Post-It Notes, should provide sufficient evidence to anyone who wonders that there's plenty of untapped brainpower sitting around, under-used, in America today. Which is what makes inducement prizes such an attractive idea: If we can find a few problems that we really want to solve and concentrate the benefits to finding the answers, perhaps some of the people currently dinking around making goofy videos might occasionally spend some of that leisure time trying to answer tough questions instead. It really just requires a little incentive, which is what the prizes are good for doing.

Humor and Good News Humor for economists
Even one of the driest of all social scientists can provide fertile ground for laughs

Broadcasting Podcast: The sorry state of state budgets

Broadcasting Podcast: The future of hive-minded vehicles

Water News After a long struggle with shortage, Lincoln finally has enough water for a summer

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June 15, 2010

News Sarah Palin plans to meet Margaret Thatcher
What they have in common: Both are nominally-conservative female political leaders. What they do not have in common: A serious meeting of the minds on an intellectual basis for conservatism. Margaret Thatcher is a paragon of modern conservative (or classical liberal) leadership: Her philosophy in office was lucid (free markets and personal liberty under the rule of law), and drew from a wide range of thoughtful intellectual contributions from people like Friedrich Hayek. Palin, on the other hand, has been on a nauseating populist and anti-intellectual streak ever since her nomination by the Republican Party to the Vice Presidency that gives conservatism a bad name. Contrast Palin's "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick" comment with Thatcher's "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." Thatcher advocated a conservatism of ideas, not feelings. Palin does precisely the opposite, and in the process is scarcely that conservative at all -- she's populist. And in the grand scheme of things, the difference between the two is so vast it's unfortunate that many people will probably think the two are somehow alike. If only we were to be so lucky as to have a leader as thoughtful as Thatcher around today.

Socialism Doesn't Work Cedar Rapids, the new police state
Interstate 380 now has speed cameras mounted along the freeway as it passes through Cedar Rapids. This is abhorrent. When Iowa City puts up nuclear-weapon-free zone signs along the streets, it just looks goofy and anachronistic. (Who's going to carry a nuke into Iowa City?) But when Cedar Rapids mounts police cameras along the road and uses those to issue fines, it reeks of creepy authoritarianism. When the law is enforced via camera, rather than by an individual officer of the law with judgment and discretion, then we're turning over our responsibilities to think to the machines, and asking to be baby-sat by Big Brother. An old saying goes, "If a police officer follows you for 500 miles, you're going to get a ticket." With cameras like this in place, no one's going to have to drive the full 500 miles.

Business and Finance Afghanistan may have $1 trillion in mineral wealth
Which, if true, could certainly be of short-term benefit to the country; it could certainly bring in a fresh supply of cash and provide a rival economic activity to the heroin trade. But in the long term, it could end up creating more harm than good if it isn't used wisely. Few countries have done as well with endowments of natural resources wealth (like the oil-rich states of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria) as other states have done by adopting free markets and encouraging free trade under the rule of law (which has made resource-poor countries and states like Japan and Hong Kong filthy rich). It's been called the curse of oil wealth, and for good reason. While it may not be oil wealth they've found in Afghanistan, vast mineral wealth would be quite like the same thing.

Broadcasting A look at the WGN transmitter site

Humor and Good News A small vote in favor of free speech
(Video) Jon Stewart steps out of his usual political antagonism and makes a pretty fine statement in favor of freedom of speech. Good for him. And, in an extra touch of goodness, it's pretty entertaining, too.

Broadcasting Podcast: Is technology causing insomnia?

Broadcasting Podcast: Skin grafts, printed on demand

Water News Flash flooding in eastern Iowa

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June 16, 2010

Business and Finance China agrees to a bunch of new investments in Greece
Taking a classic contrarian position, China's government is investing in projects with the European country just as everyone else rushes for the exit. It's strange how a Communist country with an authoritarian government can have at least some leaders who invest like value-oriented capitalists. China is planning for long-term economic growth much better than many individuals and institutions in the West -- but it still needs to come to terms with the need for self-government by the people.

News Can statistics help the Chicago Cubs?
The team has hired a new analyst to go through the Cubs' statistics, perhaps to help figure out why they're losing. That's one of the beautiful things about baseball: With a 162-game regular season, baseball is a game of very large numbers. Large enough that statistics really do matter, and so does their analysis. It's just one of the reasons why baseball is the greatest professional sport in the world today. Oh, and because the season lasts so long, the world doesn't just stop working for a month, like it's doing right now for the World Cup. That doesn't mean baseball can't be improved upon -- but a lot of its appeal comes from its tradition. It's been played so many times each year for so long that it's woven deep into Americans' historical memory. Which is why the switch from organ music to pop music at Wrigley Field during the batters' walk-ups is a horrible decision that should be reversed. Some changes we can handle -- a noodle outside the park may be weird, but it's not a real change to the atmosphere inside the park. But killing off the organ music? That's just bad branding.

Business and Finance A strange decision in a city with an empty skyscraper
Apparently, we haven't learned our collective lesson about the real-estate bubble. The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System is investing in the construction of a new 42-story skyscraper full of luxury condominiums -- in a town where a 52-story office skyscraper is empty. Seriously. It's on the market for $19 million. Building a brand-new building with larger buildings sitting empty nearby is positively daffy.

Health A man's relative strength is predictable from the quality of his voice

Humor and Good News Why do Iowans love ranch dressing?

The United States of America A history of Cadillac Presidential limousines

Broadcasting Podcast: Why you should vote in every election, every time

Broadcasting Podcast: Answers to a few common tech questions

Water News Awful flooding in eastern Nebraska

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June 18, 2010

Science and Technology A little bit of insurance against existential risk
1.4-gigapixel camera newly mounted to a Hawaiian telescope will record four terabytes of data per night of photos of the night sky, which scientists will use to determine whether any big objects are headed our way

Computers and the Internet Cell phones are helping labor organizers in China
Technology undermining authoritarianism. Interesting.

News Oil from the Gulf could be in the Atlantic by October
Computer-based simulations suggest that it's going to be difficult to predict exactly what will happen, but the general outlook puts the oil on the East Coast by fall

Business and Finance How bad will the municipal-bond crisis be?
Lots of cities have been over-spending, and the same ratings agencies that failed to predict what would happen with the housing market are the ones judging how good the municipal bonds are. This could make for trouble.

Humor and Good News Major-League catcher marries woman he hit on from the bullpen

Weather and Disasters National Weather Service pushes lightning safety
On average, about 5 dozen Americans are killed every year by lightning. In terms of the total number of deaths each year, it's a tiny fraction of the whole. But lightning deaths are generally avoidable, so there's value in encouraging safe behavior.

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.

Weather and Disasters Just before the storm
A well-defined boundary on an incoming severe thunderstorm. There's a pretty extraordinary risk of large hail moving into eastern Iowa, northern Illinois, and southern Wisconsin.

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June 20, 2010

Business and Finance China promises to let its currency appreciate...a little bit
But the total amount of adjustment and the schedule for the process are still up in the air. By keeping its currency "weak", China has made it difficult for its people to buy foreign goods, but simultaneously makes it cheaper for the rest of the world to buy Chinese-made stuff. If it lets the currency appreciate a bit, Chinese-made stuff won't appear as relatively cheap to the rest of the world -- but in turn, the rest of the world is going to have to save more than it has in the past.

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June 21, 2010

The American Way A fine obituary to a mostly-unknown guardian of the light of classical liberalism
The Economist pays tribute to a long-time deputy editor who "kept the flame of free-market thinking burning during the long night of collectivism." Ideas matter.

News CNN drops its subscription to the Associated Press
It's significant news for news junkies -- a sign that the AP is in serious trouble. There's more competition than ever for the delivery of news content, and the over-use of AP wire content has made a lot of journalistic outlets sloppy and lazy.

Humor and Good News How to care for your baby

Science and Technology A map of the progress of the Sun across the daytime sky
Twice a day in the summertime, the Sun is north of due east, even north of the Tropics. Important information to remember should one ever become lost in a forest.

Business and Finance "Sonic branding"
The BBC takes a look at the rise of the "sonic brand" -- the most famous example of which is likely the "bongs" micro-jingle from Intel. The story is best heard, perhaps, through the radio program upon which the news story is based.

Graphics Graphic of the day: Charter & Atlantic

Broadcasting Podcast: As we cross the danger bridge

Broadcasting Podcast: What you put on Facebook, stays on Facebook (or at least on the Internet)

Water News Flooding continues in Iowa and Nebraska

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June 22, 2010

Science and Technology In praise of science
We need to do a better job of embracing science and the scientific method than we have popularly done. We need to do more thinking than ever before, not less. There are lots of different ways to popularize scientific thinking -- from "Mythbusters" on television to Britain's "I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!" But for our own sake, we should be embracing the use of as many of these as reasonably possible. We invest enormous resources in things like sports and politics -- we should work doubly hard to make science a part of our regular thinking as well. We live in a world that includes people who are openly hostile to scientific thinking, so popularization is essential.

Broadcasting The beauty of ingenuity
People living in Kenya have managed to put up a giant inflatable screen so they can watch the World Cup. Considering that the World Cup only arrives once every four years, it's entirely possible that in four years, most people -- even in remote places -- will watch most of the Cup via video streamed to their mobile phones.

Computers and the Internet Google Voice is now open to all
Google has released its telephone-management system to the public after a long period restricted to invitees only. What's most interesting about Google Voice is that it really seems to be a testing laboratory for Google's voice-to-text algorithms. A huge amount of the world's information is locked up in things like radio broadcasts, television shows, and other media that aren't yet being indexed for inclusion in the world's databases of knowledge -- including, but not limited to, Google's own archives. By releasing the Google Voice service to the world at large, the company gains access to a whole lot of audio material upon which to test its computers. (Anyone wishing to test Google Voice can use the number assigned to this website: 918-246-6465.)

Threats and Hazards Canada's top spy says they have real Manchurian Candidates
He reportedly thinks that cabinet ministers in two provinces are under the control of foreign governments. What's the best way to keep that from happening and to limit the damage that such "controls" could do? Simple: Limit the power of government, and push the necessary work of government down to the most local level possible. Government is frequently subject to both mission creep (doing more than it should) and the commandeering of authority. Resisting both urges is an outstanding way to preserve self-government.

News General McChrystal criticizes his civilian bosses

Broadcasting Podcast: Ideas aren't free -- even if government doesn't want to pay for them

Broadcasting Podcast: Helping a listener connect to an online game

Water News Astonishing human toll from flooding in China

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June 23, 2010

Humor and Good News The missing cat and the aggrieved graphic designer
Truly, one of the funniest things a person will read this month -- particularly if one has been in the position of the designer, asked to do hard work on short notice by someone who doesn't appreciate what it is for which he or she is asking

Business and Finance Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett on their campaign to get the wealthy to donate more
Many of the comments that appear on the Charlie Rose website beneath the video box are full of vitriol and nonsense arguments about how evil it is that Buffett and Gates have gotten wealthy. How short-sighted. Their wealth has been the result of productive behavior that has kept workers employed and consumers satisfied.

Weather and Disasters Earthquake near Ottawa, Ontario, felt in Chicago
It wasn't a strong earthquake, but it was conducted very far away by the unique profile of the soils and subsurface constituents in the region. Suddenly it doesn't sound quite so crazy for someone in Iowa to want earthquake insurance.

Water News Half a foot of rain in 24 hours
Some very nasty storms passed through Iowa on Tuesday night

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June 24, 2010

Iowa The myth of the "cookie-cutter" suburb
What's called "cookie-cutter" in one place is called "charm" somewhere else. That exposes a logical inconsistency.

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June 25, 2010

Computers and the Internet Mobile phone networks can't keep up with data demand
People are using more data than the networks are prepared to serve up

Business and Finance Apple's idea of customer service
Steve Jobs says that if his phone doesn't work very well, people shouldn't hold it like that. Sounds a lot like the joke about the patient who says to the doctor, "Doc, it hurts when I move my arm this way", and is told "Then don't move it like that." This is Apple's much-hyped "superior user experience"? Related: British Airways might need to re-think its policy on allowing adult men to sit next to children on flights. In an effort to protect those unaccompanied minors, they're probably causing excessive embarrassment to adult passengers by implying that they're up to no good when there's no such reason to believe that.

Iowa Microsoft to start building $100 million data center in West Des Moines
Iowa's governor says the state has a "trifecta" with IBM, Google, and Microsoft projects

Computers and the Internet Facebook wants to become the new search-engine rival to Google
It's not going to work. Facebook is built on decisions made by people you already know. When was the last time anyone used a search engine to try to figure out something his or her friends already had an opinion about? We use search engines to seek out new information from new sources, not recycled opinions from our friends.

Business and Finance Damning video of the BP oil spill affecting Florida beaches
There's not a lot the company will be able to do to reverse its public image now that videos of children screaming "Get it off my feet, Mommy!" are going viral. Don't be surprised if BP ends up changing its corporate name.

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June 27, 2010

Broadcasting Show notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - June 27, 2010

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June 28, 2010

Threats and Hazards Even cops get busted by red-light and speed-control cameras
The city of Cedar Rapids has installed a bunch of creepy surveillance cameras to monitor traffic and issue tickets. And among those being hit with violations are the local police.

Business and Finance A depression, really?
Paul Krugman argues that the world economy is in the starting stages of a great depression, and in turn suggests that massive government spending is necessary. That's a classic Keynesian response. But it ignores the fact that investors worldwide are quite well-aware that many governments are deeply indebted and quite seriously need to reduce spending in order to remain credible about their plans to actually repay any of that debt. It's entirely possible that a double-dip recession, but the real question is whether that kind of outcome is best averted by governments continuing to spend at non-credible rates, or by taking intelligent steps to secure private-sector growth. The bottom line is that it simply is not credible for governments to run up debts that rival and exceed total annual incomes -- certainly not when those debts are built on structural deficits (like America's, thanks to our promises to pay lots of entitlements to retirees without setting aside the money to pay for those entitlements while the entitlees are working). If this were all about building roads and dams, the debts could be justified. But they're not. That makes them fundamentally unsustainable. And incredibly stupid decisions, like Britain's plan to limit the in-migration of skilled workers, just make the problems worse. The world is trying to export its brainpower to Britain, and the UK turning that brainpower away. How fundamentally absurd. It would look even more absurd by comparison, were the United States not similarly hostile to letting in all the smart people who want to move here.

Business and Finance Is the White House really committed to a "strong and stable" BP?
The President met with British Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the problems with the company and its management of the oil spill, but Downing Street claims they agreed that they want the company to be "strong and stable". If the President really expects to get $20 billion out of the company for fixing the damage caused by the spill, then he certainly does want the company to remain afloat. But the language used to address the spill and its cleanup has been more of retribution and anger than problem-solving. That's too bad, because it needlessly damages the company without resulting in any real correction to the problem.

Broadcasting The voice of your GPS
A New York Times columnist, opining on the value of a good female voice in his automotive GPS, confers with a Stanford communications professor who makes a very odd claim: "[F]inding a female voice that is pleasing to almost everyone is infinitely easier than finding a male voice." Really? That runs contrary to just about every other observation in history. Women's voices are nitpicked vastly more than men's voices (consider how often words like "shrill" are applied to famous women like Hillary Clinton when the same is almost never done to men). Consider further how male voices are vastly more likely to be used than female voices throughout radio and television. The truth is that we seem to like certain female voices quite a lot, but hate many more. It's much easier to come up with a long list of great male voices than great female voices -- at least for speaking voices -- and the professor's claim to the contrary is one of the oddest assertions ever.

Health Hormone test can accurately predict when a woman's biological clock will run out of time
It's just a blood test, but it can help predict the arrival of menopause with considerable accuracy

Science and Technology The risks of high-speed rail
High-speed trains are treated like a holy grail, but the fact is that we probably haven't done nearly enough to make them sufficiently safe to use in the United States.

Business and Finance The US Mint's collection of old coin designs

Water News How to select a well pump

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June 29, 2010

Business and Finance Prediction: BP will almost certainly change names within 18 months
Independent retailers carrying the BP sign are getting hammered by customer boycotts -- to the tune of as much as 40% cuts to their regular volume of business. That's patently unsustainable, and it's entirely the fault of the negative brand equity that the BP name now carries as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Toyota and its dealers seem to have survived the brake and acceleration problems that surfaced a few months ago without a lot of permanent damage; BP, on the other hand, looks like a mortally-wounded brand.

News Russian spy teams had kids to help protect their cover
That's an incredible level of commitment to country, isn't it? One US official says the Russian intelligence service is "crapping in their pants" with fear, now that their American operation has been blown.

The United States of America Chicago in moving pictures and color from 1948
Complete with over-enthusiastic voice-over narrative

News "Reality and capitalism have now caught up with the French press"
A group of tycoons have won a bid to take over Le Monde, France's newspaper of record, rescuing it from bankruptcy

Humor and Good News Not the kind of guy you'd expect to see dancing to Lady Gaga

Broadcasting Is WGN "no longer the station that mid-America knows and trusts"?
The former morning host says that's his fear, now that the company has booted Steve Cochran, who was one of the last remaining topical-but-not-overtly-political hosts on the station. Too bad; Cochran made great radio.

Science and Technology The Milky Way as a subway map
Helpful? Maybe. But at least an amusing curiosity. Related: Bing now offers a sketched-on-a-napkin feature for its printable maps. Very creative.

Humor and Good News Why we only take a few help-desk calls on the WHO Radio Wise Guys
It's hard to tell whether any given call will make a lot of sense, or whether it'll be like the woman who can't figure out how to stop the Pacman music. A callscreener can only do so much to help.

Water News Saylorville Dam is going to be overtopped again

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June 30, 2010

Computers and the Internet Google says its new search index is caffeinated
The new "Caffeine" indexing system is claimed to search the Internet faster than previous Google systems, and to record "hundreds of thousands of gigabytes per day" in the databases. The truth is that online content is increasing in total volume at a terrific rate, so Google is going to find itself in a situation that demands ever-increasing rates of search documentation and capture. And, if the company is lucky, experiments in voice-to-text translation will work out well enough to allow it to document (and make searchable) the vast quantity of audio and video content being put on the Internet daily, too. Times are a little odd for Google right now, which is still trying to figure out how to deal with China and the competing interests inevitable there -- on one hand, they can't afford to just walk away from the world's largest collection of users (there are more Chinese Internet users than there are people living in America), but playing by the rules laid down by the Chinese government is turning out to be a serious challenge to the mantra of "don't be evil." After all, to what extent is cooperation with oppression evil? The coming years in American-Chinese relations are going to be very interesting ones. There may be a lot of uproar about Russian spying in America, but isn't China guilty of more damaging spy work than Russia?

Business and Finance Don't trade stocks while drunk
An oil broker claims to have been blackout drunk when he bought more than 7 million barrels of oil on his laptop. Anymore, it's possible to do similar damage from a smartphone. People need to know their own limits. Drunk dialing and drunk texting are bad enough without getting millions of dollars involved. Related: Rumor has it that Verizon will have an iPhone by the start of next year. It's not the iPhone itself, but rather the competition for the market opened up by the iPhone, that's really driving smartphone adoption right now.

Humor and Good News Condoleezza Rice and Aretha Franklin in concert
No, really. Condi on the piano and Aretha at the microphone. This July. In Philadelphia.

Business and Finance Say goodbye to the defined-benefit pension
Even the BBC -- which is funded by license fees enforced by the British government -- is stepping away from the defined-benefit pension programs of the past as quickly as it can get away with doing. The defined-benefit pension is in its death throes the entire world around, and it's high time the public realized that everyone's going to have to look out for himself and herself when it comes to saving, investing, and planning for retirement. Financial literacy is no longer a luxury; it's as essential as knowing the basic facts of nutrition or the rules of the road for automobiles. Thankfully, the American public has continued to actually save money -- not a lot, but at least it's something. 4% is a lot more than what we had been saving only a couple of years ago. Ideally, the number would actually be near 10%, but we'll take 4% over zero, which is where the number had been.

News An offense against Big Brother

Iowa Worries about Saylorville Lake

The United States of America Oh say, can you see?

Humor and Good News "I guess we should move on to humans"
Once you cure the animal diseases...

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