Gongol.com Archives: July 2010
Brian Gongol

July 2010
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July 1, 2010

Science and Technology Test your risk intelligence
We can't always be right. In fact, it turns out that knowing roughly how confident you ought to be about what you do and don't know is actually a measurable skill -- not to mention one that has a whole lot of potential benefit to the individual who possesses the skill. Knowing how good you are at objectively assessing your own confidence is probably more important than knowing a lot of facts. It's a matter of building skilled judgment rather than leaning on the crutch of having trivial facts floating around in the head. That's why the "knowledge economy" is rapidly becoming the judgment economy. Take the test (it's a private, nonprofit study) and see what you learn.

Aviation News This flight is standing-room only
Ryanair is trying to convince regulators to let it offer standing-room tickets on its flights. Just hope the pilot doesn't make a rough landing and crush your knees and ankles in the process.

Iowa Who really wins in a massive class-action case?
Senatorial candidate Roxanne Conlin is being sued by other attorneys over $75 million in law fees resulting from a $195 million settlement with Microsoft over antitrust behavior. She says it's politically motivated. Regardless, the attorneys in the case took 38% of the total settlement. That's one sizeable commission.

Health Researchers think they've found the genes that predict ultra-longevity
They think there are about 150 genetic markers that are linked to long life -- and they're sufficiently confident that they're planning to tell people who submit their genome sequences whether they're likely to live past age 100. The conclusion is a result of a combination of genetic science and math. Exercise, of course, is still essential to enhancing both longevity and the quality of life -- though it's really up in the air whether chocolate milk is the best recovery drink after exercise. It has some merits, but not necessarily as many as perhaps we're being sold upon.

Weather and Disasters Tornado near Sibley, Iowa, on June 25th was an EF4
That's about as strong as they come

Broadcasting Podcast: Being heavily-regulated isn't the same as being safe

Broadcasting Podcast: When cars learn to drive themselves

Water News Flooding starts in Des Moines as Saylorville starts releasing water

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July 2, 2010

Iowa So, you want to gamble on resurrection, do you?
The Iowa state legislature has been advised by its Legislative Services Agency that it's going to have to clarify some of the rules regarding who has responsibility for ensuring that peoples' final wishes are carried out. That's because a brother and sister who were co-administrators of their brother's estate didn't turn over his head to be cryogenically frozen, as he had signed a contract to request before he died. Another case where the law is failing to keep up with science.

Humor and Good News How to speak English like an Irishman
Irish slang is pretty colorful. Some of the funniest can be heard in the "Nob Nation" podcast.

Business and Finance Blockbuster Video bumped from the New York Stock Exchange
The company is trying to restructure $930 million in debt -- almost a billion dollars -- as it loses market share to competitors like Redbox and Netflix. It's a dramatic example of creative destruction: Technology is making life better for consumers (we wouldn't be using Netflix and Redbox if we didn't like them better), but it's hard on the companies that don't adapt swiftly enough. And don't imagine that change won't come to unexpected places: A brand-new hospital in Scotland is staffed heavily by robots, and their presence is expected to do a lot of good by reducing things like cross-contamination from one sick person to another. But this kind of change is going to put some health-care workers out of employment.

Broadcasting Podcast: The pointlessness of multitasking

Broadcasting Podcast: How to pick a smartphone

Water News An EF4 tornado hit northwestern Iowa a few days ago


July 3, 2010

The United States of America Constitutionalists come in all flavors
The ACLU has issued a list of rights people should know when traveling for the Fourth of July. What's interesting is the number of self-identified "Constitutionalists" who would accuse the ACLU of being anti-American. Undoubtedly an ACLU advocate would argue his or her Constitutionalist credentials just as eagerly and vigorously as any Tea Party enthusiast. And both have a right to do so. Neither would be correct to do so to the exclusion of the other.

The United States of America The Declaration of Independence in 140 characters

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - July 3, 2010
Including notes on cloud seeding, Google's "Caffeine" approach to web searches, and great voices in GPS history

Iowa A compendium of links for watching Saylorville Lake
The 2010 floods are subsiding, but this set of links has been much-needed for some time

@briangongolbot on Twitter

July 4, 2010

The United States of America Freedom means having only ourselves to blame for our failures or congratulate for our successes

Science and Technology A car for blind drivers
And it's not a joke. A team from Virginia Tech has equipped a Ford Escape with a bunch of non-visual adaptations that will allow a blind driver to demonstrate the vehicle at Daytona Speedway next January.

Broadcasting A rainbow over downtown Des Moines for Independence Day
And other items filed under notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 4, 2010

Aviation News How to rescue an airline from a hostile takeover
The board of Midwest Airlines, facing a hostile takeover attempt by AirTran, put together a website called SaveTheCookie.com, after Midwest's renowned in-flight cookies. Whether the website really made any real difference is up to question, but Midwest was acquired by a private-equity group, which then sold it to Republic Airways in 2009.

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July 5, 2010

The United States of America Jefferson made it clear: We're citizens, not subjects
New imaging techniques have revealed that Thomas Jefferson had originally used the word "subjects" to describe Americans in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, then willfully and deliberately expunged the word from his draft. It's a powerful distinction. For a contemporary example, the Chinese government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep its subjects from rioting like they did last year.

Business and Finance British employers are getting 70 applicants for every available job opening
It's not a good time to be a college graduate looking for work there. Anecdotally, the situation may be even worse for Americans in some sectors, with 200 applicants for every elementary teaching job in the Kansas City area. The overall figure was supposedly 3.3 applicants per job opening overall nationwide last year, so it might be a stretch for the overall picture to have soured considerably since then. Regardless, a lot of new jobs are just temporary Census work, rather than permanent employment. Even in better times (like early 2007), the right employers sometimes received hundreds of applications for every open job. Interestingly, there are still some job areas where employers can't find enough skilled applicants. The most important factor for recent graduates to feature in their applications and resumes? Internships.

The United States of America The US Army Band's collection of ceremonial music
Including the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the "Washington Post March"

News UK foreign policy targets better relations with India
Interesting -- the former colonist now hopes to hitch a ride on the rising economic star of the former colony


July 6, 2010

Business and Finance Are investment banks caught in a permanent feedback loop of volatility?
It's an interesting perspective: Michael Lewis suggests that the investment banks are structurally trapped in a wild oscillation back and forth between obscene profits and the imminent danger of collapse. That condition, it should be noted, makes the "investment" part of "investment bank" an oxymoron: Nothing which is perpetually at risk of total failure is even remotely similar to being what we should classically refer to as an "investment." Investments should, by definition, be stable and long-term oriented -- like an oak tree. What "investment" banks do that leads to the wild oscillations is much more like gambling.

The United States of America US Postal Service faces a $7 billion loss in 2010
So they're looking for a 2-cent increase in the price of first-class postage

Computers and the Internet One enormously (and unintentionally) dangerous smartphone application
A free application called "Grindr" uses GPS features in cell phones to allow people to post their photos and profiles and indicate that they're looking for sex. Moral considerations aside, it could be a very dangerous application. At first, of course, it will be used for its intended purpose. But it's impossible to imagine it not attracting sexual predators, criminals, and stalkers. And since the application is targeted at the gay community (with the intention of opening to straight participants by the end of 2010), it's almost certain that a violent homophobe is going to use it to pick targets, just like the Craigslist killer allegedly did. There's such a thing as sharing far too much information, and broadcasting anonymously your precise location and interest in casual sex is one of those things. People are already sharing far too much information about their private lives via Facebook and Twitter. The addition of geolocation (the use of GPS to tell other people where you are in real time) opens up a whole basket of risks that we really need to consider carefully before using freely. That was the point of PleaseRobMe.com. And if some predictions come true and this blend of geolocation and social networking becomes literally a thing we wear, we're going to need to scrutinize it closely before adopting it enthusiastically.

Broadcasting Canadian police radios are being jammed by criminals
The police say they're having radio transmissions and cell-phone calls jammed by $80 electronics that crooks are using to disrupt communications

Humor and Good News The annotated "Touch of Grey"
It's a catchy tune, to be sure. Probably the best Grateful Dead song for non-Deadheads.

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July 7, 2010

Business and Finance Why massive deficit spending isn't going to fix the economy
Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman seem to think that the time is right for massive deficit spending by governments, in order to kick the economy into high gear. The problem is that money has to be borrowed from somewhere, and that money has to be lent by people who think the borrowers have some sort of credible plan to pay it back. The problem is that the United States has created a web of entitlement programs via Social Security and Medicare that we have shown very little stomach for fully funding. But there's no doubt we'll continue to make those payments, since the same people taking the payments are the older people who are most likely to vote. So with a structural imbalance already in place (with more cash being spent on entitlements than being raised via taxes to pay for them), where's the credibility that we'll pay back other debts that we incur? Low credibility means high interest rates (which is why people with bad credit ratings pay really high interest rates). The kind of deficit spending demanded by Keynesians assumes that the lenders of the world can't just read the budget of the United States for themselves.

Broadcasting The news from somewhere else but here
An online service offers radio stations the opportunity to outsource their news operations. It's not altogether different from the Weather Channel offering localized forecasts. You'll only ever get passable work from a service like this. Never anything outstanding, and obviously never anything on breaking news or any inevestigative reports. But is the illusion of local news coverage better than no coverage at all?

News Pitching the world's biggest tent
A tent that's about the height of the tenth-tallest building in Minneapolis has been erected in Kazakhstan to create a sort of indoor mall effect, where people can go to shops and restaurants. It's a vanity project being built to the "glory" of the country's president, who ordered the creation of the city where the tent is located. At 100,000 square meters, it covers an area about a quarter of the size of the floor space in the Mall of America.

Aviation News Israeli security says someone stole four handguns on a US flight
They checked four 9mm Glocks for a flight from Washington to New York, but the guns never arrived

Broadcasting Podcast: Will telescopes save our lives?

Broadcasting Podcast: The iPhone 4...big fat hairy deal

Water News A day of flash flooding in Iowa

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July 8, 2010

Science and Technology Interview with an android
The CBC radio show "As It Happens" interviews Bina 48, a robot imbued with artificial intelligence, an Internet connection, and a "character engine" that's supposed to make it behave something like an actual human being. The goal, it would seem, is to synthesize a way to capture a human being's essence -- likely that of a particular person -- and use it to preserve their personality even after the person has died. Naturally, there will be an interest in using the personalities of some of history's most prolific writers (like Benjamin Franklin) to see whether we can approximate an answer to questions like "What would one of the Founding Fathers say about this issue?" On the positive side, it could be comforting and perhaps even instructive for people to literally hear from preserved versions of their dead ancestors. But attitudes and cultures change over time, so how will those "preserved" personalities adapt? What if great-grandmother was a loudmouthed racist? Would her preserved avatar keep on waxing philosophical about those things the same way great-grandmother always would? What if her great-grandchild brought home a partner of a different race? Would the avatar adapt?

Science and Technology Memorial service for a 333-year-old tree
People in Minneapolis will be getting together on Sunday to commemorate a 333-year-old tree that was thought to be the oldest in the city. It failed to leaf out this year, which tells botanists that it's dead. There still remains a lot to be done to confer upon humans the same kind of longevity that is characteristic of some trees.

Business and Finance "Extreme Heelys"
The people who brought us those annoying shoes with wheels in the heels are trying to keep the company from sinking into the wasteland of one-hit wonders with what looks like a miniature skateboard that attaches to an un-wheeled shoe. How strange. And how unlikely to save the company.

Aviation News How long do we have before UAVs become a domestic threat in the US?

Water News Why pumping the oil-laden water out of the Gulf is harder than it looks

Recent radio podcasts

July 9, 2010

Humor and Good News How can one broke economy lend money to another broke economy?
A very clever satire on the state of international finances. It's funny because it's so true.

Humor and Good News If video games came with super-easy modes

Aviation News India's busiest airport apparently has no functioning ground radar
Considering it's used mostly to prevent collisions while planes and related vehicles are moving around the airport grounds, that's a pretty spooky situation. The airport has a pretty sweet-smelling "safety policy", but the lack of ground-traffic radar puts its 24.3 million annual passengers at serious risk of death or injury while they think they're safe inside their planes. And, like most airports, it has intersecting runways, making it all the riskier.

Business and Finance Blockbuster arrives (late) to the movie-rental-kiosk business
It seems like a bit of a Hail Mary pass to try to save the company from complete disaster, but good luck to them

News A profile of the man who will probably lead India someday

Water News Guidance for safe flood cleanup

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July 10, 2010

Computers and the Internet Microsoft keeps trying to improve Bing
The second-place company in a given market usually has more incentive to work hard and innovate than the first-place company

Science and Technology Dual lightning bolts in Chicago
Bolts simultaneously striking the Sears Tower and the Trump Tower. A fascinating photo worthy of a newspaper front page.

Humor and Good News Perhaps the most peculiar Wikipedia profile picture ever

Broadcasting Notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - July 10, 2010

Humor and Good News What's a burger between friends?
The presidents of Russia and the United States get together for some ground beef

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July 11, 2010

Aviation News Solar storms could blackout 75% of the US for weeks or even months
This probably deserves a whole lot more attention than it's received

Aviation News Every Frontier Airlines aircraft has a unique tail
Every plane in the fleet is named and has a unique animal identity. Why don't more airlines do this? It hardly costs a fortune to pick a name for an aircraft and to stencil it on the side -- they don't all have to get unique tail markings -- but by identifying a particular plane and giving it a name other than just its official FAA registration number, the airlines can help to humanize an otherwise not-particularly-humane reputation. That Frontier's particular choice gives rise to a whole range of funny spinoffs (like a Simon-style game featuring penguins) is an added bonus. People still record and reminisce about Pan Am "Clipper" names, and it's been gone from the skies since 1991. Branding matters, in no small part because it can help build pride in a company's service in a way that serial numbers don't.

Computers and the Internet YouTube fends off a $1 billion lawsuit, but how long will it last?
A judge has ruled that YouTube, a division of Google, has worked hard enough to keep copyright-protected material off its servers that it isn't liable for a suit from Viacom. The entire YouTube empire cost Google $1.65 billion in 2006, so losing a billion-dollar lawsuit would have been costly in relative as well as absolute terms. Google claims to be close to pulling in an operating profit on the service, though an operating profit today does not make the entire venture profitable -- all of the past expenses add up to red ink to be made up, and the future costs could be huge if other lawsuits succeed, or if bandwidth and server-space demands continue to expand like a fat man's waistline at the Iowa State Fair. The bottom line is that YouTube is a big gamble for Google -- and interesting one that pays off well for consumers, to be sure, but definitely a gamble.

Iowa An all-four-lane Highway 20 might yet happen
The highway is four lanes now from Dubuque in Iowa's east to Fort Dodge in the middle, but it has a long way to go to expand to a full four lanes all the way to Sioux City. But the expansion could be very, very good for the long-term growth of northern Iowa's economy. There are lots of very nice communities in that part of the state, but they are so far away from four-lane highway access that they tend to get economically isolated.

Broadcasting Recap of the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - July 11, 2010

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July 12, 2010

Computers and the Internet How much does the NSA know about what's on the Internet?
A Wall Street Journal report on a project (rather ominously) called "Perfect Citizen" suggests that the government agency is setting up a huge network to monitor Internet activity to detect electronic terrorism. There's no doubt we need to monitor that technology because it most certainly is under threat now more than ever. But it's also imperative that someone supervise the agencies doing the work, just as the military is supervised by civilian officials.

Business and Finance Credit scores are spreading out
More people are getting high scores, and more people getting low scores. The normal distribution curve is being challenged. But it's clear that banks are finally getting to the point where they have to start lending out some money again; people with high scores are getting calls and mailings again offering them large personal loans -- even when the consumer isn't looking for one.

News Iranian village built into cone-shaped formations of volcanic ash
Photographs are circulating on the Internet portraying the photos as a depiction of life in Afghanistan. The truth is more interesting.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft kills off its "Kin" smartphone
It was only on the market for a few weeks. Perhaps it's a sign that Microsoft is having trouble coming up with a competitive idea in the fastest-growing area of new consumer technology right now. Or maybe it's just a sign that they were willing to conduct an experiment and are smart enough to pull the plug quickly when it looks like a flop. Microsoft and Google alike are facing a bunch of unusual problems right now -- Google has just had its license renewed to operate in China. The potential gains and losses these companies face from market forces as fickle as the whims of China's Communist Party are pretty staggering.

Broadcasting 70th anniversary of a wartime broadcast
Charles de Gaulle's broadcast via the BBC to occupied France is an example of the power of international public diplomacy. The BBC was an excellent tool of empire for Britain while it was such a power, and it remains a hugely influential tool of public affairs for the country today.

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July 13, 2010

Broadcasting How not to curate a great institution
The present management at the Tribune Company is doing a lot to change WGN, a radio station that has been a heritage powerhouse for almost as long as commercial radio has existed. Sadly, it's demoralizing the staff and burning out a reputation that's been finely cared-for through almost a century. People care about their institutions, and they're willing to forgive a lot if the caretakers appear to be taking care. But they can be easily upset by carelessness.

Business and Finance How family trusts could be perpetuating unearned wealth

Computers and the Internet Why Twitter's popularity will fade
The concept of microblogging has its place -- users can share pithy anecdotes and have interesting exchanges -- but the concept also demands a lot of attention from those who really get into it. And the problem, as designer Mark Boulton points out, is that "when you live on a diet of 100 characters or so, you get get thin, jittery and unhappy". Moreover, the content found on Twitter -- such as it is -- is disproportionately driven by links to the extremely transitory, like gossip, endless self-reference, vapid self-help quotations, pop entertainment, and gadgetry-related news. It's hard to fill one's brain with substantial material while being bombarded by the transitory.

Computers and the Internet Texting and jury service don't mix

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July 14, 2010

News Just because you carry a passport doesn't mean it's accepted everywhere
The Iroquois Nation issues its own passports, but they're not being accepted for travel between the United States and the United Kingdom. It might help if their national website weren't broken right now. The concept of nationhood is a funny thing: China, for instance, seems to be taking rather bold steps to protect its "national" economic interests -- to the point where multinational companies like GE are questioning whether it's worth doing any business there at all. But China as a monolithic entity is only a myth. And the multinational corporation itself is a concept which some people think will merge, to an extent, with real nation-states as the nation-states weaken and the corporations grow more powerful. Related: See a brand-new, modern ghost city.

News The best way to lose an argument is to overstate your case
A "tea party" group apparently paid for a billboard in Mason City, Iowa, whose message appears to draw parallels between President Obama and both Hitler and Lenin. It's so over-the-top that whatever point they likely intended to make is drowned out by the ridicule the sign rightly attracts. Has the President done things that are, literally, socialistic? Yes. The government bailout (and buyout) of General Motors, for instance, was socialistic. But socialism comes in many flavors, and there's certainly been a socialistic element to the government's approach to economics at least since the New Deal. George W. Bush's expansion of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit was just as socialistic as the government takeover of GM, but the Medicare benefit will be far more costly. That could, arguably, make former President Bush more of a socialist than President Obama. But to infer that either is comparable to Hitler or Lenin is unreasonable. It overstates (by an egregious margin) the magnitude of American leaders' behavior, and ultimately detracts from the very legitimate discussion that should be taking place about the proper role of government and the limitations of government spending. Our government spends far more than it takes in, and most people probably don't want to pay higher taxes. Thus, we need a serious discussion about what it is upon which we should be spending less -- not a cartoonish and offensive shouting match that ends up bringing Godwin's Law into effect.

Weather and Disasters The relative power of hurricanes turns out to be predictable

Computers and the Internet OpenOffice releases an updated edition
It's mostly built around a "refreshed" brand, which may or may not serve to bring the free, open-source office productivity suite to the attention of new users. But it's a good set of tools, and one cannot beat the price.

Weather and Disasters Tropical weather in Iowa
The dewpoint in Des Moines today reached 80, which is a figure the city hadn't seen since 2004. At that level, it's muggier outside than in a tropical rainforest. Or, put another way, a lot like a foggy day in London...but about 40 degrees hotter. It was brutal. But it also inspires some curiosity about those other rainforests -- not the tropical ones, but the temperate rainforests, where it's always wet but cool. It would have made a nice trade-off.

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July 16, 2010

Computers and the Internet Some fresh music for airports
It's not as personally-crafted as something by Brian Eno, but for a song generated entirely by a computer (with the guidance of some human-made rules), it's far from atrocious. It's only ambient music, but it's a lot more listenable than some "experimental" songs a person might hear.

News A collection of last emperors
Hereditary monarchies are such a ridiculous idea

Health Surgery simulators now give physical feedback
Pilots train with simulators all the time; why shouldn't surgeons?

Recent radio podcasts

July 17, 2010

News Despite its troubles, some countries still want into the Eurozone
Estonia will become part of the common-currency area next year

News Remains of ship from the 1700s found at the WTC site

Humor and Good News "So if I wear these gloves, will it drop the call like an iPhone?"

Science and Technology Would we be aggravated by GPS voices if they were our own?

Iowa How is an old-time photo a "scoop"?
The Des Moines Register appears to be confused about the definition of a news "scoop", naming a feature with letters, old-time photos, and "where are they now?" content "The Sunday Scoop". Sounds more like "The Sunday Space-Filler".

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - July 17, 2010

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July 18, 2010

Aviation News The flying car is here, but it isn't cheap
The Terrafugia Transition is designed to drive as a street-legal car and fly like a light sport aircraft. But it won't come cheap: The "anticipated purchase price" is $194,000. Once someone can knock that down below $100,000, they could start targeting the flying car to outside salespeople who cover large territories. They would be among those who could most easily make economic sense from such a purchase.

Computers and the Internet Google is killing off the Nexus One
It was the phone that Google tried to sell using its own Android operating system and private-labeled hardware. What's interesting is that now Google and Microsoft have killed off relatively unsuccessful experiments in supplying phones to the consumer market. As has been remarked before and will undoubtedly need to be remarked again, Google and Microsoft need to stop trying to find ways to make money selling computer equipment and services and start finding new ways to use their massive computing power to make other goods and services altogether. There are a whole host of industries that could be a lot more profitable if only the right problem-solvers set their attention to them.

Humor and Good News Who knew that a library could use an advertising budget?
The college library at Brigham Young has rather hilariously spoofed the Old Spice commerical campaign on television now

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.

Broadcasting Why preventative care should come with a nominal patient fee
And other notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio tonight

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July 19, 2010

News One of the intangible costs of living in oversized cities
An EMT in New York City was killed recently in a shooting outside a nightclub. He had been involved in a situation about six months prior in which he failed to give aid to a dying pregnant woman at a restaurant, in an apparent case of "not my problem". Living around as many people as one inevitably must in a place like New York makes it enormously difficult to see other individuals as people, rather than as obstacles and objects. Thus we have problems like the diffusion of responsibility that become almost routine in large cities. It's difficult to account for matters like the relative dehumanization of ordinary life that might take place in large cities, but surely it counts for something when choosing where to live.

Business and Finance FedEx accuses UPS of seeking a "Brown Bailout" from Congress
Language proposed for FAA regulations would place FedEx under regulations that give unions an easier shot at organizing workers. FedEx would like not to have to live under those rules, but UPS (which due to the differences in how they were established is already governed by the union-friendly rules) would obviously like to do whatever it can to impose new burdens (like unionization) on its rival.

Weather and Disasters Tornado sirens for non-tornadoes
Civil Defense sirens don't get a lot of exercise for nuclear-fallout drills anymore, so in the Upper Midwest, they're mainly used for tornadoes. But in the Des Moines area, they're now being activated for 70-mph winds, since those can cause the same kind of damage as tornadoes. They're pretty sure it won't become a "boy who cried wolf" problem, because historically those kinds of winds have occurred only about once a year. Of course, Murphy's Law being what it is, the sirens have been activated twice already for non-tornadic wind storms in this, the inaugural year for the program.

Computers and the Internet In the year 10,000...
Though it doesn't quite have the ring of the classic Conan O'Brien comedy sketch, it turns out that the Year 10,000 poses a serious problem for some computer systems, in much the way that Y2K did -- those computers and programs aren't designed for five-digit years. And though it sounds like the kind of problem that won't matter for something like 7,990 years, there's actually a set of practical matters that requires 10,000-year planning -- one of which is the storage of nuclear waste. Interesting.

News Worse than any college-entrance exam
Plastic surgery is becoming a tool for college admissions in India

Humor and Good News Is this a homeowner's policy claim or an auto claim?

Health Vaginal gel provides huge benefits in preventing HIV
The development is excellent news for women who aren't in a position to demand either monogamy or safe sex from their partners


July 20, 2010

Science and Technology NASA offers a Moon-base video game
It's designed to encourage interest in space and science among students. But what they really ought to think about doing is building some kind of distributed computing project into the background -- especially if it could be the kind of distributed computing that requires some kind of human intervention for something like pattern recognition. Then it would be both a promotional tool and a useful scientific instrument. Related: Airbus has released pictures of a concept airplane for travel in 2050, which may sound like it's far away, but really isn't. 2050 is only as far in the future as 1970 is in the past. And in terms of passenger-miles flown, Americans are flying five times as much today as we were in 1970, so a lot can change in 40 years. Then again, a lot can remain the same: The Boeing 747 had just entered service in 1970.

Business and Finance How day-traders and computer algorithms are messing up the stock market
Oddly enough, understanding how things are working in the stock market now requires understanding Benoit Mandelbrot's work in fractal mathematics. It's not enough to just "like" a business or have a good feeling about it anymore.

Health The Jenny McCarthy Body Count
McCarthy and other celebrities are indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people due to preventable diseases -- people who might have lived if vaccines weren't under continued absurd and groundless attack by those celebrities

Humor and Good News A chimpanzee playing baseball
(Video) It's much funnier than a person could normally imagine

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July 21, 2010

Humor and Good News Sometimes Nature needs to be put in its place

Science and Technology Energy-efficiency investments may be much more productive than new energy production

Business and Finance WD-40 hopes to exploit lubricant nostalgia
They're putting out 1950s-style cans of one of the greatest chemicals around

Iowa Dear outsiders: Don't underestimate Midwesterners
An Iowa judge has laid out exactly why he's disinterested in hearing from high-priced attorneys who can't name the states of the Midwest

Humor and Good News A roster of the heart-attackiest foods in America's baseball parks
Sports Illustrated's list of "all-star" foods misses one of the greatest culinary delights in all the world: Wrigley Field's "special", a combination sausage and Italian beef sandwich buried in onions and peppers that is undoubtedly worth every minute it shaves off one's life expectancy

News Holocaust survivor dances in front of Auschwitz

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July 22, 2010

Business and Finance GM buys a subprime lender to sell cars to bad credit risks
Seriously? Is this even remotely a good idea?

Business and Finance The better the banker knows the customer, the less likely the customer will default
Research from the Chicago Fed suggests that "relationship banking" has a strong advantage in terms of measuring moral hazard over non-relationship accounts

News Raytheon is programming Android smartphones to help target Patriot missiles

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July 23, 2010

Science and Technology Moss and the mushroom cloud
Scientists have taken a close, high-speed look at moss and discovered that it spreads by releasing a high-pressure vortex of air containing spores that spread relatively far and wide. Evolution is truly an awesome tool for creating fascinating results.

Health California and South Carolina have whooping-cough outbreaks
Children are dying because they're catching what is a vaccine-preventable disease. The problem is that the infants who are dying are too young to get the immunizations themselves, so they depend upon herd immunity -- resistance to communicable diseases created by the accumulated vaccinations of many people -- to protect them against deadly infections. Unfortunately, vaccines are still getting an utterly undeserved bad rap from high-profile celebrities who let their emotions trump science.

Aviation News Florida's "space coast" launched 60 years ago
The first rocket launch from Cape Canaveral was on July 24, 1950, shifting rocket tests away from the Desert Southwest to the Florida Atlantic coast. The advantages are obvious: It's closer to the Equator (which is better for lots of orbits) and the bordering ocean means that accidents would happen over water instead of populated land. Right now, it's anyone's guess what we'll be doing with space in another 60 years. The increase in space junk and the government's noncommittal approach to space exploration are rather significant factors of uncertainty.

Computers and the Internet The life of the world in a day
YouTube is promoting the "Life in a Day" project, which will seek to document, in video, the life of the world on July 24, 2010. The resulting submitted content is to be professionally edited and produced as a feature-length documentary film. They're calling it a sort of "time capsule" for the future. With the vast proliferation of content (we're undoubtedly producing more of it than ever) documenting everything about our lives, and with the ability to archive those documentary moments improving all the time, the big question might really be: How do we condense the things that we record in a way that separates the important from the ephemeral? A century ago, an ordinary American might have looked forward to being photographed twenty times in a lifetime. Today, a person with a normal social life could easily be photographed by twenty different photographers in a single day at the ballpark and a night at the bar.

Science and Technology The bridge designed in 1956 might not fulfill its destiny in 2010
The friendly drawings of a Philadelphia bridge designed in the Korean War era promised an elevated roadway that would fit in naturally with the surrounding trees. Today's graffiti suggests that it has failed to reach its potential as a monument.

Science and Technology If an alternative to fossil fuels will take 20 years, do we have enough time left?
We're largely preoccupied with the immediate questions about energy, like whether it's fair to keep China from taking over BP. But the slightly longer-term issue is whether we're at all prepared to figure out how to survive when fossil fuels start rising dramatically in price.

Broadcasting How to curate a conversation

The United States of America Wealthy American Presidents
George Washington is estimated to have been the President with the greatest share of national wealth in existence at the time of his period in office. Who knew?

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July 25, 2010

Business and Finance A summary of the Dodd-Frank Act to bring about "financial reform"
There's some good in the act -- like giving shareholders a more direct say in matters of executive compensation. And there's a lot of bad in the act, too -- like the provision that would let the Federal Reserve arbitrarily "require a large, complex company, to divest some of its holdings if it poses a grave threat to the financial stability of the United States". In other words, a capricious authority can now simply declare a company too complex and break it up, even if no antitrust laws were broken -- or any other laws, for that matter. But the truly anxiety-inducing angle on the whole thing is simply its size and complexity. The act has been hailed as the "most sweeping financial industry reform legislation since the Great Depression." The problem with vast, sweeping reforms is that they often have vast unintended consequences. Many of the risks that were undertaken that led to the financial panic of the last couple of years were the result of another "sweeping" reform -- the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Sweeping reforms lead to huge unintended consequences, because nobody -- including politicians -- can forecast all of the consequences of a law. The bigger the change in the law, the bigger the unintended results. And many of them will undoubtedly be harmful. And there's another problem: The tighter the regulations (on just about anything), the more that business decisions are guided by attempts to play as close to the margins of the rules as possible. We know this from our daily lives: Set the speed limit at 70, and people will try to get away with driving 72, because it's as close to the limit as they think they can play without getting busted. Nevermind that the actual safe speed might really only be 55 -- people drive according to the posted speed limit, not according to what's really most reasonable and proper. That's why research has found that fewer traffic controls actually increase traffic safety, because the burden is placed upon the driver to think about what he or she is doing, rather than turning over that thinking to the signs. As Cicero said, "The more laws, the less justice."

Health The profound importance of getting the record straight about vaccines
(Video) A doctor tells why he's incensed by opponents of vaccinations. He rightly highlights the fact that the scares about vaccines are based upon bogus claims that get a lot of traction because people respond to the science with emotion rather than reason. The really interesting nugget to take away from his talk is that the ingredients that people think are causing problems with vaccines have been removed from most vaccination cocktails -- yet opponents of vaccination claim that the problem caused by that ingredient is still growing. That makes for quite the leap from logic into absurdity.

Aviation News Canadian pilots want crushable concrete at the ends of runways
It's a design feature that helps to stop airplanes that, for whatever reason, are unable to stop on their own at the end of the tarmac. It's really quite brilliant.

Health Stay out of hospitals in July -- if you can
That's when the newly-minted doctors show up -- and they have a disproportionate propensity to leave dead patients behind

Business and Finance The IRS checklist for setting up a new company
It can be hoped that the lure of entrepreneurship still exceeds the burdens imposed by bureacracy


July 26, 2010

Science and Technology Sniffer device lets the profoundly paralyzed write
It's designed to let those who can't even control their blinking still get a message out by responding to letter choices with a sniff, because the soft palate at the roof of the mouth somehow seems to remain under voluntary control, even in the paralyzed. It's quite remarkable, really, considering that it takes a minute to select a single character -- yet that's far better than no communication at all. Consider how freeing that technology must feel, particularly when some people still complain that text messaging is too slow and cumbersome.

Threats and Hazards White House budget review expects Federal spending to keep getting worse through 2011

Science and Technology Learning more about liquid soil
Seismologists and engineers are looking at data gathered by pressure sensors in California during the Baja California earthquake on April 4th to determine the early-warning signs of liquefaction, which occurs when sandy soils filled with water turn into gravy during an earthquake.

News Cuba and Venezuela are in "a new kind of relationship"
(Article in Spanish) The two countries are trying to forge a political and economic alliance and claim to be cooperating on 139 projects of different sorts. It's more important than ever that the United States pay close attention to Latin America. What's happening in our own hemisphere is of massive relevance to our well-being. We have enough problems around the world to deal with -- like a bellicose North Korean government. Let's not make the situation worse by ignoring our own home turf.

Health Why people need to quit panicking over thimerosal
It's the vaccine preservative that some people blame for causing autism in children. But here's the thing: It's not even contained in most vaccines anyway. Children need to be vaccinated against a whole host of diseases which we as humans have been profoundly successful at defeating. No unfounded panic over an ingredient not even found in most of those vaccines should be allowed to overwhelm the evidence that vaccines are good for kids. It takes only a cursory understanding of the massive increases in life expectancy in the United States since the introduction of many vaccines to see just why a public-health victory like immunization is one of our greatest modern achievements.

Humor and Good News It's not vandalism if you only add a papier-mache shark

Water News Dam fails in northeastern Iowa

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July 27, 2010

Science and Technology Is collaboration really a good in its own right?
The winners of the Netflix Prize (an inducement prize established by Netflix to reward the developers of a better algorithm for picking movies for customers) spoke recently to a group of science and technology teachers, telling them that collaboration was the tool that made their prize-winning solution possible. And while they're probably right, there's been painfully little effort put into using what we know about psychology and cognitive science in a way that will help students understand their strengths and weaknesses in ways that will help them make the best use of the good and compensate for the bad. Collaboration, for instance, can be an extremely useful tool in some areas, like science. But it can be a terrible approach to others, like evacuating passengers from an airplane crash. Some people are born collaborators; others are born to give comfort, or to work alone, or to lead. Using the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, for instance, an ENTJ type isn't likely to collaborate well under any circumstances -- he or she is most likely going to say, "We can make this really quick and easy if you'll just do exactly what I tell you." (In fact, that would make a far better characteristic quote than the one often cited elsewhere as the ENTJ trademark: "I'm really sorry you have to die.") And they'll often be right when they promise to get things done faster and more efficiently than others. It's a style that won't work well in a collaborative environment, but it'll often produce superior results when fighting a war or building a business. As much as knowing how productive certain approaches like collaboration can be, is knowing which approaches will suit the individual best, and how to tailor circumstances to make the best of the strengths of the people involved.

Broadcasting The problem with public broadcasting
The government official charged with overseeing the BBC likes the material that Britain's public broadcaster creates, but worries that it could be displacing private-sector investment in better television and radio. And he's right to have that concern, just as the government's ownership of General Motors has raised questions about whether political tricks are being played against other automotive manufacturers. Governments could be very successful in any number of sectors, but the problem is that they have relatively unlimited budgets with which to do so. Give a person an unlimited budget to achieve anything, and he or she can put the competition out of business by creating a great product, then subsidizing it like crazy. And when publicly-owned companies produce inferior material, then they're just wasting the taxpayer's dollar twice as badly.

Computers and the Internet Paywall at the Times of London's website obliterates its traffic count
An estimated 80% to 90% of its old traffic has evaporated

The United States of America A summary of initiative, referendum, and recall laws across the states
The tools of very-direct democracy are used quite differently from state to state

News The song "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" is about a real accident
Knowing that it really happened, and that the driver was really killed, kind of takes the fun out of what's usually sung as an amusing folk song about a fruit

Water News New flooding only serves to make the crop year look even more unpredictable

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July 28, 2010

Computers and the Internet British court awards Facebook prank victim about $16,000 in damages
A couple of guys in their early 20s got into a dispute, and one of them retaliated by posting pictures of child sex abuse on his rival's Facebook wall and accusing him of being gay. The victim won £10,000, or about $16,000, in libel damages, with one observer suggesting that it's even worse for someone to slander another via Facebook than just to the general public, since one's Facebook entries would be more likely to be seen in concentrated fashion by one's friends, peers, and associates, and thus the offending remarks would be more likely to do harm to one's reputation. People need to be educated on matters of slander before they make serious and permanent mistakes online. On a related note, it should be pointed out that the perpetrator in the Facebook story made a faulty connection between homosexuality and child abuse. It does not serve society well for one group to be wrongly associated with heinous acts against children when they are in no special condition to be the perpetrators; it in fact distracts attention away from the real causes of child sexual abuse and can make adults either complacent or ignorant about protecting their children from all kinds of predators -- just like the groundless suspicion of people based upon race, for instance, can render police work ineffective.

The United States of America The Constitution was written more than 70 years before anyone ever rode a bicycle
Now that's a scary thought.

Broadcasting The value of a clever message
(Video) A television public-service announcement campaign on behalf of seat-belt use employs one of the cleverest combinations of special effects and emotional appeal that one could expect to see

Aviation News When the International Space Station will appear overhead in Des Moines
A helpful site that allows for convenient localization shows both the current position of the International Space Station and lists when it will zip overhead. Depending on the weather, there are frequently five or six visible passes per day.

Science and Technology No, your air conditioner isn't poisoning you
An e-mail forward is circulating with the summer season, suggesting that automotive air conditioning is poisoning car passengers with benzene. The bottom line is that there is very little risk of such poisoning taking place -- and it's certainly less than the risk that a driver or passenger might be harmed by heat exhaustion. Just run the A/C, OK?

Water News Why flooding tends to be worst in urban areas

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July 29, 2010

Threats and Hazards Religious and cultural practices do not excuse the abuse of children
A British newspaper reports that as many as 2,000 girls there will be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) over the summer vacation from school. It's unacceptable.

Weather and Disasters Just another way in which the Korean Peninsula could get explosive
Rising temperatures and earthquakes near what was thought to be a dormant volcano along the Chinese/North Korean border are getting some people concerned that the volcano might be coming back to life. One South Korean newspaper is suggesting that an underground nuclear test by North Korea might have restarted magma flows.

Threats and Hazards Authorities in Miami think they've busted a Haitian slavery ring
(Article in Spanish) Immigration officials think a crew was trying to bring 34 Haitians into the US to work as forced laborers.

Humor and Good News Some music videos defy any kind of explanation
Including one from India, where Bollywood apparently thinks other music videos don't contain enough shooting and fake limbs

The United States of America Apparently, we're pretty predictable
Americans, according to the study, are likely to sway to the party in or out of power depending on whether they're satisfied with how the people in charge are handling whatever seems to be the most important issue of the day -- in other words, we're single-issue voters (at least at the margins, among those whose minds aren't already made up), but the single issue can change. It doesn't seem like a real rocket-science kind of conclusion, but on the other hand, one historian's account of a meeting with President Obama last year suggests that Presidents don't always understand that they aren't infallible.

Water News Investigators will probably look at gates as potential contributor to Lake Delhi dam failure

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