Gongol.com Archives: August 2010
Brian Gongol

August 2010
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August 1, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work President Obama claims credit for saving Detroit jobs
But the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler cost a fortune -- and racked up a costly bill we're going to have to pay, with interest, sometime in the future. The government simply didn't "create" 55,000 jobs. The government borrowed the cost of 55,000 jobs from China and other creditor nations, who in turn will be charging interest to generations of Americans to come. So it wasn't a job-creation measure, it was a job-shifting measure from future workers to today's workers. Not unrelatedly, Ford is about to sell Volvo to a Chinese automaker for $1.8 billion, in yet another asset transfer from the Western countries to China and other nations, the type of which will look ever more familiar all the time as they increase in frequency. But things are going to keep on looking more uncertain all the time, since Chinese ratings agencies are judging America a worse credit risk than China.

Health A friendship a day keeps the doctor away?
A study of 148 existing studies suggests that "social ties" -- friendships, that would be -- are as important to an individual's health as working out and eating right

Humor and Good News Pabst sells a version of PBR for $44 a bottle in China
Now that's marketing

Science and Technology Being a vegetarian might not be as Earth-friendly as it may superficially seem
Edamame might be "green", but Mother Jones magazine claims that producing tofurkey might put just as much stress on the environment as the equivalent turkey

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August 2, 2010

Aviation News What have we learned from a 25-year-old plane crash?
A deadly crash at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 1985 led to a number of safety improvements that help contribute to our much-improved quality of living today -- even though the improvements are almost completely hidden from the passengers' view. Things like radar to detect wind shear and new fire-control equipment (like a nozzle that can pierce a plane's fuselage) have been added to airplanes and airports to make passenger flight much safer, even if we as passengers don't see them and probably don't even recognize that they exist. The many accumulated little improvements in things like travel safety don't show up on conventional measures of well-being -- they don't appear on measures of GDP, and we don't feel happier because they exist since we're probably oblivious to many of them anyway -- but they add up regardless. The human condition is improving little by little, all the time. As long as we keep on getting smarter, life will keep on getting better. That "getting smarter" happens in a very literal sense when pilots can be trained in exactly the conditions of specific air emergencies, while they remain in the safety of a simulator. (And we can review their behavior in great detail as well.

Business and Finance When it comes to Chinese-made equipment, let the buyer beware
Chinese manufacturers are known to cut corners in dangerous fashion -- producing weightlifting equipment that could have killed people and defective automotive tires. Chinese-made goods carry at least two major types of risk: The first is that they're often made cheaply because they violate intellectual-property laws and expose their users to unintended liabilities from a legal standpoint. Even when the comparative advantage isn't cheating, it may be from an unsustainable pricing advantage from the Chinese government's heavy subsidization of energy prices. Once the subsidy goes away, so too may the pricing advantage. But the second risk is hidden, though it carries grave consequences: Since much of China's manufacturing today is based upon the copying of other products (hence the intellectual-property violation concerns), it's done with only a partial knowledge of the "how" of a product, and none of the "why". If two schoolchildren turn in the same essay, and one did nothing but copy the other, they may appear to be the same at first glance. But the child who did the copying wouldn't know anything about the process of originating the paper -- doing the research, assembling the data, writing, proofreading, and so on. The copycat only knows what the final product might look like. Lacking the process knowledge, he or she is almost certain to make fundamental errors about why things were done in a particular way. The more sophisticated the eventual product, the more serious the lack of knowledge about why it is built in the way it is.

Aviation News Hybrids: They're not just for cars anymore
Boeing and NASA seem to think an airplane could fly up to 900 miles, almost exclusively on battery power

Humor and Good News What if "bull riding" meant something different?

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August 3, 2010

Weather and Disasters 1,500 killed and 2.5 million affected by flooding in Pakistan
Too many people would react much differently if "Pakistan" were replaced with "California". But all lives ought to be valued, and a catastrophe of this magnitude should not go unremarked. We received remarkable volumes of rain in Iowa this summer, but although we suffered some flooding, we escaped without a terrible death toll. The lessons learned in one part of the world ought to be applied everywhere, as much as practicable. Related: Part of the reason Iowa didn't experience a repeat of the 1993 floods (despite getting a record amount of total precipitation) was that higher average temperatures caused an estimated 20% extra evaporation. Interesting.

Threats and Hazards Value of an expired US passport on eBay: $15.50
The appearance of expired passports on eBay raises some interesting quetsions, like why anyone would allow an expired document of that much importance to slip away. Identity theft is easy enough without letting your official identification get scanned and sold on eBay.

Humor and Good News The Oregon Trailer
(Video) A movie-style trailer for the classic Oregon Trail video game

Science and Technology If the traffic is too busy, build another layer
People in crowded parts of America and Japan (and probably many other places) are familiar with the use of multi-decker expressways to alleviate traffic congestion without having to encroach upon entirely new rights-of-way for roads. But in China, it's being suggested that buses built tall enough could create their own second layers of traffic right over the top of other vehicles. God help them, of course, the first time a vehicle underneath has a catastrophic tire blowout or somehow else wrecks the bus-on-stilts above, but it's fun to look at even if it seems pretty badly unpractical.

Humor and Good News The primate rescue crew
A photo that appears to be a monkey carrying a puppy is circulating with the caption that the monkey is actually rescuing the puppy from a pipeline explosion in China. True or not, it's nice to find that people still think other animals are capable of making judgments about "good" and "evil". It supports the argument that we as humans are good by our nature, and that we're not alone in that regard. If a monkey is capable of doing good without having been told to do so, and we're better judges of moral behavior than monkeys, then that would seem to cement the case. And even if it doesn't portray a heroic rescue, it's a pretty funny picture. Related: On the subject of choice, an intriguing TED Talk suggests that we do not understand very well how we make choices.

Water News From extraordinary drought straight into record levels of rain

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August 4, 2010

Iowa More Iowans have chosen "independent" than any party
And it's by a big margin: About 752,000 independents, versus 700,000 Democrats and 645,000 Republicans. The odd thing here is that so many people still choose to be unaffiliated, thinking that it registers a protest against the two major parties. But in a first-past-the-post voting system such as ours, a two-party system is the only one that remains mathematically stable (met any Whigs lately?). There aren't even 2,000 "other" party members. But those non-aligned voters give up the right to influence the parties from the inside, and pass up the right to participate in both primaries and the hugely influential Iowa caucuses. It's really quite irrational to be an independent in Iowa. Pick the party that bothers you the least, then get inside and start pushing them where you want them to go.

Health Researcher de Grey thinks there's a 30% to 40% chance someone alive today will live to age 1,000
It's odd that we take death as a certainty, like people once took the concept of a flat Earth -- some organisms live for thousands of years already, and none of them have the human capacities for science

Iowa Iowa may have a low state debt, but we're still not spending wisely
A Moody's report says Iowa has the second-lowest per-capita state debt burden in the nation. But the problem is that we've been achieving that lack of debt by taking unsustainably from trust funds and other accounting shenanigans that can't go on forever

Iowa Several ways in which Iowa's recent weather has been remarkable
The third-wettest June/July period, the fifth-wettest year to date, and the second-most days in June and July with measurable rainfall. Plus, the third-warmest average overnight lows for June and July. So, we haven't all gone crazy -- it's just really warm and humid and rainy all the time. Like it was this morning.

Computers and the Internet Ten ridiculous accessories for the iPhone

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August 5, 2010

Business and Finance Canadian firm keeps pushing offer to take over Casey's
Americans and other heavily-indebted Westerners had better come to terms quickly with whether they're comfortable with companies being sold into foreign hands. China's sovereign-wealth fund is taking about buying a huge chunk of real estate from Harvard University's endowment, and Britain's Liverpool soccer team. They're planning to buy billions of dollars in additional assets. And many Westerners have to sell, because we simply have too much debt and can't make the payments -- on the household, corporate, and government levels alike. In the case of the Casey's offer, neither debt nor non-Western ownership is involved -- yet it's still upsetting shareholders and management who don't like the idea of "outsider" ownership. Imagine how much fiercer the resistance would be if the buyers were from China. People get uptight when their institutions change or falter -- there's a lot of disappointment in Des Moines today over the closing of a 58-year-old pizza restaurant which patrons loved for niche offerings like orange onion rings. But when we cruise along without long-term business plans and just hope that everything will turn out like a Hollywood script in the end, who are we really kidding? Debt greatly enhances risk and raises the probability of failure.

Computers and the Internet (Google) Wave goodbye
Google is giving the axe to its Wave experiment, concluding that people just haven't adopted it like they hoped, making it more of an albatross than an asset. Once again, the fickleness of the Internet consumer is such that it just seems impossible to believe that any "Internet services" business should expect sustained success for any meaningful length of time. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and all of the others really should look at non-Internet lines of business where smart people and massive computing power could still turn a profit.

The United States of America Birthright citizenship is no "mistake"
Despite what some Senate leaders are trying to say to the contrary, the notion of birthright citizenship in the United States is no mistake -- it's the Fourteenth Amendment: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

The United States of America More evidence supporting the need for a larger Congress
Almost 310 million people live in the United States. 62 million live in the UK. But the British Parliament has 650 seats in its lower house, while the US has just 435. We should have far more people in Congress -- not because we need more politicians, per se, but because a larger House would mean smaller districts, and it's easier for challengers to unseat incumbents in smaller districts. Smaller districts means more direct contact with one's elected officials and smaller campaign budgets. A larger House would mean that redistricting wouldn't take Iowa's House delegation from 5 to 4 in 2012, but from something like 50 to 45. A larger Congress would be better for America.

Computers and the Internet The Big Bang at the International Video Game Hall of Fame
Putting Ottumwa, Iowa, on the video gamer's map

Weather and Disasters NOAA says there's still lots of time left for the Atlantic tropical-weather season to get ugly
Despite what's seemed to the novice observer as a relatively quiet hurricane season, they say "There remains a high likelihood that the season could be very active, with the potential of being one of the more active on record."

Water News The trouble with sandbags: Sometimes they become health hazards

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August 6, 2010

Computers and the Internet Incredible fires sweep Russia
One report says a third of all the agricultural land in the entire country has burned. That seems almost impossible to believe, given Russia's enormous size, but the fires are undoubtedly a massive disaster. Moscow is being choked by awful smog resulting from the fires -- the pictures are incredible, but block cookies before looking at the pictures -- Russian sites are notorious for having inadequate security policies to protect the visitor.

Computers and the Internet Is it the end of network neutrality?
Contradicting a New York Times report, Google says it's not trying to work out a special deal with Verizon to make sure some of its content gets special priority for fast delivery on the Internet. Interestingly, though, Google hasn't said anything on its official blog yet about the Times story.

News Why do Chicago police officers wear dangerous bulletproof vests?
It's evident that their vests are too hot and heavy for summer wear

News Going up, or just calling the fire department?
A terrible layout for an elevator button panel

Computers and the Internet iPod Nanos are catching fire in Japan
Some are overheating and others are actually catching fire. The numbers are in the dozens, but that's dozens more than a safe product.

Water News FEMA disaster-prevention money being released for Iowa

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August 7, 2010

The American Way August 2010 edition of the EconDirectory

Computers and the Internet Advice for personal-data security
Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - August 7, 2010

Computers and the Internet Pharmacy students earn online Pharm.Ds
A news article on the program at Creighton University says "Many of the students are in their 30s and are experienced, disciplined and know what they want." That's exactly why universities should be working overtime right now to extend access to as many programs as possible through the Internet. Huge numbers of Americans have no bachelor's degree, and earning that degree often makes an enormous difference to one's earnings potential. If states are really serious about "economic development", they ought to focus on developing the skills and education of their labor forces, not just subsidizing big private-sector projects at taxpayer expense. If a pharmacist can be trained online, then virtually everyone else can, too.

Iowa Newton celebrates the "National Humidity Festival"
It's a lighthearted attempt to put a happy spin on the sweltering humidty common in Iowa in the summertime, where the corn sucks huge amounts of moisture from the ground and transpires it right into the air.

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August 8, 2010

The United States of America Rubin and O'Neill agree: Fix taxes and start cutting the deficit
Two former Secretaries of the Treasury are talking sensibly: They know the government can't just ratchet up taxes or slash spending quite immediately without putting a pretty unpleasant pinch on the middle class. But they also know that the current spending pattern simply can't be allowed to go on forever. Our status as a debtor nation is a serious threat to American well-being.


August 9, 2010

The United States of America The Federal debt is equal to $1,800 for every second that has passed since the US declared independence in 1776
Do the math: Current Federal debt: $13,310,887,351,665.80. Seconds since independence was declared: 7,387,372,800. Then try to comprehend how much money that really represents.

News Not the way to stripe a parking lot
The wrong paint sends the wrong message

Water News We get it, Nature: Time to knock it off with the rain


August 10, 2010

Health Young adults go uninsured because of income
The cost of insurance, not the need for it, is what appears to drive whether young adults are covered

News A folding-chair trolley that might actually make you break down in tears

Computers and the Internet One measuring service says Android phones are used more than iPhones
Though, in terms of total sales, BlackBerry might still be the overall leader. The only important takeaway from all of this is that competition has been very, very good for the consumer.

Humor and Good News A scientific typo
The Large Hadron Collider could be something very different with an inverted pair of letters

Water News The wettest year-so-far in recorded Iowa history

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August 11, 2010

The American Way Want to stop a fight? Just lay down clear ground rules.
Wind turbines make enough noise that some neighbors will complain. In Oregon, the state has laid down laws on industrial noise that are clear enough that the builders of new wind turbines are paying the neighbors to put up with the sound. It's the market system at work.

Health Newts can regenerate limbs -- why not mammals?
Researchers at Stanford think they've figured out why not us -- because mammals have certain proteins circulating in our bodies which prevent cells from growing quickly. So they tried suppressing the proteins and successfully did so in mice, generating new muscle tissue. The key, of course, is to keep the replication from going awry and turning into cancer. It's highly promising, though.

News Moscow subway station has artwork that's too depressing
It's based upon Dostoevsky's work, and some people are concerned that the artwork is so depressing that it will cause passengers to commit suicide (which apparently happens with some frequency there anyway). Meanwhile, the rest of Moscow is seeing a doubling of the normal death rate because of all the pollution in the air caused by nearby wildfires.

The United States of America Why won't Americans use the $1 coin?
The Federal Reserve is sitting on $1.1 billion in unused dollar coins, because we're too fickle to use them -- even though they last longer and are a much better value to produce than dollar bills. Perhaps it's time to phase out the dollar bill, increase production of the $2 bill, and mint only dollar coins instead. We don't have to stop printing the dollar bill altogether, but if it's becoming too costly to keep circulating it, we should start working on alternatives.

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August 12, 2010

Health Bacteria are becoming rapidly antibiotic-resistant
One scientist thinks we have about ten years left with most antibiotics before they become ineffective

Computers and the Internet Trojan horse attack steals $1 million from UK bank accounts
It's a bank heist that didn't require masks or guns: Keylogging and password-sniffing malware dumped on users' computers via online advertising services. Use a limited-access account and don't visit websites that don't earn your trust.

News Putin just can't help showing how manly he is
Russia's prime minister (and once and future president) "helped" fight the wildfires there by flying a tanker plane overhead to drop water on the fires. Talk about your modern-day propaganda machine. The White House has nothing on these people.

Computers and the Internet Germany is considering new rules restricting Google Street View

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August 13, 2010

Computers and the Internet Omaha couple victimized by Craigslist scam
Don't accept real-looking checks until you're sure they've cleared. The couple got taken for what looked like a legitimate insurance voucher.

Science and Technology Human ancestors used tools a million years before we thought they did
In fact, that's so early that it suggests that early tool use by pre-humans may have defined the route that evolution took to get to us

Water News Why is Ames flooded?
Because they got two months' worth of rain in three days

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August 14, 2010

Computers and the Internet "Now the worst thing you've done is often the first thing everyone knows about you"
Now that everything seems to leave behind a digital footprint, we probably need to re-think just how seriously we take whatever we discover about other people online. A little more forgiveness may be in order now, even if we can't forget.

Health Non-muscle cells can become heart cells with the right genetic reprogramming
And they don't even have to return to a stem-cell-like state first

Science and Technology World population graphed by longitude and latitude
Simply overlaying a graph of the world's population by each of latitude and longitude atop a map of the world gives one a fascinating perspective on where all the people are. They're not necessarily where we tend to think they are.

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August 15, 2010

Computers and the Internet After 30 years and a lot of computing power, the Rubik's Cube has been broken
A conclusion has been reached with the help of a lot of computing power that any Rubik's Cube puzzle can be solved in no more than 20 moves. Not that most of us can come anywhere close to matching that ideal.

Iowa Remarkable satellite imagery of the 2010 flooding in Iowa
Thanks to real-time satellite imagery, we can see just how profoundly many rivers have exceeded their banks

Humor and Good News Psychics get the skewer
(Video - with some coarse language) Charlie Brooker destroys television "psychics" by showing just how transparent their cold-read schemes really are. Hilarious, and a blow for science.

News The Omaha World-Herald turns 125
The employee-owned company appears to have been reasonably successful in staging itself to remain strong in the long term

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August 16, 2010

Aviation News Southwest Airlines thinks a little apology goes a long way
They actually employ a staff to apologize to passengers inconvenienced either by them or just while in their care. It's hard to think of a way in which this is a bad idea. The worst customer isn't one who's angry -- it's the one who's angry and decides never to come back.

Health Health-care reform bill only makes Medicare budget projections more murky
The reforms were pitched in part on the notion that they'd make Medicare more budgetarily-balanced, but not only does that seem superficially unlikely -- the people charged with making the future estimates say that the projected savings they hope to make probably won't come true. Egads, we're in a lot of trouble.

News India and America: Two countries separated by a common language
As has been so often said of other pairs of English-speaking countries

Iowa A gallery of the Iowa floods of 2010
The Iowa Department of Transportation caught a number of shots from road cameras that have been preserved for history

Iowa A terrific history of business in Ames, Iowa
The city will have a lot of work to do to recover from this year's flooding, but its historical society has done a laudable job of documenting what it's overcome in the past

Water News Why it takes so long to return municipal water service after an outage

Science and Technology Optical illusion makes uphill look like downhill
Among other things, we're not wired very well for estimating slope

Broadcasting Yesterday's "Brian Gongol Show" on WHO Radio
In four parts: the value of alternative Internet browsers, why bad design is a hassle, how to put an end to neighborhood disputes, and the quest for a personal theme song

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August 17, 2010

Aviation News Boeing 737 crashes, breaks into three pieces -- but only one person was killed
It happened in Colombia, and naturally a lot of people are talking about how grateful they are that God "protected" them in the incident. But what they should really do is thank the massive strides forward in airplane safety that have been achieved over the last couple of decades. Better airplanes and better pilot training mean we're seeing far fewer airline fatalities than in the past.

Iowa It sure isn't the Gateway Arch
Four sculptures have been installed on a bridge over Interstate 80 as it passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa, just to the east of Omaha. Considering its location on the most important east-west highway in the United States, the site is pretty prominent -- being traveled by about 80,000 vehicles a day. While it's great that western Iowans are getting behind public art, the sculptures aren't all that attractive. It's a subjective judgment, to be sure, but the sculptures just don't really have the same enduring aesthetic appeal as the St. Louis Gateway Arch or the Great Platte River Road Archway. There's a lot of modern sculpture that seems to celebrate a sense of incompleteness or hasty fabrication, with jagged edges and unsmoothed connections. Something suggests to the modern viewer that sculptures in this style are going to look hideously dated in about twenty years. It's not like we haven't long known how to approximate perfection in our physical objects. Why can't anyone work on a revival of Art Deco monuments or the Streamline movement in their sculpture?

Business and Finance Ghost signs
The remnants of old wall-painted signs that have faded with age but haven't been replaced. Proving that advertising and commerce don't have to be unpleasant to the eye.

Humor and Good News Vanilla Ice and Tone Loc: Back in action
Billed as the "Legends of hip-hop", they attracted thousands to a free stage at the Iowa State Fair. No word on any poisonings by Funky Cold Medina. But who can resist a good novelty show, anyway?

Iowa Tailgating rules to get tougher at the University of Iowa
It'll probably just lead to more concentrated drinking before people drive, which is even worse than the current binge drinking that takes place around Hawkeye football games

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August 18, 2010

Computers and the Internet Your password is too short
Passwords are supposed to protect our security by keeping unwanted intruders out of our online profiles. But here's the problem: As computers get faster, those passwords become less secure. The computers that incredible graphics (making possible animated films like Toy Story 3) are downscaled in order to produce smooth graphics on personal computers, too. And they produce those graphics by making lots of calculations swiftly. That also means that they can generate long lists of fake passwords swiftly, too -- making it possible for them to run brute-force attacks against password-protected websites and computer systems, relying only upon their ability to generate lots of possible passwords quickly, and nothing more sophisticated than that. Georgia Tech researchers say that anything shorter than 12 characters just isn't long enough.

Business and Finance GM files for an IPO
The company, which received a $50 billion bailout from the Treasury Department after declaring bankruptcy last year, will be selling itself to shareholders again. Shareholders in the previous edition of General Motors? Screwed. Bondholders from the previous version of GM? Also screwed.

Aviation News Stealth UAVs coming soon to a theater of war near you
The government is encouraging airplane and UAV manufacturers to look at including stealth technology in their next generation of unmanned aircraft. Great news for the theater of war. Terrible news if any evildoers get their hands on the technology and use it against a civilian population for terrorism.

Computers and the Internet Celebrity plastic surgeon killed by texting-while-driving
A friend says he was posting something on Twitter while driving -- just before he crashed off a cliff

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

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August 19, 2010

Computers and the Internet Intel buys McAfee
Interesting move -- the chip-maker wants to have a greater presence in network computing, and figures that it needs a stronger security offering in order to do it right.

Computers and the Internet Facebook introduces geolocation services
They're rolling it out to all US users. It's a cute idea, in a pat-it-on-the-head kind of way. But it's really a bad idea to let people know where you are all the time, even if it's kept to your Facebook "friends." If loose lips sank ships, geolocation is a great way to invite stalking and burglary. (There must be a catchier way to say that.)

Agriculture Russian seed bank might be saved by a Twitter campaign
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev appears to have been influenced by an online pressure campaign to intervene in a case where a huge seed bank was about to be destroyed and turned into a housing development. The seed bank apparently contains a huge amount of unique material -- 90% of its seeds aren't found anywhere else -- and a huge portion of it is a field collection, which means the seeds can't be moved. Supporters say that it contains 5,000 varieties of seeds and berries.

Computers and the Internet Why you should never use your child's photo as your profile picture on Facebook or elsewhere
There are at least three hidden hazards, two of which can harm the child -- and one of those is a direct threat to their safety

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August 20, 2010

Computers and the Internet Change your name? No thanks, Google.
Google's CEO Eric Schmidt has told the Wall Street Journal that he thinks young people might someday have to be given the option to change their names as they reach adulthood, just to let them escape the digital trail that recorded their youthful indiscretions. Interesting, coming from a guy whose personal website lists his e-mail address at Yahoo (a rival to Google).

Agriculture Text messages to tell farmers when to apply fertilizer
Sounds silly in the US, where GPS drives some tractors. But it's a great tool for people in the developing world.

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August 21, 2010

The United States of America "You don't want to slide into whack-job territory. You just need a little ability to live without total dependence on the grocery stores being stocked."
Why Americans need to get tougher and smarter, for our own good.

Computers and the Internet Smartphone adoption rates continue to soar
It's estimated that 23% of all US mobile-phone subscriptions are for smartphones like the iPhone and the Android phones. The rate of adoption suggests that they'll be more common than standard phones within about two years. And to think that only 20 years ago, most people didn't even have a mobile phone at all.

Science and Technology No, Mars isn't going to appear as large as the Moon
An e-mail in circulation now suggests that Mars will appear as large as the Moon in the night sky sometime this month. Too bad it's preposterously false. And too bad it's a hoax that's been circulating for half a decade without being stopped.

Broadcasting How to write (well) for television
Putting aside the hindrance that it's written in all-capitals, producer David Mamet's letter to his screenwriters working on the now-cancelled "The Unit" implores them to ensure that every moment contains something to move the plot, not just deliver information. It's quite insightful.

The United States of America Government spending, and the gap between what's legal and what's smart
Whether passenger-rail service between Des Moines and Chicago would have been a good use of government money is up for debate. But there's no debating that a lot of what's been involved in "stimulating" the economy through government spending comes with a heavy administrative toll, and all that administration still won't stop stupid projects from being funded.

Humor and Good News Like a stroke, but diff'rent
One terribly evil but hilarious joke about a departed celebrity

The United States of America Real heroes
Too much time is spent idolizing the famous -- not the heroic

Computers and the Internet It's strangely easy to see the future now
The quality of graphics-editing programs (like Photoshop) and the skills of the people using them have improved so much over the last few years that when someone generates a picture of a proposed sign at a place like Wrigley Field, it looks almost exactly the same when it's actually finished.


August 22, 2010

Science and Technology Maybe we're looking for the wrong signs of alien life
An astronomer makes a very good observation: We're looking for signs of biological activity as an indicator that life exists beyond our little blue planet. But maybe shouldn't be looking for anything biological, since we don't necessarily know how things would have evolved elsewhere in the Universe. Maybe we should instead be looking for signs they're using computers of their own, since the rules of electricity are likely to be more universal (literally) than the rule of biology.

Computers and the Internet HP will use the Palm WebOS to drive a tablet computer
It'll be available next year. Much has been made of the iPad, but with a price point of $499, it costs as much as a more powerful laptop computer, but does less. But if HP (or another manufacturer) can start selling tablet computers for $150 or less, then they'll be on to something. Tablets are a novelty without a lot of practical use (aside from places like hospitals, where easy-to-clean surfaces are valuable) -- until they're cheap. Once they get to be cheap, then their utility for lesser applications emerges. $500 is too much to pay for an easy way to watch videos of people playing the Super Mario Brothers theme on a Theramin, but $100 might not be.

Humor and Good News A real moment of Zen
(Video) A man juggles while a cover band plays "Purple Rain" at the Iowa State Fair Bud Tent. Go on; just try to explain that.

News Lou Piniella retires from the Cubs
It's sad that his family circumstances have initiated an early exit, but there have also been a lot of reports (and even televised evidence) of rivalries and infighting inside the clubhouse. That's a managerial problem. In any organization, if there are people problems, then there's a managerial problem.

News A beautiful home made largely of glass
But, seriously, who would want to live there? Great for entertaining and fine for use as an office, but there's a reason we have blinds and curtains. Privacy is valuable, even when what's being kept private isn't very important.

@briangongolbot on Twitter

August 23, 2010

Science and Technology The phantom toll booth
How a poorly-designed toll plaza is likely to cause driver anxiety and possibly even accidents

News 60-mile-long traffic jam in China
Traffic hasn't moved in nine days

Iowa Fights at the Iowa State Fair
It takes some serious numbskulls to start fights with police at the State Fair, but apparently it's happened. For those who wonder whether such things deviate from the norm, the Des Moines Police Department has an online map of crime statistics for the whole city.

@briangongol on Twitter

August 24, 2010

Business and Finance Sales of US homes plunge in July
Nobody should be surprised: The expiration of tax credits means a double-whammy: Not only is the added incentive gone (taking activity out of the market), but the fact that people knew the tax breaks were going to expire caused some to accelerate their purchase plans. Government "stimulus" efforts like Cash for Clunkers and the homebuyers' tax credit have the inevitable effect of stimulating a lot of rapid, visible activity -- but also causing a hangover effect later that tends to be less-noticed.

Science and Technology Mafia uses text messages to television shows to communicate with bosses in prison
Wherever there's a void, ingenuity tends to find a way to fill it -- in this case, the void was for communication tools

Humor and Good News "Airplane!" turns 30
It remains one of the funniest movies ever recorded, containing not a single serious moment

Water News How to size a home-scale system to boost low water pressure

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August 25, 2010

Broadcasting Charlie Rose and the business of producing an interview show
His drawl can sound a little foreign to northerners, but Rose is one of the best interviewers actively working today

Science and Technology Why schools should think more broadly about the historical record
One school administrator says "If I see another school trying to boost black achievement by talking about black pop and sports stars, I am going to do someone a serious injury". And when education gets hung up on the same handful of revered historical figures (like George Washington), rather than making note of lesser-known types who still affected the world in which we live today (like George Washington Carver), that education risks making kids think that only the flashiest contributions matter. In fact, the world has been built by the steady contributions of improvements by many.

Business and Finance The Federal debt is equal to $1,800 for every second that has passed since the US declared independence in 1776
Now that's a scary thought

Humor and Good News Fantastic catches from Japanese baseball
The ability to scale a wall appears to improve one's outfield play

News 33 miners found trapped deep underground in Chile

Humor and Good News The Onion tackles the immigration question

Water News FEMA to Lake Delhi: No cash for you

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August 26, 2010

Aviation News Air-traffic control is finally getting upgraded
The NextGen system for guiding aircraft from one airport to another has been under development for a long, long time. American Airlines just sent a flight on the first route using the new system, which is supposed to create more-direct routes for flights, saving fuel and time. It's mostly just a matter of using GPS (which is widely available) instead of radio beacons, but the airlines blame the FAA for taking much too long to put the system into service.

Iowa Internet banking crime steals $600,000 from Diocese of Des Moines
The need for safeguards against electronic theft has never been greater

Computers and the Internet An automatic translator for Internet and text-messaging slang

Business and Finance Casey's will buy back a quarter of its outstanding shares
It's an effort to head off a takeover by Couche-Tard. On one hand, the step will most likely help the current management remain in control of the company, but on the other, it comes at a very hefty price: about $500 million in borrowed money. They received reasonable financing on the deal, but new debt depletes the owners' equity. Was it the right move? For some people, yes. But if a share buyback had been the company's most efficient use of capital, why didn't they do it a year ago, when the stock cost $27.67 a share, rather than $37 today?

Humor and Good News Top Gear reviews the world's fastest street car

The United States of America A virtual tour of tenement life in America a century ago
Progress is the result of lots of little improvements in life, all compounded upon one another

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August 27, 2010

Computers and the Internet An education nobody could have gotten ten years ago
How a creative individual has generated hundreds of online educational videos -- on a shoestring budget -- and distributed them via YouTube, gaining the praise of the likes of Bill Gates and others in the process. Gates has been pushing for major improvements in public education through his foundation, and one of his conclusions has been that we need to do a better job of distributing and replicating the work of "master teachers". This boot-strapped effort to do that is probably a good example.

Humor and Good News 15 logos that look like something else
The Dodge Viper logo, for instance, looks like an upside-down Daffy Duck. Of course, there are some logos that really shouldn't be used, ever.

Business and Finance Americans are still pulling lots of money out of stock-market mutual funds
They're trying to move lots of that money over to the bond markets, which is thought to be safer. Just because it's thought to be safer doesn't make it so, but that's what the conventional wisdom says.

Iowa Iowa's foreclosure rate hits a new record high
It's lower than the rest of the nation's, but it's still higher than it's ever been.

Water News Algae cuts into Ohio town's drinking-water supply

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August 28, 2010

Humor and Good News Lady Gaga on the Iowa State University campanille
(Video) It's like a heaping helping of awesome. Very good work, ISU. Related: An unusually good auto-tuned news report on a home intruder. It's getting hard to tell what's the real news and what's not anymore -- The Onion satirizes the fluff news in newsmagazines, and yet the satire is hard to distinguish from the truth.

Health Why we need to get a lot smarter about handling concussions
Conventional wisdom about returning people to the playing field and other activities after a hit to the head may have been causing a lot of misdiagnoses of ALS, among other problems.

News DNA tests suggest Hitler was both Jewish and African ancestors
Irony much?

Humor and Good News How does a police chase end up on an airport runway?

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August 29, 2010

Business and Finance Megachurches appear to be relatively recession-proof
While one would be wrong to impugn the beliefs of the attendees, there's no escaping the fact that at least some leaders of these churches are using faith to enrich themselves. Some churches are far more "business" than "charity".

Computers and the Internet Indian government threatens to shut down BlackBerry service
They're citing security concerns as the reason

Weather and Disasters After 400 years of dormancy, an Indonesian volcano comes back to life
No casualties are reported yet, but how many other "dormant" volcanoes aren't really as sleepy as we think they are?

Business and Finance The more the government has fiddled with the economy, the harder it becomes to make projections
Government interventions have been hugely expensive, and some of them are having perverse effects as they change, evolve, and expire -- like the way that the expiration of homebuyer tax credits has squished the housing market lately. Some government intervention in the economy will always be necessary -- but it should always seek to be as minimal as possible.

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August 30, 2010

The United States of America Buzzwords are hurting the legitimate public debate about important issues
Says Charlie Brooker: "It's possible to be a patriot without being a bigot, just as it's possible to be a weather forecaster without being a stripper, but if a weather forecaster took her clothes off halfway through a forecast, its fair to say the striptease element of her performance would greatly overshadow any meteorological merit. Still, a lot of people erroneously believe that saying 'I'm a patriot' automatically absolves them from any and all charges of bigotry." Similar problems happen on the left, of course, where the perpetual refrain of "it's for the children" is usually just a cover for telling people what to do and then taxing them for it.

News Should the Caribbean try to arrange its own unified government?
(Article in Spanish) The many small islands of the region don't have a lot of individual power or sway -- and they're subject to lots of powerful external forces in the world marketplace and in hemispheric politics -- like power struggles between the US and Venezuela. But could the well-led islands unify with the poorly-governed ones and lift the weak up to a higher standard without dragging down the strong?

Agriculture Soybeans are being killed by "sudden death" all over Iowa
It's come basically out of nowhere, and there's not a lot that farmers can do to control it. It's one more example of the unpredictability of food production that means we need to do a better job of storage as an insurance policy against inevitable future disasters.

Weather and Disasters Engineers try to design a San Francisco Bay Bridge to survive any major earthquake
The many steps forward in technologies like bridge design have undoubtedly made life much better for the people who use them, even if the average commuter has no idea whether he or she is traveling a good bridge or a weak one.

The United States of America The most powerful Republican in America is the governor of Mississippi
That wouldn't seem likely were it not a world in which Haley Barbour is in charge of the Republican Governors Association, which has a huge war chest, and the ability to spend it on things like state-level elections, where a lot of the real governing in America gets done

Water News New Orleans keeps creeping towards comprehensive flood protection


August 31, 2010

Computers and the Internet 30 old computer ads
A 10-megabyte hard disk once cost $3500. Today, a 10-Mb email attachment is no big deal. The really interesting part is to consider how archaic today's computer-related ads will look in 20 years.

Weather and Disasters A report from Pakistan
The nation's devastating flooding is causing real and significant human suffering

Threats and Hazards Russian prime minister Putin says protesters should expect to get hit on the head by police
If that kind of language doesn't recall Soviet-era prohibitions on protest and free speech, what does? The world needs Russia to be prosperous and free.

News US Army colonel booted from Afghanistan in part for criticizing PowerPoint
Bullet-pointed slides are no substitute for clear thinking, but the colonel thinks the bullet points are winning out

Weather and Disasters Hurricane Earl could hit New York City
And it's doubtful the city is adequately prepared. Related: What everyone should have in a "go bag" in case of emergency.

Science and Technology "Skeptical environmentalist" Lomborg now thinks $100 billion a year would be a good investment in fixing climate change

Humor and Good News MyWifeKnowsEverything at the finish
(Video) Two oddly-named horses finish one-two

Weather and Disasters Golfer accidentally causes 25-acre fire
Somehow, a bad swing in a rocky patch of rough caused a spark, igniting a whole bunch of dry brush. Bizarre.

Aviation News Justice Department clears the way for United and Continental Airlines to merge

Broadcasting Prediction: BP will change its corporate name sometime in the next 18 months

Broadcasting Why Apple seems just a little bit Stalinist

Water News Dozens permanently kicked out of Nebraska mobile-home park because of a broken septic system

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