Gongol.com Archives: September 2010
Brian Gongol

September 2010
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September 1, 2010

News How to prepare for disasters: Plan to get out and to communicate
To all those people who ask, "Why would I want to learn how to send a text message?", here's one answer: During a disaster, phone networks are often overloaded. But text messages take up so little space in the radio spectrum that they can often be delivered when full-fledged calls won't pass. It's like the question, "Why should I learn self-defense?" -- the answer isn't always obvious. But when mob violence breaks out at a music festival, it's too late to try to learn how to defend oneself.

Computers and the Internet Chinese family ordered to change their name because it contains a rare character
Apparently, that character is so rare that Chinese government computers can't handle it, meaning they can't be issued ID cards, so they're being ordered to change their name.

Computers and the Internet British advertising regulator adds company websites and Twitter accounts to its watchlists

Business and Finance The (Chicago) Tribune Co. is moving its back office to Texas
There's undoubtedly supposed to be some logic to the move, but it's hard to see what that would be, considering the company's largest operations are far away from Texas.

News Quick-thinking 8-year-old slams window on arm of intruder

Water News Outgoing DNR director comments on Lake Delhi flooding-related pollution


September 2, 2010

Agriculture Why we have to give refuge to agricultural pests
New seeds and new insecticides are so good at obliterating pests that the government requires farmers to set aside "refuge" acreage without those technologies, so that the pests have somewhere to go instead of sticking around and becoming superbugs. On the surface, it seems to make some sense -- the MRSA "superbug" has been a huge problem in the medical sector, brought about by the misapplication of antibiotics. But it's a hassle for farmers to have to set aside the refuge fields. Moreover, we haven't addressed MRSA in hospitals by setting aside "refuge" rooms where it's OK for infections to run rampant.

Humor and Good News If nobody ever again uses the word "edgy" to describe a logo, it will be too soon
But Drake University's use of "D+" to convey the advantages they confer to their students isn't even "edgy" -- it's just disappointing. There are more clever things they can do to enhance their branding position than rehash a cliche. Besides, F Minus is a lot funnier.

Iowa UNI marching band will introduce "peppy" version of the Iowa Corn Song as a victory march
The rendition definitely is jaunty -- but they'd better not use it to replace the traditional fight song, or there's going to be a problem.

Computers and the Internet Google releases version 6 of Chrome browser
It's been two years since they first released the browser, and there's no question that it has improved in several regards -- not the least of which is its stability. It's still not perfect, but Google does employ a clever trick: They pay a meaningful amount of money to people who identify bugs in the software, which incentivizes people to turn over the problems to Google so they can be fixed, rather than letting them sit until they're exploited by crooks. Chrome isn't perfect, but neither are any of the other browsers. And because it's free, smart computer users ought to download it and get familiar with it, since occasionally it's deemed unsafe to use one particular browser or another due to those crooks exploiting vulnerabilities. On a related note, Google is now offering automated inbox prioritization for people who use Gmail, which predicts how interested a user might be in the incoming messages based upon that same user's past actions. Potentially quite handy -- but it also reveals just how valuable information about our e-mail use can be. Whomever controls your inbox also controls a vast amount of information about you.

News Another explosion on an offshore oil-drilling platform near Louisiana

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September 3, 2010

Threats and Hazards Censorship just isn't a good idea, period
Officials are trying to keep bad news off the minds of the 33 miners trapped in Chile, but even though it's well-intentioned, it's a bad policy. They're going to be down there for at least several more weeks -- if not a few months. If you received nothing but syrupy, happy news in that length of time, wouldn't you begin to believe that people were deliberately keeping things from you? And wouldn't that paranoia be worse than having a degree of normalcy in life -- even if that normalcy involves occasional bad news? After all, they're trapped in a mine -- it's not like they won't have a bit of perspective on how important (or not) Tiger Woods's divorce really is. The Iranian government is using a similar chain of reasoning for censoring news about the political opposition there, saying it's bad for the public to hear about those people. It doesn't take forever for people to realize they're being fed a line of nonsense, so why pretend like it's for their own good?

Science and Technology Stephen Hawking thinks gravity initiated the Big Bang
People are trying to spin this as a religious conversion on Hawking's part. The real story is that Hawking is pretty confident that we may have actually cracked the code that explains how the process of the initiation of everything we know came about. People are welcome to adopt whatever explanation for their personal beliefs might be, but it's truly exciting to think that we may be as close as Hawking apparently thinks to having a real, evidentiary basis for drawing the conclusions we do.

Iowa Iowa should not delay on installing more median barriers
Tensed-cable barriers running down the middle of expressways save lives, period. We know that they work, and we know that there are some stretches of road where head-on collisions are unusually common. Of all the investments we could make in infrastructure, adding some of these barriers to high-frequency accident locations should be toward the top.

Humor and Good News Does Chinese food leave people hungry shortly after eating?
It's certainly a widely-accepted legend, but is it true? And if so, why? This might be one for which science has no firm answer, but there is at least a little bit of evidence in the form of satiety indices, which suggest that some of the major components of Chinese food tend not to satisfy hunger as well as some major components of Western food.

Aviation News Boeing is running behind on delviering its new 787
It's already years behind schedule, and the longer it takes, the more time Airbus (makers of the ridiculous A380) has to woo their customers.


September 6, 2010

The American Way The EconDirectory for September 2010
Hundreds of websites with opinions, news, and commentary on business and economics

Humor and Good News The funniest car review ever
(Video) Few cars get tested for their worthiness as amphibious assault vehicles

News The humanitarian crisis in Pakistan
The immediate disaster caused by flooding is being compounded by the inadequacy of the humanitarian response

Science and Technology Video of gorillas in the wild
(Video) Because there's always something interesting about watching our evolutionary cousins in their natural habitat

Humor and Good News How the Stivers Ford jingle came into being
(Video) The (un)true story of how a local car commercial found its jingle

Health Aspirin: Good for those who think they're having heart attacks
But variations on an e-mail recommending the use of aspirin for this purpose also tend to get littered with junk advice, like a (pointless) suggestion that the heart attack victim not lie down. More than anything, the key is to initiate the emergency response by calling 911 and requesting an ambulance. A follow-up aspirin probably helps.

Broadcasting Legal IDs from radio stations all over America
The top-of-the-hour ID required by the FCC is one of those artifacts of culture that most people probably don't even notice in their daily lives, but they offer radio stations the opportunity to show some character

Broadcasting The Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - September 5, 2010
The full show, broken into four pieces: people leaving food behind in the studios, the need for median barriers on our expressways, the amazingly low price of high technology today, and a couple of alternative ideas to highway median safety.

Broadcasting The WHO Radio Wise Guys - August 28, 2010
The complete show, in segments: getting computers covered by homeowners' insurance, the Droid X (part 1), the Droid X (part 2), how to fix a broken T9 dictionary, how to fix a broken laptop screen, the value of online education, and the FAA finally approves the use of GPS for airliners

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September 7, 2010

News Hizzoner the Mayor finally decides he's ruled Chicago for long enough
Richard Daley says he's not running for re-election as mayor of Chicago next year. That would mean it's the end of his more-than-two-decade time running the Windy City.

Business and Finance New suitor says it wants to buy out Casey's
The convenience store chain has been fighting hard to stay out of the hands of Couche-Tard, but the company says it's actually talking to a company offering just 4% more than Couche-Tard.

Socialism Doesn't Work Old-school socialist-flavored unionism is still around
A photo from the BBC (the last in a slideshow about a strike against the London Underground) includes the flags of Cuba and the PLO, and a fist smashing a swastika. How odd. They're fighting the battles of the last century, it would seem.

News Putin could be running Russia until 2024
It's looking like they're setting him up to run for the Russian presidency again in 2012, which would give him the chance to have two more consecutive six-year terms in office

Humor and Good News Don't anger the panda
(Video) He's an animal with a serious anger-management problem that he takes out on computers and anything else in sight. Also not to be trusted: White guys with soul patches. Grow a beard or don't, but don't go with an upside-down Charlie Chaplin mustache.

Water News Wildfires burn homes near Boulder

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September 8, 2010

Computers and the Internet "Google Instant" starts trying to predict what you're searching for before you're finished typing
It's a rather bold move by Google, turning its search engine into a predictive tool. It's likely that many people will find the new feature useful, since it will probably shave off a handful of seconds a couple of times a day. But it will also end up becoming a brand-new target for the same people who think "search engine optimization" is a substitute for putting real, useful content on the Internet. They'll start trying to figure out what the most popular searches are on the Internet, then try to game ways to bump their subjects and links up high on the search strings that will come up first. Supposing that someone wanted to game a search for "Brian Gongol" -- they might try to game a high-ranking result for "Brian G". Never underestimate the efforts to which people will go to try to profit from the Internet without doing any real work ("real work" here being defined as creating something that people might deliberately want to see -- not something they'll stumble upon more or less by accident). Here's another risk: People will end up seeing unsavory things on the way to that for which they're actually searching -- they seem to have already anticipated that words like "assault" and "cockpit" start with words that might bring up some results that could upset people, but there will be other things they haven't anticipated in the same way.

Computers and the Internet Stupid things said on Twitter can and will come back to haunt
An Olympic swimmer from Australia is in hot water for making a homophobic slur on Twitter. The painfully over-hyped pop musician Justin Bieber got into a public spat over hacked accounts and personal phone numbers posted in public. People need to learn to take about three or four deep breaths before posting anything on the Internet -- especially considering how quickly anything can be misinterpreted and spread globally.

Computers and the Internet Almost everyone in Iowa could have broadband Internet access
That's the state of affairs, technologically speaking. But only 66% subscribe to it.

Business and Finance Happy people give generously to charity
And according to a study on the subject, the "Anglosphere" countries appear to be the largest share of the top ten most generous countries in the world. A third of the world's population has given money to charity in the last month. Related: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has issued its annual report for its work in 2009, including its report that polio is almost gone from the planet and is a top priority for the foundation over the next few years. The Gates Foundation is sitting on $34 billion in assets to give away.

Computers and the Internet Plunging mobile-phone service prices in the developing world
A price war in Kenya is making phone calls get so much cheaper so fast that the country's inflation rate has been affected. More importantly, though, is this: The country has virtually no landline phones, but two-thirds of households in Kenya have mobile phones now. They simply leapfrogged the entire step of landline phones altogether. What will be remarkable is when smartphone prices plunge and Internet access via phone becomes commonplace there. Again, they could skip the entire stage of rolling out landline access to the Internet and just place much of the country directly into the "3G" era.

Humor and Good News Tiger Woods jokes are still funny
(Audio) What's on the golfer's voicemail?

Science and Technology MIT team tries to replicate the solar-collection properties of plants
Considering that photosynthesis and the mechanisms that support it are the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection and random mutation, we should stand in awe of the fact that we're coming close to figuring out how to reverse-engineer the process synthetically.

Broadcasting Budget problems in Britain could lead to major cutbacks for the BBC World Service
The BBC World Service is the heir to a long line of work that traces its origins to Britain's former status as a world empire. The Empire Service was intended to reach the English speakers of the empire worldwide -- serving, in essence, the same role as the Internet today in keeping a world audience informed of current events. But with the decline of the empire, the service managed to enter a new role, and today is perhaps the most widely-used public-service news outlets in the world. But times are tough for all kinds of charities, and that includes the BBC's free services to the rest of the world. Obviously, Britain gains something from having a global presence -- just like the United States gains from funding the Voice of America, and other nations benefit from their own broadcasting services as well. But the BBC is unique in its reach and its capacities, so recovery from cutbacks isn't likely. That's unfortunate, since too much of the world still lives under authoritarian rule and thus has limited access to information about what's happening around the world. The United States has already done too much to scale back the Voice of America; similar cuts to the BBC World Service would be profoundly sad.

Humor and Good News Magic T-shirt protects fat kid from ridicule
(Video) The Onion delivers another high-quality spoof

Iowa The old train depot in downtown Des Moines could see passenger service once again

Water News EPA fines Nebraska landowner $30,000 for illegal dam

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September 9, 2010

Threats and Hazards Asteroid detection, still woefully inadequate, is getting better

Socialism Doesn't Work Even more stimulus spending? Really?
What good is spending money we have to borrow, just to end up paying extra for it? And what good are tax breaks if money isn't flowing?

Science and Technology A railroad on a string

Health Revising the concept of death

Broadcasting Video recap from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - August 28, 2010
And a wobbly video tour of the studio, too

Science and Technology The laws of physics don't apply to me
Or to you, either. At least, they don't appear to apply equally all over the universe.

Science and Technology Learning from mistakes is more durable than learning from success

Health Stroke risk

Humor and Good News Lady Gaga in a meat bikini
That's at least one way to live up to a stage name.

Water News Clean water in disaster zones

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September 10, 2010

Health Maybe we really can regenerate organs
A woman appears to have regenerated most of the last segment of her pinky finger after it was severed in an accident

News What life is like for the trapped Chilean miners
Routine tasks are being used to help them maintain a semblance of the ordinary and maintain their mental health

Science and Technology Robots that think like babies

Humor and Good News Voice mail from World War II
An American GI recorded a message to his young bride using an old phonograph, but it got lost in the mail -- and only found its way back to him more than half a century later

Aviation News With Daley leaving, will Chicago get Meigs Field back?

Agriculture Tighter-than-expected corn supplies mean higher prices

News Chicago's John Hancock Building to get a 94th-floor ice-skating ring
It'll be a temporary installation from January through March of next year, and it's only a tiny layer of synthetic ice, but it's going to be skatable

Business and Finance Privatizing the British Royal Mail

Water News High nitrates in Dixon water

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September 13, 2010

Computers and the Internet Intel says it's introducing a chip with a billion transistors
The product merges a microprocessor and a graphics processor onto a single chip

Computers and the Internet "Google Instant is trying to kill me"
Inevitably, a lot of the things that we're still trying to accommodate and to which we're trying to adjust now -- like Google's new rapid-fire search engine, Facebook privacy issues, and hazards like texting while driving -- are going to look positively quaint in 25 years or so, just like we mock relics like the blocky graphics from the start of the computer animation age. But Charlie Brooker has a point: Sometimes we need to step away from instant gratification, just to ensure we're making the right choices. An all-you-can-eat buffet might look enticing, but it's hard to make a decision not to eat when it's right in front of you...even when that may be the right decision to make.

Health National study of 100,000 children from pre-birth to age 21 starts soon
It's a national study with 105 local locations, of which Polk County, Iowa, is one. They're trying to figure out what environmental factors affect children's development, and in what ways. The larger the sample size, they figure, the more likely it is that they'll find solid results even on low-frequency health problems.

The United States of America Pop vs. Soda vs. Coke: Which is it?
Americans generally fall into one of three categories when giving a generic name for soft drinks, and the regional distinctions are drawn among some amazingly sharp lines. English, you fickle language, you.

Science and Technology Simultaneous independent invention
If two people invent the same thing simultaneously, but without any knowledge of one another, doesn't that stand as evidence that what they were doing is at least somewhat obvious? And, thus, not patentable? The US patent system is in terrible shape, and so is the copyright system. They're hurting innovation and thus harming the economy.

Business and Finance Banks around the world will be pushed to hold 7% capital reserves

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September 14, 2010

Business and Finance Warren Buffett doesn't foresee a double-dip recession
He thinks pessimism about the economy is more a media-generated story than a reflection of reality

News US Department of Defense warns UK it needs to avoid cutting defense budget
The UK is facing a huge budget problem with massive spending cuts, pretty much across the board. Except that cutting the Ministry of Defense would likely cause it to fall out of line with NATO requirements, and there are only so many remaining powerful defense forces in the world, of which the US and the UK are two.

Socialism Doesn't Work How efficient are tax subsidies for expanding employment?
Private businesses are looking for lots of state and local financing for their expansions. Is it really efficient?

Broadcasting Man hears his own voice from World War II

Aviation News Would cheap airline tickets be worth sitting in a saddle for three hours?
Just wait until a hard landing

Agriculture Genetic modifications show up in wild canola

Humor and Good News When anonymous hate mail gets its due
An amusingly persistent response to some unpleasant online comments

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September 15, 2010

Business and Finance Why the Midwest didn't get hit all that hard by the recession
Less participation in a bubble means less suffering when the bubble pops. On a related note, after two years, they're still trying to unravel the remains of Lehman Brothers. And it's costing billions of dollars to figure out how to distribute the remaining assets of the company to the people to whom they belonged. It's time (as it really always has been) to focus on fundamentals: Conservative financing, innovation, and honest business practices. Americans have both known how (and been willing) to build for the long term -- witness the durable buildings constructed 100 years ago in places like Fort Dodge, Iowa. They come from a time when aspiration was matched by foresight.

Weather and Disasters Better weather forecasts save billions of dollars
Improved hurricane forecasts are preventing needless evacuations and saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Another example of how life is getting better all the time, in ways we rarely comprehend. And where does this improved quality of life show up in our conventional measures of economics and other well-being? We hardly think about the number of car accidents we don't get into, or the storm precautions we don't have to take, but things like these make life substantially better and save us time, money, and suffering. How do we measure things like people sharing personal interpretations of pop music in sign language? Skills and talents that might otherwise have been seen only by a handful of friends and family end up attracting hundreds of thousands of views, from the curious just as much as from the intended audience of the deaf and hard-of-hearing (who themselves undoubtedly gain in new and novel ways from communication tools like captions on YouTube in addition to the interpretive videos themselves).

Socialism Doesn't Work Cuba's government plans a million layoffs
That's supposed to be about 20% of the nation's entire workforce, and they're officially hoping that the private sector will take up the slack. And yet there are still people who defend Communism, arguing that its pure form has "never been tried". There's positively zero evidence that suggests that Communism, Marxism, Leninism, or whatever else one wants to call it, is an efficient means of ensuring material prosperity for anyone. Cuba has had fifty years to try to get Communism to work. Isn't it patently obvious that the system is doomed to fail?

Computers and the Internet Facebook: The personal-security black hole
A list of "six things you should never reveal on Facebook" sounds a lot like some of the advice delivered on the WHO Radio Wise Guys. Too much of what passes for "security questions" these days is easily given away through social-networking sites like Facebook, and it should neither be relied upon by website designers, nor given away so freely by users.

Computers and the Internet AMD says it's going to offer a chip to compete with Intel's new "Sandy Bridge"
Both computer chips match the processor with a graphics processor to accelerate the delivery of images on-screen

Humor and Good News Betty White breaks character
(Video) She's usually one of the most legendarily unflappable actresses anywhere, but sometimes even a legend has to slip

Agriculture Would high-fructose corn syrup sell better if it were called "corn sugar"?
It's an intriguing marketing question

Broadcasting Legendary Iowa newsman Jack Shelley is dead

Iowa Reverse 911 launches in Des Moines tomorrow

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September 16, 2010

Humor and Good News Vintage ads from times we can't really recognize
Like the days when cocaine was sold over the counter, a Subaru was a babe magnet, or when men dressed like the Bee Gees. Whenever anyone complains about "today's society", they're probably not thinking about how much better things are now than they were when doctors advertised cigarettes, phones didn't travel with you, and male chauvenism was the norm. Life is getting better all the time. By definition, that means we should always be working on improvements -- but it also means we shouldn't paint the past as being rosier than it really was. It's unwise to romanticize the past as though it was some pristine Eden.

The United States of America An analysis of the "Tea Party" movement in the Midwest
To the extent that "Tea Party" enthusiasts favor limited government, balanced budgets, and personal responsibility, then they're very much in keeping with the mainstream of Midwestern values. But to the extent that they're just anti-tax (one backronym for the movement is "Taxed Enough Already") without also acknowledging the need to control spending -- including precious entitlement costs like Social Security and Medicare -- then they're no more in favor of solving the real problems America faces than the people who want to raise taxes and increase spending even more. The truth of the matter is that Americans are going to have to pay more in taxes overall -- and accept less in government spending -- for some time to come. One of the biggest problems with the "tea party" movement is that it has neither a clear definition of beliefs, nor an organized and accountable leadership structure. A large group of angry people with no coherent philosophy nor responsible leadership is just a mob. A real movement requires accountability and structure, not the persistent insistence that "we don't allow others...to either define or lecture us."

News A new romance typically costs two good friendships
Everything has a price, and it turns out that love's cost is taken out of the reserves of a person's close friends

Humor and Good News How fairy tales really end

Humor and Good News Why buy the cereal when all you want to eat is the marshmallows?
Order boxes of cereal marshmallows and satisfy childhood fantasies. Or just buy some meringue cookies and get the same effect.

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September 17, 2010

Business and Finance Democratic capitalism
A shareholder-advisory firm recommends that shareholders try to kick out two members of the Casey's corporate board, but try to keep the others in. What's remarkable about the recommendation is that they made any serious recommendation at all in favor of shareholders taking action. Shareholders -- especially the institutional ones -- have been so completely lackadaisical about booting board members from office that they've become like the Soviet Politburo: Nobody ever gets tossed out by the people, even when they're grossly incompetent. And given the number of firms that have been in dire distress over the last two or three years especially, there ought to have been hundreds of boards wiped clean of their incumbents. It shouldn't take a debate over a hostile takeover proposal (as is happening with Casey's) to instigate shareholder revolt.

Science and Technology Automotive X-Prize won
Internal combustion engine in an ultralight vehicle frame hits 100 mpg

Business and Finance Americans are pulling tens of billions of dollars out of stocks
And they're stuffing the money into bond funds. Not a surprise, given the Baby Boomers' proximity to retirement (and the perception that bonds are a safer investment for retirees than stocks), but also a point of great opportunity for stock investors.

Threats and Hazards Terror-attack risk is rising, say the British
Inmates are leaving prison after becoming radicalized while in the big house

Threats and Hazards Crooks are targeting military families
Particularly using online scams. Revolting.

Broadcasting The problem with making the public pay for broadcasting
Harry Shearer is mad that he's being kept away from some NPR shows because he's been picked in a "dibs" contest by others. And because he has a political message, he doesn't have a lot of alternative routes to get them to repeat his claims.

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September 18, 2010

Business and Finance Why you should always write pleasant complaint letters
A well-written letter of complaint might actually get a lot more mileage than just a plaintive one. The author of a letter complaining about airline food probably didn't expect the letter to end up getting published in a newspaper, but that's where it went. And as a result, the author received a call from the president of the company. Letters of complaint aren't a bad thing; good companies actually want to receive them, since they prove that customers still care about the quality of their service, and they give the company the opportunity to make things right. (Though it may be hard to write a letter of complaint adequate to the task of complaining about an Italian company's proposal to put airline passengers in saddle-like seats.)

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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September 19, 2010

Computers and the Internet Bloglines will be shut down soon
The service -- one of the first to consolidate RSS feeds into one place -- has been beaten out by rivals like Google Reader. Google shouldn't get lazy and sit on its haunches, though, since the rise and fall of Bloglines certainly isn't all that different from what could easily happen to Google at any time. Nobody's tied down to their choices in Internet services -- for anything. People can pick up and leave any given service on a whim, and they do.

Business and Finance A few proposals for a redesigned US Dollar

Humor and Good News One way to make the escalator more entertaining

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September 20, 2010

Threats and Hazards FBI arrests man for attempting a terrorist attack on Wrigleyville
He thought he'd placed an explosive backpack near Wrigley Field. Instead, he had been tricked by the FBI with a prop. And now, if justice is to be served well, he'll spend a long time paying for his attempted crime.

Science and Technology Chicago plans to have pay phones removed from the CTA system
That the L no longer has room for the telephones is just another sign of evolving times. So many people have cell phones that the pay phones just don't make any serious money anymore.

Humor and Good News Time-lapse of the changeover at the Meadowlands
(Video) Two teams, one stadium. And a really cool look at how it changes identity, literally overnight.

Science and Technology The Jeep: A surprising case in genius
(Video) Seeing a group of servicemembers tear apart a Jeep, then reassemble it in a matter of seconds, reveals just what an elegant design it is. Not elegant in the sense of little black dresses and pearls, but in the sense that it's quite possibly one of the simplest solutions to a problem available. Quite worth the viewing.

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September 21, 2010

Socialism Doesn't Work North Korea may be soon to announce a new "dear leader"
Reports suggest that Kim Jong-Il is in dire straits with bad health, and that his youngest son might soon be in charge of the Stalinist holdout, making for the third generation of family control over the country. Communism never did away with privilege -- it just institutionalized it with the political class. Say what you will about capitalism, but markets tend to be very good at enforcing shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.

Computers and the Internet Facebook says it's trying to clamp down on profile hacking
But the problem isn't going away anytime soon

Humor and Good News OK Go + dogs = another wacky music video
(Video) If nothing else, the band has assuredly figured out how to build a franchise off their unusual music videos in a post-MTV era.

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September 22, 2010

Iowa Underage drinking and the law of unintended consequences
Sometimes, a business owner's incentives are well-matched with a matter of public policy -- as in Iowa City, where the local authorities have closed all bars to patrons under age 21. A bar owner -- who obviously wants as many people as possible inside his establishment anyway -- argues that the policy is bad because it doesn't keep young people from going out on Saturday nights and drinking -- it just sends them to house parties and other less-regulated locations. That's bad for his business (whether or not they were drinking in his establishments, since he could still charge a cover and sell them non-alcoholic beverages), and it's also a bad approach to public health policy. The problem in college towns isn't drinking per se -- it's binge drinking, particularly unsupervised binge drinking by inexperienced young people. It's hard to imagine a set of circumstances under which they would be safer at a drunken house party than under the supervision of a paid (and sober) staff trained in recognizing dangerous consumption.

News Natural disaster in Pakistan is leading to economic calamity
The country is running out of money, in part because the floods this summer wiped out a lot of agriculture and simultaneously decreased exports and dramatically increased the need for food imports. Now the country might not even be eligible for additional funding from international lenders like the IMF. It's an excellent illustration of the need for international trade: More trade allows nations to specialize more and develop their industries. Within the United States, which is itself one big free-trade zone, Iowa focuses on raising corn and soybeans, Michigan builds cars (or at least it used to), and California produces the TV shows. Specialization makes for efficiency, and efficiency makes for productivity. President Obama doesn't mow his own lawn, and neither does Bill Gates. They have better things to do. Economically speaking, so do many countries -- and increased trade lets them focus on what they're best at doing.

Threats and Hazards Potential hurricane insurance liabilities dwarf resources in the southeastern US
A bad hurricane anywhere along the Gulf Coast or southern part of the Eastern Seaboard could be calamitous to the states that have failed to set aside enough for their insurance plans. America has vastly overbuilt in highly-exposed areas, and it's one of the most serious economic threats to the United States.

Science and Technology What would happen if we actually did discover intelligent life beyond Earth?

Water News Millions in state aid for Coralville flood protection

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September 23, 2010

Business and Finance Will the N8 save Nokia?
The cell-phone maker has fallen way behind in the smartphone market, so it's betting heavily on a new product to help it capture lost ground. Nokia -- at least for a little while -- looked as dominant over the mobile-phone field as Google looks over search engines today. But cell phones and search engines are disposable consumer choices -- and they have a very short useful life. A two-year-old phone is so vastly outmatched by a new one that it's hardly a fair fight. Thus, dominance in the market today is absolutely no guarantee of dominance tomorrow. The same holds true for search engines -- ask Yahoo. In other words, don't be surprised if Google is but a shadow of its present self in 2020. In fact, it almost certainly will be. Switching costs for consumers using almost any of Google's products and services are basically zero. That in and of itself doesn't necessarily doom Google -- switching costs between Coke and Pepsi are virtually zero, too -- but Coca-Cola doesn't have any reason to provide its customers with anything new from year to year. In fact, their most well-known failure was the result of trying to change the formula to New Coke. Imagine how things would be different if Google customers demanded exactly the same search results and browser experience they had ten years ago. This is why Google and other high-tech companies ought to plow their surplus profits into durable, non-technological businesses. They should...but they never do. Instead, they let their CEOs walk around hypothesizing about a future that, frankly, makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

News Former Bin Laden compatriate calls for Al Qaeda to stop using war and terrorism
Putting aside altogether the philosophy of what the organization stands for, consider this: The Catholic church has had vastly more success at spreading and maintaining its influence around the world by adapting to local cultures and co-opting local customs than it could have ever gotten by the sword. Assimilation does far more good than imposition.

Broadcasting What it's like to climb to the top of a television and radio tower
(Video) It's a climb to the top of a 1700' tower -- which is 300' shorter than the towers north of Des Moines. While not as recognizable as the Sutro Tower in the San Francisco Bay area, the central Iowa towers are among the tallest structures in the world. Climbing to the top of one without a harness should be towards the top of any sane person's never-to-do list.

Business and Finance Not that they deserve any sympathy, but mutual-fund managers aren't all rolling in dough
The real tragedy of the mutual-fund investing system in America today is that we're just not seeing a lot of people assembling their own investment companies with friends and family, then treating that money like it means something -- not like some kind of crazed speculative gamble, which is what 24-hour financial news channels like CNBC often make "investing" out to be. It should be easy -- almost insultingly so -- for people to band together, pool their funds, and invest together for the long term. Instead, we have a market with enormous barriers to entry for mutual funds, and it should come as no surprise that America's financial literacy rate is appallingly low. What we don't practice, we don't understand.

Humor and Good News A religious conversion on which everyone can agree
It's time for nachofication. Also good for a laugh: The season premiere of "Modern Family".

Iowa Should Iowans have to show some form of ID in order to vote?

Water News How a side dish is creating a water crisis

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September 29, 2010

Threats and Hazards Criticism of the Iranian government will cost one man 19 years of his life
He's being sent to prison for two decades for "spreading propaganda against the establishment". It's probably a little too easy to take for granted the First Amendment right to petition our grievances.

Health 15% of American adults don't wash their hands when leaving a public restroom
That broader figure masks the fact that almost all women wash up, and only 77% of men do so. What is it about those 23% who make up the unwashed that makes them think it's OK to skip 20 seconds using some soap and water? It's a personal-health thing, and a public-health thing. Both are profoundly important, and at what a tiny cost.

Weather and Disasters IRS won't be sending out tax forms anymore
They're trying to save money on printing. For real.

The American Way Coca-Cola donates $250,000 to create more first-generation American Indian college graduates
The persistence of poverty among American Indians is a national disgrace; making it easier for some to go to college is a good way to incentivize those who are willing to show some of their own initiative to create wealth for themselves, their families, and their communities.

News China claims it's launching a lunar probe this week
The official public-affairs outfit of the Chinese army is promoting the news

Aviation News Hero British Airways pilot will return to the cockpit at BA
Peter Burkill managed to crash-land a Boeing 777 that lost its engines to a malfunction in the fuel line, and everyone survived. He ended up leaving the airline over some disputes related to the event, but now it looks like he's back.

Humor and Good News Talk about a turnaround
Mike Quade has taken a Cubs baseball team with a lousy season and turned it into a team that wins almost two-thirds of the time. It's going to be hard for management not to hire him to do the same thing next year.

Water News No more "Septic Tanks of the Rich and Famous"

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September 30, 2010

Computers and the Internet Frightening "Stuxnet" virus could infect PLCs
Programmable logic controllers are widely used to make equipment like pumps and motors work -- and if someone's getting viruses to make a leap between Windows-type machines and PLCs, then we're in some serious trouble. Sooner or later, we're going to have to figure out how to establish barriers between critical systems that run things like our basic infrastructure and the networked computers we use on a daily basis -- which are at much higher risk of infection, but which can't cause the same degree of hazard that the other computers can. It needs to resemble the blood-brain barrier, which itself is a remarkable evolutionary feature that protects the fragile brain from things that can circulate easily in the blood.

Computers and the Internet Anonymity and its drawbacks
There are obviously some cases in which anonymity can be valuable -- legitimate whistle-blowers need it, for example. But it's widely abused online and used as a substitute for using discretion.

Humor and Good News Get the phone number right
A box of specially-branded cereal was supposed to feature the phone number for a charity...but a mix-up between (800) and (888) sent callers to a sex-talk line instead.

Computers and the Internet How to turn off the conversation view in Gmail
It's one of the service's signature features, but it's really annoying when it gets things wrong and links e-mail messages that weren't connected to one another in a true conversation. What they really need to offer is a middle-ground option, making it possible to break apart "conversations" that aren't really conversations.

Humor and Good News Jon Stewart doesn't believe in President Obama's magic anymore

Computers and the Internet Constant Contact: A corporate name we can only hope isn't true
The company offers e-mail marketing services, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the name of the company is unsettling: No reasonable person wants "constant contact" from any business. "Constant" contact, even with another human being, can be annoying and downright mentally destabilizing. The same is doubly true for commercial enterprises. How we name things matters. People who call mass e-mail campaigns "e-mail blasts" tend to think of them as occasional special events. Unfortunately, when they're treated as "blasts", they're usually only sent when it benefits the sender. A truly valuable exchange only occurs when the sender has something of value to offer the recipient. Those kinds of messages are more often known as "newsletters" than as "blasts."

Water News Iowa is a top-ten state for fluoridation
And the evidence is firmly in support of the safety and efficacy of fluoridation. Opponents of fluoride may be loud and aggressive, but they aren't right.

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