Gongol.com Archives: 2010 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

The American Way Three shares of stock turn into a $7 million endowment
A woman from Lake Forest, Illinois, bought three shares of stock in Abbott Laboratories in 1935 and proceeded to reinvest all of the dividends. That purchase apparently turned into a $7 million nest egg by the time of her recent death at age 100. She left the amount to Lake Forest College, which was obviously delighted to reap the proceeds. It's definitely a happy story, and one that ought to be appreciated for its celebration of frugality and generosity. It also highlights the trouble with a lot of investing today. One financial advisor, upon being interviewed for the story, offered a common response, saying "clients shouldn't place more than 10 percent of their money into a single source." Which is true...for some investors. The problem with that advice, though, is that it's not applicable to everyone. Risk depends on what you know.

Water News Oh, no: Flooding prospects look even worse for this spring

News Does society's increasing complexity make us more or less susceptible to catastrophe?
The answer is probably "Yes." There are factors that make us more susceptible to disaster (witness what happens when one element in a just-in-time manufacturing process breaks down: the whole thing grinds to a halt). But others seem to make us more resilient (like the fact that millions of people now know more about computers than the brightest computer scientists of 1950, thus being better-armed to solve complex problems than ever before). It's worth taking a look at how prepared we are for catastrophic risks, but we shouldn't just throw in the towel because of fear.

Water News Vapor intrusion: When chemicals below your house make their way into the air inside the home

Health Bed nets are saving lives from malaria

Business and Finance Business leadership and the responsibility to admit mistakes
A Financial Times columnist criticizes bosses at Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns for doing everything they can to avoid copping to their errors, and it's a valid criticism.

Business and Finance Industry can be beautiful
A slideshow of industrial photographs from the mid-20th Century shows how work well-done can become art

Aviation News Scribner Air Base
Before there was Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska had other airfields, including the Scribner training base.

Iowa Flash floods hit central Iowa; blame ice jams

Water News Household-scale ultraviolet water disinfection

Health The oldest American alive is in Ames, Iowa
She's approaching her 115th birthday. We need to do a far better job of extending human longevity and the quality of life in old age. There are plenty of people who retire as quickly as possible, ceasing to share their useful knowledge and skills with the rest of the economy well before they're "spent." But then there are people like architect Philip Johnson, who was still designing new buildings at age 95, and Norman Borlaug, who was still developing life-saving food hybrids at a similar age. We don't need everyone contributing productively to technology and the economy well into old age, but the truth of the matter is that we have a certain number of brilliant minds at work in the world, and those brilliant minds produce value far in excess of their fair share. The more value they can create, the better-off all of us are. Just for perspective: If we assume that genius is randomly distributed in the human population, and that it is equally likely to emerge or develop at one time as it is in another, then even if there had been just one Isaac Newton in 1642, at a time when there were only 545 million people on the entire planet, then today with 6.8 billion of us, there should be at least 12 modern-day Newtons. To find them, cultivate their talents, and encourage them to be productive and creative well into old age should be one of the highest priorities in every aspect of government and education. Great ideas move human welfare forward. One hazard we do face: There's lots of attraction to put great minds to work doing things like producing computer games and trying to "game" the stock market. Those are assuredly not the highest uses of those great minds -- even if they should be absolutely free to choose whatever pursuits they like. The difference between what they "create" running hedge funds, for instance, and what they could create in terms of useful innovations is a deadweight loss to society.

Aviation News Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
Photos and photorealistic illustrations of future Zeppelins and dirigibles, including a few that could serve as a floating hotel. One would carry 40 passengers in the belly of a floating whale. As airlines try harder and harder to achieve what economists call "perfect pricing discrimination" through the imposition of fees for practically everything airline passengers do, it will be interesting to see whether the air travel options of the future include slower but more-luxurious rides. Certainly if we find ways to live much longer, then slower travel would have some appeal -- particularly if it reduces one's risk of injury or death in an accident. Related: The engines on an airplane are 80% of the plane's total value.

Water News EPA fines butter factory owner years after he sold his plant

Computers and the Internet Twitter co-founder calls his service "fundamental" to the future of government
While it can be helpful, there's nothing about his particular service -- or even style of service, as there are and will be competitors in his marketplace -- that's especially "fundamental." The main appeal of microblogging as a means of interaction between celebrities or public officials and the demos is that the back-and-forth exchanges are simultaneously public and very, very brief. With Twitter's 140-character limit, questions and answers alike have to be brief. There's no room for extended ranting and raving by a disgruntled taxpayer or a maniacal fan, and since a response only requires 30 or 60 seconds on the part of the celebrity or official, they can appear highly responsive (or "accessible" as some would put it) without much effort. But, again, there's really nothing novel about the technology or the communication. People have been writing fan letters, editorials, and critiques of their public officials for centuries, and even at 44 cents for a first-class postage stamp, there's not much barrier to participation.

The United States of America Freedom in the 1960s
(Video) A mashup of videos from some of the great speeches of the 1960s

Humor and Good News Other career paths Dr Seuss, Isaac Newton, and Chevy Chase might've taken

Computers and the Internet Report from the frontier of computing
Scientists trying to figure out how computers can process information faster than ever are working on using atoms to carry photons around at blazingly high speeds. So far, they've had trouble getting the two to play nicely together, but a discovery that suggests they just need to let chaos take over appears to be making it easier to bundle light to matter and shoot it around. Even the enlightened reader will probably need to read the article three times over to understand what's going on.

Broadcasting Podcast: Human rights

Water News The first floods of the season reach Des Moines

Computers and the Internet USA loses "battle of the brains"
It's an international computer-programming competition for college students, and even the strongest American teams lost out to teams from China, Russia, Taiwan, Poland, and Sweden. Doesn't mean the Americans were stupid, but it does mean that programming talent is a global industry.