Gongol.com Archives: 2010 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

Science and Technology Stephen Hawking says, "Don't talk to strangers"
And by that, he means we shouldn't be bothering to make too friendly with any kinds of alien life that might try to make contact with us -- or visit. If they're sophisticated enough to get here, they're probably sophisticated enough to destroy us all, whether intentionally or not. It's a subject quite amusingly addressed in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", but also a matter of very serious consideration when we talk about visiting other planets ourselves. If, for instance, we were to contaminate Mars with Earthly bacteria, we might not only cause ourselves to think there's Martian life when there really isn't, but also to accidentally kill off Martian life if it really does exist after all. Some people argue that we should damn the torpedoes and just terraform Mars anyway to make it suitable for human habitation. There are a handful of approaches we could try, and quite a bit of the math has already been calculated. But the Martian example alone shows how we might ourselves be responsible for destroying life on another planet, strictly in the interest of our own survival. After all, the Sun is going to destroy Earth sooner or later (probably much, much later), and if we want the idea of Earthly life to continue, we're going to have to start colonizing something beyond the pale blue dot we call home.

Computers and the Internet Police raid home of journalist tied to "prototype iPhone" story
The "prototype iPhone" discovery promoted heavily by Gizmodo really didn't seem to be completely above-board -- in fact, it sounded a lot like an Apple publicity stunt -- but now the police are involved, confirming that there really was something fishy about the whole operation. If you find stolen or lost property, you don't turn it into an exclusive story on your website -- you turn the property over to police. That's how a proper society functions under the rule of law.

Health Kenya might be vaccinating against malaria by 2015
Malaria kills almost no Americans, but it does destroy a million lives annually around the world, mainly in Africa. Stopping the dreadful disease shouldn't be beyond our reach.

Humor and Good News Esquire thinks it has a few useful facts men should know about women

Broadcasting Where the "Growing Pains" cast ended up

Water News Money flows into Ottumwa

Computers and the Internet How PowerPoint dependency leads to bad military policy
Too many meetings and too many decisions use PowerPoint templates to guide decision-making. More often than not, a meeting is a poor substitute for a short written report. Written reports insist upon accountability; meetings are a great way for people to defer decision-making.

Business and Finance But what are you really doing with your mind?
The Goldman Sachs hearings are turning into a classic display of grandstanding versus defensiveness. It's entirely possible that some people inside the banking industry did things that were contrary to the best interests of their customers. Australia, in reaction to that sort of problem, has probably gone a little too far with a new law which prohibits financial advisors from earning commissions on the financial products they sell. Yet it's also quite likely that many of the politicians grandstanding on the matter neither know enough about economics to serve any real purpose in "investigating" the subject, nor have a leg to stand on when it comes to the responsible fiduciary care of other people's money. After all, Congress has been actively responsible for creating a $13 trillion Federal debt, and has done everything possible to avoid dealing with the fiscal calamities in Medicare and Social Security -- both of which are turning into investment disasters of a magnitude much greater than just about anything anyone can do in the private sector. Perhaps the real tragedy in all this is that so many people with real intelligence and the capacity to produce great ideas of real practical use have been burning their precious days on this planet trying to figure out new ways to scheme a living out of the complexities of the financial markets -- rather than producing the good practical ideas we as a species need in order to thrive. We need fewer options traders and more engineers. Bill Gates, for instance, needs real help eradicating polio.

Humor and Good News Wife-in-a-box
An artist imagines what future android women might look like. Odd and weirdly amusing at the same time. But it doesn't take a lot of artistic license to see that robotics could be making life a lot easier in a lot of different ways, using existing technology.

Aviation News China's out to screw American Airlines
The airline was planning to launch direct service from Chicago to Beijing -- but Chinese authorities gave the airline some pretty ludicrous middle-of-the-night landing and departure times. It sounds sneaky and underhanded.

Computers and the Internet If it's anywhere on the Internet, someone will eventually find it
A programmer at Google found a way to get access to information on Facebook that people thought they were sharing only with their friends. It's no surprise, of course: These kinds of discoveries are almost routine by now. But what they tell us is that nobody should assume that anything they put on the Internet -- even behind passwords and privacy protections -- is entirely safe. That doesn't mean we shouldn't use tools like online banking -- those services have a self-policing responsibility to keep that private information as safe as possible. But as for everything else, like Facebook and Twitter and password-protected message boards, the lesson is that it only takes one mistake on the part of the website manager to turn what you thought was a private comment into something available to the entire Internet. Don't trust them; don't put anything up that you wouldn't want to see on a digital billboard somewhere in a large city. Once something is on the Internet anywhere, it should be assumed that it's on the Internet everywhere.

Humor and Good News Snake -- on an apartment-building scale
(Video) On a scale of 1 to awesome, it's at least an 8.

Water News Iowa DNR says the state of the water environment is poor but getting better

Threats and Hazards Everyone needs to know some self-defense
A man stabbed 28 children and three adults in a Chinese nursery school. We can't predict when these kinds of terrible things might occur -- and for most people, they never will. But imagine the feeling of powerlessness you might have if you'd been there but had no skills with which to stop the attack. Martial arts like Tae Kwon-Do aren't perfect insurance against any situation, but they're vastly better than having no techniques at all.

Health Colon cancer deaths could be cut by 40% or more by a single test

Humor and Good News Entertainment at the expense of scammers
A Chicago radio host named John Williams likes going back-and-forth with the scammers who try to steal money from unsuspecting e-mail recipients. Not recommended behavior, unless you're already a public figure like Williams. Besides, he's much funnier at it than most people could be.

News Feel above average without even trying
The world's median age is 27.75 years...so there's a very good chance that if you're living in a wealthy country, you're above-average. At least in age.

Humor and Good News Six supposedly-ancient traditions that aren't

Humor and Good News Losing a battle with your own flip-flop sandals
(Video) A case study in why it's a bad idea to get too intoxicated (by alcohol and/or drugs) in public now that we're in the YouTube era. The guy caught on video doesn't hurt anyone in the painful process of trying to get his sandals on, but the video would provide water-tight evidence against him for a public intoxication charge.

The United States of America $900,000 donation from Hugh Hefner saves "Hollywood" sign
A conservation needed the Playboy icon's help to buy the land around the sign. It's interesting what people will do with a huge pile of money.

Water News Iowa regulators think our water is in bad shape, but getting better

Broadcasting Podcast: What's so admirable about a Century Farm

Broadcasting Podcast: How to protect a new computer

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News When will politicians realize that sarcasm never translates well?
Britain's Conservative Party is running a campaign ad based entirely off the idea of being the opposite of a party full of bad ideas. But sarcasm never translates well, especially in politics. A witty aside (like Ronald Reagan's famous jibe about Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience") can be a work of art -- Mondale even cracked up when Reagan joked at his expense. But a long-form setup of "here's a bunch of awful stuff that could happen", followed by ten seconds of "don't let this happen to you; vote for us" is weak. It's too stupid to be satire but too complicated for people to get the joke without trying. It's undoubtedly going to backfire. On a related note, Britain is also host to the Freedom and Responsibility Party, an oddly-named group if ever there was one. Not that freedom and responsibility are separable; they are not. But voters rarely wish to be reminded that they're responsible for anything.

The United States of America The question of statehood for Puerto Rico returns
If Puerto Rico were to be admitted as a state (still only a distant possibility), some other state would likely have to be admitted at the same time, but of an opposite political character. For instance, if Puerto Rico appeared to be a likely Democratic-leaning state, it might be enough to push voters in California to split the left-leaning urban coastal cities from the right-leaning inland, creating a Republican-leaning second state of inland California.

Computers and the Internet How to make music without any knowledge or skill whatsoever
All music is mathematical in nature -- 4:4 time, syncopation, scales, and everything else that makes music pleasant to the ear comes from some kind of mathematical cause. Wolfram has used that to create a composition generator that creates music out of randomized numbers and formulas. The songs sound a little cheesy for now, because the MIDI platform on which they're based is tonally limited. But with time and refinement, there's really no reason the general principle couldn't be applied to making lots of random, personalized music to suit every person's taste. They lyrics may still have to be created by hand, but why shouldn't we enjoy a little bit of automated creativity? Stephen Wolfram, who put his name on the company behind the music generator, gave a TED talk in February in which he suggests that the relative unboundedness of computing potential means that we just have to keep developing chips and computing models that are slightly better than the ones that already exist, and as those iterations build upon themselves, sooner or later we'll be able to figure out a lot of the world's problems through computation.

Computers and the Internet Hugo Chavez starts up a Twitter account
If the arrival of the socialist bombast of Venezuela doesn't signal the beginning of the end for Twitter as a social phenomenon, it's hard to guess what will.

Computers and the Internet HP buys Palm
Palm has floundered a lot as a maker of handheld PDAs and phones, even though it was one of the originators of the field of what became smartphones. That Hewlett-Packard still sees enough life in the operation to make it part of the company suggests that HP has some pretty big plans in store. The presence of HP in a market already crowded by the likes of Apple and Google should make the smartphone market a very exciting place to be a consumer for the next few years.

Humor and Good News Now he sees it -- now he doesn't
Chicago Cub Marlon Byrd loses a fly ball in the sun, then catches it behind his back. It's really just a lot of fun to watch.

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Business and Finance Wall Street Journal's coverage of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting
Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger said a lot of things at the meeting that sound like "plain common sense", as we are so fond of saying. They talked about thinking about the long term, having faith in human ingenuity and the power of capitalism to unleash that ingenuity, and the virtues of learning every day. Yet it's not especially common to find people who live up to those "common sense" standards because we're bombarded with promises of easy money, effortless profits, and overnight success. It's really quite amazing how much reinforcement we humans seem to need on a regular basis: Talk radio reinforces opinions, preachers reinforce moral ideas, and television shows reinforce ideas about family and relationships. Oprah Winfrey has made a fortune by delivering a sort of comforting reinforcement to her viewers, and Benjamin Franklin essentially did the same thing 250 years ago with Poor Richard's Almanack. To have complete confidence in one's own ideas seems to be quite the rare thing -- and perhaps that's a good thing. As much as it's useful for a handful of people to be cheerful contrarians, we have to forever be on watch against sociopaths, who also don't really care what other people do or think, but do so with malice.