Gongol.com Archives: 2010 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

News We're not very good at addressing risk: Accept that fact, then try to accommodate
A rather perceptive article about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes the fine point that we tend to be really, really bad at comprehending catastrophic risk. We understand that bad things can happen, but we seem to be good at burying our concerns about the "worst that could happen" and living in blissful ignorance. Blissful, that is, until something goes horribly wrong, like it did in the Gulf, and causes a catastrophe. And those catastrophes can have massive repercussions that are hard to forecast as well: American politicians are clamoring for BP to set aside a $20 billion reserve account to pay for damages caused by the oil spill -- a curious challenge to the Constitutional notion that government can't just take what it wants without a due legal process. What could be truly extraordinary about the BP situation is that, if the US government pushes hard enough, it could shove BP right into insolvency. The whole idea of forcing the company to set aside money for victim compensation and punitive damages before there has been a due court process is unprecedented -- and dangerous to the notion of government staying within its prescribed limits. And if BP were to be pushed into insolvency, the people who would suffer the disproportionate burden of the consequences are not the executives working at the company, but rather the huge number of British pensioners who rely upon dividends from BP to help pay their power bills and buy groceries. Whether we imagine bumbling incompetence in the management of the spill, the reality of business today is that the people whom we'd like to hold personally accountable are rarely the ones who will suffer the consequences if the business itself is punished.

News Japan's prime minister worries the country will "collapse" under public debt
Relative to the size of its economy, Japan has about twice the amount of government debt that the US has. Due to its extraordinarily high private savings rate, they probably have a lower total debt burden (public and private combined) than the US does, but the fact is that a country cannot go on borrowing at an increasing rate forever. That which cannot go on forever must eventually stop. The hope must be that the "stop" can be achieved reasonably and in a measured way -- and not with civil unrest or violence. The eruption of civil war in Kyrgyzstan appears to be the result of the breaking of peace between opposed ethnic groups. It's scary stuff.

Humor and Good News The things people are willing to do with their free time
(Video) A stop-motion video of Mario Brothers, apparently made of Post-It Notes, should provide sufficient evidence to anyone who wonders that there's plenty of untapped brainpower sitting around, under-used, in America today. Which is what makes inducement prizes such an attractive idea: If we can find a few problems that we really want to solve and concentrate the benefits to finding the answers, perhaps some of the people currently dinking around making goofy videos might occasionally spend some of that leisure time trying to answer tough questions instead. It really just requires a little incentive, which is what the prizes are good for doing.

Humor and Good News Humor for economists
Even one of the driest of all social scientists can provide fertile ground for laughs

Broadcasting Podcast: The sorry state of state budgets

Broadcasting Podcast: The future of hive-minded vehicles

Water News After a long struggle with shortage, Lincoln finally has enough water for a summer

News Sarah Palin plans to meet Margaret Thatcher
What they have in common: Both are nominally-conservative female political leaders. What they do not have in common: A serious meeting of the minds on an intellectual basis for conservatism. Margaret Thatcher is a paragon of modern conservative (or classical liberal) leadership: Her philosophy in office was lucid (free markets and personal liberty under the rule of law), and drew from a wide range of thoughtful intellectual contributions from people like Friedrich Hayek. Palin, on the other hand, has been on a nauseating populist and anti-intellectual streak ever since her nomination by the Republican Party to the Vice Presidency that gives conservatism a bad name. Contrast Palin's "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick" comment with Thatcher's "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." Thatcher advocated a conservatism of ideas, not feelings. Palin does precisely the opposite, and in the process is scarcely that conservative at all -- she's populist. And in the grand scheme of things, the difference between the two is so vast it's unfortunate that many people will probably think the two are somehow alike. If only we were to be so lucky as to have a leader as thoughtful as Thatcher around today.

Socialism Doesn't Work Cedar Rapids, the new police state
Interstate 380 now has speed cameras mounted along the freeway as it passes through Cedar Rapids. This is abhorrent. When Iowa City puts up nuclear-weapon-free zone signs along the streets, it just looks goofy and anachronistic. (Who's going to carry a nuke into Iowa City?) But when Cedar Rapids mounts police cameras along the road and uses those to issue fines, it reeks of creepy authoritarianism. When the law is enforced via camera, rather than by an individual officer of the law with judgment and discretion, then we're turning over our responsibilities to think to the machines, and asking to be baby-sat by Big Brother. An old saying goes, "If a police officer follows you for 500 miles, you're going to get a ticket." With cameras like this in place, no one's going to have to drive the full 500 miles.

Business and Finance Afghanistan may have $1 trillion in mineral wealth
Which, if true, could certainly be of short-term benefit to the country; it could certainly bring in a fresh supply of cash and provide a rival economic activity to the heroin trade. But in the long term, it could end up creating more harm than good if it isn't used wisely. Few countries have done as well with endowments of natural resources wealth (like the oil-rich states of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria) as other states have done by adopting free markets and encouraging free trade under the rule of law (which has made resource-poor countries and states like Japan and Hong Kong filthy rich). It's been called the curse of oil wealth, and for good reason. While it may not be oil wealth they've found in Afghanistan, vast mineral wealth would be quite like the same thing.

Broadcasting A look at the WGN transmitter site

Humor and Good News A small vote in favor of free speech
(Video) Jon Stewart steps out of his usual political antagonism and makes a pretty fine statement in favor of freedom of speech. Good for him. And, in an extra touch of goodness, it's pretty entertaining, too.

Broadcasting Podcast: Is technology causing insomnia?

Broadcasting Podcast: Skin grafts, printed on demand

Water News Flash flooding in eastern Iowa

Business and Finance China agrees to a bunch of new investments in Greece
Taking a classic contrarian position, China's government is investing in projects with the European country just as everyone else rushes for the exit. It's strange how a Communist country with an authoritarian government can have at least some leaders who invest like value-oriented capitalists. China is planning for long-term economic growth much better than many individuals and institutions in the West -- but it still needs to come to terms with the need for self-government by the people.

News Can statistics help the Chicago Cubs?
The team has hired a new analyst to go through the Cubs' statistics, perhaps to help figure out why they're losing. That's one of the beautiful things about baseball: With a 162-game regular season, baseball is a game of very large numbers. Large enough that statistics really do matter, and so does their analysis. It's just one of the reasons why baseball is the greatest professional sport in the world today. Oh, and because the season lasts so long, the world doesn't just stop working for a month, like it's doing right now for the World Cup. That doesn't mean baseball can't be improved upon -- but a lot of its appeal comes from its tradition. It's been played so many times each year for so long that it's woven deep into Americans' historical memory. Which is why the switch from organ music to pop music at Wrigley Field during the batters' walk-ups is a horrible decision that should be reversed. Some changes we can handle -- a noodle outside the park may be weird, but it's not a real change to the atmosphere inside the park. But killing off the organ music? That's just bad branding.

Business and Finance A strange decision in a city with an empty skyscraper
Apparently, we haven't learned our collective lesson about the real-estate bubble. The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System is investing in the construction of a new 42-story skyscraper full of luxury condominiums -- in a town where a 52-story office skyscraper is empty. Seriously. It's on the market for $19 million. Building a brand-new building with larger buildings sitting empty nearby is positively daffy.

Health A man's relative strength is predictable from the quality of his voice

Humor and Good News Why do Iowans love ranch dressing?

The United States of America A history of Cadillac Presidential limousines

Broadcasting Podcast: Why you should vote in every election, every time

Broadcasting Podcast: Answers to a few common tech questions

Water News Awful flooding in eastern Nebraska

Science and Technology A little bit of insurance against existential risk
1.4-gigapixel camera newly mounted to a Hawaiian telescope will record four terabytes of data per night of photos of the night sky, which scientists will use to determine whether any big objects are headed our way

Computers and the Internet Cell phones are helping labor organizers in China
Technology undermining authoritarianism. Interesting.

News Oil from the Gulf could be in the Atlantic by October
Computer-based simulations suggest that it's going to be difficult to predict exactly what will happen, but the general outlook puts the oil on the East Coast by fall

Business and Finance How bad will the municipal-bond crisis be?
Lots of cities have been over-spending, and the same ratings agencies that failed to predict what would happen with the housing market are the ones judging how good the municipal bonds are. This could make for trouble.

Humor and Good News Major-League catcher marries woman he hit on from the bullpen

Weather and Disasters National Weather Service pushes lightning safety
On average, about 5 dozen Americans are killed every year by lightning. In terms of the total number of deaths each year, it's a tiny fraction of the whole. But lightning deaths are generally avoidable, so there's value in encouraging safe behavior.

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.

Weather and Disasters Just before the storm
A well-defined boundary on an incoming severe thunderstorm. There's a pretty extraordinary risk of large hail moving into eastern Iowa, northern Illinois, and southern Wisconsin.