Gongol.com Archives: 2010 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

Business and Finance A summary of the Dodd-Frank Act to bring about "financial reform"
There's some good in the act -- like giving shareholders a more direct say in matters of executive compensation. And there's a lot of bad in the act, too -- like the provision that would let the Federal Reserve arbitrarily "require a large, complex company, to divest some of its holdings if it poses a grave threat to the financial stability of the United States". In other words, a capricious authority can now simply declare a company too complex and break it up, even if no antitrust laws were broken -- or any other laws, for that matter. But the truly anxiety-inducing angle on the whole thing is simply its size and complexity. The act has been hailed as the "most sweeping financial industry reform legislation since the Great Depression." The problem with vast, sweeping reforms is that they often have vast unintended consequences. Many of the risks that were undertaken that led to the financial panic of the last couple of years were the result of another "sweeping" reform -- the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. Sweeping reforms lead to huge unintended consequences, because nobody -- including politicians -- can forecast all of the consequences of a law. The bigger the change in the law, the bigger the unintended results. And many of them will undoubtedly be harmful. And there's another problem: The tighter the regulations (on just about anything), the more that business decisions are guided by attempts to play as close to the margins of the rules as possible. We know this from our daily lives: Set the speed limit at 70, and people will try to get away with driving 72, because it's as close to the limit as they think they can play without getting busted. Nevermind that the actual safe speed might really only be 55 -- people drive according to the posted speed limit, not according to what's really most reasonable and proper. That's why research has found that fewer traffic controls actually increase traffic safety, because the burden is placed upon the driver to think about what he or she is doing, rather than turning over that thinking to the signs. As Cicero said, "The more laws, the less justice."

Health The profound importance of getting the record straight about vaccines
(Video) A doctor tells why he's incensed by opponents of vaccinations. He rightly highlights the fact that the scares about vaccines are based upon bogus claims that get a lot of traction because people respond to the science with emotion rather than reason. The really interesting nugget to take away from his talk is that the ingredients that people think are causing problems with vaccines have been removed from most vaccination cocktails -- yet opponents of vaccination claim that the problem caused by that ingredient is still growing. That makes for quite the leap from logic into absurdity.

Aviation News Canadian pilots want crushable concrete at the ends of runways
It's a design feature that helps to stop airplanes that, for whatever reason, are unable to stop on their own at the end of the tarmac. It's really quite brilliant.

Health Stay out of hospitals in July -- if you can
That's when the newly-minted doctors show up -- and they have a disproportionate propensity to leave dead patients behind

Business and Finance The IRS checklist for setting up a new company
It can be hoped that the lure of entrepreneurship still exceeds the burdens imposed by bureacracy

Science and Technology Sniffer device lets the profoundly paralyzed write
It's designed to let those who can't even control their blinking still get a message out by responding to letter choices with a sniff, because the soft palate at the roof of the mouth somehow seems to remain under voluntary control, even in the paralyzed. It's quite remarkable, really, considering that it takes a minute to select a single character -- yet that's far better than no communication at all. Consider how freeing that technology must feel, particularly when some people still complain that text messaging is too slow and cumbersome.

Threats and Hazards White House budget review expects Federal spending to keep getting worse through 2011

Science and Technology Learning more about liquid soil
Seismologists and engineers are looking at data gathered by pressure sensors in California during the Baja California earthquake on April 4th to determine the early-warning signs of liquefaction, which occurs when sandy soils filled with water turn into gravy during an earthquake.

News Cuba and Venezuela are in "a new kind of relationship"
(Article in Spanish) The two countries are trying to forge a political and economic alliance and claim to be cooperating on 139 projects of different sorts. It's more important than ever that the United States pay close attention to Latin America. What's happening in our own hemisphere is of massive relevance to our well-being. We have enough problems around the world to deal with -- like a bellicose North Korean government. Let's not make the situation worse by ignoring our own home turf.

Health Why people need to quit panicking over thimerosal
It's the vaccine preservative that some people blame for causing autism in children. But here's the thing: It's not even contained in most vaccines anyway. Children need to be vaccinated against a whole host of diseases which we as humans have been profoundly successful at defeating. No unfounded panic over an ingredient not even found in most of those vaccines should be allowed to overwhelm the evidence that vaccines are good for kids. It takes only a cursory understanding of the massive increases in life expectancy in the United States since the introduction of many vaccines to see just why a public-health victory like immunization is one of our greatest modern achievements.

Humor and Good News It's not vandalism if you only add a papier-mache shark

Water News Dam fails in northeastern Iowa

Science and Technology Is collaboration really a good in its own right?
The winners of the Netflix Prize (an inducement prize established by Netflix to reward the developers of a better algorithm for picking movies for customers) spoke recently to a group of science and technology teachers, telling them that collaboration was the tool that made their prize-winning solution possible. And while they're probably right, there's been painfully little effort put into using what we know about psychology and cognitive science in a way that will help students understand their strengths and weaknesses in ways that will help them make the best use of the good and compensate for the bad. Collaboration, for instance, can be an extremely useful tool in some areas, like science. But it can be a terrible approach to others, like evacuating passengers from an airplane crash. Some people are born collaborators; others are born to give comfort, or to work alone, or to lead. Using the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, for instance, an ENTJ type isn't likely to collaborate well under any circumstances -- he or she is most likely going to say, "We can make this really quick and easy if you'll just do exactly what I tell you." (In fact, that would make a far better characteristic quote than the one often cited elsewhere as the ENTJ trademark: "I'm really sorry you have to die.") And they'll often be right when they promise to get things done faster and more efficiently than others. It's a style that won't work well in a collaborative environment, but it'll often produce superior results when fighting a war or building a business. As much as knowing how productive certain approaches like collaboration can be, is knowing which approaches will suit the individual best, and how to tailor circumstances to make the best of the strengths of the people involved.

Broadcasting The problem with public broadcasting
The government official charged with overseeing the BBC likes the material that Britain's public broadcaster creates, but worries that it could be displacing private-sector investment in better television and radio. And he's right to have that concern, just as the government's ownership of General Motors has raised questions about whether political tricks are being played against other automotive manufacturers. Governments could be very successful in any number of sectors, but the problem is that they have relatively unlimited budgets with which to do so. Give a person an unlimited budget to achieve anything, and he or she can put the competition out of business by creating a great product, then subsidizing it like crazy. And when publicly-owned companies produce inferior material, then they're just wasting the taxpayer's dollar twice as badly.

Computers and the Internet Paywall at the Times of London's website obliterates its traffic count
An estimated 80% to 90% of its old traffic has evaporated

The United States of America A summary of initiative, referendum, and recall laws across the states
The tools of very-direct democracy are used quite differently from state to state

News The song "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" is about a real accident
Knowing that it really happened, and that the driver was really killed, kind of takes the fun out of what's usually sung as an amusing folk song about a fruit

Water News New flooding only serves to make the crop year look even more unpredictable

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Computers and the Internet British court awards Facebook prank victim about $16,000 in damages
A couple of guys in their early 20s got into a dispute, and one of them retaliated by posting pictures of child sex abuse on his rival's Facebook wall and accusing him of being gay. The victim won £10,000, or about $16,000, in libel damages, with one observer suggesting that it's even worse for someone to slander another via Facebook than just to the general public, since one's Facebook entries would be more likely to be seen in concentrated fashion by one's friends, peers, and associates, and thus the offending remarks would be more likely to do harm to one's reputation. People need to be educated on matters of slander before they make serious and permanent mistakes online. On a related note, it should be pointed out that the perpetrator in the Facebook story made a faulty connection between homosexuality and child abuse. It does not serve society well for one group to be wrongly associated with heinous acts against children when they are in no special condition to be the perpetrators; it in fact distracts attention away from the real causes of child sexual abuse and can make adults either complacent or ignorant about protecting their children from all kinds of predators -- just like the groundless suspicion of people based upon race, for instance, can render police work ineffective.

The United States of America The Constitution was written more than 70 years before anyone ever rode a bicycle
Now that's a scary thought.

Broadcasting The value of a clever message
(Video) A television public-service announcement campaign on behalf of seat-belt use employs one of the cleverest combinations of special effects and emotional appeal that one could expect to see

Aviation News When the International Space Station will appear overhead in Des Moines
A helpful site that allows for convenient localization shows both the current position of the International Space Station and lists when it will zip overhead. Depending on the weather, there are frequently five or six visible passes per day.

Science and Technology No, your air conditioner isn't poisoning you
An e-mail forward is circulating with the summer season, suggesting that automotive air conditioning is poisoning car passengers with benzene. The bottom line is that there is very little risk of such poisoning taking place -- and it's certainly less than the risk that a driver or passenger might be harmed by heat exhaustion. Just run the A/C, OK?

Water News Why flooding tends to be worst in urban areas

Threats and Hazards Religious and cultural practices do not excuse the abuse of children
A British newspaper reports that as many as 2,000 girls there will be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) over the summer vacation from school. It's unacceptable.

Weather and Disasters Just another way in which the Korean Peninsula could get explosive
Rising temperatures and earthquakes near what was thought to be a dormant volcano along the Chinese/North Korean border are getting some people concerned that the volcano might be coming back to life. One South Korean newspaper is suggesting that an underground nuclear test by North Korea might have restarted magma flows.

Threats and Hazards Authorities in Miami think they've busted a Haitian slavery ring
(Article in Spanish) Immigration officials think a crew was trying to bring 34 Haitians into the US to work as forced laborers.

Humor and Good News Some music videos defy any kind of explanation
Including one from India, where Bollywood apparently thinks other music videos don't contain enough shooting and fake limbs

The United States of America Apparently, we're pretty predictable
Americans, according to the study, are likely to sway to the party in or out of power depending on whether they're satisfied with how the people in charge are handling whatever seems to be the most important issue of the day -- in other words, we're single-issue voters (at least at the margins, among those whose minds aren't already made up), but the single issue can change. It doesn't seem like a real rocket-science kind of conclusion, but on the other hand, one historian's account of a meeting with President Obama last year suggests that Presidents don't always understand that they aren't infallible.

Water News Investigators will probably look at gates as potential contributor to Lake Delhi dam failure