Gongol.com Archives: 2010 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol



Iowa Cedar Rapids applies a lesson of Economics 101
In order to help repopulate parts of down emptied by the floods of 2008, the city is offering what they say will be $35,000 in incentives for people to build new homes in places where the old ones were razed. The incentives include a free lot and 25% of the down payment on a new house. There's no doubt that's going to attract some buyers -- instant equity has a way of doing that -- but this is the third round of incentives being distributed by the city, and they're all targeting roughly the same price range of homes, so there could be a glut of those houses on the market as a result.

Iowa It's official: Iowa's going to lose another US House seat
Taking the state from five to four, for a loss of 20% of our influence in the House. That's just really awful news. We'd be much better off in a system where the House contained ten times as many members as it does now, so that a reapportionment like the one that will go into effect in 2012 wouldn't hurt us so badly.

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Computers and the Internet Personality engines: They're on the way
(Video) Psychologists would probably say it's much more complicated, but for most purposes, it's probably adequate to say that you are your habits. We define ourselves by behaving in ways that reflect our personalities, and those patterns of behavior are, at least for most people, at least partly predictable. This raises a question: How many habits or patterns does it take to define a personality? And, to take it a step further: How many habits or patterns would it take, when programmed into a computing system, to pass a Turing test? In other words, what is the difference between "you" and a sophisticated computer program modeled on you? It's not purely an abstract question: Presidents have been known to ask themselves "What would Teddy Roosevelt do?" or "What would Abraham Lincoln do?" What if we could, in fact, program a personality engine to tell us what they likely would have done? On a personal level, many people would probably like to have a residual personality engine for their loved ones: Maybe you could never meet your great grandmother in person, but you could ask a program modeled on her personality what she would advise you to do in a given situation. We turn to computers and the Internet for a variety of answers to our fact-based questions, but we haven't yet learned how to ask (and receive) answers based more upon subjective advice. Microsoft has started down this path, positioning its Bing search engine as a "decision engine" -- but it's barely the first step down the road. We rely upon people to advise us -- and undoubtedly, many of us seek the counsel of those who are no longer alive. Perhaps the development of personality engines would allow us to overcome their physical absence and help us to make better decisions -- which, ultimately, would serve tremendous good. Of course, then we face the problem that people evolve, change, grow, and learn over time. What would a personality engine do? Would a Leonardo da Vinci personality engine behave with the habits and patterns of the man from 500 years ago? Or would we expect him to be more enlightened, sharing 21st Century views of a civilized society? We would undoubtedly be expected to seek counsel from one either way, but which one would it be? The original da Vinci, or one who had adapted to a diverse modern world in which cultures interact freely? Would erasing the prejudices of the past make the advice received less authentic? Moreover, the whole notion raises another question: To what extent would a personality engine also serve as a judgment engine?



Business and Finance MarketWatch says Des Moines is the country's #4 city for business
We're behind Washington, Omaha, and Boston, but #4 isn't bad. Judging based upon unemployment, job growth, population growth, personal income, and local GDP puts Des Moines in a good position. It should be noted that Minneapolis and Denver are the next two top scorers. Something good can be said for doing business in the Midwest, where business is done differently than in other places. Geography and local culture combine with other influences to make it different.

News Lots of American cities are in huge financial trouble
As are some states -- notably Illinois -- and there's no promise that a Federal bailout is on the way.

Science and Technology Why it usually doesn't pay to switch checkout lines
Statistically speaking, there's almost always going to be a faster line nearby. But there is a way in which stores can be organized to create the fastest-possible service: Unitary checkout lines for everybody, with lots of checkers each ready to serve whomever is next. That results in the lowest average wait for anyone overall, since nobody gets stuck in a single bad line (say with a price check).

Humor and Good News A blessed Advent calendar

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Science and Technology Meet Mister Rogers' asteroid
There really is an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter that is named for Fred Rogers of the children's television show

Science and Technology Dead or alive? Look carefully at the eyes.
A report in "Psychological Science" finds that we humans use the eyes to determine whether the thing we're looking at is alive or not. Apparently a continuum can be drawn between doll eyes and human eyes, and a certain point is reached where we decide a thing "looks" alive (even if we know it's not) when it's roughly two-thirds of the way to looking like it has human eyes. The eyes probably explain why we think things like baby monkeys are adorable.

Computers and the Internet MySpace goes for broke
The social-networking service is trying to push its mobile service, along with a whole bunch of other aggressive marketing moves, to try to stay alive as it continues to get passed up in favor of Facebook. But for those keeping score at home, Facebook will undoubtedly have the same problem by about 2015, by which point Facebook will be so institutionalized that young people will see no reason to join it. The whole point of "youth culture" is to rebel against the mainstream, and Facebook is already crossing well over into the mainstream.

Business and Finance How Italians are richer than Americans
The average Italian family has almost half a million dollars' in net worth. Part of this comes from having 80% homeownership. Part of it comes from having almost half the relative amount of debt as American families.

Humor and Good News When I grow up, I want to work in advertising
(Video - with children using some coarse language) A spoof of an old Monster.com commercial, spun to poke fun at those who work in the advertising business

News "The Girl Effect"
(Video) How the world's rather large number of young girls could present a great risk for inducing perpetual poverty -- or a tremendous opportunity to help the developing world get on a trajectory toward a better future.

Humor and Good News Reductio ad absurdam
Designers strip away everything they can from the labels for consumer goods.

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Computers and the Internet Should you friend your parents on Facebook?
Flowcharts may or may not provide the answer, but it should be noted that the question reveals the likelihood that Facebook has already "peaked" in popularity. Young people try to do things that are outside the mainstream, and Facebook is now very much mainstream. But the concept of social networking is here to stay: Like television, the concept will remain, even if the precise tools used to get there change. Facebook will be eclipsed by some other social-networking website, just like MySpace was eclipsed by Facebook. But the concept remains, so people have to understand the concept in order to respond flexibly to changes in the actual technology.

Business and Finance Are index funds going to become nearly impossible to outperform?
Statistically speaking, some investors will always outperform the stock-market indices, but on average, performance will average the same as the market average, minus the costs of what the brokers charge.

Computers and the Internet Even a taunting photo on Facebook isn't enough to catch a DC burglar
A burglar left a photo of himself on the Facebook profile of a person he burglarized, and the DC police don't seem to have figured out how to use that picture to positively identify the burglar -- even though it's a clear full-frontal head shot and the victim has reported the story quite clearly on the Washington Post.

Business and Finance Should non-speeding drivers be caught on camera and entered in a lottery for cash?
It's an interesting idea for using incentives

Science and Technology Using ants to solve computing problems