Gongol.com Archives: February 2011
Brian Gongol


February 2011
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February 1, 2011

News Egyptian army says it won't use force against protesters
That's a huge announcement under the circumstances. Google and Twitter are cooperating to allow people to circumvent a government blackout of Internet access by delivering a phone-to-Twitter service for those who can't directly access the site itself. That step may very well be one of the signs we're on the fringe of an era in which companies rival national governments for power. It has happened on occasion in the past -- the Hudson's Bay Company could have passed for the actual government of parts of Canada for some time, and the Dutch East India Company had warships in its fleet. But it's something mainly new to us in the modern day.

Science and Technology Researchers think a baby bonobo has autism
He's at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, and they think that some of his eye movements and behaviors are signs he may be autistic. He obviously didn't get it from a vaccine.

Computers and the Internet Three rules for the safe use of Internet message boards
A segment from Saturday's "WHO Radio Wise Guys"


Broadcasting "The King's Speech": A delightful film, but wildly inaccurate
Christopher Hitchens tears apart some of the fabrications that form major parts of the movie

Science and Technology Telephone exchange names
American telephone numbers used to be identified by exchange names that revealed the first two digits of a local number in a word name, followed by five digits. We've long since abandoned the practice, but it's not hard to root out the origins of the convention.

Weather and Disasters Blizzard closes Lake Shore Drive in Chicago
A thousand cars got stuck

Computers and the Internet Google wants your mobile-phone number
Google Voice users can now port their existing cell-phone numbers over to Google Voice, so that the mobile number becomes a Google Voice number instead (that could, in turn, ring a cell phone number again). Not recommended for anyone but the boldest and savviest of computer users. Though it's unlikely to be closed now, Google has a history of shutting down lots of its experiments over the years, and Google Voice could become one of them.

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February 2, 2011

Aviation News TSA full-body scanners could get a little bit less creepy
Software is being tested at Las Vegas that turns the body scans into vague, stick-figure-like images that simply highlight points of potential concern. It certainly looks less creepy than the original body scans, though one could still be reasonably skeptical about the safety and efficacy of using those scans in an effort to thwart terrorism.

Humor and Good News Some art for your review
Just some abstract art created the other day by the proprietor of this site. Not nearly as good as anything you can see through the new Google Art Project, which offers a virtual tour of many of the world's great art galleries similar to what a person gets using Google Street View. At once, both technologically stunning (the resolution of many images is vastly higher than what a visitor could get putting eyeballs right up to the canvas) and enormously commendable (creating free access to a range of places that most people wouldn't get to see in an entire lifetime). The site serves another value altogether: Creating a sort of insurance policy against damage to the collections documented. Thanks to the project, should the unthinkable happen and a catastrophe wipe out the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Tate in London, many of the featured works of art would still be preserved -- albeit digitally -- for posterity. It's quite the community service, really.

Aviation News 40% of the top ten airlines of 2000 are gone
TWA, Northwest, Continental, and America West were among the top ten in 2000, and by the end of 2010, they were gone...all absorbed into other airlines. That's a considerable degree of consolidation in a single decade.

News Inside the town Chernobyl destroyed
25 years later, it's still a ghost town. And the images captured by a BBC crew on a recent visit are eerie.

Socialism Doesn't Work Is there a word to describe horrible safety posters in Soviet realist style?
"Terri-evil" comes to mind, but it doesn't quite seem to capture just how macabre and ghastly several of the posters really are.

News Why nobody seems to like Jay Cutler
Even in a town where sports legends are adored. Names like Ditka and Jordan and Santo are like codewords to a secret fantasy clubhouse in Chicago, but nobody seems to get behind Bears quarterback Cutler.

The United States of America What we have to be ashamed of
A map depicting that at which each of the United States is at its worst

Water News Know how to shut off your water in the cold

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February 3, 2011

Business and Finance US Cellular customers will have to wait for their Android OS upgrade
It was supposed to be delivered in late January, but the company says it's waiting on the handset maker HTC to make the phones ready. The problem here isn't that some software is delayed -- that happens all the time. The real problem is that the company is making its announcements in response to angry posts on Facebook. Companies should never rely upon third-party outlets like Facebook or Twitter or AOL or anything else to deliver their messages and serve as a primary conduit for communication with the customer. There should be a clearly-identified news section on US Cellular's website where one can go to find timely updates on things like operating-system upgrades. There's a press room, to be sure, but it's just full of marketing tripe. Customers deserve to find out useful information, and the company should be sharp about getting out in front of the story and telling them -- through official channels -- what the story is and how they expect it to evolve. They should never be caught making excuses on Facebook instead. That's just bad customer service and poor brand management. By the time someone's calling out a company on Facebook, they've already exhausted the normal channels for figuring out the problem and have reached the stage of venting about that anger. That's not a smart way to run a company. On a related note, Rupert Murdoch has launched a newspaper for the iPad called The Daily, not long after closing off many of News Corp.'s other websites from free access (the Times of London, for instance, resides behind a paywall). Seems like a silly choice: As though NBC Universal, deciding that it's no longer making money putting its programming over the air and basic cable, starts charging premium-channel prices for CNBC, NBC, and Telemundo -- while launching another brand-new service that only DirecTV subscribers can pay to watch, consisting mainly of content that they can get for free from CBS. Doesn't really make much sense.

Health Why medical test reports should be redesigned
(Video) A compelling TED talk that argues that better reports would be a highly effective tool in enabling (and encouraging) patients to do something about their own health. Good information leads to good buy-in.

News How to understand the rise of China
(Video) The most valuable takeaway from Martin Jacques's TED talk is that China isn't the monolithic nation-state it's often made out to be -- but it's also very much here to stay, in one form or another. China's government is using its cash riches to make huge investments in foreign economies (supposedly offering to invest more in Zimbabwe than the country's entire annual GDP), and there's evidence it's using dastardly espionage techniques to steal corporate secrets from abroad.

Business and Finance Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission
The report's conclusion is that pretty much everyone is to blame for what happened in the financial markets in 2008 -- regulators, corporate leaders, and investors alike. And when everyone is to blame, then there's really very little that's likely to be done. Diffusion of responsibility makes people feel like they have no individual responsibility to fix the problem. It's a report that probably contains a lot of accurate statements and observations, and that will also probably result in nothing useful.

Weather and Disasters Aerial views of the Chicago snowstorm
Two feet of snow dumped on a heavily-urbanized area look pretty fascinating from the sky

Iowa Bad news about West Glen
The West Des Moines mixed-use development is in a lot of debt-related trouble

Broadcasting Is Glenn Beck a lot like Father Coughlin?
There are some parallels, to be sure. Both have drawn upon populist anger to gain broadcasting fame.

News The swimsuit issue ... of American History Illustrated
Some styles dating back as much as 75 years still look classy. Others just look absurd.

Humor and Good News Walgreens introduces beer at a Wal-Mart Cola price
50-cent beer. Really.

Water News When it's 27 degrees below zero, who wants to work outside?

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February 4, 2011

Computers and the Internet Three ways to speed up a slow computer
Not an elaborate plan for the computer expert -- just a plain-language set of instructions for people who aren't computer experts. Novices and self-proclaimed "dummies" are the ones who need the help, anyway.

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February 10, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Smoking gun in what sure looks like the theft of tax money from Iowa by filmmakers
Iowa had a naive program established to try to encourage filmmakers to do work in the state. Like virtually every economic-development incentive out there, it cost a ton of taxpayer money and didn't really create new economic activity. It just shuffled money from the taxpayers' pile to the beneficiaries' pile. And when people use language like "make it look pretty" to describe their accounting, then it's pretty obvious that someone took the operation to be one that was run by rubes.

Humor and Good News 4-year-old crosses a snowy field to get help for mother and brother after car crash
That's a kid with some serious survival instincts

Humor and Good News What's really in your Gmail inbox
It would be vastly more hilarious if it weren't so completely true

News Metrodome to get a new $18 million roof
Can it get finished in time for the football season in August? Maybe not. Will the Vikings even bother to stay around for long? Maybe not. Will insurance cover it? They hope so.

Health Strokes among the young remain uncommon, but they're dramatically on the rise
Blame lousy diets and sedentary lifestyles

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February 11, 2011

Iowa Worst population declines in Iowa happened in the western third of the state
Iowa needs a long-term strategy to ensure the health of its many small communities, centered on a thoughtful assessment of strategic growth in hub communities spaced reasonable distances apart.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft and Nokia hope to claw back into smartphones
They've both been losing ground to Apple's iPhone and all of the Android-based phones on the market. It wasn't long ago that Nokia was firmly on top of the phone market. Now it's in dramatic decline. That's why nobody should trust any technology giant to stay on top of the world for long -- Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, or anybody else. All success in a fast-changing technology market is fleeting. Just as AOL, MySpace, and Amiga. And the harder the companies involved try to satisfy consumer demands for new and better things, the worse it's going to be for any company that tries to stay in.

Business and Finance Americans may be turning to debt again
After a multi-year stretch of paying down debt and incrasing savings rates, there are signals that Americans are borrowing money more enthusiastically again. That's an enthusiasm we could do without.

Computers and the Internet Facebook's market valuation is now completely insane
There is no earthly reason for valuing the company at $60 billion

Business and Finance A good business -- spending 75 years doing as close to nothing as possible
Long-term thinking can lead to reliably strong results

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February 13, 2011

Agriculture Severe drought threatens wheat crop in China
And the rest of the world has plenty of reason to care: Commodities are priced on a global basis, and we all rely upon wheat. Plus, there's a substitution effect, so if wheat crops fail, people will demand something else to take wheat's place at the dining table. Plus, there's the profound effect that food shortages can have on political stability. Nobody should expect peace if the people have empty stomachs.

Science and Technology Tom Selleck visits the future and sees...us
(Video) AT&T ads from the 1990s made some reasonably good predictions about the future of telecommunications

Business and Finance CalPERS could be in big legal trouble
The SEC is investigating whether the huge retirement fund has been sufficiently forthcoming about its assets. The Illinois state pension fund is also being examined by Federal regulators for the same reason. And it's not just a problem with pension funds, though they're big targets -- the government is also trying to figure out whether private bond funds mis-marketed themselves to unwitting consumers. The SEC says it's hoping investors will clue them in when they think something's wrong.

News Mubarak's been shifting assets offshore for a few weeks already
It's a case of "revealed preferences" -- no matter what he might have been saying in public, the thing to watch is what he actually did. And if that meant trying to shuffle assets so that he could find a place to take a soft landing outside of Egypt, that tells us he was aware weeks ago that the protests were building enough to give him serious pause to consider whether he'd get to stay in the country. Related: Mubarak has a long, long time to wait before his exile from office matches Pete Rose's exile from baseball.

Health Women's tears are an anti-aphrodesiac to men
It's like the polar opposite of the supposed effect that a man "in touch with his feelings" has on the ladies

Business and Finance Google plans a hiring spree in 2011
The company plans to add 6,000 people to the payrolls, which would essentially be 25% more than what they have today. Though it's easy to be wowed by that rate of growth, it's also hard not to be skeptical that they can keep it up. That's just a lot of people to effectively integrate into a corporate culture, and a whole lot of individual hiring decisions to get right.

Humor and Good News And you thought your hair curled badly in the humidity...
Gorillas have it even worse. Thank goodness someone's documented it with a camera.

Humor and Good News Warm your buns at the bus stop
A creative bus stop ad in Minneapolis integrates actual heating coils

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February 15, 2011

The United States of America President proposes $1.1 trillion in budget cuts -- over the next ten years
There's really no way to effectively plug America's budget leak without (a) resolving the massive military commitment we've made overseas, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (b) dealing with entitlement spending.

Business and Finance Expect price hikes soon for food, clothes, and things that use a lot of metal
2011 could be a big year for price increases -- some of them surprising, others quite predictable

Threats and Hazards Government shall not deny the right of the people peaceably to assemble
Conservative politicians in Iran want opposition leaders to be tried for sedition (and possibly put to death) for organizing anti-government demonstrations there this week

Computers and the Internet Why Google needs to heed the Microsoft/Nokia partnership
(Video) The big deal isn't that the two are pairing up -- it's that they're both in such a weak position in the smartphone market that they think they have to do so. Both have had comparative advantages in related markets within the last ten years that looked impossible to overcome. Google is no safer. There's a reason people take seriously rumors of a Google takeover of Twitter: Whether it's conscious or not, people know somewhere deep in their skulls that the new tech boom is exactly that -- a boom -- and it's not permanently sustainable. The technology itself will endure, but there are just too many opportunities to make the wrong decisions for the businesses themselves to stay strong forever. This isn't to say that Google will go away in the next decade -- far from it. But it does suggest that it would be next to impossible for Google to remain the world's unrivalled leader in search technology, for instance, over that same time. The evidence that gaming Google's technology has become a lucrative business is so great that finding the next great alternative is clearly a honeypot too attractive for everyone to ignore.

Humor and Good News You know the recession must be over when really stupid ideas get traction again
People hunker down and get serious when times are tough. When things turn around, they get a little goofy again. Like the people who want to build a statue in honor of RoboCop in Detroit.

News Is it journalism or just crude propaganda?
It's nice to find a sharp wit like Charlie Brooker taking on the scourge of bad journalism

Computers and the Internet Google's "crisis response" website

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February 16, 2011

The United States of America When considering the "original intent" of the Constitution, remember...
Our third Vice President shot our first Treasury Secretary. There's altogether too much lip service paid to the Founding Fathers, as though they were deities who could do no wrong as they walked our humble Earth. The truth of the matter is that they were exceptionally smart and thought well ahead of their immediate needs when establishing the United States -- but they also had gotten their first attempt (the Articles of Confederation) awfully wrong, lived in a period when well water wasn't even safe to drink, and still tolerated arcane practices like human slavery and honor duels. Let's not pretend as though everything must be examined precisely through the lenses of what they might have intended -- they were human beings, too, most of whom had far less knowledge of the world than the ordinary college graduate ought to have today, merely by virtue of the fact we've had another 200-odd years of human experience in everything from medicine to physics to law. Respect and admiration are in order, but not mindless reverence. That's why they inserted a provision for amending the Constitution: To clean up their errors.

Computers and the Internet It's like eBay for brides
While international matchmaking services (the proverbial "Russian brides" of the Internet) may be facilitating a real service for a lot of lonely people around the world, there are unfortunately a saddening number of those relationships that end up in the abuse and exploitation of the immigrant women. The importation of women from abroad to marry men in the New World is anything but new -- the French exported "Daughters of the King" in the mid-1600s to help boost the population of Quebec.

Health Life's tougher when you have a working conscience
The latest in a virtually endless parade of shams and scams masquerading as health aids is an overpriced silicone band to be worn as a bracelet. It's clearly quite possible to make a fortune selling overpriced junk to the gullible, but that should be beneath enlightened people -- who should see that exploiting their fellow people is a bad way to go about living.

Business and Finance Howard Buffett's lessons learned from running an international charity
Interesting, once one considers that there are lots of international charities to be found around the world, and that many of them are probably being run by people with little or no experience. The knowledge transfer among such aid groups is probably much less than it ought to be.

Computers and the Internet Why it's so easy to hate Macs
The cult-like nature of the Apple ecosystem is nauseating -- even if the main alternative, Windows, remains clumsier than it should be.

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February 17, 2011

Computers and the Internet IBM's Watson clobbers human competitors on "Jeopardy!"
That's not necessarily a bad thing

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February 18, 2011

Health The hazards of sleeping with dogs
Lots of people are pet-sleepers, but it's just not been well-established that it's a healthy or safe thing to do

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.

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February 19, 2011

Business and Finance Now that the unions are major owners in GM and Chrysler, contract negotiations are even trickier than before
Ultimately, no business can survive if the relationship between labor and management (and ownership) is purely adversarial -- that's what got the automakers into trouble in the first place. If the parties had long ago seen that they couldn't just snipe at one another but had a vested interest in long-term planning for the health of the companies, things might not have resulted in two of the Big Three going under.

Aviation News The Airbus A380 engine failure was even uglier than it looked before
The report on the Qantas flight that had a catastrophic engine failure over Singapore certainly makes things look uglier than the first reports made it sound. The pilots sure appear to have had a massive challenge to wrestle.

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February 20, 2011

Business and Finance Want proof that the housing bubble was highly specific?
A single chart illustrates how much real estate is "underwater" by state -- and five states (Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and California) are 30% or more in the red. Several others are about 20% underwater. But about a dozen (including Iowa) are at or below 10%. That's a yawning gap -- but the problem is that those markets that got into deep trouble are also very big ones, and it's disproportionately affecting the rest of the country.

Threats and Hazards Iran will send warships through the Suez Canal on Monday
They're en route to Syria, and Israel is officially quite unhappy with the plan

Threats and Hazards The little-reported attempted terrorist attack in Spokane
Someone left a remote-controlled bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day parade. It was discovered in time and the attack was thwarted, but very little has been reported about the incident.

News More protests spreading in northern Africa and the Middle East
What's especially interesting is that the process appears to be a cascade: The whole process started in Tunisia, and subsequently caught on in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen. That's a whole lot of instability in a very wide stretch of geography. And it's difficult for the United States to just give a blanket endorsement to all of the protests, because sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't -- Iran's popular revolution of 1979 hasn't produced anything good for America. And there's also a clear need for the right institutions to be in place for any country to start building a functioning democratic government, and those institutions aren't developed overnight (after all, it took from 1776 to 1789 for the United States to even settle on the Constitution).

Business and Finance Just in time for Lent
Long John Silver's is getting a new logo and slogan. They do look nicer, but a new logo is only a small bit of polish to put on a company.

Computers and the Internet Quite the guest list
President Obama just had a dinner with the heads of Twitter, Netflix, Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco, and other companies that are hot in the technology sector. It was a closed-door session, though the quite obvious rivalries present in the room suggest that it probably wasn't exactly the kind of Earth-shaking meeting of the minds that the guest roster might have suggested.

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February 21, 2011

Threats and Hazards Did China hijack Internet traffic or not?
The alleged incident took place over 18 minutes last April. Some of the people who looked into it say it couldn't have been a fat-finger error.

Business and Finance Mark Cuban's advice on becoming a self-made entrepreneur
His advice, distilled: Work hard and do a lot of research. He also makes a strong case for cutting the complex "administrivia" that stands in the way of many Americans who might otherwise be innovating on their own. Even giant companies have to start somewhere, but if the hurdles to just get started become too great, then people aren't going to drive economic innovation and growth. They'll just shrug their shoulders and disappointedly go back to their desks and work for others. But the deadweight of needless complexity will continue to put a drag on companies of all sizes anyway.

News Nepal is just now getting ambulance service
Due to a number of factors -- including bureaucratic obstacles -- the country is just now getting fully-equipped ambulance service

Threats and Hazards Even Senators get treated badly by the TSA

Computers and the Internet Invent your own applications with Google App Inventor

Weather and Disasters Even Midwesterners ought to get earthquake insurance

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February 24, 2011

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February 25, 2011

Business and Finance What Warren Buffett will probably say in the Berkshire Hathaway annual report
Warren Buffett's annual letter to shareholders, contained within the Berkshire Hathaway annual report, is widely anticipated both within the shareholder community and throughout the investing public at large. Buffett is unusual in that he offers a lengthy narrative of the business environment and the performance of Berkshire's wide-ranging subsidiaries as part of the letter. It should be more common practice than it is -- unfortunately, though, Buffett is exceptional in so doing. His report on 2010, which by all estimates was a very strong year for the company, probably won't break a lot of new ground that his prior reports haven't covered in the past. But it's quite likely that he will harp on the theme of intrinsic value this year. There's been a lot of speculation about what the company will do with what is expected to be a $50 billion pile of cash (or more) by the end of 2011. A popular view encouraged by an article in Barron's is that Berkshire might start paying a shareholder dividend, which would be a significant break with the past. That's not especially likely, because that would signal that Buffett believes that individual shareholders would be able to earn a greater return from each dollar in dividends than he would be able to find on their behalf by investing it. And while he's notorious for lamenting that it's getting harder and harder to find deals that whet his appetite, he's also lamented that problem since the late 1960s, and yet has solved it every time. The way he solves it, though, is by pursuing intrinsic value: Believing that it's better to find something that's really worth less than the going market price and to buy it and hold on to it. In this annual report, he'll probably lament that there isn't a lot to be found right now that's valued below its intrinsic value -- at least not in the US market. And there isn't -- not after the run-up in the overall market over the last two years. But some businesses will always be available from time to time that will meet Buffett's standards for purchase, and this year will probably just mark a brief cooling-off period for the company (after the payoff of some very good investments elsewhere and a bit of profit-taking from its stock holdings), even if the overall stock market remains buoyant. But if a good portion of Buffett's letter doesn't focus on how investors ought to mentally separate stock share prices from the intrinsic value of the company behind those prices, one ought to be very surprised. He likely anticipates opportunities in the next couple of years that would reward having plenty of cash available in order to make new purchases, since the macroeconomic recovery has been anything but consistent and fully predictable. There will be hiccups over the coming few years, and those hiccups will be very good opportunities to buy. [Disclosure: The author owns Berkshire Hathaway stock.]

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February 26, 2011

Threats and Hazards The planet faces massive danger from electrical storms in the next couple of years
The Sun is expected to enter a period of intensified activity that could produce huge solar storms in 2012 and 2013. And we really haven't done much to make our electrical grids (and everything that relies upon them) sufficiently robust to withstand the risk.

Aviation News Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off for the last time
And it's carrying a humanoid robot that will be used to handle routine maintenance tasks on board the International Space Station -- which, if it works, will be a smart move: Why waste valuable human time on routine nonsense when a machine could do it instead? (Which is, by the way, exactly why we should be excited about the success of IBM's natural-language computer on "Jeopardy!".

Computers and the Internet Four things you should never share on Facebook
As a species, we're really playing with fire when we get access to tools of global communication without thoughtful training on how to use it properly

News Eastern Nebraska's getting a new overlaid area code
Even local calls will now require dialing the full area code

Iowa It would be delightful to see electric cars being manufactured in Iowa...
...but it's not a pleasant thing to hear that government agencies -- right down to the city level -- are giving away money to make it happen. If a business isn't going to succeed without subsidies, then those subsidies ought to come with a direct financial reward for the taxpayers whose money is risked upon them. And if people then recognize that as nothing more than partial state ownership of the firm, which has an unpleasantly socialist ring to it, then they should see why government shouldn't be in the direct-subsidies business at all.

Agriculture China's current drought is its worst in 60 years
Once again, it's clear that we need to find more and better ways to store larger crop surpluses in the good years so that there's plenty to rely upon in the bad years. Just imagine how bad things would be if it weren't a drought causing crop shortages in China, but another volcanic eruption like Tambora

Computers and the Internet An interactive map of Twitter users in the countries where major protests are taking place
And on a related subject: How a country could be disconnected from the Internet. It's highly unlikely that it could happen in the United States, but that hasn't stopped Senator Joe Lieberman from proposing a kill switch to make it possible.

Computers and the Internet Long overdue, but much-welcomed: An Android OS upgrade for US Cellular customers

Science and Technology A ship to carry 18,000,000 flat-screen televisions
Shipping line Maersk has signed a deal to buy at least ten ships roughly the size of four end-to-end football fields, that will travel at about 20 mph but use 20% less fuel than their predecessors. Pretty remarkable engineering.

Humor and Good News Who's crazier: Muammar Qaddafi or Charlie Sheen?
Moreover, who can tell their rants apart?

Science and Technology Flipper goes fishing
(Video) Some dolphins in Australia have learned to go fishing in water that's much too shallow for them to swim in normally. They weren't created this way -- it's a learned behavior. The reality of evolutionary progress is far more interesting than any creation myth.

Humor and Good News How to make your own (ugly) Cadbury's Creme Eggs
Easter's most decadent treat, now available 365 days a year

News A helpful online guide to the Irish political parties
A very clever little chart depicts the major differences among the five leading parties in a highly digestible format. A great use of technology in the public interest.

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February 28, 2011

Threats and Hazards "May you live in interesting times"
Remember the autumn of 2001? The free world spent months shaken and worried about the future after the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We learned more than we ever wanted to about Al Qaeda and its plans for global domination. Fast-forward to 2005, when a Jordanian author reported on Al Qaeda's seven-step plan towards a global caliphate. It started with the attacks on the United States and progressed through a recruitment period. Phase four was scheduled to last from 2010 until 2013. Its objective? Attacks on oil supplies, cyberterrorism against the United States, and an Al Qaeda-led effort to bring down "hated Arabic governments." Well, there's no doubt that "hated Arabic governments" are falling in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and probably several other countries in the very, very short term. But the wave of uprisings certainly doesn't seem to have been instigated by Al Qaeda. However, there's no guarantee that the vacuum of power created by the various overthrows won't, in turn, lead to an increase in the power and influence of radical organizations. In other words, Al Qaeda probably had nothing whatsoever to do with starting the chaos, but there is a very serious risk that the organization will act to benefit from it. At the same time, Western governments appear never to have seriously considered the prospect of an event like this, getting caught completely unprepared for things like a surge of 100,000 refugees leaving Libya. Sadly, we're seeing exactly what happens when we fail to think about and plan for the long term.

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