Gongol.com Archives: March 2011
Brian Gongol


March 2011
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March 3, 2011

Health It would be a painful pun to call this story "heartwarming"
But the report on a little girl who was stillborn but rescued by three days of treatment with cooling pads that brought her body temperature down to the low 90s helped her survive interventions to revive her and protect her brain in the process. She's now 9 months old.

Computers and the Internet Google should not be surprised that people are adopting mobile search so quickly
The CEO said that their internal predictions didn't foresee mobile use taking off as quickly as it has

Computers and the Internet A good argument for taking the computers out of speedy stock trading
Reducing the speed -- just a little bit -- might help prevent future "flash crashes"

Business and Finance Don't drink the poisoned Kool-Aid
JP Morgan has initiated a technology-investment fund that apparently wants to buy a 10% share in Twitter for $450 million. Under no reasonable frame of reason is that company truly worth $4.5 billion. None. Its platform, though improved, is still unreliable, and it relies mainly on brand recognition to achieve any kind of ongoing success. But brand recognition for a website isn't a durable competitive advantage -- just ask Pets.com.

Computers and the Internet Google says it's pulled 21 malicious apps from its Android Marketplace
One of the good things about an open architecture for the Android OS is that it allows people to get the benefits of the work of a lot of programmers working independently. One of hte drawbacks of openness is that some people are crooks, and an open system can let them get away with malice, at least for a while. But that's a lot like living in an open society: If people can come and go as they choose, some of them will do bad things. But the benefit generally outweighs the cost, especially if the bad people are quickly punished.

Science and Technology Bell Labs claims to have invented the breakthrough successor to the cell tower
Instead of big, bulky towers with lots of large antennae, the company says it can deliver cell-phone coverage everywhere with tiny, half-pound "lightRadio" cubes that do the same work with a fraction of the power and a much tinier footprint. Whether the reality lives up to the hype remains to be seen.

Computers and the Internet Another malicious e-mail scam about personal safety
It's half a decade old, but making its way around once again, saying that you should dial 112 if you think you're being pulled over by a police impersonator, and that 112 will connect you to a satellite even if you're out of normal cell-phone reach. Two falsehoods there: 112 isn't even a recognized number in the United States, it's 911. Second, if your phone isn't satellite-equipped, there's no set of digits you can dial that will allow it to make the technological leap to communicate with them. If you're in America and you think you're being pulled over by a police impersonator, you're supposed to dial 911.

Iowa Arkansas earthquake was felt -- slightly -- in southern Iowa

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March 4, 2011

News Gaddafi ties make the London School of Economics look really bad
The head of the school has resigned after it was revealed that a whole lot of the LSE's money came from Libyan contributions, fees, and tuition. Does it say that higher education is too beholden to big contributors? That schools need to think more carefully about whom they choose to educate? That there is no middle ground between completely free governments and total despots with whom companies and schools should interact? All are good questions.

Threats and Hazards Crooks use telephone relay services to attempt credit-card scams
One of the great features of the Internet is the availability of text-relay services, that allow people who are deaf or unable to speak to use relay services to convert their typewritten text to a spoken relay operator. It's a wonderful service -- but it can also be abused. The relay operators can't interject their own words into the conversation, since it's strictly a relay service. But that also means that crooks, especially from overseas, can use the relay operators to mask their own spoken accents and conduct credit-card scams. It happens all the time, but it's rarely reported. And one of the worst parts is that credit-card companies have no incentive to stop the scams, since the liability falls upon the merchant processing the card. The credit-card industry does a categorically awful job of informing merchants and offering them any reasonable degree of support to thwart fraud.

Business and Finance Why Berkshire Hathaway succeeds as an operating business
Part of the reason for Berkshire's enormous success is that Warren Buffett is a phenomenal allocator of capital -- he knows, far better than the average, how to invest. But he also maintains a highly decentralized management system that relies upon good management close to where the operating businesses need it -- not a bloated corporate structure. In there, somewhere, are lessons not only for American business, but also for a lot of government and educational institutions.

Business and Finance US unemployment rate falls considerably from a few months ago
Manufacturing and construction added a lot of jobs

Computers and the Internet Twitter gave Charlie Sheen a fast-tracked "verified" account
On which he is either going completely bonkers in full view of the entire universe, or very efficiently gaining a lot of PR for some kind of new book or cult. Regardless, he's gotten more than a million followers practically overnight, and started a cultural reference to "winning" that even McDonald's has jumped aboard.

Computers and the Internet The DC area had big failures in its 911 service during a January snowstorm
And the problem is that it's certainly looking like Verizon tried pretty hard to avoid telling anyone

Health Some good advice for people hitting the gym for the first time

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March 5, 2011

Agriculture FDIC and Federal Reserve officials think Midwestern farmland is in an asset bubble
And it's hard not to see it the same way as they do -- prices have gone up dramatically and quickly, with the fundamental demand behind those prices being driven by highly volatile crop prices and unnaturally low interest rates. It's hard not to worry. Oil prices above $100 a barrel are naturally going to drive demand for corn to produce ethanol and soybeans to produce biodiesel, but high oil prices also make a lot of input prices much more expensive for farmers, too -- like the fuel they need to deliver those commodities to market, and the fertilizer used to improve crop yields. Commodities are a very difficult marketplace from which to make a lot of consistent profits.

Computers and the Internet Even the all-knowing, all-seeing Google makes mistakes
Like inventing an Interstate 136 that goes through southern Nebraska. Trust this website, folks: It's definitely not there. Google Maps has been alerted to the error, so enjoy it while you can.

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March 7, 2011

Business and Finance "Merger mania" among architecture firms
Whenever an extended period of consolidation in any industry goes down, the thoughtful observer ought to take a step back and ask whether the mergers are taking place because real efficiencies are being gained, or because it's just convenient for the people at the top. It's a grand stroke to the ego to preside over the acquisition of another company, but just because it's good for the id of the executive suite doesn't mean it was actually a smart strategic move. It's particularly suspicious when consolidation takes place within a single market -- like architecture. Smart investing is often a bit opportunistic -- Warren Buffett has legendarily built Berkshire Hathaway by buying whatever was the most attractive opportunity of any sort to be found, whether that's been insurance companies, candy makers, furniture stores, or railroads. He's never laid out a specific agenda to build a monopolistic company in any single market. For insight why, consider the case of eminent domain. The government reserves the right to force people to sell out when their land gets in the way of major projects (like a highway) because land that might only normally be worth $5,000 an acre increases in value when it's in the route of a project. In order to complete the route, all of the individual pieces have to be acquired first. A holdout could, hypothetically, demand a $50,000 or even $500,000-per-acre price if that acre happens to be the last remaining acre required to complete the route. Similarly, the market for a specific type of firm only has a limited "route", in that there are only a certain number of firms available within a given market, and the more one company wishes to acquire market share through acquisition, the more it ought to expect to find itself paying for incrementally more market share. That same capital, rather than being used to buy out more market share in a single industry, could -- at one point or another -- instead be more efficiently deployed acquiring completely unrelated companies. It's a deep microeconomic question, to be sure, but merger mania is often just that -- an ego-driven craze, not a smart business decision.

Business and Finance Dallas Federal Reserve president says enough's enough
He wants Congress to stop spending beyond its means, and now he's threatening to vote against plans to keep buying government bonds in the open market, in order to starve the beast a little bit

Iowa A new approach to Lenten fasting
Well, it might be a really old approach, too. But an Iowa man is going to try to survive on nothing but water and bock beer throughout Lent.

Computers and the Internet The surprising secrets of Pac-Man
The game's simplicity is undoubtedly what keeps it so attractive -- Tetris does the same thing, by the way -- but there are some things about Pac-Man that most people will probably find surprising, including the fact that the ghosts actually follow a predictable pattern of behavior.

Humor and Good News Toot your own horn

Water News State budget-balancing puts strain on Nebraska cities

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March 8, 2011

Humor and Good News The uncanny similarities between the Qaddafis and the Bluths
Fans of "Arrested Development" might be forgiven for having a little deja vu

Iowa UNI men's basketball coach offers to buy tickets for every student to attend tournament games
Classy -- and not a half-bad way to ensure that people have a little loyalty to you

Computers and the Internet When it's just too hard to ask out a girl in person...
...don't set up a prostitution request on Craigslist. That'll haunt you much longer than any errant Facebook "poke".

Broadcasting Podcasts from the latest "Brian Gongol Show" on WHO Radio
Including these conversations in .mp3 format: Tough times in Webster City, the future of cell-phone towers, the new tech bubble, and the incomprehensibly big Federal debt.

Broadcasting Podcasts from the latest "WHO Radio Wise Guys"
All are free downloads in .mp3 format: advice for buying a tablet computer, how to safely backup your computer, Google Maps places an Interstate highway where it doesn't belong, and Charlie Sheen goes bonkers on Twitter.

Water News EPA proposes expanded list of contaminants for water utilities to watch

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March 9, 2011

Computers and the Internet Five status updates nobody should ever share online
Just because Facebook, Twitter, and other services make it unthinkably easy to broadcast our thoughts to the entire known universe doesn't mean we should do it without thinking.

Broadcasting Sometime this year, a national EAS test
The United States never conducted a national activation of the old Emergency Broadcast System, which was a cultural mainstay of the Cold War. Now, for the first time, the government wants to run a national test of the Emergency Alert System, the successor to the Emergency Broadcast System. It wasn't activated on 9/11, even though there was pretty clear evidence that it should have been. Now, we'll find out if it even can be activated successfully nationwide -- more than a decade after the system was established. That it's been in operation that long without having been tested nationwide is one of those reasons why it's hard to take seriously any promises that the Federal government will ever be able to really "protect" Americans in an emergency.

Science and Technology The sky in time-lapse looks a lot like the ocean
Both are fluids...we just don't easily see the sky behaving like one, since it happens on a different time scale. Time-lapse shots of San Francisco's lively atmosphere provide a striking view of this fluid motion.

Iowa Small school districts in Iowa are sinking into a demographic hole
As farming becomes more efficient, fewer farmers are needed to produce the same volume of crops -- and more. That means there are fewer jobs in the towns that support farming, which in turn means those towns are shrinking. Iowa faces a long-term challenge: It's not going to be possible to maintain population in all of our small towns, nor even in most of them. So we'll have to figure out how to concentrate our efforts on "saving" a limited number of communities that might then have a chance at creating enough economic gravity that they can support regional trade and perhaps support some neighboring communities. People generally make most of their decisions based upon a limited number of factors: What's easiest, what's closest, what's most familiar, and/or what's best for their families. Proximity to a vibrant larger community -- one with good stores, restaurants, and things to do -- is essential to taking advantage of these pre-existing biases in people's decision-making. The future of Iowa's communities could pretty easily be predicted based upon whether they're within half an hour's driving distance (give or take a little) of communities that satisfy those needs. For those that don't, it's going to be extremely tough going in the future.

Broadcasting How much is a long-term business relationship worth?
The University of Minnesota has broadcast its football games on WCCO-AM since 1943, along with a lot of other university sports. That relationship is now over, due to the many vagaries of college sports broadcast contracts, particularly in the modern era of granting exclusive rights to a single network. One former announcer put it this way about how things used to be: "You just took it for granted -- everything was on WCCO". How much is a relationship like that worth? How much is lost, culturally, when there are no longer certain long-term institutions that they can rely upon? One of the great things about America is that we know when it's time to blow up the old and replace it with the new, but it's also sad to see that old relationships that could have been kept fresh and vibrant are instead allowed to fade away.

Water News How clear should Iowa's waters be?

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March 10, 2011

The United States of America Nebraska will keep its divisible electoral vote
In 2008, Nebraska became the first state in quite some time to split its votes in the Electoral College, letting the winner of each of its three Congressional districts take the vote of that district, and then granting the two seats allocated by its Senate representation to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Realistically, that's how the vote should be divided everywhere -- let each Congressional district have its own say, and let the popular vote in each state prevail for the two remaining Electoral College ballots. But an attempt was made to switch Nebraska back to a winner-take-all system, though fortunately that effort failed. The Electoral College is a very, very good tool for ensuring fairness to the smaller states in the Union, and keeping it -- rather than going to an idiotic "National Popular Vote" or some other method of voting -- ought to be a top priority for anyone living in any state smaller in population than, say, Louisiana or Kentucky, ought to be loudly defensive of the Electoral College, no matter how they might have felt about the outcomes of past elections, like in 2000.

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March 11, 2011

Weather and Disasters Truly unbelievable helicopter footage of the tsunami in Japan
The remarkable thing we're seeing with this earthquake -- beyond its mind-shattering magnitude and transcontinental impact -- is that it's happening in a fully "wired" nation, so virtually instantly we're able to see exactly what happened as it was experienced by the people there. The reach of the event doesn't just include the huge portion of the Pacific Basin directly affected by the waves, but the rest of the world that's been enabled to watch the event on a global scale, in real time.

Agriculture There isn't a lot of unused cropland yet where we can grow more corn
So that means we're going to have to keep growing more on existing acres, if we are to continue using corn as both a major food source and a fuel source

Iowa Cedar Rapids, city-become-hotelier
The City of Cedar Rapids is now in the hotel business, after purchasing the Five Seasons Hotel downtown for $3.2 million, with expectations of another $25 million in renovations ahead. One must have sympathy for the city and its leadership, all of whom have trying to recover from a natural disaster of epic proportions, but taking on ownership of a hotel that will require that much money to put into effective service is a rather significant risk to take with the taxpayers' money.

Humor and Good News Charles Schulz's letterhead, circa 1958
Lucy's caption at the bottom really takes the cake. Less subtle, but just as funny, is Harpo Marx's personal letterhead.

Water News A vivid look at the tsunami waves from today's earthquake in Japan

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March 12, 2011

Weather and Disasters Building codes probably saved many lives in Japan
But it should also be noted that a place can have all of the building codes in the world, but without the wealth to pay for the technology to meet those building codes, they're just empty words on paper

Computers and the Internet Electrical engineers think carbon nanotubes could conduct electricity better than metal wires
And they figure that allowing them to do so could cause mobile phones, for instance, to have a battery life measurable in weeks and months rather than hours.

Broadcasting Cumulus Media to buy out Citadel Broadcasting for about $2.4 billion
It's a peculiar event -- Cumulus is a smaller company than Citadel in terms of revenues. It's also odd because further consolidation in the radio industry simply hasn't looked like an economically-sound idea for quite some time. Radio consolidation went haywire in the late 1990s, but after the incredibly tough times in the advertising market following 9/11 and the recession that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble, most of the station ownership groups concluded that they didn't have a lot more to gain from clustering their stations together even more. Yet, here we go again.

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - March 12, 2011
How Google is helping with disaster relief in Japan

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March 13, 2011

Business and Finance Welcome to the era of mass customization
Companies of all types -- from food suppliers to motorcycle manufacturers -- are experimenting with ways of getting just the right balance between mass production (which keeps costs down) and personalization (which gives consumers a sense of added satisfaction). It undoubtedly complicates some economic measures, since the utility to be derived from flavoring one's own coffee or decorating one's own smartphone is pretty difficult to precisely account-for on a utility curve. That is, of course, to say nothing of the fact that altering one's Facebook page isn't really much of an act of self-individuation. We may be woefully surrogating entirely superficial "self-expression" for real forms of it, like learning how to write, or compose music, or make complex things.

Broadcasting Notes from the "Brian Gongol Show" on WHO Radio - March 13, 2011
Building codes may have set the rules that saved a lot of lives in Japan, but building codes are useless unless a country is wealthy enough to pay for the technologies to meet them.

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March 14, 2011

Weather and Disasters Before-and-after photos of the tsunami destruction in Japan
Astonishing

Business and Finance "Secret fears of the super-rich"
A researcher says, "One of the saddest phrases" spoken to those who inherit wealth is "You're never going to have to work"

Humor and Good News Street-brochure hilarity
The best is the last in the list, with Lionel Richie

Weather and Disasters A history of F5-scale tornadoes in Iowa
A list since 1871

Broadcasting Podcasts from the "Brian Gongol Show" on WHO Radio - March 13, 2011
Files are in .MP3 format: short ties and bad fashion sense, building codes only matter if you can pay for them, why Congress shouldn't bother with an antitrust investigation of Google, and getting one's annual Baconator.

Broadcasting Podcasts from the "WHO Radio Wise Guys" - March 12, 2011
Files are in .MP3 format: how to protect yourself (digitally) against disaster, the shocking destruction in Japan, four things never to post in a Facebook status update, and why you shouldn't express hate online.

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March 17, 2011

Computers and the Internet Debate continues over the "right to be forgotten"
European regulators are trying to figure out how to make that happen. The problem is that it's virtually impossible to be "forgotten" when digital records can be stored by anyone, and when press freedoms are still highly regarded (as they should be).

Computers and the Internet Philadelhia man returns home from business trip to a $20,000 bill for his phone's data package
It's pretty silly that wireless companies don't issue warning notices via e-mail or text to tell customers how much bandwidth they're using (and will be charged to use). Anyone can read their own water meter or electric meter; we should be able to do the same for our data plans, simply to act as informed consumers.

Computers and the Internet Chicago man is charged with three counds of raping women he met through Facebook
Always have a rule that establishes a firm litmus test for whom you'll "friend" on Facebook, and what the line should be between those with whom you'll communicate online and those whom you'll meet in real life.

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March 18, 2011

Computers and the Internet What website developers need to do to prepare for Internet Explorer 9
Microsoft is rolling out the ninth edition of its Internet browser, and they're claiming that it's going to be more compatible than previous editions were with generally-accepted standards for website development.

Computers and the Internet The New York Times website is going back behind a paywall
Apparently they didn't learn from past experience that most people simply don't want to pay for content on the Internet, any more than they want to pay for it on television. The mental space taken up by the cable bill or the cell-phone bill is the space that's reserved for "What I pay to get news and entertainment online". When most people go any farther than that, it's to get a whole new type of content -- like a Netflix streaming-video subscription -- not access to a single site. The paywall will be sufficiently limited that people will still end up getting most of the access they want to the NYT, but it's just not a great idea to think that even the heaviest users will be aching to drop $15 to $35 a month to read the Old Gray Lady online.

Iowa Iowa's first redistricting proposal will be released in two weeks
Iowa's losing a seat in the House of Representatives, so a whole new map must be drawn. Public hearings follow.

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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March 19, 2011

Computers and the Internet Four reasons everyone should have their own domain name
It costs about $10 or $15 a year, but it's worth much more than that

News Egypt: Now it's time to wait and see
The country's first free elections in a very long time will decide whether constitutional amendments will go through. Voting for the parliament comes in June and for president in August.

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March 21, 2011

Iowa Engineering News-Record praises Davenport for not building a floodwall
An editorial in the widely-regarded magazine suggests that Japan's tsunami warning and protection systems worked really well, but that sometimes it'll make more sense to behave like Davenport and, rather than building flood defenses, simply cede some land to regular flooding. But that's also a potentially costly choice, since Nature isn't always a cooperative force. And there's obviously a trade-off to what we spend on flood defenses, for instance -- that money could also be spent on things like defenses against cyberattacks, a man-made phenomenon that could easily be more destructive than anything Nature throws at us.

Computers and the Internet Google says the Chinese government is stepping up censorship attempts
The next three to six months could reveal a lot about China's future -- with revolutions being sparked with very little pure impetus across the Arab world, the Communist government in China appears to be doing everything it can to keep its people from finding out. But there's only so much of the Internet from which a nation can withdraw before it fails to obtain all of the benefits that come from easy information exchange. And the US is involved, too -- throwing a few hundred thousand dollars to the BBC to help with efforts to get around Internet and TV censorship in places like China. We have to be careful -- an unstable China might be more of a threat than a coherent and belligerent one. But over the long term, China can't stay the way it is. And with governments like those of Yemen shooting civilian protesters in the streets, American foreign policy is in a bind -- the Yemeni government has supposedly been helpful in fighting terrorism, but it's not a very good bedfellow.

Science and Technology Why there really aren't exactly 12 hours of daylight on the equinox
Technically, the sunrise occurs when the first peek of Sun comes over the horizon, but the Equinox is determined by the center point of the Sun, which apparently takes about three minutes to appear after the sunrise begins. Also, because the atmosphere bends light, we actually see the Sun before and after it's supposed to appear.

News No, you don't have to register your cell phone for the Do-Not-Call Registry
By law, mobile phones in the US are still supposed to be protected from auto-dialed telemarketing calls. Unfortunately, some people are forwarding e-mails that suggest that all cell phones are about to be released to the telemarketers to call at will. That's not true, and those forwards are not helpful.

Computers and the Internet Student is leaving UCLA after posting a stupid video on YouTube
A UCLA student has withdrawn from the university after getting threats and complaints reacting to a lengthy rant she posted on YouTube about how she dislikes Asians and their behavior on campus and in the library. The Internet makes it altogether too easy for people to say things they'll regret if they don't think first.

Weather and Disasters Teenager and 80-year-old grandmother survived 9 days trapped in Japanese quake rubble
Their story is pretty uplifting -- but it also really must make things difficult for rescue and recovery workers who usually stop looking for survivors after three or four days.

Iowa Depression-era mural to be uncovered after half a century under paint
It's a politically-charged painting, to be sure, but it's been in a courtroom and judges didn't think it made sense to have an emotionally-charged painting influencing juries.

Iowa Lawmaker says Iowa is going backwards on flood protection
And it could be a very bad year for flooding, too.

Computers and the Internet Firefox 4.0 is supposed to be released tomorrow
The browser has offered a strong challenge to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and it's undoubtedly contributed to advancing the state of the art. It's interesting that the release comes now -- hopefully enhancing competition in the browser market -- just at the same time that AT&T is set to purchase T-Mobile, reducing competition in America's cell-phone service market.

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March 29, 2011

Business and Finance Caterpillar threatens to leave Illinois over bad state management
It would be a terrible loss for the state, but maybe they'll learn a lesson

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March 30, 2011

News The right-hand arc is played out
When the same logo is supposed to represent a labor union, an insurance company, and a cable TV company on the same outfield wall, it doesn't mean anything anymore.

Computers and the Internet The laziest credit-card scam ever
Crooks try to steal money online all the time...but apparently they don't even care about trying to do it well anymore.

News Japan's going to give up on the damaged nuclear reactors
Once they can manage to stabilize the reactors, they're going to shut them down permanently. Not that that's necessarily a huge surprise.

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March 31, 2011

The United States of America China's official view of military power in the Pacific
The country's defense agency has issued a whitepaper on the military dynamic in the region, which says that things there are becoming more volatile. And they probably are. The really good question is who has a 20-year or 50-year view of what could happen in the Pacific region. The Chinese government, being a self-perpetuating organization centered on one political party and one power structure, is likely to be more capable of taking a long-term view of power and other dynamics in the region. The democratic process in the US means that long-term planning isn't rewarded. But that makes it no less necessary.

Iowa Iowa's new Congressional map
The state has lost a seat in Congress, and the first proposal for a new set of Congressional districts looks about as logical as a map of the sort could look. It's pretty much the state divided up into roughly-even quarters. The missing element to the plan (and it's not supposed to be part of the plan, but the state will need it anyway) is the plan to ensure the state's economic and political viability over the next decade -- and, even better, over the next 25 to 50.

News Just in case you thought the world was starting to make sense...
...Kevin Spacey just hosted an 80th birthday celebration in honor of Mikhail Gorbachev. One of the Spice Girls was there. Um...OK?

Science and Technology Cargill is going to use a sailboat to move grain
Actually, it's going to be a kite-powered ship. Because what's old is new again.

Threats and Hazards The FBI's new biometrics ID program is now at "initial operating capacity"
Watching cameras and computers gallop through biometric identities is fine for Hollywood thrillers, but the perpetual surveillance to which we are becoming accustomed is not healthy for a vibrant civil society

Humor and Good News Pride doesn't always belong on a tattoo
In fact, it usually doesn't. But it really doesn't belong in a tattoo of a father's Hooters-employed daughters. In their company garb. Eww.

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