Gongol.com Archives: April 2011
Brian Gongol

April 2011
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April 7, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Chinese artist arrested for "suspected economic crimes"
What would those be? How long can 1.3 billion people (and rising) live under a government that seems so arbitrary about tossing people into prison without due cause?

Iowa Do Iowa City and Cedar Rapids belong in different Congressional districts?
That's what's proposed by a new redistricting map, but it has to go through quite a bit of review before it can be approved. The new proposed map also separates Ames from Des Moines, but casts Des Moines together with Council Bluffs and Ames together with Sioux City. Ames and Des Moines have been apart for quite some time, though, so perhaps there's little thought about whether they belong together.

Science and Technology Teenagers allowed to sleep in do much better in school
A measurable increase in test scores results from letting them go to school later, so why do we insist on early school start times?

Iowa Reviewing a liberal-arts core curriculum
The University of Northern Iowa is reviewing the liberal-arts curriculum for students getting degrees there, and one of the major debates is over how to address science education. There's no escaping the fact that science education is in a dismal state in America today -- witness the vast number of snake-oil offerings in commercials and advertisements today, not to mention the pathetic state of understanding of issues like how nuclear fallout from Japan is (or more likely, is not) going to affect anyone living in America. But there are other areas where people generally seem to have little or no education about what they need to know: Personal finance, for instance, and media literacy. And for people living in the Midwest, especially, what about education on agricultural matters? And if anyone thought we could do without a general education on economics, they've apparently been asleep for the last five years.

Science and Technology "A library of Alexandria in which all humanity held a card"
Now that would be a dream condition for Wikipedia. But it doesn't always attract the people most qualified to write for it. It's also unfortunate that a lot of the world's best cutting-edge knowledge is hidden inside overpriced academic journals that nobody reads. One would think we'd have this problem solved by 2011, but we definitely don't.

Broadcasting Glenn Beck's bright flame flickers out at Fox News
His meteoric rise started with his move to the network in January 2009 -- after some time at CNN. Now, he's expected to be out by the end of the year. That's a fast burn for such a big star, but his rants have grown really difficult to stomach.

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April 8, 2011

Business and Finance Justice Department approves deal for Google to buy ITA
It's not a small purchase -- $700 million. And it's for a company that provides tracking of airfares, so the government has ordered them to keep supplying data to other sites, like Orbitz and Kayak. Google has to make a whole lot of right decisions to have any hope of being as successful in its second decade as it was in its first.

The American Way Lemonade stand day is coming
People in a number of American cities are going to try a small-scale program to encourage kids to think about entrepreneurship

Socialism Doesn't Work Who should have to pay for a new Vikings football stadium?
It's too bad that the allure of professional sports convinces governments and voters to spend tons of money to buy the allegiances of sports-team owners

Health "It's the only brain he has"
A mother shows more intelligence about her son's post-concussion care than any coaches seemed to want to. High school sports just aren't that important.

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April 12, 2011

Threats and Hazards How the recent budget battle was mere cartoon tomfoolery
That is, when compared to the real budget mess that's not being seriously addressed. The long-term structural problems with the US government budget are not being addressed, and a point of crisis is approaching fast.

Aviation News Why the ultra-low flyover at Kinnick Stadium last year?
The audience loved it when the jets only cleared the scoreboard by 58'. But superiors weren't as happy. The lead pilot claims he was distracted by other things.

News Catholics will soon have to mind their language in a whole new way
The church hierarchy has issued new guidelines taking effect later this year that change a whole lot of the ordinary language used in Mass -- and a lot of it could be said to be "King Jamesed-up". In other words, it's intended to be more flowery and poetic and less similar to ordinary speech.

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April 14, 2011

Humor and Good News Rickrolling the Oregon legislature
A coordinated prank got a bunch of Oregon state legislators to say the words to "Never Gonna Give You Up" on the floor during debates, and someone stitched them all together. Hilarious.

Science and Technology An old language is about to die out because the only remaining speakers don't talk to each other
While on one hand it's helpful for the world that homogenization of language is turning English into a de facto lingua franca, it's too bad that many languages are dying off without being thoroughly documented. It's no big deal that nobody speaks Sumerian in casual conversation anymore, but it's sure difficult for historians to go back and figure out what all the old writing was about.

Aviation News Don't believe everything you see
People are forwarding around photos of a "prototype" fighter jet they're calling the F/A-37. But it's not a real plane, and the "pilot" inside isn't really a pilot. They're promotional photos from a Hollywood film.

Science and Technology Abandoned old places of the modern age
The archaeology of the Industrial Age is pretty bizarre without the people inside it

News Zsa Zsa Gabor wants another baby
And the story wasn't even in The Onion. It's for real.

Iowa The Concord Coalition brings its message to Iowa
The state has a huge influence on the Presidential selection process, and if we don't hold the candidates accountable for being sensible on budget issues, that's a test we're failing to conduct for the rest of the country. We blew it in 2008 when Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama won -- neither of whom showed a shred of seriousness about fixing the Federal budget.


April 15, 2011

Business and Finance Why, oh why, do people still think gold is the "gold standard"?
It's a pretty-looking metal with little or no practical use. It's mined out of the ground in unpredictable volumes and then hoarded by people who think the apocalypse is near. But here's the dirty little secret they don't seem to realize: If the economy were somehow to collapse and currencies' values to be destroyed overnight, who in that post-apocalyptic scenario is going to know how to tell real gold from the fake stuff? It's not as though anybody (in any serious numbers) can tell the difference between real gold and fool's gold, which in turn renders the real stuff less valuable. Instead of hoarding gold, people who think the world's in dire distress should invest a similar amount of money (and time) in learning skills that they could use for barter. Today's gold fever is just another stupid fad driven by hype.

Iowa Redistricting sails through Iowa Legislature
And the governor plans to sign it. It's actually pretty remarkable how smoothly the entire process worked. Now, if only we could expand the number of members of Congress tenfold, then we wouldn't have such dramatic redistricting events to worry about in the first place.

Business and Finance Google is still making good profits, but people are starting to see the end to the bubble
Not a lot of publicly-traded companies manage to survive the kind of breakneck expansion through which Google has passed over the last few years, and as a giant company now, it has a huge target all over its back. The Google boom will end sooner than most people realize.

Health An artificial pancreas is underway
It's being tested in small groups in Britain. Tremendous news -- if it works -- for diabetics.

Humor and Good News The best news contest of the year
The Washington Post invites people to create dioramas using Peeps, and many of them focus on the news. Hilarious.

Computers and the Internet Crooks use programs distributed in the Android market to steal data from Skype accounts

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April 16, 2011

Broadcasting An excellent episode of "Modern Family"
(Video) ABC has really hit the mark with a genuinely funny sit-com that manages to find most of its humor gently. Good for them.

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April 17, 2011

Business and Finance Some people have far too much job security
The board of directors at BP -- the same BP that had a huge portion of its equity destroyed by a colossal oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico just a few months ago -- was just re-elected in full. Only one director had even a meaningful vote against his re-election -- but even then kept his job with 75% of the vote. In just one year, 30% of the stock's market value has evaporated, and the directors have overseen the company's loss of billions of dollars in expenses alone. How could they possibly have been allowed by the shareholders -- their bosses -- to keep their jobs?

Weather and Disasters The calmest, stupidest video of a passing tornado ever
(Video) Some lunatic sits calmly in his car as a tornado heads straight towards him. Seriously, America, we don't have to record everything on video.

Threats and Hazards Robo-calls attempt to scam Iowans

Science and Technology The volcano that feeds Yellowstone National Park is much bigger than previously thought

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April 18, 2011

Humor and Good News Is "Scream 4" worth watching? Not if you're blind.
(Video) The "Blind Film Critic" says there's no way to figure out the movie if you can't see the picture. That doesn't mean it's not good eye candy, but one might stop to consider what movies are like for the blind. Great dramatic writing would be good whether the players are visible or not. On the other hand, visual stunts like extreme ironing probably don't carry as well.

Computers and the Internet Facebook: Just another tool for putting one's ignorance on display to the world

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.

Humor and Good News A quick Passover summary for the Internet age

Broadcasting Podcasts from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - April 17, 2011
Four segments, each in MP3 format:
The problem with ATC
How did the BP board get re-elected? (part 1)
Seriously, how did they get re-elected? (part 2)
Please, make the gold bugs shut up.


April 19, 2011

Iowa Sophisticated crooks stole $2 million from Iowa banks
And they did it without ever stepping foot inside. They used identity theft and social engineering to get the money.

The United States of America General McChrystal didn't do anything worthy of firing
The Pentagon investigated the accusations made in the Rolling Stone article that got McChrystal canned, but couldn't substantiate anything sufficient to have warranted his firing. Too little, too late, unfortunately, but at least his name got cleared.

Agriculture US wheat farmers are facing a tough year
And that's probably going to put upward pressure on corn prices, since the two are, to some extent, substitutes for one another

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April 20, 2011

Business and Finance Goldman Sachs set aside $5.23 billion for employee pay in the first quarter
And it still had time for a $2.7 billion profit. The two numbers combined would be enough, approximately, to rebuild the World Trade Center twin towers or buy out the entirety of Chrysler. There's no question that investment bankers play a necessary function in a free market. But there's also little justification for paying them that much.

The United States of America Don't dress little girls like tramps

Humor and Good News No, kitty! This is my pot pie!
(Video) One of the classic "South Park" clips

Humor and Good News She's not a competitive eater

Computers and the Internet Skype fixes a vulnerability in its Android software

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April 21, 2011

Computers and the Internet Facebook decides that there's such a thing as "too much free speech"

Business and Finance Apple has a good quarter, but the iPod is having trouble
There's a whole lot of love now for the company, which is making lots of profits and earning lots of press. But sales of the iPod are down 17% from last year. The iPod was a huge success for Apple, but if it can fall this quickly, the company is quite obviously never more than a few years ahead of falling off a cliff. Product cycles are too fast in Apple's core business areas for the company to have a guarantee of success in the long run.

Computers and the Internet Wherever you go, the iPhone is watching you
Private movement is being recorded -- without a lot of transparency


April 22, 2011

Business and Finance "Brain drain" is a global phenomenon

Computers and the Internet Android phones track details of users' movements

Iowa Sensibility prevails; Iowa House won't impeach judges for no good reason
The Speaker of the House has stepped out to point out that he's against an impeachment campaign against the state's Supreme Court justices

Weather and Disasters Tornado-like storm rips up St. Louis airport
The winds especially left behind a terrible mess

Computers and the Internet UNI is switching to Google Apps
The good: It will allow the university to outsource a lot of the parts of its IT work that create headaches, and likely create some savings while giving students access to better tools. The bad: There are legitimate reasons to have concern about Google's approach to privacy, and a conscientious objector to Google probably can't opt-out without a whole lot of hassle.

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April 23, 2011

Health Free speech at odds with good public-health policy
The anti-vaccination campaigners, who are hell-bent on ignoring scientific evidence and putting their children (and everyone else) at risk of serious infectious diseases, are funding a billboard in Times Square to oppose the use of vaccinations. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which is about to celebrate National Infant Immunization Week, wants the billboard companies to take the messages down. It's a strange sort of tension: The anti-immunization lot have a right to say what they believe, but that imposes a costly burden on everyone else to respond loudly and frequently to drown out their fraudulent message.

Computers and the Internet How to prepare for an emergency evacuation

News Students learn better when teachers lecture
In-class problem-solving may be popular, but it's not associated with better learning


April 26, 2011

Computers and the Internet Beware the false computer hot spot
Too many people are too cavalier with their use of WiFi hotspots, and it's an enormous security hazard

Threats and Hazards Don't name anything after living politicians
Whether it's the "Harkin Institute" proposed for Iowa State University or anything that Robert Byrd slapped his name upon while in Congress for decades, public goods should never bear the names of living politicians. It's in bad taste, it raises enormous ethical issues, and it carries the huge risk that the politician might turn out to be a crook -- like Dan Rostenkowski or any number of living ex-governors of Illinois. It just shouldn't be done.

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April 27, 2011

Computers and the Internet What to do with an out-of-date computer
Microsoft, in an only lightly self-promotional article, suggests several options for what to do with a computer that's been replaced by something faster and newer. The suggestion to use it as a DVR makes sense, as long as the hard drive has been cleared and the processor is fast enough to handle the work. Leftover computers used to make sense as MP3 servers, too, but those aren't in high demand now that portable MP3 players are a giveaway item. The suggestion to tie it to a distributed-computing network isn't a bad idea at all, particularly considering the number of distributed-computing projects that are underway today. Another suggestion, to donate it to charity, is good on the surface but flawed in practice: One should never, ever, give away a computer with the hard drive still installed. Always remove the hard drive -- physically -- from a computer before giving it away. Wiping it or reformatting it is not good enough. Giving the computer to a family member is just another form of giving it to charity, and on the old "green" mantra of reduce-reuse-recycle, it's a sensible form of re-use. One person's out-of-date laptop is someone else's upgrade. Recycling the components is perhaps a less efficient means of preventing computer waste, but the rule about extracting the hard drive first still applies. Microsoft also advises turning an old computer into a new television, which can be done, but it usually requires some limited technical skill to carry out, as would turning it into a game server or the core of a household security system. There's probably more merit to the security-system idea, though it would require purchasing cameras and probably wouldn't be very energy-efficient. Turning the components into art is probably left to the kinds of people who were already thinking of ways to disassemble things like computers already, though there are some creative types who have turned old CRT monitors into geeky fishbowls -- though that still leaves behind some potentially toxic components that should be handled with care. A working old computer can be modified into a dynamic photo frame -- but if the fans are running loudly, they could become distracting. Using an ex-primary computer as a backup storage device is a fine option, as long as it doesn't occupy useful floor or desk space somewhere. (That doesn't mean one shouldn't still store backup data at least 100 miles away from home, because everyone should. But extra backups aren't bad to have around.)

The United States of America Arnold Schwarzenegger feels flabby

News Can the Obama birth certificate issue finally go away?

Water News Omaha won't get state sewer help until at least next year

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April 28, 2011

Computers and the Internet Gmail's "priority inbox" should be a warning sign
Gmail has done an excellent job of morphing into one of the best webmail services (if not the solitary best) available to the public. It didn't take long for Gmail to surge ahead of the competition -- just five years ago, it was still available by invitation only, and its storage limits were ten times bigger than the competitions' -- but the "priority inbox" tool is like a canary in a coal mine. First off, it's visually cluttering. Google's been the main battleground for a fight between visual clutter and new utilities for a while now, including on the iconic Google search homepage. But the emergence of (and apparent demand for) the priority inbox also telegraphs two other things: One, at least some users are so overwhelmed by their incoming email that they're willing to turn over the categorization and management of that incoming email to computers; that's a whole lot of abdication. Two, it says that users don't know how to effectively manage Gmail's filtering feature, which has been around almost since the start of the service. Filtering isn't difficult, and it's one of the most attractive options available in Gmail -- and it's also one of the most robust tools available for managing to repel spam and flag the messages that truly are the most important. Gmail users should already know to create a filter on behalf of the senders they really care about that either stars their messages automatically or adds a "priority" label to them.

Business and Finance Bernanke says the Federal budget deficit is "not sustainable"
Talk about your categorical understatement. He spoke at a news conference following the FOMC meeting today, which was the first time that's happened. The committee discussed inflation and economic-growth projections for the coming two or three years that really seem to hold out hope for a very strong 2013.

Computers and the Internet Apple says it wasn't trying to track users' movements
In response to public outcry from about a week ago that the iPhone was (apparently) secretly recording the movements of iPhone users and transmitting that information back to Apple via hidden files, the company has released a statement saying that the records weren't what people thought they were (Apple says they were records of nearby cell towers and WiFi hotspots, not GPS data), that it wasn't trying to track them (Apple says the data shouldn't have been stored as long as it was, and that a correction is coming), and that the company wasn't trying to use the data to track individuals at all (a claim whose veracity can't really be known from outside Apple's corporate walls). The initial announcements from the researchers who found the bug and the public outcry that followed were probably both overheated, and on the other hand there's probably at least someone at Apple who knew this was a problem long before it became public and either didn't speak up or didn't get anything done about it.

Computers and the Internet Yahoo sells the social-bookmarking site Delicious...
...to the guys who sold YouTube to Google. Now, that's some peculiar horse-trading. Social bookmarking was a fad that's past its prime already. That doesn't mean people won't continue to share links of interest, but the concept takes too long to explain and thus isn't really capable of working on a mass market. The appeal of YouTube, for instance, is quite simple: Watch videos anytime. The appeal of social bookmarking is harder to explain. And all of this happens against the backdrop of "What happened to Yahoo?" The company, once the name above all names among Internet directories, is still decidedly unclear about what it wants to do or be. It's still managed to turn a nice profit in the last few years, but its revenues have been in decline.

Computers and the Internet Facebook for scientists
It's called ResearchGate, and its founder is hoping to accelerate the pace of scientific research by connecting scientists to one another without making them wade through the stuffy scientific literature. One might note, though, that its main advantages -- speed and informality -- are likely to be what makes it less than durable. Bound sets of scientific journals will last virtually forever. Social networking websites won't.

Weather and Disasters Frightening video of the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) tornado
(Video) The trees between the cameraperson and the tornado really put its size into perspective. The outbreak of tornadoes yesterday looks like it was one of the biggest ever.

News "The idea of hereditary legislators is as [...] absurd as an hereditary mathematician." - Thomas Paine
Who cares about the "royal" wedding?

Weather and Disasters "The prudent thing to do is assume earthquakes will continue"
That's not a prognostication for the Pacific Rim -- it's one for the central United States, where there's no substantial reason to believe the New Madrid Fault is anything but a still-ticking time bomb. The 200-year anniversary of the great quake there is coming up, and the long time that has passed is no guarantee there won't be another.

Business and Finance Let's not be surprised that internships are being abused
A research project finds that 17% of British companies in a small survey admitted to using interns as a source of cheap labor. The concept of an internship is not to displace paid labor, but to enhance the skills of an otherwise less-experienced potential worker in a way that benefits them more than it benefits the employer. Otherwise, it has to be a paid position.

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April 29, 2011

The United States of America It's possible that nobody in America needs to shut up more than Donald Trump
Not only is he a terrible example for anyone to follow in business, he's now out rudely espousing patently nonsensical political positions in his flirtation with a run for President. He apparently told a Las Vegas crowd that he'd slap a 25% tariff on imports from China and just tell OPEC what price we'll pay for oil through sheer force of will. A 25% tariff on Chinese imports would make ordinary goods jump in price overnight -- not a good thing to do in a time when economists are worried about stagflation. It would also trigger a trade war with one of our biggest trading partners. It's a patently stupid idea. And the notion that OPEC will just be bullied into submission because a doofus with ridiculous hair barks swear words at them...well, that's just hallucinatory.

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