Gongol.com Archives: July 2011
Brian Gongol

July 2011
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July 1, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Chinese president wants order and economic growth
Speaking at the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China, President Hu appeared to acknowledge some realpolitik concerns -- like the fact that corruption undermines the party's popular support -- but, like any classical rent seeker, argued that only he and his team were good enough to do the job of leading the country. But he ought to take note: Monopolies, even those on political power, are rarely maintained for long.

The United States of America County supervisor wants his and a dozen other counties to secede from California
He thinks the counties are paying in too much to the state government and getting too little back, and thinks the region -- apparently, roughly the Inland Empire area -- to start their own state. New states have been formed out of old ones before.

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July 5, 2011

Weather and Disasters Eye-popping aerial photos of the flooding in the Missouri River basin
Just another attempt to grasp the magnitude of the disaster

Iowa North Liberty: From tiny town to booming suburb at breakneck speed
Note that the most important challenge facing the town -- which more than doubled in population over the last decade -- was keeping up with infrastructure requirements. They aren't sexy, but roads, sewers, and water lines comprise the single most important category of necessities for any community. Without them, there's no point to putting in parks or even good schools. The very basics of modern life are often overlooked, but they're completely and totally essential to keeping a city afloat.

Humor and Good News There is no "poop fairy"
People don't always realize it, but their animal waste is just as hazardous to public health and water supplies as human waste. When it's left on the ground, it makes its way -- untreated -- to streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes. Nobody would do that with their own waste, so they shouldn't do it with that of their pets, either.

Threats and Hazards Humanitarian emergency in Africa
It's the driest year since 1951 in parts of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda, and 10 million people need help. Almost all food crises -- including this one -- are magnified by political problems. There's enough food in the world to go around, but food also makes a convenient weapon with which to wage war, which is what's happening in Somalia, for instance.

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July 6, 2011

Business and Finance "You don't have to train machines"
As capital has become cheap relative to labor, companies are buying things like robots rather than hiring new workers. That's why the economy is growing but unemployment rates aren't falling. A Harvard economist says (rightly) that if what you do can be programmed into a machine (or written down like a program) then you're probably going to be unemployed soon.

Science and Technology Learning from the disaster in Joplin
Engineers and others are looking at the buildings that collapsed in the Joplin tornado, trying to figure out whether there are lessons to be learned to save lives in the future. It's not pleasant work, since people died where the observations will be taking place. But it's one of the most important things that can be done after a disaster. Human progress is made by observing failures and taking preventive action to keep them from recurring.

Computers and the Internet Google redesigns the user interface for Gmail and Google Calendar
The company is finding itself in an increasingly challenging cycle, trying to satisfy a fickle public that wants new stuff but doesn't always go along with change very easily

News Mama robin says "hello" and "goodbye" to her babies

Computers and the Internet Does Firefox update too frequently?
What's good for consumers and households -- an Internet browser that updates frequently, keeping up with security developments and new technological opportunities -- is bad for corporate users that don't want to have to test new software all the time. But that really just reveals the failure of the corporate-user environment, not a problem with the development of new browsers.

Computers and the Internet LulzSec hacker group claims it's disbanding

Humor and Good News A macaque self-portrait
Nature photographer claims macaques in Indonesia heisted his camera, and one of them took a rather cheesy self-portrait

Broadcasting WHO Radio Wise Guys - July 2, 2011
Four segments, each available in MP3 format: Google Plus has gone live, MySpace has been sold, auto-tune is killing Western Civilization, and Verizon is about to start limiting data plans.

Computers and the Internet GoDaddy sells out to private-equity firms

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July 7, 2011

Science and Technology A big bet -- with Federal funding -- on cellulosic ethanol
The good news: They're going to start making ethanol from more than just the kernels of corn -- using cobs, salks, and other materials that otherwise just get inefficiently used or just go to waste. The bad news is that the plant is going to cost the Federal government $105 million (out of a total construction cost around $350 million). First of all, the government doesn't have spare cash right now -- we're in a huge budget hole. Second, it makes the government essentially an investor in the plant without giving it any claim on the benefits. (Government ownership of private business is a bad thing...government ownership without any reward is even worse.) Third, it's bothersome to see that there are still so many efforts being put into attempts to manage the country's energy policy -- by a government that just released a bunch of petroleum from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, just because people complained that gas prices were too high. Nothing should have been released from the strategic reserves -- those should be stored for true national emergencies. This isn't a time of national emergency. And by releasing cheap fuel on one end, while subsidizing the production of an alternative fuel on the other is counterproductive. If gas prices rose high enough, then projects like cellulosic-ethanol plants would be capable of profiting faster in the private sector alone, without government help. Clearly, the people who are "in charge" have no idea what they're doing.

Science and Technology Galaxy Zoo: Coordinating lots of little efforts into big exploratory value
Some tasks still aren't suitable for computers to do -- like classifying galaxies based upon their appearance, which requires some subjective judgment. But it turns out that when the huge amounts of uncategorized data collected about space are organized and handed over to volunteers for review, those people can race through hundreds of thousands of images and produce really useful, reliable data. That's a fantastic use of computing power and human effort.

Business and Finance Minnesota's budget stalemate gets...well, more stale
The governor and state legislature are arguing over roughly $3 billion in spending, and nobody seems to be getting closer to agreement. State budget problems are going to become more of a commonplace feature of life in America as pension costs rise and as the Federal government pulls back from funding things it can no longer pretend to afford.

Iowa Bob Vander Plaats, please sit down and shut up
It's one thing to ask Presidential candidates to say they're in favor of marriage. That's a platitude, like being in favor of Mom and apple pie. It's quite another to ask them (as Vander Plaats and his advocacy group do) to sign an absurd pledge that appears in its very first bullet point to make it sound as though black Americans had better family lives under slavery than they do today. That's insulting, and the whole "pledge" looks like like race-baiting and gay-hatred.

Computers and the Internet Facebook and Skype establish partnership
Free Skype calls are coming to Facebook soon

Iowa Sioux City is rated one of the best living bargains in America
These kinds of rankings are always a little spurious, but the bottom line is that Sioux City and many other Iowa cities offer a very high quality of life and a low cost of living

Humor and Good News Max-performing your vehicle

Threats and Hazards Al-Qaeda seriously needs to give up the aviation obsession
The terrorist group may be planning to surgically implant bombs in terrorists' abdomens to help them evade screening at airport security checkpoints

The United States of America 14th Amendment could offer a back-door solution to the debt-ceiling crisis
The problem with the "debt ceiling" is that the nation is obligated to pay its debts, no matter what. That we don't like the President's spending policies is not sufficient nor just cause to lead us to the brink of default.

Aviation News A prototype flying car is supposed enter production next year
It's a two-seater and drives on motorcycle tires

Aviation News Air-traffic control turns 75 years old
The first control centers were in Chicago, Newark, and Cleveland. It's funny to think that 75 years later, Cleveland simply doesn't bear the national influence it once did. In 1940, Cleveland was the 6th-largest city in the country. (Newark was 18th.) Las Vegas wasn't even in the top 100. Times change: Cleveland's now 25th.

Science and Technology An 8,000-square-foot treehouse
The builder thought he heard a message from God in 1993 telling him to build

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July 8, 2011

Business and Fiditionsnance US unemployment sticks at 9.2%
It certainly appears as though the economy is growing without putting people into new jobs. That's because machines are relatively cheaper than employees right now, and that's not all that likely to change, even though that's going to be bad news for people who want jobs. This is an interesting situation to compare with that of Japan, where a declining birthrate and a national hostility to immigration have combined to artificially contract their available pool of workers, making the country eager to find ways to get machines to do human work.

News Bad decisions kill a 168-year-old newspaper
Britain's "News of the World" has been around since before the American Civil War. Today, it's being shut down because reporters and editors apparently were hacking into the voice-mail accounts of thousands of people, including murdered teenagers and the British royal family. Stupid, short-sighted thinking is what brings companies (and other institutions) to their knees. Every organization should have a 100-year business plan to identify what it's going to do to stick around for the long haul. The News of the World may have been the best-selling newspaper in Britain, but a lack of scruples and vision killed it.

Computers and the Internet Google tweaks the look of Calendar and Gmail
They're making evolutionary changes to the interfaces to make them more consistent from site to site and (hypothetically) more useful and user-friendly.

Threats and Hazards This is why everyone should learn self-defense
(Video) A video shows a man being attacked, beaten, and stabbed by a mob in Chicago one recent night. There's no guarantee, of course, that any form of martial art or self-defense technique would have stopped the attack, but the video provides some startling evidence that mob attacks still happen from time to time, and one certainly doesn't want to become a victim without a fighting chance.

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July 9, 2011

Computers and the Internet Google Plus: Opening up now to everyone
But is it hype-worthy? Maybe. As a social-networking site, it will fulfill one overdue need: Making Google's Picasa photo-sharing service something useful. Facebook's terms and conditions regarding photos are just too hazardous (Facebook claims worldwide, royalty-free rights to any photos you post there) and subject to whimsical change, so it's always a crapshoot whether sharing photos there will be worthwhile. To its credit, Google is pretty clear about not claiming any rights to photos posted on Picasa. There are still some bugs to be worked out -- not all of the links even work correctly within Google Plus -- but it has potential.

Humor and Good News They Might Be Giants performing a cover of "Tubthumping"
With the people who work on the AV Club at The Onion singing backup

Aviation News Final Space Shuttle mission underway
The Space Shuttle has worked -- with more than a few bugs -- for three decades. But the US now has no "Plan B" for going regularly into space for manned missions, since the Shuttle is being retired without a successor. Poor long-term planning, America. We could have done better. We only ever used the Shuttles 135 times.

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July 12, 2011

Humor and Good News Google Plus as a mountain base camp
The terms and conditions for the new social-netowrking site are a lot more favorable than those for Facebook, and that's a strong advantage. Plus, it's integrated into Gmail and other Google services, so it's easy to get to and you're reminded to use it whenever you're already logged onto any of those. On the downside, it's still not very well-designed, so it's visually clunky. And it's not quite as intuitive as it should be, so early adopters are spending a lot of time asking, "What am I supposed to do next?"

Iowa Des Moines gets a #1 ranking as a city for young professionals
The city is still hampered by local and state tax policies that are painful for small businesses, but low costs of living and a high standard of life make up for a lot -- especially for people who are willing to work for big companies. The winters are still terrible, though. We shouldn't lie about that. And sometimes the summer weather is awful, too.

Science and Technology Chicago will get a coal-to-natural-gas plant
A bill approving some of the necessary conditions has been signed by the governor

Agriculture Corn prices rise as projected supplies shrink
Overall, 80% of the state's crops are in good condition. That's even after considering the huge amount of flood damage in western Iowa.

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July 13, 2011

Humor and Good News Why everyone should know self-defense: Case study #2
Russian woman holds man hostage for three days after he attempts robbery. She knew karate.

Computers and the Internet Free text messaging via the Internet
Pretty pointless if you're an adult with unlimited messaging on your phone. Potentially valuable if you're a kid with text-message limits on a family plan.

Humor and Good News Michele Bachmann...on marriage

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July 14, 2011

Business and Finance If you don't want to lose control, don't give up control
Members of the family that sold the Wall Street Journal to News Corporation say they might not have sold out if they'd known that News Corp. was involved in unethical tactics at its newspapers in the UK. But here's the bottom line: Monday-morning quarterbacking on someone else's management of your former assets is meaningless. You can't complain because someone painted your old house an ugly color. If you don't want to give up control, then don't sell it off. And if you're really concerned about the legacy of something like a family business, but you are determined to sell, then choose a good buyer. That may require sacrificing some monetary gain up front. But if the company is worth something more than just the cash it can be sold for, then those other values ought to be taken under consideration.

News Minnesota state government shutdown causes a Coors shortage
The company can't renew licenses with the state while the government is shut down, and the state police say that means the beer has to come off the shelves. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says that MillerCoors supplies 38% of the beer in the entire state.

Weather and Disasters National Weather Service breaks down the derecho event of July 11th
It really was a remarkable straight-line wind storm -- some winds hit 105 miles an hour. The storm appears to have wiped out 75% of the trees in Vinton.

Business and Finance ConocoPhillips will split in half
The nation's third-largest oil company, which came together through a merger of Conoco and Phillips Petroleum back in 2002, is going to spin-off its refining and marketing arm into a separate company. One analyst applauds the decision, saying that every company should find one thing to do well and stick to it. But that's really not a very sensible plan: Every company should probably find three things it can do well, and divide efforts relatively evenly among all three. Business is too dynamic to have just one focus -- what seems like a great market to serve today could evaporate practically overnight (just ask the landline telephone companies or the dial-up Internet service providers). A better strategy is to have three legs to the stool, and take revenues in from three different directions. That way, when one slips, the other two can provide support. And if one turns out to be a dying industry, it can be replaced without putting the entire firm at risk. Maybe ConocoPhillips is better off separating the exploration and refining operations. But that still appears to leave each company with just a one-legged stool.

Iowa Iowa's biggest business problem right now: Our schools are slipping
Good human capital is our best asset, and we're apparently allowing that to slide

Aviation News 134 Space Shuttle launches in 134 seconds

News A labor strike at BBC News

Business and Finance Ben Bernanke may be ready to let the Fed pump more money into the economy
He's a historian of the Great Depression, so it's understandable that he's concerned largely with ensuring that the money supply isn't excessively tight. One can only hope, though, that he is correct in his assessment of how much he needs to open the throttle. In the meantime, Standard and Poor's may be ready to downgrade the US national credit rating because we have too much debt and are showing inadequate political will to fix that. We have to hope that the Federal Reserve can maintain its independence amid what will undoubtedly become a great deal of political pressure to monetize the debt.

Humor and Good News "Vatican reverses stance on gay marriage"
Only in the parallel universe of The Onion, that is. But it's a very clever report from that parallel universe, to be certain. Also in that parallel universe, Americans are working off our debts to China by dancing in silly costumes.

Humor and Good News My, how times change
(Video) In case you didn't think eight years was a long time ago, re-watch the "South Park" episode that lampooned the "metrosexual" craze of 2003. Tastes and preferences are unbelievably malleable.

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July 15, 2011

Computers and the Internet Google's peculiar approach to social problems and how to fix them

The United States of America Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband says ridiculous things

Aviation News A big batch of Frontier Airlines planes were damaged by hail
Denver, where the airline is headquartered, got hit with a big hailstorm the other day, and the planes got in the way

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July 17, 2011

Iowa Tornado recovery, Parkersburg-style
About half of the Iowa town was wiped out in a huge tornado in 2008. A story in the Christian Science Monitor details how city recovered -- largely through force of will.

Computers and the Internet Collective memory in the Internet Age
Knowing where to find information may be just as valuable as knowing the information off-hand. The human memory is fallible, after all. But knowing where to get the right answers may be quite enough.

Aviation News We have a litter problem...in space
The tragedy of the commons reaches all the way out into Earth orbit, where the failure to clean up after satellites and other space debris has left the planet surrounded by junk that could break new satellites -- and human-carrying spaceships

The United States of America Lobbyists can't be a company's best investment
Warren Buffett makes the point in interviews from the past week, and he's right. The less complexity built into the tax system, the fewer chances that those with good political access will be able to dodge their responsibility to pay a fair share.

Iowa Substantial layoffs at Amana plant
And an Iowa City dairy is closing down after 77 years

Science and Technology Northeast Nebraska is getting a big wind farm

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July 18, 2011

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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July 19, 2011

News Why everyone should know self-defense: Case study #3
Some whackadoodle went after Rupert Murdoch with a plate of foam while he was addressing a committee of the British parliament. There were police in the room -- but Murdoch still got hit in the face. Had it been something other than shaving cream or whipped cream, Murdoch could have in fact been seriously injured. His wife appears to have had quick reflexes, but the media magnate couldn't defend himself.

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July 22, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Why do these people get government money and you don't?
The state of Iowa really needs to stop trying to pick winners with economic-development incentives

Agriculture As if being a farmer weren't stressful enough...
A huge number of new threats to the economics of farming are making things more uncertain than they have been in some time. Will China stop importing food? Are too many farmers borrowing too much money to buy land? Are the wrong people buying land and running up prices?

Agriculture Stop overcooking your pork
The USDA says it's good enough to cook whole pork cuts to 145°F and let them sit for 3 minutes -- no more cooking to an internal temperature of 160°.

Business and Finance One in nine workers in the UK don't know anything useful
It's likely to be a very similar figure in the United States. Those kinds of people aren't going to find good jobs if they don't find useful knowledge or skills.

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July 23, 2011

Computers and the Internet Google plans to shut down Google Labs
It's a bad sign for the future of the company -- Google, as a company, is a lot like the shark: If it doesn't keep pushing forward, it's going to die. The company is entirely and utterly dependent upon the development of new products and services to succeed beyond the next 24 to 36 months. Google Labs was where they showcased some of their new ideas, and encouraged their developers to play around. They'll surely still play around a lot, but the signal that is sent is that play outside the boundaries of what improves the company's current products isn't endorsed.

Broadcasting Britain's pushing FM radio to digital signals instead of analog
The move makes space for broadband Internet spectrum use

Computers and the Internet Mass worry that Facebook will start to charge for its services
The company is toast if they decide to do it, which is why it's highly unlikely

Science and Technology MIT researchers think they have a better way to store solar energy
The world's energy budget consists of what's produced, what's used, and how well it's stored in between. Solar energy is in huge supply, but we don't do well at all to capture or store it. Solving that problem would solve a huge share of human problems, because there's virtually no trouble in the physical world that can't be solved with more energy.


July 24, 2011

The United States of America The debt-ceiling debate is "diverting people's energy"
Warren Buffett observes -- correctly -- that the debt ceiling is just a symptom, not the real problem

Agriculture Everything you need to know about the new Iowa cellulosic-ethanol plant
It's a necessary step if the amount of ethanol produced is to meet the Federal mandates requiring its use

Agriculture Japanese beetles are eating all kinds of crops in the Midwest
They're attacking everything from peaches to roses

The United States of America More Americans are on Facebook than have passports
The numbers aren't particularly surprising -- 50% are on the social-networking site, and 37% can travel abroad.

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July 25, 2011

Broadcasting They're not experts, they're guessers

Business and Finance Huge amounts of cash are flowing into bond funds

Iowa The pending end to the Iowa Power Fund

Threats and Hazards Prince Charles is full of horse manure

The United States of America Gay marriage in New York


July 26, 2011

The United States of America What's really caused the deficit of late
Of course, the structural problems of entitlement programs are the true 800-pound gorilla in the room

Threats and Hazards Really awful train wreck in China
There are consequences to the way China has been developing

Agriculture 11 million people could be threatened by famine

The United States of America The ever-modernizing state of interracial marriage in America

Iowa Vested benefits may not be quite so vested for former Maytag workers

Iowa One badly-cursed restaurant location


July 27, 2011

Business and Finance American companies are sitting on $2 trillion in cash

The United States of America The debt debate should just be noise to investors

Business and Finance The George Soros hedge fund is becoming a family office only

Computers and the Internet Microsoft and other companies step back from misstatements around the Amy Winehouse death

Humor and Good News The real state of the Internet today


July 28, 2011

The United States of America The debt standoff in cartoon form
It's going to be anything but a laughing matter if the US defaults on debt. There are those who say that people should adjust their investments in anticipation, but that's not likely to be the best move.

Business and Finance TD Ameritrade may be out to buy E-Trade

Humor and Good News A dinner with Abe Froman
A punter announces his trade to the Chicago Bears with a clever reference to getting a dinner with the sausage king of Chicago (a reference to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off")

Iowa Who bears the cost of flooding?

Computers and the Internet Apple's iPad now accounts for a measurable amount of Internet traffic
But no other tablet computers do

Computers and the Internet Advantages of Google Plus over Facebook
Skype (which just established a new deal with Facebook) is touting a "special" deal to offer videoconferencing for about $55 a year. Google is trying to attract customers to its similar service...offered for free.

Humor and Good News Putting an old grain elevator to good use
An Omaha grain elevator that's been abandoned has been decorated, turning it into a giant outdoor art display.

News Five deployments in eleven years
That seems like more than we should be asking from anyone in our volunteer military service.

Computers and the Internet Firmware updates could be a point of vulnerability for computers, but don't panic
Firmware is the stuff that works behind the scenes to keep other programs working, but it may be susceptible (under limited circumstances) to exploitation by crooks.

Humor and Good News Rickrolling by the White House
The official White House channel on Twitter was used to Rickroll the public. Good to see someone has a sense of humor, but what a weird way to show it.

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July 29, 2011

Computers and the Internet The smartest move Google Plus could make right now
Google Plus should add a "Share on Twitter" link, tied to the Google URL shortener. It should automatically post the first XX characters of your Google Plus post, with a shortened link pointing to the full post over on Google Plus. It would be a little sinister and a LOT effective.

Business and Finance One prediction regarding a government debt default
If a government debt default occurs, don't be surprised if that really rattles a few stocks. Not all would be shaken, but some would be hit quite seriously. Don't be surprised if, in turn, that creates a serious buying opportunity for an investor with a fat wallet, like Warren Buffett. The best investments happen when everyone else is in a panic.

Humor and Good News Happy rhetoric in favor of gay marriage
A lot of people say a lot of impassioned -- and often angry -- things about gay marriage, particularly when they oppose the principle. Several of these signs make the counter-argument gently and with a good sense of humor.

Socialism Doesn't Work Technology continues to undermine Chinese authoritarianism
The terrible crash involving the country's new high-speed rail system about a week ago is, inescapably, an important news story, and as the facts of the story got out, people re-told those facts. The facts, however, serve to undermine the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the government. And as people speak out -- especially on microblogging websites, where brevity begets frequency, which is the enemy of the censor -- they are expressing a natural distrust for the lies their government insists upon telling them.

Computers and the Internet "The beginning of the end of Google"
A technology columnist observes that by rather radically homogenizing data on the Internet, Google may have actually been undermining the sort of value-driven branding and quality control that it may need to survive in the future of Internet searching. People have ready expectations for how much to trust what they read on Wikipedia or Snopes or LinkedIn; there is no such pre-conceived notion of how much to trust the first result delivered by a Google search.


July 31, 2011

The United States of America The Speaker's angle on the debt-ceiling deal
The President says it delivers "the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was President" -- by which he undoubtedly means the lowest level of discretionary spending relative to GDP. Because it's obvious that Social Security, Medicare, and debt payments are certainly larger than they were. What could be quite interesting about the outcome of the deal is how the committee of Senators and Representatives is formed to propose a deficit deal by November. The people serving on the committee will all be active politicians, most of whom will probably be looking for re-election.