Gongol.com Archives: September 2011
Brian Gongol

September 2011
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September 1, 2011

Business and Finance Corporate taxes are a canard, but many executives are paid far too much
We have two counterproductive patterns at play in American business: One is a tax structure that's punitive towards many otherwise sane and sensible capitalistic behaviors (like distributing dividends to shareholders). The other is a pattern of ratcheting up executive compensation to heights that serve only to stoke the fires of ego and not to demand outstanding performance from the overcompensated.

News Britain's RAF is literally flying bundles of cash into Libya
They're trying to restart the economic market there. One might call it the ultimate experiment in monetarism.

Science and Technology Could the greenhouse effect be counteracted by artificial volcanoes?
It's known that ash from volcanoes can cause global cooling -- the "year without a summer" proved that. But it really sounds like a dicey thing to try to create artificial volcanic effects in order to cool the planet.

Computers and the Internet What's taking Google Plus so long to catch on?
The service really does have a lot of features that are great in theory, but so far there's just very little momentum outside communities of enthusiastic technophiles. At least two forces should be propelling it more than they seem to be: One is Facebook's hubris, the other is Google's increasingly serious need to find ways to make money after the search-engine boom runs out.

Weather and Disasters Flood recovery continues in the Midwest
The railroads are attempting to get things back together after an awful summer due to Missouri River flooding...not that the media headquartered in places like New York paid even the slightest bit of attention.

Health New analysis says the awful 1918 flu epidemic could have been manageable
...Manageable, that is, if today's methods had been applied. That's good news, considering we still live in fear of another influenza pandemic.

News Why the Chicago Bears should be a much more valuable franchise than they are
Family ownership within a family that doesn't have a lot of other income-producing assets does tend to keep the team's hands tied, among other problems

Iowa Competition from Megabus entices incumbent bus service to drop prices

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September 2, 2011

The United States of America New EPA regulations on smog are put on hold
Public demand for better air quality is apparently lesser than public demand for economic expansion fueled by "good manufacturing jobs", so the White House is putting the brakes on regulations that manufacturers say would be costly to them and prevent their expansion. It's just further evidence (confirmation, really) that all "environmental" choices are really economic choices. It's interesting to see what happens when the availability of resources changes and thus so does public opinion. Everyone wants a pristine environment, until they see the bill.

Business and Finance What should Apple do with its enormous cash pile?
One environmental pundit says they should invest in manufacturing in environmentally-friendly ways, and do so within the United States. It's decidedly unlikely to happen, considering that Apple has already made it clear that it's willing to accept the cost of much more piracy as a result of doing business in China. Those piracy costs do far more damage to Apple's bottom line than the costs of environmental consequences. In other words, there are far more directly compelling reasons to quit manufacturing in China than environmental protection, and Apple hasn't done so, so why would they change course now?

Aviation News Report says waiting to clean up space junk is only going to make the problem much worse
As pieces of debris collide with one another, they're going to create even more pieces of debris, and the smaller they get, the harder they're going to be to collect. But they'll still be capable of enormous damage.

Business and Finance Will Baby Boomers cash out and continue to deflate the stock market?
Possibly -- so suggests a research paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve. They think it could last two decades. If so, great times could be ahead for people looking to buy shares in American companies on the cheap. The telling question for America's future is: Who will those buyers be?

News We should have stopped calling it a "War on Terrorism" a long time ago
Terrorism is a method, not an ideology. No sane person wants terrorism, but ending it is an impossible task, and thus sets up a war upon it as something that's doomed to failure. There are better ways to bring about a safer, better world than declaring "war" on a method of action.

Business and Finance Some reassurance from Warren Buffett
Past quotes that are certainly applicable in today's anxious economic climate

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September 3, 2011

Business and Finance Is India almost ready to shut down its oversized bureaucracy?

The United States of America Palin continues to flirt with running for the Republican nomination
But she still won't commit to doing it

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September 4, 2011

News No side to cheer for; everybody loses
The Federal government is suing 17 banks for selling really bad mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, causing the two mortgage lenders to fail. There's absolutely nobody here to cheer for: Some, if not all, of the banks quite probably did behave crookedly and misrepresented the mortgages they were selling. Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac were buying bundles of mortgages that their people clearly didn't understand well enough. The investors in Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac were trying to get away with a "risk-free" deal because the government had always promised (implicitly) that it would step in to guarantee their investments in case anything went wrong. And, of course, it's the government (under the supervision of the lawmakers American voters elected) that has spent decades trying to prop up the residential construction industry by creating tax breaks (like the mortgage interest deduction) and guarantees (like the ones for Fannie and Freddie) that created incentives for Americans to buy housese that exceeded the size and cost that we should have reasonably been buying. It's like a huge car wreck in which every single driver was caught speeding and driving drunk as they went straight into the pileup.

Business and Finance Americans hold more stocks and bonds in Britain than anywhere else in the world
Japan and Canada come in second and third, respectively, in stock holdings. According to the Treasury Department, Americans have $626 billion in UK equities, $450 billion in Japan, and $409 billion in Canada. For points of reference, Exxon Mobil has a market capitalization of $350 billion, Apple is at $347 billion, PetroChina is at $226 billion, and Microsoft is at $216 billion.

News Nebraska governor speaks up to oppose oil pipeline
The Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to pass through Nebraska, traveling over the sandhills. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman has issued a letter to Washington saying that he opposes the route, which travels over the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer supplies most of the state's water for drinking and irrigation, and some concern exists that a spill could cause oil to enter the aquifer and contaminate it.

Aviation News Creative tail art
It's too bad more creative fun isn't being had with the art on the tails of passenger planes. British Airways did it for a while, and Frontier puts wildlife photos on its aircraft tails. Pan Am named many of its planes, which was a clever marketing move -- giving the airplanes a sort of identity long given to passenger ships. Nobody's saying that a passenger would deliberately pay more to fly an airplane with a special name or unusual art on its tail -- but doing creative things with the brand and de-commoditizing things like airline tickets does help create a lasting allure. Just ask the people who appear willing to buy Pan Am-themed merchandise two decades after the original incarnation of the airline stopped flying.

Iowa Interstate 29 in southern Iowa is "going to be messed up a lot longer than we want it to be"
For all the attention being paid to the hurricane on the East Coast, there are parts of Iowa -- including the main Interstate linking Sioux Falls, Omaha, and Kansas City -- that have been underwater since June. With all due respect to the people living out east, the flood damage in Iowa has gotten far less attention because it's happened in a more sparsely-populated area, and in slow-motion.

Iowa Regents need to figure out what they really want from UNI
The university gets a lot of praise for being an Iowa-focused university meeting the needs of the general-interest population from the state, but they're also being told to attrct more out-of-state students. The problem is that a lot of out-of-state recruitment efforts are either costly or require promoting individual programs in order to make it a destination school (as it already is for education and accounting, for instance). But making UNI a destination school would seem to conflict with its charter, which is to serve as the state's comprehensive university. Essentially, the school is being told to deliver one type of service, but raise revenues like one that's quite different.

Weather and Disasters Better weather forecasting behind the scenes
The National Weather Service is starting up a system called AWIPS 2 -- the main point of which appears to be delivering better-integrated information to the computers used by the Naitonal Weather Service offices so that forecasters can make better predictions. They could probably also use more radar sites, too (since there are many parts of the country 50 to 100 miles away from the nearest radar, which means that activity as much as 10,000 feet above the ground can't be seen on radar), but this appears to be a good effort to make better use of what they presently have.

Business and Finance British supermarket giant just couldn't make it work in Japan
The UK's enormous Tesco supermarket chain has been trying for almost a decade to make inroads in the Japanese grocery business, and has finally decided to pull the plug on the experiment. It's interesting to watch what happens when companies with lots of experience and success in one market try to move into a new one (whether it's a change of geography or of business) and fail. The failures make for far more interesting and instructive reading than the successes. Some say the Tesco experiment failed because it wasn't upmarket enough. Some think it's because the Japanese market is highly fragmented. Others say it's because the market is shifting in favor of convenience stores rather than full supermarkets. The company is going to keep competing in China, South Korea, and Thailand. And there was nothing said about shutting down its effort to crack the American grocery market, either.

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September 5, 2011

Threats and Hazards Famine in Somalia could kill three-quarters of a million people

Broadcasting Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami weren't a movie, and shouldn't have been treated as such
(Video) Media critic Charlie Brooker makes a lot of sense in his argument

Weather and Disasters Mass evacuations from stadiums and big gatherings in case of severe weather

Science and Technology How lumpy is your universe?

The United States of America The US Postal Service is careening towards default

Computers and the Internet Not every cybercrime involves a classic virus
Crooks are getting smarter, so users need to get smarter, too

Broadcasting The classic "HBO Feature Presentation" opener

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September 6, 2011

Business and Finance The boss of Deutsche Bank thinks Europe already has a full-on banking crisis

Business and Finance Gold isn't an investment, it's just a bet

Business and Finance A chat about what's on Warren Buffett's mind

Science and Technology Caution: Low bridge ahead. Bridge carrying the weight of an entire river.

Weather and Disasters Almost everyone in America ought to have earthquake insurance

Threats and Hazards Regulators aren't happy with the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant

Iowa Post office closures may hasten more small-town disincorporations

Weather and Disasters A busy hurricane season continues

Iowa Frank Lloyd Wright hotel being re-opened in Mason City

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September 7, 2011

The United States of America Will the Social Security tax cut get an extension? Maybe.
In the short term, it's undoubtedly a good way to encourage work and hiring, but in the long term, it's only making a terrible situation for Social Security funding even worse

Business and Finance Germany isn't quite trying to get out of the Euro, but...

News What teachers really want to say to parents

The United States of America Life is tough when you're a Blue Dog Democrat

Iowa A plan for the "Golden Circle" around Des Moines

Iowa Now there are nine left in the Big 12

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September 8, 2011

Computers and the Internet Yahoo CEO gets fired
And now the company may be looking to sell itself. Was the CEO really the problem?

Business and Finance Credit unions are being forced to pay heavily to top up the national insurance plan for bad debts

Aviation News Air-traffic control tapes from 9/11

Humor and Good News What everyone should have learned in high school

Computers and the Internet Groupon puts brakes on plans to go public

News Sirens in honor of 9/11 victims


September 9, 2011

News Direct costs of 9/11: $3.3 trillion
That's the estimate from the New York Times, accounting for the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans' care,

Business and Finance Jack Bogle has good advice for at least 95% of American investors
Just get into a mutual fund that tracks a broad-based stock market index like the S&:P 500, and then leave it alone. He's wrong to criticize Mark Cuban for advocating concentrated investing -- which is the right thing to do, if and only if one is willing to spend a lot of time and effort on research and mental exercise. That's good for about 5% of investors.

Science and Technology Gov. Rick Perry is no Galileo

Business and Finance Unemployment rates are significantly correlated with educational attainment
Unemployment rate for those with no college: 9.6%. For those without a high school diploma: 14.3%. For those with at least a bachelor's degree: 4.3%. There are lots of smart people who don't have degrees, and there are lots of idiots who do, but it's quite clear that a college degree is the best insurance policy available against unemployment right now.

Computers and the Internet Once you put something on the Internet, it stays there forever
Rep. Michele Bachmann's family may need to take a closer look at their Facebook privacy settings

Business and Finance Politicians do not create jobs
For as often as President Obama likes to say, "Let me be clear", he fails to be clear about this very important point: Politicians don't create jobs in the private sector. They like to take credit for so doing, but it's not what they do. The best they can do is create and maintain a healthy environment with a level economic playing field in which private-sector firms can flourish and create jobs. But "job creation" isn't something the government does, nor should it try to take credit for so doing.

Business and Finance German resignations from the European Central Bank make the future of the Euro look more uncertain
Germany is the most economically-stable and responsible member of the Euro zone, so when its economic wise men start leaving the ECB, it makes the ECB look less credible, to say the least.

Computers and the Internet FBI prepares to let everyone use the "Anti-Piracy Warning" seal
It's the seal flashed over an annoying blue screen on legally-purchased DVDs, among other things. But at long last, it's being acknowledged that it isn't just the cadre of Warner Brothers and Disney that create content that people are out to steal. Soon, the seal could start appearing on personal websites.

Threats and Hazards Why everyone should know self-defense: Case study #6
A 22-year-old man has been charged with assault with intent to commit sexual abuse for breaking into a home in northeast Iowa armed with a rifle, duct tape, and a camera. The woman he's accused of attacking was able to scream loud enough to wake other family members at home at the time, but if she'd been home alone, it's pretty clear that bad things could have happened. The world has too many creeps, and some of them are willing to break into people's homes.

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September 14, 2011

The United States of America 1/6th of Americans are living in poverty

The United States of America Analysis of the Republican Presidential debate

News Retired Irish bishop says Catholic priests should be allowed to marry

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September 15, 2011

Health Michele Bachmann is "absolutely wrong" about vaccines

Science and Technology British authorities want to question BlackBerry executives
The politicians want to know whether they could have stopped the riots there by tracking what people were saying to one another using the secured BlackBerry Messenger service. Always beware politicians who want to regulate things (like technology) which they probably don't understand.

Business and Finance Facebook's IPO has been put on hold

Business and Finance Current inflation rate: About 4%
Gas prices are leading the charge

Iowa Incentives for a soup plant in Cedar Rapids
Heinz will get money, as will Alcoa in the Quad Cities

Business and Finance Central banks pump more money into the global economy

Science and Technology Industrial espionage: Not bulletproof

Science and Technology One planet, two suns

Threats and Hazards Poachers caught trying to smuggle an infant gorilla

Business and Finance Can Polk County Bank be saved by new investors?

Humor and Good News Swimming pool falls on house


September 16, 2011

The United States of America Senator Harkin wants an even bigger Federal spending package
Senator Harkin, you're no economist. Government spending was not what ended the Great Depression, and it isn't going to be the prescription for boosting the economy today. We should be investing in things like infrastructure spending, to be sure -- but we should be doing so upon its own merits, not as a job-creation exercise. By making infrastructure spending a ploy for "job creation", all you're doing is creating a whole new bubble to replace the old one. We had a bubble in residential and commercial construction, which was one of the causes of the recent recession. Creating a whole new one in building roads and bridges is just going to prolong the hangover when the money runs out. It's not the job of the government to "create jobs" -- it's the duty of government to create a fair, level playing field for the private sector, then to stay out of the way.

Business and Finance Active money management is ripping off America
The manager of the gigantic Fidelity Magellan fund -- a fund in which people have invested $17.4 billion, which is about the size of utility giant PG&E -- has been fired for falling well behind the competition in investment performance. The problem with funds like Magellan is that they pay their management companies big chunks of change in return for their supposed management expertise. But consistently strong performance is extremely difficult to achieve. Not impossible, but extremely difficult. But the individual investor isn't well-equipped to know which active manager is going to be good and which is going to be bad, yet all of them charge similarly high management fees. The thing that makes the most sense for most people is to put their money into index funds that simply buy into the entire market as a whole. That ensures that the performance of the fund will roughly be the average of the market as a whole, minus the expenses paid to the management company. But index funds generally pay vastly less to their managers than actively-managed funds, so over time, the "average"-performing index fund ends up leaving a whole lot more money in the pockets of the investor.

Iowa Iowa caucuses: Good for promoting the state, not so good for the economy
Iowa may get a lot of additional TV time and newspaper coverage due to the caucuses, but an ISU economist has looked at the numbers and concluded that they don't really bring in any more money than a small manufacturing company would -- about $15.5 million last time around.

The United States of America At any given moment, there are 850,000 Americans shopping at Wal-Mart
That's an astonishing figure in its own right

Humor and Good News Turn my headphones up!
(Video) One of the funniest Dave Chappelle sketches

Humor and Good News This guy knows how to tell a story
(Video) An Arizonan caught in a traffic accident tells his story -- colorfully

News What is with the use of the phrase "to love on"?
An article in the Omaha World-Herald describes how an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska uses a very heavy dose of Christian theology to motivate his players, who include a Muslim. It sounds like everyone gets along politely, but the assistant coach makes this odd statement: "I just need to love up on him and let God do what he wants with him." The phrase "to love on" pops up with a lot of frequency among some Christians, and it really makes no sense -- one does not love on another person, one simply loves that person. Why torture the English language like that? It sounds weird and contrived.

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September 17, 2011

Weather and Disasters 300,000 people left homeless by flooding
That it's happening in Pakistan should make it no less important as an item of news...but it's certainly not making the headlines it should.

Computers and the Internet Heavy users of Verizon's wireless data networks will soon find themselves throttled
The new usage restrictions aren't particularly draconian, but they are a sign that the era of all-you-can-eat wireless Internet access are going away, at least for the time being. How the wireless network providers didn't see this coming -- that wireless Internet access would be spectacularly popular -- remains one of the great mysteries of this decade. It should have been patently obvious, right from the very start, that people would see how wonderful it would be to have Internet access everywhere, and that consumers would rapidly find ways to use it in massive volumes.

Computers and the Internet Chief scientist leaves Twitter
The chief scientist at the microblogging site du jour, Twitter, is leaving the company. It's not the first major departure of the last few months, either. The site is still successful and popular -- for now. But there are two signals afloat that suggest it's probably at its peak popularity right now. First is the rise of shameless self-promoters on the site. Anyone with an account on Twitter right now will probably notice that there aren't a whole lot of "real" or "authentic" new people joining the site anymore -- the newbies now are just a bunch of shameless self-promoters who advertise themselves as things like "SEO [search-engine optimization] specialist" or "sales leader" or "marketing and social media professional". These are not interesting people; they're just hoping to get away with free advertising. That pollutes the stream of valuable content on Twitter and makes the site less interesting to join or use. The other major signal is this departure of leadership from the company running the service. It's too young -- just five years old -- for them to truly be burned out. So if they're not burnt-out, why would they leave? Most likely, they're looking down the road and don't see a brilliant future ahead. As predicted here in January 2010, the clock is ticking for Twitter. It won't crash and burn, per se, but it will fade from the public's attention and likely end up being something less significant than it was. The peak appears to be happening now. (It should also be noted that insiders are finally getting a chance to sell out, and many are not doing so -- they will come to regret this decision. The time to sell out is when a company is at its peak, which for Twitter is right now.)

Science and Technology An iPad for every kindergartener?
A school in Maine is trying that approach in order to boost performance, including test scores in subjects like reading. It probably won't hurt, but it sounds like a long shot to help. One can't fault the school for trying, though: If they don't have enough money to hire additional teachers (thus creating smaller class sizes, in which it's more likely that a child will get individual attention and assistance with reading), then perhaps technology can help enhance the teacher's direct efforts to assess exactly which reading skills are weak in an individual child. The iPads may be able to help identify and diagnose the problems that the teacher can then set about trying to solve.

Broadcasting Live technology chat with the WHO Radio Wise Guys
The show is off the air due to the Iowa football game, but a live chat is still available for the audience wanting to know more about trends, tips, and technology

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September 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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September 23, 2011

Agriculture The world now has more fat people than hungry people
That doesn't mean the hunger problem has been solved -- just that obesity has gotten much worse. Many people are calorie-rich but undernourished...which actually sounds a lot like one of the problems people are having with their Internet use: We're hyper-connected, but we're not getting smarter.

Computers and the Internet Facebook changes...again
Along with a whole lot of changes to the user interface (many of which seem to be aggravating users), Facebook's philosophy is changing -- now they want to be the hub for people's digital entertainment use. Ambitious, but not necessary. And potentially very hazardous to the site's future. Claiming 800 million users, they're adding tools like Netflix and Spotify.

Computers and the Internet HP hopes a new CEO will turn the company around
The new CEO has a recognizable name: Meg Whitman. One of the strange things that HP has decided to do lately is to spin off or sell off its personal computer division, not because it's unprofitable, but because it's not especially profitable. Silly move. As long as it's not starving the rest of the company of useful investment capital, a profitable division should be kept around so long as it's profitable.

Business and Finance Economics isn't just a jumble of esoteric facts and figures
It's the reality about how people live their lives. For instance: Young people are being encouraged to get more and earlier internships, and to add useful, "practical" courses to their collegiate curricula -- like business and computer classes. High unemployment rates for young workers mean that more are living with their parents, and many are delaying the age of first marriage. These are all very serious rubber-meets-the-road effects on how we live our lives. And they're very interesting, since they'll have very long-term repercussions.

News One really stupid design for a soap dispenser

Humor and Good News What do you do with 100,000 Pop Tarts?
A student at UNI won them in a contest, and is giving a huge share of them to feed the hungry. Good work.

Science and Technology Some perspective on the planets

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September 24, 2011

News Putin's coming back as Russian president
It's practically a foregone conclusion, after the dominant political party appears to have decided that he and current president Medvedev ought to switch places (again) over the next six months or so

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September 25, 2011

The United States of America Iowa Electronic Markets give edge to Romney in Presidential race

Business and Finance Low interest rates punish classic conservative savers

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September 26, 2011

Business and Finance Putting mathematicians to work gaming the stock market is a huge net loss to society

Humor and Good News Learn to cuddle with John Stamos

Computers and the Internet Is Facebook overreaching? Will that make it MySpace II?

Business and Finance TD Ameritrade founder retires
Or, at least, retires from his company. He still has a whole batch of other companies he wants to continue owning and managing.

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September 27, 2011

News Saudi women will get the right to vote -- in about four years

News What happens when a newspaper printing press goes down?

Computers and the Internet Google Plus opens up to the public without restrictions
And traffic rates soared immediately

Aviation News Japan gets the first Boeing 787

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September 28, 2011

Science and Technology How cleaner stoves could save lives

Computers and the Internet Google Doodles you'll never see

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September 29, 2011

Computers and the Internet Your relationship with Facebook

The American Way Economic Freedom of the World 2011

News Positively miniscule number of children adopted in England last year
60, to be exact. That number sounds so small as to suggest it's in error, but it's been published by a reputable source.

The United States of America Newt Gingrich proposes a new "Contract with America"

Iowa UNI to retire Bartlett Hall from dorm service

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