Gongol.com Archives: December 2011
Brian Gongol

December 2011
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December 1, 2011

Business and Finance Berkshire Hathaway to purchase Omaha World-Herald for $200 million
The deal is for $150 million in cash, $50 million in debt. It capitalizes the newspaper's operations and brings the paper under the umbrella of Warren Buffett's benevolent protectorate, but it sure looks like it's mainly a nostalgic move by Buffett. It's a much smaller purchase than what he's usually entertained (he's talked a lot about looking for something in the $5 billion to $10 billion range, and this purchase is just 4% of that target amount), but it's the kind of purchase he probably regrets not trying to make 20 years ago. Of course, newspapers have economics a lot like railroads (the Burlington Northern railroad being another recent high-profile Buffett purchase) -- with high capital costs, a natural-monopoly state, and low marginal costs per unit sold -- so as long as one doesn't finance the purchase with debt, newspapers can be a very good, stable investment. It's definitely in keeping with his strategy of staying within a circle of competence and looking for businesses that don't lose money. [Full disclosure: Site owner is a Berkshire shareholder at the time of writing]

Iowa Long-term accounting for IPERS needs a lot of buttressing
Iowa's pension system for public-sector employees has a very large shortfall of assets to what it's going to need to pay off future obligations. It's disconcerting news that we've actually known about for quite some time -- but layered upon the growing problem of towns finding themselves short on pension funds as well, it's part of a one-two punch that should give Iowa taxpayers some reason for concern.

Humor and Good News Unemployed? Might be that face tattoo.
(Video) Hilarious spoof from The Onion that's almost too close to reality

Business and Finance $25 billion for a full buyout of Yahoo?
Supposedly, that's what's being discussed among private-equity firms. It's pretty hard to stomach a buyout that big being justified by the economics of the company. In Yahoo's favor is a balance sheet with $12.6 billion in net equity, but that assumes $3.8 billion in goodwill. Net income is in the range of $200 to $300 million a quarter, but the big-picture problem is that there's no good way to know what the online environment is going to look like more than a few months down the road. There's so little predictability -- and it's so easy for consumers to change their minds and go elsewhere -- that it's really hard to imagine that sinking lots of money into a technology company today will be rewarding tomorrow.

Business and Finance Big discounts are driving lots of consumers to buy new TVs
46-inch flat-screen televisions selling for $300 mean the cost per diagonal inch is well under $10, which used to be the price point at which tube televisions were sold. That's a pretty remarkable example of price deflation...on a product that's much better than what was available in the past.

News Kurt Warner to Tim Tebow: Lay off the evangelization, buddy
Words are less demonstrative than deeds

Iowa Some people hate the new Subway sign near the western gateway sculpture park
Can signs for stores like Subway be a little over-the-top? Yes. But, come on: Big advertising signs are the American way. People love the Citgo sign in Boston, and anyone who takes a look at old Des Moines skyline photos from 1901, 1907, 1914, or especially 1919, will see that much larger, more garish signs have been around practically forever. The complaints about this particular sign are unfair, especially considering that the new restaurant is a hundred times better than the dumpy buildings that used to sit in the same area (including, if memory serves, a porn shop).

The United States of America Minnesota's state budget is unexpectedly $876 million in the black
Perhaps it's an indicator that the economy is picking up, despite the negative messages out there

Science and Technology US air pollution from coal power plants is declining measurably

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December 2, 2011

Computers and the Internet "It's as if people think there isn't a real person at the other end"
Charlie Brooker on the way people berate one another online. Brooker has some related comments on how strange it is that we're now having conversations with machines. There is good reason to believe that in the not-so-distant future, we'll find computers being used as surrogates for advice and guidance from people who have passed away. These personality engines are the logical consequence of a range of converging technologies and human wants.

Threats and Hazards Mugabe cronies chase spoof commercial from TV
"Last dictator standing" theme didn't go over well with his supporters. That's, of course, exactly why satire is a well-protected right of free speech in countries where human rights are respected -- people have every right to lampoon their government and the people who work in it.

Iowa Mitt Romney gets significant endorsement from Robert Ray
Ray remains an influence-maker decades after leaving office. Meantime, it comes out that Newt Gingrich has really only been out to sell books, not really to get elected President.

Threats and Hazards Fukushima nuclear disaster was probably worse than originally thought
And it's going to take 30 years to bring the plant to a complete stop

Broadcasting KGO-AM overhauls almost everything on the air
One can tell from the three-letter call sign that KGO is a historic station, so when it makes a big change (like it's doing now), it's worth noting

Broadcasting Iowa sports broadcaster Mike Newell dies of heart attack
He was a pleasant co-worker

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December 4, 2011

Business and Finance Are college students trying too hard to avoid student debt?

Iowa Occupists block the doors to Cedar Rapids businesses
One of several companies inside the building plans to make unmanned aerial drones -- which, of course, can be used for warfare. But they can also be used for peaceful and constructive purposes, too.

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December 5, 2011

Business and Finance 42% of Americans over age 45 have less than $25,000 saved for retirement
That's a truly terrifying number. Even accounting for the weak stock market over the last decade, that says far too many people have been saving far too little. This is why some sort of mandatory old-age savings system is necessary -- unfortunately, Social Security is poorly-designed for the task. On the other hand, there are some nauseatingly overpaid people atop some businesses who seem to be very good at extracting unreasonably large sums from their paymasters.

Business and Finance Nonsensical non-speech is contaminating business
There are a lot of people who are counting on flashy words to cover up the fact that they don't have any useful ideas. You can "engage" and be "social" all you want, but the fact of the matter is that businesses grow by producing more output more efficiently every year, and then selling it.

Science and Technology Japan's monster earthquake produced a rare "double tsunami"
Different waves overtook one another and compounded the damage all over the Pacific Rim

News Weak showing in Russian elections for Putin's party
Maybe he's not quite as bulletproof as conventional wisdom has suggested so far

News Ron Santo gets elected to baseball's hall of fame -- a day late and a dollar short
The legendary Chicago Cub should've gotten in while he was still alive to enjoy the honor. The way the current voters are treating their ballots like the golden ticket in a Wonka Bar is just plain wrong.

Humor and Good News Solving America's transportation headaches with high-speed buses
(Video) Another great spoof from The Onion

Humor and Good News Respect
There's little else that can be said for a guy who's still a bartender -- at age 100

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December 6, 2011

Business and Finance Google needs to prepare itself for a future as a regulated public utility
As the dominant provider of Internet search service -- and dominant by a very, very large margin -- Google has made itself, at least for now, nearly indispensable to the operation of the Internet. That's not a position they're guaranteed to maintain forever -- in fact, the smart money is on nimble competitors chipping away at Google's dominance by the end of the decade. But for the time being, Google's dominance is the reality. And as a near-monopolist over a critical portion of the function of the Internet (which itself has become utterly irreplaceable and totally essential to the function of a huge amount of commerce worldwide), Google has inadvertently invited the kind of regulatory scrutiny usually applied to firms that have natural monopoly power -- companies like electrical utilities, for instance. Similar to those companies, Google is in a position characterized by a high fixed cost of operation (most of us can't afford to build our own data centers or create our own operating systems) creating very high barriers to entry. So as things happen, like this year's update to Google's ranking algorithm, we should not be the least bit surprised if governments start trying to regulate Google's behavior just as though it were the AT&T of years past.

Business and Finance Does S&P really have any credibility left?
The credit-ratings agency is threatening to downgrade its debt ratings for Europe as a whole and many of the countries in it. But isn't that a day late and a dollar short? If S&P had been doing its job all along to analyze risk and judge countries' ability to repay their debts, wouldn't it have concluded a decade ago that Europe was headed for trouble? The conditions that have led to Europe's present situation didn't exactly develop overnight.

News Evidence surfaces that the Russian election was rigged
Interestingly, protesters are taking their chances and making noise anyway. While the received wisdome has been that Vladimir Putin will get to cruise back into the presidency, perhaps it's time to consider some alternative scenarios.

Science and Technology Engineering marvel: A huge offshore wind farm
The pictures alone are dramatic. On a related note, a California project could hold some promise for producing real and sustainable solar energy.

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December 7, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Government Motors, the original
Back under Soviet-style communism, the Eastern Bloc got reminder after reminder of what happens when the government is in charge of doing too much. Production of goods, like cars, was slow and inefficient, and showed very little spark of innovation. What we see today in China is something a little different, but not necessarily less depressing. They encourage a great deal of production -- shortages aren't the problem. But, lacking the will to prove that they could innovate on their own (as the Soviets often seemed to want to do), the Chinese have become shameless copycats. The production of counterfeit and knock-off goods in China is going at full throttle. The problem, though, is that there's a whole lot missing when one just tries to duplicate what has already been made. Lacking the knowledge of why things are done the way they are, the producers end up making goods that don't make sense. It's just like what happens when a kid copies work from another student in school. You may end up with a test that has the right answers, but you can't explain why -- which, in the world of production and manufacturing, means there's no capacity to innovate further, or to support the customer when it's needed.

Computers and the Internet If you post it anywhere online -- anywhere -- expect that it could be found with enough effort
A security glitch in Facebook allowed people to view photos marked with privacy settings they weren't authorized to see

News Mikhail Gorbachev calls for a do-over on the Russian election
He's weighed in on the status of things several times since leaving office when the USSR dissolved. It's probably somewhat less dangerous for him to speak out against the Putin government than it is for most other people, considering that it would be pretty obvious if Gorby were to be hauled off to the Gulag as a political prisoner. But at the same time, he does deserve credit for speaking up about the likely injustices of the electoral process there.

Computers and the Internet India asks Google and Facebook to filter content
We're used to this kind of behavior out of governments like that of China -- which, as it turns out, is in the process of cracking down on microblogging -- but it's a little different when it's coming from the world's largest democracy.

Business and Finance Apple plans a gigantic new headquarters
It's going to be a giant ring with a whole lot of park-like landscaping. The renderings of the proposal are quite beautiful.


December 8, 2011

Business and Finance Warren Buffett speaks with CNBC
The guy gives away loads of valuable knowledge, and yet it's painful to read transcripts of interviews -- the reporters just simply don't get what he's saying. In part 5 of the transcript, for instance, one of the reporters goes off on a tangent about what he thinks about measures like earnings per share (EPS) and earnings expectations, suggesting that IBM's buybacks of stocks are some kind of accounting sleight of hand. Buffett responds: "Joe, there's nothing wrong with fewer shares outstanding...If they get it down to where there's 64 million shares outstanding, I'll be very happy." (64 million shares being the amount Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, has acquired.) Buffett's looking at the fundamentals -- a strong company that repurchases its stock when it's underpriced simply concentrates the ownership of existing shareholders. That's why Buffett elsewhere in the transcript says he'd like to see the stock price decline -- if he owns 5% of the company already, and the company then uses low prices to buy back, say, half of the shares, then Berkshire Hathaway would have obtained 10% control of the company, tax-free, without spending a penny. But in the frantic world of trading (as opposed to long-term investing), a declining price is cause for panic and the long term barely measures beyond the next commercial break. What Buffett does differently from so many people isn't really about being smarter than everyone else -- it's a matter of having a different temperament.

Computers and the Internet Chrome overtakes Firefox as the #2 browser
Chrome is chipping away at Internet Explorer's market share, but Firefox has stopped growing

Iowa Someone just paid $20,000 an acre for Iowa farmland
That price might not sound like a big deal in Manhattan, but in Iowa that's just plain nuts

Aviation News US pilots were being prepared to fly kamikaze missions on 9/11
Since we didn't have armed planes waiting on the ground, Air Force pilots were going to be asked to ram their planes into rogue passenger jets if necessary

Weather and Disasters Awful storm hits Scotland
Wind gusts measured as high as 165 mph made a big mess in Scotland

Humor and Good News Godfather's Pizza sexual harassment training, circa 1986
(Video) Tim Meadows pulls off a hilarious spoof of Herman Cain

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December 9, 2011

Computers and the Internet Russian president shares ill-advised Twitter comment
The story here isn't so much about the ill-advised re-tweet. It's the admission that the account isn't really being managed directly by Medvedev himself. We'd like to believe -- even if it's only for 140 characters at a time -- that we are hearing directly, in an unfiltered way, from our leaders. But when that veil is pierced, as it is in this case, and as it was when it was admitted that President Barack Obama wasn't actually behind his own Twitter account, it tells us that once again, we're getting a "spun" version of the truth about what these figures are thinking.

In reality, this has been going on for as long as there's been an electronic media. Some of Winston Churchill's greatest speeches weren't actually delivered by Churchill himself. Perhaps we'll find out that FDR's "fireside chats" were also scripted by a speechwriter and performed by an actor, too.

But, truthfully, we would be better off if we really did hear from these leaders -- unfiltered, un-spun -- no matter how improbable that seems. Just think if the President, or any other leader, took just ten minutes a day -- just ten! -- to sit down and compose a set of thoughts about what seemed most important. There's an authenticity of voice that comes from leaders who have to account for themselves in public and in the open. That's probably half of the appeal behind New Jersey governor Chris Christie. He's about as accessible and plain-spoken as a politician comes these days, and the colorful personality that comes through every time he appears before an audience -- and he appears before a lot of them -- humanizes him and makes him seem like he's actually thought about the issues that he faces.

Everyone who's in a thinking job benefits from being forced to spend a couple of minutes a day breaking down what's important in the moment. Most of us don't spend enough time in thoughtful reflection -- not by a long shot. And who's in a more important position for that kind of reflection than our elected officials? Yet not only are they not being held to account for their thoughts to us -- there's every reason to believe that very few of them are honestly reflecting for themselves. Reagan famously kept a fastidious diary, but even the vast majority of politicians' books -- their modern-day paperback manifestoes -- appear to be the work of ghostwriters at worst, or of heavy-handed co-authors at best.

It will likely remain nothing more than a pipe dream, but it's virtually certain that this would be a far better world if every significant public official were to devote just ten minutes a day -- just ten minutes -- to writing a public account of his or her thoughts about the day. That writing would make their own thinking clearer, contribute vastly to the public debate, and humanize them in a way needed so very much in this era of spin.

Business and Finance US general worries about violence in the EU
The whole continent could be in huge trouble thanks to the economic distress. They've come up with a new treaty, but it doesn't include Britain. This could become very interesting.

News People are leaving Russia in droves
A nation can't survive an exodus for long. Losing more than 100,000 people a year is a bad thing, especially when the people most likely to leave are the ones who have the means to do so or the skills and education

The United States of America Tracking the race for the Republican Presidential nomination

Humor and Good News 40 pop-culture facts guaranteed to make anyone over 30 feel old
As if living in the 21st Century weren't already confusing enough

Computers and the Internet Samsung Galaxy is un-banned in Australia
Importation of the tablet computer had been banned due to a patent dispute with Apple

Weather and Disasters Hurricane-force storm hits Scotland
A wind turbine got torn to pieces and burst into flames after 165-mph winds blew in

Humor and Good News Pujols leaves the Cardinals
(Video) Another hilarious Taiwan-imation that actually happens to explain the situation reasonably well

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December 10, 2011

Computers and the Internet Counter-protest propaganda swamps pro-reform Twitter messages in Russia
It's suspected that a botnet is being used to drive the counter-protest propaganda

Computers and the Internet HP gives up on WebOS
WebOS is the operating system developed to drive Palm's line of smartphones and (potentially) other devices. HP bought out Palm, acquiring WebOS in the process. Now they've given up. The contrary forces of Apple's iOS and Android are too strong. It's not a bad operating system -- but without a strong backer, it's probably going to wither and die off.

Broadcasting Cedar Rapids AM radio station picks up an FM translator channel
A number of major-market AM radio stations have taken to simulcasting on FM in order to pick up the audience they would otherwise lose due to AM's poor signal quality in or around metal buildings -- or just the pure listener inertia that causes FM listeners to forget that there's an AM band as well. WSB in Atlanta does it. WBBM in Chicago does it. WTOP in Washington, DC is only available on FM. But it's interesting to discover that a smaller-market station (in this case, KGYM-AM in Cedar Rapids) is going to simulcast on a small FM signal into nearby Iowa City. The odd thing that's happening in radio right now is that lots of listeners have grown up with FM music stations but are leaving those stations for online alternatives like Pandora. At the same time, the stations that deliver the largest proportion of local content are usually the AM news, sports, and talk stations that many of those FM-addicted listeners have neglected. Much of the future of successful local radio could lie with speech-formatted stations moving to the FM dial as music radio declines in popularity.

@briangongol on Twitter

December 11, 2011

Weather and Disasters Earthquake shakes Mexico City
It's a metropolitan area of 19 million people, and though this quake wasn't huge, the one that struck in 1985 was hugely damaging and killed 9500 people. Any time we round a death toll to more than one significant digit, it should definitely capture our attention. Entire buildings toppled in 1985. Mexico City is wealthier and likely much better-prepared for a quake today, but it's a scary thought to consider what might occur if something the size of the 1985 quake repeated today.

Science and Technology Pronoun use tells a lot about a personality
Among the interesting things research has unveiled: Depressed people say "I" a lot more than others

Business and Finance Ma Bell may not get its hands on T-Mobile after all
The national market for mobile phone service is already so dominated by a small number of competitors that the merger is being seriously questioned

Computers and the Internet WHO Radio Wise Guys post-show video: December 10, 2011

Humor and Good News Boxed wine: It's for the classy
Speaking of classy, there may be nobody in America more self-obsessed than the hand model

News Staking out a community identity on the Great Plains

Recent radio podcasts

December 12, 2011

Computers and the Internet Yet more unexpected (and maybe unwelcome) changes at Google
Google is revising many of the pieces inside its RSS feed-reader, Google Reader. It has fewer users than Gmail or the search engine, but it's still a substantial part of Google's user base. As part of the company's efforts to make sure that everyone who uses their products is essentially forced into using Google Plus, they've integrated the two services a lot and stripped away many of the sharing options that used to reside within Google Reader -- including what was a very nice option to send streams from Google Reader to a widget that could be placed on any other website. Instead, they just want everyone to do all of their feeding through Google Plus. The whole "G+" thing is a major gambit upon which they seem intent on doubling down at every opportunity. That they are stripping away many of the features that made other Google products popular along the way in order to force-feed Google Plus seems to be a risk they're willing to take. But it's dicey. But the more they strip away, suspend, and disassemble products they've been offering for a long time, the more Google will cause savvy users to second-guess whether they're serious about supporting the new products they offer. It's not without parallels -- General Motors has stopped building several of its old lines of cars, like Saturn and Oldsmobile, in order to buttress their ongoing lines, like Buick and Chevrolet. But some doubt absolutely must enter the mind of today's GM customer about whether the company will abruptly stop offering its products in the future. The same must be true of Google's customers today. It's a very, very dangerous strategy to follow. They call it "spring cleaning", but it alienates developers and other users. And on a related note, they're creating all kinds of new privacy worries by introducing facial recognition into their photo searches. It sounds cute at first -- an innocent-sounding way to make sure you can find pictures of your friends and family online. But it's a bit Big Brother-ish.

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - December 10, 2011
The full show is available for on-demand listening

The United States of America Newt Gingrich has some seriously out-of-touch demands
As a paid speaker, he demanded first-class treatment

Science and Technology Weed-out courses are keeping women and racial minorities out of science and engineering majors
They're not the only ones, of course. The problem with "weed-out" courses is that they stop lots of good people from pursuing valuable majors. Why make the learning process unpleasant? A sensible approach to filling the need for people with technical training and education would be to make the introductory courses friendlier -- not tougher.

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December 13, 2011

News Britain exempts itself from EU plans for reform

Socialism Doesn't Work Illinois government keeps picking winners and losers

Aviation News Southwest Airlines orders a bunch of new Boeing 737s

Business and Finance Newspaper publisher Lee files for bankruptcy
Too much debt was incurred to facilitate too much buying

Agriculture 2011 turns into a really good year for farmers

Humor and Good News Pop music may signal the end of civilization
(Video) The Onion creates a fake pop star who can't really be distinguished from real pop stars...which is just all that much more frightening

News Awful violent attack in Belgium

The United States of America Are American Indian tribes too quick to cut people from their rolls?
One of the main problems in American Indian life today is that the problems so heavily concentrated in tribes and reservations are isolated -- culturally and geographically -- from much of the rest of American life. There are undoubtedly many thousands and perhaps even millions of people who would like to know more about their ancestral identities, but there seem to be more people interested in keeping them out of identifying as American Indians than there are people helping to bridge the gap. This is unfortunate on two fronts: First, it means that people who may have had a great-grandparent or another ancestor who came from an indigenous American tribe remain cut-off from the cultural traditions they might not have received as that "Indian blood" was diluted by intermarriage with others. Second, it takes that culture outside the mainstream of consciousness. Consider how much interest Americans descended from Irish immigrants still take in the Emerald Isle, oftentimes many generations after their families left.

Computers and the Internet Facebook's "other" inbox

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December 14, 2011

The United States of America Excellent CBO graphic on the Federal budget
The magnitude of the problems -- systemic ones, not year-to-year pork-barrel projects -- causing the Federal budget to fall entirely out of balance are difficult to show rather than tell. At last, someone at the Congressional Budget Office has done a really good job of "show". We need the economy to grow (producing a larger GDP and a larger tax base) and we need to get honest and serious about fixing the systemic spending problems we have with entitlements.

Computers and the Internet Google Plus "hangouts" will soon be recordable
On one hand, it's a very attractive feature. On the other, there are going to be some people who discover much too late that it's even easier to say something stupid for the permanent record when they do it in a Google Hangout than when they sit down with the intention of creating a video for YouTube. And there are already enough people who have shown really poor judgment before putting something on YouTube that they had the opportunity to do-over. A recorded Google Hangout won't even have that opportunity for additional reflection and reconsideration.

Iowa Huge price increase in Iowa farmland values
It's a huge increase in just one year -- undoubtedly unsustainable. That's what makes it frightening.

Business and Finance So that's why it was called "Chemical Bank"
Anti-banking sentiment in the 1800s meant that it was easier to set up a company first (in this case, a chemical manufacturer) and then add a banking arm to it than to start with a bank from the beginning. Interesting.

Computers and the Internet Phishing scam claims to come from Ben Bernanke
But it's pretty obvious he's not sending out messages to random Americans from an AOL Mexico account.

Humor and Good News "Wow. I'd better shave."
No, Winona Ryder still isn't going to sleep with you

Science and Technology Clock is ticking on the tax discounts that subsidize some classes of renewable energy

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December 15, 2011

Business and Finance Of all the stupid, undeserved pay raises...
Huge pay hikes just came down the pipeline for a bunch of American CEOs

Business and Finance Oil boom in North Dakota means good times for manufactured-home builders in Nebraska
If they're smart, they'll put someone to the task of figuring out how to make sure they can keep the momentum going when the boom in North Dakota runs out. Which it will. They always do. Bubbles always burst.

Health Fighting back against fraudulent claims of medical miracles
There's a whole lot of quackery that goes unpursued and unpunished, and it gives people false hopes, robbing them of money and time that could be spent on actual cures and remedies instead of lunacy

Computers and the Internet Major Apple subcontractor appears to be ramping up production in Brazil
Foxconn is well-known for manufacturing Apple's iPhone in China, but now it appears to be opening up shop in Latin America

The United States of America National Review editors declare Gingrich candidacy a non-starter
It's possible for intelligent people to serve a highly valuable purpose at one time (as Gingrich did in 1994) but to be ill-suited to a new role of similar magnitude. The editors seem to think Gingrich fits that formula.

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December 16, 2011

The United States of America Theft is not free trade
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is on China's case for keeping its currency artificially weak (thus artificially making its goods cheaper for the rest of the world to buy) and for the apparent national policy of not only tolerating intellectual-property theft but encouraging it outright. Both of these methods of cheating a system of free trade are damaging to American companies and workers who play fair. Nobody wants competition when they're the ones sellig, but we all want it when we're the buyers. But even sellers can tolerate fair and honest competition -- it's the cheating that's unacceptable. Romney's right to make this a campaign issue. It has an enormous impact on the macro-scale forces that have left America with 50 million people below the poverty line and 100 million with low incomes. Unfair competition by a nation with 1.3 billion people puts a whole lot of workers on the global market at sub-market rates. There are many things we can and should do as a society to try to get those 150 million Americans to higher living standards, including job-training programs, public education, and encouraging private-sector investment. But having 1.3 billion people in an artificially low-wage country connected to the global economy isn't helping. Our entire population is their two-digit rounding error.

News Christopher Hitchens is dead
Free speech makes people like him necessary. When we agree, we're happy to have him on our side since he tears the other side to pieces. Then he turns on us. He was always polemical, and never entirely fair. But that's what argument is often about...getting the blood boiling a bit. People like Hitchens serve the absolutely necessary role of ensuring that we remember why free speech must remain free -- even for those with whom we disagree.

Computers and the Internet Income at BlackBerry (RIM) falls by 71% from a year ago
Sales are falling and they're having to take a big hit on discounted products. They sold 14 million smartphones in the third quarter, and that number could drop even more in the fourth quarter. Pressure from Android-based phones and the iPhone is enormous.

Computers and the Internet Wresting control of the Facebook timeline back from the company
"It must have been neat being America's smartest toddler!" Facebook's revisions to how they display user data are encouraging people to tell an entire life story through the site. But that much information doesn't need to be concentrated on one website. Interestingly, one of the early partners in Facebook is starting a new project, hoping to make a home base for distributing left-wing political content.

Business and Finance Fiscal problems in the EU are building friction between France and the UK
The UK is trying to stay as far outside the problems of the Euro zone as it can, and France seems to resent that avoidance. There are a lot of people who are talking about getting the United States back on a gold standard for the dollar who apparently aren't able to see across the Atlantic, where the UK's relative freedom to adjust its currency is giving it a major advantage over the countries using the Euro. Monetary policy is a very powerful tool that must be used with exceptional caution -- but it's extremely valuable to have, and a gold standard makes it go away. Meanwhile, the managing director of the IMF is begging the nations of the world not to close their economies to one another, since she thinks that would just push us straight into a global depression.

News Teen babysitters are being pushed out by adult professionals

Computers and the Internet Sweden's Twitter account becomes a mouthpiece for the people
The account @sweden, being run by the country's tourism people, is to be "curated" one week at a time by individuals from the country, where they are free to say whatever they want. As a means of making the account more interesting and of building interest: It's genius. As a means of making sure the right message about the country gets out: All bets are off.

Business and Finance Midwest price update: Everything's rising slowly, except gasoline and food
Food prices are up more than most other things over the past year, but gas prices are the category where costs have risen the most

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December 17, 2011

Humor and Good News Propaganda posters for everyday life
#23 is probably the best: "If you want to help a good cause, go out and volunteer. Your chain status [on Facebook] means nothing, and I will not copy and paste."

Iowa Sioux City gets good press coverage for Republican debate
Sioux City is a fascinating place, historically speaking. It was Iowa's #2 city for a long, long time -- but it's currently in fourth place and largely off the radar of attention even within Iowa, given its location in the otherwise sparsely-populated northwestern corner of the state, far from the Des Moines area and from the eastern Iowa population centers.

Computers and the Internet AOL's attempt at local news (Patch) isn't making much money
Revenues are low and expenses are high for the experiment, which seeks to make money off digital coverage of small local news markets

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December 18, 2011

Health 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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December 19, 2011

Business and Finance A Saudi prince is buying up a big block of Twitter stock
While it's a smart move to take the money from the country's oil wealth and invest it in something other than more oil production, this particular effort at diversification is a bad idea in two ways. First, the choice of Twitter as an investment isn't a great one -- it's a technology stock that's gotten exciting because it's popular, and thus like all fads it will eventually become yesterday's news (just like MySpace, Second Life, and AOL). There's no telling when that will happen. But the other reason why it's a bad move is more existential: It's not actually an investment in anything that will enrich or employ the people of Saudi Arabia. Does anyone actually think the country is suddenly going to have 20 million people with full-time jobs on Twitter? Countries that are fortunate enough to have a special endowment of natural resources (like the oil beneath Saudi Arabia) need to reinvest the lucky profits into other, more sustainable sources of wealth. Norway, for instance, has a half-trillion-dollar investment fund that's being used to squirrel away the country's excess profits from oil. But there's a big gap between the economic development needs of Norway and those of Saudi Arabia. Twitter isn't going to keep Saudi Arabia's economy afloat when the oil runs out. It looks more like a vanity investment -- much like the type that's been swallowing lots of the investment money in Abu Dhabi.

The American Way Vaclav Havel is dead
He led the peaceful and bloodless revolution against Communism in Czechoslovakia

Threats and Hazards Hackers threaten to make attempts on the Iowa caucuses
They should put their efforts to productive use, rather than trying to tear down the political process. The caucuses are a little anachronistic, to be sure -- but they involve citizens showing up to express their thoughts on politics in a neighborhood environment, just like the classic town hall meeting. The kinds of people who think they can get what they want by trying to tear down established processes like the caucuses are the types of people who think they can get rich by throwing chairs through other people's windows. It's worth noting the contrast between these kinds of thoughtless destroyers and the constructive individuals who fought Communism, like Vaclav Havel.

Business and Finance AT&T gives up on takeover of T-Mobile

Humor and Good News Beavis and Butthead comment on Katy Perry's "Firework"
(Video) It's good to have Mike Judge's humor back

Computers and the Internet BT sues Google
The British telephone company says Google is stealing its patents

Water News High corn prices make it hard to put land aside to protect drinking water

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December 20, 2011

Business and Finance Iowa unemployment rate falls to 5.7%
Outsiders can say what they want about this being flyover country, but the economy tends to be much more stable here than in other parts of the US. The unemployment rate here is nearly three full percentage points below that of the rest of the country. That's a huge margin of advantage. That's certainly not to diminish the suffering of the many Americans who are among the long-term jobless for whom times are very, very tough. The challenge, of course, is coming up with the right prescription for solving joblessness. There are a lot of people who think that there's some kind of magical power held by politicians or businesspeople that allows them to create jobs at will. The problem is that people in the private sector don't set out to create jobs -- they set out to make money, and jobs are a byproduct. Jobs for jobs' sake are just unproductive. Building a 5,000-foot monument to Ronald Reagan would create jobs, but it wouldn't do anything really constructive. Jobs exist because people are capable of doing things that other people want to have done. And technology allows us, as it always and forever has, to produce more goods and services with fewer people doing the work. It's not a new phenomenon -- that's why American farm families used to have lots and lots of children, but today by and large do not. Machines do the work that people used to do. But at the same time, technology opens new opportunities for people to do useful work. For everyone who thinks they're entitled to a full-time job posting things on Twitter or Facebook (for which there really is no such market), there are lots of little jobs appearing on places like the Amazon Mechanical Turk and products showing up on Etsy. The Internet is helping break down the barriers between people who want to do work and those who want it done. It would be nice if we could concentrate more of our efforts on creating a healthy environment in which businesses could grow on their own rather than forever chasing big "economic development" projects, but the allure of those projects draws headlines, and that's what gets politicians elected and re-elected. We need a better metric for demanding a good economic environment than "jobs".

Threats and Hazards Baby, you're a firework
North Korea reportedly test-fired a missile a few hours after it was announced that Kim Jong-Il had died. The world is clearly better-off without people like Kim Jong-Il. But the question now is whether we'll be better off with whatever or whomever follows. Kim's apparent successor is his son, about whom very little is known. But it's also not clear whether he's got the moxie to keep the military and the inner circle of the regime loyal to the family. Any kind of revolution there would probably require the complicity of the army, and their bread is buttered by the regime. If we really want change, we're going to have to find a way to incentivize the new boss to head towards reform -- and to get China to back it. It's a tall order.

Business and Finance Rumor says Chicago Sun-Times is about to be sold
Chicago's #2 paper has had a checkered financial history over the last few years, thanks to Conrad Black

Business and Finance Why Warren Buffett wants IBM stock to go down in price
He said he's done buying IBM stock through Berkshire Hathaway, and is now counting on IBM's own buyback plan to cut the number of shares outstanding (which, in turn, increases Berkshire's stake in IBM without costing a penny in cash). Tricks like that make estimates of the intrinsic value of Buffett's own company very difficult to measure, but make that intrinsic value very clearly much greater than most people realize. Based upon paper accounting, it might appear to decline if IBM's shares decrease in market price -- but the long-term value is actually weighted very heavily in its owners' favor if the company takes a lot of shares off the market. Using cash to buy back shares makes oodles of sense when a stock is undervalued. When the stock is overvalued, it's an abomination.

News Fighting gang violence in Scotland

Aviation News The evolution of the NASA logo

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December 22, 2011

Iowa The first part of "civilization" is "civil"
The clowns who keep going around making noise and protesting at political events all over Iowa (and the country) in the name of the "occupy" movement really need to sit down and shut up. Literally. There's a place for civil discussion of issues, including (maybe even especially so) those upon which we disagree. Barging into places and screaming like a bunch of feral cats is a far thing from reasonable protest.

Threats and Hazards Man gets seven years in prison for industrial espionage
Good. The rise of industrial espionage against America is enormous and it's a huge threat to our economy. We need to show that we're serious about putting a stop to it.

Health 30,000 French women ordered to remove faulty breast implants
It sounds like the setup to a joke, but it's a very serious story -- their implants were improperly filled with the wrong grade of silicone. What's interesting is the order to remove them, which undoubtedly will put some of their lives at risk (since surgery is never a riskless thing).

Computers and the Internet Why people add and remove friends on Facebook

Science and Technology Scientific journal asked to not publish study on super-virulent bird flu

Business and Finance Crooked movie-makers ordered to pay restitution to Iowa for film subsidies

Computers and the Internet Where Verizon has or plans to launch 4G service
Also: What phones can actually use the service

Business and Finance New local owners to buy out Chicago Sun-Times

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December 23, 2011

Computers and the Internet Microsoft pulls out of the Consumer Electronics Show

Weather and Disasters Satellite captures magnificent shot of snow on the ground

Science and Technology How an oil well pump works

Business and Finance More erosion in the household savings rate
C'mon, America...we were doing so well for a while there. Personal savings rate now down to 3.5%. It really should be in the 5% to 10% range.

News It's hard to believe that Vladimir Putin has less than $200,000 to his name

Science and Technology Tokyo is at greater risk for a serious earthquake than a year ago
The major quake this year appears to have shifted energy to a fault that threatens Tokyo

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December 24, 2011

The United States of America What is wrong with the Vice President?
It really seems untoward of the Vice President of the United States to submit a letter to the editor to the nation's first caucus state, taking potshots at a single rival candidate for the White House. Mitt Romney did get a chance to respond.

Business and Finance Long-time Nebraska meat company sells out
A family has found that the next generation isn't really interested in taking over the business. They appear fortunate to have found a buyer in another family company that was looking for an acquisition.

The United States of America US warned: A credit downgrade could be coming

Business and Finance Smarter investors choose Roth IRAs
That's not an opinion -- it's a statement of fact

Agriculture Record ethanol volumes are being produced

Threats and Hazards Digital thieves claim original logos by others as their own work


December 25, 2011

Business and Finance Sometimes it's better to be the spinoff company

Business and Finance The unintended consequences of closing coal-fired power plants

Computers and the Internet The Internet makes it much easier to be an idiot on a public stage

Business and Finance How to get richer in 2012

Broadcasting Cedar Rapids is getting a new radio station

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December 26, 2011

Business and Finance People respond to incentives
Anecdotal evidence suggests that college students are moving towards majors with relatively low unemployment rates

Threats and Hazards High-school student in Ottumwa charged with terrorism conspiracy
That's a serious charge, so the police had better be certain they're right. Otherwise, they're branding a 16-year-old with a label that will do damage for life.

Iowa Social conservatives face the 2012 Iowa Caucuses and don't know for whom to vote
Interestingly, Bob Vander Plaats seems to think he has the right to tell some of the candidates to leave the race. From where he gets this authority, nobody knows.

Agriculture Clock is ticking down fast towards even more starvation in North Korea
The destabilization of the country's political system with the death of Kim Jong-Il means we just don't know what's happening next.

Threats and Hazards Vandals have been destroying valuable Egyptian artifacts
Priceless artifacts are being lost to disorderly mobs

Agriculture Nearly a third of all hogs in the United States -- are in Iowa
Also...about twice as many chickens as any other state

Computers and the Internet Tablets are punishing the print newspaper business

Humor and Good News A singing elf on the trading floor

Business and Finance Brazil's economy is bigger than the UK's

Broadcasting Brian Gongol Show - December 25, 2011
The full show, available on-demand for listening anytime

Broadcasting WHO Radio Wise Guys - December 24, 2011
The full show is available on-demand

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December 27, 2011

Computers and the Internet Who owns your Twitter account?
People who find themselves using "social media" on behalf of their employers may need to do more due diligence up-front to define whose work belongs to whom. It's pretty obvious that when someone writes for Chevron's house magazine during business hours that the work ultimately belongs to Chevron unless stipulated otherwise. But what about the work done by people on behalf of their employers that dances on that line between the professional and the personal? And if it happens outside regular working hours? Most importantly, what happens when the working relationship is over? Problems like these make it easy to believe that more people will be independent contractors in the future than are today.

Agriculture Under-investment in agricultural research may be causing gains in production to taper off
That's really ominous news, since lots of countries are going to keep growing quickly, and those people need to be fed

The American Way Economic growth reduces need for foreign aid in developing countries
That's obviously what everyone hopes will happen, but the good news is that there's evidence it's actually taking place

Science and Technology A handful of tricks for defining problems
Just as the person who defines the test can determine its outcome, the person who learns how to define a problem more effectively can do a better job of solving it

Weather and Disasters Why there's a 30' hill in the middle of pancake-flat Grand Island
It turns out the city was hit by a huge tornado outbreak in 1980, and that's where they put the debris

News Ben Nelson is leaving the Senate
The Nebraska Democrat is one of the most conservative in his own party

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December 28, 2011

Socialism Doesn't Work Official report says that China's bullet train crashed in July due to design flaws and sloppy management
There's a great deal to admire about Chinese culture, and a lot to learn from it. But there's a great deal of behavior by the Chinese government of which to be highly skeptical. The tacit endorsement of intellectual-property theft is one of the worst. It's widely argued that China stole the technology behind its bullet train, and there's a very important lesson for people to remember about the theft: Knowing how to put something together that looks the same as the original isn't the same as knowing how to make the original. Plenty of people can duplicate paintings, for instance. But the process matters, too. A photograph of a Jackson Pollock painting is definitely not the same thing as a Pollock original. And process matters in technology as much as it matters in art: Knowing why individual materials were chosen, or angles used, or steps taken in a manufacturing process can be essential to the outcome, even if two products -- original and copycat -- look a lot alike when placed side-by-side. And with many companies relying so heavily on China, the world has a vested interest in getting the Chinese government to play by the rules that allow the market system to work. A free market requires the rule of law.

News Copy editors at the Cedar Rapids Gazette miss a pair of big errors
An article titled "Iowa Republicans struggling with who to back in precinct caucuses" made two big mistakes. First, it should be "whom to back", not "who". And second, the first sentence of the article should not read "It's hard to find a straight Republican in Iowa", even if the author is trying to make a clever reference to how many voters say they're "leaning towards" a candidate. Saying you can't "find a straight Republican" simply doesn't pass the giggle test.

Iowa Cloak-and-dagger move in Iowa politics
A state senator abandons his post as chair of Michele Bachmann's Presidential campaign so he can endorse Ron Paul instead -- less than a week ahead of the caucuses. Should one have a sincere change of heart of that magnitude, one should probably just knuckle down and do the best he or she can for the remaining few days. But this looks like something underhanded. The individual in question (State Sen. Kent Sorenson) previously used a database from his state-government email list to drop spam on voters on behalf of Bachmann. He seems to have a problem with his judgment.

Humor and Good News The rise of the misquotation

News Justice prevails for some Egyptian women, but too late
A court has ended the practice of forcing degrading "virginity tests" on female detainees. It's unbelievable that they were allowed to take place at all, ever.

Science and Technology How to make predictions better
Apparently, the more an individual adheres to a unifying worldview, the less likely that individual is to produce useful predictions. Better predictions appear to come from those who are interested in the heterogeneity of the sources from which they draw.

Aviation News The rise of drone aircraft for fighting wars
They look great from the standpoint of being able to project greater American fighting power without putting more Americans in harm's way. But they're a terrifying development should they fall into the wrong hands. We may find ourselves quite urgently needing to learn how to detect and defend against them far more than knowing how to launch them.

Science and Technology Fun with levitation

News Someone's been Photoshopping in North Korea
Erasing stragglers from a shot of Kim Jong Il's funeral procession. But why bother?

Humor and Good News Firefox 9 is on the market
They're trying to seriously speed up their release cycle -- Version 9 follows Version 8 by a matter of weeks

Humor and Good News A less-powerful laser pointer

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December 29, 2011

Iowa Romney aims for the business conservatives in Iowa
Despite what people might perceive of the outsized influence of cultural conservative voters in Iowa, there are still many people for whom the economy comes first and always has. They will be showing up to the caucuses on Tuesday night, too, and they're probably going to be attracted to the idea of putting "a turnaround guy" in the White House. The United States tends to be a slightly center-right nation, and it's probably fair to characterize most of the conservatism as a pro-market orientation rather than a demand that things never change socially. The echo chamber of the national and international media tends to assume that thousands of mindless drones here follow the pronouncements of a few noisy conservative leaders, but the truth is that there are plenty of sensible people in Iowa who want free trade and smaller government more than anything else.

Computers and the Internet The Department of Homeland Security is watching Twitter
It doesn't take more than a minute or two of watching the streams of comments flowing on Twitter to realize that there are a lot of people who type without thinking through the consequences. One can't really blame the government for creating false accounts to track the loose-lipped who might be planning to do violence. But it's also a little ominous that we've had to come to this stage.

Business and Finance Women are substituting education for low-wage jobs
Which can be a very sensible thing to do -- as long as it doesn't require undertaking a whole lot of debt. In the long term, if it turns out that women are doing so in significantly larger proportion than men, it could forecast an important trend in the workplace of the future.

Iowa A dozen things that the "Occupy Des Moines" protesters should be doing instead of getting arrested

Computers and the Internet Tech Tip: How often should I back up my files?
Short answer: Preferably daily. Highly recommended weekly. Absolutely no less than monthly.

Computers and the Internet Tech Tip: Is it safe to pay bills online?
Short answer: Yes, but you need to know what precautions to take first

Water News Rush to fix Missouri River levees gets underway

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December 30, 2011

The United States of America How do you get doctors to set up practice in rural communities?
Or other professionals, like engineers and lawyers? One of the problems with the debate about this important issue in the Midwest is the language. Too many people frame it as "capturing" or "trapping" these kinds of professionals. In reality, what must be done is to make these places so attractive that people want to live there. From a broader perspective, that means it's necessary to think about the health and growth of population centers, spaced closely enough together that it's possible to travel easily from one to another. Iowa's largest population centers are spaced one to two hours apart from one another. Farther west, the spacings grow much larger very quickly. Over the very long term, it's going to become important to ensure the intermediate communities between larger ones don't shrivel and die, but rather find renewed growth. It's widely expected that the leading cities of the region will continue to grow -- but we don't want the smaller places in between to become ghost towns.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft issues an emergency security update
A problem with their ".NET" system means that crooks could gain privileges and control over users' computers

Computers and the Internet CNet offers a comprehensive overview of SOPA
The Stop Online Piracy Act has a name and an ostensible intent that both sound really good -- but the devil seems to be in the details. The proposal appears to require service providers (including the people who make the backbone of the Internet stay up) to pull the plug on websites when the government deems them to be in violation of the law. Makes sense if there's a site dedicated to hosting millions of pirated movies. Much more threatening if it means that a single infringement on a site could render the whole thing inaccessible. Opposition to the proposal is coming from respectable quarters, like Kaspersky, which makes some of the world's best antivirus software. And from musical satirist Dan Bull.

Science and Technology Chimps seem to understand how much their peers know

News Just because someone said it a long time ago doesn't mean it's the right thing to do
"The ancients tell us what is best, but we must learn of the moderns what is fittest." - Benjamin Franklin

Computers and the Internet 2011 was the year of the cameraphone

Business and Finance Recommendations for last-minute charitable contributions

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