Gongol.com Archives: 2011 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

Business and Finance Want proof that the housing bubble was highly specific?
A single chart illustrates how much real estate is "underwater" by state -- and five states (Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and California) are 30% or more in the red. Several others are about 20% underwater. But about a dozen (including Iowa) are at or below 10%. That's a yawning gap -- but the problem is that those markets that got into deep trouble are also very big ones, and it's disproportionately affecting the rest of the country.

Threats and Hazards Iran will send warships through the Suez Canal on Monday
They're en route to Syria, and Israel is officially quite unhappy with the plan

Threats and Hazards The little-reported attempted terrorist attack in Spokane
Someone left a remote-controlled bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day parade. It was discovered in time and the attack was thwarted, but very little has been reported about the incident.

News More protests spreading in northern Africa and the Middle East
What's especially interesting is that the process appears to be a cascade: The whole process started in Tunisia, and subsequently caught on in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen. That's a whole lot of instability in a very wide stretch of geography. And it's difficult for the United States to just give a blanket endorsement to all of the protests, because sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't -- Iran's popular revolution of 1979 hasn't produced anything good for America. And there's also a clear need for the right institutions to be in place for any country to start building a functioning democratic government, and those institutions aren't developed overnight (after all, it took from 1776 to 1789 for the United States to even settle on the Constitution).

Business and Finance Just in time for Lent
Long John Silver's is getting a new logo and slogan. They do look nicer, but a new logo is only a small bit of polish to put on a company.

Computers and the Internet Quite the guest list
President Obama just had a dinner with the heads of Twitter, Netflix, Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco, and other companies that are hot in the technology sector. It was a closed-door session, though the quite obvious rivalries present in the room suggest that it probably wasn't exactly the kind of Earth-shaking meeting of the minds that the guest roster might have suggested.

Threats and Hazards Did China hijack Internet traffic or not?
The alleged incident took place over 18 minutes last April. Some of the people who looked into it say it couldn't have been a fat-finger error.

Business and Finance Mark Cuban's advice on becoming a self-made entrepreneur
His advice, distilled: Work hard and do a lot of research. He also makes a strong case for cutting the complex "administrivia" that stands in the way of many Americans who might otherwise be innovating on their own. Even giant companies have to start somewhere, but if the hurdles to just get started become too great, then people aren't going to drive economic innovation and growth. They'll just shrug their shoulders and disappointedly go back to their desks and work for others. But the deadweight of needless complexity will continue to put a drag on companies of all sizes anyway.

News Nepal is just now getting ambulance service
Due to a number of factors -- including bureaucratic obstacles -- the country is just now getting fully-equipped ambulance service

Threats and Hazards Even Senators get treated badly by the TSA

Computers and the Internet Invent your own applications with Google App Inventor

Weather and Disasters Even Midwesterners ought to get earthquake insurance

Business and Finance What Warren Buffett will probably say in the Berkshire Hathaway annual report
Warren Buffett's annual letter to shareholders, contained within the Berkshire Hathaway annual report, is widely anticipated both within the shareholder community and throughout the investing public at large. Buffett is unusual in that he offers a lengthy narrative of the business environment and the performance of Berkshire's wide-ranging subsidiaries as part of the letter. It should be more common practice than it is -- unfortunately, though, Buffett is exceptional in so doing. His report on 2010, which by all estimates was a very strong year for the company, probably won't break a lot of new ground that his prior reports haven't covered in the past. But it's quite likely that he will harp on the theme of intrinsic value this year. There's been a lot of speculation about what the company will do with what is expected to be a $50 billion pile of cash (or more) by the end of 2011. A popular view encouraged by an article in Barron's is that Berkshire might start paying a shareholder dividend, which would be a significant break with the past. That's not especially likely, because that would signal that Buffett believes that individual shareholders would be able to earn a greater return from each dollar in dividends than he would be able to find on their behalf by investing it. And while he's notorious for lamenting that it's getting harder and harder to find deals that whet his appetite, he's also lamented that problem since the late 1960s, and yet has solved it every time. The way he solves it, though, is by pursuing intrinsic value: Believing that it's better to find something that's really worth less than the going market price and to buy it and hold on to it. In this annual report, he'll probably lament that there isn't a lot to be found right now that's valued below its intrinsic value -- at least not in the US market. And there isn't -- not after the run-up in the overall market over the last two years. But some businesses will always be available from time to time that will meet Buffett's standards for purchase, and this year will probably just mark a brief cooling-off period for the company (after the payoff of some very good investments elsewhere and a bit of profit-taking from its stock holdings), even if the overall stock market remains buoyant. But if a good portion of Buffett's letter doesn't focus on how investors ought to mentally separate stock share prices from the intrinsic value of the company behind those prices, one ought to be very surprised. He likely anticipates opportunities in the next couple of years that would reward having plenty of cash available in order to make new purchases, since the macroeconomic recovery has been anything but consistent and fully predictable. There will be hiccups over the coming few years, and those hiccups will be very good opportunities to buy. [Disclosure: The author owns Berkshire Hathaway stock.]

Threats and Hazards The planet faces massive danger from electrical storms in the next couple of years
The Sun is expected to enter a period of intensified activity that could produce huge solar storms in 2012 and 2013. And we really haven't done much to make our electrical grids (and everything that relies upon them) sufficiently robust to withstand the risk.

Aviation News Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off for the last time
And it's carrying a humanoid robot that will be used to handle routine maintenance tasks on board the International Space Station -- which, if it works, will be a smart move: Why waste valuable human time on routine nonsense when a machine could do it instead? (Which is, by the way, exactly why we should be excited about the success of IBM's natural-language computer on "Jeopardy!".

Computers and the Internet Four things you should never share on Facebook
As a species, we're really playing with fire when we get access to tools of global communication without thoughtful training on how to use it properly

News Eastern Nebraska's getting a new overlaid area code
Even local calls will now require dialing the full area code

Iowa It would be delightful to see electric cars being manufactured in Iowa...
...but it's not a pleasant thing to hear that government agencies -- right down to the city level -- are giving away money to make it happen. If a business isn't going to succeed without subsidies, then those subsidies ought to come with a direct financial reward for the taxpayers whose money is risked upon them. And if people then recognize that as nothing more than partial state ownership of the firm, which has an unpleasantly socialist ring to it, then they should see why government shouldn't be in the direct-subsidies business at all.

Agriculture China's current drought is its worst in 60 years
Once again, it's clear that we need to find more and better ways to store larger crop surpluses in the good years so that there's plenty to rely upon in the bad years. Just imagine how bad things would be if it weren't a drought causing crop shortages in China, but another volcanic eruption like Tambora

Computers and the Internet An interactive map of Twitter users in the countries where major protests are taking place
And on a related subject: How a country could be disconnected from the Internet. It's highly unlikely that it could happen in the United States, but that hasn't stopped Senator Joe Lieberman from proposing a kill switch to make it possible.

Computers and the Internet Long overdue, but much-welcomed: An Android OS upgrade for US Cellular customers

Science and Technology A ship to carry 18,000,000 flat-screen televisions
Shipping line Maersk has signed a deal to buy at least ten ships roughly the size of four end-to-end football fields, that will travel at about 20 mph but use 20% less fuel than their predecessors. Pretty remarkable engineering.

Humor and Good News Who's crazier: Muammar Qaddafi or Charlie Sheen?
Moreover, who can tell their rants apart?

Science and Technology Flipper goes fishing
(Video) Some dolphins in Australia have learned to go fishing in water that's much too shallow for them to swim in normally. They weren't created this way -- it's a learned behavior. The reality of evolutionary progress is far more interesting than any creation myth.

Humor and Good News How to make your own (ugly) Cadbury's Creme Eggs
Easter's most decadent treat, now available 365 days a year

News A helpful online guide to the Irish political parties
A very clever little chart depicts the major differences among the five leading parties in a highly digestible format. A great use of technology in the public interest.