Gongol.com Archives: 2011 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

Business and Finance "Merger mania" among architecture firms
Whenever an extended period of consolidation in any industry goes down, the thoughtful observer ought to take a step back and ask whether the mergers are taking place because real efficiencies are being gained, or because it's just convenient for the people at the top. It's a grand stroke to the ego to preside over the acquisition of another company, but just because it's good for the id of the executive suite doesn't mean it was actually a smart strategic move. It's particularly suspicious when consolidation takes place within a single market -- like architecture. Smart investing is often a bit opportunistic -- Warren Buffett has legendarily built Berkshire Hathaway by buying whatever was the most attractive opportunity of any sort to be found, whether that's been insurance companies, candy makers, furniture stores, or railroads. He's never laid out a specific agenda to build a monopolistic company in any single market. For insight why, consider the case of eminent domain. The government reserves the right to force people to sell out when their land gets in the way of major projects (like a highway) because land that might only normally be worth $5,000 an acre increases in value when it's in the route of a project. In order to complete the route, all of the individual pieces have to be acquired first. A holdout could, hypothetically, demand a $50,000 or even $500,000-per-acre price if that acre happens to be the last remaining acre required to complete the route. Similarly, the market for a specific type of firm only has a limited "route", in that there are only a certain number of firms available within a given market, and the more one company wishes to acquire market share through acquisition, the more it ought to expect to find itself paying for incrementally more market share. That same capital, rather than being used to buy out more market share in a single industry, could -- at one point or another -- instead be more efficiently deployed acquiring completely unrelated companies. It's a deep microeconomic question, to be sure, but merger mania is often just that -- an ego-driven craze, not a smart business decision.

Business and Finance Dallas Federal Reserve president says enough's enough
He wants Congress to stop spending beyond its means, and now he's threatening to vote against plans to keep buying government bonds in the open market, in order to starve the beast a little bit

Iowa A new approach to Lenten fasting
Well, it might be a really old approach, too. But an Iowa man is going to try to survive on nothing but water and bock beer throughout Lent.

Computers and the Internet The surprising secrets of Pac-Man
The game's simplicity is undoubtedly what keeps it so attractive -- Tetris does the same thing, by the way -- but there are some things about Pac-Man that most people will probably find surprising, including the fact that the ghosts actually follow a predictable pattern of behavior.

Humor and Good News Toot your own horn

Water News State budget-balancing puts strain on Nebraska cities

Humor and Good News The uncanny similarities between the Qaddafis and the Bluths
Fans of "Arrested Development" might be forgiven for having a little deja vu

Iowa UNI men's basketball coach offers to buy tickets for every student to attend tournament games
Classy -- and not a half-bad way to ensure that people have a little loyalty to you

Computers and the Internet When it's just too hard to ask out a girl in person...
...don't set up a prostitution request on Craigslist. That'll haunt you much longer than any errant Facebook "poke".

Broadcasting Podcasts from the latest "Brian Gongol Show" on WHO Radio
Including these conversations in .mp3 format: Tough times in Webster City, the future of cell-phone towers, the new tech bubble, and the incomprehensibly big Federal debt.

Broadcasting Podcasts from the latest "WHO Radio Wise Guys"
All are free downloads in .mp3 format: advice for buying a tablet computer, how to safely backup your computer, Google Maps places an Interstate highway where it doesn't belong, and Charlie Sheen goes bonkers on Twitter.

Water News EPA proposes expanded list of contaminants for water utilities to watch

Computers and the Internet Five status updates nobody should ever share online
Just because Facebook, Twitter, and other services make it unthinkably easy to broadcast our thoughts to the entire known universe doesn't mean we should do it without thinking.

Broadcasting Sometime this year, a national EAS test
The United States never conducted a national activation of the old Emergency Broadcast System, which was a cultural mainstay of the Cold War. Now, for the first time, the government wants to run a national test of the Emergency Alert System, the successor to the Emergency Broadcast System. It wasn't activated on 9/11, even though there was pretty clear evidence that it should have been. Now, we'll find out if it even can be activated successfully nationwide -- more than a decade after the system was established. That it's been in operation that long without having been tested nationwide is one of those reasons why it's hard to take seriously any promises that the Federal government will ever be able to really "protect" Americans in an emergency.

Science and Technology The sky in time-lapse looks a lot like the ocean
Both are fluids...we just don't easily see the sky behaving like one, since it happens on a different time scale. Time-lapse shots of San Francisco's lively atmosphere provide a striking view of this fluid motion.

Iowa Small school districts in Iowa are sinking into a demographic hole
As farming becomes more efficient, fewer farmers are needed to produce the same volume of crops -- and more. That means there are fewer jobs in the towns that support farming, which in turn means those towns are shrinking. Iowa faces a long-term challenge: It's not going to be possible to maintain population in all of our small towns, nor even in most of them. So we'll have to figure out how to concentrate our efforts on "saving" a limited number of communities that might then have a chance at creating enough economic gravity that they can support regional trade and perhaps support some neighboring communities. People generally make most of their decisions based upon a limited number of factors: What's easiest, what's closest, what's most familiar, and/or what's best for their families. Proximity to a vibrant larger community -- one with good stores, restaurants, and things to do -- is essential to taking advantage of these pre-existing biases in people's decision-making. The future of Iowa's communities could pretty easily be predicted based upon whether they're within half an hour's driving distance (give or take a little) of communities that satisfy those needs. For those that don't, it's going to be extremely tough going in the future.

Broadcasting How much is a long-term business relationship worth?
The University of Minnesota has broadcast its football games on WCCO-AM since 1943, along with a lot of other university sports. That relationship is now over, due to the many vagaries of college sports broadcast contracts, particularly in the modern era of granting exclusive rights to a single network. One former announcer put it this way about how things used to be: "You just took it for granted -- everything was on WCCO". How much is a relationship like that worth? How much is lost, culturally, when there are no longer certain long-term institutions that they can rely upon? One of the great things about America is that we know when it's time to blow up the old and replace it with the new, but it's also sad to see that old relationships that could have been kept fresh and vibrant are instead allowed to fade away.

Water News How clear should Iowa's waters be?

The United States of America Nebraska will keep its divisible electoral vote
In 2008, Nebraska became the first state in quite some time to split its votes in the Electoral College, letting the winner of each of its three Congressional districts take the vote of that district, and then granting the two seats allocated by its Senate representation to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Realistically, that's how the vote should be divided everywhere -- let each Congressional district have its own say, and let the popular vote in each state prevail for the two remaining Electoral College ballots. But an attempt was made to switch Nebraska back to a winner-take-all system, though fortunately that effort failed. The Electoral College is a very, very good tool for ensuring fairness to the smaller states in the Union, and keeping it -- rather than going to an idiotic "National Popular Vote" or some other method of voting -- ought to be a top priority for anyone living in any state smaller in population than, say, Louisiana or Kentucky, ought to be loudly defensive of the Electoral College, no matter how they might have felt about the outcomes of past elections, like in 2000.

Weather and Disasters Truly unbelievable helicopter footage of the tsunami in Japan
The remarkable thing we're seeing with this earthquake -- beyond its mind-shattering magnitude and transcontinental impact -- is that it's happening in a fully "wired" nation, so virtually instantly we're able to see exactly what happened as it was experienced by the people there. The reach of the event doesn't just include the huge portion of the Pacific Basin directly affected by the waves, but the rest of the world that's been enabled to watch the event on a global scale, in real time.

Agriculture There isn't a lot of unused cropland yet where we can grow more corn
So that means we're going to have to keep growing more on existing acres, if we are to continue using corn as both a major food source and a fuel source

Iowa Cedar Rapids, city-become-hotelier
The City of Cedar Rapids is now in the hotel business, after purchasing the Five Seasons Hotel downtown for $3.2 million, with expectations of another $25 million in renovations ahead. One must have sympathy for the city and its leadership, all of whom have trying to recover from a natural disaster of epic proportions, but taking on ownership of a hotel that will require that much money to put into effective service is a rather significant risk to take with the taxpayers' money.

Humor and Good News Charles Schulz's letterhead, circa 1958
Lucy's caption at the bottom really takes the cake. Less subtle, but just as funny, is Harpo Marx's personal letterhead.

Water News A vivid look at the tsunami waves from today's earthquake in Japan

Weather and Disasters Building codes probably saved many lives in Japan
But it should also be noted that a place can have all of the building codes in the world, but without the wealth to pay for the technology to meet those building codes, they're just empty words on paper

Computers and the Internet Electrical engineers think carbon nanotubes could conduct electricity better than metal wires
And they figure that allowing them to do so could cause mobile phones, for instance, to have a battery life measurable in weeks and months rather than hours.

Broadcasting Cumulus Media to buy out Citadel Broadcasting for about $2.4 billion
It's a peculiar event -- Cumulus is a smaller company than Citadel in terms of revenues. It's also odd because further consolidation in the radio industry simply hasn't looked like an economically-sound idea for quite some time. Radio consolidation went haywire in the late 1990s, but after the incredibly tough times in the advertising market following 9/11 and the recession that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble, most of the station ownership groups concluded that they didn't have a lot more to gain from clustering their stations together even more. Yet, here we go again.

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - March 12, 2011
How Google is helping with disaster relief in Japan