Gongol.com Archives: 2011 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

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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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

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

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

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

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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.