Gongol.com Archives: 2011 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

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.

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

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.

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.

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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

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

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.