Gongol.com Archives: March 2012
Brian Gongol

March 2012
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March 2, 2012

Business and Finance Foreigners have shoveled $2 trillion into American investments in the last year
The Treasury Department says foreign holders held $12.5 trillion in American stocks and bonds as of June 30th. Some of the increase over the previous year's total, $10.6 trillion, was probably due to rising stock prices. But it also means that the money is staying here, rather than being pulled out in a wave of profit-taking. No country is more heavily-invested in American securities than China, which has $1.7 trillion invested here. But the UK, Canada, and Japan hold more American stock than any other countries by far. (It's probably safe to assume that the huge Cayman Islands account is due to a wide range of Americans and others avoiding tax laws.) This kind of investment is enormously important for three reasons, at least: (1) Foreign interest in American securities props up prices, which is probably of great interest right now as a huge demographic wave cruises toward liquidating its investments during retirement; (2) It subsidizes Federal spending and pushes down interest rates for households, the government, and businesses; and (3) It introduces very, very interesting issues when it comes to international relations. For a long time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was mass panic that Japan was going to take over America, one huge buyout at a time. It fizzled. Now, we worry that we owe so much to China that they can tell us what to do. It's probably an overstatement, but there's no escaping the fact that we are the debtors in the relationship.

Business and Finance US personal-savings rates are at 4.5%
Much higher than the long-term average of the last ten or fifteen years, but the number appears to be drifting downwards. Even 5% is not enough; it really should be closer to 9% or 10% for households to have long-term security (and freedom from future government dependency). But it's definitely better than the zero rate of savings that prevailed a short while ago.

Business and Finance Is Wall Street filled with psychopaths?
A study supposedly finds that 10% of the people working in Manhattan finance are psychopathic. That may or may not be true. But it is certainly true that the public is being fleeced by the hyperactivity of the financial markets. Too many traders are making fortunes by taking a commission off rapid-fire buying and selling, which neither does any good for society, nor enriches the people investing for the long term. Smart long-term investing is patient and deliberate; most people would be best-served by investing mainly in broad-based index funds and just reinvesting the dividends.

Computers and the Internet Twitter and Facebook may let you, but you shouldn't just say anything you want online
Free speech is constrained by certain boundaries -- like the prohibition on libel. The whole point of a ban on libel is that you shouldn't be able to destroy another person's ability to earn a living by spreading lies and rumors about them. One person being able to eat is a superior good to another person being able to vent their spleen with lies and falsehoods.

Socialism Doesn't Work If your only other choice was Putin, would you vote for a Communist?

Socialism Doesn't Work Iowa City "Occupists" turn deadbeat
They refuse to pay for the $2,300 in damage they did to the grass in a city park

Iowa The future of Walnut Street
The City of Des Moines is hiring a consultant to help with a project to do a major makeover for Walnut Street between 4th and 10th

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March 4, 2012

News Putin wins presidency in Russia -- all over again
After a constitutionally-required hiatus, the two-term president is headed back to the presidency. Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets, was the only non-extreme opposition candidate, and he lost badly. He says no matter what happens, he'll be back.

Threats and Hazards Police accuse Le Mars man of assaulting 11-year-old girl during home invasion
There are some kinds of people who may very well be just entirely incapable of reform. The kind of lowlife who would assault an 11-year-old girl is exactly that kind of sociopath.

Humor and Good News How an economist says "I Love You"

Weather and Disasters A warm winter for the Upper Midwest
Far fewer bitterly-cold days, and a lot more just-plain-warm ones. And following a series of four very unusually cold winters, this reversion to the mean has felt a little strange.

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March 5, 2012

Iowa The epic challenge of keeping small Midwestern towns alive
The enormous success that is modern agriculture means that we need far fewer people than ever before to produce much greater amounts of food. While that's a very good thing for society, it has consequences: One of those is the depopulation of rural areas. Those places without a lot of people are essentially "leaking" their populations, largely to bigger cities nearby, because that's where the jobs are. The epic question for states like Iowa and its neighbors is how we can concentrate our resources so that we don't end up with desolation in those places "in-between". Given the right mixture of access to technology, transportation, and a good business environment, there are excellent cases to be made for economic growth in many small towns. They can offer outstanding quality of life with an exceptionally low cost of living, for starters. But some decisions have to be made along the way about how to let the market make the allocation decisions without starving communities of the resources they need to provide the basic services (like roads and clean water and fire protection) that are non-negotiable requirements of modern living.

Business and Finance How Toyota builds cars and trucks in the US and still makes a profit
Seeing improvement as something to be done in "event mode" rather than as a cultural practice may be keeping a lot of companies from getting ahead in the Toyota way

Humor and Good News Historic pictures...Turnerized
It turns out that color really does put a new spin on some famous old photos

Humor and Good News Is this really a discussion?
A handy flowchart

Agriculture Increased corn production could finally be catching up with increased demand
As those two come closer to equilibrium, corn prices might cool down a bit -- which in turn could cut the throttle of the skyrocketing prices for agricultural land in the Midwest

Computers and the Internet Tech Tip: Is Google Plus ever going to take off?

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March 6, 2012

The American Way Financial distractions notwithstanding, things are getting better all the time
A column in The Economist highlights the very real, tangible progress being made on a wide range of fronts -- meaningful progress, not just new ways of social marketing. Among other things we are quick to forget: A plain-vanilla smartphone today contains the equivalent of thousands of dollars' worth of technology fifteen years ago, from a high-powered computer to a video camera. And it's portable. As the essay concludes, "Knowledge is cumulative. And that is a good reason for supposing that things will get better." Whatever best rewards the creation of new knowledge is what will make life better, in the aggregate, for most people. Capitalism, as it so happens, is that system that is best at creating the right rewards.

News Dennis Kucinich loses Democratic primary to stay in Congress

Weather and Disasters A big solar flare is (probably) incoming

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March 7, 2012

Business and Finance American Airlines is trying to freeze pensions to help get out of bankruptcy
They may actually be trying to avoid dumping those pensions on the PBGC, which is the organization the government uses to keep paying the pensions promised to people who worked for companies that went belly-up. The PBGC is paying out on 4300 pension plans, an increase of more than a thousand in the last decade. That's why the classic defined-benefit pension system is dead...it was too easy to raid and too easy to under-fund, and now those programs are huge albatrosses around the necks of companies like airlines and automakers. The PBGC is massively underfunded, to the tune of $26 billion, so they're publicly breathing a sigh of relief that American is talking about taking care of its pension obligations without giving up altogether on them. (American's entire plan for exiting bankruptcy protection is a bit unusual, too, so the pension plan is just another component.) Ultimately, a few facts remain: People will need to save for retirement, and they will habitually avoid doing so adequately (because an ice cream cone today tastes a lot better than the promise of having enough money to pay for oatmeal when you're 85). Firms are scarcely different from the people that make them up, so when firms are obligated to provide retirement savings, they'll routinely avoid doing so (because today's dividends make people a lot happier than a fully-funded defined-benefit pension plan that will be the next CEO's problem, anyway). And government has shown it's no better than the voters (to whom all this trouble goes back in the first place), as evidenced by the truly staggering under-funding crisis within Social Security and Medicare. It's no exaggeration: Social Security is already running a deficit, which will get really big, really fast, starting in about two years, and Medicare had to dip into its trust fund to the tune of $32.3 billion last year. The best solution? Probably to have a mandatory program for old-age savings, but one in which people have some sort of private, personal account that the neither the government nor an unscrupulous employer can raid. If we're smart enough as a people to get mortgages and buy car insurance and raise children, then we're smart enough to manage our retirement savings -- as long as there's something compulsory about it.

Weather and Disasters NOAA's space weather page
We really don't seem to know fully what effects space weather conditions have on terrestrial weather, but we do know that things that happen way out there can affect our electronics and other things down here. Considering there's been a big solar storm that's likely to affect Earth tomorrow, it seems like a good time to keep an eye on extraterrestrial weather.

The United States of America Why do we have our party colors backwards in the United States?
Red is the left-leaning color practically everywhere else, and blue is the right-leaning color. So why do we call the right-leaning states "red states" and the left-leaning ones "blue states"? It's all backwards.

Threats and Hazards Texas state cops say: Don't go to Mexico
The killings of 120 Americans there last year didn't help.

News The microtargeted Presidential campaign
A little bit of research unearths an effort by President Obama's re-election campaign to target potential donors based upon all kinds of details they're collecting in their voter database. Ever wondered why Facebook and Google are so eager to collect personalized information about every user? Because it's extremely valuable stuff.

Computers and the Internet Apple rolls out the third-generation iPad
It's only been out for a day for media reviews, but there seems to be a lot of early reaction that the iPad 3 is no great leap forward beyond the iPad 2. It has a better display and 4G capability, but otherwise looks and behaves a lot like its predecessor. It'll ship on March 16th and start at $499.

Science and Technology A dust devil on Mars

Aviation News A lovely-looking airplane
A modern Boeing 737 in a classic Streamline-era paint scheme. It's really a work of art.

Science and Technology Radioactive toys for the Space Age

Broadcasting AIB will end its program for television captioners
It's odd, considering that voice-to-text software still has a long way to go before it's reliable enough for full-time transcription, and there's still a rule in place requiring virtually all American television to be captioned. One would think those two add up to serious job security, but students apparently aren't interested enough to keep the program open.

Humor and Good News The Oreo cookie is 100 years old

Water News Good news about the Missouri River

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March 11, 2012

The American Way An Olive Garden opens in Grand Forks
The chain restaurant got a serious review from the local newspaper's food critic, and that review in turn went viral. Things like this go viral because someone who's sincere does something that seems naive (who, after all, would bother to review a chain restaurant?). But for all the laughter at Grand Forks's expense, it's worth considering that chains only succeed if they consistently deliver something that people want at an affordable price. That's what's magnificent about capitalism: It rewards what people really want, not just what they say that they want. And if that means we want a taco in a shell made of Doritos, then it doesn't matter whether authentic Mexican restaurants would ever be caught dead making something like it. It only matters that people actually want it and are willing to pay for it.


March 13, 2012

Business and Finance Outsourcing innovation
How companies are using venture-capital projects to find innovation without developing it through internal research and development. On one hand, it probably isn't the worst idea -- there may very well be good ideas and potential companies looking for venture-capital funding. But on the other hand, it sounds like an admission by the companies doing the funding that they're either too bureaucratic or hide-bound or simply un-creative to get the job done from the inside. Organic growth -- endogenous growth, if you will -- is attractive because it suggests a certain sustainability.

Iowa Iowa unemployment rate falls again
It's never gotten anywhere close to as high as in other parts of the country, and it's recovering well

Iowa Stop the incentives madness!
A developer wants $2.5 million from Iowa City to subsidize the construction of a new high-rise

News Depressing social steps backward in Russia
Bans on "homosexual propaganda" are just thinly-veiled bias

Computers and the Internet Yahoo sues Facebook

Business and Finance How the Washington Post may be positioning itself to outlive the New York Times

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March 14, 2012

Iowa The trouble with unemployment dropping too low
It may sound like a foreign problem elsewhere, but in the Midwest, there's an unemployment problem -- that the rate of unemployment may be too low. The lack of available workers could be stifling growth at companies that are ready to expand. There's also a serious problem with a labor mismatch -- the open jobs out there require skills that the potential employees don't have. This is why it's so important to have a system for building the job skills of the unemployed -- otherwise, they just stay unemployed. Others have observed -- and they're probably right -- that the solutions aren't likely to be found in big, aggregate macroeconomic measures. There are too many economic problems that people try to address with esoteric "solutions" like stimulus packages and incentive deals. Specific problems often require specific solutions.

Business and Finance Departing Goldman Sachs executive gives exit interview...to the New York Times

Computers and the Internet Pinterest promises site upgrades -- right away

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March 16, 2012

Business and Finance The Goldman Sachs resignation letter
"[W]ill people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client's goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact."

Business and Finance What you're being called behind your back

Iowa Cedar Rapids wind-turbine manufacturer for sale
It was purchased by a larger company just a couple of years ago, and now they want to cut it loose

News North Korea plans a satellite launch -- or missile test
It depends on how one wants to look at it.

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March 17, 2012

Health More cell printing by inkjet printer
This is going to be one of the key breakthrough medical technologies of the next 10 to 15 years, and if our lawmakers don't know their science, we could face some bad unintended consequences

The United States of America Chicago Tribune endorses Mitt Romney

Business and Finance US Senator pushes "Startup Act"
Things to like about the proposed law: Efforts to reduce regulatory burdens, an increase in the immigration limits for people with advanced degrees in science and technology, and reforms to Sarbanes-Oxley. Things not to love so much: Lots of special tax breaks for startup businesses. We all want our taxes to be lower than they are, but cutting special deals is what gets us into the absurdly-complex and utterly stupid tax code that we have today. Nobody deserves a special break; just make the corporate tax code simple and fair for all. One other worry: That people will get the idea that startups all have to be Internet-based service companies. Sure, there are lots of great ideas that make sense to deliver online, but we need a lot of other non-Web businesses, too.

Science and Technology The Milky Way over a thunderstorm
It's too easy to forget to look up into the night sky sometimes

Science and Technology South Korean scientists are going to try to clone a wooly mammoth
There's some leftover bone marrow from a long-dead mammoth that's been recovered in Russia

Health Self-diagnosis depends on how the symptoms are listed
People turn to the Internet for a lot of help with self-diagnosis of medical conditions. If it means they go in to get serious problems checked, then it's a good thing. If they're only using it to feed paranoia, then it's harmful. Some research by psychologists at Arizona State University finds that the best way to list symptoms alternates between specific ones and broader ones -- the specific ones help winnow out people who are too quick to think they're dying of something awful; the broad ones give people who are too casual about their health cause to think again and check into their health.

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March 18, 2012

News Recycling the beautiful old Omaha Federal building

Broadcasting Show notes from the WHO Radio Wise Guys - March 17, 2012

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.


March 20, 2012

Weather and Disasters Dallas area will pilot test a $500,000 low-level radar system mounted to cell phone towers
Low-altitude radar will be a huge benefit to severe weather forecasters and observers

Business and Finance UK plans lower minimum wage for young workers than for adults
It makes sense; younger workers have less to offer due to their lack of experience -- so making their labor more affordable helps them get the experience they need

News The Exxon Valdez has sailed its last
The infamous oil tanker has been sold for scrap

Iowa Rethinking the Des Moines Partnership building

News A senior toll collector on the Illinois Tollway makes $52,000 a year
Just a curious little factoid

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March 21, 2012

Computers and the Internet Politicians and their Twitter accounts: Who owns the name of the job?

News The tragedy that brought the stink to natural gas

News What should be done about Syria?

Humor and Good News Firefighters in drag -- fighting a fire

Science and Technology Seeing around corners...in 3D

Computers and the Internet Job applicants may be asked by some employers to turn over their Facebook passwords

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March 22, 2012

Iowa Iowa does better than average, but not well, on the government-integrity index

Science and Technology Why we invest in science and basic research

Business and Finance Tax breaks, once given, live on forever

Iowa Regents approve program changes at UNI

Business and Finance An alternative analysis of American manufacturing

Computers and the Internet The cyberhacking threat to the nation's infrastructure

Aviation News Southwest Airlines branches out...into a bigger Boeing 737

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March 23, 2012

Business and Finance The President's nominee to head the World Bank

Business and Finance How to research mutual-fund leverage

Business and Finance Fund flows
Americans are yanking money out of the stock market and pouring it into bonds

News To fight alcoholism, Britain's going to make it more expensive to drink
Minimum drink prices will be part of a new government initiative there. The new rules would make Two-Buck Chuck cost about $5.

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March 27, 2012

Computers and the Internet Don't ever give away passwords to non-essential users
Employers shouldn't be asking for Facebook passwords, and employees shouldn't give them out. (Some exceptions prevail, of course: Certain occupations are highly sensitive and require that someone with the right knowledge can sweep up mistakes. But those are few and far between.) Facebook has come out with a light rebuke of the practice, but it's really not the kind of definitive statement they probably should have made. A real defense of user privacy might've come with a statement like, "Any organization or employer shown to be demanding the passwords of current or prospective employees without cause directly tied to a substantial public safety hazard shall be immediately suspended from any use of Facebook in any manner whatsoever."

Health Today's babies could have a 1-in-3 chance of living to 100
New figures are being used by the UK's government for future projections, and that new assumption of longevity is one of them. This is exactly why we need to think very, very differently about mandatory old-age savings programs.

Business and Finance Elected officials: Please stop tinkering with taxes
Dow's fight with the IRS over a research tax credit just goes to show why politicians should stop trying to manipulate behavior through the tax code

Agriculture The PR campaign against "pink slime" has real, harmful consequences
Lots of people are going to be put out of work because the demand for the product is going to drop off so much. Moreover, where do people think the beef trimmings that went into the poorly-named "Lean Finely-Textured Beef" are going to go now? Anyone who's ever eaten a really good steak and gone back to salvage just a little bit more meat from around a piece of fat knows that there's nothing wrong with that meat. The "Beef is Beef" counter-campaign isn't a bad idea -- but it's probably too late to offset much of the damage that has been done. When given the opportunity to fear something they don't understand, people will default to whatever meaning is implied by a name like "pink slime", so it's imperative that people who sell products like LFTB actively get ahead of the parade long before it becomes an issue and actively promote shorthand names that sound good.

Business and Finance Forbes columnist argues for tighter controls on the Roth IRA
Suggesting that some people are using the investment vehicle to shelter investments in closely-held or even publicly-traded companies in which they are major investors, Deborah Jacobs suggests that new Roth IRAs be limited to a certain maximum amount, and that their tax-free transfer to heirs be limited as well. Perhaps more valuable would be to remove the restriction that keeps ordinary people from investing in their own companies via the Roth IRA. If the well-connected are already skirting the law on this matter, they shouldn't be getting an advantage over everyone else.

Computers and the Internet European politicians want Google censored

Computers and the Internet Jail time seems like a lot to risk for the chance to see Scarlett Johansson naked
A computer hacker went to a lot of trouble to try to get compromising pictures of celebrities. And he succeeded. But now he's headed to jail until he can be sentenced in July.

News Entertainment newspaper "Variety" is up for sale

Iowa The Des Moines Public Schools superintendent sure seems to want to leave town

Science and Technology The influence of architect Mies Van Der Rohe

Broadcasting Notes from the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - March 25, 2012


March 28, 2012

Business and Finance A visual display of the global economy
(Video) How the United States compares -- on several levels -- with the developing economies of Russia, Brazil, India, and China

Science and Technology The evolution of the Moon

Business and Finance Bank acquisition just for the sake of acquisition
Acquisition for its own sake isn't a good plan

The United States of America There's no useful debt deal. Why is anyone surprised?

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March 29, 2012

News Some people should lose their jobs for being stupid
An American woman who became a hooker in Mexico because she didn't want to go home "back to the claustrophobic suburbs [she] had worked so hard to escape" quit that line of work and became a teacher. But she kept on writing about the experience under her own name. And seems shocked (!) that she lost her job over that. This is another anecdotal case for what should be called the "judgment economy". Lots of people talk about the "knowledge economy", but it's probably a misnomer. Thanks to the Internet, there's massive access worlwide to vast troves of information and knowledge. But judgment can't be looked-up on Google. The kind of nutjob who would willingly pick prostitution over life in the suburbs and then pick some kind of imagined ethnographic fame over a teaching job doesn't have the judgment to leave a building on fire.

Business and Finance America's economy is growing
Not at a breakneck pace, but an annualized growth rate of 3.0% in the fourth quarter of last year and a 1.7% rate for the full year of 2011 is at least something positive. Britain's economy shrank in the fourth quarter, by an estimated 0.3%. It's not an economic collapse, but a contraction of any sort is unsettling. One further note on the US change: GDP should really be measured against population, since the important thing is that people become better off, on average. An economy can grow quickly, but if the population grows even faster, then the larger pie is offset by sharing a larger number of slices. In the US case, the Census Bureau estimates that we gain, on average, a person every 15 seconds, after births, deaths, and migration. That's four people per minute, or 5,760 per day, or 2.1 million per year. Considering that the population overall is about 313 million, then the population grows by something like 0.6% a year. So what really matters -- GDP per person -- grew by something less than that 1.7% rate.

Computers and the Internet Best Buy announces plans to close 50 stores
The company lost $1.2 billion last year

Threats and Hazards PowerPoint strikes again
FBI PowerPoint instructions told agents they could break the law. That is not the case. But the lazy way in which so many PowerPoint presentations are composed may have given a faulty instruction to unknown numbers of agents anyway.

Computers and the Internet What is it about the Internet that encourages racists to spout off?
The number of people who are apparently willing to say blatantly racist things in a thoroughly public forum like Twitter is downright amazing. Anything said in a public account on Twitter is archived by the Library of Congress. So any idiot that says something stupid on Twitter is saying it for the public record, forever.

News Huge cuts coming to BBC News
They're going to get rid of 140 jobs in the venerable news organization. It's a large number of jobs -- though it's not as large a set of layoffs as, say, the ABC News layoffs of 300 people two years ago.

Iowa The big fight over university funding in Iowa

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