Gongol.com Archives: September 2012
Brian Gongol

September 2012
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September 2, 2012

Weather and Disasters One woman loses five houses to five hurricanes
That's just incredibly bad luck

Iowa Iowa faces high fire danger this harvest season
There's already an enormous problem with huge wildfires in western Nebraska

News What to do with Afghan security forces?

The United States of America Political parties need a little internal dissent
Particularly in America, there's room for a lot of different ideas under the two main party umbrellas, and it's good (and healthy) for each to have some internal dissent. It keeps them honest. But it would be nice if the Democrats could have a strong pro-business wing and the Republicans could have a strong socially-moderate wing, like each once did. One of the serious problems with the very loud Ron Paul wing of the Republican party is that they're cantankerous mainly for the sake of so being. Some of their strongest demands (like for an end to the Federal Reserve and a resumption of the gold standard) are just so far outside the realm of reasonability that they lose credibility on other issues for which they may in fact have a sensible voice. There's no good in being disputative just for the sake of picking a fight.

News Catholic cardinal goes out with a critical bang

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September 3, 2012

Agriculture Subsidies may cover much of the farming loss from this year's drought
It still would have been a much better year had it rained and had there not been such an extraordinary drought. In some places, the conditions are worse than in the Dust Bowl.

Computers and the Internet Apple could launch the iPad Mini in October
A tablet in the 7" size range would compete with the Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7, which both go for $199.

Iowa There's lots of work being done -- and to be done -- in the Midwest
Labor-force participation rates are high, unemployment is low, and people aren't retiring as quickly as elsewhere -- which is interesting, considering the signs already showing that there are serious worker shortages in a number of skilled work fields

News 100 years ago, private clubs marked the roads

Computers and the Internet Do architects draw enough?
That is, do they freehand enough, or do they rely too much on CAD? Michael Graves thinks they're too quick to abandon pen and paper.

Humor and Good News Quotes from The Simpsons
"You can't treat the working man this way! One day, we'll form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve. Then we'll go too far and get corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!"

Computers and the Internet Should you get an all-in-one computer?

News A list of attempts at saying "he/she" in a less-clunky fashion

Business and Finance If Greece gets kicked out of the Euro...
...some banks might actually send trucks full of cash across the border, just to keep businesses afloat

Weather and Disasters September is Family Preparedness Month

Business and Finance Americans have an estimated $6.8 trillion in investments around the world
The surprise, perhaps, is that the number isn't larger.

The United States of America For the protocol buffs
The United States' order of precedence -- who gets introduced ahead of whom

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September 4, 2012

Threats and Hazards Xinhua: "The United States should stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker"

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September 6, 2012

Iowa Egyptian firm buys one of Iowa's oldest general contractors
A local instance of the great asset transfer from the United States to other countries. This asset transfer is no small affair -- the contracting company in this case, Weitz, is one of the nation's top 50 contractors, with half a billion dollars in annual revenues. What we are seeing is the realization of the prediction made almost a decade ago by Warren Buffett: That our persistent deficits, especially in trade, would eventually lead to us selling off American companies to make up the gap.

Business and Finance Bartiromo vs. Trumka: A journalist who knows money challenges a union chief
At about 1:40 into the interview, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says, "When we took over..." It's an intriguing slip of the tongue. He's referring to the Obama Administration when he says "we", but he's speaking on behalf of the labor unions. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo catches him on that subject -- and several others as well. There is, of course, a place for unions in the economy today. Probably far less of a place than was justified 50 years ago, but a place nonetheless. But unions are like any other group: They have a tendency to rent-seek -- that is, to try to use political leverage and public policy to make other people pay them more without actually creating any extra value. Lots of people and groups of all stripes try to rent-seek, and it's their right to do so. But it's also right for journalists and others to flag these attempts at rent-seeking so that everyone can see what's being done. Clearly, if a labor union sees the White House as an extension of itself, then everyone else should be on the lookout for them to be rent-seeking.

The United States of America Politicians should not be allowed to use the word "fundamentally" to describe their opponents

Agriculture An early harvest in 2012
The drought has weakened corn plants enough this year that Iowa farmers are probably going to be doing a lot of harvesting well ahead of the normal schedule, with wide ranges in their yields per acre

Humor and Good News The difference one letter can make
Movie titles with a letter removed

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September 7, 2012

Business and Finance On government intervention
Government intervention in the economy should be like surgery: Exceedingly rare, precise, and decisive. Doing lots of things with a vague hope that "something will kick-start the economy" or "this will create a lot of jobs" is just a hopelessly silly way to go about intervening in a system so complex and subject to natural forces and random chance that even a widely-acknowledged financial genius like Warren Buffett tries to make very few decisions each year (in his 1990 letter to shareholders: "Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style"). Buffett follows this philosophy because he knows it's better to act infrequently but boldly -- only when his confidence in an investment is high -- than to stand around taking a swing at every pitch that crosses the plate. A government that thinks it can do all things and achieve all its desired goals just by acting, acting, and acting all the time is one that's destined to waste a lot of resources that belong to the taxpayers. The best we can (and should) hope for is a government that follows a Hippocratic Oath for the economy: First, do no harm.

Iowa Iowa City police are actually starting to write jaywalking tickets
It's understandable that there are serious concerns about pedestrian safety in Iowa City, where a university and a traditional storefront-type downtown overlap with a very high population density (at least, one that's very high for Iowa). But jaywalking itself is kind of a silly thing to prohibit -- unless a pedestrian is deliberately walking in a way that obstructs traffic or shows willful neglect, then jaywalking is simply a way of making efficient use of street space. If it's not in use by vehicular traffic, then there's really no good reason to prohibit its use by pedestrians. Moreover, if jaywalking is a chronic problem, that's probably a signal that an area should simply be made off-limits to vehicular traffic and turned over to pedestrians alone. Places that are so congested that jaywalking is actually routinely hazardous are probably places that should be designed better and turned over to people on foot. Besides, there's more than just a little hint of nanny-statism in assigning police to actually ticket otherwise law-abiding people for choosing to cross the street at someplace other than a designated crosswalk.

Business and Finance It might not be possible for Americans to be any less-informed about finances than we already are
An SEC report just says it outright: " Studies reviewed by the Library of Congress indicate that U.S. retail investors lack basic financial literacy. The studies demonstrate that investors have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud." We're not going to be any good at making laws or even voting for the people who do so unless we understand the basic matters required to make an economy tick.

Computers and the Internet Amazon drops the price of the Kindle Fire to $159
That's to accommodate the new Kindle Fire HD at the $199 price point. Tablet computers are going to very rapidly approach essentially a "throwaway" price. Amazon is also rolling out a $119 "Kindle Paperwhite", which is intended to look more like a clean sheet of paper than any prior e-ink reader. Someone certainly must have decided that the reference to a sheet of white paper was worth risking that people will call it the "Paperweight" if it flops.

Computers and the Internet Our attention spans are shrinking at a breakneck pace
Electronic publishers are finding themselves racing to produce pictures where words previously were enough, because people are basically losing the patience to even read 140-character posts on Twitter. Ye gods.

The United States of America Why Bill Clinton's speech to the Democratic convention went so long
He ad-libbed. A lot.

Business and Finance The power of suggestive selling and marketing
By adopting the slogan "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz", Alka-Seltzer didn't quite double its sales, but they did dramatically increase over the period when they advised only taking one at a time

Computers and the Internet A Pepsi Challenge for search engines
Bing is trying to prove that their search results are better than those from Google by offering people a blind test of the results from each. They claim a 2-to-1 advantage for Bing. Whether or not it's true, it does give people a good reason to re-consider Bing.

Computers and the Internet Apple's new iPhone comes out on September 12th

Computers and the Internet Nokia gets busted misrepresenting cell-phone video
In promoting their video recording quality, they actually used footage from a professional video camera...not the phone

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September 8, 2012

Business and Finance Time to set lower expectations for government
Dreaming of a government-driven manufacturing boom isn't necessarily wise. Policy debates about employment tend to make two overlapping errors: (1) That it is government's job to *do* something, rather than to referee the market according to the rule of law; and (2) that jobs are more important than wealth. Better to work five hours a week and be wealthy than work 80 hours a week and be poor. Intervention is widely-done but it may not be living up to expectations.

Business and Finance China's economy is still growing...but...
...the rate of growth is sharply down. That's really, really important news for the world economy.

The United States of America Fact-checking the Vice President
Also, watching his language in real time. On a related note, should political speeches be more like TED Talks?

Computers and the Internet Cedar Rapids Gazette puts the brakes on online reader comments
One can't blame them. The level of discussion in many comment sections is about as valuable as having a dog try to recite the alphabet.

Business and Finance Should Greece have to go to a 6-day work week in exchange for a bailout?

Computers and the Internet Yahoo wants to continue staking an independent claim to Internet ad revenues

Computers and the Internet New Nokia cell phones charge without wires

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September 10, 2012

Computers and the Internet Attack on GoDaddy by member of "Anonymous" may explain why the Internet is wonky today

News Chinese democracy
The pro-democracy camp has a narrow lead in the vote count in Hong Kong

The United States of America Why young Americans need to get interested -- right away -- in government spending
The site is correct about the hazards we face if we refuse to get our situation ironed out in America, but unfortunately it's neither (a) clear who's behind the site, nor (b) written accessibly enough to make sense to the novice reader. With a little refinement and a little more clarity about who's promoting the message, voteourfuture.com would have a lot going for it.

News A disturbing instant in Aleppo
A photographer captures the moments just before, during, and just after three men were killed by a Syrian government tank attack

News Buying friends
Chinese investment in Egypt may be buying goodwill that the US would like to have, too

Computers and the Internet Survey says majority of Americans are stressed by their computers

Business and Finance Federal government to finally go below majority ownership in AIG with share sale
$18 billion in shares are to be sold. That's a huge, huge number.

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September 15, 2012

Computers and the Internet A look at the new iPhone 5

Health The things we take for granted
In Nepal, 54% of people arrive at the hospital via taxi because there simply aren't many well-equipped ambulances available.

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September 16, 2012

Computers and the Internet Microsoft says Chinese manufacturers are shipping brand-new computers infected with malware

Agriculture High prices plus crop insurance may balance-out low ag yields in the Midwest

Iowa 600 of Iowa's 947 incorporated towns have no police department
They contract with sheriff's offices for police protection instead

Iowa Iowa's going to get the "REAL ID" drivers' licenses after all

Business and Finance Higher national debt is an anchor on national economic performance

Health Parents may influence children's intelligence more than personality

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September 17, 2012

News USA Today goes through a redesign


September 18, 2012

Iowa Des Moines Register will be moving next spring

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.
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September 19, 2012

News Russia gives USAID a matter of days to shut down

The United States of America The campaign for a memorial for the Presidents Adams

Weather and Disasters Hurricane Isaac by moonlight

Computers and the Internet Twitter copies Facebook by going for big cover photos

Business and Finance Jack Bogle: "High costs are as much of a risk for investors" as what's happening in Europe and China

Aviation News HondaJet wins design award
The engines are above the wings

Computers and the Internet Apple is making unforced errors
A consequence of growing huge, fast? Maybe.


September 20, 2012

Computers and the Internet Like it or not, the Internet makes us all neighbors
That means we all have to be more considerate of others than may have been necessary before telecommunications put the globe on every laptop, tablet, and smartphone. But it also means we all have to be more tolerant, too, of things that would otherwise make us angry.

Threats and Hazards JP Morgan and Bank of America may have been hit by an Iranian cyberattack
The incentive for a state actor like Iran to conduct cyberattacks is certainly there: Why wage a shooting war (in which you're massively outgunned) when you can punish your adversary financially -- particularly one who is punishing you through economic sanctions already?

Business and Finance How the Chicago Cubs teach economics
"If a dip in attendance comes next season but the team is competitive by 2014 or '15, then it's a trade-off [team president Theo] Epstein is willing to make."

Business and Finance Hedge-fund manager: China's like an "emerging-market roach motel"
"Corporate profits are imploding over there," says Jim Chanos, who (it should be clear) is in the business of betting against companies he thinks are priced much too high.

Computers and the Internet Walmart is going to stop selling Amazon products in stores

Iowa Private sponsorship of public assets: Tricky territory
"At the committee's August meeting, members expressed concern about the state granting more naming rights to state resources than it already has, and how far such a trend might go. Members also expressed concern about whether sponsors inappropriate for such a setting might win a bid, and whether there might be free speech implications in denying such bids."

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September 21, 2012

Business and Finance The Great American Asset Transfer continues
An agricultural firm in Ames, Iowa, has been sold to BASF for $1.02 billion. More and more of these sales of American companies and assets to foreign buyers should be expected. America's gargantuan trade deficit has shipped dollars overseas, and the people holding those dollars are looking for useful things to do with them. Meanwhile, American Baby Boomers are in an asset-selling mood as they shift from work to retirement. Meanwhile, with the European economy broadly uncertain, the Chinese market in a slowdown (or worse, depending on who's telling the truth), India in a slow-growth mode, and Russia back under Vladimir Putin (thus putting the future of things like the rule of law and free markets there under considerable doubt), a lot of people are going to look at the United States and decide that this market is the best around. We will look back on this period some day and realize what a mammoth asset transfer took place without a great deal of public notice. ■ This isn't a call for panic or anything -- Americans own about $7 trillion in assets abroad, and the rest of the world has about $12.5 trillion invested here. A full $5 trillion of that is in Federal government debt. But we should get ready to see a flow of $20 billion a month or more in foreign purchases of American companies. Foreign ownership of American securities is at a record high already, and there's no reason to believe that's going to reverse course. Mountains of cash are leaving China, and that's not going to be the only country in an acquisitive mood.

Computers and the Internet The latest on how Google chooses site ranks
The phrase (and very concept) of "search engine optimization" (SEO) is still enough to make a reasonable person want to vomit, but the article itself does highlight some changes in how those search engines behave.

Computers and the Internet Apple's new mapping service has left a lot of people unhappy

News New York Times puts a ban on sources getting to review quotes before a story is published

News The new look of USA Today

Aviation News Space Shuttle Endeavour goes on a California sightseeing tour


September 22, 2012

Socialism Doesn't Work Communists would be funny if they weren't so stupid -- and harmful
A sample item from the North Korean propaganda agency includes these lines: "They referred to the need for officials and workers to boost the production of fertilizers for socialist rural areas" and "He said that enterprises play very important roles in building an economic power and improving the people's standard of living, calling on the workers to take the lead in the on-going advance for great surge". These are quotes from one of their Central Committee figureheads, and they reveal the massive, gaping hole in Communist thought: Every economy is subject to market forces, whether Communists like it or not. Trying to ignore those forces is like trying to avoid the wind and the tides. You can say they're not there, but they are whether you like it or not. And in any market, prices are the signal that tell producers when to make more and when to make less. Stripping away the role of prices and just walking around a factory, admonishing workers to do more because it's part of a "great surge" is about the stupidest thing a person can do. Prices signal us when and how to act. It's as simple as that.

News Everyone's life is a combination of luck (good and bad) and choices (good and bad)
Unfortunately for the Chicago Tribune, they recently ran a sob story on a longtime substitute teacher and his descent into homelessness, but forgot to look into the records that would have told them he lost $180,000 to gambling. The Des Moines Register runs a sob story of a similar type virtually every alternating Sunday, and it gets tiresome. All too often, those featured had a bout of bad luck, but not without a string of really bad personal choices. We do ourselves no good if we always celebrate/highlight/talk about those stories without doing much more to celebrate those who overcame bad luck by making good choices instead. Especially when people are going to call for government intervention to help those who made the bad decisions (as the Register almost always does).

Business and Finance Federal Reserve promises low interest rates through at least 2015
Great for borrowers, bad for traditional savers. Maybe inflationary for the stock market.

Computers and the Internet Microsoft issues emergency patch for Internet Explorer
Which may explain why your computer wants you to do an update reboot cycle

Humor and Good News 1500 ping-pong balls and a liquid nitrogen bomb
(Video) Awesome and just plain fun science

Aviation News Space Shuttle Endeavour flyover at the Golden Gate Bridge
(Video) Now, if only we as a country would have planned ahead and done something to replace the Space Shuttle long ago...

News Who are the nerds, and who are the geeks?

News Police and protesters storm Libyan militia bases

Computers and the Internet Is HP in the hunt to buy Research In Motion (the BlackBerry makers)?

Computers and the Internet Thinking of the Internet not as an audience, but as neighbors

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September 23, 2012

Computers and the Internet Iran is building a domestic version of the Internet
The government there may actually intend to block citizens' access to the real, global Internet as soon as March 2013

News Death to long meetings!

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September 25, 2012

The United States of America "Terrified of being rejected by voters who regard temporary help as permanent rights, politicians keep spending."
And with one line, a British columnist nails exactly what's wrong with American fiscal policy. That, and the fact that the President of the United States chooses to profess complete unwittingness about the $16 trillion Federal debt. (Sadly, even when David Letterman hinted to the President that the number was above $10 trillion, he was low by 60%.) Instead, President Obama is cavorting with a bunch of suck-ups on "The View" instead of meeting with other world leaders at the United Nations. ■ It's a plain fact right now that Secretary of State Clinton is behaving more like a President than the President is. It's embarrassing. And if he's going to blow off the most important issue of our day, the Federal debt and its course-to-nowhere, then it's really a cause for great sadness. Our finances were in awful condition when President Bush left office, and they're vastly worse today. ■ One wonders what would happen if Presidents (and other politicians) were to look after the public purse in the same way that Warren Buffett asks the managers of his many companies to do: "Just run your business as if: 1) you own 100% of it; 2) it is the only asset in the world that you and your family have or will ever have; and 3) you can’t sell or merge it for at least a century." They can't "own" the country, of course, but what if they were asked -- or, perhaps, commanded -- to behave according to a 100-year business plan?

News China's first aircraft carrier goes afloat
This news is especially important in light of the story immediately above.

Humor and Good News Cross-country runner stops race to rescue another runner in distress
"We have the concept, from the Talmud, that if you want God to have mercy on you, you have to have mercy on others."

Computers and the Internet Facebook probably isn't posting private messages to people's walls accidentally
It's more likely that people are noticing (via the Facebook Timeline) that many exchanges that used to take place on the public "wall" should have been via private message instead. Yet another reminder, of course, that whatever you put on the Internet can stay there forever.

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September 26, 2012

Broadcasting KCCI-TV is shutting down the Weather Beacon
Just like many other weather beacons around the world, it changes colors to indicate the forecast. It's an anachronism from the days before people could just look up the forecast at any time on a smartphone. But it's charming and adds a bit of character to a skyline. KCCI is removing the lights from its downtown tower that made up the weather beacon out of necessity -- the bulbs aren't made anymore, and they weigh too much for the structure. But it's surprising they haven't chosen to put up some sort of array using LED bulbs instead. Give it a few months and someone downtown will take up the idea. Sioux City has a glowing sphere -- it doesn't have to take up an entire tower.

Science and Technology See the future unfold right before your eyes

Humor and Good News Who wants to subsidize their neighbors?
Charlie Brooker says an idea floated in the UK to use a subsidy from broadband Internet service providers to support printed newspapers is "Like when papers charged extra to subsidise the town crier industry." Which didn't happen, of course.

The United States of America "[S]ome conflicts cannot be wished away. One is between young and old."

Computers and the Internet Stop the abuse of job titles. Oh, please, please stop it.
Someone's actually calling himself an "Alpha dog" as his job title on LinkedIn. It's ridiculous. Inflated and confounding job titles are a scourge.

Science and Technology Here come the autonomous cars
Great on so many levels: They should be safer than cars driven by people. They should allow us to spend our time doing useful (or fun) things instead of mindlessly conducting our cars down the road. They should allow the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and even the inebriated to get places safely. They should even allow cars to travel closer together on the same roadway, meaning less dreaded urban sprawl.

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September 27, 2012

Computers and the Internet There are real people behind every online personality

Business and Finance "[S]timulus was a fire-and-forget ballistic missile shot into the economic ozone"

Science and Technology No big deal...just another 5,500 galaxies we hadn't seen before

Threats and Hazards Afghan attack on NATO base was historic in its size
Time for us all to pay a little less attention to the NFL and topless photos of a princess, and a little more to the real news. We're just so easily distracted. And yet there are real terrorist attacks being conducted against the United States and our embassies and consulates abroad.

Business and Finance Household spending on smartphones is cutting into clothing and restaurant spending
This is what's called a revealed preference -- clearly, we must think it's better to have the Internet in the palms of our hands than to go out to dinner; otherwise, we'd be spending the money differently. No matter what people say they value, it's how they actually spend that tells the truth.

Business and Finance A little bit of game theory
What happens to the economy, depending upon who wins the White House and who takes Congress

Broadcasting Testing the prime minister
David Letterman quizzed Britain's David Cameron on a mock UK citizenship exam. It didn't go particularly well. But Cameron did have a good line about US-UK relations: "We had a bit of a falling out [in 1776]. I think we’re getting over that."

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September 28, 2012

Science and Technology The Faraday cage
Or, a brief scientific explanation of why it's hard to get radio reception inside a metal building

News Instrumental version of "Regulate" by Warren G
Why? Because sometimes instrumental versions of songs are worth enjoying. It turns out there's a pretty easy trick for removing the lyrics from most songs. The results definitely aren't radio-quality, but they're about as close to instrumental versions as a person can get with about 60 seconds of effort.

Iowa Dallas County wants to move offices to the far east
The far east of Adel city limits, that is -- to Ortonville

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