Gongol.com Archives: December 2012
Brian Gongol

December 2012
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December 4, 2012

Science and Technology
The text message turns 20
SMS is a simple, elegant solution to the need to communicate asynchronously in small bursts. Seems almost silly that it took so long to develop.

Science and Technology Beautiful new views of Earth at night
They're the product of satellite data from 312 orbits of the planet, assembled by NASA

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December 6, 2012

Business and Finance Warren Buffett and Carol Loomis on "Charlie Rose"
(Video) Really, the whole thing is worthwhile, but the final ten minutes or so are quite illuminating. Start at 44:30 if you must skip ahead, and listen to this gem: "Capitalism and market systems work. It's been working since 1776 here, and it wasn't because we had stimulus programs in 1794. It's because our system unleashes people's potential...human potential is still untapped to a big degree." (As an aside, it's worth noting that people in many parts of the world still face fundamentally existential threats like unsafe drinking water, and nobody's ever going to grow a vibrant, wealthy society in those places until those problems are permanently solved.) And he frets elsewhere about a very serious problem: People are being buffaloed by an investment industry that tries to muddle sound principles with flashy offerings and endlessly complicated jargon.

Computers and the Internet Computer program update checklist
If you haven't updated some of the programs on your Windows computer lately -- not the operating system, but the programs themselves -- you should run through this list and make sure you're up to speed.

News Detroit city councilmember demands "quid pro quo" from President Obama
JoAnn Watson says the President owes her city a bailout in return for the votes they gave him

Business and Finance Consumer confidence numbers up for lower incomes
And down among those with higher incomes

Weather and Disasters Analysis of lightning strikes may help predict tornadoes
We'll take every forecasting advantage we can grasp.

Iowa Saylorville Lake is at its second-lowest level of all time

Science and Technology Card counting and the privacy of your thoughts
Paper examines whether it's just to prohibit the use of cognitive enhancement to help count cards at the blackjack table. Our thoughts are our own...but the law may have to start making some accommodations for the fact that not all of our thoughts have to reside permanently inside our heads (literally, if certain cognitive tools come to fruition).

Computers and the Internet Apple announces plans to assemble computers in the United States

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December 7, 2012

Computers and the Internet Google isn't giving up on Google Plus
Now, they seek to replace message boards with the "Communities" feature. The company is going for broke with Google Plus, even if it's not a hot commodity. They appear to fear getting trounced by the "social" competition so much that they're going to shoe-horn Google Plus every place it could possibly fit until the public finally just starts using it.

Business and Finance Facing retirement by seeing your own face in retirement

Computers and the Internet Contractor sues former customer for Yelp and Angie's List reviews
She says he did bad work and stole from her. He says she's welcome to have an opinion on the quality of his work, but not to call him a criminal. This is what libel and slander are all about -- you have the right to an opinion, but not to disparage someone else falsely in such a way that they are deprived of the means to earn a living. Watch what you say on the Internet.

Computers and the Internet Instagram and Twitter go to war
Previously well-integrated, now they're parting ways. Not amicably, either.

Aviation News Former NASA managers say they can do a Moon mission for $1.5 billion
And the company, Golden Spike, wants to do it by 2020. They think the first trip would cost more, but after they get the first expenses out of the way, they'll do two-person missions for $750 million a person.


December 8, 2012

Computers and the Internet YouTube gets a serious interface face-lift

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December 9, 2012

Business and Finance Household net worth rises in America
That's good -- it's up to $64.8 trillion. But if the national GDP is $13.6 trillion a year, then we only have a national price-to-earnings ratio of 4.8. On Wall Street, that would be abominably low. Something here suggests that we're not pricing our work correctly, not pricing our net worth correctly, or doing an absolutely abysmal job of managing our household balance sheets. Or perhaps there's some other explanation to be found.

Computers and the Internet Why you should check monthly for computer-program updates

Iowa Iowa DOT starts implementing a process for deciding where to put traffic-enforcement cameras
Some kind of rulemaking process is better than none. There are too many of the cameras and they don't really appear to be in place to make the public actually safer. In an odd coincidence, Cedar Rapids doesn't have working cameras in all of its police cars.

News Rising above
A story that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming about how a couple of strangers helped a girl overcome childhood sexual assault

Computers and the Internet CNN anchor says "The tenor of Twitter has become so un-American"

Health Comes now the Tricorder
The tool monitors vital signs, but it's part of a movement towards handheld diagnostic tools that could make the practice of medicine vastly more effective. Personalized data can make a real difference.

The United States of America Paul Krugman has gone too far
He seems to have made the leap into believing his own hype. And that's the worst thing that can happen to a public thinker.

The United States of America Unionized government employees protest cuts...by going on strike

The United States of America Press goes ape over the threat of a private Oath of Office ceremony
That absolutely, positively cannot be accepted. The Obama Administration's promises of transparency haven't been met by acts.

News Vikings will break ground on $1 billion stadium in October 2013
The state of Minnesota is on the hook for $348 million, at a time when the state has a projected $1.1 billion (that is, $1,100 million) deficit. The city of Minneapolis appears to be on the hook for another $150 million of the project. Is public funding of stadiums such a good idea?


December 10, 2012

The United States of America And so begins the 2016 Presidential campaign...
If the Politico analysis of the race is right, we should expect to hear some good things from Rep. Paul Ryan -- who seems to "get it" that the traditional center-right understanding of economic freedom actually benefits everyone, but is actually most useful to the poor and the middle class. And in four years, the situation is going to be even worse than it is today, if the Treasury Secretary's "fuzzy math" holds out. On a related note, campaign law still hasn't gotten in touch with technological reality, meaning that Paul Ryan's Twitter account for the Romney Presidential campaign is in limbo.

Socialism Doesn't Work "If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It's a terrible incentive."
People respond to incentives. It's a fundamental rule of economics. On a related note: We're having trouble paying for Medicaid, too. And then there are the parents who willfully expose their children and others to communicable diseases by skipping immunization shots.

Socialism Doesn't Work States shouldn't be in the game of picking private-sector winners

The United States of America US will be "first among equals" by 2030...no longer a sole superpower
That's the conclusion of a report on intelligence policy for the coming years. And don't imagine that 2030 is so far away...it's when today's newborns will become voting adults.

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December 11, 2012

The United States of America Outgoing Rep. Barney Frank: "[L]iberals should say, 'We think government's a good thing, done right, and we're for expanding it"

Aviation News Delta buys 49% of Virgin Atlantic
It was only four years ago that Delta bought Northwest, which made Delta the world's largest airline.

Business and Finance Vigorous protests outside Michigan state capitol as legislature votes for "right to work"
Michigan's workforce is 17.5% unionized (higher than most states, but lower than Hawaii and New York), and the decision covers both public- and private-sector workers. The national average is 11.8% union membership among current workers. An op-ed by a pro-right-to-work union member argues that unions are chasing jobs out of the state rather than protecting them. Whatever the opinions, it's important to remember that the First Amendment right is "to peaceably assemble" -- not to riot. It's disheartening to see violent protests in Northern Ireland -- not over union membership, but over membership in the United Kingdom.

Business and Finance Federal government will sell off most of remaining stake in AIG
Total profit so far: $22.7 billion, after this sale is completed. It should make us all very, very uncomfortable that the government took the action it did, and we shouldn't be too pleased about the profits, either. Obviously, it's better than losing money, but we run the risk of learning the wrong lesson from the whole affair -- government shouldn't be an owner of private-sector businesses, either for profit or for loss.

Computers and the Internet Is it too soon for 1Gbps Internet?
While physically available in some places, it's more than a lot of networks are capable of delivering -- and more than much content actually requires

Computers and the Internet Microsoft issues Patch Tuesday updates: 10 critical

Science and Technology Startup wants to make cups that would warn of date-rape drugs

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December 12, 2012

Iowa Shrinking wild deer population crimps donated meat supply
Iowa food banks have taken venison donations from hunters for years, but as the wild-deer population has declined, so have the donations

News Where have all the men gone?
The entire senior class of magazine-journalism majors at Drake University is made up of women. So they made a men's magazine. It's all-digital.

Iowa Is it ever OK to give yourself a nickname?
A Des Moines-area economic-development group has hired ad agency Flynn Wright to come up with a name for the Des Moines metro area, similar to something like the Research Triangle of North Carolina. But don't the really great nicknames emerge organically? Isn't it nearly impossible not to sound a little contrived when giving yourself a nickname, whether you're a person or a business or a community?

Computers and the Internet Minnesota's trying to get 100% broadband access by 2015
But the goal, set in 2010, doesn't look like it's going to be met at the current pace

Business and Finance Think about the long-term
A research paper from the Chicago Federal Reserve says that countries that didn't respect property rights in the late 1800s are poorer today than the ones that did. Makes that whole short-termism thing about the "fiscal cliff" seem a little more real, doesn't it? Kick the can down the road today and your grandkids may curse you for it.

Business and Finance Low mortgage rates now could mean low mobility later
It's possible that today's extremely low mortgage-interest rates might mean that people will find themselves severely dis-incentivized to move in the future when rates rise again. The argument makes at least some intuitive sense.

Broadcasting Radio show notes from December 11, 2012
Afternoon drive on WHO Radio in Des Moines

Threats and Hazards North Korea launches rocket -- says it carried a satellite
The problem is that a rocket that can launch a satellite is the same kind of tool that can be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile

News Police in Cheyenne dress up like The Grinch to conduct speed trap

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December 14, 2012

Business and Finance Falling prices: Fun for now, but not for long
Gas prices fell by a lot from October to November, as did prices for several other components of the inflation indices -- so the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the Consumer Price Index fell nationally. In the short run, everyone likes falling prices -- they're the equivalent of getting a bonus in the paycheck. But if falling prices persist and turn into deflation, some bad things can happen. ■ If employers expect price pressure to be persistently downward, they're going to be reluctant to offer raises to employees or to issue bigger dividends to shareholders. We like deflation when we're consumers...but not when we're producers. ■ Persistent deflation discourages people from spending (why spend a dollar today when it'll be worth $1.10 later?), and since consumer spending is a huge component of the national economic ledger (specifically, 70% of GDP), if consumers hold off on spending in the enduring hope of getting more for their money later, they can depress the lion's share of economic activity. ■ And while it would seem that a currency that buys more over time would be a good way to encourage savings, it's not a very good way to encourage useful investment.

News On today's school shooting

Computers and the Internet Nostalgic geeks find ways to recreate the Start button in Windows 8

Computers and the Internet Apple and Google resolve mapping spat...for now
Google Maps is back for the iPhone. But nobody should mistake it for love between the two firms.

Business and Finance A lot of firms want a piece of Hostess
The bankruptcy sale has attracted two dozen bidders, reports Bloomberg News

News Surprising: 2012 turns out to be a great year for the movie industry

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December 17, 2012

Socialism Doesn't Work China adds some bricks to the Great Firewall
The Guardian reports that they are now using technology to cut off anyone who appears to be using a virtual private network (VPN), which is a system for sending encrypted data from one computer to another. VPNs are widely used in the corporate world to ensure security of communications -- and in places like China, they can be used to allow people to browse content without surveillance by the authorities. ■ If you're looking for exactly one reason -- just one -- why the American economy has a durable advantage over many others in the world, it is that we (generally) reject wholesale the notion that government has a right to control what we think. We undoubtedly have problems with painting the right boundaries around privacy and security concerns -- many people are and should be angry about reports of warrantless spying on our communications. But the level of outrage would be double if the government were to pre-emptively block our access to content. And that would be well-placed outrage. ■ Moreover, it's an economically strategic kind of outrage. Good ideas come from all sorts of places, not just a handful of sanitized reports in the business press. For an economy to grow powerfully and durably, it has to do as Warren Buffett says America has done: "[O]ur system unleashes people's potential...human potential is still untapped to a big degree." A system that tells people what they can and cannot think or read or discuss is one that isn't really unleashing human potential -- though it may, as China has done for a while now, take some advantage of natural human instincts to make life better for our families. But it still treats people like cattle...just harder-working cattle.

Science and Technology Crossing the brain-to-computer barrier
A 52-year-old woman who is paralyzed from the neck down can control a robotic arm with her thoughts, thanks to a brain-machine interface. This is very much just the beginning for these kinds of devices.

Humor and Good News Famous albums with more honesty

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December 18, 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.

December 21, 2012

Business and Finance Some intriguing economic charts explaining 2012

Humor and Good News Wait: The world didn't end?

News Bold predictions about the future of newspapers

Health Rising incomes and longer lifespans

Business and Finance Is value investing dead?
Value investors can only hope that the rest of the world thinks so...

News Putin wants to ban US adoptions

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December 22, 2012

Business and Finance There is less international economic connectedness now than five years ago
Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. Globalization inevitably takes a hit when the economy contracts. It's too easy for politicians to exploit nativist sentiment, even if that's not what's actually best for the people.

Iowa Iowa's in the bottom third for state population growth
From 2010 to this year, Iowa gained about 27,000 residents. It's not a decrease (Rhode Island and Michigan both shrank), but it's about half the rate of increase as the nation at large. Population growth isn't necessarily a good in its own right, but it's probably important to understand why a state is growing faster or slower than the rest of the nation.

Business and Finance How marriage expectations could affect pay inequality between men and women
Put simply, it's hard to find couples where a woman out-earns a man

Computers and the Internet Sharing and privacy in the Internet era
A thoughtful young writer acknowledges the tension between keeping important things private online and exploring important questions about the self using online tools


December 23, 2012

Business and Finance The self-repairing economy
An architectural firm in Omaha is experiencing a lot of growth because there's a lot of pent-up demand on the part of growing businesses. An executive at one of the businesses profiled says, "Bids are less because of the competitive climate right now". And that's exactly how the economy recovers: Sellers of goods and services lower their prices as demand falls, opportunistic buyers step in, and things slowly get back to normal. "Stimulus" programs rarely act suitably to manage the need. Likewise, we should be deeply skeptical of "economic-development" incentive packages. The economic war between the states is absurd -- if the companies receiving the incentives (that it seems every state and county and municipality are offering) wouldn't otherwise leave the country, but instead are simply picking and choosing among the states, then, on balance, the taxpayers as a whole are subsidizing a totally unproductive economic activity at their own expense and to the benefit of the private companies that have the connections necessary to get the incentives. It is perfectly rational both for the companies to pursue those incentives (after all, it's often free money), and it is reasonably rational for governments to offer them (because if they don't, some other community will and thus will get the expanded tax base). The system itself is flawed and really requires intervention by the Federal government to stop the madness.

Iowa No more F-16s at the Des Moines International Airport
The Senate has approved a $633 billion defense bill, and it includes a retirement for the F-16 unit at Des Moines. They'll be replaced by a group flying UAVs.

Weather and Disasters About that blizzard the other day...
It was an unusually strong storm to blow through, and the energy in the atmosphere was enough to create thundersnow. And driving in it was no pleasure, either.


December 25, 2012

Business and Finance Better than branding, and far better than social media
Fast Company takes a brief look at how Patagonia builds itself around the premise of being bigger than just making a profit -- while still making a profit. It's really a subject straight out of the book "Built to Last". Nothing revolutionary, really. Yet it's easily lost in a sea of people who think they're doing the greatest magic in capitalist history by coming up with some way to "monetize social media". ■ Maybe there's something useful to social media, maybe there's not. Maybe there's something wonderful about Patagonia's purpose, maybe there's not. ■ But there are altogether too many people who dismiss the idea that businesses can be purposeful. A whole cadre of onlookers think that government is the only party that can do good, and business can do nothing but act selfishly. They're wrong. It's actually well within the scope of business to be both profitable and purposeful. ■ Suppose, for instance, that we wanted to truly make a dent in unemployment. Government can create lots of big jobs-creation programs, and they may often end up being as useful as hiring ten men to dig a ditch and ten others to fill it back in. But it's also possible for a batch of motivated people to capitalize a business with the sole purpose of employing people. That's not the ordinary purpose of business, but if people wanted to create such a firm, they could. ■ Owners might deliberately sacrifice a portion of their expected profits in the interest of deliberately employing more people than necessary. And if it's a profit-making, private-sector firm dedicated to the purpose of employment, then it's vastly more likely to produce results than haphazard guesswork by the government.

Business and Finance Is this the right message for global development?
The President plans to appoint the co-chief investment officer of Pimco to chair a global development council. Pimco isn't exactly a sunshine-and-lollipops kind of operation. They're the ones who talk about "the new normal", which looks to a future of low returns and high levels of regulation.

Business and Finance Savers have missed out on huge stock gains
Fear and panic have chased people out of the stock market for no sensible reason.

Iowa Culver 2014? Please, no.
The former governor of Iowa is thinking of running again for the office. Had he left behind a stellar record, maybe. But it was far from spectacular. Apparently, a lot of Democrats are pondering a run against Terry Branstad, who most certainly ought to run again. Branstad does what any Republican official should concentrate most upon doing: Competently and efficiently managing the things government must do, while resisting the urge to get government into lots of things people may simply want it to do.

Humor and Good News Sometimes, the best thing to leave behind is a cookie recipe

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December 26, 2012

The United States of America How old will you be in 2050? Ready to share the country with 440 million other people?
America's infrastructure -- not just the "roads and bridges" that President Obama is always talking about, but also the dams and water-treatment plants and airports and harbors and power plants and sewers and levees and locks and other non-sexy things that the public needs every day but doesn't always see -- needs a whole lot of investment. Though infrastructure work certainly can create jobs, that's not why we should care about infrastructure investment. We need to care about it because it is a necessary (though not always sufficient) component of civilization and economic growth. ■ Just as it's a bad idea to look at a house as an speculative investment, it's a bad idea to think of infrastructure improvements as a speculation on jobs. A family should buy a house because they need a place to live and because it's suitable to what they need and can afford, not because they hope it'll appreciate 500% in price so they can sell it. Similarly, we shouldn't throw money at paving roads because we hope it'll create jobs and spur the economy, we should do it when it's the best use of a tax dollar for ensuring that we continue to have what we need to live in a civilized way. Obsessing over "roads and bridges" as a jobs plan may actually distract attention (and funding) from the infrastructure priorities we need most. ■ We most certainly need to spend money on infrastructure improvements. The important thing is to be sure we're spending that money wisely and where it's sensibly needed most, not just where it wins votes. The private sector also accounts for a lot of infrastructure spending -- like the billions that railroads spend on tracks and bridges and rolling stock. They have a huge incentive to spend that money wisely. So should the public sector.

Computers and the Internet The Instagram/Twitter feud may be perfectly-timed for Flickr
Flickr, which belongs to Yahoo, may be poised for a bit of a renaissance after updating some of its social-media features (like its iPhone app. That may be a sign Marissa Mayer (who now runs Yahoo) is acting on a smart strategy to boost some of their individual properties.

News Military police chief of Syria quits
He's gone to Turkey, saying the military there is no longer protecting the people

Computers and the Internet UK school (wisely) adds lessons on defamation and social media to the curriculum
It's too easy for the young and naive to say things that are profoundly stupid to a really big audience

Business and Finance A select few charities for your consideration
It's unfortunate that outsiders can't donate to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They're really setting an extremely high standard for effectiveness and accountability.

Computers and the Internet Even the Zuckerberg family doesn't always get Facebook privacy right

Health Using the Myers-Briggs personality type to anticipate responses to stress

Science and Technology Stop giving "chemicals" a bad name
Lecturer says, "Yes they're obscure, get over it, this is life and we are just a big bag of chemicals"

Computers and the Internet 55% of traffic to British newspaper sites comes from outside the UK
A huge chunk comes from the US

News Plan working through Russian government would stop adoptions by Americans
Should children really be kept from caring homes just because of national pride?


December 30, 2012

Business and Finance Fiscal cliff...not resolved
At this stage, either something last-minute must be resolved, or it's going to be a needlessly rocky January. ■ It's time for some real honesty. The people who make the decisions at the highest level in this republic are either dishonest or utterly economically incompetent if they don't say the following out loud: "We are demanding more out of our government than we can presently afford. We need to pay more, get less, or both." There's no escaping it, just as there is no escaping several other facts. ■ One is that we cannot get richer as a country without getting better at what we do. Part of having things like iPads and Galaxy S-III smartphones is paying for these new things by being better at what we do -- be it sweeping sidewalks or performing brain surgery. It's not right, nor possible in the long term, to be a free-rider on progress. ■ For an economy to grow at 3% or 4% a year per person, then we must produce 3% or 4% more per year per person. And that is substantially more to be produced per worker, since not everyone works, and moreover we have a demographic change in which lots of people are retiring and are not being replaced by new workers. ■ It's also inescapable that workers can't get much better at their work without tools. Someone has to pay for those tools -- and the training necessary to make them useful. That requires capital. No capital means no increase in labor productivity. No increase in labor productivity means no increase in national income. And when policies and political language persecute capital, that hurts workers and national income alike. ■ One more thing: There are lots of free riders, and they're not always poor, as some people might believe. There are too many free riders on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

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