Gongol.com Archives: 2012 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

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.

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?

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

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