Gongol.com Archives: September 2013
Brian Gongol

September 2013
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September 2, 2013

Business and Finance Competition in global markets flows both ways
Americans spend a lot of time talking about global competition as a threat. But competition flows in both directions -- witness the massive flow of investment money into the United States as the US Treasury rate has risen; that flow of investment has been negative for many emerging-market economies. Is that fair to them? Tough to say. But the net impact of the (slow) rebound in the US economy and the resulting withdrawal of government and Federal Reserve stimulus to the US economy will likely mean painful effects in smaller countries. Just as water tends to seek its own level, investment dollars tend to seek the market rate of return, no matter where that rate can be obtained. During the slowdown, emerging markets looked opportune; with the US economy doing better, the risks involved with those other economies no longer look quite rewarding enough...at least, not to people with short-term time horizons. (It is worth noting that Federal Reserve research disputes the widely-held belief in a connection between "quantitative easing" in the US and the flow of new dollars into small-nation economies. But lots of other practicians seem to disagree.)

The American Way "[G]overnment should only remove power and wealth from individuals when it has an excellent reason to do so"
The Economist defines its political stance. And it's an excellent one.

Business and Finance The rise of part-time jobs
And also apprenticeships. Both are reactions to disparities between what the labor market demands and what is being supplied. In the case of apprenticeships, we most certainly should expect to see further developments that seek to make the skilled trades easier to join. A very substantial shortage of skilled workers to do hands-on trade work has been hitting the Midwest hard for quite some time. Our expectations of work will continue to be challenged for a while as technology and rising living standards play tug-of-war with people's working lives.

Aviation News The things pilots won't tell you but should

News "If this weren't a campaign, you wouldn't have spoken that way"
The Economist reports on the debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger, and notes Merkel's means of putting the challenger in his place.

Computers and the Internet Google retires its "Latitude" location-sharing service
Routinely and frequently sharing your location on the Internet isn't a very good idea, anyway, so this shouldn't affect a lot of lives. But this is just another example of a Google service that's been cancelled. Many others have met the same end. They really want you to use Google Plus instead.

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September 3, 2013

Business and Finance More capital spending, less hiring
How can businesses be blamed or criticized for making that choice, when the future costs of hiring more employees remains terribly uncertain (What will health care cost? What about changes to tax rates for entitlement programs?) and when the cost of capital (like computers and robotics) keeps falling? People who are failing to prepare themselves for these trends to continue are going to regret that failure in the not-so-distant future.

Computers and the Internet A comprehensive look at the near future of self-piloted cars
Embrace them as soon as they become available; taking human drivers out of the control spot means vastly more safety, more options for people who can't (or shouldn't) drive today, and greater efficiency (of fuel, road use, and our time). It's going to be a huge win for society when these things become a commercial reality.

Business and Finance "Gen X's moment to shine in leadership may prove all-too-brief"
Squeezed between the Boomers and the Millennials, the much-smaller Generation X cohort may have a harder time keeping a grip on management roles

Computers and the Internet Facebook reports 38,000 user-information requests by governments worldwide in first six months of 2013
More than 20,000 individuals were the subjects of inquiries from government agencies inside the US. The company complied 79% of the time with domestic requests.

Computers and the Internet Anecdotal evidence: College freshmen like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube
A lot more than they like Facebook and Tumblr...and don't even ask about LinkedIn

Iowa Iowa Gov. Branstad appoints committee to recommend plan for broadband to the entire state
The state doesn't rank well for broadband Internet access, and there's no doubt that economic development will be difficult in places that don't have it.

Business and Finance Analyst floats the idea that China's manufacturing boom may be ending

Computers and the Internet Mark Zuckerberg floats a plan for broadening Internet access worldwide
The white paper casts the issue in terms of connectivity as a human right. But then there's also that funny little issue for Facebook that it really could use some new users, and they've pretty well saturated the market in Internet-developed countries.

Computers and the Internet Companies using Windows XP as of April 8, 2014 could face serious liability risks

Computers and the Internet University of Iowa student spends a weekend in the spolight for all the wrong reasons
Getting really drunk, then getting arrested, then telling the world about it -- not a recipe for long-term life success

Broadcasting Know your demographics
Univision beat Fox in overall viewers last night, and beat both Fox and ABC for viewers ages 18 to 49.

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September 5, 2013

News Why copy someone else's words for your resignation letter?

Computers and the Internet Police in Iowa City get body cameras
On the positive side, they can certainly create a better environment for police accountability, and provide valuable evidence to corroborate (or correct) what people think they saw. On the negative, body-mounted cameras could make it more difficult for police to obtain confidential insights from informants.

Broadcasting ABC News has closed its West Coast bureau in Sacramento

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September 9, 2013

News Something's wrong with a system that can't keep a sociopath off the streets

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September 10, 2013

Business and Finance Companies hiring new CEOs should look to internal candidates
They stay longer and have more success than external candidates

Computers and the Internet How the Amazon Mechanical Turk is improving psychological research
It turns out that when you conduct experiments with Western college students, you tend to get different results in some cases than when you sample the broader world

Iowa Almost half of Aviva employees in West Des Moines are being let go

Computers and the Internet Der Spiegel: NSA can hack into Android, iOS, and BlackBerry

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September 12, 2013

Science and Technology "We're being outsmarted by an organism that doesn't even have a brain"
Commentary on the evolution of weed resistance to herbicides actually echoes for many things that we humans do in life. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that because we're sentient, we're smart. Not necessarily true. While we are aware of our ability to think, we can only think in relatively linear ways. (Algebra, for example, is approached by executing multiplication, then division, then addition, then subtraction.) The advantage that Nature has over us isn't self-awareness...it's the ability to try many things at once, and in massive quantities. Thus, in a field full of crops that have been treated with herbicides, it may take only one tiny mutation inside one weed -- among thousands and thousands -- for resistance to those chemicals to appear. But once that single mutation occurs, the plant bearing those genes can reproduce and may ultimately become predominant. The same thing goes for our use of antibiotic drugs and soaps -- which we use because we are smart, but which can fail when even a tiny window opens for a mutation to thrive, leading to antibiotic resistance. These things happen not because Nature is "thinking" about it, but because the systems that define nature involve consequences and rewards that don't necessarily require thinking. There is an important lesson for us (as humans) to extract from this: There are other systems that work in the world around us as well...true forces of nature. These include systems like the laws of supply and demand. We can tell ourselves that we're smarter than those systems -- saying, for instance, that it's all the fault of economists and "corporations" that degrees in petroleum engineering pay three times what fine-arts degrees do. But the nature of the system behind those inequities is, well, natural. It isn't the result of deliberate oppression by The Man, or by a cabal of sinister people trying to manipulate the world. It's the result of supplies for some things (usually hard things, or things that aren't very emotionally fulfilling) falling short of demand at one price, and less so at a higher price. And, on the other side of the coin, it's the result of some things feeling so good that many people will do them for free or nearly for free. Nature is really the party to blame, and if we think we can overcome these natural forces by brute-force human thinking, then we're prone to making serious mistakes like the errors that riddled Soviet medicine with corruption and bad practices.

Computers and the Internet An IPO for Twitter
The company is going to go public, likely sometime soon. What should you take away from that news? That the people who own the shares now think they're at the peak convergence of profits and future expectations. You don't sell something when you think the market is ready to under-pay for something. Outsiders will struggle to put a price tag on the company ($10 billion, says one), but even after the full financial details are revealed, there will still be a great deal of speculation involved. (We do know that they're bringing in less than $1 billion a year in revenues.) And meanwhile, you should note that Hilton Hotels is about to have an IPO, too.

Business and Finance Debt kept things growing in China during the West's slowdown
Can they continue to afford that debt burden for long?

Business and Finance "If you're comfortable with what you can get this year, lock it in"
Mortgages will cost more next year, and the Federal government is likely to back off some of the steps it's taken to prop up the housing market

Weather and Disasters Shocking floods hit Denver/Boulder area
A 30-foot wall of water and debris is supposedly coming down a creek towards the city

Business and Finance What good are management consultants?

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September 13, 2013

Socialism Doesn't Work When the quest for manufacturing jobs goes wacky
France is headed for a more state-interventionist economy, if the government gets its way. State-interventionism tends to contaminate any market economy, but its effects are more subdued in emerging economies (like in Singapore or South Korea, 50 years ago). But in a mature economy like France? Sounds like a recipe for boondoggles, waste, and corruption. It's quite lovely that the political class there wants to dream of creating a "third industrial revolution", but the people who actually create industrial revolutions aren't working for the state. ■ The best thing a country can do if the political leadership wants certain technological innovations (like the 34 projects they'll pursue in France) is to establish inducement prizes (or, perhaps they could better be called "innovation prizes") that concentrate the rewards for actually delivering on those innovations. Governments ought to be largely agnostic about the exact steps involved in getting expensive things with public funding. Trying to micromanage a macro-economy is a really good way to demonstrate foolishness. Instead, define carefully what you want and decide precisely what it's worth to you, then publicize the prize and stay out of the way. That's how the X Prizes work. (And they really do work.) ■ Understand that for government to concentrate benefits around any particular result distorts the market -- but if there are enough benefits to the result, say, in the form of public goods, then that distortion may be worthwhile. But distorting through micromanagement and rough-edged "industrial policy" is a great way to waste the taxes taken from hard-working people. ■ France's problem is a really high unemployment rate. That, quite often, is a symptom of an economy with too little labor mobility and too many regulations on employment. (For an American counterpart to this problem, compare the experiences of the heavily-unionized automakers with the non-unionized ones. Sure, the unionized ones promised lots of benefits to the workers, but the companies' promises exceeded their capacities, and two of them went broke. The non-unionized ones had more flexibility to shrink when needed and to grow when needed, making them more nimble and thus more capable of taking advantage of shifts in the market. And thus Toyota is hiring and expanding in a big way inside the US, while the US and Canadian governments are only now getting around to backing out of owning (that is, propping up) GM. ■ It's far more defensible for small, developing countries to try a coordinated industrial policy, but to do so requires that the politicians have the wisdom and self-restraint to pull away the "punch bowl" of government protection once the party starts to heat up. South Korea used the government protection of the chaebol to spur industrialization. But the protections outlasted their usefulness, and caused the chaebol to become sclerotic and hazardous to the health of the nation's economy as a whole. The last decade or more has been spent trying to rein in the chaebol so the rest of the economy can flourish. Any government considering an interventionist industrial policy needs to think twice.

Business and Finance Does pent-up demand beat rising interest rates?
Mortgage interest rates have risen and will probably continue to rise -- but they're still at incomprehensible lows, from a historical standpoint. So will rising rates be offset by demand that's been pent-up as people left homeownership? Seems like the demand-side issue will probably be market-specific, while the interest rates will have a more universal impact.

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September 18, 2013

Business and Finance How the self-made wealthy got on the Forbes 400 list
Investments, technology, and real estate are the top three routes

Iowa Iowa now has two successive years of near-freedom from tornadoes
Very strange indeed, but no guarantee of future security

The United States of America Is all of President Obama's political capital used-up?

Broadcasting "Mad Men" will split final season across two years
If you air one part in spring 2014 and the next in spring 2015, isn't that really just the same as having two ultra-short seasons?

Iowa Nobody takes the bait (cars) in Des Moines
Police put out two bait cars (with keys in the vehicles) in April to see if anyone would steal them from high-crime areas. Nobody's tried yet. That doesn't mean Iowa lacks for idiot thieves; one stole an iPod and uploaded selfies to the victim's Facebook page.

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September 19, 2013

Business and Finance How to get rich: Reinvest 90% of your earnings
The Koch brothers get a lot of heat for their political spending. But from a business perspective, they are admirable -- reinvesting 90% of their profits back into the business. It's a model worth examining by all businesses -- and by individuals and families, as well. We can't always reinvest everything, but almost all of us could be reinvesting more than we do.

Computers and the Internet Broadband-use limits are an archaic response to Internet use
As Internet service providers impose usage caps, people are finding ever more ways to use the Internet. Any firm imposing caps instead of putting new fiber-optic cable in the ground is probably one that needs a dose of competition.

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September 20, 2013

Threats and Hazards Chicago lost more lives to murder than any other US city in 2012
Five hundred in one year -- more than New York City, by far, even though New York is much larger. Chicago needs its own Rudy Giuliani. Or maybe it just needs Giuliani. What also helps: A better economic climate.

Science and Technology "[W]ind power is now cheaper than coal and gas"
Even when unsubsidized (at least in Australia), according to a Bloomberg analysis

Business and Finance Warren Buffett has no "second choice" for Fed chair
He wants Ben Bernanke to come back. Related: There was very little net change in unemployment last month.

News "[M]inisters of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all"
Pope Francis comes across as a much-needed revolutionary

News One "Darwin Award" story that really happened
It's being circulated as though it's a recent story, but a man really did try to rob a gun store occupied by a uniformed police officer back in 1990. He did not survive to go to trial.

Computers and the Internet Apple's new iPhones launch today
But whose idea was it to come out with a higher-powered phone and a lower-tech model at the same time, and distinguish their model names only by calling one the "5c" and one the "5s"? Apple just made things too complicated for the very casual user -- and that's the market Apple should be trying to win over. The company endless ballyhoo over being user-friendly, and now that smartphones outsell regular phones, the remaining market to be conquered is the set of users who have thus far been afraid to buy smartphones for fear of their complexity. Many will go into stores and want "the new iPhone", and then get lost in the details of a "5c" versus a "5s". Oh, and there's also that complication that "5" and "S" look a lot alike. Poor branding choice for Apple, if they want to catch up with Android (or just hold their own) in the smartphone market. Don't make customers learn your codes; just give them model names that are simple and catchy to ask for. The iPhone series is turning into jargon soup.

Computers and the Internet AllThingsD to split off from Dow Jones
That's too bad; the brand alliance gave AllThingsD a certain level of credibility that its all-too-casual name did not

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September 21, 2013

Computers and the Internet Comedy bordering on the profound
Louis CK's thoughts on smartphones ring all too true

News Innovation comes to hockey
Players can't take off their own helmets to fight. But players found the loophole: They can take off the other guy's helmet instead. The takeaway: People in charge of rulemaking usually think they're the smartest people in the room. But, quite often, the organic response to the rules is that just one or two people will figure out a desirable loophole, and soon everyone else jumps on board. That's the way of nature -- we spray for weeds or take antibiotics, but when corners get cut, nature finds a way to poke through, and we end up with herbicide-resistant weeds and MRSA. That's why we should always be skeptical when politicians and policymakers think they have all of the answers to the world's problems. Often, they'll just impose more costs on the public generally, while the worst offenders find the loopholes. Our best defense against the worst abuses in many sectors is often to mandate transparency and educate people to deal with the information they get. The bizarro world of investment banking wouldn't be nearly so profitable as it is if people took the time to understand money as well as they understand fantasy football, and then withheld their money from those who charge fees disproportionate to the value they create.

Science and Technology Solar power may finally have fallen to competitive prices

Computers and the Internet Microsoft frames Surface tablet as a necessary (but expensive) learning experience
Fortunately for the company, there's such a franchise built around Windows with so much ongoing earnings power behind it that they can afford to make big mistakes while finding other income streams.

Business and Finance Tech startups get funding through connections
Silicon Valley isn't quite an open meritocracy. More often than not, people went to the "right" school or already know the "right" people. Which in turn suggests that there's some real opportunity to be had funding projects by people with good ideas who are outside those existing networks. But startups are speculative by nature, anyway, so which of those risks are worth taking?

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September 22, 2013

Threats and Hazards Dozens killed in terrorist attack in Kenya

News Old nuclear weapons are going to cost us money
Their electronics are on borrowed time, and nobody wants an accident to happen. Fixing them will cost about $10 billion, which (with a population of 316 million) is about $32 a person.

Iowa Whatever came of "Generation Iowa"?
Not a great deal, at least not structurally. Iowa and other "brain-drained" states need to stop obsessing so much over where recent graduates choose to live and think more about making sure the tax and regulatory environment is friendly to business in general (and thus, by extension, to small and startup businesses). The friendlier the climate for business, the more opportunities for those who want to work for themselves, and the greater the choice for those who prefer to work for others.

Business and Finance The life of a hotel housekeeper

Business and Finance Nielsen (the TV ratings company) buys Arbitron (the radio ratings company)

Broadcasting This week in making money and having fun
Show notes for the Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio, airing at 9 pm Central Time

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September 24, 2013

News Where's Waldo?: The Lincoln edition

Business and Finance Will China lead a return to the studio system?
The Chinese company that owns AMC movie theaters, among other companies, wants to get into movie production in a big way, and points to its vertical integration as a competitive advantage. The studio system in that sense fell apart many decades ago.

Agriculture 35% of Iowa's corn is frost-safe
Usually the number is almost double that by this stage of the year. Both Iowa and Nebraska remain really dry.

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September 25, 2013

News Dams in China: Politically inevitable
The country needs sources of cheap electricity with little or no air pollution, giving a lot of impetus to those who have a vested interest in building hydroelectric dams

Broadcasting Pandora bought a radio station in June
Not because they were trying to get into terrestrial broadcasting for its own sake, but because it gives them access to cheaper music-licensing fees

Business and Finance When advertising really works
A group of British ad agencies set up a group of awards for advertising that can be shown (econometrically) to have actually worked

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September 27, 2013

Business and Finance "The age of the unskilled job is gone"
A Chicago Federal Reserve summit on economic competitiveness included comments from Paul Jones of the AO Smith Corporation. AO Smith is a manufacturer of water heaters -- not what most people would categorize as a high-tech industry. But Jones's comments are right in line with what many Americans need to hear. As others noted in the same conference, manufacturing jobs are important -- but the high-value jobs are high-skill jobs. The notion that people are going to get paid well to do jobs that aren't challenging in some way is pure fiction. But we have a choice available to us: The challenges can be that particular jobs are unpleasant in some way (and thus must be endured through their unpleasantness), or they can be challenging because they require the worker to know how to do things that are hard. Over the long term, we'll find ways to get machines to do ever more of our dirty work -- nobody pushes carts through towns to pick up horse manure anymore, like had to be done in the Dark Ages. But there are plenty of jobs within manufacturing that call for thinking and acquired skills of which people can be proud. Those are the manufacturing jobs of the 21st Century, and they're not for dummies.

Computers and the Internet Google turns 15 and overhauls 90% of search results
The code-named "Hummingbird" algorithm is supposed to make Google's searches more contextual and less constrained than the Boolean searches of the past

Computers and the Internet Popular Science shuts down comments
People survived for hundreds of years with an editor or publisher standing between them and the full power of the printing press. The ultra-democratization of Internet commentary did not, on balance, make us wiser than we would have been with at least a little editorial review of what people had to say in response to others' published work. An echo chamber of stupidity (like any hotly-debated set of comments on a YouTube video) is quite enough to make us all worse off.

News French government minister seriously proposes lowering voting age to 16

Humor and Good News The best of Franklin Sherman
(Video) A highlight reel from "The Critic", featuring the daffiest character of them all


September 29, 2013

Agriculture Nobody has more hogs than Iowa
21 million of the 68 million hogs in the United States are in Iowa

Agriculture Some forecast a soft landing as ag exits a boom cycle
There seems to be a lot of belief that the agricultural economy won't go bust -- but instead will just endure in a low-returns cycle for a while. Farming income accounts for 7% of the state's GDP.