Gongol.com Archives: 2013 Weekly Archives
Brian Gongol

Humor and Good News Someone at Oreo was on the ball tonight
Managing to put out a visual ad on Twitter at 7:48 pm Central -- literally minutes after the power outage happened -- says several things about the team at Oreo: Someone's alert, someone's phenomenally quick to turn around an ad, and someone in management trusts the right people to execute on the brand's behalf without a lot of red tape.

The United States of America On public service
The three best things we could want in our public officials: Humility, competence, and curiosity

News Super Bowl blackout was a system "abnormality"
A breaker flipped when sensors detected an "abnormality" in the electrical load. If you think that sounds like the kind of thing that probably should have been anticipated well in advance of the Super Bowl, you're probably right.

News Travel figures signal that the China-Japan rift is pretty serious

Computers and the Internet Everything about this story is just sad and depressing
A man in Colorado Springs obtains nude and explicit photos of women and posts them to a website, where the subjects' Facebook profiles and contact details are linked to the revealing photos. The subjects are told they can have the pictures removed for a fee of $250. There is absolutely nothing good or humane about the exploitation. The story should serve as a reminder, though: Don't let anything with a hard drive or a permanent storage memory leave your possession, particularly if there's even the slightest chance it contains any files you wouldn't want posted to the Internet for all the world to see. There are creepy folks out there who obviously make a business out of harvesting files from discarded cell phones and hard drives and sharing them on the Internet.

Humor and Good News Police stations look a lot like strip clubs...
...if you're high, apparently. This is what passes for crime news in Des Moines. Which is why we like it here.

Agriculture Russia could ban American beef and pork
And that could happen as soon as next Monday. It's due to a fight over a feed additive.

Iowa State review gives 98% of Iowa teachers a positive rating
While it's nice to think that only 2% of teachers are failing their students, a simple pass/fail methodology like this one doesn't tell us what we need to know about which teachers are really good and which ones are just good enough. It's important to honestly evaluate teachers, find the great ones, use them better, and find ways to help the others improve.

Iowa Half of what ends up in Iowa landfills should have been recycled or composted
That's just bad resource management

Computers and the Internet So if the New York Times has been under attack by the Chinese government...
...at what point do we need to start drawing a clearer "line in the sand" about the national defense of American interests? Is cyberwarfare, because it does not involve tanks and aircraft carriers, considered the kind of thing that private citizens and institutions must defend for themselves? Or, because it is clear that some nations are deliberately engaged in cyberwarfare on a nation-state level, should cybersecurity be nationalized in the same way that we expect the 101st Airborne to come to our physical defense?

Aviation News At long last, production of the HondaJet is underway

Business and Finance Oh, so now everyone thinks it's OK to get back into the stock market?
Tens of billions of dollars have been moved into the stock market in the last few weeks, perhaps because of year-end bonuses, but also perhaps because people are starting to feel a little bit better about the economy. Of course, the time to have been pouring money into the stock market was back in 2009, when it was in the dumps and everyone was in a panic. Getting in now is fine, but much too late to take advantage of the power of being greedy when others are fearful.

Computers and the Internet Dell Computers goes private for $24 billion
It's reported as the "biggest leveraged buyout" since Hilton went private in 2007. Is it worth $24 billion? Hard to tell. Profits over the last four years have averaged about $2.5 billion a year, so by that measure, ten times earnings would be $25 billion. In some worlds, ten times earnings would be a decent price -- not an incredible bargain, but a fair price. But in the computer sector, who has any clue whether those profits will continue ten years into the future? There's far less clarity in computer-making than in, say, utilities. So even though it's probably a fair price based on normal metrics for companies in low-volatility industries, it's a bit of a gamble in the technology sector.

Science and Technology Lights out -- not just in New Orleans
The power outage at the Super Bowl was embarrassing, but the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities warns that we could have rolling blackouts in a couple of years because new environmental rules are shutting down power plants faster than replacements can be built -- and those replacements that are being built use natural gas, which could become very expensive very quickly.

Business and Finance Someone at the CBO needs to re-adjust their glasses
Their reading of the economic crystal ball has been off -- way off -- for several years in a row. They're estimating much faster economic growth than we've been having. And we definitely need faster economic growth -- but wishing doesn't make it so, and when our Federal government makes decisions based upon faulty projections, something's bound to go badly.

Health Sioux City school district will look at getting bulletproof glass
As always, the first question ought to be: If we are intent upon spending this money in order to achieve a particular goal, is this the most efficient and rational expenditure? Suppose it turns out that bulletproof glass in all of the school buildings would cost $1 million. If the real objective is to make the children safer, would that $1 million be better spent improving, say, school bus safety? ■ School shootings are scary and headline-grabbing, to be sure, but accidents kill far more kids than homicides, and a pre-teen is more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by someone else. Perhaps mental-health, counseling, and anti-bullying efforts would be a better investment in junior high schools than bulletproof glass. ■ A kid in elementary school is more likely to die of cancer than to be murdered; perhaps free blood tests to screen for cancer would save more lives in elementary schools than new glass. It's important that we use our limited resources in the most sensible way to achieve the most good, not just in ways that make for good publicity. ■ That is not to say that we shouldn't examine the costs and benefits of things like replacing window glass, but it does mean we shouldn't rush to spend money on something that happens to be a current hot topic, rather than on what would really make a difference. And where events reveal that we have glaring omissions in security that can and should be redeemed, we should take action. There may be obvious steps that could improve safety and security at little or no cost. ■ It should be noted that, counting all age groups, more Americans commit suicide than are killed by others, and by a large margin. That doesn't mean we shouldn't seek to reduce homicides, but it does mean we need to think rationally about what we really could be doing better to save lives from human-inflicted harm.

Business and Finance Wishing doesn't make things so
Paul Krugman writes, "What is the evidence that fiscal uncertainty -- as opposed to overall lack of demand -- is the reason corporations are sitting on cash? There isn't any." ■ That Krugman doesn't know anyone in business well enough to recognize or acknowledge their fears doesn't mean those people don't exist. Absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence. If Krugman had friends in the private sector who could speak to him candidly (without fear of being accused of corruption or knavery), he might well learn that there are, in fact, plenty of businesses that look to Washington with profound uncertainty and concern. And some will admit right out loud that the uncertainty is is causing them to behave with greater caution than they would under more business-friendly conditions. ■ Again, just because Krugman doesn't know these people doesn't mean they don't exist. His bravado is not a substitute for real understanding of the microeconomic effects of macroeconomic policies.

Broadcasting Behind the scenes of the WHO Radio morning show

Business and Finance Ikea considers targeting senior citizens as they downsize

Business and Finance An argument for requiring banks to hold 20% or more in equity
That number may be a bit high -- but it is definitely worth examining what value is the optimal one for bank stability. Obviously, the figures that prevailed in the last decade were not high enough. Canada's banks seem to have gotten by in the high single digits.

Aviation News Fresh off a rebranding effort, American Airlines may merge with US Airways
American is trying to emerge from bankruptcy, and the combination would create the world's largest airline

The United States of America Let's do lunch
Moderate members of both major parties in Congress are going to try to get together once in a while to talk with one another like human beings. What a wild idea!

Business and Finance The clock's ticking for Google
A photo-documentary of the company's new offices in Tel Aviv show off just how free and loose the spending is within the company. That kind of spending signals (implicitly) that the company is at the peak of its boom.

Iowa Proposal in Iowa statehouse would eliminate one-checkbox, straight-ticket voting

Threats and Hazards Federal Reserve internal websites hacked
No "critical functions" were affected, but it's still a grave concern. The "Anonymous" movement appears to have been involved.

Computers and the Internet 72% of email is spam
Believe it or not, that's the smallest share in five years

The United States of America President Obama says he's "eager and anxious to do a big deal" to cut the Federal deficit

News Postal Service subtly blames retirement programs for its financial crisis
And thus, by extension, for its move to cut out Saturday letter deliveries. This is a warning sign of things to come. The US Postal Service isn't the only agency with massive liabilities for pensions and retiree benefits.

Iowa Homelessness in Iowa City: A complex and growing problem
The city has a single homeless shelter, which is over capacity and doesn't allow anyone on drugs or alcohol to stay. But there are lots of non-housing resources (like food) available for the homeless, so people are attracted to the community for access to those services. It's really hard to get this kind of social problem resolved in a way that is both humane and oriented towards the long term. Of course the people operating the shelter don't want to allow in drug and alcohol abusers -- that could put the staff and other innocent guests at risk. But if the rest of the system creates large incentives for people to show up (like free food) and doesn't have an effective way of breaking addictions (which generally requires buy-in from the addict him- or herself), then a large population of homeless addicts is likely to persist in the area. That, in turn, may put a strain on the social services that are needed to reach out to those who are homeless but trying to get back on their feet. It's complex, and anyone who suggests otherwise probably isn't looking at the whole picture.

News New Year means a billion people moving around China
Imagine: Three times the entire population of the United States, and all of them going somewhere within the same country

Computers and the Internet Bush family e-mail accounts get hacked
To what extent should the Secret Service now be responsible for policing e-mail seccurity among the families of former Presidents? They certainly have access to high-level information, and they remain high-profile security targets. It's a reminder for everyone else to practice good password security.

News Iran's government pushes young people to have more children
They fear running out of younger workers to pay for the welfare system.