Gongol.com Archives: June 2014

Brian Gongol


June 2014
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June 4, 2014

Socialism Doesn't Work 25 years ago: Tiananmen Square
Watch the Frontline special on "The Tank Man", if you haven't before

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June 6, 2014

Threats and Hazards Vodafone basically says there's no such thing as un-surveilled cellphone use
It's not just the NSA wiretapping phones in America -- Vodafone says six countries don't even bother to get wiretaps before getting access to phone records

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June 7, 2014

Iowa Most cities in Iowa are shrinking
There's a very clear migration from the small towns to a small number of large ones

News Why the Cubs should be outstanding in about 2019

Humor and Good News The creator of "Calvin and Hobbes" returns -- ever so fleetingly -- to the comics pages

Science and Technology The value of handwriting in the digital age
The brain processes things differently when thoughts are typed as opposed to when they are written by hand. And the hand-writing is good for the brain.

Computers and the Internet The CIA debuts on Twitter
Maybe that's the sign Twitter has become irreversably mainstream

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June 8, 2014

News The new emissions rules aren't going to come without costs
Two things to know about every new regulation: One, they're never free. Regulations have the same effect as an explicit tax, but just through a more circuitous route. Two, every cost imposed (via tax or regulation) has an implicit cost, too, in that it diverts resources from something else. Sometimes, the tradeoff is justified -- but not always.

Computers and the Internet Researchers think Microsoft is patching Windows 8 in places it's leaving Windows 7 vulnerable

Business and Finance One-paragraph book review: The Science of Success by Charles Koch

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June 9, 2014

Aviation News Mark Gongol - news coverage of 2013 flight incident

Business and Finance One-paragraph book review: "The Elegant Solution: Toyota's formula for mastering innovation"

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June 10, 2014

Computers and the Internet European taxi drivers protest (massively) against Uber
Nobody can blame the cab drivers for trying to protect their livelihood -- but to the extent that regulations protecting their cartel only raise rates (as opposed to protecting public safety), the public is under no obligation to extend the protections indefinitely

Computers and the Internet Hackers break into electronic highway signs
Mischief for now, but a warning sign of the threat to public infrastructure that depends upon Internet access. Very little of it is adequately secured.

Business and Finance A better credit card is coming soon
It's called EMV (Europay/Mastercard/Visa), and it should substantially reduce fraud in physical stores. Online? Perhaps not so much.

Business and Finance Interest rates remain extremely low by historical standards
And a bunch of investment banks made the wrong bet by anticipating (perhaps rationally) that rates had to rise. They haven't, and now the banks are getting scorched.

Health Conjoined twins, separated, 18 years later
Just one of many areas of medicine that have gotten a lot better in recent decades without much fanfare

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June 11, 2014

Business and Finance Manufacturing jobs aren't for dummies anymore
There's a popular romantic notion that people should be able to earn incomes in the $80,000 or $90,000 a year range for mindlessly turning a wrench in a factory every day. The reality is that high-income jobs are absolutely available in manufacturing, but they require technical skills and knowledge. The manufacturing industry is growing frustrated by the gap between the skills they need and the ones many workers have, so now there's a $500,000 campaign underway to promote those skills (and their required training programs) in Iowa. Labor demand is strong, but we're probably creating all kinds of counter-incentives at the national level by doing even more to subsidize the cost of college for people who don't earn anything extra for their degrees. If your college degree (undergraduate or graduate) doesn't leave you with enough added income to pay back your student loans, that's not a burden for everyone else to bear. Nothing should stop anyone from studying the things they love, but it's a perverse incentive to make some people pay more in taxes because other people want to pursue uneconomical coursework. Go to the library. Take courses on a pay-as-you-go basis. Be an autodidact. But the Obama administration's latest effort to defer and reduce loan repayments for high-cost graduate school programs rewards going to school for the sake of going to school -- which is emphatically not necessarily the same thing as learning, particularly not learning anything productive for the rest of society. And the scorecard on whether it's useful for the rest of society is a pretty easy one -- if the market doesn't reward the extra education enough for the student to pay for the education, then it was (speaking strictly economically) waste. The problem comes when it's waste that someone else (who didn't get to enjoy the time on campus, or the other psychic benefits of the degree) is being forced to pay for. Not every bit of education has to be strictly practical, but there's also no shame in telling people they should learn something practical alongside what things they enjoy learning. We'd be a much better society if we equally welcomed plumbers who know about classical literature and accountants who know how a combustion engine works. The practical, the technical, the professional, and the liberal arts ought to live in some harmony.

Health Doctor sees first-hand how the ER system needs reform
It's easy to get locked into our silos and to fail to see how systems ought to come together to work best -- in medicine and everywhere else. We don't do much to incentivize systems thinking.

Computers and the Internet Google drops half a billion dollars on Skybox Imaging
The company has a satellite for taking pictures of the ground below. The company says straight-out that it's an acquisition to benefit Google Maps, but they certainly have other uses for the imagery in mind as well, including but not limited to the data needed for self-driving cars.

Science and Technology Solar flares expected

News The NFL team in Washington needs a new name
(Video)

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June 12, 2014

Science and Technology Tesla says it won't sue others for using its patents
The company has gotten a lot of praise for the quality of its electric cars, so they probably expect to stay in a premier position for brand perception. By allowing others to use the patents, they're almost certainly trying to instigate new interest in the electric-car market overall (probably a sensible move, given that there's a lot of infrastructure required to make them work, and the only way to get the infrastruture built is to get a critical mass of users on the roads). And, if Tesla's people are really smart, they'll push themselves to behave in a Toyota-like fashion and keep up a mission for continuous improvement, which could render old patents less valuable to the company over time anyway.

Computers and the Internet Sharper satellite imagery coming soon
DigitalGlobe had to get government approval first. Right away, they'll get to sell resolutions of 40 cm rather than 50 cm, but they're planning to take new pictures down to 31-cm resolution soon.

Business and Finance How to have meetings with more productivity
Limit the attendance, keep the meeting short, and circulate documents instead of convening a meeting (when possible)

News Barriers to employment create bored teens who get into trouble
Two middle-school-aged girls burned down a playground at a Des Moines elementary school in March because they were bored. The new playground is almost finished, but the incident should be a reminder that the things we do that make it harder for young people to get jobs (even if we're doing them out of good intentions) can have negative consequences. It's not good for any society to have a bunch of teenagers bumming around with nothing useful to do.

News California judge strikes down teacher tenure
Some of the hardest-working people in the country are teachers. So are some of the laziest. We would be wise to find systems and incentive mechanisms to encourage more of the former and less of the latter, since a system that protects the lazy ones implicitly punishes the hard-working ones. Education is far too important to leave in the hands of people who don't care.

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June 13, 2014

Threats and Hazards Russian bombers skirt America's coasts off Alaska and California
It's time to re-inject a little of the old Reagan-style twitchy eye into our foreign policy stance. An America that telegraphs all of its plans well ahead of time, boxes itself into a corner at every diplomatic turn, and never threatens to reach for its (metaphorical) six-shooter once in a while is no use on the global stage. From a diplomatic standpoint, the worst thing a country can become is too predictable. For the good of the good nations of the world, we have to look just a little trigger-happy once in a while so that the world's bad guys think twice about getting too bold. The world is not completely full of rational actors, and some of the most irrational occasionally become heads of state. These are not people who respond to long lectures about "red lines", and in implicitly giving them latitude to do whatever they want by standing by wagging fingers and backtracking on threats, we harm the rest of the world that (reluctantly or not) acknowledges our unique role as a benevolent superpower.

Health Next-generation genome sequencing should help improve cancer treatments
By figuring out the genetic state of the tumor, oncologists can figure out how to hit it with the right drugs

Business and Finance Expect the Federal Reserve to keep pumping cash into the economy
The Producer Price Index actually went in reverse in May, by a small amount. Nobody -- nobody! -- wants deflation to take hold.

News Trump plasters name in giant letters across Chicago tower
Two things: First, nobody should take Donald Trump seriously -- he's an exceptional self-promoter, and that's all he ever has been. He doesn't own as much real estate as the public perceives; he puts his name on things and gets other people to front the money, so of course he's going to go to extremes with self-promotion. Second, where are the adults in Chicago's administration? When Mayor Rahm Emanuel waits until long after the sign was approved by his own people to put up a stink about it, one has to wonder whether there's any credibility left in the local municipal management. He's running for re-election, even though the city is riddled with shootings and hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole.

News VOA headline: "China offers to help Iraq"
China is heavily invested in Iraq's oil production, so they have an economic interest in preventing the collapse of the government there. But the Chinese government has also been quite aggressive about establishing relationships with governments around the world in order to preserve access to things like natural resources. What will we think if China sweeps into Iraq militarily -- by invitation or otherwise? If the country falls into disorder only to be re-ordered with the help (or under the thumb) of China, what will have one of the most expensive American military endeavors of the 21st Century have really produced?

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June 16, 2014

Computers and the Internet A formula for success in 2014
Time with books > time with Facebook. Facebook claims that the average user spends almost 20 minutes per day with their site. At an average reading pace of about 300 words per minute, that would equate to reading between 2.1 and 2.2 million words per year. A novel aimed at adults is usually in the neighborhood of 100,000 words. So anyone who spends equal time with books as with Facebook can expect to read 20 books a year or more. Make those the right kinds of books, and you're talking about some serious potential for personal development.

Business and Finance A backwards understanding of "work" isn't helping American workers

Health Self-repairing teeth could be available in three years
Stimulating minerals to aggregate at the site of damage could allow teeth to be rebuilt without fillings

Weather and Disasters We need more weather radar installations
Of all the things on which we could choose to spend Federal tax dollars, additional weather radar sites should be near the top of the list. Tonight's severe weather struck in several places where the nearest Nexrad is 100 miles away, which means there's very little effective coverage anywhere close to the ground...in other words, where the real dangerous action is. In Iowa, Mason City, Waterloo, Storm Lake, and Ottumwa all get peripheral coverage at best. Very few things make better sense for public expenditure than tools to help the National Weather Service detect and warn about severe weather that affects everybody, even in less-densely-populated areas. They're probably too polite at the NWS to ask for the funds, but the need is self-evident.

Health Whooping cough is at "epidemic" proportions in California
Yes, whooping cough. That thoroughly preventable disease. But since there's a vocal and self-encouraging anti-vaccination movement afoot, people's lives are being put at risk. Two infants have already died. Immunization works.

Business and Finance Ikea makes the ill-advised choice to go after its most enthusiastic consumers
People who "hack" Ikea products to do new and unusual things have been told to stop calling themselves "Ikea hackers". It's one thing to protect your brand...it's quite another to slap the people who adore your brand with threats.

News Russia cuts off natural gas to Ukraine
This should surprise exactly nobody. Gazprom says Ukraine is on a cash-and-carry basis, and is rumbling that the EU might not get what it expects if the gas has to travel through Ukraine. The EU gets about 15% of its natural gas via that route, but a marginal 15% in the middle of a cold streak in winter could be back-breaking. Virtually all wars and international disputes come down to matters of resources and how far opposing parties are willing to go to get them. This one doesn't have the makings of a situation that ends well.

Computers and the Internet Digital files can rot
It's called "bitrot" -- the process by which digital files, susceptible to the chance failures of physical components in a computer storage system, become unreadable due to the loss of individual bits and bytes. And it can claim entire files...and does. That's why good backup procedures are a must. (That advice, by the way, applies to Federal agencies like the IRS, which had a faulty system for backing up email and computer files that, coincidentally enough, led to the loss of two years' worth of emails to and from Lois Lerner, who's the subject of a Congressional investigation over whether some groups were scrutinized differently than others when they applied for tax-exempt status.)

Water News When you work across the street from a party-bus company

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June 17, 2014

Threats and Hazards Is China coming after the US in space?

News Russia and its neighbors are upgrading their military powers...fast

Weather and Disasters How to read Doppler radar

Computers and the Internet The first Photoshop

Iowa How a governor stays visible
Terry Branstad's travel log of Iowa

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June 18, 2014

Business and Finance Chinese-built Volvos are coming to the United States
Probably within 12 to 24 months

News Union intimidation rubs electronic composer the wrong way
(Video)

Broadcasting "Danger Mouse" is being revived

Health Applying the irrational anti-vaccine rationale to car seats

Humor and Good News The best Brian Williams rap yet
(Video)

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June 19, 2014

Threats and Hazards Social media as terrorist soft power
Or, "Why terrorists tweet about cats". Do you beat them by blocking them? Drowning them out? Outmaneuvering them?

Computers and the Internet Amazon's new Fire smartphone is out...for $200 to $650
The camera takes 13-megapixel shots and 1080p video. The OS is based on Android, and the processor runs at 2.2 GHz with 2 Gb of RAM. Their Siri imitation is called "Firefly", and they claim the phone employs "one-handed" shortcuts (like tilting the phone to navigate on the screen) -- we'll see how well that works in practice.

News Omaha police are getting wearable cameras
The technology is impressive. The implications could be interesting.

Business and Finance Wages aren't rising in Manhattan

Broadcasting Chelsea Handler is moving a talk show to Netflix

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June 20, 2014

Computers and the Internet Court says police need a warrant to get your cell-phone location data
Meanwhile, the Federal government is trying to keep local police from admitting to the surveillance they're doing. What part of "civilian oversight" do these people not understand?

Computers and the Internet Is Google really trying to get 24/7 closed-circuit monitoring of the entire globe?
That would be one way to interpret their recent decision to purchase satellite-imaging company Skybox

Computers and the Internet YouTube is about to close the door to indie artists
The site evolved into a huge source for music. But because Google/YouTube wants licensing deals with the artists, the unsigned ones aren't being invited to play on the same terms as the major-label artists. And many will probably end up off YouTube altogether. SoundCloud may benefit.

Business and Finance GE will probably get most of Alstom for less than Facebook paid for WhatsApp
And there are about 20-to-1 odds that GE made the better deal

Weather and Disasters Mudslide in Minneapolis threatens riverside hospital

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June 21, 2014

Computers and the Internet Backing up your email isn't hard to do
Someone should tell the IRS, which is making excuses for losing administrative emails -- excuses that wouldn't pass muster in an IRS audit

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June 25, 2014

Business and Finance "Real GDP declined 2.9% in the first quarter"
The government's figures went from an advance estimate of 0.1% growth to a 1.0% contraction, now to a 2.9% contraction. That's one serious math error.

News How the IRS attempted to target Senator Chuck Grassley
Bad move. If there's one member of the legislative branch who's itching to bring down hellfire and fury for abuses of power, it's Chuck Grassley.

Threats and Hazards The State Department still has a lot to do in the interest of diplomatic security

Science and Technology Nostalgia for buildings that were pretty but not useful
It happens a lot -- people discover photos of an old building and get a highly romanticized idea of just how wonderful it might be if those buildings were still around. Some should have been preserved, but many outlived their usefulness -- no matter how attractive they might have been. Americans have an advantage over parts of the world with longer histories, and that advantage is that we know when to blow up the old and replace with the new. Las Vegas does it almost compulsively. The rest of us shouldn't get too teary-eyed about doing the same thing from time to time. It's no good to hog-tie yourself so much to the past that you don't replace what needs replacement.

News What in the world is going on at the Denver EPA office?
People are doing the unspeakable in the hallways

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June 26, 2014

Humor and Good News Jon Stewart is right about the Trump sign controversy in Chicago
Donald Trump is unloveable, and yet the city of Chicago seems to have screwed up on its own

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June 28, 2014

Iowa Iowa's Highway 20 no longer has a 72-mile stretch with no services
It's a chicken-and-egg situation, of course. No services means little interest in traveling through...but nobody wants to build a gas station when there aren't going to be customers. A finished, four-lane Highway 20 across northern Iowa will be a very good thing.

News Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova sign "partnership" agreements with the EU
There's a stick in the eye to anyone who wanted to see the USSR (or something like it) resurrected

Computers and the Internet US Air Force bombing practice deliberately staged for social-media benefit
"Time" calls it "Twitter as a force multiplier"

Aviation News FAA: No Amazon.com delivery drones
The law needs to hurry up and get even with the pace of technology

Broadcasting Jeremy Paxman in retirement
Americans don't really know him, but he was the BBC's most fearsome interviewer

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June 29, 2014

Agriculture You probably didn't know: Most popcorn comes from a small stretch of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota

Weather and Disasters Tornado video may show a house being rotated on its own foundation
While there are certainly some meritable results that have come from the scientific analysis of storm-chasing data and videos, it's really getting to be too much. The thrill-seekers (many probably inspired by Reed Timmer and his fervor on the "Storm Chasers" television series and online) are probably now dangerously outnumbering the scientists, and when even the serious scientists can still get caught in deadly situations, it's time to reconsider whether we're rewarding and encouraging the wrong kind of behavior. Jeff Masters is among those who seem to think so.

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