Gongol.com Archives: September 2014

Brian Gongol


September 2014
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September 1, 2014

Threats and Hazards The nonchalant beligerence of Vladimir Putin
He's reportedly boasted that he could "take Kiev in two weeks" and is knocking around threats of the use of nuclear weapons. The United States is doing very little to overtly confront the situation, which might be a deliberate and thoughtful strategy -- or it might be a colossal error of dallying at a time when a full-throated defense of a nation we've been courting as a potential ally may be necessary.

News Lawsuit threatened over letting the "Redskins" use the University of Minnesota football stadium
The Vikings are using TCF Bank Stadium this season, and one of those games will be against Washington. Some parties say they'll sue if the ethnic slur naming the team is actually used on the campus.

Business and Finance Membership in labor unions, by the numbers, in Iowa and Nebraska
You're far more likely to encounter a union member in the public sector than in the private

Business and Finance Think twice before taking the Ice Bucket Challenge -- or donating

Business and Finance How far a dollar goes in the cheap seats
Lower housing costs go a long way in the Midwest and elsewhere

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September 2, 2014

Computers and the Internet Public figures, private pictures, and a big security mess
Were the private pictures of people like Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna stolen from a cloud-backup service, or directly from their computers? However it happened, it's a big breach of their privacy and a warning to people to take thoughtful precautions in the interest of good technology hygiene.

Threats and Hazards Russia is re-posturing against NATO

Computers and the Internet Use two-step verification on your critical Internet accounts
Services like e-mail should require more than just your password to get in. It's not hard to do, and it could save you a world of distress.

Computers and the Internet Self-driving cars are on the streets of Washington, DC

Computers and the Internet Germany bans Uber

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September 3, 2014

Broadcasting Radio show notes - In for Jan Mickelson on WHO Radio - September 3, 2014
Listen again to the first-hour interview with the author of "Driving Honda" or to the second-hour discussion about making sure the celebrity nude-photo leak doesn't happen to you.

Computers and the Internet Be on the lookout for scams hitchhiking on the celebrity nude-photo leak

News Lots of layoffs at USA Today
Something like 10% of the workforce is gone

Health Google gets smart -- teaming up with a pharmaceutical maker
They're going to focus on drugs related to diseases that hit the elderly. Google has an inherent skillset at anything involving lots of computation, and drug-making is one of those subjects. They won't be the world's dominant search engine forever, so finding ways to apply their core skillset in other areas is a very wise decision.

The United States of America How seriously will we take NATO obligations to protect the Baltic states?

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September 4, 2014

Business and Finance Fair news on the productivity front
The second estimate says that US productivity went up by an annualized 2.3% in the second quarter. More would be better, but at least it's something.

Humor and Good News "Seinfeld"-themed hockey jerseys to hit the ice for one night

Business and Finance Who cares that Oklahoma Joe's isn't in Oklahoma?
Changing the name of the renowned barbecue joint just because it isn't in Oklahoma anymore seems like a really stupid idea.

Humor and Good News Rules for eating sushi
(Video)

Humor and Good News "Mission Statement" by Weird Al Yankovic
(Video) If it sounds a little too close to reality, that's a sign your organization's leadership is just fiddling around

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September 5, 2014

Business and Finance On the demand for $15-an-hour fast-food workers
Is the minimum wage too low? In short, it's certainly too low for a comfortable full-time wage -- but that's not the point. Minimum-wage work should be entry-level work for people without many skills. Ideally, it should be a very low barrier to entry for young workers to get their first jobs. Make the minimum wage too high, and we create a system in which there are few if any opportunities for young people to get thir first jobs and start developing a track record for basic job skills, like showing up to work and following instructions. That, by the way, is a terribly unconstructive thing to do; a high unemployment rate for young people (especially young men, in their teens and early 20s) is a terrible thing for a society to have. Nobody wants young men hanging around with nothing to do and no reward system for behaving well and making something better of themselves. If we want to make life better for people who are older or more experienced but still earn minimum or near-minimum wages, we need to ask: "Why are they earning so little?". If the answer is that they are unskilled or under-skilled (which it may be), then we need to find ways of training them for higher-wage work. If it's because they are just filling some of their free time with low-wage work as an alternative to sitting around and watching television, then raising the legal minimum wage might only take away opportunities that some people use to help themselves to a higher standard of living. If it's because the economy is weak, then raising the legal minimum wage may only serve to accelerate investment in automation and other alternatives to human workers, thus ultimately putting people out of work even faster. If it's because the workers are unmotivated or disinterested and aren't delivering high-quality work, then raising the wage isn't going to change the value they create -- it will only accelerate that process of their replacement. Raising the minimum wage dramatically only looks superficially like a solution to a lot of problems...we need to really address what's keeping people at low wages and not putter around the margins.

News You may be better-off taking notes by hand
The rise of laptops and other computers in the classroom may cause people to lose something of their education in the translation. Students may also be finding themselves distracted by their devices during boring lectures. But at the same time, we have such marvelous tools available and at our easy disposal that any teacher, lecturer, or professor should be ashamed to give a lecture that bores their students. If you're in front of a room full of people, you should consider it a privilege to share your enthusiasm for a topic with the people in the room -- and be eager to put everything we know about teaching (and in the era of TED Talks, Edward Tufte, Pecha Kucha, the Khan Academy, and the Gates Foundation's work on education, we know a whole lot about good teaching) to use producing lectures that engage students. There's really no excuse for giving a bad lecture anymore.

News A foreign policy so incompetent it actually enlists Iran as an ally?
What's called ISIS/ISIL/QSIL (but what should be called "Al-Qaeda Land", which is what it really is) is now such a meaningful threat to Iran that they're willing to coordinate with the United States on military force to try to push it back. That's Iran -- the country with whom we haven't had diplomatic relations in 34 years. The Al-Qaeda problem has gotten so large (at least in part because the Obama Administration has failed to come up with a solution) that it's actually driving long-divided national interests together under an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend foreign policy. That's not the same as detente.

News NATO will organize a "rapid reaction" force
It's supposed to be capable of getting reinforcements to an ally country in 48 hours. While this is apparently an improvement, it doesn't sound fast enough. The Baltic states surely would like to know that the cavalry would come in a matter of hours, not two days.

Iowa One of the last real farms inside West Des Moines is about to turn into a housing development
No need for over-worry about urban sprawl, though...the whole metro area has basically expanded about four miles westward in the last 20 years. That's hardly enough to cause real, legitimate alarm.

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September 6, 2014

Socialism Doesn't Work China takes a step back on democracy in Hong Kong
"[O]nly candidates approved by a nominating committee" (composed of mostly loyalists to the mother state) will be allowed to run for the job of Hong Kong Chief Executive. That's not democracy -- it's selection from a restricted menu. And if that's how they're treating Hong Kong, which is supposed to be under a whole other system from mainland China ("one country, two systems"), then they certainly have no intentions of loosening political control over the rest of the nation. It should not escape our attention that China is making bad choices on the political front (by tightening, rather than liberalizing), and on the economic one as well. Just one example: China's been harassing Japanese auto manufacturers (specifically Toyota and Honda) both officially and unofficially, meanwhile buying into control of European automakers like Peugot. Not that Peugot is necessarily a bad automaker, but Toyota and Honda are much better -- and they actually would have something to teach their Chinese partners. The Chinese system as we know it cannot go on forever -- and when it falls apart, it's going to be a global mess.

The United States of America The nation's hardest and easiest places to live
Based on health, income, and education factors, the Upper Midwest looks pretty fantastic overall in a New York Times analysis.

Iowa Hard Rock Casino in Sioux City brought in $7.2 million for its first month
That appears to be their net revenues from gambling, before expenses.

News Latest poll puts pro-independence group a hair ahead in Scotland
September 18th is coming fast -- and then we'll know whether Great Britain is going to remain a union including the Scots. Funny how a sense of disillusionment with centralized government (Washington, London, Brussels...) is universal.

Business and Finance Reviving a cultural mascot
WGN Radio is reviving a cartoon bird named "Chicago" as its station mascot, and bringing it to life all over the place, including with a Twitter account (@wgnbirdchicago). Quite a contrast with companies that spend all kinds of money acquiring others and then eliminating their brands altogether (thus erasing the value of all of the goodwill for which they had paid in the first place).

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September 7, 2014

Broadcasting "The idea was to get people interested in politics, not to cater to their interests at the expense of politics."
What made "Meet the Press" work under Tim Russert. Same goes for virtually any program -- be interesting enough that people who wouldn't normally care about the subject become engaged.

News Lots of rhetoric, but not a lot of follow-up

Weather and Disasters Think twice about chasing storms
They may be awe-inspiring, but they're much more dangerous than people seem to realize

Broadcasting Radio shownotes: Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - September 7, 2014

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September 10, 2014

Computers and the Internet Football game days are a great argument for self-piloted cars
The idea of self-piloted cars has entered the public consciousness, and there are plenty of people whose knee-jerk reaction is to say, "Why would I want to let a computer drive my car?" Here's a great real-world example why: College football game days. People drive too fast, too close to one another, and drivers are often either tired (having gotten up much too early before a game) or drunk (having had too much alcohol while tailgating). A computer can be neither too tired nor too drunk to drive, and swarms of self-piloted cars can follow one another at greater speeds with smaller following distances at much higher levels of safety than human drivers. And that is just one of many reasons why we should welcome self-piloted cars.

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September 12, 2014

Computers and the Internet Another big password breach
A list of five million addresses and passwords has leaked online

Business and Finance When does the Federal Reserve pull back on the money supply? Good question.

Business and Finance "I think Einstein needed somebody to talk to"
Charlie Munger on his role as right-hand man to Warren Buffett

Humor and Good News The decay of "rich kids" on the Internet
A thoughtfully obscene rant against the flaunters

Humor and Good News Mike Rowe doesn't have time for a mindless socialist critic
The former host of "Dirty Jobs" and advocate for skilled trades has quite the way of responding to people who think he's part of some vast right-wing conspiracy

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September 13, 2014

News What to call it: ISIS, ISIL, QSIL?
The clearest, most direct language would be "Al Qaeda-land", even if that's not precise. Neither are a lot of other names, but precision is a luxury in this case. They are executing a long-standing Al Qaeda plan, and the leaders come from within Al Qaeda, so it's hard to think of a reason to call it anything else. Doing so only serves to confuse a global public which ought to be galvanized against allowing a group like this to permanentize and legitimize as a state. Don't think it couldn't happen. It's imperative that we use the simple, recognizable language with which we have all become quite uncomfortably familiar since at least 2001. Renaming the threat to something more complicated or less direct doesn't make it any less serious.

Computers and the Internet LA school district puts brakes on iPads-for-all program
Besides there being something rather fishy about the bidding process, it's never been entirely clear that the program was anything much more than a stunt. When people think that "technology" will somehow be "the solution" to everything, they lose the credibility that comes from having thought through the problem systematically first. Too many organizations get buffaloed into thinking that they just need to spend more on technology of some sort, and that spending will make everything better. There has to be a compelling reason why the technology is going to help, not just a vague hope that it'll be a magic bullet.

Computers and the Internet Stupid behavior on Twitter sinks a professor's teaching job

News Prostitution ring busted at Quad Cities casino
And somehow, none of the hookers look like Julia Roberts, and none of the johns look like Richard Gere.

Science and Technology An interesting perspective on everyone's family tree

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September 14, 2014

Computers and the Internet You're being watched
We're all leaving breadcrumb trails all over the Internet -- and in private databases of our interactions with private companies. That's a pretty inevitable result of computing technology. Want to get an idea of just how much is known (and sold) about you? Try Acxiom's AboutTheData.com.

Socialism Doesn't Work American sentenced to six years of hard labor in North Korea
(#1) Why would any right-thinking American go to North Korea? Sure, it looks like a place completely out of sync with the rest of the planet, but that's no reason to visit. (#2) What kind of system is so awful that it responds to stupid tourists and missionaries with sentences of years in prison labor camps? (#3) Do we not have a strategy for peacefully ridding the planet of the North Korean Communist menace?

Agriculture The decline and fall of the Red Delicious apple
Looks mattered more than flavor for a long, long time. And at last, the superficial is giving way to taste.

Weather and Disasters The reconstruction of Pilger
It takes a lot to rebuild a community wiped out by a massive tornado. On one hand, they now have the opportunity to start with a blank slate and develop the community with a deliberate outcome in mind. But it came at a tremendous human cost, and there's no guarantee that the population will ever recover to its pre-storm level -- which just means lots of costs spread out among fewer people.

Business and Finance The world is headed for a beer duopoly

News Apartment rental is a hot market in Omaha

Broadcasting Radio shownotes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - September 14, 2014
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September 16, 2014

News If you leave me now...
The emotional tug-of-war that looms over the Scottish independence vote is pretty significant. From an economic perspective, an independent Scotland is probably going to have a tougher time -- as a smaller and less diverse economy than the UK as a whole, it's going to have wider natural swings between boom and bust, without the benefit of a highly credible central bank like the Bank of England to provide a counterweight. That doesn't mean it's set for failure -- plenty of smaller countries already exist, and Scotland has the benefit of substantial oil wealth at its disposal. That oil-related income helps give Scotland a higher per-capita GDP than the rest of the UK, but those oil riches can be severely deceiving if they're not wisely converted into durable wealth. Many a nation has fallen into the natural-resources trap: Living off a non-renewable natural resource boom without investing heavily in the things that drive growth for a future without it. Could they learn all of the right lessons from the Celtic Tiger without making the same mistakes as Ireland?

Aviation News Boeing and SpaceX will be carrying NASA's astronauts to space in 2017
There's nothing wrong with the government contracting out for services like this -- the only problem is that they waited so very long to actually get an arrangement in place, when everybody knew we were going to retire the Space Shuttle program in 2011. It would have been wise to have had a new program in place to pick up the baton without such a huge gap in between.

Business and Finance How bank capitalization rules could raise your home heating bill
RBC, for instance, sold hedges to buyer groups (including the one that serves Omaha's MUD and the Cedar Falls Utilities), and now it says it needs out to comply with Basel III

Science and Technology Material absorbs 99.96% of incoming light
That makes it the most impossibly black thing humans have made

News Adult autograph hounds ruin it for kids

Business and Finance Marriott's launching a campaign to tip the housekeeping staff
A lot of travelers don't even know it's an expectation

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September 18, 2014

News "Free Syrian Army" says it's going to fight Al Qaeda/ISIS/ISIL/QSIL and Assad at the same time

News Teenage boy kills Omaha jewelry shop owner
It wasn't even in a bad part of town. Incidents like this one underscore the social desirability of making sure boys and young men have constructive things to do -- that means good schools with extracurricular programs, organized team sports, and (perhaps most importantly) low barriers to entry-level jobs. If you assume (consistent with the data) that 99% of people are naturally good or at least neutral, then any incidence of violent crime instigated by anything more than 1% of the population is something society probably could have done something more to prevent. That in no way absolves the individual from the responsibility to be good and to do good things -- but it's only wise to take precautions to protect the community from bad outcomes.

Computers and the Internet The Chinese government is a vast and persistent cyberthreat

Threats and Hazards Sinister terrorist plot broken in Australia

Agriculture Why tree-huggers want to kill some maple trees

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September 19, 2014

Business and Finance PBR is being sold to the Russians
Pabst, once an iconic Milwaukee beer, hasn't even been headquartered there since 2010. It's now being sold to Oasis Beverages, out of Russia, in partnership with an investment company. A few observations: First, brands and brand perceptions are always going to matter when it comes to things like food and drink, since people care most about the things they put inside their bodies. Second, hearkening back to the sale of Anheuser-Busch to the Brazilians and Belgians back in 2008, if people don't want to lose control of companies, they have choices available to them -- like buying and retaining control. Choose not to do that? Fine. But control comes via ownership. Third, as long as debt remains cheap and the United States remains the world's most stable free market, we shouldn't be surprised in the least to find that foreign owners take a liking to American assets. They're highly attractive because America is highly attractive. The more uncertain the rest of the world appears, the more certain investments in America will look.

Threats and Hazards Mother of Omaha jewelry-store killer says he was "hanging out with the wrong crowd"
Anything that makes it harder for young people -- especially young men -- to find something productive to do makes it easier for them to fall in with the "wrong crowd." Consider that when people tell you that a $15 minimum wage is some grand solution to all of the world's problems. Everyone remains individually responsible for their own behavior -- but we as a society shouldn't be blind to the conditions we ourselves create and the unintended consequences thereof. Youth unemployment is a deeply serious problem, and we shouldn't knowingly make it worse. And if it becomes a chronic condition, then we may end up paying the costs for decades.

News The Tampa Bay Times is on borrowed time
Reports have it that the paper is a matter of weeks from a possible financial collapse.

News Scotland votes to stay in the UK
But the BBC might've overstated things in saying the 55% to 45% vote was a "decisive rejection" -- that's only a 5-point swing

News An appalling number of Americans don't know how the government works
A third don't even know the name of a single branch of government

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September 20, 2014

Threats and Hazards The "most transparent administration" is setting new standards for blocking public access to information

The American Way NASA turns to the private sector for human spaceflight

Business and Finance Federal Reserve keeps interest rates at practically zero

Computers and the Internet How "liking" things on Facebook can ruin your perception of reality

Iowa Cedar Rapids struggles to justify illegal traffic speed cameras

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September 21, 2014

Broadcasting Radio shownotes: Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - September 21, 2014
The Russians are coming for your PBR

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September 23, 2014

News One-paragraph book review: "Autopsy of a Merger", by William M. Owen
Should be canonical reading for value investors and students of economics and finance. The closest thing to a textbook by Jay Pritzker himself.

News One-paragraph book review: "It Worked for Me", by Colin Powell
Highly recommended if you work for or with someone of Powell's personality type. Generally interesting otherwise, but not essential.

News One-paragraph book review: "Driving Honda", by Jeffrey Rothfeder
An excellent business book, especially for people who wouldn't normally read business books.

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September 29, 2014

Iowa Americans know when to blow up the old and replace with the new
The Des Moines Register says city staff is going to deny historic-preservation status for the old YMCA downtown. Get nostalgic about it if you want, but not with other people's money.

Threats and Hazards Russia's fight with Chechnya is fueling our fight in Syria and Iraq now
Some Chechens got a lot of practice fighting a sophisticated army when they rebelled against Russia. Now those skills have moved (with the fighters) to the Middle East.

Computers and the Internet Metafilter and the one-platform problem
Owned-and-operated websites will always be the best tool for getting information out online...but whatever site you're running, you need to be able to adapt to where consumers are. Right now, that's Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter and other sites. In the past, it was MySpace. For some people, it's LinkedIn or Instagram. It'll be something else in the future. The secondary platforms are too transient to be relied-upon forever, but you can't ignore them, either.

Aviation News One person should not have been able to do that much damage to Chicago's air-traffic control
The system just can't be that fragile -- they're saying that October 13th is the target date to get everything back up to full speed

Threats and Hazards Intruder got pretty deep into the White House
Contradicts previous reports and should send a shiver down the spine. Isn't that exactly what the Secret Service is supposed to prevent?

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