Gongol.com Archives: February 2015
Latest blizzard is Chicago's 6th-worst
Crankiniess doesn't suit libertarians
(Video) Sen. Rand Paul got rude and touchy in a CNBC interview. That's not what sells the libertarian philosophy he so loudly professes.
Debunking the myth of the Nordic socialist "utopia"
The world has challenges, but we're getting better at solving them
The bad news gets the headlines, but the good news is voluminous
Syrian rebels trapped by cyber honeypot scheme
People are often the weakest link in computer security
Another Chinese crackdown against the Internet
People in China sometimes use VPN services to get around the government's "Great Firewall". So now the government is trying to block the VPNs.
Raspberry Pi 2 is revealed
It's a $35 kit containing the innards of a computer -- no monitor, keyboard, or SD card slot, but with a quad-core CPU and a gigabyte of RAM.
Authoritarianism is back in Russia
"Net neutrality" isn't a silver bullet
The Cedar Falls Utilities, for instance, which is already delivering gigabit-speed broadband access to the Iowa college town, isn't on board with the FCC's plan to regulate Internet service like a utility...and with good reason. There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue. One certainty is that regulation has the strong potential to entrench the positions of the large providers who are already big.
Twitter and Google are going back into partnership
And that's going to bring Twitter updates into the Google search index once more, later this year
Things can't get much worse in Venezuela
The question now is whether the opposition will get a chance to fix it
The question now is whether the opposition will get a chance to fix it
People are often the weak link in the security chain
Imposters using social-engineering techniques stole lots of money from an Omaha company
Questions raised about Harper Lee's new book
There are circumstances that suggest it may not have been a clear-minded, uncoerced decision
Amazon as a white knight for Radio Shack?
It's rumored that the online retailer may be out to snap up part or all of the long-term retailer. Amazon has already stepped deep into the territory of having to collect sales taxes, thanks to the number of distribution centers it's developed. A physical showcase presence may not be the worst thing to happen to the company.
Young men with nothing useful to do are a very common cause of trouble
While unemployed young men in poor places are often the cause of criminal violence, rich young men who inherited everything can also be a plague
Twitter: No huge profits yet, but would you like some new features?
Lose half a billion dollars in the first nine months of 2014, and people might be curious where you're heading
Labor productivity dropped by 1.8% in the fourth quarter of 2014
A step back is costly. To recover, we'll have to increase productivity by more than 1.8% just to get back up to even.
"Cards Against Humanity" meets a branding exercise
The case for making some vaccinations compulsory
You're not allowed to carry a bag of anthrax spores through a mall. The dangerous (and even deadly) externalities of highly-contagious airborne infections trump the perceived direct cost to personal liberty.
Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte are getting Google Fiber
They're new to the Google Fiber list, but San Jose, Portland (OR), Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio are all in line to get it next. Austin, Kansas City, and Provo already have it. Google's not the only supplier of gigabit-speed Internet access, but it's probably the highest-profile.
Who's your buddy?
Snapchat has historically told users who their "best friends" (most-frequently-used contacts) were, and posted those results publicly. Now it won't. Unsurprisingly, some users are complaining.
Gawker stunt hits new lows in tastelessness
They manipulated a marketing algorithm used by Coke to hijack a Twitter feed to post portions of "Mein Kampf" as ASCII pictures. Tasteless, childish, and shameful. It crosses the line beyond mischief, and is yet another example why "just because you can doesn't necessarily mean you should." What good did the stunt do?
Android version 5.1 is showing up -- in Indonesia
Requirements of medical recordkeeping have doctors hiring "scribes" to follow them around
Certainly not the worst way to divide up the labor, assuming the records have to be kept in the first place
Is Google suffering from brain drain?
CNBC posits the question after several of the company's highest-level employees have departed. But it's probably overstating the case to call it "brain drain" as though the situation is any different from the natural order of things: A small, young Google is inevitably hot and moves fast. A mature, leviathan Google may still be very good at what it does and might even manage to remain somewhat nimble, but there's just not going to be as much there to stoke the fire in the belly for people who want to be in the spotlight of what's new, rather than inside the machinery of what's the incumbent.
The horrible things being done in the Middle East shouldn't be called "medieval"
The enemies of liberty and of the individual have a choice and it has nothing to do with the time in which they live. It never has. We always have the choice to turn away from stupidity and brutality, and humans always have.
Show notes - WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 7, 2015
Human-rights group claims 210,000 people are dead due to Syria's civil war
If true, that's a shocking number, and not befitting the 21st Century
China's buttering up Latin America
While international engagement isn't a zero-sum game (for instance, the individual states within the United States are better off because all 50 interrelate with one another), the United States has been ignoring Latin America far too often and too much for too long and we're going to regret the consequences of letting others fill the vacuum of engagement
Nebraska's 2.9% unemployment rate comes with its own troubles
That rate is so low that it's hard to find enough qualified talent
Nobody notices German-Americans anymore
That's because their immigrant heritage has been mostly subsumed into the culture as a whole. It's an observation we should note for interactions with today's immigrant populations, too: Sooner or later, nobody really cares where your family came from. We all become Americans together.
Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - February 8, 2015
New Illinois governor issues executive order to block "fair share" payments to state employee unions
Bruce Rauner has wasted little time in going on the offensive. Given the state of Illinois' finances, some shock and awe on a lot of fronts is likely in order.
The war in Ukraine: Displaced off the front pages, but still very real
Anti-vaccination arguments applied to the brakes on a car
Charge website commenters and leave the articles for free
A stroke of genius, really
Federal law doesn't require encryption of medical data
Des Moines officials propose a new ordinance to accommodate Uber
At first glance, it appears to be a responsive step in the right direction towards recognizing the reality of demand for ride-sharing services and the need for public safety. Most cities with any kind of regulation on for-hire transportation are going to have to come up with a new set of rules, probably much closer to the laissez-faire model of Uber and Lyft than to the heavily-regulated cartel model for cab services. But it really can't be a total free-for-all without serious consequences for public safety and the potential for discrimination. The transparency and accountability driven by the Uber two-way feedback model probably beats the capacity of any metropolitan government to regulate the quality of cab drivers. But there are also some conditions (like insurance requirements) that may reflect a legitimate public interest in health and safety. The key is to ensure that the regulations that are imposed are there in service of legitimate public interest, not solely for the purpose of restraining competition.
What is there to fear about smartwatches in schools?
Certainly there's a knee-jerk reaction against any form of communication technology that could potentially be used to facilitate cheating. But tests aren't really the ultimate objective of schooling, are they? And if they aren't, shouldn't the emphasis really be on the teaching and learning, with matters of how the tests are administered only a secondary issue?
American stereotypes about the regions of America
Midwesterners are "self-reliant". Westerners are "uninhibited".
Most people dream in color
Microsoft's Patch Tuesday for February includes three "critical" updates
Sources are for the birds?
The business pressures on news media have gotten to be such that editor of one newspaper (the Bakersfield Californian) has instructed staff to produce stories based really more the interest of producing something -- whatever it might be -- rather than what appears most newsworthy. This story would be so much less disturbing if it said "Everyone needs to spend one hour on a fresh short-form story each day, on or off your beat. Make it quick, interesting, and newsworthy." The memo as reported by Jim Romenesko just sounds like, "Hey, we heard about this thing called Up-Buzz-Click-Worthy, and we want you to do that instead of reporting."
Twitter says it was asked by governments for user data 40% more often in late 2014
For years, futurists have predicted that some businesses would become rivals to governments, and while many of them hinted that large multi-national corporations would be the subjects, it's actually turned out to be tech companies like Twitter and Google and Facebook that have had the most visible run-ins with government officials. It's hard to blend the interests of those companies with the demands of governments.
Americans are about to get European-style credit cards
Magnetic stripes are to be replaced by chips. It's going to take some time for people to get used to the change, and it's going to cost money to get the new readers installed.
Ten tips for journalists
And with a reasonably open mind, many of the same suggestions apply to other fields as well
Iowa legislators will consider a 75-mph speed limit
Apple's growth rate is limited by its large size
But don't call that the "law of large numbers"
A hotel staffed mostly by robots
They're building it in Japan
Think twice about piling on Brian Williams
There's lots of armchair psychoanalysis being conducted on the NBC News anchor, and he may or may not be the villain that people like Maureen Dowd make him out to be. But when it comes to matters of memory, we should all be cautious: Human memory is pliable, flimsy, fallible, and subject to all kinds of error and manipulation. Nothing should ever be taken on just an eyewitness report. Whether it's on television, in a courtroom, or just in conversation, if you can't find corroborating evidence, you should discount the value of anything you're told by at least 90%. Don't trust eyewitnesses -- only evidence really matters.
Don't lament Jimmy Fallon -- Johnny Carson isn't coming back
A TV critic finds Fallon unfunny. And that he may or may not be; there's no use disputing matters of taste. But if people expect another Johnny Carson, they will never be satisfied -- Carson was a product of a time that is irreversibly gone. He honed his broadcasting skills on the radio first, and then migrated into television -- and there's simply not enough of a farm system left in radio to produce that kind of talent, nor the stomach for experimentation on local television for an entertainer like Carson to be duplicated.
A satirical take on the five habits of highly successful people
When copyright law meets tractor maintenance
Thousands risk their lives to flee as terrorists move in
One can only hope that Westerners stay alert and sympathetic to the plight, even though the names involved are Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Boko Haram. If they were Germany, Poland, Denmark, and Al Qaeda, we most certainly would.
Vint Cerf: "[W]e stand to lose an awful lot of our history" because people rely on digital records
His opinion on this matters because he's one of the original architects of the Internet and is the "Chief Internet Evangelist" at Google. Because of hazards like bit rot and the tendency of old file standards and programs to become obsolete, he says the digital records we keep may prove to be far worse than the printed copies we used to keep as a matter of course.
Post-firebombing Dresden photos merged with life 70 years later
Debate over property taxes in Omaha highlights the state of fraternal groups
America used to have a lot more fraternal groups, and a lot more people who were members of them. It's worth considering whether something has been lost in their decline, and if there's a way to revive the movement.
Crooks take $1 billion from banks in a two-year plot
The "Carbanak" criminal group hit banks around the world, using a variety of techniques, including hacking ATMs to spew out cash and fooling bank employees into clicking on compromised links
An update on the scourge of ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh
Alternative recipies using Nutella
Quick observations on American business
Companies are reporting their results from 2014 overall, and The Economist notes that the American economy remains head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world right now, but energy companies are suffering from low petroleum prices and other companies are running dangerous risks from technological change.
Chicago allows Uber to ride, with lots of added requirements
The city is imposing lots of regulations in the name of public safety, and will conduct "real-time audits" with off-duty police officers
Libya as a gateway for terrorism to enter Europe
A space launch to protect civilization
Some of the existential risks we face justify insurance-like behavior
Yes, KLM tries to return missing items to passengers
...but they don't have an adorable dog to do it
Group wants to install a robotic grocery store in Des Moines
Automation continues to improve the quality of life for many people -- even while it threatens job opportunities for some. It's just like free trade: On balance, very good for most of society, but with concentrated costs for some. We're smart enough and wealthy enough to figure out how to accommodate.
More STEM majors, please -- with liberal-arts training
It's a simple economic proposition: two majors are better than one
Lenovo PCs were sold with "Superfish" adware preloaded at the factory
It's the kind of breach of trust for which the company should pay a stiff price in the marketplace
Walmart promises widespread pay increases
JP Morgan doesn't trust government security protection anymore
It's a symptom of what some futurists have called the post-state era: Private-sector organizations deciding that the work they used to depend upon government to do is now too important to be entrusted to government
Government surveillance means that basically nothing is private online
Spy games are even more pervasive than just about anyone has wanted to acknowledge
Why don't we know more about how to increase productivity?
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen asks a question that more economists should be asking. More of them should be talking about productivity and its essential role in economic well-being.
Apple wants to be building cars by 2020
But a former GM CEO says to find another line of work; cars just aren't a great line of business to be in
Huge Dubai skyscraper fire
A related question: When and how are old skyscrapers supposed to come down?
What happens if Russia turns more aggressive against the Baltic states?
The possibilities are highly alarming
Greece convinces rest of Europe to stretch out the financial aid package
They otherwise would have run out of money next month
What changes minds about tough subjects
Build your own highway sign
One guy did it in Los Angeles -- and got away with it
Asian stock markets suffer the curse of analysts
The problem with many analysts is that they don't know anything useful -- but they're profoundly certain that they do
How Etsy irritated its core craft-producer community
Show notes - WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 21, 2015
Robotic exoskeletons are already helping paralyzed people to walk
Lenovo engages in torturous doublespeak about their spyware scandal
Sure...of course you added adware to computers to "enhance the user experience". Because consumers definitely want that kind of CPU drag.
China doesn't have to be a foe, but don't imagine it's a friend
90 Americans are killed on the road every day
In a rational world, we would be more eager to do something about that than we are to be frightened by word of a terrorist threat against shopping malls. One is a known fact, killing a known number of people, and something which we could be doing more to solve. The other is a threat -- a scary one, yes, but at this stage only a possibility. We need to be rational about the things that get us worked up, otherwise terrorists succeed in disrupting our lives and harming us by just saying wild things, without necessarily doing anything at all. That is the very definition of asymmetry in warfare.
What's wrong with the Superfish vulnerability on Lenovo computers
It (a) changed the search results people got from sources like Google, but more significantly, it (b) made Internet browsers incapable of the kind of secure communication they need to be useful
YouTube for Kids
Parental controls (like a timer and search settings) and bigger buttons (for fat little fingers) are part of the deal, and Google says its scope is "narrowed to focus on content that is appropriate for the whole family". What will be interesting is to watch the inevitable back-and-forth that Google has to play now that it is playing the role of content curator: Someone's going to complain that their content is family-friendly but not recognized as such. Someone else will complain that Google's standards for family-friendliness aren't stringent enough. Someone else will complain that Google is trying to impose some set of unwanted values on families (it'll probably come from showing something like same-sex parenting couples on the "family-friendly" channel, but never doubt the capacity of people to take offense.) Some will think Google's standards are too bold and others will find them too restrictive. It's not really a winning situation for Google to enter -- not when other companies (especially Disney) have owned the notion of "family friendliness" in the psychological space for decades. They'll probably come to regret not outsourcing the curation of content to others, even if the app is a success -- which it quite well may be.
China is not our buddy
The people are certainly as good and fine as they are anywhere else in the world, but the government is not
New regulations mean home water heaters are about to get much bigger
Pebble rolls out new color e-watch -- with a microphone
Dick Tracy, here we come. It's going to retail for $199, but they're offering several thousand via Kickstarter for less than that.
Some students will get into the U of I law school without taking LSATs
From an outside perspective, it looks like a sensible evolution -- why impose a costly testing regime on people whose qualifications are obviously sound? Next step: Making law school (and other programs) more accessible for people who don't feel like dropping everything and enrolling in a residential program for multiple years. We have the technology to do it, just not the will.
Report claims that US and British intelligence agencies hacked the company selling 30% of the worlds SIM cards
That would give them a way to snoop on phone calls and text messages sent via phones using those compromised cards
Reality TV isn't very real
So says a former "Biggest Loser" participant, who thinks the show is contributing to lots of bad decisions among viewers who mistake the fiction for reality
Chicago mayoral race goes to round two
Money doesn't inevitably win elections -- Rahm Emanuel had a much bigger war chest than his opponents, but still couldn't get 50% of the vote. Now it goes to a runoff.
"NATO and Russia hold rival military exercises on Estonian border"
That's a headline that had better wake up the planet
Manipulations of power and privilege
At least on the surface, it appears that United Airlines may have put a route into place just to please the chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has supervisory power over the three major airports in greater New York City. It may be a far lesser kind of extension of privilege to the politically powerful than the apparent plunder of Yemen by its former president for an estimated $60 billion, but both situations derive from the common thread that people will seek power and luxuries, and they'll do it whether the economic system involved is free-market, socialist, communist, or otherwise. It is purely naive to imagine that capitalism is somehow specially susceptible to abuse or that government power isn't always and everywhere at risk of abuse as a tool for enhancing the lifestyles of the politically powerful. In general, the more powerful the government and its ability to regulate, the more likely (and larger) the abuses will be.
The Guardian claims Chicago Police have a "black site" for detentions that exceed legal standards
Chinese online services could be at grave risk
The government is enforcing a policy requiring people to use their real names on social networks, which is a tricky thing to ask in a place where the government doesn't take kindly to dissent
Violent crime is one of Omaha's biggest troubles right now
It's not an especially violent city by any means, but there has been a lot of highly visible violence in recent memory. It's worth asking whether the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Omaha metro is almost entirely under the same municipal government; Des Moines, comparable by almost every measure, seems to have less violent crime -- and it's at least possible that the difference could in part be due to the fact that the Des Moines metro consists of dozens of communities, each of which has a different police force and set of community priorities. It's much harder to differentiate efforts to respond to different problems when everything is under the same municipal government.
Berkshire Hathaway at 50 years under current management
The widely-read annual shareholder letter from Berkshire Hathaway will be released tomorrow morning, and this one is attracting unusual interest because it will be larger and longer than usual, owing to its significance as an anniversary edition. Some speculation as to its contents: ■ Warren Buffett will discuss the type of shareholder he likes. Over its first 50 years, the company's patient, low-turnover shareholder base was a huge benefit to the company. It didn't hurt that Buffett himself controlled, directly or by significant personal influence, enough votes to keep the company doing what he thought was best for the long-term, rather than for a quarterly report. As his shares are converted to less-influential Class B shares and turned over to charity, the voting power of the remaining Class A shareholders will become proportionally greater -- and he undoubtedly hopes they will remain a solid voting bloc in favor of long-term principles. But now that Berkshire is part of the broad S&P 500 index, it has more institutional shareholders than ever, and they categorically fail to show the same kind of long-term vision that individual Berkshire shareholders used to have. The change in the culture of ownership is one of the biggest threats -- probably the biggest of all -- to Berkshire's next 50 years. ■ Charlie Munger will ponder the merit and virtues of the next generation of managers. He quite likely worries a lot about the risk of future generations of managers lacking the kinds of virtues and rationality that he so publicly espouses on behalf of the company and the culture at large. More so than Buffett, Munger tends to worry about the dark side of human nature and its tendency to do things like hoarding the perquisites of office. Munger will almost undoubtedly discuss how hard (and vitally important) it will be to recruit and keep managers who live up to exceptional moral standards. This will undoubtedly be extra-difficult in light of Berkshire's size: The larger it gets, the more likely it is to turn to the professional managerial class rather than the owner/operator/proprietor/entrepreneur class who have historically dominated Berkshire's management roster. ■ Breakup speculation is hilariously wrong. Some analysts, apparently incapable of seeing the most obvious things right in front of them, think the company may drift over time towards a breakup from its conglomerate status. It's a ridiculous guess for two reasons: First, the obvious evidence, which includes the use of the Berkshire parent company name over the company's media holdings, real-estate enterprise, automotive dealerships, and energy companies. (A company planning a spinoff of those interests or any others wouldn't double-down on the use of the brand name like never before.) Second, the considerable benefit the company gains from its position as a buyer of choice for sellers who don't want their heirloom businesses to be broken up or sold off. That reputation gets Berkshire deals that it wouldn't get otherwise, and whatever costs it pays by holding on to lesser-performing subsidiaries for "too long" by Wall Street standards, it makes up many times over by burnishing the company's reputation and standing as a buyer. ■ The cost of capital weighs heavily on the present, but that won't last. The company's low cost of capital (driven mainly by float developed by its insurance subsidiaries), historically a huge advantage, hasn't been much help over the last several years as the Federal Reserve has pushed borrowing prices to near-zero. That's been compounded by the fact that terrible markets for investments like bonds have pushed lots of capital into stock markets and private-equity investments, which has made it more expensive than usual for Berkshire to find good deals on common stocks and whole companies to buy. But that won't last forever -- rates will someday go up, and Berkshire's huge capacity to generate cash (now from operating subsidiaries in addition to the insurance float) will at some point in the foreseeable future become a huge advantage again. Anyone who barks about wanting a big dividend from the cash-rich Berkshire isn't seeing the long-term future -- that cash may not be doing much today, but the time will come again in the course of another boom/bust cycle when the company will be able to put huge amounts of money to work for eye-popping returns.
US government intelligence review says cyberattack is a bigger threat than terrorism
And it calls out Russia as a particular source of trouble, both from state action and from "unspecified" aggressors. Falling oil prices play a part.
Google unveils 225-page plan for Mountain View headquarters
They propose lots of public access to spaces in and around their campus, which would also include buildings designed to transform and re-shape themselves with the help of robotics. Some of the structures would be encased in a flexible glass-like skin.
The FCC's version of "net neutrality"
Companies will be prohibited from favoring some traffic over others, and basically will serve to regulate Internet access like a public utility, like landline telephone service. The problem is that most places don't have a lot of options for broadband Internet access right now, so we pay too much and get far too little speed compared to what's offered in other rich countries. And some of the incumbent providers have been bullies, creeps, and just all-out jerks to their customers. Lots of people really, really hate Comcast and Time Warner. But the hazard here is that the regulation that people want to impose on those companies (perhaps to prevent them from misbehaving) may also have the effect of entrenching the interests of those companies that are already large. That's usually the outcome of additional regulation -- to further consolidate the interests of the incumbents, even if they bristle at the regulation itself. And they're definitely not happy -- Verizon posted a protest message in Morse code (with a translation that looks like a 1950s typewritten memo, fretting about the FCC's move to "adopt 300-plus pages of broad and open-ended regulatory arcana". And that's the problem: Some sort of rulemaking power may have been necessary to prevent anticompetitive abuses by Internet service providers, given that there are so few of them today. But the sledgehammer approach adopted by the divided FCC commissioners (who voted 3-2) is very likely to make it hard for new entrants to get into the business and introduce the competition that consumers really want after all.
Google is putting $300 million into a fund to build residential solar power
It's part of a $750 million fund being spun up by a company called SolarCity that provides solar power as a service rather than a homeowner investment. Google gets tax breaks and good publicity out of the deal. This follows an $848 million investment in solar power by Apple earlier this month. Considering that energy is one of the very top expenses for companies like Apple and Google, it's no surprise they're actively interested in the market. That, and it's difficult for both companies to find other ways to invest internally for good returns. The successes of the past for both companies are exactly zero guarantee of future profits.
Hedge-fund manager is starting a unit to be run by artificial intelligence
Bloomberg says that Bridgewater Associates will use trading algorithms run by computers that are supposed to learn and evolve. It's smart to create and follow rational guidelines (or rules, or in a computing sense, codes) -- but it's also important to have human comprehension about why those rules are in place and when it makes sense to override them. There's a reason we say "the exception that proves the rule". Artificial intelligence may be helpful at identifying opportunity and could certainly be used as an enhancement for lots of decisions (including financial ones, just like it can enhance medical and engineering decisions), but this kind of gambit tends to get out of hand quickly in the financial world. LTCM collapsed while being run by some of the smartest people in money.
Fixing some colorblindness with special glasses
American Meteorological Society deserves credit for consistency of principles
The group is criticizing the efforts of a Democratic member of Congress to witch-hunt some university researchers who have been prominent skeptics about climate change. The group, while predominantly composed of people who tend to believe that humans have played at least some role in causing climate change, is standing on the principle that political witch-hunts have a "chilling" effect on research. Good for them. It's easy to say we would stand up for the rights of those with whom we disagree; it's another thing to actually do it.
Show notes - WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 28, 2015
Streaming live on WHORadio.com at 1:00 Central Time
Good reason to hold your applause on the FCC's net-neutrality ruling
The Omaha World-Herald puts it well: "Few will know the real costs of net neutrality rules until the FCC makes public the more than 300-page regulation that it passed without releasing the document first to the public."