Gongol.com Archives: September 2015

Brian Gongol

September 2015
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September 1, 2015

Computers and the Internet Russia and China are building databases of data stolen from American computers
A vast repository of spies and subjects is being created, it would appear

Computers and the Internet Behold the new Google logo
A triumph of over-simplification. Where's the energy in the new look? Wholly dull, milquetoast, and uninspiring.

Business and Finance The NLRB may have gone too far

Broadcasting KCRG-TV is no longer independently owned
The Gazette Co. is selling off the standalone station

Computers and the Internet LinkedIn is rolling out a new messaging service

Recent radio podcasts

September 2, 2015

Threats and Hazards It's time to be clear about the shocking magnitude of the Syrian humanitarian disaster
2,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this summer. If six Boeing 747 jumbo jets had crashed this summer, we'd be paying attention to the problem. But somehow this story is falling through the cracks. And it's not a single disaster featuring 2,500 casualties -- it's 2,500 individual calamities, including two involving innocent little boys who drowned on a Turkish beach. The pictures are absolutely heart-wrenching. But the reality is even worse. Millions of people are trying to flee ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh and a criminal government in Syria. Where is our humanity?

Business and Finance A rise in productivity
0.7% from year to year, according to the BLS. That's better than zero, but not by much.

Threats and Hazards An extremely troubling police shooting

Business and Finance The trouble with chart-watching
People who look to predict the future of business by the movements of stock prices are playing financial astrology

Humor and Good News Cartoons should be funny, not tepid

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September 3, 2015

News A mass crisis, summed up in one little person's tragedy
If your reaction to the death of a child who drowned while trying to escape Syria is anything but heartbreak, you need to readjust your thinking

News Why Europe has so many refugees trying to get in
Human-caused disasters in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Northern Africa are leaving tens of thousands on the run

Science and Technology The near-term outlook for electric cars
They're coming soon to a mass market

Business and Finance Why Berkshire Hathaway reinvests all of its profits at MidAmerican
A guaranteed 11% return on equity is a huge incentive to reinvest. That's contributed heavily to Iowa's wind-generation boom.

Business and Finance Where are America's STEM jobs, and how much do they pay?

Recent radio podcasts

September 5, 2015

Business and Finance Startups are wildly overrated
Fortune: "The companies in the US that have a high impact on job growth aren't newest firms -- they're companies that are at least 15 to 20 years old on average"

Socialism Doesn't Work Unchecked authoritarianism sends people to labor camp for watching a DVD

Weather and Disasters Why Miami isn't ready for another hurricane
Low elevation, high population density and growth, and porous bedrock

Humor and Good News Barenaked Ladies cover of "In the Air Tonight"

Humor and Good News The Cubs are at last consistently fun to watch
(Video) Cubs fans have waited far too long to get players who crush grand slams

Recent radio podcasts

September 6, 2015

Threats and Hazards Perverse incentives can deliver despicable results
In China, "It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure" because the incentives are on the side of killing a pedestrian rather than causing injury. The costs of burial are less than the costs of compensating the injured person for their medical care. Always look to the incentives created by laws, rules, culture, and other systems to anticipate the likely outcomes or to explain ones that seem perverse.

Computers and the Internet The new Google logo
There are things that the new "identity" does well, but the logo itself is nothing impressive

Computers and the Internet Facebook Messenger is now the number-two app on US smartphones
Only the Facebook application itself is more widely used. Forcing people off the messaging service built into the broader Facebook app and into the dedicated service certainly gave them another product to tout -- though it doesn't necessarily mean they have any broader total reach than before.

News A thoughtful angle on the Syrian refugee situation
People are escaping war by boat and on foot. Pope Francis has gone so far as to implore every Catholic parish in Europe to take in a refugee family.

News One-paragraph book review: "Devils on the Deep Blue Sea"

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September 7, 2015

Business and Finance When publicly-funded arenas go bad
Nobody should be surprised when they don't pay for themselves

News Tips for personal productivity

News Phrases to use with children to develop their resilience

Socialism Doesn't Work Paul Krugman and Donald Trump agree on bad economics
Krugman thinks that government intervention has reduced the unemployment rate and sees a kindred spirit in Trump. Both believe far too much in their own hype.

News UK to accept 20,000 refugees from Syria
The situation is at historic proportions. Germany is taking 31,000 and France will take in 24,000.

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September 8, 2015

Computers and the Internet Facebook changes its "Pages" service to try appealing to small businesses
No doubt this will spur Google to try to promote more heavily its services in the same market

Humor and Good News Cubs manager Joe Maddon on goal-setting

News Why you should donate instead of feigning outrage over a dead lion
The work of the African Wildlife Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for the people of Africa -- and thus by improving their economic prospects, reducing the incentive to do things like killing lions illegally. Taking care of people can also mean taking care of wildlife.

Business and Finance China has a lot of debt, but not in excess of assets
Interesting note: For all the talk about the tough times in China's stock market, stocks are only about 2% of household assets there.

Iowa Meredith and Media General will merge
And thus another Des Moines institution gives way to someplace larger

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September 9, 2015

Business and Finance Department of Labor proposes radical expansion of overtime eligibility
Anyone making $50,440 a year or less could not be exempted from receiving overtime pay. As always, the law of unintended consequences will rear its ugly head if this is implemented -- employers are terrified of a massive increase in overtime liability, so they might just end up hiring more part-timers or temporary workers instead of giving additional work to their existing employees. And don't be surprised if a massive wave of lawsuits ensues if the rules actually go into place. As has been too often the case with this administration, good intentions are advanced with little or no acknowledgment of economic reality, which will actually make it very likely that the people whom the government wants to "help" would actually find themselves penalized. Unintended consequences are very real, even if the people making the decisions think they're smarter than everyone else.

Computers and the Internet Federal government plans to indict hackers from China

Computers and the Internet Why the government wants access to your text messages

Aviation News British Airways plane catches fire in Las Vegas

News One-paragraph book review: "Kaizen: The key to Japan's competitive success"

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September 10, 2015

News President Obama wants 10,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted to the US in the next fiscal year
We could probably handle many more than that -- and morally, we probably should

Business and Finance Nobody wants to be around for a hard landing of China's economy
But don't be surprised if there's some serious pain as the laws of economic physics come to bear on the fast-growing market. Despite the rapid growth rates that have been achieved there, when China's premier says things like "we need to take targeted measures to resist downward pressure on the economy at the same time we need to build momentum for sustainable and healthy economic growth", he's only saying things that sound superficially good. The truth of the matter is that when politicians think they have the kind of power that the central government in China imagines that it has over economic growth, then they're only kidding themselves. The only thing a government can really do is remove impediments to growth by encouraging free markets and the rule of law, while reserving their interventions for those limited cases in which the market fails miserably. But that's not what the Chinese government is trying to do -- they're trying to keep up a specific rate of growth while exercising all kinds of measures to manipulate outcomes, like trying to prop up the stock market, micro-manage the currency exchange rate, and keep control of the "commanding heights" of the economy through state ownership of enterprises. That kind of stuff can work in the short term to kick-start growth -- authoritarian measures seem to have done well in small economies like South Korea and Singapore, but only for a limited time. The hangover that inevitably results once the economy grows beyond the reasonable capabilities of the government to manipulate (and China's economy is far beyond that point) is terribly painful (remember the Asian financial crisis at the turn of the century?). If you had $1,000 to invest right now (or even $1,000,000), you would stand much better odds for the next 25 years by investing in an index of the American market rather than an index of the Chinese market. A command economy (or even a mixed one) can only grow for so long before the inevitable inefficiencies, human errors, and pricing distortions catch up with the system and whack it in the kneecaps.

Computers and the Internet Apple to make iOS 9 available as a free update on September 16
The company also announced the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (coming at the end of the month), a new Apple TV, and an $800 iPad with a $100 stylus.

Iowa Enrollment and lots of other figures rising nicely at UNI

Business and Finance The visibility of economic inequality may actually make people behave badly

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September 11, 2015

Business and Finance Asking economists to forecast recessions is an exercise in hilarity
Knowing that something is likely to occur is one thing. Betting on when it will happen is a huge mistake. Brilliant people with lots of their own money on the line have lost big by trying to guess economic cycles. That's because it's not a rational process -- it's very much an outcome driven by human psychology.

Science and Technology Ten automakers agree to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature
This is how the self-piloted car is going to come about -- not in one big revolution, but in iterative improvements to our safety. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo are all committed. The schedule is yet to be finalized between the automakers and the US Department of Transportation.

Threats and Hazards Fairfield police were "lawful" in using deadly force
Two officers fired on a car when the driver tried to run over one of them. Anyone who has the intention of running over a police officer deserves to get shot (at least karmically). However, the fact there were two other people in the car, including a juvenile -- compounded by the fact the police DIDN'T HIT THEIR MARK -- should be deeply troubling. If you can't hit your target, DON'T SHOOT. If they missed their mark, they could just as easily have hit one of the passengers. What if they had killed the kid?

Aviation News The guy who ruined air travel last fall gets a dozen years in prison
He cut cables and lit a fire at the air-traffic control facility serving Chicago before he tried to kill himself. He lived and the facility was badly damaged. Prosecutors said $100 million in losses resulted.

Computers and the Internet Is it real or is it Photoshop?
A 25-picture test

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September 12, 2015

Business and Finance What share China consumes of some of the world's major products

Health New cancer research suggests chasing the type of mutation, not the site of the tumor in the body

Business and Finance Goldman Sachs thinks $20-a-barrel oil could happen

News Far-left-winger wins leadership election for the UK Labour Party

News Why some teenagers make jokes about 9/11

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September 13, 2015

Iowa Does it matter that Iowa is losing a home-grown company?
Meredith says it will retain its presence in Des Moines even after its acquisition by Media General. But promises are easy to make. As always, the best way not to lose control of something is to keep ownership of it. Maybe local ownership matters, maybe it doesn't. Some companies would be better off under management by others; some companies get ruined by a merger or acquisition.

Computers and the Internet A basic understanding of technology should really be a prerequisite for holding high office in 2015
The Hillary Clinton e-mail server story is an example of exactly why technological illiteracy is hazardous, especially when it involves high-level government officials. For instance: After months of protesting that the server had been "wiped", the Clinton camp is now backtracking and saying they don't know what "wiped" really means, and their service provider says they only deleted the files. There's a big difference between "deleted" and "wiped", and it's the kind of distinction a person should know before trying to use technical jargon to sound sophisticated -- or before taking part in any kind of lawmaking process in which it would matter to know the difference. We need literate, numerate, and technologically literate people in high office. If you can't understand the scope of a problem, you're never going to find an adequate solution.

News There's a talent
Miss Colorado skipped the conventional light entertainment routine (singing, dancing, and so on) to talk about being a nurse in the Miss America contest.

Business and Finance A large crowd of men ages 25 to 54 has dropped out of the workforce
That could pose a long-term hazard to growth, as well as to political and social stability

Threats and Hazards The terrorism threat remains

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September 15, 2015

Science and Technology Intel won't sponsor Science Talent Search anymore

Science and Technology An interesting history of color

Business and Finance Those who save 15% of their income

Aviation News How likely is your flight to be on time?
A deep and interactive analysis by 538

Business and Finance An expanded alliance between Toyota and BMW is under consideration
In a lot of ways, the main cost a company has to face in many endeavors is that of "tuition" to learn about whatever it's doing. Some companies buy out others to pay that de facto tuition, while others spend on research and development. One of the more interesting approaches (and one that isn't used as widely as one might expect) is the joint venture.

Recent radio podcasts

September 16, 2015

The United States of America Some women who belong on US currency

Threats and Hazards Journalist: "Stop blaming the media for Donald Trump"
But there are at least two things wrong with that analysis: First, Donald Trump is a monster that is entirely the creation of a star-struck media complex. He has been since at least the 1980s. He can easily seem like a big deal to people in New York City, and that's where much of the nation's media narrative is driven. They mistake his chutzpah for actual success, and fawn over him like teenagers at a rock concert. (The truly, truly successful businesspeople typically avoid ostentation and excess attention to their work because they benefit from a subtle touch. Trump is nothing but a hype man.) The second problem is that the level of deference to Trump exhibited by some journalists is excessive to the point of irresponsibility. Unfortunately, most journalists aren't also business majors -- so they don't really know what questions to ask about what really matters. But because Trump can't stop telling them that he's "really rich", those who aren't sophisticated enough to objectively evaluate his claims are at high risk of falling for the (self-serving) legend.

Threats and Hazards Another civil war that deserves attention
Syria isn't the only place with strife, civilians on the run, and terrible atrocities taking place. Burundi is in a similar predicament.

Business and Finance A flywheel for oil production
Prices are low, so oil drillers aren't thrilled -- but they can't exactly shut down, because most producers have to rely on maintaining cash flow to service their debts and keep from going broke. Stopping production altogether is a non-option. Even when production actually costs them money, some will keep going because the costs of shutting down are so high. So now they're storing oil in tanks on St. Lucia, awaiting a day with higher prices.

Business and Finance AB InBev wants to buy out SABMiller
That's a lot of beer

Computers and the Internet Facebook wants in on that virtual-assistant action
"Facebook M" looks like it's out to compete with Apple's Siri and Google Now and Microsoft Cortana

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September 17, 2015

Business and Finance No change in interest rates, decides the Federal Reserve
This tightrope walk -- deciding when to reverse course on a positively stunning expansion of the money supply but not doing so before there's actual inflation to counteract. Money still isn't moving. And it seems like the Fed sees it that way, too.

Computers and the Internet Amazon is pushing a new $99 Amazon Fire TV box
Undoubtedly seeking to steal thunder from Apple TV. Oh, and now they're dropping the price of the 7" color-screen Kindle Fire with WiFi and 8 Gb of storage to $49. It might be noted that the regular Kindle is $79.

Computers and the Internet Twitter claims it reaches more people than Facebook does
A stretch, to be sure.

News GM will pay $900 million in settlement over faulty cars
They had ignition switches that could shut down while a car was running.

News Dog saves drowning boy, then gets help
Your cat wouldn't do that

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September 18, 2015

News What happens when a library goes bad?
Omaha is dealing with what appears to be a serious erosion in conditions at its downtown library. The reports suggest it's become less a place for people to read and learn in peace and more a site for society to temporarily dump off some undesirable characters. Libraries are such an essential part of culture that it's tragic to watch when they aren't able or willing to remain vibrant. Some real changes in the way libraries work, reach out to the community, and see their scope of responsibility have been foisted upon them by outside conditions. But those same conditions -- mainly technological changes -- actually make good libraries more important than ever, to serve as a free public resource to those who might not otherwise have the means to improve themselves.

Business and Finance The cab-versus-ridesharing war in Chicago escalates
The mayor wants the ride-sharing services (like Uber and Lyft) to be able to pick up passengers at the convention center and airports (which they can't officially do now). But the plan would also grant a 15% fare increase to taxi drivers. Add in a bunch of new surcharges the city wants to assess from both classes of rides-for-hire, and you're looking at a pretty combustible situation. Cab owners and drivers don't want their franchise eroded, but it's hard to see how they can keep standing forever without massive reforms to the business model. If you only make money because someone else is statutorily prohibited from competing with you, that's rent-seeking.

News EPA orders 482,000 diesel Volkswagens to be recalled
The agency says their emissions-control systems were programmed to function at full capacity only when being tested, not when actually on the road

Business and Finance What to do with a loony economy
Canada's three largest political parties just held a debate on economics. The country is in an interesting situation: It's already a well-developed, highly advanced economy, but it's also been the beneficiary of a huge resource bonanza. That's really unusual: Canada only really entered the resource boom in the last generation, as a mature economy that didn't really need the money. Other countries with similar resource endowments (Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, among others) never developed economies independent of their resources. That puts Canada in a truly blessed state, if they're smart enough to use it well -- but it's extremely hard to do so, as that requires striking a balance between enjoying the benefits today and putting off that enjoyment by reinvesting elsewhere and/or holding off on using up the resources too quickly. That may be easier in countries like Norway, where a very specific set of conditions exist that permit a highly socialized economy to work out. Canada is not as homogenous as Scandanavia, so it's very hard to get the same kind of cultural consensus built around making long-term decisions. That's no criticism of Canada; it's just what exists.

Aviation News Another hint at the flying-car future
For $200,000, you can get an amphibious airplane that you can stash in your garage. It's a light-sport aircraft, so it's meant to be easy to operate (the training time is half that for a regular aircraft). The wings fold, so it can be mounted on a trailer the width of a regular car, and the Icon A5 has a range of 450 miles on 20 gallons of regular unleaded gas. It has landing gear, too, so you aren't just tied to landing on water. But despite the 1,500 preorders already on the books, one has to wonder whether we're really going to see personal aircraft ever take off (pardon the pun). Even 20 hours of training is too daunting an obstacle for a huge portion of the population. A betting person might wager instead on the prospects for autonomous electric-powered aircraft that could carry about half a dozen passengers. Electric, because that would make them quieter, more reliable, and less polluting than engine-driven aircraft. Autonomous, because computers are already quite capable of autopiloting every stage of flight already (so why bother training people to do it?). And sized for enough passengers (probably 6 to 10) to make it profitable for someone to own and operate the aircraft as a service to go between secondary markets that are well below the demand sizes necessary to justify regular scheduled commercial aircraft. But if people knew there were flights taking off every 60 minutes between, for instance, Des Moines and Kansas City, then a scheduled air-bus-like service could be economically attractive.

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September 19, 2015

Computers and the Internet HP will cut an additional 30,000 jobs as it splits in two
That's on top of 55,000 other job cuts that were already expected.

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September 20, 2015

The United States of America How the US DOT sees "megaregions" emerging in the coming decades

Threats and Hazards Hong Kong should worry about 2047
That's when the "one country, two systems" policy expires with China. But any reasonable observer would have cause to wonder whether that expiration date won't find itself radically revised closer to today. And when prospective candidates for office are out advising people to "prove" that Hong Kong is "here to contribute to the country, and not to make trouble", that should itself be a cause for worry.

Science and Technology Some predictions about your future dining experiences

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September 28, 2015

Computers and the Internet FTC investigating anti-competitive behavior by Google in the Android market

Computers and the Internet Pebble rolls out "Pebble Time Round" for $250
A new entry in the smartwatch market

Threats and Hazards Hundreds killed in Mecca stampede

Broadcasting How radio has gone video

Threats and Hazards Chinese copycat behavior is so bad, it even includes the F-35


September 29, 2015

The United States of America Speaker Boehner is stepping down

Science and Technology Is Apple really going through with its silly plan to build cars?

Business and Finance Profits of Chinese industrial companies fall by almost 10% year-over-year

Business and Finance US personal savings rate: 4.6%

Computers and the Internet German Chancellor Angela Merkel pokes Mark Zuckerberg over hate posts on Facebook

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September 30, 2015

Threats and Hazards There are two terrible forces destroying lives in Syria
Both ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh and the Assad government are purveyors of death

Computers and the Internet Apple claims 13 million new iPhones sold on opening weekend

Computers and the Internet You cannot escape Facebook ads

Computers and the Internet Google claims "How to" searches on YouTube are growing by 70% per year
Fun fact: Not everything is best explained with a video

Business and Finance There just aren't many options left for central banks
God save us if there's a major economic contraction

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