Gongol.com Archives: February 2016

Brian Gongol


February 2016
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February 2, 2016

News North Korea claims to be planning a space launch

Never forget that the foundations of all rocket-based space travel are shared with the foundations for intercontinental ballistic missiles. On a related note, China has just released some photos from the Moon.

Science and Technology A $40,000 exoskeleton

Technology may not be able to biologically solve paralysis yet, but it may be able to give people adequate workarounds

Threats and Hazards ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh claims it's building an "army of the poor"

There's no doubt that poverty and a sense of helplessness can incline some people towards extremism. Strategic global thinking would seek to eliminate the worst of poverty in order to choke off the flow of raw material (that is, frustrated people) to extremist movements.

Computers and the Internet Yahoo tightens its belt with a 15% staff cut

That's no small change -- more than one person in every seven will be let go. The company's press release on the matter calls it "sharpening focus", but digging deeper they claim that they expect to save $400 million a year with the smaller staff.

News The Iowa Caucuses

(Video) In hilarious Taiwanimation

Computers and the Internet The FCC worries about a persistent digital shortfall in rural areas

High-speed broadband Internet access just isn't finding its way into sparsely-populated areas, and that could end up permanently crippling rural areas.


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February 3, 2016

Threats and Hazards 10,000 refugee children have gone missing in Europe

Computers and the Internet People care about what's been "taken" from them

Microsoft's decision to reduce the amount of free storage space offered through OneDrive is making people mad. But it's still a free product!

Computers and the Internet Comcast to start charging extra to high-bandwidth broadband users

Business and Finance Harley-Davidson reliability means the used market is flooded

While that may be making it hard for Harley to sell new motorcycles, it's also a sign they need to find other, related things to produce

Computers and the Internet Facebook wants to take a shot at Twitter

People have adapted their usage patterns for the two services to accommodate their relative strengths and weaknesses -- so while Twitter is fiscally vulnerable, it seems less vulnerable technologically

Computers and the Internet China's biggest banks are profiting from spam


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February 4, 2016

Computers and the Internet Google parent company Alphabet announces earnings

Alphabet had $75 billion in revenues in 2015, with $67 billion of that coming from advertising. Only $448 million in revenues came from "other bets" -- their category for Calico, Google Fiber, Google Ventures, Google X, and Nest -- and that category lost $3.5 billion. Turns out, it's expensive to lay that much fiber-optic cable. Why they don't just buy proven, profitable businesses and find ways to make them more profitable is a mystery. The "science projects" are sexy and headline-grabbing, but from an investment perspective, there may be smarter choices to be made.

Business and Finance Many people don't understand their student loans

Literacy comes in many forms: Conventional literacy with the written word, of course, but also numeracy...and functional literacy with science, technology, and economics. If we're sending 18-year-olds out into the world with high-school diplomas and not adequately preparing them for those "other" literacies, then we're in trouble.

News Psychographics are influencing the 2016 election

Senator Ted Cruz may be making the most progress with them thus far...to the detriment of the health of the Republican Party.

Computers and the Internet Now Yahoo may be reconsidering putting itself up for sale

Verizon is being kicked around as a possible buyer

Computers and the Internet NSA worries that quantum computers will overwhelm security

And for what it's worth, they're not just a security issue. Massive changes in computing capacity and strategy could easily overturn some big business models -- like, for instance, Google's.

Business and Finance Toyota to shut down the Scion brand

The cars will simply become Toyotas


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February 5, 2016

Threats and Hazards Deficits need to return to the public debate

If we don't reverse the direction of public budgeting, the country's going to pay in the not-so-distant future. Interest rates at all-time lows are simply buying us a short-term cushion from the pain.

Computers and the Internet Twitter shuts down 125,000 accounts for promoting terrorism

They claim most were supporting ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh. The suspensions aren't necessarily a perfect idea -- there's reason to believe that by casting terrorist supporters off Twitter, the mainstream may be chasing them to places that are harder to watch. There's quite often more to the story when it comes to cyberwarfare.

The United States of America Republican governor of Massachussetts: Cruz and Trump are unfit to serve

Indisputably true

Business and Finance White House proposes $10 per barrel oil tax

And that's how you know it's nothing more than a stunt -- not a serious proposal. At $2 or $3 a barrel, directed specifically at subsidizing a next-generation energy future, virtually nobody could object. At $5 a barrel, it would be a tough sale, but might stand a chance given the right trade-offs. At $10 a barrel (when oil is barely above $30 a barrel), it's a punitive tax. Where they could easily have grabbed low-hanging fruit, the administration instead picks an unproductive fight.

Business and Finance Chinese-led group buying the Chicago Stock Exchange

And the great asset sell-off continues

Threats and Hazards Mogadishu flight incident was probably a bomb

Smuggled, possibly, on the person of a bomber posing as someone confined to a wheelchair


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February 6, 2016

News Europe's cohesion threatened by refugee crisis

The human toll of the crisis in Syria and surrounding environs is of the greatest magnitude. Dealing with it humanely is a moral imperative. Failing to deal with it assertively could be politically fatal to the EU itself.

News Is the Republican Party undergoing a fundamental realignment?

Parties don't break apart or collapse all that often -- but it does happen from time to time

Humor and Good News Why some people just have that angry look about them

The scientific origins of "RBF"

Iowa Polk County promises $30 million for convention-center hotel

News Chicago's two major newspapers are under common ownership

The majority owner of the Chicago Sun-Times now is the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, too

Computers and the Internet Cyberwarfare is a bigger threat than terrorism

And Sen. John McCain wants Silicon Valley to enlist.


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February 7, 2016

Business and Finance The world is awash in bad lending

Super-cheap borrowing has created a perilous situation

Business and Finance Consumer confidence in Nebraska is low

The economy may not be in recession, but there are plenty of warning signs that things aren't good

Threats and Hazards ISIS crucifies people on advertising billboards

Barbarity with no bounds

Threats and Hazards Cyber breach at tax-preparation company

Targets of opportunity

Threats and Hazards The difference between a space launch and a missile test?

It's not obvious. Except when it's being conducted by an authoritarian regime. Then it's pretty obvious what's up.


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February 8, 2016

News Understand the refugee crisis

This is one of the most significant events in a generation, and reading just one article from The Economist will leave you with a sensible understanding of the situation. In an election year, it's not too much to ask.

Business and Finance Xiaomi says no mobile phone sales to the US

The dynamics of mobile-phone manufacturing collide with international relations

News Proposed $10-per-barrel oil tax is nothing to sneeze at

The Obama Administration's proposed oil tax is huge -- a 30% tax or more. Anyone who thinks the oil companies will simply absorb that kind of tax on their own without passing it along is either delusional or ignorant. The party that cuts the check isn't necessarily the one that pays the price.

Business and Finance Running Google is worth $200 million in stock, apparently

$199 million in stock is a huge amount for Alphabet to pay the CEO running Google. For perspective, the US spent about half that amount chasing loose nuclear fuel from Russia about a decade ago.

Threats and Hazards Refugees are still drowning

Almost 400 have died trying to get out of Syria, Iraq, and other troubled places so far this year. These are human lives -- and they're dying in numbers that are on a scale that would shock the world if these were plane crashes. If a Boeing 747 crashed with 400 souls aboard, it would dominate the news. The story is no less significant when it occurs in a slow drip. Refugee lives are just as valuable as everyone else's.


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February 9, 2016

Threats and Hazards The Director of National Intelligence worries most about homegrown terrorists

As rightly he should -- they don't have to pass through borders and aren't subject to the kind of scrutiny we can place on known foreign terrorists. And it should also be noted that domestic terrorists can come from any racial, ethnic, or religious background and have a wide variety of political motivations. Terrorism is a method, not a philosophy.

News Obama Administration proposes $4 trillion Federal budget with deficit amounting to 3.3% of GDP

A deficit smaller than the rate of real growth in the economy can be sustainable -- 3.3% is absolutely not

Computers and the Internet Now it's the SecDef under scrutiny for personal e-mail use

Senator Chuck Grassley, acting as Judiciary Chair, sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense asking for clarifications on his use of personal e-mail to conduct Defense Department business. As a country, we are way behind the curve on getting to grips with making sure our leadership has the right access to secure means of communications wherever they need it.

Iowa MidAmerican will get 57% of retail electric load from wind next year

Iowa is way ahead of the pack when it comes to wind-energy generation

Science and Technology Using Xbox technology to make reliable assessments of MS

Kinect can measure with more accuracy than human beings can observe

Computers and the Internet $3.1 billion cybersecurity revolving fund proposed

A loan program for Federal agencies to upgrade their IT infrastructure


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February 10, 2016

Socialism Doesn't Work Now they're just making up numbers for fun

A pro-Sanders economist claims that imposing socialist policies along the lines proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders would result in economic growth rates of 5.3% a year. That's truly just making it up as they go along. The United States hasn't been anywhere near that kind of a sustained growth rate for a long, long time. Are there things that could be done to raise the rate of growth? Absolutely. Could we raise it up to a real rate of 4% or 5%? Maybe, though it would require sustained improvements in worker productivity that are much larger than what we've been able to do for a while. Is there any chance on God's green Earth that those kinds of growth rates could be produced by imposing massive new government taxing and spending? No. Absolutely not. Massive new deficit spending plus massive new taxation of the types touted by Sanders are a recipe for much higher interest rates on the nation's debt (remember -- just like households, nations pay higher interest rates when it looks like they're over-stretching their capacity to pay their debts). Moreover, beware any plan that claims to deliver high rates of growth without explaining what path the private sector will take to those higher rates. Just spending a lot of money isn't the same thing as growing the economy -- any more than a person becomes rich by running up a huge credit-card bill. Economics can't be run via myth and fantasy.

Computers and the Internet Google pushes "AMP" project to keep people off Facebook and other rivals

Google has a vested interest in people staying on WWW pages, not within "walled gardens" like the Facebook app. So, acknowledging that people are doing a lot of their Internet use from mobile devices, Google is pushing its "Accelerated Mobile Pages" project to encourage fast website delivery using their tools.

Science and Technology NHTSA takes step towards accepting self-driving cars

In a letter to Google, the agency basically agreed to call the self-piloting system a "driver", equivalent to a human driver. Ultimately, the less humans control about our cars the better. Everyone thinks they're better than average behind the wheel -- but the almost 10% increase in traffic deaths in the first 9 months of 2015 and the fact that humans are responsible for well over 90% of crashes suggests otherwise. We are the weak link in the chain.

Iowa Iowa state treasurer wants a state-run retirement program for private-sector workers

In theory, an attractive idea. Private accounts for retirement savings are in general a favorable goal. But the idea should be taken with a lot of caution -- Iowa's existing state-run retirement program for public-sector workers is already under strain: According to its own annual report, IPERS is about 15% under-funded right now. The idea is worth further examination, for sure, but caution is definitely in order.

Computers and the Internet Senate committee approves bill requiring White House to prepare social-media anti-terrorism strategy

A companion bill made its way through a House committee. Now the two need to be approved by the full Senate and House.


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February 11, 2016

Science and Technology Tesla to hit regular-car prices with an electric vehicle

Tesla's strategy of aiming for the high-end market first certainly looks wise; they were able to turn electric cars into an aspirational item while spending whatever they needed to spend in order to make the cars work. Now, they can take what they learned and move it down-market.

Computers and the Internet Flash drives for freedom

Smuggling entertainment content into North Korea via USB drives may be a powerful way to undermine a criminally authoritarian regime -- one that just executed its army's chief of staff

Computers and the Internet Twitter to offer an algorithmic news feed

A strange take on what makes Twitter special. Some users are not amused by the idea. Meanwhile, the company is having trouble attracting new users. It may simply be at its saturation point.

Business and Finance Are interest rates persistently low because of demographics?

A Canadian think tank proposes that possibility

News A ceasefire for Syria?

In a week, according to an international agreement. If true, it could be great news.


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February 12, 2016

Computers and the Internet An incomplete cybersecurity strategy

We can't win cyberwarfare by accident

Iowa Banning holiday exchanges in schools?

Sure, you want to avoid hurt feelings or undue burdens. But you also can't escape the corrosive effect on social cohesion and trust when we nix everything always instead of finding workarounds. There are real costs, even though they're hidden.

Computers and the Internet India bans Facebook's "Free Basics"

Reasonable people don't want to see anyone cheat their way into dominance of the Internet, but banning Facebook's offerings in the name of "net neutrality" seems like it goes too far

News British newspaper "The Independent" to cease print publication soon

Times are brutal for newspapers everywhere

News Turkey threatens to flood Europe with refugees

It's probably just a threat -- doing so would probably nuke their chances of joining the EU, but the situation has to be taken seriously. Turkey is dealing with more than 2 million refugees right now -- a population the size of New Mexico.


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February 13, 2016

Computers and the Internet Should the government have special privileges to break encryption?

The "pro" argument would say that the risks of terrorist attack are so great that the government needs to have backdoor tools to get in. But the "con" argument would remind us that it's never wise to demand powers when you're in control of government that you wouldn't want your opponents to have when you're out. And the power to have special access to break encryption is a very, very significant one. It's also worth noting that putting back-door access into legitimate software will do nothing to control access to illegitimate software. Bad guys can write code, too.

Socialism Doesn't Work Sen. Bernie Sanders promised jobs for young people, but how?

He recognizes the hazard correctly: There's very little that's more dangerous or destabilizing than lots of young people (particularly males) with nothing productive to do. But as with so many of his socialist schemes, Sanders only makes vague promises that he'll offer some kind of benefit without ever explaining how. And that's a critical flaw, because the default mode of socialism is actually to put people out of work. As a general rule of thumb, the more government regulates and seeks to manage employment, the harder it becomes to both hire and fire -- which makes it much harder for young, low-skill workers to enter the labor force. The burden is on Sanders to explain how he's going to do what he promises, and how his plan would escape the built-in anti-employment traps of socialism.

Computers and the Internet Congress sends ban on taxing Internet access to the President

It's not a ban on putting sales taxes on things purchased on the Internet, just a ban on taxing the Internet access itself

Computers and the Internet France challenges Facebook's data-collection practices

If you don't know the terms and other policies that apply to Facebook use, then you should click no further on it until you educate yourself

Computers and the Internet "There just aren't enough people who are prepared to pay for printed news"

The editor of the UK's "The Independent" writes an editorial basically saying "We had to kill it [the print edition] in order to save it [the institution]".

Broadcasting Show notes - WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 13, 2016

Trends, tips, and technology on WHO Radio, including a live stream at 1:00 pm Central


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February 15, 2016

The United States of America A thoughtful reflection on the death of Justice Antonin Scalia

Scalia could be curmudgeonly and immovable, but he was also brilliant. He vigorously advocated a perspective on the law that should always be heard, even if it shouldn't always prevail.

News Things aren't as free in Hong Kong as it may have been believed

Rioting and protests have been happening, and not everybody is a fan of mass assembly

Business and Finance Deutsche Bank worries that only the Federal Reserve can prevent stock-price declines

If the Fed raises interest rates, that could touch off trouble for companies that have borrowed too much, and that could put the hit on their stocks

Science and Technology Cedar Falls Utilities establishes a "solar garden"

They're installing a bunch of solar panels and customers are buying shares to cover the installation price in exchange for credits on their power bills

News The private sector isn't the only place where poorly-supervised executives pad their own pay

The Chicago Transit Authority is dealing with pension payments that executives could start collecting in their 40s

Aviation News Air Force One and how the Boeing 747 has evolved with time

The airframe, which has been in the air since 1968, has undergone incremental improvements over time that mean it goes farther, faster, on less fuel today than previous generations. That's the value of incremental improvements accumulated over time. Revolutions come from time to time, but continuous improvement is far more powerful than people generally acknowledge.


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February 16, 2016

Computers and the Internet Computers enter the art market

As creators of art, which makes it interesting. Some humans will complain that computer-generated art lacks something about the soul, and they could be right about that. But there's so very much bad art already in the world, created by human beings, and we can hardly be sad about it if that crappy art gets driven out of the market by comparably better computer-generated art. On balance, isn't that a good thing for human civilization? Wouldn't a world in which computer-generated art and good human art both flourish be a more beautiful world?

News VA suicide hotline sent people to voice mail and never called back

A test of a civilization's health is how it treats the most vulnerable. Veterans calling a suicide hotline really couldn't be much more vulnerable.

Computers and the Internet Stephen Fry quits Twitter (again)

The laudable wordsmith and popular actor finds the environment just too hostile to continue engaging with it

Threats and Hazards The situation in Syria just continues to get worse

Another airstrike on a hospital. Millions of people displaced. Tens or hundreds of thousands of children running for their lives rather than living in security and going to school. The consequences are going to be profound.

Agriculture Japan is getting the world's first robotic farm

Vertical farms are the next logical step -- but only if the cost of transportation rises or the cost of electricity falls. Those are the most likely triggers for making vertical farming economically feasible on a large scale.


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February 17, 2016

Business and Finance "Millennials' political views are...at worst, totally incoherent"

An incredibly important takeaway: "Forty-two percent of Millennials think socialism is preferable to capitalism, but only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism in the survey." As a cohort, they're not necessarily alone in their economic illiteracy -- but we as a country should be ashamed that we haven't gotten better over time at teaching people the fundamentals of economics. That's exactly the type of thing that we should be getting better at teaching all the time -- and it would appear from the outcomes that we're actually getting worse.

News 70% of Saudis are under age 30

And there aren't any jobs, especially now that oil prices are crashing and the government is running out of ways to subsidize employment. This is potentially a nightmare scenario for extremism -- nothing is more destabilizing than lots of young people with nothing worthwhile to do. The Saudi government may very well find itself extinguished by the curse of oil wealth. Resource bonanzas are a terrible thing if they aren't managed wisely in the boom years.

Computers and the Internet Ransomware cripples an LA hospital

Cyberwarfare is everywhere

Humor and Good News Paul McCartney, Woody Harrelson, and Beck try to walk into a bar...

The three were rejected from a party around the Grammys because the bouncer didn't recognize them. The look on Beck's face is hilarious.

News An eye-opening view of the political climate

Some of the possible factors feeding into the frenzy for Presidential candidates who don't make any sense. Make no mistake about it: We're in dangerous times when more than a third of Trump supporters identify with white nationalist views.


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February 18, 2016

Computers and the Internet Apple fights the FBI over cracking the San Bernardino shooter's phone

People who try to over-simplify the case are going to do harm to our public policies -- it requires nuance to address privacy issues like whether a phone-maker should let police agencies get a back-door skeleton key to the data stored on those phones. Regrettably, media attention is gravitating towards the reaction of one simplistic, reductionist, un-curious bozo running for the Presidency, and that's turning the debate over the issue into a disaster.

Threats and Hazards ISIS/ISIL/QSIL/Daesh hits a cash crisis

Starving the beast is one way to defeat it -- but don't be surprised if the beast lashes out when it's injured

Business and Finance The gasoline market may be foretelling a summer recession

Timing a recession is really hard to do, because they usually depend upon unpredictable triggers. But there are lots of conditions currently in place that should give us concern that a recession could happen.

Socialism Doesn't Work Left-wing economists rebuke Sanders campaign for unreasonable economic promises

When even the people inclined to side with you say your assumptions (like growth in excess of 5% a year even under greater burdens of regulation and taxation), then it's time to stop playing Santa Claus and get real about causes and effects. You can promise some things under socialism -- but ultra-fast growth rates are decidedly not among them.

Threats and Hazards Time is running out to resolve the South China Sea conflict

It's mostly an academic or diplomatic conflict at this stage -- but there's plenty of dry tinder waiting to ignite into a conflagration. Time is running out.


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February 19, 2016

Threats and Hazards How things could get worse in the South China Sea

As China sends more non-military ships into the sea, the de facto rules that have applied to encounters between ships of the Chinese and US navies won't necessarily be regarded -- and that raises the odds of misunderstandings and unintended conflicts. That's a serious problem. We're being gamed, hard, on what's happening in the South China Sea: America is appearing to lose an epochal battle without a shot being fired, and it's not as though there's any recourse to be found by appealing to some kind of higher authority. That's the problem with being the solitary superpower in a world where rising powers aren't interested in playing by conventional rules. Someone in Washington needs to get to work on a comprehensive game-theory review of the situation so we can start anticipating the next steps rather than just reacting. As one observer notes, "this is about strategic posture", and it doesn't matter much if the UN laws of the sea say that China's misbehaving -- they're moving forward at flank speed regardless. That means the only way for us to reach an acceptable outcome is to comprehend what the likely next moves are based upon incentives, costs, collaboration, and conflict (or, in other words, game theory), and to start playing this game of real-world chess several steps ahead.

Computers and the Internet Apple: Oops on that broken-screen iPhone thing

People who got the glass on their iPhones fixed by non-Apple technicians got something called "Error 53". Apple says it was intended to prevent people from bypassing the fingerprint lock, but now they're changing the software to keep the repairs from bricking the phones. The threat of a class-action lawsuit probably didn't hurt.

Business and Finance After the Dow-DuPont merger and three-way split, pretty much everything will just be reshuffled

Des Moines, regrettably, won't get the headquarters operation of the intended agriculture spinoff, but it supposedly won't lose any jobs either

Computers and the Internet The Yahoo saga continues

They're setting up an independent committee to figure out what to do next

News Consumer behavior as predictor of political persuasion

Psychographics meet politics

Threats and Hazards Omaha child who froze to death should have had someone to protect her

The most valuable thing government can do is defend the defenseless. That didn't happen here, and someone needs to figure out why.

Agriculture The rural Midwestern economy continues contracting

The effects of low commodity prices don't stop at the grain elevator


Recent radio podcasts


February 20, 2016

Broadcasting Show notes - WHO Radio Wise Guys - February 20, 2016

Airing live on Newsradio 1040 WHO at 1:00 pm Central. Streaming at WHORadio.com/listen.


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February 21, 2016

Aviation News SpaceShipTwo is unveiled

Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are hoping the second-generation spacecraft will get them on track again to offer private space flight

Business and Finance Apple is going to borrow on the cheap to buy back its stock

They're going to borrow $12 billion to buy back stock at interest rates starting at 1.3% for one year and rising to 4.65% for 30 years. It's a little nuts to try to forecast Apple's market position 30 years from now -- remember that 31 years ago, Steve Jobs was fired, and he was reinstated at the company just 19 years ago. But in the short term, borrowing money at 1.3% in order to consolidate the ownership position of existing stockholders is pretty sound policy.

The American Way Charles Koch says Sen. Bernie Sanders is right about one thing

The exceptional capitalist says the socialist candidate is right about one thing: It's bad for society to have a lot of people who are kept downtrodden. Koch, of course, differs strongly with Sanders about exactly how to fix that problem -- but that's why it's long past time to find advocates to speak up more openly about the many capitalist solutions that are available to us. Denying that problems exist isn't the way forward: Acknowledging that they do exist, and finding solutions that fit within a thoughtful and sustainable framework is.

Iowa Des Moines police officers to get body cameras this year

Broadly speaking, the idea of police-worn body cameras is attractive. Eyewitness testimony is utterly unreliable, even when it comes from trained witnesses like the police -- so the more actual documentary evidence we have from crime scenes and contested events, the better for justice. But it's not an idea without consequences and drawbacks: Someone has to be responsible for acting as custodian of the video evidence, and that's an area where some police departments have played games when seeking to protect their own when their own have done wrong. Moreover, there are complicated matters of access to the documentary evidence (and whether it becomes public record) as well as questions of civilian privacy (especially for children caught up in events, situations of domestic violence and abuse, and access to police informants) that require thoughtful policies and oversight.

News London's Conservative mayor wants Britain out of the EU

Boris Johnson is a politician with real star power, so this could make things complicated since his own party's leadership is campaigning to stay in. Johnson is a role model for politicians in at least one way: He writes a weekly column for a major newspaper, which is where he announced his opposition to remaining. Imagine how much better-off we all would be if our elected officials were all expected to be thoughtful and regular writers. The act of writing forces a person to clarify their own thinking -- and seeing who can write and elucidate their thoughts clearly, as opposed to who cannot, would be a valuable tool for voters.

Broadcasting Show notes - Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - February 21, 2016

Where is the game theory in Washington?


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February 22, 2016

Computers and the Internet Samsung introduces the Galaxy S7

They can be submerged (IP68) and go back to accepting MicroSD cards. Samsung killed that feature in the Galaxy S6, so its revival is welcomed.

Threats and Hazards Pakistanis murder a thousand of their own family members a year over "honor"

Appalling

Business and Finance The national economy is OK, but some states are in recession

Wyoming, West Virginia, Alaska, and North Dakota are in recession, according to Moody's Analytics

Threats and Hazards Trump's threats against the Ricketts family illustrate his lack of fitness to serve in office

We don't need a strongman who bullies his rivals

Science and Technology Thomas Edison wanted to build single-pour concrete homes

It didn't go far as a concept


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February 23, 2016

Science and Technology Bill Gates: Energy breakthroughs are really our best hope

He seems surprisingly uninspired by the idea of big inducement/innovation prizes to advance the subject, but perhaps they're just icing on the cake to a much larger market anyway

Aviation News Russia wants high-altitude flyovers to photograph the United States

Wave "hello"

News The alternative press at the White House

A motley crew

News A profile of a social-justice priest on Chicago's South Side

Eye-opening stuff

Health Babies can survive at just 22 weeks of gestation

What medical science can do to save tiny lives is awesome


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February 24, 2016

The United States of America The Republican Party might just be dead if forced under a Trump banner

You can't build a coalition around an extremist-leaning populist movement that lacks a philosophical core

Business and Finance Low interest rates are making Manhattan's skyline uglier

The flood of money available to real-estate speculation has incentivized the construction of some super-tall towers in New York City. People around the world are looking for investments and finding little that seems attractive, so it's spurred a bubble in skyscrapers. And, regrettably from a visual-aesthetic standpoint, the availability of materials that permit very tall, very narrow buildings is making that the design of choice for some of these new projects. These big, inelegant towers aren't remotely as appealing to the eye as the classic tapered skyscrapers designed to suit setback requirements.

Computers and the Internet WordPress hitches its star to the Google speedy-pages project

A new plugin for weblogs and sites using the WordPress publishing tool will create parallel sites that cooperate with Google's "AMP" project to accelerate the delivery of pages on mobile devices. WordPress and Google share a common interest in keeping people on the public Internet rather than behind "walled gardens" like Facebook.

News How the world looks when men are Photoshopped out of politics

It's a lonely place for the women

Computers and the Internet Facebook keeps trying to wedge its way into search

What Google has, Facebook wants


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February 25, 2016

Computers and the Internet Facebook maps the world

Facebook can only really grow if the billions of people who don't have reliable Internet access become Internet users and join the site, so the company has a vested interest in expanding Internet access all over the world. In order to do that efficiently, they need to know where the people are. Thus the company is working on taking artificial intelligence and applying it to known data about the world (like satellite imagery) to come up with much more granular detail about where people can be found. They're having the Earth Institute at Columbia University review the data for quality, and Facebook then says it will make the data available on an open-source basis later this year. Facebook estimates that about 3 billion people worldwide have Internet access, and 4 billion don't. The population maps are mainly useful to Facebook when seeking to decide where to use wireless hotspots, where to use cellular-type service, and where they might have to turn to satellites or UAVs to deliver connectivity. It's estimated right now that 95% of the world's population is within reach of mobile phone service, but if those estimates are based on faulty data, then it may impede the necessary infrastructure investments to expand access. That's where better population-density mapping has a role to play. Of course, the research is being done with Facebook's private benefit in mind, but the spillover benefits from better mapping have the potential to do a lot of social good, like aiding in disaster planning and recovery.

Computers and the Internet Bookstore ban on Internet devices only demonstrates how relative "information overload" can be

The bookstore touts itself as a refuge from connectivity overload, but isn't the idea of a bookstore fundamentally to connect people with access to more information than they could possibly ever want to use? Maybe it makes people feel better, but disconnecting isn't necessarily a better way of life.

Computers and the Internet Google's "neural network" is learning to geo-locate photos

Google took billions of photos that included location data and fed them into a database. They then turned that database into a system that tries to identify the locations shown in new pictures based upon what it already knows about the rest of the world. Naturally, it's working better in places like tourist destinations that are well-documented than in remote areas, but it's apparently generally much better than human beings are at the same test. The Google system was able to at least get to the right continent about half of the time.

Science and Technology Triumph of the non-machines

Mercedes is replacing robots in some of its plants with human workers, because it's easier to give a person detailed instructions than it is to reprogram the robots. Mercedes is trying to deliver more customized vehicles right off the assembly line, and people are their most efficient choice for now. This is actually a lesson learned long ago by Honda, which emphasizes the value of using people to do work because people can improve and innovate while automation cannot. There's a role for both, of course. We're better off when machines augment or supplement human work, labor, and thinking.

Broadcasting "Idiocracy" writer says he didn't intend for his comedy to become a documentary

It's time to stop celebrating ignorance. As Ben Franklin said, "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn."

Threats and Hazards Nearly 20% of Trump supporters think freeing the slaves was a bad idea

Relitigating the Civil War may be one of the stupidest pursuits out there. Trump's only philosophical loyalty is to expediency, and that appears to be attracting some pretty shameful political bedfellows. It's also creating friction with our friendly neighbor, Mexico, where a former president has flatly rejected the idea that a Trump administration could somehow force Mexico to build and pay for a border wall.


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February 26, 2016

The American Way Using prizes to incentivize ways to expand economic opportunity

Innovation prizes are a great way to induce progress using market-friendly thinking, and using them to find ways to make capitalism itself work better is like a double helping of good thinking.

Computers and the Internet Enlisting Silicon Valley to fight terrorism

Technology has a role to play, but anyone who thinks there's some kind of magic that can be performed just by flipping some kind of switch is bound to be disappointed. Technology can make the job of fighting terrorism both easier and harder at the same time.

Computers and the Internet Should pseudonyms count in academic journals?

As tools like crowdsourcing find their way into academic research, people are facing an interesting question: If that work then leads to a paper, should the contributors be cited by their natural names or can they use their online pseudonyms (usernames) instead? To some, the pseudonym may be a more valuable and descriptive identity than the natural name.

Iowa Letting local schools turn to online learning

The state of Iowa has an initiative in place to let schools offer classes that they cannot afford or otherwise manage to offer in-house. The Iowa House just unanimously approved a bill to let schools look online for options when that process doesn't work out.

The United States of America Politicians' lies and exaggerations need to be called out

Especially by the people who are inclined to agree with them. It's probably a greater service to the world to keep your own team honest than to bark across the aisle (though that has its own merits, too). Fortunately, some people are calling out some of the more egregious examples in the 2016 Presidential campaign right now.

Computers and the Internet Bigger than the Nigerian bank scam

American companies are thought to have lost $2 billion in the last year from fraud involving spoofed messages that appeared to come from the CEO


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