Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Feelings on Syria--the Obama Doctrine

I'm as ambivalent about Syria as I am on most things, but I'd urge my representatives in Congress to support limited military action in response to the use of chemical weapons.

Seems to me we want to raise the costs of the use of such weapons anyway we can, both now and for the future.  I'd even recommend a corollary to the "Obama doctrine:" anytime and anywhere we determine that chemical weapons have been used, the perpetrators of such use may be struck by our military forces. (Did you know there was an "Obama Doctrine"--I didn't until I checked wikipedia.)

Having said that, I'm assuming our military has identified targets, the destruction of which will thread all the needles of the obstacles critics have raised:  minimum harm to civilians, maximum harm to those involved in the use of the weapons, least degradation of Assad's command and control over such weapons, most painful to Assad, etc.

[posted prematurely]  

Failed Historian's Favorite Sentence

"The truth is that what goes on in the pages of the American Educational Research Journal stays in the pages of the American Education Research Journal."

That's from an interesting article by Sam Wineburg on history, historians, and making an impact in the real world.  His point, to save lazy people from clicking through, is that there's no set of interpreters who take the results of academic research in peer-reviewed journals and make it attractive to the general public, or even the teachers in schools.''

[Update--to clarify, I'm the "failed historian" in the title.]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Different Roles for Different Folks

That's the theme of a good post on the Washington post site by Jonathan Bernstein.  The point is that political activists and political officeholders have different roles in our government.  Some raise hell; others are the decider.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Weather in Hell: Cooling?

Today the Post runs an article written by Jane Black, whom I ordinarily consider to be one of the food movement, which treats a big(!) industrial (!) Minnesota farmer who grows genetically engineered crops(!).  And it's favorable(!), or at least understanding.  In part it's because he's tried other crops and other niches, in part because he cares for his soil, and mostly because the Minnesota Sustainable Ag organization praises him.

One thing I wish she'd addressed: she describes him as "precisely" applying fertilizer, but without specifying how the reader doesn't know whether it's part of "precision agriculture" (which can be defined as replacing the footsteps of the farmer with the memory of the computer).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Crop Insurance--Prairie Potholes, Good Farming, and Seatbelts

As crop insurance takes over being the main "safety net" for crop farmers, it gets more attention:
  • from Congress, particularly those in the prairie pothole region, who want consideration for "prevented planting" coverage and have gotten their Congressional delegation involved, as described in this Farm Policy issue.  The problem, as I may have described before, is, unlike Gertrude Stein's rose, a pothole is sometimes arable land and sometimes not.  Or, more accurately, since the marshiness of a pothole varies directly with the general water table level, in wet years a pothole expands its untillable area; in dry years it contracts.  So farmers want coverage for the wet years under their insurance policy.  (It's sort of the mirror image for areas of the Great Plains, where a period of wet years may enable a couple years of continuous cropping whereas dry years mean you have to fallow or reconvert the land back to grazing.)  
  • from NRDC, with a study described in a Des Moines Register article suggesting lower premiums for farmers who use good conservation methods:
     "The group said the use of cover crops, such as grasses and legumes that improve soil health and reduce runoff,  no-till farming and an improved irrigation schedule are the best management practices that could be used"
Both issues relate to an idea economists have: the more you mitigate risk, the more risk you take, as when you mandate seat belts and improve brakes, people drive faster and tailgate more.

Monday, August 26, 2013

When To Give Bonuses--a Flawed View

The Post has an article on the backlog in VA processing veterans claims.   Part of the problem seems to be that their system to measure performance of their claims processors is flawed--it gives more credit for easy claims and less credit for hard claims than it should.  That points to the difficulty of constructing good measures of performance in a service-oriented bureaucracy.  Build a widget, and you can count widgets. Run a dairy/poultry farm and you count pounds of milk, numbers of eggs, and feed consumed.  But try to measure service and it gets difficult.

But that's not why I'm blogging on the piece.  Another part of the piece is the fact VA is giving bonuses to employees even though the backlog is growing.   Now in principle I've no problem with bonuses being awarded when an organization is having problems.  There can be outstanding performers in poorly-run organizations, and they can be recognized.

But what blew my mind is this quote, from a bigshot HR type:
"“There are many, many employees who are exceeding their minimum standards, and they deserve to be recognized for that,” she said."
 No, no, no and no.  Exceeding the minimum standards is called "being average", and there's no bonuses for that--maybe an "atta-boy" (or girl, or woman).  You give bonuses for being outstanding.

I can only hope the HR person was misquoted, because the statement as quoted reflects poorly on all good government bureaucrats. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Do Not Pay and It's Implementation

A quote from an article in FCW on OMB's instructions on implementing the Do Not Pay legislation:
The legislation mandates that payments to federal payees be checked against five databases: the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, the General Services Administration's System for Award Management (the new name for their Excluded Parties List), the Debt Check database at Treasury, and databases kept by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and the Health and Human Services.
The law also permits OMB to tap commercial databases, potentially including credit reporting agencies, payroll processors, and consumer data services, as a potential check against fraud or improper payments.
 Interesting, though I still think it would be better to do a "data hub" to hide the source databases from the paying agencies.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The MLKing Speech

Robert Kaiser, who was an intern at the Washington Post then, was assigned to help cover the March on Washington. He writes a column today on how the Post missed Martin Luther King's speech: I Have a Dream".  Two paragraphs towards the end:
"We were poised and ready for a riot, for trouble, for unexpected events — but not for history to be made. Baker’s 1,300-word lead story, which began under a banner headline on the front page and summarized the events of the day, did not mention King’s name or his speech. It did note that the crowd easily exceeded 200,000, the biggest assemblage in Washington “within memory” — and they all remained “orderly.”
In that paper of Aug. 29, 1963, The Post published two dozen stories about the march. Every one missed the importance of King’s address. The words “I have a dream” appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include “I have a dream.”
This is how history sometimes happens.  The actual occurrence is like a speck of sand, nearly indistinguishable among all the other events happening concurrently.  But somehow it gets inserted into an oyster and layers of nacre begin to build, gradually forming what we recognize as a pearl, and obscuring the very existence of any other happening.

Sometimes it's different.  For example, JFK's inaugural speech got generally good reviews, if my memory is accurate.  His "ask not what you can do for the country..." was recognized as a good line and not much more.  But through the years, particularly after his "martyrdom", as writers wanted to discuss his oratory, and wanted something good to work from, that particular sentence was selected more and more, until in the end it predominates in our memory of him.

The Amish Make the Map

Here's a map showing counties in the US where at least 10 percent of the people speak a language other than English, and the language. 

So looking at it, you can see the French Cajuns in LA and New England, the Navajos in the Four Corners., the Portuguese in New England, Chinese in Tompkins  County, NY (Cornell University) and Massachusetts, etc.  Several counties scattered around (MT, WI, OH, NY, IA) have either German or similar languages.  At first I was thinking German immigrants, since my grandfather was part of an influx to Wisconsin in the 19th century, but then I realized the data most likely reflects the Amish/Mennonite communities.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Rominger Brothers and USDA

It seems the Rominger farm visited by Mark Bittman may have been the home farm of ex-Deputy Secretary Rominger, based on his oral history interview. He's rather general in the interview, disappointingly so.  Of course the interviewer is a USDA type, so throwing softball questions at him.

Google Maps  west of Sacramento

If You Want a Friend in DC, Get Sunny

To paraphrase HSTruman's words about getting a dog.  That's what I was reminded of by this Politico piece

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Non-Discrimination Wording Is Screwy

The USDA non-discrimination statement keeps growing.  I think I remember when it was first added to our releases. 

I copied it from a recent notice and restructured it to try to figure it out:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination against its customers,
employees, and applicants for employment on the basis of[:]
national origin,
gender identity,
and [on the basis of ]where applicable:2/
political beliefs,
marital status,
familial or parental status,
sexual orientation,
or all or part of an individual’s income is
derived from any public assistance program,3/

or protected genetic information in employment 4/

or in any program or activity conducted or funded by the Department. 5/

(Not all prohibited bases will apply to all programs and/or employment activities.)6/

Persons with disabilities, who wish to file a program complaint, write to the address below or if you require alternative means of communication for program information (e.g., Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) please contact USDA’s TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TDD). Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities and wish to file either an EEO or program complaint, please contact USDA through the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877-8339 or (800) 845-6136 (in Spanish)

Footnotes (mine).

1/  I assume "reprisal" means reprisal for whistleblowing.  I doubt most people would know that.

2/ I don't understand the "where applicable"?  I could see it applying to "reprisal", because USDA has only a few whistleblowers, but everyone has a marital status, familial status, and a sexual orientation.

3/ One rule in writing sentences is that the different parts (I forget--is this the direct object) must tie back to the beginning.  They could fix it by inserting "whether" before "all or..."

4/  Presumably USDA is vowing not to use genetic information in deciding whether to employ a person, like avoiding hiring someone who's doomed to develop a fatal disease quickly, but it doesn't tie back.

5/  No idea how this is supposed to fit--maybe they're saying USDA offices won't favor a USDA employee, but it certainly doesn't say that.

6/  This parenthetical would do the work of the "where applicable".

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Our Federal System, Same Sex Marriage, and Animal Rights

Our federal system is like an apple orchard for small boys.  It provides an abundance of ammunition for political controversy, without worrying about consistency. (I'm flashing back on a war between two groups of boys (10-12) back when I was young.)

 That pontification (I sound more and more like my grandfather) is prompted by Kathleen Parker's column in today's Post, defending the idea of states passing their own laws for humane treatment of farm animals.  What I'm pointing at is the inconsistency of liberals and conservatives: liberals mostly want each state to have their own laws on animal treatment, but they now want all states to recognize marriages wherever made.  Conservatives want to ban state laws which are tougher than national law on animals, but want each state to have the ability to accept or reject marriages formalized in other states. 

There's many more cases of inconsistency, mostly generated by the temptation to snatch up the nearest cudgel handy with which to beat one's foes over the head.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How Far Should Transparency Go?

This site accesses federal government employees' salaries, by name.  It appears to exclude FSA county employees and doesn't cover all departments.  It was fun looking up the salaries of the few people at FSA who still work there.  Fun for me, I'm not sure for them.

In principle I'm all for this.  Of course my annuity isn't reported there.  :-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Crop Insurance Abroad

A piece on crop insurance in other countries.  Apparently it's being adopted more and more.  In China:

"China’s comprehensive financial support for its farming sector was $156 billion for the year 2011, which included insurance premiums, disease and fire prevention resources and insurance licenses.  Insurance covers crops and livestock and is typically a combination of compensation offered by the central government, the provincial governments and even some city governments. "

Personally I'd question the dollar figure--it might well be the result of a purchasing power conversion.  However, what's the chances of our getting into an "arms race" on the farm front with the Chinese--i.e., "how can our poor farmers compete when our government only provides X dollars in support when the Chinese provides so much more?"  :-)

Political Correctness from 1940

Been reading Lynn Olson's "Those Angry Days" on the fight over the U.S. entering WWII.  It's good, well written and an interesting subject which she handles reasonably objectively.

One factoid which reminds me both how different the past was, and how similar.   A movie [Pastor Hall]was banned in Chicago (remember the days when movies were banned?) because of a Chicago law which prohibited the denigration of any race or ethnicity and the local board thought it was anti-German in its depiction of the treatment of the Jews.

[Updated to add link to movie title, which was based on Rev. Martin Niemuller.]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Stop the Presses: Foodie Says Not All Industrial Food Is

Evil!!  Mark Bittman, the NYTimes resident foodie, has a piece with that title.  He finds some virtue in the canned tomatoes produced by a California grower in Yolo County and canned by a co-op.

The grower is: "
Rominger Brothers Farms is a progressive, diversified family farm and ranch located north of Winters, California. Brothers Rick and Bruce Rominger are fifth-generation Yolo County farmers. They produce many different crops using organic and conventional techniques, including winegrapes, processing tomatoes, rice, wheat, corn, safflower, sunflower, onions, alfalfa and oat hay. As stewards of the land, Bruce and Rick are committed to growing crops in ways that protect the environment, such as minimizing the use of crop protection materials, using drip irrigation to conserve water and using sheep to graze crop residue."
They've 6,000 acres, 40 employees, grow 80 acres of tomatoes and hope to clear $500 an acre. Best I can tell the tomatoes aren't organic.

Bittman's impressed that the canned tomatoes taste better than fresh supermarket ones, but I wonder whether he did a taste test controlling for salt levels.  But still, I have to give him credit for having an open mind.

He does end with a plea for more unionization (though the co-op is unionized) and/or upping the minimum wage.  How he reconciles that with the acknowledgement that " the processed tomato market is international, with increasing pressure from Italy, China and Mexico..." I don't know. 

A side note--the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton era was Richard Rominger; I wonder if there's any relationship?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

American Exceptionalism: Biggest, Best, Baddest?

The question in the title was prompted by a comment on a blog post which said, in effect, American racism was uniquely bad.

Seems to me while it was bad, and some still remains, it doesn't qualify for that description.  Maybe the writer is falling prey to American exceptionalism, which says we must always be at the top, and if not at the top at the bottom?

Friday, August 16, 2013

WTO Fades Away

That's my read of this statement from Collin Peterson as reported in Farm Policy:
“As for a coming House-Senate conference, Peterson said he told Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ‘there will be target prices’ in the Title I safety net program and ‘they will be based on planted acres not to exceed base acres.’ He noted that some commodity groups are ‘simply wrong’ to press base acres rather than planted acres for any target price payments. ‘We can’t sell that to Congress any more … about paying for acres not planted.’”
My recollection is that the WTO believes that paying on planted acres encourages production, which is limited under its rules for agriculture.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Another Pigford II

From High Plains Journal
Based on the data given by the lawyers, about 55 percent of the claimants in the Pigford II case were successful in winning claims, Zippert said. This is slightly less than the 63 percent who prevailed in Pigford I, a surprise to Zippert. He had expected the success rate to reach more than 70 percent in Pigford II, in part because the claimants no longer had to identify a similarly situated white farmer who was not denied help by FSA.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mormons, USDA, and Conservatism

Back in the day there was a "Mormon mafia" in USDA--I think because Ezra Taft Benson had been Secretary under Eisenhower, which resulted in a fair number of lower level employees coming from Utah, including the guy who took me on my first trip to Kansas City, back when the airport was by the river.

Since then I worked with a few Mormons, which probably led me to click through from Brad DeLong's blog to this post by a liberal who notes that Mormons have mostly avoided the problems which other conservative areas of the country have encountered. 

Whenever I run into generalizations about American culture, I think of the Amish, the Mormons, the Native Americans, the Hasidic Jews--Americans all but often exceptions to generalizations.

Monday, August 12, 2013

New York Dairy, Greeks, and Immigrants

Chris Clayton at DTN has a long piece about New York dairymen's need for immigrants.  They're expanding production to supply the desire for Greek yogurt.  A quote:
"Emerling Farms is a 1,200-head operation run by John and his son, Mike. The Emerlings have 20 full-time employees, and like a growing number of larger dairies, most of those workers are immigrants. John Emerling said he realizes some people don't understand the need for immigrant labor, particularly when unemployment remains high. "But it wouldn't matter what we paid. People just wouldn't answer."
 So that's roughly 60 cows per person.  That's not all that different than back when I was growing up, though these cows probably produce 20,000+ lbs per year, while the average back then was about 1/3 of that.  (We did good with 10-11,000.)

Dairy isn't an easy life.  (IMHO only those farmers who have to feed their livestock and milk them twice or thrice a day merit the name of true "farmers", but I won't push that.  One advantage of the dairy/poultry life is you get checks coming in throughout the year; you don't have one harvest and one big check which has to be budgeted to last.)

Friday, August 09, 2013

Ambiguous Post Title of the Day

From the Des Moines Register: "Grassley Legislation Would Help Bankrupt Farmers".

I wonder whether people are equally likely to read "bankrupt" as noun or verb?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Segregation in All Things

It so happens that prostitutes were segregated in San Francisco.  The first map in this interesting post shows the distribution of Chinese and white houses of prostitution, as well as joss houses.

Not Total Unanimity in the Pigford Camp?

Here's a Legal Times piece reporting the disposition of a suit filed by John Boyd and the National Black Farmers Association against two of the attorneys involved in the Pigford litigation.   They were trying to get paid by the lawyers for some of their work.  The court dismissed the suit.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Reader Ratings

I have a lot of RSS feeds--used to use Google Reader for them but with its demise have now switched to Feedly.

For each feed, Feedly has a metric it labels "readers". I'm not sure what it means, but I suspect it's the number of Feedly users who have subscribed to the feed.  In my case the number is about 1 percent of my usual daily page views.  While it's possible some people, like nerds and geeks, are more likely to use an RSS feed than others, which would skew the results, the Feedly figure is one way to compare different sites. 

I'll perhaps update this listing as I get more energy.

Extension: 18
Grist 7K
Flowing Data 33K
Grasping REality (Brad DeLong) 1K
USA gov 187
FSA  43

Slate Blogs  4K
The Agenda  861
The Way of Improvement 164
USA gov  187
Gov exec  551
Rural information center 5

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Statistics and the "Midpoint": the Case of Dairy

Long long ago I used to be good in math.  No more, but I'm still intrigued by statistics.  A recent ERS study on the consolidation of farms introduced me to a new measure.

We all know the "mean", and some of us know the "mode" and the "median".  The ERS people are using the "midpoint", specifically for cropland.  It's defined (my words) as the number of acres of cropland on a farm such that half the cropland in the country is in farms larger than that, and half is on farms smaller than that.  Because the distribution of acreage among farms is so skewed, with many farms being very small, and a few farms being very large, they argue it gives a better picture of what's happened over the last 25 years.

Using the same concept for livestock, they say:
"In 1987, the midpoint dairy herd size was 80 cows; by 2007, it was 570 cows. The change in hogs was even more striking, from 1,200 hogs removed in a year to 30,000. But consolidation was widespread: midpoint head sold for fed cattle doubled between 1987 and 2007, while those for broilers and cow-calf operations (cattle, less than 500 pounds) more than double"
80 to 570 cows is jawdropping.

Monday, August 05, 2013

On the Joy of Riding

A discussion this morning of a young woman in 1917 whose father bought a Hupmobile which seated 7 and which the daughter used to visit soldiers training for war.  Last night we watched the last DVD of season 3 of Downton Abbey, which includes a feature where the historian advising the series talks about the freedom that cars brought to the upper classes, particularly Matthew's two-seater, which appears in the first episode and the last.

 That led to Googling "Hupmobile" which turned up a piece on a judge in 1909 passing sentence on "joy riders".    (I should note the joy riders here were, in fact, using a horse and wagon, not a car.)  The article includes this quote:
It is held by lawyers that this is the first conviction of the kind ever obtained. Its importance lies in the fact that it affords a means for reaching the many chauffeurs whose fondness for "joy rides" has become notorious. Hitherto it has been impossible to inflict, for offences of this character, such punishment as would prove a deterrent. If this conviction is upheld on appeal, however, it will probably put a stop to the practise. All that will be necessary will be to prosecute a few of the offenders and secure jail sentences against them. Then it will end.
Looking at the dictionary and wikipedia "joy ride" seems mostly to mean stealing a vehicle.  The first use of the term is shown as 1909. 

Trying to check that led me to Google "joy ride", since the Downton Abbey visually evoked the "joy" of "riding", or rather of driving. (And I remember my mother who often was ready for a drive, just to get out of the house and off the farm, though I don't recall her using the term "joy ride".)  As it turns out, there was a 1909 song written: Take Me Out for a Joy Ride.  This joy ride is in a car, and sex is involved, as is the unreliability of early automobiles, but no theft at all. 

Finally I did a Google ngram.  Surprisingly, the term appears occasionally in the 19th century, with sustained use around the turn of the century and its peak in 1917 or so.  These are books, not magazines or newspapers, so that must be remembered, particularly as there's  a later peak in 1942, right when wartime rationing of gas and tires would have kicked in.  (Maybe it's propaganda against senseless joy rides; use the car only for serious and essential business?)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Downton Abbey and British Agriculture

Been re-watching Downton Abbey, season 3.  What does it tell us about British agriculture, or at least farming on the Earl's estate?  (Caution: We probably can't assume Julian Fellowes is an expert on early 20th century agriculture.)

It appears that the estate includes a substantial acreage of farmland, divided into farms held by tenant farmers.  Remember that when Daisy the assistant cook visits Mr. Mason's (father of her late husband) farm, he tries to entice her to live with him by offering to make her his heir, inheriting all he has.  He describes that as essentially equipment and livestock, but not the land. We've no clue how much land he's farming, but he's obviously done well.  I'm not sure whether Mason is one of the Earl's tenants, but it indicates the pattern that existed, or Fellowes thinks existed, in Yorkshire.

When Matthew and Tom work out a plan to modernize the running of the estate, it includes offering the tenants a buy-out, so the land they are farming can be reworked into bigger estates.  Though there's no discussion of why bigger is better, season 2 did include scenes of Lady Edith driving a tractor.  Presumably that tractor was the farmer's, not the estate's, but being able to afford such modern labor-saving devices would require the tenant to farm more acreage.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Newby Farmers in California

This NYTimes article from yesterday describes a couple going into farming in California.  300 acre farm.
The farm, which is about 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, cost $3.9 million, but the Smiths were able to get an open-space easement, financed through county sales tax initiatives, that returned $2.2 million, on the condition that their land never be developed. But with all the other start-up costs (infrastructure, machinery and initial livestock outlay), they still needed to borrow $5 million.
The couple want to emulate Polyface Farm (made famous by Prof. Pollan). So they have a staff of around a dozen.  I hope a few of those dozen know something about agriculture and something about business.

Asia Has a Rice Glut?

Only 5 years ago we were worried about high prices and scarcity.  At least for rice in Asia that seems no longer to be a problem

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Bureaucrat of the Day--Michael Hoffman

He's head of the NY Passport office and seems to be doing a great job. 
The full Slate article is interesting, seeing a balance of autonomy within the standards of the larger organization as critical.

Question:  when will Yelp have profiles of the various USDA field offices?

[Seriously, I expect never, because the clientele of these offices doesn't change very often, so there's not much point in posting something on Yelp.  Then again, these days you never know.}

[Updated to add reference to Slate.]