Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tipping, An Old Tradition

My newspaper delivery person(s) send Christmas cards with envelopes with their return address, as a gentle plea for a tip.  ("Person(s) because I get two papers, though in one delivery, but apparently the Times and Post have separate people, who've made a side deal to save gas by handling me in one visit.) 

That's an old tradition, though maybe I should hold out for a poem, as they did in 1766, according to this Boston 1775 post.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Problem of Consciousness in Self Driving Cars

Technology Review has an article on why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill, which is one of their best of 2015, which attracted a whole lot of comments.    The starting point is the old philosophical dilemma: in a choice between killing one and killing many, which is the right choice?  Do you push the fat man onto the railroad tracks to derail a train bearing down on a stopped school bus, or whatever? Does a self-driving car go off the road and over the cliff to avoid killing people in the road, if it kills the driver?

It strikes me as a problem only for the self-driving car which is conscious.  What do I mean? A computer processes one bit of information at a time, it's sequential.  The philosophical dilemma is one of consciousness: because humans are conscious we know, or think we know, things simultaneously: both the fat man and the school bus and the possible different courses of action.

But how would a computer know those things?  Say its driving a car which rounds the curve on the mountain road.  Maybe it knows there's no shoulder on the side, just guard rails which it will try to avoid. At some point it starts to see something in the road. It starts braking immediately.  It doesn't take the time to distinguish between live people and dead rocks, it just does its best to stop, perhaps being willing to hit the guard rail a glancing blow.   Presumably its best is a hell of a lot better than a human's: its perception is sharper, its decision making quicker, its initial speed perhaps slower.  I suspect the end result will be better than either of the alternatives posed in the philosophy class.  

The self-driving car is going to be optimized for its capacities, which don't include consciousness.


Monday, December 28, 2015

"A Deal Deal"

One of my favorite movies is a minor Clint Eastwood film: Kelly's Heroes.  It's a weird combination of war escapade and satire, mocking both the military and the counter-culture, Westerns, and movies..   Eastwood leads a motley crew through German lines into a town to rob a bank of German gold.  However a squad of German tanks has also learned of the gold, so the good guys and bad guys face off in the town, eventually reaching an impasse.  That's the moment at which Don Rickles, playing a corrupt supply sergeant, persuades Telly Savalas that it's time to do a deal with the Germans to split the gold; as he describes it, a "deal deal".

 That's what Speaker Ryan did in the closing days of Congress, a deal deal.  That's what some Republicans, particularly Paul Hinderaker at Powerline, don't understand--politics as the art of the deal deal.

An End to Innovation: 3-D Printed Rocket Parts

Government Executive reports on NASA's development of 3-D printed rocket parts.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Discrimination in USDA

NYTimes has a piece on discrimination against Hispanics by USDA agencies.  Forest Service is mentioned.  It ends with this paragraph:

"The department’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach signed an agreement with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in early December to fund 180 paid internships at the agency. The association represents more than 470 schools."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Farm Houses Better Than Hospitals

Benjamin Rush writes to George Washington, from Brad DeLong's blogging of the Revolution, describing the problems of his hospitals, which are more dangerous than Valley Forge.  He pleads:
Before any material change can be made in our System it will be in your Excellency’s power to stop in some measure the ravages our hospitals are making upon the army by ordering the Surgeons immediately to billet such of the sick as are able to help themselves in farm houses. The air and diet of a farmer’s kitchen are the best physic in the world for a Soldier worne down with the fatigues of a campaign.

Friday, December 25, 2015

More on Genetic Modification

Nathanael Johnson's piece at Grist on the complexity of defining GMO's. 

Bottom line: if you can't define it you have difficulty labeling it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Cotton Humor from Chris Clayton

You have to know the background but this is from Chris Clayton's (tongue in cheek) 2016 Policy Outlook:
Cotton planting increases from 8.5 million acres to 16 million acres thanks to commodity certificates and USDA designating cottonseed as an oilseed eligible for PLC payments. The U.S. also files its annual report assuring the World Trade Organization that none of its commodity programs are market-distorting.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When Did the "East" Become the "North"

Brad DeLong blogs the American Revolution.  Today 
he quotes Washington's letter to the Continental Congress, his second in two days, on the dire situation of his army, now camping for the winter at Valley Forge:
We have, by a field return this day made no less than 2898 Men now in Camp unfit for duty because they are bare foot and otherwise naked and by the same return it appears that our whole strength in continental Troops (Including the Eastern Brigades which have joined us since the surrender of Genl. Burgoyne)....
You should read the whole thing if you're interested in history, but what catches my interest is the reference to the "Eastern Brigades".  The context makes it apparent that he's referring to men from NY and New England, people whom we today would call "Northerners" or "Yankess".  A glance at the map shows why the reference: New England does lie to the (north)east of the mid-Atlantic states.  (Maine is still known as "downeast".)

So why and when did the "North" become the "North", rather than the "East"?  I suppose the change in terminology would be associated with the rise of sections in the new nation, perhaps even accentuating sectional tensions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ag Policy and Crop Insurance

An Agpolicy piece on crop insurance, somewhat stale, discussing moves to have payment limitation on insurance and cut insurance subsidies.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Armed Forces Competition in Vietnam

Was channel surfing yesterday and found a professor, author of a book on bombing in the Vietnam War, talking about his conclusion. If the house weren't so full of books now, I'd buy it.

One of his themes was the competition between the Navy and Air Force over the bombing, including sending planes against a key bridge (which took 700 sorties to bring down) with no bombs, just to add another sortie to the scorecard.  That's sick.  It's also bureaucratic.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dehorning Cattle and GMO

We mostly dehorned our dairy cows.  Why?  For safety, both for us (dad) and for the cows.   A cow has a whole lot of strength.  Cows have different personalities: some are affectionate, some are reserved, some are plain nasty.  Pair a nasty cow with horns and you have a risk of a bad injury.  Even a nice cow might injure you; it'd be an accident but still an injury.

So we dehorned our cows.  As soon as we could feel the nubbin of the developing horn we'd apply caustic paste which would burn away the growing point.  It really hurt the calf, but it was for everyone's good.  Kill dad and the cows would go for slaughter.  Keep him healthy and the cows would have more years of life, before going to slaughter. Such is the logic of the dairy farm.

Now CRISPR, gene editing, promises to eliminate that source of pain.  All good to my mind, but it's genetic modification. See this Mother Jones article

Friday, December 18, 2015

The World Is Getting Better

Charles Kenny in the Atlantic writes on this subject, providing a number of metrics to support his case.

President Obama weighs in on 2015 here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

No End to Payment Limitation Fights

From Agri-pulse on the omnibus bill:

Cotton growers win relief from payment limit
Here are some key provisions for food and agriculture in the omnibus:
Cotton assistance - The bill would reinstate the use of commodity certificates, which provide a way around the $125,000-per-person limit on marketing loan gains and other forms of subsidies. The provision would help producers “sell their cotton on a more orderly basis, and it keeps us from having to take ownership of the cotton,” said Conaway.
The use of certificates ended in 2009 when Congress eliminated a limit on marketing loan gains. The 2014 farm bill restored a limit on marketing loan gains by including them in the $125,000 limit and didn't restore certificates. But the cotton industry argues that the $125,000 limit ($250,000 per married couple) has created challenges for individual growers while threatening to disrupt cotton marketing.
Bottom line.  Despite the actively engaged change I discussed yesterday, a well-organized interest group has ways to advance their interests which don't involve the farm bill.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Actively Engaged Regulations Finalized--Is the 30-Year Struggle Over?

FSA published the final rule on "actively engaged" in farming determinations here.
"No major changes are being made in response to comments, because FSA has determined that the comments support the definitions and requirements for ‘‘actively engaged in farming’’ specified in the proposed rule and support limiting eligibility for farm payments. Also, there was no consensus amongst the comments for any alternative payment eligibility provisions that would address the 2014 Farm Bill requirements. FSA has made minor changes from the proposed rule in this final rule to respond to commenters’requests for clarifications of certain provisions"
 With age I've diminished interest and ability in parsing FSA regulations, so I'll leave that to others.

My reference in the title of this post is to the 1985 farm bill, which I believe IIRC added the actively engaged provision to the payment limitation regulations There's been a long political fight over how to define the term.  Perhaps the fight is now ended, given the declining importance of FSA programs, and the focus will shift more to the rules on the crop insurance side?  We'll see. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Discrimination and Who Discriminates

From a piece on a study of discrimination among Airbnb hosts:
They found remarkably consistent effects: The discrimination appeared to come from both black and white hosts, men and women, hosts renting entire properties and those sharing rooms in their homes. It came from hosts listing expensive properties as well as cheap ones. And the neighborhood didn't seem to matter either — hosts in diverse neighborhoods discriminated about as much as hosts in homogenous places.
There was one exception to this broad pattern: Black female hosts didn't appear to discriminate against black female guests.
I don't understand the exception: do black females share a feeling of sisterhood based on their race and gender--if so,why?  Is it an expectation based on church-going, that single ladies who are traveling are likely to be churchgoers and therefore okay? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Surprising Globalization of Pre-Revolution American Trade

My title says it all.  Boston 1775 quotes a 1765 letter from the head of the British customs service for America to his bosses, describing the implications of the protests against the Stamp Act--no stamps meant no legal exports and: 
But the Evils necessarily occasioned by a Stop to the internal business and Police of the Colonies, are not equal to the Consequences of shutting up their Ports at this season of the year—permit me briefly to enumerate a few of them.

Thousands of Seamen and Others whose sole Dependance is on Navigation not only rendered Useless to their Country but deprived of the Means of Subsistance, Provisions for which there are at this time large Orders, particularly for Corn for France, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean &c. must perish on hand, while famin may spread itself through our West India Islands by being suddenly cut of from their usual Supplies; Ireland would be greatly distressed by the Want of flax seed from hence, on which her linen Manufacture depends; Other Articles of Produce by which Remittances may be made to Britain detained in the Country—the Revenue lessened, and trade and Navigation the Source of Wealth and the Support of a Maritime and Commercial Nation, entirely stopped, which must be attended with Ruin to Multitudes and distress to All
 Go to Boston 1775 for a series of posts describing the events as the Stamp Act was adopted, protested, and eventually disposed of.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Technological Advances and Mass Shootings

Tyler Cowen asked why the increase in mass shootings over the last 50 years or so.  He elicited a lot of comments.  I suggested there was a gain in available firepower over the years.  That in the 1960's you saw a lot of revolvers.  Even pistols didn't have big magazines.  And rifles were mostly hunting rifles.  So a shooter had more difficulty in getting a lot of shots off in a short period of time.  One of the most deadly mass shooters in our history was the Texas man, who used a rifle from a library tower, quite different setup than our usual scenario these days.


I got some push back but nothing which convinces me.  The changes in the weapons which are available don't cause mass shootings, but they make them more feasible.
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760
Seems to me back in the 50’s, most handguns were six-shooters and often revolvers (harder to reload?). So I think technological trends have enabled more mass shootings. My impression is that most people who fire guns, whether in the military during war, police, or people committing crimes, often have to fire many times to inflict wounds and death–multiple bullets for one hit. So the increasing ability to fire a lot of bullets has likely increased the number killed and wounded in any one event. And perhaps the ability to do so has increased the likelihood of doing so? - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/12/what-is-the-best-theory-for-the-rise-in-mass-shootings.html#comment-158820760

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reversion to the Mean

From a David Ignatius column in the Post Friday:

"American politics, like most things, is a story of what statisticians describe as the reversion to the mean"

The heading of the column is "Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric will live in infamy in American history". 

I had a senior moment when I read the word "mean": instead of meaning  the noun "average" I read it as meaning "unkind".

I think both meanings apply in this particular case.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Where Are the Favorite Sons of Yore?

FiveThirtyEight has a discussion post on the possibility of the Republicans going into their presidential nominating convention with the nomination still undecided: what's the likelihood and what might happen.

As I read it I thought fondly of the good old days, when states had favorite sons controlling blocks of votes who could wheel and deal in the famous smoke-filled rooms to agree on a nominee.  That's how we got President Lincoln, wheeling and dealing.  They added so much to the drama of the convention as compared to these days, when primaries and caucuses have allocated the delegates to the candidates. 

From the post it seems there will be mass confusion if the balloting goes to a second round--delegates will be released from their pledges but there will be a lack of people who can make deals.  We'll see if a Rand Paul who may have a bunch of KY delegates is able to deliver them to a Rubio, or a Cruz is able to steer his delegates to a Kasich (in return for a Supreme Court nomination?).

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Women and the Draft

Ann Althouse has a post on this subject, keyed to the idea of registering women for the draft, since men are required to register, and women now can fill all jobs in the armed services.

Two of my takes on the subject:
  • the draft dates to the days when wars were fought between states with defined battlefields and masses of troops.  (See the Revolution, Civil War, WWI and II, Korea.) Even in Vietnam the fight in the later years was between uniformed forces as North Korea fed their regulars into battle.  I strongly doubt we're going to see many of those wars in the future.  Iraq had one of the strongest armies in the world, and it took 100 hours to defeat it in 1991.  So the draft is pointless militarily.
  • the draft is a strong symbol of obligation to the nation. All are equally obligated, so women should be required to register. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Shared Services and Government as a Platform

GovExec has a piece on this subject by an IBM type.

By the nature of our government (weak executive, decentralized, federal system) we're fated to build such systems incrementally and from the ground up.  For example, the National Finance Center in New Orleans is one of the providers of shared services. Back in the day (i.e., 1968 when I joined ASCS) the agency had several ADP (automated data processing, for you whippersnappers) centers. I assume they were initial steps in the process of using computers to support operations.  Over time, ASCS closed some centers and consolidated in New Orleans and Kansas City.  Over the same time, other USDA agencies were going through the same process, leading finally to USDA taking over the NODPC.  So it came to support Federal personnel salaries and benefits for the whole department, and then to provide similar services for other units of the government.

In a way the process reminds me of the way our planetary system evolved, as I understand it, by the gradual accretion of material.

Because this is a slow process I get very envious of Estonia (as I've previously blogged) which apparently was able to do a top-down implementation.  To use another metaphor, it's rather the difference between a city like Rome, with an ancient history, and a city like Reston, planned and implemented from scratch within one man's lifetime.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

On Blurring Distinctions: Terrorists and Ethnicity

It seems to me a lot of the discussion following the San Bernadino shootings has talked of Muslim terrorists using the assumption that such terrorists are aliens to the U.S., ignoring the fact that one of the shooters was a native-born American. 

On another subject, I'm struck by the growth of Asian Americans in the U.S.  Back in the day we had Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, and the original Filipino Americans.  Then we added Vietnamese Americans, Indian Americans, Cambodian Americans, Nepalese Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, Pakistani Americans, etc. etc.  Now the great American blending machine is making them all "Asian Americans", whether they like it or not, ignoring not only the differences among the nationalities but also the differences within the nationalities.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Terminology and Discussion

Some years ago the right labeled the estate tax as the "death tax".

In the fight over abortion, the terms are "pro-life" and "pro-choice".

Some years ago the left came up with the term "gun violence" to cover both homicides and suicides. Putting both scenarios (as well I assume as accidental shootings) under one label can work in some discussions, but not all

I'm not sure who came up with "gun control".  According Google ngram it doesn't really come into heavy usage until the 60's, as one might expect (there were 7 assassinations/attempted assassinations of political leaders from 1963-81).

I'd resist it--we don't talk of "automobile control" when discussing the system of registering cars and testing and licensing drivers.  We don't talk of "drone control", when discussing what we're doing about drones.  We don't talk of "drug control".  "Regulation" might be the more neutral term.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Directives and Policing: the Baltimore Case

Peter Moskos does the Cop in the Hood blog (he was po-lice in Baltimore for a few years before becoming a sociologist).  In this post he writes about the "General Orders", the directives applicable to the Baltimore police.  I doubt there are many in the world who share my interest in directives, so I'll excerpt a part of his post, talking about the rules of ethical conduct included in the General Orders, which he checked of when he violated one.

I may have missed a few, but of the first 31 rules of conduct, I checked off all but 12 as violated. And I was a good cop, an honest cop. And yet in less than two years on the job I managed to violate the majority of good conduct rules. My favorite was "Section 7: Members of the department, while riding gratis on any type of public conveyance, are not permitted to be seated while other passengers are standing." This is off duty, mind you. And it doesn't say "give up your seat if the bus is full." Nope. If anybody is standing, you must stand.
 He has complaints similar to those I heard from ASCS employees back in the 60's and 70's: hard to find the relevant material.

Apparently according to the trial of Porter in Baltimore in the Freddie Gray, there was a change to the General Orders on seat belting prisoners issued 3 days before the Gray incident, included in an 80 page attachment to an email (and perhaps the Baltimore police department did not have good email).  You'd think with modern technology there'd be a better way, but no one is interested in directives.
 

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Seedtime of the USDA

"Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau, but a clerkship only, assigned to it in the Government. While it is fortunate that this great interest is so independent in its nature as to not have demanded and extorted more from the Government, I respectfully ask Congress to consider whether something more can not be given voluntarily with general advantage. Annual reports exhibiting the condition of our agriculture, commerce, and manufactures would present a fund of information of great practical value to the country. While I make no suggestion as to details, I venture the opinion that an agricultural and statistical bureau might profitably be organized."


Lincoln's message to Congress, Dec. 1861   from Brad DeLong.

Lincoln also complains about the number of laws Congress has written and their lack of clarity.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Our Growing Economy: GDP Per Capita

Calculated Risk often emphasizes the importance of demographic changes: the decline in participation rate due to the aging of the baby boomers, the decline in immigration.

I thought I'd check the the GDP per capita.  This is what I got through a Google search (the image is a bit scrunched here--google it yourself.




What it seems to say is, after the dip of the Great Recession, we're growing the economy on a per person basis quite steadily.   Because the level of activity of the overall economy varies with the change in population, particularly net immigration, we see more variance in the economy than at the person level.

Of course, this says nothing about the distribution of economic benefits among the population.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Socializing Employees: Then and Now

JSTOR is an online database of scholarly articles.  They now have a daily blog, essentially summarizing an article. 

This post is on the ways in which companies try to socialize employees:
" Littmann writes that many company executives were convinced that foreign-born workers, whose numbers were growing, lacked American thrift, honestly, and industriousness. They responded by introducing measures designed not just to encourage employee loyalty but to transform workers’ values. These “welfare capitalism” measures ranged from toilets and new drinking water wells to profit sharing plans and education programs. By 1926, Littman writes, nearly two thirds of large industrial firms had recreational facilities for employees
That sounds familiar: in the Triple Cities of southern NY we had IBM, which ran the IBM country club and Endicott-Johnson Shoes, the reason for two of the three cities (Endicott and Johnson City) with the En-Joie golf course.  Neither were unionized; EJ had foreign-born employees (East Europeans).

I wonder though, how will a future historian deal with all the benefits which Silicon Valley employees get from their employers.  I assume the benefits also encourage loyalty and discourage unions.  The open space buildings, like Facebook's new headquarters, definitely encourages certain behaviors in their employees, certain transformations of workers' values. 90 years from now will the historian view such designs with some suspicion?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Good Movies: The Spotlight

Just saw Spotlight, an account of the Boston Globe's investigation into pedophile priests and the cover-up. It's very good, so far and as best I can remember, my best movie of 2015. It's the story of getting the story, without being overly maudlin about the subject matter. For anyone who's worked in a bureaucracy, the beginning is a surefire hook (nerves in the office as a new editor arrives), but the movie is always good on the minutiae/

Other good movies which I expect to get Oscar nominations:
  • The Martian.  
  • Bridge of Spies

Monday, November 30, 2015

Our German Inheritance--Vampires

It seems that the concept of vampires was imported during the American Revolution by Hessian doctors serving with the Brits. They used vampires to explain tuberculosis, specifically the wasting away.  That's from Boston 1775

Racism and Rhetoric

Some ironies:

Some on the left talk of racism in ways which strongly imply whites are bad people. Some on the right talk of a culture of poverty in ways which strongly imply the poor (blacks) are bad people.  Neither focus on class or structural causes.

Some on the left dismiss talk of a "Ferguson effect", denying that verbal attacks on policy might lead to violent attacks. Some on the right dismiss the idea that rhetoric attacking Planned Parenthood might lead to violent attacks.  (To be honest, Peter Moskos at Cop in the Hood) this idea published first.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why Didn't We Do a Joint Legacy Viewer

DOD and VA have had problems integrating their health care IT systems.  Now they've focused on a "Joint Legacy Viewer", which uses the principle of "write locally, read globally".

As is often the case, I think back to the 1990's (old geezers live in the past, you know) and the idea of integrating the USDA farmer  service agencies, at least in their IT.  At that time our (my) focus was always creating one database to serve the agencies.  In retrospect that was wrong. 

In 1992 we were demoing a mocked-up viewer of ASCS data.  Maybe we should have tried to build on that, rather than going for the big top-down solution.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Poor History

John McWhorter writes for the Wall Street Journal, being generally critical of campus activity on racism (hat tip: Althouse).

While it's okay, I want to challenge his history, specifically:
"What changed the game [to make civil right advances possible] in the Eisenhower era was a combination of television broadcasts of hideous images and the federal government’s publicity concerns during the Cold War."
I'd say what changed the game in the 50's was the culmination of the NAACP's litigation campaign establishing equal rights, which led to the activation of idealism among the political elite. As you move into the 60's civil disobedience and the violent reactions to it came to the forefront, 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Collective Action Problem: Who Will Bell the Don

The saying goes, " who will bell the cat", which turns out to be based on a fable from the Middle Ages. Dana Milbank wrote about the Republican problem with Donald Trump.  It would likely be to the benefit of all the other candidates if he lost support, but if only one candidate attacks him he or she might not attract Trump's former supporters.  For some reason I was reminded of this old saying.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

CRISPR, I Knew It

This Technology Review article discusses the use of CRISPR to "engineer babies".

And another article says: "Gene drives are just the latest example of the fantastic power of CRISPR editing to alter the DNA of living things,..."  This is in the context of engineering mosquitoes which stop the transmission of the malaria parasite and ensuring they proliferate, raising the possibility of a victory against malaria. But it raises the ethics of changing the biosphere, permanently.

I first posted about CRISPR back in April, which was pretty good of me, though my post was more about the quandary it poses for opponents of genetic modification.  That quandary becomes more severe as we begin to see the potential uses of the technique.

[Updated: An Atlantic article on understanding our genes.--hat tip  Marginal Revolution.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fortran?? Really, Fortran

FCW has a post on supporting Fortran, by "accommodating the legacy code with an open-source Fortran compiler to help integrate the programming language into a larger pool of computer languages in supercomputers."

Fortran was old when I was learning COBOL back in the 70's.  And most of the people in the US have never heard of either, too young.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Appropriating a Cultural Image

Lots of debate over "appropriating" another culture (see Eugene Volokh on yoga).  So I was struck by the image here,
which is entitled "Liberty Triumphant or the Downfall of Oppression". (Image reached from this post at The Junto.) It's a political cartoon published shortly after the Boston Tea Party.  It shows British and Americans as opposing camps, with the Americans represented as Indians. Excerpts from the explanation/text in the cartoon:

12. America represented by a Woman is an Indian queen, with drawn bow about to loose an arrow at Lord North.
Behind her are six Indian warriors. They are:
13. The Sons of Liberty, represented by the Natives of America, in their savage garb. They emerge from the forest, armed with bows and spears, saying “We will secure our freedom, or die in the Attempt”: “ Lead us to Liberty  or Death”; “Lead on, Lead on.”  Above them the shores of America stretch out from Boston to the Delaware. Seated in comfort on these shores, holding a liberty cap on her staff, a tabby cat curled somewhat incongruously at her feet, is:
14. The Goddess of Liberty, addressing herself to Fame and pointing To her Sons, saying proudly “Behold the Ardor of my Sons and let not their brave Actions be buried in Oblivion.”
 Bottom line: much of our history is appropriated imagery.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maintenance May Be China's Downfall Future Nightmare

Although China's economy has slowed a bit, it's still growing, after 35 years of impressive growth.  But it strikes me that China will face a big problem down the road.  Because their growth has been so rapid, much of their infrastructure is roughly the same age. That means it will be wearing out about the same time, requiring a lot of repairs or replacement.  China has profited by the ability to modernize their agriculture, freeing/driving workers to the cities.  Meanwhile the 1-child policy has meant fewer children to support, so the ratio of workers to dependents has been high, whereas in the future it will be low.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Rogers

My father's ancestors were heavy on Presbyterianism.  I was very surprised to learn that Donald Trump  is a Presbyterian. :-(  My equanimity was restored by this Atlantic piece reminding me that Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian. :-(

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Refugees

Refugees make good renters, according to this piece from Bloomberg, hat tip Marginal Revolution.  Some of the upstate New York rust belt cities are finding them an asset--Utica, Syracuse.

And the flowchart for the vetting process, (thumbnail below) from the White House.  Makes the old Republican chart on ACA implementation look simple.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Vox, Wikipedia, and Woodrow Wilson

Dylan Mathews has a post at Vox on Woodrow Wilson and race.  IMHO he has two errors:

"Wilson himself was the descendant of Confederate soldiers..."  According to Wikipedia, his father was briefly a chaplain in the Confederate army.

" Wilson lent The Birth of a Nation his approval by screening it at the White House and reportedly telling Griffith that it could "teach history with lightning.""

The bit about the quote is terrible.  Yes, this has been reported, but it's dubious.  Mathews links to the abstract of an article which promises to examine the history of the quote.  The article is behind a paywall so Mathews should give us the article's conclusion, not an abstract.Other sources question the quote.  See Snopes

[updated.  See footnote 25 from this source.[

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Times Greece or Poland

No, that's not good.  The US maternal mortality rate is three times that of Greece or Poland, according to this piece.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How Cheap Can Coding Be?

How about one dollar?  This FCW  piece explains how putting a project out for bid, resulted in a cost to the government of one dollar.   Naturally the competitors are upset.  I'm not.  I do wonder about the rise of contractors and free-lance employees: are they really paying the taxes they should, not only income taxes but social security etc. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Feeling Old With Windows. 10.0

Upgraded my desktop PC to Windows 10.  The Microsoft people are getting better at transitions--practice makes almost perfect I guess.

We've come a long way since the days of DOS and the command line.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Surprising Facts--Vietnam

"At the start of the Vietnam War in 1964, the US and Vietnam had wildly divergent life expectancy and family sizes; by 2003 they were the same."

From a Guardian article.

I never would have thought this, particularly not in July 1966.

Cage-Free Hens and Taco Bell

The Post reports Taco Bell has joined the cage-free egg grouping of fast food restaurants.  (Note, the math in the piece is flawed, as I take pleasure in pointing out to them in comments.)

It seems I've done a number of posts on cage-free eggs, but without a tag for it; you have to search the blog to find them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

EU Terrorism Deaths, Higher in 1970's

I vaguely remember the terrorism of the past, but I'm dumbfounded by this graph, which comes from a Fivethirtyeight post on terrorism.


I recommend the whole thing.  "terrorism" has different causes, which is well to remember.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Grant More Honorable than Washington?

Saw a piece on the opera/play Appomattox, written by a Brit who was struck by Grant's terms to Lee at Appomattox.  Well he might be.

But our great leaders have not always been so honorable.  Apparently after the victory at Saratoga and the surrender of Burgoyne's army, the terms provided for the repatriation of the troops (not to serve in the war again).  Brad DeLong links to a letter from Washington urging essentially that we violate the terms, arguing that a fast return of the troops would merely free other troops to come from Britain.  (I've a personal interest, my ggggrandfather was a captain who I believe was part of the guards when the captured troops ended up in a camp near York, PA.)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Mobility and the Draft

Here's a piece on the decline of geographic mobility in the US.  The focus is more on short distance moves than long distance moves.  I don't know why the decline and haven't seen a recent discussion.  I do wonder though whether the ending of the draft in the Nixon administration had anything to do with it--the draft was on my mind because I recently argued that a grandparent of several grandsons didn't need to worry about a Republican president getting us into a war and reactivating the draft.

The draft might have affect mobility of young men two ways:
  • they got out of their home and into the world, even if they were never stationed overseas. That might have made them more comfortable with traveling and moving.
  • they got to know and become friends with men from other parts of the country, perhaps informing them of job and/or educational opportunities outside of their community.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Dangers of English

I'm stealing two images from an Illinois extension post on big data in agriculture:


U.S. Being Subsidized by Asia

Two posts caught my eye:
  • James Fallows at Atlantic on a follow-up post on Chinese education--an excerpt from a reader's comments:
First, the US college system is now deeply dependent on the sky-high tuition that international students pay; here at Purdue, it's often said that the international students are essentially subsidizing the in-state tuition for Indiana students. Many schools are massively dependent on international student dollars, and Chinese student dollars particularly -- which means we're massively exposed to fluctuations in the Chinese economy.
  • The NYTimes reports that because of cuts in the National Parks Service budget, they're doing an appeal for contributions to the Korean War Memorial on the Mall, an appeal so far answered only by Korean businesses. 
Folks, this is pitiful.  I blame our politicians and ourselves: we need higher taxes to fund education and parks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Stakes of the 2016 Elections

Discussing last night's debate generated these thoughts:

  • if a Republican wins the Presidency, the odds are high that Republicans will continue to control the House and Senate.
  • since every day the 9 on the Supreme Court get closer to the grave, it's likely there will be some vacancies on the Court during the term, possibly Scalia, Ginsburg, and Breyer, depending on factors. Assume a Republican president, the replacement(s) are likely to be to the right of the 3 (possibly not to the right of Scalia but certainly to the right of Ginsburg and Breyer).  That would move the court rightward and would mean one-party control of all three branches of government.
  • we'd see a test of the theory that united government can make big and enduring changes.

  • if a Democrat wins the Presidency, the odds are high that Republicans will continue to control the House, maybe the Senate.  
  • replacements on the Supreme Court would, I guess, be more moderate than the departed justice. The Senate is likely to be more closely divided than when Kagan and Sotomayor were nominated and possibly more partisan.  So if all 3 of my possibilities leave, the court might move slightly left, with the swing justice becoming one of the newbies. 
  • we'd see a test of whether a change of personnel, the President, could change the political climate in Washington.
Either way, the politics of the 2017-21 period will be interesting.

I'm comfortable in predicting that the changes won't turn out to be as drastic or harmful to the country as the partisans would predict.  On the other hand, I'm voting Dem.  :-)

TPP and Agriculture

I suppose if I got into Twitter, I could tweet this link, but I haven't, yet.

Vox has a good piece on the impacts of the TPP (the Pacific trade pact) on segments of agriculture.  Soybean farmers win big, some reductions in trade barriers (Japanese rice, Canadian dairy), etc.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Good News: Entrepreneurs and Race

From Fortune:
The number of businesses owned by African American women grew 322% since 1997, making black females the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.
Overall, the number of women-owned businesses grew by 74% between 1997 and 2015—a rate that’s 1.5 times the national average, according to the recently published “2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” commissioned by American Express Open. Women now own 30% of all businesses in the U.S., accounting for some 9.4 million firms. And African American women control 14% of these companies, or an estimated 1.3 million businesses. That figure is larger than the total number of firms owned by all minority women in 1997, the report found.
It surprises me, because it's easy to slip into the idea that black people seek secure jobs and aren't risk-takers.  It shouldn't surprise me, because I know several of the black women with whom I've worked have had the ability to be entrepreneurs. I don't know whether in retirement they've taken that direction, or maybe their daughters have. 

Monday, November 09, 2015

Why College Costs Are High?

From a Conor Friedersdorf piece on Yale:
These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms.
When I went to college, while freshman dorm was heated and safe, its only frill was a lounge room with a TV.  And we had to walk uphill to reach classes, and uphill to reach the dorm.  

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Number of Tractors: 1920 US Versus 2000 Africa

The World Bank has a post on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.  Now I'm going by memory, which is that Prof. Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma wrote that the US had 254 tractors on farms in 1920.  I doubted that, and found the Census report 254,000 tractors (Pollan had missed the unit of measure in the table).  So that figure sticks in my mind, although given my advancing age it should be taken with a grain of salt. 

But that's the context in which I read this:
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the trend has been rather different. In 1961, the number of tractors in use was more than in both Asia and the Near East (at 172 000).  After that the number increased slowly to peak at 275 000 by 1990 before declining to 221 000 by 2000.
 In other words, sub-Africa had fewer tractors in 2000 than the US had in 1920.  Further, the population of Africa was about 600 million, while the population of the US was about 100 million.

Friday, November 06, 2015

National Black Farmers Assocation 25th Conference Agenda

Here's the agenda for the 2-day conference (today and tomorrow) of the NBFA.

When read with a political eye, it's interesting--lots of USDA speakers plus a rep from Clinton's campaign.

Vote on Appropriations or Head for the Hills

Apparently despite their brave talk about returning to "regular order", the thing the House Republicans don't want is to vote on appropriations bills. I'm sure Speaker Ryan is very surprised.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

God's Plan for Interest Rates

Mea culpa.  When I skimmed the first mention of this, I thought: there's one of those crazy Republican congressmen again.

Wrong.  It's one of those crazy Democratic congressmen, earnestly telling Janet Yellen that God's plan is for interest rates to rise in the spring.

Erroneous Payments: Two Views

"If I were to tell you that the Social Security disability program was 99.88 percent accurate in issuing benefit amounts to recipients, you might think they were doing an outstanding job. But if I told you the program overpaid by $11 billion – while neglecting to mention how they clawed most of it back – you might dust off your pitchfork and join your local mob’s march to the nearest SSA satellite office."

From the Post 
(The news accounts didn't explain that the overpayments were over a number of years and didn't cite the total payments made.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Paperwork Reduction Act Takes Deserved Hit

From Github on the revision of OMB Circular A130:
Pretty much everyone who's responsible for designing digital information collections in Government knows the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is one of the greatest barriers for making government simple, because of the obstacles (real or imaginary) it throws up between government researchers and the public. The idea that any structured information collection from 10 or more people, even if it is voluntary, even if the very purpose of the data collection is to reduce the burden of paperwork on the American public (whether digital or physical) has to go through a laborious, expensive, time-consuming, and rarely useful centralized process doesn't make any sense. The current implementation of the PRA defeats the very purpose of the law, and certainly defeats the objectives of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA).
I wish someone like my representatives in Congress would revise the Act.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Bush Replies, Who Was the Ohio Governor?

A blast from the past--there was an Ohio governor long ago who won some fame by his replies to constituent mail, often curt and funny, especially when the incoming letter was irate.  Somewhat like Chris Christie's responses in some of his meetings with constituents.

Today Jeb Bush put out a book of email, one of the early messages quoted in the Politico piece reminded me of that governor, the rest not so much.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reston From Nothing to Something

This post uses the example of Reston to show how USGeological Survey (home office in Reston) updates its maps, including the process of officially naming geographic features.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Guinness Record Set? Reversals in Congress

I doubt the Guinness people keep track of how quickly politicians reverse course.  If they did they'd have to distinguish between individual politicians, who can reverse on a dime, if a dime lasts 12 hours or one news cycle, and governing bodies, like Congress, who naturally take a big longer.

I suspect Congress just set a new record: on Monday the big budget deal included a cut on crop insurance administrative costs; by the time the deal had passed early this morning (in the Senate), the cut was dead as a doornail.

Shows the clout of the insurance agents, and the usual hypocrisy of those who rail against government subsidies.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Second Hand Clothing

ThinkProgress has a piece on second-hand clothing in Kenya. 

Two points:
  • the import of such clothing and the fact it's not taxed undermines the Kenyan clothing/textile industry (that's in the piece)
  •  the use and reuse of resources contributes to world efficiency, and thus is environmentally good (I'm assuming the costs of transportation from US to Kenya are more than offset by the reuse) (this is my point)
Given my background, I'm usually impressed by thrift, one of my parents' favorite favorable adjectives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Humans Are Doomed: Robots Teach Each Other

That's my hysterical take-away from this Technology Review piece on how one robot at Cornell taught a different robot at Brown to do a task it had learned.

I've mentioned a point on self-driving cars before: once you get a car to handle a new situation, it's done, unlike humans who even if they don't forget what they've learned, only imperfectly learned the lessons of their elders. So learning for robots is one baby step, then another baby step whereas learning for humans is one step forward, one step forward, one step backward, and then the grave.

The Siamese Twins

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting post on the original Siamese twins, who owned slaves and sired 21 children.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Farmers Take Two Hits

Two hits on farmers in the media:
  1. the World Health Organization declares processed red meat to increase the risk of cancer (not IMHO a really serious risk, but the media will play it up).
  2. the big budget deal between Boehner, McConnell, and Obama includes a hit on crop insurance companies, requiring renegotiation of the reinsurance agreement between RMA and the crop insurance companies.

Bad Gun Shops

A seemingly simple proposal on which many could agree: clamp down on the 5 percent of gun shops which sell 95 percent of the guns later used in crimes.

But, as one of my mantras says, "it's complicated".  I read another piece on the lawsuit against Badger Guns in Milwaukee (sold a gun to a "straw buyer" who turned it over to someone who shot two cops).  Too lazy to look it up, but probably the Times. I believe Badger Guns is now under new management, though the owner is related to the old one.  That's the loophole, one which FSA experiences with enforcing payment limitation: identity is often fluid, not fixed.  Today's gun dealer is tomorrow's bystander, even though common sense says there's a continuity there.  But the law does not incorporate common sense.  Common sense tells us a lot of bad things and we wish to do no bad.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Addiction Is Bad, But Human

To be human is often to be an addict.

One of my longest addictions is coffee.  I blame my parents; they drank coffee and I wanted to be like them (I know, that's weak).  As the youngest in the household, anything associated with age, with maturity was very attractive. Drinking coffee meant being an adult.

Over time I drank more and more coffee.  By the time I started with USDA I'd hit the office coffee pot every hour or so, just to keep something in my cup.  Over the next 25 years I got stomach problems, so my coffee habit was  balanced by a Maalox habit.  Eventually I started to replace the caffeine with decaf.

These days I'm drinking a bit less, but still on 20 ounces a day of Starbucks leaded, blended with Folger decaf.

Why this post?  I was afraid the doctor was going to tell me to drop the coffee today, but not so.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

EU Migration and Global Warming

Over the years there have been a few articles trying to relate climate change and various kinds of political unrest.  You'll have to take that assertion on faith, because I don't have URLs.

Conservatives tend to doubt the immediacy of global warming and to argue that humanity can adapt to changed conditions in the future, just as we have in the past.

On an individual basis, I've great faith in the ability of humans to adapt to the worse conditions. I do think global warming/climate change is real and there's a strong case for trying to cap greenhouse gases.

The turmoil associated with the migration of people from the Middle East and parts of Africa into Europe doesn't make me optimistic about our ability to adapt.  Today the EU is struggling to handle millions (at most) of refugees.  What happens when Bangladesh is struck by a strong cyclone, generating many more refugees than the EU is seeing--do we think that India will be able to handle them?

[Update:  see this Grist piece on the subject of climate refugees.]

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Importance of Knowing What You Don't Know

One of the few lessons I learned at work is the importance of knowing what you don't know.  I remember assuring the state specialist for Arkansas of an answer, which I wasn't really sure of.  Naturally I was wrong, and the answer turned up in an OIG report.

Seems to me the same issue is cropping in with self-driving cars, as witness this Technology Review article on problems with the new Tesla software/hardware.  Apparently Google is trying to handle all situations, but the problem drivers are having with the Tesla is not knowing when the system is approaching the limit of its capability, i.e., not knowing what the Tesla doesn't know or isn't sure of.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It's All Downhill from Here: Pillminders

If I have any young readers, I hope by the time you're old someone will have innovated pillminders away.

Maybe a 3-D printer which can produce any known medicine, with the output passed through a permanently installed port in one's arm, with the timing under control of the embedded personal health minder (the great grandchild of the Apple Watch)?

The older readers will know what inspired this: first you have to take an aspirin a day. Not hard to remember, particularly when one's mind is at 98 percent capacity.  Then the doc adds a prescription pill for circulation problems.  By the time the third pill is added for blood pressure, one's mind is at 90 percent and going more quickly.  So it's time to invest in a pill-minder, perhaps a 7 day jobbie so you only have to fill it once a week.

The next step is a couple more pills, one of which has to be taken twice a day, not once. And now the mind is really losing it.

Maybe what I need is a blogminder--something to remind me what I was writing about when I started the post?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I Hate "Resources"

These days everyone talks "resources", as in we need to devote the resources to fixing the problem, we lack the resources to do this, I (the politician) will devote the resources.. ad infinitum.

What do we mean?

"resources" = men/workers/people + money

I suppose that the term is useful: often if you're adding workers to a project you need the money to pay them and sometimes the decision of whether to add money and contract out the job or add workers and keep it in-house has yet to be made.

But all in all, "resources" is too damn vague: if you mean money you're talking appropriations and taxes; if you mean people, you're talking hiring and training, or moving people from one assignment to another.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Drone Registration and Obama's Immigration Actions and Guns

Today's papers (I think, but I'm playing catchup with my reading after a short trip) say that the FAA is planning to implement a registration system for drones by the end of the year.   There's also a piece about the court battle over Obama's immigration actions.  Why do I link the two?

Because I think both cases involve a bureaucrat's favorite piece of legislation--the Administrative Procedure Act.

As I understand it, Obama is being sued by Texas because he didn't follow the public rulemaking provisions of the Act.  Texas argues that the state is harmed by Obama's actions, meaning that he (ICE actually) should have gone through proposed rulemaking, allowing the public to comment on the actions.  There's a prediction the court fight may drag out through the rest of Obama's term in office.  (If they had gone with proposed rulemaking, the administration's lawyers probably figured it would have taken a couple years to complete anyway.)

If the FAA actually gets their registration system, both software and system design and requirements, up and running by Christmas, in time to catch all the drones being given for Christmas, they will have done well.  But why aren't they required to go proposed rulemaking under APA?

My guess is the FAA's argument in fact, if not formally, is that no one will have the balls nor the legal basis for suing over APA procedure.  They might say that the registration system will be so easy and not burdensome that there's no adverse burden to the public.  What I suspect they'll really mean is that the drone industry wants certainty so they can forge ahead, so no company will sue.  The industry will do better by having known standards than a 2-year court fight over process.


Now from the private citizen's standpoint, I could argue that my freedom is impaired by any federal regulation of guns drones. I could even argue owning and operating a drone is vital to the citizen's oversight of the federal government and my rights will be violated by this hasty rush to regulation.

I could argue that, but I don't.  I wish the FAA good luck with their software project.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

More Action on MIDAS

FSA has new information on MIDAS and new releases of software.  See here.

I'm getting ready for a trip over the weekend so haven't looked at the information.  Possibly the project has its own momentum and logic. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

You Never Do It Right the First Time

There's a corollary to this,  the hiding hand principle.Which says the actual outcome of a project is often very different from the projected outcome.  The original essay by Albert O. Hirschman looks at unexpectedly good results, the more recent study linked to here says they occur only in a minority of cases, mostly it's poorer results.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nice Paragraph: Fargo II

"Maybe the FX series Fargo is so good because blood looks so beautiful on snow. Red splashes against white, soaking into it, marking something that was once pure with a sudden, swift reminder of violence."

http://www.vox.com/2015/10/13/9512365/fargo-season-2-premiere-recap

How To Change Peoples' Minds: Tax or Nag

Always interested in how people change their minds, if they do.  Two bits of evidence:

  1. Taxes work.  From NYTimes, Mexico levied a tax assessed on bottlers of soft drinks. The higher price reduced consumption.
  2. Nagging works. NY Times article on  how Californians nag each other about water consumption.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Are Federal Employees Properly Compensated

This piece answers: "no one knows".

I agree. 

CRISPR and the Future of Genetic Modification

CRISPR is enabling a lot of "progress".  A quote from a Technology Review piece, predicting CRISPR-ized seeds being available by the end of the decade:
Gutterson said the objectives of plant labs include engineering resistance to blights or to low rainfall by rapidly introducing beneficial gene variants found in other varieties of the same species. Using conventional breeding to move traits can take many years. “It takes a lot of time and is not as precise as we would like,” says Gutterson. “We could very much short-cut that.”
The key question is the attitude that the public and regulators will take to these plants.
Companies hope gene-edited crops could be largely exempted from regulation. Already, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has told several companies that it will not regulate these plants because they don’t contain genes from other species. However, it’s unclear how the European Union or China will approach plants made with the new methods.
As I've been saying, it's going to be hard to reject such plants.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Making Hay the New Way

My time on the farm spanned the loose hay era and the "square" bale era.

This piece on New Holland Haymakers is interesting, a very new world.  The idea of chopping hay down to 3 inches, both for the cows and to make the bale more dense to save freight costs? And I'm surprised by the relatively low cost.  I wonder if round bale balers are simpler than the old square balers, seems as if they should be.

What Government Does For You

It simplifies your money.  Back in the good old days (i.e. pre-Civil War) you'd need to subscribe to a newspaper just to keep track of what banks are issuing bank notes (paper currency) and what forgeries are circulating.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Population Projections

I've been assuming the world wasn't in too much trouble population-wise, because the birth rate was rapidly lowering almost everywhere.  But that's wrong, I mean the lower birth rate is right, but what I missed was the lower death rate.  This Technology Review graph shows the result.

While the news is depressing for concerns about resources, farming, etc., it is good news for the longevity of children, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Congratulations to Walter Jeffries and Family

They got state approval to operate their butcher shop today, 7 years in the making.

[Update: see the article on the history of their efforts here, informative even for someone who's followed the blog for a number of years.]

When Is a Farm a Farm? II

Illinois extension has a post on the FDA definition of a "farm".

To quote: "The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).... directs the FDA to implement comprehensive, prevention-based controls throughout the food supply chain...."  (Think of mad-cow concerns, as well as listeria and similar food-borne diseases.)

Without quoting the whole thing, the issues seem to be two-fold: when a "farm" also includes food preparation, and when a "farm" also includes preparing feed for animals.   There's still more regulations to come, particularly on the human food chain.   (As in my previous posts on farm constitution, the purpose of the federal program governs the definition of the farm--there is no platonic ideal of a "farm".)

FDA is setting up training: "The three Alliances—Produce Safety Alliance (PSA), Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA), and Sprout Safety Alliance (SSA) — are developing Train-the-Trainer programs to ensure that lead trainers are familiar with, and prepared to deliver, the curricula and that they understand the requirements of the FSMA rules."  (from the FDA site linked to from the ILext post.)

Al Kamen and the Post

Al Kamen was the Federal Page man for the Washington Post.  He's retiring today, but presumably the page continues.  Before him the Post had a page devoted to the federal government for a number of years, maybe as long as I've been reading it. (There currently is a separate column on federal employee matters.)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Mom's on a Roll

First, earlier this year the government said that eggs were good for you, as my now-departed mother had always said.

Now they're in the process of saying that whole milk is also good for you, that the fat doesn't matter.

So the wisdom of my parents in running a dairy-poultry farm has now been vindicated; their products were and are good for you.

The Importance of Role Models: Carson

" Black medical students are about five times as likely as their non-black classmates to choose neurological surgery as their specialty."

That's from a Post piece on Dr. Ben Carson

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Farm Constitution Rears Its Ugly Head

The question of what a "farm" seems simple.  It's actually complex.  From a bureaucratic standpoint it depends on the purpose of the farm program.

Back in the day, Farmers' Home Administration would not talk of a farm, but a farming operation, which as I understand it included all the land, animals and equipment belonging to or operated by the "farmer".  Essentially when FmHA made a loan to a "farmer", they wanted to consider everything which could impact the viability of the loan.  They didn't care about location.

Soil Conservation Service cared only about location.  They worked with the conservation practices on a plot of land, their offices served soil and water conservation districts (usually but not always a county) so what a farmer did in county B was irrelevant to conservation in county A.

ASCS was ambivalent, having to deal with both people and land, both landowners and operators/producers. In the days when disaster programs were uppermost, we wanted to combine land to spread losses and production over the widest area.  In the days when production adjustment was foremost, we wanted to divide land, so the operator had the least ability to designate less-productive land as her set-aside/conservation acreage. When programs shifted (as in the early 80's, our rules were often out-of-date.

Apparently today's programs may have impacted FSA's rules on farm constitution.  DTN has pieces from Marcia Zarley Taylor and Chris Clayton on the issue.  Because some payments under the new farm bill are now determined using county-level data,  whether land located in more than one county is administratively consider to be one farm and located in one county can make a difference.  The articles point out the possibility of losses (farm is located in county B when county A has a higher payment rate).  As usual, they don't point out the possibility of what one might call "windfalls", the farm is located in county A even though much of the land is in the lower rate county B.

The LImits of Progress: Lynching in Brazil

From a Post piece on Brazil:
Every day, according to sociologist Jos√© de Souza Martins, at least one person is lynched in Brazil. Since 2011, he’s tallied over 2,500 cases.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Dust in the Hen House

Extension has a post on poultry housing options.  From personal experience I can testify to the dusty conditions in a hen house (what they categorize as a barn).

Air quality is often poorer in alternative housing systems, and this can affect health and hygiene, which is relevant not only for hen welfare but also for food safety.
The large amount of litter and the greater bird movement in alternative systems result in greater concentrations of bacteria and fungi in the air and in greater dust concentrations compared with conventional and furnished cage systems. Greater dust concentrations have been associated with more serious pulmonary lesions, typical of chronic bronchitis, in cage-free birds (Michel and Huonnic, 2003).
As you might expect they've reservations about cage systems.  Whether or not they properly weigh the tradeoffs I won't judge, but there are tradeoffs.

Good for Secret Service

Homeland Security secretary Johnson gave the Secret Service plaudits for getting the pope, the Chinese president, and the heads of state at the UN in and out of the country safely, with no bad press. 

It's nice to see big shots recognizing the work  people do.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Historical Errors

Thinkprogress has a piece where a mother who's also a historian challenges a Texas schoolbook used by her child.  From the piece:

"A Texas mother spoke out against part of McGraw-Hill’s textbook, “World Geography,” when she noticed that the language erased slavery by calling slaves “workers” and including them in the section “Patterns of Immigration.” One example of the text:
The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations."
The challenge is to "workers" instead of "slaves", a challenge with which I agree.

But there's another error which passes unnoticed: "millions".

From Gilderlehrman:
 Approximately 11,863,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, with a death rate during the Middle Passage reducing this number by 10-20 percent. As a result between 9.6 and 10.8 million Africans arrived in the Americas.
About 500,000 Africans were imported into what is now the U.S. between 1619 and 1807--or about 6 percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas. About 70 percent arrived directly from Africa.

"Butt Dials"

I really don't understand this, perhaps because I don't use a cell phone/smart phone.

"Butt dials"

Peter Moskos links to a BBC piece on the problem of accidental 911 calls.  Judging from the article, the UK has had the same problem, except their emergency number is "999".

I understand that making an emergency call is easier than a regular one, but what I don't understand is how the butt knows to dial 911 in one country and 999 in the other?  Do people have smart butts, smart enough to know the different numbers? Never knew that.


Saturday, October 03, 2015

CRISPR and Pets--Micro-pigs

Chinese scientists have used gene editing techniques to modify a small breed of pigs into "micro-pigs" according to this report.  The intent was to make the pigs smaller, therefore cheaper to raise as models for human disease.  They didn't foresee that a nice small pig would have potential as a pet.

IMHO genetic modification is like a horror movie, or Fantasia, where you see the water or other liquid coming under the door, the hero tries to keep it out, or clean it up, succeeding momentarily but ultimately failing.   (Not that I think genetic modification is a threat, per se, but it is change and some changes are mostly irresistable.)

Are Children More Civilized Than Adults?

The question of how social norms change has always fascinated me.  I've previously mentioned a book by Prof. Appiah on the subject: how duels in the West or foot-binding in China became unapproved.  He doesn't discuss, nor had I thought of this factor: children.

Children can point out hypocrisy, and lots of our norms are hypocritical.

This is triggered by a brief post on Kottke.org, where Jason writes, in partial explanation of a decrease in soda consumption in the US:
I've been a dedicated soda drinker1 since at least high school. But this summer, I started cutting back. The big reason is that my kids are getting old enough to read labels and wonder why I'm consuming so much sugar, the little blighters. "All that sugar is not good for you, right Daddy?" they would say. And they're completely right of course and I couldn't argue with them on that point, so I've been drinking a lot less of the stuff. I haven't cut it completely out of my diet but I treat it more or less like every other food or beverage I consume: everything in moderation.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Shed Tears for Managers

From a Government Executive piece on a new book on transitions
"“We were not considering management, such as procurement reform, which are not sexy or talked about on the campaign trail, just policy and politics,” Lu said. “At the White House we’re not good managers—we’re good at messaging and issuing edicts.” Future transitions should make management a higher priority, he said.

Rolling in His Grave: Mao Tse-tung

That's the only conclusion I can draw from this New Yorker piece, on a butler training school in Red China, of all places.

An excerpt:
Among China’s burgeoning population of new millionaires (their ranks have tripled since 2012, to more than 3.6 million) there is a peculiar appetite for the fusty trappings of European nobility. Chinese real-estate developments with names like Majesty Manor and Top Aristocrat package themselves as enclaves of Old World opulence, their properties complete with moats, replicas of Buckingham Palace gates, and mansions modelled after Versailles. Rolls Royce has begun offering Chinese customers chauffeur training with purchases from its seven-figure Phantom line, and Christie’s has opened a specialized agency to help Chinese buyers purchase wine estates abroad. For Chinese √©lites who are eager to adopt lifestyles commensurate with their massive wealth, such status symbols lend a recognizable veneer of Western-style aristocracy. (Many in the industry attribute the trend to the immense popularity of “Downton Abbey,” which has given millions of Chinese viewers a window into Edwardian upstairs-downstairs living.)

Who knew they liked Downton Abbey?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Education and Fatalities in Car Accidents

I might as well double down on my comments on this post on the differences in fatality rates based on education level, reporting on an academic study (from which I've stolen the graph).



Most of the commenters and the study itself focus on the differences in deaths among the different levels.  But what struck me is the deviation in the relationships: simply put, the rate goes down between 1995 and 2010 for all groups, all except those who didn't graduate high school.  I didn't see any explanation offered for why that group might have an increase in fatality rate.  I could guess maybe a change in drug usage--meth and oxy usage is, I believe, up particularly in rural areas, but that seems unlikely to move the trend that much. 

Chalk it down to a mystery.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dairy and Robots

According to a piece in IowaFarmerToday (via The Rural Blog), more small and medium dairies are going to robots.
"But the price can be a high obstacle to clear. Jennifer and Jesse Lambert took out seven-year loans for about $380,000 last year to install two robots and retrofit a barn at their organic dairy farm in Graniteville. They were looking for a more consistent way to milk their cows, more time to spend with their newborn son and more money in their pockets. They’re saving $60,000 a year that used to go to paying one full-time and one part-time employee and their cows are producing 20 percent more milk.
No one wants to milk cows,” Jennifer Lambert said. Cows thrive on consistency, she added, something farmworkers can’t always provide but robots do." [emphasis added]
 An extension guy says:
"“It’s a technology that it’s kind of scale-neutral in a sense because every robot can handle about 60 cows,” he said, “and when you start going larger than that people figure out pretty quick that it’s probably cheaper to hire the labor and put in a big parlor.”
Back in the day 60 cows was a big herd, about what my uncle ran on the farm my mother grew up on.  We had a fifth of that, along with the hens.

I understand the "consistency" bit, but not how robots could increase milk production.  Maybe, just maybe, the Lambert's definition of consistency is looser than mine: every day, 365 days a year, 4:30 am, 4 pm, with a variance of plus or minus 10 minutes??   That's why no one wants to milk cows.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Bit of Dairy

My mother would have liked this BBC piece on the Dutch and dairy (might it explain why they're the tallest in the world)?  Via AnnAlthouse

To her, eggs were the perfect food, milk was second.  Not incidentally, she had the hens, dad had the cows.  

The NY Times science section has a piece on mold and cheese--seems that cheese molds have evolved rapidly since cheesemakers were able to identify them.

A Bit of Politics

From Bernstein's blog at Bloomberg:
"4. We’ve known this was coming, but worth marking it anyway: The Benghazi committee is now the longest-lasting special investigative panel in congressional history. Julian Hattem reports for The Hill. Might as well just admit it and rename the thing the Permanent Hillary Clinton Opposition Research Committee."

Let's be fair to the Republicans.  Could be they're just terribly inefficient.

[Updated-- Kevin Drum offers a third position. ]

Monday, September 28, 2015

ARRA and MIDAS

This piece on the ending of the Recovery Act database reminded me--MIDAS got $50 million if I remember correctly.  Maybe not, maybe the $50 mill was partly to upgrade the creaky technology at the time.

I do wish they'd included some usage figures on the website--how much did the media and others actually use the site?  I know while I checked it a few times early on, I never did go back to see what if any updates for MIDAS had been added.  It may well be the best contribution of the effort was to establish a precedent, to teach people what was involved so the next try can be more useful.

Design the World for Robots or Design Robots for the World

That was the question I had when reading this piece  in Technology Review.  The bottom line is that it's very hard for a robot to assemble an Ikea chair--inserting a dowel into a hole is right at the edge of perception.  Robotics is getting there, but it's a pain.  The logical answer is to redesign the world so robots can handle things.  Unfortunately, that limits the available market for robots. 

I assume we'll reach a point where new processes are designed for robots.  (Maybe we've already done that with the chip industry? :-)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Sinister Side

My father was left-handed, though he wrote with his right, having grown up in the time when children were forced to change to the majority standard.  That's why this Post piece was interesting, looking at the distribution of lefties over time and modern lefties geographically.  But the best writing on the subject I've read is still "Right Hand, Left Hand", a book by Chris McManus, who runs a blog here.

McManus in his book gets into some basic things, like how do we determine handedness at the most elemental level, molecules and atoms.  (Left-handed sugar isn't absorbed by the body.)  I won't pretend to have followed all the explanations, but he also gets into driving on the left versus driving on the right, and the genetic and environmental influences on fetal development.

I

Friday, September 25, 2015

FSA's Dolcini on IT, Personnel, etc.

Mr. Dolcini has an interview with Agri-Pulse.

Quote:  
He's working on another nationwide rollout for next year: the Acreage Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI) that's designed to give farmers and ranchers just one stop for reporting acreage numbers for both FSA and the Risk Management Agency (RMA).
The ACRSI project started as a pilot in 30 Iowa and Illinois counties and is opening up slowly to more areas of the country.
I wonder how well the pilot has gone. The tag "ACRSI" shows a gap between 2011, when there was a request for comments in the Federal Register, and 2014, when the farm bill required implementation.  Google shows few hits.  (ACRSI also stands for "Associated Colon and Rectal Surgeons of India".  I hope the pilot testers of the new system didn't feel any need for the tender attentions of that association.) 

Weight of the Past

The NY Times casually mentioned yesterday that while digging for the foundations for a refugee center in Germany they found five unexploded bombs from WWII.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Government as Affirming Congressional Identities

Politico has a nice long piece on the many many programs run by the Education Department.  A few excerpts:

"WHAT MAKES IT so difficult to eliminate ineffective and duplicative programs? Politics, mostly. Creating a program can leave a lasting legacy for a lawmaker, something they won’t give up even in the face of evidence that the program doesn’t work. Often times, Congress can’t defund the program until that lawmaker retires.
 It's bipartisan--Obama has tried to consolidate but:
The Senate’s bill[redoing No Child Left Behind], on the other hand, was a compromise between Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The GOP draft bill consolidated or eliminated 21 different programs. But lawmakers effectively renewed most of them during the amendment process, including Physical Education and Ready-to-Learn Television.
They also brought back the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program—renewed thanks to an amendment offered by Barbara Mikulski. It passed unanimously.