Thursday, April 30, 2015

Milloy and Baltimore--Lessons from History

Courtland Milloy in the Post has a column on Baltimore:
"From history, they should have learned important lessons about the self-defeating nature of rioting. Baltimore, like many other urban cities, is still scarred from the burning and looting that occurred in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More than a thousand businesses in that city were destroyed, many of them black owned."
It's a point I like, having experienced the 1968 riots in DC.  But I'm trying to think of any history book, or even journalistic book, which got praise as "the" account of a riot in a major city, and I can't remember one.  I'm sure there have been such books, but I don't remember an outstanding one.

Women on Juries

I assumed that when women got the vote, they also got on juries.  Not so.  According to this piece:

" As late as 1943 only twelve states permitted women to serve on juries on the same basis as men."

Apparently the last six words are the key. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Human Expertise Endangered by Automation: the Sniper

Vox has a sort of video from DOD of a test of a bullet able to change course in mid-flight.  (Don't ask me how they did it.)  The bottom line to me: add "sniper" to the list of jobs endangered by technological obsolescence.  With such a bullet even I could be a sniper.

In basic training you spend a bit of time on the rifle range.  Although I'd shot a 22 rifle to kill skunks and possums on the farm, I was far from being a marksman.  That was very evident in my early sessions on the range. When my company went to the range for qualification tests, I was seriously concerned about flunking, which would have meant having to repeat some weeks of basic.  As it turned out, the test with popup targets (I don't remember that we'd trained on them, definitely not in the way the test went) was such that I passed, almost rating as "expert".  The key was that I didn't have time to get nervous, so I could react to each new target and fire without over-thinking.

Monday, April 27, 2015

USDA and E-Signature

Government Executive "reports" on a "Summit for Digital Government".
The upcoming summit will feature a case study of the USDA’s electronic signature initiative and educational sessions from the most experienced e-signature provider to government. e-SignLive will share best practices gained from more than 500 government customers and some of the longest running, largest paperless initiatives including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GSA and the US Army.
It's really a promotion for Silanis, a case where the bureaucratic-industrial complex comes together: one or more bureaucracies get the chance to look modern and progressive and the vendor gets the implicit endorsement of a user. In this case the magazine gets free content, since the heading, artfully using grayer type than the black type of the article, reveals:

Sponsor Content brought to you by
This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff of Government Executive was not involved in its preparation.

Maybe in addition to Ike's "military-industrial complex" we should have something like a "contractor-bureaucracy complex?"

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"New York is the rat’s ideal habitat"

Growing up in Upstate New York, we knew that instinctively.  New York City was the home of all that was strange, and foreign, and bad, at least on those days when my mother, born in the city, didn't reminisce about going to the American Museum of Natural History during her visits to her grandmother.

The sentence is from a good article in the New York Times Magazines on rats and other aspects of urban ecology.  Did you know that white-footed mice are so "neophobic" (afraid of the new, like me) that the city supports genetically distinct populations?

Friday, April 24, 2015

US Digital Services

The newest thing, a legacy of the rush to fix the Obamacare website, is the US Digital Services.
Digital services' role "will stop when we get you to minimally viable project," Kruger said. The team can help define user needs, build in analytics, wireframe the user experience, deploy and test alpha and beta versions, and generally tune and refine a service to ensure it can serve the intended purpose. "When we're happy with that, we'll hand it back to the business unit, and they'll own it -- to maintain it, to make improvements over time."

"We're not going to be here forever," he said. It is up to the business unit to plan for ongoing maintenance and support, and "from the beginning, we're going to have that conversation."
I think there are some downsides to this idea, or at least there would have been in the old days of COBOL.  One downside was the difficulty of understanding what's going on and making changes to the code.  That was at least one rationale for all the documents produced in the old "waterfall" software development process: users and systems analysts were supposed to produce a lot of documents at different levels of understanding (data, system flow, etc.) which would then enable their successors to understand what was going on.  My own feeling/guess is that what happened when these documents were produced was the people involved learned the process by writing documents, so there was a reasonable base of understanding among enough people to be able to handle people retiring, etc.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Raisins and Vaccines

I've been active in commenting at Volokh Conspiracy on a post concerning the raisin marketing order case which went before the Supreme Court yesterday.

For some reason the issue raises my emotions; partly because I dislike free riders and that's how I view this cases.  It's ironic that the chattering class has been vocal about the measles vaccine, and the problem the anti-vaxers cause while they're united in support of Mr. Horne's free riding on the raisin producers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Slavery and Mauretania links to a desire map--Google analyzed the most common query "how much does X cost" by country. 

In four countries of east Africa the most common "X" is "cow".

In Mauretania the most common "X" is "slave", which led me to find this wikipedia entry on slavery in modern?-day Mauretania.

Today's Euphemism: Depopulation

"Handling a depopulation and disinfection on a layer site is more complex than a turkey site..."

from an post on the bird flu problem in Iowa.  (I wonder what position the candidates for President will take on it?)
Didn't know birds got flu?  They do, and they're likely the original source of human flu type A, the most common kind.  

Flu is a big problem for poultry producers because there's not much to do except kill the birds, and invent an euphemism for it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Competition in E-Books?

Just found Amazon and Google offering a cheap price on a new book of historical essays (Inequality in Early America).  Don't know why, whether it's a result of competition or not, but I like it.

On a personal note, I got a Kindle for Christmas a couple years ago.  I like it.  I've been able to restrain myself from buying lots of pricey books ($9.99 and up) but not the cheapies--both the free and the 1 and 2 dollar specials from Amazon.  All in all it's increased my book purchases.

CRISPR--Gene Modification

Technology Review has an article on gene editing, which I've posted about earlier.  The idea of removing genetic material from a genome is less frightening than the idea of incorporating genes from one species into the genes of another.
For now, the techniques are being used to modify plants in more modest ways. “The first wave of this technology is just removing a few base pairs,” says Yinong Yang, a professor of plant pathology at Penn State University, referring to the combinations of DNA letters—A, G, C, and T—that make up a genome. By “knocking out” just the right gene, as researchers did with the potato, it’s possible to give a plant a few valuable properties.[The potato modification is intended to increase storage life of russet potatoes.]
The article goes on to mention another permutation--using this new technology to transfer a preferred genetic trait from one variety of a plant to another, the example used is a drought-resistant trait.  Again I don't see such modifications as raising the concerns that GMO opponents usually raise.

Monday, April 20, 2015

How To Improve Government: Twinkies

Via Ann Althouse, a Forbes story on the revival of Twinkies--the company went bankrupt twice, but a turnaround expert has revived the brand. From the article:
Metropoulos’ recipe was threefold. First he spent $110 million modernizing the remaining factories–everything from a utomation (massive, new $20 million Auto Bakers) to improving air flow in the bakeries so they’d be more tolerable for workers in the hot summer months. “You must improve employee conditions, fix the cracks on the floor and those types of things,” says Metropoulos. “It affects the pride, energy and culture of the plant, and that translates into everything.” Next came a $25 million SAP software system to manage inventory and logistics.
 The point is the owners of an enterprise (like the public) have to make their employees feel valued. 

(Even if you disagree with the moral I drew from the story, I recommend the story.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Organic Farms: Does History Repeat Itself?

One of my problems with the food movement, defined as the people who advocate for organic farming, and/or local farming, and/or  family/small farming, is their ignoring of history.  I once had ambitions to be a historian, and I've kept up an arms-length interest in the subject and profession since my college days, so I tend to be aware of history.

In the past, say up to the 1930's or 1950's, depending on the area and the crop, American farms were essentially organic and the food they produced was often sold locally.  I remember reading a memoir/history from Ontario county, NY (where some of my ancestors had settled and lived for a few generations).  The writer talked about the family farms, about hog slaughtering in the fall, and about the fact that every family had its own recipe for bacon, and knowledgeable folks could identify which farm the bacon had come from.

My point is that time passed, and there were reasons for its passing.  The forces of the market and the way American society has changed were too strong.  However earnestly the food movement tries, unless and until they come to grips with the reasons, its efforts will be eventually futile.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Actively Engaged

The Coalition for Rural America comments on the proposed "actively engaged" rule:
However, the rule also takes two steps backward. The biggest failure of the proposed rule is that it only applies the new “actively engaged in farming” definition to farms structured of non-family members, leaving the loopholes wide open for farms structured solely of family members. We believe the rules should apply across the board regardless if the farm is structured of family members or non-family members.

The first sentence is rhetorical nonsense:  since in their reading the proposal makes no change for family members, it's neither an advance or a retrogression.  However, I hadn't picked up on that point--if I get ambitious I may look at it.

[Updated: yes, existing regs require "significant contribution" (roughly 50 percent and/or 1000 hours of labor) by lineal ancestor or descendant. I know I don't have the ambition to figure out how much tighter the proposed rules are on non-family members than the existing rules are on family members.]

What Ticks Me Off--Taxes

What really gets me is all the politicians, particularly Republicans but Democrats too, who pontificate about the need for a simpler tax system.  When they're given a good idea which would ease the paperwork burden, be optional for the taxpayer, and save money, they allow the lobbying of special interests (i.e., Intuit) to kill the proposal.  See today's NYTimes--Mr. Manjoo picks up an idea has pushed for some time now (having IRS set up taxpayer accounts with the 1099/W2 data preloaded).

And don't get me started on the idea of cutting the appropriations for IRS. Don't go there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Sign of the Future: Female Majority in Government SES?

I think this is a portent of the future:
"The Health and Human Services Department is the only major Cabinet-level agency that boasts more female than male senior executives, according to the latest numbers from the Office of Personnel Management.
Of the 420 total senior executives at HHS as of September 2014, women made up 53 percent of the corps, compared to 47 percent who were men. That’s 223 senior executive women compared to 197 senior executive men, based on OPM’s Fedscope data compiled by CEB, a member-based advisory company. The bulk of the Senior Executive Service’s members are career employees – a whopping 90 percent.
Women have shown they'll work for less than men, on average, and members of the Senior Executive Service earn less than people in private, for-profit enterprise.  The "service" ethos, such as it is, of non-profit organizations and the government is also likely to appeal more strongly to women than men.  Thus I'd predict HHS is the first (article doesn't say that but I imagine it's true) but not the last department to see women become dominant at higher levels.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Happened to Piracy?

Idly looking at Blogger stats, I see one of the most popular posts was one from 2008 suggesting a convoy system to deal with piracy.  Seven years later piracy seems to be a non-issue, at least in terms of media discussions. (The wikipedia article has a paragraph headed "Collapse of Piracy in 2013".  I wonder what happened--Tom Hanks made a movie, Captain Phillips, and that scared all the pirates into law-abiding citizens.  Or Somalia gradually got more orderly?  Or something else? (The wikipedia article suggests a mixture of measures, including effective government.)

Farming the (Hydro)ponic

“I went to conventional lenders and I was turned down by all of them,” said Villari, who had little farming experience outside of helping her father raise livestock. “Then I turned to the Farm Service Agency (FSA). They took a chance on me when no one else would. They not only made the loan process easy, they also provided me with a lot of support and information once the loan was closed.”
Villari received U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) FSA farm ownership and operating loans to help get Fresh Water Greens off of the ground. FSA financing provided the assistance needed to build a facility and begin production. It was the first hydroponic operation funded by New Jersey FSA.

From the USDA blog 

Is this "mission creep" in programs or adapting to new realities?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Caro and Moses

Via Marginal Revolution, Robert Moses response to Caro's The Power Broker.

It's a long response, in which the author paints a picture of himself.  The defense is basically the defense of any bureaucrat/government official: I did my best in the circumstances and criticism is second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Local Food Is Not Organic,Necessarily

The New York Times had an article the other day on a "vertical farming" project in Newark, NJ.  An excerpt:
Unlike urban vegetable gardens of the past that took advantage of empty lots or evolved in rooftop greenhouses, AeroFarms employs so-called aeroponics and stacks its produce vertically, meaning plants are arrayed not in long rows but upward. Because the farming is completely indoors, it relies on LED bulbs, with crops growing in cloth and fed with a nutrient mist.
 I've been critical of some vertical farming concepts, particularly the ones which rely on sunshine and ignore shade, or use fluorescent lights.  LED's are more efficient than fluorescents so it's possible that such setups are energy-efficient when you add in the energy savings on transporting produce to market.

Meanwhile Sec. Vilsack is pushing local food:
Local food gives consumers a chance to know the farmers producing their food, to access fresher food and an opportunity to keep food dollars in the local economy, he said. In short, “local and regional food systems create a better connection between people who produce and people who eat.”
 But the organic types have reservations:
A definition for local would help organic farmers make the case for why their often more expensive produce is worth the cost, argues Laura Batcha, director of the Organic Trade Association.
“There is definitely an issue with the public differentiating between local and organic,” Batcha said. “In many cases, both things happen together … but the public, I think, assumes that local is organic.”

Friday, April 10, 2015

Illinois on "Actively Engaged" Proposals

Illinois Ext. has posted an analysis of FSA's proposed rule on "actively engaged" in farming.

After summarizing the background and some of the egregious cases in the past, their own analysis includess:

"By limiting the use of farm managers to multiply payments, the proposed changes appear to address many of the concerns with the current rules. A few notable issues remain and are briefly discussed here for the reader's consideration. As an initial matter, the differential treatment of entity types when it comes to payments is not addressed here because it is provided for in the statute and may need Congressional action to change it. [by definition--my comment] The proposed changes create differential treatment for farm managers without much explanation or justification. USDA could provide more clarity on how the changes apply to the first farm manager. USDA may also want to explain or justify exempting the first farm manager from the new definitions applied only to the additional managers.
A similar issue arises with the recordkeeping requirement. Again, the proposed rule provides different treatment for the first farm manager than for additional managers. In addition to reconsidering treating all farm managers the same, USDA might also want to consider whether this recordkeeping should also come with a reporting requirement. The long-standing concerns about this issue would seem to counsel verification of compliance with the regulation."


As a bureaucrat I like forms, mostly.  Not this application to the KKK though.

The nicely printed form shows that the organization was big and/or had a good bureaucrat involved at the higher levels. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

GE Security Systems Violates Law

I really shouldn't use my blog this way, but I'm grumpy.  Got a recorded solicitation which claimed to be from "GE Security" (apparently an old General Electric division which got sold off from GE) offering a deal on security systems because of criminal activity in my area.

First, I'm not aware of any uptick in Reston crime.

Second, we're on the FCC's Do Not Call list, and it's a violation to call the number.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Good Old Days

Brad DeLong gets Laura Ingalls Wilder's thoughts on the advantages of modernity, circa 1911.  "Oil stoves" (I assume kerosene) instead of wood/coal, gasoline engines enabling inside water supply, and rural free delivery of news were all having an impact.

This was just after TR's Country Life Commission had issued its report describing problems of country life.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Thank You Keith Good--End of Farm Policy

Over the years I've blogged on a lot of pieces from the Farm Polcy daily summary of agricultural news item.  But Keith Good has had to shut it down, with this his last post.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Adulterating the Milk: Then and Now

In the 19th century adulterating milk was common, leading to Henry David Thoreau's quote: "some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk".

Today though it's human milk which is adulterated, as described in this story.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

White House Garden Coverage or Lack Thereof

Apparently Eddie Gehman Kohan has shut down the obamafoodorama blog and instead is solely tweeting (  She notes that March 20 was the anniversary of the initiation of the project in 2009, but a quick search doesn't reveal any recent coverage of it. The last news item I find is from last fall.  Now that Sam Kass has left, I suppose Barack is worried about his legacy, and the family is worried about colleges, it may be running on bureaucratic inertia.   If so, that's the usual fate of initiatives of outsiders who come into the bureaucracy with great ideas.

Different Perspectives on the Past: Golden Age versus Vast Wasteland

This Vox piece talks about "Golden Age"s of TV, in connection with the ending of Mad Men.  It seems the first Golden Age was the 1950's.  The referent is to the "high culture" approach, live drama and things like Leonard Bernstein's programming explaining classical music.

I more vividly remember JFK's FCC chair, Newton Minow, deploring the "vast wasteland" of TV.

Two takes on one history.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Why There's Turnover in the Billionaires

George Will had a column pointing out the extensive turnover in the Forbes list of the richest, arguing that mobility as seen in the turnover was more important than inequality.

Janet Kinzner had a letter to the editors pointing out one factor in the turnover: death.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Pinball in Space

We have one of those pot racks which hang from the ceiling and has hooks for pots and pans.  It's a small kitchen, so every so often my head hits one of the pots, resulting in a very unpredictable chain reaction of pot clanging against frying pan against saucepan, etc. etc. Gradually the interactions die out and the sounds fade away.

Turns out there could be the same sort of interactions in space, which possibility makes a hazard for ideas of NASA changing the course of an asteroid due to hit the earth.  That's mentioned in this piece on NASA plans to practice such things. I applaud both the idea of practicing (see Harshaw rule) and the wisdom of anticipating interactions.