Sunday, May 31, 2015

In Defense of Fast Food

A good long piece here defending "Culinary Modernism" (fast food etc.) against the snobbery of the food movement. "Rachel Laudan is a historian and philosopher of science and technology. She is the author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. The following essay originally appeared in Gastronomica."

USDA "Receipt for Service" Initiative I

USDA's Office of Advocacy and Outreach published an FR notice of a June meeting on USDA's "Receipt for Service" initiative.

What is the initiative?  Damned if anyone could tell from the notice.  There's no description of what it is, beyond a reference to a paragraph in the 2008 farm bill, and an amendment in the 2014 farm bill.  No links, no nothing.

But I've belatedly discovered that one can highlight a phrase, right click, and get an option to use Google to search for the phrase.  So what did I discover?

Three years after the 2008 farm bill, in 2011, OCIO published a department reg requiring the field agencies to issue AD-2088 when requested.  In January 2012 FSA issued a notice on it, NRCS issued the equivalent, RD apparently didn't issue anything, at least unlike the first two they don't show up on the first page of Google results.  The AD-2088 basically provides blanks for a narrative description of what service the farmer requested, and what happened to the request.  Importantly, the 2008 provision only required the AD-2088 be issued if the farmer requested it. Also important--the Department reg didn't require any reports.  I suspect, without researching it, that reports were never required.

 Exploring further, it seems Congress, in their wisdom, in 2014 amended the 2008 provision to require issuing a receipt in all cases.  As a result, NRCS, FSA, and RD got together and did an on-line app, one which requires a 27-page manual: "Web Receipt for Service (webRFS) User’s Guide".  FSA issued a notice, CM-753, which includes a memo signed by the Food and Agriculture council, to the state directors plus the Q&A's for FSA. [Note to self: how'd I miss it last fall?]

Apparently webRFS is the front-end to a database, which is searchable, and presumably will support statistical reports.

Now, back to the meeting:  the material on the webRFS says that it's "Phase I" and that there will be an evaluation of the webRFS and the need for any additional action.

Friday, May 29, 2015

NRCS e-Site

From NRCS, part of their new site for farmers.
Client Gateway and conservation technical assistance
Request technical assistance or advice for your conservation needs. Access technical information, such as the Web Soil Survey, the National Plants Database, and the National Conservation Practice Standards and Specifications to learn more about soils, plants, and conservation practices. 
Client Gateway and financial assistance
Apply for conservation program financial assistance. Manage your applications, contracts, conservation plans and the associated documents through Conservation Client Gateway. Report practice completion and installation, and request information and modifications to your conservation plans and contracts.
Client Gateway and NRCS documents
View, sign, and submit documents related to your conservation request. View and track the status of your requests for technical and financial assistance. View aerial maps of your property where you have requested technical or financial assistance. 
Track Your Payments
View and track the status of your financial assistance conservation program payments for completed conservation practices in your existing contracts.   

I'm pleased to see the SCIMS and USDA login--one small step on the path to having a universal government login process. But I do wonder about the back end. Are the conservation plans and practices going to be layers in a USDA GIS.  Will the "aerial maps" of your property be displayed from such a GIS?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Be a Social Analyst

The Times has a post which is different.  We're used to taking a survey and having our results compared to the average of previous survey takers, but in this case you're asked to draw a graph.

Specifically, you're asked to plot the relationship between family income and probability of going to college.  They give a midpoint, and when you're finished compare your line to those of the previous takers and discuss the reasons for the result.  Like many people I drew an S curve, but it turns out the true graph is a straight line.  A straight line relationship is also true for some other social factors.

"Intriguingly, the relationship between parental-income rank and teen pregnancy is also quite linear, and some of the same forces are probably involved. So is the relationship between parental-income rank and a child’s future income rank.
Not every relevant relationship is linear, however. The chances that a student enrolls in the highest-quality colleges, as measured by their students’ future earnings, are a bit more complicated. These chances accelerate as incomes grow.
And enrolling is not everything. While rich children born around 1980 were nearly three times more likely to go to college than poor children, they were six times more likely to graduate, according to a study separate from the one we're showing here.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Comment on "Actively Engaged"

The Blog for Rural America criticizes the draft rule on "actively engaged". He may be picking up comments from the Coalition for Rural America, which I commented on here.The opportunity for the public to offer comments expired yesterday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why No Registry of Debts?

"Bad Paper" by Jake Halpern reads quickly, has a number of colorful characters, and tells a depressing story of brokering debts and debt collection in the days before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued new rules.  It's not clear that CFPB will change the situation.  Basically banks and others who make loans to consumers, auto loans, credit card debt, etc. would try to collect delinquent debt.  Very quickly they would sell the obligations for cents on the dollar through brokers to debt collectors. The collectors would collect some of the debt and sell the unpaid obligations down the line.  At each level the collectors operate closer to the legal line, using tougher tactics.  Debt collecting turns out to be a good profession for ex-convicts whose criminal record keeps them out of other jobs.  Halpern devotes little attention to the debtors, just enough to evoke sympathy.

One of the problems in the system is that what's sold seems to be spreadsheets of debtors on flash drives, which can easily be copied/stolen.  The biggest problem is the whole system depends on trust and honesty but the reality is that the weak get the shaft.

Halpern uses the epilogue to argue that the Feds should implement a debt registry, which tracks a debt from issuance through resolution, no matter how many times ownership of the obligation changes hands. Makes sense to me.

Sidenote: I was surprised to learn that in a third of the states people can go to prison for unpaid debts.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Woman Professor at Georgia in 1918!

Moina Belle Michael is even famous enough to rate a wikipedia page but her fame is due to her involvement with poppies as a symbol of remembrance.  What I'd like to know is what she was teaching at the University of Georgia in 1918?  I don't know how many female professors there were outside of women's colleges but she has to have an interesting back story.

Notable Bureaucrats: Jager and Lauter

Harald Jager and Gerald Lauter deserve places in the bureaucrats hall of fame.  Their roles are described in The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte, the book I blogged about yesterday , on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Jager has a bit of fame, sufficient to rate a wikipedia page.  He was the lieutenant colonel in charge at a major Berlin crossing, who ultimately made the decision to open the gates and let East Berliners cross to the other side without facing rifle fire.

Lauter doesn't get that much fame, but arguably was the more important player. He was the second level bureaucrat who led a group of 4 bureaucrats from different agencies which produced the directive on a changed policy on travel to the West.  As Sarotte tells it, he didn't think much of the policy memo he was given to implement, so the group wrote a new one, including two important provisions: the new policy to take effect immediately and to include Berlin.  He wasn't a good bureaucrat, because there was a big omission--travelers needed to obtain a visa before traveling. (The policy types really wanted only to allow permanent emigration of selected individuals but Lauter believed that wouldn't work.)

So Lauter writes the directive, a PR type holds a news conference and answers questions by reading the directive, the media reasonably interprets the directive and answers as announcing free travel to the West, East Berliners gather at the crossing points, Jager is faced with a decision of using force or opening the crossing and his superiors are no help. He finally makes the right decision.

Why do I consider them candidates for a hall of fame: both deviated from mindless obedience to orders from above, resulting in gains for freedom and human rights.  And both found themselves in situations which other bureaucrats can sympathize with: stupid policy decisions from management (Lauter) and failure by superiorss to provide helpful and reasonable decisions, leaving the bureaucrat on a limb.

I do recommend the book.  The epilogue draws some conclusions  with which I agree--both on the fall of the wall and the general sense in which history happens, accident and luck, individuals and not plans often rule.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bureaucrats and MLKing: the Collapse

Reading "The Collapse", a very good narrative description of the events leading up to the demise of the Berlin Wall.  Having lived through that time and followed it in the media, even though it predated Internet news, I came to the book with good background.

I was surprised to be reminded by the role M.L.King played in the demonstrations leading up to the fall; East Germans knew and were impressed by his example and followed it in their own actions.

The political decision making and the bureaucracy to implement the decisions was notably defective. A change in leadership, the need to clear decisions with the Soviet Union, the aftermath of a long holiday, the miscoordination of two parallel bureaucracies (the regular bureaucracy and the Communist Party), all made for a dysfunctional system, even worse than our system today.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Presidential Management and Sidney Blumenthal

Some styles of presidential management:

Eisenhower, very structured, staffed, bureaucratic.

Carter, less structured, very micro-managed,

FDR, intentionally unstructured, free-flowing.

Back when I was in college, Ike was dismissed as too old and dated.  FDR was defended for intentionally creating conflict in his administration, and making effective use of Eleanor to  gain information from outside formal channels. (Carter was running the peanut operation.)  The idea, the historians and political scientists said, was to ensure that issues were forced upwards and onto his desk for decision.  (By contrast Ike used his Cabinet extensively, leading to the criticism that he never saw significant issues.)

With the release of Hillary Clinton's emails, her long-time friend and supporter Sidney Blumenthal has come to prominence again.  He sent many emails to her, and was involved in business initiatives in Libya etc. Clinton's defended his input as part of an effort to get outside the "bubble" which can surround and entrap Washington politicians/government executives.   Since she's just a little younger than I, she may be channeling the same sort of professorial wisdom as I received back in the day.  What I don't know is whether the professoriate has updated their ideas in the last 50 years.  I know Ike's reputation has risen, so maybe the answer is "yes"?

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Maggots Don't Lie"

An all-time great line, from an episode of "Waking the Dead".

The speaker is the forensic scientist, played by Tara Fitzgerald.

A quick google reveals this is what Gene Weingarten of the Post calls a "googlenaught"--something which returns no hits, though there is the meme that "bugs don't lie".

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Precision Ag/Internet of Farm Things

Technology REview has a post on the Internet of Farm Things, noting the sensors on field equipment, the use of drones, the release of historical data (soil surveys), etc. and the involvement of big corporations.
"Combining information like localized weather forecasts with details about topography, water levels in the soil, and the seed that has been planted in a field, a company like Climate Corporation will advise farmers about how much fertilizer, an expensive item, to put on a field and when to do so."

There's speculation it will help farmers make a profit. I suspect the real impact will be a further lengthening of the tail--younger, bigger, more aggressive farmers will become bigger (though with a higher risk of failing) while older, smaller, less aggressive farmers don't.  In other words, the history of farming ever since the invention of hoes and seeds.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Forgetting Emotion: David Brooks

David Brooks has a column today reflecting on the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and drawing some lessons.

IMHO he misses two basic issues: confirmation bias, which led us to select data which fed into our preconceptions (i.e., because Afghanistan went well in 2001, it would go well for decades into the future and Iraq would go as well); and emotion, which clouded our judgment after 9/11 in many ways.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Office of Advocacy and Outreach

How effective can the office be if their latest event, at least as recorded on their webpage, is April 2014?

That's a bit cynical, because it's very common to run into webpages which are stale, or dead, where the initial enthusiasm for the Internet has evaporated like the head on an hour-old beer.

Friday, May 15, 2015

What USDA Does--Back to the Beginning

One of the early functions of what eventually became USDA was the gathering and publishing of data, both production and sales data.  Based purely on anecdotal data, one of the big benefits of cellphones in some areas of Africa and India is that suddenly farmers can find out what markets are doing.

In this context USDA touts their new service for grass-fed lambs and goats, reflecting their rising popularity.  I assume the popularity has several causes: a growing market from the immigration of people whose native cuisine features lamb and/or goat meat and rising interest among the foodies in such gras-fed meat plus the fact that lambs and goats fit a small farmer's operation much better than beef or pork.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Best College Food?

Business Insider has a list of the colleges with the best food.  My alma mater comes in 9th, but my wife's comes in 2nd.  Via Marginal REvolution.

Back in the day I worked in one of the dorms--I don't think the co-eds thought we had great food then. But then, college costs have gone up a bit since 1959.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Word of the Day: Decerebrated

James Fallows has declared jihad against the "boiled frog" anecdote, the idea that if you turn up the heat slowly, a frog sitting in a pot of water on a stove will not jump out.

Turns out the original experiment a couple centuries ago had the frog either decapitated or "decrerebrated", i.e. the brain removed or brain function destroyed.

Now who do we know who seems to have been decerebrated?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Housing Market Has Recovered?

Back in January 2008 I wrote about the pricing  history of a neighboring townhouse in the context of  the housing bubble.  Early in my blogging days I called the bursting of the bubble in October 2005 based on the prices in my townhouse cluster.  (A pause while I admire my foresight.)

The townhouse is up for sale again.  It went on the market the end of April and is now under contract.  According to Zillow, it's going for $50,000 more than its price in 2009, which in turn was $80,000 above its low in 2008. 

But the bottomline is it's still $50,000 below the peak price.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What Is Productivity in Making Movies?

My wife and I use Netflix a lot.  One of the obvious differences between classic movies and today's movies is the length of the list of credits.  Presumably part of that is giving credit to everyone involved.  But I assume, without any proof, that movies which use computer-generated graphics must employ a lot more people.  And even those which don't use CGI probably have more people per minute of film.

I'm currently drawing a blank on the name of the economist who observed that productivity in the services is much different than in manufacturing or agriculture: an orchestra playing Beethoven's 5th is roughly the same size whether it's 1915 or 2015.  I suppose that modern movies are "better" than the classics, though that's hard to prove.  Certainly they're different, sometimes faster (though watch the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell "His Girl Friday" and you may doubt that), with different plots and plucking different heart strings.  They're definitely suited to our times and our sensibilities--again see Girl Friday for proof.

I don't know how the economists count the wages paid to the people who make say "A Good Year"--the most recent movie we watched on Netflix. (It's a piece of fluff, but very pleasant fluff set in Provence--obviously the moviemakers should have donated their efforts just to be living in such surroundings.) And how does the revenue from the movie count as well?

In the grand scheme of things, I assume economists used to assume that movies have short lives, with the cost of production and the return at the box office happening in a few months, or maybe a year.  Only the rarity like Gone With the Wind and the Disney flicks could be rereleased in later years.  But the truth now is that movies can live forever.  Maybe the money from their longer lives will diminish to the vanishing point, as piracy and innovation reduces the cost of providing the movie almost to zero, but the gain to the watcher remains significant, although not measured by economists.

Friday, May 08, 2015

MIDAS Customer Relationship Roles and Fraud

I've a Google alert for FSA, which produced this article on a case of fraud by an FSA county employee.

It reminds me of a long-ago case of an ASCS WDC employee, a conservation specialist, who stole some money from ACP, but was caught because he didn't know enough about the IBM Selectric and OCR to use the OCR ball when typing out the CCC sight draft.  (Lots of acronyms there--sorry.)  If he had known, he might have stolen more money over a longer time.

It reminds me of another case where fraud was committed using System/36 software, but there was a transaction log of the changes made to basic farm and producer records which allowed the offender to be successfully prosecuted.  I'm not sure what event triggered suspicions, so that a KCMO systems analyst was asked to read the log.

Finally I note from a recent FSA notice on MIDAS CRM training (more acronyms:-;) that WDC specialists are given some authority to change records.

My point? It's easy to assume that WDC people are good, but you know about "assuming".  I hope the MIDAS system design has safeguards against fraud built all the way through the system.   I'm sure by now that is automatic in system design. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Northeast Reforests

Northview Dairy is a blog I follow, good photos, nice writing, and once a window into the modern small dairy farm. I say "once" because they sold off the cows in the recent past, except for two.  Today threecollie (the blogger) records a visit to their pasture to check the fences, and scope out the birds, in passing noting the proliferation of maple seedlings starting to grow because the cows no longer keep them down.  She wonders how long before the pasture is forest again.

My answer: not too long. My last visit to the farm where I grew up showed the sidehill pasture was completely grown to trees, trees probably 30 feet high.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Sometimes Life Is Too Complicated

Between dealing with Medicare/OPM/Kaiser on my wife's coverage, my laptop after installing Toshiba software for the wireless modem, and Google maps, which gave me an image which, though correct, didn't match my mental image/memory, today has been a bit overwhelming.

(What does "whelming" mean--turns out it means "overwhelming"--gotta love the English language)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

On Mobility--the Differences Within the Fifths

I seem to be in a conservative mood.

Mobility is often measured by dividing the population into fifths by earnings, then determining the number of people moving from one fifth to another.  For example, probably all of the first round picks in the recent NFL draft are  moving into the top fifth of earnings from a lower fifth, perhaps in many cases the lowest fifth.

I don't know about the rest of the world, but when I read about "fifths" I don't think about differences among the people comprising the "fifth", I think about a stereotype: "top fifth" would be a lawyer or financial type; middle fifth would be a white collar worker, bottom fifth would be manual laborer.  That's not quite right, but I hope it conveys my idea: I'm imagining a lot of people with the same characteristics.  In reality, of course, I should be thinking about pro athletes and entertainers and business owners being in the top fifth.

And in the bottom fifth, I should be thinking about the people within the correctional system, the people on SSDI because of physical or mental disability, the illiterate, and so forth.  In other words, when we talk  about the possibility of people moving up from the bottom fifth, there's a good proportion, perhaps 40 percent, for whom a miracle must happen to be able to move up. 

Monday, May 04, 2015

You Can't Will Yourself to Have Willpower

"You can't will yourself to have willpower" is a thought I had, when thinking about poverty, but it also seems to me to apply to dieting.

My idea is that people have willpower in specific areas, and not in others.  For example, I've little problem in exercising willpower in what I eat, but not in whether I can complete a set of tasks. 

Horatio Hornblower Never Thought of This:

I read C.S.Foresters Hornblower series, and reread them, and reread them, and reread them...

The appeal was the Hornblower character, an early nerd who is introduced to us as having navigated by dead reckoning from Britain, around Cape Horn and up to Central America, reaching his precise destination (supporting a rebellion against Spain).  He's a nerd but also an action figure, heroic but inept with women, as witnessed in his marriage.

Anyway, I don't recall that Hornblower ever used the clever stratagem of the young American captain Barney, as depicted in Boston1775's two posts, when he commanded the Hyder Ally, a ship named after the sultan of Mysore.

The setup
The outcome

Friday, May 01, 2015

$14,000 Per Poor Person?

David Brooks says Robert Samuelson reports that the federal government spends $14,000 per poor person in today's column.

I don't believe it.  A top of the head estimate is we have about 45 million poor people (15 percent times 300,000,000 total population).  So Brooks and Samuelson are saying we spend $600 billion on poor people?  No way.

To be continued.

In Defense of Inequality?

On some days I have a populist streak  On some days I have a contrarian streak.

Today I was reading "The Great Escape" by Angus Deaton.  In a chapter on the improvements in life expectancy over the centuries in different countries he observed that inoculation for smallpox used to be very costly: a family like John Adams' would go off for a week or so to be in isolation as they waited for the mild case of smallpox to emerge and run its course until they were no longer infectious.  That required money.  Of course over the years, over the centuries the cost came done, but in this case the richer people were by necessity the early adopters.

Christenson's Innovator's Dilemma argues that innovations develop from a product which may be more expensive and less capable for most purposes, but which better fits the needs of the niche market than the mainstream product.  By capitalizing on the niche, and using the revenue to finance improvements, the innovators can improve and expand, eventually reducing the mainstream product to niche status.

There's another announcement, from Tesla, which builds ridiculously pricey electric cars, but now they're using their battery expertise to expand into power supplies for backup and filling the gaps from solar power.

So, at least today, maybe I'm living in the best of all possible worlds, where the rich finance innovations.  Maybe.