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


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.


Friday, September 25, 2015

FSA's Dolcini on IT, Personnel, etc.

Mr. Dolcini has an interview with Agri-Pulse.

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.

On Overalls, Coveralls, and Jeans

Freakonomics has a piece on why suspenders are better than belts (belts are tourniquets) but belts still rule.

As the son of a farmer who wore overalls all his life, I noted the total absence of overalls in the discussion.  According to wikipedia I should really say "bib overalls" (look at the "talk" page for some of the UK/US distinctions, including coveralls and boiler suits).

Turns out Modern Farmer has a piece with a little history.  It seems that the farmers in the food movement are proud of their bib overalls. I'd had the impression that professional farmers in production agriculture were wearing them less these days, but that's only an impression.  I doubt if there's any statistics on their production over the years.

It's odd--dad would usually change to khaki worksheet and pants when going to town on the weekly trip (for animal feed and people food) and dress in a suit for his school board meetings or meetings of the GLF (the ag co-op).  So to me bib overalls are associated with manual work one has to do.  In contrast I wore jeans (stiff as a board when first bought from Monkey Wards) for work.  I still retain that association and don't wear bib overalls (though my wife wears them for her work in the garden).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Technology Review has a takedown of the recent cryonics story.  An ancient Greek pointed out you never stepped in the same river twice and this is similar.  Living is a flow, not something which can be freeze-framed. Or maybe it's an over-simplified Heisenberg principle--the process must change what it's operating on.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Robert Simon, Reston, VW, and Blacks

When I was in the Army, I was stationed for a while at Ft. Belvoir, which is south of DC. I was there long enough that I used the money I'd saved for graduate school (a long story) to buy a gray market VW bug, a 66 with a 1300 cc engine.  (Mine was white, but this picture is correct.)
On weekends friends and I would drive to tourist sites in the DC area: Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Antietam, etc.

One such weekend jaunt was to the wilds of Fairfax county where Robert Simon's Reston had just opened.  I think we had trouble locating it, and the spring weather was cool and it had rained, so the sightseeing wasn't the best.  Why were we there?  I had the car, so my friends put up with my choices just to get away from the barracks. And I had read something about the "new town" somewhere, perhaps in the Post article mentioned in the wikipedia entry, and was intrigued.

As a good liberal I had followed the stories in the NYTimes and other media about discrimination in housing, redlining, and blockbusting.  I had also imbibed the popular liberal disdain for the way suburbs were developing, for Levittown, and strip malls.  So the whole idea of a planned "town" where the inhabitants could walk to work, where housing was open to all, where the design included European style urban amenities, was very attractive to me.

After I got out of the Army and got the job with USDA/ASCS I lived downtown for 8 years. But then the idea of investing in a house made sense.  So I ended up looking for houses in Reston, finally buying the townhouse we live in now.

Reston has grown and changed over the years.  According to wikipedia it's now about 70 percent white, with the remainder about evenly split among black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. 

I've always wondered why Reston wasn't more attractive to black Washingtonians,  most of whom when they left the city behind seem to have moved to Prince George's county (now 64 percent black) in Maryland.   One of life's mysteries.  As is whatever happened to my VW, which was stolen from my Reston parking space in 1978.  I hope it's still chugging away somewhere.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Turing Test and Humans

The Turing  test is the famous  method for determining whether computers can think--can the computer's conversation with a person be so good it can't be distinguished from that of a human?

There was a piece I read today discussing other tests for distinguishing computers and humans.  But I want to discuss going the other way--distinguishing humans.  I'd suggest the only way to distinguish humans from other entities, whether they be computers or chimpanzees, is the genetic one.  By that I mean that a human is born of another human and contains DNA from one or more humans.

When you expand your mental image of "human" from a mature adult to include infants and the mentally and physically challenge I don't think there's a reliable performance test. The reverse Turing test doesn't work--many humans cannot converse, a few have no language at all.  So I think, rather than performance, the only test of humanity is the genetic history.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fake Meat and GMO's

Nicholas Kristof has a piece in the NYTimes describing the progress being made in developing edible fake meat.  It sounds promising.  I've no problems with the effort.

I do wonder though how the food movement and the environmentalists will react if fake meat becomes a reality.  A fake steak would be good for global warming, given the methane production of cattle.  But it seems to me that fake meat should raise all the concerns which the food movement voices in connection with genetically modified organisms.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What's Wrong with the IG's and GAO?

That's the question I take away from reading Megan McArdle's post on the IG report on the Obamacare website software fiasco.

She says:
You can take this report as a searing indictment of the agency and its contracting personnel. I took something rather different away from reading it:
  1. The architects of the law were incredibly naïve.
  2. Federal contracting rules are crazy.
I agree with her assessment, but I'd argue that both things reflect the mindset of inspectors general and GAO. They like to see the rules, the paper documents, and to compare what happens to what's on paper.  In many years of looking at GAO reports on USDA/FSA activities I don't remember much direct criticism of political appointees or of Congress. IMHO rhose are more often the source of problems than the career bureaucrats.  (Of course, I'd say that, and of course the auditors aren't going to point the finger at the political types.)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Cage-Free Eggs and the End of the Nest Egg

McDonald's made news by promising to move to cage-free eggs within 10 years.

I did a Google image search and I'm damned if I can see any eggs or nests, just a bunch of happy hens.   But I want to know--where are the eggs?

In my youth we started the chicks in brooder houses, gradually allowing them to free range. When the pullets started laying they'd usually lay in the corners of the brooder houses, but not always.  They seemed to follow the leader--sometimes you'd find a nest along the fence row where some had laid several eggs.

Once we cleared the old hens out, and cleaned the hen house, we'd move the best pullets into the house.  There they had a bank of nests--3 or 4 rows high, with a walkway behind the nest.  The front was hinged, so you could easily access the nest.  The nest itself would have a "nestegg", meant to signal to the hen that this is where to lay the egg.  It usually worked--very occasionally a hen would lay an egg in a corner of the area.

Found this Youtube video, from a manufacturer of colony cages, approved by the EU.

It appears from the last link that the hens lay their eggs on the wire bottom of the cage, periodically a bar riding on top of the wire moves the eggs to a collection conveyor belt at the front of the cage, and the conveyor belt conveys the eggs to the processing area.  Apparently nesteggs aren't essential.

I wonder--the pictures I've seen have been brown eggs. Brown eggs are prettier than white, though the nutrition is about equal. So are the pictures just showing pretty eggs, or have white Leghorn hens, the breed we raised, become unpopular?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sherrod Settles Lawsuit

According to this post at The Rural Blog.

The Paradox of Median Income

From the White House Blog, median income for family households rose in 2014, median income for nonfamily households rose in 2014, and median income for all households fell in 2014.

True fact.

How is that possible?  It's the Simpson paradox

I wonder how much of the stagnation in median household income over the past years is accounted for by the increase in nonfamily households?

Drezner on Surgeons

"I love my father [a surgeon] dearly, but if he ever were appointed czar, I would have no choice but to lead the partisan resistance."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Historical Ironies: War on Poverty and the South

As I remember the War on Poverty, it started with people (like Robert Kennedy and LBJ) paying attention to West Virginia and Mississippi,  finding examples of extreme hunger among the rural poor and the elderly.  Then there was a famous book on the subject, was it called Poverty in America--no, it was "The Other America" by Michael Harrington.

So LBJ picked up the War on Poverty as part of his Great Society.  Medicaid and Medicare were part of it, probably the most enduring part, but food stamps, which had been revived as a pilot program under Kennedy also got expanded.

LBJ famously said that the Civil Rights Aid had delivered the South to the Republicans. (A quote which may be too good to be true* but certainly represents reasonable fears at the time.)

What I want to note is that the results of the War on Poverty, plus other factors, like spending money on defense and space, the expansion of air conditioning, etc. have been good for the South.  This map shows that the biggest share of improvements in poverty since 1960 has been in the South.  Perhaps most important for the South has been the reduction of the civil rights issue: race relations are no longer a Southern problem, they're a national problem.

Sequestration Will Hit Farm Program Payments

According to UofIll extension, sequestration may reduce payments by around 7 percent.

Frankly I'm surprised sequestration has lasted this long.  Gramm-Rudman-Hollings in the 1980's lasted for about 3 years, but only really bit one year--like 4.6 percent reductions.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

RIP: Wheat in Saudi Arabia

According to this Vox piece, Saudi Arabia has gone from the sixth largest exporter of wheat to zero bushels, period, in 30 years or so.

Funny Paragraph for Bears

Joel Achenbach on Yosemite and advice given on handling bears [i.e, walk in groups of three]
Except this is all absurd. For starters, three is not a natural human grouping. Two is a natural human grouping. Maybe you could persuade a child to be the third in your party, but I’m not sure how that makes sense in Grizzly Country. Unless the child was a kind of designated offering to the monster.
As a student of John McPhee, Joel writes well and can be funny, though this also proves that liberals love the country.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

German Countryside Versus US

From a Vox/Grist piece on high speed rail:
"On Amtrak’s Northeast corridor route, you can spend seven hours traveling from Boston to Washington, DC, without ever passing a farm. Each city’s suburbs bleed into the next. When leaving Berlin, on the other hand, in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields..."

Friday, September 11, 2015

Farmers Don't Get No Respect

Brad DeLong has a list of six things people in the year 3000 will remember about the last 300 years and the next 300 year:

"Universal literacy.
  1. Artificial birth control.
  2. The coming of the Replicator--or close enough--for foodstuffs and for things made out of metal, wood, plastic, and sound.
  3. The coming of information technology in whatever its flowering will be.
  4. The death of global distance.
  5. Plus whatever disasters lurk at the bottom of not the Pandoran but the Promethean Box of 1700-2300.
His list is in response to another economist with a different list.

Neither list credits the importance of the various agricultural revolutions, both as enabling the explosion of population and the expansion of non-subsistence labor, the ability to spend time on things other than feeding and clothing oneself..  Agriculture these days is such a small part of the economy it doesn't get much attention in public discussions.

Cops and the 80/20 Rule

Looks like the 80/20 rule operates with respect to the police.  In other words, most cops do their jobs without major conflict with the citizens, some don't.  That's based on Moskos "Cop in the Hood" blog post on NYC statistics.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Government Web Sites

Finally there's some metrics on government web sites.  The analytics site shows the number of visitors to the top government web sites.  I'm surprised to see the main USDA site among the most popular (after weather, SSA, immigration, IRS, etc.) It's a small step forward.

TR Was Six, How Old Is DT?

It was said of Theodore Roosevelt that one must remember he was about six.

From McCullough on PBS:
One of his friends, the English diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, once said, "The thing you have to remember about the President is he's about six." Woodrow Wilson called him a "great big boy". He went off later in life, after leaving the White House, on a very dangerous, very risky adventure in South America, and when they asked him why he was doing it at his age, he said, "It's my last chance to be a boy again."

From Kevin Drum, towards the end of a post on Donald Trump's unfavorable comments about Ms Fiorina's looks:
You wouldn't be surprised to hear a first-grader get all giggly over childish insults about his teacher, would you? That's what first graders do. At age 69, that's still what Donald Trump does too.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

EU Agriculture Subsidies Inadequate?

The EU has more subsidies for agriculture than the US, but the Ulster dairy farmers believe they're not enough. Ulster exports its milk and the strong pound/weak euro relationship hurts, as does the EU embargo on Russia over Ukraine.  It's a complicated world out there.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Live by the E.O., Die by the E.O.

"E.O." stands for executive order, which is one* of the ways Obama and the Democrats are bypassing the mostly deadlocked Congress.  The latest instance was Obama's order yesterday requiring federal contractors to provide paid sick leave.

I agree with Obama's goals but the means are not the most desirable.  What happens to Obama's EO's when a Republican president is inaugurated?  By the same authority Obama used to issue the order, the Republican can issue an order to cancel it.  The two parties have played this game for 30 years or more on abortion and foreign countries; it's one of the first things a new President does--reverse the EO on federal money, abortion, and foreign aid (too lazy to look up the provision, but I think it's the "Mexico City policy").

Now abortion can be a special case, since it continues to be a hot button issue.  It's quite possible that federal contractors won't care by the time the next Republican president is inaugurated and Obama's EO will stand.  But the ideology of the issue is clear.  A Democrat is imposing a new governmental burden on private enterprise and I, the Republican determined to battle for less government, use reversing Obama's EO as a symbol of my determination.

* Regulations are the other way, but I'll save that for another day.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Haying in the Lake District, UK

Reading James Rebanks "A Shepherd's Life".  

Rebanks' family liveds in the Lake District, mostly raising sheep on the "fells" (mountains).  I'm halfway through and enjoying it. What struck was his description of haying in the fields on the valley floors, particularly one year when it rained so much the hay was entirely ruined.  Any dairy farmer in the Northeast could  feel the pain.

But apparently English hay is more productive than upstate NY hay, or else the humidity in summer is a lot worse.  He writes of having to "turn" the hay two or three times to ensure proper drying.  That seems a lot, though I have to admit our hay fields were not the best.  But I hired out a couple summers and didn't see any hay fields much more productive.  

At another point--he writes as if the farm is on the smallish side, but also mentions "thousands" of bales of hay.

It's almost always interesting to read about the lives of farmers in other places. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Soft-Hearted Feds and Trump

According to this Politico piece on Donald Trump's wars with local officials in Palm Beach, he was able to buy a $10 million mansion (Mar-A-Lago) for less than $3,000 down payment.

No wonder The Donald doesn't respect us.

Read the piece--it's fun.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Reality Bites: "nothing is ever where it says it’s supposed to be"

The quote is taken from a Technology Review piece on a brick-laying robot.  The full quote is from a human, not the robot, who observes that the reality on a building site doesn't match what is in the drawings/specs, so one challenge for the robot is to be flexible enough to handle minor deviations (the human bricklayer handles the major ones).

"Irreparable Damage"

Viewers with alarm sometimes use the phrase "[x] caused irreparable damage to [y]."

Sometimes that's true, sometimes it's all water over the dam, or water under the bridge.

I'm sure my relatives and teachers in childhood caused irreparable damage to my prospects of every becoming President.  I merely have to point to the fact that I've never become President and my chances of becoming President are now slightly smaller than the chances of both the Washington Nationals and the Washington Redskins making their playoffs.

My point: "irreparable damage" may often be quite correct, but it is not synonymous with "major damage."

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Virtues of Presbyterianism

Via a tweet from Noah Smith, a blog post noting two studies on the (positive) impact of missionaries in India (health) and Africa (literacy).  Presbyterians weren't the only denomination sponsoring missionaries, but they did a lot.  That's one benefit of believing one knows the truth and has the duty to spread those truths to the world.  (There's downsides to such beliefs, but that's not the subject of this post.) 

I think the denomination has lost that certitude; certainly it seems to be dwindling as its older adherents die.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Barney Frank's Lessons for BLM etc.

Barney Frank in his memoir Frank talks about effective politics, using the National Rifle Association as an example.  He wrote the book before the Black Lives Matter organization/movement came into being, but I'd apply his lessons, as I recall them, to BLM. Important things:
  • having supporters in many congressional districts.
  • having specific "asks"--something the representative can do.
  • keeping rhetoric and congruent--don't take positions or make threats you can't back up.
  • build a reputation.
  • pick your spots to demonstrate your power.