Thursday, October 18, 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

MFP and

Got a tweet announcing the latest figures on MFP applications and payments.  I now can't find the tweet, not sure what's the matter. 

Two things I'd like to do:

  1. provide online access to FSA data, like the applications and payments.  It seems to me that FSA administrators at each level should be watching the data.  (That was true when I worked for them, but we never did. But with the centralization of the payment process it should be easy to do, and there's no privacy concerns that I can see.)
  2. provide a user-friendly interface to the USDA data silos.  Does anyone outside USDA understand which data ERS has and which data NASS has?  Damned few, is my guess.  It shouldn't be too hard to present the data without regard to the organizational parents.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New Terms: Adult Orphans and Family Tree Completists

Learned two new terms today from reading Post and Times:

"Adult orphans".  This refers to those of us, including me and my wife, who are getting old with no children, no parents, and essentially no support network.  Applying a label makes the problem seem more concrete.  Personally, on the one hand I'm tempted to say: "you made your bed, now lie in it." On the other hand, which I almost always have available, it's a real problem for us, and we need to figure out how to deal with it, most likely by moving to an assisted living complex which includes nursing care.  BTW, googling the term results in 45,000  hits, so it's not that new.

"Family tree completists" is unique to the Times article on the ability of a site called "GEDmatch" to help identify suspects in a crime from their DNA by analyzing DNA matches from a database of relationships created by genealogical enthusiasts.  For a while I was one of these--deriving great pleasure from adding another set of (remote) cousins to my genealogy.  I still maintain an account, with a number of trees which someday I may return to

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sen. Warren--An Honest Reconsideration

I tweeted today that I was surprised by how much difference the DNA results on Sen. Warren made to me.

I'll expand here. 

When Warren was coming into prominence, Megan McArdle had a blog post challenging the validity of her research on bankruptcy caused by ill health and lack of insurance. I think there was some counter from Warren's supporters.  The specifics have long since vanished from memory, but it cast a shadow on my opinion of her.

Then there was the flap about whether her claim of Indian ancestry was correct and what part it played in her academic career.  Again I've seen some back and forth on it.

Then she ran for the Senate and won, 

So early in her political career I had formed an assessment of her as ambitious, smart, more liberal than me.  And, mostly importantly, so ambitious she might have pushed the boundaries of academic research and made unfounded claims to advance in academia. I must also admit to possible chauvinism, though I'd state it as saying her personality struck me as unlikely to appeal to moderate and male voters (so it's their prejudice, I remain innocent. :-0) Taken altogether it made a package I was reluctant to support for the presidency.

But now I know Warren had a solid basis for claiming Native American ancestry.  Somehow that makes me more comfortable with the idea, supported I think by Boston Globe reporting, that she never used the claim to advance in her career.  (Though her employers may have used it in their EEO reporting.) That makes her less ambitious, or at least not breaking rules in her ambition, which makes me more comfortable in supporting her in the future.  (It's possible, even likely, my standards are different for male versus female politicians.)  And there may be a cascading effect--I'm now thinking about her senatorial career and positions more.  And that helps her.

I've tried to be honest with the above.  I don't know enough about Bayesian analysis to apply it to my changing position.

So, my preferred Dem nominee for 2020 is still Klobuchar/Hickenlooper, but if Warren runs and shows up well in trial runs against Trump in the polls, I'll be a more enthusiastic supporter. 

But my bottomline is still: we must win in 2020.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Preferences for 2020

There's a poll out on Democratic preferences for their presidential candidate for 2020--Biden leads.

He's not my preference.  Based on what I know now, I'd prefer Sen. Klobuchar or Gov. Hickenlooper, who fit a pattern of moderate left, which is my sweet spot.  It's not that I necessarily object to some of the more radical proposals on the left, but my priority is always the need to win the election.  I usually feel that the very partisan people on the left, as on the right, overestimate the popularity of their ideas and that slow and steady beats fast and flashy.

So my bottom line for 2020--I want some one to win the nomination who looks likely to beat President Trump.  IMHO it should be easy, but I've no confidence it will be.  See this NYTimes piece on suburban white men rallying to his support, even though they recognize his personal failings.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Uniformity and Diversity--Amazon's Kindle

I've mentioned my cousin's book, Dueling Dragons. As part of my help to her I've gotten a fair amount of exposure to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing operation.  (The book was published iby CreateSpace, which Amazon bought years ago and now has dropped in favor of KDP.) 

With the paperback version out, we now have to worry about the ebook version.   This leads me into some thoughts about the whole publishing process.  In the old world of publishing, say circa 1960, each hardcover book was handcrafted with lots of choices in its design and packaging.  The paperbacks were a bit different with less variety, especially in the cases where a publisher had a series going.  (I remember Ballantine's series of World War II histories as one example, or a series of John D. MacDonald's novels.)

I paid very limited attention to self-publishing.  It was around, and advertised in the pages of the NY York Times Book Review.  I think it required a rather hefty payment to get a batch of your book printed and available for sale.

These days with Amazon ebook publishing you have very limited choices in font and design.  But what this standardization does, along with the support of software and the internet, is enable a much greater variety in the content of books, partially because the costs of publishing in ebook format are so low.  Because the entry cost is low as long as you can live the with limited choices everyone and her brother can publish that book they've dreamed of.

This interplay of uniformity and diversity fascinates me, and I think you can find similar patterns in other areas.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Promises Kept and Victories Won?

Marc Thiessen has an oped in the Post claiming that President Trump has kept his promises, kept them better than any other president.  His second sentence is "He lies all the time."  That's a fitting description for Trump.

After reading Thiessen I ran across another piece, the url for which I've now lost.  The thesis was this:
in many House districts, particularly those won by Clinton and by a Republican representative in 2016, Trump's "wins" are unlikely to appeal to the centrist voters the Republican nominee in 2018 needs to win.  In many cases, perhaps most recently with judge Kavanaugh, a "win" may increase the odds of a Republican defeat in the House.

We'll see.

Thursday, October 11, 2018 Shows Promise

I've probably been skeptical of some FSA automation efforts, but I am impressed by a brief trip through the disaster app.  I got there from this tweet, plugged in some fake data for a hurricane in Buncombe County, NC, and got a reasonable result. (Only NAP available--I'd suspect county employees would like to see some qualifications--like the limitations on NAP coverage.  Otherwise the farmer may be overly optimistic when coming through the door.)

There's lots of room to improve, but it's a good start.  The question will be whether they can get enough traffic to the site to get good feedback.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Dentists and the Healthcare System

Went to the dentist today.  Not my favorite way to spend the afternoon.  Growing up I think I saw a dentist once or twice--it wasn't a thing for my family.  Consequently I've some irregular teeth, which is appropriate since I'm an irregular person.  A couple appointments ago my dentist asked about braces.  I barely restrained my laughter--not at my age.

Anyway I had a couple fillings while in the Army, then mostly avoided dentists again until my first wisdom tooth decayed and needed to be extracted.  I eventually hooked up with my wife's dentist--he was a monosyllabic single practitioner who did all his own work, perfectly fitted my preferences.  But then he retired and I had to find a new one, which I eventually did in Reston.

For the first time I started looking to my healthcare insurance to pay part of the dental costs.  It's strange because Kaiser, my health insurance company with which I'm very satisfied, doesn't do dentistry as it does other health issues, by employing its own dentists.  Instead they contract with a dental insurance company.

So the bottomline is there's three parties involved, four when you count my teeth.  Ordinarly I think of myself as an informed consumer, but not now, not with these players.  Instead when my dentist speaks, I salute and say "yes, ma'am", take my medicine and pay whatever bill is presented.  (A slight exaggeration--I just vetoed a separate appointment for a small filling in favor of combining it with my next 3-month (3-month!!) appointment.  But it turns out the three parties have their own problems in keeping their paperwork straight.  My dentist tried to explain the confusion to me (she didn't have a receptionist--hard to get help these days) but failed--I just paid the bill.

My bottom line: as with my sister years ago, I'm amazed by the administrative dysfunction of our healthcare system.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

ACRSI Comments

FSA has ACRSI data collection out for comment in the Federal Register:

Need and Use of the Information: This initiative is being conducted in phases by geographical area and additional commodities. Counties are selected based on their commonality of historical crop reporting, high percentage of producers participating in both RMA and FSA programs and the high level of interest of the private agricultural service industry (precision-ag and farm management) in the pilot phases. It will reengineer the procedures, processes, and standards to simplify commodity, acreage and production reporting by producers, eliminate or minimize duplication of information collection by multiple agencies and reduce the burden on producers, insurance agents and AIPs. Information being collected will consist of, but not be limited to: Producer name, location state, commodity name, commodity type or variety, location county, date planted, land location (legal description, FSA farm number, FSA track number, FSA field number), intended use, prevented planting acres, acres planted but failed, planted acres, and production of commodity produced. Failure to collect the applicable information could result in unearned Federal benefits being issued or producers being denied eligibility to program benefits.
Description of Respondents: Individuals and households.
Number of Respondents: 501,012.
Frequency of Responses: Reporting: One time.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Does Obsessive Reading Have a Future?

A common theme of interviews with writers, at least those in the NYTimes Book Review, is reading habits.  A common response is: I was an obsessive reader, reading anything from an early age.  That would be my response, if only I were a writer.

But will that be the response in the future?  I'm teased into that question by a news piece about a scholar of some sort, perhaps a philosopher, who found her reading habits and capabilities had been so changed by our social media she couldn't do a long session with a serious book.

Thinking back to my own experience in childhood--there were few children around in the neighborhood so I found a refuge in books, reading everything in the house and that came in the mail.  But assume I'd had a PC and access to the internet--certainly I'd have devoted less time to reading and more to the internet.  Whether the availability of all the material on the internet would have completely disrupted my reading I don't know.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Our Easily Forgotten Past Divisions

I've tweeted to this effect, but Noah Smith does a thread on the same point: American history is filled with episodes of violence and division. 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

SCOTUS Prediction

By this time in 2020 I don't think the Kavanaugh appointment will be much of an issue.  Roe v Wade will still be good law, although the Court likely has a mixed record in approving new restrictions on abortion. ]

[Update: some additional thoughts--the dog which won't bark, which no one is talking about today, is the overturning of a couple Supreme Court decisions, decisions of much more recent vintage than Roe v Wade--specifically the Windsor and Obergefell  decisions legalizing gay marriage.  That surprises but pleases me.  But then, almost everything about the history of gay marriage surprises me.  If you'd asked me in the mid-90's how things would work out, I'd have said at best gay marriage would be another issue like abortion--everlasting. But it's not become that.  What we now call gay rights is still an issue, and that will continue but marriage itself is not.]

Friday, October 05, 2018

Safeway's Self-Checkout and Driverless Cars

Vox has a long piece on the problems with self-checkout.

I have been a fan of self-checkout, which I use regularly at Safeway, but I'm getting less enthusiastic. My local Safeway has probably had self-checkout for 10 years or so.  You'd think that the system would keep working indefinitely but not so.  I suppose it's probably the hardware getting unreliable, but it seems like the software.  It's most noticeable when handling produce--hitting the icons for entering a code or selecting from a screen I often (it seems often) given a system error--needing a sales attendant.

My experience with the self-checkout raises some questions with driverless cars.  My assumption has been that the system will always improve--any problem in the software which turns up will be fixed on all the cars using the software.  But Safeway argues for the law of entropy.  While the software may endure, the underlying hardware and the accessories for input/output won't endure.  They'll degrade. 

I can switch my argument again by pointing to airplanes.  Boeing and Airbus also have a combination of hardware and software which is used over years and years, and they seem to have solved the problem of degrading hardware.  Elon Musk notoriously didn't pay much attention to the experience of established carmakers; I wonder if he will similarly ignore the plane makers.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Robotic Farms?

Technology Review writes about a hydroponics lettuce farm in San Francisco using robots to do some (much?) of the work.  I understand the logic, but as the article observes, such enterprises require a lot of capital upfront. Maybe there's a lot of capital sloshing around the world, enough to get a robotic farm up, running, and profitable.  We'll see. 

Part of the pitch for the robots is the difficulty of getting labor, especially with the current administration's crackdown on immigration.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

My Inner Populist Is Aroused

At least briefly.

What aggravates me is the conjunction of two news stories:

  1. the NYTimes report on the Trump family's shenanigans to avoid taxes and evade rules.
  2. a recent report noting the decline in IRS tax audits since 2010 because Republicans keep cutting the budget.  The Times report uses the Manafort and Cohen pleas as the hook.  When you Google "decline in IRS tax audits" you get a lot of reports from the spring, around tax time.
To my mind these are just examples of a much bigger phenomenon, a phenomenon which can be summed up in the old saying: "them as has gets".   Turns out Jimmy Lunceford and his band recorded the song.  As did the Andrews Sisters, It's written by Gene de Paul and Don Raye.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

"Iowans with better food" and Dairy

That, I'm sure, is a grossly unfair characterization of Iowan food.

It's a quote from an Esquire article on Rep. Devin Nunes, and his family's dairy farm in Iowa (not California where it used to be).  The dairy farms in the county are paranoid about the possibility of ICE raids because apparently most of their labor consists of undocumented immigrants.  On a dairy farm, the cows have got to be milked every day, either twice a day or in some cases three times a day. When you have 2,000 cows there's no way to handle the sudden jailing of 10 or 15 employees for even a day.  You have a lot of very unhappy cows (should PETA lobby against ICE raids on dairies) and a hit to production.  When a mammal's milk remains in the mammary gland, it's a signal to the body the milk's no longer required; start to switch energy to body building.

The quote comes from a person in town, commenting on the significant presence of Latinos now living there.

The Decline of Churches (and GE)

Monday the Post and Times both had articles on the decline of churches.  The Post covered the last service at a historic black church in NW DC while the Times article was on two declining black churches in Harlem, one of which has a carillon and both of which need repairs.

In both cases the articles focus on the impact of gentrification, on the loss of worshipers to the suburbs. That's a factor, I'm sure.  But other factors include the decline of religion generally, the aging of the population  which means fewer young people to bring to the church, and an inability to adapt to changing conditions.  A social institution like a church can do very well in one era but fail in another, something like a company like General Electric, which was one of the titans of the economy at the turn of the century and now is fragmenting before our eyes. 

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Hollow Dolls" and Essentialism and My Cousin's Book

Just finished "The Lies That Bind Us" by Appiah.  I recommend it. The lies are: creed, culture, color, class, and country.  One of the keys to the binding is the lie of "essentialism"--the idea that everyone who shares in the lie is essentially the same: all Americans are alike, all Muslims are alike, all blacks are alike, etc.

It's stretching a bit, I know, but I was reminded of essentialism when I read an article in the Times entitled "The robots aren't as human as they seem."  A biped robot is assumed to be humanlike, a quadraped is likely a dog, or maybe a cheetah.  That very human impulse seen with robots also leads us astray when considering flesh and blood humans and their beliefs about patriotism, religion, etc.

And since I've referred to "Dueling Dragons" in my post yesterday, I'll bring it up again today: I see its theme as the impact of tribalism based on all of Appiah's lies on Ulster.

[Updated--I don't think my post of yesterday does what I wanted--so some additions: if we humans can look at a biped and think it's human, it's easy for me to see that humans can look at other humans and project into the person what they believe.  And the projections will be consistent, because they're not based on facts, on reality, on data perceived in real time but based on ideas in the mind, wherever the ideas come from, past experience or the broader culture.

The reader can see that in in Dueling Dragons, as George Henderson, the newspaper editor, and John Martin exchange their mistaken (my take, definitely not the author's) views of the state and future of Ireland.]

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dueling Dragons Launch

I may have mentioned helping my cousin with her book, which is now available on Amazon.  She's now, today, on her way to Ireland (the island) to speak at events in the Newry area in Ulster. After her return she'll have speaking engagements in the New England area. 

The book's all hers--my participation took me back to my days in Directives in ASCS, mostly ensuring the transformation of the manuscript into a product Amazon would print (using the now defunct CreateSpace publishing service, now consolidated into Kindle Direct Publishing).

I'm also helping with a blog where she'll post stories and information around and related to the story in the book. 

Anyone interested in Irish history in the 19th century and/or how tribalism works (a topic of current interest) should take a look.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Double-Digit Midget--Some Things Never Change

Via Marginal Revolution, Business Insider has a list of phrases only the military would know.  Among them: "Double-Digit Midget."  That's listed right after "days and a wake-up".

I wonder if the draftees in earlier wars were using the same phrases.  I suppose only those in a bureaucratized military, with terms of service calculated down to the day. 

Anyhow, both those phrases and a few others were familiar from my days in the US Army.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

USDA Should Proof Better or Do We Have Wood Clothes?

Foreign Agricultural Service has a request for comment on an Information Collection.  It triggered my nitpicking self:  I've bolded the offending words.

Foreign Agricultural Service

Title: Agriculture Wood Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund.
OMB Control Number: 0551-0045.
Summary of Collection: Section 12315 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Pub. L. 113-79) authorizes distribution out of the Agriculture Wood Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund (“Agriculture Wool Trust Fund”) in each of calendar years 2014 through 2019, payable to qualifying claimants. Eligible claimants are directed to submit a notarized affidavit, following the statutory procedures specified Section 12314 (c) or (d) of the Act.
Need and Use of the Information: The Foreign Agricultural Service will use the information provided in the affidavits to certify the claimants' eligibility and to authorize payment from the Agriculture Wood Trust Fund.
It is, of course, for manufacturers of woolen apparel.   Apparently it's funded not by checkoffs from the affected parties (think the cotton or milk promotion funds) but by some legislative legerdemain with duties on wool imports.  Administration seems to be split between AMS and FAS--AMS handles almost all of the research and promotion marketing orders stuff.   FAS has this explanation: The Agriculture Wool Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund was authorized under Section 12315 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill) to reduce the economic injury to domestic manufacturers resulting from tariffs on wool fabric that are higher than tariffs on certain apparel articles made of wool fabric.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

College Life as It Used To Be II

Posted the other day on college life in the 17th century.  Now I'll mention an aspect of it in the 20th century--specifically panty raids

I was reminded of that 1950's fad by a short mention in the media re: Kavanagh--apparently Yale men raided women's rooms for their lingerie.  That seems to differ from what men were doing in the early 1950's, which was gather under the women's dorms and beg for panties.  I suppose the big difference is the fact we had women's dorms then; today there's no similar concentration of women to exploit.  The underlying motivations were likely the same.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

College Life as It Used To Be

Ran across this image at the Historic Ipswich website.  We can safely say no 17th century college students could be confirm on today's US Supreme Court.

Monday, September 24, 2018

MFP Instructions from FSA

USDA has added almonds and cherries to the eligible commodities for MFP payments, and FSA issued a new expanded notice covering them plus other changes.

The changes seem to be tightening up the program:
  1. a subparagraph on spotchecking production evidence
  2. more detailed instructions on reviewing evidence for reasonableness (though I don't see any definition of the "Other" category of acceptable evidence.  I don't remember that from 25 years ago--maybe it's been added and is now understood by everyone?) 
And the addition of a worksheet for making the payment calculations and computing a total payment amount.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

MFP and Privacy of Data

Article in the newspaper, lost track of which one, reporting that FSA had issued something like $23 million in MFP payments so far.

I'm impressed less by the speed with which the agency was able to issue the payments than by the ability to provide statistics.  With the centralized payment process the payment data should have been easy but they're also reported applications made and paid.  I'm not sure what's supporting that--maybe the business processes are in the cloud, making such data easy?

The article also went on to note that EWG was asking for release of the payment data.  That reminds me of this notice.  I've read it a couple times and still don't understand it, perhaps because I'm remembering that the 2008 or 2012 farm bill included a prohibition on providing payment data.  My memory may be wrong, or the law may have changed in more recent farm bills.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Toyota--Say It Ain't So--Driverless Cars

Here's a report on a Toyota bigshot's skepticism that we'll get driverless cars any time soon.

I've been driving my leased-Prius 2 for a year, chosen because of its safety features and reasonable price.  The features are good, but not fool proof--I've had a couple close calls, albeit at low speeds so likely the worst result would have been a fender-bender.  But still, I really want improvements in the features, FAST.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Are Ant Colonies Tribal?

We grow dahlias in our garden.  I regularly cut a few and bring them home for a dinner table bouquet.  Unfortunately the blossoms often have some ants in them, presumably harvesting the pollen or something.  So when I get them home and put them in vase (glass) on the kitchen counter I soon see ants running around the counter, all confused because they can't find the trail which will lead them back to their nest. 

Hence my question: is it possible for an ant from colony A of species Z to find and be accepted by ants also of species Z but from colony B?  Or would they identify the ant as an interloper who needs to be rejected, shunned, or attacked?  Assuming the latter to be true I put them out of their misery by squishing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Connectedness: the NYTimes Map

The NYTimes has an interactive map showing how people are connected by Facebook, which allows them to show the impact of distance: briefly, our friends are close, physically.  The data is at the county level, so they can show which counties people in Fairfax county are closest to (all VA counties plus DC, no MD counties).

It's good to play with.  As their final analysis, they show how the US divides if you divide areas by closeness of connections.  So if you divide the US into 2 parts, they're Hawaii and the rest of the country.  As a failed historian, I was fascinated to see that only at the 20 part division did the Mason Dixon line show up. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

50 Years in the DC Area

I forget what recently reminded me of the fact I've now lived in DC and Reston for over 50 years, but something in the newspaper did.  It's been a  while.   Even more astounding is I'm gradually catching up to the United States.  That is, at 77 my lifespan is getting close to 1/3 of the US (now 242 years).  If I live to be about 82 I'll be there.

Damn, I'm getting old.

Someday maybe I should write about the experience.  But right now I'd rather focus on the midterm elections.

Monday, September 17, 2018

MFPromises Made But Not Kept

It's been 2 weeks since the MFP was activated.  There's this promise on the website which hasn't been implemented yet:

Digital Forms Icons

Use the digital form on

Coming soon, you’ll have the option of completing a user-friendly digital application form right here on - optimized for your mobile phone or tablet. No authenticated account or password required. Just complete the digital form, and the application will be sent automatically to your county office. Then stop by your local USDA service center to sign the form and provide your production evidence any time.

Not sure what the holdup is since the form is online--maybe it's the optimization for phone or tablet?  If so, I wonder if they have statistics showing percent users of PC's versus phones/tablets? 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

How Partisan Are We Really?

Some lines from a Fivethirtyeight chat (onObama's influence today):
According to the 2017 poll I referenced earlier, Obama was seen favorably by 22 percent of Republicans. That’s not awful.
micah: That’s better than I expected, actually.
nrakich: And, according to a Gallup poll from February, 38 percent of Democrats now approve of George W. Bush! Some of that is the Trump effect, but in general, partisans cool their jets once their mortal enemy stops being their mortal enemy.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Congressional Research Service on Market Facilitation Program

Here's the CRS explanation and commentary on the MFP.

Two paragraphs from the summary:
Most farm commodity and advocacy groups have been supportive of the trade aid package even as they have called for solutions that restore export activity.
However, stakeholders have begun to question the equity of the distribution of MFP payments due to difficulties in isolating specific market effects and the lack of transparency around the formulas for determining MFP payment rates. Some trade economists and market watchers have suggested that its potential effects could be longer lasting because the imposition of tariffs and retaliatory tariffs have created uncertainty about U.S. trade policy behavior. Further, the use of CCC authority to mitigate tariff-related losses may establish a precedent for future situations.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Prima Donnas: Trump and MacArthur

I don't think many people would dispute that our president is something of a prima donna.  (See the internet's definition below.)   The question is who in American history is his peer in this regard?

Have I mentioned I'm reading "World War II at Sea"?  It's quite good and comprehensive.  Of course the author has to mention Douglas MacArthur.  I'd put his ego up against Trump's any day of the week, although he had more genuine accomplishments than Trump.

The internet says a prima donna is:
"a very temperamental person with an inflated view of their own talent or importance.
synonyms:ego, self-important person, his nibs, temperamental person, princessdivapooh-bah;
informaldrama queen
"a city council filled with prima donnas"

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Kevin Drum's Readers Are Wrong

A couple days ago Kevin posted a graph showing price changes over time: one line was for cat food, the other dog food.  He asked his readers (cat fans, I assume, because of his Friday feature) which was which, specifically which had had the greater increase in recent years..

The "best" comment threads uniformly guessed cat food, offering good and valid reasons (cats eat meat, dogs eat more varied diets).

The answer, however, was dog food had increased; cat food is actually cheaper today than it was in 1985.

I have no idea why the difference. Possibly we underestimate the changes in the price of meat over the last 30 years?  Or possibly something else.

Monday, September 10, 2018

CRISPR and Cassava

Tamar Haspel tweeted a link to this article on using CRISPR in cassava.  Part of the key was making cassava flower reliably and early, so regular breeding and cross-matching techniques could be employed down the line.  (Cassava feeds a lot of people (is a billion a lot--I think so) but has been hard to improve because it didn't flower regularly.)

The article goes on to comment on the barriers to CRISPR being erected in other areas of the world.

CRISPR is near and dear to my heart, though it's been around for just a few years, because I identified it early as an interesting technique, though just today have I added a label for it (using "genetic modification" before). 

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Insubordination in the Past

Been reading a couple of good books: World War II at Sea, and President Carter which remind me of past instances of insubordination in different executive branches.  Some instances, not from the books:

  1. FDR was told by a top naval officer before WWII the military did not have faith in his leadership.  
  2. Churchill's military continually questioned his judgment, with good cause according to most historians.
  3. Joe Califano resisted Carter's efforts to remove education from his HEW to establish a separate Education Department.  Carter ended up firing 3 cabinet officers and almost had his VP resign.
  4. Much of Lincoln's military, particularly in the early years and especially Gen. McClellan, openly dissed the president. 
  5. Andrew Jackson ended up firing his cabinet to resolve dissension.
  6. Ronald Reagan--well, I won't start on him.
So our current president's troubles are not entirely unprecedented.  

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Blast from the Past: Pogo

We have met the enemy and he is us. 

That's a quote from my sister's favorite cartoon of the 1950's, and therefore mine.  (She was 5.5 years older, enough that she could act as a guide to the mysterious world of adults. )

Reminded of Pogo by this short piece.

Here's the wikipedia take.

I see googling "pogo" doesn't bring up the cartoon as any of the top results.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Once Biten, Twice Shy in Politics

Some days I'm very left in my political opinions; other days I'm more cautious.  Today at least the cautious side wins. 

I wish President Obama had continued to be quiet, to push participation and policies but not taking on the current incumbent of the Oval Office.  I wish the Democrats weren't reaching so hard for ammunition to use against Kavanaugh.  He strikes me as about the best we could expect from this President and this party.  The current polls look promising in the House, and not too terrible in the Senate, but I'm concerned that the Republicans will be able to use their fatcat money to push the message that Democrats are extreme.

I'm likely thinking with my emotions, not not my brain, but I remember my optimism going into the 2016 elections.  And I remember McGovern in 1972 and Dukakis in 1988. 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

A Compliment for

I've a jaundiced view of initiatives to put government operations on-line, which is a carryover from my experiences when I was at FSA.  However, I want to compliment for at least a small attempt at transparency--they're including on the site some promises of additions to the site as well as an early stab at presenting metrics.

I've always believed  government websites should publicize their views and usage.  I suspect the figures would disappoint people like me who want to push e-government.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Those Hard-Working Bureaucrats at FSA

Failed to mention yesterday that the instructions for MFP were issued timely.  Signup opened yesterday, and the notice providing the instructions was issued at 1:00 am. Sept. 4.

Never let it be said that FSA bureaucrats were asleep on the job.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

CCC-910 for Market Facilitation Program

FSA now has the form approved by OMB and up and operational on its website. (Or, actually on the website.)

Since I've started off nitpicking the program and it's a convenient subject to blog about, some more comments. (And there aren't many people left at FSA from my time there, which is a consideration--don't want to be unfair to friends, but unfair to strangers is another matter.)

I wonder why the producer's certification only notes that failure to certify production accurately will result in loss of benefits.  I'm too lazy to check, but didn't FSA used to note penalties for false certification--18 U.S.C. something or other? I also wonder why there's no language either tying the production to the producer's farm(s) or certifying that it is the total production from all farms in which the producer has an interest.  Don't know if there's an appendix to this contract.  Nor do I know the significance of the "adjusted production" column.

I'm a bit disappointed that FSA asks for a producer's fax number, but not her email address. 

I note with some bemusement that the nondiscrimination statement has been modified since my time--I've bolded the changes.

"In accordance with Federal civil rights law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, the USDA, its Agencies, offices, and employees, and institutions participating in or administering USDA programs are prohibited from discriminating based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity (including gender expression), sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, family/parental status, income derived from a public assistance program, political beliefs, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity, in any program or activity conducted or funded by USDA (not all bases apply to all programs). Remedies and complaint filing deadlines vary by program or incident."

I note the website promises the ability to file electronically.  Maybe I've found another area to nitpick. 

Monday, September 03, 2018

Alex Haley and Cornell

It turns out that Alex Haley, the author of "Roots" was born in Ithaca, NY, while his father Simon was getting his Masters in agriculture at Cornell.

Over the first hundred years of Cornell's existence it educated some African-Americans, though a man from Haiti was the first student of African descent in 1869.

IMO because of its different colleges, partly due to its land-grant status, Cornell had an easier time with diversity than did its competitors over that period.  For blacks the record was tokenism, a few students every year at best.  Cornell did better with Asian students, enrolling its first in 1870 along with its first woman. But notoriously, when the civil rights movement started impacting colleges in the 1960's, it didn't do any better than other schools.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Canada and Supply Management for Dairy

One of the biggest issues in the renegotiation of NAFTA with Canada is their desire to maintain their system of supply management for dairy.  Here's a site with statistical data on the industry.  The two big provinces are Ontario and Quebec.  As one can see from this chart there's little variation in cow numbers over the last 15 years (2004-2018).  But if you look at the number of farms, there has been roughly 1/3 reduction in farm numbers over the same period (17,000 to 11,000).

From ERS  (the copy and paste process loses the formating.  I've bolded the two big points): Midpoints increased for each commodity over 1987-2012, but the rate of increase varies widely, with dramatic long-term changes in egg, hog, and dairy production (table 9). The midpoint flock size in egg layers increased to 925,975 birds in 2012 from 117,839 in 1987 (and just over 62,000 in 1982); the midpoint for hog removals rose to 40,000 in 2012 from 1,200 in 1987; and the midpoint dairy cow herd rose to 900 cows in 2012 from 80 in 1987. The broiler and fed cattle industries show continued consolidation, with 2012 midpoints a bit more than double their values in 1987. However, each underwent striking changes in organization and technology well before the series starts in 1987 (MacDonald and McBride, 2009). Table 9 Consolidation in livestock sectors, 1987-2012 Commodity 1987 1997 2007 2012 Change (percent) 1987-2012 2007-2012 Sales midpoint: Number of head sold or removed Broilers 300,000 480,000 681,600 680,000 127 -0.1 Fed cattle 17,532 38,000 35,000 38,369 119 10 Hogs and pigs 1,200 11,000 30,000 40,000 3,233 33 Turkeys 120,000 137,246 157,000 160,000 33 2 Inventory midpoint: Number of head in herd/flock Beef cows 89 100 110 110 24 0 Egg layers 117,839 300,000 872,500 925,975 686 6 Milk cows 80 140 570 900 1,025 58 Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, compiled from census of agriculture data.

Bottom line: while Canadian dairy farms have declined in number, the rate of decline in the US is higher. 

I'm reminded of the supply management system the US used to have for tobacco, now ended.  It had a similar effect: slowing the transformation of the industry.

Friday, August 31, 2018

No Instructions or Form for MFP

At least, I can't find any at the appropriate places on the fsa.usda website or on the website.  That site provides links to the other forms which are required or may be used.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Any Double-Dipping on MFP

Still no FSA notice on the MFP, but there is a notice on the Dairy Margin Protection Program.  I have not kept up with program, but from the following Background paragraphs my guess is it's a revenue insurance type program, but run by FSA and not RMA.
"MPP-Dairy payments are triggered when the difference between the National all milk price and the National average feed cost (the margin) falls below the producer-selected margin trigger, ranging from $4 to $8, calculated monthly. USDA prices for milk and feed components required to determine the National average margin for July were released on August 29, 2018. The actual National average margin for July is $6.71815/cwt. As a result, dairy operations that elected margin coverage of $7.00, $7.50 and $8 will be issued a payment.
Payments for margins triggered will be issued directly to producers. MPP-Dairy payments issued will not be offset by premium balances due. The full balance of the premium is due September 28, 2018."
It raises the question to me, which I may have mentioned before, of whether there will be double-dipping under the MFP.  In other words, crop insurance has products, on which I'm not expert, which can cover loss of revenue from a base, a loss which might be caused by production losses and/or market price dips.  Producers have to sign up for such products and pay premiums.  MFP is essentially a free one-shot policy covering market price dips. So producers who signed up for the DMPP or a revenue crop insurance policy will receive two payments for the same loss.  That doesn't seem right, but from a program administration standpoint it immensely simplifies the operation.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

MFP Form Is Missing?

USDA now has some material on the MFP other than the press release up its website,

They give the name of the application form, CCC-910, but it's not available in the FSA Forms database.  Nor is there any notice on MFP listed in FSA notices.  I assume any training for administering the program would also show up in a notice there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

MFP Notice of Funds Availability

As usual, I'm fast and sloppy.  OFR has the NOFA for MFP here.

OMB gave FSA a 6-month emergency approval for the paperwork.  (Why didn't they do that for ASCS back in the day when I was handling them.)

The NOFA does have the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number for MFP--10.123.

I have to carp at this paragraph: "If supporting documentation is required for the amount of actual production and for ownership share, it needs to be verifiable records that substantiate the reported amounts. The participant’s production for the commodity is based on verifiable or reliable production records. Examples of reliable production records include evidence provided by the participant that is used to substantiate the amount of production reported when verifiable records are not available, including copies of receipts, ledgers of income, income statements of [? shouldn't it be "or,"]deposit slips, register tapes, invoices for custom harvesting, and records to verify production costs, contemporaneous measurements, truck scale tickets, or contemporaneous diaries that are determined acceptable by the county committee."

The first sentence and second sentences seem to be at odds--my guess is the intention is clarified by the definitions of "verifiable" and "reliable" (but not verifiable) evidence in the next paragraphs, but that isn't what the first sentence says.

Where Are the Regulations and the Forms?

USDA has officially announced Sept. 4 as the beginning date to sign up for the Market Facilitation Program. That's the press release.

What I, as an old FSA bureaucrat, am wondering is:

  1. when will FSA issue a directive, presumably a notice, on the MFP?
  2. when will the regulations (presumably an interim final reg) be published by the Office of the Federal Register.  Note: I typed the previous sentence, then did a search on the OFR site.  The regulation was filed with OFR this morning.  It has this notation:  "This document is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on 08/30/2018 and available online at, and on"
  3. when will the signup form(s) be available?  They have to be cleared by OMB. 
Some comments on the regulations, written as I scan it.
  • USDA OGC and OMB have come up with a dodge which is new to me--a "Notice of Funds Availability".  I've not seen such a document before, but Googling shows it's been used by other departments.  My guess is the lawyers approved (lawyers can approve anything if the pressure is on) this as a measure to work around existing rules in the Administrative Procedure Act and Trump's EEO--I'd bet a fair amount that NOFA's aren't considered "regulations" for those purposes.  Note: There's some logic to the step--the "regulations" which get conservatives upset usually shape behavior: OSHA and EPA type regs.  The regulations for farm program payments used to be considered "regulations", but no body was forced to take the payments--the regulations were really the conditions for receiving the payment.  
  • I'm waiting with bated breath to see whether the applications for payment get OMB clearance.  Seems to me they have to, but the MFP regs say the form will be specified in the NOFA.
  • Turns out OMB has a category of "transfer rules" which are not covered by the two for one Trump rule (doing away with two old regulations for each new regulation).  That dates back to April 2017.
  • I see one glitch here: "The title and number of the Federal Domestic Assistance Program found in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance to which this rule applies is TBD – Market Facilitation Program and number".  The number wasn't assigned.
  • I think it's fair to assume that eligibility and payments are on a farm basis, rather than an operator.  
I never was an expert on the price support side of FSA; they are the people who dealt with production evidence.  With that said, where could a dishonest producer game the program?  The incentive for fraud would be to exaggerate one's production, by duplicating evidence to multiple county offices, forging evidence, or having different producers claiming ownership of the same production.  FSA has long experience with production evidence, so existing validation checks and spotchecks will likely work. However, as a cynic, I'm sure a few farmers will try to get more than they should.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Market Facilitation Program--Signup Sept. 4

Here's the USDA press release on the programs to offset the impacts of Trump's trade war on farmers.

Some things strike me, though my information is 20 years out of date.

The MFP (administered by FSA) covers pork and milk, as well as the commodities: cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans, and sorghum (not sure if ELS cotton is covered); oats, rice, and barley are not.  While FSA is used to collecting production data for the commodities, it has less experience with pork and milk.

Applications for  the "first payment period" starts Sept. 4 (actually presumably the later of Sept 4 and the completion of harvest for the commodities), but it's not clear to me what the payment period means--presumably the 2018 harvest for the commodities, while pork and milk are based on snapshot data as of August 1 and June 1, respectively.

Payment's on 50 percent of actual production, with the second payment period beginning Dec. 2018 to cover the remaining 50 percent.  Presumably that will be announced if there's no end to the war or farm prices don't bounce back.

[Addition: not clear whether application is on a farm basis, or the entire farming operation.  Possibly could be either, but the entire operation would limit the possibility of moving production evidence from one farm to another.]

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Honor the Silent Generation

Ross Douthat had a nice tweet on Sen. McCain, but he led off by calling him a member of the Boomer generation.  He was quickly corrected, by many, including me.

We Silents get no respect--we're stuck between the so-called "Greatest Generation" and the big Boomers.  We got no president--all our candidates lost (Mondale, Dukakis, McCain), and we lost or drew our wars: Korea and Vietnam.  But for all that, we survived and so did the country.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ceremonies Where America Comes Together

One of the few times when America comes together, other than the Super Bowl, is funerals, specifically funerals of ex-Presidents and a select few other public figures (MLK, RFK).  We can foresee three such ceremonies in the relatively near future.  The first will be Sen. McCain who, though not a figure comparable to MLK, has a life story which attracts sympathy from different elements of America.  The second and third are less, clear, but neither Jimmy Carter nor George H.W. Bush can be expected to live many more years.

IIRC correctly President Clinton's remarks at Nixon's funeral was praised.  That's just an example of the close scrutiny we give to the pageantry and words at such funerals.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Puzzles of Human Society I Don't Understand

Two things about human society I don't understand:

  1. Sometimes things change fast.  I'm thinking of things like the change in the US in attitudes towards homosexuals, particularly gay marriage.  Or the changes in Ireland in social attitudes generally.  Or the changes in Chinese society over the last 40 years or so.
  2. Sometimes things change slow.  I'm thinking of things like Gregory Clarks research on the long lasting effects of social position in British society.  Or things like the research on the effects of the slave trade on African countries which were or weren't affected by the trade.  Or things like the beer/wine divide in Europe.  Or the effects of Roman roads on subsequent development.
If I weren't lazy at the moment I could provide links, but as I am you'll just have to trust me.  

I suppose there's some logic to the differences, but I've not seen it addressed anywhere.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

USDA and Amazon Search for Locations

USDA has issued their request for proposals from cities for facilities  for ERS and NIFA.  (For those like me who might be confused by some of the publicity around the proposal: no, NIFA is not ARS (the Agricultural Research Service based in Beltsville), they're something else.

The request is for 70,000 sq ft for ERS and 90,000 sq. ft. for NIFA, total of 620 employees, deadline for "expressions of interest" is Sep. 14.

Now I hope that Amazon makes up their mind about their second headquarters by late September so the losing cities will have a chance at ERS/NIFA.  Actually, my guess would be Ft. Collins and Ames, IA might be choices.

620 mostly professional employees might be close to $100 million.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Ants Say: Pareto Was Wrong

I've always believed the Pareto 80/20 rule had broad applicability.  But now scientists report it's even broader than I knew, but Pareto had the numbers wrong--it's really 70/30.  It turns out 70 percent of ants let the others do the digging of tunnels, which is important because otherwise you violate the "too many cooks in the kitchen" rule--the extra workers just run into each other.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sometimes I'm Stupid

Although I'm not sure whether it's plain stupidity, impatience, or stress.

As I posted yesterday, I bought a new PC on Saturday, since the old one was giving the blue screen of death.  What I missed, what was stupid, was the fact that the good people at Microsoft had a QR code (like a 2d bar code) associated with the blue screen and error message.  Finally woke up to the fact today.  I had, fortunately, taken a picture of the screen and QR code on Friday, so I did a google search for the image--found it and an explanation of the error code.

Now I'm not sure when I follow up on the error code I'll find a cause which shows I was too hasty in buying the new PC.  But it does make me feel stupid.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

New Computer

Bought a new PC yesterday, as my old desktop was displaying multiple blue screens of death.  The process of setting it up and moving from the old one is familiar, yet a bit different.  In the old days you'd be told about moving files from old to new, because everyone upgraded their PC to the newest and greatest version.  No such instructions these days, perhaps because they know the likely reason for a new purchase is the old PC is dead?  Or perhaps they figure the newbies are not buying desktops, but tablets or laptops or whatever, and the old timers who are stuck in a rut with desktops can figure out what to do.

Friday, August 10, 2018

USDA Reorganization--ERS

Government Executive has a good piece on the USDA announcement of a reorganization of the economics people, including a move of ERS outside of the DC area.  I've no expertise in this area, but when has that kept me from commenting?

My first reaction to the move was negative, but then I read the rationale in the piece: the difficulty of getting professionals to move to the high-cost DC area.  That makes sense to me.  I remember the problems we had back in the 80's and 90's in getting people to move--one reason why we ended up hiring program technicians from county offices under SCOAP.  Single women had less difficulty moving than did married men with families, the usual targets for hiring as program people in DC.

My third reaction is triggered by the discussion in the piece.  Distance in bureaucracy is critical.  The problem in attracting professionals to DC is not limited to ERS or USDA.  Apparently the locality pay differential doesn't work at these levels, and also USDA hasn't gotten the authority to offer bigger money for such positions (like doctors in HHS/NIH or attorneys elsewhere get).

Bureaucrat Gets a Bust

Not many bureaucrats get immortalized in bronze, but Pearlie Reed did. The piece has a reference to his founding the National Association of Professional Black NRCS Employees.  When you search that website it seems that Louis E. Wright may also have been a founder, or maybe "the" founder.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Comparative Advantage in People

The economists have an ancient law which they call "comparative advantage".  Essentially it says a country should do whatever it does best at, even if its best is poor, poorer than other countries.  If countries follow the rule, they'll end up trading goods at the lowest possible price.  For example, American workers are good at assembling stuff, but they're also good at creating Disney films.  Chinese workers are pretty fair at assembling stuff, but they aren't not good at creating Disney films.  So the answer is obvious.

The NYTimes has an op-ed today which (mis)applies, without saying so, the theory to people.  Barbara Oakey notes that academically girls are good at reading and writing, better than boys.  But tests show that girls and boys have roughly equal aptitudes for math.  She argues that girls, finding that they do better than boys at reading/writing will think they're less good at math and so choose to focus on reading/writing and slight their math.  Her answer is to resist this, and to push girls to study math more.

Now Prof. Oakey is more focused on choices before college, not the ultimate choice of occupation. But drawing on the comparative advantage idea, she may be pushing a rock up the hill.  She ignores the psychology on the other side: boys will find themselves outclassed at reading and writing by the girls, so will tend to focus on math. 

[Caveats: all this is very general, phrased in ideal types, not real people.]

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Jimmy Carter Reconsidered I

I'm reading "President Carter: the White House Years" by Stuart Eizenstat, who was Carter's main policy adviser in the White House.  So far about a quarter through.  It's well written, although it could use closer editing--in a couple places there's near repetition of content/points just pages apart.

That's not really important.  The big issue in the early days was energy, which Eizenstat claims Carter changed national energy policy drastically and permanently.  I'm not convinced yet, but I did run across this graph from AEI, which shows a dramatic drop in energy imports spanning 10 years from Carter's term through the end of Reagan's. 

I may post more later on Carter.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Upward Mobility Revisited

Robert Samuelson has a column in the Post on the decline of upward mobility in America.

What's being measured is inflation-adjusted incomes, comparing children and parents.  So the percentages of children who exceed their parents income has declined. A Brookings study tries to parse out which classes and which age cohorts see the change.

A couple of observations strike me:  it's (relatively) easy for poor kids to beat their parents; it's hard for rich kids to beat their parents.  The child of a welfare mother with no job only has to make it into a lasting job while the child of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates will never beat her parents.

The 1940 cohort has the greatest success, so using it as the baseline for comparison skews the results.  People like me profited by the post-war boom, the increase in productivity, which hasn't been matched in later years.

One thing the discussions, particularly Samuelson's, don't approach is a hobbyhorse of mine: in a steady-state economy every person who is upwardly mobile has to be matched by another who is downwardly mobile. That's apparent when, as here, you use inflation-adjusted income as your measure; it's less apparent when you talk about people moving from one level (decile, quartile) to another.

With dollars of income, it's possible for everyone to out earn their parents, provided only that the economy grows enough.  (Think of China, where the income measure means everyone is upwardly mobile.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

White Anxiety and Spelling Bees, etc.

Usually discussion of white anxiety focuses on growing economic inequality, the decline of the middle class, and the influx of immigrants resulting in a minority-majority country (not that I necessarily agree with these).  But I think there's another source of anxiety which isn't often discussed: white stupidity.

What I mean is whites look around and see that South Asians are dominating the National Spelling Bee (19 of the last 23).  I don't have an article to link to but I believe that students with immigrant backgrounds are also out competing "whites" in what used to be the Westinghouse Science Competition.  The new suit charging Harvard discriminates against Asian students forces "whites" to recognize their grip on claims to superiority in test-taking is slipping away.

To rub salt into "white" dreams of superiority Asian women have dominated the LGPA.

Friday, August 03, 2018

"Milk", by Mark Kurlansky

I got this book from the library, not Amazon, so I wouldn't feel right reviewing it there.  But I think the "critical" reviews on Amazon are  generally on point. 

For someone who grew up on a dairy farm the subject is interesting.  For someone who doesn't cook all the recipes aren't interesting.  The coverage is wide and broad, but not deep.  He tries to cover milk from a variety of species around the world, tossing in recipes every two or three pages.  He wraps up with a brief look at modern US farming.  The book started as a magazine article, and it still retains some of that character.  The author leans somewhat to the side of organic/locavore dairy, finding farms which are trying to find a niche where they can charge high enough prices to stay in business.

But the author is a bit credulous, I think, in accepting some of the claims.  For example, that one Holstein could outproduce 50 Jerseys.  Not possible--the farmer must have been pulling his leg. 

There's also the claim cows stay in the herd until 3 or 4.  Seemed incredible to me--3 means one lactation, which isn't enough to cover the cost of rearing the calf.  I know we had cows in our herd aged 9 or 10, because they were still productive milkers.  Did some superficial googling and found 4 or 5 is a common figure.  Still seems low to me, but then I remembered what we did with our calves: the males went for veal, of course; some of the females we kept and others we sold (depending on whether chance had given us a run of females).  The selling is the key--dad could sell calves because there were other dairies in the region, and his herd was respected.  Today, I'd assume there's no market for female calves, so they all go into the herd. If the cow has two pregnancies, chances are she's borne her replacement.  So the economic calculation for the herd is the cost of rearing the calf until it can be bred and give birth, versus the cow's production over that time.   (I'd also assume because of better breeding the calf has a greater potential than its mother had.)

Thursday, August 02, 2018


The USDA CIO's office has a blog post touting their work towards "dashboards" consolidating access to data across the USDA.

Fedscoop notes in the second phase of the "lighthouse" project:
In this second phase, USDA plans to award contracts across the same five focus areas as Phase I — IT Infrastructure Optimization, Cloud Adoption, Customer Experience, Data Analytics and Contact Center — and an additional contract for support of its program management office.
 The same piece offers this quote:
"While the CoEs address a wide swath of IT modernization at USDA, the White House’s Matt Lira argued in June that what they all have in common is creating a better-functioning government.
“We are ultimately in the business of restoring the public’s faith in these institutions themselves,” Lira said.
I'm a little dubious of these efforts.  I do hope they are collecting metrics.  If I were feeling energetic, I'd file a FOIA request for available metrics of online usage. But then, if I were feeling energetic, I'd have better things to do than nitpick efforts.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Need for Photo ID and Our Assumptions

President Trump last night said you need photo id when you go to the grocery store.  His people have defended the statement two ways: if you're paying by check, you need the id or if you're buying alcohol you need the id.  His opponents find these lame rationalizations--few people pay by check anymore and he didn't mention beer and wine.

As an opponent, I agree. But there's a danger here of accepting and reinforcing the assumption--all Americans go to the supermarket, all Americans have checking accounts, and all Americans live in single-family homes.  All, of course, are false.  Many Americans go to the local grocery, where their family may have shopped for years, and where the owner knows them and needs no id.  Many Americans have no checking account. Many Americans never go to the store, being essentially confined to their homes and dependent on others to buy their groceries for them. And many Americans  live in group settings where food is served. And some Americans live on the street and depend on food kitchens, etc.

[updated: Vann Newkirk at the Atlantic agrees.]

Monday, July 30, 2018

Implementing the Trade War Payments I

Agweb has the announcement of the CCC programs, which include these details (from Jim Wiesemeyer, who was a pain in the neck  back in 1983 during the the implementation of the Payment-in-Kind (PIK) Program).
“USDA says it will take some time to develop the needed rules and regulations for the efforts and there will be a Federal Register notice published,” Wiesemeyer said. “There will be a relatively simple signup —producers will need to tell USDA what their 2018 production is for the crops targeted, and that level of what they actually produced times a payment rate and producers would get a payment based on that formula.”
Specific details for how the program will work, how the program will be implemented and how farmers can sign up for payments have not been announced. According to USDA undersecretary, Greg Ibach, the details will be released closer to Labor Day when USDA plans to fully implement the program.

“Payments are expected to start going to producers in September and will be also dictated by when the producer actually harvests the crops where the direct payments will be made,” Wiesemeyer said. “That would signal most wheat producers would be first up to receive the payments along with pork and dairy producers.”
I suspect there's some parallels with PIK--USDA and FSA have been working on the program for a couple months.  And they'll be working even harder now the announcement is out.  Based on my experience with PIK and other programs, the biggest problem will have been figuring out what decisions need to be made, specifically things like which commodities will be included and the economic logic for computing payment rates. How long do you assume the trade war is going to last is a big one.  Maybe you can compute an impact on prices for the 2018 crops of wheat, corn, soybeans, etc and assume that the trade war will be over in time for the 2019 crop?  But for dairy and pork the exact duration is more important.  Or maybe you set up a continuing program so you can do multiple computations and multiple payments?

Those are policy issues for the big shots in USDA and OMB--I hope Sec. Perdue's policy team is well staffed and works smoothly, much more smoothly than the administration's foreign policy team.

The bureaucratic issues are of more interest to me.  Developing the signup forms and procedures, writing the regulations, and getting OMB clearance on the forms and regulations are big jobs. In 1983 we didn't have all the tools they have now--IIRC Wordperfect was our major tool.  I know for sure we were still printing forms and procedures then. And those had to be shipped to state and county offices and arrive before farmers could sign up for the program.

 My big question on this program is how Trump's EOs on reducing the burden of regulations and the number of regulations will come into play.  I'm sure at the beginning of the year USDA and OMB didn't plan on having at least one brand new regulation, and more likely three new ones, to fit under the Trump rules.  Three new rules would mean having to do away with six old ones.  My cynical take is OMB will waive the rules and no one of any consequence will notice.

I'm also curious how FSA in DC will train the states and counties.  I know they're doing a lot of training online.  In 1983 DC had to train the states and the states would train the counties.  Preparing training materials when issues are still in up in the air is fun.  Getting up in front of 100 state people who are impatient to get going and nervous over the jam they're in is great fun.  The reality though is that "training" is more complicated than simply passing on information and procedures.  In-person training is an opportunity to find out the holes and flaws in what you (the DC specialist) has done.  And it's an opportunity over the long run to build trust--if you promise to get an answer from the big shots and are able to deliver, people trust you more.  And I think that trust ultimately pervades the whole network of people from DC specialist through to the farmer applying for benefits.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Succesion on the Farm

NYTimes has an op-ed on Trump's trade war, focusing on the emptying of the rural landscape.   His example:
A friend, a small-town Iowa banker who specializes in working with farmers, offered a local example. It’s time for Mom and Dad to retire, get off the farm and move to town. Much of the time, if no heir is interested in continuing the operation, the farm is auctioned to the highest bidder.
This time, one son wanted to take over the farm. But there were other children entitled to their share, so the farm went up for auction.
But now they had to compete with larger farm operations. The son “did the best he could,” said my friend, but a big operation “bid it up more than it was worth, some guy from out of town no one knew — probably from one of the big operations up north. The kid didn’t have a chance. It was heartbreaking.”
It's wrenching, but good planning might have saved the day:  the parents establish a legal entity (not a lawyer but likely a corporation of some ilk) in which all the children share equally, with the son who wants to farm an employee/owner.  Over time, if the operation is profitable the son buys out his siblings, assuming they don't want any link to the farm.

A couple things of note:

  • this proposed sequence means converting a "family farm" into a "corporate farm" even though there may not be much change in the day-to-day operation.  Although likely the son who wanted to farm was bearing much of the workload when his parents decided to throw in the towel.
  • the "big operation" is unknown, unspecified.  It could well have been a neighbor who has the greater access to capital than the aspiring son has.  It's logical it's a bigger operation: with everything else equal, the bigger operation will have lower per-acre operating costs than the smaller operation
  • the succession problem is one reason why the median farmer is old.   

Friday, July 27, 2018

Five Out of Six Elections Lost--Learn From the Past

Joe Scarborough had an op-ed in the Post this morning. He wrote "Republicans would win the White House in six of the next seven presidential elections [after 1964]. I don't think the math works: 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, ?? I count it as five out of six elections (which is even better for his point--that the Republicans recovered fast after the Goldwater disaster).

Naturally, being a nitpicker, I leaped on the statement.  But thinking more broadly, I was reminded of the 1972 election and George McGovern.  To me, and others who supported McGovern such as the Clintons, that was a cautionary lesson.  The lesson: the first rule of politics is you have to win the election.  While I've a good deal of sympathy for many of the proposals now being floated by Democrats, I'll always support that rule.  

Thursday, July 26, 2018

USDA in a Best Seller?? Maybe in a Movie?

Improbable as it seems, it's possible, not certain but possible, that USDA will be featured in a best selling book available for its bureaucrats to give as Christmas presents to their family members.


Michael Lewis has a new book coming out in October, described in this NY Times piece.
“The Fifth Risk,” which W.W. Norton will publish in October, paints a dire picture of the chaos and mismanagement in the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce during the transition from President Barack Obama to President Trump. Within these seemingly dull, benign bureaucratic systems, Mr. Lewis encountered devoted public servants struggling with understaffed and neglected agencies while confronting potentially catastrophic risks.
Lewis has a good history of hitting the best seller list.   And several of his books have been made into movies ("The Blind Side", "Money Ball").

I've already added it to my Amazon wish list.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Thoughts on the Trump Bailout

Apparently the Market Facilitation Program payments will be tied to actual production:

  • I wonder how the program provisions will interact with other farm programs, particularly the crop insurance policies for whole farm revenue?
  • I wonder whether they will apply a payment limitation on the benefits.  Under the legislation authority they're using I don't believe they would have to, but might be criticized if they don't.  I've already seen a query on Twitter about payments to big farmers.
  • On the fraud end, it would seem that cross-referencing insurance production data and MCP data would be necessary.  Fortunately FSA and RMA have ironed out all the differences in their databases so that will be a piece of cake (won't it-- :-)

The Post, Farmers, and the Trump Bailout

Via Tamar Haspel on twitter, the Washington Post has a page asking farmers for their input on the Trump bailout program, including contact information so reporters can follow up.  The approach is new to me.  Worth trying IMHO but while the Post's audience may have expanded and diversified with the impact of the internet, I'm not sure how much attention it will attract.

BTW Haspel is maybe the best Post reporter they've had since Ward Sinclair, which is going back a bit. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Ted Williams

I'm old enough to have followed Ted Williams during the end of his career and then when he was manager of the Washington Nationals. I was a Yankee fan, not the Bosox, though my aunt was an avid follower of that team.

Williams was the greatest hitter ever.  Losing 5 years to the military during his best years means his career statistics are only Hall of Fame worthy, not Greatest of All Time. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sport and Video Games

As a followup to my post on the decline of sports in Reston the NYTimes had a piece on "esports" getting together with the IOC.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Haspel on Greenberg's Mistaken Times Op-Ed

Tamar Haspel should be followed by anyone interested in food policy. Here she offers good criticism of a Paul Greenberg op-ed in the Times.

I do want to comment on Greenberg's idea that specialty crops should return to the Midwest from the South and the coast.  The problem I see is that the South and coasts (and Central and South America) have natural advantages for growing fruits and vegetables--specifically their growing seasons are longer and/or opposite to the season in the central U.S.  Transportation, specifically the interstate highway system and air, has obliterated the advantages of growing locally. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Where I'm at on Trump

The Helsinki summit and its aftermath has caused me to change my perceptions of the Trump administration, somewhat.

For background, let me recall Watergate.  I followed the scandal avidly, being a good liberal Democrat.  But given my preference for Murphy's Law as the best first explanation for mishaps in human society, I gave Nixon a lot of slack for a good while.  It was conceivable that Henry II (who will rid me of this tiresome priest vis a vis Becket) was a good historical reference.  In other words, no  top-down plan being executed, but a messy tangled web of interactions.

This general approach was gradually eroded: John Dean's testimony, the tapes, and the revelation of the tape contents.  So now I believe, that while there were messy elements, Nixon was the impetus and responsible for the coverup,  if not certainly for the initial breakin.

Helsinki caused me to remember this progression and to see the parallels with Trump and Russia.  I don't think there's proof of collusion, but I do think Trump set the climate of an unconventional campaign not concerned with past norms.  As an underdog the campaign was willing to do anything that offered promise--witness Donald Jr's reaction to the offer of dirt.

Without tapes and/or witnesses flipping, I don't think there's a case for impeachment, not a case strong enough to be prosecuted.  The Democrats should only pursue that if it's likely the Senate would convict. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Thomas Burrell Is Back in the News

Thomas Burrell and his Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association is back in the news. This time the suit is over seeds which didn't perform up to expectations.

I write "back" because he was described, not favorably, in this NYTimes article on the Pigford litigation. An excerpt:
Last October, a court-appointed ombudsman wrote that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people had given money to individuals and organizations in the belief that they were reserving the right to file a claim under the second settlement for black farmers, only to learn later that their names had never been forwarded to the authorities. People familiar with that statement said it was directed in part at Thomas Burrell, a charismatic orator and the head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, based in Memphis.

Mr. Burrell has traveled the South for years, exhorting black audiences in auditoriums and church halls to file discrimination complaints with his organization’s help, in exchange for a $100 annual membership fee.

In an interview last month, Mr. Burrell said he had dedicated his life to helping black farmers after biased federal loan officers deprived him of his land and ruined his credit. He said his organization had misled no one, and had forwarded the names of all those eligible and willing to file claims.

“I have never advocated anybody file a false claim,” he said. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Gottlieb Got Milk

Don't say the Trump administration has never done anything for dairy farmers.  His FDA head, Scott Gottlieb, says he'll crack down on "milks" from vegetative sources.

Taking the Bad With the Good

We've been dry for 3-4 weeks, meaning the perennials are browning and the vegetable garden requires watering.

So a storm rolled through an hour ago, causing a power surge which set off a shrill continuous tone and seeming to fry half of my backup power/surge protector bought many years (20?) ago after losing a PC to a power surge. It took flipping all the circuit breakers in the breaker box to finally kill the sound, with the quiet permitting a more considered analysis of what happened.

It's interesting--with the smart phone available, I no longer feel a need for backup power, so my replacement will just be a surge protector.

The dugouts at National park, where the All Star game will be played tonight, are flooded, along with some roads.  But at least we got some water.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Median Farmers Aren't?

Saw an interesting chart today on Twitter, which I was able to find again by using the search function:


What's amazing to me is the disparity between the farm and nonfarm income. The bottom line would seem to be that median farmers get their income from nonfarm sources, so why call them farmers?

(I've some thoughts on the age of farmers which I'll stick in another post.  I think my logic there will somewhat undermine the picture above.)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Ups and Downs of Sport

When I moved to Reston in 1976, tennis was big.  There were a number of recreation areas with multiple tennis courts, tennis leagues, and tennis coaches.  That soon declined.  The Southgate area which had 4 courts, converted two to basketball.  I've not noticed anything on the leagues and teaching in recent years and seldom see anyone playing on the one set of courts I pass with some regularity.

Horse riding was a part of the early Reston, but when I arrived the stable was on its last legs.  The building finally collapsed a few years after I arrived, which led to a long fight within Reston Association about whether to rebuild or convert the stable and riding area to other uses.  The other uses finally won, so a parking lot, two basketball courts, and a soccer field went in, a sign of the sports which were popular then.

By the early 2000's construction was booming and so was soccer.  The soccer field, by which I pass on the way to my garden plot, was very busy.  Youth teams, and teams of young men, probably mostly Hispanic immigrants, were were omnipresent on the weekends and I suppose in the evenings.

Then came the recession and the collapse of construction and then the recession of immigration from the area.  First the men's teams were no longer evident, then the youth teams dwindled away.  While in the early years the maintenance people had problems keeping the grass growing, especially in front of the goals, there's no problem now.

As a capper, this trend has been confirmed by the media authority, the NYTimes, in this article

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Guns and Drones and Second Amendment

I wonder, with drones becoming more and more capable and technology advancing on other fronts, how long will it be before we run into some constitutional questions?

For example, the Second Amendment confers the "right to bear arms".  These days that means literally carrying a gun around, and pulling the trigger.  Suppose we get drones with lethal capacity.  Will the person who controls the drone be considered to be "bearing arms"? 

Friday, July 13, 2018

An Arms Race in Robocalls?

My wife and I were being annoyed by robocalls.  Saw something about Nomorobo and signed up for it.  It's free for landlines (which all we needed).  The way it works requires the phone to ring once, but before it can ring again Nomorobo figures out it's a robocall and intercepts it.  So the ring-once is still a bit annoying, but at least you don't have to pause the movie, move the cat out of your lap, and get up to answer the phone, only to find it's robo.

So we've been happy with it; only the occasional call has been getting through.

But this morning two calls got through, one was even masked by seeming to come from someone in our telephone exchange (at least if we still had telephone exchanges).  So I wonder whether the robocall people have started to figure out Nomorobo's algorithms and begun to change  to counter them?

Skewing the Stats--A Greenie Crime

I wrote a letter to the NYTimes on an article in last week's NYTimes magazine:

When I read Brook Larmer’s article: “E-Waste Offers an Economic Opportunity as Well as Toxicity”Image” I was very surprised.  According to the article the US generates 42 pounds of e-waste per person per year.  For our 2-person household, our PC, laptop, cellphones and TV would barely amount to 100 pounds.  We don’t replace those items very often.  Something seemed off.
 So I did a little googling on the UN University site, finding this: “The weight of e-waste generated worldwide in 2016, including used refrigerators, TVs, personal computers and cellphones, was up by 8 percent from 2014, when the previous study into the problem was conducted.”
Turns out UNU defines e-waste as anything that uses electricity, not just electronic gear. (

Including all kitchen appliances, lamps, etc. in “e-waste” certainly gives a bigger headline figure, but are the problems in recycling appliances really the same as in handling cellphones and laptops?
In answer to my question--I don't think so.  Maybe in the future when everything is on the internet, but not now.

I should also note that this isn't peculiarly a failing of the environmentalist movement; everyone and her brother do it.