Tuesday, September 30, 2008


See my brief post here.
Tomorrow is a much shorter travel day, so may have energy to blog. (If not exhausted by catching up on the hundreds of blog posts in Google Reader.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Quick Hit on Housing

Joel Achenbach tells the story of a Dale City townhouse, built in 1972, which soared in "value" to $250K, the owner refinanced through Countrywide, and now is in foreclosure, trying to sell for <$100K. Toward the end there's a mention of "thousands" of empty houses as an explanation of why it can't be rented. The surplus of houses means either builders overbuilt as part of the bubble and/or households evaporated as people moved back to their native country [my idee fixe]. Truth is, both probably happened, along with more people living with parents--fewer households being formed. Anyhow, Joel's piece is good, as most of his stuff is.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Bush We Know and Love: No Academic Economists

Via Politico, a ABC has a quote from the Thursday [corrected] meeting:
"Bush isn't impressed.[by 192 economists opposing the plan] ‘I don't care what somebody on some college campus says,’ Bush says. Instead, he says he trusts Hank Paulson, who, he says, has more than 35 years of experience and access to more information than those academics on Shelby's list."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Advice for Bureaucrats

Nice piece here
I wonder if the bailout meetings have any attendees who read this?

Slower Blogging?

Sometimes one's personal life takes precedence over blogging. Beginning Sunday my cousin and I start a genealogical trip for 2 weeks, so I likely will be blogging less here and perhaps more at Harshaw Family.

Academics Versu Bureaucrats

Technically, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke are bureaucrats. Their concept is getting battered by academic economists. Greg Mankiw has been on both sides, now back at Harvard. His opinion, go with the bureaucrat if they're comfortable.

That's my opinion too, based on no economics knowledge but my history in the bureaucracy. Of course, that's also why I backed the Iraq war initially. Sometimes bureaucrats are right, sometimes they have tunnel vision. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

ON Anger

John Phipps has turned against the Paulson bailout plan. He sees it as doomed because of anger at inequality, the resentment of financiers getting big bucks, then being rescued.

For some reason my thoughts turned to the late 60's, when some inner-city blacks were very angry, angry enough to riot and burn down their neighborhoods.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Treat Your Employees Like Dogs

At the cost of forever blowing any reputation I might have as a boss, let me point to this post on Amazon daily, about 10 rules on dealing with dogs. (After each rule the writer explains and amplifies.) Naturally, I thought of employees:

  1. A dog is a dog
  2. All dogs think in terms of packs
  3. Dogs don't understand English
  4. Dogs are not spiteful
  5. What makes some dogs aggressive
  6. Body language is a dogs primary mode of communication
  7. You can teach an old dog new tricks
  8. Bad behaviors may be natural, but they don't have to be normal
  9. What is the right way to discipline a dog
  10. Do dogs sense the world differently than humans
Her bottom line is essentially: put yourself in the dog's paws and look at the world through the dog's eyes in order to know how to deal with it. Good advice for people, too. Advice usually ignored by the politicians and the public when they deal with their employees--the bureaucrats, who seem to be less than dogs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on Obama's Transparency

Nextgov has a piece on Obama's management proposals focusing on transparency, getting reactions from the consultant/contractor community, mostly cautious and somewhat dubious, although one guy obviously saw the most recent polls.

Funny Stuff from Desperate Partisans

One reliable feature of the political season is that people on both sides will get carried away and say the dumbest things. As a Dem, I'll naturally notice the dumb things on the right. This one particularly stands out:

Via Powerline, Tony Blankley says: "[Obama] lived a mere quarter-mile from former terrorist Bill Ayers" (as part of an argument of sinister, or at least unexplored connections between the two). Both were in NYC, according to wikipedia, Obama as a student at Columbia, Ayers wasn't at Columbia, as one might think, but at the Bank Street College, getting an M.Ed. (Ayers went to Columbia apparently after Obama graduated.)

So there's no institutional link between the two during the time they both lived in NYC. And a simple check of wikipedia reveals that NYC has 27,000 people per square mile. Put Obama at the center of a circle with a radius of .25 miles and he has roughly that many people in his neighborhood.

I Don't Need This

From Pollster.com: Most interesting about the current estimates is that if we ignore the classifications and just examine which candidate has a numeric lead, the electoral votes as of today would divide in a perfect 269-269 tie.

Immigration and Housing

Back to my pet idea, the link between housing crisis and immigration. Yesterday's Post had this article:

"The number of immigrants coming to the United States slowed substantially in 2007, with the nation's foreign-born population growing by only 511,000, compared with about a million a year since 2000, according to Census figures released today. "

Say the housing industry was building 400,000 housing units for immigrants since 2000, and selling them, either to immigrants or to landlords who rented them out. All of a sudden, the demand is halved. I believe the housing market is probably inelastic--takes a big change in price to get someone to downsize or upsize. So the change in immigration probably took the pop out of the housing bubble. Once the bubble burst, the Ponzi-style nature of the securitization of debt that the smart boys on Wall Street had engineered made the consequences much worse than they should have been (as they were when the housing bubble burst back in the 80's.)

Dana Says It Better Than I Have

At The Edge of the American West, Dana writes on Pollan' Omnivore's Dilemna. As she notes, many of the health problems of our diet are lower class, while Pollan's suggestions work best for the middle. (Actually I'd say upper middle, since we have no upper class in the U.S., at least none who cook for themselves.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama Is Gore II

Sen. Obama pledges to cut the ranks of middle managers. I've heard that before, from Saint Al Gore.

Forgive my sarcasm, at least he's addressing the performance assessment problem. From a comment I posted:
"If McCain, when he inveighs against waste in DC, would say he would end all problems that rate ineffective on PART it would be a start. If Congress would say the same, it would be a start. Even if OMB is able to impose some order on the executive, it doesn't mean much unless Congress and the appropriations committees buy in. And they don't. Until then, neither McCain nor Obama's promises mean much."

Calming the Waters

Erin asked questions this morning. In an attempt to calm waters, let me observe:
  • it's not true this is the biggest thing since..[whatever]. Memory is fallible. I can remember Truman seizing the steel companies (and strikes in wartime). And Sputnik. And Bay of Pigs. And riots in the cities. And Nixon taking us off the gold standard, which seemed maybe the end of the world. And the stagflation of the late 70's. And the S&L crisis. Maybe 100 years from now historians will see this month as the biggest pivot point since 1929, but probably not. After all, just over 7 years ago we were saying 9/11 "changed everything". Did it?
  • 700 billion is a lot of money, but I'd bet the net cost is lots lower. It's my memory of the S&L, RTC mess that the net loss was much lower than the figures tossed around earlier. [Correction: looked up RTC on wikipedia which led to this report. Bottom line is people were way off in their estimates of the problem and costs. So it's probably correct to say today we are very uncertain of the size of the problem and the cost. Of course, I'm also making the mistake of assuming the S&L parallels the subprime problems, which it doesn't.]
  • Everyone has their own axe to grind. Best to let them grind away.

Service in the Military

1 year 11 months and 11 days was enough to convince me I was a natural-born civilian (despite being descended from folks Sen. Webb says were "born fighting"). So I've always been ambivalent about the military. Freakonomics has an interesting post on a Heritage study of the nature of today's military, specifically who serves. (Every candidate with kids old enough has a child who served/is serving in Iraq. That seems a long ways away from the 1980's and 90's.)

There's suspicion over the figures voiced both in the post and the comments. I suspect myself that you have to get into the boondocks of the data to really understand.

Unthinkable Thoughts, a 269 Tie?

As if the bailout weren't enough bad news to obsess over, now comes a Washington Times story on the elections--the possibility of Obama and McCain tying. The FDA should have banned the story from distribution as dangerous to one's health and peace of mind.

Monday, September 22, 2008

10-Acres, Again [Updated]

Forgive my interest in this minutiae (to all except bureaucrats and small farmers), House Ag committee has voted to suspend the 10-acre rule (only farmers with over 10 acres in base are eligible for certain programs) for 2 years to: Give us time to decide how to correct the problem for later years.”

By delaying, they're probably complicating the problem, given there's some one-time decisions (as on ACRE) that farmers need to make.

[Updated--cattlenetwork has some more.

"Decision Dominance"

Is threatened by e-mail. Bureaucrats like "decision dominance", just as parents do: "Do what I tell you". Here's the article, via Next Gov.

[Actually, once you read the article, the colonel is mostly concerning about poorly structured emails, too many emails, personal use of emails, etc.)

The Conservatism of Liberals

From Treehugger, a post on genetically modified sorghum in Africa. I can sort of understand opposition to GM that adds resistance to Roundup, or an insecticide, to a plant. Don't agree with it, but can understand it. I've big problems with opposition to modifying sorghum to have more nutrients or to make protein more digestible. Even if such traits do migrate to wild varieties of sorghum, I don't see the downside. Perhaps it would make wild sorghum better able to compete with other plants, because it's more valuable to animals?

A New Definition for "Overseas"

From a NYTimes piece on a newly assertive Indian military, which has its first "overseas" military base (in Tajikistan). I can barely recall the death of Gandhi, certainly remember Nehru. While this evolution doesn't match China's, it's certainly amazing.

A Question I Never Thought to See

"is $7 wheat a crop that will provide positive revenue" [for you, the farmer]--from a farmgate discussion of the outlook for wheat.

Achenbach Visits Manassas Park

Joel Achenbach finds resentment in Manassas Park over bailing out mortgage lenders. I think he missed the immigrant thread, or anti-immigration thread, about which I've blogged earlier.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ex-Bureaucrat Views the Paulson Bailout

Can't resist commenting on features of the Paulson/Bernanke plan (the text was in both the Post and Times today):
  • they were too rushed to think of a snappy title for the legislation, preferably one that forms a snappy acronym. (Gretchen Morgenson uses "TARP"--troubled asset relief program.) That means things were really hectic.
  • one problem they'll have is in normal times we have a million or two foreclosures a year (too lazy to check the rate, but the point is there's some level of foreclosures that's "normal".) So, do they just take over all securities regardless, knowing they're going to eat the normal stuff, or do they have some way to weed it out. (New bureaucratic programs usually have this sort of problem--it's like paying kids to study, do you stiff the kids who don't need the incentive?)
  • the draft legislation makes it not reviewable in court (as has been noted by other bloggers)
  • there's no exemption from the Administrative Procedure Act, though I guess the preceding bullet makes this unnecessary. But what it says is there's no legal requirement for transparency (not that Administrative Procedure Act provisions provide that much transparency).
  • Paulson apparently plans to use Treasury Department to run the program, rather than establishing a special corporation/agency. Might be wise, because it avoids a bit of administrative overhead. But regardless, I hope his administrative people right now are working on outfitting offices, etc. One of the biggest obstacles to doing things quickly in government is the housekeeping functions (where do people work, on what, and how do they get paid).
Read the Morgenson piece for more understanding.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Bureaucrat and SCS

Many of the former county ASCS employees who came to work for me were a bit disdainful of the Soil Conservation Service--I remember one acid remark about SCS employees spending all their time riding around the county in their trucks, leaving the ASCS employee(s) to handle the people who showed up at the office.

But, time mellows even old loyalties, so here's an article on the founding father of SCS, an example of the difference the right person in the right place can make.

On Generations

Very interesting article on generations, by Siva Vaidhyanathan,says the idea of a tech-savvy generation, and even the concept of a "generation", is a myth. (That overstates things, but he's contrarian.) It's refreshing to a codger who just barely mustered the courage finally to buy a cellphone.

(I particularly liked the quote from the woman who talked about learning programming with punch cards--ah, those were the days.)

ASCS Employee Got Around

According to this article. She would have worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, before joining the WAAC in WWII, making it to Paris and Germany, before coming back. "“I got home on Sunday afternoon and went back to work on Monday morning,” she said."

Quite a life for a dedicated bureaucrat.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Professional Verus Romantics

I liked this post from Musings of a STonehead. Probably because he finds some romanticism in his customers for weaner pigs who are put off by his professional, if small-scale, approach to his business.

IRS IT Systems

A report from Next Gov on IRS progress with IT systems:

Several issues, however, could pose challenges to the project in the long term. For example, while the goal is for CADE to house all taxpayer information permanently, the system stores the data used to process returns only for the current year. Historical taxpayer account data, such as prior year tax assessments and outstanding tax liabilities, are maintained in a separate database not compatible with CADE's format.

In addition, CADE is approaching maximum capacity in terms of data storage. With the expectation that the taxpayer population will increase significantly, the IRS must decide whether to reduce CADE capabilities, or invest in new technology or alternative resources to satisfy demand, the IG recommended.

Without knowing anything about it, I can give IRS a break on the first issue--"backward compatibility" is always an issue when you do a new system, and not always desirable. Presumably over time the problem will be resolved as the current year's data migrates to the prior year, etc. But the second issue--that's a problem. With costs of storage always dropping, the problem has to be in the software. Granted that you always want more (designing software is like a country boy going to a mall for the first time--you keep seeing more and more possibilities) but after this many years of designing systems we ought to be able to do better estimating.

Milk, Fish, and Derivatives

No, not a menu, just a linking of three stories today.
the Chinese continue to struggle with their milk scandal--dairies putting melamine in milk to boost the protein count. Problems of this sort remind of the government milk inspector who used to visit our farm. And also of Thoreau's famous quote on circumstantial evidence: "as when there's a trout in the milk" was good evidence the farmer had been adding water to the milk.

the Times reports on a study that: "Giving people ownership rights in marine fisheries can halt or even reverse catastrophic declines in commercial stocks, researchers in California and Hawaii are reporting." Who "gives" the rights? The government.

Derivatives are linked to this week's financial problems.

The point I'd make is government has a role in establishing and enforcing rules, rules of identity (what is milk), rules of property (who owns what right). Our history is government is usually tail-end charley, people discover something new, crisis happens, and sometime later government comes along to establish rules.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why Farming Is Hard

You have to send your wife out to work to get health insurance benefits, and when you're laid up, you are limited to dial-up access to the Internet. Those aren't quite the hardships our forefathers faced, but they make it hard for farming to compete in the market for the best talent. Why shouldn't the farm kid go to town? (In the old days, sufficiently long ago, the answer was because town was deadly, but not today.)

Animal Cruelty

I'm not sure this works. PETA did undercover work at a livestock farm in Iowa, released the film, and Iowa farmers are fighting back. But it's intrinsically one-sided. PETA can pick and choose what's released. It's also true, as a general rule, what an insider sees in the day-to-day routine is quite different than what the outsider sees. It's a question of context, of routine, of perspective.

The best thing the coalition could do is put on tours of their operations--try to drown the PETA expose in a sea of transparency. But that assumes a routine tour wouldn't upset tender-minded undergraduates.

Fearless Prediction: This Question Won't be Asked

Either in the televised debates or by any reporter of any national political figure or candidate:
"What would you do with the programs the Bush administration ranks as ineffective? (See this link and my previous post.)"
Instead, there will be lots of talk about government waste and inefficiency. I'm not saying there isn't waste and inefficiency; I'm saying the Republicans have been in charge of the executive branch for most of the last 40 years. Any entity has waste, reflect on that on your next bathroom break. It's true in government, true on Wall street, true on Main Street, true in the home.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ah, Youth

I suppose that's the response of any old geezer to whippersnappers full of juice and enthusiasm, as here:

And what is success? Success is an edible future, when local populations are fed by local fields and sensible nutrition is affordable and accessible. Where we address poverty and hunger, not with biotechnology, but with long-term access to the means of production, and with proximity to that productive plenty which we can achieve only with careful stewardship of our soil and land base -- a wealth immeasurable in dollars. Success is a smooth energy transition, a satisfying daily bread, a culture in which we have restored honor, and respect to the profession of farming.

Call to arms

Arms strong and hands calloused, eyes open to the beauty of every morning, spirits prepared for the long row still to hoe, hearts full with the support of family and community, let us unite, young farmers, and fight for the right to farmable land, the pursuit of an equitable marketplace, and for recognition from society that we are here, indispensable, a cornerstone of our food future. Let us welcome many new entrants into agriculture, striving to share our lessons, seeds and stories with generations to come. Now is the time for action.

I guess, having gently mocked them, they deserve their link.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Calvin L. Beale, a Bureaucrat? [Updated]

Calvin L. Beale was the senior demographer in USDA, and just died, picking up some nice obits.

One mention calls him a "faceless bureaucrat", while using his death to push the idea of a rural renaissance in Missouri (which he'd first identified in the 1960's). A somewhat belated story in the Post today adds more human interest, among which is this:
What may be even more remarkable is that Mr. Beale never charged his trips to a government expense account. He paid for everything -- airline tickets, car rentals and hotels -- out of his own pocket. He also scrupulously arrived at his office desk 30 minutes early each morning, so as not to waste the government's time while eating his breakfast of half a muffin.
Here's a link to his photos of courthouses. (It seems as if a plurality of courthouses were built in the two decades 1890-1910, which was the same time period Andrew Carnegie was financing his libraries.)

The Daily Yonder has an article on him

Two Different Posts

Not how to interpret these:

At farmgate, the UofIll site, comes a paper on the pricing of seed corn--an excerpt:
"The WI trio examined seed corn pricing in Illinois in 2004 to illustrate how stacked traits were actually priced:
• Conventional seed corn averaged $88.33 per bag.
• The Bt corn borer trait added $20.49
• The Bt rootworm trait was alone worth $27.28.
• One herbicide tolerant trait was priced at $14.51, another at $6.83.
• Double stacking of corn borer and rootworm traits added $35.51.
• Triple stacking of corn borer, rootworm, and herbicide tolerance added $37.30.
• Quadruple stacking added $39.45 for corn borer, rootworm and both herbicide tolerant traits.
• The market power of the seed company added over 8% to the price."
At Grist, Tom Philpott pushes an interview with an author:
"...the relationship between organisms and individual genes is much more complex and mysterious than researchers originally thought. And that, Kimbrell says in this interview, helps explain why after 25 years of R&D, the GMO industry has only managed to create a couple of viable traits. The main one, of course, is "herbicide tolerance," e.g., Monsanto's Round Up Ready corn and soy, engineered to withstand copious lashings of its flagship herbicide, Round Up."

Technical Corrections and Farm Constitution

Congressman Etheridge is introducing legislation to fix the 10-acre "problem" in the 2008 farm bill. The legislation directs the USDA to allow aggregation of base acres and will allow producers to combine multiple farms into one farm through the reconstitution process. Since many years ago I was responsible for this area, I'll be interested to see how this is implemented.

It's not always easy to carry legislation into implementation, as can be inferred from a
post at Whiskey Burn entitled "Amazingly Trivial Things" about "technical corrections" to the farm bill. Dan (formerly of Blog for Rural America) disdains the nit-picking objections of the good folks in the Office of General Counsel to language in the farm bill, a disdain commonly found in non-lawyers. (Rather like the disdain non-librarians have for the Dewey decimal system.) Dan thinks the intent is clear, so FSA ought to implement on that basis.

Constitution Day

See this link.

While the "Founding Fathers" had many faults, overall they did about as good as possible at the time, which is all any of us can do.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cheney and the Bureaucrats

Post has a two-part series from a book on Cheney. Today's article is focused on a story previously reported--the uproar in the Justice Department over approvals for a secret program of intelligence eavesdropping. Short summary: Cheney and David Addington, his aide, pushed through approvals, partly by severely limiting knowledge of the program. When Bush had to renew his approval, Justice personnel rebelled, came within a day of submitting mass resignations, which led to Bush reversing his decision and modifying the program.

The "rebellion", as I'm calling it, was basically among the political appointees at Justice, deputy Attorney General and below, but fed by resistance from career lawyers in the military and finally affirmed by Attorney General Ashcroft.

To me, as a Democratic ex-bureaucrat, it's a story of the good guys (career people) winning a battle with the bad guys (Cheney--boo, hiss). Looked at another way it is an example the inevitable tension between bureaucracy and political chiefs. But I also suspect it's a failure at personal politics by Cheney and Addington--more tactful and personable types who were less obsessive about secrecy might well have won the tacit consent of the bureaucracy, simply by including them from the start, infecting them with a shared concern about the grave dangers of terrorism, etc. etc. (Concerns I don't have, BTW.) In my experience, knowledge is power in bureaucracy. And when you deprive usually powerful people of knowledge, they become resentful.

Having said all that, I still think the result was right. And it's a fine example of the wisdom of the Founders--as the Federalist talked about harnessing the passions of imperfect man to check and balance power.


Shankar Vedantam is back, reporting on interesting research on how misinformation may still have an effect after it's corrected. I'm dubious of the reported difference between conservatives and liberals in this regard--my beginning position is they're both human, and both would operate similarly: i.e, my enemy is a bad, misinformed, lying s.o.b. But it does make one think, particularly someone who is as into politics as I am. One reason I do try to somewhat balance the blogs I read, despite the dangers to my blood pressure.

John Sides at the Monkey Cage provides URL for the research.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Messages From Slow Food Nation

Selected quotes, not at random :-), from this post:

  • recruiting millions of new farmers, ennobling farming so more people want to do it, and making it possible for them to make a decent living at it.
  • end the free-market, capitalist system: All of those issues are the byproducts of a system built on competition rather than cooperation
  • the foods available gave me a huge stomachache. Especially as a vegetarian who couldn’t have the meat, because it meant walking around for 4 hours gorging on beer, ice cream, and chocolate
  • drink Red Bull to write theses: Red Bull is just a drink that works for capitalism because it gets you through the work day (and he confessed to drinking it night and day to get through his Ph.D)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Message of Rural Obesity

A corollary of my post on skinny Amish would be the idea that the rural obese aren't doing a lot of heavy manual labor. Some may be caught in the routine of the big breakfast, etc., not remembering a tractor drives easier than a team, we don't shovel manure much anymore, etc. Even some of those who live in urban settings may still be carrying over their rural diets and menus, without the physical labor that went with them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Trailing Clouds Behind 'Em

Eugene Volokh raises an interesting question at the Conspiracy:

"Say a blogger posts an accurate story -- perhaps based on a news report or a court decision -- that discusses some minor misconduct by some person. The post names that person.

Several years later, the person asks the blogger to remove the post, or to remove the person's name from the post. The person is not a government official or other important figure (at least at that point; one never knows what will happen in the future). The past misconduct was pretty minor, and doesn't suggest that the person will be a serious menace to his friends, neighbors, or others. But it's embarrassing, and the person doesn't like this story coming up whenever the person's name is Googled" [there's more]
He's gotten lots of comments, most of which lean towards being merciful and granting the request. It's nice to see the blogosphere is "Christian" in this sense. But as some point out, while you may be able to edit the past to make sins less visible, it's really impossible to change the past entirely, even on the Internet. That's always been true, I've a host of minor sins and faux pas wedged firmly in my memory which I can't drive out. Even though I may be the only one who remembers them, they're still part of the fabric of my life (changing metaphors there).

But the Internet changes things--Slate has a post noting the ways in which both campaigns have edited the past with respect to Gov. Palin. It's harder and harder for politicians to construct a consistent facade. I think we'll learn the best way is, don't hide, reveal, for the politician and for the public, as difficult as it may be, accept that politicians are human.

Tobacco After the Buyout

I've blogged a couple times (here and here) on the results of the buyout of the old tobacco programs. Here's another article, from Haywood County, NC (mountains) where they grew burley. In summary, North Carolina as a state is growing about as much tobacco as ever, the price is more volatile, the crop is riskier, "produce" (tomatoes and peppers) are competitive, the acreage in the mountains is down, the number of farms is down, the eastern part of the state has bigger, consolidated tobacco farms, some growing a new variety of heat-resistant burley. In the mountains, agriculture is down generally.

So, the program seems to have been effective in keeping smaller farmers in tobacco, presumably well past the time when it was the most economically efficient method of production. And it didn't, at least in the short run, mean lower prices for consumers, as the anti-smoking people claimed. (Full disclosure: I smoked over 2 packs day for the first 10 years or so of my bureaucratic career. Fortunately I was able to quit in 1978.)

Best Words I Read Today

It's National Hispanic Week so there was a do in DC. There was comedy, which as reported by the Post included this:
"By the same token, I hate when I hear some white people going on about 'those illegal aliens taking my job.' . . . Let me tell you something: If a guy gets here from another country, can't read, can't write, can't speak the language, has no technological skills and takes your job? You're a [expletive]."

What Does Reston Read?

This inventory from the Reston Friends (of the library) shows at least what Restonians are willing to donate:

Mysteries and History view for the top spot (47 and 44 boxes worth), with Romance and Children (can't have one without the other) fittingly tied at 33 boxes. But hardback fiction, a category I hardly ever read (I am, after all, a bureaucrat) comes in at 36 boxes!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Congress Giveth, Congress Taketh Away

Congress passed a farm bill loaded with goodies to attract enough votes. One might think that settles issues for 5 years. One would be wrong. What's in the farm bill is two things: "entitlement programs"--the sort of thing that leaps to mind when we speak of "farm programs", and other programs, programs for which the farm bill simply "authorizes" spending $X, but for which the appropriations committees have to appropriate the actual money, either in the annual appropriation bill for USDA or in an omnibus appropriation bill. (That's one of the problems with "earmarks", they are stuck in the appropriations bill either without a previous "authorization", or bypassing the bureaucratic process for prioritizing expenditures of authorized and appropriated money.)

Now the agricultural policy sites, such as EWG's, are full of coverage of fights over what money gets appropriated. Because the old-line farm programs tend to be entitlements, and the newer stuff favored by the greens are not entitlements, guess who's screaming.

Unkindest Cut of All

Poor George W. He didn't get to attend the Republican convention, McCain trashed his record, and everyone is treating him as a lame duck. You've got to feel for the guy.

And then comes the unkindest cut of all. Remember, this is the demon jogger who switched to trail biking when his knee gave out and just spent the weekend with Jim Zorn, new Redskins coach (with an 0-1 record) going a fast 12 miles. And what does Bob Woodward say? He has a "noticeable paunch", which already has 4,700 hits on Google.

Wheat and Beans

The Post writes about someone pushing the sales heirloom beans (dry edible type); the Times about reviving wheat/flour production in the Northeast.

The latter article was the more interesting. PA used to be the breadbasket of the U.S. before rust (a disease of wheat) and the availability of cheaper land had their effects. (There's an old economic geography theory that puts different agricultural products at different distances from population centers--livestock and wheat tend to be further away than dairy and fruits and vegetables.)

The problems in reviving wheat growing include lack of the milling infrastructure and knowledge, the inconsistency found in flour produced in small batches, which screws up the bakers with consequent waste. We as consumers are used to consistent products, whether it be apples or bread. That demand means a competitive advantage for the bigger operation and, in some cases, the use of more food additives. All of which creates problems for the locavore

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Gender Differences

John Tierney reports in today's NYTimes science section that research seems to show gender differences are more evident in modern, progressive societies, and less evident in more "traditional" societies. If you're into the subject, it's a must read.

As for me, I'm not surprised (of course, how often does a supercilious blogger ever admit to surprise). A good part of the thing about modern society is there's more space for the individual, more room to "find oneself", to "self-actualize", or whatever other phrase is now current. That should mean there's more differences along all dimensions, not just the gender one.

Of course, that undermines the theory from the 1960's that a male-dominated society was responsible for creating the differences. Which may be why a semi-conservative like Tierney is open to these reports.

Why the Amish Stay Slim

They work, not office work, physical work. So even if their genes favor obesity, they're slim. So says this study.

I buy it. A rural society with lots of physical labor is not stout. "Stout" is a word from the past. Of course many so-called farmers now have a pot, "so-called" because they just drive tractors and because I'm feeling grumpy today. Contra Professor Pollan, the key variable is not the diet, it's the labor.

(Decided since I'm fascinated by the Amish, I need to add a tag for them.)

Monday, September 08, 2008

Another Minority President

Right now the polls show a very tight race. That raises the possibility, again, of a President being elected with a minority of votes cast. If that's the outcome, how do you think people will react? How would the Dems react, if they were robbed again? How would the Reps react, if they were in Gore's position in 2000?

David Sirota Sees Us for What We Are

After a week's vacation:
What's amazing to me after coming back from vacation is how obviously insular and silly this supposed "national" conversation really is, when you just step back for one week and look at it. Whether on blogs, email, radio or television, a small group of us is basically screaming at ourselves, the rest of the public be damned. It's quite tragic, really.
Of course, when you look at the picture of where he spent his vacation, you completely understand.

Achenbach on Vice Presidency

I fancy myself to have a good knowledge of American history and government, but I never realized the logic behind the Vice Presidency which Joel Achenbach unveils in today's Post:

"The Framers never for a moment thought the president needed a Mondale-like adviser or a Cheney-like super-deputy. Their main concern was that they wanted electors from the states to be forced to vote for two people, and not from the same state. The reasoning, historians surmise, is that states would habitually throw their support behind a favorite son as the presidential candidate. Virginians would vote for a Virginian, New Yorkers for a New Yorker, etc. But if they had to cast a second ballot, that second choice, under the Constitution, couldn't be another favorite son.

Follow this logic to its conclusion: The Framers were thinking that the No. 2 pick of many of the electors would be a nationally recognized figure who would wind up with more votes, total, than any of the No. 1 picks. It's kind of like they wanted the vice president to be president."

Makes sense--in today's world the idea of a "favorite son" has faded, but that was a real fear in 1787.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Google Government

The Post has a piece by a man who tries to go 24 hours without Google. (He succeeds in not using Gmail, but he does contact pieces of Google.) He's suspicious of Google's accumulation of data. He concludes:
I went into this experiment fairly certain that it would require the cursory change of an odd habit or two. I learned that my dependence on Google runs deeper than that, encompassing not only my personal Internet use but the nested dependencies of the people and institutions surrounding me. This is perhaps less a celebration of Google's tenth birthday than it is the harrowing revelation of our tenth anniversary. So goodnight, dear Google -- congratulations, and sweet dreams.
It led me to some other thoughts. Googling yourself may be a reason Google isn't as fearsome as it might be. You're on a par with all other users of Google--it doesn't play favorites. And that's somewhat true with the historical stuff--you can see your own web history, at least for a while. Granted there's stuff Google stores I can't see, but they claim, at least, the data is depersonalized--no connection to my name and ID.

Moving on to government--why shouldn't government operate like Google. Why shouldn't it be a principle: you can see anything the government has on you.

Speculation in the Commodity Markets

The Post carried this AP story on a commodity investment fund which was closing down--it had suffered big losses because of the recent declines in commodity prices (oil, corn, etc.). IMHO that settles the question of whether the rise in commodity prices was speculative. Of course it was, it was a bubble just like the housing bubble and the tech bubble and the railroad bubble (couple centuries ago). A bubble means speculation. Now I'd agree there were real market forces at work and it may well be impossible to curb speculation as some might like; people are people after all.

But those right wing blogs/economists who denied the speculation went too far.

Total Loss Farm, Revisited

For those who weren't living in the '60's, this book review covers some of the communal living farms which received press back then. I'm probably unjust, but I get a little whiff of the same romanticism now from some of the advocates of "biodynamic farming" and related themes.

"Unassuming"--You Break My Heart

I've liked Keira Knightley since "Bend It Like Beckham", so this line was a surprise (from an LATimes article on her new movie, on Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th century dish.)

"Keira is quite unassuming-looking in real life,"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

What Is Farming in China?

Terrace farming
Originally uploaded by Klobetime
This photo from Klobetime at Flickr says a lot about Chinese farming, at least traditional Chinese farming. Lots of manual labor went into this. You can't use machines, not big machines well. And it makes maximum use of the land.

Why McCain Can't Do Away with Earmarks

From a good Slate piece summarizing various Palin controversies:

Does she oppose federal earmarks?

Alaska has long been the recipient of astounding amounts of federal funding. While Palin slashed pork requests in half during her tenure, the state still requested $550 million in Palin's first year in office. This year she has requested about $198 million—$295 per person—which is still the highest amount per-capita in the country, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. And when she was the mayor of Wasilla, Palin hired an Anchorage-based firm to secure $27 million in federal earmarks for the town.

Now the McCain camp will defend this by saying she was only acting on behalf of Alaskans, doing just what we'd expect any elected official do to. Which is true. There are very, very few people who can retain elective office without bringing home the pork, I mean bacon.

The problem is similar to the base closing problem--the idea that every federal installation (i.e., military base, USDA office) must be retained because it benefits the local economy. DOD has bypassed the problem by setting up the periodic base closing commission, which makes recommendations which get an up or down vote in Congress. I'm not sure what you can do for earmarks that would work similarly.

A Lack of Form Design Bureaucrats

Technically, forms designers are bureaucrats at a remove; they design the systems by which bureaucracies interface with real people. This post on The Hill Blog on ballot blunders notes the failure of our society to produce enough good forms designers (and now we've moved to computer-based voting, user-interface designers), which screws up our elections.

Funniest Lines Today:

"We were able to build most of it in about two months - two adults, a 14 year old and a 10 year old plus the help of a three year old."

This is from a long post at Sugar Mountain Farm, explaining the construction of earth air tubes and the "tiny cottage". (Not that I have any personal experience with 3-year olds, but "help of a ..." sounds like an oxymoron to me.)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Locavores Rejoice--A Local Dairy for Chicago?

Not local, perhaps, since it's the other side of the state, but at least a lot closer than California. The Blog for Rural America has the story(a big dairy applying for permits in Jo Daviess County, IL.)

(Yes, my tongue is in my cheek. My father's dairy milked 12 cows, I don't like a 12,000 cow farm. And neither does BRA.) But it's an example of the complexities of the current discourse. I'm assuming this move would get milk production closer to more people, cutting transportation costs and energy usage, reducing the carbon footprint, providing fresher milk, etc. But it's to be accomplished by a huge operation, non-organic and a CAFO. So what trade-offs do we accept? When is NIMBYism justified? Do we ever cap the size of business enterprises? Do we break up Microsoft or Google?

You'll note I'm good with questions, not so much with answers.

One Bureaucracy, Two Countries

Dirk Beauregard again offers insights into how differently France is run than the U.S., bureaucratically speaking. But a uniform bureaucracy doesn't mean uniformity of culture:
"France may be one country on paper, but the regional diversies and differenes are so great, that this is several countries in one. We speak one common tongue, share one basic set of republican ideals, but north and ssouth are almost two seperate countries.[sic to all errors--Dirk never bothers to spell correctly]
Maybe our differences are as great, but I don't hear anyone talking of two countries (except maybe the Alaskan Independence Party).

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Role of Fear in Politics

At Grist there's a dispute over the role of fear. Glen Hurowitz summarizes and posts in defense of fear, using the reasoning that fear overcomes apathy. He winds up by saying, first you scare people then you give them hope.

I understand the logic, and maybe even agree on an individual basis--emotions seem to serve the role of overcoming inertia: fear, love, hate, jealousy--they all counteract our tendencies to stay in ruts (particularly strong for me).

As a matter of fact, it's almost the same formula as revivalists use, you scare people with hell, with reminders of their own wickedness, loneliness, whatever, then you offer them hope with the grace of God. It's been working for centuries.

But on a social level I resist. Glen's formula can be generalized; politicians strive to stir emotion (whether it's mocking rivals or disrespecting them, as can be seen this week, and last week)
then offer hope. So it's the way the world works, and environmentalists have as much right to do this as anyone else.

I dislike conflict, which means I dislike emotion, which means I seek refuge in the Progressive's dream (actually the culmination of the Enlightenment) that reason can dissolve all conflicts and create the millennium. That's one reason why computers/software are/were so attractive to me; I have the idea that the proper system design can satisfy everyone. (And fail to remember the law of 2 out of 3: software can be cheap, good, or quickly done.)

So should we worry about vanishing ice? Yes. Should we act? Yes. But humans are going to muddle through for a while longer, even if we don't do exactly what activists want.

English Should Be the Official Language?

June Lloyd shows the surprising persistence of other languages at Universal York.

Losing Ice in the Arctic

Reports like this don't make me feel good. Sort of ties to another post I'm working on--the role of fear in politics.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Falling Property Values

My little corner of Reston is rather diverse. We had an African-American family down the court--they bought in 2006. I use the past tense because they moved out this weekend, presumably having been foreclosed on. The prior owner bought in 1999 for $98,500; he sold in 2006 for $365,000.

A Kludge, at Long Last a Kludge

That's what this sounds like: a piece of equipment/system from DHS to enable first responders to cross-communicate, or a kludge:

The program, which DHS will test in the District of Columbia, integrates land mobile radio networks that police, firemen and emergency medical service workers use with cell phone broadband networks and wireless Internet devices, including laptops and personal digital assistants.

With the new technology, a public safety official can communicate with personnel in the field using a cell phone, land radio or computer all on the same network. The technology also allows them to contact colleagues in different departments or nearby municipalities without reprogramming their radios or having a dispatcher connect them.

It's long overdue. If I weren't lazy I'd go back a couple years and find my argument for one. But trust me (I was from the government) on this.

Monday, September 01, 2008

GOP Government Produces Results

Hat tip to Understanding Government's Edward Hodgman, who notes the White House site pushing government results: Results.gov has not been updated for a year and a half.

As a confirmed Dem, I'd love to say this just reflects the fact that Bush's government hasn't done anything positive in 18 months. (And I just did.) But the reality, I suspect, is somewhat different. Sometime back in the recesses of time, someone in the White House got this great idea: "let's have a website devoted just to highlighting the good things that are going on." Others in the hierarchy nodded wisely and said: "Oh yes, that sounds great, you go ahead and do it, here's some money to get it up and running." So, the site was put together and put on the net. And two things happened:

  1. the original sponsor of the idea decided to leave for greener pastures, perhaps located along K Street in Washington, leaving no one behind who had really bought into the idea.
  2. it turned out the site was just a pimple on the body politic, just a haphazard extrusion which didn't really tie into any institution or ongoing effort.
Results.gov is really no different than the millions of blogs that have been started and abandoned.