Thursday, December 31, 2009

Verizon Problem

Due to problems in Verizon land line service, my blogging will be interrupted.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Interrupted Blogging

Apparently our snow storm last week resulted in a slow degradation of the phone line, meaning first the loss of dial tone and finally the loss of DSL.  Verizon promises a fix by 9 pm Wednesday night.  If you see this post before, you'll know they've made good on their promise.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Next War and Security Works

Two thoughts coming out of the airline incident:
  • I'm not clear on who handles security in Amsterdam, whether it's TSA for US flag airlines or the Dutch.  Assuming it's TSA, I think we should credit their rules as successful.  Apparently terrorists believe the screening process is good enough that they went to some lengths to evade the process--sewing the explosive into underwear.  And the attempt to use it to bring down the plane failed, presumably because of the difficulties of turning the hidden explosive into an effective bomb.  I'd compare it to a football defense like Carolina showed Sunday--effective enough to force the Giants into low-return and/or risky pass plays. If the terrorist had been able to get an effective weapon on board, it would be a different matter.  And it's a separate issue of whether procedures should have identified and prevented the guy from boarding in the first place.
  • I noted Sen. Lieberman now wants to attack Al Qaeda in Yemen.  That's the downside of Obama's policy in Afghanistan.  He may be right that his new strategy can work and avoid the problems of using lesser force.  But, as long as the strategy is sold as attacking terrorism and preventing a safe haven for terrorism, it's doomed to failure.  The number of failed or impaired states in the world far exceeds the capability of DOD. 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

SURE: A Christmas Present for Whom?

The regs on the SURE program were published, and FSA issued the notice announcing the start of signup as Jan. 4.

I give FSA management credit for having the handbook published on the same date.  I don't give the Obama administration much credit for their start time--apparently there's not been any training provided and because everyone will be in use or lose status on annual leave, the start of signup will find people trying to play catchup.  (Of course, FSA people are used to that.)

I see by the handbook the program is being implemented using stand-alone Excel worksheets.  I hope the county people have climbed the learning curve on Excel, that this is not the first time such a process is used. 

How To Get Back to DC

Via Ann Althouse, who used Google Maps to find the distance between DC and Obama's vacation site in Hawaii:

Kayak across the Pacific Ocean
Entering Washington
2,756 m

The Problem With Lists

Blogs like Ann Althouse and Powerline are suggesting problems in the Obama administration's handling of terrorism as a result of the Detroit incident.  Maybe, maybe not. 

I do want to comment on one aspect: according to the Post today Abdulmutallab's father grew worried about his radicalism and notified authorities a month or two ago.  However, he may have applied for his tourist visa to the US in 2008.  All of the following is tentative, based on assumptions: assume the various lists, the "no-fly list" and the broader "Terrorist Identities" list really are "lists", that is static databases which are updated with adds and deletes periodically. So the person processing the visa request checks the appropriate lists, gets no hits, and goes ahead and approves the request. 

Ideally, of course, one would like two-way communication, if not in real-time, at least daily, between the various lists/  If visa requests are checked by matching against the terrorist list, any changes to the terrorist list should be matched back to the approved visa list.  So when Abdulmutallab is added to the list of possible terrorists, a process is triggered that results in putting his previously approved visa into question.

Achieving that sort of two-way communication is probably about 10 times more bureaucratically difficult than the one-way communication.

A Conservative Isn't Good at Math

Each year Maureen Dowd, the liberal columnist for the Times, turns her last column over to her conservative brother (it was an Irish Catholic cop family after all).  This year he shows a deficiency in math, as he gives shots to various personalities:

"To Al Franken: So, 250 years of Senate tradition trashed. Stuart Smalley would have done better." (1789 is when the Constitution took effect, so it's 220 years of Senate tradition.  Not to mention that industrious liberal dwarves have found a similar case in which McCain denied his consent to extend remarks, just as Franken did.)

Most Incredible Sentence Today

"In this column, I was not advocating arming passengers on airplanes (though I would not rule out such a policy if properly regulated)."  Randy Barnett at

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bureaucrats Plan Ahead

And Mayor Bloomberg is a good bureaucrat. See these pallets of salt stored in the NYC government's building at One Centre Place (next to the City Hall) and a location with okay restrooms.
Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 25, 2009

I Don't Do Personal, But Others Do

I'm a Presbyterian (by half heritage, if not belief).  But Dirk Beauregarde does personal, and here he has some memories of Christmases past.

And Erin Slivka has her Christmas letter up--a different sense of humor than Dirk. Her site, like Dirk's, features some nice photos (but I want to see the cats).

And Life on a Colorado Farm also has some cute and some good pictures up.

Not personal, but beautiful: Sugar Mountain frosted window.

[Multiple updates]

Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dairy in the Cold

Via NAL, here's a description of running a dairy farm in cold weather (brings back memories).  I was surprised a bit--the farm milks 700 cows, and has 20 employees, for a ratio of 1 per 35 cows.  That's roughly the ratio I remember from my youth (my uncle had more and did most of the work himself, until his heart attack). I would have expected a bit more improvement in productivity.

The Declaration Over the Constitution

A post at the Edge of the American West describes the travels and displays of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In passing, this sentence struck me: "The Constitution does not seem to have been exhibited much until the twentieth century.)" The Declaration, and George Washington's commission, seem to have been displayed regularly.  I'm not sure what this means--were 19th century Americans more focused on the Revolution, independence from Britain, and less on the Constitution? Or were they more interested in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and less interested in separation of powers?

I Second McArdle on CBO

Technically, I guess the folks at CBO aren't bureaucrats, they don't follow rules and deal with people, just Congress.  But their contribution is ignored, much as if they were bureaucrats, so I join Megan McArdle in wishing them well and happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stossel and Obamafoodorama

From a very limited knowledge, I'm not impressed by John Stossel, now a Fox reporter.  But I'll be watching what happens when he looks at the White House garden--an adversarial look may be informative, or maybe not.

They Were Wrong:

A few years ago a big theme among the international non-governmental organizations who focused on agriculture was decrying the absurdly high US subsidies to cotton.  End the subsidies, and people in Burkina Faso and other nations could make money planting cotton.  Well, as I like to point out, things are more complicated than often supposed, particularly by self-righteous advocates (of most any position, except those who agree with me).  A case in point is this article discussing the problems faced by cotton growers in Mississippi.  (Nationally, our production has declined from 20+ million bales 3 years ago to about 12.5 million bales this year, all without major changes in the cotton subsidy program, at least that I know of.)

Note:  I have to note the change out of cotton might possibly reflect the "Freedom to Farm" changes of the 1996 farm bill, of which I've been critical, or it might simply reflect that globally people would prefer to eat meat than wear cotton.

Where's PETA in Iraq?

I like the Tom Ricks blog, it's just enough contact with military matters for someone who describes himself as a natural-born civilian. This post reveals a disastrous situation in Iraq, where our esteemed soldiers are killing dogs, then carrying over the habit to Afghanistan.  (I don't remember Vietnamese being fond of dogs, and I won't try the obvious joke.) Unfortunately, despite the fact our military is composed of great people, you put a weapon in someone's hands and you create a situation where the person can abuse the power.

Some Christians Are a Little Strange

From TPM (though this is quite likely a hoax, thought the right didn't like the teabag label):
"Our small tea bag group here in Waycross, we got our vigil together and took Dr. Coburn's instructions and prayed real hard that Sen. Byrd would either die or couldn't show up at the vote the other night," the caller said.
"How hard did you pray because I see one of our members was missing this morning. Did it backfire on us? One of our members died? How hard did you pray senator? Did you pray hard enough?" he continued, his voice breaking. [I think this is a take-off from Sen. Coburn's advice to pray that Dems would not show up.]

From NYTimes:
I asked Steve Bercu, BookPeople’s owner, what the most frequently stolen title was.
“The Bible,” he said, without pausing.
Apparently the thieves have not yet read the “Thou shalt not steal” part — or maybe they believe that Bibles don’t need to be paid for.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Precision Agriculture Versus Organic

Am I crazy or are there parallels between organic ag and precision agriculture? Because organic agriculture usually uses more labor, there's more intelligence applied to each square foot  farmed than in commercial agriculture.  But with precision agriculture (which as I understand it via GPS captures detailed data on what's happening in each square foot in the computer), you're also applying more intelligence.  This thought stimulated by this piece in farmgate:
Precision agriculture can lead to higher yield and profitability. IA farmer Clay Mitchell outlined his concepts to a MO agronomy conference, and noted several successes:
1) Controlling field traffic creates soil qualities yielding 30% above his county average.
2) Deep residue cover allows soil to mimic a forest floor protected from direct rainfall,
3) Water infiltration reaches 4 in. per hour, compared to 0.2 in. in neighboring fields.
4) GPS guided tractors exert 40% less effort driving on compacted lanes in the field.
5) Maps showing single row yield indicated an 83 bu. yield difference from a mistake.

What I Saw at the Metropolitan

A small wooden carving of a domestic scene of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, with Joseph drying the swaddling clothes before the fire and a set of samurai armor made for and owned by a woman.

We're All Primates

What thunderstorms are approaching in our realm?
"Males display all the time for a number of different reasons, but when there's a big thunderstorm approaching, they do this real exaggerated display — it's almost like slow motion," Pruetz said. "And when I was with this one party of chimps, the dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire, so I call it the fire dance."
Quote from an MSNBC piece on how chimps understand fire.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New York City--First Impressions

Wife and I are visiting NY--the first time I've overnighted since a weekend pass from Fort Dix many many years ago.  So blogging will be light.  But comparing the financial district to K Street in DC, albeit at slightly different times--8 a.m. versus 10 a.m., the NYC crowd is more diverse, both ethnically and by class, but the women wear their good footwear on the streets, unlike the DC women who wear runners to commute and change their shoes in the office.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pigford and the Indian Case

Not much more than this in the ABC post.
A federal judge has approved settlement talks in a decade-old discrimination lawsuit filed by American Indians against the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bureaucracy Is Always Fascinating--US Army

I do find bureaucracy endlessly fascinating, not that it's a wide spread taste. FDR famously mocked government bureaucracies, ending with the Navy.  But Tom Ricks, who used to be the Post's defense correspondent, has a nice blog.  From a post in a series on Army doctrine, there's a nice phrase which suggests the Army is perhaps more primitive than the Navy: "Tensions with the field forces always existed, but were muted -- and senior leaders at the top fully embraced and endorsed TRADOC's central role in the Army constellation of tribes."

The Learning Curve in Transparency

This Post article the other day shows the Obama Administration learning some lessons on transparency, particularly the need for validity checks on data entry and error correction routines.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tiger Woods and Albert Einstein

Funny, I was sure that was a combination of search terms that was rare, if not unique. 


188,000 hits on Google.  (My thought was to point out that Albert got forgiven his infidelity.)

People Are Irrational

In the recent flap over mammographies people resisted a study that said, roughly, the costs and risks associated with routine blanket mammographies beginning at age 40 instead of age 50 weren't worth the benefits. 

Meanwhile, in today's NYTimes, there's an article discussing the routine use of tamoxifen to prevent breast cancer. Apparently lots of women resist the idea of taking a pill to prevent breast cancer. 

Somewhere in this vast nation, there's someone who's willing to undergo radiation to detect a tumor but not willing to swallow a pill to prevent it. 

A New Route to Nitrogen Fertilizer

One of the arguments of the organic people (as opposed to us inorganic robots) is tied to the concept of "peak oil"--as we exhaust our oil and natural gas we lose the feedstock for fertilizer. But a reminder that the future is different from an extrapolation of past trends comes in this Technology Review post, Cornell profs "developing reactions to make nitrogen into organo-nitrogens directly", bypassing the need for ammonia.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Question for Foodies

According to this post at Universal York, by 1900 the small city of York, PA had five thriving farmers markets.  So my question to foodies, who push farmers markets, what happened?  Why did the markets fade away, and what does that mean for their current renaissance? 

My own answer is--efficiency and lower costs in satisfying consumers desires was the cause, which means only a small niche in the future for farmers markets.

Extension Service and Health Care Reform

The New Yorker's Atul Gawande has an article on health care reform that includes praise for a USDA bureaucrat, Seaman Knapp, the father of the Extension Service. And praise for the hodge-podge of USDA programs to help farmers (in the 1890-1930 era):
"What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history."

Transparency is Good for Professors?

Am I being really mean by highlighting Brad DeLong's post here?  Or is he trying to gain what we used to call brownie points by admitting to being less than clear?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Data Sharing

Back in the day (i.e. 1992) when I was part of the Info-share project, we tried with some success to pull data from multiple databases of different agencies into one database that was accessible by farmers.  It weems some 17 years later, the federal government has reached the point where the data can be pulled on the fly--at least Mr. Kundra says, according to this Federal Computer Weekly piece,  Education and IRS will be able to support a new student aid application process by populating it with IRS data.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Transparency Is Good, Even If It Hurts

The Environmental Working Group led the way with its FOIA request to get farm payment data from FSA and putting the data up on the Internet.  News organizations are following the precedent--here is a CBS report from Florida spotlighting FSA payments made to dead persons.  They matched data from the SSA's death index to payment data from EWG's database to identify such cases. 

I find the matching interesting because one of the conditions under which USDA provided the data was that social security numbers were replaced in the data by constructed numbers, meaning EWG doesn't have social security numbers.  But, given the advances in computing it was presumably easy enough for CBS to match using name and address from EWG's files to the name and address from SSA's files--they got along without the SSN.

There's some misinformation in the article--notably when an EWG type compares making welfare payments to a dead person with making farm payments to a dead person.  The comparison is invalid, because the farm payment goes with the land, not the person. And I wonder how many cases there are of the heirs leaving an estate open just out of inertia and procrastination. As usual the media and critics make things seem simpler than the reality is, at least the reality seen by a good bureaucrat.  But the bottom line is, if FSA doesn't follow its rules, people should be able to find out.  And if people think the rules are wrong, then in a democracy they can get them changed.

Under the Obama adminstration's open government initiatives, I'd like to see FSA put up its own database, including all the data it gives to EWG, plus the matching to SSA's files.  Of course, that would take resources FSA doesn't have, so maybe it's better to out-source this stuff to EWG and the media.

Pigford and the Women

From a Government Executive post:
two key House members introduced legislation Thursday to establish a $4.6 billion compensation fund for female farmers who have been denied loans since 1981.
The article discusses Pigford and the other discrimination cases filed against FSA and USDA.  But there's no substantive discussion of the basis for the amount or any indication of what lawyers are involved.  (In the Pigford case there were allegations of misconduct by some of the lawyers.)

Updated:  See the press release on De Lauro's site for more details.  I refuse to use my dwindling brain cells to analyze the differences between De Lauro's process and Pigford but it looks as if it's the two track process again: one track for people who credibly claim to have applied for a loan, another track for people who can prove discrimination.  The first track gets $5,000 instead of the $50,000 for Pigford; the second gets an adjustable $109,000. 

One white male chauvinist legalistic remark:  there's no provision to prevent double-dipping by a black female  farmer (or, in the event, a Hispanic female or a Native American female farmer).

Google's Web History

Looked at my Google Web History today and found some mysterious searches in my top 10. Specifically, they're in the format: ocean2-*.org  where the asterisk represents a string of numerals.  Clicking on the link produces a "Server not found" message.  Doing Whois for " finds very little.  So, big concern.

However, this page at serverfault provides a possible explanation--it's a byproduct of doing searches on Google Books (which I often do in my genealogy pursuits).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Payment Limitation Rules Proposed by Christmas?

From the Delta Farm Press:

“I expect — and I don’t want to create any more anxiety out there than already exists — but I expect we will be announcing our proposals for rules governing payment limits and actively engaged as well as a memorandum of agreement with the IRS,” said James W. Miller, undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services.
Miller, the keynote speaker at the USA Rice Federation’s Rice Outlook Conference in New Orleans on Thursday, said he anticipates the regulations for the new payment limit rules and the implementation of the new crop disaster program known as SURE, could be published by the end of the year.
I might even rouse myself to read the darn thing (I assume an interim final rule) but I'm sure it will be fun and games for FSA and farmers to figure out.

Most Incredible Sentence Today--Robin Hanson

" Even if we gained from other kids’ schooling, that only suggests we subsidize schools, not that governments run them. "

Robin Hanson is usually interesting, but occasionally I find him obtuse, as in this discussion of why we have public schools.  His argument is that public schools are a means of propaganda for the government and vested interests (i.e., Protestant theology in the 19th century). What stops me dead in my tracks is the "if" in his sentence, as if there were any doubt.  In my mind, the big argument for globalization is the idea it gets more minds working away at hard problems, like maybe how to prevent Alzheimers (or whatever issue rings your bell). 

Electronic Health Records Advance

My healthcare provider is Kaiser, which has had electronic records for a while now.  They've improved the setup--my wife was able to schedule an appointment online very easily (about as easily as I was able to schedule an appointment for the car to be serviced).

Today, though, I got an email from the vet (for our two cats)--they're going electronic as well.  So far I'm less impressed with the software than the others I've mentioned, but the march of progress is carrying all before it.

Losing Historical Data

"Climategate" has in part focused on the loss of climate data supporting the research.  From another realm, that of high energy physics, comes another tale of scientists losing data, and the audit trail between raw data and published results.  No one will allege conspiracy here; it's a non-controversial field of science. 

(I do shed a tear for the idea that Fortran is an endangered language--if people can worry about the languages of the remote areas of the world being endangered they surely should also worry about Fortran and Lisp. )

Worst Sentence, Punctuation of the Day

"Our relatively youthful and socially diverse population includes a large component of people,..."

Apparently this conservative isn't sure what else our population includes. But since we liberals try to be half-way fair to our conservative brethren, here's the full sentence, with the proper punctuation inserted: ". Our relatively youthful and socially diverse population includes a large component of people, particularly males[,] with limited skills and education."  Still not graceful writing, I wouldn't use the word "component" in this context.

 From a Politico opinion piece attacking Obama for his climate change policies.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Mystery for Political Scientists

It's commonly agreed farmers have greater influence in the EU than in the US.  That accounts for the greater subsidies in the EU.  But, as reported by Dan Morgan via Farm Policy, EU politicians ignore farmers when it comes to climate change, while agriculture looks to be a key player in Congressional debates over cap and trade information.  Why?
"...American farmers often wish they wielded the same kind of power and influence [as EI farmers].
So I was surprised recently by the answer I got from a senior official from Brussels when I asked him about the role agriculture was playing in the European debate over climate change. After a pause and a momentary blank stare, the European Commission official replied that the farm lobby hadn’t been a major factor.”

Those Learning Curve Glitches with FSA Payments

There's a post here (Illinois Farm Bureau) saying that the glitches with centralized payments from Kansas City have been so bad that some House members are considering forcing the payment process back to the county offices.

Updated:  NASCOE has a piece on this (click on "Nascoe Now" to download the Word document) which essentially says there's no going back (rather like Obama with Afghanistan, maybe).

Megan McArdle Reveals a Mystery

Ms. McArdle is usually interesting and often sensible, even though she's a bit too libertarian for my tastes.  But today she revealed something--I quote the full post:
"Designer handbag rental.  Terrifyingly, this actually seems rather sensible to me.  I mean, if I didn't buy most of my bags at Target.  In fact, I largely moved out of Manhattan so that I could buy most of my bags at Target.  But if you're going to try to stay at the forefront of fashion, this seems like a cost effective way to do it."
I'm sure every male will see the mystery: why does a woman need multiple handbags?

Eating Your Own Dogfood--Kid's Food

A minor theme of the health care debate over the years has been that Congress should not have better health insurance than the rest of the nation, or put another way, that Congress should live by its own standards.  (Come to think of it, that was one part of Gingrich's Contract with America with which I agreed--making a series of laws, like OSHA, apply to Congress.)

In the the IT business it used to be called eating your own dogfood: if you were working on a word processor, you ought to be using it to do your writing.

If I've followed the debate, the Senate health care bill does put the top echelon of the government, including Congress, in the new healthcare exchanges.  And now there's at least a temporary extension to food--Jane Black in the Post reports Congressional staffers are getting fed the same food USDA provides for school lunches. Too bad the law wouldn't allow a continuance--staffers are typically lowly paid and would welcome a low cost lunch every day.  There's no magic to dogfooding, but it gets people outside their usual routine and such change can generate improvements.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What "Open Government" Doesn't Cover--Subordinate Offices

Here, via OMBwatch, is the text of the Obama's administration instructions to agencies on opening government. I like it, but I think there's a major problem: it treats each agency as an entity, not as a set of interrelated offices.  For example, an agency like FSA has over 2,000 county offices, state offices, offices in Kansas City and Salt Lake City.  NRCS and RD have similar structures.

So the issue, which I've hashed with at least one county executive director, is whether you have a centralized unitary open government structure or a more decentralized one. Complying with Orszag's instructions implies a centralized structure, which in a way is contrary to the open government philosophy. I'll be trying to track how NRCS and FSA implement this directive.

Hoop Garden

Obamafoodorama posts on the installation and use of hoops and hoop covers for the White House garden.
"Fabric-covered aluminum hoops have been placed over the crop rows and these capture passive solar energy and boost the interior temperature dramatically, so the garden soil and air is warmed, and crops can flourish--even in winter. Hoop Houses are often tall enough to walk through, but the White House is using mini versions, about two feet tall, which some farmers and gardeners refer to as "low tunnels" or just simply "row covers."....
But no matter: It's warm and cozy inside the covered beds in the 1,100 square foot Kitchen Garden, and the winter crops, which include lettuces, cabbage, winter radishes, onions, broccoli, turnips, and carrots, are easily accessible, because the covering fabric is held down with sandbags, and can easily be flipped back to weed, harvest, or water, if for some odd reason it doesn't rain (but it'd been raining a lot before it started to snow)"
I'm not sure it's going to be warm and cozy, particularly when the winds blow.  And I still think they'd do better with collards and kale than lettuce, but it's their first year.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Whatever Happened to Clinton's Surgeon General

The one who was unfairly fired  (Jocelyn Elders, maybe?).  She might enjoy this post from Margaret Soltan.  I well remember when masturbation was an unmentionable subject.

Best Sentence Today (Berluscone in a Speedo)

"However, all the attempts I've seen are like Silvio Berlusconi trying to wear a Speedo - no matter how you try to make everything fit, a couple of awkward bits wind up poking out and ruining the picture."  (From the 1930 Blog" musing about an economic theory which would explain current market movements.)

The Problems of Foodies--"Founding Farmers" Restaurant

Jane Black had an article on the problems the hot new "Founding Farmers restaurant" has with its goal of serving local, sustainable, and organic food.  She catches instances where their performance is less than their promises, but I don't take it as a critical, muckraking piece, rather as showing the difficulties of putting a square peg (the sustainable restaurant) into a round hole (the existing food system).  What happens is the buyer for the restaurant assumes a big responsibility which isn't easily performed, the responsibility of searching out the backstory of every food item purchased.  There might, in bigger cities, be a niche for an organic, sustainable broker, someone who takes on that burden and serves as a middleman between food producer and the restaurant.

Monday, December 07, 2009

And Round in Circles We Gaily Go

This post on the USDA blog praises a Forest Service employee who is a finalist in the competition for the best suggestion to save money.  Based on a fast skim (still trying to catch up from my travels) and fading memory, it seems to me ASCS used to use the proposed method.  We even had bank accounts in local banks.  That system is long gone, both the accounts and the methods of processing collections.  So maybe the proposal is in effect a return to the past for a USDA agency.

The Importance of Looks

Robin Givhan is a writer I mostly can ignore but the fashion/culture writer for the Post had a good piece yesterday: the theme being that the Salahi's were able to gate crash because they looked right--a thin blonde on the arm of a man in a tuxedo. Change any of the parameters and the security people would have been much more likely to challenge.  It's a sobering reminder of the importance of the genetic lottery in our culture (probably all cultures).

First We Kill All Middle Managers

No, that wasn't Al Gore's mantra, but he wanted to get rid of them and he thought he did.  Hope he is doing a better job on climate change.  These thoughts evoked by this piece in Government Executive on the use of numerical targets in managing government

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Snow and Foxhounds

Baldwinsville, NY is in the snowbelt--meaning they get the lake effect snow off the Great Lakes, at least until the lakes freeze over.  But this year they haven't had much, if any, snow.  But the day after I got back to Reston we started to get snow, snowed most of the day yesterday, 5 inches or so of the wet, pretty stuff.

I got some nice photos this morning on my usual walk for Starbucks, but none as great as this first photo from the Post, showing the Middleburg hunt leading the Christmas parade.  The rest of the photos in the show are worth viewing as well.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Restaurants of Baldwinsville

Returned from my trip last night and thought I'd resume blogging with thumbnail reviews of the restaurants at which I ate:
  • Chili's.  Nothing to be said--a chain restaurant with a good southwestern chicken salad and too much beer (my capacity for alcohol diminishes as I age). 
  • Mohegan Manor.  Downtown Baldwinsville's classiest restaurant, I suspect. This was new to me, though I've seen it on previous visits.  Had the black cod special, the fish on top of some tarted up mashed potatoes and steamed? spinach.  Enjoyed the food, but not the noise.  The restaurant's in an old building (long ago mansion I expect), which has been renovated down to the original floor boards, so there's nothing to absorb the sounds.
  • Tabatha's. Have eaten here several times, usually try to hit it once each trip.  It's a home-style restaurant with good food and lots of it.  What makes it special are the desserts, particularly the pies. 
  • Canal Walk Cafe. Deserted the hotel's continental breakfast for this place, which is by the side of the canal. It reminds me of the corner restaurant in Greene, NY.  Good food.  I almost said "simple", but their breakfast special Thursday was a "strata" something--a cheese omelot stuffed with Italian sausage, onions, and other stuff (I'm not exactly a discerning eater, BTW).  It was good, but so was the scrambled egg on Wed.  It  to be the sort of place with neighborhood regulars, and a friendly atmosphere where the waitress calls you: "honey". 
Any or all of these are recommended in case you're visting the Syracuse area.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Fruit Farmers Have It Easier Than Animal Farmers

Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw posts on apple producers who find a bumper harvest means prices go low, so low it's not economic to harvest fruit for juice.  He sees it as a textbook case of producers cutting back production.

I guess, but I'd point out, as I tried in the title, that animal farmers are in a different situation.  Yes, you can cut back production very marginally--you dry up cows a little earlier, feed your animals a little less.  But, given my parents stories of dairymen's strikes in the 1930 where producers had to dump milk, I'm sensitive to the it. An apple grower, in the fall, is facing the picking expense, which I'd guess is a significant portion of the total costs of the crop.  If she can't sell the produce to the juice people for more than the cost of picking, it's a no brain decision.  The situation facing a pork producer or a dairyman is more complicated--each day your animals live is another day of feed costs (plus labor, but here feed is probably the big item). So it's not a black and white calculation, it's a guess of what the future holds--lower feed prices, higher pork prices, higher milk prices, whatever.

NOTE:  I'll be traveling tomorrow through Friday so blogging is likely to be light.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Climategate and On-the-Ground Reality

The anti-global warming folks have labeled the emails stolen from the East Anglia University climate research unit as "Climategate". It's well and good to enjoy the discomforture (sp?) of your adversaries.

But it's also nice to recognize realities on the ground. "Ground" is not taken literally--this is the fabled Northwest Passage from a Post feature listing unnoticed stories from 2009:
The mythic Northwest Passage still captures imaginations, but this September, two German vessels made history by becoming the first commercial ships to travel from East Asia to Western Europe via the northeast passage between Russia and the Arctic. Ice previously made the route impassable, but thanks to rising global temperatures, it's now a cakewalk

Slow FSA Payments

 From a discussion of slow cash flow:
Another factor has been those USDA farm program direct payment checks from the Farm Service Agency that were about a month late in arriving this fall. That delay has also caused some farmers to scramble to meet cash flow needs.
I don't know if this was isolated or perhaps part of the learning curve involved in moving payments from county offices to Kansas City. Or maybe something else.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

New Rules on Improper Payments

FSA has taken flak for issuing improper payments, including to deceased producers, although estates of deceased producers are eligible to receive payment but not forever.

But there's a new executive order which will make these more transparent, which may or may not apply to FSA programs:
During the next six months, the Treasury secretary, attorney general and OMB director must publish online information about improper payments for high-priority or high-cost programs. The data is to include agencies' current and historical error rates for incorrect disbursements; the known causes of the mistakes; the amount of money that has been recovered; and the entities that have received the highest amount of outstanding improper payments as long as those entities aren't being considered for referral to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Miller Apologizes

Undersecretary Miller apologizes:

"It is not the county FSA program technician's fault you're not getting payments. It is not the people in the state FSA office's fault you're not getting payments," he said. "It is my fault, and I apologize."
Efforts are under way to modernize the agency's computers, Miller said. But the effort will take several years and cost at least $500 million. In the meantime, the current system has to remain functional although its personnel and information technology services are stretched beyond the breaking point.
Miller's referring to MIDAS, which got money through the Recovery Act which, last I checked, FSA has not reported on. (Last update 4/30/2009)   FSA did award money for coordination, according to this. As a cynic, I suspect Torres is an SBA 8(a) firm (as Fu was in the mid-1990's when Info Share was the toast of the day, and later Soza was, when Greg Carnill was leading the effort and business process reengineering was the the fad of the day.) 

The Disease Benefits of CAFO's

An article of faith among foodies is that CAFO's are a cesspool of disease, incubators for death.  Maybe so, but this extension piece claims hogs in CAFO's have less lungworm, kidney worm, trichinella,  toxoplasma, swine dysentery, atrophic rhinitis, actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae, brucellosis, classical swine fever (hog cholera) and pseudorabies

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More Testing Needed?

In the controversy over when to have mammographs, there's costs. 

Ezra Klein has my thought published before I got around to it: if testing at 40 is good, then why not test at 30, and twice a year rather than yearly?  Surely the point is that there's a continuum, for any person, and for the community generally. That is, testing identifies cancers which would not be otherwise identified until too late to treat effectively and permits their effective treatment.  At some point on the continuum most everyone agrees testing is warranted and at another point it's not.  Same sort of thing men face with prostate cancer, though I gather from the first link there might be a more straight-forward link between a positive test and treatment.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Mystery of the Male Anatomy

I enjoy Joel Acehenbach's writing in the Post, and he points to a post on the Scientific American blog explaining the whys and wherefores of the male genitalia.

I Predicted This--ARRA Transparency as Omen of the Future

As I said here, despite problems with data, Obama's effort to provide transparency on stimulus spending is important, not just for itself, but in laying down the tracks for future efforts:  From Nextgov:

"Technology that states have deployed to report how they spent federal stimulus funds is likely to permanently change information exchange across the public and private sector, despite controversy over figures on the number of jobs created and saved, said New York officials, academics and federal leaders."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Damn Bureaucrats Can't Get Things Right

This time it's not the government, it's Fox News bureaucrats.

I'm sure it's not a conspiracy by liberal spies to undermine the good reputation of the network.  It's just Murphy's law at work.  And Murphy was and is nonpartisan.

Disaster and Obama

Farm Policy for today notes an effort in the Delta states to do disaster payments. If I remember somewhere sometime the Obama administration was proposing a multi-year fund to handle disasters.  They were trying to avoid emergency appropriations bills.  Don't remember if agriculture was included or, like other of their proposals, it never went anywhere.

Housing Sales Revive?

Just judging by my cluster--my next door neighbor's house is now under contract, after having been on the market maybe 30-45 days.  That's much better than a year ago.  Don't know if they got their asking price ($277,000), but if they did the owner made a profit.  I think the bank repossessed it around Jan. 2008, someone in the city picked it up for about $180,000, rented it for a year to college students, then spent a lot of money fixing it up.  So he perhaps made $50-60,000 on his investment.

Prices in the area seem, according to zillow, to be bimodal--a bunch of houses below $200K and some now selling for $275K.

Update on White House Garden

Obamafoodorama tries to keep it real, saying the White House garden (nor the beehive) won't be feeding the Indian PM at the state dinner.
The Kitchen Garden is currently wintering over, and not producing enough vegetables to feed hundreds of guests a multi-course vegetable-based State Dinner; the photo of the garden, above, was taken yesterday afternoon. It's a little barren. There's still some lettuces, some spinach, and a variety of herbs growing, but that's pretty much it at the moment.

I think they could be growing more--turnips and rutabagas, kale and collards, but I give the site props for honesty.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Milbank Explains the Filibuster

Dana Milbank uses Tennessee Williams to describe the debate and vote on cloture last night.  In doing so, he also describes the reason for the Senate rules on cloture, i.e., why the filibuster is effective:
Landrieu and Lincoln got the attention because they were the last to decide, but the Senate really has 100 Blanche DuBoises, a full house of characters inclined toward the narcissistic. The health-care debate was worse than most. With all 40 Republicans in lockstep opposition, all 60 members of the Democratic caucus had to vote yes -- and that gave each one an opportunity to extract concessions from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.
Bottom line is that Senators never want to give up power and the filibuster gives power.

Asian Brains

From Google's competition for programmers:
Last year's champion, Lou Tiancheng of China, code-named ACRush, once again took top honors and the $5,000 grand prize. Qi Zichao of China won second place, and Iwata Yoichi of Japan came in third.

The Corn Genome

The good people at USDA (plus a bunch of egghead types) have deciphered the corn genome.

Down the road this is important.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Farm City Novella Carpenter

I enjoyed this book, maybe because I like too much humor (the complaint of one Amazon commenter). Child of hippie parents creates a garden in a vacant lot in the bad part of Oakland, including eventually chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits and pigs.  She's honest and accurate, though I did wonder about collard greens in July--I think of them as a cool weather crop but I guess not.

From my praise you can guess there's a minimum of locavore/organic ideology in the book.  The main thread of the book is the garden, but the small bits about neighbors, friends, and relatives make it more than one-dimensional.

Instant Nostalgia--The Weekly Reader

Via John Phipps, believe it or not The Weekly Reader is still around.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Windows 7.0 and Change

A household mantra here is: "change is bad", which is meant two ways--a statement of how we operate, being resistant to change, and a reminder that being open to change is good.  For some reason, I have a lot less problem being a relatively early adopter of some technology (though not Facebook, cellphones, or Twitter) than I do getting out and meeting and greeting people.

Anyway, be that as it may, yesterday I upgraded both desktop and laptop to Windows 7.0.  Went reasonably well, no major glitches.  I can't say I'm greatly impressed by it yet, except for this:  Microsoft games, particularly the chess Titans game. It's been 50 years since I played much chess, and I wasn't much good then.  This game seems sure to be another way to eat up time.

And How Do We Explain Rich Indians?

And all the other business operators, from a study:

In the United States, the typical Indian entrepreneur has an average business income that is substantially higher than the national average and is higher than any other immigrant group. Net annual income in the United States is 60 percent higher than the overall average. Meanwhile, in Canada and the UK, Indian entrepreneurs make similar incomes as other immigrants, but employ more employees than almost any other ethnic group.

You're Prosperous Because of Bureaucrats

That idea is ratified by Dr. Mankiw, former chair of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers and Harvard economics prof, who refers us to MIT economist Darin Acemoglu in this article, which compares the Nogales cities:
"The key difference is that those on the north side of the border enjoy law and order and dependable government services — they can go about their daily activities and jobs without fear for their life or safety or property rights. On the other side, the inhabitants have institutions that perpetuate crime, graft, and insecurity."

Thursday, November 19, 2009


By the time I'd retired, I had a collection of coffee mugs.  One was labelled "InfoShare", which was about the only product of a multi-million dollar effort, originally instigated by Secretary Madigan and carried on for a while by the Dems, to get the various USDA agencies which work with farmers to share their information.  One of the areas was the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation and ASCS (by 1994 RMA and FSA).  Both got reports of which fields were planted to which crops so it seemed a no-brainer that there should be a common reporting date, a common acreage report, disaster reports, etc. Well, this week FSA issued a  notice which represents a some progress in that supposedly simple change. 

Reading between the lines I see the simplification and standardization effort still has a ways to go.  This much progress wasn't a result of the initial Infoshare project, but of Congress putting a provision in the farm bill.  (Not the 2008 farm bill, but the 2002 farm bill--only takes 7 years to make progress.)

I really feel guilty, at least a little, mocking USDA for this.  It's true there were and are reasons for the differences in the operations of the two agencies, and therefore the data collected by each.  So, unless you have someone with a 2 x 4 in the right position, progress is difficult.

[Note:  I'm upgrading to Windows 7.0 today, so blogging will be light.]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Setting Yourself Up for Failure

The improper payments rate has increased, partially because the Obama administration set themselves up for failure: 
"an illegible signature from a doctor was now more likely to trigger a classification of improper payment than it has in the past."
More seriously, OMB is going to call Secretaries on the carpet if they fail to improve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The USDA Reorganization

Seems to be causing the usual flurry of problems and discontented employees, including one Chief Financial Officer. There's some suspicion that management might be using the reorg to weed out employees they don't want.  (I would be shocked, shocked if that were true.)  See this Government Executive writeup.

Stimulus Numbers and GIGO

The Obama Administration is learning the pitfalls of naive IT enthusiasm--the idea we can improve government with a little innovation.  First there was their soliciting of ideas from the public for improving government, a process which seems to have fizzled out, partially under the impact of the birthers take-over, partially through not thinking through the process.

Now there's the transparency promise of data on jobs saved and created through the stimulus.  They've had hiccups, the most recent one being ABC's noting that the jobs data is ascribed to non-existent Congressional districts. That reflects a common problem in new systems, a failure to validate input.  Meaning, in the old phrase, "garbage in, garbage out".  (I haven't seen that used much recently--not sure why.) Ideally for each data element input you have some validations, like a table of valid congressional district numbers, or a reasonableness check, like matching dollars and numbers of jobs.

Whippersnappers like the IT guys in the administration have to learn, just like I did.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Whom Do You Trust--a Bureaucrat?

Technology Review explains that the whole internet rests on faith in the integrity of bureaucrats in the Department of Commerce and Verisign--under a new plan to make the domain name server system more secure they will hold the security-key for the topmost domain in the DNS. (See the post for an accurate explanation.)

Most Surprising Post Today--Sleeping Chinese Students

In my lifetime we've gone from the antlike masses of Chinese in their Mao jackets and their little red books to the bursting capitalism of their state economy.  But a constant has been: Chinese work hard.  But through Margaret Soltan at University Diaries comes this from the Taipei Times:

"While Lee was addressing the ceremony, a number of students in attendance were caught on camera dozing off, having breakfast, playing games on their cellphones or reading comic books…"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Diamond on Japan's History and Uniqueness

Hat tip Megan McArdle.  A couple sentences:
. Unlike the winter rains prevailing over much of Europe, Japan's rains are concentrated in the summer growing season, giving it the highest plant productivity of any nation in the temperate zones. While 80 percent of Japan's land consists of mountains unsuitable for agriculture and only 14 percent is farmland, an average square mile of that farmland is so fertile that it supports eight times as many people as does an average square mile of British farmland. Japan's high rainfall also ensures a quickly regenerated forest after logging. Despite thousands of years of dense human occupation, Japan still offers visitors a first impression of greenness because 70 percent of its land is still covered by forest.
This is an old Jared Diamond piece on Japanese prehistory. What does the factoid mean in the context of concerns over modern agriculture?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Faith in International Institutions--a Lost Cause

The Progressives had great faith in international institutions.  Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations was just one culmination of efforts at reforming the world, bringing (WASP) law, order and morality to everyone.  And Herbert Hoover wasn't that far removed from this faith.  Indeed, he was the exemplar of what could be accomplished for the needy by international aid efforts through his leadership of relief efforts in Europe during and after WWI.

And even later, from the 1930 blog:
Pres. Hoover says US should play a part in World Court; in Armistice Day speech, declares belief world will within a few years become firmly interlocked with arbitration and conciliation agreements, and disputes not resolvable through diplomacy will be arbitrated; sees important role for Court: “In the development of methods of pacific settlement ... a great hope lies in ever extending the body and principles of international law ... Our duty is to seek ever new and widening opportunities to insure the world against the horror and irretrievable wastages of war.”
The right's faith in international law has long since evaporated.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Same Old, Same Old

A cynical man says it's all a matter of whose ox is gored.  As evidence, yesterday I noted the ex-head of NOW threatening to defeat pro-life Democrats in an effort to purify the Democratic Party just as a couple weeks ago, the conservatives threatened to defeat Scozzafava(sp?) to purity the Republican Party.  And they did.

Meanwhile there's a Politico report the White House is concerned about leaks on national security, particularly with regards to Afghanistan strategy.  Didn't the Bush administration have the same concerns?  Next thing we know VP Biden will be declassifying material to undermine a Rep point.

And finally, a note that Rep. Hoekstra may have disclosed intelligence capabilities (i.e., that we read the email of radical clerics) which raises the ire of a liberal.

Politics is often a matter of tactics and rhetoric, which saddens my goo-goo side. But anyone who expects or sees consistency in their favorite politician is blind.

You Too Can Write Like an Academic

There's now software available to do the work, and all the thinking, for you.  Find it here.

Hat tip: American Historians Blog.

Straws in the Wind--the Rise of New Media

Was channel surfing the other day and caught the tail-end of an interview with someone plugging a list of the 100 most powerful people in the world (I think).  Two media people made it--the head of the BBC and the head of X.

Tyler Cowen plugged a video on a new city in China which is empty, though it's built for 1 million.  (It starts about 1 minute in.)  It's done by X.

What is "X"?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Virtues of Failure

Via here's a post at NASA's blog suggesting the need to celebrate failure. As you might expect, the writer gets a little pushback in the comments, given NASA's very visible failures in the past.  But I buy the basic point: you--the bureaucrat--can only learn if you admit your failures. That's what the FAA does--promise pilots they won't get into trouble when they report near-misses. Unfortunately, in the government context it seemed we (I, and maybe others) fell into the us versus them trap in dealing with auditors.  Not always, but often. The problem with GAO and OIG is the possibility adverse reports make it to the Washington Post and Congress.  Bosses don't like being hauled up before Congress to defend their operations, especially when, as is sometimes the case, they don't really understand the issues involved.

When I Was a College Student

My freshman year was in a dorm, built during the 1950's.  Between me and my roommate we probably had 3 or 4 appliances (clocks and radios).  That thought was triggered by this excerpt from a post quoted by Margaret Soltan:
Take Stanford University, where the student body avows itself as green as Kermit the Frog. Buttressed by a stack of PowerPoint graphs, a friend likes to demonstrate to his students that, as they have grown ever more Gaia-friendly over the years, their consumption of energy in the Stanford dorms has grown ever more mind-boggling. It’s those shiny gadgets of theirs. My friend does this for the sheer delicious malice of it, not because he expects a single student to unplug anything. He knows that, among any student body, ethics is primarily a fashionable pose.

What are the chances we could get college students to return to the good old days in the name of environmentalism?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wash Your Hands

That's the message at freakonomics.

Congress: Ask the Bureaucrats

That's the message of this Government Executive piece--that much legislation is poorly designed and hard to implement, problems which could be avoided if only the legislators asked the bureaucrats who have to implement it for their input early in the process.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Virtues of Rice and Strawberry Shortcake

From a post on Slate about the amount of fertilizer and pesticide used by different foods:
White rice came out the big winner here, returning more than 2 million calories per pound of pesticide used and 82,000 calories per pound of phosphate. Onions and sweet corn ranked nearly as efficient as rice when it came to pesticide, but were only so-so in terms of fertilizer; the opposite was true for oranges and apples. Lingering at the bottom of both lists were strawberries, which returned just 121,000 calories per pound of pesticide, and 5,300 per pound of fertilizer.

A Question of Priorities

The major is quoted as having said: "I'm a Muslim first and an American second".  My first reaction is, of course, if you're truly religious you have to believe your immortal soul is invaluable, so religious faith comes first.  Would we raise an eyebrow if any public figure said "I'm a Christian first and an American second"? 

But then, thinking about JFK and his famous address in Houston, I start to wonder.  Basically in 1960 the idea among Protestants was that JFK was a Catholic first and an American second and, because Catholics owed allegiance to the Pope (that's a vanished concept) he could not be trusted as a President.  JFK's speech said his priority as President was America, not his faith.

But on the other hand, we respect Quakers and Amish who claim the right of conscientious objection, which seems in part to be a claim that religion takes priority over patriotism.

Bottomline:  I don't know--I suspect there may be a position I'd agree with, but it probably requires lots of consideration of the situation.  But that would require more thinking than I have patience for right now (ever again?).  So, here as elsewhere I opt for tolerating positions without trying for consistency.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Feminism in 1930

From the 1930 blog:
A survey of the 500 female students at Stanford got 225 responses. Summary: About 90% expect to marry, with 40% currently in love. College men and fraternity members preferred. 70% “do not enjoy kissing for its own sake”; 20% believe in “companionate marriage”; 80% believe in divorce; 30% “consider themselves experienced in love”; 20% “approve of the double standard of morals”; most important qualities in husband: personality, appearance, and wealth. Favorite cities: San Francisco, New York, Washington, Los Angeles; most admired women: Mrs. Hoover, Helen Wills, mother, Amelia Earhart; most admired men: Lindbergh, Hoover, Edison, David Starr Jordan, Admiral Byrd. Religion: almost half Christian, 15% no religious faith, 7% “exotic Oriental creeds”, 1% spiritualism.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

No, I Don't ike Crop Insurance

That's prejudiced, I know.  So that tells you to take my opinions with a grain of salt.  But here's a report of an analysis of the private crop insurance industry which, to my mind, isn't exactly favorable.

If I weren't old and tired I'd try to track the contributions of crop insurance to politicians., but I am so I won't.

John Phipps has a similar reaction, plus a nice graph.   

Everyone Can "Nudge"

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness is  by Drs. Sunstein and Thaler. Under the banner of libertarian paternalism they argue the government can nudge people into better decisions.  For example, if the default option is to enroll the new employee into the 401K plan, enrollment will be higher and savings greater than if the default is not to enroll.

This is all well and good, and I approve.  But everyone can nudge, as it turns out in a NY Times article on the adoption of credit cards in taxis, a measure the cabbies initially resisted.  Why have they changed their minds?  The credit system provides pre-set tip amounts, so it makes it easy for the customer to tip, and to tip larger amounts than they might otherwise do. 

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Bureacucratic Catch-22

I'm no fan of HIPAA, the law which tries to protect the privacy of patients.  Here's an example.--applying the law literally can prevent a person from accessing her own data, when someone else has stolen an identity.

Oh, To Be a Student Again

This is really nice--a comparison of size ranging from coffee bean to carbon atom, and lots of neat stuff  in-between.from a scienceblog post. Hat Tip Monkey Cage

Back When Ticker Tape Was Ticker Tape

Apollo 11

No, earlier than that.  Unfortunately, I can't find the sort of image I'm remembering from the late 40's and early 50's when ticker tape was really what was thrown out of windows during NYC parades.  Ah, memory.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging

For some reason, I don't do as good photos as Ann Althouse and Kevin Drum do. I've done one previous Friday cat blog--this is a recent photo of our older cat (the no. 1 entity in the household) in a thoughtful mood. Cats are above and beyond our human messes, so this is appropriate for this week's news.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 05, 2009

When the Free Market Meets Romantic Ideology

As a liberal I may over-estimate the strength of free market capitalism in conquering beliefs, but this excerpt from an Agweb report on an ERS analysis of organic dairy doesn't make me change my mind:
Most organic milk operations are small, with 45% milking fewer than 50 cows, and 87% fewer than 100, the study says. But the largest organic dairies, those with more than 200 cows, account for more than a third of organic milk production and are far more likely to generate returns above their capital and labor costs. That suggests that organic milk production will migrate toward larger operations, the authors say.

The World Is Filled With Whippersnappers--Yes, Ezra Klein I Mean You

I mostly like Mr. Klein's work, but the transcript of his chat today provokes the title.  First, he admits he had no credit, because he always used a debit card.  Second, he's asked why the limited range of brackets for the income tax, and I get the blinding revelation that Mr. Klein was at best a babe in arms when Sen. Bradley and Rep. Rostenkowski got through the 1986 tax bill. I recommend the book on that process to anyone who wants to watch sausage being made.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Present in the Past

From the 1930 blog, two items:
  1. In 1930 two of the corporations with the longest run of paying dividends were the NYCentral and Pennsylvania Railroad.  By 1970 or so both were bankrupt, partially because Ike had adopted Mr. Raskob's suggestion for coast to coast superhighways.
  2. The volume of fruits and vegetables being shipped by rail was notably higher--an ill omen for the sort of localized production which used to occur in Ontario county, NY, and southern Illinois.  Of course, this sort of shipment soon moved to trucks.

Problems at the USDA Blog?

Here's the August post on the USDA blog with my comment.

Here's the text of a comment I've received (similar to ones I've received sporadically over the weeks).

Ephedrine faq. wrote:

[Trackback] Ephedrine. Pseudo ephedrine. Bronch-eze ephedrine. Danger of ephedrine. Ephedrine products for asthma.

Respond to this comment at:

When I use the "archives" feature to scroll through the posts for a month, for both August and July a handful of posts at the end of the month are displayed, but nothing for the first part of the month nor is there a way to find older posts. 

Bottomline:  somehow USDA isn't paying a whole lot of attention to their blog.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The 11th Commandment

Republicans believe Ronald Reagan is the Alpha and Omega of their political wisdom, at least until it comes to upstate New York, where the young whippersnappers don't seem to rememberhis 11th Commandment.

World's Slowest Landslide Has a Great Name

Actually, I don't know this is the world's slowest landslide, but it sounds likely:
William H. Schulz and Jason W. Kean of the United States Geological Survey, with Gonghui Wang of Kyoto University in Japan, studied the Slumgullion slide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. This slide is 2.5 miles long, about 350 yards wide and 65 feet thick at its lower end, and moves an average of about a half-inch a day. Because it moves so slowly, it is not hazardous (although it will wipe out a state highway in about 100 years) and is ideal for study.

Big Farms Are Better for Workers?

That's the thesis of this Slate piece, based on time spent in California fruit and vegetable farms and discussions with migrant workers.

In IT terms, it's the difference between working for Microsoft or IBM (back in the day) and a small contract programming shop.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Ups and Downs of Farming

Farm Policy summarizes the dangers to farmers of the recent wet weather.  City folk, as mom would say, don't have a conception of how variable things can be.  An excerpt: " “Over the past two months, futures markets have added about 36% to the price of corn and 17% to the price of soybeans, in part due to the difficult harvest, said Joe Victor, vice president of marketing with Allendale Inc., a commodity-research advisory firm. Corn futures for December delivery closed Friday at $3.66 a bushel.”"

(In fairness to city folk, I'm sure there are economic niches other than farming subject to ups and downs. Which would you rather be, a corn farmer or a middle-aged newspaper person?)

Why Don't the French Have Ghosts?

That's the question Dirk Beauregarde asks here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Blasts from the Past

Just finished the book on National Security advisers by Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler.  Having lived through the era (from McGeorge Bundy in JFK's administration through Stephen Hadley in Bush's), there wasn't that much new for me.  But their judgments were interesting: Bundy/JFK and Scowcroft/Bush come out the best, with the latter combo no. 1).

The book moves quickly, and I'd recommend it if your taste runs to bureaucratic politics.  A few notes:
  • all honor to Bromley Smith, who was an unsung bureaucrat at the beginning who established many of the essentials of the national security system
  • when the right wing faults people for not reading the 1,000+ pages of various legislation, they would do well to remember that Bush's NSC adviser failed to read the 90 odd pages of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before the Iraq War
  • when the right wing faults Obama for dithering, they might reread the narrative of how Bush took us into two wars
  • when the right wing faults the "czars", they might remember the national security adviser is neither statutory nor confirmed by the Senate
The authors' major point is that the President and his adviser are a unit, the one should compensate for the weaknesses of the other.

The Last Farm on Manhattan

From the 1930 blog:

10 years ago, 5 farms remained on Manhattan Island. Now only one does, occupying a block at Broadway and 213th St., growing vegetables and some chickens.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spread of GMO Seed

Treehugger has a post on Canada's problem with GMO seed in flaxseed.  Tests find 1 seed in 10,000 is a genetically modified strain which was never grown commercially, but which was approved by the Canadian agency.  It's causing big problems with exports to the EU.

Apparently some people planted it and it has spread. It seems impossible to separate out such seeds, so presumably the strain will keep being planted and replanted. I wonder: what's the eventual outcome? Is natural selection suspended in our fields of flax, so it will remain at 1 in 10,000, or will the proportion gradually increase or decrease?  I also wonder, once we decode the genome for everything, will [deluded] people somewhere start enforcing a sort of genetic purism, accepting only those strains/varieties which originated before the advent of genetic modification?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Catch-22 in the Courts

Via Volokh Conspiracy, can one file suit against people who:" ... conspired with the American government in its attempts to eliminate him and have otherwise taken various steps to interfere with his ability to establish himself and live freely as a martian."?

Answer: No. "...It follows that if the plaintiff is not a person in that he is neither a human being nor a corporation, he cannot be a plaintiff as contemplated by the Rules of Civil Procedure. The entire basis of Mr. Joly’s actions is that he is a martian, not a human being. There is certainly no suggestion that he is a corporation. I conclude therefore, that Mr. Joly, on his pleading as drafted, has no status before the Court."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sunlight and Obama

I don't think it's a causal relationship, more a matter of riding the wave, but you still have to give Obama credit for participating in the open government/transparency movement. I say this as today the AP pointed out some problems in the recovery Act data--in some cases too many jobs were claimed. The White House has immediately fired back. And I'd refer to my rule about learning, it's still a learning curve.

But in the broader context we're developing the expectation, fed by Obama administration actions and the initiatives of many good government types, that government data will be open, accessible, manipulable, and correct.  That's a major step forward.  If you believe, as I do, the government is a congeries of organizations of people, some of which are efficient and effective and some are not, then having good data available to all will identify which are which.  In the long run that's very important--one big step to restoring and maintaining public confidence in government.

Adjusting to Change--California Cotton

A surprising, but true, paragraph from On the Record (tracks California water issues mostly):

MWD will not buy water from fallowed cotton because there is almost no cotton left in California. The decline has been going on for several years now.  People who are willing to opine in the paper should already know this.
San Diego will not buy water from fallowed rice because rice is getting good prices these days. It isn’t a low-value crop right now and rice farmers don’t want to sell. Even if rice farmers would sell, neither the state nor the feds have spare capacity to move non-project water across the Delta these days, and buyers aren’t tempted to buy water that might not get delivered.
When I started with USDA, the Southwest was big cotton country and California growers, the names of whom I'm having a senior moment for, were big payment recipients. Conversely, Southeast cotton was down, mostly because of the boll weevil.
Meanwhile, cotton growing in the Southeast has revived somewhat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No-Till for the Long Haul

Ag Web has an article from a long time no-till farmer which should  please the greens and foodies on first reading, if not the second. 

I say that because he makes clear it's not an open-and-shut case for no-till, it's heavily dependent on the type of soil and the nature of the topography.  And an investment in tiling is required. (My guess is plowed land dries more than no-till land, hence the need for tile.) And he's very much into new technology.  So the overall perspective is very different than the romanticism I see in many locavore-organic-sustainable ag types.

Kevin Drum Does Pith

"rich people tend to do really stupid things when they have too much money lying around for too long." From a post on the difference between asset bubbles and consumer price inflation.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Problem with Government--Speed

Or the lack thereof.  Senate Ag has a hearing. Extension reports milk prices are recovering and the recovery will continue.

Paperwork Reduction Act

OMBwatch and Nextgov both have pieces on the request for comments on how to improve the operation of the Paperwork REduction Act.  I hope to comment, but then I hope to do a lot of things.

Having the Right Incentives

It's important, whether for CEO's of financial companies or CIA bureaucrats.  Brookings reveals the CIA screwed their incentives during the Bush presidency. Via Understanding Government from Washington Monthly.

A Mere Surmise, Sir

A quote from the new Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man. Mixes Schrodinger's cat and the Book of Job into a comedy which I enjoyed. 

I also recommend Rob Roy,  a 1995 film starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange based, to my surprise, on a real Scottish character.  Watched it on DVD last night.  It's unforgivable there's no special features.

Monday, October 26, 2009

French Food, McDonalds and Globalization

I think someone at the Times has been reading Dirk Beauregarde, who had this post on the gradual Galloisization of McDonalds.Today Nadim Audi writes the same story,but with the hook of a McDonalds in the Louvre (now we know what the Mona Lisa's smile means).

Who knew there was  "le goût de l’Amérique"?  For those whose high school french is even worse than mine, it's "the taste of America".

Environmental Flub

IMHO the climate action people should bite the bullet and admit a failure.  I don't see how you claim "hundreds of thousands" of people demonstrating world-wide, when the supporting detail cites 300-500 demonstrators in the biggest European and North American cities. I realize expecting the truth from the organizers of any demonstration, for any cause, reveals me as hopelessly naive.  But so be it.  I'm just as dubious of the Rolling Thunder claims as the claims.

Flash: Breaking News from the Post's Ezra Klein

The men of Congress are paragons of physical fitness. It's only the women who seem like they might have difficulty sustaining full-court press. Link

The Post on CAFO's

Yesterday the Post had an article describing a state-of-the-art CAFO, in the context of H1N1 flu and the dangers of pig-human transmission.  I suspect some may quarrel with sentences such as:"CAFOs such as Schott's are inherently safer than backyard pig farms, where the animals mingle with people and birds fly overhead."

As I think I've said before, a CAFO is to older farming as an airplane is to a car.  It's a safer mode of transportation, but a whole lot scarier and, when it fails, does a whole lot more damage.

Read the whole piece.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Identity and Surveillance

The Post has an article today on the adoption of mobile fingerprint readers, equipment originally designed for the military.Local police departments are using them to good effect in various scenarios. Meanwhile the NYTimes reports on the use and possible misuse of CCTV in Britain. Anyone who follows PBS Mystery will know how automatic it is for Brit detectives to check the closed circuit TV tapes.  But apparently, as with many innovations, once it's built it's used.  The Brits have a case where the school authorities used the tapes to try to determine whether a family actually lived in the district they claimed to.  Result: some upset

While some, like the ACLU, see such things as violating our right to privacy.  I'm reminded, however, in the small towns we used to live in there was no such privacy--everyone knew everyone without the need  of a fingerprint reader and everyone watched everyone, without use of CCTV.

Transparency in Government--Taxes

Via Kevin Drum here's a discussion of our past history in revealing tax information. I might be persuadable of the advantages of making all tax data accessible on-line (see the last part of the document).

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Second Most Dangerous Place in Washington

The first most dangerous place in DC is supposedly the space between a microphone and Sen. Chuck Schumer.  If so, the second most dangerous place is the space between a new program and an ambitious bureaucrat.  An example, from Farm Policy reporting on a discussion of how carbon offsets might work:

“But the government and companies buying offsets will want proof that the carbon is being properly held in the soil.”

Yesterdays article noted that, “These verifiers confirm project eligibility, ownership of environmental attributes and ongoing project performance and inspect data such as meter readings, fuel purchases and records.

Gustafson says crop insurance adjustors would be a good fit for this kind of work.
“‘The crop insurance agents are very good and prepared to do many of those tasks,’ he says. ‘They already work directly with producers and they monitor farm activity and programs like this to make sure that they are complying with farm program requirements, as well as specifications for the crop insurance policies.’”

I have to admit I thought FSA could do this work.

It Takes All KInds

LATimes does an interview with a pioneer of the Internet.  His 99-year old mother is on the Net, but his wife just got e-mail 6 months ago.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Second Amendment

As a good liberal who remembers exactly where I was (U of Rochester library) when I heard about JFK's assassination, I've always been a supporter of gun control.  And as someone who trusts authority, mostly, I bought the idea the Second Amendment related to militias.  Then, in recent years, scholars have made the argument that it really pertains to individual rights.  And enough have made that case, and as I've lived and crime has decreased, I've come to accept the idea that there might be an individual right to weapons.  (Looking at the Young Irelanders has also been interesting.) You might say I've learned a better interpretation of the Second Amendment.

But then, via Althouse, I stumbled on this site, which quotes the discussion in the House of Representatives on the Second Amendment.  Nothing there about individual rights.  (I realize that's not a clinching argument, but it certainly causes me to question my recent learning.

The Advantage of Bees

They work regardless. Obamafoodorama reports high production from the White House beehives (either 100 pounds or 140 gallons of honey, depending on who you believe. Neither source is audited by GAO--I'm waiting for a Rep to request one.)

A quote: "-Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass called the beehive "probably the greatest acheivement of the garden."

Q. How much honey will I have?
A. Again, it really depends on a lot of factors, but you will definitely have enough to share once your hive really gets going. In my experience, the Backyard Hive will produce an average of 3 to 4 gallons of honey per year.



The weight of honey varies slightly with the moisture content. One gallon of honey weighs approximately 12 lbs.

Analysis:  The photo I've seen shows only the one hive, meaning it must have produced 12 gallons or so to reach the 140 pound mark.

I think Enid is a little doubtful herself, as she says: "The numerically magical White House Beehive"

[Afterthought:  However skeptical one may be, I have to remember there's no beehives within miles of the WH, which means the bees have no competition.  And there's a fair amount of flowers around, although hardly an almond orchard.]

Corn for City Folks

For any "city folks" (my mother's term for those strange people who didn't live on a farm) who don't know how field corn is harvested, here's a photo sequence.

(Don't tell anyone, but I never harvested corn--dad had stopped growing corn for silage by the time I was conscious of farming activities.)

[Updated: And Erin has a nice picture marking the end of another farming cycle.]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

USDA Reorganization

Government Executive has a piece on the reorganization of USDA administrative agencies. For some reason the USDA web site doesn't seem to have been updated to reflect the changes (which not to amount to much, except putting the staff offices and agencies under one person,  Pearlie Reed, formerly of NRCS, rather than reporting to the Secretary. Given that Vilsack apparently announced his intentions during the summer and implemented them effective for the new fiscal year, it reflects badly on the USDA website people.

[Updated--ran across this in a Farm Policy post: "

In a separate DTN article from yesterday, Jerry Hagstrom reported (link requires subscription) that, “Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan plans to continue managing the USDA budget even though a reorganization has placed the USDA’s budget office under an assistant agriculture secretary.
“‘I will be running the budget process at USDA,’ Merrigan said in an interview.
“Under the reorganization, the budget office is under the purview of Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed. Since the change went into effect Oct. 1, farm lobbyists have expressed alarm that if an official below the level of deputy secretary made the presentations USDA would be in a disadvantaged position compared with other departments. One former USDA official said White House Office of Management and Budget officials always ask how they can cut farm subsidies, particularly cotton subsidies, and that only a deputy secretary or the secretary himself would be able to defend them against budget officials looking for programs to cut.”]