Friday, July 31, 2009

Don't No Economists Know What's Going On

That's my interpretation of this from the CBO directors' blog (a report on how well their predictions compare with OMB and private, Blue chips):
"Comparing CBO’s forecasts with those of the Blue Chip consensus suggests that when the agency’s predictions of the economy’s performance missed by the largest margin, those errors probably reflected problems shared by other forecasters in predicting turning points in the business cycle."


ACRE has been getting a lot of mention in the stuff I follow. Here's an example, at

What bothers me, perhaps wrongly, is the degree to which a farmer's decision to participate is being determined by market prices and predictions. I know past participation in production adjustment programs also relied on such calculations. But, maybe because it's new and I don't fully understand it, this seems different. I'm not concerned about the farmers so much as the FSA offices. It seems to me when the ACRE checks go out, or don't go out, there's more potential for farmers to come back at the offices to blame them for their decision. That's always a problem, particularly when the farmer can claim misaction/misinformation, if they still can. (That provision began back in the day when ASCS would tell a farmer to destroy seeded acreage to get with his permitted acreage, or that he was okay as he was, and the info turned out to be wrong.)

The Anti-Pollan

Via Chris Clayton at DTN, here's an article by a Missouri, who takes on Michael Pollan and others. He makes a number of good points, ranging from the corporate ownership of organic outfits versus the family ownership of many "industrial" farms, the use of manure, the problems with cover crops and composting, etc.

What most bothers Blake Hurst is the contrast drawn between the organic farmer, wise in the ways of the soil, and the commercial farmer, a dupe of industry and a pawn of Cargill. He writes defending the sense and the sensibility of the modern, non-organic farmer.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Surprising Factoid on Education

From the 1930 blog (quoting WSJ editor):

"You have mentioned various reasons for the continued progress and prosperity of the US, but you have overlooked the main reason. Last year college students enrolled in the US numbered 1,237,000, exceeding the total of the rest of the world by 287,000. No further comment is necessary."

The White "Community"

I got an email from Jewish Week, the title of which started: "dealing with shame in the Jewish community" (in reference to the arrests of 5 rabbis in the big corruption sweep in New Jersey).

We hear about the Jewish community, the Hispanic/Latino community, the black community, the Hasidic community, the immigrant community, but how about the "white community"?

Also, we used to hear about the Protestant community and the Catholic community, but not much any more. And the Irish community or the Scotch-Irish community rings false.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

FSA Disses Organics

Unfortunately, the number of unique acronyms available is limited, so the "FSA" reported here is the UK's Food Standards Agency:
In the most comprehensive study ever to be carried out into the nutritional content of organic food compared to ordinary fare, scientists found no significant difference in vitamins and minerals.

Mirror Images: Public Option, Charter Schools?

I was struck watching a Lehrer discussion of health care with Ezra Klein and someone else by these thought:

Aren't the arguments for and against charter schools vis a vis public education the same as the arguments for and against the public option and national healthcare?

If I understand correctly, the public ed establishment believed that charter schools would undermines public education through unfair advantages while the supporters thought they would compete with public schools and cause them to improve. (Lots more nuance, I know, but that's the core argument.) Now the supporters of a public option believe it will create competition with private health insurance plans and cause them to improve, while the opponents believe the public plan would have unfair advantages which would undermine the private plans.

Most Unexpected Words Today

From a Washington Post piece on Julia Childs' friends reacting to the new movie:
"She loved chicken and hot dogs from Costco," Berman said.

Downward Mobility [Updated]

The Post reports on a Pew study which says black middle class children more often grow up in poorer neighborhoods than do white middle class children and there's a high correlation between one's neighborhood and one's eventual status. That is, black middle class children more often end up as lower class adults than do white middle class children.

It makes sense to me. It may be my preconceptions talking, but I think people who do well are often envied by their relatives and neighbors and expected to share the wealth. I think that's particularly true of blacks, perhaps because the black community has stronger ties although it might simply be the by-product of the distribution of wealth. (Is there such a thing as the "white community"?)

I remember a book by an anthropologist studying a small Caribbean island, entitled "Crab Antics", the thesis of which was the less successful tried to pull down the more successful.

[Added: Watched the first two episodes of The Corner last night. It's the HBO dramatization of a nonfiction book written by David Simon about Baltimore; it led eventually to The Wire. The major characters are the McCulloughs, a black couple who had it made then lost it to crack, and their son, DeAndre who is vacillating between the drug culture and school. We don't see Gary's (the father) fall, just the aftermath but the writer makes it sound as if he was dragged down by his obliging his old friends. I recommend both the book and the TV series.]

Rambling Thoughts on Deference, and Substitute Teachers

One of the threads of discussion on the Gates/Crowley affair is the issue of deference: does one owe deference to a police officer? How about to a learned professor?

Let me wander a moment--I'm personally rather deferential to most authority figures, and I'd be more deferential if I had good manners. But I was brought up to regard parents, elders, teachers, policemen, etc. as figures of authority to whom one deferred. In the Congress there may have been a time where Congresspeople gave great deference to the President, at least where Senators deferred to Presidential nominations. That appears to be dwindling now.

Back in 1770 Americans were brought up to know their betters and to defer to them. But there's always been a revolutionary, anarchic strain in our culture which resists deference, which asserts people are equal or that deference must be earned. I was struck in reading "Renegade", a bio of Obama focused on the Presidential campaign by the description of the pickup basketball games in which he plays: no deference observed, it's pure performance. But in pro basketball, where people have careers, people do get deference, both from their peers and from the referees.

So on the one hand we have the establishment and deference to establishment figures. On the other perhaps Dennis Rodman. Think of Shaq--he's the iconic big man of pro basketball. He expects and gets deference, based on past performance. But he's also an establishment figure. Rodman was a great defender and rebounder, amazingly so given his physique. He got little deference. Some respect, yes, but little deference. And he represented the anarchic strain quite well. And no rookies get respect or deference.

I'll circle back to substitute teachers. I gather things haven't changed much in schools. Consider a run of the mill school where teachers get some respect and deference in the early days of the year. A substitute teacher comes in for the day--he's got to earn his way in. There's just a little bit of deference. Perform and you get more; stumble and you get chaos.

[Added: There's the argument Sgt Crowley didn't offer proper deference to someone who was identified as living at the address, once Prof. Gates had produced ID. That's okay. But I keep remembering the Banita Jacks case in DC--there an officer went to the house, asked Ms. Jacks about her kids, saw three of them, and deferred to her assurance everything was fine. Some months, a year?, later, it's discovered her four kids are dead, and she's on trial for murder. The sergeant is being criticized for excessive deference to an obviously suspicious person.)]

So, is there a proper balance between deference and anarchy? As usual, I go with the Greeks who said everything in moderation.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dairy Supply Management Proposal

Sometimes when agricultural surpluses mount, people come up with supply management schemes. That's happening with dairy (which already has a voluntary dairy herd buyout program going), via Agweb:

"The Initiative would have three functions:

  • It would set national production levels consistent with national usage
  • Each cooperative would be assigned a production base level consistent with their share of national production
  • CMI would set target prices at levels that would enable their members to profitably produce milk".
I'm a bit sceptical of these ideas--people tried them before the New deal and the "free rider" problem was too big. But it might work for dairy, at least for a while, if coops can control their members.

Land Tenure in Israel

According to this Treehugger post:
Should land be held as a public asset, or traded as a private commodity? In Israel, where 93% of the country’s land is publicly owned, state ownership of land is anchored in legislation, and even in the Bible. However, a new plan to transfer a massive amount of state land to private ownership is afloat, provoking plenty of opposition among environmentalists.
I'm always curious about land tenure because it seems to structure much of our society, at least in history.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Perils of Moderation

William Saletan at Slate writes about the middle way amidst the land mines of abortion.

Words of a Blogger

From Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Either way, this past week has crystallized why I write. I am not here to think for people. I'm not here to respect all opinions. Some ideas about the world deserve honest debate and others deserve scorn. Each person must decide for themselves which is which. Even as I am aware of my own limits, I will not hesitate to make the choice. We can't talk our way out of everything.
(After heated discussions on race, and Gates, and ....)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Homesteading Hickory, Goodbye Ron

Ron and family have had their ups and downs homesteading somewhere in the Ozarks, mostly chronicled on this site. I risk reading too much into this, the penultimate post on the site, but the agrarian/locavore lifestyle seems sometimes to be a temporary fix, not something which today's generation is willing to endure/enjoy for a lifetime. People such as Ron and his wife have options, and they can use them. That's good; that's better than being stuck in a rut.

5 Million Dutch Paintings?

That's from a Smithsonian article on shell collecting--the claim Dutch painters of the 17th century produced over 5 million paintings. Apparently the Dutch collected tulips, paintings, and sea shells, paying more for some tulips and shells than for paintings.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Most Important News of the Day

A small item in the NYTimes reports East Africa now has fiber optic connections to the Middle East and Europe.

PART and the Obama Administrations

Government Executive has an article on performance evaluation of federal agencies, with the hook being the confirmation hearings of Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director for management and chief performance officer, who is revising the Bush's PART system. I'm disappointed because there's no indication that Zients is trying to sell Congress on using any system. If the people who hold the purse strings don't use the system, it's mostly a waste of time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Investment Earned 23 Percent

From the Post:
"Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams said the government received an annualized return of 23 percent on the $10 billion in rescue funds it gave to Goldman Sachs last year."
Of course, this factoid won't get the ink the bailout did.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reciprocity of Licenses

Yesterday there was a vote in the Senate on whether states should be required to honor the concealed-carry licenses issued by other states. Pro-gun Senators argued one way, pro gun-control Senators argued another way.

If there were a vote in the Senate on whether states should be required to honor the marriage licenses issued by other states, the positions of most would be reversed, as would the argument.

My point?

Principle is fine, but usually politicians use principle only to justify a position.

Humans are not consistent, nor should we expect politicians to be.

The USDA Blog and Garden

I wonder why they don't allow HTML syntax? Seems rather behind the times to me (although I've forgotten most of the HTML I learned in the 1990's).

And I wonder if the People's Garden at USDA has harvested its first tomato. The last list on the site is June 2.

There Are Some People With Whom You Can't Compete

Tyler Cowen being one:

"Cowen readily acknowledged he’s an atypical library user, visiting four times a week libraries in three systems near his home in Virginia: Arlington Public Library, Fairfax County Public Library, and Falls Church Public Library. “I am drowning in wonderful public libraries,” he said, though he also noted, “I probably buy more tTyler Cowen Create Your Own Economyhan a book a day.”

Fifteen years ago, Cowen said, he was more likely to go to academic libraries. (He teaches at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.) What he finds useful at public libraries, he said, “is not really books per se, but the way of organizing information.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

White House Garden--First Tomato?

I tried to find a recent update on the White House garden, but the last piece I found was a month ago. Inquiring minds want to know--do they have tomato plants, do they have a ripe tomato yet, is the White House hiding something?

Efficient Healthcare Bureaucracy

A factoid from the head of the Civil Service Commission--whoops--the Office of Personnel Management:
To spotlight one example of our increased responsibilities: in 1980, just under 50 million people were enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid, and the programs were administered by 4,900 federal workers. Today, the agency has 4,600 workers - 7% fewer, and guess how many people are in Medicare and Medicaid. Almost 81 million. They're serving 64% more enrollees with 7% fewer Federal workers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Merging with the Money Economy

We watched The Cave of the Yellow Dog last night. It's by the director of the Tale of the Weeping Camel. The subject is a family of Mongolian sheep/goat herders, living in a yurt. It's sort of filmed anthropology, with a wisp of a story (eldest daughter of the family wants a dog she found in a cave, father fears it's too feral and will lead wolves to the flock).

A couple things struck me:
  • one of the issues in American history is the emergence of the market economy, when and how did it emerge? Here the family is mostly self-sufficient, but the father takes the hides of a couple sheep killed by wolves off to the city to sell, using an old motorcycle for transport, and bringing back a new plastic ladle. They also have a portable windmill/generator to provide juice for the electric light.
  • Michael Pollan famously says we mostly eat corn in one form or another--these people eat milk in one form or another. (Nomads don't have gardens.)
  • the family is torn between continuing its nomadic ways and perhaps moving to the city.
This links to an article on the future of the way of life.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Factoids That Are Surprising

From the comments on a post by MAtthew Yglesias (hat tip Marginal REvolution) on the military school system:

"it’s interesting to note that DoDEA educators have a very strong union, the schools are not subject to No Child Left Behind, and there is no merit-pay system."

The Perils of CSA--Cabbages Galore

The economist Brad DeLong writes a lively blog. I didn't know until this post his family was into community supported agriculture, which this week gave them four heads of cabbage. Now in the old days, in the old country, my great grandmother would have known how to preserve it (sauerkraut), but that's a lost art these days.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Les Metiers de la Bouche

Les locavores should all emigrate to France, so as to save the les metiers de la bouche: the professions which serve the mouth is my rough translation. Our trusted guide to French mores and society, Dirk Beauregard, interviews a local butcher who won the prize for being France's best butcher.

It's a very different food culture, or it was, since the butcher admits the French are going for convenience foods during the week. As I understand it, the French housewife would visit the market every day, getting fresh and local food, saving the energy required for refrigeration (I'm still amazed to see on British television refrigerators which are half size for us).

I'm not sure what sort of regulations French butchers face. If one can trust Walt Jeffries, France must be much less regulated than the U.S. would be under this bill. I wonder why the different food cultures--has France always been more compact and urban, leading to this consumption pattern, while the U.S. has been spread out, putting a premium on food storage and therefore more centralized butchers?

Snail Mail Hurting in France as Well

Dirk Beauregard posts about the problems the French postal service is facing. Doesn't mention cutting back to 5 days a week, as USPS is considering. Would postal employees like to wear a beret?

Friday, July 17, 2009

USDA Starts Blogging

On June 25th Secretary Vilsack initiated the USDA blog. Don't know how I missed it for so long.

Maybe it's because USDA never issued a press release on it. It sort of looks as if the impetus was the Recovery Act, not a USDA initiative on its own. Whatever the cause, I'm glad to see it. Always happy when high level program people show an interest in process and technology.

[Updated: I also see the CIO of USDA, Chris Smith, started a blog. But he has only one post and no comments, whereas Vilsack's blog has a reasonable number of posts, and a few comments.]

EU Ag Payments Go to Non-Farmers

It's always nice to have company in one's problems. The NY Times reports here that EU agricultural payments often go to non-farmers and rich landowners. Even the Queen of England, who used to get payments from us as well, until the 1985 farm bill.

Books That Defeated Me--Drum

Kevin has a post with this title--the books which he started but couldn't finish--which has drawn lots of comments. It's amazing the variety of books which have defeated people. I guess people like to confess shameful secrets, such as never getting through Catcher in the Rye.

Some scholar might make something of this: what books do people feel they should read and end up failing. I didn't see anyone mentioning Jane Austin

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Permanent Drought in Texas?

That's the pessimistic possibility from an A&M climatologist here.

One of the programs of government programs (and of private corporations, look at GM) is adapting to changed conditions. Texas farmers have eligibility for some program payments based, not on what they currently grow, but on what they grew in the past: 1990's. The last I looked the only way to lower a farm's base acres was if the total of the bases exceeded the cropland on the farm, plus historical doublecropping. So if a drought convinces a farmer to take land out of cropland status he might lose base.

The same applies for yields--they generally are fixed, with little likelihood to go lower. (Not true for crop insurance--their APH is similar to what ASCS had in the early 80's as "proven yields".)

Reading SCOTUS

Been following the Sotomayor hearings on I want to know why the 7th Circuit doesn't allow permalinks to their decisions?

And why did Senator Sessions agree to do that crack cocaine thing?

1930's Revisited

One thing that stands out about 1930's news (see here for today's post) is the greater importance of agriculture. Every day, I think, farm prices or conditions make the summary, today it's a Wall Street Journal editorial. No, not knocking federal programs but asking the Board to make up its mind. What's the odds of that happening today.

Even in the 1950's and 60's agriculture was a big deal--issues got White House attention. But greater efficiency has shrunk the numbers so agriculture's economic impact is less, meaning its news value is less.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Comments on EEO Data Collection Submitted

I may have failed to note USDA was requesting comments on a data collection of race/ethnicity/sex data. The notice was originally published on May 13, 2009, as FR Doc E911109, then amended in a notice published June 19 as E9-14444. Comments are still open until July 31, and you can see the documents and file comments at

Anyhow I finally got my comments composed and submitted and here's the text. You get the advantage of some working links--the site doesn't recognize links.

"My comments are based on my past service in ASCS and FSA, with an early connection to the Service Center Information Management System (SCIMS). Since my retirement in 1997 I've been aware of the Pigford case and some of the GAO reports in this area.

I understand the June 19, 2009 amendment to the original request for comments to constitute a backing off from a specific process of data collection, which is good, but I'm still confused on some points.

I'd think the request for comments could have been improved by:

  1. citing the relevant governing documents issued by OMB. Based on my limited research, the OMB guidance issued on October 30, 1997 for the 2000 Census, that was to apply to other Federal programs by January 1, 2003, seems to be still the latest. (This is the change separating "Hispanic" as ethnic, rather than racial and permitting multi-racial categories.)
  2. mentioning the SCIMS database now being operated by FSA. It was originally intended to provide common producer/customer/employee data for the service center agencies. I'm not clear on the extent to which this intention has been achieved, but my interpretation of paragraphs 177-179 of handbook 1-CM is that the system already collects personal identity information according to the OMB guidance. Because the FR notice doesn't specifically mention SCIMS, it's not clear to me whether the planned information collection supersedes SCIMS, is part of SCIMS, or what. As published and corrected, the data collection doesn't really make sense--it mentions only collecting race/ethnicity/sex data but I assume it's tied to an individual, meaning the person's name and address must also be collected.

Specifically in response to the four points:

1 Is the collection necessary for performance of USDA functions? Given the criticism directed at USDA (Pigford, etc.): I'd agree USDA needs to be able to point to valid statistics on race, ethnicity, etc. But given that SCIMS currently collects some data for many of the universe of respondents, it's difficult to know whether this collection would represent an improvement over current practice.

2 Evaluate the accuracy of the agency's estimate of burden of the proposed collection of information, including the validity of methodology and assumptions used: Given the modifications in the June 19 notice, it's hard to evaluate the proposal. If the idea is that the business process already has the individual's name and address, so the collection is limited to race/ethnicity and sex, most individuals could respond in a few seconds, not 2 minutes. Even individuals who might need to decide whether to reply as multi-racial are not likely to increase the burden greatly. 2 minutes might be reasonable for a collection of name, address, plus race/ethnicity and sex, but you don't describe your collection that way.

I don't know how you came up with 14 million respondents--that's way above any estimate of producers and landowners I've seen. There should be a large degree of overlap between the three agencies, FSA, NRCS, and RD.

3 Enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected: The notice does not specify what information is to be collected . I assume the collection will follow the OMB guidance, but assumptions should be spelled out.

Given the suspicions of USDA among minority farmers I think it's important to increase public confidence in the data collected. I'd suggest running comparisons of the USDA data against Census data--for example, in areas with a high percentage of minority inhabitants, do rural zip codes show comparable percentages--does FSA have 10 percent Hispanics while Census has 25 percent? I'd also have OIG look specifically at existing data and have the FSA county office reviewers do spot checks.

You might also consider an annual mailing of the customer statement to everyone for whom FSA/NRCS/RD have data. That's the sort of thing Social Security Administration does, and it would give producers an opportunity to review their race/ethnicity/sex data.

4 Minimizing the burden of collection. Inasmuch as SCIMS has been operational for some time, I'd suggest a careful review of its operation would be instructive. What do USDA service center offices think of the process? What do those customers who use e-Authentication and the USDA e-gov process think? Should the data collected be shown on the USDA customer statement?

Whatever is going on behind the screen of the computer, I think it is most important that employees in the service center and those using the Internet application feel there's a seamless application for recording the data for a new customer. In other words, I'd drop any idea of a separate collection just for race/ethnicity/sex. Incorporate it in a standard process for registering new customers which can bridge into individual agency processes for their own programs.

Additional comments:

The new team at USDA might consider elevating the SCIMS function (or a revised and improved customer relationship) to the departmental level to provide greater visibility and clout. And, given the mandates in the 2008 Farm Bill for dealings with producers, USDA might investigate customer relationship management software. Finally, given the subsidies given to crop insurance companies, I'm not sure why they aren't included in the data collection. Surely it's a question whether there is outreach to minority farmers in this area.

Bill Harshaw
2420 Cloudcroft Sq.
Reston, VA 20191"

Wisdom and Experience and Backwards in High Heels

What is wisdom? I'm referring of course to Judge Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment.

But what makes for wisdom? Is the person with the wider variety of experiences more likely to be wise than the bureaucrat who sticks to the same cubicle for all his life? I suspect most of us would say: "yes". One of the common themes of fiction and drama is: "seize the day"--search out the new and different. Mostly the logic is it's the road to a richer and fuller life, self-realization and all that. But some of the time the corollary is that varied experiences is wiser, and leads to wisdom. (The journey of self-discovery, as in Harry Potter's journey.)

So maybe I'm a wise old man--wise because old, not particularly because of diverse work experiences. Or maybe not--maybe I've just keep relearning the same thing over and over. I'd tentatively agree that, all things being equal, living longer and more widely leads to wisdom And, therefore, Sotomayor has a better opportunity to be wise than her close counterpart, Justice Alito, simply because a woman in a man's world has more varied experience than a man in a man's world.

Seems to me there is another issue than the basis of wisdom: does wisdom always lead to the same answer--Justice O'Connor's original statement seemed to say it did: a wise man and a wise woman would reach the same decision. But I don't think so--there are many decisions where only history will say whether they're wise, and many others where even history doesn't say.

Should I Sell Chinese Stocks

I've a little money in a Chinese ETF. Some scientists say I should get out in by July 17, because it's a bubble that will bust. See this post for more detail. (Essentially--yes there's a bubble but there's no rationale for the predicted period of the bust.) Since I'm lazy, I don't plan to sell, just ride it up and down and I hope back up. :-)

Monday, July 13, 2009


The Times has an article on federal forms. The writer focuses on the GSA approval process for standard and optional forms used across agency lines, but throws in the OMB estimate of reporting burden. I commented there to the effect the government needs redoing.

In the old days, GSA could work towards efficiency by identifying forms that were used in multiple agencies and then creating a standard one. That doesn't work today, because more and more of government is moving to the web. But there's no strong hand keeping people from reinventing the wheel.

Not Using the Internet

Got an email pointing out this article in Nextgov. The hook is a McKinsey report on Government 2.0, and includes this:
"But a decade later, e-government services have not delivered on promises, according to the report, which pointed to a government agency that invested millions of dollars to develop a service to enable citizens to manage accounts with the government online, but achieved an adoption rate of less than 5 percent. The agency was not named."
That could be FSA. [Updated--though if you read the report it sounds as if it's a non-U.S. agency, but the report is not clear.]

If it is, I'd argue these reasons work against success, which might well apply to other agencies:
  1. The idea that moving online endangers jobs. That certainly undercuts one's motivation (did in my case, anyway).
  2. Mistakes in version 1.0.-- Harshaw's law: "We never do things right the first time."
  3. Program people and IT people didn't communicate.
  4. Lack of a broad enough vision at high enough levels.
Also from the article:
"The report recommends that agencies elevate the governance model for e-government initiatives so that lines-of-business executives are held accountable for users adopting the service, the costs of the online tools and for establishing teams to support development and management."
Problem is, the board of directors for FSA is Congress, and they don't know much. (BTW, watched Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight" on DVD last night--there was a man who really didn't think much of Congress.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Manual Labor

Musings from a Stonehead has a nice post, and discussion, of how to build fence with style. Stonehead does more manual labor than the average farmer today (compare waistlines if you doubt it), builds fences in a style to which I'm not accustomed, and does it all wearing a clean white shirt. It's almost enough to make me doubt the veracity of the site. Of course, I'm more like "Pigpen" in Peanuts.

Travis McGee

John D. MacDonald started in New York (Syracuse U.), but ended in Florida. I loved his novels, reading everyone I could find. Found a couple in a bookstore in Hawaii when the Continental plane landed to refuel. Finished them before we touched down in Saigon.

The LATimes has a piece on the possibilities his Travis McGee character will finally hit the movies. (Though Wikipedia is more comprehensive.) From the piece:
One abiding concern for McGee -- a dropout from society who seems more libertarian than liberal despite the '60s and '70s settings -- was the environment. Years before a full-fledged environmental movement, he was describing Florida's Mangrove Islands as "one of the few strange places left which man has not been able to mess up." In 1973, McGee talked about "instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Worst Pun I've Seen Recently

At Walt Jeffries Sugar Mountain farm.

AC and Swimming

The local swimming pool is not much used, not compared to usage 33 years ago when I moved here. I speculate AC is to blame. When I was a boy, air conditioning was not prevalent. In the summer the best and cheapest way to cool off was to swim. That established a pattern, a habit which carried forward.

Compare that to now: everyone who lives in a house built in the last 40 years which is south of the Canadian border has air conditioning, and many others as well. So swimming has lost ground, fewer kids swim, and fewer swimmers persist into adulthood. It's harder to get lifeguards, insurance is more costly, and recreation is more organized.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Salute to COBOL

Federal Computer Week has an article on the persistence of COBOL. Seems FSA isn't the only agency stuck in that world. (I met my wife when we both took a COBOL class way back when, so I have fond memories of the language. )
"because Cobol uses programming terminology that is close to the way people use regular English, it’s still considered the best language for capturing an organization’s business rules. Other languages use fairly arcane terminology that make it hard to capture those processes..."

"The Social Security Administration is wrapping essential Cobol applications in Extensible Markup Language envelopes and publishing them as service-oriented architecture services. It will retain about 20 percent of the 36 million lines of Cobol code it uses...."
Problem is, when you accept COBOL and the business rules it embodies, you accept the past. As a liberal, I have to think the future will require different business rules. And if neither the programmer nor the business type understand the rules in the IT system, you're, as we used to say, "cruising for a bruisin' ".

More on Caruso

Government Executive has a piece on Doug Caruso's replacement, which doesn't say much. Possibly Caruso didn't realize how little autonomy he would have, possibly there was a big disagreement on appointments of State executive directors. Who knows? Vilsack moved quickly to make it a one-day story by appointing a replacement. In the old days, it would have been a Southerner, because tobacco and cotton was that important, but not now.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Public Enemies and Terrorists

Saw the movie Public Enemies (wife's favorite Johnny Depp as lead) about John Dillinger yesterday. It's good, not as good in my opinion as Collateral, also directed by Michael Mann. One thing Dillinger says, in explaining why he can rob banks: "they (the authorities) have to watch every bank, I only have to hit one" or something close.

I thought of that in watching the ABC news last night, which led with a Senate committee hearing on a GAO report on how easy it was to smuggle into Federal buildings the materials necessary to make a small bomb.

Generally speaking, I think worries about security are overdone. Security details for mayors and governors? How many have been assassinated? Security for USDA buildings? I remember one incident in the South Building of USDA; if I recall correctly it was domestic violence, certainly not terrorism directed at the hard working bureaucrats of Agdom.

We used to have typewriters walk out of the buildings. But I wonder how many typewriters are left in the department. We used to have to account for calculators. But Moore's law took care of that. I suppose they still have to account for PC's, and security could deter their theft. But Moore's law will take care of that as well, as everyone will have his or her own personal electronics implanted at birth.

I wonder whether an economist has studied the evolution of loot for robbers/burglars: does minaturization increase the availability of high-profit loot (no one could steal a mainframe computer) or does Moore's law wipe out such loot? Do the two forces counterbalance?

But, having security makes people feel better, and that's important.

Coppess as FSA Administrator

That was fast--Vilsack's press release announcing the new FSA administrator is here

Luddites at Work

The spirit of Nick Ludd has not fled the sceptred isles.

Some British believe it's better to run services through local post offices than on the Internet. Reason? It keeps the offices open.

They're fighting this:

The government’s Digital Britain strategy calls for a “digital switchover” for public services from 2012 that would make the internet the primary delivery route for many government departments.

To overcome the issue that more than a third of the population do not have internet access, the plan also aims to widen digital inclusion by introducing universal broadband. Gordon Brown has appointed founder Martha Lane Fox to lead the drive to bring the digitally excluded online.

I'm sure many in FSA county offices have the same feelings.

Caruso Out

Doug Caruso resigned as Administrator, FSA. See DTN. No FSA press release but the website is updated.

The Power of the Purse

Via Farm Policy, Representative Lucas tried to cut off money for FSA to pass program participant info to IRS, to have them tell FSA if the AGI limit was exceeded. His try failed, but it's an example of how the power of the purse can determine policy. (I remember when House appropriations tried to block the salaries of the Deputy Administrator, State and County Operations and the assistant..)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


From Nextgov:
Justice has been trying to develop a departmentwide case management system for the past 28 years. In 1982, it awarded a $9.6 million contract to Inslaw Inc., a small Washington company, to deploy a case management system called Promis at 22 U.S. attorneys offices. The contract became embroiled in a series of controversies, including allegations by the company that Justice appropriated its software without payment and provided it to Israeli intelligence agencies. Justice then withheld payment to Inslaw, which filed for bankruptcy in 1985.
It's another chapter in failed IT projects. ASCS/FSA at least did one reasonably successful project. (At least us DC bureaucrats thought it was, some county office people thought we had our heads in a dark place.)

Pardon a Geezer

From Amazon, a terabyte hard drive:
List Price: $2,064.00
Price: $89.99 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping. Details
You Save: $1,974.01 (96%)

[Updated: Not sure where they got the start price for the drive, but it's cheaper than a 7.5 meg drive was back in 1994.]

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

1930 Again

It seems I'll probably end up posting regularly on the 1930 news (the summary of Wall Street Journal reportage). This time:
Editorial criticizing Dept. of Agriculture's forecast that wheat prices will be lower over the next 7 years. Suspicious this fits into Farm Board plan to reduce wheat acreage; says this is doomed to fail since foreign growers will take up slack and farmers will convert to other crops, with resulting pressure on those. Compares plan to “taking a part of the load from one end of the wagon and piling it on the other end.” No alternative plan suggested.
It's a reminder of the predecessors to the New Deal--in this case Hoover experimented with price supports without a production adjustment/supply management program in place. One item on my to-do list is to write on "supply management" for wikipedia.

McNamara 4; Palin 2

That's the score on the Washington Post op-ed page: 4 pieces on Robert McNamara and 2 on Gov. Palin.

It's an interesting contrast. They represent the extremes of the governmental types, even human types: McNamara the ultimate rationalist and Palin the opposite.

The End of Peanut Program

The peanut quota program had lasted for maybe 40 years was phased out in the early 2000's in favor of treatment like wheat and feed grain. I've blogged before on the effect of ending the tobacco program. From Farm Policy today comes an update on peanuts from Mississippi:

Elton Robinson reported yesterday at the Southeast Farm Press Online that, “One of the biggest benefits to growing peanuts in Mississippi has been the relative lack of disease pressure compared to other more established growing regions of the Southeast.

“That honeymoon period appears to be ending, according to Mike Howell, area Extension agronomist at Mississippi State University, who has peanut responsibilities for the state.

“Eight years ago, fewer than 4,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Mississippi. But when the 2002 farm bill did away with the quota system for peanuts, acreage started to climb.”

Yesterday’s article noted that, “The state averaged a little over 2 tons per acre in 2008, which places them near the top in average yield in the United States. Howell attributes that to ‘relatively low disease pressure. Until last year, we had been able to get by without spraying a lot of fungicide.’

“‘But it looks like the honeymoon period is over,’ Howell said. ‘We’re starting to see some diseases creep in on us. Up until now, we haven’t had the acreage to allow the inoculum to build up.’

So, as with tobacco, the government program had frozen the area of production. End the program and new areas and new farmers come into production. (It's probably relevant that Mississippi has an extremely low acreage of cotton this year--presumably some farmers switched from cotton to peanuts.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Really Surprising Sentence

From a surprising MSNBC article on AIDS in Haiti in which the news is very surprising because it's mostly good:
"More Haitians know about modes of transmission than high school students in the U.S.," Pape said.

Wisdom for the Day

From Dan Drezner, at the end of an interesting comparison of Iran and Honduras (both places where the right has assumed power over the left...):

"Bear in mind, however, that life never holds everything else constant."

Docking Tails and Hurting Animals [Updated]

Sometimes you have to practice tough love, whether it's with animals or humans. And we always have to learn. This post at Stonybrookfarm reminds me of both imperatives.

[Added: And here's a Slate piece of a few days ago on ringing free-range pigs and spaying. Some of the same issues.]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Our Founding Mother

Back in the early 1960's Harvard U Press published paperback editions of the letters of John and Abigail Adams as part of their Adams papers effort. Since I was into history, I was introduced early to Abigail, who later became an icon of the feminist movement and a beacon to women's history: "Remember the ladies, John". Laura Linney did her justice in the recent HBO series.

But just surfing through her letters, and reading the occasional description of her as keeping the home fires burning, raising the large family etc. didn't give me the picture of her as an investor as did a piece this morning by Woody Holton in the Post. He's a U of Richmond professor who has a bio coming out, but he extracts a series of rules for wise economy/investment from her life and presents them well. (Including a rule on how to outwit a Founding Father.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Have a "Happy Fourth"

I'm passing on those words, which I received as I left our community (organic)garden after watering our beds (we had a wet two months, followed by 2-3 weeks of dry, so it's time to start watering), from a fellow long-time gardener. He happens to be African-American (immigrant from Africa some time back) with whom I exchange hellos when we cross paths. His garden is an obnoxiously neat and organized one, with raised beds and great soil. He grows the usual variety of vegetables, although he always has a great bed of carrots into the winter.

He was weeding as I passed and offered those seasonal greetings. I replied, and went on (I'm too shy to initiate many conversations). I wonder whether he finds more meaning in the Fourth than I do. I don't think I've used those words on my own initiative: "merry Christmas", "good Thanksgiving", yes, but not a "happy Fourth".

In the spirit of enjoying the Fourth, read this Washington Post article containing the responses of a number of immigrants to the question: "what do you like about America".

Friday, July 03, 2009

Faith in the Execution

Obamafoodorama has had a fight over the possibility that lead from sludge used on White House lawns was a danger in the new organic garden. The blogger seems to have had the better of it, but shows a touching faith in the ability of a bureaucracy to execute:
"The other bizarre element to the whole bashing thing is that anyone who thinks the White House left a single stone unturned in planning the garden is...what's the most delicate, diplomatic, term? Oh yeah, silly. The White House was well aware that the first food garden planted on the campus since WWII was going to be big news. Of course all details were accounted for. Of course appropriate testing was conducted. The White House has the finest minds in America, experts in every field, available for consultation. It's beyond silly to imagine that the garden wasn't thoroughly "vetted.""
The Obama administration may be different, but I doubt it. They're human, after all, and humans can screw up.

Locavore Versus "Industrial"

Walter Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm has a post on his hot dogs, which I'm sure are very good, mostly. But because he has to rely on others, there's some problems in achieving a consistent product. Industry has trained us consumers to expect the same thing every time and every place; a McDonalds french fry tastes the same from coast to coast. McDonalds can demand its suppliers meet its standards. But a locavore food producer doesn't have the cash flow or the size of operation to compete on uniformity. (I'm reminded of a memoir from Ontario county, NY where the writer remembered that every farm had a different recipe for its bacon and ham.) The same is true for restaurants. My wife and I like the Tortilla Factory in Herndon, but some days their chips and their machaca are better than others.

There's always a tradeoff.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

I Always Like Historical Nuggests

From the 1930 blog summarizing the Wall Street Journal articles for the day:

U.S. Treasury surplus for fiscal year ended June 30 was $184M. Receipts were $4.178B vs. $4.033B in 1929; expenditures $3.994B vs. $3.848B in 1929. Public debt was reduced by $746M due to surplus and $554M of "sinking fund" operations charged to ordinary receipts. Original estimate of surplus before start of fiscal year was $225M; 1% tax cut last fall reduced this estimate to $145M.

Senate may direct the Secretary of Agriculture to investigate the multiyear decline in cotton prices. Resolution would budget $125,000 to investigate "the cause of the decline, the amount of short selling, and by whom."

The first item is a reminder--8 months after the Wall Street crash, there's no stimulus from the budget.

The second item seems to be a perennial--always suspect the speculators. Maybe that's because we are paranoid, or maybe because speculators are always more visible in times of boom or bust.

The Cost of 500 Square Feet of Garden

About 47 hours and $938.

Michael Tortorello is blogging at the Times on his garden, keeping track of his hours worked and dollars spent. But not the hours of enjoyment.

Cost of Wheat

This webpage shows the cost of growing wheat in Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, Romania, and the UK. The UK has the highest yield, more than twice that of Canada, and its cost per ton is lower than the ABC countries. It's an example of the advantages of climate, I guess.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Surprising Factoid of the Day

"Federal government now employs 587,665 people, not including military, legislative, judicial, and DC government employees." From the News of 1930, for Tuesday, July 1.

I don't know why I'm surprised, or whether I should be, but I am. (My guess is about half the employees are USPS.)

Best Simile of the Day

Today is Canada Day and the NYTimes had an op-ed composed of paragraphs by different people about Canada. Lisa Naftolin comes up with the best simile:
I miss the snow. Yes, I know the United States gets snow, but to my Canadian eye, American snow is like American health care: sporadic, unreliable and distributed unevenly among the population.

An Offer You Can't Say No To

According to the Washington Post, an ex-CIA man has an offer you can't say no to:

"This month, he's providing room and board in his home to a young but experienced worker. In the fall, he hopes to offer young farmers room and board on his land in exchange for farm labor. If that's successful, he aims to solicit several more acres from neighbors to expand the farm. He envisions small tenant houses where young farmers could gain experience and save money to start out on their own. The plan is in the early stages, but Dunlap says his neighbors are supportive in theory." [emphasis added]
Dunlap's 11-acre farm is in Loudoun County, amidst the McMansions. He supplies farmer markets, farming with no tractor if I understand the article.

As the story says:
High prices also make it difficult for those already farming to find workers. Dunlap has been unable to hire full-time help. He has not had a day off since mid-February and puts in about 80 hours a week in the fields.[emphasis added]