Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spreading Innovations

I'm always fascinated by the processes by which new ideas spread, or don't spread, through society.  One reason is purely egoistic--over my working career I had some new ideas, some of which spread, some didn't.  Some survived my departure, most didn't. The flip side is why are bureaucracies and societies resistant to change.

Today the US Army presents an example.  Tom Ricks at the Best Defense presents a post in which the writer argues that even though General Petraeus ushered through a new Field Manual on Counter Insurgency, and there are high-ranking officers who've bought into the ideas, COIN isn't safely embedded in the Army's culture. New bureaucrats, whether they be Presidents or political appointees, often believe if they can just get something done on paper, whether it be a law or a directive, the job is done.  Wrong--it's just starting.

One-third Lose Jobs in SEC Porn Scandal

Somehow that seems a fairer title for this story than saying "No one fired"

Those Speedsters at FSA

From the FSA press release on new software supporting the direct loan program:
Development of the new software began in 2004, Coppess said, and the first phase, to improve the loan making process was launched in 2007. Since then, more than $3 billion in new loans have been obligated through the system, including many made as a result of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
It's not real clear what's going on--the release talks of a major upgrade, and the first release must have been out for a while, if $3 billion has been made through the system.  So I guess it's not right to mock this as a 6 year development project.  No mention of the cost of the software project, but at least it turned out to be usable.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why I Love Congress--Improper Payments

Government Executive reports on a bill which passed the House requiring government agencies to recover payments they make improperly.  Why the title of this post?  Because a number of years ago Congress passed a law requiring FSA to let farmers keep payments which were made improperly.  Talk about double-faced!

To be fair, I should add this is all based on my memory, which is fallible; the law permits FSA to recover payments if the recovery can be made within a period (90 days maybe?); and the reason for the law was that farmers claimed they didn't realize they had been overpaid, so they used the money in their operations and felt it was unfair to be required to repay when it was FSA which made the mistake. Regardless, my Calvinistic heritage rebels at that.


The summary of an extension post on farrowing and nursing facilities:
The decision regarding space allocation pits the biology of the pig against the economics of production systems. Since each 3% reduction in space allocation for pigs in fully slatted facilities results in only a 1% reduction in daily gain and daily feed intake, producers have historically accepted a reduction in individual pig performance in order to maximize economic returns from investments in facilities. Based on the recommended codes of practice from the European Economic Community and Canada, there is no agreed upon standard for space allocation in the world community. In the future, considerations such as welfare codes and response of the market chain may change the space allocation decision.
If I recall, Florida put some sort of restriction on farrowing pens. I'm rather of two minds on this, and similar animal welfare issue. On the one hand there's a power imbalance between the animal grower and the animals.  One of my rules is based on Lord Acton: power corrupts.  Granted over the long haul it's in the interest of the grower to treat her animals humanely, but so is it in the interest of employers to treat employees well.  We know neither happens in every case.  On the other hand, there's definite economic tradeoffs, as shown by this study.  The bottom line, as society gets wealthier we can afford to put some of the wealth to better treatment of animals as opposed, say, to more square footage for the home.

An Inventor All Bureaucrats Should Honor: Edwin G. Seibels

Via Matt Yglesias, here's the inventor of the filing cabinet.  You laugh, but being able to store and retrieve accurately the desired information is important.  Just ask anyone with Alzheimers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

White House Garden Update--Artichokes?

Obamafoodorama has two posts tied to tours of the White House Garden and stories resulting from it. Judging by the photo, the garden's doing well, although I can't say the same for the grass bordering it.  One hazard of showing it off to lots of people I guess. It confirms that while they're using "raised" beds, meaning the dirt is hilled up, they aren't enclosing them with boards, which provides deeper beds.

I was surprised by the mention of artichokes, which I don't think of as growing in the area.  Turns out an annual variety can be grown in zone 7, which the White House is in. Since I've never grown them, I shouldn't second guess, but they don't seem like a vegetable that maximizes productivity per square foot.

Since the President likes pie, it looks as if he'll get some rhubarb pie.  Though again I'm a little surprised if they get significant production the first year out.  But even one pie is worth it

Nationalizing Ratings Agencies

Ezra Klein posts on whether we should nationalize the ratings agencies.  My comment--USDA inspects and rates grains and cotton, why shouldn't the government rate bonds and derivatives.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Recruiting Employees

Ezra Klein has an interview with a Harvard grad who went into investment banking, which includes some discussion of why students with humanities and social science majors go to Wall Street.The interesting suggestion is that investment banks steal a march on other employers by offering summer internships to rising seniors.  Do well then, and you've got a job offer, thereby alleviating all the stress and anxiety of job searching during the senior year.  Instead you can relax and drink enjoy the college life.  Immediate gratification is perhaps more important than the lure of high incomes down the road.

I wonder how well the government does in offering internships--I know there are a few around, but I doubt OPM views itself as in a hot competition with Goldman Sachs.

Being on the Receiving End of Voice of America

Or, information dissemination activities like VOA. John Pomfret at the Post has an article on China's attempts to spread its influence by a Voice of America style effort.
The stations don't broadcast outright propaganda, but rather programming with a Chinese focus and flavor, tailored for local audiences. In Galveston, the format mixes China-centric international news, talk shows about the status of China's women and a healthy dose of gangsta rap -- all in English.
In New York, China's official Xinhua News Agency is moving its North American headquarters from a small building in Queens to a sprawling office complex in Times Square. It will soon have more than twice as many bureaus in the United States as any Western news agency has in China.
What I found interesting were the cultural misunderstandings which the Chinese have to overcome in order to communicate with us.  Reminds me of past discussions of the problems the US government, and large corporations, have had in operating abroad.  (Supposedly Chevrolet's Novas were a flop in Mexico because the name meant "no go", etc. etc.

Best Sentence of April 26

From Dan Drezner, discussing Stephen Hawking and dealing with aliens (or not):
If aliens crave either sea water or bulls**t, then the human race as we know it is seriously screwed. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Clayton on Small Rural Towns

A couple paragraphs from Chris Clayton's blog:

I found the Vilsack-Lucas exchange interesting considering I spent the better part of Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning in Southeastern Arkansas. On Tuesday night, in Monticello, Ark., at a political candidate forum, one older man complained about the lack of jobs for people in small towns. All of the manufacturing jobs were gone. A spec building built by the town a decade earlier was never used. The man said, "We got fast-food jobs, though. We have a every kind of burger in this town you want it, but people can't live off those jobs."
(I thought that also dovetailed nicely into the obesity debate.)
On Wednesday, I traveled a little way farther southeast. The blight really was surprising. There were a couple of towns with almost completely boarded former business districts. Any kind store other than liquor or convenience was gone. There was just nothing there in terms of work or economic development. It was depressing and made me wonder just how in the world you return jobs back to these small towns.
My answer is: you can't return jobs and people to small towns. At least you can't consistently and on a national basis.  Small towns have been declining for over a century and there's nothing on the horizon which would change the process.

Speculation on Safety: Companies Safer Than Family Farms?

That's John Phipps:
"It may take a legion of lawyers and hard-nosed insurance companies to make this happen, but as the number of family-only operations slides and those with employees (and their concomitant legal exposure) increase, I suspect these numbers [fatal accidents] will begin to drop rapidly."
Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. I think I agree with John, by the same logic as believing "commercial agriculture" produces safer food on the whole than smaller operations.  Commercial aviation is safer than private aviation. 

Driving While Burqaed (in France)

Dirk Beauregarde has a long post on the arrest of a woman for wearing a burqa while driving.  Seems the French have a law saying the driver's ability to drive must be unimpeded.  But was that really the issue?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Master Gardeners in Fairfax

I blogged recently about the Extension Service's Master Gardener program (its blog) and noted its absence from the Reston library.  In fairness I should note other branches of the Fairfax library do have Master Gardeners in attendance.

Convergence of Capitalism and Communism, Circa 1931

From the News from 1930 blog:
Editorial by T. Woodlock: Sen. Nye intends to modify antitrust laws to “protect the small manufacturer ... and merchant.” This is a misunderstanding of the laws, whose purpose is to preserve competition and competitive prices, not guarantee success; competition “means ... a winner and a loser.” Our attitude toward antitrust law comes from the dominant theory early in the industrial revolution that “free and unlimited competition of individuals” assures “the greatest good of all”; this contrasts with the Socialist principle of complete cooperation. However, our much more complex modern economy requires cooperation to a large degree; “so far as the visible structure ... it is well on the way to the structure contemplated by orthodox Socialists. ... The modern problem is to reconcile” these principles; “somehow, the necessary planning must presrve the largest freedom possible for individual action ... so as to bring into play the largest possible percentage of the existing individual ability-potential.”...

Note that the Wall Street Journal is not voicing a full-throated defense of the free market and capitalism.  "Cooperation" was a popular concept in the 1920's with Hoover and the early 1930's.  The idea was that human intelligence, which had accomplished so much in innovations and technology, was up to the challenge of creating social arrangements which were better than those arising out of the chaos of the market. That's the sort of thought which led to the creation of the Federal Farm Board and then the Agricultural Adjustment Administration .

Will Spouses of Presidential Candidates Compete in Gardening?

That's the question raised in my mind by this piece on the different gardens of the wives of the candidates for Prime Minister in Britain. It seems it's the "in" thing to garden there.  Now in the US Michelle may have given more prominence to gardening with her White House garden.  But I don't remember in past elections there was any direct competition among the candidates wives.  There's always speculations about what they'll do in the White House, and comparisons of their lives and careers before the election, but no further. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Judge Garland Shouldn't Be the Nominee

The prediction is the Dems will lose about 5 Senate seats this fall, maybe more. So what happens in 2011 and 2012 if one of the current Supreme Court Justices retires? Obama needs a strategy, and the Reps are giving him one.  The commentary on his list of possible nominees to fill the seat of Justice Stevens says Judge Garland would have no problem getting confirmed.  That means, to me, that Obama should hold the Judge in reserve for a possible future vacancy. The Reps would have trouble opposing a nominee in 2011 or 2012 if they had no problems with him in 2010.

Congress and E-Government

The Golden Mouse awards were announced, recognizing excellent Congressional websites. Unfortunately neither agriculture committee nor either of my Senators was recognized.  My representative, Joe Moran, did get a silver award.  I'd hope some people will do as I just did: write their Congresspeople commenting on how well or poorly they did.  The more feedback they get, the more likely they are to improve. However, don't do as I did--read about the methodology used before writing..  I assumed, and was wrong, that the rankings were on the usability of the sites.  Turns out there's lots more involved.  So my comments were fine, but they could have been better.

Typo of the Day

Only expose your baby to true and FDA-approved heroines.

From the Freakonomics RSS feed (not in the actual post): " Infants exposed to this heroine substitute in utero experience vision problems. "

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An IPAD Plant ID App?

Back in the days of Infoshare (i.e., 1991), one application NRCS (then Soil conservation Service) was eager to share was their Plants database. Frankly, I was dubious then, although out of respect, or cowardice, I tried not to show it.  We were in a situation where each agency was pushing its own ideas, so it was the classic logrolling situation: the end project included the top priorities of each agency, not necessarily what the farmers would find most valuable.

Anyway, over the years I've occasionally looked at it on the NRCS web site.  Even tried to use it once when I was trying to identify some weeds in the lawn.That experience convinced me the database wasn't particularly intended for such uses.  But I may be wrong.

Today in the NY Times there's an article on the new IPhone and IPad apps for birders.  My aunt and uncle were avid birders, and they had their manuals to look up birds with which they weren't familiar.  Me, I wasn't familiar with much more than robin, sparrow, crow, blue jay, blackbird, wren.  To become interested in birding I needed something easier than the Roger whats-his-face books [ed. Tory Peterson], something more like these apps.  Apparently they build upon the existing databases of Audubon and Cornell, adding all sorts of bells and whistles. They sound great, even if they aren't quite ready to identify a bird from the sound of its song.

I wonder why NRCS, or more likely some private person, couldn't create similar apps for plants? I would think much of the logic and the user interface for birds could carry over to plants: species, location, looks, etc. Of course, when you google: "plant identification" you get lots of results from different enterprises with different takes on the subject.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kevin Drum Misses the Best Info

Kevin links to a study of SAT scores.  Which major had the highest math score?  Which major had the highest reading score?  But he didn't highlight this from the conclusions:
2. Overachievers exist in most majors, with low SAT scores but very high GPAs. These
overachievers are disproportionately female.
3. Underachievers exist in all majors, with high SAT scores but very low GPAs. These
underachievers are disproportionately male.
I'm sure we're all surprised by these results, but maybe it explains why women are in a majority on college campuses these days.

The Tragedy of the Common Coffee Pot

Technically, it's an espresso maker, but Tom Hanks observed: ""You know you are supposed to clean this after every use."  He gave the maker to the White House press corps 6 years ago and thereby demonstrated his unrealistic liberal faith in people, only to be disillusioned when he visited this week.  Bottom line: if it's everyone's job to clean, it never will be cleaned.  Or as someone said: no one ever washed a rental car.

Jamie Oliver Costs Money

The Post has an article on Jamie Oliver, a Brit who had a short ABC TV series on his attempts to transform school lunch food in Huntington, WV.  I admit I haven't watched, but it seems he had some impact:
"Oliver has made notable progress. But the hard work, compromises and setbacks continue after the cameras have disappeared."
One of the problems for the future is that good food costs money, money to buy the raw ingredients and money to pay the people to prepare them.  So the forces of evil, as foodies see them, always have an opening argument: "we can save you money." Tie that to  the reports in both the Times and the Post about impending teacher layoffs this fall and a cynic has to believe Mr. Oliver's impact will not last long.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fact of the Day: Indonesians on Facebook

The third leading nation in use of Facebook is Indonesia, with 22.7 million account. From NYTimes article

Why I Love the Democratic Party

As Will Rogers said, I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat.

At a time when respected political observers predict the Dems will lose the House this fall, and possibly, a number of Dems are running against the Blue Dogs from the left (in North Carolina they're even organizing a new party). Too many Dems are lost in the euphoria of 2008, not the realities of 2010.

Master Gardeners and Extension--Musings

In the last couple days the website has had a number of posts on various aspects of the "Master Gardener" program (also a bunch on swine).  (Briefly, this is a program where Extension trains people in gardener, then they go out and train ordinary, run of the mill gardeners, novices, etc.) See here.

I recently posted on the cuts in extension in Illinois.  I think in a rational world we would probably rethink and redo the structure of the extension service.  Currently it's tied to the land grant colleges, one per state.  Traditionally it had one or more agents in each county, though that's changed over the years.  But in a world of modern communication, is it really rational for each New England state to have its own setup?  I wonder how much duplication one could find in the work of the different colleges.  (I suspect there are efforts at coordination, but my cynicism is strong enough that I doubt the results.)

Transparency in government is good, and reaching out to the grassroots is good, so master gardeners are good. But I wonder.  Part of my wondering is due to the fact that the Reston library used to have master gardeners in attendance on Saturdays, they got some business, but I haven't seen them for a couple years.  I wonder how effective the program has been.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Does Organic Pay?

Just to state my position up front:
I don't believe organic cropping can match commercial/industrial farming on a per acre basis for a given crop over a period of years. The problem is that organic operations have to rotate crops.  Over a 10-year period a commercial producer in a corn/soybean rotation will produce more corn and beans than an organic one in a corn/soybean/alfalfa (maybe small grain) rotation.  That's assuming average weather. 

I do believe organic cropping is more productive if the weather is variable or extreme--more tolerance for droughts.

With that position, it's no surprise that I should appreciate this Purdue study. Their bottom line is that, if you do things right, organic can be as profitable or more profitable than commercial farming. The summary from farmgate:
When net returns per acre are written in four digit numbers, it does not take much imagination to realize that organic production can be profitable. However, getting there takes time and patience. After suffering through the transition period without price premiums, and taking the yield penalty, organic crops can become profitable with the help of higher prices and lower production cost. Key factors to success are timing of your crop rotation and finding a market for your crop.
In other words, as long as organic is a market niche commanding price premiums, it can be profitable once you make the transition.  But if it becomes mainstream, it won't be profitable.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Volcano and Modern Agriculture

Strikes me that the effect of the Icelandic volcano, whose name I will not bother with, on air travel might be a metaphor for disasters and modern agriculture.  Perhaps I'm super sensitive to agriculture's vulnerability because I've been reading some about the Irish potato famine of the 1840's, but here's my comparison:

First air:
  • Modern society has evolved to become dependent on air travel and air freight, which assumes an absence of volcanic ash in the atmosphere
  • it's a system which works very well, connecting people and products from different countries and continents.
  • the overall effect is greatly to improve the standard of living globally
  • the system is vulnerable to disruption by volcanic eruptions, grounding air travel
Now commodities:
  • modern agriculture has evolved to become dependent on a small number of varieties for each major crop
  • it's a system which works very well, maximizing the return from inputs of fertilizer and water and providing uniform outputs
  • the overall effect is greatly to improve the standard of living globally
  • the system is vulnerable to disruption by plant diseases which attack the varieties in use.

Extension Cuts--What Other Cuts?

From Farmgate
Illinois is the latest state to rework its Extension system. After radical changes in states like Iowa and Minnesota, Illinois will be eliminating 15 regional offices over time and regional educators will shift to county offices. However, 76 county offices will be cut to only 30, with each office serving multiple counties. Staff members will be reduced also, which results from a reduction in state financial support for Extension and 4-H.
I wonder what other areas of infrastructure for agriculture will suffer cuts?  FSA offices, NRCS offices, crop insurance agents?  Does anyone have a census of how many crop insurance agents there are?

Corruption and Congress

Barking Up the Wrong Tree excerpts from a study on Congressional corruption, in which they tried to compare increases in wealth among members of Congress with increases in wealth among other occupations:
We thus conclude that representatives report accumulating wealth at a rate consistent with similar non-representatives, potentially suggesting that corruption in Congress is not widespread.
Finding myself to be feeling cynical today, I'd suggest maybe a better conclusion is: members of Congress are just as corrupt as other sectors of the society.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Those Socialist Scandinavians and Their High Taxes

From the News from 1930 blog:
The old saying "Nothing is sure but death and taxes" takes on new meaning in Denmark. "A recently compiled list of the various taxes made on Danes includes state, county, capital, income, house, ground, church, water, dog, business, radio, beer, alcohol, automobile, document, benzine, snow, inheritance, road, chimney, calendar, movie and legitimate theatres, dancing, amusement and bachelors."
It's obvious from this list that over the next 80 years Denmark must have regressed to being a poor and backward country.

Seriously, for almost all of my rather long life I've heard that high taxes and lots of government is bad for a nation. And the miracle of compound interest is supposed to make small differences grow into large ones.  Yet I don't recognize these theories as having been proved by events in Europe or China, or elsewhere.  Life is, I think, more complicated than the ideologues are likely to admit.  At least it seems so on a beautiful April day.

Friday, April 16, 2010

If Somalialand Has It, Can Any Self-Respecting Nation Be Without?

One of Bill Clinton's most enduring contributions to American life is his insistence that definitions matter:

The Economist has an interesting article on the definition and attributes of a nation.
Somaliland, has met this standard with increasing impressiveness since it declared independence in 1991. It has a currency, car registrations and even biometric passports.

And Who Is Your State Senator?

Reading David Remnick's bio of Obama.  He pulls a neat trick, stepping outside the flow of the narrative to ask the reader at the appropriate point: "who is your state senator?"  (Not the US senator from your state.)  Here I am, a self-professed political junkie, lived in the same place for 34 years, and I couldn't say.  (Turns out it's Janet Howell, sorry Janet.)  His point, of course, was the utter insignificance of Obama when he won his first election.  Remnick is a good writer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tax Day Thoughts

First, I'm proud to report I sent my taxes off more than 8 hours early.  For me, that's pretty good.  A couple thoughts:
  • most people got their Obama tax cut ($250) long ago.  Employees had withholdings adjusted while retirees got it in their social security.  But those of us getting the old Civil Service Retirement annuities didn't get it until we filed our returns.  
  • my wife won't agree, but I think we ought to be paying higher taxes. We're thrifty (a synonym of tight or cheap) so we don't live high on the hog and although our income last year took a hit, we still did well.  Of course, Comparing our income and our taxes, and remembering what we've paid in the past, I think the pendulum has swung too far.  (I'm sure Obama's deficit commission will agree with me.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cornell Loses to Kentucky Again

This time it's in women's polo. (Hat Never quite sure how Cornell ended up with polo--perhaps because we had an ag school when horses provided much of the transport for the country and because we were aspiring to higher status.

Health Care Reform and the Religious has a piece on the intersection of religion and health care reform, particularly interesting on the Amish.  PPACA ties back to existing IRS regs exempting people from Social Security and Medicare taxes under specific conditions.  Bottom line: we don't yet know which groups may qualify for PPACA exemptions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

USDA People's Gardens

The USDA People's Garden (I'm so old it sounds like a Stalinist project) gets some ink in today's Post. For some reason I feel a bit snarky today.  An excerpt:

As of last week, 255 gardens have been established by Agriculture Department workers worldwide, including an indoor lettuce garden in North Carolina and a vegetable garden on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in South Korea. All of the food grown at these gardens -- 29,656 pounds last year --

If all the gardens were in production last year, which presumably they weren't, they averaged about 120 pounds per garden, which is far behind the 1,000+ pounds claimed by the White House garden.

The garden, now that it's successfully being emulated, is also being bureaucratized, as we see here:
This year, the agency decided it would require volunteers to complete a six-week Master Gardener training program and pass an exam before being allowed to volunteer. Taught by extension-service experts who flew to Washington from throughout the country, the course covered topics including botany and storm-water management. That requirement did not dampen enthusiasm for the program. The class's 80 spaces were filled within 15 minutes of the announcement, and 70 other people were turned away, said Livia Marques, director of the People's Garden Initiative. 
Don't know how many experts they flew in--must say something about the inferiority of the Virgina Tech and UofMaryland extension experts who would be familiar with the local climate that they needed to fly people in.

As a final piece of bureaucratization, FSA has issued instructions on the rules for using time to garden.

I shouldn't mock; it's high time the pasty-faced bureaucrats who toil away at their desks got out into the fresh air and got some tan.(Or maybe Sec. Vilsack should provide protective lotion or he'll face some suits over skin cancer.)  The good air of the Washington summer, the heat and humidity, will all be great for them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What Happens With Weak Government

From a Wall Street Journal editorial: via News from 1930:
"In 1931, about 34,000 people will be killed and 966,000 injured in car accidents, slightly more than 1930. A large percentage of this heavy toll is preventable; last year, 84% of deaths and 67% of injuries were caused by illegal driving. It's therefore strange that this waste of human life goes on year after year with little public concern. Only 13 of 48 states require driving tests for licenses; traffic law enforcement is lax. "Reckless, careless, or drunken driving is a crime and should be treated as such in the courts.""
There were less than 38,000 people killed  last year, although our population is more than twice that of 1930 and the number of cars and miles driven are much higher.  Why the difference? Governmental regulation, both of drivers and of cars, and the provision of safer highways.  In the stories on Justice Stevens, there's citations of his dissent in a recent case, noting that if his fellow justices had learned to drive on narrow 2-lane roads on which you had to make split-second judgments over whether or not it was safe to pass a slowpoke, they might have been less critical of the driving of the main figure in the case they were deciding. I learned and drove on such highways and I would agree. 

Where Does the "Main Stream" Flow?

Anyone who's read Mark Twain, or just looked at a river, knows it's hard to tell where the "main stream" is flowing. This weekend with all the talk of whether Obama will nominate a main stream candidate I came up with a surefire test to determine where it is (in the eyes of the Republicans): just to the right of whomever is named.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Done Already?"

The phrase "Done Already" resonates in my life.

A-M is a Vietnamese-American fellow gardener, meaning we both have plots in one of Reston's community gardens. She was in the garden this morning when I arrived, talking with other gardeners. I hadn't seen her before this spring, and my wife had only once, so we guessed she and her husband were visiting his relatives in England.  Only such travels, or caring for relatives as she did last year, would keep her away from her garden.

I believe she's a tad younger than I, but not by much. Her endurance is amazing--typically she's in the garden before I arrive and is still working when I'm pooped and ready to leave.  Sometimes we'll drive past the garden and see her car still parked there.  I'm competitive, so being outworked bothers me. 

Back in my youth I was very competitive.  Whenever my school class had a test, I always wanted to be the first one finished.  I always hated it when the teacher would wait to collect the exams until the end of the period, or the end of the time for testing.  I always loved it when the teacher would accept the exam when done, particularly when she or he would say: "Done already?"

But this morning, it sounded differently--as I was leaving A-M said: "done already?"

Funniest? Paragraph Today

From Der Spiegel, via AWAD's newsletter: "A functioning police force is seen as a prerequisite for a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. German trainers, however, paint a disastrous picture of the quality of Afghan security forces. Too many police, they say, can't read or write, can't shoot straight or take bribes."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Friday, April 09, 2010

FSA and Sharepoint

FSA is using Microsoft's Sharepoint to enable a Web 2.0 style collaboration. This promises to be interesting.  When I joined FSA (then ASCS) it was a hierarchal organization (think military, without the saluting, though that may be unfair--the effect of some Easter wine :-) ).  There was a tradition of pulling in field people for task forces or committees on various things. But otherwise Washington issued directives, state offices could take decisions within prescribed limits, and the county offices were expected to follow.  Committees of elected farmers hired the county executive director.

As technology changed, my impression is that local discretion has been limited. Partly that's a result of civil rights issues and partly a result of other issues.  Whenever something bad happens in the field, whether it's discrimination, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, or just good old stupidity, the reaction of Washington bureaucrats is to respond by limiting discretion and adding on more training, more rules, more audits.  And facsimile and word processing, improved telecommunications have made  it easier to do so.

When the agency automated in the mid 80's with its IBM System/36's and nightly transmissions with Kansas City, it also meant more consistency, more uniformity, particularly as we moved expertise into computer programs.

But technology doesn't necessarily mean centralization and uniformity.  I remember the advent of programmable calculators--some county office directors saw an opportunity in the late 70's to improve their operations, bought the calculators, and created programs useful for their counties. And there was a time when the old bulletin board system offered a chance for local initiative--people could post their spreadsheet programs, etc.  When we moved to the Internet, there was for a time the ability to maintain local pages, but I understand that's been curtailed in recent years. I had dreams once of using Frontpage to do a BBS equivalent, but that never got going.

So, bottom line, what's the outlook for heavy use of Sharepoint?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Back in the Hoover Administration

Let me quote a paragraph from a post on "News from 1930", which is really into 1931 now:
One part of following day by day 1930's news items that I find interesting is seeing that extra dimension about the period that I wasn't aware of. This week's example is the farm situation. The popular image of this is of poverty, drought, and a depression that struck earlier than for the rest of the country - and this is accurate as far as it goes. But what I didn't realize is that this happened in spite of multifarious fairly large farm relief programs and an apparently unstoppable farm lobby. Some news items in this category come up regularly, including the ups and downs of the expensive Farm Board price-support program, and the various drought relief measures that occupied the “just-adjourned” (in 1931) Congress. But, there are also those not-so-little extras that keep popping up - the Federal and joint-stock land banks, organized to provide agricultural credit; the Hoch-Smith resolution, enacted to lower transport rates for farmers (at the expense of the railroads); and, last but not least, the acknowledgement by the Journal's editorial writers that farm interests would probably have the muscle to pass whatever additional relief measures they wanted when the next Congress convened.
Wikipedia doesn't give the history of farm programs its due. The Federal Farm Board was really a test run for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, proving price support alone wasn't workable and establishing the precedent for working with commodity cooperatives.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How To Measure Bureaucratic Output?

Count the words.  That's my initial reaction after doing a little surfing among the various documents on open government, released by the White House, OMB, USDA, and other departments.  I don't know that the flow of words emanating from DC contributes to open government, at least if defined as citizen understanding of government.  But maybe I'm feeling oppressed by the third day of record-setting heat in Reston. We'll see.

Pigford Now

Vilsack has a statement, which says nothing much. The bottom line is, the agreement between the claimants and the government expired on March 31, 2010, but the reality is the claimants really have no choice.  They have to wait and see whether Congress will come up with the additional money. And then whether they can qualify for anything under new rules. Meanwhile, FSA will kick everything to DOJ, according to this notice.

All Okay in School Lunches, Says OK Extension

I don't know the truth, but this is a voice not usually heard:

Deana Hildebrand, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, said in 2009 the School Nutrition Association (SNA) surveyed more than 1,200 school districts nationwide and found nearly every school district offers students fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and salads.
Of course, "offering" is to "eating" as planning is to doing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Chinese and English Prices

Brad DeLong posts a comparison of the costs in 1700 of various items in Canton China and in London, England.  Milk, lead, mutton, bread, and charcoal were more expensive in China than England, most everything else was cheaper, even much cheaper. Charcoal was 5 times more expensive; tea 25 times less expensive.  It's an interesting comparison.  I'm particularly interested in the charcoal--presumably 2000+ years of civilization meant most trees were gone. And Canton is far enough south that wheat, dairy, and sheep weren't big.  But it's also surprising that China comes out so well in the comparison.  It's a reminder that until relatively recently (1700) that country seemed to provide more people a better life than did the leading Western country.

Chances of Becoming a Farmer Equal to Chances of Making NBA?

That's what John Phipps says, in a post on the advice he gives to young people who are interested in farming (that is, the big ag, industrial, individual owner-style farming).  John compares farming with medicine, quoting a recent NYTimes article on the shift from individual or at least doctor-owned practices, to salaried practitioners.

The Truth About Sen. Coburn

He's got a pretty and talented daughter (an opera singer) and occasionally he commits truth, as in this report. No, I don't know whether Pelosi is a nice person or not, but I'll buy both these statements:

"Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn't mean they're not a good person," he added. He then discussed his own experience of being vilified before asking the crowd not to  "catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody's no good."
"The people in Washington are good," he said. "They just don't know what they don't know."

Bureaucratic Realities: People and Commutes

Walter Pincus has a piece in the Post, passing on an article by an insider on how mundane bureaucratic realities undermined the reorganization of the intelligence community:
Neary [the insider] writes of initial false steps that hurt the organization, using an example that only bureaucrats understand. Under the legislation, the ODNI was not to share location with headquarters of any other community element, an effort to make sure it was not at Langley. So the ODNI went to Bolling Air Force Base, to the new building of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The first DNI, John D. Negroponte, wanted CIA people as staff members. But, writes Neary, since CIA types tended to live near Langley, the ODNI lost at least 10 percent of its staff. They didn't want to make the long commute.
At Bolling, many DIA employees living near the air base took jobs originally meant for those CIA staffers. Then, two years later, the ODNI was permanently located in the Virginia suburbs, beyond Langley, and the DIA workers found that they faced a commute longer than the CIA staffers who didn't want to travel to Bolling. "The merry-go-round ensured the staff never found its feet," Neary said.

In my experience, moves and reorganizations eat up lots of time, simply because they disrupt people's comfort zones. Who sits where (particularly back in the old days before smoking was banned--I spent hours trying to get compatible groupings of smokers and non-smokers. Never had a move more than a few hundred yards, but commuting was and is critical, particularly if not on Metro (subway).

And efforts to create a new organization spanning old agencies are difficult because you need to create the administrative support (space, equipment, funds, HR, accounting, etc.) without having a support organization. I realize that's the sort of thing which occupies the mind of a bureaucrat but is not the slightest interest to anyone else.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

The greens foodies regularly bash the plutocrats of agribusiness who push processed foods down our throats.  But they don't think much of corn-based ethanol, which means they wake up in bed with:
“But when Illinois and Missouri members of Congress opened a new effort recently to extend the tax breaks, a phalanx of opponents quickly mobilized. They include the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the American Meat Institute, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, environmental organizations and pro-taxpayer groups.”
From Farmpolicy on ethanol

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Praise for Bureaucratic Reorganization

Stuart Baker at Volokh Conspiracy posts about TSA's new approach in screening international airline passengers.  And he sneaks in a compliment to the reorganization which created DHS:
"This new system is also a sign that the creation of DHS is in fact paying dividends.  If we still had three separate cabinet departments doing customs, border immigration, and air security, there is no possibility that TSA would be borrowing from and cooperating with border agencies to use their techniques and perhaps their IT systems to screen passengers."
He prefers the approach using a person's individual data to estimate probabilities rather than using more general characteristics, like nationality.

Looming Conflict for Greens

Greens generally don't like genetically modified organisms when they show up as seeds, particularly if a big company like Monsanto owns them.  There's the issue of tinkering with nature, which is a no-no, and the issue of monopoly power. But greens face a conflict as GMO's show up in the bioenergy field, as discussed in this extension post.And the graph included shows farmers use of GMO seeds is continuing to increase, belying the idea these seeds are expensive and ineffective.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Words I Never Thought to Read

"Baby boomers and Generation Xers have better work ethics and moral values than those in their 20s.:

From a Post article on Gen Y. From my point of view, the boomers were the epitome of slackertude, slackerness?, slackerism? Our country has truly gone to the dogs if succeeding generations are worse.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Brad DeLong and the Long View

In this post he discusses the gains made by most people in most places in the last century and the possible causes: global communication, global transportation, and organized research.

The End of NAP?

That's my interpretation of Rep. Peterson's plans for the next farm bill as discussed in Farm Policy. He wants whole-farm insurance rather than crop-specific insurance.  The reference to USDA insuring 400 crops and the expense of handling small crops tells me the proposal would eliminate the noninsured crop disaster assistance program. He also sounds as if he'll change the loan program as well.  I wonder how much the crop insurance people will soak charge the government for such program?

I'm Not Getting Duller, You Whippersnappers Are Getting Smarter

That's the message I take away from this piece of research.  (The Flynn effect is the apparent increase in intelligence of each generation.)  I wish I could really believe it.  I owe a hat tip someone: maybe John Phipps, but my memory is going.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Michelle Plants Her Garden

Obamafoodorama has two posts on planting the White House garden yesterday.  The first is rather sugary, the second a bit official.  Some comments:

  • The high falutin' White House isn't content with a plain old compost bin; they have to have a bio-recycler (which they hide).
  • They use a lot of starts, both from Monticello and elsewhere. I understand the symbolism of using Jefferson's vegetables, but it's another case of the demands of a public garden overriding what's really the best for gardening. In my puritanical view, you should plant mostly seeds, with very few starts.  But using the starts enables them to have these big public occasions and delegate some planting responsibilities to less skilled gardeners, like the school kids.  Turn kids loose with a bunch of seed packets and soil and the results when seeds sprout will be amazing.
  • I'm really sorry Michelle is planting rhubarb.  I've seen reports that the President has a weakness for pies, and his last medical checkup wasn't all that great.  Rhubarb pie is likely to make us begin to worry about VP Biden's readiness to assume office.  (I have fond memories of my mother's rhubarb pie, and her crusts were rather erratic.  Put her filling into some great crusts and Obama may become as addicted to such pies as he is to tobacco.) 

Freedom to Farm Revisited

The Farmgate blog of UofI sees changed farming patterns because of the Freedom to Farm provisions of the 1986 farm bill. More corn and soybeans, less wheat, barley, sorghum, and cotton. So this seems to mean FTF achieved (one of) its objectives.

I'm irretrievably prejudiced against FTF, so I have quickly to add that it did not achieve its other announced objective: phasing out program payments.

Funniest Sentence Today

From Monica Hesse's interesting piece in the Post on inductions into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame:

"(Note: It took one woman to invent a rocket thruster, and two men to invent Post-its.)"

And I Thought Liberalism Had Ruined Marriage

A sentence from a Weekly Standard piece reviewing a book on American trends: "Perhaps these trends have been buoyed by the re-establishment of marriage as society’s basic unit among America’s professional ranks. "