Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reassurance for Liberals From Brad DeLong

The last two sentences of his post on the debt ceiling negotiations, referring to Matt Yglesias:
I'm not sure he should be that depressed--depressed yes, but not that depressed. Perhaps we will see Nancy Pelosi doing this to President Romney in 2013.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Conflicting Definitions, Resolving of

Sec. Vilsack isn't content with trying to come up with standard definitions of reporting dates, crops, and acreages among crop insurance, FSA, etc.  He also wants to standardize definitions of "rural".  He knows we have (at least) 11 now, and that's too many.

Good luck to him  I suspect he'll find several of them are written into law, and most of the rest likely trace back to law.  All of them, I guess, are well embedded into the procedures of the agencies which have to employ them.  So, feeling cynical today, I suggest he devote his time and energy to something more productive.  Perhaps a perpetual motion machine?

Great Phrase: "Procrastinating Pleasure"

I hadn't run into this phrase before, but it's part of a post (Carpe Diem) at Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Friday, July 29, 2011

MIDAS Newsletter

See this for the summer newsletter.  It contains a link over to the Ask Midas page.  There are four questions there: 3 date from last summer, but the last dates from May 2011. The newsletter doesn't tell me much, except that the MIDAS effort is doing a lot of outreach, including a "Change Agent Network".   As an old geezer, I  say: bah, humbug, another bit of consultant jargon.  But I suppose it's worthwhile.

The May answer to what is MIDAS includes this:
"it’s NOT the only FSA modernization initiative. MIDAS is one of 4 modernization initiatives which include BPMS, EDW, and FSA-FMMI; and several on-going projects geared towards modernizing the delivery of FSA programs and services."
The old rule in the Directives Branch was: any new acronym you had to explain the first time. I think I know what FSA-FMMI is--financial management something something. BPMS might be "business process...something or other, but EDW?  MIDAS needs help on their materials, I think. (Rather than just griping, I did submit feedback on the point.)

As I've said before, I don't see how you can justify capital expenditures without cutting personnel, which will mean closing offices.  So I think they're being glib when they say MIDAS isn't about closing county offices. That's bad, you need credibility.

It's Who You Know, and How Many

This is not new, but worth repeating:
When Aldrich visited villages in India hit by the giant 2004 tsunami, he found that villagers who fared best after the disaster weren't those with the most money, or the most power. They were people who knew lots of other people — the most socially connected individuals. In other words, if you want to predict who will do well after a disaster, you look for faces that keep showing up at all the weddings and funerals.
"Those individuals who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals and weddings, those were individuals who were tied into the community, they knew who to go to, they knew how to find someone who could help them get aid," Aldrich says.
 Conversely, some years back there was a heat wave in Chicago which killed a lot of people.  A sociologist studied the deaths and found the people were those who had lost all ties to the community, particularly the old who no longer got out.

No Earmarks Equals Boehner Fail?

I wonder if there's a connection between Boehner's failure to get his debt ceiling bill through the House and the ban on earmarks? Usually there's a lot of horse trading, sometimes borderline illegal, needed to get these big controversial bills through and, if you don't have earmarks, your trading options are much more limited.  That's a cost of political reform which us good government types support.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Permaculture Makes the Times

Some quotes from the Times article:
"Yet in recent years, Mr. Mollison’s ideas seem to have bubbled up from underground, into the mainstream. “I just trained the Oklahoma National Guard,” Mr. Pittman said. “If that’s any kind of benchmark.” The troops, he said, plan to apply permaculture to farming and infrastructure projects in rural Afghanistan.

This “guild” of complementary plants is the opposite of annual row-crop agriculture, with its dead or degraded soil and its constant demand for labor and fertilizer. Permaculture landscapes, which mimic the ecology of the area, are meant to be vertical, dense and self-perpetuating. Once the work of the original planting is done, Mr. Mollison jokes in one of his videos, “the designer turns into the recliner.

At the lowest level of a food forest, then, are subterranean crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. On the floor of the landscape, mushrooms can grow on felled logs or wood chips. Herbs go on the next level, along with “delicious black cap raspberries,” Ms. Joseph said.
Other shrubs, like inkberry, winterberry and elderberry, are attractive to butterflies and birds. They’re an integral part of the system, too.

Ruling the forest’s heights are the 40 large pin oaks already in the park, whose abundance of acorns will make a banquet for squirrels."

Some comments:
  • blackberries require work, just as any cultivar does.  In particular you have to fight weeds and prune the canes.  That's from personal experience.
  • also from personal experience: I've nothing against pin oaks; I've got one by my house.  But I can testify along with acorns for the squirrels, it provides lots of shade.  Hostas and impatiens do well, but I wouldn't try growing vegetables under it.  I've never tried carrots or sweet potatoes and I wouldn't; I don't want to waste my effort.
  • the idea of layering carrots, with herbs above, then raspberries is ridiculous, IMHO. 
  • permaculture does offer advantages--less erosion, but the productivity from a unit of area is going to be much less than intensive gardening, whether one uses organic methods or not.  
  • the bottom line: there's no free lunch, ever since we left the Garden of Eden you always have tradeoffs.

Surprise: I'm Not Always Down on Foodie Stuff

I usually am skeptical of organic farming, locavore, etc. But this research sounds intriguing,  They sowed Kentucky bluegrass as a cover crop between corn rows and get yields equal to traditional.

"The bottom line is that with our best treatment, all three years we found yields in the control and yields in the Kentucky bluegrass with herbicide suppression and fall strip till were not different, which is very exciting," he said.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Kingsolvers Do Locavore

The Times has a piece on the problems Barbara Kingsolver, or rather her husband Steven Hopp, is having running an upscale locavore restaurant in their area of Virginia.  On the good side it's been in operation for 4 years; on the bad side it apparently is being subsidized by Ms. Kingsolver's income, since it hasn't made a profit.  Mr. Hopp is having to expand into some farming, because he can't get local farmers to produce everything he wants when and how he wants it.  And the locals would really prefer a Pizza Hut or McDonald's because the prices are too high (and I suspect the calorie count too low) for Mr. Hopp's food. 

You've got to credit their good intentions, and the money they've sunk into the place, and the jobs they've created, but I'm too mean and evil to resist a little schadenfreude.

Extension Falls for Fake Science

IMO, biodynamics is fake science, so I'm distressed the Extension website would host this post.  From the Demeter website:
The use of the preparations is a requirement of the Farm Standard. There are nine in all, made from herbs, mineral substances and animal manures, that are utilized in field sprays and compost inoculants applied in minute doses, much like homeopathic remedies are for humans.[emphasis added] Timely applications revitalize the soil and stimulate root growth, enhance the development of microorganisms and humus formation, and aid in photosynthetic activity.
 What are the preparations?  According to wikipedia:

  • 502: Yarrow blossoms (Achillea millefolium) are stuffed into urinary bladders from Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 503: Chamomile blossoms (Matricaria recutita) are stuffed into small intestines from cattle buried in humus-rich earth in the autumn and retrieved in the spring.
  • 504: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in full bloom are stuffed together underground surrounded on all sides by peat for a year.
  • 505: Oak bark (Quercus robur) is chopped in small pieces, placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal, surrounded by peat and buried in earth in a place where lots of rain water runs past.
  • 506: Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale) is stuffed into the peritoneum of cattle and buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring.
  • 507: Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis) are extracted into water.
  • 508: Horsetail (Equisetum)

 I can grasp some logic in saying the farm should be self-sustaining; don't import anything. It's locavore ag carried to the nth degree.  But logically that means don't export anything, all excretion must occur on the farm.  As I say: stuff and nonsense.

End Waste, Fraud, and Abuse and Sell Surplus Property?

CBO says trying to sell more Federal surplus property won't raise money, it will cost money. That won't kill the myth though.  Selling property will remain a favorite of the demagogues (whether Obama or whoever), ranking just after the perennial "cut government waste....".

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cutting Direct Payments

It's always interesting to a born bureaucrat to see how lawyers will implement policy proposals.  We're getting an indication of how reductions in direct payments might be made from today's Farm Policy: changing the definition of "payment acres" for 2011.  Specifically:

(3) by adding at the end the following: ‘‘(C) in the case of direct payments for the 2012 crop year, 59 percent of the base acres for the covered commodity on a farm on which direct payments are made.’’.

My reaction: should be easy to implement, which is the prime consideration for a bureaucrat.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Warning: Posts Updates

I'm still using the new Blogger editor and still having problems--either I miss adding labels to the post or I miss titling the post.  So don't be surprised if the RSS feed shows these problems--I usually update the posts quickly after I discover the problem.

End of Farm Programs, End of Workload

Farm Policy quotes extensively from a Wall Street Journal piece on farm programs (behind pay wall), including this bit of interest:
The Journal article also noted that, “Meanwhile, workers in the USDA’s county offices, seeing the handwriting on the wall, are campaigning for new things to do, now that there aren’t any price-support payments to dispense. One idea is to give them responsibility for federally subsidized crop insurance, currently handled by private companies. Because crop values are higher, the amount the federal government spends annually on crop insurance is forecast to climb above $7 billion by 2013, up 60% from last year.”
 NASCOE is getting ready for its convention, with the President raising issues, including whether to try to protect as many jobs as possible, given the likelihood of a 10 percent cut in staffing and plans to close more offices.

A Poor Commentary on American Society

The lead sentence of an MSNBC piece of a few days ago reads:
"Black men are half as likely to die at any given time if they're in prison than if they aren't, suggests a new study of North Carolina inmates."

Two more paragraphs:

"White prisoners died of cardiovascular diseases as often as expected and died of cancer slightly more often than non-prisoners.
Black inmates, by contrast, were between 30 and 40 percent less likely to die of those causes than those who weren't incarcerated. They were also less likely to die of diabetes, alcohol- and drug-related causes, airway diseases, accidents, suicide and murder than black men not in prison."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

IRS Is the National Bureaucracy

Via Mankiw, this article is a very detailed discussion of  tax expenditures. Recommended if you're interested.  What strikes me is one of my pet ideas: our weak government.  Basically the IRS is the only national bureaucracy, the one and only instrument of government which is able to touch (ouch) the vast majority of people in the country.  So if we want to subsidize children we give a child tax credit, if we want to help the working poor we give the earned income tax credit, if we want to encourage home-ownership we permit deduction of mortgage interest, if we want people to have health insurance, we don't tax employer provided health insurance, and so on.

Our approach hides the size and cost of the government, as the article describes.  It also results in a less efficient IRS, because it has to do a lot more things, rather than focus on the task of collecting taxes and finding tax cheats. Of course that fits with the reasons why we Americans like a weak national government: we don't like a bureaucracy, at least not an obvious one, and we think freedom is having invisible constraints.

Fairfax County: The Leading Dairy County

Yes, by some measurements Fairfax county is the country's richest county, but its true measure of fame came 110 years ago when it was the leading dairy county in Virginia, apparently a position it maintained until the 1950's.  Herndon Patch has a post on this, and the famed Sadie, who apparently average 11-12,000 pounds of milk a year as the best known Holstein in the world.  That's compared to the average cow in VA which produced 2,500 pounds.  If I remember, our Holsteins in the 1950's were producing something comparable to Sadie, but they had the advantage of another 30 or so years of breeding and advancement in nutrition.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

ACRSI Comments

See this USDA blog post for an invitation to comment on the proposed acreage and crop reporting system initiative, either at USDA or through comments on the Federal Register publication.

American Exceptionalism: the Good and the Bad

Robin Hanson says after citing research showing that people are more willing to do bad if they've recently done good:
Citizens of the United States are especially proud of a history of (supposedly) doing good. The US sees itself as having saved the world from Nazism and Communism, of creating and sustaining modern medicine, of educating the world via the best universities, of being the main innovators in computer tech, of upholding the highest standards of civil and gender rights, of being unusually devoted to religion, etc.
All this self-respect, deserved or not, probably makes US citizens more willing to do bad, both individually and collectively. Dear US citizens: please ask yourself how sure you can be that your actions on the world stage are actually for good.

Friday, July 22, 2011

SCIMS--Mea Culpa

Via a commenter on Ta-Nehesi Coates blog, here's a fine list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.  Unfortunately for SCIMS, I believed a whole lot of them, even though I should have known better. My only consolation is that I wasn't alone.

Numeracy Lacking

A post at Freakonomics on how to visualize the national debt, which notes a comment on a previous post which was off by a factor of 10, but which garnered 11 "likes".

Thursday, July 21, 2011

From Service Center Intiative to MIDAS

I'm curious how USDA went from the Service Center Initiative of the late 1990's and the MIDAS plan of 2004--was there a rational decision process or just the switch from Dems to Reps?

Flash: GAO on MIDAS

FiercegovernmentIT discusses a GAO report on MIDAS.  Doesn't look like good news.  [Updated with the following]

It's behind schedule and there's no clear roles for management. The second paragraph of the summary:

Executive-level governance for MIDAS has not been clearly defined and does not
fully follow department IT investment management guidance. Specifically,
oversight and governance has been assigned to several department and agency
bodies, but roles and escalation criteria are not clearly defined among them.
Department officials reported that department guidance is being followed for
monthly status reviews, but not for department-level reviews at key decision
points. The lack of clarity and definition for the roles of the governance bodies
could result in duplication or voids in program oversight, as well as wasted
resources. Moreover, because MIDAS is not being governed according to the
department’s investment guidance, the department may not be rigorously
monitoring and managing the program and its risks, and may not have the
information it needs to make timely and appropriate decisions to ensure the
success of MIDAS. and USDA

In effect the White House's is the government-wide suggestion site for federal employees. As a retiree I can't participate, but I can offer comments here:
  •  there's a total of 5300 suggestions on the site, maybe 400 or so for USDA.  The 5 "hot" ideas include 3 which are perennials or nonstarters (pay Congress for performance--come on now, be serious).
  • the 80/20 rules seems to apply, a few suggesters seem to be providing many of the suggestions (1 person 80 suggestion). IMHO there's lots of unrealistic and trashy suggestions; perhaps limiting people to their 10 best suggestions would work better.
  • an FSA employee suggested the "dislike" button be added, similar to what FSA has.  Sounds good, but I wonder why FSA needs a separate suggestion site--why not kill all such sites and rely on
  • the rating algorithm is faulty--it privileges the earliest suggestions. I'd add a percentage of viewers who liked it index.
  • sounds to me as if USDA needs shared calendars (to eliminate emails on schedules)
  • I don't see why there shouldn't be a separate comment/like operation for nonfederal employees
  • I don't know why NASCOE didn't start a quiet campaign on some of their legislative suggestions (like FSA doing all back office work).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

10 Lessons of Software Development: Kundra

Federal Computer Week has a post on what Mr. Kundra told Congress on his way out the door. The commenters diss him, saying these are golden oldies and he's out for bucks. Regardless of their age, they are good maxims, and I'm afraid USDA doesn't always follow them:
  • Build end-to-end digital systems to reduce errors and protect the integrity of the data across the federal enterprise.
  • Build once, use often.
  • Tap into the "golden sources" of data. Don’t rely on derivative databases or data derived from other data sources. Go directly to the transactional systems that do the business on a day-to-day basis.
  • Release data in a machine-readable format and encourage third-party applications.
  • Employ common data standards. Think about what would have happened if railroads across the country had used different standards in terms of railroad track gauges.
  • Use simple, upfront data validations.
  • Release data as close to real time as possible.
  • Engineer systems to reduce burdens.
  • Protect privacy and security. This is critical, especially in the age of Facebook and Twitter. You can create a mosaic effect without really thinking about it. It’s one thing to release data when it comes to health care on a state level, and other thing to release it on a zip-code level.
  • Provide equal access to data and incorporate user feedback on an ongoing basis."

A New Farm Bill, Deficits and the Bureaucracy

Farm Policy yesterday has extensive discussion of the next farm bill.  There are so many balls in the air right now it's (even more) difficult to write intelligently than usual.  From the bureaucracy's perspective it appears the bottom line is: it will be an interesting time, as in the Chinese curse. Working in FSA in Washington, or in Kansas City when a farm bill is being written and implemented is always fun. 

I think from a bureaucrat's view there are two separate timelines:

  1. The first relates to the debt ceiling/deficit reduction. The Agriculture committees have been asking that they be given the authority to figure out where to cut; essentially saying tell us to cut $15 billion but don't specify where, we'll do.  That's essentially a form of the budget reconciliation bill which Congress has been using for 30 years so or, except that the cuts this time around likely will be deeper. (See this oldish Sustainable Agriculture post.) So I assume either by August, or by later this year, FSA will get changes needed for the 2012 crop year to save money.  Presumably those changes won't be too hard to implement, in that they'll cut rates or programs, not create new provisions. 
  2.  The second is the actual new farm bill, which I assume gets written and passed in calendar year 2012 to cover crops in 2013 and later. The question now seems to me to be whether there's going to be a set of constaints on the Ag committees and how constrictive they are.  If I understand, the Biden group's proposal likely would require cutting $3 billion a year.  The McConnell/Reid proposal essentially punts the amounts of cuts for agriculture to a separate group.  If I'm an FSA bureaucrat, I'm hoping the cuts get set in stone sooner rather than later. Going with a separate group of legislators to figure out cuts means delay, which gives the Ag committees less time to do their work.  I suspect the bureaucrats and the Ag committees have separate incentives: bureaucrats want things settled as soon as possible, committees want as much flexibility as possible, which they probably get if things get punted down the road.
Given all the balls in the air, FSA might see a high proportion of people who are eligible actually deciding to retire.

Digital Archeology: An Answer to Obsolete Machines?

Technology Review reports on an exercise in understanding the operation of an obsolete CPU, the 6502 chip in the Commodore 64 and Apple II, among others.  I didn't follow the link in this quote, because I'm not really that techie, but it strikes me this is one answer to the problem of obsolete hardware causing the loss of data: the simulation of operations on modern hardware:
They've chronicled the results of their work at, where they reveal that their understanding of the 6502 has become so sophisticated that they have not merely mapped all of its transistors and connections, they've actually managed to simulate the workings of the entire chip.

Self-Service Checkouts

Locally Home Depot has had self-service checkouts for a few years, the local Safeway just added them within the past year. I tend to like them because I have control, even though the checkout clerk is faster.  But here's a post on a chain possibly removing such checkouts, with an interesting comment from Sweden:
Are all self-checkout aisles set up like this in the US? Reason I ask is because where I live (Sweden) we use a slightly different approach. When you go into the store you grab a hand scanner on the way in. As you go through the store you scan each item before putting it in your bag. Items that needs to be weighed are weighed where you pick them up and scanned right away. So, when you're done you simply go to the self-checkout aisle, "upload" your purchase and pay.
 Makes sense to me. Another commenter says people would take the scanners, but tagging them like department stores do clothes should handle that.  I suspect there's two reasons for the US version: path dependency--that's the way things happened to develop and, perhaps, the learning curve.  It's easier to help customers at the checkout line than if they get stuck somewhere down an aisle.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Firing Federal Employees

This FCW post covers a USAToday study showing:
By researching the Office of Personnel Management’s database, the newspaper found that the job security rate for all federal workers was 99.43 percent last year and nearly 100 percent for those on the job more than a few years.
 I'm sympathetic to the idea firing employees is too hard.  On the other hand, there's some unknown fraction of the people who leave their jobs voluntarily who really don't. I'd love to see a study which compared job leaving rates among similar jobs in the federal and state governments and private enterprise. I don't know what it would show--maybe federal managers are skilled in making life uncomfortable for employees they want to get rid of.  Or maybe it would show managers are skilled in making employees to turkey farms, where they do no damage, except to the taxpayer.  Or maybe it would show managers are masochists who just suffer with their unsatisfactory employees.

From the Field: FSA, NRCS and State

Chris Clayton at DTN reports one Iowa farmer's experience: with EQIP:
The Natural Resources Conservation Service sent Bailey to the Farm Service Agency to see if the land had a conservation plan. FSA sent Bailey back to NRCS to create a conservation plan. Eventually, the conservation plan was established. Because it was a livestock operation, Bailey needed to apply manure, so he also had to create a manure management plan. Bailey had to learn a phosphorus application program. He then also had to file a manure management plan with the county.[And Iowa State Agriculture required a livestock premises ID.]
Reminds me of the Kentucky state executive director in 1993 and Infoshare/Service Center Initiative.

The farmer suggests:
"If we had a way in the Midwest to document how many pounds of nitrogen were going down the Des Moines and the Raccoon rivers, and could report that back to each individual farmer, he would quickly convert that back into dollars. That feedback response would be more powerful than a regulatory or an incentive-based approach. Part of the problem we have got in causing change to happen is providing timely feedback to the operator. That information becomes very powerful to correct and change the problems with the application on our landscape."

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Difference a Week Makes

John Phipps reports his operation switched to earlier maturity corn seed, so that his corn has already pollinated.  It may have been a great decision, given the heat wave in the middle of the country and the widespread concerns it will adversely impact pollination.

These sorts of decisions, and their accompanying risks, form the foundation for farmers feeling they deserve a safety net.

Penetration of Internet in the Wealthiest County

From the Herndon Patch post on the Fairfax County Schools moving more to textbooks online:
FCPS discovered through the pilot that 92 percent of middle school students have computer access at home, .3 percent have no access and 73 percent say they can have access whenever they want it. For high school, the results are 88 percent with access at home, 1.5 percent have no access and 82 percent have access whenever they want it.
I assume there are a few Luddites in this county, but most of the missing 8 percent are children of immigrants who basically rely on the library system.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Education Innovation: University Diaries and Khan Academy

I'm torn.  Margaret Soltan at University Diaries is an English professor who trashes the use of Powerpoint and generally the use of laptops in class.  She makes a good case.  Then I read this article at, hattip Marginal Revolution, on the Khan Academy and that points the other way.  (Khan Academy is a set of videos, each focused on one point (as in a theorem in math).  What's a person to think?

FSA and the Debt Ceiling: Contract Provision

I don't know which government obligations have similar provisions, and I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect FSA is not bound to pay direct payments if there's no deal on the debt ceiling because of this provision (paragraph 3 P of the CCC-509 appendix):
Payments are subject to the availability of funds, compliance with all applicable laws and statutory changes and to limits on payments as may be provided for in the program regulations and it is specifically understood that any payments under this Appendix and the programs to which it applies are subject to statutory and regulatory changes including those that occur after the signing of the contract.
There's also a provision in paragraph 10 to reflect modifications by Congress--the bottom line is the contract isn't binding.  Congress is the 700 pound gorilla, although practical politics is the surety farmers have that Congress won't simply rip up the contract.

In theory then, if the Obama administration has to prioritize payments, these payment should be the tail-end Charlie.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sen Hatch the Conservative

Sarah Binder at The Monkey Cage has a post on Senator Hatch who faces a primary challenge next year from a tea party candidate.  In my memory he was a right wing conservative.  I identified him as such when he was first elected to the Senate, and he was.  He was much to the right of the center of gravity of the Republicans in the Senate.  Now it seems he is much to the left of the center of gravity, not because he's changed particularly, but because the Republicans have moved rightwards.  More accurately, as old Republicans have been defeated or retired, the new Republicans who have been elected are much more conservative.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Good Old Rummy

Ex-Secretary Rumsfeld got patted down going through security on the way to Mrs. Ford's funeral.  He seems to have taken it in good humor, saying people with 2 titanium hips and 1 titanium shoulder have to expect to take more time.

That bothers me, because I just completed the jerry-built structures needed to use my PC while standing.  There's lots of research saying that too much sitting lowers your life expectancy, and I've had some minor, I think, problems with circulation in my legs and feet which trigger my hypochondria.  So I got out my hammer and saw and built a platform which I used for the first time yesterday. 

Rummy notoriously did his office work standing at a desk, notoriously because when asked to approve "enhanced interrogation techniques" which included requiring the subject to stand, he asked why that was questionable.

But Rumsfeld's a better man than I, I've been standing for about an hour today and I'm not going to last for another, much less the 8-10 more he could put in.  And if it means titanium hips are in my future?  At least I'll have some future.

A Case of Counting Your Chickens

Brad DeLong has a series he calls "[X=historical figure] Liveblogs World War II [date]. Today's is Hitler, in July 1942 planning to reconfigure his armed forces after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Pigs Train Their Human

Given the example of Walt Jeffries and his peach-eating pigs, we're reminded that the relationship of humans and animals is a dance, just as the relationship of humans and humans is a dance.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

If the Worst Happens

Zachary Goldfarb has a piece in the Post discussing the complexities the Treasury will face if there's no debt ceiling deal by August 2. While, as Republicans delight in saying, there's enough tax money coming in to handle the interest on the national debt and some other stuff, the decision making rapidly gets tricky.  (There's a chart in print paper I don't see online, but the Post does have a separate "game" where you can figure out which bills you pay and which you don't.)  The complexity comes in when you move past the neat tables of expenses for various items and look at the day to day receipts and payables coming due. 

For example, one day in:
On Aug. 3, the Treasury is set to receive about $12 billion in tax revenue — mainly from people paying their taxes late — and is slated to spend $32 billion, including sending out more than 25 million Social Security and disability checks at a cost of $23 billion, according to Powell’s analysis.
Obama could decide to pay half of the Social Security checks and ignore other bills coming due that day, which include $500 million in federal salaries and $1.4 billion in payments to defense contractors.
We really don't want to go there.

Self-Destroying Blog Post

Recursion is a way to get into trouble.  Chris Blattman offers good advice to aspiring Phd candidates, then says:

"Paradoxically, that might make all the above advice now strategically sub-optimal."

It makes me trust his judgment more.

Who Should Change the Law on Social Issues?

An excerpt from Stephen Hayward's discussion at Powerline of gay marriage:
"First, the one thing to be said in favor of the New York decision is that it was done by a vote of the legislature, a politically accountable branch of government, rather than imposed by judicial fiat through a strained construction of the “Cosmic Justice clause” “Equal Protection” clause of the 14th Amendment.  New York’s path is how democracies ought to enact social changes of this kind, and indeed this is how most conservatives and libertarians have been saying the matter should be resolved for some time now, which explains the relative quiescence of many conservatives about New York’s vote"
 I suppose many would agree with that. It is, however, interesting to note slavery was abolished in some Northern states by court decision, not by legislative action.

Updates on Pigford II

Sustainable Ag has a post and links to a news release from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives on the progress of Pigford II.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Followup on ACRSIP

FarmWeeknow has an interview with Mr. Scuse on the streamlining of acreage reports. (ACRSIP).  Not much different than my previous post on the subject, except for this:
The streamlining project is not intended to reduce USDA offices (there currently are 2,241 nationwide) or personnel, according to Scuse. Farmers who do not embrace technology still will be able to report crop information in person at their local FSA offices.
My problem with that statement is the same I had back in 1992: how do you do a cost-benefit analysis to justify the expense of the hardware and software needed for this without cutting people and offices?  It can't be done IMHO.

Cantor and Ag

Ezra Klein has the slides Rep. Cantor used in his caucus to explain the different proposals.  He's showing $33 billion cut in ag subsidies as the status of the Biden negotiations. If the ag subsidies are $20 billion a year, that's about a 16 percent cut.

African-American Farmers

Via the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, there's a scholarly study here which is available without restriction until July 16.  Worth reading.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


My posting has been screwy a couple times recently (an empty post and a post with no title). I ought to be able to blame Google, at least in part. I'm using their "draft" version of Blogger and it's taking time for me to adjust to it, and there might be a glitch or two in their software. As I learn things will improve.


Mr. Scuse sees FSA getting acreage reports directly from the farmer's precision agriculture equipment, according to this post. The lede:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Acreage Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative Project (ACRSIP) may well be the “most important thing that USDA has ever done,” according to Acting Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse.
 In the interview (at the link) he says the idea is first to allow producers to report acreage once from home with the data supplied to crop insurance (also NRCS and NASS as applicable I assume) and FSA.  The "ultimate" step is to get the data from the precision equipment.  Timing: a pilot this fall, partial implementation in 2012, fuller later.

My comments:
  • the interviewer said he'd called it the most important initiative USDA had ever done.  Scuse didn't quite agree with that.  I'd comment again that the prerequisite for such reporting is GIS and the common land unit. (For those not affiliated with USDA, the common land unit is an attempt to identify the lowest common denominator of land/land usage recognized by everyone in USDA.  It's necessary so you can provide different totals for different purposes.)  And I'd again recognize Kevin Wickey and Carol Ernst for that.
  • as usual, management plans are over-optimistic.As far as I know there's little or no existing infrastructure for developing and testing software which spans the agencies. That was being developed in the late 1990's, when I retired, but I think it became a NIH item when the Bushies came in.  Once again, the Harshaw rule: you don't do things right the first time. While the agencies have a little experience in developing software for farmer usage, I've not seen anything impressive nor have I seen evidence of an active feedback system where farmers are suggesting improvements.
  • a fall pilot presumably would cover the fall-seeded small grains.  That's a good starting point, representing  the easiest and simplest set of situations to handle, no double cropping, little land tenure complexities.  But I'd question whether the experience with such reports is an adequate basis for expanding in crops and scope by spring of 2012.  Maybe it can be done, but I'm a bit leery.  (Then, when the System/36's were rolled out, I was leery then too.)
  • because the acronym is new, at least to Google, I wonder how well management has laid the basis for the changes in FSA and the other agencies which will likely follow.  
It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

Why I'm an Optimist

From an article coauthored by Charles Kenny:
The World Bank did its annual assessment of poor countries last week. Low-income countries are those with average gross national incomes (GNIs) of less than $1,005 per person per year.
And there are only 35 of them remaining out of the countries and economies that the World Bank tracks. That's down from 63 in 2000.
It's hard to remember how concerned we were about the Third World, as it used to be called. (see here for the Google ngram, usage peaked around 1980 and has been falling ever since). There's still much to be concerned, but the picture is much better than it was around 1975 or so.

The "No Pledge" Pledge

I'm going to ask all the candidates running for national office to sign the following pledge (thanks to Ned Hodgman at Understanding Government for triggering the idea):

Because I believe the people's representatives are elected to use their good judgment in response to changing conditions and to serve the people, I pledge never to sign a pledge constraining my freedom to vote.

(I just finished reading Eric Foner's new book, The Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
Had the Republicans, as they might have, taken a pledge not to disturb slavery in the existing slave states in 1860, they would have all violated it by 1864.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Moving Online--SSA and FSA

The FCW has a post on the problems SSA is having in moving its individual statements of accounts online. Two paragraphs:
Although the SSA is developing a new Web portal for accessing the online statement, the portal development is in the initial development phase and has not been fully tested, she said.
In addition, the SSA does not have plans in place for informing the public about the new online statements, or for ensuring access for individuals without Internet access or English proficiency.
If I remember correctly (too lazy to check), FSA has individual statements online, though I suspect there's very little access to them.  FSA has/had a different problem than SSA; FSA didn't mail individual statements on a regular basis while SSA does.  But FSA doesn't have experience with delivering services over the Internet, as witness he poor job they're doing with it.I infer from my personal reaction to the website, which I keep putting off expressing here.

Seems to me, if I were SSA, I'd include the instructions to get online with my last mailed statement.  In others, if my statement gets mailed in March 2013, it includes a notice my data is now on line, along with whatever security measures they've adopted.  Interesting question: do people opt in or opt out of the online statement?  I'd say opt out, but that's me. 

Me, the Professor, and Facebook

Chris Blattman is a professor with an interesting blog on international development, mostly Africa. It's reassuring to find that he's as puzzled by Facebook as I am.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is USDA Listening? Twitter and Disaster

 I've previously suggested using pictures, either from digital cameras and/or cellphones, to enrich/replace the process of reporting crops and crop damage.  Based on this I suggest using Twitter as well: From a FCW post on use of social media by DHS:
DHS should look to the National Weather Service for an effective model. NWS has programmed its computers to automatically read any tweets with the hashtag #wxreport. Amateur weather watchers use that tag to report tornadoes and other extreme weather. Because Global Positioning System chips automatically report a smart phone’s location, NWS can pinpoint an event on a real-time basis and get critical situational awareness.
Crop insurance needs to know hail damage, in particular.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Coming Innovation: Robotic Transport for Apartment Complexes?

Reston is a planned community, started in the 1960's.  Among the compromises from the original plan was a downgrading of density; the developers discovered that single-family houses sold better than townhouses, which sold better than condos.  Now as the town has aged, and as Metro approaches (arriving next year on the east side of town), there's more and more planning for redevelopment, tearing down old buildings and building new ones.  In the process density is going up, which should make Matt Yglesias happy, if he ever travels from his DC apartment out to the wilds of Virginia.

Here's a post discussing planning for one of the redevelopment projects.  What strikes me is the bit about "Transit-Oriented Development".  It ties in with an observation about the Hunter Woods Fellowship House (an apartment building for seniors) which is served by a Fairfax Connector bus, although it probably adds 5 minutes to the bus route.

Seems to me in the near future it would be easy enough to have a vehicle, electric powered, controlled robotically, callable on demand, which runs only a route connecting an apartment complex like Fellowship House or the proposed Fairway Apartments to an express bus route or metro station.  Because the route would be set, it should be a relatively easy challenge to do the robotics.  By having a short route, the waiting time at either end would be minimal. By linking it in with a smartphone app, it could be response. 

The Space: On Not Doing It Right the First Time

My rule is that you never get something difficult right the first time.  Usually you can't, or I can't, get something easy right the first time.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber has a post which discusses, among other things, how long it took Western humans to start using "spaces" in their writing.  (Languages which use pictographs obviously don't have the problem.)

For example: "overthecourseoftheninecenturiesfollowingromesfallthetaskofseparatingthewordsincontinuous

I wonder whether the space didn't contribute to the growth of productivity?

Cage Hens

US egg producers and the Humane Society are proposing a deal: if Congress will pass national standards, they can live with 144 square inches per hen, instead of 67. See this post on the Rural Blog.

The deal represents the sort of interest group bargaining we often see: in essence the big guys are working against the little guys.

[Note: I'm using Blogger's new editor, which I'm not sure I like--change is bad.   I keep forgetting labels before I post.]

Friday, July 08, 2011

Changing the Payment Process at Treasury

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to a Felix Salmon post discussing, in part, the problems Treasury faces on August 2/3, including this sentence:
"At that point — and no earlier — there would be enormous pressure on the White House to pull out the 14th Amendment and declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, if only for practical reasons: doing so would be a lot easier than trying to reprogram the computers which are set to send out $49 billion of Social Security checks on August 3."
I know (almost) nothing about this, but when has lack of knowledge ever kept a self-respecting blogger from writing? I've two thoughts:

On the one hand, since the government hasn't done this (prioritizing payments) before, yes, the process is likely to be difficult and full of glitches. On the other hand, at least in the old manualish days, people had to certify the payment document before transmitting to Treasury for payment.  Then, moving ahead to the tape days (i.e., 1960-80's), SSA would have provided reels of 7 or 9 track mag tape containing the payment data to Treasury.  Back then, they could have just  stuck the reels in storage and waited to mount them and run the program until the debt limit was lifted.

I'd expect there's the automated equivalent of that still in place.  In others words, at some point SSA stops updating their payment file with the deaths, new retirees, corrections, and transmits the whole file to Treasury for payment of Aug 2 pensions.  I wouldn't think on the Treasury side their systems would know much about the data, except to record the payee, amount and date of payment--etc. But their system doesn't know or care whether they're printing Aug 2 checks on Aug 2, or on Sept. 2.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Sexist Food Movement?

Sharon Astyk sends us to Harvard Magazine and a piece on restaurant food (bad) and home cooking (good). Much of it is channeling Mollie Katzen who's an adviser to Harvard cafeterias.  On page 2 I find this:
“I have friends in their forties who grew up right at the height of Mom never being in the kitchen,” says Katzen, who co-wrote Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less (2006) with Willett. “They didn’t see their mothers in the kitchen in any meaningful way—it wasn’t an integral part of life in the home. So they were opening a lot of cans, or buying fast food. In my [baby-boom] generation, our mothers lived in the kitchen; that’s where they parked themselves during the day and held court. In my family, at dinnertime, the kids would all help with the final steps: setting the table, helping Mom get the food on the table, helping clear afterwards. It was a team activity, part of what we did together as a family. My guess is that an equally, if not more, common way to gather around food now is to sit around the TV and watch Top Chef.”
 I'm a male chauvinist, due to my age, but it seems very anti-feminist to me.

Most Important for Liberals: Obama Wins in 2012

Amidst all the hullabaloo about debt ceilings and grand bargains, the one thing liberals should be most concerned about is: can Obama win in 2012? Republicans have notoriously said their goal is to make Obama a one-term President.  That's honest.  By the same token, the goal for liberals should be to make Obama a two-term President.

A one-term Presidency means the probable loss of most of the liberals gains of the past 2 1/2 years (though it'd be interesting to speculate on which are most vulnerable). It means the Supreme Court gets more conservative justices and fewer liberals.  It means years on the defensive, being hypocrites as the Dems in the Senate use the threat of filibuster in a delaying action against President Romney. It means the reopening of the debt limit deal to add further tax cuts and further spending cuts.

A two-term Presidency means protecting the liberal gains, and with the opportunity to make more gains. It means the possibility of new liberal blood on the Supreme Court.  It means the reopening of the debt limit deal to tweak the tax system (think of the changes to the welfare reform that Clinton got through in subsequent years). 

I Am a Federal Employee

Actually, I'm not, used to be, but not now.  Here's a site for people who want to rise in defense of federal employees, or at least get things off their chest.

The Commentariat Lose Weight

Matt Yglesias posts that he lost 50-70 pounds last year.  Ta-Nahesi Coates lost about the same amount in the same time.  Do two pundits make a trend?

Love This Conjunction

An MSNBC article on people who can't go with other people near, ends this way:

"Shy bladder is a real disorder," says Soifer, "not something to be snickered about or laughed at."
Want more weird [emphasis added] health news? Find The Body Odd on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

First Tomato of the Year

Harvested our first tomato of the year.  Unfortunately it wasn't perfect, it'd split and something, maybe birds, had been at the flesh, but we got 3/4 of it.  Tasted great.  Today is also the day the NYTimes reviews the book on Florida tomatoes. The reviewer liked it. I suspect I'll have reservations.  July 6 to maybe Oct 15 marks the outer limits of our garden tomatoes.  For the rest of the year we have to rely on hothouse tomatoes or tomatoes which have to travel, meaning they lose some flavor.  There's always a tradeoff.

Takes the Bureaucracy a While to Catch Up

Politico runs a story saying the online application for marriage licenses in NYCity still said "groom" and "bride".  It was quickly changed.

I hate to think of all the forms and processes and databases which are going to have to be changed to handle same-sex marriage.  I can predict with great confidence there will still be "husband/wife" blocks and fields existing long after I'm dead, maybe still in 2040.

Post and Times Agree on Immigration: It's Down

They don't agree on why--according to the Post things are so terrible in Mexico potential immigrants from Central America are scared off and don't cross Mexico into the US; according to the Times things are so great in Mexico potential immigrants decide to enjoy the good life in Mexico.

They aren't exactly in conflict, but two sides of a many sided coin.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The French Do It Too

What's "it"?  Tinker with bureaucratic tricks to help, or seem to help, their farmers.  A quote from Farm Policy, emphasis on the last clause:

“The French government has, to its credit, been responsive to the problem. The state-owned railway operator, SNCF, is subsidizing the transport of cattle feed, the country’s banks are helping with solvency concerns by giving borrowers some leeway, insurance companies are postponing client payments until the situation improves, and the government has just injected €800 million ($1,162 billion) in funds into the agricultural economy, bringing the 2011 single farm payment forward.”
Back in 1981 the farm economy was tanking. One of the methods Congress and the administration used to help was to make advance deficiency payments, issuing the money before we knew what the actual payment rate would be.  Unfortunately, as is the rule with Congress, a one-time expedient often turns into a permanent tactic.  Having shown ASCS (as FSA was then) could handle making advance payments (at least we didn't wholly screw the pooch to quote "The Right Stuff"), they then made that a regular provision, first of deficiency payments then of direct payments.  The tradeoff, because there's no such thing as a free lunch, is that administrative costs went up, because some portion of the advances were unearned, either because of individual faults or unforeseen disasters which changed the average market prices, meaning we had to try to collect the money back.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Why Americans Don't Like Bureaucrats

Because we fought a revolution against them--one of our grievances against George III:

" He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

Happy Fourth of July

The Art of the Knife, in Academic Life

Dan Drezner was an early blogger and was also refused tenure at the University of Chicago, two facts which may or may not have been related.  He and his wife write about the denial 5 years later here.  Dan's essay ends thusly:
I don't know if the University of Chicago's department of political science would change its mind if it could go back in time. It has moved on and will no doubt soon reclaim its historical status as a great place for international relations. I have moved on as well.

Somehow the penultimate sentence casts some doubt on the ultimate one.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Great Bureaucrat: Montgomery Meigs

A rare celebration of a noted bureaucrat in the Washington Post magazine.  The bureaucrat? General Montgomery Meigs, who had a number of accomplishments, including building the acqueduct which still supplies water to the District, builder of the Pension Building, quartermaster general during the Civil War, savior of Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay upon outbreak of the Civil War, builder of the Capitol Dome. 

The Architect and the Master Bureaucrat

Lots of people attack bureaucracy along the lines of James Scott's "Seeing Like a State", arguing that a master plan, or "scheme" as the Brits would say, is always suspect because it takes no account of local knowledge and local realities.  That line of attack can be persuasive; I'm sometimes tempted to buy it and turn in my liberal's stripes.

But then I read a post like Walter Jeffries and my temptation fades away, which is rather ironic because Walter is a fervent opponent of big bureaucracy and bureaucratic schemes like NAIS (for identifying farm animals). Walter and his family have a farm in Vermont, very energy-efficient. For maybe the last 12-16 months they've been actively engaged in building a butcher shop.  They've got the foundation and walls up, with lots of work yet to go.  Walt's post lists all the complicated factors he has to take into account, ending with the fact that all his design work will end up in concrete so he can't afford a mistake.

Now building a butcher shop is complex, but not nearly as complex as building say the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, or any other large building or development.  But we expect architects and building engineers to be able to pull it off, and they do, normally.  So too I expect Walter to pull it off.  The success of architects and Walter renews my faith in the idea that human reason and sweat can actually create things which work, things which can include bureaucracies.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Israel and Dairy

Via Marginal Revolution, an interesting post on cottage cheese in Israel.  It says the early settlers saw dairy as challenging, since cows weren't expected to thrive there.  It reminded of two other articles: one on the revival of farming in Gaza--although the Israeli settlers' greenhouses were looted after Israel withdrew from Gaza, some of the land is now growing vegetables; the other on growing tomatoes in Florida in the winter.  The common thread is that the soil and maybe climate aren't well-adapted for the agriculture, but it's possible to do well financially because of their location.  In the Israel/Gaza cases you've got the advantage of serving a local populace and being much closer than rival sources of the products.  In the case of Florida tomatoes, you've got the advantage of winter in the North.

Friday, July 01, 2011

A Field Is a Field Is a Pothole?

This from FarmPolicy was a blast from the past for me:
In other developments, a program announcement yesterday from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) stated that, “[RMA] Administrator William Murphy today announced a change in qualification requirements for farmers in ‘prairie pothole states’ who want to obtain prevented planting insurance. The change is intended to assist farmers who have experienced difficulties due to excessive moisture in their fields over recent years. Beginning with the 2012 crop year, a crop must be grown on the acreage at least one of the previous four years if a farmer wishes to qualify. The states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota are covered by the change. All other policy provisions must also be met.
“‘The requirement to be able to bring an insured crop to harvest in one of four years improves program integrity,’ said Administrator Murphy. ‘It also helps to meet the needs of farmers in the Prairie Pothole region, where some acreage has not been available to plant since the 2008 crop year due to flooding and excessive moisture conditions.’”
 Way back when (1981 I think) the North Dakota state specialist called in to be sure we meant a change in our procedures pertaining to potholes.  (Potholes result when a retreating glacier leaves a block of ice behind with glacial till around it.  The result is a low area which will fill with more or less water depending on the water table. ) In the early 80's the weather had been dry, the potholes shrank, the farmers farmed the dry margins, and they wanted it eligible to be designated as out of production for our production adjustment program (i.e., set-aside/ACR). Now the weather's been wet, the potholes expand, the farmers can't farm the wet margins, and they want it to be eligible for prevented planting payments.

From the viewpoint of people like Ducks Unlimited, this is all crap.  Farmers should not be encouraged to plant around potholes--the land should be in permanent conservation cover because the potholes are indispensable habitat for wildlife.  It's the modern version of the sheepmen versus the cattlemen wars of the 19th century.