Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sssh, the Secret of Farming

As it says here, for many years farmers lived on their depreciation.  What that means is that as long as you have some cash flow and low debt, you can survive.  That's how my father did it.

NY Times and Agriculture on 12/31/2011

The Times has two stories on agriculture today: one on the growth of big organic farms outside the country, drawing down water supplies and exporting organic produce to the US; the other on the conversion of non-ag land to farmland in Iowa, and the expiration of CRP contracts.

The organic piece gets lots of exposure: comments and the top emailed piece. As the article points out, we Americans want our cheap organic tomatoes in December, and Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, and the nations in between, are willing to supply them.  The growth of exports helps those nations, which isn't something the comments note, although the article does mention it.

The Iowa piece reminds me of the 70's, when Earl Butz supposedly promoted fence row to fence row planting.  If the farmer is able to buy the land, he can tear out the fence rows, gaining some acreage and improving the efficiency with which he can farm.  Again, it's the workings of the free market in agriculture.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Petty Bureaucracy in the Private Sector: B&B Complaints

James Fallows had a bad experience with a B&B (owner forgot his reservation) and petty bureaucrats prevented him from publishing his review because he didn't actually stay at the B&B.  Read the whole thing here.  In the old days, this was a Catch-22.

Organic Versus Locavore

There's a tension between organic food and the locavores, a tension I see in this NYTimes article.  There's a scarcity of organic milk, particularly on the East Coast, partly because prices haven't risen high enough, partly because of the inflexibility of supply (takes 3 years for a dairy to convert to organic production), and partly because there's not enough organic grain grown in the East.  The latter is important because grain is important for milk production; cows produce much less milk if they're simply grazing pasture and eating hay.  So there's an imbalance in the food economy, an imbalance which the free market fills by transporting food/grain from distant places, but that's not something which locavores can be happy about.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How Society Changes: Imperceptibly

The Post has an advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, who today had this bit from a reader:

On parenting in “the good old days”:

I had two children in the 1960s, then two more in the 1990s, a generation later, and noticed in wonder that I was a different kind of father. With my first family, I was a fairly typical parent for the times. Thirty years later, I was also a pretty typical parent for the times. The change, though I was aware of it, happened unconsciously. I was not imitating or trying to be like anyone else but had adapted, it seems, to a new parenting environment, responding to new cues.
 I think the observation is true of many things: we are attuned to our environment, particularly our social environment, so whether it's fashion (observe women's fashions, tattoos, men's hairstyles), child rearing, acceptable social etiquette (jeans are okay today but smoking is not), we change.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Victory of Government Over the Natural Life

In the old days (i.e. 18th century) cities like London were sinks, people sinks, places where people died, not places where people were born and grew.  The rural areas exported people to the city.  Such facts of history have long governed our perceptions of the relative healthiness of cities versus country.  But over time good government of the city, providing things like clean water, sanitation, reasonably clean air, good healthcare, etc. have changed the balance, leading to today's announcement that New York City, the epitome of the city for Americans, is now healthier than the rest of America.  A baby born in NYC today has a longer life expectancy than a baby born elsewhere.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Understatement of the Month

Musings from a Stonehead:

"They think keeping chickens is cheap and easy with minimal effort involved.
The reality is somewhat different.'

The First Woman (CED in OK)

The NYTimes Magazine yesterday had as its theme obituaries of people who died in 2011.  Included was a piece on people who were the "first African-American" to fill various positions.  I thought of that when today I saw this obit for Lori Ross of Ardmore, OK. It includes the paragraph:
"A 1952 graduate of Wayne High School, Wayne, Okla., she then attended East Central University, Ada, Okla. Mrs. Ross was the first woman in the State of Oklahoma to hold the position of County Executive Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Farm Service Agency. Following her retirement after more than 30 years of employment with that agency, she worked at the Marietta Public Works Authority and also the First National Bank of Marietta. She and Marty Ross were married in Dallas, Texas, on March 13, 1971.
I understand that different states accepted women as CED's at different times.  I remember one district director in NC telling me confidentially he didn't believe in them: women shouldn't be subject to the rough language irate NC farmers could use.  One longs for such Southern chivalry today.  Or maybe he was pulling my leg?

EU Standards for Poultry, and Spanking

Via Musings from a Stonehead, I learn that the UK has new standards for poultry, bigger and better cages if I understand.  This is, I think, the wave of the future. The richer we get, the more we pamper our children, our animals, our environment.  (I realize "pamper" reveals my age.)

See Megan McArdle's piece on spanking, the decline thereof.  She argues that modern parenting is much more intensive, which to me reflects the greater availability of time and energy for child-rearing, due in part to having fewer children per household.
[Updated--put comma in title for clarity]
[Updated 2-- a link to an effort to provide homes for former battery chickens. I guess some Brits really love their fowl.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Retirement Parties, Past and Present

As I said I went to Star Bryant's retirement reception/party last week, which caused me to remember some retirement parties of the past.

Some 30 years ago the usual party was at a restaurant, it was in honor of a white male, the man had started his ASCS career in a county office then moved to Washington,  the party usually had been organized by the female secretaries in the division in which the man worked, it featured a lot of drinking, most of the attendees were white men, predominantly of the political party of the honoree.

Star's party reversed most of those things, but the one constant was she started her career in the county office in Johnson County, NC in 1970 or so.  As she told the story, at least as I remember her telling the story, her minister sent her down to the CED at the time (William Weller(?)) because someone good/strong was needed to integrate the office (or maybe it was the tobacco market recorder position), or maybe both.

Afghanistan Status

Here's a Foreign Policy article reporting some of the positives from Afghanistan in the last 10 years: more peaceful (at least violent deaths are down from the 1990's), healthier, better educated, more equal for women. more prosperous.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Drones and Aerial Photography

Here's a piece at TPM about the use of drones within the US.  I wonder how long it will be before FSA's aerial photography is done by drones?  And disaster reporting? Fly a drone and provide a digital feed to a ground station to get good data on the extent of flooding, etc. Won't drones eventually be more economical than small planes or helicopters?  If they can stay up for 36 hours they can presumably accomplish more photography than manned aircraft.  And streaming the data back to the base station offers a lot of flexibility, particularly if you can feed it in as a layer to the GIS system.

I don't know: is FSA compliance still being done by aerial photography? Does ACRSI include spot checks?

The Proper Role of a Subordinate (Cont)

A while back I blogged about the proper role of a subordinate in the context of Suskind's "Confidence Men," suggesting Geithner slow-walked an Obama decision and Obama's subordinates didn't always jump to.

I'm now reading "Steve Jobs", by Isaacson which includes an anecdote praising Steve's subordinates for refusing to obey his decision:
"Veterans of the Mac team had learned that they could stand upto Jobs.  If they knew what they were talking about, he would tolerate the pushback, even admire it.  By 1983 those most familiar with his reality distortion field had discovered something further: They could, if necessary, just quietly disregard what he decreed.  If they turned out to be right, he would appreaicte their renegade attitude and willingness to ignore authority.  After all, that's what he did." page 145
 The anecdote relates to the selection of the disk drive provider for the Mac (eventually Sony, rather than the upstart manufacturer Jobs said to use).

Misguided Obeisance to the Military

The Post's blog writes about a directive to TSA to expedite clearances for military personnel which was included in the appropriations bill.  As I comment there, the biggest terrorist toll in the U.S. since 9/11 was the work of a uniformed military man.  Our military thankfully still reflects our society, for all its good and bad.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the Absolute Importance of Financial Incentives

From a Post article on the difficulties of drafting quarterbacks, the Dallas Cowboys personnel man opines:
Wooten said he also shied away from players considered unmotivated because they weren’t yet on an NFL team’s payroll.
“You inevitably hear a coach say to you, ‘When he starts getting paid, it’s going to be different,’ ” Wooten said. “That should send a red flag. I have been around long enough to know that money doesn’t make players better. If anything, it makes them worse.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Call Me Conservative?

I consider myself liberal, but when I read this Ezra Klein pass-on of a Timothy Noah column, I seem to have a conservative knee-jerk reaction.  The issue is a Republican proposal to allow states to require a drug test for and enrollment in a GED program for recipients of unemployment insurance.

Noah sees them this way: "Their purpose is to make people who receive unemployment benefits understand that they are losers, and must be stigmatized and harrassed [sic] until they prove themselves worthy."

Whatever the motives of the Republicans who are pushing them, and I suspect them, my bottom line is I've got no problem in requiring the recipient of taxpayer dollars (technically it's "insurance", not taxes, but it's using the authority of the government) to do something.  In my dream world I'd encourage those who don't have a job and don't have a high school diploma and have time on their hands (i.e., no pre-school kids) to work on their GED.  And I'd have no problem with a drug test, provided there's a program available to help those who are using drugs.  So I could buy a deal where the Republicans extended unemployment insurance payments and paired it with a drug testing/treatment program and a GED training program.  Of course, the Republicans I assume are including the requirements without the programs.

A Look Back at the Housing Bubble

Happened to use Zillow to check some housing prices. As we can see, in this area in Manassas Park, VA the housing bubble collapsed and has not recovered.

I think it's a true fact Manassas Park was home to a concentration of Latino immigrants, many in construction.  So when the bubble popped, along with a hostile political climate in the county (Prince William), lots left, and prices fell accordingly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Government Doesn't Care About Taxpayers

I'm skimming a recent report on federal government websites. Page 12 shows the primary audiences which range from Federal employees, consumers, business, researchers, etc. etc.  but no taxpayers.

(Can't copy it or I would) Some excerpts, with bracketed comments:

86% of the live domains and 71% of the domains under development had been updated in the past six months, as of October, 2011, when agencies conducted the inventories. [Updating within a 6-month period is a very low threshold.]

Takeaways: [as labelled by the report}

Inconsistency across agencies:The amount of data varied greatly across agencies. Some agencies were able to provide more complete data, while other agencies struggled to develop a clear picture of their web footprint because of decentralized operating units.

Incomplete data: Several agencies did not know the answers to all of the questions, and many noted that this inventory is the first of its kind in their agency.

Decentralization: Nearly all of the agencies alluded to the fact that much of the decision-making with regard to specific domains/websites happens within operating units and not at an agency level. Varying levels of maturity: Some agencies have clearly set web policies, while many agencies are still working to develop more formal web guidance and governance policies.

Need for more Federal guidance: Many agencies asked for additional guidance and assistance in developing integrated web governance plans and migration processes for their domains.

Dedication to improvement: Nearly all of the agencies made comments to illustrate their dedication to improving web governance and communications at their agency.

Benefits may come at a cost: A few agencies noted that the benefits of integration are extremely important but that integration may come at a cost.

Measurement takeaways:

Lack of consistent performance metrics: Nineteen of the major agencies (79%) reported that they did not use the same performance metrics to consistently evaluate agency websites across the agency; each site uses its own combination of methods.

Metrics not standardized: Several agencies commented that even though the same tools are used, the metrics from those tools are not consistently gathered, implemented and applied. Web analytics is the most commonly used method: Most agencies (10 out of 24) referred to using web analytics tools to measure performance.

[I wish they had collected and published the metrics, or at least noted if any websites published the metrics.]

Here's the link to the "dialog" website they used to gather public comments.

Film Projectionist and Kodak

An interesting piece in Technology Review about an innovative digital movie camera which is taking over the industry.  Meanwhile the job of film projectionist is endangered, as is the Kodak chemist.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Those Healthy School Lunches

The cynic in me gloats over this report in the LA Times, hat tip Kevin Drum, on how poorly the newly healthy lunch menus has been greeted in the LA schools.

I wonder if USDA will pull the award: "This year, L.A. Unified, which serves 650,000 meals daily, has received awards for improving its school lunches, including one last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine."

To be fair, some of the innovations are working well; as I've always said, it's hard if not impossible to do things right the first time.  One of the key faults is that the food which was acceptable in their tests turned unacceptable when prepared by the regular kitchens.  As Megan McArdle would say: scalability, and repeatability could when you're basing decisions on pilot tests.

[Update: McArdle picks up the story and discusses reasons why pilot tests aren't necessarily predictive.]

Outwalking Death

This MSNBC article reports research which says if you can walk faster than 2 mph, you're probably in good enough shape to keep Death at bay.  The good news is I can easily walk faster than that.  The bad news, which the article doesn't cover, is that the Big Al (as in Alzheimers) walks faster than Death.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Henry Blodget and My Mother

Mr. Blodget has a thought experiment called Millionaire's Island, in which he gathers the 1 percent of Americans who have the biggest incomes and gives them an island to live on.  He has a lot of fun with it, sometimes in ways which my mother would approve.  She thought farmers were the most important people in the society, because without them people would go naked and starve.  Blodget says the same: without the 99 percent the 1 percent would go naked and starve.

CRS on Farm Bill Future

Here's the Congressional Research Service's latest take on the farm bill, proposals for change floated in connection with the super committee, and what happens next.

[Update: the CRS says the total farm programs cost $15.7 billion: 5.7 for commodity programs, 7.8 for risk management and crop insurance, 1.7 for disaster. ]

Twelfth Night, Martha Washington, and French Bread

In days of yore Martha Washington would have her Great Cake prepared for Twelfth Night, also her wedding anniversary.  You start by separating the yolks and whites of 40 eggs!

By chance I read about the Great Cake in the Post, then read Dirk Beauregarde's long piece on French bakers--boulangeries, which devotes space to the French custom of having the galette des rois on Twelfth Night (I think it means the "cake of the king") or at least in January. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Riches at NCUA and FCA

A list of the highest paid Federal employees shows mostly doctors at the top.  But the National Credit Union Administration and the Farm Credit Administration are able to pay their admin heads $260,000.  Many Americans think that meets the definition of riches.

The Importance of Slack

I walk past Reston's Dogwood pool every day.  The Reston Association has a proposal to redo the pool and its surroundings which is going through the hearings process.  As part of that they've had a crew string white tape through the nearby trees, I guess to outline the area where trees will be cleared.  What the crew does is tie the tape around one sapling (2-3" at shoulder height) then run the tape to another sapling and tie again, repeating the process around the area.  Unfortunately, every time they run the tape they make it taut between each sapling. When they're through everything looks fine and neat.  As time passes though, and the wind blows, and the saplings start to move, and they move in different directions, the result is the tape is first stressed and then it snaps.  So a month later there are just a few segments of intact tape, but most are broken.  Another month passes and RA sends the crew out again to remark the site.

Sometimes in life it's important to leave some slack.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Nostalgia Day at Farm Service Agency

Just attended Star Bryant's retirement party, 41 years of service and still looking good.  Good to see some former co-workers, though the number is dwindling every year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Target Price and Planted Acres

I hadn't heard of this possibility, but the winter canola people are opposed (from today's Farm Policy):

"Yesterday’s update noted that, “The Plains winter canola delegation made the trip to DC to voice their concerns and opposition to a new updated target price program under which deficiency payments would be ‘recoupled’ to production on planted acres up to the total aggregate crop base acres of a farm, effectively reversing the planting flexibility that has been in place since the 1996 farm bill. The target price program was reportedly a component of the legislation that the agriculture committees had intended to submit to the Super Committee as agriculture’s $23 billion contribution to deficit reduction before those efforts failed on November 23rd.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fraud Recoveries, Bravo Obama

I could be cynical about this, but I'll take the story in the Post at face value, that is the Obama administration is doing well at identifying fraud:
Fraud recoveries are up considerably in recent years, the administration officials said, jumping by 167 percent since 2008. Justice has recovered $15 billion in total fraud since 2009, of which $8.4 billion was tied to health care fraud

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Shovel Ready" Projects

Last week's  NYTimes had a piece on Vermont's efforts to recover from the damages wrought by Irene.  Apparently they're almost done replacing and repairing the bridges, roads, etc. which were damaged, making repairs much faster and much cheaper than the governor had originally thought possible..

A couple other data points: there was the replacement of the Minneapolis bridge over the Mississippi and the repair in California of earthquake damage, IIRC, to a bridge.  In all three cases, construction went faster than people thought possible.

Compare this with Obama's complaint that the "shovel-ready" projects funded by his stimulus turned out not to be so shovel ready after all and the recurrent comparisons of the speed with which China is doing big construction jobs with our slowness.

Now the key to the fast work in VT, CA, MN was it was reconstructing something, not doing it for the first time, and the "something" was critical infrastructure. So on the one hand you had a vocal constituency for fast action; all the people whose commutes were disrupted or travel prevented by the lack of a workable bridge or highway would make their voices heard. I well remember from my working days how upset I could get if my commute was screwed up.

On the other hand, there's really no opposing force: the taxpayers recognize that damage due to natural disasters has to be repaired.  And there's no NIMY's at work--the neighbors, if any and there may not be many, have already been living with the bridge or highway and have adjusted their lives to it.  Anyone who was really hurt by the initial building has likely moved away, so the calculation of utility in this case shows everyone wins and no one loses.

Unfortunately this logic doesn't work for most projects.  Yes, there are a few straight reconstructions, but in most cases projects involve changes, replacing an old 2-lane bridge with a 4-lane, widening and straightening a highway, etc. Change means there's likely NIMBY's, who must be assuaged by a consultation and review process.  That's what democracy requires, unlike the command state of China.

Cruelty to Hens

Treehugger has a post trumpeting McDonald's decision to drop an egg supplier whose workers abused their chickens.

Here I have to reveal my crimes of the past: upon occasion when I was a boy I was cruel to some of our hens, doing some of the same things cited in the piece.  I won't defend what I did.  I will say, perhaps showing a conservative streak, whenever one person has power over something or someone you run the danger of abuse.  That's true whether you're giving a young soldier a gun and putting him in a foreign land or giving a growing boy power over hens. 

Based on that conviction I say to my foodie friends they can't assume that hens will get humane treatment with small growers.  They just can't.  Humans can be evil.  I know, I was one.

What's the Proper Role of a Subordinate?

I read  "Confidence Men" by Ron Suskind.  He criticizes Larry Summers (or quotes sources criticizing him) for "relitigating" issues rather than saluting smartly and going off to see the president's previous decision was promptly implemented. It's part of a general theory that Obama was inexperienced as a manager, not well served by Emanuel and other staff with more experience, and not comfortable with some of the issues.

Of course, in my experience, not in the White House but in the South Building, it's usually the case that the subordinate knows more than the boss; that's the result of bureaucratic specialization. And what we know, or think we know, often ties to strong emotions: most people like to be right. It's also the case the boss never knows everything the subordinate is doing, or has to do. And sometimes it's the case the boss doesn't know what has to be done to implement a decision.   Put everything together and it's quite possible for boss and subordinate to have different views on what happens after a meeting when a decision is made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why Bureaucrats Don't Like Contractors

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries posts about a scandal at Aerospace Corp. Seems they employed on a government contract a Phd from Oxford who really had only a high school diploma, and who didn't work the hours he claimed.  Aerospace didn't have any incentive to police him because they were charging the government more than they were paying the supposed engineer.

$20000 an Acre

Is there anyone who doesn't think this is a bubble? (Someone paid $20,000 an acre for Iowa farmland.) I'll admit it's possible that the bubble's bursting won't be like the early 1980's, but still.  The Kansas City FRB weighs in.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Atlantic on Crop Programs

Gabriel Silverman has an article on the rise of crop insurance in the Atlantic.  I think this is part of the process of educating the chattering classes on this development.  Of course, based on past experience there will still be lots of misinformation floating around. (Like the idea the government subsidizes tobacco. )

Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City

I have this picture from 1966/7 in the suburbs of Saigon.

Brad Plumer has a lunch break video of modern day Ho Chi Minh city.

Food Shortages in the U.S.?

Farm Policy carried this quote:
“‘Because we are a nation that hasn’t really experienced food shortages in recent memory, folks forget the role that [farmers] play on a lot of different levels,’ said Mike Torrey, executive vice president of Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, a lobbying group for the crop insurance industry.”

Got me wondering: when was the last time we had food scarcity in the U.S.? I mean something serious, not just a price spike.  I don't think ever, though maybe back in 1816, when I remember it was the year without a summer. (My memory for long ago times is good.)
My bottom line: the controlling factor is our land and climate.  Whether we have 9 million 40 acre farms or 90,000 4,000 acre farms we're going to have enough food, Mother Nature willing. I think farm programs and crop insurance work mostly to modify the churn, the "creative destruction" which is found in the farm economy.  Despite all the government interventions, at bottom crops are commodities produced and sold in relatively free markets where usually the buyers have lots more market power than the sellers.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Using Measurements on Social Media

This week's report: USDA had 52,122 followers, 1 inquiry, 1 answer. 

I very much like the idea of measuring what you're trying to do. Of course, extending myself to blogging seems have been a bridge just far enough, going to Facebook or Twitter is something I just haven't done.  With no first hand experience, it follow that I'm in a poor position to give advice, not that that stops me.

I'm not sure what Twitter can do for USDA, but it seems to me the metric above suggests trying something different.  If I were dictator for a day, maybe I'd offer a $5000 prize for the county employee who made the most innovative use of Twitter for FSA operations over the course of a year.  Not sure how it would be measured, but I'm sure someone could figure it out.

Doctor: What Would You Choose To Do for Yourself?

According to this post (hat tip Marginal Revolution), doctors don't choose heroic measures at the end of life. I note VA has just announced a database for advance health directives.  That's something I really should do.
[updated with the registry link]

First We Kill All the Lawyers; and Make the World Happier

In two ways: the rest of us have no lawyers to deal with and we lose a bunch of people who are so depressed they bring down the happiness curve for the rest of us. From here--the logic of the research is that lawyers are pessimists, always worrying about what could go wrong.

80,000 Square Yards

The headline on the Treehugger post is: "

Paris to Plant 80,000 Square Yards of Green Roofs and Rooftop Gardens by 2020

That converts to 16.528 acres, which might could provide food for maybe, oh I don't know, 100? gai Parisiennes?

(To give them their due, the actual article doesn't talk about food, but insulation.  But this is a prime example of how to lie with statistics; of course if they'd used square feet the figure would be even more impressive.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

On the Virtues of Patience

Musings from a Stonehead explains what's needed to capture a moment on film.

From a different post, just as an indicator it's worth clicking through to the site.

Who Remembers the Flight Engineer? Whither the Pilot

Used to be a job, but no more.  See this Hanson pickup of a story on automated flight.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

EU Farmers and Farm Programs

A picture of EU agriculture from this  (the context is the proper relationship between payments for grassland and payments for croplant):
It is about farmers who are farmers just to obtain subsidies and who fulfil their income goals only by subsidies. Perhaps, they have a few animals, although an increasing number of them only own grassland. From the agronomic point of view, this is intolerable, as the cultivation of hay for selling is not considered economically viable. In Slovenia, there are more than a quarter of agricultural holdings with grassland but no animals, but they apply for direct payments. Among them, there are less and less farmers and more and more mere land owners, who will have an increasing interest in the expansion of land, which they would rent out and if nothing else, split the subsidies with a tenant.

Why Do Farms Grow Bigger?

The University of Illinois reports on levels of debt and machinery costs, which says farmers are investing but not overextending.   But one chart caught my eye: it's a graph showing the per acre debt/machinery costs by farm size.  The curve descends, slowly but steadily.  In other words, the bigger the farm, the more acres you can spread the cost of equipment over.  What a surprise.

Government Contracting

For many years I lived blissfully without having any dealings with government contractors. Basically ASCS was, at least as far as I knew, all its work using its own employees.  So it was an eye-opener in the late 80's when I started to run into government contracting, partly on the System/36 replacement project and a bit later on the Info Share project.

At least in my memory, the contractors were uniformly 8a firms, meaning their ownership was minority, women, disabled, with bigger outfits like Boeing and SAIC as their subcontractors. That seems to have continued with recent FSA projects.

Here's a govloop post from a disgruntled subcontractor (no relationship to USDA) which gives another side of the picture.  Essentially the story is that the prime contractor systematically screwed the sub.  Don't know whether it's true or not, don't know whether the government agency was satisfied with the performance under the contract, but it sure doesn't increase my faith in the use of contractors.

Locavore Water?

Onthepublicrecord is a blog about California water, interesting though sometimes hard to follow for an outsider.  The most recent post discusses squabbling over who has first dibs on California water, morphing into a thesis about shared resources in a political entity.

I wonder what the locavore position on water is: should we use only the rain which falls on our land, or can the whole watershed share the water, and if so what is the watershed?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Niedermayer Retires: ASCS History

Speaking of retiring employees, Chris Niedermayer is retiring from HUD.   Perhaps my clearest memory of Chris is probably from early 1986 or so, in Kansas City Management Office, specifically in the testing section, when we were both working late at night, he probably testing price support software, I involved with production adjustment software. It was the first time our paths crossed, though I'd seen him in the hallways in the South Building.

If I remember correctly, Chris had been separated from a statistical agency (maybe NASS) during one of Reagan's attempts to downsize government. Those fired got help in finding openings elsewhere, so he got picked up by ASCS, initially in the in-house statistical/policy branch of the division I was in. As we started to implement the System/36 he became the go-to person for the price support program automation.  Part of the time I was his counterpart for production adjustment. So that night in 1986 while I knew who Chris was from DC, it was the first time I realized how heavily involved he was in the price support automation.

Perhaps as a reflection of differences in persons, price support automation operated differently than production adjustment:
  • price support separated the functions of doing policy (regulations and procedures) from doing automation (user requirements, working with programmers, testing). For a while, maybe 1986-89. For a while Chris was the automation guru, then he became responsible for all of price support.
  • meanwhile on the PA side we mostly had people wearing two hats, doing both automation and the procedures. 
Personally I thought the PA model was better; of course that was my personality, trying to do everything.  It was also my background; while I didn't have county experience I did have several years developing regulations and writing procedures. I didn't have much real computer experience, doing some COBOL programs on mainframes was all, but that was enough to make me dangerous to Kansas City.   Conversely my impression is that Chris had much less hands-on experience with procedure before getting involved in price support automation.  He definitely picked up on the System/36 operation faster and in more detail than I did.

As time went on, things became more specialized on the PA side: program specialists would focus on either procedure or automation, and different units handled different areas,  but until I retired the same shop would cover both sides of the subject.  I've no idea which setup works best for the field, or whether there is any difference in the end result.

Anyhow by the late 80's the IT guys were worried about the System/36; they had underestimated the extent to which we'd load the System/36 so there was a continuous process of upgrading and moving to bigger models of the System/36, but they feared running out of room.  So Chris moved to IRMD and  was named the "Trail Boss" for the System/36 replacement, "trail boss" being a then-new, now-obsolete concept GSA had for the process of determining needs and handling procurements of big IT systems. So in 1990-92 Chris managed about 15 people trying to analyze ASCS data and operations, do a cost-benefit analysis to justify procurement of replacement hardware and software, and manage the conversion.  In other words, a precursor of the current MIDAS effort, except it was bigger, since the administrative and financial side was also covered by Chris's project.

Unfortunately, Chris couldn't move the project fast enough, so when Clinton won the election and Secretary Espy assumed office, it was subject to not-invented-here syndrome.  A part of the intra-office politics of the time was the "ins" versus the "outs". Chris IMHO had antagonized some of the Democratic outs, so when they became the "ins"  they weren't inclined to keep his project going.  Chris ended up moving to the Department level for several years, then to HUD, becoming deputy CIO, which is the job from which he's retiring.

Dreams and Reality, Where R=6 Year Old

Mrs. Obama and many others in the food movement have this romantic dream that people need only to be exposed to good food and good nutrition.  While that may perhaps  be a distortion of their real views, it's always fun to see romantics stubbing their toe on reality.  I should give Eddie Gehman Kohan credit for this post, since she's one of the romantics, but here's where a 6-year old boy rejects the food he ought to like.  The first paragraph, but read the whole thing:

"First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to get kids to eat healthy food has a long way to go. A little boy judging a cooking battle on Tuesday night, designed to promote the Let's Move! campaign, repeatedly spit out bites of his meal, which was created by Top Chef host Tom Colicchio and 3 other James Beard Award-winning chefs. Austin Jackson, the six-year-old judge from Toledo, Ohio, gave the dishes made by some of the country's best chefs the lowest possible scores as White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, emcee for The Great American Family Dinner Challenge, made light of the situation to an audience of hundreds. (Above: Kass speaks to the audience after Austin spits out his dinner; the child's mom, Kim Mrkva, looks on)
[Updated: correct EGK's name]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Retiring FSA Employees and Their Memories

Seeing a handful of local newspapers covering the retirement of some long time FSA employees.  One here was able to become a minister while working as a CED. This reports on 3 leaving one county.  These employees have worked about 30 years, meaning they were hired in the first half of the 1980's.  

From my perspective program activity ramped up quickly in the 80's. Some highlights, or lowlights:  We had the new farm bill in 1981 and those *#^%$&$ in Congress came up with the idea of "advance payments". Although the law said disaster payments were phased out, Reagan made a deal with the boll weevil Democrats to do a disaster program in 1983 for West Texas.  Then a smart Asst. Secretary and a cooperating general counsel came up with the Payment in Kind program to get rid of CCC-owned grain and idle land.  Meanwhile KCMO was testing a minicomputer in a county office in 1983 and, if I recall, we started implementing the IBM System/36 in 1985, only to run into the new farm bill in 1986 with it's 0/92 and conservation compliance and tightened payment limitation rules....

Bottom line: these retirees went through a lot, almost none of which will ever make the history books.

Thank you.

A Republican Senator and an Earmark

Lest I be too kind to Republicans, let me pass on an outrage from the great Sen. Inhofe: he's trying to get a Thunderjet for a private party.