Monday, December 31, 2012

Round Bales (of Cotton, Not Hay)

The cotton growers have discovered the virtues of round bales, according to this.  The piece mentions the changes ginners have to make, but nothing about the rest of the trade.  Back in the days of "King Cotton", we used to export bales on steamships.  I wonder whether we still export raw cotton today, and if so in what form?

It's Not All Partisanship in DC

Despite the headline news stories over the past week, month, year, decade from Washington, you'd be sorely slightly mistaken if you think the Capitol is solely devoted to partisan bickering.

The continuing saga of the farm bill is evidence to the contrary.  According to this Politico story from this morning, the four leaders of House and Senate agriculture committees are united in proposing a 1-year extension (i.e., through Sept. 30) of the 2008 farm legislation, but Speaker Boehner is opposed.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Battered Farmers and Extension

From a piece yesterday in the Times on prospects for an extension of the farm bill:
"Congressional aides say the extension could be for a year, giving farmers, who have been battered by the worst drought in 50 years, a reprieve after lawmakers were unable to come up with a new farm bill."
Funny, but I thought I'd seen some reporting showing that, at least for crop farmers with crop insurance, 2012 was a good year despite the drought.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why There's People Talking Past Each Other?

Via MonkeyCage, here's a map showing school shootings in the US over the last 15 years. Not sure of the criteria, looks to be a rather low bar.  But two things struck me:
  • a lot more shootings than I would have thought because it's not limited to mass shootings
  • the wedge of states with none:  Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas look to have no shootings.  I'm guessing, but I'd suspect these states are mostly rural and mostly retain the hunting culture I grew up in, a culture where kids went deer hunting when they were old enough, having a 30.06 rifle was a mark of maturity, and handguns were things brought back from WWII.  I suspect it's also an area with strong NRA representation. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why Milk Prices Shouldn't Rise: Break the Law

Usually bureaucrats think the law is sacrosanct, it's what we do.  But the dirty reality is laws aren't self-executing; there's lots of provisions enacted into law which become a dead letter.  The price of milk in 2013 should be one of them.

Without a new farm bill, the provisions of old law come into effect. That means for milk the government is supposed to support the price at a level which means $8 a gallon.  But suppose USDA doesn't do so?  Theoretically some group, presumably milk co-ops, could haul out their lawyers and file suit in federal court to force USDA's hand.  My theory is, by the time the suit is written and filed, and DOJ works with OGC to come up with a reply, new law will have superseded the old law, and Congressional attorneys will have put in a provision which essentially nullifies the suit.  Net effect: consumers don't see a rise in milk prices.

[Update:  This is an example of why there are dead letter provisions: if the bureaucracy doesn't act on its own to implement a provision of law, there needs to be someone who can take USDA to court and/or with enough PR clout to raise a stink about it.  In many cases there's neither.]

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


A small part of the recent report on Benghazi is that top state department management was restrictive on resources.
the report that Mr. Pickering oversaw suggested that there was a culture of “husbanding resources” at senior levels of the State Department that contributed to the security deficiencies in Benghazi. Without identifying Mr. Kennedy or other senior officials, the report said that attitude “had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation.”
I'm sure the Republicans who have been lambasting the Obama administration over their handling of diplomatic security and the fatal attack on our diplomats will use this as further ammunition.  What right does management have to control spending by the people in the field?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Praise for

One of my hobbyhorses is more transparency on websites (excluding my own), particularly government ones.  We as a community don't know what works and what doesn't unless we see some metrics.  And if we don't know, we can't improve.

In light of that, I'd like to note has a post of its most posts, pages, links.  I wish more gov sites would do the same.

Merry Christmas from Chris Clayton

He has a tongue-in-cheek thank you post to Boehner and Cantor looking forward to the 2013 farm bill discussions.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hennessey or Brooks

Interesting: Keith Hennessey is an economist who worked in the Bush White House.  David Brooks is the columnist for the Times.  Hennessey is on record as saying Obama was bluffing about vetoing a fiscal cliff bill he didn't like; Brooks today says (sounds like an off-the-record interview with the President) it's no bluff.

Politics is so interesting.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Faults of Liberals

Kevin Drum has an interesting post reporting on a Haidt survey:

"what do people think? Answer: they substantially exaggerate the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. In fact, they exaggerate the extremity of moral concerns for both their own group and the other group. And there's bad news for us lefties: as the chart on the right shows, we were the biggest exaggerators. Apparently conservatives know us better than we know them."

He suggests some explanations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Not much to say except this: I'd like to see Congress focus more on the ATF.  Last I knew they hadn't had a permanent director for about 6 years, basically because NRA has enough clout to stall Obama's nominees and Obama hasn't had enough interest to try to push one through.  But that's no way to run a railroad.

Further, IMHO, it's ridiculous that they're prohibited from maintaining a database on gun purchasers--they have to destroy the data which is submitted for background checks. Given everything which is available on the internet and all the cross-checking which the government is now trying to do, such as e-Verify and the erroneous payments thing, this is ridiculous.

Set up an advisory board for the ATF database, stick an NRA rep on it, and they'll be in a position to blow a whistle if there's abuses.

No EEO on USDA Investments?

Here's the USDA's list of major investment areas for IT, reached from the site.  Don't I recall that Vilsack was supposedly redoing the culture of the Department, and hasn't his Assistant Secretary for EEO (not the correct title, but I'm too lazy at the moment to check) responded to OIG/GAO with proposals for better systems in the EEO area?

Where does that appear in the list?  Is Vilsack really putting money where his mouth is?

[Damn, as I age I'm getting more cranky.]

Non Land Costs on Small and Big Farms

Here's an Illinois study comparing costs among farms of different sizes.  The surprise to me: big farms don't have any cost advantage, at least among the farmers included in the study (which I would suspect is a bit biased towards the farmers with the best records).

The other surprise: the smallest farms are defined as under 500 acres.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

American Ingenuity

Did you know Ben Franklin invented mail order?  And Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair and the wheel cypher (think Enigma machine)  And Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw?

All these from this timeline.

Our Weak Government

I occasionally assert the weakness of our governmental system.  This professor of political science has a different name for it: kludgeocracy.

Is There "Pink Slime" in Bologna?

Tyler Cowen linked to an article on Newfoundland's fixation on bologna, which refers to "ham trim" and other "mystery meat", which caused me to wonder.

Monday, December 17, 2012

USDA Performance Measures

Forgive my asking,but aren't we now in FY13, nearing the end of the first quarter?  Having nothing better to do, I was trolling through the site for USDA.  

When I copy the data over, I lose the formatting but these relate to MIDAS and OCE, and they seem to be a tad out of date. Tsk, tsk.

Initial Operating Capability (IOC) Deployment IOC Release 1 acquisition and detailed planning will occur in FY11 Q3-Q4. Releases will follow SAP ASAP methodology (project prep, blueprint, realization, final prep and go live). Less

2011-07-01 2012-09-30 $119098
% of Field Offices with WAN Acceleration Monthly % 80 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Office with centralized file services Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Office on centralized backup Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of infrastructure components out of life cycle (goal is to refresh prior to out of life cycle so l More.. Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % End Users Satisfied with OCE-related IT Infrastructure Components Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Offices with Telephone systems upgraded Monthly % 75 -- 2012-02-28

The question is, is anybody looking at the measures?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Wisdom of Engineers

For some reason, although the engineers (former engineers) whose blogs I follow are more conservative than I, they often have posts with which I agree, or at least appreciate.

John Phipps has a good post on "The survival rate scam" for cancer (i.e., better detection at earlier stages doesn't mean much).

The always impressive Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm summarizes the year's achievements in building the butcher shop.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Blueberries and Innovation, Bipolar USDA

The local Safeway has had blueberries for sale every day for the last year or 18 months, I think. I've seen berries from Chile (now), Mexico (earlier), North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, and Maine. And probably other sources. They aren't cheap, but considering the distance they have to travel, it's worth while.

I get the extension RSS feed, and have seen posts on blueberry cultivation in the South. They're reporting the results from experiment stations, and from the field  Extension is, of course, partially funded by USDA.  But there's also this announcement -- USDA is spending $16 million to buy wild blueberries for school lunch and food bank programs.

So on the one hand USDA is promoting the spread of blueberry culture through the US, while on the other hand it's encouraging wild blueberry growers, partially to mitigate downward price pressure.  What's the reason for the downward pressure: I assume it's the development of cultivated blueberries in the US and to the south.

Not sure what the locavores would make of this--wild blueberries are pretty regional.

Friday, December 14, 2012


FCW refers to the 6-month review of the digital government strategy.  Via links, I come on this page from USDA.  From what I see, it appears USDA is bragging on the Office Information Profile system.

I'm amazed, really amazed. OIP was a result of work in the 1990's, Paul Whitmore from FSA and someone from NRCS and RD, which had actually evolved from Gerry Deibert's efforts to construct a database of USDA offices back in the day when Sec. Madigan was trying to consolidate field offices.

Unfortunately, it got done as a separate silo from SCIMS, which was unfortunate, or at least I thought so then.  Anyhow over the years I've occasionally looked at the OIP page(s) just to see what's happened.  I could swear, though I might be wrong, that NRCS had dropped the links to it, though it seems to be back now.  It's not evident on the USDA web page.

It looks to me as if maybe they blew the dust off the old software, added in the link to the Bing map  (which is good) and resurrected it.  I wonder what sort of usage statistics USDA maintains on it.  Pardon my doubts, but I think the design too closely reflects the bureaucracies involved, rather than meeting the needs of the user.  If I'm looking for an FSA/NRCS/RD office:
  • I might be looking for the closest one to my current location, or a specific location.  In that case, I'd be best off if office locations were integrated with Google maps (and Bing, etc.). In other words, if I stick Reston, VA in Google maps, and add the ": FSA office", it should flag the closest office.  Or if I add ":gov", it should show the closest government offices.  Seems to me this would be good for OMB or whoever to work on.  I tried this sort of search a few times and the results vary.  The closest FSA office to Reston is at 14th and Independence, but it didn't show the county offices.  RD and NRCS didn't get that result.
  • if I want to know which office services a specific geographic area, the OIP does okay, except for the fact you need to drill down through state, to county, to agency.  If you ask Google: "what FSA office serves Mills County, IA?, I get the state office, not the county office.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

bin Laden Alive: Would It Be Better?

Read a thoughtful op-ed by David Ignatius in the Post today, keyed to the new movie " Zero Dark Thirty" and the argument over whether torture works. He argues that it may have in the case of bin Laden, but we need to accept the idea that torture can work, can have benefits.  So in weighing whether to torture we weigh the moral costs versus the possible benefits.

The op-ed caused me to muse about another possibility: suppose we had never gotten the info on bin Laden so we never killed him.  Is it possible that would have been better for us?  Certainly his death satisfies the visceral need for revenge we feel, but are we better off?

As I understand it, bin Laden was having great difficulty communicating with his organization and in getting people to do what he wanted.  I'd assume as time passed that difficulty would increase, bin Laden would be more isolated, more out of touch, less effective.  But we killed him. So now what's left of the organization are perhaps free to form organizations more local in scope, with perhaps more effective leaders.  So in weighing costs and benefits, maybe we traded one big organization with an aging, out-of-touch leader for several smaller organizations with younger and possibly more effective leaders? 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Right to Work and Farm Programs

Brad Plumer at Wonkblog has a post on right to work laws which gets into their history.

If I remember my sociology professor in college had a take on the union shop and farm programs.  The idea was that viewed broadly, the government delegated some of its sovereign powers to collective entities or defined groups, whether it was workers or tobacco farmers.  If, after a campaign and a vote, a referendum, the majority of the people in the group voted "yes", the government gave the majority the right to impose rules on the minority. 

Today we see this as an answer to the "free rider" problem, though I don't believe that terminology was in vogue in 1962. 

Examples of this process would be labor unions, agricultural marketing agreements (for fruits and vegetables), agricultural promotion assessments, the old marketing quota problems for wheat, tobacco, peanuts, cotton, etc.


That's a new specialty on me, but Technology Review explains here.  (People using statistics on social patterns.)

Maybe related to this ( linguisticphysicist)  (applying statistics to language patterns).

[Updated with second paragraph]

Keep It Boring

Words of wisdom from Joel Achenbach on the fiscal cliff:

That’s the blueprint for a deal: Do stuff that people can’t understand or don’t really notice. Keep it boring!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Decline of Cursive

Saw an article on the decline of cursive writing, the sort my aunt, who was also my 2nd grade teacher, tried to teach me. Apparently since people are typing, not writing handwritten letters, we've all forgotten how to do cursive.

That's confirmed today by my personal Christmas card from the Obamas.  Barack and Michelle sign in cursive; Malia and Sasha print their names.

Just another example of change, if not of declining standards

Post Versus Times

Both newspapers had articles today on the same subjects; in both cases the Post article seemed a tad better:

Both reported the shooting death of a woman's rights advocate in an Afghanistan province. Both described previous deaths and both suggested Taliban involvement.  The Post, however, also described another possibility: the woman's male relatives might have been responsible.  No way to know for sure.

Both reported the results of an international test of 4th graders on reading and math.  US students were in the middle, below the usual suspects. Both reported that Florida was a state which volunteered to be tested as if it were a country, and its results were better than the U.S. as a whole.  The Post, however, interviewed a critic of Florida, who suggested that a policy of holding back 3rd graders who were below standards on reading had reduced the 4th grade population being tested (by a random sample) and improved the average ability.   Again, no way to know, but having the fuller picture was valuable.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Richer Is Worser

From today's Farm Policy,an article discussing Rep. Noem of SD
The Register article explained that, “Noem, now 41, said people today planning to pass a farm operation on to a family member are in ‘a much worse position than we were back then’ because of the increase in land values.
“When Noem’s dad died in 1994, an acre of land in Hamlin County in the eastern part of the state sold for $650 to $800 an acre.
Today, some of the same land is fetching $7,000 an acre.”

Comment on Comments

Until recently there haven't been many comments on this blog. Every few days I check for comments and usually respond.  But in the last few days it looks as if the amount of spam comments has been growing. If it continues maybe I'll have to adopt a spam filter. 

A Study in the "Iron Triangle"

Shortly after being reelected, Rep. Emerson of Missouri is resigning to work for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association .

I remember, sometimes I think that's all I do is remember, when President Reagan wanted to get rid of the Rural Electrification Administration.  Didn't happen, and this helps to explain why:

NRECA represents more than 900 rural cooperative utilities in 47 states that have a combined national membership of more than 42 million customers. When the group and its members come to Capitol Hill, they’re people who know the lawmaker’s district.
That base supplies a veritable army of 2,500 to 3,000 co-op members that NRECA brings to Capitol Hill every year, outgoing NRECA CEO and former Oklahoma Rep. Glenn English said in an interview.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

GAO Report on Pigford

Here's the link.  And the two recommendations:
We are making the following two recommendations:
• To improve the internal control design, we recommend that the Claims Administrator establish and document procedures to provide reasonable assurance of identifying claimants who obtained prior judgments on their discrimination complaints in judicial or administrative forums, including reaching agreement with USDA on the Claims Administrator’s request that USDA check its records of judicial and administrative determinations.
• To help ensure that the design operates as intended to provide reasonable assurance of identifying and denying fraudulent or otherwise invalid claims, we recommend that the parties charged with carrying out the terms of the settlement agreement continue their efforts to fully and correctly implement the remainder of the internal control design, including measures to (1) identify duplicate claims and claims submitted on behalf of the same farming operation or the same class member and (2) verify timeliness

Raising Swine, and Not

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vt and his family continue building their swine raising enterprise, and their own abbatoir.  Meanwhile Stonehead in Scotland just sent his last pigs off to the butcher. His problem was a smaller operation, bad luck with accidents and illness, and perhaps most of all resistance from customers.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Finnish Schools

I've generally been a quiet (on this blog) supporter of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  The point being that while teaching to the test is a problem, we can't make progress unless we somehow measure how we're doing.  So the Bush and Obama initiatives seem better than the status quo, however many problems they have.  The idea of measuring value-added for teachers, looking at how much a class advanced during the year, rather than absolute scores also is attractive.

But then you watch this slide show on the Finnish school system and say, maybe I've got it all wrong. Or maybe it's interesting for a small homogenous country but not workable for us. Whatever is the answer, it's worth considering.

Before the Days of COLA

Back in 1950 Congressmen vied to introduce bills to raise civil service salaries.  That's documented in this Post look back at its Federal column from those days.

Also back in the day Congressmen vied to expand the coverage of Social Security and to improve its payments.

Finally back in the day Congressmen vied to enact tax cuts.

Clearly those times were different than now. How so?
  • we have 79 Congresswomen, rather than nine.
  • civil service salaries are indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular salary increases as inflation raises prices.
  • Social Security is indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular benefit increases as inflation raises prices.
  • income tax rates are indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular tax cuts as inflation raises people to the next tax bracket and increases the take from income taxes.
Maybe, in consideration of the last 3, being a Representative is a less attractive job, which might explain the first item.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Big Dairy

Via Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, I come late to an Atlantic piece on dairy genetics.  Choosing the right bull now considers life span and pregnancy, not just pounds of milk.  (We got about 11,000 pounds when I was growing up.)  Interesting that big data can now pick the best bull in the country.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Movie Lines and Evaluating Government

FCW has an interesting piece on how government is evaluated: we get criticized for failures but rarely rewarded for successes, whereas the private sector gets punished by the market (sometimes) and rewarded both.

How To Increase Your Social Security? Kill the Ex

That's the advice the Business Desk at PBS NewsHour gives, entirely tongue in cheek.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Our Stalwart Forebears

Many conservatives, including a recent Presidential candidate, seem to believe we've lost our way and become too dependent on "gifts" from the government.   In reading a paper on the early days preceding the establishment of USDA I ran across this quote from the Commissioner of Patents, with respect to the seed distribution program:
It has been the special desire and object to provide and place within the reach of the
people, wherever scattered, the means of propagating such new and improved varieties of plants as they would not otherwise have had access to, and which are adapted to their
respective climates. It certainly was never the purpose of Congress to convert this O ce
into a common seed-store, intended to supply the public at large gratuitously with the
means of planting their ordinary vegetable gardens. This fact seems frequently overlooked by applicants to the O ce. It requires no little care and discrimination to guard against a growing tendency of this species of abuse. It would not only be overstepping the bounds of propriety, but would be doing injustice to the people at large, if, instead of their being accustomed to depend mainly upon their own e orts for the means of supplying their wants, they should be encouraged to turn their eyes habitually to the government, as a reliance for such purposes. If this were once established as the rule of action, it would be silently but certainly doing much to work a change in the very character of the government itself, by causing it to be regarded in this particular as the fountain of favors and bene ts. The   people would gradually be parting with that self-reliance which is the parent of energy and the main-spring of success in every undertaking, and which is so necessary to the preservation of individual self respect, and therefore of personal, and nally of national independence.
 This was in 1856.

Progress on Farm Bill?

Politico reports the House and Senate ag types are working out their differences, meaning there might be a way to get a farm bill passed.  I don't know if Nate Silver has any predictions on this; I suspect he's postponing that challenge until after he figures out how to predict earthquakes.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Epitome of Bureaucratic Architecture

And named to honor one of the great all-time bureaucrats: J. Edgar Hoover.

As the Washington Post article this morning says:
The Hoover building was constructed at a time when the government needed room for fingerprint records, investigative reports and files, a requirement computers have rendered largely unneeded.
 GSA is proposing to trade the building to the private sector in return for a new FBI campus somewhere in DC or suburbs.

It's constructed in the "brutalist" style popular in the 1960's, goodness knows why, except we were idiots then.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Corey Booker Revisited

Politico has an article on Corey Booker's menu on food stamps, at least one they suggest. The menu shows all the faults I assumed in my previous post on the subject: prices which don't allow for bulk buying, which is the way to go.

I also have to wonder about the prices they use: they say 2 Safeway eggs would be 53 cents, meaning they're allowing $3.18 for a dozen.   That seems high, I think our last purchase was about $2 and 18 eggs are even cheaper.  Maybe eggs are pricier in NJ?

"Welfare Queens" and Crop Insurance

Ronald Reagan made a career out of the welfare mother who financed a Cadillac and other abuses.  That thought, because I don't really like Reagan, sprang to mind when I read a post at Environmental Working Group, which led with these paragraphs:
"Marcia Zarley Taylor recently posted a blog aptly titled Extreme Insurance. As executive editor of DTN, which publishes The Progressive Farmer magazine and website, Taylor is one of the more cogent observers of crop insurance and this year’s drought.
Her post highlighted the happy experience of Seth Baute, a 26-year-old farmer in Bartholomew County, Indiana. As Taylor reported, the combination of a private sector insurance policy on top of a federally subsidized 85 percent Revenue Protection policy “will push [his farm’s] income to at least 110 percent what they had projected last spring when corn was supposed to tumble to $4 a bushel at harvest.”
 I haven't been able to access the post referred to, but EWG is not known as a friend of production agriculture so I would anticipate they will eagerly highlight anything in 2012 results which puts crop insurance in a bad light.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

When China Was a Role Model

From the report of the Commissioner of Patents in 1843:

The wonderful skill of the Chinese in improving their soil not so good as most parts of our own naturally by which they are enabled as it is now well ascertained to support a population of more than 300,000,000 throughout their vast empire is owing to their wisdom and care in adapting their manures and modes of cultivation to the peculiarities required by the soil As they separate its enriching elements rejecting the parts that can have no effect they are not constantly exposed to a new growth of weeds and the seeds of which are sown among the loads of compost had other manures carried out into the field Hence a weed is a rare thing in their fields and as soon as it makes its appearance is easily seen and eradicated The time is not far distant when the ammonias silicate of potash phosphates &c which render a particular manure valuable will be prepared and used in the form of salts or in a liquid form sprinkled over the soil instead of whole loads being carted out from the barn yard and compost heap for this purpose

Saturday, December 01, 2012

South Versus the West in Ag

Sen. Roberts says he'll accept target price supports for southern crops if he can get crop insurance for his crops.  See this Politico article.  Back in the old days we had separate programs for each crop, but we gradually simplified the programs and legislation down to cover almost all crops the same.  But realities sometimes break through the best plans of bureaucrats, legislators, and simplifiers.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Factoid of the Day: NH Legislature

" At 400 members (for 1.3 million people) it's the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, and you only need about a thousand votes to win a seat."


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln, the Movie, and Bureaucracy

Just came from seeing the movie. Very good, well-acted, mostly well-written, but I'm no critic.  Why then do I blog about it?  Simple: one of the bad guys, i.e., a leading opponent on the 13th Amendment in the House was George Pendleton.  Yes, you're right--some 18 years later he was to be the sponsor of the Pendleton Act, which established the civil service. 

Metrics and Dollar Coins: Once More Into the Breach

GAO says we'll save money using dollar coins, which is true.  We'd also save money by converting to metrics.  But neither is going to happen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

White House Garden Gets Full Time Gardener

That's the word from Obamafoodorama.  Over the course of 3.5 years the garden has evolved considerably.  If I remember correctly it started off as more of a family project, with the idea the daughters were going to get their hands dirty.  I haven't heard that in a while, about 3.4 years in fact. 

With the garden being in the public eye there's lots more emphasis now on how it looks, which means they do a lot of swapping transplants in.  Most real gardeners don't have that room, nor that concern.  Although I remember my aunt and uncle had a terribly obnoxiously neat and pruned garden, which went with the terribly clean and organized house.  But then my aunt was the youngest daughter in a house with German parents and a mother who apparently was a bit of an obsessive.  But I digress.

A full-time gardener seems overkill for the square footage involved, but I suspect he's got other duties.  As the concerns for how the garden looks grow, the garden itself becomes less realistic.  The first year garden a tourist could view and say to herself: "mine is just as good or better" or "I could go home and do that".  I don't think a tourist could say that now, and a first-time gardener might not realize how high the hurdle has been set.

There's more emphasis on the organic plants being used, though I'm not clear that they are claiming the garden itself is organic. I believe they could, since it's now been more than 3 years since the beginning and I haven't noted any reports or inorganic fertilizer or pesticides being used. 

So the bottom line is the garden is much more a public relations thing than an Obama family thing, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Perhaps it's an indication of how hard it is to maintain a normal existence in the White House.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Estate Tax/Death Tax

I note a couple of items on the estate tax problem, as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.  I'm struck by the fact it's now "estate tax", no longer the "death tax".  I don't know if that's just my limited sample, or the juice has gone out of the effort to stigmatize estate taxes.

Drought Costs 3.3 Percent

That's the takeaway from the Des Moines Register piece on the USDA estimate of 2012 income. That says to me, whatever I think of crop insurance, the current system puts an effective floor under income for most crop producers.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dairy Farmers Needed?

This is rather stale now.  I have seen pieces saying dairy farmers are in trouble because the law covering their current program expires at the end of the year.   Who to believe? 
In other policy related news, Rick Barrett reported on Sunday at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online that, “Thirsty for milk, and the money that comes with it, South Dakota has ramped up efforts to recruit dairy farmers from other states and countries, including England, Ireland and The Netherlands.

Farm policy 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Black Mouth Curs

For some reason I find the idea of tree-climbing dogs and the name "Black Mouth Curs" to be amusing on this Sunday morning.  Life on a Colorado Farm has the blog post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

USDA Improving?

From an FCW piece on the mandate for departments to establish a structure for "digital governance".
The Agriculture Department, for example, has been improving and standardizing the look and feel of all the department’s websites by hosting monthly webmaster meetings. The Labor Department is building a knowledge management program that integrates data from its 25 agencies and call centers, including answers to the most frequently asked questions, with the aim of building a cohesive customer experience.
Thanksgiving has made me cynical: how is "digital governance" different from "e-government" which was in turn different from  "IT management" which was in turn different from "ADP operations"?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Russian Grain

One of my worst predictions was that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian grain would flood the market as their agriculture improved, driving world prices down.  Generally speaking that's not happened.

There's a Russia Today advertising section included with one of my newspapers pretty regularly.  It seems it's put out by a Russian organization: Russia Beyond the Headlines, at  I'm not sure of who's behind the organization, but many of the articles seem pretty factual and objective.  Here's a recent one on the Russian grain situation.  Three paragraphs:
Russia has almost 300 million acres of arable land, about 50 million acres of which require time to recover after being out of service for some time. The minimum yield is about 1 ton per acre, which by European standards is next to nothing.
Therefore, even assuming minimum yields on all of the 300 million acres of arable lands, Russian land can produce 300 million tons of crops annually, with cereals accounting for two-thirds of the total. This means that Russia is capable of producing 200 million tons of grain annually.
With domestic consumption at around 80 million tons a year, Russia would have more than 100 million tons of spare grain that could be exported. To compare: Last season, the United States –  the global leader in grain exports –  exported 73 million tons of grain, with Argentina ranking second at 32 million tons. Australia and Ukraine each exported 24 million tons of grain, while Russia and Canada sold 20 million tons.

Mistake at the Post on Food

Annie Gowen commits an error in the third paragraph of her piece on declining federal aid for food banks:
Scorching drought and rising demand across the globe have pushed the price of U.S. food exports to record highs this year.

That is good news for American farmers. But it’s bad news for the hungry, especially on the eve of the holiday season.

The booming market means that the federal government does not need to buy as many excess crops from farmers, resulting in a precipitous drop in government donations to food banks.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me the days of the government donating surplus CCC inventory were gone long before recent price rises.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Father of USDA

Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, son of Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut who was a Founding Father, was commissioner of patents 1836-45, and is sometimes called the father of USDA.  His life was diverse, being involved with western lands, Indian claims, Samuel Colt, and Samuel Morse and Aetna Insurance.  His 1842 report is available online, which is mostly agricultural (crop reports and statistics). One big concern was fencing and housing in the treeless prairies.  You can see in the report the seeds of NASS, of Extension, of ARS, of FAS, NRCS, and I don't know what else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Living on Food Stamps

Periodically some public figure tries living on food stamps to prove a point.  The latest such is Mayor Corey Booker, as reported here.

I think these are stunts, not signifying a thing.  If you're going to eat an adequate diet on food stamps, you've got to cook.  If you have to cook, you need a stove, you need utensils, and you need a stock of staples going into your week (i.e., flour, sugar, cooking oil, salt, etc..).  The second prerequisite is buying in bulk.  Buy big and buy cheap.  Buy 10 pound bags of rice.  Buy the bargains at the sales. Make big batches and freeze (assuming your refrigerator works).

Unfortunately living poor means you're more liable to unexpected adversity, and expected adversity, so you need to dip into your stocks and deplete the money and food stamps needed to buy big.    

Worst Blog Post Pun of the Day

In its entirety:

… for Miami.

University Diaries (Margaret Soltan)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reorganizing Government

This Politico opinion piece proposes reorganizing government.

"the federal government must invest but reform. The federal government largely remains a legacy government rooted in a different era. Existing federal agencies and programs are siloed and stove-piped in their structure and prescriptive and technocratic in their approach. The proliferation of redundant federal programs is particularly alarming.

Read more:
Meanwhile somewhere I read a piece giving advice to all the new appointees to be in the executive branch.  One warning was: don't reorganize, it will sop up all your time and energy so you can't do anything else.

Having seen what has happened to Secretary Madigan's (and Espy and Glickman) effort to reorganize USDA I can only agree with the advice piece.  I remember telling Blake McGaughey, Mike Campbell, and some of their PA's there was a chance that Madigan's effort would bear fruit (this was in Ft Collins during the fall of 1991): maybe 50-50 odds.  I should have warned them I always had vision problems.

Wealthy Can Be Stupid

The NY Times has an article on what people with wealth and/or high incomes are doing in anticipation of changes in tax law for 2013.  I found this to be stupid:
Kristina Collins, a chiropractor in McLean, Va., said she and her husband planned to closely monitor the business income from their joint practice to avoid crossing the income threshold for higher taxes outlined by President Obama on earnings above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Ms. Collins said she felt torn by being near the cutoff line and disappointed that federal tax policy was providing a disincentive to keep expanding a business she founded in 1998.
“If we’re really close and it’s near the end-year, maybe we’ll just close down for a while and go on vacation,” she said.
There's little logic to the position unless she thinks, incorrectly, that the higher bracket applies to all earnings, not just the incremental gains over $250,000.  I hope they have a tax accountant who can advise them better. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Not Recording What Doesn't Happen

Sarah Kliff has a post on a study of what happens when women are refused an abortion.  We have data on what happens when a woman gets an abortion, but bureaucracies aren't very good in recording what happens in the absence of action.  My example in support of that generalization: FmHa and ASCS and FSA rarely had records on people who were refused service, that was one of the problems which led to the way the Pigford suit was resolved. 

A bureaucracy is geared to act, and to document the actions.  Rejections often aren't documented, unless in case of an appeal.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Leadership You Can Believe In

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution quotes and links to a piece on the President of Urugua, a former member of the Tupamaro guerrillas and the world's poorest president.  (Only a 1987 VW beetle--my first car was a beetle.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oh To Be X in Minnesota

My father went to school there, his father was a minister in Minneapolis during his college years.  But that's not why it would be good to be in Minnesota. 

According to a piece on the Weather Channel this morning corn production in MN was up 16 percent because the gophers dodged the drought.  Thus the corn growers there benefited twice: once from a good harvest, and once from great prices. 

Oh to be a Minnesota corn grower.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Surprise Line of the Day (Senate Women)

"Republicans have the same number of women in the Senate that they had in 1995."

From Jonathan Bernsteins Plain Blog About Politics

The Choice: Abortion or Farmers?

The question is why did the Republicans lose their runs for the Senate in Missouri and Indiana.  The pat answer inside the Beltway is "abortion", ill-advised remarks by the Republican candidates.  But  Farm Policy reports on a Politico piece on the possibility of Sen. Cochran taking the ranking member role in Senate Ag, which includes this:

"“Boehner’s stand may have cost Republicans at least one if not two Senate seats that the GOP had hoped to win in Great Plains states. And Roberts argued Tuesday that the leadership must take a second look now at the farm bill and its promised savings –a precious commodity given the fiscal pressures at the end of the year.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dairy in California

From today's Farm Policy quoting from a Wall Street Journal article:
Some 100 California dairy farmers are shutting their doors this year, according to the Milk Producers Council, a group representing dairy farmers. Many of the state’s roughly 1,600 dairy farms are wrestling with financial difficulties. And many farmers point their finger at California’s ‘Class 4b’ milk regulation, which governs the prices cheese makers pay,” the Journal article said.
When I was growing up, the small poultrymen were being put out of business by vertical integration and contract growing.  I don't know what has happened to egg prices over the last 50 years, but I assume they've been more stable since supply has been more regulated/coordinated.  I guess that sort of revamping of the dairy industry isn't quite as practical: too much capital involved perhaps.

Anyhow, things continue to change.

Farm Bill Extension?

Chris Clayton reports Sen. Grassley is predicting a one-year extension.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Progress of New Terminology and Technology

Reading Notice CP-686 on the forthcoming use of MIDAS with GIS for acreage reporting, replacing CARS. 

Two terms new to me: "subfield" and "cross-over commodity".

Remembering the fiasco of the ASCS-578 in 1985 (and 86, and 87) I wish them luck.  Actually, I hope over the years the number of problems has been reduced, but acreage reporting was probably the  area where the conflict between national standards and local conditions was most obvious. Before computers, much of the conflict was hidden from the national office; State and county offices made things work.  Introduce the computer and local variation becomes a problem.

I suspect, without any evidence whatsoever, that part of the resistance to "electronic health records" on the part of doctors and others is based on this sort of thing. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

You Are There

Something reminded me of the old radio program "You Are There" (late 40's).  It featured recreations of famous events in history, narrated by an announcer.  The one I particularly remember was the signing of the Magna Charta, with the announcer talking about the angry barons and building the tension over whether King John would sign or fight.

Anyway, turns out the tapes of that program are available online (why am I surprised). The list of all the programs is revealing: almost nothing after 1900, a couple on women's rights, almost nothing on civil rights, and some oddities, at least by today's standards:  The Trial of Samuel Chase? (A justice impeached but acquitted in 1804/5)

I guess it was radio's equivalent of today's History Channel.

You Never Do It Right the First Time: ORCA

That's my motto, and it seems the Romney campaign didn't heed it.  By keeping their ORCA centralized data system under wraps until late, and not giving it a test run, it collapsed and burned on election day.

Not covered in the story: I'm intrigued by their decision to do a centralized effort, as opposed to a 50-state effort.  Seems like the sort of thing Republicans accused us bureaucrats of, believing in the wisdom of the central government.  In this case, at least, the community organizer outdid the business executive.

[Update: Fairfax county school system installed a new math system this fall, with online books, which is causing problems.  Apparently they decided not to do a pilot, based on past successes with other subjects.]

Friday, November 09, 2012

Call Me Stick-in-the-Mud

I have to admit a shameful fact: I don't own a mobile device, no iPhone or iPad or Android or anything.When you stay as close to home as I do, there's not that much point.  In other words, if you're not mobile, you don't need a mobile device.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Margaret Chase Smith Is Happy

20 women senators in the new Congress, she was the only one when I became conscious of politics.

Thank Goodness Washington's Not Battleground

I see the great bureaucrats in Washington state have now succeeded in counting 58 percent of their ballots. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My Own Prediction

Nate Silver's book will hit the NYTimes best seller list.  (I'm about a third through and it's very good.)


Voted about 1:45.  Took about 30 minutes.  The line was wrong [sic], but I can't say it was the longest ever, but possibly it was.  Memory fades.  They used both touch screen and paper ballots. Unfortunately people irrationally choose the touch screen so there was a 10 minute wait for those, while if you were smart enough, I wasn't, to vote paper there was no wait after your eligibility had been confirmed.

[Updated to note my freudian slip.]

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Value of Female Leaders?

Apparently Bangladesh has been doing quite well over the last 20 years, during which they've had mostly female prime ministers.

The Distraction of Politics

Election day tomorrow.  I'm voting for Obama, Kaine (Senate) and Connelly (House).  Does it make a difference?  From the perspective of 71 years, and probably 64 or so following politics (don't ask why the early interest) I'd say it does and it doesn't. The bottom line is that the country is like a big ocean liner with lots of momentum and we tend to overestimate the influence of our elected officials.  It's rather like ASCS/FSA, very hard to make significant changes in the culture and organization.  

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Many Varieties of Federal Employees

Sarah Kliff at the Post reminds of the varieties of Federal employees.
"FEMA has 9,106 disaster assistance employees. Only 770 get federal health insurance."

The point is that FEMA uses "reservists" who are temporary employees and not eligible for FEHBP for most of its disaster response.  It's rather like the Forest Service which has a similar deal for its firefighters.  And FSA/ASCS which used to have a big slug of temporary field employees for summer compliance work.  And the other variety is, of course, the county office employees who aren't technically Federal for some purposes, meaning they're usually excluded in counts of federal employees.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Disasters, Climbing Mountains, and the Poor

I'm not a mountain climber, but it seems it me mountain climbing is a good metaphor for being poor, and disasters.

Imagine a big high mountain and the game of life is to try to climb it.  The mountain has various nooks and crannies, easier routes and harder routes, and most of all it has a lot of loose stones, so it's very easy for a climber to dislodge a stone which falls, sometimes triggering more rock falls.  Now where you start on the mountain is a matter of luck, your ancestors and your inheritance.  Some people just find a cranny near their starting point and rest there.  Others are able to make mad sprints up an easy route. But most people toil away at whatever level they're at on the mountain.

Unfortunately, as they toil they knock the stones off, the stones go bouncing down the side and they can hit the people below, knocking them backwards down the mountain.

The poor are at the lowest levels of the mountain and therefore have the longest climb and face the most stones falling down.  That's life, that's unfair, that's disaster.

Thinking of filing insurance claims for damage caused by Sandy, that assumes people have insurance.  But the poor are less likely to have insurance, that's a luxury you can't afford  Lose all the food in your refrigerator; that's particularly hard if your food budget is tight.  Lose the car to the flooding, unlikely to have comprehensive insurance.  Have the apartment flooded, no renters insurance. The local restaurant is flooded, lose weeks of work as dishwasher or waiter until it gets going again.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Robo Call to Vets: Poor Research

Somehow the opponent of my Representative (or someone backing him) discovered I'm a vet, so I got a robo-call this noon alerting me to something despicable Mr. Connelly had said about the military.  Guess their research didn't find out how firmly committed to the Dems I am.

The Scarcity of Gardeners

The Times has an interesting piece today on the scarcity of urban gardeners, at least in certain parts of New York City. The writer visits a number of the urban gardens in the city and interviews a number of the gardeners and others, including a retired urban extension worker from Cornell.  The pattern seems to be that some gardens thrive, others fall into disuse, partially depending on the surrounding area and partially depending on the interest and energy of a dedicated gardener. 
But John Ameroso, the Johnny Appleseed of the New York community garden movement, suspects that the number of present-day gardens — around 800 — may be half what it was in the mid-1980s.
In his long career as an urban extension agent for Cornell University, Mr. Ameroso, 67, kept a log with ratings of all the plots he visited. “I remember that there were a lot of gardens that were not in use or minimally used,” he said. “Into the later ’80s, a lot of these disappeared or were abandoned. Or maybe there was one person working them. If nothing was developed on them, they just got overgrown.”
Seems to me the article undermines any assumption there's a long waiting list for urban garden plots in the city, some areas have waiting lists, some don't. The enthusiasm for gardening is similar to other enthusiasms, sometimes hot, sometimes cold.  It's not a firm foundation for redoing the basis on which America grows its food.

(In my own community garden in Reston, there is a waiting list.  Reston has expanded the area in which I garden twice now.  But Restonites are likely to be enthusiastic, at least enough of them to fill a waiting list.  We're a cosmopolitan bunch, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Latino, some probably suffering from nostalgia for their childhood, like me, and some falling prey to the current fad.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Understatement of the Day

Emily Hauser is anxious (Sandy and elections).  She writes: "...I want him [Romney] to be a mensch and acknowledge that what this country needs is a second Obama term and announce that he’s throwing in the towel. And that’s not really a reasonable expectation."

Monday, October 29, 2012

You Can't Keep Vertical Farms Down

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution includes a link to this piece on a vertical farm in Singapore. I comment that I don't think it's economically feasible.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dairy and Evolution

Via Marginal Revolution, a very interesting Slate piece on the evolution of lactase-tolerance.  An excerpt:
Milk, by itself, somehow saved lives. This is odd, because milk is just food, just one source of nutrients and calories among many others. It's not medicine. But there was a time in human history when our diet and environment conspired to create conditions that mimicked those of a disease epidemic. Milk, in such circumstances, may well have performed the function of a life-saving drug.
You can't be a dairy farmer and deny evolution.

Blitzkreig, Via Horses

Brad DeLong has regular posts on the progress of WWII.   In 1942 Stalingrad was the big battle, indeed the turning point of the war.  He includes this:

"6th Army also sends back its 150,000 draft horses, as well as oxen and camels, back to the rear, to save on fodder. Motor transport and repair units are also sent back behind the Don."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Iowa State Nearly Organic Study

Mr. Bittman discusses a 9-year Iowa State study of organic agriculture in Sunday's Times (I'm just getting caught up with my reading).

From the abstract: we conducted a field study from 2003–2011 in Iowa that included three contrasting systems varying in length of crop sequence and inputs. We compared a conventionally managed 2-yr rotation (maize-soybean) that received fertilizers and herbicides at rates comparable to those used on nearby farms with two more diverse cropping systems: a 3-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + red clover) and a 4-yr rotation (maize-soybean-small grain + alfalfa-alfalfa) managed with lower synthetic N fertilizer and herbicide inputs and periodic applications of cattle manure. Grain yields, mass of harvested products, and profit in the more diverse systems were similar to, or greater than, those in the conventional system, despite reductions of agrichemical inputs. Weeds were suppressed effectively in all systems, but freshwater toxicity of the more diverse systems was two orders of magnitude lower than in the conventional system. Results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.

So it wasn't "organic"in the pure sense. And that raises a question: currently "organic" food gets a significant price premium.  Is it possible for "nearly organic" food to get a price premium? (A quick skim of the report says they didn't assume higher prices for outputs of the alternative systems.) Is it possible to rally public support for farm programs helping "nearly organic" farmers?

I renew my question from previous such studies: where is the market for the increased production of alfalfa?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Basalt Rebar

Walter Jeffries is using basalt rebar  in his butcher shop, which progresses apace.  For some reason that blows my mind, I'm not sure why. Maybe because I think of basalt as a rock, a solid, not as something which once was liquid and could be liquidified again.

See the site here.  I note the local supermarket has stanchions (upside down U's) to keep their carts nearby, and some of the stanchions have rusted where it goes into the concrete.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gravity: There's Always a Catch

Technology Review has a piece on 3-D printing. It seems some people who try to use 3-D printing to make physical models of their fancy designs forget something.

"Sometimes, after an outlandish request—a character whose minuscule limbs simply won’t support a body, say—Carmy’s colleagues have to gently explain that different rules exist for physical product design. “We have gravity, for example,” she says."

The Importance of Crop Insurance

In the US the insurers have a video on loss adjustment.

In Ghana, Chris Blattman passes along the conclusion of an academic paper on crop insurance for those farmers.

Early Voting: the Evolution of the Ground Game

I'm down in the records as a reliable Democratic vote.  (Read The Victory Lab for an interesting take on how well the experts can track and manipulate such data.)  So usually I get a call during Election Day to be sure I've voted, perhaps a call or two before to be sure I'm planning to vote.  This year for the first time I got a call nudging me to early vote.  Virginia's rules on early voting are more restrictive than other states, though there are enough exceptions that I could perhaps fit through one of them. The advantage of early voting for the campaign is they'll know when I've voted (that's a public record), so they can scratch me off their list and focus their efforts on others.

That logic and effort is sort of reflected in this Mark Halprin piece on Obama's ground game (hat tip Volokh Conspiracy) and this Molly Ball piece in Atlantic.

[Updated with the last link.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Super User Boot Camp and the History of Training

There was a super-user boot camp for MIDAS last week.  Some 60 super-users were trained on it.  Apparently the Deputy Administrator was opening the session, because the website shows a picture of him, but the associated link points back to the Administrator's message of August.

I'm a bit curious as to the setup--whether this is train-the-trainer?  When I moved to the program side, the standard for training was: Washington program specialist trained state program specialist who trained the county CED's and PA's.  That's the way we trained for the System/36, though the "program specialists" were mostly the people hired out of the county office to work in DC (today's business process analysts, I think).  As time went on we became more sophisticated in training; we even did dry runs instead of just winging it in front of the audience.  With the advent of PC's and Word Perfect our materials could be a lot prettier, though perhaps not much improved in quality.

By the early 90's we were providing our presentations on floppy disks to the state people.  And then we started to train the trainers; rather than just relying on the state specialists, we'd pull in selected county people and mix up the areas.  The theory was in part to spread the training burden, in part to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas at the county level, rather than having 50 silos of county to state communication where the major cross-fertilization occurred at the state level.  I don't remember ever doing a detailed evaluation of our methods, to see whether we really did improve county operations through such training methods.

These days, with social media, and bring your own device, I'm sure there are new possibilities for improving training.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Snarky Harvard Prof--British Cooking

Chris Blattman quotes from a British research paper showing the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.  His only addition is this sentence:

"Just imagine the happiness effect if the vegetables had not been cooked by the British."

Obama and Bayonets

Our President seemed to diss bayonets last night in the debate.  I still have memories of bayonet practice in basic training: "kill", "kill", "kill". 

But just to show that bayonets are not entirely obsolete, here's a picture showing the place they enjoy in today's Air Force:

From the site.

How the Point Zero Zero Zero Ones Live

My wife and I visited the Rockefellers Friday, more specifically took the tour of Kykuit.  Over the years we've visited the homes of the  Vanderbilts, the Ogden Mills, the Roosevelts,and other formerly rich and famous people who lived a few weeks in the year in the Hudson River valley.

Rockefeller and Vanderbilt rank 1, 2 on this list of the wealthiest Americans.  While both places are large and nice, I was more at home in Sunnyside, the relatively modest home of Washington Irving.  Perhaps it was the crumbled paper on the floor of his office/writing room, perhaps it was the way he got hot water, by running pipes through the coal stove and into a tank, much the same way my family got its hot water some 100 years later. 

All these houses seem stuck in time; they were very modern in their day but as time passed and their owners aged, and sometimes lost their money, they weren't updated.  I wonder whether Bill Gates will leave his house to the nation upon his death, and whether it will still have the flat screens on the walls displaying the pictures/photographs he bought (I'm going on memory here) and whether people will experience a mix of emotions as they tour, both respect for the money and disdain for the backwardness of the taste.

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's All Power--per Pollan

From the NY Times Magazine, Prof. Pollan writes on the referendum in California to require the labeling of food with genetically modified organisms as ingredients.

This paragraph I found astonishing, but remember that the good professor is not one of my favorite people (for some reason he and Ralph Reed get up my nose, as the Brits would say);
Americans have been eating genetically engineered food for 18 years, and as supporters of the technology are quick to point out, we don’t seem to be dropping like flies. But they miss the point. The fight over labeling G.M. food is not foremost about food safety or environmental harm, legitimate though these questions are. The fight is about the power of Big Food. Monsanto has become the symbol of everything people dislike about industrial agriculture: corporate control of the regulatory process; lack of transparency (for consumers) and lack of choice (for farmers); an intensifying rain of pesticides on ever-expanding monocultures; and the monopolization of seeds, which is to say, of the genetic resources on which all of humanity depends.
Am I being unfair to summarize it as saying: "it's not a health issue, it's power"--even though there's no food safety issue, we, the food movement, need to show our power?  Would the professor like to see other movements use the same logic; don't argue the merits, just show you're more powerful than your opponent?

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Laptop went down, a trip is coming up, things generally disordered so blogging may/will suffer.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

That Food We Waste--the Cows Eat It?

CNN has a report on farmers feeding candy to their cows, given the high price of grain.  They play it for laughs, but the main stream media and food movement have made a big deal out of all the food we waste.  I wonder how much of it, particularly from supermarkets, ends up in pigs and cows?

I know a couple of bloggers who raise pigs who feed such things (mostly dairy-oriented, like butter milk etc.).  Does that constitute waste in the statistical business?  I suspect probably it does, but am not sure.  Does it constitute real waste--not to me.

The Case of Powerline's Missing Archives

I follow Powerline, though it's often not good for my blood pressure, though Paul Mirengoff, now he's back, is sometimes good.  I was trying to figure out what they were saying 4 years ago, only to find a big hole in their blog archives: no posts for May - November 2008. Could just be a technical problem, or it could be they don't want people to know what they were saying?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

FAO: Whoops, We Were Off

The UN's Food and Argiculture Organization has revised its estimates from its previous 1 billion down to 870 million.  From their new report:
About 870 million people are estimated to have been undernourished in the period 2010–12. This represents 12.5 percent of the global population, or one in eight people. The vast majority of these – 852 million – live in developing countries, where the prevalence of undernourishment is now estimated at 14.9 percent of the population (Figure, below left). Undernourishment in the world is unacceptably high.The updated figures emerging as a result of improvements in data and the methodology FAO uses to calculate its undernourishment indicator suggest that the number of undernourished people in the world declined more steeply than previously estimated until 2007, although the rate of decline has slowed thereafter(Figure, below left). As a result, the developing world as a whole is much closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of reducing by half the percentage of people suffering from chronic hunger by 2015. If the average annual decline of the past 20 years continues through to 2015, the prevalence of undernourishment in the developing country regions would reach 12.5 percent – still above the MDG target, but much closer to it than previously estimated

SSA, FSA, and Internet Operations

The Post's Federal Page reports a controversy between Social Security Administration and its union, a controversy which may prefigure similar tensions between FSA and its employees.  (SSA is usually considered to have done well in use of the Internet.)
Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, part of the American Federation of Government Employees, sent a letter to the SSA demanding “to bargain over the impact and implementation of the Agency’s decision to shorten the hours field office employees interview the public.”
The letter said that “the Union disagrees with the Agency’s position that most services do not require a field office visit and can be done on the Internet or by the 800 Number.

And Conservatives Wonder Why I Don't Trust the Big Shots

Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE, and guru of business, has accused the bureaucrats in the Bureau of Labor Statistics of cooking the most recent unemployment rate. 

Prof. Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage  reports on an investigation of the integrity of statistics in GE when Mr. Welch was its head.  Seems GE paid a $50 million fine to SEC for accounting fraud.  The graph of earnings under Welch and under his successor is damning in and of itself.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Our Fighters Are Fat

From Tom Ricks  The Best Defense:
At present, 62 percent of active duty military members over the age of 20 have a body mass index that falls into either the overweight or obese category.
 My title is, I hope, unfair.  I'd assume the 62 percent REMF's or FOBBITS, part of the "tail" supporting the fighters, and we have a bigger tail than ever.

And Gov. Romney wants to spend more money on the military? If he wins, I hope a good bit of it is with Weight Watchers.

(Have I ever mentioned that my worst prejudice, the one I have least under control, is probably weightism?)

Romney Ignores Crop Insurance

Here's Gov. Romney position paper on agriculture (reached via Chris Clayton)--I searched for "insurance" and came up empty, searched for "payment" and came up empty. He wants "energy independence", "rational regulation" "new markets" and "reasonable taxation",

In fairness I should note I didn't check Obama's campaign, but by necessity he's been a bit more specific.  And at least Mitt doesn't lump USDA in with Big Bird.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The 8 Inch Floppy

Govloop has this post, with a very young Bill Gates balancing a floppy disk on his finger.  When I first saw it, I thought it was an 8 incher, but it's more likely a 5 1/4 one.  As an 8 incher, it brought back memories of the IBM System/36, the minicomputer which ASCS used to automate its operations. 

(Going even further back, in the early 70's there was a pilot project to put remote terminals in county offices.  The storage at that time was an IBM 7.5 meg disk drive.)

Saturday, October 06, 2012


Had an article on school kids and their problems with the new school lunch rules (more fruits and vegetables, fewer calories).  The complaints seem to go in two directions: not enough food (calories), we're still hungry; and too much food we don't like.

This struck me as a bit optimistic:
But the most effective strategy, several food service directors said, may simply be waiting. Research shows that children must be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will eat them on their own, said William J. McCarthy, a professor of public health and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Our Forebears Were Restrained in Bed and in Comments?

Boston 1775 now has a series of four posts on "bundling", with this the latest.
He calls it "flaming" and it's about right.

Surprising Unsurprising Fact

Or is it "unsurprising surprising fact"?  Maybe the latter, given the evidence for widening inequality in income/wealth in the nation.  Anyhow, Peter Orszag writes:

In 1990, 20-year-old white women who had at least a college degree were expected to live to age 81, while those with less than a high-school degree were expected to reach 79, a recent study in Health Affairs found. By 2008, however, that two-year gap had widened to more than 10 years. For 20-year-old white men, the difference grew from five years in 1990 to 13 years in 2008.
It's part of a discussion on how the gap affects discussion of entitlement reform:arguing for greater progressivity in any reform of Social Security and Medicare/medicaid reform to offset the gap.  He's not particularly focused on causes, mentioning smoking and the effects of education.

Friday, October 05, 2012

GMO Corn and Unanticipated Consequences

Farming is always complex, and modern technology has its own surprises.

This farmgate post discusses some consequences of the drought: herbicide carryover, because the herbicide is activated by rain/moisture (who knew, not I), and volunteer corn which should be killed before wheat is planted, but it's herbicide resistant (drought meant smaller kernels which went through the combine and back on the ground).

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Family Farm

I like this piece in the Atlantic, written by a person who grew up on the family farm in Alberta, but who is no longer allowed to operate the equipment:
"My dad farms 3,200 acres of his own, and rents another 2,400—all told, a territory seven times the size of Central Park. Last year, he produced 3,900 tonnes (or metric tons) of wheat, 2,500 tonnes of canola, and 1,400 tonnes of barley. (That’s enough to produce 13 million loaves of bread, 1.2 million liters of vegetable oil, and 40,000 barrels of beer.) His revenue last year was more than $2 million, and he admits to having made “a good profit,” but won’t reveal more than that. The farm has just three workers, my dad and his two hired men, who farm with him nine months of the year. For the two or three weeks of seeding and harvest, my dad usually hires a few friends to help out, too.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Harvard Disappoints

Harvard recognizing for 2012  100+ innovations in government.  It's disappointing because probably half of the listings have no url.  Come on, get real.

Technology and Dairy: the Use of Cellphones

Almost forgot to link to this post on the benefits of cellphones for the dairy farmer: when the cows get out and get lost you can coordinate your search and driving efforts using cellphones. :-)

Of course these days the number of dairies putting cows out to pasture is dwindling, but every bit helps.  ("Threecollie", who runs the site, also uses a birder app on her iPHone.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Making of a Myth: Apple Maps

Some ideas get transformed into myths, which seems to be happening in the case of Apple Maps.  Consumer Reports did a comparison of the Apple application with Google Maps and GPS and said Apple's version wasn't bad and had some nice features.  But such a lukewarm review can't stand up against the incessantly repeated statement that Apple screwed up.

By contrast, Apple's Siri was hailed on its release as great.  My impression is that continued use of it revealed it wasn't all that good, perhaps much like Maps.

Technology and Dairy Flourish in Small Countries?

The NYTimes has a piece on a technology test in Switzerland: managers of dairy herds can be notified by text if their cows are in heat (based on temperature of vulva and cow activity). (For those benighted souls reading this who never grew up on a dairy farm: you have to inseminate the cow within x hours of when she comes in heat.  If you don't catch her heat, or she fails to become pregnant, you're facing a month of payments for feed that's pure waste, except of course for the cow.) The story says it's harder to tell when a cow is in heat with modern dairy cows. Without challenging that assertion, I'd suggest the high ratio of cows to people in modern dairies also makes it more difficult.

I do wonder if down the line PETA will protest this mistreatment of cows. 

Another development on the technology front is the modification of bovine genetics so their milk is less likely to trigger allergies. Interesting that the development comes from New Zealand.  I wonder about the level of anti-science feeling there.

Competing With Crop Insurance

According to Farm Policy, the crop insurance industry is already bragging on the $2 billion in indemnity payments they have out the door.   It goes on to link to a video NCIS has put out.

This sort of response, and advertising, is a reason why FSA doesn't have a disaster payment program for field crops, as they used to. 

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Culture Which Was Victorian

This post from Treehugger on "tin pack tabernacles" captures a key aspect of Victorian Britain: a combination of  their engineering ingenuity, their religion, and their determination to civilize the world.  Oh, and their penny-pinching. They created a temporary church, made of corrugated iron sheeting, which could be shipped as a package and assembled on the spot.

No Enthusiasm, No Road Signs, in This Election

There was a post on Powerline a while back elevating the comments of people from Virginia.  The basic message was that the enthusiasm for Obama was way down, because they didn't see the number of signs they remembered from 2008. 

That's quite possible, but there's two points: a comparison of the number of signs between Sept 15, 2012 and Nov. 1, 2008 is automatically going to favor 2008, and, at least for Fairfax county, there's been a change in the lwa, as explained in this Reston Patch post.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

MIDAS Training/Information

FSA put out a notice on MIDAS training.  I followed the instructions to this on the Foundational Learning System

The narrative for slide 5 (it's important to note slide numbers, otherwise you have to skip forward or back0 said: "in the future, the goal is for 24/7 access by the producer and employee to the data/forms...  (This comes after slide 4 which outlines benefits for producers and field offices in the immediate future.)

I think that vision warrants a lot of discussion.  I see elsewhere that the MIDAS team has presented to (staff on, I assume) the House and Senate Ag and Appropriations Committees. Given Congressional resistance to closing offices, I wonder how the Gordian Knot is going to be cut (online availability = reduced employees?).

I'd compliment the team on the slide show.  The narration seemed not simply to consist of reading the slides, which is good.  In future I hope they get more graphically minded.

As an old directives man, I'd also suggest they need a system for identification of their shows; using names rapidly gets awkward and I'm assuming there will be a process for getting feedback and making changes/corrections  which can gain by such identification.

While the plans for training discussed by the Administrator are good, how will producers learn the system, will they be trained? And shouldn't the software be user-friendly enough not to need training?  Or will the FSA training mostly consist of an interpretation: in MIDAS this is the  equivalent of this process on the current system/System/36?  

Don't Eat Your Spinach?

Myth: spinach is especially rich in iron.  See this post at Wiredscience.

What was the Mark Twain bit about Error being halfway round the world while Truth is still putting its boots on?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Worm Is Turning, Do Not Call

I'm getting tired of the calls we get.  We have Verizon FIOS which is nice, because I can call up the record of my incoming calls. In theory at least, I can tell Verizon to block calls from people who don't give their numbers, but that seems not to work.

We've been on the FTC's Do Not Call list for 9 years.  Occasionally I threaten the live callers with it, particularly the ones which try to extend the warranty for our car and the one for Discovery magazine, but I've never followed through.

I've never followed through until today, that is. This afternoon I got a robocall pushing vent cleaning.  I hung up, got into Verizon and found the phone number that called, and finally got to the DoNotCall website, where I verified that we were on the list and filed a complaint with them. 

I'm not a big fan of the FTC site.  I got confused and flipped between tabs, which seemed to cause the partial phone number I'd entered to move to the right.  And I'd like for them to save my info to ease entry of future complaints. 

Bottom line: it feels good, even though this is the practical (non)result:
Do not call complaints will be entered into a secure online database available to civil and criminal law enforcement agencies. While the FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems, your complaint will help the agency investigate the company, and could lead to law enforcement action.

Polling Technology

I've gotten tired of the calls I receive.  Several recently have been polls, which is sort of okay.  There are differences in the way polls operate.  Two polls both had the voice giving the choices: if the election were held today, if you would vote for Obama, press "1", if you would vote for Romney, press "2"... But one poll allowed you to press the number at any time, while the other required you to wait until your heard all the options.  Needless to say, I soon hung up on the second poll, while I completed the first one.

I wonder why the run of polls--do they exchange lists of people who are actually willing to answer polls? Probably.  Market research firms run the danger of turning me off--listening to 15 minutes of questions is not fun, particularly when the pollster promised it would just take a "few minutes".  People, my definition of a "few minutes" is 5, plus or minus 1.

Two Word Review of Little America

Mr. Chandrasekaran has written another book, Little America, on the war in Afghanistan, particularly since Obama was elected.  His first, Emerald City, was well-reviewed.

My review is simple: "oh sh*t", repeat at least once for each chapter.

[Updated: For a more considered reaction, see this from Foreign Policy ]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Really Really Gripes Me: Tax Cheats

From Brad Delong, quoting a Bloomberg piece by Jesse Drucker:
Mitt Romney ‘I Dig It’ Trust Gives Heirs Triple Benefit: In January 1999, a trust set up by Mitt Romney for his children and grandchildren reaped a 1,000 percent return on the sale of shares in Internet advertising firm DoubleClick Inc. If Romney had given the cash directly, he could have owed a gift tax at a rate as high as 55 percent. He avoided gift and estate taxes by using a type of generation-skipping trust known to tax planners by the nickname: “I Dig It.”…
The Obama administration proposed cracking down on the tax benefits in February…. Romney or his trust received shares in DoubleClick eight months before the company went public in 1998. The trust sold them less than a year after the IPO…. Multimillionaires use such trusts to avoid… taxes… [by] assign[ing] a low value to assets they donate to the trust….
 DeLong thinks this amounts to tax fraud, although IRS doesn't prosecute this, presumably because the valuation of the asset when put in the trust is hard to determine.   

Not that I'm calling Mr. Romney a cheat.  It's just taking logic to an extreme.  My alma mater solicits for donations of assets (or did, before the stock market and real estate tanked) as a good tax strategy. 

The Weather Gods Don't Like Obama

Apparently the heat and drought reduced our GDP growth this summer because of reduced agricultural production, just as our warm weather reduced it last winter because of lower usage of energy for heating.   Strange.

[Update: see Prof Roberts at Greed, Green, and Grain on the reduction in GDP.]