Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Derecho?

While I was sleeping a derecho moved through Reston and on east.  Reports of 450,000 power outages in Dominion's Northern Virginia area, out of roughly 850,000 served.  2 deaths and lots of disruption. One tree went down near the house, but fortunately fell parallel to the townhouses so not much damage. One power outage at Reston parkway and east, but we're west, so we have power and internet, if not phone or TV.

And I slept through it all.
[Updated with link]
[Updated to correct the name to "derecho ]

Friday, June 29, 2012

On Obesity and Exercise, and Children

I'm going to relapse into geezerhood and say the reason Americans are so far is they use strollers for their children.  It's a good way to containerize and control your kids, but it doesn't get them used to exercising.

The other day coming back from the garden I encountered a woman pushing a 2x stroller with a couple kids sprawling across the seats.  Granted, if the three of them were walking, the woman would have had problems; the kids looked as if they'd be two handfuls.

I was reading something somewhere the musings of a person who observed really young children in a foreign society being useful and handling dangerous tools, like a machete at age 3.   Now that's a tad young.  If I remember I was kept out of the barn until I was 5 or so, parents thought it was too dangerous.  But I was anxious to help, to prove I was old enough to do something.  That's not something usually possible for today's suburban kids.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where I Used to Work: South Building

The photo is from a Government Executive piece on the House ag appropriations bill,  which leads off:
The White House is challenging a move by House Republican appropriators to deny the Agriculture Department any funds in fiscal 2013 for repair and upkeep of its buildings.
The South Building has been undergoing renovation over several years; not sure how far they've gotten.  Some factoids about it:  used to be the largest office building in the US (supposedly the world), see wikipedia; covers two blocks; the legend was the architect had just completed a prison for Michigan or somebody and he used those plans as the basis, may hold about 10,000 of USDA's employees.

It's "South" because the USDA Administration Building (AKA "the ivory tower" of Chet Adell) is on the north side of Independence Avenue.  The picture is taken from the NE corner of the intersection of 12th St NW and Independence, with one of the two exits from the Metro's Smithsonian station in the recess just visible.  Also visible is the disabled entrance required by ADA, as  well as one of DC's food/souvenir trucks.

Minitel and Compuserve

The Times has a story on the impending demise in France of Minitel. Minitel was once the very popular French version of the Internet, or rather an intranet since it was all proprietary hardware and software.  The French were way ahead of the rest of the world with computerization in the home.  The U.S. had some experiments, which failed, one of which was by Time-Warner, but the French developed such a widespread platform even Norwegian bachelor farmers in Brittainy adopted it, using it to maintain the registrations of their cows, etc. 

But since it was proprietary and not open, it's lost out in the competition with the Internet and PC's, lost out at least in the marketplace if not in the hearts of some of those aforesaid farmers.

Compare France with the U.S.  Compuserve was an early networking outfit, but because we already had PC's penetrating the market it was software only; the hardware was PC's.  Compuserve was eventually ousted and then bought by AOL, which reached for the stars in merging with Time-Warner, only to fail in competition with the open interface of Internet browsers.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Shrewd Decision on ACA

The way I see Roberts decision is that it was Solomonic: he gave Obama what he wanted, the ability for ACA to go forward; he gave conservatives what they wanted, a limit on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce; he gave Romney what he wanted, the ability to beat Obama up over his "raising taxes" without the necessity to come up with positive proposals to replace ACA.

Just my two cents.

[Updated: Ezra Klein agrees.]

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Farm Bill in the House

I get the impression the House will likely oppose the conservation compliance requirement for crop insurance and the payment limitation, and since there's weak support on Senate Ag, if it goes to conference it will be out.  I also get the impression the House may retain a bit more of the current structure (i.e. counter-cyclical programs, etc.) than did the Senate.

I'm always impressed by Farm Policy's  completeness and Sustainable Agriculture's good analysis (even though I don't always agree with their policy positions, they seem to know their stuff).

The Chobani Paradox

Stealing from the Wall Street Journal bia Keith Good, just because I'm interested in NY dairy (the background is the rise in popularity of "Greek style yogurt":
The Journal article noted that, “Meanwhile, the long-struggling dairy farmers of New York aren’t seeing their bottom line soar thanks to the Greek yogurt boom—and they aren’t adding to their herds to meet the demand.
“So instead of expanding his plant here—in a region trying to reverse a trend of population and job loss—Mr. Ulukaya is building a factory in Idaho, in part because he can be sure of a steady supply of milk there. The New Berlin plant will remain open, but Mr. Ulukaya said he might have expanded it instead of opening another if he knew he could get enough milk.
Milk production in states such as Idaho has surged in the past decade. Land is cheaper and dairy farms tend to be larger than in New York, making it easier for farmers to grow their herds. New York farmers say they are weighed down by property taxes and the high cost of land. Since their herds are smaller, expansion tends to be riskier.”
 Much of upstate New York is hill and valley country.  In the old days, your hay fields would be the valley and lower slopes, the pastures would be the steeper slopes.  But farmers have discovered that cows waste energy walking to and from pasture, so that sort of dairying is less economical.    If you can grow or buy corn, you can feed your cows all year round.  I assume those are some of the facts behind NY's loss.

Another factor would be interstates: presumably Idaho yogurt can be economically shipped around the country, just as Wisconsin cheese can be. That's unlike whole milk, where getting it to New York City was the big hurdle, first solved by the railroads, then by trucks.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If It's Good for the Military, It's Good for ?

The White House is pushing the idea of making it easy for the military and their spouses to transfer licenses from one state to another.  See this release touting the 23rd state to pass such measures.

This is laudable, but I don't see any reason to limit the scope to the military; make it work for everyone. 

MOOC's and Globalization

A "MOOC"  is a massive open on-line course which has gained a lot of attention in recent days.  One of the justifications for ousting the president of the University of Virginia was she wasn't moving fast enough to deal with such challenges.  Somewhere in the newspapers today was a discussion of them, with the casual information that most enrollment in the biggest MOOC's came from outside the U.S.  And Margaret Saletan, of University Diaries, has commented on the foreign students who signed up for her MOOC (a mini-MOOC on poetry).

I wonder about the impacts: if I'm a professor in Italy, or Kenya, or somewhere else and some of my students start to compare my course with the MOOC from Stanford, what happens? Do I raise my game? Do I try to outlaw such competition? Do I learn from the MOOC? 

On a different subject, it's interesting the new President of Egypt has a Phd from SoCal. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Once Rural, Always Rural

And, a press release a while back from Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) stated that, “Today, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to S. 3240, the Farm Bill, offered by [Sen. Moran] that will make certain rural communities throughout Kansas remain eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development loan and grant programs. In the absence of this amendment, nearly 1,000 rural communities across the country would have become ineligible for USDA funds due to small increases in population identified by the recent 2010 Census. USDA Rural Development programs help provide affordable single and multi-family housing, finance water and waste loans and grants, and support essential community facilities like hospitals and schools.”

My interpretation: once you're "rural", you're always "rural".  Increasing population would seem to say the RD programs are working, so when do you declare success and leave?  (Granted, the fact Sen. Moran is a conservative is one reason for me to ding him for hypocrisy.)

Commenting on Commenting

Sometimes I learn something new.  Just the other day I realized I should be used "reply" to address comments, rather than just adding a comment.  Why it took years to learn this, when I was well aware of it when I comment on others' blogs is a mystery.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On the Faillibility of CBO Projections

"A major point of contention has been the crop insurance program, which cost about $7.3 billion last year, up from $951 million in 2000, or about $1.2 billion adjusted for inflation.”

Now I copied that from somewhere, but I've now had a senior moment and forgotten where--perhaps the NY Times story on the consideration of the farm bill.

Anyway, my point: I don't know how CBO scored the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, but I strongly suspect they didn't project $7.3 billion.

Got going and found this:

More specifically, when the 2008 farm bill was enacted, CBO estimated that the five-year cost
(FY2008-FY2012) for the major farm support programs—commodities, conservation, crop
insurance, renewable energy, and exports—would be $83.3 billion, or an average of $16.7 billion
per year. More current CBO projections, which include actual spending in FY2008 and FY2009
for these programs, show that spending for these programs is expected to total $86.7 billion (an
average of $17.3 billion per year), or $3.4 billion above the five-year 2008 CBO estimate. Most
of the difference between the 2008 estimate and more recent estimates, however, is attributable to
higher than expected crop insurance spending ($6.7 billion above estimates in 2008), [emphasis aqdded] which is offset by lower than expected spending for farm commodity and farm conservation programs.

My point: CBO is the best we've got, but their record isn't perfect. And decisions Congress makes based on the projections (which they often ignore) will also be imperfect.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The "Nanny" State, Keeping Us Alive

Sarah Kliff at Ezra Klein's blog provides data from the New England Journal of Medicine on what we die of.  (Around 1812 some of us exploded.)  There's a chart summarizing the differences between 1900 (my parents were alive) and 2010 (I'm alive).  I'm copying the graph:

I think the declines in many causes are attributable in part to "nanny" government, that government which ensures people, particularly in urban areas, have clean water and good sanitation, which oversees inoculations for things like diptheria and flu, which fights  TB (which my mother had),  (I understand some will argue against government intrusion.  I remember when I got my TB vaccination in school, then my arm started to get swollen and painful.  It was then I learned  about mom's TB, which meant that my body reacted to the shot. There are gains to government intrusion, as there are costs, but I'm more impressed by the gains, at least in the field of public health.)

You really ought to read the Journal article in its entirety.  Who knew that in 1912 they were worried about sedentary life caused by the automobile, or boasting of the superiority of Americans at the Olympics because of the diversity of our races?  It's  fascinating how other strands of our history appear in the annals of medicine.

John Boyd Speaks

In Washington Post's Magazine, here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Farming: Capital Requirements Keep Growing

Seems to me a story which the news media never covers is the continual increase in the capital needed to farm successfully.  I go back to roughly 1950, when dad bought a John Deere tractor (model M, I think) and sold the team of horses. Turned out it meant investing in a new suite of machinery to make it work.  If the farm was marginal before, with the increased capital requirement it was even more shaky.  When you were talking making a living on the farm in that time frame, it was "go big or go under."

All that was triggered by reading this report from Illinois on the increase in the value of machinery from 2000 to 2010.  Though the study is interested in the curves, and the cost per acre curve is interesting (i.e. big acreage is more cost efficient), I'm most struck by the absolute dollar figures, from the mid 6 digits up. Oh, machinery prices also increased.

The Holier Than Thou Organics

Research summary:"These results suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

EPA and Aerial Observation

From Farm Policy this morning:
"And, Pete Kasperowicz reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and 10 other House Republicans want to prevent the EPA from conducting air surveillance of farms.
“Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and 11 other House members introduced a bill Tuesday that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from conducting aerial drone surveillance of farms to enforce the Clean Water Act, or using any other overhead surveillance.”
And this report on the farm bill passing the Senate this afternoon reports:
On a 56-43 vote, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) came surprisingly close to winning a flat ban on the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct any aerial surveillance to inspect or record images of agricultural operations
Read more:

I'm just waiting for these efforts, or a renewed court challenge based on the Bill of Rights,  to spill over on FSA's aerial photography

EWG Loses One

An issue I personally think EWG should have won on: I believe in transparency. But here's the Washington Post editorial on the farm bill:
But if there’s anything the farm lobby dislikes more than losing its subsidies, it’s letting the public follow its money. Senate leaders barred consideration of the Begich-McCain amendment, which means there won’t even be a floor debate on increasing transparency in farm programs over the next five years. It’s not an auspicious start.

Pay Limit on Insurance/Conservation Compliance

The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday evening to reduce the taxpayer share of crop insurance premium subsidies for the largest farmers.
Along with that, farmers would not be able to ignore conservation compliance requirements if they forego commodity programs and rely strictly on crop insurance for their safety net.

[Updated: Carl Zulauf of Ohio State has a discussion of the history of payment limits and the crop insurance proposals here.]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

House Appropriations Bill

Here's the text, if anyone is interested.

This seems to be the headline item for FSA:
Rep. Flake – The amendment prohibits funding to provide farm program benefits to individuals or entities with adjusted gross incomes of more than $250,000. The amendment was adopted on voice vote.
I searched the test for "adjusted gross" and didn't find it, too lazy to do more.

Pearlie Reed in Government Executive

Here's their report on his retirement, a bit fuller than others but not much new.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WaPo on Reed

Al Kamen in the Washington Post noted the Pearlie Reed retirement today (it comes at the end of his column). Two excerpts:

The announcement’s timing was a bit curious, since it came five days after Reed actually retired, and two weeks after an inspector general’s report dinged an office under Reed’s jurisdiction for improperly handing out grants — though a department spokesman denied any connection between the IG report and Reed’s departure.
This marks the second retirement for Reed, a well-respected old hand who first came to the Agriculture Department as a college student. Reed retired in 2002 as chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service but rejoined the USDA in 2009 to focus on civil rights issues inside and outside the agency.

Timeless Advice from the Government

I know some people who would say this advice on food is as good today as in 1918 (a WWI poster).

MIDAS Update and Implications

The "Midas Press blog" was posted about 3 weeks ago--just catching up to it.  Posts on several different subjects.  I note with some regret SCIMS is being replaced.  The march of progress kills old attachments.  This has been true since the beginning of time.

Interesting discussion of how GIS will finally drive farm records and reconstitutions here, including a comment on implications:
For a typical county FSA office, this integration means that there will no longer be separate individuals handling GIS, Farm Records, and reconstitutions. To move forward with the new system, there will need to be a greater understanding of these processes and how each one affects the other.
 One of the things which bothered me back in the Infoshare days: selling the Infoshare plans meant claiming big savings in order to justify the procurement of hardware and software.  But the reality was that big savings could only come by reduced employment, which should have raised all sorts of issues, none of which were being addressed at that time.  I guess over the 20 years since Infoshare employment has been reduced.

The second sentence of the quote also raises issues: what sort of training and implementation sequence will be possible?

I like the idea of a MIDAS blog--I wonder if it's been publicized, certainly not to the public.

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Evolution in County Committees

The original AAA county committees in the 1930's were specialized by crop and function.  They were a means to tap local knowledge of yields and production histories.  They fit into the general left perspective of pushing local democracy.  They also had the advantage of involved local community leaders in the program, securing their support for it, and in many cases for the Democrats who created the AAA. (Roughly speaking, the committees are elected by farmers in the county.)

Over the years the role of the committees has changed, their functions have diminished, the supervision from Washington has increased. People, both auditors and others, pay more and more attention to how the bureaucracy operates and whether there's consistency from place to place. And local option as represented in the committees makes consistency very hard to achieve. Technology makes it much easier for Washington to provide detailed direction, reducing the autonomy of the committees. Perhaps the biggest force in these changes has been the civil rights revolution.  That seems to start in the 50's and 60's, but in fact a couple years after the AAA of 1933 was passed there were protests over the (mis)treatment of sharecroppers by some of the committees.

 The latest step in this evolution is Sec. Vilsack's announcement that he'll appoint voting members to committees who are representatives of "disadvantaged communities".  He was given this authority in the 2002 farm legislation, or rather Sec. Venneman was, and there's no explanation for the 10-year delay in using it.  (There had long been provision for non-voting members on the committees.)

It's sort of ironic in the broad view: to the extent the civil rights movement worked to reduce the power of the committees, they have reduced the potential gains from having voting representatives
on the committees.

The Terrorists in the Revolution

Who knew the Massachusetts militia at the battle of Bunker Hill poisoned their bullets?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

USDA/FSA Prizes for Innovation

A number of economists like the idea of prizes and competitions for innovation.  They have a long history: if memory serves, Charles Lindbergh's flight was to win a competition for the first solo crossing of the Atlantic.  They've been used more recently, as in Netflix's competition to improve their algorithm for suggesting DVD's one might like.  I believe the Obama administration has used them, though at the moment I can't remember a specific instance.  All of which leads to this question:

Is there a prize/competition USDA/FSA could sponsor that would be worthwhile? (It's brought to mind by a factoid I believe I ran across: crop insurance agents get $900 or $1000 for each policy they administer.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pearlie Reed Resigns

Government Executive piece on his resignation for "personal reasons", though the piece notes an audit of the grant management process in the Office of Advocacy and Outreach. (Washington bureaucrats are often cynical about such coincidences.)  Supposedly there's no connection and Vilsack was supportive. However, the audit found procedures weren't followed and stated:
In summary, we are recommending that OAO not award grants to the 57 applicants at this time. We maintain that an independent review panel should reevaluate the applications to ensure that the most deserving applicants will be awarded grants. Due to the sensitivity of this issue and the timing of the proposed awards, we are providing our preliminary results to you for immediate corrective action. This issue, along with any others identified during our fieldwork, will be consolidated into a final report at the conclusion of our audit.
OIG was requested to do the audit in April, so there must have been some backstory to this.   Reed signed the response to OIG, essentially agreeing with it. In defense of the head of OAO he notes she was new and is identifying weaknesses in the office.  Of course there's a long history of GAO/OIG reports critical of the Departmental administration in this area.  Since Reed has been the big boss for 3 years, it's perhaps fair to ask what previous corrective actions he had taken.

The audit is critical of the "approving official"in OAO, but I'm not clear who it was.   It mentions: "The official also solicited input from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and the Office of Tribal Relations."

Mr. Reed is still listed on the USDA biographies page as Assistant Secretary for Administration, but the link to his bio is dead.  An out-of-date bio is still available by searching: link  There's no press release noted on the USDA site.

I'm sure our Republican friends will be all over this.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Catnip Topics: PC Hardware

There are some topics on popular blogs which the readers will react to as cats react to catnip.  It's not a pretty sight.  One such topic is advice on PC hardware--Kevin Drum asked for comment on a report that some Mac user replaced the computer hard drive 3 times in 2.5 years.

His commentators rose to the topic, notably competing for the title of whose first computer was the oldest and smallest.  Not sure why, though it's probably the same logic why us geezers talk about how hard our life was compared to today.

Sauce for the Johanns Goose, But Not the Dems Gander?

"What I worry about is we’re going to get to a point, Mike, where senators are going to say, ‘Look, I can’t support moving a bill forward that I can’t get a vote on my amendment.’”

That's Sen. Johanns of Nebraska commenting on the prospects for the farm bill in Farm Policy 

My point: Johanns is worrying about people taking a "my way or the highway" approach on the farm bill, but it seems to me the Reps have fairly often taken that approach.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

South Pacific and a Cock-Eyed Optimist

Wife and I saw a revival of South Pacific the other week.  One of the early songs is "Cockeyed Optimist".  That's all I could think of when I read about this dewy-faced dairy farmer proposing, in the barn.

Good luck to them.

Gardens, Slaves, and Pigford

The NY Times has a long article about slaves, African-Americans, gardens, and vegetables.

I read it with interest, because I've toyed with the idea of writing on a similar subject, tied to the Pigford case.  A couple of points:
  • some African-Americans run away from the land because farming means toil and drudgery (a sentiment which I share)
  • heir property, as in the following:
"Perhaps Malva will feel inspired to water the garden next week, when Diana goes to Philadelphia for the annual slavery reparations conference. Along the way, she’ll also stop in Baltimore to ask her uncle to sign legal papers that would give her power of attorney to manage the land.
The farm, she explained, is heir property: it belongs to 19 relatives, across the nation. And almost nothing can get done without their written consent. This is a common dilemma on African-American farms, explained Dr. Bandele, who started his career with the Emergency Land Fund, a black farm and property preservation group.
One cousin neglects to pay his share of the property tax; in protest, another cousin refuses to pay. Ultimately, Dr. Bandele said, the property ends up in a forfeiture auction. Another black farm is lost."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Google Employs Bureaucrats

That's the theme of this Times piece. Of course it's true, in any organization you do what you can and you don't do what others are hopefully doing.  It's called "division of labor", as Adam Smith dubbed it. The bigger the organization, the more likely that leads to things falling through the cracks.

What We Used to Look Like

Here's a post by James Fallows with a photo from the 1940's showing what US children used to look like, or at least what we wanted to think they looked like (i.e., WASPs).  We watched Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" Monday and the parade in Massapequa, NY and the scenes of the high school prom reminded me of this.  (What did I think of the movie: I think it stood up pretty well over the years, though Stone has something about him, maybe a bit of romanticism, with which I'm uncomfortable.)

The U.S. has changed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Popcorn, Seed Corn, and Fading Memory

Politico today carries a long piece about Senator McCain's opposition to a provision in the farm bill relative to popcorn.  (Haven't checked but it sounds as if it makes popcorn producers eligible for corn crop insurance.) The article treats the provision as an example of an organization getting the legislation written to favor them.

Back in the day, if I remember, which I don't really, seed corn and popcorn were controversial in the context of the target price programs of the early 80's.  Both were produced under contract, which meant the growers didn't really face price risk, which was what the program was supposed to be about.  They also had their own niche market, pretty much independent of the field corn market, so efforts to adjust the production of field corn were irrelevant to popcorn and seed corn.  They did, however, have an argument that the stalks could be used for silage.

Over the years I believe both the seed corn people and the popcorn people got language inserted into the law forcing ASCS/FSA to treat them on the same basis as field corn.  If my memory is right, that means the only thing new is that today the lobbyists are forcing RMA/FCIC to treat them on the same basis.

The logic of the efforts is clear: a group of people who feel relatively strongly about an issue, no organized opposition because groups representing the taxpayers don't understand the issue, no leadership from the Executive because it's such a small issue, a bureaucracy which understands the issue but which works for Congress and is professionally inhibited from voicing opposition, and a legislator who can insert the relevant provision and mouth the words the lobbyist puts in their mouth.

Where's the tea party?

Farm Labor: Half Illegal?

A paragraph from today's Farm Policy:
"And an update yesterday at the Economic Research Service Charts of Note webpage (USDA) stated that, “Over the past 15 years, roughly half of the hired laborers employed in U.S. crop agriculture have lacked the immigration status needed to work legally in the United States. Large shifts in the supply of foreign-born farm labor, such as those that might result from substantial changes to U.S. immigration laws or policies, could have significant effects on production costs in U.S. agriculture. Hired labor (including contract labor) accounted for about 17 percent of the sector’s variable production expenses and even higher proportions in more labor-intensive sectors, such as vegetables (35 percent), nursery products (46 percent), and fruits (48 percent), according to 2006-10 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) data. This chart is found in The Potential Impact of Changes in Immigration Policy on U.S. Agriculture and the Market for Hired Farm Labor: A Simulation Analysis, ERR-135, May 2012.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

US the Free Trader

Sometimes we think the US uses tariffs on agricultural products unfairly.  Here's a comparison worldwide.

Smith in NYTimes, and the Rest of the Story

Excerpt from Farm Policy:
Dallas Smith, a former USDA deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, noted in a letter to the editor in Saturday’s New York Times that, “‘Where the Trough Is Overflowing’ (Deconstruction, editorial page, June 3) does a disservice to both America’s farmers, who feed an increasingly hungry world, and crop insurance, their primary risk management tool.
There is one reason crop insurance has become the risk management tool of choice for most farmers and political leaders from both sides of the aisle: it works.”

The Times identified Dallas with his old USDA position but surprisingly didn't note his current position.  Here's  Linkedin:


Dallas R. Smith and Associates, Inc

Currently holds this position

Special Consultant

National Crop Insurance Services

1999Present (13 years)

Deputy Under Secretary, Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services

United States Department of Agriculture

Government Agency; 10,001+ employees; Government Administration industry
July 1965January 1999 (33 years 7 months)
I was a Senior Executive with USDA from 1985 to 1999. Before that I worked as a County Extension Agent in NC, Cotton Marketing Specialist, Peanut Branch Chief, Deputy Director and Director of a Division within USDA in Washington DC. I also served as a Consultant to the White House on tobacco issues and provide leadership to the Agriculture Committee of the Gore-Mbekia Commission with South Africa. Prior to retirement I received the Presidential Rank Award of Distinguished Executive.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Our Animal Natures"

Very interesting long piece in the NYTimes today with that title.  The co-authors, a cardiologist and a writer, look at the diseases which animals get, which (human) animals get.  (They repeat a joke among vets: "What do you call a physician?  A veterinarian who treats only one species.)

The whole piece is amazing, though obvious, or maybe amazing because obvious, at least once you think about it.  Another reminder of how easy it is for us to fall into tribalism, in this case dividing ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

You Can Lead a Child to the Soil, You Can't Make Her Garden

That encapsulates a lesson Mrs. Obama has learned:
Neither Sasha nor Malia appear in photos in the book; they don't like to garden, Mrs. Obama has said during recent interviews.

Friday, June 08, 2012

PicturePHones and Video Teleconferncing

As it happens, I just finished a book on Bell Labs (The Idea Factory) when I saw this IRM notice on FSA video teleconferencing.  (Bell Labs gave us the transistor, fiber optics, communications satellites, cell phones, and information theory, among many other things.)

As almost everything does these days, the conjunction called up memories. Bell Labs came up with the Picturephone in the 60''s, demoed it at the NY World Fair, and released it in a couple of cities.  Though user reaction was favorable at the fair, it fell flat as a consumer product.  The problem was the cost was too high for a communications device where both parties needed the device to communicate.

The book, which I recommend, compared the Picturephone and the cell phone.  The cell phone was also bulky and costly at the beginning, but its big advantage was you could call anyone who had a regular phone or a cell phone with it; it linked you with the existing network and didn't require building a new network.

In the 1980's ASCS tried out a new version of the picturephone (not from AT&T): IRMD got 4-6 devices and I got one to communicate with KCMO.  Again it was a flop--it appealed to the techies but it didn't do much .

A bit later IRMD set up a teleconference center to communicate with KCMO.  We used it for a few teleconferences between programmers and program people, but it required a lot of scheduling and coordination.   We didn't have enough business with KCMO that required the attendance of a lot of people, particularly as we made more use of email. And the value-added of seeing people talk was small.  Our use tailed off to nothing.  I don't know how long IRMD kept it going.

So I've considerable curiosity about the new system in FSA.  The notice indicates it's popular and getting a workout, which is good, but it also sounds complicated which is bad.  It sounds as if it's more capable than something like Skype or similar cheap apps.   On the other hand if I were forced to bet, I'd say FSA probably never did a lot of training on things like Skype.  Am I wrong? It sounds as if it's a dedicated system, separate from the regular communication network, which is a minus.  If people have to share,  they often don't.

I think I commented a while back about the ancillary benefits of conferences/face-to-face meetings (in the context of the uproar over GSA).  The recent bio of Steve Jobs said he was careful to design Apple offices so as to throw people together.  The Bell Labs book says AT&T did the same.  Of course, that's workplace design, not travel conferences, but the principle is the same: people learn from each other and they often learn the most from people they don't work with on a daily basis.

To come back to Claude Shannon and information theory: his measure of "information" says the more redundancy in a message, the less information is conveyed. Most of our daily business is redundant; we do similar things over and over so we don't gain much information and we don't learn.  That's why failure is so good: the first time you try something everything is new, little is redundant, there's lots of learning and lots of information.  That's also why some meetings are good (though not the weekly staff meetings with which I used to bore my employees) provided they introduce new people, new subjects, or new surroundings.

Technology on the Farm

Slate has a discussion of the future of robots on the farm.  The theory is that young farmers come from outside agriculture so don't mind hand work and don't have the money to invest in expensive robots.  On the other hand they're more likely to be techies than the production farmers who are in their 50's, 60's, and 70's, so might be early adopters.    So it's a good, decisive on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other article.

I remember the farmers in Sherman County, KS in 1992 were almost all over 40, which the CED saw as an obstacle to adoption of Infoshare then. That's 20 years ago so a lot of them are now retired, and the number of farmers has probably dropped a good bit.

Why Did It Need a Cloture Vote

The farm bill in the Senate passed its cloture vote with ease, so they can now go on to debate and propose amendments and ultimately vote.  I'm curious though whether such a vote has always been needed or whether in the good old days they could just proceed, perhaps by unanimous consent. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Innovation in Crop Reporting

No, this isn't an instance where FSA has innovated.  It's innovation on the crop insurance side, driven by smartphones and private enterprise.

Lake Woebegon and GSA

According to Federal Times:
Last year, 87 percent of General Services Administration employees got bonuses averaging nearly $1,200 per recipient, according to Federal Times' analysis of government data.
Some things are just ridiculous.

Farm Bill Is in the News

In both the Post and the Times.

From the Post:
 It may the be most tangible symbol yet that the age of austerity has dawned in Washington. The bill, which sets the nation’s agricultural and food policy for the next five years, enjoys rare bipartisan support and could be the only significant piece of deficit-reduction legislation to gain congressional approval this year.
The lede from the Times:
At the same time that high crop prices are prompting farmers to expand into millions of acres of land once considered unsuitable for farming, Congress is considering expanding a federal insurance program that reimburses farmers for most losses or drops in prices. 

Yes, they're writing about the same piece of legislation.
[Updated: The White House is now supporting it.]

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

FNS and Lost SNAP Cards

A smattering of stories reporting on the Food and Nutrition Service's proposed regulation (out for public comment) permitting states to request justification for issuing a replacement SNAP (food stamp) EBT card when it's the fourth one within a year.  Here's the FNS post.

This bothers me, but probably not enough to do the research I'd need to.  I'm bothered in part by this language:
The proposed minimum threshold is based on an analysis by FNS of electronic transaction data that demonstrates a statistically significant difference when a client reaches his or her fourth replacement card, indicating that transaction activity is three times more likely to be flagged as potential trafficking, which is the exchange of benefits for cash or other consideration, compared to clients with three or fewer replacement cards.
Now I'd assume the EBT cards operate like a debit card; lose one, you notify the issuer and they put a hold on the account and you get a new card.   I can understand that some of the SNAP recipients are prone to lose their cards; while not a recipient I've trouble losing things as my senility comes on faster.  So what I would imagine happens: recipient goes to the store on Monday and uses the card.  Recipient absent-mindedly puts the card in the trash on the way out.  Recipient needs the card on Wednesday and finds it's missing.  Recipient notifies issuer.  If someone found the card and used it, then there'd be a couple days of transactions.  So I could handle issuing a replacement with no more justification than "I lost it and can't find it" and having the government cover the transaction costs..  And it'd probably be hard to differentiate between the misuse of a found card and the use of a card sold by the SNAP recipient, just by looking at the transactions.

But, from the language I quoted I'm not sure that's what's going on.

And my bottom line would be, the default position for the government should be no more forgiving than a commercial bank is.  

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Obama's Personal Economic Stimulus: Eating Out

See this post at Ezra Klein showing the impact of a POTUS visit on a sandwich shop.

Failure To Rescue

That's the theme of Atul Gawande's commencement address (hat tip Ezra Klein).  Worth reading, since failure is inevitable, and recognizing and responding to failure is valuable. Unfortunately in government sometimes the people (political appointees) who fail are out the door before they have the chance to learn from their mistakes.

[Update: Orin Kerr at Volokh provides excerpts of two good commencement speeches, particularly the one on the role of luck in life.]

White House Garden Book: No Politics, No Gardening

A couple reviews of Mrs. Obama's book are in.  Grist says there's no politics in it (in the sense of urging political action to change food or garden policies); Obamafoodorama says there's no real how-to gardening in it.  Here's an earlier post on it: there's also no Obama daughters in it.

The Good Old Days of Steel and Coal

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money posts 1940 pictures of Pittsburgh.  A reminder that government works.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Racism Among the Establishment

Conservatives often point out quite fairly that eugenics was often a strong thread of Progressive thought:  it fit the Progressive optimism that everything can be understood and once understood can be improved.

However, I just finished the Jean Smith bio of Eisenhower.  It was interesting, moves along very well, sides with Montgomery in a couple instances and accuses Ike of spin (heaven forbid) in places, thinks well of Ike generally, but has a few howlers of errors which one may perhaps forgive on account of the author's advancing age (1.6 million sq ft in the White House?).

Back to racism: the pre-WWII military officer class was part of the WASP establishment (Patton loaned Stimson his horses to ride) and racism was common throughout, though not necessarily in the bedroom (witness McArthur and his mistress).  This isn't a theme of Smith's, but it comes through in several places.

32-Ounce Drinks

The mayor of NYC is proposing to ban drinks over 16 ounces.  Much ado about it.

However the good mayor and I both remember the good old days, though I'm a tad older and a lot poorer.

The Coke bottle we grew up with was 6.5 oz.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

EWG and Crop Insurance

Politico is just one of several articles on EWG's attack on crop insurance, using data on crop policies and policyholders. (Here's the link.)
In 26 cases, policyholders received an annual discount — carried on the government’s books — of $1 million or more in 2011. In 10,152 cases, it was $100,000 or more, while the vast majority of farmers received far smaller discounts averaging closer to $5,000.
“The eye-opening analysis shows crop insurance is not only very expensive,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources, “but also very, very generous to large and highly profitable farm businesses.”
Corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton are among the leading beneficiaries, just as they dominate American agriculture. At the same time, fruit and vegetable growers, which account for about one-fifth of farm receipts, are disproportionately represented since their crops tend to be high priced and therefore more likely subject to higher premiums.
Potatoes, tomatoes, apples, onions and grapes accounted for 36 percent of the high-end subsidies over $1 million, which carried some irony since environmentalists have long favored such specialty crops.
Politico points out differences between crop insurance and FSA's farm programs but ignores one.  Because of payment limitation, I suspect EWG will would not find as many city dwellers benefiting from subsidized crop insurance.  One of the things EWG seemed to delight in with their database on FSA's payments was the revelation of where recipients lived, particularly in big cities and wealthy ZIP codes.  I don't know if FSA and FCIC ever tried to cross-match their producers, but my suspicion is that crop insurance's "producers", those people and entities who are the policyholders, come much closer to matching John Doe's idea of who is a farmer is than do FSA's producers.  

Note: I changed "will" to "would" in the previous paragraph because it turns out EWG couldn't get identities of producers; Congress barred it.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Friday, June 01, 2012

Water Fountain: Bottled Water::Home Phone:Cellphone

In the old days we had public water fountains and landline phones in the home, also pay phone booths in public spaces.  These were shared utilities, whether provided by government or family, NGO's or private business.

In the new days everyone carries her own bottled water and her own cellphone; nothing is shared, all is private and individual.