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 USA.gov 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.