Monday, December 30, 2013

Weird Sentence of the Day--Obamacare

From Wonkblog on Obamacare:
""The fact that they have about 2 million enrolled is not that far off from 3.3 million."

Sorry--in my math 2 million is a tad over 60 percent of 3.3, which in my dictionary is "pretty far off" from 3.3.

(I think I know what he was trying to say, but he didn't say it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Myth of Vietnam

The process of creating history about events in which I've been a (small) part is somewhat disorienting and rather disturbing.  It makes you wonder about the accuracy of history generally.

For example, Vietnam.

In season 3, episode 7 of Mad Men, which is set in 1963 Don Draper picks up a hitchhiking couple who are trying to evade the draft for fear the man will be sent to Vietnam.  Baloney.   We didn't have many troops in Vietnam then.   As advisors, very few draftees would have been included.  Through 1964 only 1 percent of the troops who were killed were draftees.  There were 200 deaths in 1955-63, and another 216 in 1964.

The first draft cards were burned in the summer of 1964, and Joan Baez leading an anti-war demonstration of 600 people in San Francisco is the earliest noted in Wikipedia.

While Vietnam attracted a lot of press attention in the early 60's, I don't remember it as having much impact on the general public.  Apparently Gallup didn't start polling until August 65, when 61 percent of the public said Vietnam troops wasn't a mistake.

Now comes the Coen Brothers with a new film: Inside Llewin Davies, in which they create a funny song: Please Mr. Kennedy from the kernel of a real song, which supposedly in 1961 asked JFK not to draft the singer and send him to Vietnam.   Hitflix has a piece on it, including links to relevant songs.  The 1962 song does not refer at all to Vietnam; it's just a potential draftee asking not to be drafted because Peggy Sue loves him, he hopes. 

Because the 60's ended with Vietnam being a seemingly all-absorbing topic, people today are assuming it was a big deal all the way through the decade.  It wasn't.

I write the above as someone who had a student deferment while in college, but who was drafted in 1965 and did some time in Vietnam (REMF).

"Mr. Custer" was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier's plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with "Please Mr. Kennedy," about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods' 1962 Motown track, also called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he's convinced she'll run off with another man while he's away).
"Mr. Custer" was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier's plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with "Please Mr. Kennedy," about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods' 1962 Motown track, also called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he's convinced she'll run off with another man while he's away).
"Mr. Custer" was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier's plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with "Please Mr. Kennedy," about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods' 1962 Motown track, also called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he's convinced she'll run off with another man while he's away).
"Mr. Custer" was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier's plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with "Please Mr. Kennedy," about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods' 1962 Motown track, also called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he's convinced she'll run off with another man while he's away).

Friday, December 27, 2013

GMO Q and A

I'm usually, not always but usually, opposing the crunchies and the food movement.  But this assessment of GMO varieties strikes me as solid.  And his recommendation for labeling GMO's, which I disagree with, may in fact end up as the only practical way to go.  After all, if everything we eat in the US is labeled "GMO", then nothing is.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Being old, I've no need to sign up for Obamacare, so I've no personal experience with the website.  From what I've read, however, apparently the "navigators" who are helping people sign up are using the same software/website as those who are signing up on their own.  If so, that seems wise to me.  It's hard enough to keep one set of software operational and supporting the program.  It would be much harder to keep two sets up-to-date: one set for the public and one set for the government employees.  It would be particularly challenging when you have legislation passed late which requires changes to implement.

I don't know how MIDAS is set up, but I hope they've followed the same approach. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Is BLS Missing the Food Movement?

Government Executive has a piece on the Bureau of Labor Statistics predictions of job growth by occupation over the next 10 years.  It's interesting, but BLS projects that jobs in agriculture will shrink (-3.4 percent), the only occupation for which that's true.  However, the piece revisits the predictions from 2002.  It turns out they had predicted a 2 percent drop in ag jobs, but the reality was a 7.4 percent increase!

That might tie into the increase the Ag census has seen in the number of farms, which in turn might be driven by the popularity of organic and niche farm products, otherwise known as the food movement.  I can see it growing, particularly as Whole Foods (we own shares) does more linking with local producers and moves into smaller cities, like Boise, Idaho. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Chicoms Were Also Conspiracy Theorists

Apparently the Chinese thought the Vietnamese willingness to meet for peace talks led to the assassination of MLK:

From a Lawyer, Guns and Money post:
And this leads Communist leaders to say hurtful things to one another. The fascinating moving parts:
  1. The apparent belief of Zhou Enlai that the MLK assassination was orchestrated by the U.S. government.
  2. The notion that accepting the idea of peace talks gave the U.S. government the leeway it needed to carry out the assassination.
  3. The notion that, even if this were true, Le Duan would care enough about MLK one way or the other to change policy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Our Weak Government: David Brooks on

From a long interview with David Brooks by the U of Chicago paper

I think even he [Obama] came to office thinking the presidency had a lot more power than it does. I would say that’s a constant of my journalistic world: every president I’ve covered has learned that the office is in some ways much weaker than they anticipated. In some ways they still think it has some power, but it’s not an awesomely powerful office.
 You'd think some politician would read Neustadt.

Humor is more or less a young person’s game. You get a little more ponderous and earnest as you get older.
 Gosh, I hope not.  I was prematurely ponderous and earnest as a youth.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Land History and Precision Agriculture

Via Marginal Revolution, here's Blake Hurst in The American (AEI) writing about precision agriculture.  He argues that automated equipment will enable a big jump in the size of farms.  Sounds logical, but...

In FSA I used to be responsible for reconstitutions, the rules on how to make history follow the land as new owners and new operators changed the configuration of farms.  For years I dodged getting into it because it seemed more complex than I wanted to grapple with, but  then I gradually succumbed and found it interesting.

With that background I started to muse about the effect of precision agriculture on changes in farms.  As Hurst describes it, a good part of precision farming is building up a base of detailed data associated with each square meter (or other unit) of land, base extending over several years worth of plantings, fertilizations, and harvestings, data including weather and soil conditions.

So if I farm a section for several years and build up this database, what happens when I die and someone else takes over.  Does the landowner own the data or is it the operator?  (I'm not clear whether the farmer is storing the data in the cloud, or in a device which he owns and controls.) Can there be provisions for transferring the data from one operation to another?

Friday, December 13, 2013

COBOL Lives!

So says the FCW, in this article.

What really surprised me was not the continuing use of COBOL in legacy applications, but the fact that a quarter of colleges still teach COBOL and for some it's still a required subject.  I would have thought that COBOL was so old-fashioned and unappealing that it would have died out in the realms of academia, even though there's still a need for people who know it.

For legacy work, I suspect there's still things where it works pretty well.  Consider the example of payrolls, one of the early applications of computers.  You do payrolls every two weeks, or every month, which means batch processing must work okay.  No need for fancier languages which support objects or whatever is today's hot concept. 

I started programming in COBOL back when I was disillusioned with my bureaucratic career.  Then, after I stayed in the bureaucracy, I got quite good with WordPerfect macros, back before the WYSIWYG days.  Finally I did some Javascript in the mid 90's.  But these days Python seems well beyond me, and not something useful.  It's a shame; there was a rush of satisfaction every time you completed something and ran a test and it worked correctly.  Of course, that rush was usually followed by the frustration of failure when the next test bombed. 

Did anyone notice that Google had a tribute to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the mothers of COBOL?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Benefits of Decentralized Government

One of my pet ideas is the weakness of the federal government, but it turns out that in at least one respect, we're too centralized.  The Office of Personnel Management makes the snow decisions for the feds in the DC area.  In Canada, there's no central decision making body according to this Gov. Exec. rerun of a Wired report.  Seems to me some decentralization in the US might work better--let the USGS in Reston have a different decider than SSA in MD.

De Minimus Benefits

From Tuesday's Farm Policy:
" Some states, such as New York, will make a $1 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program  payment to low-income people in order to automatically qualify them for the maximum federal food stamps Standard Utility Allowance for 12 months.
“According to a source tracking the farm bill talks, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that raising the minimum energy subsidy states would be required to make to $20 would be enough to disincentivize states from utilizing the loophole, potentially saving the government $8 billion over 10 years.”
We used to have a "de minimus" provision. I'm ashamed to admit I don't remember in what connection, but the idea basically was that something was too small to worry about.  A similar idea applied to certain small claims, whether it was $10 or $25 I forget.   But why shouldn't the government have a blanket policy: no payments, no claims if the amount is less than $20 or whatever?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Community Gardeners Are No Angels

Grist links to an article on some problems some community gardens face.  Our garden too has locks on the gates and people complain of stolen produce and tools. 

The White House Garden

I've failed to keep up with the White House garden.  Maintenance on it was shut down during the government shutdown in November.  They've had a harvest of fall vegetables, installed some hoop houses, and now are facing ice and snow as the storm moves through.  Don't remember whether they did hoop houses last year.  A few of our fellow gardeners in the community garden are using hoop houses; my wife and I aren't.

The swiss chard won't last through a hard freeze being outside a hoop house; the kale will be fine for spring.  Not sure what she means by the rosemary being gone--that should survive the winter.  Cilantro will be okay in the spring before it bolts.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

An Amazing Sentence

From an Ann Althouse post on Andrew Sullivan's defense of Obama:
"Sullivan's analogies and metaphors are a crazy quilt of a mixed bag of bouillabaise."

Friday, December 06, 2013

Base Versus Planted, Continued

From David Rogers at Politico on farm bill negotiations:
In aggregate numbers, the estimated 260 million base acres counted today in farm programs are not so different from the average of real “planted” acres. But within that universe, huge shifts have taken place as corn and soybeans have grown more dominant while rice, cotton and wheat plantings have declined
For example in the South, about 12 percent of the base acres went unplanted in a recent year compared with just 3 percent in the Midwest. Oklahoma and Texas alone accounted for more than 4 million unplanted base acres or 26 percent of the total for the nation that same year.
At the same time in Midwest states, plantings over base totaled almost 9.5 million acres in 2010 — more than double that of the South. And in Kansas and North Dakota, corn plantings have soared as land has been pulled out of the conservation reserve program.
The reallocation/adjustment process he's predicting will keep FSA offices busy for a while.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Yale Foodie Meets "Real Farmers"

The Yale Sustainable Food Project has an organic operation at Yale.  It's been going for several years (I keep following it thinking the student enthusiasm will wane, but it hasn't).

In this post, a Yale foodie meets up with a Farm Bureau summer legislative picnic.  Sounds as if both sides learned a bit.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Cotton Farming Today

NPR has a five chapter feature tracing the history of a cotton t-shirt.  The first chapter is focused on a Mississippi cotton farm.  Surprisingly, though he bought 5 $600,000 cotton pickers last year, his total USDA subsidy on the EWG database is $467,000 for 2000-2012.

The Accuracy of Cost Estimates on Regulation

Cass Sunstein at Bloomberg writes on the estimates which are required for new regulations.  A study shows there's no systemic error (bureaucrats underestimating costs or overestimating benefits), although the estimates probably aren't very accurate. 

What would be more interesting to know is how often the analysis results in changes to the regulations or dropping the effort altogether.  I'm still waiting for a thorough redo of the regs on paperwork and regulations to make them fit the 21st century.  Not holding my breath though.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On the Importance of Sex

For science.

Josh Marshall's TPM Blog has a message from a reader asserting the importance of "sexy science" to raise the interest level and the dollars for all science. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Words of the Day: Making Sausage

"In general, I feel that I’ve experienced a strong pattern in which uncovering new information about an organization or intervention (which I previously understood only at a superficial level) tends to lower rather than raise my confidence in it."

From a post at,written in reference to evaluating NGO desirability as objects of giving. I'm not whether I got there from Chris Blattman or Roving Bandit, but I think the statement applies broadly, specifically in the sayings about not looking too closely at how sausage is made.  As a general rule, we over-generalize, based on limited information and the reality is much more complicated than we think.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Revolutionary Thanksgiving

Boston 1775 provides a dash of sour to go with the sweetness of our modern Thanksgiving: the sort of meals some of our soldiers enjoyed back in the Revolution.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Base Acres Versus Planted Acres

That's the dispute going on now, according to today's Farm Policy.  Base acres avoids problems with the WTO, planted acres reflect current operations, not something many years in the past.

Sounds like one option is going back to 1977 and the "normal crop acreage".  As someone said: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes".

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How the Presidency Works, or Doesn't

Conor Friedersdorf has a post up, asking why President Obama would have said the site would work.  Obama himself says: he's not stupid, he didn't know the problems.  Friedersdorf cites a NYTimes article showing that the developers were well aware of many problems in the months before October 1. He writes:
It does not seem credible that Obama was unaware that failure was likely. And if he really was unaware, the implications are extremely unflattering. Either he failed abjectly to ask the right questions of a staff that was also derelict in informing him, or else he asked the right questions and his staff misled him.  What the Times story confirms is that the launch of wasn't the sort of failure that reasonable actors could have failed to anticipate beforehand.
As it happens I'm reading (struggling through actually) a recent biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.  He was an adviser to JFK while serving as ambassador to India in 1961-2, had his own back channel to the President, and was audacious in his infighting (like stealing a highly classified copy of a report to which he'd been denied access off the desk of the NSC type, while the NSC guy's attention was on a phone call, then writing a preemptive counterblast for JFK). 

It's a dense and scholarly effort, which goes rather broadly into the infighting over whether and how strongly to intervene in Vietnam.  And based on the narrative, JFK's decisions were sometimes/often evaded and ignored by the NSC/State/DOD figures.  The bottomline: not only did the flow of decisions from the President to the bureaucracy get interrupted, the flow of information from the bureaucracy to the President was uneven and incomplete.  JFK was smart enough, probably having read Neustadt's book on Presidential Power, to have multiple sources; BHO may not have been that smart.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Bubble--Yes

So says the economist in this agweb article.

Unlike the early 80's, the developing world is still growing and providing more demand.

Friday, November 22, 2013

$2.75 Corn? A Bubble?

Did we have a land bubble? Agweb has an article saying get ready for $2.75 corn.  I find by searching on this site I was forecasting a land bubble in 2007 and again in 2011.  Guess I got tired of being wrong and have kept quiet since.  A reminder if any were needed of how difficult it is to make economic predictions.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Paperwork Grows--Good Intentions and Bad Architecture

Congress doesn't want federal money going to corporations involved with committing felonies or evading taxes.  That makes sense, doesn't it?

Well, notice CM-737 shows what happens down in the bureaucracy.  USDA comes up with a form which corporation officers have to sign every year, which places another burden on the county office clerk, and the corporation officers, recognizing that 100 percent of the corporations have to sign, but probably only 1 percent at maxium are actually involved in crime or tax evasion.

Now in a rational world, the bureaucracy which is nearest to the determinations of felony/tax evasion (presumably DOJ) would be responsible for flagging the corporation's records (i.d. tax ID) and all federal payments would bounce against a Do Not Pay database, which would include these flags.  But that would require a unitary federal bureaucracy, and the American people in their wisdom have decided to favor freedom over efficiency.  As long as we're willing to pay the price, we're democratic after all.

Ben Franklin on Lead

My father had to switch from chemical engineering to farming because of lead poisoning, so this letter by Ben Franklin, in a post at Boston 1775, is of particular interest.  The old bureaucrat was one of the smartest men ever.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Difference a Year Makes: Corn Prices and Farm Bill

Corn prices look very different now than last year, so the provisions of the draft farm bills in House and Senate are attracting scrutiny, as in this Politico article.

The Greatest Generation: Stupid or Ill-informed?

The Edge of the American West doesn't frame it as I do in my title, but I think the post supports the frame--the issue is whether knowledge of geography and history are helpful.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

We're Bloodsuckers, Not Farmers?

From Chris Blattman, I think, the Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity, which purports to show the imports and exports of countries around the world.  I say "purports" because I don't really understand it, except the link gives a graphic showing US exports by category in 2010.  Major items are labeled, so "soybeans" is a nice gold block with ".87%" in its corner, which I assume means soybean exports accounts for that much of total exports.  Fine and dandy.  I get the idea.

But wait, down in the left hand corner there's this pinkish purple block which is labeled "Human or animal blood" and it's got "1%" in its corner.

Is Harvard really trying to tell me that we suck that much blood out of ourselves and our animals to ship off to whom? Blood is more valuable than soybeans?  Where are the world's vampires who are importing that blood?  Someone needs to get on this story, which has been totally unreported until now.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Volatility--the Farmer's Enemy

A paragraph from today's Farm Policy:
"Meanwhile, an update yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online indicated that the cash price for corn (No. 2 yellow. Cent. Ill. bu-BP) on Tuesday was 4.1850; a year ago it was 7.2200."
 The ease with which farm prices can change is a fact often missed by those outside the farm world.  There's not too many commodities out there where the price can drop, or rise, as fast as corn just did.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Colorado and Rainwater

I was surprised to learn that collecting rainwater in Colorado is mostly illegal.  (Hat tip: Life on a Colorado Farm.)  I knew the West had different laws on water than in the East, but not this.

Failure To Launch [Website] Successfully

New guidelines for treating people at risk for heart attack or stroke released today.  That's a subject near and dear to my head and heart, so naturally I went to the new calculator website  
to see how I rated.  Oops--apparently they've a problem (too much traffic perhaps). 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pollan Revisited

Forbes runs a rather harsh attack on Michael Pollan, saying he's not a journalist interested in truth but pushes an anti-GMO agenda.

Modern Masters

The NYTimes has a piece today on the art market, talking about hard-sell tactics and the high prices expected for some major pieces (like north of $50 million).  It made me feel old, because it referred to "modern masters" like Andy Warhol, Warhol whom I remember as this odd-ball character from Pittsburgh who got publicity for what he called art, which involved no skill at all!

As I say, it made me feel old (as does the kerfluffle over Richard Cohen's latest column--he used to be the man who brought down Spiro Agnew, but that's not even mentioned on his wikipedia page). 

In my defense, repeated exposure to Warhol's work and to writing about it have given me a better understanding than I had in 1969, say.

Monday, November 11, 2013

No-Till Farming

 I was going to use a snarky title for this, like urbanites find out about no-till farming, but instead I'll just refer to an article on Wonkblog.  From there a link to a Philpott piece on cover crops and no-till.  I remember when ASCS  offered cost-sharing for cover crops, back in the late 60's, something which was killed by the Nixon administration.  (I'm trying to remember what the CED said--he was aggressively promoting the practices, I think for workload, not specifically for the conservation benefits.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Ghosts of the Past

I'm always fascinated to see how history crops up in today's public discussions.  Here's Rep. Peterson talking about basing payments on base acres versus planted acres:
"Rep. Peterson also addressed policy issues associated with planted acres in yesterday’s radio interview with Joel Heitkamp: “But we’re having a fight with the Senate over planted acres versus base acres, and they want to pay people based on what they grew 20 years ago, and we don’t want to do that anymore. We want to go to planted acres. And what that does is it shifts the program, the balance of power, from landowners to farmers. And this is a fundamental change that needs to happen in our policy. We should be supporting farmers, not land. And that’s what we’ve been doing the last 20 years, ostensibly, to placate the WTO or whatever.
But that’s one of the big hang-ups we’re having with the Senate right now. And some of them want to hang onto these base acres. Well, it’s kind of the same issue you’re talking about with the sugar program, where you’ve got people that have the land and have base on it are renting it to somebody else. It’s much better to have the program follow the farmer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Now it so happens that in the South the landowner, the plantation owner, has always been at the top of the ladder.  And so it would seem it continues to be so today.

As quoted in Farm Policy.

The Most Un-Private Place in America?

Might be a farmer's fields, once the FAA gets off its rear and approves drones for farm use,  drones which can provide data down to the centimeter scale (.4 inch) according to a post on the Rural Blog, repeating an Agri-Pulse newsletter.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Paying Dead People

A very good article in the Post explaining why so many federal agencies have problems paying dead people.  Bottom line: problems in reporting deaths accurately and in sharing data between SSA and other agencies.

A part of FSA's problem is they can't access the full SSA Death file, but have to make do with a subset, apparently because of some restrictions some states put on sharing information.  (Jim Baxa is quoted in the article.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Conservation Compliance and Crop Insurance

From today's Farm Policy, discussing farm bill prospects:
"And on conservation compliance, the veteran lawmaker indicated that, “Well, the Senate says they have to have it. They’ve had votes on it where it’s passed by a significant margin. I think, at the end of the day, we’re going to have conservation compliance. But I have been working on this, that if we have to have it—because right now the House is not for this—but if we have to have it, the insurance companies will not be responsible for policing this, so they won’t have to decide whether somebody is in compliance or not.”
I'm not sure the veteran lawmaker (ranking member of House ag) understands conservation compliance, in that I don't know how one would ever require the insurance companies to police it.  Seems to me it would work essentially like the cotton/rice co-ops. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Broccoli and Industrial Farming

NYTimes Magazine has an article on broccoli,partly discussing efforts to make eating broccoli attractive, partly discussing a farmer in upstate New York:
The farm that he runs with his three brothers and one of their sons is an example of the kind of nonindustrial farm that’s necessary in a revamped vision of American food production and consumption. Last year, Reeves turned out 420,000 pounds of tomatoes, 65,000 pounds of strawberries and 2.4 million ears of sweet corn. And while they have a nice little farm stand just outside the small town of Baldwinsville, with a quaint patch of pick-your-own organic blueberries behind the sales shed, they mostly sell their crops to big grocers, including Tops, Price Chopper, Wegmans and, biggest of all, Walmart.  [emphasis added]
As I wrote in a comment on the article, the food movement tends to label farming operations they don't like as "industrial farming" and "corporate agriculture".  It's not clear to me whether the three brothers are a partnership or corporation but here's the website

MIDAS Updated

The MIDAS page on the FSA website has been updated.

I'd say it was about time.  Certainly the MIDAS effort has been focused on the FSA bureaucrats, not the public.

Friday, November 01, 2013

ACA IT and Testing

I can't resist the temptation to comment on the healthcare software process.  (BTW, here's a link to their blog.)

They've taken hits for not fully testing, which I can agree with.  On the other hand, remembering the test process we had for System/36 software, I can only imagine the problems they would have had. If my imagination is right, they had these choices for beginning to end testing:
  • use live data--i.e., have all the 20-something IT types try to sign up for health insurance for real using their software.  That has some obvious problems, particularly when you have to cover 36 state exchanges. 
  • create test data.  The problem here is while you can create applicants, you need to have SS numbers which meet the SSA criteria, and/or you need to create credit histories over at Experian, then you need to tack on test data for those SSN's with IRS, etc. 
  • use a subset of live data for test data.  That's what we used to do--get a copy of a counties files in and modify the data to create test conditions. That's very problematic, both from a security standpoint and from a Privacy Act standpoint. And  our FSA system was simple compared to the sort of system ACA requires.

UK Versus US: Enclosed Farmland

An interesting piece in Buzzfeed (Hat tip: Marginal Revolution) on Britain's housing problems. But I want to steal one of its 15 graphics:

Note the "enclosed farmland" category, which basically covers most of England and Ulster, plus bits of lowlands Scotland. 

Trying to find the equivalent for the US.  There's this NASS map, which can get very detailed--I'd never seen it before. 

And there's this map of "prime farmland". 

What's important I think is that farmland in the US is much more splotchy; the UK is much more uniformly developed as either farm or urban.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Monitor Redux: DDG 1000 Zumwalt

Via Lawyers, Guns, and Money, a piece on the launch of the new destroyer: Zumwalt, with a hull design which reminds me of the Monitor.

Apparently a complex and innovative project which came in okay.  Hope it works out, but so far the DOD looks good.

Via the same source, an article on a new long-range bomber.  Interesting that they're planning an unmanned version of it. 

Funny Sentence About WWII Photo

"Landing, from what I’ve read, was considered one of the more important qualifications for a pilot."

Via Kottke, this sentence is from a piece on the "most honored [US]photograph" of WWII, taken by a "nutty crew".

Anyone who has the slightest interest in military history and/or heroism should read it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Words To Design By

From a TPM post on Kentucky's ACA IT system:
"From a design standpoint, Kentucky made the conscious choice to stick to the basics, rather than seeking to blow users away with a state-of-the-art consumer interface. A big part of that was knowing their demographics: A simpler site would make it easer to access for people without broadband Internet access, and the content was written at a sixth-grade reading level so it would be as easy to understand as possible.
"We wanted it to have a branded feel, but that was not the most important part," said Gwenda Bond, an exchange spokesperson. "The most important part was that it works. I think a lot of people would say that simplicity is good website design."

Monday, October 28, 2013

West Virginia, Farm Bill, and Food Stamps

The Post had an article on how West Virginia has changed from a bastion of Democracy to a state shortly to be dominated by Republicans.  In it, they mentioned that JFK's first executive order included a reactivation of a pilot food stamp program.   This morning Farm Policy discusses the conference committee on the farm bill with the food stamp program being the top issue.

A couple thoughts:
  •   even in 1960, black poverty was mostly invisible.  Civil rights issues sucked all the air out of the room, leaving little room to consider other issues.  So the poverty in the Appalachian region was a big focus.  Not only did JFK do the food thing, he also got legislation creating an Appalachian Regional authority, covering parts of 13 states.  The idea was a pale imitation of the TVA, trying to coordinate federal programs to help the area (which included my home county).
  • the references to "food stamp program" are a bit misleading. Beginning in the 1930's the Feds distributed surplus commodities to the needy.  In 1939 there was a brief attempt at food stamps--allowing the needy to buy stamps which could be used only to purchase food.  But I believe that program died with WWII.  The surplus distribution more or less continued.  (I'm not sure, but I think schools, Indian tribes, and foreign countries all got surplus food in Ike's administration, along with some of the poor.
  •  JFK's order really started a new food stamp pilot project, which worked okay and got legislated in 1964.  I believe, without checking, that Sen. McGovern was a major force behind it. By 1964 the Harrington book on Poverty in America was making an impact; awareness of poverty among blacks was growing, but it still wasn't as racially centered as it seems today.  (Used to be, and probably still is, that the majority or at least plurality of food stamp recipients were white.) That's perhaps why some West Virginians discount the importance of SNAP; the program seems part of the landscape and no longer seems an effort by Dems to help WV whites.
  • the problems with distributing surplus food to the food are somewhat similar to foreign aid (PL-480)--you have to establish channels to ship the food to the right destination and the available surpluses aren't necessarily what is most needed by the recipients.  So food stamps for the poor were similar to today's ideas of "monetarization" of food aid. 
  • food stamps used to be sold, so you'd get $10 face value of stamps for $x in cash.  The idea was to expand the poor's spending on food.  As the program has evolved, that element faded away. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Farm Bill Time Again

The House and Senate conferees will meet next week on the farm bill. The Rural Blog passes on speculation about possible effects on FSA offices.

I wonder whether FSA employees are comparing the rollout of MIDAS (which seems to have had problems, though not very visible outside the walls of FSA) with the rollout of ACA. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Software Problems

There seem to be many experts who are diagnosing the problems with the ACA online system.  I'm not going to join their ranks--I'm no expert.  I expect only those on the inside, and only some of those, know really what has gone wrong and how hard or easy it will be to fix.

The one thing I will say (immediately contradicting the paragraph above) is that they shouldn't have changed the design to put establishing an account first, instead of putting it at the end.  The problem seems likely to have been the change.  It apparently was too late in the day to make it; they should have kept on with the general design they started with.  That raises the question of whether they had buy-in on the system design from everyone, by which I mean Tavenner, Sebelius, OMB, and the President, well in advance.  

The closest I've ever come to this sort of problem was the 1983 payment-in-kind program, in which the Reagan administration strongarmed the lawyers into a tricky device to swap CCC-owned grain for acreage reductions, a program which I remember as being slapped together in about 2 weeks (though memory is probably fallible).  The Secretary had the Under Secretary ramrodding the implementation, because it was a high risk endeavor, and he had regular (daily?) meetings with the peons who were doing the scutwork. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Found--an Honest Blogger

Diogenes may still be looking for an honest man, but I've found an honest blogger--Kevin Drum, in a post on post-shutdown polls:
I don't want to beat a dead horse, but — oh, who am I kidding? I love beating this particular dead horse.

(Returned from a 5-day trip to NY which explains the hiatus.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ranchers' Problems

I may have occasionally voiced the opinion that dairy farmers have a worse job than others, but here's a nice post on ranchers' problems.  Hat tip: Northview Dairy.

I wonder if the ranchers have considered pushing for federal subsidies for the cattle insurance that's available?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I Live in a Rut, But I'm Not Alone

An excerpt from an interview with Nobelist Robert Shiller, the economist:
"What was discovered by some of the behavioral finance research is people are inertial. They don’t do anything. If they have to sign up for the plan, they won’t do it. If they do sign up, they'll put their money in whatever asset seems to be recommended and leave it there the rest of their lives. You would think it’s kind of obvious, that some people aren't that interested in managing their portfolios."

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Right Stuff and Bureaucratic Reports

Was Chuck Yeager a "bureaucrat"?  I guess I'd go too far to call the exemplar of the "right stuff" such, but this laconic bureaucrat's report of his breaking of Mach 1 is worth noting.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure why the National Archives website is still up.)

AGI on Crop Insurance

Chris Clayton at DTN reports both Houses are generally in agreement on limiting crop insurance subsidies for high income insureds:

"On Friday evening, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., saw his resolution tightening income eligibility pass the House on a voice vote. The language was comparable to the Senate provisions. While a voice vote doesn't get everyone on record, the resolution does show GOP House leaders support the provision.
Conferees will have to begrudgingly keep the income cap or find some way to pivot around the issue."
Wonder how USDA would administer this?  Conceivably through FSA, I suppose, so USDA hits IRS only once.  But that assumes the rules for determining a person between crop insurance and USDA are the same, doesn't it?  (As time goes by I"m more and more aware that what I used to know is getting obsolete.)  Given how long it took for RMA and FSA to coordinate on acreage reporting dates, I wouldn't hold my breath for that result.  Might be simpler (remember KISS?) to leave the two operations completely separate and put up with complaints from farmers and Congress about the duplicate paperwork and discrepancies in rules. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Outed: the Secrets of the Obamas and Their Garden

Found 5.5 inches of rain in our garden plot over the last few days; actually more because the rain gauge only goes to 5.5.

Assuming the White House garden got equivalent amounts, the situation described in this long Obamafoodorama post from yesterday is even worse than the pictures show.  The point of the post is that the government shutdown means very little work done in the garden by staff, so it's quickly become overgrown and unharvested.

The garden evolved from a family project in the spring of 2009, where the girls were supposed to get their hands dirty, into a showcase project for gardening.  The post reveals explicitly for the first time that the plants growing in the White House garden were transplanted from an offsite greenhouse location.  Lots of other details about the garden in the post, [edit] including the fox now prowling the grounds.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Actively Engaged" in Farming Revisited

You'd think we'd know what a farmer is; after all people have been farming for thousands of years.

But, here, via FarmPolicy at Sen. Grassley's website, is the latest GAO report on FSA enforcement of the rules.

I remember the people (WP and SN) originally developing the rules after the 1985 farm bill.  Amazing to realize that they might well be grandparents by now.  If I remember, the first crack at implementing the provisions got overridden by Congress.  That sort of history is probably why FSA is saying they won't change rules now without having Congress act.  Part of the problem is, once provisions are in the farm bill and passed, members' attention shifts elsewhere, so the members who are more responsive to their farmer constituents gain in influence.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

What the Past Was Like--59 Years Ago

I stumbled across the program for the 12th Youth Forum, held in NYC in 1954.  The first pages are the text for a speech delivered by Mayor Robert Wagner.  Beginning at page 11 is the actual program.  Panel subjects were:
  • How can the United Nations be improved to deal with the problems of international peace?
  • How can the United States strengthen her policy toward her friends, her foes and neutralist nations?
  • How can the United States best protect itself against the dangers of subversion and still maintain civil liberties? (The panel chairman was a 15 year old Martin Peretz, I assume the Peretz who went on to fame as owner of New Republic.)
  • Do current educational practices prepare youth for effective participation in American democracy?
  • How can youth and adults meet the challenge of juvenile delinquency?
The panel chairs and co-chairs were balanced by sex, and the panel leaders seem to have been as well (though some unisex names).

Among the speakers and guests were the Philippines envoy to the UN, Wagner, the heads of NYC police, education, and schools, Sam Levenson, a comic, and representatives of three of the NYC sports teams (Jackie Robinson, Whitey Ford(!), and Kyle Rote, plus media types. There were delegates from youth organizations (Scouts, Boys Club, CYO, PAL) and religious organizations, and delegations from high schools in the city.

What struck me?  The seemingly inclusive nature, at least for 1954, more inclusive than I think the time is given credit for.  The prominence of religious organizations.  The seriousness of the subjects--I doubt there's any comparable youth level discussions today.  The dominance of a "communitarian" agenda and the absence of any libertarian one.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

A USDA Benefactor of Humanity Dies

Bet you didn't think anyone in USDA ever benefited humanity?  Well, Ruth Benerito was the scientist who's given credit for permanent press.  Link is to her NYTimes obit at age 97.   Wikipedia said she had 55 patents.

I can't resist noting that USDA laboratories are now shutdown, thanks to a certain party.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Healthcare and the Amish

Always fascinated by the Amish, who are exempted from ACA (Obamacare) because they were exempted from Social Security way back in the last century, as this article describes.

The article doesn't mention the Amish occasionally being medical tourists--i.e., traveling to Mexico for some operations, something about which I've read in the last couple years.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Ezra Klein Differs on ACA Software

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein are notably more damning of the Obama administrations healthcare exchange software than I have been.  This from Klein:

'But the Obama administration did itself -- and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up -- a terrible disservice by building a Web site that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans. They knew that the only way to quiet the law's critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce Web site is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other. Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law isn't ready for primetime more ammunition for their case.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Farmers Didn't Improve Their Fields Until the 20th Century?

One meme of a few in the food movement, Prof. Pollan I'm looking at you, is farmers began industrial agriculture in the 20th century, specifically when nitrates left over from the military started to be used on our fields.  (That's my memory of Omnivore's Dilemma.)

Low-Tech Magazine has a long post on lime kilns  (all that rain in the British Isles tended to acidify the fields, thus creating a demand for lime to counter it).   Wikipedia cites usage of lime for agricultural purposes in the 13th century.  It's easy to underestimate the brains of our ancestors.

I've memories of our whitewashing the stable walls, and using lime on the concrete behind the cows to keep it dry and prevent the cows from slipping.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Obama's Open Government Fail--on Obamacare

I just love to tweak IT types and goo-goo types about openness, and occasionally I like to tweak my liberal friends.  In that spirit, let me quote this from the NYTimes post on activity on the healthcare exchanges:
"It is unclear what the [healthcare] exchanges meant in citing heavy volume; most did not provide numbers, or even return phone calls in the first hours of operation. It is also unclear to what degree problems with the Web sites were due to the kind of technical hurdles that supporters of the program had warned about and that opponents had predicted would demonstrate its unwieldiness."
 Too bad HHS didn't require each exchange website to post their count of unique visitors.

More seriously, I expect the dust to settle and the glitches to get resolved (mostly) in the next few days or weeks, just as Medicare Part D did back in the Bush days.

3 Minutes for Food?

Via Marginal Revolution, a USAtoday story on how the universe is gradually slowing down, in the inevitable triumph of entrophy.

Actually, it seems that fast food outlets are having trouble maintaining their speed of "drive-thru" visits.  I don't patronize such lines, so I was struck by the fact that McDonald's fills orders in about 3 minutes (the current figure is 9 seconds slower than it used to be).

Monday, September 30, 2013

Good Advice from Joel Achenbach

This is directed to all you baby boomer youngsters:

"Those of us staring into the gaping maw of degeneration, senescence and ultimate obliteration are often driven to take on new activities and interests. You could make the case that Walt went overboard.
If you find yourself with an urge to try something new, my advice is to steer clear of anything that might create a problem for which the activation of a remote-controlled machine gun would potentially be the solution.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Does USDA Pay Farmers for Not Farming?

The Internet has made me more aware of the persistence of myths and inaccuracies, not to say "lies", in the world of public discourse.

To quote Mark Twain:

One of the persistent memes is the idea FSA (USDA) pays farmers for not farming, for not producing.  That came up in a recent Jonathan Chait piece here, in connection with a discussion that the right supported cutting food stamps but not cutting farm subsidies.   Chait linked to a Megan McArdle defense of the theory, though she would like to cut both food stamps and ag subsidies, based on "reciprocity".  The idea being that food stamps went to the idle poor, who did nothing for them, while subsidies went to farmers who at least were farming.   Chait used a GAO Report of last year 
which I missed, to counter McArdle's argument.

Seems to me there are several aspects to the meme:
  • it can refer to the "supply management/production adjustment" programs of past farm bills, in which case it's wrong.  Those programs are dead.
  • it can refer to the problem of payments issued to dead farmers.  That can be bad administration by FSA, though the casual discussion of it by people like Chait and EWG doesn't recognize some of the legitimate complexities. 
  • it can refer to the problem of direct payments issued based on acreage which is converted to non-farm uses, as cited in the GAO report.  That again is bad administration.
  • it can refer to the fact that the direct payment program is "decoupled", to comply with WTO rules--there's no requirement that farmers farm in order to earn the payments.  Again, the GAO report blasted the program for this, but it's what Congress passed.
  • it can refer to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has multi-year contracts for farmers to devote land, not to production of crops, but to conservation uses.  In my mind, the program's aim is to protect highly erodible land and provide conservation benefits, not to reduce production, but it's true that the program does reduce production.  (It's rather like saying the military draft in the 1960's gave men free health insurance--it did.) It's also true that some of the contracts can cover a whole farm, assuming all of the acreage is highly erodible.
So to me the bottom line is: USDA/FSA has no program which pays farmers for not producing.

[Updated to add the last sentence on the CRP paragraph.]

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Illegal Spying Is Not So Bad?

Seems that some of the cases where NSA employees definitely broke the law involved spying on significant others.  See this piece.  Somehow that makes NSA seem less fearsome to me, just a bunch of insecure men jealous of their lovers.   Should the motive really make a difference when we're talking violations of privacy?  No, but somehow.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Another Sentence

From a Slate piece on Ted Cruz
" Susman laughed. "I will say this: Being a stud with girls on the debate circuit does not mean you’re a stud with girls."

A Sentence to Enjoy, on Sows

"Being nursed by a dozen hungry mouths is an extreme weight watcher’s diet plan."  From Sugar Mountain Farm, in a post on the natural weaning process, and the human controlled process.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

To Sea, Young Man, to Sea

Via Brad Delong's Grasping Reality with Both Hands, here's a study comparing the cost of college with the benefits of college.  What interests me on the graphic is the outlying institutions--some with names you'd expect, but some not.   For example, what's SUNY-Maritime doing so cheap and so rewarding?

I'm reminded of a high school math teacher, who returned to his alma mater after his predecessor died of diabetes (very much missed--Mr. Hayford), with a goatee!  Now this was 1958, when all men were clean-shaven.  But after leaving the Forks, Mr. Turna had gone off to the Merchant Marine academy and then spent some time at sea--I know he visited west African ports and as a mate had to bail out a crewman.  The ladies were attracted to him (may be faulty memory, though then it seemed as if every male my age or older had a greater attraction for women than I) though not to the extent they took his senior-level trig, spherical geometry, and advanced algebra classes. We were still back in the dark ages then; such math wasn't for women.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Returns on Cows and Buffalos

Brad DeLong notes a study on the returns to owning cows and buffaloes in India.  Bottom line is--it's not profitable in an economic sense.  The speculation is that the labor of women has no value, economically, so there's no cost for women or children to tend cattle.  Or, the return on formal savings instruments (i.e., savings accounts) is low and uncertain so there's a cultural preference to owning cattle. (I gather that while cows are sacred to Hindus, buffaloes aren't so the study treats them as almost interchangeable.)

Here's the NBER url.  Strikes me that the economists don't devote enough attention to the calves  The survey asked the people to estimate the value of a calf, which I assume meant guessing what the calf could be sold for on the open market.  Now in economic theory I guess the price should reflect the value of retaining the calf. But maybe it doesn't--if the family has sufficient grazing land then the marginal cost of rearing a calf to maturity is relatively small--the labor cost of tending multiple animals instead of a single is almost zero.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can't Figure the Figures--Crop Insurance

Via Farm Policy, an article in Choices magazine on crop insurance, co-written by Keith Collins, formerly chief economist of USDA and now working for the crop insurance industry.

I have to assume the figures are accurate, but this figure from the article blows my mind:

It's deflated by crop prices somehow but seems to show some $60 billion in CCC payments in 2000.

[updated as follows]
Looking at the EWG database, there were about $23.5 billion in payments in 2000, excluding crop insurance, so it looks as if the deflator almost triples the payments in 2000.   While I can understand adjusting figures for inflation, i.e., using constant dollars, I don't the deflator.  I went to the CBO site, which I don't understand too well, and couldn't find the backup data for this, just their projections for the future.   

Saturday, September 21, 2013

SOL Results for Fairfax County--Disturbing

Via the Reston Patch, here's the full release of results on the state Standards of Learning test for Fairfax county.  The test changed this year so the release notes one can't directly compare these results with those for prior years. 

That's fine, but.  And it's a big but.  What's noticeable to me is that the current year scores are down more for blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged, and limited English proficient than they are for whites and Asians.  That pattern is disturbing because just a simple change of standards, making the test harder, shouldn't show it.  Something else is going on.

English Reading Performance
Student  Group
All Students
Economically Disadvantaged
Limited English Proficient
Students with Disabilities

The drop for whites is 7 points, for Asians 8, but 20 points for blacks, 21 for Hispanics and so on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why You Can't Do FSA Programs on the Internet

I'm sure few farmers would like to be compared the patrons of a check-cashing service, but when I read this piece from a professor who studies such services by working at one, that's what I thought.  Takes me back to the days of Sec. Glickman, and the effort led by someone whose name I forget, to follow through on reengineering business processes.  A small part of the effort was doing customer satisfaction surveys, which was a brand new concept to us FSA types.  After all, we were handing out money, so how could farmers not be satisfied with us?  </end sarcasm>

Actually the surveys as I remember did find that farmers were quite satisfied with their local offices (perhaps excluding the farm loan applicants, I'm not sure).  And the reason was simple--the <s>clerks</s>  <s>  program assistants</s> program technicians knew the farmers and could tailor their approach to the personality and needs of the individual.  That fact was then a big hurdle to the idea of moving FSA programs on-line to the extent that people could work from home.

Republican Farm Policy

Kevin Drum, probably the blogger whose views most coincide with mine, or rather vice versa, says that Republican farm policy makes perfect sense.

[edited to add]

I follow the Volokh Conspiracy, which just posted on the farm bill: crop insurance versus SNAP cuts issue.  I sometimes comment there, but I'm abstaining this time.  There's too much wrong and incomplete information there, probably because it's mostly a bunch of "city folk", as my mother would say.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shame on Starbucks

Yes, I'm talking about the ad the founder of Starbucks ran in today's Post and NYTimes in which he asks his customers to leave their guns at home, son, don't take your guns to Starbucks.  (Sorry, briefly channeled Mr. Cash.)

No, I'm not upset by his position.  The company can do anything they want, within the law.  Personally although there's been some open-carry demonstrators around in VA, I've not seen anyone with a weapon except police.  I don't think I particularly care one way or another--I don't go in bars which in my mind is where people, arms, and alcohol are a combustible mixture.  Starbucks usually not so much, though I did see one very heated exchange between a customer and a clerk in my local Starbucks a year or so ago.

So if I don't care about guns, why do I call "shame"? 

Because the letter is printed in monospaced type, probably elite.  And I've a personal peeve against such type: it's less legible than a good variable spaced typeface and with modern technology there's not a reason in the world to stick with elite, or pica.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Walt Jeffries and IT Development

Sugar Mountain Farm is a blog I follow.  Not sure why, maybe the combo of intimidating expertise, different lifestyle, humor, ....  and just enough commonality (that's not the right word, but it's close enough) with my rearing to be able to enjoy it vicariously.  (Come to think of it, I wonder if Walt ever read "Swiss Family Robinson", one of my favorite books when growing up.)

Anyhow, that's not the point.  Let me quote from most of a recent post:
Will [a son] is working on learning to weld stainless steel in preparation for making some of the parts we need for the butcher shop. Tractor ears was his first sheet metal project in stainless steel. By doing small useful tests we explore techniques and develop the necessary skills for design and production. This is a way. Chez Tao.

To build the butcher shop we developed techniques by building our cottage, a much smaller version using many of the same methods. Prior to the cottage we built the dog house. Before that a ferro cement and brick pig hut. Even earlier, table top models. With each progressively larger version we developed technique and honed skills.
To me that sounds much like the "code a little, test a little" process of software development and very different from the  big project "waterfall" model which used to reign supreme in the 1980's, and which seems to retain a hold even today.  It's a model which often leads to disaster, and waste of money--witness the failed project to create a common health record between DOD and VA.

There's not much point to this observation, except as it confirms the saying: "too soon old, too late smart".   There's much in my career I'd redo if I could.  And much of what I regret in my work life traces back to hubris. 

The Greeks were right.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Return to Punched Card Storage

Via Brad Delong at Grasping Reality, here's a post converting Google's data storage into punched card equivalent.  Bottom line: it would cover New England with 4.5 kilometers of punched cards.

(Given my training on using punched cards to run COBOL programs, I'm intrigued by the conversion.)

Murphy's Law in New Zealand

"“If you land in someone’s paddock [when flying using a jetpack], you will always land on their prime sheep,” Mr. Kenny says, stressing that liability insurance for pilots is a must."

As quoted at Marginal Revolution

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rep. Issa Praises Obama Administration!!

The nether reaches of hell must be starting to freeze.

This FCW article reports this comment by Rep. Issa:
"The whole effort has been a great success. I’m taking no positive shots at how they spent their money, because I don't think it created jobs. But it accounted for funding in a more transparent way than ever before, and did so on a small budget," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said at an event hosted by the Data Transparency Coalition on Sept. 10.
I have to admit I was skeptical of it, I haven't revisited the site since its early days, and I still suspect a subject-matter expert could punch holes in the data for her subject area.  But the fact remains, even if its reputation is a tad higher than it deserves, it does set an example for the future and there weren't many scandals related to the Recovery Act spending, once we got past the early glitches about the quality of data.    So at least one gold star for the Obama administration.

(Hmm, since I'm feeling devilish today, what's the odds of having a similar database for Pigford payments?)

South Versus Midwest

Politico has an article on the farm bill, summarizing the current status but with some discussion of the sectional differences Midwest versus South.  It argues that current plantings have increased in the Midwest, not so in the South.  (I've a reservation, TX and OK are down in current plantings, presumably partially because of drought. )

The issue of basing payments on planted acres versus base acres is always interesting: do we want the safety net for current and future farmers or for past farmers?  The issue of yields gets less attention--I've lost track of whether there's been any updating of yields in past farm bills.  A fine kettle of questions for some philosopher/economist to figure out.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Did ARS Sponsor This Cutting-Edge Research?

(The answer is "no", but I need a title.)

What's the research?

"The probability prize was awarded to animal scientists at Scotland's Rural College for making two related discoveries. "First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up," read their citation. "And second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again."

From the Ig Nobel Awards, via University Diary.

French Fries and Good Sentences

Al Kamen in the Post muses about why the Capitol cafeteria didn't retaliate on British food after Parliament refused to back a strike on Syria, a retaliation like the one when they renamed "french fries" to "freedom fries" back in 2003 when the French didn't back GWBush.

"The greater problem in this instance may have been that no one particularly likes British food, so there weren’t many options: Fish and chips to Fish and French fries or  English muffins to Cowardly Crumpets?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Things We Lose Without Knowing--the Milky Way

From Kottke -- most American kids will never see the Milky Way (from their home, I suppose).  Some, maybe even most, change is good, but some isn't.  (Though I suppose the people in this world who can see the Milky Way are often in what we used to call the Third World.  There's always tradeoffs--did Robert Heinlein write that?)

Harry Potter Kills

According to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, a scientific sampling of people who died in the last year would show that reading Harry Potter novels is strongly correlated with dying young.  If you don't read Harry Potter you're much more likely to live to a ripe old age.  Wish I had known that before I read the series.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Amazing Sentence of Today: Judges Err

"n ordinary litigation, the judges misunderstand things all the time and reach decisions anyway, and they rarely discover all that they’ve misunderstood.  "

This sentence is from a very good post by Stewart Baker at Volokh Conspiracy discussing the recently declassified FISA court materials.  Don't know whether he's right, but two points he makes:

  • the "wall" between law enforcement and intelligence which played a disputed role in the failures to prevent 9/11 was unreasonably enforced by Judge Royce Lamberth.
  • cultural differences between IT types and legal types may have played a big part in the problems.  (That's an attractive argument to me: I believe in Murphy's Law.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

EWG and Non-Farmers

The EWG has a new report out, entitled "City Slickers Harvest Cash Crop" which Ron Nixon in the NYTimes writes about here, using the hook of the possible extension of farm programs for another year.

EWG has a familiar theme: the inequity of government payments to people who don't get dirt under their nails.  Frankly, I'm surprised the amount here is so low:
 "Residents of America’s 54 largest cities collected more than $24 million in Direct Payment farm subsidies in 2012, according to new research by the Environmental Working Group."
Maybe I've been brainwashed by their previous reports to expect a bigger figure?    I wonder, would this headline sound better to the public: "Heirs of Deceased Farmers Receive Government Dollars"? Of course, we don't know how much is going to heirs, and how much is truly going to Wall Street investors in farmland, but probably the majority of the $24 million.  And it may be that those Wall Streeters who now own farmland have been suckered--if the current high farmland values turns out to be indicators of a bubble, they could be hurt.

EWG has Google maps of the locations of some recipients.  Perhaps significantly, they don't show NYC or Boston.   The distribution of locations in the DC area seems a bit more random than I'd expect; a few markers in the poorer areas, probably showing heirs.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Sailing, Sailing, Through the Arctic

I may have expressed the opinion that the vision of commercial ships sailing around Russia through the Arctic, particularly those sponsored by China, was an indicator of global warming.

Via Tom Ricks at the Best Defense, here's an interesting discussion of the practicality of this.  Bottom line, it's probably not practical for container ships, because they're limited in draft and beam, even though it can be significantly faster.

I recommend a book called The Box, on the development of containers.  This quote from the article is significant:
What is far more important than speed is reliability. Unlike the bulk shipping discussed earlier, schedule integrity is a key service-attribute for containerships. The Arctic will always suffer from periods of poor visibility and the potential for wind-driven ice, both of which can make routes with a comparatively low average transit time have a large variability around that average. More than half of all container cargo is now component-level goods—materials destined for factories for use in production processes operating on a just-in-time-type inventory-management system. That makes consistency, reliability, and schedule integrity of paramount importance. The key goal of container shipping is 99 percent on-time delivery. If this is attainable at all, it will be extraordinarily expensive using Arctic transit routes. Thus the variability in transit time that may be tolerable in bulk shipping is unacceptable for container shipping.

4-H and the Economist

Interesting article praising 4-H in The Economist, implying that it, extension, and land-grant u's account for the differences between US and European agriculture. 

I think not, actually--they contribute but don't "account".

Friday, September 06, 2013

Why Washington Employment in FSA Grows

From a recent GAO report on FSA enforcement of the adjusted gross income limits:
" For example, GAO found errors in 19 of the 22 tax return files it reviewed from FSA offices in two states; one of these errors led to a potentially improper payment of $40,000. FSA headquarters does not monitor state offices' reviews of tax returns to ensure that the offices are applying program guidance consistently and making accurate eligibility determinations, even though federal standards for internal control direct agencies to monitor and assess the quality of performance over time. Also, 2008 Farm Bill provisions requiring a distinction between farm and nonfarm income make it difficult for agency officials to verify if participants' incomes exceed the limits without making errors. Because the statutory limits for farm and nonfarm income differ, to verify such income, FSA officials must comb through sometimes long and complex tax returns to classify and calculate income--a difficult task for those who are not accountants or tax preparers. Recent bills in the House and Senate have proposed using total adjusted gross income instead of farm and nonfarm income, which would reduce the need for FSA to review tax returns."  [emphasis added]
People like to talk about the top-heavy Washington bureaucracy of various agencies, including FSA (yes, I'm looking at you NASCOE).  It's good to mock the proliferation of well-paid bigshots at both departmental and agency levels. But one should also remember that no one outside the agency is ready to trust field (in this case, state office) people to do things 100 percent right and to accept the mistakes if they don't.

I'd praise GAO for recommending simplifying the rules.  I'd also note the indications that some accountants and attorneys actually lie to FSA!  I'm shocked, shocked I say.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Civil Service College

Via Marginal Revolution, here's the "programme" of Singapore's Civil Service College for "Officers" (which I think is their term for front line employees, FSA's equivalent of the county offices.  One item is a 16-hour course in "Responsiveness In Frontline Customer Service: Making Customer Satisfaction A Daily Pleasure".

I've noticed a cultural difference between the other former members of the British Empire and the U.S. in regards to government employees: in the US we call them "bureaucrats" with a pejorative edge; in the other countries, they're "civil servants" or "bureaucrats" used as a neutral term. It may trace to differences in how we established independence (a la David Hackett Fischer's book on the US and New Zealand): we had a revolution against British authority, the face of which was bureaucrat/civil servants.  While Canada, Australia, Singapore, India generally had a more amicable parting of the ways with the "mother country", in which the local people just took over the bureaucracy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

I Think We Look Pretty Good

To this Indian student who writes about his impressions of the U.S.  Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

At least, "pretty good' is my overall impression of his impressions--impressive, isn't it?

My Best Line of the Day

In commenting on a Wonkblog post about whether Americans knew where Damascus and Syria were, I wrote: "Surely the question is not whether Americans know where Damascus is, but whether our targeters know where the Chinese and Russian embassies are."

I thought it was good, but then I realized Ezra Klein is so young he probably was in grade school when we hit the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo action.   

No one should be that young.

Tip of the Hat

To Diana Nyad.  When I heard two days ago she was trying to swim between  Cuba and the US again, for the umpteenth time, I said she should give up, she's too old.

Turns out she wasn't and I was wrong.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

FSA and Drones

Via Marginal Revolution, here's a piece on how archeologists are using drones in their work.

Causes me to ask: when is FSA going to drones?  Last I knew FSA had a set of aerial photographs which were scaled and ortho-corrected (which I think means adjusted for changes in elevation) with which one could measure the area of a field, and a yearly set of slides taken from small planes to help identify which crop was in which field.  I'm sure that's changed as they've implemented their GIS system, but I'm not sure how.  On the theory the agency still needs to spot-check the accuracy of what they're being told by the farmer, I'd assume there's still some aerial slides being taken.  Drones might be a better approach (except for all the rules and regulations about their use, which presumably archeologists in Peru don't need to worry about).

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Feelings on Syria--the Obama Doctrine

I'm as ambivalent about Syria as I am on most things, but I'd urge my representatives in Congress to support limited military action in response to the use of chemical weapons.

Seems to me we want to raise the costs of the use of such weapons anyway we can, both now and for the future.  I'd even recommend a corollary to the "Obama doctrine:" anytime and anywhere we determine that chemical weapons have been used, the perpetrators of such use may be struck by our military forces. (Did you know there was an "Obama Doctrine"--I didn't until I checked wikipedia.)

Having said that, I'm assuming our military has identified targets, the destruction of which will thread all the needles of the obstacles critics have raised:  minimum harm to civilians, maximum harm to those involved in the use of the weapons, least degradation of Assad's command and control over such weapons, most painful to Assad, etc.

[posted prematurely]  

Failed Historian's Favorite Sentence

"The truth is that what goes on in the pages of the American Educational Research Journal stays in the pages of the American Education Research Journal."

That's from an interesting article by Sam Wineburg on history, historians, and making an impact in the real world.  His point, to save lazy people from clicking through, is that there's no set of interpreters who take the results of academic research in peer-reviewed journals and make it attractive to the general public, or even the teachers in schools.''

[Update--to clarify, I'm the "failed historian" in the title.]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Different Roles for Different Folks

That's the theme of a good post on the Washington post site by Jonathan Bernstein.  The point is that political activists and political officeholders have different roles in our government.  Some raise hell; others are the decider.