Sunday, March 31, 2013

The End of WASP Hegemony

I remember when I was in the Army talking about the old geezers (i.e. 50-60 year olds) who spent their time at the VFW or American legion posts talking about the old days--we agreed we'd never be them. The Times had an article on the current struggles of the American Legion.

And the National Council of Churches has downsized severely.

Bottomline: the old WASP institutions which dominated the nation when I was young are fading, like Gen. MacArthur's old soldiers.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Modern Face of Dairy

$170,000 for a 3-year old Jersey cow.  The "Winner-take-all" society expands its reach to the world of dairy.  And as a footnote, the owners used to farm a 900 acre farm in upstate New York.  Guess it was too small to survive. Hat Tip Northview Dairy, who recently visited NYC. (and didn't like it).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ads I Hate

For some reason I don't like the ads on the Weather Channel, these two categories in particular:
  1. the law firms trolling for those who suffer from asbestos or various medicines so they can mount a class action suit.  Not sure why they bug me; maybe I remember in the old days when it was both illegal and unseemly for lawyers and other professionals to advertise.
  2. the medical device makers, particularly the motorized wheelchair ones.  Here my puritan soul is aggrieved: you should make do with crutches or walkers, not sit on your butt in a device my tax dollars help pay for.
My burst of aggravation was triggered by this NBC news piece on no. 2, and maybe the fact spring is late this year.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Boost Administrative Capacity?--Never Happen

From a Wonkblog post interview on the social security disability insurance program :
" The disability programs could always be run better, and one shortcoming of the “This American Life” story is that there was little discussion of the nuts and bolts of this. For example, it would be wise to make more investments in the administrative capacity of the Social Security Administration so that they could do more reviews, check up on people with continuing disabilities and see if they’re still eligible." [emphasis added]
I daresay we will never see mainstream media urging more dollars for greater administrative capacity on the part of the government. [Yes, I'm feeling cynical today.]

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Trucks: Different Cultures, Different Countries

A cousin observed she didn't see many trucks in Ireland (apropos of the recent snow storm). Just for the hell of it I checked: 

In 2009 we had 134,880,000 cars, and 110,561,000 trucks in the US (US Census), or 45 percent of our vehicles were trucks.  In Britain there were 28,813,000 cars and 3,767,000 trucks, or 11.5 percent were trucks.

I Love People Who Act Like Bigshots

Politico reports on a Congressman's kerfuffle with the Park Service. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

One of My Pet Ideas Is the Weakness of Government

I'll throw out an example:  A map of English counties (before 1974 reorg?)

A map of French departments (colors indicate population density)
If I understand correctly, the French department and the English county are the first administrative subdivision below the country (yes, I realize England isn't a country, but the same would apply if I showed a map of British counties). Compare these, with their relatively equal proportions, with a map of the US at the same level of administration:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Iraq: Were We Lied To?

The trigger for this is a recent discussion over on Ta-Nehesi Coates blog looking back at the decision to invade Iraq.  Most of the comments trend liberal, which is usually okay because that's what I am.  But some of them assert the administration lied us into the war, which troubles me.

Yes, there was exaggeration and probably the occasional lie, but I don't believe there were many conscious lies.  What was going on was people believed what they wanted to believe was true; they deluded themselves and then they deluded the rest of us.

I won't support my position by rehashing the events in 2002/3; that's tedious.  I would point to a parallel I see in more recent events:

It seems apparent that the Romney campaign and many media figures on the right fully believed that Romney was going to win the election.  They told us so repeatedly.  In my surfing I'd hit Fox News and see Pat Caddell et. al. confidently predicting victory.  After election day I don't recall anyone saying: "I knew all along Romney was doomed to defeat, but I lied to our audience just to keep spirits up."   Now there's no reason for a pundit to make a prediction he knows to be false and which will be proved to be false within a week or a month. That wouldn't be rational. [ed.--who says people are rational?]

So I can only conclude they were self-deluded, just as I think GWB and Cheney were back in 2003.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Maybe the Best Place to Work Shouldn't Be?

Government Executive has a piece on the 12 best small federal agencies to work at.  Topping the list is:
In 2012, the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation topped the very small agency list with a Best Places to Work job satisfaction and commitment score of 90.1 on a scale of 100. Its mission is to assist Hopi and Navajo Indians impacted by the relocation that Congress mandated in 1974 for members of the tribes who were living on each other’s land.
 Now I applaud their accomplishment in being the best place to work in the government.  But the thought does pass through my mind: there's 39 years between the Congressional mandate and now.  While I understand relocating people is a long process, shouldn't it have been finished maybe 10 years ago?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

30 Gigs of Email?

I can't believe that, but apparently Ezra Klein has almost 30 gigs, because that's all Google would sell him space for.  See this Drum commentary, which quotes Klein.

Banks and the Agriculture Committee

Here's a Salon article on how the banking industry loves the Agriculture Committees.  Why?  Because they oversee "derivative trading", which farmers know as "commodity futures".  Hat Tip Wonkblog.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

FSA Makes Progress

I commend the MIDAS people for displaying metrics on their posts (i.e., how many visits the page has seen and how many today).  This update from the manager is an example.

Nostalgia Day

John Fea labels this image: "Prehistoric Googling".

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Best Sentence of the Day

"I have always been quite happy with the skin I’m in, though I will now admit that there is more of me in the skin than before."

Beauregarde on growing older.

Monday, March 18, 2013

FSA and Drones

Here's a NYtimes blog post on the proliferation of drones in civilian life.  We already have a college offering a bachelor's degree in them.  One of the uses people imagine for them is agriculture.  And there's this from an article in the print Times on the same subject.
"Mr. Anderson, in contrast, said that later this year, his company would introduce a helicopter for agricultural surveillance that would sell for less than $1,000. “That’s not per hour, that’s for the helicopter,” he said."
 Sounds to me like aerial photography is going to see a paradigm change.

A Good Sentence on Rome

"There were customs duties, credit mechanisms and even the odd 'pop-up' shop for merchandise that had fallen off the back of a chariot…." from Brad DeLong, quoting from a piece describing the variety of markets in ancient Rome.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Mysteries of France

From Mr. Beauregarde's blog:

" In France we have three choices of fuel at the pump – two star and four star unleaded petrol – which in France is classified by its octane content 95 for 2 star and 98 for 4 star – we also have diesel. A staggering two thirds of French cars run on diesel, and with good reason, a litre of diesel at the pump is on average 20 Euro centimes cheaper than a litre of petrol."

"successive governments ran scrappage schemes to try and get as many petrol cars off the road as possible. Well, petrol (although unleaded) was dangerous. Petrol fumes were far more harmful than diesel fumes, so via a system of generous « cashbacks » motorists were encouraged to trade in their old petrol guzzling cars for « cleaner » diesel cars. At the height of the scrappage schemes, anyone owning a petrol driven car over eight years old, could trade it in for a brand new diesel car and get a 1000 Euro cashback, generally given in the form of a reduction on the new car. Many dealerships often doubled the premium. The results were twofold. Not only did we all buy diesel cars, but also we bought small « economical » cars."

Why is gasoline  so much higher octane than in the States?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Paperless Office

I remember when IRMD (IT types) was promising the System/36 would mean the paperless office. That didn't work out. But we may be working towards the newspaperless society, given the shutdown of this paper company's last newsprint machine.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Reader Is Doomed, and So Am I

One of the problems of growing old is maintenance.  Just getting going in the morning takes a while.  Have to do my 15 minutes of back exercises each day just to keep from having a sore back on a regular basis.  (It works--one visit to the doctor has averted lots of pain, but doing the routine is a pain...)  "Maintenance" also includes the obsolescence of one's knowledge. 

Back in the day when we first got our telephone it was a party line, and you had a crank to turn to ring the bell.  One long ring got you the operator, and a combination of longs and shorts was the code for each of the four or five other households on the line.  Now I was never physically coordinated, so when I first had occasion to use the phone my ringing was atrocious. I'd stutter on the long ring, making it sound like two shorts, etc. so you'd have to apologize to the person who answered because it was the wrong number. 

Anyhow, after time and practice, I finally got good with the phone.  Then of course we got it replaced with the old dial handset, which required a new set of skills...etc. etc.

What triggered this nostalgia? Almost anything these days gets me going but the announcement that Google was killing its Google software this summer is the trigger.  I've used it for years to follow a bunch of blogs and some other websites.  And now I'm faced with finding a new RSS reader, and learning it.  That's maintenance, and that's a problem.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Appoint Someone With Authority..."

One of the old standbys of government bureaucracy is this: you elevate the issue/area which is important (to you) by asking that the big boss assign it to someone who reports to her.   Or, if you're Congress or the President, you direct that the issue/area be given a lofty title and moved up the bureaucratic ladder.

Does this work?  I'm cynical.  I think the result is mostly pro forma, just resulting in multiplying the number of titles and the amount of bureaucracy. In real life any manager has only a certain number of hours in her day and she's going to spend her energies on the important issues and talk with the people in charge of those important issues.  Usually that means that things like administration, finance, technology, open government, HR, don't get much attention, at least until they make a noise in the Washington Post, on Fox, or on Twitter.

(The title is taken from something I saw on line--perhaps dealing with declassification or FOIA, but it applies to many areas.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Decline of WASP Culture

The American Spectator gloats a bit over the decline of mainline Protestantism, as represented by the National Council of Churches and the Rockefellers.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Customer Satisfaction

Recently got my car serviced at the dealers (which doesn't happen often because I don't drive much).  There were a couple followup customer satisfaction surveys, and the counter guy (not the right designation but the guy who wrote up my paperwork) said his pay depended on my satisfaction.

I mention this because I've never run into this followup with any government office, whether FSA, DMV, SSA, IRS, or whoever.  I don't know why.

Actually I do: government agencies figure their customer has to come to them and government appropriators see no need to provide money to measure customer satisfaction.

Though I dinged Al Gore for his Reinventing Government initiative, I think I remember that he tried to emphasize customer satisfaction. At least back when management was looking at county service agencies there was a survey Len C. ran.  I'm a bit skeptical of both the one-time survey and the followup one like the car dealer did.  I doubt the data is really accurate because I tend to be over generous, but I do think trends, particularly in the followup ones, would be informative. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Pioneers Get Arrows in the Back

I suppose that title is not politically correct, but it is a metaphor for a corollary of Harshaw's rule ("you never do things right the first time").  The latest example I've run across: Reston 50 years ago installed air conditioning using Lake Anne water. (Back then Reston was the epitome of what today we'd call crunchy trendiness.)  While cutting edge then, it's had problems in the last couple decades.

Maybe the better metaphor is, if you're a pioneer of what is supposed to be a better trail, you may end up eating things you don't want to, like the Donner party.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Crop Insurance and Politics

Chris Clayton reports on bills introduced in Congress to cut crop insurance.  It attracts an unusual number of comments, partly because the thread degenerates a bit (though farmers are still more polite than politicians.)

Program Time and Real Time

This excerpt from notice PL-251  spurs my memory:
In the past, changes made to data related to “actively engaged in farming”, cash rent tenant, member information, etc., simply overrode the previous information recorded. But since the determinations related to the information collected on CCC-902 are continuous, the concept of the Business File application is that the determinations are effective for a specific period of time until the plan is revised and new determinations are made by COC. At any point, users should be able to view the producer’s farm operating plans to get an historical view of the changes made to the operation.
This concept is similar to new functionality that is being developed through the MIDAS effort so it is important that State and County Office users understand the concept and how changes made in error affect the historical information available. The reason a “delete” option is not available in the system is because of the need to maintain the historical data.
The problem in the data model always is mapping reality to program requirements.  In the real world, a death, a change of ownership, etc. occurs at any time, which to me argues for specifying the date of such change. But then the question is how the event is applied to program requirements, which is another kettle of fish, and not an easy set of fish to fry.

When we automated operations on the System/36 we seemed to have two options offered by the IT types: continuous files (i.e., name and address, farm file) or year-specific files (acreage reporting, contracts). That meant the clerk/PA had to translate in her head the significance of new/changed data into the meaning for the applicable program and year.  Experience showed those didn't work well enough, so we gradually added time data to some (beginning and end years in the farm producer file) and created year-specific records within others (eligibility file).  That helped, but changing file structure was always a major commitment of programming and testing time, so it was hard to justify with our other priorities.

I wonder: is Ctrl-Z a standard in MIDAS, because while good data should be retained, there's always the need to back out bad data.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Justifying War: Rationale Versus Results

Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged yesterday on the Iraq war, triggered by this James Fallows post, which Kevin Drum also commented on here. Fallows' original point was that we Americans have usually inflated the threat we face, whether in Iraq or elsewhere on the international scene.

The general thrust of the three posts, plus the commentary on the TNC post, is that we've been lied into war (a big oversimplification because the commentary was more thoughtful and various) in the past and wars/military interventions were not worthwhile from America's viewpoint.

I took the contrarian position, as you might expect, and pushed back, citing Kosovo and Korea as examples, which I'm not going to repeat here.  But thinking about Truman and Korea last night I believe there's often a big gap between the rationale for an intervention and what the results actually are, some years down the road. :
  1. In the case of our intervention in Iran, overthrowing Mossadegh and reinstating the shah, the rationale was defeating a leftist, pinko leader and supporting someone we could work with. The result we've seen after 60 years is our actions led to a religious dictatorship. 
  2. In the case of our intervention in Korea, we thought we were keeping the communists from taking over the whole peninsula.  The result we've seen after 62 years is our actions led to the development of the 15th biggest economy in the world. 
  3. In the case of our intervention in Iraq II, the result hasn't matched the rationale.
Maybe the bottom line is that we never really know what we're doing, so we just do our best.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Crop Insurance and Organics

Sustainable AGriculture highlighted RMA's dropping of the 5 percent surcharge for organic insurance, which seems to have been counterbalanced by their acceptance of OIG recommendations on transitional yields and loss adjustment for organic crops.

This OIG report finds that FCIC/RMA has been offering "transitional yields" (the crop yields assigned to a farm for years when there's no actual production history availabe) for organically grown crops which are too high.  For example, if the transitional yield is 125 bushels an acre for organically grown corn, and the true yield is 11...  Congress has pushed the expansion of crop insurance to organic crops, RMA has responded, but had a contractor evaluate the experience. Excerpts:

The contractor recommended that transitional yields be lowered by 35 percent for insurance plans that use APH yields as the basis for the production guarantee in order to better reflect experience data and lower loss ratios. RMA acknowledges that transitional yields for organic crops are generally too high, but has not implemented the recommendation because it considers the production data currently available to be too “thin” to support a methodology for setting separate transitional yields for organic crops.

We found that insured producers for 35 of 48 organic crop policies with losses did not have production histories supporting that they could grow the insured crops to reach the yields used to determine the production guarantee or amount of insurance.16 This occurred because RMA directs AIPs to apply transitional yields and underwriting standards established for crops produced using conventional farming practices to crops produced using organic farming practices. As a result, at least $952,000 of $2.56 million in indemnities that RMA underwrote were excessive. In addition, insured producers with organic crops experienced a programwide loss ratio of 105 percent.17 In contrast, insureds with conventional crops experienced a loss ratio of only 67 percent.

OIG also found the loss adjusters did not follow procedures for adjusting organic crops.·
Twenty-two stated that the AIPs do not require them to obtain and/or review the organic plan and inspection report.
Seven said that the loss adjustment requirements for adjusting crops produced using organic farming practices were no different than for crops produced using conventional farming practices.
Five stated that the agent and underwriter collected the organic plan and inspection report.
Five loss adjusters gave varying reasons for not obtaining and reviewing the organic plans and inspection reports.
 Bottom line: Organic crops can't actually match conventional cropping in yields, at least not on available data.  It will take years to build the data and the loss adjusting experience to do a good job on organics.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Persistence of Historical Patterns

Mississippi was a major source of the guns which the Chicago police department recovered (third ranking state after Illinois and Indiana). Mississippi was also a major source of the black population of Chicago during the "Great Migration".

Friday, March 01, 2013

Henry Wallace Revisited

Oliver Stone with a collaborator have made a program/book revisiting American history: the untold story.  One of their themes is praising Henry Wallace, former USDA secretary, former VP, for his position in 1948 challenging the Cold War.  In their view, the aggressive stance of the US vis a vis  the Soviet Union under Truman triggered it; a more conciliatory attitude would have avoided it.

Brad DeLong links to a reconsideration by Wallace in 1952 of his 1948 views, in which he totally recants his views.  It's worth mentioning, because some on the left took a lot longer to become skeptical of the Soviets. It took Khrushchev's speech criticizing Stalin, then the violent putdown of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 (a rebellion which led to soccer-style place kickers in the NFL in the form of Pete and Charlie Gogolak), to convince many.