Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Relative, the Zombie

A relative of mine is engaged in selling a house and buying a condo, so called the electric utility to arrange the transfer of billing, and had major problems getting it done..  The third person my relative dealt with finally figured out the problem: relative was dead.

Apparently when the spouse died some years back, the person who handled the update of records then added my relative's name to the account, but then recorded the relative as dead, rather than the spouse.

On Public Service, Bureaucrats and Libraries

Neil Irwin at Wonkblog has an interview with Paul Volcker on his new ideas for governance. 

One exchange led me to do a Google ngram, comparing the occurrences of "public service" and "bureaucrat".  In American books the frequency for the two started out with "public service" more frequent and "bureaucrat" less, but the two lines cross about 1976 so we now think more of "bureaucrats" and less of "public service".  "Public service" peaked in 1920 or so.

That's bad.

But I'd like to recognize a very good bureaucrat, Ginny Cooper, the retiring head of the DC public libraries.  Among other things, in 7 years she tripled the number of books checked out.  I remember using first the Mt. Vernon building, then the MLK building on G street a lot in my years in the city.  Libraries to my mind are more important than schools--you know some of the students in the school are not interested, but you know all of the people in the library are interested.  (Except for the homeless, which is a problem in Reston as well as DC.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fading Titans

First Eastman Kodak went bankrupt, now Sony's electronics business is their Achilles heel.

What's the quote from Ecclesiastes?

Harvesting the White House Garden

This week, they had a harvest event--inviting the kids who planted in April to harvest in late May.  More and more the garden becomes a publicity event, because a true garden would be harvested (and planted) right along, in succession.  Radishes, lettuce, scallions, peas, etc. grow on their own schedule, not the convenience of a PR event.  I'm not writing to criticize Mrs. Obama and her staff. It's just a matter of fact you can't live real life in the White House, at least not if you invite the cameras in.

As a followup to a previous post which I can't find so may not have completed, despite my skepticism their spring wheat is heading out and seems to be filling the rows pretty well.  Just a reminder I sometimes (often?) don't know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny: the Case of Drones

The "ontogeny" bit is a stray factoid from my 55+ years old high school biology class.  I assume it's been invalidated by now, but the idea was that looking at the progress of the human embryo you could see the progress of the phylla (i.e. single-cell through gills to lungs, etc.)

Anyhow, on a completely different subject, here's a piece on the arms race in drones.  Every country with a military seems to want to add armed drones to their arsenal.  Now the evolution of aircraft went from reconnaissance and artillery spotting  to bombing to hand guns and rifles to machine guns.  So far drones have gone through the first two stages.  I'm waiting for a drone-destroyer aircraft/drone that will seek to regain dominance over the airspace.  (That's what happened on the sea when torpedoes arrived: first you had torpedo boats, then you had torpedo boat destroyers, which became just destroyers.) 

On Giving Up Books

Stanley Fish, a famous and controversial professor of literature (I think that's right), writes a blog for the NYTimes.  In this post, he writes about getting rid of most of his books, what he feels about it (not much), and his qualms about possibly retiring.

For someone who's been reading avidly since an early age it's a melancholy piece.  But I'm afraid my attitude towards my books is more like one of his commenters: "you'll have to pry them from my cold dead hands".  But in reality I read very little literature these days, mostly biographies and histories, and I could and should clean out the house.  (But see my previous post on hoarding.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

No GMO Organisms

The Times has an article today on the search for supplies of commodities which aren't GMO.  Seems to be particularly inspired by Whole Foods decision to emphasize such products.  (I own some stock in Whole Foods.)  It cites a premium of $1.50 to $2 per bushel for grain, and discusses the difficulty in doing a dual-track supply system.   It also includes this, which I found astonishing:
And farmers cannot simply replace genetically engineered seeds with conventional ones, because soil in which genetically modified crops have been grown may not be immediately suitable for conventional crops.
“There’s a transition period required,” said Richard Kamolvathin, senior vice president at Verity Farms, which sells meats, grains and other products derived from conventional crops, as well as natural soil amendments. “You don’t just stop growing G.M.O. seed and then start growing non-G.M.O. seed.”
 Now I understand moving from conventional to organic production requires a 3-year phase in, but just switching seed?  I suppose there might be herbicide/pesticide residues, but how long do they last?

Andy Warhol, Hoarder

I didn't know Warhol was a hoarder, nor did I know psychologists are reconsidering their categorization of hoarders as suffering from OCD.  See this article.

(I'm a hoarding fellow-traveler, as we used to say in the '50's.)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Discovered: The Undetectable Extension Charm and Rolling Thunder

Wife and I recently watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, on DVD in which Hermione's handbag with its inexhaustible contents plays a key role.  Turns out it's because she applied the "Undetectable Extension Charm" to it, making it capable of infinite expansion.

According to this Washington Times article, there were 750,000 motorcycle riders in last year's Rolling Thunder. And this says 500,000 are expected for this years.  Apparently someone will apply the charm to the Pentagon parking lots, which are the staging area for the riders. 

Why do I say this?  Well, lets say 4 motorcycles can fit in the space for one car.  Most of the cycles I see on TV have only one rider, so lets say 500,000 divided by 4 = 125,000 car equivalents, but take off 25,000 to allow for double riders.  Assume that all the people at the Pentagon drive to work with no car pooling (not true--car pooling and subway and bus all serve the building), so there must be 100,000 people working there?

Not so, it's more like 30,000.   Bottom line is, the organizers of all demonstrations in DC claim numbers which are too high, including even the vets, but the media never scrutinize the vets.  That would be politically incorrect.

(Wiki answers says the Pentagon has 8,000 parking spots.)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Capping Crop Insurance Subsidies

Here's the page from the Congressional Record containing the amendment to cap the federal subsidy on crop insurance premiums.  Essentially if the producer is over $750K AGI according to FSA at the beginning of the crop year, the subsidy is whacked 15 points.  The Secretary can waive the requirement.

Though I'm populist and liberal enough to like the concept, there's some issues there.
  • Getting congruence between the FSA records and the reinsurance year, given that different crops have different dates and different terms.
  • Getting congruence between FSA "producers" and FCIC "insureds" (though that may be a problem which RMA and FSA have already worked out.
  • the tipping point.  If a producer goes over AGI by one dollar, he may lose much more in subsidy
[Rural Blog on the amendment.]

FCIC, Fraud, and Pigford

Sen. Hagan of NC got an amendment to the farm bill passed, allowing some use of the crop insurance fund to look for fraud.  Her actions were inspired by the biggest crop insurance fraud yet discovered, located in eastern NC. (Not sure whether it was the biggest in money terms ($100 million), or in the numbers of people involved.  .  I was led to these articles:
Maybe I'm wrong, but I think this is a reminder that fraud is an equal opportunity temptation.  Also a reminder that whenever there's a new program, or a steep increase in an old program, the incentive to defraud is raised, and bureaucrats would be well advised to increase their counter-measures.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pigford Lawyers Hire Lobbyists

That's the report from Politico.

John Boyd is not happy, asking very reasonably IMHO why they need lobbyists now? 

Seems to me both the Pigford I and II settlements are over, all except the shouting.  There might be a need for lobbyists in case a House committee wants to look into the role of the lawyers in crafting and administering the settlement.  But who can say?

VA, DOD, and Me

Though I'm a veteran, I've stayed away from the VA, not much there for me.

But I've watched with interest through the years, particularly in the pages of the Washington Monthly, as the VA has worked on incorporating computers into their health record system, then later as the DOD and VA have tried and failed, so far, to come up with one health record system which will follow the military person from active duty to the VA hospital to the grave.

In skimming the papers this morning I note DOD Secretary Hagel was getting flak for wanting to study the issue further, someone in Congress said we needed not VA and DOD systems which could interoperate but one system.  Though my bias has always been towards one system, as I've aged I wonder whether that's right.  In my USDA days with Infoshare we were trying to build one system which could serve at least ASCS, FmHA, SCS, and possibly FCIC and Extension.  Needless to say we failed.  The best I understand these days MIDAS is an FSA initiative, with little or no carryover to NRCS, and none to RD.

Maybe back in the day we would have been better off just focusing on file transfers of data, use more brute force and keep interconnections looser rather than tighter.  Certainly with DOD and VA they've spent years and millions and failed.  I don't know.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Our Ante-bellum Government

Stumbled on an interesting publication from Ohio, written by the auditor, called "Ohio Lands Book".

Seems the federal government was active in the subsidizing of:
  • public schools
  • canals
  • railroads
  • ministers (apparently uniquely, Congress designated something over 40,000 acres for supporting religion)
  • salt springs
  • swamplands
  • specific grants to colleges (i.e., preceding the Morrill Land Grant Act.)
[updated to insert "acres]

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oh For the Days of "No Cost" Tobacco

Once upon a time long ago there was great outrage when people discovered the government (ASCS) was doing tobacco price support (and marketing quota) programs at the same time the Surgeon General was saying smoking was bad. 

After sufficient pontificating on the Hill, legislation was passed which tried to make the tobacco program "no cost"--that is, the costs of the program were borne by the tobacco industry, at least in theory--some dispute over the accounting for administrative functions. 

That was a while ago, and the meme about USDA supporting tobacco had dwindled almost to nothing.  Dwindled at least until today, when some Senators have discovered that RMA/FCIC subsidizes crop insurance for tobacco and are hoping to amend the farm bill to prohibit that.

All cynicism aside, I can't disagree with them.  When pot is legalized, I would firmly oppose offering crop insurance for it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Early Playing: Baseball Factoids

Ran across two factoids today:

Mr. Cabrera is on the list of people who hit the most homers by the time they were 30.   What's sort of surprising is two of the people started their major league careers at 17 (Mel Ott and  Jimmie Foxx)  And two of the three top hitters aren't on the list of 12 top hitters at all: Babe Ruth (started off pitching) and Barry Bonds (started off clean). Hat Tip owed, perhaps to Powerline.

And the Texans, who are always biggest, best and first, also were playing baseball before the Civil War, and during.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Maid's Quarters: $1.5 Millon

And that's the low-end.  If you want your maid to have good quarters, you can spend $3.5 million.

But your wine can be housed for a mere $158,000.

All of this from this graphic in the NYTimes, accompanying an article about the tallest residential building in NYC, now under construction, many of the apartments of which are sold, some to wealthy foreigners.

John Kenneth Galbraith used to have great fun poking at apparent excesses like this; not sure we have anyone like that today.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Use Proportional Spaced Type, Please

The White House released the emails about Benghazi, and Kevin Drum has excerpts.

I'm back on my hobbyhorse: for once and for all, proportional spaced type is more legible than the old monospaced pica and elite type, familiar to some of us from the SmithCorona/Remington days. So why Gen. Petraeus and the NCTC are using monospaced only shows how backward some in the intelligence/foreign affairs community are.  Get with the program, join the 21st century.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Scandals of Yesteryear: Billie Sol Estes, RIP

This has been a week of scandals, or at least supposed scandal.  But they don't do scandals like they used to.  These modern people just have no idea of how to make a scandal and how to cover it.  Let me tell you how it was in my day.

Billie Sol Estes was a real piece of work.  He died the other day, and the Times ran an obit which only touched the surface.  Bloomberg had this piece on him. Robert Caro had a whole chapter on him in his LBJ bio. And he was a cat man.

Who was he?  A wheeler dealer equal to Mark Twain's imagination (remember the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn?). He's called "the king of Texas wheeler-dealers", which isn't wrong.

He could call the vasty deep, and they might answer.  (Just so happens the town where he died, Granbury/deCordoba, Texas was just devastated by a tornado. He didn't go quietly into that good night.)

When I arrived at ASCS in 1968, I started to hear of Billie Sol, even though his downfall was 6 years earlier.  Old records were stored in the attic of the South Building,  Most of the records were in old metal file cabinets and accessible to anyone willing to walk up a flight of stairs from the 6th floor and brave the dust and gloom.  But some of the records were under lock and key in the vault; these were sensitive records, probably personnel stuff and perhaps some civil defense material.  The crown jewel, or at least the records which got talked about, were the Billie Sol Estes records. 

There's mention in the wikipedia entry of his buying cotton allotments, though not in the Times obit.  As was explained to me, part of his scheme was to buy cotton allotments in one area of Texas where the yield was low, and transfer them to a county where the yield was high.  So a 100 acre allotment in county A would equate to 300 pounds per acre, where if it was transferred to county B the same 100 acres could grow 600 pounds, and consequently be worth a lot more. My impression was that this was a loophole in the ASCS regs governing allotment transfers, which got plugged later by a rule change (so in my example the county B allotment would be just 50 acres).

When the Billie Sol scandal broke, USDA and ASCS were very much in the limelight, because he had ties to some of the officials (Texas state office, I think, but not sure) and some had to resign.   As I understood, third or fourth hand, in 1962 ASCS had no records system, or at least not an adequate one.  So as investigators tried to piece together what happened they gathered together all the records they could find, which were the ones which ended in the vault.

Now Congress, even though under the control of the Dems, had fun investigating because the blowhards and good government types (not always mutually exclusive types) love the publicity and the feeling of cleaning the Augean stables.  (ed: going overboard here on literary references.)  I'm not sure whether their staff actually saw all the records in the vault, or whether the agency was maybe hiding some.  

I did hear they were very efficient:  the Administrative Services division had two men with somewhat similar last names, one was a GS-9 dealing with property, the other a GS-12 who dealt with records. The Congressional committee hauled the poor property man into their hearing and pestered him with questions about records until they finally figured out they had the wrong man.

Anyhow, one result of the scandal was a very formalized system of recordkeeping for communications with the field, official record copies and finder copies, and a centralized depositary for the records.  Over the years of my career, that system was gradually eroded away, as people lost awareness of the original problem it was created to solve.  And, perhaps even more important, new  new equipment (office copiers and word processing which replaced carbon sets) and new people with new ideas on how to communicate proposals and make decisions took the place of the old hands.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Idyllic and the Real--Horses and Farming

The Times runs an article today: Farm Equipment That Runs on Oats.

It's about a farm in Vermont, associated with a co-housing collective, doing the locavore/sustainable farming life.  The farmer uses horses for most chores, saving the tractor for "heavy soil".  He and the writer celebrate the emotions of feeling at one with the team, understanding their personalities and ways, etc etc. You may observe from the title and the "etc.s" that the story struck a nerve.

These give the idea:
“People are attracted to the way of working with animals, of being back in touch with nature, of regaining a kind of rhythmic elegance to our lives.”....
Still, this elaborate routine provides the sort of connection to living things that Mr. Leslie believes people today are longing for — and it is why he is convinced that farming with horses will have a real renaissance.
“I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality,” he said. “That leads to a deeper self-understanding.”
It's all fine and dandy for those who want this sort of life, but we had horses for about the first 10 years of my life.  From that jaundiced perspective I'd offer a few observations:
  •  The Amish have a sustainable life, but not this family. The farmer and partner have only one child, a girl about 6.  If you're going to have a sustainable way of living you need to have some more children, so at least one will stay on the land.  
  • If you're living a locavore life, you don't need much cash, meaning you aren't depositing much into Social Security and Medicare.  So having adult children to support your old age is important.
  • One of the downsides of this farming can be observed in the Amish: it tends not to support the ideals of women's liberation.  Because field work is usually more strenuous, the males tend to get stuck with that (in the article it sounds as if the man does communing with the horses though my mother did enjoy driving a team) meaning the females get stuck with the house work. The internal combustion engine and electric motor did much to free women.
  • It's dangerous.  Farming is dangerous whatever motive power is used, but I suspect the accident rate was higher in 1930 when horses were predominant than today.  To their credit, the article's author notes a very bad accident with the horses early in the farmer's career which broke both legs of his partner.  It doesn't say how they managed in the months before she was able to do resume her work.
For anyone interested, here's a link to a 1921 Cornell extension study on tractors versus horses.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Counter to NY Times on Pigford

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has a response to the NYTimes article I linked to previously.

It's a more detailed response than others I've seen.  It ends with a repudiation of one of the figures mentioned in the Times article:
"The Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates was created at the beginning of the Pigford lawsuit. Tom Burrell, mentioned in the April 26 New York Times article, was never a part of the Network. His Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFFA) in Tennessee is not the same as the group in North Carolina. Burrell speaks for himself.

Thomas Burrell and his organization never served as representatives of class counsel in the Pigford settlement or the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (BFDL), known as Pigford II.

Burrell and his organization were not active in the Pigford claims process, and class
counsel in BFDL has not worked with him or his organization on claims nor accepted any claimshe or his organization might have prepared. In fact, class counsel had reported his activities tothe U.S. District Court in an effort to prevent him from spreading false information about theclaims process, and in opinions rendered on January 3, 2005 and September 6, 2005, DistrictCourt Judge Paul L. Friedman charged that Burrell had “given false hope to thousands of AfricanAmerican farmers.”

What Burrell has done, but which the article does not make clear, is hijack the claims
process for his own self interest. Burrell’s actions have been detrimental to the legitimate claimsprocess, yet the New York Times would have readers believe that those who oversaw the claimsprocess condoned his efforts to undermine the integrity of the process. This is blatantlyfalse. By indicating a connection between Burrell and the claims process, the New York Times is showing a grave disregard for the truth and seriously misleading the public.

"Actively Engaged" Versus "Primary Activity"

Who has it worse--IRS or FSA employees?

Kevin Drum blogs about the problems IRS employees have in determining what "primary activity" means in regards to organizations who try to claim § 501(c)(4) status.  I sympathize, but I believe the controversy and unclarity over what is "actively engaged in farming" for payment limitation purposes trumps the IRS problem.  Come back to me in 28 years and we'll see whether IRS is still grappling with unclear rules.

(BTW, I've not blogged on the new farm bill versions, but it does seem that the Senate version revives last year's clarifications of what counts as actively engaged.  Now if I could only remember what they are, I could save some research.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bryce Harper and Pete Reiser

Yes, I'm too young (not a set of words I often write) to remember Pete Reiser in person, but old enough to remember his legend 
a very talented player who kept running into fences and incurring injuries which ruined a promising career.  See this report on Bryce Harper's latest injury. Did I mention the Nats were playing Reiser's old team?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Uniforms, Bands, and Prison

The Post ran an article last week on the proliferation of military camouflage uniforms--our military now has 11 different patterns.  The writer says
"The duplication problem grows out of three qualities that are deeply rooted in Washington. Good intentions. Little patience. And a lust for new turf.
When a bureaucrat or lawmaker sees someone else doing a job poorly, those qualities stir an itch to take over the job."
 Meanwhile, Walter Pincus, who has written for the Post for years, has a vendetta against military bands.  He delights in counting the number of bands the US supports, summing the dollars spent, and comparing it against other public expenditures.

Finally, there was a piece on why a Jewish prisoner ate with the Aryan Brotherhood.

Seems to me there's a common thread here: people seek community, and in part they do so by opposition to others.  So the Marines insert their logo in very fine print on their uniforms, just to make sure no other service will use them.  So each service and command needs its own military band to establish its identity.  After all, the world would come to an end if the Air Force band played "Anchors Aweigh".  And in prison, everyone has to affiliate with one or the other gang, just for safety.

"Lust for new turf"?   Yes.  But even more important is preserving one's old turf.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Have I Recently Said Change Is Bad?

This week facing an "upgrade" from Windows 7 to 8 because of a need to replace my main PC (don't ask why, but a hint--if you start messing around with the innards of  a computer, refresh your memory of the owner's manual before you start)  This for someone who used to be an early adopter, but now is far behind the tech curve, not even a smartphone to my name. Also facing the impending loss of Google Reader. 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

John Dvorak's Rule

Used to be, according to Dvorak who was a columnist for a PC mag (either PC or Byte), the PC you wanted cost $3,000.  That rule is long gone.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Astronauts Are Human Too

The guts of Joel Achenbach's latest post:

"And there was an astonishing pair of images, presented by a fellow from Boeing, Greg Gentry, who has duties involving the International Space Station (I didn’t quite catch his precise role). He showed the U.S. laboratory module at launch: A perfectly clean chamber, with all the equipment carefully stowed in cabinets — not a loose item to be seen. Then he showed that same module as it is actually used at the International Space Station: Extremely cluttered, with wires everywhere, gear all over the place. Frankly, it looks like a mess (though I’m sure the astronauts know exactly where everything is and why they’ve got it set up that way).
“We really didn’t anticipate the needs for stowage very well,” Gentry said.

The ancient lament: Not enough closet space!"

Monday, May 06, 2013

Wisdom from a Man

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, here's words of wisdom from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Liberrals in a Bind on Organic Checkoff?

Liberals, being mostly urban types, tend in my observation to have little sympathy for the various agricultural promotion programs.  And libertarians definitely think they're an encroachment on the freedom of the individual producer. 

So this line from todays Farm Policy'  may set up an interesting conflict:
"Mr. Lies also noted that, “Schrader said he also is working on an amendment with Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., to establish a national checkoff program for organic producers.”
Why?  Because I think liberals are also more favorable to the organic movement.  Do they support a checkoff to promote organics or do they resist to promote freedom?

Support Beef, Vote Obama?

Who knew the President was a steak man?  I thought he was one of those effete liberal crunchies?  Guess that impression was wrong.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Friday, May 03, 2013

Ode to the "Greedy Bastards"

Anyone want to write poetry--there's room to convert this Jonathan Bernstein post on "Greedy Bastards and Democracy" into poetry?  I think much, maybe all, of agribusiness and the food community would qualify as greedy bastards of some size or another.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

White House Wheat

This year the White House garden has some wheat growing, planted this spring.  It puzzles me, because I've always thought of spring wheat as growing further north, but I guess they know what they're doing.  They've planted it in rows, rather than broadcast.  Again, I don't know why, because motherearthnews  definitely talks of broadcasting.

If I'd ever grown wheat, I might mock them as ignorant city slickers, but I never did, so I can't and won't.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

USDA Is Number 2!

But unlike Hertz, in the old days, they don't want to try harder.

Government Executive says USDA has the second biggest gap in the job satisfaction scores between its leadership (SES types) and the rank and file.

The assumption is that the leadership is out of touch, but it's possible the leadership knows what a great job the department is doing while the rank and file is too busy doing it to know.

It's possible.....isn't it?