Wednesday, December 31, 2014

High Paid Teachers

In the US our highest paid teachers are college football coaches (a coach is a teacher right).  Jim Harbaugh just signed a contract with a $5 million base salary, with incentives and raises. 

In South Korea, the highest paid teachers are math coaches, also being paid millions of dollars.

Bureaucratic Meetings and Science Fiction

My employees thought I was bad when I held weekly staff meeting, which over time turned very boring.  I would have loved to tell them about the International Space Station meetings, once a day.
And five sets of bosses.  And a a schedule in a spreadsheet.  

I read a good amount of science fiction back in the 1950's and I don't remember any meetings or bureaucratic rules in those novels. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How Fast Things Change

From a Vox post on Rep. Scalise:
Let's be as generous as we can to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Let's say he spoke to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization but had no idea it was a white supremacy group backed by David Duke. Let's say the name didn't raise any red flags for Scalise, or if it did, he didn't follow up on them. Let's take him at his word that, in 2002, he didn't know there was such a thing as Google (or any of its competitors), and neither he nor his staff even cursorily vetted the groups he accepted speaking invitations from. [emphasis added]
Looking at the history of Google, I suspect very few people were automatically checking Google in 2002. Amazing how fast things change, and how quickly we assume the past and the present are similar.

Best Pun of the Day

In this paragraph from Sugar Mountain Farm, accompanying a picture of a mended boot.
Boots wear out. Sometimes we wear out our souls. Sometimes we get punctures in the sides from projections like sticks or rocks. Even the best boots we’ve found to date wear out. If a boot lasts a year we’re doing well. Wet feet are no fun. Especially in the winter.

Monday, December 29, 2014

F35 and the A10

James Fallows has a long article on the military in the Atlantic.  Part of it is a discussion of the F-35 and A-10.  He doesn't like the F-35 and does like the A-10.  The logic is that the F-35 tries to meet too many goals, do too many functions for all our military air forces, and is essentially political, with subcontractors spread across many congressional districts.  Conversely, the A-10 is single purpose and cheap.

There may be a couple parallels here:
  • Robert McNamara's F111 fighter bomber which was initially designed for multiple services.
  • Efforts to rationalize bureaucracy by combining organizations, like the USDA Infoshare effort which aborted.
I'm not sure whether it's always the case that working across organizations fails, but it's certainly difficult.  I believe some of the big car companies have tried, sometimes with success, to build different cars using the same chassis/drive train.  So maybe it's a matter of judgment--picking one's shots.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Refining Algorithms and Systems, Help Systems, Driverless Cars and Obamacare

I had occasion yesterday to call the Verizon help line for assistance on installing a new router.  It has been 2 or more years since I've made a similar call, so I was struck by the significant improvement in their system.  I think there were at least 2 aspects:
  • improving the logic of the automated decision tree.  I got to the applicable problem-solver much faster, and when there it was quite logical.
  • linking the automated phone system with databases.  It wasn't new that the system knew my phone number.  It was new that it confirmed my identity.  It was new that it knew that they had just shipped a new router, so logically my call would most likely relate to that.
What's nice about software is that improvements, once made, tend to last.  If you fix a problem or made an enhancement, it's done forever, or at least for as long as the organization behind the system lasts. The critical factor is the organization is working to improve the system, as opposed to letting it survive on inertia.  But this ratchet effect for improving algorithms means that Google's driverless car can handle increasingly unusual traffic situations.  It also means that Obamacare's website can continue to improve. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Egg Famines"

Via The Way of Improvement Leads Home, this post on the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society describes egg production and marketing from an early 20th century farm.  The big take-away is the "egg famine"--no eggs in winter, an abundance in summer.  These days of course we turn on the electric lights in winter so no more egg famines, when the price of eggs hits $15 a dozen (inflation adjusted).

We were using electric lights back in the 40's.  My mother recalled with rare bitterness that neighbors thought they were a signal to Germans to bomb (my maternal grandparents were German immigrants)--an example of the sort of popular panic and ignorance we've never outgrown.

Monday, December 15, 2014

FSA IT Crimped

On page 29 and 30 of the Cromnibus, FSA IT is somewhat crimped: half the $132 mill is withheld pending a detailed analysis/report on projects over $25K.  (Copy and paste from GPO documents is unsatisfactory, so read yourself, if interested.  Everything has to fit the "Farm Service Agency Information Technology Roadmap", which sounds like something which should be available on the internet?

FSA Offices Are Frozen

No, they didn't lose their heating system, but the cromnibus apparently had language in it, via Chris Clayton at DTN

Under the funding provision approved by the House, Farm Service Agency would be blocked from cutting staff or offices.
The bill blocks the Farm Service Agency from closing 250 county offices or eliminating 815 staff. The budget agreement actually puts a "temporary moratorium" on closing FSA offices or relocating employees" until a comprehensive assessment of FSA workload is completed by USDA. "This agreement reiterates dissatisfaction with the agency's budget submission. The budget request did not provide a rationale for the proposed office closures and staffing changes, did not clearly describe the effect of the proposed actions, and did not include a timeline for implementation that demonstrates how savings could be achieved."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Good Day for Engineers

Eugene Volokh praises the Kipling poem "Sons of Martha", which he sees as an ode to engineers, and Lynn Beiser thanks the engineers at Honda for saving her son's life and body.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Return of the Schizophrenic Congress

The "Cromnibus" bill funding the government for FY15 is being worked on today.  As usual with big pieces of appropriations, there's some policy riders included, often riders which reverse or bar the agencies from doing what legislation says they should.  And there's cuts for the IRS, making it harder to enforce tax laws.  I'd call those Republicans who vote for the bill hypocrites if they also criticized Obama for failing to enforce immigration laws, but once we start identifying hypocrisy among Washington politicians we embark on a never-ending task. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Modern Health Care: Dentistry

I know I've been lucky with my teeth, very few problems, certainly mainly less than I deserved considering the care I've given them.

I hate dentists.  When and where I grew up, one went to the dentist only when there was a big problem.  I think I went once in my teens.  Then came the Army and I had 2-3 small cavities filled. There was one trip to a dentist in my 40's, ruined by a young know-it-all hygenist who lectured me on tooth care. Sometimes I'm humble, but not that humble.

Finally in my 60's I finally had a crisis--bad wisdom tooth which had to come out.  After that I started seeing a dentist every 6 months.  He was my ideal dentist: had no hygenist, did his own cleaning, silent, we exchanged no more than a couple sentences each visit.   He retired, right when my other wisdom tooth started acting up.  After a couple years I finally arranged to see a new dentist.  On the morning of my appointment, half the wisdom tooth fell out.

I was impressed by my dentist's setup--the x-rays were displayed on a tablet computer, as was each procedure with its (high) cost. Though I didn't like the switch from taking a sip of water to rinse one's mouth to having a suction tube setup.  Anyhow, I got a referral to a specialist for the wisdom tooth, which I used this morning.  My dentist's office was able to email the xrays to the specialist's office, so they were able to extract what was left of the tooth without a prior appointment; total elapsed time maybe 40 minutes from the time I walked in the door.  That's impressive.  Perhaps less impressive is the multiplication of jobs in the field of dentistry, but that's looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Networks and Agricultural Economics

This is a Politico article from a while back, describing the competition between agricultural economists at different universities for the 3 million dollars to pay for helping farmers understand their options under the farm bill.

Call me old-fashioned, call me stick-in-the mud, but isn't helping farmers understand the world the whole raison d'etre of the extension service? 

Anyhow, David Rogers tells a good story of how government works, particularly the linkages among Congress, the bureaucracy and the private/nonprofit/educational world.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Revkin on Technology and Small Farms and "Factory Man"

Here's a post at the Times covering meetings on technology and small farms.

Just finished reading the book "Factory Man", on the history of the rise and fall and persistence of the furniture industry in Henry County, VA.  The factory man is John Douglas Bassett III, who's able to compete with Asian furniture makers, not on cost but on customization and speed.  So, as of now, the US factory can use automation to be more responsive to customer desires because the Asian makers are limited by the time it takes to move a container across the Pacific.  (Not sure why a manufacturer in Mexico or Central America couldn't do better than the Asians.)  So the bottom line is the mass of furniture is made in Asia, but the niche markets which require customization can still be served by US manufacturers.

I see a possible parallel with American agriculture.

Weird Fact of the Day: B-52s Versus Cruisers

The B-52 goes back to my childhood, and is still around.  From an article arguing that the Air Force should have replaced its engines with more fuel-efficient modern ones, comes this fact:
Since today’s B-52s rolled off the Wichita production line, the Navy has launched and scrapped two classes of destroyer and four cruiser classes, and that comparison makes a $550 million Long Range Strike Bomber look a little more digestible.
 Back in WWII the cost relationship and the longevity comparison between a bomber and a destroyer or cruiser would be one-sided in favor of the ship.  I suppose that's an indirect measure of the cost of electronics  versus the cost of people.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Memory and "Hang Separately"

I posted earlier   about how memory distorts historical reality.  Boston 1775 offers another instance, where the quote usually attributed to Ben Franklin about the need for rebels to hang together else they would hang separately was much earlier attributed to Richard Penn.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Hans Rosling Is a Bureaucrat

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, I got to this profile of Hans Rosling.which raised my respect for him considerably.  Rosling is famous for his presentations on world health, economic, and wellbeing statistics.  He comes off very well, and upsets many of my preconceptions.  So I already respected him

What's new from the article?  He's volunteered to go to Liberia and help on Ebola statistics.  My knee-jerk reaction (I'm a liberal so my knee jerks) is that someone so good at the big picture is likely to be inept at the nitty-gritty which bureaucrats worry about.  Not in the case of Rosling.  For example, there's a difference between showing "blank" for a county's Ebola cases and "0", a big difference. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Farming and Consolidation, Continued

Yesterday's post included an argument that technology would not help smaller farmers compete in producing generic commodities.  As a followup, this from an Amber Waves article:
Production has shifted to larger farms in most agricultural commodity sectors over the last two decades. This consolidation has contributed to productivity growth in agriculture, leading to lower commodity and food prices and reducing total resource use in food and fiber production. As consolidation reduces the farm population, it also makes starting small and mid-sized farming operations more difficult. This is especially true for dairy farms, where a major transformation of the sector has reduced the number of dairy farms by nearly 60 percent over the past 20 years, even as total milk production increased by one-third. Recent results from the Census of Agriculture and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) detail how and why the structure of dairy production has changed.

The "midpoint" herd size is now at 900 cows.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Farming and IT (and a Very Bad Headline)

The NYTimes has an article today on the topic of information technology and farming, focusing on an Indiana farmer, Kip Tom, who handles 20,000 acres, up from 700 acres in the 1970's. The article is not bad, hitting the big data involved in precision farming, the use of drones, the rising status of women, etc. etc.  It includes a quote from a former farmer who now is one of the 25 employees of the Tom operation, which includes 6 Tom family members.

It's titled: "Working the Land and the Data, Technology Offers Some Family Owned Farms a Chance To Thrive and Compete With Giant Agribusinesses".  While the headline is fine, the subhead is worst one I can remember in a good while.  It's based on this sentence in the article, a line which is undermined by the rest of the article: "It [technology] is also helping them grow to compete with giant agribusinesses].  The truth, more clear in the accompanying video, is that by going heavily into technology, and being smart enough to pick up land in the 1980's, when values had crashed, the Tom family were able to expand and thrive, when their neighbors went broke and sold their own operations.

Consider just the data in the article: the 20,000 acres of the current operation represents the equivalent of 28 farms in the 700 acre range from the 1970's.  And those 700 acre farms in themselves probably represented several smaller farms from the era of horsepower (which Tom's father remembers his father plowing with). Leesburg, IN, by the way, has lost about 10 percent of its population since 2000.

At the risk of over-analyzing, I suspect the writer was impressed with Mr. Tom, considered him one of the good guys.  Logically then, if he's a good guy, he must be competing with bigger operations, those soulless agribusinesses.  A good guy can't be someone who succeeds by driving others out of business.  Yes, "succeeds by driving...." is harsh, and not the way we usually think about individuals.  Because of the invisible hand of the market, it's not any one individual/enterprise bankrupting others, it's just the way things are; some people win and some people don't. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Memory and Reality

Saw somewhere a description of a study of how well Americans remember their Presidents.  The bottom line was that we remembered the first 4, Lincoln/Johnson/Grant; FDR and not the ones in between.  The explanation was that memory is refreshed by usage--if we don't have occasion to recal Polk, we won't remember him.

That makes sense I guess, but there's also another phenomenon going on; the accumulation of true and not so true memories around certain figures.  It's something of a geological provision, some figures are built up and some torn down.

As it happens, there seems to me to be an example in A.O. Scott's review today of the new biopic on Alan Turing.  Turing is a figure who is becoming more and more prominent, partially for good reasons--his contributions to the theory of computing and to British code-breaking in WWII--and partially for understandable reasons: his homosexuality and tragic fate.  But IMHO he's getting props which are undeserved as well.  Scott writes:
" There are lines of dialogue that sound either anachronistic or — it may amount to the same thing — prophetic. It is thrilling and strange to hear the words “digital computer” uttered a half-century before any such thing existed,.... [emphasis added]
This puts him 50 years ahead of the game which isn't true.  The first mention of "digital computer" in Google ngrams is in 1940, which  is roughly when the first digital computers were being built, perhaps 4 years after Turing's big publication. There's controversy over the definitions here, but the bottomline is several people were working in the field.  But 100 years from now Turing will be remembered as the inventor of the computer just as Edison is remembered as the inventor of the light bulb.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Population Growth Versus Food Growth

According to wikipedia the average rate of growth of world population is 1.1 percent annually.  According to this farmdoc post the big US food crops have increased yield by 1.2 percent (wheat) to 2.0 percent (corn) and 2.4 percent (peanuts) over the last 40+ years.

Persnickety Grump Today

A Ph.D. does not know the difference between "cache" and "cachet":

"that Ph.D. cache..."  from a blog post on Ferguson.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Is Crop Insurance Too Inefficient?

Someone called the Landstewardship Project (seems to be based in MN/WI) put out a study attacking crop insurance as highly subsidized and highly profitable.  According to today's Farm Policy, the crop insurance industry responded by saying the figures in the report end 5 years ago, before a set of administrative changes by USDA and legislative changes in the farm bill which cut subsidies and costs.

See the article at

Monday, November 24, 2014

Does Our Racism Extend to Pets?

The Fairfax Animal Shelter needs special incentives to get black pets adopted.

McArdle on Barry

Megan McArdle has a good post on Marion Barry, a post to which I made this comment:
Fascinating--a relative, a WASP living outside Boston in the 40-70's time frame, amazed me as a boy with his violent opinions against Catholics and mayor Curley, while I grew up to become one of the white liberals who helped elect Barry to the school board before leaving DC for the burbs.
Maybe the Chinese proverb should read: "may you have interesting politicians"


I've been remiss in paying attention to the structure and settings of this blog, meaning comments have been disfunctional for a good while.  Hopefully I've fixed that.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bureaucrats Get Some Attention

Politico has an article on the challenge facing the USCIS bureaucrats who have to implement President Obama's executive order on immigration.  It's divided between emphasizing the size of the challenge (4 million applications) and the lessons learned from handling Obama's 2012 order for the "Dreamers") which was about a tenth of the size.

One thing Politico doesn't mention that Vox has a piece  which mentions the role of intermediaries, those who claim to be able to get people what they want from an impenetrable federal bureaucracy.  There's some evidence that 40 percent of the immigration "experts" are con-people.

The holy grail for bureaucrats is to design and implement a process which works the first time, which handles almost all the situations, and which doesn't require intermediaries.  It's a dream, not a reality.

Rugby and "Swing Low..."

Who knew?

There's a strong association between British rugby and the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" per wikipedia.

This comes from an Ann Althouse link to a Brit article on a Labor politician getting canned for tweeting a picture of a house covered by St George's flags, which led to the wikipedia article on St George's flag, a flag which has some connection in Britain with racism which led to a discussion of patriotism and the possibility of selecting an anthem for the English, one of the options mentioned was "Swing Low..."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Great Sentence of the Day

From Northview  Diary:
If turkeys have the reputation for not being likely candidates for Mensa, it is guinea fowl which come right for the factory devoid of anybody home upstairs but a rapidly whirling hamster on crack.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

We're Losing Trees?

The  Boston 775 blog has a post on identifying the location of a Revolutionary war site in New York City.  There's a drawing by a British officer done from a specific spot which a researcher is now trying to identify.

The big challenge, it turned out, was that these parts of New York have many more thick trees than they did back in 1776, after over a century of farming.
That's true in  many areas: old photos of the area in which I grew up show the hills almost treeless, my memories are of some wooded areas plus trees in hedgerows, in the current century trees probably cover 50 percent or more of the area.

New Military Leaders: Utter Goofballs?

From a Dan Drezner ode to the West Point cadets: [Warning: quote out of context]
" many of the cadets were utter goofballs"

His next paragraph:
"No, two qualities impress about the West Point cadets. First, the one value they all share is a genuine commitment to national service. Not all of them plan to be career Army, but they were all very determined to do their part while they were in the service.
The second thing that impressed about the cadets was their diversity, and their recognition and appreciation of that diversity. .."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Second Childhood Time: Paper Airplanes

Technology has advanced in all fields, including that of making paper airplanes, a subject which brings my childhood to mind.

Kottke links to a video on how to fold the world record airplane.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Latest Euphemism: "Sidestepped"

From a NYTimes article on Al Sharpton:
"Mr. Sharpton has regularly sidestepped the sorts of obligations most people see as inevitable, like taxes, rent and other bills. Records reviewed by The New York Times show more than $4.5 million in current state and federal tax liens against him and his for-profit businesses. And though he said in recent interviews that he was paying both down, his balance with the state, at least, has actually grown in recent years. His National Action Network appears to have been sustained for years by not paying federal payroll taxes on its employees.
I can't stand tax cheats--one of my first posts was on the subject (Richard Hatch).

An Exercise Bordering on Sadism: John McPhee

John McPhee is one of America's great writers, and apparently teachers, as one can gather from this piece in the Princeton Alumni mag by Joel Achenbach.  To understand the following, "greening" is McPhee's word meaning the excision of words from a piece as needed to fit space, etc. but without damage to the author's content and style.

"He made us green a couple of lines from the famously lean Gettysburg Address, an assignment bordering on sadism."

[corrected spelling in heading]

Friday, November 14, 2014

What Low-Tax Advocates Gave Us

I like John Oliver.  Here he is on lotteries.  A factoid--the first (modern) public lottery was in New Hampshire in 1964, sold as a way to support education.  Now back in the day, NH was a low tax state, ruled by the editor of the Manchester newspaper, who was far right.  NH still doesn't have an income tax, although it's elected some Democrats recently.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pollan, Bittman, et. al Play Fast and Loose

Michael Pollan dusts off his 2008 appeal to President Obama and updates it with help from Mark Bittman and others, calling for a "national food policy".  Along the way he touches on his lame history (Nixon did not change food policy in the 70's) and makes projections which are dubious (to me).

An example of their playing fast and loose with facts:
"Today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents."
What does the link tie to?  An academic article which pushes the importance of obesity and challenges SSA's projections of steadily increasing lifespan.  But it says, in the last paragraph:
"Unless effective population-level interventions to reduce obesity are developed, the steady rise in life expectancy observed in the modern era may soon come to an end and the youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly even shorter lives than their parents."
Emphasis added--there's no way a college professor like Pollan should create a flat statement from such a carefully hedged sentence.
They come up with a $243 billion cost of diabetes in a context which implies out-of-pocket costs, but don't mention that a quarter of that is not healthcare costs, but estimates of loss of productivity. 

While they concede that Congress is responsible for agricultural policy, they ask for an administration food policy, unsupported by Congress, without any discussion of how their proposal would change the position of Congress or last beyond this administration.

Note: Although I'm crediting Pollan with the piece, it's possible one of the others is responsible for the problem.

Mark Bittman, Farmers and Markets

The NYTimes is running a Food Conference, which means Mark Bittman is again writing on food.

He gets one thing half right:
The difference between you and the hungry is not production levels; it’s money. There are no hungry people with money; there isn’t a shortage of food, nor is there a distribution problem. There is an I-don’t-have-the-land-and-resources-to-produce-my-own-food, nor-can-I-afford-to-buy-food problem.
I agree it's a poverty problem, but he goes on to say that poverty often comes from people displacing traditional farmers. The rest is a mish-mash, mostly attacking "industrial model of food production".

IMHO China is simply the latest and most dramatic example of the truth.  Allow private possession of land and provide incentives to increase production  by having a market for agricultural products and to increase productivity by using modern "industrial" methods.  That correlates with agricultural labor moving to cities for higher wages/better living conditions, allowing greater returns to the farmers who remain.  In other words, the city workers get money and the non-traditional farmers get money; money means markets.  The traditional agriculture model has failed to provide people what they want, as shown by what they'll pay for and what they'll move for.

Now having said all that by definition the market doesn't handle bad externalities, it doesn't enforce standards (witness Chinese baby formula) and the structure of the market with multiple producers with no pricing power and few buyers with much power leads to boom and bust. So there's many problems with industrial agriculture, but producing enough food to feed the world is not one of them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Only ASCS Employee To Become President

Historian Ted Widmer lists five great Presidential memoirs, starting with Jefferson and ending with the only ASCS employee* to ever become President.  Most of his appreciation"
An Hour Before Daylight returns to the tiny town where he famously grew up—Plains, Georgia—and vividly recaptures the rhythms and moods of Depression-era America. Like Jefferson, Carter begins with simple geography. Plains was a stark and simple place—a reader almost feels as if he is re-entering Biblical times, a comparison that might have occurred to the former president. Electricity is scarce, and animals important, and small-town trust even more so. The cumulative effect is one of considerable artistry, taking the reader into a distant place that is gone forever, but lingers in the imagination—not just as an elegy but also as a kind of warning as well. An Hour reads almost like a Frank Capra movie, with Jimmy Carter playing the role that would inevitably have been assigned to Jimmy Stewart. Like Capra’s films, there is darkness mingled with the light—haunted houses, racial hatreds and a South that is still not all that reconstructed. But a hometown romance turns into a long and happy marriage; some modest political ambitions turn into a governorship and then a presidency (neither of which are described in the book, which adds to its appeal); and one puts the book down having been somewhere real. There is wistfulness near the end, as an older Carter wanders a depopulated Plains like a ghost, wondering where all the people have gone. In the end, he finds solace in the land itself, which will continue “to shape the lives of its owners, for good or ill, as it has for millennia.” In other words, Washington doesn’t matter at all, because the earth will eventually swallow up everyone.
 *  Carter was a summer employee measuring acreage for compliance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Forbidden Words

The Post has had some articles discussing the status of the "n-word".  Their piece today found 4 football coaches: the white head coach at 40 had prohibited the word in the past, but reluctantly gave up on his prohibition.  The older black assistant coach (60's and black) absolutely forbade it, the young black assistant coach was mostly okay with it--lots of nuance in the article so I may be missummarizing. 

While reading the articles I thought of other words which once were lightning and now have loss their meaning.  For example: "God damn" used to be full of meaning; not so now.  Lots of ethnic slurs are just ancient these days, dusty from being kept in the attic.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Ebola Panic

A couple weeks ago I posted a comment on a blog saying I'd bet that the Washington NFL Skins would win more games than the number of deaths of Americans from Ebola contracted on US soil.  I think I'll win the bet. :-)

Friday, November 07, 2014

A Magazine for Fake Farmers*

That's the title the New Yorker magazine puts on its article on Modern Farmer. 

I'm not sure New Yorker is in any position to judge which farmers are fake and which authentic. My impression of the magazine, based on its RSS feed, is that it's aimed at what we used to call "hobby farmers", or rather maybe those people who dream of being hobby farmers.  I mean the people who have income or assets from outside farming which might enable them to try various niches in the world of food and agriculture.  It's rather like the knitting magazines someone near and dear to me subscribes to, presenting lots of projects and ideas and news, very little of which is in any danger of being knitted.  Or maybe closer to home it's like all the unread books in the house, a sign of my interests and affiliations, but few of which will actually be read before I die.

[* That's the title on their website, the one in the printed magazine is "Read It and Reap."  Added in edit.]

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Growing Corn in the Movies

I enjoy Matthew McConaughy--first saw him in Lone Star, which is a very good movie by John Sayles, who was a very good filmmaker, for a while at least.

I understand from reviews that in his new movie, Interstellar, disaster has hit the world, requiring people to venture out through wormholes to other planets.  Sounds like a story I might have enjoyed growing up, when I was reading Asimov and Anderson, Heinlein and Clarke. 

But my point: apparently corn is the only crop which can be grown now. I understand corn has some movie magic which other crops don't--you can hide in corn, famous ballplayers can emerge from corn, "corn" has multiple meanings, etc. etc.  But corn, really?  The moviemaker is misleading a bunch of people who've no understanding of agriculture in the first place.  Why not sorghum in a world of dust storms?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Common Enemy Eases Bigotry: the Case of the Revolution

Protestants used to hate the Pope--they even had a holiday celebration of their hatred: Pope Night (Nov. 5).  But as Boston 1775 describes when the Revolution tried to turn the French Canadians against Britain, and then allied with Catholic France, that demonstration of bigotry got suppressed.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Red Tape: Private Versus Public

In the case of adopting cats, I can say that the red tape involved in an adoption from a private NGO (SPCA) significantly exceeds that involved in an adoption from a public agency (county animal shelter).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Canticle for Leibowitz

One of the best science fiction novels of my youth was Miller's "Canticle for Leibowitz".  Via Brad DeLong, here's the New Yorker's nice appreciation of it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Historians: Move to Mexico

Although I failed to become a historian, I've kept up my subscriptions to the main journals over the years, meaning I see the articles and data where American historians obsess over the fate of their profession, or more accurately their careers as professors.

This isn't conclusive, of course, but maybe they should look South:

"On the love of history: My kids go to a local Mexican school, and it seems like they perform in a special history program almost every month. Children dress up in traditional garb or as political revolutionaries, and they enthusiastically sing, dance, recite poetry and perform plays depicting important historical events. I was once talking with a fellow mom about how my husband and I were trying to understand our children’s interests so that we could help them find a job they would love as adults. I jokingly moaned that my son only liked history but that he could never make a living off of that. My friend looked at me, shocked! "No!" she cried. "In Mexico, historians are highly valued and never have a hard time finding a job!"
 That's from a blog running a series on childrearing in various countries, focusing on the cultural differences among them. It's interesting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Advantages of Diversity--US and Pets

There's one subtle advantage to a diverse nation which James Madison never realized, but I'm discovering as relatives adopt dogs and we adopt cats.

What is it?  Apparently the effete blue areas, like Reston and MA, believe in neutering their cats and dogs. The virile read areas, like the rest of VA and the South, believe in nature and what happens naturally.  The result: one area has a surplus of dogs and cats and the other area has a deficit, which any economist, and even someone like me without any ecoomics, realies will result in trading, exporting the surplus to the deficit areas to the greater benefit of all.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Obama As Hands-Off Executive: The Case of Dreamers

The Post had an article this morning previewing a speech by Janet Napolitano, who's describing the inside story behind the Administration's delay of deportation for the "Dreamers".

What struck me was, after DHS had developed a proposal:
"She pushed ahead anyway and took the proposal to the White House. Though she never met with Obama about it, Napolitano recalled in the interview how other top officials — especially then-White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler — grilled her about the challenges of implementation and the legal issues of acting without Congress."[emphasis added]
 While I think I've a realistic grasp of the limits of personal Presidential power (having read Neustadt many decades ago), I find this amazing.  Here's a major use of executive power, arguably stretching beyond the limits (though I think not), sure to be a political hot potato, winning plaudits from the Latino community and condemnation from the right and Dems running in red states, and the President never meets with the Cabinet Secretary on it!!

I assume after the White House staff vetted it, they gave a paper to the President and he signed it, but IMHO that's not the way to run the railroad.  Trying to be fair to Obama he probably trusted his staff and liked the policy paper, so why bother meeting with Napolitano?  My answer: even if all that's true, the more involvement DHS feels from the big boss, the more enthusiasm they can muster to handle the nuts and bolts and go out and defend the policy.  If Napolitano can't come back from the White House saying "the President looked me in the eye and said you've got to make this work, it's only fair", her staff has to wonder about her clout and the Prez's commitment.   And so do I.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Maiden Blush

Google "Maiden Blush" and you get some hits, but not what I'm looking for--an apple. I'm inspired by this article in the NYTimes on an obsessive who's documented 17,000 varieties of apple, few of which are commercially grown today.  He's going to have a book out shortly, a book which started as a file under MS-DOS and for which he's still using WordPerfect 7.  I tip my hat to him, at least I would if JFK hadn't eliminated hats.

There were a few old apple trees on the farm where I grew up.  I only know two names: Yellow Transparent and Maiden Blush.  The Transparent was a good cooking/sauce apple, early maturing and close to the house, so we made fair use of it.  The tree was easy to climb, though the best apples were always beyond one's reach.  The Maiden Blush was in the "orchard" proper, the group of four or five tree slowly mouldering away.  The trees themselves weren't productive, so I visited them only a couple times a summer, occasionally tasting the odd apple.  Presumably my family knew the names of the other trees, but if I ever knew them I've long forgotten.  "Maiden Blush" sticks in my mind.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Late Viriginia Springs?

That's what John Boyd says:
For many years on my Virginia farm I had my corn crop in the ground by the end of March. But that has not been the case for the last 10 years. Spring planting season has become more and more delayed because of changes in our weather patterns. Nowadays, I find myself planting corn in May.
He's in southern VA and I'm in northern, but I don't  think that's right, at least if I compare my vegetable garden to his field corn.  There's been a good deal of variability recently (and I can only remember "recently"), but I don't see climate change as delaying planting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It Ain't What It Used To Be: 3 Pounds of Coffee

That's sort of a generic title to the post, which I could be using for a fair number of mine.

Anyhow, I'm a coffee drinker, though over the years I've dropped from maybe 10 cups of regular down to one Starbucks vente regular used to spike maybe 6 cups of decaf.  The point is, since I started at ASCS I was involved with the office coffee pot, that indispensable support for most bureaucrats.  I can remember when  a 3-lb can of coffee was about $3.  Then I remember when they went to "flaked" coffee, which reduced the weight without changing the size of the can.  Think that was about 33 oz.  But I noticed this morning, when I opened a new can, it was only about 2/3 full and the weight was down to 22 oz. (for about $8).

The logic is that existing supply chains are set up to package, ship, and store the old 3 lb container, so changing the container size doesn't make sense when the price changes, and maybe the customer won't notice the price increase when it's achieved by reducing the quantity, but there must be some point where saving the cost of shipping air (the empty space in the can) around the country makes a change worthwhile.  Isn't there?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Farming Drones

Piece on farmers wanting to use drones. They argue that the US will fall behind in the technology unless FAA immediately does rules. 

It would seem to me the usefulness of drones would be directly related to the size of the farming operations, so that would tend to favor US drones, once approved.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Minutes to Pay Your Taxes?

That was the claim in a newspaper article this week.  Trying a short-cut search brought up this article in The Economist, which has a more reasonable estimate:
Estonia’s approach makes life efficient: taxes take less than an hour to file, and refunds are paid within 48 hours. By law, the state may not ask for any piece of information more than once, people have the right to know what data are held on them and all government databases must be compatible, a system known as the X-road. In all, the Estonian state offers 600 e-services to its citizens and 2,400 to businesses.
 As a bureaucrat I love the idea.  The reality for the US though is we're always going to trade efficiency for what we see as privacy and freedom.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Software Design Mistakes of the Past and Present

A couple of articles this week on the redesign of the Obamacare web site: among the major changes, reducing the number of screens and permitting the use of the "back" button.

Those are familiar problems--the Treasury Direct website, which has been around for this century, still doesn't permit the use of the "back" button nor is it particularly user friendly in its design.

Going back to last century, when the original software for taking acreage reports was designed for the System/36, because no one had the experience, there was one screen for entering the crop, one screen for the practice, one screen for the intended usage, one for crop share, etc.--if I remember a total of 7 screens to report one field (i.e. common land unit as it's known now).  Naturally there was mass rebellion in the field, people couldn't use the software, and there was mass evasion of the issue in Washington and Kansas City.  We all knew we'd done the best we knew, and our childhood fairy tales assured us that anything done with good intentions would turn out well. 

I'm not sure I ever fully learned the lessons that episode might have taught.  I did oversee a redesign of the software in later years, but I was too much a coward really to research whether it was as usable as it should have been--after all computerization should make life better, not worse, shouldn't it?

I think of these things when I read about doctors upset with their digitized medical records systems.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Small Dairymen These Days: 200 Cows?

A quote from Rep. Peterson at Farm Policy, on the new dairy program:
“‘I’m hoping that everybody signs up for the catastrophic coverage, pays the $100 administrative fee, and locks in their production base so they get adjustments going forward,’ said Peterson, an accountant by trade. ‘If you’re a smaller producer, below 4 million pounds, the $7 margin coverage is so inexpensive that I think it’d be a mistake not to take it.’”
Now if your herd is averaging 20,000 lbs (which still seems incredible to me), I think that means a herd of 199 cows is "small". 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

John Oliver on Civil Forfeiture:Incentives Work

Vox links to a John Oliver piece on civil forfeitures (police taking assets on the basis that they're linked to a crime, usually drugs), a subject which has been in the news recently.

What's interesting to a bureaucrat is that usually the police department can keep most or all of the assets they seize.  But spending the money is difficult, because good management says you shouldn't depend on seizures for your operating budget.  So as one sheriff (I think) says, you treat it as "pennies from heaven" to buy nice-to-have stuff.

Keeping the money gives the police an incentive to, at the least, push the envelope, leading to abuses which are easy to mock, and Oliver does a good job.

One of the problems for bureaucracy is giving incentives.  For example, when the IRS collects delinquent taxes the money goes to the Treasury.  When a bureaucrat comes up with an idea which saves money, her agency doesn't get any of the savings, it's all buried in the established appropriation process. (A side note: one of the physicists who just won a Nobel worked for a corporation who paid him $200 as a reward for his work.  He eventually sued and got a settlement in the middle millions, nowhere near the importance of the work.)  Other bureaucracies live on fees--for example I believe it's true that parts of AMS and APHIS are funded by fees, which means when we have government shutdowns due to lack of appropriations (as we did a year ago), those employees can continue to work.

Back to the forfeitures--I don't think originally the idea was to reward police departments, it was to take away ill-begotten gains.  Would be interesting to know how the rule that the police kept (most of) the money came to be. 

Bottomline: we haven't solved the problem of incentives for bureaucrats.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

APH Again--What Is Normal

Previously posted on the problems implementing the APH provision of the farm bill.  The issue continues to get a lot of attention, as witness today's Farm Policy.  Two paragraphs from there:

Ms. Taylor pointed out that, “Huie [a Texas farmer introduced earlier in the piece] and other mega-drought victims from Texas to Colorado had banked on a new 2014 farm bill provision forgiving Actual Production History (APH) yields that collapsed due to extreme weather. The APH fix forgave an individual’s actual yields in counties where planted-acre yield tumbled at least 50% below a 10-year average. Growers in contiguous counties would also qualify.
Because APHs are based on a 10-year history, the new rule would have erased Huie’s near-zero yields due to drought in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013. That would have lifted his 2015 cotton APH average 26% — with similar boosts for his dryland corn, grain sorghum and wheat. Establishing a realistic APH is doubly important now, since it is the basis for payments under the new Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO), an insurance rider that allows growers to buy up insurance coverage to 86% levels. Huie expects to need that option to supplement his base coverage.
I see this as illustrating one of the problems: the poor guy had zero yields in 4 out of the last 10 years, but he wants a "realistic" APH to get his coverage up.  What's the problem:  defining "normal".   For a farmer it's a good yield, not the sort of yields the Midwest corn and soybean people are getting this year, but a good, solid yield, one which rewards the hard work and the investment in land and equipment and fertilizer.  It's much like a Washington R*dskin fan, we'd like a good team, a team with a winning record, not necessarily a Super Bowl team, though that would be nice, but one whose season ends with some quiet satisfaction.  Certainly we don't want a team which only wins 3 games, we deserve better.

The reality Washington fans have to face is the team has not been good, much less very good, on a sustained basis for the last 2 decades. We don't have either the talent or the system.  It's possible that farmer Huie needs to face the fact that his land in Texas no longer has the weather needed to be a good farm.

If that's true, then Congress and RMA will be wasting money when they adjust the APH.

Speed of Delivery of Disaster Payments

This article points out the irony of the money FSA paid out under the Livestock Disaster Assistance Program, some $2.78 billion.
The payments come at a time when cattle are bringing record prices and corn used for feed is the cheapest it's been in years.

Don't blame FSA, blame Congress.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Old Men

Eugene Volokh at Volokh Conspiracy posts a Kipling poem, which I'm going to steal:

"And it put me in mind of one of Kipling’s poems, The Old Men:
This is our lot if we live so long and labour unto the end –
Then we outlive the impatient years and the much too patient friend:
And because we know we have breath in our mouth and think we have thought in our head,
We shall assume that we are alive, whereas we are really dead.
We shall not acknowledge that old stars fade or stronger planets arise
(That the sere bush buds or the desert blooms or the ancient well-head dries),
Or any new compass wherewith new men adventure ‘neath new skies.
We shall lift up the ropes that constrained our youth, to bind on our children’s hands;
We shall call to the waters below the bridges to return and to replenish our lands;
We shall harness (Death’s own pale horses) and scholarly plough the sands.
We shall lie down in the eye of the sun for lack of a light on our way –
We shall rise up when the day is done and chirrup, “Behold, it is day!”
We shall abide till the battle is won ere we amble into the fray.
We shall peck out and discuss and dissect, and evert and extrude to our mind,
The flaccid tissues of long-dead issues offensive to God and mankind –
(Precisely like vultures over an ox that the army left behind).
We shall make walk preposterous ghosts of the glories we once created –
Immodestly smearing from muddled palettes amazing pigments mismated –
And our friend will weep when we ask them with boasts if our natural force be abated.
The Lamp of our Youth will be utterly out, but we shall subsist on the smell of it;
And whatever we do, we shall fold our hands and suck our gums and think well of it.
Yes, we shall be perfectly pleased with our work, and that is the Perfectest Hell of it!
This is our lot if we live so long and listen to those who love us –
That we are shunned by the people about and shamed by the Powers above us.
Wherefore be free of your harness betimes; but, being free be assured,
That he who hath not endured to the death, from his birth he hath never endured!
This seems like Kipling in an unduly grim mood, and I don’t really buy the message, at least if taken at face value. Still, I think it’s a great poem."

The line particularly apropos for this blog is: "We shall make walk preposterous ghosts of the glories we once created"

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Even a Blind Hog Department

John Hinderaker at Powerline catches the NYTimes Editorial Board in major hypocrisy on diversity.

College Profs Today--Not So Tough on Spelling

From a RateMyProfessors page:
He is a great guy and truly loves to teach. Wants you to learn. However, at least in this class, it's really hard to get an A on a paper. He really pushes you to improve your writing. (btw, he's a stickler for grammer and syntax)

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Who Polices the Police: Organics in Poland and Junk Bonds Here

When I read this piece at Vox on how the organic certifications and EU subsidies work in Poland, I was reminded of how the securities ratings firms work in the US (as in assigning AAA ratings to various securities leading up to the 2008 crash).

And ‘everyone’ includes the organic certification companies, who, on their own admission, do not conduct on-site inspections of either fields or harvests, because they are not legally obliged to do so. “If the certifying company nonetheless expresses some reservations, it will quickly be replaced by one of its more indulgent competitors,” explains Teresa Ropelewska of Agro Bio Test. Worse still, overzealous certifiers may even risk court action. As a result, discipline and discretion have become watchwords for companies that want to keep their customers.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The End of the World (also Post and Times) as I Know It

Saw my doctor today for an overdue physical and checkup.  Somewhere I've lost about 1.5 inches in height over the years--has anyone seen them around?  I'm also losing my subcutaneous fat--i.e., I'm looking old and wrinkly (funny how looking in a strange mirror reveals something not seen when shaving every morning.

Finally, ran across (and lost) the results of a survey of expenditures on various forms of reading matter.  The piece was focused on the idea we spend about the same amount on ebooks as on physical books, but it had a breakdown by age.  Essentially no one under 45 spends anything on newspapers--it's people like me who still subscribe to the physical paper. So much for the future of the NYTimes and Post--the end of a 300 year history.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Surprise of the Day--London's Canals

London has twice the mileage of canals as Amsterdam, according to this article in the NYTimes.

Apparently housing prices in London have become the highest in the world, and some people are finding houseboats on the canals to be an alternative. 

SSA and Field Offices

SSA's field office structure has gotten some political attention recently, as they've closed some offices and have a study which recommends further changes Their unions, and AARP, are up in arms.  They still have 1250 field offices.

It seems to be a similar problem to USDA and its field offices.  The logic of computers and internet and declining populations in some ares leads to office closures, while the logic of serving the public and not further undermining the economics of localities lead to preserving the status quo.

SSA may have a better case for consolidation and online service than USDA: their programs don't need local data.  Presumably if you're disabled for work in Deaf Smith County, TX you're also disabled in Fairfax County, VA, and vice versa. If I need to apply for SS benefits it shouldn't matter if I'm in Florida on a vacation or not whereas USDA programs are tied to geography.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rail Cars and the Capital Beltway

The Dakotas, that is their politicians and farm leaders, are upset over a shortage of rail cars to transport the big crop of grain, blaming in part the Canadians for mishandling and in part the transport of oil from the Bakken formation.

To those like me who live in the past, this seems familiar.  Sometime after I joined ASCS but before the end of the 70's there was a similar shortage of cars--I remember because the county ASCS offices were required to do a survey of their local rail facilities and report up the line. If memory serves it was a one-time deal.

What's my point and how does the beltway come into it?  I'd ass u me that there are cyclical surges and valleys in the demand for rail cars, and railroads are reluctant to spend money on more cars until they see a sustained demand (and until they have the money--which may have been a problem in the 70's--lots of big railroads going broke (NYCentral, Penn Central, etc.).  And of course there are surges and valleys in grain harvests, so there's the likelihood that sometimes railroads won't have enough cars, simply because it's easier to absorb a public beating once every few years than to have dollars sitting idle. For the same reason we won't usually have superhighways, like the Capital Beltway, free of traffic.  When we do, it's likely to be something named after a recent politician, a pork barrel project, not something like the Beltway.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More Farm Divisions Coming?

This article suggests two reasons for dividing multi-tract/multi-owner farms: allows landowners to make separate decisions on the new farm programs (ARC & PLC) and allows operators to put some farms in one program and some in the other, hedging their bets.

Maybe we have a sort of Platonic ideal of what constitutes a farm, perhaps based on Jefferson's image of a nation of yeoman farmers?  If we do, our reality doesn't match the ideal.  When I joined ASCS it took a while to figure out that agriculture in some areas, the north and west, differed from that in the South, specifically in the balance between landownership and farm operation.  Big landowners in the South, who often called the shots for the producers; small landowners in much of the rest of country, renting to operators who farmed multiple ownership tracts.

As the emphasis in ASCS/FSA programs changed over the years, the incentive for operators to combine or divide changed.  Production adjustment programs meant combinations so you could designate the poorest land to be taken out of production.  Disaster programs meant divisions so a loss on one tract wouldn't be offset by production on other tracts.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Farm Prices Collapsing?

Prices for corn and soybeans in the US have fallen recently, by 40 percent or so if I remember correctly.  But what struck me in today's Farm Policy was this succession of notes:
"The French government said Wednesday that it would provide aid for the country’s farmers, in a bid to appease fruit and vegetable producers whose frustration with falling revenues has culminated in violent protests." (from WSJournal article)

Cotton futures fell to their lowest level since October 2009 on Wednesday, as investors worried about a growing global glut." (from WSJournal article)

Global milk prices have fallen more than 40 per cent in 2014 from record highs last year. Strong production globally, high inventory levels in China and a supply glut caused by Russia’s ban on milk imports from the EU have prompted the decline.”(from Financial Times article) (New Zealand has been hit and the NYTimes has a piece on Lithuanian dairy farmers hurt by the Russian ban.)
Of course the good news for animal farmers is that the cost of feed will be down.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Labor of Mind and Body

Strange how physical work takes away my motivation to blog or do much other work with my mind--except read, I can always read.

The last 10 days or so I've been doing some needed maintenance on the house, maintenance required to keep the Reston Association happy.  Granted that I've not worked very hard or very long (a couple hours a day max), I still have found my willpower to blog drained.  This fits with the idea which seems popular in today's psychology--willpower is a scarce resource.  Anyway, I'm nearing the end of the work, I hope, so maybe my reservoir of willpower will fill up again.

Feeding the World and Burying the Lede

"Bury the lede" is an expression meaning the big news in a story isn't highlighted.  That's my reaction to this NYTimes story, which includes the sentence:

"Feeding the world is no longer a question of growing more food"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Slipping the Stiletto In: AP History

J.L. Bell who blogs at Boston 1775 has recently raised his head from his researches into Boston Revolutionary history to note the Republican's recent attack on revised Advanced Placement history standards.  His approach in past posts impresses me as fair and balanced.  Today he tackles a response to his criticism. Apparently there's some profit in writing guides on how to game the tests: don't worry about understanding history, just focus on the areas most often the subject of questions. Understandably changing the standards could require the guides to be revised, and if the standards make people think, rather than memorize, the guides might be less useful.

Anyhow, read the post, and I particularly savor the last paragraph and the last sentence as evidence that good manners and reasoned debate don't have to exclude the lethal thrust:
Krieger’s economic interest in seeing the A.P. U.S. History test stay the same for another few years is apparent, but that’s not necessarily what motivates his animus toward the new guidelines. Similarly, all evidence suggests that Thomas Hutchinson would have supported enforcing the Tea Act of 1773 even if he didn’t have thousands of pounds invested in his sons’ tea-importing business, and that George Washington would have supported U.S. expansion to the west even if he didn’t own vast tracts of land in those territories. Still, the conflation of public good and personal economic interests never looks good.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

General Ross, the Irish, the Star Spangled Banner, and Memory

A relative forwarded this link to me--Irish Ulster schoolkids with a US flag at the General Ross memorial in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, set to the music of the Star Spangled Banner.

Some points:
  • who was Ross?  -- the British general who commanded the forces which won the Battle of Bladensburg, leading to the burning of public buildings in DC in late summer 1814. He was killed by a sniper during the attack on Fort McHenry, hence the connection to the Star Spangled Banner/flag.
  • the comments on the video show that some in Ulster/Ireland have a long long memory and bear grudges--Ross was from the landowning class.
  • from the video, I guess that drones have now a place in public ceremonies.
  • the 200th anniversary of the writing of the song has gotten Francis Scott Key a good bit of notice, but little comment on his ownership of some slaves, his freeing of some, his prosecution of cases against and for slaves as an attorney in DC and sometime district attorney for the district.  Does this mean Americans, unlike the Irish, have a shorter memory or don't like to dwell on the gloomy and complicated?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Land Rights and Water Rights

From time to time I've griped about our federal system, which makes it difficult for us all-wise bureaucrats to make things go systematically and wastes loads of taxpayer money.

Here's another example, which I never knew until today.  While the US government holds title to all the land in the country which has not been deeded to individuals, corporations, etc., it doesn't own the water in the West.  According to this article, because water was so critical, the settlers saw to it that the territorial and then state governments established systems of water rights.  So while the government owns a lot of rangeland, which it leases, it doesn't own the water rights.  And a judge has decided that if a rancher has his cows within a half-mile of his water, he has a right to graze the land, regardless of whether BLM has given him a lease or not.  See the story at the link for details.

Seems completely crazy to me, but then I'm not only an Easterner but a retired bureaucrat.

The Growth of Trust: How We Sign

Once upon a time in a faraway land the process of authenticating a document was labor intensive.  Those who generated documents were few, and communication slow, so a document which arrived at your doorstep had to be examined with due suspicion:  was it signed in the proper format, was it sealed with a seal which bore the imprint of a signet ring, or for monarchs perhaps the great seal.  All of this reflected a prudent lack of trust; people were loosely connected and individual transactions were rare but very important so fraud was tempting.

Even 55 years ago, a rite of passage was determining what my legal signature would be: William David Harshaw, William D., W. D., W. David, or Bill.  And I took a little care in practicing the signature, before beginning to sign checks and college applications and such.  Early on I was proud of my signature and theoretically the bank could examine the signatures on my checks to determine whether or not they were forged.

But today you watch people at the checkout counter using a credit card in the card machine--they stick in the numbers or slide the card, then scribble a signature, very often in my observation just a squiggle which is almost a straight line.  Even when you go to the bank these days, signing some bank documents, you use the same technology.  From my limited experience it's impossible to use the technology to sign legibly.  I'm sure the variations in signatures from one time to the next are much greater than when signing with pen on paper, so the likelihood of an expert being able to authenticate such a signature is much lower than in the past.  But that's okay, because we do so many transactions which don't really matter much.  The effect on society is to make us less suspicious and more trusting.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Implementing Laws--The Case of APH

Previously I noted that RMA is not able to implement a provision of the farm bill, allowing bad years to be excluded from the calculation of APH.  The UofIL has a post discussing the pros and cons and tradeoffs of the provision.  As is often the case, something which sounds simple isn't really when the poor bureaucrat has to translate the legislative language into regulations and computer algorithms.  Notably, if the producer excludes a yield, she has to pay a higher premium reflecting the increase risk. Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect that provision wasn't highlighted when Congress was considering the provision.

The good professors come up with 12 questions which should be answered.  (A sidenote: there is a recent book which argues that the "administrative state" is unconstitutional.  Haven't read it, but if I follow the argument, Congress should have written answers to those questions into the farm bill.  IMHO that's totally impractical--Congress barely has the capacity to write the basic provision and definitely doesn't have the capacity to answer most of these questions.)

They conclude with this:
The 2014 Farm Bill appears to make a substantial change to the crop insurance program through an amendment that permits farmers to elect to exclude yields from their APH if they are in a county (or contiguous to a county) where the county's average yield is below 50 percent of the average county yields for the previous 10 consecutive crop years. The provision raises many questions about how it will operate and what impact it will have on producers who elect to drop a yield. It also raises questions about the impact this change could have on producers in the county where such an election can occur and for the actuarial soundness of the crop insurance system as a whole. These are not insignificant questions considering how many producers rely on crop insurance as the cornerstone of the farm safety net. At the very least, FCIC must adjust the premiums paid by producers making this election to reflect the increased risks associated with the change, but many other questions remain.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

WaPost on Small and Large Farms

Compared to her peers, Ms Haspel does pretty well in considering the pros and cons of small and large farms in this piece in the Post today.

Another Washington Deadlock: 6 Years of Policy Riders

From Farm Policy, quoting Chris Clayton at DTN:
"The House funding bill for USDA blocks the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration from finalizing livestock and poultry marketing rules stemming from the 2008 farm bill. As the senators wrote, ‘The legislative rider is attempting to thwart rules that, in part, allow farmers to request documents showing them how their pay is calculated, ensures that they are given adequate notice of a halt in animal deliveries, and ensure they can exercise their right to speak with their congressional representatives without fear of retaliation.’
“These provisions have been the subject of policy riders ever since GIPSA began trying to implement them. The 2014 farm bill did not change the provisions in the law. Yet, the policy riders continue to get slapped onto the appropriation bills for USDA, blocking GIPSA from implementing those rules.”
13 senators wrote a letter asking that the riders be dropped. Of course they won't be. It's not a partisan deadlock, it's a deadlock between senators representing different interests: farmers versus meat processors (assuming I understand the issues correctly).

(Interesting that Sens. Gillibrand, Harkins, and Grassley don't have the letter posted on their home pages yet.)

Monday, September 01, 2014

And What's Your Definition of Catastrophic?

This isn't, according to scientists studying the possible effects of an eruption from Yellowstone:
"While a supereruption hasn't occurred at Yellowstone since 640,000 years ago, in the event that one happens again in the next few centuries, sleep soundly knowing that the effects would not be catastrophic. The worst you can expect is reduced traction on roads, shorted-out electrical transformers and respiratory problems, as well as damage to buildings, blocked sewer and water lines, and disruption of livestock and crop production.

3 feet of ash within 300 miles of Yellowstone, only an inch in NYC.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How Agriculture Has Changed

Once upon a time, back when AAA was young, I understand the pattern was for the Administrator to come from one section of the country and the Associate Administrator from another: usually the pattern was for one section to be the midwest (corn) and the other the south (cotton/tobacco).

That pattern has now changed: the new FSA administrator is from  California.  Don't know the numbers but there have been several from that state recently.  That suggests the rise of Californian agriculture and the diminishing importance of the farm programs for the major field crops in FSA's portfolio.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Up--ACRSI

I've seen a recent jump in page views on the blog.  A popular page is the one I did in 2011 on the Federal Register request for comments on the Acreage Crop Reporting and Streamlining Initiative (being able to share data between RMA and FSA). I hadn't noticed much activity since, at least not enough to get me motivated to blog about it again, but my curiosity is aroused so I googled.

Two points--the 2014 farm bill requires ACRSI be implemented and this FarmForum article of a month ago.  I quote from Farmforum:
For example [of private enterprise coming up with advanced systems faster than FSA], MyAgData is already being used by Authorized Insurance Providers (AIPs) this crop year for acreage and production reporting in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Minnesota. But test programs in Illinois and Indiana at local Farm Service Agency offices this year didn’t quite work as efficiently as one might hope. The data was collected and matched to the common land units required for USDA acreage and production reports, but then was printed and had to be hand-entered at the local FSA office.
My heart bleeds (very easily--I'm a bleeding heart liberal) for those bureaucrats who've had to work on this effort--it's amazing how long it's taken to get action, though I see Congress has gotten USDA's attention by attaching money--FSA gets $10 million additional if they can show progress by Sept. 30.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Yorker on GMO and the State of Agriculture

Here's last week's New Yorker article on GMO's and Dr. Vendana Shiva.  While it's a good takedown of some of her positions I do have a couple quibbles with the writer's understanding of modern agriculture:
  • "For most of the past ten thousand years, feeding more people simply meant farming more land. That option no longer exists; nearly every arable patch of ground has been cultivated, and irrigation for agriculture already consumes seventy per cent of the Earth’s freshwater."
I won't quarrel with the water point, but there's a lot of land which once was farmed and no longer is. (About 20 acres of the former Harshaw farm, for one.)  Much of the land once farmed in the Northeast has now reverted to forest or brush.  I can't find the set of maps demonstrating this fact so you'll have to take my word for it.  After the USSR broke up, a lot of farmland was abandoned.  Here's a quote from the abstract of a scholarly article:
'"The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to widespread abandonment of agricultural lands, but the extent and spatial patterns of abandonment are unclear. We quantified the extent of abandoned farmland, both croplands and pastures, across the region using MODIS NDVI satellite image time series from 2004 to 2006 and support vector machine classifications. Abandoned farmland was widespread, totaling 52.5 Mha, particularly in temperate European Russia (32 Mha), northern and western Ukraine, and Belarus. Differences in abandonment rates among countries were striking, suggesting that institutional and socio-economic factors were more important in determining the amount of abandonment than biophysical conditions. Indeed, much abandoned farmland occurred in areas without major constraints for agriculture"
Granted the fact that land was abandoned probably means it's less productive than that which is still cultivated, but the right prices will bring it back into production.
  • The only commercial farmers in the United States without crop insurance are those who have a philosophical objection to government support.  
The statement may be true for production agriculture of field crops, but I don't believe it's true for other crops, nor for organic farmers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Different Time: October 29, 1869 NY Times

Happened to run a query on the NYTimes archive (firewall) which resulted in the Oct. 29, 1869 issue being retrieved.  Some the stories, all from the first page:

  • a steamer, the Stonewall, took fire and burned near Carbondate--222 lives lost.
  • the Dublin Fenian Amnesty Association met and criticize PM Gladstone's decision not to release Fenian prisoners.
  • short piece on President Grant and the gold speculation
  • blurb on France--the Press not to be prosecuted for violations of Press law
  • Austrian government censures Prince Metternich for being connected to a duel
  • fires in Scranton (coal breaker), Bath, NY (flour mill) Marion IN (factory) burned.
  • report on a schism in the Mormon church
  • summary of crop report from USDA, "importance of draining and thorough culture"
  • woman's suffrage convention in Hartford
  • two ships sunk on the Great Lakes
  • a report on the movements of President Grant
  • WV elections
  • report on affairs and movements of various bureaucrats and government affairs
  • report on the salaries and expenses of our ministers (ambassadors) abroad, down to the penny.
  • meeting of "colored citizens" sending delegates to the National Labor Convention
  • telegrapher's strik
  • letter to the Secretary of Treasury on taxes and tariffs
The last item covers close to two columns on the front page.  It includes this statement:  "A Cure for Extravagance-- Every member of Congress and SEanator looks upon the public offices of his district as his own especial patronage, and gets appointed thereto, not those who by mental and moral acquirements are fitted for the office, but those whose appointment would be most likely to advance his own interest."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hard Work or Luck: the 17 Billon Dollar Question

We liberals have always suspected that the rich just luck into their wealth, but now we have proof due to the divorce proceedings of billionaire Harold Hamm, as reported here by NBCNews.  Seems that if he can prove his money is just the result of luck, his wife gets zilch; if it's the result of his skill and effort, she gets a share.  So he's instructed his lawyers to say he was a lucky SOB, just like all of the rich.  So Texans may "remember the Alamo" but liberals will say "remember the Hamm".

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Three Mistakes You Make

Found this quote in an old NoahSmith post:
There are three common mistakes that many Westerners make when observing or analyzing Japanese culture. First, they essentialize it - they assume there are some core things that never change, and that you can understand these things by studying samurai culture, or stuff like that. Second, they exoticize it - they assume that Japanese culture is very different from Western culture, and that there are deep secrets that only Japanese people themselves understand. Third, they homogenize it - they assume that the difference between Japanese individuals or subcultures is much smaller than the group difference between Japan and other cultures.
Seems to me we often make the same sort of mistakes in analyzing many things we don't  have first hand knowledge of:

  • bureaucracy: bureaucrats are essentially [something--lazy, overpaid, not interested in the job, stupid, disinterested specialists, etc.]; Washington bureaucrats are not people like you and me, but a strange breed; bureaucrats and entrepreneurs are entirely different breeds.
  • [do it yourself--apply the three mistakes to: blacks, whites, gays, professional athletes, weathermen, farmers, ...--see if the formula doesn't work for them]

Friday, August 22, 2014

Farmers Don't Make Money and Blue Jeans

Ben Smith  had a piece in the NYTimes recently complaining that farmers, specifically small food movement type farmers, can't make money.  He points back to past farmer organizations and  writes:
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.
He never deals with the idea that the Grange, the Populists, the National Farmers Union, the American Agriculture Movement, the various cooperatives weren't able to mold the environment to make the country safe for the sort of small family farmer he wants to preserve. 

I may have made this comparison before, but I forget.  :-(  Anyway, in my youth you could buy blue jeans from Sears or Montgomery Ward or buy Levis or Lees from department stores.  That was about it.  Blue jeans were associated, in my mind at least, with sailors coming back from active duty.  (Farmers wore overalls.)  Today you can still buy Lees, Levis, and Sears blue jeans, but also Lands End and LLBean and Carhart and Kmart and so on for many more brands, and that's not getting into the absurdly priced "fashion" blue jeans which go in and out of popularity. And at least the cheaper jeans are cheaper than when I grew up.  That variety is the result of our wealth as a country: we spend on food maybe a third or fourth of what we did when I was a kid, and incomes are much higher; therefore we can afford to indulge our tastes.

I see the same thing happening with food: a mixture of  fast cheap food, better tasting and often better food (even McDonalds food is better tasting and cheaper than the overcooked pot roast my mother made) along with a much greater choice and a much bigger price range.  I don't know what the best restaurants in New York City charged for a meal in 1950, but I'm sure it's gone up many times more than a basic diner meal has.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Foodies and Their Myths

Nathaniel Johnson at Grist ties in a New Yorker piece on Vandana Shiva to talk about her big ideas, which he likes, and her analysis of the details, which he doesn't:
Romantic environmentalists tend to get the big-picture problems right, while fudging the details. Rationalists nail the details, but sometimes become so immersed in the minutiae that they lose sight of the big picture.

I don't agree with Johnson on the total big picture, but I greatly respect his willingness to look at the holes in some foodie arguments.

A more ascerbic person might consider "fudging" to be the same as "lying", but today I'm feeling generous, and willing to admit all parties have their myths: liberals, conservatives, foodies, production ag.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pizzly Bears

A new term to me, but not to biologists who study hybrids.  A very interesting article in the NYTimes magazine.

EU Agriculture Policy

I've lost track of what's been happening in the EU farm programs over the last few years.  Here's a BBC piece of about a year ago.  

Some highlights:
  • cost about $80 billion for direction farm payments and rural development
  • direct payments to farmers in central and east Europe countries being phased in (those countries much more dependent on agriculture) but farmers in the old EU countries get most benefits
  • fights over environmental incentives and payment limitations
  • enjoyed this: "The definition of an "active farmer" has also been contentious. The current payments system is largely based on land area and past subsidy levels, meaning that landowners like airports and sports clubs, which do not farm, have been getting subsidies based on their grasslands or other eligible land areas."
  • big farmers get most benefits

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Great Sharon Astyk on Reading to Kids

Several years ago I found Ms Astyk's Casaubon's Book blog, which then was devoted to the food movement, locavores, peak oil, etc.  I mostly disagreed with her views, but she wrote very well so it was worth following her RSS feed.  She and her husband live on a small farm in upstate New York where he's a professor and she's a writer/lecturer and, for some years now, a foster mother.  She has several sons of her own and an amazing procession of foster kids, all of which has made her blogging very very sporadic, and perhaps eliminated her writing and speaking.

Her occasional posts on the foster parenting experience are good, and particularly interesting as she meditates on the effects of class and culture. Her last post is  a long essay on reading to kids.  I strongly recommend it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

From Seeds to Tanks, the History of Government Giving

Lots of publicity these days about the government giving surplus military arms and money to buy equipment to the nation's police forces.  It reminds me of the good old days, back when Congressmen gave out seeds--no I wasn't alive then but those gifts are credited as the seeds (pun intended) which grew into the USDA.

Much the same political dynamic may be going on today.  The public always asks its government: "what have you done for me lately" and it's nice for Congresspeople to be able to point with pride to their gifts.  Used to be that they pointed to "pork", once they distributed seeds, in the 21st century they can point to shiny objects from DOD or money from TSA.  All part of GWOT.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Foodies Lose in Public Vote

Burger King tried "Satisfries", which are french fries with less fat and sodium.  After their trial, they allowed their franchises to choose whether to keep them on the menu or not.  Apparently 3 out of 4 franchises opted to stop cooking Satisfries.  

Voter Fraud--Almost Nonexistent

Actually my title is misleading.  This article doesn't report any voter fraud; it simply says that our voting files are in a mess. And that proven cases of fraud are rare. Dead people aren't removed; people who move aren't updated, etc. etc.  All of which would permit some fraud, but nothing has been proved.  Our federal system is prone to this sort of problem because there's no centralized clearinghouse.

What interests me is the fact that an NGO, IBM, and local election officials are developing a system to crosscheck records and cleanse the files.  As a bureaucrat, my kneejerk reaction is/was that the feds should have developed the system, but that's not going to happen as long as our governmental structure works/doesn't work the way it does.  So score one, or maybe a tenth of one, for the libertarians and conservatives who talk about order emerging, rather than being imposed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Obama Greatly Disappoints Me

I think over the years I have mentioned my near-obsession with mono-spaced type.  To summarize: in the old days typewriters mostly were either pica or elite, using the same amount of space for each letter.  Once we moved to word processing, particularly with inkjet and laser printers, we could easily produce proportionally spaced type. There's now no reason to use monospaced type.  Readers do much better with proportionally spaced type.

So what does President Obama use for his War Powers Act letter to Congress?  See here.

Epithets and the Bureaucrat

Turns out Lois Lerner used "___hole"  in an email to her husband, referring to some conservatives.    I know nothing about Ms Lerner except what I read on wikipedia . She seems to have been a career government lawyer.  Now I don't like lawyers much, though I suspect our family attorney with whom we've been dealing this summer doesn't know that.  I also believe I did a good job of hiding my feelings back in the 1980's, when I used routinely to refer to President Reagan as the "senior idiot" and my division director as the "junior idiot".

My point is that a professional bureaucrat should be able to separate personal feelings and professional behavior, just as an attorney should be able to defend a person she believes is guilty.  Maybe it's that separation which many may perceive as inauthentic which leads people to dislike both attorneys and bureaucrats.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

What We're Good At

As reported by Dan Drezner:
As a senior U.S. diplomat once told me, “If there’s anything the United States is good at, it’s telling other countries what’s in their best interests.”

Thursday, August 07, 2014

I'm From Wall Street and I've Got a Deal for You

ProPublica studies the tobacco bonds.  Last century (1998) the state attorneys general and the tobacco companies reached a settlement, which gave states money over a number of years with the amount dependent on how much people smoked: the more they smoked, the more money since the logic was to cover the costs/externalities of smoking.

Wall Street came along and persuaded states to securitize the settlement, to sell bonds based on the stream of anticipated income from the tobacco settlement.  States would get more cash upfront (to be used as the politicians desired).  That's not a new idea but surprise, surprise, the deal is turning out to be better for Wall Street firms than for the states.

There were a lot of fancy deals made during the 90's and 00's; I hope someday there's an overview study which shows how many turned out okay and how many were snake oil.  The KISS rule also applies to finance.