Monday, June 30, 2014

The Persistence of Myths and Cartoons

I suspect anyone who works in a given field long enough will find numerous errors and myths in the mass media depiction of the field.  This has not, I think, changed with the Internet. Whenever I go to wikipedia on some agriculture related stuff, I find errors.  If I had energy I might correct them but I don't, mostly. (For example, US agriculture says agricultural activity occurs in "most states".) Or many general statements about agricultural subsidies are wrong or misleading.

The Post's Glenn Kessler recently identified an error in the pages of the NYTimes, in columnist Tom Friedman's column.  (It took as fact Dean Rusk's comment in the Cuban missile crisis, that we were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked--not true.) 

I'm reminded of a famous cartoon, I think it was, showing a guy working late and telling his wife: 'there's something wrong on the Internet".   But the Internet is great--I just googled to find that cartoon so the link was added after I wrote.

Speaking of cartoons, I strongly recommend this book--very funny

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Alas, Poor USDA, I Knew You When

From Farm Policy
Chairman Lucas explained that, “It turns out that the three software platforms that were necessary to use the computers to, in a speedy fashion, address these issues would not cross match. And I’ve had conversations with the Secretary of Agriculture himself about this. He’s assured me that the best minds at IBM have been working diligently on it. But what it amounts to is because everything won’t speak to everything else in their computer system, they’ve had to mechanically do it, to manually fill out the forms.
“And I know that slowed the process down, and I know a lot of our neighbors out there have appointments that run over into July to have time with an FSA employee to fill out the paperwork to do it. But I would urge people: be patient, make sure you’ve got an appointment, be prompt, take the information that’s requested of you to bring. It is worth your time to do. We are pushing, encouraging USDA in Washington, D.C. to do whatever it takes to make the systems work together.
Yes, more than 20 years ago this was an issue.  Obviously Congressional "pushing" has had no effect.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Ridiculous and the Great: What's the Difference

This is ridiculous: a post on a person who's developed the second largest drone company in the world. What the bio for Jordi Munoz at the company's site doesn't say is he started at 20 and is now 28, 
Jordi Muñoz is co-founder and CTO of 3D Robotics. He was born in Ensenada, Mexico, and raised in Tijuana. He studied briefly at Ensenada’s Center for Technical and Higher Education before moving to southern California in 2007, where in his free time he designed and built his first drone. The autopilot ran on circuitry he lifted from a Wii remote.
Soon Jordi was making a living off his ingenuity. He hacked a toaster that he bought at Target, turned it into a reflow oven, and set up a small manufacturing facility in his apartment, designing UAV parts and selling them to pilots around the world.
Jordi’s work impressed Chris Anderson—the two met virtually through the DIY Drones online community—who supported Jordi with an initial $500 check. Chris continued to advise Jordi’s production efforts over email, and in 2009 the two co-founded 3D Robotics. In 2012, Chris quit Wired to join Jordi full time.
Jordi lives with his family in San Diego

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Research Using Acreage Report Data

Here's a report from a Stanford team which used acreage report data.
Lobell's team examined an unprecedented amount of detailed field data from more than 1 million USDA crop insurance records between 1995 and 2012.
"The idea was pretty simple," he said. "We determined which conditions really matter for corn and soy yields, and then tracked how farmers were doing at different levels of these conditions over time. But to do that well, you really need a lot of data, and this dataset was a beauty."

The takeaway appears to be this: "But in the past two decades we saw very small yield gains in non-irrigated corn under the hottest conditions. This suggests farmers may be pushing the limits of what's possible under these conditions."
Wonder what other conclusions could be supported by "Big Data" in the form of FSA or RMA datasets?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Line of the Day

"Also, “Man Bites Man” is always going to be an interesting story.  “Man Kills Man” is, sadly, not a novel event."

Joel Achenbach, on World Cup soccer and other diversions from serious concerns,

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

USDA Website and New Farmers

USDA just unveiled a new website intended to help new farmers.  I've mixed feelings about the USDA home website and the new one, but yet I don't know how you do it, "it" being to develop a website which serves all possible new farmers.  Looking at the USDA site I have a scattering of reactions.

I see USDA has yet to come up with one way to locate all offices which would serve new farmers--they still have one url for NRCS/RD/FSA service centers and a separate one for cooperative extension service.

I don't see any mention of state and local government offices which might be of concern, or government offices outside USDA (i.e., EPA, BLM).

So far, all the links to the website from the USDA home page seem to be time-driven (I'm searching for a word here--they appear in lists of radio news releases, or the slide show of current news, there's no "new farmers'' link.

If I use the search box to search for "new farmer", I get the blog posts, as well as an NAL page, but not the home page for the new farmer website.  The NAL page is also on the first page of Google results for "new farmer".  I wonder if the people heading the new farmer effort ever worked with NAL, or were aware of their effort. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Locavore and Organic

Technology Review has a piece on LED lights in greenhouses.  Includes this surprising factoid:
Consequently, the number of commercial greenhouses and the area they occupy is rocketing. In the Netherlands, for example, greenhouses occupy around 0.25 per cent of the land area of the entire country.
 It reports on a study showing LED lights would be much cheaper than sodium lights, with the interesting possibility of tailoring the color spectrum output to match plant characteristics--certain plants use some parts of the spectrum and not others, etc.

I wonder whether greenhouse plants can be organic, if grown under unnatural lights.

Friday, June 20, 2014

NY Times February 14, 1883 Want Ads

I happened to do a search which led me to the NYTimes issue of 2/14/1883--it's only available to subscribers, apparently.  It had been a while since I'd been in their archive, which they've improved.  They now display the whole issue, which was 8 or 10 pages then.  Very business oriented stuff, lots of reports of commercial activity--shipping and prices and such.

There were some want ads, though instead of being ads of job openings, they were ads for jobs wanted, mostly by servants, maids, cooks, coachmen etc.  Not sure why the difference, or when the want ads shifted to mostly job openings.  Might make a nice paper for some aspiring historian/economist.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Record Retention Policies

I've not followed the IRS scandal in detail, mostly because as a liberal I doubt if there's anything much there.  The latest is IRS is unable to provide Ms. Lerner's emails from a period in 2011.  The right is screaming 18 1/2 minutes, the left is blase.

Megan McArdle says the IRS story is possible.

I've no idea what actually happened.  When I came to ASCS, the records management people were still remembering the Billie Sol Estes scandal (a Texas wheeler-dealer, one of whose scams was transferring cotton acreage allotments from one county to another in order to make more money).  Congress tried to investigate, and found the ASCS correspondence and records were in a mess, resulting in establishing a new system of central files and documentation.  They were proud of the system; I remember in the 70's they showed it off to a visiting Soviet representative(s).  The system worked with the hierarchical nature of the organization: correspondence came up the line or from the public, replies went down the line or to the public, decisions were made using CCC board dockets mostly, or reflected in memos or directives to the field.

By the 90's, everyone who'd been involved in creating the system was gone and there was no one left who really understood the importance of records management. And since the early 80's we'd been using one email system or another (Wang, Dec Allinone, etc.) finally ending with a central email system.  Telecommunications costs had come down and we used more conference calls etc.    But the multiplication of communication channels and the gradual decline in the hierarchical nature of the organization meant there was less of a clear division between decisions which were considered official records and those which were not.  And when you looked at email that was especially true.  The initial starting point was that not all emails were official records, those that were had to be printed out and stored on paper in established files.

Bottomline, by the time I left, I had no confidence in the record management of FSA--management had never given it the time and money it required.  Another scandal might lead to a change in the situation, but it was very unlikely to be solved otherwise.

I don't know whether the same situation held in other government agencies then, or in IRS today, but I wouldn't be surprised.  Here's a link to a search on the GAO site for records management.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Farming in DC

Everyone needs their own agricultural research station, even DC, as outlined in this article.

Here's the URL for UDC's college of agriculture.  It looks to me as if they're pushing the envelope a bit to make use of extension funding? 

I mock, a little, but this is the result of our weak government because of federalism. 

You Gotta Laugh, Even If You're a Bureaucrat

From today's Post:
"In November, we reported that the NSA and Homeland Security Department were none too pleased about parody products sold online using an altered image of their logo, such as a T-shirt with: “Peeping while you’re sleeping” inside the NSA seal and under that, “The NSA, the only part of the government that actually listens.”
When will people learn that laughter is valuable, even if you're the butt of it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Divided Country and a Flawed Commentary

The NYTimes Charles Blow weighs in on the recent Pew report describing how divided and partisan the nation is becoming.

He leads with this:
"For an increasing number of Americans, the tenor of politics has reached a near-religious pitch, in which people on opposing ends of the ideological scale take on theological properties: good or evil, angels or demons, here to either save our way of life or destroy it."
After a discussion of the report he writes:

"There are some moral issues on which there can be no ambiguity. For instance, people cannot be treated differently because of the way they were born, developed or identify;  women must have access to the full range of reproductive options; and something must be done about the continued carnage of gun violence in this country. "
I commented with this:
Though I think Mr. Blow and I share the same positions, mostly (liberal Democrat, Obama contributor, etc.) I disagree with this paragraph: "There are some moral issues on which there can be no " We cannot, in our political life, distinguish between moral issues and other issues. In politics everything is subject to practicality, to compromise, to limits. Outside the political sphere everyone is welcome to believe any damn thing they believe, but our politicians should lead us to compromise in our policy. Roe v Wade was an example of such a compromise, not a trumpet call to a pro-choice position. The alternative to compromise can be seen in someplace like Ulster over the last century.

Kevin Drum has a take on the report.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Great Metaphor If Politically Incorrect

" it’s like an epileptic with Parkinson’s dancing under strobe lights in a discothèque."

Dirk Beauregard on the joys of driving a crap car.  Read the whole thing.

On Blogging--Personal and Policy

Was reading a fine post by Sharon Astyk here which starts off by commenting on the observable differences in parenting ability she finds among the domestic animals and wildlife on their small farm.  I've seen the same, though I was nowhere near as observant as she is.

She then segues into a discussion of human parenting, of which she's seen much, as she and her husband are parents and foster parents of a large number of children.

When I first started reading her, she was blogging as a peak oil/locavore activist.  She always had an interesting voice, interesting enough to overcome my knee-jerk reaction against the positions she favored and the dire future she forecast.  But time happens to us all, and these days she's less into policy and much less into blogging and much more into managing a large and variable household.  Whether her blogging, as opposed to the subjects she blogs on,  has changed that much, I don't know, but I do find myself liking her writing a lot more.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Residents and Tourists

Living in the DC area I intuitively knew what these anthropologists spent time and money figuring out--the travel patterns of residents and tourists are different. The fact leads to things like tourists seeing sights and visiting vicinities which the resident has never seen.

When I was in the Army stationed at Ft. Belvoir I did a lot of tourist stuff.  Since I've lived here, hardly any, except when escorting visitors.

As far as the "settling in" of new residents, my guess is it's personality-dependent: the amount of exploring before establishing habits/patterns will vary.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Politics in FSA

 From a Government Executive piece on VA problems
“Health care is by definition an enormously specific, patient-oriented, detailed business process,” he said. “The agency itself was designed to be sealed against political influence,” he added, noting its 9,000 to 1 ratio of career to political appointees, compared with a 2,000 to 1 ratio at the Defense Department and a 500 to 1 ratio at most agencies.
In FSA when I was there: 50 SED's, 5 area directors, 4 deputies, associate, and administrator, plus maybe 5 aides--call it 65 total political. That's a 200 to 1 ratio at FSA, meaning it's more politicized than the average agency. 

Our Couch Potato Dogs

Modern Farmer reports on research that says "agility dogs" (i.e. farm dogs) do better on tests than do "companion dogs" (i.e., those dogs who spend their lives on the couch alongside their masters).  Must be why Walt Jeffries boasts of his talking dogs.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Buffett on Government, No It's Private

Brad Delong posts Warren Buffett's lessons learned:

My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in government business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the government business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced civil servants managers would automatically make rational government business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an government agency institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, government corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any government business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of government consultants peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Ode to Mud, Sweat, and Baths

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm.

" The extra protein allowed for our brains to grow swelling our heads until we thought we were masters of the Universe"

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Those Were the Days--Were They?

An old man gets nostalgic reading this Life on a Colorado Farm post about haying, then and now.  But the voice of reality insists:
  • I wasn't putting up beautiful alfalfa hay, but less pretty timothy/meadow grass/weeds hay, sometimes having gone through a rain or two which severely diminished its value
  • it wasn't early June but likely early July, since we had to wait for the neighbor who did the baling to get his hay done first--a penalty for being a small farmer
  • I didn't work on a crew of four, except for a few occasions when I hired out, but usually just with dad, perhaps my sister, and sometimes one neighbor helper
  • it wasn't a beautiful blue sky on top of a Colorado mesa but a likely cloudy sky in a New York valley
  • and the cut ends of the hay scratched the hell out of my forearms.
Nice how modern machinery enables an older couple (still younger than me) to continue farming but being realistic I suspect there's few to no young neighbor boys around to help--machinery means the population is thinning out in rural areas and getting old.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Would Reagan Have Made the Bergdahl Trade?

I follow the Powerline blog.  Disagree with 90+ percent of what is said, but it offers a view into the right wing.  Currently all the bloggers there are up in arms attacking the Bergdahl deal. 

I see this post reporting on a discussion tomorrow at the Reagan library.  No mention of the subject matter, but I have a suggestion:  Pro or con--would Saint Ronald have made the same decision Obama did?

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of Many Things I Don't Know

I blogged the other day about the VA.  This Kevin Drum post, reporting that the retirement migration of vets skews the supply-demand picture, overcrowding the SW facilities, shows that while my logic was okay my argument falls based on the facts.  Damn stubborn things, facts are.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Get Those Kids Off the Farm

That's the lesson of China in recent years, of the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and now of Africa.

Via Chris Blattman, this is the summary of a research paper entitled: "What is driving the 'African Growth Miracle'?
We show that much of Africa’s recent growth and poverty reduction can be traced to a substantive decline in the share of the labor force engaged in agriculture. This decline has been accompanied by a systematic increase in the productivity of the labor force, as it has moved from low productivity agriculture to higher productivity manufacturing and services. These declines have been more rapid in countries where the initial share of the labor force engaged in agriculture is the highest and where commodity price increases have been accompanied by improvements in the quality of governance.
In the US the improvements in machinery after the Civil War, added to the rapid immigration from Europe (including two of my grandparents), enabled us to grow.  

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The VA's Problems: a Failure of Imagination?

Much in the press about the problems with the VA.  I wonder though whether the problem wasn't at bottom a failure of imagination.  What do I mean?

Create a simplistic model of the VA--call it a bathtub.

Flowing into the VA are two flows: one is the flow of old veterans turning to the VA for support.  Now we know, I assume, pretty well the demographics of this group: how many WWII vets, how many Cold War vets, how many Iraq I vets, etc.  and the rates at which each group contacts the VA and the rate at which they are approved for care.  Once approved, I assume we also know averages of how often a vet in a specific age group needs treatment/to see a doctor.  Overall, as this group ages they're probably contacting the VA more and needing treatment more, so the potential workload is increasing.  They're also dying more, so that decreases the workload.

The second flow is of course the post 9/11 vets who need care immediately as they transition from service to civilian status.  I assume that's a bit more unpredictable, and the burden on the VA for treatment is greater, because the treatment of a 22-year old with PTSD is more difficult than a 72-year old suffering from aging.

So you have two flows of demands.  How big is the bathtub receiving the flows and how big the drain?  I assume we know how many medical professionals are employed and how many vets they can give various types of treatment to. 

Now if the flows in are bigger than the flows out, the bathtub is going to fill up and at some point it's going to overflow.  If they're exactly equal then the delay in appointments is going to represent the lag time in getting the resources to respond to the flows.  If the drain is bigger than the inflow, the appointment delay is going to represent just local conditions.  (Change the bathtub to a supermarket check out line system--sometimes lines will backup briefly just because.)

Now if you have metrics covering these items you should be able to validate your appointment time statistics by looking at the rates at which people are contacting the VA (i.e., if the rate of 72-year old vets contacting the VA drops from 2000 to 2010).  If the rates drop, that means people are giving up on the VA and going private or not getting care at all.  If the rates are pretty constant, then your stats on waiting for appointments should be goo.

  I suspect what happened with the VA is they were measuring people coming in the door, without the imagination to consider the whole universe of potential VA patients. That's my take, anyway, probably wrong.

[Updated--a Vox primer on VA care.]

Moving Pigs, from a Practical Man and Powerline

Walt Jeffries has a post on animal psychology, though that's not its title.  The url for the post differs significantly from the title of the post, which might mean Walt is succumbing to political correctness.

Meanwhile, over at Powerline, a blog I usually read and rarely agree with, Mr. Hayward discusses flying pigs. (I'm ambivalent about the subject.)