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.