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.