Monday, June 29, 2015

Programming Languages and System Development

It's almost 40 years since my first programming courses.  I never got paid for programming, but I did find ways, by stretching my job responsibilities, to do some programming during work hours, or after.  My first language was, of course, COBOL.  I also did a very little Powerbuilder, some Javascript, and a lot of Wordperfect macros.  But that ended almost 20 years ago, so there's been a lot of changes since.  I read stuff, and see references to Python, and PHP, and Github, and wonder what the hell?

So I really enjoyed this very very very long post. It told me just enough about current times, even though I had to split my reading over 3 days.  A whole lot has changed, no mention of "waterfall development", no mention of James Martin, etc. etc. but some things haven't, as witness this quote.

"Most of your programming life will be spent trying to figure out what broke, and if the computer helps you, maybe you can watch your kids play soccer."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Republican Dominance of the Supreme Court

In the wake of this week's Supreme Court decisions, some Republicans/conservatives are bemoaning the Court and its membership. 

I had an idea, but I was surprised to find these facts, from wikipedia:

Years since Democratic appointees were last a majority on the court: 43  (Nixon in 1972 )

Years there were at least 7 Republican appointees on the court: 1976-2012

Thursday, June 25, 2015

How Government Really Works-Part LXXIV

The VA is having a bad time.  The auditors just found they had parked money with the Government Printing Office, $43 million in fact.  See Lisa Rein's piece in the Post.

My narrative from the story: Gen. Shinseki gets appointed head of VA by Obama, as a reward for being "right" on Iraq, or at least disputing the number of troops required.  Like most political, and even nonpolitical, heads of agencies, he has some pet ideas.  One such, is that every veteran needs a handbook to explain to him or her what VA benefits are available, how to get, them.  Such a handbook must run to many pages, and the number of veterans is many millions, so the cost of printing the handbooks is also in the millions.  The GPO handles government printing, and charges the agency the cost plus a service fee.

Now since the handbook is the pet idea of the boss, the VA bureaucracy naturally turn to to implement it. So they find the money to print the handbook, and since the contents may change, they plan to redo the process every couple years.  To finance the printing, they transfer money into their account with GPO, to be available when needed.  However, apparently (Rein's not quite clear or maybe the auditors weren't) the bureaucrats forgot about the money, or maybe (more likely IMHO) the people changed and the new people didn't know. 

The points I read into the narrative: the bigshot's pet idea, the eagerness of the bureaucrats to satisfy him. 

I'm a veteran.  I'm also a former bureaucrat.  I'm reasonably comfortable reading prose. I'm likely more able to parse VA text than 95 percent of my fellow veterans. There's no way I'd read a handbook from the VA, at least not since the Internet.  So I think Shinseki's idea, though well-intentioned, was a waste of money in the first place. 

I can imagine the VA bureaucrats being delighted to do it--unlike ideas Shinseki may or may not have had to change VA operations, a handbook is easy to do.  All it requires is money. You please the boss, and look good yourself without the pains of upsetting the boat.

Unfortunately, as a pet idea there's no ongoing organization behind it, so the dollars at GPO get a little lost.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What's Wrong With the Auditors?

The old question, from the Roman poet Juvenal, is:  "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Earlier I posted about the new OIG report on FSA's MIDAS project. I've lost track of all the GAO and OIG reports critical of ASCS/FSA/USDA's automation efforts.  Juvenal's question doesn't quite fit--nowadays it implies some misconduct while my point is directed towards effectiveness.

In other words, given all those audit reports you'd think there would be some improvement over the years, but USDA and its agencies still seem to be ineffective in doing large IT projects.  I wonder why?

Some possibilities:
  • IT procurement and development of IT systems keeps getting more complicated, so the bureaucracy's learning curve as embodied in the GAO/OIG reports doesn't gain on the difficulty curve of the projects.
  • the USDA bureaucracy is incapable of learning, maybe because the policy officials turnover too fast, there's no insitutional memory, there's lack of ability or training, or something else.
  • the auditors give bad advice, either misleading the bureaucracy on how to correct the problems or misidentifying the problems
  • Congress fails to do good oversight--using the reports to hold the bureaucrats feet to the fire, or maybe they focus on the wrong issues.
  • Congress fails to provide the money to do well
  • the President and OMB fail to follow through on the reports
  • the IT projects conflict with an outdated orgnaizational structure and culture.
I suspect all of these issues may apply.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Raisin Decision and Government Supported Cartels

Supreme Court handed down the decision on the raisin reserve case.  As expected, they ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. 

Megan McArdle  and Eugene Volokh fully approve and David Bernstein mostly approves.

Me, I go back Prof. Robin Williams in his survey of American society in 1962.  Then he observed and wrote that there was a growing trend for American government, particularly federal, to do what today we would call "out-sourcing".  At that time he was referring to the quasi-public, quasi-private setups like the Federal Reserve and a bunch of USDA arrangements dating to and before the New Deal.  They'd specifically include the marketing orders and the farmer-elected county committees which at that time had much power in the predecessor agencies of FSA (i.e., Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and Farmers Home Administration). 

The point was that the Feds were delegating some governmental authority to bodies which were privately elected, whether by bankers in the case of the Federal Reserve, or the various USDA committees.  Because it was a sociology course, his was a mostly descriptive description.  The reliance on elections he viewed as a part of the country's general commitment to democracy, both in government and in NGO's (to use today's term again). 

I suspect in the past I've expressed reservations about the case.  It seems to me in this case the Hornes, the plaintiffs, are attempting to free ride.  I go back to the early history, pre-New Deal, in which there were repeated attempts by farmers voluntarily to cut production in order to drive up prices.  Because of "free riding", those attempts always failed, usually rather quickly.

My impression in the case of peanuts is the issue is a bit moot: the "raisin reserve" hasn't been used for 12 years or more and the supply/demand situation seems to have fundamentally changed.  ("This time it's different"). So killing the raisin reserve may be simply a case of weeding an obsolescent idea.   But does the logic of the case stop there?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mike Morell: The Great War of Our Time

Morell had a long career in the CIA, ending as deputy director, but also serving as the briefer to GWBush during 2001-2 and at high levels in the intelligence side thereafter.

I'm in the midst of the book, which is well-written and reads quickly.

I want to note his apology in the book to Sec Powell for the CIA's failure to supply accurate information when Powell wrote his speech to the UN.  Apologies for error should always be encouraged, and Morell's is good.  He notes a number of failures of analysis on the WMD issue.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


OIG released an audit report on MIDAS last month.

Hat tip to this post from the Capital Press which represents what the media might make of the report.

"The federal government put a man on the moon, but 46 years later it can’t come up with a computer system for the USDA Farm Service Agency.
Such is the plight of the federal government in the 21st century. When it comes to computers, Uncle Sam is — how should we say it — a few bauds short of being online.
May have more thoughts when I read the report.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Astounding Issue: Kill All Carnivores?

From a Vox interview with philosopher Peter Singer:
Dylan Matthews:How do you think about the suffering of animals in the wild? Jeff McMahan has written a few interesting papers and essays implying that the controlled extinction of carnivorous species might be morally necessary, if it's even ecologically possible. Should we care about improving preyed-upon animals' lives, just as we care about animals in captivity?

Peter Singer: I welcome the discussion of that question. I think it's a good thing that people are taking this seriously and looking at it. What I think should be done about it at the moment is that people should keep thinking and talking about it and doing research into it. I don't think at the moment we've got to the point where we know enough about the suffering of wild animals, and I also don't think there's actually much of a constituency there for doing a lot about it at the moment. So I think that the research and discussion thing is where that issue should be at the moment.
IMHO this is an example of how reasoning without confronting opposing views and stubborn facts can lead to ridiculous ideas (I write "ideas" rather than "conclusions" recognizing that Singer applauds only the process, not endorsing the end.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Remember Ebola?

"“Ebola has crystallized the collapse of trust in state authorities,” columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post. Ron Fournier, writing in National Journal, hit the same theme. “Ebola is a serious threat,” he wrote, “but it’s not the disease that scares me. What scares me is the fact that we can’t trust the institutions that are supposed to deal with such threats, and we can’t trust the men or women who lead them.”

From American Prospect article on government successes.  I'm sure Krauthammer and Fournier now think more highly of the Federal government.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Amazing Fact of the Day--Trump

The Donald is a Presbyterian!

So he says in an article in today's paper.

I've a lot of Presbyterians in my ancestry.  I find this amazing.  The only connection I can make is that both Trump and Presbyterians think they're right.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Small Farmers in the Past

One of the frustrations of dealing with proposals like Mr. Bittman's to create more small farmers is a knowledge of history.  We've been there, done that. Our history shows small farms being consolidated into large farms, small farms going out of production and reverting to trees (see New England and New York), small farms being converted to suburbs.  Our history also shows repeated "back-to-the farm" movements, sometimes with government support, as here. 

My point is, not that small farms are bad, but they have vanished for economic reasons. Unless and until the food movement comes up with structures which change the reasons, small farms are doomed.

Now niche markets will work for some, but they don't represent an "answer" for America, just for a subset of Americans who can afford the tab.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I'm Late, I'm Late--re: Krauthammer

Read a review of a book on Lewis Carroll over the weekend, which probably accounts for the title of this piece.  But to the meat:

Last week the NYTimes had a piece on Marco Rubio's finances.  One of the bits was the fact he bought a boat for $80,000.  Now the Times, being a good Democratic paper, was impressed by that.  Then Charles Krauthammer in the Post devoted a column to handicapping the Republican candidates, including the quote which appears below.  I wanted to snark at him in a letter to the editor, thinking perhaps it could make this coming Saturday's "Free for All" page, but I procrastinated so long I've decided to use my snark here:
"With his usual insight, Mr. Krauthammer encapsulated the difference between Democrats and Republicans into less than 30 words in his "GOP Racing Form, Second Edition".  "The New York Times’ comical attempts to nail [Rubio] on ...  financial profligacy (a small family fishing boat — a “dream dinghy,” says a friend of mine — characterized as a “luxury speedboat”)."  
 So Krauthammer and his Republican friends look at an $80,000 boat as a dream dinghy; Democrats look at the same boat as a luxury speedboard.

Me, I'm a Democrat. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

We Need More Farmers

So writes Mark Bittman in the NYTimes.

Logically he's saying we need higher food prices, in order to attract more people to farming. 

That's not the way he's going. Instead, while he acknowledges beginning farmer programs which assist people to buy land, he suggests that we forgive student loans for people who farm for 10 years.  Needless to say I don't like the idea--it's bureaucratically messy and, I suspect, economically inefficient.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Elderly and Self-Driving Cars

Vox has a piece on the problems of the elderly who must drive up driving. As someone who's more rapidly nearing that time than I'd like, I like it all, especially as I endorsed self-driving cars (see the label) though there's more to the piece than just that.

And here's a Technology Review discussion of such cars.

There is one problem I can see with such cars.  Since we know that a human is driving the other car we see on the road, we can assume the car will behave in certain ways. It's likely early on that self-driving cars won't.  An example: a cardboard box falls off a truck--from the way it falls and bounces a human will assume it's empty.  A self-driving car may have to assume it's full, and to be avoided, possibly by an emergency stop, which the human driving the car behind that car  won't anticipate.   But such problems aren't show-stoppers.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Truest Headline Ever

The man who wrote "Headless Body in Topless Bar" just died.  But I nominate this as the truest headline:

"Oldest Person in the World Keeps Dying"

Wasting Food

I've posted a few times on the idea that food waste occurs when customers reject food at the supermarket.  Buried in this article is the assertion that half of food waste comes in business channels, but half comes at home because of reasons like these:


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Egg Prices--Back to the Good Old Days

I mentioned this back in April, when I was amused by the euphemism--"depopulation" used to cover killing the infected poultry.

Now the bird flu epidemic has resulted in killing so many birds that there's an "egg crisis".

As is usual these days this reminds me of my youth.  In the 1950's we just beginning the process of switching from small growers to contract growers.  The reason for the change was economics. There were two cyclical processes at work: supply/demand and feed prices.

  Small growers like my parents had no pricing power, meaning that egg prices yo-yoed up and down.  If feed prices were down, you could make money.  But if you were making money you'd increase your flock and your neighbor would blow the dust off her brooder stoves and order some chicks.  The result would be overproduction, and prices would drop.  Meanwhile the prices of feed (corn, wheat, oats) would have their own fluctuations.

My mother would get very indignant at this, blaming the people who weren't true chicken farmers but who simply jumped on the bandwagon of higher egg prices.

The solution, obvious in retrospect, was for consolidation to give big egg producers some pricing power, and the ability to adjust production in line with market conditions.  That meant going to contract farming, where the farmer has the chicken house and associated equipment, and simply contracts with the big outfit to produce x number of eggs from y number of hens. (It's similar to the process for growing chickens for meat.)  This reduced price risk meaning egg prices have been more stable.

Unfortunately, the logic of contract farming meant replacing small flocks with large flocks, taking advantage of labor-saving equipment (I've no fond memories of gathering eggs from under possessive hens who'd bite my hand and twist.)  In effect it's like moving air travel from lots of single engine planes to 747's, meaning safer air travel and fewer accidents, but when there is an accident, it's big.  That's where we are now.

Rubio and Real Estate

The Times has a story on the Rubio family finances today.

Slate notes that the Rubios were doing what every striving upwardly mobile person was supposed to do in 2005, buy real estate. They were fortunate--they lost money, but didn't have to hit the bankruptcy court.

I'd cut him a break--IMHO learning to deal with money is a multi-generational thing.  I've been reasonably successful by learning from my father's (over conservative) and grandfather's (a sucker) mistakes.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Quiz Kids

One of the Quiz Kids just died.  Too young to know them?  The wikipedia entry.

It was always fun when I knew the answer.  (My memory may be playing tricks here--did I ever know the answer?)

Monday, June 08, 2015

Ridiculous Headline

On a Grist post:" 90 Percent of our diets could be local, if we nix Big Ag"

What's omitted is the fact we'd have to nix most of our way of life. 

Swoosh Nets Student $35

That's the factoid of the day: the Nike "swoosh" trademark just earned the person $35.

From a Wonkblog post on the evolution of 12 famous trademarks.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Perfect Potato

Technology Review has a post on a British effort to engineer the perfect potato.  As far as I can tell from a quick read, it involves identifying potato varieties with the desired traits (blight resistance, etc.) and the genes involved, and combining them into one potato.  Apparently there are "genetically modified" varieties already, each with a desired trait, so it's a logical next step to combine them.

When they write "genetically modified", I'm assuming it's not inserting genes from one species into another, but rather moving the genes in the laboratory, not by cross-breeding.  It raises the question I've noted before: where do you draw the line in opposing GM-foods?  At one end of a continuum is a plant/animal which is different than any which lived before, because the combination of genes is new, but one created by normal sex/seed production.  Then you get into conventional breeding. Then moving genes in the lab, but still within the same species.  Then using CRSPR to edit genes out.  And finally adding genes across species lines. 

IMO you can make the same cautionary argument in each case--there might be harm to humans from this new combination of genes.  Obviously the likelihood grows as you move along the continuum. Again in my opinion I don't think there's much likelihood of harm at any point.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Comments on Actively Engaged

Chris Clayton at DTN has a summary of the comments on the proposed rule for actively engaged determinations. Here's Grassley's statement at the original publication.

What I'd Like: Move to Estonia

Via Marginal Revolution, this report on e-government in Estonia.  Through one user identity:
Today’s Estonian citizen can (though he or she does not have to):
  • Identify themselves, via e-ID, an electronic identity system
  • Vote (iVote, available since 2007)
  • Complete tax returns (and make payments or receive refunds)
  • Obtain and fulfil prescriptions (eHealth)
  • Participate in census completion
  • Review accumulated pension contributions and values
  • Perform banking, including making and receiving payments
  • Pay and interact with utilities (like water, gas and electricity)
  • Interact with the education system (e-Education)
  • Set up businesses
  • Sign contracts
  • And more.
Compare that with our government, where we're still struggling with USDA agencies providing such service.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Receipt for Service II

I've got a problem with the Receipt for Service implementation. Just in terms of bureaucracy and system design, county employees are asked to dual-task, do the work to support what the customer wants or needs plus as a separate operation record the history of the encounter. The extra work isnot likely to please the employee and the fact it's separate increases the likelihood it won't get done, undermining the validity of the statistic

A separate problem arises when it's the producer/farmer herself going online to do the work, as for example the new NRCS process.  How are those transactions going to be tracked?