Friday, July 31, 2015

Global Warming Leads to War: France Versus Switzerland

Conflict over scarce resources often gets violent: think about the Westerns with the cattlemen versus the homesteaders or the sheep ranchers.

And here's proof that global warming will cause conflict on a national scale: the Swiss stole French water in the midst of record setting heat.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Discrimination in Colleges

This Post piece goes into the reality of discrimination on the basis of gender in private colleges.
"Given that girls generally outperform boys in high school—girls earn better grades and account for 70 percent of valedictorians—you’d expect acceptance rates for women to be higher than for men.
Bottom line is admissions are more equal between the sexes than that implies.  Part of the fear is that after a 60-40 ratio, students will avoid the college.  

GMO Soybeans for Everyone

One of the big accusations against industrial agriculture is the fact that patented seeds must be purchased each year from the seed company.  This is a burden on smaller farms with tighter margins.

But patents are not forever.  It turns out some of Monsanto's GMO patents are expiring.  Technology Review has a report on a seed dealer who took advantage of the fact, selling GMO soybeans no longer under patent.  As the article observes, this means the farmer can use some of his harvest to plant next year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dairy and Efficiency and Meat

Nathanael Johnson at Grist has a piece on how to make meat greener.   The answer: be efficient--two quotes.
The average dairy cow in California produces 20,000 pounds of milk a year. But the average dairy cow in Mexico produces only 4,000 pounds of milk a year, while in India it’s just 1,000 pounds. 

The carbon footprint of American milk is 63 percent lower than in 1944, researchers have calculated.
Interesting throughout. (Same piece as the previous post on salmon.)

In the 1950's I think we were doing good at about 12,000 pounds, which was well above average for the county.

How To Make Something From Nothing: Feed Salmon

"As long as we are talking about fish farming, we should note that a genetically engineered salmon can produce a pound of fish for every .83 pounds of feed it eats"

From this

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Rural Utilities Service Gets Dinged

Politico has a long piece detailing problems with RUS implementation of subsidies for rural broadband.

I'd note the absence of USDA management from the discussion.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Quote on Todo

From a discussion of historians storage of data on hard drives, etc.:
I once looked at my working directories saved from a previous machine for the first time in five or so years. Among them was an ASCII file called todo.txt. The amount of overlap with the current version was distressing.

A lot of the comments described keeping lots of old files and never looking at them.  That's me.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Wasting Food

Grist has the John Oliver video on the subject--as usual quite funny.   There's an interesting bit with a farmer at a farmers market noting that it's difficult to sell the last item in the last hour.  People like to choose, and they look askance at things which people before them have not chosen. Particularly with produce there's got to be some differences among items, so the last one left likely is the least desirable, and who wants to buy the least desirable?

Misleading Post Title at Technology Review

Why do I say this title,
Robotic Surgery Linked To 144 Deaths Since 2000 is misleading?

Because it turns out that if the surgical patient died after surgery, it was included in the 144. But presumably some patients are going to die after surgery using any procedures, robotic, manual, or extra-terrestial.  The meaningful comparison would be the rates of death after surgery using comparable illnesses/situations.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mom Is Rolling in Her Grave--Egg Prices

I guess it was standard in the 30's-50's for the farm wife to handle chickens, while her spouse did the "farming".  My family was standard-issue in some ways and my mother was emotionally invested in her hens, both in terms of their importance in our economic enterprise and the value to humans of eggs, the most perfect food and the cheapest source of protein in these United States.

So my mother is rolling in her grave at this Post piece--a Wonkblog post entitled "Eggs Are No Longer the Cheapest Source of Protein".  Egg prices have increased due to the effects of the virus.

A side note: the piece includes a chart of egg prices going back to 1965. They're now at 535 percent of the 65 prices.  I think the cost of my college education has rise about 2000 percent in the same period.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers Claims

Not sure what to make of these figures. A newspaper summary:
According to a report filed on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by his Office of General Counsel, with the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, the USDA approved 3,210 of the 22,163 (14.4%) timely and completed discrimination claims that they received from Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers (HWFR).
USDA awarded cash damages, forgiveness of eligible USDA farm debt and tax relief totaling over $200 million to 706 Hispanic farmers and 2,504 female farmers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The USDA had initially set aside $1.3 billion for payments under this settlement.

Here's the website and the status report

The results are very different from those in the Pigford case.  I'm not sure how to interpret the differences: different standards for the application process, different review process, different dynamics among the applicants, all of the above, something else?  And why the big overestimate by USDA? 

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Loss of Old Organizations

When we did our weekly shopping in Greene, NY, one of our regular stops was the A&P.  It used to be the big grocery chain.  Now it's gone.

Sunstein Forfeits His Liberal Cred

Cass Sunstein is a tremendous writer, in volume and  in content.  A law professor, he headed Obama's OMB office reviewing regulations during the first term.  He's also married to Samantha Power, our UN Ambassador.  So you figure he's firmly in the liberal camp.

He forfeits all that by his essay on "Gone With the Wind", the book, in the Atlantic.

I have to say I think I had much the same reaction 20 years or so ago when I read it. Mitchell told a good story, strongly feminist.  As I say in a comment on the website, I'd compare it to Downton Abbey, a similar romantic gauze combined with stories and nods to the changing times.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Toleration for All Religion(Except...)

From the "Boston Pamphlet", referenced in the book "The empire on the Edge", an early 1772 statement of colonists positions vis a vis Britain, following a rousing statement of toleration for religion:
The only sects which he [John Locke] thinks ought to be, and which by all wise Laws are excluded from such Toleration, are those who teach Doctrines subversive of the civil Government under which they live. The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by Reason of such Doctrines as these that Princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those that they call  Heretics may be destroyed without Mercy”; besides their recognizing the Pope in so absolute a Manner, in Subversion of Government, by introducing as far as possible into the States under whose Protection they enjoy Life, Liberty and Property, that Solecism [error in language] in Politics, mperium in imperio†leading directly to the worst Anarchy and Confusion, civil Discord, War and Bloodshed

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Loss of Quality

One of the things which has happened over my lifetime is a loss of quality:
  1. in music.  Used to be we had audiophiles who spent thousands on their amplifiers and tuners, their speakers and turntables.
  2. in photography.  Used to be we had photo buffs who spend thousands on their camera, and meters and lenses, and filters.  Then we had digitial photography, with the arms race in the sensors.
Now we have smart phones which take good-enough pictures and which produce good enough sound.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Post and Corn

Yesterday's Post, as part of a concentration on corn, had an interesting article defending corn. What was interesting was the use of calories per acre:
"In the calorie department, corn is king. In 2014, average yield in the United States was 171 bushels per acre. ... Each bushel weighs 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre. ....If you had taken our 2014 corn harvest of 14.2 billion bushels and used it to feed people, it would have met 17 percent of the entire world’s caloric needs.
By contrast, wheat comes in at about 4 million calories per acre, soy at 6 million. Rice is also very high-yielding, at 11 million, and potatoes are one of the few crops that can rival corn: They also yield about 15 million ....Other vegetables, while much more nutritious than corn, wheat or potatoes, are far less energy-dense. Broccoli yields about 2.5 million calories per acre, and spinach is under 2 million."

Each person needs about 1 million calories per year. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Draft for Women? Blast from Past

I was a draftee.

Can you believe that the wikipedia entry for "draft" refers to a sports draft?

If you want the real thing, you need to search for "conscription"

Prof. Somin at Volokh Conspiracy blogs about a current suit alleging that requiring only 18 year males to register is discriminatory.  It probably is, though despite my believing there were benefits for society from the draft, we should probably just junk the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jail Breaks and Inertia

Two notable jail breaks recently--the Mexican drug lord and the two cons in Dannemora prison.  In both cases the escape route was a set of passages connecting the jail cell to the outside world.  I don't know how often there are these sorts of escapes, but they've been happening at least since Dumas wrote "The Count of Monte Cristo".

It's bureaucratic inertia at work.  The easy way to screw up such plans is simply to move prisoners around to different cells at unpredictable intervals.  Someone can invest the time and energy and willpower to create a passage from a cell to the world only if reasonably assured that they will benefit by it--remove the assurance and they won't invest the effort.  But given that prisons are bureaucracies devoted to maintaining control and order, the idea of creating uncertainty is unthinkable.  (To be fair, such transfers would likely disrupt established social routines within the prison, so might well be more undesirable than an escape every x years.)

Anyone Want a New Outer?

Verizon sent me an email with the heading:

Get a new outer for $199.99 plus taxes and shipping‏ 

 Somehow they think our household does a lot more e-stuff than it does.  

The case of the missing "r".

Monday, July 13, 2015

Two Recommendations--An Empire on the Edge and Ghosts of Versailles

Just because, I'd recommend a book and an opera.

The  book is one I haven't finished reading, but I like very much.  It's "An Empire on the Edge", a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer.  It's the British side of the road to our Revolution, with lots of stuff I didn't know. (John Brown played as big a role in the Revolution as John Brown did in the Civil War.) Particularly like the interplay of politics, personality, economics, and government, with just a tad of bureaucracy thrown in.

The opera is "The Ghosts of Versailles", which we saw at Wolf Trap Friday in a chamber version. No DVD available for anyone outside the 1 percent, but if you have a chance, go see it.  Laughed until I cried.

House Ag Appropriations

From the House appropriations ag subcommittee;

Here's the committee report on MIDAS:

"Information Technology Waste

.—GAO and USDA’s OIG have issued reports that highlight poor program performance in the past and uncertainty regarding USDA’s capacity to effectively manage IT acquisitions in the future. Auditors found that the Secretary halted further development on the MIDAS program after spending almost $500 million for nearly a decade on planning and development of this critical system. This investment of time and limited resources has resulted in the delivery of about one-fifth of the functionality intended for twice the projected cost. While the Secretary has highlighted saving hundreds of millions of dollars on IT, the Committee notes that MIDAS is a prime example of government waste and inefficiency. MIDAS is still expected to cost another $330 million over the lifecycle of the project, yet the system will have severely reduced capacity. The total cost will equal almost three times the original projections.

GAO noted that problems with MIDAS were due to the lack of implementation of USDA and Farm Service Agency (FSA) program management policies and best practices covering key disciplines such as requirements for development and management, project planning and monitoring, system testing, and executive-level governance. Following project stoppage, the Department has been exploring other options—at an additional cost to taxpayers and time spent on these modernization efforts—to provide the functionality that USDA had promised Congress and the agricultural community, including a modernized acreage reporting system and an online office for American farmers and ranchers to access. Given the lack of IT leadership demonstrated by the Secretary on the MIDAS investment, the Committee remains concerned as to whether the Department will be any more successful with IT acquisition activities moving forward than it was in the past with MIDAS. The Committee includes statutory language that places spending controls on both MIDAS and other IT acquisitions.


—FSA’s management of certain IT projects has produced increased costs, bloated budgets, and inaccurate budget estimates. These projects include the MIDAS program and increased or inaccurate charges from the National Information Technology Center, for which costs have tripled since fiscal year 2014. The agreement includes statutory language that allows FSA to release funds for farm program delivery IT projects only after review by the GAO and approval by the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate. The roadmap submitted by FSA in fiscal year 2015 was the first step to bringing accountability and guidance to almost a decade of mismanagement. In this regard, the GAO and the OIG are recommending that FSA establish a plan to guide the agency in adopting recognized best practices and in following agency policy. The GAO also recommends that the agency adhere to specific practices within key management disciplines before proceeding with further system development. FSA is directed to continue quarterly briefings in writing for the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate regarding all IT projects and activities related to farm program delivery.

And an "attaboy" for NRCS:

The Committee commends NRCS for its organizational realignment of administrative functions and appreciates the savings this will generate. NRCS has worked to become a more efficient, accountable organization, and the Committee encourages NRCS to work with other agencies within USDA to do the same

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Clear Writing

Clear writing seems to be a perennial topic.  When I started work, the (retiring) lead editor in Directives had completed a series of writing classes and had incorporated her wisdom in the handbook.  10 years later Jimmy Carter came along and we had to certify that our regulations were clearly written. 

Skip ahead to today and this Post piece describes a new effort.  The problem is eternal, and the fight against jargon is worthy.

Dairy Farming in Italy?

I'm sure this isn't representative of Italian dairies. The story about driving cows 100 miles between winter and summer pastures is interesting, though it leaves many questions unanswered. (Since the lead character is a cheesemaker, I'm assuming these are dairy cows, though the wikipedia entry is less clear. )  My big question: when and where are they milked? Milking during the drive seems unfeasible, which would seem to imply milking only at one end of the drive or the other. So these surely aren't milked for the 300 days standard for Holsteins in my youth.  And where are the calves--do they make the drive as well?

I vaguely remember in my youth reading about herds in Switzerland going from one pasture to the other. I suppose the same issues arise.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Strong Priors

Noah Smith has a discussion of "derp".  In the old days, we called it "pigheadedness".

How History Gets Distorted

The NYTimes in a roundup of interesting stuff mentioned the "EveryThreeMinutes" twitterbot which pumps out a tweet every 3 minutes describing a sale/purchase of a slave in the antebellum South.  This is from the site (not up on Twitter, so don't know the terminology).
Every Three Minutes
[In the United States] a slave was sold on average every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860 ~ Herbert Gutman
Looking at the reference, it seems that the person/people between the twitterbot is stretching a bit: "Every Four Minutes" might be more appropriate if you follow normal rounding rules and don't want to go with "Every3.6Minutes".

When you read the reference, available at Google, it's: "Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross", by Herbert George Gutman

Time on the Cross was a 1974 book which changed the historiography of slavery, as noted in the wikipedia site.  Gutman's book and criticism of  TofC is briefly described there.

According to the page displayed by Google, Gutman reasons this way: He asserts that 2 million slaves were sold between 1820 and 1860, a statistic I've seen elsewhere. He goes on to say: " If we assume that slave sales did not occur on Sundays and holidays and that such selling went on for ten hours on working days, a slave was sold on average every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860."  This is the source for Every3Minutes.

Note, however,  that the twitterbot seems to be running 24 hours a day, not 10 hours a day.  Gutman is saying 167 slaves are sold every work day( (10 hours * 60 minutes)/3.6), twitterbot is saying 400 slaves every calendar day.  How much difference does it make: it implies 5,840,000 sales over the 40 years, not 2,000,000.  That's a big difference.

In the twitterbots defense, it's an easy mistake to make. Ordinarily when we say something like: " X people are killed every day by Y", it's 365 days a year, not 200 workdays.  Gutman switched the usual basis in his calculations, presumably to make a more impressive case against Time on the Cross. 

(I could quibble about Gutman's calculations--using his figures I get 3.74 minutes, not 3.6.

40 years times 52 weeks times 6 days a week (= 12480), minus 10 days for holidays, times 10 hours times 60 minutes = 7,482,000 minutes divided by 2,000,000 = 3.741 minutes.  But since I'm going on only the page Google shows me, there may be something I'm missing.)

The bottom line is that twitter will spread the 3.6 minutes figure more widely, and it will become a concrete fact to be used in making history come alive, despite its inaccuracy.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Our Lying Founding Father

Ben Franklin is not trustworthy, as proven by this.

A diplomat is someone sent abroad to lie for her country.  It looks as if Ben was doing his own black propaganda.

What, to a Native American, Is the US Flag?

We're coming up on the 12th of July in Ulster, which marks part of "marching season", which refers to the times when the opposing Ulster parties (Protestant/Catholic) parade their flags and banners, sometimes through the opponent's backyard.  I just came back from a drive on Elden Street in Herndon, where a number of houses had the US flag displayed.  Some perhaps from the Fourth, others probably an everyday display.

A flag is a symbol which cuts two ways--it symbolizes the unity of the faithful and divides the faithful from the infidel.  The Ulster example is (or was in the recent past) the most extreme one possible without having an armed conflict; the Herndon example is the most relaxed one possible without having the symbol lose all meaning.

Life is complicated.  The Times today has a story on the reconciliation between Vietnam and the US.  Accompanying it is a photo showing the Vietnamese and US flags displayed side by side. ("Seventy eight percent of Vietnamese said they had a favorable opinion of the United States in a poll published this year by the Pew Research Center. Among those under 30 years old, it was 88 percent.")  Why can Vietnamese and Americans reconcile when Protestants and Catholics can't, or at least couldn't until the end of the 20th century?

And I wonder: to Native Americans, what is the meaning of the U.S. flag?  At least outside the thirteen original states, it flew over the military which sometimes defeated their ancestors.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The First Fourth of July Celebration

Boston1775  has John Adams' letter to his 12 year old daughter Abigail, the oldest child, recounting the way the Congress, military, and people of Philadelphia celebrated the first Fourth.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Greeks Work Harder Than Germans

The Wonkblog has 15 charts showing differences between Greece and Germany.  The fact in the title is the most surprising, closely followed by the fact they work much longer hours than Germans and the fact that Germans only work 26 hours a week

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Differences in Democrats and Republicans: Elections

I seem to be focused on politics these days.  The other day there was a piece on differing attitudes towards electoral structures; specifically the construction of electoral districts.   Back in the day there was a concept called "the establishment", something intellectuals had picked up from the British. In the 60's it meant Galbraith's "bigs"--big government, big business, big labor. All three have suffered in the years since.  Reagan proclaimed the end of the "era of big government", and it's certainly dwindled as entitlements and contracting have expanded.  Big labor is small these days, except for public employee unions.  And big business: who would have believed Apple replaced GM and IBM?

But our political attitudes still carry over.  The way I see it, Democrats distrust "the establishment" still, and prefer nonpartisan expertise, presumably drawn from the universities, the new "big education".  They want panels of experts to draw Congressional district lines. Republicans trust the establishment still, and believe it can be trusted to establish lines which work for the society.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Two-Faced Political Evaluations

This post is inspired by a conservative post over at Powerline, in which the writer predicts that Democrats will be apathetic in 2016 because Obama's administration has failed at so much.

One thing which struck me about the post was that the same writer has, in the past, voiced an entirely different appraisal of Obama--that is, Obama has succeeded in his ill-advised ambitions, socializing the country, expanding executive power, etc. etc.

Now I disagree with both, but I think it's an example of something common in political commentary, on both the right and the left: a two-faced evaluation.  Either our political opponents are powerful adversaries whose exploits are threatening to overrun the last redoubt of virtue and proper thought or they are pathetic losers whose pitiable writings at best conceal a total absence of reason and reality. [/end exaggeration for effect].

I remember during the rise of Reagan to be the nominee and then during his Presidency I had the same sort of evaluations of him that Obama's opponents voice today.  There seems to be something about political conflict which often brings out the worst in people.