Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ode to American Beauty

Just to show that one of those lefty historians can enjoy American beauty, we present Taking the Long Way Round.

Just a taste:
New York was an absolute revelation. Is there any place more lovely in the summer than the Finger Lakes region? I have never seen the like.
But read the whole thing.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Good Sentence from a Conservative

"Ignorance is the natural state of human affairs, and all of us, from addlepated reality-television enthusiasts to theoretical physicists, are almost entirely ignorant of almost everything."

Read more at:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Firing Employees

Government Executive has a piece on firing federal employees.  It's all very nice, but it misses an issue which can be as important: the economists call it "opportunity costs".

A manager has many demands on her time, demands mostly over which she has no control.  It's the in-basket, which keeps filling up. In an office with several or many employees, there's also an urge to devote time to your employees, and to be fair to them.  (Not that I achieved that, but I could be made to feel guilty about failing.) And if you'd like to think of yourself as an effective manager, you probably have dreams of your own you want to implement. (I had too many.)

Now if you have an employee who's marginal, what the rules say is you need to devote time to him: counseling, training,  documenting actions, etc. etc. The rules are all very well, certainly they fit the golden rule, they're what I'd want applied to me.  But spending the time is the killer; it takes away from the in-basket, it takes away from paying attention to other employees, and it kills your dreams.

Red Shirt Boys

". I do think that if we essentially red-shirted boys and had them begin kindergarten a year later than girls, it would go a long way toward closing this gap."

A quote from a book on women/men ratios and college (boys mature later, hence the quote above).

Four women graduate from college for every three men.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Salad and Wasting Food

Tamar Haspel has a story dissing salad--lettuce and other salad constituents aren't very nutritious, at least by weight.  As she say:
Lettuce is a vehicle to transport refrigerated water from farm to table.
She points out that salad is a big component of food waste, at least when you measure by weight.

She's an interesting writer.

Farm Kids Learn to Work Young

I couldn't resist stealing this photo from Northview Dairy.

One of the things we lose with our modern economy is the ability for kids to imitate the work of their parents. That's one way to learn, and a good one.

I'll stop now before I get all sentimental about days gone by.  Just a reminder, that little girl doesn't have to fear polio as she grows. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Was Katrina Racist?

New Yorker has a piece by Malcolm Gladwell on New Orleans after Katrina, more specifically some of the research on those who left the Big Easy for good.

A paragraph:
"By a combination of geography, history, and meteorology, Katrina disproportionately hit black New Orleans. These were the people whose homes were flooded, who camped out in the Superdome, who were evacuated to Baton Rouge or Lafayette or Houston—many of whom have never returned. The Lower Ninth had twenty thousand people before Katrina. Five years afterward, there were six thousand. In Mid-City, there are still abandoned houses and empty lots. Many of these people may have wanted to come back right after the storm. But the public schools were shut down, the city’s main public hospital was a wreck, and the city’s public-housing projects were shuttered."
 There's much in the article and the events it describes, and I may blog on other aspects. But in answer to my question in the title: no, I don't think Katrina was racist, even though its adverse impact on blacks was disproportionate.  It makes an interesting case study: IMHO calling Katrina "racist" is nonsensical--it was the history of New Orleans and the society which was racist, not the storm. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Apparel from Wood

Proof that American innovation is unceasing--the Foreign Agricultural Service is seeking OMB approval to collect information on this subject.

Foreign Agricultural Service

Title: Agriculture Wood Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund.
OMB Control Number: 0551-0045.
Summary of Collection: Section 12315 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-79) authorizes distribution out of the Agriculture Wood Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund (“Agriculture Wool Trust Fund”) in each of calendar years 2014 through 2019, payable to qualifying claimants. Eligible claimants are directed to submit a notarized affidavit, following the statutory procedures specified Section 12314 (c) or (d) of the Act.
Need and Use of the Information: The Foreign Agricultural Service will use the information provided in the affidavits to certify the claimants' eligibility and to authorize payment from the Agriculture Wood Trust Fund [Underlining added]

I can understand one typo, I could even understand consistent typos, but why one word correct and 3 incorrect?

I need to vent in a future post about the absurdity of these approvals.

A Question for Presidential Candidates

The governance of schools is different in different parts of the country.  In Broome County, NY, there were a number of central school districts, each with their own elected school board.  In Fairfax County, VA there's one county elected school board.

I note from today's papers that several of the Republican candidates for President participated in an education forum, many (all?) of whom plugged for state and local control of education.  

I'd challenge each of them to declare whether they voted in the last school board election, and who they voted for.  I may be cynical but I suspect most people couldn't answer the question, which says something to me about the value of local control.

For the record, I can't answer my own question. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

EU Cartels in the Food Chain?

Politico has a piece on the problems which European sanction on Russia are causing for the farmers, particularly French farmers.  (Does anyone here remember the problems Pres. Carter had imposing a grain embargo on the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan--that and the boycott of the Olympics were the major sanctions we imposed, IIRC?)

It includes this paragraph:
While French industrial purchasers normally agree to absorb a set volume of local production at controlled prices agreed during roundtables, this time some of them balked over the huge difference between the cost of French meat and products from Germany or Spain — around 30 euro cents per kilo.
Some complained that buying French meat at inflated prices would put them at a serious economic disadvantage. The refusal of just two moderately sized groups, Bigard and Cooperl, to buy a certain volume of pork at an agreed price of €1.40 per kilo was enough to upset the tightly-controlled system, shutting down the Brittany pork product exchange for eight days. 
I wonder what "roundtables" means--do the French equivalents of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, etc. meet together to set volumes and prices of meat they'll buy?  It's what it sounds like.

I sort of assume that the contract growing of livestock in the US extends all the way up.  Jane Doe signs a contract to grow chickens for Tyson, Tyson signs a contract to deliver chicken breasts to KFC.  But how are the prices set--subtle signalling between KFC and McDonalds (like the airlines do)?  When I'm reincarnated I'm going to study economics.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

GMO Seeds and the Chinese Spies (?)

New Republic has a piece on Chinese espionage against US intellectual property, specifically genetically modified seeds.
Think about that: The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI now contend, in effect, that the theft of genetically modified corn technology is as credible a threat to national security as the spread to nation-states of the technology necessary to deliver and detonate nuclear warheads.
It's a long piece, rehearsing the development of hybrid corn and then GMOs, and touching on farm policy from the New Deal through Earl Butz.  Inevitably such a summary must be incomplete and contain errors, but I'm not up to nitpicking today. 

WWII: Ratio of Soviet to US Losses

60 to 1, roughly

Monday, August 17, 2015

Netflix and USPS--Working Together More Closely

USPS has dropped its overnight guarantee for first class service.  That adversely impacted Netflix's DVD service.  My household subscribed to the 4 DVDs, which usually meant we had one in the mail to us, one in the mail to Netflix, and 2 at home.  The extra one at home would cover weekends, holidays,etc.  Very occasionally the DVD at the top of our queue would require a long wait, long enough that Netflix might send an extra DVD just to make us feel better about skipping the first choice until it became available.

But through the magic of bar codes, and computers, USPS and Netflix have worked out a work-around.  For the past few weeks, in addition to the 4 DVD's for which we pay, we see a little note about an additional DVD in the mail.

What's happening?  My guess is that Netflix's computers know not only the bar code on the DVD we've been sent, but also the bar code on the envelope containing the DVD.  And the USPS has computers which can scan both sides of the envelope (both sides because I think the unique bar code is on the reverse from the address). [Updated:  I often make mistakes the first time.  What's really happening is that when you insert the sleeve with the DVD into the mailing envelope correctly, the bar code on the sleeve shows the window on the back of the mailing envelope, so the USPS computer can  scan the DVD sleeve.  ]So when I mail a DVD back, the envelope goes through the USPS processing plant in late afternoon/evening, and triggers a message to Netflix which in essence says: "Harshaw is returning Wolf Hall, Disc 1".  In turn Netflix can trigger the mailing of the next DVD on the queue.

I wrote "guess" above, but it's confirmed by a comment in a reddit thread.

What's totally mystifying to me is that I don't see any publicity from Netflix.  Maybe they or their USPS partner are worried whether someone will challenge the arrangement?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Growing Meat the New Way

Vox has a long piece on the prospects for lab-grown meat.  In short, progress is being made but it has yet to attract a whole bunch of researchers.

Having just been commenting over on Grist on the prospects for RNA interference (see my post here)
I have to wonder: will the food movement which resists gene modification in their food chain be comfortable with eating man-made meat?

"Bureaucrat Is a Dirty Word"

From an interview with David Simon tied to his new HBO series on integrating housing in Yonkers.

Bureaucrat is a dirty word.

David Simon:

Except I covered Baltimore, and [Bill] covered Baltimore government. How much respect do you have for the guys who actually knew their job and did it on the public wheel? There were a lot of people like that. Not everybody. When it's bad, it's bad, but when it's good, it's good, and at a price that should be worth a lot more, and it never is.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mormon Church as Typical American Settlers

Vox has a piece explaining that Ben Carson's proposal for a tax system based on tithing was tried by the Mormon church in the 19th century.  I was struck by this quote in the article:
"Essentially, the church was the government of Utah, for all practical purposes, for quite a few decades," says John Turner, a historian at George Mason University and the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. "So there was an expectation that one would pay 10 percent of one's income as taxes."
 There's an echo there of the experience of some of my ancestors.  They moved from York county, PA to Ontario county, NY in the early 1800's.  There they joined the Presbyterian church at Stanley, NY.  Based on a history of the church, and reading some of its records, the church fulfilled a lot of the governmental functions in the early years: determining when members were bad and their punishment and providing education for the children.  While American historians know that churches were integral to the founding of New England, I think they often miss how important churches were in creating new communities as the frontier moved west.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

How We Forget: Watts 50 Years Later

The NYtimes had an article on the improvements in Watts 50 years after the riots.
But Watts — once a symbol of urban strife and racial tensions — stands as a stark contrast. There were fewer than a dozen homicides in the neighborhood last year, compared with hundreds in 1965.
There were something like 700 murders for all of California in 1964.  I can't find a breakdown for LA, much less Watts but I'd suspect that the writer of the article didn't do any research, just assumed that the murder rate was high.  Actually the first half of the 60's saw a low murder rate generally, it started to climb in the late 60's.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Messing With Plant Genes: the Fourth Way.

If we're counting, there were three ways for humans to mess with plant genes:
  1. the time-honored method of selective breeding, picking the good ones from a crop and reproducing them.  The only way approved of by all.
  2. direct genetic manipulation in the laboratory, inserting a gene from one species into the germplasm of another species.  This is called GMO, and it is considered bad by many, particularly in Europe, because it creates "unnatural" combinations of genes.  Many believe people must be given the information that they're eating/using such plants.
  3. direct genetic manipulation in the laboratory, using CRISPR to remove genetic material from  germplasm.  Not sure that people have made up their minds about this.
Even before we make up our minds about CRISPR, scientists have come up with another way to mess with genes, using "RNA interference".The appeal is that it offers control over genes without modifying a plant’s genome—that is, without creating a GMO. From the piece:
That means sprays might sidestep much of the controversy around agricultural biotechnology. Or so companies hope. What’s certain is that a way to accomplish the goals of genetic engineering without having to develop a GMO could bring commercial rewards. Sprays might be quickly tailored to do battle with an insect infestation or a new type of virus. Not only could this be faster than creating new GM crops, but the gene-silencing effects of RNA interference last only a few days or weeks. That means you might spray on traits such as drought resistance in times of water shortage without affecting the plant’s performance in times of normal rainfall.
I know I don't understand this but the bottom line to me seems to be that the scientists are advancing faster than society is making rules. It's hard to see how those who object to GMO's (no. 2) could object to this.

[Update: Grist weighs in on RNA interference.  Suggests that Monsanto follow Google and change its name.]

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Kevin Williamson Is Wrong: Foreseeing the Future

I'm nitpicking here. He writes at the National Review:
"No one in 1985 knew, or really could have known, what computers would be like ten years down the road, or twenty."
(It's in the context of mocking a NYTimes columnist in 1985 who wrote that laptops were a bad idea, and moving from that  to the idea we can't foresee the future so the market beats government.)

Now I remember old laptops. We had a Zenith laptop at work which we took to a training session.  Actually, it wasn't a computer to put on your lap--it was a portable computer, a luggable.   I also remember something else, something called an electronic calculator.  When I worked at my summer job in the summer of 1959 and later, I used an old handcrank manual adding machine. By the end of the 60's electronic calculators had arrived on the scene, and by the end of the 70's we had programmable calculators.  Innovators in county ASCS offices had started to buy the calculators and program them to compute program payments and loan amounts.  I remember a GAO report urging the agency to establish centralized control over them.

Anyway, no more memories.  My point is that by 1985 we had seen the effects of Moore's law; the capabilities of calculators had exploded and their prices had imploded.  We also had seen the progression from mainframes to minis to micro/PCs.  So anyone with any sense of the history of the past 20 years would have known that computers were going to get smaller and more capable.

And someone, like Al Gore, was on the verge of inventing the Internet, or at least see that an obscure military/academic tool needed to be opened to the public.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Wow--US and Vietnam Have Come a Ways

Given my age and history, this almost brings tears to my eyes:
"Consider that, as Trong [General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communits Party, visiting US] pointed out, the United States — not China — is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. In 2014, that trade amounted to $36 billion. In this context, prospective American foreign military sales (FMS) to Vietnam are merely an expansion of the two countries’ existing trade relationship."

Agriculture in Space

Government Executive reports that the first vegetables grown in space are now being harvested and eaten.  (Some lettuce grown under LED's.)

In the past I've criticized some vertical farming schemes which claimed to rely on sunlight to grow their vegetables.  In the case of the space station, it would seem they'd have 12 hours of sunlight and 12 of darkness, so they shouldn't need LED's.  On the other hand, the sunlight lasts only 90 minutes or so at a time, so maybe they can't rely on the sun.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Some Forecasts Are Accurate: EPA in 1989

Chris Clayton at DTN goes back to  a 1989 EPA "report  to Congress, "The Potential Effects of Global Climate Change on the United States,"... a three-year study looking at impacts of climate change 30 to 50 years out", noting several of the accurate forecasts: northern crop shifts, higher soybean yields, algae blooms in the Great Lakes, and adverse impacts on California water.

Early 20th Century North Fenton

Something completely different. The photo is of the Page Brook valley, with the farm on which I grew up in the foreground. It's taken from Richards road, which runs along the side of the hill. As farming in the area has declined (there are no longer cows nor chickens on the farm) and no longer cows on the farm across the valley from us) the trees and brush have come back. The fields all were fenced, though the lines don't stand out in this photo. In my youth the fence lines had mostly grown up with weeds and brush, silently stealing away a bit of cropland over the years.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

"Stylized Facts" and Not

Daniel Drezner offers five charts which provide an alternative view of stylized facts:

  • the Obama administration has seen ever-increasing government expenditures.
  • our manufacturing output continues to decline under Obama 
  • Mexican immigration far outstrips immigration from other countries, like China or India
  • we're losing our dominant position in the world militarily
  • global warming has paused.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

It's Who You Know in Politics

Politico has a piece on how to get a job on Capitol Hill.  It begins:
"Start with whomever you know in D.C. If you think hard enough, you probably know someone who lives in D.C. or is connected to it. It could be a former Hill staffer, a lobbyist or a distant relative. No matter who it is, just go see them. Ask them whom they know — you never know who somebody’s next door neighbor is (like a chief of staff on the Hill looking to hire a new staff assistant). In Washington, personal networking, whether a handshake or lunch, still trumps social networking on Facebook and LinkedIn. Follow up on every lead."
It's probably all good advice, but I'm bothered by the implications.  The emphasis on networking means the system is biased in favor of the already connected.  Them that has, gets.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Iranian RINOs

The Republicans have their RINOs (Republicans in name only).  Today's Post made it seem that Iran also has RINOs (Revolutionaries in name only).

Also see this piece on Iranian views of the agreement

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Silent Generation's Luck--I Thought It Was Me

Wonkblog has a post discussing wealth and income over a lifetime, using generational cohorts.  The money quote for me:
 The winners of this historical jackpot appear to be those who were born between 1930 and 1945 and came of age after World War II, who are sometimes called The Silent Generation....
...the Silent Generation appears to get an additional boost because they were born during the Great Depression, a time when people had fewer babies overall. Their lower population meant that they had less competition overall for jobs, housing, investments and other opportunities. Sociologist Elwood Carlson called the generation “the lucky few” because they were smaller than the generation that came before. African-Americans and women born in those years had far more opportunity, and the generation also benefited from the expansion of the American safety net, including Social Security and Medicare, during their lives.
The Silent Generation is me.  Actually, I'm not surprised by this article.  When I joined ASCS in 1968 there were still a handful of employees around from the New Deal days, though most I think had joined the agency after WWII.  We had a week of orientation for new employees. During one session the director of the Personnel Management Division described the number of employees who were near or at retirement age.  What it meant for my own career was I moved up the ladder quickly simply because people were retiring, so I didn't have much competition (except in one instance).  Of course, most days I believe my promotions were a tribute to my hard work and smarts, not the luck of being born at the right time.

Later, say by the late 80's, I was a branch chief and we'd hired a bunch of baby boomers, many former clerks from county office, as part of the effort to support the new IT system. But looking at my office, I knew there was a logjam.   Many, most, of my employees then had the potential to be inmanagement, at least given the prevailing theory that an excellent specialist makes a good manager.  (That theory isn't necessarily true, but it was the assumption in ASCS.) But I expected at least some of them would have to compete against each other if and when I moved out of my job.  With that in mind, I encouraged good employees to move to other units. While some  of my boomers did, in the end two of them did compete for my job.

I wonder how much such hidden factors impact our social issues.  For example, how much is the trend to adjunct professors in college necessitated because we removed mandatory retirement and the boomers are hanging on?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Good Data Modeling Is Important--MP3s

I was usually ambivalent about the IT contractors working for ASCS/FSA. On the one hand I always thought I we could do the job better and faster ourselves, if management would only give us the dollars/people.  On the other hand I have to admit I did learn a lot, even if all the contractors didn't accomplish much (at least in my fallible memory).

One of the things I did learn was data modeling, normalizing data structures and the importance of having it right.  For example, the System/36 just used flat files, with multiple indexes to them.  While the IT people in IRMD and KCMO did a pretty good job in capturing the data needed for some of our activities, one big thing was missed: time, most notably time as reflected in crop/fiscal/program years, and the idea that we could be operating programs for different years at the same time. 

Of course you never get the thing totally right.  For example, our "name" structure assumed the standard WASP structure: first name, middle name, last name, and failed to allow for the naming structures present in other parts of the world or other cultures.

Mistakes in data modeling can have big consequences, as seen in the case of the metadata scheme for MP3 files, as discussed in this piece at The Atlantic.  Classical music is particularly affected.