Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reston From Nothing to Something

This post uses the example of Reston to show how USGeological Survey (home office in Reston) updates its maps, including the process of officially naming geographic features.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Guinness Record Set? Reversals in Congress

I doubt the Guinness people keep track of how quickly politicians reverse course.  If they did they'd have to distinguish between individual politicians, who can reverse on a dime, if a dime lasts 12 hours or one news cycle, and governing bodies, like Congress, who naturally take a big longer.

I suspect Congress just set a new record: on Monday the big budget deal included a cut on crop insurance administrative costs; by the time the deal had passed early this morning (in the Senate), the cut was dead as a doornail.

Shows the clout of the insurance agents, and the usual hypocrisy of those who rail against government subsidies.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Second Hand Clothing

ThinkProgress has a piece on second-hand clothing in Kenya. 

Two points:
  • the import of such clothing and the fact it's not taxed undermines the Kenyan clothing/textile industry (that's in the piece)
  •  the use and reuse of resources contributes to world efficiency, and thus is environmentally good (I'm assuming the costs of transportation from US to Kenya are more than offset by the reuse) (this is my point)
Given my background, I'm usually impressed by thrift, one of my parents' favorite favorable adjectives.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Humans Are Doomed: Robots Teach Each Other

That's my hysterical take-away from this Technology Review piece on how one robot at Cornell taught a different robot at Brown to do a task it had learned.

I've mentioned a point on self-driving cars before: once you get a car to handle a new situation, it's done, unlike humans who even if they don't forget what they've learned, only imperfectly learned the lessons of their elders. So learning for robots is one baby step, then another baby step whereas learning for humans is one step forward, one step forward, one step backward, and then the grave.

The Siamese Twins

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting post on the original Siamese twins, who owned slaves and sired 21 children.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Farmers Take Two Hits

Two hits on farmers in the media:
  1. the World Health Organization declares processed red meat to increase the risk of cancer (not IMHO a really serious risk, but the media will play it up).
  2. the big budget deal between Boehner, McConnell, and Obama includes a hit on crop insurance companies, requiring renegotiation of the reinsurance agreement between RMA and the crop insurance companies.

Bad Gun Shops

A seemingly simple proposal on which many could agree: clamp down on the 5 percent of gun shops which sell 95 percent of the guns later used in crimes.

But, as one of my mantras says, "it's complicated".  I read another piece on the lawsuit against Badger Guns in Milwaukee (sold a gun to a "straw buyer" who turned it over to someone who shot two cops).  Too lazy to look it up, but probably the Times. I believe Badger Guns is now under new management, though the owner is related to the old one.  That's the loophole, one which FSA experiences with enforcing payment limitation: identity is often fluid, not fixed.  Today's gun dealer is tomorrow's bystander, even though common sense says there's a continuity there.  But the law does not incorporate common sense.  Common sense tells us a lot of bad things and we wish to do no bad.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Addiction Is Bad, But Human

To be human is often to be an addict.

One of my longest addictions is coffee.  I blame my parents; they drank coffee and I wanted to be like them (I know, that's weak).  As the youngest in the household, anything associated with age, with maturity was very attractive. Drinking coffee meant being an adult.

Over time I drank more and more coffee.  By the time I started with USDA I'd hit the office coffee pot every hour or so, just to keep something in my cup.  Over the next 25 years I got stomach problems, so my coffee habit was  balanced by a Maalox habit.  Eventually I started to replace the caffeine with decaf.

These days I'm drinking a bit less, but still on 20 ounces a day of Starbucks leaded, blended with Folger decaf.

Why this post?  I was afraid the doctor was going to tell me to drop the coffee today, but not so.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

EU Migration and Global Warming

Over the years there have been a few articles trying to relate climate change and various kinds of political unrest.  You'll have to take that assertion on faith, because I don't have URLs.

Conservatives tend to doubt the immediacy of global warming and to argue that humanity can adapt to changed conditions in the future, just as we have in the past.

On an individual basis, I've great faith in the ability of humans to adapt to the worse conditions. I do think global warming/climate change is real and there's a strong case for trying to cap greenhouse gases.

The turmoil associated with the migration of people from the Middle East and parts of Africa into Europe doesn't make me optimistic about our ability to adapt.  Today the EU is struggling to handle millions (at most) of refugees.  What happens when Bangladesh is struck by a strong cyclone, generating many more refugees than the EU is seeing--do we think that India will be able to handle them?

[Update:  see this Grist piece on the subject of climate refugees.]

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Importance of Knowing What You Don't Know

One of the few lessons I learned at work is the importance of knowing what you don't know.  I remember assuring the state specialist for Arkansas of an answer, which I wasn't really sure of.  Naturally I was wrong, and the answer turned up in an OIG report.

Seems to me the same issue is cropping in with self-driving cars, as witness this Technology Review article on problems with the new Tesla software/hardware.  Apparently Google is trying to handle all situations, but the problem drivers are having with the Tesla is not knowing when the system is approaching the limit of its capability, i.e., not knowing what the Tesla doesn't know or isn't sure of.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It's All Downhill from Here: Pillminders

If I have any young readers, I hope by the time you're old someone will have innovated pillminders away.

Maybe a 3-D printer which can produce any known medicine, with the output passed through a permanently installed port in one's arm, with the timing under control of the embedded personal health minder (the great grandchild of the Apple Watch)?

The older readers will know what inspired this: first you have to take an aspirin a day. Not hard to remember, particularly when one's mind is at 98 percent capacity.  Then the doc adds a prescription pill for circulation problems.  By the time the third pill is added for blood pressure, one's mind is at 90 percent and going more quickly.  So it's time to invest in a pill-minder, perhaps a 7 day jobbie so you only have to fill it once a week.

The next step is a couple more pills, one of which has to be taken twice a day, not once. And now the mind is really losing it.

Maybe what I need is a blogminder--something to remind me what I was writing about when I started the post?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I Hate "Resources"

These days everyone talks "resources", as in we need to devote the resources to fixing the problem, we lack the resources to do this, I (the politician) will devote the resources.. ad infinitum.

What do we mean?

"resources" = men/workers/people + money

I suppose that the term is useful: often if you're adding workers to a project you need the money to pay them and sometimes the decision of whether to add money and contract out the job or add workers and keep it in-house has yet to be made.

But all in all, "resources" is too damn vague: if you mean money you're talking appropriations and taxes; if you mean people, you're talking hiring and training, or moving people from one assignment to another.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Farming Fraud

Via the Rural Blog, an article on a Michigan farmer sentenced to a year and a day for fraud ($500k+).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Drone Registration and Obama's Immigration Actions and Guns

Today's papers (I think, but I'm playing catchup with my reading after a short trip) say that the FAA is planning to implement a registration system for drones by the end of the year.   There's also a piece about the court battle over Obama's immigration actions.  Why do I link the two?

Because I think both cases involve a bureaucrat's favorite piece of legislation--the Administrative Procedure Act.

As I understand it, Obama is being sued by Texas because he didn't follow the public rulemaking provisions of the Act.  Texas argues that the state is harmed by Obama's actions, meaning that he (ICE actually) should have gone through proposed rulemaking, allowing the public to comment on the actions.  There's a prediction the court fight may drag out through the rest of Obama's term in office.  (If they had gone with proposed rulemaking, the administration's lawyers probably figured it would have taken a couple years to complete anyway.)

If the FAA actually gets their registration system, both software and system design and requirements, up and running by Christmas, in time to catch all the drones being given for Christmas, they will have done well.  But why aren't they required to go proposed rulemaking under APA?

My guess is the FAA's argument in fact, if not formally, is that no one will have the balls nor the legal basis for suing over APA procedure.  They might say that the registration system will be so easy and not burdensome that there's no adverse burden to the public.  What I suspect they'll really mean is that the drone industry wants certainty so they can forge ahead, so no company will sue.  The industry will do better by having known standards than a 2-year court fight over process.

Now from the private citizen's standpoint, I could argue that my freedom is impaired by any federal regulation of guns drones. I could even argue owning and operating a drone is vital to the citizen's oversight of the federal government and my rights will be violated by this hasty rush to regulation.

I could argue that, but I don't.  I wish the FAA good luck with their software project.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

More Action on MIDAS

FSA has new information on MIDAS and new releases of software.  See here.

I'm getting ready for a trip over the weekend so haven't looked at the information.  Possibly the project has its own momentum and logic. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

You Never Do It Right the First Time

There's a corollary to this,  the hiding hand principle.Which says the actual outcome of a project is often very different from the projected outcome.  The original essay by Albert O. Hirschman looks at unexpectedly good results, the more recent study linked to here says they occur only in a minority of cases, mostly it's poorer results.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nice Paragraph: Fargo II

"Maybe the FX series Fargo is so good because blood looks so beautiful on snow. Red splashes against white, soaking into it, marking something that was once pure with a sudden, swift reminder of violence."

How To Change Peoples' Minds: Tax or Nag

Always interested in how people change their minds, if they do.  Two bits of evidence:

  1. Taxes work.  From NYTimes, Mexico levied a tax assessed on bottlers of soft drinks. The higher price reduced consumption.
  2. Nagging works. NY Times article on  how Californians nag each other about water consumption.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Are Federal Employees Properly Compensated

This piece answers: "no one knows".

I agree. 

CRISPR and the Future of Genetic Modification

CRISPR is enabling a lot of "progress".  A quote from a Technology Review piece, predicting CRISPR-ized seeds being available by the end of the decade:
Gutterson said the objectives of plant labs include engineering resistance to blights or to low rainfall by rapidly introducing beneficial gene variants found in other varieties of the same species. Using conventional breeding to move traits can take many years. “It takes a lot of time and is not as precise as we would like,” says Gutterson. “We could very much short-cut that.”
The key question is the attitude that the public and regulators will take to these plants.
Companies hope gene-edited crops could be largely exempted from regulation. Already, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has told several companies that it will not regulate these plants because they don’t contain genes from other species. However, it’s unclear how the European Union or China will approach plants made with the new methods.
As I've been saying, it's going to be hard to reject such plants.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Making Hay the New Way

My time on the farm spanned the loose hay era and the "square" bale era.

This piece on New Holland Haymakers is interesting, a very new world.  The idea of chopping hay down to 3 inches, both for the cows and to make the bale more dense to save freight costs? And I'm surprised by the relatively low cost.  I wonder if round bale balers are simpler than the old square balers, seems as if they should be.

What Government Does For You

It simplifies your money.  Back in the good old days (i.e. pre-Civil War) you'd need to subscribe to a newspaper just to keep track of what banks are issuing bank notes (paper currency) and what forgeries are circulating.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Population Projections

I've been assuming the world wasn't in too much trouble population-wise, because the birth rate was rapidly lowering almost everywhere.  But that's wrong, I mean the lower birth rate is right, but what I missed was the lower death rate.  This Technology Review graph shows the result.

While the news is depressing for concerns about resources, farming, etc., it is good news for the longevity of children, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Congratulations to Walter Jeffries and Family

They got state approval to operate their butcher shop today, 7 years in the making.

[Update: see the article on the history of their efforts here, informative even for someone who's followed the blog for a number of years.]

When Is a Farm a Farm? II

Illinois extension has a post on the FDA definition of a "farm".

To quote: "The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).... directs the FDA to implement comprehensive, prevention-based controls throughout the food supply chain...."  (Think of mad-cow concerns, as well as listeria and similar food-borne diseases.)

Without quoting the whole thing, the issues seem to be two-fold: when a "farm" also includes food preparation, and when a "farm" also includes preparing feed for animals.   There's still more regulations to come, particularly on the human food chain.   (As in my previous posts on farm constitution, the purpose of the federal program governs the definition of the farm--there is no platonic ideal of a "farm".)

FDA is setting up training: "The three Alliances—Produce Safety Alliance (PSA), Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA), and Sprout Safety Alliance (SSA) — are developing Train-the-Trainer programs to ensure that lead trainers are familiar with, and prepared to deliver, the curricula and that they understand the requirements of the FSMA rules."  (from the FDA site linked to from the ILext post.)

Al Kamen and the Post

Al Kamen was the Federal Page man for the Washington Post.  He's retiring today, but presumably the page continues.  Before him the Post had a page devoted to the federal government for a number of years, maybe as long as I've been reading it. (There currently is a separate column on federal employee matters.)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Mom's on a Roll

First, earlier this year the government said that eggs were good for you, as my now-departed mother had always said.

Now they're in the process of saying that whole milk is also good for you, that the fat doesn't matter.

So the wisdom of my parents in running a dairy-poultry farm has now been vindicated; their products were and are good for you.

The Importance of Role Models: Carson

" Black medical students are about five times as likely as their non-black classmates to choose neurological surgery as their specialty."

That's from a Post piece on Dr. Ben Carson

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Farm Constitution Rears Its Ugly Head

The question of what a "farm" seems simple.  It's actually complex.  From a bureaucratic standpoint it depends on the purpose of the farm program.

Back in the day, Farmers' Home Administration would not talk of a farm, but a farming operation, which as I understand it included all the land, animals and equipment belonging to or operated by the "farmer".  Essentially when FmHA made a loan to a "farmer", they wanted to consider everything which could impact the viability of the loan.  They didn't care about location.

Soil Conservation Service cared only about location.  They worked with the conservation practices on a plot of land, their offices served soil and water conservation districts (usually but not always a county) so what a farmer did in county B was irrelevant to conservation in county A.

ASCS was ambivalent, having to deal with both people and land, both landowners and operators/producers. In the days when disaster programs were uppermost, we wanted to combine land to spread losses and production over the widest area.  In the days when production adjustment was foremost, we wanted to divide land, so the operator had the least ability to designate less-productive land as her set-aside/conservation acreage. When programs shifted (as in the early 80's, our rules were often out-of-date.

Apparently today's programs may have impacted FSA's rules on farm constitution.  DTN has pieces from Marcia Zarley Taylor and Chris Clayton on the issue.  Because some payments under the new farm bill are now determined using county-level data,  whether land located in more than one county is administratively consider to be one farm and located in one county can make a difference.  The articles point out the possibility of losses (farm is located in county B when county A has a higher payment rate).  As usual, they don't point out the possibility of what one might call "windfalls", the farm is located in county A even though much of the land is in the lower rate county B.

The LImits of Progress: Lynching in Brazil

From a Post piece on Brazil:
Every day, according to sociologist José de Souza Martins, at least one person is lynched in Brazil. Since 2011, he’s tallied over 2,500 cases.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Dust in the Hen House

Extension has a post on poultry housing options.  From personal experience I can testify to the dusty conditions in a hen house (what they categorize as a barn).

Air quality is often poorer in alternative housing systems, and this can affect health and hygiene, which is relevant not only for hen welfare but also for food safety.
The large amount of litter and the greater bird movement in alternative systems result in greater concentrations of bacteria and fungi in the air and in greater dust concentrations compared with conventional and furnished cage systems. Greater dust concentrations have been associated with more serious pulmonary lesions, typical of chronic bronchitis, in cage-free birds (Michel and Huonnic, 2003).
As you might expect they've reservations about cage systems.  Whether or not they properly weigh the tradeoffs I won't judge, but there are tradeoffs.

Good for Secret Service

Homeland Security secretary Johnson gave the Secret Service plaudits for getting the pope, the Chinese president, and the heads of state at the UN in and out of the country safely, with no bad press. 

It's nice to see big shots recognizing the work  people do.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Historical Errors

Thinkprogress has a piece where a mother who's also a historian challenges a Texas schoolbook used by her child.  From the piece:

"A Texas mother spoke out against part of McGraw-Hill’s textbook, “World Geography,” when she noticed that the language erased slavery by calling slaves “workers” and including them in the section “Patterns of Immigration.” One example of the text:
The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations."
The challenge is to "workers" instead of "slaves", a challenge with which I agree.

But there's another error which passes unnoticed: "millions".

From Gilderlehrman:
 Approximately 11,863,000 Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, with a death rate during the Middle Passage reducing this number by 10-20 percent. As a result between 9.6 and 10.8 million Africans arrived in the Americas.
About 500,000 Africans were imported into what is now the U.S. between 1619 and 1807--or about 6 percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas. About 70 percent arrived directly from Africa.

"Butt Dials"

I really don't understand this, perhaps because I don't use a cell phone/smart phone.

"Butt dials"

Peter Moskos links to a BBC piece on the problem of accidental 911 calls.  Judging from the article, the UK has had the same problem, except their emergency number is "999".

I understand that making an emergency call is easier than a regular one, but what I don't understand is how the butt knows to dial 911 in one country and 999 in the other?  Do people have smart butts, smart enough to know the different numbers? Never knew that.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

CRISPR and Pets--Micro-pigs

Chinese scientists have used gene editing techniques to modify a small breed of pigs into "micro-pigs" according to this report.  The intent was to make the pigs smaller, therefore cheaper to raise as models for human disease.  They didn't foresee that a nice small pig would have potential as a pet.

IMHO genetic modification is like a horror movie, or Fantasia, where you see the water or other liquid coming under the door, the hero tries to keep it out, or clean it up, succeeding momentarily but ultimately failing.   (Not that I think genetic modification is a threat, per se, but it is change and some changes are mostly irresistable.)

Are Children More Civilized Than Adults?

The question of how social norms change has always fascinated me.  I've previously mentioned a book by Prof. Appiah on the subject: how duels in the West or foot-binding in China became unapproved.  He doesn't discuss, nor had I thought of this factor: children.

Children can point out hypocrisy, and lots of our norms are hypocritical.

This is triggered by a brief post on, where Jason writes, in partial explanation of a decrease in soda consumption in the US:
I've been a dedicated soda drinker1 since at least high school. But this summer, I started cutting back. The big reason is that my kids are getting old enough to read labels and wonder why I'm consuming so much sugar, the little blighters. "All that sugar is not good for you, right Daddy?" they would say. And they're completely right of course and I couldn't argue with them on that point, so I've been drinking a lot less of the stuff. I haven't cut it completely out of my diet but I treat it more or less like every other food or beverage I consume: everything in moderation.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Shed Tears for Managers

From a Government Executive piece on a new book on transitions
"“We were not considering management, such as procurement reform, which are not sexy or talked about on the campaign trail, just policy and politics,” Lu said. “At the White House we’re not good managers—we’re good at messaging and issuing edicts.” Future transitions should make management a higher priority, he said.

Rolling in His Grave: Mao Tse-tung

That's the only conclusion I can draw from this New Yorker piece, on a butler training school in Red China, of all places.

An excerpt:
Among China’s burgeoning population of new millionaires (their ranks have tripled since 2012, to more than 3.6 million) there is a peculiar appetite for the fusty trappings of European nobility. Chinese real-estate developments with names like Majesty Manor and Top Aristocrat package themselves as enclaves of Old World opulence, their properties complete with moats, replicas of Buckingham Palace gates, and mansions modelled after Versailles. Rolls Royce has begun offering Chinese customers chauffeur training with purchases from its seven-figure Phantom line, and Christie’s has opened a specialized agency to help Chinese buyers purchase wine estates abroad. For Chinese élites who are eager to adopt lifestyles commensurate with their massive wealth, such status symbols lend a recognizable veneer of Western-style aristocracy. (Many in the industry attribute the trend to the immense popularity of “Downton Abbey,” which has given millions of Chinese viewers a window into Edwardian upstairs-downstairs living.)

Who knew they liked Downton Abbey?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Education and Fatalities in Car Accidents

I might as well double down on my comments on this post on the differences in fatality rates based on education level, reporting on an academic study (from which I've stolen the graph).

Most of the commenters and the study itself focus on the differences in deaths among the different levels.  But what struck me is the deviation in the relationships: simply put, the rate goes down between 1995 and 2010 for all groups, all except those who didn't graduate high school.  I didn't see any explanation offered for why that group might have an increase in fatality rate.  I could guess maybe a change in drug usage--meth and oxy usage is, I believe, up particularly in rural areas, but that seems unlikely to move the trend that much. 

Chalk it down to a mystery.