Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Convenience, Waste, and Nutrition

Cornell gets credit/blame for initiating the rise of sliced apples, which has increased sales of apples, in this study.

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  In our local Safeway, the amount of cooler space devoted to packaged salad green mixes has exploded, as has the number which my wife has bought in the last year.  And what I thought was a temporary display of guacamole and other dips keyed to the Super Bowl stationed just inside the doors has mutated into a permanent display of packages of things like fresh pineapple chunks, etc.

In some ways the trend is good.  I assume there's less waste of food; even ugly apples can yield good slices. I don't see people being as picky over the box of salad greens as they are over a head of lettuce. And possibly the location of waste in the food chain shifts, more at the processing plant, less at the store.  It's convenient--the labor of cutting up a pineapple or making guacamole is centralized and more efficient than the ordinary househusband doing it.  It saves shopping time--by standardizing (the academic "in" term is "commoditizing" the shopper needs only to grab a box.

In other ways the trend is bad.It increases the amount of packaging material which needs to be disposed of.  It encourages consumption, leading to obesity.  Tradeoffs everywhere.

Monday, May 30, 2016

I'm With Trump, for One Time Only

What could possibly put me in the same camp as Donald Trump?

His position on Rolling Thunder--it's not all it's cracked up to be. 

Actually, he said he was disappointed in the size of the crowd he addressed yesterday; he thought it be more like the March on Washington and blamed the officials for not permitting people to attend.

I've a long history, going back to 2005 (albeit in a draft post I never had the guts to post) of questioning the overblown claims for the event.  It seemed every year that the number of motorcycles coming down Constitution Avenue was higher, but the number was always inconsistent with any reasonable assessment of how many cycles could pass a point over any period. Anyone who doubts my claim will have to do a search on the blog; I never did create a Rolling Thunder tag.

Maybe Trump's disappointment will cause the organizers to quietly fold their tents and fade away, like the old soldiers they are. (This Steve Hendrix piece on the organizers is good, he treats them seriously and sympathetically but to a cynic like me the story explodes the possibility that an event attracting hundreds of thousands could be supported out of a garage.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Future of Jobs? From Linen to Games

We've gotten into Game of Thrones, now on season 2.  Last night the commentary mentioned Banbridge.  Banbridge is a town in County Down, Ulster of about 16,000.  It happens to be near where my great grandfather was born, and has been mentioned by my cousin who has made regular trips back to Ulster.  Turns out the town was into linen;  in the words of Wikipedia: "The town owes its success to flax and the linen industry, becoming the principal linen producing district in Ireland by 1772 with a total of 26 bleachgreens along the[River] Bann. By 1820 the town was the centre of the 'Linen Homelands' and its prominence grew when it became a staging post on the mail coach route between Dublin and Belfast."

But linen has fallen on hard times, and there's just one linen mill left operating.  One of the others failed in 2008, and has since been converted to a production studio.It's this studio which hosts a part of Game of Thrones for some seasons.

When you think about movies, they're made all over.  Vancouver and Montreal, Morocco and Eastern Europe, New York, North Carolina, Louisiana, New Mexico are just a few of the locations I remember being used for the movies and TV shows I've seen recently, not to mention the old standbys of Britain and Italy.

And the remaining linen mill in Banbridge has long specialized on fine linens and bespoke linens.

So what we have is a shift of jobs from making products to making entertainment.  What's notable is these jobs presumably are safe from automation, which is more than we can say for manufacturing or many service jobs.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

No Violence, Please

Having lived through 1968, I'm maybe a bit more sensitive to violent protests at political functions.  I hope the scenes outside Trump's rally as described by Molly Ball here fade away as the summer continues, but I won't bet on it.

[Update: Josh Marshall observes that last night's (6/2/16) violence was well documented; everyone not involved was taking cellphone videos/pics.  Hopefully that enables prosecution and puts a lid on the violent trend.]

Myths Never Die: Millions of Slaves Imported

Since the NYTimes doesn't offer a comment section on this article about what DNA tests of African-Americans show about their migrations, I'm <s>nitpicking</s> criticizing here.

Its first three sentences read:
"The history of African-Americans has been shaped in part by two great journeys.

The first brought millions of Africans to the southern United States as slaves. The second, the Great Migration, began around 1910 and sent six million African-Americans from the South to New York, Chicago and other cities across the country."
 Two serious errors in the second sentence.  First, the colonies and the US did not import "millions" of slaves.  In fact, as Prof. Gates of Harvard writes here, there were less than 400,000 imported.  The vast majority of the close to 13 million slaves went to the Caribbean and South America.

Second, a bit less serious, the South wasn't the only region importing slaves, the Middle Atlantic and New England colonies/states also participated.

Slavery was bad enough, it doesn't need to be clothed in mythical figures.

[I see the Times has issued a correction for the millions figure as of 5/31]

Long Overdue Warning on DNA

There's DNA in your food.  Labels should reflect that.

(Note the label.  Thanks to Somin at Volokh.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Strawberries of the Past

Slate has a piece on strawberries of the past, linking to this USDA resource with pictures of old strawberries. See the previous piece.

Surprise: African Immigrants More Educated than Asian

In an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Journal of Blacks in higher education, African immigrants to the United States were found more likely to be college educated than any other immigrant group. African immigrants to the U.S. are also more highly educated than any other native-born ethnic group including white Americans. Some 48.9 percent of all African immigrants hold a college diploma. This is slightly more than the percentage of Asian immigrants to the U.S., nearly double the rate of native-born white Americans, and nearly four times the rate of native-born African Americans.

From here, via Chris Blattman.

Autonomous Vehicle: Top Down or Bottom Up? Trainable Cars

I've posted several times on "self-driving" cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, or driverless-cars.  If I understand, Google and perhaps some others are taking a top-down approach, which seems to involve extensive mapping of roads, signs, etc. etc., feeding the database to the car, and letting the car do its work.  That seems a little reminiscent of some old efforts to teach computers language by inputting vocabulary, grammar rules, etc.  Something similar also seems to have happened with robots.

It strikes me that a bottom-up approach might be more quickly usable, or call it a car with a memory. It's the same principle as teaching robots, learning by doing.

Assume a car with the ability to follow a route, avoiding other vehicles and humans, and with a memory, a trainable car.  Suppose I want my trainable car to take me to the grocery store and back.  I or another driver jumps in the car and drives it to the store, with the car storing the route and the environment of the route in its memory.  Perhaps we repeat the process several times, until the car is satisfied it knows the route.  Then I can get in the car, tell it to take me to the store, and it will do so (or tell me the conditions have changed so it can't).

You may ask: what use is that, I need a car for more than going to the store?  Good point, but my guess is that most driving is done on repetitive routes: that 80 percent of driving is done on 20 percent of routes.  My percentage is much higher than that.  So a trainable car could be rented for such repetitive routes (remember once one trainable car learns the route, the data can be copied to all others).  So Zipcar could train a car to drive to my house, and I could train it to drive to the store, etc.

There are many people who because of age, inebriation, disability, poverty, etc. do not and cannot drive.  I saw a couple women outside the grocery store the other day, waiting with their groceries for a cab to pick them up, too poor to be able to afford owning a car.  For these people a trainable car would be valuable.

For drivers the trainable car would also work, because the 80 percent of the routine routes, the commuting to work, etc. could be handled by the car and allow the "driver" to be on their cellphone, making the roads safer for everyone.

Lastly and perhaps most important, is the fact that data on roads and conditions is flowing up the organization, since a trainable car can transmit updates to the manufacturer which can then flow to the rest of the fleet.  I think that's important: in any structure getting data going up is as important and getting it going down.

What use would a car like that be? 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Eight Inch Floppies, COBOL, and Windows 3.1

No doubt we'll hear a lot about them--GAO has reported on the aging government technology here,

To those of us who date from that era it evokes some nostalgia.  For those who don't, be reassured to know that the floppies are only used: "For those in the nuclear command area, the system’s primary function is to send and receive emergency action messages to nuclear forces"

[Update: CNN piece.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hypocrisy: Thy Name Is Agricultural Groups

That's the point made here, in a Tim Mandell pickup of a post at Progressive Farmer.

Briefly, commodity groups want to exclude promotion board data from FOIA because the boards aren't federal, but justify the mandatory checkoffs which fund boards as governmental.

Of course, we humans are all hypocrites.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Strange Bedfellows: Farmers Union and Crunchies

The crunchies, the food movement, generally like to criticize "corporate farming" and praise the family farm.  That's in line with the populism of Great Plains farmers, which were able to get passed bans on corporate farming years and years ago.  See this Blog for Rural America post on the renewed fight in ND.  (I don't see the ND food movement weighing in .)

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Influence of Vested Interests and How to Overcome Them

 Political scientists and others like decry the power of special interest groups, sometimes described as having pretty complete power over public policy.  That's often true, but not always.  Take the example of the nutrition label on food, which has just been changed.

As background, consider this NY Times  article, which includes this: 
A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a detailed survey of the packaged foods and drinks that are purchased in American grocery stores and found that 60 percent of them include some form of added sugar. When they looked at every individual processed food in the store, 68 percent had added sugar.
Naturally the food processors liked the status quo.  But with Michelle Obama as the spokesperson, they were defeated.  Among the factors: Obama's image and clout, the easy contrast between self-interested food processors and those who want to improve the nation's health, and the absence of any broad-based coalition in favor of sugar.  There's no NRA, no grass-roots organization, to provide support to the processors.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Influence of a President

I thought this article in the NYTimes, "Economic Promises a President Trump Could (and Couldn’t) Keep, Much of what Donald Trump vows to accomplish in his first 100 days, if elected, is not feasible. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have room to maneuver."  was a good discussion of the influence of a President.

While the bureaucracy does restrain some of the impulses of the chief executive, her message can set the tone.  As a further instance, I'd go back to the Reagan Administration and its handling of EEO in USDA.  I'm sure Reagan didn't give orders, but his tone definitely said civil rights is not important in this administration.  That IMHO set the stage for what happened in 1996-7, now known as the Pigford suit.  Had the EEO machinery been kept in place and tuned up a bit, the problems of some of the lead plaintiffs in the suit might have been alleviated enough so there wouldn't have been the leadership to organize the lawsuit.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Oh for the Days of Panty Raids: College Students Then and Now

Catherine Rampell in the Post has a column on today's college students.
"But many  such {anti-bias] programs have mission-crept into disciplinary, pseudo-parental roles.
They have encouraged student informants to rat out peers (anonymously, if they choose) for building a phallic snow sculpture; playing a party game called “mafia” (which one student complained was anti-Italian); or chalking sidewalks and marking whiteboards with support for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee."
I hate to show my age, but back in the day we were just on the down slope of panty raids, and in the middle of uprisings against in loco parentis rules.  There was a curfew in the women's dorms (yes, the dorms were single sex), male visitors had to sign in, and the one foot on the floor rule applied. My sister's class was, I think, one of the last to wear freshman beanies. Hazing of freshmen was in retreat, finding a refuge in the fraternities and sororities.  We felt like adults, and wanted the university to cut back on its babying.

Maybe it's an illustration of cycles in history--sometimes we progress toward an end goal, but other times, as in the regulation of conduct among new/near adults, we waver back and forth.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Value of Urban Farming

Seems to be not the tangible produce grown, but the intangibles, the community building David Brooks would like to see. Brad Plumer reports on a study:
" Urban farming likely won't ever provide cities with all that many calories. And the environmental advantages are … debatable. But urban farms can provide a bunch of other neat benefits, from bolstering local communities to (sometimes) encouraging healthier diets. They can also give city-dwellers a better appreciation of how our food system works, which is less nebulous than it sounds."
Like many crunchy things, urban farming tends to be more white and rich than black and poor. Strictly speaking it's not locavore per se, but I'll tag it that.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Long Life of Established Wisdom

A long life can toss up instances where the established wisdom changes rather rapidly.  Here's one:
In its issue of May 13, 2000, The Economist magazine carried a banner headline calling Africa “The Hopeless Continent” because, it proceeded to argue, of its peoples’ predisposition to bloody civil wars, corruption, civil disorder and tyrannical rulers.  It wondered if all these were traceable to an African “inherent character flaw”. In its issue of March 2nd 2013, the same magazine labeled Africa “The hopeful Continent” and proceeded, alongside Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to feature the theme of “Africa Rising” as East Asia had done decades earlier.  Reforms in national governance, good macro-economic management and new technocratic leadership were the reasons advanced to explain the swift transition from the extreme of hopelessness to the one of a rising Africa. 

From World Bank

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Not My Parents Fruits and Veggies

This post discusses how fruits and vegetables have been changed over the generations by breeding--interesting.

Even in my lifetime, fruits such as grapefruit, oranges, blueberries have significantly increased in size.

The Half-True Headline

Timothy Noah writes on the rush of the Obama administration to get final rules published before the 6 month cutoff: anything published after May 23 can be revoked by the next President; anything before then a formal rulemaking procedure is required which takes months, maybe years.

The headline is: "Obama rushes out rules to guarantee legacy."  That's true, and fine.  The administration is issuing rules faster in 2016 than in 2013-15.   Noah doesn't explicitly feed the idea that Obama is a big-government, regulation heavy Dem, though I'm sure some readers will jump to that conclusion.

Buried in the middle of the story, Noah notes that Bush used the authority to revoke a Clinton regulation on workplace safety.  And then: "Bush was careful not to get caught in the same trap himself seven years later. His administration pushed through 214 rules in the first five months of his final year in office — 19 more than the Obama administration for the same period."

So the bottom line is Bush did more regs than Obama, so the headline could have read: "Obama dawdles, lags behind Bush pace" 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Letting Out the Cows

Mostly I'm somewhat skeptical of the Humane Society and PETA's approach to animal welfare.  Although I'd consider myself tender-hearted in dealing with the animals on our farm when I was growing up, and even more so when dealing with the felines who rule the premises where we live, I tend to resist the arguments for animal welfare.  Temple Grandin comes closer to my temperament; no sentimental attachment to animals but a hard-headed concern for making things easier all around.

Having said that, there are occasions when I swing, at least momentarily, over to the other side, the dark side as the dairymen and chicken farmers would say. 

One such occasion is viewing this, a video of cows being turned out to pasture.  Ironically the blogger is probably more anti-Humane Society than I, but we share the experience of the reaction of cows to being turned into a pasture after a long winter.  It's exuberant, and a reminder that cows have feelings.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Fellow Obsessive on All Caps

Lena Groeger posts on the Weather Bureau's movement away from all-caps. Her objections are similar to my comments about mono-spaced type, but more general. She points out the life-saving impact of the change, and extends the topic from the Weather Bureau to the Surgeon General's warning, the fine print in legal documents and warranties, traffic signs, and NASA.  As I grow older and my eyesight declines, I find these matters of typography more and more important. Some magazines and websites like to use white/light type on a dark background; very artistic I'm sure, but hard on the older people among us.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Basis for Global Optimism

I'm optimistic on the U.S.; I'm even more optimistic on the world.  Remember I grew up when colonialism was ending, and the West was becoming aware of the sad state of affairs the ebbing of imperialism was leaving behind.  (And ignoring some of the benefits.)  And through much of the first half of my adult life we flailed around, struggling with how to help the Third World, finding that many of our prescriptions didn't work as we intended.  So that's the background when I read this in a  Technology Review piece:
But by far, the technology that is likely to be most transformative in the long term is the cell phone. The growth of this technology in sub-Saharan Africa has been phenomenal. By 2007, there were more cell-phone subscriptions than people with access to sanitation. Today, there are more than 850 million subscribers across the entire continent, bringing penetration to roughly 74 percent. Phone-based technology is already helping to create digital health records, track medical supply levels, improve supply chains, and map out areas already covered by vaccination.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Proof of Identity--All Things Change

Once upon a time, the signet ring and the seal, as in the Great Seal, were the proofs of identity, and were the means of authenticating a legal transaction.  Then, as literacy spread, the signature was added, eventually replacing seals and signets for all but the most official transactions.  (Go to have a document notarized and she has a seal and will emboss your document.)  But all is changing.  From a Timothy Lee Vox post, on how Europe does debit cards better than the US:

Unfortunately, signatures are practically worthless as a security measure. If you don't believe me, try scribbling randomly next time you're asked to sign a credit or debit card receipt. I've been doing this for years and I've never had a store clerk decline the transaction because my signature didn't look authentic.
The rest of the world is way ahead of us on this. Over the past decade, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia — just to name a few — have switched to PIN-based authentication, in which customers identify themselves with a four- or six-digit code.

We've Come Far in 70 Years

"This does not mean that I want to see us grow into a flabby country, with men who are unable to defend it physically. We might as well face the fact that defense in the future, as well as aggression, needs mechanical equipment and scientific research.
I think, too, that we need to devote our energies to better health, stronger, finer people, better educated, better fed and, above all, better disciplined. If democracy is to succeed, we need well-disciplined citizens who use their citizenship with intelligence."

This is Eleanor Roosevelt, fromBrad DeLong's blog, writing in 1946.  Note the emphasis on strength and discipline.  Wouldn't see that in any current opinion writer.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bonds and Prisoners

This is one of my posts linking apparently disparate things:

  • Donald Trump has gotten some press with his statements on the national debt and how he would handle it.  Apparently he's finally settled on the idea that if conditions are right, we should buy back some debt.  The conditions would have to include running a current budgetary surplus, which seems unlikely.
  • Here's a post attempting to explain why, given a big drop in crime over recent years, we still have so many people in prison.  "Most prison sentences in the United States are for more than one year. Thus, even if crime goes down, and the number of new incarcerations goes down, the total prison population can still increase — because most of those incarcerated in previous years are still behind bars."  One graph of the first point.
  • The writer says changes in the rate of incarceration will track closely with the crime rate.

 The hangup is stock and flow. In both cases--the total US debt and the total US prison population--we're talking a "stock",  a reservoir, the level of which changes if the inflow doesn't match the outflow.

With the debt, the Treasury is selling bonds on a regular schedule, and redeeming bonds as they mature.  If taxes aren't enough to pay the bills, it sells more bonds; if taxes pay the bills, it sells fewer bonds.  So there's no surplus which a President Trump could use to buy back debt. 

With the prisoners, assume the justice system is catching, convicting, and incarcerating criminals (and on average the convict has committed the same number of crimes before capture) at a fixed rate.  (Assumptions always wrong--sometimes the jails are full and criminals are diverted from the system.)  Now you have to assume something about length of sentence.  If sentences served get longer, the stock of prisoners will increase.  If sentences get shorter, the stock will decrease (all else being equal, which it won't be).  The writer fails to make this clear.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

In Defense of Government Jobs

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View had a post on what causes of inequality the government can remedy.  Apparently it's the initial post in a series at Bloomberg.on the subject. McArdle is always worth reading, though her posting has grown less frequent recently.  But she included this paragraph:
" Government is also not well suited to creating a lot of satisfying and remunerative jobs. It can contribute to productivity and help companies to flourish, for example through basic research and by maintaining a competent legal and regulatory system. And it can directly create a few jobs providing government services; these have been, for many communities at many times, a stepping stone to the middle class."
I think this is wrong.  I understand the last sentence as being a nod to the role of the Postal Service in nurturing a black middle class.  But many government jobs include the idea of "service".  "Service" used to be big in the world.  We had the "civil service" and the "military service" or the "uniformed services".  Service was to the community, to the "commonwealth".  I live in the commonwealth of Virginia, though most Virginians would have a heart attack at the idea of "common wealth". The term evolved from the idea of common well being.

The importance of "service" is that it can be the basis of a satisfying job. Remuneration is another issue.  Some jobs, like college football/basketball coaches, some of whom are technically government, jobs, are overpaid. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Some People Really Don't Like Donald

Professor Bernstein at Volokh says he'd vote for Hillary over Trump.

He's a libertarian; within the context of the current and former bloggers on the Volokh Conspiracy he's  on the right.

Community Service: the Limits of Sacrifice

Malia Obama is off to Harvard, after a gap year.  This despite her father's suggestion that a great education could be gotten at many colleges and universities, some off the beaten path.

I'm not going to fault her choice.  It's true that if she had gone to Franklin Pierce College (to name a struggling college and the alma mater of Temple Grandin) she might have set an example to her peers of focusing on the essentials and disdaining reputation.  But very few do that.  Her parents didn't: instead of sending their daughters to DC schools like the Carters did with Amy, they chose Sidwell Friends, probably the most prestigious school in the area. So Ms. Obama is simply following her parents' example.

It's all well and good to praise community service and sacrifice, but few normal people will sacrifice themselves to the ideal, much less their children.

Monday, May 02, 2016

"The Great State of Alabama,...."

One of the fun things I remember from listening to political conventions (started in 48, but first I really remember was in 1952)  was the roll call of the states.  Each state's vote would be announced, leading off with some usually brief description of the state or the significance of the vote.  Thus, the first was always the "The Great State of Alabama is proud and happy to cast its xx votes for the next Vice President of these United States, the Honorable John Sparkman..." or some such.

I'm glad the Republicans aren't going to change that tradition--at least one wise decision.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

What Is America--the Biggest Slave Revolt

We write as if the definition of America is self-evident, thus the adjective "American" is self-evident as well.

Not so fast.  I tried, and failed, to become a professor of American history.  It's a hard term to define.  Is it the history of the people who live or lived in America?  Sounds like a good starting point, but do we include the history of the Native Americans? Does that make them more American than Americans, or less, or different? 

Maybe we just limit the term to the history of the people who lived in America after 1492?  Does that exclude the Spanish who settled in Florida and the Southwest, or the French who settled in New Orleans and Louisiana?  Or do we say that they only became American when the US gained sovereignty over the land, so their history begins with acquisition?

The other related question is whether there are degrees of Americanness?  Asking the question brings up, for those of us of a certain age, the divisiveness of the McCarthy times.  But it's a good question, at least for the way we usually write.  But it often excludes such groups as Native American tribes, the Amish/Mennonite community, the Hasidic Jewish community, etc. who don't fit neatly into generalizations about American.

This post was prompted by this piece, discussing the biggest slave revolt on soil now claimed by the US.