Sunday, December 31, 2017

Land Titlles and Drones

According to this piece only about 30 percent of land in Africa is titled and recorded.  The plan is to use drones to map in detail enough to be useful for recording titles.  Apparently in some parts of Africa hedges often delineate ownership.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Things Are Getting Better

The Council for Foreign Relations has a post listing 10 ways things got better in 2017, a reminder that the dust Trump has raised in the US shouldn't get in our eyes.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Degrees of Separation

Turns out there were three degrees of separation between a Swiss/German scientist and an American aristocrat.  Einstein wrote a letter to FDR on the feasibility of nuclear fission and bombs, which was transmitted because Szillard knew Sachs who knew FDR.  That's based on Isaacson's recent biography of Einstein--very good, though I'm listening to the Audible version,not reading it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Reston in the News

Turns out the top ranked story in the Times for the day was this one, reporting on the killing of a Reston couple, allegedly by the boyfriend of the daughter, who has expressed racist and pro-Nazi opinions.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Changes in National Issues

I wrote a post on how the parties have flip-flopped since my youth, including a partial list of issues which have changed and faded out of the national discussion.  Some additional thoughts:

Some new issues include:
  1. Abortion.  The debate owes much to the civil rights debate.
  2. Gay rights.  
  3. Animal rights and welfare.
  4. Inequality (seems to be an easier way to discuss economic issues than poverty.
  5. A slew of foreign relations issues.

Some other old issues:
  1. Gambling is now legal most everywhere.  When I was growing up it was only in the Catholic bingo nights and Nevada, so it wasn't really much of an issue.
  2. Poverty (which has come in and out of national consciousness--from FDR's one-third of the nation, to the War on Poverty. 
  3. Decolonization, which was followed by the Third World. 
  4. Blue laws and restriction of trade.
  5. Doctors and lawyers advertising for business.

Farm Bill Time?

According to the House Ag committee, which has a website for it.  Hattip to Northview Dairy

You'd think after 20 years I'd be able to divorce myself from any interest in such doings.  Can't teach an old dog...

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Unrest Within the Organic Community

The Post did an investigation of a big "organic" dairy a while back.  I put in the quotes because the article raised questions about whether it met the requirements for being organic, especially whether the cows were grazing or not. Here's a piece questioning whether USDA's subsequent investigation which found no big problems were sufficiently thorough (apparently the dairy was warned before the investigators showed up).

This would be a good episode for some academic to write on, because it involves several issues: efficiency from scaling up, the tradeoffs of grazing versus grain (and the simple logistics of grazing), the bureaucracy of writing and enforcing regulations, capture of bureaucracy by interest groups, strategies of interest groups of various kinds (the "organics" wage a media war, the industry wage a guerilla war of lobbyists).

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Decline of a Completist

"Completist" is a term used by the new publisher of the NYTimes in his interview with the editor of the New Yorker.  It means someone who has to read everything in the paper.

I used to be a completist.  Back on the farm we got the Binghamton Press delivered in the mailbox.  But for really important things, like the first Soviet A-bomb test in 1949, we'd make a point of going to the Forks or Greene to pick up the Times (the stores might have 4 or 5 for sale).  I think, with the assurance of old age, that's what we did for the bomb test.  Probably the first time I read the Times, trying to understand the story.

Later we would get the Sunday Times to satisfy my sister's appetite for the news.  Finally when I got to college I could fully indulge my completist obsession.  After working breakfast at the dorm, I'd stop at Noyes Lodge overlooking Beebee Lake, pick up a Times and with a cup of coffee read the whole thing (assuming I didn't have an early class). 

I think it was both psychological and sociological--i.e., I was a farm boy trying to figure out the big world and gain status within it by knowing about everything.  So my reading life went.

But now I find I don't have the patience or interest to be a completist.  I've read too many stories of the ways people mistreat each other, too many stories of the hungry and the sick, too many stories. I still read the Times (and the Post) every day, but I skip over a lot of stories.  Such is life.

[Update: it's a good interview.  A bit of humor from it:
"D.R.: I’m giving you a very important opportunity here. I just saw the new Steven Spielberg movie, “The Post.” And I hope this doesn’t hurt, but this is about the Washington Post’s experience vis-a-vis the Pentagon Papers. Now, the Times is given credit for breaking the story, but I’m told that people at the New York Times are really annoyed with this movie.
A.G.S.: I wouldn’t say really annoyed.
D.R.: No, I mean, super annoyed at this movie.
A.G.S.: I think we’re all looking forward to the next Watergate movie. Focussing on the extraordinary reporting of the New York Times."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Factor of Ten

According to NYTimes article on electric cars, there are less than 10 times the number of gas stations than the number of recharging stations and the operating cost of an gasoline car is about 10 times the cost of an electric car.  I'm surprised by both: the number of charging stations and the operating cost differential.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What's Perdue Up to?

From FCW:
"The Trump administration announced the establishment of five centers of excellence at a Dec. 14 industry day hosted at the White House. The General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Service will lead the development of centers focused on cloud adoption, infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics and contact centers. The Department of Agriculture is the first customer.
Wilmer said the decision to name Agriculture as the home of the first center of excellence came down to the commitment of Secretary Sonny Perdue.
"The secretary of Agriculture was extremely supportive of modernizing Agriculture, I think that's one of his major objectives, and I think [he] understands the importance of IT in all of this.... So Agriculture seemed like a perfect example." Wilmer said. "When you have secretary-level-down commitment in making this happen, we wanted to make sure the first one that we roll out is going to be a success... then we can follow up rapidly with others."
Not sure what area of USDA is being targeted here.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What's Scary? Trump 2017/2025

That's from an interesting Times article on the energy industry in Wyoming. That might seem counter-intuitive; isn't Wyoming all ranches and cattle, or maybe sheep?  For those of us who know Wyoming from following "Longmire" on Netflix maybe it's not so surprising.  The oil industry was big in one season and ranching wasn't that big. According to the article, oil, coal, natural gas, and wind are all big, although competitors.

The idea of 8 years of Trump is terrible.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

How China Came to Boom

You must thank the bureaucrats for the almost miraculous changes in China over the last 40 years.  That's what I get from this, via Lee Crawfurd post summarizing presentations at a World Bank seminar on bureaucracy:
 Yuen Yuen Ang — How has China done so well in last 40 years without democratic reform? Through bureaucratic reform which has provided accountability, competition, limits on power. 50 million bureaucrats: 20% managers & 80% frontline workers. Managers have performance contracts focused on outcomes, with published league tables. Frontline workers have large performance-based informal compensation. (bonus podcast edition with Alice Evans here)

Friday, December 15, 2017

How the Parties Have Flip Flopped

During my lifetime there have been big changes in the political parties:
  1. In 1950 the Democrats were the party of the white working class; today Republicans are the party of the white evangelical class
  2. In 1950 the Democrats were the party of the Catholics, today Republicans share the vote
  3. In 1950 the Democrats had a good foothold in rural areas, today the Republicans dominate 
  4. In 1950 the Democrats controlled a solid South; today the Republicans control a solid South
  5. In 1950 white college-educated women were represented by the moderate League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women (in which my aunt was very active); today those women are feminists and vote mostly Democrat
  6. In 1950 the Republicans had a foothold with black voters (Ike would get 40 percent in 1952); today the Democrats dominate
  7. In 1950 Asian American and Latino Americans weren't significant blocs, today they are and lean (most of them) Democrat
The argument today is that our politics is more partisan and more divided than ever before.  I think that's too simplistic.  The South was solid in 1950, it's solid today.  Catholics are less divided than before.  The difference is that the blocs comprising the parties are now more aligned on some ideological parameters.   Another difference is that some policies are no longer partisan--they've been resolved.  For example:
  1. Public power used to be a big issue--would we expand it or not?  Not an issue today.
  2. Farm policy used to be a national issue, getting the attention of presidents. Not so today.
  3. Labor-management relations used to be a national issue.  We had strikes of miners, of autoworkers, of longshoremen, of steel workers, strikes which the president often had to step in and get a settlement.  No more today.
  4. Segregation used to be a big issue--not today.
  5. Cold war policy used to be big.
  6. Socialism and the threat of communism were big in 1950.  Not today. 
  7. National debt
There's other issues, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.   There's also a new set of issues, creating different divisions:
  1. Immigration
  2. Gender/sex
  3. Feminism/sexual harassment
  4. Inequality 
  5. Taxes

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Be Nice to Republicans Day

From Joe Biden:
" "You may remember, you were a little kid, your dad took care of my Beau ... Your dad became friends with Beau and Beau talked about your dad's courage, not about illness, but about his courage."
No, I didn't know that and John McCain doesn't strike as a great baby sitter, if that's what he did, but it's generous.

I Called the President an Idiot

Big hearing today where a House committee grilled the Deputy Attorney General about tweets/emails between two FBI agents.  In one or more Trump was called an "idiot".  This arguably reflects adversely on the agent and might indicate a prejudice which carried over into official duties.

While I never had the position the agents had, being lower on the totem pole than they, I too used to call the president an "idiot".  In my case it was Reagan, not Trump, and technically I called him "the senior idiot" (reflecting the fact I was calling my immediate boss "the junior idiot".  But I'm not aware that my dislike and low evaluation of Reagan ever affected my performance.  As a matter of fact I got an award (cash, no less) for my work in implementing the most controversial program ASCS handled during my time with the agency.

It's impossible to tell with the agents.  But in my experience the ability of people to compartmentalize and to deny is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Favorite Country

New Yorker has a piece on it.
It was during Kotka’s tenure that the e-Estonian goal reached its fruition. Today, citizens can vote from their laptops and challenge parking tickets from home. They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip-I.D. card that reduces typically onerous, integrative processes—such as doing taxes—to quick work. “If a couple in love would like to marry, they still have to visit the government location and express their will,” Andrus Kaarelson, a director at the Estonian Information Systems Authority, says. But, apart from transfers of physical property, such as buying a house, all bureaucratic processes can be done online.

Eleven Hoops for Regulations

Back in the day I once had responsibility for processing ASCS regulations to the Office of the Federal Register.  My memory fades, but I believe in the Nixon administration the text of a regulation moved directly from the preamble to the table of contents or other text.  Beginning perhaps with Ford's requirements on clearing big regs for their inflation impact, successive Presidents have added more and more hoops for the poor reg writer to jump through.

A recent FSA rule caught my eye.  There are eleven different sections citing requirements (EO 13771 is the Trump one.) 


Executive Orders 12866, 13563, and 13771

Executive Order 12866, “Regulatory Planning and Review,” and Executive Order 13563, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” direct agencies to assess all costs and benefits of available regulatory alternatives and, if regulation is necessary, to select regulatory approaches that maximize net benefits (including potential economic, environmental, public health and safety effects, distributive impacts, and equity). Executive Order 13563 emphasized the importance of quantifying both costs and benefits, of reducing costs, of harmonizing rules, and of promoting flexibility. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) designated this rule as not significant under Executive Order 12866, “Regulatory Planning and Review,” and therefore, OMB has not reviewed this rule. The rule is not subject to Executive Order 13771, “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.”

Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995

Pursuant to the provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (44 U.S.C. chapter 35, subchapter I), the collections of information in this rule have been approved by OMB under control number 0563-0053.

E-Government Act Compliance

USDA is committed to complying with the E-Government Act of 2002, to promote the use of the internet and other information technologies to provide increased opportunities for citizen access to Government information and services, and for other purposes.

Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995

Title II of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA) establishes requirements for Federal agencies to assess the effects of their regulatory actions on State, local, and tribal governments and the private sector. This rule contains no Federal mandates (under the regulatory provisions of title II of the UMRA) for State, local, and tribal governments or the private sector. Therefore, this rule is not subject to the requirements of sections 202 and 205 of UMRA.

Executive Order 13132

It has been determined under section 1(a) of Executive Order 13132, Federalism, that this rule does not have sufficient implications to warrant consultation with the States. The provisions contained in this rule will not have a substantial direct effect on States, or on the relationship between the national government and the States, or on the distribution of power and responsibilities among the various levels of government.

Executive Order 13175

This rule has been reviewed in accordance with the requirements of Executive Order 13175, “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments.” Executive Order 13175 requires Federal agencies to consult and coordinate with tribes on a government-to-government basis on policies that have tribal implications, including regulations, legislative comments or proposed legislation, and other policy statements or actions that have substantial direct effects on one or more Indian tribes, on the relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes or on the distribution of power and responsibilities between the Federal Government and Indian tribes.
USDA has assessed the impact of this rule on Indian tribes and determined that this rule does not, to our knowledge, have tribal implications that require tribal consultation under E.O. 13175. If a Tribe requests consultation, USDA will work with the Office of Tribal Relations to ensure meaningful consultation is provided where changes, additions and modifications identified herein are not expressly mandated by Congress.

Regulatory Flexibility Act

USDA certifies that this regulation will not have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities. This regulation is a conforming amendment to a final rule published by FCIC that states the Federal crop insurance program is the same for all producers regardless of the size of their farming operation. For instance, all producers are required to file an AD-1026 with FSA to be eligible for premium subsidy. Whether a producer has 10 acres or 1,000 acres, there is no difference in the kind of information collected. To ensure crop insurance is available to small entities, the Federal Crop Insurance Act (FCIA) authorizes FCIC to waive collection of administrative fees from limited resource farmers. FCIC believes this waiver helps to ensure that small entities are given the same opportunities as large entities to manage their risks through the use of crop insurance. A Regulatory Flexibility Analysis has not been prepared since this regulation does not have a significant impact on a substantial number of small entities, and, therefore, this regulation is exempt from the provisions of the Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 605).

Federal Assistance Program

This program is listed in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance under No. 10.450.

Executive Order 12372

This program is not subject to the provisions of Executive Order 12372, which require intergovernmental consultation with State and local officials. See 2 CFR part 415, subpart C.

Executive Order 12988

This rule has been reviewed in accordance with Executive Order 12988 on civil justice reform. The provisions of this rule will not have a retroactive effect. The provisions of this rule will preempt State and local laws to the extent such State and local laws are inconsistent herewith.

Environmental Evaluation

This action is not expected to have a significant economic impact on the quality of the human environment, health, or safety. Therefore, neither an Environmental Assessment nor an Environmental Impact Statement is needed.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Morell on Many Things

I recommend the Politco interview by Susan Glasser of Michael Morell, former CIA big shot.  What especially struck me was his ability and instinct to try to understand and present things from the other's point of view: as in how Trump viewed/s the intelligence community as affected by people from the community, like Morell, opposing his election, as in how Putin views America, as in how world leaders view Trump.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Changing My Mind on AI

This report by kottke on the advances in AI, particularly the advances in learning, makes me change my mind.  I've been relatively conservative on my expectations for AI.  I remember back in the late 80's getting excited by the possibility of using AI to make "person " determinations for payment limitation purposes.  That evaporated under the pressure of other demands on time and resources and the wide gap between us program specialists and the private consultant types we were talking to.

Over the years I've followed with some interest the progress of chess playing software, which finally beat the best human player a few years ago.  But the slowest of the progress and the narrow limits of the field meant to me I should take the dramatic predictions of the future of AI with a big dose of salt.

But now I've changed.  Why?  Because of the advance in AI in learning how to do AI. If I understand it, the key is setting a desired criteria--what it means to "win" a chess game--provide starting conditions and letting the computer teach itself, by playing itself repeatedly and changing the program used based on the outcome--if a difference in the program brings the outcome closer to the desired criteria, incorporate it.

So the important thing is the improved strategy for AI, and presumably a strategy which can be applied to any situation where you can identify a desired criteria, a definite outcome.  It's "learning how to learn" applied to software. 

[Update: a piece in Technology Review on the subject. Perhaps a bit more balanced than the Kottke piece.]

Thursday, December 07, 2017

How Times Have Changed: Test Data

The Times had an article on the theft by three Homeland Security employees of a set of personal data of DHS employees.

What were they going to do with the data?

Well, they were going to write software, or rather copy  and modify the IG's software for managing IG cases and sell it to other IG's.  And the stolen data was going to be used to test the software as they developed it.

What a change in 30 years.  Back in the 1980's and early 90's I very casually moved around sets of live data saved from county office systems to serve as the basis for testing new software.  While we had the Privacy Act requirements, we weren't really conscious of privacy restrictions and security.  Consequently I, and others, could do then what would be firing offenses today.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

USDA Attorneys

Politico reports on a problem with USDA attorneys: conflict between the union and their new leader.  (I didn't realize the attorneys had a union.  I wonder if it's a heritage from New Deal days.  Some of the attorneys then were notably left-wing, even communist, so likely they'd be activists on their own behalf as well as the rural poor.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Looking on the Bright Side

I've the Pollyana gene, no doubt inherited from my mother.  In that spirit I'd like to remind people that things have been bad before.  Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money reposts a Kansas City Star reprint of a 1973 Art Buchwald column, providing a list of canned excuses to be used by defenders of Richard Nixon.  The content and logic apply as well for today's defenders of our President. 

Bottomline, we survived Tricky Dick regardless of the damage he did to our institutions; we'll survive Don the Despicable.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Trump Stumps Computers?

From the ever-reliable Kevin Drum, as the end to a post on AI advances:

"Alternatively, this merely represents the Donald Trump effect. News articles in 2017 are stuffed with bizarre Trump quotes, and even the best machine translation software probably chokes when it tries to make sense of them. When it comes to bafflegab, humans are still the world champs."

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Republicans Favor Drunks?

Vox notes that the Senate tax bill cuts taxes on alcohol by 16 percent.

IMHO that's the wrong way to go.  Taxes should be raised, simply because alcohol is dangerous to society.  That's one principle the founding fathers believed in, witness the whiskey tax.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Lessons of 1999

Somewhere I got this link to the Sixty Minutes piece on Amazon from 1999.  Pelley's ambivalence about Amazon shows up.  He and a Wall Street type are amazed that it's more valuable than Sears. And the standard of value cited for Internet companies is Yahoo.

(I note I was one of the 2 million new Amazon customers in 1998.)