Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"An Impassable Wall" Trump? No, Lincoln

 Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them, Is it
possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

Is it doubted, then, that the plan I propose, if adopted, would shorten the war, and thus lessen its expenditure of money and of blood? Is it doubted that it would restore the national authority and national prosperity and perpetuate both indefinitely? Is it doubted that we here--Congress and Executive can secure its adoption? Will not the good people respond to a united and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means so certainly or so speedily assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not "Can any of us imagine better?" but "Can we all do better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, "Can we do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reducing Layers of Management Redux

Government executive has a piece by Howard Risher on the need to reduce layers of management in government:
"February 12 promises to be a significant day for federal employees. It’s the day the White House releases its 2019 budget request, along with its plans to restructure agencies, improve workforce management and performance, increase accountability, and reduce costs. One recommended change—the elimination of a layer or more of management—will have far-reaching implications. Such a move would reduce the workforce and expand the supervisory responsibilities of executives and managers, making continued micromanagement impractical"
It's a good thing President Trump has a short memory and no animus against Al Gore, because that was a major plank in Gore's "Reinventing Government" initiative in 1993-on.  For ASCS, it was an exercise in paper shuffing, IMHO.  Branch chiefs became "team leaders" but they had the same people reporting to them in fact, if not on paper. 

There's many reasons for multiplying layers of management, some good, some not-so.  But a diktat that eliminates a layer doesn't address those reasons and so, again in my opinion, will have minimal long term effect.

Monday, January 29, 2018

I'm Not Sane--per K. Williamson

Kevin Williamson has a column on institutions and the FBI, writing:
"And no sane person believes for a nanosecond that those “lost” communications represent anything other than willful obstruction of justice." 
Personally, I'd be willing to bet that the reasons the emails were "lost" can be traced to a long lasting gap in bureaucratic cultures.  Specifically, the records management people have always focused on paper preservation, and rarely have ranked high in the pecking in bureaucracies.  It's taken 20 years for NARA to start to accommodate electronic records, and I suspect they've yet to achieve full integration.  

The IT folks, on the other hand, have a culture focused on the future and a bit on the present, but rarely on the past.  C.P. Snow in the 1950's had a book entitled "Two Cultures", arguing that science and the  humanities didn't talk to each other, and they should.  Today's divide between archives and IT is worse.

In the middle of all this are the people who have to implement IT rules and archive requirements--the users.  These are the people who leave their passwords at the default, or use admin1234. 

Toss in Murphy's Law, and I'll bet there was no willful obstruction of justice.

The IMprint of History on EU Farms

Politico has a piece on the EU and farm  policy:
With Brexit sapping the EU’s financial firepower, European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan is under intense pressure to slash the bloc’s €59-billion-a year farm subsidies. 
In response, one of Brussels’ suggested cost-cutting measures is to set a ceiling on how much the largest farms can receive. At first glance, it’s a savvy political move that would reduce lavish payments to landed aristocrats and agricultural conglomerates. Hogan’s problem, however, is that this subsidy ceiling would also deliver a painful blow to poorer (but bigger) Eastern European farms that used to be vast cooperatives in the communist era.
Data provided by the Czech farm association show that the top 2.6 percent of the largest farms in the country manage a massive 81 percent of the country’s arable land, while breeding some 70 percent of its dairy cows.
There's a lot of variation though: Czech farms are the largest, while Poland, Hungary and Romania all are on the small end of the scale (under 10 hectares average). I think Polish farms were never collectivized, and maybe the other two?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How To Do an Immigration Deal

Ross Douthat in the NYTimes has a column arguing, if I've got it right, that any deal on immigration must have Stephen Miller at the table. Two paragraphs:
The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled — that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers. 
But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that “eventually” to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo. So maybe it would be worth trying to actually negotiate with Stephen Miller, rather than telling Trump that he needs to lock his adviser in a filing cabinet, slap on a “beware of leopard” sign, and hustle out to the Rose Garden to sign whatever Durbin and Graham have hashed out.
I think he's got a point, at least if we want a deal before November.  There might be a case for delaying a deal until after the 2018 elections, figuring the Democrats may take the House.  That runs the risk of the Trump administration deporting Dreamers.  The counter argument would be that there wouldn't be significant numbers deported between March and November and the risk is worth it.

Personally I've no big problem with the current system, either in the levels of legal immigration or in the ways they come.  The idea of spreading immigration across a variety of methods appeals to me; it minimizes the extent of problems in any one method.

Having a large number of immigrants living and working on the margins of society because they lack legal documentation isn't good, but going to draconian methods to reduce the numbers is costly.

IMHO I'd go with E-Verify (usually a no-no for liberals) and give the restrictionists money for the wall, then bash them for not getting Mexico to pay for it.  With those concessions I'd hope to get agreement for legal status for Dreamers and their parents.  And then I'd work like hell to take control of Congress in 2018 and pass a path to citizenship in 2019.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Nuclear Alert System

Blogged about the problem of the false alert in Hawaii the other day.  Kottke has a post showing the actual screen the operator was faced with, and a discussion of some of the issues. I'm stealing the image from him:

This is obviously terrible system design.  What interests me is the haphazard combination of situations.  What I'd guess has happened is someone came up with a state/county alert system, and situations have been added to it.  What's striking is the variety of organizations which can trigger an alert: police can trigger an AmberAlert, weather bureau can generate high surf, USGS can issue the tsunanmi warning, etc.   So there seem to be a bunch of inputs to the one person who then makes the selection, each selection presumably with a different set of addressees and a preset canned message.

I wonder what happens when the person is away from her desk, in the bathroom, on leave, etc.  I have a hard time believing that the desk is manned/womanned 24 hours a day with no lapses. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

What's the Meaning of Trade Hypocrisy

From a Post piece by Roger Lowenstein reviewing trade policy:
Trump is scarcely the first president to resort to tariffs. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama regrettably succumbed — but muted their overall effect by simultaneously pursuing trade pacts. Reagan talked free trade but — in the midst of a severe recession — protected American autos, steel and semiconductors.
Why, oh why do we elect hypocrites to the Presidency?  Why can't we elect single-minded straight forward types, who believe in one policy and act accordingly, rather than wavering back and forth like Obama and Bush and even Reagan?

My answer is it's the art of politics, trying to maintain majority support by tacking back and forth to convince people you respect their concerns and listen.  In other words, hypocrisy in a politician is good.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Molly Bloom

I seem to be falling into a pattern of short movie reviews, given my wife and I are regularly seeing movies since the holidays.  Today was "Molly Bloom", with good performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.  With that talent it's a good movie, not great. Part of the problem is the male-female dynamic: Bloom fights to gain a position, and is beaten down by men, three times.  She loses her first game, she's beaten up for refusing to cooperate with Russian gangsters in laundering money, and she's arrested by FBI and has her money confiscated.  Finally her dad shows up and explains her psychology based on family trauma.  So the "arc" (any reviewer has to discuss a character's arc or have the reviewer license taken away) is failure leads to self-knowledge. 

Bottom line: it's worth seeing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Times Changes: Veterans and Non-veterans

I was alerted to this by a blog I've lost track of, so I searched and found this.

It graphs the proportion of the male population who are veterans:

18-34 year olds:   3.48 percent

75 and older (me): 49.53 percent

You're Not Who You Were a Second Ago

Been reading Jennifer Doudna's Crack in Creation.  She's one of the scientists involved in the creation and development of CRISPR, the tool used to edit DNA without importing genes from other species. 

Towards the end she has this sentence: "Every person experience roughly one million mutations per second..."  If I understood her book, there's a natural process to correct those mutations, a process which CRISPR adapts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New Yorker and Small Farmers

The New Yorker has a piece on the 2018 farm bill and the plight of small farmers:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, between 2013 and 2016, net farm income fell by half, the largest three-year drop since the Great Depression. Some forty-two thousand farms folded during the downturn, and small and medium-sized operations, such as the Fitches’ [upstate dairy farm serving as the hook for the story], proved particularly vulnerable.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Not the First Time--an Exception

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money links to a piece of his on the development of nuclear missile subs, triggered by problems India is having. 
"In retrospect, the George Washington class SSBNs were a fabulous engineering success, entering service quickly, with few problems, and packing a huge punch. All of the NATO boats were relatively quiet and could threaten the USSR from long-range. On the other hand, it took the USSR nearly a decade to produce a meaningful deterrent boat. It has taken China nearly three decades, despite extensive experience in both countries in submarine construction and operation."
He omits the credit due one of the greatest bureaucrats we have ever produced: Admiral Hyman Rickover.   So an exception to my "Harshaw rule" (you never do things right the first time): "unless you're Hyman Rickover"

Sunday, January 21, 2018

It Was a Different Century: 1998

"” It took three weeks of lobbying the top editors of the Washington Post to get me access to the internet."

Susan Glasser recalling the time when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal became public, as part of an interesting dialog with Isikoff, Baker, and Harris (if you don't recognize the reporters you weren't around in 1998.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

France and EU Farm Subsidies

It seems French farmers may be losing out according to this Politico piece,  The dynamics of the French farm programs are similar to the U.S:
With defense, security, migration and digital technology emerging as clear strategic priorities for Brussels, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the sacrosanct status afforded to farmers, particularly the bigger landowners. Under the current budget, a massive €58 billion a year, or some 40 percent of the EU budget, goes to CAP payments, but 80 percent of that money heads to only 20 percent of farms.

Friday, January 19, 2018

I Was Wrong About Trump's Wall

I would have sworn he promised to build a wall along the entire border, but from this NYTimes summary he's been pretty consistent in specifying 1,000 miles.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

See "The Post"

Just saw The Post.  Having lived through  the time, living in downtown DC and as a regular reader of both the Washington Post and the NYTimes, the atmosphere was familiar.  The movie's well-written and well-acted, possibly set for Oscar nominations.

A point and a nit:  Kay Graham tells McNamara that her son, and all "their sons" (by which she means the sons of the people at her parties) went to Vietnam while he was lying about the policy.  I'd be curious about the percentage of military age sons of members of Congress served in Vietnam.  I'd also like to see a comparison with the same populations in this century.  I'd bet both percentages are less than in 1942-45.

The nit:  I swear I saw a sign "Fort Andrews" in the background of an early scene, a sign which should have been "Andrews AFB" (now "Joint Base Andrews").

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Testing Trump--Modest Proposal

In his physical yesterday, President Trump took the Montreal Cognitive Assessment and passed with 30 out of 30.  Can't access the database so I can't see how I'd do on it.  I have enrolled in the brain health registry, which is researching the subject.  Took all the tests over a few days, and did a little better than I expected (mom had Alzheimers, although developing in her 80's, and dad seemed slower before his fatal strokes at 73 so I'm hyperconscious of anything which might indicate I'm following the same path).  One thing they do not do is give feedback, so I don't know whether I'm below average, above average, or average for men of my age and background.  

But President Trump might take a half-hour a day in the morning to, instead of watching Fox and Friends, participate in the registry.  Be good for him, as lacking as he is in self-confidence.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Is Innovation Outstripping Our Imaginations?

Kottke reproduces a list of desired innovations written by Robert Boyle in the 17th century (Boyle was a central figure in the development of British science and the Royal Society).  Turns out we've done many of what he wanted (i.e., flying and plastics).  I wonder, and doubt, whether any one person today could come up with a similar list of innovations which will be implemented in the next 300 years.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Virtuous Circle?

Some interesting reports: teenage sex is down, employers are looking to ex-convicts to fill job vacancies, the gap between black and white unemployment rates is the narrowest it's been since the figures were available, crime is down so that black urban dwellings now have the same vulnerability to crime as white suburbanites did in 1990.

I've long believed in the vicious cycle of poverty/racism/social ills.  Bad things feed on each other.  But maybe I need to admit the possibility of virtuous cycles?

Why Is a Human in the Loop?

I'm referring to the false nuclear missile warning in Hawaii.  Apparently someone had a choice of two buttons on a screen to click on, one "test", one "real", and chose the wrong one.  I can sympathize--I fairly often click on something which I realize a minute later is the wrong choice.

But as a bureaucrat, I see no reason for a human to have that choice.  Presumably what is supposed to happen is that the military determines a missile strike is imminent and puts out messages to the appropriate people.  So the person in Hawaii gets the military's notification and says what?  She has no way of testing the military's conclusion, all she can do is click on the real button.  So, if the human is just relaying the message, the system should be designed to automatically trigger the alert system.

The software she was looking at should show a status screen, which would show any incoming message and the fact it's been relayed on, and allow for initiating a test alert.

Friday, January 12, 2018


As of this writing, the Kindle Store lists 5,902,458 different titles. 

If Amazon wanted to, it could with a single act bring a new form of book into being. That's because Amazon has more or less vertically integrated the entire book industry within its walls, building a complete reading universe of its own making. Lots of authors now write books especially for Amazon, which readers find on Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading, read on their phone and tablet, listen to through Audible or your Echo, and then talk about on Goodreads. Amazon has tools that help you write your book, format the manuscript, design the cover, file the right metadata, publish to the right places, and get paid the right amount. Want to make a comic book, a kids' book, or a textbook instead? Amazon can help there too.

Everyman his own historian.  (by Carl Becker)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Hurdle for Self-Driving Cars

I've been big on self-driving cars in the past, but I just saw a hurdle they'll have difficulty overcoming.

The background: in the DC area we've had snow.  Before the snow VDOT/Fairfax put down brine on the roadways.  So we get our epic 1" snowfall and the conditions of the road (frozen from a long period of freezing temps), the brine and the traffic result in the roads essentially turning white--no way to see lane markings.  Oops.  Presumably they'll give the software enough smarts to identify conditions in which the software can't work.  I hope.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Dutch and Modernity

Visited the National Gallery of Arts Vermeer exhibition  
"Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry This landmark exhibition examines the artistic exchanges among Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries from the mid-1650s to around 1680, when they reached the height of their technical ability and mastery of genre painting, or depictions of daily life. The introduction of quiet scenes unfolding in private household spaces and featuring elegant ladies and gentlemen was among the most striking innovations of Dutch painting of the Golden Age, a time of unparalleled innovation and prosperity."
Quite crowded, since it leaves after next week.  I was struck by what it showed of Dutch society of the period: very modern.  Pictures of women writing,  lots of silk and parrots, reflecting the globalization of the time, cleanliness--people washing, tile floors and  brooms and mops to clean them, globes and maps. 

Of course, Simon Schama wrote a book which I think covered this aspect of Dutch painting--from wikipedia:
 In 1980 Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history.[6] In it, Schama interpreted the ambivalences that informed the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, held in balance between the conflicting imperatives, to live richly and with power, or to live a godly life. The iconographic evidence that Schama draws upon, in 317 illustrations, of emblems and propaganda that defined Dutch character, prefigured his expansion in the 1990s as a commentator on art and visual culture.[7]

Monday, January 08, 2018

STC Members

Saw this announcement on the NASCOE site: the appointees to the state committees of FSA.  I wasn't aware they were one-year appointments--I always thought it was a 4-year term, although the Secretary could fire a member.  That's beside the point.  I wanted to note that the appointees included a "lot" of women (meaning I didn't count the number and don't know how it compares to prior years, but it's impressive compared to 30 years ago when you'd have just a handful in the country.  (My guess is maybe 30 percent women?)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

A Position on GMO's

Tamar Haspel expressed her agreement with a Mark Lynas speech, which he summarizes here:
So that’s my peace plan. To recap:
  1. Environmentalists accept the science of GMO safety, and scientists in return need to accept that politics matter in how scientific innovations are deployed.
  2. We drop national GMO bans and instead allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling and full traceability.
  3. We all get over the Monsanto obsession but make a much more serious effort to start getting off the chemical treadmill and moving farming onto more sound ecological principles.
  4. We agree to support public sector and non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.
  5. We support all forms of agriculture that aim to find ways towards greater sustainability. Let a hundred flowers bloom.
  6. We stop the name-calling. Let’s avoid using the term anti-science in particular. Anti-GMO activists are not opposing the scientific method in general, they are opposing a particular technological innovation.
  7. Let’s make ethical objections to genetic engineering explicit and in the process recognise real-world tradeoffs about where we do and don’t use this technology.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Tradeoffs: Estonia

I've blogged several times about the advantages of the Estonian e-government.  I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the downsides.  Estonia may well have great security, but India, which has its own similar innovative e-government initiative going, has run into problems with its Aadhaar database, according to this report from Marginal Revolution.

The bottom line is that by using a centralized data system you increase the incentives for hackers to try to access it and the potential damage from such access. 

There's no free lunch.

Are High Tax Cities Doomed?

Conservatives and libertarians like to point to migration away from high tax locations like California and the Northeast to lower tax locations like Texas and the Sunbelt.  The implication is that high taxes in the long run doom a location/city to decline and doom.   In light of that I found this excerpt from an interesting  Jstor daily piece on the invention of street lighting by a Dutch painter to be interesting:
By 1670 Amsterdam boasted 1,800 street lamps, and by 1681 2,400 lamps. Adding all these lights was a colossal and expensive undertaking, and taxes in Amsterdam rose to pay for it. But seventeenth-century Amsterdam was already famous for its high municipal taxes. This new lighting system was so popular that cities across Holland, Europe, and eventually Japan, began to implement the same.

Friday, January 05, 2018

When I Was a Boy

Neon lights were the thing.  Neon was the trademark, the signifier of life, of modernity, of jazz.  

Here's George Benson singing the song.

And here's a picture, hat tip James Fallows, which shows just how overboard we went with neon.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

11 Million Americans

Never realized this--from James Fallows:
"It was because of this open secret that nearly 11 million more Americans voted against Trump last year than for him, including the three million more who voted for Hillary Clinton. (The rest were for Gary Johnson, who got nearly 4.5 million; Jill Stein, with nearly 1.5 million; Evan McMullin, with about 700,000; and a million-plus write-ins.) I

How Have My Predictions Done II

Not so well on the 2016 election--like most I expected and hoped for Clinton to win and thought the Dems would take the Senate. I did do okay noting the sort of events which could change the complexion of the Senate, although I missed Trump picking a Senator for his cabinet and the subsequent special election. (On Presidential politics I'm 0 for 2--predicting Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016.)

As for deficits, I thought the 2010 commission would go for a percentage cut like the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. I didn't see they wouldn't come to an agreement.  However, I do claim a little credit--the backup to the commission was provision for sequestration (here's the Democrats explanation).

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Me and Warren Agree: ETF's, Not Hedges

We do have some money to invest, and over the years we've moved from mutual funds to ETF's and Dogs of the Dow in a balanced portfolio.  We don't have enough that hedge funds were ever an option, but I consider our investment strategy to be similar to what Warren Buffett pushes, passive investment.  From a AEI piece on his $1 million bet:

"Specifically, Buffett offered to bet that over a ten-year period from January 1, 2008, to December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 index would outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs, and all expenses.As I reported last September, Buffett’s now-famous bet was actually settled early and ahead of schedule, because the outcome was so one-sided in favor of the S&P 500 index over hedge funds:"

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Paperless Office

I'm sure I've mentioned before that IBM sold ASCS the System/36 partially on the basis that county offices would become paperless.  That was a common meme in the 80's.

Via Vox's Significant Digits:
"Despite some of the mightiest headwinds on the planet, the paper business actually saw consumption grow 50 percent between 1980 and 2011. That’s in many ways because no industry really ever went paperless. They just ended up using paper in different ways. [The Guardian]"

Monday, January 01, 2018

How Have My Predictions Done--I

New Year is time for pundits to review their past work and confess to error.  I'm not a real pundit and don't have the energy to review my past posts.  I have labeled a few of my posts as "predictions" so let's see how they turned out:

Too early to tell whether I'm right that the U.S. will be "white" for ever.

I'm probably right that "farming" jobs are growing (due to the food movement and small farms) but I'm too lazy to update figures past 2013.

A Nov. 4, 2008 prediction looks okay:
  • concern about "peak oil" will fade as oil prices drop. They're now about $130 a barrel, I predict them to fall to $80 by January 1. (Of course, I would have made a similar prediction last year--a big drop in prices.)
  • Obama will win the Presidency in a squeaker.
A discussion of probable terrorist attacks from last year--Nate Silver was, I think, wrong. Certainly Trump jumped on every terrorist attack (except those where the terrorist was on the right), but IIRC didn't expand his powers.

Democrats didn't control Senate in 2016 elections

Gave up forecasting crop prices, but they're down from 2013..

That's enough for today.