Saturday, March 31, 2018

Importing Brains, Exporting Ideas

A quote from a Bloomberg piece:
Of the 1 million foreign nationals enrolled at U.S. schools, nearly one-third are from China -- double the number of any other country. Chinese students receive 10 percent of all doctorates awarded in the U.S., most of them in science and engineering. Some 80 percent of Chinese doctoral holders stay in the U.S. and work after they earn their degrees. There are more Chinese engineers working on artificial intelligence at U.S. technology companies than in all of China.
From Bloomberg

IMHO it's better for us to export our intellectual property to China while importing and keeping their best brains.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Janesville and Liberal Government

This book just won a prize for nonfiction writing.  If you don't want to read the whole thing, this New Yorker piece of last year will substitute.

I'm still reading it, but I want to note one failure of government: Obama came, promised help, his man visited, listened, did nothing before leaving for a better paid post.  It's an old lesson of bureaucracy--you need unrelenting pressure from the top to accomplish the difficult.  President Nixon, despite his flaws, knew this and his administration was successful in removing the WWI "tempos"

now the site of "Constitution Gardens". 

Much as I like Obama, and my regard for him as a person is only increased by comparison with his successor, I don't see him as a good manager of the bureaucracy.  (The most glaring failure was, of course,

Liberals believe in the power of government to help, but Janesville is disappointing in that respect.  The conventional wisdom is that job retraining programs are a necessary part of global free trade and/or fighting recessions.  The results from Janesville don't support their efficacy.  The job retraining seems to have worked somewhat like farm programs, easing the transition from a good past to a dimmer future. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

DOD and the Wall?

Today's story is that President Trump wants the military to pay for his wall on the Mexican border.  He's being mocked for it, and deservedly so.  But I believe that a good liberal congressman once upon a time put money in the Pentagon's budget for medical research.
"The Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) is funded through the Department of Defense (DoD), via annual Congressional legislation known as the Defense Appropriations Act. For most programs, the DoD sends a multi-year budget request to Congress in the form of the President's Budget. However, dollars for the CDMRP are not considered part of the DoD's core mission, and are therefore not included in the DoD's requested budget. Rather, the dollars to fund CDMRP are added every year during the budget approval cycle by members of the House or Senate, in response to requests by consumer advocates and disease survivors."
"The CDMRP originated in 1992 via a Congressional appropriation to foster novel approaches to biomedical research in response to the expressed needs of its stakeholders-the American public, the military, and Congress."
CBO has an old post supporting the ending of this practice.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Two Small Livestock Farmers: Different Strategies

I follow a handful of farmers: a couple are gradually withdrawing from farming while two of the younger ones (i.e, maybe 45-50) are involved, but with different strategies:

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm (sadly no longer regularly blogging about his family) specializes in hogs, while Dan Macon at Foothill Agrarian does sheep.

Walt has expanded his operation, using vertical integration, by which I mean he raises hogs and markets the meat, both directly and to stores.  Over the years he's changed from using a commercial butcher to building and running his own butcher shop, just recently receiving his USDA certification so he can sell across state lines instead of just in Vermont.  When you follow him over the years, his determination and drive and the obstacles overcome are amazing, For that reason, I don't recommend his past blog posts for new farmers--they might well be intimidated.

Dan's most recent post, linked to above, explains the logic which leads him not to do marketing, but instead sell his lambs live.  He also notes the economic realities which mean he isn't a full-time farmer.

I recommend both.

[updated to expand on Walt]

Sunday, March 25, 2018

USDA a "Lighthouse Agency"

That's from this FCW piece on some GSA IT contract awards:
"The awards support the first phase of work at five IT Modernization Centers of Excellence. Work will begin at the Department of Agriculture, which was selected as the government's "lighthouse" agency.
SIE Consulting Group will be working on cloud adoption, McKinsey & Company is tackling infrastructure optimization, ICF Inc. won two contracts for customer experience and service delivery analytics, while Kaiser Associates was awarded a contact center contract."
Don't know what "lighthouse" means--presumably a new bit of jargon that sounds good but turns out meaningless, like "tiger teams" back in the 90's. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Drivers Monitoring Autonomous Cars

Two points on autonomous cars:

  1. China has just authorized Baidu to run their autonomous cars on the highways.  The piece I saw noted that Chinese roads are more crowded and chaotic than in the US, thereby posing a bigger challenge to the software.  I'd add--doesn't that give them an advantage in development--a higher bar to surmount?
  2. AEI notes that humans are poor monitors.  We get distracted and complacent and don't jump into action quickly.  I wonder if it would be possible to include a training module in the software--have the software test the driver by requiring intervention in a situation which is actually safe.  If the driver fails to react timely and correctly, do more testing.  If the driver continues to fail, discontinue the self-driving. 

[Added link]

What's 700 Points on the Dow Worth

Not a mention on the front page of either the Post or the Times.  Times have changed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Search for Buttermilk and Doom for Cows

My spouse was inspired by the recent St. Patrick's Day to bake Irish Soda Bread, for which she needed buttermilk.

She checked Trader Joe's: out.  I checked Safeway--not available.  Finally found a quart at Giant.

I was amazed, absolutely amazed though, by the pseudo "milk" on sale.  There were a couple upright coolers devoted to the usual 2 percent milk in gallons, plus a variety of milk of kinds and quantities. Next to them were two more coolers devoted mostly to half gallons and quarts of all the various kinds of "milk"--almond, soy, and I don't know what else.  There was another cooler partly devoted to cream products like half and half, whipping cream, etc. and at least another with specialty "milk" type products. 

Even with the authority of wikipedia behind them, dairy farmers are in trouble:

"In food use, the term milk is defined under Codex Alimentarius standards as: "the normal mammary secretion of milking animals obtained from one or more milkings without either addition to it or extraction from it, intended for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing."[22] This definition thereby precludes non-animal products which may resemble milk in color and texture (milk substitutes) such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and coconut milk. The correct name for such products are 'soy beverage', 'rice beverage', etc.
Dairy relates to milk and milk production, e.g. dairy products.

Deep State? Shocking

I believe in the "deep state".

There's a poll out which shows support for a theory of the "deep state" is surprisingly high, surprising to some that is. 

Personally I think it's common sense, though I define "deep state" a little differently.  In my view there are a relatively small number (i.e. less than 1 percent of Americans) who routinely affect the way government operates in ways which aren't visible to Americans on a daily basis.  This would include all the riders and special provisions tucked into laws, particularly appropriations acts and omnibus or "must pass" legislation. It would include all the lobbyists, pollsters, and members of the "chattering class", as William Safire used to call them.  And of course it includes the bureaucrats and lawyers who are concerned with process and procedure, much to the dismay of some politicians.

In most cases the deep state is operating within the overall context set by the limits of public support.  An example on the liberal side--I could argue the "deep state" essentially legalized gay marriage. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Teleworking and USDA

USDA made the paper this morning for cutting back on the hours employees can telework (here's GovExec's piece).

Teleworking developed after my time at FSA.  Obviously employees like it and environmentalists do as well.  Without any experience of it, I'm left with just opinions with no basis for them. 

But, as a manager, I would have had problems with it, just as I had problems with flextime.  Back when I was a young employee, we worked 8 to 4:30.  That meant first thing in the morning we might gather at the coffee pot to start.  It meant you always knew who was in and who was on leave.  It meant you could  easily schedule meetings (likely we spent more time in unproductive meetings than was good for us--I remember Roy "T"'s acid comments on the division director's staff meetings in the late 70's). 

The work of the unit I managed wasn't easily quantifiable--a manager could give work assignments knowing how much time it should take.

On the other hand, I often had employees in Kansas City working with the IT people on requirements and testing.  I had no problem trusting my employees with working a thousand miles away from the office, so why would I have problems with them working 20-30 miles from the office?  Two considerations:

  1. in Kansas City they were working face to face with their counterparts, not alone.  That meant I could get a bit of feedback from my opposite number manager in KC.
  2. the bottom line issue is trust  and it's the rare group of 6-10 people where all are equally trustworthy IMHO. So you either bite the bullet and trust all equally, or you recognize differences among the employees, meaning you don't treat them equally.
All in all, I'm glad I'm no longer a manager who has to make such decisions. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

J. Edgar's Long Shadow

This is pure speculation, but I believe we can blame J. Edgar Hoover for Mr. McCabe's firing.


Back in the day, that's the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, and only ending in 1972, Hoover ruled the roost at the (Federal) Bureau of Investigation.  He was a very political leader, using information to protect his position and advance his issues.  He had strict rules for his agents, because he was the one who could bend the rules.

My speculation is that the FBI culture retains that dichotomy: rules on the one hand, leaks to advance the agency or leader on the other.  And that seems to be what happened with McCabe.  He authorized a discussion on background to, he says, correct erroneous information reaching the public.  He claims it was something often done, but it seems to have also been against the rules.  So when OIG people interviewed him, he was caught in the middle, not admitting to something which was okay by FBI norms, but not the rules.

Again, speculation, but to me the culture of an agency lasts, and lasts.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dairy at a Turning Point?

That's the question in this piece., specifically talking about the Northeast and Pennsylvania.  It gets into the nitty-gritty of milk pricing which I don't understand.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Vertical/Indoor Farms

Here's a Fortune article on an outfit in NJ.

Here's a Technology Review piece on farming in shipping containers.

It's possible that the advent of LED lights makes such farming economically feasible, feasible at least if the produce gets a premium from being "local" and "organic".  USDA has agreed that they may be labeled "organic", though the original organic community does not like the idea at all. 

Call me old, I am, but I don't call these "farms" or "farming".

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Humans Are Resilient

I back my assertion with three points:

  • my experience as a draftee in the Army
  • Chris Blattman in his interview by Tyler Cowen
  • Stephen Hawking.
That is all.

Keeping Up With Lawyers and Business: Contract Farming

Modern Farmer reports that SBA's inspector general has determined that poultry farmers operating on a contract with a processor (which 97 percent do) don't qualify as a "small business".

Reminds me of back in the day when ASCS determined that growers of seed corn, which operate under a contract with seed companies, didn't qualify as "producers" because they didn't share in the risk of producing the crop.  That determination was speedily reversed by pressure from Congress (not sure they put it in legislation or appropriations, but reversed it was).

The bottom line is people don't like risk, so for many many years people have been planning and scheming on ways to minimize it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Secretary Perdue is proposing to reorganize USDA civil rights offices--he's asking for comments on his proposal.  Strikingly, he's allowing only until March 25 for comments to be received.

I've long since lost my grasp of how USDA is organized so I don't really understand what he's doing.  One change seems to be giving each mission area (I think NRCS, FSA, RMA are now or will a mission area) one civil rights/EEO office.  That would mean taking the Office of Civil Rights out of FSA and putting it at the Under Secretary level.

It seems he's also changing the department level office. Given what happened under Reagan I'd suspect it would have less power, but that's pure speculation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Traffic Control in Korean Restrooms

Can't resist blogging this from my cousin's Olympic blog:
"That gives us just enough time to hit the restrooms. I don't think I've mentioned them so far, but they are worthy of mention. Korea is one of the most technologically based countries on Earth so I guess that it is no surprise that the toilets have more buttons on them that seem possible. But did you know that they have a sort of air traffic control board in the front of the restroom? A video monitor shows you which stalls are open and whether each stall has a western style toilet or a traditional "squat" toilet. I can't speak for the women, but I notice that the men don't pay any attention to the video board and will often stand waiting at a closed door when the board says that there are clearly open stalls. The other interesting thing is that the women who clean the restrooms don't give you any advanced warning when they go in to clean, they just barge in."

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Appalachian Religion

This seems totally wrong, but I swear I got it from a tweet by Lyman Stone, who comes off as pretty knowledgable on both Appalachia and religion. But I can't find the tweet again.

"Statistically, Appalachia is one of the *least* religious places in America. It's as secular as a college campus in California."

Saturday, March 10, 2018

PDF's and Forms

A bureaucrat loves her forms, and so in the current climate, loves her PDF's.  Here's a piece at Motherboard on the development of the PDF.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Big Issue: Shape of the Table

I remember when the US and North Vietnam spent  months negotiating over the shape of the table at which to conduct peace talks in Paris (1968).  It may be an issue for the Kim Jong Un/ Donald Trump talks (i.e., is it strictly bilateral or does South Korea want a representative, and if SK is in, how about China and Japan--one of the papers had a photo of the 6-sided table China constructed for the last time there were negotiations, six-party negotiations.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

It's All in the Name

My mom would get very aggravated about margarine.  I vaguely remember her kneading coloring into the white brick, so it must have been at the end of WWII, when butter was in short supply and presumably my parents broke down and bought margarine as the cheaper, available spread (might have been rationed).  Despite living on a dairy farm, we didn't make our own butter.  A ban on selling margarine colored to look like butter was just one of the measures dairy farmers took across the country to limit its inroads on their market, and not just in the U.S., but in Europe and Canada as well.

Identity is big in food.  France and the EU fight hard to preserve the cachet of champagne, which can only be produced in Champagne.  Such fights over cheeses and other foods are  old hat.  More recent are fights over things like "soy milk" and "almond milk".  And the controversy over "organic" including hydroponic vegetables.  And the latest controversy  is "clean meat", which is meat produced in the lab/factory from cell cultures.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Regulatory Costs and Benefits

I'm a little confused here. Something called E&ENews noted: "The White House Office of Management and Budget on Friday evening released its annual report on the costs and benefits of federal regulations, showing that the benefits of major Obama-era rules far exceeded the costs."

Vox caught the release, and went on to do an extensive analysis here. It's all good and heart-warming for a retired bureaucrat who believes that regulations can do good. They do.

But--when Vox links to the report, the link goes to the E&ENews site and brings up the : "2017 Draft Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Agency Compliance with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act".  I briefly looked and didn't find it on the OMB/whitehouse site, but it may be there, well-buried.

Googling for the title of the report brings up a Forbes piece, combating the Vox analysis in part.  I disagree with the thrust of the writer's analysis, which says that "final rules" should be considered in the analysis, as opposed to "major" rules.  It's a sad fact that the threshold for the major rule is obsolete, when one looks at its history (which I've done but don't remember writing up--someday maybe).  I seriously doubt that considering final rules would change the overall picture. He's on somewhat better ground to doubt how concrete the cost-benefit analyses submitted to OMB are.

Towards the end of the Forbes article there's a little discussion of the process of submitting this report to Congress--interesting for a nerd like me, but disconcerting for anyone who believes in simplistic pictures of how the government operates.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

"The Bureaucrat You're Looking For?"

"My family and I have lived in Reston since 2001. My experience with the RA is probably just like the average RA Member’s. I’ve asked its blessing in buying, selling, and improving my homes. I’ve been dragged before the Design Review Board to straighten a few things out. Two sons were RA lifeguards. I am an FCPS substitute teacher and a Fairfax Dept of Family Services Volunteer. Mainly, though, I am a proud bureaucrat. I know from experience that cooperative bureaucracy is greater than the sum of its parts. As a Foreign Service Officer for over three decades, my own specific work fit the big picture of representing our country and advancing our national interest in Washington or at U.S. embassies abroad. When I then ran two embassies, it was my job to forge consensus among different USG agencies to promote common policy. I’m the bureaucrat you’re looking for"

How can I not vote for this candidate for the Reston Association Board? Both a sense of humor and a proud bureaucrat.

(From the candidates statements here.)

Free Speech Issues

Interesting analysis here of poll data over 1972-2016 querying whether speakers with specified views should be allowed to speak.  Americans seem to be supportive of free speech across the board, and have gotten generally more supportive over the period.  When divided by their political views, the more liberal people seem to be more supportive.  The writer sees this data as undermining the idea that liberal snowflakes are limiting free speech on campus.  I think that's stretching it a bit--too much variety in the U.S. and too much possible ambiguity in the definitions.  Still, it's interesting.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Shame on (Some) USDA Employees

Turns out the OIG found some USDA employees were using government computers to access inappropriate material on some websites (i.e., porn).  This week USDA is blocking access to some 400 sites, including Facebook and Twitter.  (I assume those employees authorized to post on the USDA Twitter and Facebook sites will still be able to.)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Good Thinking by Congressional Republicans?

Govexec reports on the resignation of a Treasury tax expert, who apparently struggled with the job of writing regs to implement Trump's tax cut law.
But some parts of the law as drafted “were not well thought out,” Trier, a Treasury veteran from the 1980s and later a New York lawyer who consulted to congressional committees, was quoted as saying. Trier revealed that people looking at pieces of the new law sometimes asked him whether lawmakers could have reasonably meant to write it the way they did. “We’re going to have trouble with about half the legislation if we apply that standard,” he said, according to the Journal
Implementing a big bill is always difficult, but it sounds as if the GOP gave the bureaucrats a more difficult job than usual, a job likely to be complicated if Congress can't agree on passing a technical corrections bill to fix some of the problems. 

I wonder whether Treasury will be able to live with the 2 for 1 regulation mandate of the administration when implementing this?