Monday, April 30, 2018

Korean Tidbits: the Wall and High Speed Rail

Two bits from the blog on the Winter Olympics:

1  Korea once imitated China in many things, including building a wall (on top of the hill in this photo):


2  On high speed rail:
The amazing thing to me coming from California is that they built this 120 km extension and built six new stations in less than 4 years. So far, we have been working for 3+ years on a 191 km section of high speed rail (the first such project in the US) along highway 99 in the Central Valley (as part of an eventual system running from Los Angeles to San Francisco). So far, we have no continuous track or working trains at a projected cost of $10.6 B. To be fair, most of the rise in costs has been a pile of lawsuits by opponents designed to slow down progress and increase costs until they are so high that everyone will give up. Having ridden on these types of train in Italy and Japan, I hope we will persevere. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Enemies of the Old

Thin pages of magazines and particularly newspapers which cling together, so you go from page 3 to page 7.

Shoelaces which have to be knotted.

Collar buttons which no longer seem to fit through buttonholes.

Eyeglasses with tiny screws which come out.

Attractive nuisances when driving, distracting one.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Mines of France

Interesting tweet here on the lasting effects of WWI, particularly the former trench lines and the explosives buried there. A quote: "Today, French government démineurs still recover about 900 tons of ordnance every year, & in Belgium the amount is around 200 tons."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Society Learns

I believe society learns (and forgets). I was struck by the learned reaction to the crack epidemic of the 1980's.  Usage of crack declined over time, as young people saw its impact on the older.  Since then, I've seen the learning phenomena in other areas.

One such area is comfort with technology.  Consider the cellphone camera--there's now an assumption that everyone knows how to operate one.  Strangers will ask you to take a picture of them with their cellphone.  How many years did it take for society to learn this operation--10 years maybe?  Society learning means a critical mass of people have all learned the same thing, creating the presumption that everyone knows/believes it.  This can be technique, as with cellphones, or beliefs, as with the idea that crack is bad.

For someone on the fringes of society this can be difficult. I don't use my smartphone as a phone that much, so I'm conscious of having a fragile attachment to society.  On the other hand, I know a lot about American history, and have experienced more of it than most everyone living, so there I feel a strong attachment.

Monday, April 23, 2018

White House Garden Lives!

From a post on plans for the state dinner welcoming French President Macron tomorrow night:
"The first course, using greens from the White House kitchen garden to represent a celebration of spring’s first harvest, will feature a goat cheese gateau, tomato jam, buttermilk biscuit crumbles and young variegated lettuces."
Our lettuce is up, but not yet big enough for salads.  Assuming the White House is a week-10 days ahead of Reston, this looks good.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

On (Mis)trusting an Inspector General

Here's the OIG report on Andrew McCabe:

I tried to get a screenshot of it, but failed.  My problem with it is aesthetic--they're using a very black thick sans serif type font. Its only redeeming feature is it's not monospaced.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Irony Alert

Somewhere in my reading today I ran across a brief mention that Gens. Kelly and Mattis found themselves opposing Gen. McMaster on some issues--it seems the split was between those who tried to rein Trump in (Kelly-Mattis) versus McMaster who was more willing to go along.

I can't wait for McMaster's memoir.  If I recall his dissertation, converted into a well-regarded history called Dereliction of Duty, was critical of LBJ's Joint Chiefs for not being straight with him, for going along with his policies rather than resisting the expansion of the war without being open with the public.  So if today's item was correct, it might be that McMaster found it hard to play the role of adviser than he thought it was back in his academic and youthful days.  Wouldn't be the first, nor will it be the last, person to make the discovery.

[Update: it was a New Yorker piece:  "On one side were Mattis, Tillerson, and Kelly, each of whom in varying degrees sought to push back against the President; on the other was McMaster, who made his natural allies furious for what they saw as his habit of trying to accommodate the President’s demands, even if they were far-fetched. “General McMaster was trying to find a way to try to execute, not to tell him no,” the former government official told me."

USDA/FSA Burns "Bridges"

The Obama administration established "Bridges to Opportunity"--see the explanation here and a press release from January 2017 on the expansion. My brief explanation is FSA agreed with nonprofit organizations to refer farmers to them (i.e.  if someone was interested in organic ag, the FSA office could refer the person to organizations promoting organic ag, using a database of those with agreements) using a database.

Now the Trump administration is having the FSA offices to revoke the written agreements with these nonprofits.

The assertion is that the referral service is being incorporated into the "" website.  That seems reasonable, but what's not clear in the notice is why they need to revoke the agreement, if the change is basically incorporating the old "bridges" database into their new consolidated website.

I'd guess there was boilerplate language for the agreements with the nonprofits, but I can't find it anywhere. If I were really curious I'd submit a FOIA request for the language and for data on how many agreements were entered into.  If I were cynical, and I am, I'd suspect the Republican administration views the nonprofits with which agreements were made as likely leaning Democratic, many of them likely serving minorities and women.

Apparently the bulk of the "Bridges" was a replacement for the "Web Receipt for Service" software of several years ago.

Disaster Averted? --EU

I was struck by the chart below  (stolen from a tweet fussing about the fact only the US is predicted to see an increase in government debt over the next years, but what's more interesting to me is the fact that Greece and Italy stand next the top of the list in reducing their ratio.  This is how many years since we were all worrying about the nearly inevitable Greek exit from the EU, the collapse of Spain (also doing ok) and Italy and the resulting disaster for the European Union.  That didn't happen--there's still problems now and in the future for the EU, but on a sunny Friday afternoon it's worth noting the bad news which didn't happen.

From a tweet: 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Why the Change in 1842 to FY?

Here's a piece on a proposal to make the government's fiscal year jibe with the calendar, something which was last true before 1842.  I wonder why Congress made the change back then.  Were they having problems passing appropriations bills timely even then?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

For the Good Old Days of DVD Extras

The NYTimes had a piece on the fading away of extra features which used to be included on DVDs. My wife and I are long-term subscribers to Netflix, back in the days before streaming, and we (or I at least) enjoyed most of the features, particularly the director commentaries. The best movies seemed usually to have been models of teamwork: a lot of talented people working together for a common goal.  No doubt that was an exaggeration, or more kindly a rosy colored look back.

The commentaries varied widely: some directors would narrate the action on the scene--very boring.  Others would use the action as the launching point for little stories, discussions of technique, particularly the more cinematic types.  Some would make a point of praising the work of both the actors on screen and the members of the crew behind the scenes. Some series, like Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, would have multiple features and often two or more commentaries per episode.

I'll miss the extras.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tabarrok's Great Post re: Facebook

Alex Tabarrok is the less prominent blogger at Marginal Revolution, but I think his post yesterday is great. 

He makes the point that much of the data Facebook stores is created by Facebook, or more accurately in my mind by the combination of our activities which are enabled by and only possible through Facebook.  As he says, speaking of a cousin in Dubai who he's never called or written a letter in over 20 years: "The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook."

I tweeted about the post yesterday, not something I do everyday.  I got a response from one person, and we've gone back and forth a bit.  Let me summarize my position:

Like Tabarrok, I've a current relationship with a cousin which has been made possible through the Internet, email in the first instance, then shifting to AIM and finally to Facebook Messenger: a sequence of communication tools of better and better capability and more ease of use.  I understand that the data stored in the cloud has changed with each tool: now Facebook keeps the full text of our messages.  But the capability of the tool is an essential part of the relationship.  Given our personalities and ages we didn't and couldn't establish it based on snail mail. 

I (and my cousin) are interested in genealogy; she's writing a book (at 87) covering events in 19th century Ireland partly involving two collateral ancestors. For us, all bits of data are precious if they concern the lives of our ancestors, or the lives my cousin investigates.  Of course the data is almost all on paper with just a little bit on film.  What does the future hold for genealogists; how will they handle all the data which is now being stored and which presumably will be available?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Better Than We Used To Be

Kottke has a post with an aerial photograph of Edinburgh in 1920.  We don't know the time of year or day; we don't know whether the conditions were normal or abnormal.  But what it suggests to me is a memory, a memory of the great London smog of  1952 (most recently dramatized in BBC's The Crown and of reading about the PA smog of 1948.

Using coal to heat houses, as we did our house when I was growing up, produced smoke which killed, most dramatically in the right (wrong) geographic and climactic conditions.  That problem has been solved, at least for home heating.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Incredulity and Impeachment

I remember Watergate.  In 1972 the conventional wisdom about impeachment was perhaps captured in JFK's Profiles in Courage--the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was wrong, very wrong, and the country was only saved by a Kansas senator's courage (IIRC--not bothering to look it up).  The country had skated up to the edge then but had wisely drawn back.  Impeachment was a constitutional dead letter, almost on a par with stationing soldiers in homes (Third Amendment), possibly used in the odd case of a judge, but not for presidents.

As Watergate unraveled, impeachment started to become possible.  Then in the summer of 1974 suddenly things clicked into  place and the avalanche started.

Will history repeat itself? 

I don't think so--Republican support of Trump seems too solid, but as Watergate shows surprises can happen.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Harshaw Rule in Aircraft Carriers

Another demonstration of the validity of the Harshaw Rule (first time fail) is in Robert Farley's piece on the worst aircraft carriers ever built (via Lawyers, Guns and Money).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Berkshire Hathaway and the Pay of Bigshots

From vox, in a piece on "pay ratios" the comparison of the pay of the CEO and the pay of the median employee in the company.  Some ratios are over 1,000.

Not all of the pay ratios released so far are so gaudy. Warren Buffett, the CEO of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, makes less than twice his company’s typical employee. 

[Updated:  Jeff Bezos earns 59 times the median Amazon employee according to this article.]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Taxes Today

Finished our 2017 taxes today, using TurboTax.  Seems to me they were more complicated than previous years, especially the boilerplate at the end.  Although with Mr. Zuckerberg's testimony still fresh, I still clicked on "agree" without reading and understanding them. I'm sure there's reasons for them, but it doesn't make me happy.

What really makes me unhappy is this sentence: "In Sweden, you can see your tax forms already filled in and approve them on your cellphone." That's from a piece at Monkey Cage on the complexities of our tax system (John Sides interviewing a couple experts).  One point made there--our system would be simpler if we taxed individuals rather than households.   Kevin Drum has in the past pushed the idea of IRS preparing our returns from their available data, with the individual taxpayer responsible for confirming the correctness of the information and adding to it.  It's a great idea, which Intuit will lobby against to their dying breath, so I guess today I contributed to the continuance of our system.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Congress Reluctant on CCC Program

If China puts tariffs on soybeans and other farm commodities, there's been discussion by the Secretary and President of the possibility of providing help to affected farmers, using the authority of the Commodity Credit Corporation.  That's getting some pushback from some in Congress, including Republican bigshots according to this article by Chris Clayton .

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Banks With No Cash?

In Sweden, according to Steve Kelman here at FCW: ". In what might sound like a joke if it weren’t true, many banks carry no cash on their premises." Kelman is writing about Sweden and China, which he finds to be ahead of the U.S. in some areas of adopting IT:

"First, other countries’ edge over us is sometimes due to technology developed first outside the U.S., sometimes to quicker user adoption (something that would probably surprise most Americans), and sometimes to a greater ability to make non-tech organizational adjustments, such as eliminating minimum transaction values on credit cars, to get the tech to work better. Second, there are clearly efficiency benefits to the new technologies -- think only of the decline in hold ups in stores and bank robberies thanks to the disappearance of cash. But there are also benefits in terms of the general social climate for innovation."

Monday, April 09, 2018

Jefferson Versus Trump

Andy Seal has a post at USIntellectual History quoting Thomas Jefferson on the importance of public perception in maintaining ethical standards.

Good Things from Trump's Win

Two (sort of) good things from Trump's win:
  1. Reading Bill Kristol with a bit more openness to his opinions, since he's a never-Trump.
  2. Also George Will, and agreeing with him on civil forfeiture and felon voting.
I think it sort of validates James Madison's insights: multiple interests and viewpoints mean interesting overlaps on the Venn diagrams, resulting in safeguards against demagoguery and extremism.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Soybean and Grain Embargoes

I remember Jimmy Carter's embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union.  IIRC farmers didn't like the later, and it played a role in Carter's defeat.  Until I googled, I didn't remember Nixon's embargo on soybeans which was part of his economic maneuvers against inflation, etc.   Earl Butz ate crow over it, according to this piece.

Problem for Trump is that farmers know that patterns of trade can change.  If China puts tariffs on soybeans and switches to other suppliers, even if a trade war is averted, or quickly settled, the effects may be long lasting. 

Friday, April 06, 2018

Four Is the Number

Breaking news:  important--Augusta National now has four female members according to this ThinkProgress post.  That's 100 percent increase over 7 years.  At this rate, adding 2 members every 7 years, it will be about 2095 for half the members to be female.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Good News from Afghanistan

My title is four words, very surprising to find them in the same phrase.  Someone, I think Noah Smith, recently wrote there's an imbalance of news on Twitter; not enough attention is paid to good news.

The World Bank has a piece on how Afghanistan's healthcare system has improved over the past 15 years.  (Basically the government contracted with NGO's to handle care for specific regions, which has worked, and importantly Aghan professionals have been replacing the personnel who began with the NGO's.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

MLK Remembered

Kevin Drum posts a chart showing Gallup's results for approval of Martin Luther King.  He notes the rising approval over the years from 1966 to the present. 

I was reading newspapers by the time of the Montgomery protests over segregated buses.  As I commented there, it's been interesting to see the evolution of his image. 

  • when he was alive, there were a number of major figures who were competing and cooperating in civil rights.  Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, Roger Wilkins, Julian Bond, and many others.  In the beginning he was just one voice among many, gradually emerging as the preeminent voice. His competitors did not always welcome his contributions or support his efforts, and vice versa.  With his death he became the martyred figure we know today whom no one remembers disliking.
  • he had more failures (Albany, GA, and Chicago, among others) than we realize today
Vox has a post/interview with Jeanne Theoharis from which I'll quote this:

[Reagan (and America) created a fable of MLK which included these features:]
The first is the focus on courageous individuals, not movements. The second is the idea that King and figures like Rosa Parks shone a light on injustice, and [said injustice] has since been eradicated. The third is the act of putting the movement and the problem of racism in the past. And the fourth is the idea of American exceptionalism — the belief that the civil rights movement demonstrates the power of American democracy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Humans Can Be Evil

From Techmology Review piece on robotics:

But the trickiest foe these robots face while out in the world could be the most difficult to predict: teenagers. Hitch says teen shoppers have been known to kick the robots in Walmart, or even slam into them with a shopping cart.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Contrarian on the Census

I can't resist being a contrarian on the census.  We liberals dislike the decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census.  The fear is that such a question will increase fear of the government among immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented ("illegal").   That fear seems reasonable. The result would be that immigrants would be undercounted.  Because population counts are the basis for determining electoral districts, immigrants would be underrepresented, and because the counts also are used for distribution of government dollars under some programs, immigrants would suffer.

I've no problem with this logic, so what's my contrarian take?

The Trump administration points out that the American Community Survey (an effort conservatives once tried to scuttle IIRC) has always asked about citizenship. The survey gets very detailed, and its results are used in sociological research and government programs.

My contrarian question is this: if immigrants would be fearful of government questions about citizenship, aren't they already fearful of the ACS?  If so, doesn't that impair the validity of the survey?  And if so, why hasn't the Census Bureau fixed the problem?  And if they have, why wouldn't that work for the 2020 census? 

If the problem can't be fixed, do the users of the ACS know of the distortion?

Sunday, April 01, 2018

1968 Remembered

Fifty years ago in January I moved to DC to work at USDA.  In February I was assaulted and robbed. Also in February the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, hitting a road I had traveled a year before, and changing politics in the US. In March LBJ announced he wasn't running for reelection. In April Martin Luther King was murdered and DC was one of many cities with riots, which I traveled through. In June Robert Kennedy was killed. Meanwhile the US had the continuing demonstrations against the Vietnam War and student protests over race and college governance issues. And the US was in relatively good shape compared to the Prague Spring events in  Czechoslovakia with the Prague Spring, student unrest in France   and other nations. 

It was an interesting time.