Sunday, May 27, 2018

Don't Dial the Dash

One of my pet ideas deals with the need to learn new things and the fact people do so, gradually incorporating what we've learned into a series of layers.  One example: learning to drive.

I remember my long and difficult process of learning to drive (don't ask how many times I flunked the driving test). But gradually I became confident.  Some 60 years later I barely notice how automatic some of my driving processes; I realize with a start that I did something now which would have terrified me years ago.  We don't have children, so there's no one watching me drive who's going to absorb lessons from me, but that happens all around the world.  People often make claims about the virtues or vices of drivers in different areas: "drivers here are aggressive and don't allow people to merge"--that sort of thing. I suspect part of this is people constructing narratives out of thin air, but a little bit might be the unconscious learning passed from parents to children on how to drive.

Another example: dialing the telephone.  Kottke has a training film from the 1920's, training on how to use a dial phone.  It's interesting, but what struck me was the instruction which serves as the title for this post.  We don't think about it now, but when people made the transition from a telephone where you used a crank to ring the bell (remember "Ma Bell") to dialing numbers, they needed to be told the dash wasn't dialed.  That knowledge rapidly sank into the culture, babies absorbing it with their mothers' milk,  No one today needs to be told not to dial the dash. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Still Using Spreadsheets for Budget?

Back in the day, I remember ASCS budgeting was being done, in part at least, by spreadsheets created by Joe Bryan.   Apparently some agencies are still using spreadsheets, at least according to this FCW piece. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Technology to the Rescue?

This Technology Review piece outlines the possibility for technology replacing mass application of herbicides.  Using Moore's law means we can reduce the use of both chemicals and energy.   That should make the food movement happy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why Not Trust Bureaucrats?

Via a twitter mention, I got to this Weekly Standard article reporting on a discussion with the OMB/CPSB director, Mulvaney.  It's interesting, but as sometimes happens I have my own take on part of it.

Mulvaney was challenged about the differences in his actions as OMB director and his outspoken policy preferences in his previous job as a member of the House, like no reform of Social Security and running big deficits.  His response basically is, he's not changed his mind, but as a member of Trump's administrator in his day job he follows directions from his boss.

That's fine.  The sense the article gives is that Mulvaney was open and direct, making a contrast with some other politicians.  So good for Mulvaney.

But what's sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander.  If Republicans want me to respect Mulvaney's stance, they should offer the same respect to bureaucrats in the administration.  If Mulvaney can salute and say "yes, sir", so can career bureaucrats.  Give them competent leadership and you can trust them as much or more than you can trust the political appointees of the administration.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Remembering the Chinese Campaign Finance Scandal

I'm cursed with a memory for politics.  These days I'm remembering the big scandal in the Clinton administration over allegations that Chinese money flowed into the the Clinton and Gore campaigns. It seems to me relevant in today's investigations over possible Russian and other country contributions (both financial and other) to the Trump campaign.  To some extent, the roles are reversed: Republicans then viewed with alarm, Democrats minimized.  The evidence that money originated in China was sufficient to cause some refunds and convict some people.

To a lesser extent the Filegate controversy parallels an issue today: how much separation should there be between the DOJ, specifically the FBI, and the White House.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Rocky Road for the Farm Bill

Apparently two sets of hurdles for the farm bill:

  • one is the fight over the provisions in the bill, most notably the tightened work requirements for SNAP, but also other issues.
  • the other is its status as close to must-pass legislation (it's not really must-pass--Congress could always kick the issue down the road by doing a one-year extension of the current farm bill.  But Congress doesn't have much going on, so the farm bill is the best bet to use for leverage on other issues, like the quest for a vote on immigration legislation.  That's what resulted in today's defeat of the bill.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Partisanship in the Past

Somewhere buried in my memory is an ancient view on partisanship, ancient meaning it dates to the Cold War or the rise of communism.  I think it was Graham Greene who said something like: "I'd rather betray my country than betray a friend."  Or maybe it was E.M.Forster who said "only connect"?

(Turns out it was Forster.)

I write this because in my twitter feed someone whose friend voiced support for President Trump denied the friend--threw him out of the house, maybe.  Quite a contrast of then and now (though I acknowledge Forster's sentiment was an outlier then, and now. )

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why There Was No Collusion

The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that the intel guys were right: Putin ordered his people to hurt Clinton and help Trump.

We know that Donald Jr. at least wanted Russian help.

But the bottom line to me is the Trump campaign was too inept to collude with the Russians in any meaningful way.

Import Brains, Export Ideas

That's my formula to keep America great.

One quote, from AEI:
There is a stunting statistic that I almost always have to give these days since hearing it. If you look at all of the PhDs in the US in the STEM fields, 56 percent were foreign born. So we are able to attract very smart people from abroad, keep them here, and have them work.
Yes, a handful of those brains may spy for their original homeland, more of them will return "home" at some time or the other, but many of the brains will spend their most productive years in the U.S., years in which they do good science, create innovations and innovative enterprises, and generally make the  U.S. better, most importantly by making it a place where others want to come, to learn and maybe work. 

Other things being equal, it's better to export ideas and things, and to import people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"White" America

An excerpt from a  Vox piece on biracial identity in America:
"Before the election, we found that white people thought he [Obama] was “too black” and black people found him to be “too white.”
Those perceptions shifted significantly after his reelection. Only then did white individuals see Obama as being “white enough” for them and black individuals see him as being “black enough.” This switch suggests people did seem to understand that he was biracial but found it easier to claim him as a racial in-group member once he became a success story."
 The author goes on to say we have difficulty with ambiguity, so like to simplify.

What that means to me is that's one method by which America will remain "white": as members of current "minority" groups become successful, they'll be assimilated into "us". 

The Parable of the Forms

This paper is written by a law professor, so it's directed at legal procedures, but he uses the design and use forms as a way to make his point.   I'd say the logic applies as well to the design of agencies: one reason why we have recurrent efforts to simplify how USDA deals with farmers, and recurrent failures.  The view from on high is much clearer than the view at the grassroots, and the grassroots typically have more staying power. 

Recommended for bureaucrats.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What Are Barns Good For?

Abandoned barns are a fairly common site along I-81 in NY. Smaller farms are going out of business.  The old pattern of using summer pasture and winter hay is ending, so there's no need for a tall barn to store hay.  (I'm guessing today's big operations haul in feed as needed.)   So as one culture fades away leaving behind its unneeded structures, what do we do with barns?  One answer is to tear them down and use the barn siding wood to add a rustic feel to high-end houses.  Another is given here:
It’s wedding season, which means you now have a higher-than-normal chance of spending time in or in the vicinity of a barn. A survey from The Knot, which offers wedding services, reported that 15 percent of couples who got married in 2017 held their reception in a barn, farm or ranch, up from 2 percent in 2009. [

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Value of a Curmudgeon

Bob Somerby is a character.  He writes the Daily Howler, a long lived blog (started last century), critical and skeptical of media.  He was Al Gore's roommate at Harvard, along with Tommy Lee Jones, and taught for some years in a Baltimore school.  His posts are colored by his past, as any regular reader can tell. (The mass media's mistreatment of Gore's candidacy, the failings of young reporters, particularly their math illiteracy, the fact that American education does better than many media reports have it, and the fact that American education fails black students, the willingness of liberals to buy into myths, etc.)  He's long-winded and, an admission, I often skim the first paragraphs and skip the last paragraphs.  But all that said, he's an invaluable corrective who drills down into the depths of an issue.  We could use a couple more like him, as long as they had different bees in their bonnet than he.

A sample--a post on NYC schools points out:
"Good lord! In New York City, a school which is 9 percent white isn't just a "segregated" school; it's intensely segregated, an even worse abomination. 
Meanwhile, a school which is 15 percent white represents the "desegregation" ideal! On such slender distinctions our liberal language now rests."

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Kenya and Space

President Trump supposedly doesn't think much of African countries.  He might be surprised, as I was, at the news Kenya has its own satellite in space.

Even more surprising, Kenya's not in the list of the top five African space programs (Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, and Algeria.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Secret of Current Trump Support

To me, it's found in this quote in a New Yorker piece on understanding Trump:
“The truth is, virtually everyone who claims to know what Trump is going to do has been wrong at some point,” one sharp analyst told me. “The best indicator, in my mind, is to go back and read his core campaign pledges and speeches. Those have been far more instructive than anyone in Congress, in the Republican Party, or on his own team.”

FSA Has an Administrator!

Secretary Perdue announced three administrators today, including FSA's Fordyce, formerly SED in Missouri.  It's only 16 months since the inauguration, but who's counting?  I remember Randy Weber was acting Administrator for a number of months after Clinton's inauguration.  I suspect the appointment process is taking longer and longer; someday we'll see an administrator appointed when she has less than 2 years to serve.

(I see the president of NASCOE is also from Missouri, for what it's worth.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mount Will Erupts

Beneath a slightly graying cap of hair, there lurks a sleeping volcano, a volcano named George Will, who erupted this morning in the Washington Post, devastating the VP.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A Veto for the Farm Bill

It's been decades since a President threatened to veto a farm bill--so long that the last time has escaped my memory.  (I'd be pretty sure that Truman may have threatened but I don't believe anyone since Nixon.)

But President Trump is promising a veto to ensure work requirements for SNAP.   This will be interesting.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

They Made It

The Caps beat Pittsburgh last night to reach the conference final.  I wrote yesterday that the losing streak had to end, and it did.  Now we'll see what happens in the finals.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Caps and Brooklyn Dodgers

I'm old enough to remember when the sports jinx haunted the Brooklyn Dodgers.  They'd make it to the World Series nearly as often as the NY Yankees, but always lose.  Gil Hodges, their elite first baseman, wouldn't hit and so was often the goat.  Their motto was "Wait Til Next Year".  That streak lasted until 1955, when Johnny Podres led them over the Yankees in seven games.

I write this because the Washington Capitals, who I sort of follow, have a streak of losing in the playoffs, so they've never made the conference finals.  This may change. This must change.  This will change, but will it be this year?

(Someone has observed, what can't last forever, won't. I think that applies here.)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Swamp, John McCain and President Carter

Sen. McCain is attracting favorable articles now, for pure and understandable reasons.  After his death, whenever it comes, more commendations will come and slight criticism will be unbecoming.

So let me offer a bit of criticism and context now.

There's been much discussion of "the swamp" in DC and the need to drain it.  Very laudable I'm sure. But I've a vague memory, I think based on Timberg's book, that McCain was a denizen of that swamp for a while.  After his release from the POW camp, and recuperation from his injuries, and before he retired from the Navy and entered electoral politics, he was assigned to the Pentagon as a liaison to the Senate.

Now the Ford and Carter administrations had a project for medium-sized aircraft carriers, conventionally powered and cheaper than the nuclear carriers the Navy and Rickover had been building.   As a naval officer McCain's ultimate commander was President Carter, but his real allegiance was to his bureaucracy, the Navy.  And the Navy, or at least many of the big shots, wanted the biggest and best of everything (pardon my cynicism).  McCain was an effective lobbyist with the Senate for the nuclear carriers, operating against the official policy of the administration.  It was a little reminiscent of the "revolt of the admirals" of 1949, except that McCain and the others were able to achieve their goal with less publicity.

That's how the swamp works, and Sen. McCain was once a swamp dweller.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Wendell Berry Meet Westby Cooperative Creamery

Washington Monthly had a piece on the Westby:
Westby is the exception, not the rule. It’s a holdout from an earlier era when co-ops helped farmers and rural communities keep a much larger share of the nation’s wealth than they do today. Most everywhere else across rural America, the powerful cooperative movement has either faded or, worse, become co-opted by giant monopolies that prey off the very small-scale producers they’re supposed to protect. In that way, they reflect a broader change in the economy. While pretending to represent farmers’ interests, these co-ops in fact dictate prices to farmers just as Amazon dictates prices to book publishers and Walmart to its suppliers. Cooperative Creamery in WI
Wendell Berry writes for the Henry County Local on the recent spate of creameries and distribution channels dropping dairy farmers and includes this:
The person interviewed in these several articles who makes clear and admirable sense is Gary Rock, a dairyman, one of Dean’s terminated, in LaRue County: “He would like to see a base program across the nation that sets production quotas in line with market demands.” He thus sees through the problem to its solution. He is advocating the only solution to the problem of overproduction. Kentuckians don’t have to look far for an example of the necessary solution, for we had it in the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association. That organization effectively controlled production, maintained fair prices, and gave the same protections to small producers as to large ones. The history of the Burley Association disproves, as its membership conscientiously rejected, the “inevitability” of the destruction of family farms by agribusiness corporations.
Of course Berry is wrong.  Production wasn't controlled by the co-op, but by your faithful USDA/ASCS bureaucracy (operating in conjunction with the co-op).  "Supply management", one term for the sort of program involved, is something Canada still uses for dairy and eggs and maple syrup. We dropped the tobacco and peanut supply management programs after I left, not that there's any relationship. :-)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Working at USDA Is Injurious to Your Health?

Apparently USDA's South Building, where I used to work, is undergoing lead abatement work.  (Makes sense, given when it was constructed.)  Now employees are reporting health problems and tying it into the (non)availability of telework under Sec. Perdue's new policies.  See this GovExec piece.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Farmers Feeling Blue

From an outlook post from Purdue:
The undercurrent of concern expressed by producers in March became more pronounced in April as the trade dispute with key export customer China continued. For example, compared to February of this year, producers in April were more negative about future agricultural export prospects. In February 2018, when asked to look ahead 5 years, 13 percent of producers said they expected agricultural exports to decline. When the same question was posed in April, the share of producers expecting lower exports increased to 17 percent.

Those Stuck-in-the-Past Old Fogeys

Like me, many elderly don't like change.  But it varies, and we can surprise you if it's to our benefit:

"Elderly participants were most excited about the idea of autonomous vehicles, but only 36 percent of young adults were comfortable with the idea of riding in one. "

From the Rural Blog, discussing research into attitudes to self-driving cars.