Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Validity of DNA Testing

Just received the "health" side of an ancestry.com DNA test.

Uniformly bland results, finding nothing which increases risk of anything (which is good, but they didn't cover the most significant area for me--Alzheimers--oh well).

The one correlation they did find is: increased likelihood of drinking coffee.

I'm rolling on the floor, laughing, since I've always drunk a lot of coffee.  These days I'm down to about 5 cups a day, about 2 of which are leaded.  I suspect if I had an obituary drafted by the group of people who have known me over the years, the lead sentence would be:  "Bill drank a lot of coffee..."

(On a more serious note, I'd be curious to see some statistics on the percentage of tests for different things actually show a result exceeding the average.  I suspect it's low, quite low, but because it's us and we worry about the bad stuff, a DNA test is an easy sell.)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Healthcare and Education Costs

Both healthcare costs and costs of higher education have soared over the past 20 years, as shown in this tweet.

One explanation often offered for the costs of healthcare is that providers (doctors, hospitals, etc.) are highly paid.  It makes sense to me--the comparisons of doctors salaries here and abroad which I've seen show our doctors to be much more highly paid.  If that explanation is right, then is it also the case that our education providers, professors and colleges, get more money than educators overseas?  That seems counter-intuitive somehow, but that may just be my erroneous impressions.

[update: saw a reference to the fact that average college debt for doctors is $200,000, so it's possible that the high cost of college plays some role in creating the high cost of health care??]

Thursday, December 26, 2019

In the Eye of the Beholder

From the Lawfare Blog
One of the striking features of the public reaction to Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation is just how many people of just how divergent points of view are claiming vindication for whatever positions they held prior to the document’s release.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Race Makes Me Crazy

The NYTimes had an article on LA and homelessness and blacks today.  It had a graphic with a heading that caught my eye.  The closest I can find in the online version is this sentence: "These maps show the loss of majority-black neighborhoods in Los Angeles County over the last 50 years."

Why did it make me crazy, at least most discombobulated than usual?

In the past the Times has run articles discussing the integration/segregation of our cities.

As a good liberal, I know integration is good and segregation is bad.

But I also take from the Times piece today that the "loss of majority-black neighborhoods" is bad.

So I'm left with two competing ideas.

To use a metaphor, it's like cooking, or baking.  Do you want a real smooth batter with no lumps of flour or do you want a fruit cake composed entirely of lumps?  I don't know, and that's why I'm crazy today.

Any how:  Merry Christmas. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

My Centrist Bias

David Leonhardt has an op-ed in the Times on "centrist bias".    His second paragraph cites John Harris:
Last month, Harris wrote a column that I can’t get out of my head. In it, he argued that political journalism suffers from “centrist bias.” As he explained, “This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.”
While I consider myself to be a liberal I must confess a centrist bias.  In my case, I think it's a matter of pragmatism.  I tend to doubt the ability of the political system to take big leaps and to believe that America is mostly a centrist country, so Democrats can best appeal to the electorate by taking a middle road.  I think that bias has generally been borne out through my life but it has meant I've not supported the civil rights movement or the LGBTQ movement as strongly as I could.  It could be that my bias also ties to my bureaucratic career, meaning I"m more concerned with the difficulties and pitfalls of implementing big changes than most.

These days my support for the 2020 election goes to Amy Klobuchar.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Great Times for USDA?

Someone got a bit mischievous on USDA's tariff website, and listed Wakanda as a country. (It's the home of the Black Panther.) USDA claims it was listed as part of some test data and should have been deleted before going live.

Meanwhile the annual survey of employee satisfaction showed USDA as just above HSD at the bottom of the ratings for departments, with ERS and NIFA plunging into the depths.  (OGC and the Asst Sec for Civil Rights were also in the bottom 10 of the "subcomponents" ranking.

Trump Viewed by a Civil Libertaruan

Conor Friedersdorf considers himself to be a civil libertarian, according to wikipedia.  From this piece on Trump
"It won’t be difficult for future generations to find specific examples of his lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride, adultery, fraud, cruelty, vulgarity, bigotry, and bearing of false witness. Yet even a complete catalog of his sins would be incomplete, because Trump is distinguished not only by his misdeeds, but by the dearth of redeeming qualities to offset them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Three Reports and the Bureaucrats in Them

My wife liked the The Report so we're watching it again, Dec. 13, the same week the Washington Post is doing their "The Afghanistan Papers" rollout, and shortly after the IG's report on the Crossfire investigation was released.

I've not read the IG report yet, nor the report which The Report describes, and I am reading the Post articles on Afghanistan.

There may be some commonalities, as follows:
  • there are two groups of bureaucrats in The Report--the CIA people and contractors involved with the "enhanced investigation measures" (i.e., torture) and the Feinstein staffer, Dan Jones, and his assistants who did the research and prepared the report.
  • in Afghanistan there's military bureaucrats and civilian bureaucrats with many roles over many years.
  • in the Crossfire investigation there's FBI personnel.
For Crossfire, we're offered two choices--either the FBI agents were incompetent or they were biased against Trump.  I think there's a third choice: they were focused on a big task and developed the blinders almost inherent in doing the job.
I think in all of the above cases the bureaucrats thought their job, their objective, was important (people find ways to make that true), and devoted their efforts to doing it.  CIA wanted to stop terrorism; Dan Jones wanted to understand and reveal torture; the military and civilians in Afghanistan wanted to stop terrorism, build a modern nation, or at least not "lose Afghanistan" on their watch; the FBI agents wanted to prevent Russian subversion. That's an idealistic description: very likely on many days and for many people it was just a matter of getting through the day, putting one foot ahead of the other, but knowing when they wrote the story of their life it would have this idealistic sheen to it, ignoring the drudgery and the missteps.

But we shouldn't underestimate the addictive power of doing an important job.  The popular examples of this are from Silicon Valley, the nerds who work round-the-clock to develop software. As we learned in 2000 with the tech crash, very often their dedication was wasted on bad ideas, ideas that had no viable business model.  "Confirmation bias" is real, but it's only a part of what goes on in these cases.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Today''s Newspapers

Two pieces in the newspapers today 

  • in the Post, I think, a review of a book (which also mentions a Netfix documentary on the same high school) describing a Navaho high school using the device of following their basketball team to.  The basketball coach was most proud, not of the team record, but the fact that none of the students he counseled had committed suicide.
  • elsewhere a discussion of the effective tax rate of big corporations--declined from 21 percent to 11 percent.

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Family Farms"

ERS has its 2019 report on family farms out:
Family farms accounted for 98 percent of farms and 88% of production in 2018.
Large-scale family farms accounted for the largest share of production, at 46%.
Over 50 percent of farms are either retirement farms or run by persons whose primary occupation is not farming.

Note that "family farms" can be corporately owned, so long as one extended family owns the corporation.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Discrimination in SS

Been reading Eleanor Lansing Dulles' autobiography (it was recommended somewhere in a survey of memoirs by women).  She was the younger sister of Allen Dulles (CIA) and John Foster Dulles (Sec. of State).  Born in 1895 she had a varied career, meeting almost everyone, working mostly in economics in varied positions, from WWI relief, research in Europe, college teaching, service in the government with the initiation of Social Security through reconstruction of Austria after WWII and then the State Dept, which is where I'm at now.

Anyhow on page 152 she comments on exclusions from the initial social security setup ministers and teachers.That's a reminder that social security was an innovation for America, and it was focused on wage workers in industry and services.  Its limitations were, as I've argued before, not particularly intended to discriminate against African-American farm workers, but to enhance the chances it could be successfully implemented.

I may blog later about Dulles' and sex--she struggled with discrimination.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Revival of Supply Management

Two straws in the wind

this tweet links to an article on Russian wheat, including a desire to form an international wheat cartel, like OPEC, to do some supply management.  (We used to have an International Wheat Agreement).
There was also an article on Wisconsin dairy farmers expressing interest in supply management for dairy, as Canada still has.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Is Trump Scared Straight? NO!

I blogged the question here, citing lower twitter activity.

But here's a report on his record 88 tweets.

So much for me and my predictions.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Rational Choice and the FBI

Rational choice is a theory sometimes applied to bureaucrats. My laiyman's understanding is you view a bureaucrat as a rational actor, trying to maximize his or her power, salary, etc.; in other words, treating bureaucrats as humans, economic men.

How does it apply to the FBI in connection with Trump?

Let's imagine the FBI bureaucrats confronted with the allegation that Russians were working with Carter Page to influence the Trump campaign. The chief of counter intellignence in the FBI  might have these thoughts:
  • this is a big hot potato.
  • it's dangerous to ignore it--think of the people who ignored warning signals before 9/11.
  • it's dangerous to explore it--suppose Trump wins
  • but the odds are Clinton will win, so that means exploring it is less dangerous.
On the other hand, FBI counter intellignence works with the CIA, but can have strained relationships.  (Read about Robert Hanson and Ames.) So the sharing of info between the FBI and CIA may have had hiccups. 

One of these days I should read the OIG report.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Look Back at Afghanistan

IIRC, I was dubious of GWB's war in Afghanistan.  Memories of Vietnam and the "Man Who Would Be King", etc. were big in my mind. But the surge of feeling after 9/11, which I shared to some extent, meant it was easy to get caught up  in enthusiasm over the easy triumph over Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  That enthusiasm, plus the support of some writers whose names escape me now, led me to  very reluctant support of the Iraq.venture, though the skeptical articles in the Post also weighted heavily.  I regret I wasn't blogging then, so I'd have a written record against which to compare my memories.

Later my reservations on Afghanistan were raised by various books and articles, but there was never a clear decision point where politicians debated the issues.  And there was never a clear course, a way to reconcile my liberal desires for nation-building and women's rights and my doubts over the effectiveness of our strategies.

Now the Post is publishing the Afghanistan equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, documents from a "lessons learned" exercise by the special IG for the war.  

My bottom line, not having read the whole series yet, is this: most of the criticisms were valid, but it's one-sided, no answer to the question: "what was the alternative?"

I can only add this perspective: looking at Vietnam today and the status of US-Vietnam relations, the war didn't have lasting bad effects at the global level.  When you consider the deaths and injuries, particularly of Vietnamese, and destruction resulting from the 1945-75 conflict you have to deplore it.

Monday, December 09, 2019

The Decline of the Triple Cities

The Times has an article  discussing the increasing concentration of innovative industries and a proposal to encourage more new centers.
There are about a dozen industries at the frontier of innovation. They include software and pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and data processing. Most of their workers have science or tech degrees. They invest heavily in research and development. While they account for only 3 percent of all jobs, they account for 6 percent of the country’s economic output.
A few cities have gained most of the jobs in these industries (Seattle, SF, San Diego, Boston, Silicon Valley)  while many cities have lost jobs.

The article has a map showing the gains and losses in thousands of jobs. My home area, known as the "Triple Cities" (i.e., Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City) is one of the big losers according to the map, though I don't find the specific statistics.

When I was growing up, the cities had Endicott Johnson (shoes, long gone) as the leading employer, but IBM was second,  Link (producer of  the Link Trainer) was there.  Scintilla was in Sidney.

I believe none of these companies are left--IBM deserting its ancestral home for the greener pastures of Poughkeepsie and other sites.

I don't know what the major employers in the area are now--I suspect education and health.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

A Tale of Two, No Three, Countries

Marginal Revolution reports Sydney has more foreign-born residents than all of mainland China.

Kottke links to a map of the 637 languages spoken in New York City.

My bet is on the future of the more diverse and welcoming society.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Abundance Enables Variation in Height?

One of the things I'm recurrently intrigued by, and have commented on in this blog, is the photograph of masses of people who have the same appearance.  Usually these days the photo is of North Korean dancers or military performing in unison.  (In older days it was the Chinese military.) Everyone is the same height and much the same physiognomy, though I'll quickly stipulate to a native of the country, everyone looks different, an individual.

The explanation I've heard for such uniformity, particularly of heights, is that when there are environmental constraints the phenotype is restricted, and the full potential of the genotype is not realized. But in an environment of abundance genes can exert their full influence. That could be an explanation why Americans come in such a variety of shapes and sizes and North Koreans don't.

I wonder: height and perhaps weight are the most evident characteristics, but are there other characteristics which are limited by the environment?  Certainly we know that the society means Shakespeare's sister never wrote a play, but that's not quite what I'm looking at.  Just a thought.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Is Trump Scared Straight?

Seems to me the president has been relatively quiet and subdued on his twitter account recently. That's just an impression which may be wrong because I don't follow him.  Instead I base my impression on the tweets of his that others retweet and comment on.

Anyway, if it's true, why?

  • one answer would, of course, be the prospect of impeachment which is not something an insecure person would  feel good about.
  • another possible answer, although it comes too close to a conspiracy theory for my comfort, is the possibility that his recent trip to Johns Hopkins was an indicator of some sort of health problem.  As self-absorbed as he is, he's got to be super conscious of his age and the end of life.  That might chasten even him.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Farmers Abroad Know How to Protest

I remember the times when farmers brought their tractors to the Mall to protest our agricultural policies.  (The description in the wikipedia article may not be the most accurate. I took a chance on "American Agricultural Movement", which was the sponsoring organization.  Wikipedia has a better post on it. 

It seems that both the French farmers and German ones have the same tactic.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

More on Hemp

Two articles on hemp in today's NYTimes:

  1. one in Business about the easing of some banking regs.  I'm not clear on the impact--it's apparently not clearing the way totally, because marijuana is still illegal for the Feds.
  2. the other on the problems farmers have in protecting their hemp fields from crooks, who might steal thinking they're getting pot, not hemp.
According to one of the pieces there were 300,000 acres of hemp planted this year--not FSA stats but some private firm.  Wonder how that compares with FSA's figures.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Simple J. Malarkey

Joe Biden is taking heat for putting "No Malarkey" on the bus he's using to tour Iowa.

I've fond memories of Walt Kelly's Pogo cartoon strip, which my sister introduced me to back in the day.

His caricature of Sen. McCarthy was named "Simple J. Malarkey" and was introduced this way (the second strip shown).

I don't know why we don't have good cartoon strips anymore.  Dilbert is usually tolerable but it's not Pogo.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Coming of World Government in Space

Technology Review has a piece on the influx of new space agencies, both in smaller countries (Luxembourg!) and by private enterprises.

Elon Musk is putting up thousands of satellites to provide Internet access.

Seems to me we're going to come to the point where the practicalities of managing space will force governments to agree to cede some control to an international organization.  Back in the day we were sure the UN was a steppingstone to a real world government.  That dream is long gone, but technology and the need to control the commons might revive it.