Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's a "Big" Farmer?

From Farmgate, here's a possible definition of what a farmer is, so a big one would be bigger than this:

How much acreage or livestock does it take for you to earn a living on the farm? One farm business management group in MN offered its calculations based on its members:
1) 890 acres of corn, based on a net return of $84.03 per acre over a 5 year average.
2) 970 acres of beans, based on a net return of $77.15 per acre over a 5 year average.
3) 369 acres of hay, based on a net return of $202.77 per acre over a 5 year average.
4) 4,380 head of farrow to finish hogs, with $17.08 per head over a 5 year average.
5) 15,568 head of finish hogs, with a $4.51 net return per head over a 5 year average.
6) 831 head of feedlot calves, with a $89.98 net return per head over a 5 year average.
7) 127 head of dairy cows, with a $509.96 return per head over a 5 year average.

The biggest surprise to me was no. 3.

Frustrating Article on Russian Agriculture

Back in 1991, if I had been blogging, I would have predicted that grain prices would go through the floor because Russian agriculture would have flooded the market, finally having been freed of the constraints of the system. So much for my wisdom.

Today the NYTimes runs an interesting but frustrating article on Russian agriculture
from the beginning:
A decade after capitalism transformed Russian industry, an agricultural revolution is stirring the countryside, shaking up village life and sweeping aside the collective farms that resisted earlier reform efforts and remain the dominant form of agriculture.

The change is being driven by soaring global food prices (the price of wheat alone rose 77 percent last year) and a new reform allowing foreigners to own agricultural land. Together, they have created a land rush in rural Russia.

The article's frustrating because there's no real description of the current state of agriculture, just that big money people are buying land. There are two facts of interest: 16 percent cof Russia's arable land is idle, about 35 million hectares (maybe 80 million acres); and "[t]he average Russian grain yield is 1.85 tons a hectare — compared with 6.36 tons a hectare in the United States and 3.04 in Canada." That points to lots of potential (although if I recall my geography, Russia's closer to Canada in latitude than the U.S., albeit global warming is changing that.)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Sarah Palin

I suspect that may be the first time the words in the title have been used together.

In today's Post an article from Israel. Briefly, a Norwegian woman converted to Judaism 15 years ago to marry an Israeli Jew. Now she's looking for a divorce, but the Ultra-Orthodox control the religious establishment in Israel and they say her conversion process wasn't exhaustive enough, so she's not a Jew, and therefore was never married, and therefore her two kids aren't Jews. The article paints the issue as between those who believe in God's covenant with the Jewish people, who must observe his commandments strictly, and those who believe that Israel must, to survive, welcome converts.

That's the same issue faced by other organizations, from car companies to countries. What is your identity, and how do you maintain it, yet survive in the world? If you're an Asian car maker, do you focus on smaller, economical cars or try to move up-market into the luxury cars and SUV's and trucks. Toyota looked to be a winner doing the latter, an example followed by Hyundai, but with today's gas prices Honda, which retained more of a small car identity and focus, is doing better. If you're a country, do you limit immigrants and require those who come in to learn English, etc. in order to maintain the country's culture as it is now, or do you gamble on opening doors and going with the flow?

That's the issue for political parties, now. How does the Republican Party, and particularly their nominee, maintain an identity and yet attract voters? In that light, Ms. Palin seems a good choice. It's a maverick, anti-establishment, anti-Washington choice for McCain, but one which mends his fences with the social conservatives of the right wing, while simultaneously perhaps attracting women. It breaks with GWB's "compassionate conservatism" by picking someone who supported/was friendly to Pat Buchanan in the 2000 convention. [Updated--additional thoughts] Assuming that McCain has the pocketbook Republicans in his hip pocket, Palin reinforces the party's appeal to working class America.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Closing Prayer

Religion in America comments on and posts the closing prayer of the Dem's convention--the new evangelism.

Why Lecture Courses?

From Brad DeLong:
  • Budget stringency: lectures are cheap for the university relative to seminars, and even if they are markedly less effective they do soak up students' time
  • Alternative information channel: The ears are wired to the brain differently than the eyes, and there is value in not only reading something but also hearing something in producing the synaptic changes that we want to see happen in college.
  • A self-discipline device: if people have to show up at a certain place at a certain time to accomplish a task or be disciplined, they are more likely to do so. Lecture as a way of solving our self-command and self-control problems.
    • But why not then just have a study hall? Everyone reads the book, and the monitor circulates and answers quetions?
  • A sociological event: East African Plains Apes like to do things in groups that involve language--that is just who we are--and the lecture is just another example of this"

It's Diversity at Work

So now our national tickets include an African-American with an Indonesian-American half sister married to a Chinese Canadian, a woman with an Eskimo husband and a Downs child, two WASP codgers, and our Wheaties boxes celebrate a Russian-American gymnast and a Japanese-African-American decathlete.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Carbon Tax and Locavore

Kevin Drum comments on an NPR piece on the carbon footprint of food, observing a carbon tax would help, probably more than voluntary changes in diet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Little League Causes Obesity?

Eugene Volokh blogged on the 9-year old who's been banned from Little League because he's too good. It got a lot of comments because it straddles some key issues: the right of an individual to try to excel, the safety of others, etc. I offered a comment remembering the old days before organized youth sports when you scraped together whatever kids in the neighborhood were available and willing, whatever the differences in age and ability.

I got to thinking, resulting in the question which is the title. In the old days, kids stayed in the neighborhood unless they could bike elsewhere (our rural roads weren't favorable for biking, even if I'd ever learned). They didn't rely on parents, particularly mothers, for transportation. Now it's different--mothers spend all their time transporting kids so they don't have time to cook, meaning they go for the fast food and carryouts, leading to our obesity epidemic.

So the solution is to ban Little League.

Analyses of Locavore and Organic

James McWilliams analyzes problems with locavore logic at Freakonomics, Stephanie Page Ogburn analyzes the problems with making a full-time living from organic gardening at Grist.

Both are valuable correctives to books such as Kingsolver's and McKibben's, which tend to play up the possibilities and play down the problems.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

AIDS in Rural Areas

The Daily Yonder reports on increasing AIDS cases in rural areas. I've some reservations, because I assume the rural areas started with no AIDS (the whole country started with no AIDS) so we're talking about a percentage increase over a very small base. Of course, it's surprising to find AIDS outside the big cities because the propagation pattern for a virus would seem to require a concentrated population. So maybe the rise is in aging boomers moving to the sticks, a few of whom happen to have HIV/AIDS, as opposed to transmission in rural areas. Who knows?

[Updated--had a senior moment on the proper acronym for AIDS.]

Slips of the Tongue

I've never been particularly articulate, tongue-tied and shy is more like it. So I tend not to laugh at people who misspeak, with the possible exception of the current President, for whom I like to find excuses to laugh at.

I'm also interested in how the brain works, so this analysis of recent miscues, with links to past analyses of past errors on both sides of the aisle was good reading. Hat Tip: Eugene Volokh

Monday, August 25, 2008

Animal Processed Fiber

Erin today has a great post on that staple of agriculture and bureaucracy: animal processed fiber.

(I should add that bureaucrats and politicians collaborate in erecting vast edifices of same.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

American Mobility

Michael Powell wrote in today's NYTimes Week in Review on the mobility and unrootedness of American life. The usual references, keyed off Obama's life. Allow me to be a bit contrarian--it's easy to overemphasize how much Americans move. That's my impression from researching my genealogy. There are lots of people who stay in the same place, the same area, for most of their lives. There are still descendants of Captain John Rippey and Mary Orson living in the York, PA area, some 250 years later. And my cousin has mentioned a resident of Ipswich, MA who traces his ancestry back to the town's founding, some 360 years ago.

None of this means we Americans don't have a (physically) mobile society compared to others. (After all, some Arabs trace their ancestry back to the Prophet.) But mobility is not something everyone experiences.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Food Safety, Raw Milk Revisited

Ethicurean has a long post describing the back and forth over a bill to regulate raw milk in California. Now I've mixed feelings on all this. As a retired bureaucrat, I almost always believe there's a role for government regulation. As a long-ago farm boy, I remember the milk inspectors coming and forcing my father to change his operation (install refrigeration for the milk cans), put hot water in the milk house (we had hot water there when we didn't have it in the house), changes not always appreciated. As someone who drank raw milk until college, I liked the taste, but can't take the sometimes quasi-religious fervor mustered on its behalf.

But leaving all that aside, I'm a bit bemused by this thought: suppose a big food processor, a monster multinational corporation, said: we have this brand new product that provides essential minerals and vitamins and tastes great. Oh, we'll promise that it will be almost pure, no more than 10 coliform bacteria per unit.

How far do you think that proposal would get?

Just saying.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Housing Slump

182 Manassas Drive, Manassas Park, VA recently sold for $105,000. It was appraised in 2007 for $342,000. That's the measure of the housing slump, and the impact of the Prince William crackdown on illegal immigrants.

The Fine Points of History

A comment on my earlier post about biodynamic agriculture challenged my statement that it was an offshoot of organic farming. Indeed, the commenter is reasonably correct. Consulting Wikipedia again and more carefully, and accepting everything said there as gospel (of course), Rudolf Steiner apparently antedated Sir Albert Howard . It's not clear whether they influenced each other or not. I'm more familiar with Louis Bromfield. My mother was converted to organic farming by his books.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Doesn't the US Have Bureaucrats Like This?

From an upcoming conference on social media and government, in Canada:
This is not an event put on by the Government of Canada. You can argue with your boss that this will be a highly effective low-cost training opportunity, and if you really need it we can make up a convincing yet completely untruthful conference pamphlet to help make the argument.
This guerrilla action brings a whiff of the old days of bulletin boards (back when 2400 baud was a good speed, not that many people these days know what a "baud" is).

Amish Growth

Organic farming has a future, and its name is "Amish". See this MSNBC piece on their growth, doubling in just a few years.

The Definition of Rich?

When you don't know how many houses you own. From Politico.

To try to give McCain a break, the only thing I could imagine is that he's thinking like a lawyer--how many are in my name, how many in Cindy's name, how many in a trust, how many are some sort of fancy-shmancy rental/purchase arrangement.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hollowing Out the Center

From Grist, an article on the "hollowing out" of American agriculture--more and more of the production is being done by bigger and bigger operations. Give the writer credit, she finds a big farmer (5,000 acres) who's an individual, not a corporation, to link her piece to.

I don't have that much problem with her piece, except her historical myopia. The trend she cites doesn't date to the 1970's, it goes much further back. My grandfather's hilltop farm in Broome County, NY (proud home of the Farm Bureau, the interest group representing big farmers, all 5 million of them) was the combination of two farms. Handy, when the farmhouse burned, he and his son tore down the deserted one for materials to rebuild the family home. She probably could argue the trend has accelerated this century, I mean last century, over what was happening in the 19th century. But that fact would simply indicate that the cause lies deeper than shortsighted government policies of Nixon and successors, not something that's particularly palatable to the locavore etc. movement.

Words To Bureaucratize By

From, a DTN observation (triggered by the 10-acre rule flap):

"However, the application of extremely complex programs to farming operations that differ widely in their resources and scale and even in their economic objectives will always be a severe challenge. And, as program rules become increasingly complex, the challenge to do so equitably will become even greater, Washington Insider believes.”

The End Is Near--the 10-Acre Rule

Senator Grassley says USDA may be right in how they interpret the legislative language. Must be an omen of some sort.

[Updated--but Rep Peterson says he may have muscled USDA into seeing it his way.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Republican Scientist Disses Organic

The title is unfair. Just because Nina Fedoroff works for Condi Rice is no reason to call her a Republican. (She's the science adviser to the Secretary of State.) She's interviewed in today's Times and says:
"If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth’s current population — maybe half."
I agree, but I suspect many NYTimes readers will not.

Have to give credit to Rice for having such a post.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Sometimes I can follow science, sometimes I can't. This post is interesting, as it deals with the evolution of corn, though I had a bit of trouble following the logic of "cryptic variation", meaning genes change but the trait doesn't. (Hat tip to Brad DeLong.)

The big news for me was a throwaway for the writer--they've been able to mate modern corn and teosinte and produce viable offspring--meaning they're the same species.

One implication I think is Richard Dawkins was wrong in "The Selfish Gene", because the trait, not the gene, is what is selected for.

Grade Inflation, Students and Bureaucrats

Harry at Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion of "grade inflation", which supposedly occurs at institutions of higher education. He argues that grade inflation may not be occurring, students may just be better these days. (There's some proof, and even a name for the effect, which I have now forgotten--senior moment--that IQ's are rising each generation, although he doesn't mention this. He does observe that legacy students like George W wouldn't have gotten into Yale today.)

It's interesting to me because the people who believe in grade inflation ascribe it to the same factors which I saw in government work when it came time for me to evaluate employees, or others to evaluate me. Namely, fuzzy standards, the desire to avoid conflict, fear of honest discussions, desire to keep everyone happy. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

IT: Don't Ever Do This (100 MPH in Suburbs)

Robert Thomson has a great little story in the Post, on two gray-haired speeders in Silver Spring, caught on camera going 100 mph on a winding road. They paid their $40 fine, as good citizens and guilty people should.

If I knew how to hide the rest of this, I would, because you really ought to read it.

But, I don't--the bottom line was the IT types screwed up. The camera system was set to diagnose itself if it had problems, and communicate the fact to humans by displaying either 100 mph or 0 mph as the speed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Some lazy IT specialist saved herself a little bit of code by doing that (or some person who specified the user requirements was ignorant of good design). You should never use a piece of data (as in recorded speed) for another purpose (to communicate a message). Once the system knows there's a problem, it should display or print an error message (ideally one that's meaningful). To do otherwise is bad design.

Bad Night for Foodies, Via Mr. Bolt

So the new "world's fastest human" ran his record time based on a breakfast and lunch of nuggets.

Or maybe it was yams

So Much for Original Intent--Small Farms and ACRE

Keith Good passes on a report of conflicts between USDA and Congress over interpretation of two provisions of the farm bill: how to implement the prohibition on payments for bases less than 10 acres and how to implement the ACRE program with respect to past years market prices.

This is the sort of discussion you get after most farm bills, particularly when there's been little informed discussion before they're passed. The big shots in Congress may not be talking to the big shots in USDA, because of political differences or just policy differences. The big shots of whatever position may not be talking to the faceless bureaucrats who understand what's needed to implement and, hopefully, are able to visualize the questions and problems down the road. (Yes, I was one of those faceless bureaucrats, whose wisdom was often ignored.)

The whole experience makes me doubt the validity of originalism as a theory of interpretation for the Constitution.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Herndon and Immigrants Again

The Post reported yesterday the same old story. Day laborers, presumably most or all illegal immigrants, are out on the streets of Herndon, Virginia, some residents don't like it, so the town is planning to crack down, again. Of course, the town once had a center, where the laborers were off the street and registered, and not bothering people. But they closed that down, hoping to discourage the laborers, which hasn't worked sufficiently to please the good citizens.

So, they plan to escalate their fight. Reminds me of the drug war--as long as the demand (for cheap day laborers) is there, people will meet the demand.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Michael Phelps and Food

Everyone else is writing about Michael Phelps, so I might as well join the parade. He's gotten lots of publicity for his 12,000 calorie diet, including this webmd piece (which is skeptical).

It doesn't seem to include the right proportions of fruits and vegetables, but it may include the secret behind Mr. Pollan's "In Defense of Food" blurbs on behalf of traditional diets. A traditional diet, whether the all-meat diet of the Inuit or the cattle-blood diet of some cattle herding tribes, is usually matched by a traditional way of work. Michael Phelps' diet, and that of other athletes, is coordinated with the work they do. You can eat a traditional diet if you do the traditional work. If not, not.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

CSA Trials

The Post has an article on CSA, part of a series. The writer is having to cook and juggle recipes to make use of vegetables she's not familiar with. Another problem is illustrated by a post on my local freecycle board (for those not familiar, freecycle is a neighbor swap meet on the Internet--you post what you want to give away or what you want and much of the time you can get a match, at least that's my experience. Google for more info.) The offeror apparently was going to be out of town so wanted to give away her weekly delivery.

Point being--there's tradeoffs for CSA customers--you get the freshest vegetables, but there's overhead and rigidity--you lose the flexibility of deciding on the spur of the moment to buy something from the local supermarket.

Flowing Info

Via Treehugger, this application is neat in concept. Use Google maps to locate your house, take advantage of knowing the N/S E/W orientation of the house from the map, then enable an app to calculate the size and cost of a rooftop solar power panel installation and match to local utility info to compute year savings. Unfortunately, they only cover CA as of now. But it's just an example of how the Internet enables the rapid flow of information. And the economists point out the problem of information costs, which the Internet is reducing to nil.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Weak Blogging

Not to pick on Megan McArdle, because everyone shares the problem, but this is weak (apropos of the Georgia/Russia situation):
"I think we should do something about it, not that I think we will. But we could certainly do more than we are, which is nothing."
Remember, electrons may not be precious but our time is. If you're going to comment, at least do a specific suggestion. I doubt there's anything to be done, unless someone can arrange cold showers for Putin and Saakashvili. So, if you have nothing to suggest, just snark someone else's post.

How an Economist Views Marital Habits

As efforts to minimize transaction costs--see this post at Freakonomics. I understand and agree his point, but it's not always wise to minimize such costs. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's found that new experiences shared with the spouse, where you both need to negotiate, can improve the marriage. Of course, sometimes not.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Haunted by History, Hungary Redux?

Fred Kaplan in Slate opines on Georgia.

His comments remind me of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, at least of the post-mortems in the U.S., though they don't seem to show up in the wikipedia article. As I recall, the Dems blasted John Foster Dulles for comments seeming to call for the "rollback" of the Iron Curtain and Radio Free Europe for broadcasts by exiles. The gist was that, in our hopes for democracy, we had said things and forgotten the realities. The "liberals" inside Hungary heard what they wanted to hear, that the West was with them body and soul, while the reality was that we were with them in spirit, but the flesh was unwilling. Ike and Dulles knew better than to do anything militarily.

It was a lesson in realpolitik, which left schoolboys throwing molotov cocktails at tanks.

See this link to The Moderate Voice for a discussion.

"Dad, Can We Eat This One?"

So much for the innocence of childhood, but Abby is cute, even though a bit ... Her father, Ron, is equally evil, posting great pictures of all the produce from his garden.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Farm Constitution Rears Its Head

The farm bill included a 10-acres base provision--no payments to "farms" with a base for the crop of under 10 acres. Now people are waking up to the implications and complexities. Via Keith Good (who's always good) the Lancaster FArming site reports on concerns of the PA Farm Bureau:

"PFB believes that the original intent of the measure was to allow farms with 10 or fewer base acres to be aggregated or combined with any farm or farms with base acres — whether owned or rented — to exceed 10 acres.

But according to Pallman [PA FSA head], the law is clear that the only way farm base acreages can be consolidated is through land purchase."

One complication, with which I became familiar in the early 1980's, is a "farm" is a "farm" is a "farm". So if disaster provisions are keyed to losses (on a farm) of production due to a natural disaster or the new ACRE program is keyed to expected revenue (on a farm), FSA has, in the past, maintained only one definition of a farm. So in Pennsylvania where farms originally were small, and operators are renting them from their owners (who may be the spouse, children, or descendants of the original farmer), if FSA treats each ownership tract as a separate farm, it increases the likelihood of eligibility for disaster payments. But it can make participating in other programs more difficult, as the acreage conservation reserve in the 1980's or the payment program now.

Map of Religions

Here's an interesting map of the US, showing the leading churches by county. I knew the Mennonite/Amish community was spreading, but not to Kansas. (The Presbyterianism of my father's side is a minority faith everywhere, even in its western PA heartland.) Hat tip to Religion in America.

New Term--Biodynamic Farming

Stumbled across a new term, new to me anyway: "biodynamic farming". Apparently there's a conflict between "organic farmers" and "biodynamic farmers". Best I can tell, it's mostly theological (I mean that literally--it reminds me of the differences among the Presbyterians during most of their history). The biodynamic faith is an offshoot, and more religious than plain organic farming.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bureaucrats Are the Offensive Line of Life

A thought, prompted by the recent introduction into the Football Hall of Fame of Art Monk and Darrell Green. Consider this: there are 5 times as many offensive linemen on the field as quarterbacks, but the Hall of FAme has 33 modern era offensive linement to 23 quarterbacks.

Oh for the Safety of the Chlorophyll Based Economy

I'm searching for a term to contrast with "carbon-based economy". But the title is tongue-in-cheek; witness this sentence quoted in today's NYTimes Book Review: "“In the New York of 1867,” he writes, “horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities).”" (Review of the book called Traffic, which sounds interesting.)

Monsanto and rBGH

Tom Philpott at Gristmill is among those noting with approval that Monsanto is trying to sell off its making of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). It's an interesting issue: on the one hand there's the "yuck" factor, those who believe that interference with nature is wrong and on the other the "green" factor, those who believe efficiency is the way of the future. That is, if the hormone enables the production of more milk from the same inputs, isn't that similar to an Energy-Star appliance?

Obviously I lean more towards the efficiency side. But "lean" is the right word.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Information to Complicate One's Understanding.

Why is Canada slim and the US obese?

Well, a possible reason is difference in the kind of statistics used (see the comments on the post). But it's interesting to consider the broader (ouch!) picture. Seeing a map of Mexico using comparable stats would also be of interest.

Friday, August 08, 2008


I'm getting more conservative. Here's a Times article (from 2 days ago) on pension costs in Europe. Due to different attitudes on immigration, their problem is much worse than ours.
"One factor that may offset the issue could be the surprising success some countries have had with the introduction of private pensions.

Sweden created a system in 1999 that siphoned off 2.5 percent of a worker’s gross income and invested it in privately managed stock and bond funds. Employees choose the funds themselves, based on their appetite for risk.

Since then, countries including Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and all the Baltic states, as well as Germany, have adopted similar programs. (A proposal by President Bush to do much the same died at the beginning of his second term.)

Germany’s system, using tax incentives to persuade people to save for their own retirement, got off to a slow start in 2001. But now some 11 million Germans have bought into it.

I think the Dems should consider this, even though it's like what Bush and the Reps have suggested in the past. A 1 percent add-on, phased to 2 percent with a corresponding reduction in FICA taxes for the second percentage point, sounds about right to me.

Is Hemingway Back?

Poppa was a big big figure in the arts when I was growing up. People (the artsy types) mocked, but "The Old Man and the Sea" did great (in the 50's). Then, after his suicide and the gradual subsidence of his wives, his children, his reputation, he seemed to be very much a has-been.

But, consider this:

"Bleargh. I did this [i.e., mock a TV show] comfortably from a perch way up on my high horse, where I listened to the Stones and read Hemingway and scowled at girls in obscenely short shorts and bought glasses like Tina Fey's. Competitive dance?"
This is from Caitlin Gibson, a guest blogger for Joel Achenbach, who, by the name alone, must be young, young young. And I swear I've noted a couple other cites of Hemingway recently. He must be on the way back. (Has over 4 million hits on Google--maybe he was never gone, except in my mind?)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Dutch Are Coming, the Dutch Are Coming [Updated]

It appears that foreign investors have bought up 5+ million acres in the last year. That's what the latest AFIDA report shows. Don't know where they were bought, but if the average is 1K per, that's 5 billion dollars. Could be lots more.

Maine and Hawaii have the highest concentration of foreign ownership, and one Netherlands corporation has over 3 million acres. (Do the Dutch still remember the "purchase" of Manhattan fondly, as an example of the values to be found here? Or maybe they figure global warming is going to doom Holland?)

It's a repeat of the 1970's, when the weak dollar meant lots of foreign investment, and the passage of the AFIDA (reports available here).

[Update: Most holdings are forest land and the changes are in forest land. Canadian paper companies.]

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

COBOL? A Blast from the Past

The Times has an article on the problems facing the California state government because their IT systems are inflexible:

“In 2003, my office tried to see if we could reconfigure our system to do such a task[i.e. changing wages and terminating employees],” Mr. Chiang told a State Senate committee on Monday. “And after 12 months, we stopped without a feasible solution.”

David J. Farber, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said using Cobol was roughly equivalent to having “a television with vacuum tubes.”

“There are no Cobol programmers around anymore,” Mr. Farber said. “They retired centuries ago.”

Mr. Farber said California was not alone in having out-of-date systems — or handy excuses.

“It’s old technology, and you can’t find a repairman who knows how to fix it,” he said. “It also a neat way of figuring how not to get your salary cut.”

It's true enough--Craigslist doesn't show any COBOL listings in its jobs section. But Microfocus, which used to have a PC COBOL, has this language in a current blurb (from a press release announcing a conference in 2009):
"COBOL, the most pervasive language in global IT infrastructures, will take its place at the forefront of this discussion. COBOL applications will become available as internet-based services, operating in the new cloud-based paradigms in the very near future, bringing major implications for the developer community."

And the more important fact is, regardless of the computer language, IBM 360 Assembler, COBOL or whatever, it's the way the system was designed that's at fault. When it was designed (assuming it was, rather than just growing), no one provided for the flexibility. (Or, maybe not, maybe it's a bluff. Arnold should call it--freeze all pay raises until they figure out how to do pay decreases).

[Updated: Found an interesting discussion at slashdot going over many of these issues. The meat is that what Arnold wants to do is pay only minimum for the period during which he's fighting with the legislature over the budget, calculate and hold the difference in escrow, and once the dust settles disburse the back pay. Also some interesting bits about how CA operates.

This sort of issue is also why the added money for FSA--modernizing software is difficult. Particularly when managers don't know what they're doing.}

More Money for FSA?

According to this report:

President Bush has asked Congress on Friday for $172 million in additional fiscal 2009 Agriculture Department funding to implement the new U.S. farm law and to improve the USDA computer system. The spending would be offset by a $287 million cut in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Bush proposed the USDA revisions as part of budgetary changes for eight departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, reports Reuters.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

And Again, Maybe Our Parents Were Right

My parents (i.e., your great grandparents, probably) thought gambling was the Devil's tool. Not that they put much stock in the devil, but gambling was wrong and foolish (not much difference between the two concepts in their mind, or mine). Catholicism's embrace on bingo was one reason to look dubiously on it. But in the 1960's those attitudes started to seem old fashioned.

But maybe they were right--from a writeup of a scholarly study of lotteries (hat tip, Freakonomics):
In the study, the researchers note that lotteries set off a vicious cycle that not only exploits low-income individuals' desires to escape poverty but also directly prevents them from improving upon their financial situations. They recommend that state lottery administrators explore strategies that balance the economic burdens faced by low-income households with the need to maintain important funding streams for state governments.
Maybe the spread of gambling in the last half of the 20th century has a little something to do with the increase in inequality? Maybe?

Tire Gauges and Sweaters

The Republicans are mocking Obama with tire gauges, every since he observed that increases in energy efficiency could save more energy than drilling for oil (was it off-shore, or ANWAR--I haven't really followed).

Recalls when Jimmy Carter was mocked for wearing sweaters in the White House, turning down the heat in winter, and engaging in energy saving measures generally. Then, of course, there's that President who put solar panels on the White House and went with geothermal heat pumps for his summer house. (Oops, that's GWB, but both sides want to forget about him.)

Bottom line--it's easy to mock, but efficiency is the way to go.

The Curmudgeon Raises His Voice

The Post has an article on the debate whether kids should enjoy their summer vacation or work. It quotes both sides, including this:
"I think the pendulum has shifted," said Gail Hubbard, supervisor of gifted education and special programs in Prince William County, where summer homework policies are under review. "I think we went for several years requiring more and more and more." Now, she said, the goal is "to make sure it benefits the learner instead of burdens the learner."
As an old curmudgeon, in my day, the idea was the burden was the benefit. And that's being proved by modern science, and Dr. Hubbard is out-of-date. An athlete has to train hard, a scholar has to study hard. No pain, no gain. While the brain may not exactly be a muscle, we now know that experience causes physical changes in the brain; the more experience, the more training, the more reading and thinking, the more the brain is able to handle (at least in scholarship). So, make those whippersnappers sweat, say I.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Philip Kennicott and China

Kennicott is not one of my favorite Post writers (writes mostly on architecture and more generally on arts in general. ) Today he reports on a visit to Shanghai, a mega-city (defined as 10 million plus). An excerpt:
In China you also have to remember the larger statistic: the total population of more than 1.3 billion people. In the shadow of that number, statistics about private space in Shanghai -- since 1990, the average amount of living space, per person, has increased from 8 to 15 square meters (86 to 161 square feet) -- become rather ominous.
Personally, I'm more inclined to marvel--doubling living space in the Chinese context, even if limited to the east coast, is amazing when I remember the Korean war propaganda (human wave attacks of subhuman type soldiers). Rising standards of living are a cause for satisfaction, not discontent. Yes, there's misery in cities but on average people migrate to urban areas because they can improve their circumstances. More people living better is good.

EU Dairy Policy Kills

I blogged earlier about the change in US eating patterns--dairy is down over the last 35 years. But, if this post on the CAP (EU farm program) Health blog is correct, EU dairy subsidies have kept their consumption high, with adverse impacts. The idea is that the EU has kept dairy supports high, by buying surpluses, which are eventually consumed somewhere (in school lunch programs, etc.) The resulting increase in saturated fat consumption causes higher rates of cardio-vascular disease and deaths.

I'm not sure of the logic here, or with those who attack US subsidies for corn. I think economists would agree, no subsidies would mean only the most efficient farmers would survive, meaning the price level would drop and, presumably, consumption would go up. Maybe I'm wrong, but you might be able to make a case that subsidies help health, not hurt it.

Congress and the Budget

Washington Watch has a post on Congress, as in: the failure of.

Once upon a time, the fiscal year for the government ran from July 1 to June 30. Over the years (late 60's or so), Congress began to have problems passing appropriations bills by July 1. So some bright sprig came up with a solution: we'll give ourselves 3 more months. We'll change the fiscal year to Oct 1 to Sept 30 and that surely will be enough time. Alas and alack, Congress proved once again that politicians are only too human. For the last many years they've been incapable of passing most appropriations bills timely. Eventually they toss up their hands and stuff everything that's unresolved in a big omnibus bill and push it through.

It's no way to manage the government. Unfortunately, there's no constituency for good governmental management, so we get what we deserve.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Globalizing Education

The Post Magazine section does their education issue, including a very good article on how the DC area is importing elementary teachers from the Philippines. The teachers have to learn to say: "shut up" and be more assertive to control their classrooms. They also have to get used to our society. As I say, very interesting.

I'd known that we were importing nurses from the Philippines and elsewhere, but this was the first I'd heard about teachers.

Changes in Eating Patterns

The NY Times does a graphic article on changes in food consumption patterns between 1970 and now, based on ERS figures. Click on the multimedia link to get the graphics.

We've increased food consumption by about 10 percent, with a big drop in dairy and big increases in fats, grains, and fruit. (Pardon my pointing out that's not quite the picture painted by people like Professor Pollan--at least not the areas of increase. To be fair, I expect the oils and grains are consumed mostly as baked or deep fat fried foods, but the article doesn't specify our menu.)

The Power of Neighborhood

The NY Times has an article on the impact of high fuel costs on globalization. Manufacturing and not agriculture is the focus, there's only a couple paragraphs on food) but the same economics are at play. (There is a reference to the end of avocado salad in Minnesota in the winter--apparently a doomed species.)

I think I'd take it with a pinch of salt--transportation costs probably aren't the most important cost factor in most productive activities--but as we're reminded, evolution works using marginal differences. There may be more prestige and class differences. After all, the spice trade from the East Indies encountered high transportation costs but still found markets in Europe.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Beware the Deadly Vog, My Son

Not so deadly, to humans at least, but to Hawaiian vegetation, volcanic smog is. But your faithful FSA springs to the rescue.

[Sorry to all those growers affected by the disaster, I really shouldn't make fun of misfortunes.]

Friday, August 01, 2008

Yale and Public Information-Sshhh

Colin McKay at SoSaidThe Organization secretly tells us of a document we are commanded not to cite from Yale Law. It's well worth reading. It proposes [emphasis removed]:

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.
Some comments:
  • the authors could productively cite the GPO's "reengineering" initiative--as GPO is officially responsible for all government documents (repository libraries) it particularly aggravates me that their effort seems to be a solo silo, (see this link) particularly as their aim is to please their library stakeholders, not the public.
  • the authors do not deal with the problem of private data, that is, data that can't be made public. Their examples include FCC dockets, regulations, Congressional actions (bills, votes, etc.), SEC filings--all things that are supposed to be public. In other words, they're viewing government as lawyers, and the data they want is lawyers' data. They might profitably look at the EWG's database of federal payments to farmers--a long-existing example of the problems (and gains) in providing government data on-line.
  • I doubt the practicality of the suggestion (that is, considered as a government-wide, top down initiative). They note the number of constraints agencies have to deal with in handling data. Each of the constraints was the result of some interest group and/or Congressional members putting their oar in. That's the way our government works. Perhaps in a parliamentary system the proposal is feasible, but not here. Appropriations committees will not give dollars to such good government suggestions. And a President Obama or McCain is unlikely to use political capital to take real action.
  • I think the most likely outcome is a gradual, evolutionary, scattershot approach which, after 20-30 years or so, ends up maybe close to what the authors want.
(I'm struck by this language: "The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large." 10 years ago I was proposing the same thing to FSA, NRCS, and RD--an Internet-based front end to access documents and data with a gradual back end migration from the legacy databases and indexed files to modern web-servers. Even had a working mockup website to this effect. Alas, I'm no salesman. As far as I can see, the key technical constraint was the need to provide security at the data element level--i.e., maybe you want to show to everyone that John Doe owns a section of land in Mills County, Iowa, but you don't want to show his SSN to anyone except him and one or two people who serve him. That's tough to get the "business rules" decided on. The political constraint was the necessary impact on the organizations involved. Agencies whose raison d'etre was to serve local farmers would have to consider whether and how to change. And the politicians whose livelihood depends on customer service, meaning being able to see that the local office works for their farmers, would have to cede influence.)