Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Warning on Locavore

In 1840 Ireland was primarily locavore, organic agriculture.

This piece from extension.org reminds us of the problems of such agriculture
"Late blight, a potentially devastating disease of tomato and potato, has been found in Ohio and may threaten home gardens and commercial operations alike — particularly as wet, cool weather conditions this week in most of the Buckeye state will create a favorable environment for the spread of the fungal pathogen that causes this disease.[It's the disease which caused the Great Famine in Ireland.]"

One of the limitations of local agriculture is its vulnerability to local weather, local disease, local earthquakes.

More Transparency Than We Need?

Transparency is on my mind, given the Obama initiative on it. We're all in favor of transparency, it's a good thing. But good things can be carried too far.

NYTimes has a piece about Air New Zealand, titled: Nothing to Hide, Really:

"The instructions in Air New Zealand’s new in-flight safety video are given by employees who are nude except for body paint and strategically placed seat belts."

There is, after all, a reason we mostly have doors on bathrooms.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Those Arches

Here's the front page photo of the Washington Post this morning--captioned as showing a supporter of the ousted president near the presidential palace.. Note the golden arches in the upper left.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Women Farmers

The Post runs an article describing the number of women who are now farming, mostly people who changed careers to farm, often with a mate who retains a city job.

" "In Maryland, the number of farms in which a woman is the principal operator jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2007. In Virginia, female-run farms also grew by 16 percent."....

While men tend to run larger farms focused on such commodity crops as soybeans and wheat, women tend to run smaller, more specialized enterprises selling heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef to well-heeled, eco-conscious consumers.

These smaller enterprises have gotten a boost from the popularity of farmers markets and programs in which people pay in advance to receive weekly produce baskets, as well as renewed consumer interest in buying locally."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Public Option for Insurance

Prof. Mankiw of Harvard has a column in tomorrow's Times (yes, for once I'm getting a jump on the news) on the case against the "public option" in a national health care program; running a government health care insurance program alongside the private programs.

He's much better educated than I, so I should not disagree with him. But that only sometimes has stopped me from voicing opinions.

I'd point out to the good professor that the US has already run an experiment of having private insurance plans and government plans side by side. And what happened? Was the professor's prediction that the government would be "virtually the only game in town" fulfilled?

No. We've had parallel crop insurance programs ever since the FCIC was created towards the end of the New Deal because it was felt private insurance plans didn't do the job. And government did not drive out the private companies; today there is no government insurance operation, just private plans, albeit heavily subsidized by the government.

Mankiw's mistake is to assume there would be a straight competition on economic grounds between the private and government options. Not so. There would be a continuing political/economic struggle in which the private companies would have the advantage. Once the push for national health care is over, the public will lose interest and focus and the role and power of the special interests will return to the fore. In that struggle, government will be the loser.

NY Times on Animal ID

The Times has a rather sympathetic story on the resistance to the National Animal Identification System here. Cites a New Mexico rancher and a couple others, with a pro forma defense from Hammerschmidt.

Proud To Be a New Yorker

Yes, my mother was very proud. New York was the best state around, having the most people and best places to live (that is, excluding the city). It's declined in the rankings over the years since her time but I'm glad to see it's now taking the lead in one very important area, a field where Nebraska is the last but New York is now the first: the number of houses in the state legislature. NY now has three, the Assembly, the Democratic Senate, and the Republican Senate. See this NYTimes article.

(The background is a closely divided body, in which people of dubious achievement have switched back and forth, leading to a comedy of competing leaderships. Mark Twain would have thoroughly enjoyed the situation. The rest of us, not so much.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

$450 Mill for FSA IT

Via Keith Good's FArm Policy, here's the FFAS Under Secretary James Miller talking about FSA IT. Total bill, estimated $450,000,000.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Best Sentence of the Day

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, from a post discussing reaction to the Sanford: "What good is marriage if it doesn't humble men?" Mr. Coates believes in humility. (So do I.)

Wrong Again, on Carbon Sequestration

House Ag has the text of the agricultural amendments to the carbon bill. (There's also a summary.) I was wrong in my assumptions on how it might work--I was figuring a direct NRCS to farmer linkage. Not so, instead there's provision for "offset project developers" and "independent offset verifiers" which sound like private entities. So the NRCS would be working through these third parties. (This is based on a fast skim and I don't claim any expertise in the area.)

Seems to me this is partially political. (I know you're surprised.) By using third parties you increase the chance of getting influential supporters and contributors on board. Use a government agency, you only get the agency's employees. [Updated: Did I ever link to the National Farmer's Union testimony? They're currently acting, I think, as an offset project developer. They've got an interesting website application show in the testimony as well.]

Because I'm on the weak government kick recently, I'll go on to say this is an example of how and why we end up with weak government (otherwise known as protecting our liberties); the process of getting legislation enacted requires logrolling and obeisance to local power centers.

Don't Send Your Son to College

To paraphrase an old song, because Henry Farrell at the Monkey Cage says:
" university funding people act like starved, feral weasels"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Student Aid Applications and the IRS

The NYTimes has an article on:
The Obama administration is moving to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, a notoriously complicated form that asks students seeking financial aid for college as many as 153 questions.
If I understand, the biggest part of the idea is to piggyback on IRS 1040 data. Apparently there's lots of overlap, so the Education Department is willing to forgo some questions of value only in special circumstances, and the applicant is willing to permit Ed to access IRS data, the entry process can be simplified, speeded up, and made much more accurate.

Seems to me there's a trend at work--people are more comfortable with having their data online. Whether they trust the government (or Google or whoever) or it's just an evolution as we get more used to the Internet, I don't know.

Blowing My Mind--Fertilizer Misconception

"By 2005 corn yields in the Midwest and China were about the same, but Chinese farmers were using about 525 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre compared with 83 pounds in the Midwest, and farms in northern China generated nearly 23 times the amount of excess nitrogen than those in the Midwest."

That's from a press release from Cornell U about a Science article one of their professors participated in (via Extension.org).

I guess I've still got images of "The Good Earth" at the back of my mind. Unfortunately, I suspect a lot of us would be surprised at this.

Metro and WMATA

The Post runs an op-ed by Doug Feaver keyed to the Metro accident two days ago, decrying the fact Metro doesn't have dedicated funding:
"That Metro exists is a small miracle. Its construction required the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia, the D.C. Council and the U.S. Congress to agree on the same word-for-word, comma-for-comma enabling language. That nailed down the construction agreements.

Construction is fun and politicians love it. Running and maintaining something, however, is hard work, and it is much less visible to constituents, until something goes wrong. As Ted Lutz, Metro's former general manager (and later a Washington Post Co. vice president) once told me, "You never saw a politician cut a ribbon at an asphalt overlay project."

That fits two of my hobbyhorses: the weakness of our governmental structure, as in the extraordinary exertions and leadership needed to create WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), and the parochial nature of politics.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Our Weak Government, Unemployment

Via Understanding Gov, a Wall Street Journal piece on the inequities of the unemployment insurance system, which is run by individual states, not the Feds:
"People in the same state, and even neighbors, can be treated differently, because benefits are awarded by the state where they worked, not where they live."
On a related issue, the Obama administration didn't propose any change in the regulation of insurance companies by states when they revealed their overhaul of the regulation of the financial industry. Insurance agents and companies have big clout in government.

The Decline of Hierarchy

For some reason the other day I got to thinking about cars. (Maybe it was prompted by the bankruptcy of GM.)

In the American Revolution, one of the strands was the rise of democracy and the decline of aristocracy. Where once people tipped their hats in respect to their "betters" (and elders), that sort of deference declined. John Adams was mocked for his enthusiasm for aristocratic and monarchical seeming titles. Then the great Scots-Irishman Andrew Jackson became President and the people were really rising.

But all the historical emphasis on the rise of democracy obscured the ways in which hierarchy still ruled. In my youth it was cars. GM and the others had a deliberate hierarchy--start with a Chevy then move up the ladder until the apex of the mountain was the Caddy. You could drive down the street and place people by the make and age of their cars. A new Cadillac was king of the road, a crapped-out old Chevy had to cower in the side streets.

No more. The Big Three are gone, their vehicular hierarchies are dissolved, the distinctions among cars are blurred. Now when you walk by the community swimming pool the lifeguards may be driving small foreign cars or bigger SUV's. Who knows.

I'm sure there are other hierarchies remaining or evolving, but I notice most the changes from my youth.

More About MIDAS Next Week?

A test of CIO Kundra's dashboard project, as described in this Nextgov post, is whether the MIDAS of FSA is included.

Greg Mankiw Has a Stupid Moment

Greg Mankiw is a Harvard economics professor, author of a best selling economics textbook, formerly on Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, and blogger who doesn't accept comments. His most recent post recounts his time on jury duty--he was peremptorily challenged and observes the: "The only information they had about me at the time was based on a brief questionnaire, which did not say much more than my name, address, and occupation."

Why do I say it was a stupid moment? Because IMHO Mankiw underestimates his fame, particularly in Boston, and the ability to research him. I'd guess the lawyers at least had a laptop, on which they could and would Google the members of the panel. Given his relative conservatism, I would guess the plaintiff's attorneys filed the challenge.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

John Boyd Makes the Front Page

A soft piece on John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers, in today's Post. Obamafoodorama is enthusiastic, even though the piece is implicitly critical of Obama for being slow on delivering the $50,000 for 70,000 black farmers.

I'm sorry, but it seems sloppy to me. Two quibbles, aside from the merits of the Pigford suit: the author says Boyd is a fourth generation farmer, but the National Black Farmers Association says he's third generation; and she says he's been active for 8 1/2 years, but the NBFA says it was founded by Boyd in 1995.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sen. Proxmire Rises from the Grave

The late Senator from Wisconsin used to mock government science projects by awarding a "golden fleece" award monthly to the most useless expenditure of government money. Some of his mockery was directed at earmarks, some was earned, some was mistaken.

But I thought of him when I read this summary of research from ERS--funded by them but actually conducted by a private firm. I've bolded the bits which struck me.
"This study investigated factors that influence students’ participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP). The analysis used recently collected data on a large, nationally representative sample of students certified for free and reduced-price meals during the 2005–06 school year. Results show that, although eligible students are very likely to participate in the programs (i.e. pick up the meal offered that day), eligible elementary school students are more likely to participate than are middle or high school students. Likewise, students who like the taste of the meals are more likely to participate than are students who do not like the taste. In addition, if students now eligible for reduced-price lunches were instead given free lunches, they would participate more than they do now. The same was not strictly the case, however, for breakfast. Finally, the study suggests that analysts should use caution in relying on parents’ reports of a student’s participation to estimate yearly school meal participation. Parental reports of the previous day’s or previous week’s participation tend to overstate participation, which results in higher reported annual participation rates than is true according to administrative data."
I hasten to add I've not read the report and there's value in quantifying the obvious--we know parents don't know what their kids do, but what's the extent of their ignorance?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Offsets and FSA?

I've been assuming NRCS would be the lead agency within USDA if and when the Waxman-Markey bill passes with USDA involvement in handling carbon offsets within agriculture. But this article indicates it might be FSA (of course, I'm surprised when any mainstream media person knows the difference between the two agencies so this is meaningless). But just to stir the pot:
"The deal also could appease Farm Belt lawmakers by giving the U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency greater involvement in oversight of the market for "offsets," credits for projects that cut greenhouse gases. Many of the projects would likely come from the agriculture sector, such as planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide.

Will Social Conservatives Boycott Google?

See this post on Google Operating System for a reason they might.


This post has SAIC describing the great work they'll do on GIS for FSA. All good. But whatever happened to the idea of a service center GIS, supporting NRCS and RD as well as FSA? It seems the Bush administration let it fade away.

French Education

When I say our government is weak, this is the model I'm comparing it against, everyone in the country taking the same test at the same time.

While I had this in draft, I noticed this Kevin Drum relay of two comments on the content of a French exam, on philosophy. He wisely cautions against assuming the superiority of the system, but it impresses in some ways.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Carbon Offsets

Vilsack's testimony before House Ag is here:
"The systems we establish will need to recognize the scale of the changes needed, the capabilities of farmers and land owners involved, and the infrastructure that will be required to deliver information, manage data and resources, and maintain records and registries. In addition to bringing offsets to scale, we must also ensure that the offsets markets have high standards of environmental integrity to ensure that offsets result in real and measurable greenhouse gas reductions while bolstering efforts to conserve soil, water, and fish and wildlife resources."
The NYTimes has a post describing the concerns and back and forth between ag and EPA. One proposal, not something NRCS would like:
"Kenneth Richards, an associate professor at Indiana University, said the current bill needs language ensuring that the same project can be verified by three separate investigators. That concept, which made it into a climate bill considered briefly in the Senate last year, would cut down on inaccuracy and fraudulence surrounding measurements of carbon, he said."
I'm skeptical, but maybe there is a compromise possible, at least for policing it: Record the offsets on a GIS layer and make it publically available. Farmers get the offset payments but have to give up the secrecy now applied to their acreage uses. Because, as Professor Richards observes, NRCS isn't (at least wasn't) comfortable being a regulatory agency (witness sod/swampbuster), give FSA a role. (Cynics among you knew that was where I was headed.)

Dairy Problems, Even in UK

The plight of US dairy farmers has received attention. Here's a post from Britain about similar problems there. (They have co-ops too.)

Obama, the Fly, and Ford

By now everyone has heard Obama killed a fly during a TV interview. This post is typical, even citing PETA's reservations. But there's something I haven't seen commented on, something which reminded me of Jerry Ford.

The story goes that shortly after moving into the White House his dog did his business in the Oval Office. A Navy steward moved to clean it up, and Ford told him: "No, no man should have to clean up after another man's dog." I like that, I like it very much.

So what did Obama do: after a bit of repartee with the camera crew and staff, the last bit they showed on Lehrer last night was the President using a tissue to pick up the dead fly to dispose of it. Not quite on the same level as Ford's action, but IMHO it showed the same instinct of taking responsibility for one's personal actions. Of course, that didn't make Ford a great President, but it sure made the commentary at his funeral. (Google: Jerry Ford cleaning up after dog).

Policy on Iran

I don't usually comment on foreign policy but some have criticized Obama for keeping hands off Iran--not declaring a favorite. I understand, but I also remember in Venezuela, relatively early in the Bush administration, it looked for a few days as if Chavez would be ousted. The Bush people applauded the apparent result, and Chavez has never forgotten it. Sometimes it's right to push for change, sometimes not, and you never know for sure which is which.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Poor and Food

An item in the Post this morning and the sight of a sale on canned tomatoes reminds me of a fact, or a series of facts, interlinked. Stereotypically the grocery stores in poorer urban neighborhoods are small and pricey. The urban poor typically do not have cars, being more reliant on public transport. (Even in Reston I often see people walking from the local Safeway to the once-subsidized housing complex carrying a couple bags of groceries.) The poor live from month to month. All of which makes it difficult to take advantage of sales at stores, to invest money in food which you may eat in 6 months, rather than 6 hours.

My wife and I will stock up on canned tomatoes on our weekly shopping trip, and thereby save about 40 percent on the cost. It's easy because we have the money, we have the car (I normally walk except for the weekly trip), and the store is handy. It's taking advantage of an opportunity (which we can do on other staples), not a determined effort to limit food expenditures to a budget figure, but it does mean our food costs are lower than for a poorer couple in different circumstances.

Inquiring Gardeners Want to Know: Mulch or Weed?

The White House garden got a splash of publicity yesterday, as the kids from the school harvested and ate a lot of stuff. It's a good time to deplete the lettuce; it's likely to bolt when hot weather hits. And the peas should be about at the peak. The cucumbers must be just starting to bear. We have problems with them--hope Michelle doesn't.

But in all the publicity and the photos I haven't seen the answer to one big question: are the gardeners using mulch to keep down the weeds, or are they just hand weeding? Mulch would be the preferred organic solution, but getting down on hands and knees and weeding works too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Land Tenure

I've become quite aware of land tenure issues since my cousin got me more interested in Irish history. So while my great grandfather's family were tenants in County Down, with little or no chance to buy land because it was all owned by the large English landowners, once he got to the US and was ready to settle in frontier Illinois, he could assemble 300+ acres, a figure that would have put him in the top 1 percent in Ireland.

There's variations in the U.S.;in the East and South, land was sold often by the warrant system, meaning the survey came after settlement, rather than before, so you don't have the township/range system, the Southwest still bears the marks of Spanish/Mexican land system; the Native American tribes have different land tenures depending on how the Dawes Act affected them. And in the nation of Palau you see the ultimate in land tenure entanglements.

Bureaucratic Inertia in Schools

Via Kevin Drum, a report on charter schools:

At present there appears to be an authorizing crisis in the charter school sector. For a number of reasons — many of them understandable — authorizers find it difficult to close poorly performing schools. Despite low test scores, failing charter schools often have powerful and persuasive supporters in their communities who feel strongly that shutting down this school does not serve the best interests of currently enrolled students. Evidence of financial insolvency or corrupt governance structure, less easy to dispute or defend, is much more likely to lead to school closures than poor academic performance. And yet, as this report demonstrates, the apparent reluctance of authorizers to close underperforming charters ultimately reflects poorly on charter schools as a whole. More importantly, it hurts students.
Seems to me this shows the same human tendency to value the known and keep to the familiar as we see elsewhere, whether in USDA or GM. (The report is good--done by Stanford, though not pleasant for charter supporters.)

Patient Health Records and HIPAA

The Obama administration is all for electronic health records. Here's a Federal Computer Week article on the topic. It makes sense to me--I'm in Kaiser Permanente which does have its own system, which is much better than the records systems I've run into in my contacts with non-Kaiser setups. (Though that may change when I'm hospitalized.)

One of the aspects I haven't seen discussed is the issue of the caregiver. We're all getting older and we are caring for relatives who are even older and possibly more senile. But under HIPAA, access to someone else's records is severely limited. Essentially, even if you're next of kin you need a health care proxy to access records, including on-line records. I wonder how well computerized systems will handle that issue, because they tend to be designed and built with the idea of the patient handling his/her own data. And the problem is, even the best of us, like me, shy away from either executing his own health care proxy or asking older relatives for theirs. Just one more thing to worry about, and procrastinate on.

Rock Snot Is Spreading

That's the word in a NYTimes science article--apparently fishermen spread it on their waders, even including to New Zealand. The lede:
The Esopus Creek, a legendary Catskill Mountain fly fishing stream that is an integral part of New York City’s vast upstate drinking water system, is one of the latest bodies of water to be infected with Didymosphenia geminata, a fast-spreading single-cell algae that is better known to fishermen and biologists around the world as rock snot
Maybe as I get old and senile I get more enjoyment out of names: first karnal bunt, now rock snot?

Monday, June 15, 2009


Just caught our President in a lie--Lehrer Newshour was excerpting his remarks to the AMA, the part where he says he, Michelle, and the daughters are like the rest of America, just doing what the doctors tell them to.

What's the lie? He didn't follow doctor's orders to stop smoking. (I had a 2-3 pack a day habit, but I quit before I reached the big 4-0.)

Indian Agriculture

The greens love to cite India as a place where traditional farmers are under siege, where the green revolution has failed, and where unrest is common. For those with time I recommend some of the articles at this site, which give a somewhat different perspective on the state of Indian agriculture. This lead from February is noteworthy:
Mounting stockpiles may prompt the govt to lift a 3-year ban on exports of wheat, likely weighing on prices that have declined 52% the past year in Chicago

Funniest Regulation Title

"Records Governing Off-the-Record Communications. "

(The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is basically saying any communication on a regulatory matter has to be put on the record, even if it's oral and "off-the-record".)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Recession and Locavores

Mr. Wells in the NYTimes Magazine writes about adapting his family's food buying in light of the recession's impacts:
Until recently, whenever we went to the farmers’ market, we would lug home $50 pork roasts and $14 gallons of milk. We would spend over $100 on food that might not last more than three days. Sometimes we’d shop on Saturday morning and have nothing to make for dinner on Monday. I shrugged this off as one of those oddities of New York life, like getting a ticket because your neighbor put out his trash on the wrong day. But the $35 chicken made me reconsider. Buying sustainably raised beef and sustainably squeezed milk and sustainably hatched poultry is a way of life that, these days, I just can’t sustain.

Personal Information

Back in the day, when the Privacy Act was first enacted, we notified all program participants their information was personal and protected from disclosure. Then, in the early 1990's, the Environmental Working Group took ASCS/USDA to court, saying that farm and program information was not personal. They won, at least at the circuit court level, and DOJ decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court. So our IT folks had to figure out how to provide the data to EWG, while masking the social security number (which was the primary key to a number of the files).

They did, and EWG put it online. I've used this data as an example of the problems of providing governmental transparency.

Meanwhile, FSA has been dealing with the current rules and issued an interesting notice AS-2179. Looking at the list of data which is protected, I'm not sure I see a clear line between what FSA is providing to EWG and what FSA has to protect. The notice doesn't provide a rationale for the division. But it's another example of the complexity the administration will run into as they push for open government.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Decline of Intermediaries?

Yesterday I commented on a OSTP blog post asking about how to improve "public" participation in rulemaking. It's part of a bigger effort by the Obama administration to be open and elicit input on various e-government issues. It stimulated a chain of thought on intermediary institutions.

Today newspapers are in trouble. Consider them as intermediaries which gather news, vet and authenticate it, and provide it to individuals. Along with the news comes ads, which pay the freight. But now the Internet is allowing individuals to get their own news more directly and newspapers suffer.

Consider "interest groups", people like the Farm Bureau, the Corn Growers, the Sustainable Agriculture people, groups large and small. One way to look at them is as intermediaries: they search out news, they identify concerns of their members, they carry the concerns to Congress and the executive branch, they give news to their members. Suppose Obama (or his successors) succeed in adapting Web 2.0 to make strong connections between the public, or subsets of the public with their own hot issues, and the government, or subsets of the government concerned with writing laws and implementing them. What happens to the intermediaries?

Do we possibly have an arms race, a competition between private interest groups and public institutions to serve citizens?

Consider IRS. Back in the day tax returns were simple. As they grew more complicated people like H&R Block developed into intermediaries between taxpayer and IRS. As PC's came along we started getting software packages which allow the individual to do tax returns. And now IRS has its own software to do returns.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Farmers Can Be Optimistic, But Doubling in 5 Years?

From Chris Clayton's post on House Ag hearings:
Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, D-S.D., also highlighted that technology is expected to continue boosting farmer yields for corn dramatically in the next five years. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reiterated this perhaps a dozen times in his testimony. So if technology is going to allow corn yields to soar, perhaps come close to doubling, then why do we need an arbitrary 15-billion cap on corn-based ethanol in the Renewable Fuels Standard?
Of course, I may be misunderstanding this. But if corn yields are at 150 bushels or more, it's taken about 35 years for them to go from 100 to 150.

I know I'm old and have my head in a dark place (as Tom von G used to say) but when I hear of corn being used for ethanol I've just the beginnings of the same qualms I have when I hear of good farmland growing houses. Corn is for food. Yes, I know better, but that's my upbringing.

A Tale of Two Michaels: Pollan and Roberts

Professor Michael Roberts reviews Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" (after commenting on Kindle) and comes out about the same place I do (although at longer length and more politely).

An excerpt (once Roberts has gotten past praising Pollan):
So this is the tone that grates. Pollan writes as if the nutrition scientists are conspiring in a sinister plot with the food business to make us all fat and unhealthy. He doesn't actually say that but it is implied. And, well, that's just silly. The reality is that food companies exaggerate findings from food science to market their goods. But this is neither new nor surprising nor in anyway unique to food. It's absolutely ubiquitous. That doesn't make it right, but the problem surely isn't science. And by misrepresenting the problem it becomes more difficult to articulate reasonable solutions.

And, now, the real rub. Did I mention prices?
Go to Greed, Green, and Grain to read it all.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Technology Is Often Upsetting

Reading a chronology of the Pennsylvania railroad (the historical site has very detailed ones by year) I stumbled on this entry for April 4, 1839:
Alarmed by the fact that steamboats and railroads provide quick and superior escape routes for runaway slaves, Maryland Legislature passes act prohibiting any slave from traveling on a steamboat or train unless in company of a master or with a signed pass; captains and railroads to be fined $500 for each violation; owners of runaway slaves may recover full value from and railroad or boat line involved in escape. (PL)
And for Apr. 6:
P. Lucianna, passenger contractor on Northern Liberties & Penn Township Railroad, complains of people stealing rides on freight cars rather than ride his pleasure cars. (MB)

Google Generosity

From a post by on a talk by Google's chief economist:

Why does Google give away products like its browser, its apps, and the Android operating system for mobile phones? Anything that increases Internet use ultimately enriches Google, Varian says. And since using the Web without using Google is like dining at In-N-Out without ordering a hamburger, more eyeballs on the Web lead inexorably to more ad sales for Google.
So, it's enlightened self-interest. This comes from a long piece in Wired, which explained the auction logic behind Google's sales of ads. Complete and interesting.

The End of Tobacco

A little tobacco was grown in Alabama, but now the tobacco program is gone so too is AL baccy. So says this human interest piece from the Birmingham News. I liked the quote about tobacco and handling hay as the two hardest jobs on the farm. I miss the smells of haying, but not the scratches.

That Ol' Devil Walmart

The left used to love to bash Walmart for many crimes, some still do. But this Treehugger piece on the top 10 buyers of organic cotton illustrates one of my themes: things are usually more complicated than you believe.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

So Much for the Family Dairy Farm

Half the nation's dairy farms use immigrant labor according to this.

And milk prices are dropping and Jim Goodman at grist has a tirade about the dairy industry based on Mr. Bunting: "Milk prices, like the rest of the world economy, crashed because of a globalized, unregulated free market system, not because of surplus product."

And John Phipps is feeling guilty because his high grain prices are causing problems for dairy.

And the foodie who writes ObamaFoodorama wants us all to help

And I Thought Asians Were Lactose Intolerant

Not so if one takes this post at extension.org at face value:

We are constructing a mega dairy farm in Asia with 30,000 milking cows. My greatest concern is to find out the best way for manure treatment. Would you please help me in this regard?

Bureaucrats and Rats

No, I'm not saying bureaucrats are rats. The only relationship between the two is "bureauc rats". But here' Margaret Soltan, whose pleasure is good writing, commenting on a great piece about Baltimore rats with a final kicker. And it's educational.

Napoleon's Mother

According to Mr. Beauregard, Napoleon originated the idea of Mother's Day in France.

"Clinton Pal Wins Dem Primary in Virginia"

That was the heading on the link to MSNBC's story on yesterday's VA primary. The story was right, as the current piece says: "Country lawyer tops McAuliffe" but whoever had set-up the main page for the coming story was totally mistaken, as Creigh Deeds won easily. VA's not that Democratic, yet.

Wilbon and Karnal Bunt

When ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" was covering the French Open, Michael Wilbon had a thing for the word: "Monfils". (That is, he said it probably 50-60 times over a period of 2-3 shows.)

I know what he was feeling; I've the same fixation on "karnal bunt". (Perhaps because I'm a puritan at heart and am therefore intrigued by the sonic associations.) Anyhow, that's the phrase for today.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

EEO Issues

The El Paso Times has an article on the concerns of Hispanic farmers with USDA programs: farmers talking with the new Assistant Secretary for EEO, Joseph Leonard, and some words from the attorney running the lawsuit on behalf of Hispanics that parallels the Pigford suit.

Foodies Will Win Gradually

They'll win on at least some issues, such as some animal welfare concerns, as shown by this Brownfield note saying the American Veal Association is moving away from individual pens to "group housing" (though they have to deal with "bullies"). The bottom line is that, because farmers get a small share of the price of food at the margin, pressure groups who are able to legislate higher standards will be able to enforce their will. Consumers won't notice the additional price. (It's the same economic logic as farmers have been using for years.)

Government Doubles Its Productivity

Or, at least that portion of the IRS devoted to processing tax returns. "During that same period, the number of staff-years required to process returns has dropped from about 4,600 to about 2,225, although the overwhelming majority of time still is devoted to paper returns." From a Government Computer News piece.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Government Organization

The Post has an op-ed by Max Stier arguing it's more important to get good people in government than to worry about government reorganization, because most mergers/reorganizations fail. He's got a point. I think I've noted the ASCS/FmHA reorg in 1994 still hasn't erased all past lines. But...

Back in the day, Harry Truman thought it was nonsense for us to have 3 air forces (Army, Navy, Marines), two armies (Army and Marines), etc. so he was pushing for one armed service. Of course he got shot down. For 30 years or so the Joint Chiefs were rather powerless. In 1986 Goldwater and someone else got reform legislation passed, essentially saying to the four services--if you want to hit the top ranks, you've got to spend time on the Joint Chief staff. (All my details are suspect, but the general idea is right.) That apparently has, over time, improved the coordination among the services.

The 9-11 Commission noted the divide between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, which their recommendations hoped to redress. The divide reminds me of the divides among the services.

My point is leadership needs a long range perspective. In the short term, Mr. Stier is right--focus on the people, not the organization. But for the long term it's important how you're structured, more so than who the people are. For example, look at GM. It was formed by the combination of different companies (i.e., Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, etc.), most of which became divisions of the company, each with its own dealerships, supply chains, etc. Although GM worked toward consolidation, in the long run that organization wasn't able to compete with companies like Toyota, with just two lines. Certainly the organization wasn't the only problem, but it was a big part of it. There were good people in GM (the company, UAW, dealers, etc.), but they were handicapped by the organization.

The Grim Reaper and the Dems

Not to be gloomy on a bright June day, but I'd just note these ages, from Wikipedia:

Robert Byrd (D-WV) 91 November 20, 1917(1917-11-20)
Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) 85 January 23, 1924(1924-01-23)
Daniel Inouye (D-HI) 84 September 7, 1924(1924-09-07)
Daniel Akaka (D-HI) 84 September 11, 1924(1924-09-11)
Arlen Specter (D-PA) 79 February 12, 1930(1930-02-12)
Jim Bunning (R-KY) 77 October 23, 1931

As it happens, Senator Byrd has been in the hospital for 3 weeks for a staph infection. The Reps have a crack at taking the governorship of NJ and they hold the governorship of Hawaii. But I'm relieved to find that the governor of WV is a Democrat (must have won last year).


In the "I didn't know that" category is this" "70,000 Normans were killed or wounded during the Normandy campaign – more than the number of Londoners killed or wounded during german bombing on the capital from 1940 to 1944." From Dirk Beauregard. Interesting for those of us who grew up in the shadow of WWII.

Kudos for CDC

CDC is doing what all government sites should: publish their metrics. (Are you listening, USDA?) That's one small step for an agency; one giant leap for good government.

[Updated--Though I'd like to see more than 1 month's data, which is all CDC is showing.]

Food Poisoning at the Inaugural Dinner

Yes, and someone died! I'm sure the food system was to blame. Of course, this was in 1857, based on a couple sentences in this blog post and it was Buchanan's nephew. (Interesting cemetery in Lancaster).

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Have Any Architects Ever Gardened?

Here's a sentence from a proposal for a Dallas project,which is supposed to be "economically, environmentally and socially sustainable": "Some of the unusual features to be included in the 2.5 acre block include enough garden space to feed around 300 inhabitants, 40% affordable housing, an educational element that serves all of the residents and fully renewable, off-the-grid energy." That's roughly 350 square feet per person. Not sure how you do much meat off that area, so presumably these are 300 vegans. And I personally doubt the ability of 350 square feet to provide all the fruits and vegetables for a person, much less the grain.

[Some may say I'm willfully misreading the description, that "sustainable" doesn't mean self-sufficient. That may be true, but still a reasonable modesty in claims would be fitting.)

The Amish Head West

That's the lead from this MSNBC story--driven by the rising cost of farm land, Amish are now in Colorado.

A professor is quoted as saying the average size of their families is 7 children, meaning a doubling every 20 years. (I would have thought more.)

That means:
230,000 Amish in 2009
460,000 in 2029
1 million in 2049
2 million in 2069
4 million in 2089
8 million in 2109

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Organic, Inc.

Organic, Inc., Organic Foods and How They Grow, is written by Samuel Fromartz. It's an easy read, which looks at both the small organic producers and the big ones, with products from soy milk to packaged salad greens. He explores the tensions between "organic" as a business and "organic" as a movement. He seems to me to have an open mind, accepting that organic products have their advantages, particularly in their freedom from pesticide residue, while being attracted to the romance of the movement.

In a related item, ERS has a report (summary pdf here) on the challenges facing the organic people. One item I found interesting in the context of the above book, was this sentence: "According to an ERS survey of organic handlers, 24 percent of organic sales in 2004 were made locally (within an
hour’s drive of the handlers’ facilities) and another 30 percent were made regionally." That means 46 percent of organic sales were transported long distances.

Pushback on WH Garden

Slate provides a forum for conventional ag to comment on the White House garden: the spokesmen make the usual points. Organic is a niche, conventional costs less and can be less hard on the environment, locavore doesn't satisfy tastes all year round, etc. Bottom line--the big boys aren't worried yet.

Meanwhile Obamafoodorama highlights a video of Ryan Howard (Phillies) touring the garden with Sam Kass. There's a brief picture of the garden. Nice lettuce, but I heard somewhere a claim they've harvested 80 pounds from it so far; based on the video I think not. Lettuce is bulky but light. I note the whitehouse.gov site doesn't have much on the garden--just the Howard visit since April was all I saw.

Workload for NRCS?

That's what I get from this item from the letter sent to Speaker Pelosi by a set of farm organizations about the carbon cap and trade proposals:

Eligibility and offset compensation should be based upon whether a project, technique or practice sequesters carbon or otherwise reduces GHG emissions. USDA should establish an activity baseline for each offset project type in effect on January 1, 2001 with standardized methodology. We support the establishment of a static baseline of activity to measure against when determining additionality. The fixed baseline should establish which practices were in effect on a specific piece of land on a specific date; any activity that results in GHG reductions measured against that baseline should be deemed eligible/additional.
I'm not sure why they used Jan 1, 2001 as the magic date. Nor do I know if they consulted with anyone from NRCS (or FSA) as to the feasibility of doing this. I know the acreage reports submitted to FSA provide some information on the activity on the land, but I don't know whether it's sufficient to be used for this purpose.

If and when it comes to writing legislation, there are lots of issues to be addressed. For example, there's a maintenance question--if farmer Jones was doing no-till on her acreage in 2000, does she have to have continued no-till in the years since? How about shifts in practices among the fields on the farm? And how do the bureaucrats encapsulate the requirement? (See my earlier mention of "conserving base".) Might it be another layer(s) added to the GIS?

But I'm sure this proposal is causing some bureaucratic hearts in NRCS to beat much faster.

I Passed the (Not Harvard) Typing Test

John Phipps linked to a site that offers a typing test. I won't embarrass John by repeating his score but I scored 39 words per minute. Not bad, though I used to be faster. My elder sister told me I needed to take the typing course in high school, because college papers had to be typed and she earned some money by typing them for male students. So I did, being one of the few male students in the class. It was difficult for a few weeks, but then suddenly the neural network got rewired and the link between recognizing the word on the page and hitting the proper keys to type the word became automatic and natural.

Although taking the course meant lowered my high school grade average by enough, I think, to drop my class standing, typing and typing reasonably fast has always helped, so I should thank my sister for her advice.

I Failed the Harvard Face Recognition Test

Freakonomics linked to a series of puzzlers from a Harvard research project. Being an impatient sort, I opted for the shortest-- a face recognition test. Simply put, they display a face (face only and a bit "off" from a normal portrait of the subject), you type the name (or say you don't know), they display the correct answer and you say whether you're familiar with the person.

Anyway, I did very poorly, only recognizing 25 percent of the people with whom I was familiar (I got Obama and George Clooney and Scarlett Johannsen :-). I've always been poor at facial recognition (and sometimes, more now, at remembering the name which goes with the face I recognize) which has often made me awkward in social events. Or, possibly it's because I've had below average exposure to social events that I never developed the neurons needed to recognizing and distinguishing faces. That's what some of the latest brain research might indicate, if you believe Malcolm Gladwell.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Great News from Harvard

Via Greg Mankiw the senior class at Harvard is going much less into finance and much more into teaching and health care than they were 2 years ago.

Supreme Court Speculation

I find it fun to speculate how Ms. Sotomayor's confirmation to the Court might work out. We know Ginsburg and Scalia are the best of friends, which is totally surprising and counter-intuitive, so let me guess:
  • Sotomayor and Thomas might well get on. He seems shy, she seems not, they share a background in that their opponents diss their appointments and careers as affirmative action babies.
  • Roberts, Alito, and Sotomayor are of an age, so there might be a generational divide. It might be hard for Sotomayor to show Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer the deference which they might expect from their seniority. Sotomayor, Roberts, and Alito might form a "new boys [sic]" club.
  • Obviously Ginsburg and Sotomayor would share the gender experience.
  • Alito graduated from Princeton before she did, and didn't like the idea of women undergrads, but old alums might share a bond.
  • There seems to be little common ground between Sotomayor and Stevens or Kennedy, which might be bad news for us liberals.
Of course, the other lesson from the Ginsburg/Scalia bond is that justices can perfectly well separate their opinions and their personal feelings.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Should the World End in 400 Years?

Or rather, what proportion of your income would you spend to help ensure the world wouldn't end in 400 years? That's the nugget buried in the economics discussed at this blog.

Somehow it seems very important to me, even though the economists tend to say I shouldn't worry my head.

Wingnuts and Open Gov

Federal Computer Week has a piece on the open.gov episode. The optimistic ending: do more open gov and the "birthers" will lose their zeal. In other words, you gotta outlast them.

Pork = Fat = Lard = Good

I'd guess, because I'm too lazy to click the mouse, that using the term "pork" in connection with government programs had some relation to the idea there's lots of "fat" to cut out, and we all know fat is bad, except for Slate, which has this article praising lard. And I remember mom cooking with lard.

The Realities of Rural Life

Yes, Montana is rather extreme, but still. See Erin's latest vacation

Wisdom and Sex and Race, and Age

Many on the right have attacked Judge Sotomayor for a quote from a 2001 speech. I was going to blog on it, then stumbled on the "whole thing", which I finally read. Here's a link. I like it. And recommend it.

But for anyone too lazy to check it out, here's the infamous quote, which the White House says is poorly worded: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Let me rephrase it: "I would hope that a wise old man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a wise young man who hasn't lived that life."

My point: I hope I'm wiser now at 68 than I was 20 years ago, much less 40. I'm sure I'm losing brain cells and slowing down. I've probably developed new blind spots and am less able to judge some things (like current popular music) than I was 20 years ago. But on the whole, I think I'm wiser. And that's because of added experiences, experiences which a wise Latina wouldn't have, but which I didn't have 20 years ago. And I'm willing to stipulate a Latina operating in a white male's world is likely to have a broader set of experiences than a comparable white male. So, given that logic, I'd concede my hypothetical Latina twin sister would be wiser than I.

Federal Employees Have No Imagination?

One possible interpretation of the failure of employees to take advantage of a new website. See this story in Politico.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A Route to Bipartisanship--Kneecapping Senators

If he wants to inspire bipartisanshi on the Hill, Obama should hope Tony Soprano kneecaps some Senators and Representatives. That's my takeaway from this Politico piece on the experience of Sen. Murkowski, who busted up her knee skiing and since has found bipartisan amity growing. [Revised--my reference to "goons" was more tasteless than I intended.]

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Farmers Depend on Efficient Markets?

That's a surprising sentence from a NY Times article on big banks and possible changes in regulation:
Mr. Peterson, whose constituents include farmers, who are historically suspicious of Wall Street and whose livelihoods depend on efficient markets [emphasis added], is a longstanding critic of loose regulation. And since his committee oversees the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, he would retain more of his prerogatives overseeing the market if the C.F.T.C. were the main regulator.
As part of the history of farm programs was to limit and temper the impact of efficient markets, it struck me as odd.

The Wingnuts Strike Again

The people who believe Obama is not an American citizen have struck Open Gov.

It's reminiscent of flame wars on Usenet or the problems wikipedia has had in the past: people who believe passionately in oddball causes can overwhelm. Not sure how one goes about moderating their impact so government can use Web 2.0.

Crop Insurance and GAO

Keith Good at Farm Policy blogs on a GAO report on crop insurance. If I get ambitious I'll look at the report myself, but one striking thing is that the federal subsidy for administration and operations is tied to the value of the crops insured. So the increase in crop prices in 2006-8 raised the subsidy, though presumably not the actual work involved. (The total program cost $6.5 billion, $2 billion for administration. Don't know what FSA's administrative expenses are.) Nice work if you can get it.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Why I'm Not a Conservative

The New Yorker had an article last week by Atul Gawande concerning the costs of health care. He uses McAllen, TX with its high costs to compare with other cities with lower costs. His analysis, in brief: Some treatments clearly work, others are more uncertain and some carry both possible gains and risks. But most treatments cost money. Some physicians care about money, some don't. It's partially a personal trait, but also a result of the culture in a city. American culture and social institutions particularly encourage thinking about money (as opposed, for example, to worrying about risks and the patients' overall health) and activity ("do something, don't just stand there").

My stereotypical conservative would argue that following the money always conduces to better health care, but not so.

Gawande is always interesting. In this case, I think he could have mentioned the specialization of care a bit more.

A Different View

Cafe Hayek alerted me to this article by Brink Lindsey from Reason discussing the reasons for the growing disparity between rich and poor. The writer may be using a strawman in arguing against Paul Krugman: " We have to back up to the 1930s and ’40s—when, he contends, the “norms and institutions” that shaped a more egalitarian society were created."

I'm not a conservative so I resist the argument, but he does remind of the bad side of that society--racism, discrimination, sexism, and nationalism. The "Greatest Generation" it wasn't, IMHO.

The Wikipedia Revolution and Culture

Just finished "The Wikipedia Revolution", by Andrew Lih. Before I get to the most interesting part of it, let me complain. The type face used is a sans serif one which I found particularly bothersome. Way back in the early 70's I was researching replacements for our IBM MT/ST word processors, which got me into CRT displays and legibility which, since I tend to digress, surprising as that may be to, got me into reading about type faces. This was way before Postscript and other computer-generated fonts. It seems the function of "serifs" is to help guide the eye, and the older you get the more guidance you need.

Anyhow, the book is good, although I was vaguely aware of some of the history. What was most interesting was his discussion of the way culture and history impact the structure and operations of the Japanese (lots more anonymity), German (more rule-oriented and concerned with quality, not quantity), and Chinese (although the spoken languages differ, there's one written language, except there's actually three systems) wikipedias.