Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cover Crops

The NY Times has an article on how organic farmers combat pests. Not remarkable, except the next to last paragraph brought back a memory:
As far as weeds on organic farms, the biggest help there may also be cover crops, things like rye and fava beans. Many cover crops aren’t seeded at a high enough rate, Dr. Brennan said. “We have five times more weeds in vegetables where cover crop is the accepted rate,” he said. “If we increase the seeding rate by three times, we have virtually no weeds. That’s extremely important because organic farmers have no herbicides.”
My first boss at ASCS sent me to North Carolina for a month to see how the state and county offices operated.  I remember joining one county executive director on a drive to a local saw mill where for the first time I saw a veneer cutter.  At least that's what I'd call it: to describe it I'd say think of a pencil sharpener, except larger and instead of the blade hitting the cylinder of wood (pencil) at an angle it was parallel, so you got an a cylindrical wood shaving about 1/8" thick.  Cut the cylinder into strips and you have the materials to weave wooden garden baskets. 

Anyhow, what the director was doing was signing people up for conservation practices under the old Agricultural Conservation Program.  ASCS would share the costs of things like farm ponds and, in this case, liming fields and sowing a winter cover crop.  The Nixon administration battled with Congress trying to end this governmental subsidy program, arguing that USDA was just encouraging farmers to do things which, if economical, they should do themselves.  By the mid 70's the program got extensively changed, with liming and cover crops dropped, and eventually it was given to NRCS to run.

The director knew that some of the sawmill workers were farmers who, since it was November and the crops were in, were picking up some money by working at the sawmill. The director had an incentive: the better job he did in signing up farmers to participate, the better he looked in the eyes of the district director and state office.  And cover crops and limed fields improved agriculture in his county.

Small Dairies Reviving in NY

A reminiscence from Mr. Dubner at Freakonomics tied to a possible resurgence of small dairy plants catering to the food movement in NY.

I can't resist noting that apparently Mr. Dubner's family had a miraculous cow which gave milk 365 days a year.  (No mention of a bull.)  Traveling 10 miles to a dairy farm sounds odd to me, although I'm probably imagining that he's my age and lived in my area of upstate.  And, unless the farm had Jerseys or Ayrshires, I really doubt the 2 inches of cream on a gallon of milk.  No way, no how.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stovepipes, Silos, and Wikileaks

Apparently the conventional wisdom  (i.e., my reading of the NYTimes today) is the State Department cables now in the news can be traced to Mr. Manning, the private who's accused of  also providing a bunch of military documents to Wikileaks.  And how was a lowly private in intelligence able to access both military and diplomatic material?  The answer seems to be after 9/11, in line with the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, there was a drive to knock down walls between bureaucratic silos.  In additon, State Department managers saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: by piggybacking on an existing secure intranet developed by the military they could save the costs in time and money of developing their own system (State was still stuck in a pre-Internet world with their cables) and get brownie points for sharing information.

Seems to me this doesn't show we should maintain silos and stovepipes; what it shows is good system designs need to track users and usage of data.  If my credit card company is smart enough to know when my usage is different than my historical average, and to call me it on, then government databases should know what sort of usage pattern is expected from a given job position and to raise red flags when it changes.

Two Takes on TSA

In the Times:
  • David Carr views the uproar over TSA's patdowns and body scans as a media-fueled tempest in a teapot. 
  • Ross Douthat uses it as the hook to build a discussion of how partisanship alters one's view of reality, reviewing controversies over the last 15 years where Dems and Reps have switched positions.
I agree with them both.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Men and Machines

Confirming what I said in a recent post about the difference in cultures::
Dana Milbank talks about Israeli security using people versus US security using machines:  their version costs about 8 times per passenger what ours does.  And the NYTimes runs a piece on the many robots being developed for our armed forces.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Organic Dairy--How to Judge

A set of bullet points from a study of organic dairy:
  • The average cow on organic dairy farms provides milk through twice as many, markedly shorter lactations and lives 1.5 to 2 years longer than cows on high-production conventional dairies;
  • Because cows live and produce milk longer on organic farms, milking cow replacement rates are 30% to 46% lower, reducing the feed required and wastes generated by heifers raised as replacement animals;
  • Cows on organic farms require 1.8 to 2.3 breeding attempts per calf carried to term, compared to 3.5 attempts on conventional farms;
  • The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms; and
  • The manure management systems common on most organic farms reduce manure methane emissions by 60% to 80%, and manure plus enteric methane emissions by 25% to 45%. 
I've some quibbles: how does quality of milk reduce volume of wastes? What's unique about organic manure management? (Presumably the organic dairies are small enough to spread manure on the fields, while the non-organic are too big for that?)  3.5 breeding attempts strikes me as high, particularly if we're talking actual inseminations. 
    But my bigger criticism is that these don't seem to me to be the right metrics.  What would be right?  Taking a dairy-wide view over years, standardizing the units for both conventional and organic. For example, take a 10-cow dairy (i.e., 10 milkers, plus appropriate replacements) over 10 years.  What's the total feed input and its cost, what's the total output of milk, and meat over the 10 years, what's the total manure output and their related emissions?  Throw in some metrics for quality of milk (is more fat better--it used to be but maybe not now).  Once you do that comparison you can proceed to the advantages of large versus small, as in the manure issue.

    John Phipps Disses Vertical Farming

    No surprise here--John states the obvious, the obvious except to a few enthusiasts.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    Thoughts on the Return from Farming

    This is an excerpt from a farmgate post on the economics of corn in Illinois:

    With the crop contributing $321 from a 151 bushel per acre yield on continuous corn and $386 from a 161 bushel yield on rotated corn, a producer has to further estimate a return to labor, management, and land. The Purdue economists estimate $20 for USDA Direct Payments.
    From that income, the economists deduct about $80 for machinery replacement, about $15 for drying and handling, and about $55 for family and hired labor. Their cash rent estimate is $167 per acre, which leaves a $13 per acre earning for continuous corn and a $93 per acre earning for rotated corn. Those numbers could quickly turn negative with higher cash rent, higher fertilizer prices, seed prices, a lower marketing price, or any combination of those.
     Some random thoughts:  
    • Jane Smiley wrote a book called "A Thousand Acres"; the center of which was a thousand acre farm.  That's a nice round number, and Washington bureaucrats like me prefer to deal with nice round numbers.  So assume a 1,000 acre family farm.  According to this analysis, their return is $167,000 for the land,$55,000 for labor, and maybe $15,000 profit, giving a $235,000 total cash income before taxes, of which $20,000, or 10 percent, is farm program payments.  What strikes me is this is a reaffirmation of my mother's saying of long ago: farmers would do better to sell out and put the money in the bank.  1,000 acres at $8,000 an acre is $8 million, earning 3 percent is $240,000 annual cash income before taxes.
    • note the farm program payments aren't that significant in the scheme of things.  They do make the difference between whether the enterprise shows a profit or not, but farming isn't really about making "profits", as defined by accounting professors.  Farming, at least for farmers who own the land they farm, is about cash flow, the return to land and labor.

    Sidenote on TSA Issues, War, Building, Education

    I've noted a couple times in the hullabaloo over the TSA scanners/pat-downs a meme contrasting American approaches to European or Israeli approaches.  I think I'd summarize things this way:
    • Americans tend to rely on machines, whether in airport security, in warfare, or whatever.
    • Europeans tend to rely on people.
    This is probably all wrong, particularly since it doesn't account for most of the world, like Japan with its robots and China with its people. But this is a rambling set of thoughts.

    But I remember a conversation with a civil engineer major at college who relayed an observation by one of his professors.  It went something like: Americans tended to design big and simple structures while Europeans tended to design more complex ones.  In America building materials were always abundant while labor was expensive, so the designers had different constraints than in Europe where labor was cheap and materials were less abundant. 

    In warfare, at least beginning with the Civil War, military historians theorize that we rely on the weight of material to wear down the enemy.  We don't admit it, but valor and great generalship don't play that much of a role in our history.  For those conservatives who doubt me, read James Q Wilson's "Bureaucracy", which uses German small-unit cohesion and tactics as one example of effective bureaucracy.

    In education, we are awestruck by the latest innovation in technology, whether's it's filmstrips and overhead projectors back in the day, my day, or "clickers" and Powerpoint today.  Similarly, we tend to trust the technology of testing over the power of personality. 

    Just thoughts.

    So my impression is that Israel, for example, depends on people interviewing people, while we trust machines.  Does it follow that we don't trust "faceless bureaucrats", while maybe other societies do?

    British Exceptionalism

    From Ralph Luker at Cliopatria comes a hilarious video on all things British?

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    Conference Rooms and Potted Plants

    Reading the Steven Rattner book on the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies/bailouts.  As he used to be a reporter, it's a well written narrative, and I'm enjoying it.  I gather it was his first experience on the inside of a governmental bureaucracy, and he has a sharp eye for how it operates. A couple of the bureaucratic touches:
    • "potted plants", which is the internal name for the people who stand behind the President as he's giving comments or making an announcement.  Rattner mourns one occasion where he and his aides didn't even make that status, being pre-empted by assorted cabinet secretaries.
    • conference rooms.  Early on his group had a problem locating a conference room within the Treasury Department to hold a meeting in.  He says, or implies, there were a number of such rooms in the building, but each room was the property of a different agency within the department, so identifying a free one was difficult.  If I remember this used to be the case in USDA, but somewhere towards the end of my tenure there someone at the departmental level at least created a consolidated list for secretaries to work from, if not a single person in charge of scheduling.  Such things are an example of why the first priority of any ad hoc group leader should be to grab an experienced, top-flight secretary.

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    The Blinkered Conservative

    Scott at Powerline has a post attacking Obama's foreign policy in regard to nuclear weapons, and other issues.

    Based on my recent reading about Reagan's negotiations with the Soviets, I don't think Reagan would have much problem with Obama's view, particularly his: "...I will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons..."  That's precisely what the Ronald the Great wanted.

    The Filibuster 35 Years Ago

    Just finished slogging through Jimmy Carter's Presidential diary book. 10 years ago I might not have used "slog", but my interest in political history is waning a bit.  Towards the end of the book, in 1979, he comments in passing that Sen. Jake Garn, Republican of Utah, threatened to filibuster any legislation to permit registering women for the draft (Carter was pushing a stand-by draft registration, which eventually passed in a male-only form).  To the best of my memory that was the only mention of a filibuster in the book; there's no entry for "filibuster" in the index. 

    Carter does have a complaint about his appointments being confirmed slowly.  There was a big expansion of the federal judiciary during his term, so he had 150 new vacancies to fill.  He mentions coordinating with Senators and being frustrated by their resistance to appointments of blacks and women.

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    Simple Solutions to the TSA Scanner Policy

    I've two simple suggestions (alternatives) to offer for TSA to adopt.  They should either require passengers to go through their scanners, or through the pat-down process, or do one of the following:
    • allow up to 5 percent of the passengers on a flight to go without scanning or pat-downs, provided they wear a bright yellow vest with a big question mark on it from the boarding gate, through the time they're on the plane, until they get off.  That way their fellow passengers can keep an eagle eye on them, ready to jump them if they make a suspicious move.
    • allow a person to board a flight unscanned if they buy flight insurance indemnifying the airline against loss of plane and passengers against loss of life in case of a terrorist attack.  We've pretty much guarded against planes being taken over in flight to be used as weapons, so the big danger now is simply the downing of a plane. 

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    How Time Flies

    "Twenty years ago this month, Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for the World Wide Web."

    I can't believe that.  

    Pigford II Passes Senate

    As reported by the Post here.  Also includes money to settle the long lasting lawsuit over BIA's handling of Indian trust funds.  I must say, given the way ASCS/FSA and BIA pass information on payments for land owned by BIA Indians, I've never been surprised at how screwed up the accounts got.  Some historian will write an interesting book on the subject because it's a place where Native American society and the market-oriented, individualistic society of the European settlers interfaces, interfaces poorly.

    The Unmentionable in France

    Dirk Beauregarde provides more information than some will want, on excretion in France and the UK.  Among the items:
    "70% of French workers consider their toilets in the workplace « unfit for use », though 30% still use them – presumably out of necessity.
    In French schools a staggering 68,3% of kids never use the loos, either for lack of paper or lack of soap."

    Friday, November 19, 2010

    Dairy Management Answers Back

    The Post carries a letter today from the chief executive of Dairy Management, defending their position.  One point he affirms, which I thought I got from the AMS website but which wasn't clear, is:
    "The Post objects that the program wastes "government authority" by being administered by the Agriculture Department. But even here, dairy farmers actually pay USDA for all its costs of administering the program. It costs taxpayers nothing, which is as it should be."
     Of course, the tobacco program ran into a public buzzsaw, which resulted in a "no net cost" program.  But that never inhibited tobacco's critics from blasting the government for "subsidizing tobacco".  Similarly, I fully expect the food movement to blast the government for subsidizing obesity by promoting cheese.

    Transparency--Taking My Own Medicine

    I've stated my opinion that government websites ought always to have a link to a page which would give the metrics on readership/usage, etc.  I just visited the blogger.com layout site in order to add an interactive poll to the site (I'm inspired by Ann Althouse, who is using polls regularly, albeit in her posts, not the the blog layout.)  When I did, I found blogger offers a gadget to show pageviews, so for consistency sake I felt impelled to add it to my blog. I did cheat a bit by putting it low down on the right hand column, so you'll have to scroll to get the figures, in case anyone is interested.

    What Will Happen to Farm Programs?

    Somehow Congress has to fund the government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year.  The new Congress will have to appropriate money for the 2012 fiscal year.  And sometime there will be a new farm bill.  So there's lots of unknowns and I thought I'd try out offering a poll where any reader can predict the future.  The poll is in the right hand column, below the "My Blog List".  It's a little complicated--you should choose one or more program categories ("basic programs, like DFC/counter cyclical; conservation, etc.) and the amount by which they'll be cut.  My own prediction is for relatively small cuts in almost all categories.

    McArdle on Chinese Farming

    One visit to one farming community doesn't make an in-depth report, but McArdle's post is worth reading.  From the three crops a year, I assume it's southern China.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The Right Run Into the "War on Terror"

    Dan Drezner, with whom I often agree, and Megan McArdle, with whom I sometimes agree, unite in opposing the new scanning/pat down procedures at some airports.  Kevin Drum passes on an apropo observation--this is the professional class being subjected to "government[al] humiliation".

    Bottom line--people arrested for good cause, or not so good cause (i.e., driving while black) get subjected to such patdowns and none of us professional types have much problem with that.

    I'm assuming the use of these scanners increasing the likelihood of detecting people with explosives in their underwear.  I'm also assuming we believe it's a good thing to keep people with explosives off airliners. People who object presumably have persuaded themselves there's no increased detection ability, or possibly they would never be so unlucky as to be on a plane with a fellow passenger who has explosives.  Or maybe they're just reacting with their emotions, and not their logic.

    [Updated: Dave Weigel in Slate says the right has always resisted big government's intrusions based on protecting society; it's just 9/11 and the Bush administration which temporarily changed their tune.]

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    USDA Supporting Obesity?

    Not so, says this study:

    A careful examination of the linkages between farm policy, food prices, and obesity in the United States demonstrates that U.S. farm commodity subsidy policies have had very small effects on obesity. This finding is driven by three key factors. First, with a few exceptions, farm subsidies have relatively small and mixed impacts on prices of farm commodities in the United States. Second, the share of the cost of commodities in the cost of retail food products is small, and continues to shrink over time. Third, food consumption patterns do not change substantially in response to small changes in food prices.
    I don't expect the food movement to change their views; it's very hard to correct errors.

    Shifting Down a Gear--Government Management

    Gov. Executive has a post on the Obama administration's management efforts.  I'm reminded of the hill near which I grew up where tractor trailors would downshift (and downshift and downshift) as they hit the grade and lost speed.  Here the issue is accountability, seeing what works and what doesn't.  It's easy to say the previous administration had lots of stuff that didn't work, not so easy to say, we've been here 2 years and some of our stuff didn't work, didn't provide value for money. It calls for a different gear.

    I've seen comparisons of the health care industry and the airlines: in flying the culture has grown that pilots will report errors, because there's no stigma attached. In medicine doctors tend not to report errors, because an error can end a career, or at least raise your malpractice insurance premiums.  How do we get an atmosphere in government which allows for and reports errors, particularly with the opposition party salivating at the mouth over the prospect of holding hearings and issuing statements and running on the basis of mismanagement?

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    A Mysterious EWG Note

    From the cotton page:
    Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region's Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 calendar year using the proportion of that crop's Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way Counter Cyclical Payments are made - EWG was not able to allocate Counter Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state and national level.
     I don't know why the data in 2009 would differ in its coding from that in previous years.

    The Importance of Bureaucracy

    Via Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution, this interesting discussion of the gains in human development (i.e., education and health) in northern Africa, especially Tunisia.  (A blast from the past--I can remember when Habib Bourguiba was the very model of the modern post-colonial leader.)  A sentence from the post:
    The French colonial legacy and its emphasis on building a strong public bureaucracy may also have played a role here.

    The Grandfather Clause

    Michael Kinsley has some wise words on the "grandfather clause" in budget politics. He suspects the Republicans will use it to ensure that budget cuts don't adversely affect anyone today. 

    I have to note the clause is popular across the board.  After Reagan busted PATCO and as union power started to fade, there were lots of deals made with employers which included grandfather clauses.  Typically the current employees kept their benefits and salary levels, while new employees started lower with lesser benefits.  I believe that's how the UAW handled its negotiations with the automakers in the 1980's and 90's.  You can easily find other examples. 

    It's a shrewd move: the current employees (or beneficiaries of a program in the case of budget fights) are the ones who have the political power; the future employees or beneficiaries may not even know their status.  When they do, as someone who might have to work longer before being eligible for social security, the issue is down the road and much harder to get excited about. 

    But, as Kinsley observes, it's not fair, it's not just.

    Egg Prices: the Spread Narrows

    From a recent  Farm Policy:
    The release added that, “Perhaps indicating the weakness in demand for cage free and organic free range eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that retail organic free range eggs are being advertised this week at $2.64 per dozen, 33% less than one year ago ($4.00); cage free eggs are being advertised at $2.50 per dozen, down 14% from one year ago ($2.90); and traditional egg retail prices are up 8% compared to one year ago ($1.02).
    The spreads are narrowing.  In hard times, it's hard to expect people to spend more for food.  That's particularly serious because switching to organic grain production, or cage free henhouses, requires a big investment in time for organic (3 years I think) or money for cage free. So you're asking farmers to make an investment, hoping the returns will not only cover their out-of-pocket costs when they get certified as organic or cage free, but will compensate them for the added risk.  

    The (Dubious) Economics of Organic Turkeys

    The Post had an article yesterday on a founder of Cisco who's using her money to subsidize an organic turkey farm in the hunt country of Virginia.  She sells a 22 pound bird for $230, sold half the 1,000 she raised last year, and lost money. The owner is a former 4-Her who vows to make her operation pay.

    My first reaction was to mock her for not understanding economics, and for waste, something upon which the food movement frowns.  But perhaps a fairer assessment is this shows the weak infrastructure supporting organic meat and dairy farms and the high hurdles organic farmers have to vault in order to make a profit and survive.  How can anyone pay $10 a pound for turkey, when a reasonable bird is one dollar a pound?  The only way is to sell to someone like the Inn at Little Washington, which is a famous and highly rated restaurant, and very, very pricey.  It's the sort of place an ordinary bureaucrat might go once a decade for some special occasion if the bureaucrat was very into taste and class. You couldn't hope to sell turkeys for that at Whole Foods, or even a farmer's market.  (Remember, this is a geezer speaking, and I'm out of touch.)

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Moving to E-Publication

    The winner of the White House's contest for saving money suggested that the Federal Register should be distributed online, not in print. I agree and hope it means we'll see increasing use of online databases and less use of print. (For example, I just got a very big package from Kaiser, containing my materials for the 2011 year.  The charge for printing them is a small part of the bill taxpayers and I pay for health insurance.)

    Dairy, Cheese, and the Post

    Saturday the Post's editorial board weighed in on Dairy Management and cheese.  A paragraph:
    Constitutional is not the same as wise, however. Even if this national cheese-peddling corporation doesn't waste government money, it wastes government authority. Dairy farmers are perfectly capable of buying their own advertising. And shoppers are perfectly capable of deciding whether they want more cheese or not. The federal government's only role should be to disseminate objective nutritional information free from conflicts of interest, real or apparent. Working to increase the demand for certain commodities is the epitome of big, stupid government. We'll be very interested to see whether the new Republican House has the courage to say so.
    I believe they're wrong because they're ignoring the "free-rider problem" here. The only way for farmers to coordinate and to be sure everyone pays their share of the bill for advertising is to have the government enforce the rules. 

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    A Liberal Solves the Budget Deficit

    The NY Times has an interactive page which permits you to try to solve the budget deficit by choosing among various options to reduce spending and increase revenues.  Here's my solution.  [Updated: here's another try at the solution.]As a good liberal I'm relying on cuts to military spending, returning taxes to Clinton levels, a carbon tax and some tax reforms, and relatively minor tweaks to Social Security and other programs (though I do chop farm programs--sorry  FSA. :-)

    As it comes out I'm roughly 60 percent taxes, 40 percent spending cuts.  If it for real, I'd probably phase in the changes gradually.

    [Note: When I tried to recreate my solution, thanks to my commentor for pointing out the failure, I probably made different decisions the second time through.]

    Why Less Pickpocketing

    Ann Althouse notes a report that the number of pickpockets is declining and those left are old.  I wonder why? Is it because of better police enforcement in NYC, there's a breakdown in the transmission of criminal skills from old to young, perhaps reflecting a general crisis in education,  or the fact people use less cash and more credit cards these days?

    What Is French for "Sex Toy"?

    "Sex Toy"--it appears from this Dirk Beauregarde photo.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    A New Freedom to Farm? How To Do It

    House Ag chair ( until Jan.) Collin Peterson raises the possibility of a new Freedom to Farm program in a quote from Farm Policy:
    "He  [Speaker to be Boehner] may be pushed and not have any choice because of his caucus to weigh in to try to do something like Freedom to Farm where they are going to phase out subsidies again.’”
    Okay, just suppose they truly want to phase out the direct payment subsidies, which in turn were supposed to compensate for the deficiency payments of the 1980's and early 90's.  How should they do it?
    • Graduate the total amounts.  Freedom to Farm hardly graduated the amounts at all.  Although the theory was that farmers were being weaned from subsidies, the "weaning" metaphor wasn't taken seriously.  Anyone who's weaned a mammalian baby (calves in my case) knows you accustom the baby to the new food and cut down the old food. So, if you start at $5 billion, reduce it by $1 billion a year.
    • Consider a ratchet.  In other words, tie the phase out to farm income.  If farm income goes up, payments go down.  If farm income goes down, payments don't change from the previous year.  That approach might soften the arguments it's no time to cut payments when farmers are in trouble because their income is down.  
    • Consider prorating reductions to make the net payments progressive.  In year one, everyone gets 100 percent.  In year two, the top 10 percent in payments gets reduced by 20 percent, the next 20 percent gets reduced by 15 percent, etc. etc.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    On Long Historical Memories

    Having restored the RSS feed for Dirk Beauregarde, some tidbits from his post on Armistice Day:
    "In small towns and villages all over France, officials, dignitaries, will have been laid wreathes at the foot of the local war memorial. All very official. There is however no popular and collective rememberance as we have in the UK and that is symbolised by the wearing of poppies.
    I like the poppy spirit, similar to the old War spirit where, everyone is doing his or her « bit ». We can all « chip in » and remember. Out here in France, the act of rememberance is official and institutionalised...."

    I asked the question of my trainees a few days ago – a group of young French army lieutenants – fresh out of military collège, and come down to Bourges for a year to learn their craft – logistics – thèse are the guys that have to get the supplies to the front line.

    « Can you work with the Brits » I ask
    « Are French army practices compatible with those opf the British army ? »
    General silence.
    One young lieutenant tells me that the British « betrayed » the French at Dunkirk. Another enters into an anti British discourse based on the évents at Mers el Kebir, and a third talks of Waterloo. De Gaule would be happy at the anti British sentiment, but in today’s world, we have a long way to go before we can hope to work together.
    [Updated: Maybe the Tea Party types will remember the Brits burned our capital? ]

    Japanese Agriculture

    An article in today's Post on Obama's trip to Japan mentioned the problems the prime minister faces, including this:
    But the sharpest acrimony came from the agricultural sector, the longtime granddaddy of Japanese politics, traditionally protected by high tariffs on imports such as rice and butter. With those tariffs obliterated, about 3.4 million farmers could lose their jobs, Japan's main agricultural group says.
    The figure seemed high, so I did a little googling and found this link which not only confirms the figure is too high (3.4 million may be the total number of farmers) but includes lots of details on  farming: some are similar to the U.S., aging farmers, part time farmers reliant on outside jobs, heavily subsidized and political.; some are different, as in the average size of a farm is 4 acres, or the "plant factories" for lettuce.

    [Updated: According to the NY Times story, the proposed changes might cost 3.4 million jobs.  The Post writer may have misinterpreted that as "farmers", not agriculture-related workers.]

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Keepseagle Site

    Here's the site for Keepseagle settlement. 

    Open Government and Its Limits

    Got a chuckle from this use of the USDA open government site (someone decided to tweak USDA over the NYTimes dairy/cheese article by posting a tongue-in-cheek suggestion there).  I commend USDA for showing the statistics on the site on the front page: they show it's not enough to "build it and they will come", particularly in as staid and settled an environment as USDA.  TSA got traction with their blog simply because security is sexier than agriculture. I don't know what USDA and its agencies need to get more usage of their Gov. 2.0 stuff, but something is needed.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Washington Monthly and the Food Movement

    The new Monthly has an article on ethanol and agriculture, incorporating many of the food movement's arguments: Here's a key paragraph:
    Let us suppose, for example, that we paid growers like Picht to minimize deep plowing and to plant winter-cover crops so as to prevent erosion, filter pollutants, and build up the soil; to practice rotations of alfalfa, clover, vetch, peas, and other nitrogen-producing plants to minimize the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides; to grow not just monocultures of corn and wheat and soybeans, but more fresh fruits and vegetables, which currently receive almost no subsidies.
    There's two problems with this proposal I'd like to point out:
    • if you convert from a corn/soybeans rotation of some sort to include alfalfa...etc., over 10 years you're losing some percentage of your total production.  That means you have to find more land to grow corn and soybeans on.
    • the conversion also gives you a large quantity of alfalfa, ...etc. for which there currently is no use.  Either you destroy the prices received by current alfalfa...etc. growers or you have to find a new use for the produce.

    Secrecy Is Needed--If You're Rebelling, or Forming a Government:

    That's the lesson of our founders. As rebels, they signed a secrecy pact. (yesterday's National Archives document of the day); as constitution writers they worked in secrecy in 1787.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    Hay Bales and a Blast from the Past

    During the 50's we mostly had our hay baled in "square" bales.  Square in quotes because they weren't really square--they were close to being square in cross section but  about twice as long as they were wide.  Think bricks, but larger, and scratchier.

    Extension talks about stacking bales as an almost lost skill.  Actually, it's the skill of arranging loose hay on a jay wagon so that it stays in place that's lost.  That's a skill I never mastered.

    Monday, November 08, 2010

    Dairy Management, Cheese, and a Lousy USDA Web Effort

    The Times has an article pointing out the contradiction between USDA urging a low-fat diet and "Dairy Management's" promotion of cheese usage, particularly in the form of cheese pizzas, working with Dominos. Dairy Management turns out to be the umbrella organization for dairy research and promotion efforts, thus receiving the checkoff fees from dairy producers. Although the article notes the bulk of the money the organization spends ($140 million) comes from fees, it claims it also gets several million from USDA.  It calls it a "creation" of USDA. It doesn't go into the details of how research and promotion efforts are approved (via a referendum of producers) and funded. 

    The article was, for a while, the most emailed article on the Times website. According to this Treehugger post Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle are outraged.  Given the article's tone and content, I'm not surprised.  Even knowing more of the background and growing up on a dairy farm I'm bothered by the conflict.  As an ex-bureaucrat, I'm more distressed by USDA's website for failing to provide good information. The Agricultural Marketing Service, which administers the research and promotion efforts for the various commodities, all of which are authorized by Congress, doesn't have a good, short explanation of such things in general, or dairy in particular.  Do a search for "Dairy Management" , using quotes, on the website and the first page gives you no hits for the promotion organization. 

    The best response I could find on the site was a generic statement that  the programs are fully funded by the assessment fees, which might mean the federal money the article refers to must be that used for oversight. But trying to troll through the reports to Congress seemed to indicate USDA was reimbursed for its oversight expenses.  So the "several million dollars" the article refers to might be research money funneled through ARS, but who knows.  I'd hope after the people in the ivory tower (USDA Administration Building) get through scrambling around to respond there will be a big improvement in the USDA/AMS site.  I hope, but I'm skeptical.

    On Evaluating Others

    One of the problems of the federal bureaucracy, at least the part I knew, and I believe one of the problems of the teaching profession and, as outlined in Dilbert, the other bureaucracies of the world, is how to give honest evaluations.  Part of the problem is the lack of clear standards, usually because it's difficult in a bureaucracy to set such standards.  And part of the problem is our human tendency to avoid conflict.  Maybe I see that tendency so clearly because it's such a big part of my own psyche.

    Anyway, all of the above is prologue to this blog post:  Historiann is a feminist professor in Colorado who's passing on an appeal for advice from another professor. Note the conflict between adherence to professional standards of excellence and avoidance of conflict with the student and her advisor.  (No, I won't go with "ze" and "hir", the feminist neutral pronouns.)  Easy for an outsider to judge this, not so easy if one's in the room.

    Sunday, November 07, 2010

    Deja Vu All Over Again

    There was a movie release in 1981 called "Rollover", in which the ticking bomb is the question:  will the Arab oil barons rollover their investments in US bonds. Sounds like current concern over whether China will keep buying US bonds.

    Ineffective Bureaucrats at Apple

    Apparently someone at Apple forgot about changing from daylight savings time to standard time and vice versa, so new I-phones misbehave when the switch occurs.  I can only imagine the glee with which conservatives would greet such a mistake by some government bureaucrats, but this episode won't lead anyone to doubt the efficacy of private enterprise.

    Inside Versus Outside

    Probably as long as we have had government, people have been critical of it.  And as long as we have had government, many such critics find it's different when you're working within government.  Here Ned Hodgman links to an interview of someone who moved into FDA, and learned that lesson.

    Saturday, November 06, 2010

    Horses. Bears. and Bison

    In the 19th century there was controversy over whether horses, when galloping, ever got all four feet off the ground.  One of the first time-lapse photographers proved they did.  (Foregoing based on aging memory).

    I was reminded of that when I saw the pictures of a bear chasing a bison down a road, CNN via Treehugger.
    When you're running for your life, or for your dinner, you get all four feet off the ground.

    And a Merry Christmas to Federal Employees from the Tea Party

    Via The Monkey Cage, here's a blog post outlining the logic for a government shutdown in December.

    Friday, November 05, 2010

    On Not Knowing the Negative

    One frustration of an RSS reader (I assume it applies to all, not just Google) is you never know when the feed stops working.  Is it that the blogger got tired, switched to Facebook or Twitter, lost his ISP, or maybe died?  Or did the feed stop working?  Or, worst of fates for a blogger, does one never wonder about them.

    Anyhow, I've discovered my Berry Deep France feed wasn't working, so belatedly found some of Dirk Beauregarde's posts, including this moving one on the death of his mother.

    So, I Was Wrong

    My prediction for Senate election results was totally wrong.  Now looks like 51 Dems plus 2 independents.

    Thursday, November 04, 2010

    Props to Serb President

    Listening to BBC TV news concerning a visit of apology by the Serbian president to the Srbenica (sp?) site where Croats were killed (think I got that right--wasn't listening closely).  Watched "Nanking" documentary last night, covering the "rape of Nanking" by Japanese military after its capture in 1937 war. It took the Japanese until 1995 to apologize. So the Serb gets credit for responding much much faster than the Japanese.

    46 Buried. 25 Killed

    Now that's a headline begging for a story to be written under it. It's a true headline according to this extension piece.
    It's a reminder that the way things happen makes a difference.  If we had a coal mine accident which killed 25 people it would be a big, big story.  But we really have 46 accidents where farmers are buried in grain storage bins, killing 25.  There's no story there.

    There's Transparency and There's Transparency Which Works

    The Reston Hospital Center has tried to be more transparent, by measuring the response time in their ER and posting the expected wait time on the Internet. (It was 9 minutes when I checked in when drafting this.)

    I don't know whether they're measuring the extent to which people are using this, but they should. It seems to me like something which would be useful, assuming you're a person who uses the ER as a substitute for a doctor.  Maybe I'm naive, but I'd guess there's not too many of those in Reston--it's rich enough most people will have health insurance and a doctor.

    Of course there's also the issue of image building.  Even if no one uses this, it does give the image of an up-to-date institution, which one wants if you have to go to the hospital.  And it might have been easier to sell the idea of measuring ER response time to your ER staff if sold as a way to inform the customers, rather than as a way to make them more productive.  I'm assuming that if they can cut the response time, they've reengineered their business process to be more efficient.

    IRS, FSA, and Adjusted Gross III

    A followup to this post

    FSA notice PL-216 has been issued with a set of questions and answers ( which demonstrate some of the complexities of synchronizing FSA and IRS data). I should have anticipated FSA and IRS would have such problems--for example, the issue of whether a power of attorney is acceptable by IRS. Also turns out my previous posts on the subject should have referred to notice PL-213, which told counties the letters to producers based on IRS info were being mailed from Kansas City.  I'm getting old.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2010

    The Unpopular Heathcare Package

    That's an appraisal common to the chattering classes and the right.  Perhaps I'm comparing apples and oranges, but would we say: the unpopular pro-life position, or the unpopular pro-choice position?  My impression is that support for the health-care law is about equal to the support for those positions--around 40 percent.

    Jobs for Whom?

    So now there's a lot of defeated Democrats around, some of whom will be looking for jobs for the next 18 months to 2 years while they organize to get win the next election.  And some of whom are capable individuals.

    So who will Obama add to his administration: Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin from SD or Blanche Lincoln to USDA?

    How To Spin the Election

    Brad Johnson at Grist puts a good face on the election--most of those who voted for cap and trade in the House won.  What he doesn't do, and should, is look at the percentage of winners among those who voted against cap and trade.  I'm assuming, since the Reps only had a couple seats lost, the percentage would be close to 100 percent. Sometimes it's best to just suck it up and say we lost.

    Tuesday, November 02, 2010

    The Understatement of the Month

    From Matt Yglesias,discussing why Delaware's Senate race got more ink than Alaska's:

    "And logistics count in life."

    Voting Technology

    Today for the first time I had a choice of technology when I voted: I could use the optical scanner or the touch-screen method.  When I was asked which, I was totally flummoxed.  As it turns out, I went with the paper route, which had no waiting line, whereas the touch screen had 5 or so people waiting.  Don't know why people would choose that method.

    Organic Farming in China

    Once upon a time, when I was young, the only thing China had was "organic farming".  (Actually, I think the English lord (Howard?) who was an early advocate of organic farming studied Indian or Chinese agriculture.)  Now that some Chinese are rich, "organic" is becoming a fad, according to this Post article.  "Fad" is a little harsh, no doubt attitudes will evolve and people will become more realistic, much as Americans have done.  Maybe Whole Foods will open stores in China, following in the footsteps of KFC?

    Metrics for Rallies

    From the Post's Dr. Gridlock blog, discussing Metro's problems on Saturday:

    "They were figuring on a crowd about the size of the one for the Glenn Beck rally on Aug. 28. That day, about 200,000 more trips were taken on Metrorail than on a typical summer Saturday."

    "To say Metro was overwhelmed, that would be more like it. That was no where near enough equipment or personnel to help the people who showed up. Metrorail wound up providing about 475,000 more trips than on a typical Saturday. "
     I've been frustrated by the crowd estimating that goes on for the various events on the Mall.  It's always seemed to me that Metro ridership is a solid indicator with which to compare rallies.  Granted the attendance at different events will make more or less use of Metro and may or may not deter people from using it for their normal weekend activities.  But still the ridership is a solid number, not dependent on aerial photography and the prejudices of the counter.  

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    Unfair Description of Lincoln's Disaster Program?

    Via Farm Policy, Dan Morgan writes about the budget impact of the disaster program using Section 32 funds that was pushed by Sen. Lincoln.  I'm querying this part:
    "Nonetheless, farmers will be able to qualify for a check merely by certifying they had a 2009 loss of 5 percent on their rice, cotton, soybean or sweet potato crops last year. Those applying won’t need to supply new documentation to USDA, although their records could be subject to a spot check. Losses of 5 percent on a crop are within the range of normal year-to-year harvest variations, which is why previous disaster programs have generally required proof of losses of at least 20 percent."
    I'm not sure the implication is right, though I can't find evidence to the contrary in a fast check of FSA. Usually a disaster program or crop insurance uses a yield, often known as an APH (standing for actual production history) which could be fairly representing an average of normal yields. But in the case of rice, cotton, and soybeans, it's possible the program uses the same yields as used for the big payment programs, which I think have been frozen for years, if not decades. Such yields, if I'm right, would represent much less than current normal production. 

    [Note: just because I question the description, don't understand me to be defending the idea of the program. I'm not.]

    How Does One Read This--Althouse?

    My memory was that Althouse predicted Saturday's Stewart/Colbert rally would have some violence, but this doesn't quite say that:
    There is a big rally in Washington this weekend that will draw many thousands of persons. Within that throng of presumed liberals and lefties, there will be all sorts of characters, with their diverse problems and motivations. You don't know who will act up, what foolishly overstated signs they will carry, and what provocations will lead someone with clouded judgment or poor impulse control to do something that will look awful on video. That will happen 3 days before the election, leaving very little time to explain. If that happens, you will want to eat all the words you've been saying about the stomper.
    I  think she teeters on the edge of predicting something bad, or something that looks bad, but doesn't quite say it. It's a reminder of how we humans like to believe our friends are good and our opponents are bad, which isn't always the case.