Monday, January 31, 2011

Sidewalks and Paths in Reston

In Robert Simons' original vision of Reston, walkers and cars would be separated; cars would have streets and roads, and walkers paths which went through the woods, instead of sidewalks paralleling the roads.  That was the way Reston developed for the first 10-15 years, but then it became apparent that walkers preferred to walk by the side of the road, even when it meant walking on grass or in the mud, rather than following the path.  So gradually Reston has added sidewalks to its paths (Colts Neck Road got a sidewalk south of South Lakes Drive just last summer.)

Why the preference? Often the roads are more direct than the paths.  And the roads feel safer because you're visible to all. And we're all used to walking by the roads.

Our recent snow storm showed one virtue of Simons' vision: snowplows inevitably throw the snow from the street onto the sidewalk, creating an almost impassible barrier to cross, and a forbidding prospect to walk along.  Meanwhile Reston Association is able to send a plow (small Cat, I suspect) down the paths and clear them off quite well, yielding to the weight of snow only when trying to break through the snowplowed-barrier.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I Never Cease to be Amazed

Matt Uebel shares a video from 1994 showing the Today Show rather clueless at the Internet and email. That's just 17 years ago, hardly a generation.   Now, today, it seems a player in world politics, as witness Tunisia and Egypt.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Founding Fathers Had Imperfect Foresight

According to Rep. Duncan Hunter,(in a Grist post) when writing the Constitution the founders envisioned automobiles, but not bicycles.

Pigford II Website

Per an FSA notice, the website for Pigford II claims is 
It has two bolded statements:

: No payments can be made to any claimants under the Settlement until all claims have been determined. That means that it could be 2-3 years before successful claimants receive any payments.  Please be patient.

Please note: You do not need to pay money to any individual, farm advocacy group, or law firm to participate in the Settlement.  

USDA Moves With the Times

USDA gets props for advertising a website vacancy on 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Powerline Loses Most of Its Common Sense

You can divide the world into two: people who drive you up the wall and people who don't. The Powerline blog is one of the few right wing blogs I follow, just to see what's going on and try to keep from freezing into intellectual ice.  John (Hinderaker) at Powerline drives me up the wall.  One of these years I'll do a compilation of his comments which seem to me to be unwise.  Paul (Mirengoff)[corrected] doesn't drive me up the wall, though usually I disagree with his comments. Scott (Johnson) also doesn't drive me up the wall.  Today Paul announced he was ceasing blogging.  Too bad.

{Updated: apparently Paul ran into trouble at his law firm over his response to the Giffords events. See TPM. ]

Stealing a Comment on Cats

From Ta-Nahesi Coates blog, his free-for-all comment thread:
by anibundel:

Today in felines:
There are people coming over. The cats don't actually know that. What they know is the following:
The vacuum monster ate the cat hair they so lovingly placed all over the stairs. It was traumatic.
They were given cat nip.
Roomba came out to play, give kitty rides and generally be undaunted by being pounced at.
Their favorite couch blankets all mysteriously disappeared, giving them free reign to shed on the couch proper.
There was bacon for stealing. There were latkes to sniff and generally be confused by before being swatted down from the counters. There were treats.
They then considered the concept of out-of-doors, but after one paw was placed outside by the bravest, and the snow sniffed suspiciously and then horror-of-horrors, gotten on her nose, there was general consensus that this was a Bad Idea, and cat condos were retreated to.

Currently cat toys are being cuddled, and general uproar seems to have died down.

Instead of stealing it I really (cross my heart) would have linked to it, if I could figure out how to in Disqus

Sugar Is Dead

Chris Clayton reports that Sens. Shaheen (D) and Kirk (R) are moving to abolish the sugar program. As they represent the centrists, and Tea Partiers have already said they don't want sugar with their tea, the tide is against sugar in the Senate.  However, look for Sens. Nelson(D) and Rubio (R) to join forces with Sens. Landrieu (D) and Vitter (R) in the fight to sustain the program.

[Updated: not to mention lobbying by American Crystal Sugar, a co-op of  MN sugar growers, which spends as much lobbying Congress as Cargill does. Via FarmPolicy. ]

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Negative Things Are True: Payments to the Dead

This Barking Up the Wrong Tree post talks about a study showing humans are more likely to believe the negative to be true.  It comes on the same day as FSA reports that almost all its payments to dead people are valid.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tea Party Budget Proposals

From Rep. Bachmann:
$20 Billion Replace farm subsidies with farmer savings accounts, eliminating the Foreign Agriculture Service, merging and trimming budget of four agriculture outreach and research agencies, and funding the Food Safety and Inspection Service with user fees.
Note: I don't know how she gets the $20 billion or how much money the farmer savings accounts would get (unless it's just a 401k with no federal matching(.

From Rand Paul:

The following agencies are defunded: ARS, FAS, NRCS (the text says "Resource Conservation Service, so I assume he's trying for NRCS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture. FS is cut by $1.178 billion, the remaining agencies are cut pro rata by $42.542 billion.

Sen. Paul presents the text of a bill (S.162) but it's not in the sort of detail any serious effort would need.  For example, the legislation on farm programs would need to amend existing legislation.  It's perhaps representative of the deep thought which has gone into his proposal that the first page completely defunds the Government Printing Office, this on a bill printed by GPO.  No explanation of how Congress will do its business without GPO.

How To Reorganize

So Obama proposed reorganizing government last night.  But by focusing on duplicated functions he implies the sort of reorganization which takes some silos and puts the silos together under one roof.   For example, taking Rural Housing and putting it under HUD, or Forest Service and combining it with Interior.  That's the sort of reorganization FSA experienced in 1994, when parts of the old Farmers Home Administration were combined with ASCS.  I'm not sure the reorganization has been terribly successful; it wasn't successful quickly. We still have county office employees who are Federal and those who are not.  16 years of effort hasn't changed that.   And I suspect we still have IT employees in St. Louis and IT employees in Kansas City. And the IT applications may not have been as integrated as they might be, as were dreamed of in 1991 under Info Share.

I'd like to suggest a different model for reorganization, particularly for rural areas.  It's a model which will drive some FSA employees, particularly a certain CED, up the wall, but I think it's worth considering and testing.

Some assumptions:
  • The number of farms in agricultural areas continues to fall
  • The number of people in some rural areas continues to fall
  • Technology permits telework to be effective in some cases
  • Many people in rural areas are competent with modern technology, but some are not.
The new model office combines a lot of technological bells and whistles, with a set of "generalists", people who know enough about lots of  things to be able to serve as intermediaries with the true experts, either by consulting them remotely by messaging, and videoconferencing, or by putting the customer in touch with the expert. In some respects it operates as a "triage" center.  Its staff is trained enough to be able to refer cases too complex for them to handle, to hand hold for cases that can be handled remotely where the customer needs the assurance and the interpretation, and to take care of routine and simple cases.

The new model  field office works with the new model Federal agency, which tries to serve the public online, but using experts more locally based as intermediaries for those who aren't comfortable with technology.  So the new model Federal agency is doing lots of basic training of the personnel in the

So you set up the new model  field office and test it.  If it works, it's the field service center for all Federal government services and some new ones. (The new ones will aggravate people who might think I'm a socialist.)  So the new office would start by serving as a post office and a passport office (which some post offices do now). It would serve FSA programs, NRCS programs, Rural Development programs.  It would handle Social Security matters.  It would handle IRS matters.  It could serve as an interface for remote medicine.

That's my idea.

Are the Conservatives Right on Healthcare?

One of the major arguments people like Megan McArdle use against the healthcare reform passed last year is that the cost-saving measures included in the plan won't work. People like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias say they will work, they hope.

This Politico article provides ammunition for the conservatives.  Various interest groups and lobbyists are rising up against the Independent Payment Advisory Board.  If one is a cynic, watch for the lobbyists to get legislation weakening it or killing it included in some big package of must-pass legislation.

CDC Does What Every Gov Website Should Do

And that's publish their website metrics.

Of interest, in the list of referring websites, ranks just below and at no. 38.  That tells me the theory that people will look at and then go to other government sites is rather dubious. But that's my preconception. Maybe it's a reflection of poor design between and cdc.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bad Apples

 Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, a study on the effect of "bad apples" on group dynamics, also highlighted on NPR's This American Life.  The  bad applies include the "depressive pessimist", the "jerk" and the "slacker". The lesson from the research appears to be: groups live down to the level of their worst performer.  Except that a very skilled leader can diffuse the effect.

This post, linked to from the above, references McConnell's "Rapid Development", a very good book on the process of software development.  I'd like to think I was good in dealing with bad apples, but I wasn't.  Disliked conflict too much to be consistently good.

The World Ends in Seven Days

At least the world of new Internet addresses, according to this Technology Review post.  We've exhausted the universe of valid unique IP addresses (using IPv4) and we haven't converted to IPv6.  So the doomsday we dodged with Y2K is about to occur.

A Little Invective Adds Savor to the Day

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries has a long excerpt of a review of a book by a sociologist.  The last paragraph she quotes goes:
In a blurb, Michael Burawoy, a previous president of the American Sociological Association and a prominent leftist sociologist, calls the book “encyclopedic” in its breadth and “daunting” in its ambition. He states, “Only a thinker of Wright’s genius could sustain such a badly needed political imagination without losing analytical clarity and precision.” With the correction that Wright is no genius and that the book is suffocatingly narrow in scope, impossibly cramped in imagination, and irreparably muddy in execution, the blurb is accurate.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Faceless Bureaucrat Goes to the Birds, and Global Warming

Reston has a custom of bird counting, and the results are just in.   The birds which are most common here, in mid-January, are birds which don't belong here: specifically Canadian geese and American robins.  They both should be south of here, or at least that's my understanding.

A little Googling reveals I'm mistaken, as is much too often the case.  Robins (the males stick around to fight for territory in the spring, the females being wiser head south).

Samuelson on Sex: Funny

“If Casanova is not the definitive authority on sex, neither is a eunuch.”

From a piece on Paul Samuelson, the late MIT economist.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Test of Open Government

The following language has been included in most recent USDA appropriations acts.  (Do a search in  It's a gag order imposed by the appropriations sub-committee.  It's also a test of whether the Republicans will adhere to their call for open government. Note the language prohibits telling the President or OMB of information provided to appropriations.

Sec 710 of 2010 Ag Appropriations Act

Sec. 710. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration shall be used to transmit or otherwise make available to any non-Department of Agriculture or non-Department of Health and Human Services employee questions or responses to questions that are a result of information requested for the appropriations hearing process.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Matt Yglesias posts on a recent New Yorker article on the  (hoped for) revitalization of AOL, specifically the idea that many people are still paying AOL even though it's not their ISP and it's perfectly possible to use the AOL mail system and the AOL interface without paying. He calls it a "scam".

Why do people do such things? The answer is, of course, there's a tremendous inertia in human affairs.  Many of us don't like change.  Many are lazy.  Many procrastinate. Many value time over money. So the bottom line is we don't do the things we ought to, like changing from AOL, or backing up our hard drives, or changing our passwords every six months, or...

That's true of the government as well.  Just look at the Marines.  They haven't land on a beach since Inchon in 1950, but they were still buying amphibious tanks. 

And it's true of private enterprise as well.  Just look at GM in the 70's, the 80's, the 90's. Then it went bankrupt.

Boeing Can't Do Big Projects Either

The government has problems doing big projects on time and under budget, but so does Boeing.  They just delayed their new plane again: it's now 3 years late. See article.

One Forgets

"Noting that he has survived two craniotomies, Biden said that one's attitude and determination are "an incredible, incredible weapon in dealing with what you're facing."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Not Your Father's GOP--Authority from the UN Charter!!

Some Republicans are turning over in their grave at the first two sentences of this Politico post:
"If Congress had rejected his request for authorization to liberate Kuwait, George H.W. Bush probably would have sent combat troops in anyway.
The most senior members of the former president’s national security team, here for a Thursday night event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first Gulf War, said Bush was already intent on moving ahead after August 1990 because he believed the United Nations charter gave him the authority he needed."
The occasion was a reunion of George H.W.Bush's cabinet to talk about the Gulf War. All those people who think the UN is taking over and that politicians believe the UN Charter and foreign treaties supersede American rights now have something to point to.

Read more:

Did Obama Benefit from "Tiger Parenting"?

That's a question triggered by an Ian Ayres post at Freakonomics, comparing his parenting style with Dr. Chua's.  (His daughter had to get an article published in a peer-reviewed article at age 8 in order to get a dog.)  Remember Obama's mother waking him at 4:30 to go over his studies?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Republicans To Cut Farm Programs

According to this post, a group of Republicans wants to take the meat cleaver to programs, including farm programs.  What's on their hit list?

The Mohair Program, for a savings of $1 million.
The Sugar Program, for a savings of $14 million.

Yes, that's it.

How To Balance the Budget: the Republicans Modest Proposal

Via Kevin Drum, the info that Goldman Sachs changed their fiscal year begin date from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1.  They just happened to do it back in 2008, when they stuffed a lot of losses and bonuses into December, which then didn't count.

This triggers my suggestion.  Back in the days of old, the federal fiscal year began July 1.  But Congress started having more and more difficulty getting appropriations bills passed by that date.  So finally everyone agreed to move the fiscal year start date to Oct. 1, a date by which Congress surely would have no problem in passing appropriations. This all was in the late 70's or maybe early 80's.

It's a truth universally recognized that Congress no longer is capable of passing appropriations bills by Oct 1, so we have all the justification we need to move the start of the 2012 fiscal year to Jan 1, 2012.  As we do that, we'll move all the expenditures we can into the transition quarter, between Oct 1 2011 and Dec. 31.  That will enable us to balance the budget in FY 2012.  We can then run for reelection to Congress and our Presidential candidate can run on the basis that we did the impossible: balanced the budget without raising taxes.

True Sentence of the Day

From Yglesias: " But the fact of the matter is that it’s inherently difficult for a bunch of well-armed foreigners to obtain accurate information about what people think of the well-armed foreigner they’re talking to at the moment."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pity the Generator Operators

That was my MOS (military occupational specialty) in my Army days: operating generators.  It was a good gig. First of all the generator sites were dispersed around the Saigon area.  So the enlisted men were out from under the company hierarchy;  there was very little control or leadership from on high--out of sight, out of mind.  Second, a generator is pretty fool proof; once you do regular maintenance there's not much else to do.  So there's plenty of time for pinochle games and napping. Third, electricity is vital, almost as vital as food and water.  So people don't mess with you. 

But sadly progress comes to all things, even the generator operators in Afghanistan according to this Grist piece.Solar panels are more reliable and they don't require an operator.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Inadvertent Effects of Change: Old Sick Feds and a Haircut

Sen. Collins has gotten some press over the issue of Federal employees who are getting workers comp payments under the Federal Employees Benefit Act, even though they're old, I mean really old, I mean older thn me even (a few). I haven't seen any discussion but I'd guess this is a side effect of the change many years ago eliminating mandatory retirement (used to be 70 if I recall). The issue is whether the employee is able to go back to work. It's obvious to us that no Federal employee is going to return to the office when he's 90, so he ought to be involuntarily retired and given his pension.  Of course, when I say it's obvious, it's not really obvious, because there are odd ball employees so dedicated they continue to work long after anyone else would retire.

Which brings me to my haircut.  Got one today.  A phone call came in from the shop owner saying he'd be back by 3:30.  My barber explained that the owner's mother, living in WV, had health issues.  She was 93, worked all her life in the local school cafeteria until they retired her at the age of 85, then went back on a volunteer basis.  While she's not a federal employee, she illustrates my point.  As does Bruno Mangum, the FSA employee who died in 2007 at the age of 90.

Having written all this, it makes sense to kick employees off the workers comp rolls when they're eligible for full retirement benefits.  And remembering an article in the NYTimes a while back on abuses of the workman's comp rules (Long Island RR maybe? I forget), it makes sense to audit the enforcement of the rules because they're easily abused.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Creeping (Grade) Inflation: Harvard and JFK

John Sides posts the grades in a Harvard government class, a class in 1940 with one JFKennedy earning a B-. (There's been a lot of Kennedy materials just released by the library.)  What's interesting is in a class of about 55 students, there's two grades above B+.

It's also interesting the professor's specialty was nationalism in Africa and Asia, according to wikipedia

Test of Civic Literacy

Report card from an interesting test of civic literacy is here (I owe a hat tip, probably to Monkey Cage).  I'm proud to say I did better than most people on the test, but then most people didn't pass the test. I'm not sure how seriously one should take the results, but it's good ammunition for jeremiads.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mexico's Illegal Immigration Problem

RecoveringFed has a nice post pointing out Mexico's illegal immigration problem, about 190 years ago Americans crossing the Mexican border in search of a better life became a threat to Mexico's geographic integrity.

Bureaucrats Day: Civil Service

The Pendleton Act was signed Jan. 16, 1883. The purpose was to regulate and improve the civil service of the United States, partly by establishing the Civil Service Commission. The first use of the term "civil service" was in 1770 according to Merriam-Webster. "Military service" was first used around 1630.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

When Headline Writers Get It Wrong

As in the headline for this Freakonomics post: "When Technology Isn't the Answer".  The post cites a doctor who wrote a Time article describing problems with health care software.  As the commenters make clear, the problem is poor system design and the learning curve for health care software.  It's rather like a headline in 1900 saying: "Why the Automobile Isn't the Answer".

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Problem of Terminology: Hollow "Agencies"

I think this is true: discussion of improving management in government, particularly IT, stumbles on a simple fact of terminology--much of the literature uses "agency" to mean "department" (because they also want to include the independent agencies, and "department-level" or similar wording seems too awkward).  See this discussion of IT management.  The problem is that it leads to the easy assumption that the "agency" is a cohesive unit, where the agency head and her CIO can control the operations of the agency's components.

For USDA, and I suspect at other government departments, the idea of the "agency" as being cohesive and under the direction of the Secretary and his CIO is laughable. Even after the reorganization of the department in the Clinton Administration, there's a bunch of agencies which do not snap to when the Secretary yells: "attention". Just ask ex-Secretary Glickman about his efforts to do some integration of NRCS and FSA.

Damn, I Was Good

Two senators suggest a change in computer security, as a result of Wikileaks:
The senators urged a transition to a "role-based" system to access secure information. "Instead of making all information available to everyone who has access to classified systems, a role-based system makes information available based on individuals' positions and the topics for which they are responsible." In this system, they explain, an embassy's diplomatic cables would be available only to military officials deployed in that country or who work on related issues -- not to everyone with a security clearance at the Defense Department.
 My self-congratulation relates to a proposal in the mid-90's, suggesting what we needed for Info-share was security based on roles.  Unfortunately, that idea, as well as others, never took root in the bureaucratic soil. There's something in the Bible about seed falling on rocky ground and it's the same way for ideas.  You need the soil, the tiller of the soil, and the idea to come together. Else all you have is might-have-beens, close relatives of woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Parenting--Tiger Moms and Pushy Families

The "tiger mom", the Yale law prof who talks about pushing her two daughters to perfection by behaving as a "Chinese mother" is getting lots of attention.  I'm also reading Condolezza Rice's memoir, which describes how her parents pushed her and pushed her (it's interesting, not great, but interesting).  This ties into a Tyler Cowen post on a study which indicates that environment makes the most difference for people in less fortunate conditions while genes make more difference in the more fortunate conditions.  (Think of this example: if food is scarce, you don't get many tall basketball players; if food becomes plentiful, genes for height can be fully expressed.  Stole that from a book I read which I'm too lazy to look up.)

Over my lifetime parents have invested more and more effort into rearing their children and giving them advantages.  I think that's a reflection of the good times we enjoy.  In the 19th century, a good parent was a good provider or a good homemaker.  Do those things well and the environment would take care of your kids.  Now with most Americans middle class or better, the competition is stiffer.  But because less is under the parents' control, there's more premium on the margins.  It's rather like athletes in track.  When I was growing up, the times for the mile were being lowered slowly.  Then came Bannister and Landy and the breaking of the 4-minute barrier and then fell quickly.  Now it takes more and more effort and training to eke out any world record in either the mile or 1500.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some Statistics on Threats

I posted yesterday wishing that the Obama administration would post statistics on threats.  Today the Post has a piece on threats to Social Security Administration's personnel. The number of threats has gone from 897 in 2007 FY to 2,336 in 2010FY. The administrative judges, who deliver decisions on eligibility, such as eligibility for disability benefits, feel especially insecure.

This Politico article reports on statistics of threats to Congresspeople, while this was yesterday's Post piece.

Seems to me there's a valid argument possible that political rhetoric and mudracking media stir antagonism to the establishment, which should show up pretty directly in the threat and assault statistics.  Of course, the big question is what other factors could be involved?  For example, in the case of SSA, people who are out of work due to the Great Bush Recession could be expressing, not political anger, but economic frustration.  That's why we need a long term project to gather and display such statistics.

A Funny Sentence

At least for those who remember when John Cage was a controversial composer.  From Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, discussing an analysis of what men find attractive in women:
. Instead, it just so happens, that the thing that some people love is the very thing that repels others. We see the same phenomena in art, some people love John Cage, other people would rather listen to nothing at all. ;)

Saddest Funniest Sentence of the Day

From an Ezra Klein discussion of suggested ways for Congresspeople to be more secure in their meetings with the public: [I've bolded the sentence.]

But will congressional aides make for good bodyguards, even if they get "a bit of training?" I doubt it. Because field organizers actually don't know how to find the one nut who will pull a gun every few decades, they'll start throwing out lots of people who seem a little off. Better than safe than shot at. But if you've ever been to a community meeting, "seems a little off" pretty much describes the whole room. And people who "seem a little off" should have access to their member of Congress, too.
I might add I like Klein's posts on the Arizona shootings.

Blast from the Past: "Labor in Vain Road"

In Ipswich, MA.  (Google for it.) Ipswich takes pride in its 17th century houses, the most of any site on the east coast.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Open Government and Political Violence

Lots of discussion in the wake of the Arizona shooting. What I've not seen is a whole lot of facts about political violence.  The closest I've seen is an assertion that threats against the President have increased since Obama assumed office.  Maybe the Obama administration should apply a little open government: put a running total of threats and assaults against the President, justices, Congresspeople, and federal employees on its  It'd take a while to build up a baseline, but it'd give a reasonable basis for some discussions.

Budgetary Incoherence on the Right

Reihan Salam at The Agenda comments on a piece elsewhere:

." But I did appreciate the opening section on how to rethink support for farmers:
Canada has experimented with a program that provides government matching funds for farmers' deposits into savings accounts that help them buffer their incomes against the ups and downs of farm prices. Such a program in the U.S. could achieve the objective of helping family farmers survive while enabling policy makers to withdraw billions of subsidies to big agriculture.
These changes, plus closing the U.S. Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service, would save about $19.5 billion. Not a bad start."
This seems incoherent to me.  The farm programs these days aren't the $19 billion people were using in the early 2000's, but more like $12 billion. And if you're matching farmers' deposits (like a 401 K setup), you can't claim to cut all that money.  And the FAS is not a high dollar service.  (Probably around $200 million.) Maybe they got confused between FSA and FAS?  As I say: incoherence on the right.  (Not that the left is always right when they're discussing agriculture.)

Was Al Gore Wrong in Reinventing Government?

One of the theories of the 1990's was "flatter is better".  Reduce the number of supervisors and creativity will blossom and efficiency with flourish and good things will result.  Al Gore adopted that theory as part of his "Reinventing Government" (it may have been part of "business process reengineering" as well, but I'm too lazy to check).  So agencies were supposed to reorganize to cut management layers.  My understanding of FSA's efforts was that it was mostly a paper exercise; first-level supervisors lost their personnel responsibilities but retained their day-to-day operational responsibilities; units formerly called "sections" became "work groups", branches became "sections", etc. 

Of course, over the past 15 years, that particular reform may have gone by the wayside.  Certainly the proliferation of titles at the upper levels of FSA and USDA seems to have continued.

Anyhow, Steven Kelman was involved with Gore, mostly on procurement reform as I remember.  But now he's got a post in Federal Computer Week in which he seems to say Gore may have been wrong: "There was a period, especially in the 1990s, when the conventional wisdom was that first-line supervisors accomplished little. By contrast, Gittell’s finding is that those supervisors help broker communication across group boundaries."

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Melting Pot and Tossed Salad

When I was young, the "melting pot" was the dominant metaphor for America vis a vis immigration.  Of course, that was during the period between 1923 or so and 1965 when immigration was basically restricted to Western Europe.  (Mexicans were "wetbacks" or migrant workers, not immigrants we recognized.)  The idea I took away was like melting your crayons all together, which I'd done once or twice. 

In college a young government professor named Theodore Lowi, who later became prominent in the political science field, suggested maybe the better metaphor was "tossed salad".  Rather than the different nationalitiies all melting together and forming a new American nationality, each one would maintain some of their identity.  That would logically lead to the "diversity" argument; the theory that America prospers by recognizing and maintaining differences.

The above is just background.  In recent years I've grown interested in genealogy.  Some of my paternal ancestors came to America in the 1720's or so; others came in the 1820's.  What seems to be the case is they were almost entirely Scots-Irish, Covenanters. The exception is a Quaker lineage.  And, through geographic  concentration and cultural networks (the Presbyterian church), my ancestors seem to have kept together, marrying within the general Scots-Irish community, for about 200 years of life in America. Even in my father's generation his brother continued the pattern.

Because my mother's ancestors were Germans emigrating in the last half of the 19th century the picture is not as distinct, but my maternal grandparents married within the German community.

So, at least based on my limited sample, it's true enough the "melting pot" metaphor is misleading.  Yes, we eventually melt together but it takes a long time.  And even the melting of Scots-Irish and German is not the merging of polar opposites.  Lutherans and Calvinists have different theologies, but they aren't polar opposites.

Interesting Paragraph--People and Institutions

A post on Roving Bandit, who's involved somehow (I forget how and am too lazy to check) with NGO's and development in east Africa:
We know the secret of development. It is good institutions. We have a reasonable idea what good institutions entail. The only problem is that we have very little idea about how good institutions are established in societies that currently have bad ones.
The bandit goes on to argue the simplest remedy is to have the inhabitants of societies with "bad institutions" emigrate to societies with "good" ones. It'd be easier to take 1 million Afghans from Asia and integrate them into the EU, Canada, and the US than it would be to develop good institutions for them in Afghanistan.

The argument appeals to me, but I'm not sure why.  I see a lot of cultural things persist and persist in our society and yet there's lots and lots of change between the original culture of immigrants and the culture they adopt in the U.S>

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Violence in the Past

Am reading Edmund Morris' "Colonel Roosevelt", the last of his trilogy on the life of the second greatest Republican President. (His first volume led to his writing the controversial biography of Reagan, "Dutch".) It's a Christmas present, which I'm enjoying.  TR was a man of many parts.  Morris does a good job on him.

Friday I finished the section on TR's run for President in 1912 on the ticket of the Progressive Party, against Wilson, Taft, and Debs.  As Morris observes, he was still the youngest of the four. John Schrank tried to assassinate him just before a campaign speech. Luckily, the bullet was slowed by passing through 100 pages of speech (the 50 page text was folded in half) and off his eyeglass case before entering his body.  TR knows it didn't enter the lung, so he carries on, speaking for 90 minutes before going to the hospital for treatment.  Quite a character, notably described as wanting to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Seems to me  the common threads in our history of assassinations and attempted assassinations (Jackson, Lincoln,Garfield, McKinley,TR, FDR, Truman, JFK, MLK, RFK, [Updated--Wallace ], Ford, Reagan, Clinton, Giffords are:
  • lack of rationality as compared to the attempted terrorist acts. Only Lincoln and Truman were a group effort and only those cases were "rational" in some sense. The loners like Hinckley, Ray, Oswald, and Schrank all were operating in another world.
  • the targets were all foci of great emotion, a lot of it negative. Even President Ford was not only president but controversial after his pardon of Nixon. 
So to me the bottom line is: crazy loners don't kill nobodies.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Decline of the WASP Establishment

Charles Blow has a piece on religion and representation in Congress in the Times today. I'm mainly interested in the graphic accompanying the piece showing changes in representation from 1961-2 to now. Catholic, "Other Protestant" and Jewish have all risen (maybe 50 percent or more based on eyeballing), while Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist have all fallen at roughly the same rate.  Baptists and Lutherans remained relatively steady. In other words, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th ranking denominations in 1961 fell drastically.

I'm Scientifically Illiterate

This Extension post says college students lack scientific literacy. When I dig into it, I discover I don't answer a key question on the carbon cycle correctly: From whence do plants obtain their mass? 

The answer seems to be from the carbon dioxide in the air.  (Although I'd suspect many plants obtain much of their mass from the water in the ground, being constituted mostly of water, but the question, and my initial answer, ignores the issue of water.)

Friday, January 07, 2011

French Bureaucrats

Dirk Beauregarde posts on a hard-working French bureaucrat; she worked so hard she wrote a book at work about how hard she was (not) working:
'This is a world where everyone justifies his or her existance with an official paper, a rubber stamp and where bosses, to justify their positions, hold runds of endless meetings – if you want to feel important or be seen to be working, hold a meeting and then get your underlings to write a report on it in time for the next meeting. It’s a world I know well, but I woldn’t totally agree with Ms Boullet’s analysis. For all those people who are doing nothing, there are just as mant running around like headless chickens trying to meet impossible deadlines. [I like Dirk's eye for society, but he does nothing to uphold the high standards of spelling incorporated in the Bloggers' Code.]"

The Pervasiveness of Social Norms

At Barking Up the Wrong Tree, a post on a study showing that blind people "see" race.

The Interactive Constitution

Via Ezra Klein, here's a section by section presentation of the Constitution, with an accompanying exegesis, all done interactively.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Nosy Book

First heard the term "nosy book" in a chat last week.  Seems to be a name for a local directory, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and occupations, athough there's not many Google hits for it.  In the old days privacy wasn't primary.

My Metrics

For Jan.4 2010 to Jan. 4, 2011:

Visits   5,603 (down  about 35 percent) from 4025 visitors and 7690 page views in the prior year.
Average time on site just under a minute and 70 percent new visitors

It's odd that Belize shows up in the countries list, and Australia had a longer time on site than other countries.

Keywords include "what do bureaucrats do", "John Berge", "faceless bureaucrat", "mere surmise, sir", "USDA" and "MIDAS".

It looks as if I'm more boring the older I get (I may have lots of company in that). To the extent people are interested, it's more in USDA/FSA bureaucracy and organic/food movement stuff than anything else. Maybe I need to look to Facebook and Twitter?

Ruin in Detroit

Via Marginal Revolution, a photo slideshow on the ruins in Detroit. What's most distressing is the library. 

Ezra Klein Is Impressed by Boehner

See here. Reactions against type such as this make me value both the commenter and the commentee more highly.

How To Cut Crime

Dirk Beauregarde on Beyonce and how to cut crime, at least the crime of burning cars, which is an old French tradition at New Years.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Implications of a Government Shutdown

Charles Peters in the Washington Monthly used to have fun with bureaucratic techniques to avoid budget cuts.  I think he called one tactic: "closing the Washington Monument".  In other words, try to cut an agency's budget and the wise bureaucrat will make sure the cut shows up in the most painful way possible. That's sort of what will happen if history repeats itself and the government is shutdown.  If I remember the Gingrich days, there very quickly was some triage.  Congress decided that things like defense had to continue (and we weren't involved in one war in Afghanistan then and one (something) in Iraq).  And Social Security checks had to go out.  And other critical activities had to happen.

One little-realized fact is that some agencies, or some activities within some agencies, are not financed by the budget and appropriations, but by user fees. So presumably passports will continue to be issued and meat inspections will continue. 

But I'm probably confusing two issues: a possible Republican refusal to increase the debt ceiling; and a refusal to fund the government by passing a continuing resolution or appropriations bills.  If I recall, Secretary Rubin used some financial manipulation to get around the first for a while, like raiding various trust funds by putting Treasury IOU's in place of the fund assets.  The Republicans howled, but the tactic worked.  There's a limit to how long that can go on.  The second issue causes parts of the government to shut down.  Because the Democrats didn't pass any 2011 appropriations bills, if and when the current continuing resolution expires the whole government would shut down.  That's when you'll see some bipartisan agreement on funding things like DOD, VA, IRS, SSA with appropriations.  What happens next we don't know.

Sen, Grassley Has a Failing Memory

Chris Clayton at DTN posts on Sen. Grassley's views, which are that direct payments may be challenged.  He includes this quote:
"I think the principle behind direct payments when it was established in '96 was sound, but I think now reflecting upon two or three years where there hasn't been any loan programs, target payments, very little counter-cyclical payments made, that it stands out as just a hand out to farmers as opposed to a safety-net approach that was the motive behind direct payments."
My memory is that Freedom to Farm was intended to transition farmers to a free market economy, with the payments used as a bridge to the future, not as a safety-net.  From a NYTimes summary on Pat Roberts:

Roberts fashioned a Freedom to Farm bill designed to phase out subsidies over seven years. In September 1995 his bill failed in committee when Southern Republicans voted against it. But in November 1995, Roberts persuaded Agriculture conferees to include most of his bill in the 1996 budget reconciliation bill, which Bill Clinton vetoed.

Blogging Metrics

I want to compliment for its post providing its metrics for the year. I've commented in some places, and possibly posted here, about my belief government websites should have a page devoted to their metrics, just so citizens, management, and the website creators could all see what's happening.  GovBookTalk is the first .gov site I've seen which has published any metrics.  Of course, now I've complimented them, I need to eat my own medicine and publish my own metrics...

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Huckleberry Finn

Kevin Drum posts  on a plan to publish a version of Huckleberry Finn with "nigger" replaced by "slave". He goes with a lesser of two evils: better to have the book taught in high school even bowdlerized than restricted to college.  I disagree.

[Updated: interesting comment thread  at Ta-Nehisi Coates on this issue. University Diaries also has a post.]

Scholarly Citations and Page Numbers in Kindle

Matt Yglesias endorses a complaint by John Holbo: Kindle doesn't show page number so it complicates the job of creating footnotes for scholarly articles.  Seems to me there's a simple cure: adopt a standard which adheres to the following format: [version of publications--Kindle, Google Book, etc.][search by Google, Kindle, whatever][date searched][number of result].

The point is, after all, not to specify the page number, but to allow someone coming after the writer to reproduce the writer's results, just as a scientific experiment needs to be specified in enough detail to allow reproduction. So if you specify a search engine and a text, and the terms you used to reach the material, that should be quite adequate.

Why China Is More Powerful Than the US

Short answer: it's not, I'm just polluting the Internet with more disinformation.  Dan Drezner debunks the myth in Foreign Policy.

Lord Acton Was Right

Barking Up the Wrong Tree has a post, on a study which asked whether power makes us dehumanize people. The answer is "yes". Whether it's childhood bullying, or soldiers and civilians, the wealthy and the poor, whenever there's an imbalance of power it's going to be abused.  Not always, but enough of the time any moral person should be concerned and work to change the situation.

[Updated: On second thought, that might be my definition of the difference between conservatism and liberalism: liberalism thinks governmental action can be rational and improve balances of power; conservatism thinks government action will mostly make things worse.]

Monday, January 03, 2011

An Interesting Life

A local heiress died at 70, and her obit in the Post was one of the more interesting I've ever read.  For one thing, in reference to her second husband:
"About the kindest things that witnesses could say of Carmichael were that he was a pretentious, scheming, self-infatuated, manipulative dilettante."

Those Overpaid Federal Bureaucrats

This Post article discussing the possibility of some airports switching from TSA to private contractors to do security checks. Interestingly, there's no clear conclusion on whether private contractors would be cheaper.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Post had an article on high-level government employees leaving the Obama administration for private employment which might use their knowledge and contacts.  They anticipate a doubling of their salaries.

The Halcyon Days of Nonpartisan Policy Making

Back when Prof. Kahn of Cornell was pushing deregulation:
” He also enjoyed a convergence of interests including conservatives (he credited the Ford administration with paving the way for his efforts), liberals (particularly Senator Ted Kennedy, whose 1975 hearings highlighted the perverse effects of airline deregulation and supported increased competition), consumer groups and activists (notably Ralph Nader), and academics.
Read more:

The Fallacy of X Is a Minuscule Percentage of the Budget

I'm starting to see preemptive arguments from interests groups along the lines of: "cutting expenditures for [X] isn't worthwhile because the total cost of [X] is such a minimal part of the federal budget.  I think I've seen that from farm groups, the food movement, and groups worried about NEA and NEH.  I suspect it will be a popular meme as we move into the budgetary furor between Obama, Dems, and the new Republican House.

The argument is, of course, utter nonsense. Nonsense at least in a good government sense.  If X is a program worth doing at some level, it's worth doing at that level.  If not, it can and should be cut back to whatever level makes it worthwhile, which could be zero. How big a program is in comparison to overall expenditures is meaningless. The problem is we can't agree on the "worth doing" and "some level".  The rhetoric of the argument invites us to recognize the problem and move on to some other program of perhaps a bigger size.  It's the converse of what I think Sen. Russell Long said: "don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree".

What it means is we'll likely have some across-the-board cuts: spread the pain around.  It's not the best way to administer, but it works in a democracy.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Changing Times--Remembering Happy

Happy is still around, I found as I checked her wikipedia entry.  Nelson Rockefeller's divorce of his first wife, Happy's divorce of her husband, and their quick remarriage to each other, meaning the disruption of the lives of a bunch of children, all paved the way for our modern disaster: the nomination of Goldwater in 1964 instead of Rocky, the rise of Reagan to prominence with the "speech", Reagan's election in 1980, and the setting of the bar so low as to permit a charming demagogue to dream of the Presidency.  (I know, I might be exaggerating, but just a tad.)

I recall it to mind because of the NYTimes article on the new governor, Mr. Cuomo, and his live-in girlfriend, Sandra Lee, of whom I'd never heard.  What was a scandal in 1962 is totally unremarkable in 2011; 49 years do make a difference.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

So Much for Global Warming?

Since I started the day, and therefore the year, in a depressed mode, let me pass on some other good news. Via John Phipps, the latest graph from NASA showing that local temperatures don't reflect reality.  And, via Treehugger, this graphic from Skeptical Science summarizes indications of a warming globe.

A Depressing Way to Start the New Year

From the Times Nate Silver-- 538 blog, in a post analyzing Sarah Palin's prospects:
There was a time not too long ago, back when President Obama’s standing was a little stronger, when you’d hear the argument that some of the Republican candidates might sit 2012 out, figuring that 2016 would present a clearer path toward victory. You don’t really hear that anymore. Mr. Obama will not be easy to defeat: his approval ratings have stopped their slide. But clearly, he is beatable. If his approval ratings are in November 2012 what they are right now — somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s — a reasonably strong Republican nominee would be about even-money to beat him, based on historical precedent. [emphasis added]
It's a good analysis, which makes his current assessment of Obama's electability even more depressing.