Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Oh c'mon, spend some money...

The head of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz obviously owes his success to sartorial parsimony.

Wolfowitz was visiting a mosque where shoes are routinely removed. looks like times are tougher for neocons than I thought.

Personally, I think this is a wife failure.

I mean, that's their job, isn't it?


[via Neatorama]

A commercial for the rest of us...

I have truly enjoyed the wonderful Mac - PC commercials (which I watched on the Internet). But I just bought yet another PC and this explains why.

I'll bet Realtors love this idea...

Buried in the farm bill proposals from the administration is an interesting wrinkle on 1031 farmland exchanges:
Recommendation In Brief
Eliminate commodity program payments for all newly purchased land benefiting from a
1031 tax exchange.
While many farmers are reporting significant economic hardship, land values have
continued to climb. Average farm real estate value increased over 90 percent from $974
per acre in 1998 to $1,900 per acre in 2006. During that same period, the average value of
cropland increased almost 80 percent to an average $2,390 per acre.
High land values continue to be a barrier for new farmers who are seeking to enter
production agriculture. These high land values are also problematic for small and socially
disadvantaged farmers who are seeking to expand their operations.
A reoccurring theme at USDA Farm Bill Forums centered on how individuals near urban
areas sold their land and moved to more remote areas where they outbid local farmers for
farmland, simply to take advantage of the 1031 tax exchange. For example, Troy, a 26-
year-old college graduate in agribusiness from Utah said, “It has always been my dream
to be able to someday own my own farm. Currently, I am unable to do so due to the giant
barrier of entry which is land values….This is mainly due to speculation of real estate and
1031 exchanges.” Ronald from Minnesota caused a round of applause when he stated
“it's the 1031 tax exchange that's killing the young farmer.” And Len from Wisconsin
added, “The 1031 is just driving our land rents and land prices to where the average
producer, even big producers can't compete.”

[My emphasis]

I'm going to ponder this in my heart of hearts and spout off later. Feel free to jump in first.

The news from Spokane...

Man - what a great trip this is turning out to be! Wonderful people doing all kinds of interesting stuff we never would have thought of in the Midwest. Here are some items of interest:
  • I gotta try some Pink Lady apples. If you like Braeburn - which we do - the PL is maybe just a little more tart, but can sweeten with storage. I had never heard about them.
  • The sugar beet industry is pretty puzzled about what happens next. Opening the "sugar border" to Mexico will have consequences, but it is really hard to forecast with the turmoil caused by biofuels.
  • You can start a conversation with anybody in the Northwest by asking "You guys getting many Californians moving in?" I have not found anybody here who is not seeing incoming residents somewhere close.
  • Potato companies were caught uncovered when the rush for acres took over. Some didn't bother to contract, relying on farmers to overproduce as usual. Result: potato prices have nearly doubled for one producer.
  • You can't buy land cheap here either.
Finally, and most sobering: One wheat producer told me he has heard rumors of 46-cent N (as NH3).

Do the math.
Hold me, please...

Jeez - flatlanders shouldn't travel to places like Spokane that have three (count 'em) dimensions. Oh, sure - these places make nice postcard materials, but it it worth the vertigo?

Farmers in this area are unique, and suddenly find themselves facing an agriculture reshaped by biofuels. Regardless of what part of ag is your particular corner, the size and depth of the disruption in markets, land use, and policy will leave no farmer/rancher untouched.

This great debate will at the very least expose the powerful ties which link producers. One is land. As the mandated push for renewable fuels thunders on, it soon dawns on participants that green resources have to be grown somewhere, and virtually all of our somewheres are busy already.

Another link is trade. Grass producers here face fierce competition from Danish growers, for one. [BTW - Danish grass seed production is a case study of what happens with just one decoupled, fixed payment for a subsidy]. And recent court decisions on open burning have forced changes for this high-value industry. Grass seed is a big export, and growers have much to lose from a failed Doha round.
A few players now dominate our world’s turf, forage grass, and legume seed production, with the majority of trade being turf grasses (perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue turf varieties, Kentucky bluegrass, and the fine leaved fescue’s). With the European Union expanding to 25 nations, lands in the newer community members may switch to grass/legume seed production. Direct subsidies to grass species in the EU have been taken off, but now the market place will play a major role in European growers decisions to grow grass/legumes seeds. This change to “Farm Based” subsidies will no longer be applied directly to a particular crop. Instead, EU growers will be growing the most profitable crop for their situation, be it grains, oilseeds, or grass/legume seed.

The marketplace has also changed. No longer do end-users obtain supply in advance. Buyers have moved to a “hand-to-mouth” approach. Obtaining supply month’s in advance is becoming the exception. This has forced growers to hold onto their production longer, thus becoming the storage component of the marketing wheel. Improvements in transportation have also allowed end users to wait before placing orders. These marketplace changes will force growers into more timely decisions. In the grass/legume seed business, growers must decide quickly when and which crop to grow, which may also mean quicker movement of growers into, and out of, grass seed production. [More]

Ditto for wheat. My gut feeling is wheat needs to get even higher relative to corn to keep our foreign customers supplied. New 35-day corn varieties* opening the possibility of growing corn in places wheat has owned.

Finally, we are all linked by being citizens in the same country. Well, duh! But if the other 300 million citizens decide there are better things to do with government money - even slightly - we could be facing a significantly different business environment. Or if our economic policies grease the skids for an even cheaper dollar, that means something as well on your farm.

Livestock producers (especially ranchers) may reconsider if traditional independence has been more an aloofness from participating in farm policy. Up until now it has been a pretty good fight to sidestep, because 50-cent LDP's certainly helped keep the market price for corn um, reasonable.

Like it or not, we are all in this together. Globalization of markets has insured linkages will continue to intensify and entangle formerly disparate enterprises. And if producers in the US don't start communicating better, we could see our strongest opposition coming from across the street - not the ocean.

* Joke (for now)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What you miss by drinking black coffee...

[Lots more]

Drops of milk hitting your coffee.

Do not adjust your set...

I'm having some bizarre and seemingly unrelated computer glitches on my desktop unit. This is a great thing because I have been wanting to upgrade to Microsoft Vista anyway, and most advice is to do a clean install.

Well, no way am I wiping my hard drive and trusting to a reload. No, I think the safest possible path is to get a whole new computer which is faster and shinier. Following a long pattern, this new machine is way more computer for way less money.

Plus I can give you a farmer-user report of the new operating system.

Posts could be erratic, although my faithful laptop will be with me throughout a trip to Spokane, WA. to speak. (Why is the airport code for Spokane "GEG"?) And I have plenty of dead travel time.

So as I explained to Jan, I'm buying this computer for you guys, not myself...

Monday, January 29, 2007

How deep the ocean?...

Pertinent comments below on the
NYC photo post timed well with the pending release of the IPCC release on global warming on Friday. Two comments:
  1. Is everything now routinely leaked? Drudge posted the SOTU an hour before the President delivered it. The Iraq Study Group Report was old news when it arrived. And one broker friend thinks even crop reports are being leaked. How else to explain a limit-up close the day before the report? Why bother with a ritualistic announcement if the entire staff has been chatting with the press about it for days?
  2. The early leak responses have been critical in that the report purportedly low-balls the effects, especially sea-level rise.

The early versions of the report predict that by 2100 the sea level will rise anywhere between 5 and 23 inches. That's far lower than the 20 to 55 inches forecast by 2100 in a study published in the peer-review journal Science this month. Other climate experts, including NASA's James Hansen, predict sea level rise that can be measured by feet more than inches.

The report is also expected to include some kind of proviso that says things could be much worse if ice sheets continue to melt.

The prediction being considered this week by the IPCC is "obviously not the full story because ice sheet decay is something we cannot model right now, but we know it's happening," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate panel lead author from Germany who made the larger prediction of up to 55 inches of sea level rise. "A document like that tends to underestimate the risk," he said.

The commenter on the previous post has a valid point about melting Arctic ice not raising sea levels. But the bulk of the scientific community seems to believe that global warming will cause higher sea levels, and the argument is how high. It may be that Arctic ice melts are predictive of glacial melts - and those are consequential.
Greenland's massive ice sheet could begin to melt this century and may disappear completely within the next thousand years if global warming continues at its present rate. According to a new climate change study, the melting of Greenland's ice sheet would raise the oceans by seven meters (23 feet), threatening to submerge cities located at sea level, from London to Los Angeles. [More]
Other estimates vary wildly but all predict significant sea level increases. This meshes with my understanding of Ice Age geography when oceans were smaller due to more glaciers, thus uncovering land bridges long since submerged.

I guess what goes down must come up.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why you are reading this post...

A brilliant article about the plight and future of newspapers which I found (of course) on the Internet:
Nineteen-fifty marks the high point of newspaper penetration in America: 100 percent of American homes took one or more daily papers. Fifty-six years later fewer than half of American homes get one. At the current rate of decline, no homes will get any newspapers in the not-too-distant future. Morning news, once the monopoly province of newspapers (virtually all evening papers, facing competition from network news, folded in the 60s and 70s), is now overwhelmingly the province of the networks, cable, radio, and the Web. Newspaper readers (as well as broadcast-news audiences) are old and growing ever older (on an actuarial table, you can plot the newspaper's last day). There are, effectively, no new newspaper readers. Newspapers have worked best as a direct-marketing medium—introducing seller to buyer—but the Web is better and cheaper. The mainstay of newspaper profits—real-estate, auto, recruitment advertising—accounting for as much as 30 percent of them, is migrating almost entirely online. Shopping itself, that other elemental commerce connection of a newspaper ("The principle of free speech owes at least as much to department stores as to the First Amendment," notes Ken Doctor in passing), is ever more an online activity. While circulation steadily drops, and as online price competition becomes fiercer, newspapers have, nevertheless, continued to charge more for ads—a kind of pyramid scheme, which, sooner rather than later, falls in on itself. [More]
I am one of the dinosaurs, reveling in the feel of a fresh newspaper. We get the Chicago Tribune delivered by mail with (miraculously) same day delivery.

Few institutions go gently into that good night. Most die by inches, and it appears to me that newspapers will follow that pattern. But I have lost other friends on this journey - it's what being middle-aged means. And I have discovered to my surprise that the losses leave few holes.

So whether the Internet fills the void, or as the author of the article Michael Wolff suggests, newspapers become the economically non-productive status symbols of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch (much like sports teams), I see no end to the market for information delivered as honestly as possible.

Indeed, if that sector fails, no other market will be possible.
Theoretically, it could happen during Al Gore's second term...

New York after the polar ice caps melt.

Not really - we've got until 2060.


[via Neatorama]
Actually, failure is an option...

There is a popular theme in modern political rhetoric that by denying bad outcomes we can command success. This could be the reason so many things have become "unacceptable."
In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001. [More]
Of course, after a few news cycles, events are accepted. There is no alternative.

Another similar locker-room mantra is "Failure is not an option". Of course it is - and frequently the most likely. Those who do not acknowledge it simply pass on the chance to glean data and refine the next attempt.

Anyhoo, it is suddenly occurring to free traders that the Doha round is really, really in trouble, and even worse, it might matter.

The administration seems less likely to be able to influence Congress with each passing day, and the steam behind free trade has been largely squandered. What has gone overlooked by many opponents of lower trade barriers is the status quo will not be the result if the Doha round stays dead or becomes even deader.

As Canberra joined a Canadian challenge to U.S. farm subsidies on corn, Australian Trade Minister Warren Truss said that if the Doha round negotiations could not be revived, then differences would move to international courts in coming months.

"The lawyers will have a field day," Truss told Reuters in an interview before traveling to Davos, Switzerland. "The negotiators will give way to the lawyers, who will take advantage of the expiry of the so-called peace clauses to exploit elements of the U.S. and current European programs in particular." [More]

The peace clause is very important to agriculture, and without its protection agriculture is fair game for a long, expensive legal wrangle. (Which, of course is good news if you are a trade attorney).

Recently, it looks like this means ethanol could become a litigation target as well. Like the Step 2 cotton program repeal, guys in really nice suits could rewrite farm policy via the courts while legislators and negotiators fume.

Regardless, the moribund trade talks are restarting with conflicting but persistent signals that the US may be willing to use ethanol to reshape US ag subsidies into a more WTO-compliant form.
The booming demand for corn as a fuel source will make it easier for the US to agree to cuts in farm subsidies, making a new global trade agreement possible this year, the US ambassador to the EU said.

"I am very confident that we are going to get a deal,” C. Boyden Gray told reporters in Washington yesterday. "This whole alternative energy revolution is taking hold.” "This will take the whole issue of agriculture off the table as a sticking point” between the US and European Union, Gray said. Gray was in Washington for the summit between US President George W. Bush yesterday and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Both leaders reaffirmed their support for the negotiations in the World Trade Organization.
The Doha Round talks, named for the city in Qatar where they began in 2001, broke down last July as the US resisted pledging further cuts in its farm subsidies unless India, the EU and Japan agreed to steep cuts in their agriculture tariffs. Barroso told reporters yesterday that he saw "unequivocal signals, very clear signals from President Bush, that he wants a deal for Doha.” Bush's trade negotiating authority expires at the end of June.
Gray said negotiators will try to make progress early this year, and the administration will ask Congress to extend so-called Trade Promotion Authority through the end of 2007. Negotiators "will be close enough to probably get an extension,” Gray said. Congress, "probably would not extend trade promotion authority” unless the trade talks looked promising, he said. [More]

We've heard predictions before, but as events unfold, policies that were unthinkable with corn at $2 are less repugnant at $4.

Crimony, everything looks better with $4 corn. I'd say it was very acceptable.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I think I've seen that one before...

More than you ever wanted to know about snow, and stunning photos to boot.

Also a discussion of some flaky myths.

Snow crystals are so perfectly symmetrical! ... Are there not some special forces at work that ensure this perfection?
People are sometimes convinced that the simple explanation of snowflake symmetry cannot be correct, because snow crystals are so perfect in form. These folks argue that the simple explanation would likely yield less ideal shapes, less perfect six-fold symmetry. Therefore they suspect something else is happening -- perhaps some acoustical or quantum mechanical oscillations are enforcing symmetrical growth, for example.

The flaw in this reasoning is the statement that snow crystals are all extremely symmetrical. You can disprove this for yourself if you simply go outside and take a close look at some falling snow. You will soon realize that the beautifully symmetrical specimens are hard to find! The rather unattractive irregular crystals are by far the most common variety (see the Guide to Snowflakes under the heading of Irregular Crystals for some pictures). Even on the best of days, I search for hours to find
just a few beautifully symmetrical specimens. I typically glance over thousands of crystals on my collection board before selecting one to photograph -- so already each photograph shows the best crystal out of thousands. And the pictures you see in the Galleries are some of the best among over 6000 pictures I've taken.

Alas, the vast, vast majority of snow crystals are not even close to perfectly symmetrical. The simple mechanism does indeed produce lots of imperfect symmetry, as you would expect. Snowflake photographers always select their most symmetrical crystals to display ... we have to, because no one ever seems to be interested in looking at the irregular ones!

One other wintry note - Do Inuits ( Eskimos) really have 100 words for snow?

The way this winter is going some of don't even need one word for snow. And then some of us...

[Thanks, Jack]

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nuts! - I didn't make the sexiest men list either...

Where people go on the Internet

I was surprised by the small numbers on major sites, but the amount of traffic is so large that even a sliver is a lot of hits.
How about 17 by 21? 43 by 28?...

Just what we needed - another catchy target for renewable fuels. Let's review:
  • 25 x 25 [0r 625, for short] - This effort shoot for 25% of all energy needs to be sourced from renewable energy by 2025.
25x'25 Vision: By 2025, America's farms, forests and ranches will provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States, while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed and fiber.
  • 15 x 15 x 15 [3375] - This goal is to produce 15B bu. of corn turning it into 15B gal. of ethanol by 2015.
Doggett presented the association’s 15 x 15 x 15 vision that calls for corn growers producing 15 billion bushels of corn to produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015.
  • 20 x 10 [200] - This idea is to reduce US gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years.

A sevenfold increase in ethanol production over 10 years is key to Bush's plan to cut projected U.S. gasoline usage by 20 percent, reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and enhance the environment. He also wants more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Bush's proposal wouldn't be fully effective until 2017. In the meantime, motorists will have driven up gasoline consumption by about 15 percent, according to government and industry projections. While critics want more rapid conservation, plan proponents say that a 20 percent reduction by 2017 still would be significant.

All these goals have some things in common. They all are set for the future when the authors will likely be safely off the scene. They all assume we've had our last short corn crop. I mean, if Pioneer and Monsanto can't save us, who can? Finally, they all are betting round numbers will make the market obey.

Well, I can play their little game, too. How about these plans?
  • 3 x 5 - A national commitment to get 3 times more 5 year-olds on cell phones.
  • 2 x 4 - A patriotic drive to add $2T more in national debt in 4 years. [Amazingly, this would call for much less spending!]
  • 8 x 10 - A glossy campaign to shrink the Supreme Court by 2010. That swing vote has been such a headache!
  • 12 x 12 - No, no - that's just gross
  • 16 x 9 - A national goal to give 16 million free HDTV's to deserving citizens by 2009.
Submit yours to amaze and inspire our readers!
Where does your kid brother ride?...

Reinventing the (bicycle) wheel.

Behold the hyperbike.

You think your garage is crowded now!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

This explains a lot of interviews...

While we are all nattering on about ethanol, the powers that be and wanna be are gathering at Davos, Switzerland to ponder deep ponderings and communicate (?):

A Fortune 50 chief executive — I won’t tell you his name because he didn’t realize I was listening to his conversation — was sitting at a fast-food restaurant with a woman who was coaching him on how to talk to the media. “You’ve got to stay on message,’” she snapped when he would forget his lines. He sheepishly apologized and then managed to mangle his line again.

“Don’t answer the question being asked,” the woman said. “Get to your message,” she said, explaining that he should use “bridge phrases” such as “meanwhile” or “what we know is” to avoid the question being asked and change the context of the answer.

“Like the politicians do,” the chief executive exclaimed.

She also emphasized what she called “flagging,” telling the C.E.O. to insert phrases such as, “the most important thing is…” and “the main idea is…”

“Journalists are looking for complete sentences,” she instructed. “Especially on TV. You want to give them full messages.”

Before they got up, she told the executive, “Tell them what you do.”

He looked at her, slightly befuddled, and replied, “What do we do?”

I don't like to excerpt so completely but this was a short post on a wonderful blog, Davos Diary in the NYT

This is more than a casual get-together in a lumpy country. Deals are made and ideas are considered. The World Economic Forum, by virtue of its elitist image (deserved or not) attracts some very bright minds and features debate that should but does not occur in government circles.
Fifty things you may not have known about credit cards...

  • It is against the merchant agreements of MC, Visa, and AMEX, for a vendor to require you to provide your phone number, home address, or other personal information for credit card transactions. In fact, some states make it illegal for them to require it. (It’s not illegal to ask, but it is if they refuse to process the transaction without that information)
  • Credit card numbers conform to the Luhn algorithm, which is just a simple checksum test on the number. What you do is start from the right and double each second digit (1111 becomes 2121), then add them all together, and you should end with a number evenly divisible by ten. If it doesn’t, it’s not a valid credit card number.
  • The first digit of the number is the Major Industry Identifier. 1/2 are for airlines, 3 is for travel/entertainment, 4/5 for banking and financial, 6 for merchandizing and financial, 7 for petroleum, 8 for telecommunications. 0 and 9 are for other assignments but you’ll likely never see them. If you look at an American Express card, you’ll see it starts with a 3, a throwback to their travel/entertainment roots.
One of my own: If your card is stolen and used, don't panic. I've been through it twice and it worked out fine each time. Be patient while they get your account straightened up. Keep an up-to-date list of automatic charges (satellite company, cell phone, etc.) that go to each card to make this process easier.

[via Metafilter]
Full speed ahead...

President Bush seemingly set in stone America's commitment to immense amounts of ethanol and hence immense amounts of corn. This is good news for farmers, but really good news for ethanol investors.

"All the buzz in Washington surrounding ethanol indicates that it's going to survive," says David Lehman, managing director of the Chicago Board of Trade's commodities group.

Ethanol makers need the help. Corn prices, 75% of the cost of ethanol production, have doubled in the past six months, to more than $4 a bushel. At the same time, the price of ethanol has followed the price of gasoline downward.

Absent a rescue from Capitol Hill, the glut is going to get worse. AgResource's Basse estimates the blending demand for ethanol at 10 billion gallons, 7% of the 150 billion gallons of blended fuel burned each year. Current nationwide ethanol capacity is 5.4 billion gallons. But 6.1 billion gallons' worth of capacity is now under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. That would push supply right past demand and destroy ethanol prices. Unless mandates are tightened. At the moment the motor fuel industry is meeting environmental minimums and exceeding the energy independence ones. [More]

If we in agriculture think this whopping injection of income will not attract competitors and predators we are fooling ourselves. In fact, there may be efforts to capture the income stream at the farm level. In other words, massive (on our scale, not theirs) investments in farms may be one obvious way to see a return on money. And farm suppliers are cashing in as well.
Shares of seed producers like DuPont and Monsanto and fertilizer makers like Potash and Terra Industries are soaring. The gains have further to run, even though the stock prices exceed their five-year averages relative to earnings, said Frank Husic, chief investment officer at Husic Capital Management in San Francisco. [More]
I have opined before that while investing in ethanol may still be a reasonable venture, land could be the next rush. Owners can capture significant profits with custom farming leasing or getting into the business themselves. Besides it is not rocket finance to see what doubling gross profits (and that is what it looks like to my computer) could mean to asset values.

The interesting thing will be to track trends like farm size, farmer numbers, off-farm income, young farmer cohort numbers, etc. to see if higher prices are indeed the answers to these "problems".

My bet is these trends will accelerate, not decline with increased revenue. And the ERS will give us the answers just a few years after the fact.

It's not just for popcorn...

For all of you guys out there who think "cooking" means nuking something in a microwave oven, a heads-up. Your oven can also make kitchen sponges more sanitary.

They then zapped the cleaning equipment in a microwave for varying lengths of time.

After two minutes on full power, 99% of bacteria were inactivated.

And E. coli bacteria were killed after just 30 seconds. [More]

BIG, BIG Update: Make sure the sponge is wet!!

But wait - there's even more important news about this miracle appliance.

Using only cheap, readily-available equipment, you can create a spectacular lightshow in the comfort of your very own kitchen, providing hours of fun and excitement for your family, friends, and pets!

Ordinary grapes, when properly prepared and microwaved, spark impressively in an extremely entertaining manner. [More]

This example of meaningful science in action, not to mention culinary entertainment, is probably best done when your wife is gone.

Then use a sterile sponge to clean up!

Gee - who's not running for President?...

The latest on possible candidates :
Despite the growing buzz about their candidacy, some, such as CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, say the family's lack of political experience is a setback. Phil, 49, is a pediatrician; Janice, 47, a homemaker, graduated from the University of Connecticut with a history degree; and Wesley, 19, and Phil Jr., 17, have been widely criticized for their youth. Likewise, the family has yet to form an exploratory committee, and, almost all observers agree that, with a combined annual income of less than $70,000, they are already at a serious fund-raising disadvantage. They were also roundly chided by the media after a major misstep in which John Jr. referred to the historic Shaker Village in Canterbury as "sucky." [More]

How sad is it when has to label humor columns? Or has politics become indistinguishable from satire?

Sound family science net...

Sophisticated research and polling methods have identified words and phrases that can do more than convey a thought.
Unspeak, writer Steven Poole's term for a phrase or word that contains a whole unspoken political argument, deserves a place in every journalist's daily vocabulary. Such gems of unspeak, such as pro-choice and pro-life, writes Poole in the opening pages in his book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, represent an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak—in the sense of erasing, or silencing—any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one choice of looking at a problem. [more]

This power in words is an important weapon in the media war waged by mainstream ag. Consider the words "sound science". To begin with unsound science is not science at all. I have already ranted about this type of code-word communication, but the technique continues to create misinformation throughout modern media.

But even more weasel-wordy are labels like "family" and "community".

Poole calls community one of the most perfect political words in English because it

can mean several things at once, or nothing at all. It can conjure things that don't exist, and deny the existence of those that do. It can be used in celebration, or in passive-aggressive attack. Its use in public language is almost always evidence of an Unspeak strategy at work.

The plasticity of community allows it to encompass geography, ethnicity, profession, hobby, or religion, and in the mouths of diplomats and journalists can expand to include everybody, as in the international community, a concept that Justice Antonin Scalia once described—rightly—as "fictional."

Hence the current clamor for a "safety net". It sounds so much better than guaranteed profits. From an engineer's point of view, however, there is little to differentiate between a safety net and a hammock. Besides, couldn't we weave our own nets, like other Americans have to?

Another word-bomb is "actuarially sound" insurance programs. For cryin' out loud. Without $4B in subsidies an actuarially sound crop insurance program would demonstrate vigorously where we should not be planting stuff.

Last year, the companies made $927 million in profit, a record. They received an additional $829 million from the government in administrative fees to help run the program. On top of that, taxpayers kicked in $2.3 billion to subsidize premium payments for farmers.

All of that to pay farmers $752 million for losses from bad weather. [More]

As long as we talk in unspeak, we will never truly communicate, and the real world will simply pass us by while we recite the same thoughts to each other. We can do better, and the first step is to call a spade a bowl.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

You put that submarine down right now, mister!...

My jaw dropped at this picture of the world's largest floating crane.

Toying with a sub that way is just so wrong. [more]

[via Neatorama]
It's all about corn...

Our government has apparently decided all farmers should be corn farmers. The State of the Union speech tonight should officially make this One Nation Under Tassels. And when the US is one big cornfield, ag policy will be really easy.
  • We can finally start cooperating at the WTO. I mean, with $4 corn who is going to whine about losing LDP's or small direct payments?
Farm subsidies: The United States has offered to cut the amounts it is allowed to spend on subsidies to farmers under WTO rules by 60 percent. But the European Union and leading developing countries say that it could still spend over $22 billion a year, more than 2005 spending of some $19.5 billion. It is widely assumed that the United States has at least a further $5 billion of cuts up its sleeve made up of so-called “product-specific de minimis” support, which it rarely uses.

The United States is also under pressure to tighten disciplines in the so-called “blue box”, which is a half-way house between farm aid that is considered trade-distorting and aid that is not, like rural development spending.

The EU, which spends far more, has offered a 70 percent cut in subsidies, but could go to 75 percent if the United States went to 65. [More] [Another view]

  • We won't have to worry about cotton farmers or ranchers or livestock producers, but can just throw 'em under the bus as we all produce for wildly expanded mandated markets. Southern producers are not idiots - they are already gaming the shift from cotton to corn. And no doubt scientists will come up with new hybrids or something those guys can grow instead.
The Energy Future Coalition, a Washington-based proponent of alternative fuels, said yesterday that the group expects Bush will call for more than 60 billion gallons a year to be blended with U.S. gasoline by 2030, up from the 7.5 billion by 2012 mandated by current law. [More]

  • Agribusinesses will be ecstatic as demand for fertilizer, machinery, seed, etc. will be huge. My guess is we're going to need a bunch of trucks and roads to move all that stuff from where it is to where it is needed as well. If not, Iowa could soon be knee-deep in DDG's.
Mandates are easy, and don't show up on government budgets. They are also a side-effect of the strong-executive theory of government. If livestock operators think their study group report will have any more effect than the Iraq Report, they are fooling themselves. In fact, they might be the next big subsidy recipients.

This decision has been made, I think and there is small chance of turning back (we like to stay the course a lot).

Too bad it's another unfortunate choice.
Medical posturing from the ivory towers...

President Bush's purported health insurance SOTU proposal has been leaked and the economist-blogosphere is buzzing with instant analyses. I've read about 10 and not one - that's right, ZERO - seem to address the fundamental underlying problems:
  1. Providing all the medical care we now have to everybody.
  2. Including the growing number of "uninsurables" (thanks to rapidly improving screening such as genetic testing) outside groups or self-employed.
One can only assume that most academic economists have pretty darn good coverage through their universities, and have never confronted the issue of being able to pay for insurance but being turned down.

Health insurance is simply a way to hand the bill around. It does nothing to tackle the hard problem of how many liver transplants a person is allowed, or whether to do bypass surgery on a 90-year old or how does a 25 year-old independent trucker with genetic markers for MS get coverage.

Our problem is not just medical insurance. It's paying for all the medical care we now can provide, such as drugs and procedures never imagined 10 years ago. And for how long? The expenditure of increasing portions of our economic output in the final few months of lives is a growing problem that nobody want to tackle, even as it threatens to consume us.

Monday, January 22, 2007

They warned you to plant refuges...

The latest version of the corn borer

Just kidding! This is cecropia caterpillar in a particular stage of shedding (molting?).

Looks to me like it was designed by Lego.
My campaign for an HDTV [Day 1]...

We watch about 10 hours of TV per week - really - I timed it. Thanks to TiVo we watch only stuff we like. But like many of you, I have a perfectly good TV to watch on.

ALL the other guys have BIG TV's however. I am being oppressed. So I have begun an intellectual campaign to convince myself that I need one of those sleek marvels in my living room. It would really help if you guys who have one write in with rapturous comments about how it has changed your life for the better.

Actually, some people are finding despite their skepticism that HDTV adds something.

But my favorite is a Discovery On Demand channel, which has a series called "Sunrise Earth." Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Put down the bong. But you need no bong to be entranced by the simplicity of the series. It takes the highest quality video cameras around the world and captures 50-minute scenes of the dawn in a variety of spots on this water-planet. There is no narration; no music; just natural sounds. Here's one review:

When seen in vivid, crystal-clear HDTV, the effect is hypnotic. Few viewers will fail to have an impulse to immediately book a flight to join the fun. After watching last night's program on the Cadillac Mountains at the Acadia National Park in Maine, I quickly checked my work schedule for vacation dates. When seen in high-def, the burnt orange skies lingering over the Maine mountains was enough to make me forget, well, nearly everything.

Again, like Kubrick's "Dawn of Man," Sunrise Earth lets the high-def pictures do the talking. There is no narrator getting in the way; only an occasional graphic reveals the location and the time of day. It's a powerful technique. By eliminating the human altogether, Sunrise Earth makes you feel like what you're seeing could be what you would have seen hundreds of years ago. It's nature unplugged.

I checked into that show, and it looks pretty cool. However, some TV producers are worried about that HDTV may actually deliver too-realistic images.

I'm going to investigate what it will take to upgrade my DirecTV subscription to HD. Their goofy website does not make this an easy task.

I'm also thinking that those puppies may go on sale after the Super Bowl.

More later.
Trojan consumers...

There is a trend in public debate to create a "consumer advocacy" group out of thin air. I suppose there is something authentic seeming about "grassroots" opinions. So now, it has become common in public relations for corporate and political campaigns to quietly organize, fund, and even prop up dupes to pose as the "grass". The trendy term for such fronts is "astroturfing"

Some examples:
  • Here in Illinois (Rex Grossman for President!) we about to start paying full price for electricity after a mandated freeze. Politicians are sorting themselves out and a helpful "consumer" group has emerged to inform the public about this proposed rate hike.
The commercial, in a foreboding tone, suggests that the lights may go out in Illinois if an electricity rate freeze is extended.

"We don't need a California-style energy crisis in Illinois," cautions a voice representing Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity.

It may sound like the campaign of a grass-roots consumer group, but it is not.

Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity gets most of its money from ComEd. CORE, as it is known, is a group of organizations and executives, many with ties to ComEd or the utility industry.

But ComEd's name is nowhere to be seen as the voice-over raises the specter of the disaster to come if the Illinois legislature extends the freeze on electricity rates next week. The commercial has been running on television stations around the state in recent weeks, and full-page ads have been placed in newspapers. [More]

  • In New York, PETA is being attacked by a similar "consumer group"

There's a very public PR campaign (full page ads in today's New York Times, billboards in Times Square) attacking PETA. Click on their website and hit about us, and you'll find a link. Two more clicks and you find:

The Center for Consumer Freedom is supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals. From farm to fork, our friends and supporters include businesses, employees and consumers.

The Wikipedia article sheds a bit more light, pointing out that a cigarette company was the initial sponsor of the group and that fast food restaurants are funders as well. Millions of dollars worth of funding from a few giant corporations. [More]

While I'm not crying for PETA, the tactic stinks.The happy part is thanks to search engines, anyone can find out who these groups really are. So when I link to a site and wonder where their info comes from and who is punching the buttons, I always start with the "About Us" page. I also like to Google board members and check financial reports.

As for this doubtful source, I get paid by FJ Media to write this drivel and these opinions and words are my very own (not counting the stuff I stole outright or was too lazy to link).

They aren't that easy to think up either.
This can only get worse...

Thanks to a strange set of consequences, "meatlifting" is now the number one "loss prevention" problem for supermarkets.
Meatlifting is a grave problem for food retailers: According to the Food Marketing Institute, meat was the most shoplifted item in America's grocery stores in 2005. (It barely edged out analgesics and was a few percentage points ahead of razor blades and baby formula.)

Meat's dubious triumph is due in part to a law enforcement crackdown on methamphetamine use. Meat used to be the shoplifting runner-up to health-and-beauty-care items, a category that includes cough medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in home-cooked meth. In 2003, for example, a quarter of shoplifted products were HBCs, while meat took second place at 16 percent. But states began passing laws that require stores to move medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind secure counters. That was enough to cut the pinching of HBCs, which fell by 11 percent between 2003 and 2005.

When ethanol demand raises feed prices and the livestock industry cuts back production, meat prices will likely rise. Too many weird store security scenarios spring to mind as shoppers respond with more theft attempts.
So, more innovation is required in the battle against meatlifting. Meat-sniffing dogs pop to mind, though some shoppers might object to having a Doberman nosing around their crotches in search of stolen steaks. But you know what they say about civil liberties in a time of crisis. [more]

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I think we can label this "bad press"...

A searing indictment of Smithfield Farms ran in the Rolling Stone magazine. Not pretty.
We climb to 2,000 feet and head toward the densest concentration of hogs in the world. The landscape at first is unsuspiciously pastoral -- fields planted in corn or soybeans or cotton, tree lines staking creeks, a few unincorporated villages of prefab houses. But then we arrive at the global locus of hog farming, and the countryside turns into an immense subdivision for pigs. Hog farms that contract with Smithfield differ slightly in dimension but otherwise look identical: parallel rows of six, eight or twelve one-story hog houses, some nearly the size of a football field, containing as many as 10,000 hogs, and backing onto a single large lagoon. From the air I see that the lagoons come in two shades of pink: dark or Pepto Bismol -- vile, freaky colors in the middle of green farmland.

From the plane, Smithfield's farms replicate one another as far as I can see in every direction. Visibility is about four miles. I count the lagoons. There are 103. That works out to at least 50,000 hogs per square mile. You could fly for an hour, Dove says, and all you would see is corporate hog operations, with little towns of modular homes and a few family farms pinioned amid them.

The viewpoint is far from even-handed, and the language is masterfully accusatory. However, discounting these fully still yields a pile of bad news and worse projections. Most troubling to me is the concluding paragraph about plans for Eastern Europe.
When Joseph Luter entered Poland, he announced that he planned to turn the country into the "Iowa of Europe." Iowa has always been America's biggest hog producer and remains the nation's chief icon of hog farming. Having subdued Poland, Luter announced this summer that all of Eastern Europe -- "particularly Romania" -- should become the "Iowa of Europe." Seventy-five percent of Romania's hogs currently come from household farms. Over the next five years, Smithfield plans to spend $800 million in Romania to change that.

Even though I consider myself an industrial farmer, I support strong efforts to control environmental externalities caused by CAFO's (or any agricultural activity). We can find other methods of husbandry and we can endure higher meat costs to fund them.

States like North Carolina have the right to manage such economic activity as they choose, but they may be surprised what the increasing population density on the East Coast can do even against powerful business interests.

We're not the only farmers doing well...unfortunately...

Say what you will about the old Taliban, but those guys ran a tight drug ship. Oh sure they oppressed the heck out of women especially, and the population in general, but they really put the clamps on the opium trade.

Our record is somewhat less effective...

But the most mind-boggling datapoint to me is a 2006 World Bank estimate that opium production in Afghanistan now accounts for at least one-third of the country's GDP.

Hardly a surprise that we've failed to locate bin Laden. Hell, we apparently can't even find almost half a million acres of opium. [More]

The popularity of harsh authoritarianism in lawless countries is hardly surprising. People who feel threatened sometimes feel the trade off of freedom for safety is worth it. Something similar may be happening under our noses.

“Wait a minute,” Specter interjected. “The Constitution says you can’t take it away except in case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus unless there’s a rebellion or invasion?”

Gonzales continued, “The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right shall not be suspended” except in cases of rebellion or invasion. [More of a very scary interview with your Attorney General and mine]

When any American loses a basic right, we all do.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I'll bet I can rig this up in my shower...

Sure - a few T-jet valves, and old Apple computer, some garden hose...

What could go wrong?

[Via BoingBoing]

Friday, January 19, 2007

One more reason to distrust horses...

Never my favorite animal, the horse reveals it hideous nature once again. Watch the chicken. The poor innocent chicken...

[via Neatorama]

Updated 1/20 to add the "missing link" - heh, heh.
A new toy for teaching change in our world...

Check out the latest amazing piece of work from Google.

Follow the path of the Russian Federation, for one. And then watch China and India. You can slow it down and focus on individual countries.

[via HitandRun]
It would make merging on the interstate easier...

The Navy is experimenting with new electromagnetic catapults that can hurl a plane off a carrier. The acceleration is 0 to 150 mph in under a second - which is why I used the verb "hurl".

The limiting factor is going to be the poor dude in the cockpit. Keeping in mind the brain is about the consistency of week-old pudding, 14 G's could be a pretty hard on even the toughest airman.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm not worthy...

The Top producer Seminar has turned out to be the best meeting I've been at in year. Part of it is due to the general euphoria from $4 corn, but the large crowd also has a sense of the significance of this moment.

To be sure, there is a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming tome to the conversations, and a determined effort to not get overly worked up, but it is hard to keep from grinning. And I think more than a few of us are trying to figure out what we have done to deserve this economic blessing.

Some of them remember 1973-4 and how that price spike set the expectation level for my generation. I got to the party late in 1975, but my friends were still talking about then. Somehow, I think this good fortune is different.

First, demand for ethanol - and hence - corn is not a whim of the marketplace or foreign buyers - it is mandated by law. While I personally think mandates are bad policy, the fact remains they are in place an controlling corn demand.

Second, while small livestock producers will likely be hit hard by this run-up in feed prices, much of the feed demand is from very large operations who will adapt differently than individual producers - even running losses for significant periods. The events of 1995 showed us how long they will hang tough.

Farmers (and I'm talking grain farmers here) are better positioned and have, it is to be hoped improved management skills at their commands.

I think we can handle prosperity. But can we do it with grace and maturity?