Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Another reason you don't want autosteer on your ox...

A-B lines won't help much here.

(Really - it's terraced fields in China)

[via Neatorama]
OK, maybe it matters a little bit...

I cannot deny being a flummoxed by the inertia of our behemoth economy. It shrugs off problems like the housing slowdown and marches on. The deficit balloons and no lightning strikes.
The president claims that his $2.57 trillion budget is the first step on the road to fulfilling his campaign promise to halve the deficit by 2009, even if Congress agrees to make his tax cuts permanent and enacts still more reductions. That claim is completely unfounded. Indeed, if the White House team that drafted this budget were subject to Sarbanes-Oxley, criminal indictments would be flying.

Start with the fact that most of the spending reductions the president proposes will be rejected by Congress. The budget calls for the elimination or curtailment of some 150 programs. But last year the president proposed eliminating 65 programs for a savings of $4.8 billion--and Congress agreed to eliminate only four programs for a savings of less than $200 million. Although Congress is under some pressure to keep spending down, it is under even more pressure from the farm lobby, the business lobby, the veterans' lobby, the poverty lobby, and the oldies' lobby, to mention only a few groups that will fight Bush's cuts. [More]

This has been a bad time for doomsayers.

Nonetheless, I feel like saying some doom. And I'm not alone.
Modern accounting requires that corporations, state governments and local governments count expenses immediately when a transaction occurs, even if the payment will be made later.

The federal government does not follow the rule, so promises for Social Security and Medicare don't show up when the government reports its financial condition.

Bottom line: Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household. By comparison, U.S. households owe an average of $112,043 for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and all other debt combined.

Unfunded promises made for Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs account for 85% of taxpayer liabilities. State and local government retirement plans account for much of the rest. [More]

One thing I have noticed during my life is how long it takes for the trees to fall. Even after the final through-cut is made, a large tree will remain upright, only slowly developing the momentum that hurls it to earth. I have witnessed this same phenomenon as farmers who farmed badly took decades to exit, despite doing everything wrong at every chance.

We Boomers may pull off the last great generational robbery as we suck resources from future generations aided by fictitious accounting illustrated above.

Not a great epitaph.
Universal health care and a real currency?...

Those sneaky ol' Canadians have been using economic performance-enhancing potions, I guess. Take a look at the Canadian dollar (yeah, the one we used to laugh at 5 years ago).

Considering the hysteria that marks U.S. currency relationships with China and Japan, which stand accused of maintaining cheap currencies to boost exports, there should be widespread applause here for Canada. But as the Canadian dollar on Tuesday reached nearly a 30-year high against the U.S. dollar, trading at $1.07 Canadian per U.S. dollar, the Cassandras of international trade can't seem to find any words for our neighbors to the north. As far as I know, none of the financial pundits is saluting Canada's boon to U.S. exporters or, for that matter, complaining that the biggest U.S. trading partner is holding up U.S. consumers, who must pay more for Canadian goods. [More]
Most of my career producers near our northern border have been irked by the currency advantage that seemed to operate for Canadian competitors. Thanks to our huge appetite for Canadian energy, the gripes could be flowing the other way.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A trick of perspective...

I have never been good with 3-D puzzles. Two dimensions seem to work for me.

I'm from Illinois.

The video below - even when explained - still mystifies me.

Why Yao Ming looks so tall...

This is an example of an Ames room. See the accompanying post (since I don't know how to link in YouTube posts.)

[via Presurfer]

Right arm, Jim...

Little Jimmy Weisemeyer comments on the farm bill to date and hits the nail on the head.
Farm bill wild cards: If President Bush vetoes many FY08 appropriations bill, this would muck up House and Senate floor debate for the farm bill and could push the end zone into 2008. Also, I am still not ruling out a presidential veto of the farm bill whenever it comes if it exceeds the spending level the White House eventually lays out, and/or if the bill doesn't provide most of the reforms reflected in the administration's farm bill language. [More, by subscription]

The farther we go into the sunset of the Bush administration the less predictable he becomes. Crimony, when your ratings are in the low thirties, what have you got to lose? The idea of Pres. Bush vetoing a generous farm bill is not unthinkable.

See, you just thought of it.

Nor would the farm bill be the only example. Consider the quiet efforts by the administration to reform food aid.
But critics say it does so in a way that benefits American shippers and food producers at the expense of thousands of people who die of hunger unnecessarily. That's because under its Food for Peace program, the U.S. buys only grain and other food produced in this country, and then ships 75 percent of that load on U.S.-flagged ships, which many say delays delivery of food aid that is needed in a hurry.

Now the Bush administration has joined those critics, quietly proposing a change to Food for Peace, the Eisenhower-era aid program that provides hunger relief overseas, a shift that the White House contends will save 50,000 lives a year. But the change faces sharp opposition in Congress and from states with influential farm and shipping interests. [More]

It could also be that the iron grip of the White House has been loosened allowing conservative administrators a chance to do something, well, conservative before hitting the consultancy road.

Makes me roll round the idea of one-only, 6-year presidential terms.

Monday, May 28, 2007

It beats big horses...

How many times do we have to listen to Carl Orff's composition before we ask who actually wrote it?

Whoa - I'm kinda thirsty.

You are wrong...

So am I. Here's why.

[via Neatorama]
News from the front...

I post often about trends in food. Sooner or later they show up here on the farm. Just a sample of the current chatter:
The last decade's avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what's in it, and how it's made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil. American culture is in the gradual process of rediscovering the pre-industrial food system, and recovering some of the benefits that many other countries have yet to lose: seasonality of fruits and vegetables, the higher quality of meats produced by smaller-scale production, etc. [More]

While mildly voiced, the resonating message of this commentary is less about the conclusions, and more about how deeply embedded the idea that industrial agriculture has let us down as food consumers.

This is bald nonsense. Our agricultural apparatus, while skewed sadly by government intervention simply supplies the consumer what they pay for. Since recently they have shown an attraction to process in addition to price, producers are scrambling to supply that market. Chastising an astoundingly efficient industry for not anticipating the consumer's latest whim is childish.

Agriculture cannot turn on a dime. However, put down a dollar....
Big whoop...

Forecasters have read the omens for this year's hurricane season. I am beside myself with excitement.
The 2007 Atlantic hurricane season should have above-average activity, with three major hurricanes and a good chance at least one of them will make landfall, a top hurricane researcher said Friday. [More]

Methinks no sane forecaster would offer a "below normal" forecast. How many things could go wrong there? Better to err on the side of caution and predict the sky will fall. Someday. Maybe.

How good are these predictions?
Not bad at all. In general, the predictions fall within a storm or two of the observed totals. Last season, though, the forecasters had a bad year. 2004's six intense hurricanes doubled most predictions. The seasonal total of nine hurricanes was also significantly higher than expected. Forecasters blamed the poor predictions on a "year [that] did not behave like any other year we have studied." [More]

Provide me a break. To begin with the most-often quoted hurricane guru also has a prominent role in the global warming debate. And if it's OK to poke fun at Al Gore (too easy for any real humorist), Dr. Gray is also fair game.
The problem is not Gray's age -- we all revered Henry Stommel who did some of his finest work in his seventies. The problem is Gray's failure to adapt to a modern era of meteorology, which demands hypotheses soundly grounded in quantitative and consistent physical formulations, not seat-of-the-pants flying. The WSJ also made much of the withdrawal of an invitation for Gray to join a debate on hurricane trends at an Atlanta tropical meteorology conference. We can't speak for the organizers, but we find it easy to believe that their decision was guided more by the invalidity of Gray's scientific reasoning than by any political or personal considerations. [More]

So am I deeply concerned about this year's hurricane season? Actually, yes. America has demonstrated that where hurricanes are likely to hit are a low-empathy sector of our economy. Perhaps it is necessary to be harsh to discourage coastal development and shoddy building practice, but if we did not learn anything from Katrina, the victims are wretched indeed.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's only going to get worse...

As the push for green energy gathers momentum we will see more stories like this soon:
California's nearly 2 million cows, most living on industrial-scale dairies, create a huge and costly waste problem. According to the PUC order approving the BioEnergy deal, a single thousand-pound dairy cow each day produces 10 pounds of "volatile solids" - that's bureaucratese for poop - which can be transformed into 72 cubic feet of biogas. Dairy owners can dispose of that burden, clean up the environment and turn crap into cash by cutting deals with companies like BioEnergy. PG&E benefits as the biogas produced counts toward a state mandate that it obtain 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources b y 2010. Such projects typically produce some sort of green "credits" that can be used toward meeting emissions limits or can be sold on carbon trading markets. PG&E will retain some of those so-called environmental attributes produced by the cow power project though the PUC said it remains to be decided just how they might be applied when California's cap on greenhouse gas limits comes into force. [More]

I have no complaint with the facts of the story, but as non-ag media writers start to investigate bioenergy of all forms they seem to get nervous around manure - resorting to cutesy wordplay ("crap into cash"??) and double entendres.

Look folks, it's excrement. And mankind has spent considerable effort to devise all kinds of scatological language to deal with our instinctive aversion to feces. And after a while, you get used to it.

I am not "dissing" these writers - just the opposite. In time they will develop a more detached view of manure, just as generations of livestock producers have. We should not expect it overnight.

Still, I think we've heard 99% of the manure jokes by now.
I blame Tom DeLay...

People are smiling for their mug shots now.

Maybe it's because they know they are being posted in the Internet.

Or maybe they just enjoy their work.

Somebody tell Glenn Campbell.

[via Presurfer]

Pistol Shrimp

Way cool! As one commenter notes: "Even shrimp love the taste of shrimp".

[via Presurfer]

Take my carbon. Please...

When last we visited the subject of global climate change, several readers had shared their points of view on the seriousness of the problem and whether it indeed exists. You can read all the posts and comments by clicking on "global warming" in the Labels section below.

Suffice it to say at this point I accept the argument that greenhouse gases (GHG) are contributing significantly to climate change. The question now becomes: What if anything can or should we do about it?

The answer has been reduced to two primary options: emissions trading and carbon taxes.
Policymakers and businesses are now trying to figure out the best way to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Why impose limits? Because accumulating scientific evidence indicates that the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing average temperatures to rise globally. This increase could trigger significant disruption of the world’s climate by the end of this century. Although there remain serious uncertainties about the magnitude of the human role in climate change, there is a growing consensus that emissions need to be reduced. [If you only read one link - read this one]

At first glance, most would likely opt for the one that does not include the word "taxes". But another way of looking at carbon taxes is pricing energy with all the externalities included. Rather than a government revenue scheme, carbon emitters (energy users) would no longer be subsidized by future generations who will experience the downstream costs of our energy consumption.
How? With a carbon tax that assesses fuels according to how much they pollute. Coal, having the highest carbon content, would be taxed the most, followed by oil and natural gas. The higher prices for the most damaging fuels would encourage people and companies to use them less and more of other types of energy, including nuclear, solar, wind and biofuels. This approach also would affect all sources -- not just cars, which account for only one-fifth of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. [More]
Such a tax is termed a Pigovian tax after economist Arthur Pigou. One of the strongest proponents of the carbon tax has been economist Greg Mankiw. One powerful reason he cites is the importance of switching to consumption taxes.
Economic growth. Public finance experts have long preached that consumption taxes are better than income taxes for long-run economic growth, because income taxes discourage saving and investment. Gas is a component of consumption. An increased reliance on gas taxes over income taxes would make the tax code more favorable to growth. It would also encourage firms to devote more R&D spending to the search for gasoline substitutes. [More]

Emissions markets seem to solve the problem without making us actually, well, do anything. And for the most part, the European experiment in emissions trading was handled just that way - the governments simply handed out emissions allowances until they were worthless. Nonetheless, for many farmers sporadic articles describing how we could suddenly get a payment for sequestering carbon by simply doing what we do is tempting compared to paying $5 for diesel.

On the whole, going at GHG reduction via trading schemes strikes me as incredibly complicated and inefficient, since vast bureaucracies for measuring, allocating, and administering caps and credits would be required. Of course, this is one reason such plans are popular with legislators and government planners.

One big challenge is how we will get corn residues to breakdown and release nitrogen without releasing carbon - another complicating factor for all-corn cropping strategies.
Tillage will decompose the residue faster by mixing oxygen into the soil system, but the carbon and nitrogen release from the residue will be rapid, far before the crop needs the nutrients. A legume cover crop could reduce some of this nitrogen penalty by providing some biological diversity. [More]

I favor the carbon tax. By making it revenue neutral via lower income taxes and capital gains taxes (which would go a long way to ending 1031 problems and estate hassles), we could shift our taxing structure and discourage fossil fuel consumption. Since the wealthy consume more energy, they would pay most of the taxes, and progressive rebating via lower income taxes would mitigate the burden on low earners while still encouraging consumption changes.

But the even bigger reason is this: ethanol/biofuels would likely not be subject to a carbon tax - it is not a fossil fuel, and hence, carbon-neutral. Taxes would have been paid for the coal or natural gas needed to power the plant, but the result would still be a wider spread between ethanol and gasoline than without the tax. This pricing advantage would lower the need for other legislative protections for biofuels. A carbon tax would solidify the future of biofuels more securely than mandates, credits, and tariffs.

A gradually increasing carbon tax would make energy expensive, and perhaps finally make lower consumption via changing our lifestyles more imaginable to more Americans. To be sure, our world will change, but perhaps in a better way.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Walmart has another problem..

I like to watch issues that fall off the radar but still reverberate in the marketplace. One of these could be the melamine-laced pet food debacle that featured the source - China - prominently over and over.
Following recent scares over food contaminated with the banned substance melamine, a number of processors - including Nutracea, Mission Foods and Tyson Foods - have announced that their ingredients are not, or will no longer be, sourced from China. [More]

While we in agriculture observe this sputter of outrage by consumers with mild interest, you can bet your stock option boards of directors are asking where ingredients are coming from. And not just ingredients, perhaps.
This sorry episode illustrates that a global food supply requires honesty and integrity. If China or any other country wants to sell its products on the international market, it needs to make sure that its products are top-of-the-line. Arresting a company manager is not an acceptable long-term solution. [More]
Meanwhile, America's top retailer is so deeply invested in Chinese sources that the cloud over imports could impact sales of all kinds of retail goods.
Most people are not aware of the massive effect that the world’s largest company has on the American food supply. As noted by Charles Fishman in his book “The Wal-Mart Effect,” Wal-Mart is China’s eighth-largest trading partner. In 2004, almost 10 percent of everything imported to the United States from China was imported by Wal-Mart. With the way Wal-Mart pushes its suppliers to do business at the lowest possible cost, systems are poorly regulated and done on the cheap.

The role of China in American products extends beyond pet food and nonperishable goods. The precedent that such imports set can be felt system-wide. According to the Washington Post, “China’s agriculture exports to the United States surged to $2.26 billion last year, according to U.S. figures — more than 20 times the $133 million of 1980,” “China Food Fears go from Pets to People,” Washington Post, April 25. [More]
The impact on Walmart comes at an inconvenient time. As has been pointed out by numerous analysts, Walmart's primary consumer market is the lower 50% of earners, and those are exactly the citizens who have been left out of the prosperity growth in America.
Analysts believe that Wal-Mart has a ready-made market
at hand as 20% of its 100 million customers don't have
bank accounts. The chain already offers financial services
such as check cashing, bill payment and money orders,
and it has 28 Wal-Mart Money Centers, which are
operated by SunTrust Banks, as well as hundreds of other
in-store bank branches. [More]
The persistent reminders of wildly unequal economic progress in the US and the world remind us how national statistics can be a cold comfort, regardless of their positive nature.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The metaphor at the end of the rainbow...

I'm not crazy about Tom Friedman's book, "The World Is Flat". It turns out I'm not alone, but other critics have other reasons. Edward Leamer meticulously deconstructs the metaphor of worldly flatness and finds it unhelpful.

In the process, he refreshes my memory on one agricultural example (assuming I ever knew it in the first place).
The German farmer Johann H. Von Thünen noticed that farmland closer to the towns
where the produce was sold commanded a premium price, and he is credited with being
the father of economic geography because in 1826 he postulated a featureless (flat) plane
of land with a town in the center. Crops shipped from farm to town had different ratios
of transportation cost to value. Fertilizers and farm implements were shipped the other
way. These assumptions create a sequence of “Von Thünen” concentric rings of
farmland around the town center, with the land rents highest near the center, with
“heavy” crops that need fertilizers produced close to market. (A modern version of this
idea is the micro-economic exam question: “Why does the State of Washington ship its
best apples to other states, not its worst?”) [More]

This is what I was awkwardly trying to get to when I posted that warnings of high-priced land in the path of development were meaningless. That's where high-priced land should be.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Predictable compromises...

The supplemental emergency funding for Iraq was seen as a major victory for the administration. Like many of the President's wins, it was largely bought on credit.
Democratic leaders still insisted on about $20 billion in non-war domestic spending as part of the deal. That includes money for military and veterans' health care, Hurricane Katrina relief, military base closure costs, drought aid for farmers and medical coverage for poor children. Also part of the deal is the first federal minimum wage hike in more than a decade. [More]

Another example: the immigration deal between legislative leaders and the White House deleted the requirement that illegal immigrants pay back taxes to earn citizenship.
Forget that part about the taxes. The Bush administration actually asked that the provision requiring payment of back taxes be dropped from the bill, and it was taken out. Kennedy had it in! ...

P.S.: White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said:

Determining the past tax liability would have been very difficult and costly and extremely time consuming.

Try that "difficult and time consuming" excuse out on the IRS if you're a U.S. citizen and see how far it gets you. ... [More]
This pattern is pretty firmly fixed for both branches of the current government. Lacking any compelling crisis such as interest rates, the solution to every problem from gay marriage to energy prices will likely be found in adding to the deficit.

Well, every problem except the deficit, of course.

The farmer buyout trend gains momentum...

While the US is contemplating various buyout schemes to end ag subsidies, we may just be part of a global movement.
The EU Commission wants to offer wine-growers cash incentives to voluntarily take land out of grape production. After cries of protest, she this week cut the proposed scheme from 400,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares. [More]
This idea: Big-Money-Now, just might work. After all they are dangling the incentives in front of Baby Boomers - arguably the most selfish generation in history.

Regardless, I think a pattern is being molded for farm policy. And I'm not so sure it is misguided.
Stare at the cross...

[Click on image first] Did you see the rabbit? From here.

[via 3 quarks]
Sports for all...

Sometime in my childhood, we adopted a pretty rigorous approach to athletics. Teams, coaches, rules, schedules, and of course, parents. The result has been a few spectacularly skilled players the rest of us watch. But what about the fun we used to have inventing and then playing our own sports? Maybe it's not completely gone.
And it also poses an interesting question: Why don't more people invent new sports?

After all, we live in a golden age of play. The video-game industry is bristling with innovation: You've got haptic controllers on the Wii, titles like Eye of Judgment merging card-games with computers, and the increasingly strange economic activity in online worlds. Our culture is clearly hungry for new forms of play.

Yet how many new major physical sports have you played in recent years? Zero, I'll bet. The pantheon of major team-sports -- football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey -- hasn't significantly altered in decades.

So Russotti decided to expand the field a bit. By creating a new sport, he decided, he could level the playing field between athletes. When you join a pickup game of basketball or football, it's always slightly marred by the fact that some of the players will be totally experienced -- making it slightly more dull for the less-expert folks. A new sport wouldn't have that problem. [More]
[Please check the video link adjacent for a visual explanation.]

Between the obnoxious
all-closeup-all-the-time TV production style in vogue today (how many times do I have to see Andy Pettite peer over his glove?) and the adoption of frenetic quick cuts, sports especially have become hard to watch if you have any attention span at all. Throw in boorish (heck - violent) fan/player behavior, I have pretty well tuned out professional sports.

Still, I love a game, and I need the exercise.

Wiffle Hurling 10

To understand this please see the adjacent post.

[via Science Daily]

Another buyout...

The political impossibility of ending farm subsidies - despite the impeccable logic - has caused more payment opponents to consider a buyout.
Unfortunately the very political power that keeps farmers on the government payroll means that an outright and overnight end to farm programs is unlikely without "financial inducement." An up-front buyout of existing trade barriers and farm subsidies, based on (but less than) the present discounted value of seven years of expected payments—5 years representing the approximate tenure of a farm bill, plus two bonus years—might do the trick. Based on current spending projections, that could cost somewhere in the vicinity of $75 billion.
The psychological scheme here is we farmers will opt for money now and to heck with the future. While I can entertain that strategy as plausible, it only seems likely if producers are convinced the subsidies are going to end anyway. There is the tough idea to swallow.

Repealing the permanent farm legislation is required for this option to be credible.

[I'll try to post more on this plan from The Cato Institute after it is released Wednesday.]

Monday, May 21, 2007

Food and justice...

The strengthening connection between food and politics should be of interest to producers, I believe. While the livestock sector will feel it first and most powerfully, it could redound* to change the methodology of grain productions as well.
The Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, has endorsed the idea of a hechsher tzedek ("certificate of justice"), a Jewish seal of approval that would go beyond the usual dietary rules to include the compensation and working conditions of people who produce kosher food. It's the brainchild of Minnesota rabbi Morris Allen, who was upset by reports that immigrant workers at a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa are poorly paid, receive meager health benefits, and get inadequate safety training. Not surprisingly, Orthodox rabbis, who have long dominated the business of certifying food as kosher, are not pleased with Morris' idea. [More]

Aside the obvious connection to food processing, most interesting to me are the litmus tests for "fairness". Note the prominent mention of "health benefits". As more Americans join the ranks of the uninsured, the outcry of inequality will increase.

Of course, few are willing to discuss how to pay for all the medical services we can now provide - they want to talk health insurance. This is mindless. Insurance is way of spreading the costs of random occurrences across all potential victims - not an bottomless pit of assets available for every medical miracle. Nor should we be surprised when non-random health problems such as lifestyle choices wrench such schemes into unworkability.

Nonetheless, the debate will increasingly be framed in the form of "affordable medical insurance" - not the harder debate about how much care can we give to every person, especially at the end of life.

Simply put, this is an insufficient answer.

* Don't ask me, it just seemed like the right word.
Ya see, this is what I have to put up with...

Behold the following epistle forwarded to me by a colleague:

I just wanted to write a note to tell you how much I appreciate Top Producer magazine. The articles are consistently comprised of things I want to know about. I have read the Spring 2007 issue from cover to cover and reread and scanned several articles for my archives.

BTW, did you know John P. is equating cellulosic ethanol to “cold fusion” (Johns World Blog May 16). That is hilarious. He will either be right or wrong and we will know in a couple of years.

I think “Cold Fusion” would be a great name for a cocktail.

Cold Fusion

2 oz. undenatured cellulosic ethanol

2 oz. corn sweetener

2 oz. V8


Glass: double rocks

Garnish: pickled asparagus

Mix V8 and corn sweetener in ice filled glass.

Blend ice and ethanol. Strain into glass. Stir. Garnish.


Sheesh - I don't get no respect.

PS. Needs some lime juice.

What if something gets done?...

I have been re-reading my posts and to my surprise, have noticed my references to bi-partisanship and cooperation suddenly appearing. It was apparent in the announcement of the immigration proposal, and the new farm bill idea put forward by a mixed group of Congressfolk last week as well.

Trade issues have also been rejuvenated.
Of course, there are many who deserve credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) for the deal.

On the Republican side, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, and House Ways and Means ranking minority member Jim McCrery, of Louisiana, all showed they could get something done with a Democratic House.

On the other side, House Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, of Michigan, a leader on developing a new consensus on trade, nailed down guidelines he has been championing for years. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defied critics by showing she is willing to both take on the president and cooperate on legislation when appropriate. [More]

It is hard for me to pinpoint exactly how this pragmatic spirit is gathering momentum. But until proven otherwise, I'll ascribe it to politicians who are sincerely interested in getting something done and weary of confrontational, strong-arm legislating.

This also means we'd better pay attention a little more closely to what's going down in DC. Stuff could happen!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This one is different...

Finished another book - pretty amazing for planting season.
The extended adolescence threat...

As we stretch the dependency of children into their 30's we may be underwriting our own extinction. It turns out reproductive speed - no, not that speed - is crucial to the survival of species.
The oft-cited causes of habitat loss and living in a limited geographic area also are significant risks for extinction of a species, but under hunting pressure it's reproductive speed that really matters, according to a new statistical analysis by evolutionary biologist Samantha Price, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham.

This key variable helps explain, for example, why the American bison was nearly wiped out in just a few years of intense hunting pressure with relatively slight habitat change while the white-tailed deer continues to grow in number despite hunting and suburban sprawl. The bison nurses its young for 283 days on average; the deer just 80, Price notes. [More science-sounding reasons to use when your kid wants move back]

Kick 'em outta the house at 12, move and leave no forwarding address. Your descendants will thank you.

Science - ya gotta love it.
I'm still on board...

I still get goosebumps when I see old pictures imagining the future. like this one from 1984 showing the Farm Of the Future.

Something about the imaginings of our youth resides in our mental hope chests, perhaps. Or maybe it's just part and parcel of growing up during a time when technology could do no wrong. Regardless, these reminders of what I thought today would be like have the power to make me smile and remain hopeful.

I think the difference is how fascinated we were then with the future. The visions were overwhelmingly optimistic and the idea of science - for many of us at least - as the great benefactor of mankind was pervasive and convincing.

And for the most part, has been proven correct.


Boy, this new lens is great - it's like he's right in front of the camera!

[via Arbroath]
Too bad nobody reads the papers...

Editors across the country are wading into farm bill opinions. A current sampling:
Last year, the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy published a study by Heather Schoonover and Mark Muller that looked at the change in food prices from 1985 to 2000, the same period during which child and adult obesity began to escalate. In that time, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by 38 percent. During the same time, the cost of soft drinks plummeted by nearly 23 percent, with significant declines in the costs of fats and oils, added sugars, and meat and dairy products. The authors cited farm bill spending priorities as a direct cause of this price disparity and resulting dietary imbalances.

In 2000, the surgeon general warned that the United States was in the throes of an obesity epidemic, with nearly two-thirds of Americans either clinically obese or overweight. As the link between obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease has become clearer, a new dietary reality is emerging. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated medical costs of dealing with the obesity and diabetes epidemic now surpass the total costs of the farm bill itself. The current subsidized food system, then, is anything but cheap. [More]

The source is worth noting as I think California is very much more in play for this farm bill. Just a few votes there, ya think?
For too long, the emphasis in agriculture legislation has been on handing handsome benefits to a small number of big-time farmers and farm businesses, at the expense of everyone else, including smaller farmers.

Instead, the program should be designed to pursue four goals: Help feed the hungry at home through food stamps and other programs; wean the farm industry from taxpayer support; protect the environment; and eradicate unfair trade practices built into the current system. [More]

Of course, the deeply-thinking tanks have lobbed some serious papers onto the battlefield as well. The powerful American Enterprise Institute offered these mild observations:
Elimination of farm subsidies for corn, wheat,
and soybeans would have little effect on farm
production or commodity prices. These Title 1
subsidies are in effect “money for nothing.”

Current dairy policy also transfers millions of
dollars from consumers to dairy farmers; the cost
to consumers and taxpayers far exceed the benefits
to dairy farmers.

Tough talk - but just talk. It is hard for me to take the AEI seriously. Farm policy has been one sin they easily tolerate to accomplish some greater good elsewhere in the economy. The right wing has shown little inclination to invest effort in reforming agricultural policy.

Perhaps the sleeper idea is the bi-partisan reform bill offered by Sen. Dick Lugar and Rep. Jeff Flake (among others). Just like the immigration bill - which oddly may have a chance simply because we have forgotten the power of compromise - this idea may have legs by virtue of its bi-partisan authorship and the fact it actually addresses some of the concerns being trumpeted above.

Of course, Memorial Day will anesthetize Washington shortly, and the immigration issue seems to have sucked the oxygen from the political debate, but for some reason, this proposal strikes me as at least worth following.

Really growing up...

Regardless of your politics, this is a commencement address worth pondering:
There is a verse from the Bible that is sometimes read or recited during rites of passage like this. Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.”

I bring this up because there’s often an assumption on days like today that growing up is purely a function of age; that becoming an adult is an inevitable progression that can be measured by a series of milestones – college graduation or your first job or the first time you throw a party that actually has food too.

And yet, maturity does not come from any one occasion – it emerges as a quality of character. Because the fact is, I know a whole lot of thirty and forty and fifty year olds who have not yet put away childish things – who continually struggle to rise above the selfish or the petty or the small.

We see this reflected in our country today.

We see it in a politics that’s become more concerned about who’s up and who’s down than who’s working to solve the real challenges facing our generation; a politics where debates over war and peace are reduced to 60-second soundbites and 30-second attack ads.

We see it in a media culture that sensationalizes the trivial and trivializes the profound – in a 24-hour news network bonanza that never fails to keep us posted on how many days Paris Hilton will spend in jail but often fails to update us on the continuing genocide in Darfur or the recovery effort in New Orleans or the poverty that plagues too many American streets.

And as we’re fed this steady diet of cynicism, it’s easy to start buying into it and put off hard decisions. We become tempted to turn inward, suspicious that change is really possible, doubtful that one person really can make a difference.

That’s where the true test of growing up occurs. That’s where you come in... [More]

I cannot remember any of the commencement speeches or speakers I have listened to as a parent, graduate or attendee. Precisely because I hadn't truly grown up, I suspect.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sound investments...

While many suppressed a gasp, the US population passed a numerical milestone: 100 million minority citizens.
The nation’s minority population reached 100.7 million, according to the national and state estimates by race, Hispanic origin, sex and age released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. A year ago, the minority population totaled 98.3 million.
“About one in three U.S. residents is a minority,” said Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon. “To put this into perspective, there are more minorities in this country today than there were people in the United States in 1910. In fact, the minority population in the U.S. is larger than the total population of all but 11 countries.”
But wait, there is more to get your attention:
Hispanics accounted for almost half (1.4 million) of the national population growth of 2.9 million between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2006.
With a 3.4 percent increase between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2006, Hispanic was the fastest-growing minority group. Asian was the second fastest-growing minority group, with a 3.2 percent population increase during the 2005-2006 period. The population of non-Hispanic whites who indicated no other race grew by 0.3 percent during the one-year period.
It should be clear that we in the present majority have an unworkable business plan. While we think of children in terms of expense and hassle, other cultures see their future in progeny. Though the argument can be made that rising prosperity will temper fertility rates of the most fecund groups, it seems clear that laws alone cannot preserve a culture which fails to heed the basic biologic imperative: propagate life.

My greatest regret as a parent is not being more of one - we stopped too soon. Perhaps having the ability to choose will doom us to the melancholy land of fulfilled wishes. I do not join critics who use this trend to condemn those who have made the choice to not have children - a particularly unkind group - but to note the all too obvious consequences, and speculate on their possible meaning.

At the same time, how shall we raise those children we did make time for? A great experiment on a grand scale is providing an illuminating insight:
In Shanghai — or Beijing, or Shenyang, or Hangzhou — children not in school are seen in the presence of one and usually more adult supervisors: parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, people from the neighborhood. But in this one afternoon in Mumbai we came across many scenes of what can only be called roving bands of kids. They were playing cricket in dirt lots. They were throwing stones. They were playing tag. They were running around without watchful adults immediately in sight. [More]
As the immigration debate rages today, it is fair, I believe, to grant fuller hearing to those who will actually populate the future - not just the present.
Send a flower to a friend or grandchild...

Look - it's silly, but good for a smile.

[via Neatorama]

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I normally don't do these...

(I'm afraid I'll turn into my brother-in-law who is our family's official spammaster.)

But a loyal reader writes:
Good Morning John
I enjoy reading your comments. I live in northwest Iowa and the crops look great in my area. Thought I'd pass on a picture I received from my son this morning. I think it is making the rounds on the internet.
Take care
Gary Trei

and sends this:

I guess I'm getting old enough to wince before I guffaw any more. There but for the grace of God...

It doesn't take an engineer to ponder how much longer infrastructure built for WD-45's will sustain modern equipment. Maybe some of our ethanol profits should go to upgrade stuff we've taken for granted.
The problem with courage...

Is that, like history, it often isn't obvious at the time. The courageous immigration deal announced today had a honeymoon of maybe 30-35 minutes before being roundly criticized by both sides.
The Senate will wade into an emotional and wide-ranging debate on the issue next week that promises to test the unlikely coalition that produced the deal. Almost instantly, the plan brought vehement criticism from both sides of the immigration issue, including liberals who called it unfair and unworkable and conservatives who branded it an overly permissive "amnesty." [More] [More]

The immense effort required by both Congress and the administration nonetheless should be applauded. This is one of the few examples of national leadership we have seen from Washington in years.

I think much of the outcry will originate from politicians who are afraid of losing their one reliable election year issue. If there is an immigration plan in effect, somebody might ask why we can't have a fiscal policy too.

As someone who does more than my share of pointing out flaws in our leadership, my hat's off to those who worked to get us even this far on this issue.

This explains the auto industry maybe...

The real point here is how important could that stamp imprint be anyway? I'll bet it says "Inspected by Number 45".

[via Neatorama]

Deep down inside, I know you're bored...

Has the constant stream of news from Iraq and the thundering oratory of warning about the Mideast started to, you know, leave you cold?

Maybe it's because you are thinking clearly.
Western analysts are forever bleating about the strategic importance of the middle east. But despite its oil, this backward region is less relevant than ever, and it would be better for everyone if the rest of the world learned to ignore it [More of a great article]
How long can a crisis continue before it becomes simply the way thing are? I suggest 4 years - the duration of high school, a presidential term, the timing of leap years, etc. At this point then, what most of us have been fussing about in the Mideast is likely the way things are and are going to be.

Our tendency - aided by the media desperate to deliver advertiser eyeballs - to label every event catastrophic has been so amplified by ubiquitous communications that perhaps our brains are tuning out to save our sanity. And in our sane moments I think we would call some bluffs on crisis-mongers.

It might beat current strategies.

Sound investment advice...

If you are like me, your biggest puzzle lately has been whether to invest in the new "forever" stamps. (Actually, I thought the name referred to the delivery time).

Turns out the economics of such a strategy are suspect.
Absolutely not. Since 1971, postal rates have increased more slowly than the actual inflation rate, as measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index. So, despite the numerous rate hikes over the last 36 years, stamps have actually been getting cheaper. The 20-cent stamp from 1981, for instance, would be equivalent to 45 cents in today's dollars—which makes today's rate 10 percent cheaper than it was 26 years ago. Should this historical pattern hold, you'd be paying more for today's forever stamps than you would for any stamp in the future, no matter how high the rate goes. [More]
There is a more compelling reason as well. Since I can barely write legibly now, what are the odds that I will be sending any letters in the future?

For that matter, what if there are no letters at all?

And then there is the male fear of commitment...
I could see this happening in corn...

A fallacious report of delays in production of the iPhone and Leopard operating system was enough to plunge Apple stock briefly and cost some people some serious electronic money.

Apple fell more than 4.47 points -- wiping just over 4 billion off the company's capitalization, according to Techcrunch -- in the space of six minutes after Ryan Block, a reporter for Engadget, posted a report that Apple's iPhone would be delayed by four months and its new Leopard operating system by three. [More]
With so much of the trading in commodities - like stocks - controlled by algorithmic computer programs, selling short and then posting some credible, but shocking tidbit on an not-too-obscure blog/website could reap some real change.

Not that it had ever crossed my mind, of course...

The guys I would suspect first are our old friends in Russia. They seem to be big into computer attacks. Maybe the next Great Grain Robbery will be by remote control.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Oh, this is going to be good...

Responding, I believe, to the growing concerns by consumers and our own livestock sector that ethanol is forcing corn prices a tad too high, legislators who think they can now mandate economics, are devising ways to shift to the "cold fusion" of agriculture: cellulosic ethanol.
"When I talk about energy and I talk about cellulose, you know, switch grass can be a commodity," Harkin said. "It may not be a commodity now, but in the next five to 10 years it could be a very big commodity ... Why are commodities just limited to what we've done in the last ... 50 years? Maybe there are new commodities out there we should be investing in."
To support future cellulosic ethanol sources, Harkin said, Congress should consider shifting some funds away from the billions of dollars slated to go to traditional crop farmers through direct government payments over the next five years. [More]
Meanwhile, corn growers have deployed a full-court press to deny the idea that corn prices affect food, and I don't think they will stand idly by as farm subsidies start flowing to switchgrass. Nor will ethanol producers.

I don't think we know what high corn prices are yet. But a few more ethanol startups and a teensy production hiccup will show us.

Remember kids, don't drink and excavate!...

Somehow I think vodka is involved here.

[via Neatorama]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Strange and yet not unthinkable...

A brilliant look at some future possibilities we are building right now:
Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that'll be 100Gb. Two decades and we'll be up to 10Tb.

10Tb is an interesting number. That's a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That's enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I'm awake. All the time. It's a life log; replay it and you've got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it's actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)

Why would anyone want to do this?

I can think of several reasons. Initially, it'll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it'd be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it's a memory prosthesis.

Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it's all indexed and searchable. "What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?"

Think of it as google for real life.

We may even end up being required to do this, by our employers or insurers — in many towns in the UK, it is impossible for shops to get insurance, a condition of doing business, without demonstrating that they have CCTV cameras in place. Having such a lifelog would certainly make things easier for teachers and social workers at risk of being maliciously accused by a student or client.

(There are also a whole bunch of very nasty drawbacks to this technology — I'll talk about some of them later, but right now I'd just like to note that it would fundamentally change our understanding of privacy, redefine the boundary between memory and public record, and be subject to new and excitingly unpleasant forms of abuse — but I suspect it's inevitable, and rather than asking whether this technology is avoidable, I think we need to be thinking about how we're going to live with it.) [More of a great read]
The idea of the "lifelog" is already being presaged by e-mail - for many of us it is our log of communications, thoughts, and events done automatically and relatively easy to find stuff in.

The idea of a permanent record of all we say and do is unnerving to say the least. That it would be searchable by authorities is chilling. That it is happening is undeniable.

This provocative essay also led me to consider how the mundane decisions of our lives are the concrete building blocks of the future. Our choices of transportation, communication, entertainment, and so forth give economic life to the options that will be available in the future.

While many will think agriculture will be shielded or left behind by such changes, the important note in this piece was how location matters so little anymore.

The influx of dollars into agriculture vis biofuels will only speed this process. While this does not have to be alarming news - we can still choose and forego many changes. But we will have to respect the rights of others to choose differently.

[via Grasping Reality]