Tuesday, September 29, 2009

At least it wasn't a '57...

Contrary to all that's good and decent, some knuckle-headed car engineers smashed a classic 1959 Chevy just to make a point about how much better today's cars are.

[The whole sad story]

Of course, what they don't show is how the lack of seatbelts would have allowed the driver to be "thrown safely clear from the wreck".  At least, that's what my father always believed.

[Thanks, James]
More detail about recession and attitudes...

One interesting tidbit revealed in the General Social Survey I posted about recently was which cohorts are most affected.  Surprisingly, there is a key age for attitudes to be powerfully and firmly fixed.
The attitudinal effect of recessions is not evenly shared.
Four points are worth noting.
    •    First, the effects of a severe recession experienced are large when the individual is between the ages of 18 and 24 – the so-called formative age – during which social psychologists think most of social beliefs are formed; the effects are not so strong when the recession is experienced later in life.
    •    Second, these effects are permanent because attitudes of recession-stricken individuals remain significantly altered many years after the severe recession ends.
    •    Third, we control for individuals’ endowments such as income, level of education, and ownership of a house that could also have an impact on beliefs. We thus measure the direct effect of a recession on beliefs; this effect could be even bigger if we added also the indirect effect through the personal endowments, which are also affected by a recession.
    •    Fourth, our estimation represents a lower bound of the effect of a recession on beliefs because our identification strategy relies only on regional shocks implicitly ignoring the effects of nationwide recessions.
Focusing on the financial market and using nationwide shocks, Ulrike Malmendier and Stefan Nagel (2009) shows that that birth cohorts that have experienced high stock market returns throughout their life report lower risk aversion, are more likely to be stock market participants, and, if they participate, invest a higher fraction of liquid wealth in stocks. In addition, cohorts that have experienced high inflation are less likely to hold bonds. Interestingly, stock market returns and inflation early in life affect risk-taking several decades later. These findings explain why different generations have different investment patterns.
Why do beliefs on the importance of luck, the role of the state, and redistribution matter for the economy? Today’s experiences and beliefs shape tomorrow’s political climate, and, ultimately, determine policies. Thomas Piketty (1995) has shown that people who believe that luck plays a big role are more comfortable with higher taxes. Similarly, Alesina and Angeletos (2005) and Benabou and Tirole (2006) show that the interaction between a belief in fairness or “in a just world” respectively are able to generate an “American” equilibrium with laissez-faire policies and just-world beliefs and a “European” equilibrium with social welfare and a more pessimistic view about how just the world is.
A new Big Government generation?
So, it is possible that the experience of the current severe recession is forming a generation that will be more risk -verse, invest less in the stock market, want more state intervention, believe more in redistribution, and accept higher taxes?
Large political realignments in the US have often coincided with traumatic economic events, which were supposed (but without firm evidence so far) to change attitudes and, ultimately, the political climate. Each crisis is a point of choice with important implications for the future.3 A consistent body of research is now showing how economic conditions affect beliefs and attitudes. However, it seems that politicians around the world are welcoming the new zeitgeist even without waiting for economists’ results. [More]

Assuming these young people vote in increasing numbers as they age, this effect would seem to predict an America that drifts socially and politically closer to Europe - or at least the Europe we see today.

More ominously for fiscal hawks and libertarians, even conservatives may be coming around to the realization that unless you raise taxes (inflict economic pain) there will be no budget cutting.

Therefore, it is simply stupid and a waste of time to say that massive budget cuts are the answer to our problem without taking account of inevitable congressional resistance. Of course, presidents can try to influence Congress to be more supportive of their requests. They can give speeches to joint sessions of Congress, as Barack Obama recently did, or go over the heads of Congress to the people and try to create grass roots pressure, as Ronald Reagan often did, or they can try to pressure, cajole or threaten individual members of Congress the way Lyndon Johnson did. But at the end of the day, a president has to find at least a majority of congressmen and senators to vote for something or it doesn't become law.
Devising a package of budget cuts large enough to prevent national bankruptcy must also deal with other realities that make them almost impossible to achieve. These include the changing nature of the federal budget and the changing composition of the population.
Many of those favoring budget cuts have ridiculous notions about how much of the budget can be cut without reducing services. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans generally believe that 50% of the budget is wasted. This suggests that they believe the federal budget could be cut in half without cutting anything important like Social Security benefits or national defense. [More]

Unrealistic political beliefs and major attitude shifts coupled together could have a profound influence on how everything works here in the US. My guess is it would slow economic mobility while stabilizing a social safety net.

For farmers, I would suggest the days of starting from scratch could be over, as the forces that generate turnover and opportunities for new entrants are mitigated by government programs.  In other words, them as has, keeps.  

This is the essence of "stability" in most minds, even as we advocate vigorous competition to allow us to get more. The allure of stability may now outshine opportunity.
Got cheese?  And a chisel?...

Real sculptors use cheese.  And we're not talking about a state fair cow, here.


This one is made from parmigiano reggiano - and according to our supermarket prices is worth about a bazillion dollars.
Free-ish trade...

Free trade is no longer seen as a good thing, except for stuff you don't grow or make. An revealing test is upcoming with Ireland's vote on the Lisbon Treaty.  Even by EU standards, this document is a bureaucratic masterpiece, reallocating the power of decision between member states and the Union.  When Ireland rejected the treaty last year, full implementation ground to a halt.

The treaty is vastly comprehensive, but the fear among Irish farmers is competition on ag products from other members and the Global Fear of the Moment: Big Government.
"I don't want to sign something that is going to send my two boys out to war. We're probably fine for our generation but I don't know about theirs."
Her husband, Michael, didn't vote last time but will be supporting the Yes side on Friday, mainly for economic reasons.
He says: "I've no reason to vote No and it's not going to do any harm to the country. Why not give it a shot and see what happens."
The Fianna Fail-Green coalition is so unpopular that farmers, like other voters, don't believe it and want to punish politicians.
And yet at the same time they're frightened of the consequences of voting No and being seen to reject the European Union for a second time in 16 months.
Geraldine Langan, an organic farmer with three acres, from Ballydesmond in Co Kerry in the southwest, didn't vote last time but is reluctantly edging towards a Yes this time.
"Ireland voted No the last time and it puzzles me why we're going back to the polls again and we're more or less being forced to vote Yes," he said.
"What I've picked up in the last little while on it is that it could possibly be in our favour to vote Yes this time because of jobs and keeping in with the European Union."
One poll suggest that farmers will vote by a margin of four to one in favour of Lisbon on Friday.
That is almost certainly an exaggeration, but it does seem as though rural Ireland is moving from a No to a Yes position.
As for the Republic as a whole, we should have a fair indication of what way the country voted by mid-morning Saturday. [More]

In this atmosphere of distrust, negotiating anything is difficult, but the stakes for free trade are high - even higher than another great issue, cap-and-trade.
Yet the real tragedy is that, by exaggerating the threat of global warming, we have awoken the beast of protectionism. There are always forces in society that demand that politicians create more barriers to trade because they cannot compete on an even, fair playing field. Global warming has given them a much stronger voice.
Already, politicians are responding -- and using the fear of global warming to create "green fences" against free trade. The U.S. House has passed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill with clear provisions to impose new trade tariffs on countries that don't agree to emission reductions. Eyes are on the Senate, where John Kerry sees these as "sanctions" against "renegade countries."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly called for a Europe-wide tax on imports from nations whose global warming efforts do not measure up to Europe's. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently backed the idea.
There is a real and growing prospect of an all-out trade war being waged in the name of climate change.
The struggle to generate international agreement on a carbon deal has created a desire to punish "free riders" who do not sign on to stringent carbon emission reduction targets. But the greater goals seem to be to barricade imports from China and India, to tax companies that outsource, and to go for short-term political benefits, destroying free trade.
This is a massive mistake. Economic models show that the global benefits of even slightly freer trade are in the order of $50 trillion -- 50 times more than we could achieve, in the best of circumstances, with carbon cuts. If trade becomes less free, we could easily lose $50 trillion -- or much more if we really bungle things. Poor nations -- the very countries that will experience the worst of climate damage -- would suffer most. [More]

Lomborg has a strong point.  As leading voice against mitigation of AGW, he could be right about welding two unfortunate political efforts together: unwieldy C&T programs and economy crippling tariff walls.

In fact, I could see some protectionists hold their noses and accept climate change legislation after holding out for industry-specific and (economy-burdening) trade barriers.  Agriculture could be one such sector, both here and abroad. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Make that the chicken salad...

In an example of intransigence in the face of contravening new evidence, the efforts to harvest tuna without inadvertently killing dolphins, fishing regulators have clung to an answer that is arguably worse than the problem.

In other words… the only species that “dolphin safe” tuna is good for is dolphins!  The bycatch rate for EVERY OTHER species is lower when fishing dolphin-associated tuna vs. floating object associated tuna! The reason for this is obvious- floating objects attract everything nearby, while dolphins following tuna doesn’t attract any other species.
If you work out the math on this (and you don’t have to, because the environmental justice foundation did) , you find that 1 dolphin saved costs 382 mahi-mahi, 188 wahoo, 82 yellowtail and other large fish, 27 sharks, and almost 1,200 small fish.
By trying to help dolphins, groups like Greenpeace caused one of the worst marine ecological disasters of all time. Few other fisheries are as bad for groups like sharks and sea turtles as the purse seine fishery, and none are as large in scale.
Here we get into the ethical debate.
Is it worth saving dolphins, who were not and are not endangered, at the expense of sea turtles, sharks, and many other fish species who are endangered? [More]

(The brief post explains the problem in helpful, but not overwhelming detail for landlubbers like me, so please read the backstory)

The lingering issue for environmentalists who seem to be favoring sea mammals at the expense of other species is getting trapped into the same kind of stubbornness they despise in enviro-skeptics. You can bet those outside the Green community will point to this mistake as typical for environmental efforts of all kinds, but getting organizations and passionate followers to recognize errors is really hard.

Unless flexibility and the reality of trial-and-error are accepted as legitimate ways to address problems like this, we are limiting our tool kit to imperfect projections from computer models, hunches and ideologies.  We need to embrace and view unexpected consequences as adding to our body of knowledge, not admissions of fundamental philosophical error.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sorry about the slow posting....

I've been out in my fields with a metal detector.

The snaking line of more than 1,000 people queuing to enter the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Friday afternoon illustrated perfectly the surge of interest sparked by the announcement — just a day before — of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered.
Among those queuing to see the artefacts was Allison Buckley, 47, from Stafford. “It is almost as exciting as queuing to see the treasures of Tutankhamun,” she said, recalling the rush to see the Egyptian boy king’s death mask in London in 1972. “What makes this so exciting is that it has just been unearthed. There is still soil on the pieces and you can imagine it in the ground.”
The Anglo-Saxon treasures were chanced upon in a Staffordshire field by Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old unemployed metal-detection enthusiast. The find — almost 1,500 gold and silver items thought to date from the 7th or 8th century — has staggered archeologists. It will, experts say, completely reshape our understanding of the Dark Ages. [More]
 Whaddaya think metal detector sales are doing in the UK right now?  They were already pretty good.
I'd read about it, but...

Nothing matches the reality of the recent Australian dust storm.

via videosift.com
I'm missing something here...

I was pretty surprised by the Hogs and Pigs Report.  Given all the anguish in the industry I thought a 2% drop was way too small a reaction by producers losing money with every snout.  But that's what it looks like.
The good news: The U.S. hog industry is contracting. The bad news: Because of extreme efficiency (higher pigs per litter), the rate of contraction won't likely be as strong as what the base numbers would suggest. The higher pigs per litter figure for June through August means there will be more hogs longer-term than what was expected. While we can't complain about high efficiency, there is still a greater need for contraction because producers continue to get more pigs per litter. [More]

OK, I am certainly not qualified to opine on what this number means to the market, although it does raise my hope a teensy bit for feed usage from my corn grower perspective.  But this "efficiency paradox" really began to puzzle me when I read this quote:
Red ink is flowing, cash is hard to get, and cuts are being made. Prestage Farms, Clinton, North Carolina, will cull 10 percent of its sows across all farms by December, bringing the company's total to 125,000 sows, says owner Bill Prestage. "When we cull we won't replace. This is worse than 1998 because it's lasted longer. The big thing that killed us is ethanol. H1N1 hasn't helped, either."
Many of the largest producers report that sow cuts don't translate to market hog numbers dropping. In fact, small cuts may actually do the opposite. "If you cut 4 percent or less you go up in pigs produced," says Bob Christensen of Christensen Farms in Sleepy Eye, Minn., part of the Triumph Foods system. "You're not crowding the system and people are able to do their jobs better. You have to cut 6.5 percent of your sows to see a real decrease in pigs produced."
Sow productivity is at an all-time high for most of the largest companies, with many farms averaging 24-26 pigs weaned per sow each year. "That's world-class performance," says industry consultant Randy Stoecker. "People are weaning more than 11 pigs per sow and seeing less than 3 percent mortality from wean to finish. They cut back sows, but the output of pigs does not go down. We are strangling ourselves with production." [More][My emphasis]

Now it just possible this is one of those things you say to encourage/prod competitors to scale back as you do, instead of being there with sows to take early advantage of any recovery in prices. But assuming it is really true that you get MORE pigs with fewer sows because  - just guessing  here - it is standard practice to operate push numbers the optimal return point, the question is begged:

Why not always operate at this lower sow population?

If you know there is an inflection point in your profit curve, why drive numbers over to the other side?

Maybe it one of those statistics you only can determine by exceeding it, but if it is general knowledge, doesn't it suggest a persistent management failure in pushing people and resources too hard?  Maybe the same thing happens with grain farmers and acres and it's only obvious in retrospect, but I've always considered the Big Pork operators to have better real-time data than farms like mine.

Any help out there?

Friday, September 25, 2009

I am officially an old fogey...

The last great bastion of "men-onlyness" is about to crumble.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Thursday in a statement to the Navy Times, ““I believe women should have every opportunity to serve at sea, and that includes aboard submarines.”.
According to the Navy Times, his comment comes one week after Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told congressional lawmakers that he thought it was time to end the ban against women on submarines.
Mullen’s successor, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, also said he is “very comfortable” addressing the crewing policy.
The Navy has 7,900 female officers and 44,000 female sailors, making up about 15 percent of officers and sailors in that active component.
How about the exceptionally close quarters and extended duration of submerged duty aboard submarines, etc., etc.?
Admiral Mullen and others think those issues can be resolved. [More]

Pretty soon they will want to farm and have their own opinions...

I wonder if they polled submariner wives about this?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The field is growing...

The field of choices for e-readers.  While I am very happy with my Kindle, some other choices are rolling out.


On Wednesday, iRex Technologies, a spinoff of Royal Philips Electronics that already makes one of Europe’s best-known e-readers, plans to announce that it is entering the United States market with a $399 touch-screen e-reader.
Owners of the new iRex DR800SG will be able to buy digital books and newspapers wirelessly over the 3G network of Verizon, which is joining AT&T and Sprint in supporting such devices. And by next month, the iRex will be sold at a few hundred Best Buy stores, along with the Sony Reader and similar products.
By all accounts, e-readers are set to have a breakout year. Slightly more than one million of them were sold globally in 2008, according to the market research firm iSuppli. The firm predicts that 5.2 million will be sold this year, more than half of them in North America, driven by the popularity and promotion of the Kindle, which is available only through Amazon’s Web site. [More]

But wait - there are more coming!

It is hard to explain to others how fundamentally my Kindle has altered my approach to reading. That evolution is just beginning.  Where these devices can take us is pretty mind-boggling.
For starters, think about what happened because of the printing press: The ability to duplicate, and make permanent, ideas that were contained in books created a surge in innovation that the world had never seen before. Now, the ability to digitally search millions of books instantly will make finding all that information easier yet again. Expect ideas to proliferate -- and innovation to bloom -- just as it did in the centuries after Gutenberg.
Think about it. Before too long, you'll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you've ever read -- as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you've read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven't encountered yet. [More]

It could be e-readers will simply be precursors to yet another smart-phone function, but the physical screen size would require different old eyes than mine.  In order to get the font large enough to see on my Blackberry, for example, I could only read words of about 7 letters or so (heh).

The rapidly approaching moment is finding a universal format so the millions of books Google has scanned and those Amazon sells can be downloaded to any e-reader.  Given the frustrating fractionation of our communications industry that sync-up could be too long in coming for my taste.

Even more curious is the idea that reading and writing may not have been made extinct by talking. When phones made letters virtually obsolete, the last thing any of us imagined was the text handling features would become as popular, i.e. Twitter.  In fact, my generation may be a low point in reading and writing compared to talking.

Like many small technology changes with disproportionately huge implications, today's e-readers could be one of those things we look back on like our bag-phones.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aaron's going to hate me...
For this one.  Suppose environmentalists had written Star Wars?

Maybe they would at least replace the stiff who played "Annie" (no wonder he turned out bad).

[via scienceblogs]
Brains with feet...

A mobile society means people can move, if they want, to better their living.  It would appear at the top we are certainly becoming more restless.  After years of importing brainpower from Asia especially, the flow has reversed, turning our brain gains into a brain drain.
"What was a trickle has become a flood," says Duke University's Vivek Wadhwa, who studies reverse immigration.
Wadhwa projects that in the next five years, 100,000 immigrants will go back to India and 100,000 to China, countries that have had rapid economic growth.
"For the first time in American history, we are experiencing the brain drain that other countries experienced," he says.
Suren Dutia, CEO of TiE Global, a worldwide network of professionals who promote entrepreneurship, says the U.S. economy will suffer without these skilled workers. "If the country is going to maintain the kind of economic well-being that we've enjoyed for many years, that requires having these incredibly gifted individuals who have been educated and trained by us," he says.
Wadhwa surveyed 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who had worked or been educated here before returning to their homelands and found the exodus has less to do with the faltering U.S. economy than with other factors:
Career opportunities. At NIIT, an information technology company based in New Delhi, about 10% of managers in India are returnees, mostly from the U.S., says CEO Vijay Thadani.
Most go into mid- to senior management and make "excellent employees," he says. "They're Indian, so they understand India, and they have lived outside the country."
China's government entices some skilled workers to return with incentives such as financial assistance and housing, says Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "China needs a lot of well-trained personnel" in fields such as finance and information technology, he says.
Quality of life and family ties. People return to India to reconnect with their families and culture, Dutia says. "They have a support system there, family and friends."
Purchasing power is greater, he says, which allows returnees to afford more luxuries than they did in the U.S. Dutia describes a complex of "magnificent homes" in Bangalore. In the club room, there were "all these Americans and Europeans and expats on the treadmills with iPhones, watching CNN and BBC," he says. "Things have changed."
Immigration delays. Multinational companies that belong to the American Council on International Personnel tell Executive Director Lynn Shotwell that skilled immigrants are discouraged by the immigration process, she says. Some can wait up to a decade for permanent residency, she says. "They're frustrated with having an uncertain immigration status," she says. "They're giving up." [More]

One possible consequence of this change is pressure on salaries for folks with the needed skills. This will only skew the education-based income inequality further, I would guess. It will also add fuel to rural America's own brain drain.

The most dramatic evidence of the rural meltdown has been the hollowing out—that is, losing the most talented young people at precisely the same time that changes in farming and industry have transformed the landscape for those who stay. This so-called rural "brain drain" isn't a new phenomenon, but by the 21st century the shortage of young people has reached a tipping point, and its consequences are more severe now than ever before. Simply put, many small towns are mere years away from extinction, while others limp along in a weakened and disabled state.
In just over two decades, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle through to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population. Nationally, there are more deaths than births in one of two rural counties. Though the hollowing-out process feeds off the recession, the problem predates, and indeed, presaged many of the nation's current economic woes. But despite the seriousness of the hollowing-out process, we believe that, with a plan and a vision, many small towns can play a key role in the nation's recovery.
Civic and business leaders in the places most affected by hollowing out will tell anyone willing to listen how it is their young people, not hogs, steel, beef, corn, or soybeans, that have become their most valuable export commodity. Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning observer of small town life, believes that any story of small-town America is, at its core, the story of the people who stay and the ones who go. Yet, what is different at this moment is how, in a postindustrial economy that places such a high premium on education and credentials, the flight of so many young people is transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns. A new birth simply cannot replace the loss that results every time a college-educated twentysomething on the verge of becoming a worker, taxpayer, homeowner, or parent leaves. And as more manufacturing jobs disappear every day, the rural crisis that was a slow-acting wasting disease over the past two decades has evolved into a metastasized cancer. [More]
I could have written about this same phenomenon forty years ago, and the trend has been unfazed by good times and bad, well-intentioned and well-funded measures, and relentless hand-wringing.  Somehow we can't get the image of idyllic small town America from our minds, and have decided it somehow represents the optimal choice of demographic dispersal.  But I'm no longer sure that is even close to the truth, much less real expectations.

The depopulation of my county (Edgar) is typical.
1969 - 21,752
2000 - 19,657
2007 - 18,831
I have wandered though various reactions to this very obvious trend in my life.  But after this long, it begins to dawn on you this is occurring for powerful reasons and strongly presages the future.

Maybe it's just mental adaptation, but I'm not quite as alarmed by it as I was. To begin with depopulation makes this area a great place to farm.  Let's face it, industrial ag works best all by itself without sharing roads or odors, to name two examples.

There is virtually no urban expansion pressure on farmland prices, other than secondhand 1031/investor bargain hunting. The tiny number of farmers exert oversized political influence, and the elderly population so typical of our very-low-cost towns make a pool of savings available for local banks to lend to agriculture.

So just speaking in terms of a good place to farm, this ain't the worst.  But what about the social aspects of withering communities?

I am worried about the schools. There are simply no resources to improve them and size alone rules out many advantages such as AP classes. In fact, the day may come when those who can affor better will consider boarding schools for promising students.  But that problem I lay squarely at the feet of the absolute refusal to consolidate even the high school level.  In short, our schools are failing because we prefer bad local schools to better schools 10 miles away, not because we don't have a manufacturing base.

The other problems of thin populations may be exaggerated.  Between phones and e-mail active friendship groups are possible. We drive 60 miles for dinner with friends without complaining.  Shopping has been largely replaced with Amazon, et al.

Even my church, which I had frankly given up on two decades ago, is showing remarkable grace is its quiet decline. Besides, given upcoming demographics, I'm not sure more population would be the answer there either.
In 1990, 8 percent of Americans reported that they had no religious beliefs. Twenty years later, that's 15 percent. But when you look at younger Americans, you see that the proportion of "nones" is reaching 22 percent. The 1990s were the boom years for the Nones; and a huge 35 percent of the new Nones are ex-Catholics. No doubt, some of this is a reflection of the sex abuse crisis. But the intellectual collapse of Christianity under the leadership of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic theocons is surely relevant. The well-deserved inability of literalists to win many converts among educated people is also surely salient. The emergence of the politicized Christianist right - and its assault on Christianity as a freely chosen spiritual process - will surely lead to a continued and accelerating flight from organized religion.

But the Nones are not Ditchkins atheists. They express their position primarily as a form of skepticism and Deism. They are agnostics who do not dismiss the religious life but remain at a cool distance from it. This is, of course, one of the deepest American religious inheritances:
"American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it's a very American kind of skepticism," says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. "It's a kind of religious indifference that's not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people."

The study estimates that in twenty years, the Nones will make up 25 percent of Americans. [More]

So looking back over 60 years of concern over the "decline" of rural communities, I have mixed emotions. The futility of bucking this trend is now apparent, even for those towns that enjoyed a period of success.

The presence of a college, hospitals, and a significant government employer seems to be the key to those towns that are growing by cannibalizing places like Chrisman.  Meanwhile, my home area will be a place for the poor, elderly and agriculture - all of which have to be somewhere.  The idea we will reverse the loss of young bright minds is far-fetched, I think.

I like living here, and am willing to cope with the circumstances and manage the disadvantages.  And I have wearied of grieving over something that was lost fifty years ago.

[Thanks, Mark]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Real men serve salad...

With these.


Finally, a use for 13/16" wrenches.

[via 7 gadgets]
Moving in the right direction...

I think. The FCC has taken a surprisingly strong stand for open networks (or net neutrality) that while clearly important to the communications business, has real implications for rural America as well.
In addition to making sure that network operators cannot prevent users from accessing lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, or attaching unharmful devices to the network, Genachowski wants to add two more rules.
The first would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management. The second principle would ensure that Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement.
Broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications have opposed regulation or new laws that would dictate how they could run their networks. Up until this point, the Internet has been free of any regulation. And these companies would like to keep it that way.
That said, the nation's two biggest phone companies, AT&T and Verizon, have accepted the principles outlined by the FCC, when it comes to their wired broadband networks. Even though they don't think additional regulation is needed, they have agreed in principle with keeping their broadband networks open.
But the regulation that Genachowski is proposing will not apply to just wireline broadband networks, such as DSL and cable modem service. It will also apply to wireless services. And this is where the major phone companies will likely focus their opposition to the FCC's plans for new regulation.[More]

Since we here in the sticks will never have fiber optic cable strung to our doors, the provision for open wireless is crucial, IMHO.  It is also odd in my thinking that the open networks of Europe seem to be something that cannot be duplicated here.  Since our dependence on wireless for truly high-speed broadband is nearly 100%, this proposed ruling could do more to raise the level of service in rural America than even the government billions, or at the least, make it more comparable to what urban citizens enjoy. Maybe we would have provider choices, for example.

And why not separate buying phones/netbooks/etc. from the service?  Why shouldn't I be able to use an iPhone on Verizon? 
 Long and rigorous testing? Puleeze. The real problem with Verizon, and to a lesser extent all the rest of the U.S. carriers, is that of a dumb pipe thinking it's smart. Verizon wouldn't give up enough of their shackles and handcuffs; they love to nickel and dime their customers by crippling devices and forcing people to their own crapola media and other "solutions." That's why BlackBerry's Storm, among it's other problems, doesn't have WiFi. That's why Verizon doesn't have a good phone. Early on in iPhone's development, Steve Jobs probably talked to Verizon for about 30 seconds before concluding they simply were not capable of letting go enough to carry his revolution. They probably demanded upfront that WiFi be removed and music and video sales go through whatever POS "service(s)" they offer. By the way, of course Verizon's network gets the best marks (on a scale of that tops out at mediocre-at-best) in large part because they have no devices that use any real amounts of data, so there's no real load on their network. Put 10+ million data-hungry Apple iPhones on Verizon and watch their mediocre quality scores plummet. [More]
 These proposed rules would seem to make the market freer, which is the larger question here, I think. In fairness, I think it likely implementation of the rules would end the all-you-can-eat pricing for Internet service.
First is that bandwidth is not, in fact, unlimited, especially in the wireless world. One reason ISPs are averse to neutrality regulation, they say, is that they need the flexibility to ban or mitigate high-bandwidth uses of their network, like BitTorrent and Hulu.com, which would otherwise run amok. Take away their ability to prioritize traffic, the ISPs say, and overall service will suffer.
“As long as there have been networks, people have had to engineer them to ensure that congestion doesn’t occur,” Carnegie Mellon professor and telecom expert David Farber said Monday (he’s the co-author of a cautious anti-net neutrality opinion piece published in 2007). Farber is especially concerned about the impact of the FCC’s position on wireless networks, where bandwidth is already very limited. “When you’re operating that close to capacity, you have to do a very tricky job of managing your spectrum. If you have unconstrained loads being dumped on you, something’s going to have to give.”
Case in point: AT&T has repeatedly stumbled in its ability to provide 3G wireless capacity, thanks to the unexpected popularity of the iPhone. Those difficulties lend credence to AT&T’s (and Apple’s) reluctance to allow apps like Skype and Slingplayer unfettered access to the 3G network: If the network can barely keep up with ordinary demand, just imagine what would happen if we were all live-streaming the Emmy Awards over our iPhones at the same time.
Take away ISPs’ ability to shape or restrict traffic, and you’ll see many carriers running into AT&T-like capacity problems. Their response will almost certainly be to make consumers pay for what they’re actually using. Want to BitTorrent all 6.7GB of the uncompressed Beatles catalog via 3G? Fine, but you’ll have to pay for the bandwidth you’re taking away from your neighbor. [More]

Unlike the author, I think this is more feature than bug.  It would link heavy usage with heavy cost - a

reasonable market action. In the long run, it might mean typically light-using households get a bargain, or cause a raft of new software to monitor and exploit light usage times for massive downloads, just as smart grids do for electricity.  Regardless, I have become highly skeptical of any industry cries of the End of the World if Rule X is implemented.

For those who oppose the rulings based on knee-jerk reaction to any government intervention in markets, I would remind them our wireless system has grown up virtually unfettered by regulation, and compared to countries like Germany and South Korea, we have one of the most embarrassingly fragmented and inefficient systems in the world. The tragedy of the commons applies in a different way here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My aversion to crop insurance...

Is not unusual in the Third World.

There are higher-yielding varieties of groundnut than those that farmers in Malawi tend to plant, but getting them to switch is tough. Better seed is pricey, increasing their risk. So researchers from the World Bank ran an experiment. With local NGOs, they offered the farmers loans. Some loans even came with a crop-insurance policy: if the season was dry and the yield a dud, the debt would be forgiven. The farmers' risk was lowered. Of farmers offered conventional loans, 33% signed up. With the added incentive of insurance, 18% did. The researchers were puzzled.

It's been more than 30 years since microfinance began its fantastic rise, spreading billions of dollars in credit to hundreds of millions of overlooked borrowers around the world. Insurance is the next big promise of financial services for the poor.
But there aren't many takers.
That's not from lack of interest on the part of suppliers. The Gates Foundation has plowed millions of dollars into microinsurance initiatives, and in June, LeapFrog Investments raised $44 million for the world's first microinsurance-investment fund. The few billion uninsured people worldwide have big insurers angling for their business--with not many standout results. "We haven't really figured out a good model," says Monica Brand of the microlending juggernaut ACCION International.
Xavier Giné, a World Bank economist in Malawi, has seen microinsurance sputter time and again, even in areas where microloans thrive. Unforeseen economic behavior is driving these opposite outcomes, he says. "When we think about credit, lenders need to trust the borrower. But in insurance, it's the exact opposite. You have to trust that the insurance company will pay the claim." It's hardly a stretch that people new to financial institutions don't. (My crop fails, and you pay me? Ha!) In India, Giné has found, it's actually risk takers who are more willing to buy insurance policies: the thing meant to hedge against risk is seen as risky. And perhaps not without reason. Insurers didn't pay off in Bangladesh in the 1990s, one of the earliest attempts at microinsurance. [More]

To my knowledge, my friend Dave B. and I are the only producers around here who have never had crop insurance.  Mouths drop open when I mention this west of the Mississippi River.

However, this may not be a bad long term strategy.  As more producers and lenders rely on crop insurance to make the numbers work out, what happens if Deficit Hawks target the massive subsidies and premiums rise to real actuarial levels?
For although these senators question or don’t want a government option for health care reform, they see highly subsidized federal crop insurance in a much different light. In this, they’re joined by most of the Blue Dog Democrats in the House and fellow farm state senators.
All of them see “government crop insurance” as great; so, since 2001, about 58 percent of the farmer’s annual premium has been paid with taxpayer dollars. This subsidy is available to all farmers — big and small, rich and poor. That makes government-run crop insurance a major perk, one that’s prized by everyone from the smallest part-time farmer to the largest full-time producers who grow most of today’s crops.
And these crop insurance subsidies were not even affected by the prosperity of record grain price caused by the energy boom. Even after federal data had shown that total crop values jumped from $44 billion in 2005 to $90 billion in 2008, Congress still failed to end premium subsidies. [More]

While Alan drives me crazy with his crusading, I stand with him on this one.  While I still have the scars to prompt my recalcitrance to bet against Big Ag in any subsidy battle, I could see a Gramm-Rudman-type universal spending reduction affecting the ag budget.

Crop insurance has been berra, berra good for crop insurance companies and farmers who think risk should be someone else's responsibility.
What is not so easy to understand is why we choose to fund a vast network of insurance agents to induce farmers to buy heavily subsidized crop insurance, and why we need to pay private insurance companies large amounts of money to service the insurance contracts. Regional political interest in supporting agriculture in high-risk areas could be accomplished at much lower expense by eliminating program duplication through program consolidation, and by administering all programs through the FSA (as we are doing with SURE, ACRE, LDP, CCP, and DP). This would save on aggregate program expenditures, and it would save the large fees currently paid to crop insurance agents and companies.
One straightforward explanation for why attempts at such a consolidation were not successful in the 2008 farm bill is that crop insurance agents and companies have their own supporters in Congress. Together, supporters of crop insurance agents, crop insurance companies, and of agriculture in higher-risk regions make a formidable barrier to agricultural reform.
Different lobbying groups often need to support each other's priorities in order to keep the political coalition together. Thus, we see that the new FSA-administered SURE disaster program, which was a priority of senators from Montana and North Dakota, requires that farmers buy crop insurance, which automatically increases compensation to that industry.

It is possible that reform will come about simply through public awareness of the excesses of the risk management subsidies. But if history is any guide, it will take something more. Perhaps the need to finance trillion-dollar deficits as well as federal programs that provide benefits like clean air and water, transportation infrastructure, and nutrition will eventually force Congress to economize by increasing the efficiency of risk management programs in agriculture. [More]

To put it more bluntly, if crop insurance would be to vanish tomorrow, folks like me would still be farming pretty much the same. Others would not.  It is crucial to realize what your business plan is based on.
Just in time...

Jan's been wanting to redecorate our bedroom.

I could just die.

[via rgs]
It was wonderful, honey...

To all those fellow grandparents sitting in the school auditorium for the band concert.

[Update: Andrew and I got snookered - it may not be a high school band.  I add my apologies as well]

[via sullivan]
The power of public conversation done well...

Just last week I heard three separate comments and read many more about the state of public debate in the US.  One of these comments was how watching TV was just too upsetting, and the commenter said his family was now turning off all news, even the ones they used to like.

Certainly the times have forced the pace of change and those changes threaten how we live our lives.  You can't have a massive recession, war and terrorism, fundamental policy change and historic political events unfold in a smooth easy-to-understand narrative.

But the real fulcrums for this reaction, I think are new media strategies being adopted by communications companies to rebuild readership and viewership. In the short run, highly partial recounting of the news seems to be effective to attract audiences.

But lately the long-term viability of this idea seems in question.
Chayefsky imagines cynical television executives who create a ratings sensation out of the nightly rants and ravings of Beale. The host energizes the nation with his cry, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" It's hard to find a film that better captures the rotten vibe of the early 1970s, when America found itself suffering through one downer after another: failing companies, tense foreign relations, high unemployment, rampant incivility, spiraling deficits, corruption in high places, a seemingly endless war. Sound familiar?
Beck often cites Beale as an inspiration and a tribune for our own times. "I think that's the way people feel," he told an interviewer. "That's the way I feel" — like the fist-shaking, hair-pulling Beale. Whether channeled by a playwright on the left or a talk-show host on the right, anger and distrust can be dramatized and monetized. But do they ever really go anywhere?
The trouble with this prophecy is that we never find out what happens to the people watching Beale. Do they stay mad forever? Does their screaming ever lead to something better? Does the rage merely migrate, sending new audiences with new enemies to scream from more windows? And if the time comes when every audience is screaming, who, in the end, is left to listen? [More]

The public temper tantrum may be a working answer for selling aspirin, but if you have to communicate a corporate message to a public whose attention seems to be floowing the loudest outrage, how do you do that?

Bob Greene found one interesting answer in the last place you would expect: the words of Richard Nixon.
One answer may be found in an unlikely place -- in words spoken by the most divisive political figure of his era.
Richard Nixon, in his first inaugural address during a time of widespread public rage in the United States, talked about "reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth."
Nixon's presidency would end in shambles. But on its first day, here is what he said about how to soothe the anger that was consuming the nation:
"To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. ... To lower our voices would be a simple thing."
Some people's feelings about Nixon undoubtedly cloud their opinion of everything he ever did. Yet what he said as he took office in a time of nonstop partisan conflict is worth considering as we pass through similar days:
"In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.
"We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another -- until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices."
But maybe that has become impossible. The pedals are mashed against the floorboards now, and our engines are roaring too loudly for any calming voice to be heard. We seem to be approaching the bad part of the movie. The part where we find out that no one wins. [More]

It is such an approach that is  exemplified by this.

The corporate response by ADM to the new movie "The Informant!" was IMHO, masterful. In fact, all of us at USFR watched it and immediately grasped the skill and effectiveness of the video, but more importantly the attitude underlying the message.

(One caveat: none of us understood the washed out and rather bleak background - presumably shot through a window at the HQ - but hey, that's just TV people quibbling)

I remember the Midwestern drama that unfolded during the investigation.  I also recall the exceptional reporting of columnist Alan Guebert, whose legwork was remarkable and indefatiguable.  If he had some web presence I would link, but he apparently is betting all on a print comeback or something).

I followed the increasingly bizarre aspects of the case with detached bemusement.  And yes, it did alter my opinion of ADM.  To be fair, I worked during college across town in Decatur at Staley, at the time a rival of ADM, so I was hardly unbiased.

But regardless of what you think about ADM, this little gem of communications illustrates something I had hoped to begin witnessing.  In a world of shouting and industrious misrepresentation, a calm, confident voice commands immediate respect and trust.  It need not be seen by millions to have large effects either, because unlike the rants, it does not have to be reinforced daily.

Our bodies do not tolerate permanent outrage well. Sooner or later, we have to adjust our brain chemistry to allow our cardiovascular system to endure, to name just one physical threat.  In fact, I think the decision to turn off cable news could originate in brains desperate for relief.

ADM could have marshaled facts and created bullet points too. But as someone who has stepped away from PowerPoint during my presentations, I can reinforce the idea of the power that simple narrative now has.  No quick cuts, special effects, or interwoven music or images - just one person talking to you in conversational tones.

Don't get me wrong.  I suspect the script wasn't dashed off twenty minutes before filming and I hope Ms. Podesta didn't do it in one take (trust me - it's harder than it looks), but I think the increasingly popular choice for corporate voices will resemble this example more than stern attorneys deflecting questions or talking heads exchanging acidic barbs.

Agriculture at every level should notice this, as we engage in public debates on everything from trade policy to animal rights.  America is developing a hunger for listeners and brief-talkers.  Above all, they want to feel better - not worse - after the exchange.

The urge to mount vigorous and strident public relations campaigns often arises from people who produce vigorous and strident public relations campaigns, I have found. It is job security not to suggest quiet forbearance or (God forbid!) good-natured tolerance of what will prove to be soon forgotten nonsense.

We need to instead 1) do our job well, 2) bear more than our share without complaining, 3) keep our sense of humor, and 4) be the calm voice that helps those we serve find refuge from the din of acrimony.
Graphs on demand...

One of the coolest new types of websites are those which build graphs for you.  This one shows how self-reported occupations have changes over time. 

[Note: the scale changes so the graphs are not what they seem by comparison]


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Not only diseases...

While we are all keeping an eye on the H1N1 virus, scientists are looking at how other things can be spread among a population.  Even behaviors.
Sociologists began hunting for ongoing, real-life situations in which better data could be found. A 2000 study of dorm mates at Dartmouth College by the economist Bruce Sacerdote found that they appeared to infect each other with good and bad study habits — such that a roommate with a high grade-point average would drag upward the G.P.A. of his lower-scoring roommate, and vice versa. A 2006 Princeton study found that having babies appeared to be contagious: if your sibling has a child, you’re 15 percent more likely to have one yourself in the next two years. These were tantalizing findings, but again, each was too narrow to really indicate whether and how the effect worked in the mass public. What was needed was something more ambitious, some way of mapping out the links between thousands of real-life people for years — decades, even — to see whether, and how, behaviors spread. [More]
We have seen more evidence of this type of contagious social behaviors (overeating, for one).  While it certainly points out how much impact our friends have on us, it also works the other way around

It is not a comfortable thought at times.

The bigger question for me is if the nature of the farming community is still collective enough to promote such effects. Most of my friends are non-farmers, and I would hazard that is more the norm than highly occupation-centered social circles for farmers.  Our influence would likely be more noticeable in friendship links rather than professional connections.

It could be there is less internal contagion for farmers - where we all tend to think the same way on common issues - that we imagine.  This may contribute to our continuing dissatisfaction with how farmers are portayed in media.  We all have differing ideas of that that image should be.

Maybe there is a critical mass necessary for a coherent subculture that we dropping below.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sighs from a landlocked farmer...

Beautiful boat photos.


[via presurfer]

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rich pig farmers...

Not here, of course.  In China.
“Private stockpiles, built by many including the much- vaunted, pig-farming speculators, have clearly absorbed substantial quantities of metal,” Sucden’s Goldwyn said. “Much of this metal will remain out of the normal market place.”
Scotia Capital Inc. analyst Liu Na highlighted the role of Chinese pig farmers and other private speculators in the metals markets in an Aug. 17 note that cited reports from state-owned China Central Television. These speculators may become “quick sellers” if sentiment turned, Liu said in that note.
To be sure, Sucden’s Goldwyn wrote that the stockpiles of copper and nickel held by farmers and others in China may “not be ‘dumped’ back in the foreseeable future as some have recently suggested, wherever prices go.” Goldwyn didn’t give a reason.
The metals holdings by pig-farmer investors and other private speculators give “the impression that there is strong demand in China,” said Jiang at Shanghai Oriental. “But it is actually those who take a pessimistic view of the economy and are looking to preserve their wealth who are buying.” [More]

 The fact they are not plowing profits back into the industry is telling, I think.  If you are extracting wealth from your business, it certainly does look like hog expansion in China will be slower than it could be.

Of course, there are myriad other explanations for this pattern, one of which could be some kind of Internet scam or a Bernie-Madoff socially centered investment analysis where if a few of your friends are buying copper, then you get on board too.  Instead of the NYC and Miami Jewish community, this one is pig farmers in China.  Pure guess.

Still, copper?
Why we don't save more...

Kids and delayed gratification.

[via rgs]
The horror...

All of us who write opinion often wake up sweating and trembling after a nightmare like this.  Don Luskin, a CNBC talking head, not only got it wrong a year ago, he got it all wrong and way wrong.

As the financial industry "celebrates" the anniversary of the the meltdown - which is usually marked with the failure of Lehman Brothers, they spotlighted Luskin's astonishingly bad grasp of the situation.

Just one painful excerpt from 9/14/2008:
A housing "slump," a housing "crisis"? A "severe" price decline? According to the latest report from the National Association of Realtors, the median price of an existing home is up 8.5 percent from the low of last February. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median price of a new home is up 1.3 percent from the low of last December. Home prices may not be at all-time highs -- and there are pockets of continuing decline in some urban areas -- but overall they've clearly stopped going down and have started to recover. So why keep proclaiming a "crisis" after it's over?
"Turmoil" in the debt markets? Sure, but we've seen plenty worse. According to the FDIC, there have been a total of 13 bank failures in 2007 and so far into 2008. There were 15 in 1999-2000, the climax of the Obama-celebrated era of Clintonian prosperity. And in recession-free 1988-89, there were 1,004 failures -- almost an order of magnitude more than today. Since the Great Depression, the average number of bank failures each year has been 94.

Despite highly publicized losses in subprime mortgage lending, bank equity capital -- the best measure of core financial strength -- is now $1.35 trillion, more than the $1.28 trillion level of mid-2007, before the "turmoil" even began.
Financial market "crisis" and "meltdown"? Yes, from all-time highs last October, the S&P 500 has fallen 20 percent. But that's nothing by historical standards. Stocks have often fallen more than that over comparable spans of time. They fell more than twice that much in 1974 -- which was truly the worst drop since the Great Depression. Even the present 20-percent loss isn't what it seems. The damage has been heavily concentrated in the financial sector -- banks, investment firms and mortgage companies. If you exclude that sector, stocks are off 14.8 percent.
Some economic indicators -- export growth and non-defense capital goods orders such as industrial machinery, for example -- are running at levels associated with brisk expansion. Others are running at middling levels, such as the closely followed Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index. But it's actually difficult to find many that are running at truly recessionary levels. [More]

At the time we were already 9 months into recession, remember.

Nonetheless, the solution for such goof-ups is to predict some more stuff.  That's what we do.If fact, my next TP column will could place me in his company as well one year hence.

But this is a Wikipedia entry that would argue he should not be allowed near a microphone/camera:
Luskin's predictions were controversial again in 2008 when, in a September Washington Post[20] he cited evidence of what he claimed were factual errors made by Barack Obama and members of his presidential campaign concerning the state of the economy. Luskin claimed that the market was healthy, and Obama was simply using the state of the economy to discredit John McCain. However, two days later, on September 16th, the stock market had a record plummet, thus discrediting every prediction he made in his editorial.[21] Additionally, in the same editorial, he cited evidence that the economy was weak, but not in recession. He wrote, "…anyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one—especially the worst one since the Great Depression—is making up his own private definition of recession." Shortly afterward, following the sudden collapse of several large financial firms, the economy sharply worsened, and was subsequently declared to have been in recession all year by the National Bureau of Economic Research.[22] editorial,Foreign Policy included Luskin's prediction in its list of "The 10 Worst Predictions for 2008" on its website and noted that it gave additional opportunities for liberal bloggers to criticize Luskin.[23] The editors of The Yale Book of Quotations[24] He has been singled out for "some of the worst, money losing commentary of the past few years."[25] also made note of the inopportune timing of Luskin's editorial and included his prediction in their list of "Top ten quotes of 2008".
He has been frequently referred to by Brad DeLong as "the Stupidest Man Alive" for, amongst other things, his continued support for literal  interpretations of the Laffer Curve.[26]

This perhaps illustrates how not to use talking head predictions.  They may be useful for defining the range of possible outcomes, but all are fraught with emotional, irrational judgments, despite the author's best efforts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Here's where I've been...

The promised video of our bin going up.  Sorry - no cool soundtrack.  (The crane was for the roof auger.) 

The bin is 42' diameter, 42,000 bu., approximately 56' at the peak.

The camera I used is here.

Photos were taken every minute and the camera shuts off at night.  I edited out the weekend.  There is no viewfinder, so I had to check the video after it was shot.

I was really impressed with iMovie for editing.  Very easy to learn. I got it made in about 30 minutes from the avi files. Maybe later I'll add comments or music.

My thanks to my old friends at Yardstor in Ridge Farm, IL.   And the folks at Cargill.

Special thanks to Erich and Aaron.
Yeah, but think of all the surprises...

More than you can imagine, we are blind to changes around us.

I think this  is one reason why we wonder "why didn't we see X coming".  Answer: we don't notice much.  In a world of massive change and information about it flowing to us (or inundating us), it may be we need tools like Google to overcome this particular inattention.  We only have so much awareness, and it seems modern lifestyles don't enhance that meager talent either.  Outsourcing our change-awareness to computers looks like an idea worth investigating, anyway.

On the plus side, I suspect people who can find such ways to counteract their change blindness will reap significant benefits that will seem like luck to those beside them.

PS.  We also experience change deafness.

PPS.  This also why eyewitnesses are the worst kind of evidence.
The math of death...

Oddly the statistics of dying are pretty straightforward, even if the messiness of actually living is not.
What do you think are the odds that you will die during the next year?  Try to put a number to it — 1 in 100?  1 in 10,000?  Whatever it is, it will be twice as large 8 years from now.
This startling fact was first noticed by the British actuary Benjamin Gompertz in 1825 and is now called the “Gompertz Law of human mortality.”  Your probability of dying during a given year doubles every 8 years.  For me, a 25-year-old American, the probability of dying during the next year is a fairly miniscule 0.03% — about 1 in 3,000.  When I’m 33 it will be about 1 in 1,500, when I’m 42 it will be about 1 in 750, and so on.  By the time I reach age 100 (and I do plan on it) the probability of living to 101 will only be about 50%.  This is seriously fast growth — my mortality rate is increasing exponentially with age.
But even though the numbers fit neatly to expectations, we don't really know why.
Like I said before, no one knows why our lifespans follow the Gompertz law.  But it isn’t impossible to come up with a theoretical world that follows the same law.  The following argument comes from this short paper, produced by the Theoretical Physics Institute at the University of Minnesota.
Imagine that within your body is an ongoing battle between cops and criminals.  And, in general, the cops are winning.  They patrol randomly through your body, and when they happen to come across a criminal he is promptly removed.  The cops can always defeat a criminal they come across, unless the criminal has been allowed to sit in the same spot for a long time.  A criminal that remains in one place for long enough (say, one day) can build a “fortress” which is too strong to be assailed by the police.  If this happens, you die.
Lucky for you, the cops are plentiful, and on average they pass by every spot 14 times a day.  The likelihood of them missing a particular spot for an entire day is given (as you’ve learned by now) by the Poisson distribution: it is a mere e^{-14} \approx 8 \times 10^{-7}.
But what happens if your internal police force starts to dwindle?  Suppose that as you age the police force suffers a slight reduction, so that they can only cover every spot 12 times a day.  Then the probability of them missing a criminal for an entire day decreases to e^{-12} \approx 6 \times 10^{-6}.  The difference between 14 and 12 doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the result was that your chance of dying during a given day jumped by more than 10 times.  And if the strength of your police force drops linearly in time, your mortality rate will rise exponentially.
This is the Gompertz law, in cartoon form: your body is deteriorating over time at a particular rate.  When its “internal policemen” are good enough to patrol every spot that might contain a criminal 14 times a day, then you have the body of a 25-year-old and a 0.03% chance of dying this year.  But by the time your police force can only patrol every spot 7 times per day, you have the body of a 95-year-old with only a 2-in-3 chance of making it through the year.
More questions than answers
The example above is tantalizing.  The language of “cops and criminals” lends itself very easily to a discussion of the immune system fighting infection and random mutation.  Particularly heartening is the fact that rates of cancer incidence also follow the Gompertz law, doubling every 8 years or so.  Maybe something in the immune system is degrading over time, becoming worse at finding and destroying mutated and potentially dangerous cells.
Unfortunately, the full complexity of human biology does not lend itself readily to cartoons about cops and criminals.  There are a lot of difficult questions for anyone who tries to put together a serious theory of human aging.  Who are the criminals and who are the cops that kill them?  What is the “incubation time” for a criminal, and why does it give “him” enough strength to fight off the immune response?  Why is the police force dwindling over time?  For that matter, what kind of “clock” does your body have that measures time at all?
There have been attempts to describe DNA degradation (through the shortening of your telomeres or through methylation) as an increase in “criminals” that slowly overwhelm the body’s DNA-repair mechanisms, but nothing has come of it so far.  I can only hope that someday some brilliant biologist will be charmed by the simplistic physicist’s language of cops and criminals and provide us with real insight into why we age the way we do. [More]
I wonder if all of us have mental metaphors for what is going on inside our bodies, like those graphics on House. The idea of cops and criminals slugging it out is remarkably attractive, and easy to grasp pictures like this tend to stick in our minds.