Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The funeral dinner...

As a dutiful small Methodist church woman, Jan has made who-know-how-many dishes for and organized funeral dinners for beloved friends and total strangers who availed themselves of this touching ministry.

It may be about to end as a church custom, I'm afraid, and the loss will be immense. Not to knock professional catering, but for many of us it has been an abiding gesture of caring in a dark hour.

The history of this tradition may begin far earlier than we think.
What's really interesting is that the Natufian people, who lived in the area 14,500 to 11,500 years ago, seem to have been the first to settle down in fairly permanent villages, and the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle would have caused friction and strained social relationships, the researchers say. Community members were coming into contact more often, and they could no longer go their separate ways to find new sources of food when arguments arose. But feasts may have helped ease that transition, and funerals would have provided a good opportunity to bring the community together to soothe disputes, as Munro notes in a write-up
Sedentary communities require other means to resolve conflict, smooth tensions, and provide a sense of community. We believe that feasts, especially in funeral contexts, served to integrate communities by providing this sense of community.
Moral of the tale: if you want more sense of community, make a pie and some scalloped potatoes for total strangers in mourning.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Think you're worried about potash?...

The Chinese are really worried.

But, as with oil, potash deposits are not evenly spread. A handful of nations – led by Canada, Russia, Belarus and Israel – command the bulk of the reserves. Eight companies control more than 80 per cent of global supply. Two marketing groups – Canpotex for North American producers and BPC for the Russian and Belarusian groups – dominate the global trade.
The concentration of supplies is driving concern about a tight and politically charged market. “If BHP buys PotashCorp, is it the end of Chinese agriculture?” runs a breathless headline on the website of the China Business Journal. The accompanying article argues that Chinese control of the industry would boost the country’s agriculture and “great causes” – but, if the miner bought the Canadian producer, it would gain control of the potash market and its pricing system.
Other countries are watching the battle closely, from India, the second-largest importer of the mineral; to Brazil, a key exporter of agricultural commodities that relies on overseas fertiliser supplies. But it is in China, where grain markets are managed closely to ensure farmers keep producing in sufficient quantities to feed the growing population, that concern seems greatest. Few countries take grain self-sufficiency quite so seriously – indeed, it was one of the promises on which the Communist party came to power in 1949.
Maintaining that promise depends in part on potash, the only fertiliser in which China is seriously deficient. The country, which feeds 20 per cent of the world’s population using just 7 per cent of global arable land, has huge fertiliser needs.
China, while it produces a small amount of potash, has to import about half of its needs, a dependency that “may become a major threat to China’s fast-developing national economy and long-term strategic needs”, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think-tank that advises the government. Little surprise, then, that its primary importer of the mineral, Sinochem, says it is paying “close attention” to the PotashCorp battle, suggesting the group could launch a counterbid.
In contrast to the drive to make energy and metals acquisitions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, the country’s agricultural sector has historically stayed out of the global limelight. But as China struggles to meet its food sufficiency targets, and as fertiliser markets tighten, that is changing. The government has quietly encouraged state-owned agricultural companies to go abroad. Cofco, the grain trader, and Sinochem, the chemicals group, have been hunting for overseas agricultural deals, though with mixed success. [More]
If the BHP takeover attempt is hard to forecast as far as implications for potash production and pricing, think about a Sinochem acquisition.  Even more perverse will be the situation that a major revenue source for a Canadian province will be a huge foreign-owned company.

Is it me, or does that make for weird global politics?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Junkbox, Episode MMX.3 ...

Too bad we're parched - the weather is great otherwise.
 Harvest has seriously started.  We may run tomorrow for a neighbor.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Buy low...

The much maligned TARP - which has cost many incumbents in Congress their job - is not just working, it's turning out to be the best investment decision around by anybody.  Check out these numbers.

Under the program, the government provided matching funds and ultracheap loans to investment firms like AllianceBernstein and Oaktree Capital that agreed to buy mortgage securities from banks and other financial institutions.
Taxpayers stood to share in any of the profits, though the prospects of such a windfall were seen as secondary to the goal of unclogging the markets.
Nine months into the program, the eight investment funds chosen by the Treasury Department have generated an estimated return of about 15.5 percent for taxpayers, according to an analysis of their results through the end of June by Linus Wilson, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
Two of the investment funds — one operated by an Angelo, Gordon-GE Capital consortium and another by BlackRock — have gotten off to even stronger starts, posting returns of more than 20 percent.
That translates into a paper profit of roughly $657 million for taxpayers. Some Wall Street analysts project that taxpayers could earn as much as $6.2 billion on these investments over the next nine years, from an investment of about $22 billion.
To be sure, the funds’ standout performance can be attributed to a rally in the mortgage bond market that began late last year and may be hard to repeat.
Still, it is a remarkable turnabout. When the administration announced the Public-Private Investment Program, critics lambasted it as yet another giveaway to private equity firms and other Wall Street money managers — a program so ill-conceived that one prominent economist, the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, characterized it at the time as a “robbery of the American people.”
But the strong start of the funds has pushed aside many of those concerns. [More]
I give much of the credit to then-Sec. of Treasury Paulson and Pres. Bush, although this courageous act will likely remain distorted in the minds of omni-angry voters. Similar results - though much lower yields could occur for the GM buyout, when, if reversed by IPO, would make Pres. Obama a despicable "anti-socialist" (heh).

Many things could have been done better in that moment of panic.  But regardless of the flaws, I think history will show they prevented an all-out financial collapse

Friday, August 27, 2010

'Tis really an ill wind...

The sad truth about wind energy is (very) slowly emerging and undercutting the wind-farm rush.
They like everything big in Texas, and wind energy is no exception. Texas has more wind generation capacity than any other state, about 9,700 megawatts. (That's nearly as much installed wind capacity as India.) Texas residential ratepayers are now paying about $4 more per month on their electric bills in order to fund some 2,300 miles of new transmission lines to carry wind-generated electricity from rural areas to the state's urban centers.
It's time for those customers to ask for a refund. The reason: When it gets hot in Texas—and it's darn hot in the Lone Star State in the summer—the state's ratepayers can't count on that wind energy. On Aug. 4, at about 5 p.m., electricity demand in Texas hit a record: 63,594 megawatts. But according to the state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's wind turbines provided only about 500 megawatts of power when demand was peaking and the value of electricity was at its highest.
Put another way, only about 5 percent of the state's installed wind capacity was available when Texans needed it most. Texans may brag about the size of their wind sector, but for all of that hot air, the wind business could only provide about 0.8 percent of the state's electricity needs when demand was peaking. [More]
But wait, I hear you saying, wind energy is really good for the environment because it has zero-emissions.

Ummm, not really.

Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don't go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal- or gas-fired generators (called "cycling"). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don't, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. A car analogy helps explain: An automobile that operates at a constant speed—say, 55 miles per hour—will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.
Recent research strongly suggests how this problem defeats the alleged carbon-reducing virtues of wind power. In April, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado and Texas. (It was commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States.) Bentek concluded that despite huge investments, wind-generated electricity "has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide" emissions.
Bentek found that thanks to the cycling of Colorado's coal-fired plants in 2009, at least 94,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide were generated because of the repeated cycling. In Texas, Bentek estimated that the cycling of power plants due to increased use of wind energy resulted in a slight savings of carbon dioxide (about 600 tons) in 2008 and a slight increase (of about 1,000 tons) in 2009. [More]
But here's the unkindest cut of all: wind farms are not helpful for our national defense.

“I call it the train wreck of the 2000s,” said Gary Seifert, who has been studying the radar-wind energy clash at the Idaho National Laboratory, an Energy Department research facility. “The train wreck is the competing resources for two national needs: energy security and national security.”
In 2009, about 9,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects were abandoned or delayed because of radar concerns raised by the military and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a member survey by the American Wind Energy Association. That is nearly as much as the amount of wind capacity that was actually built in the same year, the trade group says.
Collisions between the industry and the military have occurred in the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon-Washington border and in the Great Lakes region. But the conflicts now appear to be most frequent in the Mojave, where the Air Force, Navy and Army control 20,000 square miles of airspace and associated land in California and Nevada that they use for bomb tests; low-altitude, high-speed air maneuvers; and radar testing and development.
When the developer Scott Debenham told local Navy and Air Force officials in June that he was working on plans to install a wind turbine at three industrial locations near the area overseen by the military, they expressed opposition to all of the projects, saying that even one additional turbine would interfere with critical testing of radar systems.
The military says that the thousands of existing turbines in the gusty Tehachapi Mountains, to the west of the R-2508 military complex in the Mojave Desert, have already limited its abilities to test airborne radar used for target detection in F/A-18s and other aircraft.
“We cannot test in certain directions because of the presence of wind turbines in the Tehachapi area,” said Tony Parisi, the complex’s sustainability officer. “Our concern is construction in other areas will further limit where we can do this kind of testing.” [More]
This problem will likely be susceptible to a technological solution, but maybe not for some time.

The largest issue of all IMHO will be the inevitable budget constraints needed to begin to manage the deficit. As dependent on subsidies as wind energy is, it could be the biodiesel of the next decade.

The boondoggle nature of wind energy industry attracting some er, atypical investors.
The Mafia in Italy, long known for its illegal dumping of toxic waste, is turning green by infiltrating the heavily government subsidized wind power industry. They are collecting taxpayer cash and laundering money from their drug and other rackets according to corporate security group Kroll.
According to Kroll's consulting group senior director Jason Wright:
"Renewable energy is completely dependent on subsidies, so it is clearly an area for corruption," Mr Wright said. "Wind farms are a profitable way to make money because of the subsidies, and they are also a great way of laundering it." He added that the wind energy industry was vulnerable because projects frequently hinged on the political patronage of local officials who grant licenses and access to public land. [More]

It appears that energy prices need to reach very high levels to make alternative sources even faintly viable, and wind is one of the worst examples of an unsustainable business model. Notwithstanding, according to farmers I talk to who have been approached for possible development, "Who cares?" As long as the monthly checks don't bounce, it's just another way of getting money from the government to a farmer, something we are pretty comfortable with.

There may be a growing chance the checks will bounce, however.  The best hope for this non-economic industry is a carbon tax.
Raising your hand in soooo over...

Behold what is happening in classrooms today. 

It looks to me like the choice to NOT participate is suddenly unavailable.

[via delong]

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It must be August...

Because it's time to recycle the old arguments about land rent.  Despite producer insistence that farmowners should have to bear some risk, flex (variable) cash rents are not popular.


But most farmers (I would guess) remain convinced landowners are somehow obligated to assume a portion of the downside. I have been trying to nail down where this business axiom originated and why it endures when few other businesses have any allocation of risk to the owner of an asset that is rented.

My conclusion is it is a hangover from the days when labor was THE input on farms.  As a result, the choice of tenant was crucial to success for a landowner.  Good tenants simply had more leverage because more depended on them.

Add in the presumed egalitarianism of a 50-50 lease. One for me, one for you.  Again this is based on the approximation that both contributed equally to the output.  This may have been true before modern agriculture but in the world of $7500 land and 20 minutes per acre of actual farming, it seems a little strained.

Regardless, I could be completely wrong and perhaps landowners should - by reasons of fairness or equality - be required to pick up some risk exposure. If true, then a huge opportunity exists.

Those who are not only willing, but eager to assume the entire risk should have an enormous advantage in the rental market.  Instead of querulous wheedling about some arcane rental contract that has yet to find a standard format, despite reams of farm economist opining about what flex rents should look like, the option of a check promptly delivered has no small allure, I would suggest.

Therefore, I have no problem with the farm media pounding this theme out, because it provides a stark comparison with straight cash renters. This does not rule out a strong business relationship with the landowner (in fact, that simply adds to the deliverables), and most good renters know this.  But compared to lecturing landowners on their social responsibilities, asking what number they have in mind is much crisper, at the very least.

So keeping this dream alive keeps some of the competition busy on trying to roll back the clock, while they wonder why BTO's roll on.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Junkbox, Episode CREP...

Just sayin'.
Haven't done these for while...

The latest 3-D street art.  My favorites:


OK, it's not Rembrandt.  But it's not Thomas Kinkade either.

[Blog note:  On the road again (see right), and my new regime is to use downtime when I'm gone for reading utter trash like space operas and stuff.]

BTW, once again the guys in NE are pretty optimistic, but the corn looks oddly yellow to me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Loners and meat consumption...

I have been uneasy about the insistence of the protein industry that false accusations are largely to blame for the declining public image of the livestock industry.  There are more undercurrents perhaps t shifting the status quo to a new equilibrium that we currently accept.

One of these is the growing solitude of our lives.
But we live now in a climate in which friends appear dispensable. While most of us wouldn’t last long outside the intricate web of interdependence that supplies all our physical needs—imagine no electricity, money, or sewers—we’ve come to demand of ourselves truly radical levels of emotional self-sufficiency. In America today, half of adults are unmarried, and more than a quarter live alone. As Robert Putnam showed in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, civic involvement and private associations were on the wane at the end of the 20th century. Several years later, social scientists made headlines with a survey showing that Americans had a third fewer nonfamily confidants than two decades earlier. A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.
In a separate study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four “close social contacts” with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children.
Here, as on so many fronts, we often buy what we need. The affluent commonly hire confidants in the form of talk therapists, with whom they may maintain enduring (if remunerated) relationships conducted on a first-name basis. The number of household pets has exploded throughout the Western world, suggesting that not just dogs but cats, rats, and parakeets are often people’s best friends. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies loneliness, says he’s convinced that more Americans are lonely—not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful. [More]
This idea that animals are moving up in social status seems to me to be mirrored by the spending trends I posted earlier. Given this changed inter-species relationship, I think it will be unlikely meat sales in the US will resume any upward climb or match previous levels of per capita consumption, regardless of ambitious campaigns to "educate" consumers.

The spending stats also make doubtful the power of cheap protein to overcome emotional decisions about meat eating.  If we're spending more on pets, we obviously already have disposable income at hand that could be going to steaks.

Our future, I suspect, for protein is elsewhere, and this startling chart impressed the immediacy of the global economic rebalancing on my vision of the near future.


The growth in households with >$10K disposable income will be in the BRIC's (Brazil, Russia, India, China), not the US or Europe.  And it will occur in the next 10 years!

The sooner we align our protein industry to the markets of tomorrow instead of trying to argue 'round increasingly overfed consumers who see animals more as friends, the sooner we'll revive the health of this industry and reduce the friction that has produced no good result other than righteous indignation on both sides. 

More importantly, an attitude of belligerence and confrontation likely contributes to the fraying of social networks and friendship (ever had a food argument over say, veganism that turned out well between friends?) One possible implication of the essay above is that groups are more likely to eat meat than loners.

There is an irresistible urge to yell back, but it could be our our worst possible choice, both economically and culturally.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The cooking ape...

I have long tired of the producer conceit that we "feed the world".  See this week's USFR commentary, for example.  Along with that self-congratulatory attitude comes a feeling of outrage about what portion of the food dollar ends up in farmer pockets.

It turns out we are probably getting what we deserve, because our species is not about raw food.

It's about cooking and fire.

Harvard Thinks Big 2010 - Richard Wrangham - 'Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human' from HTB2 on Vimeo.

[While this effort by Harvard University is commendable, if they can't come closer to TED, they need to seriously re-examine their IT department. The audio is terrible and the slides are indecipherable.]

[via dailydish]
Yeah - I could do that...

I looked up a video about how to coil a bandsaw blade and ran into this:

I gotta get out to the shop this winter.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Junkbox, Episode FWIW...

Too much traveling this week, so some quick links.
As far as my travels, I think the corn has been pushed too hard too fast, and will not match last year. Beans may not fill those prolific pod counts, IMHO.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I didn't even know there was...

A World Map of Beer.


Remember all those wishful forecasts that began with "If every Chinese person did X"?

They're happening now.
BHP and me...

Does the stunning all-cash offer for Potash Corp. by mining giant mean anything to Midwest farmers?  I'm positive it does, but exactly what?
BHP Billiton’s unsolicited US$39-billion takeover offer for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan supports the underlying strength within the fertilizer sector. It also provides support for key mine site resources as major miners seek to diversify further into the fertilizer sector, according to Clarus Securities analyst Steven Gold.
He believes this bodes well for the entire fertilizer group, primarily Potash One Inc., since its Legacy Project is in the same region as many of Potash Corp.’s assets.
He also thinks specialty fertilizers will benefit from this news as consolidation within the conventional fertilizers continues.
“Increased focus will be on specialty fertilizers that in many cases offer farmers higher yields,” Mr. Gold said in a note to clients. [More]
Reading between the lines, it looks to me like mining companies see farmers as one of the brighter sources for attractive margins.  Just like Monsanto indicated to Wall Street just a few months ago, our input suppliers intend to get their share of the prosperity on the farm, and one way is to dominate market share. Bottom line: higher fertilizer prices unless more competition shows up.
Of all the nutrients, potash has the greatest potential for growth — a potential 298% increase to match that recommended rate of 66 pounds per acre.
One interesting piece of news from China in February was the government initiative to boost crop yields by sending out 100,000 agronomists to educate 160 million farmers about modern farming techniques. The goal is to boost fertilizer use and demonstrate the benefits by way of soil samples. China is the biggest fertilizer market in the world, but crucially, it lacks much in the way of potash. China must import most of its growing needs.
That’s because potash is a rock and quality mines are scarce. It costs a lot of money and time to bring one online. A brand-new (or greenfield) 2 million-tonne potash mine will cost you a minimum of $2.2 billion — not including what it would cost for infrastructure such as rail, power, etc. It would also take seven years.
So the bigger-picture reasons for owning potash still make sense. More importantly, for our purposes, is the value of the stocks.
The April 20 edition of Foreign Policy included a story titled “Peak Phosphorous,” with the subhead: “It’s an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it’s running out.”
The story begins:
“From Kansas to China’s Sichuan province, farmers treat their fields with phosphorus-rich fertilizer to increase the yield of their crops… Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of.”
You think OPEC is a force with 75% of the world’s oil reserves? Well, just five countries control 90% of the world’s phosphate reserves: Morocco, China, South Africa, Jordan and the United States.
The U.S. has only 12 phosphate mines. When food supply issues get hairy, countries essentially stop exporting phosphate. China did this in 2008. (China has the second largest reserves of phosphate, after Morocco.) I don’t see a phosphate shortage as imminent, but it’s a potential flash point that would surely light a fire under a couple of the stocks in the Capital & Crisis portfolio.
These stocks are potential monsters. They could double their output by 2015 and 2020. About 75% of new supply coming online till 2020 is from these two titans. This provides a powerful way to increase earnings even if potash prices go nowhere. If prices do climb, then earnings will jump sharply.
The value in these stocks, though, really comes from their huge net asset values (NAVs), as seen by looking at replacement values. In other words, let’s answer the question what would it cost us to build these assets from scratch?
If it is cheaper to buy the stocks than to build the assets, we have a promising situation. Think about that as if you were potash producer. If it cost you $1 billion to build a 1-million-tonne facility or $500 million to buy a ready-made potash mine in the stock market, what would you do?
All things being equal, you buy the stocks. In today’s market, the stocks are cheaper than building new mines. A number of global mining giants get the attractive investment profile I’ve laid out for you. Vale and BHP have already made small purchases. Vale bought Bunge’s phosphate mines and took a majority stake in Fosfertil, a Brazilian fertilizer company. In 2009, Vale also bought potashBHP already owns reserves for a possible mine in Saskatchewan. All of these would be greenfield projects. reserves in Argentina and Saskatchewan.
So given all the risks, expense and time… why not just buy the two big players in the Capital & Crisis portfolio if they are cheaper? (Not only are they cheaper, but the assets are of a much-higher quality).
I have my own conservative estimates of their NAVs based on replacement value. However, I could be way conservative. Morgan Stanley’s estimates are much higher, to give one other estimate. They include an estimate for infrastructure. They also use average costs based on existing publicly disclosed greenfield projects.
The high cost of new assets also provides price support for fertilizer prices. To lay out all of that cash for a new potash mine and get just a 10% return on your investment, you’d need potash prices of $500 per ton to make it work. Currently, prices are around $350 per ton. Brownfield expansions — or additions to existing mines — are cheaper. Some can work at prices as low as $250 per ton. These brownfield expansions are what the Capital & Crisis investments are doing. But they’ve got the best assets. [More - although I was a little generous excerpting]
Meanwhile at the same time, the USDA is fussing about consolidation within our borders.  This discussion may be needed but will it really matter much if our adjacent links on the value chain (suppliers and buyers) are all global-sized. Tinkering with our ag market structure here won't touch multinational concentration, it seems to me.
My own crop tour...

Traveling from Mankato to Dubuque today and on to Utica for tomorrow.  At least here in MN, crops look darn good, but I think I can see some N deficiency in spots.  In the crowd last night rumors of SDS to the south were flying as well.

Most guys I talked to were pretty optimistic, but like all of us nervous about fertilizer prices - or the inability to get them.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's a big country...

It's a good country.

(So it's an ad. Meh.)
Yet another outlandish prediction...

Folks have asked me several times whether I think we are in a land value "bubble".  Bubbles are notoriously hard to identify when in progress.
 On the way up, bubbles encourage excessive investment in the bubble sector.  On the way down a bursting bubble can create wealth shocks, liquidity shortages, and balance-sheet death-spirals.  For both of these reasons, it would be good to be able to identify and pop bubbles.  Identifying bubbles isn't easy, however, because, especially when interest rates are low, prices can increase rapidly with small, rational changes in investor expectations.  But the difficulty of identifying bubbles is reasonably well known.  What I think may be less appreciated is that bubbles are hard to pop even when you know that they exist. [More]
Therefore, my opinion will be a pure shot in the dark.  But here it is:

We're entering a farmland bubble.

What this means is I expect farmland gains in value in double digit percent for 2-4 years, ending at least 50% higher than today, and depressing rent yields (even though they will rise, too) to 2% or lower.  By entering, I mean today's values will be viewed as rational and the level to which we might return when and if the general economy can accelerate growth above 2%.

This bubble could last far longer, however.  This is the primary reason IMHO:
“The number-one fixed-income conundrum is ‘Where do I go?’” said Mitchell Stapley, the chief fixed-income officer for Fifth Third Asset Management, who oversees $22 billion in assets. In credit markets, “the supply of sleep-at-night quality bonds has just collapsed,” he said in an interview from Grand Rapids, Michigan. [More]
It is by comparison that a hard-to-understand land market will perhaps make a little sense. Farmland is a "sleep-at-night" asset.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Junkbox, Episode EIR...

As someone who nearly dehydrated himself yesterday, why not stay inside and check these out?
It's begun...

As I suspected corn harvest started Friday in my neighborhood - at least three weeks earlier than any memory I have.  This was a field on the sandy Wabash hills just north of Cayuga, IN.  It tasseled 16 June, so given the heat, it is hardly surprising.

No idea on yields/moisture.  And it's none of my business, either.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Goodbye and thanks...

I am halting this blog for the foreseeable future.  No regrets or complaints - just ran out of time.  I'm leaving it up for my own reference, but feel free to wander the archives.

Thank you for reading and your comments.  You have added much to my life.

Update (Sunday 8/15):  Nope, nope...this isn't working. Today, instead of a feeling of freedom and release, I found my normal surfing to be a total waste.  It turns out linking and commenting was just my way of processing information, oddly like the motto for my blog.  It's not I don't appreciate readers, but you guys weren't the underlying reason for the blog.

So on to Plan B:  I'm going to set some hard time limits, say 2 hours/day (when home). However much I get posted is what there will be, and the time freed up will be available for other stuff. 

Thanks for the kind remarks, and I apologize for the virtual drama.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

So here's where it went...

I been wondering where all the rain went at my farm.  As I flew into Des Moines yesterday, I found out.  Guys at the Cargill meeting were all guessing about the crop and I think there was more uncertainty than usual for this time of year.

I'm not sure we know what persistent extremes can do to our crop. As we found out last year (and 2008) the doughnuts around the waterholes are more extensive than they look, so we're less optimistic about some fields than maybe is warranted.  Beans are a real wild card, as ours could still benefit from a rain, while the corn is essentially done.

At any rate, we'll know soon.  Harvest could start next week close to me.
Our money, our animals...

Consider this chart about where Americans are spending more in their household budgets.  Note if any item seems a little a startling.

[Source] [Also note where we are spending less]

For me, the increase in pets is fascinating.  Are we taking more comfort in scary times from our companion animals? Is this simply an ongoing trend?

Regardless of the cause, it is sobering tangential evidence of the challenge facing animal agriculture. Coupled with the insuperable power of video to evoke emotions, our apparent inclination to elevate other species to human priorities means our failure to establish a distinction between food and companion animals will become increasingly problematic.

Don't let little kids play with piglets, chicks and calves, is my advice.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Maybe that's the secret ingredient...

C'mon, who doesn't love wild boar?  That gamy flavor, the pungent aroma, the gamma rays...
Wild boar are particularly susceptible to radioactive contamination due to their predilection for chomping on mushrooms and truffles, which are particularly efficient at absorbing radioactivity. Indeed, whereas radioactivity in some vegetation is expected to continue declining, the contamination of some types of mushrooms and truffles will likely remain the same, and may even rise slightly -- even a quarter century after the Chernobyl accident.
"In the regions where it is particularly problematic, all boar that are shot are checked for radiation," reports Andreas Leppmann, from the German Hunting Federation. There are 70 measuring stations in Bavaria alone.

In addition, for the last year and a half, Bavarian hunters have been testing ways to reduce the amount of caesium-137 absorbed by wild boar. A chemical mixture known as Giese salt, when ingested, has been shown to accelerate the excretion of the radioactive substance. Giese salt, also known as AFCF, is a caesium binder and has been used successfully to reduce radiation in farm animals after Chernobyl. According to Joachim Reddemann, an expert on radioactivity in wild boar with the Bavarian Hunting Federation, a pilot program in Bavaria that started a year and a half ago has managed to significantly reduce the number of contaminated animals. Government compensation payments to hunters remain a small part of the €238 million recompense the German government has shelled out for damages relating to Chernobyl since reactor IV exploded on April 26, 1986. Furthermore, there is some relief in sight. Even as wild boar continue to show a fondness for making the headlines, the recent hard winter has had its effect on population numbers. So far this year, Berlin has only had to pay out €130,000 for radioactive boar.
But radioactivity in wild boar isn't likely to disappear soon. "The problem has been at a high level for a long time," says Reddemann. "It will likely remain that way for at least the next 50 years." [More]

[via mr]
The rational health consumer...

A unique episode for our household: we have met our deductible expenses for our high-deductible (catastrophic) health insurance policy.  Jan had a procedure in the spring we had expected and the usual routine care has soaked up the maximum for both of us, so...

When my doctor expressed concern over some blood pressure readings and suggested more testing, I experienced an unusual reaction: Why the heck not?  I had fobbed her off for years. That pretty much blew her mind - she is very careful with patients like me who have an economic dog in the fight.

But I'm still struggling to grasp what it must be like for those who have become used to "real" medical coverage. After some discussion, we are catching up on some preventative blood and cardio-vascular tests while 2010 still shows on the calendar.

I can almost justify my medical avarice because of the whacking 22% rise in my premiums this year. Or the fact that we have essentially been supporting high-users for all our premium-paying lives. But I really don't like making health decisions this way.

I mean, driving back from the cardiologist, I actually thought, "With any luck, I'll have my bypass operation this year."

Woo. Hoo.
I  miss modesty...

You've probably seen this clip a few dozen times already, but note the reaction by the fielder after the catch.

Part of the reason I never watch football is the infantile self-congratulation and macho posturing.  That and I'm from Illinois.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Rush in my head...

I struggle to not despair our reasoning ability is mostly an illusion, but research like this isn't helping.
Needless to say, this new theory paints a rather bleak portrait of human nature. Ever since the Ancient Greeks, we’ve defined ourselves in terms of our rationality, the Promethean gift of reason. It’s what allows us to make sense of the world and uncover all sorts of hidden truths. It’s what separates us from other Old World primates. But Mercier and Sperber argue that reason has nothing to do with reality. Instead, it’s rooted in communication, in the act of trying to persuade other people that what we believe is true. And that’s why thinking more about strawberry jam doesn’t lead to better jam decisions. What it does do, however, is provide up with more ammunition to convince someone else that the chunky texture of Knott’s Berry Farm is really delicious, even if it’s not.
The larger moral is that our metaphors for reasoning are all wrong. We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host. That voice in your head spewing out eloquent reasons to do this or do that doesn’t actually know what’s going on, and it’s not particularly adept at getting you nearer to reality. Instead, it only cares about finding reasons that sound good, even if the reasons are actually irrelevant or false. (Put another way, we’re not being rational – we’re rationalizing.) While it’s easy to read these crazy blog comments and feel smug, secure in our own sober thinking, it’s also worth remembering that we’re all vulnerable to sloppy reasoning and the confirmation bias. Everybody has a blowhard inside them. And this is why it’s so important to be aware of our cognitive limitations. Unless we take our innate flaws into account, the blessing of human reason can easily become a curse. [More]
The odd thing is those folks who do work to overcome biases and see the world as clearly as they can usually are run over by irrational mobs convinced of their beliefs. Maybe the real trick is to identify and embrace which "truth" will help us right now and which will endure.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Food remembered more accurately...

I am not anxious to get in food fight with consumers, and in general I deplore the farmer who stands with bins full of corn demanding obeisance because in his imagination he "feeds the world", even though he would likely starve if he had to exist on his own production.  I prefer to see myself as a supplier of carbohydrates to a marvelous industrial complex that routinely exceeds consumer food desires.

This is not a popular theme with image-obsessed farmers today.  But after the hyperventilation over food critics, and also after serious discussions with our own physician, many of us are grudgingly ready to take a new look at our food industry and how we could be part of a better answer for tomorrow.

It does not require sandals and veganism, just a willingness to objectively look at what we are eating and place it in historical context and then move on to better things.  To get a better view of the past, this gem helped me mucho.

So the sunlit past of the culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?
It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that modern food allows us unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives. If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old.
If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, at restaurants, or on our travels. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multi­national corporations bent on selling trashy modern products—failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market. A Mexican friend, suffering from one too many foreign visitors who chided her because she offered Italian food, complained, “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”
If we assume that good food maps neatly onto old or slow or homemade food, we miss the fact that lots of industrial foods are better. Certainly no one with a grindstone will ever produce chocolate as suave as that produced by conching in a machine for 72 hours. And let us not forget that the current popularity of Italian food owes much to two convenience foods that even purists love, factory pasta and canned tomatoes. Far from fleeing them, we should be clamoring for more high-quality industrial foods. [More]
Our ability to process food and simplify feeding humans is simply amazing, but it could be better. We need not defend excess salt or sugar to defend modern food, for instance. And there are worse examples.
Culinary Luddites are right, though, about two important things: We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos. As far as good food goes, they’ve done us all a service by teaching us how to use the bounty delivered to us by (ironically) the global economy. Their ethos, though, is another matter. Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving.
Nostalgia is not what we need. What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it; an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor; and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial. Such an ethos, and not a timorous Luddism, is what will impel us to create the matchless modern cuisines appropriate to our time. [Same]
Maybe it's time for Internet controls...

So Jan was sharing the latest hot topic on her garden blogs this morning.

To think I let her have my children!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Junkbox, Episode MGD...

Looking for any excuse to stay inside.
The power of incendiary labels...

The term "socialist" is constantly being tossed at the President or pretty much anybody who favors policies to say, mitigate financial ruin from health care or economic immobility. Thanks to my generations upbringing during the Cold War and the abbreviation USSR, the word itself has the power to instill fear, even when inappropriately applied.

David Frum, another noted conservative kicked out of the club, explains this well.
“Socialists” did not make this mess. Every one of these distortions was championed by President George W. Bush and remains the declared policy of congressional Republicans.  Republicans have chosen energy command and control because the market-maximizing alternative is an energy tax – and taxes are ideologically taboo.
When conservatives categorize Barack Obama as a socialist, they often cite as proof his campaign season comment to “Joe the Plumber” about spreading the wealth around.
Is income redistribution “socialism”? If so, the angry retirees who thronged town halls last summer to protest any retrenchment in Medicare represent the most powerful socialist constituency in the country – for what is Medicare but “redistribution”?
And in fact, if you listen to the angry right-leaning independents, you hear a very surprising message about the US economy.
When asked: Has government given the middle class short shrift? 70% of Republican-leaning independents say “yes.” In 1997, when Bill Clinton was president, only 55% of Republican-leaning independents answered that question “yes.”
And you know what? It’s not a crazy answer! At the peak of the Bush economic expansion in 2007, the typical American worker earned less (adjusting for inflation) than the typical American worker earned at the peak of the Clinton expansion.
There is an explanation for this disappointment: the rapid increase in health care costs in the 2000s crowded out wage increases. But it’s not “socialist” to feel the disappointment – or to wish to do something about it.
Likewise, it’s not “socialist” to notice that upward mobility seems to have faltered over the past three decades – or that a child born into poverty in Europe is now more likely to escape than a child born into poverty in the United States.
If conservatives decide that only “socialists” care about such issues, they will be excluding themselves from the most important economic concerns of middle-class America.
In a modern democracy, there are things that voters will demand be done one way or another. They will demand that the state provide an education to all young people for example. They will demand that it provide a safety net for the poor. They will demand that it support the retired. They will demand that it protect the environment. And in every country on earth except the United States, they have demanded that sickness not expose people to economic ruin.
Which means that advocates for private markets had better figure out ways to accomplish these goals that do not invite government to mess with the private economy. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives devised and deployed many such ideas. We need to rediscover that same spirit of creativity anew. If we do, we will not need the epithets. If not – the epithets will not help us or anyone else. [More]
But the greatest disservice may be creation of the "death panel" label for end-of-life counseling. Atul Gawande, who has written prolifically as a surgeon to explain how our health care system is failing us has an insightful and sobering look at how we currently handle real death and why it is not merely going to bankrupt us, but adding to the sorrow.
Given how prolonged some of these conversations have to be, many people argue that the key problem has been the financial incentives: we pay doctors to give chemotherapy and to do surgery, but not to take the time required to sort out when doing so is unwise. This certainly is a factor. (The new health-reform act was to have added Medicare coverage for these conversations, until it was deemed funding for “death panels” and stripped out of the legislation.) But the issue isn’t merely a matter of financing. It arises from a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is—what, in other words, we should and should not be paying for doctors to do.
The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.
More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.” All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time—just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want. [More]
The whole article is some of the most helpful medical information I have read in years.  But it will be a long time perhaps before political gamesmanship will entertain a sane discussion about end-of-life and social responsibility.

We have discovered the power of epithets to keep people constantly afraid and politically malleable. In the process we are destroying trust and arguably shortening the resultant isolated lives.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Our ethanol connection...

I get castigated everytime I suggest the Founding Fathers were mere mortals like...well, me, but this news leads me to think we could have found some common ground.
A more interesting data series is per capita alcohol consumption, which covers a longer period and indicates how heavily people were drinking. In their indispensable 1982 book Drinking in America, Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin report that "the period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation's history." They estimate that per capita alcohol consumption among people 15 or older rose from 5.8 gallons in 1790 to 7.1 gallons in 1810 and remained at that level until 1830 at least. (These numbers convert various alcoholic beverages to gallons of pure ethanol.) By contrast, per capita consumption was about 2.1 gallons in 1850 and about 2.3 in 2007.
Despite what today looks like heavy drinking, Lender and Martin write, "America's colonists were not problem drinkers—at least not if social policy directed at alcohol abuse is any indication....The provincials heard little public outcry against alcoholism….A general lack of anxiety over alcohol problems was one of the most significant features of drinking in the colonial era." That changed after the American Revolution, when social and economic changes simultaneously loosened the communal constraints that had deterred drunken misbehavior, created anxieties that encouraged people to drink more, and made drinking throughout the day (especially at work) more problematic. [More]
Our species' long history with fermented anything is conveniently forgotten too often, IMHO.  The desire for an altered state of consciousness (being inebriated) has propelled economics of such events as the Whiskey Rebellion and colored the history of almost every culture.

There was also the issue that water was generally bad for your health.  Wine and beers at least had alcohol to partially offset the inherent contamination present in virtually all water save pristine lakes and streams. Only after safe water was available for most did such moral movements as the Prohibition gain steam.
Alcoholic beverages have long served as thirst quenchers. Water pollution is far from new; to the contrary, supplies have generally been either unhealthful or questionable at best. Ancient writers rarely wrote about water, except as a warning (Ghaliounqui, 1979, p. 3). Travelers crossing what is now Zaire in 1648 reported having to drink water that resembled horse's urine. In the late eighteenth century most Parisians drank water from a very muddy and often chemically polluted Seine (Braudel, 1967, pp. 159-161). Coffee and tea were not introduced into Europe until the mid-seventeenth century, and it was another hundred or more years before they were commonly consumed on a daily basis (Austin, 1985, pp. 251, 254,351, 359,366).
Another important function of alcohol has been therapeutic or medicinal. Current research suggests that the moderate consumption of alcohol is preferable to abstinence. It appears to reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease (e.g., Razay, 1992; Jackson et al., 1991; Klatsky et al., 1990, p. 745; Rimm et al., 1991; Miller et al., 1990), cancer (e.g., Bofetta & Garfinkel, 1990) and osteoporosis (e.g., Gavaler & Van Thiel, 1992), among many other diseases and conditions, and to increase longevity (e.g., DeLabry et al., 1992). It has clearly been a major analgesic, and one widely available to people in pain. Relatedly, it has provided relief from the fatigue of hard labor.
Not to be underestimated is the important role alcohol has served in enhancing the enjoyment and quality of life. It can serve as a social lubricant, can provide entertainment, can facilitate relaxation, can provide pharmacological pleasure and can enhance the flavors of food (Gastineau et al., 1979, p. xx).
While alcohol has always been misused by a minority of drinkers, it has clearly proved to be beneficial to most. In the words of the founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "... alcohol has existed longer than all human memory. It has outlived generations, nations, epochs and ages. It is a part of us, and that is fortunate indeed. For although alcohol will always be the master of some, for most of us it will continue to be the servant of man" [More]
At any rate, the more we know about our forebears the more we can realize how extraordinary their accomplishments were compared to many eras.  Despite being folks like us they seemed able to advance the cause of man and civilization when the moment presented itself.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A blatant plug...

If you or someone you know is caring for a very sick loved one, please let them know about CaringBridge. We have been following a family member some distance from us and it has been nearly miraculous how it has helped the communications.

The problem is you want to call, and then it's too late, and you know the caregiver has repeated the same story too many times, and then you don't call, and the cycle goes on.  This is what the Internet does surpassingly well, and better with every passing day.

Here's hoping you don't need it, but if...
And a shiver ripples through IHOP...

Robot learns pancakes.

A robot learning to flip pancakes from Sylvain Calinon on Vimeo.
Why those ag phone pollers may soon be robots...

We lie less to robots...maybe.

Nevertheless, it's possible that we're seeing some sort of Bradley effect in reverse, which I've reluctantly dubbed the "Broadus Effect" after the birth surname of the rapper Snoop Dogg, himself a frequent consumer of cannabinoid-rich products.

The original Bradley Effect, named for former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, occurs when respondents in surveys are asked about socially desirable behaviors, such as being free from racial prejudice. Although the racial version of Bradley effect itself is probably a thing of the past, social desirability bias may manifest itself in other ways. Automated polls have sometimes shown relatively lower levels support for gay marriage initiatives, for instance, in states like Maine and California. Homophobia is fairly common, but has become socially undesirable; the purveyors of the automated polls have sometimes claimed that their respondents are free to be more honest when there's not another human being on the line. If the theory holds, automated polls might also provide a setting for voters to be more honest about their feelings on marijuana use, another behavior that is probably more widespread (and privately tolerated) than it is socially acceptable. If so, that would be good news for Prop 19. [More]
It is already know that asking someone what he will do will not yield particularly predictive results, but asking hin what "guys like him" will do, will closely match his own personal behavior. 

We really try to put ourselves in the best possible light even as we try to be honest.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The stress vaccine...

The idea of treatment for chronic stress is appealing to folks like me who have a checkered past dealing with it. While it won't arrive in time from me, I am encouraged by the remarkable work being down, and the new revelations about chronic stress.  Jonah Goldberg Lehrer, a leading cognitive science writer has a brilliant piece on what being done, and what we now know.
In the decades since, Sapolsky’s speculation has become scientific fact. Chronic stress, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous condition. And not just for baboons: People are as vulnerable to its effects as those low-ranking male apes. While stress doesn’t cause any single disease — in fact, the causal link between stress and ulcers has been largely disproved — it makes most diseases significantly worse. The list of ailments connected to stress is staggeringly diverse and includes everything from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more.
Furthermore, the effects of chronic stress directly counteract improvements in medical care and public health. Antibiotics, for instance, are far less effective when our immune system is suppressed by stress; that fancy heart surgery will work only if the patient can learn to shed stress. As Sapolsky notes, “You can give a guy a drug-coated stent, but if you don’t fix the stress problem, it won’t really matter. For so many conditions, stress is the major long-term risk factor. Everything else is a short-term fix.”
The power of Sapolsky’s stress vaccine is that it can rescue us from ourselves, at least in theory. Like those baboons in the bush, we live in a stratified society that comes with real costs. There is nothing hypothetical about these costs: They make us depressed and give us back pain. They shrink parts of the brain, clog the arteries, and weaken the immune system. They shorten our already short lives.
The science of stress can illuminate the damage. It can document the chemistry that unravels us from the inside. One day, it might even give us options for preventing the damage, silencing the stress response at its source. But these are mere band-aids, fancy fixes for what remains an inherently societal problem. We tell our kids that life isn’t fair, but we fail to mention that the unfairness can be crippling, that many of us will die because of where we were born. This is the cruel trick of stress: If it were only a feeling, if there were only the despair of having no control or the anxiety of doing without, then stress would be bad enough. But the feeling is just the trigger. We are the loaded gun. [More - highly recommended]
Note the surprising advice on alcohol and exercise. (Well, surprising to me, anyway)
Junkbox, Episode XLNT...

Something quick so I can prove I was here.