Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I'm outta here...

Off to Tampa and the Commodity Classic. I'll post when I can.
Save those cobs...

Behold, the lowly corncob has found a new role in energy efficiency.

Using corncob waste as a starting material, researchers at University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) and Midwest Research Institute (MRI) in Kansas City have created carbon briquettes with complex nanopores capable of storing natural gas at an unprecedented density of 180 times their own volume and at one seventh the pressure of conventional natural gas tanks. The technology has been incorporated into a test bed installed on a pickup truck used regularly by the Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality.

"We are very excited about this breakthrough because it may lead to a flat and compact tank that would fit under the floor of a passenger car, similar to current gasoline tanks," said principal project leader Peter Pfeifer of MU. "Such a technology would make natural gas a widely attractive alternative fuel for everyone." [More]

While this strikes me as one of those gee-whiz energy ideas tumbling out of research labs everywhere today, the political push for the biofuel solution may keep it just a curiosity. On the other hand, rather than being used for cars, what if we could store and handle methane (natural gas) as easily as propane? It would mean a lot cheaper heating.
The risk shell game...

It is convenient to blame yesterday's market turmoil on the Chinese. After all, they are inscrutable, ya know. And to be sure the decision by their "Fed" to curtail irrational exuberance was a key factor. There are also plenty of other factors.

But for those who view things from Greenspan's perspective, there are worrisome indicators. Orders for durable goods — covering everything from jet engines to computers, as well as washing machines and other household appliances — fell more than forecast last month, the Commerce Department announced, a sign of ongoing weakness in manufacturing. The 7.8% decline was the biggest since October. Another important indicator of business spending, orders for nondefense capital goods not including aircraft, fell 6%, the third drop in four months.

Even though a new report from the National Association of Realtors showed that sales of previously owned homes rose 3% in January, the median price of those homes fell to $210,600, down 3% from the same period last year. Inventories of unsold homes also remain high. [More]

But the rest of the story is perhaps better understood by trying to figure out who is actually at risk now and how much.

Not an easy job.

One concern is that the heavy wiring in the markets could not keep up with the rapid changes. Another is the rapid growth of derivatives. The problems in the subprime mortgage sector have focused attention on the slicing and dicing of risk using sophisticated instrument such as collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps. Banks have used these to shed credit risk, but it is not clear where all that risk now lies. Financial shares were hit particularly hard on Tuesday, suggesting that nerves are starting to jangle over this uncertainty. Shares in Goldman Sachs, perhaps the smartest of the financial alchemists, ended down 6.6%. This was partly due to its Asian exposure (it owns a stake in a big Chinese bank). But its role in conjuring up and trading exotic financial instruments was probably also a factor. [More]

While farmers are struggling to cope with options strategies, guys in suits worth more than my pickup are devising exotic financial instruments to hand risk around like a hot potato. Tuesday, somebody ended up holding it.

To be honest, I have trouble with options strategies. It's easy to misplace what success looks like. Moreover, I am comfortable with the production and price risks as they occur in the real world.

While I doubtless could make some money being more aggressive in the use of risk instruments, my guess is it would take utilize time that I can be doing something else more personally or financially rewarding. Just because an action makes money doesn't mean it doesn't have to compete with other choices that offer different or even better rewards.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Computer Basics - Lesson 12...

How a cursor really works.

[via Neatorama]
So is this equilibrium?...

My goodness, what's going on in China?

A 9 percent slide in Chinese stocks earlier set the tone for U.S. trading, a day after investors sent Shanghai's benchmark index to a record high close.

Investors' confidence has been knocked down by a slew of data showing that the economy may be decelerating more than anticipated. A Commerce Department report that orders for durable goods in January dropped by the largest amount in three months exacerbated jitters about the direction of the U.S. economy, which were raised a day earlier when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the economy may be headed for a recession. [More]

Whatever, it seems to have reverberated across to Wall Street. The recent tug-of-war between recession fears and inflation-fighting may reverse today's anxiety tomorrow, but it looks like the stalemate could continue on interest rates.

Volatility in major markets triggers efforts to avoid risks.
However, farmers often pay too much for fixed rates, in my opinion. My last comparison was 1.25% difference. Assuming a steady rise, rates would have to increase 2.5% over a 1 year operating loan for example, to break even.

Today's action shows me nothing that could suggest the Fed ramping up that fast. In fact, another day like this and recession looks closer, with the Fed belatedly lowering rates to spur growth.

Could this be affecting corn prices? I dunno. It'd really hard to sort out the spec money actions, let alone predict. But if corn falls too far, a bigger mandate for more ethanol is my bet.
An old saying is born...

Tom asked how my egg-speriment went.

I was 1 for 3. You have to really blow hard.

Moral: Never try to teach a grandfather to blow eggs.

Jet-man: Human powered flight

Yves Rossy, the Jet-Man. And braver than I'll ever be.

[via Daily Dish]

Bad economics drives out good...

I have been fielding comments on post previous posts about basic economic scenarios. One of the most frustrating of these strange theories for me has been the agrarian absurdity that low prices force higher production:
But computer chips and crops work differently. Say you're an Iowa corn farmer and the price of corn futures drops after you've planted the spring crop. Unlike Intel, you can't slash production any time soon; you have to wait until the next season's planting.

Worse still, when the time comes to put the next season's crops into the field, you're faced with a harsh fact. If you decide to plant less corn, there's no guarantee that the corn price will rise. Why? Because unlike Intel -- which essentially shares the chip market with AMD -- you have thousands of competitors. Unless you can figure a way to organize a significant portion of them to join you in cutting production, you're not going to succeed in pushing prices up.

Since no mechanism exists to coordinate farmers in their planting decisions, they tend to respond to price drops in a way that would be alien to an Intel exec: they plant more corn. The calculation: If they're going to hold their income steady while prices fall, they'll have to bring more product onto the market. But since thousands of other farmers are making the same decision, the market just gets flooded with corn and prices fall further. [More unadulterated drivel]

OK - it all sounds so down-to-earth reasonable, doesn't it? Followed to its extreme, if nobody offered to pay for corn, we farmers would cover the planet with it. What is wrong with this logic chain?

First, let's look at the flip side.
Prices are rising for corn and farmers are planting more of it. Ask seed or fertilizer salesman. It seems if you can make more money with a crop you choose to do so. Gosh - if only I had thought of this earlier! I have heard no hints of "holding back" to keep income level. So I think it is safe to say if prices for corn go up, farmers plant more corn.

But wait, according to the above, when prices go down, farmers plant more corn. So it would seem no matter what prices do we plant more corn. Obviously not.

One of the key ideas in the agrarian economic explanation is we farmers can increase our production at any time by doing things like plowing up pastures, polluting, and applying more chemicals - in short, fair prices keep us from doing bad things that will raise production. And our only goal in life is to keep our income steady.

Oddly my experience has seen no economic return to erosion, in fact it is a really bad production idea. Similarly when corn was $1.80 I was skimping on fertilizer, cutting spray rates, and lowering population to cut costs. As prices drop, we have to lower costs to make money, we can't just command the field to have higher yields. Now with $4 corn, I'm going to try some fungicide I never could quite afford. According to the salesman, this will increase my yields and profits. (Yeah- well, we see about that - but only with high prices would this idea be feasible)

If I can increase my income at any time as suggested by agrarians by magically increasing my yields, or planting some apparently unused acres, why don't I? Is the income I am making right now "just right"? "Oh, no thanks, I've got all the money I can handle, thanks."

Producers try for
the highest yield (income) they can afford every year, not just in down years.

As corn prices drop, producers switch to other crops to see if they will make more money. This cuts supply, as well. Check out soybean acreage this year, for example.

Finally, we really don't have that many idle acres around that we can bring into production cheaply, as agrarians would suggest.

The supply curve slopes up, not down. And the proof is the explosion of corn acres as $4 corn continues.

The other danger of such pseudo-economics is the perpetuation of the idea producers are helpless to control their business. This Is debilitating dogma.

On the other hand, believers in such clap-trap are not competitors I have to worry about.
Price in our time...

Cotton producers are taking Will Rogers seriously:
"I originated a remark many years ago that I think has been copied more than any little thing that I've every said, and I used it in the FOLLIES of 1922. I said America has a unique record. We never lost a war and we never won a conference in our lives. I believe that we could without any degree of egotism, single-handed lick any nation in the world. But we can't confer with Costa Rica and come home with our shirts on."

With oddly optimistic reports of utterances from WTO Chief Pascal Lamy of an impending breakthrough, Big Cotton is fearing the worst. Add in the tide flowing away from open-ended access to the Treasury by enacting some sort of payment limits and ending the three-entity rule, and the business plan for cotton production looks shaky.

We'll be looking for any hints from USTR Susan Schwab at the Commodity Classic in Tampa. (Now with added fiber from Wheat!) My experience with is good negotiators don't drop hints, and if they did it would likely shoot over my head. My prediction is a pretty tightly scripted recital of administration policy, but ya never know. If she gives a press conference something might pop up.

I think there is immense pressure to salvage some hope of a deal, and any deal will mean goodbye to LDP's and CCP's. They are simply too market distorting. Now handing out rent stamps - er, fixed payments, I mean - seems to be trade neutral.

Compounding cotton's worries are upcoming meetings over Brazilian complaints against our cotton program. Cotton growers are not optimistic.

The NCC says the WTO has slated a compliance panel to hear oral arguments in the Brazil-United States Cotton Compliance dispute Feb. 27-28. Hard on the heels of that will be a “high profile” March session on cotton at the WTO headquarters in Geneva. The two meetings focus too much attention on U.S. cotton at a time when WTO leaders obviously are trying to restart the suspended Doha Round negotiations, according to Jay Hardwick, chairman of the American Cotton Producers, the producer arm of the NCC. The timing of the sessions is “an unfortunate turn of events that can severely undermine the credibility of the WTO dispute settlement process,” says Hardwick, a cotton producer from Newellton, La. [More]

Cotton will see the biggest changes, and it has already begun. Some cotton farmers will grow corn. In fact, Southeastern corn users such as Big Chicken (don'tja just love these "big" labels?), may be counting on it in case a supply crunch ignites the basis in August to ration the last 17 bushels of corn.

Completely off-topic: Under the heading of "What could go wrong?", while working on this post I found this great insight from Mike Woolverton at KSU:

Some producers have expressed concern that after luring them with tantalizing visions of historic profits, the corn market will collapse. Two things might cause that to happen, neither of which seems likely. First, if corn producers overshoot and plant 12 or 14 million more acres and if growing conditions give record breaking yields across the country, corn price would drop from the current level. One or the other of those might happen, but the likelihood of both happening this year seems small. Secondly, ethanol processing margins might go far enough into the red to cause some of the plants to shut down. The subsequent decrease in demand for corn would cause price to fall. In order for that to occur, oil price would have to fall more than it has in recent weeks; even then, Congress would likely raise the ethanol-in-gasoline mandate levels to prevent injury to grain producers, farmer/investors, and rural communities that would result from a demise of the ethanol industry. Soybeans, cotton, wheat, and other crops are on track to lose the battle for acres this year, although producers of those crops are already benefiting from prices higher than the fundamental supply and demand factors for each of those crops separately would justify. But this is just the first battle in the ‘ground war’ that is likely to intensify and continue for years to come. [More]
One thing the administration has successfully managed - their proposal has anchored the farm bill debate. By offering a full-range of ideas, they have co-opted isolated competing ideas for public scrutiny.

The old negotiation rule applies: open strong.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Suddenly I'm thinking of Bo Derek...

How many Brits does it take to play a cello?

[via Metafilter]

Peeling eggs

As soon as Jan leaves for her aerobics class, I'm giving this a try.

[via Mentalfloss]

Sunday, February 25, 2007

OK - now you're just freaking me out...

Which one is computer-generated?
Farm economics from the Dept. of Commerce...

One of my gripes with the USDA is it fails to put farm economic figures in context with either the nation or the globe. My experience is most farmers have wildly inflated ideas of their contribution to their local and national economies.

Here's how to find out for yourself. Click here for county level income numbers. (How the people in your county earn a living)
  1. Click on CA05 - Personal income and detailed earnings by industry
  2. Choose NAICS data for the most recent. The BEA switched industry categories a few years ago - this is the new list.
  3. Pick a state, click next.
  4. Pick a county (or the whole state) and year (s), hit "Display"
Line 81 is farm earnings. Compare that with total earnings (line 10). Also compare with line 47. Transfer payments are mostly SS checks, Medicaid, federal pensions, etc.

In almost all rural counties I have looked up transfer payments are 3-10 times higher than farm earnings.

I was personally stunned when I first looked up Edgar County, IL. It's covered with farms and has no big city, and yet farms contribute only about 8% of the local income. Meanwhile, transfer payments bring in 21%.

My conclusion: to save rural America, save Social Security.

Many producers like to argue that just means farmers aren't getting paid enough, but crimony - how high would prices have to get to move it up much? For example, in IL farms contribute all of 0.4% of the Gross State Product.

Some also say we should judge by gross income (sales), but then you would have to judge other industries the same way. Besides, why are we so proud of how little we keep of the dollars that flow through our farms? The BEA sets the rules for measuring economic clout, and it uses your schedule F. Farmers can't play the game AND referee too, ya know.

Illinois is not about farms. Neither is IA, IN, ND, SD, MN, CA, NJ, etc. Look it up for yourself.

As a rule farmers are upset when I share these numbers. I have been accused of "talking down" farmers. If the facts are disrespectful to our image of ourselves, my assertion is the problem is with our self-image.

We don't have be the center of attention to be a vital part of a community or state economy. In fact, when we stop insisting it's all about us, we improve our chances of being truly happy.
The problem with getting older...

Not only are we living longer, the rate of longevity increase is accelerating.

But these statistics do not relate to anything as mundane as prices. Rather, they are about the more gruesome topic of death. Specifically, Blake is predicting how long our children, and children's children, will live - and his conclusions are striking: over the past century, life expectancy in the western world has not only risen, but the rate of increase has accelerated. While someone in the 1840s lived, on average, to 40, today's generation can expect to hit 80, "and for our grandchildren, it could be 160," says Blake, stabbing a pale green corner of his fan chart. Until recently, such morbid number-crunching was of interest only to actuaries, the pensions industry, scientists and doctors. After all, death is not a topic that many of us want to discuss - except in the most abstract terms. And the pensions world was such a slow- moving, sleepy backwater that it rarely attracted the interest of high-flying bankers. [More]

While this may offer an investment opportunity for financial wizards, for most of us it presents a good news/bad news scenario. The probability we will outlive our plans and resources grows every day - and not is a good way for most.

If you have not been on the front line of caring for the very old, you may not fully appreciate how many times you will mutter, "I don't want it to be like this for me" even as you become more convinced that is your future.

I have tastelessly remarked from time to time that all the "good" deaths are being eliminated: the "grabber" in the corn crib, the undiscovered cancer that kills in months, infections that overwhelm, the relative quick decline of a lonely widow(er) from simple malnutrition by forgetting to eat, or simply wearing out by overwork.

Nope - what we have to look forward to is Alzheimer's, prostate cancer, dementia, strokes, and assorted lingering wasting deaths - all of which will be funded by somebody.

By this point, I have likely offended some who are still grieving a loved one. I deeply regret this, but it does not change my rather bleak assessment of what modern medicine is trying to accomplish. We are adding some pretty grim years onto many lives at great cost.

There will always be a #1 cause of death. Looking at the contenders:

Number of deaths for leading causes of death

bullet graphicHeart disease: 654,092

bullet graphicCancer: 550,270

bullet graphicStroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 150,147

bullet graphicChronic lower respiratory diseases: 123,884

bullet graphicAccidents (unintentional injuries): 108,694

bullet graphicDiabetes: 72,815

bullet graphicAlzheimer's disease: 65,829

bullet graphicInfluenza/Pneumonia: 61,472

bullet graphicNephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 42,762

bullet graphicSepticemia: 33,464

I'm having trouble choosing my favorite.

You think your weather is bad?...

Check out these locations.

[via Presurfer]
Your dad's brain...

Most of us have long suspected that being a father messes with your head. Now scientists have verified our fears.
So how does fatherhood create these changes? Gould's group found that fatherhood increased the number of receptors in the prefrontal cortex for arginine vasopressin, a peptide hormone involved in the formation of social bonds. They propose that the resulting increase in vasopressin signaling could have caused the increases in dendritic spines. Their previous enrichment work, meanwhile, indicates that behavioral changes that go with fatherhood could also contribute to the observed spine changes. Interestingly, they provide evidence that the abundance of vasopressin receptors was reduced over time as infants aged -- suggesting that this particular change is temporary and driven by recent contact with infants. A comparable examination of whether the spines also tended to decrease over time, in parallel with the reduction in vasopressin receptors, would have been informative. If the increases in dendritic spines demonstrated more permanence, the case for the experience of fatherhood as a form of enrichment would be strengthened. [More]
It gets more complicated. Vasopressin is the "monogamy hormone":

Sometimes it takes a while for scientific research to filter down to the great mass of society, and even longer for the appropriate action to be taken. Today's example: a seminal (so to speak) study, published in Nature in mid-2004, about two species of vole -- one in which the male is monogamous, one in which he plays the gigolo. Scientists identified and extracted the monogamy hormone, vasopressin, from the loyal prarie vole, and bred it into the cheatin' meadow vole (above). Result: the male meadow vole, fortified with vasopressin, stopped fooling around, settled down with his beloved, and raised the little voles right.
The news caused a minor stir when it first came out. Then it started cropping up in popular science books, such as last year's bestseller, The Female Brain. And in the future ... well, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that women are going to want to carry vasopressin around in their purse in easy-to-apply pill form, is it? Vasopressin is already available in pharmacies, and is often used therapeutically. It won't be long before every bar-hopping woman on the planet is going to want a vasopressin test, or better yet, a vasopressin roofie to slip into some smooth-talking lothario's drink. [More]

I suppose it could be that simple. Men are pretty straightforward humans. And while it can creep you out to realize strange chemicals can change the way you think, try not to worry too much.

Relax. Have a beer.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sometimes things work out strange...

New book review posted.
From the I-can't-believe-it's-a-photo file...

Amazing photos from the air.

[via Presurfer]
You are here...

Remember those lines criss-crossing maps and globes? Latitude and longitude?

Well, there are over 64,000 intersections of whole degrees and somebody had the bright idea people should visit them and post a picture.
The project is an organized sampling of the world. There is a confluence within 49 miles (79 km) of you if you're on the surface of Earth. We've discounted confluences in the oceans and some near the poles, but there are still 11,255 to be found. [More]
All 15 in IL are done. This is the closest one to me.

What if Big Food gets it right?....

By now we all know that our food industry is dominated by horrifying behemoth polluting uncaring corporate faceless dehumanizing, ah..somethings. But what if they change?

It could too happen:
But many quality restaurants, like Tree Room, use Sysco responsibly—shying away from pre-made items they can disguise as their own. Bardia Ferdowski of Bardia's New Orleans CafĂ© in Washington, D.C., purchases only raw and unprocessed Sysco products such as flour, potatoes, and beef, and receives frequent deliveries so that ingredients are as fresh as possible. For its part, Sysco has also been upping the quality of some of its offerings. It now distributes more locally grown meats and produce, and teams up with companies like artisanal cheesemonger Murray's to deliver specialty foods. Chef Tom Hosack of Hudson's at the Heathman Lodge in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, buys most of his greens through Sysco, and they're almost all regionally grown. [More]

Our lack of faith in the market to send appropriate signals up and down the chain is discouraging. Even as we wring our hands, I'll bet CEO wannabe's are scheming to push those evil organizations to capture the value now grasped tenuously by local/organic/natural niche marketers (and make their careers in the process - of course)

Who will we despise if they convert? Can you be Big and Good? Is virtue impossible on a large scale?

If so, shouldn't we rethink government?

Friday, February 23, 2007

This is why everybody should do their own taxes...

Item One: The "adjusted gross income" means test proposed by the administration:
To receive commodity payments, producers must also meet a limit on Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), which includes wages and other income minus farm expenses and depreciation. This plan reduces the AGI limit of $2.5 million to a new limit of $200,000. If a producer has an annual adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more, that individual would no longer be eligible for commodity payments. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data for 2004 indicate that 97.7 percent of all American tax filers have an AGI under $200,000.
Item Two: A Congressperson reacts:
"Two hundred thousand dollars to the average guy is a lot of money," Chambliss said. "But what we in agriculture know is, $200,000 in adjusted gross income means once you get to that point, then you've got to pay for that $250,000 combine, that $100,000 tractor that you've got to have to operate your facilities."
Folks, these are two unrelated events.

Let's review briefly. Grasping your Form 1040, skim down to Line 37, labeled oddly, Adjusted Gross Income. Now notice that it includes all income (wages, farm income, capital gains - the whole pile) minus adjustments for health insurance, moving, and whatever else Congress thought was a good political move at some time.

The important thing for farmers is Schedule F income shown on your 1040 (line 18) is NET farm income, not gross. The gross income goes on line 11 of Schedule F. The cost of new combines and fertilizers and pickups has already been accounted for by the time the AGI is calculated. We call the machinery stuff Sen. Chambliss moans about "depreciation" (Sch. F, line 16). Perversely, those rules have been seductively generous for some time. (Which is why I am sooo doomed in 2008 when all mine runs out thanks to Section 179)

You don't have to love the proposal, but at least read the instructions.
Always good for a post...

Forecasting anything is tough these days, but the "peak-oilers" have been taking it on the chin for a while. Those who truly believed have suffered along with them.
Finally, a practical reminder: If there is an imminent peak of oil extraction, should not then the prospective shortage of that increasingly precious fuel result in relentlessly rising prices and should not buying a barrel of oil and holding onto it be an unbeatable investment? But a barrel of a high-quality crude, say West Texas intermediate, bought at $12.23/b in 1976 as a nest-egg for retirement and sold before the end of 2006 at $60/b would have earned (even when assuming no storage costs) about 1.2% a year, a return vastly inferior to almost any guaranteed investment certificate and truly a miserable gain when compared with virtually any balanced stock market fund. And a freedom-at-55 investor who bought that barrel at 30 years of age in 1980 and sold in 2005 would have realized a nearly forty per cent loss on his precious investment. Being a true believer in imminent peak oil may be fine as a provocative notion but not as a means of securing a comfortable retirement. [More]

It's easy sport to make fun of serious analysts whose projections get waylaid by surprising events. But the peak oil theory may be fundamentally wrong. Moreover, its plausibility may help ensure its predicted outcomes are incorrect. To the extent that alternative fuels were extolled because we "are running out of oil" demand has been partially met by these usually more expensive choices.

At the same time, money has been poured into energy efficiency, with surprisingly good results. Even when we umm, fudge on car data.

Betting on a catastrophic decline in oil production helps many embrace a picture of widespread social and cultural upheaval. Sometimes our motives for those outcomes are other than economic. We could want to take down the wealthy, punish the wicked, or advance our own portfolio. And if an energy cataclysm helps, what the hey?

The problem for "apocalytophiles" is effective Doomsday business plans are tough to write. We depend on a framework of some order and rationality to exist at all today. Even "Foxfire" hermitages would be cheerless prisons while the rest of the world melts down.

When I was a kid worried about the Ruskies nuking us, I assumed we would survive out on the farm, but after that, when anarchy broke loose, were you better off to be all prepared and cozy - and thus a ripe target for those who forgot to stockpile canned goods, or should you just enlist in the mob straight away and hope to rise to some executive level with good job performance?

I think widespread social chaos and anarchy is something I want to experience unprepared. At least it will show if my instinctive reactions mark my genetics as suitable for enduring. Think of the sheer excitement! The amazing home videos! Plus it saves a lot of time not spent trying to imagine every threat.

Which obviously we are not very good at, anyway.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A distant battlefield...

Those wacky Russians had a rocket problem about a year ago. A missile and satellite ended up in a bad orbit and a couple of days ago, suddenly decided to blow itself up. (We think).

This made for some spectacular photos for Aussie astronomers and a reminder that there are more than few things whizzing over our heads today. Also reminder for the world to duck as some 1000+ fragments start arriving.

All the satellites/junk in orbit today.

Meanwhile last month the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon with apparently successful results. Although to be fair, from some photos it looks like it would be hard to miss everything especially when debris keeps zooming out more or less for ever.
But China's Jan. 11 test of a primitive anti-satellite weapon against an aging weather satellite boosted the population of trackable debris by more than 900 objects--an instantaneous 10% increase in the 50-year figure--that threaten all spacecraft flying below about 2,000 km. (1,243 mi.).

Still as we mutter about our GPS signal when we are planting, we need to remember it was spending ridiculous amounts on the space program that got us here. And defending and advancing that technology might become just as important as defending dirt.

There are worse investments for public dollars, I believe.

Such as: me.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Are the bugs are getting smarter?...

Nope - we're just committing the same unforced errors as usual.
Peanut butter happens to be a pretty safe food when it comes to microorganisms. That's because the nuts are blanched, roasted, and ground up at temperatures high enough to kill any salmonella bacteria that might have gotten into the raw ingredients. But the germs can still contaminate the product in the "post-processing" phase of production—when the finished product is loaded into jars and labeled for sale. The only other known outbreak of peanut butter-related salmonellosis occurred in Australia in the mid-1990s: Post-processing contamination with fecal matter was the likely culprit.

More of a very helpful explanation of what is going on in those jars. Not to trivialize, but 300 people getting sick implies a 1 in a million chance. Thanks to modern communication outbreaks terminate quickly and while no picnic for the victims, fatalities are rare.

Or in this case, non-existent to date.

(Wait - there may be one).
It's a trick, I tell you...

Here at the ND Ag Expo in Grand Forks the conversations have flowed almost inevitably from "things are pretty good, I guess" to "how long can it last though?" We seemed to be determined to put a cloud in front of this silver lining.

Still the gossip was flowing and rated ex-cell-ent! Some choice "I-heard-from-this-guy" morsels. (Believe at your own risk):
  • Some minor crop processors - notably edible beans - got caught with their acres down and are having a hard time to convince growers to shift away from corn. Bids have been raised three times at least to get contracts signed. Ditto for potatoes (although watch the "quality" fine print) and sunflowers.
  • Seed corn dealers are being allotted 40% of their orders from one major (I'm always suspicious of rumors with actual numbers).
  • Urea is over $400 and then only to long-time customers.
  • Sugar beets could be in for a big boom as the world price rises to our "rigged" price due to cane diversion to ethanol. The sugar program could fade away as can enters from Mexico next year.
  • Some guy bid $160 for cash rent in Cass county today for approximately 110-bu. ground.
  • CNH 2377 combines are not hot sellers.
  • If it wasn't for lack of APH, more ground might go to corn. (ND really digs crop insurance.)
Most amazing to me was the relative lack of interest in the farm bill debate. Could it be slip-sliding into ethanol-irrelevance?

And don't tell me men don't gossip:
Men gossip as much as women. The study found that men gossip at least as much as women, especially on their mobiles. Thirty-three percent of men indulge in mobile gossip every day or almost every day, compared with twenty-six percent of women. Men gossip for just as long and about the same subjects as women, but tend to talk more about themselves. The study did find a sex difference in 'gossip partners', with men more likely to gossip with work colleagues, partners and female friends, while women gossip more with same-sex friends and family. Male and female gossip also sounds different, as women use more animated tones, more detail and more feedback.

More about mobile phones and gossip.

Monday, February 19, 2007

All disasters, all the time...

Think you are having a bad day? See what is going on elsewhere:

Real-time disaster tracking, from animal attacks to volcanoes.

(Check in from time to time to put your problems in perspective.)

This is also one reason we think the world is so much more dangerous and threatening. We can now share in every piece of bad news, where before we would have missed virtually all of it.

[via Neatorama]
Selfish steam...

The two-decade experiment in "self-esteem" is being evaluated. And the grades are not good.
Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

By and large, the literature on praise shows that it can be effective—a positive, motivating force. In one study, University of Notre Dame researchers tested praise’s efficacy on a losing college hockey team. The experiment worked: The team got into the playoffs. But all praise is not equal—and, as Dweck demonstrated, the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific. (The hockey players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.) [More of a must-read article]

It seemed reasonable at first to worry about low self esteem, but how to help children raise their self-opinion was the tricky part. The worst consequence could be a generation that will struggle to find much fulfillment.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why me don't think good...

A few Mac users are pointing out politely how my travails with Vista could have been avoided. This leads to an obvious question: If Macs are so obviously stable, easy and reliable, why is their market share still so small?

I think the answer lies in the lack of choice compared to PC's - something Daniel Gilbert points out in "Stumbling on Happiness".

Inescapable, inevitable, and irrevokable circumstances trigger the psychological immune system, but as with the intensity ofsuffering, people do not always recognize this will happen. For example, college students in one study signed up for a course in black-and-white photography. Each student took a dozen photographs of people and places that were personally meaningful, then reported for a private lesson. In these lessons, the teacher spent and hour or two showing students how to print their two best photographs. When the prints were dry and ready, the teacher said that the student could keep one of the photographs, but that the other would be kept on file as an example of student work. Some students (inescapable group) were told that once they had chosen a photograph to take home, theywould not be allowed to change their minds. Other students were told that once they had chosen a photograph to take home, they would have several days to change their minds - and if they did, the teacher would gladly swap the photograph they'd taken home for the one they'd left behind. Students made their choices and took one of the photographs home. Several days later, the students responded to a survey asking them (among other things) how much they liked their photographs. The results showed that students in the escapable group like their photograph less than did the students in the inescapable group.Interestingly, when a new group of students was asked to predict how much they would like their photographs if they were or were not given the opportunity to change their minds, these students predicted that the escapability would have no influence whatsoever on their satisfaction with the photograph. Apparently inescapable circumstances trigger psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen.

So what does this have to do with PC's and Macs? The primary gripe about Macs is a lack of choices for software, add-on hardware, and expansion. In short, choosing a Mac limits our choice in the future. It must be noted this problem has been significantly reduced in recent models.

It turns out we will pay premiums today for an opportunity to change our mind tomorrow. (This is also why puts are so expensive) Often this love of freedom carries a strange cost - less happiness.

Mac users, I believe see their experience as positive even with the lack of choice because their brains work very hard to emphasize the positive aspects. This same phenomenon occurs within in strictly controlled groups (military), during deprivation (your Dad's Depression stories), and irrevocable choices (having children). The finality of the decision makes the brain see it differently and it usually chooses to make it seem OK.

PC users dread giving up the freedom of choices with Macs, and this certainly carries a cost. But this same idea could prove to be powerful as a world of new choices opens up to many in agriculture who suddently can afford options.

I doubt if we will end up much happier that we are now. In fact, the choosing process involved in investment choices could make us less happy.

Cool photos...

Thinking about taking a vacation in Paris? Or London? Or Little Rock?

Check out the photos posted in some great daily photo blogs.
Is nothing secure?...

Did somebody hack the Google homepage?

What's with the pigs? And the Chinese (?) character between them?

Or (groan) is it my machine?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The blue screen of death...

I can't believe it. just when Jan and I had whipped Vista into some semblance of working order, IT STRIKES BACK!

To be fair it was my own fault. I tried to add a new wireless keyboard, and Vista warned me it may not be compatible. But I thought what the heck - if it doesn't work I'll just plug in the old one and uninstall it.

Wrong! Instead, I could not input at all once Windows started to load - no mouse or keyboard. The only fix (Tech support for Dell did not even answer chat, let alone phone) was to reload Vista.

And my programs.

And try to find my data.

Enough moaning. Just a piece of advice re: Vista:

RUN!!! RUN!!!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Well, this explains where "whoopie-ti-yi-yo" came from...

Listen to this example of kulning (short mp3file).
"Herding calls from Gammelboning -
In this song a special high-pitched vocal technique is used called kulning, a vocal means of expression mainly used by women in the grazing pastures in Scandinavia. It has been used since the Middle Ages and functions primarily as a means of communication between the shepherdess and the animals and can be heard many miles away."

Even more here.
It's driving me nuts too...

I apologize for the screwy font size changes that occur sporadically throughout my posts. I think the problem starts when I excerpt more than one paragraph from another source. Despite my best efforts to date, I cannot resolve this - but I'm not giving up.

Worst of all, it doesn't show up on my preview screen.

Of course one obvious work-around would be to limit my excerpting to single paragraphs, but that means more work for me. Seriously it also limits the context for the point I'm trying to highlight.

Anyhoo, we are beefing up the AgWeb section of FJ media, so I hope to have some professional help soon.

Meanwhile, thanks for your consideration.

Introducing the book

If this seems familiar maybe some of us just have genetic aversions to new technology...

[vis Greg Mankiws blog]

Some are more equal than others...

(C'mon - you didn't expect me to yammer on about equality without quoting Orwell, didja?)

As our now perpetual presidential campaign enters the desperate last 21 months, one topic batted around in economist circles and by amateurs like yours truly has been inequality. But I have certainly fallen into the unhelpful habit of not differentiating which measure of equality I'm talking about.

For example, there is a growing inequality in asset distribution - who owns what. At the same time (and perhaps for the same reasons) there is a significant inequality in income which may or may not be growing (depending on whether you look at the US or the world), and income growth which definitely is widening.

Foregoing the knee-jerk reaction of deeming all inequality growth a bad thing per se, we need to be careful which particular distribution we are ranting about at any given time.

A wonderful post on an Economist blog - Free Exchange - helped me understand the importance of this distinction.
I'm not sure that I care at all about the size of the gap between the rich and poor, provided that the poor have all the ingredients of a decent life. I don't think that they do, yet, in America or much of anyplace else, but I think the solutions to most of their problems lie elsewhere than in redistribution. Of course, I care about other inequalities that can be conferred by high socioeconomic status, such as extreme differences in power or autonomy, but I am very sure that those disparities cannot be rectified simply by taking money from the richer and giving it to the poorer. So it's hard to get worked up simply because CEO's have gotten a pay rise.

What I do care about, once basic needs are taken care of, is how easy it is to change one's position on the ladder. Or rather, since earning money is never exactly easy, whether place in the income distribution is conferred by who one's parents were, or by one's own efforts. The evidence in America is that where you start out has a lot to do with where you end up. This bothers me a great deal. But there's less evidence that the problem of income immobility is growing.

Even if it isn't, of course, I would prefer to live in a world where the children of Bill Gates, and an average welfare mother, have the same opportunity to succeed. While I doubt that this dream will ever be fully realised, I still think America could go much farther in that direction than it has, for starters by doing something about the appalling inequities in its educational system. Unfortunately, altering the socio-political structures that reinforce accident of birth is so difficult that almost everyone prefers to focus on the (comparatively) trivially easy task of moving cash from one person to another. [More]

I find this point very persuasive. Better access to education could mitigate many of the income and asset distribution problems, I believe. In fact, in an upcoming (probably April) issue of Top Producer, I will try to incorporate this factor into my idea of what a good safety net for farmers could look like.

More on the environment and evangelicalism...

[This is a re-post from March 2006]

Two interesting developments in the area of environmental thought seem to be on a collision course. Green advocates have evolved their passion into something resembling a religion, and religion is taking another look at stewardship.

Just as the complexity of environmental issues is a barrier to hasty and uncritical statements by evangelical leaders, neither can this complexity be an excuse for Christians to remain silent about God's wonderful gift of creation. In this way, evangelical environmentalism can be a biblically-sound, politically-informed approach to the task of Christian stewardship. [More]

Of course it need not be a collision - it could be more of a meeting on common ground, where both sides speak with respect and listen to each ohter's point of view before judging.

It could, too.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

There is a flaw in this idea somewhere...

See, the concept is this gizmo scoops up snow and makes these sorta "snowblocks" which are then used for "refrigeration". In what, I'm thinking? Iceboxes of the future?

I don't get it...
Farm policy from the pulpit...

I had posted before about the seemingly odd dialog between evangelicals and environmentalists. A reader asked about my definition of "evangelical". I do not purport to be the "decider" of the meaning, but will use what I believe to be the common understanding of the word.

Evangelical as it is commonly used today refers to a particular segment of Christians:

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, found in the 2004 American Religious Landscape Report [1] that despite many variations, evangelicals in the United States generally adhere to four core beliefs:

  1. Biblical inerrancy
  2. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus and not good works. (in particular the belief in atonement [2] for sins at the cross and the resurrection [3] of Christ)
  3. Individuals (above an age of accountability) must personally trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  4. All Christians are commissioned to evangelize and should be publicly baptized [4] as a confession of faith.

In regard to "Biblical inerrancy", a notable American summit on Bible inerrancy was held in Chicago in 1978. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was signed by nearly 300 noted American evangelical scholars (see main article). There is no absolute consensus among evangelicals regarding Biblical inerrancy; however there is a general acceptance of Biblical authority. [More]

My personal beliefs are not far from the above with the exception of Biblical inerrancy. I respect and read the Bible. I choose not to worship it, considering such as a form of idolatry. [BTW - I have started listening to lectures from Great Courses during my 3 hour commute each week to South Bend to tape US Farm Report. I have just ordered "The Story of the Bible". I'll let you know what I think after I get into it.]

Evangelicals have become a political force, especially within the conservative wing of the Republican party. Indeed, what was formerly (pre-1980 or so) as religious classification of believers dedicated to evangelizing, that is converting non-believers, became a cohesive body whose major concern was to enforce the conduct of personal life in accordance with proscribed rules. The ability of Karl Rove to mobilize and motivate this group helped them become the most important electoral faction for the Republican party.

In fact, some critics charge, and I tend to agree, that the politics has become the core issue, not the religion. Andrew Sullivan coined the term "christianist" to indicate the politicization of belief. The evangelical movement is led by strong voices like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and to a decreasing extent, the slightly loopy Pat Robertson.

I am not attracted to nor convinced by their thundering broadsides of sanctimonious cant against abortion, homosexuality, or evolution. Evangelicals in turn tend to despise those of us who have doubts about our faith, but are struggling to apply it to our lives nonetheless.

In recent years, the evangelical movement has raised some more moderate voices, notably Pastor Rick Warren, the famed author of "The Purpose-Driven Life". I find this development and this new ministry approach encouraging. The biggest difference for me and self-described evangelicals seems to be I strongly support their right to disagree with me, and I am willing to entertain the thought that on some matters they may be right. Evangelicals for the most part cannot reciprocate that sentiment.

Which gets us finally to farm policy. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church (one example known to me) has long been involved in farm policy debate, the more political evangelicals have had little time for non-core issues. That may be changing, thanks to the linkage between environmentalism and farm policy.

The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American religious story of this decade. The evolution of the evangelical movement should not be confused with the rise of a religious left. Although the margin of the Republican Party's advantage among white evangelicals is likely to decline from its exceptionally high level in the 2004 election, a substantial majority of white evangelicals will probably remain conservative and continue to vote Republican.

But the evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the fights against AIDS and human trafficking. Among the most prominent advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose Driven Life."

In the meantime, Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (and a self-described "Ronald Reagan movement conservative"), has been a leader in urging evangelicals to make environmental stewardship a central element of their political mission. This has earned him attacks from such prominent leaders on the Christian right as James Dobson. [More]

Note also the issue of Third World poverty. Relief groups such as Oxfam have made strong cases that our farm subsidies contribute to poverty in poor countries. Now attach that concern to people who contribute time, money and prayer to mission work, and you have perhaps the seeds for change among those who formerly did not care much whether I got an LDP or not.

One of those listening on Bono's speaking tour was Shayne Moore, a 35-year-old mother of three in Wheaton, Illinois. Ms. Moore, a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near Chicago, says she "couldn't figure out what my conservative alma mater was doing giving Bono a voice." But "that night changed my life. Bono said something like, 'Politicians get nervous when rock stars and soccer moms get involved.' Well, I thought, I'm a soccer mom."

She traveled to Honduras and Kenya at her own expense, and also to last summer's meeting in Scotland of the leaders of the countries known as the Group of Eight, a trip that was paid for by aid groups. Back home, she tells groups what she has seen. "The person picking cotton in rags is just as important as the person picking cotton in an awesome combine," she says in an interview. "I don't begrudge him the awesome combine, but not at the expense of the farmer in rags." [More]

While some see this newfound global concern as temporary - a distraction from the goal of returning America to godly living - others view it as a maturation of belief, or even a true effort to attend Scripture and apply it to our lives.

To be sure the environmental movement is morphing at the edges into something like a religion. The strange (to me) Gaia hypothesis is typical of a kind of nature reverence that is profoundly appealing in our technological world. I cannot see these two groups truly bonding, but I can see their individual influences complementing each other politically. They need not merge to be effective. My personal conjecture is that concern for the environment and other people could prove to be an entry to faith, rather than a distraction for believers. At any rate, it certainly should rank low as a threat to Christians.

The test will come when from rural pulpits convicted Christian leaders mention the farm bill the same way they do other matters of social justice. Regardless of which side of the farm bill debate you are on, it will introduce a new influence into the discussion.