Sunday, September 30, 2007

You don't know nothing...

Not rude, poor grammar like it sounds. Twenty Things You Didn't Know About Nothing.

17 But to a physicist there is no such thing as nothing. Empty space is instead filled with pairs of particles and antiparticles, called virtual particles, that quickly form and then, in accordance with the law of energy conservation, annihilate each other in about 10-25 second.

18 So Aristotle was right all along.

19 These virtual particles popping in and out of existence create energy. In fact, according to quantum mechanics, the energy contained in all the power plants and nuclear weapons in the world doesn’t equal the theoretical energy contained in the empty spaces between these words.
[via PreSurfer]

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A little light on a vexing problem...

I have been curious, like many others, why the United Kingdom seems to be the epicenter of livestock diseases. And it seems to be ongoing, despite vigorous efforts by farmers and health officials. The reasons are subtle, and some would never have occurred to me.
It's been a rough start to the fall for British farmers, with reports of sporadic cases of BSE (mad cow disease) and more cases of foot-and-mouth disease. And then on Friday, British public health officials officially pronounced an outbreak of bluetongue disease among the nation's cattle. So what makes British cattle so sickly?

Heathrow Airport. Agriculture experts say the outbreaks in the United Kingdom are the result of bad luck more than anything else. But the country does have the distinction of being Europe's primary landing spot for global travel, and that could put livestock at risk. Travelers from every continent pass through London Heathrow Airport (the busiest airport in the world for international traffic), and with them comes food waste from airplanes. Pathology researchers consider airline food waste, which is sometimes processed into food for livestock, the greatest danger to animal health in the world. Airline garbage that's contaminated with foreign diseases can end up in livestock troughs, or it goes to landfills where it might infect wild animals—who could then spread illness to domesticated livestock.

It's also possible that British cattle are simply the victims of bad publicity. Most European countries, as well as nations in Africa, Asia, and North America, have had confirmed cases of the three major livestock diseases—mad cow, foot and mouth, and bluetongue. But the United Kingdom happens to have one of the best systems in the world for reporting these outbreaks. Since the country was struck with a devastating BSE epidemic in 1968, British health officials have developed a surveillance network with a very high degree of transparency. This ensures that individual cases of diseases are immediately reported to the government, and appropriate action is taken. So the British cattle may not be any more sickly than those in other parts of the world; they might just be getting watched a bit more closely. [More possible reasons]
I lean toward the reporting exaggeration effect, but having flown through Heathrow several times (and lived to tell the story) I find the airline garbage idea logical as well. British media pick up every tiny scrap of news, and have elevated the coverage of this far beyond the actual risk. It may be such reports will become tiresome, and as no public harm has emerged, indifference will reduce the alarm.
Another risk transfer...

I have been noticing the risk-aversion behavior that is now the standard for good farming practice. I think our profit margins will be squeezed relentlessly by these choices, despite record prices.

Primarily because the return to labor is diminishing. Our physical work takes less skill (autosteer) and some entire jobs have disappeared (walking beans). This shows up in our economic decisions.

We're not the only ones transferring risks. Consider this announcement from Monsanto:
A new pilot program recently approved by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) will provide farmers an opportunity to pay lower premiums if they plant a majority of their corn acres using hybrid seeds that feature YieldGard Plus® with Roundup Ready® Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple™ technology from Monsanto Company (NYSE: MON).

The insurance product will be offered as a pilot program in cooperation with Western Agricultural Insurance Company and will be called the Biotech Yield Endorsement (BYE). Western Agricultural Insurance will make the program available to all other approved insurance providers to offer to their farmer customers.

The pilot program will be initially available in four states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota. Implementation of BYE has yet to be determined pending available resources and priorities for the deployment and administration of the program by the Risk Management Agency (RMA).

To be eligible for the program, a farmer must plant 75 to 80 percent of their corn acres with seeds featuring YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple technology. Refuge requirements must also be respected. Depending on the grower's production history, amount of coverage purchased and other criteria, the farmer may be able to reduce the yield component of their premium up to 24 percent. [More]
I got word of this last week and saved my 6-hour commute to/from South Bend to tape US Farm Report to ponder the possible ramifications of this program. (Note: this strategy may or may not improve the quality of the pondering.) Some thoughts:
  • This is tacit actuarial proof of decreased production risks. We've all been seeing it in our fields. (Note the happy surprises in the AgWeb Crop Comments.) The number one yield threat - drought - threatens all corn growers less with this technology protection. So, if crop insurance has been a questionable benefit (example: I have only ever carried CAT coverage because of a FSA grain bin loan), it is a true loser now. I know many of you can't imagine farming without CI, but some of you probably could now, especially if you sock the saved premiums away for a "rainless day".
  • Insurance companies are probably not thrilled (more on this in a later post). The farm bill drafts are squeezing their profits - which have been handsome lately - and now premiums will drop because of seed choice. Monsanto has unilaterally transferred a risk premium from crop insurers to seed - and can legitimately capture that value. If it doesn't support an actual price increase, it will justify current boosts. This is superb business practice, and Monsanto is displaying again why they currently have no match in the seed/technology marketplace.
  • I bet rotary hoe sales jump and prices for old hoes increase sharply. Stay with me on this one. It seems to me the biggest risk now is having to replant. Even with a break on seed costs, you still pay the tech fees (now enormous) on replant seed. Slapping corn in the ground willy-nilly now carries one of the higher penalties even as the production boost to early planting may be decreasing. Free replant seed should be a big factor in hybrid seed choice. Ditto with waiting an extra day or not planting just ahead of a downpour.
  • This trend is not over. The (in my opinion) over-hyped pipelines just might offer more production-stabilizing technology that should make crop insurance premiums less by reducing payouts.
This is how competition looks in our 21st Century economy. Each link in the production chain must constantly be on guard to protect the value they deliver, because other links want to capture that contribution themselves. For that matter they should be looking to predate values currently being delivered by others themselves. Producers are building bins like crazy, stealing the value traditionally delivered by elevators. Tractors are too complicated for most farmers to manage, and a repair becomes a value delivered increasingly by dealers. Now seed packs insurance in the bag. The tug of war for margin continues.

The big and constant question for me is, "What value can only I deliver and claim for myself?" That list seems to be shrinking.

[Thanks, Darren]

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mind-boggling Fact of the Day...

Buried in an article about a rumored new mobile phone from Google was a sentence that made my jaw drop.
Google and advertisers drool over the growth potential in wireless. The more than 2 1/2 billion phones in use worldwide exceed the number of PCs and TVs combined. On Sept. 17, Google announced a Web program aimed at advertisers who have created sites for display on cell phones and other handheld devices. Like its online ad network, Google's AdSense for Mobile delivers ads relevant to the advertiser's mobile audience. "The sheer volume of users across the globe makes mobile the next channel for information," says Dilip Venkatachari, director of product management for Google's mobile team. [More] [My emphasis]
Think how long we've been selling TV's, for the love of Mike! This is a clue about technology adoption and also the future of traditional "wireful" telephony, methinks.
Add us to the list of sausage and legislation...

Well, we're all blogging like crazy now - even the highest levels of journalism.
This week, motorcycle enthusiast Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, said that his department is starting a new blog, "The Board." It'll join the paper's 14 other Opinion section blogs, including the Opinionator, which discusses the op-ed pages of other newspapers and will benefit from being freed from the Times now-dead paywall, TimesSelect. The Times looks to be the newspaper blog leader—they have 40 active blogs, not counting seasonal blogs like David Carr's movie awards season craziness, beating the Guardian with 18, the New York Daily News with 22, the Wall Street Journal with 16 active blogs, the Los Angeles Times with 27, the San Francisco Chronicle with 26, the Miami Herald with 31, and the Chicago Tribune with 33, for a random sampling. But. Do you read any of these blogs? [More]

The commenter may be on-target, but perhaps harsh (gosh - why does that sound familiar?) That old media doesn't instinctively know how to handle new media should be no surprise.

And some things may have to be discovered by trial and error.
A country with two names...

The unrest going on in Southeast Asia is creating a secondary journalistic battle over who gets to name a country.
But when it comes to referring to the nation in English, there's little debate. Myanmar is the name invented 18 years ago by the benighted junta, known as SLORC* back then and the State Peace and Development Council now, when it seized power through force. When Westerners say "Myanmar," they're not being culturally respectful to the people of a beautiful but oppressed nation. (We don't call China Zhongguo or Germany Deutschland just because the locals do.) They're bowing to the whims of the generals who still imprison Aung San Suu Kyi.

There is no reason to humor them. Say Burma, as George Bush did. And CNN, grow some backbone when it comes to terminology! [More]

I'm falling in with James Fallows and Pres. Bush. And I'm starting to notice how different media sources make their choice as well.
Pick a direction...

As I follow various sources of information in the farm bill debate, I am struck by the lack of consensus on possible outcomes. For example, some feel Sen. Harkin is over-matched by hardball players like Sen Conrad.
But Conrad is a relentless political operator who never quits. And that’s the pity. Harkin is an idea man with a progressive vision of where U.S. agriculture is going and what the farm bill should look like. But as the weeks drag on and Senate work on the farm bill is delayed, he seems increasingly hemmed in by Conrad’s aggressive tactics and the real politik of Senate dealing making.

He acknowledged as much Tuesday in one of his regular teleconferences with reporters. While he still held out hopes for what he said would be “very modest” reforms of the basic subsidy programs, he twice noted that he was limited by “the art of the possible,” i.e., he can’t move a bill out of his committee without votes from hardline advocates of traditional subsidies. [More]
Meanwhile, the change in leadership at the USDA leaves some unsure where the administration will draw the line in the sand (if any).
* If there is a payment limit for farmers with an average gross income (AGI) of $200,000 that the Bush administration has suggested, or the $1 million limit in the House farm bill, why not pay those farmers up to that point of the limit? Why take an all-or-nothing approach?

"Remember," Conner said, "our approach is $200,000 averaged over three years. So I don't see that as all or nothing. This is a sustained person who is in the top 2.3 percent of tax filers in America -- of all tax filers. We understand there are boom and bust years, and there is always going to be, so it may not be fair if you just happen to hit a great year, and maybe even marketing even more than one crop in a particular year because of the price situation, that one year would throw a producer out. But if you manage to do that over a period of three years, you are just flat out one of the top income people in the United States of America. As we have said time and time again, we do believe that if you reach a point where you've realized the American dream to the fullest extent, and again, if you're one of the top income earners in America, you need to graduate. These programs today are income support programs."
[More by ProFarmer subscription]

Meanwhile, back at the farm, incandescent prices could provide an interesting backdrop for any possible floor debate in the Senate. I doubt that will occur, but I do think the bizarre funding proposals (FICA exemptions?) may struggle to pass muster.

I also think a Doha agreement would put immense pressure on even a finished farm bill. Too many other sectors with political goals of their own would have to subordinate their interests to agriculture to pass up the trade benefits.

As always, the White House is a real wild card. This president looks veto-itchy to me.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Something completely different...
Mount Rushmore sings "The Teddy Bear's Picnic"

Ya don't see stuff like this on competing ag websites, folks!

[via Presurfer]
Welcome back...

As an ex-nuke myself, I have long lamented the illogical choices people made to stop the development of nuclear power. Poor science training, negligible risk balancing skills and inflammatory rhetoric meant the US lost out on decades of low-risk, environmentally friendly energy, choosing to burn coal instead.

But one thing about science - it tends to be self-correcting and over time, good ideas persist. Nuclear power is officially back.
Since 2001, we and just about every other business publication have written stories on the coming nuclear renaissance. It’s a development that was seen as almost inevitable. The country needs more electricity. And with coal plants being blocked or cancelled because of concerns over global warming, nukes were looking more and more attractive. Sure, there are still lingering worries over waste disposal and nuclear proliferation, but the new generation of plants are safer and, the industry expected, cheaper to build. The question was, who would take the first leap? Now we have an answer. It’s a Princeton, NJ-based utility named NRG. On Sept. 24, the company and South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two new nuclear units at the site of two existing nukes in Texas. "We think the nuclear renaissance is finally upon us," says NRG CEO David Crane. [More]
The nation will be watching closely to see how construction goes. The design is well-proven and the opportunity could not be brighter for this form of energy, I think.
NRG has chosen Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) technology for the new units to be built at the STP site. The 12,220-acre site and 7,000-acre cooling reservoir were originally designed for four units. The two new units will be built adjacent to the currently operating STP units 1 and 2. ABWR technology is certified by the NRC and has an impressive construction and operational track record. This includes setting world records for construction time and bringing the units in on budget. Four ABWR units have been successfully commissioned in Japan, with another three units under construction in Taiwan and Japan. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. has more than a decade of experience in ABWR operations and has provided their expertise to supporting STP’s planned two-unit expansion. [More]
The availability of cleaner electricity could shift the energy balance for transportation as well. Any kind of carbon tax could raise the reward for hybrids and plug-ins. Such an economic influence would change the mix of cars in cities at least, and certainly impact the demand for transportation fuels.
When floor mats go bad...

There is trouble underfoot in this country. Terrorists? Mad cow? Weak currency?

You wish.
Toyota Motor Co. will recall 55,000 floor mats due to complaints of unintended acceleration caused by the mats sticking underneath the accelerator pedal, federal safety officials and the automaker said Wednesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took the unusual step of highlighting Toyota’s recall announcement, advising owners of other Toyota models – including the Prius hybrid and Avalon sedans – to ensure their floor mats are properly installed.

“We have also received complaints about the RAV 4 (crossover) and Tacoma (pickup),” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA. “We will continue to monitor all of the other Toyota vehicles not involved in the recall." [More]

I'm going back to bed.

[via Fark]
I think "consensus" is the right word...

The slowly dying debate on anthropogenic climate change has had one feature that I find puzzling. Climate change skeptics tend to trot out handfuls of scientists and claim there is no "consensus" in the scientific community. But the proof in scientific circles takes place in scientific literature - not talk shows, or even blogs.

And there the statistics are clear.
2) The blog reports of the Schulte piece misrepresent the research question that we originally posed. It was, "How many papers published in referred journals disagree with the statement, "...most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations"? This statement came from the IPCC (2001) and was reiterated explicitly by the 2001 NAS report, so we wanted to know how many papers diverged from that consensus position. The answer was none. The Schulte claim does not refutes that. [More]
[My emphasis]
If there was credible disagreement across science on the very high probability of anthropogenic climate change there would be career-enhancing studies being published in bunches.

I support the right of individuals to hold differing opinions about this phenomenon. But as Sen. Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

I'm going to stop complaining...

About how dry it is here. Even though we're hauling water for our house, and fighting dust and too-dry crops, this little story about Australia puts my petty problems n perspective. They are paying farmers to quit essentially. Another view is handing out small parachutes to farmers and ranchers being slowly wiped out by prolonged drought. They key factor has been an asset limit to qualify.
If enough people did not take up the exit grants, further increases to the asset test could be made, he said.

University of Adelaide water expert Mike Young said measures to assist farmers move off the land represented a significant shift in attitudes to primary production.

"An important signal is being sent to everybody to make them think about whether or not it is appropriate to remain in agriculture," he said.

"We're now trying to farm and irrigate in a drier regime. A lot of the practices that have been in place won't work in the future unless it rains again."

James Stacey, a dairy farmer from Langhorne Creek in South Australia, said the asset limit was unrealistic for farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin who might want the exit grants but had valuable water licenses putting them above the $350,000 mark.

"I think a lot of people along the Murray system would think about it seriously, and that includes dairy farmers from NSW, Victoria and South Australia," he said. "The problem is, everyone is asset rich and cash poor."

Mr Stacey, who has applied for an exceptional circumstances interest rate subsidy, has been forced to sell his calves born this year because of high feed costs. [More]
Suddenly the wheat market makes a little more sense.

Note the statement in the middle from the water expert - "unless it rains again". How depressing is that?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A face that launched a thousand jokes...

Marcel Marceau, 84, was laid to rest today in Pere Lachaise, alongside other celebrities.

Reportedly, he had no last words.
I thought it would happen slower...

The demand problem for feed grains in Europe is pressuring regulators to reconsider at least the residue limits for GMO's in feed. Rumors already are stirring in the market.
CorrĂȘa de Barros warned the EU Farm Council that "The current EU GM policy will cripple the EU livestock industry.

"Livestock producers in third countries will be able to use the GMO crops not yet approved in the EU to feed their animals and will increasingly sell their products of animal origin to EU consumers at a lower price compared with EU operators".

He stressed that the systematic slowdown of GM approvals in the EU combined with a strict 0-tolerance policy for the presence of non EU-approved materials already resulted in the loss of 4 million tonnes of CGF (Corn Gluten Feed) and DDGS (Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles) that the EU used to import for years from the US. [More]

The livestock industry worldwide is slowly rising to battle the huge increase in feed costs. Coupled with concerns about meat consumption in general (at least in developed countries) the tone of complaint is becoming steadily harsher.

As our own Steve Cornett pithily puts it:
This next farm bill will be critical, and the ethanolics could use the support of the environmental lobby, which enjoys the Times’ editorial ear. My money is still with the corn guys, despite the obvious problems delineated by the Times editorial and about a jillion cattle feeders.

More people are beginning to look at the science and wonder if ethanol is really a prudent approach to energy conservation. You get a different answer, of course, from the ethanol folks—but they must be worried about the momentum shift.

It strikes me as a little bit blind like a bat to argue that ethanol production isn’t affecting food prices, much less sport a headline like RFA’s “NEW REPORT: FOOD AND MEAT PROCESSORS USING "ETHANOL SMOKESCREEN"

Of course ethanol has increased corn prices, and of course that increases meat prices. Geez. As sure as the price of water affects the price of ice. As sure as the price of barbers affects the price of haircuts. As sure as How can you argue that? [More]
That this rhetoric ramp-up is occurring right when soy and wheat acres are being bid for makes me nervous about whether the now-standard fall price hike might be front-loading some of our best opportunities for 07 and 08 crops to right now.

Matter of fact, I've got a call to make...
List rites for a myth...

OK, we now have enough studies frantically funded by corn growers to lay to rest the "cheap food" policy illogic foisted on credulous legislators and the public in general. Loudly proclaiming now that corn prices do not affect food prices (much), proponents of new plateaus of corn prices are notably silent on what benefit consumers therefore get from my fixed payment.
The dramatic increase in the use of crops for fuel is going to increase food prices, at least for the next several years. The magnitude of that increase however, may not be as large as some expect. Probably the three most important reasons why the impact will not be as large as in past years are: 1.) the share of the retail food dollar contributed by the farm level commodity value has been sharply reduced to just 20 percent today; 2.) the importance of food in consumer budgets has continued to drop such that the "food and beverage" category in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is now weighted at just 15 percent; and 3.) the sources of our food are more global and diverse than in the past.

Retail level food prices are expected to increase an additional 1.2 percent to 1.8 percent above their 2006 level due to higher farm-level grain and commodity prices partially attributable to the use of grains and oilseeds for biofuels. This will roughly parallel the calendar years of 2007 and 2008. This analysis is based upon the assumption that higher farm-level commodity prices are eventually passed to retail food consumers. Our assumption is that transferal is dollar for dollar. Not all of the current increased food inflation is attributable to increased use of crops for energy, as poor weather conditions have also contributed to poor world wheat crops in 2006, and to losses of some fruit and vegetable production in 2007. [More]

Giving money to farmers likely has little downward effect on food prices - it mostly goes to inputs and land costs. The study is just the latest of several efforts to counter ethanol opponents in the food vs. fuel debate. Regardless on where you are on that issue, one thing is does do is refute the "cheap food" argument.

[via Farmgate]
There is good news and, umm....

Inappropriate news, in the parlance of today. Remember those weird frogs with congenital deformities that scientists suspected as victims of pesticides?

They were wrong. The cause now appears to be an involved cycle of parasites and nutrient (N, P) runoff.
The study showed increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus cause sharp hikes in the abundance and reproduction of a snail species that hosts microscopic parasites known as trematodes, said Assistant Professor Pieter Johnson of CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department.

The nutrients stimulate algae growth, increasing snail populations and the number of infectious parasites released by snails into ponds and lakes. The parasites subsequently form cysts in the developing limbs of tadpoles causing missing limbs, extra limbs and other severe malformations, Johnson said.

"This is the first study to show that nutrient enrichment drives the abundance of these parasites, increasing levels of amphibian infection and subsequent malformations," said Johnson. "The research has implications for both worldwide amphibian declines and for a wide array of diseases potentially linked to nutrient pollution, including cholera, malaria, West Nile virus and diseases affecting coral reefs." [More]
Keeping nutrients in place is largely a matter of keeping dirt in place, and the ethanol-spurred demand for corn does not bode well for better conservation measures. No-tillers are already reluctantly ripping fields to accommodate continuous corn.

My guess is we'll see nutrient limits and/or fertilizer taxes in our future that will limit fertilizer application. Of course, prices are already causing many of us to reflect on how much we need. It's one more thing we can look to Europe and see the future possibility.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Technology finds a way around...

One of the big factors propelling ethanol production is a significant difference in the retail taxing. America has traditionally paid for roads by taxing fuel. What if GPS technology allowed us to pay by mile instead?
Americans are driving cars that get better mileage, and more are driving vehicles that use fuels taxed at lower rates than gasoline, such as ethanol, or making their own fuel and not being taxed. That means gas tax revenue isn't growing nearly as fast as the number of miles driven.

In addition, the costs of road construction materials have skyrocketed because of heavy demand from India and China. Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase gas taxes, especially at a time of high prices at the pump. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased since 1993; 24 states have not raised their gas taxes since 1997, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

That has made a mileage fee more attractive to some agencies. The University of Iowa study is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and 15 state departments of transportation. [More]

How do you get a special tax incentive for ethanol with that kind of tax structure?

Answer: Levy both taxes.

You heard it here first.
Just a little imagination...


[via Presurfer]
Getting fiscal religion...

To the surprise of this observer, President Bush appears to be dead serious about vetoing more than a few funding bills. A key test will be the expansion of health insurance for children.
Bush is trying to establish that he's a fiscal conservative after overseeing a sharp rise in the deficit, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

"I think he has picked the wrong issues," Durbin said. "If he wants to fight over children's health insurance, I'm sorry but we're ready."

But Bush said lawmakers "are putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington." He and his aides have threatened vetoes on several other matters as well, including House representation for the District of Columbia and subsidized insurance against terrorist acts.

Bush also has threatened to veto nine of the 12 appropriations bills that would fund the government for the fiscal year beginning October 1. [More]
Many of these vetoes are targeting bills near and dear to the farm lobby - like WRDA.

The veto threat came as the House prepared to take up the bill, loaded with $5 billion in new drinking water and wastewater treatment plants proposed by Senate and House negotiators.

"Indeed, it seems a $14 billion Senate bill went into a conference with the House's $15 billion bill and somehow a bill emerged costing approximately $20 billion," complained Rob Portman, the White House budget director, and John Paul Woodley, Jr., the Army's assistant secretary of civil works.

Because the bill's authorization now "significantly exceeds the cost of either the House or Senate bill and contains other unacceptable provisions ... the president will veto the bill," they wrote to four Senate and House members whose committees oversaw the legislation.

Congress must not increase the Army Corps' already huge backlog of $38 billion in authorized projects by adding new ones for wastewater, drinking water, sewer overflows, waterfront development, transportation and abandoned mines - all of which are "outside of and inappropriate for the mission" of the Army Corps, Portman and Woodley wrote. [More]

Given the sudden resurgence of interest in Doha negotiations, the farm bill is a prime target as well, making the imaginative new funding sources being contemplated by both the House and Senate reasons the White House can force Congress to rethink.

Most of all, the rather stunning new enthusiasm for vetoes after a total of umm, none for six years seems to have flummoxed a Congress who thought they had the upper hand after last fall's elections.

Bush is like Capt. Renault in Casablanca, who feigns shock that there is gambling in Rick's Cafe, said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. "He's suddenly 'shocked, shocked' to find out there's all this pork-barrel spending in these bills," Bartlett said.

Bush's veto strategy "is the only card they've really got to play if they are indeed interested in restraining government spending," says Stephen Slivinski, director of budget studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. That has been "an open question" in the past, he added, but now the threats are aimed at "Democratic bills."

"He dislikes Democrats more than he likes big government," Slivinski said. [More]

The veto remains an incredibly powerful tool for the executive branch - and this is an administration that's all about executive power. Recent public relations Iraq victories have reignited his famed stubbornness, it seems.

Most observers still confidently boast "Congress writes the farm bill".

Yeah - and Congress can rewrite it too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Save the pint!...

The EU has buckled under on forcing Brits to give up pints and ounces.
I regard this story as curiously parallel to our own defunding of the Mexican truck program–a populist uprising against unpopular regulation. But where we had protectionist Teamsters, they had the “Metric Martyrs”–shopkeepers who violated European Union regulations by continuing to sell things in pounds and ounces and pints instead of in hemidemisemiquavers and hectagons and rectaliters or whatever such Continental barbarities the muscles from Brussels demanded. And they were fined heavily for it.

In 1984, there’s a passage about Socialist metricization being an extension of demoralizing mind control. I remember it concerned an old prole lamenting, over his beer, that a half liter was too little, and a liter was too much, and that he missed his old comfortable pints which had been just right. That’s it exactly. Feet and inches are a likewise a useful, human scale. NOTHING is a meter long. (Or are we supposed to switch to one-third-meter hot dogs at ballgames?) [More]

Hmm, if only there was a relevant way to celebrate this occasion...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I always wondered where that mnemonic came from...

As grade school music students know the bass clef spaces are A-C-E-G. It is most easily remembered by: All Cows Eat Grass.

Turns out grass is very good for cows. And fun too.

[via DailyDish]
The search for the environmental GUT...

The Grand Unification Theory - long the Holy Grail of physicists - is grounded in the perhaps inborn desire for one explanation for everything. But physics isn't the only arena where the goal of tying everything together seems irresistible until finally adherents overreach.

Environmentalists, for example, often try to link disparate causes under one big umbrella. Not always with results that please everybody. Take global warming and vegetarianism.
Matt Prescott, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, asserted last month that "you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist." PETA's pronouncement is part of a cooperative campaign among a number of animal-rights groups. Their message is that meat production exacerbates global warming.

PETA will lead the charge by dispatching an operative in a chicken suit to tour the country in a Hummer. The group will also deploy billboards nationwide with a mocking cartoon depicting climate-change hero Al Gore eating a drumstick, next to the words "Too Chicken to Go Vegetarian? Meat Is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming." PETA's recent bleating has attracted substantial attention, including a recent story in The New York Times. [More]

My guess is the broad attack approach will be far less effective than engaging people in the one thing they really get worked about. I don't think - judging from the widespread denial of the energy crisis as an energy consumption problem - people are quite ready to embrace the big, albeit pretty obvious solutions.
What happens when the deep-fat fryer breaks...


Now if they just get it onto a stick...
Bad news in old terminology...

To add to Great Britain's farm miseries, a new disease with the charming common name of "bluetongue" has appeared along with a sixth case of foot-and-mouth.
Britain's deputy chief veterinarian Fred Landeg told British television stations on Saturday that a cow on a cattle and sheep farm near Ipswich, Suffolk, northeast of London, tested positive for bluetongue.

The cow was to be slaughtered, other animals on the farm tested to see if they were also infected, and restrictions put in place at the site, Landeg and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said.

National Farmers Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall told BBC television that bluetongue "is definitely not as serious as foot-and-mouth but it is of major concern to us," as it is one more disease to deal with.

He said the disease is carried by insects like midges and is not transferred from animal to animal. [More]

Although this story is unfolding painfully slower than the 2001 FMD epidemic, the stubborn reappearance will likely further decimate British beef trade.

It is hard not to wonder if there is some systemic reason why the "sceptred isle" seems the be the lightning rod for these animal diseases. At the very least, we can say charming small producers in idyllic agrarian settings are not better protected against contagious outbreaks. In fact, it would seem insistence on past methods of animal husbandry sets up producers for persistent ancient disease scourges.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Business as usual... - Watch more free videos

Make sure your watch is really, really correct.
Another reason to be concerned about the economy...

One of the highlights of consumer spending has regularly been the steady splurging of the topmost spenders. Like people who didn't blink when the $600 iPod debuted this summer. So my thinking is if that group stalls out, it is a sign the rest of us won't have much extra cash.

Apple stunned the business world by announcing sharp price drops, and along with other indicators, there are suspicions this means something.
But the gonzo cuts can have negative results after the initial frenzy. First, it makes chumps out of the customers who made the product a hit—and profitable at full price—in the first place. Early adopters who paid through the nose for the new iPhone, were iPissed when they realized that their technologically less-forward neighbors could get the exact same product for one-third less a few weeks later. In response to an avalanche of angry e-mails, Jobs responded that he really cut the price in order to help all those who paid $599 for it. "It benefits both Apple and every iPhone user to get as many new customers as possible in the iPhone 'tent.' We strongly believe the $399 price will help us do just that this holiday season." How would you feel if you bought a condo in a Hovnanian development last month, only to find that your new neighbor paid significantly less for the exact same floor plan? [More]

A softening general economy could mean even lower interest rates, as Fed action and recent comments this week seems to indicate less concern with inflation and more with growth.

Where will land prices go if mortgage rates slide back down?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thanks a lot, science...

Men's brains are not in their pants, as women constantly claim.

But they could be.
Closer to an answer...

Researchers are increasingly confident that IAPV (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) is a key indicator, if not the actual cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health announced a study linking CCD to Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. I haven’t found a link to the study itself, which is published in the journal Science, but ScienceDaily has published a summery. The authors of the study claim that the presence of IAPV predicts CCD in a colony with 96% accuracy. In other words, if someone selected a honey bee colony in the US and all they told you about it was whether or not it had IAPV, not how big it was, where it was, what kinds of bees they were, you tell them if it had collapsed or not. If you did this 1000 times and had average luck, you’d be right 960 times.

But we don’t know if it actually causes CCD

That kind of accuracy is pretty amazing and makes IAPV a “significant marker” for CCD, but it doesn’t mean that it causes CCD. It might even be the other way around; CCD weakens a colony that was otherwise able to fend off IAPV, allowing the virus to infect the colony. Or something else causes both CCD and facilitates an IAPV infection. [More]

But here is where it slides into ideological carping. Organic beekeepers would really like an answer that show current commercial beekeeping practices to be at fault which would in essence force the industry round to their way of thinking, and not coincidentally, buttress the entire organic philosophy (which is having a hard time finding evidence of their more extravagant claims).

The next-to-last thing they want to see is a solution involving more advanced science, such as a counter agent for IAPV of some sort that neatly ends the problem. Organic advocates want "process" to be the solution.
Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. And, have we here a solution to the vanishing bee problem? Is it one that the CCD Working Group, or indeed, the scientific world at large, will support? Will media coverage affect government action in dealing with this issue?

These are important questions to ask. It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time. [More]
They could well be right. A combination of stressors and weakened immune systems is high on the list of causes.

But science gets done badly if we decide the answer before we do the experiment. And my guess is we could see a decidedly non-organic solution to this problem.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You can't spell legacy without "a-g"...

Committed to an open-ended Korean non-solution in Iraq, I sense President Bush wants to mend some fences with potential conservative "library" donors. Hence, this interesting announcement regarding ag subsidies and WTO:
The United States is prepared to negotiate a multilateral trade deal on the basis of a WTO proposal calling for big cuts in agriculture subsidies, a government official said Wednesday.

But a spokeswoman for the office of the US Trade Representative, Sean Spicer, said other countries "must step up to ensure the strongest possible market access outcomes" in agriculture as well as manufacturing and services.

The comments in Washington came after a high-ranking WTO official said in Geneva that US officials had accepted WTO proposals as a basis for negotiations.

"They said they were prepared to negotiate within the range of numbers put forward in the agriculture paper, provided everybody else would work within the same parameters," said the WTO's chief agriculture negotiator, New Zealand ambassador Crawford Falconer.

In July, Falconer published a series of proposals for WTO members which suggested that the United States reduce its agricultural subsidies to between 12.8 to 16.2 billion dollars (9.2 to 11.6 billion euros). [More]
Bush has been savaged by the right for his cave-in on the 2002 Farm Bill, and it could be he will be able to have his way here, if US negotiators can deliver for American service providers and manufacturers. Between administration stalwarts and various other special interest factions, a farm bill veto override would be a tall order.
The death of a business model...

The subscriber-based website is dead. Some simply don't know it yet.

Great news for Internet news fans and of course, bloggers.
I'm still not sure I believe it...

Watch the bat.

[via Neatorama]
Fallout from the housing slump...

Our neighbors adjusting to the repercussions from the American economic headache, just as they tagged along on the ride upward. The loonie is at $0.99 - a thirty year high. If you live along the friendliest of borders, the impact is considerable.

Only hours before the U.S. rate cut announcement, the Canadian forest industry, burned by the double whammy of the surging loonie plus the housing recession in its largest export market, also appealed to the Bank of Canada to act to moderate the loonie's surge.

Further, it asked the federal government for, among other things, more tax relief, including the extension of a two-year tax break on new investments in machinery and equipment to help it compete.

The federal government and Bank of Canada must act now to mitigate the damage that the rapid appreciation of the dollar is doing to Canada's manufacturing sector, the Forest Products Association of Canada appealed in a news release.

"The dollar ... is up over 10 per cent from the 88-cent level it was at the start of 2007 and more than 53 per cent from the 63-cent range it was at five years ago this month," said association president Avrim Lazar.

"This has placed enormous pressure on Canada's forest-products industry and Canada's manufacturing sector more broadly." he said, noting that since 2002, 110,000 jobs having been lost in Canada's manufacturing sector, including 32,000 jobs in the forest sector. [More]

Perversely, the rising price of lumber won't be much help to our struggling housing sector, raising home construction costs just when they need to trim prices to reach now-unqualified buyers. The slump in housing could continue for a significant period, I think as the dame factors that made the boom unwind.

No more. With U.S. home building in the dumps, Romero is working sporadically and sending little money. Diaz and her three young boys are eating rice and beans. She is watching every centavo.

So are economists who track this crucial southward flow of currency. They are worried by what they see.

Remittances are the financial lifeblood for millions of Mexican families and a crucial source of foreign exchange for their government. The $23 billion that maids, cooks, gardeners and others sent home last year — almost all from the U.S. — topped the amount that multinationals invested in Mexico. But fallout from the U.S. construction industry, which employs 1 in 5 Latino immigrants, is now rippling south of the border. Growth in remittances to Mexico has slowed to a trickle.

After increasing an average of just over 23% a year since 2000, remittances for the first two months of 2007 were just 5.5% ahead of the same period last year, according to Mexico's central bank. The figure peaked in May at $2.3 billion and has drifted downward ever since.

Analysts say tougher border enforcement and workplace crackdowns by U.S. immigration authorities may be playing a role. Still, the remittance slowdown has moved virtually in lock step with the stumble in U.S. home building. Housing starts hit their 2006 peak in May before tumbling 50% by year-end. [More]

While this may relieve many who are concerned about illegal immigration, it could be relatively good news for agriculture, which has been struggling to compete for jobs. Harvesting crops is widely perceived as the least desirable of the difficult jobs immigrants typically do ( although having hung drywall, I would debate that).

Still as the economy sputters due to the housing slowdown the transition for workers will only make life for the working poor more uncertain. Obviously the Fed is concerned, and their action yesterday to try to prevent further damage to credit markets and economic growth indicates to me they anticipate a deeper effect than many.

The tendrils of interaction in our economy can often be hidden until they unravel. Over the next months I think we will be surprised by other daisy-chained consequences of what was essentially bad mortgage lending practices.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Some good bridge video, for a change...

A really cool (from an engineer's perspective, of course) clip of the repair of the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Why did they do it that way? [More]

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Not pretty...

While I have been willing to allow the market to decide whether organic food is a good idea or not, I have never been persuaded it is better in any way than conventional food. Well, it turns out I am a virtual weeny in this debate. Peruse this anti-organic broadside in the Australian science magazine Cosmos:
THE SURPRISING FACT IS that this mass migration to organic food has not been on the back of scientific evidence. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find comprehensive evidence that organic food is healthier – either for us or the planet. Nevertheless, in the public consciousness, organic farming is unquestioningly bundled with the reigning moral imperatives of sustainability, protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gases.
If you don't want to read the whole article, it is well (and equally brutally) summarized here, by Ron Bailey at Reason.

I didn't realize I was being so even-handed in my questioning of organic.
Book Number One...

For lots of different kinds of knowledge.

[via MeFi]

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Cook like a caveman...

Although "English cooking" may seem like a oxymoron, they are still trying, bless 'em. Lately they've been digging up some old - really old - recipes.
Researchers wanted to compile a list of favourite foods that sustained our forebears and their influence on modern-day menus.

Top of the pot came nettle pudding, which was traced back 8,000 years.

Close behind were smokey stew, a combination of bacon and smoked fish; then a mixture of offal, fat and herbs called meat pudding followed by barley bread and roast hedgehog. [More]
No wonder Brits are so tough.

Pass the hedgehog - AKA The Other Blue Meat.
Another way of looking at oil...

This map uses old (2004) data and there are questions about some other types of reserves (see comments), but I think it helps put much of our energy debate in perspective. (Click on map for larger image)

So many of our energy ideas fail the reality test. Simply put, oil is incredibly energy-dense, easy to process, and still relatively cheap. It is going to be very, very hard to produce the kind and amount of energy we are getting from oil from other sources.

[via Neatorama]

Friday, September 14, 2007

Do we have an ag news cycle now?...

Just like political news, any announcement that could be misconstrued by ag audiences may be now slated for release on Friday - so the media will have to take a breath or two before opining. For your consideration, this announcement today.
Dow AgroSciences LLC, and Monsanto today announced a cross- licensing agreement that breaks new ground in the commercialization of gene stack technology. The agreement is aimed at launching SmartStax(TM), featuring eight different Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto herbicide tolerance and insect-protection genes. This technology is expected to be available to corn growers by the end of the decade. [More]
I'm still wrapping my mind around this. My knee-jerk reactions:
  • Traits will soon be standardized in one humongous package - try buying something without all 8 traits.
  • Unless there is a battle for market share, pricing power will extract the maximum marginal revenue from seed corn buyers.
  • Monsanto and Dow must be remarkably confident about US energy policy. With ethanol profits slipping and soybean prices climbing, what would an RFS expansion failure mean to corn prices and seed profits? Then again, owning the market means never having to say you're sorry.
  • Is there no sense of panic at Pioneeer/DuPont? I realize they have been and are deeply invested in research, but can those products hit retail fast enough to make a difference? Where was management as Monsanto built the wall around them?
  • Forget refuge. Given the current lackadaisical industry attitude to the supposedly serious problem of Bt resistance, I had guessed (wildly, I admit) that products were at hand that would make refuge unnecessary. This now seems to be the case. Consequently, I will be listening skeptically to bug scientists who tell me 2-3 years of "refugeless" corn growing will select for a rootworm beetle that will baffle SmartStax.
  • How close to monopoly does the trait/seed market have to get before attracting government attention? Are two choices sufficient? Have we arrived at Microsoft (corn) and Apple (corn)?
Finally, if corn prices keep rising, will anybody care?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

You can lead a consumer to nutrition...

But you can't make him eat better. At least, not very much very fast. After a year of careful labeling, this is what one grocery chain discovered.
After analyzing a year’s worth of sales data, Hannaford found that customers tended to buy leaner cuts of meat. Sales of ground beef with stars on their labels increased 7 percent, and sales of chicken that had a star rating rose 5 percent. Sales of ground beef labeled with no stars dropped by 5 percent, while sales of chicken that had a zero-star rating declined 3 percent.

Similarly, sales of whole milk, which received no stars, declined by 4 percent, while sales of fat-free milk (three stars) increased 1 percent.

Sales of fruits and vegetables, however, remained about the same as they did before the ratings were introduced. All fresh produce received stars. [More]

Of course, that isn't slowing down efforts to attract more at-risk people to healthier eating.
The measure, to be introduced in 2009, will see all expectant mothers given a one-off payment of around GBP120 (US$244) to spend on healthy food when they are seven months pregnant. Sure, some could argue that perhaps seven months is a bit late when trying to boost the nutrition a foetus gets in the womb. And, of course, while there is no compulsion to spend the cash on mangoes, melons or mushrooms, women may spend the money on alcohol and cigarettes instead.

In some quarters, the measure has been derided as a misguided policy from the “nanny state”. However, combined with intensifying health campaigns on the importance of a balanced diet – as well as the dangers of drinking and smoking during pregnancy – the cash may just be the carrot many mothers need to give their kids’ a healthier start in life. [More]

It could be it takes generations to change these choices. After all, it even took very cheap, questionable-benefit food a few decades to take over.
Can you spare a twenty?...

How much cash do you carry? Better still, how much should you carry? For goodness sake, don't ask an economist.
This whole discussion came to mind the other night while out to dinner with a large group of friends. Since I am economically irrational in so very many ways, I had failed to conform to the Baumol-Tobin model and revealed myself as cashless when the bill arrived. So a good friend covered me. There is of course a mutual expectation of rough reciprocity among friends, but it occurred to me that a person who often dines and drinks in groups with friends could easily come out far ahead in this bargain, simply by being the guy who never has cash -- especially if his friends have short memories. It is true that, in a small group, sometimes you get stuck putting the whole bill on your card and collecting cash from your dinner or drinking partners. But then you've got cash without the hassle of going to an ATM. And if your friends are decent people, they round up, and you've been subsidized. Obviously, this is a winning strategy only if few other friends are playing it and if you are a horrible person who likes to profit at your friends' expense. But we were talking about an economist, right? [More]
I average about enough for one round of Bud lite.