Thursday, April 30, 2009

User update...

OK, I've had my Kindle for a couple of months, and here's a user review.

I. Love. It.

Seriously, I am fond of my computers, adore my autosteer, and truly appreciate my nuvi, but this is a whole 'nother relationship.  Moreover, I think I can glimpse where this could be heading.
Aiken points out that even if Amazon does create a Kindle app for the iPhone and other devices, the service will still have the same fundamental problems. Your books will still be locked to Amazon—you'll just have two or three places to read them rather than one. At the moment, Aiken notes, Amazon is selling e-books at a loss in order to spur Kindle sales—it sells books for $10, but pays publishers more than $10 per copy. But once Amazon gets control of the market, it will be free to impose price reductions—to force publishers to reduce their e-book rates to less than $9.99. "That would be potentially devastating to the industry," he says.
And even if the publishing industry isn't devastated when a single bookstore takes over the e-book world, the marketplace for books will be diminished. Amazon stands as proof of how innovative retail practices can transform an industry; over the last decade and a half, the company revolutionized the book market with innovations like customer reviews, collaborative filtering, one-click shopping, and unbeatable customer service. It launched all these services to stay ahead of its rivals. But what will happen when it has no rivals? [More]

We've heard this same whinging from the music industry and I think the analogy is apt.  It's only a matter of time before sharability of one sort or another becomes common.  It also means the stranglehold of publishers on what gets printed or not is ended.  They should be worried about their business model.

Anyway, it seems I'm not alone in enjoying a new way to read.

We extracted about 75 percent of the responses on age (representing about 700 responses, taking equally from the earliest and most recent postings, which show very similar age distributions). Per John Makinson's quip at an LBF panel, over half of reporting Kindle owners are 50 or older, and 70 percent are 40 or older. Here is the full age bracket distribution:

0 - 19: 5%
20 - 29: 10%
30 - 39: 15%
40 - 49: 19.5%
50 - 59: 23%
60 - 69: 19.5%
70 - 79: 6%
80+: 2%

The comments themselves are as illuminating as the numbers. So many users said they like Kindle because they suffer from some form of arthritis that multiple posters indicate that they do or do not have arthritis as a matter of course. A variety of other impairments, from weakening eyes and carpal-tunnel-like syndromes to more exotic disabilities dominate the purchase rationales of these posters. Which in turn explains Amazon's pseudo-statistical case that e-book purchases are incremental/additive, rather than cannibalistic of their print sales. Countless people report being able to read much more with Kindle because it overcomes physical obstacles or limitations that had made reading difficult for them previously. [More]
I had never thought about old geezers enjoying it.

Wait a minute...

The one-handed reading thing is one of the first features you appreciate.  But I think I'm reading faster, and certainly more. 

But the trick I'm just now getting the hang of is marking passages and maybe adding a note to use in a post/article/speech and then downloading them as a text file via the USB connection.  Brilliant!

I know you don't need more gadgets in your life.  But then you don't need more books piled up everywhere either.  (Plus you don't have to wait until a book is in paperback to afford it.)

Thanks to impatient consumers like me, Amazon should make enough money off us to start lowering the price soon.

Just glad to help.

If you look carefully...

At this picture of my granddaughter Leah in the apple orchard at the farm...

[Click to embiggen] can see my house sorta over to the left, some cornstalks in the far distance gradually turning to a weedy mess, and Aaron and I not farming anywhere.

I made too many jokes about how bad last year's planting season was.
Sterner stuff...

While the media are full of hullabaloo re: Arlen Specter's crossover, you can bet the Senate pecking order has been under deep contemplation by ambitious politicans.  So many choices...

Especially for one powerful ag state Senator.

But due to the rules of the Senate GOP, Grassley is termed out as the ranking member of Finance in 2010. So there's some question as to what he'll do next. And Arlen Specter's defection potentially answers it. With Specter gone, Grassley could become the ranking member the Senate Judiciary Committee, a spot he's admitted that he covets but hasn't pursued "out of respect for Specter." With Specter gone, he could take it immediately, and hold it for years to come. But it would mean giving up Finance before his 2010 deadline.
Another option is for him to wait until become ranking member on the Budget Committee when Judd Gregg retires. That would be a seamless transition from Finance: He'd make the move in 2010. “From my heart," Grassley has said, "I’d rather have Judiciary than Budget.” But getting Judiciary would mean giving up Finance to Orrin Hatch. Grassley wouldn't lose his seat but he would lose a lot of his power and relevance, and FInance has just about never been as relevant as it is right now. [More]

I think Grassley moving to Judiciary could be be a game changer for ag legislation, assuming efforts to reform ag policy continue. So this change could have more impact than first glance would suggest for farm policy. But only if the "R" side matters on such votes.

Watching the Republican party purge itself of moderates by whatever means available has been mystifying for many of us. A few more losses - which seem likely - could raise them to new heights of irrelevance.  At that point, the shuffling of the deck chairs on the Republican side might seem a bit silly.

And they are pushing for this why?
Yet another reason...

To go to bed early.

It's gotta be boring for Laurie, but also for this viewer.

I've been a big fan of Hugh Laurie, mostly from his work in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster.  His performances as House still amaze me with their skill and breadth of professional ability.  Brits own the stage, IMHO.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The swine NA Mexican* flu inflection point...

There is an analogy to economic activity and swine flu contagion that could be useful as we try to imagine the course of this disease.

A similar prevalence pattern among humans is likely to be true for the swine flu.
The initial spread of the disease among humans occurred when precautions were low. Now that we know that the disease is spreading, private individuals and corporations around the world have already taken steps to protect themselves, and these steps will eventually help slow further spread of the disease.
Individuals and corporations try to protect themselves and their employees, but they do not have good incentives to protect others. For this reason, government assistance can be valuable, and help make the disease cycle occur with a lower and less costly peak than it would with private actions alone.
Nevertheless, government efforts have the effect of reducing private efforts. The private sector does less to prevent a disease’s spread when the disease is less prevalent, and government assistance can help reduce prevalence, so government assistance will likely cause the private sector to do less to prevent a disease’s spread. This is a special type of the “crowding out” that happens with many kinds of government spending.
The swine flu may soon present our government with some tough choices: how many tax dollars to spend and how much to interrupt civil liberties. The public and taxpayers will benefit if those choices are sensitive to the critical role played by the private sector. [More]

Has the swine flu reached the "threat" level sufficient to change your personal planning?  For example, our long-time friends in our dinner club (The Greater Chrisman Area Fine Food and Swill Club**) were planning a cruise to the western Caribbean this July.  The cruise line just announced it was stopping all visits to Mexico. (In our case, Cozumel)  

For that matter, have you altered your grain marketing plans?

At any rate, when more people begin to take protective measures on their own (watching CNN constantly does not count) I think we approach the inflection point that will mark the peak of the contagion. It could come sooner because of our vastly improved communications system.

On a related front, a long-time reader points out swine flu is really misnamed.  
I am writing to inform you about the current situation with A/H1N1 influenza-like human illness in Mexico and the USA . The OIE is of the view that as this virus has not, for the moment, been isolated in pigs or other animals, it is not appropriate to call it ‘swine influenza'. The OIE recommends that the virus be referred to as ‘North American influenza', in keeping with the naming of other outbreaks of influenza in the human population. Nonetheless, this emerging disease is genetically linked, amongst others, with H1N1 swine influenza and the OIE is calling for scientific research to be started with urgency to assist in clarifying the sources and the risks presented by this virus to veterinary public health and to the different animal species (pigs, poultry and horses). [More]
In fact, I heard the same argument made on the Today show this morning. I agree but my feeling is that battle was lost several years ago when the the H1N1 strain was first isolated.

This is pretty common with disease names.  Once a name is widely accepted it seldom can be rectified with serious lecturing or relentless public relations campaigns.
[*Update: more folks want to change the name]

Consider the tiresome (and inaccurate) campaign to call the estate tax the "death tax". It also didn't work for Prince, remember.

(**Yes, that is our actual "official" name.)
The carbon is loose...

Pondering the whole climate-change-remediation question has often led me to a dead end. Like ag trade reform, we eventually run into the emerging economies and their obvious self-interest in not going along.  Just as India really doesn't want to lower barriers that protect its farmers, neither does China want to give up burning really cheap coal.

And just how developed countries can compensate enough with stringent carbon-emission measures remains a mystery to me.  I'm not the only one thinking we might need a Plan B as well as Plan A.
Cut to the chase. We rich people can’t stop the world’s 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can’t even make any durable dent in global emissions—because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we’re foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster, and their carbon emissions faster still.
Regardless of the abrasive tone of this screed, the author does illuminate what may be a better reaction.  First, go nuclear as fast and far as possible for electricity generation.

But at the same time, we need to get really, really good at recapturing carbon from the atmosphere.  Huber skips lightly over this, remarkably short on useful hint of just how we can do this.
 If we’re truly worried about carbon, we must instead approach it as if the emissions originated in an annual eruption of Mount Krakatoa. Don’t try to persuade the volcano to sign a treaty promising to stop. Focus instead on what might be done to protect and promote the planet’s carbon sinks—the systems that suck carbon back out of the air and bury it. Green plants currently pump 15 to 20 times as much carbon out of the atmosphere as humanity releases into it—that’s the pump that put all that carbon underground in the first place, millions of years ago. At present, almost all of that plant-captured carbon is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by animal consumers. North America, however, is currently sinking almost two-thirds of its carbon emissions back into prairies and forests that were originally leveled in the 1800s but are now recovering. For the next 50 years or so, we should focus on promoting better land use and reforestation worldwide. Beyond that, weather and the oceans naturally sink about one-fifth of total fossil-fuel emissions. We should also investigate large-scale options for accelerating the process of ocean sequestration.
Carbon zealots despise carbon-sinking schemes because, they insist, nobody can be sure that the sunk carbon will stay sunk. Yet everything they propose hinges on the assumption that carbon already sunk by nature in what are now hugely valuable deposits of oil and coal can be kept sunk by treaty and imaginary cheaper-than-carbon alternatives. This, yet again, gets things backward. We certainly know how to improve agriculture to protect soil, and how to grow new trees, and how to maintain existing forests, and we can almost certainly learn how to mummify carbon and bury it back in the earth or the depths of the oceans, in ways that neither man nor nature will disturb. It’s keeping nature’s black gold sequestered from humanity that’s impossible.
If we do need to do something serious about carbon, the sequestration of carbon after it’s burned is the one approach that accepts the growth of carbon emissions as an inescapable fact of the twenty-first century. And it’s the one approach that the rest of the world can embrace, too, here and now, because it begins with improving land use, which can lead directly and quickly to greater prosperity. If, on the other hand, we persist in building green bridges to nowhere, we will make things worse, not better. Good intentions aren’t enough. Turned into ineffectual action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time. [More]
Maybe it's just me, but I think I caught an inference about reshaping agriculture in places to return some land back to permanent grass or forest, just the opposite of what biofuel is doing. In fact, the big issue with ethanol/biodiesel is the land-use repercussions in places where rainforests compete with date palms, for example.
With governments and consumers scrambling for alternatives to fossil fuel, worldwide demand for biofuels has gone through the roof; in Europe, where more than half of all automobiles run on diesel, consumption of biodiesel is set to triple by 2010. US subsidies for biofuels, mostly ethanol, will add up to $92 billion between 2006 and 2012, and producers in developing countries like Indonesia are often eligible for millions of dollars in development money from the World Bank.
But amid the hype, problems have emerged. Biodiesel emits less than one-quarter the carbon of regular diesel once it's burned. But when production—and the destruction of ecosystems in the developing countries where most biofuel crops are grown—is factored in, many biofuels may actually emit more carbon than does petroleum, the journal Science reported last year. Because oil palms don't absorb as much CO2 as the rainforest or peatlands they replace, palm oil can generate as much as 10 times more carbon than petroleum, according to the advocacy group Food First. Thanks in large part to oil palm plantations, Indonesia is now the world's third-largest emitter of CO2, trailing only the US and China. [More]
But his overall point is well taken. Ignoring the energy needs of the other 5 billion humans on the planet won't lower the rate of carbon emissions effectively. While the US in particular could be much more energy efficient and should set the example for the future of energy generation, expecting emerging countries to not use dirt cheap fuel to power their rise from poverty is illogical.

The tricky part is the technology of sequestration.

And no, sending US farmers a check will not get that job done. Oddly, one good step is using landfills. [Read more about current sequestration recapture techniques]

Without invoking the space program, I tend to believe more focus on recapture would be a good investment, especially if the technologies were adaptable to power plants in the growing economies.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why your piggies are little...

Like most of you, I'm sure, I worry about why my toes are as long as they are.  Oh sure, you can pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, but every time you take your socks off I'll bet you wistfully gaze at your stubby metatarsals and and wonder how they came to be.

Answer (maybe): we're built to run. And run. And run.
But a handful of scientists think that these ultra-marathoners are using their bodies just as our hominid forbears once did, a theory known as the endurance running hypothesis (ER). ER proponents believe that being able to run for extended lengths of time is an adapted trait, most likely for obtaining food, and was the catalyst that forced Homo erectus to evolve from its apelike ancestors. Over time, the survival of the swift-footed shaped the anatomy of modern humans, giving us a body that is difficult to explain absent a marathoning past.
We know that roughly 2 million years ago, Australopithecus, with its tiny brain, hefty jaw and diet of rough, fibrous plants, evolved into Homo erectus, our slim, long-legged ancestor with a big brain and small teeth suited for tearing into animal and fruit flesh. Such a transformation almost certainly involved a reliable supply of calorie-laden meat, yet according to the fossil record, spear points have been in use for 200,000 years at most, and the bow and arrow for only 50,000 years, leaving an enormous stretch of time when early humans were consuming meat without the use of tools. Lieberman believes they ran their prey to death, often called “persistence hunting.” [More]

If this approach is anywhere near correct, shouldn't our sedentary lifestyle be selecting for long-toed humans? In fact, could the popularity of sandals be an early indicator?
It takes a worried man...

To sing a worried song.  And we have lots of worried folks singing right now.  To be of minimal help, I've tried to round up some good, on-going sites that can address your swine-flu worries.

For example, this science blog by public health officials.
The other sense of news is about the current situation. The growing list of US states, and now countries, is relevant to understanding where we are at the moment. Similarly, the growing list of suspected cases will grow, probably very quickly. You should expect it. Those of you follow the H5N1 ("bird flu") story will recognize what is happening here. Flu of any kind has very non specific symptoms (cough, sore throat, fever, etc.) that are caused by numerous respiratory viruses (adenovirus, metapneumovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza, influenza B, etc). They are all circulating at this time of year. Some of them can cause severe disease, although mostly they just produce "spring" (or "summer") colds or flu (most of which isn't flu in the strict sense). In the context of this outbreak each of these respiratory virus cases has the potential to become a "suspect" case. Mexico City has 1614 "cases" and 103 deaths. Not all, or even most, of the cases have been confirmed by laboratory. They are really suspect cases. Some have been confirmed, most not. Confused? Expect that, too. In the opening days and weeks of an outbreak, everyone is confused. That's why we pool our information and try to sort it out. [More]
To keep an eye on where swine flu is occurring and get an epidemiologist's view, here's another good source.

For those of you looking to follow new cases (most of them suspected at this point, not confirmed), a great resource is HealthMap. Reports are popping up of possible infections worldwide: Scotland, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand. Certainly additional possible cases will be showing up over the coming days as well.
One thing I've seen mentioned (including here in the comments) is a question about the unlikelihood of a flu outbreak in Mexico in late April. Isn't influenza a cold-weather bug? Well, yes and no. Influenza circulates year-round at a low level, but it lasts longer in the environment in colder temperatures with lower humidity, meaning more people can potentially be infected by each infected person, leading to our seasonal outbreaks. However, recall that in 1918 the first cases began in winter/spring 1918, and then it came back with a vengeance beginning in August, and really taking off by October. Additionally, we essentially have no barriers to worldwide spread, and there are already potential cases in New Zealand and Australia (where winter is setting in). [More]

She refers to the low-humidy/virus connection.  I remember something about this from this winter, when I came down with the worst case I have ever had.  It seems viruses in higher humidity are attracted to water vapor molecules which weighs them down and they hit the dirt, so to speak.  In winter, the story is different.
In this new study, the Oregon team re-analyzed data from a 2007 Mount Sinai School of Medicine study that identified a weak relationship between flu transmission and relative humidity. The re-analysis revealed a strong link between absolute humidity and flu virus survival and transmission.
"The correlations were surprisingly strong. When absolute humidity is low, influenza virus survival is prolonged, and transmission rates go up," study author Jeffrey Shaman, an atmospheric scientist at OSU who specializes in ties between climate and disease transmission, said in the news release.
Shaman and colleague Melvin Kohn, an epidemiologist with the Oregon Department of Health Services, concluded that relative humidity explains only about 36 percent of flu virus survival and 12 percent of transmission, while absolute humidity explains 90 percent of flu virus survival and 50 percent of transmission. [More]

So given that we're soaking wet here - and totally unable to plant - that should be good news.

I guess.
Alas, Babylon News Times Post Examiner...

The news that's fit to print ain't fun to print.  Not that we could come up with a paper to print it in, mind you.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations released this morning the spring figures for the six months ending March 31, 2009, showing that the largest metros continue to shed daily and Sunday circulation -- now at a record rate.

According to ABC, for 395 newspapers reporting this spring, daily circulation fell 7% to 34,439,713 copies, compared with the same March period in 2008. On Sunday, for 557 newspapers, circulation was down 5.3% to 42,082,707. These averages do not include 84 newspapers with circulations below 50,000 due to a change in publishing frequency. [More]

It is not mere hyperventilating to imagine an America with a handful of newspapers.  Just like Pontiac, Wachovia, and (I suspect) one or more tractor companies, this is a time of endings.

I know I'm writing to the choir here, but the dislocation for regular newspaper readers could be really traumatic.

Wait - I just realized there aren't that many of them.  Which is the problem.

The larger issue, of course, is what about the comics?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not helping...

Sometimes folks who agree with you are your worst enemy.  Consider this otherwise sound post by Julie Gunlock on NRO (a right wing magazine).
Consider, also, her campaign for a White House vegetable garden. Waters has been badgering U.S. presidents about this vegetable garden for years. In 2000, she wrote a letter to Pres. Bill Clinton about the importance of a White House garden, saying: “I can think of no more powerful way to ground your legacy than to leave behind you a kitchen garden and the compost pile to nourish it.” Really? A garden and a compost pile? Grounding President Clinton’s legacy in compost? Did she think about how this sounds, alongside Clinton’s other goals, such as Middle East peace, a secure and nuclear-free Korean peninsula, health-care reform, and Russia’s peaceful transition to democracy?

In Alice Waters’s wonderland, all is made better with the growing of vegetables. But regular Americans know better. Many enjoy buying organic, visiting their local markets, and gardening, but they also know that the purpose of food is nourishment. America’s robust agricultural sector has made food cheaper and more plentiful not just for our nation’s citizens, but for the entire world. Environmentalists may dismiss big, industrial farms, but it is these largely American innovations that are helping feed the world, and keeping costs down for coupon clippers like me. [More]
Right now the right wing is writhing as they deal with the torture issue and I think the agony of that guilt that bleeds through into other policy arenas.  Oddly, one of the NRO top voices, Victor Davis Hanson (is he a poet or assassin?), is a former, if not current agrarian.

I agree in substance with Julie, but not tone.  Her condescension to one of America's top chefs during a massively popular upswing in cooking and food is simply stupid.  It also betrays, I think, a fear that industrial ag has gotten it all wrong, just like the financial markets did as the right cheered.

She should have more faith in the arithmetic and simply common sense. The food movement constitutes no threat to my farm, or at least, not one I can't rise to manage.  I expect industrial producers to be undergoing some consumer-prompted makeovers in the next decade, to be sure.

However, by disparaging the opinions of others in the field of expertise, we raise suspicions that we are not all that respecting of individual rights to choose.  Or individual rights in general.

But we have looped back to the torture problem, I see.  Which is what is keeps happening for the right.

Consider this comment on Julie's post:
At the beginning of her critique, she mentions all the areas of the country where agriculture is a large, visible part of daily life. First: there are only a handful of regions like this in the country (for every Iowa, there is a New Mexico). Second: these regions are known less for their embrace of conservative agriculture than they are for their agriculture-based economy. At the end of her article she praise large scale agriculture for how it “feeds the world” and provides herself and many other stay-at-home moms - I suppose - the ability to save money.
There is very little conservatism in that last statement. Basically, we are to reject the movement of our food culture to more locally-based (hopefully home-based) organic crop-centric recipes, complete with one’s own cooking, because it is nothing more than a bunch of high-brow cultural pessimists who want to stop feeding the world. Thus, we are to accept mass-produced, buy-in-bulk supercrap food products that are heavilty subsidized by taxpayers and terrible for your health.
And people wonder why conservatism is dying. [More]

And indeed, if conservatism is measured by Republican party affiliation (which I do not accept, but many do), the commenter is accurate.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Honest - the first thought I had...

When I heard this today

Speculation about a merger involving farm equipment makers Agco, Deere & Co. and CNH Global NV of the Netherlands increased this week, Webber said, after Fiat SpA, the majority owner of CNH, moved toward taking a stake in Chrysler LLC, the U.S. automaker striving to forestall bankruptcy. Fiat may have to sell its stake in CNH to fund a partnership with Chrysler, Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. analysts said April 22.
Regulators probably wouldn’t approve a sale of Agco to Deere, Webber said. A Fiat spokesman April 22 declined to comment on the Sanford C. Bernstein report. Ken Golden, a spokesman for Deere, declined to comment, citing company policy on market speculation.
“I would take any sale of CNH to Agco, or part of it to Deere, as very positive,” Webber said.


Man, that's gonna be one ugly hat.
Lump-in-your-throat science...

Life goes better with friends.

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.
The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared. [More]

Live better. Live longer.  Invest yourself in friends.

[via sullivan]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This sounds vaguely familiar...

The secret to successful stock market investment is: passive investing.

Standard & Poor's released its latest Indices Versus Active Funds Scorecard today, and the headline result is the same one delivered by almost every study of mutual fund performance since the 1960s: Most actively managed mutual funds underperform the market. To be precise, 66.21% of actively managed domestic stock funds underperformed the S&P Composite 1500 Index in the five years from 2004 through 2008. During the previous five-year period, a smaller majority—50.76%—had underperformed. [More]

This is another factor in my premise that Wall Street salaries often cannot be justified by free-market economics, and are made possible by its inefficiencies and the collusion of government with the investment industry to exploit investors' inherent bad judgment.

I'm fine with it as long as they don't break the law, but I also am fine with them enduring the consequences (such as confiscatory marginal income tax rates) when their dupes wake up to reality.
Ezra Klein points out that with another year gone by, it’s still the case that the majority of actively managed funds are outperformed by passive investment in a stock index. In other words, the fund managers are creating negative value. And getting paid handsomely for it as Kevin Drum reminds us.
Consequently, a lot of people wind up getting suckered into these managed funds without quite realizing what’s happening. And it’s important to keep this kind of thing in mind when thinking about issues like the legendarily long hours worked on Wall Street. The long hours are real enough, but long hours don’t necessarily indicate that valuable work is happening. A lot of financial services is a kind of sophisticated hustle—a scam—and it requires a lot of hard work precisely because it’s a hustle.
Matt's point echoes the belief common among farmers that if we work physically hard, we are entitled to a fair income.  Both examples avoid factoring in the the value of the work.   Oddly the corn market doesn't have a sliding scale for corn produced with more effort.

We don't get paid by customers for how hard we work; we get paid for what we produce.

Hmmm....passive rings a bell...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Battle over...

While we were all fascinated by torture memos and Susan Boyle, I think the EPA just cemented the future of ethanol.  By declaring GHGs to be under their jurisdiction, they essentially removed the whole argument from the "politically inert" file.
For now,  the finding will mostly put pressure on Congress to pass its own greenhouse-gas rules instead. Ed Markey, who's co-sponsored the big climate and energy bill in the House, put it bluntly on Monday: "Do you want the EPA to make the decision or would you like your congressman or senator to be in the room and drafting legislation? ... Industries across the country will just have to gauge for themselves how lucky they feel if they kill legislation." Even Republicans like Ohio's George Voinovich have been pondering much the same thing. As much as some members of Congress might prefer to kill cap-and-trade and ignore the climate issue entirely, that's not an option at this point. [More]
Although I would much prefer a carbon tax - and there still might be faint hope for that much more efficient Pigovian approach - I suspect the enormous bureaucratic employment possibilities of a cap-and-trade system to be a more likely outcome.

So what to do right now?
  1. Buy farmland.  (Of course, I always think that's the right answer).  Seriously, by granting this considerable boon to ethanol, we may save that industry.  I think any dip in land prices will soon revert to escalation.
  2. Invest in energy-saving stuff when replacing equipment.  Fuel and electricity are about to get real costly.  Take a harder look at less tillage.
  3. Finagle a seat at the various tables.  There will be boards and oversight regulatory bodies galore. We need some producers to show up there.
Two schools of thought hold that regulating GHGs will impact the economy in opposite ways. I have no idea, as we have not been particularly good at predicting the economy lately.
A new carbon regulatory regime could basically act to accelerate obsolescence of dirty technologies. Consumers and businesses would be encouraged to scrap less efficient machines and invest in cleaner automobiles or homes or appliances sooner. Given the slack in the economy at the moment, it would be all to the good if everyone decided that now was a good time to start preparing for a world in which carbon costs money. It's regulation as stimulus. [More]
You can place your bets how you think this will play out, but it looks pretty clear Congress will not be able to ignore this issue much longer.

What is the plural of "anecdotes*"?...

Data.  (Ba-dum-bump).  At any rate, I have now had three conversations with farmers who are leaving the program because they object to the income verification forms.  One because explaining it to myriad disinterested share-crop farmowners presented a formidable task, another because it just became too frustrating for his large operation, and so on.

All of my farms are straight cash rent (save one), so I skipped that part, but I have also heard producers are reluctantly moving to vanilla cash rents to solve the problem.

Is this a peculiarity of my part of the world?

*[I hate it when I bungle my own jokes.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Another argument for less inequality...

Perhaps after a certain economic disparity, the ability to appreciate the point of view of those so much further down the economic ladder atrophies.  It would appear this happened in New York.

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with a friend who used to work at Lehman Brothers. She had come to Wall Street in the mid-eighties, when the junk-bond boom spawned a new class of globe-trotting financiers. Over two decades, she had done stints at all the major banks—Chase, Goldman, Lehman—and had a thriving career directing giant streams of capital around the world and extracting a substantial percentage for herself. To her mind, extreme compensation is a fair trade for the compromises of such a career. “People just don’t get it,” she says. “I’m attached to my BlackBerry. I was at my doctor the other day, and my doctor said to me, ‘You know, I like that when I leave the office, I leave.’ I get calls at two in the morning, when the market moves. That costs money. If they keep compensation capped, I don’t know how the deals get done. They’re taking Wall Street and throwing it in the East River.”

Now, a lot of people in New York have BlackBerrys, and few of them expect to be paid $2 million to check their e-mail in the middle of the night. But embedded in her comment is the belief shared on Wall Street but which few have dared to articulate until now: Those who select careers in finance play an exceptional role in our society. They distribute capital to where it’s most effective, and by some Ayn Rand–ian logic, the virtue of efficient markets distributing capital to where it is most needed justifies extreme salaries—these are the wages of the meritocracy. They see themselves as the fighter pilots of capitalism.

Wall Street people are not moral idiots (most of them, anyway)—it’s not as if they’ve never pondered the fairness of their enormous salaries. “One of my relatives is a doctor, we’re both well-educated, hardworking people. And he certainly didn’t make the amount of money I made,” a former Bear Stearns senior managing director tells me. “I would be the first person to tell you his value to society, to humanity, is far greater than anything that went on in the Bear Stearns building.”
That said, he continues, “We’re in a hypercapitalistic society. No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies. Our whole moral compass has shifted about what’s acceptable or not acceptable. Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed—that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.” [More]

I struggled with the whole article - which was beautifully written - as it carefully explored the attitudes of Wall Street executives.  I think it is fair to say virtually all those interviewed honestly believed they were the only folks who could work as hard or be as smart as they are.  Not could any of them fathom what their compensation looks like from any other perspective.

These folks deep-down believe they are worth the competition they were paid. The inability to appreciate any other viewpoint may spring from complete ignorance of what other lives and values are.

This is a product, I think of enormous economic inequality.  And I think it creates structural deficiencies of mistrust that are becoming evident and which will hamstring the recovery of our economy.

I also think it will become a bigger issue in grain farming, as we have discovered at TP.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Remember, Hoover was one...

I think I see the problem.

No wonder there are so many combines...

In inventory right now.

Agco’s sales are “dramatically reduced” in the region, because borrowing for a foreign tractor is now almost impossible, Greg Peterson, Agco’s head of investor relations, said in a telephone interview.
In its first-quarter earnings announcement in February, Moline, Illinois-based Deere said sales will decline in Central Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States for the year. Ken Golden, a spokesman for Deere, declined to comment.
“Our main problems have been the lack of state subsidies on loans combined with insufficient operating cash and the general economic downturn, not the import tariffs,” Alexander Altynov, the general director of AgroSnab, an official John Deere dealer in Russia, said in a telephone interview.
Market Decline
Altynov predicted the foreign machinery market in Russia will decline as much as 75 percent this year.
Deere was expected to post second-quarter profit excluding certain items of $1.08 a share, the average estimate of 17 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. [More]
While I don't think this means we'll wring huge discounts from our salesperson, it does indicate the "take-a-number-and-wait" buying experience may be in hiatus for a while.

I also wonder if having geared up to provide big machines for the Eastern European market will be one more factor in what I see as accelerated consolidation here in the US.  I do know large HP tractors seem pretty cheap per HP lately.  

This is also a reminder why many in the US have a big stake in preventing protectionism from growing. 
We all know at least one...

High medical care utilizer.  That is the emerging term for those who consume enormous amounts of medical resources compared to the average.  Of course, this is not by choice.  But one of the side-effects of rapidly advancing medical and pharmaceutical technology is the ability to treat formerly hopeless conditions - often at enormous cost.

I have family and friends who have consumed literally millions of dollars of health care, almost all of which was paid by their insurance. I have tried to estimate how many low-utilizers it requires to balance that expense out. Answer: a lot. This will not continue, simply because of the cost and the shortage of low utilizers.  But any attempt to rationalize this expenditure raises cries of rationing.  As if that were a dirty word.
If your mother or your daughter or your sister or your wife is dying of breast cancer, it doesn't matter to you how much the treatment costs relative to the benefit.  And indeed, the political battle over health care is infused with the belief that you shouldn't have to think about cost--that it is immoral to deny anyone a treatment that might help them. 

Unless we're willing to let health care expenses grow unchecked, someone is going to have to think about costs.  But so far in America, I see no means to develop a culture which will allow bureaucrats to deny potentially life-saving treatments simply because they're costly--either in the free market or in a single payer system.  Thus, I predict, costs will continue to grow. [More]
 Of course we ration health care.  It's just that now we do it surreptitiously by strangling the health care system and doctors, forcing them to make the actual decision and absorb the loss, and eventually passing the cost on to any source of income we can find.

Our third-party payer system encourages avoidance of this reality, IMHO. At the same time it completely masks the costs of providing health care from consumers.  As more Americans exhaust their insurance maximums (which seem tinier all the time) via long illnesses or expensive treatments, the momentum for change will grow.

Add in the growing number of uninsurables who cannot get coverage due to their current health, family history, or genetic predisposition, and the question of significant change is not if but when.  While programs do exist for high-risk consumers, their results are ambiguous.

There is simply no way to pay for all the health care people want. Insurance is not the issue.  The problem is everyone wants to pay $150/month for unlimited amounts of coverage without identifying who should pay for the rest. And the sooner we face up to it, the better.

Several ideas could help, starting with what to do about "high utilizers".
  5.  Focus on the “uninsurable”
5% of Americans account for over 50% of the overall cost of care (reference).  These are the uninsurable people - those who are truley expensive to treat.  There needs to be very close management of these people.  Leaving them uninsured doesn’t reduce cost, it just shifts it to hospitals and local government.  It also leaves them unmanaged.  Of the waste in healthcare, the likelihood is that a very large percent of it is in the high-utilizers (by definition).  These people need management, either in a “medical home” or by some sort of care management. [More]
I'm not sure we're ready to truly address the reality, but the path of least resistance is some form of Medicare-like coverage for all. Is it a good idea?  Clearly not.  But on the other hand, you probably know seniors who rejoiced when they finally were covered.

The market will not step forward to manage high-utilizers - it will simply price them out. Unless free-marketers offer a solution for this issue it is hard to take them seriously.  It is also hard to imagine how they will not diminish their market as better diagnostics identify more consumers as in this category.

One idea I have toyed with is allowing geezers like me to transfer my Medicare coverage to someone else, either by gift or even sale.  I could forgo the coverage I am entitled and transfer my expected years of insurance (likely around 15-20) to a friend or loved one or even a buyer for reasons I choose.

While this would probably not decrease Medicare costs it might at least lower the extravagant end-of-life expenditures and result in more added years of productive life by transferring treatment to a younger person.  It would designate Medicare coverage as a personal asset to be disposed of as individuals see fit.

We are not going to address this issue until health insurance bills reach astronomical amounts, I would predict.  But we are getting to that sad point faster than we might think.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The impossible dream...

For the last few years, I have been comparing my financial situation to my father's at my age, and it is now clear my end game is not going to resemble his: quitting at 58, moving to Florida, wearing lots of double-knit pants.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect the popular "retirement" model was an anomaly created by a unique set of circumstances that could prove to be a cultural "one-off".

There are several reasons for this. Primarily the initiation of the social programs like Social Security and especially Medicare were enormous windfalls for generations before me, since their contribution was small relative to their payout.  Remember it is a transfer-type system.

The costs of these payments have grown beyond forecasts as the system is tested by folks living longer and skyrocketing medical expenses. It is now clear that sometime in the foreseeable future, those generous benefits will have to be modified.

But it is not just government action that promoted the idea we would all have comfortable, independent end-lives in a warm climate with ample resources.  It was also the complete faith in the idea of pensions per se, and that they were bullet-proof.
Liberals are very good at pointing out why you are not very good at saving for your future:  you are not an actuarial universe.  If you make the mistake, as my mother did, of retiring into the teeth of a financial crisis, you will find your life savings sadly depleted.  Also, since you probably have some skill other than being a professional financial planner, you may make stupid decisions, and/or get bullyragged into one by a dishonest broker.

Liberals tend to prefer "your company" to "you", but many recognize that companies are also problematic, because if something goes wrong with the pension fund, employees can be left with . . . well, if not "nothing", certainly "a lot less than they expected".  Sound financial planning dictates that your retirement and your paycheck should not both be dependent on a single company--which is why everyone tells you not to put your 401 (k) into your company's stock. 

That's why we need the government to save for us!  Conservatives have this taped:  the government is
also terrible at saving.

There is no entity that is capable of ensuring that everyone can consume a serene twenty or thirty years of leisure at the end of their lives.  And we may be making people worse off by pretending that there is.    Perhaps instead of looking for a magic system, we could seek a more flexible and ad-hoc approach--abolishing state pensions, say, and rolling them into a more generous disability benefit.

That's not politically possible, of course.  What is politically possible is grinding along this path until the problem becomes too big to fix.  [More]

We too easily forget the idea of "retirement" is a relatively new social construct. Until very recently people worked until they basically couldn't, even if that work was in the household.  Without government paid care, oldsters relied on family when health failed.

In fact, the basic pension plan for most was children.  Obviously, that scheme had practical risks, not the least of which was having children who survived to adulthood and cared for you.

Then we got the idea of financial security to make this end time a much-anticipated reward. But as Megan points out, we now are starting to rethink whether the time frame we are considering makes such a plan reasonably certain.  We have discovered too many sure things clearly aren't, such as asset values or employer guarantees.

Much to the horror of young persons, I suspect more boomers will revert back to at least some dependence on children in their later lives.  And maybe, just maybe, this can turn out to be a good thing.
This is for all the requests...

For more miniature knitting video posts.

Top that, Grandma!

[via sullivan]

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I continue to be surprised...

At my reaction to state-of-the-art media.


[via 3quarks]
More inequality thinking...

Lane Kenworth continues his superb series on addressing inequality (and diffusing what I believe to be dangerous political and social side-effects it causes), and really hits home with this suggestion.

Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.
It’s worth emphasizing that markets too boost the consumption floor. New technologies and consumer products—indoor plumbing, cars, air conditioning, cell phones, ipods, and many others—have eventually become affordable for even the least well-off, and in doing so they reduce inequality of living standards. But markets haven’t, and likely won’t, bring us affordability coupled with high quality in health care, education, child care, safety, and mass ground transportation. In these and other areas, government is needed.
The United States provides less in the way of public services than many other rich countries, but we nevertheless have a rich history here, from universal elementary and secondary education to the interstate highway system to the internet. There’s a legacy to build on, and good reason to do so. [More][More] 
We can remain true to our belief in individual responsibility and still provide good schools, just like we do roads. We can allow extreme salaries while not making health care a Faustian bargain with an employer.

In fact, the real danger for those who refuse to contemplate any approach other than winner-take-all is as they win, they are more at risk in our political system, since their numbers become so very small as wealth concentrates.  The political voltage demonstrated by the outrage over CEO salaries and bonuses have resulted in draconian measures that could have been avoided by minimal restraint and/or redistributive taxation. Lacking those efforts, we will instead lose much of an entire financial sector that arguably could be saved simply because they are unsympathetic figures.

Too much extreme wealth has also been acquired by the active partnership of government via lobbying for tax breaks, contracts, or simply soliciting government spending. Indeed, for every example of wealth properly earned (Google) we can usually find a beneficiary of government money (Halliburton).  The assumption of justified rich folks is a suspect as the questionable portrayal of the deserving poor.

I think many at the top know this and realize especially now how daily revelations about how this wealth was amassed is a potential landmine.  Which leads to my fear - that to protect the right to enormous inequality, the first target of the rich will be democracy.
Coming soon to your county...

Check out this amazing unemployment map.  Zoom in on your county.

It's not just about MI, CA, FL, OH, etc. anymore.  And it's going to hit rural America hard.
One guy, one computer, many repercussions...

I've been following Greg Vincent's adventure with the "Family McFarms" business.  It was a great article, but like some other readers, I haven't reached any different conclusions than I had before before about what this means. 

For my money, these guys come and go. And the idea of buying a farm management company seesm to leap to the conclusion that the farmowners involved are totally under the control of the current managers - little more than assets in the managment company balance sheet.  According to the farm managers I know, this idea is very suspect. In fact, if any connection has been made between tenant and owner (and smart tenants make sure that happens), the book of business could evaporate after current contracts expire.

But I was struck by his after-post about the article containing this paragraph.
How do they benefit their members?
That’s the $1,000,000 question. From what I have gathered from talking with Rosentreter and Mehmen the benefit is that it has helped them grow and become better managers. That is what they see as the benefit. Illinois Family Farms growth is mentioned in the article by the acreage numbers presented. The only information I could gather on the Mehmens’ (MBS) growth is their rise in the subsidy database. This obviously isn’t definitive on their growth, but it is a good indication of how much they’ve grown in three years. I understand that some readers may not see that as a benefit and that’s OK, this is simply one approach this company is deciding to take. [My emphasis]
Unless I'm mistaken, he is referring to the EWG database and analysis of farm subsidies. This is a stunning confirmation of something I suspected years ago: the best information we have on our own grain production industry structure comes from folks many consider our harshest critics.

This reinforces my assertion that NASS is useless, but I don't want to beat that deceased equine. But when one dude with a computer can do more to bring transparency to the farm program than farm organizations and government agencies, it demonstrates a strong preference for obscurity on these matters by producers and government.

Transparency is relentlessly change-producing.  And the Internet makes it sooo easy and cheap. Just like farmers are discovering with articles like Greg's shining bright lights on formerly mysterious transactions, the easy access to subsidy data will also change our business models to cope with scrutiny.  And in case you've missed it, transparency is all the rage nowadays.

I think we are underestimating how profound that change could become.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

They don't actually "print" it...

Because few Americans understand how our money supply is created the phrase "print money" has gone from economic shorthand to a physical description of the creation of liquidity.

So to set the record straight:

All the U.S. coins and bills in general circulation today have a total worth of about $829 billion.
10  Two-thirds of that cash is held overseas.
[More things you don't know about money]

[via FX]
The Great Life Truths: #47...

What you must never tell your college-bound student.

Hit the "equals" button...

Posts about income or asset ownership equality always hits reader nerves.  Since I last discussed my own thoughts the topic has taken on renewed interest in light of the semi-spontaneous "Teabagging Tea Parties*".
Last but not least: it turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News. [More]
Luckily, right now Lane Kenworthy is collecting and analyzing this issue is what seems to me to be an even handed manner. Like me he has questions about whether inequality is a problem and how much.

Is this really a problem? Would it be better if income inequality were reduced? I think so, for the following reasons.
1. Fairness. Market processes have produced enormous incomes for various financial operators, CEOs, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers in recent decades. A good bit of this is due to luck—being in the right place at the right time, genetic talent, having the right parents or teacher or coach, and so on. I don’t mind some inequality due to luck, and I recognize that monetary incentives are helpful. But the current (or recent, I should say;  the downturn will reduce top incomes somewhat) magnitude of inequality in America strikes me as unfair. An income of several hundred million dollars when the minimum wage gets you about $15,000 is too much inequality. What’s the proper amount of income inequality? I don’t have a precise answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel that our current level is excessive.
2. Inequality’s consequences. Even if you don’t worry about exorbitant incomes in and of themselves, there’s no avoiding the fact that they have consequences for the incomes and well-being of Americans in middle and lower parts of the distribution. The social pie isn’t zero-sum. But our economy hasn’t grown faster in the past few decades than it did before, so the dramatic jump in incomes among those at the top has come in part at the expense of the rest of us. The following chart offers one way to see this. It shows GDP per family and median family income over the past six decades. Relative to growth of the economy, incomes in the middle (and below) have increased slowly since the 1970s. [More of the first post]

[Note the graph is indexed to 1979, so the divergence is the key aspect of value - not the values so much.]

Lane goes on to discuss the linkage with unions, education, and globalization as well.  I found myself in substantial agreement with many of his conclusions.  Especially on the topic of whether inequality is even much of a real problem.

All of these posts are helpful, but when the best graph I have seen to date seems to obliterate the argument rich folks are carrying the rest of us when all taxation is considered.  This is because state taxes - especially sales taxes - are regressive, hitting lower-income earners hardest.

 Data released last week by the Congressional Budget Office underscored the progressive nature of the federal tax system. And in an op-ed article today in The Wall Street Journal, Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, used that data — in particular, the income tax numbers — to argue that the wealthiest Americans bear an unfair share of the tax burden. Other research has found that many states and local governments have more regressive tax systems, though, that might offset the progressiveness of federal tax rates. [More]

It's hard to make the case the rich are disproportionately burdened looking at that distribution.

But what still puzzles me is how farmers embrace completely contradictory positions on inequality.  For example, while we seem to be willing to go to the wall to help a few dozen extremely large farms avoid inheritance estate taxes (no, they are not "death" taxes), we get pretty exercised as these farms begin to grow and occupy much of the plat book.

I mean, how hard is it to connect those two dots?

Now add in the outrage over CEO compensation and bailing out "fat cats".  Assailing those actions offers no clear alternative to ending the abuse. What corrective measure would such critics support that would not look like a step away from sacrosanct no-holds-barred capitalism?

For the most part, many farmers are simply being tools for the the rapid consolidation in our industry.  With medium sized farmers carrying the water for the tiny number of huge operations, I can only assume they truly believe they will be some of those few survivors.

I admire their moxie, question their math.

(*Erk - I lead a sheltered life, I guess.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The next great ag breakthough...

Utilizing all our human resources.

Less radical, and likely to wreak less havoc on the male endocrine system, is just getting a better gender balance in the financial industry and markets. We need to counter the geysers of over-confidence that can lead to dangerous risk-taking, says Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist and author of the recent book “How We Decide.” “Perhaps what that requires is a few less men in the boardroom,” he says.
It’s already happening. In Iceland, two women were put in charge of troubled, nationalized banks. In Norway, the law requires that 40 percent of the directors of public companies be women. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, suggests the same mandate for companies in the U.S.
Michel Ferrary, human resources professor at Ceram, the French business school, calculated the percentages of women in management positions at publicly held French companies to see if gender made a difference in the crashing markets of 2008. Companies such as Hermes International, with 55 percent female managers, outperformed the CAC 40 last year while those such as Credit Agricole, with 16 percent female managers, underperformed, he found.
In the next bubble, maybe the guy-heavy companies will do best. But wouldn’t we all feel better if the highs were lower and the lows were higher? While we work on the problem, have some sympathy for your guy friends in finance. It isn’t easy getting mocked about how you’ve been making a mess of things with your flighty, out-of-control hormones. [More]

Farming badly lags other industries in deploying women into positions of power, and more importantly counterbalancing influence.

Too bad.

Those operations who do will, I believe, verify the implications of the story above.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Just when you thought it was safe...

To go back in the water, you find out the Russkies have been working on these weird planes.

An “ekranoplan” literally “screen plane” is a vehicle resembling an aircraft, but operating solely on the principle of ground effect. Ground effect vehicles (GEV) fly above any flat surface, with the height above ground dependent upon the size of the vehicle.
During the Cold War, ekranoplans were sighted for years on the Caspian Sea as huge, fast-moving objects. The name Caspian Sea Monster was given by U.S. intelligence operatives who had discovered the huge vehicle, which looked like an airplane with the outer halves of the wings removed. After the end of the Cold War, the “monster” was revealed to be one of several Russian military designs meant to fly only a few meters above water, saving energy and staying below enemy radar.
The KM, as the Caspian Sea Monster was known in the top secret Soviet military development program, was over 100 m long (330 ft), weighed 540 tonnes fully loaded, and could travel over 400 km/h (250 mi/h), mere meters above the surface of the water.
The important design principle is that wing lift is reduced as operating altitude of the ekranoplan is increased (see ground effect). Thus it is dynamically stable in the vertical dimension. Once moving at speed, the ekranoplan was no longer in contact with the water, and could move over ice, snow, or level land with equal ease.
These craft were originally developed by the Soviet Union as very high-speed (several hundred km/hour) military transports, and were mostly based on the shores of the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. The largest could transport over 100 tonnes of cargo. The development of ekranoplans was supported by Dmitri Ustinov, Minister of Defence of USSR. About 120 ekranoplans (A-90 Orlyonok class) were initially planned to enter military service in the Soviet Navy. The figure was later reduced to less than thirty vehicles, planned to be deployed mainly for the Black and the Baltic Soviet navies. Marshal Ustinov died in 1985, and the new Minister of Defence Marshal Sokolov effectively ceased the funding for the program. The only three operational A-90 Orlyonok ekranoplans built (with renewed hull design) and one Lun-class ekranoplan remained at a naval base near Kaspiysk. [More]

Hmm - wonder if they could pull water-skiers?  I think I have a cousin who would try it.
Posting while driving...

Is a really bad idea.  DAMHIKT.  So as I drive to Kansas City to speak today and home tomorrow, look for a lull in posting.

FWIW - as of 8 am. we've had .5" and we're just about to get back into the field.  Maybe Thurday now.
First, we outlive the fear...

One of the remarkable aspects of this recession, has been the severity and speed of investors and consumers as they react to each new (and usually grim) announcment. 

This is a genuine fear response.

Unfortunately, commodities were followed by global stock markets. As the summer gave way to autumn, consumers and investors watched in shock as the Hang Seng Index on the Hong Kong exchange plunged as much as 59% from its most recent high, the Dow Jones Stoxx 600 of Europe collapsed 46%, and the Icelandic ICEX rolled off the table, losing 77% of its value in one day on October 14 and 93% by the end of that week. In the U.S., the S&P 500 lost 44% and Nasdaq 45%, much of it bitten from retirement accounts and small traders. All told, estimates of the amount of wealth chopped from global equities are currently around US $31 trillion.
Seasoned traders who withstood the crash of 1987 have admitted they’ve never seen anything like this. The worldwide collapse of commodities, stocks, currencies, and just about every other investment vehicle out there has brought uncomfortable images of 1929 to the forefront of everybody’s minds.
Is it really that bad?
It’s a truism that investment markets are driven by two emotions: fear and greed. However, since the Lehman bankruptcy that’s been changed to fear and terror.
As investors realized no vehicle was immune to the downturn, they panicked, yanking their capital from anything riskier than a mattress and repatriating funds to the safe havens of Japan and the U.S. Interestingly, this flight to quality has not generally included Switzerland, the other traditional port in financial storms, perhaps because of Swiss banks’ exposure to emerging economies, the ones currently being supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. [More]
I have been suggesting to audiences of farmers that not only is this overreaction to be expected, it is inevitable.  It's all we have to choose from for emotional response.

Sometimes, the human brain can seem astonishingly ill-equipped for modern life. Our Pleistocene olfactory cortex craves glucose and lipids, which makes us vulnerable to high-fructose corn syrup and Egg McMuffins. We've got an impulsive set of emotions, which makes us think subprime mortgages are a good idea. And so on.
If I could only fix one design flaw, however, I'd focus on our stress response. We're stuck with a mind that reacts to the mundane mundane worries of modern life - a falling stock market, a troubled marriage, taking the SAT - with a powerful set of primal chemicals that, once upon a time, were reserved for moments of "fight or flight". In other words, we treat everything like an existential threat, which is why a multiple choice exam can leave us panicky and breathless. The hypothalamus, it turns out, is an excitable drama queen, suffusing the bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol whenever things get a little uncertain or unpleasant.
The problem with this blunt reaction to stress - it's too often all or nothing - is that, as I've written numerous times, chronic stress is really bad for you. It causes chronic back pain, weakens the heart and kills brain cells. Unfortunately, the miserable economy seems to making things worse:
Anne Hubbard has not lost her job, house or savings, and she and her husband have always been conservative with money. But a few months ago, Ms. Hubbard, a graphic designer in Cambridge, Mass., began having panic attacks over the economy, struggling to breathe and seeing vivid visions of "losing everything," she said.
She "could not stop reading every single economic report," was so "sick to my stomach I lost 12 pounds" and "was unable to function," said Ms. Hubbard, 52, who began, for the first time, taking psychiatric medication and getting therapy.
Anne's sad story captures a reality of depression that's often overlooked. While the mental illness is typically defined in terms of its emotional symptoms - this led a generation of researchers to search for the chemicals, like serotonin, that might trigger such distorted moods - researchers are now focusing on more systematic changes in the depressed brain, such as reduced neurogenesis and increased cell death. What causes this neurodegeneration? You guessed it: chronic stress. Those same hormones that make you alert and escalate your pulse can also damage the brain. [More]

But the tiny bit of good news is our brains can only keep this up for so long.  We are already adapting to wild commodity price swings (15 cents in corn doesn't provoke the same gut-churning for me as it used to, for example) and our brains are trying to set new higher trigger points in order to lower the chemical overload on our cardiovascular and other systems.  We simply cannot stay terrified for really long periods.

Perhaps this intrinsic, internal progression of adaptation is being played out as slightly less aversion to risk, and even a relative boredom with investing safely for paltry returns.  I think so, and hence look for a change upward in the markets driven less by outside factors and more by brain chemistry trying to right the ship of self.