Monday, August 31, 2009

Still lovin' it...

Who doesn't love a parade?...

Toy Soldiers from Alta Media Productions on Vimeo.

Guess who just got truly high-speed Internet (5 Mbps)?

[via sullivan]
I thought I heard a crash...

When galaxies collide.

This beautiful image gives a new look at Stephan's Quintet, a compact group of galaxies discovered about 130 years ago and located about 280 million light years from Earth. The curved, light blue ridge running down the center of the image shows X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Four of the galaxies in the group are visible in the optical image (yellow, red, white and blue) from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. ... The galaxy NGC 7318b is passing through the core of galaxies at almost 2 million miles per hour, and is thought to be causing the ridge of X-ray emission by generating a shock wave that heats the gas. [More]
If it wasn't so cold, I'd do some summer stargazing.

BTW - Carl Sagan never actually said, "billions and billions", in case that phrase just came to mind.
I thought they came from the second drawer down...

I have never in my life bought my own underwear, so this economic indicator came as a shock.
But the men's underwear index -- or, conveniently, MUI -- may also have a silver lining. Mintel predicts that next year, men's underwear sales will fall by 0.5 percent, and as with many economic indicators, a slowing of a decline can be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Retailers are reporting encouraging signs in the men's underwear department. Sears spokeswoman Amy Dimond said stores are beginning to see more sales. At Target, spokeswoman Jana O'Leary said sales of men's underwear have been stronger over the past two months and multi-pair packs are moving.
No less an oracle than former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has given this theory credence, as described in a report on NPR two years ago. But you don't have to take his word for it. Just ask Kenneth Sanford, 59, of Capitol Heights, about his underwear. He said he usually buys new boxers every three months or so in maroon, black or white. But he had to stop working for medical reasons, and now he's having a hard time finding a new job.
To save money, he doesn't go out for ribs with his friends and family as much anymore. And when he indulges, he gets one piƱa colada instead of two. He hasn't bought a new pair of underwear in at least eight months. [More]
Mind you, there was a pretty ugly stretch between graduating college (Mom-supplied) and getting married...
I could support this...

Opponents of health insurance reform are finally starting to offer some alternative suggestions, although not in the political arena.
First, we should replace our current web of employer- and government-based insurance with a single program of catastrophic insurance open to all Americans—indeed, all Americans should be required to buy it—with fixed premiums based solely on age. This program would be best run as a single national pool, without underwriting for specific risk factors, and would ultimately replace Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. All Americans would be insured against catastrophic illness, throughout their lives.
Proposals for true catastrophic insurance usually founder on the definition of catastrophe. So much of the amount we now spend is dedicated to problems that are considered catastrophic, the argument goes, that a separate catastrophic system is pointless. A typical catastrophic insurance policy today might cover any expenses above, say, $2,000. That threshold is far too low; ultimately, a threshold of $50,000 or more would be better. (Chronic conditions with expected annual costs above some lower threshold would also be covered.) We might consider other mechanisms to keep total costs down: the plan could be required to pay out no more in any year than its available premiums, for instance, with premium increases limited to the general rate of inflation. But the real key would be to restrict the coverage to true catastrophes—if this approach is to work, only a minority of us should ever be beneficiaries.
How would we pay for most of our health care? The same way we pay for everything else—out of our income and savings. Medicare itself is, in a sense, a form of forced savings, as is commercial insurance. In place of these programs and the premiums we now contribute to them, and along with catastrophic insurance, the government should create a new form of health savings account—a vehicle that has existed, though in imperfect form, since 2003. Every American should be required to maintain an HSA, and contribute a minimum percentage of post-tax income, subject to a floor and a cap in total dollar contributions. The income percentage required should rise over a working life, as wages and wealth typically do.
All noncatastrophic care should eventually be funded out of HSAs. But account-holders should be allowed to withdraw money for any purpose, without penalty, once the funds exceed a ceiling established for each age, and at death any remaining money should be disbursed through inheritance. Our current methods of health-care funding create a “use it or lose it” imperative. This new approach would ensure that families put aside funds for future expenses, but would not force them to spend the funds only on health care.
What about care that falls through the cracks—major expenses (an appendectomy, sports injury, or birth) that might exceed the current balance of someone’s HSA but are not catastrophic? These should be funded the same way we pay for most expensive purchases that confer long-term benefits: with credit. Americans should be able to borrow against their future contributions to their HSA to cover major health needs; the government could lend directly, or provide guidelines for private lending. Catastrophic coverage should apply with no deductible for young people, but as people age and save, they should pay a steadily increasing deductible from their HSA, unless the HSA has been exhausted. As a result, much end-of-life care would be paid through savings.
Anyone with whom I discuss this approach has the same question: How am I supposed to be able to afford health care in this system? Well, what if I gave you $1.77 million? Recall, that’s how much an insured 22-year-old at my company could expect to pay—and to have paid on his and his family’s behalf—over his lifetime, assuming health-care costs are tamed. Sure, most of that money doesn’t pass through your hands now. It’s hidden in company payments for premiums, or in Medicare taxes and premiums. But think about it: If you had access to those funds over your lifetime, wouldn’t you be able to afford your own care? And wouldn’t you consume health care differently if you and your family didn’t have to spend that money only on care?
For lower-income Americans who can’t fund all of their catastrophic premiums or minimum HSA contributions, the government should fill the gap—in some cases, providing all the funding. You don’t think we spend an absurd amount of money on health care? If we abolished Medicaid, we could spend the same money to make a roughly $3,000 HSA contribution and a $2,000 catastrophic-premium payment for 60 million Americans every year. That’s a $12,000 annual HSA plus catastrophic coverage for a low-income family of four. Do we really believe most of them wouldn’t be better off? [More]

The analysis is spot on, I believe, and meets many of the tests reform critics demand.  I think this is clearly one good way to proceed.  Please note it still expects government to care for those at the bottom, but at least involves even them in the decisions of spending on health care.

But here's my gripe.  Until the idea of actual change was remotely possible, proposals like this were considered way too radical to see the light of day, and few conservatives especially were interesting is seriously supporting any change. Say what you will about the nasty health care debate we are entangled in, but it has caused some on both sides to finally start addressing the problems.

And only when his father died unnecessarily did the author care enough to passionately seek change.  I am truly sorry for his loss. Eventually, that sector of the population will be much larger I believe, as the present system fails more each year.
I've come to accept that the fiscal and economic costs of the current system, however wonderful it has been for a few decades, simply cannot be sustained much longer. I say that not because I have become a socialist, but because the US is on the brink of the kind of bankruptcy it will be very hard to recover from if we do not tackle its source now. Taking measures to avoid fiscal collapse even greater than today's is a conservative impulse. Letting one sector of the economy destroy the rest of it - and public finances too - is sheer recklessness.
What do you want, GOP? A permanent populist culture-war? Or actual solutions to pressing problems? Let us know when you've matured enough to answer that question. [More]

If critics were to spend as much time and effort seeking to solve problems as shoot down other efforts to advance health care in the US, we could have more ideas like this to debate, and Republicans would have something to offer.

[via mankiw]
But do they have dilithium crystals?...

Behold a place you never knew existed: Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.


This place is immense.  It is over twelve thousand square kilometers in area, which makes it the largest salt flat in the world.  To give an idea, that is over twenty five times larger than the more famous Bonneville Salt Flats in the United State.  It also has the distinction of being the highest salt flats in the world at three thousand seven hundred meters above sea level.  The mounds in this first picture are not, as you may first suspect, a naturally occurring phenomena.  The hand of man is at work here.

Coincidentally the major minerals to be found in salt are halite and gypsum.  One use of halite is to keep ice off our pathways and roads while gypsum is used as a finish for walls and ceilings - you probably know it as drywall.  There are also considerable stocks of lithium in the salar, which are used in the production of batteries and certain pharmaceuticals.  However, Bolivia as a nation exports none at the moment.  It does not want large multinationals muscling in and is preparing to develop its own strategies to ‘mine’ the lithium.
 And with plug-in cars gaining traction (heh), the need for lithium in batteries could be significant.
Like other batteries, those that use lithium work by shuttling ions (electrically charged atoms or groups of atoms) between their electrodes. When they’re charging, the ions travel in one direction. When they’re discharging, they go in the other. The most widely used have a positive electrode made from cobalt or manganese oxide and a negative electrode made from graphite. The electrolyte (the material through which the ions pass from one electrode to the other) is a lithium-based gel or polymer. These types of batteries are mainly used in laptops, and are not well-suited for the automotive environment, where they’re subject to rapid discharging and recharging, much higher power demands and extremes of heat and cold. The problem is that the chemistry isn’t stable enough, so batteries suffer from overheating—and that can have an explosive effect.
The most promising electrode chemical makeups, then, involve nano-engineered materials like phosphates of iron, lithium-titanate spinel and, most recently, bundles of silicon nanowires. Making an electrode out of these tiny particles increases the available surface area for the ions to bond to and exchange electrons, avoiding a bottleneck that used to result in deformation (and diminished effectiveness) of traditional materials like graphite. The smoother-flowing electrode decreases the battery’s internal resistance and improves its ability to store and deliver energy.  [More]

The search for energy will take us to strange places.  This could be one of them.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

It's not what it looks like...

OK - a couple of you have called me out about my pledge to not post on Sundays.  But here's the deal:  blogspot has a feature that allows posts to be put on the site later - at any time you specify.

So all these apparent "Sunday" posts were uploaded on, ummm...Thursday.  Yeah, Thursday.

[The tricky part was anticipating your responses and adding this one.]
It's not that bad...

The worst dog costume ever?

OK - so I ruined your Halloween theme.

[via neatorama]
I know all about your standards*...

Will Wilkinson, arguably one of the ablest minds I read, especially in matters of measuring public happiness and making policies thinks he knows from marriage.
But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don’t call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be. [More]

Of course, Will is tragically young (36) and from the bio I have read and the above words I assume he is not hitched.

Permit me to interject some comments from a marriage veteran of 38 years (143 husband years). 

First, it is likely ineffective to consider mating and dating as essentially an interviewing problem.  While Will is "refining his standards" the number of eligible possible mates declines rapidly. In fact, the longer he goes without developing a sense of compromise or leniency, the less desirable he becomes, I would hazard.

Marriages are made, not discovered. The important thing is to get started, because the great secret our modern humor and competitiveness has almost removed from general knowledge is the power of a long marriage to lift the lives of the participants - even as they build it moment by moment, action by action.  To be sure, not all do, but when you go to enough 50th Anniversaries, you begin to sense why fussy shopping is not the answer.

We are all constantly changing.  Married folks have the chance to have those changes occur in an environment that encourages cooperation and caring, not self-obsession.  To be sure, libertarians are by definition a little self-interested, but that should make them wary of how hard marriage will be  for them, and hence more inclined to get on with the hard work of setting aside self-interest for the sake of another.

So, while I give him credit for a well-crafted and impeccably thought out post on the current mating scene, it's really not hard to laugh in his clueless young face about why this venerable institution has persisted and how he is missing the whole point - as well as the manifold benefits.
What if drug ads...

Increase the placebo effect?  In other words, the ubiquitous ads for cholesterol decreasers and anti-depressants may be lowering the actual results for the drugs and/or raising the response to placebos.
But why would the placebo effect seem to be getting stronger worldwide? Part of the answer may be found in the drug industry's own success in marketing its products.
Potential trial volunteers in the US have been deluged with ads for prescription medications since 1997, when the FDA amended its policy on direct-to-consumer advertising. The secret of running an effective campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi's Jim Joseph told a trade journal last year, is associating a particular brand-name medication with other aspects of life that promote peace of mind: "Is it time with your children? Is it a good book curled up on the couch? Is it your favorite television show? Is it a little purple pill that helps you get rid of acid reflux?" By evoking such uplifting associations, researchers say, the ads set up the kind of expectations that induce a formidable placebo response.
The success of those ads in selling blockbuster drugs like antidepressants and statins also pushed trials offshore as therapeutic virgins—potential volunteers who were not already medicated with one or another drug—became harder to find. The contractors that manage trials for Big Pharma have moved aggressively into Africa, India, China, and the former Soviet Union. In these places, however, cultural dynamics can boost the placebo response in other ways. Doctors in these countries are paid to fill up trial rosters quickly, which may motivate them to recruit patients with milder forms of illness that yield more readily to placebo treatment. Furthermore, a patient's hope of getting better and expectation of expert care—the primary placebo triggers in the brain—are particularly acute in societies where volunteers are clamoring to gain access to the most basic forms of medicine. "The quality of care that placebo patients get in trials is far superior to the best insurance you get in America," says psychiatrist Arif Khan, principal investigator in hundreds of trials for companies like Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb. "It's basically luxury care." [More]
This is more than just a curious psychological observation. Huge drug companies have been one of the points of pride in our current health care system.  Any other system, some argue reform would stifle the free-market drive that has given us all these wonder drugs that now improve our health.

But if the drugs are in effect expensive placebos (or even partially), what is the real value pharmaceuticals really create?  Is it outweighed by the enormous and growing cost?
Prescription drug prices in the United States are the highest in the world. "The prices Americans pay for prescription drugs, which are far higher than those paid by citizens of any other developed country, help explain why the pharmaceutical industry is — and has been for years — the most profitable of all businesses in the U.S. In the annual Fortune 500 survey, the pharmaceutical industry topped the list of the most profitable industries, with a return of 17% on revenue."[1] However, national expenditures on pharmaceuticals accounted for only 12.9% of total health care costs, compared to an OECD average of 17.7% (2003 figures).[2] The high price of prescription drugs is one of the major areas of discussion in the U.S. health care reform debate.
Prices of brand name drugs in the United States are significantly higher than in Canada, India, the UKprice controls. Prices for generic drugs tend to be higher in Canada. The price differential for brand-name drugs between the U.S. and Canada has led Americans to purchase more than US$1 billion in drugs per year from Canadian pharmacies.[3] and other countries, nearly all of which have
As an example of the extremely high U.S. drug prices, consider the cholesterol drug Lipitor, one of the best selling drugs in the world. At CVS, a leading U.S. pharmacy, Lipitor (40mg/90 tablets) costs $361.99. At, another U.S. pharmacy, the same drug costs $335.97. While in Canada at pharmacy, the cost is $215.46, and in India at licensed pharmacy, the identical generic drug costs $120.94 (Source: All costs in US$,19 May 2008, from the respective pharmacy websites).
To save money, "U.S. Customs estimates 10 million U.S. citizens bring in medications at land borders each year. An additional 2 million packages of pharmaceuticals arrive annually by international mail from Thailand, India, South Africa and other points," reports the Washington Post.[4] A few years ago, uninsured Americans would often purchase their cheaper medications from Canadian pharmacies. However, today, consumers shop at lower-cost online pharmacies in India, the UK, and other countries where they can save even more money -- up to 60 to 80 percent or more savings off US prices.
Pharmaceutical companies argue that the prices they set are necessary in order to continue to fund research. Only 11% of drug candidates that enter clinical trials are successful and receive approval for sale.[5] Critics of pharmaceutical companies point out that only a small portion of the drug companies' expenditures are used for research and development, with the majority of their money being spent in the areas of marketing and administration. [More]
If nothing else, the difficult health insurance reform debate will frame discussion of future medical cost inflation and coverage far differently.  Even if perceived as unsuccessful, the alternatives offered as improvements will remain in our minds as the system tilts further toward both eventual insolvency and growing inequality of care.

The flaw of averages*...

The recent release of net farm income projections for 2009 have provided ample ammo for those who are anxious to reclaim a cushy position for agriculture in the Victim Line.  After all, NFI is expected to drop 38% - a pretty drastic plunge.
Net farm income is forecast to be $54.0 billion in 2009, down $33.2 billion (38 percent) from the preliminary estimate of $87.2 billion for 2008. The 2009 forecast is $9 billion below the average of $63.2 billion in net farm income earned in the previous 10 years.
Net cash income, at $68.2 billion, is forecast down $29.4 billion (30 percent) from 2008, and $3 billion below its 10-year average of $71.2 billion. Net cash income is projected to decline less than net farm income primarily because net cash income reflects the sale of $1.8 billion in carryover stocks from 2008. Net farm income reflects only the earnings from production that occurred in the current year. [More]
[How many knew the difference between NFI and NCI?  Anyone? Bueller?]

On a graph, however it looks less apocalyptic.

This is remarkably benign compared to other sector income performances during this recession.  At most it illustrates what a windfall 2008 was.

The big prob here is all farmers are piled into one bucket for measuring.  While grain guys like me are not happy with our outlook, we're sitting pretty compared to livestock and dairy.  Not all farmers need or deserve public sympathy or extra support.  Certainly not sugar.

However, our system will likely allocate at least some handouts to those same guys.

There are some folks in trouble on the farm, but the average is masking the reality.

* I'm reading an eponymous book and will report on same anon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The gift of singing...

Here is what a great music teacher can do for children that can make their futures better.

There are few things that have consistently added joy to my life like singing with others. I suppose it's grumpy harrumphing, but I'm not sure iPods will extend this cultural benefit of end it by reducing our engagement with music to consumption or solitary experiences.

All I know is, like the children above I had the chance to hear my voice added to choirs, duets, choruses, quartets, and ad hoc assemblies of singers.  And on my darkest days, those memories sustain me, and those melodies and words rise to my lips.

[via sullivan]
The end of the "dumpy" strategy...

In the evolutionary battle for procreation advantage, muscles can be an advantage, but not cheap.
Because muscles come at such cost, Dr Gaulin thinks an evolutionary fight is going on between natural selection, which conserves metabolic expenditure and promotes longevity, and sexual selection, which willingly trades both for extra mating opportunities. This may explain why men have such a range of muscularity. In the past, the strong man would have had better mating opportunities in the short term, but the skinny guy who outlived him could have had just as much reproductive success over the course of his longer life.
The irony for the skinny guy is that the laws which protect him from aggression also make it less likely that the hulk will fight himself into an early grave. Modern medicine, meanwhile, means the hulk’s weakened immune system is less likely to expose him to lethal infection. Time, then, to get the weights out, and start pumping iron. [More]
As usual, the outlook for guys in the middle is ambiguous.
Heavy thinking...

In one of the more puzzling cognitive research findings I've run across lately, consider this phenomenon:
Gravity affects not just our bodies and our behaviours, but our very thoughts. That's the fascinating conclusion of a new study which shows that simply holding a heavy object can affect the way we think. A simple heavy clipboard can makes issues seem weightier - when holding one, volunteers think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.
In a variety of languages, from English to Dutch to Chinese, importance is often described by words pertaining to weight. We speak of 'heavy news, 'weighty matters' and 'light entertainment'. We weigh up the value of evidence, we lend weight to arguments with facts, and our opinions carry weight if we wield influence and authority. These are more than just quirks of language - they reflect real links that our minds make between weight and importance.
Nils Jostmann from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated the link between weight and importance through a quartet of experiments. In each one, a different set of volunteers held a clipboard that either weighed 1.5 pounds or 2.3 pounds.
The extra 0.8 pounds were enough to make volunteers think that a foreign currency was worth more money. Forty volunteers were asked to guess the conversion rates between euros and six other currencies, indicating their estimate by marking a straight line. Those who held the heavier clipboard valued the currencies more generously, even though a separate questionnaire showed that they felt the same about the euro.
Money, of course, does have its own weight, so for his next trick, Jostmann wanted to stay entirely within the abstract realm. He considered justice - an area that is free of weight but hardly free of importance. Jostmann showed 50 volunteers a scenario where a university committee was denying students the opportunity to voice their opinions on a study grant. It was a potentially weighty issue, but more so to the students who held the heavy clipboard. They felt it was more important that the university listened to the students' opinions. [More]
Just as seeing pictures of money can alter our guesses for future corn prices, it would seem what you are holding can tweak your judgment as well. 
One guess for the mechanism is the crossover between physical and mental sensations.
Instead, Jostmann reasons that the link between weight and importance is rooted in our early childhood experiences, when we rapidly learn that heavy objects require more effort to deal with, not just in terms of strength but planning too. Our brain relies on these concrete physical experiences when it represents more abstract concepts, like importance. The two are then joined, so that physical experiences can affect abstract thought.
This is far from the first study that has supported this "theory of embodied cognition". Jostmann's explanation can also account for why thinking clean thoughts can soften moral judgments and why immoral thoughts trigger a need for physical cleanliness. It's why warming our hands can make us socially warmer, why social exclusion literally feels cold. 
The more I follow the research in this area the more I want to turn decision-making over to Aaron.  My mind obviously is running amok.
When engineers party...

They use stuff like this.


Woo. Hoo.

[via rgs]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


In the comments from time to time is frankly skeptical chiding about my naive belief that government can be improved and decisions made to aid our economy or people.  Then stuff like this happens.

First, the conservative WSJ sounds the alarm on protectionism over the emerging sugar import battle.
The costs have been a sticky issue for years. According to a 2006 study by the U.S. International Trade Administration, each sugar job saved by propping up domestic producers costs three jobs in manufacturing, with many companies relocating to countries such as Canada and Mexico where the price of sugar can be one-half to two-thirds the rate in the U.S. So instead of importing sugar, the U.S. brings in more sugary finished products, with imports rising to $18.7 billion in 2004 from $6.7 billion in 1990.
The Administration's reluctance to take on the sugar lobby comes in the context of what is beginning to look like a slow roll by the President on free-trade principles. In September, the Administration must also decide whether to allow tariffs or quotas on imported car tires from China. Standing for free trade would require the administration to stand up to some powerful unions. So far, no evidence of that.
In a recent Pittsburgh speech, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk spoke primarily about trade enforcement issues, but the Administration has quietly encouraged protectionist policies. According to U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President John Murphy, the "Buy American" requirements of the stimulus package are stalling projects in some states and municipalities struggling to comply.
Challenging the status quo may be tough for President Obama, but a commitment to embrace standards of free trade early in his Presidency would be a boon to U.S. trade leadership. Big Sugar has long been the recipient of one of Washington's most destructive policies, and the continued price manipulation has no place in a recession. President Obama should increase the quotas and end American sugar's sweet deal. [More]

And sadly, I cannot help but recall, the previous administration hardly was stalwart in defense of free trade on this very issue.

Then the very conservative Cato calls out the stunning political duplicity of Republicans on the Medicare problem.
Yet Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, takes to the Washington Post today to defend Medicare against any cuts, while at the same time criticizing the Democrats as “left-wing ideologues:”
  • “Under the Democrats’ plan, senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed.”
  • “Republicans want reform that should first, do no harm, especially to our seniors.”
  • “We also believe that any health-care reform should be fully paid for, but not funded on the backs of our nation’s senior citizens.”
  • “First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of ‘health-insurance reform.’”
  • “Reversing course and joining Republicans in support of health care for our nation’s senior citizens is a good place to start.”
Steele uses the mushy statist phrasing “our seniors” repeatedly, as if the government owns this group of people, and that they should have no responsibility for their own lives.
Fiscal conservatives, who have come out in droves to tea party protests and health care meetings this year, are angry at both parties for the government’s massive spending and debt binge in recent years. Mr. Steele has now informed these folks loud and clear that the Republican Party is not interested in restraining government; it is not interested in cutting the program that creates the single biggest threat to taxpayers in coming years. For apparently crass political reasons, Steele defends “our seniors,” but at the expense of massive tax hikes on “our children” if entitlement programs are not cut. [More]

OK - that leaves ummm, who in Washington to put faith in?

Or in other words, all those export figures in the S&D tables for meats especially, but for grain too, will have to be effected with little help from forward thinking political leaders.

And any issue where we can stampede oldsters with media confusion will sacrifice the future of younger folks who still don't get how important it is to vote.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is this fight necessary?...

Several readers and friends have sent me links to the now-infamous-in-ag-circles article in the current issue of Time, "Getting Real About the High Cost of Cheap Food" by Bryan Walsh.  The introductory paragraphs should give you the gist.
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.
In addition, I gather some farm organizations are urging members to fire angry letters to Time expressing their outrage.

OK, that's one response.  But from my point of view, it's a mistake - possibly a big one.

In fairness, I suppose my reaction is somewhat disappointingly tame because I have been reading the food movement literature for years now, and this article is really nothing new.  I think many farm readers (or more likely, non-readers) simply had not run across these arguments yet because they are less interested in viewpoints outside agriculture.

So after following Pollan, et. al, and websites like The Atlantic Food Channel, I simply saw it as more of the same.  And I have not seen a huge effect on product movement in the interim.

With that disclaimer, I still think producers would be wise to think before choosing angry confrontation.

First, we need to make sure we understand the climate for public discourse right now. It's about emotion. Period. Take a look at town meetings or climate change debate or (ugh) political talk shows.  Is there any evidence carefully reasoned economic arguments will sway in the slightest people angry about keeping hog lagoons?  At the very least we should consider postponing this sqaubble until we're on the other side of health care reform, recession, and climate change.

And what pray tell are we going to respond to such articles with?  Read the words.  Like much of anti-industrial farm screeds they marshal facts and even more opinion from credible experts (with whom we disagree, but they still get to have a say, right?), much of which is plainly true: we do clip beaks and dock tails, we do keep sows in crates and calves in the dark - we can't really say we don't. 

We also need to count noses.  There are a few thousand of us industrial producers, many more agrarian producers who disagree with our practices and millions of consumers who love pets.  We'd better hope we don't push things to a vote.  Prop 2 should ring a bell.

It could be staunch public responses are the best answer to such legislative nightmares, but most folks I talk to in places like MI and OH where real work is being done prefer quiet negotiation to media wrangling to counter this threat.  Frankly, I think we are vastly overestimating our clout with the populace on this issue, and pushed too far, could sour support for all kinds of unrelated public sympathy.  For example, lots of exposure to industrial production may swicth a few votes on payment limits to aid more sympathetic figures like small farmers.

One really important problem agriculture hasn't faced up to is how different are our sensibilities compared to consumers.  While we moan about how people don't know where their food comes from, it seldom crosses our minds how many years of acclimation it took us to develop our detachment from killing animals for food.  Folks don't know where pork chops come from, and if you think you're going to make them comfortable with the facts in one clever ad or brief explanation you are sorely misled, I think.  Try it on one person just to see the depth of the problem.

But we are badly mistaken in agriculture if we think the cry "It keeps food cheap!" will silence such outcry.  Angry responses will only fire up the opposition even more, IMHO.  We can see that all around us.  The free-floating animosity in the air will likely produce a vastly disproportionate response, and rapid escalation that can only damage our bottom lines.

Most importantly, there is little indication the animal-rights/food conscience movements are much of an economic threat.  Sales of meat, for example are reeling not from a mass shift to veganism but drastically lower incomes and no exports.  Meanwhile we can't put hamburger out fast enough.  In fact, I suspect one reason we are seeing more vitriolic language assailing industrial production is the immense pressure other methods have fallen prey to.  From farmer markets to free-range chicken, hard pressed consumers are downshifting to low-priced products in droves.

Indeed, organic and other process-defined foods have fallen on hard times and are losing market share. Given this dollars and sense reality, what do we hope to gain in the marketplace with calling more attention to our methodology by allowing the media to egg us on into a public battle?  It's all downside from my perspective.

Indeed, the great risk here is a quasi-political mudfight that will encourage more vigilante video of slaughterhouses and manure handling.  If you have not grasped how tenuous the public ability to discriminate between food animals and companion animals, see the viewer comments on petting zoos from recent USFR shows.

Ag has caught on to the power of viral video. I know because the clip of a top EPA official having a beauty-pageant-question moment during her Congressional testimony on land use calculations for ethanol was forwarded to me by multiple sources.  Yet we still don't seem to grasp how silent video of many animal production practices could repulse the vast majority.  Folks, meat production is gross.  We're just de-sensitized.

In short, if we're not getting savaged at the meat counter, why not listen attentively and act with caution, rather than descend into yet another unwinnable name-calling hysteria.

Oddly, it would appear most people are able to exist with a wide disconnect between killing animals and eating steak.  Laying aside dietary issues for another time, I think allowing consumers some room to be ignorant about food production is a good thing.  With the nation on edge from a zillion other economic and social conflicts, much of that ill will could spill over to their grocery carts if we draw too much attention.

Shouting at a handful of detractors will only invite more scrutiny than our customers really want or we can withstand.

Listen to the critics, sort through and find their core angers, recognize the truths scattered within, and monitor their traction. But taking arms against a sea of troubles is not the answer.  Going to war with customers is a violation of rational marketing.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why I don't tweet...

Twitter is too serious for my taste.

When it gets to 80% or so, maybe...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

By popular demand...

The food branding iron.

What better way to pay homage to an animal that's given its life for your nutrition than jamming a hot brand of its former self into its own butchered carcass?
Ponder no more, it's time to graduate from Bovine University and make your very own branding iron for all occasions!

This instructable will show you how to make your own beef brand from bicycle spokes.
This idea can easily be expanded to a chicken for poultry, a swine for pork cutlets, heck even Bambi for venison! [Too much more, including instructions]

Hey - you don't get this stuff on DTN.

[via make]
Scary cool...

Why robots are a topic for economists as well as engineers.

The conventional wisdom is that the huge leaps in productivity made possible by robotics will eliminate whole categories of jobs but create more and better jobs.  But I have seen few expalnations about how this will work or any reasonable projections - and absolutely no evidence to date.  In fact, I am growing more suspicious robots will make enormous labor demand reductions with few offsetting labor needs.  I am not saying there won't be huge economic benefits from this transformation, but our jobless recovery could simply be the first few days of a jobless economy.

Marshall Brain [insert ironic comment here] outlines his picture of a Robot Nation in fairly credible predictions.
Automated retail systems like ATMs, kiosks and self-service checkout lines marked the beginning of the robotic revolution. Over the course of fifteen years starting in 2001, these systems proliferated and evolved until nearly every retail transaction could be handled in an automated way. Five million jobs in the retail sector were lost as a result of these systems.

Decades of research and development work on autonomous robotic intelligence finally started to pay off. By 2025, the first machines that could see, hear, move and manipulate objects at a level roughly equivalent to human beings were making their way from research labs into the marketplace. These robots could not "think" creatively like human beings, but that did not matter. Massive AI systems evolved rapidly and allowed machines to perform in ways that seemed very human.
Humanoid robots soon cost less than the average car, and prices kept falling. A typical model had two arms, two legs and the normal human-type sensors like vision, hearing and touch. Power came from small, easily recharged fuel cells. The humanoid form was preferred, as opposed to something odd like R2-D2, because a humanoid shape fit easily into an environment designed around the human body. A humanoid robot could ride an escalator, climb stairs, drive a car, and so on without any trouble.
Once the humanoid robot became a commodity item, robots began to move in and replace humans in the workplace in a significant way. The first wave of replacement began around 2030, starting with jobs in the fast food industry. Robots also filled janitorial and housekeeping positions in hotels, motels, malls, airports, amusement parks and so on.
The economics of one of these humanoid robots made the decision to buy them almost automatic. In 2030 you could buy a humanoid robot for about $10,000. That robot could clean bathrooms, take out trash, wipe down tables, mop floors, sweep parking lots, mow grass and so on. One robot replaced three six-hour-a-day employees. The owner fired the three employees and in just four months the owner recovered the cost of the robot. The robot would last for many years and would happily work 24 hours a day. The robot also did a far better job -- for example, the bathrooms were absolutely spotless. It was impossible to pass up a deal like that, so corporations began buying armies of humanoid robots to replace human employees. [More]

It's a good read in total, although his economic prescriptions strike me as uninformed.   I think the tipping point for me was the robot milking.  Once you get your head around this seemingly complex task being performed without any human intervention, the next steps of service sector jobs is more easily envisioned.

[Update: Just found this video to help non-dairy types]

This view is hotly debated, but I find the arguments discounting this possibility less persuasive.
But this is silly. Why? Machine and robotic resources aren’t free; they’re resource constrained just like everything else is resource constrained. We have the tecnological know-how to replace millions of human workers with machines right now, but we don’t because the expense of building, programming, operating, and maintaining the machines is too great. It’s not worth it. As demand for human labour falls, the price of human labour will also fall making the hiring of humans more attractive. Meanwhile, as demand for robot labour increases, the price of robot labour will also increase (since the stuff robots are made of is scarce), making the use of a robot for any given task less attractive. There will then be some market equilibrium which will, in all likelihood, involve plenty of employment for low skilled workers.
Which doesn’t mean that machines can’t place downward pressure on unskilled worker wages. They clearly can; the rise of the computer destroyed the jobs of millions of semi-skilled clerks. Those people are still working today, generally competing with low skilled workers and earning less than they previously would have. On the other hand, the rise of computers has enabled them to get a lot more utility out of what they do earn.
There are multiple constraints limiting the total dominance of machine labour. One is the analytical constraint — there are some human cognitive and physical processes that we haven’t yet learned to emulated in machines. This will continue to be less binding over time, enabling workers to potentially compete with humans in a steadily broader range of fields.
Then there is the energy constraint. Machines require power to operate, and the more machines we build, the more power they’ll need. This constraint might eventually be overcome, but until then energy costs will rise with the machine share of the labour force, helping to keep humans at work. [More]

To being with, driving low-skill wages even lower strikes me as a untenable choice for most cultures, seeing as how we're pretty close to the lowest tolerable limit now. But the other factors - cost, abilities, energy consumption - for robots are all moving in directions that will allow robots to be the first choice.  Like others, I no longer assume the outcome will be like previous technological revolutions.
Of course, this is roughly the argument people made in the 19th century too: if machines can spin cotton and mine coal and harvest crops, what's left for unskilled laborers to do?  The answer, of course, turned out to be: something else.  Productivity increased so dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, and with it the quantity of goods produced, that everyone stayed employed even though population increased and the labor content of most commodities went down.  The nature of the work changed, but 10% of a thousand, it turned out, kept as many people employed as 50% of two hundred.
So is Clark just engaged in neo-Ludditeism?  Maybe.  But there really does seem to a fundamental difference between machines that take the place of muscle power and machines that take the place of brain power — though it's hard to say for sure since we haven't really seen what computers can do yet.  Probably a lot more than most people think, though.  Clark's IVR transaction with United Airlines may seem trivial — an example of automated phone hell, in fact — but Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine seemed barely worth the trouble too at the time. [More]

Meanwhile both Jan and I prefer on-line  banking, travel arrangement, and shopping.  We seek out self-checkouts. And we don't even need to go into the demand for auto-steer advancements.

Looking at farms decades out, the importance in being part of the ownership/management elite (and I think that term is correct) is critical to being in agriculture at all.  Too much of what we do is simply waiting for cheaper technology to move it out of the human activity realm.
It's obviously all about me...

As I stood on the my porch this morning gazing at my remarkably uneven crops, I had the sudden epiphany that the horizon extended in equal directions from all around me. In other words, I was the center of the visible world!

You know what this proves:
I don’t generally go to talks by creationists, as it would be a rare event indeed for them to say something original, or accurate. But Rebecca noted this:
Because his work at Harvard focused on biology, that was the bulk of his talk, but before reaching that discipline he first dismissed both astronomical and geological evidence for evolution and a multi-billion-year-old universe. Of the former, he declared that when we observe galaxies around ours, they are spread out equally to the “north, south, east and west” of Earth, and therefore we are literally at the center of the Universe (and therefore blessed by God?). This is silly. Mountains of research suggest that the Earth occupies a wholly unremarkable corner of a Universe that is vaster and more ancient than Jeanson’s comparatively puny philosophy can imagine.
I listened to a recording of the talk for this part, and Rebecca reports his argument faithfully. His argument is totally wrong. I know, shocker. His basic assumption is that the Universe has a physical edge, which is incorrect. There is a visible limit for the Universe, a farthest distance we can see. That distance is about 13 billion light years. We can’t see any farther away because there hasn’t been time since the birth of the Universe for a photon to get any farther. You can consider objects that have moved more than 13 billion light years away from us, but we simply cannot see them due to the expansion of the Universe.
You might therefore naively make a map showing all the objects in the Universe, and lo, we are at the center. But that would be true for any and every single point in the Universe. If you are on Alpha Centauri, or in the Andromeda Galaxy, or sitting near a young quasar 10 billion light years away, you would look out and still see yourself apparently centered in the Universe. The whole point here is that there is no special location in the Universe, no preferred point. [More]
This error is part of a larger psychological prejudice, as we are trapped by our perceptions of how the world seems to be.  We believe our eyes and ears, which is why myths persist and sleight of hand card tricks still separate the gullible from their money.

But for us in agriculture, it also encourages anthropomorphism in food animals because they appear to express emotions in various ways.  More and more the appearance of how we feed and house animals will be hard to explain away to a public that believes only its own eyes, and anti-scientific bias is treated as a matter of personal choice guaranteed by the Constitution.  While such false "knowledge" is not proscribed, it cannot be elevated to an accepted alternative in policy discussions because it does not correspond to observable facts.

"Common sense" can carry us only so far. And we reached that point for the most part long before I was born.  Agriculture should appeal more to common science, I think.
Worse yet, it's socialist...

A lot of nonsense is being trafficked as reality these days, why not the Mongolian Death Worm?
ARMED with explosives, two men are heading to Mongolia's Gobi Desert to find the fabled acid-spitting and lightning-throwing Mongolian death worm.
The worm has never been documented but some Mongolians are convinced it exists. They call it Allghoi Khorkhoi, or "intestine worm" because it resembles a cow's intestine and is about 1.5m long. The worm apparently jumps out of the sand and kills people by spitting concentrated acid or shooting lightning from its rectum over long distances, NZPA reports. (Seriously.)
New Zealand TV entertainment journalist David Farrier, who is organising the expedition, and cameraman Christie Douglas, leave this week to spend two weeks in the Gobi, trying to verify the worm's existence and making a documentary about it.
Farrier said he had always been fascinated by cryptozoology, or the search for hidden creatures. [More]

I think they are trying to find it so the death panels can use them.

(Pass it on.)

[via appleyard]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

And it's right twice a day...

You've probably been wondering why watch ads all have the samples set at about 10:10.

The real reason for the setting? Aesthetics. The 10:10 position gives the clock or watch a number of benefits:

• The hands not overlapping, so they’re fully and clearly visible and their styling can be admired.

• The arrangement of the hands is symmetrical, which people generally find more pleasant than asymmetry, making the product more appealing to customers.

• The manufacturer’s logo, usually in the center of the face under the 12, is not only visible, but nicely framed by the hands.

• Additional elements on the face (like date windows and secondary dials), usually placed near the 3, 6, or 9, won’t be obscured.

According to the folks at Timex (who set their products at 10:09:36 exactly), the standard setting used to be 8:20, but this made the face look like it was frowning. To make the products look “happier,” the setting was flipped into a smile (occasionally, you’ll still see the 8:20 setting on some clocks or watches where the manufacturer’s logo is at bottom of the face above the 6).  [More]

This may become arcane knowledge as the ability to tell analog time could be disappearing like the ability to dial a rotary phone.

[via nudge]
Like the truth...

It's out thereThe crop, I mean.  One clear message from the 3 Cargill ProPricing meetings I have attended so far, as well as other speech locations, is grudging admission of huge yields.

There are some small caveats: white mold north of about I-80 and 10-15 days maturity delays.  But I was probably the only person in the very well-attended meetings to whinge about yield prospects.
If a libertarian falls in the forest...

Is he/she still right?

One reason my posting has been slow is waaaay too much time spent wading through some detailed and carefully thought-through comments by some of my favorite bloggers on government policy.  In addition, as some of you have commented, I seem to have lost my way as I journeyed from Ayn Randville to another place altogether.

Libertarians have been having a veritable editorial eruption as the prospect of a massive new government "intrusion" appears on the horizon, and as you will see, they put forth some seriously powerful arguments against, well...everything (which is essentially the libertarian point of view).

Will Wilkinson from Cato captured this theme best in his brilliant paper on inequality, which I found compelling.
Recent discussions of economic inequality, marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused the public about the meaning and moral significance of rising income inequality. Income statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards of living and real economic inequality. Several strands of evidence about real standards of living suggest a very different picture of the trends in economic inequality. In any case, the dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms. When injustice or wrongdoing increases income inequality, the problem is the original malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many thinkers mistake national populations for "society" and thereby obscure the real story about the effects of trade and immigration on welfare, equality, and justice. There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the poor can be addressed only through policies that actually work to fight poverty and improve education. Income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice. [More]
Counter-posts rained down in response.  Ezra Klein, for example, reaches common ground that inequality is a symptom from a different approach altogether.
One of Will's first arguments is that income inequality is not a good way to think about the issue. The real key is consumption inequality. It's not, in other words, how much money people make, but how much stuff they buy. And "the weight of the evidence shows that the run-up in consumption inequality has been considerably less dramatic than the rise in income inequality."
You'd think the fact that our ears are still ringing from the deafening "pop!" of the consumption bubble would, in some way, impact this analysis. But it doesn't. Nor does the word "debt." But that's how many households have kept their consumption high amid widespread wage stagnation. [More]
OK - with you guys so far.  But the more I read about how this insight affects the best way to handle the health care issue, I found my attention wandering, even as I slowly grasped and agreed with most of the meticulous arguments.

So what is my point, you may be wondering?

Simply this, as minds far brighter then mine are working overtime to illuminate good choices for our nation during these profoundly important debates, I become more convinced they are having little or no impact.

Contrast the conversations above with the tenor of the popular media.  Voices like Wilkinson, even though probably closer to being helpful than most others are irrelevant because they no longer have a constituency among conservatives.

What passes for conservative thought is less informed by libertarian principles than ever. The health care debate has been hijacked by fear-mongering and outright deception to trigger visceral, and anti-intellectual antipathy to those who would advocate more effective policy.  As Wilkinson himself points out, he does not oppose government intervention such as redistributive policy if it addresses problems, not symptoms.  Contrast that with senior citizens shouting about death panels.

Of course, there is much less common ground between liberals/progressives and libertarians to begin with.  The underlying philosophies simply are too far apart.

Consequently, libertarians preach as never before to few, and to make matters worse, have allowed their ideals to front those who simply oppose government intervention that does not benefit them directly.  Farmers, who benefit from massive federal largesse are suddenly invoking libertarian screeds as if now  - after they have gotten theirs - it is time to draw a line in the philosophical sand. And boy - do we want an intrusive government when it comes to the ethanol mandate.

I was almost relieved to see that, yup - I still think along many of the same lines as the guys at Reason and Cato and Volokh.  Including lower defense spending, free trade, open immigration, decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, and a raft of other issues.

Other than satisfying our own desire for being "correct", libertarians have proven to be fairly impotent in the public sphere even as they probably offer more good ideas that any other faction. While many slogans are embraced by self-styled conservatives, they are only for political expediency.  The same voices horrified by the stimulus spending (which has been pretty well embraced by all flavors of economists despite the costs) would hardly be speaking up were the political power structure reversed, I suspect.  And when it was, a few months ago, libertarians were again heartily ignored by the right.

So those of us actually interested in what happens in the next few months are likely wasting our time laboring through abstruse arguments while real impact will be caused by whoever gets in the last terrifying commercial before the vote, or which Senator is likely to have a primary challenge.

Maybe libertarian philosophy peaked with Ron Paul, but even as it has found a powerful voice on blogs and websites, it has become incidental to public discourse because it is shackled by a quaint insistence on provable truth. Without any standing on the right, it is doomed to articulate commentary, not meaningful persuasion.

It has ever been thus, perhaps, but for my own conscience sake, I think I have finally figured out why I don't go to those sites as much. 

They don't matter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I've heard of 'em now...

In an oblique reference in the WSJ (sorry - gated) a small "farmer" organization I had never heard of was featured as a cats-paw for feuding seed giants: The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM)  Reading the leadership list, I did know a few of the principals. 

Anyhoo, it would seem that the brawl developing between Monsanto and DuPont is being played on multiple levels, including member organizations. 

OCM, a nonprofit based in Lincoln, Neb., has forged a reputation over the last decade for taking on big agriculture on behalf of small farmers and consumers. It filed congressional testimony and went to court to fight meat company JBS Swift's purchase of National Beef and Smithfield Beef in 2008. It opposed Whole Foods Inc.'s purchase of Wild Oats two years ago.

More recently, the company has started the "Seed Concentration Project" to put heat on Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, claiming the company controls 90 percent of the market for genetically modified seed.

OCM's stance on Monsanto isn't news to the farmers, academics and government officials expected to attend or speak at today's conference on competition in agriculture — a list that includes senior representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice and Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

But what many of them probably don't know is that the group is backed by Monsanto's archrival, DuPont, a corporate Goliath in both agriculture and chemicals.

"We've supported OCM for a number of years as we have dozens of organizations that are aligned with our belief around what's in the best interest of our farmer customers," said DuPont spokesman Dan Turner. "However, we don't disclose the amount that we give to OCM or any other organization." [More]
I don't have any real problems with this (and this is hardly the first example), but it should be an important indicator to producers how much weight farmer-endorsement appears to carry in public relations.

Farmers are generally well regarded and trusted (or at least, have been) and my concern is not to sell this credibility cheaply or shortsightedly.

But I gotta believe - especially after listening to the Cargill market experts several times this week - that the upcoming income/cost crunch for grain farmers is going to play havoc with margin expectations in the seed industry.  $300+ corn is going to be tougher to sell with corn below $3.  Soybeans may be the target this year, however.
“Farmers are our friends” was the response from Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles following last week’s meeting held by Organization for Competitive Markets in St Louis, where the issue of agricultural market concentration drew the attention of farmers and government regulators. 
Since then, Monsanto announced that seed prices are going up again, based on demand. Of course, anytime someone controls most of a market, demand is always good for them. 
Monsanto said that seed prices are headed to about $74 for an acre of Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, a price hike of as much as 42 percent. (Monsanto explains it’s really not that much.) [More]
The troops on the front lines of the battle for seed market share could take pretty heavy fire.  I think I'll keep an eye on OCM and check their casualty list.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Our wedding was soooo dull...

At least the cakes are more interesting now.

[via rgs]
It could also dim the Christmas lights...

As the marketing buildup for the Chevy Volt intensifies, something I had been wondering about is starting to occur to others:  Can you really just plug electric vehicles (EV) in like a shaver?

Consider the puff for a Mercedes EV:
All of the cars feature a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery with a maximum capacity of 35 kWh; Mercedes says they charge in four hours when plugged into a typical wall outlet. The electric motor produces 70 kW (about 94 horsepower) and 236 foot-pounds of torque, propelling the little runabout to 62 mph in a little less than 11 seconds. [More]

Now do the math.

Imagine that. You could plug the BlueZero into your living room receptacle and in four hours transfer 35KWH of electricity from your incoming power line to your car's batteries. 35KWH in four hours. 8.75KWH in an hour. In the US, where we have 110V power, this means 79.5 amps of electricity are coursing through the walls of your house. I don't know about your house, but mine uses wiring that will safely pass 15A, less than a fifth of the 79.5A. That turns a four charging time in 20 hours. [More]

To put that in perspective, electric ovens are typically 30A (240V) circuits which would be equivalent to a 60A (110V) circuit.  That's big wire, dude.  Like #4 or #6.

Now add up the effect if all the houses on the  block suddenly went green.

Chief among those challenges is how thousands of power-hungry vehicles would tax distribution transformers at the local level. Such transformers have historically handled electricity load for about 10 average-size homes each.
Adding a plug-in car to the grid is equal to about a third of a house, Kjaer said. And because early adopters are likely to spring up in geographic concentrations, that could mean overloaded transformers at the distribution level or plug-in cars potentially causing power outages.
"The worst imaginable situation you could have is your neighbor yelling at you because you blacked out the neighborhood," Kjaer said.
Kjaer is less concerned about transmission or generation being overtaxed, as long as consumers are taught to charge their plug-in cars at night, during off-peak demand periods, to smooth the load. Kjaer said improving distribution is the key infrastructure challenge for utilities, aside from creating a network of charging stations.
"We're talking about the last 10 feet" between the house and the transformer, he said. "It's the last 10 or 20 feet that we've got to work on. We're got to work on it really hard, really quickly, because these cars are coming." [More]

Of course all these problems are simply opportunities for electricians and charger manufacturers, in a sense. But you probably ought to read the owner's manual before signing up to buy an EV and check your garage wiring.
Think like an H1N1...

While unprecedented preparations are being made to prepare for the likely worsening of swine flu this fall and winter, it can be instructive to consider the infection from the virus point-of-view.

A virus does not have feelings, exactly. It infects without foresight, malice or mercy. But to understand a disease, it is important to look at things from the point of view of the organism – virus, bacteria or worm – that causes it. Take virulence, for example, the degree of damage a pathogen does to its host. The conventional wisdom used to be that a proper disease evolved to become relatively benign; why bite the hand that feeds you, not to mention the vital organs making that feeding possible?
The idea was that only new diseases would run rampant and have truly devastating effects. Once the disease organism settled down and learnt to behave, as it were, its excesses would be moderated and host and parasite would live together, if not in equanimity then at least without total ruin.
The problem with this notion is that it fails to take the pathogen’s-eye view. Pathogens are all about what’s-in-it-for-me. Biting off the hand that feeds you is just fine, as long as another hand can easily take its place. So being virulent works perfectly well, as long as it enhances the transmission of the pathogen. Diseases that are spread by vectors, such as malaria carried by mosquitoes, can afford to be virulent because incapacitating the victim does not slow the pathogen down – a fevered malarial patient is more likely to be bitten by a mosquito and transmit the disease once infected since she is less likely to swat the swarms of insects or have the derring-do to put screens over the windows and nets over the beds.
If, on the other hand, the disease is spread not by a mosquito but by direct contact between infected and uninfected individuals, a host who feels only mildly ill is more likely to go out and spread germs along with a handshake than one who is so debilitated that he can only lie in bed moaning gently and calling for ginger ale and magazines. In this case, a less virulent pathogen does better. [More]

If you know anyone involved in education, you may have discovered their summer was spent following official guidelines for swine flu arrival.  Plans for isolation or school closure are replacing lesson plans at the top of the agenda.

While remarkably mild so far, the fact that swine flu has hung around all summer has many epidemiologists nervous, and anticipating widespread occurrence once the normal flu season begins.

Meanwhile, it is becoming slightly more possible, I think, that the result will just be a rotten flu season - not a devastating and deadly epidemic.

Don't panic, be careful. That's the advice from health experts who point out that the H1N1 influenza is milder than the seasonal flu and that 55 percent of the more than 1,000 cases in the country have already been cured and discharged from hospitals.
India has so far has reported 1,079 swine flu cases and 12 deaths. While 589 have been discharged, the others are still undergoing treatment in various government hospitals in the country.
'The swine flu virus is a mild strain and, in fact, is less virulent than the seasonal flu, which causes more deaths... We have treatment for it, which is Tamiflu. It is a curable disease, not an incurable one,' said Health Secretary Naresh Dayal.
According to Randeep Guleria, head of medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, worldwide about 95 percent of those hospitalised have been discharged.
'Global data shows that less than six percent of those affected needed hospitalisation, while one third (of those in hospital) needed ICU care. However, those who have recovered from the flu are not immune to the infection and have to take care as others. But the next time they get the virus, it would be a mild one,' Guleria said. [More]
This is what passes for "good news" these days, BTW.