Sunday, August 28, 2011

Slower and slower...  

I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems to take me longer to do less than say when I was 35 or so. Who knew?

Anyhoo, I'll finish the Cargill Propricing meetings* this week (until December), and we'll start corn right after Labor day. Meanwhile, I need to get the GSS heated, plumbed, and wired. The actual greenhouse is going up next weekend as a project for the whole family.

So posting may be shallow until post-harvest, so to speak.

Thanks for reading.

*At the risk of sounding like a Tool, check out the new ProMax contract. If I had to design a contract, it would look like this. Given my belief in continued strong demand and production issues, the Jul-Nov high-tick guarantee on 50% of the bushels looks like a solid.
Not again...  

The similarities between this growing season and last are disturbing. Historically, we simply haven't had dramatic rainfall shortages such as have begun about the first week July each year. In fact, only during the spring months do we get anything like normal rainfall lately. The temps speak for themselves.

There is no way of knowing, but the prudent scenario seems to be to prepare for similar weather patterns for 2012. The moisture shortage already baked in (pun intended) means the odds of dryness starting out next year are already higher.

FWIW, here's our strategy:
  1. 50/50 rotation. We will have to plant about 100 A. of corn-on-corn to get to closer to even numbers of acres, but CoC has taken it in the shorts big time last year and especially this year. 
  2. There ain't nothing in the "stacks" to help with hot nights, so we are valuing expensive corn largely on the basis of ease of planting. If conventional corn repeats its performance from last year versus stacked hybrids, we'll take the money and load up Smart Boxes.
  3. Rip all the bean ground. Out theory is we need to make the soil capable of absorbing as much of the spring moisture as possible, while still drying out enough plant in good condition. Roots need to be able to go down as deeply as possible as early as possible. And "ponds" are killers.
  4. More tile. While we are giving serious thoughts to installing control gates in some of our new systems, the need to have ground work/plant right as early as possible means drainage on our heavy soils.
  5. Vertical tillage. We bought about 1.5 days of planting this year by running a Verta-Till over some fields. If the yields hold up, such hours could be gold. We'll also use it in the fall on corn stubble.
  6. "Window" planting. We don't seem to get "seasons" to plant, but ~ 72-hour windows. We have to be able to get as much planted as fast as possible and still get it started well.
  7. More short-season hybrids. Our theory is get pollination and fill over before the race for moisture is over. Also we are moving characteristics like Goss's wilt tolerance and standability up as selection criteria because of the rapid spread of the former and the higher probability of stalk cannibalization.
  8. Early, wetter (corn moisture) harvests. This year's crop won't handle a normal windy fall October front, let alone a significant storm. Given prices and drying costs coupled with early demand I'll spot Cargill ~50¢ off the $7.60 bid to get it out of the field.
  9. More bins. Harvest windows must not be negated by elevator lines.
  10. Possibly adding a second N app, perhaps UAN as sidedress depending on weather after planting.
  11. Corn head guidance feelers. I think down corn will be present more often rather than the exception.
As they say, your mileage may vary, but those who say there is nothing we can do to deal with changing weather patterns are wrong, IMHO. And those who are betting on a return to more normal summer weather patterns are entitled to the payoff if they are right. The steps above represent costly, but possible high payoff actions that could make a big difference. If we are wrong we will lose less than those who bet the other scenario, since many of the investments have some value regardless.

How did they get the raccoon poop...  

Cleaned off them?  It seems the latest decorating rage from across the Pond is old grain sacks.

Fabric sacks, like the kind traditionally used by European farmers up until the middle of the last century for carting grains to and from the mill, can be spotted all over the home this fall.
On pillows. On tables. On lampshades.
Many retailers like Target, Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware as well as the design community have their own applications for these textiles, some of which are authentic and others only inspired by the past. Even so, bringing this sort of woven simplicity to decorative pieces is on the rise.
"I definitely see this as a big trend for fall," says Sabrina Soto, Target Style Expert for Home and HGTV celebrity designer. "Vintage-inspired pieces -- reminiscent of what you might find at a
Kymberley Fraser designed this penguin-themed grain sack pillow for her 3 Fine Grains line of home goods.
French flea market -- can create a traveled, eclectic look in any room."
The two looks emerging include striped linen and printed burlap.
Historically, linen grain sacks were produced on the farm.
Family farmers would set aside land for growing hemp or flax. They would harvest it, soak it to loosen the fibers, clean and spin the fibers into thread and then weave the fabric (because in those times durable fabric was not readily available). From the rolls of fabric different textiles were created, including utilitarian grain sacks.
"The grain sacks were used for the harvesting of whatever they were growing," says Wendy Lewis, a Vermont-based textile specialist and importer who sells high-quality antique and vintage grain sacks acquired from the descendents of the farmers who made them ( [More]
No matter how we farm, our older cousins always seem to do it a little cooler and cuter.

Incoming - your source for breaking decorating news!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Junkbox, Eposode MIXCD...  

Another week of Cargill meetings, but at least I'm home at night.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Quote of the day...  

"You no longer need a couch to be a couch potato."

[Source worth reading]
Driving less: Chapter 2...  

The previous post on mileage driven drew not just attention here, but prompted more inquiries into traffic stats. Another interesting wrinkle is the fatality decline.
What’s interesting, though, is that fatalities per mile often drop during a recession — and it’s dropped extra dramatically in this particular downturn. “This is the most profound departure from the general trend we’ve ever had,” said Darren Grant, an economist who studies traffic safety at Sam Houston State University (and who provided me with the chart above).
Grant notes that traffic-safety experts aren’t certain why people seem to drive more safely during a recession. One factor might be that people go out drinking less. But Grant offers up another theory: “It’s possible that it has something to do with how people value their time.” When the economy’s booming, the logic goes, people drive faster because they have places to be. That same principle might explain why people walk measurably faster in cities with high productivity, like, oh, Manhattan (although this is a complicated topic, see here for a fascinating discussion). [More]
I for one don't miss windshield time, and look forward to avoiding it strenuously in the future.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Meanwhile, I was a big fan...  

Of Vladimir Horowitz. We didn't have pianists like this when my hormones were raging.

 Pianist Yuja Wang struck a chord at the Hollywood Bowl this month and not just with her performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. The 24-year-old Chinese soloist had necks craning, tongues wagging and flashbulbs popping when she walked on wearing an orange, thigh-grazing, body-hugging dress atop sparkly gold strappy stiletto sandals.

In particular, Wang's outfit was a hot topic at the concert and continued after Times music critic Mark Swed's review appeared in print and online. While Swed praised her delicacy, speed and grace at the piano, his fashion comments — including the observation: "Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult" — have touched off a spirited debate among music critics and bloggers about what constitutes appropriate concert attire and conversely, whether a critique of a performer's clothes has any place in a music review. [
More uptightness in every sense of the word]
More interesting still to those of us on the far fringe of classical music is the legions of brilliant pianists emerging with technical skills that were the province of a select few only a few years ago.

Ms. Wang’s virtuosity is stunning. But is that so unusual these days? Not really. That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.
The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in sports. The four-minute mile seemed an impossibility until Roger Bannister made the breakthrough in 1954. Since then, runners have knocked nearly 17 seconds off Bannister’s time.
Something similar has long been occurring with pianists. And in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential. Yes, Ms. Wang, who will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall in October, can play anything. But in China alone, in recent years, there have been Lang Lang and Yundi Li.
Russia has given us Kirill Gerstein, born in 1979, the latest recipient of the distinguished Gilmore Artist Award, whose extraordinary recording of the Liszt Sonata, Schumann’s mercurial “Humoreske” and a fanciful piece by Oliver Knussen on Myrios Classics was one of the best recordings of 2010. In June Mr. Gerstein made his New York Philharmonic debut at a Summertime Classics concert with a boldly interpreted and brilliant account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But don’t let his probing musicianship distract you. He is another of those younger technicians who have figured out everything about piano playing. [More]
This could be what I think of as the Tiger Woods Syndrome, where parents start much earlier with talented offspring and with the help of new methods of training produce prodigies in abundance.

But for a sector of the music industry not looking at a booming future, I think is was inevitable to see sex appeal woven into the product. It was already a big part of standard soprano uniforms. And if you look a the orchestras backing the admittedly treacly music of Andre Rieu. et. al., it is pretty obvious you need to be obviously pretty to apply.

Also, the live event is rising in importance to recorded music likely due to file-sharing and the decreased profits. So looking smoking hot works is not limited to the album cover CD case. I suppose the same things could be said for men (see also: El Divo) but I'll have to take Jan's word for that.

With increasing cosmetic surgery and other enhancement techniques, looking good is slipping onto the requirement list for more professions. 

At some point, I wonder, will farmers have to be gorgeous to succeed? Screwier things have happened.

I'm getting out just in time.

Driving less?...  

Well, somebody is. For whatever reason we are keeping our cars parked slightly more.


Theories abound, such as this one:
There’s also a theory floating around that Americans—especially young Americans—are simply no longer as car crazy as they were in the 1970s. In 1976, three-quarters of all 17-year-olds had drivers’ licenses. By 2008, that was down to 49 percent. Last year, Zipcar, the car-sharing company, did a survey that found that 67 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds would prefer to drive less, especially if alternatives were available. (Mind you, Zipcar is hardly a disinterested party here, but other surveys have yielded similar results.)
What could explain this cultural shift? Maybe more young people are worried about the price of gas or the environment. But—and this is just a theory—technology could play a role, too. Once upon a time, newly licensed teens would pile all their friends into their new car and drive around aimlessly. For young suburban Americans, it was practically a rite of passage. Nowadays, however, teens can socialize via Facebook or texting instead—in the Zipcar survey, more than half of all young adults said they’d rather chat online than drive to meet their friends.
But that’s all just speculation at this point. As Bernstein says, it’s still unclear whether the decline in driving is a structural change or just a cyclical shift that will disappear once (if) the U.S. economy starts growing again. [More]
'Tis a puzzlement, to be sure. I don't know enough about teenagers today to jump aboard that idea, but it may be.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Friday, August 19, 2011

The TP and me...  

After a comment that triggered some semi-deep thinking while killing time in Grand Island, NE - where the crops looked great and a report of a $14,000 IA land sale poleaxed the meeting - I decided I needed to be more scupulous in inferences regarding the Tea Party in lieu of actual facts.

Luckily, one researcher whose work I have long admired has already done some heavy lifting in this area.
In 2006, Robert Putnam and David Campbell began a research project on political attitudes that included interviewing a nationally representative sample of 3,000 Americans. They then went back to talk to the same group of people over this summer. “As a result,” they explain, “we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.” Their findings are going to make a lot of people unhappy:
Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government ...
Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

As I look at grain farmers who are wallowing in totally unexpected income and asset bonanzas, while many supporting the TP agenda, I wonder how they arrive at that juncture. It could be their moral and economic principles override the considerable gain they are enjoying, or as the above research shows, it may simply boil down to the same social conservative issues the TP refuses to acknowledge mixed with a strong aversion to a young, black President.

I can hear the shouts of "race card" already, but I have also heard the jokes in the restroom and read some of the flood of anti-Obama e-mails I get. [And I respect Putnam's research skills immensely.]  This president came before were we really ready as a culture, but almost all change does. I don't think my sons' generation would blink twice at such an outcome.

For our WASP industry, it is even harder and, despite unprecedented economic prosperity, and (to my mind foolish) administration support for ethanol, the prejudices are not leavened with enough personal experience to be set aside easily. We simply don't have enough contact with people like Obama to temper our opinions, I think. [And despite my considerable disappointment with his decisions on matter like Lybia, Guantanamo, torture prosecutions, legislative strategy, farm policy, and economic stimulus (too little), etc. he remains a better choice than the alternatives IMHO.]

So when we rail against the Welfare State, we have a picture in our minds of fat, black, unmarried women with several children and an attitude of entitlement. And we are viscerally opposed to that system. 

But the numbers show something different.
Welfare Misperceptions
Welfare has come to be associated with poverty. Additionally, blacks have overwhelmingly dominated images of poverty over the last few decades.[30] As Martin Gilens, assistant professor of Political Science at Yale University, states, “white Americans with the most exaggerated misunderstandings of the racial composition of the poor are the most likely to oppose welfare”.[31] This perception possibly perpetuates negative racial stereotypes and could increase Americans’ opposition and racialization of welfare policies.[citation needed]
Welfare Disparities in Welfare Reform
Much research has shown that: “whites are leaving welfare faster than blacks; among those leaving, blacks are more likely to be forced off welfare; blacks are more likely to exhaust their time allowed on welfare; and blacks are more likely to cycle back onto welfare after having left". A recent study shows the majority of Welfare recipients are white and live in suburbs or rural areas. The findings are contrary to the popular belief that most welfare recipients are unemployed, inner-city minorities whose families have gotten public assistance for generations.
The majority of Americans who receive welfare checks are not black. The majority of those who receive welfare checks are white. [32] Since the implementation of TANF, the percentages of black and Hispanic families have increased, while the percentage of white families has decreased. In 1992, blacks represented 37 percent of those on welfare; by 2002, this number increased slightly to 38 percent. In that same time period, the percentage of Hispanics rose from 18 percent to 25 percent. On the other hand, the percentage of whites on welfare decreased from 39 percent to 32 percent in that same time frame.[32]
Additionally, because TANF gave individual states increased flexibility in imposing time-limited welfare policies, the reforms implemented vary by state. Recent policy studies have found a statistically significant relationship between the racial makeup of a state’s welfare population and whether the state adopts tougher welfare policies. Aggressive get-tough reforms include full-family sanctions, short time limits, and family cap policies. Essentially, as the percentage of blacks in the welfare population rises, the probability that the state will adopt full-family sanctions increases from 54 to 97 percent; the probability that the state will adopt a family cap increases from 5 percent to 96 percent; and the probability that the state will adopt a shorter time limit than five years increases from 10 to 88 percent. Moreover, nonwhites are more likely to live in states with tougher policies.[32] [More]
Worse still, we farmers too are on the government dole, only our entitlement is somehow more just. We call our slice of the Welfare State a "safety net". Like most Americans we can overlook our government check without a qualm.

The Tea Party conviction they will obstruct our system to a more perfect union is hard to game out. Their spokespersons are pretty vague about how they will accomplish their goals. The TP is about tearing down, which is not a bad idea. But I see no evidence they know how to build anything nor even a realization how much they themselves depend on the system they propose to eliminate.

I will continue to question my opinions of the far right agenda, but at this point I am unconvinced they offer anything but encouragement for spite and self-interest.

Whole Foods is not aging well...  

It turns out that Sam Walton knew something about America's relationship with food. Namely, it is mostly about money. While Whole Foods has certainly impacted the food retailing industry, I think they are learning that changing how we choose our diet will be a long, and not necessarily rewarding journey.
Since the letter was published on Sunday, Gawker, which originally published the letter (and you can read in full here), asked other Whole Foods staff to email it about their experiences working for the retailer.
While there were a few people supporting Whole Foods' philosophies, the number of people who have come out to criticise the retailer and the strength of their vitriol was surprising. There was so much of it that Gawker broke it down into two posts.
One response said the original letter did not go far enough - and that supervisors refuse to let subordinates go to the bathroom, sometimes for as long as 30-40 minutes.
Another said that food in the prepared foods section was made using expired cheese and the edible but expired meat that had been taken off the shelves.
"I am a former chef, so the whole Prepared Foods department is rather scary. Employee rule is NEVER eat off that hot bar unless you microwave the hell out of it to kill any bacteria. A plate at the hot bar pretty much means the trots later," claimed one former staff member.
Retailers like Whole Foods, which pin their businesses on their philosophies, must find situations like this one particularly worrying, to say the least. Particularly considering this one letter has opened the flood gates for former staff to not only back up the original claims, but turn it into a free-for-all, putting all of its activities under scrutiny.
Much like Disney World, which is all sunshine and fairy dust to consumers, but could be any industrial park in America once you go behind the scenes, perhaps it may only be a case of employees being disappointed by the chasm between a company's consumer perception and the needs of a corporation. [More]
The prime movers in the food retail industry look to me (a distant layman's perspective) to be 1) healthy choices more expensive than salty/sugary foods; 2) meat that will soon be a luxury item for most even in developed countries; and 3) a rapid deterioration in consumer food-handling and food-preparation skills (i.e. cooking).

Taking them in order:

It's really hard to make an economic case against poor food choices.
Most Americans are unable to follow their government’s recommendations for healthy eating, simply because they can’t financially afford to do so, says a study that was recently published in the journal “Health Affairs.”
The updated food pyramid, now called “MyPlate,” encourages higher consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are typically more expensive than processed foods. Purchasing food items that provide important nutrients like potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium, could add up to $380 annually to consumers’ grocery bills, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Pablo Monsivais, professor at the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.
Only the people who are able to spend considerable amounts of money on food get close to meeting the federal recommendations, the study found. “Given the times we’re in, the government really needs to make [its] dietary guidelines more relevant to Americans,” Dr. Monsivais said. [More]
The remarks I have heard from the protein industry indicate to me that this trend is just beginning. Red meat will become the luxury my parents always deemed it to be, and domestic consumption will slide south.
With most global food prices spiking, there's no mystery where meat prices are predicted to go. Prices for red meat, that American culinary staple, have been climbing as though OPEC had gone into the ranching business. USDA predictions suggest continued high prices for all types of meat throughout the decade. But when it comes to domestic consumption, the traditional hierarchy of America's favorite proteins may be headed for a shift. Chicken wings may achieve lift like never before.

According to the Consumer Price Index meat prices climbed 6.2 percent since January 2010, a rate of increase bested only by gasoline. A reduction in herd sizes and an increase in exports have driven cattle prices up by 25 percent since October, while hog prices have risen a remarkable 50 percent in the same period. [More]
Finally, the shift to buying food instead of ingredients will continue. Cooking will become an arcane, esoteric exercise for the well-to-do. Food preparation seems to be an entertainment option via the food channels, rather than a skill to be enjoyed while mastering.
I'm not sure whether you'll get it in the States but Jamie Oliver has a new show called "Jamie's Ministry of Food". In it he goes to a northern town (Rotherham) on a mission to teach ordinary folks to cook. The lack of basic knowledge among the people that he meets is gobsmacking. One woman isn't sure how to turn her cooker on, another doesn't really know what boiling water looks like. All of them feed their kids on junk food and takeaways. The idea is that he teaches a core group of eight some simple dishes, which they teach to their friends, and so on.
Now these may be extreme examples, but it does seem that we have created large swathes of people who simply don't know how to cook. I'm not talking about gourmet food here, but the kind of stuff that I would consider to be a basic life skill. After all, it's not rocket science.
Back in the seventies, when I was growing up, people had no option but to cook. Takeway/restaurant food was simply too expensive. My mother loathes cooking but still put a home-cooked meal on the table every night. Sure we ate a lot of mince (ground beef) and stuff with pastry but at least it was honest, if not gourmet, fare. We were a fairly typical working-class family.
But somewhere along the line that seems to have changed for a lot of people. What went wrong? [More]
All these trends, while perhaps fleeting, impact our carbohydrate-producing farms in some way. It is a perverse mercy that our economic flundering has made the dollar so cheap we can supply growing markets with meat and keep our livestosck industry afloat.

But in fifty years or so, how will we eat? And more importantly to Whole Foods, where will we shop?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Yet another reason...  

To disregard confessions. [Especially torture-enhanced "confessions"].
One of the most recent papers on the subject, published in Law and Human Behavior by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, used a group of 71 university students who were told they were taking part in a test of their reaction times. Participants were asked to press keys on a keyboard as they were read aloud by another person, who was secretly in cahoots with the experimenter. The volunteers were informed that the ALT key was faulty, and that if it was pressed the computer would crash and all the experimental data would be lost. The experimenter watched the proceedings from across the table.
In fact, the computer was set up to crash regardless, about a minute into the test. When this happened the experimenter asked each participant if he had pressed the illicit key, acted as if he was upset when it was “discovered” that the data had disappeared, and requested that the participant sign a confession. Only one person actually did hit the ALT key by mistake, but a quarter of the innocent participants were so disarmed by the shock of the accusation that they confessed to something they had not done. [More worth reading]
We are hard-wired to lean toward confessing just to end an unpleasant current experience. This physiological fact makes those who resist torture all the more heroic, IMHO, and those who use torture all the stupider.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

There is nothing more truly American...  

Than paying too much for land. A fair case can be made our country was invented not so much by religious hard-liners (despite what the TP imagines) as men who knew where wealth really, really comes from.  Like Ethan Allen (from a new biography review):
Randall works hard to make this a story about salt-of-the-earth, democratic New England settlers fighting off New York's aristocratic land barons—so hard, in fact, that you have to admire the effort. Alas, the evidence won't conform. The Green Mountain Boys were driven less by ideology than by a desire to keep their land and, at least in Allen's case, to legalize deeds bought on the cheap to sell for a hefty profit. Both sides were gambling wildly, and as the imperial conflict heated up, the stakes rose.
Back in London, groups of well-connected investors were eying quantities of land so vast as to make the Vermont speculation seem like child's play. The greatest of these ventures was the proposed colony of Vandalia, covering 20 million acres in what now comprises West Virginia and Kentucky. Parties to the enterprise at various times included Benjamin Franklin and two of George Washington's brothers. Unfortunately, Virginia claimed the land in question, as did Connecticut and Pennsylvania—each state having sold the land to settlers and investors—although by 1774 it was all, according to the British government, under the jurisdiction of Qu├ębec. Vermont, in short, was a very big story writ small.
Indeed, who wasn't a land speculator in this freewheeling age? George Washington, a former surveyor, had amassed thousands of acres in the Ohio valley and spent 10 years lobbying the governor of Virginia to legalize his titles. Gen. Thomas Gage, who would lead British forces against Washington, held 18,000 acres, and had married into one of the greatest landowning families on the continent. When fighting broke out in 1775, these contested speculations loomed in the background.
Just how these contests over land play into the Revolution is one of the most debated questions in American history. In 1909, historian Carl Becker argued that the American Revolution was not so much about home rule as "who should rule at home." The struggle for independence, in other words, centered less on exalted principles than on the quest for political and economic power by provincial elites. Popular among muckraking classes during the age of Robber Barons, this interpretation was hard to reconcile with a patriotic account of the nation's founding and eventually fell out of favor. [More]
There are times I think this insatiable desire for land, even over cash, is hard-wired into my genes. If so, maybe I can trace my ancestry back to some illustrious figures of our past, albeit illegitimately, no doubt.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Iowa: Take 2...

Nate Silver does the math, as he is famous for, and refutes some of my speculation

Short version: Iowa matters for Dems, not so much for Reps.
Save ze payments!...  

Ya gotta say this for the Frenchies - their whining for government payments shows a lot more original thought than our "bragvocates". They did this during the Tour de France (apparently some sort of bicycle race).

A new magic bullet?...  

Stop and think what a truly effective anti-virus drug would mean. Not only could you treat the most common sicknesses, but you could cut down on a bunch of unnecessary antibiotic use.

We may be getting close.
Rider drew inspiration for his therapeutic agents, dubbed DRACOs (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizers), from living cells’ own defense systems.

When viruses infect a cell, they take over its cellular machinery for their own purpose — that is, creating more copies of the virus. During this process, the viruses create long strings of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which is not found in human or other animal cells.

As part of their natural defenses against viral infection, human cells have proteins that latch onto dsRNA, setting off a cascade of reactions that prevents the virus from replicating itself. However, many viruses can outsmart that system by blocking one of the steps further down the cascade.

Rider had the idea to combine a dsRNA-binding protein with another protein that induces cells to undergo apoptosis (programmed cell suicide) — launched, for example, when a cell determines it is en route to becoming cancerous. Therefore, when one end of the DRACO binds to dsRNA, it signals the other end of the DRACO to initiate cell suicide.

Combining those two elements is a “great idea” and a very novel approach, says Karla Kirkegaard, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. “Viruses are pretty good at developing resistance to things we try against them, but in this case, it’s hard to think of a simple pathway to drug resistance,” she says.

Each DRACO also includes a “delivery tag,” taken from naturally occurring proteins, that allows it to cross cell membranes and enter any human or animal cell. However, if no dsRNA is present, DRACO leaves the cell unharmed. [More]
As an added bonus: majorly cool name!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Great Perseid photos...  

Missed it myself, but some cool shots of the Perseid meteor shower.

Is Iowa over?...  

And by extension, its boost to generous farm payments and ethanol subsidies?

While the folks in Iowa seriously believe they are designated by God or the Founding Fathers to choose the presidential candidates (I'm not making this  up - sincere Iowa citizens have told me both), their choices seem to be drifting toward irrelevance.

First, remember the last cycle and the big Huckabee win? That was a fast trip to nowhere. History doesn't show Iowa to be quite the bellwether or must-win it is reputed to be.

The Iowa caucuses hold a peculiar place on the path to the Republican nomination. But it’s fair to wonder if the state really is the bellwether Iowans proclaim it to be, at least as compared with New Hampshire, which holds the first primary. A look at the data shows just how different the preferences of the two states’ voters can be and how that will impact this election.Since 1976, there have been nine presidential elections. The candidate who won Iowa won the Republican nomination six times (67 percent). The candidate who won New Hampshire won seven times (78 percent). But we can clean that up by eliminating the four elections in which there was an incumbent Republican president, as there is none this election. Of the remaining five election years, the candidate who won Iowa won the GOP nomination twice (40 percent). New Hampshire predicted the eventual GOP nominee three of those five (60 percent). It’s not a terribly wide deviation, but it certainly doesn’t show Iowa to be essential.
And here’s where it gets interesting. In those five “open” election years, Iowa and New Hampshire never produced the same winner. That’s because it’s always been about more than just statistics and probabilities. As in past years, there is a significant difference between the types of candidates who are competing in Iowa this election and those who are competing in New Hampshire. In the Politico story I linked to in my last post, Giuliani says if he runs, his focus will be on his economic record, not foreign policy. He has also indicated he has no interest in defending the conservative position on same-sex marriage. Here there is consistency among the candidates. Mitt Romney is also skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, and he too is concentrating on his economic record and eschewing culture war politics. Same goes for Jon Huntsman, who was a supporter of civil unions (and many think same-sex marriage as well) as governor of Utah, and he will be concentrating on job creation. [More]

Iowa has drifted so far right it doesn't mean much to Democrats at all, I suspect.  It is now thoroughly identified with Republican politics and campaigns.

Third, the less-than-representative process is now totally gamed by candidates. Ron Paul sets the standard. By exploiting the populist rules, he once again did very well, even though the odds of his winning the nomination are tiny.

Fourth, it would appear side-stepping Iowa is an increasingly popular strategy for Republican candidates. Romney has barely campaigned there, Palin and Perry are waiting it out, and sincere efforts are made by candidates to downplay its importance.

Finally, I think Iowa has over-exploited their position both politically and economically. Other states want a slice of the increasing huge election bonanza. [UT, AZ, WA, NY - to name a few]  And more than few of us are weary of the presumption of Iowans of some civic precedence.

I think this has some minor ramifications for possible farm policy outcomes, but frankly, the bigger question for us is do farm programs still matter?


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Weekend Update...  

Just can't get much posting done. This may sound lame, but part of the problem is my iPad. There is no good app for posting on it, and even the ones I've tried don't do links very well.

But the truth is between meetings (see at right) and the show (USFR), I just run out of time and ambition. Plus I think a little time off would not be amiss.

So my spare time at home will be spent working on my GSS, getting ready for a harvest approaching at warp speed (nope - no rain to date, and I think the fat lady has sung on the corn anyhoo).

Yield checks were dismaying, but at least we don't have any corn-on-corn (Yikes!!).

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The boredom drought...  

Scott Adams thinks we are suffering a lack of boredom causing (among other things) a serious decline in imaginative innovation.
Now let's suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it's fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity? Allow me to describe that world. See if you recognize it.
For starters, you might see people acting more dogmatic than usual. If you don't have the option of thinking creatively, the easiest path is to adopt the default position of your political party, religion or culture. Yup, we see that.
You might see more movies that seem derivative or are sequels. Check.
You might see more reality shows and fewer scripted shows. Right.
You might see the best-seller lists dominated by fiction "factories" in which ghostwriters churn out familiar-feeling work under the brands of famous authors. Got it.
You might see the economy flat-line for lack of industry-changing innovation. Uh-oh.
You might see the headlines start to repeat, like the movie "Groundhog Day," with nothing but the names changed. We're there.
You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. OK, maybe I do that. Shut up.
You might find that people seem almost incapable of even understanding new ideas. Yes. [More worth reading]
The whole essay is clever - typical of Dilbert's creator. Only I was planning a humor column on boredom for the next FJ and some of my gag lines look suspiciously like his.

I swear! I was too planning one!
Maybe I will get one...  

I have been critical of "frequent shopper" cards at grocery stores as simple data-mining tools for Big Food.  Jan uses hers religiously and proudly points to "savings" I still struggle to believe.

But the experience of one shopper during the recent turkey recall is forcing a re-think.
I just got a phone call from Kroger, one of my local grocery stores indicating that I may have purchased some of this turkey and should return it with receipt to the store for a full refund. (If only I hadn't eaten it all already).
I have to assume the "Kroger Plus card" I use to save a few bucks on toothpaste and other instore specials kept track of who bought what products, and they were able to alert me that I had purchased some potentially contaminated turkey.
I'm pretty happy that I cooked what I ate thoroughly, as I always do, and have so far avoided illness, but it is pretty neat that my little savings card can be used to help customers avoid illness. Finally I see the value in having one and having it attached to my contact information. [Comment on this post about recall]
[There is a side bonus of not being asked EVERY (rare) time I shop for groceries if I want to get the dang card.]

Another point that may have been undersold on this event is this strain is resistant to multiple antibiotics.

PS: Use a meat thermometer, people!

It's not about interest rates...

Ryan Avent actually reads the reasons S & P downgraded US debt. Clearly it is not about spending.
But this interpretation is incomplete and misleading. As S&P’s announcement makes clear, the inadequacy of the deal was only one motivation. As important (to me, even more important) was the the reckless and divisive battle that preceded it: 

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy … [This] weakens the government’s ability to manage public finances … 

This is crucial. Sovereigns aren’t like companies. They can’t go bankrupt, and creditors can’t seize their assets. Their creditworthiness depends as much on their willingness as their ability to pay. As Felix Salmon presciently noted before the announcement was made, it’s not our ability to pay that’s in doubt: 

America’s ability to pay is neither here nor there: the problem is its willingness to pay. And there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it’s just itching to pull the trigger. There’s no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point. 

Absent the toxic politics that infected the debate, we could have hammered out a deal that stabilized the debt without squeezing the economy too much in the near term. After all, Britain, Germany and even Italy seem able to do so, and we have in the past, too.

Investors largely tuned out the debt-ceiling debate until its final days out of a belief based on long experience that for all the antics and rhetoric of the Tea Party, the people who actually run Capitol Hill would never compromise the country’s credit worthiness. After all, it was Mr Boehner who reminded his freshmen colleagues that on the debt ceiling they’d have to act like “adults.” [More]
Along the same lines, I find the most alarming aspect has to to be the idea that a vote could force those who disagree with the far right to change behavior. I mean, that's exactly what the TP won't do when it loses a legislative battle. More to the point, hardliners misunderstand how things happen here in the USA. We don't chafe under restrictions of the law, we, in the vast majority of cases, agree with (albeit grudgingly in some cases) the purpose and voluntarily comply

The IRS could never do enough audits to catch all the tax frauds if we did not have this buy-in by the electorate. Nor could cops stop the speeders. And this is also the fundamental reason we have clearly lost the war on drugs - people do not "feel" criminal enough when using marijuana.

There seems to be no room for gaining support for positions from those who disagree with the right. Instead the joy is in seeing how much a small minority can impose on others.

There is a common retort that this is how the ACA was "forced" on the US. But there is a crucial difference - it was actually approved by Congress and the President. (Interestingly, the vote wasn't a whole lot tighter than many other landmark legislative actions, such as the Bush Tax Cuts). The TP works by preventing approvals, which is not at all the same thing.

In fact, they have raised obstructionism to an art form. Even simple appointment approvals are used as hostages for pet peeves or projects. But gumming up the works is not governing, as we will discover every day. When the ship is headed for peril, not changing course is a bad option. The whole strategy is based on a reductio ad absurdum theory of government by critics who can't be bothered to learn how complex our economy and government has to be to deliver the lives we lead.
In Washington, it’s almost trite to say that the political system is broken. It’s been clear for some time that things really are different, that norms and procedures that once kept fractious congresses functioning have eroded with terrifying speed. If anything, S&P is, as usual, noticing the deterioration too late. But that doesn’t mean the deterioration is not real, or that it should be ignored. Too often, the pressure in Washington is from interest groups and activists and political consultants who are, perhaps without meaning to, pushing towards further dysfunction. Those of us in Washington who would like to see the government work have long wondered when the business community and other entities who need a functioning political system would begin exerting a countervailing force. Perhaps it begins now. If not, then this may be the first of many downgrades to come. [More]
It will be interesting to read the text behind the other downgrades that may be coming. My bet is they are rating our process, not our bonds.

Side Note: There is some confusion about the effect on GSE bonds like the Farm Credit System.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Junkbox, Episode MMCMKM...  

I'm finally remembering to cue a post up for Friday mornings. 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Coveted product endorsement...  

Ya can't buy these, ya know.

I hereby award the coveted, albeit completely unknown "Double E" [Exceeds Expectations] rating to:

The Bosch Evolution 500 Dishwasher

We go through dishwashers about every 10-12 years, thanks to hard water and unwillingness to tolerate or try to fix sporadic leaks. This time we had one goal: get one we can have a conversation over in the kitchen.

This sucker is quiet. I mean, as in, "Is it on?"  Even the drain gurgling into the disposer is a series of brief low-pressure spurts, rather than 15 seconds of whining and gargling.

I know it's expensive. But if you are finally willing to invest in something you use daily as much as something you use once a year (combine software upgrade, for example), this is one great choice.

That said, the installer at Best Buy was totally useless. Sometime, I guess the plumbing codes have changed and front supply of water is verboten. He told Jan he could not reroute the hot water supply because it required drilling a hole in the floor. It took me about a half-hour to do the job. (I was was gone that week and Jan didn't want to wait. But she did.)

The new normal...  

Every now and then we farmers debate whether prices or yields have plateaued to a "new normal". We are seldom correct. But there is an agency who can declare what normal is.

Normals serve as a 30 year baseline average of important climate variables that are used to understand average climate conditions at any location and serve as a consistent point of reference. The new normals update the 30-year averages of climatological variables, including average temperature and precipitation for more than 7,500 locations across the United States. This once-a-decade update will replace the current 1971–2000 normals.
In the continental United States, every state’s annual maximum and minimum temperature increased on average. “The climate of the 2000s is about 1.5 degree F warmer than the 1970s, so we would expect the updated 30-year normals to be warmer,” said Thomas R. Karl, L.H.D., NCDC director.
Using standards established by the World Meteorological Organization, the 30-year normals are used to compare current climate conditions with recent history. Local weathercasters traditionally use normals for comparisons with the day’s weather conditions.
In addition to their application in the weather sector, normals are used extensively by electric and gas companies for short- and long-term energy use projections. NOAA’s normals are also used by some states as the standard benchmark by which they determine the statewide rate that utilities are allowed to charge their customers.
The agricultural sector also heavily depends on normals. Farmers rely on normals to help make decisions on both crop selection and planting times. Agribusinesses use normals to monitor “departures from normal conditions” throughout the growing season and to assess past and current crop yields. [More]
This change will ripple subtly through official benchmarks that touch our lives every day - from crop insurance actuarial calculations to electricity prices.

As I have said, many times before, you can treat climate change as a political issue or an economic/production problem. We don't have to agree. We all get to make our own bets.
Entertaining the unthinkable...  

Conservative David Frum continues his journey toward a workable political philosophy. His experience is similar in many ways to mine and others I have listed. Today he offers a short, but profound admission that you will not hear from many who cannot embrace their own possible fallibility.
If I can’t follow where most of my friends have gone, it is because I keep hearing Susan Sontag’s question in my ears. Or rather, a revised and updated version of that question:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
To those of you who write in opposition to my opinions, I hear you. I feel the scorn and anger in your words. And I remind myself often you could be right. It is my hope that painful and relentless exercise will best get me to solutions and hope.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Get me public relations, now dammit!...  

On the other hand, when you are as secretive as Cargill maybe this is an optimal outcome:
[from Google News]
As the dust settles...  

OK - I've tried to read as much detail as I can about The Deal, and here are some points I found salient:
  • The Template: Republicans, despite TP sentiment they didn't get enough, have seemed to embrace this technique as the new way of handling legislation.
Two nights ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNBC’s Larry Kudlow that this debt-ceiling deal was only the beginning. “What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template,” he said. “In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore.” [More]
What should not be lost here is the language degradation. While I cringed at the "hostage" analogy used by many Dems, McConnell (and hence we can assume, the Republicans) felt perfectly comfortable with this terminology.
From Mitch McConnell, crowing over the debt ceiling fight:
I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this — it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.
Fine. I have no problem with talk like this. And on the bright side, this means that the pearl clutchers at Fox News will stop hyperventilating about Democrats who called Republicans hostage takers. Right? [More]
Advantage: The Right. I am not willing, nor it would appear, is President Obama, to risk default to push forward my political objectives. So this could be only Act I.
  • The Trigger: This could be a big deal or not. I fully expect the Reps to choose members of the Super Committee with pre-sworn positions, which will ensure deadlocked negotiations. For example, you won't see Dick Lugar, Pat Roberts, or Tom Coburn. This mean we need to be very sure we understand what another gridlock will mean. There is some question whether Obama will really, really let the Bush tax cuts expire (assuming he is re-elected). My guess is hell yes. It immediately finds $4T in revenues and he's a lame duck anyway. Furthermore, lacking any negotiating patterns, I can't imagine how the TP will compromise to save them. Therefore, so long accelerated depreciation, and other tax breaks just when our farm income is peaking (yeah - we're all going to shift it ahead)
The key was a decision by the White House to jack up the dollar-value of the trigger mechanism, doubling it from the range of $500 billion to $6 billion to the range of $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion. That created a bigger risk for domestic programs that Democrats care about, but it also accomplished the dual purpose of getting to the dollar-for-dollar ratio of cuts to debt-limit increase that Republicans insisted on and made the potential pain to the Pentagon significant enough in Democrats' eyes that Republicans would have incentive to make the super committee work so that massive automatic defense cuts wouldn't be triggered. It was a concession to the GOP demand, but one with a silver lining for Democrats -- who were never going to get a deal with a trigger of half the size.

"For a while, we were focused on trying to get the amount of cuts from the trigger as small as possible," Van Hollen said. "At first, it was kind of counterintuitive ... But the larger cuts requested by the Republicans would come back and bite them, too, if they allowed the trigger to go off.”

Huddle floated the defense-cuts concept by some House Republicans on Saturday night and heard back that it wasn't a popular idea -- as it turned out, an early sign both that House Speaker John Boehner would hear grumbling and that it might be an effective consequence to provide incentive for the super committee to make a deal. On Sunday afternoon, Senate Democratic leaders trekked across the Capitol to meet with Pelosi and her House Democratic leadership team. Van Hollen, according to Democratic sources, was assigned to call Vice President Joe Biden -- Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew was also on the call -- to go over last-minute policy details before the Democratic leadership assented.

It wasn't yet over, though. Boehner needed to soften the defense blow. He wanted to include homeland security, the State Department and foreign aid accounts in the "defense" or "security" category of spending for up-front discretionary-spending cuts (the $917 billion that is cut before the super committee recommendations or the trigger go into effect). After a series of phone calls between the White House, Pelosi and Van Hollen, it was decided that the expanded security category wasn't a deal-breaker. In fact, it meant that domestic programs wouldn't have to compete against homeland security and foreign operations accounts for scarce dollars.

Van Hollen said the trigger means Republicans will have to be willing to cede ground on taxes or face massive cuts to defense programs.

"The result is that the Republicans are now faced with a very stark choice,” he said. “This would be their choice. They would be deciding it was more important to protect tax subsidies for oil companies and other special interests than making these investments in the national defense.”  [More]
  • The Defense Cuts: Won't happen, I'm guessing. If they do, they won't be as advertised.
  • The Fallout: Cue one of our best cognitive psychology journalists to show what we have just done, and why it's going to be difficult (but not impossible) to repair.
In other words, we don’t trust people because they seem nice or virtuous or trustworthy, whatever those adjectives mean. We trust them because they get us the good stuff, delivering what Montague refers to as the “social juice” of reciprocity. When we say we trust someone, what we’re really saying is that they’re a reliable source of what we want. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
And this returns us to the present dysfunction in Washington. If trust is about the distribution of rewards – about learning to expect bonuses from others – then it’s going to be a lot harder to share those rewards in an age of scarcity and deficits. For the first time in decades, congresspeople aren’t trading pork barrel projects and tax breaks – they’re negotiating steep budget cuts. Those cuts might be necessary, but they’re aren’t going to excite the caudate or generate that requisite burst of “social juice.” The traditional means of developing trust among Congresspeople have disappeared.
There are, of course, myriad reasons for the increasing polarization of Congress. But I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons has to with this newfound lack of favor trading, as it’s increasingly difficult for politicians to barter projects in exchange for votes. It’s easy to hate on Congressional pork and mock all those silly projects that get snuck into bills. But when we do without pork, we also deny our politicians a means of building trusting relationships across the aisle. In this sense, those bridges to nowhere are a sort of benevolent inefficiency, a form of waste that, just maybe, keeps us from becoming a banana republic. Such are the hazards of politics in age of cutting. If trust begins when we share the treasure, what happens when there’s no treasure left to share? [More, please click and read the whole post]
  • The Return to Reality: While many on the right are upset with the outcome, many think they brought the opposition to their knees. But that's so yesterday. Suddenly many deficit fanatics have rediscovered everyday life, and a not-so-good economic picture.
There are really only two options here. (1) The Times is wrong. (2) The Times is right and America has the stupidest goddamn investors on the planet. For months they sat around cheering on the tea partiers and declaring solemnly that the federal budget was just like a household budget and we needed "real action" on the debt in order to build confidence in the economy. Then, suddenly, when they got it, they realized that what they really wanted wasn't dumb slogans but actual policies that would help spur the recovery. And that means looser monetary policy and fiscal stimulus.
So which is it? Has Wall Street really been sitting idly by during the whole debt ceiling debacle and has only now realized what it really means? Can they really be so steeped in the Fox News fantasyland that it never occurred to them until now that cutting federal spending during an economic downturn wasn't really a great idea? Seriously? [More, the reference is here]
And this, I think is why I won't be devoting enormous time watching how The Deal unfolds - we are a struggling economy, and this outcome has not helped us put people to work or bring us any closer together. We have more urgent problems that will soon consume our attention and deplete the Closet of Simplistic Solutions.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the desk...  

I installed Mac Lion this morning, with all the high drama an OS entails.  So far it is going fine, but the indexing will keep it running slow for a few hours. I'll try to give you a review once I have used it some.

This month is also the month I sold my soul to Cargill.  We have 2-3 meetings a week all month. I'll post the dates/locations.

Greenhouse was delivered today (as I was leaving) so another project for the immediate future.

We got a little rain (missed some great rains) but are no worse than last year. Really tired of hot weather and especially hot nights.

I'll try to read about the debt deal and cogitate on the road what it might mean for ag.