Saturday, February 25, 2012

Atacama Starry Nights

Atacama Starry Nights: Episode I from Babak Tafreshi on Vimeo.

Our Crumbling Infrastructure: NYC Water System Edition

Bruce Krasting, posting at the Big Picture:
One of NYC’s reservoirs is about a half mile away. A $60mm NYC/NYS funded construction plan was shelved a month ago. Could this become one of those examples where Kicking goes badly? Consider this daisy-chain. The Croton Reservoir is part of a chain of reservoirs that provide water for NYC. It’s large (22 miles), but it’s small in comparisons to the big man-made lakes further upstate. Croton is important because it connects directly to those upstate reservoirs via an underground tunnel. That tunnel goes north, and then west. It is 1,000 feet deep where it meets the Hudson River.
A bit of physics. The upstate reservoirs are 1,000 feet above the sea and the tunnel is 1,000 below. The tunnel is (was) large enough to drive a truck through so the water pressure at the lowest part of the tunnel is enormous. What might you expect from a 75 year old tunnel under that much pressure? A leak? Sure.
This is one hell of a leak. As much as 35 million gallons a day was the estimate seven years ago. There is evidence that rate has since accelerated. That comes to  13 billion gallons a year, which is sufficient for 250,000 average Americans. Think Orlando, Madison, Winston-Salem or Reno. Each of these cities uses about as much water as NYC is leaking. In China, this much water would meet the needs of 1.7mm people, In Bangladesh it would be sufficient for 3mm. It’s enough to fill 650,000 in-ground swimming pools. That’s a leak.
It gets worse. The leak was first detected in 1988. Therefore something like 15 million swimming pools worth of drinkable water have been pissed into the ocean. It’s so bad that areas on either side of the tunnel have sinkholes. People have been forced to move. Properties have been condemned. And the sinkholes keep getting bigger.
There's more to the story.  It is a pretty interesting post.  Why on earth are we wasting money blowing up poor folks in shitpot countries halfway around the world when our infrastructure, and to some extent our society, is falling apart?  We don't need to worry about Iran getting a nuke considering Israel has about 100 of them.  What are the Iranians going to do with the thing other than sit in their underground bunker and admire it?  Let's exit Iraq (whoever is still there) and Afghanistan as gracefully as we can, and go about the business of fixing this place up some.

Sanctions Drive Up Sheep Intestine Prices

That's bad news for Nuremberg bratwurst makers.  Der Spiegel (h/t nc links):
The famous Nuremberg bratwurst is finger-sized, filled with minced pork meat, spiced with marjoram, and stuffed into sheep's intestines. Over the centuries those intestines have come from Iran to local butchers in the Bavarian city. But instability in Iran and rising prices have driven the cost of producing the well-known bratwurst up, and could force some local producers to look for alternative sources.

Claus Steiner, a master butcher whose family has been in the business since 1975, says he has been stockpiling sheep intestines in anticipation of further rising costs. According to Steiner, 90 meters (295 feet) of the sausage skins, which would be enough for 1,000 of the tiny bratwurst, cost about €6.30 ($8.44) in the summer of 2010, but now costs about €17.20.
"There are other countries of origin," he says, including Turkey and New Zealand. "But traditionally the best sheep's intestines come from Iran."
Steiner says he heard one supplier raised its prices six times in 2011. He credits the price increases with instability in Iran, fewer sheep being slaughtered in the country, and more competition from places like China, which is stepping up its sausage production.
The European Union has protected the "original Nuremberg bratwurst," stipulating that they must be produced in Nuremberg, and made to certain specifications on their size (7 to 9 centimeters), weight (25 grams maximum), and ingredients (pork meat with sheep's intestines casings). As a result, producers can't swap out the costly sheep's intestines for other, less costly, varieties.

Some of the other bratwurst manufacturers in Nuremberg contacted Friday refused to comment directly on the issue, putting off requests to the umbrella group representing their interests: The Society for the Protection of the Nuremberg Bratwurst. That group, which, among other things, offers visitors to Nuremberg a "Bratwurst City Tour," has asked its members for feedback, and plans to issue a statement on the issue next week.

About 1 billion bratwurst are produced in Nuremberg each year, the umbrella group estimates. The city is home to four larger manufacturers and hundreds of smaller butcher shops. Several local restaurants, including some dating back to the Middle Ages, specialize in the sausage, which is often served with sauerkraut or potato salad, and comes in servings of six or more, often on a heart-shaped plate.
The Nuremberg bratwurst, which dates back to the 1300s, is the subject of legends. The city's website proudly tells the story of Hans Stromer, a patrician and town magistrate in the Middle Ages, who, after being sentenced to life in prison for "not being loyal to his city," made one simple request: to be given two Nuremberg bratwurst each day. His wish was granted, and he ended up eating 27,000 of the bratwurst over 38 years in jail. It is a record which, according to the city, remains unbeaten.
Wow, tensions with Iran are driving up oil AND bratwurst prices.  I didn't anticipate that, but it seems like more good news for U.S. sheep producers.

Quote of the Day

From the Dish:
    "I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are," - Jeb Bush. Joe Klein unpacks the quote.
I find it hard to believe this country would elect another Bush anytime, but is Jeb positioning himself for a run after the great asswhipping of 2012?  It kind of looks like it.

Fort Steuben Bridge Demolition

Via The Atlantic:

I really think I would love that job.

Mayans Fail To Predict Mild Drought

At least, that's what scientists are thinking:
Relatively mild drought conditions may have been enough to cause the collapse of the Classic Maya civilisation, which flourished until about AD950 in what is now southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Scientists have long thought that severe drought caused its collapse.
But Mexican and British researchers now think that a sustained drop in rainfall of only 25-40% was enough to exhaust seasonal water supplies in the region.
The findings were published in the journal Science.
The research was conducted by the Yucatan Centre for Scientific Research in southern Mexico and the University of Southampton in the UK.
Scientists used advanced modelling techniques to estimate rainfall and evaporation rates between AD800 and 950, when the classic Maya civilisation went into sharp decline.
They found that a relatively modest decline in rainfall was enough to deplete freshwater storage systems in the Yucatan lowlands, where there are no rivers.
Nowadays, that's not that unusual of a year to vary by 25-40% from normal.  I didn't realize that area had no rivers.

U.S. Steel Is Established

February 25, 1901:
J. P. Morgan incorporates the United States Steel Corporation. J. P. Morgan and the attorney Elbert H. Gary founded U.S. Steel in 1901 (incorporated on February 25) by combining Andrew Carnegie's Carnegie Steel Company with Gary's Federal Steel Company and William Henry "Judge" Moore's National Steel Company for $492 million. It was capitalized at $1.4 billion, making it the world's first billion-dollar corporation.  At one time, U.S. Steel was the largest steel producer and largest corporation in the world. In 1907 it bought its largest competitor Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company which was headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. This led to Tennessee Coal's being replaced in the Dow Jones Industrial Average by the General Electric Company. The federal government attempted to use federal antitrust laws to break up U.S. Steel in 1911, but that effort ultimately failed. Time and competitors have, however, accomplished nearly the same thing. In its first full year of operation, U.S. Steel made 67 percent of all the steel produced in the United States. It now produces less than 10 percent.
The Corporation, as it was known on Wall Street, always distinguished itself to investors by virtue of its size, rather than for its efficiency or creativeness during its heyday. In 1901, it controlled two-thirds of steel production.  Because of heavy debts taken on at the company's formation — Carnegie insisted on being paid in gold bonds for his stake — and fears of antitrust litigation, U.S. Steel moved cautiously. Competitors often innovated faster, especially Bethlehem Steel, run by U.S. Steel's former first president, Charles M. Schwab. U.S. Steel's share of the expanding market slipped to 50 percent by 1911.

Steelmark logo, originated by U.S. Steel and used by AISI to promote the steel industry.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rain Is A Good Thing

At least in moderation:

The Debate At Bretton Woods

At the Telegraph (h/t nc links):
All previous accounts of Bretton Woods have been second hand, with historians apparently completely unaware that a full, and one must presume faithful, transcript of proceedings, had been taken.
Those who have seen it say it is hard to point to any outright revelation about the talks, in which for Britain, the economist John Maynard Keynes was a leading player. But the level of intellectual debate is said to have been extraordinarily impressive, with exactly the same arguments as to voting rights and undue Western influence at the IMF and World Bank as exist today. The Indian delagation is said to have been particularly outspoken, despite the fact that India was still then a colony of the UK.
It was at Bretton Woods that Keynes identified one of the key problems at the heart of international economics – that imbalances in trade are next to impossible to resolve in a fixed exchange rate system without surplus countries accepting that they have as much of an obligation to do something about them as the offending deficit countries. As the eurozone is demonstrating all over again, the lessons have plainly not be learned.
Yes, Germany and China are having issues with accepting some responsibility for the mess we are in.  Don't get me wrong, the U.S. shares a lot of blame.  But our very long period of current account surplus has benefited a lot of other countries more than it has benefited us.

Stopping Overfishing

As Catholics pack into church halls for fish fries, a note on stopping overfishing (h/t Ritholtz):
Fishermen have every reason to do something. Many fisheries are hurtling towards collapse; stocks of large fish have been reduced by up to 90%. When stocks are overfished, they yield a smaller catch. The cost of mismanagement, in lost economic output, is huge: some $50 billion a year, according to the World Bank.
One reason why the pillage continues is that knowledge of fish stocks is poor, especially in developing countries. A new statistical attempt at estimating the remaining shoals (see article), from the University of California, Santa Barbara, is therefore welcome—even if that is not true of its findings, that stocks are even more ravaged than previously thought. The study found that better-understood fisheries are likelier to be healthy. Another reason for overfishing is new technology (developed, aptly enough, for battlefields), which makes shoals easier to detect. As large boats and refrigeration have spread, fishing fleets have covered greater distances and hoovered up larger catches. Because technology lets fishermen fish with less effort, it disguises just how fast the stocks are depleting.
Fishermen generally understand the risks of overfishing. Yet still they flout quotas, where they exist. That is often because they take a short-term view of the asset—they would rather cash in now and invest the money in something else. And it is invariably compounded by a commons-despoiling feeling that if they don’t plunder, others will.
In most fisheries, the fishermen would make more money by husbanding their resource, and it should be possible to incentivise them to do so. The best way is to give them a defined, long-term right to a share of the fish. In regulated industrial fisheries, as in Iceland, New Zealand and America, this has taken the form of a tradable, individual share of a fishing quota. Developing countries, where law enforcement is weak, seem to do better when a group right over an expanse of water is given to a co-operative or village fleet. The principle is the same: fishermen who feel like owners are more likely to behave as responsible stewards. The new statistical study confirms that rights-based fisheries are generally healthier.
Hopefully we'll be able to figure out how to manage the world's fisheries.  Even though it is considered one of the more sustainable fisheries, I would assume the Alaskan Pollack fishery is ounder stress.  It is the last plentiful cold-water whitefish, and it is damn good fried.

Record Maine Lobster Released

Scientific American:
The biggest lobster ever caught in Maine, a 27-pounder nicknamed "Rocky" with claws tough enough to snap a man's arm, was released on Thursday after being trapped in a shrimp net last week, marine officials said. The 40-inch male crustacean, about the size of a 3-year-old child, was freed in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, said Elaine Jones, education director for the state's Department of Marine Resources....
The marine lab has no record of a larger lobster being caught in the state, she said. The world's largest recorded lobster was a 44-pounder caught off Nova Scotia in 1977, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
I don't think I want to run into a 44 pound lobster.  That sucker would take a lot of butter.

News Of The Obvious: Americans Are Extremely Safe

Andrew Sullivan:
Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko want us to understand we've never lived in a safer world:
The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.
I don't think this can be overemphasized.  We can rain bombs on any country we want to.  Nobody can just rain bombs on us.  How many innocent Iraqis and Afghans have been accidentally or otherwise killed by American aggression in their own country in the past five years?  How many Americans have been killed by foreigners in our country?  The battlefield is so asymmetrical it is insane.  And yet, Americans get scared by every tin pot brown skinned Muslim who talks bad about us.  I don't get it.  Why would some 70 year-old in Kansas be afraid of terrorists or losers in Iran? 

        Maybe Not Faster Than The Speed Of Light

        Results overturning Einstein's theory may have errors:
        The two problems the team has identified would have opposing effects on the apparent speed.
        On the one hand, the team said there is a problem in the "oscillator" that provides a ticking clock to the experiment in the intervals between the synchronisations of GPS equipment.
        This is used to provide start and stop times for the measurement as well as precise distance information.
        That problem would increase the measured time of the neutrinos' flight, in turn reducing the surprising faster-than-light effect.
        But the team also said they found a problem in the optical fibre connection between the GPS signal and the experiment's main clock - quite simply, a cable not quite fully plugged in.
        In contrast, the team said that effect would increase the neutrinos' apparent speed.
        The team had carried out their measurements for more than three years, exhaustively scrutinising their methods and analysis before announcing the results last year - so why had they not found these issues before?
        "It's sometimes very difficult to tell whether this thing could have been done before - because in a sense the answer is always yes," said Sergio Bertolucci, director of research at Cern.
        Prof Bertolucci outlined the complexity both of the experiment and the analysis of the results, stressing that the hunt for just these kinds of problems had been relentless.
        Seriously, I can't imagine making accurate measurements over such minuscule amounts of time.

        How High Oil Prices Help Us

        From Stuart Staniford:

        Maybe the pain at the pump will speed along our rethinking of our lifestyle.  One can hope.

        Chart of the Day

        Republican budget plans are bullshit:

        Whodathunkit?  Cutting taxes makes the deficit bigger?  Really?  There's a news flash. The Republican party is an embarrassment to the country.

        Saudis Blamed Speculators For High Oil Prices

        McClatchy (h/t nc links)  It is old, but a good reminder as oil prices spike:
        The Saudi concerns about speculation have a particular sheen of credibility. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest exporter of oil, serving dozens of clients in addition to the United States. As such, it carefully tracks the trends that drive oil prices, which send it billions of additional dollars with every increase.
        But in the cables, Saudi officials explain that they have two primary concerns about artificially high crude prices: that they'll dampen the long-term demand for oil and that the wide price swings typical of commodity speculation make it difficult for them to plan future oil field development. After that $147 a barrel peak in 2008, for example, prices plunged to $33 a barrel as the global financial crisis rocked the world. That was a stunning change in less than half a year.
        One cable recounts how Dr. Majid al Moneef, Saudi Arabia's OPEC governor, explained what he thought was the full impact of speculation to U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who in July 2009 was in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
        According to the cable, Moneef said Saudi Arabia suspected that "speculation represented approximately $40 of the overall oil price when it was at its height."
        Asked how to curb such speculation, Moneef suggested "improving transparency" — a reference to the fact that most oil trading is conducted outside regulated markets — and better communication among the world's commodity markets so that oil speculators can't hide the full extent of their trading positions.
        Moneef also suggested that the U.S. consider "position limits" — restrictions on how much of the oil market a company can control — something the CFTC is considering. But the proposal to prevent any single trader from accumulating more than 10 percent of the oil contracts being traded hasn't received final approval, and the CFTC also has yet to define what it considers excessive speculation.
        I really don't understand why there aren't position limits.  Why can the Saudis come up with better regulatory ideas than our own government?  I guess because they aren't bought off by Wall Street like our government is.  The commodity ETFs are flooding the markets with money.  They are being sold to lower end investors, so it is likely the smart money is moving to the other side of the trade.  Don't be surprised if there is a price bust in the not too distant future.  I would guess that all the warmongers pushing Iran talk are making the markets pretty jittery as well.

        Thursday, February 23, 2012


        National League MVP Ryan Braun's 50-game suspension was overturned Thursday by baseball arbitrator Shyam Das, the first time a baseball player successfully challenged a drug-related penalty in a grievance. The decision was announced Thursday by the Major League Baseball Players Association, one day before the 28-year-old outfielder was due to report to spring training with the Milwaukee Brewers.
        Braun tested positive in October for elevated testosterone, and ESPN revealed the positive test in December.
        "I am very pleased and relieved by today's decision," Braun said in a statement. "It is the first step in restoring my good name and reputation. We were able to get through this because I am innocent and the truth is on our side.
        "We provided complete cooperation throughout, despite the highly unusual circumstances. I have been an open book, willing to share details from every aspect of my life as part of this investigation, because I have nothing to hide. I have passed over 25 drug tests in my career, including at least three in the past year."
        Braun didn't argue evidence of tampering, didn't argue anything about science being wrong but argued protocol had not been followed. A second source confirmed to ESPN investigative reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada that Braun did not dispute the science but rather questioned chain of custody/collection procedure.
        How convenient.  Shorter Ryan Braun:  3 for 4 is pretty good, whether it's batting in a game or testing for steroids.  I was watching MLB Network, and Harold Reynolds was saying whoever leaked the positive test news ought to be prosecuted.  Just a guess, but I don't think anyone in the Commissioner's office wants that person anywhere near a witness stand.  My guess is this got leaked because somebody in the lab knew this was going to get buried, and was pissed off.  If it wasn't leaked, Braun would have appealed in secret, it would have gotten overturned, and nobody would have been the wiser.  If the source was prosecuted, baseball would be required to turn over testing records, and we would know who had tested positive and won an appeal already.

        Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe the source was an angry fan of another NL Central team.  I sure am.  But for me, everything points to the young, white reigning MVP getting let off because it would have given baseball a black eye.  How many people out there think Manny Ramirez would have won appeal under the same circumstances?

        Chart of the Day

        Via the Big Picture:

        My Fascination With Unhappy Authors

        I saw this 2009 essay on David Foster Wallace featured at The New Yorker.  He seems to be such an interesting person:

        The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is mediated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

        So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool. In the interview with McCaffery, he said, “It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.” He also said, “All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.”
        I can't help but be intrigued by him, in much the same way I'm intrigued by Salinger, although there are some differences.  Salinger published prolific numbers of short stories, but really only wrote one (fairly short) novel, before separating himself from society, while Wallace wrote a couple of massive novels along with a ton of essays, and never could separate himself from the world, except through suicide.  Both were apparently brilliant, but also seemed so unhappy and unfulfilled by what passes for life here on Earth.  They just seem disappointed that this is it.  When I read them, I am constantly wondering why they are saying what they are, and more significantly why they aren't saying what they aren't.

        News of the Obvious: Warfare Economics Edition

        The Reformed Broker highlights an economic study:
        The Institute for Economics and Peace is out with a monumental piece of research on how wars affect the US economy...
        The bottom line in their findings is that:
        • Public debt and levels of taxation increased during most conflicts;
        • Consumption as a percent of GDP decreased during most conflicts;
        • Investment as a percent of GDP decreased during most conflicts;
        • Inflation increased during or as a direct consequence of these conflicts.
        Sure, the Institute for Economics and Peace may be biased about the costs of war, but I think these observations are pretty obvious.  I think I probably could have guessed each of those answers without thinking too hard.

        Worker Morale And Parking

        Freakonomics radio:
        Dubner: Yeah, exactly. We lie on most surveys. But especially, 'How happy are you? And I'm the person who pays you and I need you to tell me how happy you are.' So sometimes you have to get creative. We actually put this question out to readers on our Freakonomics blog, and we got some good answers. Here's Damon Beaven, he's a software engineer in Lexington, Ky. He used to visit lots of different companies; here's how he sussed out worker morale in those places.
        Damon Beaven: I looked for the number of "Dilbert" comics, and that seemed to be inverse proportional to the level of morale. A lot of "Dilbert" comics seemed to be a passive aggressive way of employee complaining.
        Ryssdal: This is good. First of all, I love the Dilbert index, but also I love that we're crowdsourcing this segment now. That's awesome.
        Dubner: Of course. We've cut down here, I don't know if you knew. All right, try this one: This is from a management consultant named Tim Wadlow. He visited more than 100 manufacturing companies around the world. He came to believe that parking direction is an indicator of employee morale. Here's what Wadlow saw at the companies that had low morale.
        Tim Wadlow: A lot of these people seemed very anxious to leave work and often, if they got to work, they would back their cars into their parking spot. And it seemed like the moment they got to work, they were so dreading it that they were planning their escape.
        Ryssdal: I like that, that's great. Now, that doesn't apply here at Marketplace world headquarters because our parking lot is mandated nose-in parking only.
        This isn't a good sign for my current employer.  Pretty much everybody backs into their parking spaces.  Hopefully that is a leader-follower type of thing, and not just poor employee morale.  I know I did it just to blend in.  Anyway, I like the Dilbert quotient. 

        Another thing to note: if an employee has a sign posted in his or her cubicle which reads, "I LOVE A CHALLENGE," said person probably doesn't love a challenge.  Said person probably is quoting from a classic email list of workplace euphemisms, which lists "I love a challenge" as the replacement for "This job sucks."  That's my helpful hint of the day.  I don't think that it will be a problem.

        Best Simpsons Moment Ever

        Grantland writers try to decide, but the YouTube censors keep them from finding the best clips.  This one they had is a pretty good one, but definitely not the best:

        Raising The Flag On Mt. Suribachi

        Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, by Joe Rosenthal / The Associated Press

        Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is a historic photograph taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal. It depicts five United States Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman raising the flag of the United States atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
        The photograph was extremely popular, being reprinted in thousands of publications. Later, it became the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication, and came to be regarded in the United States as one of the most significant and recognizable images of the war, and possibly the most reproduced photograph of all time.
        Of the six men depicted in the picture, three (Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, and Michael Strank) were killed during the battle; the three survivors (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) became celebrities upon their identification in the photo. The picture was later used by Felix de Weldon to sculpt the Marine Corps War Memorial, located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C.
        Nothing to add, but some Johnny Cash:

        The End Of The American Century

        Andrew Bacevich is one of my favorite public intellectuals.  Here's why:
        Among the devices I've employed to do that is the concept of an "American Century." That evocative phrase entered the American lexicon back in February 1941, the title of an essay appearing in Life magazine under the byline of the publishing mogul Henry Luce. In advancing the case for U.S. entry into World War II, the essay made quite a splash, as Luce intended. Yet the rush of events soon transformed "American Century" into much more than a bit of journalistic ephemera. It became a summons, an aspiration, a claim, a calling, and ultimately the shorthand identifier attached to an entire era. By the time World War II ended in 1945, the United States had indeed ascended—as Luce had forecast and perhaps as fate had intended all along—to a position of global primacy. Here was the American Century made manifest.
        I love Luce's essay. I love its preposterous grandiosity. I delight in Luce's utter certainty that what we have is what they want, need, and, by gum, are going to get. "What can we say and foresee about an American Century?" he asks. "It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills." I love, too, the way Luce guilelessly conjoins politics and religion, the son of Protestant missionaries depicting the United States as the Redeemer Nation. "We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world." How to do that? To Luce it was quite simple. He pronounced it America's duty "as the most powerful and vital nation in the world ... to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Would God or Providence have it any other way?
        Luce's essay manages to be utterly ludicrous and yet deeply moving. Above all, this canonical assertion of singularity—identifying God's new Chosen People—is profoundly American. (Of course, I love Life in general. Everyone has a vice. Mine is collecting old copies of Luce's most imaginative and influential creation—and, yes, my collection includes the issue of February 17, 1941.)
        Alas, the bracing future that Luce confidently foresaw back in 1941 has in our own day slipped into the past. If an American Century ever did exist, it's now ended. History is moving on—although thus far most Americans appear loath to concede that fact.
        Amen.  The funny part is, Bacevich is extremely conservative and also pretty darn religious, and yet he isn't drinking the Republican Kool-aid.  This makes him well worth reading.  He should be studied by the Republican candidates, but the party has turned into a cult, so alternative views are thrown out.  It's the party's loss, and the country's.

        Are We Dumb Enough To Attack Iran?

        James Fallows:
        Anyone following the news already knows this, but for the record: it's very good to see the NYT running, on page one and above the fold*, an analysis of the reckless agitation for a preemptive military strike on Iran, and of the risks this talk holds for all involved. Lots of people wrote these analyses, after the fact, about the panicky rush-toward-war mentality that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is certainly better to start talking about the problem now, when "hey, wait a minute" thoughts can make a difference.

        Peter Beinart, in the Daily Beast, weighs in to the same effect.

        I am only in internet range for a moment, so no opportunity to lard this up with references, links, and sub-arguments. Therefore I'll make just this blunt point: this war talk is dangerous, it can lead to "Guns of August" consequences, and it is particularly dangerous to have Republican candidates decide that outdoing one another in warlike talk about Iran is good for them or the country.
        I sure as hell hope that people aren't stupid enough to believe all the usual suspects claiming Iran is an existential threat to the United States.  Give me a damn break.  That country would get blown to hell if they ever screwed with Israel, and that would be by the Israelis, we wouldn't even have to do a thing.  The idea that Iran is any threat to us is just plain stupid. 

        On a second note, there has been a lot of talk about how high gas prices might hurt Obama's reelection chances.  Republicans have jumped on the bandwagon on this, as anyone who notices their utter stupidity would expect.  The thing is, what's causing the high oil prices?  This, maybe:
        The ostensible reason for the climb of crude prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where contracts for future delivery of oil are traded, is growing fear of a military confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
        Other factors driving up prices include last month’s bankruptcy of Petroplus, a big European refiner, and a recent BP refinery fire in Washington state that’s temporarily crimped gasoline supply along the West Coast; gas now costs an average of $4.04 a gallon in California.
        While tension over Iran has ratcheted up over the last few months, the price of oil and gasoline has leaped far beyond conventional supply and demand variables. Financial speculators are piling into the market, torquing the Iranian fear factor into ever-higher prices.
        And if a Republican is elected, do you expect the likelihood of war with Iran to increase?  I do.  So Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney and that fat guy are all going to campaign on the idea that electing them will lower oil prices, when in fact, electing them will probably (rightfully) make the oil market even more jittery.  WTF?  Are Americans as dumb as we seem?  I'm guessing yes.

        Wednesday, February 22, 2012

        Going To Ash Wednesday Mass

        Even though it isn't a Holy Day of Obligation, I'll probably go to Mass tonight for two reasons.  One is to get my Lenten guilt on, the other is to see how big the crowd is.  It amazes me that this Mass gets bigger crowds than almost any non-Easter or Christmas Mass.  Look for me in the traditional Ash Wednesday newspaper photo tomorrow.

        Update: I won't be in the photo tomorrow.  I was running late, and when I got done feeding, Mass had already started.  So I got an extra helping of Lenten guilt on.  Luckily, since it isn't a Holy Day of Obligation, not going to Mass tonight won't be the reason I go to Hell.

        Farmland Price Chart

        At Big Picture Agriculture (h/t nc links):

        Dirt And Stone

        Well, REALLY GOOD dirt:
        Drive an hour northwest from Toronto along Highway 10 and you come across some of the best farmland in Canada. Folks here call it the Garden of Eden. Atop a 15,000-acre plateau sits a layer of dark dirt so perfectly balanced with clay and nutrients that it breaks apart in your hand like potting soil. "The stuff is like butter," says a local potato farmer, David Vander Zaag, who sells his spuds to Frito-Lay. Even better: Below the rich topsoil lies a limestone deposit some 200 feet thick, creating an ideal natural drainage system. It once rained nine inches in a day, says Vander Zaag, and he didn't lose a single potato from his crop. It's that limestone, though, that has brought the farming town of Melancthon, Ontario, pop. 2,900, the fight of its life. Last spring a Canadian firm called the Highland Cos. submitted an application to turn 2,300 acres of area farmland into one of the top-producing rock quarries in Canada. One of the principal owners of Highland is the Baupost Group, a $24 billion hedge fund based in Boston and run by a secretive investor named Seth Klarman.
        Highland's quarry proposal has ignited a firestorm of controversy in Melancthon. Residents have myriad concerns -- from increased truck traffic to the impact on the water supply to the unsightliness of an enormous pit mine in the distance. The farmers feel betrayed by Highland chief John Lowndes, an entrepreneur who grew up in the area. Beginning in 2006, Lowndes spent two years and some $50 million amassing 6,500 acres from some of the area's biggest farming families. Several farmers claim that he approached them by saying that he wanted to build the region's largest potato-farming operation -- which he did -- but never mentioned a quarry. Only after he owned the land, the farmers claim, did Lowndes reveal that Baupost and Highland had other plans. Lowndes declined to speak to Fortune.
        The farmers say Lowndes breached their trust. But they have identified a second, bigger target for their frustration: Klarman. Why, they wonder, does an American hedge fund manager they'd never heard of until recently want to spoil their lush land? "Yeah, there's something I'd like to tell him: Come up here," Vander Zaag says, overlooking his 1,000 snow-covered acres in late December. "I want him to see the land. To see what he's doing to it."
        The rest of the article is about Seth Klarman.  He is pretty interesting, but I'd like to hear more about the Garden of Eden, and the giant limestone deposit underneath it.

        Do You Believe In Miracles?

        February 22, 1980:
         Miracle on Ice: In Lake Placid, New York, the United States hockey team defeats the Soviet Union hockey team 4-3.
        The "Miracle on Ice" is the name in American popular culture for a medal-round men's ice hockey game during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, on Friday, February 22. The United States team, made up of amateur and collegiate players and led by coach Herb Brooks, defeated the Soviet team, who were considered to be the best ice hockey team in the world at the time.
        Team USA went on to win the gold medal by winning its last match over Finland. The Soviet Union took the silver medal by beating Sweden in its final game.

        If the U.S. didn't win that game, what would the bubble hockey game in America's bars have featured?

        Sharing The Marbles

        Jonathan Haidt details a study on sharing between 3 year olds (h/t Mark Thoma):
        This is the scenario created by developmental psychologists Michael Tomasello and Katharina Hamann at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. In this situation, where both kids have to pull for anyone to get marbles, the children equalize the wealth about 75% of the time, with hardly any conflict. Either the “rich” kid hands over one marble spontaneously or else the “poor” kid asks for one and his request is immediately granted.
        But an experiment must have more than one condition, and the experimenters ran two other versions of the study to isolate the active ingredient. What had led to such high rates of sharing, given that three-year-olds are often quite reluctant to share new treasures? Children who took part in the second condition found that the marbles were already waiting for them in the cups when they first walked up to the machine. No work required.
        In this condition, it’s finders-keepers. If you have the bad luck to place yourself  in front of the cup with one marble, then your partner is very unlikely to offer you one, you’re unlikely to ask, and if you do ask, you’re likely to be rebuffed. Only about 5% of the time did any marbles change hands.
        But here’s the most amazing condition — a slight variation that reveals a deep truth. Things start off just as in the first condition: you and your partner see two ropes hanging out of the machine. But as you start tugging it becomes clear that they are two separate ropes. You pull yours, and one marble rolls out into your cup. Your partner pulls the other rope, and is rewarded with three marbles. What happens next?

        More On The Heavy Press Program

        At Boing Boing (original post here):
        Press-forging minimizes waste metal compared to machining, and by realigning the metal’s internal crystalline structure along natural lines of stress, results in much stronger parts than casting would produce. Photos: Library of Congress That’s a piece of titanium about 15 feet wide and a foot thick, in its raw state and after being forged in a single stroke between the Fifty’s hardened steel dies under 100 million pounds of pressure.
        Also, more on Mesta, the company which built the Fifty:
        Lastly is a legacy of absence. Today, America lacks the ability to make anything like the Heavy Press Program machines. The Fifty, to pick the one I’m most familiar with, was made by the Mesta Machine Company of West Homestead, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. Mesta built the machines that built Steeltown — the furnaces, the blowers, the rolling mills and the forges. Mech-heads will want to check out this digitized Mesta brochure of 1919, a kind of Whole Earth Catalog for the iron industry. The less avid can just enjoy the picture below, from the same era. Then imagine what Mesta Machine could do by 1950, with three decades worth of further innovation under its belt.
        The company went under in the mid-1980s. It is not unambiguously bad that it and the rest of American ultra-heavy manufacturing are gone. But it’s not unambiguously good, either. Conventional wisdom would say that the industry went to less-developed nations, freeing American resources for higher-tech pursuits. In fact, the only companies today capable of producing Heavy Press-size equipment are in the backwaters known as Germany and Japan, with companies in Russia, Korea, and China rapidly catching up and the UK actively rebuilding its top firm, Sheffield Forgemasters, through cheap government loans. Just last year four Japanese companies joined forces to build a new 50,000-ton press for the aerospace and power industries, and while I was working on this piece China Erzhong, a nationalized conglomerate, announced that it will build an 80,000-ton press — the biggest ever — to support its nascent aerospace industry.
        The story also lists all 10 of the forging presses and extrusion presses built under the program.

        The Optimism Bias

        Maria Popova highlights 7 interesting books by TED 2012 speakers (h/t Ritholtz).  The Optimism Bias caught my attention:
        The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances, and one of 7 essential books on optimism. Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picture-like qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attacks, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.
        If humans are naturally wired toward optimism, what does that say about pessimists like myself?  Actually, I must not be too pessimistic, I get out of bed each morning.  Also, I look forward to spring planting every year, and that requires some optimism.

        Beef Vs. Oil?

        Dan Piller:
        Retail gasoline prices have reached $4 per gallon on the east and west coasts and predictions abound that the rest of the country will suffer the same pain in a few weeks. Iowa’s prices remain in the $3.40 per gallon average.
        Meanwhile cattle prices continue their flight into the market stratosphere, with slaughter-ready cattle up 18 cents per hundredweight to $128.90 and younger feeder cattle up 30 cents per hundredweight to $158.60. The high prices are caused by the smallest herd in the U.S. since the early 1950s and a surge in export demand.
        Both cattle prices are up 25 percent from late 2011. Consumers who have seen hamburger prices rise by 20 percent at the supermarket last year and choice cuts up 10 percent or more are likely in for more increases and traders worry where the demand will begin to fade.
        “The problem of consumer resistance to high beef prices will be partially influenced by ever rising retail gasoline prices. Having both prices work higher is not a good thing for beef,” trader Dennis Smith of Archer Financial Services in Chicago wrote Tuesday at the close of trading on the Chicago Board of Trade.
        Jeff French at Top Third Ag Marketing in Chicago said “the cattle trade remains very concerned that high gas prices could kill domestic beef demand. The consumer does not have to eat beef but they do have to put gas in their vehicles to get to work.”
        The large breeding stock selloff in Texas is going to continue impacting beef prices, at least until prices cause cattle numbers to increase.  Higher prices at the supermarket aren't good for cattlemen in the long term, but if somebody has fats to sell right now, things look pretty good.  But with consumers digging deeper for gas, something's got to give.

        Tuesday, February 21, 2012


        At Wired:

        Tsuneaki Hiramatsu knew something was up. It was the end of December and his amateur photo blog had suddenly jumped from a handful of visitors a day to thousands. The telephone customer service agent and hobby photographer was surprised.
        “I was like, what happened?!” says the 35-year-old Hiramatsu, who lives in Okayama City, Japan.
        What happened was that Hiramatsu’s long exposure and time-lapse photos of Japanese fireflies had started to go viral. Someone, somewhere, had re-posted his photos and they were spreading across the blogosphere like wildfire.
        Pretty awesome.  Makes it seem like summer already.  The details of the photos going viral are there.

        Chart of the Day

        Stuart Staniford looks at farmland prices and makes some good points:

        Ignore the black (nominal) line and focus on the green inflation-adjusted one.  Farmers were on average losing money for decades following the peak of the 1970s, and so farms lost most of their value in the eighties and only reached the 1979 value again in the late aughties.  After a 22% increase in 2011, they are now well above it.

        Overall, I take this data as confirmation of the views I expressed in the Fallacy of Reversibility a few years ago: that peak oil would tend to strengthen the industrial agricultural system by improving farm profitability via the biofuel channel.  As the plateau in crude+condensate production has continued since 2005, more data has accumulated and indeed farmers are making a lot more money than they were before then:
        The year 2011 may go down in the annals of U.S. agriculture as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. Undergirding the huge upward movement in farmland values was an unusual shift up in agricultural prices across the board. Not only did major crop prices move higher, but key livestock and dairy prices were higher as well. Corn, soybean, and wheat prices averaged 57 percent, 26 percent, and 45 percent, respectively, higher in 2011 than in 2010. Milk, hog, and beef cattle prices rose 23 percent, 21 percent and 21 percent, respectively, although producers faced costlier feed as well. (These figures were computed from U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] price data.) According to the most recent USDA estimates, these agricultural price increases helped set a nominal record for net farm income of $98.1 billion in 2011, a 24 percent jump above 2010 levels.
        Of course there are risks in this.  Farmers will be taking out loans, signing leases on acreage, and buying equipment based on these higher valuations.  That means either food prices have to stay high - or go yet higher - or farmers will suffer.  There is a risk of bubble dynamics developing if farmers and investors get used to rising prices and start to feel that they are bound to continue.  And if food prices go higher, that will be destabilizing to some sectors of society, particularly poor urban neighborhoods.  That's what we saw in the Arab Spring last year - and while that may end up being beneficial to the societies in question (I think the jury is still out on that), there is probably only so much of that kind of thing that the world can cope with at any given time.
        He makes a number of important points that I think need to be emphasized.  One, while farming has been great the last few years, it was terrible not that long ago.  Two, ethanol production has had a good bit to do with this, and I'm not sure that is sustainable.  Three, farmers are counting on continuing high prices to cover cash rent and land payments, and if that dynamic changes, there may be serious trouble.  Finally, consumers are seeing rapidly increasing food prices, and that isn't going to be sustainable, economically or politically.

        Right now, farmers are convinced that Chinese demand will justify high prices.  I'm not so sure about that.  The Chinese economy doesn't look nearly as stable to me as some folks claim.  Then again, what do I know, I haven't been west of I-35 since I was four years old.

        The Last Carolina Parakeet Dies

        February 21, 1918:
        The last Carolina Parakeet dies in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.  The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)[Note 1] was the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. It was found from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, and lived in old forests along rivers. It was the only species at the time classified in the genus Conuropsis. It was called puzzi la née ("head of yellow") or pot pot chee by the Seminole and kelinky in Chikasha. The last wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was the male specimen "Incas," who died within a year of his mate "Lady Jane." Coincidentally, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last Passenger Pigeon, "Martha," had died nearly four years prior. It was not until 1939, however, that it was determined that the Carolina Parakeet had become extinct.
        I hadn't heard of the Carolina Parakeet, but I did think that the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo.  I guess I was right about that.  I'm not sure if that meant the Cincinnati Zoo had some extremely rare specimens, they didn't do a very good job of breeding them, or both.

        Will Capitalism's Biggest Backers Hurt Their Own Cause?

        Thomas Edsall looks at the threat income inequality and lack of career opportunity poses to market capitalism (h/t Mark Thoma):
        Katz told The Times that
        the current trajectory of technological change and globalization leads to a polarization of labor demand in rich countries increasing demand for high-end, college plus jobs using analytical skills and creativity, hollowing out traditional middle skill jobs (bottom half of college, top half of non-college) like middle management, clerical, and manufacturing production, and expanding demand for in-person services.
        The United States could moderate these trends and achieve some broadly shared prosperity with increased job training, granting workers more leverage in wage bargaining, infrastructure spending, progressive taxation and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, according to Katz. “There are international examples of moving in the direction of Scandinavia,” he notes, adding that he is hopeful “about the potential for a vibrant market economy with a strong role for government generating shared prosperity. But not for unfettered 19th century capitalism.”
        Sachs, in turn, wrote The Times that in his view, “a social democracy — capitalism plus a hefty dose of state support for families, education, early childhood development, higher education, and active labor market policies — can still do the job. The performance of northern Europe, around 120 million people including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, provides a good illustration of this success.” Social Democracy and Europeans’ aggressive use of government to lessen class disparities is just what Romney and most other Republicans are campaigning against.
        In the end, if Republicans and their free market backers can't come up with a way to decrease inequality and provide people with a living wage, they're going to see trends they really don't like.  They need to quit pretending we're on a sustainable path and start coming up with ideas other than lower taxes on wealthy folks and less regulations on corporations.  Those ideas are going to widen inequality, not help the situation.  Simple ideas may appeal to the rubes for awhile, but eventually, they're going to figure out Republicans' policies are causing most of the pain.

        What Is A Lenticular Cloud?

        Alex Balk fills us in:

        "Lenticular, or lens-shaped, clouds form near mountains, where the rising air condenses to form the clouds, and the wind gives them their shape." There is an absolutely amazing one that appears 11 seconds into this time-lapse video of the southwest by photographer Tony Rowell. You should stick around for the rest, it's all pretty great (except for an appearance by the stupid moon), but at least check out that cloud.
        It is pretty cool.

        Happy Mardi Gras

        Here's a Fat Tuesday delicacy for you:
        Back when refrigeration wasn't up to modern standards, Fat Tuesday was a time to clear your house of indulgent foods. This led to lots of rich recipes, from Shrove pancakes to King Cake. In Sweden, the specialty is semlor. A group of people in Portland, Ore., are keeping that dish — and a few other Swedish traditions — alive.
        Picture soft, sweet rolls, sort of like brioche, piled with creamy almond filling. Now picture them being made by a room full of young, mostly blond children speaking Swedish.
        Eat and drink up.  Ash Wednesday is coming to rain on the parade.  Come Thursday, there'll be the stock newspaper picture of Catholics with ashes on their foreheads, but by Friday, there'll be some fish fries.  You win some, you lose some.

        McDonalds Pushes For Gestation Crate Phase Out

        If any farmers are looking to expand sow operations and are considering gestation crates, I think they are stubborn fools:
        The effect on the industry will be huge, because in the world of big-time meat supply, there are two kinds of producers: those who sell to McDonald’s and those wish they could. When, in 1999, McDonald’s requested that its suppliers give caged hens 72 square inches of space instead of 48 (72 is still smaller than a piece of 8×10 paper), not a single factory-farmed hen in the country was being raised with 72 inches of space. Yet the entire supply chain was converted in just 18 months, and 72 square inches is now effectively the industry standard.

        Switching from gestation crates to group sow housing is more labor- and capital-intensive, requiring changes that will take money and time, so an 18-month turnaround is unrealistic. But it’s likely that within a few years gestation crates will be history for most pork producers, and that’s a major victory.
        The struggle against gestation crates in this country is a recent one. In 2002 the Humane Society of the United States worked to enact a ban in Florida, and since then has achieved the same in seven additional states. (Legislation is pending in eight more.) In the meantime, Whole Foods and Chipotle have banned the use of gestation crates in their supply chains. But this move by McDonald’s — the fourth-largest employer in the world, and one of the biggest pork buyers in the country — is to date the most significant step in that direction.
        Once McDonalds and Walmart push for changes, they are going to happen.  It may tick some farmers off that people are telling them what to do, but consumers are going to win.  Anybody fighting the tide is in for a world of hurt down the road.  The HSUS has a lot of momentum, and the vast majority of people in town don't understand why animals would need to be confined in such small spaces.  They aren't going to believe most of the arguments they hear to justify those conditions.

        Why Did Jews Become More Urban?

        Steven Landsburg (h/t Ritholtz):
        So, what’s different about the Jews? First, Botticini and Eckstein explain why other groups didn’t leave the land. The temptation was certainly there: Skilled urban jobs have always paid better than farming, and that’s been true since the time of Christ. But those jobs require literacy, which requires education—and for hundreds of years, education was so expensive that it proved a poor investment despite those higher wages. (Botticini and Eckstein have data on ancient teachers’ salaries to back this up.) So, rational economic calculus dictated that pretty much everyone should have stayed on the farms.
        But the Jews (like everyone else) were beholden not just to economic rationalism, but also to the dictates of their religion. And the Jewish religion, unique among religions of the early Middle Ages, imposed an obligation to be literate. To be a good Jew you had to read the Torah four times a week at services: twice on the Sabbath, and once every Monday and Thursday morning. And to be a good Jewish parent you had to educate your children so that they could do the same.
        The literacy obligation had two effects. First, it meant that Jews were uniquely qualified to enter higher-paying urban occupations. Of course, anyone else who wanted to could have gone to school and become a moneylender, but school was so expensive that it made no sense. Jews, who had to go to school for religious reasons, naturally sought to earn at least some return on their investment. Only many centuries later did education start to make sense economically, and by then the Jews had become well established in banking, trade, and so forth.
        The second effect of the literacy obligation was to drive a lot of Jews away from their religion. Botticini and Eckstein admit that they have little direct evidence for this conclusion, but there’s a lot of indirect evidence. First, it makes sense: People do tend to run away from expensive obligations. Second, we can look at population trends: While the world population increased from 50 million in the sixth century to 285 million in the 18th, the population of Jews remained almost fixed at just a little over a million.
        It is an interesting theory.  I don't really have any explanation for the statistics myself.

        Monday, February 20, 2012

        Ethanol Goes Into The Red

        Des Moines Register:
        Figures from Iowa State University Extension confirmed that Iowa’s ethanol plants operated in the red during January, to the tune of 11 cents per gallon.
        That comes after operating margins of 19 cents per gallon in December, 69 cents in November, 42 cents in October and 34 cents in September.
        The first quarter is typically a tough period for ethanol as gasoline demand falls, but ethanol producers had feared a more severe downturn than usual this year due to continued high prices for corn and the loss of the 45-cents per gallon federal tax credit on Jan. 1.
        The ISU figures showed ethanol plants paid an average of $6.19 per bushel for corn. Two years earlier the average price was $3.60 per bushel.
        U.S. Department of Energy figures showed record amounts of ethanol in storage,  courtesy of a late-2011 demand surge from oil companies and distributors eager to take advantage of the last of the tax break. At the same time demand for motor gasoline fell sharply in January as prices began to rise.
        Ethanol producers normally like to sell their product about 45 cents per gallon discounted to the wholesale unleaded gasoline price. But most recent futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade show ethanol futures trading at a discount of 85 cents per gallon under the wholesale gasoline price of $3.05 per gallon.
        $0.45 a gallon would have helped them out substantially.  All the experts are predicting high oil prices, so we'll see how competitive ethanol really is.  I'm guessing not as competitive as backers claim.

        The Real Defense Budget?

        Steve Clemons posts this chart:

        Damn near a trillion bucks.  That's mind-boggling.  Well, when you figure it up over 313 million people, that's only a little over $3,000 a year.  So what, about 8% of the median gross income of an adult is equal to their share of the defense budget? 

        Weekend Update

        A few of the highlights:

        The Bacon Cult

        It’s sort of a universally accepted fact that bacon is one of the best foods known to mankind. No other food garners quite the same level of fanatic devotion and adoration. As a result, it’s been incorporated into all sorts of recipes in an effort to create the ultimate bacon experience. I am guilty of adding more bacon than required whenever it’s called for because, it’s bacon, why not? I thought I was really living on the edge when I bought a bacon chocolate bar. This was at a little specialty shop in Boston and I walked out clutching my treasure, ready to fend off the masses who would obviously kill to have this for themselves.
        I sat down on a bench and unwrapped my treasure thinking of all those shows you see on TV with people savoring weird foods. I decided to follow their lead and started with the aroma. It smelled like chocolate, which, although a wonderful smell, did not hold the promise of bacon. Then I cracked a piece off and looked at what I was about to eat. I saw teeny tiny little bits of bacon. Teeny. Tiny. This did not make me happy but I popped a piece into my mouth anyway. The chocolate was as good as it smelled, but the bacon was barely noticeable. I had just paid nearly $10 for a chocolate bar that did not live up to my expecations. The bacon was a lie.
        Months later, I purchased a Talking Bacon plush from ThinkGeek. You press his side and he says “I’m bacon.” It was what my daughter wanted for her birthday more than anything. Yes, I was equal parts thrilled and scared. Bacon plush has been a big hit with every child in our neighborhood. He went in for show and tell and I had half a dozen parents contact me to find out where they could get him. Talking Bacon is the man!
        I'm a member of this cult.  Bacon is definitely one of the greatest foods in existence.

        Goat Accents

        From LiveScience:
        Goats don't have their own language, but they do seem able to pick up accents from one another, scientists found in a study of calls made by young goats.
        The researchers say their results could have implications for our understanding of the evolution of vocal learning, or as it is known in humans, speech.  
        The ability to learn a range of sounds and modify them according to the environment was thought to be reserved to a handful of animals, including some birds, whales, dolphins, bats, elephants, and the most extreme example, us.
        The goat calls reveal these animals are capable of a rudimentary form of vocal learning, and they hint that similar abilities may have gone undetected elsewhere, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London.
        I'm trying to imagine goats with a Brooklyn accent (rude) or a Minnesota accent (nice).  If there is a goat-style Southern accent, it would probably make me think those goats were slower than the rest of the goats.

        The Barber of Seville

        February 20, 1816:
         Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville premieres at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
        My knowledge of culture comes way too much from The Simpsons and Looney Tunes.

        The Knuckleball Project

        The New Yorker, in 2004:

        The knuckleball—also known as the knuckler, the fingernail ball, the fingertip ball, the flutterball, the floater, the dancer, the bug, the butterfly ball, the moth, the bubble, the ghostball, the horseshoe, the dry spitter, and, curiously, the spinner—has been around, in one form or another, for nearly as long as professional baseball itself, though for much of that time it has been regarded with suspicion. Spinning is precisely what it does not do. In fact, a lack of spin is about the only identifying characteristic of the pitch. There is no right way to hold a knuckleball when throwing it (seams, no seams; two fingers, three), and no predictable flight pattern once it leaves the hand. “Butterflies aren’t bullets,” the longtime knuckleballer Charlie Hough once said. “You can’t aim ’em—you just let ’em go.” The pitch shakes, shimmies, wobbles, drops—it knuckles, as they say. Which is doubly confusing, because the term “knuckleball” is itself a kind of misnomer, a holdover from the pitch’s largely forgotten infancy.

        Depending on how you look at it, the first knuckleball was probably thrown in the late nineteenth century, by a bricklayer named Toad Ramsey, or shortly after the turn of the century, by the famous junkball ace Eddie Cicotte. Ramsey, who pitched for Louisville in the old American Association, severed a tendon in his left middle finger (that was his pitching hand), and thereafter adopted a peculiar grip, in which he curled his middle fingertip on the top of the ball, exposing the knuckle. His newfangled pitch probably more closely resembled what is now known as a knuckle curve—a pitch that, despite the name, bears little in-flight resemblance to Wakefield’s floater. (The knuckle curve, thrown today by the Yankees’ Mike Mussina, is released with topspin, or overspin, and so does not even belong in the flutterball’s extended low-spin family.)
        Tim Wakefield has called it quits, but the pitch lives on.  Long live the knuckleball. It is a baffling and beautiful pitch.

        The Calvinists of Sioux County, Iowa

        Des Moines Register:
        Dutch people first settled Sioux County in 1870, when a group from Pella led by Henry Hospers staked out land around what is now Orange City. Pella’s Dutch community was outgrowing Marion County, and Hospers had traveled to Cherokee a few months earlier. He was stunned by the deep, rich soil, the shimmering waters of the Little Sioux River, and the “green plateaus of limitless prairies, as yet untouched by the hand of civilization,” the Sioux County Herald recounted in 1879.
        Hospers’ report back in Pella was glowing — perhaps a bit too much so. Local newspapers printed the details, and by the time he returned to the land office in Sioux City, speculators had bought up most of the property around Cherokee.
        Unfazed, he and his group drove wagons to the southeast corner of Sioux County. They laid their claim, and ever entrepreneurial, tried to barter with some American Indians for their ponies. Back at the land office, Hospers signed for homesteads on behalf of 182 residents of Pella. Now, 142 years later, Orange City is home to 6,000 people and holds a tulip festival that attracts 100,000 visitors each year.
        Pella had been settled by religious dissidents who left the Netherlands over a theological rift, and that thoroughgoing concern with doctrine was true of Hospers and the families who settled Sioux County in 1870. The emphasis survives to this day. The county is home to a thriving system of Christian schools, including Western Christian in Hull and Unity Christian in Orange City. Two Reformed Christian liberal arts colleges are here as well, Dordt in Sioux Center and Northwestern in Orange City.
        “We are probably the most Reformed county in the nation, just in terms of church membership,” said Carl Zylstra, a former pastor in Orange City and president of Dordt College for the past 16 years.
        Ethnic homogeneity has its pluses and minuses.  God's Country in west central Ohio sounds very similar to Sious County, except for being German Catholic and not Dutch Reformed.  I would guess it is being happy to live there, and not the religion that makes folks want to reinvest in their communities.  They figure that if they provide economic opportunities for their children, the children will remain nearby.  Livestock production was one of those ways to allow their children to make a living on the farm.

        Sunday, February 19, 2012

        NASA Photo of the Day

        February 15:

        Merope's Reflection Nebula
        Image Credit & Copyright: Leonardo Orazi
        Explanation: Reflection nebulas reflect light from a nearby star. Many small carbon grains in the nebula reflect the light. The blue color typical of reflection nebula is caused by blue light being more efficiently scattered by the carbon dust than red light. The brightness of the nebula is determined by the size and density of the reflecting grains, and by the color and brightness of the neighboring star(s). NGC 1435, pictured above, surrounds Merope (23 Tau), one of the brightest stars in the Pleiades (M45). The Pleiades nebulosity is caused by a chance encounter between an open cluster of stars and a dusty molecular cloud.

        The Acquittal of Daniel Sickles

        February 19, 1859:
         Daniel E. Sickles, a New York Congressman, is acquitted of murder on grounds of temporary insanity. This is the 1st time this defense is successfully used in the United States. Sickles's career was replete with personal scandals. He was censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers. He also reportedly took her to England, leaving his pregnant wife at home, and presented White to Queen Victoria, using as her alias the surname of a New York political opponent. In 1859, in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, Sickles shot and killed the district attorney of the District of Columbia Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key, whom Sickles had discovered was having an affair with his young wife.
        Sickles was charged with murder. He secured several leading politicians as his defense attorneys, among them Edwin M. Stanton, later to become Secretary of War, and Chief Counsel James T. Brady, like Sickles a product of Tammany Hall. In a historic strategy, Sickles pled insanity—the first use of a temporary insanity defense in the United States.Before the jury, Stanton argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife's infidelity, and thus was out of his mind when he shot Key. The papers soon trumpeted that Sickles was a hero for saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key.
        The graphic confession that Sickles had obtained from Teresa on Saturday proved pivotal. It was ruled inadmissible in court, but, leaked by Sickles to the press, was printed in the newspapers in full. The defense strategy ensured that the trial was the main topic of conversations in Washington for weeks, and the extensive coverage of national papers was sympathetic to Sickles. In the courtroom, the strategy brought drama, controversy, and, ultimately, an acquittal for Sickles.
        Sickles then publicly forgave Teresa, and "withdrew" briefly from public life, although he did not resign from Congress. The public was apparently more outraged by Sickles' forgiveness and reconciliation with his wife, whom he had publicly branded a harlot and adulteress, than by the murder and his unorthodox acquittal.
        See, they had trials of the Century before there was CourtTV.  Sex has sold for a long time.  And temporary insanity as a defense strategy has also been around for a while.