Saturday, June 9, 2012

Business Is Overregulated?

Fortune magazine on the MF Global meltdown:
For more than six months while MF Global insiders were debating the wisdom of Corzine's European bet, it remained a secret to the firm's regulators and investors.
Oversight in the $648-trillion derivatives industry is ineffectual, balkanized and byzantine. That was especially true at MF Global, where at least six different entities shared responsibility. Because the firm serviced both 36,000 futures customers and 318 securities accounts, it had two government regulators: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But both agencies delegated day-to-day oversight to industry-funded "self-regulators": on the futures side, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the National Futures Association; for the broker-dealer, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
Into early 2011, none of these overseers knew about Corzine's RTM trades, although—at least in one case—it wasn't because they didn't ask. Concerned about growing risk from the Euro debt crisis, FINRA had called individual securities dealers in September 2010 to ask how much sovereign debt they held. MF Global officials responded "none," say FINRA officials, even though Corzine had already acquired his first positions. In congressional testimony, FINRA's chairman later gently characterized this as "the lack of a complete response."
Until the spring of 2011, MF Global also revealed virtually nothing about the bet in its public disclosures. The first explicit mention came in a May 2011 annual SEC filing, which described the holding.
After noticing the reference, FINRA concluded that MF Global, under SEC rules, needed to set aside more capital to protect itself. It hadn't set aside an extra penny, treating the sovereign RTMs as though they posed no more risk than U.S. Treasury bills.
MF Global protested mightily, insisting that the positions required no extra capital because they posed zero risk.
What a freaking mess.  We need better regulation, not less regulation.  Especially in finance.

Rapid City Flash Flood

All Things Considered:
Survivors say the wall of water was like a tsunami that destroyed nearly everything in its path as it roared through a Black Hills canyon and into town. The flash flood that hit Rapid City, S.D., on June 9, 1972, was one of the worst floods in U.S. history. It killed 238 people and damaged or washed away more than 1,300 homes.
On Saturday, the city will read the names of those who died and reflect on how the flood changed the way the city and others towns across the country built themselves.On that night 40 years ago, a huge thunderstorm parked over the Black Hills west of Rapid City and dropped as much as 15 inches of rain in some places. The surge of water that barreled down Rapid Creek took with it almost everything it encountered, including houses, cars and people.
Rita Rosales, who was 20 at the time, says it was a terrifying scene.
"There was so many [people] in trees and screaming and crying and the sparks were flying from electric wires, houses were on fire, it was just — it was hell," she says.
That is just stupefying.  15 inches?  That is a fairly large disaster I'd never heard of.

Secretariat Wins The Triple Crown

June 9, 1973:
Only four horses competed against Secretariat for the June 9, 1973, running of the Belmont Stakes, including Sham, who had finished second in both the Derby and Preakness, along with three other horses thought to have little chance by the bettors: Twice A Prince, My Gallant, and Private Smiles. With so few horses in the race, and with Secretariat expected to win, no "show" bets were taken. Secretariat was sent off as a 1–10 favorite to win as a $2.20 payout on a $2 ticket and paid at 20 cents more – $2.40 – to place. Before a crowd of 67,605, Secretariat and Sham set a fast early pace, opening ten lengths on the rest of the field. After the six-furlong mark, Sham began to tire, ultimately finishing last. Secretariat astonished spectators by continuing the fast pace and opening up a larger and larger margin on the field. Viewers heard the wonder in CBS Television announcer Chic Anderson's voice as he described the horse's pace: "Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
In the stretch, Secretariat opened a 1/16 mile lead on the rest of the field. At the finish, he won by 31 lengths (breaking the margin-of-victory record set by Triple Crown winner Count Fleet in 1943, who won by 25 lengths), and ran the fastest 1½ miles on dirt in history, 2:24 flat, which broke the stakes' record by more than two seconds. This works out to a speed of 37.5 mph for his entire performance. Secretariat's world record still stands, and in fact, no other horse has ever broken 2:25 for 1½ miles on dirt. If the Beyer Speed Figure calculation had been developed during that time, Andrew Beyer calculated that Secretariat would have earned a figure of 139, the highest he has ever assigned. Many bettors holding 5,617 winning parimutuel tickets on Secretariat never redeemed them, presumably keeping them as souvenirs (and because they paid only $2.20 on a $2 bet).
Secretariat became the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, and the first in 25 years.
It would have been good for the sport to have I'll Have Another running for the Triple Crown 39 years to the day after Secretariat put in the greatest racing performance of all time.  Video of Secretariat's win in the Belmont is here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Income Growth Chart

From CBO:

Maybe this might be related to why the economy sucks?  I'd go with yes.

Public Service Announcement

Something for all you worrywarts to concern yourselves with out at the beach.

No Triple Crown This Year

I'll Have Another's bid for the first Triple Crown in 34 years ended shockingly in the barn and not on the racetrack Friday when the colt was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes and retired with a swollen tendon.
"It's been an incredible ride, an incredible run," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "It's a bummer. It's not tragic, but it's a huge disappointment."
I'll Have Another, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with stirring stretch drives, was the 4-5 favorite to win the Belmont and become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since 1978.
Instead, he becomes the 12th horse since Affirmed, the last Triple champion, to win the first two legs but not the Belmont.
The scratch marks the first time since Bold Venture in 1936 that the Derby and Preakness winner didn't run in the Belmont. Burgoo King skipped the race in 1932.
O'Neill said the swollen left front tendon was the beginning of tendinitis, which could have taken six months to treat, and so the popular horse was retired.
The Triple Crown is nearly impossible.  One more near miss.

Home Energy Use

From Early Warning:

At least my space heating is mostly wood.  Not good for the air, but good for the wallet.  I'd guess that about half of my electric is refrigerator and hot water heater.

Venus Transit

June 8, 2004:
The first Venus Transit in modern history takes place, the previous one being in 1882.
That was notable since the last one of my life took place this week.  Video here.   Next up, December 10-11, 2117.

Race, Biology and Research

An interesting note in a Boston Review story about race (h/t nc links):
In Chicago in 1980, black and white women died of breast cancer at the same rate. Today, despite being slightly more likely to get breast cancer, white female Chicagoans are half as likely to die from it. Could the difference in death rates be due to genetic differences between black and white women? A wealth of evidence suggests otherwise.
First, the disparity is recent, so it is unlikely to be due to the slow evolution of genetic variations between populations. Second, the disparity is local. In New York City, where the disparity still favors white women, the difference is only 15 percent. Roberts interviews Dr. Steven Whitman, an epidemiologist at the aging Mt. Sinai Hospital—located in the overwhelmingly black community of North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side—who seems to understand how such a huge divergence came about. As he explains, in the 1950s the residents of North Lawndale were white. But in that decade, 110,000 of the whites moved out and an equal number of blacks moved in. Then half the neighborhood burned down during the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s murder, and now only 40,000 residents remain. Their median income is about $28,000, whereas Chicago’s median is $46,700. Mount Sinai Hospital has suffered, so that comparing its bankroll and daily operating cash to that of Northwestern University’s Memorial Hospital is a bit like comparing an automobile assembly line worker’s income to Mitt Romney’s.
This disparity has consequences: the breast cancer death rate for Chicago’s black women has not changed since 1980. Women of color living in segregated neighborhoods have limited access to mammograms, sometimes having to travel on public transportation up to ten miles away, only to be told that their health insurance won’t cover the screening. Adding injury to insult, the quality of available mammograms is poor compared to what’s offered at the state-of-the-art facilities more commonly accessible to white women. Whitman cites a North Lawndale facility that catches only two cancers per thousand people screened, rather than the expected six. Getting advanced care is next to impossible for women living in black neighborhoods. In Whitman’s words, all “the fancy institutions . . . are in white neighborhoods.”
What ought to be done about the disparities in breast cancer deaths between blacks and whites in Chicago seems clear: build state-of-the-art hospitals in the black neighborhoods and treat women where they live. Or organize a transportation system that would bring women in need of high-quality screening and treatment to existing high-quality centers. But scientists instead seek funding for basic research focused on possible genetic explanations for race-based health disparities.
I would think the differences in outcome are obviously based on economic and health care access issues, but I guess other people disagree.  Doesn't make sense to me.

The Reality of the Tax System

David Cay Johnson:

Six American families paid no federal income taxes in 2009 while making something on the order of $200 million each. This is one of many stunning revelations in new IRS data that deserves a thorough airing in this year's election campaign.
The data, posted on the IRS website last week, brings into sharp focus the debate over whether the rich need more tax cuts (Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans) or should pay higher rates (President Obama and most Democrats).
The annual report (, which the IRS typically releases with a two-year delay, covers the 400 tax returns reporting the highest incomes in 2009. These families reported an average income of $202.4 million, down for the second year as the Great Recession slashed their capital gains.
In addition to the six who paid no tax, another 110 families paid 15 percent or less in federal income taxes. That's the same federal tax rate as a single worker who made $61,500 in 2009.
Overall, the top 400 paid an average income tax rate of 19.9 percent, the same rate paid by a single worker who made $110,000 in 2009. The top 400 earned five times that much every day.
$200 million a year.  20% effective tax rate.  Crazy

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chart of the Day

Via Ritholtz:

Wow. Russia has a lot of natural gas.

A Brief History Of Video Games

Via the Dish:

I lived through almost all of that revolution. Damn, I'm old.

More On Success, and Luck

Morning Edition:
How a poor Dominican kid from an impoverished South Bronx neighborhood can make it to college can be seen in two different ways, says cultural historian Jim Cullen, author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation.
"Some people would look at a story like Juan Carlos' and say he's proof the system works," Cullen says. "Other people look at the story of a Juan Carlos and say he's the exception — and therefore he's evidence that there's a problem."
Given the poor quality of education the vast majority of kids living in poverty receive, Cullen says, access to higher education for them is a matter of luck and good fortune.
"A college degree has become, in effect, the lottery ticket of American life," he says.
Reyes agrees. Back in front of Heritage High, he ponders the question he's always asked himself: Why did he make it out of the South Bronx, when so many of the kids he grew up with didn't?
"Many would say that I am the compilation of the American dream," he says. "I mean, I grew up in an inner city of the Bronx. And quite frankly, [I'm] lucky to not fall into the wrong place at the wrong time.
"But I don't think it's a coincidence that eight out of 10 of my friends don't have a college degree," he says. "In fact, they don't have a high school diploma."
So, Reyes asks, where's their shot at a college education? Where's their American dream?
These are the questions that now make up Reyes' life's work: to counsel poor, inner-city kids about the importance of a college education — and to convince them that their dreams are not far-fetched, but within their grasp.
If only more people gave such issues a little more thought.  For me, a college education was baked in.  It wasn't because I thought I needed it to do whatever job I was going to do when I got out.  It was because I was expected to go.  Paying for it wasn't an issue.  My grandfather paid my entire tuition, but if he didn't, I had a scholarship to a state school to cover the entire cost.  If I didn't have that, I could have gone ROTC.  And in reality, if I didn't get the college education and had instead been given the opportunity, I could have learned on-the-job the same (actually greater) competencies for the engineering jobs I've had than I did in four years of college.  I've been extremely lucky, not just in the opportunities I've been given, but in the natural skills I've inherited.  While lots of people manage to make it up out of poverty to higher rungs on the ladder than me, way more don't get the chance.  I'd like to see more of them get a few lucky breaks, or just some of the opportunities I've gotten.

Iowa Mammoth Bones Found

Des Moines Register:
An unusual discovery of mammoth bones on a rural Oskaloosa farm has experts studying prehistoric life excited about scientific discoveries that may lie with the massive beast.

The find is rare because it appears to include much of the animal's skeleton undisturbed. That allows scientists to gather pollen and other plant evidence at the dig site that could reveal details about Iowa's environment more than 12,000 years ago.

Scientists from the University of Iowa plan to scan the area with ground penetrating radar on Friday to see if they can determine how much of the mammoth remains underground. Excavation will continue throughout the summer.
Check out the picture with the story.  That's a big ass bone.  There was once a mammoth found in our township, but I've never come across any information telling exactly where in our township.  I believe it was in a bog somewhere, so I thought it might be in the wetlands down the road.

Transit of Venus

In case you missed it (I did) NASA has video:

Griswold v. Connecticut

June 7, 1965:
The Supreme Court of the United States hands down its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, effectively legalizing the use of contraception by married couples.
Later decisions by the court extended the principles of Griswold beyond its particular facts. Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended its holding to unmarried couples, whereas the "right of privacy" in Griswold only applied to marital relationships. The argument for Eisenstadt was built on the claim that it was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to deny unmarried couples the right to use contraception when married couples did have that right (under Griswold). Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan wrote that Massachusetts could not enforce the law onto married couples because of Griswold v. Connecticut, so the law worked "irrational discrimination" if not extended to unmarried couples as well.
The reasoning and language of both Griswold and Eisenstadt were cited in support of the Court's result in Roe v. Wade (1973). The decision in Roe struck down a Texas law that criminalized aiding a woman in getting an abortion. The Court ruled that this law was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The law was struck down, legalizing abortion for any woman for any reason, up through the first trimester, with possible restrictions for maternal health in the second (the mid-point of which is the approximate time of fetal viability), and possibly illegal in the third with exception for the mother's health, which the court defined broadly in Doe v. Bolton.
Lawrence v. Texas (2003) struck down a Texas state law that prohibited certain forms of intimate sexual contact between members of the same sex. Without stating a standard of review in the majority opinion, the court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), declaring that the "Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual." Justice O'Connor, who wrote a concurring opinion, framed it as an issue of rational basis review. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion, based on the liberty interest protected in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, stated that the Texas anti-sodomy statute touched "upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home," and attempted to "control a personal relationship that . . . is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished." Thus, the Court held that adults are entitled to participate in private, consensual sexual conduct. While the opinion in Lawrence was framed in terms of the right to liberty, Kennedy described the "right to privacy" found in Griswold as the "most pertinent beginning point" in the evolution of the concepts embodied in Lawrence.
It is notable that after the Catholic Church complained that forcing employers to provide health insurance coverage for employees which covers contraceptives violates employers' freedom of religion, Republicans considered laws allowing ALL employers to deny coverage of contraceptives on grounds of freedom of religion.  If such laws were to go into effect, it would quickly undermine employer-provided health care and move us closer to single payer coverage.  Then the fight would move to whether Catholics and others had to pay for health care which violated their beliefs.  Then, they would lose.  Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Real Lucky Duckies

Unlike the Wall Street Journal's "lucky duckies" who don't make enough money to pay federal income taxes, Michael Lewis puts into words a good portion of the things I'd like to say here when he gave the Baccalaureate Address at Princeton University (h/t Big Picture):
Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.
I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.
I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.
Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn't. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.
This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He'd been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.
This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.
All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.
The whole speech is a good read.  I agree with Lewis's point.  Maybe you do work as hard as you think you do, and maybe you've earned everything you've got.  Or maybe you've gotten where you are at not only by hard work, but by good fortune and the connection to your family and genetics and maybe a mentor who intervened in a positive way in your life.  Since you seem to be winning the game of life, consider erring on the side of humility, and maybe leave that last cookie for somebody else.  Also, consider giving somebody else the benefit of the doubt and don't assume they are in the place they are in because they practice too many vices, but instead maybe they are unlucky in genetics or opportunity.  It would probably make the world a better place.

Climate Change May Hurt Electric Generation

Scientific American:
Ironic twist alert: most electricity production requires vast amounts of water. Cold water. Which means that climate change is going to be bad for electricity supplies.
Why's that ironic? Here's how we make electricity. In the U.S., we burn coal or natural gas, which produces massive quantities of the greenhouse gases causing climate change, or we fission uranium. The heat from those processes boils water that makes steam that spins a turbine. And those turbines produce more than 90 percent of our electricity.
Massive cooling towers then help chill the power plant back down using river water, for example. Only river water isn't quite as cold as it used to be, or as available. As a result, in recent years, such thermal power plants in the southeastern U.S. have had to decrease power production because river temperatures were too high or water levels were too low.
That problem is only going to get worse, according to an analysis in the journal Nature Climate Change. By the 2040s, available electricity could be down by 16 percent in the summertime.
I can understand water levels being too low, but water temperatures being too high?  Didn't know that.

Not A Good Week

Via Ritholtz, Bespoke Investment Group looks at last week's economic data:

Not pretty.  Not pretty at all.

The Old Days In Pittsburgh

It took a little while for Pittsburgh to deal with massive air pollution:

"Downtown Smoke" 1940

In 1941, influenced by a similar policy introduced in St. Louis four years earlier, the city of Pittsburgh passed a law designed to reduce coal production in pursuit of cleaner air. Not willing to cripple such an important part of the local economy, it promised to clean the air by using treated local coal. The new policy ended up not being fully enacted until after World War II.
While the idea was a small step in the right direction, other factors ultimately helped improve Pittsburgh's notorious air quality. Natural gas was piped into the city. Regional railroad companies switched from coal to diesel locomotives. And, ultimately, the collapse of the iron and steel production industries in the 1980s led to rapidly improved air quality leading into the 21st century.
Control of coal smoke made it possible to clean soot-covered buildings and to re-plant hillsides, helping provide the city a look it could hardly envision in the depths of its industrial heyday.
That air must have been unbelievably bad back in the heyday of the steel industry.

A D-Day Image

The landing took place 68 years ago today.  What a massive and daring undertaking.  More here and here.

Chart of the Day

From Krugman:

Yeah, the economy is tanking because of that big government socialist Obama.  No, it's tanking more because Republicans are trying to make it tank.  People are jackasses.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An Inspiration For Our Republic?

Say what you will about Scott Walker (I say he's an asshole), but he's inspired people to vote:
On a sunny June day, Wisconsin voters packed the polls to decide the historic gubernatorial recall election.
No statewide figures were available, but local election officials offered fairly similar accounts of a heavy turnout in communities large and small, in both Democratic and Republican areas.
In many places, election officials said turnout was as strong as, or stronger than, it was for the 2010 gubernatorial election. A few even compared it to the 2008 presidential election.
With Wisconsin voters sharply - and almost evenly - divided between the candidates and few undecided, political observers believe turnout will hold the key to victory for either Republican Gov. Scott Walker or his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Heavy turnout in strongly Democratic Milwaukee led the city's Election Commission to call out the reserves.
Extra poll workers were sent to polling places at Becher Terrace, Bradley Tech High School, Keenan Health Center, Morse Middle School, Rufus King International School Middle Years Campus, and Cass Street, 53rd Street, Grantosa and Parkview schools, said Sue Edman, the election commission's executive director.
The backup workers were needed to handle long lines, partly because a significant number of new voters were registering at the polls, Edman said. In some cases, poll workers were shifted from less-crowded polling places to busier ones, Edman said. In other cases, she used poll workers who had agreed to be on call or city administrators who had volunteered to help out, she said.
I think recall elections suck, but I'd like to see that weasel Walker lose.  If I had my way, I'd have let him steamroll through a couple more ALEC scumbag laws and let the Republicans set themselves up to get pummeled.   Anyway, this isn't an epic battle for the future of America.

The Case For Infrastructure Investment

NYT (via Ritholtz):
The same logic applies to overdue infrastructure investments. Yes, paying for them requires more government debt. And while austerity advocates fret that such projects will impoverish our grandchildren, they concede that the investments can’t be postponed indefinitely, and that they’ll become much more expensive the longer we wait.
Our lingering economic doldrums reinforce the case. Many skilled people who can do these jobs are unemployed today. If we wait, we’ll have to bid them away from other useful work. And with much of the world still in a downturn, the required materials are cheap. If we wait, they’ll become more costly. Annual interest rates on 10-year Treasury notes have fallen below 1.5 percent. Those rates will also be higher if we wait. So it’s actually our failure to undertake these projects that’s saddling our grandchildren with gratuitously larger debt.
By itself, the savings from accelerating infrastructure repairs won’t be enough to balance government budgets. But debt is a long-run problem, and as the budget surpluses of the late 1990s remind us, the American economy at full employment can generate more than enough revenue to pay the government’s bills.
The need for infrastructure spending is obvious, but I think we ought to consider higher taxes to pay for it.  The wealthy in this country have gotten an unprecedented deal for the past 30 years, and it is about time that the pendulum swings back the other way for a while.  The high end earners have reaped more and more of the benefits of worker productivity over previous decades, and that fact has been ruinous to overall growth.  Now, more revenue from those who have done the best, combined with much needed investment in infrastructure, provides us with a win-win situation.  The only possible good news that can come from a Republican victory in the fall would be that they will finally have to increase government spending or destroy their party's future.  My guess is they'll become born-again Keynesians if they come into power.  Unfortunately, they'll probably pick the worst ways to stimulate the economy, like tax cuts for the super wealthy.

Preparing For Disaster

Atul Gawande, in his commencement speech at Williams College, gives a useful anecdote about what makes the difference between good patient outcomes and bad ones:
But there continue to be huge differences between hospitals in the outcomes of their care. Some places still have far higher death rates than others. And an interesting line of research has opened up asking why. Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered the answer recently, and it has a twist I didn’t expect. I thought that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks—that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. But, to my surprise, they didn’t. Their complication rates after surgery were almost the same as others. Instead, what they proved to be really great at was rescuing people when they had a complication, preventing failures from becoming a catastrophe. Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a “failure to rescue.” More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more. This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.
In a somewhat related way, my current work involves a struggling manufacturing business.  We've got a lot of preventable problems to work out.  However, when something bad does happen, the guys on the shop floor are really good at running parts "on the fly" to fix it.  This gives me hope that if we can work out some of these problems, and the guys are left to do what they do best on a more consistent basis, we'll be able to get ahead of things.  It is some comfort that they seem to be able to rescue more.

Conversing About Silence

Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston interviews several Trappist monks via email about how they live and how they practice the vow of silence:
I was nervous; a lapsed Catholic who chased his ideals into a long education, I have a weakness to people who devote themselves more than I ever did to higher pursuits. But I found the group to be more than usually friendly, loathe to judge, voluble in writing and full of enthusiasm to correspond. They’d write me in the spare time they had between their daily work and daily prayer, most seeming pleased. Most asked that I respect their privacy, so their names have been removed here. This conversation was culled from four different interviews conducted using the same starting questions.
Could you walk me through a day in your life? What's the hour-to-hour schedule of someone who lives in a Trappist monastery?
Father A:
• We rise at 3:45 each morning.
• At 4:00 a.m.: Vigils. This is the night prayer, including a hymn, psalms and readings from the Bible and from a Father of the Church or renowned spiritual writer.
• 5:00 a.m.: we may have breakfast or take the time for private prayer, spiritual reading.
• 6:45 a.m.: Lauds, the Morning Prayer. Shorter than Vigils, but also consisting of psalms, hymn and prayer. This takes about half an hour. The time left is for reading, walking outside, etc.
• 8:15 a.m.: This is time for the daily Eucharist. (On Sundays, it’s at 10:00).
• 9:15 a.m.: We go to work until 11:30. There is here half an hour to clean up and be ready for the next prayer.
• noon: The prayer of SEXT (from the Latin: sextus, 6th) It is a short kind of Prayer-Break so to speak! And Lunch follows at about 12:20.
• After Lunch, we may have a siesta or do whatever we like until the next prayer at
• 1:40 p.m.: the Prayer of NONE (9th) it lasts maybe 15 minutes and we go back to work until 4:15 p.m.
• 5:00 p.m. Dinner. Free time. During the Free Time, we may read, meditate on the Scripture, study, anything that may help us in growing in our spiritual life, and even some other relaxing things for we must avoid strain or anxiety and tension.
• 6:00 p.m.: Vespers. Like Lauds, about half an hour. And free time.
• 7:30 p.m.: Compline: the last prayer of the day. It means “accomplishment or achievement” so we are ready to finish our daily schedule and go to bed!
• 8:00 p.m.: We retire for the night. (And believe me; we (at least me) sleep).
Lots and lots of prayer.  They must be better at coming up with things to pray about than I am.  I've always kind of figured if God was omniscient, wouldn't He already know what I'd want to pray about.  Anyway, the questions and answers are pretty interesting.  This guy thinks about a lot of the things I do:
Father B: I worry and pray about world poverty, overpopulation, consumerism, the moral bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism, the polarized, simplistic "thinking" in our country; about the public face and stupid blunders of the Catholic Church, about politicians who capitalize on religion; about veterans, war refugees, migrant workers; about people in jail (I used to do intervention work in the Criminal Justice System and in the inner city) and people with no meaning in their lives. I didn't come here to get out of the real world but to get perspective on the real world.
I still believe that intentional community, communal ownership and a community of goods is a viable human endeavor, but I look for no utopia.
He finishes up on a much more religious note than I would, but overall, I appreciate where he is coming from.

Worrying Dryness Out West

Des Moines Register:
Iowa’s corn crop, rating 81 percent good to excellent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture two weeks ago, has slipped to 75 percent good to excellent as the state confronts dry soil conditions over about half of its acres.
The U.S. corn crop conditions slipped as well, falling from 72 percent good to excellent last week to 67 percent good to excellent in the latest survey completed Sunday.
The commodity markets took note of increasingly dry conditions in Iowa and the western half of the corn belt, pushing up crop prices 16 cents per bushel to $5.68 and the December contract up 14 cents to $5.25 per bushel Monday on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Corn prices have fallen by almost 20 percent since March on concerns that farmers are about to produce a surplus-enlarging crop. But the driest conditions seen in Iowa since 2006 have at least temporarily put a floor under prices.
75 percent good to excellent still isn't too bad.  While our corn is looking better, it probably wouldn't be that highly rated.  Overall though, things are looking pretty good here.  We've got all the fertilizer on, and received a couple of nice rain showers last week.  At the home place, I ended up with 1.7 inches between Tuesday and Friday's showers.  There isn't any rain in the forecast for the next week, but what we got should carry us through.

Farmers Along Missouri River Repair Flood Damage

Yahoo (via Big Picture Ag):
Hundreds of farmers are still struggling to remove sand and fill holes gouged by the Missouri River, which swelled with rain and snowmelt, overflowed its banks and damaged thousands of acres along its 2,341-mile route from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The worst damage and the largest sand deposits were in Iowa and Nebraska.
"We'll be working on this for years," Hansen said. "It'll never be right. Ever. People don't have any idea how big of a mess this is."
Hansen has spent the past nine months pushing sand off the land he has farmed since 2000 near Missouri Valley, about 25 miles north of Omaha, Neb. Throughout the mild winter, he worked with his neighbor and two farm employees to clear 140 acres, but about 160 acres are still buried under sand.
The work is tedious. As the men scrape away the sand with bulldozers, they must stop repeatedly to pull out equipment that has become stuck in the still soggy fields.
As they work, catfish swim in a 30-foot-deep hole scoured out by the river, and a faint sandy haze clouds the air. On days when the wind picks up, sandstorms sweep through the fields, blinding workers as they dig into the ground. "We have the means and the ability to fix it," Hansen said. "... But when you have to come out here and deal with it all the time, it gets old."
I remember reading similar stories after the 1993 Mississippi River floods.  It is hard for me to imagine how disgusting it is to work so hard to bring the land back for cultivation.  What an awful, frustrating process.

The Collapse of the Teton Dam

 Water pouring out of the reservoir of the Teton Dam in Idaho following its catastrophic failure on June 5, 1976.

June 5, 1976:
 The Teton Dam was a federally built earthen dam in the United States. On the Teton River in eastern Idaho, it was between Fremont and Madison counties. As it filled for the first time, it suffered a catastrophic failure on June 5, 1976. The collapse of the dam resulted in the deaths of 11 people and 13,000 head of cattle. The dam cost about $100 million to build, and the federal government paid over $300 million in claims related to the dam failure. Total damage estimates have ranged up to $2 billion. The dam has not been rebuilt.
The dam site is located in the eastern Snake River Plain, which is a broad tectonic depression on top of rhyolitic ash-flow tuff. The tuff, a late-Cenozoic volcanic rock dates to about 1.9 million years and sits on top of sedimentary rock. The area is very permeable, highly fissured and unstable. Test boreholes, drilled by engineers and geologists employed by the Bureau of Reclamation showed that one side of the canyon was highly fissured, a condition unlikely to be remediated by the Bureau's favored method of "grouting" (injecting concrete into the substrates under high pressure).
The primary contractor was Morrison-Knudsen Co. of Boise, assisted by Peter Kiewet Sons Co. of Omaha, Nebraska. The $39 million contract was awarded in December 1971 and work began in 1972. Authorized by Congress in 1964, the dam was completed in November 1975 and no seepage was noted on the dam itself before the date of the collapse. However, on June 3, 1976, workers found two small springs had opened up downstream.
At the time of the collapse, spring runoff had almost filled the new reservoir to capacity, with a maximum depth of 240 feet (73 m). Water began seeping from the dam on the Thursday before the collapse, an event not unexpected for an earthen dam. The only structure that had been initially prepared for releasing water was the emergency outlet works, which could carry just 850 cubic feet per second (24 m3/s). Although the reservoir was still rising over 4 feet (1.2 m) per day, the main outlet works and spillway gates were not yet in service. The spillway gates were cordoned off by steel walls while they were being painted.
On Saturday, June 5, 1976, at 7:30 a.m. MDT, a muddy leak appeared, suggesting sediment was in the water, but engineers did not believe there was a problem. By 9:30 a.m. the downstream face of the dam had developed a wet spot erupting water at 20 to 30 cubic feet per second (0.57 to 0.85 m3/s) and embankment material began to wash out. Crews with bulldozers were sent to plug the leak, but were unsuccessful. Local media appeared at the site, and at 11:15 officials told the county sheriff's office to evacuate downstream residents. Work crews were forced to flee on foot as the widening gap, now over the size of a swimming pool, swallowed their equipment. The operators of two bulldozers caught in the eroding embankment were pulled to safety with ropes.
At 11:55 a.m. MDT (UTC-17:55), the crest of the dam sagged and collapsed into the reservoir; two minutes later the remainder of the right-bank third of the main dam wall disintegrated. Over 2,000,000 cubic feet per second (57,000 m3/s) of sediment filled water emptied through the breach into the remaining 6 miles (9.7 km) of the Teton River canyon, after which the flood spread out and shallowed on the Snake River Plain. By 8:00 p.m. that evening, the reservoir had completely emptied, although over two-thirds of the dam wall remained standing.Study of the dam's environment and structure placed blame on the collapse on the permeable loess soil used in the core and on fissured (cracked) rhyolite in the foundations of the dam that allowed water to seep under the dam. The permeable loess was found to be cracked. It is postulated that the combination of these flaws allowed water to seep through the dam and led to internal erosion, called piping, that eventually caused the dam's collapse.
Catastrophic failure is every engineer's worst nightmare.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pedro Borbon Dead at 65

Cincinnati Enquirer:
Borbon was known for his durability and availability to pitch every day, if needed. After appearing in an old-timers game at Riverfront Stadium in 1990, a 43-year-old Borbon said:
“I haven’t lost anything except my age.”
Borbon also is remembered for his role in two Reds brawls. Following a 1973 fight against the New York Mets in the National League playoffs, Borbon mistakenly placed a Mets cap on his head. Realizing what he had done, Borbon angrily removed the hat and ripped a piece off with his teeth.
Then came a 1974 incident against Pittsburgh, when Borbon mixed it up with Pirates pitcher Daryl Patterson. Borbon pinned Patterson to the ground and bit him on the side. Patterson would require a tetanus shot.
“The public address announcer in Pittsburgh announced me as the Domincan Dracula,” Borbon later said. “I didn’t like that much. I just got over-excited.”
He will definitely be remembered for some of the crazy things he said and did.  He was also a pretty damn good pitcher on possibly the best team in baseball history.

Map of the Day

Deborah Blum:
“Arsenic is the number one environmental chemical for human health,”  Joshua Hamilton tells me during a recent phone call. We’re talking about his latest research, a just-published study in PLoS ONE  which found that this naturally occuring poison causes harm in an astonishingly small dose — 10 parts per billion.
Hamilton’s study looked at arsenic’s effect on mother mice and their offspring. But he chose the 10 ppb dose for a very human reason. It’s the safety standard the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets for arsenic in drinking water. Why does EPA need such a standard? Because an estimated 25 million Americans (mostly on private well systems) drink water contaminated by arsenic-rich bedrock. (I’ve put an arsenic map of the United States at the top of the post. Note that micrograms per liter is the same thing as parts per billion. This tells you that a lot of private wells — which are not held to public water supply regulations — run above the EPA standard.)
Global estimates of people drinking arsenic-contaminated water can run as high as half-a-billion people — and can also involve far more dangerous concentrations than in the United States. The classic — and tragic — example comes from  Bangladesh, a situation I described a couple years ago in a post called How to Poison a Small Country. In the 1960s, attempting to combat a cholera epidemic, aid agencies hit upon a plan of drilling wells across Bangladesh, tapping into bacteria-free ground water. They later realized that they had tapped into one of the most arsenic-contaminated aquifers on the planet, creating what WHO would later call the greatest mass poisoning of a human population in world history.
That's a pretty hot spot up in Wisconsin.

Ten Cent Beer Night

June 4, 1974:
During Ten Cent Beer Night, inebriated Cleveland Indians fans start a riot, causing the game to be forfeited to the Texas Rangers.
Ten Cent Beer Night was a promotion held by Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians during a game against the Texas Rangers at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on June 4, 1974. The idea behind the promotion was to offer as many 8 US fluid ounces (240 ml) cups of beer as the fans could drink for just 10¢ each ($0.47 in 2012 dollars), thus increasing ticket sales. Ultimately, the game was forfeited to Texas on the orders of umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak because of the crowd's uncontrollable rowdiness, and because the game could not be resumed in a timely manner.
Six days later, Cleveland's Ten Cent Beer Night promotion enticed 25,134 fans to come to Cleveland Stadium for the Rangers/Indians game. The past season's average attendance had been 8,000.
Early in the game, the Rangers took a 5-1 lead.
Meanwhile, throughout the contest, the crowd in attendance, which was already heavily inebriated, grew more and more unruly. A woman ran out to the Indians' on-deck circle and flashed her breasts, and a naked man sprinted to second base as Grieve hit his second home run of the game. A father and son pair ran onto the outfield and mooned the fans in the bleachers one inning later. The crowd was further agitated when Cleveland's Leron Lee hit a line drive into the stomach of Rangers pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, after which Jenkins dropped to the ground. Fans in the upper deck of Municipal Stadium cheered, then chanted "Hit 'em again! Hit 'em again! Harder! Harder!"
As the game progressed, more fans ran onto the field and caused problems. Ranger Mike Hargrove, who would later manage the Indians and lead them to the World Series twice in 1995 and 1997, was pelted with hot dogs and spit, and at one point was nearly struck with an empty gallon jug of Thunderbird.
The Rangers later argued a call in which Lee was called safe in a close play at third base, spiking Jenkins with his cleats in the process and forcing him to leave the game. The Rangers' angry response to this call enraged Cleveland fans, who again began throwing objects onto the field.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Indians managed to rally and tie the game at five runs apiece, and had Rusty Torres on second base representing the potential winning run. However, with a crowd that had been consuming as much beer as it could for nine innings, the situation finally came to a head.
After the Indians had managed to tie the game, a fan ran onto the field and attempted to steal Texas outfielder Jeff Burroughs' cap. Confronting the fan, Burroughs tripped.
Texas manager Billy Martin, thinking that Burroughs had been attacked, charged onto the field, his players right behind, some wielding bats. A large number of intoxicated fans – some armed with knives, chains, and portions of stadium seats that they had torn apart – surged onto the field, and others hurled bottles from the stands.
Realizing that the Rangers' lives might be in danger, Ken Aspromonte, the Indians' manager, ordered his players to grab bats and help the Rangers, attacking the team's own fans in the process. Rioters began throwing steel folding chairs, and Cleveland relief pitcher Tom Hilgendorf was hit in the head by one of them. Hargrove, involved in a fistfight with a rioter, had to fight another on his way back to the Texas dugout.
Among the Indians players suddenly running for their lives was Torres. In his career, Torres wound up seeing three big-league baseball riots close up; he was with the New York Yankees at the Senators' final game in Washington in 1971 and would be with the Chicago White Sox during the infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979.
The bases were pulled up and stolen (never to be returned) and many rioters threw a vast array of objects including cups, rocks, bottles, batteries from radios, hot dogs, popcorn containers, and folding chairs. As a result, umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak, realizing that order would not be restored in a timely fashion, forfeited the game to Texas. He too was a victim of the rioters as one struck him with part of a stadium seat, cutting his head.. His hand was also cut by a thrown rock. He later called the fans "uncontrollable beasts" and stated that he'd never seen anything like what had happened, "except in a zoo".
As Joe Tait and Herb Score called the riot live on radio, Score mentioned the lack of police protection; a riot squad from the Cleveland Police Department finally arrived to restore order.
Later that season, the team's promotion of three additional beer nights was changed from unlimited amounts to a limit of four cups per person. American League president Lee McPhail commented, "There was no question that beer played a part in the riot."
That is a classic failed promotion.  10 cent beer all night long? In Cleveland?  What could possibly go wrong?

What Is The Origin Of The Moon?

Robert Hazen:
The formation of the moon is one of the enduring scientific mysteries. It has been around as long as people have and it has generated a host of folk stories and myths. Fifty years ago, there were three popular explanations for the formation of the moon. George Darwin, Charles Darwin's son, thought that the young Earth was once a molten orb, and that it rotated so fast that it sort of threw off a blob of magma that became the moon. There was also the capture theory, the idea that the moon was a small planet with a similar orbit to Earth, and that it was captured by the Earth's gravity billions of years ago. Others have argued that the moon formed from the same cloud of dust, gas and debris that formed Earth and the other planets that orbit the sun.
Ultimately it was the Apollo moon landing, and the rock samples that came out of it, that were critical to understanding how the satellite formed. Those rock samples were inconsistent with all three of the theories I just described, and they forced scientists to come up with other hypotheses. They did and, fortunately, it seems to fit all the observations and is really quite robust now, in terms of scientific consensus. It seems that there was, indeed, a second planet-sized object (probably about the size of Mars) in more or less the same orbit as Earth. We have a rule in astrophysics that no two planets can occupy the same orbit, and so inevitably the smaller-sized object would have collided with Earth. In collisions of that sort, the larger body always wins.
In other words, Earth essentially swallowed the smaller planet, which has come to be called Theia (for the Greek goddess, who was the mother of the Moon). But because it was a glancing blow—ie, the collision between Earth and the theoretical planet was slightly off center—a huge amount of molten and incandescent silicone vapor was blasted into space, and into orbit around Earth. That is the material that ultimately formed the moon. The collision hypothesis explains some of the interesting compositional features of the moon, which were revealed by the Apollo astronauts.
I didn't know that.

GOP Split Highlighted In Iowa

Des Moines Register:
The establishment candidates — who see themselves as conservative but at least open to possible compromise — are past and present legislative incumbents, local officeholders and ascendant party functionaries.
The challengers are tea partiers, libertarians and strict constitutionalists — candidates who believe government taxes too much and spends too freely, and who see mainline Republicans alongside Democrats as the source of the problem.
The races have become unusually contentious, with candidates amping up rhetoric, leveling harsh accusations and resorting to name-calling. Party leaders from both factions have gotten involved, too, something that rarely happens ahead of an inter-party primary.
Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds have weighed in on behalf of establishment candidates, while Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats has generally lent his support to socially conservative challengers.
“I think where most Republicans are today and where Iowans are today is they want authentic conservatives,” Vander Plaats said. “They’re tired of the campaign that says they’re going to cut government only to grow government; say they won’t increase taxes only to increase taxes or that they’re for local control and parental rights only to grow big government education.”
The GOP is going to blow up sometime in the next few years.  Hopefully they don't take the rest of the country down with them.  Also, Bob Vander Plaats is a jackass.

Ethanol Enzyme Facility Opens

Big Picture Agriculture:
This week marked the ribbon cutting ceremonies for the new Novozyme plant located on the Missouri River just North of Omaha, Nebraska. Blair was chosen by Novozyme as the site for their largest and most advanced enzyme plant in the U.S. because it was “within a day’s drive of 60 percent of all ethanol production in the United States.” A $28,400,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act tax credit was awarded to Novozymes for building the plant which created 400 construction jobs and 100 career jobs.
Novozyme uses microorganisms as its workhorses to ‘express’ enzymes, stating that one microorganism can divide into trillions in 24 hours. The high cost of “enzyme cocktails” strong enough to break down stubborn cellulose fiber has been a stumbling block in reaching cellulosic ethanol production goals to date. This cost has been cut gradually from as much as $8 to $10 per gallon of ethanol, just for the enzyme mix, to 50 cents per gallon and now lower. Biofuels currently make up 16% of Novozyme’s $2 billion in revenues. Novazyme also has plants in China, Brazil, and Denmark.
The new facility in Nebraska will produce enzymes for the production of both first and second generation bioethanol. First generation bioethanol is produced from sugar or starchy raw materials such as corn. Second-generation bioethanol is produced from feedstock containing cellulosic biomass such as the stalks, leaves, and husks of corn plants, wood chips, sawdust, and switch grass. They expect demand for the company’s enzymes to grow because it takes about 10 times as much enzyme to produce a gallon of cellulosic ethanol as for corn. The Blair plant is designed to expand its capacity by five or six times as demand for the second-generation biofuel grows.
The stimulus in action.  I'm afraid cellulosic ethanol is just slightly more likely than cold fusion.  Actually, you would think scientists could figure out a way to process the cellulose like cows do.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Dickey Shuts Out Cards

A day after Johan Santana made Mets history, R.A. Dickey baffled the St. Louis Cardinals in his own way.
The knuckleballer followed up Santana's no-hitter by shutting out St. Louis, David Wright homered and the New York Mets beat the Cardinals 5-0 on Saturday."It's no easy chore to follow Johan," Dickey said, "I went to bed reminding myself to bring what I bring and be myself." 
What he brought was a fluttering knuckler that he could throw at speeds from 59 to 80 mph, causing mostly swings and misses, or softly hit balls that found gloves.Dickey (8-1) gave up seven hits, struck out nine and walked none in his third career shutout and first since 2010. The Mets scored three runs in the second, on a mishandled grounder and two run-scoring groundouts to win for the sixth time in eight games and tie Miami for second place in the NL East, a game behind Washington."I think what's awesome about it is we don't have to explain it. It's organic," Dickey said. "We have sustained a level of competition in the midst of a lot of injuries."
Wow, the Cardinals offense is sputtering right now.  That's good news for Cincinnati.  Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey has been awesome this year.  He should make the all-star game at this rate.

NASA Photo of the Day

June 2:

M51: The Whirlpool Galaxy
Image Credit & Copyright: Marco Burali, Tiziano Capecchi, Marco Mancini (Osservatorio MTM)
Explanation: Follow the handle of the Big Dipper away from the dipper's bowl until you get to the handle's last bright star. Then, just slide your telescope a little south and west and you might find this stunning pair of interacting galaxies, the 51st entry in Charles Messier famous catalog. Perhaps the original spiral nebula, the large galaxy with well defined spiral structure is also cataloged as NGC 5194. Its spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy (top), NGC 5195. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant and officially lie within the angular boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici. Though M51 looks faint and fuzzy to the human eye, deep images like this one can reveal the faint tidal debris around the smaller galaxy.

How Indians Took Over The Hotel Business

All Things Considered:
Here are three remarkable facts about motels in the U.S. that you probably don't already know:
- At least 1 out of 2 motels are owned by Indian-Americans.
- Out of those Indian-owned motels, 70 percent are owned by Gujaratis, people with roots in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
- Of those Gujaratis, three-fourths share the last name Patel. There's even a name for these overnight establishments: "Patel Motels."
Pawan Dhingra writes about this incredible story in his new book called Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream. Dhingra is an associate professor of sociology at Oberlin College — soon to be joining Tufts University — and the museum curator of the HomeSpun Project at the Smithsonian Institution.
In the book, Dhingra writes about how Gujaratis came to dominate the motel industry in America. As he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, the Gujaratis "are a population that prides themselves on autonomous professions, working for themselves."
From what I've seen, some of those guys look to be underwater on the hotels they own.  I was in one in Bucyrus where the family was living there, and about 15 rooms were being remodeled.  There were only 3 or 4 guests staying there, and there were two newer, nicer hotels next door.  I don't see how that guy could be making any money.  Hopefully, things work out for him.

Craig Venter's Biotechnology Dreams

NYT, via Ritholtz:
The appeal of biological machinery is manifold. For one thing, because organisms reproduce, they can generate not only their target product but also more factories to do the same. Then too, microbes use novel fuel. Chances are, unless you’ve slipped off the grid, virtually every machine you own, from your iPhone to your toaster oven, depends on burning fossil fuels to work. Even if you have slipped off the grid, manufacturing those devices required massive carbon emissions. This is not necessarily the case for biomachinery. A custom organism could produce the same plastic or metal as an industrial plant while feeding on the compounds in pollution or the energy of the sun.
Then there is the matter of yield. Over the last 60 years, agricultural production has boomed in large part through plant modification, chemical additives and irrigation. But as the world population continues to soar, adding nearly a billion people over the past decade, major aquifers are giving out, and agriculture may not be able to keep pace with the world’s needs. If a strain of algae could secrete high yields of protein, using less land and water than traditional crops, it may represent the best hope to feed a booming planet.
Finally, the rise of biomachinery could usher in an era of spot production. “Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform,” Drew Endy, an assistant professor at Stanford University, told me recently. Endy is trained as an engineer but has become a leading proponent of synthetic biology. He sketched a picture of what “distributed manufacturing” by microbes might look like: say a perfume company could design a bacterium to produce an appealing aroma; “rather than running this in a large-scale fermenter, they would upload the DNA sequences onto the future equivalent of iTunes,” he said. “People all over the world could then pay a fee to download the information.” Then, Endy explained, customers could simply synthesize the bugs at home and grow them on their skin. “They could transform epidermal ecosystems to have living production of scents and fragrances,” he said. “Living perfume!”
Not surprisingly, I'm in the skeptical camp.  But I have to say that he has some really interesting ideas.

Midwestern Traditions

Club Trillion, recounting his trip to the Indy 500:
Having spent each of my 25 years living in the Midwest, I can tell you this much about people from flyover states: We don't care what people on the coasts think about the things we view as sacred. We know they'll never understand why we love small towns, college sports, country music, Larry the Cable Guy, and teenage pregnancy so much, so we don't even bother defending those things when we're laughed at for loving them. We like what we like. If you don't, that's perfectly fine because you aren't one of us. This "love it or leave it" attitude runs rampant in Middle America, and for so many Hoosiers it perfectly describes how we feel about the Indy 500. We know outsiders think the race is nothing but a bunch of hicks watching cars turn left, and we don't bother trying to change their minds. It makes no difference to us if they understand that for hundreds of thousands of us inside the IMS walls on race day, what happens on the track isn't nearly as important as what happens inside the track.
The whole thing is a fun read.