Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bad News On Antibiotics

From Pew:

The potential for creating superbugs is great enough that we have to rethink how we raise livestock.  Confinement facilities may be the most efficient way to raise meat, but farmers are playing with fire.

Dropping the Puck

Wow, I'm really slipping.  I didn't get around to making picks for the NCAA hockey tournament before it started.  The big story is that Yale knocked off the Gophers.  Today, Quinnipiac (I wanted to highlight the fact that they were ranked #1 earlier, but never got around to it), BC, Miami and Notre Dame are all in first round action, while UMass-Lowell, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Yale are in second round action.

Inflation and Global Warming

Chart of the day:

The Real Costs of a Total Fuckup

James Fallows:
A little over ten years ago, George W. Bush fired his economic advisor, Lawrence Lindsey, for saying that the total cost of invading Iraq might come to as much as $200 billion. Bush instead stood by such advisors as Paul Wolfowitz, who said that the invasion would be largely "self-financing" via Iraq's oil, and Andrew Natsios, who told an incredulous Ted Koppel that the war's total cost to the American taxpayer would be no more than $1.7 billion.

As it turns out, Lawrence Lindsey's estimate was indeed off -- by a factor of ten or more, on the low side. A new research paper by Linda Bilmes, of the Kennedy School at Harvard, begins this way:
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history - totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion.   
The most powerful and disturbing part of Bilmes's analysis is the explanation of why, even though American combat deaths and military exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to their ends, covering the costs has just begun. In the introduction she says:
One of the most significant challenges to future US national security policy will not originate from any external threat. Rather it is simply coping with the legacy of the conflicts we have already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the paper lays out, a surprisingly large fraction of the long-term costs comes from the disability payments and medical obligations to people who served. People who were 18 or 20 years old when the war began, and who were injured or disabled (but survived), may need public help until very late in this century.
The really tragic part is that the real costs can never be calculated in dollars.  And if they could, you would hear something like quintrillion. All for a few cowards to appear tough.

Friday, March 29, 2013

91 Wins

That's what the Reds should manage, since I made my annual over-under bet on wins, and took the under on 90.5.  Back in 2011, I took the over, and the team played like shit.  So now I just try to get the highest number possible and take the under.  Consider it my effort to give them luck.

Common Pesticides Hurt Bees' Brains

To investigate, scientists looked at two common pesticides: neonicotinoids, which are used to control pests on oil seed rape and other crops, and a group of organophosphate chemicals called coumaphos, which are used to kill the Varroa mite, a parasite that attacks the honey bee.
Neonicotinoids are used more commonly in Europe, while coumaphos are more often employed in the United States.
Work carried out by the University of Dundee, in Scotland, revealed that if the pesticides were applied directly to the brains of the pollinators, they caused a loss of brain activity.
Dr Christopher Connolly said: "We found neonicotinoids cause an immediate hyper-activation - so an epileptic type activity - this was proceeded by neuronal inactivation, where the brain goes quiet and cannot communicate any more. The same effects occur when we used organophosphates.
"And if we used them together, the effect was additive, so they added to the toxicity: the effect was greater when both were present."
Another series of laboratory-based experiments, carried out at Newcastle University, examined the behaviour of the bees.
The researchers there found that bees exposed to both pesticides were unable to learn and then remember floral smells associated with a sweet nectar reward - a skill that is essential for bees in search of food.
Dr Sally Williamson said: "It would imply that the bees are able to forage less effectively, they are less able to find and learn and remember and then communicate to their hive mates what the good sources of pollen and nectar are."
That is not good.

Has Marriage Changed?

Conor Friedersdorf argues that it hasn't changed as much as we think:
Think of the math. My grandparents raised their kids in a couple decades -- that is to say, for less than a third of their time together. The subsequent love and support they gave their kids and grandkids cannot be overstated. But the child-rearing obligation that traditionalists want to preserve -- a stable, two-parent household composed of a child's biological parents -- was met decades ago. Once their kids left home, once my parents got married and had me, my grandparents didn't imagine the core of their marriage as exhausted. They expected "to love and cherish, in sickness and in health," 'til death. They've spent their "empty nest" years with one another as business partners, traveling companions, and friendly competitors in gin rummy.
That wasn't ever negotiable.
I once conducted an interview about another couple from the World War II generation. Their granddaughter shared the advice her grandparents gave her prior to her wedding. "They sat me down and told me, 'Anyone can get a divorce nowadays. But we never did because, as individuals, you die alone. And do you want, grandchild, to be 80 years old and to look back on your life having stopped and started and stopped and started? Or do you want to look back knowing that you went through and got through and learned from and moved forward with one person?' They kept it up, not because of the children or the social implications, but because they were always curious about what would happen at the end. And their comment to me was that the end proved much more worthwhile to them, having gone through it together rather than having done it alone."
I would posit that it has changed in the way that people may be less likely to make the sacrifices necessary to make things work out.  There isn't the social stigma in calling it quits like there used to be.  I think it is easier at the point where his grandparents are in their lives to reflect back on everything and realize that the good times and positive benefits outweigh the challenges.  I also think that people today seem so much less tied to a single place than they did in the past.  Some of the older farmers ended up marrying their neighbors.  Their social circles were constrained by geography.  However, I think Conor is right on the main merits of his argument.  And it is a beautiful thing to hear my grandparents' generation talk about how much they love their spouses.

Fractal Architecture?

Building Awe-Inducing Crystalline Structures from The Creators Project on Vimeo.

I just don't understand architects. I think maybe it is their focus on beauty and appearance as opposed to function and purpose. When I look at nature, I am looking for the secrets to simplicity as opposed to complexity. I realize that nature and the world are complex, but I don't want to add complexity to it. I want to start at the most basic, and build from there.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Causes Fairy Circles?

Thousands of "fairy circles" dot the landscape of the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia. Why these barren circles appear in grassland areas has puzzled scientists for years.
 A scientist thinks it is termites:
If you fly from Angola down to South Africa you'll spot thousands of these fairy circles down below. They look like moon craters and are anywhere from the size of a manhole cover to 30 feet across.
Scientists have had some good guesses as to what causes them (none of which include fairies or people): poisonous plants, insects, seeping gas, even radiation. But no one could find evidence of any of these.
Then came one very determined biologist: Norbert Juergens. He traveled from the University of Hamburg in Germany to dig trenches inside the circles.
Juergens found that within every circle, the sandy earth beneath the surface was wet, even in the dry season. Juergens, who is not given to excitability, knew he was onto something extraordinary. "It was an exciting observation," he says, "because water is the most important resource in the desert. I sort of discovered 1 million little circular oases in the desert at that moment."
There was something else odd about the circles — they were ringed by tufts of year-round grass. "It was a plantation," he says. "It's a plantation of plants created by some organism."
Juergens had been commuting back and forth from Germany for a couple of years, examining scores of these circles, and still hadn't found the cause. An organism, yes, he figured, but what kind?
He found spiders, beetles, ants and even aardvarks in the circles. And termites — and only termites showed up beneath every circle.
It is amazing that it took this long to figure it out.  But, there is also this:
JONATHAN WILKER: This is what happens when I'm on an airplane, and it comes up that I'm a scientist, people say: What do you study? And I'll say, yeah, you know, when you're at the beach and you see all those creatures stuck to rocks. And they'll say, yeah, yeah. I said, so, we're trying to figure out how they do that. And the typical response is oh.
PALCA: And if that's not enough to get people interested, Wilker lets the other shoe drop.
WILKER: Look, these glues that these animals are producing, they're really strong and they set wet. Go to the hardware store, buy everything on the shelf and try to glue two things together underwater, and you're not going to be able to do it. And this is how we're going to learn how to do that.
PALCA: This highly serious search for the sticky secrets of shellfish - try saying that three times fast - is in a boring old lab building on the Purdue University campus. Inside one of the rooms, Wilker shows off three giant tanks of saltwater and an elaborate pumping system to keep the water moving.
The guy has been studying shellfish for 14 years while trying to figure out what chemicals the animals emit to glue themselves to piers and ships and rocks.  Pretty freaking amazing. Maybe we can learn something worthwhile from the damn zebra mussels that plague the Great Lakes.

How Will History Judge the Roberts Court?

Andrew Cohen:
Fifty years from now, when same-sex marriage is recognized in every American jurisdiction, our relatively enlightened descendants will cull through the transcripts and audio feeds of this week's oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court in Perry and Windsor and shake their heads in wonder and dismay. Look at how little time the learned justices spent exploring the intent and effect of the discriminatory laws, our grandchildren will say, and look at how much time they spent instead searching among the weeds for ways to avoid a definitive ruling about the constitutional rights of millions of people.
Tuesday's argument in the Proposition 8 case out of California was void of any reference to, let alone meaningful discussion of, the virulently anti-gay sentiment that helped ensure passage of the 2008 ballot measure banning same-sex marriages in the state -- both marriages already in place and marriages to come. And Wednesday's argument over the federal Defense of Marriage Act only touched on this discrimination in passing, as if the justices were concerned that America would somehow be offended it it were reminded of the bigotry and prejudice that accompanied passage of the measure in 1996.
The whole post is worth reading.  I'd like to expand Cohen's point.  History will not be kind to the conservative movement.  It isn't that many of the positions they hold would be nice in a perfect world.  It is that they won't face up to the fact that it isn't a perfect world, and that their ideas are extremely damaging in the world we have.  50 years from now, people will look back on this time and wonder how such a fairly small and uninformed bunch of assholes could do so much damage to such a tremendous country.  Gay marriage is just one of a number of issues where conservatives are positioning themselves as selfish, cruel, unthinking dickheads who would cut off their nose to spite their face.  Unfortunately, we share that face with them.

Peak Farmland?

A recent study concludes that world food production will be able to be completed on fewer acres than is now farmed as crop yields increase and population growth rates decrease:

Our analysis encompasses the leverage on cropland exerted by parents, workers, consumers, and farmers. Since 1960, their combined behaviors havespared areas of land that are immense when compared with what continuation of birth rates, appetites, yields, and other factors might have led us to expect.  India and China alone have spared an area more than three times the size of France or a dozen times Iowa. Absent the slowing population growth, Evolving tastes, and improving agricultural practices, unimaginable destruction of nature would have occurred.
The past 50 years have already witnessed important peaks for environment and resources. The rate of increase of world population peaked arounnd 1970 and has slowed considerably since then. Peaks of forest destruction also have passed with a transition from less to more forests in many countries and regions. By the 1980s wooded areas in all major temperate and boreal forests were expanding. After 1990, growing stock expanded in many forested countries (Kauppi et al. 2006), and during 1990–2010 the density of forests grew in all world regions, albeit unevenly (rautiainen et al. 2011). Like farms and their crops, the productivity of forests providing wood products has risen. meanwhile consumption has fallen as e-readers replace paper and as demand for other wood products, such as railroad ties and telephone poles, has declined. As we hinted above, peaks of farmers’ use of nitrogen and water may also have passed.
Hopefully they are right.  I'm not as confident, and I'm also concerned that climate change may hurt our prime farm land.  This does serve as a warning that the current boom times won't last.  I've been expecting that.

Diagram of a Farmer's Brain

My former boss and his wife provided me with this:

I would change tweed to plaid or flannel, and add a section that says Bad Ideas.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Supreme Court and Gay Marriage

I'm just shooting off my mouth right now, but my prediction is that the Supreme Court will strike down DOMA 5-4 or, I think more likely, 6-3, while running for cover and dismissing the Prop 8 case, allowing the lower court ruling to stand.  I know, that isn't a really bold prediction, but I just don't see the court getting out ahead of the curve and getting where they'll have to take us in 10, or more likely 15 years.  However, the discussion at the beginning of the week highlighted a very interesting set of graphs.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to find them.  One showed the gradual acceptance of interracial marriage that took decades, while the other showed the dramatic acceptance of gay marriage.  I think the long, slow acceptance of interracial marriage, and the realization of how odd it was that it took that long to accept, has played at least a small part in the much more rapid change in opinion on gay marriage.  If I find those graphs, I'll post them.

Update:  This is interesting.

How Maxwell House Conquered Passover

From Fast Company:
Over 90 years ago, American Jews celebrated the Passover holiday by eating matzo and unleavened treats, but when they reached for a beverage they shunned coffee in favor of tea. It seems there wasn’t a coffee brand certified kosher for Passover. In 1923, Maxwell House saw an opportunity and introduced the first kosher for Passover coffee; others soon followed. Looking to solidify the brand in the minds of Jewish consumers in the early 1930s, Maxwell House’s ad agency employed an innovative marketing tactic for the time: branded content.
Well, that’s what we call it today. In fact, Maxwell House decided to publish a book, specifically a Haggadah, and offer it to customers for free with the purchase of a can of coffee. (A Haggadah recounts the Exodus from Egypt, comprised of prayers, songs, and stories which guide the Passover Seder.) The Maxwell House edition was an instant hit. Today, it’s the most popular Haggadah in the world, with over 50 million printed.  This Haggadah is so ubiquitous that it’s become difficult to find others. When I went to a Judaica shop in NYC looking to buy a nice set of Haggadahs, the salesperson suggested I hit the supermarket and pick up the Maxwell House edition: “They’re really good,” she exclaimed.
Why is it so ubiquitous?  Well, they made it easy to get:
 Before Maxwell House published its own, consumers purchased many different versions of Haggadahs. As the number of Seder guests grew, people needed to purchase or borrow additional books and find the right match. Maxwell House made it easier to bring family and friends together year after year with one common text.
That little bit of Passover trivia is brought to you by Folgers (j/k).

Drought Hurts Corn Cob Pipe Maker

Morning Edition:
RACHEL LIPPMANN, BYLINE: Walk into the sprawling brick building that houses the Missouri Meerschaum Company, and you get the sense that not much has changed since the 1880s. Sure, there's electricity now and running water. But when it comes to making the pipes that made the company famous, the process is pretty much the same. And that's just how general manager Phil Morgan likes it.
PHIL MORGAN: We like the heritage nature, the authentic nature of our pipe. You know, we like the - it's a natural product.
LIPPMANN: So this buzzing sound emanating from the second floor of his 133-year-old factory makes him cringe.
MORGAN: And I'd love for this - for it to be dead quiet up here. And the only thing to hear, a few squirrels running around.
LIPPMANN: Mounds of cobs are scattered across the wood floor of this unheated space, waiting to be cut into pieces, shaped into pipes of all sizes, coated in plaster, and shipped all over the world. In an ideal situation, this room would be full of cobs and they would sit for two years, drying naturally. So corn grown in 2012 wouldn't become pipes until 2014.
But the buzzing from the propane heater is helping these cobs dry more quickly. Though the weather was fine in 2010 and 2011, the cobs that grew were of poor quality. Morgan needed a good 2012 growing season to replenish his company's supply.
MORGAN: We had the seed we needed. But it was really warm in the spring, planted it early, the corn looked fantastic, and then the drought hit. Our field is irrigated so it wasn't just the drought, it was the heat. Corn does not like heat.
LIPPMANN: That 2012 crop produced just a third of the cobs needed. With inventory already low, there wasn't time for them to dry naturally. So that means firing up the propane. In addition, Morgan had to temporarily stop offering bigger pipes. And total sales, which had been rising in recent years, dropped.
MORGAN: It isn't just from a sales standpoint and a profitability standpoint. It's just what it does to your psyche. I mean, when you start thinking that hey, oh my God, are we going to have to quit making pipes for some period of time.
LIPPMANN: But cob smokers are loyal customers. And if recent sales at John Dengler Tobacconist in St. Charles are any indication, business will continue to be brisk. Owner Larry Muench sells about 700 Missouri Meerschaums a year.
LARRY MUENCH: It always starts in the end of August, September, when the college kids come in town. And I always start them off with a corn cob. Why should then spend 30, 40, 50 bucks and find out they don't like it. So I tell the kids if they buy a corn cob and they don't like it, just wait for winter and put it in the snowman's mouth.
I really liked the part about selling the corn cob pipes to the college students.  I bought a Missouri Meerschaum between high school and college, and smoked it on and off through school, before I decided that, like with cigars, waking up with the taste of an ashtray in your mouth wasn't all that cool.  I always loved the smell of pipe tobacco, and the smell of it burning wasn't too bad either, but the taste wasn't all that great.  I went with the corn cob pipe both for price and sentimentality.  I probably still have it somewhere, but I have no idea where.  Anyway, this piece brought back old memories.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Those Damn Cows

I went over to the farm tonight to feed the cows, and as I drove up the road, I could see one cow way back in the corner of the pasture.  When I got into the barnyard, I could see it was one of the Herefords, which could only mean one thing-she'd had a calf.  Sure enough, I walked back there, and she had a little bull calf standing beside her on this little two foot wide muddy flat spot up against the fence, right beside a slope down into a washout with about a foot of standing water in it.  This was approximately four feet from where I found a two-day old calf frozen in the washout two months ago.  I tried picking up the calf to get him away from the standing water, but I only made it 10 feet.  So I went over to mom and dad's to get some supper and regroup. 

The cow and calf were about 300 yards from the barn, and it was just too soft to drive anything back there.  My "best" idea was to get a tarp out of the barn, put the calf on it, and drag him up to the barn, to get him out of the wind and let him warm up (and keep him from falling down in the washout or the manure pit or something).  This worked marginally well.  I would get him going 30 or 40 yards, catch my breath, then he'd stand up and wander off, or his mom would come up to check on him and stand on the tarp.  I'd have to catch him and throw him back on the tarp, or shoo her away and get started dragging him again.  I felt like Holling on Northern Exposure, when he paid a farmer to pull a horse-drawn plow for him.  After about a dozen stops, and a massive amount of profanity, I finally got him up to the barn, packed into some straw, and then shooed his mom into the barn with him.  He was pretty beat, and I wasn't much better myself.  I figure if he's alive on Friday he'll probably make it. 

I looked around for a video clip of Holling pulling the plow, but I couldn't find it.  I did find this clip, however, which reminds me why I loved that show.  In it, Holling had returned to school because he'd dropped out when he was a kid, and the teacher makes him read his essay to the class:

St. Patrick's Day In Iceland

Some gorgeous video of the Northern Lights (I'm a sucker for these videos):

Irrigation District Cuts Water Withdrawals

Threatened by another summer of crop-shriveling drought, Kansans are watching a bold experiment unfold in Sheridan County, population 2,556, a sliver of the state's northwest corner. On lands dominated by agriculture, locals have agreed to across-the-board cuts to water use.
The state of Kansas didn't order the cuts, nor did a regional entity. Rather, at a time when states and locals are jockeying for water, stakeholders in the 100 square-mile "high priority" (meaning particularly parched) zone of Northwest Kansas Groundwater District 4 reached a consensus to reduce groundwater pumping by 20 percent over the next five years. They are gambling on short-term wants for a longer-term need - to preserve the aquifer their lives depend upon.
"We're doing it because we think it's right," said Wayne Bossert, the district's manager. "We have high hopes for it."
Sheridan's plan is just one of many major efforts to fend off a slow-moving disaster with national implications: The High Plains Aquifer, which feeds some of the world's most productive croplands, is running dry.
The aquifer, also called the Ogallala, is one of the world's largest underground sources of freshwater. It stretches 174,000 square miles through the middle of the country from South Dakota to Northwest Texas, touching parts of Kansas and five other states, watering more than one-quarter of all irrigated acreage in the U.S. and some of world's largest grain cattle feedlots. The Ogallala also provides drinking water to four of every five people living above it.
For decades, farmers and others have been slurping up groundwater far faster than nature can recharge it.

Read more here:
Later on in the article, it points out how water withdrawals in much of the aquifer are more comparable to mining than anything else.  West Texas and western Kansas are in the worst shape right now.

Utica Shale Well Data Due In

Energy producers in the Buckeye State have compared the Utica to the giant Eagle Ford shale play in Texas and declared it a boon for a state still weathering an economic downturn. However, enthusiasm has cooled somewhat since drilling began in 2011, after wells produced more cheap natural gas than the more lucrative oil.
On March 31 this year, data from between 50 and 60 wells drilled in 2012 will be given to the state. It will then be made available on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' website in April, the department said. It did not give a specific date but last year the report came on the second of the month.
While around 500 drilling permits have been issued in the state since 2011, only those wells that have actually produced will be covered in the report. It will show output over the lifetime of every new well, its location, and its owner, providing some proof of which acreage, and which companies, are performing best.
"It is a meaningful sample of wells that will go a long way toward giving investors a sense of whether the Utica is the next big thing," said Morningstar analyst Mark Hanson, who covers companies operating in the state.
We should get some idea of what the drillers have found so far.  My guess would be probably not as much as has been hyped.

How Tax Cuts Impact Rural Areas

Ben Merriman looks at who gets hurt in his home state of Kansas:
Low population density makes rural communities extremely vulnerable to state cuts. The elimination of a school or clinic may force residents to drive to the next county (or the one after) to access a service. There are nearly 150 public high schools in the state with 150 students or fewer, many of them barely able to remain open. Cuts in state funding for public education, which could come to thousands of dollars per pupil in the coming years, will force many of these small school districts to close or consolidate. This will produce endless travel time for the unlucky students. It will also mean the demise of many small communities: the social life of the local school sustains many towns throughout the state, and when a high school closes, the community often dissolves.
Huge cuts to the state income tax will be offset by the continuation of a sales tax increase and the elimination of a number of tax credits primarily benefiting the poor. Kansans making less than $20,000 could see their annual taxes increase by several hundred dollars. This does not include other ways that life will be made more expensive. Lower levels of state support for necessary institutions such as universities, courts, and roads will be made up by increases in tuition, fees, and tolls. In the past decade, the University of Kansas tripled tuition in an attempt to make up for cuts in state support. Despite this the University has seen increases in class size and time to graduation, lower completion rates, and the deferral of vital maintenance.
Underneath taxation is an idea of society. Taxes in Kansas have long supported public goods that are both necessary and too expensive to be paid for solely by the people who need them. Because the state is huge and speckled with small communities, infrastructure and schooling were important funding priorities. Though the political life of mid-20th century Kansas was unglamorous, it supported an idea of prudent, rational government that attempted to provide for the necessities of civic life.
The suburbs get to keep more money, and the rural areas get hit. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

China Coal Plants Drain Water Supply

Scientific American:
A report published today by Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes that the top five Chinese power generators -- China Huaneng Group, China Datang Corp., China Huadian Corp., China Guodian Corp. and China Power Investment Corp. -- have hundreds of gigawatts of coal-fired power plants in the country's dry north and that retrofitting them with water-efficient solutions could cost billions of dollars.
"Today, 85 percent of China's power generation capacity is located in water-scarce regions and 15 percent of this still relies on water-intensive, once-through cooling technologies," said Maxime Serrano Bardisa, one of the report's authors as well as Bloomberg New Energy Finance's water analyst.
At the same time, the nation is seeing less and less water. According to separate research by the China Environmental Forum, an initiative of the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' global sustainability and resilience program, China's total water reserves dropped 13 percent from 2000 to 2009, with the water shortage being particularly severe in the north.
The coal industry has played a big role in the shortage, the report says. Northern China has 20 percent of the country's freshwater supply, but its coal mining and coal-fired power generators are thirsty for water. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that in 2010 alone, the two sectors combined withdrew 98 billion cubic meters of fresh water across the region -- or nearly 15 percent of China's total freshwater withdrawals in the year.
I'm glad I don't have to figure out how to clean up the mess the Chinese are making of their country.  It may keep the Communist party in power a while, but they will reap the whirlwind in the not too distant future.  The Atlantic features pictures of the pollution of China's water here.

Signs of Danger in Farmland Prices?

As far back as 2011, when the run-up in land prices was still gathering momentum, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation held a symposium in Arlington, Va., for bankers, regulators and investors titled “Don’t Bet the Farm: Assessing the Boom in U.S. Farmland Prices.” But banks and others continued to offer farmers low-interest loans.
Debt held by the nation’s farmers has risen nearly 30 percent since 2007, to an expected $277.4 billion this year. The bulk of those loans were made by commercial banks, the farm credit system and the Farm Service Agency. Some regulators and critics say that figure is most likely undercounting debt from specialized finance institutions or credit extended by seed companies like Monsanto and equipment manufacturers like John Deere.
While national data does not show sharp jumps in closely watched debt gauges, some analysts point to other data that reveal farm debts have already topped levels reached just before the farm crisis of the ’80s. Data that the Kansas Farm Management Association has collected from more than 1,300 farms in the state showed the amount of debt compared to the value of underlying assets had climbed to 25.5 percent at the end of 2011, slightly above where it stood in 1979.
Some farmers are in over their heads already. One of the heartland’s most talked about bankruptcies in years is that of Stamp Farms, of Decatur, Mich. In less than a decade, Michael D. Stamp, 37, built his farm into a huge operation growing corn and soybeans. In November, he was hailed as a savvy farming entrepreneur on the cover of Top Producer, an agricultural magazine, and was one of three national finalists in its annual contest.
I still predict that when the shit hits the fan, all the talk of farmers buying land with cash will prove to be more banker bullshit.  Nobody is laying out $20,000 an acre cash for farm ground.  They have to be borrowing against land they already own.  Maybe I'm wrong, but all the claims of the realtors smell a lot like the the feedlot.

The Other Dave

The Other Dave from The Other Dave on Vimeo.

I used to think that surviving getting struck by lightning would be a great story to tell, as long as you didn't end up wetting your pants when somebody fired up the microwave or something. Then I was closing a window when lightning struck a tree outside.  It threw a piece of bark through the window, throwing glass all over my bedroom, peppered the siding of the house with bark and fried my well pump.  That was close enough for me to realize lightning was wicked powerful.  This video reinforces that belief.

Are Aircraft Carriers Going the Way of the Battleships?

Wired looks at threats to the carriers, and some of the alternatives the Navy might look to:
Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, a historian, analyst and futurist, caused a stir by making the case against the Navy’s cherished supercarrier fleet. Hendrix’s recent study ”At What Cost a Carrier?” (.pdf), published by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security, urges the Navy to begin drawing down its 10-11 Nimitz-class flattops and follow-on Ford-class vessels.
A single new carrier costs $14 billion to build plus $7 million a day to operate. “Not a good use of U.S. taxpayer money,” Hendrix asserts. Moreover, he contends that huge carriers with their five-acre flight decks and scores of warplanes are ill-suited to the American way of war, in which precision and avoiding civilian casualties are more important than overwhelming firepower. Worst, Hendrix warns, the carriers — major symbols of American military might — are increasingly big targets for China’s DF-21D ship-killing ballistic missiles.
$14 billion, plus $7 million a day in operational expense?  That would be $2.5 billion a year to operate.  That is absolutely crazy.

Hayek, Friedman, Regulation and the GOP

As he undertook an American lecture tour in 1944, Hayek expressed frustration that many of his most ardent acolytes seemed not to have read the book. Although “The Road to Serfdom” expressed deep anxieties about central planning, it was also explicit about the positive role that government could play. “Probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause,” Hayek wrote, as a “wooden insistence” on “laissez-faire.”
Hayek was quick to point out a number of areas where regulations might be beneficial, including the restriction of excessive working hours, the maintenance of sanitary conditions and the control of poisonous substances. And he argued that the price system became “ineffective” when property owners weren’t charged for the damages they caused; hence the need to regulate deforestation, farming, and the smoke and noise produced by factories. “In such instances,” he wrote, “we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism.”
Hayek’s views were shared by many economists at the time. Frank Knight, of the University of Chicago, provided a classic statement of the justification for regulation in his essay “The Ethics of Competition”: “In a developed social order hardly any ‘free exchange’ between individuals is devoid of either good or bad results for outsiders,” he wrote. He argued that “social action” was necessary to promote exchanges that diffuse benefits and suppress exchanges that diffuse evils that aren’t reflected in market prices.
Economists such as Knight and Hayek worried deeply about the erosion of free markets, but saw their chief antagonist as “central planning” rather than “regulation.” Central planning, as Hayek explained it, involved “direction of all economic activity according to a single plan, laying down how the resources of society should be ‘consciously directed’ to serve particular ends in a definite way.”
Much of the contemporary animus against excessive regulation more closely resembles ideas first brought into general circulation by Milton Friedman. Where Hayek perceived a host of areas that might be improved by regulation, Friedman saw almost none. In the 1960s, although very few among even his closest allies shared such views, Friedman advocated for the abolition of almost every regulatory arm of the federal government. He argued that the agencies with famous abbreviations -- the ICC, FCC, FDA -- should all be shuttered to grant greater discretion to consumers, whose actions Friedman viewed as the most reliable record of public opinion. If doctors and dentists would be allowed to practice without licensing requirements, he said, the cost of care would plunge, yielding benefits that far outweighed any dangers that uncertified practitioners might pose. (If one proved inept with a drill, Friedman reasoned, consumer preferences would soon take that into account.)
The Friedman concept of the evil of all regulation has become gospel in the Republican Party, and it just isn't based in common sense reality.  It is funny that Hayek has become the go-to name among conservatives pretending to know something about economics and trying to secure the gold bug vote, even though they don't seem to realize he offered a defense of socialized medicine.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day

March 20:

M42: Inside the Orion Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Reinhold Wittich
Explanation: The Great Nebula in Orion, an immense, nearby starbirth region, is probably the most famous of all astronomical nebulas. Here, glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1500 light-years away. In the above deep image in assigned colors highlighted by emission in oxygen and hydrogen, wisps and sheets of dust and gas are particularly evident. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye near the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. In addition to housing a bright open cluster of stars known as the Trapezium, the Orion Nebula contains many stellar nurseries. These nurseries contain much hydrogen gas, hot young stars, proplyds, and stellar jets spewing material at high speeds. Also known as M42, the Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.

Winter Makes One More Pass Through

Via Scientific American:
The calendar says spring but the forecast looked like winter as a major storm this Palm Sunday weekend was forecast to bring heavy snow, flooding rain and severe thunderstorms as it moved east across the United States.
Snow had already started falling in eastern Colorado and parts of Kansas early on Saturday, according to senior meteorologist Tom Kines.
Interstate-70 was closed from east of Denver to the Kansas state line because of blowing and drifting snow, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. Snow delayed arriving flights at Denver International Airport, said spokesman Heath Montgomery.
The snow was expected to move east to Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, over the next 24 hours, before moving into the mid-Atlantic states, he said.
The snow could measure from three to six inches in the Midwest, but accumulations in the Baltimore-Washington area could be much less due to higher temperatures, Kines said.
A potential for "tremendous rainfall" could hit areas south of the snow line, according to
The I-70 storm?  They are calling for 3 to 8 inches of snow here.  I guess we'll have to wait and see.

How Unpopular is the Republican Party?

In my decades of polling, I recall only one moment when a party had been driven as far from the center as the Republican Party has been today.
The outsize influence of hard-line elements in the party base is doing to the GOP what supporters of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern did to the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s — radicalizing its image and standing in the way of its revitalization.
In those years, the Democratic Party became labeled, to its detriment, as the party of “acid, abortion and amnesty.” With the Democrats’ values far to the left of the silent majority, McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972.
While there are no catchy phrases for the Republicans of 2013, their image problems are readily apparent in national polls. The GOP has come to be seen as the more extreme party, the side unwilling to compromise or negotiate seriously to tackle the economic turmoil that challenges the nation.
How about the GOP as the party of "God, Guns and Gay bashing?"  It doesn't cover all of the idiocies of the party, but definitely highlights some of the main talking points.

The Rich and Charity

Ken Stern:
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.
But why? Lower-income Americans are presumably no more intrinsically generous (or “prosocial,” as the sociologists say) than anyone else. However, some experts have speculated that the wealthy may be less generous—that the personal drive to accumulate wealth may be inconsistent with the idea of communal support. Last year, Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, published research that correlated wealth with an increase in unethical behavior: “While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff later told New York magazine, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.” They are, he continued, “more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.” Colorful statements aside, Piff’s research on the giving habits of different social classes—while not directly refuting the asshole theory—suggests that other, more complex factors are at work. In a series of controlled experiments, lower-income people and people who identified themselves as being on a relatively low social rung were consistently more generous with limited goods than upper-class participants were. Notably, though, when both groups were exposed to a sympathy-eliciting video on child poverty, the compassion of the wealthier group began to rise, and the groups’ willingness to help others became almost identical.
If Piff’s research suggests that exposure to need drives generous behavior, could it be that the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess? Patrick Rooney, the associate dean at the Indiana University School of Philanthropy, told me that greater exposure to and identification with the challenges of meeting basic needs may create “higher empathy” among lower-income donors.
I've always been confounded by the fact that people of more humble means are generally more generous in support of charity than the wealthy.  Of course, a very large percentage of charitable contributions go to churches, and those may not fund anything other than church salaries.  The article also points out that of the largest donations made each year, almost none go to social service organizations, while many go to prep schools, museums and the performing arts.  I think the idea that private charities could handle the burden the government handles dealing with poverty is just smoke blowing by Republicans.  It would be a disaster.

The Great Flood After 100 Years

The Dayton Daily News features a series remembering the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, and its impact on the region:
One hundred years ago today, Daytonians had no idea that the winds from a monster Easter Sunday tornado in Omaha, Neb., and the Gulf Coast states would soon be wreaking havoc with their own city. It already had been an unusually wet winter, saturating the ground and setting the stage for disaster.
On March 21 — Good Friday — the first storm hit, with 45 mph wind gusts that knocked out telegraph lines. The rains began in earnest on March 23, Easter Sunday, pounding the Miami Valley with eight to 11 inches of rain over a five-day period. The runoff found its way to the Great Miami River, at the pinch point where four rivers — including the Mad River, the Stillwater River and the Wolf Creek — meet near downtown Dayton.
In 1913, Dayton was a bustling city of 117,000 residents, the 43rd largest city in the nation. It had endured 10 major floods, rebuilding the earthen levees each time, and seemed to regard occasional flooding as the price of prosperity. But this time, the levees couldn’t withstand the sheer volume of water from the Great Miami and its tributaries — 250,000 cubic feet of water per second through a channel with a capacity for 25,000 cubic feet. “This flood was so large that 90 percent of the total volume of water had to flow through Dayton’s city streets,” explained Julia-Dian Reed of the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
Sirens, alarms and church bells began sounding during the early morning hours on Tuesday, March 25, but many Daytonians failed to take the warnings seriously, until it was almost too late. Fred Noble brushed off his wife Wealthie’s concerns about the safety of their family of 11 children, who lived at 142 W. Columbia St., very close to the levee. “It gets this way every year; we’ll be OK,” he assured her.
By early Tuesday morning, the river level had risen to 11.6 feet, raising deepening concern and attracting gawkers to the bridges and riverbanks, unaware that three of the city’s levees had come close to failing. Curiosity turned to terror around 8 a.m. when the main levee broke at Webster Street and a 10- to 20-foot wall of water swept through St. Clair, Jefferson, Main and Ludlow streets. Thousands ran or swam for higher ground.
The flood brought about the creation of the Miami Conservancy District, which designed and constructed a series of levees and flood control reservoirs to protect the region from a flood 40% larger than the 1913 flood:
The Official Plan Flood (OPF) is the flood on which all Miami Conservancy District channels, levees and dams are designed. The March 1913 flood was, and remains, the flood of record for the Great Miami River Watershed. 
The rain fell on ground already saturated from the melting of ice and snow of a hard winter, resulting in a runoff rate of 90 percent.
After an exhaustive investigation of precipitation and flooding data, Arthur Morgan, the system’s engineer, felt that a flood protection system that could handle the 1913 flood, plus 40 percent additional runoff, should protect the cities from all flooding by the Great Miami River.

Into The Trash

My bracket has more holes in it than a wheel of Swiss cheese.  Picking an all-Jesuit final featuring Gonzaga and Georgetown was not a good idea.  Looks like I'll have to wait until next year.