Thursday, December 12, 2013

Into The Atmosphere

Into The Atmosphere from Michael Shainblum on Vimeo.

Drought and Civil War

How four years of drought helped start Syria's civil war:

Four years of devastating drought beginning in 2006 caused at least 800,000 farmers to lose their entire livelihood and about 200,000 simply abandoned their lands, according to the Center for Climate & Security. In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others, crop failures reached 75 percent. And generally as much as 85 percent of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms, and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.” 
As they flocked into the cities and towns seeking work and food, the “economic” or “climate” refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water, and jobs, but also with the existing foreign refugee population. Syria was already a refuge for a quarter of a million Palestinians and about 100,000 Iraqis who had fled the war and occupation. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Survival was the key issue. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008 he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian minister of agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” His appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time,” according to a cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
The Egypt uprisings grew out of wheat shortages. Never underestimate the availability of food as it relates to stability.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Depressing Start to the New Year?

Looking over the bowl matchups, it appears that New Year's Day might be kind of ugly for the Big Ten.  While Michigan State and Stanford should be pretty evenly matched in the Rose Bowl, and Wisconsin could give South Carolina a run, Iowa vs. LSU and Nebraska-Georgia just don't appear to be fair fights to this guy.  I anticipate that the Big Ten will again struggle during the bowl season.


Winter from Paul Klaver on Vimeo.

On Two Americas, and Capitalism's Threat To Itself

I highly recommend this speech by David Simon.  A sample:
And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we're going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.
Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.
It's pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don't let it work entirely. And that's a hard idea to think – that there isn't one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we've dug for ourselves. But man, we've dug a mess.
Please, go read the whole thing.

Weirdness Around the Solstice

A little explanation of the shortest day of the year, and the earliest sunset and latest sunrise:
If you live around latitude 42N—a well-populated latitude in North America and Europe, taking in Boston, Rome, and Vladivostok—today (December 8) is the day you'll experience the earliest sunset of the year. Those who live farther north, in London or Moscow, can expect the earliest sunset on Thursday. Those farther south, in Miami or Mumbai, already had their earliest sunset a few days ago.
Wait a minute. Isn't the solstice, December 21, still more than a week away, the day of the earliest sunset? And the date of the year's latest sunrise, as well? The late sunrise and early sunset combine on the solstice to create the day with the shortest amount of daylight. Right? 
Actually, that's a fantasy. The earliest sunset really comes in the first week in December, and the latest sunrise occurs in early January. Yet December 21 really is the shortest day of the year. What sort of astronomical hijinks are responsible for this absurd state of affairs?
Blame it on Earth's non-circular orbit and its tilt in relation to the Sun.
More details if you click through the link.  This kind of stuff makes my head hurt.  It reminds me how brilliant Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were when they were figuring out the heliocentric solar system.

Pilot Pork Inspection Program Hits Snags

The idea for the program sounded promising: If plants hired their own quality-assurance officers to sort out diseased carcasses and parts before they reached government inspectors, then, proponents theorized, there would be fewer carcasses for the USDA to inspect and reject. This weed-out of diseased animals earlier in the process would reduce the chance of food contamination; it would also allow plants the flexibility to devise their own inspection processes, rather than adhering to rigid cookie-cutter requirements; and, best of all, these efficiencies would streamline production, reducing the cost of pork for consumers.
Almost from the moment the program was fully implemented in 2003, the participating meatpackers saw huge benefits. In 2004, Excel and Hatfield achieved the largest production increases (measured by total number of swine) of any two packers in the U.S. The other three plants accelerated production for Hormel—not just at the official Hormel plant in Fremont, but also at QPP, which bills itself as a “custom packer” for Hormel, and at Farmer John, which Hormel purchased at the end of 2004. Thus, for the last decade, Hormel’s three cut-and-kill operations—the plants that supply all 9.4 million hogs annually for its operation nationwide—have been among these select five plants that have profited from dramatically increased line speeds.
But if packers have been delighted by the increased output, workers’ rights advocates say that runaway production increases have also jeopardized safety...Equally troubling, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has raised concerns that faster line speeds could compromise food safety. In May, the OIG released a report finding enforcement of protocols at the five pilot plants was so lax that between 2008 and 2011 three ranked among the top 10 violators of food safety requirements. That’s out of 616 pork-packing plants nationwide. As recently as last year, inspectors at the five test plants found hog carcasses bound for processing with lesions from tuberculosis, septic arthritis (with bloody fluid pouring from joints), and fecal smears. The OIG’s assessment warned that “recurring, severe violations may jeopardize public health.”
Wait, self-regulation might not be working?  Companies get richer, but workers and the public face greater danger?  No, not in an unregulated market.  Seriously, who is surprised by the outcome of this pilot program.  As the article goes on to say.  A similar program is going into effect across the poultry industry, and watchdog groups fear the pork pilot program will be expanded to the entire industry.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Not Much Defense

Here are the statistics from Mount Union's 62-59 win over Wesley:
WesleyStatisticsMount Union
25% (2 of 8) THIRD DOWN EFFICIENCY 35% (6 of 17)
0% (0 of 0) FOURTH DOWN EFFICIENCY 33% (1 of 3)
Total Offensive Plays
Average gain per play
Net yards per pass play
Sacked: Number-Yards
Had intercepted
Rushing Attempts
Average gain per rush
6-219 PUNTS: Number-Yards 6-201
36.5 Average 33.5
0 0
Punt Returns: Number-Yards
Kickoff Returns: Number-Yards
Interception Returns: Number-Yards
11-110 PENALTIES: Number-Yards 8-85
2-2 FUMBLES: Number-Lost 0-0
3-20 SACKS: Number-Yards 3-32
0 0 INTERCEPTIONS: Number-Yards 4-82

633 passing yards and 2 rushing yards?  9.1 yards per play?  Wow.  Mount Union wasn't dominating, but they will be in the Division III semifinals next week versus North Central.  Mary Hardin-Baylor will host Wisconsin-Whitewater.

NASA Photo of the Day

December 1:

A Laser Strike at the Galactic Center
Image Credit: Yuri Beletsky (ESO)
Explanation: Why are these people shooting a powerful laser into the center of our Galaxy? Fortunately, this is not meant to be the first step in a Galactic war. Rather, astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth's ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser -- which appear like an artificial star -- allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. This information is fed back to a VLT telescope mirror which is then slightly deformed to minimize this blurring. In this case, a VLT was observing our Galaxy's center, and so Earth's atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed. As for inter-galaxy warfare, when viewed from our Galaxy's center, no casualties are expected. In fact, the light from this powerful laser would combine with light from our Sun to together appear only as bright as a faint and distant star.

The Grain Treasure Trove

Modern Farmer:
One day in 1965, several members of the agriculture society were out hiking through the fields of Ardre on Gotland, an island off the Swedish coast, when they discovered a chest on Ragnar Pettersson’s farm. While Pettersson had a reputation for his bread, most people thought he was a little off his rocker. Instead of planting monocultures, he sowed his fields with a hodge-podge of grains. He claimed this blend was the secret behind his superior bread.
What the researchers found there would later spur a radical movement of growers and a new generation of experimental bakers. That cache of seeds is now referred to as the “treasure of Ardre.”
“What we discovered in Ardre was pretty much the history of wheat,” says Curt Niklasson, an organic spelt farmer on Gotland.
At the time, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences had issued a request that all native seeds and animal breeds be recorded, so the discovery was sent to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. As the majority of farmers around the world began growing modern, short-stemmed bread wheat (triticum aestivum) the treasure of Ardre sat, virtually untouched, for 30 years.
It wasn’t until the 1990s when Hans Larsson, a researcher in plant breeding for organic farming at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, decided to unearth Pettersson’s seeds take a closer look at their DNA. He counted at least 70 different varieties of grain. Larsson enlisted the help of Niklasson and together they began experimenting with re-growing the ancient grains. But by 2007 the pot of seeds was nearly depleted.
The majority of the article covers using these heritage grains in bread, but I thought this quick history of wheat interesting:
 Gotland is located smack-dab in the middle of the Baltic trade route between Denmark and Sweden. Originally, einkorn made its way from Persia, crossed with wild grasses and turned into wild emmer, was cultivated and crossed with another wild grass and became spelt. There is evidence that einkorn, emmer and spelt were all cultivated on Gotland as far back as 500 B.C. and seeds of all of these were found in Ardre, including multiple sub-varieties, like summer wheat, white, red, blue and black emmer, and borstvete, a variety of wheat that appears to be unique to Gotland. Borstvete, or “brushed wheat” is now listed in the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
Anyway, I enjoyed the story about Ragnar Petterson.  Farms tend to raise up some "interesting" characters. One thing to remember about the heritage varieties which the trendy gardeners have been flocking back to is that because they haven't been improved by breeding, the yields are tremendously low, and just can't provide cheap food for a global population.

Buckeyes Stumble

Pat Forde:
If you want to know how badly the Big Ten championship loss wounded Ohio State, consider this:
After Michigan State had finished harmin' Ohio, the Buckeyes bagged "Carmen Ohio."
At a school that takes its traditions seriously, that will be considered sacrilege by some fans. Under former coach Jim Tressel, the ritual was non-negotiable: Win or lose, the team would gather postgame before the marching band and sing the song, written more than a century ago by an Ohio State student.
For 24 games under Urban Meyer, that continued. Game ended, players gathered, song was sung. Meyer, a self-proclaimed lover of Buckeye lore, was always front and center, flanked by players on either side.
Made for a nice photo op, at the very least.
Of course, for 24 games there was never a loss, never a chance to test the commitment to tradition in a time of adversity.
Saturday night, that changed. Saturday night, Meyer's Buckeyes finally lost – and did so in shocking fashion. They fell behind the Spartans 17-0, roared back for a 24-17 lead, then were hit with another 17-0 flurry in a devastating 34-24 loss.
National title aspirations vanished. The program that had dominated a diminished Big Ten finally played an opponent of consequence – and was exposed as a cut below championship mettle.
This part is brutal:
This game reinforced what many of us suspected: Ohio State's winning streak was a house of cards, built on soft competition. The non-conference schedule was awful, and the conference has been at a low ebb. For this team to have skated into the BCS championship game would have been a disservice to college football.
The Buckeyes hadn't played a single top-10 opponent since Tressel's last game as coach, the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Their victories shouldn't have impressed anyone, but poll voters are seduced by brand-name programs with perfect records.
And so, after scraping past a hugely disappointing Michigan team by one point last week, a team ranked second by the polls and BCS computers came to Indy with everything within its grasp. Just win this game – in front of a crowd that was 70 percent scarlet-and-gray – and the Buckeyes would go to Pasadena and play for the national title.
It was all right there for the taking. And they blew their chance, ceding a spot in the title game to Auburn – and giving the Southeastern Conference a shot at a great eight straight championships.
The Big Ten has not been very good for a while now.  I think the Buckeyes are lucky they weren't exposed by a non-conference opponent in the BCS Championship.  The four team playoff makes things more rational, but it probably ought to be a requirement for power conference teams to play a serious non-conference opponent each season, so you can tell who the pretenders are.

Why Do You Wake Up Before Your Alarm Clock Goes Off?

Because your brain wants to wake you up on its schedule:
At the center of your brain, a clump of nerves—called the suprachiasmatic nucleus—oversees your body’s clock: the circadian rhythm. It determines when you feel sleepy and when you feel bright-eyed. It controls your blood pressure, your body temperature, and your sense of time. It turns your body into a finely tuned machine.
That machine happens to love predictability. Your body is most efficient when there’s a routine to follow. So if you hit the hay the same time each night and awake the same time each morning, your body locks that behavior in. And that’s where things get sciency.
Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a protein called PER. The protein level rises and falls each day, peaking in the evening and plummeting at night. When PER levels are low, your blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, and thinking becomes foggier. You get sleepy. If you follow a diligent sleep routine—waking up the same time every day—your body learns to increase your PER levels in time for your alarm. About an hour before you’re supposed to wake up, PER levels rise (along with your body temperature and blood pressure). To prepare for the stress of waking, your body releases a cocktail of stress hormones, like cortisol. Gradually, your sleep becomes lighter and lighter.
And that’s why you wake up before your alarm. Your body hates your alarm clock. It’s jarring. It’s stressful. And it ruins all that hard work. It defeats the purpose of gradually waking up. So, to avoid being interrupted, your body does something amazing: It starts increasing PER and stress hormones earlier in the night. Your body gets a head start so the waking process isn’t cut short. It’s so precise that your eyelids open minutes—maybe even seconds—before the alarm goes off.
There’s evidence you can will yourself to wake on time, too. Sleep scientists at Germany’s University of Lubeck asked 15 volunteers to sleep in their lab for three nights. One night, the group was told they’d be woken at 6 a.m., while on other nights the group was told they’d be woken at 9 a.m..
But the researchers lied—they woke the volunteers at 6 a.m anyway. And the results were startling. The days when sleepers were told they’d wake up early, their stress hormones increased at 4:30 a.m., as if they were anticipating an early morning. When the sleepers were told they’d wake up at 9 a.m., their stress hormones didn’t increase—and they woke up groggier.
I definitely believe the part aboutsometimes waking up when you know what time you need to be up. I've pretty much never slept until my alarm goes off  on a day when I'm leaving for vacation, even if I'm getting up a couple hours ahead of normal in order to catch a very early flight.  That always seemed weird to me, but I guess I understand why it happens, now.

More on Farm Profitability

From the Des Moines Register:
Economists expect Iowa corn and soybean growers will lose money over the next four years, beginning with this year’s harvest, squeezed by low commodity prices and high production costs.
The potential downturn follows a boom that saw growers worldwide bringing millions more acres into production to take advantage of record-high prices.
Experts in Iowa compare the downturn to the devastating 1980s farm crisis, the only time in at least 60 years that the state’s farm industry posted a loss. This correction is unlikely to be as severe, because farmers are coming off record-high net incomes. But enough similarities exist to cause concern.
“We’ll likely see some bad times moving forward,” Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agriculture economist, told growers at the Iowa Farm Bureau annual meeting last week.
Even with a hoped-for soft landing, Iowa is expected to see a $1.4 billion hit to farm income this year alone, a blow that will ripple through Iowa’s slowly recovering economy.
Adding to concerns is a proposed rollback in the amount of renewable fuels that must be blended into the U.S. fuel supply. That could trim another 10 cents to 25 cents from corn prices, which, at about $4.20 a bushel, are already 45 percent lower than a year ago, experts say.
However, livestock producers should fare better:
Lower corn and soybean prices, though, will help Iowa livestock producers, who have suffered through recent losses as a result of high corn and soybean prices.
“It’s a little frustrating to hear people talk about how good agriculture has been,” said Ed Greiman, who raises 2,000 cattle near Garner with his brother, Matt. “It’s been phenomenal for corn and soybeans. But just as good as it’s been for them, it’s been as bad for us.”
Livestock production makes up about 40 percent of the state’s farm cash receipts, federal data show.
The experts are still saying that farmers aren't as leveraged as they were in the '80s, so things shouldn't be nearly as bad.  We'll see.  Experts didn't think there would be a residential mortgage crisis, either.