Friday, March 14, 2014

How A Font Is Born

Apple's Most Creative Product: Tax Accounting

Apple, famous for its innovative products, is equally creative in its tax structure.
From 2009 to 2012, it successfully sheltered US$44 billion from being taxed anywhere in the world, including sales generated in Australia.
While there are probably some sound reasons for Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to claim in a US congressional hearing in May 2013 that his company “complies fully with both the laws and spirit of the laws”, many people may think it is immoral for such a successful company to avoid taxation.
But the company shouldn’t be alone in the being blamed for the low tax it pays around the world.
Concerted government action, including specific provisions inserted into US tax laws in 1997, have made it possible for multinationals with complex structures to funnel profits between the gaps of tax authorities.
And it is unlikely to be a coincidence that Irish tax law has been crafted to allow companies incorporated in Ireland to take full advantage of these gaps in the US.....
The tax structure of Apple is designed to ensure that little income is left to be taxed in non-US markets like Australia.
For example, when a customer buys an iPad in Australia for A$600, the sale is recorded as a revenue of Apple’s distribution subsidiary incorporated in Australia.
But this company “purchases” the iPad from another Apple subsidiary incorporated in Ireland for A$550.
The Irish subsidiary is basically a shell company with no employees and no factory. The iPad was manufactured through third party contract manufacturers in China, who shipped it directly to Australia.
Hearings on both sides of the Atlantic have revealed that by effectively disabling one of its major anti-avoidance weapons in its tax law – namely the controlled foreign corporation regime – the US government has been knowingly facilitating the avoidance of foreign income tax by its multinationals.
Originally, under the US anti-avoidance regime called “subpart F”, the kinds of payments made to the Irish shell company by the Australian company would have been considered the income of the US parent.
But changes made in 1997 meant Apple was able to elect to deem the Irish company to have “disappeared” for US tax purposes, thus escaping from the US tax net.
Quite ironic that the U.S. helps multinational corporations avoid taxes in other countries, but insist that foreign banks help track down international income when individuals try to stiff the U.S. on taxes.

Aging Infrastructure Strained By Winter

Polishak is supervising a small crew digging up a snow-covered, frozen parkway in front of a house on Chicago's northwest side. They create a trench more than 5 feet deep to find where a water pipe is leaking.
This is a common problem this winter. Most water pipes in Chicago are buried 5 feet deep, which is usually below the frost line, but record-cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze much deeper than normal.
As the ground freezes, it expands, causing the frozen soil to shift and push against the aging water pipes. That movement can cause the pipes to bend and crack. The same thing has been happening in natural gas pipes, causing a huge increase in gas leaks under city streets this winter.
After removing the rusting piece of water pipe and joint called a "buffalo box," Polishak shows the damage.
"You see how this was supposed to be straight?" he asks, pointing to a slight bend in the pipe. "It literally pulled this thing up, and it broke the joint."

Age is also coming into play:
As weather starts to warm, another problem develops. The pipes are old — really old — and they can break as the temperature fluctuates back and forth. "We've got 4,400 miles of water main across the city of Chicago; about a quarter of that is 100 years or older," he says.
It's not just water pipes. Aging catch basins and sewer lines are crumbling, too — some of which are so old they're made of brick.
And, of course, potholes are opening up on roads and bridges everywhere.
Then we have the East Harlem explosion that destroyed two buildings and killed at least 8 people and injured 60.  Investigators don't know what caused the explosion, but they suspect a natural gas leak:
The NTSB is assuming that the blast was caused by a natural gas leak but hasn't ruled out the possibility that an apartment's stove could be to blame, Sumwalt said.
He noted that the gas main and distribution pipe were intact, which is different from other explosions where pipes have been blown several feet from a building.
"We will be constructing a timeline," Sumwalt said. "We aren't sure how long the leak was there."
The NTSB will try to determine whether there is a relationship between the explosion and a nearby water main break.....
The cause of the blast has centered on reports of leaking natural gas. De Blasio said the explosion erupted only minutes before a crew from the Con Edison power company arrived to check for a reported leak..
Elhadj Sylla, whose wife owns a store nearby, said he was about a block away around 8:45 a.m. when he noticed a faint smell of gas.
Ruben Borrero, a tenant in one of the destroyed buildings, said residents had complained to the landlord about smelling gas as recently as Tuesday.
A few weeks ago, Borrero said, city fire officials were called about the odor, which he said was so bad that a tenant on the top floor broke open the door to the roof for ventilation.
"It was unbearable," said Borrero, who lived in a second-floor apartment with his mother and sister, who were away at the time of the explosion. "You walk in the front door and you want to turn around and walk directly out."
Whether it was from a leak at the main, or a leak inside the building, I would suspect that the age of the pipe may have played a part.  The New York Times is reporting the gas main that served the building was installed in 1887.  We are increasingly going to find that our infrastructure is failing and we can't afford to update it.  We're going to see a slow decline in our standard of living as previously reliable utilities become less dependable.  At the same time, lives will be lost.  Stories like this one in East Harlem will be more common.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sound and Fury

Farmers are once again playing the role of useful idiots for anti-regulation jackasses when it comes to panicking over upcoming EPA rule-making:
The Environmental Protection Agency is set to issue regulations that farmers like Mr. Lemke say may require them to get permits for work for which they have long been exempt. The E.P.A. says the new rules are needed to clarify which bodies of water it must oversee under the federal Clean Water Act, an issue of jurisdiction that the agency says has been muddled by recent court rulings. Opponents say the rules are a power grab that could stifle economic growth and intrude on property owners’ rights.
There is no timetable for when the rules will be released. But if the agency expands its jurisdiction over streams like the one on Mr. Lemke’s farm, he and other farmers say, the move could prove costly by requiring farmers to pay fees for environmental assessments and to get permits just to till the soil near gullies, ditches or dry streambeds where water only flows when it rains. A permit is required for any activity, like farming or construction, that creates a discharge into a body of water covered under the Clean Water Act or affects the health of it, like filling in a wetland or blocking a stream.
The proposed regulations have also raised concerns among industries beyond agriculture, and objections have been filed by several groups.
Folks on the other side of the issue say farmers need to take a chill pill:
Conservation groups, which have pushed for the regulations, say farmers’ concerns are overblown.
Jan Goldman-Carter, a lawyer who works with the National Wildlife Federation on water issues, said the proposals outlined regulatory exemptions that have been in place for decades for plowing, planting, harvesting and maintaining drainage ditches. She said a copy of the draft regulations that was leaked last year clearly shows that to be the case.
“The draft guidance is clear that irrigation ditches, drainage ponds and even groundwater are not considered waters of the U.S. Nor are gullies, rills, swales and other erosional features,” she said. “This has been explained over and over again.” Industry claims that ditches or groundwater might be covered under the new regulations are “just wrong,” she said.
Mrs. Goldman-Carter said the draft copy showed that the regulations would increase the E.P.A.’s jurisdiction over streams by about 3 percent. That is hardly a power grab, she said. Nancy Stoner, the E.P.A.’s acting assistant administrator for water, said the agency had been working with the agriculture industry to make sure its concerns about the proposed rules were addressed. “Our goal is to clarify the types of waters that are covered by the Clean Water Act, offer increased certainty to regulated entities, and keep in place exemptions and exclusions for farming, ranching and forestry,” Ms. Stoner said. Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, acknowledges that the draft regulations do detail exemptions for agriculture. But he said the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers have a lot of authority to interpret the rules as they choose, despite reassurances from Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, and agency officials that farm work will not be curtailed.
I'm sure most farmers won't believe me, but EPA is way too overloaded and underfunded to worry about all the absolutely stupid things farmers do on their land.  You've got to dump 10,000 gallons of hog shit in a creek and kill every fish for three miles to get in any trouble with EPA when it comes to agriculture.  On top of that, the last thing people from EPA want to have to do is to deal with every ass-backward farmer in the entire Corn Belt about plowing and spraying.  It is bad enough for them that they have to deal with small businessmen who are clueless about regulations and think EPA is coming with the black helicopters to throw them in Gitmo for farting.

A few years back, I did a little bit of Section 404 and 401 permitting, which really did suck.  I'm guessing that at this point things have been somewhat streamlined, because the first run at things was extremely confusing and amorphous.  There is no way in Hell that most farmers would need to go through that permitting.  I took a look at the regulations, and didn't really see anything that would negatively impact farmers east of the 98th meridian, as compared to previous understanding of the regulations.

It tends to bother me that so many people work so hard to drum up the most ridiculous fears among farmers about EPA.  I've done a good bit of work with the agency, and as long as you are willing to work with them and don't go out of your way to piss them off, and you aren't clearly and intentionally violating the law, they will work with you pretty well.  Most farmers I know have never dealt with EPA, and don't really know anybody who has, but they've heard all the rural legends about catching cow flatulence, collecting bean dust from the combine and having to get a permit to plow.  It's all bullshit, and the Farm Bureau is terrible about hyping those fears.  That is detrimental to the country at large, but personally, it gives me a great opportunity to free ride on their work.  I can feel confident knowing that Farm Bureau will stir up all the farmers to bother their congressmen about EPA destroying agriculture, and keep EPA far, far from regulating farms.  Sure, I think they are crazy, but it does guarantee that I can continue to say that all their scary stories are bullshit.

Why Democrats Face Rough Going in Fall Elections

Frank Rich:
The Democrats are in deep trouble this fall, but not because of any reading of the tea leaves in this single district, and not because the entire country hates Obamacare. The fundamentals are far more basic. As in 2010, the year of the Democrats’ shellacking, older white voters are more likely to go to the polls than young and minority voters. Part of that is structural: There’s not the excitement of a presidential race (let alone one with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket) to motivate Democrats to show up. And it gets worse: The new Wall Street Journal—NBC News poll this week finds that not only is Obama’s approval rating at a new low (41 percent), but that his disapproval rating among Democrats is up to 20 percent. Thus, Democrats may be even less motivated to go to the polls than they were in 2010. And Republicans — who do hate Obamacare, or, to put a finer point on it, hate Obama — are highly motivated. There’s a lot of talk among Democrats about what message they might come up with to reverse these fundamentals, but I have my doubts there’s any panacea. Perhaps the most optimistic way for a Democrat to look at 2014 is that if it’s a rout, it sets up the Republicans to indulge in overconfidence and other forms of self-destructive hubris in 2016, just as they did in 2012 after their success of 2010.
I really agree with the analysis here.  If you take a look at the election results of 2010, you'll see Republicans winning a lot of seats by not many votes.  For instance, John Kasich won slightly in a year when turnout was significantly down in big cities.  If voters turned out in those areas in 2010 (or 2014) like they did in 2008 or 2012, Ted Strickland is our governor.  Likewise in a number of congressional races that year.  The Democrats' biggest weakness is the apathy of their voters.  And Republicans know this.  That's why they use every trick they can to make it difficult for those voters to cast ballots, whether it is ID requirements, shorter hours for early voting,  fewer polling places in poor areas or relocating polling places.  Whatever they can do to get fewer people to show up is beneficial to them.  I honestly think that is one reason why they govern so fabulously shitty when they get the chance.  It just turns off people from voting.  Except for the elderly folks who vote Republican.  That's also why any Republican plan to fuck with Social Security and Medicare doesn't mess with anybody already in the programs.

Going To State

As the state tournament approaches, the Wisconsin State Journal focuses on the meaning of the trip to Madison for the kids, and the impact on Madison itself:
Since 1920, heroic shots, tearful losses and stunning upsets have been part of the tournament. Regardless of the outcome, the memories of a trip to Madison hold strong....
High school March Madness is meaningful, no matter the decade. And through the years, the event has evolved into one of the state’s signature spectacles and traditions. It’s not as long or crowded as Summerfest or the State Fair, and the $7 million economic impact of the tournament last year was about a third of what World Dairy Expo brought to Madison last fall.
Deer hunting in November and cheering on the Brewers, Packers and Badgers may be more far-reaching, but there is an aura about teams with nicknames such as the Galloping Ghosts, Goslings and Generals traveling to the capital city to play in front of thousands on the Badgers’ home court.
'Merica!  I have to say, I love a place where a list of important things goes like this:
State Fair
World Dairy Expo
High School State Basketball Tournament
Deer hunting
Brewers, Packers and Badgers
Left unsaid because it is unnecessary: Farming, beer, bratwurst and cheese 
The main reason I highlighted this, though, is because it points out how significant the trip to the state tournament is to people in outlying areas, especially when the trip is to the state capital and/or the large land-grant state university.  Alter the description a little bit, put in Columbus or Indianapolis in place of Madison, and you get the same thing.  The kids who make that trip, and the friends and family who go to watch them, will remember it until old age turns their brains to mush.  This story does a good job of capturing that effect.

The Current Marriage Equality Map

From Buzzfeed:

The linked article goes into detail on current cases in which federal district courts have ruled in favor of gay marriage or the recognition of marriage from other states in states with a ban (Ohio and Kentucky).  It is inevitable that the Supreme Court will eventually have to take up the case of whether gay marriage bans are a violation of the equal protection clause, and it is almost inevitable that they will have to rule that they are.

I'm not sure how long that process will take, but I would guess that it is fairly likely to be in the next session (ending in June 2015) or the one after that.  The Court will almost certainly address it by then, as a decision would come out at the end of June 2016, thus relieving Republicans from going into the 2016 presidential election facing marriage legalization referendums on several state ballots (including, most likely, the swing state of Ohio, and possibly Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and maybe more of a stretch, Florida) and being on the wrong side of history. These initiatives would likely work in reverse from 2004, increasing turnout amongst younger voters, who have typically been more Democrat-leaning than their elders (although a recent poll showed the youngest are more Republican-leaning, or anti-Obama, at least until they hear the bigots Republicans love to put on the ballot).

The Supreme Court is probably the easiest out for the Republicans from the perilous position they find themselves in.  Public opinion has changed rapidly on this issue, and the quicker the Republicans can separate themselves from the prejudices of their base, the better for them.  This is not a cross to die on, in spite of so many religious conservatives seeing themselves as persecuted martyrs.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mine Forces Swedish Town to Move

Model of Kiruna with red lines delineating areas of damage due to mining. Image Credit: Geson Rathnow

LKAB, Sweden's state-owned mining company, is Kiruna's largest employer. It's also slowly undercutting the town, which is starting to crack and sink towards the mine. And so Sweden’s northernmost town is moving two miles east, in order to avoid falling in.

LKAB has already invested $612 million in moving the town center east. The idea is to rebuild the entire town, including sewage, electrical systems, apartment buildings and houses.
From Kiruna’s English-language website:

Deformations occur long before cracks appear. Just a few centimetres of subsidence can damage electricity lines and water pipes. Buildings are affected later. This was why the electricity supply system and the main sewage line in the affected area had to be relocated at an early stage.
In the coming 20-25 years, the mining will affect approximately 2 500 apartments as well as approximately 200 000 square meters of commercial, office, school and health care premises.
The entire project won’t be complete until around 2100, but, ideally, the town's people and businesses will start moving earlier than that. Homeowners will be paid more than market value for their land and sold a new home in the new city. But figuring out how to make sure everyone is happy is a challenge. Also a challenge: finding workers to build the city, and housing for the workers.

Weather Radials

Weather apps are something of a designers’ playground. Seemingly every week there’s a fresh, beautiful new way to check the forecast on our smartphones. In 2012, the folks at German design house Raureif put out an app called Partly Cloudy; inspired by a clock face, it showed the day’s weather as a circle. Before long, the designers realized that their radial layout could also show weather that had already occurred. With this poster, they chronicle a whole year of it.
The studio’s “Weather Radials” print economically documents the weather in 35 cities around the world for the entire year of 2013. It’s the perfect gift for data viz junkies and weather obsessives alike.
Each city’s graphic captures an impressive amount of meteorological data. Starting with January 1 at the 12 o’clock position, each day of the year is represented by a single line. The bottom of the line is the day’s low temperature–the closer the line is to the center of the circle, the colder it was that day. The top of the line is the high. The color of each is determined by the average temperature. The blue circles represent precipitation; the bigger the blob, the greater the storm.
The poster is pretty cool looking.  Now if I had the same data for each farm, combined with yield data, I'd be really stoked.  As it is, why should I give a shit what the temperature in Reykjavik is?

U.S. Mega-Regions as Countries

Richard Florida:
The second map, below, identifies the economic size of these dozen mega-regions and how they compare to nations around the world. The Bos-Wash corridor produces more than Germany, Chi-Pitts more than Brazil, and So-Cal more than all of Mexico. Together, these dozen mega-regions produce more than $13 trillion dollars in economic output, equivalent to three-quarters of America’s total GDP.

Details about the mega-regions I'm interested in (the Northeast and the Midwest):
  • Bos-Wash stretches from Boston through New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to Washington, D.C., a total of 500 miles. It is home to 18 percent of the U.S. population – 56.5 million people. The region generates $3.75 trillion in economic output, meaning that, if Bos-Wash were a separate country, it would be the fourth largest economy in the world, behind only the U.S., China, and Japan and ahead of Germany.
  • Chi-Pitts extends north and west from Pittsburgh through Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Minneapolis, taking in more than 50 metros in all. Home to 41.8 million individuals, this mega-region generates $2.3 trillion in output. Its economy is just a bit smaller than the United Kingdom’s, about the same size as Brazil’s, and bigger than all of Russia’s – equivalent to the world’s seventh largest nation.
  • Tor-Buff-Chester stretches north from Buffalo and Rochester, taking in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal in Canada. It has an estimated population of more than 16 million (several smaller Canadian metros are not included in this tally). It generates output of nearly $600 billion, more than Sweden, placing it among the world’s 25 largest economies.
  • Again, conservatives should remember this when they talk about "Real America."  While it is important, commodity production generally matches up with developing nation-level economic activity.  Infrastructure in rural areas is subsidized by these mega-regions.

    Kasich Tax Plan a Mixed Bag

    Columbus Dispatch:
    After weeks of speculation, Gov. John Kasich delivered a full slate of policy proposals to the legislature yesterday, including a three-year, $2.6 billion state income-tax cut that would drop Ohio’s top tax bracket to 4.88 percent.
    Kasich’s tax changes included a few wrinkles that could dampen some criticism from the left — that Kasich’s tax cut was too heavily weighted toward benefiting the rich — by expanding a tax credit and deductions for low- and middle-income earners.
    But that is just one side of the tax package. Kasich’s proposals include more than $2.4 billion in tax increases, resulting in a net $174 million tax reduction over three years for Ohioans.
    Early indications suggest that Republicans in the GOP-controlled Ohio House might object to some tax increases. Kasich proposed increasing the state’s tax on cigarettes by 60 cents, to $1.85 per pack; taxing other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, at an equivalent rate; raising the Commercial Activity Tax on gross receipts for businesses by 15 percent; and implementing a new tax on shale drillers....
    Kasich proposes increasing the earned-income tax credit for low-income Ohioans from 5 percent to 15 percent of the federal credit. That’s a jump by an average of about $84 for a credit he signed into law last year that would affect about 475,000 Ohioans. The state’s personal exemption would also increase from $1,700 to $2,700 for Ohioans earning less than $40,000 annually and from $1,700 to $2,200 for those earning $40,000 to $80,000.
    Kasich wants to raise the Commercial Activity Tax on gross receipts for businesses from 0.26 percent to 0.3 percent, providing $743 million in three years; and gradually implement a 2.75 percent tax on oil and gas extracted from horizontally drilled and fractured wells, generating $874 million in three years.
    Meh.  The governor's obsession with the top marginal rate in the Ohio state income tax seems a little odd to me.  He seems to have a round number issue.  Currently, an individual in the top bracket would pay $8671.63, plus 5.42% on all income over $208,500.  In 2005, a person would have paid $11,022.90, plus 7.185% on all income over $200,000.  That means the person is paying almost $3000 less in taxes (almost 27% less) on the first $208,500, and almost 25% less on each dollar beyond that.  The governor has been worried about the jackasses who supposedly would move to other states to avoid the income tax.  Where do most of those people go?  Florida.  And, you know, there is no reason other than taxes for someone to spend six months of the year in Florida rather than Ohio.  I'd say that 5.42% is just fine as a top rate.

    As far as the governor's tax increases go, I'm ok with a tax on businesses, but the CAT tax is just stupid.  It only taxes sales within the state, and not sales outside of the state.  It is also a bigger tax on low-margin businesses than it is on high-margin businesses.  I'm also good with the tax on oil and gas extraction, but suspect that it should be higher.  I'd be curious to see a comparison to what Texas gets.  As for the cigarette tax, it just seems like he's piling on.

    Finally, it is good to see the earned-income tax credit expanded in his proposal.  It helps balance out the governor's fellating rich folks with the income tax cut.  Overall, Kasich's tax cut proposal is an overall loss for the state, especially rural and urban areas, but that's what you get with Republican domination of state government.  At least we aren't Kansans.

    Tuesday, March 11, 2014

    Inside Airbus Helicopter


    Eurocopter, now rebranded Airbus Helicopters, opened its first plant in the United States 10 years ago. The European company moved to the U.S. to gain access to Government contracts. It's now the largest helicopter provider to the Department of Homeland Security and makes more than 50 percent of all commercial helicopters in the U.S. In the first in a "Made in America" series, Bloomberg gets an inside look at how one of the world's most popular helicopters are made and why they chose Mississippi.
    The state of Mississippi doesn't have enough tax credits available to get me to locate a business there.  Then again, if you want some government contracts, getting Haley Barbour, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran on your side probably helps out.

    Particle Fever

    A documentary making particle physics entertaining:

    Everything in the world of particle physics seems to hang on the high-stakes Higgs particle, which was theorized in the mid-’60s but made news in 2008, with the completion of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Mainstream society took interest in the machine—the largest ever assembled, by thousands of intrepid scientists—for two reasons: because the Higgs has been dubbed “the God particle” (a name most physicists apparently hate), and because crackpots theorized that causing the kind of particle collisions necessary to prove its existence could open a black hole that would swallow the Earth.
    After years and years of meticulous planning and building—from both the big-dreaming theoretical physicists and their more down-to-earth counterparts, the experimental physicists—the Collider came online in 2008. To understand what an extraordinary achievement the construction of this massive thing was, imagine the inside of a computer blown up to five stories, complete with a 17-mile circular underground track. What’s harder to convey, and Particle Fever does its best to do so, is the real-world importance of the Higgs particle itself. Scientists know it will inform their field forever—or, if it doesn’t exist, disprove everything they know. The mass of the Higgs is what it all comes down to. If it’s heavier, that suggests the existence of a chaotic “multiverse,” exploding the field of physics. If it’s lighter, it suggests that theories of orderly “supersymmetry” are more likely.
    How does this affect the price of eggs or the morning commute? Not at all, at least in the short term. But by personalizing this monumental discovery with the stories of the physicists working on it, the documentary allows for some transferred excitement. Whether focusing on the young, wild-eyed theoretical genius or two older gentlemen who’ve literally spent their entire adult lives considering what they now may be able to prove, the film succeeds in expressing the significance of what’s happening, if not the practical applications. And that’s better than fine, really: It’s a delight to watch clearly brilliant people work on a project that they put so much stock in. Particle Fever, to its great credit, is very rarely dry.
    Making the most abstract physics interesting is a pretty impressive accomplishment.  This stuff is way beyond me, but the movie looks like something I'd enjoy.

    60 Years of Federal Fiscal Policy

    From Wonkblog, via Ritholtz:

    What State Is The Flattest?


    Once they’d developed their algorithm, Dobson and Campbell processed elevation data, gathered from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, for the contiguous U.S.—48 states and the District of Columbia. (Why not Alaska and Hawaii? “We knew the answer for those well enough,” Dobson told me; “we knew they weren't going to be the flattest.”) They gridded their findings into 90-meter cell. Then they categorized each cell as not flat, flat, flatter, or flattest. (“It was a lot of computation,” Dobson says, “because we're measuring every 90 meters, or every 300 feet, across the country.”)
    From there, they compared each state’s percentage of flatness—and ranked them. The top 10 flattest states, per their results (and ranked according to their total flat, flatter, and flattest designations):

    North Dakota



    In other words, Dobson says: “What we're seeing is the percentage of Kansas that is flat is a lower percentage than Florida.”
    While the list offers a ranked percentage of state area in the flat, flatter, andflattest categories, you can see a rank of states according to the flattest category alone charted on the map above.
    All of this grew out of a study which tried to determine if Kansas was flatter than a pancake (it was).  Eastern Ohio keeps us from coming anywhere near the top ten.  Not that we really need to break into it.  If I had to pick though, I'd take some of that flat, black Illinois dirt.

    Free Photos at Getty Images

    I thought I'd check out what was available for non-commercial use at Getty Images.  When I searched Cincinnati, I found this:

    Free is one of my favorite words.

    Crows With Self-Control?

    Damn those way-too-smart birds:
    The new results, published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Animal Behavior, suggest the birds aren’t just capable of controlling their impulses, they also choose when to give in to temptation. The experiments mimic the classic test where kids and adults are left alone with a marshmallow, and promised a better treat if they refrain from biting in. Like many children and adults, crows and ravens waited.
    To test the birds’ patience, researchers began by learning their favorite foods. They offered members of the corvid family — seven crows and five ravens — bits of bread, grapes, sausage or fried pork fat and other treats, and noted each bird’s preferences. In a series of subsequent tests, each bird was offered a food item. After delays ranging from a few seconds to ten minutes, they could exchange it for a treat they liked more (sausage and fried pork fat were high on all the birds’ lists), or return it for a larger helping of the same snack.
    In a second arrangement, the birds watched as scientists offered up extra helpings of a snack at fixed intervals. If they waited the experiment out, they received four pieces of the food. But they could grab and go at any point, and if they chose to do so, the experimenter stopped doling out treats.
    When waiting to exchange a snack for a tastier treat, birds only chose to be patient for higher-quality foods. A bird holding a piece of bread would wait to trade up to a bit of sausage, but not for a second piece of bread. While waiting for treats to pile up, however, corvids wouldn’t stick around for more if they already held a prized treat.
    Early experiments with pigeons, chickens and gray parrots suggested birds couldn’t be patient. More recently, studies have demonstrated corvids’ capacity for self-control, so the researchers weren’t surprised by these results with crows and ravens. But they were impressed that the birds waited up to ten minutes on some tests.
    I knew crows were smarter than other birds, but these studies are getting kind of scary.  I'd be afraid to try to poison the damn birds because they might drop some of the poison in my unattended beer.

    Monday, March 10, 2014

    The Shipping Yard

    The Shipping Yard from Brandon Li on Vimeo.

    There May Be Several Reasons For Chiquita Merger

    For one thing, both melons and pineapples are proving promising for Fyffes. The company’s melon business focuses on the US, where sales have more than doubled since 2008, and it became the top melon-seller in 2011. As for pineapples, while its sales trail those of Fresh Del Monte and Dole in both Europe and the US, Fyffes’ share has been steadily increasing. Neither division would be easily sold off. Fyffes has invested heavily in expanding cultivation of both types of fruit in Latin America; its now grows all of its melons and 56% of its pineapples there.
    But another reason might be the rising risk that banana diseases pose to the industry. We recently discussed how an invincible fungus called Panama disease will inevitably threaten banana plantations in Latin America, where the vast majority of export bananas are grown. A more immediate menace is Black Sigatoka, a disease that typically causes losses of 50%-80% of any crop it strikes and is already a severe problem in a slew of Latin American countries. That disease and others force growers to use more pesticides, causing a sharp spike in costs. The growing torrents of chemicals that farmers have to pour on their banana crops is also upping concerns about environmental destruction and harm to workers.
    One other thing to note is that Chiquita is not in great financial shape; as of Aug. 2013, its $602 million in total debt was the second-highest relative to earnings among 32 similar packaged-food and meat companies in the US, reports Bloomberg. Which is why it’s interesting that, despite the fact that Chiquita is much bigger than Fyffes, the new company will be based in Ireland, Fyffes’ home country, rather than Chiquita’s home, the US. As Quartz’s Tim Fernholz recently noted, Ireland has an incredibly low corporate tax rate. And for Chiquita, a company struggling to up its cash flow, that certainly can’t hurt.
    I thought this was interesting because of the threat from Panama disease and because of the potential relocation of company headquarters to Ireland.  Eaton was headquartered in Cleveland, and when they merged with Cooper Industries, Cooper insisted that the merged company be based out of Ireland because of the corporate tax rate.  I don't think many jobs end up in Ireland, but the company claims to be located there.  So goes the life of a tax haven.

    Ford Medium-Duty Trucks To Be Built in Ohio

    Detroit Free Press:
    Ford executives will be at the Avon Lake, Ohio, plant today to confirm that workers there will build the next-generation of medium-duty trucks in a production shift from a plant in Mexico.
    Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the Americas, will tell the plant’s 1,600 workers that they will build the all-new 2016 F-650 and F-750 starting early next year, for sale in the spring of 2015. Workers will also get their first look at the new trucks.
    Ford is investing $168 million to retool the Cleveland-area plant to add truck production. The medium-duty trucks had been built in Mexico as part of a joint venture between Ford and Navistar International. Ford promised to in-source the work as part of 2011 negotiations with the UAW.
    “Shifting production of the 2016 Ford F-650 and F-750 medium-duty trucks to Ohio Assembly Plant helps secure a solid future for the dedicated workers at this facility,” Hinrichs said in a statement. “Building these trucks in-house will utilize our expertise from our other tough truck and commercial vehicle lines to give our customers a better product at a competitive price.”
    It is welcome news Avon Lake workers now make the E-Series commercial van on two shifts, but the van will be discontinued by the end of the year. Ford is replacing that vehicles with the new Transit van made in Kansas City starting this spring. Avon Lake workers will continue to make E-Series chassis cab and cutaways that are turned into other types of vehicles by upfitters.
    It's nice to see some production coming back from Mexico.

    Challenges With Open-Pen Sow Gestation

    Kansas City Star:
    Most of the hogs bought by Indiana Packers Corp., a major meatpacker, come from open-pen gestation and have for several years, President Gary Jacobson said. The switch has been hastened by laws in Michigan and Ohio requiring farmers to phase out gestation stalls by certain dates, but Jacobson said it also makes business sense.

    "Given the controversy with the gestation crates, we would encourage people to look at the alternatives for that," he said.

    The alternatives aren't cheap. Malcolm DeKryger, a partner in Fair Oaks' hog farm, said a 2,400-pig barn with gestation stalls typically costs about $1.8 million. The feeding system, other equipment and extra space required for group pens can push the cost to $2.5 million. He and his partner spent even more because their farm, about 1.5 hours south of Chicago, has observation areas for tourists.

    DeKryger isn't entirely sold on group pens, which remind him of the farms where he worked as a teenager.

    "We would throw feed over the gate, and the sows would all go crazy ... one sow would eat three times as much, and others would get gypped or didn't eat enough. And that system is happily gone," he said.

    Gestation stalls became standard in the 1980s and enabled farmers to feed each sow individually. The stalls also prevented pecking-order fights and injuries caused by sows mounting each other.

    Better technology addresses some of those problems in group pens. The sows at Fair Oaks go through a monthlong boot camp at about 6 months old to learn to use electronic feeders that ensure each one eats the right amount.

    A scanner reads the sow's ear tag when she enters the stall, and computer-controlled equipment dispenses the recommended portion, usually about 5 pounds. When the sow leaves, the door can open either to the right for veterinary care or left to the group pen.

    Farm workers are testing other ways to reduce conflict that can injure smaller sows and cause them to miscarry. For example, pigs in groups scrum to establish a pecking order. Fair Oaks workers aim to move sows into 80-pig pens all in one day so the order can be set and peace established. Later additions would cause new fights.

    An alternative is to place sows in groups too big for them to notice when a new animal enters.

    DeKryger said it's too soon to tell which method works best in reducing fights. And no system is perfect.
    It will be interesting to see what kind of loss rates from injuries are seen in open-pen arrangements.  Maybe consumers will be convinced of the virtues producers see in gestation crates.  I doubt it, though.  I expect that people will think of it as themselves in the sow's position, and won't want to be penned up for months without being able to move around.  Personally, I'd invest the extra dollars in the open-pens and just try as best as I could to reduce the injuries.  I don't see consumers accepting an industry return to gestation crates.

    Read more here:

    Sunday, March 9, 2014

    Blue Texas?


    If the GOP were to lose Texas, they would be completely screwed.  I think it'll be a while for just a demographic takeover, so the party will have time to come up with a better plan to deal with the future America.

    NASA Photo of the Day

    March 7:

    A View from the Zone
    Image Credit & Copyright: Jack Fusco
    Explanation: Brilliant Venus and the central Milky Way rise in the early morning hours of March 1 in this sea and skyscape. The scene looks out from a beach at Sea Isle City, New Jersey, USA, planet Earth. Of course, Earth orbits well within the solar system's habitable zone, that Goldilocks region not too close and not too far from the Sun where surface temperatures can support liquid water. Similar in size to Earth, Venus lies just beyond the inner boundary of the habitable zone. The watery reflection of light from our inhospitable sister planet is seen along a calm, cold ocean and low cloud bank.

    Will California Follow Arizona?

    It took decades, but Arizona finally learned that it had to adapt to survive. Still, many obvious questions have no easy answer: How to balance economic growth and environment? Does fairness mean cities get first dibs over farmers, even though they were here first? Is climate change a game changer? The issue of water in the Southwest is a preview of 21st-century politics worldwide.
    Everywhere there are signs of adaptation to this new reality, or at least attempts at it. A billboard just north of Tucson pitches FiberMax, a variety of genetically modified cotton seed originally developed by Bayer in Australia. It promises to increase production in semiarid climates like this one and has become one of the top-selling cotton brands in the nation.
    The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.
    Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.
    In some ways, what’s happened in Arizona could be a preview of California’s future.
    For agriculture, doing what's easy often trumps doing what's smart.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the desert Southwest.  Nothing is easier than turning on or off the tap as necessary.  However, is growing food in the desert the most efficient use of the limited water?  Then again, it probably makes more sense for a few people to live in the desert and grow food for the rest of the country than it does for millions and millions of other people to move from temperate areas to the desert to live and water their lawns.  I guess farmers aren't the only crazy people out there who do strange things.  The next couple of decades will be very, very interesting in the Southwest.

    Liquid Metal Batteries for Grid Storage?

    An MIT-born start-up is trying to make the technology cost-competitive:
    A 40-foot trailer loaded with 25 tons of liquid metals may be the solution to the renewable-energy industry’s biggest challenge: making sure electricity is available whenever it’s needed.
    A Boston-area startup founded by MIT researchers is working to turn this new concept into a commercially viable product, liquid-metal batteries that will store power for less than $500 a kilowatt-hour. That’s less than a third the cost of some current battery technologies.
    The technology promises an alternative to the massive pumped-water systems that make up 95 percent of U.S. energy-storage capacity. At that price, developers will be able to build wind and solar projects that can deliver power to the grid anytime, making renewable energy as reliable as natural gas and coal without the greenhouse-gas emissions.
    “If we can get liquid-metal batteries down to $500 a kilowatt-hour, we’ll change the world,” Donald Sadoway, chief scientific adviser at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ambri Inc., said in an interview....
    "To make it dirt-cheap you have to make it out of dirt,” he said. Earlier versions used molten magnesium and antimony, separated by a layer of salt, to store and release electricity. Those materials only worked at temperatures that were too high to sustain and didn’t produce enough voltage. Sadoway and his team tested more than 1,000 cells with dozens of alloys and salts to find one that’s commercially viable.
    They will compete against lithium-ion batteries, the same technology used in laptop computers and electric cars, which are becoming more common for grid-storage. AES Corp., the largest operator of power-storage systems, said yesterday it’s now selling them to utilities and renewable-energy developers, for about $1,000 a kilowatt...
     Sadoway expects Ambri’s liquid-metal batteries to be competitive with pumped-hydropower systems. The most common form of storage involves pushing water to an uphill reservoir when electricity demand is low, and releasing it to run hydropower generators when more energy is required. Some facilities exceed a gigawatt, but they can only be built in areas with suitable topography.
    There’s about 23.4 gigawatts of pumped-hydro capacity in operation in the U.S., compared to about 304 megawatts of battery storage, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
    Economical storage for renewable sources is a must.  Hopefully this is a potential solution.