Friday, August 22, 2014

Simpsons Marathon Weekend Links

Some stories for your weekend enjoyment:

Football in Ferguson - Sports Illustrated

 Pete Rose's Reckless Gamble - The Atlantic

America in Decay - Francis Fukuyama.  A little too academic, but still pretty interesting.

California Drought Has Wild Salmon Competing With Almonds For Water - The Salt, via my former boss.

A Clash of Gold and Water in California - New York Times

The Witness - Texas Monthly. Meet a woman who's job included witnessing 278 Texas executions.  Yes, it was as bad as you would think.

How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy - Businessweek
Of the nine companies to which the LIA entrusted its $70 billion bankroll, almost all appear to have lost incredible amounts of money while charging sky-high fees. According to an audit conducted by KPMG, Société Générale managed to lose more than half of a $1.8 billion investment, while charging the Libyans tens of millions for its financial expertise. London-based investment management firm Permal Group, which received $300 million from LIA, lost 40 percent of it while earning $27 million in fees. BNP Paribas (BNP:FP) lost 23 percent: “High fees have been directly responsible for the poor results,” the auditor noted. Credit Suisse (CS) lost 29 percent of the funds that it managed. Millennium Global Investments, based in London, apparently lost all of a $100 million investment in its emerging credit fund, while a $300 million investment in Lehman Brothers vanished from the books after Lehman collapsed in 2008. Credit Suisse and Permal did not respond to a request for comment. Millennium could not be reached.
But the outstanding single offender was Goldman Sachs, which charged $350 million in fees for a series of trades that lost the Libyans 98 percent of their $1.3 billion investment.
Goddamned crooks.

Which Country Drinks the Most Alcohol? - Wall Street Journal

"Heat Islands" Cook U.S. Cities Faster Than Ever - Scientific American

Maps: Where do our U.S. Fruits and Vegetables come from? - Big Picture Agriculture

Source: Wired

Thursday, August 21, 2014

From Under the Rust

For more information about the Midwestern Train Preservation Society, and the From Under the Rust movie series, go here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Things May Get Ugly

Wonkblog looks at the dark side of our probable bumper crop:
But American corn and soybean farmers aren't suffering because they're struggling to grow corn and soybeans; rather, they're seeing the repercussions inherent in producing too much of them. "If you look around the country, it's pretty hard to find a bad corn crop right now," Gregory Ibendahl, associate professor of agricultural economics, said in an interview. This year's corn crop, as it turns out, is going to be the largest in history, according to USDA estimates. The same is likely to be true of 2014's soybean output (paywall)....Broadly speaking, record harvests are rarely bad news. "As a farmer, you can't do anything about prices," Ibendahl said. "All you can do is try to produce as much as you can in any given year." Large stockpiles of corn today should give way to commensurately large cash piles of profit down the road, even if it means storing much of it until prices recover.
But low prices can be devastating, especially if they sustain themselves over long periods of time. "If you're a farmer facing continual low prices, you might have to take some land out of production." Ibendahl said. "Somewhere along the line you might even reach a point where you have to go out of production."
The U.S. farming sector is not quite there yet—the point at which those farms that are most affected can no longer afford to stay in business—but that doesn't mean there isn't potential for such a scenario. "I think it [low prices] will continue for a lot longer than most people think it will," Ibendahl said. 
 Yeah, I may take some of the stories in the Bible at less than face value (Genesis and Revelations, for instance), but the story of Joseph and the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of difficluty rings true.  We recently had our seven years of bounteous harvests.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Oil and Gas Recovery

Via Ritholtz:

Infrastructure Fails While Budgets Stagnate

LA Times:
U.S. spending for transportation and other infrastructure accounts for 2.4% of its economy versus about 12% for China, says economist David Dollar, a former China director for the World Bank. Europe's infrastructure spending is about 5%.
Dollar, now with the Brookings Institution, says visiting Chinese officials and business leaders frequently remark how surprised they are at America's declining infrastructure, sometimes asking whether they can help finance improvements.
American politicians, from President Obama down to small-town mayors, decry the deplorable condition of infrastructure, but many are reluctant to raise taxes or boost tolls and user fees.
Between the federal government and local entities, government spending for highways runs less than $90 billion a year, which is barely enough to maintain the status quo, let alone improve roadway conditions and performance.
That's partly why the share of congested highways in U.S. cities has risen from 25% in the early 1980s to more than 40% today, according to the Transportation Department. Roads with "acceptable ride quality" fell from 87% in 1995 to 82% in 2010.
It's especially tough for states such as Rhode Island that have been lagging economically and depend heavily on Uncle Sam for transportation funds. The federal highway program is funded by an 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax, but that hasn't budged since 1993.
Now, the fund is on the verge of insolvency. Congress came through last week with a last-minute replenishment of money, but it'll only last until May.
The upshot is that states and localities make do with what they can.
A quarter of the country's 147,870 bridges are deficient or obsolete, according to a July report by the White House on infrastructure investment. Rhode Island's are in the worst shape in the nation, with 57% of its bridges falling into those categories.
We can't afford to maintain the infrastructure we have, and we've under-invested for decades.  We built way too much infrastructure revolving around automobiles, and way too much infrastructure in sprawling suburbs.  Meanwhile, we abandoned many areas of our major cities, and let their roads, transit and utility lines rot.  We are starting our long, slow retreat to a lower standard of living.  It isn't going to be pretty.

Farmers Clean Wheat To Cut Down On Vomitoxin

Head scab, which scientists call fusarium head blight, can hit profits of farmers and grain handlers hard, while raising costs for bread and cereal makers.
Previous outbreaks cost the U.S. wheat and barley industry $2.7 billion from 1998 to 2000, then another estimated $4.4 billion in 2011. It is too soon to know the full economic losses for 2014....
In addition, unsellable wheat has been competing for storage space with bumper corn and soybean crops about to arrive in the autumn harvest. Cleaning the wheat reduces vomitoxin levels as it sifts out damaged grain, but it can cost about $1 per bushel for farmers. Wheat currently sells at around $5 per bushel.
Head scab shrivels the grain. This reduces test, or average, weights from the harvest, which also cuts profits. This outbreak will hit farm incomes that are already down for the first time in several years, shrinking 27 percent in 2013/14 from a year earlier, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Livestock that consume feed made with scabby wheat can get sick with vomiting and diarrhea. Some will refuse to eat the feed, reducing the amount of weight they gain.
Diseased wheat can be blended with higher quality product to reduce the concentration of the chemical to acceptable levels, but some grain handlers are struggling to find good SRW wheat near at hand.
We didn't get hit too bad on vomitoxin, only one partial load got hit with a charge, which I believe was 15 cents.  We didn't have near the levels mentioned in the article.  I hadn't heard of anybody doing it, but I guess cleaning seed wouldn't be too bad if it cost less than what was saved from charges at the elevator, but that would be some really crappy wheat if you were getting docked over $1 for vomitoxin.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Questions We Ask

"The Questions We Ask" - Bruce Kirkby in a Kalum Ko film from Kalum Ko on Vimeo.

Too Much Corn


The U.S. Agriculture Department projected last week that production will exceed 14 billion bushels, topping last year's historic harvest.
Many analysts think this week's closely watched Pro Farmer crop tour will offer further evidence of a remarkably healthy crop, and that demand isn't likely to rise enough to offset the sharp increase in supply....
Expectations of a glut have driven corn prices down by 13% this year, to near four-year lows, after a 40% decrease last year. September futures, the front-month contract, rose 1% to $3.6575 a bushel on Friday on the Chicago Board of Trade. Contracts for December delivery, after the harvest, settled 0.7% higher at $3.7625 a bushel....
Farm animals are the biggest consumers of U.S. corn, gobbling up about 34% of the national supply, according to the USDA. The plunge in corn prices has been a boon for producers of beef, pork and poultry, with some growers adding more corn to their feed mixes in lieu of ingredients that may be costlier like hay and alfalfa.
Still, several factors likely will limit the increases. The disease porcine epidemic diarrhea virus has helped trim the nation's hog herd by 5%, or 3 million animals, from a year ago, according to USDA data from June. And the U.S. chicken flock is roughly the same size as a year ago.
Meanwhile, years of drought in the southern Great Plains has shrunk the nation's cattle herd to the lowest levels in six decades. The number of cattle in feedlots, which fatten animals for slaughter, fell 2% in July from the same time last year, and the calf crop is the smallest since 1949. Overall, the USDA projects the amount of corn fed to animals will increase just 1% in the year beginning Sept. 1....
Another third of U.S. corn typically goes to make ethanol, where consumption is constrained by the so-called blend wall: The vast majority of U.S. vehicles can't handle gasoline that is more than 10% ethanol, and the U.S. gasoline supply is already nearly 10% ethanol. That means U.S. ethanol demand can only increase if Americans pump up their overall use of gas, which the U.S. Department of Energy expects to tick up slightly this year and then fall in 2015.
That leaves exports.
This was bound to happen.  High corn prices and drought squeezed livestock growers, decreasing feed demand.  As long as manufacturers won't approve higher ethanol blends there is a cap on demand for ethanol.  We're likely going to see a couple of years of low corn prices, which will impact the entire corn belt economy.  If you are a landlord, expect rent prices to go down.  If you are a banker, expect land prices to go down.  Hopefully, not too many farm loans are secured by additional land that farmers own.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

August 15:

Perseid in Moonlight
Image Credit & Copyright: Amir Hossein Abolfath (TWAN)
Explanation: Bright moonlight from a Full Moon near perigee illuminates the night and casts shadows in this skyscape from central Iran. Taken on August 12, near the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower the exposure also captures a bright and colorful perseid streak above the shady tree in the foreground. This year the super moonlight interfered with meteor watching into the early morning hours, overwhelming the trails from many fainter perseids in the shower. Brighter perseids like this one were still visible though, their trails pointing back to the heroic constellation Perseus outlined at the right. Swept up as planet Earth orbits through dust left behind from periodic comet Swift-Tuttle, the cosmic grains that produce perseid meteors enter the atmosphere at nearly 60 kilometers per second, heated to incandesence and vaporized at altitudes of about 100 kilometers. Next year, Perseid meteors will flash through dark skies under a New Moon.

Editor's note: The outline of Perseus in the picture is close, but not quite right.
A corrected version is available here, thanks to Wil Tirion.

Australia's Gold Coast - Timelapse

Australia's Gold Coast - Timelapse from SCIENTIFANTASTIC on Vimeo.

The Shattered Map of St. Louis

Bloomberg Businessweek:

The map of St. Louis County, the home of Ferguson, looks like a shattered pot. It’s broken into 91 municipalities that range from small to tiny, along with clots of population in unincorporated areas. Dating as far back as the 19th century, communities set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks. Their behavior has ranged from somewhat parochial to flatly illegal.
The result of fragmentation today is a county whose small towns are highly stratified by both race and income. As blacks move into a town, whites move out. The tax base shrinks, and blacks feel cheated that the amenities they came for quickly disappear, says Clarence Lang, a University of Kansas historian who has studied St. Louis. Ferguson flipped from majority white to majority black so quickly that the complexion of the government and police force doesn’t match that of the population. That mismatch was a key factor in the tense race relations that contributed to the riots and, perhaps, the shooting itself.
That’s not all. Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.
There’s widespread recognition that fragmentation is holding back the economic development of greater St. Louis, but once a municipality is formed, however small, it’s exceedingly difficult to merge out of existence. Ferguson is comparatively populous at about 21,000 people. Many of St. Louis County’s postage-stamp municipalities have fewer than 1,000 people. Champ may be the smallness champ, with a 2010 population of 13, all white......Metro St. Louis has about the same population that it did 30 or 40 years ago, only now it’s thinly spread across 15 counties in Missouri and southern Illinois, up from just four.
This is pretty typical for northern metropolitan areas.  I actually anticipated that the City of St. Louis was split out of St. Louis County in the mid-20th century precisely because it became a majority-black community, but that wasn't the case:
For greater St. Louis, the original sin was committed in the “great divorce” of 1876, when the city of St. Louis split itself off from its hinterlands, St. Louis County. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because the city was thriving. But from that point on, the city was hemmed in. It couldn’t expand by annexation to capture people as they fanned out away from the central city. People who moved to then-rural St. Louis County, which was largely unincorporated, formed the patchwork of municipalities that exists to this day. Many of those small communities tried to keep blacks out with restrictive covenants on deeds. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were unenforceable by states. The case, Shelley v. Kraemer, was argued for the black home buyers by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the high court’s first African American justice.
The article does a good job of highlighting how white flight and suburban sprawl hollowed out the great cities of the north and created the massive segregation by race and wealth which we find today.  This is an issue which has loomed large for 50 years, and looks to loom even larger going forward.   It is also one of the most politically vexing issues to deal with, and the events over the last week in Ferguson will further poison the well.  However, if we want this country to move forward, it will have to be addressed in the next generation, no matter how difficult that is.

Recent Urban Flooding, Climate Change and Civil Engineering

In light of urban flooding in metro Detroit, Long Island and Baltimore, meteorologist Dr. Marshall Sheppard looks at the link between changing climate and civil engineering design:

 Figure 1. Percent changes in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events (the heaviest 1%) from 1958 to 2012 for each region. There is a clear national trend toward a greater amount of precipitation being concentrated in very heavy events, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Image credit: NCA Overview, updated from Karl et al. 2009.

As our climate warms, scientists have warned for decades of an accelerated water cycle that will lead to more "extreme" hydroclimate (flood, drought) extremes . The recent U.S. National Climate Assessment Report, which is Congressionally mandated since the late 80s/early 90s, published these facts/graphs showing the top 1% rain events have increased in intensity everywhere in the continental U.S over the past 50 years. (, intensity is only part of the story. For the first time in history, a majority of the world lives in cities. I discuss the growth of urbanization and its implications on weather and climate in a recent Earthzine article. Urbanization requires more roads, parking lots, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces that alter the urban water cycle and optimize urban flooding potential.
Additionally, civil engineers and hydrologists use recurrence intervals/frequency (best represented as IDF curves) to design engineered systems for storm water management and drainage. A host of peer-reviewed literature affirms that many cities' storm water engineering is designed for last centuries rain storms or under an assumption of stationarity (i.e. 1950s rainstorms are just like 2014 rainstorms). Consider the abstract of this peer-reviewed paper:
"The hydrologic design standards for urban drainage systems are commonly based on the frequency of occurrence of heavy rainfall events. Observations of recent climate history indicate that the frequency of occurrence of heavy rainfall events is increasing. This increasing trend will likely continue in the future due to global warming. In this study, extending from previous analysis results for Chicago, the rainfall intensity–duration–frequency (IDF) relationships were determined to represent the climate conditions of the first and second halves of the last century. Using these IDF relationships, the impact of the observed increase in heavy rainfall events on the design and performance of urban drainage systems were quantified. This quantification demonstrated the need for updating rainfall IDF relationships to reflect changing climate conditions. In the design of new and retrofitting or replacement of old urban drainage systems, up to date IDF relationships need to be used to maintain design standards."
By the way, I didn't even get into the recent literature suggesting that Arctic amplification may be causing "wavier" jet stream patterns that could lead to more extreme events. I personally am letting that play out a bit more in the literature because I am not a big fan of "1-study" conclusions on either side of the issue. However, a recent National Research Council study has captured current literature on that issue.
The bottom line for me is that cities must strategically consider hydrometoeorology and climate in its current and future planning, storm water management design, and transportation systems.
 This is a major issue for everybody, including farmers, but it is most significant for civil engineers.  They will have to adapt their design standards to take into account more frequent occurrences of
large rainfall events.  To put things in perspective, Elwynn Taylor claims that his data showed what were considered to be 100-year storms (1% probability of occurrence in any year) is more like a 17-year storm today.  Back in my days designing storm sewer systems and detention structures, most communities required a full-flow pipe design carry the 10-year storm, with a check of hydraulic grade lines for the 25-year storm to confirm that flooding wouldn't occur.  This would indicate that some localized flooding would be expected to take place in 50-year and 100-year storms.  Likewise, many of our detention basin designs were based on controlling the outlet flow from a development during a 100-years storm in the post-development condition down to the level of a 5-year storm in the pre-development condition of the site.  If these storms are happening more frequently, and even bigger storms, which are outside of the design parameters, are also taking place more frequently, we are going to see damaging floods.

The challenge is that with the climate already changing, it is hard to figure out just how much more rain to expect, and just how frequently.  Even if we adjust the rainfall intensities to take into account the changes shown in the map above, there is a very real likelihood that intensities will continue to increase.  At the same time, these design standards impact property developers more than anyone else.  Any increases in design rainfall intensities lead to larger storm sewers and more land set aside for storm water detention, and thus higher costs for developers, and fewer and more expensive lots for development.  The developers are generally pretty influential in state and local politics, and can be counted on to lobby against such changes.  They have little interest in what happens in 15 years, they just want to get their lots sold and move on to another project.  This will guarantee that changes in design requirements will be difficult to enact.

Finally, much of this week's flooding occurred in older suburbs which were built in the days before storm water detention became standard practice.  These communities have seen significant demographic change as residents have aged and newer, more prosperous communities have sprung up further in the periphery of the metropolitan areas.  Since the communities were developed without detention facilities, it would be very expensive to construct these structures in the built environment.  With the demographic changes, it is more difficult to fund the required projects than it would have been in the past.  The more frequent flooding makes these neighborhoods less desirable to live in, which lowers property values more and makes needed infrastructure improvements even less affordable.  It is an ugly feedback loop that looks to make these areas into urban eyesores.  Whatever civil engineers decide to do with their design standards, climate change will seriously impact our communities in ways many people won't expect.  You might want to buy a life raft.