Saturday, April 20, 2013

Finally, Some Accurate Information

The plant had large amounts of two commercial fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. Both chemicals have been linked to explosions in the past.
Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless, corrosive gas that is stored as a liquid under pressure; farmers inject it into the soil. “People mostly think of it as a toxic chemical that can cause breathing problems,” said Sam Mannan, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University. “But it’s also a flammable and explosive material.”
The gas must mix with air in relatively high proportions to ignite, so it is less dangerous than natural gas or gasoline under ordinary conditions. But Dr. Mannan suggested one way an anhydrous ammonia explosion might occur: If during a fire an ammonia tank were to be breached, the gas would mix with the air until it reached the proper concentration, at which point it would be ignited by the fire. The catastrophe at the West plant began with a fire.
Ammonium nitrate, which is usually sold in granular form, can be mixed with fuel oil to become a powerful explosive that is used often in industry and occasionally by terrorists. But Dr. Mannan said that even by itself the chemical can explode under the right conditions — if it is heated in a confined space during a fire, for example.
It is amazing how frequently people have interchanged anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate this week. The takeaway is, fire at the fertilizer plant is bad news.  It is probably worse if there is ammonium nitrate in the building that was on fire, but it isn't good to have a fire burning by a giant pressure tank of anhydrous, either.

Parenting Advice At the Turn of the 20th Century

While some of the advice Therese Oneill dredges up sounds crazy, you have to keep this in mind:
According to the CDC, in the year 1900, 10 to 30 percent of all American babies born died before their first birthday. They died from things we don't think about. They died because their drinking water was too close to their sewers. Because the cow's milk they drank was unpasteurized. They died of measles and whooping cough and all the diseases that now cause four minutes of hard crying in a nurse's office and a Batman Band-Aid, instead of death. That was the time these writers, and the mothers they wrote for, lived in.
They were frightened.
They didn't know why their babies died, or screamed, or sickened; and they clung desperately to anyone who claimed to have the knowledge to prevent it.
That suspended baby cage is awesome.

Vertical Transportation History and Design

Nick Paumgarten writes about most of what you'd ever want to know about elevators, including design:
One morning not long ago, I met James Fortune, the man who designed that elevator system, in the lobby of the Marriott. Fortune, an affable industrial engineer originally from Pasadena, can reasonably disavow responsibility for the hotel’s elevator failings; a decision to put the lobby on the eighth floor essentially doubled the amount of work the elevators had to do to get guests to their rooms. (“The building’s underelevatored,” he told me, with a grimace. “We did the best we could.”) Fortune is probably the world’s busiest and best-known elevator consultant, especially in the category of super-tall towers—buildings of more than a hundred stories—which are proliferating around the world, owing in large part to elevator solutions provided by men like Fortune. Elevator consultants come in various guises. Some make the bulk of their living by testifying in court in accident lawsuits. Others collaborate with architects and developers to handle the human traffic in big buildings. Fortune is one of those.
Four years ago, Fortune, who is sixty-six, retired as president of the pioneering elevator consulting firm Lerch Bates, but his retirement lasted just two weeks. He couldn’t resist the call of the elevator. He started a new firm, with headquarters in the relatively horizontal and un-elevatored city of Galveston, Texas—the majority of his work is overseas, especially in Asia and the Middle East, and the Houston airport is relatively central. In China alone, there are dozens of cities with a population of more than two million and, Fortune noted, “every city wants an iconic tower.” Persian Gulf cities like Doha and Dubai are a blizzard of elevator jobs.
Fortune has done the elevators, as they say, in five of the world’s ten tallest buildings. While at Lerch Bates, he did the tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101 Tower, which has the fastest elevators in the world—rising at more than fifty-five feet per second, or about thirty-five miles an hour. The cars are pressurized, to prevent ear damage. He also did Burj Dubai, which, when it is completed, next year, will be the new tallest building, at least until it is supplanted by another one he is working on in the region. Burj Dubai will have forty-six elevators, including two double-deckers that will go straight to the top. (“I love double-decks,” Fortune said.) Adrian Smith, the building’s architect, has grand designs for towers reaching hundreds of stories—vertical cities—which would require a sophistication of conveyance not yet available. Two weeks ago, a Saudi prince announced a plan for a mile-high tower in a new city being built near Jidda—more than twice as tall as Burj Dubai. Fortune is bidding on that one, too. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high, five-hundred-and-twenty-eight-story tower, called the Mile-High Illinois, in 1956, a kind of architectural manifesto of density. Wright allowed for seventy-six elevators—atomic-powered quintuple-deckers, rising at sixty miles an hour. “I ran the studies once,” Fortune said. “He wasn’t even close. He should’ve had two hundred and fifteen to two hundred and twenty-five elevators.”
The Frank Lloyd Wright story makes me laugh.  Damn architects.  There's a lot of great elevator trivia in the story, including tales of free-falling cars and a guy being trapped in an elevator for 41 hours.

Legends And Leaders, We Hardly Knew Ye

Which is a good thing:
More changes are coming to the Big Ten Conference. ESPN reported Friday that the league would realign its football divisions, and come up with new names, starting in 2014. Messages left with Iowa officials Friday night were not immediately returned. According to the report, which cited unnamed sources, the Hawkeyes would be in the proposed West Division, along with Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue. The East Division would include Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, plus new members Maryland and Rutgers. This new alignment is pending approval by the Big Ten presidents and chancellors.
Those stupid names will not be missed.  Maryland and Rutgers in the Big 10 (14) still pisses me off.

Climate Change and Agriculture

Stuart Staniford reports from a climate change conference in New York:
  • This morning I was in Cortland all morning for the section on adapting agriculture to climate change.  The audience was smaller (it being a weekday), but the speakers were excellent - in the main session we heard from scientists and then at lunch we heard from actual growers.  The basic message was the same from everyone:
    • New York State has warmed noticeably, particularly in the winter.  The growing season is longer.  One big dairy operator mentioned that in 1973 he was planting 80 day corn on his hills and 90 day on his river bottom land, whereas today he is planting 95 day corn on the hills and 110 day corn on the bottomland.
    • The weather is also noticeably more extreme.  There are more droughts, more floods, more risk of frosts during the longer growing season, more occasions when they can't get machinery into the fields because the weather is too wet, and more big snowfalls.  This showed up both in the scientist's statistics and also the grower's anecdotes.  The scientists all pinned this on more moisture in the warmer atmosphere and changes in the circulation due to a warmer Arctic.
    • Here are corn yields in New York State since 1945.  There is the same linear pattern that yields often show nationally and globally.  Although the climate is certainly affecting agriculture here in both positive and negative ways, apparently it all nets out to maintain roughly the existing trend:

The increase in relative maturity for that dairyman is amazing.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ammonium Nitrate (not Anhydrous Ammonia) Explosion Devastates Texas Town

About 35 people, including 10 first responders, were killed in the Texas fertilizer company explosion Wednesday night, West Mayor Tommy Muska said in an interview with USA TODAY.
The dead include five members of the West Volunteer Fire Department who were trying to put out the initial blaze, four EMS workers and an off-duty Dallas firefighter who pitched in to help, Muska said. Not all the bodies have been recovered but all are assumed dead.
Two volunteers who showed up to help fight the blaze are also missing and presumed dead, he said.
The rest of the fatalities include residents from nearby homes in the devastated four-block area of this small north-central Texas town 80 miles south of Dallas, the mayor added.
"It's just a tragic, tragic incident," Muska said.
More than 160 others were injured.
Emergency teams went house to house through mounds of debris Thursday in hopes of finding survivors of the earthquake-like blast at the West Fertilizer Co. that sent a ball of fire and burning embers into nearby home about 8 p.m. CT.
The blast, which rocked the ground with the force of a magnitude-2.1 earthquake, could be felt as far as 45 miles away.
Officials said there was no initial indication that the blast was anything but an industrial accident, although agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene investigating the explosion.
The facility, which receives fertilizer by rail and distributes it to local farmers, did not have sprinklers or fire safety barriers required by state law, an official said.

A couple of notes. First, this was a fertilizer distribution facility, not a manufacturing plant. Second, they reported it was an anhydrous ammonia tank that blew up, not ammonium nitrate, which is granular. However, a 12,000 gallon tank is pretty damn big. It is really lucky that the other one didn't also blow up. Maybe the building that burned up had ammonium nitrate in it, and it blew up, but if the tank is what let loose, that was anhydrous ammonia.  Right beside one of our farms is a propane distribution plant. A couple of years ago, I came around the corner of the treeline and saw a 15 foot flame at the plant. That made me a little nervous. But they were flaring off gas as they bled down a delivery truck. When a guy from the plant was out working on my propane tank, I said something about it, and how I figured it wasn't a big deal since I saw a couple of guys standing around watching it. He said that if I saw everybody a half mile down the road, I would know something bad was happening. The moral of the story is that something like this could possibly happen just about anywhere where anhydrous or propane is stored, although anhydrous is generally considered not to be an explosion risk. 

For the mother of all fertilizer explosion disasters,the Texas City disaster, go here.

Update: Apparently, there very likely was ammonium nitrate at the facility, and it was the cause of the explosion, not an anhydrous ammonia leak:
On Feb. 26, West Fertilizer, which is owned by Adair Grain, reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services that it was storing up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, plus up to 100,000 pounds of liquid ammonia, the Los Angeles Times reported. Officials said they did not yet know how much of the volatile chemicals were being stored when the facility, which blends and distributes fertilizer to local farmers, caught fire and exploded.
Ammonium nitrate, a key fertilizer component, can be explosive and has been used in roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran, packed a rented truck with it.
"It is a very volatile material," says David Small, spokesman for the Pentagon's task force to counter improvised explosive devices, called IEDs. In Afghanistan, 80% of the roadside bombs that target U.S. and NATO troops are created from homemade explosives, and most of them are from ammonium nitrate, Small said.
Pentagon explosives experts told the Los Angeles Times that an explosion involving 270 tons of ammonium nitrate would be larger than almost any conventional U.S. weapon.
What I don't understand is why they were carrying ammonium nitrate.  I am guessing it is cheaper than urea or anhydrous ammonia, but if something happens, it can go boom, as we happened to see.  I talked to a local seed and chemical dealer at lunch today, and asked him about the explosion.  He didn't even think that ammonium nitrate was still available for retail sale. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Everyday Heroes

Atul Gawande describes the activity at Boston's hospitals on Monday:
Each hospital has an incident commander who coördinates the clearing of emergency bays and hospital beds to open capacity, the mobilization of clinical staff and medical equipment for treatment, and communication with the city’s emergency command center. At my hospital, Stanley Ashley, a general surgeon and our chief medical officer, was that person. I talked to him after the event—I had been out of the city at the time of the explosions—and he told me that no sooner had he set up his command post and begun making phone calls then the first wave of victims arrived. Everything happened too fast for any ritualized plan to accommodate.
So what did you do, I asked him.
“I mostly let people do their jobs,” he said. He never needed to call anyone. Around a hundred nurses, doctors, X-ray staff, transport staff, you name it showed up as soon as they heard the news. They wanted to help, and they knew how. As one colleague put it, they did on a large scale what they knew how to do on a small scale. They broke up into teams of six or so people, one trauma team for each patient. A senior nurse and physician stood at the door to the ambulance bay triaging the patients going to the teams. The operating-room director handled triage to, and communication with, the operating rooms. Another staff member saw the need for a traffic cop and began shooing extra clinicians into the waiting room, where they could stand by to be called upon.
Richard Wolfe, the chief of the emergency department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told me he had much the same experience there. Of twenty-one casualties, seventeen were serious and seven required emergency surgery. One patient came in with both legs almost completely amputated already. Another’s leg was too mangled to save. Numerous victims had open, bleeding wounds, with shrapnel and shards of fractured bone. One had a lung injury from the blast. Another was burned on over thirty per cent of the body. One had to have an eye removed. Wolfe arrived in the emergency department expecting to take charge of assigning everyone responsibilities.
“But everybody spontaneously knew the dance moves,” he said. He didn’t have to tell people much of what to do at all.
I spoke to Deb Mulloy, the nurse in charge of our operating rooms that afternoon, and a few of the other nursing leaders to find out how they knew the dance moves. Mulloy began mobilizing as soon as she saw the news flash onto a television screen. Others learned through Twitter, text messages, smartphone news apps. They all began to act before the alarm had been sounded.
“We just knew this was real,” Mulloy said, “and a lot of people could be hurt.”
Change of nursing shift is at three o’clock. So she immediately notified the day shift to stay on. No one wanted to leave, anyway. This doubled the available staff.
All I can say is, "Thank you."

The Bacon Torch

Popular Science, via nc links:

Meat Sticks: The author wrapped slices of prosciutto around fiberglass rods, baked them dry, and bundled seven tubes into a bacon fuel core  Mike Walker
The device I built was a form of thermal lance. A thermal lance, typically made of iron instead of bacon, is used to cut up scrap metal and rescue people from collapsed buildings. It works by blowing pure oxygen gas through a pipe packed with iron and magnesium rods. These metals are surprisingly flammable in pure oxygen, releasing a huge amount of heat as they are consumed. The result is a jet of superheated iron plasma coming out of the end of the pipe. For sheer destructive force, few tools match a thermal lance. But iron isn't the only thing that's flammable in a stream of pure oxygen. Bacon is fattening because it contains a lot of chemical energy tied up in its proteins, and especially in its fat. You can release that energy either by digesting it or by burning it with a healthy supply of oxygen. The challenge isn't creating the heat; it's engineering a bacon structure strong enough to withstand the stress of a 5,000°F bacon plasma flame.
I used prosciutto (Italian for "expensive bacon") because it is a superior engineering grade of meat. I wrapped slices of it into thin tubes and baked them overnight in a warm oven to drive off all the water. Then I bundled seven of those together, wrapped them in additional slices, and baked the bundle again until it was hard and dry.
To make an airtight, less-flammable outer casing, I wrapped this fuel core with uncooked prosciutto before attaching one end of it to an oxygen hose. You can't imagine the feeling of triumph when I first saw the telltale signs of burning iron: sparks bursting from the metal, and then a rush of flame out of the other side as I witnessed perhaps the first-ever example of bacon-cut steel. And the lance kept on burning for about a minute.
It turns out there are much easier ways to do this. For example, while researching how to build a vegetarian lance, I hit on the perfect pipe material -- hollowed-out cucumbers. The pressure-containment capacity of a standard cucumber is remarkable, and the smooth skin makes it easy to create an airtight seal with the pipe delivering oxygen to the device. A cucumber packed with beef sticks will burn for almost two minutes, and a completely vegetarian version stuffed with breadsticks, though not quite as long-lasting, still produces a very impressive flame.
The lesson here is that food is a source of serious amounts of energy.

That is fucking awesome.

New Yorkers: Joe Dator

A day in the life of a cartoonist at The New Yorker:

Vatican City Explained

The Benefits Of U.S. Infrastructure for Farmers

To get a good idea, take a look at Brazil  (h/t Big Picture Agriculture, check it out, lots of great links):

Santos, in the state of São Paulo, is 2,000 kilometres away from the main soybean producing area in the centre-west state of Mato Grosso, yet it handles nearly 60 percent of exports of the crop, most of which is hauled in by truck.
Transporting each tonne of soybeans costs nearly 70 dollars more in Brazil than in the United States, analysts say, adding that this profit drain would cease if production were shipped from northern ports, which are closer to the crops and to the export markets.
The predominance of trucks, which handle 60 percent of freight in Brazil, also makes the logistics more expensive.
Godinho is one of almost 600,000 independent truckers on Brazil’s roads, many of which are potholed or unpaved. He usually hauls soybean and maize from an area near his home, in the city of Ituverava in São Paulo, to Santos, 480 kilometres further south, and carries fertilisers on the trip home.
Without a return cargo, it wouldn’t be worth his while, because the road tolls cost 580 reals (290 dollars), almost as much as the fuel used by his truck, which carries up to 32 tonnes, he told IPS after unloading the soy at the port. On the positive side, the São Paulo highways he drives on are in good condition.
“The tolls and the bandits” are a trucker’s worst enemies, he said, although he himself has not been robbed on the highway. “But many of my friends have,” said the 57-year-old, who reckons he has had “a good life,” but is glad his three children have chosen other trades.
Congested ports are the tip of the iceberg, but the long logistical chain has many other bottlenecks.
Volmar Michelon, the co-founder of Pedromar Transportes, a firm with 85 vehicles and a hundred employees, told IPS that his drivers “wait up to 48 hours to unload soybean” in Alto Araguaia, on the southeast border of Mato Grosso, on to freight cars that transport it 1,240 kilometres by rail to Santos.
70 dollars a ton is $2.10 a bushel.  We don't know how good we have it.  In other South American news, Paraguay emerges as a major agricultural player on world markets. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Bombing Roundup

 Like everyone else, my prayers go out to the victims of yesterday's bombs.  It was a tragic and pointless event which targeted the greatest civic festival of one of our great cities.  One which commemorates the beginning of the American Revolution.

We still don't have any explanation of who was behind the Boston Marathon bombing.  If I was a betting man (which I am), I would lay money on a loner, but I'd probably split my bet between anti-government nut and just plain lunatic.  The Patriots' Day and Tax Day connection gives anti-government nut a slight edge, but it goes without saying that the person was mentally unstable.  Lone Muslim or other non-Christian extremist is a possibility, but I just don't think it was the work of any group, be it Al-Qaeda or some crazy militia group. 

Here is Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen describing the mood in Boston (well worth listening to.  I wish they had a transcript posted).

Charles Pierce on the mixture of the horrible and the mundane, and the impact of the bombing on the Marathon, "the old, drunk uncle of Boston sports, the last of the true festival events":
I do not know what happens now. I know the event will never be the same. It is marked now, and it will be marked in the future, by what happened on the afternoon of April 15, 2013. Some of it will be locked down. Some of it will be tightened up. I walked back down to the Public Garden again, because Copley Square was growing dark and exhausted as the night began to fall. Back by the stone fountain, a woman in a silver blanket told a Providence TV station that she'd been unable to find a ladies' room after the race because all the restaurants and hotels had been locked down and she had to come all the way down to Park Square to find facilities that would deign to accommodate her. She was not happy at all, and she was telling greater Providence about it. "And I needed TO PEE!," she told some undoubtedly astounded Rhode Islanders.
There was something comfortingly mundane in how truly angry she was. The best example of this came from my friend, Steve Brown, a reporter for WBUR, one of the local Boston NPR stations. Brown swore he heard one person say, "Damn it, this is the first time I ever got DNF'd." Goddamn runners. I swear, one day, I promise, I'll laugh about them again. The Marathon will be worth mocking again. But that will not be today. It will not be anytime soon.
The bombing did terrible damage to the victims and their families.  Luckily, the physical damage wasn't any worse than it was.  But for the rest of us, it was some lunatic's attempt to take one more bit of civil society away from us.  We can't allow the vile acts of some demented coward (or cowards) to undermine our ability to enjoy our time on this earth without fear and rigid security measures bearing down on us.  These types of attacks are way less dangerous than what Mother Nature throws at us monthly.  Lets' not forget that.

Tom Levinson photo of MIT building 54 on the evening of April 15.

Robin Williams Remembers Jonathan Winters

Not only was Jonathan funny on TV, but his comedy albums are also auditory bliss. One of my favorite routines involved a mad scientist who sounded like Boris Karloff. But instead of creating a Frankenstein, he made thousands of little men that he unleashed on the world. His shocked assistant cried out, “What are they looking for?”
The professor replied, “Little women, you fool.”
His comedy sometimes had an edge. Once, at a gun show, Jon was looking at antique pistols and a man asked if he was a gun proponent. He said: “No, I prefer grenades. They’re more effective.”
Earlier in his life, he had a breakdown and spent some time in a mental institution. He joked that the head doctor told him: “You can get out of here. All you need is 57 keys.” He also hinted that Eileen wanted him to stay there at least until Christmas because he made great ornaments.
Even in his later years, he exorcised his demons in public. His car had handicap plates. He once parked in a blue lane and a woman approached him and said, “You don’t look handicapped to me.”
Jonathan said, “Madam, can you see inside my mind?”
He leaves the world with fewer laughs to go around.

Not Lily White

In case you thought all right wing loons were Caucasian, Herman Cain has organized a group of black ones:
Herman Cain steps up to microphones at the Willard hotel on Monday after a two-day meeting of a dozen black conservatives that he pulled together. Mr. 9-9-9 has come out of the meetings with a catchy name for his group. They are the ABCs — American Black Conservatives.
After surging to the front of the GOP primary field in 2011 — before flaming out amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations — Cain returned home to Georgia to his radio show, relatively forgotten. Standing before the mikes on Monday he seems to sense another moment in the blazing sun on what happens to be an overcast day in the nation’s capital — a moment not solely for himself but for an entire cadre of “like-minded Americans who happen to be black.”
The former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza acted as something of a godfather to the ABCs, including the famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has reaped his share of controversy of late for his remarks lumping together homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. The pair were joined by the founder of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, a former Ohio secretary of state, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, a radio personality and a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., who has become a conservative activist.
Together, they are searching for solidarity at what appears to be a critical juncture for minorities in a Republican Party that has acknowledged it is too old and too white to keep pace with an increasingly diverse electorate. And Cain is putting himself out front. Again.
I'm glad to see Ken Blackwell made it to the meeting.  No group of minority right-wing nutjobs is complete without him.  For all the liberal doubters out there, now you know there are enough black teabaggers to fill up a big table at an Applebee's restaurant.  Let the con of conservatives who want to prove they aren't racist begin.  The conservative movement is just a big grifting operation.

Is The Future of the Rust Belt Its Abundant Water?

Emily Badger thinks it may be:
In all our fixation on the iconic image of rusting smokestacks, we often forget that manufacturing may mean something else entirely in the 21st century. We also forget that those cities known most widely for their idled steel mills and meatpacking plants also possess some inherent strengths that are still relevant today. Donald Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon, ticks off a long list of them: authenticity and heritage, walkable neighborhoods and transit, universities and medical centers, recreational amenities and abundant fresh water.
This last asset will inevitably become even more important. About 20 percent of the world's surface supply of fresh water is located in the Great Lakes region, and this could entirely change how we think about cities there in a future where water comes to be more valuable than oil.
""I think there could be a new terminology," Carter says. "The Sun Belt becomes the Drought Belt, and the Rust Belt becomes the Water Belt."
Considering the limitations to growth Texas may face as water becomes scarce there, Detroit and Cleveland look pretty solid.  I think it will definitely benefit the Great Lakes region (and Dayton with its aquifer) to have a reliable source of water.

How Big Will Farms Get?

Top Producer:
"Today’s average Illinois commercial crop farm is about 1,500 acres," Schnitkey says. "In 10 years, I expect that to be 2,500 acres. Eventually, the average Illinois farm could be closer to 10,000 acres."
The number of acres that can be efficiently farmed per person keeps increasing as equipment size increases; however, that places a real premium on farmers’ ability to ramp up management of technology and people.
"If you have 3,000 acres, you are too big for one combine but not big enough to fully utilize two," Schnitkey says. "We have 12-row combines and now they’re manufacturing 16-row combines." There’s no end in sight to development of new technologies that will allow farmers to more efficiently farm added acreage.
As a farm operation grows, Dale Nordquist, a University of Minnesota ag economist, points out some hurdles, such as employee management, that must be jumped. Farmers with the desire and ability to manage large numbers of employees will likely grow their operations to much larger sizes than those who prefer to do most of the farm work themselves, he says.
No Boundaries. Growth in future decades will not be limited by proximity. An increasing number of producers will operate in different states and countries. "That’s happening already," says Danny Klinefelter, Texas A&M ag economist. Part of this trend will be crunching numbers to determine locations where it’s cost effective to expand, and it might be 1,000 miles away.
I know one thing, I won't be farming in two areas 1,000 miles apart.  And managing employees does not sound like my idea of a good time.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I could see farming 1,500 to 2,000 acres, but 10,000? No.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Where Do The Taxes Go?


Makers and Takers

The Kansas City Star features a number of stories about how much federal money is spent in urban, rural and suburban areas, compared to the taxes paid.  In the chart above, Sumner County is a rural county; Jackson County, Missouri is the home of Kansas City, Missouri; Wyandotte County is the home of Kansas City, Kansas; and Johnson County is the home of the most affluent suburbs of Kansas City.  Here is a breakdown of federal spending in Sumner County:
So it’s likely most Sumner voters nodded in agreement last year when Romney called 47 percent of Americans “takers” — so reliant on federal aid they couldn’t be persuaded that runaway federal debt threatens economic freedom.
Yet, as Wetta suggests, Sumner County is a taker.
In fiscal year 2010, for example, the U.S. government spent roughly $189 million in Sumner County, almost $7,900 for every man, woman and child who lives here. That’s an estimated 40 to 50 percent more, on average, than each county resident paid in federal taxes.
Much of that spending went for Social Security and Medicare. Almost 16 percent of Sumner County’s residents are older than 65.
But the federal government provides food stamps for more than 2,400 people in the county, on average, every month — costing taxpayers $3.5 million a year. It spent $15.7 million in 2010 to provide Medicaid health care coverage for 3,700 of the county’s poor. It spent $69,284 that year for aviation improvements.
Washington sends subsidies to eight county school districts for teachers — and for lunch. It spent more than $7 million from the 2009 stimulus bill for the county’s schools. It provides housing assistance for those in poverty.
The federal government sends checks big and small. It helps pay for wastewater disposal and economic development in Sumner County. It insures home mortgages. It spent $13,500 in 2010 for small-business loans. It spent $2,266 in burial expenses for Sumner County veterans.
And it sends millions of dollars to Sumner County’s farmers.
Scott Van Allen has farmed 2,300 Sumner County acres for more than three decades, mostly wheat. He’s a conservative, worried Washington is going broke.
But Van Allen takes federal farm subsidies — direct payments and taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. He’s lost uninsured crops to bad weather and won’t do it again.
From 2007 to 2011, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, Van Allen has taken more than $200,000 in subsidies from a Washington he doesn’t fully trust.
“It is hypocrisy,” he admits, with a rueful smile.
Here's a breakdown of spending on ag programs in Sumner County: 
“If we’re going to bust our butt, and all these people are on welfare that won’t work … and we put in all the hours we do in farming and feeding the country, why not get some of that money?” he asked.
That view helps explain why federal taxpayers sent nearly $3.2 million in direct payments to Sumner County’s farmers in 2010, despite soaring prices and growing land values. That’s a $2,900 annual check, on average, to each of the roughly 1,100 farms in Sumner.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s double the average per-person food stamp benefit.
Washington helped Sumner County farmers in other ways that year, too.
It provided $608,541 to cover deficient farm loans, $194,829 for conservation payments, even $45,346 for milk price supports. It provided nearly $1 million to subsidize operating loans that year.
But by far the biggest taxpayer expense — nearly $12.5 million in Sumner County in 2010 — paid for federal crop insurance for Sumner County’s farmers.
The government helps provide crop insurance coverage in two ways — in ways farmers and others can overlook. It subsidizes the premiums farmers pay though their private insurers. Then, if a drought or hailstorm hits, the feds can, under some circumstances, reimburse the private insurers for part of their payouts.
Farmers can participate in the insurance program regardless of income.
It’s expensive. Since 1995, EWG says, Washington has spent more than $131 million in Sumner County to subsidize crop insurance, about $120,000 per farm over 17 years. In a report last week, the Government Accountability Office said national crop insurance costs have doubled, on average, over the past decade — to more than $7 billion a year.
That is some serious money.  I think our direct payments work out to about $18,000 a year, and our crop insurance subsidy is probably about $35,000 or $40,000.  As the stories lay out, rural areas get support for teacher salaries and school lunches, rural development, and the same social programs which benefit big cities.  Who pays for it?  Mainly the affluent folks in cities and suburbs.

Read more here:

Read more here:

The Gold Religion

Via Ritholtz, Josh Brown discusses gold as an article of faith:
I've been happy to be constructive on the gold trade so long as that gorgeous long-term uptrend had been in place - but I've consistently said that gold is a trade, not a way of life or a religion and certainly not a currency.
And so with the old trend broken to bits, there's nothing left to discuss.
And now the spell is broken and many reluctant and late buyers have woken up to a commodity-style sell-off in an asset that they were told was as stable as cash. They've woken up to the fact that anytime the proverbial shit has hit the fan, their "safety trade" has let them down - from Dubai's blow-up to the Grexit that wasn't to the almost-collapse of the Euro Zone to the Arab Spring to the death of Andy Rooney. The Emperor has been spotted sans clothing. What has been seen cannot be unseen.
It simply doesn't work. The money printing is endless and central banks aren't even pretending they'll stop. Japan is daring you to look away, they'll denude every single forest in the eastern hemisphere before they stop making baby yens. So where is the inflation fear?
Where the fuck is your Gold Messiah now?
I expect the True Believers will continue to scream their heads off about money printing and that the real inflation hasn't even begun yet. They might be right, I can't see the future. But the Believers will conveniently fail to point out that stocks and real estate are also an inflation hedge - and a more productive one at that. That's fine, I live on Long Island and we have New York Jets fans here, too.
I have a friend who runs an all-gold hedge fund. He tells me he has a fairly easy job because his LPs don't care about performance, just that his portfolio continues to represent their rigid ideology. His investors have punched their tickets a long time ago and nothing will change their minds; his job under these circumstances is to simply maintain consistency of portfolio composition and quarterly update blather. He goes about his work of buying and selling gold futures and miners with half a smirk on his face.
I bought some gold and mining stocks a while back, but only because I suspected other folks to drive up the price due to panic in the market.  I was right there.  However, I think I'm going to keep what I've bought, more as a strategy of diversification (or maybe because I am kind of a stock collector, which could also be considered a hoarder), as opposed to taking my profits.  However, I agree about the gold bugs, and their faith having nothing to do with fundamentals.  With the number of dollars in circulation, and the ounces of gold in existence, we never were, and never will go back to the gold standard.  The true believers need to wake up to that fact.

Happy Patriots' Day

It's the third Monday in April.  Time for folks in Massachusetts and Maine to get the day off.  Hopefully, folks will enjoy the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox game that starts at 11:05 AM.  Also, hopefully they'll have time to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord.

The Challenges of the Second Avenue Subway Construction

CBS Sunday Morning looks at the massive project:

One notable fact in that clip: a neighborhood with a population of 100,000 per square mile. To put that in perspective, Miami County (where I live), had a population of 102,506 in the 2010 census, spread over an area of just about 410 square miles. New York City has a population of approximately 8.3 million spread over about 303 square miles of land. For a little more perspective, where I live, my folks and I own 585 acres, which leaves a population of 1 on 0.915 square miles (granted, there are probably 50 people living on 50 acres which are contiguous to our ground). In other words, the Upper East Side is about as crowded as it would be if every person in my county lived on the farm I live on. In other New York transit news, The Atlantic reviews several proposed but stalled projects to provide another transit link between New York City and New Jersey. This includes a proposed extension of the 7 train, as well as the tunnel project killed by Chris Christie when he was first elected and trying to prove his Tea Party bona fides, prior to realizing that the Tea Party would kill any hopes of a national election victory for him. I still think this was his biggest mistake.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bees and Almonds

NASA Photo of the Day

April 13:

Sun with Solar Flare
Image Credit: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory
Explanation: This week the Sun gave up its strongest solar flare so far in 2013, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed toward planet Earth. A false-color composite image in extreme ultraviolet light from the Solar Dynamics Observatory captures the moment, recorded on April 11 at 0711 UTC. The flash, a moderate, M6.5 class flare erupting from active region AR 11719, is near the center of the solar disk. Other active regions, areas of intense magnetic fields seen as sunspot groups in visible light, mottle the surface as the solar maximum approaches. Loops and arcs of glowing plasma trace the active regions' magnetic field lines. A massive cloud of energetic, charged particles, the CME will impact the Earth's magnetosphere by this weekend and skywatchers should be on the alert for auroral displays.
 I went out last night and sat out in the boondocks for a while to see if I would catch the Northern Lights display they were predicting might be visible here.  No dice.  

Ohio Turnpike Tolls Go Up

Plain Dealer:
Ohio Turnpike tolls would increase by at least 25 cents for cars and $1 for trucks for a cross-state trip next January, under a 10-year toll plan proposed Monday by the turnpike commission.
Tolls would rise 2.7 percent a year -- about 30 percent over the decade -- to pay for $1.5 billion in bonds the turnpike wants to issue, as part of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's plan to pay for sorely needed construction projects, mostly in northern Ohio.
Those projects faced years of delay because of lagging state and federal gas tax revenue.
The 10-year toll proposal was among measures the commission approved Monday, just one week after Kasich signed a transportation budget bill that set his turnpike plan in motion.
The commission also hired a bond-underwriting team and a bond counsel and adopted proposed rules governing the commission's review of new construction projects.
Why, oh why did Kasich pick this asinine way to raise money for road projects?  Sure it was better than privatizing the Turnpike, but the state could have just as easily sold general obligation bonds to do the same thing, without having to put stipulations on where money would have to be spent.  Taxing users of the Turnpike to pay for other roads makes no sense whatsoever. 

Of course, one problem is that the State Consitution, written in 1851, bars the state from issuing any bonds without a Constitutional amendment, which means that we have to have a statewide referendum for the state to sell any bonds.  This is antiquated and ridiculous, as can be easily ascertained by looking at what percentage of the pages of the state Constitution are made up of various bond amendments, and what percentage are made up of actually setting up how the government functions.

The other major problem is that Republicans don't believe in actually using progressive taxation to perform the functions of government.  But they are perfectly comfortable with fees and tolls and other regressive ways of taxing people, since those don't ask the most well-off to contribute more than everyday slobs.  All the working stiffs should remember that each time they cast their ballots.

Yale Wins NCAA Hockey Crown


Yale captain Andrew Miller stopped a reporter when he asked what it felt like to be the final school to make the 16-team NCAA hockey tournament when it began. "Actually, we were the 15th seed," Miller said. And ultimately, the last one standing. Miller capped his brilliant career with a breakaway goal in the third period, Jeff Malcolm stopped all 36 Quinnipiac shots and the Bulldogs won their first NCAA championship with a 4-0 victory Saturday night.
It was sweet revenge for Yale (22-12-3), which lost the three previous meetings with the top-seeded Bobcats by a combined 13-3. The nation's oldest hockey program, however, left no doubt in the final, riding the play of Malcolm and some unlikely offensive contributions to capture a title 117 years in the making. "Tonight was our turn," Yale coach Keith Allain said. The Bulldogs have been playing hockey since 1896 but had only made the tournament twice before Allain took over in 2006. The Yale graduate accepted the job with the promise from his bosses the school would do what it takes to be competitive. In seven seasons he guided the Bulldogs all the way to the top. "I came back to prove you could go to the best university in the world and prove you can play hockey at the highest level," Allain said. Yale did it throughout the tournament, knocking off three No. 1 seeds, including its Connecticut rival from just down the street. Quinnipiac (30-8-5) -- located less than 10 miles from the Yale campus -- spent most of the year ranked No. 1.

How Easily Can Bad Guys Become Good Guys?

This seems to me to be a little much:
The Cincinnati Bengals and former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison will try to complete a deal this week, a source familiar with situation told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Harrison and former Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby each visited Cincinnati last week, and while the Bengals are interested in Dansby, a deal with Harrison seems more attainable and realistic at this time.
The Bengals have a need at outside linebacker, as 2012 starter Manny Lawson signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason.
The 34-year-old Harrison, who was set to make $6.57 million in 2013, was released by the Steelers last month after refusing to take a pay cut. His agent said his client would be open to a return to the Steelers, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the team is not interested in a reunion.
Harrison was meeting with the Baltimore Ravens on the same day Baltimore reached agreement with linebacker Elvis Dumervil, which ended the team's interest in signing Harrison. Otherwise he has received little interest from teams looking for a linebacker.
James Harrison?  It's like the Rebel Alliance bringing Darth Vader on board.  Sure, he's a heck of a player, but it is always nice to have your enemies so perfectly represented.  Making the mind-bending switch from bad guy to good guy is hard for me to imagine.

The Atrraction of Bars

Via the Dish, Jessica Freeman-Slade reads Rosie Schapp's memoir about hanging out in bars, titled Drinking with Men, and goes to some New York bars to do some immersion research:
If you take a slightly lower road, you end up at the wide wasteland of the happy-hour circuit, the bars in Midtown East and West where the lighting is slightly higher and the drink prices slightly lower. This is where I first started to see what Schaap was drawn to in her favorite bars: the friendships between the patrons, and the warm greetings by the bartenders that recognize them. At the Archive, a little place in Murray Hill where the happy hour red wine was perfectly quaffable, I found a gaggle of midtown lawyers, each clinging to his bar stools and ordering an elaborately named scotch or whiskey of choice. “Can you believe how expensive it is to drink in NY?” asked a red-faced man in a too-tight shirt, leaning across my chair to snatch his vodka-and-soda. “It’s a luxury activity,” I respond, and we clink our happy-hour drinks in solidarity. A frizzy-haired woman to my left swished a diluted cocktail between her teeth as she complained about her work week to the bartender, but even she declined a refill. “I’m going to surprise my husband tonight,” she snickered, and then added, with a low raspy chuckle, “I hope it’s not a bad surprise.” Such confessionals would be out of place at a fancier bar, but watching people ease out of the workdays can be your first instruction in how to drink like a grown-up. Schaap said, “I’ve come of age in bars,” and perhaps the post-work drink is how you first observe functional adults at play.
Being a solo bar denizen makes it far more likely that you’ll be drawn into conversation, into uncharted territory and debate with a fellow drinker. I was drawn to the Blue Bar at the Algonquin because of its storied literary history (besides being the birthplace of the New Yorker magazine, it was the site of Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table, probably the place of more than three-martini lunches.) If there would be any bar to emulate a certain kind of aloof New York society girl, it would be here — sipping a vodka martini with a twist, as smooth on the lips as chilled silk. But this is a place famous for conversation, and so when a white-haired gentleman settled down into the chair beside me for a martini of his own, I imagined he’d take an interest in my book and strike up a conversation. Yet his first remark to me was not on the state of literary fiction or on the merits of New Zealand-sourced vodka, but rather a comment on the Tiger Woods and Lindsay Vonn hook-up. “Says something about the institution of marriage, or lack thereof,” he remarked, the first of his remarks that would lead me to discover he was a visiting South Carolinian, passing through on a business trip and determined to enjoy his evening cocktail despite the CNN feed. But the martini proved to be liquid courage; I asked him to clarify exactly what he meant, and we ended up chatting for an hour about faith, traditional values in American culture, and the real peril (if any) our country might be in.
I can relate immensely.  I've always been fascinated by the ability of bars to welcome in a total stranger, and how quickly someone can become one of the regulars.  There is no easier way to talk to total strangers than by having a couple of drinks while sitting by them at the bar.  You often get an interesting, and often otherwise inaccessible, look at someone's deepest beliefs, and why they look at the world the way they do.  I really enjoy that openness to strangers when I travel, but the interaction of regulars and the bar staff is what makes bars most enjoyable to me on a day-to-day basis.  I can't count the number of people I know around town who, without meeting them in bars, I just wouldn't have met.  It opens up the community to me.

It is true that certain pathologies can be and are propagated in bars, but most of the negatives are outweighed, at least in most cases, by the positive benefits.