Saturday, May 25, 2013

Putting Things In Perspective

To fulfill my sister's request, here (<<-read this one first, it is written by a friend and occasional drinking associate) are links to two stories about a family who are my friends and neighbors, and all the things they have been through since Cory, the son, got hit by a car while riding a moped, and suffered tremendous brain trauma and spent 3 months in a coma.  They are inspiring and emotional articles, and are more likely to bring tears to your eyes than slicing a bushel of onions (that would be 4 pecks, for those who are interested in strange units of measurement) or playing a round or three of rochambeau.  If they don't do it, here's a picture of Cory walking down the aisle at graduation.

These stories are also a very good example of the amazing strength and goodness to be found in our communities.  While these folks might have been able to make it through their trials on their own, I know there is no way I could in their situation, and I know that the outpouring of support from friends and neighbors greatly eased their burdens and helped them carry on.  I am proud to know so many strong, loving and caring people, and am glad to be a small, albeit not nearly as beneficial, part of their lives and their community.  We may frequently see the bad side of people, but there is an overwhelming amount of good in them.

I may love to bitch and moan about how put upon I am in my day-to-day life, but people like this, who have been through real-life suffering and tragedy, quickly put into context how charmed my life has been.  I will now take a short break from complaining about what amounts to my personal version of white people problems (or first-world problems) to drink a few beers with said friends, and to celebrate Cory's graduation.  And to soak in a little of what makes life beautiful.

An Intelligent and Politically Savvy Adversary

Modern Farmer interviews Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of HSUS.  Among the interesting nuggets:
 The veal industry has voluntarily moved in the direction of no crates. And the industry is already about 75 percent converted. The egg industry has taken a bit of a non-linear path. We were really advocating for a cage-free product. But we did make an agreement – which has yet to be enacted — to significantly expand the size [of the cages] and to provide enriched colony cages. That’s significant movement by the industry to accept a wholly different production system.
We’re still very much at odds with the confinement sector of the pork industry.  Despite the large number of companies that have agreed to begin phasing out purchasing pork from producers who confine the sows, the industry is continuing to stand its ground and fight.
Also, on ag-gag laws:
Dr. Temple Grandin told me she believes ag-gag bills are the dumbest thing agriculture has ever cooked up. As she sees it, it almost amounts to an admission of failure. The suggestion is that if the public sees what’s actually happening inside these facilities, they’re not going to like it.
A lot of the big farm groups have strong ties to state lawmakers. So I think tactically it’s an attempt to play to the their strengths. But the whole thing really rings false with the American public. It seems like it’s a cover-up. And what happens is HSUS investigations are discussed as part of the debate. So the public ends up hearing about downer cows being dragged to slaughter, they hear about hens dying and being mummified in cages, and they hear about sows injuring themselves by pushing against the bars of their cage every day.
And, finally, his most haunting point:
Industrial agriculture is a powerful enterprise in our country.  While their system was reigning, in a sense, they had their way to do whatever they wanted. But in the last 40 years we’d seen 91 percent of pig farmers, 88 percent of dairy farmers go out of business, and more than 95 percent of egg producers go out of business. So it hasn’t worked out well for the family farmer to have this hyper-industrialized production system. And politically speaking it means that their numbers are shrinking. You have many fewer farmers now than you had in 1975, 1985, even 2000. So it means that their political influence is inevitably on the decline.
They can trade on some of their past associations and political strengths, but it’s going to run out. The better strategy is a way forward that allows for successful production agriculture that also attends to the needs of animals, protects the environment, and produces safe food.
Way too many farmers, and way too many of the ridiculously conservative politicians that farmers and other rural folks elect assume that Pacelle and his supporters are ignorant, naive fools who can't take on farmers politically.  As Pacelle points out in the interview, farmers and politicians claim that HSUS is going to force us all to become vegetarians.  Mr. Pacelle is way too smart to try that.  Instead, he is busy presenting the worst cruelties of confinement agriculture to the millions and millions of folks who treat their dogs and cats like they are their own children.  And bullying tactics like ag-gag laws make farmers look even more idiotic and crooked.  Farmers and politicians may dismiss those folks who buy into HSUS's arguments against the worst of the confinement practices as gullible fools, but they are dismissing a large percentage of their customers, and doing it at their own peril.  Meanwhile, the folks at McDonalds, Applebee's and Costco realize that they can't write off those consumers, and are moving on, knowing that there will be farmers who will change to satisfy their massive food needs.

Why are farmers playing into Pacelle's and the HSUSs' hands?  I would suggest three reasons: resistance to losing capital investment in confinement facilities (the most understandable), laziness (the vice many of us are guilty of), and plain, old stubbornness.  This final reason (there are some others, but those seem like the biggest) is the one where the overlap of conservative politics and agriculture is so noticeable.  Picking a losing fight against the majority of the country on a shift in cultural values is a hallmark of the politicians farmers elect.  Whether it is gay marriage, evolution, the existence of global warming or animal welfare, these folks are actively trying to subvert the will of the majority, even when it is pretty clear they will lose.  William F. Buckley's standing athwart history yelling "stop" is a really good way to get run over.  And the more often you fight on the wrong and losing side of an issue, the more likely the majority of the population will assume you are wrong when you take another stand.  It doesn't help that as Obama proposes to do things the way Republicans have historically suggested we do, the Republicans claim those are the most terrible ideas ever.  If conservatives, be it farmers or Republicans or the Catholic bishops (think birth control) don't start a journey back toward the majority of the population, their causes will eventually shrivel and die.  The Barack Obamas and Wayne Pacelles and Richard Dawkinses of the world will easily be able convince the majority of the population that conservatives are insane loons.  Don't make their work any easier by proving them right.  You may not like where the majority of the population is on issues, but they are the majority, and the more people you alienate, the less likely you have success with any of your causes.  Please, stop the craziness.

Designed Right?

A civil engineer weighs in on construction in Moore, Oklahoma:
BLOCK: Did you look at the damage of the two elementary schools that were destroyed?
BLOCK: And what did you see?
MARSHALL: Well, these schools had been designed for the building code of 90 miles per hour. And we found a number of fatal flaws in the construction, especially with the concrete masonry unit walls otherwise known as CMU. There were many unreinforced walls and they did not have the steel rebar that goes into them or the grout that goes into them to protect them against anything more than a 90-mile-per-hour wind. And that's disheartening in a way because schools obviously are where children are congregated. And here we have just a standard type building with no real area of safety.
Now fortunately, they had interior hallways which did provide some protection but it wasn't a shelter, per se.
BLOCK: Um-hum. And in one of those cases I believe it was an interior wall of a hallway that collapsed and killed a number of children at Plaza Towers.
MARSHALL: That's correct. I mean, unreinforced concrete masonry kills. Children should not die in schools. To me that is - especially when you have a tornado coming - I don't care how strong the tornado is, there are ways that you can have a shelter to withstand that and you can save the children.
I can't comment on the structural stuff.  If you needed to know if the drainage system was designed to get the water away from important stuff, I'm the guy to talk to.  if it is something complex, find a smart person.


Bridge collapse on film:

If this was caused by an overloaded truck, somebody is screwed.

Some Music

I'm torn.  Sweet Home Chicago, or this.  I'll go with this:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

He Scares Chuck Norris

Andrew Sharp on Jadeveon Clowney:
On the sixth day God created Clowney and on the seventh day everyone was dead.
And all I'm saying is, after rereading those numbers from Feldman on Wednesday and rewatching that Michigan clip 10 or 20 times in the past 24 hours, it's clear that Clowney should not be playing college football. Send him to the NBA for a year so he can break 50 backboards, shut down LeBron James, and end the year by shattering Blake Griffin's clavicle and getting banned from the league for life. There is no good reason the Sacramento Kings shouldn't draft Jadeveon Clowney in June.
Or he could mentor at-risk youth. And by "mentor" we mean stalk teenagers and stare them in the face as they consider breaking the law. Want to reduce crime and scare kids into staying in school? Pay Clowney to be a truancy officer. Or put him in the NHL, for the simple reason that the world needs a 6-foot-6 dreadlocked freak of nature roaming the ice. Or let him interrogate terror suspects. Or just broadcast a six-month version of the NFL combine where we watch him do incredible shit. I don't know.
Any of these alternatives would be safer.
While I found this pretty humorous, I do think it playing with that gnawing knowledge in the back of our heads that football is becoming more and more dangerous.  The future of the sport will be interesting.

Space Bras?

Back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, they were wearing custom-made suits crafted by people who had previously earned their living making bras and girdles. These very important people who played such a significant role in one of the great moments in history will soon have their story told on a big screen near you.
According to Deadline, Warner Bros. has hired Richard Cordiner to pen an adaptation of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux’s book about the Playtex design team behind the Apollo outerwear. The book, released in 2011, “tells the story of the 21-layer spacesuit in 21 chapters addressing 21 topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the 20th century.” It also somehow manages to weave in details about cyborgs, latex, John F. Kennedy’s image, and a little bit of Christian Dior.
Obviously there’s no word yet on when this film could hit theaters, but amid this year’s summer slate of future-dystopia space stories — Oblivion, After Earth — news of a (presumably) happier tale of space exploration would be a welcome respite, especially if it can deliver something for fashion geeks and NASA nerds.
That is a bit of history I didn't realize.

Wealth on a Plane

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Coffinmaker

The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

If you are looking for a wooden coffin and want to support a monastery, check out the Trappists in Iowa.

Still Alive

With work and planting, things have been a tad busy.  But we're on the downhill side, we've got 55 acres of beans left.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Catholic Schools Struggle

I found this little piece interesting:
Private education as we have known it is on its way out, at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. At the very least, it's headed for dramatic shrinkage, save for a handful of places and circumstances, to be replaced by a very different set of institutional, governance, financing, and education-delivery mechanisms.
Consider today's realities. Private K-12 enrollments are shrinking -- by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, announced in January that 44 of its 156 elementary will cease operations next month. (A few later won reprieves.) In addition, many independent schools (day schools and especially boarding schools) are having trouble filling their seats -- at least, filling them with their customary clientele of tuition-paying American students. Traditional nonprofit private colleges are also challenged to fill their classroom seats and dorms, to which they're responding by heavily discounting their tuitions and fees for more and more students.
Meanwhile, charter school enrollments are booming across the land.
44 of 156 schools closing?  Ouch.  Our local school is making small steps toward growth, but the classes there aren't nearly as big as they were back in my day.  I think they average about 20 kids a class, while we were closer to 30.  Right now, it looks like our school may see an enrollment increase, but around the region, schools are closing or merging.  

There is a chapter in American Catholic by Charles R. Morris titled "God's Bricklayer", which discusses the growth of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia under Cardinal Daugherty.  He was instrumental in building parishes and schools throughout Philadelphia and the suburbs in the early 20th century.  It appears that some of those schools have run their course.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Life is Improv

Via the Dish, David Zahl remembers Stephen Colbert's 2011 commencement speech at Northwestern University:
After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules about improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.
And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning. I have my own show, which I love doing. Full of very talented people ready to serve me. And it’s great. But at my best, I am serving them just as hard, and together, we serve a common idea, in this case the character Stephen Colbert, who it’s clear, isn’t interested in serving anyone. And a sure sign that things are going well is when no one can really remember whose idea was whose, or who should get the credit for what jokes. (Though naturally I get credit for all of them.)
But if we should serve others, and together serve some common goal or idea — for any one of you, what is that idea? And who are those people?
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as the prophet says, service is love made visible.  If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.
So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.
In closing, I’d like to apologize for being predictable. The New York Times has analyzed the hundreds of commencement speeches given so far in 2011, and found that “love and “service” were two of the most used words. I can only hope that because of my speech today, the word “brothel” comes in a close third.
Well said.  I'd like to think this applies to how I live my life, but sometimes I wonder. 

NASA Photo of the Day

May 17:


The Waterfall and the World at Night
Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Vetter (Nuits sacrées)
Explanation: Above this boreal landscape, the arc of the Milky Way and shimmering aurorae flow through the night. Like an echo, below them lies Iceland's spectacular Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. Shining just below the Milky Way, bright Jupiter is included in the panoramic nightscape recorded on March 9. Faint and diffuse, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) appears immersed in the auroral glow. The digital stitch of four frames is a first place winner in the 2013 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest on Dark Skies Importance organized by The World at Night. An evocative record of the beauty of planet Earth's night sky, all the contest's winning entries are featured in this video.

Cooking Ourselves

A big pile of petroleum coke from a Detroit refinery handling Tar Sands "oil" gets peoples' attention:
Much of the new coking investment has gone into refineries in the Midwest to allow them to take advantage of the oil sands. BP, the British energy company, is building what it describes as the second-largest coke refinery in Whiting, Ind. When completed, the unit will be able to process about 102,000 barrels of bitumen or other heavy oils a day.
And what about the leftover coke? The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer allow any new licenses permitting the burning of petroleum coke in the United States. But D. Mark Routt, a staff energy consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, said that overseas companies saw it as a cheap alternative to low-grade coal. In China, it is used to generate electricity, adding to that country’s air-quality problems. There is also strong demand from India and Latin America for American petroleum coke, where it mainly fuels cement-making kilns.
“I’m not making a value statement, but it comes down to emission controls,” Mr. Routt said. “Other people don’t seem to have a problem, which is why it is going to Mexico, which is why it is going to China.”
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he said. One of the world’s largest dealers of petroleum coke is the Oxbow Corporation, which sells about 11 million tons of fuel-grade coke a year. It is owned by William I. Koch, a brother of David and Charles.
Lorne Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for the environmental group Oil Change International, says, “It’s really the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth,” he said.
Working the Tar Sands is just unsustainable.  There may be a ton of petroleum there, but we're just killing ourselves for it.  It is pretty clear why the Koch brothers spend so much money trying to convince useful idiots that climate change isn't real.

Austerity Works

If the plan is to make a recession into a Depression:

The past is a foreign country we like to think wasn't as smart as our own.

But if reality television wasn't proof enough, the financial crisis should put the lie to this intellectual narcissism. While the U.S. has muddled through its Great Recession, the euro zone is still mired in its new Great Depression -- and this despite 80 years of hard-won knowledge that should have made such a slump a barbarous relic.

The latest GDP numbers for the euro zone were brutal as usual. The 17-nation economy contracted for the sixth consecutive quarter in the beginning of 2013 -- longer even than in 2008-09 -- as it fell 0.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012. The entire bloc is either in a long recession, a new recession, or almost so. Indeed, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy continued their neverending slumps; Cyprus, the Netherlands, Finland and France fell into new slumps (and Slovenia likely would have too if it had reported numbers); while Austria, Belgium, and Germany only just avoided new slumps by growing 0.1 percent in the first quarter. Add it all up, and euro zone GDP is still 3.4 percent below where it was in 2007 -- compared to U.S. GDP growing 3.2 percent over that period, as you can see below in the chart from the Wall Street Journal.

Guess what: More austerity and less monetary stimulus were pretty horrible ideas (emphasis mine).
No fucking shit!  Keynes figured this shit out almost 80 years ago.  But conservatives are so damn dumb that not only do they not understand the theories Keynes espoused, they think the theories are stupid.  We've got a real world case to study right now, and they still don't get it.  Now, one of the most prominent austerians is arguing that Keynes is wrong because he was gay.  God Bless America, conservatives are stupid assholes. In the end, their problem is that they are trying to make an economic moral argument, but Depressions are amoral.  They destroy the wealth of the rich while crushing the souls of the poor, and conservatives want to make sure that "bad" folks get what's coming to them.  Hey dumbasses, it doesn't do any good to punish everybody just to make sure a few folks get what's coming to them.  Just watch the Germans.  They want to make sure the folks in the south get punished, but really it is just destroying the savings of the Germans themselves.  All those German bank deposits were loaned out to the countries to the east and the south, so the austerity just ends up making sure the Germans have to bail themselves and everybody else out after the suffering goes on long enough to get the sadists in the conservative world off.  But conservatives here want to bring the show to the U.S.  Idiots.


AK Steel gets back into coal and iron ore mining:
To hedge against the up and down market prices of raw materials, AK Steel made a pair of multimillion acquisitions in coal and iron ore interests back in October 2011.
Plans are for AK Steel's coal and iron ore supply chains to be 50 percent vertically integrated by 2015 — so in the future AK Steel will buy half its steelmaking materials and produce the other half itself.
"Together, Magnetation and AK Coal Resources will enhance the long-term profitability of AK Steel in a meaningful way," AK Steel spokesman Barry Racey said.
The cost benefits can't come soon enough. AK Steel had four consecutive years of financial losses netting a more than $1 billion loss in 2012.
In light of worldwide natural disasters, labor strikes and other events, vertical integration of supply chains is a hot business topic, said Susanna Sterling-Bodnar, outgoing president of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, Cincinnati Roundtable....
To that end, AK Steel bought in 2011 all the stock of Solar Fuel Company Inc., which controlled estimated reserves of more than 20 million short tons of metallurgical coal in Somerset County, Penn. The company was renamed AK Coal Resources Inc. and is a subsidiary of AK Steel Holding Corp.
Metallurgical coal is used to make fuel for blast furnaces, the hot part of a steel mill where iron ore is converted to molten metal.
In 2012, AK Steel also bought a coal preparation plant in Somerset County, which cleans and processes coal for shipment, Racey said....
At the same time AK Steel announced its 2011 investment to buy a coal company, the Butler County steelmaker also said it formed a joint venture with Minnesota company Magnetation Inc. to produce iron ore concentrate. The joint venture, called Magnetation LLC, is close to construction on a plant in Indiana to make pellets from the concentrate. James Wainscott, AK Steel CEO, told investors in April that Magnetation has obtained the needed environmental permit from Indiana to start construction.
Once the pellet plant is fully up and running, Magnetation LLC expects to produce 3 million tons of pellets a year for AK Steel's use and for sale to outside companies. There are concentrate plants already running.
I've featured Magnetation here and here.  They are reprocessing tailings piles in the Iron Range.  It's funny how business trends go back and forth over the years.  Vertical integration was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, then it was considered passe.  Now it's back.

Oxbow Defeats Orb

Once again, there won't be a Triple Crown winner:
"I get paid to spoil dreams," the 77-year-old Lukas said after his record 14th win in a Triple Crown race. "Unfortunately we go over here and you can't mail 'em in. It's a different surface and a different time. You gotta line 'em up and win 'em."
Stevens ended his retirement in January, and won his third Preakness to go along with three victories in the Derby and three in the Belmont.
"At 50 years old, after seven years retirement, it doesn't get any better than this," Stevens said. "This is super, super sweet, and it happened for the right guy. All the stars were aligned. It's even more special winning it for Wayne Lukas and his team."
Lukas put Stevens on his first Triple Crown race winner when the rider guided the filly Winning Colors to victory in the 1988 Derby.
We didn't have to wait until the Belmont this year.

Equity and Sweat Equity

Des Moines Register:
When Varel Bailey and his fellow shareholders meet this month, the seven-member family board that includes his three children will focus its attention on one issue: Who should benefit from the financial success of the farm?
Bailey’s parents first began giving shares annually in the Anita, Ia., farm in 1966 and continued doling out stock equally to their three children during the next 40 years. While Bailey stayed on the farm and helped increase its value, his sisters left and now at least one of them wants to receive full value for her shares. But Bailey believes she is entitled to one-third of the value of their parents’ estate at the time he joined the operation — not a third of its value today.
As the 73-year-old crop and livestock operator prepares the 1,200-acre farm for the future, Bailey is working to determine the “fairness factor,” as he calls it, to reward his son, Scot,who has worked with him since 1990, while also fairly rewarding his two daughters who left the farm to embark on successful careers outside of rural America. Currently, each of his three children would receive a third of his shares.
“We’re working on a deal and saying, ‘OK, is there a way to calculate our son’s contribution to the creation of wealth that his two sisters didn’t participate in,’ ” said Bailey, who added that keeping most of the stock owned by people working on the farm is important for the long-term viability of the business. “Shares owned by distant relatives with little or no connection to the farm threaten the financial stability.”
The “graying tsunami” in rural America means that more farmers are being forced to decide what happens to their farm once they retire or die....The process is further complicated because most farmers reinvest any profits back into the operation, leaving much of their personal wealth tied up in the business through equipment and increasingly valuable land.
This shouldn't be an issue with my sister, who moved to the big city and never plans on coming back.  It helps that our family's farm isn't the lone asset for our family, so it is easier to deal with.  But for most farmers, this is definitely a big deal.  And with land prices where they are at currently, it is really tough for most folks to make a deal to take over the farm.