Saturday, August 17, 2013

Are Workaholics Mentally Ill?

I'd say yes.  Jordan Weismann looks at studies of workaholics:
Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression [3]. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages [4]. Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics. They also exhibited more-severe levels of “parentification”—a term family therapists use for sons and daughters who, as the paper put it, “are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own needs … to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member” [5].
How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10 percent of U.S. adults might qualify [6]; the proportion is as high as 23 percent among lawyers, doctors, and psychologists [7]. Still more people may be inclined to call themselves workaholics, whether or not they actually are: in 1998, 27 percent of Canadians told the country’s General Social Survey that they were workaholics, including 38 percent of those with incomes over $80,000 [8]. (Even among those with no income, 22 percent called themselves workaholics! Presumably some were busy homemakers and students.)
I'm definitely not going to claim to be a workaholic.  Personally, I think I'm generally only good for about 5 or 6 hours of solid office-type work a day, with 8 or 9 hours on a really good (or crazily busy) day and 2 or 3 on a really bad one. It would be nice if I could structure my days as George Soros suggests, only working the days or hours when you are really going to get something done.  Now my sister, on the other hand....

Is the California Recovery an Illusion?

Vauhini Vara:
Three years ago, the iconic images of California were overcrowded prisons and shuttered schools; now people seem ready to picture strong-shinned blondes frolicking on a beach newly cleaned by government-hired custodians, or a fogless view of the Golden Gate Bridge freshly reddened with government-purchased paint. And, absolutely, Brown deserves credit for what he’s done: persuading Californians of the virtues of the tax hikes, cutting billions of dollars in spending, and starting to shovel away the state’s towering pile of long-term debt.
But if reports of California’s death during its fiscal crisis, which began after the dot-com crash and ended only in recent months, were greatly exaggerated, so are the latest reports of its revival. Sure, California is doing better than in recent years, but another crisis—perhaps before the decade is through—is nearly inevitable.
This might seem unnecessarily gloomy. But if the governor’s actions have helped the state’s finances, an equally important reason for the comeback is the economic recovery that has boosted the stock market and, in turn, the state’s income-tax revenue. Bill Lockyer, the state treasurer, told me on Thursday that he thinks the state’s improvement is “largely due to an uptick in the private sector,” though the governor’s moves also helped. And because of the peculiarities of California’s budget, this means that the state’s latest comeback could end when the latest stock run-up does.
To pay for schools, health care, and all the other services it provides, the state relies disproportionately on the income taxes generated by rich people’s capital gains. That’s partly because California taxes the rich at a much higher rate than it does lower-income people, and partly because so many rich people live in California. The problem is that the stock market often fluctuates significantly from year to year—which means this source of tax revenue does the same. Today, California happens to be on its latest climb to the top of the roller coaster’s tracks—at which point there’s a good chance it’ll fall again, judging from the fluctuations of the past decade or so. Other states, which collect their revenue from more diverse sources, do not face the same risk.
This is the same problem Ohio's income tax runs into, but here the Republicans are in charge, so when revenues are coming in they cut the income tax.  then when the stock market falls and those capital gains go away, the state slashes spending.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.  Good times mean lower taxes, bad times mean slashed spending, and the noose gets tighter.  If they decide to raise taxes during the downturn side of things, it is a sales tax increase.  The main problem is that the rainy-day fund is too small.  Anytime money starts accumulating there, they cut taxes.  Even though that fund is generally only a few percent of the biennial state budget.  Anyway, at least the topic is being discussed.

Thirsty, and Surrounded by Water

Rolling Stone looks at challenges facing South Florida:
In South Florida, the drinking-water supply comes from a big lake just below the surface known as the Biscayne aquifer. Engineers examined the situation and determined that the combination of draining the swamps and pumping out the aquifer had changed hydrostatic pressure underground and allowed salt water to move into the aquifer. To stop this, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District built dozens of these salinity-­control structures at key points on the canals. When they were closed, salty water wasn't able to flow into the canals. But if there was a big storm and intense flooding, the gates could be opened to allow drainage.
That worked pretty well for a time. The gates were engineered so that, when they were closed, the fresh water was about a foot and a half higher than the salt water. This freshwater "head" (as engineers called it) helped keep pressure in the aquifer and kept the salt water at bay.
But in the 50 years since the structures were built, much has changed. For one thing, nearly 80 percent of the fresh water flowing into the Everglades has been diverted, some of it into industrial-­agriculture operations. At the same time, consumption has skyrocketed: The 5.5 million or so people who now live in South Florida consume more than 3 billion gallons of water every day (including industry and agriculture). Almost all of that is pumped out of the aquifer, drawing it down and allowing more and more salt water to move in. At the same time, the sea level is rising (about nine inches since the canals were first dredged), which also helps push more salt water into the aquifer.
"Here, you can see the problem," Obey says, pointing to the saltwater side of the gate. "The water is only 10 inches lower on this side than on the canal. When this structure was built in 1960, it was a foot and a half. We are reaching equilibrium."
Obey explains that when there is a torrential rain (a frequent occurrence) and inland Florida floods, there is nowhere for the water to go. Cities on the western edge of Miami-Dade County, such as Hialeah and Sweetwater, are now at risk of massive flooding with every big storm. To solve this, the South Florida Water District is installing pumps on the freshwater side of the control structures on the canals. The pumps, which cost about $70 million each, can take the runoff water from storms and pump it into the ocean to alleviate flooding.

Fires and Floods

Robertscribbler attributes massive fires in Russia, followed by an immense rainstorm and flood, to the effects of climate change:
Earlier this year, drought and heatwaves blanketed Siberia and Yakutia. But late July, this region had begun to erupt in a series of extraordinary wildfires that blanketed almost all of northern and eastern Russia in very dense smoke. By early August what is perhaps the worst rainstorm in the history of this area of Russia had begun to form. As of the writing of this article, on August 14, major storms and flooding continued with no immediate end in sight.
Major heatwaves and droughts in extreme northerly regions of Siberia are an anomalous event linked to human caused climate change. Rapid sea ice and snow cover retreat combine with temperatures that are warming at a rate of .5 degrees C each decade over this region to increase the likelihood of such extreme events. Methane and organic carbon stores in the thawing tundra steadily release under this heat forcing and likely provide an amplifying feedback to summer heating events by locally providing more greenhouse gas emission and also providing another fuel store that is available to wildfires. In some of these wildfires, there are reports coming in that fires burn as far as 3 feet into the ground, taking out root systems and stumps along with the trees that burn above ground. Reports of burning ground have also been trickling in (Hat tip to Colorado Bob)
Such burn events are anomalous enough. But for a flood that covers a 1 million square kilometer area to immediately follow in the wake of such amazingly large and widespread fires is anything but normal. Atmospheric patterns that link major weather systems and increase their intensity can be attributed to the formation of powerful heat dome high pressure systems along with weakened and meandering Jet Stream waves. Rising atmospheric heat caused by human warming adds to the density and strength of heat domes (identified as becoming more intense by meteorologist Stu Ostro). Meanwhile erosion of the Jet Stream caused by reduced snow and sea ice cover (identified by Dr. Jennifer Francis) is implicated in a host of problems including more intense and persistent droughts and storm events along with the increased likelihood that weather systems will link up as north to south weather patterns deepen, back up, slow down, and elongate.
A massive ocean heat dome to the south over the Pacific adjacent to China and sea ice and snow cover remaining near record lows must be taken into account when looking at features that likely contributed to the extreme swings from drought, heatwave and fire to massive deluge and flood in Russia.
One last point to consider as a likely contributor is the fact that for each degree (Celsius) of human-caused temperature change, the hydrological cycle amplifies by about 8 percent. This means that rates of evaporation and rainfall are now about 6 percent more intense than they would be in the world of the 1880s. When combined with powerful new weather features like a mangled Jet Stream and immense heat dome high pressure systems, an amped up hydrological cycle further inflates an already extreme environmental condition.
 The impacts of extreme weather will continue to grow.  As we reach a carbon dioxide tipping point things will get crazier yet.

If I Had A Million Dollars

Friday, August 16, 2013


It's been the majority of a year since I've played this:

Not sure why, but besides making me sentimental, this song makes me thirsty. Oh, yeah....

Kasich Gets Loving Press

The Wall Street Journal gives John Kasich some print love:
More so than any other leading Republican, Gov. Kasich is using his perch to promote a blend of conservative orthodoxy leavened with liberal policies meant to help the poor, the mentally ill and the uninsured.
To hear him tell it, the 61-year-old onetime Lehman Brothers executive wants to rebrand the Republican Party by refashioning what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century.
On the one hand, he tamed a deficit by slashing funding to local governments and overhauling the state's Medicaid rules, among things. He has eliminated the state's estate tax and wants to phase out all state income taxes, a step aimed at stimulating growth. A budget he signed in June included a range of new abortion restrictions that drew sharp criticism from Democrats.
At the same time, Mr. Kasich has stirred strong opposition from tea-party leaders—and won surprised approval from liberals—by pushing to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly 300,000 additional Ohioans, adopting a provision of the Obama health-care overhaul that he has taken to defending with an openly religious fervor.
The former congressional spending hawk has steered millions more dollars into local food banks, forced insurance companies to provide coverage for children with autism and signed legislation to make it easier for recently released felons to clear their names and find jobs.
Since the return of the death penalty in the 1970s after a moratorium, Mr. Kasich has commuted more death sentences—four—than any other Republican governor except George Ryan of Illinois, who granted a mass clemency a decade ago.
Mr. Kasich also has promised union leaders he will oppose efforts to turn Ohio into a "right to work" state that bars labor contracts requiring all workers to be union members or pay dues. He struck a populist chord with a proposal, later turned down by the GOP-controlled legislature, to raise taxes on out-of-state oil companies so he could cut Ohioans' income-tax rates.
How did Kasich get the religion?  By getting his ass handed to him at the ballot box:

When he ran for governor in 2010, after being out of politics for a decade, Mr. Kasich leaned heavily on the legions of new conservative activists who rose up to reject President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul and the surge of stimulus spending.
"I love the tea party!" he cried at a Cincinnati rally on the eve of his narrow win over the Democratic incumbent, Ted Strickland.
He began his governorship in early 2011 by supporting an existing bill to limit the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions. The move drew praise in conservative circles but also provoked a backlash, including from many working-class Republicans. A voter rebellion resoundingly overturned the law a few months later, and Mr. Kasich became one of the least-popular governors in the country.
Mr. Kasich says he has put the issue behind him. "We lost, and you have to listen to what people want," he said.
Since then, he has worked to reach out to groups well beyond his conservative base.
I'll give the man credit, he is smarter than most Republican politicians, and definitely a majority of their voter base.  I am glad that somebody in the GOP is making the case that ociety has to look out for the least fortunate among us.  The thing is, the Wall Street Journal is giving him play because he promotes their idiotic tax cutting philosophy, where the wealthy pay a much smaller percentage of their income in taxes than regular people, while being less horrific and heartless than the average Republican politician.  Which is like being less extreme than Genghis Khan.  The Republican party is a disaster, and even Kasich's seeming moderateness emphasizes failed economic policies.  I pray that the American people will kick these stupid bastards in the head, and actually work to deal with our serious social issues.

County Fairs Keep On Keeping On

Pacific Standard looks at the economics and innate weirdness of county fairs:
A student exchange organization called CIEE passes out a survey once a month to all of the international students in their program. The survey asks participants to check off, from a provided list, what “American cultural activities” they have performed during their stay. The list includes a community pancake breakfast, bowling, and shopping at Walmart. It also asks whether they have attended a country fair—perhaps the most quintessentially American activity of all. Drinking a beer while looking at giant squash: the activity of choice for patriots since the 19th century.
The longevity of the country fair’s popularity makes it unique as a cultural icon within the American psyche. Elkanah Watson is credited as organizing the first agricultural fair in 1811, and the nation’s first state fair took place in 1841 in Syracuse, New York. A 1912 report states that 1,200 county fair associations existed in the U.S.; the fairs of 1909 attracted about six million people and made approximately $2.5 million.  Now, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions maintains that over 3,200 country fairs are held in North America each year. In California alone, fairs bring in an annual $2.55 billion to the state’s economy and create 28,000 jobs. The State Fair of Texas—often credited as the most successful in the country—brought in an estimated crowd of three million and made $37 million off food and ride sales in 2010. (They also served 21,000 deep-fried pineapple upside-down cakes.) Fairs, unlike the rest of the nation’s businesses, are booming.
They highlight some of the county and state fair activities they consider a little odd.  My favorite:
 Princess Kay of the Milky Way
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way, a title chosen by Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture around 60 years ago, is picked from a group of competing “county dairy princess.” The winner becomes a goodwill ambassador for the 4,000 dairy farmers of Minnesota and gets a statue carved in her likeness. It’s made out of butter.
That's been covered here and here.  This year's Princess Kay will be crowned on August 21.  She and the other 11 finalists will be sculpted in butter. 

Amongst the people I ran into at our county fair were a little person, a set of twins and a 7 footer who spent a couple of years in the NBA.  And they were all there together.  Despite such entertaining visitors, our fair seems to be struggling to get by.  All of the large animal shows were way down in numbers.  Hopefully, lower crop prices will make it more affordable to bring a project to the fair.

Dizzy at Disney

Welcome to The Magic - A Disneyland Timelapse from Givot on Vimeo.

Land Price Top?

Possibly.  Des Moines Register:
Farmland values in the Midwest were stable during the second quarter of 2013, marking the first time they have failed to rise in four years, the Federal Reserve Bank said Thursday.
Bankers hinted the boom of the past few years may be coming to an end.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago said the average dollar value of “good” farmland across Iowa was flat for the April 1 to July 1 period. Despite the quarter, land values in the country’s largest corn- and soybean-producing state have jumped 18 percent since July 1, 2012 — reflecting the strong farm economy and booming demand for productive land.
Similar to Iowa, land prices across other states covered by the Federal Reserve branch have seen sharp gains over the last year, but they posted mixed results during the second quarter. Land values in Indiana and Wisconsin rose 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, but Illinois and Michigan had small decreases. Overall, the five-state region was unchanged during the second quarter with prices climbing 17 percent from a year ago. The last time farmland prices failed to rise was in the third quarter of 2009.
“While the farmland values on a year-over-year basis still appeared to be soaring, changes in farmland values on a quarterly basis may be presaging shifts in the year-over-year pattern in the latter half of 2013,” said David Oppedahl, a business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “Survey respondents reinforced this conclusion with their assessments that agricultural land values were likely to be flat in the third quarter of 2013.”
The survey was compiled with input from 211 agricultural bankers, with 86 percent of respondents expecting stable land values through the end of September. One banker cautioned that land values would go down as grain prices fall.
I think that except for some special circumstances, we've seen the peak.  As prices don't get back to where they were, reality is going to set in for guys.  I don't think there will be many $20,000 an acre purchases out in Iowa in the next couple of years.

I'm Gonna Be

Thursday, August 15, 2013

US Military Advances Solar Power

Via nc links, some good news on the solar front:
Field patrols will soon have almost weightless solar blankets as well. These will be able to capture a once unthinkable 35pc of the sun's light as energy with thin membranes, a spin-off from technology used in satellites.
This new kit is a military imperative. Taliban ambushes of supply convoys are a major killer. The Pentagon says the cost of refueling forward bases is $400 a gallon.
The US Naval Air Weapons Station already relies on a 14 megawatt array of solar panels in California's Mojave desert for a thrid of its power. Pearl Harbour will soon follow as the Pentagon goes off-grid, better shielded from enemies.
The US Navy will derive half its energy supply from renewables by the end of this decade, according to a report entitled Enlisting the Sun: Powering the U.S. Military with Solar Energy, by the US solar industry (SEIA). It may be a stretch to say that the US Naval Research Laboratory is the vanguard of the world's green revolution, but not a big stretch.
"The US Defence Department is racing ahead. This could be like the semiconductor industry in 1980s where the military changed the game," said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of Solarcentury.
Nor is the Pentagon alone. Grant lists from the "SunShot Initiative" of the US Energy Department show that America's top research institutes are grappling with each of the key issues that have bedevilled solar energy for so long.
Los Alamos - home of the Manhattan Project - is working on smart grids and better ways to capture excess electricity produced in peak sunlight hours. The Argonne labs are working on thermal energy storage to overcome "intermittency", the curse of solar and wind.
Oak Ridge is testing coatings that increase durability of solar panels eightfold. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working on a CO2 power cycle that could achieve 90pc thermal efficiciency and does not require water, transforming the propects of desert solar.
The prediction is for all this research to break many of the cost barriers which have limited solar energy thus far.

A Racial Map of America

A map showing race with a colored dot for every person in America:

The Atlantic Cities features a number of zoomed views of various American cities.  The segregation is absolutely depressing.

The Semen Repository

Modern Farmer:
The National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) started in 1999. Its facility stores a huge mishmash of semen — rare and vintage samples, combined with the most common breeds on the market. Blackburn says the everyday strains are just as important as the heirloom semen, if not more so.
The repository stores samples from sheep, turkeys, goats, bison, pigs, elk, chickens, fish and cows. Every straw has a story. There are 30,000 salmon milt samples, obtained from the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho. There’s rare sheep semen from Kazakhstan, near sheep’s center of domestication. There’s even a full backup of 20,000 exclusively bred cows on the Island of Jersey, progenitors for Jersey cattle all over the globe.
So where does it all come from? Universities, companies and private collectors often donate semen to the NAGP. Other samples are tracked down by Blackburn and his colleagues. One woman in Broken Bow, Nebraska, had a rare breed of cattle dating back to the 1940s. “We called this farmer, asking for semen from her bulls,” Blackburn says. “She picked up the phone and said, ‘I thought you’d never call.’”  By Congressional decree, the NAGP will never charge you for the use of their samples, whether you’re a scientist, breeder or farmer. The only catch: You have to show it’s something you couldn’t obtain elsewhere (i.e., a private company).  For instance, the owner of a herd of milking cows recently contacted the agency. The farmer was looking to inseminate his cows with an otherwise unavailable shorthorn breed from Utah. The NAGP provided the sample — it was over 50 years old. “It’s amazing, isn’t it,” laughs Blackburn.
Had never heard of that.  God Bless the USDA.

Crude Oil - A Breakdown

Via Ritholtz, here's a graphic from Mother Jones:

There's more in the article, like this:
Energy researcher Vaclav Smil suggests in The American that these developments should mean the end of "peak oil" anxieties:
Obviously, there will come a time when global oil extraction will reach its peak, but even that point may be of little practical interest as it could be followed by a prolonged, gentle decline or by an extended output plateau at a somewhat lower level than peak production.
But others like journalist Chris Nelder argue that we've increased spending on oil production by tremendous amounts only to see global oil production edge up a bit. Older, cheaper oil fields are declining, and their oil is being replaced by crude from far more expensive sources. Nelder made his numerical case to the Washington Post like this:
In 2005, we reached 73 million barrels per day. Then, to increase production beyond that, the world had to double spending on oil production. In 2012, we're now spending $600 billion. The price of oil has tripled. And yet, for all that additional expenditure, we've only raised production 3 percent to 75 million barrels per day [since 2005].
I'm much more in the corner of Nelder than Smil.  Peak oil ain't dead.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

No Surprise, Farms are Getting Bigger

Modern Farmer:
A new USDA report (PDF) found that while most farms in the 1980s occupied less than 600 acres, today farms have nearly doubled in size. It might come as a surprise, but 96 percent of US crop farms are still family farms. They’ve just gotten much bigger.
Non-farmers always ask how much we farm, and when I tell them 900 acres, they always say that is a lot.  I tell them that it's small to medium sized, and, apparently, I'm right.

The Power of the Acela Corridor

Richard Florida:
The great cities of the Bos-Wash corridor comprise one of the most economically productive regions in the world, producing more the $2.5 trillion in economic output, more than the UK, Brazil, Russia or India. Together, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., attracted $7.5 billion in venture capital investment in 2011, just over a quarter of the national total.
The shift to urban tech can also be clearly seen across the Bos-Wash corridor. New York City alone attracted more than $2 billion in venture capital investment., mainly in midtown and Lower Manhattan. Cambridge, home to MIT and Harvard, attracted another billion, Boston $669 million, and D.C. another $600 million. Predominantly urban zip codes accounted for more than three-quarters of of all investments in greater New York, greater than 70 percent in the Boston metro, and more than two-thirds in greater D.C.
I'm sure that some of the folks at the fair would tell me that all those people would starve without all of us farmers, but I'd have to tell them that we'd die surrounded by giant piles of corn without them to buy our commodities.  Ag is a big business, but $2.5 trillion is a very large number (don't get me wrong, I don't consider most of the financial chicanery in New York to be real economic output, while that number counts it).

Selling the Same Thing For A Long Time

I missed this previously:
This follows on from his NYT weekly column last week, which quoted extensively from Michal Kalecki. As Krugman wrote then:
First, however, I want to recommend a very old essay that explains a great deal about the times we live in.
The Polish economist Michal Kalecki published “Political Aspects of Full Employment” 70 years ago. Keynesian ideas were riding high; a “solid majority” of economists believed that full employment could be secured by government spending. Yet Kalecki predicted that such spending would, nonetheless, face fierce opposition from business and the wealthy, even in times of depression. Why?
The answer, he suggested, was the role of “confidence” as a tool of intimidation. If the government can’t boost employment directly, it must promote private spending instead — and anything that might hurt the privileged, such as higher tax rates or financial regulation, can be denounced as job-killing because it undermines confidence, and hence investment. But if the government can create jobs, confidence becomes less important — and vested interests lose their veto power.
Kalecki argued that “captains of industry” understand this point, and that they oppose job-creating policies precisely because such policies would undermine their political influence. “Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention must be regarded as perilous.”
When I first read this essay, I thought it was over the top. Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings). But, if you haven’t been radicalized by recent events, you haven’t been paying attention; and policy discourse since 2008 has run exactly along the lines Kalecki predicted.
Essentially Krugman’s (and indeed Kalecki’s) point is this – we have the macroeconomic tools to restart a robust recovery and get unemployment down but these tools are not being used for political reasons.
Yeah, that falls in with the uncertainty canard.  It is amazing how "uncertain" big business assholes get when a Democrat is elected.  These are the same geniuses who thought things were going great in August of 2008.  Back in 1932, Hoover claimed that the economy was tanking because the market feared Roosevelt getting elected.  Likewise, people made the same claim in September of 2008.  I guess that is appropriate,  as Republicans think the policies of the twenties, or even the 1890s are where we should be today.

On another bit of economic argument, Robert Reich makes some great points:
 We’ve also lost most living memory of an era in which we were all in it together — the Great Depression and World War II — when we succeeded or failed together. In those years we were palpably dependent on one another, and understood how much we owed each other as members of the same society.

But I think the deeper explanation for what has happened has economic roots. From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, the economy doubled in size — as did almost everyone’s income. Almost all Americans grew together. In fact, those in the bottom fifth of the income ladder saw their incomes more than double. Americans experienced upward mobility on a grand scale.

Yet for the last three and a half decades, the middle class has been losing ground. The median wage of male workers is now lower than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation.

In addition, all the mechanisms we’ve used over the last three decades to minimize the effects of this descent — young mothers streaming into paid work in the late 1970s and 1980s, everyone working longer hours in the 1990s, and then borrowing against the rising values of our homes — are now exhausted. And wages are still dropping — the median is now 4 percent below what it was at the start of the so-called recovery.

Meanwhile, income, wealth, and power have become more concentrated at the top than they’ve been in ninety years.
That, at its heart, is the explanation of what is wrong with our economy.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

40 Maps

Max Fisher gives 40 maps that explain the world.  this one is interesting:

A University of Minnesota study recently published in the journal Nature found that a significant share of the world’s crop-growing regions are seeing growth stagnate, slow or even collapse. They published three other maps; see the others and why they think it’s so important to “sound the alert” here.
Peak grain.  This is also cool:

 This NASA moving image, recorded by satellite over a full year as part of their Blue Marble Project, shows the ebb and flow of the seasons and vegetation. Both are absolutely crucial factors in every facet of human existence — so crucial we barely even think about them. It’s also a reminder that the Earth is, for all its political and social and religious divisions, still unified by the natural phenomena that make everything else possible.
As a map nerd, I love this shit.

Through the Tubes

The Atlantic:
Before people relied on a theoretical series of tubes for the exchange of interpersonal correspondence, they used tubes of a more literal variety. Starting in 1897 and lasting until 1953, the New York City Post office moved mail across the city using, in part, an intricate system of pneumatic tubes -- tubes that were networked underground at some 4 to 6 feet below the city surface. Tubes that shot enormous canisters full of mail around the city at 35 miles an hour. Tubes that were operated by workers nicknamed "Rocketeers." At the peak of its operation, the tube system carried around 95,000 letters a day -- about 30 percent of all the mail that was routed through the metropolis.
New Yorkers of the Gilded Age knew an exciting technology when they saw one. And, when the tubes opened for tube-ing in the fall of 1897, the occasion was marked by the sending of canisters whose contents were appropriately epic: among them a Bible (wrapped, appropriately, in an American flag); a copy of the Constitution; and a copy of President McKinley's inaugural speech. The items that initiated the new delivery service, however, weren't entirely epic. Postal workers are nothing if not pranksters.
For that reason and others that seem lost to history, the pneumatic tubes of New York City's General Post Office, when they launched in 1897, ended up whisking away ... a cat. Yep. A live cat. A black cat. A probably quite indignant cat. As a general rule, it seems, humans will always find ways to join cats and series of tubes.
Cool story, read the whole thing.  I always wanted to work somewhere with the pneumatic tube system.  But it never happened.

Gambling, Anyone?

I think I'll head out to the harness races at the fair.  Take it easy.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day

August 10:

Perseids over Meteora
Image Credit & Copyright: Babak Tafreshi (TWAN)
Explanation: The two bright meteors flashing through this night skyscape from August 7 are part of the ongoing Perseid meteor shower. In the direction indicated by both colorful streaks, the shower's radiant in the eponymous constellation Perseus is at the upper right. North star Polaris, near the center of all the short, arcing star trails is at the upper left. But also named for its pose against the sky, the monastery built on the daunting sandstone cliffs in the foreground is part of Meteora. A World Heritage site, Meteora is a historic complex of lofty monasteries located near Kalabaka in central Greece.
The Perseid shower is supposed to peak tomorrow and Tuesday.

It's Fair Time

Well, summer is almost over, because our county fair started up on Friday.  I've been out there the last couple of evenings asking neighbors about how great this year's crop is going to be, shooting the shit with folks I went to school with and generally supporting the fair by frequenting the beer garden.  Last night, I took a camera out and tried to get a few pictures.  As I wandered around, I came up with a People of Walmart-style idea of taking pictures of the grubbiest carnies and picking Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion and Division winners and such.  I found an early favorite for Grand Champion, but the lighting wasn't right to get a good picture, and he started making faces at me, so I gave up on that project. 

It is amazing how much smaller the fair seems these days.  There are a lot fewer lamb and hog projects, very few steers, and almost no dairy cows.  However, there are tons of chickens and turkeys, and a ridiculous number of goats and rabbits.  Now that the dairy barn is full of goats, I only go in there for cattle shows.  Why is it that time ruins everything?

Why Do People Hate GMOs?

Maria Konnikova looks at the psychology of folks' complete distrust of genetically-modified foods:
In a 2013 study, a group of Cornell University researchers found that how a food is labelled affects our perception of how it tastes, what its nutritional value is, and our willingness to pay for it. A hundred and fifteen shoppers at a local Ithaca mall were given three different food pairs. One item in each pair was labelled “organic” while the other was labelled “regular.” (In reality, the two items were identical, and both were organically produced.) The shoppers were then asked to rate the taste and the nutritional value of the products, as well as to guess at calorie counts and say how much they’d be willing to pay for each item. The researchers found that people's calorie estimates for the organic foods were consistently lower: an organic cookie, for example, was seen as approximately twenty-four per cent less caloric than a regular one. They thought the organic food tasted less artificial and was more nutritious over-all. They were also willing to pay somewhere between sixteen and twenty-three per cent more for the organic items. They were, essentially, experiencing something known as the halo effect, a phenomenon whereby one positive attribute of a person or thing colors other, unrelated characteristics in a positive light.
G.M.O.s, in contrast, suffer from a reverse halo effect, whereby one negative-seeming attribute (unnaturalness, in this case) skews over-all perception. In a 2005 study conducted at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, researchers found that the more unnatural a genetically modified product seemed, the less likely it would be to gain acceptance. A hundred and forty-four University of Maastricht undergraduates were asked to visualize seven products, including butter, tomatoes, and fish fingers, and rate them on naturalness, health, and necessity. They were then asked to imagine genetically modified versions of the same products and respond to three questions: how morally justified it was to eat the food, how much they trusted it, and how natural they perceived it to be. As expected, the scientists found that the less natural a food product seemed, the less likely the participants were to trust or eat it. There was, however, an interesting caveat: if an original, non-modified product was made to seem less natural or more processed to begin with, people became far more likely to trust and accept the genetically modified equivalent.
The negative halo of G.M.O.s doesn’t just affect how we feel toward them; it also impacts how we evaluate their attending risks and benefits. As early as 1979, the psychologist Paul Slovic, who has been studying our perceptions of risk since the nineteen-fifties, pointed out that, when it comes to new, unknown technologies, data always loses out to emotion. For instance, people judge the risks of radiation from nuclear power plants to be much higher than those from medical X-rays—a conclusion that is not backed up by the data and is at odds with the advice of most risk experts—simply because nuclear power plants seem more foreign and inspire greater dread. What’s more, when we’re in a state of heightened emotion, we don’t weigh risks and benefits equally—risks take on an outsized impact and benefits begin to pale in comparison.
Once an initial opinion is formed, Slovic continues, it is very difficult to shift it with new evidence: the exact same piece of information—say, additional data on the effects of G.M.O.s on a natural ecosystem—can be interpreted in opposing ways, depending on your starting point.
I never really understood some of the fears of GMOs.  How would the BT gene addition be so dangerous?  I've never really understood some of the Monsanto conspiracy theories floating out there.  Anyway, it is good to try to understand what makes folks tick.

Farmers vs. the Environment

Des Moines Register:
The Iowa State Fair is now in full swing. This is a grand showcase for livestock, produce and farm machinery, and it is the closest most people will get to the industry that produces the annual bounty for which Iowa is famous around the world.
Iowans, however, may have a hard time squaring this wholesome image with growing evidence of the environmental consequences of large-scale agriculture.
It is time to end this disconnect between the nostalgic view of agriculture and the reality of 21st-century farming in the Midwest.
Iowa agricultural interests should work just as hard the rest of the year after the fair ends to demonstrate their dedication to clean water and soil conservation. Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening.
Exhibit A: Closed-door meetings earlier this month with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted by Gov. Terry Branstad to discuss the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ strategy for getting this state into compliance with federal clean water standards. Also at the table were representatives of the Iowa Farm Bureau and agriculture groups representing pork, cattle, chicken and turkey producers....
It seems obvious the affected “stakeholders” in these discussions should, at the very least, include the groups that originally forced the EPA to crack down on Iowa, including CCI and the Sierra Club. And what about the people of Iowa? After all, they must tolerate rivers and lakes fouled with manure and fecal bacteria. They were not invited to the meetings, either, while the businesses the state has failed to properly regulate were given a seat at the table.
Something is wrong with this picture, but it is not out of the ordinary.
The fact is, the political leadership of Iowa — including the governor, the secretary of agriculture and too many members of the Iowa Legislature — is far more attentive to the interests of big ag groups than the interests of ordinary Iowans who enjoy boating, swimming and clean drinking water. That’s because big ag spends a lot of money on elections and lobbying......
The net effect is that agricultural groups convey the impression that farmers are immune to the rules that apply to everybody else. This surely does not represent the views of the typical Iowa farmers who want to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors, and who also want clean water for their families.
These farmers are ill served by industry groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau that refuse to accept any hint of regulation of agriculture and insist they are doing everything in their power to protect the environment when the evidence points in the other direction.
Rather than further driving a wedge between conscientious farmers and the people of Iowa who demand better environmental quality, livestock and crop commodity groups should become advocates of change. Iowa government officials, likewise, should be partners in making that change rather than conspiring to oppose it.
When the Des Moines Register is calling out Big Ag, you know things are pretty ugly.  In the end, farmers will most likely piss away enough public goodwill that they'll end up with some real regulations they have to deal with.

The Great Molasses Flood and Fluid Dynamics

Scientific American looks back:
On January 15, 1919—an unusually warm winter day in Boston—patrolman Frank McManus picked up a call box on Commercial Street, contacted his precinct station and began his daily report. Moments later he heard a sound like machine guns and an awful grating. He turned to see a five-story-high metal tank split open, releasing a massive wall of dark amber fluid. Temporarily stunned, McManus turned back to the call box. "Send all available rescue vehicles and personnel immediately," he yelled, "there's a wave of molasses coming down Commercial Street!"
More than 7.5 million liters of molasses surged through Boston's North End at around 55 kilometers per hour in a wave about 7.5 meters high and 50 meters wide at its peak. All that thick syrup ripped apart the cylindrical tank that once held it, throwing slivers of steel and large rivets in all directions. The deluge crushed freight cars, tore Engine 31 firehouse from its foundation and, when it reached an elevated railway on Atlantic Avenue, nearly lifted a train right off the tracks. A chest-deep river of molasses stretched from the base of the tank about 90 meters into the streets. From there, it thinned out into a coating one half to one meter deep. People, horses and dogs caught in the mess struggled to escape, only sinking further.
Ultimately, the disaster killed 21 people and injured another 150. About half the victims were crushed by the wave or by debris or drowned in the molasses the day of the incident. The other half died from injuries and infections in the following weeks. A long ensuing legal battle revealed several possible reasons for the flood. The storage tank had been filled to near capacity on July 13 and the molasses had likely fermented, producing carbon dioxide that raised the pressure inside the cylinder. The courts also faulted the United States Industrial Alcohol Co., which owned the tank, for ignoring numerous signs of the structure's instability over the years, such as frequent leaks.
Why did the molasses act like it did?  Here's some of the explanation:
A wave of molasses does not behave like a wave of water. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity depends on the forces applied to it, as measured by shear rate. Consider non-Newtonian fluids such as toothpaste, ketchup and whipped cream. In a stationary bottle, these fluids are thick and goopy and do not shift much if you tilt the container this way and that. When you squeeze or smack the bottle, however, applying stress and increasing the shear rate, the fluids suddenly flow. Because of this physical property, a wave of molasses is even more devastating than a typical tsunami. In 1919 the dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.
Physics also explains why swimming in molasses is near impossible. One can predict how easily an object or organism will move through a particular medium by calculating the relevant Reynolds number, which in this case takes into account the viscosity and density of the fluid as well as the velocity and size of the object or organism. The higher the Reynolds number, the more likely everything will go along swimmingly.
Apparently, molasses is 5000 to 10000 times as viscous as water.