Saturday, March 8, 2014

First Fish Fry Weekend Reads

A few interesting stories you might want to check out:

A pair of stories from convents: On Hearing Every Story as a Lesson (Franciscan Sisters of Odenburg) - The Atlantic and Inside the Cloister (Poor Clares of Rockford, Illinois) - The New Yorker

The Relentless Bid, Explained - The Reformed Broker and The Trouble with Relentless Bid Theories - The Reformed Broker

Excerpt from Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy - Sports Illustrated

The Top of America - Time.  I don't think I'd fuck with ironworkers.  Those guys are plumb crazy.

Bay Area beef processsor sold meat from cows with eye cancer - LA Times. I had a cow I shipped out because she had an eye cancer, and even though I was told she couldn't go to the food supply, I figured some processor could get some use out of her, and it was easier than digging a hole and putting her down.  I think I got $0.105 a pound or something for her.

Believe in the 'Texas Miracle' But Trust in the Facts - Texas Observer.  See also Oops: The Texas Miracle That Isn't - Washington Monthly

It took me a while to fix that last link.  The tocuh pad on my laptop quit working, and I was trying to operate windows using the keypad.  Trying to learn a bunch of key commands you've never used isn't very easy.  Eventually, I gave up and restarted the computer (which is a gamble in itself because the hard drive is threatening to die).

Friday, March 7, 2014

1, 2, 3, 4

Regulations Work

Scientific American:
In the four-county Los Angeles Basin, home to about 18 million people, emissions from fuel-burning vehicles and industries, coupled with sunny days, low rainfall, stagnant air and pollutant-trapping mountains, are a recipe for particle pollution.
Under the old standard in effect now, U.S. cities’ annual average cannot exceed 15 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter of air.
As recently as 2001, air in the Riverside area averaged more than double that concentration.
But in 2012, the entire four counties complied, except for one monitoring station in Riverside County’s Mira Loma, which was just 0.1 micrograms too high. The standard was violated on six days in Mira Loma last year, compared with 108 in 2001. That’s a 94 percent reduction. Last year’s preliminary data shows even Mira Loma complied.
“The average concentration as a whole has been cut in half since the 1990s and we expect all of the counties to be under the former standard by the end of 2014," Atwood said.
And the trend is nationwide.
Over the past 10 years, tons of PM2.5 emitted into the nation’s air have declined 45 percent, while the concentrations people breathe have dropped 33 percent, according to EPA estimates.
All four of Chicago’s monitoring sites comply with the old standard, and in New York City, all eight comply. Across the nation, just four non-California counties exceeded it in 2012 – Lemhi County, Idaho, Ravalli County, Mont., Doña Ana County, N.M., and Philadelphia County, Pa. All are expected to dip below it by December.
Much of the credit goes to cleaner diesel engines, mandated by national standards.
It would take 60 new diesel trucks to produce the same amount of PM2.5 as a heavy-duty truck manufactured in 1988, based on EPA’s emission standards. The amount of soot allowable from a new truck declined 99 percent over the past 25 years.
I'm not sure why the captains of industry hate regulations so much.  Sure, they are a challenge for engineers to meet, and can bring about disruptive technology, but in any other circumstances, they would consider those good things.  All I heard about with Tier II and III and IV was how terrible things were going to be when they finally went into place.  Well, they are in place, and the salespeople went from pushing the old models before the regs went into effect, to pushing the new models as soon as the old ones were gone.    I tend to think that the diesel emissions regulations were a textbook example of how to improve things by rule-making.  They set a goal, and provided several targets for incremental improvement.  Industry was given leeway on how to meet the standards, some companies used one technology, some used another.  Each has its benefits and its drawbacks.  Some companies couldn't come up with a novel way of meeting the regs, and left the business to focus on a different product.  Life goes on, and things get better.

New Panama Canal Floodgates Await Installation

The gates are destined for new locks that will double the capacity of the canal.              photo credit  Tom Fowlks
These massive gates, soon to be installed in new locks in the Panama Canal, currently stand guard near the Atlantic entrance to the 100-year-old waterway. Built by Italian steel manufacturer Cimolai, each gate is nearly 10 stories tall, weighs 3,100 tons, and costs $34.2 million to fabricate, transport, and install. Construction crews will wheel 16 of these monsters into the locks — eight on each end of the canal — where robotic transporters will fit them into their housings. It’s all part of a projected eight-year, $5.2 billion plan to add a third lane to the canal to accommodate colossal “post-Panamax” container ships. When it’s finished in 2015, the project will double the capacity of the only man-made interoceanic waterway in the world.
That is awesome.  The first picture in the slideshow shows a seemingly ant-sized guy beside the gates.

Ice Crystals Timelapse

Ice Crystals Timelapse from Shawn Knol on Vimeo.

A little explanation:
 Timelapse video of ice crystals melting, photographed using cross-polarized light.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Old Things Are New Again

Modern Farmer highlights seven recommendations from a late-19th century farm guide that are still useful. One that's back to being cutting edge:
4. Field peas make a great green manure

I have tried peas as a fallow crop for the past three years, and find them the best and cheapest substitute for barn-yard manures that the poor land farmer can find. If all the farmers would use every means in their power to feed and improve their lands, we would soon have a different country from the present.

Legumes like the field pea (AKA black peas, Austrian winter peas, spring peas or Canadian field peas) still are great cover crops that can help farmers reduce erosion, retain moisture in their fields and improve their yields. Field peas “certainly provide a lot of nitrogen,” says Andy Clark, communications director for Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, and the editor of Managing Cover Crops Profitably.
Today, Clark notes, few farmers have the luxury of fallowing a crop for an entire growing season (with some exception out West, where a summer crop of field peas can maintain soil moisture through a dry summer, prior to wheat planting in the fall.) As a winter cover crop, however, field peas can still be a good bet.
We tried Austrian winter peas as a cover crop two years in a row.  I'm not sure how much nitrogen boost we got from them, but it was pretty amazing how much they grew in the spring prior to spraying them.  Cover crops are definitely an old practice that's come back in a big way.

Trying To Quench A Massive Thirst

China's South-to-North Water Diversion Plan makes California's water projects look small:

The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 km (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America.

The US, Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.The project creates a grid of water highways that criss-cross the country and can be adjusted to send water almost anywhere. That grid—the siheng sanzong, literally the “four horizontals, three verticals”—consists of the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, and Hai Rivers running west to east, and three routes that run from south to north, each longer than 1,500 kilometers (600 miles) through both natural and man-made canals.

The first branch, the eastern route, has just started transferring water from the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province. A second route will start carrying water from central China to Beijing and other northern cities at some point in 2014. The third, western route may link the Yangtze River to the Yellow River by crossing through the mountainous terrain of Sichuan and Qinghai, at elevation of between 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

Borrowing water from the south isn’t as simple as Mao suggested. The government has so far relocated at least 345,000 people to make way for construction, the largest resettlement for an infrastructure project since at least 1.4 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam.
If the California water system wasn't a big enough environmental mess, the Chinese will make it look like nothing.  I really can't fathom the scope of this project.

Poor Return on Investment

Via Ritholtz:

 Way to stand out.  USA! USA! USA!

News of the Obvious - Inequality and Stagnant Economy Edition

Business Insider:
Marie Schofield, chief economist, and Toby Nangle, head of multi asset allocation at Columbia Management, have a great little note up reminding people of the basic force that's holding back the economy.
For decades, the top 5% have been accumulating an ever-increasing share of the national income in the U.S.:

Columbia Management
The remaining 95% were only able to keep their buying power up by taking on more debt.
Lately that hasn't been an option.
The excerpt of the report the post cites pretty much says that the gains of the top 5% since 1980 have come as wages for everybody else have stagnated, or in some cases declined.  Widely available credit at steadily lower interest rates from the post-Volcker busting of inflation (and the destruction of manufacturing jobs at the same time) masked the drain the inequality produces on economic growth, but here in the aftermath of the Great Recession, debt growth for the 95% isn't really an option, and growth has been lousy. I think that minimal credit growth, combined with household deleveraging and adoption of labor-saving technology are most of what's to blame for the slow recovery in jobs in this chart, and that the impact of both a decreasing share of productivity growth for the bottom 95% and the adoption of technology can be seen in each of the 3 most recent recessions (one could make the point that the last four recessions have been the slowest peak-to-trough-and-back in the post-war period):

Corporate profits and and shareholder returns have soared during that time, while wages have stagnated and debt loads have increased for the non-rich.  Maybe it is just coincidence that these changes have correlated with the era of tax cuts and "trickle-down economics", but I believe there is causation. While Dave Camp's recent tax reform plan called for two tax brackets and a tax surcharge that is in effect a third tax bracket, while continuing to tax capital gains and dividends at a reduced rate, I believe we need even more brackets than we have now (with higher marginal rates at the top), with dividends taxed as regular income and capital gains taxed at 28%, just like in the horribly oppressive high-tax days of the early Reagan administration.

Drought Threatens Australian Ag

Drought conditions across Australia's east coast will cut production of key agricultural commodities such as wheat and beef next season and reduce exports, the government's chief commodities forecaster said on Tuesday.
The current season could see Australia, the world's third-largest wheat exporter, produce a bumper wheat crop, with increased plantings and if late season rains materialise.
However, forecasts of a return of dry El Nino weather conditions across the key farming states of Queensland and New South Wales later in 2014 mean the prospects for agricultural production remain uncertain.
Global markets will be watching forecasts of Australia's crop given concerns over Ukraine tensions disrupting supply from the Black Sea area, one of the world's key grain exporting regions.
Australian wheat production is forecast to fall 8.2 percent to 24.795 million in the 2014/15 season from 27.013 million tonnes this year as dry conditions curb yields, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural, Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) said.
ABARES said the decline in production will come despite a 2 percent increase in acreage planted as yields return to historical average levels due to dry conditions.
The yields assumptions are based on a break in the drought, but with forecasts for more dry conditions across Australia's east coast, the commodity forecaster acknowledged further cuts to yields are possible.....
Australia's drought was also resulting in record cattle slaughter rates, prompting ABARES to up its forecast for 2013/14 beef exports to 1.15 million tonnes.
Parts of Queensland, Australia's largest cattle producing state and home to half the national herd, have recorded the driest two years on record.
ABARES said Australia's national herd will fall to 27.1 million head, the lowest since the 2009/10 season, a year also impacted by drought.
But the following season, 2014/15, ABARES, based on its assumption of a break in the drought, is forecasting cattle farmers will begin to rebuild stock, resulting in a fall in beef exports of nearly 7 percent.
If the drought breaks, exports would fall to 1.04 million tonnes, cementing Australia's position as the world's third-largest beef exporter, ABARES said.
There was also an interesting note at the end of the article:
"The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950," according to a Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO report on Tuesday.
 In other words, this is what climate change in Australia looks like.


Click To Enlarge: Popcorn from NPR on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan

More like his anti-poor people plan:
Ryan is very good at marshaling faux scholarship churned out by ideologues in the service of talking points, and at convincing reporters that he is an actual policy wonk. Unfortunately, he seems to have convinced himself and undertaken the ambitious goal of reconciling his policies with the work of real researchers. That was a bad, bad move.

The bigger dilemma is that Ryan’s budget goals leave him no room to maneuver. He’s committed to balancing the budget within the next decade. But he wants to prop up defense spending, refuses to increase tax revenue, and has promised to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits for all current retirees. He recently cut a deal with Democrats to ease cuts in the main domestic spending programs. Having taken everything else off the table, the only place left for his cuts is programs that benefit the poor.

And Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs – the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.
Ryan's problem is generally the Republicans' problem.  They want to balance the budget and cut taxes, avoid slashing entitlements (at least in the near future when there base demographic is still alive to vote), maintain or increase defense spending, fight a war anywhere somebody looks at us funny, and that only leaves cutting support for the folks who have the least, because we know they won't do anything to the folks who have the most.  The reason Dave Camp's tax reform plan doesn't see the light of day is because it proves that Republicans can't dramatically lower rates, eliminate deductions and stay revenue-neutral.  They can claim it will, but once they put a plan down on paper, we'll find out they don't have a plan that works.  Paul Ryan's budget is the exact same thing. He may claim to be a policy wonk, but he isn't very good at math.  He just takes the outcomes he wants and tries to slash away at the social service budget until he gets in the ballpark.  Now he's trying to find a way to wrap his plan in academic cover, and he does that half-assed, too.  The guy is pretty much useless.

A Texas Primary Update

And with it, an update on the Tea Party in Texas:
And right-wing fervor is far from dead in Texas, as the results further down the ballot showed. Sure, the Tea Party-backed challenge to incumbent Representative Pete Sessions failed by a 2-to-1 margin. But the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, was running a distant second to a conservative talk-show host, Dan Patrick. Poor David Dewhurst: Two years ago, he was the odds-on favorite to be Texas's next U.S. senator. Then he got knocked out by a political newcomer named Ted Cruz, and now he's fighting just to keep his current second-fiddle job. In a recent debate, all four lieutenant-governor candidates opposed legalizing undocumented immigrants, endorsed the teaching of creationism in public schools, and decried a judge's recent decision to take a brain-dead pregnant woman off life support. Since neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote, Patrick and Dewhurst will meet again in a May runoff.
In the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, the candidate endorsed by the Texas Farm Bureau and baseball legend Nolan Ryan was polling dead last of four candidates, while a former state legislator under ethics investigationwho'd claimed the Tea Party mantle took the top spot. (This is an especially interesting result if you've followed the declining clout of agricultural interests in the GOP, as I have.) That race, too, will be decided in a runoff.
Meanwhile, 90-year-old Representative Ralph Hall, the oldest sitting member in House history, was forced into a runoff by a challenger who argued it was time for new blood but did not call himself a Tea Partier. Hall, a former Democrat, recently declared himself "healthy as a radish" and once told Mitt Romney he liked Mormons because they "give me those airplane bottles of booze when we’re on a flight." George P. Bush, the fourth-generation heir to the Bush political dynasty (he's George W.'s nephew and Jeb's son), is poised to claim his first elected office after decisively winning his primary for the powerful statewide post of land commissioner.
Glad I'm not in Texas.  However, I would definitely vote for Ralph Hall just for making that comment about liking Mormons. George P. Bush?  Seriously?  The article also mentions lunatic Steve Stockman getting retired from Congress by losing mightily to John Cornyn.  I won't miss his idiot tweets.

Philadelphia Gas Works Sale Announced

Philadelphia Inquirer:
Mayor Nutter announced Monday that Connecticut energy company UIL Holdings Corp., has agreed to buy Philadelphia Gas Works for $1.86 billion.
The sale price is at the upper end of the range that the city's financial advisers last year estimated the utility would fetch. After paying off PGW's debts, Nutter said the sale would inject at least $424 million into the city's ailing pension fund....
He said UIL submitted the highest bid and agreed to contract terms that were important to the city: Keeping rates frozen for three years, maintaining PGW's discount programs for low-income families and seniors and preserving PGW employee and retiree pensions.
UIL, whose name surfaced publicly last week as the front-runner in the city's sale process, owns three natural gas utilities in New England and an electric company in New Haven. It would add PGW's 503,000 customers to a portfolio of 712,000 gas and electric customers.
UIL said it plans to operate dual corporate headquarters in Philadelphia and New Haven. PGW will become UIL's largest operating company.
The sale, if approved by City Council and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, would end the city's 178-year ownership of PGW, the nation's largest municipally owned gas utility.
Council approval is far from certain. Nutter's relations with Council are frayed, and Council members have questioned why the city should sell one of its most valuable assets, which has been restored to stability in the last decade after a close call with financial ruin....
PGW's riverfront access and its underused Port Richmond plant that produces liquefied natural gas (LNG) for winter storage was pitched to potential buyers as one of PGW's most attractive assets.
I didn't realize that Philadelphia had a municipally-owned gas utility.  A little background:
PGW began providing gas service to the City of Philadelphia on February 10, 1836, when the city's first 46 gas lights were turned on along Second Street, between Vine and South Streets. In 1841, PGW came under city ownership and in 1897 UGI Corporation (then United Gas Improvement Company) was contracted by the city to operate and manage PGW. Similar contracts were effective until December 1972 at which time the City contracted with Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation to operate and manage PGW.
Just like Cincinnati with the Cincinnati Southern Railway, a city is looking to sell a large city asset to help shore up their employee pension plan.  It sounds like while the gas works has been run fairly well in the past few years, the company is facing some significant infrastructure investments in the not-too-distant future:
Philadelphia's aging gas infrastructure needs significant investment, which could generate meaningful business for UIL Holdings, according to one report. Half of the city's gas pipes are of an older, cast iron vintage that are being replaced in other places, according to an analyst report from Wells Fargo.
It is a shame to see the cities considering selling valuable assets, although I don't know that being owned municipally leads itself to good business decisions, or to proper continuing investment in infrastructure.  It looks like the Philadelphia deal, if approved, will put off major changes for customers and employees for three years.  After that, I would anticipate major changes, mostly to the detriment of customers and employees.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Merger Creates A Flour Power

Watchdog groups fear the massive flour milling company will depress prices for farmers:
The merger of ConAgra Foods with Horizon Milling LLC — a joint operation between Cargill and CHS Inc. — would create a milling behemoth called Ardent Mills. If allowed, the proposed headquarters in Denver, Colorado would become the nation’s largest flour power, controlling a third of the U.S. milling capacity and doubling the size of its next largest competitor.
In an apparent effort to ease the worries of regulators, the two companies agreed to divest four mills scattered around the US earlier this month. But the American Antitrust Institute (AAI) and Food & Water Watch, which opposed the merger upon its announcement last March, remain unconvinced. In press release, the two institutions said the concession on the part of the companies, “just puts lipstick on a pig.”
Spokesmen for each of the three companies involved in the merger declined a request for interview due to the pending case before the Department of Justice, but submitted written statements countering that farmers and consumers would actually benefit from a larger, more efficient milling operation.
“With the formation of Ardent Mills, we’ll be creating a more dynamic milling company that will be able to bring innovative flour and grain products, services and solutions into the marketplace,” said Becky Niiya, the Senior Director, Communication & External Relations at ConAgra Foods.
But the AAI and Food & Water Watch just aren’t so sure those new innovative flour and grain products would come at a fair cost to farmers or consumers. In their letter, they claim Ardent’s huge footprint would likely mean farmers getting paid less for wheat, bakers paying more for flour and consumers footing the bill at the grocery store.
That is a major merger.  1/3 of naional milling capacity?  Wow.

Crazy Floats and Tan Lines

Carnival photos from around the world.  Makes me think about attending samba school.

 Performers from the Sao Clemente samba school parade through the Sambadrome, on March 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana) #

Where Time Comes From

U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock, at the tone, seven hours, zero minutes exactly. BEEP.

Infrastructure as Art


A normal person might use Google’s satellite imagery to look at the house they grew up in as a kid. Jenny Odell spent the last year using it to find refineries, steel mills, shipyards and landfills.
These are the sorts of places we see in Infrastructure, a new series of collages currently on view at the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. In the works, Odell takes satellite-borne views of the unglamorous sites, structures, and systems that drive the modern world and digitally strips them of their surroundings, leaving them floating in white space like items from a miniature train catalog. Each collage is based broadly around an industry–transportation, waste, power, or manufacturing–with related structures arranged in freeform clusters. Among the pieces that make them up are a German train station, a Mexican waste pond, and a sprawling nuclear plant in the heart of Arizona.
Odell, who’s currently teaching a course on smartphone photography at Stanford, has long used Google Maps as an artistic resource. Before these industrial landscapes, she took satellite scraps and transformed them into neatly arranged works with names like 100 Container Ships, 97 Nuclear Cooling Towers, and 10 Waterslide Configurations.
I'm definitely not a normal person.  I've spent a lot of time checking out steel mills, refineries, megafarms and other industrial sites on Google Maps.  I'm not really an art connoisseur (understatement of the new century), but this is art I can appreciate.

Boehner Appearance Locally Garners National Attention

Speaker John Boehner's appearance at his annual Farm Forum in Piqua on Saturday has garnered national attention from Beltway political pundits due to his comments on immigration and tax reform:
House Speaker John Boehner told agriculture businesses in his home district that he’s pushing for a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, despite opposition and skepticism among some swing voters and GOP supporters.
“I’m still working with the President, working with my colleagues in a bipartisan way, and the Congress to move this issue along,” Boehner said in his annual outreach to agriculture leaders, dubbed the “Farm Forum,” held Saturday in Ohio.
Boehner indirectly acknowledged the unpopularity of his push for more immigrant workers. “I know it’s going to be hard that’s why it’s still hanging around,” he said.
“For the last 15 months I’ve been trying to move the ball down the field, only to be tackled by people that just don’t want to deal with it,” he said, according to Civitas Media.
Boehner also suggested that strengthening laws barring the hiring of illegal immigrants — principally mandated use of the E-Verify work authorization system — would wait until new laws make it easier for employers to hire foreign workers. ”I’m not sure we’re ready for nationwide E-Verify until we get into substantial immigration reform,” he said.
The story also hit the Washington Post's Plum Line and Politico. The local reporter deserves a raise for turning the waste of a perfectly fine Saturday morning into D.C. blog fodder.

Crack Found in Washington State Dam

A 65-foot-long (20-meter-long) crack has appeared along the base of a dam in Washington state, posing no danger to the public but prompting utility managers to lower water levels to assess needed repairs, a utility spokesman said.
The 2-inch-wide (5-cm-wide) crack appeared in the spillway of the 8,320-feet-long (2535-meter-long) Wanapum Dam, a large hydroelectric power plant on the Columbia River that currently can generate more than 1,000 megawatts of power, the utility said late Friday.
The spillway is a channel that allows surplus water to escape and is used for the controlled release of flows from a dam.
"As a precautionary measure, the water above Wanapum Dam (forebay) is being drawn down to reduce the pressure on the spillway while inspectors investigate," Grant County Public Utility District spokesman Thomas Stredwick said.
The dam, about 18 miles upstream from Priest Rapids Dam in a rural part of central Washington, was still generating electricity, Stredwick said. But lower water flows during repairs could force the utility to buy power on the open market and affect the broader Columbia River hydroelectric system.
According to wikipedia, the dam is 185 feet tall.  Based on the picture, I figured the thing must be damn long if it was that high.  Total length: 8320 feet.  Almost 1.6 miles long.

Here's a map of the dams in the Pacific Northwest (click to enlarge):

Monday, March 3, 2014

California Farmers Turn to Dowsers in Drought

Farmer voodoo:
"It's kind of bizarre. Scientists don't believe in it, but I do and most of the farmers in the Valley do," said Marc Mondavi, a vineyard owner whose family has been growing grapes and making wine since the mid-20th century in the Napa Valley.
Mondavi doesn't just believe in dowsing, he practices it.
On a recent afternoon, standing in this family's Charles Krug vineyard holding two copper divining rods, Mondavi walked slowly forward through the dormant vines.
After about 40 feet, the rods quickly crossed and Mondavi — a popular dowser in the world famous wine region— stopped. "This is the edge of our underground stream," he said during the demonstration. Mondavi said he was introduced to "witching" by the father of an old girlfriend, and realized he had a proclivity for the practice.
After the valley's most popular dowser died in recent years, Mondavi has become the go-to water witch in Napa Valley. He charges about $500 per site visit, and more, if a well he discovers ends up pumping more than 50 gallons per minute.
With more farmers relying on groundwater to irrigate crops, Mondavi's phone has been ringing often as growers worry about extended years of dryness.
He had six witching jobs lined up over a recent weekend, three homes whose springs were running dry and three vineyards. It's so popular that he's even created a line of wines called "The Divining Rod" that will be sold nationwide this year.
While popular, scientists say dowsers are often just lucky, looking for water in places where it's already known to likely exist.
"There's no scientific basis to dowsing. If you want to go to a palm reader or a mentalist, then you're the same person who's going to go out and hire a dowser," said Tom Ballard, a hydrogeologist with Taber Consultants, a geological engineering firm based in West Sacramento.
I don't believe in it, but I know plenty of people who do.  I think people subconsciously move the rods, and if water's there, it's luck.  May as well plant by the almanac and do rain dances while they're at it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Institutional Investors Take Big Farmland Positions

There is an estimated $10 billion in institutional capital looking to acquire U.S. farmland, and over the next 20 years, as the current generation of farmers retires, an estimated 400 million acres will change hands, according to the report issued by The Oakland Institute, a Calfornia-based think tank with a focus on agriculture......
The report acknowledged that individual farmers are still the biggest buyers of U.S. farmland, and says the trend of institutional ownership of farmland is still too new to draw general conclusions about its impacts. But the report said it is "crucial" for policymakers to monitor the trend and "help ensure that farmers, and not absentee investors, are the future of our food system." The report cited three groups as being particularly influential so far in acquisitions of U.S. farmland: The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), one of the largest pension funds in the world; Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG), part of the Hancock Natural Resource Group, an indirect wholly owned subsidiary of Manulife Financial Corp ; and UBS Agrivest, also known as UBS Global Real Estate-Farmland and a part of the Swiss-based UBS financial services company.
HAIG manages $2.1 billion of agricultural real estate and oversees roughly 290,000 U.S. farmland acres, according to its officials. UBS Agrivest has 113 farms totaling 183,000 acres in 15 states under management. The farms grow over 25 different crops, according to UBS. And TIAA-CREF said that it has roughly 125,000 acres of U.S. farmland.
James McCandless, head of UBS Global Real Estate, said that its properties are leased to local farm operators, mostly family farmers. Institutional investors are driven by a desire to diversify portfolios and achieve the steady income stream benefits associated with farmland, he said.
I never knew what TIAA-CREF stood for.  Those are substantial chunks of farm ground, but I'm not sure how surprising it is that insurance companies are taking positions in land, especially in a market that has been hot.  I seem to remember some insurance companies cashing out of farms they bought back in the late '70s-early '80s boom.  Somebody has to buy at the peak of the market, and better to be an insurance company than a farmer.  Maybe not so good for a pension fund, though.

NASA Photo of the Day

February 28:

Möbius Arch Moonrise
Image Credit & Copyright: Laurie Hatch
Explanation: Only two days past full, February's moon shines through thin clouds, rising on the left in this fisheye night skyscape. The moonlight illuminates a weathered, rounded foreground in the Alabama Hills, conveniently located east of Mt. Whitney along the Sierra Nevada range in California, USA, planet Earth. Orion the Hunter stands at the right, a familiar northern winter constellation. Bright Jupiter, the solar system's ruling gas giant, is near center at the top of the frame. Below Jupiter, Sirius, alpha star of the Big Dog, poses above a bowed and twisted landform known as Möbius Arch, its curve reminiscent of the mathematically famous surface with only one side. Of course, instead of using rock, wind, and weather, a Möbius strip is easier to make with paper, scissors, and tape.

The Science of Cheese

Michael Tunick, research chemist at USDA and author of The Science of Cheese, provides some answers to questions about cheese at Wired.  Here's a couple of my favorites:

On the regional production of certain cheeses:
Here are some examples of cheeses named for their originating regions:
…Asiago comes from the Asiago plateau in Northern Italy
…Brie was birthed in the Brie region east of Paris
…Camembert is named after a village in Normandy
Cheddar was first produced in Cheddar, Somerset County
…Gorgonzola is named after an Italian town near Naples
…Gruyère is named after a town in Switzerland
…Havarti is named after a farm north of Copenhagen
…Munster is named after a village in Alsace, France
…Roquefort is made by seven companies in and around Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France (if a similar cheese comes from outside that area, it must be called something else, such as “blue cheese”)
…Swiss cheese originated in Switzerland’s Emmen valley, which is why it’s called Emmental or Emmentaler
Several countries have thought highly enough of cheese to have postage stamps devoted to the varieties they have developed. And one northern Italian bank maintains 300,000 wheels of Parmesan, worth $200 million, as collateral for loans.
Besides tradition, another reason for the “location, location, location” phenomenon in cheese has to do with the economics of terroir (from the French for “land”). The terroir factors affecting cheese flavor include vegetation, climate, animals, season of the year, altitude, soil, and microorganisms. In the U.S., one aspect of the economics is the back-to-the-land movement, which provided incentive for dairy farmers to produce artisanal cheeses with a “sense of place.” Another economic facet is the ability to sell in a far-off market. Before refrigeration and automobiles, Vermonters came to realize that a sturdy cheddar would survive the trip to the lucrative New York market better than a high-moisture cheese that aged quickly; Vermont specializes in cow’s milk cheddar to this day.
On giant blocks of cheese:
Speaking of big cheeses (literally), a Cheshire cheese weighing 1,235 pounds and using the milk of 900 cows was once sent by sleigh for 500 miles from Massachussetts to Washington, D.C., and presented to President Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802. Inscribed with “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” it was called the Mammoth Cheese due to the discovery of mammoth (now known to be mastodon) bones the year before. Cautious of accepting free gifts, Jefferson paid $200 for it and displayed it in the East Room for a year. Not to be outdone, supporters of President Andrew Jackson made a 1,400-pound cheese for him in 1837.
But the largest cheese prior to the 20th century was a 22,000-pound cheddar made in Perth, Ontario, for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A larger, 34,591-pound cheddar cheese measuring 141.5 feet by 61.5 feet by 51.5 feet was made for the Wisconsin Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. The current record-holder however is a 56,850-pound Cheddar made in Oregon by the Federation of American Cheese-makers in 1989.
Other questions answered include why fresh cheese curds squeak (trapped air) and whether you can make cheese from human breast milk (no).  I'm a sucker for these kinds of books.  I've read about cod, salt, poisons, chemical compounds and other random things.  I'll probably end up reading about cheese.

It's Hockey Day in America

If you hadn't already heard:
NBC Sports Group and the NHL are celebrating the fourth annual Hockey Day in America on Sunday at Chelsea Piers Connecticut in Stamford. Fans are welcome beginning at 10:30 a.m. as a number of special events are planned, including appearances by U.S. silver medalists Julie Chu of Fairfield and Meghan Duggan and NHL alumni. Liam McHugh will anchor NBC Sports' live pre-game and intermission coverage live from Chelsea Piers, and will be joined by analysts Jeremy Roenick, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. The primte television time on NBC will be from 2:30-4:30 p.m.
Yeah, I hadn't heard that until I was watching last night's snowy Pens-Blackhawks game from Soldier Field.  Enjoy.

Hot Hand, Or Hot Hand Fallacy?

It was a shooting performance so incredible, even veteran basketball experts had never seen anything like it.
In a game last month at then-No. 4-ranked Villanova, Creighton senior Ethan Wragge swished a three-pointer on his team's opening possession. The next time down the court, he hit a deeper shot. At that point, Wragge wanted a third "because I feel like it's going in no matter what." He was right. Wragge's next four shots didn't miss, either. He scored 21 of his team's first 27 points in the Bluejays' 96-68 rout.
He also became the latest example of a phenomenon that many people say doesn't exist: the hot hand.
This sensation is familiar to anyone who has ever played or watched basketball. A player with the hot shooting hand seems to enter an ethereal zone, an inexplicably heightened state of ability in which he is unstoppable.
For years, though, academics have dismissed the hot-hand theory as basketball's version of Bigfoot. Almost everyone in the last three decades who had hunted for hard evidence of streakiness had come up empty. Instead, they say, belief in the hot hand is a case of people mistakenly seeing patterns in randomness.
But new research using previously unavailable data is heating up the debate. It turns out that popular intuition about the hot hand may have been right all along.
Count me as a believer in the hot hand.  It is probably just statistical anomaly, but as a very unathletic individual, I always seemed to be very streaky.  Whether it is baseball or bowling or darts or cornhole, I can be very consistently terrible, but then I'll get in a run where I'm dead-on.  It may last for a game, or a series, but then it is gone just as quickly as it had come.  This works to my advantage when playing folks who have seen me suck every time I've played them, and suddenly I'm kicking their ass. 

Another area where I've noticed it is playing cards.  That obviously is randomness, but I still pay attention to it.  I've just adapted by quitting to minimize my losses when things aren't going my way (I know, if I kept playing, it is likely I would even out).  Considering that sports typically involve repetitive motion, I can see how somebody might get into a groove for a little while where everything is going right.  I think that since I generally lacked the ability to consistently succeed in sports, the few times when I started doing things right stood out to me. 

For better athletes, the hot hand might not be as significant statistically because they generally succeed.  That's why I'd think it might be more noticeable in baseball, where hitters go on tremendous hitting streaks followed by epic slumps.  I'm looking at Paul O'Neill in his days with the Reds.  It was nothing for him to go 2 for 50.  Then, after he was traded to the Yankees, he started out the season hitting like .438. 

Castellini: Reds Aren't Profitable

That's what he's saying here.

I'm not sure if he's putting it out there as an excuse for not making any real moves in the offseason, but I don't feel much concern for him. There hasn't been any sign that team values have peaked yet, so he's likely to make a pile of money whenever he decides to sell. That should be kept in mind when making out the annual budget.