Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ohio State Symbols Carved in Butter at State Fair

I missed this when the Ohio State Fair opened, but I love me some butter sculptures, especially a butter trilobite (the state fossil, obviously):

Butter sculptures galore await Ohioans today as the 2014 Ohio State Fair opens its gates for a 12-day run. There’s a butter tomato, because Ohio is one of the biggest producers of the fruit. There’s a butter carnation, the state flower, and a butter trillium, the state wildflower.
Also in butter are a cardinal, the state bird, balancing on a buckeye tree, and a buckeye with a grinning face dangling below it.
And then there are the butter versions of a ladybug, a black racer snake, a spotted salamander and a white-tailed deer, as well as a trilobite fossil, an arrow-head, a papaw and an Adena pipe.
All of the 15 sculptures relate to Ohio. Made of real butter and displayed in a refrigerated case at 46 degrees, they were unveiled yesterday at the Ohio Expo Center’s Dairy Building.
“I’ve been lobbying for this for years,” said a jubilant Bob Kling, the chief sculptor for the butter creations for 15 years. “There are a lot of interesting sculptural forms among our state’s official symbols.”
His favorite? The bullfrog, which is about the size of a small sheep in its butter form.
The most difficult, Kling said, was the carnation, whose thin petals tended to flop forward during its creation. The cardinal was challenging, too, because it tended to slide off the butter branch on which it was perched.
Scott Higgins, president of the American Dairy Association Mideast, said the sculptures “ epitomize the spirit of Ohio.”
Five artists spent six days slathering 2,033 pounds of butter onto the frames they’d spent months building out of hardware cloth, rock lath and other products, Kling said.
Sure, it's corny, but I don't think there is anything more midwestern than a ton (literally) of butter (or back in the day, lard) sculptures at the state fair.  For some strange reason, I'm lookinf forward to the Field of Dreams sculpture at the Iowa State Fair

End of July Weekend Links

Some interesting stories to check out as this unseasonably nice July wraps up:

The Best Twitter Feed in Congress Belongs to Its Longest Serving Member - National Journal

Guy Walks Into a Bar - The New Yorker.  From last year, but highlighted in Friday's links at naked capitalism, and an entertaining expansion of a very familiar old joke.

Hall of Fame Weekend: Roger Angell's Baseball Writing - The New Yorker.  Eight stories from the archive in honor of Roger Angell's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.

Why Poor Schools Can't Win at Standardized Testing - The Atlantic

The Gray Light of Morning - The Archdruid Report.  "Most of the people who have ever lived, it bears remembering, had no expectation that the future would be any better than the world that they saw around them. The majority of them assumed as a matter of course that the future would be much like the present, while quite a few of them believed instead that it would be worse. Down through the generations, they faced the normal human condition of poverty, sickness, toil, grief, injustice, and the inevitability of their own deaths, and still found life sufficiently worth living to meet the challenges of making a living, raising families, and facing each day as it came.
That’s normal for our species."

The Existential Battle for the Soul of the GOP - Norm Ornstein.  The GOP has no soul.  Plenty of fools and idiots, very few brains, but no soul.

Alternative Fusion Technologies Heat Up - Scientific American.  Sure they do.  I think the venture capital folks are feeling invincible.  I think they'll find out they aren't.

The strange relationship between global warming denial...and speaking English - The Guardian

Satellite Study Reveals Parched U.S. West Using Up Underground Water - NASA. "The research team used data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. Monthly measurements of the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater, almost double the volume of the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total -- about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) -- was from groundwater." That ain't getting recharged.

The Colorado River Basin (black outline) supplies water to about 40 million people in seven states. Major cities outside the basin (red shading) also use water from the Colorado River.
Image Credit:
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Kill Team

Low Commodity Prices Cause Worry In Corn Belt

Wall Street Journal:
Tumbling corn prices are sowing fears that many U.S. farmers will suffer their first losses in years and the agricultural economy could face its first sustained slump in a decade.
Corn prices have plunged nearly 30% in the past three months to their lowest point since 2010 as near-perfect weather in the Midwest fuels expectations of a second consecutive bumper harvest. Prices of other crops have fallen sharply as well, with soybeans trading near 2½-year lows and wheat near four-year lows.
But the slide in corn prices is expected to cut sharply into overall incomes in the U.S. Farm Belt because corn is the country's largest crop, grown on 350,000 farms and yielding about $60 billion in farmers' revenue last year.
Now 57% off its record high in 2012, corn is trading well below the $4-a-bushel threshold generally required for farmers to earn profits. That means many growers this year likely will fail to cover their costs for the first time since 2006, according to agricultural economists.
Signs of strain already are evident in the Midwest. Farmland values in some regions have begun to dip after a yearslong boom, and demand for farm equipment has slipped. DeereDE -1.05% & Co., the world's largest seller of farm equipment, reported a 9.5% decline in its second-quarter profit in May and said U.S. sales of farm and landscaping equipment would decline between 5% and 10% this year. Sales of tractors, seeds and other farm supplies are expected to suffer further as farmers keep dialing back spending.
"A lot of money has evaporated," said Matt Bennett, who farms 3,000 acres in Windsor, Ill. "It's going to be hard not just on farmers, but also the guys who build sheds" and "sell pickup trucks."
Mr. Bennett, 39 years old, said he expects to make a profit this year because he already sold about half his expected crop for about $5 a bushel. But "margins will definitely get squeezed" and 2015 could be much tougher, he said.
The article goes on to say the bankers and economists think this time is different, and there won't be a big bust because farmers aren't heavily in debt.  I guess we'll find out if they are right.

Peak Casino

We might not be there quite yet, nationally, but we are pretty close:
In the 36th year of casino gambling in New Jersey, which not too long ago had a monopoly on the East Coast, the casino industry is crashing with a suddenness and a fury that has caught many people here by surprise. It started the year with 12 casinos; by mid-September, it could have eight.
The Atlantic Club shut down in January, taken down by two rivals, stripped for parts and closed in the name of reducing competition, eliminating 1,600 jobs.
In recent weeks, the owners of the Showboat and Trump Plaza announced plans to close, and Revel, which opened two years ago, said it, too, will close if a buyer can't be found in a bankruptcy court auction next month. That would put nearly 8,000 workers — about a quarter of the city's casino workforce — on the street.
"Most of us had expected one or two places to close this year and that would be it for a while, and it would give us a chance to catch our breath," said state Sen. James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor. "This is happening very quickly, and it is absolutely devastating to our region."
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said casino markets around the country could find themselves in a similar situation — and soon.
Connecticut's tribal casinos have been affected by New York casinos and face an even greater challenge from new casinos going online soon in New York and Massachusetts. Mississippi, where Caesars Entertainment recently shuttered a casino in Tunica, has struggled with competition from expanded gambling in the Midwest and Florida.
Even Pennsylvania, which overtook Atlantic City as the nation's No. 2 casino market, is seeing its own casino revenue stagnate as competition grows.
While Ohio's casinos have been a giveaway to special interests (the writers of the ballot initiative, namely, Dan Gilbert and Penn National, and the horse tracks, now mainly owned by casino companies), I think we aren't as oversupplied as Atlantic City (now southeastern Indiana, on the other hand....), at least yet.  It will be interesting to see what happens when the Dayton racino opens, which will provide southwestern Ohio and southeastern Indiana with the option of 4 casinos and 3 racinos, with the potential of another at Turfway Park if the horsemen (and Dan Gilbert) get their way in Kentucky. I would guess the furthest casino from Cincinnati (I believe the Belterra in Florence) would be the first to go, but it will be interesting to see how the casino in downtown Cincinnati fares.  So far, the 4 big city casinos have seen a rapid drop off in revenues as the racinos open up and suburban folks flock to the slots there.  Cincinnati may be able to maintain the casino based just on urban population and tourists/sports fans visiting, but I don't anticipate any pushes to expand casino gaming in Ohio beyond the 11 license holders we now have.  The only true benefit to having casinos in Ohio is that we don't have people travelling to Indiana to save Hoosiers tax money.  They aren't a net benefit to the state economy, but the are a huge benefit to Dan Gilbert, the Ohio horse racing industry and out-of-state casino owners.

Poor Blogger Performance

Things have been pretty slow here, and I've got a lot of excuses for that.  First, I spent the early part of the week making second-cutting hay, which was a fiasco, as usual.  I managed to break the hay rake, which left me double-windrowing what should have been single windrows.  That, combined with rain and overcast skies made the drying process less than ideal.  After I finally did bale the very marginal hay, I blew a tire on one of the wagons and had to park it in the neighbor's yard for a day while I got around to pulling a wheel off of an equipment trailer to be able to get the wagon to the farm and put it in the barn.  After getting all that finished up, I fought with my slowly dying computer, which, while seemingly slowly accessing the internet, used 40% of my monthly data plan in one day.  So I've been a little more reluctant to do much on that computer.

Besides all that stuff, the news hasn't been all that inspiring, either.  With Iraq and Afghanistan falling apart, in spite of or because the United States burned hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives there, with all of the saber-rattling over the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine (with liberals blaming the Ukrainians and conservatives blaming Russia, even though whoever did it [probably rebels with some Russian oversight] didn't mean to shoot down a civilian airliner, since there is no tactical upside and huge downside), with the Israelis insisting on killing large numbers of Gazans because some Israelis could die because of a random rocket actually doing some damage, with so many God-fearing Christians in middle America demonstrating their faith by "welcoming" refugee children from violence-scarred neighboring countries and with yet another botched execution in the news, I'm not really feeling like wading into that manure pit.

However, I am enjoying the unseasonably cool dog days we've been having.  I can live with that.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Grantham on Malthus

Jeremy Grantham makes the case that where people think Malthus was wrong, he was actually right, and vice versa:
The essence of Malthus’ work (1798 and later) was that humans, like all other creatures, would tend to grow in numbers up to the limit of their ability to find food. Perhaps he should have left it there because that seems like a reasonable proposition and clearly defines the first 200,000 years of our existence. But he tried to define this equation more mathematically by saying that our potential breeding rate was exponential, or compound, compared to our food production rate, which was arithmetic. Arithmetic growth, he argued, would allow for, say, 500 pounds more grain per acre, per year, which would become a smaller and smaller percentage gain. His simplification was that food production would proceed in the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., where population would grow in the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. You can see the problem. And it is precise enough to describe the rat population problem in the Back Bay in Boston. You can’t control them by rat traps – they can out-breed your traps – but you can limit them by restricting their food supply.
Through the 20th Century and until recently Malthus’ critics said, yes, okay, the world’s population has indeed been growing fast, and if anything at an accelerating or hyperbolic rate, but, no, the food supply has not been arithmetic but has compounded and kept up with the people. Q.E.D. Malthus was wrong.
Well, it turns out that the criticism is short-term in its focus and also wrong. Agricultural progress is by nature arithmetic and Malthus, living in a farming community, knew that. If compound growth were possible ingrain productivity, then eventually a single corn plant would have to produce a ton of food, or, in human terms, 6-foot tall Dutch women would one day be 40 feet tall. Each species has a limit that tends to be approached at a decelerating rate. More convincingly, a recent report in Nature Communications  proves the point. The authors looked in great detail at all of the important grain-producing areas by individual grain – wheat and corn in the Midwest, wheat in Ukraine and Australia, rice in Japan and Thailand, corn in Brazil, and so on. They studied the progress in productivity year by year and attempted to describe each grain area as best they could mathematically. To get to the bottom line, not a single one could be described in exponential (or compound) terms. At best they had a steadily declining percentage gain or an arithmetic (or linear) increase. Even less encouragingly, many grain areas were best described as asymptotic to zero: that is, clearly heading eventually toward zero. Therefore, Malthus in this key component was perfectly right. So, how come we aren’t all starving? Well, we had not one, but two, non-repeatable windfalls. First, there was new land. Malthus had no idea that west of the Mississippi, in Australia, and in parts of South America there were vast new agricultural lands to exploit. Second, there was a realization that adding more nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus could remarkably increase output, especially in the depleted soils of Europe, coupled with the discoveries of how to make nitrogen fertilizer and where to mine potassium and phosphorus. The use of fertilizer since 1950 more than quintupled per acre but today often reaches limits beyond which production actually falls. The increased use of fertilizer is also unsustainable in that environmental damage is often severe and the mined resources are, of course, depleting. In recent decades, despite the increased use of genetically modified crops and related technologies and continued progress in more traditional plant breeding, the growth rate in the productivity of grains is steadily declining (as described in the Nature Communications article mentioned above). So, surprisingly perhaps, and despite two stays of execution from new land and fertilizer, Malthus was right in one of his two basic propositions despite continued comment to the contrary. The implication of this from an investment point of view is that we should count on a steady, if erratic, rise in the price of food. This in turn will work to suppress economic growth – a small amount in the case of rich countries and a dangerously large amount in the case of poorer countries.
We live, though, in a strange and complicated world and Malthus’ second proposition of the compound growth of population, which traditionally was accepted because the data so obviously confirmed it for 160 years, turned out to be totally wrong. Since 1961 that accelerating compound growth has stopped and has so sharply decelerated that it appears nearly certain to go negative within the next several decades: the number of new babies globally has in fact already started to decline. ("Peak Babies!")
There are a lot of interesting points here, including that predictions are hard, and that even though you may be wrong a lot, about a bunch of different things, you might eventually be proven right, even though when that happens you'll be long, long dead.  While I would say that Malthus was correct about arithmetic increases in agricultural production, the massive increases in yield from fertilization and breeding are very impressive.  But from an agricultural perspective, the diminishing returns of those advances in genetics and fertilizer are worrisome, but do likely indicate that there will be money to be made in food production in the future.  Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but eventually.  

Historic Rouge Steel Mill Sees New Owner

Ohio-based AK Steel purchased the steel mill originally built by Henry Ford to realize his dream of vertically-integrating Ford Motor Company:
Russian steelmaker Severstal OAO said Monday it is selling its Dearborn unit formerly known as Rouge Steel to an Ohio company for $700 million as it exits North America.
Severstal Dearborn LLC subsidiaries and Severstal Columbus LLC, collectively known as Severstal North America, will be sold to AK Steel Corp. and Steel Dynamics Inc., respectively, in a $2.3 billion deal. AK Steel, a Fortune 500 company, is based in West Chester, Ohio, and employs 6,100 people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana.
“The sale of Columbus and Dearborn unlocks substantial value to Severstal’s shareholders,” said Alexey Mordashov, CEO of OAO Severstal.
In 2004, Severstal acquired most of Rouge Steel, a former unit of Ford Motor Co., after that steelmaker filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
AK Steel is acquiring Severstal’s coke-making facility and interests in three joint ventures that process flat-rolled steel....
Dearborn’s blast furnace, which was rebuilt in 2007, is among the most efficient and productive blast furnaces in the world for its size, according to AK Steel.
The plant began operating a new pickle line tandem cold mill and a new hot dip galvanizing line in 2011. Similar to AK Steel’s existing carbon steel operations, the Dearborn plant produces hot- and cold-rolled sheet and hot-dip galvanized products, as well as other flat-rolled steel products. The plant employs 1,400 and is capable of producing about 2.5 million tons of finished steel per year.
Upon completion of the acquisition, AK Steel’s annual shipments are expected to exceed 7.5 million tons.
AK Steel said it intends to utilize all of Dearborn’s production units, and has no plans to cease operations at any of its current steel-making or steel-finishing facilities.
Severstal had reportedly invested over $3 billion into the Dearborn and Columbus steel-making operations.  It had also sunk over $1.1 billion into buying Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, and nearly all of that concern's steel-making facilities are shuttered. Based on the investments Severstal had made, it appears AK Steel and Steel Dynamics got a very good deal.  If nothing else, AK Steel bought a big piece of U.S. industrial heritage.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

July 16:

The Moon Eclipses Saturn
Image Credit & Copyright: Carlos Di Nallo
Explanation: What happened to half of Saturn? Nothing other than Earth's Moon getting in the way. As pictured above on the far right, Saturn is partly eclipsed by a dark edge of a Moon itself only partly illuminated by the Sun. This year the orbits of the Moon and Saturn have led to an unusually high number of alignments of the ringed giant behind Earth's largest satellite. Technically termed an occultation, the above image captured one such photogenic juxtaposition from Buenos Aires, Argentina that occurred early last week. Visible to the unaided eye but best viewed with binoculars, there are still four more eclipses of Saturn by our Moon left in 2014. The next one will be on August 4 and visible from Australia, while the one after will occur on August 31 and be visible from western Africa at night but simultaneously from much of eastern North America during the day.

Braddock's Road

Russel Shorto traces the remains of the military road constructed by Edward Braddock in 1755:

A collision point was coming into focus amid the rolling green hills of western Pennsylvania. “The Forks of the Ohio” — the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio (where Pittsburgh sits today) — was to be a fulcrum in the global struggle between two European empires. Whoever controlled the Forks controlled the Ohio, which, since it flowed west to the Mississippi, connected the east and the interior of the continent. Braddock’s mission was to chase away the French soldiers stationed at Fort Duquesne at the Forks and establish a permanent English presence that would give Britain free rein over the limitless continent.
But first he had to get there. Technically his expedition began in Alexandria, Va., but the first half was a relative cakewalk on existing roads. The roads ended at Fort Cumberland, on the Potomac River in Maryland, near my house. The fort was the staging point from which Braddock would lead his army westward, carving out the very road they would traverse across 120 brutal miles to the Forks... 
Braddock’s expedition would serve as a warm-up for some colonists who went on to greater things. Benjamin Franklin supplied wagons. Daniel Boone drove one of them. Meanwhile, Braddock needed men with experience. He knew that a young officer of the Virginia militia had headed toward the Forks the year before. At 22, George Washington had been sent to warn the French away. His trip turned into a diplomatic nightmare when his troops attacked the French they were supposed to parley with. The incident was one of the sparks that touched off the war. 
On May 30, the first 600 men, equipped with cannons, mortars and 50 wagons, set off at daybreak. They labored up the slope of Haystack Mountain, clearing trees and blasting rocks. Just beyond our backyard, the ascent was “almost a perpendicular rock,” according to an officer’s journal; three wagons, teams and all, plunged over a cliff. By the end of the first day they had gone only two miles. It was a horrendous start.
Following in their footsteps today is in one sense almost embarrassingly simple. When Thomas Jefferson sanctioned construction of a national road westward in 1806, it followed the trail Braddock had blazed. The National Road, which was also called the Cumberland Road and is better known today as Route 40, is for much of the way the modern incarnation of Braddock’s road. 
Then again, the journey is simple only if you are content to buzz along the general course of the route. The actual road — meaning the 12-foot-wide path Braddock’s men hacked and blasted through the wilderness — has the status of myth among some historians because of its ur-American connotations but also, I think, because locating it has proved so difficult. Centuries of development and neglect have obscured things; Route 40 repeatedly crosses it, but doesn’t precisely track it. One could do Braddock’s route in a fine day trip by staying behind the wheel and using the markers placed near each of the army’s encampments. But I wanted more, so I contacted Robert Bantz, a former engineer who has made the tracking of Braddock’s road his retirement project. After 20 years of collating data from firsthand accounts, old maps, metal detectors and a GPS, of tramping through backyards, fording streams and confronting bears and rattlesnakes, he has become the undisputed expert, lauded by the state’s archaeological society and beloved of local schools.
 I am surprised Bantz is an engineer and not a surveyor.  That project definitely sounds like something a surveyor would undertake, possibly in colonial garb.

The Man Who Bought a State Government

Art Pope, the conservative donor who funded campaigns to bring conservatives to power in North Carolina, works as the state's budget director:
There is no one in North Carolina, or likely in all of American politics, quite like Art Pope. He is not just a wealthy donor seeking to influence politics from the outside, nor just a government official shaping it from within. He is doing both at the same time — the culmination of a quarter-
century spent building a sphere of influence that has put him at the epicenter of North Carolina government and moved his state closer to the conservative vision he has long imagined.
“There are not many people as influential, because few people have invested the time and the money that he has on behalf of his state,” said Republican former governor James G. Martin, who tapped Pope, then 28, to be a lawyer in his administration in the 1980s.
From the outside, Pope’s family foundation has put more than $55 million into a robust network of conservative think tanks and advocacy groups, building a state version of what his friends Charles and David Koch have helped create on a national level.
On the inside, the budget director and his GOP allies — who took over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion two years later with the backing of Pope and other big donors — have passed numerous laws overhauling taxes, social services and voting rights.
McCrory has also eliminated a public financing program for judicial races — opening those contests to greater influence by wealthy donors — and has sought to cut funding for the state’s university system. Both are pet causes of Pope’s.
And shockingly,as seen in Kansas, trickle-down economics works just as poorly at the state level as it does at the federal level:
For all of his pull, the revolution Pope helped set in motion is not going quite as planned. The tax overhaul, styled in part off ideas promoted by Pope-backed groups, has contributed to tight finances in North Carolina at a time when other states are flush with cash. Cuts to education have spawned widespread discontent among parents and teachers.
And what was supposed to be a brief legislative session this spring to approve a new budget broke down into a contentious power struggle between the newly ascendant Republican officials, with powerful Senate leaders squaring off against McCrory and his allies in the House. Relations grew so fraught that at one point Senate leaders threatened to subpoena Pope to answer questions about contradictory budget projections.
Conservative governance is best left to counterfactual arguments.  Real-life hates trickle-down bullshit.