Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mother's Day Weekend Links

I suppose my mother would consider it a Mother's Day gift if I wasn't posting "another one of your rants,"* but after disappointing her this much, why change now.  Here are some interesting stories for you to check out this weekend:

* her quote when she saw me working on posting last weekend's links

Yankee, Executive, Soldier, Spy - Grantland

The Poison Oasis - SBNation

Livestock Farming Is Changing Agriculture on Long Island - New York Times.  

Never Mind Oil, Iran's About to Shake the World Pistachio Market - Bloomberg

The Texas Deep Frying Champion - priceonomics

Americans Are Drinking Less But Spending More on Fancy Booze - Bloomberg.  Also, see One Bottle To Rule Them All - Cincinnati Magazine

House OKs Expanded Sales of Raw Milk - Texas Tribune.  Where did I see somebody say that the proponents of raw milk were the food equivalent of anti-vaxxers?   Wherever it was, it was true.

Your Winter Vegetables: Brought to You by California's Very Last Drops of Water - Mother Jones.
 It's interesting how senior water rights work.

Getting a Clue About the Avian Flu - Pacific Standard

Monsanto Make Bid to Go Big in Pesticides - Wall Street Journal

 Overkill - The New Yorker.  Atul Gawande on unnecessary medical care.

The Computers Are Listening - The Intercept

Girl Strikers - Belt Magazine

Alberta Loses Its Goddamn Mind for the Fourth Time: A Guide for the Perplexed - Vice.  Very interesting history: "Before long, rural farmers got tired of being fucked over by Central Canada and their nonsense party system. So in 1921, they handed a massive majority to the United Farmers of Alberta, a co-operative group that had decided to turn itself into a political party to set up a government by farmers, for farmers. This kept the trains running on time until premier John Brownlee resigned in disgrace after a bizarre sex scandal in 1934.

In UK Election, Ancient Kingdom Eyes Political Comeback - Wall Street Journal. More history.

The UK General Election Result Will Probably End Up Changing Britain Forever - Vice.  It is interesting that Scotland is a recipient state and also anti-austerity while England is a donor and pro-austerity, while in the U.S. the recipients seem to be pro-austerity and the donors are anit-austerity.  See also, The Anti-austerity economics of the SNP - Pieria

Huckabee's Hucksterism vs. Clintons' Cash - National Journal.  The grifters of Hope, Arkansas.  Some might say Obama is the ultimate grifter of hope.  I'd disagree.

Surveillance planes spotted in the sky for days after West Baltimore riots - Washington Post

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reflections from Uyuni

Reflections from Uyuni from Enrique Pacheco on Vimeo.

If Not From California, Where Will Our Produce Come From

Think Progress has an interesting piece about how our food supply chain would change if California is no longer our fruit, vegetable and nut producer.  It also featured this cool map from Bill Rankin:

Almonds get a lot of the attention when it comes to California’s agriculture and water, but the state is responsible for a dizzying diversity of produce. Eaten a salad recently? Odds are the lettuce, carrots, and celery came from California. Have a soft spot for stone fruit? California produces 84 percent of the country’s fresh peaches and 94 percent of the country’s fresh plums. It produces 99 percent of the artichokes grown in the United States, and 94 percent of the broccoli. As spring begins to creep in, almost half of asparagus will come from California.
“California is running through its water supply because, for complicated historical and climatological reasons, it has taken on the burden of feeding the rest of the country,” Steven Johnson wrote in Medium, pointing out that California’s water problems are actually a national problem — for better or for worse, the trillions of gallons of water California agriculture uses annually is the price we all pay for supermarket produce aisles stocked with fruits and vegetables.
Up to this point, feats of engineering and underground aquifers have made the drought somewhat bearable for California’s farmers. But if dry conditions become the new normal, how much longer can — and should — California’s fields feed the country? And if they can no longer do so, what should the rest of the country do?...
The California Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles between the Sierra Nevadas and the California Coast Range, might be the single most productive tract of land in the world. From its soil springs 230 varieties of crops so diverse that their places of botanical origin range from Southeast Asia to Mexico. It produces two thirds of the nation’s produce, and, like Atlas with an almond on his back, 80 percent of the world’s almonds. If you’ve eaten anything made with canned tomatoes, there’s a 94 percent chance that they were planted and picked in the Central Valley.
Some crops will always be grown in California. The Napa Valley, where a history of earthquakes has resulted in 14 different microclimates perfect for wine, is a truly unique place for growing grapes. The maligned almond is a great crop for California — it needs brief, cold winters and long, dry summers, and produces more value than it uses water, something rare for crops. Realistically, there aren’t many places in the world better suited to growing almonds than California.
But a lot of the things that California produces in such stunning numbers — tomatoes, lettuce, celery, carrots — can be grown elsewhere. Before the 20th century, the majority of produce consumed in the United States came from small farms that grew a relatively diverse number of crops. Fruit and vegetable production was regional, and varieties were dictated by the climate of those areas.
Not only did a lot of produce come from local growers back in the day, but people didn't get most produce out of season unless it came from a can.  Sure, I just might be an outlier (shockingly), but I'm not going to miss most California produce.  Lettuce-I don't eat it. Carrots-don't eat them.  Tomatoes- outside of pizza sauce and barbecue sauce, I don't eat them.  Celery-I don't understand why anybody would eat it.  Peaches-haven't eaten any since I was a kid.  Almonds-I like them, but eat about 20 times more peanuts than almonds (Almonds are expensive).  I've grown sweet corn and potatoes, which cover the vegetables in my diet (Well, there's also onion rings, but I can grow the onions, too).  The article tries to blame row crop subsidies for farmers concentrating on corn and soybeans in the Midwest, but I chalk a lot of it up to laziness (corn and beans are easy to grow), along with loads of cheap labor, perfect weather and, until recently, plentiful water in California.  However the food production system evolves, the future doesn't look like it will be like the recent past.

What Americans Don't Want in a President

Washington Post:

Wow, Walker and Cruz are up there pretty high.  I have to say, no college degree is pretty bad.  Even I have one of those.  I wonder how many people would say they didn't want a douche bag as President.  How many of the candidates would be in the Applies To column for that?  I mean besides Cruz and Walker.  And I didn't realize Perry was that old.  Why would anybody vote for him now, when he couldn't remember which Cabinet departments to get rid of four years ago?

Freedom for Freshwaters

This is strange:
In Stephen King's 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption," the last we saw of fugitive Andy Dufresne, he was enjoying life on the lam fixing up his fishing boat in Mexico.
But for real-life counterpart Frank Freshwaters, an actual Shawshank Prison escapee who spent the past 56 years on the run before being recaptured this week, there won't likely be any tropical sunsets in his final act.
Freshwaters, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter charges stemming from a 1957 automobile accident, initially got probation. But he was sentenced in 1959 to serve up to 20 years at the Ohio State Reformatory, also known as Shawshank State Prison, after a parole violation.
Just as Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, benefited from being a favorite of Shawshank's warden and prison guards, Freshwaters was "quickly able to earn the trust of the prison officials," according to Peter Elliott, the U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, earning the Akron native a transfer to what's called an "honor farm," according to Elliott.
That's when Freshwaters plotted his escape.
But unlike Dufresne, who spent nearly 20 years digging a tunnel with a worn down rock hammer, Freshwaters managed to escape after only seven months. The details of that escape have not been divulged.
For the next 56 years later, Freshwaters lived in various states, held various jobs and had various aliases, according to authorities.
Now 79, in a wheelchair and living under the alias William Harold Cox, Freshwaters was taken into custody Monday at his Melbourne, Florida, mobile home.
He is being held in the Brevard County Jail pending extradition back to Ohio, according to Major Tod Goodyear in Brevard County Sheriff's Office.
Are we really going to throw a 79-year-old who escaped from prison 56 years ago back into jail?  Should we really pay for his lodging and food, along with his health care?  Seems kind of pointless to me.  On a side note, the Ohio State Reformatory served as a movie set for "The Shawshank Redemption," it isn't like that was a name for it outside of a movie.

Bad Chauvinist Ideas - Alberta Election Edition

As 44 years of conservative "governance" comes to an end, a lesson about how not to win the female vote:
Any pretence that the election was about that budget was destroyed on April 21, when Prentice rolled back an unpopular plan to reduce a charitable tax credit. What he didn’t touch were those corporate tax rates, despite the fact that raising corporate taxes remains widely popular. This gave the NDP a real policy stick. The beatings commenced. Two days later, Prentice challenged Notley on those corporate taxes and, after misstating the party’s figures, told the personable, likeable female leader that “math is difficult.”
Like it is for most conservatives in North America, math is difficult for Mr. Prentice.  It just isn't good optics for him to be mansplaining that to a female politician.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Swine-The Magical Animals

Ten thousand years ago in what is now eastern Turkey, humans were settling into villages and starting to produce what humans produce best: garbage. Wild boar, omnivorous and not above scavenging, found this convenient. So the gutsiest among them stuck around the trash heaps even when people were about. Humans killed the most aggressive pigs, leaving the tamest to breed amongst themselves—and thus the domesticated pig was born.
But this would become a human-livestock relationship like no other, argues historian Mark Essig, whose book exploring humanity’s long relationship with swine, Lesser Beasts, is out today. While cows have always been out at pasture, pigs have historically lived right among people, roaming cities and earning themselves an often unpleasant reputation. They’ve become more than just a source of food: They’re a cultural force, a tool religions and cultures use to solidify their own identity—or attack their enemies.
At the very heart of it all is the fact that pigs eat poo. Good for them! Quite frankly, that’s a solid evolutionary move: They won’t find much competition for the stuff. It’s a bad idea, though, if you’re looking to make friends among humans. In the Near East, an area not exactly known for its expansive forests (the pig’s ancestors were used to roaming among trees digging up tubers and hoovering up acorns), early domesticated swine kept to the cities, eating feces and garbage and the occasional human corpse.
Interestingly, their traditional diet is probably why pigs are so damn smart: They can figure out how mirrors work and use them to search for food—oh, and they can play videogames. Being a grazer like a cow requires very little brain power, but being an omnivore requires real smarts to secure your next meal.
So, according to Essig, the pig’s bad habits led certain Near East cultures and religions, including Judaism, to brand it as a pariah. But then the Romans came along—and the Romans really, really liked pork. Essig attributes this to differences in religions and geography. “The Near Eastern religions tend to be focused on purity in a complex theological way that just wasn’t true of the Romans,” he says. “But the other bare fact is that with the Romans, the Italian peninsula is much wetter, so you have oak forests where the pigs can graze.” The Romans let pigs continue this foraging way of life in forests around their great city, then shipped them in to eat. Because pigs weren’t wallowing in the streets, the Romans didn’t brand them as unclean.
 Wait, wait, wait:
" While cows have always been out at pasture, pigs have historically lived right among people, roaming cities and earning themselves an often unpleasant reputation. They’ve become more than just a source of food: They’re a cultural force, a tool religions and cultures use to solidify their own identity—or attack their enemies. At the very heart of it all is the fact that pigs eat poo. Good for them! Quite frankly, that’s a solid evolutionary move: They won’t find much competition for the stuff. It’s a bad idea, though, if you’re looking to make friends among humans."
Seriously?  Has this writer never owned a dog?  Back in that small window of time when my dog was allowed in the house, he wanted out, and when I let him back in he waited about two minutes before barfing up a giant, fresh pile of cow manure right there on my bedroom carpet.  Cleaning up a bunch of dog puke and cow shit isn't something you want to do at 2:30 in the morning, especially when you are getting up for work at 6.  And yet, people love dogs.  Weirdly, in the West, people will eat pigs, who are smarter than dogs (and only slightly more likely than dogs to eat you if you were to be incapacitated around them), but not eat dogs.  As for the religious restrictions against pork, I subscribe to the theory that deaths from trichinosis and other diseases from undercooked pork are the genesis for Jewish and Muslim folks being banned from consuming it.  Dietary restrictions as religion.  I guess that isn't uncommon even in the modern era.  Count me as a fan of swine. I'll probably have to read this book sometime.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Another Crazy Drought Idea

Well Pete, some other people are considering your idea:
As California's four-year drought worsens and water supplies dwindle in the state, an old technology—railroads—could play a role in alleviating some water shortages.
"We certainly have that capability today," said Mike Trevino, a spokesman for privately held BNSF Railway, which operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America. "We carry chlorine, for example. We carry liquefied commodities."

Experts say the East Coast's plentiful water could cost cents per gallon to Californians and provide a stable, potable water supply for small communities. Obstacles include identifying a state willing to share some of its water, and securing the construction funds for key infrastructure work, including terminals that can handle water.
"We've actually spent some time on this and some energy, and there's merit; there's value for railroads to play a role in moving water," said Ed McKechnie, chairman of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
Overall, McKechnie estimates it would cost upwards of $40 million to build the terminals needed to load and unload the water. He bases that figure on the investment for a similar facility to handle oil. McKechnie, who also serves as executive vice president for short-line railroad holding company Watco Companies, said the estimated cost of the water would depend on how much is spent on construction. "It wasn't dollars per gallon," he said. "It was in the cents range per gallon." Bulk water delivered by truck can run under 10 cents per gallon in parts of California's drought-parched Central Valley, but some of those supplies are at risk of drying up. The truck water tanks typically hold around 2,500 gallons, while each railroad tank car carries about 29,000 gallons, and sometimes more.
I don't see that working out.  Pipeline, maybe.  Train, I just can't believe would be cost effective. It would have seemed more cost-effective to prevent 50 million people from moving to the desert.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

NASA Photo of the Day

April 28:

Massive Nearby Spiral Galaxy NGC 2841
Image Credit: Hubble, Subaru; Composition & Copyright: Roberto Colombari
Explanation: It is one of the more massive galaxies known. A mere 46 million light-years distant, spiral galaxy NGC 2841 can be found in the northern constellation of Ursa Major. This sharp view of the gorgeous island universe shows off a striking yellow nucleus and galactic disk. Dust lanes, small, pink star-forming regions, and young blue star clusters are embedded in the patchy, tightly wound spiral arms. In contrast, many other spirals exhibit grand, sweeping arms with large star-forming regions. NGC 2841 has a diameter of over 150,000 light-years, even larger than our own Milky Way and captured by this composite image merging exposures from the orbiting 2.4-meter Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope. X-ray images suggest that resulting winds and stellar explosions create plumes of hot gas extending into a halo around NGC 2841.

Engineers vs. Normal Human Beings

Malcolm Gladwell writes about auto recalls, engineers and non-engineers, including an interview with an engineer from the Ford recall office who handled the Pinto case.  Here is a description of the Toyota sticky accelerator situation:
In the wake of the sticky-pedal problem, customers started complaining that Toyotas were prone to sudden, unintended acceleration. “Whenever someone called in to say, ‘I’ve had an episode of unintended acceleration,’ Toyota would dispatch a team of engineers,” said Roger Martin, a former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a member of the advisory panel that Toyota put together during the crisis. “And they would do a thorough examination of the car and pronounce it fine—because it always was—and assure the owner that everything was going to be fine. They were probably just pressing the accelerator when they thought they were pressing the brake. There wasn’t a problem. Just be more careful next time. And they got more and more complaints.”
The engineers were right. A series of exhaustive investigations by federal regulators, with help from NASA engineers, established that the perception of an electronic failure was almost certainly illusory. The problem was caused either by the fact that some people put in poorly fitted, nonstandard floor mats or by the fact that drivers were pressing the accelerator thinking that it was the brake. (Pedal error, as it is known, is a well-documented source of vehicle malfunction, affecting drivers of many makes and models.) Cars are engineered to be tolerant of pedal error: the driver who depresses the accelerator, thinking it’s the brake, still has the option of simply putting the car in neutral or turning it off. (That’s one of the reasons that cars have gearshifts and ignition switches.) But in the public mind a car that accelerated unexpectedly was broken. The teams of engineers that Toyota sent out didn’t make the problem better. They made it worse.
“The Toyota guy explained this to the panel,” Martin went on. “He said, ‘Here’s our process.’ So I said to him, ‘What do you imagine the people are thinking? They’re shaking like a leaf at the side of the road and after that whole experience they are told, “The car’s fine. Chill out. Don’t make mistakes anymore.” Of course they are not going to be happy. These people are scared. What if instead you sent people out who could be genuinely empathetic? What if you said, “We’re sorry this happened. What we’re worried about is your comfort and your confidence and your safety. We’re going to check your car. If you’re just scared of this car, we’ll take it back and give you another, because your feeling of confidence matters more than anything else.” ’ It was a sort of revelation. He wasn’t a dumb guy. He was an engineer. He only thought about doing things from an engineer’s standpoint. They changed what those teams did, and they started getting love letters from people.”
I have long classified people into two groups, engineers and salesmen.  In this system, engineers like to deal with numbers, and don't really like interacting with people.  Salesmen, on the other hand, love dealing with, and manipulating people, are narrative-based, and generally disregard or don't understand numbers (a third, much scarier category is people who understand numbers, think like an engineer, but deal with people and sell like a salesman. I would probably classify those folks as sociopaths).  It is simplistic and over-generalizing, but if you were to ask my opinion of a person, I would have probably already classified the individual as engineer or salesman (and there is some projection on my part).  Gladwell uses some of the same types of classifications in this article, but instead of salesmen, he looks at politicians (who are generally selling themselves and policies).

The article also touches on the human influences and politics that impact whether recalls are made, or even if some of the issues get brought up for discussion.  This really is a challenge when it comes to quality and rework decisions.  There are a lot of times I get stuck making a decision about whether to correct some imperfection on a product, and those calls can be tough to make sometimes.  When it is about aesthetics, I'm probably not the person to ask, but when it is about safety or function, I'm much better.  However, I often find myself weighing whether the slight risk of failure justifies causing a large amount of rework.  On this, I have a hard time making sure I don't get talked out of my initial judgment, as I weigh the decision.  Luckily, most of the guys on the shop floor know I'm not out to make their lives difficult, and they'll accept the call when they have to fix something.  Overall, engineers do have to make a lot of judgments about acceptable risks, and while they are sometimes wrong, they generally are correct, even if it doesn't seem like it to the rest of society.  Often, when companies make a bad call on safety issues, it is bean-counters or managers overruling engineers because they don't want to address the costs.  Sometimes, it is engineers not understanding human emotions or politics.

The Economics of Mass-Market Events

Yesterday saw two of the largest non-major sporting events going, the Kentucky Derby and the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout.  The money involved is amazing.  For the Kentucky Derby:
The Derby is a bright spot for an industry that’s been declining for years. Betting nationwide has shrunk by a third since 2003, to $10.6 billion last year from a peak of $15.2 billion, according to the Jockey Club, an industry group.
Saturday’s Kentucky Derby already has one guaranteed winner: The company that hosts the storied race will earn about $83 million for a spectacle that lasts a little more than two minutes.
Churchill Downs Inc. has seven casinos and tracks in the U.S., as well as its namesake property in Louisville. Yet the Run for the Roses will produce 30 percent of annual earnings, according to Cameron McKnight, a Wells Fargo Securities analyst. He estimates the race will generate record earnings this year, rising by $5 million, or 6 percent.
To keep profit climbing and entertain the 165,000 or so on hand for racing’s biggest day, Churchill Downs has poured $180 million into the track since 2001. Three years ago, the company opened the Mansion, an area with its own entrance, chefs and 322 seats that average $10,000 each on Derby day. Other additions include a jumbo screen for grandstand fans and 20 finish-line boxes for horse owners....
Tracks like Suffolk Downs, near Boston, and Hollywood Park, in Southern California, have dropped live racing or been razed, and the industry’s biggest players, such as Churchill Downs and Penn National Gaming Inc., have expanded with casinos as the industry has declined.
Slightly more than half of the Derby’s profit comes from premium ticket sales, according to McKnight. TV rights and sponsorships account for 23 percent, while betting is 16 percent. Food and beverages, including 120,000 mint juleps, the race’s signature drink, amount to just 4 percent....
So 30 percent of the company's earnings come from one day's event, even though they have seven facilities [disclosure: I am a Churchill Downs shareholder].  And of that 30 percent, almost half of that comes from the 170,000 people who attend the event.  Meanwhile, in the ring:
Floyd Mayweather won a unanimous decision over Manny Pacquiao in the most lucrative bout in boxing history to remain undefeated at 48-0 and lay claim to being the best pound-for-pound fighter of his generation.
The welterweight fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was expected to draw more than $300 million in revenue, largely from pay-per-view purchases and ticket sales. The fight benefited from almost six years of buildup, as the two camps bickered over drug testing and revenue splits....
Nicknamed “Money,” Mayweather was the world’s highest-paid athlete last year, joining Tiger Woods as the second jock to make more than $100 million in one year. With his cut of the record-setting purse, Mayweather topped $500 million in career earnings. The fighters will share about 60 percent to 70 percent of the estimated $250 million in pay-per-view purchases -- with Mayweather getting about 60 percent of that -- and the rest going to the networks and carriers holding broadcast rights.
Mayweather and Pacquiao also will share about $72 million in gate, an estimated $11 million in sponsorships and at least $35 million in international television rights.
So, approximately 3 million pay-per-view viewers, and 12,000 or so actual attendees will create $300 million in revenue for a handful of beneficiaries, including the two participants.  I don't know whether these numbers only account for viewers in the United States, or whether it includes folks in the Philippines and around the rest of the world.  If it is just the United States, that is less than 1 percent of the population.  From an economic perspective, it is this mass-market profit phenomenon that was first really noticeable in the Gilded Era with the rise of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the various railroad barons that I think makes the progressive income tax necessary.