Saturday, May 16, 2015

Conrad and The Steamplant

Conrad and The Steamplant from Dustin Cohen on Vimeo.

More information:
Conrad Milster, Pratt Institute’s chief engineer, has worked in the Brooklyn power plant nearly his entire adult life. Starting as a mechanic in 1958, he later became one of only four chief engineers in the plant’s 127-year history, taking over the official duties in 1965. He’s been there ever since.
For the last six decades, Milster (now 79 years old) has lovingly maintained the nineteenth century steam engines that provide heat and hot water to Pratt’s campus. “We have our hands full,” says Milster. “If the plant stops in the winter, Pratt stops.”
In addition, Conrad is the person behind the infamous “Pratt Cats,” responsible for the 12-14 felines that wander the campus and call the steam plant home.
An important figure in Pratt’s history, Milster has extended his impact on the Pratt community through a generous gift—the Phyllis and Conrad Milster Endowed Scholarship—that provides scholarships in perpetuity to students in Pratt’s Industrial Design program. The scholarship is named for Milster and his late wife, Phyllis, who passed away in 2011.

Midwest Land Prices Weaken

From the Chicago Fed's AgLetter:

For the first quarter of 2015, farmland values in the Seventh Federal Reserve District were unchanged from a year ago, but this result masked substantial variation among District states. There was an increase of 1 percent in “good” farmland values in the first quarter of 2015 relative to the fourth quarter of 2014, based on the survey responses of 234 District agricultural bankers. Strikingly, cash rental rates for District agricultural land were down 8 percent for 2015 compared with 2014. This decline provided some relief in rental costs for farmers facing much lower crop prices than in recent years. Demand to purchase farmland was weaker in the three- to six-month period ending with March 2015 compared with the same period ending with March 2014. Moreover, the amount of farmland for sale, the number of farms sold, and the amount of acreage sold were all lower during the winter and early spring of 2015 compared with a year ago. Just over half of the responding bankers expected farmland values to be stable during the second quarter of 2015, but nearly all of the rest expected farmland values to head lower...
Agricultural land values in the District managed to gain 1 percent in the first quarter of 2015 relative to the fourth quarter of 2014. There was no year-over-year change in farmland values for the District as a whole in the first quarter of 2015—in contrast to the slight decrease at the end of 2014. However, after adjusting for inflation using the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (PCEPI), there was indeed a year-over-year decrease of 1 percent for District farmland values in the first quarter of 2015.

It's always bad when comparisons can be made to the early Eighties when it comes to agriculture, as that middle graph could be interpreted.  Hopefully, things don't get that bad.

Iowa Egg Farms Decimated by Bird Flu

 Image from Reuters

New York Times:
Iowa, where one in every five eggs consumed in the country is laid, has been the hardest hit: More than 40 percent of its egg-laying hens are dead or dying. Many are in this region, where barns house up to half a million birds in cages stacked to the rafters. The high density of these egg farms helps to explain why the flu, which can kill 90 percent or more of a flock within 48 hours, is decimating more birds in Iowa than in other states.
And the numbers are also staggeringly high because farmers like Mr. Dean are required to euthanize (with carbon dioxide gas or foam) all the flocks on a farm even if only a few barns are infected. Center Fresh, for example, was able to contain the infection to just two of its barns, but all of its hens must be destroyed as a precautionary measure.
“It’s far too soon to know how significant the impact will be, but I know it will be significant,” Mr. Dean said in an interview at the Sioux Country Livestock Company, a restaurant on Main Street that serves as a local meeting place. Culling the flocks and decontaminating the barns could take months, he said, adding that it could be two years or more before Center Fresh recovers.
Some hens here were still laying eggs in barns that had yet to be emptied — and those eggs were being sold as a liquid product after undergoing a federally required extra pasteurization step....
Known as “chicken central,” Sioux County ranks 13th in the country in the amount of revenue generated by agriculture, about $1.6 billion in 2012, after counties producing high-value fruit, vegetable and nut crops in California, Colorado and Washington State.
The losses also affect a wide range of support businesses, ranging from bank lenders and insurers to trucking operations, feed mills and farmers. “It’s devastating to the producers and devastating to this whole area,” said Mark Sybesma, chairman of the Sioux County Board of Supervisors.
After the egg producers themselves, the business most immediately hit by the crisis is that of breeding the chicks and pullets that become laying hens. Center Fresh, for instance, buys several hundred thousand chicks a month.
Those companies have carefully timed production schedules and must find new buyers for their birds quickly or be forced to euthanize their own live inventory.
This outbreak highlights one of the dangers of relying a heavily concentrated livestock sector in a small geographic area.  If this bird flu were to hit the layer flocks in Mercer and Darke County, Ohio and surrounding areas in eastern Indiana, we would have the three largest egg-laying states nearly wiped out. Much like in Sioux County, egg production in Ohio is heavily concentrated in these two counties.  The infrastructure supporting these operations would be badly damaged by the impact.  Hopefully the disease will soon be contained, but large-scale agriculture can take some lessons from this very damaging outbreak.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gay Talese's Address Book

Mid-May Mid-Week Links

Well, I saw some interesting stories already, and I might be busy the next couple of days:

Yogi Berra turns 90: Some of his best quotes - LA Times.  Allegedly his quotes.

Big League Chew: An Oral History - Fox Sports

The hour of the NBA goon is nigh - SBNation.  Bill Laimbeer was ahead of his time.

After Protests, Baltimore Hosts Preakness - Washington Post

Rocky Road - Texas Monthly.  Hard times for Blue Bell Creamery.

The Wedding Sting - The Atlantic

The Spider Web Engineer - priceonomics

The Sort-Of-Great Escape - Cincinnati Magazine

Vinyl's Comeback Keeps Record Pressers Busy - Morning Edition.  Like cooperages, a fad resurrects a dying trade.

Twitter Riles Irish Catholics as Companies Favorite Gay Vote - Bloomberg.  Also, see Tully: For Indiana, the damage done by RFRA continues - Indianapolis Star.  It appears that business is also conducting a war on Christians (or bigots).

Lotteries: America's $70 Billion Shame - The Atlantic

Maersk, DSME Reach Agreement in Principle on Container Megaship Order - Wall Street Journal

Crisis Chronicles: The Man on the Twenty-Dollar Bill and the Panic of 1837 - Liberty Street Economics

It's not just California: the whole Southwest is facing a growing water crisis - Vox

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Plant By The Almanac? No, Thanks.

Ohio Country Journal:
At the office, we consulted multiple farmer’s almanacs this spring to identify the best days to plant corn. In general, according to almanac wisdom of old, it is best to try and plant corn in the first quarter following the new moon. In both April and May, the new moon phase starts on the 18th. The very best dates are after the first quarter, which starts on the 25th of both months. Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces are considered the best Zodiac signs for planting.
With all of this in mind, we came up with a list of the best days to plant with input from Blum’s Farmer’s and Planter’s Almanac, Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac. For planting corn in Ohio, the best days are April 19, 20 and 23 though 25 and May 21, 22, and 28 through 31.
Scott Labig, who farms in Darke County, looks at the field conditions, soil temperatures, and carefully tracks the weather forecast like every farmer during planting season. He also considers the phase of the moon in his planting decisions.
“I think it does have some merit,” he said. “In February or March I dig the almanac out of the nightstand and start looking at the dates for the windows we need to plant in. This year the key planting dates are more limited than what they have been in the past.”
Then, if all the other factors for planting are right, Labig tries to get as much corn in the ground as possible during the windows of optimal planting according to the almanac.
“We are right in an optimum period right now and we are missing it around here,” Labig said. “Usually when I get started rolling I don’t stop, especially if I’m in that window. I really try to go on that day to get that corn in if I can and slow up or stop when I get way outside that window. But if I am outside of that window, it is hard to sit idle and watch the neighbors farming around me.”
Along with telling farmers which days to plant, the moon phase also offers advice on when not to plant — the last quarter. In both April and May this year those dates are the 11th through the 17th. Labig said that he has noticed that planting by the phase of the moon does translate in some positive realities in his fields.
“Last year I planted into Mother’s Day weekend. That was the worst corn I had and it was outside of the window,” he said. “I don’t know that I see it so much in the yields, but I have seen differences in the emergence. Years ago Dad asked me why I thought some fields we planted would emerge so much better than others. That is when I started buying the almanac.”
As an experiment this planting season, we are going to keep track of planting progress around Ohio and the country and take note of the percentage that falls into the optimum planting windows (and the not so optimum windows) according to the moon phases in the almanacs. At the end of the season we will make a 2015 corn yield estimate based on what we find, then see how planting by the moon phase translates into a final yield at the end of the season.
Can anybody give me any non-magical explanation of why the phase of the moon would have any impact on plant growth? I might as well check my horoscope to see if it is going to be a good day or a bad day. I hope everything goes well for the guy who tries to wait until the moon phase is right to get his corn planted.  However, I have enough trouble deciding whether the bad spots are bad enough that I shouldn't plant, or whether the weather forecast is reliable enough that I probably should go ahead and settle for not-quite-good conditions.  Worrying that nice weather and fit soil happens to fall on or after the full moon doesn't seem wise to me.

I hear all the talk about favorable planting dates every year, but I can only remember one time when somebody attributed moon phase to poor yields.  That was 1996.  The weather was awful that spring.  I graduated from college on May 19, and corn planting finally broke loose on the 20th.  After about 3 or 4 days of planting, rain returned.  Soil conditions were extremely marginal on the first of June, but there was more rain in the forecast.  Everybody hit the fields and put as much corn in the ground as they could.  The first also happened to be a full moon.  On the second, it rained some more.  I'm not sure when anybody was able to get into the fields again, but I' guessing it was around June 12. By that time, dad and grandpa decided to switch their remaining corn acres to beans.  I believe they only planted about 70 percent of their intended corn acreage. I believe they finished planting on June 23rd, which is about three weeks later than normal.  June 1 may have been the latest we've ever planted corn, although I'm not sure of that.  I'm pretty sure the fields planted on June 1 also had cutworm damage.  So we had terrible planting conditions, very late-planted corn, terrible weather after that corn was planted and insect damage.  At the end of the season when everything was harvested, all the corn was disappointing, but the corn planted on June 1 was the worst-yielding.  And somebody said, "well, there was a full moon on June 1, and you aren't supposed to plant corn under a full moon (even though this article says don't plant in the fourth quarter)."  Personally, I'll cut the moon some slack for that year, and just leave the poor corn yields for corn planted on June 1 to all the other negative factors present. 

Don't get me wrong.  I buy an almanac almost every year, and I'll flip through it once in a while, consult the weather forecast for shits and giggles, and just read parts of it for entertainment.  But deciding when to plant, or when to set fence posts (in the dark of the moon, according to a former co-worker [according to him, the moon's gravitational pull when full would pull the posts out of the ground, or some such nonsense {I would think high or low tide would be more significant since the moon moves oceans then}]) will not be determined by the almanac.  I will be interested to see if the folks at Ohio Country Journal find any statistical link between corn yield and moon phase.  I'll wager they don't.

And The Long Canadian National Nightmare Continues

Tampa Bay 4 - Montreal 1.  Lord Stanley's Cup will only be visiting the motherland with Canadian natives from a States-based team for yet another year.

Organized Religion in Decline

Pew Research Center:
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men. (Explore the data with our interactive database tool.)
To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.1 But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.
So the non-religious and the non-Christians outnumber Evangelical Protestants?  Catholics and Mainline Protestants continue to bleed membership.  Well, based on bills pending throughout Republican America, I can assume this is because Christians are under attack by Godless liberals and teh ghays.  Or it could be because of Republican America and all their bills pending.  Liberal blogs always make jokes during Presidential campaigns about how any Republican gaffes are actually "good news for Republicans,"  but these numbers have to be considered bad news for Republicans, except amongst the innumerate.  Let's consider the groups Republicans traditionally do well with: rural folks, whites, the rich, the middle class, religious people, married people and the elderly.  As a percentage of the population, rural folks, whites, the rich, the middle class, religious people and married people are all shrinking, and while the elderly are increasing as percentage of the population, their support for Republicans and their likelihood of dying are directly proportional.  However, the one major factor benefiting Republicans is that the groups listed above are also the most likely to vote.  If the folks in the growing demographics voted at the same rate as the Republican-leaning population, Republicans would be on the Endangered Species list (but would probably still be politicking to abolish it).  The one thing going for Republicans amongst population subsets with increasing numbers is that their support amongst these groups can only increase.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Jukebox Doctor

Bourbon Makers Need Barrels Badly

 Oak barrels at the Brown-Forman Cooperage are ignited to char them on the inside, a process that colors and flavors whiskey and bourbon. The barrels, which are used entirely for Brown-Forman’s own spirits production, will eventually contain bourbon brands such as Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Early Times. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal:
In 50 years of making bourbon barrels, no one had ever offered Leroy McGinnis more than what he charged for them. But over the past six months, multiple distillers have offered to pay him $250 a barrel—a 70% premium above the $150 list price.
The offer illustrates just how scarce bourbon barrels have become. As bourbon sales have soared, both barrel production and the lumber industry have struggled to keep up.
Mr. McGinnis’s Missouri-based company, McGinnis Wood Products Inc., gets about four email requests a day for barrels. He turns most down. Like many of his competitors, he has only enough capacity and wood to fill orders from longtime customers. The rest go on a waiting list, perpetuating a bourbon barrel shortage now entering its third year.
“There’s never been nothing like there is today, and I don’t see it letting up,” said Mr. McGinnis, whose Cuba, Mo., company will sell 150,000 bourbon barrels this year.
The shortage reflects a supply-chain conundrum. Upstream, barrel makers face a wave of demand because a half dozen established bourbon distilleries and 300 new, craft distilleries are increasing production amid a bourbon boom. Downstream, they face a shortage of white oak wood used in barrels because the lumber industry hasn’t rebounded from the housing market’s collapse.
Bourbon barrel making is nearly as complicated as bourbon making itself. Bourbon is aged a minimum of two years in new barrels made of white oak. (The barrels are never reused for bourbon, but Scotch and tequila is sometimes aged in old bourbon barrels.) Cooperages, which are what the barrel makers are called, fit oak planks known as staves together like puzzle pieces, encircle them with metal hoops, and ignite them with fire to create a char inside to color and flavor whiskey.
The whole article is worth reading.  It highlights an extremely small niche market that got hit by the fickle nature of consumer demand.  Check out all the photos, they are a fascinating view into a nearly dead trade which has seen a massive renaissance.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

NASA Photo of the Day

May 4:

An Unexpected Aurora over Norway
Image Credit & Copyright: Tommy Richardsen
Explanation: Sometimes the sky lights up unexpectedly. A trip to northern Norway to photograph auroras was not going as well as hoped. It was now past midnight in Steinsvik, Troms, in northern Norway, and the date was 2014 February 8. Despite recent activity on the Sun, the skies were disappointing. Therefore, the astrophotographer began packing up to go. His brother began searching for a missing lens cap. When the sky suddenly exploded with spectacular aurora. Reacting quickly, a sequence detailing dramatic green curtains was captured, with the bright Moon near the image center, and the lens-cap seeking brother on the far right. The auroral flare lasted only a few minutes, but the memory of this event, the photographer speculates, will last much longer.