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Diet Like Its 1993

In the midst of debunking arguments for organic foods, a Missouri farmer points out something recent headlines have missed:

Yes, this summer’s drought, which hammered the production of both organic and conventional foods, has led to a decrease in yields, but it’s worth noting that this year’s disappointing corn yield would have been a record yield just 20 years ago. The worst drought in nearly a century, and a national corn yield that would have been a record in 1993!

Food prices will still rise, since there’s not much slack in demand for corn and the stuff corn is used to make. But the underlying story is one of optimism and abundance. Similar drought conditions starved people in the 1930s. Thanks to advances in all the technology used by agriculture, we can weather the worst weather.

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Drones for the People

The equipment used to make this video (via Guy Kawasaki) probably cost in the low four figures at most. It will only get cheaper. It’s probably only a matter of time before inexpensive video links for flying these devices remotely will be available, if they aren’t already (were the guys who made this video using one? — it looks like they may have been). And all of the equipment will get smaller with time.

That’s Jonathan at Chicago Boyz.

The Value of Wisdom

Dan from Madison shares this video of “How to fold a suit”:

Lexington Green comments:

He makes it look easy. I always respect and admire practical, physical skills like this. Once the whole economy was composed of people who each knew hundreds of tricks of the trade.

Industrialization, specialization, and the division of labor into ever-smaller tasks enables each worker to produce more for his efforts. It allowed us to get off the farms and amass the wealth that enabled us to reach the moon.

The flip side of specialization is that nobody knows how to make an entire thing themselves. Each only knows a step in the production process, worthless without others doing all the other steps.

The Unicorn with Ten Thousand Horns

Rush Limbaugh is still fighting the Cold War:

The Associated Press is reporting that Obama could cut our nuclear weapons arsenal by 80%. That is just staggering. This would amount to unilateral disarmament. Three hundred nuclear weapons would take us back to levels not seen since 1950. If we cut our nuclear weapons down to 300, Russia will have five times, 1,550 nuclear warheads. If we reduce to 300, we will have fewer nuclear warheads than the ChiComs. The only thing you could say in response to this, "Well, Rush, we don't have anything to fear from the Russians or the Chinese or anybody in the Middle East." No, of course we don't. The last time we had 300 warheads was in the fifties and that's when we were making them as fast as our technology and materials would permit us to make 'em. We weren't stopping at 300.

300 warheads is not disarmament. It is 300 warheads. Nowhere in his rant did Limbaugh consider how many are necessary, or even sustainable:

During the Cold War, the United States, in an effort to achieve and maintain an advantage in the nuclear arms race, invested large amounts of money and technical resources into nuclear weapons design, testing, and maintenance. Many of the weapons designed required high upkeep costs, justified primarily by their Cold War context and the specific and technically sophisticated applications they were created for.

Limbaugh must think the Defense Department has its own herd of unicorns that can fart fissile material:

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Trade Will Find a Way

With the Arab Spring devolving into an even more unstable Arab summer, European trade may be cut off from South and East Asia. Increasingly anti-Western Egypt controls the primary route, via the Suez Canal.

Instead of falling back to caravans of camels, Israel is considering a rail link:

Turn This Ship Around

CVN-76 nuclear carrier listing to port under hard rudder at full speed

The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) under full rudder at speed. She is 1,092 feet long, her deck is 252 feet wide, and she weighs 101,400 tons.

If you zoom waaay in, you can see Ron Paul at the helm.

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Nuts on Nets

The Internet’s full of small, vindictive, unbalanced, and ugly people who don’t have the slightest qualms about using any and every tactic imaginable to go after people who irritate them.

Quoted from: John Hawkins

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Magdeburg Water Bridge

Barge canal carried by aqueduct over Elbe River

Yes, that is a shipping canal crossing over a river.

Infrastructure is cool.

H/T: Theo Spark

Greens Must Hate Birds

Capitalists Cross Final Frontier

The Enterprise, from Star Trek, was a government vessel. In the 1960s it would have been fantasy to think a privately-owned company could boldly go where no man had gone before.

Fifty years later, it isn’t a fantasy. I’m acquainted with Virgin Galactic. But that’s more an vertically-oriented amusement park ride than a serious industry. Enter SpaceX:

SpaceX was founded in June 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk who had invested US$100 million of his own money by March 2006. On August 4, 2008, SpaceX accepted a further US$20 million investment from the Founders Fund.

SpaceX has nearly doubled in size every year since it was founded in 2002. It grew from 160 employees in November 2005 to more than 500 by July 2008, to over 1100 in 2010.

Poisoning Public Transport

I’ve seen several headlines about two Delta Airlines employees ambushed by a gang of teens while riding Atlanta’s commuter rail.

Borepatch, an expert in computer security, sees the incident in those terms:

Security types call this a "Resource Poisoning" attack, where something that was previously valued and trusted becomes worthless because of abuse.

Crime need not be actualized for resource poisoning to occur. If the environment feels unsafe, people choose not to take the trip.

Minneapolis Riverfront in the Days of Disco

The now-demolished Great Northern Depot in downtown Minneapolis could inspire many posts on railroads, how changes in transportation technology changed the role of railroads, and how that allowed planners to re-purpose land at the core of cities, specifically Minneapolis, since this depot stood at the gateway to Northeast Minneapolis. Those changes were driven by economics and politics.

But I’m not ready to launch into any of those. I just happened across an archive of photos of the Great Northern Depot from the 1970s. It was one of those times where I was following the intertracks without a destination in mind, and found a treasure. For railfans and history buffs, at least.

Mainstream preservationists and historians—if that’s not an oxymoron—seem mostly interested in façades. I’m more fascinated to understand how the buildings worked.

1978 view beside Post Office looking upriver toward GN Depot

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Nazi Technology

German engineering is not always brilliant. I can imagine this “Rail Zeppelin” was a work of machining art. But a giant propeller whirring right beside passenger platforms did present a safety challenge.

Propeller-driven railcar beside passenger platform

The Wired Magazine article on this one-off wonder makes an interesting point:

The concept and execution of Schienenzeppelin (“Rail Zeppelin”) predated the Nazis by years. Like quantum physics, Bauhaus architecture and Marlene Dietrich, it was a product of the Weimar Republic. All the Nazis contributed was the loco’s eventual dismantling to turn its aluminum into Messerschmitts.

Nazis get more credit than they deserve for technological advancements. They were the first to field jet fighters and guided missiles. They produced motor fuels (gasoline and diesel) from coal. The Allied powers were concerned about their potential development of nuclear weapons. But all those were applications of ideas already exisiting when the Nazis gained control.

Nuclear Disaster in Marhsall Terrace

A couple of years ago, the Riverside Power Plant in the 55418 was converted from coal fuel to natural gas. It had burned coal and coated the Marshall Terrace neighborhood with ash and dust for the previous eight decades.

It never made headlines as a radiation hazard. But it was:

In a 1978 paper for Science, J. P. McBride at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and his colleagues looked at the uranium and thorium content of fly ash from coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and Alabama. To answer the question of just how harmful leaching could be, the scientists estimated radiation exposure around the coal plants and compared it with exposure levels around boiling-water reactor and pressurized-water nuclear power plants.

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Godzilla in Pinstripes

The headlines appear obsessed with panic about radiaton. That danger has largely passed. Although, there is no such thing as “safe”. There is always risk. And Big Media plays into ignorance and panic.

First, the good news.  The second plant, containing four reactors about a dozen or so kilometers from the one that has been the subject of all the reporting, has reached cold shutdown on all four reactors.  The destroyed pump motors (from the tsunami) were replaced and the plant is stable.  That part of the story, barring some sort of new issue, is over.  Note that a couple of days ago this plant was on the verge of a full-scale disaster.

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Seeing In Darkness

Traffic has been light here on NRR. As part of my personal experiments for the New Year, I decided to abstain from Big Media news. I still see most of the headlines, but I do not know the stories being told.

(Also, I have been blessed with a rush of real, billable work in the meat world, leaving little time for pithy observations and therapeutic snark.)

There have been big events which I would have been following closely. The political poker game in Wisconsin appears to confirm my view of an upcoming period of violent upheaval as those accustomed to political favors throw tantrums when confronted by economic reality.

The upheavals across the Arab world are exciting. The current President is showing incompetence in a new arena. Or, more generously, real politics are so much more complex than campaign politics.

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Reactionary Radio

Perhaps it is an example of Yin and Yang chasing each other around the wheel of life. Those who successfully speak truth to power become power. What was once novel and avant-garde is accepted as status quo.

Cobb spews a bit about NPR’s evolution toward irrelevance:

By the time NPR fired Juan Williams, I was too through with them and really expected nothing more. But you can't stay mad forever. So I have found myself turning back, begrudgingly. It's rather a different beast. Now there are commercials all the time, and there are a bunch of names I don't recognize reporting, only showing how strange it is to realize that NPR is essentially about 30 people. And even what they do is getting, well. How can I say it? NPR just can't compete with some really good podcasts - they just don't geek out enough. NPR is about flavor and style. It's not cutting edge anything. It's just like HBO. I don't mean to say that it has the amoral in-your-face-ness that was HBO when I stopped watching several years ago, but that it has become something of a parody of itself having become predictable and no longer being the best at what they do.

Somewhere—probably via Robert Anton Wilson—I recall a theory that information is that which you cannot predict.

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Robots Displacing Clerks

In economic theory, labor combines with capital to produce goods. In normal language, that means people work with machines to make stuff.

Labor and capital (people and machines) can be subsituted for each other. If the backhoe breaks, we can dig holes by hand. Or, if hiring workers becomes too costly, someone will develop machinery to do the job:

Automation — long a force in agriculture and manufacturing — is accelerating in the retail sector, a trend that could hamper efforts to bring down the nation's stubbornly high jobless rate.

Newsprint Kills Newspapers

From a lengthy—but worthwhile—London Review of Books story about the newspaper business:

in the US, the newspaper business is a local one, with a strong tendency towards de facto monopoly. Most of America’s cities have (or had) a dominant newspaper, and that paper had a monopoly of classified advertising. During the long years of the 20th century’s newspaper boom, that monopoly was the proverbial licence to print money.

Economic theory holds that there are very, very few sustainable monopolies. Without government protection from competition through licensing and regulation, human nature will produce either competition for the monopolist’s profits, or technology which makes the monopolist‘s business model obsolete.

The internet is the package of technologies which killed print newspapers. Not the desire for news, but abilty to print money by publishing news:

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IT Knows

The privacy you're concerned about is largely an illusion.

Quoted from: Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corporation.

===

And a two-line corollary from Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems:

You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

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