Reading Blog: September 2022
Is it September already? 🍂
Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made (Elaine Kub; 2012 edition)
A post on Hacker News pushed me to impulse-buy this book. It turns out this isn’t the most recent edition, and you can find PDFs online.
Early in the Ukraine conflict, $WEAT and commodity market trades drew snark from progressive farm Twitter:
I live in Chicago and have walked past the Mercantile Exchange. Farm loans are also a basic component of civilization, to the point that salam contracts get special rules in Islamic finance. So I ought to know more.
This book cleared up my confusion and general distrust in treating food as a financial system. For long-term investment, the S&P 500 is consistently better than holding a basket of grain prices. ‘Mastering’ grain commodities involves taking long and short positions, and using arbitrage to predict one region or variety will succeed over another. With access to grain elevators, savvy resellers can blend low-quality grain into more valuable grain — making a product for a specific buyer (flour, animal feed, and ethanol have different acceptance criteria). A large section focuses on how to pair up a meaningful arbitrage position and budget for shipping. A reader senses that Kub has met many people who attempt to trade without rhyme or reason.
Given the patchwork of competitive prices across the country and calendar, futures exchanges will store grain in their region (for Chicago wheat, locations along the Illinois River). Futures trading occurs on paper and 99% are sold without a trader taking delivery (my #1 fear). There are some points about leverage and potential for major losses in options trading.
Corn, soybeans, and wheat are the most active markets. Kub notes that oats are being traded by large suppliers and smaller grains are grown on contract, so there would be little point to participating as an outsider.
A final chapter describes each of the main crops, what farmers and elevators are typically doing in each month. This all seems like more vital info, stowed later in the book because it is less about trading.
There’s also an aside against organic farming, mentioning previous read Starved for Science.
A recent video on wheat for King Arthur flour. Is it weird that both King Arthur and Bob’s Red Mill are employee-owned?
Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Jeffrey A. Lockwood, 2004)
Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other American pioneer stories know that the West was home to swarms of passenger pigeons and locusts.
Lockwood, an entomologist, starts with horrifying first-person accounts of a record-breaking 1875 swarm. Americans who traveled west risked their lives, but the rocky mountain locust became known for ruining homesteaders even after they had made it through. The bugs would contaminate water supplies and the chickens feeding on them became ‘inedible’.
Farmers devised labor-intensive methods to kill eggs and nymphs.
Shifts to ranching and from wheat to corn arguably shaped western farms today. It also tested settlers’ religious beliefs and psyches, with some believing locusts would sweep the whole country. State governments responded with financial relief and conscription.
About 1/3 of the way into the book, Lockwood shifts to a biography of the men who formed the US Entomological Commission. Riley, the lead and most famed scientist of the group, could charm politicians and had several high-profile assignments to stop crop infestations in California and France. Yet people who actually had to work with him consistently would say he was “a restless, ambitious man, a great schemer, and striving constantly to make his work appear more important.” The other two scientists of the Commission had winding, polymath backgrounds leading them to entomology. This was also the era of fierce debate over Darwin’s Origin of Species; Riley met Darwin and another member would write a biography of Lamarck.
The Commission found that much conventional wisdom was wrong. Many of the deterrence and eradication methods were not working. Untrained farmers across the country thought that their local grasshoppers were part locusts, or that they could be treated like Middle Eastern locusts, or that nymphs were led by kings and queens. In their report, the group recommended a few standards, and included desperate measures such as finding better ways to cook locusts, or carving large barren sections into the Great Plains.
Swarms would dwindle in the 1890s with the last live specimen getting collected in 1902. This contributed to the Commission being seen as a scientific success, though likely it was caused by ranches and animal feed farming disrupting a small origin territory (yet unknown) where the locusts were based during non-swarm years. When multiple species of grasshopper were discovered to be one species with polyphenic phases, this rattled the scientific community and convinced entomologists that rocky mountain locusts were hiding among us in their non-swarm phase. The public believed that any grasshopper was a locust, too, so it was years before academics could talk more openly about extinction, with the USDA becoming convinced in the 1950s.
The final chunk of the book covers the author and other researchers hiking difficult terrain to melting ‘grasshopper glaciers’, collecting the last of these preserved locust bodies. It’s interesting that he anticipated the benefit of this work in the 1980s and ’90s when it was less possible to get results from preserved proteins or DNA.
In the final paragraph, Lockwood strongly hints that he caught live rocky mountain locusts in Yellowstone and let them go. I haven’t seen anyone discussing this on GoodReads and it’s all I can think about???
- Locusts and cicadas are distinguishable things. Locusts are a polyphenic phase of grasshoppers.
- The IUCN formally declared the rocky mountain locust extinct just recently in 2014
- Native Americans would harvest locusts from Great Salt Lake, and some of the glaciers indicate swarms have existed for centuries, but it’s still unclear how Native Americans’ fires, the first wave of European diseases, bison hunts, the passenger pigeon, etc. all interacted to make locust swarms so frequent in the mid-1800s.
- ‘bulldozer’ comes from a term for plantation overseers, and later mobs which beat Black voters
- Grasshopper Chapel in Minnesota: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assumption_Chapel
UFOs Over Malaysia & Southeast Asia: An Islamic Perspective of a Global Enigma (Ahmad Jamaludin and Robert Bartholomew, 2022)
I was looking up books on Malaysia (ended up getting A Continent Erupts) and found this 90-page report on alien encounters. The book is effectively lists of reported sightings, broken down by seeing a UFO, seeing an alien, and then topics of local interest.
It’s neat to see reports outside of the American cultural umbrella, and the book acknowledges that regional differences raise questions about what the phenomena is. Their UFOs are quite similar (saucers, cigar shapes, bright lights), also start in the 1950s, and can only sometimes be explained by weather balloons and air force flights.
When aliens are spotted in Malaysia, they tend to be tiny (6 inches tall) and more humanoid than the greys of Roswell 👽 or monsters of Alien. There are multiple reports from the early 1970s of schoolboys spotting small UFOs and trying to capture their tiny pilots, often ending with a boy getting shot and fainting, leaving a small red mark. There were only one or two reports here where an adult corroborated the sighting. Schools and police were more likely to blame the kids for being somewhere they weren’t supposed to be.
Malay folklore includes many beings, and two chapters of these sightings do not involve UFOs. Fairies are described wearing Malay clothes, or living in the ground. When people go missing (one man vanishing in front of his wife), they may return with a story of human-like bunians guiding them to a pleasant forest village. There is a military base where occasionally a soldier disappeared in the forest, and lost days of perceived time to bunians. I agree that the stories are similar to alien abductions.
Bunians had a boom in 1982, and the book does not list any recent sightings.
Jamaludin says these encounters are only reported by ethnically Malay people in rural areas, and connects it to ‘hysteria of Malay women’— yikes. Though there is sociological research in this space:
The Unsolved Mysteries of South-east Asia Podcast: Kelantan's screaming schoolgirls
We revisit the spate of mass hysteria in Malaysia's north-eastern state of Kelantan to find out why the disorder is…
The description of jinn in the Koran and Islamic sources can be interpreted as a scriptural basis that life exists on other planets and has visited Earth. In the podcast, jinn are described more akin to demons which possess a person or animal. [I know nothing on this topic]. It wasn’t clear if any witness believed that their UFO or alien was a jinn, so the book did not seem focused on an Islamic perspective over collecting interesting sightings.
Note: when I was a kid, there was a short wall separating the school playground from a graveyard, and two girls in the class claimed to have met tiny people there. <X-files tones>.
Updates to Previous Reads
- Re: Separate, I just read about Viola Desmond, an entrepreneur who was arrested in 1946 for challenging segregation policies in Nova Scotia.
- Re: Smashing Statues, Chicago’s monument commission made a report after two years. Several statues in my neighborhood may stay in place with additional context. Others across the city will be removed or kept in storage. A particularly challenging area is the DuSable / Michigan Avenue bridge:
Several reliefs on DuSable Bridge — “The Defense,” “The Pioneers,” “Discoverers” and “Regeneration” — are also problematic and should be taken down, according to the report. But that will be difficult since the reliefs are attached to the bridge house and are part of a landmark; while the issue is studied, the city could host “powerful, non-physical and possibly periodic deactivation or disruption of these works,” according to the report.
‘Deactivate’ and ‘disrupt’ are not mentioned elsewhere in the report, so it’s unclear what we’re talking about (draping over the statue, nighttime project?). I had a brief conversation with the author of Smashing Statues on what might be coming.
The City will set aside $50,000 for eight new works, which may prioritize the Mother Jones, Angela Bambace, Kitihawa, Mahalia Jackson, Margaret Burroughs, and a whole category of “stories of Natives by Natives”.