Home > Today > Today 28/08/2010 and a bit of Yesterday 27/08/2010

Today 28/08/2010 and a bit of Yesterday 27/08/2010

Russia’s heat-wave and resultant drought and wildfires and Pakistan’s flooding have led to fears about world food security resurfacing:

The Coming Food Crisis points out that

This year, bumper crops in the United States, alongside replenished wheat stocks globally, may be adequate to offset shortages due to the fires in Russia. But these short-term measures should not lull us into complacency or a false sense of confidence. We still have neither a strategy nor a solution to ending global hunger.

It also calls for more western world action, from increased and improved agriculture assistance to ensuring “open and well-regulated agricultural markets. Farm subsidies and tariffs in rich countries must be reduced and commodity markets made more transparent.” Last but not least it calls for greater action to confront climate change.

How to feed the world and The miracle of the cerrado: argue against “agro-pessimism” and Malthusian arguments about impending worldwide starvation. It points out that in four decades, Brazil “has become the first tropical agricultural giant and the first to challenge the dominance of the ‘big five’ food exporters (America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union).”

A year after “The Limits to Growth” appeared, however, and at a time when soaring oil prices seemed to confirm the Club of Rome’s worst fears, a country which was then a large net food importer decided to change the way it farmed. Driven partly by fear that it would not be able to import enough food, it decided to expand domestic production through scientific research, not subsidies. Instead of trying to protect farmers from international competition—as much of the world still does—it opened up to trade and let inefficient farms go to the wall. This was all the more remarkable because most of the country was then regarded as unfit for agricultural production.

This has been achieved in a manner that is the opposite of agro-pessimists’ prescription:

For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

Westerners vs. the World: We are the WEIRD ones: A paper which is “shaking up the fields of psychology, cognitive science and behavioural economics” questions “whether we can know anything about humanity in general if we only study a “truly unusual group of people”- the privileged products of Western industrial societies, who just happen to make up the vast majority of behavioural science test subjects.” It argues that:

life-long members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic — people who are WEIRD — see the world in ways that are alien from the rest of the human family. The UBC trio have come to the controversial conclusion that, say, the Machiguenga are not psychological outliers among humanity. We are.

It would be best for me to post everything here, but then that would be wrong, so I’ll highlight a bit I found confusing. It says:

Others punish participants perceived as too altruistic in co-operation games, but very few in the English-speaking West would ever dream of penalizing the generous.

But this study points out that selflessness is punished by supposedly WEIRD subjects:

After the game was over, the participants were asked which of the other players they would be willing to have another round with. As the researchers expected, they were unwilling to play again with the selfish. Dr Parks and Dr Stone did not, however, expect the other result—that participants were equally unwilling to carry on with the selfless.

Follow-up versions of the study showed that this antipathy was not because of a sense that the selfless person was incompetent or unpredictable—two kinds of people psychologists know are disliked in this sort of game. So the researchers organised a fourth experiment. This time, once the game was over, they asked the participants a series of questions designed to elucidate their attitudes to the selfless “player”.

Most of the responses fell into two categories: “If you give a lot, you should use a lot,” and “He makes us all look bad.” In other words, people were valuing their own reputations in the eyes of the other players as much as the practical gain from the game, and felt that in comparison with the selfless individual they were being found wanting. Too much virtue was thus seen as a vice. Perhaps that explains why so many saints end up as martyrs. They are simply too irritating.

A bird in the hand can make a lot of sense: is a takedown of behavioural studies by John Kay. He argues against irrationality as just the opposite of the social construct we call rationality:

Irrationality lies not in failing to conform to some preconceived notion of how we should behave, but in persisting with a course of action that does not work. Sometimes in modern economics and political life, there is a big difference.

Belgian Grand Prix grid:

Row 1
1. Mark Webber 1′45.778
Red Bull-Renault


2. Lewis Hamilton 1′45.863
McLaren-Mercedes

Row 2
3. Robert Kubica 1′46.100
Renault


4. Sebastian Vettel 1′46.127
Red Bull-Renault

Row 3
5. Jenson Button 1′46.206
McLaren-Mercedes


6. Felipe Massa 1′46.314
Ferrari

Row 4
7. Rubens Barrichello 1′46.602
Williams-Cosworth


8. Adrian Sutil 1′46.659
Force India-Mercedes

Row 5
9. Nico Hülkenberg 1′47.053
Williams-Cosworth


10. Fernando Alonso 1′47.441
Ferrari

Schumacher starts 21st after a ten-place penalty for illegitimately impeding a rival driver during the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Which goes to prove that comic book philosophy is deep: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

Comedy

Will Forte leaves Saturday Night Live.

These guys join SNL.

And stand up is NOT pretty.

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