Quotulatiousness

October 22, 2014

What would Milton Friedman do?

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:20

David Friedman, who we can safely assume has a better sense of the late Milton Friedman’s thoughts and beliefs than most people, disagrees with a recent Forbes article asking WWMFD:

A recent Forbes article is headlined “What Would Milton Friedman Do About Climate Change? Tax Carbon.” It reports on a forum at the University of Chicago at which several economists, including Michael Greenstone, described as the “Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago,” argued that Friedman would have supported a carbon tax. The evidence for that claim was a 1979 clip from the Phil Donahue show where Milton Friedman argued that if the government is going to do something about emissions, they should use an effluent tax rather than direct regulation. He does not actually say that government should do something about emissions, only that there is a case for doing so and, if it is done, the best way to do it is by a tax on emissions.

To get from there to the conclusion that he would have favored a carbon tax requires at least one further step, a reason to think that he would have believed that global warming due to CO2 emissions produced net negative externalities large enough to justify doing something about them. The problem with that claim is that warming can be expected to produce both negative externalities such as sea level rise and hotter summers and positive ones such as longer growing seasons and milder winters. The effects will be spread out over a long and uncertain future, making their size difficult to estimate. My own conclusion, defended in past posts here (one example), is that the uncertainties are large enough so that one cannot sign the sum, cannot say whether the net effect will be positive or negative.

I do not know if my father would have agreed but I have at least a little evidence on the subject, more than offered in the Forbes article. The same issue arose in the earlier controversy over population. Just as it is now routinely assumed that warming is bad, it was then routinely assumed that population increase was bad. Forty years ago I wrote a piece on the subject for the Population Council in which I attempted to estimate the externalities associated with population. I concluded that they were too uncertain for me to tell whether the net effect was good or bad. My father read the piece and commented on it. If he had disagreed he would have said so, and he did not. It is possible that he would have felt differently in the case of climate change, but I can see no reason to expect it.

October 20, 2014

QotD: Sexual differentiation

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Our sexual differences can be more or less general, or more or less individual i.e. they may be typical for the whole sex or for only an individual member of that sex. Men with a vigorous growth of beard, hairy chests broad shoulders narrow hips, big penises, for example, are generally more in demand as are, conversely, women with delicate skin, big breasts, wide hips. The more individual polarity exists in any given case, the more ideal the sexual relationship is likely to become. We all do what we can to emphasize our sexual differentiation from the opposite sex — or with respect to a specific member of the opposite sex — as skillfully as possible. Whoever is not strikingly male or female will do everything possible to seem so by, for example, developing his biceps through gymnastics, pad her bra, style the hairdo, etc.

The same motivation also underlies the so-called ‘typically masculine’ and ‘typically feminine’ kinds of behavior: it is always a conscious or unconscious parading of sex-specific characteristics. To smile rarely or often, talk much or little, swing the hips or not in walking, makes people ‘more manly’ or ‘more womanly.’ This kind of behavior is simulated, as shown by the fact that it is subject to fashion and can be dropped at will. The ‘womanly’ mannerisms of the stars in the old movies are markedly different from those we see in films by Truffault or Godard. To behave like a movie vamp of the twenties today is to appear not womanly but ridiculous.

Esther Vilar, The Polygamous Sex, 1976.

October 19, 2014

Developing salt-tolerant vegetables

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:22

Tracy McVeigh on a Dutch experiment to develop food crops that can be irrigated with salt water:

Here, on one of the Netherlands’ northernmost islands, windswept Texel (pronounced Tessel) surrounded by encroaching ocean and salt marshes that seep sea water under its dykes and into ditches and canals, an enterprising farmer has taken the radical step of embracing salt water instead of fighting to keep it out. And now he thinks he might just help feed the world.

Inspired by sea cabbage, 59-year-old Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel and teamed up with the Free University in Amsterdam, which sent him [researcher Dr Arjen] de Vos to look at the possibility of growing food using non-fresh water. Their non-GM, non-laboratory-based experiments had help from an elderly Dutch farmer who has a geekish knowledge of thousands of different potato varieties.

“The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. So it’s not hard to see we have a slight problem,” said van Rijsselberghe. “Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with.”

October 18, 2014

Unmanned X-37B returns to earth after nearly two years in orbit

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

In the Telegraph, Rob Crilly tells us what is known about the X-37B’s mission:

It arrived back at a California air base after dark. Only the eagle-eyed would have spotted the snub-nosed spacecraft gliding out of the black sky.

Officially, the unmanned Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle had just completed its longest ever mission, spending almost two years circling the Earth, conducting experiments.

But its secretive history has sparked countless theories about what the computer controlled craft was really doing in space.

One idea is that the US Air Force has developed a drone spy ship, which it uses to shadow Chinese satellites. Another more fanciful claim is that it has been developed to engage in sat-napping — gobbling up rival spy satellites like something from a James Bond film.

There were few clues in an official press release.

“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program,” said an unidentified programme manager quoted in the Air Force statement.

“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

QotD: Mothers, fathers, and children

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Human beings also operate on this principle of similarity. Identification with her young is of course easiest for the mother: she has felt it inside her for months, she has known it come out of her own body, it is ‘flesh of her flesh’ i.e. herself. The father, by comparison, depends on hearsay; he is therefore likely to be rather indifferent at first. Despite the repeated assurances from everyone around him that the newborn is his ‘spitting image’ it is not easy for him to see this. It is only some time later that he begins to accept the resemblance and to love the child.

A woman’s predisposition to identify with the infant at once, to a degree impossible for the male, has won her the reputation of being the more selfless parent. Since she instantly accepts the newborn as her charge and actively devotes herself to its care and feeding, a mother’s love is held to be stronger than that of a father. Actually it is only a matter of time lapse between two equally powerful emotional attachments, based entirely upon biological causes.

That fathers are capable of loving their children just as much as mothers, and that the male nurturing instinct is in no way less developed than that of the female, is amply attested by the exchange of parental roles in various primitive cultures, as well as by the experimental knowledge of modern sociology.

Esther Vilar, The Polygamous Sex, 1976.

October 16, 2014

The trouble with “parenting” in 2014

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Health, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Jan MacVarish discusses the problems facing today’s parents that inhibit natural parenting instincts and replace them with the diktats of the bureaucracy:

Here are two scenes which illustrate contemporary parenting culture.

In the first, I am called into my son’s primary school by the ‘family-liaison officer’. I am surprised to learn that she is investigating the concerns of a teacher who has overheard my son and his friends discussing their mothers’ favourite punishment methods. Whereas one of the mothers (who I know) reportedly kicks her boy in the privates with her stilettos, and another (who I also know) prefers to administer an ‘African slap’, my chosen method is, apparently, to hit my son with a frying pan. Visions of Tom and Jerry immediately spring to mind, and I laugh at the ridiculousness of the schoolboys’ conversation. The family-liaison officer admits that it is highly unlikely that a mother such as me (white and middle class) would engage in such behaviour, but, she tells me, she is nevertheless obliged to ask if I have ever deployed the family skillet as a weapon. I am now amused, bemused and starting to see that this could have played out very differently if I were perceived to be one of those ‘other’ parents.

Scene two: While swimming in the local pool with frying-pan boy, I notice a mother engage in an exhausting 20-minute argument with her one-year-old baby boy. He had slapped her, so she was asking him in a quiet, controlled voice to look her in the eye and apologise for ‘hurting mummy’. Being a baby, he refused to comply, and became more and more upset as the request was repeated again and again. My sympathy was equal for both mother and child: he was sobbing and she seemed forlornly trapped in some kind of ‘good parenting’ ritual, in which the parent conveys to the child the emotional consequences of their actions – ‘you hurt mummy, that makes mummy feel sad’ – and expects the child to take ‘ownership’ of their actions.

Both of these scenes demonstrate the abandonment of common sense and, indeed, any kind of ‘instinct’ when it comes to adults relating to children. When you remove any element of instinct from parenting, you replace trust, care, love and joy with empty rituals of ‘safeguarding’ or ‘good parenting’. The family-liaison officer’s dutiful yet hollow investigation makes clear just how corrosive the institutionalisation of parent-blaming in schools has become, while the mother’s exchange with her baby in the pool showed how futile and joy-draining following abstract, good-parenting guidelines can be.

October 14, 2014

Reason.tv – 3 Reasons the US MILITARY Should NOT Fight Ebola

Filed under: Africa, Health, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:30

Published on 14 Oct 2014

President Obama is sending thousands of U.S. troops to West Africa to fight the deadly Ebola virus. Their mission will be to construct treatment centers and provide medical training to health-care workers in the local communities.

But is it really a good idea to send soldiers to provide this sort of aid?

Here are 3 reasons why militarizing humanitarian aid is a very bad idea

October 13, 2014

The Royal Navy’s “weirdest” ship

Filed under: Africa, Britain, Health, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:31

David Axe on what he describes as the weirdest ship in the Royal Navy:

Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Argus pictured supporting Operation Herrick in Afghanistan (via Wikipedia)

Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Argus pictured supporting Operation Herrick in Afghanistan (via Wikipedia)

The British Royal Navy is deploying the auxiliary ship RFA Argus to Sierra Leone in West Africa in order to help health officials contain the deadly Ebola virus.

If you’ve never heard of Argus, you’re not alone. She’s an odd, obscure vessel — an ungainly combination of helicopter carrier, hospital ship and training platform.

But you’ve probably seen Argus, even if you didn’t realize it. The 33-year-old vessel played a major role in the 2013 zombie movie World War Z, as the floating headquarters of the U.N.

[...]

The 575-foot-long Argus launched in 1981 as a civilian container ship. In 1982, the Royal Navy chartered the vessel to support the Falklands War … and subsequently bought her to function as an aviation training ship, launching and landing helicopters.

Argus’ long flight deck features an odd, interrupted layout, with a structure — including the exhaust stack — rising out of the deck near the stern.

Weirdly, the deck’s imperfect arrangement is actually an asset in the training role. Student aviators on Argus must get comfortable landing in close proximity to obstacles, which helps prepare them for flying from the comparatively tiny decks of frigates and other smaller ships.

RFA Argus photographed off the coast at Devonport (via Wikipedia)

RFA Argus photographed off the coast at Devonport (via Wikipedia)

Statistical sleight-of-hand on the dangers of texting while driving

Filed under: Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

Philip N. Cohen casts a skeptical eye at the frequently cited statistic on the dangers of texting, especially to teenage drivers. It’s another “epidemic” of bad statistics and panic-mongering headlines:

Recently, [author and journalist Matt] Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teenagers than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, my math gets me 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or whoever someone there got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsday number of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per-day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cell phone effects).

[...]

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than the TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on make-up; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

October 12, 2014

The unique challenges to UAVs in the Canadian Arctic

Filed under: Cancon, Environment, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Ben Makuch looks at the severe environment of Canada’s Arctic and how UAV design is constrained by those conditions:

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

“A lot of these systems — UAVs particularly, and rotor-wing (that is to say helicopters or quadrotors) — are even more sensitive. They require a good understanding of what they’re heading in. And by heading, that’s kind of the direction you’re facing,” said Monckton.

And because of those difficulties, finding headings for aerial drones in the Arctic requires stronger GPS systems to establish a “line segment” of locational data, ripped, according to Monckton, from a “crown” of satellites hovering on top of Earth.

In terms of weather conditions, the extreme sub-zero temperatures is devastating on a UAV when you mix in fog or clouds. While crisp cool air with clear skies provides excellent flying conditions, once you mix in ice fog, it becomes a major risk to small UAVs.

“The biggest risk in the Arctic is structural icing,” said Monckton who explained that water in the clouds is so cool that when “you strike it, it actually crystallizes on contact.”

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut.  CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada's (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks.

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut. CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada’s (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks. Image: DRDC

Unsurprisingly, the wings of a drone being enveloped in ice presents “a major impediment to general unmanned air operations,” Monckton said. In part, because “UAVs are too small to carry standard deicing equipment [as used] on a commercial aircraft. So that’s a major problem.”

For the project, DRDC took a previously manned helicopter and modified it into an unmanned vehicle. They had help from Calgary-based Meggit Canada for the project, a defence and security contractor also responsible for this armed training hexicopter.

As for ground drones, or unmanned ground vehicles, Monckton said weather and temperature were an afterthought. The real challenge, was the actual terrain.

“The arctic has a really peculiar surface,” said Monckton, adding that the high Arctic offers mostly marshlands, rocky outcrops, or elevated permafrost that produces spiky formations. “So the UGV was kind of going between easy riding on sloppy stuff and then getting pounded to pieces on the rough frost boils.”

October 8, 2014

Something is wrong when your “data adjustment” is to literally double the reported numbers

Filed under: Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

In Forbes, Trevor Butterworth looks at an odd data analysis piece where the “fix” for a discrepancy in reported drinks per capita is to just assume everyone under-reported and to double that number:

“Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you.”

The chart, reproduced below breaks down the distribution of drinkers into deciles, and ends with the startling conclusion that 24 million American adults — 10 percent of the adult population over 18 — consume a staggering 74 drinks a week.

Time for a stiff drink infographic

The source for this figure is “Paying the Tab,” by Phillip J. Cook, which was published in 2007. If we look at the section where he arrives at this calculation, and go to the footnote, we find that he used data from 2001-2002 from NESARC, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which had a representative sample of 43,093 adults over the age of 18. But following this footnote, we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97 in order to comport with the previous year’s sales data for alcohol in the US. Why? It turns out that alcohol sales in the US in 2000 were double what NESARC’s respondents — a nationally representative sample, remember — claimed to have drunk.

While the mills of US dietary research rely on the great National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to digest our diets and come up with numbers, we know, thanks to the recent work of Edward Archer, that recall-based survey data are highly unreliable: we misremember what we ate, we misjudge by how much; we lie. Were we to live on what we tell academics we eat, life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.

But Cook, who is trying to show that distribution is uneven, ends up trying to solve an apparent recall problem by creating an aggregate multiplier to plug the sales data gap. And the problem is that this requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.

We are also required to believe that just as those who drank consumed significantly more than they were willing to admit, those who claimed to be consistently teetotal never touched a drop. And, we must also forget that those who aren’t supposed to be drinking at all are also younger than 18, and their absence from Cook’s data may well constitute a greater error.

Pakistan’s public health emergency

Filed under: Asia, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:07

The number of reported cases of polio is now the highest it has been for more than a decade, and at least some of the blame has to go to the CIA for using health workers as a cover for some of their covert operations.

As world health officials struggle to respond to the Ebola epidemic, Pakistan has passed a grim milestone in its efforts to combat another major global health crisis: the fight against polio.

Over the weekend, Pakistan logged its 200th new polio case of 2014, the nation’s highest transmission rate in more than a dozen years. The spread has alarmed Pakistani and international health experts and is prompting fresh doubt about the country’s ability to combat this or future disease outbreaks.

By Tuesday, the number of new polio cases in Pakistan stood at 202, and officials are bracing for potentially dozens of other cases by year’s end. Pakistan now accounts for 80 percent of global cases and is one of only three countries at risk of exporting the disease outside its borders, according to the World Health Organization.

[...]

In far-flung areas of the country, some parents and religious leaders are skeptical of the vaccine, requiring considerable face-to-face outreach by vaccination teams.

But the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militants have waged a brutal campaign against those teams, killing more than 50 health workers and security officials since 2012. The attacks began after it was discovered that the CIA had used a vaccination campaign to gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

October 2, 2014

The Aral Sea, Uzbek cotton, forced labour, and the clothing industry

Filed under: Asia, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:07

As reported the other day, what was once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea, has almost completely dried up due to Soviet water diversion projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s:

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the east, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton.

This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

The Soviet government made a deliberate choice to sacrifice the Aral Sea to create a vast new cotton-growing region in Uzbekistan. It was clearly quite successful, depending on how you choose to measure success.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”

The drying-out of the Aral was not just bad news for the fishermen of the region: it was a full-blown environmental disaster, as the former lake bottom was heavily polluted:

The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. The child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.

"Waterfront" of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

“Waterfront” of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

So, tragic as all this is, what does it have to do with the clothing industry? The Guardian‘s Tansy Hoskins points out that due to the murky supply chains, it’s almost impossible to find out where the cotton used by many international clothing firms actually originates, and the Uzbek cotton fields are worked by forced labour:

The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now — it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.

Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.

Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.

“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.

One major problem that Sobik points out is that much of the Uzbek cotton crop now ends up in Bangladesh and China — key suppliers for European brands. “Whilst it is very hard to trace the cotton back to where it comes from because the supply chain is so subcontracted and deregulated, brands have a responsibility to ensure that slave picked cotton is not polluting their own supply chain.”

October 1, 2014

The Aral Sea almost completely dried out in August

Filed under: Asia, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

Enjoli Liston reports on the former body of water in the Guardian:

 The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

A large section of the Aral Sea has completely dried up for the first time in modern history, according to Nasa.

Images from the US space agency’s Terra satellite released last week show that the eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea — which stretched across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the fourth largest in the world — was totally parched in August. Images taken in 2000 show an extensive body of water covering the same area.

“This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University told Nasa. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

Note that this isn’t primarily due to climate change, although it is a man-made environmental disaster:

In the 1950s, two of the region’s major rivers — the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya — were diverted by the Soviet government to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, starving the Aral. It has been diminishing ever since, with the sea level dropping 16 metres between 1960 and 1996, according to the World Bank. Water levels are believed to be down to less than 10 per cent of what they were five decades ago.

Wikimedia has a dramatic illustration of the diminishing border of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008:

Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008 (via Wikipedia)

Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008 (via Wikipedia)

QotD: Primitive belief systems and “sorcerism”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.

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