China smog starts to foster disastrous conditions | South China Morning Post

The warning comes as choking air is blanketing a quarter of the mainland and scientists say they are already seeing the detrimental effects. In He’s tests, chilli and tomato seeds, which normally take about 20 days to grow into seedlings under artificial light in a laboratory, took more than two months to sprout at a greenhouse farm in Beijing’s Changping district.

Membranes and pollutants sticking to the greenhouse’s surface cut the amount of light available to the plants by half, He said.

Depriving plants of light means photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert light to chemical energy – can barely be sustained.

Most seedlings at the farm were weak or sick. “They will be lucky to live at all. Now almost every farm is caught in a smog panic,” He said, adding that the poor seedling quality would cut agricultural output this year.

And if the smog persisted or intensified, the country’s food supply would face devastating consequences, He warned.

“A large number of representatives of agricultural companies have suddenly showed up at academic meetings on photosynthesis in recent months and sought desperately for solutions,” He said.

“Our overseas colleagues were shocked by the phenomenon because in their countries nothing like this had ever happened.”

Greenhouse farms, which occupy more than four million hectares and supply most of the mainland’s vegetables, would be the first to be hit.

via Agriculture feels the choke as China smog starts to foster disastrous conditions | South China Morning Post.

O’Hagan on Assange

Andrew O’Hagan spent much of the first half of 2011 with Julian Assange. He’d been hired by Canongate in the UK and Knopf in the US to ghostwrite a memoir/manifesto they’d bought the rights to for about US$2.5 million in total.

It didn’t work out and the publishers finally put out an unauthorised version of O’Hagan’s draft in September that year.

Now, O’Hagan has finally published his “fly on the wall” account of those months in a long piece in the LRB. For all of his undoubted brilliance and courage, Assange doesn’t emerge well from the encounter. If O’Hagan’s right, he’s slowly unravelling under the pressure of inner demons and the astonishing whirlwind he created through Wikileaks.

It’s a fascinating, troubling, sad tale, both for Assange personally and for what might have been had he possessed greater maturity and wisdom. Continue reading

Sic Semper Tyrannis : The present Ukraine is a new country

Comments about the current travails in Ukraine from some of the old stagers at Sic Semper Tyrannis:

  • It is difficult to explain how bizarre the current situation looks to an old-fashioned British conservative liberal like myself – a breed that once roamed freely in this island, but now appears as close to extinction as, say, the Sumatran Tiger.

    If you had suggested to me, back in 1979, that I would find a sometime KGB officer articulating fundamental aspects of my political philosophy, while elites in London and Washington had become enthusiasts for revolutions of one kind or another, I would have said you were crazy.

  • I concur with you. My sentiments are exactly the same.

    I think that over the past several decades western politicians that have risen to power are essentially PR hacks with not a single iota of character or statesmanship. Let alone any understanding of history or any depth on matters of strategy.

  • I share your astonishment at seeing a former KGB officer as the prudent, sane grownup while our countries political organs seem to be overrun with wild eyed crazies. It’s not what I would have expected in 1979, either. I think Slavic and East European societies have a far closer connection to their history than most Westerners. This phenomenon has its bad points in the continuation of some century old grudges, but it also makes for a solid foundation upon which leaders can make decisions today.

Things are not always as they’re presented to us.

via Sic Semper Tyrannis : The present Ukraine is a new country.

Four Myths About Russia | CIPS

The facts about Russia, when not obscured by the above myths, speak of a country which is slowly rebuilding itself after the traumas of communism and its collapse. The rebuilding process is unsteady, gradual and imperfect. Economic growth exists alongside great corruption, while the political system combines an unfamiliar mix of liberalism and conservatism, democracy and autocracy. Russia is far from being a model liberal democracy. However, it deserves a better, more honest press than it has been getting.

via Four Myths About Russia | CIPS. (h/t DH @ SST)

Determinism and choice | Paul Bloom

Some determinists would balk at this. The idea of “choosing” to stop (or choosing anything at all), they suggest, implies a mystical capacity to transcend the physical world. Many people think about choice in terms of this mystical capacity, and I agree with the determinists that they’re wrong. But instead of giving up on the notion of choice, we can clarify it. The deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences. These processes are at the core of what it means to say that people make choices, and in this regard, the notion that we are responsible for our fates remains intact.

Yes, the hard determinist position, with its dire connotations for the notion of free will, has always struck me as somewhat improbable. Doesn’t our capacity to imagine, to reflect, to conceptualise, to (attempt) to empathise of itself create continuous swirls and gaps in the causal stream?

That said, over the years I have moved further away from a strong “free will” position. Indeed the term itself should probably be set aside in discussions of this sort. It suggests a degree of freedom that ignores how heavily handicapped our choices are by genetic make-up, life experience and current circumstances.

The real question, I think, is whether we have any choice at all. Some, like Sam Harris, don’t think so. Continue reading

Monsanto moves into ‘natural’ plant breeding | Wired Science

Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.

And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome. They could, and in fact sometimes do, look at their crosses by engineering a plant as a kind of beta test. But those aren’t intended to leave the lab. Stark and his colleagues realized that they could use these technologies to identify a cross that would have highly desirable traits and grow the way they wanted. And they could actually charge more for it—all the benefits of a GMO with none of the stigma.

via Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie – Wired Science.

A ‘gas bridge’ too far? | Business Spectator

Many see shale gas as a saviour, the “bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change” as Obama put it recently.

Examined more closely, its merits are doubtful. An article in “Business Spectator” laid out the two principal downsides.

First, the greenhouse gas emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency has pegged natural gas leakage from production at 1.5 per cent. But the agency tends to rely on industry-provided numbers. A separate study by 15 scientists from institutions including Harvard, NOAA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab looked at comprehensive atmospheric data and models, and concluded the leakage was at least 3 per cent. At 2.7 per cent or more, natural gas loses any advantage over coal in terms of its greenhouse effect.

That finding is backed up by other, more local studies by NOAA, which found a 4 per cent leakage rate from natural gas production around Denver, a 6-to-12 per cent rate from production in Colorado’s Uintah Basin, and a 17 per cent rate in the Los Angeles basin. Continue reading