Shared Links for Jun 26th – Jul 7th

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Shared Links for May 26th

Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture

I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks.  Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting.  I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form.  I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen.  Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.

Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books.  The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.

We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do.  A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.  At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history.  If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.

Continue reading Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture

Shared Links for May 24th

  • Math and the City – The same scaling laws seem to apply to both cities and organisms: infrastructure requirements per capita (or per unit body mass) go down as population (size) go up. Not so surprising, since both cities and bodies are connected to themselves by networks of wires (neurons) and tubes (pipes, transportation, blood vessels) (tagged: urban design economics sustainability transportation infrastructure biology )
  • Sustainable Transport that Works: Lessons from Germany – A 60 page report on how Germany has transformed its urban transportation systems over the Post-War period, moving toward more public transit and bicycle infrastructure, the costs, benefits, effects, etc. What has worked, and what hasn't. (tagged: bicycle transportation policy urban design system:filetype:pdf system:media:document )
  • NASA Gets Out of Satellite Servicing Business – And good riddance. Yes, the capability was amazing, but expensive and unnecessary. For the price of *each* Hubble servicing missions, we could have launched an entirely new Hubble-class telescope on a rocket. The shuttle is a solution in search of a problem. Someday we'll have a real reason to send people into space — e.g. long term scientific exploration of Mars, or if we're lucky, the beginnings of a two-world civilization — but until then, we're just going around in circles, and forking over hundreds of billions unnecessarily to the aerospace industry. Better them than the banks… but that's really no argument to stand on. (tagged: space nasa politics policy )
  • Buying farmland abroad: Outsourcing's third wave – I don't know how anybody can think this is going to work long term. The whole point is to have food when there's a crisis, but in case of crisis, these deals are going to go down hard, unless those on the receiving end are willing to deploy their militaries on foreign soil to protect their investment. Which isn't impossible, but certainly doesn't seem like a great deal for anyone. (tagged: agriculture food china africa sustainability economics trade )
  • Crack Gardens – No, not gardens in which you grow crack, gardens growing out of cracks. A little creative jack-hammering opened up some fissures in this concrete slab, out of which a garden now grows. An homage to the tenacious plants that will take our cities apart when we leave. (tagged: gardening urban design art )

Shared Links for May 12th

  • Forecast: On Climate Change, Cooler Temperatures Bring Hotter Air – Augh, we are prisoners to so many perceptual fallacies. Recency and narration loom large among them. It turns out that the average temperature of the last 12 months is a reasonably strong predictor of whether or not people think they'll personally experience the effects of climate change (a multi-decade to century-scale process). We are failing to deal with problems we didn't evolve to perceive clearly. (tagged: climate statistics fallacy propaganda science )
  • In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars – Ah, the New York Times has discovered Vauban! Now if only it had happened when gas was $4/gallon, we might have had a chance. We desperately need more experimentation in urban design, so we can have working examples to look at and build on. (tagged: sustainability green urban design bicycles germany transportation parking architecture )
  • Spuds in a Box – Build a box whose sides you can progressively remove from the bottom up, plant potatoes in the bottom, and fill with dirt as they grow. Remove lower slats to harvest spuds. I've certainly heard this suggestion from other people too. Will be interesting to see how well it works for these guys. Seems like you could also do this with some kind of bag, and if you sewed in sleeves/tubes periodically, that you could tie off, and then untie when you wanted to reach in and root around for a spud, you wouldn't have to worry about soil falling out when you pry off the boards. Others are supposedly reporting 50kg of potatoes from 0.5 m^2 area. (tagged: gardening green sustainability agriculture food urban design potatoes )
  • How Much Do You Earn? – A great annotated visualization of income distribution in the US as of the year 2000. It would be awesome to see an animated version of this, and see how it evolves through time. Turns out I make just about the most likely income in America ($20k), which is far below the mean (and the median). As a "household" though, I suppose we're right about at the median ($40k). Interesting. (tagged: economics wealth taxes government policy visualization )
  • The Capitalist Threat – Geoge Soros on Karl Popper's Open Society, from the mid-90s. He rails against the West's failure to extend a helping hand to the post-Soviet nations. He acknowledges that Truth may not be a strong enough motivator for most people, and that within a society that has decided to be Open, there are still many other choices to be made, but somehow fails to mention the way these two things end up pushing an Open Society closed with propaganda, apathy, and misinformation. Political evangelism – the process of deciding what (arbitrary) values your society is going to have – creates huge incentives for those who do not highly value truth to assert authority. I guess that's part of his point though, to robustly inoculate society against those assertions of perfect (authoritarian) knowledge. (tagged: economics politics popper society philosophy )

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry is a kind of modern, global Cadillac Desert, looking at present and future water issues around the world.  I think in the end it was too ambitious, looking at too many individual situations superficially, without going into the details on how they came to be the way they are (which Cadillac Desert was able to do, since it focused only on the American West), and also without drawing enough insightful generalizations from the many different cases the author studied.  It ended up feeling mostly like a dreary litany of mistakes painstakingly repeated in nation after nation, decade after decade, apparently without any learning going on.  Often these projects were funded by the World Bank and other international “aid” organizations, or by powerful central governments.  In both cases, the motivations often turned out to be short sighted and political or financial and had little to do with good engineering, productive agriculture, fisheries, or long term stability.

Continue reading When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

Shared Links for Mar 14th