Category Archives: Culture

Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Advertisements

Image of the day: A U.S. history reconstruction


In a recent post we entered the notion that “history” is a construction, with no two individuals or nations sharing the same perspectives on events of the past.

Thanks to the always interesting Metafilter, we chanced on an unusual construction of an 1862 U.S. history from a Japan that had, until nine years previously, barred entry to their nation’s mainland by traders and adventures from the West and only opened up after Commodore Matthew Perry landed on the shores of Tokyo Bay on 8 July 1853.its shores, backed by the guns of his famous Black Fleet.

Rutgers University historian Nick Kapur recently tweeted some starling images from Osanaetoki Bankokubanashi by Kanagaki Robun, a child’s history of America drawn for second-hand sources.

The volume, a precursor the today’s manga, features George Washington [and his wife “Mary”], Benjamin Franklin, as well as Bennie’s arch-enemy and would-be assassin John Adams, as well as other curious characters. There’s a truly buizarre series of illustrations of John Adams’ spouse begging eaten by a giant snake, after which the Mountain Fairy lends him a hand to enact his revenge, as so much more. The while book may be view online here.

And now for out favorite illustration, featuring Samurai warrior George Washinton [sic] staving off an attack on his spouse Mary [sic] by the evil British warlord Asura [demon] and his diabolical minions [click on it to embiggen]:

Map of the day: EurAfroAsian heritage endangered


History is constructed.

Every history text, whether in books [popular, academic, and fictional], academic journals, the popular press, and on screens theatrical, computorial, and cellular].

The history we learned as a child born at the very inception of the Post World War II Baby boom we learned at the knees of mother born to a Danish Klansman and 32nd Degree Freemason and a spouse who belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a father sired by two Pennsylvania Dutch settlers invited to settle in a state tolerant of all religions by its founder, William Penn.

Three great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War, a conflict that loomed large in from our earliest forays into print, and avidly consumed whenever it appeared on movie screens, radio dramas, and then on the black-and-white, often fuzzy, and  oddly compelling screen of the bulky console television set dramatically introduced into our living room shortly before we turned six [we were one of the first homes in Abilene, Kansas,  making us very popular with neighbors, both young and old].

Unlike today, overtly fascist perspectives were then largely limited to utterances by bad guys in novels or in the World War II-based action flicks that dominated the screen or by subscribing to costly mimeographed “newsletters” mailed in plain brown wrappers or via envelopes with post office box numbers for the return address.

America was then dominated by systems of legally mandated racial and religious segregation, drawn up by and for the melanin deficient, a fact confronted at water fountains, soda fountains, restaurants, theaters, club rooms, classrooms [with the Three Rs of Race, Religion, and Region, where one state’s War Between the States was another’s War of Northern Aggression], church pews, courtrooms, and clubrooms. . . and, well, just about everywhere.

Our passion for history was learned first at the knees on our paternal grandmother, whose father commanded a Union cavalry forward scout company in a regiment at the very spearhead of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a campaign that left him with both a lifelong lung disease and insurmountable case of nostalgia, now better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Through her stories, history became both intimate and vivid, most especially because she’d had direct contact with two of the most dominant figures in he media of the day: As a baby she’d perched on the knee of town Marshal, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, a figure then-poplar in fiction, film, and [especially for us] television, while as a teenager armed with a high school diploma and a graduation certificate who taught a bright young kid from the wrong side of the tracks how to read and write, a kid who went of to West Point and to lead the Allied armies in Europe during World War II, then served at the helm of Columbia University before becoming President when we six year’s old, Dwight David Eisenhower. Grandma Brenneman rode in a float and we were in the crowd when Ike came to town to announce his run for the White House.

We’ve lived long enough to have seen radical changes in the construction of our remembrance of things past, acquiring along the way what a former editor called “a profound sense of history, especially for one as young as you” [we were then 37].

History constructed in pigment, stone, mud and landscape

Back in third grade we learned cursive, and the even before we were able to write our own name, we insisted our teacher instruct us in writing archaeology, the vocation which we were then certain would be out life.s work [a confrontation with the realities of academic departmental politics would later lead us to take dig in more contemporaneous dirt as a journalist].

We amassed a sizeable and still-growing library of books about the cultures of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece Rome, Mesoamerica, and Asia, allowing us to feast on images of ruined cities and splendid artifacts and stories people and civilizations long vanished. We dreamt of digging in ancient ruins [an aspiration realized on a collegiate dig of an ancient kiva outside Taos, New Mexico].

But now a menace we know all too well threatens to inundate many of world’s most memorable ancient sites, with some very famous names on a the endangered species list.

Flood risk index at each World Heritage site under current and future conditions. [a] In 2000 and [b] in 2100 under the high-end sea-level rise scenario. From Nature open access].

More from the University of Southampton:

UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean such as Venice, the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa and the Medieval City of Rhodes are under threat of coastal erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, a study published in Nature magazine reports this week.

The study presents a risk index that ranks the sites according to the threat they face from today until the end of the century. The sites featuring highest on this index in current conditions include Venice and its Lagoon, Ferrara, City of the Renaissance and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia. All these sites are located along the northern Adriatic Sea where extreme sea levels are the highest because high storm surges coincide with high regional sea-level rises. The sites most at risk from coastal erosion include Tyre, Lebanon, the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Spain, and Ephesus, Turkey.

The study, led by Lena Reimann at Kiel University, Germany, working with University of Southampton coastal scientist, Dr Sally Brown and Professor Richard Tol from the University of Sussex combines model simulations with world heritage site data to assess the risk of both coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise at 49 UNESCO coastal Heritage sites by the end of the century. They find that of the sites, 37 are at risk from a 100-year flood event (a flooding event which has a 1% chance of happening in any given year) and 42 from coastal erosion today. By the next century flood risk may increase by 50 % and erosion risk by 13 % across the region, and all but two of the sites (Medina of Tunis and Xanthos-Letoon) will be at risk from either of these hazards.

The Mediterranean region has a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, many of which are in coastal locations as human activity has historically concentrated around these areas. Rising sea levels pose a threat to these sites as the steep landscape and small tidal range in the area has meant settlements are often located close to the waterfront. The report says that more information on the risk at a local level is needed and the approaches to adaption and protection varies across the region due to large social and economic differences between Mediterranean countries.

Dr Sally Brown from the University of Southampton said “Heritage sites face many challenges to adapt to the effects of sea-level rise as it changes the value and ‘spirit of place’ for each site. International organisations, such as UNESCO, are aware of the risks of climate change, and ongoing monitoring is required to better understand exactly what heritage could be adversely affected by climate change and other natural hazards, and when this could occur.”

The authors have identified areas with urgent need for adaptation planning  and suggest the iconic nature of such sites can be used to promote awareness of the need to take action to mitigate climate change. In some cases relocation of individual monuments, such as the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna or The Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik, may be technically possible though not for other sites which extend over large areas such as urban centres, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.

We suspect the White House to take no action, unless Donald Trump finally realizes his own hotels and golf courses may soon become water hazards. After all, the only history that matters to him is sexual and financial.

Headline of the day II: You knew it was coming


From CBS News:

Fake Oprah stars in racist robocall in Georgia in final days of Abrams-Kemp campaign

  • A fake Oprah Winfrey, Aunt Jemima, a “magical negro,” and “Jews who own the media” are featured in a new robocall that is hitting Georgia voters in the final days of the campaign for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

Two insightful documentaries on gender politics


From Australia’s marvelous Special Broadcasting Service’s Dateline come two insightful documentaries on the politics of gender.

Back in April, 2016, in his early days on the campaign trail, Presidential candidate Donald Trump said transgenders folks “should ‘use the bathroom they feel is appropriate’ and agreed that the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower in New York.”

But then Ted Cruz, the guy whose dad he accused of a role in the John F. Kennedy assassination, fired a bigoted broadside, and Penthouse Predator did a quick one-eighty.

Such are the post-Post-Modern politics of gender in the Land-of-the-Free-and-The-Home-of-the-Brave™.

The first documentary looks at a multi-national violent male supremacy outfit spawned right here in California by started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder and former commentator Gavin McInnes as bigoted Republic rhetoric rose to a self-righteous roar, enabled by the violent rhetoric endorsed and uttered Trump.

Defending Gender part 1 – Proud Boys

From the program notes:

Dateline reporter Dean Cornish travels to the USA to see why the Proud Boy’s controversial views are speaking to thousands of young men. The group believe masculinity is in danger – and they’re not alone. Proud Boy membership has exploded and they now have chapters in Australia.

Reclaiming manhood is one of the central pillars of the Proud Boys. The group’s founder Gavin McInnes says there’s a war on masculinity.

“The plight of the Western male is, right now, there’s a war on masculinity going on in the West and it starts in kindergarten, when children are punished for being rambunctious; boys are punished,” he tells Dateline.

“I think being a man requires four things. You have to have broken a heart. You have to break someone’s heart. You have to beat the shit out of someone, and you have to have the shit beaten out of you”.

Iceland leads the way to a different world

On 24 October 1975, the women of Iceland held one of the most remarkable general strikes of the last half of the 20th Century.

From Iceland Magazine:

On October 24 1974, Icelandic women observed what was called Kvennafrídagurinn, [The Women’s Day Off], known outside Iceland as the Icelandic Women’s Strike. It was estimated that at least 90% of Icelandic women participated by not going to work and by doing no housework. An estimated 25,000 women gathered for mass a demonstration in downtown Reykjavík. The total population of Iceland was only 216,695 at the time. Mass meetings and demonstrations were also organized in smaller towns around Iceland.

The year 1975 had been declared the International Women’s Year by the United Nations. Icelandic women’s rights organizations, including representatives of the Redstockings, a group of radical feminists and women’s rights activists, agreed that a women’s general strike would be a powerful event. By walking off their jobs and refusing to do unpaid housework women could draw attention to their contribution to the economy and society.

>snip<

The action succeeded in paralyzing the Icelandic economy, forcing businesses and government offices to shut down. The next days local newspapers ran stories about men who had to do the dishes for the first time, bring their children with them to work and prepare dinner. Stores ran out of simple foods which only need boiling, like sausages [bjúgu] and hot dogs.

The impact of the strike was significant, as it helped change public opinion. A law was passed in 1976 banning wage discrimination on the basis of gender. The gender pay gap stood at more than 40% at the time: Women were paid less than 60% of what men were paid. According to the most recent data from Statistics Iceland the average wages of women are currently 74% of the average wages of men. The unexplained gender pay gap is smaller, or 4.5%.

In their second documentary, the folks look at SBS Dateline look at the status of women in Iceland today, the country now ranked at top of the U.N.’s gender equality list.

Defending Gender part 2 – The Best Place to be a Woman

From the program notes:

In this week’s Dateline, SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen travels to the island country to explore how it became world capital of gender equality, and looks at what impact this is having on the idea of masculinity in society.

We meet women who sparked Iceland’s feminist revolution in 1975, working mums, stay at home dads, the CEO of a gender-neutral kindergarten trying to reverse gender stereotypes and promote gender equality, and attend a sex education class with teens learning about sexual violence and consent.

Iceland is on its way to eliminating the gender pay gap completely by 2022.

So, what is the country doing differently to make the most equal society in the world? And what can Australia learn?

Red/Blue divide even dominates eBay commerce


If, as Abraham Lincoln so famously declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” then an academic study of trading on eBay trades reveals that we’re on very shaky ground here in the U.S.

Indeed, our biases are now so deeply embedded that out online shopping choices are based on whether the seller comes a Red state or a Blue state, according to a report from Washington University in St. Louis:

The political divide between red and blue states seems to fracture more than our views about abortion rights, tax cuts and health care. Research from an Olin Business School faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis — with midterm elections just around the corner — shows that we’re even wary about buying products online from sellers who might not share our political point of view.

An analysis of more than 550 million items sold by individuals on eBay in 2015 and 2016 — transactions totaling $22.3 billion — signals that we’re more likely to buy goods from someone we perceive comes from a similar political persuasion.

In other words, eBay buyers in Montana were more likely to buy a clock, a bookcase or a treadmill from, say, a Nebraskan than from a Californian.

“We were shocked because the location of a seller shouldn’t matter at all,” said Daniel Elfenbein, associate professor of strategy. “Shouldn’t we only care about whether the item is what we want and the likelihood of getting it sent to us as we expect?”

In fact, Elfenbein and his research colleagues Ray Fisman of Boston University and Brian McManus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered that the sales divide isn’t limited to the perceived political persuasion of buyers and sellers. To varying degrees, the researchers found similar trading imbalances in states based on religiosity, ethnicity and other measures of “cultural distance.”

The authors laid out the research in a working paper titled, “The Impact of Socioeconomic and Cultural Differences on Online Trade,” to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January 2019 in Atlanta.

The researchers said the divisions persisted even when the researchers controlled for population differences among states and perceived “taste preferences” among buyers and sellers. Would Californians and Floridians be more likely to trade surf gear? Would Montanans and Texans be more likely to trade hunting equipment?

“The paper was driven by a desire to understand whether these political differences were associated with the propensity of people to do business with each other — and then to rule out other explanations,” Elfenbein said. “No matter how hard we tried to rule out the idea that these political things matter, we still saw it as driving some of the trade patterns.”

The findings suggest companies that do business across state lines should carefully consider whether their home base is meaningful for potential customers. “I would hope people in that position would have an informed opinion about whether touting their location is an advantage,” Elfenbein said. “I think marketing managers should have an informed view about whether touting their company’s location is an advantage or a disadvantage.”

Another surprise for the researchers: Buyers on eBay only know the seller’s city and state. From that, apparently, they’re extrapolating what they perceive to be the “cultural distance” between them, using that as a proxy for trustworthiness: Am I going to get what I expect to get from the seller?

The researchers did find, however, that the likelihood of giving a seller negative feedback is higher when buyers are purchasing from states where the predominant political views differ from their own. It suggests there is a tendency to be more sensitive to poor performance when they think the seller voted differently.

“There is no correlation between cultural similarity and buyer satisfaction, however, suggesting that differences in trustworthiness are not validated by actual transactions,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

New ‘fake news’ tracker reveals mainstreaming


Fake news has gone mainstream, at least where the GOP’s concerned, reveals a new study based on a new real-time social tracking tool [link below].

From Oxford University:

Twenty-five per cent of content shared around US midterms is junk news, despite efforts by social media platforms to curb the problem.

Social media is now a vital platform for news consumption in the United States, particularly during important moments in political life such as elections, according to new Oxford University research.

A significant portion of US adults turn to social media platforms for news content. Given the importance of social media as a news channel, these platforms have become regular targets for coordinated efforts to spread misinformation and junk news with the aim of influencing voters.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, have discovered that the problem of junk news on Twitter and Facebook has become significantly worse in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, taking place on 6 November 2018. “The proportion of junk news in circulation has grown by 5 percentage points since the 2016 presidential elections,” says Professor Phil Howard, lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda project. “We’re a little surprised by this finding. Facebook and Twitter have put some effort into trying to improve the quality of political news and information shared on the platforms, but it is not clear that their efforts are working.”

Approximately 25% of shared content related to the midterm elections can be classified as junk news, compared to the 19% of shared content created by professional news outlets. Less than 5% of shared content came from government agencies, experts, or the candidates themselves. This is the first time junk news has overtaken mainstream professional news content in recent studies of junk news surrounding elections globally.

Despite new initiatives by social media companies to “clean up” the junk news on their platforms, the problem is spreading into new communities. “In 2016, junk news was concentrated among President Trump’s support base and the far-right,” says researcher Nahema Marchal. “Today, junk news content is also being shared by more mainstream conservatives, reaching wider audiences than ever before. The type of rhetoric and content that used to be characteristic of a niche media ecosystem serving primarily hard-right audiences has trickled down to the mainstream.” [Emphasis added.]

Who is behind the rise of junk news? The role of external actors, such as foreign governments, are likely not significant when it comes to the US midterms. “It is domestic alternative media outlets that are dominating the political debate on social media,” says researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert. “What we are seeing is home-grown conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The problem now reaches far beyond foreign influence campaigns and extremist fringe voices. Junk news has been domesticated, and social media users have an appetite.” [Emphasis added.]

For the discerning voters interested in examining the problem of junk news in real time, the Computational Propaganda project has created the Junk News Aggregator. “This is a novel tool for studying junk news on Facebook as it happens,” says Mimie Liotsiou, researcher and creator of the Junk News Aggregator. The user-friendly Aggregator makes visible the quantity and content of junk news, as well as the level of engagement. Users can search keywords, such as candidate names and districts, to reveal what is being shared, in real time as well as up to a month in the past. “We want to shed light on the problem of junk news, and help improve the public’s media literacy. We hope to make this issue more transparent to voters, policy-makers, and tech companies.”

The research examined 2.5 million tweets and nearly 7,000 Facebook pages over a 30-day period, ending 31 October 2018. Junk news was classified as sources publishing deliberately misleading, deceptive or incorrect information, typically in an ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial fashion, and meeting a variety of criteria related to professionalism, style, credibility, bias, and counterfeiting.

Here’s a screencap of the the top part of the image aggregator page, one of several ways of parsing the feed: