Thursday, September 22, 2011

The revolution is still on...

So, according to Oxfam, there is a land rush on in Africa:
It says up to 227m hectares (560m acres) have been sold or leased worldwide since 2001.

Half of all deals that have been verified are in Africa, amounting to an area the size of Germany - 35m hectares, Oxfam says.
The example given for 227 million hectares is the area of the entire of Western Europe. That is, there is an ongoing agrarian revolution, driven by the market. Now, some of that is uprooting some pretty unfair land distributions in any case: but, as some writers, from Charlie onwards have noted, Capitalism is the agrarian revolution. Dissolving peasant economies and turning land over to market use is what capitalism does. Of course, Oxfam wants peasants to stay peasants, whereas what will happen to them is that they will become proletarians - with all that that entails. Given the parlous state of the world economy, some of that entailment is starvation. of course, given the parlous state of the world economy, investment in land seems a very good idea.

The report's abstract says:
Oxfam’s research has revealed that residents regularly lose out to local elites and domestic or foreign investors because they lack the power to claim their rights effectively and to defend and advance their interests.
The report states in its executive summary:
The recent rise in land acquisitions can be explained by the 2007–08 food prices crisis, which led investors and governments to turn their attention towards agriculture after decades of neglect.
Of course, biofuels get a mention, but then, and this will be a fillip to vegetarians:
Across the globe, diets are changing towards more land-intensive products, such as animal proteins (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish) and convenience foods.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who needs fusion?

Whoop! Whoop!
US researchers say they have demonstrated how cells fuelled by bacteria can be "self-powered" and produce a limitless supply of hydrogen.


In their paper, Prof Logan and colleague Younggy Kim explained how an envisioned RED system would use alternating stacks of membranes that harvest this energy; the movement of charged atoms move from the saltwater to freshwater creates a small voltage that can be put to work.
As they say, it isn't economic - but then, no technology is when it's first invented. All economics tells us is how easy something is to achieve with the current technology/infrastructure. Changing that means that costs fall, and new processes become economic. Hopefully, this could develop faster than Fusion: after all, we're already at the proof of concept stage here, and the input costs will be lower than building a fusion plant. Energy from sea water. Wow. From their abstract:
There is a tremendous source of entropic energy available from the salinity difference between river water and seawater, but this energy has yet to be efficiently captured and stored. Here we demonstrate that H2 can be produced in a single process by capturing the salinity driven energy along with organic matter degradation using exoelectrogenic bacteria.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Follow up...

More on infant mortality:
A campaign encouraging women in China to give birth in hospital has cut newborn deaths by half, says a study in The Lancet.

Researchers from Beijing and London found that babies born in hospital were two to three times less likely to die in their first month than those born at home.


The neonatal mortality rate in China fell from 24.7 per 1000 livebirths between 1996 and 1998, to 9.3 per 1000 between 2007 and 2008.
This seems to confirm my points in yesterday's post - it has taken a co-ordinated effort and modern technology/infrastructure to make this change (and, presumably, cutting neonate mortality in China has contributed significantly to the global trend). The fact that rural infant mortality is significantly higher seems to confirm this. Obviously, there may be other feed-in factors (better nutrition, education, hygiene, etc.) but they are the vectors of development.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Credit where due

OK, this is worth a second post today. Infant mortality is falling:
The number of children under five who die each year has plummeted from 12 million in 1990, to 7.6 million last year, the UN says.
The report is Levels & trends in child mortality : report 2011: "Nearly 21,000 children under five died every day in 2010—about 12,000 fewer a day than in 1990." That's 12,000 additional survivors per day, and it's taken 20 years. Further:
Globally, the four major killers of children under age 5 are pneumonia (18 percent), diarrhoeal diseases (15 percent), preterm birth complications (12 percent) and birth asphyxia (9 percent). Undernutrition is an underlying cause in more than a third of under-five deaths. Malaria is still a major killer in Sub-Saharan Africa, causing about 16 percent of under-five deaths.
these are of course, mostly preventable. Just to concretise that, of the 21,000 dying everyday, 7,000 are due to starvation and starvation related diseases. As I've observed on this blog before, for a handful of dollars anti-Malarial netting could be distributed. Saving far more lives than any bomber squadron ever could.

So, theme of the day, within capitalism, through a concerted effort (not via the mysterious workings of the invisible hand) the hideous slaughter of poverty is being reduced. We could, and should, be able to go further and faster.

Just as an end note, let's not forget that the so-called global crisis (and it's impact on food prices) could well reverse this trend. Further, though, I don't know what could be more deserving of being called a crisis than 7.6 million annual deaths through poverty. It should be top of the news everyday: today, 21,000 infants will die. This report shows the corrosive effects of udnerdevelopment:
According to the World Health Organization some three-quarters of medical devices given by rich countries to developing nations remain unused.


Prof Chris Lavy, an orthopaedic surgeon who has spent time in Africa, said: "One of the newest hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa was built with infrared sensors to turn the taps on in the operating theatres.

"Wonderful idea, but is it really appropriate in a country where there are no other infrared controlled taps and no engineer to fix them? Within a year most of them had failed, some of them in the off position, and some of them in the on position."

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You know you're evil when...

The Telegraph can take the moral high ground against you
However, figures from the building industry suggest that developers are holding large numbers of plots where they have been granted planning permission but have not started construction.

The National Trust estimates the total land bank with planning permission to be around 330,000 plots.
Of course, this is an effect of the Telegraph representing the landowners keen to keep the value of their land by preventing development spoiling their views or undermining the value of greenfields. Private eye has made much the same point this week.

The real villain, of course, is the property market. Landowners have an asset in land-with-permission irrespective of if they build on it: and, of course, if they do build, they fix its value; whereas if they leave it fallow it rises continually with rising land prices. Land itself grows in value - roughly - in line with economic growth (modified by precise pressures on farming, industry and housing need in specific locales).

In short, the incentive is not to meet housing need, but to hold onto large chunks of land. Now, this could be easily remedied - a tax on land-with-permission would stop them getting permission, but could be an incentive to move where permission exists. A land value tax would hit everyone with land, especially the greenfield nimbys. It could, though, be done within capitalism.

The problem is the politics. Generations of politicians have committed us to private home ownership, which people treat as an investment. So long as house prices continue to rise faster than inflation+interest, that's a goer. It does, though, commit politicians to ensuring house prices rise, which means supply must always fall behind demand, else it wrecks everyone's asset value.

So, a large company/housing co-op that relied on rental income for its profits could probably see everyone adequately housed, but only if the interest of land owners were adequately eliminated; but that would be almost impossible to do since it would have to hold land as well. To work, we'd all have to end up renting, and at the mercy of market rental rates.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Risky business

Life on Earth is a function of geology. The rocks shaped life, and continue to shape us. Importantly, they shape modern technology. Everything, from the pain on the walls to the keyboard I type with started with someone extracting specific coalitions of atoms from out of the Earth.

So the British Geological Society's "Risk List" makes for fascinating reading. It ranks the worlds elemental resources according to scarcity and risk of supply (including political governance).

Shock news - China accounts for 97% of all rare Earth metals - you know, those pesky ones we need for high technology (and probably the odd medicine). China is the chief source for 27 minerals - well over half.
As demand for metals and minerals increases, driven by relentless growth in the emerging economies in Asia and South America, competition for resources is growing. Human factors such as geopolitics , resource nationalism, along with events such as strikes and accidents are the most likely to disrupt supply. Policy-makers, industry and consumers should be concerned about supply risk and the need to diversify supply from Earth resources, from recycling more and doing more with less, and also about the environmental implications of burgeoning consumption.
It's hateful to think that war could result over access to these minerals -- and in the case of China, unthinkably horrible. What this illustrates is how we are dependent upon the same Earth, and can only succeed by full global, human co-operation, instead of trying to screw each other based on a capacity to deny access to patches of territory. The report, as it makes clear on the BBC is partly intended to promote policy makers to open up new deposits and diversify supply. Especially as demand for these minerals continues to rise:
Mobile phones embrace the use of these technology metals, with lithium batteries, indium in the screen, and REEs [Rare Earth Elements] in the circuitry.

With over 50 million new phones being made every year, the "volume of technology metals required is astonishing and the pace of demand is not letting up", said Alan McLelland of the National Metals Technology Centre.
Just a final note, The Democratic Republic of Congo is the chief source of Cobalt - that was a contributing factor of the War that saw 11 million die there.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Policeman in the head

This is a fascinating unfolding story - the traveller slaves. Quite what the alleged slaves were enslaved in, and how they were held and used still isn't clear, although it seems to have been an international ring. What I am interested in, though, is a quote in the Irish Independent.
Graham Clark, who is homeless, told Channel 4 news last night that he was kidnapped and held for ten months.

“You were separated from them. You weren’t allowed to enter their trailer...I wasn’t allowed to use their toilet services, strictly for them. I had to go into a bush and wipe myself with leaves. Degrading.

“I was treated like a slave, but at least I had a roof over my head. I was scared. I tried escaping once but they found me, not too far away.”
Note the phrase in bold: "at least I had a roof over my head." - he was imprisoned, made to shite in the bushes and work as a slave.

The psychology is fascinating, a mix of It could be worse" (really!?!), and holding on to the little that he has - a roof and a little food. This despite his previous attempt at escape.

What I'm driving at is that this illustrates the human capacity to withstand the conditions of slavery and gross impoverishment, and the mental architecture that allows such structures to survive. Imprisoned and maltreated animals will try and bite back, and human mentally adepts.

I have no way of knowing why he was found "nearby" but I surmise it was because he had no-where else to go, no company or structures to replace the slave conditions, so didn't go far and went back when found.

It seems the peculiar institution rests on our very human capacities.

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Friday, September 09, 2011

Radioactive owls

Well, just to bang the tech. drum once more: Nuclear fusion 50 years away. (for the uninitiated, that's a nuclear fusion joke).

Actually, it's within the next twenty years, if the timeline from HIPER is to be believed, their timeline is:
  • The project was accepted onto the “European Roadmap” in October 2006, with the UK agreeing to take a leadership role in January 2007.
  • HiPER is a consortium of 25 institutions from 11 nations. This includes representation at a national level from 6 countries (Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, UK), 2 regional governments (Aquitaine and Madrid), multiple international institutions and industry. There are also strong international links to programs in USA, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia, China and Canada.
  • This consortium submitted a proposal for a 3-year “preparatory phase project” to the EC on 2nd May 2007.
  • Following positive reviews from the EC in July 2007, the preparatory phase project will run from April 2008 to 2011.This phase will establish the scientific and business case for full-scale development of the HiPER facility.
  • This phase is timed to coincide with the anticipated achievement of laser fusion ignition and energy gain (on the NIF laser in the USA). As such, future phases can proceed on the basis of demonstrable evidence.
  • Construction of the HiPER facility is envisaged to start mid-decade, with operation in the early 2020s.
  • The UK is a leading contender to host the HiPER laser facility.
  • So, if NIF gets it's act together on-time with a substantial proof of concept by next year, then Hyper goes live 2020, so 2030 functioning nuclear fusion, and electricity too cheap to meter?

    Lets think about why the nerds spurt themselves dry over nuclear fusion - it would means almost limitless energy, without geographic restriction and without any substantial pollution or adverse environmental effects.

    In political terms, it would re-write the map, with the geopolitics of the past century almost entirely out of the window - I'd suspect the main driver would be minerals for batteries to power electric motors. Fusion wouldn't mean socialism, but it would create the sort of material abundance that would undermine the rational of capitalism.

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    Monday, September 05, 2011

    Church comes out fighting

    Things are getting interesting in Ireland: with a tussle between the Catholic Church and the Fine Gael Government.
    Taoiseach Enda Kenny was today refusing to back down from his claims that church authorities frustrated investigations into child sex abuse as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn urged parents nationwide to take national schools back from the priests.
    this is a big change in the way the Church has been treated (also note, this Conservative government wants parents to use democratic school boards to change things, rather than the anti-democratic stance of the Tories here with their 'Free Schools').

    Given the status of the Church in Ireland, this is turning into an ugly bare-knuckle battle - that it is even happening at all is fascinating. Obviously, it could just be unscrupulous pols using a heated debate to distract attention. More than that, though, it could be a genuine shift in the political culture of Ireland towards greater secularism - reading Highlights of Kenny's Speech basic nationalism might be something of a spur, or simple repugnance of what has happened on the Church's watch. The article above is clearly the Church coming back fighting.

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    Friday, September 02, 2011

    Speculative hunger

    Much like I said in my recent postings about Total Factor Productivity, the absence of profitability in certain sectors of the economy leads to investors chasing the last refuges of security and profitability. Everyone has been talking about gold (although, its rise in price in an effect of inflationary printing of money).

    Now, the Spiegel has a report on speculation in food that is well worth the read.
    The result of the team's efforts bears the innocuous title: "Price Formation in Financialized Commodity Markets: The Role of Information." But the contents are explosive. The UNCTAD experts conclude that the commodities market isn't functioning properly, or at least not the way a market is supposed to function in economic models, where prices are shaped by supply and demand. But the activities of financial participants, according to the study, "drive commodity prices away from levels justified by market fundamentals.
    Most investors involved in the commodities business today have little understanding of the actual products. "Market participants also make trading decisions based on factors that are totally unrelated to the respective commodity, such as portfolio considerations, or they may be following a trend," the UNCTAD report concludes, describing the dangerous herd mentality of investors. According to the report, such behavior has nothing to do with objective pricing."
    In other words, purveyors of effective demand are seizing upon the carrier signal and in the process distorting it, a bit like someone confusing the words for the poem - if I have more words, my poem is better."(From the UNCTAD report).

    Essentially, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is exploded - the idea that "all publicly available information is immediately reflected in prices. In its strong form, the EMH contends that even private information – available only to individual market participants – is reflected in the price through the effects of the transactions of the persons in possession of the information."

    Market actors move as a heard, and react to one another (and the price signals) despite any other objective knowledge. The report calls for more transparency and regulation - but really, total transparency requires opening the books, which in turn requires common ownership, rather than the game of market smoke and mirrors for private advantage.
    "The financialization of commodity trading has made the functioning of commodity exchanges controversial. Their traditional functions have been to facilitate price discovery and allow the transfer of price risk from producers and consumers to other agents that are prepared to assume the price risk. These functions are impaired to the extent that trading by financial investors increases price volatility and drives prices away from levels that would be determined by physical commodity supply and demand relationships. As a result, commodity price developments no longer merely reflect changes in fundamentals; they also become subject to influences from financial markets. Consequently, market participants with a commercial interest in physical commodities (i.e. producers, merchants and consumers) face greater uncertainty about the reliability of signals emanating from commodity exchanges. Thus, managing the risk of market positions and making storage, investment and trading decisions become more complex. This may discourage long-term hedging by commercial users. Moreover, with greater price volatility, hedging becomes more expensive, and perhaps unaffordable for developing-country users, as well as riskier."

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    Thursday, September 01, 2011

    Windy Miller

    This isn't science fiction, but unless I'm mis-reading this: Europe's onshore and offshore wind energy potential (Technical report ; No 6/2009) / European Environment Agency. It is both technically feasible, and market economic, to provide all of Europe's project energy needs via wind-power.
    Leaving aside some of the environmental, social and economic considerations, Europe's raw wind energy potential is huge. Turbine technology projections suggest that it may be equivalent to almost 20 times energy demand in 2020.
    Despite being a small proportion of the total technical potential, the economically competitive wind energy potential still amounts to more than three times projected demand in 2020.
    The main limiting factors appear to be changes needed to integrate the Europe Wide energy grid to overcome lulls in the wind - so when it is is calm in Ireland the wind in Germany can still keep the juice flowing (this overcomes a central objection to wind power) but it would be a major infrastructure project.
    high penetration levels of wind power will require major changes to the grid system i.e. at higher penetration levels
    additional extensions or upgrades both for the transmission and the distribution grid
    might be required to avoid congestion of the existing grid
    They suggest a total economic potential of 12,200 Terra Watt hours in 2020. Given wind run on less than full capacity almost all the time, we need to roughly quarter that figure (I think).

    So, all that is required is the political will, and the international integration and co-operation in order to provide energy for all of Europe's needs - and we can even use solar and bio-mass to complement wind, or (as in Scotland) hydro-electric power to off-set the variability.

    Of course, in the UK, lots of landowners are objecting to "eye sores" and complaining about windmills, because they spoil the countryside (and thus the value of their property).

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