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Posts Tagged ‘United Nations

“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.

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“All history is the history of unintended consequences”*…

Your correspondent confesses that this piece is mildly geeky in an “inside baseball” kind of way. But beyond its importance in its own right, it raises a possible broader systemic issue worth pondering…

Urged on by broadband giants such as Charter Communications, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is pushing to confirm a Republican to the Federal Communications Commission. However, McConnell’s goal seems to extend further: creating a deadlocked Biden FCC 2–2, then blocking confirmation of a third Democrat. What McConnell intends as a gift to his corporate patrons could turn into a nightmare for them.

McConnell and his allies believe they can force the Biden FCC into a business friendly “consensus agenda” that will move forward on 5G and corporate consolidation while blocking Democratic priorities such as net neutrality and broadband subsidies for the poor. And perhaps that is how the Democrats will respond. But in this new world of total war between Democrats and Republicans, this deadlock creates the incentive and ability for the Democratic FCC Chair to use her authority over the agency’s bureaus to push back and pressure anyone standing in the way of a full commission.

Not everything at the FCC requires a vote of the Commission. The vast majority of day-to-day work happens through the FCC’s many offices and bureaus — all of which report to the Chair. These actions must be appealed to the full Commission before parties can go to the courts. Absent the usual rulemaking process, a Democratic FCC Chair can — and should — take large (and largely unreviewable) steps to advance a consumer protection agenda without a single Commission vote.

Even more powerfully, the Chair can effectively shut down the agency until Republicans approve a third Democrat. While this sounds like an industry dream, this would quickly devolve into an industry nightmare as the necessary work of the FCC grinds to a halt. Virtually every acquisition by a cable provider, wireless carrier, or broadcaster requires FCC approval. Unlike in antitrust law, there is no deadline for the agency to act. The Chair of a deadlocked FCC could simply freeze all mergers and acquisitions in the sector until Democrats have a majority.

If that does not work, the FCC Chair could essentially put the FCC “on strike,” cancelling upcoming spectrum auctions and suspending consumer electronics certifications (no electronic equipment of any type, from smartphones to home computers to microwave ovens, can be sold in the United States without a certification from the FCC that it will not interfere with wireless communications). Such actions would have wide repercussions for the wireless, electronics, and retail industries. But the FCC Chair could slowly ratchet up the pressure until industry lobbyists pushed Republicans to confirm a third Democrat.

Finally, we come to net neutrality. Stopping the Biden FCC from restoring the Obama-era legal framework for broadband is the grand prize that supposedly justifies McConnell’s unprecedented obstructionism. Even here, the next FCC Chair can act. At present, the FCC is suing the state of California to block California’s own net neutrality law. The FCC can switch sides in the litigation, throwing its weight against the industry and supporting the right of states to pass their own net neutrality laws. The FCC can do the same in the D.C. Circuit — no Commission vote required.

Political observers might question whether a Biden FCC Chair would take such brazenly political action and put at risk so much of the economy. Admittedly, Democrats often seem to lack the same willingness as Republicans to engage in Mutually Assured Destruction. But we live in a time of unprecedented polarization and partisan division — as the last-minute campaign to deadlock the FCC shows. The only way for President-elect Biden and Democrats to work with Republicans is to show them at the outset that they can be just as destructive to Republican interests and constituencies as Republicans are to Democratic interests and constituencies. And there’s no better way to do that than to threaten the corporate chieftains at the top of the Republican food chain, the ones currently urging Republicans to deadlock the FCC.

Rather than an industry-friendly “consensus agenda,” Senator McConnell and his Wall Street allies are setting the stage for a war of total destruction. Wise investors should sell now and wait for the dust to clear — if it ever does.

Harold Feld (@haroldfeld), Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge, on how Senator McConnell’s strategy of obstruction might backfire: “In the Republican War on the Biden FCC, Wall Street May End Up the Biggest Loser.”

* historian T.J. Jackson Lears

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As we focus on Georgia, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of the 58 members of the U.N. at the time, 48 voted in favor, none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote. Considered a foundational text in the history of human and civil rights, the Declaration consists of 30 articles detailing an individual’s “basic rights and fundamental freedoms” and affirming their universal character as inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings.

The full text– eminently worth reading– is here.

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Diplomatic Impunity…

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The U.N. may be a beacon of hope and peaceful negotiation around the world, but it brings with it workers who use their immunity to park in front of fire hydrants, red zones, and anywhere else they please– it’s the stuff of urban legends and West Wing episodes.

New York is owed over $17 million in unpaid parking tickets; Washington, D.C., over $500,000:

New York’s top offenders:

Egypt – $1,929,142
Kuwait – $1,266,901
Nigeria – $1,019,998
Indonesia – $692,200
Brazil – $608,733

D.C.’s:

Russia – $27,200
Yemen – $24,600
Cameroon – $19,520
France – $19,520
Mauritania – $8,070

What do these countries have in common?  Freakonomics (quoting Forbes) suggests that “the level of a country’s corruption (according to the Corruption Perception Index) predicted the level of parking ticket delinquency, along with a country’s level of anti-American sentiment.”

As we pine for diplomatic plates, we might compose a loosely rhymed remembrance of William Topaz McGonagall, widely considered to be the worst published poet in British history; he died on this date in 1902.  McGonagall distributed his poems, often about momentous events, on handbills and performed them publicly (often, it is reported, to cat calls and thrown food).  And he collected his verse into volumes including Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, and Yet Further Poetic Gems.  (Readers will find a selection of his poems here.)

McGonagall’s best-known work, a verse recounting of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” ends instructively:

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

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The lore of large numbers…

The folks at Pingdom pay pretty close attention to the Net.  Now, in “Internet 2009 in Numbers,” they share back what they’ve learned.

For example:

– 90 trillion – The number of emails sent on the Internet in 2009.
– 247 billion – Average number of email messages per day.
– 1.4 billion – The number of email users worldwide.
– 100 million – New email users since the year before.
– 81% – The percentage of emails that were spam.
– 92% – Peak spam levels late in the year.
– 24% – Increase in spam since last year.
– 200 billion – The number of spam emails per day (assuming 81% are spam).

There’s more– in a way that’s amusingly resonant with their subject, much, much more–  here.  As the folks at Pingdom suggest, “prepare for information overload…   but in a good way.”

As we reset our spam filters, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that The Paris Peace Conference, convened to build a lasting peace after World War I, approved the proposal to create the League of Nations. A centerpiece of Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points for Peace,” the organization was meant to provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”

The League was liquidated in 1946, at the end of the global conflagration– World War II– it was meant to prevent; it was effectively replaced by the United Nations, which took over many of the League’s agencies and functions.

Commemorative Card

A Pattern Language…

Your correspondent recalls his first (high school field trip) visit to U.N. Headquarters, on which a tour guide explained that the gargantuan Persian carpet then hanging in the atrium had, hidden in the extraordinary intricacy of its pattern, one small “error”– placed there by the weavers “because only God is perfect,” a striking injunction to humility.  But the more fundamental lesson lay in the minutely interconnected design of the rug itself:  on the one hand ordered and symmetrical; on the other, chaotic and overwhelming– it was a metaphor for life itself.

What was true of that carpet is true more generally of (the best of) Islamic art and design, as the reader can see at Pattern in Islamic Art, a collection of thousands of arresting images.

…this marvellous artistic tradition deserves to be better known and that it has a great deal to offer, not only to art-historians and other specialists, but to designers and lovers of art and beauty everywhere. At their best these images express a refined and even sublime aesthetic sensibility, but they always remain perfectly accessible. Because of this they seem to me to offer a particularly appropriate antidote to the fears and suspicions that may have been induced by recent notions of a “clash of civilisations.” The need to express and appreciate Beauty, through Art, is surely a universal human response.

(Apologies to Chris Alexander for the title of this post :-)

As we contemplate the chaos that lurks in order, we might recall that it was on this date in 79 CE that Mount Vesuvius erupted on the southeastern coast of Italy, devastating the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands.

Computer-generated imagery of the eruption of Vesuvius in BBC/Discovery Channel’s co-production Pompeii.

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Written by LW

August 24, 2009 at 12:01 am

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