The Rise Of Agriculture

Jul 28 2014 @ 10:04am


Tim Heath and Yiming Shao see it in vertical farming:

It has been suggested that a 30-story, 27,800,000-square-meter vertical farm could be achieved within one New York City block. That farm could feed 50,000 people, providing 2,000 calories for every person each day. With results like that as a prospect, it’s easy to see why enthusiasts see vertical farms as the future. … Vertical farms do indeed have many advantages. They would enable us to produce crops all year round using 70 percent less water. We wouldn’t need to use agro-chemicals and could avoid the adverse environmental factors that affect yield and quality in more traditional farming. And if food were grown in urban areas in the first place, we could eliminate the financial and environmental costs of importing food into towns and cities.

And in fact, we have the technology to do it:

Read On

Best-Selling Out?

Jul 28 2014 @ 9:34am

What’s the real measure of a book’s success? Tim Parks considers how big sales numbers affect the literary landscape:

Would J. K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potters if the first hadn’t sold so well? Would Knausgaard have written six volumes of My Struggle, if the first had not been infinitely more successful (in Norway) than his previous novels? Sales influence both reader and writer—certainly far more than the critics do.

In general I see nothing “wrong” with this blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction. In the end it’s rather exciting to have to figure out what is really on offer when a novel wins the Pulitzer, rather than taking it for granted that we are talking about literary achievement. But it does alert us to the fact that as any consensus on aesthetics breaks down, bestsellerdom is rapidly becoming the only measure of achievement that is undeniable.

Or put it another way: a critic who likes a book, and goes out on a limb to praise it, may begin to feel anxious these days if the book is not then rewarded by at least decent sales, as if it were unimaginable that one could continue to support a book’s quality without some sort of confirmation from the market. So while in the past one might have grumbled that some novels were successful only because they had been extravagantly hyped by the press, now one discovers the opposite phenomenon. Books are being spoken of as extraordinarily successful in denial of the fact that they are not.

Flipping The Burger Biz

Jul 28 2014 @ 9:02am


In 2010, the Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital acquired Burger King for $4 billion. Regime change has since led to a “ferocious approach to cost reduction”:

McDonald’s owned 19 percent of its 35,429 restaurants worldwide in 2013. Wendy’s owned 18 percent of its 6,557 outlets. Historically, Burger King operated much the same way: When 3G bought the chain in 2010 it owned 11 percent of its 12,174 restaurants around the world. Since then, Burger King has sold all but 52; it keeps the last few for training executives and testing products.

That’s such a departure from the way its competitors operate that some people are questioning the company’s strategy. …

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The Hard Work Of Working From Home

Jul 28 2014 @ 8:34am

In a review of Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Jenny Diski comments on the rise of work-from-home freelancers:

These workers are a serious new class, known as the precariat: insecure, unorganised, taking on too much work for fear of famine, or frighteningly underemployed. The old rules of employment have been turned upside down. These new non-employees, apparently, need to develop a new ‘self-employed mindset’, in which they treat their employers as ‘customers’ of their services, and do their best to satisfy them, in order to retain their ‘business’.

She continues:

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that ‘by 2020 freelancers, temps, day labourers and independent contractors will constitute 40 per cent of the workforce.’ Some think up to 50 per cent. Any freelancer will tell you about the time and effort required to drum up business and keep it coming (networking, if you like) which cuts down on how much work you can actually do if you get it. When they do get the work, they no longer get the annual salaries that old-time clerks were so proud to receive.

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Mapping The Scenic Route

Jul 28 2014 @ 8:04am


Researchers are developing an app for it:

For a paper released earlier this month, adorably entitled “The Shortest Path to Happiness,” [researchers from the University of Turin and Yahoo] asked over 3,000 online users of their site to decide which of two street scenes from Google Earth was the most beautiful. The researchers then used this data to put together four different routes between London’s Tate Modern and Euston station, and asked 30 people to test and rate them. Each route was chosen by the researchers to display a different quality: one was “beautiful,” another “happy,” a third “quiet” and the last was “short.” …

In each of these experiments, the team found that the shortest route was often ranked the lowest by users: the quickest path between their two destinations in London, for example, took walkers down busy, car-clogged roads, and crossed Blackfriars Bridge. Much better, many felt, to take a quieter and more scenic path across the pedestrianized Millennium Bridge. If a route is attractive, walkers often don’t even notice that it’s longer.

The endgame:

The plan is to turn all these findings into an app for cities in the US and Europe. It wouldn’t be the first app to take users off the beaten path – Dérive gets you “lost in the city,” while Serendipitor uses the philosophy of, among others, Yoko Ono to “introduce small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route” (oooohkay). But this would be the first app to generate routes based on “quiet, happiness and beauty.”

(Photo of a Berlin street by Steffi Reichert)

Do Autodidacts Know Best?

Jul 28 2014 @ 7:31am

Annie Murphy Paul argues that advocates of self-directed learning don’t have a lot of evidence in their corner:

In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.” There are three problems with this premise, van Merriënboer and Kirschner write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill-equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them”—that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.

The Best Of The Dish This Weekend

Jul 27 2014 @ 9:45pm


Another grueling weekend in the Middle East, but some relief here at the Dish. Six posts worth revisiting: the perils of auto-correct; the dirty mouths of babes; Edmund White’s brilliant appreciation of friendship; visualizing Debussy; a religious history of the Great War; and an adorable nine-day-old white lion.

The most popular post of the weekend – by a mile – was The Worrying Vacuity Of Hillary Clinton; followed by Why Am I Moving Left?

19 more readers became subscribers this weekend. You can join them here - and get access to all the read-ons and Deep Dish - for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. One subscriber writes:

Celebrity is confusing. While your public persona seems so confessional, it’s easy to forget that I don’t actually know you. That what I think about you includes an enormous amount of projection. And that you certainly don’t know me. It’s the asymmetry, I think, that is so strange. Your persona speaks to me most days, through your writing, while you have received perhaps 10 emails from me, among god knows how many emails from 30,000 others.

Is it strange for you? It must be. How do you handle it? I hope that people respect your privacy and personal space, but you must have your share of unwanted encounters. Or are you one of the lucky few who is energized by such encounters?

The issue came up last weekend, when my girlfriend introduced me to Provincetown. She knows that I am a Dishhead, and that you are a Provincetownhead. On the ferry from Boston, she teased me about you. Asked me what I would say if we bumped into you. I said that of course we wouldn’t bump into you.

We got off the boat, and you were EVERYWHERE! Turns out it was bear week. Ten million beards, many resembling yours. Made me unreasonably happy to see your gathered tribe. And I see why you love the place itself. We spent all weekend walking, unmolested by celebrity, passing among the dunes from one unexpected oasis to the next, our souls sipping the serenity in each.

Beardless, both of us, yet happy.

May your private oases be safe and bright. May you and your husband take moments to be happy, despite all the troubles of the world.

See you in the morning.

(Photo by Mikael Colville-Anderson. See the poems it illustrated here.)

The Lie Behind The War

Jul 27 2014 @ 9:15pm

Christian woman killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza

Katie Zavadski, fresh from a Dishternship, nails down a critical fact in the latest Israel-Hamas death-match. As the Dish has noted before, the Israeli government knew from the get-go that the murderers of three Israeli teens – the incident that set off this bloody chain of events – were not doing official Hamas’ bidding even in the West Bank, let alone Gaza:

This was confirmed by Mickey Rosenfeld, the police spokesman:

So the entire swoop on the West Bank against Hamas, which soon escalated into all-out war, was based on a a false premise, uttered by Bibi Netanyahu thus: “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” It’s worth recalling in that context that Hamas had recently been very quiet on the rockets front:

Fewer rockets were fired from Gaza in 2013 than in any year since 2001, and nearly all those that were fired between the November 2012 ceasefire and the current crisis were launched by groups other than Hamas; the Israeli security establishment testified to the aggressive anti-rocket efforts made by the new police force Hamas established specifically for that purpose.

Netanyahu saw an opportunity to hammer Hamas and punish the PA for cooperating with them. He took it. It disempowers both and makes an even more radical successor more likely. But if you assume that Netanyahu has no intention of ever coming to a peace agreement, a more radical Palestinian population helps justify that. Meanwhile, the core project of a permanent Greater Israel is advanced.

After watching this situation for too many years now, I have developed one key measurement: follow the settlements. Everything that happens is designed for their benefit. And that goes for the current ghastly carnage. It’s staggering what the Israeli government will sacrifice to advance the settlements.

(Photo: The dead body of Jalila Ayad, a Christian woman killed in an Israeli airstrike on her house in Gaza City, is carried to the Al-Shifa hospital morgue on July 27, 2014. By Mohammed Talatene/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)


In an interview about their forthcoming book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father Paul Mueller – both Jesuit priests who are planetary scientists at the Vatican Observatory – respond to a question about whether or not science “disproves” the Bible:

Guy: Science doesn’t prove. Science describes. The Bible isn’t a book of propositions to be proved or disproved; it’s a conversation about God. So that question presupposes a radically false idea of what science is, and what the Bible is.

Paul: We never ask if science disproves Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, though the play includes statements that are at odds with modern science. We never ask if science disproves Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrificing love, though his own knowledge of science would be seventy years out of date today. Lovers don’t look to science to prove the reality of their love. Why on earth would we want to go to science for proof of the reality of God’s love?

Their thoughts on how the Bible does – and does not – inform their scientific inquiry:

Read On

Heroes On A Human Scale

Jul 27 2014 @ 8:00pm

Dana Staves considers how reading Virginia Woolf’s diary helped her reconsider the literary giant:

Her final entry is unremarkable. But it’s her final sentences that broke my heart, that has haunted me for months to follow: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

Sausage and haddock? She’s Virginia Woolf, she terrifies me and astounds me, and I love her, and her final written words to the world of her diary, before she took her own life three weeks later, is about sausage and haddock. The cook in me smirked, the way we smile over a bittersweet memory of loved ones who have passed. After all that, it’s sausage and haddock. It’s life. But the writer in me – the part of me that doesn’t always have food on the brain – stalled out.

We build up authors so that they become epic and mythic, each huddled away on their corners of a literary Mount Olympus, scribbling or typing. The place smells of coffee and books and anxiety. But in the end, they’re people, not gods. They’re people who must eat dinner and fear bombs and attempt to get a handle on cooking sausage and haddock. This is a challenge as big as writing The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf was epic to me. But she was also just a person. She could no more fix my insecurity than fix her own.