“Global food prices are at record highs, driven by huge increases in the price of wheat, corn, sugar, dairy and oils. A complex mix of factors simultaneously boosting demand and constraining supply means the recent price surges might be just the beginning”. Below is a list of some of the main factors on the demand and supply side:

DEMAND

  • continuing rapid population growth, especially in so-called developing countries, means rising demand for food (we’re close to reaching 7 billion people on this planet this year, with 9.5 billion predicted by 2050, which will be a 300% increase on 1950s’ figures)
  • rising prosperity, especially in Asia and Brazil: wealthier people eat differently compared to poorer people, and they eat more and are willing and able to pay more for food; meat and dairy consumption has been growing rapidly and dietary pattern developed in Western countries over centuries have shifted in developing countries in decades
  • the arrival of new investors in food commodity markets (including large pension funds), being attracted by higher profits as a result of higher food prices

Supply

  • ever-increasing production of biofuels: a result of peak oil, rising fossil fuel demands from growing economic power houses like China, India and Brazil, climate change concerns, misguided and unsustainable government policies and economic interventions, profiteering by energy companies and other factors that made energy prices shoot up; all have led to a reduction in available areas dedicated to growing food and diverting millions of tons of cereals away from food markets
  • climate impacts, having led to weather related crop destruction over the last few years in main food producing countries like Russia, the US and Australia
  • the so-called Green Revolution that started to deliver increasing outputs since the 1960 is coming to the end of its life cycle
  • urbanisation and pollution are contributing to a growing scarcity of land and water; it is predicted that by 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas under water stress if current trends aren’t being reversed (and that will not just affect to so-called developing world)
  • government policies, especially restrictions and bans on food exports having negative consequences on food availability

Interesting times ahead, not just for food supply but also for whatever exists as world peace …

Source: SMH

Ray Kurzweil is interviewed here by Nataly Kelly who works for Common Sense Advisory, a company focused on language in the context of globalisation, which of course includes translation. While her questions are informed by her work context (and sometimes lead to repetition in Kurzweil’s answers), they nevertheless make Kurzweil reflect on whether and how computers will replace humans as translators.

 

Kurzweil already predicted more than eleven years ago in his book “The Age Of Spiritual Machines” that computers will reach a high degree of almost human proficiency in translating written and spoken language by 2029. While he was formulating his prediction, Franz Och started to work on language translation algorithms; Och today is the man behind Google Translations, which still is very crude but nevertheless has reached mainstream. Considering how rapidly technological progress happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if 2029 will turn out to be a fairly conservative assumption.

But the video is not so much focused on time frames, as it is on questions based on the effects of computers on translation, like for example whether we will live in societies without language barriers because computers will comprehensively convey meanings from one language to another in an instant. Kurzweil answers that question with a categorical ‘no’. Even if computer translations will be able to reach a level of proficiency that will allow us to use them for day-to-day conversation and communication, Kurzweil predicts that people will still gain immense benefits from learning other languages, the same way literature (in particular poetry) will still need humans for translation. Words do not just have literal meanings but are also carriers of cultural messages, are steeped in historical contexts and are the products of unique individual creative expression. Unless we create artificial intelligence that at least fully matches our own human one, machines relying on databases for translation won’t reflect and produce the complexity and richness that humans are able to tap into when extracting meaning from words in another language.

Another question Kurzweil addresses in this context is whether computer translations will wipe out the profession of human translators, for example in non-literary fields like that of commerce. Again he answers with a ‘no’. While making references to the just mentioned translation quality argument, he also suggests that new technologies bring diversification to traditional professions by providing people with new skill sets (and Kurzweil refers in this context to the introduction of synthesisers in the 1980s and the consequent changes computers have made to music creation).

While Kurzweil’s historical perspective seems verifiable over longer time periods, it certainly won’t hold true in the short-term. After all: car factories are not filled with masses of multi-skilled workers but with robots and a hand-full of engineers and technicians, and those workers’ experience was just another repetition of what for example the weavers’ trade went through in the 19th century when the steam engine eliminated it. Therefore and despite different avenues being opened for a new generation of language agents, countless translators will lose their professional career prospects forever – the same way people are losing their jobs in bookshops and record stores without being re-employed en-masse by online companies. But I guess, if you’re a futurist with a fascination for technology, social justice aspects are outside  your general frame of reference – which still makes Kurzweil’s reflection within its own albeit limited context quite interesting.

RESEARCHERS have long known that city dwellers are at greater risk of mental health problems than their country cousins. But the biology behind this was not known until now.

Results of an international study have shown for the first time how two regions of the brain responsible for regulating stress and emotion are affected by city living.

As part of the German study, 32 people were asked to do a tricky maths test while lying in a brain scanner.
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Researchers at the University of Heidelberg introduced stress by imposing time constraints and relaying disapproving feedback from examiners.

They found that when exposed to stress the parts of the brain that process emotion – the amygdala and cingulate cortex – were more active among the students who lived in or had been raised in cities.

The findings, published in the journal Nature this week, establish that there is a connection between city living and sensitivity to social stress.

Results also showed a corelation between the activity levels in the amygdala region of the brain and the size of the city each student called home: people from cities of more than 100,000 people showed more activation of the amygdala region than those from towns of more than 10,000, and those in turn showed more activation than people from the rural areas.

Previous research has found that growing up in a big city raises the risk of schizophrenia.

Originally published by The Age

Source: Asher Moses, The Age

Straight men are as aroused by penises as homosexuals and have fantasies of their wives sleeping with other men, but any fears about the negative or corrupting influence of pornography are misguided, neuroscientists have found in one of the largest studies of internet porn habits.

The study also gathered some revealing insights into women’s porn searches finding that, unlike men, they generally prefer erotic stories to visuals. They were also turned on by stories about masculine men sharing their tender side and being intimate with each other.

For their new book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam say they analysed as much data on internet pornography habits as they could find including more than a billion web searches, a million erotic stories, a half-million erotic videos, paid porn site subscription statistics, millions of personals ads, ten thousand digital romance novels, online data responses, the world’s most popular free porn sites and other data.


Women are clicking on internet porn more and more and getting addicted.
One of the largest studies on internet porn habits has revealed some
surprising insights. Photo: Phil Carrick

The study – which they dubbed the “world’s largest experiment” – found a group of about 20 sexual interests that accounted for 80 per cent of all the porn people watched and spent money on. The top five categories, in their words, are: youth, gays, MILFs (mothers), breasts and cheating wives.

Ogas said some of the interesting findings from his research included that men “prefer overweight women to underweight women” and while men generally prefer younger women, there was significant sexual interest in older women including those in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

“There’s even an internationally popular genre of erotica known as granny porn,” said Ogas.

“The four body parts that both straight and gay men are wired to find sexually interesting are: chests, butts, feet and penises. Heterosexual men are very interested in looking at penises, especially large penises.”

Orgas said heterosexual men searched for penises almost as often as they search for vaginas and out of the top 35,000 most popular adult sites, roughly 1000 were devoted to large penises.

“This interest is perhaps inherited from our primate ancestry: chimpanzees, monkeys, and bonobos use their penis as a prominent and versatile social instrument, to signal aggression, to indicate dominance, to mark territory, and to indicate sexual interest,” he said.

The study found that the largest audience for “shemale” – male-to-female transexual – porn was heterosexual men. Orgas described this as an “erotical illusion”.

“These are erotic stimuli that trick the perceptual machinery of the sexual brain by combining different sexual cues in novel combinations,” he said.

“A shemale has the body of a woman and a penis. The female body consists of female anatomical parts that trigger arousal (breasts and curves, for example)… but also has the cue of a penis, which is another sexual cue for men.”

Ogas and Gaddam’s research has been extensively covered everywhere from Time magazine to the Freaknonomics website.

The researchers have dismissed moral panic that argues pornography is encouraging men to pursue degrading and perverse sexual habits. Ogas said porn was a reflection of male desires rather than a creator of male desires and erotica generally functioned to liberate and satisfy male sexual interests.

“There is an inverse correlation between the availability of pornography and rape: the more porn that’s available, the less rape,” said Ogas, adding extreme pornography was a rare indulgence and did not spill over into the viewer’s real life.

“Almost all fears about the negative or corrupting influence of pornography are misguided, and usually applied to other people’s sexual interests.”

Ogas said the easy, inexpensive availability of online erotica had been a boon to women and “sexual minorities”.

He said previously women lacked a way to safely and conveniently explore their sexuality, and being able to explore their desires in the security, anonymity and comfort of their own homes was preferable to travelling to a red light district or going into the back room of a video rental store.

“Similar, for homosexuals, bisexuals and transexuals living outside of urban areas, it was very difficult to access erotica with the result that many sexual minorities felt isolated, alienated and ashamed,” said Ogas.

“Now, the internet allows these groups to explore their sexuality in safety and privacy and discover that many others share the same sexual interests that they do. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to sex.”

As other researchers have found previously, Ogas said sexual cues that triggered arousal in women were mainly psychological while for men it was overwhelmingly visual. Straight man were aroused by sexual dominance while most women, and gay men, were wired to be aroused by sexual submission.

One unusual result from the research was that erotica featuring cheating wives was very popular among straight men.

Ogas explained that he believed men were attracted to cheating wives due to a function biologists call a “sperm competition cue”.

“All across the animal kingdom, when a male sees another male mate with a female, this often triggers greater sexual arousal in the viewing male so that he might pursue sex more vigorously – and produce more sperm – than his competitor in order to increase his chances of impregnating the female,” he said.

“The sperm competition cue also explains why men are aroused by cuckold porn, also called cheating wife porn or cheating girlfriend porn, or about fantasies of their own wife or girlfriend cheating on them.

“Though men are most definitely designed to get jealous and furious at the thought of their partner cheating on them, they can also become simultaneously aroused.”

twitter This reporter is on Twitter: @ashermoses

As someone who frequents airports quite a few times every year, I wholly sympathise with this post by the always sharp-minded, witty, sarcastic and eloquent Fleet Street Fox

THE problem with flying is not making sure you have enough pants to last or working out how much of the local currency is a reasonable amount to pay for a beer; it’s the airports.

They are the only type of construction in the history of mankind designed to make your life less efficient and more difficult.

(And before anyone smart says torture chambers, they were models of efficiency and can keep you entertained for months if necessary.)

It used to be that you parked next to the plane, waved your ticket and climbed aboard. Now you park on an unending patch of tarmac four miles from the airport where you will never find your car again, get a bus to the terminal, spend an hour in a queue to check in, spend more hours in queues having your underwear rifled and your toothpaste sniffed for explosives while being repeatedly asked to undress, then get channelled through a series of over-priced retail opportunities before you’re thrown into the back of a jet with several hundred other people in various states of rage and most of whom are ready to kill.

Whoever in the world designs airports and various parts of them – in particular the seats which are too uncomfortable to sit on, and the vast, hangar-like ceilings which are exercises in ugliness and lazy architecture – needs a kick up the backside.

The purpose of all engineering and design is to make life nicer, simpler, and more efficient. Yet in the case of airports it causes low-grade misery so pernicious that, even if not manifested via the medium of multiple homicides in the Duty Free, still makes the world a less pleasant place by a factor of millions of people a year.

So, because I am stuck in this terminal for another four hours waiting for the plane which cost £200 more than it should after I missed the one before because I was having such a nice holiday, and for what it’s worth, here are my suggestions for nicer airports:

* Sofas. Yes, I know they would all become like the ones in Starbucks within a week, covered in stains and food that has fallen out of someone else’s mouth, but they’re nice and the metal creation I am sat on at the moment is not. It’s vile. It’s uncomfortable, it’s ugly, and it hurts to sit on it for more than five minutes. We spend hours in airports – some people have to sleep in them. I’m not asking for anti-macassars but I think we should be able to have cushions. We certainly should not have things designed entirely to stop someone having a snooze because it makes the place look untidy.

* No-one has yet found a way to hijack a plane with the use of tweezers. Let us keep them.

* Ditto nail clippers, toothpaste, foundation and bottles of water.

* We do not, generally speaking, have to be on your plane. It would be nice if everyone who works in airports realised this.

* Make some effort with the architecture. I’d happily spend days staring at the vaulted ceiling of St Pancras station, which is proof that just because you have a big open space doesn’t mean it has to look like a shed. Add some beauty to the world instead of corrugated steel and plastic.

* Proper heating. Airports are always cold, and there is no good reason for this.

* Public announcements should be made by a member of staff who can speak clearly and has a pleasant voice. Not some toothless stroke victim who can’t be trusted to empty the bins.

* There is no earthly reason why a cup of tea in an airport costs twice as much as one outside. Or the clothes, or the sunglasses, or the twatty keyrings.

* Gardens. Play areas for children that don’t just consist of a couple of small plastic chairs. A giant piano keyboard like the one in Big. Free massages. Put some paintings on the walls. Have showers for people travelling overnight and provide toothpaste and toothbrushes in the toilets – you’re making enough money out of the sunglasses to pay for it.

* Travel should be about new experiences so promote a sense of adventure by paying someone to dress up as Indiana Jones and run through the terminal screaming while pursued by a giant stone ball and some angry-looking natives. Failing that, hire a samba band.

* Lastly, if I wanted to blow up a plane I’d post the bomb or get a job as a baggage handler. Bend more of your energies to that end of things and do me the honour of presuming I’m probably not a killer.

Not yet, anyway.

Another brilliant article by Elizabeth Farrelly published by the Sydney Morning Herald. This time on why the privileged at the top of our societies, the so-called leaders in politics, sports and business, get away with pillaging, corruption, murder and rape. Do they have a specially sanctioned system of ethics? Do we approve of their seemingly impunity-driven Silverback actions? What is our relationship to these mainly alpha males that for example makes us think that rape is just a slight sexual digression or at the most a sex crime, instead of seeing it as a violence crime based on the assumed right to having power over someone else? Why aren’t we bothered when the heads of governments and armed forces play games that kill thousands of innocent villagers?

Farrelly offers some interesting observations and reflections in her usual hard-hitting and eloquent way. One small reservation though: while I’m enjoying the bollocking those so-called leaders, the last paragraph is somewhat detrimental to the post; it deflates the whole previous argument and almost kills it. There’s an easy fix though: just ignore it ;).

Gruesome gorillas in our midst

What do Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Sepp Blatter and the NSW Labor Right have in common? Only this. The grotesque sense of entitlement that lets top people act in ways totally unacceptable for the rest of us.

This is silverback behaviour. “Every group needs one,” says the trailer for Mountain Gorilla, “and every male aspires to be one.” True, perhaps, for those primates. But is it also – still – true for us?

When l’affaire DSK broke on May 15, France was shocked – not by the allegation that this presumed presidential contender had forced a hotel maid to perform une fellation, but that he had been jailed for it like a common criminal.

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Christine Boutin, France’s Christian Democrat leader, insisted DSK had been entrapped, as though it were inconceivable that this wealth-loving socialist and legendary womaniser might do wrong. This was the truly astonishing aspect of the Strauss-Kahn affair; the revelation that, at the top of this powerful and finger-pointing organisation, ethics simply do not apply.

The IMF’s 2400 staffers must abide by its increasingly stringent and policed ethical code, but its 24 directors are above scrutiny.

It’s no isolated case. We laugh at the Putins and Berlusconis, the Stalins and Bushes and Sarkozys, marvelling at their ongoing popularity as if we ourselves would never childishly follow such thugs. Yet we’re not so different, having just spent over a decade politely re-electing a Labor government that was clearly on the nose.

Only now, for example, is the 2007 below-market sale of Currawong to alleged Labor mates referred to ICAC. Engineered by the then secretary of Unions NSW, John Robertson, and facilitated by the Heritage Council member, uh, John Robertson, the Currawong sale seemed fishy from the start. Yet only now, with Tony Kelly’s vanishing, does sad little ICAC finally turn up the heat.

Or consider the weekend’s honours list, giving an AO to Mick Keelty who, as federal police commissioner, deliberately betrayed 19-year-old Scott Rush to Indonesian ”justice”. Keelty knew Rush was small-fry, and knew the father’s desperation, yet he dropped the boy into treatment we won’t tolerate for cattle.

Or take sport, which should be the cleanest of enterprises but consistently turns up among the filthiest. It’s dirty because of the money involved and because our reverence blinds us, but also because sport is native silverback territory.

Indeed, you might say sport derives its excitement from the tension between jungle-rule and the rules of the game. The same tension in the boardroom, however, generates cosiness and corruption. As the New York judge Loretta Preska noted in dismissing a 2007 appeal, “FIFA … still does not govern its actions by its slogan ‘Fair Play’.”

Sepp “let the women play in … tighter shorts” Blatter survived the Qatar corruption scandal but, as head of this graft-ridden autocracy, probably shouldn’t have. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who as head of the IOC (on which Blatter also serves) was more tinpot tyrant than Spanish patrician, shamelessly parading over decades his predilection for Franco’s fascists, five-star presidential suites and being addressed as ”Excellency”.

It’s like the Kerry Packer tax question. Why do we constantly condone behaviour at the top which we ourselves would never get away with and which, as a society, we affect to despise?

One theory is that decency isn’t mandated at the top because it needn’t be, because silverbacks are inherently decent.

This would explain the huge public outcry, almost grief, whenever a favourite actor is found sniffing cocaine from toilet seats or a football star king-hits a colleague for fun. But were it true, such events would be rare. So, hmmm. Plausibility problem. Another explanation is that we, needing to revere our Churchills and our Menzies, simply overlook their failings. But there’s a third, more disturbing possibility; that we actually select leaders who can look moral while acting in ways that are profoundly not. Leaders who have perfected the art of church-and-apple-pie Sundays while bombing the shite out of Third World villages. Leaders, that is, whose hypocrisy facilitates our own.

No surprise, then, that these primal morals accompany equally primitive attitudes to both violence and sex, blurring the bounds between these, our most primate appetites.

Open any paper and alongside the relatively innocent tabloid array of celebrity babies, boob-ads and ministerial fishnets there’s a whole other, more sinister genre of forced sex: paedophile priests, Gaddafi rape squads, campus stalkers, child-immigrant rape, asylum-seeker rape, workplace abuse (and its profits), naked French chaps leaping on hotel maids and rape rampant – so to speak – throughout the armed forces.

This is silverback territory, and it’s not actually sex at all. It’s repression, territory and power.

For there is a neglected distinction between sex and sexual abuse. Abuse, any psychologist will tell you, isn’t sex. It’s power. Rape is not a sex crime – though the titillation may be sexual – but a crime of violence. Yet these violent tendencies to treat others as territory are traits we consistently prefer in our leaders.

So is this reality? Has sex-as-repression always been core human behaviour and we’re just now noticing it? Or is it more that this brutal picture is the self-portrait we choose?

Even now the French press treats l’affaire DSK as a sexism issue – les phallocrates getting their comeuppance at last – while we treat it as a fascinating scandal, with added political frisson because the maid in question is black. But it’s not really about sexism or racism. It’s about the kind of monkeys we want running the show.

There is of course a good argument for evil, which is that perception depends on contrast. We wouldn’t feel goodness without knowing its opposite. But I’m suggesting more than that. That we actually love evil, especially when it’s in the closet.

Perhaps we’re like those chimps in the snake-in-the-box experiment, who know there’s really bad stuff in there but cannot resist going back for another peek. Are we secretly attracted to evil?

Maybe so. Then again, maybe we’re overdoing this whole primate thing. Maybe we could work a little on the sapiens angle instead. If actual goodness is too big an ask, just a little wisdom at the top would go a long, long way.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author and architect
More Elizabeth Farrelly articles