March 3, 2016

Financial Times - Ethiopia: The billionaire’s farm > 15min

Saudi Star’s proprietor, a Saudi-Ethiopian tycoon named Mohammed al-Amoudi, has spent more than $200m turning a swath of bush into a farm the size of 20,000 soccer pitches. That puts the sheikh, as he is known, in the vanguard of the global land rush. ... As the populations of better-off nations move to cities in ever greater numbers, the gap between the amount they grow and the amount they eat widens. Agricultural trade has long filled this gap. But a price shock in 2007, when staple crop prices doubled in a few months, demonstrated that global markets for food can break down. Then the financial crisis created demand for investments that were not linked to volatile equities and bonds. Governments, multinational companies and institutional funds started to pour millions, then billions, into other countries’ land. ... From Southeast Asia to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, investors are seeking to profit not simply by trading the fruits of the earth — the rice and the coffee, the oil and the gold — but by controlling the land itself. ... This is a nation of smallholders: 85 per cent of employment is in agriculture and 95 per cent of all agricultural produce comes from small farms, typically the size of a couple of football pitches. ... Of that, 80 per cent is consumed by the households that produce it; only 20 per cent is sold. These farmers rely on their hands, some rudimentary tools and the fickle rains.

Wired - Welcome to Spaceport America. Your Rocket Will Depart Soon. Ish. 5-15min

Here’s the funny thing about space: Ask people what they think about it and you’ll get every kind of answer. We should colonize Mars! We should stay home! We should look for life! Space, really, is a giant Rorschach. Into it we send rockets and satellites and space stations. But more than that, we send beliefs. About what is meaningful. About what is possible. About what is inescapable. ... space is back. Musk, Branson, Bezos. Each pursuing a pet project: Build reusable rockets and ultimately colonize Mars. Send ultrarich tourists on the world’s most expensive roller coaster. Mine asteroids. NASA, meanwhile, keeps plugging away at its science and robots. ... It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of it—there’s no focus. Yet the pace of space news keeps accelerating like a hailstorm on a roof. ... Spend time in New Mexico and you start to hear about the two space ages. The first is all Goddard and von Braun and big, lumbering, one-off rockets the size of skyscrapers that are built by big government and the military-industrial complex for hundreds of millions of dollars so we can send a tiny group of humans to the moon. The second space age is all about you. And it’s all about something you hear a lot these days—that the “barrier to entry” is now low enough that soon, to paraphrase Elwood Blues, you, me, them, everybody will get to space. ... I feel we’re back where the US space program was in the days of Ham. Hokey as it sounds, yes, this is the dawn of the second space age. And we are in a moment when we are struggling to figure it out. The good news is it’s not just NASA working the problem.

Smithsonian - Hunters Become Conservationists in the Fight to Protect the Snow Leopard 5-15min

An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known. ... So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300. ... At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed. ... The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.” ... Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. ... Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. ... life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”

Vanity Fair - How Randy Newman and His Family Have Shaped Movie Music for Generations < 5min

Big arrangements came naturally to Newman; his uncle Alfred, the oldest of his father’s six brothers, had from 1940 to 1960 been the musical director of Twentieth Century Fox, overseeing what was widely regarded as the best studio orchestra in Hollywood. Two other uncles, Emil and Lionel, were also composer-conductors. Why not wed that heritage to contemporary pop songs? ... Newman won his first Oscar in 2002, for the song “If I Didn’t Have You,” from Monsters, Inc., after losing out the initial 15 times he was nominated. ... for all the accolades and admiration directed Randy’s way, Newman, by dint of his inherent sardonic nature, can’t help but regard with amused resignation the disconnect between the connoisseur’s Randy Newman and the popularly known Randy Newman: between the fearlessly acerbic cult artist revered in critical quarters for such flawless albums as Sail Away and Good Old Boys and the rumpled fellow in thick eyeglasses who sings those amiably shuffling ditties in Pixar films and managed a fluke hit in 1977 with “Short People,” and whose ambivalent tribute to his hometown, “I Love L.A.,” is the official victory song of both the Dodgers and the Lakers.