Of Agriculture and Ideology

In Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, the protagonist is an Old Bolshevik who has himself been arrested by the Stalinist regime for political deviations and is facing likely execution.  During his imprisonment, he muses about many things, including…

A short time ago, our leading agriculturist, B., was shot with thirty of his collaborators because he maintained the opinion that nitrate artificial manure was superior to potash. No. 1 is all for potash; therefore B. and the thirty had to be liquidated as saboteurs. In a nationally centralized agriculture, the alternative of nitrate or potash is of enormous importance: it can decide the issue of the next war. If No. I was in the right, history will absolve him, and the execution of the thirty-one men will be a mere bagatelle. If he was wrong…

(emphasis added)

And in real life, Soviet agriculture was greatly harmed by the officially-adopted crackpot theories of Trofim Lysenko, as well as by collectivization.  Nikita Khrushchev was very enthusiastic about what he learned of America methods in farming, especially with corn, and insisted that these methods be applied in the Soviet Union–the effort was not successful because it too often ignored local factors like climate as well as general factors such as working-level knowledge and incentives.

In Sri Lanka in 2019, newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa embarked on a program to the transition his country’s farmers to organic agriculture. Importation and use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were banned, and the country’s 2 million farmers were ordered to go organic.  The project has been a disaster.  Rice and tea production are both down, and half a million people have fallen back into poverty.

And in 2022, the world is facing serious fertilizer shortage, driven in part by the loss of exports from Russia and Ukraine, with prices also driven upward by natural gas prices…this in addition to the considerable reduction in wheat exports from both countries. A complete shutoff of Russian gas to Europe could make things worse, given that gas is a key feedstock for fertilizer manufacturing, that Europe has not built adequate LNG import facilities to replace the Russian gas, and that sufficient LNG from the US may not be available anyhow–a constraint not helped by the Biden administration’s anti-fossil-fuel ideology and policies.  There may be actual famine in some countries, with predictable results in political instability, and plenty of family budgets being squeezed in the USA.

The response from the Biden administration?…Perhaps a new ‘warp-speed’ type of project to accelerate fertilizer output and improve fertilizer logistics?


USAID administrator Samantha Power:

Fertilizer shortages are real now because Russia is a big exporter of fertilizer. And even though fertilizer is not sanctioned, less fertilizer is coming out of Russia..As a result, we’re working with countries to think about natural solutions like manure and compost. And this may hasten transitions that would have been in the interest of farmers to make eventually anyway.

Because farmers don’t know what is in their best interest, but of course you do, Samantha.  See this post at Watts Up With That? on the realities of agriculture and the nutrients that plants need.  (Do you think Samantha Power knows what the Haber-Bosch process is and why it has been historically important?  I’m betting the answer is No.)

Note especially the part of the excerpt from Koestler’s novel that I bolded: “In a nationally centralized agriculture”.  When major activities are centralized, every key decision becomes of dramatic, critical, life-and-death importance. Those making the decisions will be convinced that their decisions are right, and are very likely to use all tools at their disposal to enforce compliance and prevent criticism.

See my related post The Logic of Insatiable Centralization.

Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

A list of common cognitive biases

Formative experiences persist over long spans of time

The current status of artificial intelligence in medicine

Related: Limitations of neural networks   Also: Playing against AI can improve the abilities of human Go players.

The realities of energy storage.  I have observed that very few journalists comprehend the difference between a Kw and a Kwh–and why it matters.  (And this includes business and technology journalists.)

Paul Graham, at twitter:

Putin’s bungled invasion shows us that democracy’s greatest advantage, in the long term, is simply its “guarantee that leaders are regularly replaced.”  He was responding to this article.

Some people create or discover new things. Some enforce social norms. There is little overlap between the two.

Graham (who is one of the very few venture capitalists to have attended art school) also recommends this art history thread.

Russia and Ukraine

Vitaliy Katsenelson, who grew up in Russia and now lives in Colorado (where he works as an investment manager) has written a long 4-part essay on Russia/Ukraine.  Includes comments on what he is hearing from old friends back in Russia. Highly recommended reading.

You’ll need to register with an email address, but he only sends an email every 2 weeks or so, and it is usually interesting…hewrites primarily about investing, but also about art and music.


Woke Democrats and Environmentalists will scare off our allies.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has set off radical changes in international relationships. The US and other (not all) European nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia designed to destroy its economy. The precedents set are not all positive. First Ukraine has defined corruption for years. The Biden family and even Mitt Romney’s family got positions on a Ukrainian gas company’s Board for lots of money and no work except influence. The “Maiden Revolution” in 2014 was engineered by the Obama CIA. It expelled a pro-Russian president duly elected in an election probably more honest than the US 2020 election. Not all agree that it was an honest process.

As Ukraine’s political crisis deepened, [Victoria] Nuland and her subordinates became more brazen in favoring the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators. Nuland noted in a speech to the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation on December 13, 2013, that she had traveled to Ukraine three times in the weeks following the start of the demonstrations. Visiting the Maidan on December 5, she handed out cookies to demonstrators and expressed support for their cause.

The extent of the Obama administration’s meddling in Ukraine’s politics was breathtaking. Russian intelligence intercepted and leaked to the international media a Nuland telephone call in which she and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffey Pyatt discussed in detail their preferences for specific personnel in a post-Yanukovych government.

Ukraine has remained an economic basket case in spite of the change to a pro-western government.

The furious reaction to the invasion by US officials has alarmed some nations that have remained neutral. Some of them have been our allies, or at least friendly.

In a development that suggests trouble ahead, China’s basic approach—not endorsing Moscow’s aggression but resisting Western efforts to punish Russia—has garnered global support. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed the war on NATO. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, refused to condemn Russia. India and Vietnam, essential partners for any American strategy in the Indo-Pacific, are closer to China than the U.S. in their approach to the war.

Western arm-twisting and the powerful effect of bank sanctions ensure a certain degree of sanctions compliance and support for symbolic U.N. resolutions condemning Russian aggression. But the lack of non-Western enthusiasm for America’s approach to Mr. Putin’s war is a phenomenon that U.S. policy makers ignore at their peril.

The dominant role played by the “Woke” left and the Green New Deal enthusiasts in the Democrat Party has concerned many of them. Right now, Democrats hold all three branches of government, although narrowly.

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Heuristics for Ukraine (and other places)

NB: some of the following is from a recent videoconference that included our own Trent Telenko, who is very much the man of the hour, but some of it is more publicly available, not to mention common sense. First, though, as is my wont, a quadrant diagram to organize my presentation …

I. Theater “Hardware” (physical assets/consequences)

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