UK deficit lowest since financial crisis; In robotic age, cows choose milking time; Would you work in choking Delhi?

1 UK deficit lowest since crisis (Angela Monaghan in The Guardian) George Osborne just met his full-year borrowing target in 2013-14, with the UK deficit falling to the lowest level since the beginning of the financial crisis as economic recovery boosted tax receipts. Government borrowing fell to £107.7bn in the fiscal year to the end of March 2014 from £115.1bn a year earlier, scraping in just below the £107.8bn target outlined by the Treasury’s independent forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), in last month’s budget.

The chancellor was able to meet his target thanks to an unexpectedly sharp fall in borrowing in March to £6.7bn, from £11.4bn a year earlier. Rob Wood, chief UK economist at Berenberg, said: “Government borrowing is high, but it is falling as the economic upturn boosts taxes and cuts the jobless numbers, while austerity keeps spending growth weak. The OBR has forecast a declining deficit in every year of its forecast horizon, with borrowing falling to £95.5bn in 2014-15 before achieving a surplus of £4.8bn in 2018-19.

2 In robotic age, cows choose milking time (Jesse McKinley in The New York Times) Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves. Desperate for reliable labour and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand.

Scores of the machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy — and manure-averse — generation.

The cows seem to like it, too. Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past. With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.

The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten, and even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat. Many of those running small farms said the choice of a computerized milker came down to a bigger question: whether to upgrade or just give up. The machines also never complain about getting up early, working late or being kicked.

The machines are not inexpensive, costing up to $250,000 (not including barn improvements) for a unit that includes a mechanical arm, teat-cleaning equipment, computerized displays, a milking apparatus and sensors to detect the position of the teats. Pioneered in Europe in the 1990s, they have only recently taken hold in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York, which is a leader in the production of Greek yogurt and the third-largest milk producer in the country.

3 Would you work in Delhi? (Karina Martinez-Carter on BBC) Poor air quality in Delhi that continues to deteriorate is causing serious health issues. Doctors have noticed an uptick in reported respiratory illnesses like chronic bronchitis — children are at particular risk — that they say are directly linked to Delhi’s polluted air. In short, Delhi’s pollution can be traced to the estimated 8 million vehicles on the road. In a way, denizens have exacerbated the Catch-22 situation. In a bid to avoid the great smoggy outdoors, many will regularly hop in their cars for short journeys that add to the air pollution.

About 1,200 new cars are added to the city’s already-packed streets every day. While the city implemented Euro IV emission standards in 2010, including filling pumps with cleaner fuel, the sheer volume of vehicles moving through the city or idling in traffic and spitting fumes continue to choke the air. Additional factors exacerbate Delhi’s pollution further, though, including the fact that the city’s poor often burn rubbish to stay warm. Delhi is also a dusty city, adding those particles to the problem.

Technically, Delhi has the legislative framework and infrastructure in place to tackle its pollution problem. Even so, Delhi’s PM10 levels (particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in size) jumped about 47% between 2000 and 2011. While organisations such as environmental justice NGO Toxic Links push for awareness and change, Delhiites continue to cover their faces and try to protect themselves hope for air quality improvement soon.


About joesnewspicks

This blog captures interesting news items from around the world for those strained by information overload and yet need to stay updated on global events of significance. The news items displayed are not in order of merit. (The blog takes a weekly off — normally on Sundays — and does not appear when I am on vacation or busy.) I am a journalist for nearly three decades.
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