Monday, July 30, 2012

Making dolmas for my reading group

Some weeks back I wrote a bit about Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea -- the post was Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize. I read Murdoch's novel because it was my reading group's pick, and we met to discuss it yesterday. Quite a number of us dropped out of this month's gathering at the eleventh hour -- our reading group has been going since 1998, and it's always been hard to schedule in the summers -- but an intrepid four of us met at my place, and noshed, and talked about Charles Arrowby's outsized narcissism.

Inspiration for things to nosh on was easy: Murdoch wrote Arrowby as a self-congratulating gourmet, in the English (!) style. Leaving aside judgement of his tastes, Arrowby tends toward the savory ... not exclusively, but with a decided preference: anchovy toasts and canned clams and spaghetti with a little bit of butter and dried basil as I quoted in late June, but here's more, again in Arrowby's own voice:
What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast, with or without the addition of bloater paste? Or plain boiled onions with a little cold corned beef if desired? And well-made porridge with brown sugar and cream is a dish fit for a king.

(Bloater paste? I didn't know either.)

And still more:
For lunch I ate the kipper fillets rapidly unfrozen in boiling water (the sun had done most of the work) garnished with lemon juice, oil, and a light sprinkling of dry herbs. Kipper fillets are arguably better than smoked salmon unless the latter is very good. With these, fried tinned new potatoes. (No real new potatoes yet.) Potatoes are for me a treat dish, not a dull everyday chaperon. Then Welsh rarebit and hot beetroot. The shop sliced bread is less than great, but all right toasted, with good salty New Zealand butter. Fortunately I like a wide variety of those crackly Scandinavian biscuits which are supposed to make you thin...

And here:
He drank beer and I drank white wine while Gilbert, who had now donned his apron, quickly and discretely laid out and then served luncheon for two on the bamboo table. [...] We had ham cooked in brown sugar to a recipe of Gilbert's, with a salad of Italian tinned tomatoes and herbs. (These excellent tomatoes are best eaten cold. They may be warmed, but never boiled as this destroys the distinctive flavor.) Then cherries with Gilbert's little lemon sponge cakes. Then double Gloucester cheese with very hard biscuits which Gilbert had rebaked in the oven. Out butler, instructed by telepathy, soon made himself scarce. We drank white wine with the meal. Titus ate ravenously.
I'm not a big fan of English cuisine, though I admit to owning a copy of Mrs. Beeton's (given to me as a gift, only half-jokingly, by an old, good friend and committed Anglophile). In contemplating refreshments for our reading group, I wasn't up for closely imitating Charles Arrowby's approach to cuisine, though it is our group's tradition for a host to make some gesture toward the culture or cuisine of the book we're discussing.

So I tried to think sharp, tangy, salty, piquant ...

I had recently been reminded of a savory snack that I used to make regularly but haven't in years and years: dolmas -- grape leaves stuffed with rice and more, then gently simmer-steamed in a lemon vinaigrette -- from a recipe I got from yet another friend's housemate, who served them at a dinner some twenty years ago. The housemate's name is Erin; so these, to me, are Erin's dolmas.

I reminded of Erin's dolmas when another friend queried her Facebook universe last month for a recipe. She was contemplating homemade dolmas to satisfy a regular craving without doing so much damage to her coffee budget. Fair enough: I dug Erin's recipe out of my digital archive, and copy-pasted it in response.

I've been hankering after the oily, lemony, garlicky treats ever since.

Dolmas are work to make, between assembling ingredients, wrapping the grape leaves, lining a heavy pot with torn leaves to guard against burning, packing the pot, and a couple of hours of slooooooooooooooow boiling. Then several hours' wait while the dense thermal mass cools sufficiently to unpack the dolmas from the pot (photo at right). Only then can you eat them.

The effort and wait are worth it. You are unlikely ever in your life to find dolmas that light up your mouth like Erin's do, not unless you haunt finer Greek eateries than I've found to date (and I've found some fine ones ... if you're in San Francisco with a few friends and a pocket full of money to blow on dinner, you can't go wrong at Kokkari).

But I digress, this isn't a restaurant review. Without further ado, then, here are Erin's Dolmas:

1 16 oz jar grape leaves
3/4 c long-grain rice (or basmati)
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 lg. onion, minced
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 c currants or golden raisins
pine nuts
black pepper (plenty)

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 c olive oil
juice from 2 lemons
1/2 c water (or more, as necessary)

Boil rice 5 min., then drain.

Mix boiled rice, tomatoes, onions, cinnamon, allspice, rasins, and nuts. Season with salt and plenty of pepper.

Roll the dolmas stem-side of the leaves (underside) in; don't roll them too tightly as they expand a bit when they cook.

Save the torn grape leaves as you go, and line the pot with them (emphasis on the bottom of the pot). Pack the dolmas in, distributing the slices of garlic between the dolmas and the layers.

Mix the olive oil, 1/2 c water, lemon juice into a vinaigrette. Pour over the dolmas in the pot.

Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to very low and simmer for two hours. Add more water if necessary so the dolmas don't burn.
If you make them, let me know how your dolmas turn out!

At our reading group we served Erin's dolmas alongside cheeses and flatbread, artichoke tapanade with garlic-rubbed crostini, herb-dusted almonds roasted in olive oil, and a peach-pecan upsidedown cake. A fine time was had by all, and my reading group pals brought leftovers home.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
A lost midwestern pizza opportunity
Sweetness and light: a transcendent oatmeal-raisin cookie

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Newsflash! Coffee drinkers pay more better attention!!

Everybody knows that in-flight magazines are fluff and filler ... but in the current Hemispheres magazine, this little number really took the cake:
Caffeine gives readers a lift

Does the sentence “Did the marketing department sent the memo?” look OK to you? If so, a team of Tufts University researchers recommends that you get yourself to a Starbucks, stat. In a recent study, the team asked groups of people to consume different amounts of caffeine, then compared how often they caught common writing errors, from the simple (misspellings) to the complex (subject-verb disagreements, incorrect tenses). While no amount of caffeine helped the subjects spell better, drinking a few cups of coffee did help them find the more complicated subject and verb errors. [...]
Really? Coffee helps people to pay better attention? Who'da thunk?

Here's what I really want to know: first, what funding agency paid for this research; and second, if it was anybody other than a coffee-industry funded booster organization, were the staff in charge of writing checks withdrawing from caffeine at the time they approved the expenditure?


Maybe I'm the sucker. I'm the one who picked the magazine out of the seat pocket in front of me.

What's the most vacuous filler you've ever read in an in-flight magazine?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Words matter?
Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing
Drafting vs. editing

Thanks to for le café crème.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rock and roll awakening: my first songs, circa 1968

I went to sleep-away summer camp for the first time in 1968, in the Wisconsin Dells.

It was one hell of a year. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the spring, and yes, third graders had our worlds rocked along with the older folk -- certainly on the south side of Chicago. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. Later that summer, after I returned from camp,the Democratic National Convention of that year ripped up downtown, a few miles north of where we lived.

Back home, my musical range was defined by what Mom and Dad played on the stereo, mostly meaty symphonies -- Beethoven and Tchaikovsky -- seasoned with a dash of Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass. And Up With People recordings, natch. Who would have considered raising nice, liberal children in the 1960s without slotting Up With People into the mix?

I was nine years old that first time at summer camp. Despite the flood of political upheaval on my nascent cultural radar, I had no clue what was happening in radioland.

But our camp counselors did.

We were too far out in the boonies to pick up radio stations, but one enterprising counselor had brought a small stereo to camp, along with two (count 'em, two) 45 RPM singles. What's a "45," you ask? Think of it as a single song extracted from the inside of an iPod, and flattened onto a black, vinyl disc. Rather than magnetic ones and zeros, ridges pressed into a spiral groove that winds around the disc encodes the music.

Oh, never mind.

The whole time I was at camp, this counselor -- I don't recall his name -- blasted those two (2) singles over and over and over and over again into the hot Wisconsin afternoons. These were, in a nutshell, my introduction to popular music.

I did not get tired of the two (2) songs. I was smitten. Captivated. Fascinated. I couldn't get enough.

One of the singles was The Troggs performing Wild Thing, which may be the easiest song to play on a guitar of all the songs ever written, though I only figured that out much later. It was brilliant back then, it made my nine year old heart sing. In fact, it's still brilliant. If you don't know the tune, here's your chance: check out the embedded video. If you do know it, you don't need to be invited twice.

The other single was The Doors, Light My Fire. Another classic. This nameless counselor knew how to pick 'em.

(Seeing a theme here? Think about it. Our camp counselors must have been seventeen or eighteen year old boys. What are they supposed to be thinking about? The draft? Well. Yeah, maybe that too.)

I came home from camp and immediately began saving my allowance for a small transistor radio. Once I hit my fundraising goal, I fell asleep each night with the radio tucked underneath my pillow, the volume turned super low so it wouldn't wake my little brother sleeping on the other side of the room. We didn't have earbuds then.


Mom would tiptoe in after I'd fallen asleep, and reach underneath the pillow to switch the radio off.

What songs are the totems of your musical awakening?

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Take a sad song
Are you a lyrics person?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy

It's been quite a year for technology "advances" -- particularly in the neighborhood of cloud and social media services, whether free or cheap.

Apple released its iCloud service in October of last year. iCloud enables users to store music on Apple-run servers and access their collection on as many Apple-flavored devices as they care to own, from iPods to iPhones to iPads to ... well you get the picture. iCloud also enables users to sychronize e-mail, contact, calendar data, and other digital ephemera between Apple devices.

E-mail and other messaging in the cloud is old news -- think Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail -- heck, AOL for that matter, or even The WELL -- but Google is expanding its incursion into synchronization-space by bringing its Chrome browser -- now the #1 ranked browser in the world -- and Google Chrome Sync to iOS devices (a.k.a. iThings). Chrome and it sync features are already available on Windows computers, MacOS computers, and Android mobile devices.

Nexus 7 is the 7" tablet announced by Google last month and available today if you can find inventory. The Big G hopes to use Nexus 7 to make a dent in iPad dominance of the tablet market. Indeed, the device looks pretty neat.

Casey Johnston reviewed the Nexus 7 very favorably for ars technica the week before last. On offer for $199 or $249, depending on storage capacity, the price looks astonishingly low, especially compared to iPrices.

How is this possible? As Johnston writes, "Google has freely admitted that it's selling the Nexus 7 at cost, and is absorbing marketing costs."

Why would Google do this? Johnston again:
Two things are going to supplement Google's Nexus 7 foray: to a large extent, the data it will cull from usage to power its ever-growing ad network, and to a lesser extent, content. The Kindle Fire's monetary viability was built largely on the same blocks, though the emphasis was reversed. Google has already been monetizing with both tools through its Android phones for a few years (now 50 percent of all smartphones in the US, from which Google makes no money directly). A tablet for $199 with no contract strings attached could well reach a new and wide audience to power Google's algorithms.
Not to mention the data culling power fueled by and powering Google Now. More on that in a moment: no Now now, hang on just a few more paragraphs.

Before we get to Now, let's recognize there's a common denominator to all these cloudy, socially networked offerings. That would be the targeted-advertising denominator, the very same tech company characteristic that allowed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman to rake in nearly $20bn in an IPO that was more broadly considered a "flop."

The common denominator envelope please. Ahem:
You want something for free? Okay. Tell us about yourself.
On Facebook we tell Zuckerberg and company all about what and who we like.

When we use webmail, everything we write to everyone is mined to augment the host company's databanks on who we are and what we care about.

When we sync our devices through a cloud service provider, every single piece of information that moves from one of the devices we own to another of the devices we own passes through a server that somebody else owns -- Apple in the case of iCloud; Google in the case of Google Chrome Sync (this in addition to whatever the government is up to, including but probably not limited to the National Security Agency's massive data sniffing filters).

When I write "every single piece of information that moves from one of the devices we own to another of the devices we own" I mean it. Every single piece.

Including passwords.

Yeah, yeah, they're encrypted, says Google, as do the iOS password syncing app makers, etc., etc. -- so in theory you won't see your secrets exposed as we saw happen to millions of LinkedIn and Yahoo passwords in just the past couple of months.

Not to worry, right?

Yet some do worry. In a year when Google made major privacy policy changes, and then Facebook went through another round of privacy policy changes as it rolled out the new "a complete summary of your entire life since birth," a.k.a. Timeline, quite a few seem to be worrying. Just this week the SF Chronicle reported, in Facebook down, Google+ up with customers:
Changes Facebook has made to its user experience, such as Timeline, along with concerns over privacy have brought down the social network's consumer satisfaction score, according to a new report.

But there's more. Now let's turn our attention to Google Now, the search giant's answer to the iPhone's talking robosecretary, Siri. As Google explains Google Now:
It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team's score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.

How does Google Now know what you need "automatically"? By keeping track of where you are via GPS; by checking your calendar so the device knows where you're going; by knowing what you're interested in as expressed through search and social media, then guessing at what nearby landmarks, commercial establishments, and events correlate to those interests.

Naturally, everything Now knows Google knows. 'Cuz you're synced!

Or ... is it "sunk"?

Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan sum up all this data aggregation and what's being done with it in a fine, on-point NY Times article of 13 July: That's Not My Phone. That's My Tracker.
Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.
I wrote ten days ago that new discoveries about the bacteria that live on and in our bodies mean we are, effectively, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.

Perhaps an inverse of that way of seeing ourselves is to note that our electronica externalizes our inner and private lives, pimping our thoughts, curiosity, whereabouts, and relationships to corporations and governments that use this information to manipulate and control us.


When I first caught wind of Google's Nexus 7 I thought maybe it was finally time to jump into the tablet game. Now I don't believe it is.

Why would I pay a couple hundred bucks to subsidize a pimp looking over my shoulder every minute of every hour of every device-enabled day?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world
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Google everything: technology in our times
Moving one's life to the cloud

Monday, July 16, 2012

A childhood favorite: The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek

Do you have a favorite book from your childhood that nobody's ever heard of?

Well, I can't really mean nobody, we have the intertubes now and "nobody" means, oh, dozens minimally, maybe hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands; as opposed to everybody, which means something on the scale, perhaps, of the twenty-five million kulture vultures following Justin Bieber's tweets as of last week.

As I  write this post there are seventy ratings of The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek on Goodreads, and 15 reviews (average rating: 4.14 out of 5). Amazon's got 24 (4.9 of 5). Barnes and Noble has two (3 of 5). Apple's iTunes never heard of the title, which figures because it's not an e-book, never mind an iBook.

I read Evelyn Sibley Lampman's book when I was a kid, and I loved it ... though back then I wasn't in the habit of giving books star-ratings, I'm pretty sure I'd have scored it a solid five of five if anybody had put the question to me.

And yet. Nobody I've ever asked in the current century (with the exception of my siblings) have heard of the story.

Purple House Press, of Cynthiana, Kentucky has a banner across its website that reads: Bringing back the Finest in children's books! Here's their blurb for The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, which the press re-published in a new edition in May, 2001:
Suppose you were hunting around in the desert for a fossil and instead you found a real (and very large) dinosaur, genus Stegosaurus. Joan and Joey Brown did! Only nobody would believe they had found one, which was just as well because George (as they called him) was very shy.

He was a loyal friend, though, and he did his best to help the twins with their schemes to make money to finance their mother's dry little ranch on Cricket Creek. George ate sagebrush, looked for fossils, and fought an airplane (which he thought was a pterodactyl) with faithful enthusiasm, but his nut-sized brain often made him more hindrance than help. Especially when he went after the bank robber!

Mrs. Lampman has told her hilarious story so convincingly that you'll be looking for dinosaurs around every mesa. And who knows? Maybe you'll find one!
That's not the most compelling blurb I've ever read -- of course, I'm reading through adult eyes and corrective lenses nowadays, perhaps not the ideal perspective for reading blurbs on YA fiction -- but it does touch on the essential point.

When I was nine or ten, the aspect of this book that rocked my world was the idea that a kid (like me!) could make friends with an actual, living dinosaur (!), who talked (!!) and had a personality even (!!!). Now, re-reading this book as an adult, I freely admit it's not so magical as I found it back in my elementary school days. But there you have it. As Thomas Wolfe put it, You Can't Go Home Again (1607 Goodreads ratings, 3.99 / 5 stars). And, just for the record, on the question of meeting a real live dinosaur as a conceptual novelty -- I was nine or ten a good long while before Jurassic Park came to a movie theater near me, even a couple of decades before Michael Crichton published the novel on which the movie was based (277,877 ratings on Goodreads, 3.72 of 5 stars).

I've got  my old Scholastic Book Service edition of  The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek on my shelves beside other obscure childhood favorites -- like About Jerry and Jimmy and the Pharmacist, by Frances B. Thompson, which Google seems to have digitized but has to be several orders of magnitude more obscure than Lampman's book; and The Little Engine that Could, which is still in print.

Prove me wrong: was The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek one of your favorites too? Heck, I'd settle for 'read it and hated it' ...

What's your favorite childhood book that nobody's ever heard of?

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit

Earlier this week I wrote about the recently reported discovery that in the course of normal living human beings carry 100,000,000,000,000 bacteria in and on our bodies. We are legion.

The significance of this knowledge, prima facie and possible, extends in many directions. The one I've been thinking about most this week -- as the FY 2013 Farm Bill makes its painful way through the sausage-making (oops, I mean 'federal legislative') process in Washington, DC -- has to do with the colossally bird-brained proposition that reductionist horticulture is a sustainable proposition in a staggeringly complex biosphere.

What am I talking about?

Well, first let's take a look at a little teeny-tiny, highly explosive piece of that FY 2013 Farm Bill. One of the secret ingredients of this year's Farm Bill sausage -- oops, I mean 'legislation' -- is a rider that was well-described by Alexis Badin-Mayer and Ronnie Cummins on Friday in The 'Monsanto Rider': Are Biotech Companies About to Gain Immunity from Federal Law? on AlterNet:
A so-called “Monsanto rider,” quietly slipped into the multi-billion dollar FY 2013 Agricultural Appropriations bill, would require -- not just allow, but require -- the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for the planting or cultivation of a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed. All the farmer or the biotech producer has to do is ask, and the questionable crops could be released into the environment where they could potentially contaminate conventional or organic crops and, ultimately, the nation’s food supply.
There's lots to think and write about when it comes to the dangers of genetically engineered crops, including food-crops, and I've written a bit myself on the topic (Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else a couple months back, for example).

But I won't go there today. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit on monoculture and its intersection with genetic engineering and complex biological systems.

"Industrial agriculture," the practices promoted by corporations known to some as agribusiness, is largely a story about monoculture. In a sound-byte, monoculture means growing a single crop on large acreages of land, year after year after year.

Monoculture farming permits impressive efficiencies of scale for large farming operations, but those efficiencies come at costs that are often masked at the grocery store register by subsidies like ... well ... like those that are baked into our government's farm bills, come to think of it -- though one can just as easily talk about health care costs and bad energy bets as forms of subsidy to agribusiness and its tendency toward monoculture. There are complicated economics at play, and the complexity is not proper fodder for a blog-length post. Instead, here's Miguel A. Altieri, of the Division of Insect Biology at UC Berkeley, explaining what monoculture means, in overview, in the introduction of his dated but still relevant Agroecology in action web page:
Until about four decades ago, crop yields in agricultural systems depended on internal resources, recycling of organic matter, built-in biological control mechanisms and rainfall patterns. Agricultural yields were modest, but stable. Production was safeguarded by growing more than one crop or variety in space and time in a field as insurance against pest outbreaks or severe weather. Inputs of nitrogen were gained by rotating major field crops with legumes. In turn rotations suppressed insects, weeds and diseases by effectively breaking the life cycles of these pests. A typical corn belt farmer grew corn rotated with several crops including soybeans, and small grain production was intrinsic to maintain livestock. Most of the labor was done by the family with occasional hired help and no specialized equipment or services were purchased from off-farm sources. In these type of farming systems the link between agriculture and ecology was quite strong and signs of environmental degradation were seldom evident.

But as agricultural modernization progressed, the ecology-farming linkage was often broken as ecological principles were ignored and/or overridden. [...] Evidence has accumulated showing that whereas the present capital- and technology-intensive farming systems have been extremely productive and competitive, they also bring a variety of economic, environmental and social problems.

Evidence also shows that the very nature of the agricultural structure and prevailing policies have led to this environmental crisis by favoring large farm size, specialized production, crop monocultures and mechanization. Today as more and more farmers are integrated into international economies, imperatives to diversity disappear and monocultures are rewarded by economies of scale. In turn, lack of rotations and diversification take away key self-regulating mechanisms, turning monocultures into highly vulnerable agroecosystems dependent on high chemical inputs.
What we learned last week about human biology is that "a single human being" is actually a single organism existing in deeply interdependent symbiosis with 99,999,999,999,999 or so other single organisms. Not "me." But, rather, "us," where "us" turns out to be a much larger number than scientists understood before. Symbiosis and biodiversity are the cornerstones of our very being.

The connection I'm making here is that, as Prof. Altieri explains, it is only recently that farming practice has taken a major fraction of our food production away from harnessing cycles that imitate nature, biodiversity that has evolved over eons, and symbioses that characterize life as it has proliferated over the last four billion years.

Monoculture is antithetical to how life works.

Digging a little deeper into how monoculture farming works, what are these "chemical inputs" to which Altieri refers?

They're things like insecticides and herbicides -- e.g., Monsanto's Roundup, or the WWII era 2,4-D from Dow. These poisons are "needed" when unnatural biological uniformity across acres and miles of farmland encourage proliferation of unsalable plants (a.k.a. "weeds") that crowd out the desired, monocultured plants. Then, to protect the desired monocultures from the toxic effects of these poisons, genetically engineered variants of corn, soy, etc. are "needed" to keep monoculture farming in business.

So, to recap, we poison the land. Then we poison the slow-evolving, fine-tuned genetic heritage of our biosphere in order to counteract the poisoning of the land. We do this so that unsustainable farming techniques can eke out another few seasons of profit.

Then, when the spread of all this toxicity leads us to instantiate controls putatively separate from the profit-focused monocroppers, we get 'Monsanto riders' buried in complex masses of sausage -- oops, I mean 'legislation' -- that knocks the teeth out of those controls.

By "we" here I mean "human beings." We have a collective responsibility for what we do, for what we allow, for what we fail to prevent. This collective responsibility is part and parcel of being a social creature, of living in a society, of living in social and economic and political interdependence with others.

But who exactly proposes poisonous amendments to legislation like the 'Monsanto rider' in the currently-proposed Farm Bill? Back to the AlterNet article:
Whom do we have to thank for this sneak attack on USDA safeguards? The agricultural sub-committee chair Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) -- who not coincidentally was voted "legislator of the year for 2011-2012" by none other than the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include Monsanto and DuPont.  As reported by Mother Jones, the Biotechnology Industry Organization declared Kingston a "champion of America's biotechnology industry" who has "helped to protect funding for programs essential to the survival of biotechnology companies across the United States."
Now all the above is a lot to follow, even for a political junkie ... but the pattern of self-interested, short-sighted, selective ignorance is there to see for those who care to look. You might say this is a story about corporate money in American politics. I certainly would.

Bottom line, monoculture farming is a simplified, reductionist "solution" imposed in a massively complex biological context. It makes no sense. It serves somebody's short-term Profit/Loss statement, but in the end humanity and most other living beings lose, lose, lose.

If you ask me, monoculture farming smells like a sprawling, festering pool of manure.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to NightThree via Wikimedia Commons and to sniggy for images of tractors parked and in situ included in this blog post.

Monday, July 9, 2012

One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you

When was the last time an article in the newspaper took your breath away? In the good sense, I mean?

For me it was this past Thursday.

In the 5 July 2012 print edition of the SF Chronicle, in an article whose on-line version is titled 100 trillion good bacteria call human body home, Erin Allday wrote about work led by Stanford University scientist David Relman:
Last month, an international team of scientists published the results of the first-ever DNA sequencing of the entire human microbiome - the colonies of bacteria that live in and on our bodies, sometimes working against us when we're sick, but mostly working with us in harmless and even favorable ways.

The results of their sequencing are staggering. The human body carries more than 100 trillion bacteria - up to five pounds of the tiny single-celled organisms. The mouth alone has several hundred species of bacteria. Each tooth is its own ecosystem.

Together, all of the bacteria in the body would be the size of a large liver, and in many ways, scientists say, the microbiome behaves as another organ in the human body.

Each of our bodies has its own unique microbiome, cultivated from birth and built from our genes and our diet, nurtured by our exposure to a family dog or cat, by how much dirt we ate out of the sandbox and the antibiotics we've taken for ear infections or strep throat.

Bacteria, for more than a hundred years seen only as a bane of human existence - the cause of fatal illnesses and gut-cramping food poisoning - have, over the past decade, increasingly come to be seen as benevolent life partners. Most people will carry the same basic set of bacteria over their lifetime, and while some microbes may cause gingivitis, others may be actively working to keep our gums healthy.
One hundred trillion is represented numerically as 100,000,000,000,000. It's worth taking a moment to contemplate that number:

  • There are seven billion or so human beings alive today on planet Earth. It would take about 14,285 planets as full of people as Earth is today to add up to 100,000,000,000,000 people.
  • Our galaxy contains somewhere between one and four hundred billion stars. It would take somewhere between two hundred fifty and one thousand Milky Way galaxies to add up to 100,000,000,000,000 stars.
  • According to a U. Hawaii calculation (that is, a guesstimate expressed in formula notation), there are 7,500,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. It would take the bacteria resident in the bodies of some 75,000 people -- about one and a third times the population of Santa Cruz, California, judged the best surf town in the U.S. by Surfer Magazine in 2009 -- to add up to the number of grains of sand on beaches planetwide.

Bottom line? One hundred trillion is a big number.

What I find staggering is how this newly-understood scope of the human microbiome impacts any conceivable concept of "self" -- a topic of interest to narcissists, philosophers, and readers of Ayn Rand throughout the ages. What does "I" mean when each of us is a massively populated ecosystem? When each of us is, so to speak, a teeming zoo enclosed in a bag of skin.

Might Decartes have declaimed differently in Discourse on Method if he had understood how many living beings constitute an "individual"? I contain, therefore I am in place of Je pense donc je suis?

George Harrison -- of The Beatles -- didn't wait for the scientific results to come in before seeking to understand life, self, and soul in proper scale. He looked instead to his sitar-plucking pals in India, and sang it out on the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I submit for your listening pleasure Within You and Without You, with excerpted lyrics below the embedded video:

And to see you're really only very small,
and life flows on within you and without you.
We were talking
about the love that's gone so cold.
And the people
Who gain the world and lose their soul.
They don't know
they can't see
are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself
then you may find
peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come when you see
we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

Leaving numbers aside, and platinum-before-there-was-such-a-thing record albums, check out Carl Zimmer's mind-blowing article, Tending the Body's Microbial Garden in the 18 June 2012 issue of the NY Times. This excerpt, for example:
A number of recent reports shed light on how mothers promote the health of their children by shaping their microbiomes. In a study published last week in the journal PLoS One, Dr. Kjersti Aagaard-Tillery, an obstetrician at Baylor College of Medicine, and her colleagues described the vaginal microbiome in pregnant women. Before she started the study, Dr. Aagaard-Tillery expected this microbiome to be no different from that of women who weren’t pregnant.

“In fact, what we found is the exact opposite,” she said.

Early in the first trimester of pregnancy, she found, the diversity of vaginal bacteria changes significantly. Abundant species become rare, and vice versa.

One of the dominant species in the vagina of a pregnant woman, it turns out, is Lactobacillus johnsonii. It is usually found in the gut, where it produces enzymes that digest milk. It’s an odd species to find proliferating in the vagina, to say the least. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery speculates that changing conditions in the vagina encourage the bacteria to grow. During delivery, a baby will be coated by Lactobacillus johnsonii and ingest some of it. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery suggests that this inoculation prepares the infant to digest breast milk.
(I can't help but wonder what the Michigan House of Representatives thinks when this sort of news lands in their hallowed legislative halls? But, seriously...)

How does that happen? The part about "the diversity of vaginal bacteria changes significantly"? How do the hundred trillion living creatures we call "me" coordinate?

Bottom line: at this stage of the game we have no idea. The NY Times article concludes:
[...] it may take even longer to persuade doctors to think like ecologists.

"The physicians I know really like things that are clear and crisp," Dr. Fischbach said. "But like any ecosystem, the microbiome is not the kind of place to find simple answers."
My 100,000,000,000,000 bacteria and I are going to have to give this some thought...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
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Thanks to Gaura via Wikimedia Commons for the image of George Harrison in Vrindavan, India.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Affordable Care Act in two essential points

With all the bazillions of words spewed on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Supreme Court decision to uphold it, and the asinine teeth-gnashing offered up by politicians and pundits on all sides -- do we really need more?

Yes. But not very much more. I'll try to be brief...

The thing is, if you're distracted by Congressman Mike Pence, running for governor of Indiana and likening the SCOTUS ruling on the ACA to the 9/11 terrorist attacks; or editor-at-large Ben Shapiro tweeting that the decision is the end of America as we know it; or Rush Limbaugh calling the Supreme Court a "death panel"; or any other silly, irrational, socially-corrosive hysteric -- you could well be missing two essential points.

(1) LaLaLaLa I can't hear you!

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a poll on Tuesday. Based on a survey taken on the day of and two days following the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, KFF found that 41% of Americans didn't know the ruling had been announced, or knew there had been a ruling but didn't know what decision SCOTUS had come to.

The Pew Research Center released a similar poll on the same date. Results from Pew are ... worse:
Despite extensive public interest in the court’s ruling, just 55% of the public knows that the Supreme Court upheld most of the health care law’s provisions; 45% say either that the court rejected most provisions (15%) or do not know what the court did (30%).

If what people don't know won't hurt them, 45% of Americans might never need a doctor. Wheeee!

Essential point #1, then, is that for all the yammering about a question that impacts just about everybody (because everybody who doesn't die suddenly and unexpectedly will need health care sometime, whether or not they're able to afford it), a shockingly large fraction of citizens in our ostensibly democratic polity aren't paying attention.

(2) ACA is a stake in the ground

Is the Affordable Care Act -- pioneered by Mitt Romney, realized by Barack Obama, upheld by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts -- all good?

No! Of course not! It's riddled with Byzantine concessions to a rapacious health care "industry" concerned with maximizing profit irrespective of benefit to public health. (I'm talking about insurance companies, in case anybody's wondering.)

That is to say, the ACA is faulty because it's not single-payer. So say I, anyhow.

But if you disregard the pols and pundits currently telling any pandering, hyperbolic lie that they imagine will give 'their side' an edge in the November elections, and recall that every major policy initiative in the history of the United States evolved over time after its initial passage, what you're left with is a very simple conclusion.

What we have now in the ACA is an opportunity -- a compelling opportunity -- to fix deeply broken, staggeringly wasteful, and poorly focused health care policy and infrastructure.

Eugene Robinson said this very nicely in the Washington Post the day after the SCOTUS ruling:
Rather than seek a radical reshaping of the health-care system, Obama pushed through a set of relatively modest reforms that will expand insurance coverage to a large number of the uninsured — about 30 million — but still not all. He also tried to use free-market forces to “bend the curve” of rising costs, slowing but not halting their rise.

The result — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — is a huge, complicated, unwieldy piece of legislation. I would have loved to see the president try for something simpler and more elegant, perhaps a “Medicare for everyone,” single-payer system. Maybe that’s where we’ll end up someday.

But despite all the rhetoric we’ll hear from Romney and the GOP until Election Day, health-care reform is here to stay. Provisions such as guaranteeing insurance coverage to those with preexisting conditions are too consumer-friendly to be taken away, and once these measures take effect, which happens in 2014, insurance rates would rise sharply — and unacceptably — without the individual mandate.

And medical costs will continue to soar, despite the law’s efforts to contain them. Inevitably, if only because of deficits and the national debt, Congress will have to revisit the health-care issue with an eye toward more radical changes.

When that next big push takes place, it will be with the underlying assumption that health care should be available to all who need it regardless of their ability to pay — that it is not a privilege but a right. Progressive presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have tried to enshrine this principle. Barack Obama did it.
Essential point #2, then, is that the ACA is not only not "the end of America as we know it," it's not even the end of health care reform.

Whether you're paying attention or not, the real work has just begun.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
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Thanks to the White House for the Reality Check image; and to The Alliance for Democracy for catching Dan Wasserman's on-point 2008 cartoon in the Boston Globe.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world

Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand was published in 1984, five or six years after my most ravenous period of devouring science fiction novels ended. Thinking of it the other day, then looking at its publication date, reminded me that I read it right around the dawn of the intertubes.

Why did I think of Stars in My Pocket... the other day?

Google Glass and Google Glasses, natch.

Google Glasses, if you weren't watching tech news last week, are eyeglasses with a bit of Google Glass mounted at the edge of a wearer's field of view. What's Google Glass, then? Here's how Reuters described it on Thursday:
Google Glass is a stamp-sized electronic screen mounted on the left side of a pair of eyeglass frames which can record video, access email and messages, and retrieve information from the Web. [...]

The glasses, which weigh less than some sunglasses, contain a wireless networking chip and essentially all the other technology found inside a typical smartphone - save for a cellular network radio - Google executives said.

The battery is smaller than a smartphone battery, but Google is working on ways to make the battery charge last for a full day.

[Google co-founder Sergei] Brin said he expects the glasses to be available to consumers less than a year after the developer version is available.

Google is still experimenting with various aspects of the glasses, including potentially providing directions on the screen and the ability to have the glasses speak out text messages, Brin said.
Fulfilling futurist vision

I've forgotten much of the detail of Delany's 1984 novel, in which (from the novel's dust jacket) "the Web [is] a shadowy organization that controls the flow of data between worlds." Still, I'm surprised by how frequently I continue to remember his description of the General Information service when I mull over the reach of our current web, and its ability to provide most any information one seeks, most any time, via some of the simplest and most useful interfaces you can load in a web browser: Google's home page, or Bing's or Baidu's (Yandex and Yahoo are more crowded and confusing, but their reach is analogous).

Delany's General Information service -- GI for short -- is a mode of hooking up, telepathically for all intents and purposes, to local nodes of massively cross-indexed data. The universe of Delany's novel is very very big, thousands of inhabited worlds across vast sectors of multiple galaxies; so "local nodes" refers to planetary, solar system, and star-sector sized aggregations of information. As in our actual, single-planet world, information has value. Access to it may be restricted. Here's how Delany portrayed his then-theoretical concept as it exists on a free-data transfer point called Kantor, somewhere in the fictional universe of Stars in My Pocket...:
GI on Kantor dwarfs any on any given world. To walk in the weak gravity by the great aluminum and ceramic banks in hot and cold storage is to walk past macro-encylopedias -- encyclopedias of encyclopedias! I recall my first time through, when I stood on a plane of scarlet glass under an array of floating light tubes and thought out: "What is the exact human population of the universe?" and was informed, for answer: "In a universe of c. six thousand two hundred inhabited worlds with human populations over two hundred and under five billion, 'population' itself becomes a fuzzy-edged concept. Over any moment there is a birth/death pulse of almost a billion. [...] Thus 'exactness' below five billion is not to be forthcoming. Here are some informative programs you may pursue that will allow you to ask your question in more meaningful terms..."

Does Free-Kantor or, indeed, any free-data transfer point contain all the information in the human universe? Far from it. On such a scale, data-quantity itself is even more fuzzy-edged than population. By in the way that an urban complex soon becomes a kind of intensified sampling of the products and produce of the geosector around it, so a free-data transfer point becomes a kind of partial city against the night, an image of the city without the city's substance, gaining what solidity in possesses from endlessly cross-filed data webs.

Google Glasses promise to go further toward delivering what Delany wrote about, speculatively, twenty-eight years ago, than humankind has ever gone before. Access to the hive mind, all the time, as background to one's everyday activity ... without even having to take a smartphone out of your pocket and poke it.

TMI: an oopsie-daisy scenario, with teeth

Developments like Google Glass naturally lead one to ask: is internet everywhere, all the time, a good thing? When Google Glass becomes available to Joe Consumer it will dramatically up the ante on those same questions.

One way to answer the questions is with parody, as in the video embedded below, posted a few months ago by Tom Scott as he followed the progress of Project Glass:

An amusing contrast, I'd say, to the Happy Happy Consumer View, that is, to Google's own description of Google Glass, also posted to YouTube.

But if Tom Scott gave us the "oops, sorry" sound-byte, consider another novelist's lengthier take on life in intertubelandia, this one on life lived with the net as we know it rather than as a speculative fiction.

Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life (2011) gives an open-eyed view to where too much web access -- even the 'pedestrian' web already woven deep into the fabric of 21st century life -- can go wrong. From Schulman's dust-jacket blurb:
When the Bergamots move from a comfortable upstate college town to New York City, they're not quite sure how they'll adapt -- or what to make of  the strange new world of well-to-do Manhattan. [...]

But the upper-class cocoon in which they have enveloped themselves is ripped apart when [fifteen-year-old] Jake wakes up one morning after an unchaparoned party and finds an e-mail in his in-box from an eighth-grade admirer. Attached is a sexually explicit video she has made for him. Shocked, stunned, maybe a little proud, and scared -- a jumble of adolescent emotion -- he forwards the video to a friend, who then forwards it to a friend. Within hours it's gone viral, all over the school, the city, the world.
The ensuing scandal threatens to shatter the Bergamots' sense of security and identity, and, ultimately, their happiness. They are a good family faced with bad choices, and how they choose to react, individually and at one another's behest, places everything they hold dear in jeopardy.
It's true that a novel of Upper West Side manners depicts a far different, far more sheltered sensibility than that of Delany's work, in which sexual expression and mores are treated way outside the mainstream. After all, a centerpiece of Stars in My Pocket... is the relationship between Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga, two fellows whose synaptic maps have been analyzed such that the shadowy organization that is The Web has discovered "Korga happens to be your [Dyeth's] perfect erotic object -- out to about seven decimal places [...] More to the point [...] out to about nine decimal places, you happen to be Rat's." Delany's fictions extrapolate from even more remote byways of the real world we know than New York's Upper West Side.

But it's not hard for anybody with a webcam -- let alone anybody with a child who has a webcam -- to imagine how easily damage might be done.

Do the names Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi ring any bells?

Lost in space

Have you ever looked around a restaurant, a subway car, a classroom, or a sidewalk and wondered at the proportion of people paying more attention to their devices -- smartphones, iPods, laptops -- than to their surroundings?

Might developments like Google Glass tempt us to forget altogether that there's a real world out there?

Here's James Temple with a few thoughtful words on the larger frame, if you will, of Google Glasses, in the SF Chronicle of  late last week:
To me it seems the real point is to make the Internet and technology a more pervasive force in our lives. In fact, it feels like a half step toward a bionic future, where we pump up our cognitive and physical abilities with the aid of ever present computers.

Now, whether that sounds like a techno utopia or electronic hell depends a lot on your general attitude toward technology. As I joked with a colleague earlier in the day: the reaction to the glasses has been roughly divided between those who think affixing a computer to your face is crazy — and people who watch Star Trek.

I certainly see the appeal, but I fear what we sacrifice along the way. Google Glass may add some capabilities or convenience, but it’s also a filter that sits between our eyes and the real world.

I might never again miss an opportunity to record a precious life moment, but I might miss an opportunity to experience it.

Two to four million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the U.K. Remotely-operated microphones that pinpoint the occurrence of urban gunfire in sixty cities around the U.S. Policing of everyday commerce through massive data mining operations run by government bureaucracies like the National Security Branch Analysis Center.

The Christian Science Monitor, in Report: London no safer for all its CCTV cameras, published this lede in February 2012:
London is considered the most spied-on city in the world, courtesy of its ubiquitous CCTV cameras, purportedly there to reduce crime. But according to a recent report, there's been little or no change in London's crime rates since they were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.

Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel 1984, where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.

"We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society where we’re watched from control rooms by anonymous people," says Emma Carr of the BBW. "The worrying thing is that we don’t actually know how many CCTV cameras there are out there."
Imagine, then, a world in which you're surrounded by people wearing Google Glasses or the equivalent.

Which of them is piping every one of your unguarded gestures and utterances into cyberspace? How many have accepted 'special terms' on discounted glasses that required 'only' agreement that their data stream be uploaded, 24/7, to "OmniWatch Corporation," which reserves a fine-print right to direct certain data, at their sole discretion, to ambiguously defined 'security partners'?

When was the last time you read the fine print on your Facebook privacy agreement, or your cell phone contract, or that terms-and-conditions-on-tissue-paper pamphlet issued with your credit card?

Are Google Glass and its spawn going to be good clean fun? Or are we talking instruments of social control?

* * *

I don't know which world Google Glass and its descendents will usher in. Maybe it will be a world of lives shattered by spontaneous oversharing of adolescent impulse-porn. Maybe it'll be a world of algorithmically enhanced hook-ups. Might it be a matrixed world of electronically simulated experience? Or a world in which police agencies evaluate everything each of us does, says, spends ... and even looks at?

Perhaps a better question would be in what order and with what attendant chaos will technologies like those Samuel Delany visualized -- technologies like today's, whose disruptive effect Helen Schulman portrayed and Dharun Ravi thoughtlessly abused -- transform current human behavior and relations in ways we don't yet imagine?

Time will tell, I suppose.

Delany must have loved PC Magazine's headline on the Google Glasses demo, dated 28 June 2012: Porn on Google's Project Glass Is Inevitable.

Of that, I suppose, we can be certain.

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