Friday, May 8, 2015

What's so scary about gmos? Continued

Let's recall, the question on my mind is "what's so scary about gmos?". As curious individual trained in the sciences, it is our responsibility to understand and explain this fear fairly, with an insight that will be sufficiently penetrating that it will clearly indicate a route through which it might be addressed.

My argument is that the scientific and journalism professions have abdicated their responsibility to provide true popular transparency on the issue.

Let's be honest, the page at on gmo regulations at might as well been written to intimidate. The language is thick, the font is tiny. It spends most of the space naming authorities, but very little on the substance of their enforcement. Hunting through the document for the most substantive passage, I settled on this one:

The consultation procedure is meant to enable the FDA to determine if regulatory action is needed with respect to food derived from the new variety such as “significantly increased levels of plant toxicants or anti-nutrients, reduction of important nutrients, new allergens, or the presence in the food of an unapproved food additive.”
In a 1992 policy statement, the FDA reaffirmed that in most cases it would treat foods derived from GMOs like those derived from conventionally bred plants, and that most foods derived from GM plants would be presumptively GRAS.

This is not a popular science document. To anyone who remembers the environmental catastrophes of the '50 and '60, who have fought industrial Goliaths with sweat and tears, who have suffered the blunt edge of the baton of the police officers sent to repress their protests, and who have passed on the memory of these fights to their children, this reads as stonewalling and naive. A "consultation" with once-murderous industries, which generally leads to a potential toxic product being stamped as "generally recognized as safe"? You've got to be kidding, they will say. The actual work the FDA might very well be excellent, but to a justifiably skeptical reader the language on that page gives the opposite impression.

There have been recent efforts to improve the situation.

The web newspaper was created for the explicit purpose to address the explanation deficit that I am highlighting. I rejoice at their existence, but their piece on gmo regulation is too short, and lacks specifics.

My own favorite piece on the topic is from July 2013, when a reporter at the fantastic reader-supported Grist Magazine made a heroic attempt to investigate the regulatory situation. And yet, after much effort and searching, even Grist, the best environmental reporters of all, failed to bring clarity in such a way that it could inspire confidence. This, above all, gives a measure of the information deficit that has been allowed to take place.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What's so scary about GMOs?

A GMO can easily be made to be as toxic to as any pesticides. So think DDT, 2,4-D, Chlordane, Agent Orange, Heptachlor and all that.

To be technologically precise, one could not literally put these molecules in a plants' genome, but other similarly dangerous molecules are quite feasible.

Presumably, pesticide can be studied carefully, scientifically, and deployed under the supervision of an agriculture engineer who will express utmost respect for the health of their neighbor, and for the environment that supports all life including humanity's. In practice, that's not what happened.

Pesticides were applied indiscriminately, with wanton abandon and callous disregard for safety. Farm employees died, cancer rates exploded. It was decades after the publication of Silent Spring, the birth of the modern environmental movement, and massive million-people protests throughout the country that national politics began to take notice of the issue. Only then were somewhat effective regulation put in place.

So given the history here, it seems justifiable to expect large agriculture companies to behave with as little care for the health of the broader community as they displayed back then. Similarly, American politicians could be expected to be as laggard as they were back then, or perhaps worse in the eyes of anyone who believes this political system has been switching from democracy to plutocracy.

In sum, like all other novel technologies with potential for both profit and harm --medicine, cars, planes, rollercoaster rides, bodypiercings, etc-- GMOs raise questions of trust, regulation, enforcement, transparency, and struggles of interests. Technologists like myself and yourself would much prefer to see technology used wisely as a matter of course. Alas, it cannot be the case, and thus GMOs necessarily have a political dimension.

Given this, the question we should be asking is: what are the key features of the body of law that regulates the safety of GMOs, and can these be trusted to be effective?

Here with hit a wall. It is nearly impossible to know. Let's out me as the rather obsessive readers of news that I am. I can speak about the FDA drug enforcement rules, the FCC's, the EPA, the WHO, the Feds', the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. I could probably fill a page or two with details of how Obamacare work and why it works. I love watching crash test dummies videos; I listened to the all the Plane Crash Engineering Investigation episodes I could get my hand on. And yet, I have no clue about GMO regulation.

I challenge this reader to find a long-form piece in any national American newspaper, let's say between 1990 and now, that explains how this country establishes the safety of a GMO in a legally binding manner, and what penalties are scheduled for abuses. Who introduced the bill and who paid for their reelection campaign? What were the different schemes considered? How do American GMO safety regulations compare with those abroad? Are they better, worst, same? Nobody knows.

American science journalists have done a pitiful job of providing transparency to the situation. Now that it's 2015, there is nobody left to do it since nearly all science journalists at large newspapers were fired when Craiglist cannibalized the papers' ad revenues. A well-earned popular distrust of GMOs grew into that vacuum and it's just a sad situation all around.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What renewable energy products on the market today are capable of heating a Boston brownstone in winter?

The title started as a rhetorical question. Turns out it is actually quite easy to give a practical answer.

Step 1: Hire an architect house with experience in energy efficiency retrofits on old New England houses, such as the folks at

Step 2: Bring up the insulation rating of the house up to the Passive House standard. Think of it as LEAD Silver, one step higher. Check out This costs around $200 per sqft.

Step 3: Reap the savings. After the retrofit, heating costs are reduced five-fold, from $8 per sqft to $1.50. This has a Return-On-Investment period of 10 years, afterwards the energy savings are money in the bank.

Step 4: Generate the energy needed to heat the passive house by buying shares of a windmill coop. You will need one-fifth of 1/6000 of the Berkshire Wind Power Coop project, which is a one-time cost of around $2100 plus a few cents for maintenance.


The only reason people don't do this is because, either (1) they actually enjoy giving oil company their money (ah!) (2) they don't own their house, or (3) they don't know that the technology is available today, or (4) they cannot stomac the 10-year investment horizon.

If you are in that 4th case, keep an eye open. There are banks that specialize in doing these sorts of investments, Solar City does it for solar panels, for instance. But overall they are few and hard to find at the moment. Still, it's totally worth doing.

This article at talks about some folks in New York who did just that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lesson of a Rosetta Scientist's Shirt

The New York Times just wrote a fair piece on Matt Taylor, the British Scientist from the Rosetta Mission team who showed up on the big day with the wrong shirt.

It's a heart warming story, truly. A dear friend hand-makes a fun, bold bowling shirt, for their scientist friend. The scientist decides to honor the gift by wearing it on the glorious day when their mission makes humanity's first ever landing on a comet. Wow! Hurrah for science! Hurrah for breaking down stupid stereotypes of lab coat scientists and injecting some personality in the day!

Except there is just one thing: the shirt shows, among other things, sexist images of women.

The debate is on. What exactly is wrong with the shirt? And what should be done about it?

Let's break down its many layers.

Layer #1-- Taken literally and absent of any social dynamic, the illustration on the shirt is sharply unpleasant to look at for many women. That's on a purely aesthetic basis.

Layer #2-- The shirt exists in a cultural context in which many women nurse old wounds of objectification and sexual aggression. To them, the illustration is a reminder (or an outright trigger, the case may be), which piles on the unpleasantness of Layer #1.

Layer #3-- Absent of any intent, the shirt is a reliable signal that the wearer is at least unaware of its impact on many women. Knowing that at least one man in the organization lacks that awareness suggests the place does not value developing in its members the kind of understanding of other people's perspective that's needed to work well as a diverse team. That always makes things hard when you are the underdog.

Layer #4-- The shirt opens the possibly that the wearer does in actuality love the shirt, at least in part, because it displays a woman entirely "as a heterosexual man sees her", removed from any depiction of her own agency. Granted, it's not a given that the person is an avowed misogynist. Granted, it's not at all a given that the shirt is used as a kind of twisted awareness campaign supporting objectification, let alone supporting rape culture --this shirt is not as grossly unambiguous as the ones that read "no means yes, yes means anal". But the possibility is open all the same, and that's uncomfortable.

Layer #5-- Once the possibility is open, stereotype threat kicks in. Stereotype threat can easily kill 60% of someone's performance in a controlled environment. In an organization, this means many great women will leave for an environment where the whole 100% of their creativity can express itself.

These five layers are active regardless of the wearer's intent. Here, morals of intent and morals of impact split. What exactly should we do with a very negative impact done by someone with no ill intent?

One of the best attitudes I know is Hacker School's: "[once your impact is pointed out to you], apologize, reflect for a second, and move on."

Unfortunately, Matt Taylor's case doesn't make that possible. He participated in a major cultural event, at the very same time two other large misogyny conversations are burning all over the internet: (1) gamergate and the associated terrorizing of outspoken women in the game industry. (2) the exiling of women out of computer science, out of the Valley, and in particular Uber being outed in a big way this week. It's unavoidable then that Matt would become a symbol of a greater problem. Strictly speaking, that's unfair to the individual involved. Still, when history knocks at your door, isn't it one's duty to answer it with greatness?

Friday, April 4, 2014

On Mozilla's new CEO Brendan Eich stepping down

Recall, Mozilla is not a technology company. It is a civil right organization that works in the technology space. It believes that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and notably freedom from being spied by upon for political gain by powerful people, can only be guaranteed so long as the technologies that make up the internet remains free, open and controlled by the people -- not by corporations and not by governments.

That is its reason for existence. Everybody within Mozilla powerfully resonates with that mission, else they wouldn't be there.

When we discover that the NSA makes secret deals with private companies to insert spying code into commercial software, which is then used to spy on international leaders during world trade negotiations, the Mozilla foundation redouble its effort to construct a spying-proof browser. Call it applied technological civil right activism.

Civil rights, in essence, means defending the powerless against bullying by the powerful. Defending the poor against class war from the rich. Defending the minority against imposition by the majority.

Thus for the Mozilla Foundation and its supporting community, is it unavoidable that its leadership must be judged by the excellence of their judgement in matters of civil right. Eich failed in two ways. First by taking the heteronormative position, he participated in harming a minority (He has since apologized for that harm.) Second, by using his wealth to bend the democratic process, he participated in corrupting the one-person-per-vote principle that is so important in protecting the voice of the people against moneyed interests.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Quick personality quiz for libertarians: are you a Free Marketeer?, or a Pro-Capitalist?

A free marketeer is someone who believes that through the free flow of information, free choice and free exchanges, we will see arise a healthy, prosperous and fair society.

A pro-capitalist is someone who believes that society will, on the whole, be better-off if important decisions about society's efforts and production potential are made by the people who control a lot of monetary capital.

Both attitudes are currently flying under the banner of "Libertarianism". Yet they are very different and distinct. What's more, both claim Adam Smith for their camp, when he clearly repudiated one of them.

We can tell the two apart with the following litmus test.

Over the last eight years, 37 technology companies have come together and agreed to never hire each other's employees, since the waves of hire-rehire were raising salaries and eating into their profits. The agreement was made in secret through verbal communication between CEOs and kept off the record as much as they could manage.

Should this be illegal? And if so, how severe should the punishment be?

Under free marketeering, this is called collusion by market-controlling players to fix the free prices of the market. It amounts to wage theft and the punishment should be at least as severe as if the company had stolen the money directly from their employees' bank accounts and called it "profit."

Under pro-capitalism, the CEOs' judgement is de facto authoritative, following a conviction that if these CEOs have made this much money, certainly this is a proof of good judgement, and their calls have no need to be second-guessed. This is the view the Adam Smith abhorred.

Investigative reporter Mark Ames at Pando has been writing track of the legal action taken against the companies:

In the comments, many individuals are defending the CEOs along pro-capitalist lines. I suspect -- I worry -- that these folks think of themselves as Adam Smith-style libertarians, when they are no such thing. Perhaps they have not actually read him.

Reading "The Wealth of Nations" I found myself learning a whole lot more about the price variations of wheat and of tariffs in the 18th century than I thought I ever would. I also learned about the rampant misery and poverty then. Adam Smith largely blamed this sad affair on market collusion by heavy actors, often through cartelling to fix the free market, alternatively through lobbying and corrupting the government.

Needless to say, it was eye-opening to see the distance between the fantasy made of Adam Smith's position by the pro-capitalists with the writing of the man himself.

I would urge the honest free-marketing libertarians to speak up loudly in these cases when their ideals are being co-opted by the pro-capitalists.

Monday, December 30, 2013

How to Pen a Political Takedown Note, in the style of Krugman

One short sentence announcing what is happening, in general, absent of this particular feud. Two sentences stating your opponent's opinion, in a manner that is fair and they they would recognize. A few words stating that they are wrong (or very wrong, or catastrophically wrong, the case being.)

A promise of a detailed explanation later, but first, come context.

One or two or five paragraphs of necessary historical and philosophical context, as most questions deserving of a detailed response are really deserving of essay-length reflections. But this is the internet, five paragraph will have to do.

Two or three paragraphs articulating your rebuke to your opponent, in light of the historical context. The key here is to help the reader put two and two together -- resist the temptation to lean on any sense of authority. Now is not the time to be the delivery person of the Judgement Inc. Corporation. Present the argument fairly and sternly. 

One line calling your opponent a ditwit or some such. By the time you get here, you've earned it