Monday, 31 January 2011

An Exciting Mess in Egypt

Despite a couple of notable exceptions, specifically the French and Iranian revolutions, I’m generally in favor of popular rebellion against excessive state power. As a lover of freedom it’s thrilling to see events develop in Egypt. My thoughts are with the long-repressed people of that ancient land, my hopes are that they craft a new, stronger republic. I trust that Egypt’s mature foreign policy of recent decades isn’t just Mubarek’s Realpolitik, but that it will be continued by the government that takes its place.

Yes, things went all wrong in Iran, with the revolution promptly coopted by a coterie of vicious old men addled with religious fundamentalism. (I don’t care what religion it is, fundamentalism addles its adherents.) But I don’t believe that such a stance is inherent in an Islamic people breaking free from despotism. Egyptian parents know they want decent jobs, decent infrastructure, decent services, and decent education. While there are those in Islam that want nothing more than to build mind-narrowing madrassas, and every religion does need to train priests and theologians, the public knows full well that the education needed is in communications, engineering, medicine, law, and a host of other fields that allow graduates to be productive in a modern world. Government needs to keep the peace and deliver the mail. Even the Muslim Brotherhood understands this.

If I Were King, I’d take Mubarak aside and point out the obvious: Having failed to build the secure modern society that Egypt deserves, it’s time for him to walk away and let someone else pick up the challenge. I’m sure that safe transportation for Mubarek and his family is available from numerous nations. And he should make the call to turn the internet connections back on before he starts packing.

If I Were King, I’d meet with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and make the point that although set back by three decades of oppression, Egypt needs to continue as a mature member of the international community, that the Brotherhood needs religious freedom and a voice in society proportionate to their numbers, but not religious law.

If I Were King, I’d encourage the leaders of the protesters to continue their “hug a soldier” campaign to build relationships with the military, but also to immediately attempt to get control of the looting and other criminal activity that is taking advantage of the absence of the existing police force. (Whether there is any possible rehabilitation for Mubarak’s current security forces is another matter.)

If I Were King, I’d take Dr ElBaradei aside and suggest he look into the concept of regency. As regent for two years, forswearing a permanent role in government, he could use his reputation to start the process of building a new state based on the values of the Egyptian people. He’s obviously smart enough to do more in two years than Maliki has done in Iraq.

And to all, I wish you well. A chance like this comes rarely to any society, don’t screw it up.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

GM Alfalfa, Yummy!

The Department of Agriculture has announced its approval for unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, according to “U.S. Approves Genetically Modified Alfalfa” by¬† Andrew Pollack in The New York Times. Unlike some, I’m not convinced that GM crops are a bad thing. There had been a proposal to restrict the areas in which this crop could be grown to protect traditional strains from contamination from wind-carried pollen. Again, I’m not overwhelmed by the problem. Organic farmers don’t use Roundup (glyphosphate) on their crops and thus don’t need Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready seed, nor would they benefit from it.

What I am convinced of is that there exists a huge problem in Monsanto’s approach to their Roundup-Ready GM seed, specifically the way they have defended their intellectual property. Anyone who uses any of their GM seeds is bound by contract to not save any of the crop to use as seed for the following year. This seems fundamentally unsound, farmers have traditionally processed a portion of each year’s crop to plant the following year. In every farming community, at least one supplier has operated a seed cleaning operation to process those seeds, presumably treating them with any necessary fungicide and ensuring they were properly dried. It’s a fundamental part of historical farming, the essence of sustainability.

Monsanto is entitled to make a complete replacement of their seed a condition of their sales contracts, and farmers are entitled to sign those contracts. However, Monsanto goes well beyond this. When their crops are grown, pollen blows off those fields into the fields of farmers that have not chosen to grow GM crops, and the resulting seed inevitably contains some that contains the glyphosphate-tolerant gene. Monsanto sends agents out, takes samples, and sues farmers who attempt to plant the seeds they have grown themselves if the gene is found. They have forced hundreds of suppliers to discontinue seed cleaning operations.

Some provision should have been made so that organic-certified farmers would be protected from the encroachment, as selling their crops as “organic” becomes impossible once genes from the GM crop has contaminated it. This is regrettable, one hopes that the farmers themselves will decide to not plant the expensive Monsanto product in enough areas that untainted seed continues to be available. Monsanto should be responsible for the additional expenses needed by farmers who choose to continue with the traditional product.

The very idea of patenting a gene still causes me some difficulty, but it’s currently the law and I don’t resist it. However, the law is running exactly the wrong direction on enforcing this. If I Were King, farmers who innocently ended up with the Monsanto gene in their seed would absolutely have the right to plant it the following spring. I would be tempted to consider Monsanto’s suits against such farmers to be frivolous and malicious and order that the farmers be granted at least three times their legal expenses and lost time spent in defending themselves.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Tevatron

The Department of Energy has announced that the Tevatron at Fermilab will shut down late this year. The idea is that the Large Hadron Collider is coming on line and promises more power and greater range of research opportunities. This is, intellectually, on the same plane as eschewing adult supervision of deep-water oil drilling.

Yes, the LHC will run at seven times the power of the Tevatron. Some day. Possibly in 2012, but maybe not. 2012 is the year they’re going to shut the LHC down to address the problems that have kept it from reaching its full potential. This does not necessarily mean that 2012 is the year they’ll turn it back on.

In addition, although there are certainly research projects that really need the higher levels of power, some 1,200 physicists are currently doing experiments on the Tevatron. The LHC is only one collider. Being much larger, it’s very likely that it will actually take longer to switch over from one experiment to another, which means if we only have one collider, while we can do higher-energy research on the LHC we may be stuck with less total research. And of the many projects that don’t require that level of power, it would make far more sense to run the Tevatron flat out while the LHC is running at a higher power level, rather than using the LHC at fractional power levels.

Do I need to mention that with the Tevatron retired and the LHC down for repairs, there will be a period next year in which none of the physicists will be able to do their research?

What about the fact that the LHC consumes so much electrical power that it will not be able to operate year-round? There’s only so much snow in the Alps.

I don’t know what it cost to build the Tevatron, but I doubt that reaching .98 terevolts came cheap. As long as we’ve made the investment, continuing to operate the accelerator as long as maintenance costs are reasonable is the right course. If we have research to do, shutting down what has been the most productive lab in that subject area for the last two decades is simply wrong.

If I Were King, there would be no question of trying to balance the nations huge budget with the nickels and dimes in Fermilab’s piggy bank.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

As smart as cows?

A story in The New York Times, F.D.A and Dairy Industry Spar Over Testing of Milk by William Neuman, discusses a bit of a controversy going on between the FDA and the dairy industry over testing.

Disclosure: My dad grew up at Carnation, Washington, a company town for one of the major dairy companies, so I tend to be on the side of the dairy farmers. I have no use for milk, but there aren’t many cheeses I don’t enjoy, I do like cream in soups, and like Julia Child, butter is my favorite ingredient. On the flip side, I detest agriculture subsidies, which the dairy industry gets a lot of. I’m also solidly opposed to the prescription drug system in which doctors and pharmacists have the monopoly on deciding what drugs can be taken, but note that if there is one class of drugs where I see a public interest in controlling drug use, that one class would be antibiotics. And I’m always in favor of more information.

So here’s the kerfuffle: The FDA currently tests loads of milk for four to six common antibiotics. If the tests shows that the drugs have entered the milk, the entire load has to be destroyed. The FDA, based on results of testing on dairy cattle sent to slaughter, wants to test for two dozen other antibiotics, as well as flunixin, a common pain killer and anti-inflammatory used in the industry. However, the tests aren’t instant like the current simpler ones are, they can take a week.

The industry is frightened by the prospect of holding that milk until the test results are known (they obviously can’t actually do this, no dairy has the facilities to segregate and safely store that much milk), or that after processing the test results will lead to recalls of the product. At least one cooperative dairy has announced that it will not accept milk that has been sampled for the additional tests, and it’s likely that other processors will take the same stance.

Are these people as smart as the cows? They would clearly prefer to process milk with no idea what the level of drug contamination is than to consider the possibility that there might be a problem to address. I doubt that the FDA is guiltless here, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the rules require destroying the product if those traces are present. Zero-tolerance rules are much beloved by the mindless, a group that is often involved in government.

The question of antibiotics entering the food stream is important, and it would be a most excellent thing to understand the situation, monitor any trends, set standards, develop best practices in the industry, and finally establish go/no-go rules. But none of those things can be done without the result of the tests.

If I Were King I would have no power to increase the intelligence of stubborn farmers and bureaucrats. I could, however, insist that the tests be performed and the information recorded, charted, and analyzed. I could, and obviously would have to, declare that the results of these additional tests would not result in the destruction of any milk until everybody, on both sides of this issue, knew what the hell they were doing.

Friday, 21 January 2011

GOP impractical and wrong on budget

The Republican Study Committee has made a proposal to cut $100 Billion from this year’s budget, and to ramp it up from there. Perhaps not a bad idea at that level, but they render it absurd by exempting the military and the major entitlement programs. That’s not going to work.

The military is the only part of the government that has any significant amount of fat to cut, and everything they do, at least in detail, is discretionary. Defense Secretary Gates has shown that the military is ready to devote the creative effort to learning to fight wars at a lower price, budgetary pressure on DOD would go a long way to help eliminate expensive toys that our forces don’t need to fight the wars we’re involved in, and likely to be involved in in the years to come. It will also help streamline the military at home, which has long spent vast sums to make sure there were major bases or defense contractors in as many Congressional districts as possible. That was a big help for protecting the department’s budgets, but didn’t do a damned thing to make us safer.

Given the likelihood that anything that the Department of Homeland Security has spent money on has actually made us safer suggests another budget to look at with cold logic and analysis. I know, it’s not going to happen.

At the same time, the entitlements need to be addressed, because we flatly cannot continue them with the current rules. I have no interest in slashing either Social Security or Medicare, but as people live longer, the structure of those programs simply cannot work, absent the sudden availability of some very safe high-yielding investment opportunities, something that can’t be expected in my lifetime. (If we could arrange investments like that, we wouldn’t need Social Security in the first place.) If we need to move back the starting date for drawing Social Security, and the demographics say we certainly will, it would make sense to start moving that back now, say set it back a quarter every year for the next twenty years. That wouldn’t help much right away, but it would provide the information individuals need for planning, and would make a huge budgetary difference over the next fifty years. It would be much preferable to waiting five or ten years and having no choice but to do something drastic.

Of course it wouldn’t hurt to actually consider health care reform, something that has never once been considered at Washington City. Yes, I know, it’s been in all the headlines, but if you actually read the stories there has been no actual discussion about lowering the cost of health care at all. Not word one. All that has been proposed has been changing the rules of who pays for how much of whose care. The proper term for this is “rearranging the deck chairs” and our health care system is certainly titanic.

The committee’s proposal reminds me of the hue and cry to cut earmarks last year, a similarly inane attempt to wrest big bucks out of the smallest parts of the budget. If I Were King, I would require IQ testing for those chosen to consider public policy options. I’m thinking this group wouldn’t have made the cut.