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- Jeff Hammerbacher

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  • The GMO Scare – fact or fiction?

    Genetically modified organisms – GMO – are a hot topic at the moment, with loads of people weighing in on the debate. Especially the anti-GMO stance receives a lot of attention, fuelling scare stories about the hazards of GMO crops and food.

    However, there seems to be precious little facts in these scare stories. Fortunately there have also been a few recent articles that provide a more balanced, fact-based perspective on GMO foods:

    This thoroughly researched article on Slate debunks a GMO scare story published in Elle magazine – not quite a staple of fact-based reporting – and delves deeper in to the scientific evidence about GMO foods.

    Turns out there’s no evidence whatsoever suggesting that GMO food is any more dangerous than regular food:

    “Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.”

    But, say the GMO skeptics, what about the correlation between the growing consumption of GMO food in America and the rise in autoimmune disorders?

    “The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.”

    An article on Grist explores the issues of allergenic proteins originating from GMO foods. Turns out that in this respect GMO foods are actually safer than regular foods and are being tested much more thoroughly for new allergens:

    “First, there just aren’t many new proteins in GE food (all allergens are proteins) — you are adding just a couple. It’s much riskier to introduce a new food from another country, each of which contains hundreds of new proteins, Taylor wrote, and yet we subject new foods to less safety testing. (When the first kiwis were shipped into the United States in 1962, they weren’t tested because they were an established food, but, as it turned out, they did cause allergic reactions in some people.)

    Furthermore, Taylor said, the new genes in transgenic plants generally express very low amounts of protein (when a gene causes an organism to make a protein it’s called expression). Allergens generally account for more than 1 percent of the proteins in a food, while the proteins expressed by transgenic DNA are much more sparse.”

    The New York Times published a balanced piece about the use of genetic modification to help oranges resist a specific type of bacteria:

    “Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.”

    Many anti-GMO activists point to the evils of Monsanto and how scientific studies are funded by biotech companies and thus cannot be trusted. But there’s abundant independent research in to GMO foods (over a third of peer-reviewed studies on GMO are independently funded), and a great many independent health organisations have undertaken their own studies in to the health risks associated with GMO crops.

    The results are unanimous and clear: GMO foods are perfectly safe, and probably necessary to maintain sustainable agriculture that sufficiently feeds our growing population.

    While I consider myself a left-wing thinker, on this particular issue I vehemently disagree with the anti-GMO stance prevalent in the political left.

    For me it’s a bit like climate change, vaccination, and evolution: there is an unassailable scientific consensus, with only a tiny minority of dissenting voices that lack any form of empirical evidence. Unfortunately in this case public opinion is eager to embrace the – very vocal – fringe lunatics.

    Silicon Valley’s Dangerous Religion

    Continuing the technology-scepticism of previous posts, I came across an article about Google that’ll effectively serve to eradicate any remaining optimism you may have had about our internet-enabled utopia arriving any time soon.

    In Has Google Gone Gaga, a scathing demolition of Google’s vision of the future, The Sunday Times’s Bryan Appleyard finds exactly the same pain point that Evgeny Morozov so effectively identified:

    “The Singularity, Ayn Rand, the elitism, the moral pretensions and the dreams of island states are all sending the same message – that Silicon Valley is a small, highly intelligent, obsessive, hubristic and deluded community. Its values are not ours. We should, of course, embrace its ingenuity and the gadgets it showers upon us, but we should be wary of the ‘terms and conditions’ attached. These include not just the inane legalisms that come with the software, but also the ideology, the rhetoric, the world-dominating fantasies and, of course, the tax avoidance.”

    This cult-like Silicon Valley mentality expresses itself in many different ways:

    • A form of techno-fetishism where [big data/mobile apps/the industrial internet/augmented reality/any other hip trend du jour] are presented as the key to a richer future for all, with slickly produced TED-talks as the preferred propaganda medium;
    • Big dotcom companies headquartered at insular corporate campuses with a dizzying array of extracurricular services (laundry, restaurants, gyms, libraries, etc) so no one ever need to leave work except to sleep, effectively becoming isolated little worlds where the harsh realities of daily life are kept at arms length;
    • Incestuous venture capitalist circles through which previous dotcom millionaires fund fledgling startups with valuations based on nothing but hyped up coverage on technology blogs;
    • The wholehearted embrace of frighteningly ignorant anti-government & anti-regulation libertarianism as the key to unlocking a technology-enabled nirvana for all mankind;
    • All this founded on an astounding level of intellectual hubris, emerging from the painfully mistaken assumption that the Silicon Valley elite is smarter than everyone else and should be given the freedom to experiment at will.

    Fortunately the voices opposing this navel-gazing quasi religion are growing, with recent books from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier serving as welcome antidotes to this Scientology-like cult behaviour.

    This double review of Morozov’s and Lanier’s books in the Times Literary Supplement is a very worthwhile read, and highly recommended if the aforementioned Bryan Appleyard article got your curiosity peaked.

    Evgeny Morozov takes on Tim O’Reilly

    Evgeny Morozov, the internet’s most renowned technology cynic, is not afraid to act as a polemical David to technology’s Goliaths. Not long after he thoroughly eviscerated the TED phenomenon he’s now set his sights on one of the internet’s biggest names: Tim O’Reilly.

    In a lengthy article titled ‘The Meme Hustler’, Morozov takes O’Reilly to task for a range of buzzphrases and PR moves summarised as ‘meme-engineering‘. In doing so, he touches upon a number of highly intriguing ideas.

    For example Morozov states that O’Reilly’s open source movement, having succeeded in supplanting Richard Stallman’s ‘free software’ concept as the de facto model for open software development, has paved the way for the current trend of closed source & closed platform appification of the internet:

    “Now that apps might be displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more – a contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented. Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.”

    He also exposes the Web 2.0 concept invented by O’Reilly for the hollow hypephrase that it is, pointing out that the technological trends that are viewed as a core aspect of Everything 2.0 predate the phrase – and the web itself – by some considerable margin:

    “O’Reilly himself pioneered this 2.0-ification of public discourse, aggressively reinterpreting trends that had been happening for decades through the prism of Internet history – a move that presented all those trends as just a logical consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution. Take O’Reilly’s musings on “Enterprise 2.0.” What is it, exactly? Well, it’s the same old enterprise – for all we know, it might be making widgets – but now it has learned something from Google and Amazon and found a way to harness “collective intelligence.” For O’Reilly, Walmart is a quintessential Enterprise 2.0 company simply because it tracks what its customers are buying in real time.

    That this is a rather standard practice—known under the boring title of “just-in-time delivery” — predating both Google and Amazon didn’t register with O’Reilly. In a Web 2.0 world, all those older concepts didn’t matter or even exist; everything was driven by the forces of open source and the Internet.”

    I admit that after a brief period of skepticism I too was taken by the Web 2.0 hype, but like many I’ve also stopped using the phrase as I’ve become aware of its lack of substance.

    Even social media, seen as the defining aspect of Web 2.0, is not a novel idea and has existed in primordial form since before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Berners-Lee’s eyes.

    Further on in his essay Morozov discusses the ideas of Neil Postman and Alfred Korzybski with regards to language; how words have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used:

    “For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments. As he put it, “When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function. When such a process is occurring, an appropriate word for it is pollution.” Some words—like “law”—are particularly susceptible to crazy talk, as they mean so many different things: from scientific “laws” to moral “laws” to “laws” of the market to administrative “laws,” the same word captures many different social relations. “Open,” “networks,” and “information” function much like “law” in our own Internet discourse today.”

    I recommend you read Morozov’s 16,000 word piece – his no-punches-pulled criticisms are always worthwhile, even if you disagree – and if you feel thusly inclined you can continue with the abundant retorts being published online in defence of O’Reilly.

    The man himself posted a brief, albeit polite, dismissal on his Google+ profile.

    Our Actions Define Us

    So the human race has invented 3D printing.

    This is possibly the greatest scientific advancement of the last few centuries, as it’ll allow us to create a genuine egalitarian post-scarcity society where the means of production are in the hands of us, the people, and we can quite literally build almost anything we’ll ever need.

    And what do some people want to do with this astonishing, liberating, levelling-the-capitalist-playing-field invention?

    They want to use it to make guns.

    Seriously, I often wonder if the human species deserves to exist.

    Technophilic Vacuity

    I used to like TED. In fact I loved it so much I linked to it in this blog’s sidebar (where only truly loveable links dare tread), and recommended the site – and a number of specific TED talks – to people regularly.

    But gradually I fell out of love with TED. It seemed to me that the substance I perceived in those early TED talks, the powerful meaning they conveyed and the strength of their messages, were all diminishing.

    TED talks have become more about style, about delivering a story in as powerful a way as possible, regardless of the actual worth of that story. They became exercises in propaganda speeches.

    In a recent article for The New Republic, professional cynic Evgeny Morozov reviews three e-books from TED’s publishing division, and his commentary on the whole TED movement is eloquently scathing:

    “Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

    In the same article, when reviewing TED’s decision to publish short e-books instead of properly sized tomes, Morozov is equally dismissive:

    “When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.”

    I find it hard not to agree with the man. When I saw my first few TED talks, I genuinely believed that this sort of thing could help change the world. Now, I fear, it’ll primarily help to dumb us down.

    It’s not just TED where this trend of techno-global-fetishism is taking hold. I’m subscribed to the UK edition of Wired magazine, and recently I’ve become a little disenchanted with their ceaseless sycophantic reporting on internet start-ups and the incestuous Silicon Valley venture capitalist circles in which they move.

    It’s not about actual worth any longer – it’s about hip stories on cool tech (ideally with some connection to Apple’s shiny devices) with substance an optional ingredient. Again, Morozov describes it perfectly:

    “The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.”

    This is not an encouraging trend. Especially when you look at related trends in the technology world, such as the over-valuation of Facebook and their $1bn Instagram deal, the signs are there: it’s a whole new bubble, filled with metric tonnes of effervescent hot air.

    NASA’s biggest flaw illustrated

    The latest edition of Wired’s UK magazine features a short article about a high tech record player designed and built by a former NASA aerospace engineer who was involved in sending spacecraft to Mars.

    The record player, shown below, is superior to standard record players because it “allows only one degree of freedom, around the vertical axis. A film of oil — rather than the usual spring – suspends the bearing, eliminating unwanted resonance and distortions, and the drive equalises noise from the motor in the same way that noise-cancelling headphones work.

    So, basically, it’s a maginally better turntable. It cost’s $150,000 plus shipping. Yes, that’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And at that price, the creator says, he does not expect to make a profit on these.

    That, for me, encapsulated everything that is wrong with NASA: redesigning something to be only marginally better for an exponentially greater cost.

    That makes me wonder if, by forcing NASA to use primarily existing technology and not re-invent the wheel at 10,000x the cost, we could build a moonbase for under $10 million. We probably could.

    $150,000 NASA-style redesigned record player

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  • Adamus

     Adamus
    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

    Identity 2.0

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