Friday, March 27, 2015

Nature beats GMOs to feed the world with Heat Beater Beans

I had a feeling this might happen, but I couldn't articulate it until today. Now it has happened. Scientists have bred 30 strains of beans to be "heat beaters", that is, they can grow better in high heat conditions due to global warming. This is without genetic engineering or patents.

What were they saying? Oh, yeah. The GMO apologists were saying they were going to feed the world. Ha! Simple plant breeding will do a better job. Why? Nature is a lot smarter than we are. When we align our will with nature's will, we will surely prosper. But when we fail to do so, oh boy, do we suffer.

This effort highlights one of the problems that I see with GMOs. Even if the intention of GMO producers is to feed the world (and I don't think it is), their effort is forever impugned by their lust for patent royalties. The patents for glyphosphate resistant crops seem to have more to do with selling glyphosphate than feeding the world. That's the problem. Selfishness knows no bounds in the GMO business and they know it.

Genetically modified food is not about feeding people. It is about control over the food supply. Under those rules, he who owns the patents decides who may live and who may starve. Nature makes no such demands on people. Nature gives her seeds and genes freely, without seeking any silver.

Which wolf would you rather feed, the seed bearing, rent seeking patent troll or the scientist seeking to feed the world with free to share hybrids?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Right To Work" is just a race to the bottom

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that yet another state has passed a law that allows non-union workers to enjoy the benefits of union workers, without paying the dues. It's a fantastic plan to kill the unions in that state. Which state is it? Michigan. You know, the state with Motor City where the Big Three car makers (with unions) started out.

Their goal? To suppress wages in the faint hopes that with lower wages more jobs will be created. You might want to avoid that state if you're considering moving.

The WSJ is very tentative in their wording. They seem to think that it's difficult to determine if there is really a difference between Right To Work economies and the other kind, you know, the union kind. Nevermind that states that have raised the minimum wage have performed very well since doing so. There is considerable data to show at least some correlation with an improved local economy from a higher minimum wage. Business For A Fair Minimum Wage is website dedicated to this cause and they have recent evidence to show that raising the minimum wage does not cause job loss. So why all this effort to abuse unions?

Economist Dean Baker nails the logic of the Right To Work laws here. The economics are simple and devastating in their effect. He calls it "representation without taxation". Conservatives will hail Michigan's move as a vote of confidence in the free market. Actually, this is nothing of the kind. The government is intervening in the market, but on behalf of and in favor of employers.

Consider that unions should have the right to contract, just as individuals do. The new law impairs the right of a group of people to contract for work, nothing more. If the law precludes the right to negotiate a contract that requires everyone to pay the dues for the same benefits, that's an impairment of the right to contract. I suspect that our courts would agree. As Baker notes, in most states, you can get a job and work with a union shop, but you don't have a right to the union benefits. In a free market, this is what one would expect.

Right To Work laws amount to socialism of a different kind. The unions work hard to secure rights, benefits and pay and that costs money. When a worker enjoys the union benefits without paying the dues, the union suffers and soon, can no longer finance it's operations. This is the goal.

So if workers can't organize, how come businesses can? Ever heard of the Grocery Manufacturers Association? How about SMACNA, The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association? Many businesses are member of associations dedicated to supporting businesses. Now we wouldn't call them a union of businesses, but if they can join an association, they can "collaborate" and pool their resources to achieve political and economic goals.

Yet, we never see headlines about how some law or other would decimate their power, now, do we? I sure haven't. If businesses can join together in an association, why they must be acting like people, just like an association of people acting in union together. It seems funny that so few have questioned this collection of power in the hands of business. Well, not that funny.

Suffice it to say, when you see that a state has "Right To Work" laws, remember that just means that the government has intervened in the market in favor of the business, against the worker. Nothing more, nothing less. Right to Work laws have nothing to do with a free market, and have everything to do with suppressing wages and benefits. On the other hand, right to work laws are great for executives trying to justify a splurge on that vacation home on the coast of Spain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Secure boot is Microsoft's end game on Linux

If you prefer Linux over Windows, but buy OEM Windows machines because they're cheaper, get ready to start building your own computers. ArsTechnica reports that for Windows 10, Microsoft has grand plans to keep other operating systems out using Secure Boot technology according to they're preferences. They want their own walled garden, too - along with Apple and Amazon, and probably Google.

Secure Boot technology requires that certain cryptographic keys be loaded in the BIOS. The keys are used to verify that the code used to boot the computer has not been tampered with. The problem with this technology is that Microsoft has influenced the standard to make it hard to do the same thing for Linux and other alternatives. Secure Boot already has complicated life for non-technical people to install their own operating system if they want to.

I am one of those people that Microsoft will only irritate with their plan. I like to buy Windows computers from OEMs because they're cheaper than System76. When I say OEM, I mean companies like Dell, HP and Acer. For years, I've bought Windows computers because they're subsidized with crapware, advertising masquerading as free software. The free software usually comes at a cost. You get the trial version and have to upgrade later. You get the free version and submit to data collection and privacy policies that you might not always agree to. Most of it is either time consuming to remove or pretty damn hard to remove.

So when I buy a new OEM computer from Dell, I image the computer and store the image in a safe place. Then I wipe the computer and install Ubuntu Linux and proceed to set up the computer the way I want it to be. The near future plan for OEMs with Windows 10 will very likely preclude any of this. What Microsoft would like to do is restrict the boot process to prevent anything else from running on the device. They talk a good game when it comes to the free market, but honestly, they don't want competition.

When I saw the story about Windows 10, I was reminded of the epic battle between BeOS and Microsoft Windows and how BeOS lost in the dual boot wars. Some people like to be able boot either Windows or Linux. Back then, BeOS was trying to negotiate terms for dual boot with Microsoft, but Microsoft refused to or pretended to cooperate. Eventually, BeOS went bankrupt. Microsoft is using Secure Boot to prevent dual boot computers from being easy or even a reality.

Microsoft's goal to lock down the hardware has already been accomplished on their tablets and phones. It's now very difficult to root and install what you want on those devices, and I'm not sure I would want to bother with them. My main concern is the humble desktop computer and keeping them free. Just because I buy a computer with Windows installed doesn't mean I should be restricted as to what operating system I want to run. When I buy hardware, the hardware is mine to use as I see fit. I have no need for the Windows license and there have been some fringe cases where the buyers have sued to get the money for the Windows license back. And they've won in some cases.

This growing initiative seems to prove the point to me that the money in Windows is not made on the front end, it's made on the backend, the server side. Getting people to use Windows means that Windows servers must be used to provide certain content to those customers. Of course, much of the world depends on open standards of communications and web page design, much to the chagrin of Microsoft. They're dream is to have everyone programming for Internet Explorer so that everyone is running Windows.

But there will always be guys like me. We find Windows boring, stifling and ill-suited for general purpose computing. We want a shell that actually works. We want a choice of desktop environments. We want to use open file formats that don't change with each release of the software used to create the files.

If Microsoft is successful in locking down the desktop, I will again be looking at building my own computer to my own specification. I will ignore the OEMs and work with experienced builders to get the working life I want out of my computer. The computer I have now is a Dell XPS 8700 I bought from Costco. My plan is that it should be a 5 year computer at the least. With 12 GB of RAM and the top of the line i7 CPU (at the time I bought it anyway), it should last a good 5 years. Dell makes very reliable equipment and I expect that from them. But if the next line of Dell computers is locked down for Windows, I will look elsewhere.

Here are a few good alternatives if you would like to have a Plan B: (build your own, fights patent trolls, too)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The case for universal health care in the United States

Numerous outlets are reporting big news about glyphosphate, Monsanto's flagship herbicide: glyphosphate is a probable carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. Glyphosphate has been detected everywhere - in our water, in our water and in our soil. Genetically modified crops like soybeans and corn are touted as resistant to the herbicide and the claim upon their introduction into the market, with little oversight or public input, is that herbicide use would decrease. The reality is that herbicide used has increase by 500 million pounds annually since 1996 as a result of the use of these crops.

There is also a link between glyphosphate and autism. Researchers analyzed the records over 20 years and found a strong correlation between the prevalence of autism and the use of glyphosphate. There are, unfortunately, no big companies willing to step up and take responsibility for these trends. Not even Monsanto.

The neoliberal policies of the conservative right have consistently and successfully lobbied against higher tax rates for corporations in general. But the biggest companies have financed the campaigns of the most ardent supporters of more taxes for the common man and tax breaks for the biggest polluters. Worse, in agriculture, conventional crops get all the subsidies, while organic crops go without. Pretty cool, huh?

In this context, universal health care as a right makes sense. Since 99% of Americans have near zero influence on public policy, we can be almost sure that universal health care will not be a part of our lives in my lifetime. But the new generation of kids may not be so kind to the current generation of the "For the last time, I'm not a scientist!" conservative politician.

Given all the pollution that is around us, universal health care makes sense. From cars, to household cleaners, to fracking, coal ash spills, to GMOs, if corporations won't pay for the costs through regulation, they can pay for it through taxation. We currently spend 18% of GDP on health care, twice as much as every other industrialized country in the world. Of course, that is trending down as a result of Obamacare. The Congressional Budget has projected that the cost of Obamacare and overall spending on health care will continue to see a slowdown of increases over the next 10 years.

Universal health care financed by an employment, corporate or business tax means that average people can force corporations to pay for the costs of pollution. We could assess the tax based on the amount of pollution emitted by the entity, but that gets complicated in a hurry. Assessing a flat tax based on the number of employees and gross income could be enough to cover the costs. I'm sure there are economists, you know, scientists, who can figure this out. 

Creating a single payer system that pays all the bills and collects all the records would make it easier to spot trends associated with pollution and illness. The single payer plan would create an entity powerful enough to recover costs associated with say, GMOs and/or glyphosphate use. Such an entity could have the legal power needed to bankrupt or dissolve a corporation that is not willing to pay up when charged with massive pollution and when a demand is made to pay for the health care costs associated with the damage done.

Perhaps this is the real reason why single payer plans are so opposed by the right. It's not the cost. It's the data collection. If a single agency collected enough data to show a correlation between the costs of health care and the use of a particular herbicide, pesticide or of a particular pollutant, why, that might be actionable! Having thousands of health insurance companies out there provides a convenient shroud to make it harder to find the data needed to make the association between pollutant and the cost of a health issue.

Nearly every industrialized country in the world offers universal health care, and in most countries, it's a hit. Here's a map to get an idea of who's in and who's not. There is no reason why it cannot work here. 

Oh, wait. We do have a single payer plan. It's called Medicare, and it is one of the biggest controls on health care costs that we know of outside of Obamacare. Republicans want to privatize it out of existence. Democrats want to expand it to everyone. Which solution do you prefer? The one that will almost certain exacerbate inequality and shorten the lives of the middle class? Or the one that will give the middle class some breathing room and opportunity to grow?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Might is right is a fraud

In recent days, I found an interesting Facebook page called Collective Evolution (they're on Google Plus and they have a website, too). They've produced 3 full length feature films that are all available on YouTube (which I've yet to see). I like what they're promoting and was pleasantly surprised to see this last night:

I've always believed this, but have never really articulated this idea in quite this way. It is a profound statement of the human condition. I came to believe this because I was bullied in school. I came to believe then that the bullies, with greater physical mass or agility, were dedicating their brain cells to the use of their muscles rather than the thinking power. 

I believe that if you choose might over right, you are making a tacit admission that you are unable to negotiate peace, that you don't believe your needs will be met and, lacking the skill of getting along with others, you are weak. Force is the simpler choice because your brain can't handle peace. It's too complicated.

At once when I saw that meme, I thought immediately of Benjamin Netanyahu, and his allies in Congress, with their incessant calls for war with Iran. The United States has been at war for 222 years out of 239 years in existence. That means we have only had 21 years of peace, an astounding fact to consider, especially if you love this country. That also means every trade agreement, every peace accord, every interaction we have with another country is backed by the threat of force.

A long time ago, someone told me about the two wolves story. It goes like this:







So for most of our existence as the United States, we've been feeding war, and war is evil. There is no such thing as a good war. People die in wars, innocent people, who have nothing to do with the war, and evil people will profit from war, using innocent people as collateral damage. People who engage in war will find every justification for war, but none for peace. It's an addiction. They will even claim that war will bring peace, but it only brings more war.

The reason for this is that if you feed war, you starve the thinking power. Consider how we were lied into the war in Iraq. No yellow cake, weapons of mass destruction or any link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks were ever found. Yet, they were all pretenses for the war. The American people were advised by our leaders at the time, not to think about the war, just to do it. Let us get started with the war. Let us send your sons and daughters to die in a war over political power, oil and pride. For the United States. For Israel. For God. For country.

The war siphoned resources away from the people. Instead of paying for infrastructure, we got bombs of destruction. Instead of paying for education to nurture the thinking power, we got the power to destroy other people without thinking. Instead of giving people the health care they needed, we got an endlessly polluting war.

I've seen how this works on a very personal level. I've been very angry when I was a kid because I was bullied, but I really wanted just to be left alone. I believed that being bullied would scare the other kids away from being friends with me. That I would look crazy in front of the girls upon whom I had crushes on. I was probably right given the crazy advice I got from my dad.

I was taught by my father to fight rather than to make friends with other people when dealing with bullies. By learning to fight, I learned to harness my anger for aggression when bullied. I remember how I felt when I hit the adversary. No thinking, just action. And when it was done, I was sitting in the principal's office, crying. Just wanting the bullies to stop and leave me alone. In peace.

The adrenaline of conflict threw all thinking out the window. I became more interested in revenge than learning. There is no way around it. If you're thinking about revenge, you cannot think about finding ways to prosper with your fellows. You can only do one or the other, not both. There is no other way. Believe me, I've tried and failed miserably.

But had my father taught me how to make friends, I might have been surrounded by friends when the bully approached me. I would have had the peace I needed to complete high school and go on to college. I would not have spent the next 30 years of my life struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. So I'm here to tell you, as a fellow man and to our country, you have a choice. 

You can choose war or you can choose to think your way to peace, contentment and a long life. Which one do you want? I choose to err on the side of peace. I hope you do, too.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

ESPN - the ultimate moocher, takes lesson from Microsoft playbook

Community Broadband Networks ran a very interesting story about how ESPN3, the internet streaming service of ESPN is making a powerplay against ISPs. Cable companies that are also ISPs are seeing cord cutting nationwide and are working hard to recover their revenue losses. The television networks are no different.

Seeing the weakness in the cable television market, ESPN is playing hardball as noted by Levi C. Maaia, president of Full Channel Labs and a graduate research fellow at the Center for Education Research on Literacies, Learning & Inquiry in Networking Communities (LINC) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The story is short and fascinating but, what caught my eye was this passage:
"As cord-cutters drop their cable and satellite subscriptions in favor of online streaming, TV networks are scrambling to compensate for this lost revenue.  ESPN3 is doing so by imposing a cable TV-like payment structure on Internet delivery using a model that congress and consumers have decried for decades as inflexible and expensive. These additional costs are already being factored into Internet service pricing, as ESPN3 reaches deals with the Internet providers of tens of millions of customers. If ESPN continues to be successful with this model, we can expect that other content providers will follow suit and it may not be just the cable TV networks that adopt this method. ISPs might be compelled to negotiate per-subscriber fees for access to content across the Web."
ESPN is negotiating contracts that essentially say, "You'll pay for us whether you watch us or not." Upon reading that passage, I'm reminded of Microsoft licensing for OEM computer manufacturers like Dell and Acer. They had a very similar tactic. A typical licensing agreement with Microsoft imposed a license fee on every computer made, regardless if Windows was installed or not.

I don't know about you, but to me, that sort of contract strikes me as akin to extortion. ESPN seeks to compel every subscriber for an ISP to pay for ESPN, whether they watch it or not. I must admit that I hated this arrangement under Comcast when I was their subscriber then. I hate ESPN with a passion, and this news is just gasoline on the fire for me. Why? Because now, ESPN would like me to subsidize all the sports nuts out there through the subscription fee I pay for internet access. They take no quarter and will work relentless to provide no escape for people who don't watch sports. Like me.

If you love to watch sports on ESPN, you can rest assured that guys like me have been subsidizing you guys for years so you can pay a lower fee and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. ESPN should not be on the basic tier, or I should at least be able to cut them out. But that's not what ESPN wants, no sir. Free market be damned. They want me to support those sports lovers, and they can do it because there is no competition in the cable TV industry or the internet service industry.

From now on, when I see "ESPN", I will think "moocher".

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Inequality predicts corruption

Imagine for a moment, that you're on the playground as a nine year old kid. You've just been assaulted by the local bully so you talk to the monitor. She asks if anyone else saw it happen. Sure, so you name names of people who were there. But no one is talking. Why? The bully has paid everyone off. Where did he get the money to pay everyone off? Extortion from the very kids who saw what happened. This is the current state of American inequality in a nutshell.

Granted, there are people who actually worked to make their money, and they work hard. The problem is, that once someone has "made it" beyond the point where he has to every day to ensure his survival, it is possible for attitudes to change.

This morning, I found a paper which claims to be the first systematic study of the relationship between inequality and corruption. In many ways, what we're seeing in American politics looks a lot like the scene on the playground. An oil company does something wrong, you know, like Deepwater Horizon. After years of legal wrangling, the government discovers that the political will to punish the company simply isn't there. Not in Congress, not in the justice system. And when I say "punish" I mean to seriously disrupt the business so that it can no longer function.

In my mind, Deepwater Horizon should have been the end of BP. Litigation should have killed that company, with the assets sold off and the executives in jail. None of that happened. This is likely because BP has enough money to buy the influence it needs to buy the protection needed to keep the company going.

Here's an interesting economic and legal analysis on the Wikipedia page concerning that oil spill:
"In January 2013, Transocean agreed to pay US$1.4 billion for violations of the US Clean Water Act. BP had earlier agreed to pay $2.4 billion but faces additional penalties that could range from $5 billion to $20 billion.[57] In September 2014, Halliburton agreed to settle a large percentage of legal claims against them by paying $1.1 billion into a trust by way of three installments over two years.[58] On 4 September 2014, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled BP was guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct under the Clean Water Act (CWA). He described BP's actions as "reckless," while he said Transocean's and Halliburton's actions were "negligent." He apportioned 67% of the blame for the spill to BP, 30% to Transocean, and 3% to Halliburton. BP issued a statement strongly disagreeing with the finding, and saying the court's decision would be appealed.[59]"
The upper bound for financial liability ascribed to the companies involved is about $20 billion. It has been estimated that BP earns about $93m in profits every day. If the eventual punitive cost of the disaster works out to $20b, BP can pay it off in less than a year, or about 215 days. The most likely scenario is that they will be able to spread the cost out over time and they will find ways to use the eventual judgement as a way to mitigate their tax liability.

No one goes to jail. Everyone at the top skates. This is what inequality can do. Inequality can influence the outcome of events in ways that defy the merits of political and legal decisions. We saw it in Deepwater, we saw it on the subprime mortgage scandal, we saw it with HSBC and their laundering of nearly a billion dollars of drug money.

The paper cited above also notes that inequality actually predicts for corruption. In other words, where there is greater inequality, there is greater motive and opportunity for corruption. To put it differently, a wealthy man may never has to go to jail for his crimes because he can often pay everyone else off to prevent actual jail time.

This is the strongest argument yet against Reaganomics. Trickle Down economics doesn't work, it only makes everyone else more desperate for money, so they're more compliant and willing to accept corruption as normal behavior. Don't believe me? Just ask the Kids for Cash Judge, a judge who was convicted of sending kids to a private detention center for money. He's probably the tip of the iceberg, the only one who got caught. How many more are out there?

Reducing inequality helps to remove the incentives for corruption and acceptance of the same. When more people have more money, they will not just accept the conditions around them. They will be empowered to effect change.

Reducing inequality is not just about money, it's about time, too. When people are working 2 or 3 jobs just to pay their bills, they don't have time to mind their government. Reducing inequality means giving people time to relax and charge up for another week of work. That time can also be used to engage with the government so that their voices can be heard.

The current state of inequality in America provides little breathing room for the poorest of Americans. Given that 93% of the economic gains in the last 5 years have gone to the top 1%, it is hard to believe that the top 1% are interested at all in reform, but they may not rest assured that some sort of reform is impossible to achieve.

As with many other social movements, the inequality movement is young yet, and it may be another ten years or so before effective change can be made. But as we saw with women's suffrage, civil rights and equal rights, it is an eventuality. Why? The wealthy still need everyone else to be wealthy.