Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Foley/Bechtel update
Skimble's got a great quote from April Foley on those carefree days at Harvard Business School, along with a post from last week pointing out the, uh, convenience of Bechtel being privately held. Kind of like another mysterious Bin Laden-funded beneficiary of taxpayer largesse.
Chapela tenure review going nowhere [Daily Cal].
R.W. Apple on delicious ramps in the Times.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Relatively bland summary of the trans-atlantic "food fight" in TAP, by John Feffer.
It's Friday night and we've decided to crash the party that we didn't get invited to. Iraq got a keg, a band and is charging everybody 10 bucks at the door. We've decided to walk into the backyard, beat the shit out of Iraq and only let our friends fill their cups. What will the rest of the world do? Individually speak out against us? Yeah right -- we'll fuck shit up. All get together and beat the shit out of us? Nope -- most of them don't like each other anyway. So what would you do to a bully that is taking what isn't theirs, a bully who is too big to defeat alone, a bully who must understand the repercussions of being a douchebag?

You key his car.

read it. [via tbogg].
Hey! All you east coast people. Hope you enjoyed breakfast:
Immokalee [, Florida's] tomato pickers are paid as little as forty cents per bucket. A filled bucket weighs thirty-two pounds. To earn fifty dollars in a day, an Immokalee picker must harvest two tons of tomatoes, or a hundred and twenty-five buckets.

Orange- and grapefruit-picking pay slightly better, but the hours are longer. To get to the fruit, pickers must climb twelve-to-eighteen-foot-high ladders, propped on soggy soil, then reach deep into thorny branches, thrusting both hands among pesticide-coated leaves before twisting the fruit from its stem and rapidly stuffing it into a shoulder-slung moral, or pick sack. (Grove owners post guards in their fields to make sure that the workers do not harm the trees.) A full sack weighs about a hundred pounds; it takes ten sacks-about two thousand oranges-to fill a bano, a bin the size of a large wading pool. Each bin earns the worker a ficha, or token, redeemable for about seven dollars. An average worker in a decent field can fill six, seven, maybe eight bins a day. After a rain, though, or in an aging field with overgrown trees, the same picker might work an entire day and fill only three bins.

Migrant workers are usually employed by labor contractors, who provide crews to tend and harvest crops for local farmers, or growers, as they're more commonly known. Contractors oversee workers in groups ranging in size from a dozen to many hundreds, and accompany the workers as they travel with the seasons. They can exert near-absolute control over their workers' lives; besides handling the payroll and deducting taxes, they are frequently the sole source of the workers' food and housing, which, in addition to the ride to and from the fields, they provide for a fee.

About ninety per cent of South Florida's laborers are new each season. Recently arrived pickers are often mystified by American culture, unsure of their rights (or the idea of rights in general), and unlikely to speak English. Workers coming from the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala speak dozens of languages, including Zapotecan, Mam, Kanjobal, Tzotzil, and Mixteca, and often cannot communicate with each other. In the post-pastoral fields of industrialized modern agriculture, quaint notions of worker solidarity are unrealistic....

All these factors combine to create, in South Florida, what a Justice Department official calls "ground zero for modern slavery." The area has seen six cases of involuntary servitude successfully prosecuted in the past six years. Describing local migrant-contractor power dynamics, Michael Baron, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol who knows Florida well, told me, "Most of the time, these workers are housed miles from civilization, with no telephones or cars. They're controllable. There's no escape. If you do escape, what are you gonna do? Run seventeen miles to the nearest town, when you don't even know where it is? And, if you have a brother or a cousin in the group, are you gonna leave them behind? You gonna escape with seventeen people? You'll make tracks like a herd of elephants. Whoever's got you, they'll find you. And heaven help you when they do."...

As in other sectors of the food economy, the production and distribution of South Florida's tomato crop has become increasingly concentrated. A handful of private firms like Six L's Packing Company, Gargiulo, Inc., and Pacific Tomato Growers supply millions of pounds of tomatoes, either directly or indirectly, to supermarkets and corporations such as Taco Bell, Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's, and Carnival Cruise Lines.

Ownership and distribution is even more tightly controlled in the citrus industry. Lykes Brothers is a billiondollar conglomerate with holdings in insurance, real estate, and cattle as well as citrus. Larger still is Consolidated Citrus, which owns fifty-five thousand acres in Florida alone. A majority of the state's crop, in the form of either fruit, juice, or concentrate, goes to three final buyers: Cargill, a fifty-one-billion-dollar commodities giant and one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, with operations in fifty-nine countries; Tropicana, which is owned by Pepsico; and Minute Maid, owned by Coca-Cola. These companies are quick to point out that they don't actually own the groves or harvest the fruit themselves. They merely employ supervisors who test for quality and sugar content, coordinate prices on world commodities markets, and, ultimately, control the harvest.

In the past two decades, according to the United States Department of Labor, farm receipts from fruit and vegetable sales have nearly doubled. Between 1989 and 1998, however, wages paid to farmworkers declined, dropping from $6.89 to $6.18 per hour. The national median annual income for farmworkers is $7,500. A University of Florida survey found that the average income for Immokalee farmworkers is even lower-in 1998, just $6,574.

According to the Department of Justice, the number of prosecutions of human-trafficking cases throughout the country has tripled in the past three years; there are currently a hundred and twenty-five investigations of such cases under way. Typically, these cases take years to pursue, and convictions with meaningful sentences are difficult to obtain.

[John Bowe in the 4/21 New Yorker].

Not like conditions are that much better out here, but we do try to stay away from outright slavery.

ExIm
So Bush has nominated April Foley, a "homemaker" who happens to be his ex-girlfriend, to the Export-Import Bank board. Just an obscure appointment to keep her quiet? Not exactly -- Leslie Wayne explained what the bank does in the 9/1/02 Times
At a time when the Bush administration says it wants to cut back on corporate welfare, the Export-Import bank, often called a "reverse Robin Hood" for taking money from American taxpayers and giving it to wealthy corporations, is growing. In June, while the public was focused on corporate scandals, President Bush quietly signed legislation to double the scope of the bank's operations and allow it to provide up to $100 billion in international trade assistance at any one time.

Even before this increase, Export-Import was already by far the largest federal agency providing international credit aid, outpacing international food and disaster aid programs. The bank has long expanded beyond its initial mission of aiding American exporters when times were tough. And a growing chorus of critics -- from free traders on the right to trade unionists on the left -- say the bank has become a tool for an elite group of politically well-connected corporations to get sweetheart deals and cheap financing courtesy of American taxpayers.

"We already regard Ex-Im as the poster boy for the anti-corporate-welfare movement," said Stephen Moore, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington research group that promotes free trade. "It's a huge amount of money that goes to the wealthiest corporations. There is no rationale for the government to be involved in this."

In fact, Export-Import policies in recent years have had the perverse effect of sending American jobs, rather than goods and services, overseas. There was, for example, the case of a Chinese steel mill, the Benxi Iron and Steel Group, that received an $18 million Export-Import backed loan in December 2000 to buy American-made equipment only to be found a year later to be dumping steel into American markets and slapped with a 90 percent antidumping tariff. In that year, steel companies in the United States laid off 30,000 workers and more than 20 of the companies filed for bankruptcy.

MORE fundamentally, there are questions about why the bank exists at all. Less than 1 percent of all American exports receive Export-Import financing, which comes in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees or export credit insurance. The bulk of Export-Import's benefits go to a small number of large companies that are sophisticated enough to get financing on their own: Boeing, Halliburton, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, Lucent Technologies, ChevronTexaco, Caterpillar and Dell Computer, among others....

When Mr. Bush took office, his administration called for a 25 percent cut in the bank's budget as part of an effort "to reduce subsidies that primarily benefit corporations rather than individuals," according to a White House statement on the 2002 budget. But Mr. Bush has now endorsed a five-year expansion plan that will increase the total value of the loans the bank can guarantee to $100 billion from the $56 billion currently outstanding.

The increase breezed through Congress. When the Bush administration first tried to cut the program, 31 senators, including top Republicans, sent a letter to the president opposing his action. The legislation to expand Export-Import's reach passed the House, on a vote of 344 to 78, and was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate.

"We said to Congress, 'This is what we need,' " said Eduardo Aguirre, a former Bank of America executive in Texas and the bank's vice chairman. "And they said 'O.K.' "

Facing political reality, Mr. Bush has joined the chorus singing the bank's praises. An administration spokesman said a new policy, allowing the bank to guarantee more loans against fewer reserves, and thus requiring less government money while increasing risk, had earned it points in the White House.

During a meeting in May with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Bush actually promoted the bank as the way to finance a $2.9 billion Caspian Sea pipeline that the two leaders favor. While nothing official has been announced, the companies involved in this project are BP, Exxon Mobil and ChevronTexaco.

Some strange bedfellows here.

Did one of the -- Bin Laden-financed -- usual suspects seem conspicuously absent from the list? never fear, CorpWatch is here:

Daniel Chao, another Bechtel senior vice president, serves on advisory board of the US Export-Import Bank, while Ross J. Connelly, a 21-year veteran of Bechtel Group, is the chief operating officer for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
and
Bechtel's best buddies have generally been Republicans but they never let party affiliations get in the way of business. For example the company contributed heavily to the Democratic Party right at the time that U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor invited them to join him on a trade mission to Bosnia and Croatia in July 1996. Between May 3rd and August 23rd of that year the company suddenly gave the Democrats $125,000, more than they had given the party in the past five years combined. Questioned about the donations. Kantor, a long-term lobbyist himself, said he was "stunned" insisting that the trips and the contributions were entirely unrelated.

But two years later the U.S. Export-Import Bank (ExIm), on whose board Kantor served as an ex-officio member, approved a long-term financial guarantee for Bechtel to provide $250 million of procurement, construction and project management services to build a 72- mile highway from Croatia's northern border through Zagreb to the Bosnia-Herzegovina border. In a press release at the time the ExIm Bank said the guarantee enabled Bechtel to win the Croatia Roads Authority contract over several European and local competitors. Bechtel says, however, that there is no connection between the Democratic campaign contributions and the contracts.

ExIm has long been an easy touch when Bechtel needs financing. Bechtel asked the 65-year old agency for funding in 1946 when it got the contract to build the Trans-Arabian pipeline, laying one of the cornerstones for the Saudia Arabian oil export boom. ExIm also backed Bechtel's aborted role in the Aqaba pipeline in Iraq in the 1980's.

Two of ExIm's presidents have worked for Bechtel after quitting the bank. Henry Kearns, who was appointed to head up ExIm by Richard Nixon in 1969, asked Steve Bechtel Senior to serve on the bank's advisory committee. Kearns played a crucial role in helping Bechtel find funding for the Freeport gold mine in New Guinea when it was constructed in 1970, overriding misgivings from ExIm's engineering department about the feasibility of the project.

Kearns suddenly resigned from his job in 1973 when the U.S. Department of Justice launched an inquiry into possible conflicts of interest because Kearns had financial interests in a Thai company that had received loans from ExIm. Although the investigation was later dropped, Kearns did not have to worry about losing his federal salary because he landed softly into a job in Bechtel's San Francisco offices.

more Bechtel bedfellows, from the Globe.

Foley, by the way, is a cipher, at least as far as the internet is concerned.

[Bin Laden link via Tapped].

GGATACA
brought to you by Craig Venter:
The goal I have is to make genomics transform medicine. That's not going to happen in academic babble towers talking about it.
Technically, that's a mixed metaphor piled on top of a shocking kind of illiteracy (the wrong kind of tower + ignorance of Babel). It would almost be clever if intentional, but the interview makes it clear it's not. And let's not forget that the idea behind it is actually dangerous.

subsequent clarification: error 1 (Babel for ivory) is clearly Venter's, while #2 (babble for Babel) is probably some poor engineer-transcriber. But the interview is so incoherent I was thinking it could have been conducted via IM or SMS...

Also, NSU reports that Venter is now sequencing the Sargasso Sea.

As the meme flies [5/5] From Baltimore to a Babel beauty parlor:

"America is in its ivory tower palace," she said, referring to the American authorities based in a palace. "We are used to having coups and revolutions. But usually people who stage them take over the country afterward."

Monday, April 28, 2003

Pharmaceuticals
What does it mean when your business is so fraudulent even Janet Rehnquist notices?

A belated gesture may be in order.

Denmark to regulate transfats.
You think I'm crazy, but San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market has just kicked out Niman Ranch [Chron]:
That's right. Niman Ranch, the Bolinas-born beef company whose name long has been synonymous with sustainable agriculture and the Northern California food revolution, has been kicked to the curb because it has become too successful.

"We want things featured in the farmers' market that are small and unique. Not the same things that are at Whole Foods or at Trader Joe's," said Tatiana Graf, spokesperson for the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the market.

[At this point, we're lucky to have meat at all].
Industry tools attempt to bend over further -- i.e., NAWG wants the USDA to approve Roundup Ready wheat, whatever the consequences. Lucky wheat farmers: with representatives like this, who needs congress?

4/30: At least one wheat farmer is pissed; more on NAWG here.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Shared Sacrifice [Chron]
By some estimates, investors have lost $7 trillion on paper since the stock market peaked in March 2000. Meanwhile, the nation's unemployment rate rose from 4.7 percent in 2001 to 5.8 percent in 2002, swelling the jobless ranks by another 1.6 million people.

The setbacks haven't significantly changed the overall pay of chief executive officers, although corporate boards have said they want compensation packages to parallel the ups and downs of the stock market.

The mid-range CEO salary and bonus rose to $1.8 million in 2002, a 10 percent improvement from 2001, according to a survey of executive compensation at 350 large publicly held companies conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

"The goose that has been laying all those golden eggs still hasn't been butchered," said Bruce Ellig, author of "The Complete Guide to Executive Compensation."

More class war from the AFL-CIO.
Latest SARS conspiracy theory
Could genetic engineering have contributed inadvertently to creating the SARS virus? This point was not even considered by the expert coronavirologists called in to help handle the crisis, now being feted and woed by pharmaceutical companies eager to develop vaccines.
Whoa. I mean, wo.

As I noted Wed., Laurie Garrett knows where SARS comes from (she takes her own pictures too). On the other hand, why not sprinkle a little GE coronavirus into the the microbial soup? Everyone loves conspiracies.

4/28: see this Science News article.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

sound familiar?
It is, on the face of it, a mute slab of pinkish grey meat sweating lightly in its clingfilm wrapper, a lacklustre staple of our English diet with nothing much to say for itself. Look at the price tag, however, and the pork chop speaks volumes about greed, the collapse of British agriculture, the lunacy of supermarket pricing and the incessant demands of the consumer.

At 80p - based on a supermarket value pack of four, costing �3.20 - it is half the price it was in 1953 (as a proportion of household income) and eight per cent cheaper than it was five years ago. Yet in the same five-year period, as food bills have shrunk and supermarket profits soared, the UK pork industry has been decimated.

4/25: The massive Bristol Bay antitrust lawsuit is showing how processors fix prices in order to impoverish salmon fishermen.
New Pew report finds flaws in oversight of biotech crops
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees biotech plantings, does not have the authority under current regulations to impose conditions on the use of biotech crops once they have been "deregulated" (approved for large-scale planting) and cannot require biotech developers to monitor those crops' impact on the environment post-approval.

Although the EPA is responsible for setting standards to manage the environmental impact of pesticides, including so-called plant-incorporated protectants (or PIPs, like Bt, a bacterium that is engineered into the plant so that it produces its own pesticide), farmers are not legally accountable to EPA for meeting those standards. EPA now only imposes conditions on the biotech companies; the companies, in turn, are supposed to monitor how farmers use their products based on what farmers tell them. There are no official EPA standards for what constitutes an adequate degree of compliance or government audits of how well farmers are complying.�

Currently, the FDA has no affirmative postmarket inspection or compliance program for biotech foods, such as it has for other categories of food and drug products it regulates. Should there ever be a question about whether food has been contaminated with some non-food GM crop (such as a biopharmed plant), there are questions as to whether the agency has the detection methods it needs, the capacity to conduct large-volume sampling and testing, and adequate legal tools, such as the authority, to examine food industry records.

Proceedings of OECD "Ecological Impact of GMO Dissemination in Agro-Ecosystems" workshop here. Looks good, but it's 200 pages long. You read it and tell me what it says.
EPA fines Pioneer Hi-Bred another $72,000 for fucking up their Hawai'ian plantation, I mean GE corn trials. Not the first time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Nature news feature on rice genomics:
"Gene identification is one thing, but combining the genes as required is another," says Gurdev Khush, now at the University of California, Davis, and formerly of IRRI, where he developed 308 varieties of rice for release during his career. No matter how closely a gene is studied in the lab, it is down to the breeder to discover how it will function in different varieties, or when faced with environmental stresses such as drought and high salinity. "Most molecular biologists don't understand this," says Cantrell.
scidev.net will presumably make this freely accessible soon.
soup du jour
Tom Paine on subtherapeutic antibiotics in fast food.

Meanwhile peta blames SARS on factory farms. peta is so fucking lame that they should simply be ignored, and this is, typically, exactly the opposite of the truth. On the other hand, you have to wonder where this new coronavirus came from.

And they just found a sheep virus that kills E. coli O157:H7.

Update see above for another theory. People see what they want to see.

La Mancha: 21st-century Languedoc?
Chevy Chase: not exactly Tim Robbins.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

AMR executive retention:
Throughout this restructuring process, our chief priority has been to communicate effectively with you, our employees, and it is clear that we have not done so. You have my personal apology. It was not my intent to mislead anyone.
Definitely want to hang on to those guys. 'cause, you know, they did such a good job.
GM follies
Using experimental (random nth- price) auctions, the USDA ERS demonstrated that american consumers discount GM-labelled food an average of 14%. The subjects -- from two midwestern cities -- were given different mixtures of pro- (industry), con- (greenpeace), and "scientific" information. The ERS says:
Those who received both pro- and anti-biotech information bid less for the biotech-labeled foods by an average of 16, 24 and 29 percent, depending on the food product. These results are consistent with other studies that show individuals place a greater weight on negative information than on positive information....
Attention "scientists": perhaps participants place a greater weight on more convincing information. Surely you can dig up a study somewhere to demonstrate this phenomenon.
The results also highlight the erratic effect of biotech labeling in the absence of unbiased scientific information. Without scientific information, the bid-price for biotech-labeled foods varied from slightly above that of plain labeled foods to 35 percent below. With scientific information and pro- and anti-biotech information, the price consumers bid for biotech-labeled foods was only slightly below that for plain-labeled foods.
In fact, the study demonstrates that people don't believe anything the biotech industry says. This has got to be an unprecedented PR catastrophe.

See Justin Gillis on the wheat backlash in the Post.

Friday, April 18, 2003

everyone loves pensions [NYT]
The problem arose a day after American appeared to have secured $1.8 billion in annual labor concessions, which it said were necessary for it to stay out of bankruptcy court. The Allied Pilots Association and the Transport Workers Union closed voting Tuesday morning and said they had ratified $660 million in annual concessions from pilots and $620 million from mechanics and ground workers. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants agreed with management to extend its voting until Wednesday, when its members ratified $340 million in concessions.

But the unions said yesterday they had no idea that AMR, the parent company of American, had agreed to give compensation packages to executives even as the company was demanding concessions from the unions. The existence of the trust fund for AMR's top 45 executives, and "cash retention" bonuses for the company's top six executives of twice their base salaries, were disclosed Tuesday night in AMR's annual 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. American had delayed the filing for two weeks by saying that it was in the middle of labor negotiations.

more at anger management.
Land of the free [Science ]
Program staff at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, have warned grant applicants to cleanse certain terms, such as "transgender" and "prostitutes," from their grant applications. The reason, according to an NIH staffer who asked not to be identified, is to reduce the projects' visibility. "What's frightening" is that NIH staff feel grantees need to disguise their work, says Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore....

UCSF officials thought no more of it until they learned last week about a memo from the House of Representatives to NIH. The 13 March e-mail memo, from staffer Roland Foster of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources chaired by Representative Mark Souder (R-IN), raised concerns about two NIH- funded studies of sex workers--Nemoto's and another led by a researcher in Miami. The memo, which HHS routinely forwarded to NIH director Elias Zerhouni, argues that by attempting to protect the health of sex workers, the studies "seek to legitimize the commercial sexual exploitation of women." This runs counter to a February directive from President George W. Bush to reduce international sex trafficking, the letter claims....

NIH program officials who handle grants in these areas are worried about the rumored surveillance. Four staffers contacted by Science declined to be interviewed. But one NIH scientist confirmed that some program staff have been telling grantees to reword grants to avoid terms such as: "needle exchange," "abortion," "condom effectiveness," "commercial sex workers," "transgender," and "men who have sex with men."

Changing words in proposals may not shield researchers from scrutiny, however. On 11 April, Foster fired off another letter to NIH raising questions about a UCSF grant to prevent HIV in gay men and demanded a list of all HIV-prevention studies.

Apparently the 80's will not die either...

Duh. Just realized this story is in the Times today (without naming names). The CRISP database is here -- 55 hits for "anal".

Proof the US doesn't have a monopoly on evil fucks [Guardian]
Islamic organisations and family members today told of their horror at the discovery of the body of a Muslim woman in a hospital mortuary covered with rashers of bacon.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Comparing different methods of detecting transgenic DNA in corn, investigators found significant false negative results with all 6 methods. Why this is relevant: I don't pretend to have any idea how PCR really works in the lab, but the fact that every single method tested repeatedly failed to identify intentionally contaminated DNA should give you pause when you are told something is not transgenic; note also this is the opposite of the alleged false positives obtained by Quist and Chapela in the Oaxacan maize paper.
[Holden, et al., "Evaluation of Extraction Methodologies for Corn Kernel (Zea mays) DNA for Detection of Trace Amounts of Biotechnology-Derived DNA," J. Agric. Food Chem. 51 (2003): 2468-74.]
Eyewitness account of the sack of Baghdad:
When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning -- flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows -- I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire".
[Robert Fisk in the Independent, via AlterNet; more on the looting here and here.]
Updates
anger management has an airline case study of those pensions, and history of those Kazhak-Iranian oil swaps (pioneered by Armand Hammer and "Uncle Joe" Stalin).

Naomi Klein summarizes postwar "privatization" in AlterNet -- er, the Nation [she fails to mention Dyncorp].

Note: blogspot permalinks don't seem to be working these days -- just scroll down.

More roundup-resistant weeds [AgWeb].

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Speaking of chemical weapons military pesticides, a new article in Nature shows that we sprayed "at least 2.1 million but perhaps as many as 4.8 million people" with more than 75 million liters of pesticide in Vietnam. And then there is the collateral damage:
Unlike in Laos, it was official US policy to avoid spraying Cambodia either directly or indirectly by spray drift. Records show several heavily sprayed regions of RVN, near Cambodia. The HERBS file shows one five-aircraft Ranch Hand mission dispersing approximately 19,000�l of Agent Orange on 5 April 1969 inside Cambodia. Another nine missions dispersed about 136,000�l of Agent Orange while partly over Cambodian territory (Fig. 3c). At the typical rate of 28�l�ha-1 this would cover about 5,500�ha. Undocumented spray drift may have also occurred. In May 1969 a diplomatic crisis arose when Cambodia charged the US with repeatedly spraying it and defoliating 70,930�ha; evidence of defoliation was confirmed by visiting foreign scientists. Cambodian claims seem to be exaggerated in that to achieve the extent of alleged defoliation nearly half of the Ranch Hand flights for April?May 1969 would have to have been directed towards Cambodia. Records are not available to resolve the controversy, particularly since the area was devastated by US B-52 bombing raids in 1970.
[Stellman, et al., "The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam," Nature 422 (2003), 681-7; refs. removed for legibility].
The 90's will never die.
This is a little off-topic, but you have to check out always on, a site where all those tech people who should be sweeping up burger kings continue to make grandiose pronouncements to each other about... the future, or "convergence," or whatever all that bullshit was about. You must also read the email their publicist sent to the Gawker chick, and her reply:
Dear Michael,
This is first time I've ever seen a blogger hire an actual PR firm to solicit links from other bloggers. I'm not saying it's definitively a bad practice, but it seems a bit like having your mom run around the playground, asking all the other kids to be your friend. "Little Tony may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier," she says....
That's Tony as in Perkins, who seems to have lots of spare time these days. Not holding my breath for a recovery.
The fruit detective reappears [NYT]
April peaches may well continue to improve as breeders make further progress, though they will never match the best summer varieties. Perhaps it is perverse to force peaches to grow at a place and time for which they are not naturally suited, but for centuries farmers have honorably raised out-of-season crops for luxury markets, and the Coachella Desert might arguably be considered a giant natural hothouse.
Real peaches less than a month away. Is it still snowing on the east coast?

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Inspired by the hullabaloo, I have been looking into Dyncorp, our new Iraqi police force (now a subsidiary of CSC). In addition to human trafficking in the Balkans and spraying peasants with Roundup in the Andes, I managed to scrape a little history out of Nexis:

1996: half-billion dollar chunk of the the Hanford cleanup contract -- which is not going well.

1/11/94 Washington Post

The FBI is investigating whether Dyncorp, the Reston-based defense contractor, defrauded the government by claiming to do millions of dollars of work at Fort Belvoir that it supposedly never did.

News of the investigation is contained in a lawsuit filed in Fairfax County Circuit Court by a former Dyncorp employee, Hollis McBroom, who said he was dismissed from the company for cooperating with the FBI.

Dyncorp and the FBI declined comment on the matter. But law enforcement sources confirmed an investigation is underway. Further, sources said the Army's Criminal Investigations Division also is investigating Dyncorp's performance on the Fort Belvoir contract.

The firm has a multimillion-dollar contract with the Army's Department of Engineering and Housing to maintain the physical plant of Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, which contains offices of Army intelligence and a unit researching night-vision technology.

15/5/87 Washington Post: indicted for criminal conspiracy to rig the bids on a 1982 Kentucky power plant contract.

6/17/87 Washington Post: Army debars Dyncorp from bidding (reversed one month later).

Getting creepier: 11/13/97 Washington Post:

In the latest in a string of big federal contract awards, DynCorp of Reston announced yesterday that a subsidiary has won a $ 322 million contract to develop and produce vaccines to protect U.S. soldiers from biological warfare agents.

DynCorp's bid was chosen from 66 bids solicited by the Defense Department, according to a department spokeswoman....

The DynCorp subsidiary, DynPort L.L.C., is a joint venture with Porton International Inc., a London-based pharmaceutical company that has worked in combating biological warfare agents in the past.

This is DynCorp's first foray into the realm of biological warfare, in which germs are used as weapons, said company spokeswoman Charlene Wheeless. However, the company has provided vaccine research and development and biomedical services to government agencies.

Finally, straight from the grassy knoll [4/4/96 Daily News]:
Daniel Bannister had his visa and his itinerary and was all set to leave with Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown on his fateful trade mission when he made the decision that probably saved his life.

"There were some business matters that came up that I just couldn't neglect," the president of DynCorp. told the News, explaining his last minute decision to stay behind.

Because he remained at his Reston, Va.-based computer services company, Bannister was not on the plane carrying Brown and other top corporate leaders that crashed in or near Croatia....

Bannister said that he owed his life to luck "and the hand of God."

I'll see if I can dig up some some more the next time I have several hours to waste.

Monday, April 14, 2003

The USDA told them to do it [Chron via Morford]
The owners of ranches where employees tossed live chickens into wood chippers won't be prosecuted on animal cruelty charges.
class war update [NYT]
Last year, corporations paid 10.5 percent of all the taxes collected by the Internal Revenue Service, down from 16.4 percent in 1973.

Since 1973, corporate income taxes have risen 75 percent as fast as corporate profits. By contrast, individuals' income taxes rose 21 percent faster than adjusted gross incomes.

If you must cultivate your garden: learn the dire effects of invasive species at Science News.

I'll test calçots from the Spanish Table, and let you know.

The House is trying to pre-empt local food-labeling initiatives [Oregon Statesman Journal].
20 % of beef sold in America comes from other countries. A mandatory country-of-origin law to take effect next year is getting the industry riled up. [Christian Science Monitor]

Update 4/17: pork producers whining too [AgWeb].

Friday, April 11, 2003

Tom Paine with more on Rummy, Bechtel and Saddam.
The USDA just released a big report on organic farming certification prior to NOP implementation.
new directions in creative accounting [NYT]
America's companies, large and small, had a total pension shortfall of about $300 billion at the end of 2002, according to the government agency that insures pensions. That was by far the largest total deficit in the history of that agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and it has aroused concerns about the health of the pension system. The worst deficits are found among a relatively small number of companies, in sectors like the auto and airline industries and deregulated public utilities.

Many big companies, most notably General Motors, have said they must make billions of dollars of contributions to their plans in the next few years to comply with funding requirements. Company pension plans have weakened in the last three years as stocks and interest rates have plummeted....

Large companies have lobbied hard for relief. Actuaries say that for every percentage point rise in the rate, pension liabilities appear 10 to 15 percent smaller. The new proposal would raise the rate by about eight-tenths of a percentage point, based on the market environment at the end of last year. Under the old calculation pegged to the 30-year bond, companies would have used a rate of 5.84 percent, versus 6.67 percent under the interim measure. If the new proposal had been in place at the end of the year, the rate would have been 7.42 percent.

For General Motors, to use one very large example, the proposed rate would have reduced liabilities by about $7 billion. G.M.'s level of pension funding would have been 91 percent instead of 75 percent. The funding level of a pension plan determines whether a company must make contributions. Other companies have smaller pension funds than G.M., but their liabilities would also look smaller....

Though companies have made forceful arguments for the proposed change in pension accounting, the change would not necessarily help all companies, or help employees, over the long run. For companies with severe pension deficits and weak finances over all, the change could cover up the weakness longer....

Pension plans are insured by the government, but only up to specific limits, as the pilots of US Airways recently discovered when their benefits were reduced.

Someone who understands accounting better than I needs to analyze this.... 5 minutes later: like, say, see the forest. esp. here:
In other words, they want to CLAIM that they are earning up to 10% on their accounts when calculating how much they will have in their pension accounts, which means that if they do NOT earn 10% (and they aren't), the funds won't be there for retirees and they will have to reduce promised payments. As the NYTimes story says, allowing companies to claim high returns also means that their shortfalls are actually as much as double what they are currently claiming! Maybe even more.
more from the 1/13/03 Times.
Vt. Senate passes GMO labeling law; House will be more of a challenge.
USDA names new biotech committee. UCS and CPSI are represented.

Syngenta's fusarium-resistant wheat trials approved in UK and Germany -- Greenpeace immediately "sabotaged" the Greman site by planting organic wheat on it. Syngenta's chairman says marketing is at least 5 years away.

EU gets tough with members [St. L. Bus. J. via corante]

The European Union Commission has ordered the governments of 12 European countries to end a five-year moratorium on genetically engineered crops.

Dow Jones News wires reported that national laws on testing and licensing biotech organisms should have gone into effect Oct. 17, 2002, but the 12 countries refused to enact the laws. The commission has now ordered a two-month deadline to enact the laws. Failure to do so could result in lawsuit and fines.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

brit chicks tired of organic con [Daily Mail]:
The rule with food is simple. The fresher the better, and I don't think you can beat shopping for normal, locally produced fruit and vegetables at your nearest market. I shop daily for fresh food, and buy most of my fruit and vegetables from Lewisham market.

The problem is that organic food is fashionable, and shopping at a market isn't....

In related news [BBC]:
A traditional pudding which was renamed after hospital managers thought patients would be too embarrassed to ask for it, is being restored to Gloucestershire's hospital menus.

'Spotted Dick' will replace 'Spotted Richard' after it was decided patients are capable of overcoming their blushes long enough to ask for it.

recipe here.
P. M. Porter, et al. "Organic and Other Management Strategies with Two- and Four-Year Crop Rotations in Minnesota," Agronomy Journal 95 (2003): 233-244:
This research documented long-term corn and soybean yield response when grown under OI [organic input] and HI [conventional high-input] management strategies. While there was a reduction in both corn and soybean yields in the 4-yr OI strategy compared with the 2-yr HI strategy, the OI strategy had lower production costs than the HI strategy; consequently, net returns, without taking into account organic price premiums, for the two strategies were equivalent...
news story here.
More reasons not to buy California wine: Hesser, a.k.a the nemesis, explains why wine is such a ripoff in the Times.

IHT's Friedrich discusses the opposite "problem" at the low end of the French market.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

memory lane
In this article from July 2001, "terrorist" Sy Hersh explains Mobil's thirst for Iranian oil
In the fall of 1997, an international businessman named Farhat Tabbah filed suit in London against three American businessmen, the oil minister of Kazakhstan, and a subsidiary of the Mobil Corporation. He charged that they had cheated him out of millions of dollars in commissions on what was to have been a ten-year swap of oil between Kazakhstan and Iran. Mobil and the other defendants denied the allegations and successfully moved to suppress all Tabbah's affidavits and supporting documentation.
Two of the men involved, Bryan Williams and James H. Giffen, have just been charged with conspiracy and tax evasion; want to lay odds on ExxonMobile escaping unscathed?
march of progress [NSU]
American farmers are breeding wool-free sheep to bring down the cost of meat production. Called hair sheep, the almost-bald animals don't need shearing, in contrast with parasite-prone woolly sheep....

They hope that US farmers will choose their low-maintenance hybrid over the woolly breeds from Australia and New Zealand. "The primary advantage is decreased cost and labour for the ewe flock," says Leymaster.

the more things change... [NYT]
Meirav Chovav, a biotechnology stock analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, agreed last April to join UBS Warburg, whose health care banking group is led by Benjamin Lorello. Her compensation: a guaranteed $10 million over three years, say bankers with a knowledge of her contract.

Her contract came not only in the midst of a bear market, but just two months after Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, had opened an investigation into research and banking conflicts on Wall Street....

But even if she is not giving all favorable reviews to companies under her purview, her rich contract has caused a number of bankers to suggest that the only way UBS Warburg could justify paying her over $3 million a year is if she brings in a substantial amount of investment banking business.

How's your HealthSouth stock?

Update: adopting skimble's [perhaps slightly reductivist] new math, I see that Ms. Chovav is only worth 222 U.S. Army Privates -- a discrepancy easily explained by her M.S. in molecular biology.

Monday, April 07, 2003

world's safest food supply [NYT]
bet you didn't hear about this:
The Agriculture Department retaliated against two federal meat inspectors in the New York area for reporting possible misconduct by other inspectors, according to a ruling by an administrative judge made public yesterday.

The case is one of several in which inspectors said they faced retaliation after they vigorously enforced regulations in meat plants or pointed out weaknesses in a new inspection system. Inspectors in California and Arkansas have made similar claims of harsh treatment. An inspector in Pennsylvania said in December that safety officials had brushed aside his concerns about a plant linked to an outbreak of food-poisoning by the listeria bacteria that killed eight people.

In the New York decision, JoAnn M. Ruggiero, an administrative judge for the Merit Systems Protection Board, which was created to protect federal employees from unfair treatment, ruled that the two inspectors, Patrick H. McHale and James L. Peterson, were wrongly suspended from their jobs after providing tips that helped investigators uncover abuses among inspectors in New York and New Jersey.

Also, last week, as expected, the Senate repealed the Hastert/Deal organic chicken sellout.
Alaska's Senators want to label wild salmon "organic". [Anchorage Daily News]. Are people so stupid that they will only pay for an obviously superior product if it bears an irrelevant label? No need to answer that.
dystopia update
Natalie Angier in the Times Book Review
So when I read Robert Lanza, the vice president of Advanced Cell Technology, proclaiming in ''Enough'' that ''we're close to being able to add 20 to 30 points to your baby's IQ,'' I feel a surge of annoyance. Oh yeah? Like the ''smart'' genetically engineered Doogie (for Doogie Howser) mouse, which runs mazes well but turns out to suffer from chronic pain? Like the children who recently were ''cured'' of their immune disorder through gene therapy, but were given leukemia in the process? Hey, let's create a kid with a really good memory! Too bad he keeps remembering his nightmares.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

parting shot
Gawker has the list of Friends of Frank [Quattrone, of CSFB]. This is the guy who was stupider than Grubman, which is incomprehensible after reading Cassidy's description of that fiasco in the latest New Yorker -- not, of course, online.

These people need a tax break!

Friday, April 04, 2003

Steven H. Strauss in Science
Genomic sequencing projects are rapidly revealing the content and organization of crop genomes. By isolating a gene from its background and deliberately modifying its expression, genetic engineering allows the impacts of all genes on their biochemical networks and organismal phenotypes to be discerned, regardless of their level of natural polymorphism. This greatly increases the ability to determine gene function and, thus, to identify new options for crop domestication. The organismal functions of the large majority of genes in genomic databases are unknown.

At the same time, however, government regulatory regimes are making field studies of genetically engineered (GE) plants needed to understand gene function in the context of normal plant development increasingly difficult. These regimes have been created largely because of biosafety issues raised by genes imported from distant species. However, they have been applied to asexually introduced genes whose source and effects resemble those of traditional breeding. This imposes large costs that impede the delivery of public benefits from genomics research....

Regulations that distinguish between classes of recombinant plants may decrease some public condemnation of agricultural GE. If regulatory costs and hurdles were significantly reduced, it might promote GE crop development by small companies and public sector investigators. Given the widespread suspicion of the power and ethics of many large corporations, and the major role that this social skepticism has played in the controversy over GE crops, such "democratization" of biotechnology might be as important as biological advances in promoting public approval of GE in agriculture.

[SciDev.Net posts the abstract here].

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Trans-atlantic thaw? BBC yes, Le Monde non.
The EU has fined French farmers' unions 17 million for price fixing during the mad cow scare. The fine is big enough that it could break FNSEA, the largest union. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of french agricultural politics, but I wonder if this isn't an attempt to weaken the unions to make it easier to lower agricultural subsidies. [Yahoo | Le Monde]
decline and fall... [Nature]
Researchers from countries as diverse as Indonesia and Germany are now subject to detailed security checks and rigorous interviews. The clampdown covers first-time visitors to the United States and those returning to lab positions there -- delaying trips by weeks or months, and deterring some from coming at all.

The consequences of the change, which intensified with the introduction last August of new visa guidelines for consular officials, could be far-reaching. "We are in a rapid transition, whereby the United States will cease to be the destination of choice for researchers," predicts Irving Lerch, director of international affairs at the American Physical Society....

US research programmes, such as that of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey Bay, California, are also feeling the pinch. Several researchers from the countries that the centre needs to work with, including China and parts of the former Soviet Union, have been denied entry to the United States. "I'm supportive of greater controls, but they are using a very blunt instrument and they are weeding out the wrong people," argues Clay Moltz, a project director at the centre. Before 11 September 2001, Moltz says, he could usually talk to the US embassy in the country concerned to move an application along. Now the embassies don't return his calls. "There is no communication at all. You file these things and wait," he says.

nnnnnn

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

A federal judge has just ruled the Washington Apple checkoff unconstitutional. [High Plains Journal]

A checkoff is a mandatory contribution by farmers of a certain product to a quasi-governmental trade organization that does whatever it wants with the money. Like agitating against the "death tax". Or paying its officers lots of [farmers'] money to spend lots more [farmers'] money on ads for the other white meat. Or whatever idiocy they paid still more [farmers'] money to an ad agency to come up with. Mostly they seem to spend farmers money to ensure their own continued existence at the expense of that money. The milk checkoff was recently upheld in PA; the pork and beef checkoffs are currently in appeals court.

Not to belabor the obvious, but these programs are predicated on the idea that beef consumption would plummet without ads telling you what's for dinner.

AlterNet explains the spoils system
"The Americans haven't gone into this war intending to share with anyone. It's a war trophy," Nikolai Tokarev, the chief of Zarubezhneft, Russia's state oil company, told a Russian paper recently, according to wire-service translations. "We're clearly going to have to cut our losses on anything we have there and anything we could have had."
See skimble for the latest on Halliburton.
Biotech
Wired seems to be publishing the same shit that was so radical 10 years ago. Witness the breathless description of the coming bio-dystopia in the April issue, which concludes:
With any luck, the new pharma economy will catalyze a long boom greater than that of 1982-2000.
Yay, the future!

Generic state of the question review of the AgBiotech industry at a site called BiotechTech.

Mark Lesney discusses coming traits in Today's Chemist at Work [can't tell if this is free or requires ACS membership]; consider this:

Abiotic stresses, such as inappropriate temperature, drought, or excess mineral salts also routinely decrease food quality and yield. The next generation of genetically engineered plants is being developed to deal with such stresses--something that might prove critical in the face of global warming, or "thermogeddon", as Rowan Sage from the University of Toronto referred to it at a 2003 Gordon Conference on Temperature Stress in Plants.
All this biotech stuff got you confused? UC Davis has a nice little brochure explaining the basics of biotechnology in plant breeding.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Thankfully, the Guardian is keeping track of war lies. [via atrios].
The Vancouver Province has a good discussion of salmon farming [via tidepool].

And GM salmon -- which exacerbate every problem with farmed fish -- are waiting in the wings.

Cf. Barry Estabrook's Gourmet article [pdf] on fish farming [via Sauté Wedneday's list of the Beard Award nominees].

SARS may be 2 heretofore unthreatening viruses working together [NSU]
Suspicions are growing that the culprit is an unassuming virus called a coronavirus. Many labs have found a version of it in most patients' lungs and blood; some sufferers also have antibodies that show they were infected.

But the coronavirus might have a partner in crime: a virus that was discovered last week. This pathogen, one of the paramyxoviruses that cause respiratory infections, has also turned up in some swabs. "It could well be that a combination is important," says virologist Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus University Hospital in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

2003 GM estimates [NYT]
soybean acreage: 80%, up from 75% last year.
corn: 38%, up from 34% last year.
cotton: 70%, down from 71% (difference is within the margin of error of the survey).

AgWeb has more details, from the USDA NASS March Agricultural Survey.

subsequent clarification: those are percentages of US total acreage. I.e., 80% of your transfat intake comes from GM soy. pass the crisco.

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