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17 June 2008

The Truth about GM Crops

Supposedly GM crops were supposed to to solve all sorts of annoying resource problems. Increased yields were supposed to help poor countries. Golden rice was supposed to cure Vitamin A deficiency.

Alas, golden rice has never been a commercial priority. And it seems that biotechnology companies are not really interested in increasing yields of what poor countries really need: staple crops.

What is industry leader Monsanto planning for the medium term? Certainly profitable stuff but nothing that will solve any systematic resource problems.

In particular, many [executives] point to new lines of drought-tolerant corn, due out in 2012, that have been engineered to use water more efficiently.

How such products will alleviate hunger in developing nations is another issue. Monsanto's corn, for instance, isn't meant to be eaten off the cob. Its most common use, as with soy, is to produce animal feed. So doubling yields is most likely to benefit affluent meat-eaters but is of little use to the malnourished. Monsanto says it's working with African aid groups to develop drought-tolerant white corn to help local farmers, but CEO Grant says such crops are "eight years down the road."

Biotechnology companies are not looking to increase yields, to reduce pesticide use, to feed the hungry, or to save the planet. They are looking to generate profit for their shareholders. Period.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/17/2008 10:51:00 PM

12 June 2008

The So-Called Middle Class

I understand why the affluent want to call themselves middle class. Some even think that their very cushy lifestyle is the norm. But supposedly knowledgeable observers should be pointing out what the real situation is.

Business Week profiled a few affluent families and how the possibility of tax hikes (or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts) might affect them and their lifestyle. The first is a family of four from suburban Philadelphia.

By any measure, Dr. Howard Hammer and his wife, Hope, have a comfortable life. Hammer, 40, has built a thriving practice as an ear, nose, and throat specialist, while Hope, 39, has switched to part-time work as a real estate lawyer after years at a big firm in order to spend more time with Arielle, 7, and Matthew, 9. Home is a four-bedroom house in the Philadelphia suburbs, and between them, they bring in over $300,000 a year. "We can't complain," he says. "We're certainly not struggling."

But are they wealthy? That's far more debatable. Hammer, who feels the same pressures squeezing Americans up and down the income ladder, says he's anything but. Ever-rising prices for gas, health insurance, and other expenses are hitting hard, as are the $3,000-a-month mortgage and the $2,000 he still pays monthly to whittle down his $160,000 medical school debt. A six-year residency gave Hammer a delayed start saving for retirement, so he worries if he's stashing enough in his 401(k). By the time the couple contributes to the children's college fund, there's little extra at the end of the month.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2006, there were 203,051 families in Montgomery County, of which 20,828 had incomes over $200,000, let alone the $300,000 that Dr. and Mrs. hammer pull down annually. The Hammers paid $655,000 for their home in August 2004. In 2006, 34,552 owner-occupied homes out of 225,939 in the county had values over $500,000. If the Hammers are feeling pressures from the economy, it is because they paid a lot for a house that is a lot nicer than most of the houses in the area.

A second family lives in Pelham, New York, and its patriarch makes a truly astounding claim.

[F]or many close to that $250,000 cusp, what sounds like a lot of money often doesn't feel like it. "Depending on where you live, $250,000 is middle class, at best," says Michael Ginn, 49, a longtime media executive who lives with his wife, Dafne, 34, and 3-year-old daughter, Erin, in the New York suburb of Pelham; their second daughter is due in July. Though his income has topped $300,000 for more than a decade, Ginn says he's never felt so stretched. With the cost of everything from health insurance to upkeep on his 90-year-old home surging, even as he takes on new expenses for his growing family, Ginn can't stash away anything near what he once did for retirement, let alone save for college. "We're just dog paddling now," he says. He argues that if Washington is going to raise high-end taxes, then the local cost of living should be taken into account.

Pelham is a bit different from much of the country. In 1999, the median family income nationwide was just over $50,000, but it was over $111,000 in Pelham. But the idea that "$250,000 is middle class, at best" should be accompanied, by any magazine that takes itself seriously, with a rhetorical smackdown. Let us grant Mr. Ginn some room and not wonder whether he thinks $250,000 is working class or lower middle class; let us assume that "at best" slipped his lips wholly in error.

In 2000, there were 4,141 households in the town of Pelham. Of this number, 890 had $200,000 or more of annual household income. It is about right to equate $200,000 in 2000 with $250,000 in 2008, after inflation—in fact, the consumer price index increase from January 2000 to January 2008 was 25.04%.

Now, 21.5 percent of households in the $200,000 and up category means that Pelham has a lot of affluent people. But even here, these folks are in the top quintile of income.

Cry poor if you want, but if you are pulling in $300,000, you have very little truly in common with ordinary people. How hard would it have been for Business Week to have done even a bit of fact-checking about these claims?

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Posted by Tim W at 6/12/2008 10:25:00 PM

Remedial Math

In a generally muckraking article about how banks use a supposedly fair but actually biased arbitration system to screw consumers, Business Week uses stark figures to show just how biased the system is.

Others argue that NAF [(National Arbitration Forum)] umpires make calls that put debtors at a disadvantage. In March, Dennis J. Herrera, San Francisco's city attorney, sued the firm in California state court, accusing it of churning out awards for creditors without sufficient justification. The lawsuit cites state records showing that NAF handled 33,933 collection arbitrations in California from January, 2003, through March, 2007. Of the 18,075 that weren't dropped by creditors, otherwise dismissed, or settled, consumers won just 30, or 0.2%, the suit alleges. "NAF has done an end run around the law to strip consumers of their right to a fair collection process," Herrera says in an interview.

The problem is that in the print version of the article, Business Week, which is owned by the same folks who own Standard and Poor's, divided 30 by 18,075 to get 0.002%. Oops.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/12/2008 07:19:00 PM

04 June 2008

Six Tags That Defeat Internet Explorer

Just how bad in quality control at Microsoft?

If you save the following code (from August 2007) in an HTML file, it fatally crashes Internet Explorer. And the code is very basic: the first half defines a default style of relative positions, and the second half puts an input box in a very rudimentary table. And the brain trust in Redmond has not fixed this, despite dozens of weekly "updates" to Windows in the interim.

<style>*{position:relative}</style><table><input /></table></code></blockquote>

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Posted by Tim W at 6/04/2008 01:40:00 AM

Six Words to Defeat McCain

The British often have good political instincts, and not just the idea of a six-week election season. No, as a Daily Kos diarist notes, the best British political ideas often come from unexpected areas, such as this meme straight from Doctor Who two years ago:

Six words. Six. Don't you think he looks tired?

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Posted by Tim W at 6/04/2008 01:28:00 AM

First Things Last

Republican Jim Ogonowski last year came within a few thousand votes of winning a special election to fill Marty Meehan's Congressional seat. So he decided to use that moral victory as a springboard to challenging incumbent senator John Kerry.

There is only one problem: Ogonowski will not be on the primary ballot because he came up 30 signatures short of the required 10,000 signatures.

Unable to orchestrate the most basic of political tasks, Ogonowski faces the daunting task of running a write-in campaign in the primary against a Republican who is already on the ballot. It makes you wonder who the chumps were who paid $1,000 a head last month to hear Mitt Romney speak on Ogonowski's behalf. And it makes you wonder if Romney feels that he should have stuck to buting a house in suburban San Diego rather than raise money for yet another dead-ender.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/04/2008 01:17:00 AM

02 June 2008

Gatorade Thinks You Don't Know Latin

The folks at Gatorade have been featuring sports heroes in a series of commercials for the sports drink, accompanied by part of the first song from Carmina Burana.

When the music you quote is moaning about the inevitability of Luck and Fate, it sort of detracts from the idea that a particular drink will help you overcome what those medieval drinkers were drinking about.

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis

O Fortune
like the moon
you are changable

Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem
mecum omnes plangite!


So at this hour
without delay
plucking the vibrating strings
since Fate
strikes down the string man
everyone weep with me!

Granted, this is hardly at the level of irony hit by Microsoft, which introduced a version of Internet Explorer on television with an excerpt from the Mozart Requiem wherein sinners were consigned to hell. (In particular, the Gatorade ad slices and dices the piece, often in mid-phrase.) But it still seems odd.

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Posted by Tim W at 6/02/2008 12:06:00 AM

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