Genetic Engineering

27 October 2013

Here in Washington, next month’s election carries Initiative #-522 to be voted on by the people.  If passed, it will mandate product labeling to show contents that hasve been genetically modified.  It’s creating a lot of controversy.  Here were my thoughts on the subject.

This past summer I had occasion to visit a zoo and stopped by to see the wolves.  They really are fetching creatures.  They’re nothing like my neighbor’s bulldog which, though sweet, is as ugly as sin.   It’s hard to believe that homely bulldog, or any dog, for that matter, is descended from the noble wolf.  This disparity is the result of an ancient form of genetic engineering: Animal husbandry.  From time immemorial, goatherds, shepherds, stockmen and other keepers of animals have “improved the breed” by only letting ones with desired traits get together and rut.  They did this with wolves too and over time, they selected ones with stubby legs, or floppy ears, or wiry fur and so on.  Of course husbandmen are breeding the whole animal, so you would also end up with ancillary traits you may not want, e.g., curly tails.

Enter now the modern husbandman who, instead of selectively breeding for desired traits, consults the mad scientist in the genetics lab.  This scientist fellow can isolate individual genes for desired traits, but no others.  For example, you can custom-order a dog with stubby legs but without the curly tail — or any tail at all, for that matter.

Beyond that, the mad scientist can take genes from one kind of organism and insert them into another, one of a whole different kind.  Say a farmer wants to make use of the offal coming from his slaughter operation.  He thinks it would be nice if he could get his chickens to eat it but they are not suited to a diet of guts.  After mulling over the problem, the mad scientist decides to take a hens’ egg and insert the digestive gene from a spyder; spyders, after all, live on liquefied guts.  Ah, now the good farmer can make use of everything on the farm and increase his profits thereby.

But do you want to eat a chicken that’s part spyder?  I thought not.

Even more disturbing is the possibility (likelihood?) that the spyder gene will affect other genes and pretty soon you’ve got some horrid chimera that can fly in your window, peck open your neck and suck out your blood.

But there is another kind of genetic engineering, the kind done with vegetation.  In an effort to increase soybean yields, the mad scientists have messed with the soybean genome, cutting out a gene here, inserting a gene there, and now soybeans survive spraying with Roundup.

What might the Law of Unintended Consequences have in store for our intrepid mad scientist?  How about this anti-Roundup gene nudging the gene for growth?  Sending out a bazillion runners, corn, or soybeans or barley or wheat, could grow like Kudzu vines.  Kudzu, a noxious weed, grows over everything in sight — grass, weeds, shrubs and trees — and kills by impenetrable shade.  Kudzu has laid waste much of the southeastern US and is spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres a year.  Eradication is all but impossible.

But why would our mad scientists fool around with the world’s food crops anyway?  Why would they run such a risk?  Answer?  Money.  If genetic engineering can make crops grow faster, grow bigger and grow throughout the year, Big Ag can make a boatload of money.

But genetic engineering, left unchecked, can all too easily give us Frankenstein’s Monsters. A few weeks ago, down in Oregon, a farmer discovered some wheat in his north forty that survived a spraying with Roundup.  Though Monsanto denied this Roundup-resistant wheat was an experiment gone awry, Roundup-resistant soybeans are Monsanto’s stock-in-trade so draw your own conclusions.

It seems someone in Big Ag has let loose the Kraken.  What’s next?  Probably nothing good.  Kudzu, here we come.

Ah, but if we Washingtonians saw labels informing us our Wheaties and hamburgers contained genetically modified foodstuffs, we probably wouldn’t buy as much of it.  By our selecting for natural foods, genetically engineered foods will die out as they will no longer be profitable.  If people said “I’ll not buy another thing with Roundup-resistant soybeans,” Roundup-resistant soybeans would be off the market inside a week.

“Better safe than sorry” is a bit of old folk wisdom.  “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is another.  I’ll pay a few cents more for my breakfast cereal if it will forefend my grandson being born with an eye in the middle of his forehead.

I’m voting for I-522.  So should you.  Caution and prudence demand it.

-Merlin-

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Our Humanitarian Impulses

25 October 2013

Last night, Fanny and Filoman Farquart came by for some cocktails.  We’d knocked back a few when Filoman recalled that our local tycoon, Bill Gates has been in the news of late.  Bill and his bride, have taken on the responsibility of saving the world.  Well, at least the African part of it.

“Boy, that Gates”, said Filoman, “He’s going over to Africa to give all the little shavers shots so they don’t die of the crud.  What a humanitarian”.

Scooping up more chips-and-dip, I replied, “Not so.  Just the opposite in fact.  Old Bill’s going to get bit by the Law of Unintended Consequences”.  Fanny gave me a quizzical look.

“Look here”, I went on.  “Africa is a pest hole if ever there was one.  Squalor, poverty and brutality on an unimaginable scale.  People settle disputes with machetes and AK-47s.  They mutilate each others’ genitles with gusto and relish.  The land is poor and water scarce.  And talk about pestilence.  A terrible place, a really terrible place.

“But the real ringer is family size; they breed like rabbits.  I’ve read that people have from eight-to-ten kids.  They do this because at least half die from some grody disease and the balance are put to work ASAP the better to support good old Mom and Dad.  Not a good system, but Africa staggers on.

“But it’s not only Africa.  There’s also Bangladesh.  And India.  And Pakistan.  Indonesia fits in there somewhere too.  And America, the way we’re going.

“Now comes Bill and Melinda.  By giving out vaccines, the survival rate for those humongous broods goes up from, say, four kids to eight.  That means in just one generation, those populations will double.  Double!  The land can’t support the population it already has, what will it do when the number doubles inside twenty years?  The people Bill saved from death by diarrhea today will die later on in wars fought for food and water, if they don’t die before then by starvation and thirst.

“In giving out all these medicines, Bill and Melinda are simply plowing the sea”.

Filoman looked aghast.  “Well,” he asked, “What do you think could be done?” (Ah, someone has asked for my opinion.)

So here goes.  First, I do commend Bill and Melinda for their work, but their work doesn’t go far enough; it is only one part of the equation.  Indeed, Bill and Melinda should insist some permanent (or at least semi-permanent) form of birth control be put in place before the shots are given.  Quick-and-easy tubal ligations or vasectomies are best.  They can be performed in the same clinics that give the shots but do require some period of recuperation.

And then there’s Sensa©!  Like the older Norplant, Sensa is a suite of thin, soft and flexible “sticks” impregnated with a female hormone the sticks secrete over a period of years.  They are implanted in the underside of a woman’s upper arm, so no recuperation needed.  Sensa can also be removed, restoring the lady to fertility.

But being saved from perpetual child-bearing may not be enough to turn a woman’s head so a suitable  emolument should be included.  About $200 US should do the trick.  As the  implant needs to be replaced every few years, Bill and Melinda will have to pop for another two hundred bucks later on.

If some form of long-term birth control is not part of our humanitarian programs, we simply can’t keep up.  We simply cannot grow enough food to feed the wretched refuse that burgeons across the globe.  And we certainly can’t take them in.

Bill and Melinda don’t have enough money to effectively promote third-world birth control.  Uncle Sam must get involved too and he must tie permanent, life-long birth control programs to any sort of aid.  If he doesn’t unimaginable horrors await.

-Merlin-


Obamacare

25 October 2013

This is the dawn of Obamacare’s second day.  From what I read in The Herald this morning, Obamacare seems to be, if not a hit, well received.  Despite the rabid frothings from some quarters, it seems people actually like it.  So much so that Obamacare’s on-line servers were clobbered with what computer hackers call a Denial Of Service (DOS) attack.  In this bit of mischief, hackers overwhelm servers to the point the servers cannot respond and the website goes down.  In Obamacare’s case, it wasn’t hackers who crashed the servers, it was American people trying to sign up.  Well, well; this seems to scotch the argument Americans so loath Obamacare we are ready to riot in the streets.

To Americans, anything that remotely smells like socialism is anathema and Obamacare, what with its call for government involvement, has that taint.  And why shouldn’t we hate socialism?  After all, socialism was the warp and woof of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, Cambodia and is the current ideology of Red China, and we know how those places have worked out.

As we know, the force militating for Obamacare was the steep rise in medical costs over the last umpteen years.  Year-by-year, medical insurance policies became ever more expensive to the point of not being affordable for many and something needed to be done.  People were carping and complaining, gnashing their teeth and pulling out their hair.  But what?  Let us look at two things here: The costs of medical care and employer-paid insurance – evils Obamacare is designed to correct.

About the costs.  Let’s compare medical care to cars.  When my dad died of cancer in 1959, cars were pretty primitive.  Fuel injection?  Faugh.  Cars used carburetors having maybe a dozen parts. Ignition systems were understandable to, and reparable by, kids in middle school.  There were no anti-lock brakes.  No air bags.  No crashworthiness.  And most had two-speed automatic transmissions.  Mileage?  8.6 for a Ford Thunderbird.  Would anyone in his or her right mind expect a car made in 2013 to cost the same as one made in 1959, even when taking inflation into account?  Of course not.  So it is with medicine.

I’m alive today only because of medical advances.  A test undreamed of in 1959 caught my cancer and surgical techniques never contemplated dug it out.  Last month I had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), which is a kind of stroke.  In the case of a TIA, the blood clot that’s clogging an artery in the brain isn’t too large and your normal blood pressure unsticks the clot and pushes it out.  In 1959, a TIA was the kiss of death for within two weeks you could expect the real thing and end up a basket case or a corpse.  Today, I’m on a medication never contemplated in 1959 and will most likely never have a stroke — or if I do, and can get to the hospital in an hour or so, I’ll get a shot of another (new) medication that will clear the stroke and let me go on my way.  These medicines and tests have prices that have contributed to the general rise in medical costs.

Employer-paid insurance is, in reality, a form of socialism isn’t it?  Yes.  Well, it’s chief problems are: 1). The boss can (and too often, does) buy ever-cheaper policies and there isn’t a blessed thing you can do about it.  Being a benefit, employer-paid health insurance is considered part of your compensation so when the boss foists a cheap policy on you, it’s really a pay cut.  If you’re unionized this probably wouldn’t happen to you, but most of us decided long ago to shoot our unions in the head, so . . . and; 2). You can’t take your employer-paid insurance with you if you quit, get canned or laid off. By having employers in control of your health insurance, you are at the mercy of the boss and locked into that job for the duration.  The company has you by the short hairs and both you and the boss know it.

So, then, Obamacare?  Next to Medicare For All, it’s the best thing going.  And people know it.

-Merlin-


Motorcycles

25 October 2013

Motorcycles

By now you know about the incident in New York City where a pack of motorcycle thugs surrounded, hectored and terrified a family in an SUV. However, the Law Of Unintended Consequences came into play and bit the bikers on the rump.  Instead of brutalizing those in the SUV, one of the motorcyclists got squashed like a bug when the guy in the SUV ran over him trying to get away.

So then, the subject of motorcycles is timely and we should address our county’s problem of motorcycle noise.

Nobody minds owners of Hondas, BMWs, Yamahas and other civilized motorcycles.  But we do mind another kind of motorcycle owner, owners of the roaring, snorting Harley-Davidson “hog”.

Harley owners fall into two categories: posers and greasers.  Posers are gentle souls: lawyers, doctors, businessmen and retired dudes out for a weekend spin.  The greasers are nasty fellows who ride beat-up motorcycles and wear filthy jackets with grotesque insignia on the backs.  Although posers and greasers are light years apart in other ways, they love their hogs.

When Harleys come from the factory, they have exhaust mufflers and sound no worse than a civilized Honda.  Ah, but the first thing most Harley owners do, be they posers or greasers, is rip off the mufflers to create an ear-splitting racket.  A few weeks ago, a greaser on his hog pulled up next to me as I sat at Main and Avenue D, waiting for the light to change.  When we got the green, the rider cracked the throttle and the Harley’s exhaust note about blew out my left ear — it rang for hours.  The greaser turned left onto Main, opened the throttle and the noise could have awakened the dead.  Another time it was a poser.

If I took the mufflers off my old 426 Plymouth and drove it around town, I’d get a fix-it ticket so fast it would make my head swim.  But Harley owners, be they posers or greasers, seem to be getting a free pass to make all the noise they can.  Why this double standard?

I asked a cop about this and he told me the Law lets Harley riders remove their mufflers with impunity.  This hardly seems possible, but as I haven’t quizzed the Sheriff, I really can’t say; the cop might well be right.  So what can be done?  Well, a muffler exemption notwithstanding, offending Harley riders could be, and should be, cited for being public nuisances like the cretins who hold loud parties on the patio.  In fact, according to The Herald, a kid with a boombox in his car got a $400+ ticket for making less noise than does the typical Harley.  A couple of tickets a month and a Harley owner might want to put those mufflers back on.

Of course, if there is no special exemption for Harleys, and I suspect there isn’t, Harley owners with unmuffled exhausts should get fix-it tickets straightaway.  A fix-it ticket means you must correct the problem, then present the repaired vehicle (or at least the receipt for the repairs) to the cops and if they approve, you can go on your way.  Ah, but if you don’t get the fix, you can’t operate the vehicle on the public roads until you do.  If you get caught riding with an outstanding fix-it ticket, the cops can haul your motorcycle to the impound lot.

A cop can’t miss an unmuffled Harley any more than the rest of us.  Hearing one of those things, the cop should pull it over.  “Hey, son”, says the cop, “Your bike seems to be making a lot of . . .  Say, what’s that I see.  No mufflers!  Well son, wait right there while I get my ticket book”.

I think a little public pressure will motivate law enforcement to solve our Harley problem.  If the sheriff catches the dickens from you and me, the deputies will start clamping down on these rude and noisy people.  Make as much noise as those pests on Harleys and the problem will go away.

Call your sheriff today.

-Merlin-