Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Corporations Framing the Debate

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) used to be known as, "The supermarket to the world," thanks to its ads on political talk shows. But after an FBI investigation in the 1990s, ADM pleaded guilty to fixing international prices on citric acid and lysine, paid a $100 million fine, and saw three of its top executives convicted and sent to prison. You can read the Department of Justice indictment here.

At a 1992 meeting, when lysine was under 80 cents per pound, ADM Corn Processing Division President Terry Wilson proposed "friendly competition" to raise the price to 80 cents, then 95 cents, then $1.05 and then $1.20. As Wilson told the other lysine makers in a secret meeting recorded by Mark Whitacre, "You're my friend. I want to be closer to you than I am to any customer 'cause you can make us money." ADM president James Randall told the group, "We have a saying here in this company that penetrates the whole company. It's a saying that our competitors are our friends. Our customers are the enemy" (from the article, Price Fixer to the World)

The recently released Warner Brothers movie, The Informant dramatizes the incident, focusing on Mark Whitacre, the insider who blew the whistle on ADM. He is, to say the least, an interesting character.

ADM is today the world's largest corn processor and has the largest market share in two corn-based products: high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener, and ethanol. ADM is a big booster of bio fuels. It remains one of the world's largest and most influential corporations.

I do not believe that ADM's misconduct over the years was the exception. In my view, corporate misconduct is pervasive and far more insidious than price fixing. What's interesting to me is that the public seems to accept this state of affairs far more readily than they accept government "interference" in attempting to correct it. This is a testament to the political clout and public relations savvy of corporations, not just in America, but around the globe.

Perhaps the very worst example of corruption and despoliation occurs in the oil industry and interestingly, the WSJ recently featured the review of a book by Peter Maass on the subject.

Industry and their corporations manipulate politicians and public perceptions regarding touchstone issues effecting the quality of our lives on everything from the air we breathe, the water we drink (like Coke's "Eco-Friendly" DaSani bottled water, which turns out to be tap water) and the [salmonella-tainted] food we eat, to the health care we receive to overcome the effects of what we breathe, eat and drink. In the absence of government regulation, corporate power and influence grow unchecked, becoming the real threat to democracy. Corporations frame the debate on health care, on energy policy and global warming, and on war and peace. Given public ignorance and/or apathy, they will determine the world in which we live.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Arctic Ocean Sea Ice Shrinks

On September 12, 2009, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean reached its minimum extent for 2009. Ice covered 5.10 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean. The average minimum between 1979 and 2000, outlined in yellow, was 6.71 million square kilometers. The 2009 minimum extent was 1.61 million square kilometers or 24 percent below average. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the 2009 sea ice minimum was the third lowest since the start of satellite measurements in 1979. The only two years with less sea ice were 2007 and 2008.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Antarctic Warming

New analyses show that Antarctic surface temperatures increased more than 1°F (0.5°C) in the last half century. West Antarctica warmed at a higher rate, rising 0.31°F (0.17°C) per decade. The results, published Jan. 22, 2009, in Nature, confirm earlier findings. While some areas of East Antarctica have been cooling in recent decades, the longer 50-year trend depicts that, on average, temperatures are rising across the continent. West Antarctica is particularly vulnerable to climate changes because its ice sheet is grounded below sea level and surrounded by floating ice shelves. If the West Antarctic ice sheet completely melted, global sea level would rise by 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters).

Sunday, September 20, 2009


A combination of record-high heat and record-low rainfall has pushed south and central Texas into the region's deepest drought in a half century, with $3.6 billion of crop and livestock losses piling up during the past nine months. The heat wave has drastically reduced reservoirs and forced about 230 public water systems to declare mandatory water restrictions.

As Texas aquifers and reservoirs dip to record lows, threatening municipal water supplies, the biggest cities; Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and 230 others have implemented water restrictions on residents.

Across the nation, California is facing what some predict will be the worst drought in California's water challenged history. In fact, the entire West is seeing abnormal to severe drought conditions and has been suffering under these conditions for some time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

'Doc' Hastings Hears No Evil

The House of Representatives passed a resolution disapproving of the conduct of South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting out "you lie!" at President Obama in the middle of his address to a joint session of Congress last week. The resolution simply stated that, "The conduct of the Representative from South Carolina was a breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House… the House of Representatives disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina."

The resolution didn't say that Joe Wilson was a racist, or a Jerk, or an idiot. It just said he breached decorum -- he was uncivil and rude. And he was. But my congressional representative, Richard 'Doc' Hastings didn't agree. He voted against the resolution. One has to assume that 'Doc' thinks it's okay to publicly call the President of the United States a liar during the middle of his speech.

Gee, I wonder how 'Doc' would feel if someone called him a liar while he was telling the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce that President Obama's health care proposals would euthanize old people. I mean, the least one could do was wait until 'Doc' finished his talk before challenging the veracity of his statement. I'd certainly wait for him to finish before I called him a liar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

So long, Rainforest

Truck dumping gravel at the Rio Huaypetue gold mine, southeastern Peru, from Cuzco to Boca Manu

A large-scale mining operation has turned the Rio Huaypetue into a mud and gravel pit in southeastern Peru. The surrounding rainforest is suffering from hunting and cutting for timber and fuelwood.

What was once a lush rainforest, sucking our CO2 out of the air and helping to mitigate global warming, is now this.

Some of the mining operations are run by major multi national corporations, such as the Colorado-based American mining company, Newmont Mining Corporation, but much of the mining, which uses deadly chemicals such as cyanide or mercury, is illegal and the mining products/wastes are simply dumped on land and in the river.

How can you help? Check out the Rainforest Action Network.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Intelligent Life, Revisited

In an earlier post I discussed terrestrial organisms, i.e., life forms on earth, living in extremely hostile environments. Our conception of where life can exist has been expanded dramatically as a result of deep sea explorations, for example, where scientists were astounded to discover giant tube worms thriving at 8000 ft at hydrothermal vents leaking scalding, acidic water. It would seem then, that extraterrestrial life becomes even more probable, because the conditions under which life can survive and even thrive have widened considerably.

Yet, when we consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life, we seem invariably to conceptualize only in terms of the self-contained organism; what I term the 'ET paradigm.'

But what if intelligent life was organized differently? What if it looked like the image below instead? This is an immunoflourescent image of a neisseria microcolony and its radiating pili. Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacterium that causes the infectious disease gonorrhea. Scientific studies are showing how bacteria like neisseria crawl to and exchange genes with each other. Other studies are investigating how some microbes got here to earth in the first place. Got here and perhaps, planted in and/or exchanged genes with us.

Humans are covered inside and out with bacteria. We depend on bacteria for essential functions, like digestion. Bacterial cells outnumber human cells by 10 to 1 and microbiologists believe that humans and their commensal, i.e., symbiotic, bacteria are continually adapting to one another genetically. In some sense, we humans are a kind of superstructure for a microbial colony. But that's not really what I mean to convey. I see humans as an integral part of an organic membrane that stretches across the universe, from one end to another in space-time. I'll say more about this later, when I discuss space traveling bacteria.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Nature of Realty

There are those who believe in the truths that only science can reveal. There are others for whom faith trumps reason. Then there are those who sense that their ability to comprehend the true nature of reality is handicapped by the very fact of their existence as an integral part of reality.