Archive for October, 2008

Projects

Posted in projects with tags , , , on 27/10/2008 by sangomasmith

A quick update for my two readers (hi mom!):

Another thing I do, besides bitch about things and write pedantic reviews, is make things. This week, a bad case of studying-related displacement activity has resulted in two projects: a hot-air balloon and a fibreglass bow.

The balloon should be launched tonight, if all goes well. The bow… may take a little longer.

A big thankyou goes to Ruth for being my partner in crime on the balloon, by the way. I love you, most beautiful one. Oh, and have fun overseas!

Working

Posted in economics, News-related, politics with tags , , , on 20/10/2008 by sangomasmith

Apologies to my single (spam bot) reader. I’m being worked to death, so posts are thin on the ground right now. On the bright side, I watched the final US presidential debate the other day. It can be summed up thus:

McCain: Unfounded accusation.

Obama: Reasonable response.

– pause –

McCain: Unfounded accusation

etc.

Good fun was had by all.

In addition, watching the talking heads on CNBC over the past few weeks has become a guilty pleasure. I’m loving this market meltdown, for the simple fact that I get to see the people we naively turn to for advice needing some themselves. Which serves the smug buggers right.

It won’t be so funny when we’re all screwed simply for being gullible enough to take it though…

The green revolution

Posted in pedantry, rant, studies with tags , , , on 09/10/2008 by sangomasmith

A quick rant:

Being in crop biotech, I have major issues with the anti-GM crowd. Its all been said before, I know (what hasn’t), but it still irks me that the first thing anyone says when I mention that I’m a biotechnologist-in-training is: “Say, don’t you people put, like, unnatural stuff in food? Dude, genetic modification is totally wrong. That shit could, like, go wrong and kill us or some shit. Who do you think you are, God?”. And yes, people have actually said this. My usual response is to sigh, repress the desire to tell the moron to fuck off (which is great for your stress levels but bad for scientific understanding at large) and explain like so:

The official stance of the anti-GM groups is always about unintended consequences, at least when they talk to us. When they talk to their members and the lay public (that great pulsing mass), the message morphs into long rants about evil, god-complexes and Frankenstein. It’s incredibly hypocritical and uninformed. But shit, nobody wants to eat unnatural stuff do they? Well, I hate to break it to all the natural-living hippies and organic food yuppies, but you’re tools. Nothing about agriculture is natural. The wheat in your bread, the fruit in your dessert and the livestock in your stew are all the products of millennia of selective breeding. In fact, our desire to get the most out of farming has lead to the creation of what amounts to symbiotic relationships with our food. Wheat, corn, cows and chickens simply can’t hack it out in the wild any more. They need us as much as we need them. If you want to see natural food, try chewing on teosinte (the stock from which mesoamerican farmers painstakingly produced corn). Trust me when I say that ‘natural’ is not the way you want your food.

Next will be, inevitably, some ignorant-but-concerned soul who worries about the dangers of GM crops. What if some fish gene or something gets into your petunias? Or, heaven forbid, your chianti? Well, fair’s fair. There are issues with some crops that might have wild relatives in the area. Pollen from one could get into the other, sex could happen and seeds could be produced with a transgene in them. Luckily, this is only true in some cases, and can be detected anyway using the right assay. In short, not a big deal. This is usually the point at which said soul then cries something along the lines of “What about unintended consequences! What if we develop an allergic reaction or something? What if it eats puppies?” The short answer here is ‘extensive tesing’. GM crops face more stringent trials than most drugs, leading to maddeningly long waits (up to ten years in some cases) before any crop gets grown.  I strongly suspect that if, after a decade of testing, nothing has come up then its likely nothing will.

Then, of course, there will be some fuck-wit who will say that breeding and genetic engineering are, from a moral standpoint, fundamentally different. This is true, if by ‘fundamentally different’ you mean ‘faster, safer, more reliable and more flexible’. Otherwise, you just come off sounding like a hypocrite for wanting your hybrid wheat but not wanting wheat growing to move forward. Drawing a line in the sand and calling it an ‘argument’ merely means you misunderstood the word. We’ve moved on from spending 50 years trying to breed traits into plants and you’ve moved on from listening to songs on vinyl (at least, some of you have). This does not mean that somehow we turned evil, any more than saying cds and mp3’s have suddenly made music bad.

Finally, there will be someone who will say that we don’t need GM crops. Why bother, if organic farming is going to save us all?

Yeah, organic farming. It’s been tried. In fact, it was the norm until very recently in most of the world. Which is one of the reasons why, until very recently, famine and food-poisoning were everyday facets of life. Fuzzy thinking by first-world enviro-morons will not make poor land yield more food. Nor will it prevent ergotism from killing off your village every time it rains. Organic farming is simply a yuppie way of buying overpriced goods from first-world farmers with a good grasp of feel-good PR. Subsistence farming, however, is hell without end. Would you condemn a generation of people to starvation because you happen to be a well-fed Luddite?

Modern advances in farming were bought at huge cost in terms of equipment and chemicals, often for limited gain. Poorer countries (which, perversely, derive a greater proportion of their wealth from agriculture than rich countries) simply cannot afford to bankroll modern industrial farming on the same scale that rich countries have done. This leads, inexorably, to a vicious cycle of under-production followed by flooding of the local market with subsidised food from rich countries. Which depresses prices, which lowers returns on food produced, which lowers profits that can be spent on equipment and fertilizer, which lowers production. Your poorer countries suddenly find themselves in poverty-cycle hell.

So how can they get out? The only way is by increasing production, and the only way for third-world farmers to increase production is to find a way that uses less equipment and fertilizer for the same yeild of crop. Enter the green revolution.

I won’t fill pages with the details (for that, go to wikipedia), but the results are mind-blowing. By one estimate, the teams responsible for the development of the high-yielding varieties are responsible for the existence of 1000 000 000 000 extra human lives. I physically can’t conceive of numbers like that, my imagination simply fails.

These scientists would be rightly regarded as Gods in a sane world, Titans whos’ works brought nations of people into being. They should be lauded and feted, fed grapes by virgins (sex of their choice) and all given Oscars to boot. That they have remained anonymous is possibly a sin against the universe at large. Yet there you have it.

With GM, we have a chance to start another green revolution, to lift billions out of poverty and potentially allow the existence of millions more. I simply cannot conceive of a more worthy goal. And yet some tit will tell me over dinner that I’m evil and that genetic modification is a dangerous monster.

Put simply: fuck you. And fuck off.

Starship troopers

Posted in movies, pedantry with tags , , , on 02/10/2008 by sangomasmith

I am pedantic, especially when it comes to films. I mention this as a fair warning to anyone reading this: Your urge to strangle me for taking umbrage at events completely unrelated to plot or character is pointless. My family has tried (usually around the 80-minute mark) and it turns out I am strangle-proof. I blame both qualities (pedantry and stout frame) on my father’s side of the family; engineers all.

Anyway, I was watching the film adaptation of Starship Troopers again today and had a few complaints:

  • The plot bore only a passing resemblance to that of the book
  • The acting was appalling
  • The mobile suits were completely missing (a mayor feat since most of the book’s action took place in them).
  • The training was completely different (also a feat considering that the training took up half of both the book and film)

These are known issues, old hat for anyone who had ever read the book and watched the movie (and god knows how many of us there are). However, there are some other issues not so generally covered that I feel deserve mention.

Firstly, tactics. Given the makeover of the film into a faux propaganda piece (a neat inversion of the book’s tone), the mass-infantry charge into enemy lines fits perfectly. However, given the setting of the universe it really smacks of creative laziness (spaceships with FTL drives vs. troopers with basic body armour and assault rifles anyone?). Having re-imagined Heinlein’s Spartan utopia as a tech-rich police state, how did the directer (Verhoven, if I remember right) think that world-war I equipment would be the obvious choice? Wouldn’t some actual mechanised equipment have been in order to ensure that Mr. and Mrs. future-citizen could survive for more than 15 seconds after landing?

I gets worse, though. Having now put under-armoured, under-equipped soldiers down on bug soil, why in gods name have them blaze away at the bugs (who mostly kill at close range, another departure from the book) from within spitting distance. The overall effect is of the director ordering the writers to find a way to show as many mangled corpses as possible while hoping wildly that the whole ‘suspension-of-disbelief’ thing would keep us all in our seats.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the overbearing cheesiness of the film. But I loved the thought-out completeness of the book more. Given the stylistic choice between a grim future in which well-trained (and disturbingly sexless) men and woman fight a truly alien foe vs. an overacted gore-fest in which sexed-up jocks shoot blanks at big bad bugs, I’d take the former any day.

But only if it came with a copy of The Forever War.

Beginnings.

Posted in admin stuff, Uncategorized with tags , on 02/10/2008 by sangomasmith

Ah, a new blog. A new… word-processing thingy (which refuses to work properly for some reason).

Oh well, guess I should introduce myself. I’m Sangomasmith (the name says it all), a South African Biotech student with diverse interests, opinions, whatever.

I sound like a future miss universe contestant already, so you just know I’ll blog good.