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May 22, 2016 / danceeternal

“We’ve been genetically engineering plants for thousands of years! Why stop now?”

Somehow, Big-Ag has convinced some of my friends that choosing selective pressures and allowing evolution to take its course is the same thing as some hardcore lab-based biochemistry. I involved in a conversation about this on Facebook, and my response was too long to include in the comments, so I’m posting it here.

You realize that Genetic Engineering and hybridization are two completely different processes, right? One of them is humans making choices about what the particular selective pressures are that will drive evolution within a particular population. The other one is taking an extremely virulent retrovirus, whacking off its tail, attaching a possibly desirable strand of DNA to an extremely effective retrovirus, infecting some organisms, seeing what happens, and crossing your fingers in hopes that you don’t accidentally release this virus in to the wild and therefore doing irreparable harm to the ecosystem.

One of our mutual friends (correctly) called out that this is not the only genetic engineering technology out there. Said mutual friend also made some good points about some of the problems with genetic engineering, justified it all by saying it wasn’t all that different from domesticating plants, and then complained about my tone. What follows is my response:

Hybridized plants are NOT a form of GMOs, and to suggest that they are is absurd change in terminology. This change has been promoted by the Genetic Engineering (GE) industry to make it difficult to have an honest discussion about the problems with GE research. Promoting this new, confusing definition of GE/GMO makes you either a fool or a stooge. While there are good reasons to plant seeds that breed true, the hybrid stage is an important step of developing new, more delicious strains of our favorite foods. I have not heard anyone other than Anti-civ/DGR/other tinfoil hat types suggest there’s any fundamental problem with the domestication of plants, so bringing that up is a great example of the straw-man fallacy.

To my knowledge, we have not yet had had a case of a genetically engineered virus (GEV) going airborne YET. When you write that “life finds a way,” you demonstrate an understanding of the problem. If we continue this sort of research, it is not a question of if it’s possible for a GEV to go airborne. The questions are when one will, whether it escapes the lab when it does, and how damaging the ecological consequences of that escape are. GEV research is a low risk, low reward*, high consequence activity. The way I do that math, that makes it a bad idea.

I am even more concerned about the high risk, low reward, moderately high consequence potential of GE plasmid payloads spreading naturally once GE crops are planted. I don’t talk about that as much though, because most folks don’t know what a plasmid is and so it’s harder to explain how one would spread in the wild. That HAS happened in the past and WILL happen again. Specifically, GE Canola has escaped into the wild, and GE alfalfa has transferred its herbicide resistance to wild alfalfa, and GE sunflowers have transferred Bt genes to wild sunflowers in a lab setting (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/23395/genetically-engineered-crops-experiences-and-prospects)

I have never once heard of a GE food project that I genuinely believed would be good for the world. The first time I hear of one, my attitude might change, but until that day, I will continue to speak out against them, categorically. This is not (despite your ad hominem attack) a position I take lightly or from an uneducated standpoint. My B.S. was in biochemistry, and my focuses were in microbiology and genetic engineering. There is some potentially life-saving GE research going on in the world (growing human organs for transplant in animal hosts!), but to my (rather extensive) knowledge there has never been a GE food product whose benefits to anyone but the companies that promote them have outweighed the ecological and economic impacts.

Some examples: GE crops are promoted as ways of increasing crop yields and therefore feeding the hungry. GE crops have not, however, done much to increase crop yields. The minor gains we’ve seen in crop yields might help farmers (which would be good). In practice the increased cost of seed and herbicides takes any increased profits from those gains and gives them to Big-Ag. Even if you honestly belie we’ll see massive increases in crop yields from future GE research, that won’t do anything to address hunger, since we don’t have a food shortage. Truly massive amounts of food are thrown away every day (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8xwLWb0lLY). It doesn’t go to people without food because people without food still don’t have any money to buy it. Furthermore, world hunger is being actively exacerbated, not solved, by GMOs. Proprietary and/or sterile GMO seeds are being marketed to subsistence farmers as a way to improve their lots in life. The theory is that if they take their arable land, plant it full of round-up ready crops, dump massive amounts of roundup on their soil, and then sell those commodities on the open market they’ll be able to buy enough to eat and then some. The problem is that you can’t just try it once. Once you’ve contaminated your soil that way, it will be years before anything other than roundup ready crops can grow there. Just like any good businessman pushing addictive substances, Monsanto “charitably” gives subsistence farmers their first year’s seed and pesticides for free to show them how easy it will be. By the time those farmers realize the low cost of commodities and the high cost of seeds and herbicides makes the whole scheme unworkable, it’s too late. While roundup is, as herbicides go, relatively benign in small doses, it is still a chemical that is designed to kill plants. As more and more roundup is used on crops, more and more will wind up in our rivers, lakes, streams, and ultimately the ocean. At some point, this will start causing massive ecosystem disruptions as many plants die and those few plans that develop resistance quicker take over. While roundup was initially declared to be safe because studies done by Monsanto showed that under ideal conditions it would break down within 6 months to a year, more recent independent studies have shown its half-life to vary wildly depending on specific environmental conditions (http://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-016-0117-0)

Another, murkier example: Plant Incorporated Protectants (PIP) are pesticides that are naturally produced by certain bacteria (most famously Bacillus thuringiensis aka Bt). Bt toxin is used as a pesticide that is directly applied to plants. Again, as pesticides go, it’s not the worst one out there. On the other hand, it’s extremely stable and having it build up in our environment is, as far as I’m concerned, a bad plan. The argument for PIP is that since the pesticides are incorporated into the plants, a farmer can use far less pesticide to get the same effect. This is probably the argument in favor of a GE crop that I find most compelling. I just don’t think it’s worth it though. It’s still creating a whole lot more of this toxic chemical that will build up in our environment, it still kills the bugs that eat the bugs that eat the crops, and I believe there are better ways (like creating an environment that’s attractive to aforementioned bug eating bugs). Most damning to Bt crops is that every one of them I’ve tried has tasted terrible. While it’s likely that this is a result of the farming practices employed by the people growing them and not the Genetic Engineering itself, it only makes economic sense to grow these GMOs in those conditions.

This brings us to another example: the first ever GMO food product ever to hit the retail shelves was the FlavrSavr tomato. They inserted DNA from a cold-water fish in order to increase the frost tolerance and transportability of the tomatoes if picked ripe. The only problem was that if you actually took advantage of that, they were mealier than the worst red delicious apple you’ve ever eaten. They were an economic disaster for Calgene and after 3 years they were pulled from the market, and Monsanto bought the charred remains of the company. Again, you’ll notice that the goal was not to do anything to benefit the consumers, but instead to make tomato growing more profitable for the company selling the seeds. In this case, that didn’t even work.

There are more examples, but I’ve already put 2 hours in to writing this, and I think I’ve made my points: I’ve done my research, and all GE food products range in value-to-the-world from dumb to disastrous. The research is dangerous and expensive. Since there’s no profit in solving world hunger, Big-Ag is (despite their claims) never going to do anything to solve it.

You say you’d rather have a discussion than an argument. Great, then knock it off with the dirty debate tactics and ad hominem attacks. Name one bit of ACTUAL good GMO food has done in the world (and enriching a Monsanto executive doesn’t count). Look into the ecological and social costs of that same crop. Convince me the benefit is worth the cost, and I’ll change my position on GMOs. And if you want me to stop being hostile with you, STOP SPREADING CORPORATE LIES ABOUT THE MEANING OF GENETIC ENGINEERING. There are times and places prescriptivism, and scientific definitions are at the top of the list. By taking a descriptivist approach to language, you are allowing corporations with a big megaphones to erase meaning from our language which makes it impossible to talk about their destructive business practices. I realize that’s probably not your intention, but this is one of those places where I don’t think intentions are worth all that much.

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February 26, 2016 / danceeternal

An open letter from a heretical Catholic scholar to a fundamentalist Christian on the nature of tolerance

See, now you’re getting in to stupid religious arguments that are unbecoming of a Christian. You should believe as your faith guides you, and it may not be the same as what Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Jews, Hindus, Mulims, Buddhists, or anyone else believes.
 
I’m unsure as to what translation you’re quoting, but since I’m quite certain that isn’t Ancient Greek, that means it’s been translated. Repeatedly. Furthermore, since I’m equally certain you aren’t living in Ancient Mesopotamia, you’ve also lost cultural context. Does that make you wrong?
 
Of course not, but it calls your interpretation into doubt — and why shouldn’t it? Even Jesus doubted. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
 
So doubt. Doubt like Thomas, and like Jesus, for what value does faith have when you can plainly see the object of your faith? God sees no value in your faith in the existence of steel — you need only look as far as your kitchen to eliminate any doubt you might have. The Lord calls you to have faith in his Son BECAUSE doing so requires a leap of faith over the chasm of your own doubts. Without that leap, your faith is worthless to God.
 
So doubt, and in that doubt, make room for other people’s understandings of Jesus’ teachings. That doesn’t make them unchristian. Catholic Christians quite clearly follow the teachings of Christ to the best of their understanding and ability. Where they stumble, the Lord carries them, as you. By refusing to see the Christianity and, indeed, the humanity of people who strive to walk the path God has laid before them, you show yourself to be doubtless and therefore faithless. Indeed, by refusing to see the Christianity of God’s children, you spit in His face in your disobedience of his greatest commandment (Matthew 12:28-31).
September 27, 2015 / danceeternal

Abortion laws I can get behind

Being a person who believes strongly in a person’s right to make medical choices, including the choice not to host a child in their body, I was surprised to discover that Oregon has laws limiting abortions that I believe in, and even though they’re short to begin with, I think they’re worth summarizing:

  1. It is illegal to punish someone for refusing to have an abortion. That includes denying them access to social services.
  2. Private hospitals may adopt policies against performing abortions in their facility. Public hospitals are NOT allowed to adopt such policies. Hospitals that do not have such a policy must take abortion patients and treat them the same way they would treat any other patient.
  3. No individual member of the hospital staff, including doctors, can be required to participate in performing abortions. Staff members must make blanket policies on the subject, they may not pick and chose whose abortions they are willing to perform.
  4. Any time an abortion is performed, the institution must report it to the state. The report includes any information about follow-up care or complications, but MUST NOT include the names or identities of the parents.

Some of this seems a little weird within the current political climate on abortion: who would want to punish someone for refusing an abortion? The pro-choice movement? The pro-life movement?

Although we think of the horrors of forced sterilization and systemic murder of people who had been determined to be “unfit” as the territory of Nazis and other evildoers in Europe, the Eugenics movement first took hold in the United states in the early 20th century. 30 states passed some form of compulsory sterilization laws, and over 60,000 people were sterilized against their will. “Mercy killings” of “unfit” people were depicted on film and in print media and carried out through intentional medical neglect and the intentional infection of “unfit” patients with tuberculosis. Eugenics was widely accepted by academics: hundreds of university courses at top institutions included eugenics in the curriculum. The National League of Women Voters, faculty at black universities, many other social organizations, and most importantly, the general public all supported Eugenics.

These kinds of human rights abuses were still widespread into the early 1960s. By the end of the 1960s, the banner of Eugenics had been abandoned to history, but these sorts of abuses continued. In the early 1970s, poor black women were being sterilized without their knowledge or consent and Indian Health Service refused to offer medical care to Native American women in labor until they consented to sterilization.

Meanwhile, through all of this, white middle to upper-class women were routinely denied access to abortion and contraception, because it was allegedly their duty to further propagate their “superior genetic strains.” While today the movement to control women through their reproductive systems is focused on forcing them to have babies whether or not they want them, it was not so long ago the phrase “pro-choice” would have been an allusion to a woman’s right to keep her child.

Looking back at Oregon’s abortion laws, it becomes clear why they’re important. This country has a storied history of denying people the right to reproduce, killing those people deemed undesirable, and enacting racist standards of who is not allowed to reproduce and who is required to.

If you want to read it, the full text of Oregon’s laws regarding termination of pregnancy, is fairly short.

December 21, 2014 / danceeternal

Does corn make good beer?

I write a lot, and very little of it winds up on this blog. In fact, I’ve only written here 11 times, and the last time was almost 2 years ago. So I’m going to start posting things that I write elsewhere that I think folks might find interesting. Or that I want to be able to find later.

This comes from facebook:

A friend of mine writes Interstellar fans: there was no wheat due to blight… So how were they drinking beer?

My response:

I’m pulling all this from memory. If you care about the exact details, look them up

I’ve never had corn beer, so I don’t know, but I wouldn’t assume that has to be nasty. A lot of how beer is made in the USA has to do with the history of prohibition followed very shortly by WW2 rationing. Only a few breweries were able to survive prohibition by shifting their business to other malt products. When prohibition ended, there were something like 6 breweries left in the whole country. Shortly thereafter, WW2 broke out and barley and other grains all got rationed, so the breweries couldn’t get enough of them to keep the country in beer. One grain that wasn’t rationed was rice, and so they developed rice beers recipes that would keep the country in booze. Thus, the American style pilsner was born. This became the only form of beer sold in America for 50 years

The repeal of the Volstead Act did not re-legalize homebrewing, and so while I’m sure people continued to do it, it still wasn’t talked about at all and while much of the knowledge still existed in books, the experience was lost to time, death, and people staying generally mum. In 1973, homebrewing beer and wine was made legal again, and a small fledgeling homebrew community emerged. People began sharing their experiences, experimenting with new ways of malting barley, and using different hops cultivars. By the mid 80s, small craft breweries began making a go of it and selling these pre-prohibition style ales. In the years since the beginning of prohibition the American palette had changed**, so it was slow going at first. People LIKED their ice cold Bud Light, and didn’t have much interest in this “new” malty, bitter, cool beverage.

It’s been 30 years since the first Barley beers started getting sold again. The children of hippies are coming of age, and the wholesale rejection of the TV dinner culture and the simple flavors it brought is well underway. We grew up at a time where craft brews were available, though you had to seek them out. Smaller breweries began popping up all over the country, and we arrive at the scene as it is today.

I wrote earlier that as homebrewing reemerged, people began experimenting with (mostly documented) ways of roasting barley. Most beer that we drink has only 4 ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water. The difference between an IPA and a malty dark stout is all in the strains of yeast, the cultivars of hops, the quality of the water, and the processing of the barley. It’s that last one that’s important to understand why corn beer might not necissarily have to be nasty: we have a HUGE body of knowledge about how to roast barley to bring out an incredibly wide variety of flavors that’s been gathered, documented, and re-researched over a few hundred years. To my knowledge, that experimentation and recording hasn’t been done with corn — corn was for whiskey, not beer. Even assuming it was done, I don’t know about it which means that most of the master brewers at our fine craft breweries don’t know about it either (not that I’m a master brewer, just that I read the same things they read). If corn were the only grain left, I’m willing to bet we’d start figuring out how to make it into tasty beer.

**This is a whole other rant about the history of the chemical revolution in agriculture post WW2. Ask me some other time, if you want.

Two links that other relevant links folks posted that are helpful with the looking up the details:

http://kitchenette.jezebel.com/budweiser-reveals-their-beer-ingredients-in-response-to-1590908439

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/craft-beer-corn-gets-a-new-look-from-brewers-and-not-as-a-mere-filler/2014/08/04/f5a27d4a-199b-11e4-9349-84d4a85be981_story.html

EDIT: It has come to my attention that while Anheuser-Busch uses rice in its american style pilsners (Budweiser, Bud-Lite), Miller/Coors uses corn.

February 14, 2013 / danceeternal

On the importance of a dance community

In describing his first experience at a blues dance, Paxus writes:

At one point when i was dancing with Feonix i noticed a young woman who had her head against her partners chest and she had an incredible smile on her face.  I was appreciative of what i assumed was either a long trusting dance relationship or a romantic connection between this smiling dancer and her lead … When i asked [her] about the partner who she was smiling so broadly on, she told me it was someone she had met one week earlier, but they had an extraoridinary connection.

It is a point of wonder to others that blues dancers so quickly form the deep bonds with each other that we do.  In order to understand these dance relationships, you must understand both the process of learning the dance itself and the value of the community in supporting that learning.

Partner dance is a form of communication that can be used to communicate thoughts and feelings, to tell a story, or to engage in a dialog. In short, it is a language.  In order to learn to communicate with each other in the language of dance, our instructors ask us to move our bodies in ways we do not normally move as we develop our vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and style.[1] It is an odd human quirk that we often bury physical pain and emotional trauma in our bodies before fastidiously avoiding moving in ways that might aggravate that pain. Our dance teachers often ask us to move in new and specific ways, and in doing so these uncomfortable feelings rise to the surface.

We welcome people’s whole selves, we see each other’s vulnerability and brokenness. As we learn new dance skills in class, we find ourselves in physically and emotionally vulnerable places surrounded by other people who have had similar experiences. As we support each other through the feelings that arise on the dance floor, we learn to trust and care for each other in other contexts too.

As an improvised dance, Blues calls on us to express ourselves to each other creatively and in the moment. In six minutes on the dance floor, we create a world together. We express feelings of joy, loss, hope, pain, and love.  We tell each other stories of high drama, absurdest comedy, adventure, and tragic endings. We do all of this in the language of Blues dance, where we move together in what is sometimes described as a standing cuddle. This intimate act is facilitated through the trust we’ve built learning together, and it is the giving and receiving of this emotionally unrestrained connection that brings many of us back to dance week after week.

[1] moves, floorcraft, musicality, sequencing, and style respectively.

September 15, 2012 / danceeternal

There are no spectators at Burning Man

I have heard it claimed that the first rule ever made at Burning Man, long before leave no trace was instituted was “No Spectators.” This is one of many stories that illustrate the meaning of this rule, and how it manifests.

This year at Burning Man, someone built an enormous effigy of Wall Street.  It was four large wooden structures that resembled banks from the outside with names and logos painted on them (Bank of Unamerica, Merryl-Lynched, Goldman Sucks, and another one I don’t remember). I was walking and talking with my dear friend Annalise, and we decided to inspect this grand structure before it got torched. We spent some time (lovingly) gossiping inside the Bank of Unamerica. As we were leaving someone asked me if I wanted Coffee. I looked ans saw two people who I imagine had no connection to the artist who built the effigy. They had dressed in red, white, and blue, set up a table outside the banks, and start serving coffee.  “Yes please” I responded, offering my Playa Cup. The patriotic barista began pouring coffee in to my cup and then stopped.  He looked at me and said “of course we’ll give you this coffee regardless, but we’d really much rather you trade us something for it.  Maybe a joke, a song, a little dance, or…”

I cut him off saying “oh, we’ve got a little dance for you.” I first met Annalise at a Blues Dance, and she’s one of my favorite people in the world to dance with. “Are you up for this?” I asked. She agreed, and we danced together on the Playa to the muffled thump of music playing far in the distance. We moved together for about a minute, walking, spinning, and playing together, ending with a dip. It was a good dance, even for us, and in that short time we had gathered a bit of an audience. One person clapped, another one cheered, and after a stunned moment (he had no idea he had asked us to share our primary art form with us), the person serving coffee said “you definitely get coffee” filling my cup, and then offering some to Annalise (who accepted the gift.)

As we walked away from Wall Street, heading back towards home, we were approached on two occasions by people who had seen us dance, paid us compliments, asked us what it was we were doing, and asked where they could learn. We asked them what city they lived in in the default world, gave them information about their local scenes, and thanked them for their praise. It was in that moment the last few characters in this story became participants. The wall-street builder had inspired some coffee servers, who requested a performance from some dancers, who in turn became teachers offering a demo to students who may choose to study the dance themselves.

September 14, 2012 / danceeternal

The development of a new art form.

I am excited to be part of a movement in which I am codeveloping a contemporary North American dance that is done to popular modern music, and that reflects the culture and values of our generation. I am excited that it is a movement that is so popular that multiple musical artists are now writing music for this dance.  Here’s my story of this dance.

The story of this dance starts within the ranks of a vintage American folk dance called Blues.  At the time, it was experiencing a popular resurgence based partially on the intrest of a group of Lindy Hoppers in San Francisco who had started dancing to its music and trying to find ways to make that work well. Some people who were a part of that resurgence found they really liked many of the fundamentals associated with this folk dance, and that they could apply them to other styles of music in new and interesting ways. In addition to Experimenting with dancing to other styles of music, they also began tweaking some of those fundamentals in order to reflect the values of their newly forming community.  One of the most notable changes was to the partner connection.  Blues developed in the early 20th century and expressed the values of the time through a relatively strictly defined lead/follow dynamic with roles falling along gender lines. This new dance, was being developed by youth of the early 21st century information age. They placed a high value equality and open dialog, and modified Blues connection fundamentals over the course of a couple years to first degender the different dance roles, and then to deconstruct them entirely, replacing the strict lead/follow dynamic that some percieved to create a storyteller/listener dynamic with a connection style that created a more back-and-forth conversational style to the dance.  Eventually it became clear that these dances had diverged far enough that it was no longer appropriate for them to share a name. Just as many other musical and dance movements that developed out of another scene do, the members of that dance community chose a name for themselves that honored the roots of where their community came from while defining a new and distinct dance: Alt-Blues.

I am interested in feedback on this story, and especially constructive criticism for how to make it clearer, more detailed, more exciting, and most importantly, more accurate. If you were present for parts of this story before I entered the scene, I would love your assistance in filling in details or correcting errors.