The Non-GMO Project

14 02 2015

Those who know the Quieter Elephant in the real world would be amongst the first to agree I was a bit of a geek. I love technology. But there are limits. I also espouse “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Falling firmly in this category for me are genetically modified organisms. GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a religious position. Far from it. I don’t have a religion, so it would be a little difficult.

I have a lot of respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson but I’m afraid his stance on genetically modified foods was a bit off target for me. The question asked in the video was specifically about transgenic plants. It was in French though, so I’ll give him the benefit. He gave a totally reasonable monologue about how foods are virtually all genetically modified – in the sense that wheat is a selectively bred form of grass, that cows are selectively bred wild bovine, etc. As far as this goes – I’m with him.

But that’s not the point.

To get from wild grasses to productive wheat fields there were a whole series of ever more productive – genetically naturally viable – intermediate steps. Each step was viable in its own right. Seeds were selected, and the next step grown. In a field. With rain. Same thing with cows. Modern cows could never exist in the wild. They produce unnaturally massive quantities of milk. If they were not milked by humans twice a day they’d likely die. However, each step prior to the modern cow was born naturally of a naturally viable earlier form of cow. Stretching right back to a natural wild cow, producing milk, but at a lower volume.

For me, the important point is that this selective breeding – though technically modifying the genetics of the breed – iterates through a series of intermediate steps that are each naturally “validated”. Each step must be viable in the world we all share. It must be born, survive to an age fit to reproduce and then produce viable offspring.

There are a few exceptions in the plant world where cloning is possible. The word is laden with science fiction potential, but in the plant kingdom it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon every time a branch breaks off and re-roots. It has the exact same DNA as the original plant yet now lives a separate existence. This phenomenon was used to save the ancient, spiritually laden Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii. It was felled by a disgruntled logging employee, and was thought lost forever – it was a male tree and therefore unable to produce seeds. UBC scientists managed to clone it from cuttings though.

Golden spruce clone

Golden spruce clone

This phenomenon can be used to reproduce plants without the more normal form of seeds being used. This is how the seedless watermelons Tyson refers to are produced, and yes, it is true that in a human-free world they would be highly unlikely to reproduce. Same thing with bananas. Their seeds are not viable any more… for human convenience. However, by and large, our “genetic modifications” are bound by the normal processes of seeds/birth and natural reproduction. Forced, guided, evolution, you might say.

It is true that these processes of selective breeding can lead to some abominations. Just look at the French poodle if you need further argument!

Wikipedia: French poodle

However… they are genetically viable in their own right. “Natural” is a subjective word, but the intermediate steps were at least not creations of some Frankenstein process.

And then we get the “oo, I wonder what would happen if…” brigade. To be fair, some of our most exciting leaps forward have come from “blue sky” ideation. Just trying something to see what happens. Unfortunately though, we are all too capable of creating things that really have no place in our world. Like creating an explosive device capable of generating the heat of a small sun for example. And then trying it out on Japan. And then trying out an even “better” one, just to make sure we got the maths right.

So, whilst I can understand the excitement of seeing what might happen if you take a gene from a firefly, capable of making it luminous, and placing it in a plant, I shudder at what might happen next. This is what I refer to as a GMO. An organism that is genetically modified outside of the natural process. It is true that a few cross-species boundaries can be breached in nature (a mule is a sterile result of cross-breeding a donkey and a horse), but there is no possible natural way a firefly gene could naturally find itself inside a plant. There were no shortage of Kickstarter funders though…

Kickstarter: Glowing Plants

These laboratory procedures don’t merely speed up the process that could be done naturally through careful selective breeding. They break the rules. They merge genes that have no business being merged. This is where my problem lies. Natures checks and balances are being subverted. The natural balance that aborts “unfit” organisms, that sterilises incompatible organisms so that they may not breed further, these are all circumvented. Instead we humans are left as the only arbiter of “valid”. We, who have only inherited this finely tuned ecosystem for the blink of an eye. We who are ourselves an experiment in one solitary line of evolution’s grand enterprise. Yet somehow we ended up with the keys to the entire toolkit. The capability to disrupt the very processes that nature itself has relied on for eons.

Life itself will look back on humans and chuckle. Those silly little hairless apes. They gave the Earth luminous plants, four-legged chickens and perhaps some other things from Margaret Atwood’s all too prescient imagination. They have gone now. Long forgotten. The planet spins on. Better for their passing.

In the meantime, people are slowly waking up. Monsanto was met with stiff resistance in the UK and the EU around 20 years ago. People didn’t see the need for genetically modified foods. There was outcry that US food labelling laws meant that soy beans from there might contain  some proportion of GMO content and not declared. It could therefore slip past EU labelling rules. Soy beans and soy extract were in everything. Same with GM canola oil. It was a huge issue.

And then we emigrated to Canada… and food labelling of any kind was rare. Sell by date? Best before date? Why would you need that? Over the years it’s got better and better. And then today, we visited the US and I was delighted to see that there was very prominent shelf labelling for non-GMO products. A real ground swell seems to be starting . It’s taken a while, but it’s arrived.

GMO? Not on my shelf!

GMO? Not on my shelf!

For further reading, check out the Non-GMO Project.

Non-GMO Project





Evolution and competing for life

19 01 2015

So you may recall I was given a FitBit for Chrimbo.

Quite a discrete little thing – not much bigger than my handmade leather (and EVER so masculine) bracelet. It faithfully logs my every step and reports on my restless sleep each night. All it asks is that I recharge it every now and then. It’s even thoughtful enough to email me when it’s time to perform that little task.

I went for a swift bevvie on Friday with a couple of old workmates. Old as in “not current” – they’re both substantially younger than me. Anyway, one of these gents let slip that he too had recently bought a FitBit, though his was a more sophisticated one that also counts stair flights climbed, heart-rate etc.

Atrial Fibrillation aside, I tend to see heart-rate as a pretty digital thing: “on” or “off”. Off is not generally considered a good thing and can lead to permanent lack of income and a loss of social status. “On” in my case can be anything from 70 or so bpm when at rest to off the chart when it’s in fibrillation. Not a lot of point paying extra to measure that, then!

Anyway yesterday I received a curious email suggesting I become his friend on the FitBit site. This seemed harmless enough, and as I’ve recently given up FaceBook, Google+, Instagram, Twitter etc, I figured I’d best say yes so he doesn’t think I’m spurning him. What I was too dim to realise of course is that this is basically an invitation to be on a scoreboard with his daily FitBit data being compared to my own.

The theory it seems is that a little competition will egg all parties concerned to try a little harder. This naturally works best with men and women of a particular mental slant – viz: egocentric. I’m hoping Darwin was only partially right. I have no issue at all with the survival of the fittest. I’m just hoping that coming second doesn’t mean an instant relegation to the land of the dead!

So this evening I went to the gym with my son (number 3 child). Years ago I bought a “10 entry” pass for the Surrey area leisure centres. I was down to the last one or two, so I bought another 10 entries (it gives you a discounted price). But there was a snag. It seems the original 10 units were not time limited (indeed – I look very young and slim in the photo), but the new block of 10 units runs out in 2 years. What?! That’s five gym visits a year! That’s positively obsessive behaviour that is! I’m just relieved my Yorkshire genes were held at bay and I didn’t go for the slightly cheaper per unit 20 entry pack. That would be almost one visit a month! My gods, I might actually get fit if I went that often. Are they mad?!

Joking aside, I find it very calming to put on my iPod and zone out with my private thoughts whilst pounding away on the elliptical trainer. I find myself feeling a little superior when people come and go on the machines around me, demonstrating as much staying power as a kitten with a ball of string. The woman on the machine next to me was barely at walking speed, was on her phone most of the time, and didn’t even break into a sweat. I on the other hand needed to wade to shore after my session, there was so much moisture exuded.

I have eclectic music tastes and a large capacity iPod on shuffle. It’s always something of a mystery then what my fitness playlist will be on any specific occasion. Usually though one particular song stands out. For last night’s run, it was Arctic Monkey’s “Suck it and see”.

Your kiss it could put creases in the rain

You’re rarer than a can of Dandelion and Burdock

Now that, dear reader is poetry. Though possibly only if you know what Dandelion and Burdock is.

Tonight’s standout song was Ani Difranco’s “As Is”. A very dear friend alerted me to this song years ago, and I love the sentiment in the lyrics.

Cause I’ve got
No illusions about you
And guess what?
I never did
And when I say
When I say I’ll take it
I mean,
I mean as is

So, whatever the long term results of this accidental competition I seem to have entered are, at least I will continue to be reacquainted with some great poetry set to music.

Now, if you’ll excuse me dear reader, I have a dog to walk (to get my FitBit steps in for the day ;o) ). Good job I have a dog, or I’d be forced to steal one for the purpose…





Palm Readers…

16 01 2015

Mass consumption and junk food. Ruining more than just your waistline.

The Hilarious Fake But Real Doritos Ad That Doritos Will Never Let Win Their Super Bowl Contest.

 





Scientific Treatise

14 01 2015

OK, I lied!

But it is quite fun to see that most of the sweets I loved as a kid are still going strong.

Not so sure about the last 2 though – I think they appeared after I emigrated. IRN BRU should definitely remain in a can and be drunk. Goes without saying.

Her comments about purple sweets tasting of blueberry instead of grape as they do over here in the Americas is well noted. Much MUCH worse though is how green sweets here can taste gaggingly of spearmint instead of the much more logical lime. And what were they smoking when they decided that raspberry sweets in the Americas should be lurid blue?! Anyway, I hope you feel suitably educated on the tooth-rot selection in the UK.

Those Flake adverts she refers to were my introduction into soft porn… they never really changed over the decades it seems. Ever since their introduction in 1959

The 60’s:

The 80’s:

The 90’s:





Too Rich For Us

23 12 2014

I mentioned elsewhere that a few of us got together to have a drink with an old colleague that was visiting from out of town. We tried to go for eats at The Flying Pig in Gastown, but the wait for a table (on a Monday night) was too long. OK, OK, so perhaps we should have taken into account the lead up to Christmas… fair point.

 

The Flying Pig

The Flying Pig

So anyway, on we went, five gents in search of sustenance. We eventually alighted on Wildebeest, also of Gastown. They managed to find us a table straight away, and the greeter was very friendly. We perused the menu and I was quite taken with it. “Meat centric” is how they describe it. I was all set to try the horse tartare until I realised it was only a starter. Main-course prices but for starter-sized portions. In the end we left after only a beer. I had the Dry Stout from Persephone Brewing Company on the Sunshine Coast – highly recommended! I am sure the menu prices were worth the ambiance and quality ingredients on offer, but it isn’t really the place for a lads night out.

I will try and find a more fitting occasion to try it again – I have to say the menu resulted in Pavlovian reactions. You know – watering mouth; instinctive clenching of your wallet.

Wildebeest Starters

Wildebeest Starters





Drenched

23 12 2014

I am no fan of bottled water.

Here in the West where we have easy access to plentiful clean safe drinking water it is a shameful waste of plastic and logistics infrastructure. Every plastic disposable water bottle – even if it is ultimately recycled – is the result of a bottling plant, a trucking and/or rail journey and a few minutes of “aren’t I cool, drinking Naïve  – oops, sorry, got it backwards: Evian – water?”

That said, I always enjoy a cool advertising campaign. Especially with hamsters. Jazz I can forgive.





Just because you’re an arsehole doesn’t make you racist

6 12 2014

So we went to get a pile of groceries today. We went to Langley because we like the food selection available in Real Canadian Superstore (Loblaw). (To my knowledge there isn’t a Pretend Canadian Superstore, before you ask.) It’s been a while, and they’ve changed things up a bit. The pricing is a bit – how shall I put it? – sneaky!

There’s now often two prices on the shelf for an item, so you need your wits about you. It may have price A in a large font, then below it there is price B in a smaller font. Alongside this higher price B is one of two statements. (i) If you buy the item individually instead in sets of perhaps 3 or 6, then you pay the higher price per item. (ii) if you buy more than a maximum number of the item, perhaps 2 or 4, then you pay the higher price.

For some reason I was overcome with the urge to try tinned chilli. Not quite sure what came over me. There was a bewildering array of options, brands and prices. And you guessed it – they all had these weird two-tier prices. Should I buy a single tin? Was it worth taking a chance that I’d really like it and buy 6 tins to get the lower price? That tin is more expensive but only needs 2 others to trigger the lower price. Ah… my brain hurts!

It was whilst contemplating these decidedly first world problems that my mental calculations were disturbed by a most un-Canadian event. I missed the trigger. Perhaps someone rudly barging past a fellow shopper. Perhaps some impolite glance. Whatever the initial cause, I heard very loud and close behind me a woman saying “What did you say? I’m not from Surrey you fucking racist. Say it to my face!”

For those of you not resident in the Lower Mainland of BC, Surrey is the second largest city, sprawling out to the East of Vancouver. It has a cosmopolitan make-up, but undeniably has one of the regions larger concentrations of Punjabi Indians. This makes for an amazing selection of restaurants, and some bizarrely large houses. I myself live at the southern end of Surrey where it meets White Rock. Despite its diverse cultures and many successful businesses, it is not without its problem areas and drug crime (primarily Marijuana grow-ops). These things have led to such unfair stigmas as “Better safe than Surrey” and “Brown Town” to name a few. As an ex-pat from the UK, I have to say that it is still way safer than pretty much any European city I have visited. Racism is real, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared to the skin-head days I witnessed as a youth in the UK’s 70s.

So anyway, I turned to see a young woman of Indian extraction (with a very Canadian accent) wearing typical weekend “daggy” clothes – hoody jacket and black leggings. She was with a middle aged Indian lady whom I took to be her mother. Facing off with her was a white guy in his 30s wearing a lumberjack shirt and accompanied by a pretty Philippino lady of similar age – better dressed than the rest of us put together.

Obviously unable to “let it lie”, the guy took umbrage at being called a racist, and said so. This presumably was accompanied with gesticulations towards his Philippino companion. I say presumably, because my English genes kicked back in, and I had entered my little bubble containing myself and the pricing dilemma of tinned chilli. My back was therefore once more turned on the scene in the hopes that it would simply dissolve and go away. But no. What we had here was “young lady with massive chip on shoulder” vs. “hurt male ego in front of girlfriend”.

The guy said he had assumed she was from Surrey not because of her ethnic origin but because of her “ghetto clothes”. She seemed well-versed in Anglo-Saxon profanity, questioned his education, and generally showed a most unladylike handling of the situation. Her poor mother, whom I felt completely sorry for, was struggling to keep her in check, and to let things go.

Eventually I settled on 2 tins of Campbell’s steak chilli, though I’m not convinced I’d made the right choice. As the air cleared, I saw a group of around 5 youngish Indian guys wearing turbans and carefully watching the lumberjack shirt retreating to continue his shopping. This could have turned very ugly indeed, it seemed. A minute or two later, I encountered the guy talking to what appeared to be his father – similarly dressed in checked padded shirt. He seemed proud of his “argument with that lady”. His use of “lady” did not imply any inherent distaste for the woman.

I found the whole thing fascinating. Presumably the young lady had slighted the guy in some way – perhaps by barging past or something equally innocent. He had made some comment about her “going back to Surrey”. He’d intended this as a comment on her clothing. She’d jumped to the assumption it was a racist attack and verbally lashed out. The guy felt the need to defend himself against the accusation of being racist. Both seemed to agree that coming from Surrey was a bad thing.

I’m an immigrant. I live in Surrey. On reflection, perhaps they were both attacking me!








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