GMail, Audioscrobbler, A-Non and recruitment agents…

Got myself a Gmail account – I feel so priviledged! Well, not quite – seems many people get more invites than they know what to do with. There are clearing houses on the net where you can pick up an account. I got mine from ISnoop. Got one the same day I put my address down. The account has 1Gb of storage, which blows most other offerings out of the water… Well, it did, but now Yahoo, Hotmail et al seem to have increased their storage considerably.

My new address is d.drury@gmail.com. Putting that on the web should check out their spam filtering capabilities.

Had an interview for a position at Audioscrobbler – very exciting. Lots of ideas for their service, but haven’t heard anything back yet.

I have been asked to set up an online shop for A-non, a T-shirt shop next to our place. A good chance to flex my PHP muscles. Been meaning to put some time into designing a shop front for myself.

Had a rather ridiculous phone call from Huntress Recruitment. Having been foolish enough to put my CV on Monster and CWJobs I regularly get called up by recruiters. They are invariably time wasters, either not having any jobs to offer, or desparately trying to shoehorn me into an unsuitable job. The woman from Huntress was not too pleased when I refused to answer some of her questions, and used some pathetic emotional blackmail techniques to try and convince me to hand over information that was of no use in getting me a job. I have no faith in these people – as far as I can see they do very little for me and very little for employers. They find me on Monster, and they find jobs advertised on CWJobs. A completely pointless middleman situation. Anecdotal evidence suggests they rarely check references – something an employer might care about. They almost never have a sensible job description, even when supplied with one by the employer, so interviewees often go to interviews without full knowledge of the job. They advertise jobs that don’t exist to phish for job seekers details. They undermine confidence in order to sell you at a lower price (conversely to what might seem obvious, the recruitment agent wants you to accept less money, and get the job by undercutting others – if they don’t "sell" you they don’t make any money. The list of annoyances is quite long. I am tired of having my time wasted.

Using a recruitment agent is a pretty good way of showing that you don’t care – either what job you get, or who you hire.

GMOs – Feeding the starving of Africa?

GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms are a controversial subject. Especially when it comes to agriculture. Some people claim that GMOs could solve food supply problems in many developing countries, particularly in Africa. However, a number of countries oppose the introduction of GMOs. Ethiopia has taken a particularly bold stance for a country with such a long history of food insecurity – banning GMOs altogether. Tewolde Egziabher the director of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Agency said:

We resent the way that the image of the hungry in developing
countries has been used to force a style of agriculture that will only
exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty.

So what exactly are GMOs, and why is there such a fuss about them?

Introduction to DNA and GMOs

All living things contain DNA, the spiral molecule that exists in the centre of every cell in our body, and that of plants, animals, insects, even bacteria. The combination of four chemicals that make up DNA carry the information that
controls how we grow from the first cells into fully formed humans. Like a computer programme for designing our bodies, except the programme is run within our very cells.

Since the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1953, scientists have worked hard to understand how these instructions work. Parts of DNA with certain properties have been identified, and through the process known as Genetic Engineering those
parts can be swapped into the DNA of another organism. Once the DNA has been engineered, organisms grown from the new cells take on characteristics of the otherwise unrelated organisms.

Such techniques open up many possibilities in food production.

For example it is possible ,in theory, to identify the parts of the DNA of a particular kind of mahindi which grows well in certain kinds of soil, for example those found in some parts of Africa. This can then be added to the DNA of another kind of mahindi which produces more juicy cobs. The result, in theory, is a strain of juicy mahindi that grows in soils it wasn’t previously possible to grow juicy mahindi in.

Developments such as these have the potential to transform agriculture in parts of the world where it has previously been difficult. So shouldn’t every country be embracing genetic engineering?

Problems with GMOs

Unfortunately things are rarely that simple. There are a number of arguments against genetic modification.

To many people, the creation of completely new forms of life through genetic modification is the height of human arrogance – man tries to become God, and create his own garden of Eden. In non-religious terms, genetic modification skips over the thousands of years of evolution that would normally be required for the emergence of a new species. Some scientists argue that man has been manipulating life through a process of artificial selection for thousands of years, by only planting the seeds of the best crops. The effect of these changes is the same as what they do. However, each change in the thousands of years of artificial selection is slight, while scientists are, in months or even days, splicing genes from completely unrelated species that could never be obtained otherwise. The farmer selecting seeds might reject those that produce bitter fruit. The genetic engineer does not have the luxury of this stage and runs the risk of producing poison! Contained within laboratories this does not pose a particular risk. But science can never test in the wild as effectively as farmers have done in their own historical genetic manipulation.

The primary political argument against GMOs relates to the question of ownership. When a scientist creates a new form of life, she obtains the right to benefit from her hard work, and to protection from those who would steal the idea and copy the new crop. These rights are enshrined in Intellectual Property laws, agreed internationally through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Such laws, whilst encouraging scientific research, may encourage creating more profitable rather than more suitable crops. One example of this is the so called “terminator gene” – a gene that results in crops not
producing fertile seeds. The farmer must purchase more seeds in order to grow new crops each year. Such GMOs are primarily designed for the business needs of the seed producer, not the farmer. In a free market, with free information,
perhaps such products do not present such a risk – why would a farmer want to buy seeds for plants that would not produce new ones?

One of the greatest risks of GMOs, particularly agricultural ones, is that of cross-pollination. It is claimed that the pollens of GMOs can travel huge distances and fertilise the seeds of non genetically modified crops. Some of the characteristics of the GMO may be passed on in the new seeds, and the original strain is put at risk. Were a terminator gene to escape into the wild in this way, food security would be seriously threatened for millions of people – and who owns the rights to the accidentally created new crop? A recent court case took place in Canada between a farmer who claimed his crops had been
cross-pollinated and Monsanto, who claimed the farmer had stolen their Intellectual Property!

Clearly the question of GMOs is a tricky one – a balance must be found between great rewards and great risks for individuals and humanity.

Interesting Links

Originally published in Arusha Times 342

From Darkness at Noon

A nice passage from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, intended to illustrate some of the logic behind Stalinism, but today seems to describe the actions of most politicians:

History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth; for man is sluggish and has to be led through the desert for forty years before each step in his development. And he has to be driven through the desert with threats and promises, by imaginary terrors and imaginary consolations, so that he should not sit down prematurely to rest and divert himself by worshipping golden calves.

The passage comes from the diary of a man who has been a leader of the revolution, but is now imprisoned by his former comrades; part of the pragmatism that he illustrates earlier in the chapter.

Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means.

These two passages make me wonder about what is going on today. There are some similarities with totalitarian regimes in the past. However, I wonder if today to some extent the means are what are really desired by our politicians, and they have to construct semi-imaginary terrors, or bolster real ones, in order to create a turning point in history – one which goes there way…