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

Beyond Email – The Participatory Web

The World Wide Web is not just a place to check your email and read the news. A growing number of web sites allow you to become a producer of information as well as a consumer.

The Wiki Wiki Web

Blogging, the art of keeping a public diary online is all very well for the narcissists out there, but not everyone wants to keep the rest of the world updated with the little things that make their lives so… well… boring. For those whose egos don’t overflow quite so much, or feel they have something more constructive to contribute to the community at large there are sites like Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) that enable anyone who can type and surf the web to create their own content.

The founders of Wikipedia have the grand aim of building a people’s encyclopaedia online. Or rather, they have set up the means for anyone to contribute to the project. That is right – anyone – even you! Every page on Wikipedia has a link labelled edit. Click on this and you can change any text on the page. You can create new pages. You can even delete what someone else has written. The Wiki system is very simple – if you can write an email then you can edit a Wiki site.

It sounds completely crazy. Surely some vandal could come in and delete all the pages. Surprisingly this is a very rare occurrence, and one the builders of Wiki systems sites such as Wikipedia are built on have created protections against. Wikis work because people want them to.

But back to Wikipedia. Like a printed encyclopedia, the site is organised into distinct sections such as Culture, Geography, Science and Technology. Each section is broken down into subcategories to help you find the information you need. You can also search alphabetically. The site holds 358,305 articles as of writing this article. The articles cover almost anything you care to name. And for those things that it doesn’t cover, read on…

Sticking your oar in

Unlike other encyclopaedia sites out there, if you find something that is wrong or you disagree with you can immediately click the edit button and correct the page or add a comment. If a subject isn’t covered you can take the opportunity to create a new page and add what you know about it. Because of the constant updating of entries and their democratic nature, Wikipedia has become one of the most trusted sources of information on the web.

There is even a Swahili version of Wikipedia at sw.wikipedia.org, although this doesn’t have nearly as many entries as the English language version – it is crying out for Tanzanians to start adding entries relevant to them.
The people who made Wikipedia have set up a number of other useful reference sites, all of which allow you to correct errors and add new entries. Choose from Wiktionary – a collection of online dictionaries and thesauruses in a number of languages (no Swahili yet!); Wikibooks – a collection of free textbooks and manuals which may come in very hand for cash strapped students; Wikiquote – an online collection of quotations from the famous and infamous; and Wikisource – a project to make public domain texts available freely.

You are invited to join any of these projects, all of which aim to increase their non-English sections.

Other Wikis

Wikipedia and its relatives are not the only Wiki’s out there. The technology behind Wiki which makes it so easy to set up collaborative web sites has been embraced by many groups. Other interesting Wikis include Disinfopedia, a site discussing politics and news; FotoWiki – a site of contributed photographs; and AgWiki – agricultural info.

So what are you waiting for – get online and start sharing your knowledge! Let me know of your wiki activities and I will mention them here. It is all about sharing.

Links

Originally published in Arusha Times 340

Warez

Warez is not a word in the English dictionary, but a search on Google finds over 5 million pages. In charts of the most searched for words, warez regularly features in the top five.

The warez phenomenon has been around now for at least twenty years, outdating the internet.

In the early 80s the term arose to describe computer programmes traded rather than purchased. Warez is internet slang for pirated software. Almost any piece of commercial software quickly becomes available through warez networks and web
sites.

To cash strapped Tanzanians looking for affordable software this may seem a real boon. However there are a number of risks attached to using warez that any tempted internet user should be aware of.

License keys, registration and dongles

Software companies quickly caught on to the fact that other people were making copies of their programmes available for free or in exchange for other programmes. To combat this they started to incorporate defensive measures. Anyone who has installed Windows or Office knows that you need to type in a long string of letters and numbers to activate the programme – the license key. Of course, obtaining these keys is no more challenging than obtaining the software itself. To combat this some companies require users of their software to activate the software over the internet or even by telephone. Microsoft does this with individual copies of Windows – they maintain a list of license keys in use and prevent the activation of Windows with duplicates. However, businesses with large numbers of computers do not have time to contact Microsoft every time they install a new computer, so Microsoft issue special license keys which will work on more than one computer. Eventually these keys make it “into the wild” enabling people to activate Windows without paying for it. Microsoft maintain a list of some of these rogue keys and prevent updates to copies of Windows using them, as was seen with the recent release of Service Pack 2 (see last weeks InfoTech column.)

Other companies go as far as supply a piece of hardware called a dongle – this must be physically attached to your computer in order to use the programme. It is incredibly hard to copy a dongle, and impossible to trade one online. This
is only common amongst the most expensive software – often industrial software individuals would rarely be able to afford, and unlikely to need.

Crackz

Software that has been secured in these ways is an automatic temptation to hackers, whether or not they really need to use it. Groups of hackers investigate the methods used by software companies to protect their software and work out ways around them. This often means modifying the programmes or creating software that makes it appear a dongle is attached to the computer. Amongst the warez community such things are known as “crackz.” It is possible to download cracked versions of most expensive programmes if you know where to look. Hackers have become so adept at this it is not uncommon to find cracked versions of new programmes available on the day of the official release – so called “zero-day crackz.”

Trojan Horses

Of course, hackers and crackers are not just interested in pirating software. Since they are modifying the code of programmes that hundreds of people may download the temptation to do more is overwhelming. Many cracked warez include other modifications that you probably do not want. Computer viruses can be hidden within otherwise useful programmes. Backdoors can be included allowing hackers to take control of your machine and use it to break into other computers – those familiar with Greek myths will know why such things are called Trojan horses. Using warez is certainly a risky business. The damage caused by malicious code may cost you or your company more than the cost of the software.

Risks aside, warez remains a massive internet trend. It is closely related to the slightly more visible trading of music and movies. I should point out here that the risks above do not apply to music and movies, only software. You cannot get a virus by downloading MP3s.

Download morality and legality

Outside of the dangers of Trojan horses and viruses the main issue potential downloaders need to consider is the morality of taking a piece of software that may have taken years of effort to develop. This is especially the case when most computer tasks can be achieved using Open Source software that is available legitimately at no cost.

You should also consider the legal implications of using commercial software you haven’t paid for. If caught you may face fines or even imprisonment. Make your decision based on knowing the risks involved.

Whatever you decide, my usual advice holds true – make sure you are using up to date anti-virus software such as Grisoft AVG, a personal firewall such as ZoneAlarm, and spyware protection such as Spybot.

Links

Originally published in Arusha Times 337

Secure your computer with Windows XP Service Pack 2

Microsoft released a new service pack for its operating system late last month. Users of Windows XP are advised to install this service pack to secure their computers against viruses, hackers and other nuisances.

Regular followers of technology will be well aware of the security issues that surround many of Microsoft’s products. As the most popular operating system in the world, Windows XP is a frequent target for attacks by malicious users of the internet.

Since its launch in 2001, Windows XP has amassed a long list of vulnerabilities. These include holes in the operating system which have allowed viruses to send junk emails from infected computers, snoopers to steal credit card details, and backdoors allowing hackers to use innocent peoples’ machines to attack larger targets.

Microsoft regularly makes patches available to repair these bugs in their system. Every so often they release a Service Pack which contains all existing patches as well as more substantial changes to the operating system.

Service Pack 2 is the biggest such package made available since Windows XP’s launch. Microsoft is billing it as a “major and significant security update for Windows.” Indeed, there are few visible new features added to Windows by installing the system.

The most prominent feature is the Security Center – a single place to get information about Anti-Virus, Firewall and Windows Update status. The Security Center monitors your computer’s security applications and lets you know if anything is not working properly.

Another new feature firmly rooted in security is the Windows Firewall. This programme prevents other computers connecting to yours without permission. When running you will be notified when an attempt to connect is made, and given the option to allow it or not – you would need to do this when using Messenger for example.

An update to Internet Explorer gives you more control over pop-up windows – the annoying adverts that often fill your screen whilst browsing the web. When a web site tries to open a pop-up Internet Explorer now plays a sound, and displays a new information bar telling you what happened. You can then select whether to allow pop-ups from a particular site – something you will only occasionally want to do.

For users of Wireless networking, the new Wireless LAN wizard and interface make it more straight-forward to set up networks and connect to existing ones. Bluetooth support is also added for those with Bluetooth enabled mobile phones
and other such gadgets.

Less visible features include blocking of some spyware, preventing automatic downloading of images and attachments in emails by Outlook Express, and more warnings when you are trying to do something that may be risky, such as open downloaded files.

Who needs it?

Service Pack 2 does not provide any exciting new functionality that might encourage you to get it immediately, yet Microsoft are determined that as many users of windows will install it as possible.

Users who do not use the internet at all do not really need to install the service pack. Everyone else should seriously consider it, despite the size of the file to be downloaded.

How to get Service Pack 2

The simplest way to get Service Pack 2 on a computer connected to the internet is by switching on Automatic Updates in Windows XP. You can switch this on by following instructions at Microsoft’s web site. Automatic Update downloads and installs Service Pack 2 while you work.

If you have an office or caf� full of computers you might not want to burden your internet connection with several automatic downloads. You can download the full installation pack from Microsoft at www.microsoft.com/downloads/
select Windows XP Service Pack 2 Network Installation Package. This can be burnt onto CD or shared on a network, from where it can be installed on any computer.

Local ISPs might consider making installation CDs available to larger clients.

Problems with Service Pack 2

In May articles appeared on the internet saying Microsoft had decided to allow the service pack to be installed on computers running pirated versions of Windows XP. This would have been a sensible step, as the more insecure computers there are in the world, the less secure we all are. Sadly the rumours were not true. Microsoft maintains a list of the most commonly copied registration codes for Windows, and blocks Service Pack installation on computers using them. Unfortunately this covers a large number of computer users in Tanzania. If this applies to you, you have the choice of obtaining a legitimate
copy of Windows or carrying on regardless – note that smaller patches will install on pirated versions of Windows. Or you could install a free operating system such as Linux.

A number of programmes stop working when you install Service Pack 2. These are mainly programmes which access the internet and are now blocked by the new Firewall, although some games and high end business applications are also affected. A list of known problems can be found on Microsoft’s site.

Opinion is currently divided over Service Pack 2 – is it an attempt by Microsoft to fix well known security flaws, or is it a large marketing download? My experience was a long download with an easy installation – certainly worth it for the peace of mind knowing you are up to date with your security.

Originally published in Arusha Times 336

Technology: Threats and Opportunities

Technology has transformed human life immeasurable over millions of years. Developments in areas such as food production and medicine have increased our efficiency as a species and removed many people from the evolutionary battle to survive as individuals.

Technology has transformed our relationship with our environment and with other people. The world no longer seems so large when it is possible to go from one side to the other in less than 24 hours, and speak with people on another
continent without even raising one’s voice. We are sheltered from the elements, and can obtain food in regions where there are shortages. Technology has made us masters of the earth.

The appliance of science

Science is the study of the environment we live in – our universe and everything within it. All technology is built on the foundation of scientific observation. This includes not just people in laboratories, but also farmers who thousands of years ago observed which crops grew best, and astronomers charting the night sky. These historical scientists developed technology from their observations. Farmer scientists discovered that different crops grew better in different locations, and concentrated their efforts appropriately. Ancient astronomers used their observations of the starts to create a way of
navigating oceans. Without these technologies mankind could not have populated the entire planet.

Today’s rapid developments in communications technology bring to our attention far more technological advances than in the past. Our parents find it hard to keep up with all the new gadgets and techniques available to help us in our daily tasks, and we in turn will be bamboozled by the developments our children will take for granted.

Abusable technology

For every leap forward that helps human society thrive, there seem to be developments that threaten our very existence either as a species or as individuals. Technology is clearly not always a positive influence on life.

Nuclear power, genetic engineering, huge networks of information and communication change dramatically what is possible in the world. Developments happen so fast that many people find themselves questioning these changes after they have happened.

Nuclear energy provides clean electricity with little input of raw materials. But it also produces dangerous waste that will take thousands of years to become safe, and is extremely difficult to store safely. Nuclear power stations also produce the raw materials required to make nuclear weapons.

Genetic engineering offers the possibility of creating new forms of life that can thrive better in environments we need them in. But it is hard to prevent genetically engineered crops cross pollinating natural crops. What is the long term result of untested genetic engineered crops on health and the environment?

Modern transport allows us to visit far away destinations, increasing the reach of our personal and business lives. But modern forms of transport are highly polluting, and enable the spread of diseases faster and further than ever before.

The internet connects the world more effectively and cheaply than ever before. But the internet has become a medium dominated by pornography and apparently swarms with dangerous extremists. As in the real world, viruses travel around the internet infecting millions of computers in a matter of hours.

Nanotechnology – making very tiny machines – promises to revolutionise everything from medicine (through injectable robots that attack diseases) to engineering (tiny machines that can build other machines). Some people fear that tiny self building robots could end up competing with humans and other forms of life for raw materials – the so called grey goo.

All developments bring both threats and opportunities. The challenge for those who create these technologies is to assess the level of threats in relation to opportunities, and take action to reduce them.

Many people fear that the dominant economic system of the world only rewards technology on the basis of its short-term results – there is apparently not enough incentive for technologists to adequately work out all the problems that may arise with their inventions.

Indeed, more and more people seek to buy motor cars for the short term convenience they provide, despite growing evidence to show that our reliance on oil based fuels is damaging to the environment and contributes to the development
of dangerous political situations such as in the Middle East. As consumers we create plenty of incentives for inventors to create new things without thinking about the long term repercussions. We must also take some responsibility for
the down side of technology – by doing so we create a market value for foresight in the invention process.

It is impossible to foresee all the implications of something new. We cannot prepare for everything, but we must be reflective in what we do, what we make and what we use. Inherent in all new things are some elements of danger.

That is the nature of technology.

Interesting sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 335